Simon van Booy was born in London and grew up in Wales and Oxford. After playing football in Kentucky, he lived in Paris and Athens. He won the 2009 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for Love Begins in Winter. “Save as Many as You Ruin” is taken from his collection The Secret Lives of People in Love, out now from Beautiful Books. “On my way home from work,” he told Prospect, “I passed a café and saw a woman sitting alone who looked like someone from my past. I continued on and when it began to snow, I was suddenly taken with feelings I thought I had resolved long ago. When I got home I went straight to my desk and wrote most of the story in a four-hour sitting. The main character, Gerard, is named after my parents’ dentist on Harley Street, though I haven’t met him in person. And the high heels that Gerard’s lover never takes off I imagined as a pair by Christian Louboutin with the red soles.”
Van Booy’s essays have appeared in newspapers including the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Times. He lives in New York City, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts, and is involved in the Rutgers Early College Humanities programme (REaCH) for young adults living in under-served communities.
By the time Gerard leaves the office it has stopped snowing. Lights are coming on, but it’s not yet dark. At the end of each block the sidewalk disappears under a pool of grey ice water.
Gerard thinks of everyone’s footprints in the snow. Manhattan was once a forest. He imagines the footprints of an Indian slipping home, on his shoulders a warm carcass with clumps of snow stuck to its fur.
Gerard thinks of his own footprints and how soon they will disap-pear. He exhales into the world and his breath disappears. He recalls Rilke, what is ours floats into the air, like steam from a dish of hot food. He wonders if his life is an extraordinary one.
Gerard remembers the freezing cross-country races at his English prep school. Bare white legs spotted with mud. Plum-sized hearts thumping.
He remembers Hetherington, the physical education teacher, his strong jaw and sweet blue eyes—the desire to see his boys drink up the glory of victory. Hetherington ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
He won a medal. Hitler watched. Millions were about to be killed as a teenage Hetherington crossed the finish line. A few years later, chil-dren walked into gas ovens after a long journey from home. They were scared but trusted their parents.
Gerard feels stabbing love for his daughter. He crosses Fifty-third Street. Her name is Lucy, and she is eight. She has short brown hair with Hello Kitty clips pinned cleanly to her head. Gerard once sat next to a rabbi on the train to Southampton. The rabbi had just returned from England. He was making a documentary about the war.
“But there are so many already,” Gerard had said.
Walking up Fifth Avenue he cringes at the insensitivity of his com-ment. He must have thought I was like everyone else, thinks Gerard. Am I like everyone else, he thinks. The rabbi had merely put his hand on Gerard’s cuff for a moment.
It suddenly begins snowing again.
Yellow taxis are nodding through the snowy dusk. The lights from shop windows are beckoning. Gerard thinks of the mannequins. They are very still, perfectly still. They are talking about something they’ve never done. They are sitting down to meals they’ll never eat; tucked into beds in which they’ll never dream.
He pictures Lucy in their warm apartment perched at the table reading a simplified Black Beauty in large print. Her legs are swinging under the table in concentration. He has never known such devotion.
Gerard is handsome. He has slept with many women. Most knew he would never love them, so they kept a distance, sparing themselves the grief of an ancient pain. Gerard loved one woman once, but not Lucy’s mother.
Lucy is at home with Indira, a heavy-set Barnard student from New Delhi who cooks dinner every weeknight and helps Lucy with her homework. Gerard and Lucy love Indian food. Indira often stays and eats with them—at first she wouldn’t. She is becoming part of the fam-ily. Her father died.
The snow is covering everything. Gerard remembers The Invisible Man. A crackling film from the 1930s. He watched it one night with Lucy. She’d seen it listed in TV Guide and wanted to watch it. It was on late. She fell asleep after five minutes. Gerard could feel her heart thudding like a soft, warm rock. As he carried her to bed, she asked him what happened to the invisible man. Gerard told her that he was caught because it began to snow and he left footprints. That’s beauti-ful, she said, without opening her eyes.
It’s a blizzard now.
Flakes like clumps of fur ripped from winter’s back.
and then he sees Laurel through the falling snow.
Eight years have passed.
He can’t believe it and stops walking.
A woman with bags bumps into him and curses.
Laurel is a few feet away.
He steps over to the glass and taps gently on it.
