Finger-cut sandwiches are one of those things I can only enjoy if somebody else is making it. All it takes is bread, mayo, and some protein (or tofu if you’re that low on the food chain.)
“Blockheads?” He said, because his questions never sounded as if they needed answers.
“I’m tired of that place.” I replied, looking out his car door at the wet black pavement glistening past us on the highway. The stripes guiding us up I-95 to nowhere, because that was the benefit of a borrowing your parents car when they were asleep afforded us.
“And you.” I added, for safe measure.
The whole process for finger-cut sandwiches takes at best some ten or fifteen minutes, but, it never tastes the same when I make it. And yes, making food is generally a hassle. Who the hell has time to stand over a stove or in front of a refrigerator when you’ve got friends text messages to ignore, an 8AM economics class, work right after, and Seamless is an easy three phone swipes away from your favorite comfort food.
“Are you done.” He asked but somehow like a statement. His name was something I used to like to play with before I fell asleep, but now had turned to something I cursed in the dark of his fathers Ford Escape and cried into my pillow. He changed, in those little subtle ways you sound genuinely crazy for bringing up. When we first met he could barely look me in the eye before he turned away, would send me text messages of what he was going to wear that day. Now we dissolved to phone calls at 12am asking if my mother was up.
“I will be if she ever finds out,” I said. He stayed quiet, the sidewalks of St. Nicholas hot with Its-Friday music blazing by us.
But it isn’t only that. Some of the most simple pleasures are just better when you’re not the one who has to work for it.
When I was 10 my mom used to make these finger-cut sandwiches sliced in these perfect little triangles. After going to the park where she used to gossip with the neighbors or play lotto at the deli, we’d come home and it was her go-to when she was too tired or fed up to cook. I looked forward to it, when Summer hit and she had a glow about the weather. Had her hair all pony’d up and whipped out the knock off Chinatown fan with beige and wrinkled blossom trees to air her makeup out against that hot New York street. And if she was talking to her friends and looked at us and said “…never mind, I’ll tell you later,” those sandwiches were a sure bet. Because she’d get home and be done with feeding us in about fifteen minutes flat, so she could hop on the phone and talk about things I had an idea of but couldn’t understand yet.
“I’m sorry,” He said, and he did that thing where he starts playing with my fingernail whenever he gets nervous or isn’t sure of what to say. “I know this is hard for you.”
“It’s fine,” I said, and shrugged. Not because it was, but because it was a knee jerk reaction. Pretending you don’t care is easier than the conversation against it, and the fact we were together was enough for me, even if I knew we would be breaking up. It reminded me of how we used to be, before the fights about being together in public.
“You always get drunk at Blockheads anyway.”
But there was nothing special about those fingercuts, just ham or bologna and and a little bit of mayo. And I’ve tried to make them myself but no matter how precise I cut those edges or under-do it on the meat because there just wasn’t enough to go around (times were hard back then, me and my older brother stole little Jays bologna every time she wasn’t looking) it just doesn’t do it. Doesn’t taste the same no matter how many times I try to perfect it or how drunk I am.
“Where do you want to go then?” He asked, and for a second it felt sincerely. “What do you want tonight? Anywhere.
Maybe the taste I’m after isn’t actually the sandwiches but the comfort they remind me of. Mom, loud as hell on the phone fanning herself with a wrinkled beige blossom tree. Jay crying because her lunch tasted like nothing but mayo. My brother and I laughing to ourselves and happy, before he got to High School wanting to impress everybody and I started having boyfriends.
“Whatever you feel like,” I said.
“A little early for you to call…I’m scared to ask, are you drunk?” She said.
“First of all time is a human construct, secondly it’s got to be happy hour somewhere, and lastly no I’m not.”
I lack the grace to remain kind in cruel situations. When I was five there was a lizard collapsed on the walkway of our front porch. A tiny, wounded, almost lifeless thing with black spots across its back that didn’t dart or scatter away as the other lizards usually would. I knelt down to take a closer look and saw something wet was beginning to dry on the pavement right below it, the small, spotted sides expanding and contracting the closer my body came as I waved the flies away. Two large and helpless eyes staring back at me, desperate and panicked, a strange green liquid that seemed to leak from everywhere around it.
“I don’t believe you, but hi.”
“Hi! Thanks for not asking how my weekend was. Fucking annoying, when people ask questions that don’t really mean anything and it’s just filler when they can’t think of anything to say. You know what I mean?”
I felt sad watching it, and while I don’t think I understood exactly what was happening, I had an idea. As far as an idea can go. Pain is something we can identify, even at an early age, but can only ever understand within the context of ourselves. Through experience. How often do we disregard the warnings of our parents and predecessors because, well, fuck them, and what the hell do they know?-aside from more than us. And fire is hot, sure, but how well is that really known until you burn your finger and it stings for hours no matter how long you run cold water on it? There is empathy, I guess. Being sensitive to the aches and torment of someone other than yourself requires an incredible and noble kind of intelligence. But…just how far does empathy really go, or matter? I imagine it means little, that beautiful understanding, to the sheep and lambs put out to slaughter, bleeding to death or eaten alive.
“…you don’t, but that’s fine.” I said, after silence was my only answer. “Anyway how’s your father doing?” .
My mother called from the car, and thoughtlessly I stood and ran towards her. I sat in the backseat staring into the walkway where the flies grew brave and began to cover around a very specific spot. Two crows came down to the very place I was kneeling, and as the car drove off, all I could see was their violent pecking at the pavement with their long, black, terrible beaks. What I could have done for him, the only thing I think could have eased the pain and suffering of that lizard, still haunts me.
“He died last week,” She said.
