At nine oclock in the evening, on the phone, I am
Hugh. Somewhere in the city, holding another phone, is Emma, a dancer. Emma
is smitten with Hugh, a jolly, self-effacing Brit in town for a conference.
He is light hearted, his hesitant quips make her laugh, and she has agreed to
meet him tomorrow for a stroll on the West Side of Manhattan.
Later, near eleven oclock, when my voice grows tired and my ear is sore
from being pressed to the phone for so long, I am Olivier. Veronica, a receptionist,
is wild about Olivier, a Frenchman with a gruff voice and a casual disregard
for great expectations, and she agrees to meet him tonight for a drink.
When I hang up the phone and look in the mirror, I am Jake, a heavy-hearted,
plain American with a casual disregard for himself, a man who would love to
leave the country for a bit. I would love to leave New York City. I would love
to leave my apartment. I would love to leave the room, but the only other room
is the bathroom, and there is another mirror there, another dead end, another
One lonely, drunken evening, I arrived home late and slumped into my one dining-table chair, flipping through a two-day-old newspaper, where I saw the ad, down
in the corner of the page, between the want ads and the sports section. A gorgeous,
smiling woman held a phone to her ear. A phone number stretched across her waist
like a belt. Hundreds of singles in my area! I pressed buttons on my cordless
phone while wandering around barefoot in the shadows of my apartment. I created
an accurate description of myself and what I was looking for, which was...what?
What do you think of, on the spot? Love, I guessed, a real love, a connection,
someone I liked who would prefer to pass the time with me. I put myself and
what I thought was my extraordinarily simple request out there and received
messages from women looking for husbands, for men who were down to earth, whatever
that meant. The women had lists of prerequisites and expectations. I spoke on
the phone as myself, as Jake, and Jake, for one reason or another, did not meet
any womans criteria. I did not have a steady job. I was not into long
walks on the beach. I did not desire children. I was not forty-five to fifty-five
years old. I did not know how to keep it real, whatever that meant.
Each woman had her own version of a man who was everything, and all of me added
up to too little.
Leaving messages and listening to messages was not satisfying. I did not meet
anyone. I felt no connection. In fact, all I felt was disconnection.
I tried the live chat line, thrilled at the idea that at that very moment my
lips were at some womans ear. I became hooked on it, despite my continuing
failure to meet anyone interesting. Once the initial charm volleys bounced to
a stop and we got to asking questions, I still fell below expectations.
Then, in the middle of a conversation with a lonely nurse from Flushing, a conversation
that both of us were trying politely to bring to a close, a thought occurred
to me. I had wandered in front of my closet and remembered that at the bottom
of it, in a box, is my diploma from Boston University, a fine institution that
conferred upon me a bachelors degree in acting, a license to lie, a degree
which until that point had been as valuable as the paper it was printed on.
I thought, if being me isnt working out, why not be someone else? I stopped
revealing and started creating. My new names came from Hollywood movie stars—Hugh
from Hugh Grant, Colin from Colin Farrell, Olivier from Olivier Martinez. On
the phone, my lips in a womans ear, the power of suggestion was everything.
I moved on from the nurse. The next woman asked me about myself and, what the
hell, Id spent ten years paying off my student loans. I made up another
story. I spoke to woman after woman, from all over the country and changed my
accent over and over, the main talent, it seemed, that Id acquired from
my theatrical training. Acting jobs were not coming my way, so I justified the
phone call performances by considering them practice. It became an obsession.
At night I would perform on the phone. In the daytime I would walk up Ninth
Avenue wondering if Id spoken to any of the women I passed on the sidewalks.
I wondered if any of them were remembering their previous nights conversation
with that man Hugh, in town on business, or Colin, waiting for one last paycheck
before buying a plane ticket back to Ireland, or Olivier, trying to find an
evenings companion, someone with whom he could share a bottle of wine,
before he flew back to Paris, to his dying mother.
Soon I was chancing live dates with these women, fleshing out my characters
with costumes and mannerisms to go with the voice. I tried to tell myself that
by playing these characters, I was actually being more honest. Acting, after
all, is what I do. I become others. I am not me. I am others.
Whoever I was, I was still alone.
The phone rings and Olivier answers, expecting Veronica, to whom he spoke only
minutes ago, to whom he gave the number to his friend Jakes
place, the place he has been staying in while in New York.