A line of people inside the shop turn to face him like a sleepy jury.
Her face is still sharp and angular like a Cubist painting, but soft-ened now by her eyes, which have sunk or regressed partly into mem-ory. He thinks she is more beautiful than ever. Her mouth opens in the shape of an almond. Gerard cannot tell if she is smiling.
All this happens within five seconds.
Gerard wonders if he has done the right thing. Perhaps he should have walked on. Later at home in his study, he could re-create the mo-ment he saw her in line at the shop and let the memory spill over like a faucet left running.
She is holding a tray of raw fish and a bottle of iced tea. In that mo-ment of recognition he is not consumed by a rushing sensation of love—quite simply a door opens to a room that has never gone away. The years apart were just years without one another.
They were together only a few months. They met at a dinner party given by one of Gerard’s colleagues. There were candles, and wine, and the women wore dresses that left their shoulders bare. The can-dles made their shoulders glisten. Even unattractive women have beautiful shoulders. He and Laurel talked for hours. He felt as if they were catching up, though they’d never met.
When he finds her in the line she is about to pay, but Gerard quickly hands the cashier a few bills.
“I can’t believe it’s you,” she says.
“I know,” he says and tries to maintain eye contact, but people are pushing past.
“So, how are you?” she says.
“Fine,” he says. “And you?”
“Good,” she says. “How is your daughter?”
“She’s wonderful, just wonderful.”
“How is her mother?”
“Dead,” he says.
“Are you kidding?”
“Oh, my God.” Laurel is genuinely shocked.
“When Lucy was six months old, Issy went back to Los Angeles to fulflll her ambition of becoming an actress,” Gerard said.
“What? She left her child?”
“Four years later she died.”
It still felt uncomfortable to say her name in front of Laurel.
“That’s crazy,” Laurel says, “really crazy.”
“That she died?” Gerard asks.
“Yeah, that, but for a mother to leave her child.”
“It’s what she did.”
“I know, but it’s crazy.”
“Did she ever visit?”
“Wow. I’m sorry, Gerard.”
“It’s okay. Lucy has no memory of her.”
“But she was still her mother.”
“Does she know?”
“No. I’ll tell her when she is older, in high school maybe. I cannot bring myself to hurt her with the truth now. Something like that can destroy a child.”
“You’re still kind,” she says.
“I love her, I’m her father. I want what’s best for her.”
“You were kind to me, too.”
“Was I?” Gerard says. “I don’t feel as if I was.”
“You were,” she says, “despite everything.”
Gerard went to Issy’s funeral in Los Angeles four years ago. She was found floating in a pool. She’d written Gerard’s name as her next of kin. Los Angeles was 75 degrees and dry. The air-conditioning in his rental car smelled like candy. Issy had played the part of a psy-chic on a soap opera. People exchanged business cards at the buffet after the cremation. Gerard told Lucy he had to visit Hollywood on business. She wanted to come. Indira offered to sleep over and did. Gerard brought Lucy a present back. He wanted to buy many but stopped himself. He didn’t want LA to have a special significance. He brought Indira a gift, too—a tote bag from MoCA with little birds on it and French writing. Lucy had asked about her mother recently. Ger-ard didn’t know what to say. He was planning on going to a child psy-chologist to ask for advice.
Gerard met Issy a month after he met Laurel. A decade ago, Ger-ard had never met any of them.
Gerard vaguely remembers the feeling of being in love with Laurel and the desire to have sex with Issy. He knew that other men enjoyed the occasional partner outside of long-term relationships, and he wanted to try it. Issy was an incredible lover. She sprayed perfume on her thighs. She was uninhibited and never took her heels off, even af-ter. Issy wasn’t upset when Gerard told her that he was falling in love with Laurel. She laughed and then cried and told him she was preg-nant. Gerard thought it was a joke. She was always telling lies. Then he felt something crack inside him because she wouldn’t stop crying and he knew it was true. He told Laurel the next night, and she said she understood. A week later, Laurel broke it off in an email.
Gerard agreed to move in with Issy.
Gerard still has Laurel’s wristwatch at home in his bedside cabi-net. She left it in his apartment eight years ago. Miraculously, the bat-tery still works. Sometimes at night Gerard takes it out and falls asleep as it drips from his fingers.
