Tongue Tricks
Christopher Shelley

At nine o’clock in the evening, on the phone, I am Hugh. Somewhere in the city, holding another phone, is Emma, a dancer. Emma is smitten with Hugh, a jolly, self-effacing Brit in town for a conference. He is light hearted, his hesitant quips make her laugh, and she has agreed to meet him tomorrow for a stroll on the West Side of Manhattan.

Later, near eleven o’clock, when my voice grows tired and my ear is sore from being pressed to the phone for so long, I am Olivier. Veronica, a receptionist, is wild about Olivier, a Frenchman with a gruff voice and a casual disregard for great expectations, and she agrees to meet him tonight for a drink.

When I hang up the phone and look in the mirror, I am Jake, a heavy-hearted, plain American with a casual disregard for himself, a man who would love to leave the country for a bit. I would love to leave New York City. I would love to leave my apartment. I would love to leave the room, but the only other room is the bathroom, and there is another mirror there, another dead end, another me.

One lonely, drunken evening, I arrived home late and slumped into my one dining-table chair, flipping through a two-day-old newspaper, where I saw the ad, down in the corner of the page, between the want ads and the sports section. A gorgeous, smiling woman held a phone to her ear. A phone number stretched across her waist like a belt. Hundreds of singles in my area! I pressed buttons on my cordless phone while wandering around barefoot in the shadows of my apartment. I created an accurate description of myself and what I was looking for, which was...what? What do you think of, on the spot? Love, I guessed, a real love, a connection, someone I liked who would prefer to pass the time with me. I put myself and what I thought was my extraordinarily simple request out there and received messages from women looking for husbands, for men who were “down to earth,” whatever that meant. The women had lists of prerequisites and expectations. I spoke on the phone as myself, as Jake, and Jake, for one reason or another, did not meet any woman’s criteria. I did not have a steady job. I was not into long walks on the beach. I did not desire children. I was not forty-five to fifty-five years old. I did not know how to “keep it real,” whatever that meant. Each woman had her own version of a man who was everything, and all of me added up to too little.

Leaving messages and listening to messages was not satisfying. I did not meet anyone. I felt no connection. In fact, all I felt was disconnection.

I tried the live chat line, thrilled at the idea that at that very moment my lips were at some woman’s ear. I became hooked on it, despite my continuing failure to meet anyone interesting. Once the initial charm volleys bounced to a stop and we got to asking questions, I still fell below expectations.

Then, in the middle of a conversation with a lonely nurse from Flushing, a conversation that both of us were trying politely to bring to a close, a thought occurred to me. I had wandered in front of my closet and remembered that at the bottom of it, in a box, is my diploma from Boston University, a fine institution that conferred upon me a bachelor’s degree in acting, a license to lie, a degree which until that point had been as valuable as the paper it was printed on. I thought, if being me isn’t working out, why not be someone else? I stopped revealing and started creating. My new names came from Hollywood movie stars—Hugh from Hugh Grant, Colin from Colin Farrell, Olivier from Olivier Martinez. On the phone, my lips in a woman’s ear, the power of suggestion was everything. I moved on from the nurse. The next woman asked me about myself and, what the hell, I’d spent ten years paying off my student loans. I made up another story. I spoke to woman after woman, from all over the country and changed my accent over and over, the main talent, it seemed, that I’d acquired from my theatrical training. Acting jobs were not coming my way, so I justified the phone call performances by considering them practice. It became an obsession. At night I would perform on the phone. In the daytime I would walk up Ninth Avenue wondering if I’d spoken to any of the women I passed on the sidewalks. I wondered if any of them were remembering their previous night’s conversation with that man Hugh, in town on business, or Colin, waiting for one last paycheck before buying a plane ticket back to Ireland, or Olivier, trying to find an evening’s companion, someone with whom he could share a bottle of wine, before he flew back to Paris, to his dying mother.

Soon I was chancing live dates with these women, fleshing out my characters with costumes and mannerisms to go with the voice. I tried to tell myself that by playing these characters, I was actually being more honest. Acting, after all, is what I do. I become others. I am not me. I am others.

Whoever I was, I was still alone.

The phone rings and Olivier answers, expecting Veronica, to whom he spoke only minutes ago, to whom he gave the number to his “friend” Jake’s place, the place he has been staying in while in New York.

“’Allo?” says Olivier.

