Fiction

Big Week

Zadie Smith

The name on the card was Clark: they were to meet in the ten-minute waiting zone just outside departures. But Clark was late and the morning frigid. McRae got back in his car, drove around, parked in the lot, and walked into baggage claim. He checked his beeper, held up his card. All the other guys wore suits, and their passengers came sooner: a series of middle-aged executives glued to their devices, handing over their bags and asking fearfully about the weather. But now an elegant lady appeared at the top of an escalator, and waved at Mike McRae; tall, slender, and dark, with black silky hair and a very red mouth, who looked like she could run a 5K without pausing for breath.

“Clark?”

“Urvashi Clark.”

“Perfect. You got any bags?”

She did, but insisted on carrying them. They made their way through a sideways snow flurry to an elevator and then up to a luxury sedan on the second floor. Everything she wore was black; black-framed glasses, black overcoat, and, around her neck, a black fur, which she placed beside her on the back seat, its fine hairs quivering like a nervous animal.

“Looks like we’re going to the university.”

“Please.”

She took out a thin folder, the exact shade of her lipstick, opened it, and began shuffling papers around.

“You giving a lecture?”

“Paper,” she said, without lifting her eyes.

“I get a lot of the academic people. I had a numbers guy last week— economist, works at the White House—real smart. We couldn’t agree about gold, though. I like the professors; you can have a conversation. You a ... math professor? Or— ”

She looked up: “It’s a conference on architecture. I’m an architect.”

He let her be. Drove through the complex of overpasses, entered a shaded tunnel.

“Need light?”

But by the time he’d thought to ask they were emerging from the other side, into light so white, so penetrating, it seemed to erase all distinctions— not least the one dividing the front of the car from the back—and Mike McRae felt he could no longer reasonably pretend he was not in a small, shared space with a beautiful woman in the full glory of the day.

“Architecture. Must be interesting.”

“I think so.”

“Gothic architecture, modern architecture. I guess I’m a traditionalist. I like a white picket fence. I like a stained-glass window. Of course, in Boston we got a lot of beautiful old buildings.”

“Certainly have.”

“A lot,” said Mike emphatically, though at that moment they happened to be passing a 7-Eleven encased in a huge gray box. “Is your paper about traditional or modern?”

“Mine? Neither.” She withdrew an iPhone from her back pocket and held it in front of her, but this at least gave Mike the opportunity to take a glimpse at her left hand, which was an aspect of his new life that did not yet come naturally: he had to remind himself each time. Nor was he always sure of the correct interpretation. A single black stone in twisted gold, on the second finger. What might it mean?

“Not annoying you by asking, am I?”

“Not at all,” said Urvashi, meeting the expectant blue eyes in the rearview. “Well, I suppose it’s about ... well, how certain spaces determine— shape—our lives.”

McRae slapped the steering wheel: “Now, that just rings so true to me. So true! Because, I’m from Charlestown—three generations. And Charlestown shaped me, and my family, absolutely. Absolutely.”

“Ah, how interesting.” She leaned forward. “In what way?”

“Oh, values, principles, beliefs. There’s just a Charlestown way of looking at things, I guess.”

“I see,” she said, sat back, and returned to her phone.

“Yeah,” said Mike, a few minutes later, as if no time had passed, “ten years ago, we moved to Cambridge, but really everything important that ever happened to me in my life happened in Charlestown. Met my wife in Charlestown—not on the street, I mean, she lived there. First thing she ever said to me was ‘make yourself at home.’ No kidding. She was on her way out skating—I’d actually come to meet her brother. I tell you, I can still see her holding a pair of ice skates, looking back over her shoulder, like it was yesterday. Thirty years we spent together. We’re actually in the process of separating right now.”

“Oh—I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! Look at me. I’m the luckiest man you’ll ever meet.”

To prove it, he lifted a little in his seat until the mirror accepted the full toothy brilliance of his smile.

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