“What do you think?” Isaac asked Vashti.
“I don’t know. It’s not like there is a plan for things like this. What do I think? I think I would like to rest my brain.”
“I wish that all the time,” Isaac said.
Vashti reached for her jacket, pulled it on and rummaged around her pockets.
“Let’s get stoned,” she said, shaking free a rolled up sandwich bag with four loose joints at the bottom.
“Vashti! Raphael said no reefer.”
“Oh come on, after all we’ve been through? A little doobage isn’t going to hurt anything. Besides, who calls it reefer these days?”
Vashti lit a joint and inflated her chest with smoke. She held it inside and handed the joint to Isaac, before deflating with a cough and a chuckle.
“Goodness Isaac, don’t you ever smoke? It’s not a cigarette and we’re sharing. Try not to gob all over the paper.”
Isaac sucked in but the tip barely glowed.
“Harder. Make it crackle.”
He pulled in and smoke shot down his throat, burning all the way to his lungs. He held it in even as his diaphragm violently rejected it. His chest bounced and small smoke puffs trickled from both nostrils. Finally, the smoke erupted from his mouth along with gobs of saliva and phlegm.
He continued coughing while Vashti took another hit.
“Have you ever smoked, ever?”
“I had a hit off a bong once, in college,” he squeaked.
“Don’t worry it gets better.”
Vashti took two more hits before Isaac settled down.
“Ready?” she asked.
He took the joint.
“No, use your thumb and forefinger.”
“Ow,” Isaac said, dropping it in the space between them on the bench.
Vashti giggled. “See? It’s hot.”
Isaac fished back the joint, took another hit, and it did feel better though he sputtered again. And for the first time on the trip and maybe for sometime before that he felt relieved of all the troubles that swirled around his head.
They were still there, for sure, but they seemed impotent.
He stared at Cassiopeia. “I really love my sister,” he said. “I wish I could tell her that right now.”
“What’s her name?”
“Tell me about her, please.”
She was 10 when he was born, an accident. Their father was 60 and mother 47.
“Mother died when I was 12. By that time my father was having a host of health problems so I moved in with my sister. She was just out of college. He had a live-in nurse and I was just in the way.
“Father died right before my bar mitzvah.”
Isaac took another hit and passed it back to Vashti.
“He was a hard, closed man. Some holocaust survivors are like that. I was soft, he said. And worked hard to point that out.
“Anyway, I still live with her, 20 years later. Do you have any siblings?”
“Don’t worry about me. Go on.”
He wasn’t sure he could feel his toes but if he closed his eyes his sister was with them in the cockpit.
“Well, she was engaged when I moved in, some guy from college. He moved out two days after I arrived. She never had a real boyfriend after that.”
“Did she try?”
“Not at first, but sure, she dated after I went to college. Just nothing came of it. I assumed it was my fault, because she was caring for me. I mean she is beautiful and really intelligent.
“Plus some of the men were really unkind to her.”
Vashti thought back to Raphael at the bar.
“One guy went to the bathroom at the movies and never came back. Another time, she was sleeping with this guy and he just walked out one night. He told her she was boring to fuck.”
“She told you this?” Vashti asked.
“Oh yeah, we cried together a lot.”
“So why are you here then, if you don’t like being apart?”
“I had to. Raphael convinced me. Things were really rough the last year or so. Once, I tried to kill myself.
“Not really. It was pathetic.”
“This reefer is good for you,” Vashti said. “Smoke this more often and you can fire your shrink.”
“Why are you crying?” Vashti asked.
“I am?” he asked and touched a cheek.
“It’s why I am here. My father was right. I am weak. I want to be a man of action.”
“Yeah. I guess. Hasn’t worked out that way so far.”
Vashti was glued to her place on the bench. She wanted to touch her friend but her hand lay silent on her lap.
“What happened a year ago?”
“I shouldn’t talk about it. But I want to.”
Isaac was home. It was a Saturday night. The sun didn’t set until nearly nine and he had pulled the curtains across the windows to keep the light out. He was watching Close Encounters for the upteenth time. There were no lights on.