Allo? says Olivier.
Whats with the freaking accent? asks Jakes sister—that
is, my sister, Janet.
What accent? I say, in my normal, American standard broadcasters
The accent you just used. Was that French? It needs work.
No, it was perfect. Trust me. I always got As in dialect class.
I tell her about the chat line, because I tell her about everything.
Youre going to go to hell for this, you realize, she says.
I ignore this, putting on my watch and searching for my keys. What did
you call for, sis?
Nothing. You want to see a movie tomorrow?
I have an afternoon date, but after that Im free. What happened
to that guy Thomas?
I hear the sound of a match being lit during the pause on her end. Id
rather not discuss that creep jerk bozo. A lunch date, huh? I hear her
take a pull on a cigarette. How exciting for you.
Her name is Emma and, yes, she sounds like fun, thank you.
Another cigarette pull. Wonderful. Call me when youre done putting
on your little show.
* * *
When I leave the apartment, I am Olivier.
I have not shaved for several days. My hair is long, to my shoulders, and straight,
so it can fall in Oliviers eyes. Olivier likes to hide in his disillusionment.
I can shave and pull the hair back to reveal Hughs boyish face. Colin
can go either way, facial growth or fresh shave, hair down or back or tousled,
it doesnt matter; hes too fidgety for a woman to notice. Olivier
wears a black sport coat over a black ensemble. Black under black on black.
I go to a windowless bar on Lafayette called Temple Bar, where Olivier is to
meet Veronica. The bar feels like it is inside a sunset. Between the dark of
my clothing and the burgundy glow of the bar, I feel like a shadow sitting there
stirring my drink, waiting to see Veronica for the first time. She has described
herself as an attractive Julianne Moore type, which suggests to me that she
is a Caucasian redhead with an exaggerated sense of her own beauty. We were
to meet at eleven. I wait for Veronica and I smile inwardly at the fact that
Julianne Moore is a Boston University grad, like me. At eleven fifteen, she
steps into the back room and squints through the dark redness. I have leaned
forward over my drink so my bangs cover my face, the telling detail she is looking
for. She sees me and smiles. She is indeed a redhead, her hair is short and
spiky, which is nothing like Julianne Moores, but she does have an admirable
figure, on which she carries a thin red blouse that reveals two cold nipples.
Her skirt seems too tight for her legs to move. For some reason she tiptoes
over to me as if she is doing something sneaky, as if trying not to wake anybody
up. Her face is all grin and she appears to be having the time of her life.
As she gets close I realize that she is perhaps eight years older than she told
me she was. I do not know how this will go; this may be the only point in the
evening that either of us enjoys—the inherent thrill of the recognition
moment, when a face is linked with a voice.
Olivier? she asks.
Veronique, says Olivier. I clasp her hands, Olivier, he clasps her
hands, so grateful that she has come, and we sit down next to each other on
the leather sofa running along the wall. I pull a stubborn bang away from my
face and lean toward her, thanking her for meeting me, chastising the other
women on that phone line, with all of their impossible demands and expectations.
Sometimes, Veronique, a man just wants to share a quiet glass of wine
with a beautiful woman, and be happy for that time, nest-ce pas?
Youre drinking whiskey, she observes.
Yes, I am, I am sorry, I was a nervous man sitting down here in the chair
waiting for you. Now you are here and we must, please, have the bottle of wine.
I have been studying this, I hold up a wine list, this description
page and I know what we will have. Alors. I get the waitress attention
When the bottle arrives, and the glasses are poured, Olivier takes the bottle
in his hands and I hold it like it is a woman, like I may hold Veronica if she
falls for my ludicrous creation. We drink the blood-warm merlot from squat glasses
and all is dark shades of red from the lights and the bottle. As I listen to
Veronica chatter away, I know that I could never date her for very long, but
I am enjoying myself as Olivier and she is attractive enough and Id be
sitting around alone at home if I werent there, so I press on. Time and
again Olivier flips the hair from his face and leans a little closer to Veronica,
who seems to enjoy the entire performance. Her eyes dart around the bar every
few minutes, as if, perhaps, she should not be there, as if she could be recognized.
Veronique, your eyes are wild. Is there another man you are not telling
me about? asks Olivier. Am I putting you in an awkward position?
