I kill the engine at the top of the parking garage; the old, towering one that overlooks a darkened Manhattan from Brooklyn’s crumbling coastline. You’re already there with a coffee for me and a still-hot pizza from Spadowski’s, inviting me over, not with words spoken, but simply by opening the grease-stained box. You place the box on the hood of the car and we sit on either side. The pizza smells fantastic, like sweet solace. This car hood, however, is freezing my ass off.
I motion toward a seemingly empty spot atop the steaming pizza. That slice there…it’s missing a piece of pepperoni.
You ask, Is it missing if it was never there to begin with? Then you take a slice from the box, folding it in half; the still-bubbling cheese now cradling the grease rather than merely acting as a slippery platter.
She did that too.
She was always bragging about her preference for Chicago deep dish pizza, but then I’d inevitably catch her cramming the thin, bi-folded slice into her mouth, eating it like an honest-to-God real New Yorker.
She deceived me. Like the distance between the earth and the moon and the moon and the stars, she was deceptive. I have memories of her, but the memories are only fluid; it’s the dreams that are concrete.
You say, That’s backwards though, isn’t it? Aren’t dreams meant to be the more elusive of the two?
My dreams? They’re like a bridge that spans over everything else in my cityscape, casting an unremitting shadow, while leaving me wondering just where exactly it is they connect to. A bridge you’ve seen a thousand times from underneath but have never stepped foot on either side. One side always being the end, I suppose, while the other will always be the beginning. It doesn’t matter which direction you face; the two are always there. One cannot exist without the other: a symbiotic relationship. Beginning and end. Cheese and pepperoni. Her and me.
That girl, that girl. I could see the end of us, even from way back at the beginning. The end was always there, like a traffic light in the far distance. A red light that never changes to green.
But that was then. This is now. I don’t recall you agreeing to meet me at this squalid parking garage, but we’re both here nevertheless. Why you asked me about her after all this time I have no idea. It’s been months since it ended, but I guess you were just giving me my space. Or didn’t want to share the space I’ve been in. Maybe that’s more like it. I wouldn’t blame you, really. This place though: it plays in my mind like one of those intangible memories. Its smell sparks feelings I don’t like having. The dusty way its light and darkness play off one another: as though something murky here had done me wrong in the past. Whatever it could be though, I can’t place it.
Your space is your own. I wouldn’t impose, you say.
She told me something about space too. She once described her being in my life as filling all the empty spaces within me. So why do I feel more empty now than I did before? Like she took a little extra from me when she left.
Lucky to have extra to give, I suppose? You wipe your mouth with your sleeve. Mechanically, you seize another piece of pizza and begin anew. I finally take a slice for myself. You know, sometimes I get going and forget the little things I want. That coffee smells good too. Thanks.
Our beginning was improbable. She, a young, ambitious art dealer who already had a half-paid mortgage on her own apartment in Morningside Heights. She wrote what she labeled “a popular column” for The New Criterion, some intellectual critical periodical I’d never heard of before. Me, I was nothing more than a struggling student who had no idea what I was supposed to be studying and, sometimes, no idea where I might be sleeping the next night. But it was she who spoke first when we locked eyes on the subway. We had both — on a whim, it turned out — taken the 6-Train to Pelham Bay for no other reason than because neither of us had been there before. As it happened, the beach was terrible and the two of us bumped into one another, crestfallen while boarding the train back to Manhattan. Purposefully, she sat beside me and started blabbing. “The heart wants what the heart wants, I suppose,” is what she told me later when I’d asked her how it must have all happened. When I asked her why she would ever choose to strike up a conversation with a total stranger on the subway. She called it her opening move. Her gambit.
All gambits are opening moves but not all opening moves are gambits.
I suppose that might be true. Later that evening, after a lengthy meal at some expensive SoHo brasserie, we sat shoulder-to-shoulder out on the tip of one of those long Chelsea piers. There was a carousel glowing behind us, full of life — lights and laughter — on such a quiet night. It was then that I actually started to believe this could be something. Meaningful, like the way a relationship was supposed to be. I’d been in other relationships before that, so I must have felt the same way before, but I couldn’t recall. It doesn’t matter either, I guess.
It was also then that we spotted something skipping across the Hudson. A light, like an engorged firefly, darted in and out and in-between our senses. We saw it and we felt it. We relished it and we didn’t. At once, we prized it and resisted it. I know it sounds stupid but that light — that will-o’-the-wisp or whatever it may have been — disappeared inside of us. We absorbed it in a microsecond. Each of us knew the other had experienced the same phenomenon, but neither wanted to speak of it. Whatever it was, it was strange enough and weird enough to not want to admit to the experience to anyone else, even that person sitting right next to you the whole time.
