Lips sweet like honeydew melon. Your fingers in my hair, pulling softly. Small breathes escaping. The sun filtering in through the blinds in my apartment. Your skin, golden brown and scented lightly of sandalwood. Our legs long and tangled, endlessly.
Oh god, I’ve missed you. Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.
The alarm clock echoes off the walls in my apartment. I begin to slowly register the sights and sounds around me. My dog nudging the food bowl across the kitchen. The words flying from the morning dj’s mouth. The dark, early morning sky, cold and flat. The cars crawling forward to cubicle farms across the city.
I hate getting up for work.
I absolutely hate my job.
An hour later, I’m seated at my kitchen table, topless and in my underwear, staring at the small television screen. A year ago to the day, you and I were enjoying a cup of coffee, laughing at this very table. You were on your way to work, and I was on my way to class.
We both hated mornings. The slow slide toward consciousness. Legs entangled. Toes touching. Arms reaching. Who would be the first to peek and greet the day? We both hated mornings, but they were never so bad. They were never this bad. This lonely. This endless.
My phone’s been ringing off the hook. I should probably pick it up. I’m certain it’s Kyle calling from the factory, trying to get me off my ass for the umpteenth time in the last month. She’s put forth more than her fair share of effort at trying to keep me on the right track, but there’s only so much anybody can do. Even still, she deserves more than the sound of my answering machine. The next time the phone rings, I pick it up, and before I can even say hello, I hear her voice from the other line.
“You can’t keep doing this, Alex.” She said, matter-of-factly. “The folks up top are gonna start to notice, and I won’t always be able to cover for you.”
“I know, Kyle, I know.” I mumbled into the phone, each syllable feeling as if it weighs one hundred pounds.
“Alex, I hate to do this, but – ”
“Then whatever it is you’re about to do, don’t do it.” I interrupted.
“I’m giving you two weeks off.” She sighed. “Hell, you’ve got enough vacation time saved up to take off two months straight. Two weeks won’t break the bank. Get rest; go home; spend some time with your family. I don’t care what you do, but your time card had better be gathering dust by the time you show up here again.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Kyle.” I said, defeated. “Thanks for covering my ass again, I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
After we hung up, I sat at the table, watching the sun creep up the kitchen wall and wondered what the hell I was supposed to do with myself without work for two weeks. Hungry, I made my way to the ‘fridge for a sandwich and Coke, then sat back down to continue to contemplate my newfound freedom. I couldn’t help but remember how exciting two weeks’ worth of vacation would have been this time last year. We would have been tripping over ourselves to pack our bags for a camping trip or a road trip, mapping out the dirtiest roadside motels.
Hours later, I woke to the sound of the evening news blaring from the television. The sound filled the entire apartment. The only voice released in this space in months, other than my own, was coming from the evening newscaster right now. I stared at her. I wondered if she was really happy, if she had children and a partner that would die for her. I wondered if she’d received some priceless degree from some Big Ten school somewhere and was now living the dream. I wondered if she could still feel. If everyday life still moved her the way it moved the rest of us.
Tired, I dragged my Chucks onto my feet, threw on my favorite grey cargos and sweatshirt, and decided I’d go for a walk.
“Sure, Rocko; of course you can come.” I said to my two-year-old Beagle who’d noticed my movements toward the door and immediately began wagging his tail.
This was a nightly ritual for the two of us. I hardly ever slept anymore, and Rocko was always up for a late night stroll through the park across the street. On the other side of the park, we’d continue on for a few blocks before coming to my favorite 24-hour café. I’d tie him up to a nearby street sign, leave him with a treat or two, walk in and seat myself. I was a regular, all the waitresses and even the owner knew me, and I always ordered the same thing.
This evening, I seated myself at the counter, grabbed a section of a nearby, discarded newspaper, and began scanning for anything interesting.
“Hey, doll. Same ole, same ole?” The waitress asked as she approached me.
“Sounds great, Em. Thanks.” I replied, smiling slightly.
The “same ole, same ole” is coffee to start, two eggs with cheese, two sausage patties, hash browns with garlic and onion, two slices of raisin bread, and a small glass of OJ brought with the meal. It’s been the “same ole, same ole” since I moved to this city.
I breezed through my section of the paper. Seems I picked up the “Lifestyles” section, and was looking at upcoming events and community happenings. I noticed an upcoming showing of Rent at the local theatre. I haven’t been to a play in what felt like forever. I was thinking maybe I’d look into ticket prices for myself when my meal showed. Lost in thought and habit, I began applying apple butter to my raisin bread, and listening to some late night comedy show playing on the small television screen hanging above the counter.
I’ve cleaned just about everything I could find to clean.
I’ve cleaned out my closet and donated all the extra clothing to Goodwill.
I’ve cleaned out the refrigerator and every cupboard in the kitchen, and donated all the non-perishables to the women’s shelter.
