some fall in love. i shatter.

Archive for July, 2012|Monthly archive page

The Private Infirmary (#22)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 30, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Just two burners on the stovetop and five inches between them where the white porcelain had been discolored a mucus yellow from boiling-over pasta water.  Around the edges of the smaller gas burner were slight brown smudges, remembrances of coffee brewed and spilled.  To the right of the stove, on the yellow Formica countertop, was the moka pot that her right index finger reached for, wrapping around the hook of the black plastic handle and bringing it into her left palm.  The scratches of heavy usage showed on the metallic skin of the single-serving machine.  Her right hand gripped the top chamber and her left hand spun the bottom boiler until the two halves came apart, the funnel filter lingering in the seat of the boiler.

Coffee grounds remained impacted in the filter from the last time she had used the moka.  Little flecks of brown that had been stuck in the grooves of the top chamber shook loose over the countertop and the sink.  The top layer of grounds in the filter still bore the pinprick impressions of the filter plate that sat as the base of the top chamber.  Tipping the filter into her hand, she then placed the delicate piece between her thumb and middle finger, began the flow of hot water from the faucet, and placed the inverted filter directly under the stream.  The water forced its way through the tiny neck of the funnel and she could feel the pressure mounting until a movement began between her fingers and the mass of spent grounds fell with a thud to the sink, still in their molded shape.

Janine turned the filter upright and ran her finger around the edge where some of the grounds had lingered.  The water continued washing through and after a moment, all that was left was a residue of coffee oil, slick between her finger and the metal wall.  She placed it upside down on the countertop to dry for a few moments.  She picked up the bottom chamber and rinsed it out twice, a formality really, before filling the chamber with water up to the level of the steam release valve.  Janine set this on the counter next to the filter.

Reaching into the cabinet over the stove, she pulled out a sealed Ziploc bag with an open bag of Bustelo and small spoon inside.  Trace amounts of espresso-ground coffee collected in the corners of the bag, shimmying around like ants when the bag tipped one way or another.  She unsealed the bag, inhaling the aromas of cafés and bodegas as her fingers reached for the spoon handle and flicked away the clinging grounds.  Keeping one bag inside the other, she measured three heaping spoonfuls of coffee and gently laid them into the filter that she’d picked up in her left hand.  The back of the spoon smoothed out the mound until it was flush with the edges of the filter.  She laid the filter inside the bottom chamber, careful not to spill any of the coffee on the counter.  There was enough of that already.  She was tired of wasting things like coffee, time, herself.

Janine winced at a sudden cramp in her left foot, bending down to massage the muscles back into submission.  On her way back up, she turned the knob to ignite the burner and once the flame came alive, she set the temperature to Medium-High.  She liked for the burner to heat up just two minutes before putting the moka pot atop the grill.  She found that the sudden rush of heat served the coffee better than the slow increase in temperature.

Sometimes Janine missed who she had been just a few years earlier and sometimes she was more than content with who she’d become.  This was one of those moments when things seemed to be okay.  Even when the coffee came out tasting thick and burnt, she fetishized the ritual and the way that it made her feel like an independent adult.  She only wished things could have come on like that same rush of heat and spared her some of the details.

The top chamber next went under the waterfall of hot water like everything else, her finger sweeping the sides of the chamber in order to wipe away the remaining oily residue.  Three sweeps and everything looked clean enough.  It wouldn’t be sufficient in any café but it passed in the galley kitchen of her forgettable apartment.  The skin on her face felt the heat erupting from the small burner so she hurried to wipe dry the top chamber.  She never understood why she bothered with the unnecessary step but she did and was persistent about it.  The top chamber was placed atop the bottom and Janine gently twisted them together, careful not to spill any water or grounds.

She placed the moka on the edge of the burner, trying to keep the handle as far from the flames as possible, and leaned against the counter with her eyes closed.  Percolation only took two minutes and she had learned not to leave the stove or she would turn absentminded until the coffee spilled, burned, and stained.  So to the ritual of making the coffee and drinking the coffee, she had added waiting for the coffee.  The rote movements of ritual had been comforting at one point in Janine’s life.  They became necessary after she kicked Marcus out of the apartment and out of her life.

Janine enjoyed the simple movements of cleaning the moka pot and the gentle bitterness of the coffee down her throat.  Now there was the darkness of her lowered eyelids, the silence of the apartment broken only by the sound of the gas coming through the burners and the light gurgling of the dark coffee bursting forth through the central column.  Soon enough she heard the coffee erupting and the faint sputtering of water from the safety valve.  She knew it was best to remove the machine then, that residual heat would continue to turn the water into upward moving steam, that the coffee could quickly burn.  But she loved the sound, the little dreams being born below and fulfilling their ambitions above – impossible half-lives.

She cut the flames and pulled the little moka from the coils of the burner.  From the cabinet over the stove, Janine pulled down a coffee mug with a photograph of two foxes and the text “People Like You Are An Endangered Species.”  Pouring the coffee into the mug, it rose only to where the handle began.  Espresso mugs weren’t quite a luxury but they had yet to find a way into her home.  She liked the way the coffee remained close near the bottom of the mug, how demure it was down there, waiting to be discovered, remaining calm about it all.  Janine held the mug by the upper edges and felt the spreading warmth.

Another dollar saved, another minute of peace maintained.  She looked around at the walls, off-white made off-yellow by the march of time and the cheap light bulb that promised efficiency yet failed to deliver clean light.  The maroons of the sectional couch didn’t help, nor did the glass coffee table that so efficiently displayed dust, coffee spills, heel prints from her bare feet, and who knew what else.  Brown floorboards are better than any shade of carpet, she thought; that would only serve to better display the remnants of city streets that I carry into here.

To think I call this peaceful, she thought, this wandering-eye critique and criticism of my home.  To think some people call this success, call this getting by in a tough economy, call this surviving.  To think that I’m one of those people.

Janine picked up the phone to call Marcus again.

 

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Fragments of A Rainy Season (#21)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 23, 2012 at 2:15 pm

“Well?”

 

never win and never lose

 

I remember looking away from her, like looking away while the Sermon on the Mount was being read.  It was bad enough sitting away from her but to avert my eyes at the moment they met hers was a grave injustice to her, myself, and to all the romantics who christened themselves Great Lovers, the same group I previously and erroneously connected myself with.  She was lying on the painful comforter of a Wayward Traveler Motel bed, somewhere in Nebraska off Highway 25.  I had positioned myself on the edge of the bed, thoughts in my head contemplating moving closer to her or relocating myself to the meager chair by the miniature table, against the window that looked out onto the empty and cracking parking lot.  The lamp in the corner with the tired white lampshade cast pale yellow nightmares on the faded pink walls around us.  I swear I almost cried.

She had let down her yellow hair, dyed to shield itself from the natural brown undergrowth.  Are any of us honest anymore?  Her glasses were still on and the look on her face was one of love, care, and longing; one that was leaving everything up to me.  Never leave everything up to a man dressed in scuffed black boots, faded jeans, a shortsleeve black shirt, and a white longsleeve shirt underneath.  Never leave anything up to a man like this, especially when he dyes his hair black.  Are any of us authentic anymore?  There I sat, on the edge of the comforter, a vomited smatter of pastels cleverly designed to mask any stains the Wayward Traveler’s industrial chemicals and cleaners were unable to unstick.  My thoughts began to scatter.  I looked back towards her as she slid her glasses off the gentle slope of her nose.

“Sean, are you okay?”  I barely heard her through the din of my thoughts growing louder with every passing second.

“I’m fine.”

“Well then why don’t you lie down?  You look so nervous; you know there’s no reason to be nervous.”

“Nervous… nervous.  I could actually use another drink.  You want anything?”  Without even hearing the response, I relocated to the dresser and reached for the bottle of whiskey we’d brought.  I poured her a drink and one for myself with a little more going into my glass.  I brought Camille’s glass to her, noticing how her yellow hair had begun to curl itself around her shoulders, somehow magnificently floating over her body while melting into it at the same exact moment.  She sighed and our fingers brushed as I handed her the glass, the contact like a train barreling upon us and the stillness of the room.  I don’t know if it was the awkward and pained look on my face or the abrupt movements of my body, but a sad smile stretched across her lips.

“Seriously, what’s wrong?  Is it what I said?  Cause we can pretend it didn’t happen.”  Camille knew the answer, knew not to press it, knew she had gone far enough already.  The sweetness in her voice almost made me break down on the disgusting blue carpet of that forty dollar motel.  If I’d lost it there there would have been absolutely no reason for me to go on.

