Chris Falco is an ex-con who wants a new life. He thinks he's found it when he reconnects with his college sweetheart, Azalea, and moves to the city to be with her. She’s beautiful and glamorous, and the romance heats up quickly, but just as fast, Azalea starts acting strange. She sees things that aren't there, and talks to people who aren't there, like the man in the grey suit.
Nothing is as it seems in Chris’ new life, and his problems multiply when he gets involved with organized crime. When his demons begin coming out of the closet, the man in the grey suit tells Azalea a little too much.
Read the First Four Chapters Below
“Why did you move to the city, Mr. Falco?”
“Is that so?”
“Azalea and I were madly in love.”
“How much did you love each other?”
“In the beginning or in the end?”
“Did she love you enough to cover for you?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“There’s still one thing we don’t understand, Mr. Falco. Why did she insist that you were not in the room with the gun?”
An Old Flame
Look, I’ve got to start from the beginning, before all this crazy shit went down. Azalea and I go way back, see, she was my first, and I was hers.
We met in college, but she was so damned pretty that I couldn’t even talk to her the first time I saw her. You know the type? Her beauty had a power over me.
There’s a little machine in my head that’s like one of those child’s toys where you have to put the ball in the circle-hole and the block in the square hole. If a girl fits in it, if she fits the formula, then I’m hooked. Well, I was hooked alright, hooked like a fish, like when the hook goes in the mouth and comes out the eye. Hooked and blinded, that was me.
Azalea had it all. She was the formula, and I fell hard. Damn, she was more. She ran that little machine into overdrive, and about drove me crazy.
She had straight blond hair, with bangs that were always cut in a line just above her eyebrows. Her fingernails were long and bright red. Her breasts, her hips, and all the curves of her body were in perfect proportion – it’s mathematical ratio, part of the formula, but I don’t know the numbers.
I can’t describe her face, but I can tell you that looking at her was like looking at the reflection of the sun on the ocean. It put me in a trance, and her smile instantly made me happy, even if I was in a bad mood. Even if I was in a really bad mood.
She was the kind of girl that other girls hated, because they were jealous. They wanted to be like her, but they couldn’t. Nobody could be like her. She was perfect. You see, Azalea wasn’t just gorgeous, she was smart too, and smart and gorgeous is a rare combination. A girl like that can do whatever she wants, can make things happen. She’s got power.
I was hugely attracted to her, but I didn’t pursue her at first, because I thought she was out of my league. But right away, destiny put us together.
It was the first day of the second semester of freshman year, and she took the seat next to me in Chemistry Lab. I didn’t have any friends in the class. I guess she didn’t either. When the time came to pick lab partners, she looked at me for a moment, as if assessing me, then said, “Do you intend to make an A in this class?”
“An A?” I said.
“Yes, an A.”
“Well, I can certainly try.”
She looked around the room like she might find someone with a better answer to her question, but people were partnering up quickly. She looked back at me and said, “I will make an A in this class, and I need a lab partner who is equally committed to making an A. Are you committed to making an A?”
Now I understood her game. “There’s nothing for me to make in this class but an A,” I said.
She looked around the room again, then back at me. “Very well. We can be partners,” and she smiled.
I couldn’t believe my luck. Me and Azalea Prince, lab partners. Who could have guessed? Not me.
It didn’t take long before we both knew that she was much more committed to getting an A than I was, but I did my best, and we worked well together. She was the smart one, and I was like the dumb labor. She would tell me what to do, and what we were supposed to learn from each exercise and experiment. I’d be the one fetching the chemicals, or setting up the Bunsen burner and the beakers.
I found myself thinking about her all the time, and looking for her, and looking for opportunities to meet her. I learned her schedule and started trying to intercept her throughout campus, then act like I was surprised to see her. I’d talk to anyone standing near one of the spots where I knew I might run into her, and it didn’t matter if it was someone I knew or not. I’d just stop and strike up a conversation, hoping she’d come along. I’d loiter about and act like I just happened to be walking by when she showed up. I guess it was all pretty obvious, but it worked, because we started going on dates. I was already in love.
Of course, I’d had a few girlfriends before her, but I wasn’t in love with any of them. Something different was happening with Azalea. I saw a chance for the real thing. We had fun together but it was way more than that; she elevated me. Her beauty, her brains, the way she walked and talked, carried herself, it was infectious, and it was high class, and she was taking me there.
The stuff we talked about was next level too, not the trendy drivel and gossip most kids talked about. She talked about ideas. She had lots of ideas, and I did too. She’d tell me how she would change things if she was president, books she wanted to write, places she wanted to go, where we could go together. I’d tell her about things I wanted to invent. I always had a few in mind, and she’d encourage me, not like other people, who tried to crush me dreams.
We were young and full of life, with the whole world still ahead of us, willing to try it all together. That’s what we wanted, just to be together, just to go through life together. It almost happened, but fate, or the devil, took her from me, and right when things were getting good.
We were both still virgins, but the big moment happened at a party. It was the best night of my life, until it was the worst.
I lived in the dorms, but she was a local, and lived with her mother in town. She was strict and often spoke French to Azalea in front of me, so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Going to her house was like entering a foreign country. I was an outsider there. It was a dictator’s regime where Azalea and I were always under observation, and we had trouble finding time to be alone. Her mother didn’t like me, and I guess she knew the inevitable would happen if she didn’t keep her boot on my neck. She was old-school, and probably couldn’t imagine a world where Azalea wasn’t a virgin until marriage.
