by Alec Wilkinson
HERE is a cautionary tale about loneliness and modern appliances. The other night, my wife and I were having dinner at the apartment of friends who have a baby. The child was asleep. Beside the table we were sitting at, our friends had one of those monitors that allow parents to hear their child if he wakes. I have no idea when people began using these devices, but I think that by now everyone is familiar enough with them to know that they are just as likely to broadcast a gypsy-cab driver’s radio call as a child crying. Once, late at night, over the monitor that my wife and I have for our son, I heard a woman sobbing and a man’s voice saying, “If you don’t quit drinking, I don’t think there’s much hope for our marriage.”
After dinner, we were talking—there were five of us—and a woman’s voice came over the monitor. “Well, what time, then?” she said, peevishly. We could hear a man’s deep voice at the other end of the line, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying—when he talked we mostly heard static. What we gathered was that he was in a car in New Jersey, heading toward the Lincoln Tunnel.
“Where am I supposed to meet you?” she asked.
“You want me to wait in the cold in a doorway?”
“I can’t believe this. All right. Wait a minute. All right. South side of Forty-second Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, halfway down the block.
How am I going to recognize your car?”
“Jesus Christ. I asked for a gentleman, and they sent me you.”
I think he offered to pick her up at her building, because she said, “No, I don’t want anyone seeing us.”
About then, it dawned on us that the woman had called an escort service, and that this was the date they were sending. He must have asked how he would recognize her. “I look like Lady Godiva,” she said. “With brown hair.”
“All I can say is, you better not keep me waiting.”
“And you better be romantic.” Then she hung up.
It can have been only a few seconds before we heard her again. She called a friend, a woman, I’m guessing—we couldn’t hear that voice either—who seemed to believe that standing on Forty-second Street late at night to meet a prostitute was an insufficiently considered idea. “Listen, honey,” the woman said, “I’m looking for love. I’m old enough. I’m allowed.”
I don’t remember what she said next. What I remember instead is one of our friends’ saying—and I’ve changed the details—”That’s the woman in 8-C! The paralegal with the cocker spaniel! I knew I recognized that voice!”
“I’m dressed like a cheap hooker,” the woman said, and then she said that it was time for her to leave.
Our friends’ apartment is on the fourth floor. I ran down the stairs. The building has a self-service elevator, which was in the lobby when I arrived. Nothing happened for what seemed so long that I was about to walk back upstairs. Then the elevator rose. I heard it pause and descend. The lobby is very small. When the elevator doors opened, she walked toward me. She was perhaps fifty. Her face was long and thin and a little tense. She had on a fur coat held tightly closed with one hand at her neck, and she had thin legs and was wearing black stockings and heels. The color in her cheeks and around her eyes had required some time before a mirror. I thought it would be funny to say “Going to Forty-second Street?” and then realized that it wouldn’t be. She walked out the door and called a taxi and got in and rode away.
I watched the tail-lights disappear and felt the strange, thrilling (and totally one-sided) sense of intimacy around me dissolve. I imagined the woman stepping out of the cab, wrapping her fur coat more tightly around her, then climbing two steps, turning toward the street, and waiting in the doorway for a car to pull to the curb. I did this a number of times. Each time her face became more and more difficult to recall, until finally I couldn’t picture it anymore, and then I went back upstairs to the party. *
[from THE NEW YORKER, Shouts & Murmurs, March 27, 1995]