Spring 2009

Table of Contents - Vol. V, No. 1


Poetry     Interview     Translations     Fiction     Book Reviews

Stephanie King



A twenty-four-year-old Art History graduate student was walking home along Columbus Avenue, eating a slice of pizza after class, when six shots cracked out louder than any backfire from a car, causing him to drop his pizza in surprise. Two of the shots hit the back and head of Curtis Anderson, their intended target, a twenty-year-old black man in a red windbreaker who failed to come through on a negotiated drug deal with the shooter, who laid Curtis flat as he tried to run away across the crosswalk. One bullet hit fourteen-year-old Lasonja Burkett in the neck as she stood on the street corner with her friends for the last time. Two bullets went wild. The last bullet traveled an improbable distance down the block and through the lower right side of a thirty-two-year-old dark-haired woman who had just smiled at a gawky art student in passing, and her three-month-old baby’s stroller rolled a foot or two away from her before he grabbed it and knelt by the fallen woman, stroller handle still in his hand. This was how I met Richard.
His brown eyes were huge with fright as he looked down at me and his thick brown hair fell down into them in a way that I would have thought was charming if he were helping me up after I slipped and fell on a patch of ice, instead of lying there after being shot. There was no pain at first, only the inability to draw breath, and the flat numb feeling after a fall where it seems as if your soul has been jolted from your skin for a split second. Then a sharp, stinging pain, like the world’s biggest paper cut, only on the inside, and I gasped and cried out in a short burst when he asked me if I was all right.
“Where’s my baby?” I asked him. He was trying to help me, taking off his scarf and holding it against my ribs to put pressure on the bleeding. He told me later, when I took him out to dinner to thank him for his help, that I just kept asking where my baby was, over and over. I remember only thinking through the haze of confusion and pain that I would lose her if I didn’t pay careful attention. He told me she was right there, wheeled her around so I could see her through my panic, and I reached out and clung to her with one weakening hand, leaving a bloody handprint on her yellow ducky romper that would need to be thrown away after. He told me I would be all right, even though he privately doubted, and gave me his hand to squeeze while he held down the scarf with the other, and corralled the stroller with his foot.
Maybe he felt noble, comforting a pretty woman as she died, or possibly he hoped I’d recover and shower him with gratitude and my hero kisses. But this was no romance: I was married, happily so although not in the stereotypical or gaudy way of a movie or romance novel. I met Eitan when he was seventeen and visiting from Israel for the first time with his parents. They were Orthodox but not obtrusive: the father was a tall man in a suit and a fedora while the mother was a lovely dark woman with an embroidered scarf. I would later find out that the mother’s family was Palestinian and their relationship had been something of a scandal. Eitan was their youngest, the second of only two boys out of six, and the family was quite wealthy from an import-export business. The father had combined a business trip to peddle olives to upscale New York vendors with a college tour for his youngest and brightest child.
Eitan had the striking and exotic good looks of a child born to two attractive but dissimilar parents: Palestinian and German coloring combined and clashed to leave him with brownish-red hair, creamy off-white skin, and cheekbones with the razor sharpness of a letter opener. He was tall and had grown too fast, his weight unable to keep up with his sudden upshot in height, and he would have looked like a scarecrow if he hadn’t had the sense to wear Eurotrash, closely-fitting but not too tight clothing.
He was bored, hanging out by the subway while his father attended a meeting, and he stopped me and asked how he could get to the Empire State Building. He spoke perfect English with a heavy accent I couldn’t place. I had just picked up my deli lunch in a sack and was heading back to my downtown office building when he asked, and I offered to ride with him until his stop. He told me about his college tour during the ride, hands flapping with his exuberant telling, and I offered to show him around the city over the weekend and told him I was twenty-two when I was really twenty-five.
