Chapter 1: 1998
It was pure chance that brought Joanna and Michael together. Neither had meant to be in Manhattan that day, but last minute changes in each of their plans had led them to stand at the corner of 42nd street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change. It was 11:30 AM on a cool, cloudy April Saturday. Joanna had taken the train from Bridgeport to Grand Central with the aim of going to the New York Public Library across the corner. As usual, she had postponed going until a couple of days before her final exam in English Literature. She was in her senior year at University of Connecticut’s school of education, majoring in history. She had meant to go the week before in order to have enough time to discuss Shakespeare's Henry V with her instructor. She felt the need to clarify several lines in the text. Joanna had been in the last car, having come at the last minute. Michael, who lived in Norwalk, had taken the same train sitting in the front car. He was to meet his roommate from his years at Northeastern in Boston. He had graduated from NU two years before with a B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering. His friend, Henry, who lived and worked in Detroit, had called him the other day to tell him he was leaving that night for London on a business trip and they could meet in the city in the afternoon.
Both Joanna and Michael had reached the intersection of 42nd and Fifth at the same time. Just at the moment the light had changed, and as they had gotten off the curb to cross the street, a tremendous crash stopped them and others from proceeding further. A bus jumped the light and a small Toyota had crashed into it.
For a second it seemed the world had stopped, an unnatural quiet reigned with nobody moving, but then cries and shouts resonated in the air, with some people rushing to the scene, but most others going quickly on their way, a few of them looking around guiltily to see the reaction of other. Two cops standing at the corner immediately went into action, running to the spot with one calling for help. Both Joanna and Michael were among those who went to help but could not do anything as they were blocked by others who had reached the place before them. Within minutes, two police cars arrived on the scene and officers began asking bystanders to sign affidavits describing exactly what had occurred. Most declined with various excuses, Joanna and Michael were among the few who agreed. In the meantime, three ambulances came to take the seriously wounded driver of the car and those on the bus hurt by the crash. Traffic on 42nd Street, as well as on Fifth Avenue, was blocked for miles.
Michael half-turned toward Joanna, after both had finished their deposition, and said in a barely audible murmur, "Gee, I could use a drink after seeing that, this could happen to anyone!"
Joanna, not sure the remark was addressed to her, hesitated a few moments before saying, "You know, that’s a darn good idea. I have plenty of time anyway. There should be a bar around here." Michael now looked directly at her, surprised not only to hear from her but especially at her response to what was not meant to be an invitation. Shook up from the scene, he actually had just uttered the phrase to himself. Only now did he fully register the girl who stood before him. He would never have dared to pick up a girl like her; he was much too shy and conservative to have done it. The first thing that struck him was her eyes, a hazel color flecked with green, rather widely spaced on her oval face. The black hair framing it was gathered tightly in a ponytail with some strands falling down her forehead. She was fairly small, maybe 5’6”, but well built with a nice bust and the most beautiful legs Michael had ever seen. He managed to stammer out a few words saying he was glad to meet her, and was pleased she would join him. Joanna, on her part, did not mind going with this young man whose appearance she rather liked. His face had an open feeling, his brown eyes looking out mildly at her without the stares she often had encountered. He was dressed casually; jeans, a light blue sweater and a dark blue windbreaker.
Michael, a small embarrassed smile on his face, said after a long pause, "Ok, let's go and look for a place. I'm afraid I don't know any bars around here. In this city, there should be one on just about every block. By the way, my name is Michael Berk, what's yours?"
"Mine is Joanna, Joanna Aguilar, nice to meet you." With that, she extended her hand to Michael who felt the firm pressure from her warm palm. He was even more captivated by her, seeing her fleeting smile that was at once open and yet somewhat restrained. Michael turned back east with Joanna following. As they walked, they kept some distance between them. Sure enough, just a couple of stores from the entrance to the Station was a bar, its bright green neon light flashing making sure it was not to be missed. The smells of alcohol emanating from the door made sure that the passerby knew what place it was without the sign. The bar was not very crowded, the people there perched on stools were mostly separated from each other by empty places around the vast counter. Michael suggested they sit at one of the small tables in the back, wanting the chance to get to know her in the semi darkness of the place without her noticing his nervousness.
The bartender came out to ask what they wanted. Joanna, without hesitation, asked for a whiskey sour while Michael, thinking for a while, said that he would have the same. Neither knew how to start a conversation until Joanna said,
"Wow that was some accident. It's terrible what happened to the young woman in the car; who would think the bus would go through a red light? I hate to drive in the city. Did you get to see her when they took her out of the car?"
"I sort of saw her. You are so right about the traffic. Unfortunately, I have to drive here twice a week to go to Columbia, where I hope to get my Masters this June.After that, I won't do it anymore."
Michael was glad he was able to tell her, without obviously bragging, that he was going to Columbia.
"Why can't you take the train? Didn’t you do it today?"
"I'd waste a lot of time waiting for the train. I take off from work in the early afternoon, from Stamford. And on the return trip, I want to be home at a reasonable hour, I always have plenty of work to do. I can't study on the train; it’s always crowded at that hour with commuters, mostly drunk."
The waiter came and set the drinks on the table. Joanna was the first to pick up hers, said “Cheers” and took a sip. Michael followed suit, wondering how to get the conversation going. Finally he said, "So where did you come from?"
"I came from Bridgeport just to go to the library here to look up a few things," she replied, without going into further details.
"Is this in connection with your studies, if I am not too nosy?"
"I am a senior at the School of Education at the University of Connecticut," Joanna said, wondering if she should expand on her activities. Finally, she decided Michael seemed nice enough to go into some personal aspects, and she liked that he kept his eyes fixed on her.
"You see, I want to be a high school teacher of History. I’ve always been fascinated with the past, like why things were done the way they were and what might have been if something had not taken place at a certain time. Right now, I have to prepare for a test on one of Shakespeare's plays. His plays dealing with history are wonderful, but don’t always reflect what actually occurred. I should add that Bridgeport is my home but I live in the dorms at the university," she said with a slight smile.
"And I'm from Norwalk, working in Stamford as a mechanical engineer. My parents live in Boston. I took a job there since I wanted to be near New York. Norwalk is nice, not too far to get in for a play and also inexpensive. I pay half for my rent than I would in the city."
A long pause ensued, both looking down while sipping their drinks. Finally, Michael asked, "How far is it to Storrs? I’ve never been to that part of the state. And how do you like the university?"
"It’s too far to commute, unfortunately, about 80 miles. But I do get home some weekends and, of course for holidays. I don’t have much more to go. I'll graduate in June and then I'll look for something in the Bridgeport area." As an afterthought she added, without really thinking what she was saying, "It’s beautiful country up there, you should come and see it sometime."
"I'd love that. You have to tell me how to get in touch with you."
Joanna hesitated for a moment; Do I really want to continue to see this man? Why not? He seems nice enough. "Well, yes, you can reach me at this number in my dorm. I share a room with another girl and you can leave a message with her if I’m not there."
"Gee, thanks, I'll certainly be in touch and would like to visit some time. It's strange, isn't it, how this terrible accident led to us meeting?"
I hope he does not make too much of us being here for a drink. Maybe I should not have said what I did. Oh well. I can always claim to be busy with exams if he does call.
They sat for a few more minutes, having finished their drinks, when Joanna got up, saying, "Nice meeting you, Michael," and turned abruptly and walked out from the bar. Michael followed her slowly. I guess I will never understand women. Here I thought she wanted to see me again, so why this sudden turnabout? Now I don't know if I should call her or not.
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