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Issue #9 |

Here, At the Angel of the Waters

central park fountain

Millat concentrated on the bronze angel atop the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park as Stav walked alongside him in silence. Millat was still a Southern boy at heart, even at 60. Polite, deferential and youthful, he was commonly mistaken for a man in his forties. Raised in Huntington, West Virginia by a Syrian father and an American, deeply Southern mother, a local girl his father met at a diner where she was waitressing, he was Director of Human Resources for a multi-national corporation headquartered a short walk from the fountain. He had inherited his mother’s manners and his father’s swarthy complexion. The daughter of a Russian Jew raised in Catholic Ireland and an immigrant to the U.S. at age twelve, Stav was fifteen years younger than Millat and had been his girlfriend for the past twenty years. They lived in separate residences but spent most nights together at his place or hers. They shared the same set of friends, all of whom understood they were in a committed, long-term relationship that was essentially a marriage without the binding legal ties. “Tell me again,” Millat said, without turning to look at Stav. “Where were you? You were in your kitchen?”

Stav nodded but didn’t answer. It had happened in her kitchen where she had just made Greg—their mutual friend and Millat’s boss—a cup of coffee. This was a day earlier, on Sunday. Millat was at the chess club, where he went directly from his morning workout at the gym every Sunday morning. Because Greg would have known that, Stav was surprised to see him, but still invited him in for coffee. They admittedly had a flirtatious relationship. Greg habitually complimented Stav on her good looks, swore that she didn’t look any older than thirty at the most, and complained about Millat’s terrific luck in having met her first. This had always struck both Millat and Stav as Greg’s way of complimenting Stav and teasing Millat. Honestly, Stav had liked it. What woman didn’t like being complimented on her looks? Though Greg was Millat’s boss, he was, like Stav, fifteen years younger. Together, in fun, they sometimes called Millat “the old man.”

While Millat waited for Stav to reply, he watched four pigeons perched atop the Bethesda angel’s tarnished wings, two on each wing, so evenly spaced they might have been part of the design. In front of him, a young couple decked out in red and blue skin-tight jogging gear strolled casually side by side, so close they bumped shoulders every couple of steps. The weather was unseasonably warm—early March and near seventy degrees—though the weather had been so fluky for so long it was hard to say what was seasonal anymore.

Stav answered Millat by repeating the story. She and Greg had been drinking coffee at the kitchen island, facing each other. Greg was dressed as though on his way to work, wearing a handsomely bespoke navy blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, which was odd for a Sunday. He looked at her over his coffee, not nervous at all, and said, “You know, Stav, we really should be sleeping together. I haven’t had a sexual relationship with Eugenia in years, and you know we’re both attracted to each other.” When Stav hadn’t replied, merely stared back at him, caught between disbelief and shock, he had gotten up from his stool, come around the island, and forcibly kissed her. She had tried to push him away, but it wasn’t until he had his tongue in her mouth and was trying to rip off her top that she had come fully awake, kneed him in the crotch, and pulled away from him, grabbing a butcher knife off the countertop and swearing to stab him in the heart if he didn’t get away from her and out of her home.

“Stav,” Millat said, “he assaulted you.”

He repeated this as if he couldn’t believe it himself. “Greg sexually assaulted you. I don’t understand why you waited until just now to tell me. This happened Sunday morning, and yet we spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon and evening together. We did the crossword in the afternoon and watched a movie that night. I don’t understand how you’re only now telling me this.”

Stav didn’t understand either. Well, she didn’t fully understand. Greg was not only Millat’s boss, he was also his closest friend. He was her friend, too, and she told herself that what had happened was partly her fault. What she had considered friendly flirtation between them, he had obviously interpreted differently. She had, after all, kneed him in the balls and threatened to kill him, and he must have gone home humiliated and fearful of what would happen if Millat found out. For a while she told herself that was enough. It wasn’t that big a deal. The only one who had been physically injured was Greg. She was fine, unhurt, if a little shaken up. She worried that if she told Millat it would not only cost him his friendship, but it might potentially cost him his job. Legally, it would be “he said, she said.” There were no witnesses. There was no proof. Greg’s father-in-law had only recently retired as CEO. Greg was the one with the connections and friends. Millat, though good at his job, was often aloof and distant. Their friends, except for Greg, were all really her friends—and now she wondered, and she knew Millat would wonder, if Greg’s friendship with him had always only been a way to get close to her. Then there was poor Eugenia, habitually depressed and anxious, a walking rack of bones who drank too much and chain smoked. Stav had gone over all this fifty times before Millat had returned home from the chess club, and had decided to let it go, that it would be easier for everyone if she just pretended it never happened.

