An idea for the elusive ending of the story I’m writing woke me this morning. My story concerns a bridge player, Mike. He’s married to a woman who loves him. He meets another woman, Ellie, as they both take out their trash. She’s new to the neighbourhood. He knows this before she tells him, because he feels certain he would have remembered her, though in fact, paradoxically, he senses he already knows her, that they’re connected somehow.
The point of my story is to figure out how.
An ennui has settled in. Mike is coping with what so many people do, comfortably embedded in long marriages which are yes, comfortable, yet also completely known, worn, charted. He misses mystery. He finds himself craving transience, flux.
Mike is throwing away a mirror his wife has been bothering him to carry out for the trash. It’s uncomfortable, awkward to move, and his breath fogs its glass as he hoists it from side to side, trying to keep a good grip.
'You aren’t throwing that away, are you?'
Mike looks up. He takes her in. He’ll know her name soon, but he doesn’t yet. Now, she could be anyone.
'You think I shouldn’t?'
'It’d be pretty easy to fix,' the woman says, her face partially blocked by a wool cap. She is bundled up well against the cold that wraps itself around their bodies, around everything it encounters. 'I’m a set designer for Broadway. I have tools in my apartment. It wouldn’t be a problem for me, it would take me two seconds. Besides, I hate to see good things thrown away.'
'That’s very kind of you to offer.'
'Oh hardly. Really, it’s nothing.'
She smiles at him.
I live up there, the fourth floor,' she says, pointing to the building. 'My name’s Ellie.'
He follows the direction of her hand with his eyes.
'On the fourth floor, you said?'
'Yes, right up there, That’s my bedroom with the light on.'
She continues to point for a moment, then drops her hand to adjust her hat.
He keeps his focus on her face. She switches her weight to the other foot.
Mike feels unsaid things suddenly fill the air even as he’s not sure what they are. Ellie breaks the new silence in which he knows her name, and she knows his.
'So do you work here in Brighton Beach?'
Mike wants her to know that he’s a bridge player with Diamond Life Master ranking. It’s the thing of which he’s most proud.
'Yes, but I also play bridge, and my club is only a few blocks from here. It’s convenient. Otherwise, I’d probably live in Park Slope.'
He hadn’t planned for all this to slip from his mouth, but it had, and the words sit in the cold air between them.
'I find bridge such a fascinating game. Do you have a ranking?'
'I do, I’m a Diamond Life Master. The American Contract Bridge League bestowed that honour on me last year. Do you play?'
She tilts her head, never breaking contact with his eyes, and there’s a new degree of connection. He suppresses a shiver which might come from cold and might come from something else, he can’t tell and doesn’t try.
'I do play, but not at your level.'
She takes off her hat and runs a hand through her hair. A tumble of dark curls which had been hidden now sifts out through her fingers, glinting in the stray lights of the night. She keeps her eyes on him whether talking or listening. He finds himself wanting to look away for a moment of respite from the building intensity, even as he craves it.
'I’m actually looking for a new partner. Would you be interested?'
'Oh wow, I’d love to learn, but I wouldn’t want to mess with your ranking, I’m really a beginner.'
'No worries about that, I can hold my own and help you get your footing at the same time, if you’d like? We could take it one game at a time.'
Ellie removes a card from her pocket and extends it to him.
'I’d like that a lot. My number’s on the back.'
'Great. I’ll call you on Tuesday. We can meet right here and walk together.'
When she reaches for the mirror, he doesn’t immediately understand what she’s doing, and when it occurs to him that she was reaching for the mirror, not for him, he felt, at the new lightness of his arms, a slight trembling, a sense that she’d opened something rather than taken it away, cleared a path for a new, as of yet unarticulated, unfigured thing.
And the thing that woke me this morning, the thing I now realise about the ending of Mike’s story, the missing link, really, is that Mike recognised Ellie. He understood who she was as soon as she pointed out the fourth floor window to him as her own. He’d seen her some nights before sitting in that windowsill looking out into the night, brushing her hair. He’d watched her and wondered what she was seeing, what she was looking for, what she was thinking.
This changes my story, changes the whole thing, not just the ending. I’m not daunted even as I realise now I’ll have to rewrite, reconsider things.
Mike had fumbled for binoculars that night to see Ellie more closely, before he knew her name, to see the look on her face as she brushed her hair, gazing out into the night, and he hadn’t had enough time to absorb her features before he heard his wife’s key in the lock of their front door. He eased his binoculars back into the drawer and quietly slid it shut, went out to greet his wife, to hear about the movie she’d just seen even as the methodical rhythm of Ellie brushing her hair stayed lodged in his mind, until he met her the following night, until he’d learn her name.
'Be careful tonight, honey. The snow could pile up. Please get out before the roads get too rough.'
'Don’t worry. I will. Don’t wait up, okay? I promise I’ll be fine.'
'Fine, but call me when you leave the club so I know when to expect you.'
'I will, I promise.'
'Tell Tatyana I say hello.'
'I hope she’ll be there tonight.'
'I still can’t believe you guys won the state tournament.'
'I know, isn’t it something? It was a good night.'
'You were good. You’ve been playing together for so many years.'
'Not one bit stale.'
'No, not yet. But you know things can change.'
'Maybe, but not yet. I’m so proud of you. I love you.'