“I’m just trying to wade through my thoughts right now, trying to make sense of things.”  I returned to the whiskey on the counter, poured myself another drink, held it in my mouth, and swallowed.  “I think maybe I need a little air.”

“We just came in ten minutes ago.”  Looking back at her green eyes nearly shimmering in the lamplight, it seemed there was almost a trace of fear.  But for what, or whom?  “I know, I just need a few moments alone to collect myself.”  Camille nodded.  Could she possibly understand?

“Take your jacket.”  She propped her slipping body back up against the chipped and decaying wooden headboard.  I pulled my brown leather jacket off the chair and swung it onto my shoulders as I moved toward the door.  “Sean, come here.”

I moved to her.  Her electric hands reached up to my face, pulling it closer until her lips pressed against mine, her closed eyes trying harder than ever to look inside of me.  She let go and I kept my face against hers.  No, I thought, not here, not now; I will not lose myself.  I touched her face and pressed my lips against her cheek.  She had that unforgettable scent, like the desert, so vast and so ongoing.  It makes you want to forget everything you’re thinking, to kiss her closely, to climb into bed with her, to never let go.  And that is exactly why a moment later I was out the door, out of that deadly motel room.  As the door shut I thought I heard her ask, “Will you be back?”  I didn’t answer.  I didn’t have one to give.

Stepping out into the Nebraskan spring night was like stepping out of time.  The night was still beautiful and that mattered for the moment.  Almost as beautiful as Camille.  Looking up, past the garish orange light hanging from the ceiling of the motel walkway, there was the expansive sky.  There is nothing like the late night skies over Nebraska, when the sky is clear and you can see every tiny star outlined against that oceanic darkness, competing against the moon for infinite glory.  And that full moon, casting brightness over what should be an all-encompassing darkness.  It turned the harsh blackness into a shimmering blue-black, like a slow, fading sunset when the day and the night hold each other close.  A sense of comfort, almost as a giant comforter for the entire world, wrapping itself up in it and getting lost forever, finding blissful sleep in forgetfulness.  Even in cloud cover there’s nothing like those midwestern skies, utter darkness folding out over the land.  The only lights those random ones planted by humanity in the desolation of the Great Plains.  They’re no match though, the darkness seeps inside of you, letting you breath deeper while simultaneously strangling your mind.  Mankind.  Humanity.  Fighting so hard to hold a candle in that vastness.  A pair of headlights, a fire burning, the lights of a cheap motel.  The perfection is in the imperfection.

 

there’s nothing much to choose

 

I looked around, exhaling.  There were just three cars slumbering in the concrete parking lot and the pavement cracks all resembled grins and frowns, mingling and drinking in a roadhouse bar.  The light from our room fell out the window, casting my shadow long and mean.  It seemed so warm and safe inside.  I thought about going back in.  I lit a cigarette instead.  In the light of the flame, I could see an image of glory, fighting so hard to stand straight in reality, but failure fell when the flame went out.  I stepped off the walkway between the cracks, a hundred examiners staring.  A sprinkle of dust fell over my boots, turning the dull black a harmless gray.  As I continued walking forward, not knowing where I was directing myself, my thoughts began reaching in every direction but moving too far and too quickly for me to follow.  I lost most in the tumult and held only fragments that made no sense when I tried to reconstruct them.  What’s one to do?  Keep moving, always keep moving.

I approached the quiet strip of highway.  This was my Desolation Row.  There was nothing in front of me, to my left, to my right.  Emptiness.  A wide canvas, blank for the stories of a life to be written and erased once the dust has cleared.  There were no other buildings visible and no cars on the road; all those passing through had found a place to rest for the night and all the farmers were home asleep.  This empty canvas hits hard to the gut, it inspires all fears and dreams.  The fear of abandonment, loss, failure, the fear of one person’s significance in the face of so much emptiness.  The fear of death.  The dreams of starting fresh, moving unseen through the space of life, leaving your mark, the dream of one persons significance in the face of so much emptiness.  The dream of permanence.  You could be everything or nothing, but what decides, what differentiates?

 

between the right and wrong

 

It had happened not that much earlier.  We were coming back to the motel from dinner after having stopped driving for the night.  The ride back from the Country Drive-In had passed in silence, both of us tired from the long day on the road.  At least I was; I thought Camille was too but it turned out she was busy thinking about what was to come.  The parking lot was silent and still as we pulled in.  The violent thud of my car door sounded like a right hook, Camille’s sounded like a knockout.  I should have known something was amiss as the sounds traveled unmolested across the flat country.

As we approached the door to the room and I reached for the key, I felt Camille’s quiet hand slip around my waist in a slight embrace.  Without much pressure, she pressed herself against my back.  I thought nothing of it, nothing extraordinary at least.  We were close, there was nothing strange about it if she hugged me.  Simply a matter of closeness between friends.  So I pulled the key from my right pocket and moved it to the keyhole.  Turned and pushed.  As I motivated my muscles through these actions, as the door waved gently on its hinges, as her hands slid up my back to my shoulders, as a star shone brighter in the sky, as the world continued its revolutions, as the threads of eternity kept unraveling, she said softly, just below my ear, “I love you.”

I shuddered.  My mind went empty and vast, I didn’t know what to do.  I couldn’t even comprehend the ramifications of what had just happened but I knew they were huge.  Most of my nerves had gone numb but I noticed that her hands had slid back down from my shoulders and eventually dropped off of my flat-world map.  Keep breathing, I told myself, inhaling deeply and holding it, afraid that if I exhaled I would have to face the reality that time was continuing to move.  She was becoming my double, standing silent and still behind me.  For the first time since I had known her, I was afraid of her.  I comprehended the passage of time and let my breath go.  There was nothing else that I knew to do, my options had been cut down to zero, so I walked.  That was it, I walked.  Straight into the room, past the table and chair, past the bed and lamp, past the dresser with the whiskey we had brought in earlier, past the chronological listing of events I had thrown out of my head and onto the floor, and found myself in the bathroom.  I never touched the bathroom door but it shut behind me.  It read my thoughts.

Once inside, I pressed myself up against the wall, left the light off.  I heard Camille shut the door upon entering, heard the light turn on, heard her movements across the room.  I sat down on the edge of the bathtub.  There was a window in the bathroom through which the moonlight came in and reflected off the cold white and black linoleum floor.  Camille tried knocking a few times, calling to me, asking me to come out from behind the door, pleading with me to talk to her and then offering me the opposite and insisting that we didn’t need to talk about any of what had happened.  She would have found better traction with consistency but instead tripped herself up by changing tactics.  Unfortunately, there comes a certain moment when a rational person doing an irrational thing realizes just how silly he’s become.  I was accomplishing nothing in that bathroom.  It was a cramped and pointless place for me to be at a moment like that.  Maybe I’ll fare better in the room with her, I thought.  Maybe.  If she was the catalyst, maybe she would be the means to an end.

My thumb and index finger clasped the knob of the old silver lock and twisted it clockwise.  The lock silently slid to the right through it’s curved wooden frame.  Years of repetitive motion had smoothed the wood to it’s present frictionless state.  The door with it’s white paint and cracks of age swung inward on equally silent hinges and presented the tableau I’d been avoiding.

The bedroom was lit for a sacrifice.  Was I offering myself up?  She was lying on the bed, her eyes shut against the world, beauty reclining.  I had moved silently and thought perhaps she hadn’t heard my reentrance into the room.  Had I become a ghost to her, had my actions from a fleeting few moments ago killed the person whom she had thought I was?  Perhaps this is how the ignorant remain stable, they push out unanswered old questions with burning new ones, continuing the cycle, the ringing repetition.  They don’t feel vacant because there’s a flow of thoughts though nothing is ever answered and nothing is ever composed of a greater substance.  Whether this be the verdict or not, it was happening to me.  I was drowning in a sea of open questions.  I sat on the edge of the bed and knew that if she had not known of my presence previously, she did then.  I turned my head around to afford my eyes the opportunity of falling onto her grace.  She was looking away, out the window, maybe she wanted to be somewhere else, at some other point, as much as I did.  And then she turned back so that her eyes once again knew mine.  And then we rebroke that barrier of familiarity for a moment.  And then the intricacies rewound themselves tightly for it was in that instant that she broke the silence.

“Well?”

