New York City
She was smart and sexy and beautiful, but all that didn’t matter. John Rogers fell for her because of what she said about God.
He met her in a bar on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, near the New York University campus. He was slumped on a stool at the end of the bar when she came into the place, laughing as she stepped through the doorway. Her laughter, that’s the first thing he noticed. It was high and sweet, a chord of delight. He looked up from his half-empty glass of Budweiser and saw a petite redhead, most likely in her midtwenties, wearing a short spangly skirt and a low-cut blouse.
Two brawny young men stood on either side of her. Both were much taller than her and more casually dressed, in jeans and sneakers and T-shirts. She walked between them, her arms linked with theirs and her face turned toward the young man on her right. He was the one who’d just made her laugh.
The trio halted a few feet past the door and took a moment to scan the room. It was early in the evening, a little before seven, so the place was pretty empty. Only one of the tables was occupied, and John was the only person sitting at the bar. After several seconds of indecision the redhead and her companions chose a table about fifteen feet away from him. The girl sat in the chair closest to the bar and crossed her legs. They were nice legs, tanned and muscular.
John sipped his beer and watched her out of the corner of his eye. Her long fiery hair draped her shoulders and ran down her back. She had long eyelashes, too, and big green eyes. She tilted her chin up when the waitress came to their table to take their orders, and when she smiled at the other woman John felt an ache in his chest, a pang of longing and regret. She was so pretty it hurt to look at her.
But he kept looking anyway. He had the feeling he’d seen her before, although he couldn’t imagine where or when. He wasn’t a New Yorker. He’d lived his whole life in Philadelphia. He’d arrived in Manhattan that morning and spent the day in an NYU conference center where they held a job fair for unemployed social workers. Which turned out to be a bust, unfortunately. Jobs were just as scarce in New York as they were in Pennsylvania. John didn’t have a master’s degree in social work or any of the other qualifications that employers were looking for. All he had was a bachelor’s degree from the Community College of Philadelphia and a résumé that listed a few off-the-books construction jobs and some part-time work at his local church. Now he felt like an idiot for coming to New York, but he was too tired and depressed to start the long drive back to Philly. So he’d headed for the nearest bar. He had less than twenty dollars left in his wallet, so there was no danger of getting too drunk to drive.
He took another sip of beer, a small one, trying to make it last. Over the next half hour the bar filled up. Most of the customers appeared to be NYU students—gangly boys with odd patches of facial hair and manic girls in tank tops and cutoff shorts. Some of the girls were good-looking but John couldn’t take them seriously. They were silly, privileged kids who knew nothing about the real world, who wouldn’t last a single day in the part of Philly where he grew up. Also, they were barely old enough to drink, and John was a divorced thirty-three-year-old. They belonged to a different generation. Maybe even a different species.
But he didn’t feel that way about the redhead. Although she wasn’t much older than the NYU girls, she seemed more sensible, less naïve. Holding a glass of white wine, she spoke in a low voice to her companions, who smiled and nodded. The two young men looked alike—both had square jaws and strong cheekbones and auburn crew cuts—and it occurred to John that they might be her brothers. Although he couldn’t overhear what they were saying, the three of them seemed very much at ease with one another. The only incongruous thing was the redhead’s choice of clothes, the short glittery skirt and the revealing blouse. It seemed a little too sexy for a family get-together.
Then he realized why she looked familiar. He’d seen her just a few hours before, at the job fair for social workers. They’d both stood at the edge of a crowd that had gathered around a man handing out applications for jobs at the Children’s Aid Society. The demand was so great, he ran out of applications; John didn’t get one, and neither did the redhead. Looking more resigned than disappointed, the girl had sighed, “Oh well,” to no one in particular and then headed for the other end of the conference center. She’d worn a gray pantsuit at the time, a sober, businesslike outfit that was the polar opposite of what she wore now. That’s why John didn’t recognize her when she walked into the bar. She must’ve changed clothes sometime in the past couple of hours.
He stared at her for a few extra seconds, wondering what her story was. Then she turned his way and caught him staring at her, and after a moment she smiled. Now she recognized him. She was probably remembering the same scene at the conference center. She raised her wineglass and waved hello.
It wasn’t much, just a friendly gesture, but it triggered a burst of adrenaline in John’s gut. He sat a little straighter on his bar stool. Luckily, he was wearing his best suit and it wasn’t too rumpled. He smiled back at her and raised his own glass, which was almost empty.