Around nine, Rose came home despairing over her date. She had been on three previous dates with the man and was hopeful.
Artsy cinema on their first date. They met at the coffee shop across the road and then sat to discuss the film at the same place after.
He kissed her on her cheek at midnight and each went their way.
The second date was the Museum of Modern Art where they saw an exhibition of impressionist nudes.
He said the bodies seemed cold and asexual.
They ate dinner from a cart and walked Central Park, sometimes holding hands, until dusk. He kissed her on the cheek again and they went home separately.
Their third date was rushed. He was heading to the airport so they met near Penn Station for dinner. He held doors for her. Afterward he asked if he could kiss her. She said, “please.”
They met in Jersey for their fourth date, near her apartment. She was ready to invite him home if all went well.
“You can see where I live,” she said. “On the south corner of that tower.”
They ate at a small Thai place with a full bar. He was kind and attentive and wiped curry sauce from her cheek with a thumb. And then she told him she would be traveling for work soon, for two weeks. First to London and Paris and then to Singapore, Hong Kong and Los Angeles on her way home.
He didn’t say much at first but ordered a whisky to drink alongside his wine.
One became four. Curious became interrogation. He wanted to know who she was seeing. “Men I suppose.”
By the end of the meal. He had asked her to promise not to cheat on him.
This annoyed her and she said so. She had no intention of having sex with anyone while she was gone but he did not have any jurisdiction either, she said.
He was definitely not going home with her that night and she looked up the train schedule back to Manhattan. The timing was bad. They had 40 minutes to kill. Something told her it was not wise to just send him away. She suggested they walk to a coffee shop near the train station. On the way he squeezed her hand too tight and she took a route that avoided the entrance to her building.
The route, however, took them past a bar and he pulled her in.
They sat on the corner. He ordered whiskey again and a red wine for her, without asking.
He was full of fury now, accusing her of being a whore “like all the rest.”
He lorded over her and clamped his hand on her arm.
As his anger grew, his voice lowered and his grip tightened. Raphael was in the corner. She pleaded with her eyes for help. And he tried.
“She was in a state when she got home,” Isaac said. “His thumb and fingers were still imprinted on her arm.”
Vashti and Isaac each took another toke. The joint was now a nub and Vashti flicked it into the seaweed.
“That’s horrible,” she said. “But she was lucky Raphael was there.”
“No, no, no, she wasn’t,” Isaac said.
“We were out of ice cream. Rose likes ice cream when she is upset, Chunky Monkey, actually. And I went to the corner store for her. She didn’t want to go out again.
“When I got back, I was unlocking the door. As soon as the second lock clicked, I felt a shoulder hit me from behind and then I was lying in the entranceway with a man on my back. I could smell the liquor. He kept asking, ‘Where is that cunt. Where is that perfect cunt.’”
Vashti remained still. She thought of Raphael sitting at the bar that night. She remembered the man who yelled at them. This man.
“I saw your sister that night,” she said. “Raphael helped her get out of the bar.”
Isaac kept going.
“He was sitting on me and kept punching me in the head. He was wearing a ring. I could feel it tearing at my skin. I could taste the blood drip into my mouth. All I could think about was myself. Then he stood and kicked me, many times.
“My sister was trying to stop him. But I just rolled up and took it. And when he was done with me he moved onto her. I watched him drag her into her bedroom. I didn’t move.
“I heard him beat her. I heard him fuck her. I heard her scream for me to help.”
“Did anyone hear? Call the police?”
“We live on the top floor and the people below us were away.
“I could have called. I had my phone. But I didn’t move. He kept saying, ‘How does that feel you perfect cunt’ over and over. And I did nothing. And when he tired of her, he stepped over me, coughed up phlegm and dribbled it onto my face.
“‘What a pussy you are,’ he said. And then left.
“They arrested him a day later. Turns out he was wanted for rape in LA and Atlanta too. He’s in prison now.”
Vashti raised her hand off her lap, intending to touch Isaac’s arm, but then put it down. They sat silently, both trapped.