Laurel is forty-three now. She is a senior editor of business books. She had a cat, but it died. Gerard buys some coffee and asks if they can walk together. Of course, she says, and then looks outside at the blizzard and laughs. She is wearing the same kind of heels Issy used to wear. As they leave the deli, there are people getting out of a taxi.
“Quick,” Gerard says and they get in.
In the cab they talk about the president, their parents, and Laurel’s brief marriage. She is divorced now, and her ex-husband is living with another man in Brooklyn Heights. She laughs, but Gerard can see she is disappointed.
When they get to her building, Gerard’s nose starts bleeding. Night has fallen upon the city, but the snow isn’t stopping.
“Oh, my God,” Laurel says, and tips Gerard’s head back. People watch them.
“Jesus, come inside, OK?” she says to Gerard.
“OK,” he says.
In the elevator they talk about their jobs. He can feel the blood clot-ting in his nose. Tiny fragments of snow have lodged in Laurel’s eye-lashes.
Upstairs, Gerard calls Indira to say he’ll be back a little later. Then he and Laurel make love first in the kitchen and then in her bed. Her body is not as he remembers it. It is softer and somehow more pliable. Her toes seem perfect.
Her apartment smells of expensive scented candles. She makes coffee after. Her furniture is modern and grey. He feels somehow in-side of her—held by her, and he remembers as a boy, swimming to the bottom of a thick pond in summer.
When he arrives home, Lucy jumps down from her chair and runs into his arms. Gerard kneels and her weight becomes his.
“Why aren’t you in bed, pebble?” Gerard says.
Indira appears in the doorway. “School is cancelled tomorrow be-cause of the snow, so I didn’t think you’d mind if she waited up.”
“Of course, Indira, it’s perfectly fine.”
“Why are you so late, Daddy?” She is kissing him all over his face. Gerard imagines her mother floating in the pool.
“I love you,” he says.
“I love you, too, Daddy, but where were you?”
“I met an old friend and we had dinner,” he says. Lucy can smell a lie a mile off.
“Is your old friend an old woman?” Lucy asks.
“Yes, how did you know?” Gerard laughs.
“A daughter knows,” she says and runs back to the table, laughing and flailing her arms as though they are about to become wings.
Indira won’t stay, so Gerard gives her more than enough cab money and thanks her for staying late. She kisses him on the cheek and he holds her. Her hair smells of onions.
After a bedtime story, Lucy asks if she can meet her father’s friend.
“I think that would be nice,” Gerard says. Lucy looks shocked, as if she’d expected him to say no. Children are difficult to read some-times.
“Does she like ice cream?” Lucy asks.
“Yes, she eats it every day.”
“Are you going to marry her?”
Gerard pauses. “Wait and see.”
“Does she have any children my age?”
“I don’t think so. Do you want her to?”
“Only if they’re not boys.”
She asks her father to sit on the edge of her bed until she falls asleep. He says yes, as always, but falls asleep first, as always. Soon they are both asleep.
The snow is blowing against the window.
The room glows with the breath of streetlight.
Around midnight, Gerard wakes up. Lucy stirs.
“Daddy, where’s panda?” Gerard finds her stuffed panda and lays it next to her. She goes back to sleep immediately.
In the kitchen, Gerard pours himself half a tumbler of whiskey. He turns out the lights in the apartment, checks the front door, and then walks barefoot into his study.
Instead of taking down a book from the shelf, he looks out the win-dow. He can see all the way up Lexington Avenue. The snow is drift-ing across the city in waves. Traffic is thin. A few glowing eyes.
He knows that before long Laurel will move in with them. He thinks of Issy. He remembers her laugh, then the roar of snapping flames at her cremation.
All of a sudden he feels a chill like cold water down his back. The tumbler of scotch slips from his fingers and shatters on the floor. Ger-ard spins around. His heart leaps into his throat. Someone was there, he could have sworn it. But in the space between him and the world he can see only air, only air and the auras of the day past and the day to come.
He thinks how strange life is with its frayed edges and second chances; and though by morning he will have forgotten that he ever thought it, Gerard feels as though he is being followed, that there are voices he can’t hear, that the footsteps of snow on the window are just that, and like Lucy’s conception—life is a string of guided and subtle explosions.