Disclaimer: Contains mature themes.
“You’re old enough to be my father.”
Edward Cain slugged a whiskey shot and set the glass on a nightstand, and it wobbled like a top before it came to rest. He stared into a mirror from the foot of the bed, tightening his eyes at the sight of an unfathomable fear: age. Edward had been a firefighter for thirty years, but his physically lumbering days ended a decade ago when he made captain, and his body, like his marriage, slowly sagged. His stomach showed through his uniform. His muscle atrophied like dead vines. His hands, once stiffened and calloused, now wrinkled when flexed. He hoisted his trousers and stretched into a dress shirt, leaving it unbuttoned.
“I’m not your father. I’m sure I’m nothing like him. I should never have been anyone’s father.”
Edward turned to face Kaya, who slouched against the headboard, still naked.
“Come closer,” she said, patting a pillow. “I want you to see me with the light on.”
“I just saw plenty of you with the light off.”
Kaya blew a piece of black hair from her cheekbones. “Edward.”
“Okay, okay. What do you want me to see?” Edward cleared his throat and sat next to her, resting his palms on his knees. He winced at a pinched nerve in his back.
“You’ve seen burn victims before, right?”
Edward nodded with mockingly raised brows.
“So you’ve seen their scars?”
Edward was reminded of his first search and rescue as a rookie, when he nervously sucked all of the air from his tank before he could reach a screaming woman trapped beneath pieces of crumbled drywall. Edward had to retreat, and was later ordered to visit her at Mercy Hospital’s burn unit. He remembered her brittle hair and ashen skin, dried like carrion puzzle pieces stitched together with thread.
Edward nodded. “I’ve seen scars.” He paused. “I’ve caused them.”
“I bet you haven’t seen scars here.”
Kaya pushed her legs apart, exposing bubbled skin that wormed along the insides of her thighs. She stared at Edward, whose eyes were fixated on them. She blinked stoically, crossed her legs, and rolled to the side.
“I don’t. I don’t think I’m the one you should be showing that to.” Edward’s voice was gruff and sullen.
“You were just inside me. You think I wanted you for your looks?”
“You wanted me so you could feel alive. And because I listened to you. Not because I’m fatherly.”
“My father did this.”
“Then I am definitely not like your father. And now, I think I want to stop listening.”
Edward made his way to the nightstand to pour another shot. He tipped the bottle to Kaya, who shook her head. “Suit yourself.”
“So, you’re just like everyone else?” Kaya asked as she dressed for sleep.
“You do this a lot?”
“All talk and play.”
“I’m almost sixty. I’d hardly say I play.”
“Well then, come over here and talk. We have the room for the night. We may as well use it.”
Edward finished his drink, which clawed like nails down his throat. He looked again in the mirror at his face, which was shaded around the edges, at his beard, which was white and worn but still maintained, and at his hair, which had speckles of black amidst a sea of white.
“I should call my son,” he said, swiveling to switch off the light.
“In the morning.”
“Yes,” said Edward, echoing her like a distant train. “In the morning.”
Edward had met Kaya a few hours earlier at Red Light, a pan-Asian restaurant in Chicago’s heart. Red Light was excessively upscale for Edward, who frequented smoke-stained pubs on the North Side with the other hard-worn Irish Catholics. Edward had just finished a shift at the firehouse, and instead of turning right as usual to catch a cab back to his apartment, he walked left and stopped at Red Light, the first place he came to that sold liquor. He slumped onto a stool at the bar, off-put by its shiny red top and tentacle-stemmed legs. He loosened the top button of his shirt, ordered a drink, and cupped his face with his hands.
“You look out of place here.”
Edward lowered his hands and looked left at the woman who spoke to him. She was petite. Oriental. His eyes widened as she smiled at him, and then wandered up and down her fitted black dress and smooth, bare legs.
“You, on the contrary, look the part very well,” Edward said.
“You have dirt on your hands. You look like you had a rough day.”
Edward wondered why she talked to him.
“No rougher than any other,” he said.
“My name is Kaya.” She spoke softly and succinctly, a careful coyness. “Order me a drink.”
Edward leaned back and coughed a laugh. He rubbed his hands together as if friction cleansed.
“I’m used to giving orders,” he said, “not taking them.”
“Fine, then,” Kaya said, leaning towards him. “I will ask you to order the bartender to give me a drink.”
Edward wondered if she was serious. Kaya’s face was delicate, like a porcelain doll that would shatter if poked at or pried. Her eyes were soft and black. Vacant. Edward didn’t know whether to embrace or pity her.
“What do you want?”
Edward ordered for her, and the bartender filled a glass with the aroma of Japanese cedar.
“Jesus, that smells.”
“You should order a Sapporo,” Kaya said.
She closed her eyes and drank deeply. “It’s a Japanese beer.”
“I’ll stick to whiskey.”
“Of course you will. And who are you?”
“And what do you do, Edward?”
“I answer your questions, apparently. And I fight fires. Or, I manage those who fight fires. I’m a captain at Station 29.”
