I’m sitting across the table from my Aunt Heloise and her friend Mabel at Jax Cafe. Casually, while Heloise tells me about the $40 she won at Mah Jonng, Mabel grabs 30 or so packets of sugar and Equal from the table and puts them in her purse. A few seconds later, when she reaches for the packet of maple syrup, our hands meet. I slide the packet closer to me, and look around to see if anyone has noticed, but everyone except the dark-eyed girl at the counter – looking like a runaway with her Army jacket and ripped up duffel bag – is absorbed in waffles or conversation. I look at the runaway and she glares back at me. For some reason, her glare makes my chest feel suddenly heavy and tight. I quickly look away.
“It can cause epileptic seizures, you know,” Mabel suddenly says.
“Mah Jong. I read it somewhere.”
I ask for the check, signaling the end to my Friday morning mitzvah. I put them in a cab headed towards Rye, and head back towards my apartment in Queens. At 11:00 a.m. it’s already been a long day. The humidity sticks to my lungs and I feel out of breath and bone tired by the time I reach my third floor walk up.
I can also feel the sharp edges of some unwelcome thing creeping in, something I never want and never feel comfortable with. I think about taking an ice cold shower to snap me out of it, but my body heads toward the unmade Murphy bed. I peel off my damp clothes and lay down. Instead of relaxing, my body tenses. My neck becomes a steel spike that drives into the back of my head. My arms and back go rigid, and my teeth start to grind.
After a few minutes, I decide it’s the fucking music. It’s the pounding bass from the assholes in 4C. The longer I think about it, the angrier I get. I’ve asked them a dozen times to turn down the volume or move their speakers. I’ve asked them nicely, respectfully. I even left them a note that said thank you in advance.
The anger makes me sweat. Rivulets of sweat begin running down my forehead, into my hair, down my cheeks, and into my blistering hot neck. I bolt from the bed and run to the shared wall, where my clammy fists start pounding “God damnit you stupid motherfuckers how many times do I have to ask you mother fucking assholes turn the fucking music down.” I wait for my torrent to take effect, leaning with my ear pressed against the wall so I can hear what they say.
Instead of repentance, I hear the tinny sound of laughter. His laughter, low and rumbling, and hers high-pitched, tastes like blood in my mouth.
I drag my stereo cabinet across the room, plug it in, turn my speakers around, and blast Aerosmith. Big 10 inch. Over and over again. In between plays, I can still hear the pounding bass of unrecognizable music. The more I hear it, the madder I get. I want to kill somebody.
Eduardo comes knocking just as I’m searching for a song that has a stronger drum beat. I answer the door wild-eyed and naked, and realize that I wouldn’t mind if he was afraid of me – if he looked shocked, or backed away from the door slowly – but he’s been a super too long. “Call it a truce, Daniel. They’ve turned theirs off, so now it’s your turn. And the next time you have a problem, come to me, eh?”
I take a shower, but make it hot. I want to get lost in the steam. I want to feel drunk tired and disoriented from the heat. I want to wash away the unwelcome thing.
Instead, I notice the beads of water falling down the shower stall. The rivulets of water running down my arms.
Without bothering to dry off, I turn off the water, and make my way back to bed. There’s no sky outside that I can see, but there is a brick apartment building. I see the first crack of lightning reflected in someone else’s window. On a hot July afternoon in New York, it begins to rain.
“There were rivulets of rain on the window. . . ” – That’s how Helen, in her soft New Zealand accent, began her story, remembering herself as a fourteen year old schoolgirl, watching the rain while listening to Depeche Mode and doing homework.
We had just finished making love, and it was the kind of love that transcended the passage of time and the limits of bodies. In her dark room we wondered what day it was – was it the night before, or had a new night fallen unaware? We didn’t know, and we really didn’t care. There were icy cold bottles of Coca-Cola in the fridge, love songs on the radio, and candles that flickered warmly on the night stand. At some point, we had showered together, and the smell of Jasmine soap lingered on our skin.
I held her in the crook of my arm, and was amazed at how well she fit. As if she’d always been there, or belonged there – as if she had been a part of me that had been missing and suddenly returned.
It didn’t start this way when we met five months prior at the airport and then shared a cab. There was chemistry, but it was stilted. She was a little reserved, I was a little defensive. The ice broke on our fourth date, for no particular reason other than the particular shine of the moon on a February night, and the way our bodies pressed together under the street lamps in front of her apartment building.
We melded that night, as if neither reserve nor defenses had ever existed. By June, despite my 35 years as a bachelor, I was secretly imagining a comfortable life in the suburbs, with a loving wife and two curly-haired, doe-eyed children.
And then came the story. It tumbled out like a bad dream, to be told quickly, but never forgotten. The rivulets of rain that fell. The absent mother and the stepfather who would not hear no. The loss of innocence and the run from home. The streets that burned the soles of her feet, and the danger behind the slick smiles and promises of protection.
I held her, watching the rain of tears run down her cheeks and feeling my own. I held her, and then thought it was too tightly, so I loosened my grip.
“I am not him,” I said, as much for her assurance as my own, “I am not them, those men in the street. I’m sorry, Helen, so sorry. . .”. I didn’t know what else to say.
Later, she reached for me in the depth of sleep, and her hand suddenly felt alien to me. Like a fragile, tender thing that I might accidentally break. Like the slender, pleading hand of a fourteen year old child.
In the morning, her dark eyes met my own. “I think you should go,” she said, coldly.
“We can get past this, Helen.”
“It will never be the same. I don’t want it to be the same. It was all based on lies. Our love is just a lie.”
“It’s not a lie! I love you. What happened was not your fault, please, give us some time. . .”.
She glared past me, into some distant darkness. “Just go,” she said, “I want to be alone.”
Rivulets of rain run down my window on a hot July afternoon. I pick my damp clothes off the floor and run like a mad man towards the subway station to look for the dark-eyed girl.