Such Sweet Sorrow

by

Lenny Levine

           Thank God that’s over! was Phyllis Rasner’s fervent thought as she swiped her MetroCard and joined the crowd on the platform of the downtown 66th Street-Lincoln Center station. All she wanted was to go home and take a long nap.

It was only for Kyle that she’d agreed to have lunch with this woman, this person he was supposedly in love with. How many other people, she wondered, would do that for an ex-boyfriend?

But Kyle was special, even if he was a total mess when it came to organizing his life. He’d looked so good on that Village Vanguard stage three years ago. Mop of blond hair falling over his forehead as he cradled his tenor sax, green eyes smoldering as he began his solo. She’d fallen in love with him, and was fascinated by him still. But she was thirty-two, and to spend the rest of her life with a musician who worked just occasionally enough, and couldn’t imagine doing anything else, was not what she wanted.

He’d understood completely. That was one big reason, among many, that they were still friends, and good ones. Best friends, really.

So when he’d called over the weekend and asked her to meet Lauren, she couldn’t refuse. It worked out logistically; the branch at which she was chief librarian was closed on Mondays. And besides, she was curious about this woman he’d met and was so crazy about.

He’d assured her that Lauren would be glad to pay for the lunch. She had a high-powered job at Elan magazine, and she’d be reimbursed for it. He’d suggested Josephina’s, opposite Lincoln Center, a nice midway point between her Village apartment and Lauren’s Upper-East-Side office, and said he was anxious for the two of them to meet and get to know each other.

Well, she’d found Lauren to be an imperious, egotistical glamour puss, there was no other way to put it. Lauren was like those women she knew in college, who dated jocks and were aloof and condescending to the less-fortunately endowed. Of course, Phyllis never let on at lunch that this was how she felt. She made sure to listen interestedly and murmur supportive responses to Lauren’s virtual nonstop monologue about her fashion career. But she had to be honest with Kyle, and she didn’t know what she’d say.

Think about it later, she decided as she edged to the front of the platform and strained to see down the track, hoping for twin lights. Nope.

She sighed and turned back, moving through the growing numbers of people, when her breath suddenly caught in her throat at what she saw.

***

            Wow, am I fucking glad that’s over! thought Lauren DuPre as she stood on the curb, scanning both Broadway and Columbus for a cab. Kyle had promised that after she met Phyllis she’d feel much better about him still being friends with her, but she didn’t. She definitely didn’t.

The whole time at lunch it felt like she was being judged, by a woman who hardly said a thing about herself, but let Lauren go on and on while she nodded seriously.

And for a guy to be so involved with his ex-girlfriend, well, it just wasn’t normal. Did he think she’d feel reassured because Phyllis was plain and mousy? He must have been physically attracted to her at some point. They’d lived together for almost a year. The image of them having sex made her flesh crawl.

She quickly checked her cell phone for messages. There were four, but nothing she had to deal with right now. “Look at this goddamn traffic,” she muttered to herself. Any cabs in sight were trapped in the mass of unmoving vehicles like insects in amber, and occupied at that.

Shit! She was definitely going to be late for her interview in SoHo with Enrico Fabrizzi. Well, if he wanted his new line to be written up in Elan, he’d just have to accommodate her. Still, as much as she hated it, she’d have to take the subway. It would be quicker, the way things were looking here.

Making her way across Broadway, she punched his number on the cell and explained about the delay to his assistant as she walked down the steps to the station. The blast of fetid air that assaulted her, as well as the size of the crowd on the other side of the turnstile, made her grimace, but what choice did she have?

She swiped her card and went through, then tried to insinuate herself as close to the front as possible, clutching her bag with its laptop, voice recorder, and BlackBerry tightly to her bosom, which, even when clothed in a perfectly tailored business suit, was magnificent. Her eyes drifted to her left to see if a train was coming, but instead… Oh, fuck!

***

            Phyllis knew instantly that it was too late, they’d already seen each other. Lauren was only three feet away, just the other side of a teenage boy with iPod buds stuck in his ears and a faraway expression on his face.

“Well, hi again,” she said, forcing a smile around the teenager. “I thought you said you worked on the East Side.”

Do you think I was lying? Lauren thought. “I’ve got an interview to do in SoHo,” she said, and then mentally kicked herself. Shit! Why didn’t I say I was going to Times Square or someplace like that? Now she was committed to staying on the train all the way downtown.

“Oh,” Phyllis said. It came out sounding disappointed, and she tried to recover. “An interview, how nice.”

How nice? Am I being patronized? Throughout her life, Lauren had been aware of how so-called studious types barely tolerated her, no matter how friendly she tried to be. They assumed she was dumb, because someone as good-looking as she was couldn’t possibly have a mind. “I’m writing an article on Enrico Fabrizzi,” she told Phyllis.

