Asymmetry - Lisa Halliday
We all live slapstick lives, under an inexplicable sentence of death . . .
—MARTIN GARDNER, The Annotated Alice
ALICE WAS BEGINNING TO get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks?
She was considering (somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things) whether one day she might even write a book herself, when a man with pewter-colored curls and an ice-cream cone from the Mister Softee on the corner sat down beside her.
“What are you reading?”
Alice showed it to him.
“Is that the one with the watermelons?”
Alice had not yet read anything about watermelons, but she nodded anyway.
“What else do you read?”
“Oh, old stuff, mostly.”
They sat without speaking for a while, the man eating his ice cream and Alice pretending to read her book. Two joggers in a row gave them a second glance as they passed. Alice knew who he was—she’d known the moment he sat down, turning her cheeks watermelon pink—but in her astonishment she could only continue staring, like a studious little garden gnome, at the impassable pages that lay open in her lap. They might as well have been made of concrete.
“So,” said the man, rising. “What’s your name?”
“Who likes old stuff. See you around.”
• • •
The next Sunday, she was sitting in the same spot, trying to read another book, this one about an angry volcano and a flatulent king.
“You,” he said.
“Alice. What are you reading that for? I thought you wanted to be a writer.”
“Who said that?”
His hand shook a little as he broke off a square of chocolate and held it out.
“Thank you,” said Alice.
“You’re velcome,” he replied.
Biting into her chocolate, Alice gave him a quizzical look.
“Don’t you know that joke? A man flying into Honolulu says to the guy in the seat next to him, ‘Excuse me, how do you pronounce it? Hawaii or Havaii?’ ‘Havaii,’ says the other guy. ‘Thank you,’ says the first guy. And the other guy says, ‘You’re velcome.’ ”
Still chewing, Alice laughed. “Is that a Jewish joke?”
The writer crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. “What do you think?”
• • •
The third Sunday, he bought two cones from Mister Softee and offered her one. Alice accepted it, as she had done with the chocolate, because it was beginning to drip and in any case multiple–Pulitzer Prize winners don’t go around poisoning people.
They ate their ice cream and watched a pair of pigeons peck at a straw. Alice, whose blue sandals matched the zigzags on her dress, flexed a foot idly in the sun.
“So. Miss Alice. Are you game?”
She looked at him.
He looked at her.
“Are you game?” he repeated.
Turning back to her cone: “Well, no reason not to be, I guess.”
The writer got up to throw his napkin away and came back to her. “There are plenty of reasons not to be.”
Alice squinted up at him and smiled.
“How old are you?”
She shook her head.
“I’m an editorial assistant. At Gryphon.”
Hands in his pockets, he lifted his chin slightly and seemed to conclude this made sense.
“All right. Shall we take a walk together next Saturday?”
“Here at four?”
She nodded again.
“I should take your number. In case something comes up.”
While another jogger slowed to look at him, Alice wrote it down on the bookmark that had come with her book.
“You’ve lost your place,” said the writer.
“That’s okay,” said Alice.
• • •
On Saturday, it rained. Alice was sitting on the checkered floor of her bathroom, trying to screw tight her broken toilet seat with a butter knife, when her cell phone beeped: CALLER ID BLOCKED.
“Hello Alice? It’s Mister Softee. Where are you?”
“Where is that?”
“Eighty-Fifth and Broadway.”
“Oh, right around the corner. We could string up a couple of tin cans.”
Alice pictured a string, bowing like a giant jump rope over Amsterdam, trembling between them whenever they spoke.
“So, Miss Alice. What should we do? Would you like to come here, and talk a while? Or should we take a walk together another day?”
“I’ll come there.”
“You’ll come here. Very good. Four thirty?”
Alice wrote the address down on a piece of junk mail. Then she put a hand over her mouth and waited.
“Actually, let’s say five. See you here at five?”
• • •
The rain flooded the crosswalks and soaked her feet. The