The city was almost shut down. There was no traffic on the streets, cabs were impossible to find, and only a few hardy souls like her were walking home, trudging through the snow. Offices had closed early, and schools were already on vacation. Her cheeks were red and her eyes tearing, and her hands were tingling from the cold when she got back to her loft, and put the kettle on for tea. It had been an invigorating walk, and a delightful afternoon. And she had just sat down with a steaming cup of tea when Mark Webber called her from home. His office was closed till New Year’s. There were no assignments likely to come up between Christmas and New Year.
“So how was it?” he asked, curious about O’Neill.
“He was great. Interesting, smart, easy to shoot, terrific looking. He was everything you’d expect him to be, and nothing like his books, which are always so complicated and dark. I haven’t started editing the shots yet, but we got some great ones.”
“Did he try to rape you?” Mark asked, only half-joking.
“No. He took me for a very civilized dinner at Harry’s Bar, and to Annabel’s afterward for a drink. He treated me like a visiting dignitary and great-aunt.”
“Hardly. Going to the most fashionable restaurant and nightclub in London is not exactly what you do with a great-aunt.”
“He was very proper,” Hope reassured him, “and wonderful to talk to. He’s a man of many interests. I almost wish I’d shot him in Dublin, it sounds like he’s more in his element there, but I’m fairly certain we got the shots his publisher wanted. Maybe more than they need. He’s cooperative and very pleasant to work with.” She didn’t add that he looked like a movie star, which he did. “His London house is the size of a postage stamp, which was a bitch with the equipment, but we managed. The one outside Dublin sounds like Buckingham Palace. I’d have liked to see it.”
“Well, thanks for doing it on such short notice. His publisher is damn lucky. What are you doing over the holiday, Hope? Are you still going to the Cape?” It seemed unlikely in the blizzard, and unwise. He hoped not.
She smiled as she looked out the window, at the continuing swirls of snow. There were nearly two feet of it on the ground now, and it was still coming, while the wind blew it into towering drifts. They had promised three feet by morning. “Not in this weather,” she said, smiling. “Even I’m not that crazy, although it would be pretty once I got there.” Most of the roads had been closed by that afternoon, and getting there would have been a nightmare. “I’ll stay here.” Finn had given her his latest book to read, she had some photographs she wanted to sort through for a gallery in San Francisco that wanted to give her a show, and she had Finn’s shoot to edit.
“Call if you get lonely,” he said kindly, but knew she wouldn’t. Hope was very independent, and had led a solitary, quiet life for several years. But he at least wanted her to know that someone cared about her. He worried about her at times, although he knew she was good at keeping busy. She was just as likely to be taking photographs on the streets of Harlem on Christmas Eve, as shooting in a coffee shop for truckers on Tenth Avenue at four in the morning. It was what she did, and how she loved spending her time. Mark admired her for it, and the work that resulted from it had made her famous.
“I’ll be fine,” she reassured him, and sounded as though she meant it.
After they hung up, she lit candles, turned off the lights, and sat looking at the snow falling outside, through her big windows without curtains. She loved the light, and had never bothered to put up shades. The streetlamps lit up the room along with the candles, and she was lying on the couch, observing the winter scene, when the phone rang again. She couldn’t imagine who it would be, on the night before Christmas Eve. Her phone only rang during business hours, and it was always about work. When she picked it up, the voice was unfamiliar to her.
“Yes.” She waited to hear who it was.
“It’s Finn. I called to make sure you got back okay. I hear there’s a blizzard in New York.” His voice sounded warm and friendly, and the call was a pleasant surprise.
“There is,” she confirmed about the blizzard. “I walked from the Metropolitan Museum all the way downtown to SoHo. I loved it.”
“You’re a hardy soul,” he said, laughing. His voice was deep and smooth in her ears. “You’d do well on the hills where my house is, outside Dublin. You can walk for miles, from village to village. I often do, but not in a blizzard in New York. I tried to call my publisher today, and they were closed.”
“Everyone is, for the holidays by now anyway, even without the snow.”
“And what are you doing for Christmas, Hope?” It was obvious she wasn’t going to the Cape now, with a blizzard in New York.
