Vapor, p.5

Vapor, page 5



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  After a while, I started feeling neglected, even though Damon did not seem to be enjoying himself a great deal dancing. The expression on his face was very intense. He sometimes closed his eyes and shook his head in a way that resembled someone trying to forget something. Eventually, I no longer wanted to be there, but I couldn’t get myself to interrupt him, so I decided to just leave; he had been rude anyway, by ignoring me, so I tried not to feel guilty about not saying good-bye. Looking at him one last time, I saw him for what he really was: a stranger, to whom I meant nothing, and who should mean nothing to me.

  I left the nightclub and stopped at a pay phone in the street. I left a message on his machine saying I was sorry I left without saying good-bye, but that I had suddenly felt very tired and dizzy and hadn’t wanted to disturb him.

  I went to the park by the river, to think and try to relax before going home. After the subway incident, one might have expected me to be weary of dark and deserted city places. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied by my own thoughts, I might have actually noticed that the park was dark and deserted. I might even have cared. And perhaps been reluctant to wander there alone at such a late hour.

  It wasn’t until two young men were blocking my path, clearly menacing me, that I realized my mistake. I, who had never before in my life been mugged or bothered violently by strangers, was greatly surprised to find myself involved in such situations twice in one week. Tonight I learned that it was much worse to be the victim than the rescuer.

  My attempt to use my pepper spray was awe-inspiringly brief this time: I reached into my bag for it, but one of the men, as if reading my mind, plunged his hand into my bag as well, grabbed the spray, and flung it aside. It was at that moment that I felt myself slipping into a strange state of shock. I made only one more attempt at saving myself, by darting between the men and heading for the park’s exit. This didn’t work, of course, and that’s when my state of shock became full-fledged: my brain started forming strange expectations as to what would happen to me.

  In retrospect, I realize that the men were about to rape me, but at the time, when they pulled off my pants and unzipped their flies, it seemed unquestionable that they were going to pee on me. For some reason, I was convinced, right then, that all vicious attacks began by getting peed on. I could almost recall hearing evening TV newscasts, frequently reporting stories such as, “After getting viciously urinated on by the five assailants, the tourist was robbed, and then stabbed to death.” Of course, I can only relate this painlessly (even, somewhat, lightheartedly), now that it’s in the past.

  I wasn’t sure what would happen after the initial peeing process. Perhaps the robbing and stabbing processes. Thankfully, I never got to find out, because a stranger came to my rescue. It is probably distasteful of me to mention that he was very handsome; or to have even noticed it, I’m sure; and for it to be the first thing I mention. But he was. In a TV actor sort of way. And as he was wrestling with my attackers, a commercial of sorts ran through my head: the new way for young singles to meet! Rescue someone, or get attacked and be rescued yourself!

  The struggle lasted a long time. I was of no help, having lost all my strength and presence of mind early on. Finally, the attackers gave up and ran away, and the stranger was left with barely a scratch. He did, actually, have a scratch, on his hand, which he was looking at. He touched it and groaned and said “Ow.”

  “Is it broken?” I asked.

  “Yes, the skin is almost broken.”

  “No, I meant the hand.”

  He looked at me with mild shock, and said, “No. But the skin is scratched, chafed, almost bleeding. And how are you? I trust I interrupted the ceremonies in time?”

  Not believing my ears, and still without my full mental faculties, I said “Hello?” Although I did not like his last comment, I did not want to dislike him. He had possibly just saved my life.

  “I hope they did not get very far with you?” he said.

  Instinctively, I looked down at myself, and, seeing no trace of urine, replied, “No, I don’t think they did.”

  “Fine. Do you need help with your pants?”

  “No,” I said. Sitting in the cold dirt, I kept turning my pants over and over in my hands, having apparently forgotten how to put them on. In truth, I felt as if I had never known, never owned that piece of information. The man was standing near me, and I wanted to fool him, make him think I knew very well what I was doing. I maintained a frown of know-how and determination on my face for as long as I could, until I no longer could, and then broke down in tears. He squatted next to me and gently, effectively, helped me into my pants without uttering the slightest wise-ass comment. I felt a surge of gratitude and was restrained from expressing it only by my embarrassment.

  He dropped me home by cab. Before we parted, he handed me his card, and said, “If you wouldn’t mind, I would be grateful if you could phone me tomorrow to tell me if you’re all right. It would ease my conscience.”

  “Okay,” I said, and looked at his card. The name on it was Nathaniel Powers and underneath were the words: Etiquette Expert.

  “What’s your name, by the way?” he asked.

  “Anna Graham,” I replied, and tried to think of some suitable parting words. “Thank you” came to mind, but felt strange, inappropriate somehow. It struck me as something one said regarding a nice experience. One could, of course, argue that his rescue of me was a nice experience, especially for me. But still.

  So, as I stood in front of my building, watching him get back in the cab, all I said was good-bye.

  Chapter Four

  The next day, I just wanted to sleep, I just wanted to stay unconscious. The phone rang twice, and I let my machine answer. The first call was from a friend; the second was from my boss at Copies Always, wondering where I was.

