I told her I was meeting with an agent in Manhattan about a couple short stories I’d written and continued with some bullshit about them being put into a book. It was my excuse to visit New York for the weekend, to see her for the first time in over a year. But there was no agent and no book deal. Instead, when my bus rolled into town, I wandered around The Village drinking wine in the coffee shops near NYU.
Just before five, I took the subway down to near where the World Trade Towers used to be and slunk into a little bar called the Raccoon Lodge. The bartender looked like she’d been smoking for forty years straight and was chatting up a couple off-duty firefighters in the corner. I ordered a beer, sipped it, then sent a text telling her where to find me. I thought about when she first moved to New York, how I’d wake up every morning and read the weather in her new city. I sometimes imagined that she’d wake up and look at the weather in Pittsburgh and think of me.
Fifteen minutes later, she wandered in. She looked great, but different. She was skinnier and her hair shorter. Something in the way she walked said she had been living in the big city for a while. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
I stared up at the framed pictures of local teamsters and greasy faced construction workers muscled hard from labor. A blue-collar joint—the kind of place we used to meet up in.
“Don’t you want to get one drink before we leave?” I asked.
“No,” she said and pulled the straps of her purse over her shoulder. “Let’s go to Brooklyn.”
Brooklyn might as well have been the moon. For dinner, we ate roasted corn slopped with mayonnaise from a pale, squirrelly man standing behind a cart. “Cuban,” she explained. Then, we got on the trendy subject of avoiding meat.
On the streets, she pointed and said things like, “Aren’t these brownstones beautiful? That one just sold for a couple million.”
A few blocks later she said, “This is the neighborhood Biggie grew up in.” Then: “Spike Lee lived over there.”
All around me, twenty-somethings in cut-off flannels and thick-rimmed glasses milled about in the streets, typing furiously away on iPhones. They carried tattered books and messenger bags. A guy with a handlebar mustache rode a unicycle. As we passed a man wearing suspenders and tight corduroys, he looked at me with an expression somewhere between smugness and contempt. I was so alien to his ironic sophistication he turned up his nose as if I was the freak.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Brooklyn,” she answered flatly. “New York City. The center of the world.”
“Do you ever miss Pittsburgh?”
“Not really,” she said.
That night we sat on the balcony of her second floor apartment looking down on the street below. There was just enough room for two chairs and our knees pressed against the railings. We were so close I could have reached out my hand and touched her thigh. Between us were two sixers of fancy beer and a pack of cigarettes.
“When did you pick up smoking?” I grabbed the pack and examined it. A caricature of an Indian smoking a long peace pipe was outlined against a yellow background.
“When I moved here,” she said.
I slid one from the pack and lit it. I exhaled hoping the smoke would resurrect some sort of commonality.
Across the street was a huge mural of Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the wall of the corner store. It was the album art from his Return to the 36 Chambers, the one with his driver’s license photo on the cover, his hair everywhere and looking all crazed. Throughout the night, cars full of white people pulled up and they’d all rush out and stand in front as they took turns taking pictures with their phones.
Half way into our second six-pack, she turned to me and said: “I’m seeing this guy. A lawyer in Manhattan.”
When she spoke again, I could tell she was treading carefully. “It’s weird, you know. I came to New York thinking the whole world would open up for me. Remember how we used to talk? How all we had to do was get away?”
And as she spoke I realized that she wasn’t really talking to me. She was talking to Pittsburgh as if I was some sort of conduit. When she left me, she also broke up with Pittsburgh and, after time apart, things became too hard to explain. Gulfs had ruptured between us. She was somebody else.
I wanted her to tell me that she realized that she was the next to be priced out of Brooklyn, and when it happened, I would be the one who made Pittsburgh a place she would return to. I wanted her to say she was ready to come back with me tomorrow and we would buy a row house on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Then she would smile as I told her that we couldn’t afford Lawrenceville anymore so across the river in Millvale would have to do. But she didn’t tell me that. She remained silent, and I knew that silences meant so much more, and somehow that made sense to me.
“I’m glad you got away,” I finally said.
“Want another beer?” she asked.
She handed one over then took a big swig from hers. We drank up everything. I heard an airplane passing above. I wished I were on it.
I slid into bed next to her and wondered if I was on the side she normally slept on.
“Do you always sleep that way?” she asked. I was facing her.
“No, I can sleep either way,” I said.
“It’s late, and I have to work tomorrow.”
“OK,” I said, and rolled over.
She wore pajama pants and a T-shirt that made the humid sheets feel hotter. When we both lived in Pittsburgh, we shared a bed from time to time and she always slept naked. In the darkness, she’d press her bare breasts against my back, and we would talk about junior high when we used to make-out under the bleachers before the varsity basketball games. Eventually, the conversation would move from the past to the future, how she’d outgrown Pittsburgh and how maybe getting out of town for a while would give her some perspective.
Outside, the sounds of the city, the hum of voices: two men argued, growling and howling, something about a bottle of liquor and who finished it. I listened to the raucous exchange and thought about how loud it was in Brooklyn, thought how back in Pittsburgh when night falls everything gets so quiet. I was drunk but wished there was a bottle somewhere in her apartment to pour another.
“You hear that fighting out there?” I asked. She didn’t answer. Either she was asleep or pretending to be.
I woke up sometime during the night. The arguing outside had stopped. It was dark, but morning felt close. I still faced away from her. She was sprawled all over the place, kicking and elbowing me and stealing all the covers. I moved toward the edge of the bed and stayed perfectly still.
When I woke again it was morning. Pale slivers of light cleaved through the blinds. It must have been real early because it was quiet on the streets. The room smelled like farts or stinky feet, maybe a combination of both. I wondered if it was my farts or my stinky feet. It’s possible to fart while you sleep and not even know. Then I thought about her farting on me all night, and it sort of made me feel sick.
I laid there for a while staring at the insides of my eyelids searching them for whatever truth I hoped to find, clinging to the remnants of some other world. If I inched any farther away, I’d fall right off the mattress onto the floor.
When I opened my eyes again, I knew the shakes were coming because of the paranoia in my brain. I felt worthless. I was dirt. My throat was dry and my tongue stuck like Velcro to the roof of my mouth.
I heard the early morning rumble of buses under the window. She gave me a little nudge in the back and said: “You should go. I have to get ready for work.”
I turned over and stared. Her eyes were bloodshot and sleepy and her face looked like a tired version of her high school yearbook photo.
“If you are ever back in Pittsburgh, you know, we should get together—”
“Yeah,” she said quickly. “Of course.”
I found my undershirt and jeans in the heap of clothes on the floor and started putting them on. “Which way to the subway?”
She waited and watched me. One leg at a time, one arm at a time.
“Which way to—”
“Down that way.” She pointed to the door. Her finger was steady. The entire time she had been trying to say goodbye.