February 16, 2008

Sixteen, continued

Just a few blocks later they were at Canal Street, the wide avenue that separated uptown from downtown, where all the numbers started and all the street names changed. It was also the beginning of the French Quarter, but the two of them stayed on the uptown side of the six-lane street, not crossing over into the Quarter.

They were just across from the beginning of Bourbon Street. Fifty yards away, across the thin traffic of Canal, tourists bubbled up out of the Quarter. They wore feather boas and held frozen daiquiris. There was a lot of hooting involved.

Michael was distracted. They were on the sidewalk in front of Underhill Men’s Haberdashery, and he was anxious to move on. Emily didn’t appear to notice. She watched the out-of-towners trickle up onto Canal Street with a small smile.

A police car drove by them slowly, and the young black officer in the passenger side glanced over at them as he passed. Michael focused on looking like he belonged there, one foot on a bike pedal in case they had to scatter home. Emily, though, grinned at the policeman and even waved the fingers of one hand without taking it off of the handlebars. He smiled back, oddly enthusiastic, and nodded deeply at her twice. The car didn’t even slow down.

“Do you know him?” Michael asked.

“Why do you think I know everyone all of a sudden?” Emily looked over, then glanced past his shoulder and seemed to see Underhill for the first time. “Oh, look at the new summer suits…Alexander will be so jealous.”

“We should go.” A few tourists had made it halfway across Canal and were headed more or less towards them.

“Did I tell you about trying to find those baby blue socks for David? Everyone else treated me like I was crazy, but when I called Underhill they were like ‘What shade? We have baby blue, cerulean, (I don’t know) azure…’”

“Can we get out of here, already? There are adults all over the place.”

But Emily didn’t move, and Michael felt her gaze on the side of his face. He didn’t dare look over at her. He clenched and unclenched his hands on the handlebars of his bicycle.

“Why don’t you ever go to Underhill, Michael? They have really great stuff.” Michael heard Emily laugh, but she still stared curiously at the side of his face. “It’s weird, I don’t think you’ve even mentioned the store once since I’ve known you…”

Michael pushed off on his bike, swerving around her. “Let’s go,” he whispered.

They headed back uptown, riding down Magazine now because Michael had the idea that he’d drop Emily off at her house in the Garden District before continuing on alone. Michael rode steadily, not necessarily fast but determined to get both of them home quickly. This had been a terrible idea.

The bright lights of the business district faded out as they rode farther uptown, replaced by occasional streetlights that seizured yellow every few minutes. “Michael…” Emily called softly behind him, and he looked back to see her almost two blocks behind him. He must have been riding faster than he’d meant to.

He slowed down and waited as she caught up with him. They were in front of a day laborer service, homeless men already piled up around the doorway, when she pulled up beside him.

“Would you slow up? My bike is heavier than yours.”


“What’s gotten into you? One second everything is cool, and…oh!” There was the sound of fabric tearing. Emily had stepped on her long white dress while trying to pedal and part of the hem had torn open, so that there was a large mouth towards the bottom. “Damn it, this is one of Alexander’s favorite dresses.”

They coasted to a stop underneath the massive Mississippi River bridge. Hundreds of feet above their heads traffic could be heard distantly humming past. Emily reached down and picked up the loose band of fabric, then let it go. The tear in the dress draped open, somehow vulgar, even though all that could be seen was the swell of Emily’s calf.

Michael put his bike down on the concrete and squatted by her feet. He looked at the tear from both sides, clearing away a few minuscule scraps of thread. “This isn’t that bad. The cotton isn’t torn, just the stitching. A needle and thread is all you need.”

As he said this, he straightened up a little and slid his wallet out from his back pocket. He fished into a small compartment and found two safety pins, one threaded into the other. Separating them, Michael asked Emily to pull her dress taut, and he pinned the fabric back into place. It wasn’t a perfect repair, but it kept the tear from getting worse.

“Thank you, Michael,” Emily said, genuinely touched, and he felt the end of his fingers tingle softly. “Do you carry safety pins around to rescue women in the middle of the night?”

Michael got back on his bike. “I use them all the time. If I lose a button, or if it’s windy and I don’t have a tie clasp. Mostly, though…uh, you know when you have a white pocket square folded all crisp with only a little line showing above the pocket? That’s called a banker’s straight edge, and unless you’re Alexander you pretty much need to use a safety pin to keep it straight.”

“Your secret’s safe with me.”

Michael reached into her basket and lifted up her Polaroid. Emily showed him how to turn everything on, and he leaned over the side of his bike and took a picture of his repair. He handed her the picture and the camera, and she smiled at him but didn’t say anything.

They rode beside each other slowly now, the two of them talking softly. Emily told him about Robert’s visit earlier that day. The night sky was still pinkish-gray, hazily reflecting the city’s lights. The sun wouldn’t rise for a few hours yet, but a few birds were already singing out in the distance.

Soon they were at the corner of Magazine and First, a few blocks from Emily’s house. Michael slowed down, but Emily kept moving and had to double back. “What’s up?”

“This is your turn, right?”

“I’m having a really good time…I thought we could stop at that all-night coffeehouse by Ninth and get something to drink.”

Michael shifted his feet on the pedals. Emily had kept riding, circling him in the street. “But won’t you get in trouble if your parents catch you sneaking out of the house?” he asked.

“I didn’t sneak out. I left a note.”

Michael had to laugh. “You left a note? Like ‘4 am, went for a bike ride, be home soon.’”

“Yeah, pretty much. They trust me. Besides, when my mom was my age she was living in Majorca with an Italian who made slasher films. Or maybe it was in Italy with a Majorcan. No, that doesn’t really make any sense. So…coffee?”