I thought I saw a beautiful boy. Today, this afternoon. Before I could be sure, I compared myself to the girl he was with. We could have collided when I turned a corner and fell in stride behind them on a path in Bryant Park. She was Indian, or Pakistani perhaps. I am neither, but she was short like me. We shared skin the color of cloves but she had the eyes to match. Stacked on top of each other, we would have towered over the curt red hairs atop the boy's head. They were unkempt and lazily conceived. Even worse, his butt failed to leave an impression. No bold outline shone through the seat of his khaki pants.
I tried to move past them but first I had to yield to the tourists walking towards us, while they almost got away. But I closed the gap and heard him say that the park we were in might just be the best in the city. She laughed. It was good-natured, if hollow, while we kept moving.
I said excuse me to the person I twisted my hips to avoid as I walked more steps. The boy continued, extolling the park’s many virtues. The girl who was not me laughed. He gestured at the green and wooden skeletons all around us, thankful that in the wintertime, dozens of pop-up shops grew from the park's fertile concrete. She laughed at his words, if not at him. Her coat was grey, her ponytail three inches long. He noted the free movies the park sometimes screened. The three of us made our way down the steps, making our exit back into the sidewalked streets. They never turned around to catch my face.
I was falling, a barrel down a hill. I vowed to stay with her forever, or until I heard her speak.
We went to a cafe, where I kept a safer distance. I did not want them to worry about me, about themselves being followed. I knew he would order knowingly for her but I did not overhear. I put as much space between us as I possibly could and succeeded too well in distracting myself, mining dirt from my fingernails and counting tiles on the floor. My heart rolled over like a dog in my stomach, a roused hound in dirty laundry, without my command.
I remembered my purpose and watched unblinking, waiting for her lips to move, for the cupid’s bow or lower wedge to ebb and flow with the contortions of noise but she simply smiled, she merely nodded, she pointed and frowned. All I had wanted was to not return to work that afternoon. I wanted to recklessly abandon the rest of my day, myself entirely maybe. If she spoke, the spell would break and I would dissolve back into the dampened life I’d made for myself. I did not know how long I had been lonely.
If she spoke, I would not have been able to read her lips. I only could have testified, that yes, I was sure of it, she’d made a sound. I was ready to vouch for her but I did not expect her to return the favor should something happen to me. I appraised the back of his head, the whorl where his hair sprouted in fingerprint swirls.
She wore a sweater of thick wool that was vintage, or purportedly vintage. I imagined she might lie about that sort of thing. Still, there were her nipples. I sat up straighter, regretting how long I’d spent caging myself in. I adjusted the biting wire of my brand new bra. When she vanished into the back of the cafe, I saw an opening. I could win her over if I made the chatty boy my burden. I imagined her relief.
I walked to him steadily and took her seat. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, across from him. “But do you have a cigarette?” I was sure it would work.
“No. Sorry, I don’t smoke.” He looked behind me before he looked at me, tart.
I smiled the smile I’d practiced smiling. “Neither do I.”
“Can I say something corny?” He asked me.
“Me first,” I interrupted and told something like the truth. “You caught my eye from across the way.”
“Well, just so you know,” he kneaded his shoulder, “we aren’t really together anymore.”
I tilted my head like a puppy. “Of course we aren’t. We just met.”
He pressed harder into his flesh. “Not you. The person I was sitting with.” He added, “But you’re cute.”
I shrugged. I might have tossed my hair. “I didn’t see anyone.”
With that and a little more chatter, he understood. I reached for him and he for his phone, and in went my number. He wanted me to ask about her, to let him feel as if he were doubly lucky, endowed with an embarrassment of interest, but I did not. I had to believe he was nothing to her, that I did her a favor in picking them apart. She must have been everything to him. Surely no one was immune to her. I disappeared before she returned.
“Something weird happened while you were gone,” I imagined him telling her. He said something like, “Don’t look now,” but of course he was too late.
He threw a modest party some days later. After midnight the sound of sirens cleaved through it from the outside. The emergency, whatever it was, lay somewhere beyond us. Up on the fifth floor, we were untouched.
The other guests winced and covered their ears at the noise but I didn’t notice. She was two feet away, settled in and jutting from the edge of a threadbare couch. She was the picture of stability, and I tried to mirror her confidence by not reacting with a twitchy sudden move. Her fingers rollicked, drumming on her thighs while I feigned fluency in the tapping, convinced only I could decode her signals and signs.
All eyes were on me. The reverence in them was fleeting and I knew this would not be remembered the following day. All I had done was take the siren song in stride. I set my drink down far away from me, on the opposite edge of the table we were seated and gathered around. She stretched my way, picked it up, tossed it back, and swallowed. Shadow licked her lids. Not wanting betray my interest, I pretended not to see. Her movements, her makeup, her.
His voice cut into the silence but didn’t break her hold on me. “I told you,” he let his shoulders slump and snaked an arm around me, “she never flinches.” I tried to settle for his lumpy embrace.
