Goodbye My Coney Island Baby by Billy O' Callaghan

The late afternoon is cold and threatening snow, and the streets of Coney Island are deserted except for an elderly black man walking a ridiculously small dog out along the boardwalk and a few drunks in a doorway arguing in mute slurs over a bottle. Peter passes by without making eye contact. The wind gusts around him, tugging at the hem of his overcoat, and he is glad that he has thought to wear a scarf but knows he could have done with gloves, too. His pockets provide nothing in the way of heat.

He follows the main thoroughfare south, moving at a solid pace, until he reaches an outlying bar, a little nonentity of a place that keeps its lights turned low and won’t spoil the mood with awkward questions. As he enters, a few men at the counter strain into begrudged half-turns and stare at him, their slow eyes playing games of focus with the dusty, pressing light. But he ignores them.Susan is sitting in a little semi-private alcove with a view across the floor to the doorway and the two large fogged-glass windows, but she is lost in thought and does not immediately register his arrival. She has already been here nearly an hour, long enough to have grown accustomed to the bar’s weighty gloom. From a distance, she looks tired and put-upon, the wrong end of middle-age. It is a delusion, but only of sorts. A glass waits between her hands, containing a thimbleful of bourbon which she has sipped to taste and then promptly abandoned.

Peter moves to her side, startling her. Her mouth turns in a little explanatory way and holds there. “Hi," he says, the word all breath.

“Hi, back," she replies, and pushes deeper into the booth so that he can sit on her right side. Their bodies come gently together, their shoulders and arms and hips and thighs, and she is overtaken by a wave of elation that feels at once both absurd and entirely genuine. If it should all end suddenly, these would be the moments she’d wish to hold dearest to her heart. After seventeen years of carefully planned twice-monthly collisions, they know each other’s bodies inside and out, but the way he sits beside her always feels like the definition of intimacy.

By contrast, his kiss is a perfunctory thing, barely a step removed from a handshake. Publicly insecure, his face stabs at hers, their mouths meet for a dry instant and then as quickly slip apart. In place are the nuts and bolts of a smile, but nothing has been assembled, and after a few seconds his gaze begins to stray, pulled by a need to survey the bar, an old paranoia but a difficult habit to break. Susan considers the labyrinthine scrolling of his ear and out of duty or want tries to smile for both of them, and to hold fast to the myriad flavours of his fleeting kiss.

He calls a drink. During the summer he is a staunch beer man, but once the wind begins to blow his tastes turn Scottish. Old blood, he explains, whenever he feels the need for wisecracks. He orders a fresh bourbon too, without asking, and sets it down alongside her barely touched first.

Their routine feels carved in marble. Order is important, to Peter more so than to Susan but to Susan too because she wants Peter to be happy, or at least at ease about what they are doing. Without the small, refined details he would turn to dust.

“Thanks for waiting," he says, as he settles against her body again. She smiles, does something fresh with her shoulders.

This, like much of what is going on here and what will go on later, never varies. Same words, same acts, same feelings. Beautiful routine. He lifts his glass and the lines at the corners of his eyes momentarily pinch and deepen, then soften once more. When the glass makes it back onto the table, he has become a different man, the man she knows and wants him to be rather than the lurching shell who spends eight or ten hours a day working a desk and the rest of his time working his way home.

“Isabel’s got cancer," he says, almost absently.

“What?" For a second or two, she holds onto the desperate hope that she has somehow misheard.

He looks at her, nods his head, then lets his gaze fall again across the table. There are a few pale spatters of paint staining the upholstery across from them, ancient milky teardrops dating from some prehistoric time when somebody actually cared a damn about the way this place looked.

“In the kidneys, they’re saying. The prognosis is not all that great. They're not saying so, at least not outright, but I think the doctors are already expecting the worst. Hearing words like 'aggressive’ and 'metastasis’ doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence."

