Looking back now, thinking of Ruby makes me smile. But it took a long time to get to this place. What then felt like a series of haphazard random events now seem like perfect fitting puzzle pieces. Sheridan Square was like a magician’s sleight of hand, and there we lived happily and arrogantly within the illusion we created. Like rabbits pulled out of a hat we had the spotlight on us, we were the stars. We were the main actors in a film we were writing. But this is how I see it now, from the high ground and advantage of time. Then. Then I was an infatuated romantic caught somewhere between A Season in Hell and Flowers of Evil. Ruby was an adult to my insufferable bouts of passionate self-indulgence. But back then I just couldn’t see it. Our affair, our love affair, had to end as it could never sustain its own weight, the anchor of adult commitments dragging us down to earth. Ruby had no choice but to move on in search of a more secure life, a life alien to me, a life I had no interest in and was in no position to offer her. It never dawned on me just how unstable being in love with her had made me.
All these years later, watching the California sun set through the bougainvillea vines, watching it dip below the hills of Laurel Canyon, my life seems a million miles away from those days on Jones Street. Now I just remember the good times, the arrogance of being young and in love. Eating warm pecan pie with Ruby at four in the afternoon. Watching her eat eggs with ketchup at the coffee shop at four in the morning. Throwing firecrackers into the fog of a rainy night off the roof in Sheridan Sq. Being mesmerized by Ruby, on a hot summer night, in her tee shirt and underwear dancing around her apartment to Pretty in Pink. Those were the good days, the best of days. I was a kid and she had already traveled the road I was driving on. But for a short time, a blink of the eye, we were both headed down that one-way street together.
But all that was long ago.
At twenty-eight Ruby felt cheated, her fine balance of values slightly withered. She definitely had misjudged the fury of time and had wasted too many years on a poisonous potion of routine and transient affairs. It was certainly true that she had taken her share of lovers but it was also starkly true that she had taken no love and had given back more than an equal dose.
As she thought quietly to herself how she had existed on little more than her own blind, crippled faith most of her life, she slipped her jacket on with indifference and a small hint of disgust creeping up into her mouth, walked down the six flights of stairs and into a cold January morning.
Even before turning left onto Bleaker Street, the feint, rusty odor of urine mixed perilously with the freezing January wind and cut a path that found Ruby even before she was fully aware of it. At the far end of Jones Street, Sixth Ave came into view and slowly like an apparition slid out of focus and into a gray blur, the result of icy wind mixed with salty tears, and she realized that another morning had again gotten the better of her.
The Roadhouse, by day, was a casual playground for hanging out, and at night a place to get hung out. But it was their hangout, Ruby and her best friend Jolene. She sat sullenly over a tequila one of those nights and listened through the background noise to an overzealous law student’s dissertation on his many merits and attributes.
This guy’s life story sounded like a bad autobiography that foreshadowed where the conversation was headed. Magically he disappeared at the same time Ruby’s tequila disappeared.
But here he was now, holding two drinks. “I bought you a drink”, he offered up. His reappearance, glasses in hand, stopped her cold and her previous ambivalence dissipated. Who was this guy, a guy she clearly was not interested in, to inject himself into her life, her space.
The ice cubes rang inside her near empty glass, and she held it to her lips as if caught there and held in suspension where neither reason nor logic resided. She looked up at him, and through him with her penetrating stare mustering as much venom as she could summon, and her eyes, like a cat, became even greener in the dim yellow light.
He stood there with his two glasses of amber liquid, and realizing he was on thin ice became motionless in this hollow void, unable to move forward, unable to retreat back into the smoke-filled room.
“Seriously, what’s your deal?”, he blurted out.
“I only fuck strangers I know” Ruby said flatly.
Oh, god, did she just say that out loud, or was that just in her head? Even before the sentence was finished taking shape, she felt the adrenalin running through her veins, knowing this was getting ugly. His smile now disintegrated, emboldened by alcohol, his ego hurt by her words. For a moment, he was immobilized, crushed. He wanted to just disappear but, in his mind, the thin line of acceptable bar-diplomacy had been crossed.