“I’m used to the noise,” I whispered in his ear for everyone to hear. I had been deemed an oddity and wondered if they’d done the same to her.
One of his friends raised and lowered his chin and asked, “You grow up somewhere rough or something?”
“Or are you just deaf?” Another joked, his hypothesis so unreasonable that we all laughed. Even her. While she did it, she regarded my bare feet. I tucked them under myself where I sat on the couch, my body a nest with no eggs to speak of. No one else had left their shoes at the door. He had lovely hardwood floors.
I was the most comfortable one in the room. “No, my parents are ER surgeons. They were on call always. They lived close to work.”
She held my eyes and nodded her head. I excused myself and reapplied my lipstick in the hall, hoping she’d ask the name of the shade or the brand as soon as I reemerged.
The night wore on and toed the edge of morning. I waited outside the bathroom for her to finish, hoping she’d crack the door and pull me into where we could roll our eyes at what waited for us on the other side. I’d counted and matched her drinks. We were five deep. We could neglect the perfectly good mirror above the sink and instead check each other’s teeth for stray bits of litter. But he found me and took me to the bathroom connected to where he slept.
“Let me show you something special,” he tugged me long like taffy.
“It’s just a room,” I protested. “Inside of another room.” I giggled for good measure.
He sat on his bed. “But it’s mine and it’s private.” He was a lousy host, though he’d kept me close and taken care to make me feel paid attention to, if not cared for all night. His charms had long since faded but I followed her lead and stuck with him. I worried his being with me might push her away and wondered if there were an end to what he was willing to abandon.
“I’ll wait for you right here,” he collapsed on his pillows, his weight expelling the air trapped between their careful curves and cotton cases. I closed and locked the bathroom door.
I had arrived somewhat late that night. I must have missed it when she opened the door and said hello. How lovely it must have been to make your way in without needing an invitation.
I spent five more weeks with him. It was the clearest path I saw to her, though long and winding. I did not return to the park. I did not begin to frequent the cafe. I went on dates with him and listened to him toss her name from his lips in passing. I gleaned scraps of information and never asked for more. If he knew I was using him for crumbs of her, he did not seem to mind. He looked past all the other peculiar things about me.
One night, as he and I crossed the street to the apartment building where he lived, I stopped and found he was yards away. Mouth open, he was confused, not horrified, by the fact of me standing stark in the middle of the two-way street. I balanced on the thick yellow beam, wondering who’d dragged the paint, who’d loved that person and so on. I listened, eyes closed, not to the honking and hollering but for the wind rushing around me to deliquesce into stillness. I knelt on the pavement when the street stood still.
I’d found a key, the top half of a golden key. It had a hole punched in to help shimmy it onto a ring or chain, but no hope of ever again opening the door or doors it once knew. It had been laterally bisected, the bottom half was disappeared. I had no way of knowing why it had been sawed, or if whatever had done it had done it before or after the little key was flung or forgotten in the road. I wondered what the polluted metal tasted like. I laid it to rest in my palm and then the pocket of my coat. The poor thing was missing its teeth. It was a sign to mark the night I would leave him.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” He tried to admonish me, but that was not a question I would stoop to answer.
Inside, I shoved him into a seat and used myself to keep him down. His palms were softer than mine. Our intentions too were different. I peeled off his layers and lifted the hem of my dress. Closer to him, nearer to her. Anything to have her for a friend.
Despite myself, I felt magnificent with him inside me. I drew myself tighter around him, knowing how much he loved the feeling of being choked on. I drew him further into the prospect of never again seeing the light of day, into the possibility, and it seemed entirely plausible at the time—that I would trap him inside of me and he would die, warm and satisfied, used and forgotten, in the caves of my cunt. He bored me but at least he lived alone.
I had already finished when a different quaking started, the telltale moan of a cell phone vibrating against a hard surface. I squinted and squirmed in time to catch her face and her name and her number on the screen. I drew his head to my chest and left him there unbreathing while I planted my feet on the ground. All the while his cell phone went on whinnying on the wood. It teased my toes, half in half out of the back right pocket of his splayed jeans. I contorted myself and soared towards it, to the rescue. I steadied my breath. I could not memorize the number and call her back as myself. I had to show her that I could erase him, now that he’d finished connecting us like dots.
For months I’d waited to hear what was on the other side of her every exhale. “Zinnia,” I said, slinking spritely down the stairs. The door slammed behind me, the stairwell soaked up his stupefaction. He was howling. I had taken something from him but I’d left him my shoes. They were beat sneakers, not much in the way of consolation. I would not mourn the loss of them. They were so piddling, considering.
I knew I was not why she dialed his number. “Hi Zinnia,” I said, dead center in the middle of a two-way street. I pet the key in my pocket. It could hang from a chain around her neck, but I had no other half to call my own. I said, “Of course I can hear you. It’s me.”