By the time he woke up, the snow had ceased. Now Manhattan was waking, covered with a soft layer of frost, which the rising sun was slowly melting away. He slowly sipped his coffee, then leaned against the balcony railing, the chilly breeze leaving goosebumps on his skin. He looked ahead at the canopies of trees in Central Park West. He imagined the snowflakes on their lower branches glistening in the pale sunlight. For just a moment, he let memories take hold of him again. He tried to shut them out, but he could do little to resist them when they hit. It was always impossible to do so around the holiday season. Everything always seemed to go back to that far away day… December 24th, 9PM; when it all began. He could hardly believe it all happened over a decade ago.
As he stepped back into his apartment, locking the door to the balcony behind him, he replaced nostalgia with a more practical approach. He had a lot of work to do that day and he was already late. Taking his old leather messenger bag from the living room floor, he looked around him, and sighed warily. Whoever walked in there would think he had just moved in. The room had hardly any furniture except for a worn out leather sofa, some bookshelves, still mostly empty, a television and his photography equipment. Everything else was still packed in carton boxes that were spread across the bare hardwood floor. Boxes full of memories. The truth was that he had lived there for almost three months. The apartment on Columbus Avenue was a rare find, nestled between the Juilliard School and the Museum of Natural History, and within reasonable distance from the gallery. When he first moved in, he unpacked only the necessities. The rest, he figured, would follow. He had never found the time for it since.
As he had done often, he chose to walk to the gallery. On nicer weather he would ride his bicycle there. The subway was probably a faster way of getting there, but there was something in the crisp morning air that made him feel refreshed. His head was throbbing. He slept badly the previous night. This time, though, he could blame it on neither his work, nor past memories which came back to haunt him every now and again. Well, not exactly. It was a memory of a different sort this time. Just like years before, the source of his restless night, of his nagging thoughts, was… her.
It was still unbelievable to him, the way she had just shown up there, out of the blue, in the middle of his gallery. When she left all those years ago, he thought he'd never see her again. He still had her postcard somewhere, in one of the boxes on his living room floor. Sure, he had dozens of photos and films of her he had taken over the years, but somehow it was a more tangible piece of her; written in her own hand, an actual proof of her existence. He remembered finding it tucked inside the book Collins was reading before he died. The fact that Collins had it with him in his final moments indicated that he was still holding on to her, and so he and Roger worked tirelessly in order to locate her before his funeral. They thought she'd want to be there, to say goodbye to her friend, but they couldn't find her. He told himself it was her chance to regret leaving them so abruptly, to prove that she still cared, but she didn't take it. She didn't return. She had completely given up on them. And with that realization, he gave up on her as well. He kept the book – and the postcard in it – out of his sight. His nearly obsessive love for her was instinctively replaced with fury and resentment, but then it simply started to fade. She became nothing more than a memory. He had plenty of those. He had almost forgotten her.
And then she returned.
She was obviously different, he mused. The laugh lines on her face were the most prominent evidence to the inevitable passage of time. But she was still beautiful, more than he had allowed himself to remember. Her dark hair was less unruly, to name the most superficial difference; it seemed as tamed as the mature version of her. She dressed differently now, as well, and her makeup wasn't as crazy. But he suspected that the change in her was beyond external. She said she was in town for work, which was another unbelievable fact. She held a senior position at a theater, no less. He could feel his lips curl in a small involuntary smile. Who would have thought?
As he hurried down Broadway towards the gallery, he pondered over the sole question that occupied his thoughts from the moment he got home the previous night.
Should he call her?
He laughed in dismay when it dawned on him he had been through this before so many years ago, when the same beautiful girl wrote her phone number on his wrist in a crowded bar. It took him three days to muster enough courage and call her back then. Now, he knew, time was of the essence. She would be gone by New Year, and then who knew if he'd ever see her again. She said she had missed him and of course, he had missed her too, but did he really want to do the Tango Maureen all over again?
I'm kind of living with someone… It's not a 'he'. That should have been his first warning sign. He tried to tell himself it didn't actually mean anything, that it shouldn't bother him. Why would it? It was just dinner; he was the one suggesting it. He wasn't expecting it to lead to anything more, not after all this time. He surely wasn't expecting to fall back in love with her. But despite his past resentment towards her, at the end of the day, she was his friend. They shared a past and memories; they had history. He was just curious to know what she had been doing all this time. He was desperate for some closure.
The gallery was still dark as he walked in, as it didn't open before eleven, but there was light coming from the end of the hallway. He took off his coat and entered the back room. A woman raised her head from a large notebook, and smiled as their eyes met.
"Merry Christmas, Cohen," she greeted.
