Elise awoke thinking about lighthouses and safe harbors, or lighthouses not indicating safe harbors. It must have come from a poem. Louise Glück? She tried to recall the words and stopped when she realized she was lying in a bedroom she hadn’t seen before. She was naked. Not a safe harbor.
She wanted to get the A train home before remembering she didn’t know where she was. She parted the curtain. The window faced a non-descript alley. No landmarks—there was only a narrow oblong of blue morning sky above the neighboring building.
Her underwear and dress lay scattered on the floor. She pulled it all back on and bent down, looking for her shoes.
“Hello, Elise,” he said, from the doorway.
She straightened. “Hello. Where am I?”
“Do you mean who are you?” he said, indicating himself.
“Tom,” she said, hoping he didn’t hear her slightest hesitation.
“This is my apartment.”
“I gathered. Did we cross the river?”
He closed his eyes for a second. “No. You’re on 23rd and 8th.”
He came closer and handed her a cup of espresso. She was so hung over. She wanted to throw up. She felt his fingers in taking the cup and was it muscle memory that made her almost step into his arms? Or was it the way he loomed over her tired, patient and still? Did we talk about lighthouses and safe harbors last night?
“Your shoes are near the door,” he said, and left. She heard the shower start.
On the A train, returning to her apartment, Elise searched on her phone and found it in the poem “Faithful and Virtuous Night” by Louise Glück:
“But what really is the point of the lighthouse?
This is north, it says
Not: I am your safe harbor.”
Elise arrived at her apartment and the sun had vanished already, swinging up into the sky and away. She got a sudden picture of Tom’s body pressed against hers, the length of his thigh, of him, a head height above her.
Her apartment was so quiet. The ticking of the clock above the stove was loud and insistent. Elise lay down on her bed, still clothed, and curled on her side. She pressed her face into her bare upper arm, pretending it was not hers.
They met again at a function on the Met’s rooftop. He was one of the bankers. She was one of the pro bono not-for-profit arts sector clients. Each group regarded the other like they were the most frivolous people on earth, despite the banker/client relationship or maybe because of it. The mutual distrust and mutual need made Elise think of marriage. She was not an instructor. She came for the drinks.
Elise stood at the bar because she was tired of the second rate champagne circulating after the initial burst of Billecart on arrival that set expectations too high.
“All roads lead to the Met,” he said.
She recognized the voice and looked up at him. “Hello, Tom.”
“You remembered my name,” he said and she figured sarcasm was his usual way.
The bartender served them and as they left the bar Elise said, “Would you like to see some art?”
Tom was silent, but his mouth squirmed with something unsaid.
“Seeing as we’re at the Met and all,” she continued, determined. “There is a painting here that I love.”
Tom followed her to the door. “Is this a test?”
Elise said, “What?” when she wanted to say “Yes”.
They walked to the European Paintings gallery and Elise led him to Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher”.
“Do you like this?” she said.
Tom studied it. “This must be a night for difficult questions. I was asked earlier why we don’t need our bones in heaven. By my four year old son.”
Of course, he has a child, she thought.
“I’m divorced,” he said, saving her the trouble of asking.
Tom leaned towards the painting, then stepped back and tilted his head. “I’ll give you the same answer I gave my son Chris. I want to tell you I know all about this. I don’t. I don’t know anything about—” he said. “And here insert your subject ‘heaven’ or ‘art’”.
“Humour me,” Elise said.
He turned to her. “I’m trying to.”
She avoided his gaze, turning back to the painting, and said, “There are points for honesty.”
“That’s a first,” he said.
It was a lot of pressure. Her thirty-eighth birthday came only three weeks after they met. Tom took her to Masa for dinner, then the Lincoln Center to see the New York Philharmonic. Elise watched Tom in the faint light. She needed to leave, in the intermission, or now. Right now.
It was Beethoven’s “Emperor”. She should have been grateful. The seats were excellent, the tickets sold out. She had no idea how he got them.
It took a full minute before Tom turned to her. “What?” he mouthed.
Elise shook her head and sat back in her seat, facing the stage again. The music made her think of dying, alone. She wished he had simply taken her to his apartment after dinner. Or she could even have enjoyed a tattoo if he took her to a parlor and watched her being branded with a symbol that was discrete, meaningful, and able to be concealed in recognition of her day job.
It was the talk of lighthouses, the Vermeer that did it. He thought she was more serious. I don’t deserve to be here, she wanted to say, and I don’t want to die.
“You didn’t enjoy that, did you?” Tom said, as they stepped out onto the street.
“It was beautiful, but it’s not me.”
He put his arm around her neck, tight, and she was enclosed in the hard inner triangle of his elbow. It was almost platonic, but then he drew her against him and kissed her hair. She shut her eyes.
“Doesn’t a lighthouse simply emit light and horn signals to ships?” Tom said. “Wasn’t the woman just holding a jug of water?”
“Don’t be a fucking accountant about this,” Elise said.
They lay in his luxurious bed. The sheets vanilla white and gazillion thread count. She saw it for what it was: the divorced man’s top two promises to himself. Fuck more women. Sleep in more.
“What about the Beethoven?” Elise said.
Tom threw up his hands which could have meant, go for it or I don’t care or just try, you won’t be able to.
“Those tickets were so fucking expensive,” he murmured.
Tom reached for her and she pressed her face into his neck.
“It matters. I know that,” he said. “That’s all I know.”
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, Pithead Chapel, and Cleaver Magazine, among others. She has been a featured writer in Bang! One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungleboys. She lives in Australia.