 

nothing lost and nothing gained

 

We were in the middle of America, in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a vague sense of destination precisely because Camille and I both found ourselves succumbing to becoming nothing without putting up any fight.  Both of us had dreams, both of us had ambitions, and both of us watched passively as those things begin to slip away in our post-collegiate years.  My dreams of architecture and painting had given way to the reality of an exhausting and low-paying administrative job in a bad economy.  Camille’s dream of writing a novel had repeatedly hit against the daily frustration and self-sabotage of long work-hours, a social life, and an inability to find the time to be creative.  We’d met just after graduating from university, a mutual friend, and had introduced ourselves with the titles of things we wanted to become.  But the world is a vicious place and society needs people to keep everything running smoothly; the support staff for those doing what they wanted was massive and we’d watched each other – unable to watch ourselves – be pulled into the machine.  We’d watched each other grow older and more complacent; we’d watched each other fall into a routine that wasn’t bad but wasn’t what we’d wanted.  That phrase had been seared into my mind: Not bad but not what I wanted.  That phrase was the catalyst to shake things up, to undo the mental ties we’d allowed to form around us, to once again fight against the notion of settling.

So, a cross-country drive. See things we’d never seen, do things we’d never done, allow our minds to wander and be inspired and realize what it was like to flex those muscles.  Two weeks wasn’t a magic cure but it was meant to be the start of something restorative.  It was a rallying cry to actively reject what we’d been passively accepting.  And yet there we were, just barely into the thing, when Camille said what she said.  It wasn’t the love that had frightened me so, it was the realization of what that love stood for.  Maybe she viewed it differently but I saw it as a retreat into the things that we knew, that complacency we were trying to head away from.  Even if we’d never approached each other romantically, we were each still anchors for one another.  Instead of being supportive for the changes we were each trying to make, a love between the two of us would pull us away from those things, wrap us up in one another with the dreams left on the outside.  We were safe while the things we were trying to do were god-awfully dangerous.  Camille had panicked and read that panic as love.  Panic and fear were no reasons to change the thing that we had between one another, even if love did exist.  If it truly did, we could nurture it later, see if it grew once we were strong enough to nurture ourselves.  She was a beautiful sense of fear though, one that wouldn’t be easy to turn away from.

 

still things aren’t quite the same

 

With memories and futures unfolding inside, I passed back through the parking lot, leaning against the hood of our car to regain a sense of footing.  I closed my eyes just for a second and stumbled through the paper-thin walls of organized thought.  All the ends and all the beginnings became mixed up and then lost upon themselves.  Everything around me experienced a momentary slice of evaporation, including myself, and all I knew was darkness.  Without order and without expectations, the world and our paths in it made just enough sense for me to think I understood what I was doing.  Normal consciousness ricocheted back into the forefront of my mind.  I pushed off the car and stood back up.  The light was still falling from the window to our room but there was no movement of shadows, everything was still in the night.  Not even a cricket chirped, making every step I took sound like a shattered shotgun blast.  Expand your mind with a shotgun, a friend of mine used to say.  I didn’t see many of my old friends anymore.  Always keep moving.

The tarnished golden doorknob spun with my hand and the great wooden door inched open.  Slight upon slight the door opened until I had a clear image of Camille curled on the bed.  I couldn’t tell if she was asleep or waiting for me.  Her glasses were off, resting on the dark wooden nightstand, her hair had fallen over her face, slipping down onto the bed.  It was here, standing in this doorway, looking at her with the smooth, chilled Nebraska night behind me that I realized the beauty and wonders that she was composed of.  And it was all feeling, all emotion.  As much as I try to lay these thoughts out and piece them into intelligible words, I know it’s an impossible task.  That was exactly the wonder of her.  It’s as if she wasn’t real and never was because nothing tangible is sufficient to describe her.  She hits you on a different level of perception and you never know what it was that hit you, you’re just left reeling.  I stumbled over thoughts about her and nothing fell in a straight line; they scattered and that was the only way I was able to read them and get an idea, to begin understanding what I felt about her.

I remained in the doorway: one foot in the room, one foot out, my hand still on the doorknob.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from her, I couldn’t do anything; if I were to fall at that moment, I would realize what was happening yet be unable to do anything about it.  And my body did seem to be going limp, my hand slipping from the door and lightly pushing it.  It creaked this time, shaking me out of my trance.

Camille was sort of splayed out, laying on her side with her head in the direction of the bathroom that had been my refuge not so long ago.  She slept in her jeans and the red tank-top she’d worn during the warmer parts of the day, the cable-knit sweater folded and placed neatly atop her unopened rolling suitcase.  Just looking at her, in that singular moment when God knew how many people were awakening to their problems and how many were succumbing to them, I knew that I loved her.  It was stronger than any other fake premonition of love I had ever felt before.  I had loved her since I met her and now I loved her more fully than ever before.  I stepped softly into the room and clicked off the lamp.  The room became awash in darkness with only ghostly wisps of moonlight drifting in, terrifying and beautiful.  I walked in and stood over her, just looking, taking her in.  That tiny tide of light became homicidal, its strength overpowering me until I felt like I was suffocating in the air of the open room.  I could see myself leaning over, brushing the gold silk off of her face.  I caught a heavy scent of her smell again and almost lost myself in that desert that could bring me to my knees faster than any act of brutality or repentance.

I tilted my bent angle a fraction more and kissed her forehead.  She smiled unconsciously.  Love had always been a thing that I so strongly pretended to understand but it was always just that, just pretend.  I stood straight and turned away.  My brown and beige overnight bag sat atop the table near the entrance to the room.  The two leather hand straps were still buttoned together and they stood straight up.  The bag was light, just a few changes of clothes and some toiletries inside.  Almost absentmindedly, I took the car keys from my pocket and laid them on the table where my bag had been.  Then my hand was back on the doorknob, turning it so slowly and deliberately.  She had outdrawn me; I was shooting back.  I had loved her in numerous ways since I had met her, since we’d been friends, years and years earlier, but things were now in dangerous territory that I thought was bigger than the two of us together.  And so I walked out the door and back into the night, breathing in the air of uncertainty.

Walking back out into that Nebraska night was like walking directly into a self-directed line of fire.  What was I doing?  Where was I going?  Who did I think I was?  The worst part was that I had no answers to justify myself.  All I really know, I told myself, is that I cannot stay here, I cannot stay with her.  In searching for love between her and myself she was simply angling herself downwards, not just setting herself up for a fall, but actually begging for it.  I didn’t want to be the one pulling the lever to make the floor drop out from underneath her, she meant too much for me to do that.  And though I felt like I loved her with all my heart, I knew that if I stayed I would have eventually worn the executioners hood.

 

between you and me

 

My boots on the parking lot’s gravel kicked up the same gray clouds as before.  The sky looked even blacker.  The air felt even stiller.  The atmosphere was alive and all changing but the gray cloud remained the same, kicked up and resettling back where it’d come from.  My steps were loud against the gravel.  The brown bag hung from my right shoulder and I knew the strap would leave a solid red mark on my skin by the time I dropped it again.

I stood at the edge of the road.  Street lamps shone in the distance but I couldn’t tell how far away they were.  The Wayward Traveler sign to my right had long ago been turned off.  I looked to the left, the direction we’d been heading when we stopped earlier, the direction I was to again head now.  I didn’t know what Camille would make of my disappearance, if she would try to find me on the road or leave me to my journey.  I hadn’t left any note so she’d need to piece it together herself but she was smart.  I had utter faith in her, more than I had in myself, but it’s all about big gambles and big payouts. I hoped so at least, and I put my foot to the blacktop.

 

**credit to John Cale for the lyrics from ‘(I Keep A) Close Watch’

The City Clock (or, An Enumeration of Jack & Meg Reynolds) (#20)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 16, 2012 at 9:58 am

1 love.

2 people searching for each other.

3 children that’ll change everything about their lives.

4 months trying to get pregnant the first time.

5 grandchildren, but they don’t come along for a very long time.

6 different apartments they live in together before deciding to leave the city and buy a home.

7 years Bianca spends in college before graduating.

8 women that he slept with before meeting her.

9 men that she slept with before meeting him.

10 weeks in the hospital after his car accident.

11 movers working a full day to pack them out of their house the last time they move.

12 dollars for an anniversary cake from the same bakery where they ended their first date.

13 Christmases dressed like Santa Claus.

14 years, approximately, that Kingsley spends in prison for a variety of reasons.

15 fights over the entire course of a remarkably stable marriage.

16 children’s books she publishes during her 60s and 70s, while “retired.”

17 vacations at the beachside rental.

18 years old, Wendy, when she joins the army.

19 companies he refuses to buy from for political reasons.

20 months between their first and second children.

