SOMETIMES YOU LOSE TOUCH with people for no good reason, even people you love. Nora had lost touch with Isaac five years ago, but he kept coming back to her mind. He would appear to her in dreams (usually looking as if he was disappointed in her); things he'd said to her long ago would bob up into her thoughts; and sometimes when she was in a bookstore she'd drift over to the photography section to see if he'd put out another book. Through year after year of silence, she carried on a conversation with him in her mind.
Every few months she would pick up the phone with the intention of calling him-and then she'd put the phone back down. She wasn't quite sure why they'd finally stopped talking, but something prevented her from reaching out to him again. Maybe there was a good reason after all.
BUT TONIGHT SHE WAS IN a hotel room in the middle of nowhere; it was one in the morning; she'd been trying to get to sleep for hours and she was still bleakly awake; and it was one of those insomniac nights when it seems clear to you that your life has come to nothing, that you've failed at everything that matters and there's no point in trying again, and you know that it might help to talk to someone but you're not sure there's anyone who'd be willing to listen, and you lie there thinking Is it possible to be any more alone than this?
And the only person she wanted to talk to was Isaac.
But do you want to get back into that? She didn't know.
It had taken her so long to forget him. Not to forget him-she'd never been able to forget him-but to reach a point where the thought of him wasn't troubling her every day.
It was three in the morning where he was. He'd always been a night owl. He might still be up.
She called Information for the suburb where she'd heard he was living, and she got his phone number.
For all she knew he was married by now. It would be incredibly rude to call him at three in the morning.
It was the kind of thing she used to do all the time. She would call him at midnight, two in the morning, four, and he'd always be happy to hear from her. Once, when she was just getting to know him, she'd called him at midnight when he had another woman there; he was happy to hear from her even then. The other woman hadn't lasted long after that.
But that was a long time ago, when they were psychic twins, sharing every thought. It would be rude to call him now. It would be bratty.
She dialed his number.
After three rings, he picked up the phone. She could tell from his thick hello that he'd been sleeping.
She didn't say anything. Maybe this was all she'd wanted. To hear his voice was enough.
She didn't hang up, though.
"Hello?" he said again.
She just kept breathing.
"Nora?" he said.
After five years.
HOW DID YOU KNOW it was me?"
She heard him laughing softly. "I recognized your silence. It's different from anyone else's."
This might have been the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to her.
"How are you?" he said. "My Nora." His voice-his middle-of-the-night voice, his half-awake voice-was washing over her. He was the only person who'd ever been able to make her name sound poetic.
"Well," she said, "I've been better. Your Nora's been better than she is now."
"What's happening is that I've been going down the wrong road."
This sounded pretentious to her, or it would have sounded pretentious, except that talking to him, somehow, freed her to talk in an exalted way. Somehow he lifted her out of daily life.
"And now?" he said. "You're planning to change roads?"
"Yes," she said. "I want to. But I'm not sure I have the strength."
She didn't want to give him any specifics. She didn't know if this phone call was going to be a turning point for her-the inaugurating act of a new life-or if she was just going to burrow under the covers, get to sleep, and go back to the life she'd been living, the old inadequate life. In either case, she didn't want to clutter up the moment with details.
"Of course you do," he said. "I don't know what it is you need to do, but I know that whatever it is, you have the strength to do it."
This was one of the things she had always treasured about him: the faith he had in her.
She didn't say anything. For a minute or two she simply listened to him breathe.
She felt as if she was teetering between love and phoniness. The love was evident in the fact that after five years, they hardly needed to speak: they could just breathe into the phone and be satisfied. The phoniness was evident in the fact that she didn't want to speak. The problem with talking in the exalted lyrical mode that was available to them only because it was after midnight and he was half asleep and they hadn't spoken in years-the problem was that if she said something mundane she'd feel like a dope. She didn't want to relinquish her poetic foxiness.
"Maybe we can see each other someday," she finally said.
"That would be beautiful, Ruby," he said. "That would be beautiful."
He'd sometimes called her Ruby in the old days. Neither of them knew why.
There was another long silence, during which she began to feel comfortable again.
When they were younger, they sometimes used to talk late into the night and then fall asleep on the phone. It was one of the most intimate things she knew.
"I want to sleep on the phone with you," she said, "but I'm afraid that would be going too fast."
They both laughed-laughed at the absurdity of this; but at the same time, she meant it.
THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE to see someone you haven't seen in years. First, you recognize him instantly. Then, a moment later, you realize how much he's changed, and you wonder how you recognized him in the first place. Then, a minute after that, the past and the present begin to cooperate, and he doesn't look very different after all-in fact, he's always looked like this.
Isaac was sitting in a booth in the coffee shop. He stood up as she came toward the table, and they embraced. Isaac was a tall man and Nora was a small woman; he had to fold himself up in sections in order to embrace her.
As she held him, she searched for his scent. He smelled just like he used to: like good, warm, fresh, wholesome bread.
"I see you came straight from the bakery," she said.
She knew he had no idea what she was talking about, but it didn't matter. He was smiling.
She sat across from him. "You're looking well," he said quietly. Which meant he thought she looked beautiful. The more intensely Isaac was feeling something, the more understated he became.
"You are too," she said, although it wasn't true. He looked skinnier than he used to be, skinnier and bonier and balder. And even more frail.
For a minute or so, they didn't say anything. They didn't need to. The flow of information between two people who care for each other can be close to overwhelming. She could tell that his feelings about her hadn't changed.
A waiter appeared-male hipster with earring-and broke the mood. Isaac ordered a salad and a cup of tea, and Nora ordered a cheeseburger and a milkshake. In the olden days, she remembered, waiters always mixed up their orders: they'd put her steak and onion rings in front of Isaac, his pasta salad in front of her.
They were in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side that used to be one of their favorite spots. But it had changed. It used to be called the Argo, and it used to be filled with old people eating alone-people who looked as if they left their homes once a day to have a cup of Sanka and a bowl of soup. But now it was called the New York Diner, and its ol...