Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Out of Sight

Courtesy Pexels, photo by Nicole Avagliano

If there’s a hard rain after her swing shift, Macy sits by her living room window, a candle burning, with her quilt bunched around her shoulders and stares at nothing. If it’s agreeable outside, she sets a three-legged red stool on her minuscule balcony, sets a smaller candle on the the iron railing and stares at nothing. I can see her from across the alley as I slouch in bed beside my dark window. We watch each other now and then, wave a tired wave we can barely make out, but mostly I keep an eye out for her. I have extra time.

She is thinking as I used to think: how different–better–things might have been, how he chose the wrong fork in the road, but how can she make anything of her life until she moves past the so ordinary (she tells herself) heartbreak of it. But where is the necessary will to do so? It flags, it pauses, it stalls. He should have married her and he did not. What does one do with an excess of desire, as if he was still in the room, or that voice of hope inside her head, followed by a downward spiral of despair?

I sit propped up on three pillows, at least two books splayed face down beside me and shake my head as she sits by her own self and ponders. She’s lovesick, that’s what I conclude. After a year, this needs to be done and buried. Macy needs to join a spa, attend a positive single-hood seminar, take a leave and go to the Bahamas two weeks, perhaps trek Mt. Rainier since she is athletic. A breakthrough or at least a soothing mantra is required before she fades more.

I told her this too early, then only two months after her heart cracked apart. It was after she’d cried at the farmers market while examining strawberry plants (I meanwhile was taste testing a cherry tomato), explaining they were going to buy a house, they had spotted two they loved, and she was going to plant a bountiful garden but then he had to fall for that woman, the one they’d met on a cruise to Alaska, could I believe that? And she could barely face anything that grew despite yearning for all things green and beautiful.

I patted her arm and said, “I know. You have to work at moving on. It’s hard but he did get married and you can’t waste precious time and energy wallowing in self-pity. Pot some plants for your balcony, at least.”

“How can you just brush off my feelings? How would you know? You aren’t even with anybody at, say, 50 years old, right?”

I took a step back. I was just offering decent advice but tend toward frank and practical rather than fluffy or diplomatic. But I thought it was a bit overwrought when Macy burst into a tidal wave of weeping and turned away after her face constricted into a scowl of huge dislike of me, then wandered off to baked goods. We weren’t close, not even before he left her. But we often went to market together or took our dogs to the park when we both had one. (Macy gave hers away; the labra-doodle had been their dog. My scruffy mongrel got run over; he was not well, perhaps it was best.)

Since then, she avoids me at all cost. That is, avoids running into me, engaging in conversations with me if we accidentally come face-to-face. We make out our outlines across the alleyway and occasionally but barely acknowledge each other. I can’t say it hurts me, but it does disappoint me. We might have been better friends with more interaction, despite the ten years age difference and the fact that I no longer work full time but at home as needed as a nicely paid web designer. Macy and I like to read, for one thing; she has interesting tastes, we had good discussions. And then there were the dogs. I now have a cat, Razz. I don’t know if Macy has anything around to pet and chat with, but somehow I doubt it–so much effort involved. I feel for her, but don;t think of it until night falls again. I have my own life to shape and reshape until I get it more right than it is.

I’ve held a post by my window a lot longer than she has even lived in this neighborhood. I will continue to do so until insomnia abates. We’re older friends, the night and me, than anyone I know here excepting Travis on the tenth floor, who is now blind and nearly deaf. I take groceries and Razz to him and the cat sits on his lap, even purrs and nibbles his pale twisted fingers. We listen to too-loud big band selections on his stereo. The old man was there for me when I needed him and vice versa. We have a good habit going now, twelve years later. His wife, Selma, passed, heart attack right in their teak four poster bed, with him snoring away, he said, until he felt something, as if her ghost swept across his chest and arms before exiting. I liked her even more than I knew until she was gone. And I had my own issue, the strange matter of my partner, Ward, going on photo assignment in Mongolia and never returning. No good answers from the news agency, no acceptable reason for his silence. Everyone has presumed he is dead or imprisoned somewhere on that vast continent. I am not at first so sure but as time passes I am inclined to agree. There has been a holding place that will never be occupied in my life. Even Macy knows a few pieces of the puzzle. But she doesn’t know the sort of love he and I shared, the sort that I know beyond a doubt never comes around again.

