Asymmetry ALICE WAS BEGINNING TO get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks? She was considering (somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things) whether one day she might even write a book herself, when a man with pewter-colored curls and an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner sat down beside her. "What are you reading?" Alice showed it to him. "Is that the one with the watermelons?" Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway. "What else do you read?" "Oh, old stuff, mostly." They sat without speaking for a while, the man eating his ice cream and Alice pretending to read her book. Two joggers in a row gave them a second glance as they passed. Alice knew who he was--she'd known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink--but in her astonishment she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open in her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete. "So," said the man, rising. "What's your name?" "Alice." "Who likes old stuff. See you around." * * * The next Sunday, she was sitting in the same spot, trying to read another book, this one about an angry volcano and a flatulent king. "You," he said. "Alice." "Alice. What are you reading that for? I thought you wanted to be a writer." "Who said that?" "Didn't you?" His hand shook a little as he broke off a square of chocolate and held it out. "Thank you," said Alice. "You're velcome," he replied. Biting into her chocolate, Alice gave him a quizzical look. "Don't you know that joke? A man flying into Honolulu says to the guy in the seat next to him, 'Excuse me, how do you pronounce it? Hawaii or Havaii?' 'Havaii,' says the other guy. 'Thank you,' says the first guy. And the other guy says, 'You're velcome.' " Still chewing, Alice laughed. "Is that a Jewish joke?" The writer crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. "What do you think?" * * * The third Sunday, he bought two cones from Mister Softee and offered her one. Alice accepted it, as she had done with the chocolate, because it was beginning to drip and in any case multiple-Pulitzer Prize winners don't go around poisoning people. They ate their ice cream and watched a pair of pigeons peck at a straw. Alice, whose blue sandals matched the zigzags on her dress, flexed a foot idly in the sun. "So. Miss Alice. Are you game?" She looked at him. He looked at her. Alice laughed. "Are you game?" he repeated. Turning back to her cone: "Well, no reason not to be, I guess." The writer got up to throw his napkin away and came back to her. "There are plenty of reasons not to be." Alice squinted up at him and smiled. "How old are you?" "Twenty-five." "Boyfriend?" She shook her head. "Job?" "I'm an editorial assistant. At Gryphon." Hands in his pockets, he lifted his chin slightly and seemed to conclude this made sense. "All right. Shall we take a walk together next Saturday?" Alice nodded. "Here at four?" She nodded again. "I should take your number. In case something comes up." While another jogger slowed to look at him, Alice wrote it down on the bookmark that had come with her book. "You've lost your place," said the writer. "That's okay," said Alice. * * * On Saturday, it rained. Alice was sitting on the checkered floor of her bathroom, trying to screw tight her broken toilet seat with a butter knife, when her cell phone beeped: CALLER ID BLOCKED. "Hello Alice? It's Mister Softee. Where are you?" "At home." "Where is that?" "Eighty-Fifth and Broadway." "Oh, right around the corner. We could string up a couple of tin cans." Alice pictured a string, bowing like a giant jump rope over Amsterdam, trembling between them whenever they spoke. "So, Miss Alice. What should we do? Would you like to come here, and talk a while? Or should we take a walk together another day?" "I'll come there." "You'll come here. Very good. Four thirty?" Alice wrote the address down on a piece of junk mail. Then she put a hand over her mouth and waited. "Actually, let's say five. See you here at five?" * * * The rain flooded the crosswalks and soaked her feet. The cabs churning a spray up Amsterdam seemed to be traveling much faster than they did when it was dry. While his doorman made room for her by pressing himself into a cruciform position, Alice entered purposefully: long strides, blowing out her cheeks, shaking out her umbrella. The elevator was plated top to bottom with warped brass. Either the floors it climbed were very tall or the elevator was moving very slowly, because she had