The Three Steps Down Café, Bleecker Street, New York City
“Okay, how can I end this so they’ll come begging for more?” With one last creative blast, Judi poised her fingers on her laptop keyboard and tapped out the grand finale of her tenth novel in the wildly popular series:
Race Parsec maneuvered the battle shuttle Venture through the conquered enemy’s floating debris. Another victory–but to him, just another mission to save Earth.
Entering Mother Earth’s atmosphere, he radioed Starbase Central. “This is the Venture. I’ll be coming in at seventeen -hundred hours, more or less.” He then made a detour. On the way to base, he swung by and picked up a dozen roses and two steaks—it was his turn to cook dinner.
“Yes! The End!” After nineteen drafts and a two-week trek to Antarctica, Judi finally finished Barbarian Hoards of the Dark Nebula, #10 in the Race Parsec series. She scrolled up to the Prologue, where Race bade his ladylove farewell on the launching pad.
She mouthed the words from her monitor: “Finestra, my love for you transcends the vastness of space, however warped.”
Judi closed her eyes and sighed. Oh, to live in her made-up world, where heroes never cheated, and lovers never grew apart, no matter how many galaxies separated them. “If only love could transcend warped space in our universe.”
She glanced over her rimless specs. No one paid attention to the muttering redhead in the newsboy cap. The literati here at Three Steps Down tapped on laptops, read from their Kindles, and chatted with others—or with themselves. The Village Vanguard rated this place Number One for trendsetters in poetry, film noir, and flavored lattes. The whirring ceiling fans created a pillowy breeze. A young Usher wannabee sang off- key with no kicking bass or backup hotties, only snapping fingers.
Tonight she dressed more BoHo than usual in a flowered Foery of Scotland dress with a cascade of frills down the front, a bronze-buttoned military style coat, and Arturo Bandini boots. Although the new boots squeezed her toes like thumbscrews, the mix of wools and tweeds and dainty details gave her a kick. In this setting, she became the live version of her futuristic nom de plume, Juno Ursa.
Judi glanced at her watch. Race and the barbarian hoards took a few weeks over deadline to ride off into the setting suns, as Iris, her editor, climbed the walls.
You poor dear, Iris. At least find a man to climb.
Inhaling the sweet caramel aroma of coffee, she scanned the blackboard on the wall. Conversation Colombia boasted an extra shot of caffeine, to help deadline-weary writers sprint that last mile. Just as she narrowed her choice down to Bleecker Nutty Blend, her gaze landed on an academic type standing at the bar alone. His searching eyes and friendly smile told her he hoped someone, male or female, would give him the time of day. In his shirt buttoned- up dress shirt, black tailored blazer and black khaki pants, he looked far too Upper West Side, and probably knew it. Could that be—no! Feeling brazen, she snapped the laptop shut, cocked her newsboy cap back a fraction, and approached the bar. Reaching across him to grab a packet of As Sweet As Sugar, she attempted a casual bump.
She looked again.
“It is him!” she said to herself out loud.
She inched closer. It was him, all right, her childhood pal who’d stayed home on prom night to calculate the diameter of Pluto’s third moon. The ally who helped her clean up after her wild parties. Those laser-green eyes sparkled even in this room’s low glow.
He scanned her from cap to boots. He didn’t utter a word, but his dubious expression and cocked brow said it all: And who the hell are you?
She swept off the glasses and cap. “It’s me, Judi!”
An instant smile gladdened his features as he gave her shoulders a quick squeeze. “Judi, I can’t believe it! How’ve you been?”
Studying Felix, she saw that the last decade or so hadn’t been too hard on him. His face had filled out a bit, he still sported a full head of blond hair, and the uptown duds hugged a set of six-pack abs.
“Hangin’ tough, I guess.”
“You look like a successful author.” He gestured at her, up and down.
“Thanks, but authors don’t usually dress like this. I usually live in sweats.”
“Well, I’m sure dressed a little too M.I.T. for the occasion.” He smoothed down his tailored blazer.
“They do admit the token scientist occasionally. It’s not all posers.”
They shared a tension-easing laugh.
“Is this one of your usual hangouts?” He glanced around and then zeroed back in on her.
“It’s an occasional haunt. I don’t hang out with writers. I don’t know any poets, either. Dead or alive. But what are you doing down here? I’d expect to run into you at the Intergalactic Space Museum, but not anywhere subterranean.”
Felix just wasn’t the below-14th-Street type. The ‘hip’ Village had never been his scene.
“I had dinner with some colleagues, and we came down here for coffee. They just left, but I thought I’d get one for the road. Where do you call home these days?”
