A tale of a storm
It’s that time of year again. That pesky Valentine is upon us, making all singles forget it’s not a disease and all couples suddenly remember they are so.
With that holiday spirit, I shower you not only with a dozen red roses but with my words (pretentious much?): the following is also an assignment from last semester, where we were asked to write something, anything, from poetry to prose, with New York as a character in it.
I chose to take a swing at fiction, mostly because I haven’t done so in at least a decade, and what better place to attempt it than grad school. And thus, this is a fictional short story. I repeat — contrary to popular belief, it is not based on a true story.
It’s not the “alien ate baby” kind of fiction, let’s ground it in some reality. It’s just not my reality. Not anymore, anyway.
Now that we’ve established that — eat up:
“It’s not like I chose to be here you know”
“Yea, I know. Trust me, this is not how I thought this would –“
“I mean, seriously, if they would just plow the fucking snow out of the way! God, you would think they would have figured out a way for man to trump nature by now, it’s just so –“
“God, Tom, could you tone it down, it’s not like anyone’s doing this on purpose”
“I have a shitload of work to do”
“P-ha! It’s not your shitload of work. I’m not stupid. And I don’t want you here more than you want to be here so just… just… whatever. I’m gonna take a shower”
Tom was standing by the window, peering down, his hands crossed loosely against his chest as if admitting defeat. She really just wanted him out, this stranger who was supposed to be nothing more than an anecdote to tell her girlfriends over drinks.
She locked the bathroom door behind her and double checked that it was locked, so as not to give him any ideas. She took off her flannel pajama pants. She didn’t even put on underwear, she was in such a hurry to get dressed and see him off. She started pulling her sweater up when she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She looked tired. Really, she thought, tugging at the puffy skin under her left eye. How long did you think you were going to keep this up.
She turned on the water and let it run for a minute, to make sure it was hot. She loved her apartment, a cozy studio in the West Village she immediately called home. Just the water took sometimes longer than usual to heat up.
She was about to step in when she thought she heard something. She froze. Was that the door? Did he leave? No. It was the cupboard. The charmer was making himself coffee, or tea. Sure, why shouldn’t he feel at home. He’s stuck in it.
As soon as she pulled the shower curtain to a close she felt alone, the good kind, at last. As water trickled down her back she shut her eyes, wishing nothing more will ever happen after that moment. It was an inconsequential point in time but sometimes she cherished those the most, the ones no one wants to capture. Well, there is really no one to blame for this, she thought. Herself, maybe, but what good would that do.
She definitely thought she might draw attention that night. It was no accident her skirt was shorter than usual. Shorter than you would expect from her, in any case. And it’s not as if she needed the attention. After the last one walked out she vowed she was going to figure this out on her own. What she was doing wrong, or right, if at all. She just wanted someone to care, to notice she was there, to wonder about her. And he noticed.
At first she didn’t, it was dark and despite her friend’s promise, louder than she would have liked, the kind of loud that cuts conversations short. He was at the other end of the bar and he stared, but she wasn’t sure it was at her. She sort of felt there was nothing she’s sure of anymore. But then suddenly he was right by her, leaning a bit too close on account of the music, holding the same drink she had just finished sipping, as if he had the magic ability to fill empty glasses with peoples’ wishes.
She was impressed, no doubt, that he had noticed what she ordered, a little embarrassed, for a brief moment, when she realized he might have watched her all night what-else-might-she-have-done-and-oh-just-try-to-remember-now-did-you-glance-at-the-mirror-more-than-once-or-pull-on-your-skirt-or “Hi”‘ he said, smiling, cutting into her thoughts, as if intruding, imposing, was as much an invitation as any.
“I’m Tom”. “Emma,”‘ she said, not realizing she had reached her hand out, so corporate, so formal. He was still smiling, looking right at her. Through her. It always starts out so strong, she sighed.
“You’re pretty,” he said, plainly, the right side of his lip curling up just a bit. She blushed but figured he wouldn’t see it, and was suddenly grateful it was dark. “Thanks,” she sort of said. Damn the awkward pauses. She caught him looking around, above her head, for a split second. The guy has to make sure he’s not missing out on anyone better, she thought to herself, and shook her head. “Are you from around here?” he asked, this time leveling with her eyes.
Their conversation was brief but not un-clever. He was funny, she remembered thinking, not “ha ha” funny but more of a “it’s very cool that you said that just now” sort of thing. He was a writer, he told her, moved from Louisiana to the New York to become a playwright. She figured that’s why he had his way with words. She wasn’t so quick to draw and credited it to the vodka tonics, but apparently she was good enough because at some point his smile became genuine.