He frowned. "Happy Chanukah, Horowitz." He turned his back on her so he could pour himself coffee; his second mug within an hour. Maybe that would ease his headache.
"I thought we said half passed eight," she told him with a hint of accusation in her tone. It was only then he remembered that they had meant to go over the account books together. Shit. "Have you overslept again?"
For a split second, he was speechless by her bossiness. Then he chuckled, rolling his eyes at her. "I'm sorry, next time I'll bring a note from my mother," he retorted, hanging his coat on a rack in the corner.
"You party hard, Cohen," she teased him, ducking just in time against the mitten he had tossed in her direction.
He met Tammy Horowitz when he was referred to a bereavement counselor after Collins had died. It took a colleague to make him aware of the option – he had never seen himself as someone who would seek counseling or even admit to having a problem, but he was in a seriously bad place. Tammy seemed too young for the job. She was his age, and he was in such bad shape that he hit on her right from the getgo. It turned out she was brilliant at her role, but after a few sessions he asked for replacement because their conversations were turning friendlier, and that seemed to contradict the whole point. Afterwards he stopped going to counseling altogether; having Tammy around on an unofficial basis was supportive enough.
Once the nature of their acquaintance changed, they actually did date once or twice before they reached the mutual realization it would never work. They were just too much alike, and not in a way that makes a relationship bloom. She was the coolest person he knew; he could never have enough of her stories of volunteering in an Israeli Kibbutz. He had never known a person like her. Tammy had become his closest friend, especially after Roger died. He could never have gone through that dark time without her by his side. He would have needed a lot more medication than the ones he'd already been on. He was lucky to have her. She was sharp, funny and sarcastic, and she always seemed to know what was on his mind, even when he didn't say anything.
When the concept of the gallery became an actual possibility, Tammy was the only person he could think of to financially manage it. Math was her passion, and he was too awful with numbers to really know his way around. Their schedules were coordinated to perfection – whether he had to teach or she had a session with a patient, they always had each other's back. They worked well together; it was the most harmonious relationship he had ever had with a colleague.
They chatted some more about the gallery as he finished his coffee. He listened to her story about an odd couple that visited there the previous day while he was away, but couldn't really concentrate. His thoughts were constantly wandering back to the previous evening's events. To call or not to call, that is the quest –
"Something is bothering you," said Tammy all of a sudden. He blinked, suddenly realizing she was looking at him oddly, waiting for his answer on something she had said, and he didn't even hear. "What is it?"
"Nothing is bothering me, why would you think that?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "After all this time, do you really think you can fool me, Cohen? Come on, let me guess," she snatched his empty coffee mug and peered inside.
He stared at her in disbelief. As far as he knew, she had scorned anything non-scientific. "Since when you do that?"
"There are some things you still don't know about me," she replied mysteriously.
He chuckled; he couldn't help it. The way she had said it reminded him of Maureen all of a sudden. "I'm pretty sure it's originally done with tea leaves – "
She raised her arm, which instantly shut him up. "Too much talking, let's see if I can figure it out."
He grumbled a bit, but soon enough sighed with resignation, knowing better than arguing with her. He sat across from her and watched, half attentive, half skeptic, as she looked inside the mug in concentration.
"Hmm. I see… a woman." She looked up, cocking an eyebrow at him. He mirrored the motion, struggling to keep on a poker face. Tammy shrugged, and leaned over the mug again. "Her face isn't at all clear... I'm guessing dark haired, not very tall, pretty eyes? That seems to be your type, doesn't it?"
"I'm supposed to be taking you seriously if you're waiting for my confirmation?"
He didn't mean it rhetorically, but Tammy didn't bother to reply. She could barely hide her content at his engagement. "Well, maybe her face isn't clear, but I can definitely see her name."
"Her name," he echoed skeptically.
Her eyes didn't leave the bottom of the mug; she stared at it with utter concentration. "Ah-huh. Looks like it… starts with an M… Miranda… No… Marianna… no, wait, that's not it… Mo… Maureen… Johnson."
He couldn't do much, but stare at her jaw-dropped. How on earth did she do that?
As if noticing the astonishment in his expression, she smirked. "Don't give me that look, Cohen, just answer these two questions. The first is when the hell did you meet a woman you never told me about and the second, when are you going to call her?"
She was waving a small piece of paper in front of him. It looked kind of familiar. He snatched the card from her hand mid-wave, feeling ridiculous for the sudden pounding of his heart. It's not like she found porn in your office, you loser, he scolded himself. "Where did you find that?"
"It was here, on the keyboard." There wasn't even a hint of guilt in her voice. There was this teasing glint in her eyes. He cringed at his own stupidity. It was almost as if he wanted to get caught.
"I guess I should have seen this coming."
