Laddered


You stare out the window from your mattress on the floor. You have been living on this mattress, with this window, for three months. You feel the freezing wind coming through the crack between the window and the floor every day as you wake up and still, you haven’t plugged it up with a towel or a t-shirt. Even that much effort feels like a statement of ownership, of permanence. You haven’t put all your books away yet, and you won’t. You refuse to believe that this is home now.

Across the street, through the grimy glass – the place was filthy when you got here and you barely cleaned it – you can see a face peering out of another window. There is a fire-escape ladder beside their window, not the old New York kind of wrought-iron staircase but an actual ladder. You assume it just leads up to the same boring old roof as the one outside your window does. But wouldn’t it be something – you think this as you finally begin to make yourself vertical – wouldn’t it be just something if that ladder went up to her apartment?

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Big Apple, Small Room

It took me a while to convince my mother that our apartment wasn’t twenty-five square feet. I needed to remind her that if it was, that would mean it was the size of my aunts’ terrace.

Nevertheless, the space is small, the bed slopes, the internet is having issues, the shower-curtain smells suspiciously of new plastic (was there blood on the previous one? Is that why it was changed so recently) and the air-conditioning not so much hums as grunts and complains loudly that its back is hurting. We shut the poor thing off and slept with the windows open.

Does it sound like I’m complaining? Oh, dear me, no! Part of life in the big city is the itty-bitty one room apartments that make up those jigsaw puzzles of lights-in-windows that can be seen anywhere, always, because it never goes completely dark here. I heard something about some legendary blackout that happened sometime, but I can’t imagine it. How would people so addicted to their machines function?

Friends, good food, and fun awaits. Oh, yeah, and then school starts in a couple days. But until then, I’m going to make the most of this place.*

*By that, of course, I mean I’m going to go with my mom to read at the Highline park. But hey, that’s pretty dang adventurous for me!

Ten Years Later

She stood on the tiny balcony and clutched a cup of coffee in her hand. She listened to the early morning traffic go by and watched the sky go from dark to light gray. Shivering, she clutched the shawl closer to her.

“Why aren’t you wearing a sweatshirt?” demanded a voice. He came up behind her and blew hot air onto her neck. She leaned back and closed her eyes, nuzzling into his embrace as his arms circled her waist.

“The cold feels nice,” she murmured. She felt him grin behind her. He’d always loved the cold. Opening her eyes, a thought that had been tugging at her mind shaped itself on her lips. “What are we doing here?”

“Living the dream,” he said, raising his eyebrows. They both laughed. Corny phrases were so fun to use when there was no risk of being taken seriously. “Are you regretting it or something?” he asked, worried. His self-esteem, usually substantial enough not to need to ask questions like this, wavered.

“I’m ecstatic,” she answered, turning to him. “Let’s go unpack.”

“Ungh,” he moaned. “Do we have to? I can live out of the suitcases for a while…”

“Yes, we have to,” she laughed, slapping his midriff playfully. “And later we’ll take a walk to the bank to open the account, and we’ll get some more groceries.”

“Fine, fine, fine,” he huffed playfully. As she bent over a box and began ripping at it energetically, he sighed and thought of where he’d been ten years earlier. He hadn’t been happy then, but all had come well in the end.

____OR_____

She sat on the lanai. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was perfect. Some might say it was boring, always so perfect, but she loved it. The laptop on her knees was small, comfy and full of prose – just the way she liked it. She spread her fingers, getting ready to take that incredibly exhilarating plunge and actually start writing when she froze. A hummingbird, beautifully colored and almost shining in the sunlight, was only a foot away, hovering next to the big flowerpot that she referred to as her “pet.”

Hands still hovering in the air, much like the tiny bird, she watched, mesmerized, scared to take the slightest move and scare the thing away. A blast of music came up suddenly from the cellphone beside her, and both she and the hummingbird jumped. “Oh, birdie, come back!” she called under her breath as she picked the phone up. The bird took no notice. Looking at the screen as she flicked the phone open, she smiled.