That evening, after watching a two-hour long movie with Millat, she realized that she couldn’t recall a single thing that had happened in it. That frightened her. While Millat slept soundly beside her that night, she alternated between staring at the ceiling and getting up to stare out the window and across the street at a line of identical brownstone stoops. In the morning, after Millat left for work, she cried a long while over the remains of her barely-touched breakfast before she tried to settle down in her study and make some progress on a consulting project she was working on for the New York City Libraries.  She found herself unable to read two sentences in a row before her thoughts went back to the previous morning. She recalled with revulsion the feel of Greg’s tongue in her mouth. He wasn’t a bad looking man, but, unlike Millat, whose body was taught and athletic, Greg was chubby and soft. She could still feel his doughy chest and belly pressing into her, and, again and again, his tongue in her mouth.

There was a long period after Greg had bluntly proposed that they have an affair when she had been unable to respond. It wasn’t until he was physically assaulting her that she had suddenly awakened and responded as she had been trained to by a hundred things she’d read about sexual assault and even a class she’d taken when she’d first moved to the city. On Monday morning it was like that as she sat in front of her computer, like she suddenly awakened and realized what she was doing. She called Millat at work and arranged to meet him in the park, and now here they were. She had told him—and his first response was to ask her why it had taken so long for her to speak up.

“Do you not believe me?” she asked.

“Of course I believe you.” Millat turned for the first time to look at Stav and saw that her eyes were full and wet, on the verge of tears. When he stopped and pulled her close, she returned the embrace, her cheek warm against his shoulder.

A pair of cyclists on sleek racing bikes approached at a slow pace, split and went around them. The women on the bikes stared boldly, as if announcing themselves as witnesses to whatever was going on. Millat said, “I didn’t mean to sound like I was questioning you.” He stepped back out of the embrace, held Stav’s hand, and they continued walking toward the fountain.

At the terrace, looking down at the angel, Stav tried to explain why she had waited to tell Millat what had happened. She thought it was a combination of shock and bewilderment. They had known Greg for years. She still struggled to believe he did what he did. She said, “I guess I thought it might be easier all around if I buried the whole incident. I mean, I think that’s what I was thinking.”

Millat took Stav’s hand in his, and then they stood side by side in silence, looking down at the businessmen and tourists, kids and parents, and two New York City cops in blue strolling around the fountain.

Anger blossomed within Millat, growing upward from deep in his stomach and stretching out into his chest and arms and through his neck, his face darkening with blood, a tingling sensation throughout his body, his heart beating hard, the figures around the fountain and the pool blurring into abstraction. While he found it hard, in general, to warm to people, that had not been the case with Greg, who he had liked from their first meeting. The guy was funny, easy-going, open and generous. Unlike so many in the business world—probably in every closed environment of people in competition with each other—Greg never spoke ill of anyone. Even the people he clearly didn’t like, he didn’t trash and complain about. He liked to talk politics and art. and about those subjects he could be scathing and hilarious while taking down some politician or talk show host, or while eviscerating some trend in the arts he found pompous or suspect. He was smart and well-read, with an Ivy League education. How many good conversations had they had over the years? How often had they laughed together? And now this? He propositions Stav and attacks her?

Stav said, “I don’t know what to do.” When Millat didn’t answer, she added, “Can we talk about this for a minute? Can you tell me what you’re thinking?”

“Honestly,” Millat said, “I’m thinking I’d like to kill the bastard.”

“Please. Can we be reasonable and have a serious conversation?”

“You asked me what I was thinking.”

“Okay,” Stav said, “but nobody’s killing anybody. Can we talk about what I should do, here and now, in the civilized world?”

“What civilized world? The one in which someone you think of as your friend attacks your wife?”

