I was walking down Fourth Avenue when a willow of a woman ran up to me, frantic and with such force that it seemed a hurricane was willing her along. I had no option but to stop, surrender, though I did not want to: I just wanted to go home and banish myself to my bed of stale sheets and leftover dreams.
She, this stranger, smelled of money. Not literally, of course, but as she gripped my shoulders with her delicate little bird hands, her scent coiled itself around me quite ruthlessly, so much so that I could hear a faint hissing: a rich perfume that smelled of lilies and cinnamon, champagne, the subtle misery that comes with having a life of too many choices. The late morning sun caught her sequin gown in such a way that she looked like dripping electric.
“You. You’re perfect. Come with me,” she blew out in a gust.
“Excuse me?” I said, though apparently I only thought I did, because seconds later I found myself being dragged back Fourth past the park and into a stout brick apartment building. Then I really must have expressed a disgusted confusion because she took a slim finger and pressed it against my lips. She tasted like cigarettes.
“Sit,” she said.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, lady, but — ”
That was the first time I ever addressed a woman with such disdain. I could sense my mum’s heavy spirit looming like a thick fog of disappointment in the corner of this bizarre stranger’s living room.
Oddly enough, the stranger’s face softened at this retaliation. She smiled and I noticed for the first time how sort-of lovely she was: pink cheeks dented with dimples, a rosebud of a mouth painted a shiny cherry, eyes that told dark stories.
“Please, sit.” Her voice wobbled, as if to contain something. I sat on a cream-colored loveseat speckled with tiny daisies. A black cat slinked its way from a shadowy corner and leaped up next to me, its eyes haughtily fixed away from me.
“That’s Alice. She’s an introvert,” she said. “And what’s your name?”
I glowered. “I’m not telling you anything until you tell me who you are and why I’m here.” Her eyes grew large and wet. She sat down next to me and put a hand on my knee. Despite myself, I felt something deep within my groin: suddenly I wanted nothing more than to take her.
“My name is Alice,” she said, still touching me.
“But you just said Alice was your cat’s name,” I said.
“I know.” A smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I’ll tell you why you’re here if you tell me why you’re in a tuxedo.”
Weird how I’d entirely forgotten what I was wearing, even though summer in London had reached an unprecedented crescendo. One for the books, they said. Suddenly reminded, I felt choked with heat. I loosened my collar, thinking such a minute gesture would make me even slightly more comfortable. She laughed at this. I scowled, unclipping my bowtie.
“It’s my wedding day,” I began. “Or. . .it would have been.” She looked at me expectantly, as would a hungry child, prepared to lap up whatever scraps I had to offer.
Of course she would find this amusing. She named a cat after herself.
“All I really remember is arriving at the church this morning and then instinctively running the other way.”
Her face soured. “Bastard.”
What was I to do? Contest that? For a good few minutes, all was silent, bastard floating in the space between us like a foul smell. Cat Alice licked a front paw with an intention I had never seen in a human being, unless of course one would have seen me leaving the church earlier that day. Outside, an early afternoon shower spoiled picnics and other vestiges of everyone’s small lives. I couldn’t help but feel vindicated — my reception was supposed to be outside. See? Bad luck, I thought hard, as if to telepathically communicate this to my would-be wife. I was saving us.
Funny what we tell ourselves when we are desperate to justify our actions.
“Funny,” Human Alice said.
“What?” I said. She waved it away as though it were another insignificant nothing in a long line of insignificant nothings.
“So I told you why I’m wearing this bloody tuxedo. Now you tell me why the hell I’m here.” My mobile vibrated in my pants pocket.
“Shouldn’t you answer that?” she asked.
“No,” I said sharply. “Tell me. Now.”
My mum would have slapped me.
“Okay, okay. I am to go to a luncheon today,” she began. “My ex-lover will be there with his new girlfriend and I’d be mortified to go alone.” Her voice did that wobble again, a small voice trapped in a lost buoy at sea. A tear slipped from her eye. “Please, come with me. I’ll pay you.” My mind flashed to my family, probably still sitting in the pews, never imagining that I’d choose my wedding day to become an escort.
“I realize how bad this sounds,” she said. “I just didn’t know what else to do.” Again came a vibrating from my pocket. Part of me knew I should have answered it, summoned up the courage it would have taken to say, among other things, I’m sorry. For everything. But how do you do that when you’re not entirely sure you’re sorry? I shook my head, if anything to rid myself of such a thought. Suddenly a spark of gentleness lit up inside me, a flicker I hadn’t recognized since I was a boy. I took my hand in hers.
“I’ll go with you. Just promise me that by sundown I’ll be at home, in my own bed,” I said.
A visible relief washed over her face.
“It’s a deal,” she said, leaping off the couch and disappearing into one of the other rooms. I used this moment alone to take in her flat. Aside from the busy floral pattern on the furniture, it felt as empty as it did wide: everything — the walls, the carpet — was an ethereal white, and aside from the loveseat, there was only a small, mostly barren oak bookshelf and a dining table in the corner. The air was stale and sour with heat. The analog clock above the door spoke noon or midnight, depending on the kind of person you were, but it was quarter past two. I should be gingerly feeding my bride a petit four right now. I should be watching Aunt Gemma completely sozzled in the corner, touching up her lipstick before closing in on my best man. The cat, finally satiated with her task, sunk into a nap. The woman reemerged with a toolbox in her hand. She sat it down next to me and opened it. Inside were stacks of bills, bundled tightly with red ribbon.
“Take as much as you want,” she said.
“Alice,” I began, her name taking on a familiar taste on my tongue, as if I had said it in that exact way a thousand times before. “I can’t. You know I can’t. I’m sorry he did that to you. I truly am.”
She nodded, gently taking away her offering. “Before you go,” she said, “can you do me one thing?”
“Sure,” I said, reluctant.
“Kiss me. Kiss me like you mean it.”
“I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.” A somber voice says. I lift her veil. A tear slips from her eye.