Louise tore his shirt on the last occasion. She didn’t know how she did it, but can hear it still. The sound of cotton tearing is like a glass breaking—it stops a room. It stopped them.
Abe seized her hand and laughed, half in and half out of the now ruined shirt. “That has never, ever happened to me before,” he said.
“Jesus. God,” Louise said. “It’s probably disgustingly expensive.”
A well-made shirt is obvious. This one was perfect, sharp white, bright, almost luminous. It made her think of swans, pure white swans.
“It is expensive,” he said. “It was.”
He sounded joyful.
Louise drew the rest of the shirt off him and it was with heaviness. She knew their time, this everything, now had to be cut short.
Abe gave her the money to go to the store. He could not go out in public with a torn shirt and he could not go home.
“We’re refugees,” he said. “The only clothes we have are the ones on our backs.”
Louise smiled. “Yes, we could be refugees. But we’re not, are we?”
He laughed and handed her five one hundred dollar bills. “No, we’re not.”
She stared at the money. “Is this for one shirt?”
“It’s French. You can buy it from Saks,” Abe said. Then he gave her extra money, “for the taxi.”
“It’s only what? Nine streets away?”
His brow furrowed. “Yes.”
He wrote Charvet, white, 16R on a piece of notepaper that was headed with their hotel, the Ritz-Carlton. It surprised her that he wrote the note — nothing of them was reduced to material form. He was excellent at risk management, but then a person probably didn’t become a District Judge without having a keen sense of risk, of cost and benefit ratios, of fuck-ups because of damaging documents.
Louise held the piece of paper in her fist as she stepped out of the Ritz-Carlton. The rain had stopped and cars sizzled along a wet 59th Street, between the hotel and Central Park. She had memorized the little poem — Charvet, white, 16R — it repeated, over and over again, a rhythm for her footsteps on the sidewalk.
Abe wrote the note in front of her. She was shocked — he was left handed. How did she not know that? They had been seeing each other for three months. His handwriting was neat, left sloping, narrow, and there was something faintly old school about it. She adored the letters, this other form of him, even as they emerged from the pen.
It seemed like an incredible risk — sending her out onto the street, with this note. It must have been a moment of carelessness. In her other fist was the money, equal to more than half of her weekly wage.
White — she could not believe it was as simple as that. The whiteness of his shirt had reminded her of swans, the French white swans she saw in a television documentary the previous night about the Palace of Versailles. They floated on the Grand Canal. The palace behind them was monolithic, glorious, and slightly insane with its Hall of Mirrors and its walls, ceilings and furniture gilded in silver and gold. And there was Marie-Antoinette who may or may not have told the people to eat cake, but who definitely was beheaded in the revolution.
Louise stepped into the elevator in Saks and pushed the button for the eighth floor: Men’s Apparel. She thought of Abe in their hotel room, having a whiskey, maybe two, shirtless, waiting for her. She would not rush.
She thought of his hot mouth on her, the way he kissed her as if they had all day when they only ever had a few hours at most. Last week, he said, “I cannot leave” even though he had to, even though it meant that he stayed only twenty minutes longer. They held each other on the bed for those twenty minutes, both of them showered and fully-clothed.
Louise moved to the section where the shirts were not folded and wrapped in cellophane, but hanging, steamed and immaculate — the best dress shirts. She was looking at them when she glanced up and there was his wife. Louise had seen photos of her before in social pages at philanthropic gala events. Louise thought of the big world coincidences and the little ones too — either way, being in the wrong place at the wrong time — the truck colliding with your car as you drive off the ramp to join the expressway, the gunman walking into your cafe while you sip your coffee.
The wife was stunning, poised. She sang under her breath and wore a small smile. The solitaire diamond of her engagement ring flashed and glittered. Louise knew there were things that she did with Abe that his wife would never do and the singing, the smile, the diamond, reminded her of it.
Maybe, it was the right place at the right time. Louise imagined touching his wife on the arm to get her attention, and saying: How could you not do that with him? Why won’t you? What’s wrong with him? Nothing. His wife’s smile would vanish, the song long gone, but the diamond would stay brilliant.
A store assistant approached the wife and asked if he could assist her.
“I can’t seem to find what I am after,” she said, her voice quiet and girly.
Louise wasn’t sure how hard the wife had searched. It was right here under Louise’s hand, the only one left: Charvet, white, 16R.
“What are you looking for, ma’am?” the assistant asked the wife.
Louise did not know what to do, not until that little poem began to come out of the wife’s mouth. Louise took the shirt on its hanger and walked to the counter where another store assistant waited.
Melissa Goode’s work has appeared in Best Australian Short Stories, New World Writing, Cleaver Magazine, Litro Magazine, Bartleby Snopes, Pithead Chapel, Gravel, and Jellyfish Review among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. She lives in Australia.