People watching is my hobby, a fact I don’t like to admit from how badly it’s been bastardized. It’s quoted too often along any jaded tween with a blog and wannabe intellectuals trying desperately to seem…well, like intellectuals. It’s another one of those things in life that get ruined by other people, like Nickelback, having children, or long walks on the beach. Things are pretty okay but get beaten down to not meaning anything from every sonogram on Instagram and pure over-usage on the internet. And I’m a terrible critic, because even I’m guilty of what I hate to see in others. I know that. But being a hypocrite doesn’t stop something from being any less true.
Sometimes when I get bored enough to get on OkStupid I like to spot the try-hard, filtering through the hipsters in poetic poses that may as well be memes (those lattes and black and white filters aren’t fooling anyone buddy.) The type to trite and go on and on about conformity, then go quoting Charles Bukowski or Simone de Beauvoir on their profile. Idiots that have never taken a long and terrible look at themselves, but took that one poetry or writing class in college so say they love things like “eating the rich” and people watching.
But I do love it, secretly, which makes it all the better. When I’m roaming through The Barclays Center, watching over all those groups and cliques spilling out onto the peninsula of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenue. Huddled by the fives and twos in the aftermath of basketball games and Soulfrito Wednesdays, a thousand bodies and voices struggling against themselves. I’ll post up on a lamp-post pretending to look at my phone, ogling the sea of strangers as they meander on their way to bars, a friends house, cabs, or long train rides home. Some of them hang back, light cigarettes or huddle in tribal-like little circles, and their cell phone glares are the camp fire. And here, when they’re a few drinks in and the rowdiness of themselves, is where I see it.
Those moments of pure, unfiltered delight and satisfaction I can only catch glimpses of in strangers. As their lips part ways and a softness dawns on the creases of their eyes. A man in a Clippers jersey leans his head back against a pole hes leaning on and smiles at a girl like she’s the first one to make the Earth turn in years. It’s magic, and I’ve only ever witnessed it from a distance.
Perhaps I am too critical, but up close I can see the faults in smiles and so-called friends. The angles and lingering after-thoughts when they’re laughing at my jokes. There is a moment, some subtle hint and tell of where their hearts and expectations are going or have gone. But in a stranger there is no presupposition, no background, no history of abandonment and unanswered text messages when it was 5AM, and by God, I just really needed you to be there. There is only the parting of the lips, the sunlight in their eyes, and the mammoth thought stomping across my mind that maybe I have never truly experienced the soft intimacy of a friend.
Or maybe the grass is only greener because I haven’t had the chance to go to the other side and shit on it.
My favorite color is orange and I look terrible in it.
I like the brightly colored type ones, so when I walk in public I get mistaken for a convict or traffic cone. They laugh, with or at me, which to be honest is the same thing. There’s only a six degree difference between what I believe and what everyone else has thought of me. Mistaken daemons I try desperately to ghost and live up to.
Tis the season- summer makes me hunger for what I like to eat. Great Gatsby and summer novel novelties, a couple glasses of wine stained status updates and I’m suddenly a habit. Called between the off hours of 10 and 12, not quite late enough to be desperate, not nearly early enough to take serious.
I let my phone ring like the jingle of my car keys. Riding hot like that chick with red riding hood, only my basket is full of opiodes and hashtags and I haven’t spoken to my grandma since they shot Tupac. Not so hot of a topic. Don’t lie like that t-shirt doesn’t make a real thing like self sacrifice seem awesome when it’s pleated. Making an ass of martyr’s, but damn, it looks good.
Che Guevera would have hated us, but I like the way you look terrible in it.
My uncle once said to me – Noel, just because a man loves, doesn’t mean he knows how to. Which never made much sense to me. It was one of those jewels of wisdom brought by a family party that’s gone too long- inspired by rum and coke, inspired by the night, and wasted on the young. A phrase that remained with me throughout my childish Simon-Says with women and overrun emotions and bank accounts.
I had the fever for flesh, to no surprise. My brother is a bit of a dirtbag and last I heard my father continues to sling with twenty-something that have empty pockets and no dignity. He’s creeping on seventy now, wiling his retirement in booze and chicks that are notoriously promiscuous and conniving. Word along the family grapevine is that he bought the latest one a salon in Harlem, and when I remind my mother he never even bought her a ring after forty years of marriage, she just smiled and said “I would have had to pawn it after he left anyway.”
When I was nine my father took me somewhere strange. My cousin Eric, and his half sister Annabelle playing in some strange house in Yonkers I can never forget. My father, his two brothers, and these four women I’d never seen before were inside being loud, drinking beer, and doing adult things I didn’t know or care enough about. As soon as we arrived they gave us some soda cans, shut us out saying Go-Play. The door slammed shut and music none of us liked started humming from inside. I remember their shapes silhouetted from outside the window, a dim lamplight turning them into shadow puppets while me and Eric started to sword-fight with twigs we found on the mangy green lawn. Annabelle watched us, boredly brooding over rocks that lined the driveway. Inside echoed an orchestra of constant clatter, convoluted voices fighting to stay above one another; that would cackle, turn to a whisper, then burst in a load roar of laughter or angry nonsense.
“Who are those people?” Eric asked, wiping dirt from his face and looking inside. I shrugged.
“Some aunts we never met maybe.”
“They’re not our aunts,” Annabelle whispered softly, but when I pressed for more, she shrugged and kept turning pebbles.
I remember the driveway outside was one of the steepest hills I’d ever seen, bleeding out into a back yard that suddenly disappeared into an even steeper endless tress of trees. The world seemed to end where the driveway did, and Eric and I made a game to see who would roll down the hill the most and not turn back scared. Neither of us made it very far, about three quarters of the way, but we must have been doing it for very long, because eventually the light faded and we both would stop farther and farther away from the edge.
