They met along the East River, beneath the Manhattan Bridge, on the esplanade. Saturday morning. The air smelled of tar and talcum powder, the river kicking off the odor in swells. All along the promenade, Asians fished or kissed. Philip strolled, a coffee and newspaper in hand, and the smog from a Chardonequila hangover—Chardonnay-tequila shooters followed with a splash of Tabasco sauce—clattering about his head. Finding a bench, reading the paper, and shaking off his headache was his sole agenda for morning.
But then he saw her. Lilly. She’d hoisted herself atop the railing that divided the river from the rest of the world.
Philip paused, watched her. She hovered there, balanced, like she was welded to a fulcrum. For a full minute, she held, swaying slightly, but not committing to either direction, forward to the water, or back to the pavement.
Philip finally called to her, “If you plan to go in, then go in.” The drop wasn’t great. Ten feet. She wouldn’t be hurt from the fall. What she would be was in the river, caught in the whirling currents, and hard pressed to find a way out. “But tell me your name first,” he said. “I like to know who I’m rescuing.”
The young woman spoke more to the river than Philip. “I’m not going in,” she said, and lowered herself back to the pavement. She didn’t move away from the edge. “When I was seven,” she said, still staring out toward Brooklyn, “my father gave me a glass of water to drink, and as I was drinking it, he told me all the waters of the world were connected. Drops of the water I was drinking, he said, once flowed through France. Others through Egypt. Some even around Antarctica.” She turned to Philip, caught him with a direct stare. “I’d never heard anything so terrifying,” she said.
Two thoughts cut through Philip’s hangover. The first: The woman’s a freak. Let the river take her.
The second: She’s pretty.
Or no, not pretty. Pretty wasn’t the right word, not the word Philip would use.
To Philip, pretty meant Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs, glossy with no content, or Ikea furniture at the start of a fall college semester.
This young woman held something more substantial. She had a carefree awkwardness to her, a shabby panache. Her hair, the color of ground vanilla bean, kinked and coiled and climbed her head like worn mattress springs, and her skin was a white so white it seemed unable to hold color. It repelled the sun, shook off any hint of a tan. Her clothing was a touch too big, like someone who’d dropped a great amount of weight from some emotional shock. But she had a glow to her. An aura, a fortuneteller might call it.
Her name was Lilly. She said, “My name is Lilly,” then asked, “Do my toes look like a dog’s?” She lifted a sandaled foot. “My boss told me I have dog toes, and asked that I not wear flip-flops or open toe shoes to work anymore. My feet are disconcerting, he said. Lowers the office morale, and, well, just plain creeps him out.” She looked to Philip. “What do you think?”
Philip gauged her feet. He’d witnessed better, but then feet were rarely pretty.
The day gained. His coffee cooled. Lilly had offered him a thread of conversation, but had trailed it over a trap. Dog toes. How does one answer such a question? Philip knew this lesson—the lesson of the question that, no matter how answered, the answer was wrong. He learned it first hand from a high school girlfriend; one has to always answer such questions with questions. He said, “Well, just what type of dog are we talking about here?”
Philip had answered correctly.
She asked, “If you had to choose one, which direction would you choose: north, south, east, or west?”
Philip sipped his coffee, thought a moment, and then moved a bit closer to her, though not too close. Lilly stood his height, which was a good height for a woman. She could reach things in the cabinet without help but didn’t tower over most. He said, “I’ve thought about this, and I’ve traveled all the directions possible to travel. North,” he said, “is the most difficult.”
Lilly waited, her face shining with anticipation. “Go on,” she said, leaning against the railing she’d just been hanging over. The one she’d nearly leapt from.
“To choose north,” Philip said, playing along, “is to chose a direction that requires constant vigilance, energy, and commitment. North requires of its travelers an oath of fidelity. Loyalty until the end. One can try the other directions,” Philip said, “travel them as much and as often as one likes, but north requires one to swear that, when lost—which eventually happens, even to the best of us—we will always turn back to her. We orientate toward her.”
Lilly bit the meat of her thumb. She liked this game, liked this stranger. “Go on.”
“South,” Philip said, moving nearer to her, but still not too near. He approached her the way one does a horse, slowly, calmly. “South is different. More fickle. It wants your love, but makes no offers of return. Makes no promises. Out of the four directions, south, I’ve found, is the easiest to pursue, and it offers the most fun. But what it offers can leave you feeling slightly ill.”
“Like cotton candy, you mean,” Lilly said, and then added, “It may have looked like I was going to jump in, but I wasn’t, you know. At least, I don’t think I was.” She glanced at the river, and then ran her hand across her face like she was wiping away a lonely memory. She said, “Go on. I’m listening. South. Tell me more about south.”
Philip faced that direction. The pungent scent of the old Fulton Fish Market hung in the breeze. Long gone, the market’s smell remained, a ghost of the bygone bustle. “South,” Philip continued. “Even though it leaves one feeling ill, it still has a special pull about it, an allure.”
“Of all the directions, it’s the sexiest,” Lilly said.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s the sexiest. The most tempting, and with all things tempting, it is the one that is most willing to break your heart.”