He took a quick short step toward Ruby and grabbed her arm too tightly through her cotton sweater.
“Let’s get out of here” he stuttered under his breath. The loud din of the crowded room and the blaring music made it near impossible to comprehend what was taking place. “Let’s go”, this time louder.
Ruby tried to remain calm. She hissed, “Get. Your. Hands. Off me”.
But the demand was met with a tightening around her arm. She wondered how she had allowed this ridiculous situation to develop. Was this her doing, did she act suggestively? No, this guy was
just one step away from his next date-rape. Then he let go. Took a step back, looked her up and down. “Yeah, well fuck you too old lady”.
“Old lady?” she thought to herself.
He turned and left in a hurry, pushing his way through the crowded room, bumping into bodies and out the front doors into the cold night.
New York City in the 70’s was a dangerous place.
There’s nothing the night can’t heal. Sheridan Square emerges out of the grey pavement like a monument to all lost souls. It’s not a square at all, but rather, a loose triangle of haphazard and seemingly random structures. Its intersecting streets pointing like arrows, teasing you to walk east and west and north and south. On a warm July night, walking west, the early evening’s pink hues slip over the Hudson River precluding the stillness of sunset. A warm dust of orange light falls off the concrete walls as the asphalt streets ooze and give back the day’s heat. But in late January the contrast couldn’t be more pronounced; the low light and grey skies, the absence of tourists looking for directions.
Ruby’s father, Henry Clay was a quiet man with powerful eyes like Valentino, and a kind disposition, his golden hair bleached from the southern suns of the deep south.
At twenty-seven he met his wife to be in Gainesville, Florida. She was taking tickets at the local movie theater where he would go to dream of what might have been, what could have been. Three weeks later they were married and rented a bungalow that looked not unlike every other house on the street. Pink and faded stucco, sun bleached roof tiles, peeling paint and a crooked mailbox.
Frustrated by the bleak prospects of what lay before them, they invested their combined life savings of $1,200 into a real estate venture they found advertised in Readers Digest. They bought a tract of land offering great promise that turned out to be a swamp near the Everglades, and their savings were quickly swallowed up like the quicksand they invested in. With the imminent prospect of not being able to pay next months’ rent, they decided to head west, California in their sights, land of dreams. They loaded up the old Buick and in the middle of the night, left their bungalow behind in the rear-view mirror. Somewhere between Florida and California, they found themselves hopelessly lost one night in a one-traffic-light town called Ruby, Arkansas. With their meager funds dwindling, they slept in the car that night and unknowingly conceived their first and only child. Short on imagination but not passion, they decided right then and there that if they were to ever have a child, they would name it Ruby, their shining gem, in honor of the blessed event. The gods smiled down on them and luckily 9 months later they gave birth to a girl.
Offering to dog-sit was beginning to look like a mistake to Charlie. Christmas had brought a light, cold rain upon the city and looking out into the dark alleys from the apartment in Sheridan Square, the wet pavement appeared glossy and slick, glass-like beneath the few rusted street lamps that still worked.
Charlie cursed his friend, undoubtedly walking on some warm beach in Acapulco, while he, Charlie, chased the Afghan puppy around the living room in an effort to get a leash around his neck.
What the hell was anyone doing with a 120 lb. Afghan in an apartment in New York?
As soon as Charlie opened the door, the dog, in a mad burst of bladder-full energy, made a bee line for the elevator.
He hit the button. Hit it again. But as he and the pooch sat there waiting impatiently for the painfully slow elevator to get to them, it all proved too much for the poor pup, and a puddle formed around Charlie’s boots.
Thus, the evening that would change Charlie Fair’s life had officially begun.
It was moist and warm for December and the air felt good against Charlie’s face. The dog bounced from the curb to the sidewalk to the street. Complete strangers would stare at him and invariably their gazes would finally land on Charlie as a curious afterthought. But Charlie began to see that walking a cute, furry dog was the key to the door of possibilities. Who could resist a big overgrown puppy? He was a spider. They were the flies. The creature was a women-magnet.