The sun was gone and a tangy yellow lamp post took its place. It was too dark and Eric and I were too scared to continue the hill game, so we hovered around Annabelle talking. Eric told me how often his mom would beat him, that she was always angry and he never understood why. How she would flip out over the smallest transgressions, like finding a soda can in the garbage can she deliberately put in his room because he was always leaving a mess. Eric was a good kid, had bad grades because he was dumb as a brick, but a good kid. And it’s funny when I think about how much he said he couldn’t wait to get older and leave his house, which is exactly what he eventually did eight years later after getting a girl pregnant.
The whole time Annabelle was uncomfortable and I couldn’t tell why. She was always quiet, and always shy, but at the time that was amplified and I was too young to see or understand that she understood more about the moment than I did.
“Do you have any soda left?” Annabelle asked. But Eric and I finished ours hours ago.
“Go inside and get another one,” I said. But Annabelle’s face made a face I couldn’t quite distinguish, and I could only interpret as I’d-Rather-Roll-Down-That-Hill-And-Die.
“I’ll go then,” I said. And so I did.
I walked inside and the living room was a massacre. My uncles were by the stereo arguing, and the three strange women were talking and looking at their nails. They hardly noticed when I walked past them, green bottles strewn across a dark brown carpet. The air smelled weird of what I would discover at thirteen to be of cigarettes. I wanted to ask one of them for soda, but they all looked so busy, and my mom didn’t beat me as much as Eric’s, but she always threatened she would if I ever interrupted an adult talking.
I hovered around them, waiting and unsure, when suddenly my uncle grabbed me and said-
“Noel, Noel listen. Your uncle is an idiot. Not me, the other one. Noel, listen: just because a man loves, doesn’t mean he knows how to. Okay? You hear-…wait what did she just say?”
And he wandered off into the unknown dulling bliss coquetting on the coach.
A bright light towards the back of the house attracted me, and I wandered over happily to what I discovered to be a kitchen. The refrigerator stood there, tall and alien with tacky little fruit magnet strips on the door, and a photo full of people I’d never met before. I opened it, saw two Pepsi cans smiling back at me. But right as I was about to grab them, I heard a strange and familiar sound muffled from the walls. A deep and husky tone, then something not quite like silence. More like…filler, because the husky sounded as if it was replying to something.
Even then I knew the sound was my father’s, I knew because he had the gruff voice that sounds angry even when he’s happy or laughing, the very same one that have now. I remember following the vibrations winding through the house, not really thinking, but curious. It led me to a long hallway that emptied into what I think was a bedroom, which was one of the dimmest places I’d ever seen. Wincing from the light of the hallway into an abyss that suddenly disappeared into a void of a dresser and the wooden mahogany corner of a bed frame. The world seemed to end where the bedroom began, and I almost ran back to my cousins if not for the familiar grunt of my father.
Five steps, four steps, three steps, two. Two steps, one step, inch, inch…tip-toes. And as I got closer the silence grew louder, and I heard a woman’s voice between the silent hours of that hallway. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, and I think a part of me wasn’t listening. My foot landed on a part of the carpet that groaned loudly under my Nikes. I stopped. Murmmurs. Too long a pause, no more rhythm in the sounds I was following. I was inches from the door and could have walked in, there was nothing stopping me. In fact, a terrible courage in my little heart begged me to.
But I didn’t.
I turned and bolted back to the driveway.
“Where’s the sodas?” Asked Eric. But I didn’t say anything. I just sat down and turned a pebble.
“I want to go home,” I said. Then Annabelle whimpered,
These are the things I think about when a girl tells me I’ve got issues. That the love in my heart ain’t shit if I keep it locked in my chest like that. And I’m not pointing fingers at who’s to blame when I start ignoring phone calls, acting distant and slinging with thirty somethings that have baby-daddy issues and too much dignity. I acknowledge that I am responsible for my actions, that the next person doesn’t deserve to incur the debts you feel the past or your parents owe you.
Everybody’s got baggage, and mine is no lighter or heavy than the next persons, although every day I wish I’d lose it. Start fresh and learn to live by the moment and not what’s been done. I want to be a father, a good one. Take some little idiot to band or baseball practice, get mad when he or she cuts class and fine a balance between always wanting to have sex and the responsibilities of a parent. But those skeletons are rattling in my closet, and when I get too comfortable, they sound alot like those muffled voices do.
But just because a man loves, doesn’t mean he knows how to.
You know there’s little to love. Just an open palm waiting to hold yours on those Tuesdays you might just tell your boss that speech you’ve been rehearsing for years. Chinese takeout sprawled on the coffee table, crowded boxes around cheap dollar bargain candles makes them tower like the buildings in midtown. Like your living room houses a whole world in a miniature city.
Her picture is there next to yours and the stark contrast is blatant. She is bright and always leaning, her still smile moving like the wane of a wax stick. Yours is reserved, meaning but trying not to. A little sadness dampened in the twilight of your eyes and crows feet.
“It’s too hot for movies about fish,” She whined at The Shape of Water.
Your apartment always had open windows because air conditioners are fucking expensive. And our generation may be complacent with all the opportunities available, never having to have had walk ten miles barefoot to get to school, but when the WiFi is down and the housing market crashes- we make do.
“Run a cold shower,” You said, always the pragmatist. Incapable to see any conversation as anything other than a back forth of searching for solutions. Ever the architect, building systems wherever there’s a hint of chaos or dissatiafaction.
She loves and hates that about you and does this thing when shes had enough- throws her arms in the air and lets the wind take her. Stage falls stage left to the sweaty elbow sofa, groans as of she’s been shot or generally tired of your shit.
“We could get an AC?” You said, softly kissing the hole in her basketball shorts that are actually yours. “Think of all the energy we’d waste and hard working children in China we’d be supporting.”
