I haven’t finished a short story in ages. Here’s my most recent attempt:
You leave work early on Friday, because Debbie insists everyone be at her apartment with all of their gear by four P.M. to beat the traffic. You know the only way to actually beat the traffic would be to have left Thursday at two in the morning, but you will obey instructions and not say anything. Debbie is as sunny as a morning news show host, and also a totally unreasonable bitch. You don’t feel like going. You would rather go home and plop yourself on the couch and watch HBO On Demand until you pass out, or maybe call up one of your greasier friends and drink Tequila until your head feels like it’s going to explode, pick up a girl and then insult her so badly she assaults you. All of these things are possible, and more appealing than spending a weekend kayaking with Debbie and Hunter and the whole U Penn crowd.
These are the thoughts in your mind, as you walk down the steps of the Rector Street stop, to head uptown.
It is one hundred degrees exactly according to your iphone. People audibly say, ‘Ahhhh,’ as they step into the climate-controlled car, en masse. You might have said, ‘ahhhh,’ yourself. The little bars in the corner of your iphone have disappeared. Wireless signals in the subway. Someone’s going to make some money, coming up with that. Three hours ago, you had the initially pleasant sensation of having your boss personally deliver your quarterly bonus check to you disappear, because the number in your head was $12,144, but after withholding the actual check only came out to $8,737.24. Three or four seconds spent considering the merits of the Republican Party in a wrathfully indignant fit, followed by the customary flush of shame.
You are only twenty-nine years old. You want the important things to still be waiting around the corner, but you wonder if the important things have already happened. They certainly didn’t seem all that important. Sometimes you wonder if you should quit your job, and do something more meaningful. You saw a movie On Demand ($2.99) last week. A young, brilliant, handsome white man teaches dialectics to middle schoolers in the ghetto. But the twist is he’s a cocaine addict. That is the important part—you would never consider it meaningful, to educate children in the projects. You’d have to be a cocaine addict, too.
You are proud of your body. You feel it is at its absolute peak. You swim laps in a pool very, very early in the morning, when the sun has not yet risen in the sky. Sometimes when you are done you are not tired at all, in fact you feel you could keep adding laps ad infinitum, and you wonder if you have discovered the secret to immortality in a Chelsea fitness club. How ludicrous all past stumbles and all once-damning weaknesses appear, scaled against this final triumph, this never-ending ascension. Isn’t everyone an optimist, who’s still alive?
Your mother called you last Sunday. You occasionally feel intense shame, while talking to her, because while you believe God exists, you’re certain He doesn’t do anything, or care about anything that you might care about. The shame you feel is not for yourself, but her. She said she wants you to meet someone. The daughter of a woman she met in her yoga class. And why would this be a good idea? You meet lots of girls. Lots of girls—I don’t want to hear it.
A young couple and their baby step onto the train at Union Square. He has a thick beard and his t-shirt is stained like he’s been working construction; he looks Mexican, she is white. He has an accordion strapped to his chest, and she holds the baby in a sling across her front, and also a clear plastic cup with some mashed-up cash in it. Nothing about the girl suggests a predisposition to misery. Her t-shirt and jeans are clean. Her hair is tied into a ponytail by a butterfly clip, covered over with lots of pink studs. You stare at her for a while, because the entire mise en scéne strikes you as wrong.
She walks around with the cup after he plays, and when she comes by you make eye contact. She smiles at you, even though you haven’t pulled out any money. Straight white teeth.
A strange idea crosses your mind, when the train stops at Twenty-Third Street. You watch the couple and their baby step out, not having said a single word, not having collected a cent. You blink a few times. Just as the doors start to close you sprint out, and start looking. After diving through the crowd four or five times, you think you have lost them. But then you spot the butterfly clip. It flashes a couple of times, in a meaningful way.
You start to follow, at a distance. You’ve never followed anyone before. But everything about it feels very appropriate, very cinematic, skillfully edited. The thought in your head is preposterous. It is from another dimension of existence, warping the time and space in your own. Perhaps you’re just trying to come up with an excuse to miss Debbie’s trip.
You’re thinking of a day in spring, four or five years ago, at Prospect Park. You were there with a girl.
She’s brought along a big Minnie Mouse blanket. Everything she owns is for kids. It’s cute, but it’s pretty stupid too, and you imagine it will get boring. You always make fun of her because she takes her tan so seriously. She takes off her blouse, then her cargo shorts, down to a black bikini. Her body is younger than yours. It is something you resent her for. Her body is a rabbit in a race against a tortoise. You are always a little bit aroused around her. This is exciting. You watch her apply lotion to all the parts she can reach, waiting to finish the job.
The sun is so high, and so directly above you, that both of you are transfixed.
She suggests you take off your shirt and lay out as well. There don’t seem to be many other options, so you do. You lie parallel to her, your head level with her feet.
Let’s sing a song, she says. You do that a lot—sing songs. You both know incredible amounts of song lyrics; the choruses, the verses, the bridge, the shit yelled or whispered in between. It is perhaps the only thing that makes you feel close to her; you are not so compatible otherwise. But when you sing, you feel very, very close. You feel you are in love, and that you would like it if you could feel this way a bit longer.
What should we sing?
For you, there’ll be no more crying…
Haha. You know why this song’s in your head?
You heard it on American Idol.
You’re such a dumb kid.
Foooor you-u, the sun will be shining…she keeps going.
And the songbirds are singing, like they know the scoh-ohh-orr.(Hey, you gonna harmonize or what?)
And I love you,
I love you,
I love you,
(And you do. But it’s melting away even faster than the words can be sung, and this never stops, will never stop)
So here we are, standing on a subway platform. She is ten feet to the side of you, waiting patiently for the train, baby still strapped to her chest. It was that pink clip which cinched it.
You are quite brutishly staring at her, gently moving towards her with shuffling half-steps which you are not aware of until you notice you are close enough to reach out and touch her shoulder. You want more than anything in the world to say hi, good to see you. Free for dinner? Let’s talk. I know you’ve probably made some mistakes. God knows I’ve made some myself. It’s no big deal.
But your body is suddenly made of sand. It’s pouring out through your feet. Someone has pulled out the plug. It is going to happen very fast. You are going to disappear. *