plenty of time to frown at her infinite funhouse reflections and to worry more than a little about what was going to happen next. When the elevator doors opened, there was a hallway containing six more gray doors. She was about to knock on the first door she came to when another door, on the other side of the elevator, opened a crack and a hand came through, holding a glass. Alice accepted the glass, which was full of water. The door closed. Alice took a sip. The next time the door opened, it seemed to swing wide on its own. Alice hesitated before carrying her water down a short hallway that ended in a bright white room containing, among other things, a draughtsman's desk and an unusually wide bed. "Show me your purse," he said from behind her. She did. "Now open it please. For security reasons." Alice set her purse down on the little glass table between them and unlatched it. She took out her wallet: a brown leather men's wallet that was badly worn and torn. A scratch card, purchased for a dollar and worth the same. A ChapStick. A comb. A key ring. A barrette. A mechanical pencil. A few loose coins and, finally, three portable tampons, which she held in her palm like bullets. Fuzz. Grit. "No phone?" "I left it at home." He picked up the wallet, fingering a bit of stitching that had come undone. "This is a disgrace, Alice." "I know." He opened the wallet and removed her debit card, her credit card, an expired Dunkin' Donuts gift card, her driver's license, her college ID, and twenty-three dollars in bills. Holding up one of the cards: "Mary-Alice." Alice wrinkled her nose. "You don't like the Mary part." "Do you?" For a moment, he alternated between looking at her and at the card, as though trying to decide which version of her he preferred. Then he nodded, tapped the cards into alignment, snapped a rubber band from his desk around them and the bills, and dropped the stack back into her purse. The wallet he lobbed into a mesh-wire wastepaper basket already lined with a white cone of discarded typescript. The sight of this seemed to irritate him briefly. "So, Mary-Alice . . ." He sat down, gesturing for her to do the same. The seat of his reading chair was black leather and low to the ground, like a Porsche. "What else can I do for you?" Alice looked around. On the draughtsman's desk a fresh manuscript awaited his attention. Beyond it a pair of sliding glass doors gave onto a small balcony sheltered by the one above it from the rain. Behind her the enormous bed was made up so neatly as to look aloof. "Do you want to go outside?" "Okay." "No one throws the other one over. Deal?" Alice smiled and, still sitting five feet from him, extended a hand. The writer lowered his eyes to look at it for a long, doubtful moment, as though listed there on her palm were the pros and cons of every handshake he'd ever made. "On second thought," he said then. "Come here." * * * His skin was lined and cool. His lips were soft--but then his teeth were behind them. At her office, there were no fewer than three National Book Award certificates in his name framed on the lobby wall. The second time, when she knocked, several seconds went by with no answer. "It's me," Alice said to the door. The door opened a crack and a hand came through, holding a box. Alice took the box. The door closed. Lincoln Stationers, it said on the box, tooled smartly in gold. Inside, under a single sheet of white tissue paper, lay a burgundy wallet with a coin purse and a clutch clasp. "Oh my goodness!" said Alice. "It's so pretty. Thank you." "You're velcome," said the door. Again, she was given a glass of water. Again, they did what they did without disturbing the bed. Over her sweater, he put a hand on each breast, as if to silence her. "This one's bigger." "Oh," said Alice, looking down unhappily. "No no; it's not an imperfection. There's no such thing as a matching pair." "Like snowflakes?" suggested Alice. "Like snowflakes," he agreed. * * * From his stomach all the way up to his sternum ran a pink, zipperlike scar. Another scar bisected his leg from groin to ankle. Two more made a faint circumflex above his hip. And that was just the front. "Who did this to you?" "Norman Mailer." While she was tugging up her tights, he got up to turn the Yankees game on. "Ooh, I love baseball," said Alice. "Do you? Which team?" "The Red Sox. When I was little, my grandmother used to take me to Fenway every year." "Is she still alive, your grandmother?" "Yep. Would you like her number? You're about the same age." "It's a little