“The civilized world,” Stav answered, “in which there are laws and codes of behavior, and prescribed ways of dealing with people who ignore such things.”

“Great,” Millat said. “Sure.” He turned to face Stav, leaned back against the terrace railing, and tried to shake off the odd mix of sullenness and fury that was warping his reactions. He pulled Stav close and touched his forehead to her neck in a gesture of contrition.

Two young men in jogging gear came up alongside them to gaze down at the fountain. They waited in silence until they left before picking up their conversation.

“If I were to go to the police,” Stav said, “I don’t know that they could do anything. I wasn’t injured, there were no witnesses . . . What could they do?”

“Nothing much,” Millat said. “They might pick him up for questioning, but I doubt they’d do even that. And if they did, all he’d have to do is deny it.”

“What about work? You are the HR director. Can you cause trouble for him at work?”

“I could try, but I think we both know how that would turn out. The incident we’re talking about happened outside the workplace, which is only the first problem. Someone other than me would have to handle it, which, honestly, I don’t even know who that would be. And then Greg’s practically family when you go much higher up, whereas I’m decidedly not.”

“But didn’t you tell me that he doesn’t get any respect because he only got the job through his father-in-law?”

“That, and no one actually knows what the hell it is he does.”

“So?”

“Wouldn’t matter. It’s not like anyone’s trying to get rid of him. He’s well-liked, if not terribly well-respected.”

“Well, I’m going to do something,” Stav said, and for the first time she sounded angry. “I can tell Eugenia; I can tell everyone who knows him; maybe I can even write an op-ed piece of some kind.” She paused before adding, “I’m not powerless.”

“No,” Millat said, “we’re not powerless.” He looked at his wristwatch. “Let’s talk over our options tonight. I have to get back to work.”

“What are you going to do when you see Greg?”

“I don’t know.” Millat took Stav’s head in his hands. “Honey, I’m sorry this happened to you.”

At that, the tears Stav had successfully been holding back came pouring out. Millat held her in his arms, her head against his chest, protecting her from the gaze of strangers. When the tears stopped, they kissed, exchanged goodbyes, and went off in different directions.

 

Millat approached Greg’s office as Estephania, his assistant, was packing up to leave for the day. Her desk was located directly across from the elevator and to the left of Greg’s office. They exchanged niceties and chatted about the glorious weather before Millat knocked twice on Greg’s door, hesitated briefly, and then peeked in. All he needed was one glance at Greg to know for certain that everything Stav had told him was true. Not that he had ever doubted her, but the mixture of fear and willed resolve on Greg’s face was only more confirmation. For a moment, he actually felt sorry for him. Instead of the smile and quick banter that usually erupted when Millat walked in on him, Greg sat upright in his chair behind his desk, gripping the armrests so tightly he might have been strapped down. He said nothing. He looked as though he was waiting for his executioner to flip a switch.

Millat leaned back against the door until it clicked solidly closed behind him. “Listen,” he said, “I think it’s best we don’t talk here—and, frankly, I need a little more time to process things.”

Greg swiped at his mouth, wiping away sweat. For a long moment he stared down at his desktop, as if he were considering his response. If Greg asked what the meeting was about, he’d be auditioning for a lie and a denial. If he didn’t ask, he’d be admitting, at the very least, that he knew what Millat wanted to talk about, which would in turn be an admission that something had happened. “Okay,” he said, once he looked up. “Probably not here. Maybe at the fountain. Later.”

With the warm weather, the fountain—where they often went for lunch—would be crowded with tourists and locals right up until the parked closed. Years ago, Millat had done some quick Internet research on the fountain, and knew that the winged figure was called The Angel of the Waters, and the whole structure alluded to a story from the Gospel of John about an angel that blessed the pool of Bethesda and gave it healing powers. It struck Millat as at least a hopeful place for their meeting.

Millat looked at his wristwatch. “Let’s meet at the terrace at eight. That will give me more time to talk things over with Stav. Meanwhile,” he added, his face instantly burning bright with blood, “I’m dying to hear what you’ve got to say for yourself.”

Greg took a deep breath, coughing as he exhaled. He folded his hands on his desk and said nothing.