Dites-moi. You can tell me.
What? A man? Oh, no, no man, its just...Ive never met anyone
like this before, she says, and I let Olivier seem to believe her. She
gushes on about the suddenness of it all, the voice on the phone, now the man
next to her, the wine, the lights. I cant believe youre leaving
on Tuesday. I...I found you just in time.
In time for what, Veronique? Olivier asks, leaving the question
in the air, and she bites her lower lip.
Olivier tells her how grateful he is to have found her among the dozens of desperate
voices on the phone, how perfect it is to just sit and talk. His fingertip strays
to her thigh and idly runs along it and she does not stop him. I am Olivier
and I whisper to her how difficult it has been these past few days, what with
my sick mother in need of an operation in Paris, the shock of learning that
my brother, that brat, had accepted an overseas job and could no longer look
over their our mother. Always avoiding the responsibility, his younger brother,
he tells her, and they laugh at the fact that people become more like themselves
year by year. And then she talks for several minutes about herself, relating
conversations she has had with ridiculous people and what she was thinking during
those conversations and I nod and agree and nod and agree with all of Oliviers
Oliviers hand, my hand is on the small of her back now, though I do not
look at her. I look into the bar area, at the people, all the red people, and
I talk and talk about the emptiness of it all. I feel, through my wine buzz,
the emptiness of the situation, the fact that Veronica will have no future with
Olivier and certainly not with Jake. Yet, when I feel she is hooked on Oliviers
every word, on his every guttural mispronunciation, I turn to her, close, and
tell her that after all, we do not have much time. I apologize in advance. The
wine has gone to my head, I tell her, she is so beautiful, her skin is so perfect.
I tell her I desire her but I tremble for fear of adding a, how do you say,
flaw to the moment, and she shakes her head at me as if I am being silly and
we kiss. Our red lips press against each other and our merlot-stained tongues
thrust and parry.
I take her home in a cab, and the kissing continues as we clatter uptown. We
tumble into the vestibule of my friends crappy little walk-up
on Fifty-Fourth Street, to discover my seventy-year-old neighbor, Alice, fetching
her mail, at midnight, in the hallway. Alice is wearing a tattered red bathrobe
and spectacles. She greets me with sudden delight.
Jake! Jakey! Out on the town again, Jakey? Hi there, she says, noticing
Olivier stares hard at Alice, who has no idea about Olivier, and says, Allo,
you must be the neighbor of Jake. I have heard so many nice things he has said.
This is Veronica.
Alice is baffled. Whats with the funny voice? she says, smiling
at Veronica. Jakes a card, isnt he, Victoria?
Veronica, says Veronica, leaning on one high heel, trying to make
sense of the situation.
I want to make a loopy gesture over my head to warn Veronica that Alice is crazy.
What kind of woman checks her mail at midnight? But I fear it may already be
too late, as the heat from Veronicas eyes is no longer the heat of amour.
Jakey can do all kinds of voices, I hear him through the walls, says
Alice, laughing. La la la la la. He chants like a two-year-old monk. Doo
doo doo doo, doe doe doe doe...
I feel myself slip over a cliff. Miss Alice, it is so funny of you to
mention Jake this way, he is such a comedian with his antics, he make me laugh
more than one time.
Olivier, says Veronica, adjusting her blouse with a huff. There
is something I was going to surprise you with in bed, but I dont think
it can wait.
Alice sorts through her catalogues.
Oh, yes, I like the surprise of things, yes, I say, Olivier says,
holding on to the edge of the illusory cliff of character with slick fingers.
Veronica says, Si vous netes pas Olivier, et si vous nen parlez
pas Francais, puis ce soir-ci est un cauchemar, un disastre extraordinaire, et
je ne veux jamais vous voir encore.
I recognize that this is French, but what did she say? I have no idea.
Olivier says, Well, of course.
Jake, huh? says Veronica. His name really is Jake? She
directs this to Alice.
Yup. Been living next to him for six years now, I oughtta know, says
Alice, who turns back to her apartment.
And hes American?
Yup, apple pie and baseball. OK, goodnight. Nice to meet you, Victrola. Alice
reaches her door and pushes it open and the sound of classical music breathes
into the hallway. When she shuts her door, her doorbell rings and there is no
Veronica opens the front door and shows herself out. I stand in the hallway
for a moment, wondering who should follow her, Olivier or Jake. I follow her
to the street to see her hailing a cab and running toward it. I yell, Come
on, you thought it was fun, didnt you? I can always be Olivier!