The teenager, somehow sensing through the iPod music that two people were trying to have a conversation around him, stepped back a bit. Neither woman moved to fill the gap, but now they were unobstructedly face to face.

Enrico Fabrizzi… Phyllis searched her brain. Am I supposed to know who that is? “How long an article are you writing?” she asked, unable to think of anything else on the subject.

“It’s a feature article, about five thousand words.” It was actually a side piece, more like five hundred words, but she’d sensed a challenge in the question and had to respond. She felt pretty safe, because someone like Phyllis would never read a fashion magazine, but, still, she resented having to lie about it.

At that moment, the lights of the train appeared at the far end of the station, and the noise of its approach relieved them of any further attempts at conversation. Maybe the crowd would separate them when they all piled inside, Lauren eagerly hoped, as did Phyllis.

But the crush only pushed them closer together, and there was no place to stand but right next to each other, holding onto a pole in the center of the car.

A silence ensued, as it had several times during lunch. Phyllis, at these close quarters, could smell Lauren’s perfume, a scent she found cloying. Surely, Kyle did too, didn’t he?

The train crept along, taking its time as it made its way toward the Columbus Circle station. Lauren didn’t ride the subways much, but she thought she remembered it as a transfer point. Maybe a lot of people would get off and seats would open up, seats that weren’t next to each other.

The silence bore down. I’ll bet she’s used to not talking, Lauren thought. Probably has her nose in a book most of the time. She tried to imagine Kyle sitting around with someone like that, reading companionably, and couldn’t. Well, somebody had to say something here or she’d scream.

“Which library do you work in?” she asked.

She makes it sound like I’m the janitor, was Phyllis’s inner reaction. “The Hudson Park branch on Leroy Street,” she said brightly. “Kyle always said my library was like an old car, the Hudson in Park.” She gave a small, self-conscious laugh.

Lauren smiled politely, thinking the joke was pretty lame. Did Kyle actually consider that funny? Maybe it was his way of mocking her. She tried to remember something funny he’d said to her, but nothing came immediately to mind.

The silence descended once again as the train pulled into Columbus Circle. They could see mobs of people through the window, while, all around them, passengers were stirring as they prepared to fight their way out. The doors opened.

The opposing tides met. It was a flurry of energy and motion. Several seats became available for an eye blink, but in other areas of the car, and immediately taken. The doors closed, and there they were, exactly as before.

I’m in Hell, Lauren thought miserably.

This is excruciating, was Phyllis’s version of it.

The train resumed its methodical journey, and Lauren decided to take matters in hand. “Oh God, I just realized something. I have to get off at 50th Street. I promised a friend of mine I’d get theater tickets for her.”

Phyllis tried to keep the feeling of relief out of her voice. “What show is your friend seeing?” she inquired.

Lauren’s stomach lurched. “The Book of Mormon,” she came up with. She knew it was around here somewhere.

“That’s supposed to be very good.”

“Yes, it is.”

A few more moments passed, and then the 50th Street station blessedly pulled into view outside the window.

“Well, this was fun,” Lauren said, giving Phyllis her Grade-A smile. “We’ve got to do it again sometime.”

“That would be great.” Phyllis put on her own warm smile.

The train came to a stop. The doors stayed shut.

They stood looking at each other, smiles in place. Then, finally, the doors parted.

“Well…bye.”

“Bye.”

Lauren turned quickly and joined the exodus. Phyllis spotted a seat opportunity and threw herself onto it. She exhaled, long and gratefully.

Maybe she could understand Kyle wanting to have sex with the woman, but thinking he was in love? How could someone so sensitive and creative go gaga over somebody who’s utterly superficial? She nervously chewed on her lip. What was she going to say to him when he called later?

She noticed the doors still hadn’t closed. Some people were milling about outside on the platform, deciding the train was too crowded, while the standees inside shifted their weight impatiently. She was about to reach into her bag for her copy of Ulysses when an abrasive voice came on the PA system, announcing that the train was going out of service.

That was it, no further information given. Amid various groans and grumblings, everyone began to vacate the car. Phyllis followed in their wake, thinking she might be better off walking over to the Eighth Avenue subway. It wasn’t a free transfer, but it would be worth the extra money to avoid this mob scene, so that’s what she decided to do.

Others seemed to share her intent, at least as far as leaving the station. She trudged up the stairs along with them until she reached the street. Then she tried to get her bearings.

Which way was west? Her eyes scanned the immediate area. There was 50th Street, and there was…oh no!