early in our relationship for you to be satirizing me, Mary-Alice." "I know," laughed Alice. "I'm sorry." They watched as Jason Giambi slugged a three-two pitch into left center. "Oh!" said the writer, getting up. "I almost forgot. I bought you a cookie." * * * When they sat looking at each other, across his little glass dining table or she on the bed and he in his chair, she noticed that his head pulsed sideways ever so slightly, as though with the beating of his heart. And, he'd had three operations on his spine, which meant there were certain things they could and couldn't do. Shouldn't do. "I don't want you to get hurt," said Alice, frowning. "It's a little late for that." They used the bed now. His mattress was made of a special orthopedic material that made her feel as though she were slowly sinking into a giant slab of fudge. Turning her head to the side, she could see, through his double-height windows, the midtown skyline, looking huddled and solemn in the rain. "Oh, God. Oh, Jesus. Oh, Christ. Oh Jesus Christ. What are you doing? Do you know . . . what . . . you're doing?" Afterward, while she was eating another cookie: "Who taught you that, Mary-Alice? Who have you been with?" "No one," she said, picking a crumb off her lap and eating it. "I just imagine what would feel good and I do it." "Well, you have quite an imagination." * * * He called her a mermaid. She didn't know why. Propped beside his keyboard was a tent of white paper on which he had typed: You are an empty vessel for a long time, then something grows that you don't want, something creeps into it that you actually cannot do. The God of Chance creates in us. . . . Endeavours in art require a lot of patience. And below that: An artist, I think, is nothing but a powerful memory that can move itself at will through certain experiences sideways . . . When she opened the refrigerator, his gold medal from the White House, tied to its handle, clanked loudly against the door. Alice went back to the bed. "Sweetheart," he said. "I can't wear a condom. Nobody can." "Okay." "So what are we going to do about diseases?" "Well, I trust you, if you--" "You shouldn't trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?" "Oh, don't worry about that. I'd have an abortion." Later, while she was washing up in the bathroom, he handed through to her a glass of white wine. * * * Blackout cookies, they were called, and they came from the Columbus Bakery, which he passed every day on his walk. He tried not to eat them himself. Nor did he drink; alcohol didn't mix with one of the medications he was taking. But for Alice he bought bottles of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fuissé and, after pouring her what she wanted, put the cork back in the bottle and the bottle on the floor next to the door for her to take home. One evening, a few bites into her cookie, Alice took a sip and made a daintily revolted face. "What?" "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't mean to seem ungrateful. It's just that, you know, they don't really go." He thought for a moment and then got up and went into the kitchen for a tumbler and a bottle of Knob Creek. "Try this." He watched hungrily as she took a bite, then a sip. The bourbon went down like a flame. Alice coughed. "It's heaven," she said. * * * Other gifts: An extremely sensible, analog, waterproof watch. Allure Chanel eau de parfum. A sheet of thirty-two-cent stamps from the Legends of American Music series, commemorating Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields, and Hoagy Carmichael. A New York Post cover from March 1992 with the headline "Weird Sex Act in Bullpen (Late City Final)." * * * The eighth time, while they were doing one of the things he wasn't supposed to do, he said: "I love you. I love you for this." Afterward, while she sat at the table eating her cookie, he watched her in silence. The following morning: CALLER ID BLOCKED. "I just wanted to say that it must have been strange, hearing that from me; you must have been reeling--that's R-E-E-L-I-N-G, not R-E-A-L-I-N-G, which isn't a bad word, either. What I'm saying is that it was meant in the moment, but it doesn't mean anything should change between us. I don't want anything to change. You do what you want and I do what I want." "Of course." "Good girl." When Alice hung up, she was smiling. Then she thought about it a little longer, and she frowned. She was reading the instructions that had come with her watch when her father called to inform her, for the second