Susan sips her drink, holding her lips tightly to the glass. But the bourbon has lost its heat. “That’s awful," she says, her voice sounding reedy and flat as paper.

“Jesus Christ, Pete. I’m so sorry." Not insincere, just worthless.

There is more to be said, but for now the stillness feels absolute. Peter has been living with this news for a while, though he is only now speaking of it, perhaps is only now able to speak of it, but even weeks or months along, a kind of numbness pervades. He has the dreamy look of a boxer who has known too many blows to the head, or of a drunk who has finally given all the way up on the pretence of sobriety. He speaks slowly, leaking air.

“The treatment will be hard on her. Chemotherapy is poison to the system. And even on good days the side-effects don’t bear thinking about. Isabel has never been what you might call a great patient. I can’t see how she’ll cope with something like this. But I suppose when your back is to the wall you either fight or you curl up your toes and call it quits."

In this poor light, his skin has the flushed-out texture of tissue paper and hangs from his bones, lending a maudlin heft to his nose and cheeks. The way he takes his scotch in small, repetitive jabs reminds Susan of a mother bird vomit-feeding her young. On any other day, she’d be asking him now about work. They have been peddling the same sentences for seventeen years, venting a mutual air of unhappiness by exchanging titbits of office gossip; who’s doing what to who, who’s climbing or the outs, taking turns condemning all the tedious workplace politics. The subject matter might be stale but such talk offers safe ground and clearly marked boundaries. At their age, Susan in her early forties, Peter a fraction older, their sense of longing has shifted. Life has become less about thrills than comfort.

But work seems inconsequential now. The news of Isabel’s cancer has changed the ambiance of things,
ruptured the idyll. Peter rolls his empty glass in half-turns between his palms, and looks ready for more. But Susan has had enough.

“Let’s go," she says, fighting off the press of tears. “Let’s take a walk."

The glass between his hands stops turning. His face moves to within kissing reach, and she notes that his pupils, because of the bar’s gloom, are significantly dilated.

“It’s bitter out."

She hitches her shoulders. “Just out to the end of the boardwalk. I love Coney Island on days like this, with the wind keeping everyone else away." A smirk crimps the corners of her mouth and her voice slips into softness. “Come on, Pete. There are ways of keeping warm, you know."

He meets her gaze, then sighs, one of his beautiful little foibles, a great heaving gust that suggests a spine-deep level of exhaustion. She enjoys the sound of it, mostly for its yielding quality. After a moment he sets down his glass and rises from the booth. The surrender is slight but absolute.

Out on the pier, there is no shelter, no protection. The famished wind tears at them. The cold is dense, even painful. They push on, holding one another, lending and finding support, until the end is in sight, and then they stop and lean against the protective railing. Pale flecks mottle the surface of the slate-coloured ocean and a great furred bilge of surf breaks in thick, repeating rheum across the deserted length of strand northwards as far as the eye can see. Further out, a sense of weary calm prevails, though this is perhaps an illusion, some trick of distance coupled with the tawny compression of fading day. Susan tightens her grip on Peter’s arm and together they listen to the bleating wind and the delicious crashing of the water against the stanchion posts below. They fit comfortably together. Around them, the hotdog stands and ice cream stalls sit shuttered tight and padlocked, battened down for the season, but even in a dormant state, even with a lack of calliope music and the running laughter of tearaway kids, there remains a kind of residual joy to be had from this air, as if all the good of better decades has somehow impacted on the ether of the place.
Happiness engulfs her. Only its magnitude surprises. The news about Isabel is truly terrible, the fact of the cancer itself, of course, but more than that the sheer aggression of it, how intent it seems on working to the bone, on finishing what has been started. Yet such details feel oddly separate from her. It is all somehow impersonal, like a story accidentally overheard, or news received from far away. On a day such as this, out of season and with the elements given fullest reign, Coney Island seems like the edge of the world. This place has long since become a sanctuary from the muddy floundering of their first-and-foremost lives, a place of decaying and perhaps deluded pleasures, yes, but one which grants them a necessary protection. Here, twice a month every month, they are afforded the opportunity to be strangers together, strangers who play at being something more than that, taking advantage of a rare shot at freedom to sit and whisper small-talk, to hold hands and exchange wishes. Such realities as cancer and betrayal and loneliness and pain have no place out here; they simply do not belong. Coney Island has none of Manhattan’s vast claustrophobia. Out here, there is still sky to be had and freedom to be imagined.
“I think about it," Peter admits. His eyes fix their direction southwards beyond the brackish jut of Breezy Point and search for answers along the washed-out horizon line. His voice is hoarse, broken, and the words hit in thumps against the taunting breeze. “How it’d feel to just toss it all aside and get out while I still have some life left open to me."