“Goddamn commies,” She chides, tracing a shape on the wooden floor her top half dangles from the sofa.
She is afraid of conflict but likes hunger games, to play the satire of being awful knowing you obviously mean otherwise. The third and final girl you’ll ever love, which is a good thing. The feeling wasn’t as stupidly hot blooded as the first, careless as the second, or hopelessly astray as the little ones whose name you pretend not to remember in between. That was the year you peaked, emotionally; your very own golden age and platinum summer.
She took you to the beaches in Guatemala and you learned how much you enjoy lazing away in the sun with a good book local hand-rolled cigarettes. You dragged her to Amsterdam, the south street seaport docks and all your other dark and lonely haunts. It was a confession of sorts, somebody else had to see all the terrible places you’d been, even if you only told her some of the stories behind the monuments of your misdeeds. She commented how they all had one commonality, one motif. They were somber places that made her reflective, made her think. And you felt better about your past because of her, because maybe that’s the why behind all those bar fights and 4 am wanderings. Instead of mischief and a terrible sense of not belonging anywhere.
“I want a picture of you,” she said. So you flipped the camera on your smartphone, crossed your eyes as best you could and hit send. She laughed.
“No, a real one. Something to write your name, the date, and how you make me feel on the back of it.”
Slowly slipping into the smooth routine of duality- two worlds, one small Manhattan apartment, a twin xl mattress and the kind of sex you will eventually only remember fondly and never masturbate to. You couldn’t, there were too many feelings mixed in those concoctions to derive solely pleasure from. Her picture no longer on the coffee table, but high on its pedestal above the refrigerator. The death of her father looming in the tresses of that bold and endless Summer. When you couldn’t bare the weight of her sadness while on the verge of reconciling yours. And so you retreated, as you always do. Not to the beaches but those dark, familiar, and terrible haunts. Because the ruin you know is safer than the one you don’t.
“What do I get out of it?” You asked.
“My satisfaction,” She replied.
And you were more the type to find another job than quit dramatically anyway.
“Sounds like communism.”
Cc: HR; Jack Stiller;
Bcc: YourMom; WhyHaventIQuitThisJob
Subject: RE: Security Staffing Issues Update
Good morning Margaret.
As per our discussion, I’ve reached out to the upper management of Secure Staffing Inc. I had a lengthy discussion with their senior manager Greg Philmoore, who voiced some concerns regarding our decision to relocate one security guard from our secondary school location. He divulged feelings that this was done out of spite, and referenced what I can only describe as a ‘vague friction’ between The Academy School and Secure Staffing Inc.
In addition, he said this was very much a bitch move, which went directly against an earlier conversation I was not a part of. In fact, I wasn’t a part of any of the conversations until now, as I stumble to pick up the pieces to a mess you’ve left behind to attend your daughters recital concert. While I smoked a cigarette and listened to Greg’s incessant whining our employee-client relation, a part of me kept wondering how the hell this was my problem. There was a circle tar of gum pasted onto the sidewalk, and for a moment I felt a terrible connection between myself and that black blotch on the floor. You see, that glued and trampled dot was once something pristine- sitting neatly in a wrapper, complete and minding it’s business on some shelf or deli counter in upper west side Manhattan. Perfectly made. Whole. Un-bothered by the world and all it’s problems. Just as I was, before this job. I used to go to the gym on Wednesdays and call my friends to see how they were doing. Occasionally I would even have sex. And now I’m melded into this 9 to 9 job, endlessly answering e-mails that keep popping up like weeds or your mistakes. Marooned in Microsoft Outlook, stranded in half assed meetings about meetings that amount to nothing. Sealed in necessity and welded to the sun.
I explained to Greg this was not the case, and that this decision was in no way done to go around his authority, but rather, was in collusion with our ideals of “School First.” Management came together to assess how we can best support our vision, and after careful deliberation, this was decided to be the best alternative.
Which is some cult shit, really. Why would I ever possibly put you strangers above myself? I’ve got a family, friends and growing nephews that need me, and I need them, much more than this false-family-narrative you’re trying to spin. Why does a job even have to be more than a paycheck? When did being good at a job not become enough? What kind of lunatic doesn’t work for his pay, but because he wants to be there? We aren’t artist, we’re talking deskjobs and dealing with other peoples gross children. It’s a brand of psychological slavery I can pretend to go along with, but laugh tragically over as I’m getting plastered in my condo Monday through Thursday. The stupid, arrogant naivety of it all. Trying to force a man to forsake himself for the sake of establishing a “job culture.” You’re tools, all of you, trying to make a wrench out of me. But I’ve been sharpening my resume along with every fake smile.
In conclusion, I believe a best practice would be to be more honest as to why we’re here; understand that what we’re asking for is unreasonable. The Academy School and Secure Staffing are not places we should aspire to, just names and LLC’s trying to make us think we owe them something. We should do our best to be better people, and a better person doesn’t succumb to cultural brainwashing. He or she should work hard because that’s what they’re paid to, and working hard doesn’t require the buy-in of pretending their job is a family. It only needs a decent pay, sincerity, and you handling your own damn problems so that I don’t have to.
Also, your daughters shit at the flute.
The Academy Schools
8042 Netherland Boulevard
New York, NY 10033
PS – I quit.
Even when I’m not a vagrant there are days I get the taste of gin and cinders on my tongue again. Waking up skeletal, bare as bone, with nothing but a name. Veins poking from a sleeve, revealing what I’m made of, like wires from old headphones you get ashamed to pull out in public. Some days leave me feeling ends-less, frigid and grey as the clouds I’m blowing smoke circles at from the balcony of my house. The air feels wet, the grass shimmers just a little greener, and as I take a breath I’m thrown to somewhere that isn’t here. Smell, they say, is most directly linked to memory, so there must been a scent of the early 2000’s perspiring in the grass of Trump’s America.