“What’s with the freaking accent?” asks Jake’s sister—that is, my sister, Janet.

“What accent?” I say, in my normal, American standard broadcaster’s voice.

“The accent you just used. Was that French? It needs work.”

“No, it was perfect. Trust me. I always got A’s in dialect class.”

I tell her about the chat line, because I tell her about everything.

“You’re going to go to hell for this, you realize,” she says.

I ignore this, putting on my watch and searching for my keys. “What did you call for, sis?”

“Nothing. You want to see a movie tomorrow?”

“I have an afternoon date, but after that I’m free. What happened to that guy Thomas?”

I hear the sound of a match being lit during the pause on her end. “I’d rather not discuss that creep jerk bozo. A lunch date, huh?” I hear her take a pull on a cigarette. “How exciting for you.”

“Her name is Emma and, yes, she sounds like fun, thank you.”

Another cigarette pull. “Wonderful. Call me when you’re done putting on your little show.”

* * *

When I leave the apartment, I am Olivier.

I have not shaved for several days. My hair is long, to my shoulders, and straight, so it can fall in Olivier’s eyes. Olivier likes to hide in his disillusionment. I can shave and pull the hair back to reveal Hugh’s boyish face. Colin can go either way, facial growth or fresh shave, hair down or back or tousled, it doesn’t matter; he’s too fidgety for a woman to notice. Olivier wears a black sport coat over a black ensemble. Black under black on black.

I go to a windowless bar on Lafayette called Temple Bar, where Olivier is to meet Veronica. The bar feels like it is inside a sunset. Between the dark of my clothing and the burgundy glow of the bar, I feel like a shadow sitting there stirring my drink, waiting to see Veronica for the first time. She has described herself as an attractive Julianne Moore type, which suggests to me that she is a Caucasian redhead with an exaggerated sense of her own beauty. We were to meet at eleven. I wait for Veronica and I smile inwardly at the fact that Julianne Moore is a Boston University grad, like me. At eleven fifteen, she steps into the back room and squints through the dark redness. I have leaned forward over my drink so my bangs cover my face, the telling detail she is looking for. She sees me and smiles. She is indeed a redhead, her hair is short and spiky, which is nothing like Julianne Moore’s, but she does have an admirable figure, on which she carries a thin red blouse that reveals two cold nipples. Her skirt seems too tight for her legs to move. For some reason she tiptoes over to me as if she is doing something sneaky, as if trying not to wake anybody up. Her face is all grin and she appears to be having the time of her life. As she gets close I realize that she is perhaps eight years older than she told me she was. I do not know how this will go; this may be the only point in the evening that either of us enjoys—the inherent thrill of the recognition moment, when a face is linked with a voice.

“Olivier?” she asks.

“Veronique,” says Olivier. I clasp her hands, Olivier, he clasps her hands, so grateful that she has come, and we sit down next to each other on the leather sofa running along the wall. I pull a stubborn bang away from my face and lean toward her, thanking her for meeting me, chastising the other women on that phone line, with all of their impossible demands and expectations.

“Sometimes, Veronique, a man just wants to share a quiet glass of wine with a beautiful woman, and be happy for that time, n’est-ce pas?”

“You’re drinking whiskey,” she observes.

“Yes, I am, I am sorry, I was a nervous man sitting down here in the chair waiting for you. Now you are here and we must, please, have the bottle of wine. I have been studying this,” I hold up a wine list, “this description page and I know what we will have. Alors.” I get the waitress’ attention and order.

When the bottle arrives, and the glasses are poured, Olivier takes the bottle in his hands and I hold it like it is a woman, like I may hold Veronica if she falls for my ludicrous creation. We drink the blood-warm merlot from squat glasses and all is dark shades of red from the lights and the bottle. As I listen to Veronica chatter away, I know that I could never date her for very long, but I am enjoying myself as Olivier and she is attractive enough and I’d be sitting around alone at home if I weren’t there, so I press on. Time and again Olivier flips the hair from his face and leans a little closer to Veronica, who seems to enjoy the entire performance. Her eyes dart around the bar every few minutes, as if, perhaps, she should not be there, as if she could be recognized.

“Veronique, your eyes are wild. Is there another man you are not telling me about?” asks Olivier. “Am I putting you in an awkward position? Dites-moi. You can tell me.“

“What? A man? Oh, no, no man, it’s just...I’ve never met anyone like this before,” she says, and I let Olivier seem to believe her. She gushes on about the suddenness of it all, the voice on the phone, now the man next to her, the wine, the lights. “I can’t believe you’re leaving on Tuesday. I...I found you just in time.”

