“Do you two know each other?” Isabel’s little coins jingled on her skirt.
Sylvia was convinced this must be a setup. She had stumbled through this new city for months without recognizing a single face, seeing a single individual more than once. But here he was, the Man on the Bridge. Noah, rather. Now he had a name. She felt her cheeks burning and couldn’t meet his eyes. Still embarrassed from that awkward encounter with a stranger, assuming so much about him. Projecting so much of herself, perhaps.
“I think I owe you a cigarette,” he said at length. Then, to Isabel and Ivan, “Order me whatever’s cheap. We’ll be right back.”
And with Sylvia still dumbstruck, he herded her out of the bar and into the cool, night air.
The nights were just starting to taste like autumn, but cold hadn’t set in yet. Probably never would, this far south. Sylvia absently wondered whether leaves changed here, like in New York. If anything changed here, besides her increasingly antisocial awkwardness.
Noah leaned against the brick wall and lit two cigarettes in his mouth. He passed one to Sylvia. She stared at its orange burning end for a moment before taking it between her fingers.
“You take the Congress Street bridge a lot?” he began. Sylvia knew he recognized her.
She tested it out. “I think I’ve seen you there before.” He snorted, a short laugh-snort.
“Yeah. I don’t usually go that way. It’s not really me, you understand. Not like me.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Please don’t say anything to them about it.” He gestured towards the window. Inside Isabel and Ivan were taking a shot together, laughing. “Isabel worries a lot. She tries to make Ivan talk to me about…stuff. Luckily, he’s not very good at it.”
Where Sylvia had expected a troupe of Thoughtful Strangers, she found herself playing that role instead. And it wasn’t so bad, just to listen. To not have to talk about yourself. To smoke quietly and share the edge of a moment with someone barely met. She felt herself sobering up a little in the night’s chill, as though it had sliced away her haze with a razor to reveal this moment of perfect comfort.
Sylvia found herself counting the chest hairs that peaked out of Noah’s v-neck. She remembered him having tattoos, but his woolen peacoat covered his arms now. She wondered how much of his body they covered, how their colors swirled over his skin. Her fingers burned. She flinched, dropping the cigarette butt that had burnt all the way down to her hand.
Noah crushed it for her under his boot. Sylvia looked up, embarrassed again. How long had she been staring at him?
“I think I should go home. I have to work tomorrow,” she said.
“Isabel will be disappointed.”
“Tell you what. We’re having a house party tomorrow night. Can I give you the address? You should come. Bring your friends, whatever. I’ll text you the place.”
“I don’t have any friends.” Sylvia kicked herself. That sounded pathetic. True, but pathetic. She wanted to bunch up the words and stuff them back in her stupid mouth.
Noah snorted again. Even he thought she was stupid. Goddammit, Sylvia. Why do you always say the worst things?
“Come by and you can have some of mine.” That was a joke. A friendly joke. Sylvia blushed and took out her phone, traded numbers. “So I’ll see you tomorrow. Nine-ish. I’m glad we met, Sylvia.” Noah threw a wave over his shoulder and went back into the bar.
Through the window, Sylvia saw him join Isabel and Ivan at the bar. Laughing. Friends. She turned to walk home, smiling at her cell phone screen with the address glowing in the dark.
Sometimes being wrong feels very, very good, thought Sylvia.
This header image is adapted from a photo by Daniel Spiess.