“Eight o’clock then at the terrace,” Millat repeated. “It’ll be crowded,” he said, as if to reassure Greg that he’d be safe. He thought to himself that of course Greg knew that, which is why he suggested the fountain in the first place. When he left the office, he made a point of closing the door gently.

Because of the weather, and because he wanted more time to think before seeing Stav, he decided to walk the mile and a half or so to her apartment. Streets everywhere were crowded with pedestrians in an array of bright, summer colors, some of the younger men and women already in shorts and sandals, as if summer had arrived in March. Millat walked at a leisurely pace with his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the ground, looking up now and then at a street sign, a shop window, or someone in front of him or coming toward him. On 47th Street, he passed a pawn shop and stopped when he saw an old-fashioned billy club in the display window. A long, solid cylinder of dark, polished wood, with a wrist strap attached to the handle, the club instantly brought to mind uniformed cops in old movies twirling billy clubs as they walked a beat. When he entered the cramped confines of the shop, he wasn’t really thinking he’d buy it and use it to knock Greg’s brains out, but the possibility must have been there in the back of his mind. Or else, why would he have gone in and asked the clerk if could examine it more closely?

“You police?” the clerk asked, a knowing smile lighting up his face.

“No, I like the look of thing,” Millat said, adding with a laugh, “it’s a little work of art.”

“Huh.” The clerk was young, likely still in his twenties, with a sleeve tattoo visible on his right arm, where his shirt sleeve was rolled up to the elbow. “Mostly it’s cops buy this kind of thing. You know, a lotta cop families, like their pops used to have one just like it.” He handed the billy club to Millat over the counter. “Now and days,” he said, “it’s all tasers and pepper spray and shit.”

Millat put his hand through the wrist strap and let the club dangle to the ground before lifting it to his shoulder and waving it in a short arc. He was impressed by the heft and density of the thing. “Nice,” he said, handing it back to the clerk, “but kind of long and conspicuous for my purposes.”

“And what would those be, if you don’t mind my asking? You’re not an art collector?” The clerk leaned back, folded his arms over his chest, and looked Millat up and down. What he must have seen was a solidly middle-class, white-collar guy with slightly darker skin than the pale stereotype.

“There’s a homeless guy hangs out by my building,” Millat said, “who’s always threatening me. Cops say they can’t do anything about it.”

“Ah, yeah, well, you can’t be walking around with a billy club.” He gestured for Millat to follow him toward the back of the store, where he disappeared for a minute behind a red curtain before returning with a leather implement and placing it on the countertop.

“This is a sap,” he said. Gently, with both hands, he slid it toward Millat. “Two-ply, heavy gauge Boston leather, spring steel shank, with a molded leather weight.”

He touched one finger to the rounded head of the sap. “It weighs, like, eleven ounces, fits in your pocket, and it’s fucking lethal.” He raised a warning finger to Millat. “You don’t want to do brain damage to the asshole, you don’t take a full swing and hit him in the head. With this spring steel shank, you don’t have to do much to knock a guy senseless.”

Millat gazed down at the sap, which looked to him something like a long, sleek leather spoon with a wrist strap. He picked it up, softly slapped the rounded head into the palm of his hand, and stepped back at the jolt of pain that shot up his wrist. “Whoa,” he said, waving his struck hand.

The clerk grinned. “Like I said, they’re lethal.”

“Is this the same thing as a blackjack?” Millat asked.

“Yeah, same thing. You want it, I’ll sell it to you for fifty bucks. But, like I’m telling you, if you need to use it, don’t go nuts with the thing bashing the guy in the head and all. You’ll wind up killing him.”

“Hopefully I won’t have to use it at all,” Millat said, “but I’ll feel safer having it in my pocket.”

After the clerk rang up the purchase and handed Millat the sap, he told him that, incidentally, “it’s not technically legal to carry one of these around with you. If you get stopped, though, they’ll maybe confiscate it, though, with you,” he said, again looking Millat over, “most likely they’ll just give you a warning.” He leaned over the counter and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. “If you actually have to use the thing,” he said, “me, I’d drop it down a sewer before the cops got there.”

“Okay,” Millat said, “but chances are I’ll never have to use it.”

“Perfect.” The clerk reached over the counter for a fist bump, which Millat delivered.

