The Vandal and the woman in the red coat sat down across the hallway from Evie, just far enough from one another so that their shoulders didn’t touch. The Vandal pushed the hat back on his head and folded his hands in his lap. The woman adjusted her coat around her shoulders and fastened her gaze on the floor. She fidgeted with her gloves.
If Evie had entertained previous thoughts that the two were companions, she abandoned them now. The sheer nervousness of the woman in the red coat’s movements suggested the depth of their mutual foreignness.
The Vandal must have agreed as he watched the woman in the red coat tug at the gloves. He fished a pack of cigarettes from his inside coat pocket and offered them up.
“Would you like one?” he asked politely.
“No,” she said. “I don’t smoke, actually.”
The room shook a little from the first of what promised to be a long evening of blasts. The woman lifted her gaze to the ceiling.
“I don’t either,” the Vandal said, lighting a cigarette for himself. “But they calm me down when I’m nervous. You look nervous.”
The woman took off her gloves and looked back toward the floor.
“All the same,” she said, “No, thank you.”
The Vandal shrugged and removed his hat. He let his fingers rest on his lips with the cigarette and gazed absently down the dark hallway. Evie watched as curiosity overcame the woman in the red coat’s nervousness. Looking up from the ground and finding the Vandal distracted, she’d stolen the opportunity to study her companion’s face. Evie did the same. The Vandal, she observed, was tall and pale with short, wayward hair. He had thin lips and a fine nose and dark rims around his eyes as if he’d spent a long time crying. Despite his supposed nervousness, he rested easily against the dirty wall with his hat on his lap in one hand and the cigarette at his lips in the other.
“How old are you?” the woman in the red coat asked, surprising herself.
“Twenty five, mademoiselle,” the Vandal replied, smiling.
There was a long silence.
“Now,” the Vandal said, running his finger along the brim of the hat in his lap, “You’ve left me with a predicament. It would be rude of me to let our conversation die here, but on the other hand, a gentleman never asks a lady’s age.” He smiled. “What do you propose I do?”
“What do you do for a living?” asked the woman in the red coat, eager to fill the silence.
“I restore churches,” said the Vandal, almost laughing. “Usually, I concentrate on paintings. Recently, I’ve become an expert at stacking rubble in wheelbarrows.”
“Why churches?” the woman asked.
“They’ve always held a fascination for me,” the Vandal explained. “Miracles and saints and angels, what have you.” He looked up. Evie could have sworn that they made eye contact, if only for a moment. “God and the Devil, too, I suppose,” he added.
The woman in the red coat said nothing.
“I must sound silly,” the Vandal concluded, removing the cigarette from his mouth and smiling gallantly at his own expense.
“No,” said the woman in the red coat. “Not silly. Maybe a little unusual.” She paused. “Where do you get your cigarettes?” she asked after a moment.
“Have you changed your mind about them, after all?” inquired the Vandal.
“I like the smell,” the young woman confessed. “I suppose I was wondering where I could buy a pack, just to carry around in my pocket.”
The Vandal removed the package of cigarettes from his pocket and put it in her hand.
“I couldn’t,” she protested.
“I insist,” said the Vandal.
Reluctantly, the woman in the red coat took the cigarettes. With both hands, she raised the package to her lips and inhaled the tobacco scent.
“Thank you,” she said. She put the cigarettes in her pocket.
After that, they were quiet for a long while. Evie settled into her blanket and concentrated on the vibrations of the foundation against her back. She fought to keep from drifting to sleep. Eventually, the Vandal finished his cigarette. He extinguished the butt on the stone floor to keep from burning his fingers. The woman in the red coat watched as the glow subsided. She seemed to have overcome her shyness, but the pack of cigarettes was still clutched in her left hand. Another blast from above rattled the walls. The Vandal turned the hat over in his lap and played with the inside of the brim.
Without warning, the woman in the red coat snatched it from his hands. In a theatrical gesture, she smoothed her hair and set the hat down over her curls. It was much too large for her head, falling down over her forehead and shading her eyes. She pushed it back up and smiled, her first real smile of the evening. It was a bright flash of gums and smooth, white teeth.
The corners of the Vandal’s mouth twitched, but he kept his composure.
“You seemed nervous,” the woman in the red coat explained.
She paused a moment, then raised the package of cigarettes to plain view at chin height. She removed a single cigarette with flourish, like a magician laying the groundwork for a trick. Instead of making the cigarette disappear, she thrust it into the corner of her mouth, where it dangled precariously. She pushed the hat further back on her head and lounged against the wall in a remarkable impression of the Vandal.
They broke down into laughter. The Vandal clutched his side and gently retrieved his hat from the top of her head. As the laughter subsided, the woman in the red coat grew quiet, as if her shyness were somehow returning.
“Thank you, mademoiselle,” the Vandal said quietly, reaching over and plucking the cigarette from her mouth. “I feel much better now.” He brought the cigarette to his lips and lit it. The glow of the light reflected off his hand where he cupped it to shield the flame. For a brief moment, the blaze illuminated the silhouette of his lips and his fingers. Then all was extinguished in a blue puff of smoke.
The woman in the red coat leaned in and kissed him. It was a single peck, fast and full of fear. Evie could practically see the courage drain from her body, away from her lips. The woman in the red coat pulled away, embarrassed by the strength of her own forwardness.
The Vandal pushed the hat back on his head, his eyes wide with surprise. He looked ahead for a moment, then turned immediately and embraced the woman in the red coat. He kissed her, but not the daring, uncertain kiss she had given him. His kiss was long and honest and, above all, confident. Her embarrassment disappeared.