“In time for what, Veronique?” Olivier asks, leaving the question in the air, and she bites her lower lip.

Olivier tells her how grateful he is to have found her among the dozens of desperate voices on the phone, how perfect it is to just sit and talk. His fingertip strays to her thigh and idly runs along it and she does not stop him. I am Olivier and I whisper to her how difficult it has been these past few days, what with my sick mother in need of an operation in Paris, the shock of learning that my brother, that brat, had accepted an overseas job and could no longer look over their our mother. Always avoiding the responsibility, his younger brother, he tells her, and they laugh at the fact that people become more like themselves year by year. And then she talks for several minutes about herself, relating conversations she has had with ridiculous people and what she was thinking during those conversations and I nod and agree and nod and agree with all of Olivier’s heart.

Olivier’s hand, my hand is on the small of her back now, though I do not look at her. I look into the bar area, at the people, all the red people, and I talk and talk about the emptiness of it all. I feel, through my wine buzz, the emptiness of the situation, the fact that Veronica will have no future with Olivier and certainly not with Jake. Yet, when I feel she is hooked on Olivier’s every word, on his every guttural mispronunciation, I turn to her, close, and tell her that after all, we do not have much time. I apologize in advance. The wine has gone to my head, I tell her, she is so beautiful, her skin is so perfect. I tell her I desire her but I tremble for fear of adding a, how do you say, flaw to the moment, and she shakes her head at me as if I am being silly and we kiss. Our red lips press against each other and our merlot-stained tongues thrust and parry.

I take her home in a cab, and the kissing continues as we clatter uptown. We tumble into the vestibule of “my friend’s” crappy little walk-up on Fifty-Fourth Street, to discover my seventy-year-old neighbor, Alice, fetching her mail, at midnight, in the hallway. Alice is wearing a tattered red bathrobe and spectacles. She greets me with sudden delight.

“Jake! Jakey! Out on the town again, Jakey? Hi there,” she says, noticing Veronica.

Olivier stares hard at Alice, who has no idea about Olivier, and says, “’Allo, you must be the neighbor of Jake. I have heard so many nice things he has said. This is Veronica.“

Alice is baffled. “What’s with the funny voice?” she says, smiling at Veronica. “Jake’s a card, isn’t he, Victoria?”

“Veronica,” says Veronica, leaning on one high heel, trying to make sense of the situation.

I want to make a loopy gesture over my head to warn Veronica that Alice is crazy. What kind of woman checks her mail at midnight? But I fear it may already be too late, as the heat from Veronica’s eyes is no longer the heat of amour.

“Jakey can do all kinds of voices, I hear him through the walls,” says Alice, laughing. “La la la la la. He chants like a two-year-old monk. Doo doo doo doo, doe doe doe doe...”

I feel myself slip over a cliff. “Miss Alice, it is so funny of you to mention Jake this way, he is such a comedian with his antics, he make me laugh more than one time.”

“Olivier,” says Veronica, adjusting her blouse with a huff. “There is something I was going to surprise you with in bed, but I don’t think it can wait.”

Alice sorts through her catalogues.

“Oh, yes, I like the surprise of things, yes,” I say, Olivier says, holding on to the edge of the illusory cliff of character with slick fingers.

Veronica says, “Si vous n’etes pas Olivier, et si vous n’en parlez pas Francais, puis ce soir-ci est un cauchemar, un disastre extraordinaire, et je ne veux jamais vous voir encore. ”

I recognize that this is French, but what did she say? I have no idea.

Olivier says, “Well, of course.”

“Jake, huh?” says Veronica. “His name really is Jake?” She directs this to Alice.

“Yup. Been living next to him for six years now, I oughtta know,” says Alice, who turns back to her apartment.

“And he’s American?”

“Yup, apple pie and baseball. OK, goodnight. Nice to meet you, Victrola.” Alice reaches her door and pushes it open and the sound of classical music breathes into the hallway. When she shuts her door, her doorbell rings and there is no more music.

Veronica opens the front door and shows herself out. I stand in the hallway for a moment, wondering who should follow her, Olivier or Jake. I follow her to the street to see her hailing a cab and running toward it. I yell, “Come on, you thought it was fun, didn’t you? I can always be Olivier!”

