Glancing at her watch, the woman sighed. Like the last time, she was five minutes late. In midflight from the elevator to the lobby of the Apex Building, where she temped for the law firm of Greed, Avarice & Corruption LLP, modesty was briefly hijacked by vanity in one act: pressing the buttons to all of the floors in order to increase the time to apply fresh coats of velvet-black mascara and midnight-blue eyeliner. By the time the rickety car squeaked to a jolt and the "L" lighted in green on the golden panel, modesty had won the contest in the woman's decision to go incognita behind Lennonesque black shades.
Panic set in. She imagined the man standing on the corner in front of Big Apple Bank -- a rendezvous of his choosing -- tapping his loafer-clad left foot while pretending to read The Gotham City Times. The thought occurred to her that the lenses in her sunglasses were not tinted darkly enough, for the obnoxious clique of bovine paralegals would spot her en route to their daily grazing and then add to the usual fertilizer back at the farm -- the firm, that is. Hearing no mooing within earshot set her mind at ease, but only for a moment.
The woman wondered how the man's physical appearance might have changed over the past 10 months, asking herself if perhaps he was sporting a beard lately. Or, could he have lost the 20 pounds about which he had complained the previous year. Her mind savored the latter image to the extent that she dallied in the erotic landscape of a 45-second fantasy centered around his salient bulge in acid-washed denim.
Only a bike messenger's shrill whistle jolted her out of such a daydream, during which she missed two "Walk" signals while standing on the street corner's edge. She could kick herself for behaving like a schoolgirl, but she had not seen the man since November. After playing telephone tag and other games since then, she felt more than a pregnant pause in their unfinished dialogue about the forbidden passion that was causing an incendiary interlude in their platonic relationship.
The Empire State Building on the island of Manhattan shined in the September sun like a gigantic compass in the distance. Heading east, with the sun baking the part down the middle of her box-braided head, the woman stumbled upon a lunchtime exhibition of young girls dancing their sprightly rendition of "Riverdance" in the shadow of The New York Public Library. She kept turning her head obsessively to watch the display, as if her eyes were unable to resist drinking in a scene that resembled one from her joyful childhood. Just one more glance, she thought whimsically, slowing down before starting again at a brisk pace.
Two yards ahead the man stood in the center of the pavement, his smile welcoming her. "Hey, Inez!" he called out. He had been watching her the entire time. In fact, if he had not uttered her name, she would have rushed past him. When they were face to face, his mouth was the first to greet "hello." His sensuous lips spread apart into the toothy smile of someone who could barely conceal a terrific secret.
"Oh, hi, Antoine," Inez returned in an almost matter-of-fact manner. As he was four inches taller than she, a statistic he cited on their first and last date -- a dinner cruise from Chelsea Piers up the Hudson River two years prior -- she had to strain her neck to plant an innocent kiss on his tanned face. With the quick reflex of a batter ducking out of the path of a supersonic fastball, he dodged her wine-tinted lips, stepping backward and to his left. She reacted by twisting her mouth into a scowled response, then smacked his arm.
"Here you go," Antoine said, switching the subject by whipping out a slender white box wrapped in a royal-blue ribbon from a side pocket in his trench. A gift for me, but it's not my birthday, she wondered.
"Thank you. OK, bye," Inez said, becoming painfully self-conscious from his intense stare into her dark brown eyes. If she had worn heels, she would have gladly pivoted on them to escape his endearing presence. But he had other plans.
"Have you eaten?"
"No." Emotional paralysis rendered her immobile. His hooded eyes were hypnotizing her.
"Do you have time for something quick?" he implored.
"Not much -- oh, it'll have to be q-q-quick," she stammered.
"Same here. Let's go over to that diner," he said, pointing to T-Square Grill.
"OK," she agreed, hesitatingly.
With a wave of his hand, Antoine motioned for Inez to cross the street at his side, in heavy traffic. She was afraid to reveal that getting hit by an automobile was her worst recurring nightmare. Gathering that she would not budge, he said, "C'mere," in his typical New York City lingo. His beckoning index finger rendered his mood playful rather than cautionary.
Gingerly walking on the sidewalk's steel grating, she chided, "So this is how you plan on ending the friendship, huh?" He laughed, then pulled her in close to his side. All she could think was: If only he would just kiss me.
"Why don't you open the gift?" Antoine asked.
"What? Right here in the street?" Inez returned.
He waited patiently while she removed the satiny blue ribbon from the box and cautiously opened it. He smiled that wide, toothy grin again as her eyes stretched open. "Ohhh, it's a friendship bracelet!" she exclaimed, attracting several stares from passers-by.
"And read the engraving on the back," he said as if he were completing her sentence.
Inez's hands trembled as she smoothed her ring finger over the sterling silver bracelet. She carefully turned over the jewelry to read the engraving aloud: For Katrina, All My Love.
"You bastard! Who the hell is Katrina!" she yelled. So enthralled had she been to receive his gift that she had not noticed a wedding band on his finger.
"I-I-Inez, I-I-I made a mistake," he attempted to explain. "Katrina must've been on my mind when I placed the order."
"How could you, Antoine?" she asked between sobs.
"Listen, we've been divorced for eight years now, but she was my first love."
Inez curled her unkissed lips and hurled the box into the street, where it and the bracelet met their fate beneath the front wheel of a medallion taxi. She snarled in Antoine's direction but could only drop her head in defeat to his ex-wife's indelible presence.
He had not attempted to retrieve the gift, only followed the arc of its route from her hand to the pothole-scarred street. When he turned toward her to lift her chin and apologize again, she slapped him. Her hands, which left a red imprint on his face, stung while his ironic infidelity seared her flesh and emblazoned upon her mind. If he was initially stunned, she was doubly humiliated.
Little did Inez realize that when she hit him, he became fully aware of his existence and, like a newborn, breathed air for the first time. In one act of creation, he was made into her man, sort of like the Book of Genesis re-envisioned on a Manhattan sidewalk. She was his master; he obeyed.
Antoine enjoyed a brief fantasy of Inez reluctantly accepting a ticket for the transgression. In fact, he believed that speeding in the fast lane of a friendship, a bond that only a year earlier he had banished to exile in the land of platonic love, was punishable by 40 lashes.
Inez's face was still flushed from her brief act of violence, no matter how justified, and she apologized to Antoine.
"Shall we eat now?" he asked as if nothing had transpired.
"Sure, c'mon," she said. She had never felt this turned-on before -- not even during foreplay. But, this could be foreplay, she mused.
"Now that's the girl I used to know," he said, sliding his arm around her thick waist.
Mmm, I think this is foreplay, Inez heard the goddess inside of her purr. She felt her claws retract and a confident smile return to her face. When she glanced up at Antoine, she remarked internally how he was framed by the midday sun. She couldn't see his black rhinestone pupils but sensed the heat rising in her face. An orange glow from his radiant gaze. Like a divine entity, he leaned down and kissed eternal life into her, and just as a car drove past blasting Liz Phair's "Extraordinary" from its sound system.