The Old Man with the Vulture Eye


The lighting was dim and muzzled television sounds filled the space. Luke on the sofa, his brown hair slightly side-swept, fought a New York Times crossword puzzle. He was waiting for Erin to put down her things—a purse, an umbrella, a set of keys—waiting for her to take off her raincoat and give him his usual 6:00 p.m. kiss on the cheek. Then Luke, a columnist who did most of his work from home, would cook dinner. Erin would arrive at their Lower East Side apartment. She’d rant and he would, in turn, offer calming suggestions. They’d talk through dinner, have a few glasses of merlot and fall asleep to Late Night with Jay Leno. They had a practiced routine, like characters reading from a script.

But tonight, Erin did none of the above. She lingered in the kitchen, poured herself a generous glass of red wine, and skipped the traditional welcome-home kiss. She threw herself onto a stool by the island and spun the glass by rolling the stem between her thumb and index finger. “Did you ever realize the smell of the city when it rains in the summer?” she asked.

He looked up from 36-across. “I guess,” he said. “I’ve never really thought about it,” he said. “Fresh?”

“Wrong, the opposite. The correct answer is stale. It smells like the Earth is just recycling stagnant water from street puddles and pouring it on me as I walk,” she said. She polished off the glass. “Like wet, hot, old garbage,” she confirmed.

“That’s probably a fair observation. Why are we talking about rain? Personally, I find summer rain romantic. You don’t find moldy, wet, hot garbage romantic?” he joked.

But there was no smile, not even a fading chance of a smile. “This isn’t about rain or summer, garbage or romance,” she said. “This is about the city: its smells, its buildings, its people, and its misguided expectations.”

He cut her tirade short. “You didn’t have a problem with any of those things when we decided to move into this beautiful yet ridiculously overpriced apartment. In fact, you were all about it. You couldn’t have been any more about it. We could’ve lived in Jersey for one-third the price, but no; it had to be here.”

She retrieved the dwindling Yellowtail bottle and placed it within arm’s reach. “Well, it’s different now. Things change. Now I know I can’t stay in a city that smells stale even then it rains, where on the clearest night I can’t see my favorite constellations,” she said. “I can’t stay in a city that never rests. This job, this city—I hate all of it.”

He rose from the couch and stood directly in front of her. “Slow down, what’s going on?” he asked. “I know you so much better than you ever like to admit. So, what’s actually wrong?”

She glanced away. The window was clouded with condensation. “Nothing. It just turns out that after eight years, I’m not a city girl.”

“That’s bullshit. You love this city. You’re running away from something. From me? The person who would give up a limb to keep you? Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, Erin. How about you stop being ridiculous?”

“It’s unreasonable, I know. I’m blaming this city for my mistakes. I just have to get away,” she said. “You know Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart?’”

“Of course. I was an English major, remember?”

“This city has become like that beating heart under the floorboards. It’s been haunting me ever since it happened, unnerving me.”

“Since it happened?” he dared to ask.

Maybe it was the wine, the weather, or just the right timing. “Ten months ago for four weeks…” she began.

“Ten months ago for four weeks. Finish the sentence, Erin.”

“For four weeks, I cheated on you. I had this thing with a guy. I didn’t tell anyone. I made a mistake and couldn’t find my way out of it, so I just kept it going for four weeks. I lied to you then and I lied to myself for ten months after it ended. I told myself maybe everything would be okay. Do you know how many days are in ten months? There’s no justifying this. I’m just…Sorry, I’m so sorry.”

“Erin, do you know how many days are in seven years? We’ve been together seven years,” he said. “Don’t you realize it’s written all over your face when you have a bad day at work or a fight with your mom on the phone? Do you honestly believe that I wouldn’t know anything was going on?”

For the first time since she’d arrived home, she looked into his eyes.

“I’m saying I’ve known all along,” he continued. “I thought something was wrong and I brought dinner to your office one night. I got there just as you and he were leaving. I followed you twenty blocks uptown all the way to the stoop of his apartment building.”

“How could you go all this time and not say something, not scream at me, not leave me?”

“Because I needed to hear it from you,” he said. “I knew you’d tell me.” He stopped. “So, I just have one question for you.”

She braced herself. “Okay.”

“What’s the answer to 36-across? It’s driving me insane.”