“I own a loft on West Ninth and lease the one next door to a couple of sculptors. I’ve been living there since the divorce settlement.” As she moved nearer him to close up the space, she inhaled a long-forgotten woodsy fragrance. The long-defunct Bengardino for Men! Only rare perfume stores had that–and not too often.
“Yeah, your dad told me. I ran into him and your stepmom about a year ago. I’m sorry about your divorce. Join the club.”
“When did yours become final?” she asked.
“Oh, that was at least two years ago.” His vagueness and dismissive tone told her he was well over it.
“Any significant other in your life right now?”
“Not any more. We broke up about a month ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” But from what she saw, he didn’t seem sorry; he sure was getting on with his life at breakneck speed.
“I also see that your books still fly off the shelves.” He changed the subject.
“As long as they want to read ‘em, I’ll write ’em.” She fanned herself with her gloves. “Let’s go outside and talk. It’s getting too hot down here.”
He cupped her elbow and guided her around the tables, up the brick steps, and into the evening air.
Once outside, they joined the flow of pedestrian traffic.
From the corner of her eye, she caught him openly admiring her as he smacked into a guy walking twin poodles.
Regaining his pace, he said, “You sure look like a writer—sorry, author.”
“Thanks. I go to Three Steps Down once in a while to work on drafts, eavesdrop on the literati, and see what the topic of the hour is.” She slid her newsboy cap and specs into her satchel.
“And it is?”
“Chick lit is the big thing.”
His blank look told her he didn’t have a clue.
“Chick lit is cutting-edge fiction for twenty- and thirtysomethings,” she explained.
“Oh.” He let out an embarrassed laugh. “Is that what you’re writing these days?”
“My editor is after me to. But I’d put a twist on it–paranormal chick lit. I think that would be a savvy move.”
“You were always ahead of the herd, Judi. At the vanguard, I should say.”
Happy as she was to see Felix, the timing could have been better. Why couldn’t she be in sweats and barefoot like a normal writer? She hoped he didn’t think she was putting on airs in her designer duds.
“We should meet up somewhere and do a Saturday or Sunday together,” he offered. “We sure have a lot of catching up to do.”
“I’d love that.” She meant it. A sudden sadness washed over her. All these years they could’ve been in touch. She’d had more fun times hanging out with Felix than with her closest girlfriends. It was a shame they’d drifted apart like so many other school BFF’s. “It’s scary to think about how fast the time went.”
He nodded. “Don’t I know it. When we were kids, the Third Millennium seemed like a million years into the future.”
“So—what’ve you been up to since the last century?” she asked. They turned the corner and strolled up MacDougal, lined with leafy trees and elegant brownstones behind iron gates. “Any breakthroughs?”
“A few. But none of them happened overnight. I teach physics at Columbia. In my off-campus life, I’m working on some cutting-edge projects.” He spoke over beeping horns, the roar of a subway train coming up from a grate, and the scraping of roller blades over the sidewalk. “When I moved back from L.A., I started specializing in immunology. I’m doing a lot of experimenting to try to increase the body’s resistance to disease and build up the immune system. The world needs that kind of thing. In a few generations, mankind will be desperate for self-preservation.”
She shook her head in wonder. “A Nobel Prize is in your destiny, I know it.”
“Somebody’s gotta do it.” He gave off a little shrug in that unpretentious style of his.
Will he ever flaunt just a little bit of ego? she wondered. Felix’s ego was as anchored to terra firma as his feet. Each success just made him try harder next time instead of basking in it like her fictional hero did. Race had nothing to prove; action seemed to find him.
“You’re too modest, Felix. You just might be the one to find a cure for cancer.”
“That would put me in the running for immortality, wouldn’t it?”
“And a Nobel Prize.” She stepped around a garbage can on the sidewalk.
“Then I could swing in the hammock of success.”
“You swinging in a hammock? Never!” But Race planned to spend his retirement planet hopping in his red convertible sportship.
“Taken any breaks lately?” Judi knew his idea of a vacation was a week at the Space Travel Training Academy.
“During the holidays last year, I designed another game for Gamestar.”
She shook her head in wonder. “You invent computer games on vacation time. Why don’t fictional heroes ever do that? What’s this one called?”
“Felix’s Helix. It’s a DNA game.” As they waited to cross the street, he looked at her, his eyes twinkling. “The game allows its users to manipulate DNA the way scientists have been doing in labs. Only if a player goofs, he can change things around and start all over. In the game, I re-created myself. I was immune to every disease known to man, had an Einstein genius level, and stood six- foot- two minus the shoes.” He’d always been self-conscious about his height, not a hair over 5’7″. “Enough about science and nature. Let’s hear about the arts. What have you been up to?”