She turns back before she ducks into the cab and yells, “Screw you, you liar!” The cab pulls away and I try to remember that murdering Alice would be illegal, messy, and difficult to explain.

* * *

At lunch the next day, I am Hugh.

I shave and whisk my hair behind the hook of my ears. Hugh is fresh and clean and dressed in casual-dapper-fetching, button-down shirt, slacks and sports jacket. I head to the Lincoln Center fountain and do slow pacing laps about the roar of rushing water. I stop when I feel a woman staring in my direction, through the falling spray of the fountain. We regard each other, strangers staring as blank as cameras, neither of us wishing to be the first to reveal our identity. She is lovely. She is tranquility. She is a still glass of water on a clean table in a quiet room.

I lower a curtain first. “Emma?” I say, loudly, over the water, and she smiles, and I make a great show of how awfully sappy she must find me to be in choosing such a hideously cliché meeting place. She is grace. She is comfort. She doesn’t seem to mind. We walk, if simply taking steps is walking, and she confesses to being in love with Lincoln Center. Emma is a dancer of some kind and wears a summer dress. Her posture is exquisite. Her hair is tied up in a bun, exposing a pale, delicious-looking neck. We have a lovely stroll about the Upper West Side, casually getting to know each other as we only half notice the stores, which I am referring to as shops, and which, of course, I am pretending to have never seen before, seeing as I have only been visiting for a few days. Hugh’s hands jingle coins in my pocket; Emma holds her hands together behind her back. Her voice is as easy and smooth as her strolling pace, and her words are wrapped in smiles. She tells me about dancing and growing up in the city and I am so fascinated that I nearly forget Hugh. Hugh tells her about the town in England where he grew up, Hampshire, which he tells her she has probably never heard of, but she has. I cobble together some fake memories of the place, which I share with her before quickly changing the subject. When each of us becomes self-conscious, remembering that we are on a date, we make jokes at the tag sales and extraordinary prices in the stores. “I mean, really,” says Hugh. “Three hundred dollars for an umbrella? Outrageous. I don’t care what this art muck is on the pattern.”

“It’s Manet,” says Emma. Her voice is easy and calm. Hugh finds her, I find her, delightful.

“Manet,” muses Hugh. “Is he any good, do you suppose?” Hugh and Emma laugh and continue on to other shops, while talking about art and how nice it is to sit in a big museum on a cold winter’s day. Making eye contact becomes easier.

We stroll into the cool relief of a shady side street. She tells Hugh about how difficult it is to find a gentleman in New York. “It’s difficult to find anyone if you work a lot, like I do,” she says. “It feels so backwards, meeting in person. Men approach me because of how I look, which isn’t surprising, I mean it’s all you have to go on until you talk, and then when you do it’s often so disappointing. So I tried out that phone line. No bodies involved, just a lot of voices, and you can determine character from voices pretty easily. I was so thrilled to talk with you. You probably don’t know this, but most of the men on that line are complete idiots. You were such a relief to find. You seemed intelligent and sincere and I really appreciated talking with you.” She laughs at herself. “Obviously.”

“And I enjoyed talking with you. Obviously. It’s lonely, doing these conferences. Honestly, I never thought I’d find you...I mean, someone like you. I never thought it would be like this. I figured I’d be driving myself crazy trying to find something to talk about.”

“This is...easy, isn’t it?” says Emma.

“Yes,” says Hugh. “Frightfully easy. If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re delightful.”

Emma smiles at Hugh, and thanks him with her expression. “I’m so sorry I’m only meeting you now, Hugh. I can’t believe you’re leaving.”

“Damn shame,” says Hugh, the pocket coin jingling pausing. “You’re lovely, you know. I’d...I’d love to spend more time with you. I suppose we shall have to settle for being pen pals. Do you at least have all afternoon?”

“I have all afternoon,” she says, her voice sending a comforting chill all over my brain. I want to turn Hugh off and tell her I’m Jake, but I’m afraid to ruin everything. Hugh is alive and charming and leaving.

“Splendid,” he says.

Hugh and Emma spend the day wandering through the stores, trading shy looks at each other. I look at her and get lost in the unhurried pace of her voice. I remember that she sees Hugh looking at her and this startles me into stammering something, anything to keep up the illusion of Hugh. “Fantastic neighborhood,“ Hugh says, wiping a strand of hair away from my cheek. “One could spend hours getting lost here.”

