This story was requested by a friend, who wanted me to try something related to a certain archetypal character that shall remain nameless, but who I’m sure you can figure out by the end of reading this. I was looking to cheat on my novel between knocking out the first draft and beginning a revision; this is what came out. I actually had started this as a quite ordinary “girl waits outside of a bar” tale, which felt like it was going nowhere — till I transformed the male character into the archetype in question, and then the idea finally came alive in my mind. I now realize there’s a reason why this archetype has such enduring power — because using it poses really fascinating existential questions that I only touched upon here. Needless to say, maybe my man of the hour will turn up elsewhere…
I hope my friend likes this, although I have a feeling it’s not quite what she intended. I quite enjoyed having an “assignment” to interpret, though. If anyone has any “requests” for me, please do let me know at kat (at) nogoodforme (dot) com.
The whole story is below. PDF and ePub format available for those who hate reading in a Web browser, like I do.
Clara stood in front of the Tribeca Grand Hotel on a cold November night, staring at the screen of her phone. It displayed only the date and time. It did not display a notification that said, “1 new message from Tim Abdington,” which is what she wanted it to say.
She threw the phone back into her fake Louis Vuitton bag and stood there shivering in her fishnet stockings and gladiator heels as the burly doorman eyed her, huddling against the freezing, windy cold. She did not want to go back inside because the bar was crowded, and it was filled with Wall Street businessmen looking to pick up girls. She wanted a drink, but she didn’t particularly feel like pretending to find something funny when she did not — especially in such a bad mood as this. It was too high of a price to pay for a free drink.
Where could he be? she wondered. Clara had met Tim at a party in Bushwick. It was at an Indonesian noise band’s performance in a huge loft, and she could barely make out what Tim was saying to her through the sheer din of distorted guitar feedback and gamelan chiming. But she could clearly see that he was tall, lanky, and artfully disheveled in clothing, hairstyle and even accent, which was vaguely Californian in execution. They talked about bands, they talked about vegan restaurants, and they also talked about his art, which was something he called “action sculpture.” Apparently “action sculpture” consisted of building ramps and small structures, destroying them with motorbikes and cars, and then “embalming” the remains. Clara got lost in the “embalming” part, but it didn’t matter because they both regarded one another as sexy, and were paying more attention to each other’s mouths than to the words that were coming out of them.
Clara did not sleep with Tim that night, but she let him touch her boobs in the taxi. He had nice hands. They exchanged numbers and had spent the whole week texting. The texts between them had been extremely flirtatious and vaguely suggestive in nature, but she had been careful not to be too accessible. Clara was a very attractive girl and had perfected a strategy of building up anticipation to the point of irrational thinking, and then finishing off her prey with a wallop of sexual prowess. She assumed Tim would be no different from her past liaisons, and they had texted plans to meet here for some drinks where, afterwards, she hoped they would do it.
But where the hell was he? she thought to herself, irritated. She scowled, the expression temporarily marring the usual serene, almost virginal quality of her beauty. Sighing, she dug up the phone from her bag again, peering down at it in the darkness. Only the date and time glowed from the small screen.
“It’s quite cold for this standing in the dark, don’t you find?” said a voice near her.
Clara looked up from her phone with annoyance and discovered a man standing about a foot away. He was tall and thin, but other than that, he was not to her usual taste. He was dressed simply in a long black overcoat and black trousers, which broke elegantly over a pair of Italian leather oxfords. A black scarf wound around his neck and settled in a fall of expensive cashmere over his shoulder, framing a pale, finely-drawn face and longish, tousled dark hair. He wore black leather gloves, the material so supple that it glistened underneath the street lights. Well-dressed, she judged, but not her type. Clara didn’t really dig dandies or Eurotrash.
She immediately became defensive with the kind of entrenched disinterest that New York women put up to shield themselves from the interest of unwanted suitors. “I’m not that cold,” she shrugged, looking back down at her phone. Only the date and time showed, and only a minute had passed since she had last looked at it.
The man only smiled, turning up the collar of his overcoat and pulling out a pack of cigarettes. “Don’t worry, I do not impose. But would it not be a pity to stand in the cold here together and not share a cigarette? Would you keep company with me and the pleasures of a dying vice, if only for a few minutes?” He held out the cigarettes to her, his longish hair whipping against his sharp cheekbones in the early winter wind.
