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Kate Darby wilted in the August heat and decided she couldn't handle the subway tonight. Too steamy, too grimy, too many commuters even at seven o'clock at night. She lifted an arm to hail a cab and smiled when one pulled over to the curb right away.
"Must be my lucky day," she murmured. She opened the door and slid across the backseat, adjusting her skirt beneath her. "Ninetieth, between First and York."
The cabbie, black beard flecked with gray, with warm brown skin and a regal nose, nodded his turban-covered head, clicked the meter and pulled into traffic.
Kate leaned back, enjoying the blast of air-conditioning on her damp skin. She lifted her hair, twisting it into a loose chignon, and let the coolness caress the nape of her neck. Her eyes roamed the cabbie's unique domain. A picture of the Dalai Lama in saffron robes was paper-clipped to the right visor, the holy man's serene visage beaming at her. A jade-colored Buddha bobblehead perched on the dashboard, happily nodding with each careening motion of the yellow cab. Amethyst rosary beads dangled from the rearview mirror, a silver Jesus, arms outstretched on the cross, swung gently from side to side. A picture of Pope John Paul II was taped to the glove compartment, one hand lifted as if to make a sign of the cross over the faithful. And if Kate was correct, she was pretty sure the turban meant the cabbie was a Sikh. Only in New York.
She leaned forward slightly. "Your cab reminds me of the United Nations."
He looked at her in the rearview mirror and laughed heartily. "My wife is good Catholic woman. My son is a Buddhist. And I think God loves us all."
"You're probably right." She edged forward in the seat,resting her head on her forearm as she peered into the front of the cab. She could hear the world's most infamous shock jock inflaming his listeners over the radio. "God loves everybody. Even him." She nodded her head toward the radio.
A woman was having an orgasmreal or faked, Kate had no ideaon air.
"Oh, he's a crazy man," the cabbie said, in Indian-accented English. "Craaa-zzy."
Julian Shaw's raspy voice filled the cab. "You heard it here. Live. Lana Luscious, the world's hottest lesbian porn star just gave oral sex to Jenna Jones. In my studio. Right here. On my couch. For those of you listening, let me tell you that, if you don't know Lana, she's a gorgeous, smokin' hot brunette with 42-double-Ds, and Jenna is the platinum sex goddess of your wildest imagination. That was so hot. So friggin' hot. If this couch could talk, baby. So Jenna did you fake it or was that the real deal?"
"How can you listen to him?" Kate asked the cabbie. She only half listened to the radio now as Julian Shaw sped on to his next favorite point of conversationmocking gays.
"I always wonder what he's going to do next."
"But as a spiritual man " She gestured with her hand toward the religious items. "I mean he's really, really raunchy."
"I think God has a sense of humor. And maybe maybe this crazy man is the best and worst of America all in one being. I listen because I want to understand America."
"America?" Kate tilted her head. "This guy helps you understand America?"
"Yes, yes, yes." The cabbie nodded his head vigorously. "He is America. He is an insane demigod presiding over chaos."
Kate smiled. "Now this theory I have to hear."
The cab stopped at a light, and the cabbie turned his head slightly. "He is America. He is what your country is fascinated with. He is both sides. Yin and yang."
Kate crinkled her nose. "Um not seeing the logic yet. Both sides? Lesbians and porn stars? Lesbians and gay men? I don't understand."
"No. America loves its sex." He gestured out the window toward a shop on Fifth Avenue, its mannequins futuristically haunting and sexualized, empty-faced yet erotic. The clothing adorning them accentuating every pointed body part. Yet the overall effect was strangely androgynous.
Kate gazed out, the cab speeding by the window. "Yes, America does." The next window was Gucci, then a short time later Abercrombie and Fitch. Designers flaunted their wares behind plate glass, with beautiful models, their lips slightly parted with promise. A big poster for a new designer perfume showed a tousled-haired blonde looking as if she was in the throes of passion.
"But then," the cabbie intoned, "America is very repressed. It pushes sex, sex, sex, but then it's not happy with sex. It gets offended by sex. Very strange. Very strange."
"That it is. But still, that show." She looked at the radio dial. "That show is out of control. I never listen. There was even an argument in the office about him one day. One of the assistants had him on the radio at his desk. He almost got fired for it. The woman in the next cubicle complained that he was creating a hostile work environment."
"Where do you work?"
"At a publishing house. I'm a book editor."
"A very honorable profession. I love to read. My son, also. Always his nose in a book. He got a scholarship to university."
Kate smiled at his pride.
"He wants to be a writer."
"My boyfriend is a writer. He wrote The Jackal's Feast."
"I know that book!" the cabbie said excitedly. "I read it! It was a wonderful book. Very excellent."
"I was the editor."
"You are famous!"
"No. Not famous. My boyfriend's not even famous. The book was well-reviewed though. I think his next one could be huge. If he ever finishes it."
"I can say I know you," the cabbie said.
