She towered so that even sitting on a stool, her torso cast a trim, conical shadow across the bar. There was a sturdy arch to the spine that looked chiseled one vertebra at a time. She was a house of discipline before you even approached her.
The auburn hair was jaw line-short and banded back with nothing left to form a ponytail, only a cinching. When she pivoted to notice things... the zigzag of waiters, or a raincoat being shouldering on, or a brash laugh from across the room... there was a pale, resolute length of her.
Her head was often turned away from where I sat. She was listening to the piano. Her glass of red wine would travel out of the lamplight on the nickel-top bar. Only angled glimpses of her face. I wanted a closer look. But first, reconnaissance. I knew who could help.
Behind the counter, a bartender named Jack ricocheted like a lightly tapped billiard ball.
I could ask Jack about her. He might know. We're friends, coworkers too. I wasn't working that night, but had stopped by around six o'clock to pick up my check. That night was unspoken for.
When I'd first arrived, they had asked me to wait for my check until the pre-theatre rush died down. I could see that night was all cymbal crashes. Business was good. Theatergoers red-faced from braying across tables, a little hot-eyed from expectation. They had tickets, they had umbrellas, they had belliesful of food and booze. The sky was the limit. And I stayed the hell out of everyone's way.
Jack is fluent in gin gimlet. Hendricks and fresh squeezed lime and a cucumber wheel is his way. I'm an unfaithful gin lover but it suited the flavor of the instant. Square to the rim, a tangy green cloud.
After the third sip, the sky cleaved over midtown. Unfresh rain fell. Everything clotted. My glass was opaque from chill. The front windows, from humidity.
The place took longer to clear out, and longer for me to collect my check. Also I had no umbrella. I settled in.
A second drink re-frosted my glass while the boss' back was turned. About a quarter of the way through that round, I'd seen the girl-tower opposite.
By then Jack was craning in close to the mirror behind the bottles. He peered between glass necks to check on the dimple in his tie.
"The climb over there..." I said. I didn't look at her to indicate.
"Yeah, buddy," he said, lopside-grinning. He didn't turn around to confirm.
Jack shrugged and leaned his elbows on the nickel-top bar. "French, late thirties? Lives in Paris. Used to be a professional ballerina.”
Tall and Parisian and severe. It struck me as funny at the time to privately nickname her after an 18th Century prison. Jokes like that really only have to amuse an audience of one.
“Ex-ballerina? Still looks it,” I added. He nodded with closed eyes, as if in dirty prayer. I asked him what she was doing in New York.
“Visits several times a year to see new plays, nightclub acts too? She produces. Met her before, she likes this place. Cool. Smokes. Likes red, not white. Good appetite. Her English is better than mine. Cute accent. Great ass. Next time she gets up to go to the bathroom, you can catch it. You gonna tap that?"
That was Jack's report. I was impressed. He'd be fine if I made a play. He'd just want to hear the story if it came to pass. What the hell, if it did, I'd tell him. After all, his intel was good and more than I had so far.
"Name?" I asked.
"Celine, I think? Zoë? Something like that. Dunno, bud. Shit, you speak the language! Go for it."
I smiled at him and the cucumber wheel pirouetted in my glass.
The boss slapped my forearm a few times. He asked me to be ready to play a few songs when the pianist took his break. I nodded, smiled, then deflated a little when he turned away. The list of things I'd rather do was long, but I'd had two free rounds. Small enough price to pay. A short set, five tunes, maybe six. He said he'd signal me when he wanted me to jump on.
There was a free stool next to Bastille. I got up.
"I'm going to travel," I told my friend behind the bar.
"Do it," he nodded and reached out for my drink. I rounded the bar and planted next to her. Bastille's posture was as formidable up close. Without thinking I pulled myself up a bit like an inmate for inspection.
Her head was turned toward the punishment on the piano. Maybe, like me, she wondered what the piano had done to deserve it. Her fingernails, unvarnished and trimmed short, were tapping out an uneven rhythm on the stem of the wine glass. My drink materialized in front of me.
"Your friend isn't coming back soon, is he?," I said. The shell of her left ear cocked.
Bastille pivoted, the length of her in one. Singed oak eyes fastened on me. Brows, pencil-elegant, high but resting there. A rounded, cheeky face on top of a high neck. A pert, pink cushion of lips. An expression I wasn't sure could be pried open.