Clara looked at the cigarettes, which were nestled in a silver case inlaid with strange curlicues of jade, sapphires and rubies, forming a kind of abstract dragon. It would normally be such a gaudy accessory, especially in a season of the new minimalism – but against the sober, strict blackness of his silhouette, it was striking. A strange, sweet, balsam-like fragrance wafted invitingly from the cigarettes. They smelled nothing like the usual Parliaments or Marlboros.
“Please,” said the man, his voice resonant and deep. “They are from Paris, made from tobacco grown in the wilds of Alsace.” His voice curled around the words in a strange way. Not quite an accent – or if it was, it was hard to place. Clara found it a little pretentious, but that didn’t stop her from taking a cigarette from the case.
“Life is short as it is,” the man said meditatively as he lit her cigarette. “We may as well share the span of it with our fellow travelers. Me, with my vice. You, as you wait for your evening’s company. For that is why you look at your phone so much, no?”
“You talk funny,” said Clara after pulling a drag, her voice hard and bright against the strange sibilance of his own. She meant to be rude – she didn’t like to be reminded that she was still waiting for that shithead Tim.
“The product of a transatlantic life, I am afraid. Your accent intrigues me as well.”
Clara thought to herself that she didn’t find the man’s accent intriguing as much as put-upon, especially in a city where foreign accents seemed to up a dude’s hotness quotient, even when he wasn’t that objectively hot. But she only shrugged again, smoking her cigarette. “I’m from Texas.”
The man laughed, which rankled Clara. “Texas! How delightful. I confess I have never been to Texas. It seems to be a quite interesting place.”
Clara thought the man sounded condescending. “It’s the biggest state in the Union,” she said coldly.
“That is not true,” said the man with a careless arrogance, as if in total command of all of Wikipedia in his brain. “That honor goes to Alaska. It is a fact Alaskans hold much store by. They revel in their state’s vast landscape, and wish maps were drawn more accurately to reflect their geographic supremacy.”
“Oh, yeah? Have you been there?” Clara said, a bit sarcastically.
“Oh, I have been everywhere,” the man replied simply. “Paris, Zurich, London, Rio, Dakar, Mexico City, Beijing, Los Angeles. Montreal, Sydney, Lagos, Tokyo, Vienna, Bangkok. Abidjan, Morocco, Dublin, Santiago, St. Petersberg, Berlin, Istanbul.” He scowled. “Istanbul, very unpleasant city. I do not recommend it. Luckily there are many more charming places in the world.” He continued rattling off names of more cities, even ones where Clara had no idea what country they belonged to. Clara had to admit that it was impressive how much he had traveled, although she was careful to hide it.
“I have been on every continent,” said the man, clearly a bit vain about his travels.
“You haven’t been to Antarctica. Antarctica’s a continent,” corrected Clara, getting back at him for the Texas- Alaska remark.
But the man only shrugged. “Antarctica, it is very cold. It freezes the blood. I have no interest in it.”
“Why not? It’s the one place most people never get to see. One would think someone like you would love to show off that you’ve been to Antarctica.”
“I’m a people person, as you Americans enjoy to say,” he said, his words dusted with a faint tinge of irony.
“Like to say,” corrected Clara again.
The man only smiled. “Like to say,” he repeated amiably. He took a connoisseur’s drag of his cigarette, and his eyes dropped to the phone that Clara still clutched in her hands. She quickly tossed it back in her bag, irritated again to be reminded again that some dude was neglecting her. “Where is your young man?” asked the man, his voice slightly sardonic.
“I don’t know,” snapped Clara.
The man said nothing for a moment, crossing his arms and looking far off into the darkness of the street, where the rest of New York glittered in the background. “All my travels, and so many things remain the same the world over. No matter where I go, there is always everywhere a young girl who waits in the night for a gentleman, who will inevitably fail to show up. It makes me sad to see this, all these lovely young women, so neglected by those whose eyes cannot see anything beyond their own petty concerns to behold the beauty that is before them.”
Clara scoffed. “Yeah, I’m sure you’ve never stood up a girl before.” But in her head, she imagined herself yelling at Tim, telling him off about being too caught up in his own petty concerns to realize what a catch she was. Behold this, asshole! And then she’d throw a drink at him and stomp off in her stiletto heels.
