cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

October 25, 1972

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Epilogue

Acknowledgments

‘An Interview with Ridley Jones’

A Tour of New York City

Copyright

About the Book

When Ridley Jones steps off a New York street corner to save the life of a young child, she is thrown into a whirlwind of violence, deception and fear. And her world is turned upside down.

But just as she has a chance to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, another seemingly ordinary act leads her into dark territory she never knew existed, and where she must question everything she knows about those close to her.

Forced to hunt down a ghost from the past, Ridley risks everything and learns to trust no one in a race to find the truth before it finds her…

About the Author

Lisa Unger is a New York Times bestseller. Beautiful Lies was chosen as the International Book of the Month and is published in twenty-five countries. She lives in Florida with her husband and daughter. Read more at www.lisaunger.com

image

For Jeffrey
You’re everything. Always.

As he was anonymous, without a name … at all orphan, quidam.

CYPRIAN K. NORWID

October 25, 1972

There were times when she wished he were dead. Not that she’d never met him, or that he’d never been born, but that he’d get hit by a car or get himself killed in some other violent way like a bar fight, or his arm would get caught in a machine and he would bleed to death before anyone could save him. And she wished that in those final moments, when he felt his life draining from him, that he’d understand what a bastard he was, what a waste of life. She could envision him, his blood pooling in a black kidney-shaped puddle beneath him as he repented in terror, understanding with a final clarity that he was about to pay for the man he was. In those dark moments he’d be sorry, so sorry. But it would be too late. That’s how she felt about him.

She lay alone in the dark, on the old pilled quilt atop her bed. The radiator was cranking dry, hot air, making an occasional loud bang as if someone were hitting one of the pipes with a metal wrench. She strained to hear the soft, measured breathing of her daughter down the hall. A strong wind rattled the window. She knew it was cold outside, colder than it had been yet this autumn. But she was sweating a little. The heat in her apartment always ran too hot. In the night the baby (though she really wasn’t a baby anymore at almost two years old) would kick off her covers. She was listening for that, for the sudden shift the child made in her sleep when she pushed the blankets away. But she was listening, too, for other noises.

Her heart had finally stopped racing and the baby had finally stopped screaming, but she knew he would come back. She lay fully clothed in a gray sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers, the phone in her hand. A baseball bat lay beside her leg. If he came back, she would call the police again, even though they’d already come once tonight after he’d gone. She had a restraining order. They had to come no matter how many times she called.

She couldn’t believe it had come to this, her life. If it weren’t for her daughter, she’d think what a mess she’d made of it, how many mistakes, how many broken expectations. At least she knew that she did one thing well, that in spite of everything, her baby was happy and healthy and loved by her mother.

The clock beside her bed cast a green glow and the only sounds now were the child breathing and the hum of the refrigerator down the hall. It was old; there was a low groan and a slight rattle to it. She hardly noticed anymore except when she was listening closely to the darkness, worrying about where he was and what he would try next.

Their relationship had been all but over when she told him she was pregnant. If you could even call it a relationship. They’d gone out a couple of times. He’d pick her up in his Monte Carlo and take her to a pizza place where people seemed to know him. He’d pull out her chair and tell her she was pretty. He’d tell her that a couple of times over dinner, using it as filler for a conversation that faltered more than it flowed.

They’d seen The Candidate with Robert Redford and The Getaway with Steve McQueen, neither of which she had particularly wanted to see, not that he’d asked. He’d just drive them to the movie theater and walk to the ticket window, tell the clerk what he wanted to see. Maybe that should have been her first clue. If you’re going to the movies with your date, shouldn’t you ask her what she wants to see? In the darkened theater with a bucket of popcorn between her legs, he’d play with her ponytail and whisper in her ear how pretty she was … again. The second time, during The Getaway, she’d let him touch her breast and almost liked it, felt herself go hot between the legs. That night, he’d come back to her apartment and they’d slept together. But he didn’t stay the night. She’d slept with him again a few times after that, but he stopped taking her out for pizza and movies. And then, just as she was starting to count on hearing his voice on the phone, feeling his arm on her shoulder, he faded out of her life. They all seemed to do that, didn’t they? Seemed like one week they were together, but by the next they were strangers. For a while she had heard from him every night, which turned into every other night. Then her phone stopped ringing altogether. She’d look at it, sitting there on the kitchen counter, pick up the receiver to make sure it was working.

She hadn’t been raised to chase a man, to ask him out or ask why he’d stopped calling, so when she didn’t hear from him, she never tried to reach him. Of course, she’d not been raised to let a man grope her in a theater and then sleep with him, either.

Anyway, he was nothing to her but a way to pass the time, a way to get over the man before him. How different the two men had seemed on the outside. The one before had been wealthy, treating her to fancy evenings in the city, buying her gifts, dresses and jewelry. He’d spoken French to her, and even though she didn’t understand, she was impressed. Her mistake had been that he’d been her boss. And when he’d tired of her, he’d suggested that he’d make it comfortable for her to find another job. They were so different, this one and the one before. But in the end they were all the same, weren’t they? They got bored and wanted her to go away. Or they became distant and cold. Or violent like this one.