"A friend wouldn't have left," she leveled. Her voice was French melody twined around English rhythm. Not for me or out of any interest, I think she just talked like that.
"I have to keep an eye on the piano," I said, as solemn as a cardiologist.
"Someone will steal it?" Bastille sipped.
"I'm not that lucky. Someone will ask me to play it."
"Is it?," I asked her.
"To those of us who don't play, it is."
"Well, that's a start anyway."
"You don't wish to...?," Bastille put down her glass.
"Play the piano," she drawled, and leaned a skeptical face into her hand.
"Not on a night off."
"Oh. You are a pianist here?"
I nodded and said, "Tonight I'm a civilian."
She smiled lightly and nodded in return, gears clicking. "Still it's nice to be asked, no? Will you have to play long? It won't be a concerto or anything?"
"Nice, yes. Concerto, no. A courtesy. I only have to keep an eye peeled. You can't really see the piano from where I was sitting."
"But you could hear it from over there, when it stops...?" The swirl of play across her mouth grew a little more generous. My transparency amused her, so far. If she was curious about me at all, it had started not with a growl but with a chuckle.
"I'd like to hear you," Bastille added hastily. "But don't wait too long. My flight home is at noon tomorrow."
I grinned at her and held out my hand, introducing myself.
She replied with her own through a strong grip.
"You're from Paris?"
Bastille gave a small shake of her head. "Montreal. But I live in Paris."
So Jack's intel wasn't perfect.
Slaps on my arm, not too light. A stray hand in the cookie jar gets slapped the same way. “Okay, Behbee, let’s go, let’s go! It’s time. Your publique is waiting.” It was the boss. A jerked thumb, a quick glower, a clamped mouth. I nodded, grinned, gave a relenting raised hand. I got up and gave up the real estate. It was alright. I know when he’s sharpening the axe. That night was love taps.
“Your publique…?” Her voice had a new laugh in it that curled and built like a wave. Her brows hoisted in disbelief. Silly promised to be a pretty look for her.
“Yeah,” I said, reaching back for my gin. “You mean you hadn’t already guessed? At that piano I’ll be close enough to either cut their meat or pick them up and burp them, but they’ll still be shocked the music is live. But my publique? They await.”
She was easing some wine into her mouth. Over the curve of glass her eyes rippled a little. “Merde,” she wished me.
“I usually need it,” I called behind me in that cavalier way while already walking. At least I hoped it was cavalier. Probably just looked and sounded like a guy trying to figure out what in hell being cavalier is.
Waiters and tourists and regulars sliced across my path like pendulums. Now I had the thrash of cheer on either side. At the piano I mimicked the boss’ jerked thumb. The guy wanted a break anyway. His leery eyes beaded on the tip jar. He slid out and balled up his bills with him. I’d have done the same.
What to play? For all the chaos, I had an audience of one. True I’d had two drinks but I could be nimble with that. Maybe even daring, but not so daring I couldn’t keep up. That’s a danger. I laid out a few chords. Diminished that one, darkened this one, resolved that other one a little brighter. Buying time. Really I was sifting through keys. Maybe slithering from E flat to G, or F to B flat to C would drop a glistening tune in my brain and I’d run with it. I wanted to impress her. But who knew if she’d find what I did dull? I had to play, that’s that. If she bolted after, well, to hell with her.
It worked. I played from that place that rollicked and stroked and leaped. I blamed the gin. But mostly I landed on the other side. I could plow on through the times I didn’t. The pulse held strong, the chords laid clean and layered. No mistake, I’m not the best player in town by a long shot. Still you know when you acquit yourself well enough to exit out the front.
About twenty minutes later, some middling claps amid the furor. Fine by me. I stood and crossed back to the bar. Bastille was still on the stool, legs crossed, clapping and grinning. From shoulders down into ribcage and sloping out to hips, she was like a string instrument, tuned and perched there.
Jack had laid out another round for us both. An upside-down triangle of pale green for me, an oval of burgundy for her.
I sat back down beside the tower and we clinked.
The next place we visited was harsher. When I'd suggested a walk up Ninth to a different spot, Bastille’s smile was a little slanted. Not from drink, but from that private irony when nights take twists.
