Tom and Sophie waited twenty minutes in a ripe sauna for a transfer at West fourth. When at last the train rolled into the station, they boarded a car full of infernal heat. They went through the doors to the next car over, but it, too, lacked air- conditioning. The whole train did. There was a rancid smell. They returned to the first car. It seemed cooler there, somehow. But there was no escape.
Slogging out of the subway, they passed a fat woman on the stairs, begging help from anyone willing. Tom absentmindedly rubbed the downy dollar bill folded in fourths between his fingertips. A found thing: He had been worrying it since they left Cobble Hill.
“That one’s not well,” he said, eager to change subjects as they reached the street. “What was that on her face, a staph infection?”
“Who was that woman?” Sophie asked.
“The homeless woman?”
“No,” she said.
“Oh, you mean Clara,” Tom said. “Just now? Clara.”
“Who is Clara?”
“Clara? I’ve told you about her,” he said.
“The analyst? Who they weren’t going to fire, but then they did?”
Sophie made no reply. Tom, out of the corner of his eye, glanced at his wife who, head down, arms folded, was walking at a slant as if into a winter wind. She was chilled. They were passing over a steaming subway grate, the panting crosstown bus shedding exhaust at curbside—and yet there was Sophie, chilled to the bone. Tom sighed. “Look,” he said a minute later. But she was no longer beside him.
He turned. “Sophie?”
She was ten feet away, at a dead stop on the sidewalk. He thought at first she was staring at him, boring into him. But no, her eyes weren’t looking at anything, really. She was in her own world.
“Sophie,” he said.
And that was when she turned and walked away. “Sophie!”
What the hell? He stood there, uncomprehending, hot, annoyed: a man abruptly in the middle of something. She walked past the subway entrance, turned at the street corner and disappeared.
It would be the lost minute, the hesitation that would cost him. When he did start after her, turning at the corner where she had turned, he caught only a glimpse of her—white thighs, black boots—just as she was turning again. How had she gained ground so quickly? At the next corner, an absence of streetlights conspired with an abundance of trees to cast shadows everywhere. He squeezed past the cars packed tight at the curb and crossed over while calling out her name. Halfway down the block, he quickened his pace. He reached the corner in a run just as a taxi was pulling out, sweat pricking at him. He looked both ways. He looked behind him. She was gone.
She watched from the top of the stoop as he ran past, then doubled back the way she came until she reached the bright entrance to the subway.
Aside from a seated woman with a stroller, the northbound platform was empty. A busker’s song grew louder as she went down the stairs to the southbound. Here no train had come for a while, and all the riders, sunk in a torpor with drawn faces, were thickly assembled. But she couldn’t miss Clara, the analyst: knife-blade thin with jet black hair, she pulled a paperback book from her leopard-print handbag. Sophie had spotted her just at the moment a shirtless man had had enough and yanked a final leg from his sweatpants. “Too hot!” he cried out, balling up the pants and throwing them down. “Wouldn’t happen in France!” Sophie slipped past him while everyone else stared. He wedged his feet inside his hightops and, naked now but for his boxers, resumed a shuffle down the platform.
As Clara, the analyst, turned from the man and began to read her book, Sophie drew up behind her.
She didn’t know how she knew. She just knew. Tom wanted not to have seen her, then he shifted with a smile and a loud, “Clara!” Clara was surprised to see him, or acted so. Tom introduced his wife. Clara complimented Sophie’s handbag. Their little conference inconvenienced those trying to pass on the stairs. So they soon said goodbye. Clara continued down to the subway, and Tom and Sophie joined the crowd on the street. In the silence that followed, Sophie realized that this, too, was another thing she would have to endure and then assimilate into their reconciliation.
The train pulled in. Those waiting to get on bottlenecked at the open doors, teased by the cold air, as the departing passengers stepped off. Clara was among the first to board. Sophie followed her with her eyes until she disappeared inside the car, then she strained for a final glimpse through the inadequate window. But for what? Greater understanding? Proof of her continuing right to come unhinged?
They were having dinner with her parents. Stupid to have run away. They would be late now. All the same, just as the doors were closing, Sophie got on.
Tom muttered to himself. He threw up his hands. For a moment he seemed determined in his stride, only to stop, turn, and stand, arms akimbo, before drifting back the way he’d come. He removed a tissue from his pocket—machine-dried, like the dollar bill, and now soft and stiff—which collapsed completely at the first wipe across his brow. Tossing it into the bin at the corner and missing, he tried her cell phone again, but she wasn’t picking up.
He returned to the subway. He used the last swipe on his card to go through the turnstile, glanced down the northbound platform (steadily filling up now) before taking the stairs to the southbound. He arrived just as the tail lights of a departing train flashed red in the dark tunnel.
They rattled along at top speed.
