By Peter Farrar
I’d met Carol at a pool. I dived in after her perfect arc barely ruffled water and water immediately trapped inside ears like a roll of thunder when turning my head. Underwater, she was how I’d expect to dream her: indistinct, moving as if colors ran into each other. Afterwards, she dried herself briskly. I imagined all aspects of her life like that: quick, efficient, and thorough. Carol smiled at me. Asked if my accent was English.
“I mean, obviously you speak English,” she said, embarrassed. “But are you English?”
“Australian,” I said. She’d heard me as I arrived, hoisting the bag over my shoulder, greeting a staff member at the turnstile.
Now, I waited for her. In the park, Sunday was quieter. I’d assumed New York traffic would be noisy, but cars moved so slowly they barely hummed. I looked towards some children bent over chess boards. I didn’t understand chess. Couldn’t name the pieces. Knew nothing of the manoeuvres. But I stood in the cooling afternoon sun watching them play. Felt autumn coming, or fall as they called it here. Leaves swished by on thermals like paper planes. Kids sat subdued at the chess boards being coached. Imagined them returning home, hyper, bouncing on couches or belly flopping on beds after restraining themselves so long.
Carol came up behind me, pressing a hand to my lower back. Only so I’d turn around, but immediately I loved the intimacy of it. As if her warmth pooled there. I leaned in to kiss, but not sure if I should, I pressed my lips against where her cheek rounded.
Carol led me through the park, gloved hand tucked inside my arm. I followed her into a diner. The air inside heated from ovens and coffee.
“Tell me about Australia,” she said, as we sat.
I said that no one noticed Australia. Had she ever passed a vacant block, where a house had been demolished? When she couldn’t remember what used to be there? That’s what would happen if Australia sank. Boats would pass with people asking, Wasn’t there something there once? She smiled, looking down. She asked how long I’d be here for. I told her three weeks.
“That’s not long,” she said. “You may as well have stayed home and looked at travel brochures.”
I explained that was all the time I had. Eventually had to return to a job so boring weekends were like recovering from paralysis. Lately, I only seemed to travel between an office desk and my unmade bed at home. I yearned for something else. She put her hand over mine, skin of her palm filling the gaps between knuckles and tendons.
That afternoon, Carol and I huddled together, looking at the directions of streets, deciding which way to walk. At first, we edged shoulder-first through milling crowds at Times Square. Walked by the Dakota apartments, where the concierge politely declined questions about John Lennon. Strolled pavements matted with leaves on the fringes of Central Park. Dawdled up the steps to the public library building. Until, eventually, we both complained that our calf muscles hurt.
The next day, we met at the pool. Bubbles fizzed around me as I stroked through water. Chlorine burned eyes. Slightly ahead of me, in the next lane, Carol pressed on. I drew level with her, turning my head for breath at the same time she did. And with each breath, I saw her through the slight bow of her arms.
Carol lived in Manhattan. Her apartment was so small she said she’d need to move out if she gained weight. We took pizzas up there the first night I stayed with her, the topping so thin I expected them to be tasteless. Slipstreams of cars moved from her windows. She kissed me, fingers splaying over my face, turning me towards her. She asked if I thought body language had an accent. That my hands on her stroked with accents. Later, I rubbed her back, parts of her soft, letting in my fingertips, others tight, blocking me.
At Carol’s suggestion, I checked out of the motel two nights early. The lift swished down fifteen floors. She picked me up outside, an agitated concierge signaling her to move out of the taxi rank. I skidded my bag into the back seat and, vaulting open the passenger door, I kissed her. In her apartment, she laughed into my arms before we hung there, in the living room, like dancers waiting for music to start.
On my last day, we silently walked the High Line. It wound through gardens and past apartment blocks. I nearly remarked about the clutter of flowers, curve of the disused railway tracks, the solemn volunteers yanking out weeds. That morning, we’d ignored my bag mostly packed, folded shirt upon shirt like layers in rock. My airline ticket lay hidden inside a John Updike book. Crushed packet of travel sickness pills pushed into a zippered pocket.
The following morning, Carol dropped me at the airport. I said I was giving her a sailor’s farewell. After goodbye, I wouldn’t look back. It’d be bad luck otherwise. I’d walk straight to that terminal, bag clacking along on wheels, and never glance back, even to wave. I waited for her to react, but she only gazed at me. I kissed her slowly, gliding my mouth over hers. Carol’s arm lay tentatively on me as if she couldn’t decide whether to grip or let go. Then, I left the car, the building’s glass doors vibrating open as I neared.
I looked around, just once, unable to help myself.