Fate is generally subtler than it was on the afternoon when Felix Steinberg met Melissa Hamilton. He was browsing in his favourite thrift store, a tiny place in downtown New York whose wares spilled out into a weed-choked yard. His cramped apartment was already full of peculiar knick-knacks and “characterful” old furniture, so he should have known better. When you’re an inveterate rummager amongst the discarded and the forgotten, it’s a lifelong curse.
Felix was on his way out of the store, having successfully avoided the temptation to purchase a stuffed squirrel, when his attention was drawn by a large metal object descending rapidly towards his jugular. He half-stepped, half-slipped aside as the octagonal metal sign glanced off his shoulder and came to rest in a stack of old literary magazines. Felix landed on his knees, looking up at a young woman on a ladder, arms outstretched before a suspiciously empty stretch of wall.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry! Did I hurt you?” Her pale dress, dotted with violets and celandines, rippled as she raced down to ensure her customer hadn’t been bisected.
Her oval face was framed by a curtain of reddish-brown hair. A long pre-Raphaelite nose; Cupid’s bow lips. Her face practically an art history lesson, chiefly centring upon the Romantics.
“I’m Melissa, can I help you up?”
Felix stammered something as he rose, staring at the bright red “STOP” sign that had nearly killed him with irony. He fought for a sensible reaction.
“I slipped on these old Macsweeny’s, just in time to foil your assassination attempt.”
Melissa laughed, then added, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
What Felix said next was hugely uncharacteristic and seemed to escape from his lips without the usual filtration processes of sensible discourse.
“You can buy me a coffee.”
Remarkably, she said yes, closed up the shop and they went on their first date, sitting outside a little Bleeker Street café in the amber haze of a July evening. Felix was conscious that he’d basically thrown on a random assortment of items in lieu of clothing that morning, and was overdue a shave and a haircut, but Melissa didn’t seem to mind. She was funny, engaging and well-versed in music, art, architecture, science, political history, all the things that fascinated him. Within an hour he was imagining yoking her name to his own, her life to his, their futures together.
Twelve years later they were both approaching their forties, having lived together in a Williamsburg apartment for most of a decade. He wrote his novels, and she ran her ever-expanding empire of extraordinary curios, and life was… fine… but Felix began to wonder if it had all been a romantic construct. Was their marriage just a collision that his love of narrative had fashioned? A happenstance? A joke awaiting a punchline? They had wanted a family, but Felix was unable to provide the necessary elixir (as he put it). Now their relationship was falling apart in a series of increasing rancorous arguments about everything and nothing.
“You didn’t ask me to,” he would reply.
“I shouldn’t have to ask.” Her frown imputing a degree of carelessness Felix considered a huge exaggeration. He had a lot on his mind.
“I am never on your mind.” She said as anger gave way to tears.
The inevitable occurred and Felix hired a self-drive truck and began packing books, records, old typewriters, broken Hasselblads, Japanese calligraphy brushes, Turkish lanterns, Tales from Topographic Oceans and his 1962 Mickey Mouse alarm clock. Melissa had gone to her sister’s place in Long Island for a weekend. Felix hoped he could finish the move in three trips. He didn’t count on the power of iconography.
The sign, the only item of his left in their apartment, offered its stark rebuke. Felix glared up at it, pugnaciously.
“What? he said. “You stop! It’s a bit late to be smug now.”
He weighed up the pros and cons of taking the sign with him, a permanent reminder of a moment when hope had triumphed over reason and experience. No, Felix concluded, I’ll leave it there. He’d already driven two loads of his possessions to Greenpoint, where he’d found another bijou apartment. This would be his final journey north and out of Melissa’s life.
Felix carried the last box downstairs and inserted it into the three-dimension Tetris game of his U-Haul truck. Then he trudged back upstairs to the third floor to double-check he hadn’t missed anything.
There it was, reminding him of the moment when he’d first seen the woman who would absorb his thirties. Melissa would fill his days and sweeten his nights and obsess him like a puzzle he felt determined to solve. Was fixing this an impossible task? Felix sat down in what had been his favourite chair and stared at the red warning. For over an hour he sat, keys dangling from one finger, waiting for clarity, waiting for certainty, waiting for validation.
“Oh… you’re still here,” Melissa’s half-hurt, half-surprised voice woke Felix from his slumber.
He pointed at the sign. It scowled back.
“Aren’t you taking it? If not, can you just toss it in the trash? It’ll make me cry.”
Felix looked at his wife as she placed her keys in the glass ornament by the door. They had found it together in a flea-market in Hoboken. She seemed exhausted.
Felix leaned up to unhook the sign from the wall. He put it under one arm, walked over to her and brushed his cheek against his wife’s in farewell.
“Is it really too late?” he asked, as she pulled away to check for insincerity. Melissa shook her head, Felix walked towards the door, as slowly as he could, waiting for the one word he wanted to hear above all others.