Our first few dates were chaperoned, like dinner at her house, or going to some boring event, like a symphony or a play, with her mother. But then we got past this by both going to the same party separately, so she didn’t know we’d be together, or so we thought.
We snuck off into an empty bedroom and kneeled on the bed like we were in church, at the altar of each other. Slowly, piece by piece, I took off her clothes, and she took off mine. We were both young and inexperienced, so it was all awkward, but it was beautiful. Her skin on mine, her breasts, the first I’d seen or felt. It was all magic, and when we did it, it was love. We made love. It wasn’t just sex. It was real, and I’d never been so in love as I was at that moment. It was like we became one person and everything good in the world passed through us like light, and left some of it inside us, and we lay there trembling and holding each other and trying to hold on to the light.
We were still in bed when the noise of the party outside the room came to a sudden halt. The music was cut; all the voices stopped, and then someone was trying to appease an authority figure. An adult was out there. Even though we were all in college, parents still had that effect on all the kids.
We heard a woman’s voice, and Azalea froze. She was terrified. It scared me, the way she just stiffened up, and I froze too.
We both just lay there in bed, naked under the sheets, silent and still. Her mother was like a cop in the party, looking for her. We heard a door open and shut, then another. I knew she was coming, but Azalea didn’t move, so I didn’t either, at first. I guess we were both just hoping that we’d get lucky and she wouldn’t look in this room. But then it became obvious that she was methodically working her way toward us.
“Babe, we’ve got to hide,” I said. “Come on, we can hide in the closet, or under the bed.” She didn’t respond, so I got up and tried to make her get up, but Azalea didn’t react at all. She was rigid and silent, no expression on her face, not even fear. It was like whatever was inside her got up and left the empty shell of her body lying there.
The footsteps were getting closer. The door to the room next to us opened. A girl screamed, The woman said something in French, and the door shut. Someone else must have been getting lucky. The footsteps got closer. The party was still silent, and I pictured everyone hypnotized by her authority, watching this woman open door after door – the hall closet, the bathroom. They all just let her do it. Someone should have had the balls to stop her, but apparently nobody did.
I knew she was coming to our door soon, and I tried again to get Azalea to move, but she remained rigid and silent, pale, almost like she glowed in the dark.
I heard a hand on our doorknob and my body started to go numb, paralyzed, like when you wake from a bad dream and can’t move. I tried to fight it off, but it took a force of will to move at all. It happened in slow motion, and I remember hoping that I was mistaken, that it wasn’t our doorknob, but of course, it was. I didn’t know what to do, crouched on the bed trying to get Azalea to get up and hide, but now the door was opening, so I got back under the sheets and pulled them over us.
The door opened, the light came on, and I clutched the bedsheet that stood between our naked bodies and what I knew must be Azalea’s mother.
I felt the sheet grabbed and pulled, and I pulled back and held it in place. She said something in French, then yanked on the sheet, but I held fast. Azalea was comatose beside me. Still, our bodies and faces were concealed.
I wanted to shout “leave us alone,” or “get out of here,” but I couldn’t. I was too scared. And of course, she didn’t leave us alone. Instead, she grabbed the sheet at the foot and pulled it right off the bed sideways. We were exposed, and there was her mother, staring at us, shocked, then furious.
Her mother started yelling at Azalea in French. I didn’t know what she was saying, but it didn’t matter, I got the picture just fine. Azalea was forever cursed by the fact that she was unmarried and no longer a virgin. I was the devil. She hit me with her purse and drove me out of the room. She slammed the door behind me. I stood there in the hall, dumbstruck, naked, listening to her mother screaming in French and Azalea crying and screaming back.
Everyone else was staring at me. I didn’t care. I was still standing there when the door opened and her mother came out, dragging Azalea by the arm. She hit me with her purse again and then shielded Azalea’s eyes so she couldn’t see me and be further corrupted by my nakedness, which is the way God made me. I wasn’t the devil, her mother was.
Azalea never came back. She transferred to another college. I never saw her again. I was crushed like a bug underfoot, forever heartbroken. People use that word lightly, “heartbroken,” but I mean it literally. My heart was broken. It hurt, it never recovered, and I never fell in love again.
I didn’t have any more girlfriends, not during college anyway. Azalea had set the standard and none of the other girls ever measured up. The formula shifted and the range of acceptable proportions was tightened to the point that nobody but Azalea fit.
Sometimes I thought another girl was cute, and I tried to be interested, but after one date, I was out. This happened a few times. I wanted to be like the other guys and have girlfriends, but I never felt anything beyond a mild attraction that always crumbled and faded.
So anyway, it was just a couple years ago that I saw her on Instagram. I couldn’t believe it, it was like seeing God, or Santa Claus. My heart dropped out of my chest when I saw that picture; it just came back, all that unresolved school-kid romance. It was saved up inside me like fuel, and that picture started a fire, and there was nothing to do but dive in headfirst.
We started sending messages back and forth. I’d send one, and moments later, “BING,” I’d get a response. It was like Christmas morning as a kid, opening presents one after another.
She and I were single at the same time, and we were both interested in each other. Jackpot! All the hard times I had been through with my ex-wife now just seemed like part of the path that led me back to Azalea, and man, let me tell you something, I was going to get her this time. Nothing was going to stop me. I was all in.