“Hey, you,” she said. “You scared away a hummingbird. It was right next to me.” She waited, listened, and laughed. “That’s so like you,” she grinned to herself. “How’s the Missus? And the kid?” She smiled softly as the deep voice on the other end spoke. “I’m so glad,” she said warmly. “Listen, I’m just about to start writing. Can I call you this evening? Mhm. Mhm. Sure. Okay, talk to you then. Love you, bee-eff-eff,” she added cheekily. “Bye now!”

She clicked off, and watched her flourishing garden. She thought about where she’d been ten years ago. She was glad that things had come well in the end.

____OR_____

He was in Brazil, and she in Tasmania.

____OR_____

Both fictional characters never were, had never been, would never be.

 

Blackout

“Ouch!”

“Oh!”

“Who’s that?”

“Taylor? It’s me, it’s Petunia!”

“Pet – d’you know what’s going on?”

“No, listen, I think there’s been a power-outage.”

“…Duh.”

“I mean – I think it’s not just the building! I looked outside and everything’s black, it’s creepy.”

“Well, want to come back to my place? I can find some candles or something.”

“Taylor, come on, is now really the time to hit on me?”

“What better time? It’s dark, there’s a sense of danger in the air, you’re all helpless…”

“Shut up!”

“It’s too easy to get you mad. And that hurt, by the way. How did you even manage to find my shins?”

“I’m gifted.”

“Okay, I can hear you rolling your eyes. Geez. Anyway, seriously, come to my place – I won’t hit on you! – and we’ll try to figure out what’s going on.”

“Fine, fine.”

“Alrighty, here we go. Just try to sit there – yeah, that’s the couch, right there – and I’ll be back in a second.”

“Don’t you have a flashlight?”

“Huh? I can’t hear you, just a second, I’m in the closet!”

“I said, don’t you have a flashlight?”

“Yeah, but no batteries, ’cause I’m an idiot. Here we go. Good thing I smoke, right? I’ve got about a thousand lighters floating around here.”

“You should tell your doctor that next time he tries to give you another nicotine patch: ‘No, no, it’s good I smoke, really, because if I didn’t, I’d never have lighters around!'”

“Seriously, you’re the most sarcastic woman I’ve ever met.”

“Thank you – I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“So why were you in the hall without a flashlight yourself? Or a phone, for that matter. I just went out to the fusebox – I thought it was just my place that lost power.”

“Oh, um… well, to tell the truth, I kind of locked myself out of my place.”

“You what?

“Yeah, yeah, you can stop laughing now, it’s not that funny! You know how I got that new door-handle last week that makes it so you can’t open it from the outside without a key? Kind of worked against me tonight. I thought it was just my place that was out of power, too, and I went outside and I forgot to take my keys with me… Oh, shut up, will you?”

“Sorry, sorry, it’s just- that’s hilarious. Miss Excuse-Me-But-I-Think-A-Hundred-Bucks-Are-Worth-Extra-Safety uses her new safety against herself.”

“Shut up, Taylor. Geez. Seriously, can you just try to figure out what’s going on?”

“Sure, sure, I’ll see if my phone is still online…”

“Good, you do that. Okay, I’ve seen your apartment before, so I know that that’s new.”

“Um, Pet?”

“I mean, what deranged girlfriend gave you that thing? It’s hideous! I mean, come on, a fake antelope head? How tacky can you get, boy?”

“Petunia?”

“Huh? What? What’s wrong?”

“I’m not… quite sure. The network on my phone’s working, but the news is saying some really strange things…”

“Okay, now you’re freaking me out.”

“Um – there’s some sort of death-threat on Google News. It says ‘The Magliorandi are a peaceful race, but have expressed in no uncertain terms that they will destroy our planet if the human race will put up a fight.'”

What?! Let me see that!”

“…”

You idiot!!!!

“I can’t believe I had you going again! You’re just so easy, I can’t believe it! Ow! Ow, okay, no need to punch me so hard! I was just kidding!”

