Two packs of Marlboros a day. Did I write that I tried to cut down my smoking three months ago? Well, at least I am getting that raise at my job. It should pay for the additional two bucks and a quarter. Yet still, I think it is ridiculous to chain-smoke at my age. I am now twenty-nine, with fat slowly creeping over my size thirty Levis. I now wear baggy shirts to cover that fat and attempt pull-ups, sometimes three times a week. Unfortunately, so far, all to no avail.
I am getting old, even though I still sprint out into traffic and cut to the left, move to the right, zigzagging across the payment like I did in front of you in those days when I was trying to impress you. Now, it is because I am constantly in a hurry. So I cut across Allen Street to make the subway station, and jumping five, six steps at a time, left hand on the banister, my bag flying behind me like a postman’s satchel.
Jumping, flying, floating in the air, shoelaces flying, pants cuffs flapping upward like wings, and my knee going out when I hit the ground. Then, tumbling, falling forward, hitting the subway platform face first with a smack, glasses flying, often skipping down the platform in the back end of the F train, rumbling out of the Second Avenue station, fading into the underground tunnel toward the next stop.
I have not fallen down yet.
I work in an office. I share it with a woman I cannot talk with about much because she dated my best friend and had a nasty breakup. This would not be much of a problem with my best friend as we listen to the same music, read the same writers, and share certain attitudes about life in general. The job allows me to work on me keeping my mouth shut. This is sometimes an uncomfortable situation but a chance to work on personal growth.
I have a window in my office that opens to the street below. I did not look out of it much, even though I have a great view of midtown Manhattan. Unfortunately, I have these vertical blinds, which are broken, set permanently, and unmoving. When I stare out too long, which is about thirty seconds, I see double, and I get a vicious headache. Between the windows and my office mate, I have enough to bother me during the workday. This gives me a certain feeling of balance that enables me not to take life with unrealistic enthusiasm.
It fits into my belief that perfection is for the dead. Living is a triumphing itself; just strive to do the best you can and accept failure in loss as taxation for living. Of course, you do not want to pay it, but it is taken from your check anyway. I have a large desk made out of cheap pressed wood, but the end is wilted from too many ceiling leaks. I have two shelves on the far left, which is where I keep manuscripts I must edit. Next to that are my spec sheets, a telephone with eight outgoing lines. The phone is set in the center, so I can deal with my right hand while writing with my left.
Next to the telephone is my calendar, where I keep my pens, pencils and repro markers. There is a pencil sharpener beside it, and for a good reason, I have learned the fantastic trick involving a pencil, inserting it into the sharpener with my right hand and then flipping it into my left to begin writing. Stupid human jokes such as this break the regular monotony of work. I have become quite adept at stupid human tricks, and this one is my personal favorite.
My desk is flush up against a temporary wall. Sticky notes, telephone numbers, and a photo someone took of me holding up the gallery centerfold, cigarette hanging out of my mouth, a distinct faraway look in my eyes, greasy unmasked hair washing over my face. It was photographed in the spring of 1981.
That was the day I went with friends to see a band play at Lanier High School. You’re not there, you went off with your cousins, but we promised to meet at Highland Mall, which is where this photo was taken. We just missed each other by an hour, and I remembered being angry about it. I was angry a lot in those days.
I kept the photo on the wall to remind me where I had started and what to avoid. I look into those eyes, wolf-like green, with considerable lack of compassion and with little consideration of right and wrong. I occasionally shiver when I look at it, but it was my intention when I hung it there. I needed to remember who I was, to constantly remind the man I am now.
Besides that photograph, I have another of my brother, taken a month after that other photograph, and me. My smile is forced, and I am looking away. I have my brother’s M1 carbine cradled in my arms, and the rifle hangs limply like I am about to drop the damn thing. Underneath the photograph is a third, one with two old friends of mine. I am squinting, but at least I am looking at the camera.
This is my personal trio of memories. First, it is my remembrance of the closest I had ever come to falling off the edge.
I guess there is a nearly two-hundred-page manuscript I wrote at the time. I am using parts of it in the book I am writing now, and then afterward, I will throw it away. The story I wrote sucks; I could not write dialogue, and the characters are drawn like alcoholics walking a straight line. I have always liked one scene I wrote when one character goes to a cliff overlooking a junkyard. He brought a radio, deck share, an umbrella, and a cooler full of beer. He sets everything down and puts on a pair of wayfarer sunglasses before lying back in the chair with a cold brew in hand and Link Wray blasting out of the radio, camping out at the edge of the apocalypse. That was I at the time, with negativity and mordancy operating as my conceit, but I was eighteen at the time. I continue not to use that as an excuse. This is a sense of acceptance as a stage in this journey of mine.