They turned as usual off of Seventh Avenue and onto Jones Street and then turned and headed back to Sheridan Square. Charlie was a writer and this budding career wasn’t going too well at the moment. After some minor initial success, he couldn’t get anything published. So maybe it really was beginners’ luck. But he turned his thoughts away from that endless black hole of doubt, and
gently tugged on the leash. The dog, now an unmovable object, was wrapped in the arms of a woman wearing a military field-jacket, her long hair falling over her collar and in her face.
“He’s adorable. How old is he?” she asked.
“Not sure really. I’m just baby-sitting, um dog-sitting. Well technically puppy-sitting”.
“What’s his name? is he a she or a he?”
“He. I’m pretty sure”. Charlie bent down and looked, catching a glimpse of the woman’s face. “Oh yeah, he’s a he”.
“Nice move”, she said to him laughing.
She bent down stroking the puppy’s sleek golden head.
Her face had sharp features, distinct and pale and delicate, her lips slightly open camouflaging a sly smile. Then she stood up and left.
She walked off toward Seventh Avenue. Charlie walked off in the opposite direction but after twenty feet, he stopped dead in his tracks. He turned around and decided to find her before she disappeared. What the hell. He turned around, the dog in tow, and walked in the direction she went. He saw her, hands deep into her coat pockets. But before he could catch up with her, she walked into the Roadhouse, the heavy wooden doors slamming behind her, making a statement. Charlie laughed at himself. Pathetic. Chasing some stranger down the streets of New York. What exactly did he expect was going to happen anyway?
Charlie headed back, walking past the fogged windows of the Roadhouse. But before he had even gotten back to Sheridan Square she came up behind him, her hands still in her coat, but now she was with a girlfriend.
“This is the dog I told you about” Ruby said to Jolene.
“Cute” Jolene offered up, and then to Ruby, pointing at Charlie, “He’s pretty cute too”.
“Thanks for that”, Ruby said sarcastically but her friend was already speaking to Charlie “We’re going out later if you want stop by and meet us for a drink”. Ruby shot Jolene a look.
Jolene motioned to Charlie. “A bit young for you, but not bad” she said under her breath.
Ruby sank deeper into her jacket and scarf. Jolene pulled her away, laughing and said over her shoulder to Charlie, “Eleven at the Roadhouse”, she pointed in the direction behind them, but they walked off not waiting for an answer.
Charlie pushed through the heavy wooden doors, walked through the crowd and saw Ruby.
“Hello” he said, “I’m Charlie. but before he could even get it all out, she put a finger to his lips and said in her best Marlon Brando, “No names.” Charlie wasn’t sure what to think.
“I’m kidding” she said, “Last Tango in Paris? Remember when they’re done screwing and Brando tells Maria Schneider ‘no names!’ “Didn’t you see Last Tango”?
“Ah, a joke. Good one. Pass the butter”, I get it, said Charlie.
“I’m Ruby” she extended her hand to shake.
“Ruby”, said Charlie. “A gem of a name”.
“Well, on the way to California, my parents got lost in a small town, Ruby, Arkansas. And screwed in the back of the car. And conceived me”.
“So, you’re like a monument to the deep south” said Charlie.
“No, more their complete lack of imagination. I don’t think they were paying homage to confederate rural America” offered Ruby.
“Good they didn’t stop in Moonstone, Montana”, said Charlie.
Jolene, closing the deal with her just-met new bar-friend, got up and put her coat on.
“Hello and goodbye”, she said to Ruby, “What the hell”, she added, and they shuffled out into the crowded room.
Then Ruby slowly leaned in to Charlie, close enough for him to smell her hair, and whispered “what the hell”.
They slept on his mattress, on the floor. As the rumbling of the garbage trucks and the light of dawn filtered through the blinds, he ran one finger lightly over her skin, following her spine from her neck to her waist. She managed to pry an eye open. She looked at her watch and it had the effect of a glass of cold water poured over her, bringing her instantly into the reality of the situation. He had dreamed deeply and his head hurt.