She leaned back as the DJ continued. Periodically, his words were bleeped. She shook her head. How could anyone stand that guy?
"Pull up over there." Kate gestured toward the building where David lived. "I'm surprising him with a fresh-off-the-press interview he did with Gotham magazine. The magazine writer clearly adored him."
"You are a very nice girlfriend then, miss. Surprises are very good. I always like to surprise my wife. One time, I brought home three dozen rosesthree dozen. I made her cry happy tears."
Kate's eyes watered. She didn't know why, but the little love stories of people's lives always touched her.
The cabbie clicked the meter, which chattered and chinged as it spat out a receipt. She handed him a twenty-dollar bill. "Keep the change."
"Thank you. You have a very nice night. God bless you."
"Thanks. You, too." She smiled at the bobble-head jiggling on the dash as she clambered out of the cab and walked to David's building. The doorman let her in. "Evening." He nodded at her.
"Hi, Henry. How's your wife feeling?"
"Better, thanks. The doctor says the treatment is working."
"Oh, that's very good news." Kate prided herself on remembering the names of doormen and bodega owners, the bagel guy, the little old man who walked his terrier each day near her apartment. Her father had always taught her that you could go through the world knowing no one, or go through it knowing everyone. She liked knowing everyone's name, their little love stories and big love stories. It made Manhattan seem a little smaller.
She pressed the button for the elevator and took it to the seventh floor. David was the perfect guy. Smart, funny, unbelievably handsome. He was going to be famous someday. And she was positive this next book was it.
They hadn't gotten involved until the first book went to press. But the attraction had been there all through the editing process. Everyone in the office felt it. Leslie, her best friend and fellow editor, told her she was the luckiest book editor in Manhattan getting to work with someone who looked like a Brooks Brothers modelwith a brain. The chemistry culminated in a celebratory dinner after his first reviews came outall positive. They'd been together ever since.
The elevator doors opened, and Kate walked to 7B. She put her key into the lock and entered his apartment. His style was, she teased him, "elegant bachelor," all dark, sleek wood and clubby brown leather, accented with black-and-white photography on the walls in silver frames. The place was dimly lit and she wondered if he was even home. She was about to call out his name when she spotted it. An opened bottle of Kristal champagne. Two crystal flutes, nearly empty, the last champagne bubbles drifting lazily in the remnants. One glass emblazoned with lipstick on the rim. Red. Not her shade.
Feeling like her knees might buckle, she told herself there were a million possible explanations. His childhood best friend, Judy, could have come into the city for dinner. He could be entertaining his sister. But what blared through her head was what she had told him that morning as she left his place. I can't see you tonight. I have to work late and then meet with an agent for cocktails.
But then she ran into the editor of Gotham, who handed her a crisp copy of the issue. After drinks with the agent, on the spur of the moment she decided to cab it up to his place.
Shaking, feeling like a fool, she stumbled, almost blindly to the bedroom. And there he was, naked, half-erect and hurriedly putting on his boxers. And there she was, frantically shoving her black-lace bra into her purse.
She turned, bile rising in her throat, and ran.
"Kate Kate wait!" He chased after her, grabbing her arm. "It's not what you"
She shrieked, not even recognizing the voice that came out of her own mouth. "Not what I think? Don't patronize me! You bastard!"
"I was working late? Had drinks scheduled. Couldn't see you?" She felt tears streaming down her face, and she thought she was going to vomit. She wrenched her arm free and reached into her oversize purse to pull out the magazine. She flung it, as hard as she could, at his face, where, thanks to her high school softball career, it landed perfectly, smacking him on his perfect nose. "I ran into the editor of Gotham and wanted to surprise you."
The magazine landed on the floor cover-side up. One of the heads read, "America's Best New Writer."
"Kate." His face was pale, and he shook his head. "I was drinking. I "
With all the fury and hatred she could muster, Kate glared at Leslie who stood, teary, in the doorway of his bedroom. Kate swallowed hard. "You two deserve each other."
She opened the apartment door and fled down the hall. Over and over, in her mind, as if she were unable to control her own brain, the image of Leslie, topless, in his bedroom, came back to her. In slow motion. In fast motion. In frozen images.
She whispered a prayer, "Please let the elevator come right away." Thankfully, it did. She stepped in and punched the button for the lobby, jabbing it three, four, five times, willing the elevator doors to close faster and deliver her even quicker to the ground floor and away from him. From them. Running out of the lobby, past Henry's concerned gaze, she stepped into the hot night. She tried to gulp in fresh air, but it felt like breathing in a sauna.
She just wanted to go home and shower off the ugliness she just saw. She wanted to be alone. She turned to hail a cab and saw the cab she had taken not ten minutes before, with his "off-duty" signal, sitting parked on the street.
Wiping at her tears, she walked to the cab and bent over to peer in the window. Sure enough, it was the same bobblehead dashboard. Her turban-wearing cabbie. He waved and rolled down the passenger-side window.
"What is the matter, my someday-famous friend?"