After all that happened, Travis and I sat side by side in his nicely ratty armchairs– mine was Selma’s for decades, the cushions deeply indented bottom and back– by his living room window day after day, drinking fragrant spicy chai and eating too many sweets. Sighing. He lay a hand on mine now and again, said, “This, too, shall pass” until I was sick of it but he was quite right. He could walk better then. I’d weave my arm though his and off we’d go to the park with the fountain and feed the birds. It was a good thing to do.

Now we just sit an hour once a week and it’s enough for him, he smiles and looks at me with cloudy once-blue eyes and nods. I get up and go, until the next week, next grocery list.

Tonight I haven’t seen Macy at her spot outdoors yet. My night doesn’t settle right without her there; it’s like being accustomed to seeing the moon, or at least its light–out of reach but in place. I admit to sometimes worrying about her. Younger, more sheltered, less independent in most ways-what does she do with her time now? I see her here and there with some woman, some man, but there is something in the way she holds her shoulders, sharp and hunched with underground tension, as if pushing against an adversary, but what? Inevitable losses? Her own bridled anger? The tenderness of vulnerability that comes with human contact? Her mouth smiles but her eyes look far away, as if searching for him, still.

I understand. But before it got out of hand, I began to see what was in front of me and it meant more. Vaporous presences mean so little when your blood runs warm in your body and your mind lights up with a need to embrace and discover. For this is real living right now, not so the past which is nebulous despite our wanting it otherwise.

There she is now, good, her stool set down. She raises her head to see Venus, I think–so unmistakable in its regal claim to space. I see the gleaming body, too, and swing my feet over to stand in the narrow place between my big bed and the wall with two tall windows. One is half-open. The traffic, though sparser, never comes to a full stop in city center and I like to hear its metallic shifting and trumpeting of busy work. The alley is empty except for a heavily attired woman rearranging blankets on the back steps of another building, and a young man–he walks very fast–cringing into himself as he passes. He stumbles and I wonder if it is a rat underfoot, if he is drunk or naturally clumsy. And he is on his phone now and then gone.

Macy looks down, too, as if I wondered aloud what that young man was up to, then she gazes toward me. I think–how can I be sure. I press my fingers against the glass, then bend down to peer through the screen to see better. She is looking at me, she is raising a bottle in my direction, and a glass. Then she beckons me over to her spot with a nod and sweep of her hand, the glass spilling its contents a little.

Do I get dressed and go over? I am about to turn back to my books when something catches my eye, and a tall, reed thin figure pauses in the shadows, leans against the brick of Macy’s building, and lights a cigarette, face flaring bright a second but not discernible, then all is mostly dark again except for lights that burst forth and vanish down the alley. It is 1 a.m. I wait five minutes. The glowing cigarette is snuffed out and nothing stirs. But Macy is still at the balcony railing, holding the bottle, drinking from her glass. It seems a white flag from Macy, so I pull on my shirt, shorts, slip on flip-flops, ride the elevator down and step into the darkness through the side door.

I take that convenient exit as it is faster but feeling the unseen presence I about regret it. It is as if the stranger is waiting, resting– or maybe sleeping–but I almost call out to warn him off me. Still, my gut says this is more benign than dangerous, I can breathe alright. I go the opposite way, not trying to run–I’d fail in flip-flops–but not dawdling, either. My ears are pricked but there is nothing but the usual suspects, skittish creatures and whizzes of vehicles and muffled talking above, a shout down the street. Entering Macy’s building when she buzzes me up seems a comfort. When she opens her door, I note sweat has accumulated between my breasts and down my back, and realize her building has no air conditioning. She is across the alley but our life circumstances are different. I think we both felt that yet she is now welcoming.

“Hi! Wine? Rose.”