Well, anyway, we talked and sent back non-stop messages for a week or two, and then I bought a bus ticket to the city. I didn’t have anything to leave behind. I needed a new life, and Azalea was the key.
Entering the City
The bus ride was surreal. I’d never been there, or to any city that big. You know how it is. First, there’s endless suburbs, the houses getting smaller and closer together, then they’re replaced with apartment buildings. After the suburbs, we went through an industrial wasteland, like right out of a dystopian sci-fi where the future is ruined by industry supporting upper-class greed. Then it’s roads, crisscrossed and twisted like a bowl of noodles dropped on the floor, full of strip malls and offices and too many cars and not enough parking.
After the suburban nightmare, we cross the river, and then it’s just concrete and buildings, then bigger buildings, glass buildings, people piled up on top of one another, stacked like blocks so high it’s about to topple over. There’s just too many damned people in the city, all crammed together like ants. That’s what the city is, a human ant colony, except ants take care of each other. With humans, it’s all competition and war.
It felt like I was riding the bus into a trap. Really, where are all these people going to go when the shit hits the fan? How will everyone get out of the city if disaster strikes, like a tornado, or an earthquake? What happens when the water supply shuts off, or the sewage system fails? What then? Where does everyone go? What if there was no longer enough food to go around? Or a massive riot, or an invasion? There’s just too many people all too close together, and there’s no getting around it. That’s what I think, or at least what I felt then. I’m more used to it now, I guess. But I hate the city for different reasons now.
The bus was like a sick animal vomiting people out into street, only to take more in and do it again somewhere else, cursed with human bulimia. It was a relief at first, to have a bit of space around me, but then I had to get on a train, which was worse than the bus. It was crammed with so many people that I had to stand. I felt like a cow in one of those livestock trailers you see on the highway. The disoriented animals are all packed in and can’t move, just resigned to the fact that they’re going wherever the truck goes, even though it’s probably taking them all to the slaughterhouse.
Sometimes I think that’s what the city is, a slaughterhouse, where people go and do as they’re told, working to make someone else’s fortune, not even sure what they’re doing, while they grind themselves, piece by piece, into meat for the rats. We’re all just rat food in the end, right? They’re all down there, beneath the city, waiting for us, and the people in the city don’t care. They act like they don’t see the rats, but the rats see them, and the rats are patient. The rats are always there.
Breathe in, breathe out. Just let it go. I never liked crowds, man, and this sort of thing will drive you crazy if you let it. All those people standing and sitting right next to me, so close we could hear each other breathe. Some of them talking on their phones like they’re not surrounded by people who don’t necessarily want to hear their conversation, talking into headsets that you can’t even see, looking like crazy people talking to themselves, unaware how they look. Maybe they just don’t care. Maybe living in the city makes you like that, numb to other people and their irrelevant opinions.
Not only did I have to listen to them talk, I had to breathe their air. There’s no way to avoid it; if you put a bunch of people in a confined space, they all have to breathe each other’s air, like some big orgy. His exhale becomes my inhale; my exhale becomes her inhale. It’s gross, and none of them even noticed it. I wanted to scream and hold my breath at the same time. I stood there with my shoulders pulled in, trying not to touch anyone, but they all just bumped into each other, and me, people touching me. I hated it. Nobody touches each other where I come from, unless you know each other, or else there’s going to be a fight, and I wanted to punch someone, a lot of people, actually, but I didn’t. I just held it all in. I really felt like that was progress. My life was changing for the better, and it was all worth the effort.
Anyway, the train station, where we all got off, was full of people too, of course. Looking back on it, I don’t know why that surprised me. It’s the city, you know? Everything’s full of people. Another thing I didn’t expect was that the station was underground. I didn’t like it one bit. The air isn’t clean down there. It’s all train fumes, the faint smell of sewer gas, and people’s breath. I don’t mind the fumes so much, but other people’s breath, and any suggestion of sewer gas, makes me want to run. We don’t have to smell that where I come from. The air is clean where I come from, and the people don’t have to stand like pigs in a pen on a train.
Finally, I found the escalator that led out. I’d have rather walked up stairs, but it wasn’t an option, so I got on. Naturally, I left a step between me and the person in front of me, not like everyone else, who were taking every step, sometimes even two to a step. I wanted some space. But it didn’t last. A guy behind me stepped right around me and took the step in front of me, and then everyone else crowded up behind me. I wanted to choke that guy. I was packed in again, and the escalator was so long, I could hardly believe how deep underground we were.
I was hoping for fresh air at the top, but you know what I got: the smell of exhaust, trash, and piss. What is it with this city and the smell of piss on the sidewalk? Do people just hose wherever they happen to be? People don’t do that where I come from.
Be flexible, I told myself, observe, make like a chameleon. I watched the people around me. They looked straight ahead, not all around like an overwhelmed tourist. They walked fast, didn’t smile, didn’t make eye contact. I became like them, and after a couple blocks, the smell of piss and exhaust was replaced with burritos and tacos.
My stomach started talking, but I had to see Azalea, so I walked right by the Mexican restaurants, the delis I heard so much about, and even the street vendors. I wanted to see my girl. All the excitement had built up inside me for weeks, talking to her on the phone, texting with her, exchanging pictures, and now it was about to happen.