21 degrees outside and snowing when he proposed to her.

22 years in banking before she decided it wasn’t for her.

23 boxes to pack the first time they moved together.

24 thousand dollars on home renovations just before the market collapsed.

25 seconds she waited before saying “I do.”

26 when they married.

27 hundred dollars for the most expensive ring he ever bought.

28 countries they’ll visit, mostly after they retire.

29 years old when have Wendy, their first-born.

30 days after meeting, he told her that he loved her, at a wedding.

31 when they have Kingsley.

32 different campaigns they volunteer for together.

33 weeks between jobs in 2011.

34 marriage counseling sessions while Bianca flails through college and Kingsley does his second stint in prison.

35 thousand dollars per year in undergrad for him to never use his degree.

36 business trips the same year he was let go.

37 flights they take together.

38 when they have Bianca.

39 R 3 SG – the plot number of their shared grave site.

40 weeks to plan their wedding.

41 when she changes careers.

42 states they visit together.

43 when she finally convinces him it’s pronounced ‘supposedly’ and not ‘supposably.’

44 friends invited to their 50th wedding anniversary.

45 when his father dies and his mother moves to an apartment not far from their home.

46 when the cancer scare comes.

47 people at their wedding.

48 weeks dating before they move in together.

49 when the cancer reality comes.

50 days until their first great-grandchild, Monica, is born.

Numbered Days (#19)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Wednesday

This was the first day I saw her in the park.  Red dress.  Eight planks of unstained pinewood fashioned loosely into a stage set between the Luminos Building and the large concrete fountain in our little corporate park on 13th and E.  I could recognize the fresh scent of the lumber from thirty feet away amid the exhaust, food, and perfumes of the city.  The stage was neither large nor small; it suit her perfectly, this stranger.  A one-woman show; there was room to pace, to cry, to call out towards Heaven, to beat the floorboards and claw at the grave.  I only say this with certainty as I saw her performing these motions over the course of the day.  I observed her on my way into the office, I held her in my line of sight from my office window on the 12th floor, I lingered over her when I stepped out for cigarette and coffee reprieves. It was this same day and in this same office that I received the Pinski account and became manager of our second largest account.  It was this same day that we learned Harris had killed himself, which was the reason for Pinski falling into my lap.  Normally there would be a day or so before account redistribution, but Pinski was just too big.

She was on stage reciting dramatic monologues without hesitation, without notes, without any sense of order as she called for requests.  Few answered her.  Some humored her with the standards, some challenged her with the obscure.  Shaw, Brecht, Shakespeare, Pinter, Synge, O’Conner, Churchill, Thomas.  She challenged them back, calling for specificities: a play, a scene, or a character, but her antagonists generally folded.  These were men and women like myself: ad men, accountants, personal assistants, executives, and financiers.  We could muster together a playwright and a play for these were the things required at cocktail parties, necessary for the social lubrication that allowed us to squeeze upwards on the tightly packed ladders that dominated our lives.  Unless the theatre was someone’s outside hobby, nobody knew anybody they didn’t need to know.  Even from so high up, I could hear bits and pieces of the outside world through my cracked-open window.  I only recognized some of the Shakespeare and that was primarily luck.

I cracked the window in my office and her voice fluttered in on gusts of wind.  I had opened the window to hear her but tried to not stray too much in that direction.  Pinski was more than big.  Pinski was a behemoth.  There was no reason for the account to have come my way other than those above me doing their damnedest to dodge the bullet themselves.  Pinski was high risk, high reward, but most just viewed it as a threat, a liability.  A tragic opportunity they called it, the smell of Harris’ death still in the air, a moment to step up and distinguish myself.  Trial by fire; execution by ire.  Harris would be remembered for the wrong reasons.

She was distinguishing herself far below me.  Even if she has no name, I thought, she’ll be remembered better than I’ll be; all it took was one day of standing on a silly, transient stage to become lodged, however deeply, in thousands of memories.  People may remember the work I’ll do, the images and jingles and campaigns may linger, but not my name, not my face.  Harris would even be remembered more than me.  Harris.  Pinski.  I shut the window and turned away from the red dress below.

Thursday

The stage was dismantled.  Six planks sat in a pile while the remaining one lay across her cross-legged lap as she sat on the ground damp from the night before, rain still collected in the pockmarks of the concrete.  No matter the pervasive moisture around her, both she and her collection of wood seemed completely dry.  One of the planks had disappeared.  She wore blue jeans and a black tank top that contrasted the pale musculature of her arms.  She seemed to utter not a word.  Her right hand held a wood plane as her left steadied the plank.  A stack of sandpaper sat tall next to her.  In smooth and steady strokes, she ran the plane over the plank, creating thin, curling sheets of wood that dropped around her.  In time, she seemed to be sitting within the collections of a pale snowdrift, mute as a snowman.  Snowwoman, I suppose.  Fewer people stopped to see her today.  She did not wield the same dramatic magnetism as the day before.  Wednesday, people had stopped to watch and then asked the simple question: why?  Today, they asked why and didn’t bother stopping to watch.  Which is to say that I only gave her about three minutes before heading into my building.  It was 7:03 when I turned my back to her.

I had worked for eighteen hours the day before.  Pinski was a killer or a career-maker, depending on how well you handled it.  Harris was the unfortunate example.  Second largest account and also the most troublesome.  Our clients within Pinski were notoriously difficult to deal with, mercurial and antagonistic, challenging and unrelenting, continuously changing opinions and expectations.  In my seven years with the company, six different people had managed the account.  I made lucky number seven.  Harris was the only actual casualty; the others had either beaten back the account and slid up the corporate ladder or had quit, transferred, found new jobs.  Pinski could make you or break you.  I liked my job and hoped to be one of those who could best the beast.  That meant leaving at midnight and working at home for an hour before sleeping.  My wife understood.  She was an editor at one of the city papers, which meant she kept fluctuating hours as well; she was neither home when I got there nor when I left.  This happened frequently.  I missed her more than I loved her.

Wednesday had been devoted to sifting through the paperwork and files for all of the Pinski sub-accounts, to acclimate myself to the atmosphere.  Thursday was the planned attack.  I knew who was who, who needed what, how quickly they needed it, which Harris had attended to, which he had allowed to slide down the slope.  I say planned but it was loose at best.  My team met at 7:30am and the tasks were doled out in descending order of responsibility and trustworthiness.  I wouldn’t become Harris.  We knew what each account wanted, needed, in what ways they had changed their minds and we were anticipating their future shifts.  Everyone knew the meeting was coming so they were prepared.  The last person left my office at 8:01.  One minute late.  I shook it off.

With everyone gone, the office became oppressive.  The whirr of the hard drive, the tick of the antique clock, the whoosh of the air conditioning turned on early for the season all amounted to a weighted nothingness.  I stood and walked to the window.  She was still there and working incredibly slowly.  There was no way of knowing when she had begun but the plank was still in good shape.  The shavings were an illusion, a castle built on air and angles that puffed the structure up.  Was there an end design for the plank?  Was it nothingness?  Would she shave until the plank no longer remained, until a gust of wind blew the cloud of slivers away, leaving behind just her?

Friday

I didn’t get close enough to see how it all held together but the six planks had been fashioned into a large vertical hexagon, only as deep as the width of each plank, which is to say, not very.  And yet there she was, sitting inside the structure, somehow balanced upon the bottom plank, seemingly meditating.  Again, she sat cross-legged but her back was ramrod straight and her hands sat open upon her knees, palms facing upwards towards the ceiling of the sky.  Her eyes and lips were closed, not a single movement or utterance, not even the flutter of an eyelid when the sun emerged from behind the clouds and backlit the darkness she imposed upon herself.

This was different from the past two days.  Wednesday had been straight dramatic performance and Thursday was more like performance art.  This… this seemed to me like she was simply taking up space.  To meditate in a space like that didn’t bring anything to the people around, did it?  Then again, did the wood shaving?  And she was balancing upon the base beam.  The planks of wood almost seemed to be of as much importance to whatever she was doing as she herself was.  It suddenly dawned on me that this was a sort of countdown.  Wednesday was eight planks of wood and we were losing one plank per day, perhaps we were losing her piece by piece as the days pushed onward.  Maybe she wanted us to begin thinking about thinking, thinking about existing, and thinking about our own progression through life.  What is meditation anyway?  What is performance, what is spectacle?  When do I stop existing for me and begin existing for someone else?

