Ana grinned as she walked toward him, weaving her way through the heavy traffic of Canal Street. Michael smiled and pretended to look something up on his phone. It was late May but Manhattan felt like a desert that day; blinding sunlight and a dry, brittle kind of heat.
“Ana,” he said.
They hugged and his arms were loose around her mostly bare back. She stood on her tiptoes and clasped her hands around his neck.
“The sun is brutal,” he said. “Let’s go inside?”
They walked into a Starbucks and found relief in the cool, industrial air. They stood in line and Michael stared at the flurry of activity just beyond the window. Two elderly Chinese women crouched beside a blanket covered with bright, geometric-patterned pocketbooks. A trio of men stood beside them on the corner, selling hookahs; tall contraptions with bulbous lanterns and metal piping. They looked like rulers of a miniature, ancient kingdom.
“Can I have something really cold and really sweet?” Ana asked. “Like the peach thing on the poster? Michael, what do I get for you? Iced coffee?”
He turned toward the counter, “Sure, sure, thanks. Anything cold. I can pay.”
They hadn’t seen in each other in three and a half years. Ana’s hair had always been blond, but today it was nearly platinum, shades lighter than the last time he had seen her. Once she’d had a tiny silver stud pierced through her chin, but it was gone, leaving just the faintest scar. She looked inexplicably younger, as if the years away from him had rejuvenated her.
Their drinks arrived and instinctively they sat on the same side of the table.
“Muscle memory,” he joked. They were parallel against the cool vinyl bench but Ana turned toward him, just slightly. If someone had taken a photograph and analyzed their body language in a magazine, it would say: the way she angles her legs toward him, the way her knees graze his, she wants something from him that he isn’t willing to offer. But the tabloid would be wrong, would not appreciate the hidden intricacies of their past.
“It’s so good,” Ana said, taking a sip of her cold, frothy drink. “You know, there’s something so comforting about franchises. That everywhere you go will just have the exact same thing.”
“Well, I know you feel that way! Like when we went to Mexico and every time we passed a PF Chang’s or Johnny Rockets you just had to go in.”
“Comforting!” she said again.
“It’s pointless to travel if all you want to do is see an Americanized version of the place you’re visiting.”
“You’re a little grumpy these days, huh? Now that you sold your book you have to adopt the trope of the dark, cynical short story writer?”
“Ha ha, very funny.”
He looked down at the table, at Ana’s hands draped around her drink. She had stopped biting her nails (they were long and oval, painted coral). He wanted to ask if she still picked at her cuticles. He remembered the tiny dots of red that bloomed from her nail beds. Now they were groomed and even and he craved some indication that she was still a little bit tormented, still tortured by the supposed things that kept her from being with him.
“I’m really so happy to see you,” she said. “So glad.”
“So, you’re just here for a few days? For the big day?”
“Just out of curiosity, why’d you feel the need to come back to New York just to get married?” He hoped he was adequately masking the hostility in his voice. He took a long sip of his coffee, watched the liquid drain from the cup.
“Well, Dean is here for some shows. He does visuals for these big, ambient noise events. The restaurant gave me a few days off and our anniversary is this coming weekend so we just figured, city hall, you know, why not.”
“Tell me more about your book. When does it come out?”
“November,” he said. “But it’s seriously not a big deal. It’s a really small press. I basically paid them to do it. Got rejected from like, fifteen editors before this place agreed to publish it.”
“Oh, come on!” Ana slapped his shoulder lightly and he could feel the pressure of her fingers after she pulled her hand away, like sound echoing from a microphone. “Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t be so modest, always. It’s a big deal.”
“Yeah, it’s something,” he said. “It’s not nothing.”
Michael wanted to ask her so many questions. Was she happy? Truly, truly happy with Dean? Did she ever disappear, for days at a time – ignoring Dean’s flurry of texts and desperate phone calls, only to reappear later, smiling and affectionate, refusing to acknowledge her absence? Was she difficult and withholding, and then wildly generous with her love? Were her moods still like a metronome, setting the pace of their days? But he did not want to know the answers, not really.
Ana took another sip of her tea, and Michael noticed the ring of lipstick she’d left around the straw. He felt a twinge of disgust. How plainly it sat there – the imprint of her lips taunting him, it seemed. She was so cavalier, leaving traces of herself everywhere.
“So, it’s really happening, huh? Tomorrow?”
“It is!” she said. “We’re just going to City Hall, nothing fancy. Did I already say that? Have you ever been there? I’ve never even been. Is it nice?”
“Yeah, it’s fine… it’s whatever. I mean, we can’t have this conversation.”
“It’s weird,” she said. “I mean, obviously it’s weird,” But still there was a flippant, easy quality to her voice. “I don’t want you to think that it’s not. That I hadn’t, so many times, just assumed it would’ve been you.”
“How can you just say something like that?”
“You can’t just say that, that you thought ‘it would’ve been us,’ and then marry this random dude tomorrow.”
“He’s not a random dude, Michael. He’s my boyfriend. My fiancé.”
“Yeah, I get that, obviously, but you just throw shit around so casually, like marriage doesn’t mean anything, like it could be anyone you’re committing to spending the rest of your life with. There’s some gravity to that, you know?”
“I didn’t say anyone, I just meant that it’s complicated and of course I still love you. I thought that was something you’d want to hear?”
“Is it cool if I sit here?”
Michael looked up, heard Ana say of course and watched her quickly move their drinks from the center of the table. A teenage girl sat down on the other side of the table. She had a sleepy expression on her face and patches of vitiligo on her wrists, as if a glass of milk had fallen on her arms.
He felt the familiar sting of it: how easy it was, had always been, for Ana to break the fourth wall of their intimacy. Michael remembered moments of unbearably tender affection: tracing the curves of her ears, kissing the delicate skin above her eyelids, and how effortlessly she could be drawn out of them. When a roommate knocked on the door or her phone lit up with a text message.
“I love those headphones,” Ana said. They rested around the girl’s neck, bright and bulky, the color of green grapes. “Those are awesome.”
“Ha, thanks! From Urban, if you want them.”
“I have to leave soon,” Michael said.
“Yeah, I have a meeting with my agent uptown at three.”
“Your birthday !” Ana said. There was a note of glee in her voice. He could not tell if she was simply happy to be around him, or if it was the fact of her pending marriage. Or perhaps some cruel combination of the two.
“What?” he asked.
“It’s 2:12” she said, tapping on the display of her phone. “Your birthday time. February 12th.”
“Look, I’ve really gotta go. See you in another three years, or sooner, or never. Congrats.” He kissed the side of her face and walked hurriedly to the door.
“Michael, come on!”
He left Starbucks and walked south and east toward the subway. He felt awash in longing and then shame — they had only dated for eight months, three and a half years ago! He thought of a Neruda poem he had read in college. He couldn’t remember the title, just the one line: Love is so short, forgetting is so long.
After one stop, the train rose and crossed the East River, the water glittering beneath them. The sky over downtown Brooklyn was darkening; it would rain soon and the heat would break, leaving the sidewalks damp, the air dewy and fragrant. The car lurched forward and a little boy in a fireman’s hat dropped a plastic cup. “No!” he cried. “No, no, no no, no!”
Michael watched as it rolled down the aisle of the train, a trail of crushed iced and orange soda in its wake.
Kate Axelrod’s first novel The Law of Loving Others was published by Penguin in January, 2015. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University.