That night, I wandered through the city looking up—looking up at the buildings and their lights flashing slowly, in and out, in and out, blurring through the stars that frothed against the night sky; floating through four a.m. streets like a ghost, wondering what was going to happen, wondering where she was, and where I was. That night, I remember, I didn’t know where I was. That was one thing I knew. I remember that.
I walked down the middle of some empty side street past a closed convenience store with red writing scrawled endlessly on the window, and past a hundred stoops made of brick with nothing on them but bags of trash, or vines, or potted plants, or little lights. Occasionally I remember seeing people on the stoops or in front of the apartments or on the sidewalks; a girl dressed in red with messy lipstick smoking a cigarette, a group of people laughing loudly about something I’d never know, another girl sitting on the steps whispering into her cell phone with her head held in her hands, a couple having a drunken argument. I don’t remember if I said hello or smiled or even acknowledged these people. I really hope I did. I’m sure they would have appreciated knowing there was someone in this city who would smile at them.
I remember seeing the park glowing in the distance in a dim blur, so I walked toward that, making my way across the now desolate streets under the traffic lights and the skyscrapers and airplanes. I walked beneath Christmas lights strewn over the boughs of garland and pine trees, still up from the holiday two weeks earlier. I remember thinking how sad the lights looked now that their short-lived purpose was all used up and obsolete; like somehow they just didn’t glow as bright as they did before Christmas. ‘Those sad Christmas lights,’ I thought. ‘Somebody should really take them down.’
I remember I didn’t know how much time had passed, when I finally saw her across the street walking in the opposite direction as me, and in the opposite direction as the occasional car that passed blurry under the always-on lights of the city. I didn’t call out to her, but turned around and followed parallel on the opposite side of the street, until I was finally offered a clear shot to the grassed over median in the middle of the road. When I reached it, she stopped, turned her head, and glanced back down the stretch of road, vacant of cars and people, hair and dress blowing in the winter wind. She looked with eyes, blue like the snow that had started to fall, down the narrow city street, and then at me, smiling like she knew I’d been there the whole time.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked smiling, calling to me from across the street. She caught a snowflake in her palms, staring at it until it melted and soaked into the warm creases of her hand.
I watched her for a long time from the median in the street. She looked so pretty that it made my stomach hurt. The kind of pretty that makes your nose itch and your eyes water. The kind that makese you want to forget everything and remember everything all at once. I didn’t look her right in her eyes; I couldn’t. She was wearing a white floral dress that I remember seeing once before; big yellow sunflowers flowing across her stomach and shoulders and back. She must have been cold. It was freezing. It was January.
I crossed the street without looking to see if any cars were coming and stood in front of her. I fought back a smile, and sort of shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
“I’ve been wandering around…” That was all I could say. “I wasn’t sure that I’d ever find you again.”
“Why would you think that?” she asked me. I didn’t know what to say. She stared down at the rocks and the salt on the sidewalk and over at the dirty snow pushed against the old brick building, kicking a little piece of ice around –left then right, right then left—with her little feet. She moved her head as she followed the little piece of ice sliding across the uneven cobblestones of the sidewalk, a crease appearing at the corner of her eye that I had never seen before.
And then I heard her singing, some strange melody that seemed familiar to me at that particular moment. She looked up from the piece of ice and at me and watched her breath ascend as she exhaled into the frigid, sad air.
“It’s funny how breath does that, isn’t it?” she asked, looking back at me after her breath had disappeared. “I mean, I know why it happens and everything, it’s just…funny. Isn’t it?” Her voice trailed off down the boulevards to a whisper, carried away by the rolling streets and sidewalks. She breathed out once more and watched it disappear again into the air; into the flecks of snow that fell, into that thin, cold air that hurt your lungs when you let it in.
“You won’t leave me again, will you?” I asked, not able to contain the question. She smiled, but didn’t answer. I reached out and touched her dark hair. “Your hair seems shorter. Is it shorter?” I asked. She didn’t seem to know how to respond. She just kept smiling and looking down and watching her breath. I remember wishing I’d never said anything at all. “You know, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen, J. Have I ever told you that?” I said after a long pause. “If there’s one thing in this world worth fighting for, you’re it.” She just smiled and kept looking up, as if she hadn’t heard me, squinting into the blue snow that was waltzing to the ground.
“So then don’t stop fighting,” she told me.
Suddenly, Sam came up from behind me and began drunkenly play fighting, throwing his arms in the air and fake boxing around me in a cloud of gin and cologne.
“Where the hell were you, you son of a bitch?” he asked punching me playfully in the stomach, letting his Oxford shirt hang off of this skinny shoulders. “We’ve been calling you. We thought you were lost for good.” He went to punch me again but stumbled on the ice and fell straight back. Everyone laughed at him. I realized there were others there now. I didn’t see J anymore. Isabelle came close to me.
