I’ll tell you the last thing I remember.
There were sirens outside. I was sitting in the smoky brown dark at a back corner table, watching the slow motions of the mid-day drunks with bleary eyes, waiting for Max. The rhythm of my fingers drumming on the cracked wood table was making me nervous, making my heart jump, but I couldn’t stop. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum. My nailpolish was chipping off at the edges, red flaking away to a dirty tobacco-brown white.
When I first met Max at Sara Murphy’s dinner party, he was wearing a yellow tie. That was what made him seem so damned interesting to me in the first place. Every other man at that table was dressed for dinner, strictly black tie. Including my husband.
There was a sudden chill. In a rush of wind and screaming sirens, the door burst open and Max ran gasping in, soaking wet.
He took his hat off and shook himself down like a big dog, showering water everywhere. I ran to him.
“Did you get it??”
“Yeah baby, I got it, but tell me- how are we supposed to get to the pier when the coppers are so far up my ass I can hear ‘em in my teeth?” he asked, gesturing violently to the door. Cops, sirens, flashing lights. Reality. I shook my head.
“You got this far without being seen, what are you so afraid of?”
“Maxie, you’ve gotta open your eyes! They’re picking their way through every underground joint in the city looking for us, and I don’t have to tell you it ain’t gonna be that long before they get to this one! Or will we be protected from that, too, huh? By the mysterious power of love?” His eyes were wide and white with fear. Somewhere in the pit of my stomach, my own fear, sensing its brother, began to unfurl.
Swallowing, I tasted bile. I grabbed his flailing wrists and held them still, nails digging in deep.
“You shut your mouth,” I said. His breath staggered and stilled. The sound of relief. He nodded and I lessened my grip.
“Eddie’s out back with the car,” my mouth told him, lips forming words on their own.
“Let’s go,” he responded, and neither one of us moved. I was watching him. He was watching me. He was not wearing his yellow tie. His pulse was hot against my fingers. I was sure my heart was beating out the very same time. Ba-da-dum. Ba-da-dum.
There is a place inside of our closed eyes. A shared dream- a jungle, honey yellow sunshine pooling on the wide flat ferns, red and gold, like the lizards that rush through the lush green grass, like the glowing surface of the water where the light collects in changing shapes- now a heart, now a spade, now a nest. The water is soft underneath, and so blue, that impossible blue… It always faded when we tried to paint it. It was never the same, it was never the same!
“Let’s go,” he said again. We went.
In the back of the speakeasy are the stairs up to Max’s apartment. The staircase is so steep and narrow that you have to go up one at a time, groping blindly into the darkness ahead of you and trying not to trip over your own feet. In the past these trips were always taken in a laughing haze, stumbling tipsy over the steps in a race to get upstairs, get alone. This time, pulled forward by his hand clutching at mine, I climbed and thought of nothing.
We ran through the apartment. I’m not sure when we picked up our pace, but suddenly our feet were thundering on the creaking floorboards, through the bright canvas litter of the living room we’d turned into a studio in our rushed attempts to capture our vision, through the bedroom with the blue sheets and the wrought-iron bed frame. That bed was so different from the carved mahogany headboard and the crisp white sheets on which, for five years, I had laid and listened to my husband snoring long into the night. Those white sheets had stained slowly red, Max told me, when he shot the bullet straight into Ralph’s snoring, sleeping heart.
That was all he told me. If we got caught, he’d said, at least he would know I could go free. Innocent. Funny, the way things go.
He led me to the window still running. When we stopped, I was breathless, searching his face. Was he scared? Would we get away? His black hair fell soaked in emphatic lines down the sides of his face, his white teeth bared in a grimace, but his eyes- one blue, one brown, uneven and expressionless, staring right at me. I wondered what he was seeing.
“Take the tickets,” he whispered harshly, holding out the brown envelope that held our hope for the future. I slid it under my garter and it rested there, pointed edge poking into my thigh.
“When we get to Paris,” I said, “we can live completely different lives and be completely different people.” I was watching his eyes.
He blinked slowly. It started in his right eye- the brown one- and then spread to the left, so that he always seemed to have one eye open. I had never noticed that before.
“I don’t think I’d want you any different,” he drawled out over the sound of sirens outside, and when he reached for my arm I flinched away. His eyes flashed. There- something was there.
When he grabbed my arm I closed my eyes, and my vision swam with sunshine. In the thick green grass of the jungle a slow wind stirred. I opened my eyes. He kissed me.
We were falling forward, through a starry soft black tunnel. His teeth scraped against my lip once, twice- a rough warning, and on the jungle floor two vibrant yellow orchids sprang into blossom.
When he pulled away, it shattered. I clutched at him, trying to bring the vision back. He held me apart and ruffled my hair with his left hand, a look on his face I had never seen.
“Smile, baby. Life is art.”
I laughed so hard I started crying.
He helped me out onto the fire escape. I hunched against the freezing rain and stared at the black alley behind us, looking for Eddie’s Ford as Max fiddled with ladder, trying to get it down. I squinted as a light came around the corner. “Eddie,” I told him.
“’bout time,” he muttered, lifting his head.
The car stopped. The doors opened. I was seeing circles.
All my blood drained to my fingertips.
“No,” Max was saying. “No, no. No.” He reached into the pocket of his trenchcoat and pulled out the gun- I had never seen it, but I knew what it had done. I dove for the ladder.
“Drop your weapon!” and then I heard the first of the shots. The iron rungs of the fire escape were wet and cold in my fingers.
The ladder dropped down and I stared after it.
“Max!” he was screaming my name, reaching his hand out behind him. I grasped it and held it, and I felt the way his body rocked back as he fired another set of rounds. I stood up to say something in his ear- something important, but for the life of me I can’t remember- stood up to tell him something and then suddenly, everything went yellow. I dropped to my knees, sliding on the iron bars, held up by his hand. He was screaming, shooting.
The second shot I felt. It was a sharp, direct pain, driving straight into my left leg, and this time I screamed so loud I felt I was tearing my throat out. My legs buckled and only Max’s hand was keeping me from falling over the edge. Everything was cold and wet and loud. My grip was slipping, slipping.
“No!” Max screamed, reaching for my other hand. “No!” I stretched my arm out for him, but I was never going to make it.
His expression of horror grew more indistinct as I fell away from it. The ground, when I hit, was frozen flat.