Her friend was about ready to leave and tugged gently on her sleeve. “Would it be okay if I walked her home?” he asked, appointing Sarah to be her legal guardian. It must have been his smile because before she realized, Emma was by herself. By herself, with him.
She vowed a million times by then that she’s done with it. It was fun, it was almost always fun, but it got old and repetitive and she recently decided the next one will be different. But what the hell, she thought while he helped her put her coat on. His hands were big and strong, which she liked, and he was at least a head taller, which she liked even more.
It’s now or never, she said to herself, walking towards the door, letting him lead the way. You either stick to the promises you make yourself and wish him a good night or you let him keep leading, she continued, inside her head. You’re so weak. A sucker for reinforcements.
But then again, she rebutted herself, what’s one more. Her ego could use the boost and besides he was really cute and who knows how it’ll end, what if they spend the night together and he gets so wrapped up in her he can’t leave and it turns out to be one of those unexpected, big love stories and… you’re dumb, she remembered thinking as he put his arm around her, either to keep her warm or to show off to whomever that he got one and is set for the night. Things like that don’t happen to girls like you.
They walked at a brisk pace because the wind was whipping their faces so fiercely it made her tear, and spoke very little. And yet by the time they arrived at her building it was clear he was coming up. Nothing was said, but it was all the same. Nothing needed to be said.
They walked up three flights, two clumsy teddy bears with their heavy coats, mittens (her) and beanie (him). She unlocked the upper lock first, then the lower one, and nearly toppled over into her apartment when he caught her from behind and tried to turn her around. They stood there, half in the hallway, half in her place, the lights still out, and kissed. It wasn’t the passionate “I’m about to rip your clothes off” kiss she expected and had come to know too well. It was softer, hesitant. Their lips parted and they both smiled, at the same time. “Welcome,” she said, took his hand and stepped in.
It’s been sufficiently long, Emma thought, I’ve washed all there is to wash and then some. He’s going to think I’m weird. Or inconsiderate to the environment. I should come out. She turned the water off and pushed the curtain open. That uncomfortable feeling the warm stream washed away crept back and took over.
She took the big blue towel off the hanger and started to rub herself dry. She absentmindedly wrapped the pink towel around her wet hair but shook it off after a minute. She can’t come out of the shower looking like this.
He was so sweet at first, stripped off her coat, then her blazer, then her cardigan, at last her shirt. He said “you’re pretty,” again, and she felt her heart grow in her chest, despite all common sense.
She’s been there, she’s done that, it was painfully not new to her, but it was good. Not the best she’s ever had, but you can only expect so much from someone whose last name you don’t know and can never be sure anything he says is true. She remembered wondering if there was any chance New York hasn’t soured him yet, a second before she fell asleep, atypically nestled in his arms. She preferred sleeping alone.
It took her a few blinks to realize she’s not by herself in bed, and another one to remember who the broad back turned to her belongs to. Mornings were the reason she grew sick of the self-destructive habit. Nights can be magical. Mornings are necessarily harsh.
She slowly, quietly pulled herself out of bed, put her pajama pants on, the ones that they tossed to the floor at some point. She reached for the first sweater on top of a pile of clothes she said she would fold and put back in the closet. Things are so easy to put off when you live alone. She tiptoed to the bathroom to wash her teeth, as if not waking him up would mean he’s not really there. When she came out, five minutes later, he was up, propped on his elbows, still in bed. “Hey,” he said.
The first she heard of the blizzard they missed out on was when she looked at her phone. Her mom, always the worrywart, sent her multiple messages, asking if she’s okay, if she’s safe, warm, indoors, alive. The first though that came to her head was not “what happened” but rather “I got something to say that doesn’t have to do with eggs.”
“I think there was a storm,” she blurted out and walked over to the TV. Nearly two feet of snow blanketed the city, they learned. A reminder of the President’s Day Storm of 2003, the anchorwoman said. She looked over at Tom, his face drained of color, even more noticeably so with his black long-sleeve tee on. The subway is mostly working but there are substantial delays, continued the inappropriately chirpy woman in the red blazer. Viewers are advised to check the MTA website to see if any changes were made to their route.
Tom fully comprehended what was going on before she did. Probably because he planned a quick getaway, she thought. Ha. Only in New York. Only in New York a guy can feel totally legit to bolt after a silent coffee and a feeble attempt at morning sex, and only New York City can stop him from going anywhere.
“Can I charge my phone?” he asked, the first thing to come out of his mouth since “sunny-side up.” He plugged it in and desperately tried to turn it on. It was too soon though, his phone had died and needed a little while to resuscitate. She could see he was nervous, with a dash of annoyed. It made her all the more squeamish. She wanted him to leave even more than she did when she first woke up, mostly because he couldn’t.