The breeze kicked a ketchup-stained hamburger wrapper into the river where it joined the other flotsam of fast food. “West,” Lilly said. “What about west?”
“Now West,” Philip said, motioning back toward the torso of the Manhattan. “West is the long lost rich aunt you’ve never met. The one with millions and a mansion. The one that everyone says you take after in personality and looks. There are stories—lots of stories—about west, but the problem is that they might just be that—stories. Fictions. Still, you want to believe. Just like you want to believe that, someday, you and that aunt will sit down together and she will pour out a wealth of history and love,” he said. “West holds the future.”
“But maybe not your future,” Lilly replied.
“Exactly,” Philip said, now close enough to touch her. “West offers opportunity, but it also offers great disappointment.”
“You might find your rich aunt, but she might not be home.”
“Or worse,” Philip said, “she might be home and just not answer the door.”
“That happened to a college roommate of mine,” Lilly said, turning back to the water.
“She didn’t much like this aunt, but still, when she went to visit her, the aunt wouldn’t let her in her house, said she wasn’t family. Her aunt kept yelling, ‘Your blood is not mine.’ My roommate said it was the most desolate feeling she’d every felt, being disowned. The only time she said she’d ever felt worse was when she was planning on breaking up with the guy and he dumped her before she could dump him.”
Then Lilly said, “Yesterday morning, riding the subway, the train stalled between two stations. The electricity broke off or something. Anyway, I’m standing in this packed train, and this worry took me. I thought, ‘What if these are the people I die with?’ Of all the ways to die,” she said, “that’s the worse, with a bunch of strangers.” She looked out to Brooklyn. “Tell me about east? What of this wondrous and beautiful east?”
Philip looked to where she was looking, across to the borough on the neighboring island. He saw nothing of marvel, nothing of splendor there. “How about we get a coffee?” he asked.
She turned to him. “You already have one,” Lilly said, nodding at the cup in his hand.
“I mean another coffee. At a café. Sitting. Me and you.”
At a small table outside the Fisherman’s Mistress Café in South Street Seaport, Lilly said, “You’ve yet to tell me your name.” But before Philip could say, she said, “Don’t say, let me guess.”
“Okay,” he said, sitting back in his chair.
She said, “Just looking at you, I can tell two things. One, you’re an artist.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a marketer. Never Fail Mail, a list service company that runs names for direct mail piece. I help make junk mail. Credit card offers, discount car service, coupons for free dish detergent. Things like that.”
“But there’s something nice about you, something non-marketing, you know. Something human.”
Philip’s heart flooded with gold dust, and a radiance woke over him. He liked this woman, liked her a lot. “Maybe that’s because I’m a marketer who’s been mugged by reality,” he said, then asked, “And the second thing? What’s the second thing you can tell about me?”
“You had a lot to drink last night. You reek of alcohol.”
They talked. He told her things he didn’t tell people. He told her he was an Eagle Scout, and that he grew up in Krotchersville, Indiana. He told her how, when he was seventeen, his folks had been killed by a methed-up trucker who rammed his rig into their bedroom, and told her how the settlement from the lawsuit had covered his college tuition.
The morning bled to full day. He asked if he could take her to dinner.
“One condition,” Lilly said, taking a small notepad from her purse. She tore two powder-blue sheets from it, wrote something on each, and then folded the sheets, placing one on the right corner of the table, the other on the left.
“Okay. What’s the condition?” Philip asked, watching her like she was setting up a magic trick.
“You answer my question.”
Philip leaned back in his chair. “That’s it? I answer your question?”
“And you have to answer it correctly,” she said.
“And the scraps of paper?” he asked, nodding to the folded sheets.
“One has the name of a place and time to meet,” she said.
“And the other?”
“Okay,” Philip said.
Lilly shifted in her chair, eager to play. She closed her eyes, rubbed her temples. “Okay,” she said. “True or false: the East River is a river.”
True, Philip thought. Of course it’s a river, right? It wouldn’t be called the East River if it weren’t. “ ‘The East River is a river’? That’s your question?”
Answer wrong and the girl was gone. It’s a trick, he was sure. Why ask such a simple question? But if it’s not a river, he doesn’t know what it is. “False,” he heard himself say. “It’s not a river.”
Lilly smiled a smile of lost opportunity. He’d gotten it wrong.
“I got it wrong?” he asked.
Lilly’s hand moved determinedly. She picked up the scrap of paper on the left hand corner, gave it to him. Standing, she crumpled the other and pocketed it.
“Did I get it right?” Philip asked, knowing he didn’t. She’d handed him an easy question, one he couldn’t get wrong. He’d gotten it wrong.
Lilly dropped some money on the table and walked off, not turning back.
“Shit,” Philip said, not believing his stupidity. He opened the folded sheet, expecting Sorry or No luck to be written on it. Instead, it read: Kiplingers, Seventh Street and Avenue B. Tuesday. 8 p.m.
DOUGLAS LIGHTis the author of the novel East Fifth Bliss, which received the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. His short stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, the Alaska Quarterly Review, and Hobart, among others. His fiction won an O. Henry Award and was selected for the 2003 Best American Nonrequired Reading anthology. He can be found at douglaslight.com