What the hell did they drink last night anyway?
“I’ve got to go” she whispered. She turned over and kissed him.
“Wait, said Charlie, “can we meet, again? I mean I’m not sure last night was not my finest hour”.
Ruby laughed, “OK Churchill, but if I agree to see you again, then you’ll think I like you”.
“Wait”, Charlie still trying to recall last night’s events, and non-events. Did he drink absinthe?
“And I have to go to the laundromat -- and you have a dog to walk”. Ruby said getting dressed.
“I’m really good in laundromats. I know my way around those places. Spent a lot of time in laundromats”, he offered. “Wait I have quarters in a drawer somewhere”.
But she already had her jacket on now, and turned to go. She came back, grabbed a pen on the table, and wrote her number on the back of his hand and said, “Thanks for, for, I don’t know. For what happened. For what didn’t happen. For being sweet” and she turned and walked out the door.
He yelled out, “Wait! What about the quarters?” but she was gone.
It’s always uncomfortable being in a woman’s apartment for the first time and Ruby’s was no different. No matter how intimate you may have been, you feel like a stranger trespassing where you don’t really belong. Nothing is familiar. Nothing makes sense. Nothing is casual that first time. Photographs of family, friends, past lovers litter the apartment. All unfamiliar faces and places. Books you may have read, never read, would never read, stuffed onto bookshelves. Her cat. Furniture you never considered necessary for your own existence. This was the home of an adult, a woman with a job, a tax-payer. He felt like a foreigner, a tourist just visiting, an imposter on vacation from his own life.
Which until now was just a series of shared beds, mattresses, and couches.
There was Camille. Pretty, tall, blonde. Railroad apartment, bathtub in the kitchen.
Liv, Ukrainian under age beauty, who let him stay at her parent’s apartment over a movie theater, while they worked the night shifts at the hospital. Her older brother (sorry never did get his name) paid him a visit one day. Did he know she was fifteen? and threatened to hang Charlie out the window.
Kathleen, Kate, Kat, a Julliard student with a foul temper, allowed him to sleep on her couch after throwing an Ibsen play at him and hitting Charlie in the eye. Sympathy for the devil.
And then, sweet Julie, med student, let him live in her dorm room until her boy-friend showed up with a bag of heroin, a jock from Boston College.
And on it went.
But somehow, this immediately all felt different. Something had changed. This woman, this Ruby, named after a one traffic–light town off route 167 in Arkansas, captured his senses and it humbled him. That’s when he knew he was in trouble.
And now he was in Ruby’s apartment, 6th floor walkup on Jones St. The late afternoon hours slipped into evening and evening slipped into night. They watched the news on TV in her bedroom. They listened to the rain slash against the window. They watched water boil on the stove. She held his hand. She was wearing his t-shirt. Most of all they watched each other.
At some point the phone rang and she went and answered it, took it into the bedroom. Again, Charlie was the trespasser, a voyeur staring into the private life of someone he knew very little about. The call clearly upset her.
Charlie looked at Ruby not expecting an explanation. He was a trespasser.
“Some guy I know. Knew”, she faltered. How could Charlie be jealous; he hardly knew her. Had no rights, no claims. Yet the fact that it upset him was another bad omen for him. A sign pointing in the direction of another tangled and transient relationship that had a finite beginning and end. She sensed this his bruised ego. “Well his father’s a famous criminal lawyer. I mean, big deal right, who cares. I never heard of him until Shane told me who he was”.
“Shane”? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.
“The guy who just called”, she looked across the room at him, “it’s over. Charlie, it’s over. Been over for a long time”.
‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’, thought Charlie.
They watched Casablanca in Ruby’s bed. Bogart listens to Ingrid Bergman’s explanation why she left him at the train station in Paris. They make plans to leave together. But in the end Bogy won’t do it. The balance of the free world winning out over true love. Ruby, tears in her eyes, turned the TV off. “Rick had to give the letters of transit to Laszlo so he could carry on with the Resistance”, Charlie explained, “Rick hated the Nazi’s even more than he loved Ilse”.