She pours me a full glass; maybe she recalls that is a preference. We clink our glasses and settle on the tiny balcony–she offers the other, yellow, stool. The dark seems heavier than usual, heat rising to swaddle us.

“So I just wanted to tell you. They separated already.”

“Really.”

“It turns out she was already engaged to another guy and he found her and visited them… not a pretty scene, I guess, and Hank lost out. A mutual friend knows the story, he’s an old friend of Hank’s so called me.” She looks at me and I blink. “You remember Hank’s name, right?” She takes a good sip. “It has been awhile since we talked.”

“Right, Hank. And yeah, it has been that. Well, that is good news…?”

“Not sure. I might be finally over him.”

“Ah, good work.”

“You know, it wasn’t that much work, just a decision.” She lights up with a toothy smile. “I got a promotion and since then things have gotten better all around. I am moving soon, across the river.”

“Congratulations, that is great news.” We clinked again.

“Last week he called to say he missed me… but you know, it didn’t feel right. I think I’m done, as you suggested would happen.”

“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”

We talk another twenty minutes about our work and being single and she is considering a cat, too, for when she moves. I start toward the door, thanking her for having me over and wishing her well. It seems a well- intentioned ending to our acquaintanceship.

“Oh, I forgot–one more thing. You know how we both watch from our places? Have you seen some guy lurking about the last three nights?”

Something in me dives straight down into a chilly bottomless pool and I nearly gasp. “Not really, but I may have seen someone tonight.”

“He looks up at your building, I think. Just a heads up. I carry pepper spray and take a cab home each night so I’m good. But I wonder what he’s up to.”

“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”

On impulse I give her a light hug and she returns it. I think, though, how she never asked about Ward. Just as well.

On the way back–a mere two minutes with a rapid walk–I go around her building, then around mine and look down the alley from the opposite end from which I left. I will enter the complex from the front door but first I squint to try to delve into the shadows.

He steps out, about one hundred feet away. And then I run, flip flops torn from my feet by the length and speed of my stride, lungs pushing air in and out then I must pause one second to slide my electronic apartment key to unlock the main door. And just like that he is there, grabs my arm.

I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.

“Gina? Oh my god, it’s really you, Gina!”

I freeze into stone. And then I am turned to face him.

It is him. It is Ward, I think, I want to think, but he looks much older, his beard so long and his once-wide eyes half sunken in deeply tanned, lined skin. His wavy salt and pepper hair is pulled into an unruly ponytail. I check his throat. Around his neck, circling a long scar left from war story, is a silver infinity symbol on a darkened leather cord that I gave him over twenty years ago.

My knees weaken and a hand braces against the opening door and we fall into the foyer.

“Yes, it’s really me, it’s Ward… don’t run off, please! Listen. My motorcycle broke down. I got lost. I was captured–yes, true– by a nomadic man after I stole a prized horse and had to work to pay off my debt–and I had to adapt and I–“

“What? What did you say?” I cover my eyes with both hands, then my buzzing ears. This cannot be Ward, this cannot be reality. What is he saying, captured after a horse theft? My head swims and I will faint if I don’t sit down, so sink to the ceramic tiled floor, its hardness a relief.

“Please, hang on with me, Gina, wait! I’ve lived in Mongolia all this time. It has been amazing and hard. With nomadic tribes. I tell you the truth.”

“Wait–you smoke now?”

“Yeah, rotten habit, I’ll quit now I’m back to some quasi-normalcy. Or, I think it is, hard to say after adapting to a whole other life.”

My chest is heaving, my eyes sting. Of course he’s telling me the truth, he has lived the craziest things, he has always brought back such stories. “And now you’re just…are you really in the flesh? And you felt I’d still be here.”

His arms wrap around me, pull me tight. We rock side to side, back and forth, entwined arms clinging.

“Yes, I have waited but barely let myself believe…Ward. Alive, here, now.”

“It’s a story unlike any other I’ve chased or lived, my love. I can’t believe my good fortune to find you– still here in our old home,” he says into my long graying hair, into my being.

“Yes, you’re finally home, thank the powers that be,” I whisper as we stand shakily. “Come with me.”