“I’ll probably float around, and take some pictures. I have a few ideas. And I want to look at your shoot, and start working on it.”
“Isn’t there someone you want to spend the holiday with?” He sounded sad for her.
“No. I enjoy spending it on my own.” It wasn’t entirely true, but it was the way things were. She had learned to accept that, from the monks in Tibet and in the ashram. “It’s just another day. How’s your son?” she asked, changing the subject.
“He’s fine. He’s out for dinner with a friend.” She realized as she glanced at her watch that it was eleven o’clock at night in London, and it made her think of the pleasant evening they had spent together.
“He’s leaving for Switzerland in two days. I’m getting short shrift this time. That’s what twenty-year-olds are like. I can’t blame him. I did the same thing at his age. You couldn’t have paid me to spend time with my parents then. He’s a lot nicer than I was. His girlfriend is flying in tomorrow, and at least I’ll have Christmas with them, before they leave that night.”
“What will you do then?” she asked, curious about him. In some ways, he seemed almost as solitary as she was, although he had a far bigger social life, and a son. But the life he had described in Dublin, when he was writing, was much like hers in her SoHo loft, or at the Cape. Despite their differences in style, they had found they had a lot in common.
“I’m thinking I’ll go back to Dublin on Christmas night. I have a book to finish, and I’m working on the outline for the new one. And everyone leaves London like a sinking ship for their country houses. I’d rather be in Russborough then.” It was the small town outside Dublin, closest to his house, where he lived. He had told her all about it over dinner. His palatial home was just north of Russborough, where there was another historical Palladian mansion, much like his, only in better shape, he claimed. She was sure his was beautiful too, in spite of its need for restoration. “And you’ll go to the Cape after the blizzard?”
“Probably in a few days. Although it will be very cold on the ocean, if the storm moves up there, which they say it will. I can wait till the roads are clear at least. But the house will be cozy once I get there.”
“Well, have a nice Christmas, Hope,” he said kindly, and there was something wistful in his voice. He had enjoyed meeting her, and he had no real reason to call her again, until he saw the photographs she took. He was looking forward to seeing them, and talking to her again. He felt an odd connection to her, and wasn’t sure why. She was a nice woman, and he had felt as though he could get lost in her eyes. He had wanted to learn more about her, and she had told him many things, about her life with Paul, and her divorce, but he had a feeling that there were walls she had put up long before, and no one was invited to go behind them. She was very guarded, and yet warm and compassionate at the same time. She was a woman of mystery to him, as parts of him had been to her. And the unanswered questions intrigued them both. They were people who were accustomed to looking into other people’s hearts and souls, and yet had been elusive with each other.
“You too. Have a lovely Christmas with your son,” she said softly, and a moment later, they hung up, and she sat staring at the phone, still somewhat surprised by the call. It had been unnecessary, friendly, and pleasant, and reminded her of the nice evening she had spent with him two days before. It already seemed like aeons ago now that she was back in New York. London felt like it was a million miles away on another planet.
And she was even more surprised when an email from him came in later that night. “I enjoyed speaking to you earlier. I am haunted by your eyes, and the many mysteries I saw in them. I hope we meet again soon. Take care. Happy Christmas. Finn.” She noticed he used “happy” instead of “merry,” like the English, and she didn’t know what to make of his email. It made her slightly uncomfortable, and she remembered her agent’s warnings about his being a womanizer. Was Finn just trying to charm her? Another conquest? And yet, he had been totally circumspect with her in London. And what mysteries did he mean? What was he seeing? Or was he only playing with her? But something about the tone of his email, and their conversation that evening, struck her as sincere. Maybe he did normally chase after women, but she didn’t have the feeling that he was chasing her. And she was struck by the word “haunted.” She didn’t answer him until the next day. She didn’t want to seem anxious, and she wasn’t. She hoped that they would be friends. That happened sometimes with her subjects. There were many who had become friends over the years, even if she didn’t see them often, and only heard from them from time to time.
She answered Finn’s email as she sat down at her desk with a cup of tea on the morning of Christmas Eve. The world was silent and white outside, blanketed by virgin snow, and it was afternoon in London.