She turns back before she ducks into the cab and yells, Screw you, you
liar! The cab pulls away and I try to remember that murdering Alice would
be illegal, messy, and difficult to explain.
* * *
At lunch the next day, I am Hugh.
I shave and whisk my hair behind the hook of my ears. Hugh is fresh and clean
and dressed in casual-dapper-fetching, button-down shirt, slacks and sports
jacket. I head to the Lincoln Center fountain and do slow pacing laps about
the roar of rushing water. I stop when I feel a woman staring in my direction,
through the falling spray of the fountain. We regard each other, strangers staring
as blank as cameras, neither of us wishing to be the first to reveal our identity.
She is lovely. She is tranquility. She is a still glass of water on a clean
table in a quiet room.
I lower a curtain first. Emma? I say, loudly, over the water, and
she smiles, and I make a great show of how awfully sappy she must find me to
be in choosing such a hideously cliché meeting place. She is grace. She
is comfort. She doesnt seem to mind. We walk, if simply taking steps is
walking, and she confesses to being in love with Lincoln Center. Emma is a dancer
of some kind and wears a summer dress. Her posture is exquisite. Her hair is
tied up in a bun, exposing a pale, delicious-looking neck. We have a lovely
stroll about the Upper West Side, casually getting to know each other as we
only half notice the stores, which I am referring to as shops, and which, of
course, I am pretending to have never seen before, seeing as I have only been
visiting for a few days. Hughs hands jingle coins in my pocket; Emma holds
her hands together behind her back. Her voice is as easy and smooth as her strolling
pace, and her words are wrapped in smiles. She tells me about dancing and growing
up in the city and I am so fascinated that I nearly forget Hugh. Hugh tells
her about the town in England where he grew up, Hampshire, which he tells her
she has probably never heard of, but she has. I cobble together some fake memories
of the place, which I share with her before quickly changing the subject. When
each of us becomes self-conscious, remembering that we are on a date, we make
jokes at the tag sales and extraordinary prices in the stores. I mean,
really, says Hugh. Three hundred dollars for an umbrella? Outrageous.
I dont care what this art muck is on the pattern.
Its Manet, says Emma. Her voice is easy and calm. Hugh finds
her, I find her, delightful.
Manet, muses Hugh. Is he any good, do you suppose? Hugh
and Emma laugh and continue on to other shops, while talking about art and how
nice it is to sit in a big museum on a cold winters day. Making eye contact
We stroll into the cool relief of a shady side street. She tells Hugh about
how difficult it is to find a gentleman in New York. Its difficult
to find anyone if you work a lot, like I do, she says. It feels
so backwards, meeting in person. Men approach me because of how I look, which
isnt surprising, I mean its all you have to go on until you talk,
and then when you do its often so disappointing. So I tried out that phone
line. No bodies involved, just a lot of voices, and you can determine character
from voices pretty easily. I was so thrilled to talk with you. You probably
dont know this, but most of the men on that line are complete idiots.
You were such a relief to find. You seemed intelligent and sincere and I really
appreciated talking with you. She laughs at herself. Obviously.
And I enjoyed talking with you. Obviously. Its lonely, doing these
conferences. Honestly, I never thought Id find you...I mean, someone like
you. I never thought it would be like this. I figured Id be driving myself
crazy trying to find something to talk about.
This is...easy, isnt it? says Emma.
Yes, says Hugh. Frightfully easy. If you dont mind my
saying so, youre delightful.
Emma smiles at Hugh, and thanks him with her expression. Im so sorry
Im only meeting you now, Hugh. I cant believe youre leaving.
Damn shame, says Hugh, the pocket coin jingling pausing. Youre
lovely, you know. Id...Id love to spend more time with you. I suppose
we shall have to settle for being pen pals. Do you at least have all afternoon?
I have all afternoon, she says, her voice sending a comforting chill
all over my brain. I want to turn Hugh off and tell her Im Jake, but Im
afraid to ruin everything. Hugh is alive and charming and leaving.
Splendid, he says.
Hugh and Emma spend the day wandering through the stores, trading shy looks
at each other. I look at her and get lost in the unhurried pace of her voice.