time that week, that not a single Jew had reported to work in the towers on the day they came down. But the writer did not call her again for many days. Alice slept with her phone next to her pillow and when she wasn't in bed carried it around with her everywhere--to the kitchen when she got herself a drink, to the bathroom when she went to the bathroom. Also making her crazy was her toilet seat, the way it slid to the side every time she sat on it. She thought of going back to their bench in the park, but decided on a walk instead. It was Memorial Day weekend and Broadway was closed for a street fair. Already at eleven the neighborhood was smoky and the air sizzling with falafel, fajitas, French fries, Sloppy Joes, corn on the cob, fennel sausages, funnel cake, and fried dough the diameter of a Frisbee. Ice-cold lemonade. Free spinal health exams. "We the People" legal document administration--Divorce $399, Bankruptcy $199. At one of the stalls peddling brandless bohemian fashion, there was a pretty poppy-colored sundress lolling on the breeze. It was only ten dollars. The Indian stallholder got it down so that Alice could try it on in the back of his van, where a watery-eyed German shepherd watched her with his chin on his paws. That night, when she was already in her pajamas: CALLER ID BLOCKED. "Hello?" "Hello, Mary-Alice. Did you see the game?" "What game?" "The Red Sox-Yankees game. The Yankees won fourteen to five." "I don't have a television. Who pitched?" "Who pitched. Everyone pitched. Your grandmother pitched a few innings. What are you doing?" "Nothing." "Do you want to come over?" Alice took off her pajamas and put on her new dress. Already a thread needed biting off. When she got to his apartment, only the lamp on his nightstand was lit and he was propped up in bed with a book and a glass of chocolate soymilk. "It's spring!" cried Alice, pulling the dress over her head. "It's spring," he said, sighing wearily. Alice crawled lynxlike toward him across the snow-white duvet. "Mary-Alice, sometimes you really do look sixteen." "Cradlerobber." "Graverobber. Careful of my back." Sometimes, it could feel like playing Operation--as if his nose would flash and his circuitry buzz if she failed to extract his Funny Bone cleanly. "Oh, Mary-Alice. You're crazy, do you know? You're crazy and you get it and I love you for it." Alice smiled. When she got home, it had been only an hour and forty minutes since he'd called, and everything was exactly as she'd left it, but her bedroom looked too bright and unfamiliar somehow, as though it now belonged to someone else. * * * CALLER ID BLOCKED. CALLER ID BLOCKED. CALLER ID BLOCKED. He left a message. "Who takes the greatest pleasure in leading the other one astray?" * * * Another message: "Does anyone smell mermaid in here?" * * * CALLER ID BLOCKED. "Mary-Alice?" "Yes?" "Is that you?" "Yes." "How are you?" "Fine." "What are you doing?" "Reading." "What are you reading?" "Oh, nothing interesting." "Do you have air-conditioning?" "No." "You must be hot." "I am." "It's going to get even hotter this weekend." "I know." "What'll you do?" "I don't know. Melt." "I'm coming back into the city on Saturday. Would you like to see me then?" "Yes." "Six o'clock?" "Yep." "I'm sorry. Six thirty?" "Okay." "I might even have some dinner for you." "That would be nice." He forgot about dinner, or decided against it. Instead, when she arrived he sat her down on the edge of his bed and presented her with two large Barnes & Noble bags filled to the handles with books. Huckleberry Finn. Tender Is the Night. Journey to the End of the Night. The Thief's Journal. July's People. Tropic of Cancer. Axel's Castle. The Garden of Eden. The Joke. The Lover. Death in Venice and Other Stories. First Love and Other Stories. Enemies, A Love Story . . . Alice picked up one by a writer whose name she had seen but never heard. "Ooh, Camus!" she said, rhyming it with "Seamus." A long moment followed in which the writer said nothing and Alice read the copy on the back of The First Man. When she looked up he was still wearing a gently startled expression. "It's Ca-MOO, sweetheart. He's French. Ca-MOO." * * * Her own apartment was on the top floor of an old brownstone, where it caught the sun and stoppered the heat. The only other tenant on her floor was an old lady called Anna, for whom ascending the four steep flights was a twenty-minute ordeal. Step, rest. Step, rest. Once, Alice passed her on her way out to H&H and when she came back the poor thing was still