With every step I realize the inherent drawback in my charade: I cannot maintain a character forever, therefore falling in love is out of the question. The impermanence of my trick gives it its strength and at the same time renders the trick useless. I wonder if I’ve really been pursuing this game to see if I could achieve love, or just if I could pull off the act. Was this just a bitter, sick way of using my degree in acting? What was my goal, really? Emma takes one hand from behind her back and places it behind my elbow to guide me into a left turn, across Central Park West, and when I turn she places her arm behind her back again and we continue our stroll, and somehow in that moment I feel that I would follow her anywhere. In that moment, somehow, I realize that my goal is her.

She leads me, Hugh, to Central Park, where we lie under a tree and Hugh catches a stray Frisbee before it chucks her on the head. Emma collapses back to the grass, laughing, and Hugh can’t help himself.

“I’m sorry,” he says, tossing the Frisbee back to the young girl who threw it.

“Sorry for what?” says Emma.

“I’m sorry for...It’s just, you’re lying there, lovely, and the day, the air, and I can’t quite make sense of this, of you and...I’m afraid I’m babbling a bit...” and before he can babble a babble more, she pulls him down to her and kisses him, deeply, softly, and the grass is the grass and the breeze is the breeze and she is a woman and I am a man and every single thing in the world is exactly what it should be.

* * *

Emma and Hugh part late that afternoon so that she can attend a prior engagement with a group of college girlfriends. Emma and Hugh exchange e-mail addresses and agree to write, of course, and they laugh at the idea of her visiting him in London, for another afternoon that I quietly know will never happen. I stroll away from her, turning to her with one last jolly wave, a rock slipping through the depths of my stomach to the murky bottom. When I turn she is standing in front of the monument at Columbus Circle, facing me full on and watching me. I turn and walk back to her and kiss her one last time. I hold her to me for I don’t know how long, trying to memorize the smell of her hair and the muscles in her back. Finally we pull apart from each other and she sniffs and looks at her shoes. She speaks so softly I can barely hear her. “Go,” she says. “Walk away now.”

I say, “Right, well...” and then turn to walk away again. When I look back a second time, I see that she is walking away, staring at the ground before her feet.

* * *

I meet Janet later that evening. We see a movie, a loud Hollywood effort, with things exploding and people shooting and missing and blowing up Jeeps and shooting and chasing and blowing up buildings and I stare at the seatback in front of me, thinking about Emma’s eyes and about her hair on the grass, and the feel of her smooth neck in my hand, while Janet munches popcorn and steals swigs of whiskey from her flask and guffaws at the dialogue. When the two impossibly attractive Spanish stars kiss, framed in orange flames of explosion, I take the flask from Janet’s hand and drink half of what’s left in it.

That night I am hollow and cracked from the afternoon’s events, from falling in love with Emma and being so stupidly incapable of landing in love, doomed, I feel, to continue falling.

The next day I go back to the park, to the spot where I kissed Emma. I retrace the walk we took together, hoping that I will bump into her again. I see her everywhere and nowhere. I feel as if I’m walking on a stage set long after the show has ended.

I spend a few days feeling wrecked, stumbling through my habits without any hint of enthusiasm. I meet Janet at Lincoln Park, a bar on Ninth Avenue, and we sit with a pitcher of Brooklyn Lager between us. We empty the first pitcher and move on to the second.

“You deserve to feel like crap,” says Janet, my helpful sister, pouring more beer into our mugs. “You lied to her. If it makes you feel any better, Thomas, that spineless schmuck coward, dumped me in front of a whole restaurant full of people. Well, it was a diner, but you get the idea. So hey,” she raises her glass, “here’s to misery.”

The beer gets me talking and Janet eats bar popcorn as she listens. Most of my talking is about Emma, and Janet seems only mildly distracted by some men in loose ties at the bar. “Jake,” she says, interrupting my flow of wallowing, “forget her. You screwed up. I say, get back in the game. You had fun with the phone thing, right? So go back to the phone thing, if it will get you out of this funk. I swear, you’ve been like a flat tire lately. If you meet the right chick, you’ve got to come clean with her, and if she is the right chick, she’ll understand. And if you find a chick that understands your little act, then you have found gold. At least with the phone thing, you’re getting dates, right?”