Lauren was on the corner, once again searching vainly for a taxi and just beginning to wonder why so many people were coming out of the subway, when she saw Phyllis.

Saying “fuck” under her breath, she put on the smile.

Phyllis did the same. “The train broke down, so I…” “The ticket line was too long, so I…” They realized they were both talking at the same time and stopped.

For a moment, no one spoke. Then: “Every goddamn cab in the city is taken.” Lauren gave one last futile look up Broadway and simultaneously realized that even if one came, by some miracle, she’d have to offer to share or it would seem insensitive. “You say the subway’s not working?” she asked, exasperated.

“No, just the train we were on. But I thought…” Phyllis stopped before she could make a huge mistake. She’d almost said she was going to the Eighth Avenue line. “…I would walk over to Radio City. Sit by the fountain awhile, maybe have some coffee.” That was good, that was very good. It was in the opposite direction. All she had to do was walk east for a short block to Seventh, then she could duck around the corner and double back on 51st Street.

“Sounds like a great idea,” Lauren said as the words Thank you, God! ran through her mind. “It’s so nice out.”

“Yes, it is.”

A pause. Then,

“Well…”

“Well…”

They exchanged weak smiles.

“Bye again.”

“Yes, bye.”

Phyllis turned and hurriedly crossed Broadway. She didn’t dare look back until she’d reached the corner of Seventh. Then she ventured a quick peek over her shoulder. Lauren wasn’t there.

Lauren was, in fact, walking down the subway steps, assuming the out-of-service train would be gone and another one would soon come along. But there was the train, still sitting dead in the station. People continued to trickle by her, going the other way.

Thinking how much she hated this fucking city, she stood there for a moment. Then she realized, she was only a block in either direction from two other subway lines.

She turned and climbed the stairs, glancing at her watch and not liking what she saw. Well, one thing, she wasn’t going anywhere near Sixth Avenue, and Radio City.

Radio City is radioactive, she thought, and gave a grim chuckle as she strode up 50th toward the Eighth Avenue subway.

***

            There was one moment that could have changed everything, the moment it occurred to Phyllis that she could just as easily go over to Sixth after all, and catch the F or the D to West Fourth Street. But she was already closer to Eighth Avenue and didn’t see the point in turning back. After that, it was inevitable.

The station was only moderately crowded. She craned her neck, trying to look down the platform as she moved sideways, which took her right into Lauren.

With a start, they recoiled from each other.

Oh shit, not you again! Lauren thought, and then realized she’d actually said it. But, you know what? She didn’t care anymore.

Phyllis’s jaw dropped at the affront. Her face went crimson. You incredible bitch! she thought. “Excuse me?” she said tightly.

“Okay,” said Lauren with almost a sigh of relief, “let’s cut the crap. You don’t like me, do you? Somehow, you think I’m supposed to prove to you that I’m worthy of Kyle. Well, let me tell you something, honey, I’m more than worthy. And not only that, I’m wondering why a little nerd like you thinks she gets to decide about me.”

Phyllis turned an even deeper red.

“Why?” she said. “Why?! Because he’s my friend and I care about him, that’s why!” People around started to look at them. “And I’m wondering why he’d want to spend even two minutes with a vacuous bimbo like you!”

A sudden roar brought the C train barreling into the station, diverting bystanders’ attention, but not theirs. They stood, glaring daggers at each other.

“We are not getting on this train together,” Lauren said through clenched teeth. “So who’s moving to another car, you or me?”

“You or I,” Phyllis corrected.

“Perfect!” Lauren screamed at her and turned to go.

She forced her way through the crowd against the grain, barely able to see through a film of tears as she muttered angry, perfunctory apologies. One car down, she got on the train and stood clinging to the pole, fuming.

She’d never felt so awful in her life. That’s it, she realized, I can’t be with Kyle anymore. He’d made it perfectly clear how important that smug little bitch was to him, and Lauren knew she could never live with that. Oh God, will I ever find a man who isn’t fucked up? she achingly wondered. She’d never again be able to hear a tenor sax without crying.

***

            Phyllis stood numbly on the platform as people elbowed their way by her to get on, but she didn’t join them. She didn’t even want to be on the same train as that overblown, self-aggrandizing cow.

The thought was not an angry one, just one of resignation. She knew now that she’d been wrong about Kyle. Because of the artistry in his music, she’d projected onto him a sensitivity that was never there. It couldn’t be, not if he could say he loved (even thinking the word made her queasy) a woman like that.

“Wait till you meet Lauren,” he’d told her. “I really think you’re gonna like her.” Well, if that’s what he believed, then it didn’t matter how many deep and meaningful conversations they’d had over the years. The depth and meaning, she now realized, were only in her imagination. He didn’t know her at all.