  The phone woke me up a third time, a few hours later. When I heard Damon leaving a message, I picked up. I was barely awake, and he asked why I sounded so strange.

  “I was sleeping,” I said.

  “In the middle of the day?”


  “Is something wrong? You don’t sound well. I’m sure it’s my fault. I feel terrible about last night. I was rude. I abandoned you at the nightclub.”

  “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter. It’s nothing, compared to …”

  “Compared to what?”

  “Compared to other things that can happen in life.”

  “Like what? What happened?”

  “Nothing. Nothing special. Just … nothing.”

  “Tell me. What happened? I can tell something did.”

  “Oh, I was just … slightly … attacked. Last night.”


  He made me tell him the story, which I did as briefly as possible, so I could go back to sleep.

  Then he said, “I wish I could have saved you myself. Why was I not there for you? I should have been there for you. Can you imagine if something had happened to you? Can you imagine the guilt you would have left me with?”

  Once again I found myself subtly hurt by what he said, but I ignored it, out of exhaustion.

  “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.

  “No, it’s okay, I’m very well.”

  “All right, I’ll let you get some rest. But I do want to see you again. Is that okay with you?”

  At the mention of “rest,” I dozed off and missed what came after.

  He shouted “Anna!” in my ear.

  I asked him to repeat his question.

  “Is it okay with you if we see each other again?” he said.

  His syntax was too complex for me, at that moment. “Can you repeat that, more simply?” I asked.

  He was silent, and then said, “I want to see you. Do you want to see me again?”

  “I can’t remember,” I mumbled. “But tomorrow I’ll remember if I wanted to. Okay?”

  “Okay. Sleep well,” he said, and hung up.

  I fell asleep so quickly that I a
lmost missed noticing how wonderful it was to be too tired to care about something one cared about too much.

  When I woke up later, it was too late to call Nathaniel, as I had promised him. I felt guilty. I would call him tomorrow and amply make up for the oversight. I took a sleeping pill and went back to bed.

  The next morning I was extremely awake and alert, unpleasantly so, in fact; painfully aware of everything that had happened to me, down to the last, horrid detail. I stayed in bed for forty-five minutes to straighten out my thoughts and figure out how I felt about things. I would see Damon again, since he wanted to, but things would have to change. He’d have to open up a bit. I would see Nathaniel too, if he wanted to. I’d thank him, and, who knew, in addition to saving me, he might succeed in distracting me, which, in the state I was in, was not necessarily the easier task.

  I went to work at Copies Always and called Nathaniel during my lunch break. We had dinner that evening. He was fun to be with, much more straightforward than Damon. He told me about his etiquette expertise. People call him when they are in a crisis and urgently need to know about some rule or other. His etiquette hot line is a 900 number that costs $3.95 per minute, the average length of a call being six minutes. I asked him if that was all he did in life. No, he said; he also played the cello. I was thrilled: my favorite instrument. After dinner, we walked over to his place so that he could play it for me. When we arrived at his building, instead of following him up to his apartment, I sighed and said it was such a beautiful evening, and asked him if he would mind bringing his cello down instead, so that he could play some for me outside.

  “You’re cautious and wise,” he said. “I’ll bring it down.”

  We sat on a bench under some trees. He played me his own compositions. They were unusual, very beautiful and strange; sometimes even sinister.

  When he had finished, I said, “An etiquette expert who’s an expert cellist. Funny combination.”

  “You think so?”

  “I think so. Is this all you do in life?”

  He shook his head and said “No,” suddenly serious, almost gloomy. He took a ticket out of his coat pocket and handed it to me. “Tomorrow night, if you’re free, and interested.”

  “What is this?”

  “Why spoil the surprise? Although honestly, I doubt anything could spoil the surprise.”

  The following night I went to the address on the ticket. To my astonishment, the ticket I was holding was my admission to a show of male strippers. Perhaps Nathaniel was just going to watch the show with me. Perhaps this was the third thing he liked to do in life: watch men strip. I held on to this hypothesis until I no longer could: there were no men in the audience.

  From a purely objective point of view, he was very good. He had everything those men are supposed to have. He was one of the best. He went about it professionally, the audience seemed very pleased with him, and yet, I—who knew him a little better than the rest of the women—suspected, even sensed, that his heart wasn’t in it. But he put on a good act. There was a radiant smile on his face, much of the time. He rolled his hips energetically and strutted around the stage in apparent good fun.

  Afterward, we went to a bar. I told him I had enjoyed the show, that I thought he was good. My critique was limited to remarking, “You dance well.” I did not feel comfortable expressing any of my other opinions, such as, “You rolled your hips wonderfully. You are very sensual.” Probably the most coveted compliment would have been, “You turned me on.” Although, on second thought, I didn’t get the impression this was the type of thing he was breathlessly waiting to hear. At least not in connection to his stripping. With regard to his cello playing, it would have gone over better, I think.

  Later, I said to him, “Etiquette expert, expert cellist, male stripper. Are you hiding any more professions up your sleeve?”