At Stav’s apartment, he hung up his jacket in the hall closet, with the sap in its pocket, before joining Stav in the kitchen, where she was washing her hands at the sink.

“I got takeout again,” she said, peeking back over her shoulder. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Millat put his arms around her waist and rested his head on her shoulder. Stav twisted around to kiss him on the cheek. He asked what she’d ordered and she told him General Tso.

“Nice and greasy,” Millat said. “Just what I wanted, something to stick to my ribs.”

As if timed perfectly in response, the delivery guy buzzed and Millat went down to pick up their dinner. At the table, spooning rice and gooey clumps of chicken onto their plates, Stav initiated the conversation they were both waiting on. “So,” she said, “what happened with Greg at work?”

“I’m meeting him at the park tonight at eight, at the fountain.” He pushed a steaming black container of chicken to Stav. “He suggested the park. I suspect he wanted people around in case I was thinking about drowning him in the fountain.”

“He’s such a piece of shit,” Stav said, and her eyes teared up. She tossed a clump of chicken onto her rice, put her fork down, and placed her hands flat on either side of her plate. “He’s had every advantage in life: rich parents, private schools; he marries Eugenia, who’s worth a small fortune; her father gets him an executive position in the company; they vacation all over the world; they’ve got a second home in the Hamptons, on the water—and all that’s not enough for him? He’s got to have me, too?” She pushed her plate away. “I thought he was our friend,” she added, the anger in her voice giving way to a mix of sadness and disbelief. “I thought he was your friend.”

Millat pushed her plate back in front of her. “You should eat,” he said. “I noticed you didn’t eat any breakfast this morning.”

“I don’t think I’ve eaten a thing since he stuck his fat tongue in my mouth.”

Millat toyed with a piece of chicken before placing his fork down on his plate and handing Stav his napkin. As she blotted tears from her eyes, he thought he could see the long history of her family written in the lines of her face: great grandparents and family lost to the pogroms; grandparents and family lost to the Nazis; her own parents fleeing the antisemitism they faced in Ireland only to trade it for American antisemitism, where at least, at last, in the West, no one was being tortured, imprisoned, and murdered. Here, in New York, she had made a good life for herself, and Millat was proud to be a part of that life. Greg had to pay for disrupting it. “What do you want to do?” he asked. “Have you thought about it?”

“I have,” Stav said. I’ve been thinking about it all day.” She crushed the napkin in her hand, put her fist down on the table, and took a moment to think.

Millat said, “I thought he was our friend, too. But you don’t do something like this to a friend.”

“Men do all the time.” Stav’s expression switched quickly back to anger. “Boyfriends, husbands—”

“Some men,” Millat interrupted. “Most men are decent. You know that.”

“I don’t know that I do know that.” Stav blotted her eyes again with the crumpled-up napkin. “I don’t know that men can be trusted. Any man.”

Millat looked away. He wasn’t about to get into an argument with Stav over the trustworthiness of men, though he did deeply believe that most men were decent and could be trusted to behave honorably. Greg, though—he still hadn’t fully processed it. He knew that what had happened had, in fact, happened, but he didn’t understand it. He had been going back over the many instances and memories of Greg and Stav flirting with each other—but it had always been friendly, transacted in Millat’s presence. In private, talking about Greg with each other, it was clear that Stav liked him, but thought of him as lacking any real depth of character—or, if he had any, it was carefully hidden beneath a barrage of wittiness and banter. He was a nice guy, fun to spend time with, but there’s not a lot going on beneath the surface.

“Maybe,” Millat said, wanting to change the subject, “a guy like Greg, growing up with so much privilege, thinks he can get away with this kind of shit.”

“Maybe,” Stav said, and she took her first bite of dinner. After a sip of water, she said, “Anyway, this is where I’ve landed.”

She put her hands down flat on the table, on either side of her plate. “I want him to give up his job, and I want a face-to-face apology, with you and Eugenia present—and if he refuses to do either, I’ll go to his father-in-law, to Eugenia, to his business associates, his church; I’ll talk to everyone we know; and I’ll write an op-ed about what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world where we can never feel safe, not even around men we thought were our friends—and I’ll make it obvious to anyone who knows us exactly who I’m talking about. I’ve got a connection at The Times—Nikki, my friend from grad school—so placing it there is a definite possibility. Let’s see how long his marriage lasts after Eugenia finds out—and let’s see how long it takes her father to have him fired.”

