Hurt Love (Chapters 3 & 4)

3

After crossing only a few streets and following the walkway underneath Lake Shore Drive we found ourselves at the lake famished and already sweating. My right arm hair lay thick and gathered and wet from the constant swiping to keep the salty drips from entering my wounds.
The lake seemed especially blue and expansive giving the cement an insignificant, narrow feel. How easily this water could swallow us all in a single dragon-gulp. Keeping it sane and relaxed is the same force exuded upon us. What is it? Where is it? And are we better off because of it? The seagulls screamed and dove at the trash and children. Mothers screamed in many languages but none that the birds understood and the children just didn’t listen. Cyclists and runners utilized the trail and divided the lakefront into east (where the sunbathers napped and dried) and west (where self-inflicted victims ate with their understanding friends). A plane flew high above advertising interest rates or a sports drink, the pilot humming the song of getting paid too well for what the job entails.
With our location decided we bent knees and unwrapped our kill. Two bottles of water, already sweaty, ringed the cement. I reached into the bag and felt the cool paper of my tuna salad, soft with the ground-up muscle and mayonnaise. Underneath rested a warm heavy mass which was Greg’s sandwich. “What did you get?”
“A reuben. They really have a nice one, Harold’s. Their kraut is a little sweeter than most places.” He accepted the sandwich and, upon unwrapping, studied the ingredients. “Is that brown sugar in it?”
“Let me see.” As the sandwich inched closer I noticed my vision blurred. That bitch destroyed my dominant eye. My focus eye. My everything eye. “I couldn’t tell you. It does smell nice. I don’t know about eating a hot sandwich out here, though.”
“I’ll be fine. How’s the tuna?” He made a screaming face and pushed the hand-held meal into his mouth. The crunch of kraut and the sound of the first step of digestion showed that he would listen to anything I had to say. Greg was not one to talk with his mouth full.
“I don’t know, yet,” and I grabbed the water. The clicking of the safety cap was rhythmic and required by law. Only slightly chilly, the water spilled down my gullet with ease, as if down a well. I sighed and replaced the cap, now silent, and watched a child beg her mother to go into the water. The sandwich was wrapped neatly and taut like a gift. The bread was soft and warm to the touch and I, too, silently screamed before filling my mouth. “It’s good. Better than if we were eating in the restaurant.”
“Good. Tell me,” he spoke earnestly as he peered his reuben for a second or third bite, “how are you feeling?”
I rolled the tuna as long as I could, habit finally taking over and shoving it down my throat. I rinsed and swallowed with water and answered, “Weird, Greg. I’ve never felt like this before. I guess that’s why I don’t know how to deal with it.” I held my sandwich and looked at the ground. Food even tastes different, like I have a flu. Why am I even questioning the hot air?
Greg merely nodded in recognition. He was chewing. After a swallow, “Life is all about learning, you know. This whole mess, this…this horrible thing will teach you something in the end. Really. Honestly. It has to.” Another bite and no question asked, I remained silent and still, the tuna repulsing me. His swallow and wash and, “What did you feel when you found out?”
I half-cocked a smile and thought. No one had asked me that before, therefore I had no generic response. I don’t think there is one. “Relieved. At first, of course.”
“Really?” I could tell his surprise as his voice was muddled through kraut. “Why?”
“It’s just part of being a guy, I think.”
“How so?”
“In that when you are with someone all you can think about is every other girl that you come across. And you think to yourself, ‘I bet that she doesn’t nag like Liz.’ ‘I like her smell better.’ ‘I wish that Liz would laugh like that.’”
“That’s normal.”
“Well, that’s why I felt relieved. I was free, Greg. All of those others that I watched and longed for…they could be…”
“They couldn’t be, Brian. You know that. You have yours. Had. Sorry. Oh, sorry.” His hand rested on my knee and he stopped eating.
“That’s okay. I know that now.” I set my sandwich down and drank more water. The sun was no longer hot but welcome.
“Can I ask?”
“What. Ask what.”
“When the relief left. What did you feel?”
“Guilt.”
“Why. Brian? You did nothing.”
“Guilt for feeling relieved. And guilt for doing nothing. Nothing for her, nothing for us.” I wrapped the sandwich and placed it back in the bag. I leaned on an arm and drank water. “Can I have another cigarette?”
“Of course. Don’t start smoking, I won’t let you.”
“I won’t. I just want something foreign.” I pulled it out of the box and placed it on my lips. Greg lit it and I looked at a distant ship. I feel lonelier than a sailor and more helpless than an overboard. This mainland is for the birds, though they won’t take to it. “Thanks.”
“Can I do anything for you?” His hand remained on my knee. His gaze rested on me and I changed my focus to the horizon. “Why don’t you stay with me and Kate. It would be nice having you around…”
“Not as I am now. No, thanks. I’m good at the hotel.”
“Can I ask you something else?”
“Of course.”
“Have you heard anything about the guy? I mean, any new leads?”
“How would I know?”
“I just thought if they found…”
“No, Greg. They wouldn’t tell me. They would tell her fucking family…yes, that’s what they would do. And you know what else?” I was erect with one red, angry eye and one red, swollen eye, “They should. I wasn’t family. Not yet.”
“Sit down, relax. I’m sorry.”
“I have to go.”
The tuna sandwich with a single bite removed fit in my hand perfectly, albeit sweatily, and I walked west away from the lake, away from Greg, and away from an honest conversation.