“Oh, about the same. Blowing it and starting over,” she quipped. “Writing, writing, and more writing. I’ve got the tenth book in the series in here.” She held up the laptop.
“Congratulations. Success sure is sweet, isn’t it?”
The light changed. He took her hand, and they crossed Bleecker. She welcomed the warm shiver that fluttered through her. No one had touched her like this in so long.
“I’m having a blast, but I do make sacrifices,” she said. “A love life, for instance.” They turned onto Washington Square South. Looking over at him, she ventured, “Do you ever read my books, Felix?”
“Well…” He broke eye contact. “…that stuff just isn’t my cup of Chai, Judi. I go more for espionage fiction.”
“Ha! But I can pack an intergalactic battle, a smoldering love affair, and the return trip to Mother Earth into eighty-five thousand words. Let’s see one of your spies do that.”
“Sounds a bit too intense for me. I read light stuff to fall asleep at night.”
Their eyes met again, and they shared a smile.
As they walked, Judi’s feet screamed in agony. She took smaller steps.
“It’s these boots. They aren’t made for walkin’.” She vowed inwardly never to buy footwear on line again. Or bras. Certain apparel just needed to be tried on first.
“You want a lift? I’m parked in a lot on Fourth Street.” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket.
“No, I can manage for a little while.” Out of habit, she headed in the direction of her loft. Would inviting him in be too forward? she wondered. Oh, go for it! her frisky little voice told her. It’s not like he’s a first date! She smiled as they crossed West Ninth, knowing he wouldn’t turn down her offer. “Would you like to see my loft—or my studio as I like to call it? I can take these vises off my feet, and we can have a drink.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Anticipation put a little skip into her step, making the Bandinis less torturous. She had a sweet little surprise in store for him that made her smile all the way to her doorway. She disengaged the alarm, opened the four locks, and they entered the building. He followed her up the three flights of stairs, and she noticed he wasn’t even winded.
Showing him around her cluttered but comfortable loft, she relived all her fondest memories of him. When they graduated college and went their separate ways, she didn’t mope over him; she started her a new life in the Village while he headed to grad school at Stanford. She loved Felix like family and always knew he’d make it big someday. So he’d never aspired to being one of the school jocks. But where were the jocks now? The class “Best Looking” Mateo Garcia served time for insurance fraud. Brian Ridley, the star quarterback, had a restraining order against him from his ex. And “Campus King” Matthew DeGeorge pleaded guilty to an insider trading scam a week before the fifth reunion.
“So–is your divorce final?” She knew he’d married an archaeoastronomer from Stanford and separated soon after. Her father and stepmother always dished out the Felix gossip.
“Final one year ago, on my birthday,” he replied without a trace of remorse.
“Mine will be eight years next week.”
“Oh–I’m sorry. After those few times we talked on the phone, I didn’t hear back from you, so I figured you were doing okay.”
She remembered those endless phone sessions with him. Now a dark cloud of guilt hung over her head. She should have called him again after she got her life together. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you again, Felix. You really did help me out a lot, cheering me up. But the details were beamed all over the planet, on TV, and in the rag papers. Besides the emotional torture, having my personal business in the street was mortifying.” She cringed, even now, remembering the reporters’ mikes in her face, the humiliating–and untrue–stories that Ryan, her ex, embezzled half her fortune and dumped her because of her alleged affair with some NBA star she’d never set eyes on–oh baby! What fiction! So, the good came with the bad. But thinking of how she’d hidden away for months, embarrassed to go out because she felt all eyes on her, an object of public ridicule, made her break out in goose bumps. Rubbing her arms rapidly, she chased them away.
“I know.” He nodded. “The price of fame. But it was extra lousy of him to run off with your best friend.”
Her chest tightened at the memory. She’d holed up in her loft, dodging the press whenever she did go out. But each time the paparazzi flashed a bulb in her face, another little piece of her died until she couldn’t face the world at all for several months. Finally, she picked up the pieces and moved on, but not without a bruised heart and a battered soul.
She smiled wanly at Felix. “I realize Alyssa wasn’t a friend to begin with. I tried to think of one damn thing I did to deserve it. Was I a lousy housekeeper, did I not satisfy him in bed, or were my family members driving him nuts? But it was none of those things. He had the hots for Alyssa and went for it.” She focused on the floor, the pain of his betrayal returning. “ It made me feel like two cents–what did she give him that I couldn’t? I still don’t know, but thank God I don’t care anymore.” Her voice quivered, and she swept at the tears she couldn’t fight.