Millat, to give himself a second or two longer to consider Stav’s demands, reached across the table and put his hands over hers. “That’s fair,” he said, finally, before getting back to his dinner. “I mean,” he added a moment later, “he’s fucked no matter what he does. If he apologizes, Eugenia knows and he’s out of work. If he denies, Eugenia knows and he’s probably out of work anyway, at least eventually.”

“Maybe.” Stav stirred her rice and chicken as if blending colors on a pallet. “If he’s smart, and does the right thing, he’ll apologize and live with the consequences. He’ll get to confess to Eugenia on his own terms and leave his job on his own terms. It will be only the four of us who have to know what he did. I think that’s pretty generous of me. If he denies it, I tell Eugenia and everyone he’s ever known. We get a lawyer and I go to the police. I’ll use legacy media, social media, and face-to-face encounters. People will know I’m telling the truth.” She put her fork down and pushed it to the side. “You know Eugenia,” she said to Millat. “She’s been looking for an excuse to kick him out for as long as we’ve known them. No way his marriage will survive this, or his job—but at least if he apologizes the whole world won’t have to know, and he has a better chance of putting his life back together. Damn,” she added after a moment’s pause. She bowed her head, covered her face with her hands, and sobbed.

Millat went around behind her, kissed her on the back of her head, and rubbed her shoulders.

“You tell him that,” Stav whispered.

Millat kissed her again and said he would.

 

In a cab, on the way to the park, Millat ran his thumb along the smooth black leather of the sap in his jacket pocket. He indulged a brief fantasy of luring Greg into a dark corner of the park and beating him like a dog, pinning him down, holding a hand over his mouth, and cracking the weighted head of the sap into both knees until they turned to mush. Something about Stav’s plan had bothered him from the start, but only then, in the cab, was he coming to see that he wanted revenge—his own personal, bodily revenge. Stav had suffered the attack, but Millat, too, felt that he had suffered an outrage. Something within him, a thing beyond words and reasoning, had been poked, and it was slowly, moment by moment, awakening. It quivered in the pit of his stomach, sending a rush of blood buzzing through his body, until he had to swallow, open the cab window, and shake his head to quiet the thing, to push it back down.

At the park, he found Greg waiting for him at the terrace, looking down at the crowd around the fountain. He came up behind him and stopped to look him over. Like Millat, he was still in the same suit he had worn to work. He leaned over the terrace, his elbows on the railing, his hands clasped together. Altogether, he looked like the least dangerous man in the world, the light from below shining up onto his pale face, outlining his neatly cut short hair and middle-aged body, with the beginning of a serious belly pushing against the lower buttons of his shirt. He looked like a comfortable man lost in his own thoughts, out for a stroll after dinner, taking a moment to think and people watch. Millat called his name and pointed to a trail that led away from the bright lights and the crowds around the fountain. “Let’s get someplace a little more private,” he said, “so we can talk freely.”

Greg sighed and frowned in a way that suggestion exasperation. He looked off at the shadowy trail and back to Millat. “That leads to The Ramble,” he said, “which is notoriously dark and dangerous this time of night.”

“Why?” Millat said. “Are you worried about being attacked?”

Greg looked at the shadowy trail again and shrugged. “Okay, but not far.” He pushed off the terrace and started for the trail, walking alongside Millat. “Let me begin,” he said after a few moments of walking in silence. “I’m sorry.” He stopped and looked into Millat’s eyes. “I don’t know what came over me,” he added. “I just—all I can say is, I’m truly, deeply sorry. I just sincerely, I just don’t know what came over me. I swear.”

Millat pointed up the trail. “There’s a bench a little way up, around the bend. We can sit and talk there.”

Greg looked up the trail, hesitant. “Okay,” he said, after a moment, “but no farther than that.”

“First,” Millat said, once they’d started walking again. “You’re full of shit. It wasn’t a momentary thing that just came over you somehow. It wasn’t a momentary lapse of some sort. You showed up at Stav’s soon after I left for the gym, where you know I go religiously on Sunday mornings. You planned it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d been outside watching, waiting for me to leave.”