I remember that she sees Hugh looking at her and this startles me into stammering
something, anything to keep up the illusion of Hugh. Fantastic neighborhood, Hugh
says, wiping a strand of hair away from my cheek. One could spend hours
getting lost here.
With every step I realize the inherent drawback in my charade: I cannot maintain
a character forever, therefore falling in love is out of the question. The impermanence
of my trick gives it its strength and at the same time renders the trick useless.
I wonder if Ive really been pursuing this game to see if I could achieve
love, or just if I could pull off the act. Was this just a bitter, sick way
of using my degree in acting? What was my goal, really? Emma takes one hand
from behind her back and places it behind my elbow to guide me into a left turn,
across Central Park West, and when I turn she places her arm behind her back
again and we continue our stroll, and somehow in that moment I feel that I would
follow her anywhere. In that moment, somehow, I realize that my goal is her.
She leads me, Hugh, to Central Park, where we lie under a tree and Hugh catches
a stray Frisbee before it chucks her on the head. Emma collapses back to the
grass, laughing, and Hugh cant help himself.
Im sorry, he says, tossing the Frisbee back to the young girl
who threw it.
Sorry for what? says Emma.
Im sorry for...Its just, youre lying there, lovely,
and the day, the air, and I cant quite make sense of this, of you and...Im
afraid Im babbling a bit... and before he can babble a babble more,
she pulls him down to her and kisses him, deeply, softly, and the grass is the
grass and the breeze is the breeze and she is a woman and I am a man and every
single thing in the world is exactly what it should be.
* * *
Emma and Hugh part late that afternoon so that she can attend a prior engagement
with a group of college girlfriends. Emma and Hugh exchange e-mail addresses
and agree to write, of course, and they laugh at the idea of her visiting him
in London, for another afternoon that I quietly know will never happen. I stroll
away from her, turning to her with one last jolly wave, a rock slipping through
the depths of my stomach to the murky bottom. When I turn she is standing in
front of the monument at Columbus Circle, facing me full on and watching me.
I turn and walk back to her and kiss her one last time. I hold her to me for
I dont know how long, trying to memorize the smell of her hair and the
muscles in her back. Finally we pull apart from each other and she sniffs and
looks at her shoes. She speaks so softly I can barely hear her. Go, she
says. Walk away now.
I say, Right, well... and then turn to walk away again. When I look
back a second time, I see that she is walking away, staring at the ground before
* * *
I meet Janet later that evening. We see a movie, a loud Hollywood effort, with
things exploding and people shooting and missing and blowing up Jeeps and shooting
and chasing and blowing up buildings and I stare at the seatback in front of
me, thinking about Emmas eyes and about her hair on the grass, and the
feel of her smooth neck in my hand, while Janet munches popcorn and steals swigs
of whiskey from her flask and guffaws at the dialogue. When the two impossibly
attractive Spanish stars kiss, framed in orange flames of explosion, I take
the flask from Janets hand and drink half of whats left in it.
That night I am hollow and cracked from the afternoons events, from falling
in love with Emma and being so stupidly incapable of landing in love, doomed,
I feel, to continue falling.
The next day I go back to the park, to the spot where I kissed Emma. I retrace
the walk we took together, hoping that I will bump into her again. I see her
everywhere and nowhere. I feel as if Im walking on a stage set long after
the show has ended.
I spend a few days feeling wrecked, stumbling through my habits without any
hint of enthusiasm. I meet Janet at Lincoln Park, a bar on Ninth Avenue, and
we sit with a pitcher of Brooklyn Lager between us. We empty the first pitcher
and move on to the second.
You deserve to feel like crap, says Janet, my helpful sister, pouring
more beer into our mugs. You lied to her. If it makes you feel any better,
Thomas, that spineless schmuck coward, dumped me in front of a whole restaurant
full of people. Well, it was a diner, but you get the idea. So hey, she
raises her glass, heres to misery.
The beer gets me talking and Janet eats bar popcorn as she listens. Most of
my talking is about Emma, and Janet seems only mildly distracted by some men
in loose ties at the bar. Jake, she says, interrupting my flow of
wallowing, forget her. You screwed up. I say, get back in the game. You
had fun with the phone thing, right? So go back to the phone thing, if it will
get you out of this funk. I swear, youve been like a flat tire lately.