I circled around her before heading inside.  We had hit the ground running yesterday and everything was going well until my phone rang at precisely 10:00.  It was Pinski himself, the patriarch of it all, the boss, the ruler of the empire that had turned to face me.  I had heard his voice once before and as he responded to my greeting with, “Jennings, a storm is already brewing,” I already had my email client open to the Pinski folder that housed all the Pinski sub-folders.  My team had been emailing me updates every thirty minutes and nothing as yet seemed out of place.  “Mr. Pinski, it’s a pleasure to finally speak with you.”  “Fuck the pleasantries just like you’re fucking me, Jennings.  You are single-handedly undermining my entire enterprise.  It hasn’t even been a day.  Can you get one goddamned thing right?”  “Mr. Pinski, I –” but that was it.  He was gone.  His voice had sent electrical charges shooting below my skin, antagonizing every nerve ending that I tried to keep calm.  Sweat, nausea, images of Harris.  All came with bombast and bodily violence.  Moments later, emails began to drop in from all the heads of Pinski’s Hydra, iterating the changes that had been made in their expectations and desires.  Deadlines, budgets, creative goals, talent, their own team lineups; everything had shifted – some had done a full about-face, others weren’t quite so drastic.  And miraculously (for the inner turmoil was on the verge of tearing me apart), they had more or less fallen in line with what we had anticipated.  Elation is the only word to describe what I felt.  Those revolting corners of my body crumbled beneath the weight of foresight and planning.  We had a chance.

When I left that night, near midnight again, she was still there, still meditating, still caught up in the world within herself.  She was serene, she moved not a muscle, until my watch clicked twelve, and her eyes opened.

Saturday

My wife had left a note at home saying that she’d be away for a work trip over the weekend.  I wished she had been around to give us time to talk, to make sense of our known issues at work as well as our unknown issues at home.  I felt as if we hadn’t shared a home in a long time.  I thought that it was the thing I wanted most.

So because of my absent wife and because of Pinski I was in the office before the sun rose on Saturday.  I had worked plenty of Saturdays before but never was I there at 6am, never was I the first one in, always instead a team member on those projects, never the leader as I had become for Pinski.  Leader of a deflated and thrashed balloon, for everything had fallen apart around 9pm the night before.  Those emails that had been the source of such happiness Friday morning had all come undone by Friday night.  We, I, had only anticipated the one shift in expectations from Pinski, the one that we had been astonishingly prepared for, the one that my team and superiors had been so impressed with my handling of.  I was wrapping up for the night when a dozen emails came in from Pinski detailing all the shifts, all the mistakes we had made, all of our mental deficiencies, all the examples, all the evidence of our subterfuge and undermining of Pinski and everything Pinski stood for.

So there I was, there we were, back at it; undoing everything we had thrilled for the day before and beginning anew.  Beginning anew with deadlines that had risen up from their slumber and stumbled closer to us.  It seemed like they were out for my head, that Pinski had thrilled at Harris’ crumbling and was out for more; strength from the blood of the conquered.

I was there, Pinski loomed in the air, and she was there as well, just like every other day, committed to continuation even if few others were.  She had been there when I left the night before and was there with a sort of flat-roofed house when I arrived.  Two planks straight up, two angled at about forty-five degrees, and one flat across the top.  The entire structure stood at least fifteen feet tall and sprawled wider than anything else before, wider than even the stage.  Despite the noise of her first day on the stage, this seemed the most likely to incur police intervention due to the physical scope; it was in her favor that the office complex and the park were mostly empty on the weekend.

The first two days, she had stood atop and then deconstructed a structure, or at least a portion of that structure.  Now, two days in a row she had placed herself underneath or within a structure of sorts.  Instead of her quiet meditation this time, she mimicked household chores and activities, full pantomime and sound recreation.  She pretended to vacuum, fake cooked upon a fake stove, pulled clothes made of air from an invisible dryer and folded them delicately on a bed that nobody could see.  All the while, the whirr of the vacuum, the sizzle of oil meeting water in the frying pan, and the rumble of the dryer all passed from her lips.  These were just the things I saw her doing in the morning and when I stepped outside for a cigarette in both the late morning and the early afternoon; it was more efficient than eating.

I wanted to watch more of her.  I wanted to see her continue through the routines of the day, to see the creation of a household from thin air, to see a domesticity that I felt existed in my life only as a wisp.  She made, piece by piece, a home that I wanted.  Reality awaited me back upstairs while components of dreams and desires moved in front of me.  I could hear the ding of the elevator through the glass façade of the office building, through the rumble of her dishwasher as she waited for the cycle to end, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table.  She looked towards me.  She smiled.  I turned away and went upstairs to put out the fires burning in my home.

Sunday

I was close enough to make out the details and yet I saw neither adhesive nor nails nor anything of the sort.  Nevertheless, she had created a picture frame from the four planks of wood that remained in her arsenal on that rainy morning.  She had propped it against some rocks and cinderblocks and that freedom allowed her to reframe herself and repose, for she was the subject within the picture frame.  She had been our unofficial spectacle since Wednesday, now the point was hammered into place.  My window from the 12th floor allowed me to see that she kept changing her appearance throughout the day.  Sometimes she stood tall and straight, centered in the frame, sometimes she pushed against it like a mime.  She mimicked American Gothic, taking turns on the parts of the husband and wife; she mimicked the Scream repeatedly.  I’m certain there were more replications of famous works but these were the only that I saw or recognized.

When I first saw her on my way into the office at 8 – this late arrival my only recognition of the weekend – I stopped for five minutes to watch her.  She was posing as if in a chair, reading a book.  She looked up after a few minutes and seeing me there, she stood, put down the “book,” and gazed directly into my eyes.  She held my stare for a few seconds, captivating me, before I realized that she had assumed my stance, my posture, the hang of my arms, and the slight slouch of my back.  She had become a perfect mirror of me and I saw myself as I was at that moment and how I would be that night.  Her solid reflection became my fast forward button and I saw myself as I would be come Monday and Tuesday.  She blinked when I saw my Wednesday self and subsequently lost the thread; I had no vision of what battered person I would be after that.  She assumed the first Scream of the day and I went inside.

Saturday bled into Sunday.  My team was there the entire time, my more sympathetic superiors flitted in and out, trying to help me manage the undulating scenario I was working within.  Nobody understood Pinski: the method of operation, what the ultimate goals were, why the shifts came so rapidly, unexpectedly, and drastically.  Pinski himself had contacted the head of my firm on Saturday, had actually flown in for dinner with him while I was losing weight and looking down on the serene meditation of the artist below.  Pinski had calmly explained that he understood that he could occasionally tax our resources and thus offered more cash for our continued services.  Which translates to no intervention on my behalf; which translates to a sliver of assistance from above; which translates to my continued presence in the office.

I still couldn’t get a leg up on any of the companies within the Pinski account.  Harris had left no notes, no thoughts on where things were going or what he thought might be the actual goals of the account.  There was a notebook documenting his frustrations, which were disturbingly similar to mine.  I could have written the damn thing, but in my concern over getting things right, I hesitated to read much into it.  I was busy not becoming Harris, not succumbing, not being the conquered.

I glanced outside before falling asleep in the office.  I stood at the window with Harris’ diary in my right hand.  Below, she was again become the Scream.

Monday

A pyramid.  Egyptian.  She wasn’t on it or under it, but in front.  She lay on the ground, her stomach, waist, and thighs against the wet concrete.  Her calves were curled and poised like a feline and her chest and head were held high, buoyed by the support of her arms.  She had become a Sphinx.  Whether she enticed people with this position or whether they were more playful having just returned from the weekend, they were drawn in.  Time and again, they approached her.  From where I stood, still yet to have entered the office building that morning, I could never hear what was said but after some back and forth, she would bow her head and wait until they passed beyond.  I hesitated before approaching.

“So what is this all about?”  Her eyes looked into mine, we were so close after so many days that I wanted to sit with her for this conversation.  I remained standing though, looking down at her while she looked upwards

“I am the Sphinx, guardian of the pyramid you see behind me.”

“Right, but why have you been here this whole time?  Is this being filmed somewhere?”  I cast my eyes 360-degrees, expecting to suddenly find the dull, black, glassy eyes of camcorders

“I am the Sphinx, guardian of the pyramid you see behind me.  Do you wish to pass?”  Truthfully, I had expected almost anything but this response.  I don’t know what I expected but not this re-proclamation, not this question.  It didn’t faze me.

“Sure, I’d like to pass.”

“Then you must answer my riddle.  If you answer correctly, you may pass freely and safely.  But should you answer incorrectly, I will eat you; consume you.”