I breathe him in, smokiness with all the rest that I recall, and we get in the elevator. His eyes never leave mine, I fall into his, what else can be done? And in our bed we hold each other past dawn, our eyes searching one another’s for all the missing pieces, our hands welcoming each other as if anew, and though Razz raises his head once, he stays curled on the couch, the only one that cares to sleep.

Train En Route to Halloween

Photo by Michael Putnam
Photo by Michael Putnam

Five days before Halloween I got on the train at Eighteenth Street station, arms full of packages. My feet were relieved as I sat two seats in front of him without a thought. There didn’t seem to be anything to notice about him. He was asleep. I, too, felt bone tired.

It had been a day of spending money for Lauren, her fortieth birthday mega-spree, but she encouraged me to shop as well, so I said, “Why not? A little only. For old times’ sake.” We played this out on a smaller scale each year during her birthday week. But that day Lauren refused to let me pay. It was humiliating at first–who could not pay for a pair of leggings and a comfortable sweater? I was more willing to accept her generosity after I bought our usual Irish coffees, accomanied this time by Dutch apple pie.

I tucked her into a cab before scrambling for the train. She went her way; I went mine. I can’t recall a time when we last visited each other’s homes. Well, two years ago, during holiday season we carolled with the almost-defunct book club where we’d met. We started the revelry at her place. I’d stood in front of her new house, utterly diminished. It was so big it ate up the sky, which you normally could see out there. Afterwards I had trouble savoring cookies and coffee we were served. I was too busy gaping at the glittering, tasteful decorations. Tamping down envy that hadn’t netted me in a while.

When we first met, things were not just different. They were entirely another chapter from a story that is lost to me now. I had a roomy, renovated two-story brick townhouse and a husband and twin daughters soon to attend college. I worked because I wanted to. Yet despite my change in circumstance, Lauren remained a good friend, close, even, if you count bi-weekly phone calls a sign of valued friendship. I tend to do so, anymore. That line of communication has been a tether to what was once a good life, what is still decent and safe. But, too, it’s often felt as if we were allowing quick glimpses into each other’s lives. Without risking any significant intimacy, any surprises. Or damage. There had been so much before and gradually Lauren came to prefer things without unseemliness. I guess I provided her with more rough edges than anyone might appreciate.

I piled the packages onto the empty seat beside me. The train car was only a third full. Distracting sounds frayed me further: metal wheels on tracks, a man coughing and repeatedly blowing his nose in the back, three children shrieking and laughing as their mother read a newspaper and various muffled conversations between companions scattered about. I pivoted in my seat, hoping to throw a warning glance at the rowdy kids but they were blithely unaware.

Behind me, the sleeping man I had first laid eyes on stirred. I couldn’t see his eyes. His gentlemanly hat was atop a strong-boned and lightly five-o’clock-whiskered face. He had been snoring until then. He raised his shoulders and repositioned himself, hand rubbing his chin. It was then a ring on his finger winked at me. I leaned over the seat to see it better.

It appeared to be white gold or platinum, unlikely sterling silver but I couldn’t be sure even though I knew something of fine jewelry. The simple band was mounted with a respectable diamond. Two small rubies on either side. The ring shone fiercely, dramatic in the gravelly afternoon light.

I whipped back around, fingers pressed against my mouth. My head felt like it had once on a speed boat, inundated with dizziness. I braced myself, both hands grasping the edge of the seat.

It had been a long time, yes, nearly seven years, but one cannot forget such things. The ring I had just observed was just like Rolf’s ring. The one never recovered, along with contents of two jewelry boxes, buffet drawers, china cabinet, a small safe and so on. The list was almost obscene to contemplate, yet inconsequential when compared to the far, far graver costs.

But that one piece… it was a ring we had bought together to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. Not ostentatious, but commanding attention. He had joked about it.

“I need a far better job title to match this signal of success! But it’s our marriage we celebrate and, anyway, it covers our fifteenth, too. I think rubies are due for that, so two-for-one.” He laughed, a sound that brought me contentment.