“That’s my age.”
“I’ve got thirty years on you then.”
Kaya paused. “Did you hear about the false alarm at the Symphony Hall?”
“I drove the rig there. Almost rear-ended a cab.”
Kaya finished her drink and pulled her hair to one side. The lights above cast amber shadows across her face.
“That’s where I work,” she said, “in case you were wondering. I play violin for the orchestra.”
Edward laughed in disbelief.
“You play for the orchestra,” he said flatly. “I was there two weeks ago. I didn’t see you on stage. I know, because I would have remembered a face like yours.”
Kaya grinned at Edward’s attempt to discredit her. “A fireman at the symphony? Now that I don’t believe. Two weeks ago we opened with a two-sectional from Ravel, which I was a part of — third row, second chair from the left.” She shifted lightly on the stool. “The main piece was from Mahler. I was not a part of it, because I’m relatively new and we had a guest violinist from Russia playing lead.”
Edward nodded and smiled, as if to concede, and ordered another round for each of them. She winked, he smirked, and they continued their verbal repartee while their minds deepened into a dizzying haze.
Kaya explained plainly that she was a second generation Japanese-American, whose grandparents were exiled during World War II, and whose parents died young from illness when she was ten. She was forced to live with her uncle and cousins, all of whom played music. She picked up reading music and playing the violin at age twelve. She studied chamber music in Japan, and played there for five years before being recruited to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as its youngest member.
“I was raised in Spokane,” she continued, “and when I got an apartment here I would walk the city streets at night, alone, unable to sleep. You know the feeling when you’re in a strange place, where you know no one and no one knows you, and your new bed really isn’t your own? I got to know the city pretty well in the dark. I was never scared. I felt like I was trailed by angels.”
Edward was mesmerized. He imagined Kaya performing for a sold-out hall, immersed in music and completely isolated from her surroundings; her small frame rigid and stationary, her spine arched straight, her elbows equidistant from her sides. He imagined older musicians around her slouching in their chairs and flailing their instruments about as they played, like fish flopping around a deckhand, with Kaya the lone soul who was proper, passionate, and respectful to the music’s author.
He raised his hand as if to touch her shoulder, but slowly retracted it to his glass. He drank again.
Edward explained a similar isolation when his ex-wife, Judy, left him and Chicago for the eastern seaboard of Maine. She took with her his only son, James. That was ten years ago, when James was eager to be like his father, a strong city fireman with a heroic mystique that trailed women in its wake. Edward said that Judy left him because she couldn’t handle the uncertainties of his job, of whether or not he would live to come home at night. He left out the flesh-lined details of his afflictions: hard liquor, strip clubs, redheads.
Transparent. Kaya saw through him like a mother to her son.
Edward’s son, James, had, from what he knew, left school to run an old fishery in York, which his grandfather – Judy’s father – had left to him when he died. Edward spoke with James on the phone monthly, although he wanted to bother him weekly, and hadn’t seen him in more than five years. Their conversations were numbingly banal, neither knowing what to say to the other, and came across more like dumb belligerence than half-hearted attempts at compassion or wit. Edward wanted to reach out to James, to be his friend, but every time he tried he became tongue-tied holding back fits of rage toward Judy.
“I’m gonna visit him this summer,” Edward said, massaging his eyes. “I haven’t told him yet. But I’m gonna take part of my vacation and go out there. See what a fishery is all about. See what he looks like. Take him to a Sox game. I’m gonna. I always tell myself I will and never do. This time is different.”
Kaya placed her hand on his, softly, like touching a newborn for the first time. Her long, soft fingers traced the back of his hand, following trails of interlocking veins. She delicately picked a calloused knuckle. Her playful banter had dissipated. She looked at Edward as if peeling away layers to his soul. She knew that she was drawn to his pain, the way his shoulders slumped and his voice deepened when he talked about the past, and she knew that they shared in suffering loss. But she dismissed these as reasons for her attraction. Edward was a falcon with a damaged wing, and Kaya wanted to break his fall.
“Have you ever saved anyone?” she asked, knowing that he would see beyond the cliché.
But he obliged. “I only pulled one person out of a fire. A young boy, about the age of James at the time. He was hiding behind a couch in a fully-engulfed living room. His parents were outside, but they didn’t scream for a lost child like you see on TV. Instead, they held each other and looked halfway up the high-rise. Couldn’t even make out their apartment. That’s what my captain said, anyway. We trekked up flights of stairs and put it out. I carried him over my shoulder. He was burned and now has lung problems. But he lived.”
“What about you?” Edward asked, rhetorically. He looked at his watch. “Have you ever saved anyone?”
Kaya stirred the air with her finger until the bartender brought the tab.
“Not yet. But tonight I think I might.”
As they left Red Light, late autumn wind swirled around them. Edward draped his captain’s jacket over Kaya. They stumbled together along Randolph Street, stopped twice to adjust Kaya’s heels, and simultaneously flagged an orange cab that sped past them. Rainwater glistened on the city streets, and pooled around their feet as they waited by a curb. The sky above them was charcoal gray, and a faint fog had settled atop the city like a blanket.
