“Andrew?” Cynthia giggled with a feigned English accent. “Too much wine for you.”
Turning slowly from the window to Cynthia, the restaurant swayed with my eyes. I was getting drunk. “That’s a beautiful city,” I said warmly.
“You ought to get a place here.”
“Are you implying there’s a problem with my city?”
“I don’t have to imply. I’ll just tell you. You Yankees are in too much of a damn hurry.”
“And that’s an inferior state of existence in comparison to the comatose South?”
“We southerners know the value of an easy day’s work. Don’t fault us for that. I think it’s just a little Yankee jealousy—”
“I find the word Yankee to be an offensive term.”
“That’s ’cause you’ve got a muddled definition in your head.”
“All right. Yankee: a noun defining anyone who lives north of Virginia, especially rude, anal northerners who talk too damn fast, don’t understand the concept of sweet tea and barbecue, and move to Florida in their golden years.” Cynthia laughed, her brown eyes glistening. I looked into them.
They hemorrhaged, and I turned toward the window, my heart throbbing beneath my oxford shirt and saffron tie.
“I’m fine,” I said, trying to catch my breath.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Staring out the window into Queens, I grasped for composure, telling myself the lie again.
“You seem so different lately,” she said, bringing the wineglass to her lips.
“I don’t know. Since this is the first time we’ve been together in almost a year, it may be an unfair assessment on my part.”
“Please,” I said, stabbing a scallop with my fork, “assess away.”
“Since your vacation, I’ve noticed a change in you. Nothing drastic. But I think I’ve known you long enough to tell when something’s wrong.”
“What do you think is wrong, Cynthia?”
“Difficult to put into words,” she said. “Just a gut feeling. When you called me after you returned this summer, something was different. I assumed you were just dreading the book tour. But I feel the same detached vibe coming from you even now.” I finished another glass of wine. “Talk to me, Andy,” she said. “You still burned-out?”
“No. I know that really worries you.”
“If it’s a woman, tell me and I’ll drop it. I don’t want to pry into your personal—”
“It’s not a woman,” I said. “Look, I’m fine. There’s nothing you can do.”
She lifted her wineglass and looked out the window.
Our waiter came for our plates. He described a diabolical raspberry-chocolate soufflé, but it was late, and I had an 8:30 flight out of La Guardia in the morning. So Cynthia paid the bill, and we rode the elevator down to the street. Nearly midnight. I couldn’t imagine waking in the morning. I’d drunk far too much.
I hailed a cab for Cynthia and kissed her on the cheek before she climbed in. She told me to call her the following week, and I promised I would. As her cab drove away, she stared through the back window, her earnest eyes penetrating me, gnawing at the root of my restlessness.
You have no idea.
When her cab was gone, I started down the sidewalk, and for several blocks, I didn’t pass a soul. Though hidden now from view, the filthy East River flowed into the Atlantic. I could smell the stale, polluted water. Four ambulances rushed by, their sirens shrieking between the buildings. With my hotel only ten blocks north, I hoped a stroll in the cool September night would sober me up.
I dreaded going home. Since mid-June, I’d traveled the country, filling my days with appearances and readings that kept me grounded in the present. I never wanted a moment alone. My thoughts horrified me. Now, as I returned to North Carolina, to a slower way of life, I knew the torture would begin. I had no book to write. There was nothing for me to do but inhabit my lake house. To exist. And it was there, I feared, that the two weeks whose existence I’d denied all summer would come for me.
When my mind drifted back to the desert, I’d force-feed myself the jade green sea, ivory sand, sweaty sunlight. Distinctly, I could picture the stuccoed beach house and veranda where I’d watch bloody sunsets fall into the sea. I was aware of the self-deception, but man will do anything to live with himself.
I filled the beginning of October with crisp, clear days on Lake Norman and unbearable nights in my bed. I fished off my pier for an hour each morning and evening. And in the early afternoons, I’d swim, diving beneath the murky blue water, now holding a cool bite with the approach of winter. Sometimes, I’d swim naked just for the freedom of it, like a child in a cold womb, unborn, unknowing. Nearing the surface after a deep dive, I’d pretend that hideous knowledge buried in the recesses of my mind would vanish when I broke into the golden air. It’s only real underwater, I’d think, rising from the lake bottom. The air will cleanse me.
Dawdling on the end of my pier late one afternoon, nursing a Jack and Sun-Drop, I watched a bobber swaying on the surface of the lake. Early Octobers in North Carolina are perfection, and the sky turned azure as the sun edged toward the horizon. I’d been holding a fishing rod, waiting for the red-and-white bobber to duck beneath the water, when I heard footsteps swishing through the grass.
Setting the rod down, I looked back toward the shore and saw Walter step onto the pier. He wore sunglasses and a wheat-colored suit, his jacket thrown over his left shoulder, tie loosened.
For two weeks, I’d been home. Though he called often, I’d spoken to Walter only twice, and the conversations had been vapid on my part. Each time I’d hung up as soon as possible, revealing nothing of my May disappearance and shying away from his questions. Solitude and self-oblivion had been my sole desire, and as I watched my best friend stroll down the pier, his face sullen, I knew I’d hurt him.
Several feet away, he stopped and tossed a manila envelope onto the sun-bleached wood. Walter looked down at me, and I could see myself in his sunglasses. He sat down beside me on the edge of the pier, and our legs dangled out over the water.
“Your novel’s selling well,” he said. “I’m happy for you.”
“It’s a relief.”
As I fumbled with the envelope, Walter said, “I never opened it.”