"So are you going to tell me who she is or what?"
"Knowing you, you won't let it go until I do."
"Exactly. So you better do it out of your free will." Their gazes locked, hers as unrelenting as his. He sighed, giving up. A lazy, satisfied grin curled on her lips. She leaned back and crossed her arms. "When did you meet her?"
"Yesterday, right after you left."
"Is she pretty?"
He smiled. It was unlike Tammy to ask such a thing right off the bat. "Yes. Your description is pretty much spot on, actually."
"Obviously, Marky. I seem to know your type better than you do. Our age? Single?"
"Our age. Divorced," he replied briefly, mostly because it was all he actually knew. He didn't question her about it because, well, it was none of his business. And to be honest, it caught him completely off-guard because it was so unlike her. He knew there must be more to the story than she had let on.
"Is she blind? A serial killer? Temporarily insane?"
Now, those questions were more like the Tammy he'd known. "No… why would you ask that?"
"Because, Cohen, I'm trying to figure out why the hell she hit on you, which I assume happened as she gave you her card and not the other way around."
It seemed pointless to contradict her. That didn't mean he wasn't entitled to make her feel just a teensy bit guilty, though. "Oh, thanks very much! That's very sweet of you to say. Like I don't feel pathetic enough without your generous help."
"Didn't we have this agreement, to marry each other if we're both single at 40?"
"There's still some time before this pressing deadline, and may I remind you that it was you who suggested this so-called agreement in Aaron and Rachel's wedding while you were drunk?"
She had that thoughtful expression on, but only for a second. Then she looked at him, dead serious. "Maybe we should consider it. I mean, we can't get more hopeless as it is. It will surely make our parents happy. Two birds, one stone," she concluded, chuckling darkly, then looked at him. He braced himself against her businesslike expression. "So you say a pretty woman walked in here, hit on you, and gave you her business card out of her own free will."
"I've never said – " he tried to protest.
"Don't be a downer, Mark, let me have my fun!"
"What I mean is, I didn't just meet her yesterday."
Now she looked slightly confused. "Oh?"
"I thought I told you this before. Years ago, she's the one who..."
"...dumped you for another woman?" she completed with sudden realization.
He buried his face in his hands and groaned. She made it sound so pitiful, impossibly more pitiful than it already was. "Gee, you sure know how to boost a guy's ego, don't you?"
"Well, it is her, right? I remember it now. She was the girl who broke your heart over a decade ago, the one you couldn't stop talking about during our first session even though I told you that's completely irrelevant to the matter at hand."
"What? I didn't – "
"Denial is the first stage, Marky," she cut him off shamelessly, not even cowering under the vicious glare he had attempted to send her way. "And I now remember you kept mentioning her during our first date, as well. Maureen this and Maureen that, you wouldn't shut up about it. I remember thinking, gosh, this girl really messed him up."
"What are you talking about? I was over her then and I am over her right now!"
"Didn't you say she had skipped town? What is she doing back in New York?" she asked, picking up the card he had left on the desk at some point. She examined it for a moment, then looked up at him. "That's a San Francisco area code."
"Yeah, I know, Sherlock. She mentioned it yesterday. She's here for a work thing... I'm not really sure. And then yesterday she was suddenly here."
"Specifically looking for you?"
"No, it didn't seem like she knew I'd be here. It was kind of strange actually."
He knew he would never forget the first moment their eyes made contact, the second it dawned on him who she was. He was feeling so many things at once, it was overwhelming. Then there was that awkward moment, right after he told her Collins and Roger were gone. She seemed genuinely upset, and for just one moment, he was glad that it hurt her. Served her right, he thought, for turning her back on them, for showing care and interest only after it was too late. It was probably childish of him, but he couldn't help it. Then again, vindictiveness wasn't in his nature. Soon enough he was too taken by their conversation to even remember he had vowed to shut her out of his life for good. It was what he found in her eyes that was most memorable; happiness, contentment, serenity. The result of distancing herself from it all, most likely. And it might have worked the same way on him, too, if only… but now it was too late for if only's and what if's.
"You should call her, you know," said Tammy all of a sudden. He blinked; he sort of forgot she was sitting across from him, that his voice trailed mid-conversation as his mind drifted to the previous evening again. Did she ask him something? For a moment he wasn't sure.
"Call her. Think about it, Mark. She walked into this gallery, completely by chance, years and years after you've last seen her. What are the odds for something like that to happen? If that's not a sign from God, I don't know what is."
He cocked an eyebrow at her conviction. "I thought you didn't believe in God."
"Whether it's God or Cupid or whoever else who might be up there watching you, it's a sign. And you shouldn't ignore it. Give her a call."