If you meet the right chick, youve got to come clean with her, and if
she is the right chick, shell understand. And if you find a chick that
understands your little act, then you have found gold. At least with the phone
thing, youre getting dates, right?
I stumble home later that night and pick up the phone. It is eleven, and I am
Colin. Andrea, a rock journalist, is thrilled to speak with the excitable, moody,
fast-talking Colin, an Irishman. She is glad to have met someone so alive, so
passionate, and she would love to get together with him tomorrow.
At eleven twenty I am Johnny, a cockney art dealer in town for an auction. A
Brit named Kate is fascinated by the auction process and agrees to meet Johnny
for dinner, also tomorrow.
At eleven forty I am Matt, a quiet poet from Texas. Ellen is an engineering
major at Hunter College who thinks I sound sexy.
I love the way you talk, says Ellen, a thick Queens accent collapsing
her vowel sounds. Would you write a poem for me, Matt? Nobody ever wrote
a poem about me.
Heck, I could try, says Matt.
Oh, do it right now, Matt, says Ellen. Let me hear your poetry.
Matt, Im not wearing much.
Matt twists himself sideways in my easy chair. Thats...why, shucks,
you got me all embarrassed now. You want me to write it on the spot?
Thats right, sweetheart. Let me hear your stuff. She waits.
I start, Matt starts, Well, normally, I work on paper, by myself, in the
In the quiet, huh? Thats beautiful. Pretend youre in the quiet.
Do you mind if I touch myself while I listen to you?
Well...heck, Ellen...you go on ahead and do what you want...um...here
goes. Your voice sends me places Ive never seen...
I hear the flick of a match on her end.
Places Ive never seen...the patterns of your lips make indentations
on... I look wildly around the room, looking for inspiration. On
my eyelids memory...
I hear her take a drag on a cigarette.
Eyelids tender from...aw, heck, Ellen, I dont know if I can do this
over the phone.
That was pathetic, says Ellen. Just pathetic. Do you think
that crap is really gonna work?
Uh, what was that, Ellen?
I hear her take another drag on her cigarette. I said that sucked, Ellen
says, and suddenly something feels very wrong. Maybe we oughtta talk dirty
instead, she says, the accent fading with every word. Lets
talk real dirty like!
It hits me. Matt vanishes and I jump up standing in the middle of my room.
Janet laughs on the other end. Found you...
Janet, that is not funny. Im serious, that is seriously not funny. I
should never have told her about the phone line.
Well, gol darn, Matt! She laughs, and through her laughs,
she says, You call yourself Matt? That is too much! Oh, this is too... Laughter
overcomes her. She coughs. She laughs and coughs and coughs and I hang up on
* * *
At lunch the next day, I am Colin.
I am Colin at a dirty Irish bar and grill on Second Avenue in the twenties.
Colin and Andrea are hunched over a plate of French fries. Andrea dips an occasional
fry in Tabasco sauce, momentarily distracting Colin from her exceptionally large
Lunch lasts less than an hour.
* * *
Later that night, I slip a skull ring onto my little finger, and I am Johnny.
Johnny wears the same leather jacket outfit that Colin wears. Colin and Johnny
look the same because what the hell, its all a trick of the tongue anyway,
lips whispering into an ear. I go to a sake bar in the rear of a second floor
restaurant in the East Village to meet Kate. The sake bar was Kates suggestion.
I dont know sake too well, so I drink whiskey while Im waiting.
The bottles of liquor glow blue behind the bartender, a Japanese man with impeccable
clothing—not a wrinkle, not a smudge, not an inch of shoe that does not
shine, not a button or fold or crease or hair out of place.
I notice a faint mirror behind the bar and turn to avoid looking at it, at Johnny,
whose face is lighter than Colins, eyes more alive, teeth at the ready
for a quick smile. Johnny is not as flimsy as Hugh. He has an edge like Colins,
an edge that lives in the worn brown leather coat. Johnny is trouble. Johnny
is a pirate. Johnny will fool you.
The top of the bar is perfect, smooth marble. The bartender sets my drink on
a coaster and I return the drink to the exact spot on the coaster each time
I put it down.
At eight oclock, exactly, Kate walks in.
At eight oclock, exactly, Emma walks in.
Kate is Emma.
Emma is Kate.