It was a long walk through the city, an alien landscape and hive of people like nothing I’d ever seen. We were supposed to meet at a café near her building. It was in a little brick shopping center that overlooked a canal. Her building was on the other side, connected by a walkway across the canal. The water was brown, and the trees along the banks scraggly and unhealthy. Young people from the university walked by carrying backpacks and notebooks, every one of them in a hurry. Glass tables under blue umbrellas sat next to a stone wall above the banks of the canal below. Every table was full except one, where she sat alone.
I can see it all now. It was the best day of my life.
There she is, sitting at a table by herself with the sun shining down on her like God wants to light her up so I can find her, like an angel descended to the city, not of this world, too pure for mankind. She’s looking straight ahead, oblivious to my approach. I’ll never forget that moment. She’s waiting for me, not for any of the other million or so men in the city. This angel is waiting for me, and in this moment, I know that someone above is looking out for me. She’s a connection, an ambassador from someplace better, a bridge to paradise.
She’s wearing a black skirt and a white long-sleeve blouse. Her hair is perfect. Long curls drape over her shoulders, down her back, like she stepped right out of a salon. Her hair is almost alive, like an aura. I walk beside her. Her beauty is infective, just like in college. It gets inside me, moves me, commands me, and I want her so bad and the little machine in my head comes alive and my chest tightens, expands, and I float a few feet above myself and I can see us from above, and it’s beautiful, man, it’s just beautiful.
“Azalea?” I say. She doesn’t respond, but keeps staring ahead. I’m a bit confused. I’m sure it’s her, and this is where she agreed to meet me.
She looks at me, squints, cocks her head. I smile.
“It’s me, Chris. I’m here.”
Slowly, she smiles, as if coming out of a daydream, stands up. “Chris. Is it really you?”
“It’s really me babe. We’re finally together, after all these years.”
I step closer. She reaches out her little hand and touches my face, smiles, and looks directly into my eyes. I can still see that moment, those green eyes with little streaks of brown, piercing, like she’s looking into my head, probing my mind.
“You’re real,” she says.
It’s so damn romantic, like it’s too good to be true. I feel immortal, like pure light, transcendent, weightless.
“I’m as real as it gets, Azzy.” I put my hand on her cheek, then my other hand behind her head, in that soft hair. I move in, we embrace, kiss, and I’m floating again.
It’s not just any kiss, man, this is the kiss. You know what I mean? It’s the kiss that lets you know it’s all happening just the way you hoped and dreamed. All that emotion I’d been holding onto since college, like I didn’t even know it was there, or I did, but I didn’t realize how much was there or how powerful it was, and it all comes out at once and hits me like an injection of pure euphoria, like a fix.
Nothing exists but me and her and the aura that surrounds us, like we are ground zero and the rest of the world went up in the mushroom cloud. All the pain and misery from my divorce vanishes in that moment. Gone, man, just gone. All the bad stuff is gone and in the past, my old life is gone, and the future is going to be all roses and ice cream, man, candy time, and it was all in that kiss.
When we finally have our fill and put a little space between our faces, people are looking at us. People don’t look at you in the city unless it’s something special, you know what I mean? And they all know it too. Man, it was that good. It was that good. I’m not kidding.
We sit down and start talking. We’ve got so much to say, so much to tell each other. It’s just pouring out of us both, like two waterfalls of word and emotion, combining, swirling, and flowing away, together, like a river. It doesn’t matter what we say; we’re falling in love again, hard, both of us, right there. No, it’s deeper than that, it’s like we’ve always been in love, since before we knew each other, and we finally found one another. It’s like we’re two pieces of a machine, finally coming together to make something beautiful, more beautiful than we could ever imagine before.
“Chris, it’s really you,” she says. “You’re like a mythical being that I imagine and talk to from far away, suddenly here and real.” She makes me feel so good, like seeing me is the best thing in the world, like I’m something she’s always wanted to find. I need to feel this. I’ve been hungry for it, so hungry, but I didn’t know it, like I’d been living on bread and water all my life and then someone puts a steak dinner in front of me, and I don’t really know what it is but I know I need it, and I devour it without pause.
“It’s really me, Azalea, me and you, together again, finally righting a wrong that happened to us in college. I never stopped loving you.”
“Nor I you, darling.”
A beam of light, pure energy, runs through me, and I know it is her love. It’s that powerful. And I now know that she loves me just as much as I love her. There’s no more question. Up until this moment, I had worried that maybe it was lopsided. You can’t make a lopsided relationship work. One person can’t be psychotically in love and the other one just luke warm. That doesn’t cut it. But when both partners are crazy for each other, that’s when new worlds are built, and it’s happening right there at the café with the blue umbrellas and the muddy canal. I now know there is no going back. I have to have this woman, and I have to have her forever.
“How do you like the city so far?” she says, and I come out of my trance. We’re sitting there having this intimate conversation and now I realize there’s people all around us. Suddenly I can hear all their voices, and it occurs to me that any of them could be listening in on us.
Well, the city itself is a big cesspool of madness, as far as I’m concerned, but I don’t tell her that. She lives here, and I want to be with her, so I don’t care where we are, really. I stay positive.
“It’s nicer than I expected, but it was strange coming in. It’s such a big sprawling city. I felt trapped at first, but here, I like this place.” I look around at our surroundings. “I like the water, and the trees, and the brick buildings and the copper roofs, this café,” and then I look her in the eye, “and being with you.”
“There’s a river too, just on the other side of my building. Boats go up and down the river all day. We can see it from my apartment, and from up so high, it’s like a continuous parade of toy boats going back and forth.”