We arrived in a low landing strip of slate and burnished metal. Light bulbs floated bare, like wan topaz bubbles. They made the place warm but somber. It looked feverish. A murky bass line thumped at wide intervals, going nowhere and ending never and sounding like an old subway car plowing through water. Bastille and I took seats at the bar. We faced tiers of bottles lit from beneath like sacred offerings. I looked around.
It was a sleek place intended never to clutter your eye or offend your taste, or stand out in your memory. A place like that feels more chic when there’s hardly a soul in it. I really think they designed it that way. Pricey and aloof and temporary.
We ordered. She stuck with red wine. I joined her in that. While we waited for this round, I watched the staff. The bartender and waiters were showroom young. They swiped by, these swift and brittle smilers, as clipped as flight attendants. Still they got the job done, for both of us.
Our drinks appeared. Bastille held the same unbent posture. Her ballet training was marrow deep. Booze didn't dilute it. True she was getting drunker, but not vaguer.
“My career really began with an injury,” Bastille declared. Her long legs were scissored with arms draped in an X across her thighs.
“I’d no idea there were crutches in Swan Lake,” I said.
She sent me a low-lid stare you might get from a cat on a windowsill.
“I’d been with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens for years,” she continued. “Montreal was my home. Is my home, still, I suppose. But I was in Paris when I was injured, in a far smaller company, training constantly. God, what people. Crazy ideas. I loved that work. That’s when it all ended.”
I folded my arms to match her X on her lap. Some ways off, the bartender hunched on the slate bar to gossip with the manager.
“I thought you said the injury is what began your career?”
Bastille smiled tightly. “Yes and no,” she said over the rim of her glass. Her smoky brown eyes had gone inward, staring at the seesawing wine. “It ended my dance career, but began my life as a producer.”
“I see,” I said. “How difficult was that for you? To know you once could, and no longer can? A lifetime of preparation. That may be lousy of me to ask.” It was, but I didn't retract it.
She locked eyes with me for a boney few seconds. Then she softened, and though she didn’t reach out to touch me, there was a kind of absent contact. “I did it. I prepared and battled and I loved it and hated it and got it. I saw the world and danced the greatest stages there are and knew music and discipline and joy and beautiful bodies.”
I watched her, possibly with my lips parted. What can you say to that?
“It lives with me without a single regret,” she closed, but opened a light smile that offered small and even teeth.
Bastille was telling the truth. I’d have sworn there was a little dark purple bruise rimming all that pride. Still I couldn’t blame her, not for an instant. If I ever hurt my hands, and couldn’t play piano… quietly, for myself, let alone loudly for others… Well, I don’t want to think about it.
She gave an articulate sigh.
I nodded. Without thinking I found myself glancing at her legs, impossible not to. Clad in tight, dark jeans, they were supple and solid and would snake and rub lazily with a mind of their own.
“It was my ankle,” and I could hear something sly in her voice without looking up.
“I wasn’t going to ask,” I said, meeting her look, with an idiot’s grin.
“Oh but you did ask,” she said.
I put my drink down. I turned my body fully toward her. My knees now flanked her crossed legs, and my hands rested close on either side of them. I leaned forward. She leaned back. It was funny. She put her right elbow on the slate bar and cupped the back of her neck. She found it funny too.
I liked her. I even liked the height difference. I liked the magnet pull. I cared less about looking like a fool. She grinned more fully, like her ballerina’s posture mattered less.
Soon, but not just yet. Better than even chance.
The wine gleamed hotly in her look and she blinked dreamily at me. Strands of auburn hair coiled around her pale fingers as she held up her head. Cozy and quiet, taking stock. I imagined that look in another setting.
Then she gave a closed mouth laugh, a single hummed chuckle that lives in the throat. Women seem to do that when they’ve figured out a chunk of you.
I leaned back off my knees and picked up my glass. “So this Parisian company you were training with? The work you loved?”
Bastille snapped her face a little like when you catch yourself dozing. She leaned forward to center on her stool and took her hand off her head. “Yes!” She sounded delighted.
“What was it, I’m curious.”
“Avant-garde stuff! Little studios and rehearsal halls, not huge theatres. Probably too crazy for a paying crowd. But full of characterizations and experiment! It was like breaking free and sweating your ass off.”