She remembered how quickly he’d agreed when she suggested they stop sleeping together but stay platonic. It never occurred to her to be insulted. He just seemed more understanding than most men.

But that wasn’t why he agreed. It was because he didn’t care, plain and simple. Sexually, she just wasn’t his type. Well, now she’d met the woman who was. And she could never think the same of him again.

***

            Just before two a.m., the final set at the Horn of Plenty on Christopher Street was wrapping up with a spirited version of “Soulful Strut.” Anita Farrow, tending bar, could only stare at the stage in fascination.

She was a shapely blonde of twenty-seven who’d been a serious jazz buff all her life and had worked at the Horn for over a year, but she’d never heard anything like what Kyle Blackburn was playing tonight.

He stood there in the spotlight with eyes closed, his sax wailing. It was supposed to be a breezy, up-tempo tune, but Kyle was treating it with bitter irony, ripping away its jaunty veneer, exposing inner depths of loneliness and pain. It took Anita’s breath away. She paused in mid-pour of the double Chivas he’d asked her to have ready for him at the end of the set, her hands unsteady.

She’d overheard him before, telling the bass player something about his girlfriend dumping him and his best friend suddenly giving him the cold shoulder. Anita wondered if the girlfriend was that chick who’d been at the club a couple of nights ago, who looked like Catherine Zeta Jones. No matter. Whoever she was, it was her loss.

Maybe it was the sadness and regret coming out of that sax, but her thoughts turned to Frank, the guy she’d finally had the good sense to break up with two weeks ago. Boy, she sure knew how to pick ’em, didn’t she? What a possessive, domineering asshole he turned out to be.

She pulled her mind away from it and was again drawn into the smoky, reedy whirlpool of sound. God, it’s incredible, she thought.

The tune ended, to enthusiastic, but scattered, applause. There were very few people in the club at this hour, but they knew they’d just heard something special.

Kyle wearily unclipped his sax and placed it in its stand. Exchanging versions of “nice set, man” with the bass player, keyboardist, and drummer, and acknowledging the praise from the remaining patrons, he made his way across the room to the bar.

“Wow!” said Anita as he half collapsed onto the stool. “That was unbelievable! Right up there with ’Trane, or Sonny! I never heard you play so good.”

Kyle put his hand around the drink. “I’ll have to take your word on that,” he said, “since I barely remember playing anything.”

He lifted the glass to his lips and downed half of it, shuddering at the warmth and the kick.

She looked at him with concern. “You all right?”

He didn’t seem to hear. “I guess the road to Hell really is paved with good intentions. I only wanted the two of them to like each other; what was wrong with that?” He shook his head helplessly, lifted the drink, and downed the rest. “Any more where that came from?” he asked, slapping the empty glass down on the bar.

She winced. “Maybe you better slow down,” she said.

“Let me ask you something; are you still friends with any of your exes?”

Anita laughed. “All my exes are married. In fact, most of them were married while they were still my boyfriends.” She thought about ever being friends with Frank. Fat chance of that.

“I don’t understand women, that’s for sure,” Kyle admitted to the empty glass.

“That’s okay, I don’t understand men.”

He looked up at her and grinned. “I’d say that calls for a drink.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” she said, lowering her voice. “Why don’t we both have one up at my place? I’ve got something you’ll really dig; it’s a rare recording of Bird doing ‘Slow Boat to China.’ Whatta ya say?”

He looked surprised, and it made her feel good. “Really?” he said.

“The truth. C’mon, pack up your axe.”

“Just one thing.” He hesitated as he half rose from the stool. “I’m not what you might call…in a real strong place right now, emotionally.”

“Who is?” Anita asked, her eyes meeting his.

They lingered for a moment. “Good point,” he said. “Okay, Bird it is.” He started to get up again, then paused. “As long as you promise not to play me his version of ‘Just Friends.’”

He gave a bitter laugh, then turned and made his way toward the bandstand.

This is going to be soooo fine! Anita thought. It’ll wash the taste of Frank right out of me, the creep. She began to remove the empty glasses from the bar. The nerve of him, saying he was gonna keep his eye on me. And that he’d kill any man who even came near me. Screw him!

She tossed her head and watched Kyle walk toward her, instrument case in hand.

Soooo fine!

 

THE END

One Response to Such Sweet Sorrow

  1. Ellen Wolfe says:

    Fun story to read. The story is one that I think most women can resonate to about meeting ex’s. For some reason, ex-girl friends are more problematic, it seems, than ex-boy friends. Perhaps man are just kinder and less catty. But “wishing you two could meet because you’ll just love each other” seems to be the kiss of death.

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