Her parents, both heavy smokers, had died within two years of each other, far too young. Her mother died slowly and terribly from emphysema and her father from a sudden heart attack. She had no brothers and sisters. So she had no one to shame with her unwed pregnancy, but no one to turn to, either. Maria was her only friend; a woman downstairs known to everyone as Madame Maria. The older woman made her living reading tarot cards in her apartment, giving guidance from “the Goddess,” as she liked to say. Madame Maria had told her that a gift was on its way to her. Maria always said that. This time she was right.

When she was sure, she went to see him. He asked her how she knew it was his. She started to really hate him then and wondered how she could have ever given herself so cheaply to someone so undeserving. She assured him that she wanted nothing from him, had just wanted to give him the opportunity to be a father. He left her standing in a dark parking lot. It started to rain, just a light mist, as she listened to the rumble of his Monte Carlo driving off into the distance. It had been a mistake to go see him; she’d misjudged him. Had thought he might do right by her. Wrong again.

Then, maybe it was guilt haunting him, or curiosity, or maybe even some latent capacity to love, but he started coming around when the baby was a few months old. And it seemed as if he might be taking an interest in being a father. But after a while, it was just like the movies: He thought he could start picking the show and the time, and cop a feel while he was at it. The battles started. The police were called. Apologies offered. Forgiveness granted for the sake of the child. Over and over … until the unforgivable afternoon. Then the battles really began.

She spent many nights like this since then, lying in the dark fully clothed, waiting. And she’d had so much time to think about why it was happening. She’d gone over every interaction they’d ever had, dissecting and analyzing all her words and actions, wondering what she might have done differently. But the only thing she came up with was that she should have noticed about the movies, how he never asked her what she wanted to see. That should have told her what kind of man he was. Sometimes it’s the little things that tell the tale.

She remembered that afternoon; it was seared into her like a brand on her skin. “B” for bad mother. She remembered getting the call from Maria at work, racing home to her apartment, where she’d let the baby stay with him during her shift. She remembered hearing the wailing, unmistakable, heart-wrenching, a connection directly from her child’s heart to hers as she took the stairs two at a time. She remembered bursting through the door to see him sitting on the couch, his face slack with fear. The door to the nursery was closed as if he’d shut it against the child’s crying. She was sick, every membrane on fire with fear, as she threw open the door. The baby sat in her crib, bright red from crying, her arm bent horribly, unnaturally. She grabbed her child and ran, screaming, “What did you do? What did you do? Look what you’ve done!” He sat there, mute, his arms outspread. She didn’t look at him again as she ran with her screaming, injured child in her arms.

She didn’t, she couldn’t wait for an ambulance. As gently as she could, she put the baby in her car seat. The little girl’s cries felt like knives, cutting and killing her inside. Her own tears felt like they should be blood. She tried to keep her voice measured, cooing as she drove. “It’s okay. It’s okay, my love. Mommy’s here. Mommy’s here.”

In the emergency room, the doctor took the child from her arms and she followed him as he rushed her into the belly of the hospital to the pediatric floor. She prayed; she prayed that her baby’s doctor, who alternated between the Little Angels clinic and the hospital, would be here today. Her prayers were answered and in minutes her daughter was under his careful hands.

“Oh my, little girl. What has happened to you?” he said quietly. She could do nothing but stand mute beside them.

“Mom,” he said gently. He never used her name when he was attending to the baby. “I know this is scary, but I’m going to ask you to go wait outside so that I can fix this little munchkin right up. You’re very upset and frightened right now and she knows that, she can feel it. Can you be very brave and wait outside?”

She nodded against her will and allowed herself to be shepherded outside by a nurse. The nurse, a young woman with bright blue eyes behind thick horn-rimmed glasses, looked at her with equal parts sympathy and suspicion. There was judgment there, too. Cold and certain. Could they think I’d hurt my daughter? she wondered through the fog of her fears. Could they think that?

It seemed as if her chest would explode from the sheer force of the emotion churning there as she watched the doors to the examining room. The baby’s crying had gone from screams to whimpers and then there was silence. She felt paralyzed, lashed to the orange plastic chair on which she sat, unable to bring herself to investigate the silence. Then, after a hundred years, the doctor emerged.

“She’s going to be fine,” he said gently, sitting beside her and putting a hand on her knee. He went on about the delicacy of a broken bone in a toddler and all the special considerations they would take when setting it and how they would need to proceed with the healing of it. The words She’s going to be fine repeated in a loop in her mind until her heart had accepted the information and started to return to its normal rhythm, until her blood started its passage again, bringing her back to life. She had been suspended in her terror, hovering between life and death, until she knew her child was no longer in pain.

“It’s okay,” he was saying to her, looking into her eyes. “It’s going to be okay.”