“What?”

“I will not do so immediately though, as the true Sphinx once did.  Instead, you will have three days before I eat you whole.  Are you ready?”  What was there to lose?  Over a dozen people had gone by and not one seemed to falter.  I stood straighter, taller.

“I’m ready.”

“There are two sisters,” she said.  “One gives birth to the other and she, in turn, gives birth to the first.  Who are they?”

Uncertainty prefaced the sweat, which prefaced the concern, all of which came on in less than a second.  This wasn’t the question I expected, the typical Sphinx question, the “what-walks-on-four-then-two-then-three-legs” riddle.

“I’ll give you a hint,” she said, eyeing me with concern, “I’m not Egyptian.  I’m Greek.”

I didn’t even know there were Greek Sphinxes.  This was a tease in the guise of a hint.  I looked around as if for help but nobody paid us any attention, nobody impatiently waited for their turn with our resident minimalist and avant artist.  I thought hard yet generated nothing; felt like I was already in the office.

“I don’t know.”

“Really?  No guesses?  Maybe you’ll get lucky.”

“No guesses – I’m not much for luck.”  She looked away for the first time, casting her eyes downward.  I saw them reflected in the small puddle below her chin and I saw a ripple erupt from the center and make tiny waves outward.

“In that case,” she said, “the answer is Day and Night.”

“Why sisters?  Why not friends, brothers, anything?”

“Day and Night are both feminine in Greek.  That was the hint.”  That was the hint.  It felt like a riddle Pinski would tell, a riddle constructed for failure.

“Clever,” I said.  “So now you’ll eat me?”

“Not yet – three days.  Today is day one and you will have until the end of the third day before I come for you.  Three days.”

There was a voicemail waiting for me upstairs.  Only one.  That was un-Pinski like; they enjoyed filling the hard drive as if it was a competition, while simultaneously sending emails.  But there was just the one voicemail.  Pinski’s voice was on the other end of the line; we had spoken only the one time before.  Friday.  The terseness displayed back then had been ejected forcefully from the man.  I could now barely understand what he said – it ranged from whispers to grumbles to shouts so mangled by an unexplainable fury that I heard more clearly the spittle hitting the microphone of the mouthpiece than I did the words he shoved past his lips.  He was coming.  Pinski was coming for me.  Leaving LA behind and coming to my state, my city, by building, my floor, my office.  Pinski was coming and I didn’t know why but I knew it wasn’t good, that it was very far from good.  Wednesday.  Three days.

I knew neither where to start nor where to aim myself in order to end.  Everyone knew by the time I had arrived that Pinski was coming though nobody would tell me how they knew.  The team looked to me for guidance but I had nothing to offer them.  His coming was the bomb dropping – it would change everything and made pointless any work we would do now.  Where was there to go when there was neither direction nor destination?  I told them to put Pinski aside for now and to resume work on their other accounts.  They wouldn’t listen, they worked in what they thought was secrecy but I knew what they were doing, so I revoked their access to the various Pinski sub-accounts.  My superiors came to see me, cigarette smoke and whiskey on their breath.  They empathized.  They understood the difficult account and agreed that perhaps it was best to get my other accounts in order before he came.  They may as well have said goodbye then and there.  Have done with it.  Start fresh, for I was thoroughly spoilt as far as they were concerned.  I began to wish I had gone to inspect the pyramid more closely.

Tuesday

I turned the corner curious to see what had come of her diminished supplies to find that she had gone the simplest of routes and created a crucifix.  She did not hang from it in spite of her physical involvement with all other daily tableaus.  Instead, an orange crate was placed at the base of the crucifix, which somehow stood freely, and it was upon this that she was planted with her arms outstretched in her best Jesus Christ pose.  She had traded in her previous outfit for linen pants and a linen shirt.  It was the only expected thing she’d done.  One foot lay upon the other, her head hung downwards to the right side of her chest, arms steady and without a quiver.  People brushed past quickly, turning a snide eye, muttering to themselves. Passersby spoke as if they had followed her work for decades; even calling it a rebuke of her earlier self.

I stood in the rain with her for twenty minutes.  I had come early just to have extra time with whatever she had constructed for that day.  Nervous was the way I felt when thinking of what had to be her impending departure from our scene.  My wristwatch tolled 7am and like Pavlov’s bitch, my body turned away from her and towards my skyscraper’s revolving glass doors.  I glanced back through the emerging sunlight and lingering raindrops.  A hazy mist of a rainbow was forming and for an instant, a tear of ruby blood ran the length of her cheek.  I wondered if gods, or the sons of gods, ate people, or if my sentence had been commuted.  One sentence before me and one above.

Inside, there were eight messages awaiting my arrival.  I guessed seven but all eight were from Pinski people.  I was long past sympathizing with Harris and was instead beginning to wonder if he had found release in death or if Pinski had people there as well.  Nothing was right, they said, nothing was meeting approval, they wanted an explanation for the drop in communication the day before.  It didn’t matter that we had followed their edits, suggestions, and revisions word for word.  It didn’t matter that we had slaved away with them every time they turned corners expected and unexpected.  Pinski paid, paid well, and had recently upped that number.  Was that only days ago?  It felt like weeks.

The intern placed my 8am coffee on my desk at 7:30.  She said it looked like I needed it early.  I thanked her as she walked away.  She was young, pretty.  I hadn’t seen my wife since this all began.  There were problems at the paper, financial issues that were stacking up, building upon themselves, and pushing everything else out of the way.  Including me, not that I would have been there anyway.  Her hours were as bad as mine but her problems were the institution’s; my problems were mine.  She was Rome, whereas I was Damocles.  We were both oblivious.

I looked at the fork in the road ahead of me.  One option was to begin calling my other accounts, tell them that I would be heading out on sabbatical, and to direct their communications to one or another person on my team.  Begin an exit strategy, basically; step away gently and go down intact.  The other option would be to take a final shot at Pinski.  Aim and pull the trigger, hold it down until I either beat him or he comes for me.  The stacks of files on my desk were tall, the team was already locked out of the accounts, they were disbanding slowly and unwillingly, another round of emails was likely to come in from Pinski at any moment.  But what if Pinski began to double back on previous instructions?

Wednesday

I hoped it wasn’t her last day but the finality of being impaled upon a pike seemed to indicate otherwise.  Didn’t the crucifix yesterday say the same thing, the intern had asked me.  Jesus rose, I responded.  And isn’t Jesus supposed to come again, she parried.  Yes, I said, you’re right; Jesus is supposed to come again.  But he hasn’t yet, he’s still gone; we’re still waiting for him to come back.

All day long, I returned to my windows to gaze upon her lifeless body below.  She was alive, obviously; both from the ground and from here it was apparent that her body was somehow affixed to the side of the pike, giving the illusion from certain angles that she was impaled.  And she breathed heavily as if the position required great physical expenditure.  Not even understanding how this worked, I was inclined to believe that it did require a bit of effort.

I had remained in the office the night before.  My wife had called around 10:30 and said she’d be likely doing the same.  There was crowd noise in her background; there was silence in mine.  I had asked what was happening but she hung up before I finished.  I had taken option two in the face of Pinski, the road of confrontation, of not backing down, of climbing off the cross and facing the pike, no matter what may come for the worst was known.  Wasn’t it?  I had taken my two best team members and the intern and sequestered us in my office.  Forget living and breathing, we mainlined Pinski.  We went through the shifts, the changes, the expectations old and new, through my time and Harris’ time, and those who came before him.  We did the homework, we studied, we crammed, we made preparation the focus and execution the afterthought.  Pinski was coming and that perversely bought us time.  We each stayed overnight, sleeping in shifts so that the we could continue working.

I hadn’t slept though.  I traded that time for the view out the window and the occasional trip downstairs to see her and to smoke.  Two crutches.  I had wanted to see her transition from two planks to the one.  Wanted to know when it happened, wanted to know what became of the wood that disappeared everyday, wanted to see her as a human being and not an artist, in the moments between her art.  I missed the transition though.  Had been caught up in some minor breakthrough and missed the tolling of midnight.  By time I realized, seven minutes late, she was already impaled and lost to this world.

Pinski was coming but his plane wasn’t scheduled to land until late – sometime after 10pm.  He’d be coming directly to the office.  I could barely keep focused from the lack of sleep and from knowing the executioner was waiting.  The executioner.  I reconsidered my vocabulary in order to drain Pinski of some of the power I was imbuing him with but nothing would fill the void.  We had a chance against him, slim as it may have been.  If we pulled it off, it would be amazing; if we didn’t, well, back to the executioner.  Pinski was important enough that the heads of my firm bowed before the man, the conglomerate, the account, and the fees.

