“One minute it was road beneath us, and the next was sky.”
The hotel lobby is square, all elegant chandeliers and dark leather chairs. Jazz standards float above the concierge. Women click by in impossibly tall heels. Elevator bells chime. I lean against a column in the center of the room. Outside, rain blows through the narrow streets.
When you enter the lobby, the air changes. I feel you before I see you. The lobby drops away. The fur on my body lifts. By the time you stand before me, we have fallen out of time. The music, the heels, the rain, and the city—gone. I offer my cheek to your lips, a compromise.
I’m sorry, you say.
My throat constricts.
They’ve sent a few more questions. I have to go over them.
I can go, I say. I don’t want to distract you.
I am risking so much to meet you here. To spend the afternoon with you. You are a man I should not fall in love with.
No, you say. Wait for me.
Your eyes, they’re like wild woods, I know my way through but dare not enter.
And then your hand wraps around mine, tight. Thank you, you say.
I settle into a leather chair. Open the book of poems you recommended and watch the lobby’s choreography. A woman with cropped platinum blonde hair sashays by, gesturing to the bellboy with a manicured hand. A woman in mink, arm in arm with a mustachioed man in a three-piece suit, stares as she passes.
My parka unzipped, simple knit sweater over jeans, long waves falling over my shoulders. Leather boots stained dark at the toes. My face burnished bronze from the sun. A hotel like this isn’t my usual terrain. I’ve come in out of the elements for you.
We all have our secrets.
* * *
For ten years I read palms and tarot cards in a traveling carnival. I could have just as easily been one of the contortionists—and I did fill in for Flora, when she got pregnant by Benny, the knife-thrower—but I liked palmistry more.
What I loved most: the moment of hesitation before a person opened their hand to me. A strangely intimate act—to reveal one’s palm to a stranger. Stippled, crosshatched, etched, endless intersections, x’s, braids, and bands, lines which define us.
* * *
We are both strangers in this city.
We are both married. We both have wives, in different states, in different routines, waiting for us to come home.
We have between us five children, three cats, two dogs, and a rabbit.
We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.
We have no good reason to be walking down the sidewalk in search of a cab. You’ve got a job interview in a half hour, and I’m skipping panels on new methods of organic gardening and hybridizing stone fruits to walk the streets of San Francisco with you.
It’s been six months since we last saw one another, twelve since we met, at the wedding of two old friends, both of us attending alone. I’ve never seen you in a t-shirt or with bare feet; you know nothing of the snake tattoo that wraps around my right thigh. We’ve broken no rules, really, with the exception of a kiss on a street corner in New Orleans and a few letters that might have been better unwritten.
We’ve made a pact not to kiss again.
But there is your arm linked through mine, clutching me. There is the way you look at me, like you can’t believe I truly exist—like you’d dreamed me and now here I am in the flesh.
Ever free-fallen through space? I asked you in one of my letters.
Your response: Not till now.
* * *
In the tent, most everyone who sat down feared two things: a short lifeline and the Death card. Those who claimed they didn’t were liars. Even they held their breath as I turned their Tarot.
But to pull Death signals reinvention, reincarnation. No one saw it that way, even when I explained. If skeletal Death made an appearance on the table, the first question was, always, When?
Rare the person who accepted the impossibility of me knowing such a thing. They just wanted an answer, the illusion of control. As most of us do.
I made up dates. Most of the expectant faces that sat across from me, I never saw again.
* * *
The cab driver won’t take his eyes off me in the rearview. I hide my face in your neck and whisper, How’s he possibly driving? I wait in the lobby downstairs while you’re interviewed and the security guard, a woman, won’t stop smiling at me. Then the dapper bartender in vest and bowtie, as he hands us our bourbons, says, This round’s on the house. You hold out your cash, but he waves it away, saying, Just looking at you two makes me giddy.