But there was something else in his eyes, too. There was worry and there was suspicion in an expression that was normally so kind and warm.

They were at the hospital for most of the night, as the child was sedated and her arm was set in the tiniest cast. The doctor stayed with them until it was time to go home. As she was preparing to leave, the doctor touched her arm and looked at her with an expression she couldn’t read.

“You love your child more than anything, don’t you?” he asked her, sounding so sad.

“More than anything.”

“Are you going to be able to protect her?” It seemed like such an odd question, especially since it was the echo of the question her own aching heart was asking.

“Anybody wants to harm this child, they’ll have to kill me first.”

He nodded. “Let’s see it doesn’t come to that. Make sure you follow up on pressing those charges. And I’ll see you at the clinic on Thursday—or before, if there’s any problem.” His voice had gone stern and she nodded obediently.

“I wish,” she said as he turned away from her, “that she had a father like you.”

He looked at her strangely, seemed about to say something, then decided against it. He smiled at her, a warm, comforting smile full of compassion. “So do I. So do I.”

Whenever she thought of that moment, it filled her heart with a renewed hatred for the man who’d hurt her child. It cemented her resolve against his constant begging for forgiveness, his constant pleading for a minute, just a minute with the baby, and then his raging against her when she denied him. It had been an accident, hurting the baby. He’d never meant to hurt her, he claimed. He’d seemed contrite enough. But she kept thinking about what the doctor had asked her. Are you going to be able to protect her? The only way she could be sure the answer was yes is if she kept him out of their lives.

She might have been dozing a bit, but something jarred her and she transferred her grip from the phone to the baseball bat. She lay silent, adrenaline running, listening to the night. The baby shifted in her sleep and sighed. She heard the slightest snap, more like a ping, the sound of a metal spring straining, as if the screen door were opening, ever so quietly.

He’d never been quiet before. He’d always come banging. She felt her throat tighten and she quietly got off the bed, the phone forgotten, the bat heavy in her hand. She walked to the doorjamb and peered out into the small living room of her apartment. From there she could see the front door. The lock looked too flimsy suddenly and she cursed herself for not having installed the dead bolt and chain as the police had recommended. She hadn’t been able to afford it. The window beside the door was gated, but it hung over a landing that anyone could reach by a flight of stairs.

Did she just see his shadow move in front of the window? The curtains were drawn but the streetlight in the parking lot shined bright throughout the night and sometimes she could see the shadows of people passing on the way to their own apartments. She listened again and heard nothing. She was about to relax when she heard it again, that straining metal spring. Was he standing outside her door, inside the screen? Her breathing came more quickly and her chest felt heavy.

She looked at the phone she had left on the bed and thought about calling the police. But she couldn’t face them coming here for nothing again. He’d already gone by the time they arrived earlier. And even though they took her report again respectfully, she was starting to feel like the little boy who cried wolf. If she called them again, and it really was nothing, she’d be so embarrassed. She gripped the bat with both hands and moved toward the door.

She moved quietly, slowly. He’d always come loudly, she reminded herself. He’d never tried to quietly break in and hurt them. Or her other worst nightmare, steal her baby. In the area, three children had gone missing in the last year. Every night, their little faces looked out at her from the television screen, their bright smiles, their sweet eyes like a haunting. Gone from their homes, each of them. None of them found, not even a trail to be followed. Every once in a while she’d hear on the news that there’d been a sighting in a mall or at a rest stop or an amusement park. But then the lead would go nowhere. She thought more than a little about those parents, the gaping holes in their chests, their lifetime of horrible questions and unspeakable imaginings. Maybe the only thing that kept them alive was hope, the only thing that kept the razors from their wrists and the guns from their mouths was the idea that they’d open their doors one day and see their child again. She couldn’t imagine the crippling grief for a child who might be alive somewhere, unreachable, or might be dead … never knowing what would be worse.

She was close to the door now, just three feet away, standing beside her secondhand couch. She hadn’t heard anything as she crept toward the door, so she stood frozen like a statue with the bat poised.

1

IT’S DARK IN that awful way that allows you to make out objects but not the black spaces behind them. My breathing comes ragged from exertion and fear. The only person I trust in the world lies on the floor beside me. I lean into him and hear that he’s still breathing but it’s shallow and hard won. He’s hurt, I know. But I can’t see how badly. I whisper his name in his ear but he doesn’t respond. I feel his body but there’s no blood that I can tell. The sound of his body hitting the floor minutes before was the worst thing I’ve ever heard.

I feel the floor around him, looking for his gun. After a few seconds I feel the cool metal beneath my fingertips and I almost weep with relief. But there’s no time for that now.

I can hear the rain falling outside the burned-out building, its loud, heavy drops smacking on canvas. It’s falling inside, too, trickling in through gaping holes in the roof down through floors of rotted wood and broken staircases. He moves and issues a low groan. I hear him say my name and I lean in close to him again.