Susan slips her free hand inside the lapel of his jacket and seeks by touch his beating heart. There’s not much to feel, except the warmth. Then she presses her mouth into the snug of his neck just beneath his right ear and whisper-sings the teasing prompt: “But you stay."

He makes a small snorting sound, one familiar to them both from years of practice. The note of amused resignation. “Yeah," he says, with a heave of breath, “I stay. We dream, don’t we? That’s how it is for the likes of us. We find a thought that helps to get us through, and cling to it like moss. And we bear the clouds for the occasional glimpse of sky. There are some who can wake up one morning and just start running, clear across the world, the way Gauguin did, or Brando, or Marco Polo. Wives, homes, jobs, all shed like a worthless second skin. But I don’t have in me whatever it is that they have. Where I am now is where I’ll probably always be. I’m not a brave man, Sue. If I was, I’d have left Isabel years ago, and I’d have found a way of talking you into leaving Mike." The wind digs in, and when they can no longer take standing still they walk again, just for the sense of movement. Going as far as they can go, out to the very edge of the pier. The boards underfoot are coated deep into their grain with algae a shade of green so dark as to be almost black. The ocean spray dusts their faces and every drawn breath salts their throats and tongues. Its sheer enormity is splendid, but also intimidating. All those thousands of miles of surface, all the uncountable leagues of depth. And all the secrets that lie hidden. Susan thinks about how it would be to float even six feet beneath the surface, just at that point where the day’s light no longer penetrates and where even the strongest winds fail to reach. Barely a single miserly fathom down, you breach the ceiling of a whole new world, one running to a well-ordered cycle of feeding, multiplying and dying, and utterly oblivious to the world toiling above. Slip six feet beneath the surface and good and bad cease to exist, and tide alone is the only god capable of disturbing the accepted reverie.

She closes her eyes and feels for Peter’s hand, the cool damp assurance of his skin, the pulse insinuating from somewhere deep inside. They stand here, holding hands and holding onto one another, each thinking thoughts that approach the same subject from different angles, and then finally they turn and walk back down the pier to find a hotel.

Their room is small and intensely white. Everything, the walls, the curtains, the bed sheets, even the last of the evening light that pours in through the large old-fashioned sash window, shares the same brittle quality. There was a time when the hotels along this stretch of coast were genuflections toward true luxury, but what survives is basic, perfunctory, clean in an ugly, careworn sort of way, good enough for those with needs measured in hourly lots but sorely lacking if your desires run to anything more refined. And this place, like all these places now, cuts cash deals. Credit cards complicate matters and only serve to cause embarrassment. Peter settles the account in advance, paying for twelve hours more than they’ll need. While Susan sits cross-legged in a hulking bottle-green leather armchair beside the lobby’s blazing fireplace, hands folded primly in her lap, he counts out the notes, signs the register and tries to avoid eye contact with the elderly, pencil-thin manageress.