She pretended to stare at the television but could see at the corner of her eye his desperate attempts to get his phone to work. The bubbly anchorwoman (probably new, Emma thought) was mid-sentence, something about the mayor telling everyone to stay indoors, when Tom let out a little sigh. “Sorry,” he said, catching himself. “I just got it to work.”
He paced around the apartment, his phone beeping every few seconds with another incoming message, making up for lost time. “Fuck,” he froze. “The L is down and Jake sa… my friend said he tried to catch a cab all morning and there are none, let alone ones who agree to take you to Brooklyn. Ugh, fu…” he caught himself, again. Could he appear more eager to get the hell out of there?
“It’ll probably lighten up soon,” she offered, emptily. She hadn’t realized but his words, his whole demeanor, made her curl into a ball, now hugging her knees and pressing her chin to them, the TV still blaring. “I mean, it’s just that I really need to get home,” he tried. “Yeah,” she said, just as empty. Go away go away go away, her mind raced. Go away go away go away.
“I had fun last night,” he offered. Her face contorted, reflexively. “Listen, you really don’t have to. It was what it was and you were supposed to be gone by now,” she said, quietly. Surprisingly enough, he looked offended. “It’s not like I chose to be here you know.”
It was a sticky situation, embarrassing, she realized while prepping herself mentally to step out of the bathroom. She just finished rubbing herself down with lavender scented lotion and was still wrapped in her big blue towel. He felt unwelcomed and she felt unwanted. Human interaction is so intricate, she thought. She hoped he calmed down while she was in there because if they were forced to spend the next few hours together, they could at the very least be civil about it.
He was still standing by the window, now with a big beige cup in hand. He looked up when she shut the bathroom door behind her and his face seemed more relaxed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just weird.”
“It’s just… it’s absurd, really. We barely know each other but like, we do, but I mean I’m not into anything serious at the momen-”
“Stop,” she cut him off, raising her hand like a traffic sign. “I’m not into anything more than what it was just because I’m the girl here. So don’t assume tha-”
“Oh no no, I’m not saying, I just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page,” he walked over to the bed, put the cup down on the nightstand and sat across from her. “If it was another time and if I wasn’t so stressed with work and it’s just, you know”
“I do know,” she snorted. “It’s always something with you guys. It’s always work or some girl that just broke your heart or you just can’t be bothered and don’t want to miss out, and the city is so big and the options are endless so why would one guy settle for one girl.” She looked up, flushed. She didn’t mean to throw this his way, he barely deserved it. He was just, well, there.
“Listen, I don’t know what your deal is and what you’ve been told but I’m not ‘you guys’. I’m me and I’m telling it to you like it is, I didn’t mean for all the drama,” he paused, as if to check if the word resonates.
“I didn’t mean to, it’s not you,” she looked back down. “But really, what’s the deal with men in this city? Like you’re dead set on not getting involved in anything potentially good. You get so blinded by every pretty girl on the subway, spinning a web of implausible endings to the ride, but most of the time you never even speak to her. Why go through all that trouble to clear your schedule for the off-chance something will happen with that random girl, when you know you’ll walk away the minute you get her, to make room for the next one?”
“We don’t intend on doing anything of the sort. I’m not doing anything on purpose, anyway. I just get wrapped up with work and I want to make it on my own, make a name for myself, become someone I can be proud of. If I invest in a girl now it’ll take up the time I need to invest in myself, you know? I guess it just boils down to who’s more worthy of my time, you or me. Well, not you you. Any girl, or me. Geez what’s in your tea I don’t usually…” he chuckled, uncomfortably.
“I’ll just never get men. Aren’t you supposed to want to take care of us? You’re supposed to want to spend your time and your efforts and hold our happiness above all else. Ugh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s small town mentality. Whatever.”
“I guess I think that when the right girl, whatever that means, comes along I will drop the act and making her happy will become a priority. I just haven’t found that girl. No offense, you know…”
“Ha, none taken. I wouldn’t have answered the phone even if you had called sometime in the future. It is what it is. It always is what it is,” a slight shiver rattled her.
Damn the awkward silences.
“Umm you know what, I can just go”
“How will you get home?”
“I’ll figure it out, I have friends who live not too far, I can just crash there till it clears”
He got up, wiping invisible lint off his wrinkled pants. “Yea so I’m gonna go,” he said, again. They shut off so quickly, she thought. You get one true thing out of them and that’s it.
“Ok, stay warm,” she said, too loud to sound sincere. He was by the door now, putting his shoes on, then his coat, checking his pockets to make sure he’s got everything, his beanie. He paused for a second and looked at her. She hated it, but it took her breath away. “Bye Emma,” he said, and opened the door. She stared at the doorway, at that broad back, now snugly covered, and the white door that soon followed.
It’s New York, she thought. They’d always leave.