“It’s okay. We’re going to be okay,” I tell him, even though I don’t have any reason to believe this is true. Somewhere outside or up above us a man I thought I loved, along with other men whom I couldn’t identify, are trying to kill us, to protect an awful truth that I’ve discovered. I am hurt myself, in so much pain that I might pass out if I didn’t know it meant dying here in this condemned building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There’s something embedded in my right thigh. It’s possibly a bullet, or a large spike of wood, or maybe a nail. It’s so dark I can just barely see the large hole in my jeans, and the denim is black with my blood. I’m dizzy, the world tilting, but I’m holding on.

I hear them up above us now, see the beams of their flashlights crossing in the dark through the holes in the floors. I try to control my breathing, which to my own ears sounds as loud as an oncoming train. I hear one of the men say to the others, “I think they fell through. They’re on the bottom.” There was no answer but I can hear them making their way down over creaking wood.

He stirs. “They’re coming,” he says, his voice little more than a rasp. “Get out of here, Ridley.”

I don’t answer him. We both know I’m not leaving. I pull at him and he tries to get up, but the pain registers on his face louder than the scream I know he suppressed to protect us for a few minutes more. If we’re not walking out of here together, we’re not walking out at all. I drag him, even though I know I shouldn’t be moving him, over behind an old moldy couch that lies on its back by the wall. It’s not far but I can see his face white and gritted in terrible pain. As I move him, he loses consciousness again and in an instant feels fifty pounds heavier. But I’ve seen all four of his limbs move and that’s something. I realize that I’m praying as I pull him, my leg on fire, my strength waning. Please God, please God, please God, over and over again like a mantra.

The way the couch is lying, it forms a crawl space against the wall just big enough for the two of us. I pull him in there and lie on my belly beside him. I pull an old crate over toward the edge of the couch and look through the wooden slats. They’re closer now and I’m sure they’ve heard us because they’ve stopped talking and turned their flashlights off. I hold the gun in both hands and wait. I’ve never fired a gun before and I don’t know how many bullets are left in this one. I think we’re going to die here.

“Ridley, please, don’t do this.” The voice echoes in the dark and comes from up above me. “We can work this out.”

I don’t answer. I know it’s a trick. Nothing about this can be worked out now; we’re all too far gone. There have been plenty of chances to close my eyes and go back to the sleep of my life as it was, but I haven’t taken any of them. Do I wish now that I had? It’s hard to answer that question, as the wraiths move closer.

“Six,” he whispers.

“What?”

“You have six bullets left.”

2

UNTIL RECENTLY MY life has been fairly uneventful. Which isn’t to say I was just plodding along when the single occurrence I am about to share with you turned my world on its axis, but now that you mention it, that’s not too far off. And yet I have come to believe that it was not one event precisely but an infinite number of small decisions that led me into the circumstances that have so changed me and those around me. People have died, lives have been altered, the truth has not so much set us free as it has ripped away a carefully constructed facade, leaving us naked to begin again.

My name is Ridley Jones, and when all of this started, I was a thirtyish writer living alone in an East Village apartment I’d rented since I was a student at NYU. It was a third-floor walk-up in a small building on the corner of First Avenue and Eleventh Street above a pizzeria called Five Roses. With its black gated front door, its dim hallways and sagging floors, its ubiquitous aroma of garlic and olive oil, it had a certain kind of charm. And beyond that it was miraculously cheap at eight hundred dollars a month. If you know New York, you know that rent like that is almost impossible, even for an eight-hundred-square-foot “junior” one-bedroom that looks out over a back courtyard where dogs barked for most of the day, even when the only view is of the tenants in another building living their parallel lives with as much self-importance as I lived my own. But it was a good place and I was happy there. Even when I could afford something better, I stayed, just for the comfort of a familiar space and the proximity to the best pizza in New York City.

You might be wondering about my first name. My father, Dr. Benjamin Jones, a New Jersey pediatrician living in a quaint and comfortable Victorian house with my mother, a former-dancer-cum-housewife whom he has loved and who has loved him since the day they met at Rutgers University in 1960, has always lamented his plain last name. He thought of it as a name you give when you don’t want people to know who you are, like Doe or Smith. Growing up, he was almost embarrassed by the ordinariness of it. He was raised in a flat gray suburb of Detroit, Michigan, by ordinary people who expected him to live an ordinary life. But he didn’t think he was only ordinary, and when it came time to name his children he didn’t want them to feel that they were expected to be ordinary, either. He gave me the name Ridley after Ridley Scott, the filmmaker … he always was a bit of a film buff. He thought this was a very unusual first name for a girl, something special, and that it would encourage me to lead an extraordinary life. And he felt that as a writer living in New York City, I was doing just that.

Even before the events that I am going to share with you, I suppose in my own way I have been extraordinary, but only in the fact that I have loved and been loved by my parents, that I have been a happy person for most of my adult life, that I like pretty much everything about myself (except for my thighs), love my work, my friends, the place I live. I have had good relationships with men, though I couldn’t say until recently that I’ve ever known true love. When you live in New York City, you know that these things are indeed extraordinary.