I was angry with my fiancé for little annoyances, like always putting the empty milk carton back in the refrigerator and using the last of the roll of toilet paper without getting another from the closet. It was my first time living with someone and I had yet to realize that these were minor, expected frictions, and didn’t constitute firing offenses. I had started searching the want ads for a new apartment, and instead, this was my petty revenge. Eitan was a virgin in that Orthodox way, where all the girls he met weren’t even supposed to touch a man until they married him, and I would have slept with him at some point during his week in New York, but we could never get his parents to go away from the hotel room and my place was out of the question. Instead we gave the guards an eyeful on the security camera in the elevator of the Sheraton, going up and down the fifty floors overlooking Times Square while we made out and Eitan got his hands either up or down the different shirt I wore on each particular day. I could have rented my own room in the same hotel, but it never occurred to me.
He wrote to me, after he got back to Israel, told me when he got accepted to Williams and Wesleyan and Stanford and Columbia but didn’t quite make the cut at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. By the time he arrived at Columbia the following fall, he was eighteen and had successfully lost his virginity during a summer trip to Ibiza (and apparently expanded on this knowledge with several subsequent girls), while I had married Peter, the reformed live-in boyfriend who made a renewed effort to buy peanut butter before he ate the last of the jar. This marriage would last three years before I discovered Peter having an affair with his secretary and the marriage dissolved in the face of the affair, as well as my inability to get pregnant after two years of trying. Peter later dumped the secretary for a masseuse, and may have worked his way down the food chain to a stripper by now, I wouldn’t know because I stopped speaking to him. You could do that after a divorce that involved no children.
I took Eitan out while he was in college, to lunch or a movie, telling Peter that his parents were friends of my family, and that he was a lonely kid by himself in a strange city. His Israeli accent faded over the years and he stopped growing vertically, expanding to a normal width that lessened his resemblance to his Auschwitz ancestors. He was a senior and twenty-one when he spent the night with me for the first time; we got married when he was twenty-three. Eitan was twenty-five by the time I got shot, barely older than Richard the art student, but a successful man with a wife and a new baby, one that arrived in the face of my lazy refusal to take birth control since it was so obviously unnecessary. We were delighted and surprised by her, less surprised and more delighted as time went on.
Paramedics poured out of the two ambulances that arrived first on the scene, maybe ten minutes after a handful of observers called 911 on their cell phones. Richard’s scarf was soaked with blood and I drifted in and out of consciousness when two of them came up on us, with their heavy red paramedic toolkits. One was an older man, with neatly clipped white hair and beard, who looked like he would have made a good and kindly priest. The other was young, with blond eyebrows and obviously dyed-black hair and tattoos snaking up his neck out of his uniform. They took over, shining light into my eyes and getting an IV going, even as they were still checking for the extent of my injuries.
The young one played good cop, talked to me in the soothing, cooing tones I used on my own infant. He asked me to tell him how I was doing and I asked for my baby again, he’d pushed her just out of my sight to make room for the paramedics to work. “She’s right here,” Richard said, pushing the stroller back a little closer so I could see, so I would stop struggling against the paramedics to reach for her, wriggling quick and slippery as a fish. The young paramedic said she was a beautiful baby and asked me her name. I told him – Salomé, Eitan's and my private joke with the world – and he asked me what my name was and I told him that as well, Brielle.
“Brielle Harris?” he asked, pausing with his gauze.
I told him I was and he was impressed. I should have guessed: I wrote a moderately well-known series of mystery novels, in which a dominatrix named Yolanda (Yoli to her friends) solves crimes in her spare time between erotic romps, with the assistance of her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a Santeria priest named Jean-Pierre, and her lively Siamese cat, Lux. I also wrote a less popular series about a group of spicy fairies in Chicago and their ongoing eternal war with the Chicagoland vampires. There was a time I considered myself a real writer, wrote endless Carveresque stories about the insignificant hurts of everyday life, before giving it up as useless and actually making some money. Under normal circumstances I might have expected Tattoo to recognize my name, as there seemed a direct correlation between black hair dye and my popularity as an author. As it were, he treated me with new gentleness and looked at me with wider eyes after I told him my name.