“Thank you for your email. I enjoyed talking to you too. It’s beautiful here today, a winter wonderland of perfect snow everywhere. I’m going to go to Central Park to take photographs of children sledding, very mundane, but appealing. There are no mysteries, only unanswered questions that have no answers, and the memory of people who enter and leave our lives, for a short or long time, and stay only as long as they are meant to. We cannot change the patterns of life, but only observe them, and bend to their will with grace. May your Christmas be warm and happy. Hope.”
Much to her surprise, he answered her within the hour, just as she was leaving the house in all her snow gear, with her camera over her arm. She heard her computer say “You’ve got mail,” went back to check, and pulled off her gloves to press the button. The email was from Finn.
“You are the most graceful woman I have ever met. I wish I were there with you today. I want to go to Central Park to go sledding with the children. Take me with you. Finn.” She smiled at his answer, it was his boyish side surfacing again. She didn’t respond, but put her gloves back on, and left the house. She wasn’t sure what to say to him, and was hesitant to get into a serious correspondence with him. She didn’t want to play a game with him and lead him on.
She found a cab outside the Mercer Hotel less than a block away, and it took them half an hour to get to Central Park. Some of the streets were clear, although many weren’t and it was slow going. The driver dropped her off at the south end of the park, and she walked in past the zoo. And eventually she found the hills where children were sledding, some on old-fashioned sleds, others on plastic disks, many with plastic garbage bags tied around them by their parents. Their mothers were standing by, watching, trying to stay warm, and the fathers were chasing them down the hill, picking them up when they had spills. The children were squealing and laughing and having fun, as she discreetly took photographs, zooming in on their faces full of excitement and wonder, and suddenly in a way she hadn’t expected it to, the scene shot her backward in time, and a spear lodged in her heart that she couldn’t remove, even by turning away. She felt tears sting her eyes, not from the cold this time, and she took photographs of the icy limbs of the trees in abstract patterns to distract herself, but it was useless. She felt breathless with the pain of what she was experiencing, and finally, with tears burning her eyes, she put the camera over her shoulder, turned away, and walked back down the hill. She left the park at a dead run, trying to flee the ghosts she had seen there, and she didn’t stop running until she reached Fifth Avenue, and headed back downtown. It hadn’t happened to her in years. She was still shaken when she got home.
She took off her coat and stood staring out the window for a long time, and when she turned away, she noticed Finn’s email on her computer from that morning, and read it again. She didn’t have the heart or the energy to answer him. She was drained from the emotions she had felt in the park that afternoon. And as she turned away from the computer, she realized with a sinking heart that it was Christmas Eve, which made it worse. She always did everything she could to avoid sentimental situations at Christmas, even more so since the divorce. And now, after watching children sledding in the park, everything she normally hid from had hit her broadside, and knocked her flat. She flipped on the TV to distract herself, and was instantly assaulted with Christmas carols sung by a children’s chorus. She laughed ruefully to herself as she turned off the TV again, and sat down at the computer, hoping that answering Finn’s email would distract her. She didn’t know what else to do. The night ahead of her looked long and sad, like a mountain range to climb.
“Hi. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m a mess,” she typed out quickly. “I hate Christmas. I had a visit today from the ghost of Christmas past. It nearly killed me. I hope you’re having a nice time with Michael. Merry Christmas! Hope.” She hit the send button and then regretted it instantly when she reread her message. It sounded pathetic even to her. But there was nothing she could do to get it back.
It was midnight in London, and she didn’t expect to hear from him till the next day, if at all. So she was startled to hear her computer tell her she had an email. It was an immediate response from Finn.
“Tell the ghost of Christmas past to get lost, and lock your door behind him. Life is about the future, not the past. I don’t love Christmas a lot either. I want to see you again. Soon. Finn.” It was short and to the point and a little scary. Why did he want to see her? Why were they emailing each other? And more importantly, why was she writing to him? She had no idea what the answer was to that question, or what she hoped to get from him.
