Carol was on her terrace when the man climbed down from the sky, his feet supported by foot-sized clouds. The street was empty. No gasping crowd seconded her amazement. She alone was left to wonder whether life, with its unending stretch of tedious repetitions, had finally loosened its rules.
She waved. He waved back, picked up his pace and ran to her, the clouds scurrying to stay beneath him. She lived on the 17th floor. His route was level now, his gait a bit stiff. Carol was sorry she hadn’t put on lipstick.
He bounded over the low wall as athletically as a man who, however obsessively he frequents the gym, is in his mid-seventies (as was she). To his credit, and certainly he deserved a prodigious amount of credit just for transcending gravity, he was not out of breath. Carol assumed his strolls through the sky had contributed to his healthy complexion. He was tall and broad chested, features she appreciated in a man, and she admired his taste—his well-fitting olive-green shirt and expensive gray pants. His shoes were wet. The clouds had been real. However unlikely, she hoped he was too.
“Are you an angel sent to oversee my future?” she asked, prepared to go with the flow. “Or is it just that I waved, and you responded? Don’t feel you have to answer.” She extended her hand. “Carol Rothschild.”
His grasp was firm and decidedly human. “Gordon Aron. And as anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m no angel. I’m just a surveyor, semi-retired. I sold the business and stayed on to consult.”
“Of course you did. And as part of your work you convince clouds to do your bidding. To save time or fuel?”
“Both I suppose.” He shrugged with such sweet modesty that Carol’s heart blazed. “It isn’t that hard.”
“Or anyone willing to put in the effort. By the way, it appears I live directly above you.”
“In 18 C?”
She considered mentioning that the dryers in the laundry room were broken, but why spoil a happy reprieve from an existence where clothes remained damp after they’d spun for hours? A man with kind eyes and an inviting smile had dropped down out of nowhere.
He glanced at his watch. It was sporty with a thick orange band. Possibly German, definitively rugged, the kind that would function at almost any altitude. “A bientôt,” he said and leapt to his terrace.
Carol’s first love was a man who, although he’d been only twenty-three when they’d met, had already been crushed by another woman’s desertion. He was Greek and he told Carol that while he’d been with Naomi, he’d been so happy he could have caught birds with his hands. Carol had not had this effect on him. In a fit of jealously, she’d rifled his possessions and found photos of his heartthrob, a girl with a plain flat face, stubby body and a diary (had he stolen it?) laden with self-pity. Carol was astonished that Naomi had caused such a wound. Still, lesson learned. Despite her awareness that heads turned when she passed, Carol had lost an important contest to the commonplace. Afterwards, her confidence damaged, when she chased after love it eluded her grasp. Or she became so overexcited in its presence, she laughed like a lunatic and frightened it away.
Now years after she’d resigned herself to a life lived alone she’d been given another chance, albeit one so farfetched she couldn’t mention it to her friends without seeming crazy. Still, she spent the first hour after meeting Gordon Aron on her couch smiling and shaking her head. Maybe there was a God. Carol was a sometime believer and perhaps as He’d done when the Jews had cried out to Him in Ancient Egypt, He’d peered into her heart and decided to help, hopefully in a pleasanter way than when He’d marched His people through the broiling desert.
A second hour went by without a word from Gordon. This silence meant nothing. She’d done nothing wrong. He was busy, less desperate than she was to launch a romance and if this opportunity called for patience, a substance she typically lacked, it was an encouraging sign of the man’s stability. He’d contact her when he had the time. He’d said so. A bientôt. See you soon. Although the word ‘soon’ was iffy—as soon as hell freezes over, as soon as pigs fly. But why fret? She didn’t have to stand like a wallflower and wait to be picked. She could invite him down for a neighborly drink. And if he refused? Unable to stomach the thought, she fled to the park and walked around the baseball fields to quell her anxiety until, exhausted, she collapsed on a bench, wishing he had her cellphone number. Was he still home or bounding from terrace to terrace establishing a harem?
A man sat down next her. His hands were cupped. “I saw you circling the ball fields,” he said. “And you inspired me to, I didn’t think I’d be able to, that it was crazy to try, that no one could, especially a guy pushing seventy, but here…” He opened his hands. A tiny feathery head emerged. The bird hopped down onto Carol’s lap where it stood on its delicate red legs as contently as it would in its nest. It had a purple beak, purple eyes, lavender wings and a turquoise chest. A rare flash of color had journeyed to be amidst birds as gray as the city.