I noticed she had hooked her feet into the rungs of my stool. Her knees swayed absently.
“Our director terrified us and turned us all on.” She shook her head, not quite shy. “God, that hot, crowded little room. Ugh. He prowled like an animal while we killed ourselves. I remember he pointed at me after one rehearsal and shouted, ‘You! Are you wet down there? If you are not, then you did not do it properly! I want all my dancers to be soaking in their panties when they leave this studio!’”
Bastille laughed with some grit and chewed her thumb. Her knees still swayed between mine.
I nodded and said, “Makes sense. I hear Vince Lombardi used to tell the Packers the same thing at halftime.”
I’d wanted to reply with something rough and sexy. What I managed was a joke. Jokes defuse. Idiot.
Her brows merged. I waved a hand and spared her asking. Also I didn’t know more about Lombardi than what I’d said already. I wanted her to forget the joke.
I pressed back toward her, but deeper this time. She didn’t budge. I wanted to push my luck. She let me. I got close enough that her eyes darted around my face and the corners of her pink mouth flickered a welcome sign, on and off, like neon with a loose fuse.
“So did it work, once you’d left the studio,” I asked. “Had you danced properly?”
The smile stayed lit this time. “Almost always.”
“I had a feeling,” and I tilted my head slightly.
“I’m married,” Bastille said.
“Probably,” I said.
“Definitely,” she said.
I kept my head at the tilt. It didn’t surprise me that she was married. Whether it mattered was up to her. It did.
There was a gust of hot air sighed from my nose that she probably felt on her cheek. She watched me.
“Well, I’m as susceptible as the next man,” I said, backing off but still leaning on my knees. “Just happens that I am the next man, and not the one who found you first.”
I hoped the grin did the trick of evening things off. It felt thin. Where the hell was a joke when I really needed to defuse?
“So. You produce… nightclub acts?” I asked through an exhale. “Dance and music and acrobatics, not plays? You import them, right?”
“And export!” she radiated. She wasn’t cornered, but seemed a little relieved. “Spotting a new performer who’s daring and guiding them, if they need it.”
“Almost always,” I said into a pull of my wine.
“Or if the act is great, then bringing it to Paris, where to be honest, they really need new fresh material. Desperately. I found I knew more than I thought!”
“That’s wonderful,” I said, and meant it.
“I was always just one face among fifty! One in a row of girls all at the same exact height! To step away from that and work in your own name and in your own way… you can’t know what that is. You really can’t.”
Bastille drew up and her voice retook its calm melody. “I’d never have found what I was supposed to do if I hadn’t been hurt.”
And then came one of those chewy silences, the thick kind of nothing when something lasting is being decided.
Her face was elegant but hard. “You…” she began and drew out the vowel to buy time. Booze made her voice trickle slightly into a drawl, but she was still pensive. “You… are not married.”
I smiled and gave a small headshake.
This time, a light shrug. “I can barely afford me,” I said.
She ignored the remark. “Ever been engaged?”
“Lived with a woman?”
“For how long?”
“A few years, on and off.”
“Mostly on or mostly off?”
A smirk coiled at a mouth corner and Bastille folded her arms.
“Recently?” she pressed.
“Then how long ago?”
“Recently enough to remember which side of her bed I slept on. Long ago enough that the dog wouldn’t remember me.”
Heat flashed into my voice. With all that liquor I couldn’t stop it. This wasn’t what I wanted.
Surprisingly her eyes grew wise and a little yielding. “She was memorable.”
“You could say that.”
“You loved each other?”
“Seemed the right thing at the time.”
“But you didn’t marry her?”
“Am I obliged to answer the same question twice?”
One of her pencil brows spiked.
“Did you want to marry her?” she asked.
“Thought I did. Better that I didn’t, “ I said.
“Are you certain?”
“Are you lying?”
I sighed. “No.”
Bastille’s hair looked a little bunched from when she’d held her head up leaning on the slate bar. Without breaking our eye contact, she shook her head. All that hair laid and settled and obeyed her. She hadn’t touched her drink in a while. Her lone glass seemed as shunned as a wicked child.
“This bothers you. My questions, my curiosity,” she’d managed leave a question mark out of her voice.