She lived in New York, he lived in Dublin. They had separate lives and interests, and he was a subject at a photo shoot and nothing more than that to her. But she kept thinking of things he had said to her at dinner, and his eyes when he looked at her. She was beginning to feel haunted by him, which was the same thing he had said about her in his email. It left her feeling a little bit unnerved, but she answered him anyway, reminding herself to keep it businesslike and upbeat. She didn’t want to start some sort of sophomoric email romance with him, just because she was lonely and it was Christmas. She was well aware that it would be a big mistake. And he was way out of her league, leading a somewhat jet-set international life, with women at his feet. She didn’t want to be one of them, and she had no desire to compete.
“Thank you. Sorry for the maudlin email. I’m fine. Just a touch of holiday blues. Nothing a hot bath and a good night’s sleep won’t cure. All the best, Hope.” It seemed a little better to her as she sent it off, and his answer was quick and sounded annoyed.
“Holiday blues are to be expected, over the age of 12. And what’s with ‘All the best’? Don’t be so cowardly. I’m not going to eat you, and I’m not the ghost of Christmas past. Bah humbug. Have a glass of champagne. It always helps. Love, Finn.”
“Shit!” she said as she read it to herself a minute later. “‘Love,’ my ass. Now look what you’ve done!” she said aloud to herself, feeling even more nervous. She decided not to answer it, but took one piece of his advice, and poured herself a glass of wine. His email sat on her screen all night and she ignored it, but she read it again before she went to bed, and told herself it didn’t mean a thing. But in spite of that, she thought it was best if she didn’t respond, and when she climbed the ladder to her sleeping loft, she told herself she’d feel better in the morning. As she moved to turn off the light, she saw the wall of photographs of the young ballerina. She stood staring at them for a long moment, and then got into bed, turned off the light, and buried her head in the pillows.
As she hoped she would, Hope felt better when she woke up in the morning. It was Christmas Day, but there was no reason to treat it differently from any other day. She called Paul on his boat, which was her only concession to the holiday. He sounded all right, although he’d caught a cold on the plane leaving London, which was dangerous for him. They wished each other a Merry Christmas, stayed off sensitive subjects, and hung up after a few minutes. After that she took out a box of photographs to edit for her next show, and pored over the images for several hours. It was two o’clock in the afternoon before she looked up, and decided to go for a walk. She glanced at the email from Finn again, and turned off the computer. She didn’t want to encourage him, or start something she didn’t want to finish or pursue.
And when she dressed and went out, the air felt brisk. She passed people going to visit each other, and others coming out of the Mercer Hotel after lunch. She walked around SoHo and all through the Village. It was a sunny afternoon, and the snowfall of the day before was starting to turn to slush. She felt better when she got back to the loft, and worked some more. And at eight o’clock, she realized that she had nothing to eat in the apartment. She thought of skipping dinner, but was hungry, and finally decided to go to the nearest deli, to get a sandwich and some soup. The day had turned out to be a lot easier than the one before, and the following day she was planning to go to her gallery on the Upper East Side to talk to them about her show. She was relieved, as she put her coat on, to think that she had made it through another year. She dreaded Christmas, but with the exception of the bad moment the day before in Central Park, this one hadn’t been too rough. And she was amused to see a row of cooked, stuffed turkeys lined up at the deli, ready for anyone who needed an instant Christmas dinner.
She ordered a turkey sandwich with a slice of cranberry jelly on it, and a container of chicken soup. The man at the deli knew her, and asked how Christmas Day had been for her.
“It was fine,” she said, smiling at him, as he looked into the violet eyes. He could tell from the things she bought from him that she lived alone. And from what he could see, she didn’t eat much. She was tiny, and at times looked very frail.
“How about a piece of pie?” She looked to him like she needed a little fattening up. “Apple? Mince? Pumpkin?” She shook her head, but helped herself to a container of eggnog ice cream, which she had always loved. She paid, thanked him, wished him a Merry Christmas, and left with her provisions in a brown bag. She was hoping not to spill the soup, and that the ice cream, with its proximity to the lukewarm container, wouldn’t melt. She was concentrating on not spilling it, as she walked up the steps to her building, and saw a man with his back to her in the doorway, carefully looking for a name on the bell. He was hunched over to see the names better in the dim light, and she was standing behind him, waiting to open the door with her key, when he turned and she stared, with a sharp intake of breath. It was Finn, wearing a black knit cap, jeans, with a heavy black wool coat, and he smiled as he looked at her. His whole face lit up when he smiled.
