Alma Vassov leans forward at her desk, intent, silent, chin resting on tightly clasped hands, unread term papers before her. Unseen, Luc’s postcard from France — small gray stone church by a peaceful river, gulls winging by at sunset, low hills beyond.  Unseen, pale purple tulips on her desk, two cats asleep on the window seat above Avenue B, and the late afternoonsun as it turns the dusty air of her living room to golden haze.   

Alma’s mind is – not a thousand miles, but a dozen blocks and twenty years away. In her mind’s eye, she sees a Greenwich Village café, painted with scenes from Pompeian frescoes, wide-eyed figures painted in shades of burnt umber and slate blue.  Morning to night, then as now, there was a steady flow of people in the Café Roma, the usual mixture of NYU students, tourists, neighborhood people,  scribbling or meeting friends; three tables by the window always Reserved for the wiseguy friends of the owner; a hand-lettered sign banning laptops. Alma is remembering, not a customer, but a woman in the fresco itself, a dark-haired young woman in a swirl of brown cloak, arm raised as if to ward off – something, Alma didn’t know what, even now – whatever it was had long since been erased by time. 

The mural has been painted over for years, but this morning, as Alma sat in the café listening to Luc, once her student, now her lover, list again all the reasons why she should come live with him in France, she noticed that the white paint had begun to peel off the wall, revealing an irregular patch of wrist, hand, fingers held up against faded blue, a small fragment, but enough that the whole image of the woman leapt, alive, into her mind. 

She did not draw Luc’s attention to it. He continued to speak of France, asking her to come back with him at least for the summer, perhaps for longer, his eyes warm, every point he made logical, his long fingers stroking her arm persuasively. Yet with each word, Alma felt more uncertain. And as he spoke, Alma found herself looking at the emerging hand of the woman behind his head, letting the remembered image take shape, from those years before, when she had come here often with her first lover. 

A slight change downward in the angle of the woman’s hand, perhaps 30◦ Alma calculates, letting Luc’s voice go on, would have made it the witnessing reverent gesture of an apostle, but this was a woman startled.  Her eyes were steady, facing the cause of her fear, only her raised arm, her cloak’s flying up, betrayed her agitation.  Leave New York? Alma thought, It’s not possible, how could I leave? After all this time, to go back to Europe?  She wanted to reach past Luc, to the wall, to brush away more of the flaking white paint and touch the woman’s painted hand as if this contact would give her guidance and courage. Alma felt akin to that woman.  She felt that if she could only concentrate on her, that dark-haired figure with the kohl-rimmed eyes, some detail would eventually present itself that would be a clue, a key, an answer to her dilemma. 

“You don’t know what you’re asking me,” she said to Luc, finally, looking directly at him, “I need to think about this, let’s talk about it at dinner, yes?” Quickly, before he could say something to change her mind, use a quote from her beloved Kerouac to convince her, she kissed him, left the café and walked home through Washington Square Park, without stopping at her office.

As she passed under the Arch on the north side of the park, she looked up Fifth Avenue to the dollhouse-perfect miniature top of the Empire State Building in the distance, pleased once again, in spite of her distress, by the very fact that this was part of her daily life.  By the park railing, a tall, thin dignified old man with a ruined face and rusty black suit was declaiming, “What’s the meaning of ‘dissemble’? What’s ‘debacle’? I’m a debacle.” He caught her eye as she passed, and added, “Alderman, quick, give me a note, or we’re dead ducks!” 

She paused, unsure whether or not to give him money.  What had brought him to this place?  Where was his family?  Her troubles paled before his.  She gave him a dollar, thinking of Swift’s last days, but did not stop to talk with him, as she would have when she was younger. So many lives intersected briefly in the park, she saw everything there, as she walked through it each weekday between the university and her East Village apartment. Small, the punctuation point to Fifth Avenue’s long elegance, it was full of talismans for her, links to Kerouac’s New York, and to her own first weeks in America. Always joggers circling the paths, always children. then there were Kerouac’s lonely dignified ragpickers, now called the homeless. There were the mutterers, the families, friends, lovers, and student readers. Dogs and dog-owners, drug-buyers and dealers, people with guitars, harmonicas, and fiddles, even pianos. Magicians and fire-eaters. Protesters and people who just wanted to wade in the foundation. And now as then, Kerouac’s normal New Yorkers, looking ridiculously out of place, as odd as their own neat oddity, carrying pizzas and Daily Newses.  It was a microcosm of New York, like Kerouac’s Times Square. It was her place for people-watching, her Bickford’s, her Grant’s cafeteria.  And if those places no longer existed (buildings having such a short half-life in New York), others had sprung up to replace them. 

