This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 15

Part 15: To Swim


The last day I ever saw you was the day my Solzhenitsyn came in the mail.

It is the most horrifically ugly book I’ve ever seen: giant and crassly red with typeface that gives away its 1968 reprint year. The jacket is creased and torn and the sallow-faced author himself frowns at me from the safety of his four-by-six bio. He doesn’t look like a decorated war hero in this picture. He doesn’t look like a revolutionary. He doesn’t even look like an author, which is saying a decent lot because what does an author look like anyway? He just looks like the man I see sometimes on the number twelve bus who’s always drinking vodka out of a plastic bottle at 8:00 am.

I set the book on my table and look at it like it’s a newborn with webbed toes. I hate it. I want to destroy it. I don’t even care to open it to see if my old professor was right when she said I would find words so beautifully and deeply written that I would feel my soul jump in my chest when I read them. Instead I leave it sitting on the table like an open wound and go across the street to the café for breakfast. The snow is still falling thickly and steadily and my toes are getting wet through my suede boots but I don’t care because Graham and I have decided to leave tomorrow, Sunday, for California. I shake the snow off my scarf and say hello to the owner before sitting down and ordering a coffee to start. California. Sunday. Tomorrow.

I am the only person in the café this morning and there’s some animal program on the silent television above my head so I’m in a pretty good mood thus far despite the cold still seeping in through the windows. If I knew at this moment that it would be the high point of my day, what would I have done? Would I have thrown myself in front of the traffic on 18th Street and died a frigid death in the gray slush? Would I have crawled back to my apartment and slept until summertime? Or would I have simply bitten into my sourdough egg sandwich and washed it down with black coffee?

Impossible to tell.

I’m chewing heartily when my phone beeps and I expect it to be Graham making arrangements for tomorrow or maybe Angelica telling me again about her birthday party tonight but it’s not. It’s you. You’re on your way back from some god forsaken Midwestern city and are asking what I’m doing later because it would be nice to see me. Oh, cords of dynamite unfurling.

I have every intention of tying them back up and ignoring them but then I get a message from Graham: he has bronchitis. He will be on antibiotics for days and will not be able to leave with me tomorrow, Sunday, for California. He is sorry, and I know he is. He says we’ll go next week, and I believe we will. But my heart, it cannot take this kind of disappointment. It cannot wait. I cannot wait. Maybe the coffee is just hitting my brain but I cannot sit still, cannot sit in this café or this neighborhood or this town for one second longer.

Outside is murky from car exhaust and wet snow, and the dove gray sky is heavy and pressing on my back.  But I am outside. And moving. I don’t know where most of the day goes after that but somehow I am at work, my last shift I thought but now who knows and I have new manager named Jake or Jerry or something and he’s from one of the Carolinas and I hate him for no reason. But I can come up with reasons enough, and so I do and I tell them all to my coworker who agrees with me probably because most people don’t understand what other people are like, and they’ll believe anything you tell them. Really, it’s frighteningly easy to create or destroy someone’s character if you want to.

And after my shift when I have sufficiently severed any hopes of an amicable work relationship with Jake Jerry I walk to the train to go to Angelica’s party at a bar on the north side. I thought it was going to be the last time I would see her and now that it won’t be it feels less significant and I feel less like remembering it. I don’t want to go, but I don’t want to not go because then what? There is no California tomorrow, Sunday.

There is tomorrow, actually, and there is Sunday, because those happen whether we plan for them or not. They arrive whether we order them or not, sort of like that poor Solzhenitsyn bleeding on my table. But what if there weren’t tomorrow or Sunday? I have this thought somewhere between the whiskey shots I bought for Angelica and the sips of bourbon from a friend’s flask. And by the time the music in the back room has changed decades and the floor by the bar feels sticky and the girls in flowered dresses all have partners, I am setting my latest drink on a table and rushing outside to meet you.

Your car is idling by the curb or what I think is the curb because I can’t see it through all the dirty snow and slush. Your headlights are on and I’m frantically putting my arms in the sleeves of my coat because it’s fucking cold out here I think but I’m not sure. I slide into the passenger seat and you barely look at me and I don’t look at you because I’m too busy saying something about how I forgot my gloves at the bar. But you don’t care and I don’t really either and now we’re gliding through the wet side streets heading for Lake Shore Drive. And that’s when it occurs to me.


-How I might be able to stop Sunday!

-What are you talking about? Tomorrow is—

-I’ll stop it. Sorry, we’ll stop it. Together. What do you say? I think it would be beautiful. What do you say?

You don’t seem to have any clue what I mean so I start to tell you but then change course and tell you instead how different we are and how you never ever know what I mean. You will never understand if you lived a thousand times longer than a thousand generations and…

But it’s no use because the words aren’t getting through to you, probably because I’m not stringing them together right, probably because of the whiskey swirling in my brain. But just that second as I look at the black lake all the alcohol seems to evaporate and my head is clear. So clear and crisp and I swear the snow has even stopped falling for a minute and the radio has stopped playing and the other cars have disappeared from the road. I know what I need to do.

I grab the steering wheel and turn it sharply to the left, towards the lake. There’s a ledge at this point in the drive and if we go over it we’ll fall twenty yards before crashing into the waves. I imagine the icy water peeling off the layers of dust and sweat on my skin. I imagine it numbing my nerves and slowing my heart until everything around me and in me is calm. Unmoving and calm, and I can drift until the end of time, until the cold water turns to sun on my face, until the sound of the waves turns into the sound of my mother’s voice calling me to the kitchen for breakfast and I am five years old.