The man’s hair fell onto his forehead and hung past his collar, in an artfully haphazard way. Lanky and tanned, he sat with his legs straight out and casually crossed at the ankles. He had dimples and the kind of slightly receding, babyish chin Carol adored.
“I’ve given women flowers but never a bird. I reached up and wow, what a story. Manhattan exceeds my expectations. I just moved into that building over there.”
“That’s my building.”
“You’re kidding.” Had miracles become the norm?
“I’m in 17 C.”
“What brings you here?” She braced herself for an answer straight out of A Thousand and One Nights.
“Divorce, retirement, the desire to start over someplace new. Back in Ohio I worked twenty-four seven, mostly on the road.”
“What if I said I was Willy Loman’s grandson Phil and continued in his line of work, albeit more happily.”
“Attention was paid?” A man that handsome? Sure it was.
“I paint and teach painting.”
The bird flew into a tree.
“Shall we go home?” Phil asked.
She felt as self-conscious walking beside him as she’d felt throughout her adolescence. But he was looking straight ahead and she had nothing to be ashamed of, could even feel proud of how well she’d held up.
“Let’s meet up soon,” he said when they reached his floor.
“I’m living in a love sandwich,” she thought, and imagined Gordon and Phil agreeing to wrap themselves around her and stay that way. “Please,” she whispered to the God who was said to be merciful and kind.
Days passed without a word from either man. Then at midnight she heard Gordon walking above her, noisily, an annoyance made worse by the facts that he’d bailed on her and could levitate. If his apartment was too warm for clouds, if they’d turn to rain, by law eighty percent of his floor had to be carpeted. Carol put her ear to wall.
He was singing off key. “I stepped out of a dream…”
He pounded the floor with a broom handle. “You bastard,” she said. He was the inconsiderate tenant, not she. Her anger ended when she realized he was tapping ‘Carol, come dance with me’ in Morse code, a language she’d learned as a Brownie.
She threw on her best dress, made up her face and dashed upstairs.
He greeted her in white tie and tails. “Grand to see you,” he said.
The apartments in the C line were modest and narrow. But his had a huge sunken living room, an onyx fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and a terrace with a direct view of East River. The C line faced north.
And yet why be surprised?
In keeping with his 1930s movie musicals theme, he chose a record by Cole Porter. His fingers were slightly arthritic and it took him a while to center the hole on the spindle.
“Is this music OK?” he asked.
She’d been taught to submit to men. “Absolutely.”
He was a clumsy dancer. She wasn’t much better.
“I want to be romantic for you,” he said. “Smooth, if you know what I mean, charming.” He gave her a soft thump in the arm like a young boy gives a girl he likes.
At sunrise he made scrambled eggs and squeezed oranges for her juice. “I’ll be in Reno for a couples of days,” he said as he walked her to the door. She waited for him to kiss her. He didn’t. Still, had any date gone better? Capital N capital O.
She lived on its memory, certain he’d call, if not immediately then almost immediately. But he didn’t call. Afraid to expose her neediness, she didn’t phone him. And where was Mr. Philip Loman? Practicing his new skill at the Audubon Society? Men, she thought, sickened. For every hour of happiness, they cost you a month of pain.
The doorman called. The tenant from 16 C was waiting for her downstairs.
Phil, seated behind the wheel of a red convertible, handed her the kind of scarf Joan Fontaine had worn to keep her hair from tangling while playboys, desperately unhappy married men and possible murderers had driven her, often to her alarm, along mountainous roads.
“You’re the native,” he said. “Tell me where to go.”
She suggested the Palisades with its elevated view of the Hudson. He’d brought provisions and they picnicked at an overlook under a massive cherry tree that despite the October chill was in rapturous bloom.
“You impress me,” he said. “I know I’ll be blown over by your art.”
She took out her phone and showed him paintings of solitary figures on small gray canvases.
“Oh,” he said, softly. “Close your eyes. Now, open them.”
Morning Glory vines had sprouted from his palms.
“Just an idea,” he said as he plucked the stems and made a bouquet for her.
She burst into tears.
“What’s the matter?”
“I want to bury myself in you and not be hurt.”
On the ride home, after she’d clung to him, breathed him in and felt safer than she ever had, she remembered an image of the Hindu God Krishna with tiny blue flowers in woven into his chest hair. “Is that who you are?”
“Me? I was bar mitzvahed.”
“Then how do you explain it?”