Twenty years before, in their first week in the city, she and her first lover, Ned, had covered the city on foot, like all tourists, wanting to see everything they’d read about, from the West End bar up near Columbia, where Kerouac had met Allen Ginsburg, to the hotel on the Lower East Side that had been built on the site of the old Five Spot. Those places were gone.  But the energy, the people, the procession of lives before an observer’s eyes stayed the same, and sometimes new incarnations of the old places appeared. With a sense of time travel, capturing the last trace of an older New York, before it shimmered into nothingness like a jet trail, she and Ned had made a visit to the Horn and Hardart’s on Forty-Second Street  — the last, the lone survivor, of all the 1930s automats– when they’d first arrived. Now, decades later, a glowing pink and silver-chromed shiny automat was open on St. Mark’s Place, Japanese-run, the glass windows serving teriyaki buns and PB&J empanadas.  Ned would have liked it, she thought.  He would have liked Saint Mark’s tattoo parlors and circles of crusties squatting on the sidewalk, the rough anarchy of the place as much now as he had twenty years ago… 

She did still wonder what Ned would have said, knew that it would have pleased him, these Manhattan scenes that she now witnessed alone.  Turning the corner off lower Fifth Avenue onto a side street that was crowded yet completely without sound, a street fair to benefit a deaf-mute program, scores of people gesturing in sign language– visiting booths, buying food, sitting on stoops to eat roasted corn, but all wrapped in silence,. Or a group of strangers on a street corner up near Columbia, brought togetheras they stared up at  a double rainbow hanging, magically, for more than twenty minutes in the air over upper Broadway.  Or a thousand and one other New York phantasms she’d experienced since he left.  But Ned was not there to share it with her, and her only links to that time were Kerouac’s words, and certain places: the park and the Café Roma with its dark-eyed Pompeian woman.


*  *  *

Alma Vassov was dark herself, small and neatly built, with the pale olive skin of her Slavic countrymen, black hair cut short, a fringe of bangs over her dark eyes.  When her parents had uprooted her from their native Bulgaria, years before, and moved to England, those eyes had set her apart.  She had been asked at school there, apparently quite innocently — in spite of her name — if she were Tibetan or South Asian even, and she might as well have been for all that she was included in the adventures of her light-eyed, fair-haired classmates. 

In her memory they were all blonde, although that couldn’t have been true even then.  They seemed to communicate telepathically among themselves, those well brought up English girls, almost as if looking alike, they thought alike, and thus could dispense with clumsy negotiation, argument.  Alma had not actually tried to be like them and failed; she lacked the slightest notion of what to imitate, what would make her belong.  She could never understand their semaphore, their shorthand way of speaking.  As a teenager, looking from the outside, having been taught in Soviet-era Bulgaria about British imperialism, she had been self-righteously sure this uniformity had been how the British had run their Empire so effectively.

Imperial Britain was by then well in the past, though –Alma and her family had arrived a decade after Suez, and London was already the rich mix of cultures and colors of all first cities — but in the West Country, homogeneity still reigned. There were no satay take-aways in Malvern yet, or summertime melas, and the girls in their uniforms (navy in the long gray winter, pink-checked for summer) needed only an exchange of glances, some wordless impulse, to prompt them to vanish to their secret destinations, leaving Alma feeling stupid and alone.  Sometimes she would come across them later by accident.  As she walked up the steep wooded path that led to the top of the hill above town, sent by her superstitious mother to fill a jar with the blessed water from St. Ann’s Well, she might see the girls eating sweets from the tea shop, scattered around the weathered gray tables set into the grassy ridge, the girls disposed in attitudes of an insouciance that careful Alma could never hope to achieve.

Her mother, who welcomed any awareness of her difference from the English as nothing less than confirmation of her distinction, of her superiority as a Continental, her distinction, had dismissed Alma’s notions of inferiority with a contemptuous wave of her still-elegant hand, saying, “Dark like me, like you, dark women’s looks last longer.  You will be beautiful forever, not like these so-called English roses you’re so envious of right now.   Wait.  With that pale skin, they’ll be puffy-faced and faded at forty, and their husbands will all be running after you.”  