She turned to the poster of her latest cover displaying her tall, ripped, cosmos-black-haired hero, the antithesis of every flawed Earthling she’d ever dated. “When they ducked out on me, I called him at all hours and begged him to come back. I finally kicked myself in the ass and got my life back.” She paused for a deep breath and noted Felix’s eyes wide with pity. “Don’t look at me like that, I’m okay now. A few months later, out of desperate loneliness, I sat down and created Race, and as the series rode up the best seller charts, I began searching for a living Race because I’d fallen in love with the CGI version. Now, after seven years of gazing at him in cover art, I’m still searching for him in flesh and blood.”
“I’m sorry, Judi. I knew Ryan wasn’t worth it when you told me he ran off with your best friend. You’re well rid of him. They deserve each other.”
She nodded, knowing he was right. “I’m really sorry we lost touch, Felix.”
“Well, with our parents keeping us up to date on each other and seeing your books in all the stores, I’m informed enough about you. The good stuff, that is.”
She nodded. “When Dad told me you’d moved back here and were teaching at Columbia, I should have called you–or at least e-mailed.”
He waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about it. We’re here now. We may have grown up and apart, but we’ll always be tight.”
It was all in the smile they shared. As she showed him around her remodeled loft with her mixture of antique and eclectic furnishings and her small garden roof where she grew herbs, he nodded his approval. She led him over to the sofa and contemplated his profile. Small lines framed his eyes and mouth, etching character into his features.
She gazed down. “When do you have time to work out, with your crazy schedule? She marveled at his physique, all muscle underneath the tailored threads, no longer the pudgy geek who wolfed burgers and fries for breakfast.
“I set up a weight room next to the lab at home, so if I want a workout at two a.m., I can hit the gym on my clock instead of on the health club’s hours,” he said. “I’ve also taken up yoga—; five minutes of centering helps me think when I’m trying to solve a problem instead of chanting into a bowl of rhodolytes.”
“Will a beer disturb that harmonious balance?” Growing up, his idea of a stiff drink was a swig of root beer out of the bottle.
“No, a beer sounds great.”
“You got it.” She headed for the kitchen and got out two bottles of Gaelan’s Red and two mugs. “Then I want to hear all about your scientific endeavors.”
“Hey, remember the experiment we did with my chemistry set that almost blew my parents’ house up? We called it Vesuvius?” Felix recalled, casually leafing through her Astrophile magazine and tossing it aside like he’d read it already.
“Sure do. The neighbors called 911. I bet the Westchester Fire Department never tried to douse a volcano before.” They laughed as she poured their beers.
He shook his head in fond reminiscence. “Yeah, and the mess it made. We spent our whole vacation scraping plaster of Paris lava off the walls of my dad’s study. I thought he’d blow his top and have a meltdown.” Felix gazed straight ahead seemingly focused on nothing.
“What’s wrong?” But sitting next to him, watching his smile fade, she felt it too.
“The time whizzed right by us, didn’t it, Judi? Too damn fast. Time has always fascinated me. The scientific background, I guess.” As he brought his gaze back to hers, his eyes bore the pain of regret. “Sometimes I can’t believe how old I am.”
“We’re not that old. We’re still on the right side of forty.”
“It’s all relative. My students weren’t alive when the Challenger exploded. I always wonder about the possibility of going back in time. To do it all right the next time around. Time travel. Wow, what a concept.”
“And you think my books aren’t realistic enough!” She took a sip. “You’ve done okay. You never give yourself enough credit.”
“Well, there’s always room for improvement. Thomas Edison said ‘there’s a better way to do it’ and trying to accomplish just half of what he did can get frustrating.”
“But you’re not Thomas Edison. You’re you. And I don’t see much room for improvement.” She squeezed his arm. With any other guy, this would’ve been flirting. But the idea of flirting with Felix was ludicrous. They so passed that ages ago.
“Thanks for the pep rally.” He took a long draw of his beer.
“So tell me about your research.”
He set the mug on the table, settled back, and played with his tie, coiled up in his jacket pocket. She never saw him actually wearing a tie. He always stuffed it into a pocket. “I’m on contract with Oxytech, a new biotech company. They just raised several million dollars for all this design work. They have an affiliation with one of the major drug corporations, so they can deal with the FDA a lot more easily.”
“I always knew it, Felix. I always knew you would make history.”
“Well, I’m not making it yet.” Praise always made him turn pink, and he opened the top button of his shirt, another of his familiar gestures that had faded from her mind until now. Race opened his shirt as a blatant sexual overture, but with Felix, it was a gesture of relaxation. Race, always “on stage,” never relaxed.