I was nostalgic, I guess. Remiss of the past, the way a particular type of weather reminds you of that time in third grade when it was raining, the day you saw Samantha scrape her knee in the PS 143 playground. A gash so long you couldn’t tell where it began or ended. You can’t even remember what it looked like, just the sensation of black tar and plasma. And while some kids ran for the nurse she just sat there, no crying, not shedding a damn tear, staring into that cut the way adults look at sunsets or somebody they used love. Almost hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that velvet. Make it more than just colors and blood.
I think that’s when it started for us, really. Fifth grade, Ms. Turmiski’s class. She made an impact on me that day, and no matter where she sat I had my eyes on her ever since. Even if she was in another room. Feelings I denied vehemently until sexuality amplified too high to be tucked away in an Ew-Girls. Samantha had came back from Summer damn near 5’5, towered above the rest of us with her home-cut bobbed hair and thick black rimmed glasses (before that fad came in, you hacks.) The only girl in class who had a binder when all the rest of us were early-primming into drawstring Nike bags and spiral notebooks. Come junior high she started keeping a deck of cards on the sleeves, and I’d make it a point to always sit across from her on the other team when we played spade or casino. Took the usual route of juvenile affections, found it easier to make her an enemy than admit her face made me want to do things with her I didn’t understand yet. Bluffed through boyfriends like Troy, Elijah, and Anthony like a champ. Fake-It-Til-You-Can’t-Take-It was the name of the game, and I was good.
Kept it cool until that one long walk home Sophmore year, hit a slump I couldn’t manage to flash a smile and hump over. Told her what I always felt, even mentioned that thing about her knee in fifth grade, and she said “I always knew, dummy.” Kissed me on the corner of Taylor Avenue, deli lights flashing above our stupid little heads. A world on the verge of conquering us at sixteen, and a universe of intimacy opening the floodgates. Going at it like jackrabbits and a lot of arguments over silly things. I wanted to make the world laugh, and she wanted me to study and make something out of me. She had kisses made of phosphene, I still remember the way her lips against mine would make my head melt. The only girl I ever suffered the dilemma – kiss her, and feel that bliss of touch and sexuality, but miss out on all the lovely things she could have said.
“i want to see your face. send me a photo.”
Her text read at four in the morning, and so I did.
“no. a real one. something I can hold and write your name.
scribble the date and the way you make me feel on.”
Her love was comforting, the way a light from another room is when you’re trying to fall asleep but afraid of the dark. Or yourself. When I couldn’t bare to go down a street because it looked so lonely, she’d remind me what I was scared of wasn’t outside. But in. And I loved her terribly, but only in retrospect. Spent more time dreary eyed with the boys on Amsterdam when I should have been watching Samantha color code her study binders. A realization I wasn’t able to see or understand until long after it happened, and honestly, only because it was gone. Like suddenly missing a limb or finger, or admitting you were an asshole to somebody that didn’t deserve it. There’s a learning curve to gratitude and I was on the verge of overcoming the anchor line. Which is no excuse, I guess. Hindsight is 20-20 and not having regrets just means having things you haven’t thought of enough yet.
“So just like that, you’d leave New York,” I said. Unable to admit by ‘New York’ I meant me.
“It’s a scholarship. Why wouldn’t I?” She said.
And I think we could have made it work, past the slammed doors and distance. Rebuilding trust from where there was none over jokes I shouldn’t be making. Six month breaks that break easy over the holidays, and all the blood we’ve tried to draw from one another wiped clean with something as simple as an I-Miss-You text. Enough distance that makes us wonder what we were so angry about anyway, two weekends into Lets-Just-Be-Friends that ends the moment we notice its 5 am and the bar is closing. Goodbyes and lonely train rides home that turn the world into a stranger, that make us pull the breaks and reverse into each other. Is it still falling if its the fifth time in love? Why are we so surprised to be veering off the side of the road because Why-The-Fuck-Does-Everything-Have-To-Be-A-Joke-With-You? A phone call slammed, and I don’t call back, because I’m tired and her birthday is right around the corner. I’ll take six months off before I start rolling the boulder of our love up over and over again, like Sisyphus. Glossing over our past in grey, summer weather. Sitting there not shedding a damn tear, staring at the sunrise like somebody I used to love. Hopeful, like waiting long enough might make something jump out of all that rosy velvet. Make it more than just the colors and blood we shed to each other.
That kind of chemistry can become exhausting, so her walking out for good was a victory, really.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
Not much to show for the boys who grew up the way I did. Juveniles only in it for the thrills, no arrest record, money piles or illegitimate children this side east of the Hudson. All we’ve got to show for broken windows and slammed doors are vague drug-laced memories and Instagram photos. (Profile private, because we did it for us, not the for the likes.)
Ivan’s doing pretty alright last I checked. Moved in with a thick thighed prize this past Spring. I could tell he was in love because the club pics started coming in less and less, replaced with vacation snaps with Lo-Fi filters and her big hair on that thin body waving like the palm trees behind them. I like to see my people doing well, even if it isn’t with me. The last time I tried to get Ive on a plane he called out broke, then bought the Pathfinder he’s been shining on ever since. Caught an attitude when me and the boys mentioned all the Island-Girls he missed. Said a bunch of guys going overseas is some…well, let’s just say he didn’t agree.
I think it takes a woman to make a man do all the things he’s afraid to. Peer pressure has never put someone they don’t want to be. We’re cowards, really. Crowded around a blunt, six pack, video game or sports bullshit. Children wrestling in verbal warfare with manhood and ourselves. Too silly to be serious. It takes a woman to make a man do things he isn’t prepared to. Crimes of passion are just another way of saying Her-Sex-Was-Good-Enough-To-Make-Him-Do-That.