4

In this kind of heat not even the underground subway tunnels gave solace. Hidden away from the sun, they still seemed to radiate a heat, an energy, but with the lack of wind it was a stale muck that filled the eyes and pores and mind. A busker sang, with eyes closed, “Amazing Grace” while passers-by ignored him. Is that why his eyes are closed or can he still feel this song? I tossed a dollar into the guitar case and it rested atop of a pile of miscellaneous change. Metal Washington: “I’ve been in a meter for almost a week, and was it ever hot!” Paper Washington: “Try being clutched in a child’s sweaty, soft hand after being neatly tucked in a grandfather’s wallet for days! It’s shocking!” Metal Lincoln: “I’ve been everywhere.”
With the hot wind came a rumble and two yellow eyes watching the track ahead. Everyone approached the edge of the platform trying to guess where the train doors will meet them. A last minute adjustment and all of us piled in looking feverishly for a seat that wasn’t next to the fat guy eating popcorn. The air conditioning pumped from vents unseen but it wasn’t enough; the sweat collected under my collar and down the front of my neck. I decided to stand next to the doors and feel the dirty tunnel wind eek through the seeping door seam rather than nestle my body next to another’s. As we chugged forward, books were opened and headphones adjusted for the long ride home. I folded my fingers in front of me to evoke a sense of piety and watched as the tunnel walls moved but remained unchanged.
At each stop new people arrived and old ones left, a metaphor for digestion, and I watched and wondered. An old woman searched for a seat already taken but everyone was too busy with their time-passings that no one realized her aching, dying body. A young fellow rose and motioned to her and smiles were exchanged.
The tunnel, the people, everything the same, everyday. How long has it been like this?
Finally my stop came and I exited. The narrow escalator prohibited any stair climbers to overtake the stair-standers but all seemed to accept it. Outside, the air wasn’t  cooler but it was moving, giving life to the manmade mess that we’ve made it. I met eyes with a dog, a Golden Retriever, and it smiled at me. Nature’s clown, that little fucker. Always merry and bright. Dumb, but that must equal elation.
I walked for five blocks, turning by instinct and habit. The trees were dressed in green and were the only ones enjoying the heat. With the wind they talked to one another, sharing as much news before the hibernation began in a few months. I reached into my pocket and retrieved my keys. As I pulled them out, the pocket itself followed, not wanting to let go, not wanting to let me in my own apartment. Everything is such a goddamn production. Why can’t it be simpler? When will that something be just that and nothing else?
I stopped at the front door. 4267. The buzzer still read Gill/Pratchett. 3A. I pushed it in hopes of hearing it from the street. It was still just the trees I heard. And a car. Not a person talking. Everyone must be dead. The key slid in easily and the entryway still smelled of old carpet (though it was tiled) and envelope adhesive. The mailbox was filled with so much paper, but only paper. I started to pull a few articles out and after glancing at the first addressee, Liz Pratchett, I decided to leave all inside the box until another time. What was she thinking the last time her fingers closed this box softly? Softly, like she did everything. Breathy with her words. Cautious with her concerns.
The stairs creaked in a familiar way. On the third stair after the second landing I smiled. It was the long groan of that piece of wood, so unlike the other short barks, that welcomed me home, us home, so many times before today. Easier times. At the top, the door, door #3, stared and told me that it’s been waiting. I nodded and slipped a different key into the different keyhole. A click, the click that I would love to hear when inside, clicked and the whoosh of familiar air crashed my body, first to its knees, and then comfortably with ass on floor. The sun blonded the wood floors and glared upon a beige wall. From my reduced height I tossed the keys into the key-bowl and rolled, military-style, the rest of the way into the apartment. With a kick the door closed and my heart calmed. I’m here. I’m in here. It’s not home, merely here. The rug cushioned my head as it dropped. The ceiling became an unknown memory, something that is tied to nothing though it protects us from everything. With its bumps and cracks and lights, it could be anyone’s. I can only guess that it was ours, but I haven’t any proof. The picture molding was familiar, yes, but only because that was the highest point that the eyes would ever focus. With each breath I sweat more and finally drifted into a clean blackness, the kind that only comes with exhaustion.