I want to tell the bartender he is mistaken. But I know what he wants, like everyone who has watched us across this city: to feel what we are feeling. Even if I shouted the truth of our situation, peeled back my skin and let them see how the heart looks as it plummets toward earth, I could not dissuade them.
In the quiet of the bar, I take your hand and hold it to my face, inhaling you, trying to take you in.
How seductive, the current between us. How dangerous.
You say, If only we could stop time and stay here, forever.
I say, If only.
Above us, the dim lights flicker. Old wiring, the bartender says, looking up. Does this sometimes.
* * *
Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading. See the storm clouds gather. See the flames engulf solid structure. See the bodies tumble toward ruin. See the world alight with destruction of the finest grade.
* * *
We go back out into the rain. Gray sheets of air enveloping us. Our feet soaked and freezing. We huddled under the little black umbrella bought on a street corner. Your hand, over my hand, holds the handle.
Few people know that the Tower is the card to fear when it shows up in a reading.We walk to the wharf to eat sourdough bread and oysters. We share a cupcake, red as a heart’s throb. We talk about soil and poetry. I take your hands in mine and study them. I tell you of a recent dream: hands floating in the air, circles tattooed on the palms. From my purse, I pull a black marker and draw a circle on each of your palms, hold out mine for you to do the same.
* * *
There was one repeat visitor, the summer before I left the carnival for good, in a town outside some cornfield in Nebraska, a blonde man with dark circles beneath his eyes. Even before he sat down in front of me I could tell he wasn’t long for this world. His body gave off the smell of overripe melons, dazzling and noxious. He leaned his elbows on my flimsy table and said, I’ve got two weeks.
I recognized him then, from years before, a cocksure and ebullient man, the kind who reveres his wife in public and belittles her at home. My prediction for him had been purposefully short, and I saw now how tender he was beneath that façade—his diminishment did not make me hate him less, but I knew then I had meddled too long with fate. That I would suffer for what I’d done.
Taking his hand in mine, I did not turn it over to read the lines. I held it, and when he cried, I said, I’m sorry.
Apologies are inadequate, flimsy offerings at best.
* * *
We board a bus, aimless and unsure of what to do with ourselves as the afternoon darkens. The brakes compress and wheeze at each stop. We stare into one another. Our bodies, all animal, taut with yearning.
I worry it may all explode—gristle, bone, teeth, yielding of flesh to flesh—there will be no survivors.
I worry this often, in my kitchen at home, cup of coffee halfway to my mouth, imagining your hands as they reveal me, what I would risk, to take you inside me. On scraps of paper: everything but the cats and dog, everything but the children, everything but my wife. Some days: none of it at all. Sun floods the kitchen and I shred the papers and go about my day—sweeping the terra cotta tiles, harvesting fruit, telling stories. My children smell of mud and peanut butter and berries, my wife like sawdust and clean air. There are shells and sand littering the front walkway, plants to be watered, dinner to be made—this is the life I wrote vows to, once upon a time, when I walked away from the carnival and rejoined the world. When I thought I might slip away from the suffering I saw in store for me, thought I might stop pulling the same cards or rewrite the lines etched on my palm.
If only you and I were not one lifeline—hurtling toward one another all that time.
If you look closely, you will see the delicate lashings, faint but indelible, that bind us.
You pull the cord and the bus lurches to the curb. We exit the back door and walk till we find a room for rent by the hour. We pay for three.
* * *
You step off the sidewalk. Goodbye still stinging through our bodies. Our bodies still singing.
You leave me with the umbrella. Your shoulders hunch, your collar up against the rain.
I see the car first, a flash of silver.
When it strikes your legs, you do not fly upward. Gravity is powerful, especially in destruction. You crumple, and I yowl, and then there are people all around us, and blood dripping from the corner of your mouth.
I see your innocence, your curiosity, in the wild pain of your eyes. The woods illuminated, the path clear. Your hand grabs for mine. You whimper, and blood bubbles from your lips. I bend closer.
You say, Come with me.
I trace the circle on your palm.