But there was so much I didn’t know, so many layers hidden in a past that I wasn’t even aware existed. I don’t want to think that ignorance is to be held accountable for my relative bliss, but I suppose you’ll think that’s so. Certainly now something within me has changed. The world is a different place, and happiness, true peace, seems elusive. The woman I was seems hopelessly naive. I envy her.

When I look back on my life, I marvel at how it hasn’t been the major decisions that have most impacted its course. It’s been the tiny, seemingly inconsequential ones. Think about it. Think about the sudden events that have affected your life. With most of them, wasn’t it just a matter of seconds one way or the other? Wasn’t it the little decisions that caused you to cross this street or that, to move yourself into or out of harm’s way? These are the things that get you in the end. Who you marry, what you choose as your profession, how you were raised—yes, that is the big picture. But, as they say, the devil’s in the details.

Well, I’ll get to it then.

It was a Monday morning, autumn going on winter in New York City. The Indian summer had passed and the first chill had settled in the air. It was my favorite time of year, when the oppressive heat and humidity trapped within the concrete walls of the city lifted, leaving behind a place that was new in its briskness.

When I woke that Monday, I could tell by the meager amount of light that struggled in through my windows that it was a gray day. I could see that the glass was freckled with raindrops. It was this small detail that affected my next decision. I reached from beneath the down of my comforter for the cordless phone that rested by my bedside, checked my caller ID for the number, and then dialed.

“Dr. Rifkin’s office,” came a voice as flat and hard as a city sidewalk.

“This is Ridley Jones,” I said, faking a hoarseness in my throat. “I’ve come down with a bad cold. I can still come in, but I don’t want to make the dentist sick.” I added a pathetic cough for emphasis. Dr. Rifkin was my dentist, a tiny little gnome of a man who’d taken care of my teeth since I was a freshman at NYU. With a long white beard and a potbelly, checkered shirt under suspenders, orthopedic shoes, and an endearing waddle, he always disappointed me with a thick Long Island accent. He should have been Scottish. He should have called me “lass.”

“Let’s reschedule,” she said officiously, as if she didn’t buy it but couldn’t care less.

With that I was free. Freedom, I’d have to say, is probably the most important thing to me, more important than youth, beauty, fame, money. I wouldn’t say more important than love. But some people who know me well have claimed that it’s at least a toss-up deep inside me. One of those people was Zachary.

“Breakfast at Bubby’s?” I said when he answered. There was a pause where I heard him turn over in bed. A few months ago, I might have been beside him.

“Don’t you have a job?” he asked.

“I’m between assignments at the moment,” I said with mock indignation. It was true; I was between freelance assignments. But it wasn’t an issue for a number of reasons.

“What time?” he said, and in his voice I heard the sad mingling of hope and regret that I often heard when we spoke.

“Give me an hour?”

“Okay, see you then.”

Zachary was the man I should have married, the one I was supposed to marry. Our lives have been intertwined since we were children. My parents loved him, maybe more than they did my own brother. My friends loved him, his sandy blond hair and bright eyes, his fit, athletic body, his successful private pediatric practice, the way he treated me. Even I really liked him. But when it came down to decision time, I balked. Why? Fear of commitment? A lot of people believe that about me. But I don’t think so. All I can say is, forever and Zachary just didn’t seem compatible. There was nothing that I could point my finger at precisely. We had a great friendship, good sex, a shared passion for the dinosaur room at the Museum of Natural History and Häagen-Dazs French Vanilla ice cream, among other things. But love is more than the sum of its parts, isn’t it? In the end, I cared about him so much that I just thought he deserved someone who loved him more than I did. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, you’re not alone. My parents and Zack’s mother, Esme (whom I sometimes felt closer to than my own), were still floored by my decision. Since we were children they’d harbored a (not so) secret fantasy that Zack and I would be together. So when we started dating, they were nothing short of jubilant. And when we split, I think they had a harder time with it than Zack and I did.

That morning, Zack and I were trying to be friends. I’d ended our relationship a little over six months earlier and we were struggling past his disappointment and injured feelings (and pride, I thought) toward what I hoped would be an enduring friendship. It was awkward but hopeful.

I rolled from my bed and pushed it back against the wall. Remember how I said the building sags? Well, there’s literally a dip in the floor of my bedroom. Since my bed is on casters, I occasionally wake up, particularly after a restless night, to find that it has rolled into the middle of the room. It’s a small inconvenience. Some might even call it an endearing quirk of East Village living.