at it. From the shopping bags she carried you would have thought she ate bowling balls for breakfast. "Anna, may I help?" "Oh no dear. Been doing it fifty years. Keeps me alive." Step, rest. "Are you sure?" "Oh yes. Such a pretty girl. Tell me. Do you have a boyfriend?" "Not at the moment." "Well, don't wait too long, dear." "I won't," laughed Alice, running up the stairs. * * * "Capitana!" His doorman greeted her chummily now. He called the writer down and saluted them off as they set out for a walk. Swinging a bag of plums from Zingone's, the writer asked whether Alice had heard about the city's plan to rename some of its luxury residences after major-league baseball players: The Posada, The Rivera, The Soriano. "The Garciaparra," said Alice. "No no," he said, stopping her importantly. "Only Yankees." They entered the little park behind the natural history museum, where, biting into one of his plums, Alice pretended to chisel his name under Joseph Stiglitz's on the monument to American Nobel Laureates. But mostly, they stayed in. He read her what he'd written. She queried the spelling of "keister." They watched baseball and, on weekend afternoons, listened to Jonathan Schwartz swoon over Tierney Sutton and Nancy LaMott. "Come Rain or Come Shine." "Just You, Just Me." Doris Day wistfully warbling "The Party's Over." One afternoon, Alice burst out laughing and said, "This guy is such a cornball." " 'Cornball,' " repeated the writer, eating a nectarine. "That's a good old-fashioned word." "I guess you could say," said Alice, searching the floor for her underpants, "that I'm a good old-fashioned girl." " 'The party's over . . . ,' " he sang, whenever he wanted her to go home. " 'It's time to call it a d-a-a-a-a-y . . .' " Then, going cheerfully around the room, he would switch off the phone, the fax, the lights, pour himself a glass of chocolate soymilk, and count out a small pile of pills. "The older you get," he explained, "the more you have to do before you can go to bed. I'm up to a hundred things." The party's over. The air-conditioning's over. Alice would stagger a little, taking herself home in the heat, her belly full of bourbon and chocolate and her underwear in her pocket. When she had climbed the four increasingly steamy flights up to her apartment, she would do exactly one thing, which was to move her pillows down the hall to her front room, where, on the floor next to the fire escape, there was at least the possibility of a breeze. "So listen darling. I'm going away for a while." Alice put down her cookie and wiped her mouth. "I'm going back out to the country for a bit. I've got to finish this draft." "Okay." "But that doesn't mean we can't speak. We'll speak regularly, and then when I finish, we can see each other again. Should you want to. All right?" Alice nodded. "All right." "Meanwhile . . ." He slid an envelope across the table. "That's for you." Alice picked it up--Bridgehampton National Bank, it said on the front, next to a logo of a sailboat regatta--and took out six one-hundred-dollar bills. "For an air conditioner." Alice shook her head. "I can't--" "Yes you can. It would make me happy." It was still light out when she left for home. The sky had a stagnant quality to it--as though a thunderstorm were due, but had gotten lost. The young people drinking on the sidewalk were just beginning their evenings. Alice approached her stoop slowly, reluctantly, one hand on the envelope inside her purse, trying to decide what to do. Her stomach felt as if she were still back in his elevator and someone had cut the suspension. There was a restaurant one block north with a long wooden bar and a mostly civilized-looking clientele. Alice found a stool at the far end, next to the napkin caddy, and arranged herself as though she were there primarily for the television mounted high in one corner. New York led Kansas City by four runs in the bottom of the third. Come on Royals, she thought. The bartender dropped a napkin down in front of her and asked her what she wanted to drink. Alice considered the wine specials listed on the wall. "I'll have a glass of . . ." "Milk?" "Actually, do you have any Knob Creek?" Her tab came to twenty-four dollars. She put her credit card down before picking it up again and taking out one of the writer's hundreds instead. The bartender returned with three twenties, a ten, and six ones. "Those are for you," said Alice, sliding the ones toward him. The Yankees won. Excerpted from Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.