She said something to the two men at her table. Then she rose to her feet and came toward him. He felt another burst of adrenaline, stronger this time. She was so damn gorgeous. Way out of his league, to tell the truth. John wasn’t successful or fashionable. He was just a bruiser from North Philly who’d wasted his youth on the streets and washed out of the army and whose greatest accomplishment in life had been simply staying out of jail. The only thing he had going for him was his size—he was a big guy, six foot three, and still in pretty good shape. His ex-wife used to say he looked like Derek Jeter of the Yankees, and on John’s good days he could see the resemblance when he looked in the mirror. Like Jeter, he had a white mom and a black dad, and his own skin color was exactly in-between. But Jeter was a happy guy, always smiling when John saw him on television, even when he struck out. John didn’t have as much to be happy about.
The redhead stopped three feet away from him, behind the neighboring bar stool. He noticed she’d brought her wineglass with her, which was a good sign. She cocked her head and gave him a mock-suspicious look. “So was your luck any better than mine?” she asked. “Did you get any interviews?”
He liked her directness. This was a girl who got right to the point. He shook his head. “None whatsoever. It was a complete waste of time.”
“I’m starting to think I picked the wrong profession. I should’ve listened to my mother and gone to dental school.” She smiled again, revealing her perfectly white teeth. Then she held out her hand. “My name’s Ariel.”
Interesting name. Half-rising from his stool, he grasped her hand, which was slender and warm. “I’m John,” he said. “John Rogers. Nice to meet you.” He pointed at the bar stool next to his. “Would you like a seat?”
She glanced over her shoulder at her table. Her companions were ordering another round of drinks from the waitress and flirting with her. Ariel rolled her eyes and turned back to him. “Sure, why not. My friends are busy.”
“I thought they were your brothers. They look like twins, almost.”
“They’re brothers, but not mine. I went to high school with them in Connecticut. They both work on Wall Street now. I called them this morning when I got into town and they promised to buy me a drink.” She moved a bit closer and lowered her voice. “They feel sorry for me. They’re making tons of money, and I’m still living at home with my parents.”
John pulled out the stool for her. She sat down, crossing her legs again, and set her wineglass on the bar. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. It took all his strength to stop himself from gawking at her cleavage. “So, uh, you still live in Connecticut?”
She nodded. “Yeah, and it’s boring as hell. I moved back home after I got my bachelor’s in social work. I thought I’d be there for just a month or two, but it’s taking forever to find a job.”
“Welcome to the club. I’ve been looking for almost a year. I work construction to pay the bills.”
“I’m going to another job fair tomorrow. Luckily, I found a cheap hotel in Brooklyn to stay tonight.” She leaned toward him, resting an elbow on the edge of the bar. “What about you? You live in New York?”
A beam from one of the overhead track lights illuminated the right side of her face, and John noticed a thin faded scar on her temple. Looking closer, he saw another faint scar just below her left ear and a tracery of lines on the side of her neck. He wondered how she’d been injured, wincing as he viewed all her scars. She must’ve been in a car accident, he thought, a pretty bad one. But judging from the faintness of the marks, he guessed it had happened a long time ago, when she was very young.
He was studying her so carefully he almost forgot to answer her question. “No, I’m from Philly,” he said. “I came to New York just for the day.”
“What part of Philadelphia? I have some friends there.”
“They probably don’t live where I do. It’s a rough neighborhood.”
“What, North Philly?”
She nodded. “I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard of it. Lots of drugs and gangs, right?”
He wasn’t surprised that Ariel knew about the place. Kensington was such a notorious slum, it was mentioned in most of the social-work textbooks. John had seen some of those books himself, back when he was taking classes at the community college, and when he read the descriptions of Kensington he wanted to tear out the pages. They weren’t even close to the truth. The neighborhood was a hundred times worse.
But he didn’t want to talk about Kensington or its gangs right now. The last thing he wanted to do was scare Ariel away by telling her he was once a soldier with the Somerset Street Disciples. He tried to change the subject. “Yeah, there’s gangs, but there’s good people, too. And if you stick with the good people, you can stay out of trouble.”
She cupped her chin in her palm as she stared at him. Her index finger stroked the faint scar below her ear. “So who kept you out of trouble?”
There was that directness again. She didn’t waste any time. He couldn’t think of a way to dodge the question, so instead he was honest with her. “Well, first it was the army, but that didn’t last long. I didn’t take well to the discipline, so they kicked me out. And then I got some help from a priest, believe it or not. Father Reginald Murphy of Saint Anne’s Church. He was the oldest, toughest priest in Philadelphia. All the gangs were terrified of him.”
“You belonged to his church?”
“Nah, I’m not even Catholic. But he saw me running around the neighborhood with all the other thugs, and for some reason he made it his business to save me. I’m still not sure why. He never told me.” John winced. It still hurt to think about the old man. “And now I’m just trying to return the favor, you know? Trying to get a job where I can do something good. Maybe point a few kids in the right direction. Do the same thing for them that Father Murphy did for me.”
“You’re talking about him in the past tense. Is he dead?”