“Well, that makes things easier. I was going blind trying to read the names. I lost my glasses on the plane.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked in surprise. She was stunned.
“You didn’t answer my last email, so I figured I’d come over and find out why.” He looked relaxed and totally at ease as they stood talking on the front step, and Hope was shaking as he took the brown paper bag from her hands. She didn’t know why he had come, but it frightened her. It seemed so bold and unnerved her.
“Be careful you don’t spill it. It’s soup,” she said, not sure what to say next. “Do you want to come up?” There was nothing else she could say. She couldn’t brush past him and go home and leave him on the doorstep.
“That would be nice,” he said, smiling, but Hope hadn’t smiled yet. She felt panicked to be talking to him on her front step. He had entered her world without invitation or permission or warning. And then he looked at her gently. He could see she was upset. “Are you mad at me for coming?” He looked worried, as the wind whipped her hair.
“No. I just don’t know why you did.” She looked afraid.
“I have to see my agent anyway, and talk to my publisher. And to be honest, I wanted to see you. You’ve been on my mind since you left. I’m not sure why, but I can’t get you out of my head.” She smiled then, and unlocked the front door, wondering if she should go back to the deli for more food. She wasn’t sure if she should be flattered, or angry at him for the intrusion, without checking with her first. He was impulsive, and as full of charm as he had been when they met. It was hard to stay angry at him, and her initial reaction of fear began to dispel as they walked up the stairs.
Without further conversation, she led him up to her apartment and unlocked the door. She went to put the food in the kitchen, and rescue the ice cream before it melted, and then she turned to look at him. He was staring at the photographs on her walls.
“That’s the most beautiful ballerina I’ve ever seen,” he said, studying each print closely, and then looking at her with a puzzled frown. “She looks like you. Was that you as a young girl?” She shook her head, and invited him to sit down. She offered him a glass of wine, which he declined. He glanced around the peaceful, spare decor as she lit the candles and then sat down on a couch across from him with a serious expression.
“I hope nothing I said made you feel that you should come,” she said quietly, still feeling uncomfortable seeing him in her apartment. She blamed herself if she had led him on or encouraged him, but she didn’t think she had.
“You sounded sad. And I missed you, though I’m not sure why,” he said honestly. “I had to come to New York at some point anyway, so I decided it might as well be now, before I finish my book and start the next one. I won’t want to come for months after that. And I was sad myself when Michael left this morning, earlier than planned. Don’t be mad. I’m not here to push you into anything.” She knew there had to be plenty of other women available to him, if he wanted them. She just didn’t understand what he wanted from her. She offered to share her sandwich with him and he smiled and shook his head. It had been an incredibly impulsive move for him to come, and she couldn’t decide if it was flattering or scary. Most likely both.
“I’m fine. I had a huge meal on the plane, but I’ll keep you company while you eat.” She felt silly eating a sandwich in front of him while he ate nothing, so she put it aside, and then he shared the soup and ice cream with her. By the time they got to the eggnog ice cream, he had her laughing at the stories he told, and she had started to relax, in spite of the startling visit from a man she scarcely knew. It was awkward seeing him sitting there, stretched out on the couch and totally at ease in her loft.
They were just finishing the ice cream when he asked her about the ballerina again. “Why do I feel as though that’s you?” It was particularly odd because the ballerina in the photographs was blond, and Hope’s hair was so dark. But there was a similarity between her and the young dancer, a kind of familiar look. She took a deep breath then, and told him what she hadn’t planned to share with him.
“That’s my daughter, Camille.” In answer to what she said, he looked stunned.
“You lied to me,” he said, looking hurt. “You said you didn’t have kids.”
“I don’t,” Hope said quietly. “She died three years ago, at nineteen.” He was silent for a long moment, and so was Hope.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, looking shaken as he reached out to touch her hand, and she looked deep into his eyes.