“I bet that’s nice.” Hearing about her apartment brings up images of domesticity, of us making breakfast together, sipping coffee in the morning, wearing bathrobes, looking out at the river, her helping me pick out clothes for date nights. Sleeping together. I feel drawn to it, to her apartment. I want to go there and unpack my bag and sit down and make myself comfortable.
“You look so divine, darling, so strong and healthy, like a superhero. All these other men in the city are so skinny and pathetic, compared to you.”
“And you, my angel, look like a dream, even better than I expected, and my expectations were high.”
“I’m not the same girl I used to be.”
“I should think not. You’ve grown into a beautiful woman.”
“And you, you ride in like Gascon D’Artagnan, coming to rescue me from all these inferior males that surround me.”
“Well, I don’t know who this Gascon is, but I’m here, babe, for you, for us, and if you need rescued, I’m the man for the job. Show me these men, and I’ll crush them.”
“My champion, come from afar.”
“My abducted lover.”
She takes my hands in hers, puts them on her shoulders, wraps hers around me, touches my face. “Take me with you,” she says, but I don’t know where to take her. It’s her city.
“Why don’t you show me your place?”
“Come with me,” she says. We get up and walk across the footbridge over the canal.
“Look darling, it’s just like Venice. Can you see the gondolas?”
She stops and looks at me when I don’t respond. I take her face in my hands and kiss her. We kiss so long that we hold up traffic and someone has to say “Excuse me,” to pass by. He passes so close that I hold my breath. She looks out at the water again and says, “It’s so romantic, isn’t it?”
“It is, babe,” I say, but it’s really just an ugly canal with brown water and brick walls. She’s romantic and beautiful, the canal is not.
The city is loud, but when we step into her building, the noise vanishes. I know it’s full of people, the building, but I can’t hear a thing. I always thought apartment buildings were full of screaming kids and loud music, like a college dorm, or prison, but this is the opposite. I can hear our footsteps as we walk down the hall to the elevator. It’s clean too, like someone must have just vacuumed the floors and polished the door handles. I can see my reflection in the steel handles in the elevator, the round steel rail at about hip level that you can hold onto if you’re scared, or if you’re old. It’s all distorted because the rail is curved, of course, my face all stretched out and bent, but I can see it plain as day.
Her place is a tiny little city apartment. We’ve got a corner, so we can see the river out one window, and an endless cityscape of buildings out the other. The building across the street looks like apartments with balconies that face us. It’s built atop a parking garage, and the top floor of the garage is almost level with us. Behind the garage and the building above it is the whole damn city. It just stretches on forever, like a building looking at itself in the mirror when there’s another mirror behind it, an endless repeat of buildings.
This is a new world for me, but I am a chameleon. I can adapt, and, like I said, I am deep, deep in love at this point. She could’ve told me we had to live in a cheap little apartment next to the train, you know, like in the Blues Brothers, where the train goes by so often that you don’t even notice it after a while. She could’ve told me we had to live there, and I would’ve been like, sure babe, sure.
Her apartment – I can tell it’s my new home when I walk in, no question about it, even though it’s nothing like anywhere I ever lived before. Unlike my old place, hers is clean and organized. Everything is vertical, or horizontal, parallel, or perpendicular to each other. Nothing is askew. There are no knickknacks, no pictures on the wall, clothes on the floor, empty bottles on the bar, or dishes in the sink.
Her coffee table is an exercise in geometry. There’s a single pen parallel to the edge of the table, and equidistant from the nearest book. The three other books make a perfect square. Three notebooks are stacked on top of each other and bisect the middle of the book square. Below it is a yellow sticky pad, centered with the notebooks. Sticky notes cover most of the remainder of the table, and all are in orderly rows and columns. I stare at it and wonder, but there’s no way it’s a coincidence. A powerful mind is at work here.
It’s quiet too.
She’s got a small kitchen with a bar opposite the sink, which faces the living-room. It’s all one room, really, but the bar makes it feel like two.
“No TV?” I say.
She just shakes her head.
“Is there one in the bedroom?”
“Bedroom?” she says, and laughs.
I open the only door in the living room, and behind it is a small bathroom with a stand-up shower.
“Is there a bedroom?”
“No, dear, it’s an efficiency.”
“Efficiency?” This is new to me. Apartments where I come from have more than one room.
“Yes, you know, a one-room apartment?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing. So there’s no TV and no bedroom?”
“Where do you sleep?”
“Right here. The couches fold down into beds. I’ve got two, but they can be pushed together. It’s quite nice, really.”
I’m a bit shocked, since I had already been fantasizing about staying here with her, permanently. I’m going to have to adapt, but like I said, I’m all in, and anywhere she is feels like home to me.
“Give me a moment while I freshen up,” she says.
Azalea steps into the bathroom, so I snoop around just a bit.
One of the books on the table is a sketchbook. Another is some sort of textbook about economics. Each book and notebook has about fifty or a hundred colored tabs sticking out. I try to read the sticky notes on the table, but her handwriting is too small, and cursive. I can’t read it at all.
I sit down on the couch and look out the window, at the buildings, all standing so still in such a busy city. Everything is quiet inside the apartment. It’s clean and it smells nice, and it feels stable, like home, and I haven’t felt that in a long time.