“He didn’t hurt you did he?” she asked, her Spanish accent flowing like dark rum. She grabbed my hand playfully looking at Sam, who came running up behind us. He lifted her off the ground and spun her twice, her long dark hair spinning and falling, and kissed her on the lips. She giggled and looked him in the eyes and said something in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish.
Then I remember getting into a car and staring out the window and trying to watch everything as it passed by, everything I had ever walked by and looked up at. J was sitting next to me now with her hand on my knee.
“You won’t leave again, will you?” I whispered to her. She put her head on my shoulder.
“Yes,” she answered. She smelled like the snow and the city.
We stopped at a red light, and I was staring at a man holding flowers, rapping on the glass. He motioned for me to open the window, mouthing: “Five dollars, for your girl,” but I just stared at his cracked lips and dirty hands. “Listen to her,” he said. We drove again and I watched as the man disappeared behind us.
But then I heard it. I heard her singing that melody again. And there were words this time:
“Come with me…” she sang, softly like water, over the hum of the night. I looked at her but she stared straight ahead. “Come with me…” she sang again, slower. And I wanted to, more than anything.
I awoke on a hardwood floor sweating, a girl with light hair pressed against my body under a dirty comforter. Sunlight stumbled in through the smudged windows, illuminating the beer and mud-soaked floor, casting shadows in their rightful places. I sat up slowly and looked around as much as my aching head would allow. I was in an empty room surrounded by walls that were at one point white, but were now covered with the random scribbling of people who had ever come and gone and slept in that same room.
“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for, and I don’t ever want to leave it,” was written in messy cursive on the wall opposite of me. “Fuck you,” was written underneath. There was a lone table in the corner of the room with three mismatched chairs surrounding it. A poster of a painted lion was hung on the wall with red tape. It read “EL LEON.”
“Morning,” the girl said softly, turning to face me.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. She had startled me.
“I had a nice time with you last night,” she said still smiling. I had never seen her before. She giggled softly and leaned forward, kissing me with her dry lips, keeping her wide eyes open the whole time. She put her head back down, laying it on her hands, and looked at me with green eyes that seemed to keep changing color sitting on top of her high cheekbones.
“I had a good time too.” I wondered if she knew that I was lying.
“Did you mean what you said?” she asked me after a long pause, her eyes changing to a lighter green this time in the incoming morning sun. I stared at her, hoping to remember something, anything about her or the night before or about who I saw. I couldn’t. She seemed to realize this as she continued staring, and her eyes grew dark in green disappointment before she shut them and turned over, hiding behind her curly, light hair. Somebody was playing a sad, distorted jazz song in the room next door, yelling over the little speakers.
A man with blue eyes and curly hair just beginning its final descent into grayness walked in through the door and stopped, staring at me almost piteously.
“Morning,” he said shortly. He had a patchy beard and his eyes were kind, but the way he talked didn’t exactly correspond with the way his eyes looked
I nodded and stood up, stretching the aches out of my legs. I righted one of the mismatched chairs and sat down. He handed me a cup of coffee and stood leaning against the wall, sipping his coffee and looking at me and then at the girl sleeping on the floor, her light hair looking lighter now that more sun had found its way in through the old windows. I took a sip of my coffee which burned the tip of my tongue. I always do that, take sips of something even though I know it’ll burn me
Then, Sam came in and sat on the floor next to the girl. The other man walked out.
“Good morning,” he said to the girl. She didn’t respond. Sam smiled at me, got up and sat down on the table. He just continued grinning, his messy hair sticking straight up from where he had slept on it. He was still wearing the oxford shirt.
“You look like you slept on a wood floor,” he said
“Yeah I feel like it too… Isn’t that funny?”
“It is funny,” he said, his voice drifting away. He had this way of staring at you until it made you uncomfortable. He suddenly looked worried.
We didn’t speak for some time. I sat on the chair thinking, looking down at the girl with the curly hair who was either asleep or pretending to be. I was trying unsuccessfully to turn over the events from the night before in my head.
“Linds seems to really like you,” Sam said with a grin. He kept raising his eyebrows. “I don’t care that she’s my cousin, Ben. Anyone is better for her than her last boyfriend, that jerk… What do you think about her? She’s a great girl, she really is.”
“She’s nice,” I said after a pause, looking down and avoiding his eyes. Sam looked confused and ran his hands through his long brown hair, the bags under his eyes looking more pronounced than I had ever seen them.
“Hey, about last night…”
“It was a good night,” he said with a smile. “Didn’t it just bring you back to when we were younger? I miss those days,” Sam said. “You sort of disappeared on us for a while.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure what happened,” I said slowly.
“You had, what, two gin and tonics? I remember when you used to be able to drink,” he said laughing for a few moments before giving way to a more somber expression. “Hey, is everything okay?” he asked, softer than he had been talking before.
“Of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?” I said, trying to seem calm. Sam didn’t say anything. “I don’t seem okay?”