“How do you know such things? It’s alright–we’ll come up with another great idea. Maybe ruby-colored slippers?”

“That’s a picture, our fancy feet stretched out by a fire!’ He sighed. “By then maybe we’ll have a down payment on a small lake house…you always wanted that…” he’d said and kissed me well and fully, like a promise. The jeweler turned away to afford us privacy.

As the train gained speed I touched my neck, then bit back tears. The diamond necklace he gave me was elegant, delicate, with two small tear-shaped gems on each length of white gold leading to the matching, larger stone that nestled below the base of my throat. It was so beautiful that Grace, my barely older twin, suggested I wear it across my forehead when we went to the symphony or opera, like someone far more daring. Like an important woman would, she added, elbowing me.

I did not, though I tried it once when in my room preparing for a night out with friends a couple of years later. I liked to look at it even if I didn’t wear it. In the mirror I observed a pleasant, plain wife of the department head of Interdependent Anthropological Studies place it just so on the high forehead. It looked absurd at first, then the romance of it grew on me. Rolf was emerging from his shower with towel around his waist. He walked over and put damp hands on my chilly shoulders, their radiant heat warming me. Making me smile. He grinned at the woman, lucky me, in the mirror. I thought randomly: “Sweet skin and diamonds, love and lust.”

I suddenly recalled all this as if it was that night again. My heart threatened to usurp my breath. Just as it had the night of the burglary. That ending of everything as I knew it to be.

Seven years ago I was chatting on the phone when we arrived home, first with Estelle then Grace at NYU, when he yelled at me from the second floor railing.

“Anne! Call police!”

I lowered the phone as the hair on my arms rose up. “What?”

“Our house–our things–someone has broken in!”

In panic I headed to him, passed the dining room, took in my home’s disfigurment, such disarray. I never knew what it meant to say one’s blood ran cold but every bit of the glow of a happy evening–no, life–left me, then my insides were ice, my mind immobilized until Rolf swore from the blind end of the hallway, yelled at me again, his voice thundering down on me.

“Leave now, Anne! Leave! Go outside–call 911!”

His face was the color of the ivory walls, his thick hair still sleek, his deep-set eyes dark with outrage and fear. He pointed to the door we had just entered; I ran down the stairway I had just ascended. Opened it. Turned to see Rolf’s trousered leg and large foot disappear down the shadowy hallway. I wanted to race up and grab him, drag him down the stairs with me but felt disoriented. Nauseous and strange, as if I wasn’t really there, as if I was wearing someone else’s body. I heard something, a rush of jumbled sounds–hands and feet scrambling? something–our possessions?–being dragged along the wall?–and yet obeyed my husband and called for help.

The sky let loose rain hard as stones. I stood there in my silky dress coat and high heels. Told the dispatcher all in ten words or less. And through the cold veil of wet I heard far worse, red-hot pops of sound, small enough to be softened by rainfall but big enough to invade my ears and attach themselves to my insides.

I could not breathe. Move. I tried to see through darkness and downpour but–nothing. It was quieter now. Except for me.

“Rolf!” I screamed, throat torn by the sound of his name “Rolf! Rolf Jacob Eberling! Rolf, my love, my love!”

Can a person drown in tears, inside rain? I vacated my known life as rain sliced the air and me in ten directions.

Others shouting then. Sirens and wild lights. Sitting on the sidewalk with head to lap, hands over ears, rocking, rocking. Hands grabbing.

Eventually he came out to me in the flesh. Bleeding into the watery world. On a gurney. But his spirit had been ransacked. Emptied of his essence. I was robbed of him. It was as if I’d died, too, and all this time I had been crawling back to the land of the living. Surveying the world from a corner of the blanket of grief. Because my daughters asked itof me. Begged.

Now here I sat on the seat on a workaday train, weeping. No one noticed when I got up and bent over the sleeping man. He looked so ordinary in his nice woolen coat and hat. A rumpled middle-class businessman on his way home.

I pummeled his meaty shoulder and his head jerked back, knocking his hat off. He grabbed my wrists.

“Lady, what are you doing?”