Thirty-five dollars buys them time in the company of four walls and a bed. The view, apparently, is complimentary, utilising its fifth-floor vantage to peer out across a scrub of wasteland at the ropey upper spindles of a lopsided and long-abandoned rollercoaster. Beyond, dissected by the undulating landscape, the top half of a candy-coloured Ferris Wheel perches prehistoric and shell-like. The ocean, unseen from this angle, nonetheless dominates, its relentless abandon present in every pore of the fading day.

Peter removes his overcoat, undoes the two holding buttons of his sports coat and immediately turns his attention to an antiquated thermostat. “See if I can’t get some heat going," he mutters, as much to himself as to Susan. “It’s like Dakota in here."

Susan, moving past him, nods in a distracted manner. There is a white plastic kettle on the bureau and, alongside, some sachet servings of instant coffee and two plain white porcelain cups upturned on almost- matching saucers. She fills the kettle from a tall glass gourd, taps the switch and sets the water whispering towards a boil. Outside, the sky is an enamel of cloud polished by winds and cold to a bright sheen. She turns back from the window to find Peter perched on the far corner of the bed. He has already removed his shoes and trousers and is unpicking the buttons of his shirt, his fingertips awkwardly working a downward traipse. For an instant their eyes meet and she either catches or chooses to imagine a bright flash of something pass between them, something with the same brilliant rawness as love. Sipping a breath, she proceeds to undress too, kicking out of her shoes, wrestling loose of her grey wool sweater, hurrying to catch up.

The kettle switches itself off with a click. Naked from the waist down and with her blouse partially undone, she tears open two sachets and concocts cheap, foul-tasting coffee. The cups rattle on their saucers as she carries them to the bed. Peter takes a sip and cannot avoid a wince, but he doesn’t push the cup away. She perches on the edge of the mattress. Not so long ago, their hunger to be bodily together would have stood no such trifling distraction as coffee, but a great deal has changed in seventeen years. Time educates even as it erodes.

Peter finishes first. He sets the cup aside, stands and continues to undress. He is meticulous in his movements, folding his trousers and shirt back into their tightly pressed creases and draping them over the frayed back of a puce suede wing-chair. Susan notes with some amusement how slow he is in removing either his shorts or undershirt. Even after the hundreds of intimate occasions they have shared, he remains bashful about his body. And the past five or six years in particular have seen him gain considerable weight. He has tried dieting, exercise, even pills, but there seems no obvious way of stanching the decline, and his stomach, which had been flat as a stone wall when they’d first started in on one another, now hangs bloated inside his vest. His health is showing signs of strain, too, with a general increase in fatigue, sweating and, following moments of even moderate exertion, a notable shortness of breath. Sensitive to his feelings, and partly fearing a glimpse of what the future, near or distant, might hold for them, she turns her head slightly away so that she doesn’t have to see.

He slips beneath the covers and gasps. “Jesus," he says, his voice like a slow puncture, “this bed could stop a beating heart." He pulls the blankets up over his shoulders and nestles deep into the soft pillows.

Susan smiles to herself, finishes her own coffee and returns the cup and saucer to the bureau, then gets on with peeling away the last of her clothes. She does not stop at her underwear. To her, these are mere garments, no different from the rest. She has weathered better than Peter, but this hardly matters. Even back when everything had been fresh and new and exciting, when modesty might have been an issue, her nakedness had never bothered her. From the first time they’d come out here and taken a room, she understood how much he cherished her, how highly he prized every bump and crease. And even though she is past forty now and finally beginning to show signs of wear, she knows that his feelings for her have not changed. He’d told her once, at the high point of some collision or another, that she was his goddess, and even though the words, delivered in a strangled gasp, sounded like a line from some fourth-rate piece of drive-in trash, she could only smile and thank him for saying it, recognising it as just the surface of what he really meant to say. Such words, such intent, filled her with a confidence that has never since diminished, and no one had ever given her so much. No gift, not even diamonds, could have stood comparison.