I ran the water in the shower and closed the door to steam up my narrow black-and-white-tiled bathroom. Listening to the sound of the rain, I padded into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. I zoned out, still not quite awake, as the espresso maker hissed, sending the smell of Café Bustelo into the air. I could hear the street noise from First Avenue in the distance and smell the pastries baking in Veniero’s, the bakery behind my building whose venting system released its aromas into the courtyard. I looked across the courtyard: The cute guitar player still had his shades drawn; the gay couple were dressed for work and sitting at their kitchen table with large black cups of coffee, the blond reading The Village Voice and his dark-haired lover The Wall Street Journal; the young Asian girl was doing her morning yoga stretches while her roommate seemed to be reading aloud from a script in the next room. Because of the cool temperature, all the windows were closed and all of these lives played out before me like muted television screens. They were all accessories to my morning, just as I would be to them if they happened to look out their windows and see me waiting for my coffee to espress.

Like I said, I was between assignments. I had just finished a profile on Rudy Giuliani for New York magazine for which I had been paid quite nicely. I had a couple of other irons in the fire, articles I’d pitched to editors who knew me at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. As someone who had been working regularly for nearly seven years, I was confident that one of those ideas would turn into an assignment, though later, I hoped, rather than sooner. I was comfortable that way. At first, the freelance writing gig had been a bit of a struggle. If my parents hadn’t subsidized my meager income when I graduated from college, I probably would have had to move back home with them. But as I have a modicum of talent, am a professional who meets deadlines, and am a writer without much of an ego who takes editing well, I made a reputation and some good contacts and the rest is just a lot of hard work.

Even with that, I might not be as comfortable if my uncle Max hadn’t died nearly two years ago. Max was an uncle who wasn’t actually an uncle, but really my father’s best friend from Detroit, where they had been boys together. Both sons of autoworkers, my father and Max lived in the same suburb for eighteen years. While my father came from a solid home, my grandparents hardworking blue-collar people, Max’s father was an alcoholic and a physically abusive man. One night when Max was sixteen, his father’s violence turned deadly. Max’s father beat his mother into a coma from which she never awoke. Rather than let him become a ward of the state, my grandparents took Max in and somehow managed to help both him and my father through college.

My father went on to medical school and later became the pediatrician that he is to this day. Max went into real estate and became one of the biggest developers on the East Coast. He never stopped trying to pay back my father and my grandparents. Because my grandparents flat out refused a cash payback, he lavished them and us with Caribbean cruises and outrageous birthday gifts, from bicycles to new cars. Naturally, we adored him. He never married and, without children, treated my brother, Ace, and me like we were his own.

Everyone always thought of him as a happy man, rarely seen without a smile on his face, always ready with a belly laugh. But even as a child, I remember sensing a deep sadness in him. I remember looking into his blue eyes and seeing grief edging his lashes, pulling down at the corner of his mouth. I remember how he’d glaze over, lost in thought, when he thought no one was looking. And I remember the way he always looked at my mother, Grace, as if she were a glittering prize that had been awarded to someone else.

Uncle Max was an alcoholic, but because he was a happy drunk, no one seemed to mind. The Christmas Eve before last, after leaving my parents’ house, where we’d all spent the evening together, he never returned to his home. He’d apparently stopped off at a bar after leaving us, then several hours later got into his black Mercedes sedan and proceeded to drive off a bridge and into the frigid water below. By accident or design, we’ll never know, though a lack of skid marks indicated that there was no last-second slamming of the brakes. It was icy that night. That might have been it, the rubber of the tires unable to find purchase on the slick road. Or perhaps he passed out at the wheel, never saw it coming. We prefer to think of it as an accident, since the alternative would haunt us all.

As a family, we were bereft, but my father most of all; he’d lost the person with whom he’d shared most of his life. It still didn’t feel quite right to celebrate Christmas Eve, a night we’d always shared with Max and the night we lost him.

In his will, he’d left most of his money to my parents, and to the Maxwell Allen Smiley Foundation. He’d created this foundation long before I was born, and it existed to fund myriad charities that offered assistance and shelter to battered women and abused children. But he also left a large sum of money to me and my brother, Ace. With the help of an accountant, my share of the money had been solidly invested. As a result, I had the freedom I so cherished. My brother, on the other hand, injected that money into his veins. Or so I assumed. But that’s something else.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this that morning. I was just looking forward to a day that I owned, where I could do anything I wanted. I showered, blew-dry my hair, pulled on my four-year-old Levi’s, as faded and soft as memory, a bright red Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt, Nikes, and a Yankees cap, and headed out the door. If I had known, I would have paused at the door to say good-bye to a perfectly lovely existence, an enviably simple, comfortable, happy life. Not perfect, of course. But pretty close, comparatively speaking.

In the hallway I tried to be as quiet as possible. I strongly suspected Victoria, my elderly neighbor, of waiting by her door to hear when I entered and left my apartment. The knowledge of this caused me to come and go quietly. Not that I disliked her. It was only that because of her loneliness and my compassion for her, an encounter could represent a ten- to twenty-minute delay. But I wasn’t quiet enough that morning. As I locked my door, I heard hers open.

“Excuse me,” she whispered. “Is anyone there?”