Her mother always spoke like that, in inverted quotes, as if she were channeling the wisdom of the ages:  proverbs, poetic and sage advice flowing from some deep pan-Slavic river. And her mother was often right, at least about love and horse racing.  But although Alma, now forty and still striking, had fulfilled her mother’s predictions, she had also grown weary of other women’s husbands, and in an uncharacteristically careless moment, had allowed Luc, nobody’s husband, and fifteen years younger, to pursue her.

Alma had always looked down on colleagues who had relationships with students. It was so indiscreet, so clichéd.  Yet here she was, against all rational thought, involved with him, just because he, too, was a foreigner, and because some of his gestures, his impatient quickness, his dark hair, and especially his passion for Kerouac and the Beats reminded her of Ned.


*  *  *  

Alma had met Ned at a wedding in London, and from the start, she felt that at last she had found her own people, her own kind.  She no longer remembers the names of the happy couple, at least, she supposes they were happy. She only remembers the roses everywhere, pots brimming with roses, spilling out their pink, crimson, scarlet, white through the balustrades into the mazes of gravel and shrubbery around the pavilion where the ceremony was performed, the roses burning color into the white haze of heat that lay over the sandy paths and the heavy dark foliage of high summer.

She had tripped on a flagstone, giddy from the luxury of it all– such extravagance, this huge garden in the midst of the city– giddy from the swell of chatter rising around her as the guests were loosed by champagne and movement from the constraints of the sweet solemn ritual they had just witnessed.  She doesn’t remember what Ned said to her first, she remembers the roses, the shimmering light, the hard cold of the pavilion’s stone floor, and Ned’s catching her, helping her up, taking her home.  She moved in with him the next week and they were off:  impromptu jam sessions, street demonstrations, and an orgy of political meetings. 

And they read the Beats together, Alma and Ned, set aflame by this language new to them, the English of America, the America that seemed to have abandoned traditional formality, the constriction and weight of the past. Ned introduced her other American writing – the mordant lawlessness of William S. Burroughs, the rueful-joyous, naïve and knowing voice of Jack Kerouac.   Six months later he was offered an internship at a New York publishing house and air tickets for two.  And so it was that they ‘did fly upon the wings of the wind’ to the New World, a new sort of literary pilgrim.

Before leaving for New York, Alma had gone back to her parents’ house, where her mother had given her a gold bracelet and a parting story.  “Two frogs,” she had said, “fell into a jug of cream.  One said, ‘All is lost,’ and consigned his soul to Heaven, if frogs have souls.  The other, all the night long kept struggling to stay afloat, kicking his legs, never giving up, and when the sun rose the next morning, that little frog was perched on a very nice lump of butter.  Remember this, my dove, because that boy of yours is no one to rest on.” Alma brushed aside her mother’s warnings.  Ned spoke in epigrams and italics, with impatience and exclamation points as her mother did, so was he not one of her kind?  And he had rescued her, like Sleeping Beauty, so was he not also her Prince? (Even if she no longer believed in fairy tales.)

 Alma had made light of her mother’s warning, yet her mother had been right as usual, and the bracelet she gave Alma that day the only gold band Alma was to wear.  Although Ned and Alma had met at a wedding, they did not themselves intend to marry; it was too conventional, oh, they were far too aware for such bourgeois notions. 

Poetry, politics, idealism… political thought did not act as a salve, though, when Ned left Alma.  He moved on, while Alma stayed in New York, where she began to teach. It became her home, finally, this city, where she worked hard without complaint as her mother had advised– where she began the series of affairs with the men who had preceded Luc; where her discretion grew, and its servant, calculation.

And she is always careful, now.  She goes with Luc to the café because it is not a haunt of her colleagues. He does not know that the Café Roma used to be the Caffe Pompeii, nor does she tell him.  He cannot see underneath the white paint of the walls there to the shadowy murals below, to the unknown dark-haired woman who stood apart, sandaled, in a fragment of the Pompeian friezes put up by the former owner. 

Luc does not know, and each time Alma considers telling him, painting in words the dark woman and her companions in the wall, as a way of beginning to tell her own story, Alma feels the steely restraint of caution.  