In their hired piece of privacy, she unclasps her bra and slips from her panties, taking her time for his benefit, knowing without having to check that he is watching and giving him every chance to be ready for her. The chill of the room coats her skin, the thermostat still sluggish about its duty, and the coldness in the air puckers her small dark nipples and rashes her slender body with gooseflesh. She moves to the bed and slips beneath the blankets. Peter makes room, letting her take the small warm pocket of space that he has created.
Twenty minutes later, they give up trying and settle instead for the sort of dozing slumber that still allows room for words. They have been through disappointment together before, not often but often enough, especially these past couple of years, and they have both learned to accept rather than to attribute blame. Susan lies on her back with her head resting against Peter’s right shoulder. The time is just after six, and another day has somehow drained from her life and the life of the world. Her skin is clammy with cooling sweat from the exertions of their attempted lovemaking, and the white linen bed sheets cling to her feet, thighs and low stomach in a tangle that feels at once sordid and lovely.

She stretches her limbs, pleasuring in their aching tightness, then closes her eyes and swims a little while in that dark place.

“You’re my best mistake," she murmurs, wanting to say something that she could never imagine saying anywhere other than here, in this bed, now.
From the rut of his doze, Peter twitches, a motion driven by a certain heavy kind of breath. Around them, the silence is not total, not with the wind beating occasional beads of sleet against the glass, but a stillness pervades, as though the world has become snagged in mid-turn. The sense of this holds even when he clears his throat and, softly, begins to speak. Words are just words, uttered and spent, but in the bed and around the room nothing moves, nothing except hearts in their beating.

“You think we’re a mistake, then?"

She smiles. “Of course I do. We both know marriage is a sacred bond. The Bible, chapter whatever. Even a bad marriage is sacred. Even a boring one. Maybe a boring one most of all."

“And what about love? Do you think they factor that into the equation? Like time off for good behaviour?"


“Whoever gets to call the shots on this kind of thing."

“You’re talking about God."

“Or the Gods, if there’s more than one of them."

“You think there might be more than one?"

Her laughter is sudden, unexpected, a gush of sound that leaves behind its mark. He lets it wash over him, through him. “I’d hope so, sweetheart," he says, baring his teeth. “For their sake."

Games like this know a kind of intimacy, too. Maybe, after a certain point, a better kind even than that offered by the physical. But she understands the situation. During the years of nights when the apartment she shares with Mike seems too small for who she is or wants to be, there has been ample opportunity to contemplate all of love’s problems and consequences. Cut adrift on her side of that sad marriage bed, waiting without expectation for the drag of sleep, loneliness overtakes her and she has to fight in her frozen state to resist the otherworldly darkness suggested by the inch-wide chasm that gapes between the wardrobe doors. It is how a god must feel, cursed into solitude, if the ancients had it wrong and there really is no bacchanal. Alone and abandoned. Lost, and endlessly falling.

“Love?" she murmurs, without opening her eyes, “That’s just the excuse we use, to justify all that’s rotten. Not believing it, not wanting it to be true, but saying it."

This stillness soothes the body in the way that the wind at the glass soothes the mind. Even the sheets, worn tawdry by so many visiting lovers, feel good against her skin. But when she opens her eyes again, everything has changed. A proper and thorough darkness has stolen in. She sits up in the bed, sighs, and rakes the fingers of both hands back through her hair.

The room has taken on a midnight feel. She gets up and moves to the window, but there is little to see beyond suggested shapes. As she stands there, gazing mainly at her own pallid reflection, her mind conjures up an image of the ocean, the bluish night surf breaking moonlit over luminescent strand. It is a romance, nothing more, an indulgence, sweet but inessential. She considers the glass, and the darkness beyond, Coney Island’s fringe, with all of Brooklyn’s lights burning at her back, then draws the curtains and switches on one of the two bedside lamps. Dressing by touch is easy enough, but the glow of lamplight on her skin has become the traditional closing act of their trysts. In the bed, Peter sits up, packs his pillow and her own behind his back and settles into watching her.