Kate dresses differently than Emma, but I can see clearly that they are the
same woman. Kate wears tight black pants and a red half-shirt, exposing a taut
stomach. Kates brown hair hangs down to where her shirt ends above her
bellybutton. Other men in the bar cannot help but stare at her as she walks
up to me, her arms swaying with each step, her hips shifting with the subtlest
sway. When she stops in front of me she says, in her perfect British accent, Johnny?
Its me, Kate. Is it you? Tell me its you or Ill be frightfully
We stare at each other. I search her eyes for some sign of reproach, but instead
I see a fire, I see playfulness. The left side of her mouth flinches but other
than that her face remains easy, her eyes burning through every speck of air
between us, right into mine.
I say, Johnny says, Youre a piece of work, aint ya?
We stay like that for a minute, just looking at each other. I dont know
what to say. I want to tell her Im Jake, Im Jake, Im not Hugh
and Im not leaving, but she seems to read my mind and shakes her head
slowly, whispering, Johnny. You know just what to say to a girl...and
just how to say it.
Yeah, mutters Johnny, pretending to be nonchalant. Ye see,
I went to charm school, and they taught us all the things what makes women crazy.
Is that right? she says. We sit. Neither of us breaks. Johnny and
Kate have a conversation about the chat line. Kate knows sake and orders some
for them. They drink sake and watch each other.
Kate rests her hand on top of Johnnys hand, my hand. She says, My
friend Emma...Emma, my friend...met a man recently. A wonderful man.
Did she? I ask. I dont know where shes going with it.
I dont know if shes going to pull the tablecloth out from under
everything. I dont know if I want her to or not.
She did. He said he was going away. Isnt that terrible? Isnt
that a terrible thing for a woman to learn, right after she meets a man? Dont
I nod, careful to keep my eyes on her, to try to communicate something to her.
Jake wants to talk to her. But then, maybe Jake isnt up to this. Maybe
Jake should leave this to Johnny, the pirate, the rogue.
An orrible thing, to find love and lose it, Johnny says.
Yes. Horrible, she says, emphasizing the h sound and
searching my face. Enough to make a girl desperate, Id say. Id
say if that happened to me, Id do anything to find him again, to ask him
to stay or take me with him. It isnt often you meet someone that you dont
mind, someone you fancy would be awfully pleasant to have around. Then again,
I dont think she knew much about him, really. Only thing I know is, she
thought there was something special happening there and shed love to see
I can take care of that in a moments time, Johnny says.
Kate scowls. And how would you do that? How could you possibly do that?
I smile into her eyes.
Its all a trick of the tongue, innit? says Johnny. A
simple trick. Anybody could do it. You can clearly do it.
Can I? She takes a long sip of sake. Interesting.
I lean in to kiss her but she pulls back. She stands up and walks out of the
bar. I follow her out to the street, where she stands with her arms crossed,
at the curb.
Still using her British accent, she says, Im going to take six deep
breaths and then Im going to speak to you again. I dont know what
Im going to say, exactly, but you had better listen.
She takes her six breaths, and with each one, she calms a bit more, although
her arms remain clutched tightly about her, fists locked in her armpits.
I thought that I could do this, but it appears I cant, she
says. I quite fancied Hugh. I did. He left, and I thought it was really
too bad, to see someone once like that and to kiss in the park. Her British
accent drops away and Emmas voice is back, though shaky with emotion. We
kissed in the park and I got just involved enough to feel heartbroken when he
My heart drums out of control and I pray that she stays in sight. I feel a shred
of hope that as long as I can see her, I have a chance, however slim, of making
She goes on, And the really sad thing is, the part that I keep yelling
at myself about, is that I knew you were lying to me, whoever you are. I spent
several years in England. Those things you told me about Hampshire... Youve
never even been anywhere near England, have you?
Im Jake, I blurt out, feeling suddenly naked. Im
Jake Holt. I made up Hugh. I made up Johnny. Im an actor. Im a liar.
Im really sorry.
She studies me intensely, scrunching her eyebrows together and then releases
them and laughs as a tear rolls down her face. An actor. An actor... She
looks away and considers this.
I step closer to her on the sidewalk, to let people pass. Ive been
unhappy so I...
