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Ten minutes before I died, I realized I was out of cigarettes.

I stopped on the sidewalk and looked up Broadway. There was a bodega at the corner of 66th, its entrance steeped in darkness courtesy of repair scaffolding that had converted the city block into a wood and pipe tunnel. 

My wife collided gently with me. Pedestrians grumped around us, late for the rest of their lives.

“C’mon, it’ll just take a second,” I said to her.

Elise wrinkled her mouth in vague disapproval. She’d started doing it enough lately that tiny lines were finding permanent homes around her lips. 

“The overture’s going to start,” she said.

I knew. We were running late.

Lincoln Center, our objective, was half a block away. The fountain sparkled, shooting streams of blue-green water into the air. Gold-trimmed banners announced an upcoming jazz festival. As if to punctuate Elise’s point, a couple of them cracked like gunshots in the fall breeze. Other tardy opera-goers hurried across the plaza in their overcoats and furs, laughing, chasing their own exhalations. 

I smiled. The place still gave me a little shiver of excitement, even after all these years. Okay, so maybe it hadn’t aged so well, with its grid-wrapped travertine marble and drippy postmodern columns. But those dated buildings and their flaking stone still housed world-class opera, theater and ballet. How many guys got to splurge once a year and treat their wives to the planet’s largest performing arts center?

“Listen, if I’m going to sit through three hours of this Don Corleone thing—”

Don Quixote, you fool,” she said, laughing.

“Whatever. I’ll still need a smoke for intermission.”

She gave me the look again. I knew she wasn’t really irritated. The truth was, we were both relieved to be back on solid ground after last night. 

It had been bad. Real bad. 

I shook my head to dispel the feeling. Let the accusations, the cutting remarks, the tears, the guilt, all slide into oblivion. What mattered was tonight. Tonight was going to be great.

“Oh, fine.” She sighed with a patience born of great practice. “I’ll wait here.”

“Like hell you will,” I said. “This city’s dangerous, in case you hadn’t noticed. Especially for someone as gorgeous as you.”

“Yeah?” She ran a finger up my lapel. “How gorgeous am I?”

I closed the space between us. “You are,” I said, touching her copper hair, “the most intoxicating creature I’ve ever laid eyes on. And you know it.”

The cold had brought a blush to her cheeks. The dots of color against her skin’s natural creaminess brought to mind a porcelain doll, or maybe an antique, hand-colored photograph. Some of her features—the delicate nose that turned skyward at the tip, the bud of a mouth—might have looked child-like, were it not for her eyes. Christ, those eyes. Large, probing, they were the anchors of a graceful and commanding symmetry. They countenanced no fools; they demanded immediate respect. The combination was devastating.

She looked almost uneasy at the appreciation in my face. “You’re still nuts about me, aren’t you?” she said.

I rolled my eyes in mock exasperation.

“Tell me,” she said. She pulled us further out of the flow of cranky foot traffic. The air had become cold-blooded in its assault now, but we barely noticed it.

“My job, what I do every day,” I said slowly. “You’re always knee-deep in somebody’s pain. It grinds at you, tries to make you hollow. A lot of the guys go under. Succumb to the undertow. There’s this emptiness behind their eyes, you know? Like they’re dead already and just going through the motions of being alive. But me, well. All I gotta do is think of you. And then the world, this city, my life—it’s magic again.”

Eventually, she remembered to exhale. “Good answer,” she whispered. Her breath trembled in front of her.

“Worth a pack of smokes?” I asked.

She slipped her arm through mine. “Okay. But we’ll go to that one. It’s cheaper.” 

She nodded at a Korean grocery across from the subway. Her small hand melded into my palm, a perfect fit, tugging playfully. “And pick up the pace, Detective! Don’t want to miss the first scene.”

So we hurried into the grocery.

And died.

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