“Come back to bed," he says, as she pulls her panties up over her slim thighs and fingers her way to comfort in the crotch area. Pearl lace: a catalogue-bought anniversary gift from Mike. “Isabel is being kept in overnight. They’re inserting a morphine line. You could phone Mike, tell him you have to work late. An audit that’s running long, or something."

She continues to dress. His words, too, are part of the tradition, spoken out of duty but better left unchallenged. Can’t they just stay a couple of hours longer? After all, the room is paid for until tomorrow.

“Keep an eye on the time," she tells him. She sounds tired, and is, but it’s not the kind of weariness that sleep can ease.

They have often spoken of running away, of dropping everything and just skipping out. Get a place somewhere up in Maine, maybe, one of those little coastal towns that melt in summer and get locked down come October and the first snow of the season. The perfect nest for two migrating birds. But it’s just talk, the stuff of fancy.

She pulls up her skirt, clasps it at her hip, then dallies with her bra, straightening out the straps. Nakedness becomes her; lamplight, too. Clothes change her demeanour, add a hint of spite. She knows that if she were to put him to the test, he’d crumble like stale cake. Still, it’s tempting, if only to trigger a flush of upset into his restfulness, but his stack of suddenly-remembered excuses would cost them the next ten or twenty minutes and leave a bad taste. She sees clean through him, which is probably why they work so well together. Between them, secrets have never stood a chance. Dreams are fine in their place, but acceptance is the key to survival. Some people see a glass as half full, others see it as half empty. But there is a third group, a small, almost unnoticeable percentage, who want nothing more than the opportunity to quench their burning thirsts.

Coffee acts like a truce, or the replacement for words as a small, temporary goodbye. She boils more water. The cups are dirty, but clean enough to use. Partially dressed, she crawls back beneath the sheets and waits for the bed’s heat to close her in its arms again. Time has changed them from the people they had once been. And yet, they fit together easily now. Perhaps they have grown towards one another, like flowers to the sun. For them, familiarity has bred a kind of contentment. Though it would have seemed impossible back when they were young and in need of greater thrills, a cup of coffee holds value now. There are many ways of making love, and no time spent together ever feels wasted. Susan drinks her coffee, with her shoulder resting against Peter’s. And when her cup is empty she leans across and opens his mouth with a kiss generously devoid of expectation. Smiling against her lips, he sets his own cup down and pulls her body onto him, holding fast.

Down at the station, the train is already at the platform.

They board quickly so as to escape the weather, which the darkness has somehow worsened. The wind is hard, dashed with cold snarls of sleet. Susan glimpses her reflection in another lit-up window and makes a pass at patting down her hair, but the task is a mammoth one.

A few passengers are already ensconced in the second carriage from the rear. They lift their glances, but only for an instant, then slump back down into the torpor of old paperbacks and badly-folded newspapers. Peter leads the way, keeping his stride detached. He surveys the carriage and elects a single seat that backs onto the pull of the train. For a moment, Susan stands there, almost beside him, gripping a handrail. Nothing passes between them, not a word or even a glance. It is a break made clean with practice. And, finally, obedient to ancient instructions, she wanders along the aisle and pushes through the door. The next carriage seems more brightly lit. She hesitates at the entrance, then drops down into the first available window seat and settles herself for the ride back to Manhattan.

The totality of the station’s outer dark presses against the window, and the carriage’s illuminated glare etches ghostly, washed-out portraits of her past and future selves across the dust-encrusted glass. She stares until the sadness of both close in, then lowers her eyes.

She has long since given up asking why they can’t sit together. It hurts her, though she understands the reasons. Peter is the type who takes caution to an extreme. In a working environment, such a fastidious nature is held in high regard. And if, away from work, it can at times stand too fast in its devotion to the empirical, it remains just one yardstick in the measure of a man. Valuable, yes, but not definitive.