I’ve even cleaned Rocko, who stood patiently in the bathtub while I soaped his fur and ran water along his belly just the way I know he likes.
I’ve cleaned all the floors, the hallways, the tables and countertops, the sinks, the windows, the trashcans, the bathtub, the toilet.
But, I can’t clean enough.
So, when the thought of the “Rent” production showing at the local theatre popped into my mind, I began to see it as more of a good idea and less of a waste of my time. After all, “Rent” was always one of my favorite Broadway plays, and without work to kill the hours, well I’ve got thousands and thousands of pounds of extra time on my shoulders. Might as well shed a few hours of it at the theatre.
I showed up a bit early, took my seat, and enjoyed watching the theater’s sections fill in. Chicago is a city that’s just crawling with the unique. I’ve lived here ever since graduating from high school. I was a small town, Arizona kid. Never would’ve thought someone like me could make it in a city like this.
The lights dimmed and the chatter died down to silence as the show began. Partway through the first half of the show, a woman took the seat right next to me. Although we didn’t make eye contact, their scent caught and held my attention most.
Was that sandalwood?
I think so. It was a light scent. Teasing. It made me wonder from where had the scent absorbed itself into her clothing. It made me think of touching her skin to see if perhaps the scent would rub off onto me.
I felt guilt, and did not meet her gaze at intermission when she leaned over and said hello. However, it seemed she was determined to have conversation.
“You know, I’ve come to see “Rent” every year since my first year living here in Chicago.” She said, browsing through her program. “I can always find something new to appreciate at each new showing of it.”
“Yeah?” I replied, not really looking to continue the conversation, but guiltily admitting to myself that I loved the sound of her voice. “I, ummmm, I like it a lot, too. It’s one of my favorite musicals.”
“Do you have a favorite character?” She pressed forward in spite of my awkward response.
“Ummmm, yeah.” I stammered. “I think I really like the professor. His name is Collins, or something?”
“Yeah … okay, I can see why you would enjoy his character.” She replied, smiling. “I really enjoy Angel. One of my favorite songs is “Today 4 U.” I also really like the duet she does with Collins. “Sante Fe?”
“Oh yeah, that is a good one.”
We continued to chitchat until the theater seats began to fill, and the show’s second half began. Throughout the second half, I found myself glancing at her in my peripheral vision. There was something about her. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I wanted to talk to her, and for me, maybe that’s what was so different. I’ve spent the last year avoiding contact of all kinds, but for some reason, I found myself wanting to talk to her.
When the show ended, the theater lights adjusted to a brighter hue, and I could get a better view of those sitting around me. I stood up to put my jacket back on, and as she stood up to gather her things, I took in her appearance. She was tall and shapely, with classic curves. She was wearing a tank top, with a corduroy jacket over it, along with an ankle-length skirt that flowed freely with her movements. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, but I could tell there was a lot of it.
“A hippie girl … cute …” I mused to myself, smiling.
“So, what are you doing after this?” She interrupted my thoughts. “Wanna get a cup of coffee?”
“Ummmmm, you know … I shouldn’t. I mean, I should probably get back and start getting some sleep” I stuttered my words, confused by how difficult it was to simply say ‘no’ to her.
“Come on. I’m not gonna bite you. Just come chitchat with me for a bit.” She was still smiling at me. “I promise to have you home before midnight, Cinderella.”
“Yeah, a cup of coffee does sound really good right now.” I chuckled. “I live in Andersonville, where do you live? Maybe we can find someplace near both of us.”
“I live in Uptown, so it looks like we’re both hopping the Red Line anyway.”
We eased onto a train and settled into a comfortable conversation about our hometowns and what brought us both to Chicago. I was amused by her energy. She spoke passionately and confidently about things, yet she was a great listener. I couldn’t help but notice my attraction to her, and it stirred uncomfortably in my gut. It’s been so long.
“So, what about you? Are you seeing someone right now?” She asked.
“No. I haven’t been seeing anyone for a while.” I could feel my discomfort growing. I know she didn’t mean anything by the question, but why does it always have to come here? It’s so hard to talk about, and even more difficult to think about. “My, ummmmm … my last partner was in a really bad accident and ummmmm … I haven’t … I haven’t been with anyone since then. It’s just not been right ever since.”
Just the sound and feel of the train sliding along the track. I could feel her looking at me, but I couldn’t meet her gaze. I didn’t want to do this right now. I was suddenly thinking maybe this was all just a really bad idea, and I should head home and forget about this girl; and forget about this day.
“I’m so sorry to hear that, Alex. I know what it’s like to lose someone so close to you, and I can only imagine what you must be going through.” I could feel her hand on mine. “We don’t have to talk about it, I can see how difficult this is.”
Something inside me snapped. I felt a dead weight inside my mind give way and collapse.