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This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 15

Part 15: To Swim

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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.

-What?

-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.

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This Is Fiction I Swear: Part 2

Part 2: People on Rooftops.

Quincy

We move so quickly sometimes, it feels like we never stop. Those of us who don’t have “real jobs.” Those of us who don’t sit at computers or have business cards. We still wear sneakers to work and keep our headphones loud on the train. We still add water to our soap bottles so we can make them last and then make rent and then make it through another month. And somehow we make it. I’m off at Clark and LaSalle—that’s where I said I’d be. Rushing down the dirty stairs ahead of a guy in a suit who’s holding two briefcases because I have to move what I’ve got before my shift. I see my friend and we shake on it and chat a little and it’s done. I’ve got an extra fifty and she’s got a little upper. I’m not hard, though, just a girl with a script for more amphetamine salts than I can use. My watch says I’ve got four minutes before I have be clocked in and my feet say I’ve got six blocks of pavement to cover so I’m back on it.

Just in time (according to my watch) I make it to my restaurant. It’s not mine, but I work there and I love it because everything moves quickly and I don’t have to think, just react, which I’m good at doing. I’m on my feet rushing from the kitchen to the floor to the kitchen to the floor and back with my ears full of clanging pots, sizzling oil, clinking glasses, and people’s voices. My co-worker and I are hamming on the line and we’ve still got our spirits up. Three more hours. Every day is a race here. Every lap hard, but every finish satisfying. Pardon the expression. But there’s nothing like closing at the end of the night when everything’s put away and the lights are off and the stillness takes over.

But right now it’s a hornet nest. My manager looks like she stuck her finger in an electrical socket, the cooks are throwing things to each other, there’s a line out the door, and it must be a hundred degrees inside. But we keep smiling. And chatting. And looking like we’ve got it together. At least we think we do. I don’t know what the diners think, but as long as it translates into a few extra dollars in our pockets at the end of the night we don’t care. It’s all about that hustle and getting the last people out the door at 10 PM.

But one guy is just sitting there and won’t leave. He came in with another guy, but the other guy left and this dude won’t leave. He’s kind of pretty so I don’t mind too too much, but my coworker is mad and wants to go home because he has a girlfriend or a dog or a television show or something. Could be all three. He tells me to go over and tell the guy it’s last call or whatever because he might still tip if you do it.
Fine, and a heavy sigh. He wasn’t my table, and I shouldn’t be the one to do this, but my coworker is right. I am good at it. I’m saying something like Hi there, our kitchen is closing in five minutes so if you’d like to order anything else… and he’s just grinning, sort of. It’s a lopsided grin and it looks nice on him.

11:30 we’re on the fire escape one building over, the one across the street that’s more like an alley than a street. We climbed up on the dumpster and scaled the staircase till we were as high as we could get. Now we’re sitting there looking at the rooftops and the smoke stacks and the empty downtown streets. The city is so vacant this time of night. No businessmen. No tourists. Just cabs and wanderers. He says ‘wanderer’ isn’t a word, and I’m not even sure why I said it. I’m not even sure if I said it. At this point he’s got to be reading my thoughts which is horrible and awful because I never know what might happen. I’m trying not to look at him. He’s got gray shoes on, and I like them. They’re not too hip, and I like them.

‘Wanderer’ is a word, though, but I let it go because I like the way he says things. They sound like certainty. They sound like light. Light. The light from the high rises or the cars or something hits the angles on his face, and he looks like that guy in that band who spells his name with more letters than necessary. He’s not looking at me now, just out there across the alley. And me too, I’m looking across the alley. There’s nothing to see, but I think we’re seeing the same things.

I’m getting that feeling where I can’t stay in one place so now I’m fidgeting and standing and saying we should go higher. There’s always higher. We’re climbing on a ledge not meant for climbing and stopping on a balcony not meant for stopping. Someone’s window is open so I reach in and pick a flower from a solitary houseplant. It’s sort of orange, like it wanted to be orange but could only be yellow, and I give it to this boy and he puts it behind his ear and we’re up over the ledge where we can finally feel the wind brush our cheeks and mess our hair.

We’re on the roof, and there’s music coming from somewhere, the kind of music that soaks into your skin and coats your nerves and makes them shiver and sweat all at once. It’s all over me now, clinging to my arms and face and lips and getting caught in my hair. I forget about him. I forget about them. It’s just me and my city right now. If real is a feeling, this is it.

*

Coming home now, through the tunnel, and I remember my phone. My sister texted me. She texted me before I even left work, which was hours ago, and I forgot to respond. I can’t believe I forgot to respond. She’s so far away now and so busy all the time, and I think of her sometimes when I’m feeling good. She’s younger than I am, but stronger and better at being in the world I think. She exists in my head like a top that spins and spins and won’t stop with neon colors like orange and pink and green with little flecks of silver when the light catches it the right way. And I forgot to text her back.

But then I see it: hundreds of yards of unwound video tape spread through the underground. Shiny black strips coiling and uncoiling amid the cobwebs and graffiti-soaked walls. Thousands upon thousands of images that will never be seen. Thousands upon thousands of stories that no one will ever know. And it’s beautiful. It’s probably a dumb art-school kid’s abandoned film project, but it’s beautiful.