“Well, I don’t know, Ben. We worry about you and we hadn’t seen you in so long. Everyone back here misses you. You’re all Dave talks about when he gets drunk and Isabelle won’t stop asking about you. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if you two ran away together one of these days,” he said with a laugh. “Even I miss you. See? I said it” He laughed again and hit me playfully on the shoulder.
“Can I ask you something?” I asked slowly, quietly. Sam nodded and came closer. “When you guys found me on the road, was I alone?”
“You were all alone,” Sam said laughing. “You looked like a panhandler. I almost gave you some change.” He looked nervous. “Why do you ask?”
“You mean I wasn’t with anyone?”
“Not that I know of, Ben,” he said, laughing nervously. “You and Linds were together all night. We couldn’t separate you two. It made me happy to see you two together. Come on. Let’s go in the other room. Isabelle’s making breakfast.” Sam started to get up, but I grabbed his arm stopped him. I suddenly became short of breath.
“I was with her last night, Sam,” I said slowly, forcing my breathing through my nose. Sam stopped and looked me straight in the eyes. The bags under his eyes grew a bit bigger.
“Come on, Ben,” he said softly, slowly. “Let’s go in the other room. Let’s not do that now,” Sam left the room and I sat on the chair trying to catch my breath.
“So you don’t remember a damn thing?” a tiny voice creaked from the floor. Linds rolled over and looked at me.
“No, I do,” I said. I don’t lie very well. She knew that.
“You know, no one has ever said what you said to me last night. I thought just this once that I’d meet a nice guy who would treat me well and say nice things to me. That’s all I ever wanted.”
“What did I say to you?” I asked sitting down on the floor next to her.
“You told me I was the prettiest girl you’d ever seen, and that I was worth fighting for.” She put her face in the pillow disgustedly. I stood up and felt nauseous. Isabelle came into the room smiling at me. Sam followed behind her uncomfortably.
“Ben…” Isabelle said longly, letting the end of the word roll off her tongue. She approached me and kissed me on my cheek. Her long hair tickled my cheek me as she released. “Do you want something to eat?” she asked me. I couldn’t speak.
“Isabelle,” I said softly. “I know you won’t lie to me.” She looked me right in my eyes. She was beautiful and smelled like good red wine. She wouldn’t lie to me.
“I would never lie to you.”
“When you found me last night, J was with me. Wasn’t she?” Isabelle stared at me with sad eyes.
“Don’t lie to me Isabelle. I know you won’t lie to me. Tell me she was there last night.” I couldn’t feel my face. She put her cool hands on my cheeks. They felt like ice cubes. I could hear loud jazz music start to pick up in the room next door. It was only drums at first.
“I’m sorry, Ben. You know that she wasn’t there.” I pushed her hands away and stood up.
“It’s okay, Ben. It’s okay,” I heard Sam keep repeating to me through the ringing in my ears. But it wasn’t him talking. No one was talking and I was shaking and I felt like I would die. It was as if every little voice I had ever heard was calling to me but I couldn’t call back because I couldn’t speak. I knew what I saw. She was with me and I had never been more sure of anything in my entire life. I looked around the room. Isabelle was trying to calm me down, her Spanish accent becoming more and more noticeable the more upset she got. Sam was standing in the corner with his hands on the bags of his eyes. Linds was on the floor still, with her mouth open, looking confused. She was pretty. Her eyes were dark green now, like sea water. She reminded me of a painting I had seen once when I was a kid. A Buddha sat cross-legged, meditating in the center of a room surrounded by fire, the flames rolling and licking closer to him, his face sweating paint.
I started to walk out but Sam stepped in front of me, grabbing my shoulder. He was crying and yelling something. “She’s gone, she’s gone,” he just kept repeating. I pushed past him and walked into the other room. Loud jazz was blaring from the speakers. The man with the beard was sitting at the dining room table in front of the door hiding blue eyes behind big sunglasses, smoking a cigarette. The drums beat a wild, frantic rhythm, the trumpet wailed in prehistoric shrieks, the piano wept and cried and hid in the corner. The little speakers shuddered, struggling to contain themselves and the music. I looked at the man.
“You believe me, right?” I yelled over the music. He took a drag out of his cigarette and kept staring. “Come with me…” moaned the jazz singer. “Come with me.”
“Whatever you say,” the man said. “Whatever you believe is what you believe.”
I walked out of the door into the sunlight, my ears ringing from the music. It was quiet. The city acted differently in the day. Instead of arguing or dancing or drinking or yelling, everyone just ignored each other and looked down at the sidewalk or talked on their cellphone. I tried looking up, squinting into the January sun, but I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t hear the song anymore. Nothing looked or felt or smelled the way it had the night before. Cars drove by endlessly, sun beat on broken sidewalk. Everything had changed and nothing was the same as it had once been. I didn’t like it. Not one bit.