I am not without pity. In the past, most of my friends were losers. The only one whom I had any hope for had a series of emotional breakdowns and committed suicide shortly before I decided to move to New York City. The last time I saw him was walking down the street looking unwell, his mouth opened like he was catching flies. He was a talented writer and artist and had made posters for several bands. He also wrote an excellent novella, the manuscript I still have in a box in the closet. One of these days, I’m going to make an effort to publish it.
When he died, the local weekly ran a letter from a member of one of the bands about him. The responsibility to edit the letter for publication was mine. This was how I found out.
I remember the day I met him. It was the day after we last made love. I met another friend at his apartment to talk about a literary magazine we wanted to start. He was out in the complex with me and pulled his girlfriend away to speak to me while he waded in the pool. The other guy walked up behind me and pushed me into the pool. He was always doing things like that.
The magazine never got off the ground, but the writer, Walter, did an excellent cover for it. If I remember correctly, there were tree monsters and demons and all sorts of Lovecraftian weirdness, which had nothing to do with the contents of the projected magazine. I appreciated that concept.
When I think of Walter, I do not think of wishing he had not offed himself. He was just following his star. Instead, I want to think he actually accomplished something before he finally killed himself. I realized that I needed to keep moving. Move, don’t fall down. Instead, jump up. I understood then that I needed to get out, and so I did. I left Texas and eventually settled in a second-floor walk-up on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side.
Everything I want or am interested in is within walking distance, a large square with me standing on its lower east edge. After six weeks, I have my world down pat. My wanderings in the neighborhood are like a mantra, a prayer of sorts: Ludlow to Canal Street, Canal to West Broadway, West Broadway turns into Seventh Avenue, and then north to 14th Street. I go across Union Square to Avenue, Avenue way back down to Ludlow at home.
I rarely venture outside this block except for occasional forays into Brooklyn to pick up mail at my old address, Jersey City to see my friends who live near Journal Square, and of course when I have to go to work.
The train: F train to Broadway-Lafayette Street. I get out across the platform and pick up either the D or B Express to 59th Street. The Orange Line is the most inefficient train in the New York Transit Authority. The train is crowded until 34th Street. Secretaries and cotton dresses, socks, and sneakers clutching bags either made of leather or plastic shopping that some chic Fifth Avenue or SoHo clothing stores get off, allowing me the chance to find a seat. At 42nd Street, the Puerto Rican and black workers get out, usually wearing knock-off print shirts and baggy pants purchased at 14th Street discount shops. At the Rockefeller Center station, two jewelers step out, Orthodox Jews in black, their forelocks pinned tightly behind their ears. Two stops later, I am out. The train is practically empty by then.
Like many transfer stations in the subway system, 59th Street is huge. Once you walk up the stairway, you are greeted by a vast concrete and steel expanse, with a gallery of stores in the main hall below. But like most, I walk to the 57th Street exit without so much as actually acknowledging this place’s existence. So it’s fitting. I feel just as visible as the shops I pass.
At work, I have a smaller block to walk around in. I have an hour lunch that I nearly take fully; usually, I just walk down Broadway to the Rogers and 53rd Street and grab some fried chicken. Then I step off my meal by going over to Sixth Avenue and moving with the crowd to 57th Street.
I take a left, and a block later, my building sits on the corner.
I do not go to Central Park anymore. Too many memories of my last girlfriend playing catch like kids out on the Great Lawn. It was cute. Thinking back, I wish we had thought of doing the same: Two gloves, a baseball, and a quiet spot to play. We probably should’ve gone to the soccer fields by Town Lake. We could have worked out our aggression that way. But if wishes were horses, we wouldn’t have been stampeded into mush. So instead, I still have my glove and a scuffed-up baseball stained with grass and mud and streaks of blacktop from too many wild throws into the street.
You needed tossing a baseball, back-and-forth. I know you would’ve been self-conscious, embarrassed in fact, that you would’ve gotten better, and eventually, I think you would have gotten rather good. I would have taught you how to throw sidearm so you can flip the ball in a slow accurate arc from any position imaginable. As graceful as you are, you probably would have. Yeah, you and I are at the park, playing catch to connect with another again.
I remember when you and I were at this part by Lamar Boulevard near 34th Street. We were still in high school, you going to class half-days while working at Taco Bell. I met you after work and walked there together. A friend gave me two pairs of tortoiseshell vintage sunglasses. I gave you one pair, and he looked at me like I was crazy because I never gave you anything.
We got on the swings, and I remember the heat in the sky, the sun, all the green surrounding us. The cars were traveling in slow motion up Lamar Boulevard. Finally, I turned to you, and you had the sunglasses perched on top of your head, and you smiled with your bright green eyes that always sparkled. Afterward, I asked if you wanted to get married. You stopped for a second, smiled, and said maybe. I sighed in relief, feeling guilty because I was serious about something for the first time in my life and was scared that you would say yes.