John nodded. He opened his mouth, ready to tell Ariel that Father Murphy had died in his sleep. But that was a lie, and after a moment John realized he couldn’t tell it. He couldn’t tell her the truth either, so he just sat there with his mouth open, trying to think of something to say.
Then Ariel surprised him. She leaned closer and rested her right hand on his forearm. “Let me ask you something, John. Do you believe in God?”
He narrowed his eyes and stared at her. Oh, shit. Is this gorgeous girl a Jesus freak? His heart sank as he considered the possibility. Maybe she was trying to proselytize him. But a bar was an odd place to look for converts.
“No, I don’t believe.” He frowned. “Do you?”
She shook her head. “No. It doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
“What do you mean?”
“The world’s a mess.” She lifted her hand from his forearm and waved it in a circle. “I mean, look around. There’s no way that a loving God would create such a screwed-up world. God and heaven, it’s all just a fairy tale. It’s amazing that anyone still believes it.”
Now John was even more surprised. The girl wasn’t a Jesus freak—she was a philosopher. He stopped frowning. This was the kind of conversation he enjoyed. “You know what else doesn’t make sense?” he said. “When something bad happens, the church always says there’s some mysterious reason for it. They say you have to accept all the shit that happens in life because it’s part of God’s divine plan.”
“Yes, exactly.” She nodded and took a sip of wine. “I hate that, too. It’s like saying, ‘You’re not smart enough to understand God, so don’t even try to make sense of things.’ It’s so condescending.”
“It’s worse than that.” John raised his voice. “If someone did that to me for real? If someone fucked me over and tried to apologize by saying, ‘It’s all part of my mysterious plan’? I’d be pretty damn pissed.” He wanted to say something stronger, something about shooting the motherfucker in the head, but he restrained himself.
“I’m with you, John.” Ariel raised her wineglass and took a bigger sip this time. Then she set down her glass, which was nearly empty, and rested her hand on his forearm again. “We agree that God doesn’t exist in the universe right now. But here’s what gives me hope: there’s a chance that God will exist in the future.”
“What?” He assumed this was a joke. Ariel was playing with him. “What are you talking about?”
She looked straight at him, locking her eyes with his. “It’s simple. I believe we can change the world. We can make it a better place. And then God will be born.”
“Uh, I think I lost you.”
“We can make it happen. We can turn ourselves into angels and turn the earth into heaven, a real heaven. That’s our purpose in life—to bring God into the world.”
Ariel was so close, only inches away. He could see the reflections of the track lights in her green irises. She wasn’t joking. Her face was absolutely serious. John couldn’t help but marvel at how serious she was. “So it’s like the Christmas story? We’re all headed for Bethlehem, waiting for Baby Jesus to be born?”
She considered the idea for a moment, skewing her eyebrows in thought. Then she smiled. “Yes, that’s right. You’re a clever man, John Rogers.” She raised her glass once again and finished off her wine. “And you deserve a reward for your cleverness. I’m going to buy you a drink.”
His throat tightened as Ariel turned around to get the bartender’s attention. Even though they’d just agreed that God didn’t exist—at least not yet—John directed a silent plea toward heaven. Her phone number, Lord. I need her number.
* * *
And the Lord, in His infinite wisdom, answered John’s prayer.
He and Ariel spent the next three hours talking. At some point during the second hour, Ariel’s Wall Street friends got tired of flirting with the waitress; they shook hands with John and kissed Ariel goodbye before heading for another watering hole. Then someone turned up the volume of the bar’s loudspeakers and the room reverberated with the din of Lady Gaga. There was nothing to eat except the baskets of popcorn that the bartender placed in front of them, but John didn’t care. He was having the time of his life. He’d never met a girl like Ariel before. It was so easy to talk to her, so effortless. He told her stories about his mom and growing up in Kensington. He even told her a little about Carol, his ex-wife, which was a subject he usually avoided. Ariel was a great listener, always asking questions and making smart observations. It was amazing, he thought, that such a young woman could be so wise.
Finally, at 11:00 P.M., she looked at her watch and said she had to go. Her hotel was in Bushwick—a dicey part of Brooklyn, especially late at night—and she was planning to take the subway. John immediately offered to drive her there instead. It was only a half hour out of his way, he said. After dropping her off at the hotel, he could take the Verrazano Bridge and I-95 to get back to Philly. And because he’d had only two drinks all night, he added, he was perfectly sober. Ariel thought it over for a few seconds. Then she leaned toward him, slow and sexy, bringing her lips close to his ear. “That would be nice,” she whispered.
As they left the bar, arm in arm, and strolled down West Fourth Street toward where his car was parked, John should’ve realized that it had all happened too easily. But the thought never occurred to him. He was too damn happy.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Alpert