I stumble home later that night and pick up the phone. It is eleven, and I am Colin. Andrea, a rock journalist, is thrilled to speak with the excitable, moody, fast-talking Colin, an Irishman. She is glad to have met someone so alive, so passionate, and she would love to get together with him tomorrow.

At eleven twenty I am Johnny, a cockney art dealer in town for an auction. A Brit named Kate is fascinated by the auction process and agrees to meet Johnny for dinner, also tomorrow.

At eleven forty I am Matt, a quiet poet from Texas. Ellen is an engineering major at Hunter College who thinks I sound sexy.

“I love the way you talk,” says Ellen, a thick Queens accent collapsing her vowel sounds. “Would you write a poem for me, Matt? Nobody ever wrote a poem about me.”

“Heck, I could try,” says Matt.

“Oh, do it right now, Matt,” says Ellen. “Let me hear your poetry. Matt, I’m not wearing much.”

Matt twists himself sideways in my easy chair. “That’s...why, shucks, you got me all embarrassed now. You want me to write it on the spot?”

“That’s right, sweetheart. Let me hear your stuff.” She waits.

I start, Matt starts, “Well, normally, I work on paper, by myself, in the quiet.”

“In the quiet, huh? That’s beautiful. Pretend you’re in the quiet. Do you mind if I touch myself while I listen to you?”

“Well...heck, go on ahead and do what you goes. Your voice sends me places I’ve never seen...”

I hear the flick of a match on her end.

“Places I’ve never seen...the patterns of your lips make indentations on...” I look wildly around the room, looking for inspiration. “On my eyelid’s memory...”

I hear her take a drag on a cigarette.

“Eyelids tender, heck, Ellen, I don’t know if I can do this over the phone.”

“That was pathetic,” says Ellen. “Just pathetic. Do you think that crap is really gonna work?”

“Uh, what was that, Ellen?”

I hear her take another drag on her cigarette. “I said that sucked,” Ellen says, and suddenly something feels very wrong. “Maybe we oughtta talk dirty instead,” she says, the accent fading with every word. “Let’s talk real dirty like!”

It hits me. Matt vanishes and I jump up standing in the middle of my room.


Janet laughs on the other end. “Found you...”

“Janet, that is not funny. I’m serious, that is seriously not funny.” I should never have told her about the phone line.

“Well, gol’ darn, Matt!” She laughs, and through her laughs, she says, “You call yourself Matt? That is too much! Oh, this is too...” Laughter overcomes her. She coughs. She laughs and coughs and coughs and I hang up on her.

* * *

At lunch the next day, I am Colin.

I am Colin at a dirty Irish bar and grill on Second Avenue in the twenties. Colin and Andrea are hunched over a plate of French fries. Andrea dips an occasional fry in Tabasco sauce, momentarily distracting Colin from her exceptionally large nose.

Lunch lasts less than an hour.

* * *

Later that night, I slip a skull ring onto my little finger, and I am Johnny.

Johnny wears the same leather jacket outfit that Colin wears. Colin and Johnny look the same because what the hell, it’s all a trick of the tongue anyway, lips whispering into an ear. I go to a sake bar in the rear of a second floor restaurant in the East Village to meet Kate. The sake bar was Kate’s suggestion. I don’t know sake too well, so I drink whiskey while I’m waiting. The bottles of liquor glow blue behind the bartender, a Japanese man with impeccable clothing—not a wrinkle, not a smudge, not an inch of shoe that does not shine, not a button or fold or crease or hair out of place.

I notice a faint mirror behind the bar and turn to avoid looking at it, at Johnny, whose face is lighter than Colin’s, eyes more alive, teeth at the ready for a quick smile. Johnny is not as flimsy as Hugh. He has an edge like Colin’s, an edge that lives in the worn brown leather coat. Johnny is trouble. Johnny is a pirate. Johnny will fool you.

The top of the bar is perfect, smooth marble. The bartender sets my drink on a coaster and I return the drink to the exact spot on the coaster each time I put it down.

At eight o’clock, exactly, Kate walks in.

At eight o’clock, exactly, Emma walks in.

Kate is Emma.

Emma is Kate.