But the only voice calling is yours and you’re screaming my name and a hundred other things at a pitch I’ve never heard before. Your whole body is somehow in between my arm and the steering wheel, and as you continue to yell I notice that the snow has started to fall again. Or maybe it never stopped. I’m enraptured with the scene out the window: this endless stream of tiny white snowflakes, so silent, against the dark canvas of night. And city lights to the west. And this bridge back to our neighborhood.

You pull up to my apartment and wait for me to get all my things out of the car and then drive off. It is just then when I’m inside my door and I see Solzhenitsyn staring at me from my table in the dark that the monstrous, cavernous hole opens its jaws and sets to work ripping apart my chest. An hour or so of this until I’ve worn myself out. I make some tea and look at the clock. Eleven minutes to sunrise.


This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 6

Part 6: Someone Dies


Everything was going according to plan and more smoothly than I could have imagined when the worst happened. I don’t even know the logic of it nor can I explain the chain of events, but here are the steps in order:

I was getting off the train at 18th just after 9 PM, money in my pocket, when I spotted that boy (I call him Graham but that’s not his first name) stepping out of another train car. He came up to me and we decided to get a drink as we exited the station. I was dressed nicely for once and he thought it would be fun if he dressed up too so we could go somewhere fancy. “For kicks,” he says.

When he stepped back out the door of his apartment he was wearing a suit that fit him in all the right ways and he looked like James Bond and I felt like Ava Green or whatever the hell her name was. He slipped his arm around my waist, looked me in the eye, and asked shall we?

Everything was still ok at this point, and we went somewhere stupid and snobby in the West Loop because why not? We were drinking things with rye and bitters and candied cherries and I don’t know what else, but it was fun and we were laughing and one drink turned into a few, and that’s when you walk in. She isn’t with you, but still.

Of course you come right over to our table and start asking me questions like How have you been? and Where are you working? and How’s Angelica? like you’re my best friend, and all this without even looking at the boy sitting across from me. Finally he takes the first step and introduces himself to you and you size him up like you’re figuring out how much is worth more: his scalp or his body? Finally you shake his hand and give your full name—your full name!—like you are someone, like you do things. I put an end to the conversation because I don’t know what you’ll do if this goes on. You go to the bar to meet your friends and I’m left to explain things to this boy who still looks like 007 but who’s looking at me like I’m the villain now.

Whatever I end up saying is the wrong thing, and Graham starts to get up so I try to stop him. I’m talking quickly and it makes sense to me but somehow the words aren’t going across the divide so I start saying them louder which makes him say what he was saying louder and next thing I know the waiter is holding me by the arm and walking me to the door. I have whiskey on my dress and some on my elbows, but I don’t remember spilling anything. The upended tumblers on the table tell a different story. Outside I try to dry myself off, but then he comes out and touches my arm to say Let’s go this way, and we start walking down the alley in the kind of silence that feels like an apology but tastes like rust.

When we’re far enough from that stupid bar he grabs my hand and presses it and I know we’ll be ok. I realize my heels are making more noise than I was aware of before and that’s when some guy steps out from the dark. I don’t know where he came from but he’s standing in front of us, blocking our way, asking for my purse and our cell phones with one hand, and gripping a small black gun in the other.

For a half second time stops completely and I’m frozen and Graham is frozen and so is the man with the gun, but then time catches up to us and speeds past us to make up for what it lost. I don’t know what’s happening now but there’s commotion and I feel my body moving and someone grabs my arm and I collide with someone else and there’s a deafening pop like a gunshot.

I look down and Graham looks down, and there’s a growing pool of hot dark blood seeping from the man’s head onto the pavement. His eyes are stuck open, staring at the sliver of night peeking through the top of the buildings, but he’s not really seeing it because he’s stone dead that’s for sure.

We’re running now, down the alley toward god knows what, but I can’t feel anything, can’t feel my legs moving or my heart beating, and only know I’m running not flying because of the sound my heels make when they smack the pavement. Then the ground gets closer and closer and I’m on all fours with gravel in my palms. I may have cried out, I’m not sure, but without missing a beat Graham turns back and grabs my arm to pull me back to my feet.

We continue down the alley and it’s then I realize I’m holding the gun. I can’t remember if it was me who pulled the trigger or him or how I got it or why it feels like an extension of my own hand, but I grip it tighter and we run until I feel like my lungs will burst if I take one more step. There’s a covered stairway up ahead so we come to a halt and collapse onto the cement to catch our breath.

We’re looking at each other, breathing hard under the yellow light but not saying anything. I look down and notice that my knee is bleeding through my tights from when I fell. He sees it too, and asks me if it hurts. I tell him it doesn’t and we both ignore the gun in my hand.

He moves down one step and tears a little hole in my tights at the knee so he can dress the wound. I brush off the little stones and debris, but it still looks pretty ragged. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket, dabs off most of the blood, then folds it a different way and ties it tight around my knee. It’ll do for now is what he tells me.

Then he wraps both arms around me and I lean my head on his shoulder and we stay that way for quite some time. There are sirens in the distance and I’m thinking about my mother. The sirens get closer and closer and I’m so sorry, Mom. I’m so so sorry and Graham is gripping my shoulders more tightly until finally the sirens wail past us and it’s all over..