'I love you too, sweetheart.'
He embraces her before he leaves, brushes his lips against her waiting, upturned cheek. In the moment he closes his eyes against his wife’s face, he sees Ellie’s curls swathed in the lights of the night around them, liberated from her wool cap.
He leaves the apartment, closes the door firmly behind him, rides the elevator down to the lobby. He removes the card from his wallet, soft from where he’s fingered it in his pocket over the last few days since she gave it to him, and he calls her.
'Hey, it's Mike.'
'Mike, hi. Oh, it’s Tuesday! Bridge! I completely forgot. It’s been a crazy week at the shop. I’m so sorry, and I haven’t had a chance to get to your beautiful mirror.'
Mike evaluates his hand and makes a bid.
'No big deal. I’m actually calling about the bridge game, the mirror can wait. I was just going to throw it away, anyway.'
'You’ll see. I’ll make it good as new. And I’m so sorry I forgot about the game. I just got home. What do you think about the forecast? It’s supposed to really come down soon, do you think it’s worth risking?
'It’s not too far, and the salt trucks are all out now, I know they already got the sidewalks. I bet we’ll be fine.'
'You’re probably right, and I hate to say no, but I think I’m going to sit this one out. I love being nestled inside when it snows. Could we say maybe for next week?'
Ellie walks into her bedroom, pushes back the curtain and looks out. She notices the movement of a figure in the dark of an apartment across the way.
She likes looking out the window, catching glimpses of people in the midst of living their lives, imagining themselves alone, unnoticed. She has always loved to watch people, it’s what pulled her to her work designing sets. Now, here, in her new apartment, she’s enjoying sitting and seeing what she can once night has fallen and people have retreated into the private worlds of their homes, the lit up boxes of their apartments like so many sets before her, alive all at once.
The window she watches now, though, is dark, but not so dark that she can’t see someone, a woman, moving inside. Ellie wonders why this woman does not turn on a light.
Mike has not given up on an outcome where Ellie might need support as they walk down the icy sidewalk along Ocean Parkway. Where her curls might fall across his shoulder as she clutches his arm to keep from slipping in the fresh snow.
'You can absolutely count me in for next week. I’m looking forward to it,' she says, barely listening to his response as she watches the woman, more clear now, in the window across the way. It’s not apparent to Ellie whether or not the woman is dressed. Even though the apartment is dark, Ellie can see the movement of the woman’s figure through the space of the room separated from Ellie only by two panes of glass, the air between buildings.
'My usual partner broke her arm. She’s gonna be out of the picture for a while.'
Mike knows the bluff is controversial but plays it out to see where she’ll take it.
'Oh gosh. That’s terrible.'
It had been a play to arouse a guilt response in her, but it didn’t seem to work. There was silence on the other end.
He doesn’t understand that the sudden lack of interest on Ellie’s part is due not to anything he’s said, but in the emergence of something of greater interest to her in the window across from her, in her view, in the woman she’s watching who has pressed herself so closely against the glass that her face, recently revealed, is periodically covered by the transient clouds of steam from her breath. If Mike did know this, if he could see what Ellie saw, he might remember his own breath against the mirror his wife had been bothering him to throw away. But he can’t. He can’t know that Ellie is wondering if the woman is looking at her. He can’t know that Ellie is rapt, imagining suddenly that she can feel the warmth of that woman’s breath in the same way Mike imagined he could feel the strokes of Ellie’s hairbrush as if he’d become the hairbrush itself, himself.
But soon her attention returns, and she finds her voice.
'I’m sorry. Listen, would you like to come over to work through some situations tonight, and next week we can head out for a game? It would give you a chance to see if we’re compatible as a team. We wouldn’t have to brave the weather.'
A couple that lives on the floor above Mike’s apartment exits the elevator. He turns towards the front door and looks around as if he’s checking the progress of the snowfall. He knows the importance of keeping his head clear of distraction. Now is the time to concentrate on the game.
He has one chance.
Mike is careful not to answer too quickly.
He steps aside and waits for the couple to leave.
'Sure. That can work for me.'
He walks out into the night
At the end of Ocean Parkway
a bright star
like a diamond
appears in the sky
Ellie greets her partner
with a glass
She lowers the diamond tip
onto a spinning record
call and response
of clarinet and gypsy
fingers and breath
melt into the
of the evening
he cuts the deck
rumbling east to west
cause a temporary
shift in mood
the Queen turns
on the edge
of the table
plays the Queen
like a beginner
pulls her close
on the curve
of her neck
to the rhythm
on his back
pulls the chain
to the onlooker
across the way
with all her cards
guides her partner
to the edge of her bed
with active defence
she bolts the door
to the woman
across the way
from her bedroom
lurches for the exit
across the way
strokes her hair
for the Diamond
And just like that, it’s clear. My story is told. I understand why I’m here, why I was called to the page, to make my bid at the truth. Mike and Ellie are cast on the page. I close my eyes and see a mirror, feel the warmth of breath on glass. It’s me alone in a dark apartment, moving through the space I inhabit, the domain so familiar to me I don’t need to switch on light in order to see. It’s also me on the outside looking in. I am everywhere, pen in my hand. The tricks resolve themselves behind my closed eyelids. My hand is balanced. I can sleep again.