  A cloud swept over his face. “Yes. There is something else.” He slid a hand up his sleeve and took out a piece of paper. He held it up between his index and middle fingers, and said, “I always hide a profession up my sleeve.” He flipped the paper over. It was blank on both sides. He took out a pen, scribbled something on it, and handed it to me.

  On the paper was an address, specifying the third floor, and underneath he had written “My guest,” and had signed his name at the bottom.

  He then said, “If you’re interested and free. Tomorrow evening. At seven.”

  The next day, at seven, I went to the address on the paper. To my great surprise, what I found on the third floor of that address was a Weight Watchers meeting. I didn’t know what to make of it. I showed the paper to the receptionist, and she told me to go in. I sat in the audience and waited. A few people were already there, and more were coming in. And then Nathaniel came in. He didn’t look at me. He walked to the front of the class and started talking. Apparently, he was a Weight Watchers counselor. He talked about his experience, about how fat he had been. Supposedly 375 pounds. (Hard to believe.) Following a tragedy in his life. A tragedy that led him to overeat. I wondered what the tragedy had been, but he did not mention it. He spoke with intelligence and sensitivity. He was appealing. It occurred to me he might have made a good actor. And perhaps he was that, too.

  After the meeting, I had dinner with him. It was strange, sitting in front of him, watching him eat, after knowing the problems he had with food. He must have sensed my discomfort, because early on in the meal he told me he no longer had much of an eating disorder. I asked him what the tragedy had been.

  “It’s nothing like what you’re thinking,” he replied. “It’s not romance or family-related. It was business-related.”

  “Business-related,” I mused. “I can’t imagine which of your four businesses it could be related to. Unless these are still not your only businesses.”

  “Yes, well, I don’t feel comfortable discussing it further.”

  We finished the meal talking of other things.

  The next day, Damon and I were walking in a park, by the river, a few blocks away from the one in which I had been attacked.

  Hanging out with Nathaniel had reminded me what a normal person should be like: open. (Not that Nathaniel was terribly normal, but still.) I was fed up with Damon’s secrecy and mystery. It offended me. And I was telling him exactly that, as we strolled among the benches and trees. I told him I had trouble accepting his “private ways” and that as much as I enjoyed his company, I did not see the point of continuing to see him if he was not going to open up to me at least a little.

  “You won’t tell me anything about your family or your past,” I argued. “It’s too bad, but I can take it. At least for now. What I can’t take is that you don’t even want to talk about your job. That’s going too far, don’t you think? You can’t be secretive about everything! You told me you work with the weather. So maybe you’re a weatherman or something. What’s the big deal? I mean, I could understand your secrecy if you were a stripper, or a weight-loss counselor, or even, I don’t know, an etiquette expert. But the weather? There is no reason, no reason on earth, why you should be reluctant to talk about that profession. Which is why I am losing patience.” I huffed and looked away.

  He reached inside the bag he was carrying and took out a present, which he handed to me. It was a box, about four inches long, gift-wrapped in blue paper, with a pink ribbon.

  “What is this?” I asked.

  “It’s for you. Open it.”

  “No,” I said, “I want to know about you, not get some material gift as a substitute.”

  “It’s not material.”

  Although I barely paid attention to this response, I did wonder if the present might be a poem. Was a poem material? “But still, Damon,” I said. “I want to know about what you do, exactly.”

  “Then open the present,” he repeated.

  Exasperated, I opened it and looked inside. At first I thought there was nothing. But after a moment I saw that there was nothing; so much so, in fact, that there was not even the bottom of
the box. Or at least, I could not see it. It was blurry, foggy.

  I looked at Damon.

  “Take it out,” he said.

  “Take what out? There’s nothing.”

  “Come, now.”

  I snapped at him: “I don’t see anything inside the box. Not even its bottom.”

  “Take out that which prevents you from seeing.”

  I stared at him.

  “Just scoop it out with your fingers,” he said.

  I felt foolish, but obeyed him, and the fog came out in my hand. It was denser than fog, and did not disperse. What it looked like, actually, to a tee, was a small white cloud. It sat there on my hand, but I did not feel it; it was not concrete enough, not material enough. I lowered my hand, and the cloud just hung there, in the air, like a week-old birthday balloon that had lost the energy to soar, but was not yet dead enough to sink to the ground.

  I looked inside the box, to see if there was anything even more incredible. There wasn’t. Inside the box, this time, was the bottom of the box.

  I looked again at the cloud, which had floated two or three inches away, due to the slight breeze coming in from the river.

  My first concern was whether other people were close enough to notice this thing, hanging out in the park’s air. I looked around, but there was no one near us.

  “What is this?” I finally asked.

  “It’s my career.”

  Ah, yes, that had been my question, which, in retrospect, seemed rather petty and stubborn. And yet I did not regret having asked it.

  “You wanted to know about my profession,” he said. “So now you know. As I told you, I’m a scientist, and I work with the weather … but more specifically, with water.” He cleared his throat. “I discovered a way to make small clouds. Bonsai clouds, you could call them. I’ve been working on developing different varieties, different strains, and I’m now focusing on one area of development. But I don’t want to bore you with that.”

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