“That’s not true,” Greg answered softly, in a near whisper.

“What’s not true?” Millat said, the anger he was suppressing coming out clearly in his question. “Are you telling me you don’t know I go to the gym on Sunday mornings?”

“No, I know that. But I wasn’t lurking outside your building.”

“Okay, great. So you just waited until you knew I wouldn’t be there and then showed up.”

Greg shrugged. “You might not have been there at all,” he said. “It’s not like you live together.”

Millat reached into his pocket and closed his hand around the sap.

“But, okay,” Greg said. “You’re right. I figured you wouldn’t be there.”

“And you what?” Millat asked. “You thought you’d be alone with Stav and she’d sleep with you?”

“Come on, Millat!” A note of pleading entered Greg’s voice. “It’s not like she hasn’t been flirting with me forever.”

Millat said nothing, though the thing in his stomach stood up, fully awake. His arms and legs shook with an infusion of blood. He walked side by side with Greg in silence until they rounded a bend and came up on a park bench.

Greg said, “This is as far as I’m going,” and took a seat on the bench.

Millat sat alongside him.

Greg nodded toward Millat’s hand, where it was hidden in his pocket. “What the fuck have you got there?” he asked. “Is that a gun? Are you going to shoot me in fucking Central Park, where about a hundred people already saw us together?”

“Maybe,” Millat said. “I’m thinking about it.”

“Bullshit.” Greg leaned forward and clasped his hands behind his head. “This is fucking crazy.”

Millat looked down at the back of Greg’s head. He lifted the sap halfway out of his pocket, hesitated, and then pushed it back down. Calmly, he relayed Stav’s conditions to Greg. “Your choice,” he said. “She’s waiting for me to report back to her.”

Greg had been slowly shaking his head while he listened. When he sat up, he said, “For God’s sake, Millat. I’m not doing that. I made a mistake. It’ll never happen again. Please, talk some sense into her. She’ll ruin all our lives. It was a mistake. That’s all. A mistake.”

Millat, still strangely calm, still holding tight to the sap, said, “It wasn’t just a mistake, Greg. You attacked my wife.”

“She’s not your wife!” Greg shot back. “And what the fuck are you holding in your pocket?”

“She’s as much my wife as Eugenia is yours,” Millat said. “Court papers don’t make a marriage.”

“Well, actually, they do.” Something shifted in Greg’s voice. His obvious fear had merged suddenly with sullenness, a reluctant acceptance of his situation—and a burst of anger. “Maybe where you come from a legal marriage doesn’t matter,” he went on, “but it does here.”

“Where I come from?” Millat slid away from Greg. “You mean West Virginia?”

“I meant the Middle East, but come to think of it, sure, West Virginia, too.”

Millat stared at Greg with something close to wonder. Never, not once in all the years he’d known him, had Greg ever said anything like this. It was as if Greg had undergone a transformation before his eyes: he saw a small, ugly animal gnawing within him, a creature vicious and mean trapped under smooth white skin and wrapped in an expensive suit. He let go of the sap, stood, and started back toward the fountain without another word. Behind him, Greg called out, urgently repeating his name—Millat! Millat!—but he ignored him.

At the fountain, the crowd hadn’t diminished at all. There were still people milling about, enjoying the summery weather, and now a couple of young men with saxophones were softly playing the opening, repetitive strains of Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” Millat waited beside the fountain, looking up at the angel and the cherubs, before he leaned over the pool, cupped a bit of water in one hand, and brought it to his forehead, as if baptizing himself. One of the young sax players jumped up suddenly and blasted into a loud solo. When everyone turned to look, Millat pulled the sap from his pocket and tossed it into the fountain’s upper basin.

He was glad Greg had refused to apologize. “Good,” he said aloud, “let Stav rain all hell down on him,” and he hurried back to share the news.

 

Photo courtesy of John Weiss; view more of his work on Flickr.

Ed Falco is the author of fourteen books, including novels, story collections, and poetry collections. His latest book is the poetry collection Wolf Moon Blood Moon (LSU, 2017). His two previous books are the novels Toughs (Unbridled Books, 2014) and The Family Corleone (Grand Central, 2012). He has published short stories widely in journals and …

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