You drove me home to South Austin and gave me a kiss goodbye. I wrote about the afternoon in a notebook I still have. When I think of that day in the park, I wonder if you would’ve given me a yes and what might’ve happened afterward. Didn’t refer to the photo on my office wall, me holding up a porno magazine at the Highland Mall bookstand and feeling relieved for you.
My ex-girlfriend called last night. I sat in my room typing away on the novel. As usual, I was afraid that I would never finish when the telephone rang. The conversation started off pleasantly enough. We had an okay break, stretched out over a six-month period in which I tried very hard to stay out of her way. Even so, it was uncomfortable. We slept in the same bed, occasionally had sex but otherwise kept our distance. I began feeling weird when she started talking about how great she looked, how it takes so long to get her clothes on in the morning because she admires her body so much. She would brag about losing a pound a week. She went on and on while I was squirming in my chair.
The conversation began to decline when she talked about the guys she was dating. I couldn’t care less about this as I sat there quietly, polite in my responses. Then, finally, I asked her if she was still on the lithium. She replied she had been off since January.
When she said that, I had a flash of insight. Suddenly it became all too clear to me. By the time I said my goodbyes, I had the biggest shit-eating grin in the entire Lower East Side. There is nothing better than vindication, and I was relieved that she did not try to stick the butcher knife in me during those last six months, which she was more than capable of doing. The lesson was well learned. Never fall in love with a diagnosed manic-depressive. Especially those on medication maintenance and who would quit them and stop seeing her psychiatrist and promptly go manic on the boyfriend—endlessly—with no escape for him except for long walks on the Brooklyn Promenade. This was another sure sign of my personal growth and maturity. You remember the one before her.
What got me through this relationship was in knowing what you had endured with me. The dread of walking up the stairs to my apartment in Brooklyn, to the crying jags, the constant yelling, insults. All I know is it reminded me of a decade ago. It’s me. As I would take my obligatory walk after a fight with her, I would leave and walk down the Brooklyn Promenade.
I took a lot of walks alone on the Brooklyn Promenade. Usually shaking my head while looking out at the river at the foundation of the Manhattan skyline. Then, repeating to myself, muttering, “now I know.”
I wish I could take you out for a drink and put my arm around you, give you a kiss on the cheek and just sit silently with music playing from the jukebox in the corner; Just you and me staring straight ahead, silently, not a word between us, just looking at the mirror behind the bar. Smoke wafting from another Marlboro stuck between my fingers while my other fingers hold a Stoli and tonic, a squeezed lime on the damp napkin.
I am not thinking about anything. I have stripped my mind clean, waiting on something, anything to happen.
As for you, there is an empty barstool reserved for you in a bar on Avenue A.
A friend of mine once told me life would be enjoyable if not for the greediness and stupidity of others. For me, that is partially the case. The part that is actually burning in my soul like embers roasting on an open fire. It would be worse, but there is always a balance. That is what keeps me going. I have screwed up enough opportunities in my past to give me the sense that the world is not conspiring to make my life miserable, and I damn well know these days I am better off than a lot of people I know. Like you, I have ways of working all this bullshit off. Taking long walks and writing. I am never alone as long as I have a pen in my hand.
I would sit and write, remembering that you were always around when I needed you. I would go over a few pages reading that early manuscript and find something you once said that struck me for its insight, from when I had recorded a time from when we were together. Then, I would rewrite the scene and work on the dialogue in my new book. But, I will admit it, everything I ever wrote was a letter never sent.
The year after we broke up, I decided that I had better stop thinking about you to keep my sanity. Every time we ran into each other, there was enough hatred and abject fear between us that there was no way we could have a conversation for more than five minutes. Perhaps it is probably still the case.
But for whatever it is worth, I still love you and always will. You hang in my memory like a good suit of clothes.
I had always hoped for you and me that our lives would be better, although we will forever be separated. But I sometimes wonder about that unattainable alternative as I sit alone under an umbrella of stars staring up at the constellations of the southern sky, this time of me as a not-so-young man thinking of you and morose over my responsibilities as to how I had arrived there. Nevertheless, I eventually believe that all this will be transformed into a redemptive quality from which I shall move on.
The fantasy is always the same. I am sitting in the bar drinking a beer and listening to “Going Underground” by The Jam, and you walk in, wearing your purple dress and high heels. You gently touch my hair with your fingertips, and I turn to face your emerald eyes and smile.
Yet it is well understood that it is better to come up empty-handed with fading memories than with nothing at all, and with that, I wish you well.
Mike Lee is a writer and editor for a trade union in New York City. His work appears or is forthcoming in Eunoia Review, The Quarantine Review, Potato Soup Journal, Ghost Parachute and many others. His story collection, The Northern Line, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. His website: https://www.mleephotoart.com.