“I can’t. Back at the picnic it seemed so natural and right to become a human garden. But now? It gives me the shivers. It must be you. You have a massive effect on me. I wasn’t like this in Ohio. I treated my employees like disposable commodities. The good news is, I’ve changed.”
His apartment had brick walls, double height ceilings, asymmetrical couches, resin chairs with tiny plungers for feet and a chaise that appeared to be carved from a giant marshmallow.
“You’re very daring,” Carol told him. “I love what you did.”
“I can’t take the credit. The apartment came this way. I bought it sight unseen, in a flurry of excitement. Then I thought, whoa, what have I done? But I couldn’t cancel in time. The documents disappeared. I couldn’t retrieve them or find the agent’s name. I felt like an idiot. Now I’m glad.”
His bed was a cantilevered marvel suspended above a white silk carpet.
Carol hadn’t been with a man in decades. Her skin had loosened and her body wasn’t as limber and quick to respond as it had been in the past. She was afraid she’d disappoint him but their lovemaking was deliriously passionate for a couple their age.
Her phone rang while they lay under his sheet.
“Answer it,” he said. “I don’t mind.”
She crawled across the bed as gracefully as she could. “Hello?”
Gordon had found a park in Westchester dedicated to antique merry-go-rounds. “What do you say to a smooch in an upholstered swan?”
“I’m seeing someone else,” she told Phil after she hung up. “Not exactly seeing. I met him the day I met you. Is that a deal breaker?” She hated that phrase, but she was too unnerved to search for more original words. “I’ve been alone for so long. I claim to be fine. I am fine, fine enough, but the truth is I’m like an inflatable object that’s only eighty percent full. Was that wrong to tell you? Am I less now in your eyes? The thing of it is, I don’t want to have to choose. I want, no deserve, both of you to make up for all I’ve missed. Oddly enough, although all of it’s odd, he lives in 18 C.”
Philip frowned. “And if you meet more men?”
“An entire building of sweethearts?”
“You’re wedded to monogamy and see me as a femme fatale?”
“I used to cheat like hell. Another of my shameful behaviors.”
“Gordon’s not typical. He climbed down from the sky.”
“Who could? I’m baffled by my own new powers. It’s been quite a prodigious transformation. Can companionship do that?”
“I won’t pit you against him. I see us as a commune,” she said.
“Peace, love and understanding?”
“That’s my hope.”
Carol’s apartment was a standard 750 square feet. She’d bought her beige sectional on sale at Macy’s after she’d landed a particularly well-paying, if temporary, teaching job. Her mahogany bed had been her aunt’s. After Phil and Gordon agreed to have brunch at her place she took her paintings off the wall and added birds, butterflies, flowering bushes, pink nosed bunnies and kittens—things she’d formerly considered too sentimental to express her view of life. But maybe her blight was ending. “Please, God,” she prayed while she rehung the canvases. “Let them like each other.”
She spent almost two hundred dollars on whatever the clerk at the deli suggested. Back home she arranged the bagels et al. on a platter and held her breath.
The men arrived, one trailing the other by minutes. They sized each other up and sat down in unison.
“Carol tells me you walk on air,” Phil said.
“Guilty as charged. Believe me, it’s a hell of an improvement over when I had to stuff myself into tiny two-seater planes and pee mid-flight into empty coffee cans. I was a kid when I started surveying. ‘Worked alongside George Washington,’ I’d joke. But at seventy-five, it felt like the terrible truth. My wife’s dead, my kids are scattered all over the globe. I swallowed a handful of pills, my housekeeper found me and called 911. ‘You’re not the same,’ she said when I opened my eyes. She has no idea how right she is. I’m buoyant in so many ways. Gordon Aron, the happy guy.”
“So then you’re saying…?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“Philip sprouts flowers and catches birds in his hands,” Carol said.
“How do you account for that?”
“I can’t. I have a pretty good mind and I still can’t figure it out. That fly in the ointment keeps me from surrendering to happiness.”
Carol wanted to stamp her foot at his need to be rational. Men and their compulsive quest to solve problems. “Why do you have to know? We live with so many mysteries. Do we wrack our brains because we have five senses instead of six? Does anyone actually understand love, what it’s made of, why it comes and goes? What’s our true purpose? No one can tell you. Maybe in this case, we should just thank the unknowable. I for one, am dizzy with gratitude.”
“What if the changes revert?”
“Who says they will? For once I’ve decided to be optimistic.” She opened her arms to the men and they stood in a three-person embrace well past the hour when the moon rose above Venus.