The man smiled, as if guessing the amusing scenario in her thoughts. “I have never treated a woman as if she were a casual entertainment. It is against my honor to be so dismissive of another,” said the man. He turned to Clara, her eyes meeting his own icy blue ones for the first time. They were strange eyes, of the lightest blue, pale and watery – like the dying gasp of dawn. Clara shivered but could not look away, feeling strangely as if all of Antarctica were contained inside them.
“You’re not like most guys in this town then,” said Clara, her voice flat and bitter. Even in the cold she sounded brittle and wary, angry at being disappointed yet again. She looked away from the man, suddenly utterly miserable.
They were both silent for a moment, the only sound between them being the deep inhales from those perfumed cigarettes.
“You are sad,” said the man gently. “I am sorry to have made you so.”
“It’s not your fault.” It was the first kind thing Clara had said all night, although she was angry as she said it. She threw her cigarette down and stomped it out. “He’s just a shithead.”
The man smiled indulgently. “You cannot expect anything else from those with such existential limitations.”
Clara didn’t know what he really meant, but she liked the sound of it. “What do you mean?” she asked, interested despite herself.
“Of all animals, only man has a true capacity to know time and its finiteness,” the man said, his voice soft and faraway. “He has perfected the management of time, but he still does not grasp its true nature.”
Clara gave him a look: Whaaaa?
“We fill time as if we can control the events that surround us, thinking we can make fate come and go as we please,” he continued patiently. “But it has been my experience that this is not true.” He looked strangely sad, as if remembering a list of past hurts, his pale blue eyes filling with the smoke of memory and sorrow.
But then he looked back at Clara, and the clouds in his blue eyes cleared as they shone onto her. “I have many, many faults, but operating under the illusion that such beauty and loveliness will always surround me is not one of them.”
Clara was a little weirded out by the man, but had to admit that she found the homage to her beauty and loveliness prettily done, if a little cheesy. Maybe it was something you could train a man out of, she thought to herself. For the first time, she smiled. It transformed the hardness and disappointment of her face into the innocent openness it had when she first came to New York years ago.
Later that night, Clara came home, where her insomniac roommate Simone was still awake, watching some cop show on cable. “How was Tim?” asked Simone, stretching out into a yawn. It was nearly dawn.
Clara shrugged. “Tim’s a fucking asshole.” She rolled her eyes as she slipped off her jacket and hung it up, tugging down her dress that had crept up on the car ride home. She kicked off her heels warily, sending them stumbling onto the floor. “Tim bailed on me. He never showed, the jerk.”
Simone got a crafty look on her face. “But you still managed to be out late,” she said slyly, her voice full of insinuation.
“Yeah, a dark horse entered the race, you could say.”
Simone’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “Who?”
Clara smiled mysteriously. “Just some dude from Romania.” But she wouldn’t say anything more to Simone, saying she was exhausted before she went to her room and shut the door.
Nestled in bed, Clara replayed the last few hours of her night, staring at the shadows of the trees outside against her bedroom walls. The man had taken Clara out for drinks at a very quiet but very expensive wine bar in the West Village. He had paid for everything, ordering glass after glass of Malbec, and listened to her with exquisite attention as she chattered. It was kind of fun, in a very old-world, sophisticated way.
Only one thing bothered her at the end of the night. The man had called his private car service to take her home, insisting it was the proper thing to do. Clara was expecting him to kiss her, but instead, the man merely caressed her check and thanked her for the lovely evening before putting her into the car.
“I hope we have many more lovely evenings, Clara,” he had said, his voice wrapping around her name with a certain pleasure. He refused to let her program his number into her phone, saying he never wanted his name entered in such abominable things, and instead handed over his business card. “You will call me soon, I hope,” he said.
Clara was confused. He really wasn’t going to even try and kiss her? Unbelievable, and she had even started to like him. “You should come over,” she said. No use being coy about it, especially when it was as late as it was.
“Is that an invitation?” he smiled. “Perhaps later.” And then he shut the door of the sedan. Clara gave her address to his driver and the car sped away, taking her over the Brooklyn Bridge.
Now, in bed, she looked at the card, a fancy embossed thing on expensive, beautifully textured paper. She laughed a little at the name she found there. Who the fuck is named Vladimir these days? she thought to herself, smirking.
The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was the shadows on the wall whipping back and forth, like the man’s hair against his cheekbones as he held out his cigarettes to her.