I was walking along the south side of Houston, heading home from a friend’s house. I’d stopped by to pick up my copy of The Big Sleep, one of many loaned-and-borrowed books between us. I was living on Prince Street then, a studio on the top floor at the back of a building between Mott and Elizabeth. (From one of my two windows I could see into the sculpture garden on Elizabeth.) It was beginning to get dark and the weather was extremely cold. I was just outside that knish place tucked in the strip of stores between Katz’s Deli and the Bowery when I saw this guy standing with his hands on his hips staring into the street. It was late afternoon on a Thursday, I had the day off and this guy—actually his profile, he was not directly facing me—snagged my attention. Approaching him, I looked to where he was staring—into the gutter at a pigeon pecking at a large hunk of French bread. And each time a car whizzed past, the bird would hop away and just avoid getting hit. The sculpture garden below my window contained concrete statues meant for a backyard or a grave; some of the pieces there were angels with downcast eyes and extended wings, others were massive urns. The pigeon, black yet splattered with gray a la Pollock, was scrawny and desperate-seeming and unwilling to abandon the hunk of bread, which was much too large for a bird to move. And this guy on Houston Street stood there staring at the pigeon, and then he made a slow move toward it and the pigeon, as if understanding, hopped up onto the sidewalk. The guy stepped into the street, picked up the hunk of bread and, bending slightly, gently dropped it onto the sidewalk right next to the pigeon, which immediately began to peck at his meal once again. The faces of the angels in the sculpture garden appeared rough and smooth at once, and their wings were always chipped, but somehow these flaws made them more beautiful. After a moment the guy became aware of me pausing there on the sidewalk watching him and he turned to look at me and I wish I could say that when he turned I was smiling but I wasn’t and I wish I could say he appeared friendly but it was in fact the opposite of that. We just stood there looking at each other for the longest, most silent time and I saw this face that was rough like stone and his mouth that looked like both the meanest words and the sweetest could flow out from between his lips. His eyes, blue like the sky at the earliest hour of morning, looked vaguely cunning with those fierce black brows, and his nose was strong in his face and I could tell no matter what kind of work he did now, no matter where he lived, he probably came from a blue-collar mutt background like my own, and it wouldn’t matter what clothes he had on—a tie showed above the zipper of his down coat, he wore good pants and cowboy boots—I would have recognized my type/his type. He scratched his forehead then and smiled, flashed a kind of barroom grin and I laughed outright and knew then and there I would never be able to help myself with him, I would always be a sucker for this guy with those eyes.
“You didn’t see that.” In the bitter chill his breath briefly unfurled in the
air between us.
I shrugged, still smiling.
“Emily.” Saying my name, I heard how my voice sounded high and thrilled and so different from his.
He stepped toward me and shook my hand and neither of us had gloves on and I felt calluses. His blue eyes, so like my mother’s, surprised me with their warmth. Although I hesitated, shifting my book from hand to hand, shyly glancing beyond him at the passing foot traffic of this city, the constant motion of transient strangers who seemed to offer another gamble, a better chance for a better fit, a more perfect possibility for love, I said yes when he asked if I wanted to go get a drink. I sensed he wouldn’t think less of me for so easily allowing him to pick me up there in the street. And no matter what was said later when we would fight, casual words tossed like Nintendo grenades into each other’s psyches, my memory would always return to that afternoon near the knish place—to that moment when I watched him bestow such sweet kindness on some forlorn bird trying to survive one more day on an island made of schist.