The hours continued by, unaware of the way that I, we, the entire company was keeping one eye on the clock.  We kept working as the sun rose higher and eventually began the downward creep, long shadows cutting across the office walls.  Fingers were cramping, our knuckles had become sore and our fingertips were smooth and tender from the thin layer of skin that had been punched off on keyboards.  At a certain point, sometime after the intern had brought my 7pm coffee, I dismissed them all.  I told them that we had done everything we could, everything that we would be able to do.  As willingly as they had participated, this was not their fight and there was no need for them to suffer through to the end.  It was more explaining than was necessary.  They were gone quickly, like they could already smell my corpse beginning to rot.

Once everyone was gone, I went downstairs with my coffee and two cigarettes.  I crouched against the exterior of the building as near to her as I could and peeled the lid off the coffee cup.  She was still there, no reason for her to change her pattern, but I was still amazed that she hung there motionless except for her breathing.  She was dedicated, or she was gone, absent into the back rooms of her mind.  There was so much I still wanted to know about her but a suspicion lurked inside of me that I would never discover the truth.  As one cigarette burned away, I remembered that we were approaching the end of my third day, the day upon which I would be consumed.  Not if Pinski beats you to it, I thought.

The call was from Pinski’s assistant.  The flight had been delayed but they had finally landed minutes earlier.  They would be at the office in under an hour and expected that I be there as well.  That was it; he hung up before I could get a word in.  An hour would be just after midnight.  “He’s racing you,” I said aloud even though she was hundreds of feet and millions of miles away from me.  I called my immediate supervisor.  He was at dinner with his wife, told me he’d be here, told me to stay put.  The way he said it – stay put – was like a warning, an admonition to be careful, to not do anything drastic, to be careful, to not hurt myself or anyone around me, to not become Harris.

The sky was black but reminiscent of Halloween with the orange glow of light pollution.  I could barely make out the lights of airplanes ascending and descending outside of the city limits, wondered if I had seen Pinski arriving.  Another coffee sat lightly in the grip of my right hand as I sat in my desk chair, repositioned along the windows so that I could still see her hoisted below.  Midnight loomed but my staggering concerns were not quite enough to keep me solidly awake.  Pinski was inevitability – there was no ice water in there to shock me lucid.  What would happen, I couldn’t know, but that amounted only to details.  Any minute, the door could open, the sound of footsteps, the presence in my doorframe.  His assistant had indicated near midnight and that was only two minutes away.  Below, she gave no sign of moving and my eyes were steady upon her.  I had become familiar with the final act but I wanted to see the exit, how it all went down, how she took her bow.  So much mystery and majesty, would she just walk away in the end?  Take the last plank or leave it?  Disappear into thin air and leave no trace.  One minute.

It wasn’t the caffeine but the burn of heat through the coffee cup keeping me going.  Then I heard it.  The swift opening of a door and the sound of footsteps.  Low voices.  The air seemed to rush through the floor and into my office.  The sound of a single knuckle rapping intently against the doorframe.  I looked up and over.  Pinski, the head of it all, empire and trouble and anything else, standing in my doorframe.  But I didn’t see him, not really.  I saw the idea of him.   It was too fast.  I saw him and in seeing one of the forces of nature that had been eluding my comprehension for the past week, I realized I had broken my downward gaze just as my watch ticked over to midnight.  I stood and looked back out the window, down at my artist.

She was gone.  The pike was gone.  A trace of neither in the now empty park.  I turned to face Pinski along with his assistant but they were gone as well.  I ran to the door and looked left and right down the hallway but there were no traces of anyone having been there.  I went from offices to cubicles to conference rooms looking for them, but nothing.  The entire floor was as silent and empty as it had been for the previous few hours.  Orange light filtered in through some of the windows.  Motion sensors caught me and illuminated my movements.  But nothing.  From one corner of the floor to the opposite, there was not a soul.

“Pinski?  Pinski!”  No answer.  But as my shout settled into the carpeting, I heard the door open again, more gently this time.  The sensors had lost their bead on me and I stood in darkness.  The cubicle walls were tall and I could just barely see the top of a head moving through the labyrinth.  It wasn’t Pinski and it wasn’t his assistant.  Blonde hair, loose, seemingly long, seemingly familiar.  The sensors selectively picked up her movement.  I smelled the rain of the past few days; it wafted my way gradually as she made her way to my empty office.  I could no longer see her but heard her pause and then slowly begin working her way towards me through the cubicle maze.  I stood still, terrified and turned on; maybe it was the same feeling.

She turned the corner and there she was: a flowing white skirt and brown peasant shirt, trace amounts of sawdust trailing behind her.  There I was: suit pants and a button-down with the sleeves rolled up past the breaking point.  She met my eyes and held them firmly.

“It’s been three days,” was all she said before every light went out around us.

More Than I Know (#18)

In Stories Volume 1 on July 2, 2012 at 11:18 am

NEW YORK

New York is a great city to enter but a better one to exit.  Coming in, you’re wide-eyed, fresh, ready for experiences, and hungry to taste what the world has to offer.  But when you leave, your focus is narrowed, you’ve lived the experiences, you’ve learned from them, and your palate is refined.  By the time you leave New York, you know what you want and you should be on your way to find it.

Postcard Coney Island.  The boardwalk packed, the carnival lights of the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump triumphant over the night sky, the expansive blackness of the Atlantic Ocean encroaching.  4×6, clean straight lines, wholesomeness on display, neighborhood reality outside the edges.  Idealization running rampant – that’s the idea.  This postcard is meant to be bookend of sorts – one coast to the other.

On the other side, I write, “There’s a certain amount of surprise missing from modern society, isn’t there?”  I don’t sign it – just address it, drop it into a mailbox at the next intersection, and leave New York in pursuit of what I want.

 

NEW JERSEY

Living so near to it and having so many friends come from there, I thought I knew New Jersey.  Newark International fading from my rearview mirror, though, the landscape becomes as foreign as anything else I’d never truly encountered.  The names ring so familiar but beneath the surface, they mean nothing.  East Orange, Parsippany, Rockaway, Roxbury Township.  Fielding is from Jersey, his parents still live somewhere named Mahwah but we’ve never visited them together.  He’s never invited me for the holidays or reunions or birthdays, and he’s never told his parents about me.  I can’t be certain but I don’t think he ever told them he was gay.  28 years old, almost 29, and he couldn’t even admit to me that he couldn’t admit it to them.  It saddens me and somehow makes me love him more.

New Jersey.  Fielding always said it like it was old and provincial, as if no gay sons had come from Jersey and it was his burden to bear.  I offered him a shoulder and he refused it, even from within the safety of Brooklyn.  We could share time and love and practically everything else, but he would never take my support when it came to that one thing.  So I never knew Mahwah and still don’t as it lays outside the course of my directions.  Some things are destined to remain mysteries but I hope that this gambit begins to unravel the Gordian knot of Fielding’s distance and detachment.

 

PENNSYLVANIA

The Delaware River makes for an uninspired crossing-over point from Jersey to Pennsylvania but it’s fast, it’s simple, and there’s no traffic.  My route through the Keystone State keeps me on the northern side of things, still fairly close to New York as if it can only let me go by degrees, a gradual loosening of the grip instead of a fist flung open with empty fingers splayed out.

I’ve been to Philadelphia once, Pittsburgh once, and that is the extent of my time in Pennsylvania.  It’s midday as I pass through most of the state and from the highway, everything seems bucolic and quaint.  Fielding told me stories about school trips to Philly – he liked it there, liked the atmosphere, but by the time he was old enough to move out, the lure of New York was much stronger.  It was a much cooler place to be.  Fielding often promised to take me to Philadelphia but it never happened.  The one time I went for work, he offered to accompany me but backed out at the last minute.  His own deadlines at the architecture firm stood in the way and his clients didn’t understand the whims of a man in love or at least close to in love.  I didn’t hold it against him, his building plan had been behind schedule.  I believed he would have taken me if possible.

There were so many things that Fielding and I discussed doing: Philly, camping in the Adirondacks, a weekend in the Bahamas.  Thing is, we discussed these things while sitting around the apartment or bars, or walking down Third Avenue, and we never made it outside the confines of our own prison.  Our failure to mobilize together was surely a contributing factor in Fielding’s decisions.  To go to San Francisco, to abandon the architectural work that wasn’t progressing quickly enough, to make one last effort at the painting he claimed to love.