“Take it off! Take off Rolf’s ring!”

He unfolded himself, a foot taller than I, stopped me at arm’s length. He kept me there with one broad hand clamped on my rain coat.

“What? What ring do you mean now?”

He held up his hand and examined the terrible thing on his finger. The same finger that should have had a ring on it when Rolf was wheeled away from me into oblivion.

“This ring? My ruby and diamond ring? Right!” He frowned at me and shook his head, then reached into the aisle and grabbed his rolling hat. When he was righted he blinked. “You’re not well, lady. Sit down. Now.”

I planted myself on the seat across from him and he sat with forearms resting on his legs, tense, at the ready should I wale away at him again. The train shifted from one track to another. I could see that ring gleam in flickering overhead lights. I held his gaze even though I shook. His eyes were grey, heavy-lidded, skittish then still. I slowed my breathing and leaned forward. Mimicked his stance.

“Mister, tell me where you got that ring. I need to know!”

He cupped his ringed hand with the other. “Why do you ask?”

“Someone lost one just like it–” my throat wanted to close but I kept on, stronger–“someone who lost his life over that ring…our whole life lost…”

I watched him closely. His face shuttered, or so it seemed to me, as he lowered his head.

“Uh, sorry, ma’am.”

He looked up again. His eyes seemed wrong, calm but harder at the same time. I couldn’t see beyond black pupils but I noted uneven teeth and a gold crown inside his half-open mouth. Tried to memorize him. Dark blond hair. Torso solid, rectangular against the seat, alert for defensive action even as he appeared at ease. This man on a train was hit by a crazed woman who ranted and accused him. Yet he was unperturbed. We swayed as the train slowed and rounded a corner.

“How did you get it? Did you dare take it off him? Did you shoot him? Kill him in fact because he caught you? Your very incompetence brought my husband death!”

My voice had somehow deepened and strengthened, an anvil held aloft in the car. I got to my feet and stood above him for a moment, ready to call for help, fists ready, too. I was inhabited by something I should not let loose. People looked at me now, alarmed or at least annoyed. The man rose, straightened his coat, the ring sparking at me.

“You’re very upset, that’s the truth. But I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady. I got it at a pawn shop downtown. Years ago.” He rubbed his forehead then snugged his hat closer, forefinger fingers ficking its rim, a period to his statement.

Brakes ground against wheels. We fell forward a half-inch. I knew my stop was coming up. Perspiration broke over my forehead, chest, back. The man slipped past me, lithe and quiet, as if he didn’t want to leave any trace of himself. I followed after but others got up and clogged the aisle. As if they all lived in my part of the city, had to leave. Maybe they were hiding him! But no, they were likely trying to escape me.

The train came to a halt. I pushed my way out, got my cell phone, pressed Lauren’s “favorite contacts” number. I could see the back of the ring bearer’s head.

That thief, that murderer! No escaping me again. I would finish it for Rolf.

Did I say these things aloud? Everyone looked at me as we clamored off the train. They scattered into the dusk, left me to my own devices. I searched the platform and held the phone to my ear.

“Anne? Is that you? Hello? Anne, are you okay?”

I spotted him. On the other side. An attractive woman in black boots, long bright hair, an arm about his waist. He spoke to, then kissed her. She glanced toward me, shook her lioness head. I began to cry and hung up on Lauren as I realized my bags of fine clothing and accessories were still on the train. Goods for someone else. How that disturbed me in the midst of it. I stumbled toward the walkway as the train sounded its warning, started to move.

Then I imprinted on every memory cell exactly how he looked, stood, walked, talked. And the woman, his cohort. In case I got the nerve to call the police. Made a report of a stranger with a ring….how foolish. The illusory, maddening world threatened to upend me once more. I breathed with practiced precision, stood up straight.

And then, slowly, just so, the stranger turned and peered back at me, delivered to me his unwavering, laser-sharp stare, and he held up a hand, the one with the rubies-and-diamond-studded ring. He gave it a cheery, pageant-style wave that sent lightning chills crashing up my spine then down to my furious, forlorn core.