Looking back on it, I was blind, you know? No. Blind doesn’t do it justice. I was out of touch with reality. Nothing existed besides the love I felt for her. It dominated my head, my body, so much that the outside world was just a setting for it, like the theater when you’re watching a movie. The theater is real, but you forget it even exists while you’re watching the film. Just like that, all I saw was Azalea and me living together at last. Nothing else mattered.
The First Day
“Do you like my place, darling?” Azalea says. I love how she calls me “darling.” It reminds me of some old TV show. Maybe it’s the way Mrs. Howell talked to Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. I need it. I need a woman to speak to me nicely. It’s a simple thing, but I haven’t had it in so long, and I became used to animosity from my ex. Hearing Azalea call me “darling” sends a shot of warmth through my body and makes my skin tingle, kind of like banging an oxy, but I don’t do that anymore.
“It’s great, baby. Small, but I guess that’s just how places are in the city.”
“It’s efficient. I don’t need more than this, and the view is fabulous. I can look out this window at all the magnificent buildings and windows and people inside them, or out this one at the river and the boats going by, imagining who’s on them and where they are off to. Do you like boats?”
“I love boats. I used to have a little sailboat, you know, a tiny one. A Sunfish.”
“Oh, those little toy boats? They don’t sail those here. There’s an Optimist racing club, and a Laser club. Nobody has Sunfish here.”
“Really? Well, it was a fun little boat.”
“Just say Laser, dear, if you must bring it up. People here will understand that. You need to fit in.”
“Laser? I know what that is, but I didn’t have a Laser, I had a Sunfish.”
“People here are much more image conscious than where you come from. Laser will sound better.”
“Whatever you say, babe.” I want to fit in. She’s so beautiful, and so glamorous, and the city is all new to me. If she wants me to say “Laser” instead of “Sunfish,” what’s it going to hurt? I figure I’ll go along.
“I’d like to have a boat,” she says, while looking out at the water. “It would be so nice to be able to get away for a while, here and there, to just drift about on the water, moving with the wind, and sleeping under the stars. We could sail to the Caribbean. Have you been?”
Now she’s speaking my language. I always wanted a real sailboat, but could never afford one, and my ex wouldn’t entertain the idea at all. “I haven’t, but I’ve always wanted to. What kind of boat would you want?”
“Royal Huisman makes the best yachts.”
Now, this throws me for a loop. She said it with a straight face, but I assume she’s kidding, so I laugh.
“Why are you laughing?” she says, as if insulted.
“Royal Huisman? All they build are custom superyachts.”
“Oh, some of them are affordable, and if one is going sailing, on the ocean, one must have a safe, well-made yacht. You get what you pay for, darling.”
“Can you afford something like that?”
“If what I am currently working on is successful, then yes.”
“What are you working on?” I say, looking at her coffee table and her books.
“That’s one of a few projects I’m involved with.”
“What is it? Legal stuff?”
“You might say so.”
“You’re a lawyer, right?”
“I’m still involved with law, but I don’t do trials anymore.”
“What sort of law are you in?”
“Well, this project is about investments. Big ones. Chris, I know you’ve lived a rather proletariat life. Can you handle money? There might be a lot involved,” Azalea says.
“What do you mean?” I say, more than a little intrigued. The Royal Huisman is becoming less like a silly fantasy.
“Can you handle the lifestyle. The pressure that comes with money. The responsibilities. With money comes the responsibility of living in society, keeping up your reputation, your image. One has to mix properly with society. Do you know what I mean by society?”
“Living among rich people, I guess.”
“We don’t say ‘rich people.’ We say ‘society’, or ‘living in nice company.’ Never say ‘rich people,’ please.”
“Laser, not Sunfish, society, not rich people.”
“Or you can say nice company.”
“Nice company. Azalea, let me put it to you simply. If I had to live in the ghetto to live with you, I would live in the ghetto. If I had to move to Mongolia to live with you, I’d google ‘Mongolia’ and see what they wore there, throw away all my clothes, and buy a Mongolian wardrobe. I’d buy an English-Mongolian, Mongolian-English dictionary and learn all the words they use there. Now you’re telling me that I have to live in ‘nice society’ to live with you, and you’re wondering if I’ve got a problem with that? I don’t. It’s that simple. I’d live anywhere, even a warzone, to live with you. This place, this city, it’s not a problem. You just give me whatever little clues I need to fit in with your people, and I’m fine with it, babe.”
She smiles and tilts her head, reaches out and touches my face.
“It’s really you, isn’t it?” she says.
It’s so damn romantic, I can barely stand it. My ex never said that kind of thing to me. “It’s really me, babe. It’s really me and you, finally.”
“You’re real,” she says, gliding her fingertips across my cheek, as if she can scarcely believe it. Her touch thrills me, so soft and warm, loving, electric, like being touched by an angel.
“I’m real,” I say, and we kiss, and my heart wants to explode.
“How is it that we have been apart for so long?” she says.
“You moved away, and I couldn’t follow.”
“Why didn’t you come for me?”
“I was still in school, remember? You transferred and your parents kept you away from me.”
She drops her head, looks down, then, with her chin still low, looks up at me. “Yes, but you could have come for me. I would have run away with you.”
“I was just a dumb kid, babe, stuck in school. But you’re right, I should have followed you to the ends of the earth.”
“You should have. Nothing should stand in the way of true love.” She touches my face again and looks me in the eye.
“We’re together now, Azzy. I’m here now. That’s what matters.”