When they loaded me into the ambulance, my helper said he was my friend Richard and he’d better come along and bring the baby. It was the first time I’d heard his name, served as an introduction of sorts, and he handed Salomé up in her stroller before getting in himself. When she cried, the older paramedic scowled, but Richard lifted her up and hummed to her. Later he told me that this was the first time he’d ever held a baby that wasn’t related to him, and he worried that if she cried I would struggle to hold her. He sat towards the front of the ambulance, holding her near my face so I could see her, and I kept crying and apologizing to the paramedics for crying but I just couldn’t help it, and they told me I was doing great.
At some point he called Eitan. I don’t know how he figured out to do it, but he looked at the dialed calls of my cell phone, tucked in the front pocket of the diaper bag, and saw that most of my calls were to a number for “1Eitan,” a designation I gave him so he’d be first alphabetically in the address book, so he called him and said he was my friend Richard and Brielle had been in “an accident” and that we were on our way to Columbia Presbyterian emergency room. I couldn’t hear Eitan’s response, but I heard Richard lie to him as he said, “It’s not so bad,” and he hung up and said Eitan was on his way.
They wouldn’t let him into the operating room – they asked if he was my husband and when he said no, they said no. They wouldn’t let Salomé in either, and I argued, lifting myself an inch off the stretcher with a momentous effort as if it were a hundred inches. Richard said he’d stay with her, and by then I trusted him with his earnest brown eyes, although he could have been waiting to steal her to sell on the baby black market, but he said he only had her by himself for three nervous minutes at most before Eitan burst through the emergency room doors and Richard knew this was her father by the reddish hair and sharp-edged nose they shared. Being the man he was, Eitan thanked him, didn’t say who are you anyway or she doesn’t have a friend Richard, instead he shook Richard’s hand and gave him a business card.
When Richard called the cell phone number from the business card later that night, I was up in my room, recovering from surgery where they patched me up and removed part of my badly damaged small intestine. The entrance wound was a small, neat circle but the exit was a big, torn gash that required 21 stitches. My gravest danger was from septic shock, as the small intestine is a nasty little swamp that spews bacteria and toxins when ruptured. After the recovery room, where I was still groggy from anesthetic as Eitan kissed my hands again and again and told me how he couldn’t lose me, they moved me upstairs and gave me lovely, lovely painkillers, something akin to morphine, and I drifted in a dreamy haze as Eitan told Richard I was going to make it and thanked him again and this time thought to ask for his contact information.
It was a week before I came home from the hospital and almost six weeks before I called to invite Richard to dinner. In the weeks since he’d last seen me, I’d lost quite a bit of weight, something I’d been meaning to do anyway since the baby. Three of my books appeared briefly on the low end of the bestseller list for the first time, after my picture was on the front of newspapers the day after the shooting, me looking very goth and exotic with pale skin and dark hair in a book jacket photo, Curtis Anderson and Lasonja Burkett looking very young in their high school picture-day photos. I’d had my stitches removed and seen the small, sunburst-shaped scar on my front and Eitan held a mirror so I could see the scar on my back, which was shaped like a kiss.
When I saw Richard in the restaurant, I didn’t recognize him, like his face never existed, and all I remembered was the way he held onto my hand, and the way he kept little Salomé Harris-Hoffmann with me so that she could be left home with a sitter by her two parents. He wore scuffed shoes and looked confused at the preponderance of forks. We bought him the most expensive meal he’d ever eaten and he told us about his studies, looking embarrassed whenever we told him how grateful we were.
This is what you did for me, Richard, in the seconds when you decided to stay with me, instead of going about your business, or going over to gawk at the other victims, like most of the rest of the crowd who watched that fourteen-year-old girl gasp her life away on the sidewalk. Probably I wouldn’t have bled to death even without your putting pressure on the wound. I don’t believe a paramedic crew would have abandoned a three-month-old baby in its stroller on the street. But you got me through, when you didn’t have to, and when I thanked you for it, gave you a last, ginger hug after dinner, you said anybody would have done the same thing, and I said I doubted it.


© Stephanie King



Poetry     Interview     Translations     Fiction     Book Reviews

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