“Anything else going on? I know there has to be.”
“Actually, yes. I’ve been working on a project, but–” He stopped and stole a quick glance around.
“The place isn’t bugged, Felix. My God, you do read too many espionage novels.”
“Hey, truth is stranger than fiction.”
They exchanged grins. He sat forward and hunched his shoulders, elbows on knees. She’d seen him this way a million times, another of his old habits, like drumming his fingers on any available surface. She also remembered him standing on his head to enable deeper thought, but for now he stayed right side up.
“Are you centering?” she asked cautiously, afraid to disrupt what might be some serious energy channeling.
“No, I do that cross-legged. It’s just that I haven’t told a soul about this project.”
“Then you don’t have to tell me if you can’t. I don’t want to breach national security.”
He looked straight at her, his eyes dark and penetrating. “I’ve been dying to share this, Judi. This is the accomplishment of a lifetime for me. But until now I just didn’t have the right person to tell.”
“I’m honored you consider me the right person,” she said sincerely, remembering all the dark secrets they’d shared in the past. Kid stuff, but secrets were important then, too. “It means a lot to me.”
Nodding, he glanced at his empty mug, and she shot up to get him a refill. She returned with another bottle, tipped the mug, and poured.
“This is a very controversial issue, Judi. You’ve got to keep it under wraps.”
“Felix, you know I’ll always have your back. We’re practically family.” It hurt a little that he would doubt her, but her curiosity won out.
“I’m involved in an experiment that the general public may find immoral. Playing God, I guess you’d say.”
“Well—what is it?” Despite the sip she’d just taken, her throat contracted. She’d always feared he’d get involved with some covert operation, in too deeply for his own safety. “What are you into now?” Her imagination soared.
“In grad school, I did some genetic engineering to prepare for my dissertation, but it wasn’t cloning as such. With cloning, you inject a cell from the body of the subject to be cloned into an ovum after removing the nucleus. That’s not what I’m doing.”
She splayed her hands. “Then what are you doing? You always give the ten-thousand-foot view before the close up.”
“I’ve been commissioned to create a being, Judi. Not a robot, mind you. An environmentally controlled being with human characteristics but without human faults. He’s going to be perfect.”
“P-perfect?” Her heart surged. That word did something to her.
“Well, not quite yet. My contract with Oxytech expires next month, but after I got my doctorate, I started doing some schematic design in my lab at home. I’m very close to my first prototype. It’s been on my mind during most of my waking hours—and most of my sleeping ones, too. The–” he faltered, as if hesitant to share all his details— “outfit who commissioned me got wind of it through some faculty gossip and interviewed me about designing this being, the first of its kind.”
“So, when will you start construction or production or whatever you call the process?”
“I don’t know exactly. It’ll take several months before I’ve ironed all the wrinkles out.”
“Let me just ask you one question.”
His eyes pierced her as if to say uh-oh. “What is it?”
“Why aren’t you creating a perfect woman?”
He hesitated, and she knew she had him there. “Simple. The world has enough of those already.”
She gave him a playful shove. “You always know just what to say.”
“Never say always.”
They caught up with the lesser details of each other’s lives, and when he glanced at his watch, he did a double take. “I’ve got an early start tomorrow, and I’m sure you do, too.”
“Finally, someone who realizes I have a job.”
He went to the bathroom, came back, and they parted with a warm friendly embrace after exchanging e-mail addresses. She went to the window and watched him until he disappeared around the corner.
Felix. How great to see him after all these years.
Before forgetting, she turned her computer on and added him to her address book.
As Felix drove home, he tried to count all the times he’d wanted to call Judi after her divorce, ask her to jump on a plane, and come to L.A. for a spur-of-the-moment jaunt. Even when he moved back to New York, they may as well have remained a continent away; their lives became just too divergent. Now, with her living this close, he still never made that first call. Something always stopped him: her latest interview mentioning her frantic tour schedule or her folks telling him about her exploding career. So it never happened.
He wished he’d swept her scarf into his pocket—something simple and personal of hers.
He still dreamed of her and scoured the bookstores to glimpse her jacket photo. He sought out women who resembled her in the remotest way, especially his last ex, Dr. Heather Adair, another Physics Department professor.
He enjoyed Dr. Adair’s company but couldn’t go on using her just because she reminded him of Judi. So he ended it barely a month ago.
He just wanted to let Judi know how he’d felt about her all these years.
Don’t get your hopes up.
But his heart said “Why not?”