“It’s all right.” She told herself silently again, ‘That was then. This is now,’ as the monks had taught her in Tibet. “You learn to live with it after a while.”
“She was a beautiful girl,” he said, glancing at the photographs again and then back at Hope. “What happened?”
“She was in college, at Dartmouth, where my father taught when I was a child, although he was gone by then. She called me one morning, with the flu, and she sounded really sick. Her roommate took her to the infirmary, and they called me an hour later. She had meningitis. I talked to her and she sounded awful. I got in the car to go up to her from Boston, Paul came with me. She died half an hour before we arrived. There was nothing they could do to save her. It just happened that way.” There were tears rolling slowly down her cheeks as she said it, and she had a peaceful look on her face, as Finn watched her. He looked devastated by what she’d said. “She danced in the summers with the New York City Ballet. She had thought about not going to college and dancing instead, but she managed to do both. They were going to take her in as soon as she graduated, or before if she wanted. She was a wonderful dancer.” And then as an afterthought, she added, “We called her Mimi.” Hope’s voice was barely more than a whisper as she said it. “I miss her terribly. And her death destroyed her father. It was the last straw for him. He had already been sick for years, and drinking heavily in secret. He stayed drunk for three months when she died. One of his old colleagues at Harvard did an intervention on him, and he put himself in a hospital and dried up after that. But when he did, he decided that he couldn’t be married to me anymore. Maybe I reminded him too much of Mimi, and the loss. He sold his business, bought a boat, and left me. He said he didn’t want me sitting around waiting for him to die, that I deserved better than that. But the truth was too that losing Mimi was so devastating for both of us, that our marriage fell apart. We’re still good friends, but every time we see each other we think of her. He filed for divorce, and I left for India. We still love each other, but I guess we loved her more. After that, there wasn’t much left of our marriage. When Mimi died, we all did in a way. He’s not the person he was, and maybe I’m not either. It’s hard to come through something like that in one piece. So there it is,” she said sadly. “I didn’t want to tell you in London. I don’t usually tell people about her. It’s just too sad. My life is very different without her, to say the least. It’s all about my work now. There’s nothing else. I love what I do, that helps.”
“Oh my God,” Finn said, with tears in his own eyes. Hope could sense that he had been thinking about his own son while she told him the story of her daughter. “I can’t even imagine what that must be like. It would kill me.”
“It almost did,” she said, as he came to sit next to her on the couch and put an arm around her shoulders. Hope didn’t object. Feeling him close to her helped. She hated talking about it, and rarely did, although she looked at the photographs on the wall every night and thought about her all the time, still. “The time I spent in India helped. And in Tibet. I found a wonderful monastery in Ganden, and I had an extraordinary teacher. I think he helped me to accept it. One really has no other choice.”
“And your ex-husband? How is he about it now? Did he go back to drinking?”
“No, he’s still sober. He’s aged a lot in the last three years, and he’s a lot sicker, so it’s hard to tell if it’s Mimi or the disease. He’s as happy as he can be on his boat. I bought this loft when I came back from India, but I travel a lot, so I’m away much of the time. I don’t need a lot in my life. Nothing makes sense without Mimi. She was the center of our life, and once she was gone, we were both pretty lost.” The pain she had experienced showed in her work. She had a deep connection with human suffering that came out in the photographs she took.
“You’re not too old to marry again and have another child,” Finn said gently, unsure of what to say to comfort her. How did you comfort a woman who had lost her only child? What she had told him was so enormous that he had no idea how to help her. He was shocked by the story she had told him. Hope wiped her eyes, and smiled.
“Technically, I’m not too old, but it’s not very likely, and it doesn’t make much sense. I can’t see myself marrying again, and I haven’t dated since Paul and I divorced. I just haven’t met anyone that I wanted to go out with, and I wasn’t ready. We’ve only been divorced for two years, and she’s been gone for three. It was a lot to lose at the same time. And by the time I do find someone again, if I ever do, I will be too old. I’m forty-four now, I think my baby-making days are pretty much over, or will be soon. And it wouldn’t be the same.”