That same caution is pricking her now, as she sits at her black-lacquered Chinese desk decorated with red-ochre scenes of pagodas and willow trees, antelopes and pursuing archers.  It had been a present to herself on receiving tenure.  She had won, she had thought then.  She, doubly an outsider – a foreigner, a woman – had achieved acceptance in this second adopted country, had even won approval in such a way that she was allowed a certain amount of leeway, able to bring a more old-fashioned tone to her courses, free from the obligatory Lacanian this and post-colonialism that, as long as she continued to hold her office hours conscientiously, give her lectures, publish from time to time. She’d had an affair, several years of pleasant meals and room service with charming Fritz Bäuml, who was Viennese, appropriately genial, professor of eighteenth-century literature and head of her department. Afterward, he had become her protector. 

Apart from Fritz, though, she’d avoided the passes made at holiday parties by married colleagues, making an exception only once more, several years later, with the sparkling dark husband of a professor of Spanish literature.  His wife, a thin intense Galician, was always so very busy with her readings, her solidarities, her appearances, her sympathies with various political causes that he had had time, one winter afternoon, to run up the two flights of stairs that separated the Spanish and English departments, to find out “where you have been hiding” and suggest they go now to have a nice drink beneath some trees with leaves on them. And of course he knew just where to find a garden, even in December.

They did have dinner under the trees, and more. If she knew it wouldn’t last long – she saw how he eyed with appreciation even the bronzed breasts of the statues holding up lamps in the restaurant – she nevertheless appreciated the frivolity he offered, his urbane superficiality a relief from thought or consequence.

Until she met Luc in the Café Roma, in fact, she had been able to avoid any unpleasant consequence except the slight awkwardness as an affair slid into friendship, the vexations of faculty meetings and receptions.  If some in the department found her standoffish or critiqued her theoretical framework, they kept it to themselves, since Fritz’s regard continued to safeguard her.  Fritz and Alma had had lunch together today, as they often did, and had been discussing his recent article on Pope and the Scriblerus Club.  In the pause after the salad plates were taken away, when he usually, gallantly, suggested renewing their affair and pretended to be disappointed at her gentle refusal, before coffee arrived, he surprised Alma, offering a warning in place of the usual proposition.  He had cleared his throat in embarrassment, telling her that as she well knew, he was still acting as her lightning rod, and his advice at the moment was to be a little more circumspect if she were going to play Circe to someone so much younger, especially a former student.  People were beginning to talk.

Circe! Circumspection, caution!  Strange advice to careful Alma.  For Alma Vassov, twice transplanted, is master at discerning possible consequences.  Caution has always served her well; it has enabled her to carry on, grow around her the supple shield of self-possession.  And now Alma is troubled by the fear that all could be lost by her indiscretion with Luc.  She thinks, sitting at her black Chinese desk, that happiness may not be her fate. She only knows how to be careful. 


*   *   *

And yet Luc wants her to be happy. He wants to take her back to France, good Lord, to raise bees and live in the provinces.  He told her so this morning when they came back to her apartment with bread for their breakfast and the pale pinkish-purple tulips she stares through now.  He had bought them at the Korean grocers’, torn off the paper wrapping, given them to her, saying that she could cut tulips from her own garden if she went back with him to France, and had been so sweet and impassioned she hadn’t pointed out that she could grow tulips on her balcony right here in New York if she’d wanted to.  He had described his city to her, his family’s gray-walled house in Sens, “It’s only an  hour’s trip by fast train from Paris, the house dignified, comfortably bourgeois.” How different from Ned, Alma thinks wistfully, who would’ve used the term as an insult. But perhaps Luc, quick as he was, didn’t quite know how it sounded in English.

Luc’s postcard of the little church in Sens, sent over the holidays, was propped up on the desk in front of her. Although she knew his words by heart, she turned the card over to read them again:  

My house is near here… in the summer, there will be white 

roses that glow as dusk thickens. We can sit 

on the grass,  under the trees.  Cool breezes rise up from the 

river Yonne that you see here. You will love it, everyone will 

adore you, my brothers, my parents. Please come.

His words move her, written in his impatient angular penstrokes, only the “L” of his name legible in his signature. Had he deliberately put in the allusion to Kerouac’s with white white flowers everywhere…?  Or was she reading in too much? After so many years of teaching, the words of the writers she taught now came to mind just like family sayings, her mother’s proverbs; but were they wisdom or misdirection? 

Yet even with the resonance of Kerouac’s words, she’s unsure.  Her mind whirls with the same questions that have plagued her since Luc began to pressure her. He was so persuasive, so insistent.  He had told her over and over again how easy it would be, “You’re beautiful, you speak French,  you don’t want to live in New York forever, do you?  There’s no peace here. You deserve peace!” 