“Oh Chris, nobody has called me Azzy for years. You were the only one who ever did. It’s really you, isn’t it? Are you here to stay this time?”
“I’ll stay here as long as you’ll have me, babe.” I take her wrist and hold it to mine. “Handcuff me to you and swallow the key.”
She cranes her neck forward and up and kisses me again, brushes her hand on my chest and down to my stomach, puts her other hand behind my head and holds me to her, prolonging the kiss. I could do this forever. I fall, like jumping into the deep, calm ocean, and letting myself sink into the bright blue where I float weightless, surrounded by infinity. I could drown in her kiss and die content, over and over a thousand times.
She pulls herself away and motions to a stool at the bar.
“You must be hungry after all that travelling. I’ll make us a snack.”
I sit and she opens the refrigerator and takes out a few things, sets a small wooden cutting board on the counter, and takes a tiny knife from a drawer. Her movements are precise, calculated, and slow. She sets a cucumber on the cutting board and slices a piece off the end, slides it an inch away, and slices eleven more pieces of identical size, like an exercise in repetitive motion. She overlaps these and arranges them in a curve, and spends more time doing it than I would have in both preparing and eating.
She arranges twelve olives in a circle within the curve of cucumber slices. She carefully slices cheese into twelve square pieces, also of identical size. One is thinner than the others, and this one she hands to me, and I eat it, thankful because all the waiting and watching has made my hunger unbearable.
She takes out crackers next, and I reach for one before she has them arranged.
“Wait, it’s almost ready. Be patient. Patience is a virtue. It is not to be underestimated. Waiting for something makes it better, just like you, darling. I had to wait so many years, and here you are, and nothing could be better.”
She counts out and arranges twelve crackers on the cutting board in a curve that meets the cucumbers and makes a circle around the olives and cheese. It’s so perfect that I’m afraid she won’t want us to actually eat it.
She sets it up on the bar and I reach for the plate.
“Not yet! Let’s be civilized, darling, we are not barbarians,” she says.
I take my hand back and slump my shoulders. Is she teasing me? It’s been at least ten or fifteen minutes since she took out the cutting board.
She sets out two napkins, folded perfectly, two forks on the napkins, then makes two glasses of ice water and sets them on the bar. Finally, she takes the other barstool.
I reach for a cracker and she stops my hand.
“Oh my god, Azalea, what is the matter now?” I say.
“Not before grace, dear. Be patient, and please don’t blaspheme.”
Grace, I hadn’t thought of that. Part of me wants to simply take a cracker and a piece of cheese and devour it before “grace” and look her in the eye while doing it, but I exercise patience, though I am nearing the end of my reserves.
The “blasphemy” accusation is beyond my comprehension and goes unacknowledged, but I remember it now. She really said that.
“Dear God,” she begins, “Thank you for this food.”
I’m hoping this is it and now we can eat, but I’m sorely mistaken. She continues.
“Thank you for bringing Chris to me, and for bringing me to this building where Chris was able to find me. Thank you for bringing us back together after all these years. Thank you for not letting him forget about me, like he did in college when he should have come to rescue me from my exodus. Thank you for the olives, and the trees that they grew on, and the Italians who harvested them. Thank you for the cucumbers, and the soil from which they grew, and the cheese, and the cows that made the cheese, and the crackers, and the people that cracked the grains to make the crackers. Finally, thank you for being here, now, in this room with us. Please watch over us today, and let us remain in your grace, forever, and ever, amen.”
“Amen. Now can we eat?”
“Of course, darling, enjoy.”
I eat one, then another, and a third before she is finished with her second. I eat a fourth, and a fifth and she is just finishing her third. I eat my sixth, half of what she prepared. There are three on the plate, so I eat a seventh with a tinge of guilt, and wait while she eats her fourth. Now there is only one left. Should I take it, or would that be rude? I don’t know, but I want the cracker. I find myself staring at it, my arm is drawn to it as if on a spring. I hold it back. She looks at me and nods toward the last cracker, and I eat it free of guilt.
We sit on a couch facing the floor-to-ceiling window that looks out across the city as the sun sets beyond the haze. The background is spiked with endless buildings, like a concrete and glass porcupine, crisscrossed by elevated highways. Skyscrapers and towers lord over the scene, and smokestacks belch out black clouds that obscure the stars. It’s a lot to take in.
As the sun sets and the sky grows black, the lights of the city come out, like nocturnal flowers, artificial stars, and man hasn’t made the stars all one color, like God. Man has used all the colors, and I like it. For the first time, I see why some people love cities. It is here that man competes with God.
“Isn’t it lovely?” she says.
“It is, babe. It seems like the kind of place where I could really make something of myself.”
I kiss her, and her hands move from my face down my neck and to my chest, feeling every inch. They slowly slip under my shirt and caresses my skin, touching so lightly that I can feel electricity moving between us. I keep one hand behind her head, pressing her to me, and slowly run my other hand across her breasts. I release the top button of her blouse, then pause to gauge her reaction. I don’t want to push her too far on this first physical encounter, but she drops her hand and grabs the bottom of my shirt and pulls it up over my head.
It’s on now, and I unbutton the rest of her blouse and take it off, then look out the window. Other windows in the building across the street can clearly see us, just like I can see in a few of the apartments.
“Should we close the blinds?” I say.
“Nobody can see us.” This seems absurd, but I just go with it. What do I care?