Kate dresses differently than Emma, but I can see clearly that they are the same woman. Kate wears tight black pants and a red half-shirt, exposing a taut stomach. Kate’s brown hair hangs down to where her shirt ends above her bellybutton. Other men in the bar cannot help but stare at her as she walks up to me, her arms swaying with each step, her hips shifting with the subtlest sway. When she stops in front of me she says, in her perfect British accent, “Johnny? It’s me, Kate. Is it you? Tell me it’s you or I’ll be frightfully embarrassed.”

We stare at each other. I search her eyes for some sign of reproach, but instead I see a fire, I see playfulness. The left side of her mouth flinches but other than that her face remains easy, her eyes burning through every speck of air between us, right into mine.

I say, Johnny says, “You’re a piece of work, ain’t ya?”

We stay like that for a minute, just looking at each other. I don’t know what to say. I want to tell her I’m Jake, I’m Jake, I’m not Hugh and I’m not leaving, but she seems to read my mind and shakes her head slowly, whispering, “Johnny. You know just what to say to a girl...and just how to say it.”

“Yeah,” mutters Johnny, pretending to be nonchalant. “Ye see, I went to charm school, and they taught us all the things what makes women crazy.”

“Is that right?” she says. We sit. Neither of us breaks. Johnny and Kate have a conversation about the chat line. Kate knows sake and orders some for them. They drink sake and watch each other.

Kate rests her hand on top of Johnny’s hand, my hand. She says, “My friend Emma...Emma, my friend...met a man recently. A wonderful man.”

“Did she?” I ask. I don’t know where she’s going with it. I don’t know if she’s going to pull the tablecloth out from under everything. I don’t know if I want her to or not.

“She did. He said he was going away. Isn’t that terrible? Isn’t that a terrible thing for a woman to learn, right after she meets a man? Don’t you think?”

I nod, careful to keep my eyes on her, to try to communicate something to her. Jake wants to talk to her. But then, maybe Jake isn’t up to this. Maybe Jake should leave this to Johnny, the pirate, the rogue.

“An ’orrible thing, to find love and lose it,” Johnny says.

“Yes. Horrible,” she says, emphasizing the “h” sound and searching my face. “Enough to make a girl desperate, I’d say. I’d say if that happened to me, I’d do anything to find him again, to ask him to stay or take me with him. It isn’t often you meet someone that you don’t mind, someone you fancy would be awfully pleasant to have around. Then again, I don’t think she knew much about him, really. Only thing I know is, she thought there was something special happening there and she’d love to see him again.”

“I can take care of that in a moment’s time,” Johnny says.

Kate scowls. “And how would you do that? How could you possibly do that?”

I smile into her eyes.

“It’s all a trick of the tongue, innit?” says Johnny. “A simple trick. Anybody could do it. You can clearly do it.”

“Can I?” She takes a long sip of sake. “Interesting.”

I lean in to kiss her but she pulls back. She stands up and walks out of the bar. I follow her out to the street, where she stands with her arms crossed, at the curb.

Still using her British accent, she says, “I’m going to take six deep breaths and then I’m going to speak to you again. I don’t know what I’m going to say, exactly, but you had better listen.”

She takes her six breaths, and with each one, she calms a bit more, although her arms remain clutched tightly about her, fists locked in her armpits.

“I thought that I could do this, but it appears I can’t,” she says. “I quite fancied Hugh. I did. He left, and I thought it was really too bad, to see someone once like that and to kiss in the park.” Her British accent drops away and Emma’s voice is back, though shaky with emotion. “We kissed in the park and I got just involved enough to feel heartbroken when he walked away.”

My heart drums out of control and I pray that she stays in sight. I feel a shred of hope that as long as I can see her, I have a chance, however slim, of making things right.

She goes on, “And the really sad thing is, the part that I keep yelling at myself about, is that I knew you were lying to me, whoever you are. I spent several years in England. Those things you told me about Hampshire... You’ve never even been anywhere near England, have you?”

“I’m Jake,” I blurt out, feeling suddenly naked. “I’m Jake Holt. I made up Hugh. I made up Johnny. I’m an actor. I’m a liar. I’m really sorry.”

She studies me intensely, scrunching her eyebrows together and then releases them and laughs as a tear rolls down her face. “An actor. An actor...” She looks away and considers this.

I step closer to her on the sidewalk, to let people pass. “I’ve been unhappy so I...”