Kaya looked up and watched the fog slowly sift through the buildings above her.
“I want to be like that,” she said.
Edward squeezed her. “Like what?”
“Fog. I want to be the color of fog.”
“It’s ghostly white, or gray. And it hovers over land like an angel. But just for awhile. Just long enough to blind us with its opacity. Just long enough for us to feel its presence. Then it vanishes. A wisp. A sprite.”
“Yes, a spirit. But I cannot vanish, so its color will suffice.” She never relinquished her heavenward gaze.
Edward flagged another cab. This one stopped to let them in.
“Hotel Allegro!” Kaya blurted.
The driver smiled. When he dropped them off, he laughed.
Edward paid for one night. He led Kaya up three flights of stairs to their room.
Edward had never been to the Allegro, and was surprised when he opened the door to a chorus of color and accentuating Art Deco: orange walls, lavender carpet, a king-sized bed with blue pillows, sage sheets, and a chocolate-and-cream-striped headboard. A large mirror with beveled borders hung on the wall across from the bed. Kaya immediately went into the bathroom. Edward bent over to untie his shoes. When Kaya came out, she wore only the hotel’s complimentary terrycloth robe with faux zebra stripes, loosely tied in the front.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I think you’re an animal.”
“Actually, I think you’re the animal.”
Edward pondered. “I may very well be.”
Kaya sidled past him and turned down the sheets.
Edward pulled off his shirt.
“Wait,” Kaya said, holding up a hand. “Turn off the lights.”
“Turn off the lights. I’m used to the dark.”
Edward sighed and flicked the switch. “Better?” he asked, and moved to the bed.
“Better than not,” she said, and kissed him hard.
Half an hour later, Edward stood in front of the mirror and poured himself a drink from the mini bar. He saw Kaya in the reflection, squirming on the bed as if making snow angels. She raised her arms over her head as if to yawn, only she smiled contentedly.
“You’re old enough to be my father.”
In the morning, before the sun shone through the blinds, Edward was awakened by the phone in his pant pocket, which rested next to Kaya’s robe in a crumpled heap on the floor. He grumbled under his breath until it stopped, and then closed his eyes. The phone rang again, this time seemingly louder than before. Edward wondered who would call him at such a ghastly hour. Since all fire department emergencies went through is pager, he thought it was a practical joke from one of his buddies. He fumbled in the dark and stopped the noise.
“Do you know what time it is?”
Edward sat upright. “James?”
“Jesus, James, you scared the hell out of me. I mean, the phone did. What time is it?”
“Almost five. So almost four where you are.”
“Is everything all right? You never call early like this. Or late. Or really ever.”
James didn’t respond.
Edward held the phone to his head and scrambled to put on his pants. “James, is everything all right?”
“No, dad, everything is not all right.”
James was usually drab on the phone, dutifully talking to his father like any son was supposed to. But Edward noticed a hollowness in his son’s voice, a slight pitch shift that only a parent would catch.
“James, son, what is wrong?”
“I, well, I just called to tell you that mom died last night. I didn’t know if anyone had told you, so I thought I would.”
Edward sat down slowly on the bed. His mind spun from the whiskey. And from regret. He managed only a word: “How?”
“She had a stroke last night, dad,” James said. “She died in the ambulance. The medics said nothing could have saved her.”
“Anyway, I will call you when they get the funeral straightened out. I gotta go. Maybe I’ll see you soon.”
James hung up.
Kaya stirred and awoke. “Who was that?” She sat up and touched his back.
Edward let the phone drop from his ear. He concentrated on the faint buzz of the heater. Memories of Judy raced to and from his mind: how they met at Navy Pier, when Judy dropped an ice cream cone on his shoe; when they married at St. Mark’s in the summer’s sweltering heat; when James was born, and he left her in labor to respond to a structure fire alarm; and to last week, when he called to see how she was doing, and she quickly said she had to go get groceries. Loving memories flooded him as if it was sinful to spite the dead, like time was an iron that smoothed the wrinkles of regret. Suddenly Edward longed to embrace his son, who was alone, much like he, and had no one, not even a fling, to turn to.
“I have to go to Maine,” he said in a low voice.
“Yes, you said that last night,” Kaya said. She moved to the window to open the blinds.
Outside, the sun peeked dimly from the horizon. And the fog, which had thinned, slowly lifted like a burden. Birds that had not yet flown south sang in unison, a parting eulogy before a heavenly hymn.
“No, I have to go now,” Edward said.
“Was it something I did?”
“No, Kaya. It’s something I did. And didn’t do.”
Kaya sat on his lap.
Edward sighed. “Like I said, it’s something I should have done long ago. Only now it’s probably too late.”
“It’s never too late,” Kaya said.
“This time, I think it is.”
Edward patted Kaya on the thighs, rose, dressed, and without a word, walked out the door.