“Hi, Victoria. Good morning,” I said, heading toward the stairs.

Victoria was as thin and pale as a slip of paper. Her inevitable flowered housedress hung off her as if it were still on the hanger. At some point, her hair had been replaced by a slate gray wig that looked as if she’d been at it with a pair of scissors. The skin on her face was deeply lined and sagged like melted wax. She claimed proudly, at least once every time I saw her, that she still had her own teeth. Unfortunately, she only had five or six of them. She whispered rather than spoke, as though she was afraid others were waiting at their doors the way she did. I always liked Victoria, though we generally had the same conversation every day and she never from day to day remembered who I was. She’d tell me of her three brothers, all police officers now dead. She’d tell me how she never meant to stay in the apartment that she once shared with her mother, also now dead, but she somehow just never got around to moving.

“Oh, if my brothers were still alive …” she said this particular morning, her voice trailing off. “They were police officers, you know.”

“They must have been very brave,” I answered, looking longingly at the staircase but walking toward her instead. Of all the responses I’d given her over the years, she seemed to like that one the most.

“Oh, yes,” she said with a widening smile. “Very.”

I could just see a sliver of her through the door she had opened only a few inches, her housedress with tiny purple flowers, her stockinged leg, her gray orthopedic shoe.

Victoria lived in a time capsule of antique furniture and drawn shades. There was not an item in her apartment that wasn’t older than I was by at least fifty years, everything worn with time and wear, most of it covered in dust, all of it so heavy, so rooted that it seemed never to have been moved. Heavy oak armoires and bureaus, brocade couches and wing chairs, gilded mirrors, a baby grand topped with a clutter of yellowed photographs. I went in only when I’d gone grocery shopping for her or to change her lightbulbs. I couldn’t leave there without carrying out some of her sadness and loneliness with me like a cloak. There was a smell that I’ve come to think of as life rot. Where a life has spoiled, gone bad through lack of use.

I used to wonder what choices she’d made in her life to wind up with no one at the end. It’s something I think about now more than ever, like I mentioned: choices. The little ones, the big ones. Maybe once, like me, she had a perfectly wonderful man in love enough with her to propose marriage; maybe she, like me, had turned him down for reasons unclear even to her. Maybe that was the first choice that led her to this life.

She had a niece who came in occasionally from Long Island (feathered hair, three-quarter-length red wool coat, sensible shoes), an in-home caregiver who came three times a week (different people all the time, carrying themselves with as much energy and enthusiasm as pallbearers), and a couple times I’d seen people from Meals on Wheels. I lived in that building for more than ten years, and I’d never seen her leave the apartment. To me, it seemed as though she couldn’t leave. That if she stepped out of her apartment and onto the tile floor of the hallway, she’d crumple into a pile of dust.

“Well, if they were still alive, they certainly wouldn’t stand for all the noise coming from upstairs,” she warbled, her voice sounding like a top that was about to lose its spin.

I’d heard him, too, the new guy moving his things up the stairs the night before. I hadn’t been curious enough to poke my head out.

“He’s just moving in, Victoria. Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll quiet down soon.”

“Did you know I still have all my own teeth?”

“That’s wonderful,” I said with a smile.

“You seem like such a nice girl,” she answered. “What’s your name?”

“Ridley. I live right next door if you need anything.”

“That’s an odd name for a pretty girl,” she said, baring her gums. I waved and went on my way.

Gray stone stairs and walls, a red banister, and black-and-white tile floors led me downstairs. On the second floor, the fluorescent light overhead flickered and went black, then came back to life. All the building lighting did this; it was a major electrical problem that my landlord, Zelda, appeared to have no intention of fixing.

“What? You think I got money to have the goddamn building rewired? Want me to raise your rent?” she said when I complained. That pretty much put an end to that; I just made sure nothing in the apartment blocked my way to the fire escape.

On the ground floor, in the narrow hallway that leads to the gated vestibule, there was a note on my mailbox, which I hadn’t visited since Friday out of sheer laziness. Too many magazines! chastised the red angry scrawl from my mailman. I could barely open the box because it was stuffed full of envelopes, bills, junk mail, catalogs, copies of Time, Newsweek, New York magazine, and Rolling Stone. With effort I pulled everything out and ran back up the three flights to my apartment, unlocked the door, and threw everything inside, then locked the door and left again.

You’re saying to yourself, Do I need to know all of this, all the minutiae of her leaving the building? But these two encounters, the tiny choices I made heading out to the street, changed everything. If I was a different kind of person, I might not have paused to talk to Victoria. Or perhaps I would have paused longer. I could have walked right by my mailbox, not seen or ignored the note from my mailman. It’s all these choices that we could have made, the things we might have done. We see them with perfect clarity only long after the moment has passed. Just thirty seconds either way, and I wouldn’t have this story to tell you. I wouldn’t be the same person telling it.