The three boys with the boom box circled one another before the center doors, full of a nervous energy. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the handsome one, dark and lean in his overlong wifebeater, “ladies and gentlemen, we apologize for the interruption.” The other two whooped and clapped to whip up a wearied crowd that was also a captive audience. Their clapping fell into a rhythm when the music started, and the first boy dropped to the floor to break-dance. When the shorty took center stage, he made a flying leap onto the support bar and hung there with so little effort, he might have remained horizontal all the way to Far Rockaway.
Sophie stared past them. Clara, the analyst, was sitting beside a man who, having dragged a floor lamp onto the train with him, was holding it steady with a fist. The pull switch swung around and around as the car shuddered along the tracks.
Okay, so she was prettier. That was settled. What else?
On the subway again after that long struggle just to get to the Upper West Side—that was never part of the plan. What was next? Ordinarily Sophie was unsurprising, an Oberlin and a Harvard Medical School grad in her first year at Lenox Hill. An emergency room doctor frequently on call who, when not on call or at the hospital, was with Tom, her husband. Familiar, predictable, dependable Sophie.
The show ended with the shorty going around the car for tips. The train pulled into the station and the boys got off. A man boarded with a mountain bike, steadying himself on the support bar with his fingertips while holding his bike by the seat. The front tire appeared to leer at the standing lamp until, in tandem with the handlebars, it turned away in an attitude of contempt. By the time the train pulled out again, Sophie had taken a seat next to Clara.
She really was pretty, wasn’t she? Even in profile. Cute little button nose, nice skin, dark, swanlike neck. She looked special. What should Sophie do now that she could do anything? Maybe nothing. Or maybe she should ask Clara a question. But what? Nothing too complicated. For instance: “Do you feel special?”
Some errands a man runs without taking much notice of the world around him. The weather, or what’s outside the cab window. What’s outside the window is life, rioting life, but the man experiences only his own blind impatience to get past it all and on to the errand at hand. A man is a monster. He turns away from the crowds, the buildings, the bridges, as if this alone will speed things up, urging the cabbie on in all sorts of ways.
That was how Tom traveled whenever he paid a visit to Melissa.
Melissa was an aspiring actress (waiting tables to pay the bills) who lived just over the bridge, in Queens. From Tom’s office in Midtown, it was a twenty-minute ride to Melissa’s one-bedroom, depending on traffic, during which time he failed to see a thing. In retrospect, it was like traveling by portal. One minute he was in his office on the eighteenth floor, then whoosh . . . he was on rumpled bedsheets taking Melissa from behind. Huddled with colleagues in the lobby of a law firm . . . whoosh . . . fucking Melissa on the sink of a dive bar in the East Village. Walking through Central Park with Melissa before she had to start her shift . . . whoosh . . . back on the bed he shared with Sophie, calling out hello when she came through the door.
Something a man cares about even less than what’s out the window when he’s traveling by portal: the feelings of others.
Now Tom was what was outside the window, as taxi after taxi passed him by on Columbus. He was no longer traveling by portal; he was going around in a circle. A circle of hell, in this heat.
Still, he noticed as little as he did in the portal, only now it wasn’t pleasure he was after. It was an old perception of himself. Tom wasn’t just some animal on the street. It was never his right to go around fucking whomever he wanted to fuck. He was a married man. His marriage vows had bound him to his wife and to the world of decent men. There were just some things decent men did not do.
“Hey, it’s me,” he said into his cell, planting a foot on top of a fire hydrant at the same instant a fire truck blew past. “Look, it’s not her. The woman you’re thinking of wasn’t a colleague. She worked for a caterer. Call me.”
She hadn’t wanted any of the details when he came clean, and he obliged.
He thought it would end in one of two ways. She’d hate him and leave. Or she’d forgive him and stay. He never imagined it would somehow be both.
Tom ended the call, looked off, and ran the cuff of his shirt-sleeve over his sweaty brow. The guy on the bucket outside the bodega was looking at him. Tom sensed it and went back to worrying the dollar bill in his pocket.
“Could be you,” the man said.
There was no mistaking the man who he was addressing. “Pardon?” said Tom.
“Could be you,” the man repeated. Then he pointed.
Behind Tom, on the the window of the bus-stop shelter, was an ad for the current Powerball. The jackpot was up to $347 million. Could be Tom. Why not?
“Sure,” Tom said. “Could be any of us.”
“Not me,” said the man. “Never been lucky.”
When the company he worked for had announced the first round of layoffs, they’d let go of one analyst out of every five. That had seemed enough to make a second round unlikely, but a few months later they’d let go of the same percentage, only now from a smaller pool. His colleague Clara had been part of that round. Tom had held on until the fifth. He’d always been lucky.
He looked down the street both ways once more, then walked up to the corner and peered in all four directions. The hot white lights of the taxis came at him unevenly, as if the streets were wilting. He gave up and went inside a bar.
Excerpted from THE DINNER PARTY © 2017 Joshua Ferris. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.