“I heard your cockney on the chat line,” she says, cutting me off. “I went back to that line when Hugh left, you see, so I could...start the whole damn process again. The cockney sounded a bit off. It got my attention because I could have sworn I heard Hugh in the voice, so I asked to talk to you, and when we did I could tell it was you, or Hugh, rather. I wanted to see for sure so here we are and I’m right and now I suppose I should find a subway. I mean this is the kind of screwed up situation that a sensible person would walk away from, isn’t it?” She turns and walks away from me.

“Don’t,” I say, hurrying after her, and I feel the familiar approaching violent emptiness of being dumped yet again. “Don’t,” I say again, scrambling in my head to think of some way to make it all right. “Look, are you Emma or Kate? I have no idea right now.”

She stops and stares at her shoes. “Yes, well, there’s a good point. I am Emma, Emma Wolfe, and I am American but my mother’s British, thus my ability to do the accent. Are you really Jake, are you really American? How many personalities have you got? And how am I to know which one is real?”

Those are all fair questions. “I am Jake. Look.” I take out my wallet and show her my driver’s license, library card, credit cards and my Actor’s Equity Association card. She studies each in turn. She matches my face with the driver’s license photo. She hands them all back and wipes her face dry.

“Well,” she says. “Here we are.” She slips a driver’s license out of her pocket and I study it. She’s Emma Wolfe all right. I hand it back to her. She says, “Here we are, a couple of liars on a street corner. You’re the worse liar, of course. But, since I found you again, I’ll ask you the question that I’ve been dying to ask you. Why did you do it? Why did you make up a personality?”

I am answering her question even before she finishes it. “I made up a personality because my real one wasn’t doing so well.” She waits for more so I rush on. “Have you ever felt that being yourself wasn’t enough? Have you ever felt like nobody would ever be interested in you, the real you? The boring you that just kind of gets by?”

“Why,” she says, taking a deep breath and letting it out with her words, “did you think I was on the phone looking for someone?“ She clutches herself still further. “Do you see me standing here talking with anyone else?”

We look at each other for several moments. She says, “I’d rather be angry at you on a street corner than angry at you alone. I know that sounds pathetic but I am really putting myself out here right now.“ She takes another quick breath. “You have a really big chance to say something nice here. I really hope you take it.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you, Emma. I can’t believe I’m talking to you. I can’t believe nobody has snatched you up. I think I fell in love with you yesterday.” It’s all rushing out, and she does not stop me. “I can’t stop thinking about you. I can’t stop thinking about your walk, and your arms and your eyes and your voice and I got drunk to try to forget you because I thought I could never have you. I mean I can’t be Hugh for very long, I’m bound to slip. I’ve been in Manhattan for years. I can’t pretend everything around me is new. I can’t pretend to not know anybody. Look, even now as I’m talking to you I know that you could still walk away and forget me, and I wouldn’t blame you in the least. I mean I know each second with you is big, is important, is... We could go have a drink and start again. Give me a chance, Emma. I can just be Jake, for what that’s worth.”

She looks at me and I can only guess that she’s considering what she’ll say next. After longer than I thought she would take, she says, “I don’t know. I really liked Hugh.”

“Hugh really liked Emma,” I say, as Hugh. “See? If you want Hugh, you can...” She stops me by closing her eyes and shaking her head once. She opens her eyes again, lets her arms drop to her sides and stands a little straighter.

My heart is racing and I feel an overwhelming need to say more, to say just the right thing, although we seem to be saying much more without talking. I can’t help myself, and I am about to speak, when Emma says, “Let’s break this down and make it simple. You did all this because you’ve been unhappy.” I nod. She says, “And I made you happy?” I nod again. She says, “I’ve been unhappy too, and you, Jake, whether you were pretending or not, made me happy. We have both been unhappy, and perhaps we can make each other happy. Why don’t we start there? Isn’t that the place to start? I mean, if you really break it down, it is that simple, right?”

I feel like I have let go of everything. Emma is staring into my eyes, and her gaze is as steady and perfect as a mirror. Moments pass. We are there, and then we are still there. We stand there staring at each other and breathing. I stare at her, and I am Jake.

“Please,” I say. “Let’s begin again. Look, at least we’ll have a good story about how we met, right?”

She steps close to me and rubs her hand up and down the side of my arm, once. “Jake,” she says, and then gently takes me by the elbow and turns me so that we are side by side. “Come on,” she says, smiling at the ground in front of us. “Let’s take a walk.” Her hand slips down my arm and into my hand and we walk, if simply taking steps is walking.

Return to Archive