She pulls me close and lays back on the couch while I undo her bra, revealing her perfect breasts, and they look just like they did in college. I want to devour them, and her, and I nearly do. The kissing gets intense and our tongues intertwine like vines climbing a tree and our hands run over each other’s bodies as if feeling our way through caverns in the dark.
My kisses move down her neck like raindrops on glass, and we become naked, like God made us, and like gods we merge. Our skin glides across each other’s like boats on a river, like planes in the sky, like penguins laying on ice and sliding down into the sea, into ecstasy, into each other. Our bodies comingle and become one, and her mother isn’t coming this time.
We move together like some great machine, like a slow-moving combustion engine, and I look out at the lights of the city, the apartments across the street, the balconies, the interiors, the living rooms of other couples. How many are watching us, I wonder? Is this how people make love in the city? Will we be watching others? Maybe our love is so powerful that it spreads to the people in the other building, repairing damaged relationships, enflaming desire in couples bored with each other, and bringing fantasy into reality. Who can say that it doesn’t?
The power builds inside me until I can no longer contain it. Light pours out of us, outshining those of the city, drawing energy from the heavens, reacting and multiplying until our bodies become light, and we are left spent like deflated balloon animals lying on the floor after a child’s birthday party.
We fall asleep in each other’s arms, and everything is perfect until I wake up in the middle of the night and she’s talking in her sleep. At first, I just lay there and listen, trying to figure out what she’s saying, but then it dawns on me that she’s speaking French, and I can’t understand any of it.
It brings back memories of her mother catching us in bed when we were young. I tense up. She’s still in my arms, and when I tense, she does too. Then she wakes up, spins around in bed, and open her eyes. She looks at me and makes a noise between a gasp and a scream.
“Babe, it’s just me. Wake up.”
She gets up, out of bed, pulls the sheets with her, covers herself with them like I’m not supposed to see her naked – after we just made love. She backs into the corner like she’s afraid of me, which doesn’t make any sense. I’m left naked on the bed. This time, she really does scream.
I try to calm her down, but she’s terrified and she just keeps making this terrible noise and looking right at me the whole time, like I’m a monster in her bed. God, it’s awful. I have no idea what to do, and the madness just goes on. Someone in the apartment above yells down at us, then stomps on the floor.
I’m afraid to touch her, I’m confused. I’m scared. I try to comfort her with kind words, but she’s clearly terrified of me. I get her a glass of water, but can’t get close enough to give it to her. I try going into the bathroom, hoping she’ll stop screaming. I wash my face, she’s still doing it, making that horrible sound like a wounded animal. I try everything I can think of – things that make sense and things that don’t, but it just goes on and on.
Without warning, the door bursts open. It’s the police and the apartment-building security guard.
“On the floor!” the cop shouts at me. I lay down. Azalea goes silent. The cop stands me up and cuffs me to the bar, so my hands are behind my back and I can’t go anywhere.
“Ma’am, are you alright?” the cop asks Azalea. She doesn’t respond.
“What’s going on here?” he asks me.
“I’m her boyfriend, and she’s having a nightmare or something.”
“Do you recognize him?” he asks the security guard.
“I’ve never seen him before. Miss Prince has always been alone,” he says.
“Ma’am, is this your boyfriend?” Azalea remains silent, wide-eyed, and still.
“Babe,” I start, but the cop cuts me off.
“What’s your name?”
“Chris. Chris Falco.”
“Miss Prince, have you been hurt? Did this man hurt you?” No response.
“Officer, she’s the last person in the world that I would hurt.”
“Where’s your ID?”
“In the jeans on the floor over there.”
He takes out my wallet, takes a picture of my driver’s license, sends it off, and waits.
“What am I about to find out?” he asks me.
“That you’re a punk,” I answer, and he scowls at me. I don’t care. I don’t like cops.
He gets a response on his phone and reads for a minute.
“Not exactly a clean record, is it Mr. Falco?”
“How’s your record? Seems to me, cops are just criminals with badges.”
He looks like he’s about to hit me when Azalea snaps out of it and gasps. We all turn to look at her. She looks at us, then down at the sheet she has pulled over her.
“Chris, who are these people? Why are they here?”
“Babe, you had a nightmare. Please tell the cop you had a nightmare and I’m your boyfriend. They think I assaulted you.”
She looks at the cop and the security guard and says, “Get out of my apartment now!” then she curses them in French.
“Is this man your boyfriend?” the cop says.
“Yes, he is. Now please get out.”
“Did he hurt you?”
“Absolutely not. He is my lover.”
“Why were you screaming?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about. Now, if you would please just leave. Can’t you see I’m in a compromised position here?” She gestures to the fact that she’s naked beneath the sheet that she holds to her chin.
“Alright ma’am.” The cop uncuffs me.
“You better keep your nose clean, Mr. Falco,” he says to me.
“Yeah, you too, buddy.”
The cop and the security guard leave and I make myself a glass of water. I need to calm down. My hands are shaking.
“What was that all about?” she asks me. I try to explain, but she thinks I’m exaggerating, and I begin to wonder myself, but I don’t fall back asleep. She does.
I listen to her breathe as I wonder what the hell I’m doing here. I’m in love, and that trumps everything, but damn, what a terrible first night. I hope it gets better. It will, I convince myself. I’ll work at it, and she’ll work at it, and we’ll power through all the hard stuff. Really, nothing bad happened. Nobody got hurt. Nobody got arrested. We didn’t even argue, so was it really that bad?