Joe’s struggling with a baby and a mortgage, same man that swore any girl trying to tie him down better have some strong ass rope. I like his son, David, for weird reasons. Nothing special about the little herb, but he’s the first born of our generation. When I see him chasing fireworks I wonder if he’ll chase lows the way we did. Monkey room looming with too much hookah in our system. Fistfights and Miller Lights coursing through our blood. Dangerous as bulls, hungry, like wolves. Amsterdam avenue thugging, but not really. The college boys were afraid of us being the darkest thing besides the sofas or bouncers. We just needed somewhere to wander until the night or some girls bed could cool our blood.
Not much to show for the boys who grew up the way I did. Just pockets full of memories and the good kind of regret.
My mother used to always warn me about people and their gossip. Before she died I’d get so tired of her telling me not to trust people, waning from one story to the next on friends and family that committed horrible atrocities for the sake of their self interest. Worn and bent over a rocking chair, four red checkered playing cards in her hand as we played Casino. Those are my fondest memories of her, before she died. A time when she spilt her wisdom over diamond nines and clubbed jacks. Always hiding an ace around her bed gown for an extra point I never counted.
“They’re animals,” She would say. “Will eat you alive if you give let them. Before we had to fight for food, now we fight for work. They used to kill you with their hands, now they do it with words. Nothing but хуйло́.”
Something about Casino brought out the worst and best of her. I think the game reminded her of earlier times, and she talked so freely and removed from now that she wouldn’t mention my gambling or weed addictions. I made 18 points last hand, she was one spade short of 21. A long sigh leaked from her lips as her wrinkled hands took up the table to shuffle.
“But we have to love them anyway, I guess.” Words I nodded and said goodnight to, not knowing they were her last.
But they remained with me, and I thought of them constantly whenever work became something more than a job. In 2016 I was caught between the animals and a hard place thanks to the dangerous and heartless parfait of teachers in a charter school.
It was called The Faculties Wall. Nobody knew when or how it started, but it was maintained for years as a well kept secret and dishonored tradition. Located in the staff restroom of the fourth floor, securely tucked away from student eyes, hidden behind a loose and shoddy ceramic wall tile in the third stall. Fifth tile up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the coat hanger of the stall- here you would find a list of names, impressively almost alphabetized, of teachers and what others thought of them in an old wooden plank. Written in a thin black marker, kept scouts honor on the ceiling tile, with a precise and poignant naming convention. A name, an underline, and a series of adjectives would follow. A simple but effective way to wound somebody, to see the dark thoughts of the mob make a grocery list of all your faults.
“What’s it say for Karen?” I asked.
“Snob. Princess. Stank.” Matthew replied.
“Well it isn’t wrong, I guess.”
“Somebody needs to give that stick up her ass a little twist.” He said. “Then take it out. Then put it back in again. Then take it out. Then put-”
“Yours is probably pretty harmless,” I interrupted, because otherwise the loop would be endless. “Since everyone thinks you’re some prince.”
“I did get one Perv. A few Asshole’s. Two or three somethings about being cocky.”
“I’m so happy for you,” I replied dryly.
“Know what would make me happy? Putting it in Karen’s cooterrrrrrrrrrrr”
“You’re aware shes pregnant.”
“And are you aware that can’t happen twice at the same time.”
The Faculties Wall- an outlet for the adults to finally act as cruel as school children, anonymously and as deprived as chat rooms. But worse, somehow. Internet bullying can all seem the same. They’re just digitized letters. But a hand written Douchebag has something terribly intimate about it. The slant of the d, dashing of the i. it makes it much more personal than some 13 year old having a field day in the YouTube comments.
“You still haven’t checked yours huh?”
“I’m not interested.”
“Good for you man. Way to take the high road so the rest of us dont have to. Now I can keep using this as an excuse to just insult you. Like I personally would never have called you frumpy.”
“Shouldn’t you be working on whatever that is?” I asked, waving generally at the copier.
“Fucking finals week is killing me,” He said, reaching in his pocket for a portabalized bottle of aspirin. He popped one with a swig of mineral water, and added, “But not as much as Karen’s-….”
I didn’t care what anyone thought about me. I was more curious of what they thought of each other. Karen wasn’t all bad behind her resting bitch face. Her husband was this stubby and horrible looking Irish kid, so I knew she wasn’t as superficial as everyone thought. Matthews women mania was a well guarded secret. To everyone else he was just the funny man, and I knew all about his 4 episodes of depression and mild pill addiction. Jessie was the last of four, only one to go to college, the prodigal child. Wanting to make her family proud but side-lining her desires to go back to school and be a social worker.
I liked to know these things as a sort of social empathy. Like how watching someone yawn almost makes you want to do it as well. The Faculties Wall was a passive interest, like boxing, or passing car accidents on the highway. But I couldn’t bare to look myself. To put on the gloves I knew full well that I wouldn’t be able resist and take whatever I saw scribbled too personally. And not knowing where it was from, I’d place a wall to my back and turn everyone into an enemy.
“And hey man, I know I usually joke about this stuff but this time its serious with the Tee Eff Dubbs.”
“I don’t care if my shirt is wrinkled.”
“It totally is, but this is not about that. Somebody signed their name on the The Faculties Wall. A major no no.”
“It’s got us Tee Eff Dubbers talking. That’s some bold shit to do man.”
“Basically saying they don’t care who knows they feel that way. I get it.”
“Might bring us some heat. I can’t believe Jessie would do that.”
“…to who?” I asked, already knowing.
Matthew placed a cold hand on my shoulder.
“It is so much more worse than frumpy.”