They work in the same building, for the same company, though in offices some four floors apart and facing in opposite directions, and their paths have little or no job-related reasons for ever crossing. On the rare occasions they do happen to meet in a corridor, each is careful in showing ambivalence toward the other’s existence. A nod is acceptable, a fleeting smile, too. But no lingering sideways looks, no conspiratorial body language. Such dedication to secrecy, the fortunes worth of attention spent on detail, has played a significant part in keeping them safe and undiscovered through all the years of their affair.

“You just don’t see the menace," he has told her, more than once.“ A single slip and everything we have will come apart like cobweb." And because she knows he is right, she always nods and cedes the ground to him without bothering to mention that actually, taken strand for strand, the tensile strength of cobweb surpasses even steel.

She owns two photographs of him, neither of which he knows about. She keeps them in a shoebox on the top shelf of her wardrobe, mixed in with decades of holiday snaps, ticket stubs from concerts and shows, and other assorted keepsakes. The pictures are neither concealed nor displayed, which is the best way to hide anything, and she knows them by heart, every shade and detail. Both were taken right here on Coney Island and date from a period quite early in their relationship, probably late in the season of their second or third summer. Nothing special, just a couple of dollar-a-pop Polaroid snaps that she had coaxed a boardwalk vendor into taking.

The first picture shows the two of them together, walking arm in arm; the second captures Peter alone. He is wearing navy Bermudas and a short-sleeved cotton shirt, white with red trim, open to mid-chest. She has on a light blue flower-patterned summer dress with yellow flecks and shoulder straps. A quick calculation would put her at late twenties in age, but the sun is shining and time has washed away enough of the reality to lend her an aura of youth. She is slim and girlishly pretty, her laughter branded from deep, the best she has probably ever looked. And beside her, as close as close can get without crossing a line into bawdy, Peter stands fit and strong, with the swarthy, brooding complexion of a movie type. Pacino, maybe. Accidentally handsome. The miracle is having a photographer here to record the scene, surely one of their time’s proudest crescendos, for posterity. In the instant that the trained lens snatches its image, she is looking for the camera and almost finding it, but Peter is already halfway into a profile pose, his strong chin slightly raised, eyes clear and hard, ever vigilant of the borders. The impression they create is of a perfect, happy couple.

The second picture is like an alternate reality. Shot mere seconds later, it captures a portrait of heightened grief, the dead-weight freefall after an impossible high. Desperate to have a snap of her man alone and unhindered, Susan plays a little connivance and slips from frame on the excuse of wanting to check out a stall or to purchase a soft drink or an ice cream. The result throws the composition off balance, catching Peter on the high point of a spill, his strong upper body leaning into too hard a tilt. His expression has shifted, too; the youthful assurance gone, replaced by a kind of middle-aged dread that rusts edges and widens folds. The sun still yellows everything and the background remains unchanged after barely a dozen steps, but the sense that dominates now is one of overwhelming loss. In the span of thirty seconds, twelve whole years have been sucked from the world. This second picture is not what she has anticipated but exactly what she wants. Because alone, Peter seems worth less, somehow. And it is a vindication, of sorts, a truth that has been at last exposed.

Beyond the window, a station sign boxes itself into her field of vision, two black words on a plain of white: Coney Island. She mouths the name, certain of its magic, and a snatch of song suggests itself, heaving with barbershop harmony. Not caring what the few other passengers will think, she begins to hum the melody. For a moment, her breath rolls and tumbles, catching the lilt, finding a kind of freedom. Then, abruptly, she lapses back into silence and closes her eyes until stirred by the first pull of the train’s engine. She listens to the noise, the soothing piston shots of metal and motion built to honour the laws of gravity, dragging her slowly homeward. But homeward is the real world, full of work and worry, full of Mike with all his tedious love, full of Isabel and her cancerous fears, full of take-out meals and wines from places far away. This place, and these last few hours are what help to keep her alive, but a heart needs more than dreams to go on beating.


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