"Okay. Fine. I will. Not right now, though, we've got a busy morning ahead." She cocked an eyebrow as though waiting for something. He groaned, knowing what she wanted to hear. "Fine, because I was late. I'm sorry."
"That's alright, Marky. I love you for your imperfections." She smiled smugly at him; he couldn't do much but roll his eyes at her. She shoved the notebook a bit in his direction. "Right! Shall we dive in, then?"
That afternoon he made the reluctant journey to Macy's downtown. The thought of going in there so close to Christmas was enough to bring on an anxiety attack, but he didn't have a choice. He was supposed to visit his mother in Scarsdale the upcoming weekend for a family dinner for Chanukah, and he wanted to get her something nice. Ever since his father had died a couple of years back, he slowly rebuilt his relationship with his mother. Sure, there was always Cindy who lived down the street and could keep an eye on her whenever needed, but the truth was that he had missed his mother. They always got along pretty well. It was his father who disapproved of everything he ever tried to be good at. But with him gone, everything seemed a lot easier.
As expected, the enormous department store was teeming with visitors, locals and tourists alike. For some, it was just a refuge from the snow that had started falling again. For others, a source of entertainment for their obviously bored children. Some, mostly men, seemed to have the same problem he had. He wandered aimlessly among the floors for a while, debating whether to get his mother a vase or a scarf and wondering where the hell to find either of those, all the while calculating what would be the fastest way to return to the gallery. It was always more crowded in the afternoon. He didn't want to leave Tammy to handle the crowds all by herself. It didn't seem fair given the fact it was his gallery and therefore, his responsibility. He shouldn't be taking advantage of her loyalty.
The realization he found himself at the children's department cut his musings short. Unsure how he got himself there, he let his eyes wander, looking for the elevators, or any sort of sign to send him in the right direction. As he did so, a certain sight caught his eye. Forgetting what he had meant to be doing, he watched as a little girl by one of the aisles was standing on tiptoes, trying to reach a large Piglet doll. Her forehead creased with concentration and determination one would not associate with a girl so young. The doll she was trying to reach for was huge in her standards; actually, they were almost the same size. Although it wasn't on the highest shelf, it was too high for her.
Not having children of his own, kids at any age had always fascinated him. Of course, he had his niece and nephews, but he wasn't exactly uncle of the year, although Cindy had always been forgiving about that. He loved wandering around Central Park and take pictures of the kids playing there. Those always turned out his best photos when people were his subjects. They always looked so innocent and carefree. He was more careful with it now, though, after one incident in which he nearly got himself arrested, when one hysterical mother thought him some kind of a pedophile.
Which was why he told himself he should be careful now, watching the little girl, but he couldn't help himself; she was too compelling. He wondered what she was doing there all by herself. He looked around, searching for someone who might be her parent, maybe even a sibling, but everyone else around was gathered in groups, and no one seemed to notice her. Her hair was chocolate-colored, not really straight but not curly either underneath her beanie, which was in the shape of a panda's head. Her purple wool coat and dark wellies indicated she wasn't just a girl from the street; she was obviously well taken care of. So why was she there by herself?
He couldn't bear to just stand there and watch her struggle without doing anything to help her. It didn't even cross his mind that this might get him in even more trouble than merely staring at her. She was a damsel in distress for all intents and purposes, and he was nothing but a gentleman. Easily reaching for the pink, funny-looking pig, he picked it up and handed it to her. She looked surprised for just a second, before the confusion in her greenish eyes was replaced with a glint of happiness and gratitude.
"Merry Christmas, Mister!" she greeted him in a toothy grin, and he felt his heart melt despite himself.
"Merry Christmas," he replied, returning her smile. "What's your name, sweetie?"
"Libby," he echoed. "What a pretty name. Nice to meet you, Libby, I'm Mark."
"Nice to meet you!" she imitated him, giggling adorably. Again, he wondered where her parents were. He glanced around. He was getting worried that she was lost without realizing it; what would he do with her when it occurred to her? He wouldn't know how to handle this damsel in distress if she started weeping.
"Where are your mommy and daddy, Libby? You shouldn't be here alone, they'll be worried about you."
But she didn't get a chance to reply when a woman's voice sounded behind him, and the echo of her rushing steps. "Libby, thank goodness, there you are!"
He recognized that voice, he realized with shock. He glanced at the girl again, and suddenly saw it: in her eyes, the color of her hair, the shape of her lips. But that was impossible, wasn't it? There was no way that...
I'm kind of living with someone… It's not a 'he'.
"What did I tell you about talking to stra – "
He turned to face her, and she stopped mid-sentence as their gazes locked. Her expression was a mixture of worry, horror and confusion as she turned her gaze from him to the child – her daughter? – and back to him.