 

OHIO

I’m having my first doubts as the sun sets and I pass into Ohio.  It’s something to do with passing over into the great span of states that I know nothing about.  It’s emblematic.  I begin asking myself what I really know about Fielding, about us, about our mutual and distinct desires for the future, desires of each other, motivations, fears.  Commitment is obviously one of his fears; though we’ve been together for nearly a year he doesn’t call me his boyfriend or partner, says nothing to his parents, often keeps me at arms length emotionally and blames it on a lifelong tendency towards being distant.  It isn’t true – well, he is distant, that much is true, but it’s always seemed a little more directed towards me.

San Francisco was a complete surprise.  An invitation from two friends with a newly opened gallery, an offer to host him and his work.  Fielding had recently started painting again.  His new paintings were all good but none of them were great.  I still encouraged him.  Fielding planned it all on his own and then told me just one week before leaving.  Quit his job, sublet his apartment, told me we’d explore “the long-distance thing” but I knew he just wanted to explore a different side of his life.  A life without me.

So why am threading my way between Cleveland and Toledo?  Why do I think that surprising him is a good idea?  I ask myself these questions as the sky turns deeper blue and then black, as I think I see Lake Erie to the north but it’s just an illusion.  Why?  Is it because I love Fielding?  That’s hard to say as Fielding is such a difficult man to love, which doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of love or undeserving of love, just that it requires more of an effort.  Maybe it’s love.  Maybe it’s that I don’t want these months to have just been wheel-spinning.  I want my time and commitment and effort to come to something.  Maybe I want to give him the surprise that he’s been missing.  Do I love him?  I don’t know.  I’m getting older and that seems to worry me more than I ever anticipated.  Is Fielding my youth?

If I keep thinking like this I’m going to drive into a ditch.

 

INDIANA

Interstate 80 through Indiana runs right along the northern border with Michigan.  At times, the highway veers dangerously close to the other state.  It’s as if the road can’t make up its mind and wants things to be both ways.  I understand this, I relate to this, and it tears me to shreds to realize that I may be closer to a strip of highway than I am to Fielding.

One week before he left, Fielding revealed his plan to me and said we could attempt a long-distance relationship.  Then the day before he left, Fielding said it wasn’t worth the effort.  That the separation would be too vast.  That we were both plotting different courses in different directions.  Part of it seemed a genuine change of heart and part of it seemed his intention the entire time.  We both looked hurt.

 

ILLINOIS

Illinois comes with a whisper.  It may as well be a dream, or a fantasy, or a nightmare.  Everything seems to be blending together.

I’m stopped in a motel for the night.  I arrived in Lansing as the weight of my eyelids was winning the war.  I was exhausted from driving and really needed to be out of the car.  The solitude had crept under my skin, making me question everything and wearing away my conviction to continue heading west.  Now that I’m in a comfortable bed with plenty of light around me, now that I’ve had some interaction with others and not just my own voice, I’m feeling better about things.  I realize the daringness of this plan.  I understand that realistically this could go either way but I know that it’ll go my way and Fielding’s way, that our ways will be one.  I have to know that, otherwise what am I doing?

 

IOWA

It actually feels good to get back into the car and continue westward.  The sleep was refreshing, I feel good about my decisions, I feel good about myself and about Fielding; as good as one can when chasing down his lover who has fled with barely a word of communication.

I’m trying to be realistic.  Hopeful, but realistic.  We had seemed so well suited.  He the architect and painter, creative and striving; me the lawyer, mature and stable.  I suppose you could reframe those descriptions as ‘fun’ and ‘boring’ but we were more complimentary than anything else.  Energizing and calming.

I’ve been thinking that Fielding’s decision must have been his succumbing to fear, to his own tactics of emotional distancing.  Why else cut and run so suddenly after almost a year?  It doesn’t make sense, there’s no logic.  We can work through this, I just need to talk to him.

 

NEBRASKA

As hopeful as I am, the desolate expanse of Nebraska is difficult to pass through with only my thoughts as companions.  I can’t help but feel a measure of insignificance and it’s sort of awful when I’m trying to build myself up.

I tried calling Fielding again but it’s still going straight to voicemail.  It’s been like that since the week before.  I can’t tell if he’s turned the phone off or if he just isn’t taking my calls.  I don’t know if he’s okay or if something happened to him.  He gave me the address for where he’s staying so I don’t think he’s willfully avoiding me or trying to hide.  Fielding gave it to me when he first announced his impending departure so he must have had a genuine change of heart.  I knew it.  I can do this.  Thank goodness I’ll be able to find him.

 

WYOMING

What seems funny to me is how abstract and meandering my thoughts become the further I travel west.  It’s as if the hang-ups and the baggage and all the connections I have on the east coast actually weigh down my thoughts and hinder them from roaming.  There’s a freedom to this American West that I thought was nothing more than a fanciful notion in the mythology of America.  Did Fielding know about this?  If he did, then this may have been the real motivation for leaving and maybe he kept it to himself because he thought I wouldn’t understand.  Maybe he didn’t need to spend more time explaining and instead needed to be doing, immersing himself in the mental freedom.

That freewheeling freedom is exactly what the two of us need together.  To break free of his hang-ups, for me to loosen up, to not frighten him with my commitment.  Out here, I don’t even think about Fielding being my only long-term relationship since I was… God, since I was Fielding’s age.

 

UTAH

Utah leaves me feeling defensive and besieged.  I drive quickly without exceeding the speed limit too flagrantly.

 

NEVADA

Nevada forces you to think about gambling, there’s no way around it.  I’m taking stock and telling myself how much of a gamble this whole adventure is.  To drive cross-country with the intent of bringing Fielding home, to throw down the gauntlet of our relationship, to open myself to the thought of leaving New York behind for good, to prove that even as I approach 43 I can have the ambition and daringness of 30.

I was thinking that every gamble has a winner and a loser but that isn’t true, is it?  If I can set things back on course with Fielding then we both win, don’t we?  And if I can’t, well, I’m the loser but I don’t know where he’ll think he stands.

 

CALIFORNIA

I experience a measure of calmness after passing Reno and crossing the border into California.  It’s like I shook a gambling habit and entered rehabilitation – who says states don’t have stereotypes for good reasons.  Something to the air, whether it’s the scent of inevitability or the grid of design flowing into my nostrils, seeping into my veins, and coursing through my body.  I can see Fielding meeting me at his front door, surprised by my arrival, elated, taking me in his arms, finding happiness again and sharing it.  I can also see him rebuffing me, shocked, outraged at my unprovoked forwardness, shutting the door, sending me back alone.  I see two realities occurring at the same time.  I see both possibilities.

California – the land of dreams and harsh realities.  I suppose it’s not so different from New York, is it?  These east-west edges of the country with open water to inspire us; do our dreams lie on the ocean tides?  We made it work in New York for 12 months so why couldn’t we do it here?  The more I think of it, the more I think that Fielding was onto something.  He always has been something of a genius in the abstract even if he could be dense in the realm of relationships.

 

CALIFORNIA/NEVADA/UTAH/WYOMING/NEBRASKA/IOWA/ILLINOIS/INDIANA/OHIO/PENNSYLVANIA/NEW JERSEY/NEW YORK

I drive back in one shot, fueled by caffeine, rage, a need to set my life on track, a need to be back in New York, a need to get off the road as quickly as possible before I kill someone, accidentally or intentionally.

After days and thousands of miles, he couldn’t even meet me, couldn’t even offer me the face-to-face courage of his stance.  His friend answered the door.  Claimed I had the wrong address.  I could see his fucking paintings in the hallway!  I drove across the goddamn country!  He could have at least talked to me and told me that it was over.  I mean, really over.  God, was I operating under some massive delusion the entire time?  I feel so stupid.  So old and so stupid.

Oh, Fielding, you think you’re so wise with your youth and your wide eyes.  You think your ambition and a fresh start is all you need.  Well, I’ve left you messages and tried to warn you that it isn’t that easy, that you’re ill-suited to handle the emotional ups and downs on your own, that you’re nothing more than another newcomer and once that sheen’s worn off, you’ll just be nothing out there.  It isn’t a land of dreams, no place is.  It’s a land of delusions where everyone keeps pretending that the dream can come true, even for the shattered and the tired and the broken down.  The delusion is a drug that everyone nods off on.  At least back home we know when the dream is broken, and once we know, we learn how to get on and get by.  That’s why I can’t wait to be back.  To formally give up this dream and get on.