“You had me trying to decide between chocolate and pasta for my last meal, you jerk!”

“Pasta? I mean, seriously, pasta? That’s a lame last meal.”

“You know who’s lame? You are.”

“Nice, nice, I see you turn into a six-year old when you’re scared.”

“As opposed to you, who’s a six-year old all the time. Jerk.”

“Fine, but you’ve got to admit that aliens landing on earth is way more interesting than ‘Power should be restored in several hours, and all residents are asked to stay inside while work-crews will be on the streets, rectifying the mass power-line failure.'”

“You’re still a jerk.”

“Fine, fine, fine. But seriously, pasta? As a last meal? Pasta?!”

“Why, what would you have then? Jerk?”

“I don’t know – maybe a really expensive steak with fancy sauce stuff. Or some tiny gourmet French dish or something like that.”

“See, I would totally want to go with someone I just know I love. Like chocolate. Or pasta.”

“Yeah, but if it’s your last meal, shouldn’t you milk it for all it’s worth?”

“You’re such a- a- I don’t even know what. If it was my last meal on earth I wouldn’t care about trying to use anybody, I’d just want to eat something I like.”

“Oh, well, okay then, Miss Holier-Than-Thou.”

“Geez, Taylor, seriously, will you shut up?”

“I’m offering you hospitality and all you’re doing is abusing me! Is that any way to treat a man?”

“Yes.”

“Fair enough. Want a game of Scrabble?”

“Sure, might as well do something useful while I wait – like kicking your butt.”

“Uh-huh. We’ll see about that.”

“Fifty bucks say I beat you?”

“You’re on.”

Night Birds

Our apartment has huge windows in the adjoining kitchen and living room. It’s almost a balcony. Only it’s not. We have blinds that we lower and raise, depending on the hour, on how brightly the sun is shining, on how much privacy we want.

Big windows can be horrible if all you’ve got to look at is the inside of someone else’s house. If that’s the view you get, you have a sort of forced intimacy with whoever lives across – you know they see you, and you know that they know that you can see them. It can become very awkward, trying to time things right so as not to spy on each other. Maybe then you both become recluses and never catch a ray of sunlight.

We don’t have those kind of big windows. Ours overlook a relatively large oval-shaped park, surrounded by trees and lined by paths going around and through it. There are benches there where the Filipinos hang out and talk while their elderly charges sit, awkwardly, either unable or unwilling to talk with their peers. There are mothers and fathers walking strollers along the paths, trying to lull to sleep screaming babies, or maybe just sitting by empty strollers while their toddlers delight in the sandbox and the wooden pirate ship that dominates it. There are elementary-school kids and high-school teenagers walking to and from school every day, backpacks weighing them down, some in groups and some alone and some even more alone than the others. These are the things we see during the day.

At night, it’s harder to see. The lamps in the park are yellow and dim and sometimes blown out or simply not turned on. So we use our ears instead of our eyes. On some nights, we can hear teenagers sitting on the benches, whistling and yelling, the glowing red of their cigarettes the only light in the park. On other nights, it’s so silent out there that we long for a storm to come along, to thunder in the sky, to pour down rain so we can hear the tip-tap-drip on our windows.

The best nights, though, are when the night birds sing. We’ve never yet seen them, only heard them. Their cry is shrill, like a whistle, but it’s melodic as well. They seem to be yearning for something, missing something or someone so deeply that it hurts them. Their sound makes our hearts melt a little bit, and even as we smile and pause to listen to their lonely, beautiful cries, our hearts seem to tug at us, feeling a little sore and swollen all of a sudden. Our night birds let us share their desperate want for something unnameable, they nurture our longings, even if we don’t realize it’s happening.

I sometimes wonder if our night birds are like emotions – unseen, only heard somewhere deep, sometimes shrilly enough that it’s impossible to ignore them.

