I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if she hadn’t stepped on my foot. Her hair was in a tight braid that bounced against her exposed shoulders as she rushed past. She wore a skimpy red top, extremely tight white pants and high heels.
I glanced after her with a tiny bit of indignation – Hey! You stepped on my foot! – but before the thought could form, a man came through in her wake. He had broad shoulders and wore a black button-down shirt, untucked over jeans. Something in his posture was seething with intent.
“You saying I’m done?” he said, calling after her. The phrase hung in the air.
It was 11 at night, and the cobblestone streets of the meat-packing district were swarming as if it were Mardi Gras — a turbulence of lipstick, credit cards, alcohol, the percussive rhythms of taxi doors slamming shut and the clatter of tiny shoes on pavement. It had rained earlier, a torrent, and it was as if the evening’s late start, and the soft, close air had sent everyone into a delirium. I was waiting for a friend from Washington, D.C. He was a guy I associated with the chaos of foreign markets and improvised travel arrangements. I thought he would like this place.
The girl arrived at the corner and paused, looking this way and that. It seemed clear she was upset, though I saw her only from behind. The man caught up to her and stood in front of her even as she tried to turn away.
The man was 24 or 25 years old, thick in his chest and wore his brown hair in a bit of a shag. His body registered a restrained violence, but his face was more vulnerable, as though struggling to assimilate an unassimilatable insult. He seemed to be asking her a question, perhaps repeating the one he had already said: “You saying I’m done?”
The girl kept scampering a few steps away from him. He kept putting himself in front of her and talking to her. Something was slipping away from him that he did not want to slip away, and he was now being drawn toward violence against what he wanted to keep. It was like watching a glass fall off a table in slow motion.
Then, as she turned away again and he again stepped in front her, she slapped him. Not in his face. She slapped his chest. But it was slap.
“Oh boy,” said the guy standing next to me. Skinny and smoking and watching the passing scene, he had a pleasantly detached manner, as if he were waiting for someone, too.
The girl was still moving this way and that with small nervous steps while the man hovered. She slapped him again, in the shoulder. All around us, as far as I could see, were swarms of men and women darting about as efficiently as schools of fish, but here was a dissonant movement, a break in the choreography. The scene seemed poised to explode into something ugly.
Finally she crossed the street. He strode after her, gesturing emphatically as she moved ahead with purpose, hugging herself and looking down. They faded into the darkness outside the bright rim of the meat-packing district. I never saw her face, but I felt sure she had been crying the whole time.
“That didn’t look good,” I said, to no one in particular.
“After that second slap I though he might hit her back,” said the guy beside me.
“Did you hear that line, the thing he said?” I asked. He had.
“ ‘You saying I’m done?’ Wow.”
“It was like a bomb,” he said.
“So much information in that one line, I mean, the way he said it.”
“But no factual information. No back story.”
“What do you think happened?”
“Hard to say,” he said. “They could have just met tonight, they could have been together for a while.”
“If you had to guess, what do you think was going on?”
“I don’t think they met tonight,” he said.
“I think they had been dating a bit.”
“I’d say a month.”
“Do you think they slept together?”
He thought about it. “Yeah.”
“I agree. That intensity on his face.”
At this point a couple of Italian men stopped in front of my new friend and offered him a just-opened pack of Marlboro Lights. “I am quitting, please take these,” the Italian guy said.
My new friend said thanks. The Italians walked away.
“Most people start smoking when they get drunk,” he said.
“This guy got drunk and decided to quit!”
“You want one?”
“Yeah, they kill you.” He lit up. “So, what set it off?” he said.
“My guess is she had been fading on him for a while, and they went out and had some drinks, and he did some tiny little thing, totally insignificant but it annoyed her, and that was the pretext for this thing going off in her head. She hadn’t even really known she felt this way, felt it that forcefully, but then suddenly she’s just grossed out by him, and it goes downhill fast from there.”
“Or maybe she had some drinks, and she starts flirting with another guy, and he gets really upset, and she’s like, ‘Who do you think you are? Get away from me.’ ”
“You think he’ll get her back?”
“Hope not. I thought he was going to hit her.”
Cabs arrived and departed. None of the people spilling out of them was my friend from Washington. The guy and I chatted a bit. It turns out he was from Los Angeles.
“I live across the street from this hotel,” he said, “I see all kinds of things. I have these binoculars and if something good happens, I turn off the lights and settle in.”
“People leave their curtains open with a building across the street?”
“All the time! But the thing is, the sexual exhibitionists are never young people. It’s always these older guys in their fifties, sixties, with these young girls, probably hookers, and they’ve got the lights on and the curtains wide open.”
“That’s amazing. Do you ever get too much of it? Like one night you just want to hang out and read a book and you look out the window and are like, “oh no, not this again?”
“Nah, it doesn’t happen that often. But I really wish I could have some sort of ‘Rear Window’ experience, you know, see some crime and then get into Jimmy Stewart mode, and solve the murder.”
My friend showed up at the same time his friends — four women — did. Suddenly we were a large, awkward group, and my new friend and I tried to convey the scene we had witnessed. No one really responded, and then my friend Chris said, “I’ve been that guy about seven times,” and I looked at him and I could tell from his expression that we hadn’t really conveyed the flavor of that moment, the way the guy in the black shirt was clenching his fists towards the end. If we had, I don’t think Chris would have volunteered that information even if it were true.
We all said goodbye. Chris and I went into Pastis and had a good dinner, though as I looked around I was struck by what seemed like the villainous nature of all the men in there; they wore velvet slippers, or blue blazers with white polo shirts with the collars popped, grown men dressed in distortions of little boy prep. They were middle-aged, surrounded by young woman and glowing with petty cash. It was like a casting call for James Bond villains. I thought of the men in the hotel with the lights on and the curtains open, surely the same guys surrounding me in Pastis at midnight. Compared to them that young guy in the black shirt, with his youthful, wounded pride, almost seemed sweet. Almost.