“When you were gone, I was looking at something interesting.”
“What was that?” Liz was arranging magazines on the coffee table as if someone was coming over. She liked to live prepared.
“The ceiling. Have you ever looked at it?”
“Why, yes.”
“But if someone came over and replaced it with a new one, would you notice?”
“Why would someone replace it? What’s wrong with it?”
“Nothing, babe. There’s nothing wrong with it,” I said while thumbing through the mail. Bill, coupons, bill. Yes, email destroyed the written letter but it also destroyed the excitement of looking through the mail. “It’s just something I noticed that I had never noticed before.”
“Huh.”
“I mean…you know where the bumps and cracks are in the walls, right?”
“Yeah. Like the one in the bedroom? The one that you were gonna patch up?” She smiled and winked. Nothing was ever important to her, unless it was honestly important.
“Yeah, like that. Tell me, though…what about all these valleys and mountains in the ceiling? Shouldn’t they be fixed, too?
“Yes, I guess. No one looks up there so…I guess maybe, no?”
“Exactly! No one looks up there! That’s what I’m saying. I just noticed it the other day.”
“What were you doing?”
“Lying on the floor. Right over there,” I said, pointing to the rug in the entryway. “I rolled in commando style. It was manly. You really should’ve seen it.”
“I guess so. But…why did you do that?” She approached and puckered for a kiss. I pulled her towards me and landed safely onto her flesh-pillow-runways.
At a much lower volume, one only heard by lovers to each other, I said, “I, uh…collapsed in the doorway.”
“Why, Brian?”
“Because. Well, I had lost you. You were gone.”
A sigh and a smell of breath. Her breath. A smell that only Liz’s lover could know. “That’s right, Brian. I am gone. But I didn’t want to leave. Not like that. Not…like…this,” she said as her post-kiss smile frowned and began bleeding. “Not like this!” Her face switched from sadness to horror. Within seconds it was still a face, but not her face.
I stared into the eyes of a victim, an undeserved victim. As her head flew side to side, silently but violently saying no, I could only feel relieved that I no longer saw what was agonizing underneath the long, brown hair. Shiny always, but now shiny with a deep, wet red.
I quivered and whispered, “No, Liz…who is doing this? Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…”

It was a deep gasp that I drew in and awoke to. At first it was relief I felt. After that it was vomit being shot out by the mighty bag of air just gasped. On the rug, on the floor, and on the wall, one large mass of puke noisily grafittied the apartment. Our apartment. Now just my apartment. I rolled onto my back, away from the puddle and cried. Looking up, the ceiling remained untouched and unnoticed.
With a wipe of the nose and the mouth I leapt up and threw the door open, as if to find a better prize than an escape from a nightmare. I grabbed the keys from the bowl and locked the door behind me. I ran down the stairs, making sure to skip the welcoming one, and bolted outside.
The birds had joined the trees in a summer song. The traffic was heavier because of the approaching rush hour but I could only hear the fucking birds and the trees. With hands on knees I cursed the world and I cursed the subway. I have to walk a long way back to the hotel, but walking, for me, is the only sensible way to get there. If everything else is going to be this hard, transportation must be included.

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