More small decisions on the street. I was running late, so instead of making a right and walking to TriBeCa (admittedly a long walk, but definitely doable if you have enough time), I walked to the curb to hail a cab. It was there that I saw them. A young mother with auburn hair pulled into a tight, high ponytail, one baby in a stroller, the other, a toddler, held by the hand, waiting at the light. There was nothing unusual about them really, I mean nothing that most people would notice. It was just the contrast to Victoria that struck me, the beauty and energy of these young lives compared to the sad and lonely twilight of the other I had just encountered.

I watched her. She was a small woman, but there was that strength about her that young mothers seem to possess. It was the ability to push and carry, hold tiny hands and monitor a million needs and movements, the Zen calm of producing a Ziploc bag of Cheerios from the front pocket of a diaper bag just as a little face starts to crumble, the way of molding an expression to communicate compassion and understanding to a toddler who could barely talk. It was musical, a symphony, and I found myself rapt for a moment. Then I turned my attention to the sea of cabs approaching … eight-thirty on a rainy Monday morning. Good luck. Not one light signaling availability, and a few anxious commuters looking for the same cab standing on corners all around. I resigned myself to being late, decided to grab a coffee. But as my eyes returned for a moment to the small family across the street, I felt a jangle of alarm. The mother was staring into the stroller, and the toddler, forgotten for maybe a second, had wandered into the street. There had been a brief lull in the flow of traffic, but the little boy, in his faded denim pants, red puffy overcoat, and little black stocking cap, was now directly in the path of an approaching white van. A glance to the van revealed a driver talking heatedly into his cell phone, seemingly oblivious to the road in front of him.

Everyone always says, “It’s all a blur.” But I remember every second. I was a shot fired from a gun, unthinking and with only one path available to me. I ran into the street. I remember the young mother glancing up from the stroller as people started to yell. I saw her face shift from confused to terrified. I saw the people on the street turning to stare; saw the little boy oblivious, toddling along toward me. I felt the hard concrete beneath my feet, heard the blood rushing in my ears. I was completely focused on the kid, who looked at me suddenly with a confused smile as I bent, arms outstretched, reaching for him as I ran. Everything slowed down but me; time warped and yawned but I was a rocket. I felt the warmth of his body, the softness of his coat as I scooped him up in one arm. I saw the grille of the van, felt the metal of the fender nick my foot as I dove both of us out of its path. I watched the van continue up First Avenue, never slowing, as if the whole drama that had played out before it had gone completely unnoticed by the driver. My body was tense, my teeth gritted with determination and fear, but I relaxed when I heard the little boy cry, saw him looking at me with terror. His mother ran over and grabbed him from me, sobbing into his little jacket. His tears turned from whimpers into a howl as if something primal told him that he’d just averted a great darkness. At least for now. People surrounded me, looked on with concern. Was I all right? Even then the answer still would have been yes.

So you’re thinking I did a good deed. Everything turned out all right. Not that big a deal. And I agree. Anyone with half-decent reaction time and a heart would have done what I did. But it’s those little things I was talking about. Standing behind me on that corner of First Avenue and Eleventh Street was a photographer for the New York Post. On his way back from shooting some high-profile thug’s “walk of shame” from the Ninth Precinct, he’d come over to Five Roses to see if they were open, which naturally at 8:30 a.m. they weren’t. He’d popped into the Black Forest Pastry Shop on the corner for a coffee and bear claw. These items were now lying on the ground at his feet where he’d dropped them in his haste to get to his camera. He got the whole thing on film.

3

IT MUST HAVE been a slow news week. And, okay, that action shot the Post photographer captured was pretty sensational, if I do say so myself. The combination of those two things, and I got my fifteen minutes. What can I say? I lapped it up. I’m not a shy person and I do like to talk, so I did all the interviews: Good Day New York, The Today Show, the Post, the Daily News. My phone was ringing off the hook and it was pretty fun. My parents even got some reflected glory in the New Jersey Record. They’re not shy, either.

By Friday, my image had been on every local television show and in every newspaper in the tristate area. There was even some national pickup because of a sound bite on CNN. People were stopping me on the street to hug me or shake my hand. New York City is a quirky place in general, but when you’re the “New Yorker of the Moment,” it’s absolutely surreal. A city that can seem bitterly lonely and aloof even with its throngs of people suddenly seemed to turn its face from the sidewalk and smile. I think when someone does a good deed in New York City, it makes the rest of us feel as though we’re not alone, that maybe we are looking out for one another in spite of evidence to the contrary.

“I can’t believe you, Rid,” said Zack over drinks at the NoHo Star. The echoes of a hundred conversations rose up and bounced off the high ceilings of the restaurant, and the aromas of Asian-infused cuisine mingled with the scent of the warm breadbasket on our table. I looked at my good friend, because he had always been that, and was grateful for him.

“What? You didn’t think I had it in me?” I asked with a smile.

He shook his head. There was that look again, that mingling of longing and regret and something else I just couldn’t put my finger on. I averted my eyes; it made me feel like such a heel.