“On this topic, it does,” I answered.
“Because I think on these questions during my days and most often my nights. When I’m faced with a woman like you, I’d sooner focus on the woman like you.”
She gave no reaction. “Now tell me again. But without the compliment in the way.”
“It’s boring to talk about this to you.”
“Why?” she demanded.
“It’s more comfortable to learn about you. Also more exciting. My lack of answers is boring.”
“I don’t think answers are what you lack,” she intoned. She took a beat. “Why do you think it’s better you didn’t marry that woman?”
“Because I would’ve had to compromise too much to keep her.”
“Such as my career,” I replied evenly.
“Ah,” she said and savored the tone.
Then she broke our stare. Turning to the bartender a few yards off, she lifted off her stool and craned across the counter. She asked about the ladies room. He gestured.
“Known a lot of women since then?” she asked without a backward look.
“You just watched me in action, falling on my face,” I said. “You tell me.”
She laughed in earnest and dipped her head down, her purse in her lap. She turned to me. The blush of drink was on her. The sensuality of candor made her features open and strong.
“Why are you by yourself?” Her strident notes were absent. She was really asking.
I spun back to the bar. Slowly, I started twisting my wine glass by the stem. The turns caught the topaz glow above in streaks that formed and went. The base of the glass scraped quietly on the slate. A married ex ballerina from Paris I’ll never see again. What the hell.
“I’ve got an unblemished record with departing women,” I told her. “Maybe it wasn’t their fault. It’s who they were. Departing women are sincere while there’s time, intense while they can, and long gone before you know it. They may not even mean to knock you over in their hurry. It’s like you fall for each other while she’s dashing across Grand Central to catch her train. You fall for her in side-glances and try to catch your breath and beat the clock and change her mind. I’ve known a few of those. Always found them lit up in some way others weren’t, others who were standing still. And more than a few out there have called me a departing boy. I’ve earned that, I’m sure of it. So maybe it evens out. And maybe it’s best not to catch a departing woman, but I sure as hell tried. Now mostly I find myself hoping that it wasn’t their departures that made me want them.”
She got up off the barstool and tucked her purse neatly under her arm.
“How long ago was all this?” she asked.
“Oh about ten years ago, give or take.”
“How long have you been performing in New York, the way you are now?”
“Just about that long.”
“So,” Bastille said simply as if that explained it all. She made an abrupt turn away. She gifted me a rear view whose slopes and swells are usually reserved for Renaissance marble. She began toward where the bartender had pointed for the ladies room.
“Looks as though I’m not the only one whose career began with an injury,” she said.
Strange how the sidewalk-world outside can change on you.
It hadn’t slanted or teetered on the way in. Lights couldn’t stab and pinwheel and flare like that. Horns were never snarls. But it was all starting to dull and smear, like floating in a dirty fish tank.
Strange when you stand there knowing you’ll stay hungry after you’ve feasted. Strange how you start to think of the next few hours as forgotten before they’ve even begun. They don’t count, the nowhere hours.
We stood, maybe swayed. It was colder too, but that was vague knowledge. Bastille had lit a Marlboro Red. She was holding herself, her cigarette sticking out near her elbow like a burning flagpole. Those long legs were clamped for warmth. She stared at the pavement, her jaw tight, cheekbones shaded sharp and wolfish. An avenue-long gust swept indifferently. It tugged at her hair.
I stood a foot away. I didn’t go over to warm her. She was a prison again. I think she wanted me a foot away.
A streetlamp painted her features queasy yellow. It made her downcast lashes almost green. They fluttered and Morse-coded her thoughts.
With a jut of my chin I indicated a place two blocks north. Bastille exhaled a blade of blue smoke. It unraveled around her like ink in water. Without looking up she nodded.
By the time we reached the last place, that could also have been our ranking in the night's marathon.
A second-floor dive. Open ‘til four. It lived over a restaurant with a half-hearted sign to discourage customers. A staircase cowered to the side. I only found it because I’d been there before. It was a steep and uneven flight of steps walled in by plaster molding and drenched in the soggy orange light of an EXIT sign.
Forty people could have fit in there uncomfortably, but only if twenty of them agreed to a last minute orgy. What air there was tasted sticky and pre-breathed.