It is all very tempting, Alma thinks to herself, but it’s all wrong. What would I do there in Sens?  I don’t belong there. It would be just like Malvern again. She knows these small French cities, visited on school trips and holidays. She would be an outsider again, in those towns where every morning and every afternoon, the women armed with baskets march up the cobblestoned streets to their butcher, their baker, their greengrocer, those women with erect postures and judging eyes. “It doesn’t feel right,” she’d said to her friends when Luc had first asked her. They had agreed, every one.  Their arguments were reasonable. You can’t begin all over again, making friends, finding a job. Yes, he was gorgeous, they’d said, but you can’t spend your whole life in bed.

And yet – to be measured against that was the feeling of her heart’s lighting up, the delight that welled up in her when landing in Paris itself, taking the taxi in to the city. A feeling of coming home at last, truly home.  Everyone felt it, Kerouac had described it, too, the unaccountable happiness on being there, walking in Paris as though I’d been born before and lived before in this town, been brothers with someone, and bare trees fuzzing green for spring. 

But knowing, too, in spite of the delight of being in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the pettiness, the absolute arbitrariness that exists there. She remembered an inexplicable and unpleasant encounter with a concierge, “No, you cannot go up those stairs, Mademoiselle, it is Tuesday.”  And even though she had mastered the controlled anarchy of New York’s streets, would she ever be able to cross a Parisian avenue in rush hour, when, as Kerouac had captured it perfectly, all Frenchmen at the wheel behave as if completely convinced that no one else has a right to live or get to his mistress as fast as he does.  Mistress, , she thought, yes, the French are tolerant of mistresses. Could she be a mistress?  She was so much older than he was.  She wished that her mother were still alive. Now, for the first time, she would have welcomed advice. She was getting nowhere with this pendulum of indecision, back and forth.  Use logic, she commanded herself. There were so many sensible reasons not to go. Fritz was telling her to drop it, fast.  Other friends had advised her to enjoy Luc, but stay in New York, don’t risk it.  And it was Sens, after all, not Paris. And yet, and yet.  And yet, it is still tempting to be brought away, brought somewhere, to be lifted up.

But I have my own protectors in New York.  I don’t need to be rescued, she thought.  Her post, a comfortable apartment, two cats, now snoring on their furry backs on the Turkish rug– and the hedge of amusement and irony that surrounds her heart.  And Fritz, has warned her.

She cannot abandon her friends, her allies.  Twice before already she has come to a new country. Once in obedience to her parents, once full of hope with Ned.  She doesn’t have it in her to begin over again.  What would she find in France after all? She doesn’t miss Ned as she did years ago, but Luc is no replacement for him. They are right.  She will have to tell him she’s not going to France, it’s over.  Yet she owes him a leave-taking, what should she say?  

She remembers, even now, how Ned had signaled his leaving.  “I’m learning a new language,” he had said to her that autumn morning years before, as they walked up Fourth Avenue.  The wind pummeled empty plastic bags high up into the blue cold, snapping them, driving them bursting and crackling in arcs next to the old office buildings, the wind blew away any response Alma might have made, sent its cold coursing through her.  Heart bared by his words, she knew him too well to miss his meaning, her heart was made as leafless as the black-barked trees that stood immobile, implacable, within the iron park railings they were passing, hard trees whose frozen twigs impaled the bleak sky. No point even to ask what language.

Ned would not look at her. The wind blew harder.  Ned and Alma each wished to be caught up by that swift, impartial force —  he to be swept away from her, leaving her behind, dwindling in the distance in her corduroys.  No time to say goodbye, no awkward words, and ‘no blame’—she for the wind to boost them up together.  They would swoop up from the ground, she thought, ‘imparadis’d in one another’s arms’ in the chilly medium.

But alas, they had left their wings at home; the wind was as immune to their wishes as the eye of the needle was resistant to the efforts of the proverbial camel.  The kingdom of heaven was not to be theirs.  Ned’s ears were closed to all but supporting evidence, stubbornly deaf to all but the call of the new language, the next woman, other worlds to conquer.

Ned went to Australia.  So, like every other woman in that stage of love, of reclaim attempted, Alma wrote him a letter, clever, warm, light, disguising her pain (she thought) at his leaving. But Ned was already far away, and she knew it.  Wit does not call back the departed.  She dreamed that he was living in Brisbane, painting in tropical colors, drinking blue margaritas.  She dreamed again, that he was teaching English in a fishing village somewhere, she tried to prod that dream figure, too, and then she gave it up.  If her prickings of his dream self touched him, she never heard, he never replied. 

