He hesitates at the base of the stairs. Like the first time he saw her, he thinks, at Lincoln Center. He doesn't know what he is going to say. He walks up the stairs and rings the bell.
The door opens, and she's there. Ella cocks her head to the side and opens her mouth to speak but doesn't. She had woken up a few minutes ago, like she knew he was coming. This - and not his arrival - made her feel uneasy, confused. Getting over her surprise, she looks up at him and into his eyes, trying to get a read on him.
Cole looks away. Then back at her. "Sorry to come by so early," he says. "I mean - I know - its been a while." He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down, now unsure of himself.
She smiles sweetly and - in a familiar gesture, an Ella-ism - sweeps her hair from her eyes, "No. I - ... Just come in. It's good to see you. Really. It's good."
She puts up water for tea. They sit on the floor next to each other, with their backs against the couch and the other three sides surrounded by last evening's black-and-white photos.
"These are really good," he says quietly.
"Thank you. Nice of you to say."
They are tentative. Slow. It feels like they are wrapped in gauze; the space between them where there should be nothing is stuffed with a barrier layer of cotton. It's uncomfortable, but it also has a calming effect. They feel their way through.
Two cups of cold tea sit next to them on the floor.
"I miss you, Ella."
"I miss you too. But." Her last word hung out there for a few seconds that seemed like minutes.
"But it wasn't working. Remember? You weren't happy. We weren't happy."
It was hard for Cole to remember. But he did. It was true. He hadn't been happy.
"I know," he said, "But..." He reached his hand over her shoulder and rested it on the nape of her neck. Reflexively, his thumb moved up and down the length of her neck. It soothed him.
"Cole, I'm really confused." Pause. 1-2-3-4-5. "It's nice to see you, but I'm not sure why you're here."
"Yeah," he nodded, "I know. Let's just sit a while. OK?"
Ella takes a deep breath. "Okay," she sighs.
They sit quietly. They move next to each other, so their legs touch. Its easy and familiar. She reaches over and drapes a knit afghan over both of them. His fingers graze against the back of her neck and against the back of her head.
* * *
Moving from night to morning (or in this case from early morning to the waking-up part of morning) often bends time. It compresses and elongates like an accordion. You wake up mere seconds after falling asleep only to glance at the clock and find out that seven hours have passed. Or, like today, you fall asleep at 3:45 AM, and rise at 5:50 AM, feeling restored, like you've been asleep for days. Ella's eyes open, green and brown. The memory of his hand on her feels like his touch. A small smile. A big stretch. And she sits up.
She knows that Cole must have been watching her sleep, but she doesn't see him.
As she presses her hands against the floor to get up, she brushes against a photo. One of hers, but one she hasn't seen before.
It's black and white, like the rest of them. But this one is of Cole. He is sitting on her floor, surrounded by her photos, watching her sleep. His eyes are calm, but sad. Because he is with her, but he is also alone.
She walks over to the record player, and brings the needle down. The sun pours through the window. Dust motes tumble in slow motion. The music begins, scratchy and haunting:
"let the love that was once a fire
remain an ember
let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
when they begin the beguine"
Ella begins to cry. She knows that she is alone.
He's not there. And he never was.