Bastille and I had given up wine. It was liquor now. Sometimes you make one last good sprint. She leaned her back against a wall near the door and clasped her hands behind. I nudged enough ribs to reach the bar and order.
Nearby was a guy about my age. Also roughly my frame. A thick dark beard and uncomplicated eyes behind second-hand glasses. He wore a frayed corduroy jacket with elbow patches the way a veteran might wear his medals. His black hair flopped long and carefree. There was jostle around his stomach and he carried both his beer and his person as if greeting the room to the party of their lifetimes.
He leaned on the wall next to Bastille. I saw him shout small talk. He seemed pretty lit up about life. She seemed pretty glazed but listening and nodding here and there. Her eyes looked flat, dark, present.
I turned around. As crowded as it was, it took a few minutes to pay, grab the drinks. I went back. The bearded guy and I passed each other without a word. He hovered back nearer to his flock. It was hard to tell where one ended and another began. He might have lost his. Maybe another group had lost their good-time bearded guy in the crowd and he’d fit the bill.
I took to leaning on the doorframe near her. We had tumblers in our fists. Bourbon and ice for her, rye for me. We stood removed from the mob, flanking the door at the top of the stairs. Not much was said.
Some nights are raw, tuneless exercises. I wished I were as free as the bearded guy. I pressed closer to her.
“I will not fuck you, Eric,” Bastille said out of an implacable profile.
Nothing on her moved. Not her stare, not the set of her face, not the structural wonder of her spine curving away from the wall between hips and shoulder blades. She’d sensed my build. Her lids hung low on her eyes.
“I’ve known men who needed love,” she murmured. “To feel secure, to know who they were, to be needed. But you? I think you have possibly too much to give but you are not giving anything. You are selfish. You are frightened. It makes you small. You could be so much more. So I’ve no idea what happened that you decided to be alone, but you have chosen this. Continue this way and something vital in you will die. And then it really won’t matter either way.”
Her flat abdomen swelled as she drew a breath. Bastille exhaled through her nose. It sounded as if she wanted to purge the taste of her words. She reset her lips thinner.
“So. I’m not the girl for you, Eric. You understand?”
It wasn’t just that I was silent. I retracted, felt my cheeks go taut. The booze in my veins suddenly felt toxic. I didn’t want the drink in my hand.
The room roared on and the air stood still. I’d nicknamed the wrong one of us after a prison. Maybe Bastille was me.
The bearded guy strode by. I saw her watch him pass. Something in me clicked.
“Him?” I barked. I would never have asked sober. But I was pretty far from that. “Why him?”
She craned in watching him go. Her neck was smooth, creamy, hard like brushed marble and exposed to me like when I’d first seen her listening to the piano.
“Why him?” she murmured without looking back. “Because he’s an idiot.”
Then she faced front and popped her shoulders in a mellow shrug. “And I have a flight home at noon tomorrow.”
I put my rye down on a shelf in the wall. I wanted nothing from everything in that room.
But then she reached over and slim fingertips traced a search along my jaw and chin and lips. Very calmly, she rested her mouth on mine.
It was a giving kiss. Damp, kind, an upsweep of lower lip. She tasted only slightly of bourbon, but mostly of warmth and chance. Her kiss lingered only long enough to explain itself.
It was a kiss to soothe, not ignite.
It was a kiss that wished me luck.
Her shoulder blades still held up that wall. The hand dropped away from my face. Her lashes raked at her cheeks. Her pink lower lip still hung a little slack, swollen from pressing.
We hadn’t rehearsed, but the choreography went off without a stumble. She just grazed past me like a breezy curtain.
I managed the uneven stairs alright. My hand trailed along the molding in the plaster walls. Down that steep orange tunnel, the sidewalk peeked sapphire blue from the sign of a club next door. A few too-brisk steps across the noisy curb and I slumped in the backseat of a cab. We rocketed. At some point I’d mumbled my address to the back of a head that ignored me. Maybe the car heard me, because we made all the right turns.
The back of that cab started to feel a little close. I lowered the window and laid my head in the crook of my arm on the sill. The wind bathing my face was sweet somehow, a feather-gentle brook. It didn’t steal breath, like when you go too fast.
© Eric Yves Garcia 2014