Now Alma sits dreaming again in her straight-backed chair at her black desk and something rouses her:  a breeze that she has not felt since Ned left.  The breeze is damp and cool, but unmistakably the keen, ardent breath of spring. It stirs the pink-violet tulips, sets them to trembling, and Alma can smell their fresh green plant fragrance.  The stems shimmer inside the clear glass ridges of the vase, so delicate they barely seem capable of supporting the hanging flower heads.  Inside the flower opening before her, velvety black stamens stand out against the pale yellow star at its heart.  Perhaps, she thinks, with sudden happiness, looking at the star, it will all be possible. If Luc doesn’t mind that she’s older, why should she? And she owns her apartment; she could find a tenant, go to France, and if it didn’t work out, just come back. Why not? 

Woken by hope, she looked outside, where the sky had faded to a luminous version of the tulips’ color, Kerouac’s rose cold dusk. If she left now, she might just catch Luc reading at their café, as he usually did in the afternoon, instead of waiting to meet him at the restaurant. With a surge of gratitude that the decision had been made, she put her keys in her pocket and left the apartment quickly. So what if she didn’t feel as intensely for Luc as she had for Ned, Ned was a long time ago. This was the beginning of something new and what it was to be she could find out only by taking the leap now, seizing the moment.

So she walked out into it, she walked with a light step past the peddlers with old clothes, books, magazines, the unimaginable array of broken or mismatched goods spread out on dirty rugs on the sidewalks. Through the emptying park, moon-globe lamps lit in the chill bleakness of the early spring evening.  At the edge of her happiness, though, she felt a twinge of regret already at leaving her beloved park and the city she had made her own, the city that had taken her in.  This was the New York Kerouac had loved, Ned had loved, she had loved.  She noticed everything now, on the walk to the cafe, everything she would be leaving behind.

A cold wind was coming up.  She was glad to be nearing the Café Roma and its welcome warmth. She felt insouciant at last, and when she passed a derelict sitting on the bare pavement, she gave him the change in her jacket pocket, saying, for luck,”There you are, you old hoodlum, vieux voyou!”  A yellow eyeball rolled up at her and the mouth said, “Ain’t you got a dollar?”  She smiled and kept walking.

At the café, the light glowed behind the door, illuminating its pale bouquet of frosted glass flowers.  Tulips, she saw, why hadn’t she ever noticed them before, with two white glass butterflies poised symmetrically at either side.  On sudden impulse, instead of opening the door, she moved to the window and looked through.  She saw Luc’s head immediately in the crowded café, she saw it because his dark hair and profile stood out against the bright mass of blonde hair of the girl sitting within his surrounding arm.  They looked happy, they looked as though they had forgotten the plate of tirami su in front of them.  They looked, in short, as lovers are supposed to look, young, carefree, made for each other.

Now Alma saw that it was not just to avoid her own colleagues that she and Luc had hidden.  Why had he done it?  Why had he pretended to her? Was it a lark?  Perhaps he had even boasted to his friends, other former students … she looked at the two of them, at Luc, at the girl, pink-cheeked, so young.  How old would she be when this blond girl was puffy-faced and forty?  Too old for a Frenchman, said the part of Alma’s mind still mechanically weighing, judging, analyzing smoothly.  And so — the dark woman in the wall had had her hand raised, not warding, but warning.

The wind was coming up again, raising the litter of the street into the air.  A torn page of newspaper blew up against Alma, then slid away, as if to remind her that she was again outside; not just fame, but love and hope blowing away, down Bleecker Street.

Starting to walk back, like a somnabuliste, she almost tripped over the old derelict. Again the hand came out, and this time she gave him the dollar.  She would go home and drink a quick cognac.  The toast:  to satori in the Village, O, that message of pain, keep asking for it, for life.  She would sip the cognac with both cats in her lap, comforted by their heavy warmth, by their purring wordlessness. They would not say, as would her well-meaning friends—to be faced later – “Well, he wasn’t your type anyway.” Fortified with cognac and warm cats, she would be able to smile wryly at herself, such a fool, after all these years, all her carefulness, to have let her guard down, how her mother would have clucked.  But at least the affair had gone no further.  In a few years she’d be able to recount the tale as a joke, a fabliau, perhaps, the tale of Alma and Luc.

Amusement is the last refuge.  Irony and warmth still come to our aid when illusion is no longer an ally.  And of course age.