Ruby, pulled Charlie toward her, and kissed him with more passion than he’d ever been kissed before. But then pushed him away from her.
“Got to get up early. Work”.
With just the light from the street throwing irregular shadows over the room, Charlie slipped out of his clothes and back into bed. He could feel her warmth, her body, though she was a foot away on the other side of the bed. She turned to him and said softly, “Charlie?”
“Christ what if you’re some kind of crazy person?”
“I am a crazy person”.
“No really”, she yawned while dreamily looking into him.
“What did you have in mind exactly?” Charlie asked
“You know, like a serial killer”.
“Or a cat burglar like Cary Grant”, Charlie offered her a more pleasant criminal profile
“No really, just think about it. I don’t even know you. You might be an escaped psychiatric patient”. Ruby turned and stared into his eyes. “Well then you could call your friend’s famous father-lawyer”.
“Not if I was dead I couldn’t”.
Ruby leaned into him, swept his hair back out of his eyes and kissed him lightly on the lips.
“Good night Charlie Fair”.
“Ruby?”, but she was already asleep.
By the following Christmas, what had exited them about each other and brought them together morphed into routine, routine into familiarity, familiarity into complacency, complacency into boredom. He knew trouble was lurking in the wings ready to take its bows when the curtain went up. And the curtain was definitely going up quickly.
There were more phone calls, calls at all hours, from Shane, and others. Ghosts appeared and emerged, danced their dance of jealousy and uncertainty through the shadows. And in a way it was a convenient cover for Charlie’s insecurities while fueling his need to place blame. Ambition can strangle, and the choke hold on Charlie was slowly eating at him and pushing him away. He felt creatively impotent. A prisoner of his own making. He was broke, living from hand to mouth, and his days and nights with Ruby began to feel like a noose slowly tightening around his neck. He considered the fact that he was a burden to her, a rock around her neck. He wondered if it was obvious to Ruby, but clearly, he felt the air thinning, the waters deepening, his ability to tread water diminishing. Their affair had blinded him, given him false hope that he could morph into someone else, someone who could be satisfied with a different life, her life. When she went off to work, he began looking through her things, things that she collected, a life-time of things. He felt himself resenting her for having a past life without him. Shelves and bookcases full of things. Cupboards full of things. Closets full of things. None of them his, none of them holding any meaning for him beyond the simple knowledge that Ruby had touched them all and they had touched her. He was surrounded by her past. And he knew then, as he had always known, that this life, this legitimate, sanitized life, could never be enough for him. And more importantly, he would never be enough for her. Charlie was just a few frayed pages torn from a chapter in her life, and he knew it.
The grey and bleak days crept through the winter months, and eventually gave way to a more gentle and milder air saturated with colorful hues. On a picture-perfect May morning, after Ruby had left for work, Charlie sat with his blank notebook in front of him, trying to compose a letter to Ruby, his duffle bag filled with his belongings next to him on the floor. He’d explain why he left her, why he had to leave her, and she’d understand. Her one-eyed cat Sally was sprawled as usual on the table, listening to the birds singing through the street noise rising to the six-story walk-up. Then the cat got up and jumped off the table, and he saw the note.
Charlie read and then re-read it, first at the table, and then moved to the bed. The bed where they had shared so much happiness and laughter and love. The cat followed him onto the bed. He read it again. Ruby let him know in no uncertain terms that she needed to move on. He needed to move on. They both did. He needed to leave. She loved him. And she knew he loved her. Shane had come back into her life. And could Charlie please feed the cat before he left.
She had once again out-smarted him, beat him to the punch. Or did she just think with his creative impotence and inability to make a decision, he’d never act on what they both knew was inevitable. But there it was, in black and white. At least he didn’t have to write the letter.
He grabbed his jacket, took one last look around the apartment, the photographs, the books, the bamboo shade. He wasn’t upset. Maybe he was relieved. He had left it to Ruby to
do the dirty work. Charlie fed the cat, gave him a pat on his head, and then walked out the door and for the last time, meandered down the six flights of stairs back on to Jones Street.