The mind is a terrible muscle. Unreliable, prone to forget or exaggeration. It plays tricks and can’t be trusted to even decide if a dress is blue or not. For the weeks that followed, mine played a terrible game against itself. A Daredevil sort of hyper-awareness overcame my senses with every interaction I had with Jessie. I felt lingering eyes sometimes where there were none, as if other staff members were waiting for some eruption or subtle gesture. Some tell to discover the way Jessie truly felt about me under the nuance of office politeness.
That moment never came, I don’t think, but I began to treat Jessie the way the instinct of the healthy treat the sick – kindly, but over-protectively and from a distance. I went so far as to change our bi-weekly meeting to only once, and if possible, I would have had that interaction over dixie cups or a recording device. Before then, I had little to think or say about her. She was not outstanding or a terribly awful receptionist. She was just all right, bland in all the right places that make for terrible conversation and an excellent first line for the waves and waves of parents that came in on a daily.
Three weeks had past since Matthew shared the news, and I was on the verge of forgetting it altogether.
“I don’t know how you play nice with someone like that,” Shi said. Shilynn was a parent, my confidant and one of the few people who I sincerely enjoyed. Five minutes with Shi and you would learn her nickname is an antonym, as she was anything but. Loud, honest, playful and forward. Gorgeously stacked six feet high with hoop earrings and a smile that almost made me as manic as Matthew.
“Don’t tell me you know about the wall too,” I asked. And Shi only made a face with a sardonic and closed lip Mmm-Hmph.
“I haven’t seen it yet. But I’ve heard.” Shi shot me a quizzed look, shaking her head with that brilliant and toothy smile.
“That’s what I love about you Noel. Don’t give a shit about what other people have to say, all about your business. Keep that focus on Finals Week baby.”
The copy machine roared softly in the background, and from the distance I could see two teachers talking laxly in loud whispers. Was it about me? I couldn’t tell. They never looked my way but gave shamed nods and gestures that made me think it was. The way you close your eyes on a train and can swear someone is looking at you, but when you open them, there’s nobody there.
“But you need to check that girl. And don’t even stress,” She clicked, placing a warm hand against my cheek. “I think you look cute frumpy.”
The mind is a terrible machine. Always functioning, always turning, even in sleep. I started to have awful dreams. An auditorium full of people I didn’t recognize. Their faces blurred by the spotlight as I stood by the curtain, watching their shapes shift and jiggle in Ooh’s and Aah’s as Jessie stood speaking angrily into the microphone on the stage. I couldn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew it was about me. Or did I merely think it? Dreams are funny that way. Even what you’re not sure of tends to be the gist of it. It’s all your imagination – there is no stage, no crowd, no curtain, no Jessie. It was only my own subconscious rebelling against my self esteem.
At one point, Jessie pointed, and a hundred dark shapes jerked to look at me. A sea of black silhouettes staring mercilessly without eyes. And when I thought to run or stand out for myself – the alarm clock jerked me to my bedroom. No stage, no crowd, no curtain or Jessie. Just a mattress and a cat whining for his feed.
That morning I moved purposefully straight to the fourth floor staff bathroom. Something in my expression must have gave me away, because passing Matthew up the staircase he only winced and muttered some nonsense along the lines of I-Knew-You’d-Break. I hung my satchel in the door, third stall. Stood on the slippery sheen of the porcelain toilet, nearly breaking my neck for the pen faithfully kept in the ceiling. I remember the way it felt so different from the others I’ve held. A bit old and watery from years of wear, but powerful. How many hands had gripped this instrument only to gripe their grievances onto a wooden board. How much history of hate was confined into a sharpie, made boringly in some factory by some machine and people with their own sighs and Faculties Wall.
I stared into the ceramic tile, fifth up from the toilet handle, perpendicular to the stall coat rack. I felt an odd touch of destiny that moment, as if I was taking my life and name back from the phantoms behind the wall. But there was a hesitance. I was afraid, I think, or maybe something more. Anger was what anchored me that entire car ride. It was all I could think about past every exit, speeding towards reaching this place I knew, deep down, I never wanted to be a part of. There was a sweat in my palm as I gripped the marker, and I consciously felt myself at a crossroad. Behind the tile, the curtain, was Matthew and Jessie, and even Shi. Two thoughtless movements and I’d be plunged behind the ugly truth behind How-Was-Your-Weekend, weak weather whatever’s and a void of restraint the social contract binds us to.
I took a deep breath.
They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, but I don’t think they’ve ever heard of abandonment. Jessie was drowning, as far as I could tell because Finals Week is a killer. My third year of it caused some pre-planning I neglected to include her with. There aren’t enough hours in the day, so the trick is to come in an hour earlier when nobody is here and focus on those intricate but easy pieces that need to be done. Bubbling spreadsheets, preparing envelopes. Easy stuff that gets difficult once the rush of parents hits you.
“Goodnight Jessie,” I said on my way out. “Don’t let the rain catch you.”
“Thanks,” Jessie groaned behind a stack of paperwork. Hunched, tired eyes resisting the allure of her cell phone vibrating wildly on the counter.
I stood at the door for a second and thunder cracked. A storm was brewing outside, and a really brilliant one. I’ve always loved rainy and cloudy days. The sun bothers me being so obnoxious and glaring. Staring, demanding to be observed or enjoyed in some lackluster restaurant with outside awnings. Gloomy days fits everyone else in my default mood, and it added to the haggrid state I saw Jessie in. Defenseless, piled behind a desk job not feeding her interest. Welded to the sun without an ounce of strength to call and register for classes next semester. Doomed to the high life of 9 to 5, no recourse except a wooden board on the third floor of the building.
“Do you want help?” I asked, flatly. Her tired eyes contorted to an emotion I couldn’t place, but she didn’t respond.