I heard your cockney on the chat line, she says, cutting me off. I
went back to that line when Hugh left, you see, so I could...start the whole
damn process again. The cockney sounded a bit off. It got my attention because
I could have sworn I heard Hugh in the voice, so I asked to talk to you, and
when we did I could tell it was you, or Hugh, rather. I wanted to see for sure
so here we are and Im right and now I suppose I should find a subway.
I mean this is the kind of screwed up situation that a sensible person would
walk away from, isnt it? She turns and walks away from me.
Dont, I say, hurrying after her, and I feel the familiar approaching
violent emptiness of being dumped yet again. Dont, I say again,
scrambling in my head to think of some way to make it all right. Look,
are you Emma or Kate? I have no idea right now.
She stops and stares at her shoes. Yes, well, theres a good point.
I am Emma, Emma Wolfe, and I am American but my mothers British, thus
my ability to do the accent. Are you really Jake, are you really American? How
many personalities have you got? And how am I to know which one is real?
Those are all fair questions. I am Jake. Look. I take out my wallet
and show her my drivers license, library card, credit cards and my Actors
Equity Association card. She studies each in turn. She matches my face with
the drivers license photo. She hands them all back and wipes her face
Well, she says. Here we are. She slips a drivers
license out of her pocket and I study it. Shes Emma Wolfe all right. I
hand it back to her. She says, Here we are, a couple of liars on a street
corner. Youre the worse liar, of course. But, since I found you again,
Ill ask you the question that Ive been dying to ask you. Why did
you do it? Why did you make up a personality?
I am answering her question even before she finishes it. I made up a personality
because my real one wasnt doing so well. She waits for more so I
rush on. Have you ever felt that being yourself wasnt enough? Have
you ever felt like nobody would ever be interested in you, the real you? The
boring you that just kind of gets by?
Why, she says, taking a deep breath and letting it out with her
words, did you think I was on the phone looking for someone? She
clutches herself still further. Do you see me standing here talking with
We look at each other for several moments. She says, Id rather be
angry at you on a street corner than angry at you alone. I know that sounds
pathetic but I am really putting myself out here right now. She takes
another quick breath. You have a really big chance to say something nice
here. I really hope you take it.
Im sorry I lied to you, Emma. I cant believe Im talking
to you. I cant believe nobody has snatched you up. I think I fell in love
with you yesterday. Its all rushing out, and she does not stop me. I
cant stop thinking about you. I cant stop thinking about your walk,
and your arms and your eyes and your voice and I got drunk to try to forget
you because I thought I could never have you. I mean I cant be Hugh for
very long, Im bound to slip. Ive been in Manhattan for years. I
cant pretend everything around me is new. I cant pretend to not
know anybody. Look, even now as Im talking to you I know that you could
still walk away and forget me, and I wouldnt blame you in the least. I
mean I know each second with you is big, is important, is... We could go have
a drink and start again. Give me a chance, Emma. I can just be Jake, for what
She looks at me and I can only guess that shes considering what shell
say next. After longer than I thought she would take, she says, I dont
know. I really liked Hugh.
Hugh really liked Emma, I say, as Hugh. See? If you want Hugh,
you can... She stops me by closing her eyes and shaking her head once.
She opens her eyes again, lets her arms drop to her sides and stands a little
My heart is racing and I feel an overwhelming need to say more, to say just
the right thing, although we seem to be saying much more without talking. I
cant help myself, and I am about to speak, when Emma says, Lets
break this down and make it simple. You did all this because youve been
unhappy. I nod. She says, And I made you happy? I nod again.
She says, Ive been unhappy too, and you, Jake, whether you were
pretending or not, made me happy. We have both been unhappy, and perhaps we
can make each other happy. Why dont we start there? Isnt that the
place to start? I mean, if you really break it down, it is that simple, right?
I feel like I have let go of everything. Emma is staring into my eyes, and her
gaze is as steady and perfect as a mirror. Moments pass. We are there, and then
we are still there. We stand there staring at each other and breathing. I stare
at her, and I am Jake.
Please, I say. Lets begin again. Look, at least well
have a good story about how we met, right?
She steps close to me and rubs her hand up and down the side of my arm, once. Jake, she
says, and then gently takes me by the elbow and turns me so that we are side
by side. Come on, she says, smiling at the ground in front of us. Lets
take a walk. Her hand slips down my arm and into my hand and we walk,
if simply taking steps is walking.
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