The Psychiatrist

The psychiatrist worked in her parents’ old apartment. All the old furniture was still present; the heavy wooden cabinets filled with silver platters and goblets that hadn’t been polished in decades; the low couches, uncomfortably padded with thin cushioning, that had been considered luxurious some fifty years ago; the big television that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb in the room. The psychiatrist could almost feel the ghosts of her parents walking around the apartment, grunting as they sat down heavily or groaning as they made their slow way into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

Small wonder, then, that she was a bit mad herself.

She didn’t enjoy her work. She despised each and every one of the men, women and children that walked through the door, hating them for their assumption that they were important or that they mattered at all to her. She hadn’t cared for naught but the revenue in years. She’d been embittered, somewhere along the way, and as the years went by she could hardly hold up the pretense of caring. For instance, she now let herself answer her cellphone during sessions. She now let herself get up and make a cup of tea, leaving her patients at the dining room table, where she conducted her sessions, while they drew what she’d instructed them to. She now had to remind herself to occasionally spit out an insincere sympathetic word.

She was frightening to look at. It was just another aspect of her madness, the way she’d dyed her hair a strange shade of orange and had allowed it to grow into a sort of untamed nest atop her head; the way her clothes were several sizes too big, reminding her patients of witch’s robes as they swirled around, swallowing the light in their velvet black folds; the way her eyes were now always unfocused, not managing to stay fixed on the patients’ faces.

She was surrounded by ghosts, and her patients could feel them as well as she did. They didn’t know why they got goosebumps, but they did. They didn’t know why they felt compelled to try to meet the psychiatrist’s wandering gaze, but they did. They didn’t know why they felt compelled to run, leave, jump out the window – but they did. Most never came back.

4. Marty and Claire [2]

Claire dug out some clothing from the big suitcase that sat beside the mattress on her floor. She hurriedly threw on her usual baggy jeans, a big “I Love NY” t-shirt that used to belong to her mom, and shoved her feet into her tattered Converse high-tops. Back in the kitchen, Marty had found a paper and pen in his breifcase and handed her a list with some essential groceries before giving her a few twenty-dollar bills.

“If it’s too much or too heavy, call me and I’ll come help out with the carrying home, okay? Got your cell? Your new keys? Okay, Honey, see you soon.”

“Bye, Dad,” Claire skipped out the door and locked it behind her with a resounding ‘click’ as the bolts fell into place. Marty sighed just a little. This is why you moved, he reminded himself, to feel that she was safe.

Also, so she could be close to her grandparents. Marty hadn’t told Mr. and Mrs. Adams yet about the move. It had been rather hasty, and he wanted to surprise them. He wasn’t sure yet about how Claire felt about being reunited with them – after all, the last time she’d seen them, she was ten. Now she was just fourteen, which seemed to Marty to be miles away from the sweet and innocent little girl she’d been. As he began to dig in another box for cutlery to arrange in a drawer, Marty thought of the last couple years and the gaping hole that was Susan’s absence in their lives. Claire had gotten her period, had bought her first bra, had started eying boys – all without a mother to help her through it. Marty did the best he could, trying to be the hip dad, the cool dad that girls could talk to. He felt he’d succeeded, more or less, since Claire and he were on good terms and she wasn’t embarrassed around him about the changes her body was going through. But still, he always felt inadequate. Susan would have done things better, he felt.

As Marty indulged himself in nostalgia and meloncholy, Claire took in the bright and beautiful sunshine that made Victoria Road, their new street, seem to glimmer. The neighborhood sure was lovely, she couldn’t deny that. There were trees planted in the sidewalk every few yards and the apartment buildings all had expanses of lawn or flowerbeds in front of them. A warm breeze warmed her face, and she noticed the pleasant sound of the leaves rusteling.

It’s so quiet, she thought. Certainly different from Manhattan. As Claire walked down Victoria Road, only two cars drove by. It seemed unthinkable to have so little traffic after the constant rush-hour that permeated the streets of New York. She liked it very much, she decided. As she turned from Victoria Road to Brushfield Street, she saw her target, Bill’s, the little grocery store that she and her dad had marked last night while driving the U-Haul. She took the list out of her pocket and entered the store.