I placed my satchel on an empty chair and took a stack of papers. Made some joke about how this work was even bigger than Karen’s belly. Jessie laughed, or at least pretended to, and we twiddled through hours of end-of-day deliverables with nothing but placid politeness. The only highlight was a picture of her mom, decked glamorously in a bathrobe throwing a piece sign in a rocking chair. Cigarette pack on her bedside and a deck of cards half opened. A sweet looking old thing ancient as the highways and just as racist.
“She’s cute,” I said, politely. “You have her eyes.”
“She wants me to go back to school, but right now I just can’t because-” Jessie stopped, some subconscious halt to whatever was about spill a terrible honesty.
“You should go back to school,” I said. “Or you should stay here and work. You’re good at either, but nobody wants to be a receptionist forever. Eventually you’ll get tired of this place, because you’ll ask What-If? And that kind of hate festers. It turns you to an animal, and angry, and just…I don’t know. It’s terrible. You start to look at everything around you as a sort of resentment. Like it’s their fault you aren’t where you want to be. Matthew didn’t plan to be a music teacher, he wanted to be a rock star. He tried for years, and he landed here. Which is great, I guess, and is he happy? I think so. Maybe. But more than anything I think he tried his best, and even if this isn’t what he wanted, he’s okay with it, because he pursued his dream.”
Jessie stared into her phone screen, nodding absently. She rolled up her sleeveless blouse, taking the rest of my Finals Week stack into her own.
“Thanks, I’ll take care of the rest,” She said. The drip of rain was deafening outside. A long and soaking bus ride my reward.
I gathered my things and said goodnight, paused at the double doors, wanting and wishing to say more, but unable to make available what words to say.
“By the way,” Jessie chimed. “You shouldn’t wear blue, it makes you look frumpy.”
I nodded and laughed, a little too honestly, and walked wrinkled into the rain.
A breath full of ash that reeks of rum and cigarette butts all pointed the same direction. I don’t know the way home, and if I did, I’d follow the opposite road like a north star. The night is young and cruel as school children- crashing continuously against the dawn, trying desperately to be Erebus, the who will woo and suffuse the night.
I am intimately familiar with the immature inability to count your losses and call it quits. Hope’s kind of a dick that way, a flame of stubborn faith that burns so bright so long as the sky is navy blue. Every lark is actually sprinting towards an escape that doesn’t exist, and I wish I could have told myself back then, this obvious truth I was to stupid to realize or admit: that really, the day never ends, it only goes away for a while. And no matter how fast you run, eventually, the morning and all her responsibilities will catch up to you.
It’s the four o’ clock crowd loud and happy hour just kicking off, pleasant as a post 9 to 5 allows you to be. Yuppie caustic kindness, Can-You-Believe’s echoing down seventh avenue. Hardly the place to start a Monday bender, but I’d be damned if I let some calendar decide if the weekend was over or not.
They don’t have Heineken but I’m recommended something called “beer blanc,” by a casually well dressed gauge wearing douchebag. He’s wearing a hat indoors and what I can only assume is a flavor t-shirt whose irony is lost only on me.
“No thanks, just a double shot of Jack then,” I said.
“Is Evan Williams okay?” He asks, already pouring the damn thing.
I should have gone home then, but being surrounded by noise helps me focus. Silence is too distracting. Inevitably my mind starts to fill the gaps, and the thoughts that inhabit me are grotesque and overcrowded. A royal rumble of awful notions I need to bury in absent-minded conversations or else be consumed by them.
“What’s that blanc thing you recommended?” I asked, and Douchebags eyes darted sideways, halfway to a roll.
“It’s a milk stout,” He droned, wanting out but not pouring fast enough to.
“I’m sorry what?”
“A milk stout.”
“Beer? And milk? That’s gross. What if I’m lactose?”
“Then you shouldn’t have had a Guinness.” He said, a tastefully and casually bored retort I simultaneously loathed and admired too much to take personal. Because I had a Guinness some hour earlier, and the idiot succeeded in making me feel quite stupid, enough to not even bother Wiki-ing if he was right. (Because he was.)
Hard cut, five hours later- the place has become a loose tie affair, full of tastefully popped derrieres and half baked conversation. Bars are a miracle, let me tell you. Nobody really feels like friends but nobody wants to drink alone, so they meander to where the wood is dark, the space is small, all for the sake of feigning company. And I’m with them, terribly, still trying to make friends with gauged Douchebag.
But by now the musics too loud and he can casually wave whatever I try to investigate into the milk and beer dichotomy. There’s darlings out in tube tops and muscle tee’s the hour finds appealing. A pretty little thing called Esmeralda parks beside me, the beautiful tired eyed of a forty something trying to make the best out of what she spent on a baby sitter.
“Your eyes” She says. “Are so sad.”
“Because they’ve been waiting to look at you.”
It’s not a good joke, but she laughs, strokes my hand and offers me a drink. I look at her, cute, veins of her crows feet I’m reading like palms of possibilities. I like the simplicity, the lull of alcohol that’s made us get along so lovely. Her smile so easy and my faux confidence almost bordering on real. She is an option, an alternative to the dark and lonely road. All it would take is a yes to tomorrow, a letting go of yesterday. To take her hand in mind and measure the hum of her pulse and cherry lips against my own.
“So what do you want?” She asks, eyes lean and suggestive. I felt the warmth of her look, the gentle in the wordless caress. Elevator eyes, meaning all I had to do was play it cool and avoid any touchy subjects like religion, politics, or anything stupid as thoughtful. Something light, like what she likes to do on the weekends and favorite Youtube videos. We could go somewhere after, I could tell by the way our knees touched and hands found each other.
So I pointed to the guy in gauges.
“Tell him I want a Guinness.”