And I was acutely aware that something else had entered the relationship then too. Some third party completely unknown to us.
You mumble something with your mouth stuffed. I don’t catch it though. You’ve already consumed a third piece of pizza, and you greedily reach for another.
She was the first thing I would think about upon waking. When I looked in the mirror she was there. Like any youthful relationship, I suppose. Before we’re too jaded to take them seriously anymore. It’s what we were like before we’d been burned one too many times. Or burned ourselves, seems closer to the truth.
But then things end, don’t they? It’s inevitable. Not all at once, of course. That would be too easy. And it would hurt a lot less.
You say, If it doesn’t hurt it doesn’t count, right?
Sure. Like I said: the end was always right there laid out before us. It was no secret. It never is. She had a breakdown one night about some older brother she’d never mentioned before and how he molested her when they were kids. It happened just like that: right out of left field. After that, I don’t think we had an evening that didn’t include some amount of tears in it somewhere. She admitted to wanting to be someone else because anyone else wouldn’t be her. I joked, “You’re crazy! Everything you are is perfect to me.” And then she seemed to take my joke literally. The being crazy part, that is. Through more tears, she blatantly informed me I wasn’t motivated enough to lose weight. I didn’t know I needed to lose weight. She accused me of the stupidest things: everything from swiping five bucks from her drawer to leaving a paper bag of dog turd on her doorstep and even hating minorities. Seemingly at random, she would become verbally abusive towards waiters and baristas and doormen.
I was desperately grasping at straws. I wasn’t sure where things had taken this turn or how to fix them. Eventually, I spoke with one of her gallerist pals to figure out if her current state of mind was in any way normal for her. Is she like this when she’s working? Is she bipolar? I was expecting him to inform me that yes, she would frequently stop by to intentionally splatter wine on the paintings, or maybe throttle the neck of a potential buyer. But he suggested to me — and quite bluntly — that perhaps I should seek help. Maybe I was the crazy one in the relationship. I recall this colorful painting of a field on the gallery wall. Every time I glanced at it though, it appeared to be a picture of something else. For a tiny moment I considered the possibility that the man might have been right.
It was soon after when we finally reached that red light. When it ended. We’d gone for a walk together and wound up sitting on that same Chelsea Pier. The carousel had been closed for maintenance. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves and I suggested we return to Pelham Bay. I didn’t propose the idea as a last-ditch attempt at resuscitating the relationship. To get us off life support. I said, “Let’s go. Put on your best dress and we’ll hop on the 6-Train.”
“I don’t want to go back there,” she said. “That beach was terrible. I hated it there.”
“But that’s where we met!”
“Exactly,” she brazenly informed me. I think it was the first time in a long while that we’d spent the night together without any tears.
You ask, And that was that, wasn’t it? I’m curious to know how you could tell, and you only say that’s how the end always comes. There are never tears at the very end. If there were, it wouldn’t be over yet.
I’ve never noticed that before. Maybe I just hadn’t paused long enough to think about it. And it was also then — as she and I at once exhaled what we had left inside of us — that the light left. That strange, scuttling thing expunged itself, though we didn’t immediately notice. Then, when she turned to leave, I saw the entity, or whatever it may have been, skipping across the Hudson River once more, this time heading somewhere far away from me. Maybe back to wherever it came from in the first place. She must have sensed its disappearance eventually, but the two of us never spoke again after that. Not of supernatural occurrences and not to each other. I still don’t know what it was that happened.
What did you do with yourself once it was over between you?
What have I been up to? Just coping, really. There are still too many bad thoughts, too many illogical words rattling around inside my head. I want to say I hate her but I hardly even knew her. How can you hate someone you barely know? I drink a lot. And there’s too many bars around here to ever get too emotional about things. I did disappear up to Pelham Bay for some time too.
Was it as bad as you remember it being?
It was worse, actually. But I didn’t meet any psychotics on my way back this time around, so there’s that I suppose. Did you know there’s a place called Throggs Neck out there? I had no idea. That must be the strangest name ever.
I finish off my coffee in nearly one gulp, and I realize there’s only a single slice of pizza left now too. I met someone new the other day though neither of us are really that into each other. I dropped out of college but I do have a regular place to sleep now. You take the last piece of pizza without even asking, and then unconcernedly toss the empty box from the parking lot rooftop.
Listen, if you don’t replace some of those negative thoughts with a positive one or two, they’ll never go away. You must remember some of the good things about her?
If pressed, I might say her hair was orange like the perfect sunset. She appreciated opening credits in movies; the order in which they appeared and how they might be presented; fonts and that sort of thing. She once told me that love gives meaning to the stars, which I didn’t understand but it made a lot of sense at the same time. I really liked that.
You told me she deceived you. Do you still think so?
She wasn’t the person I thought her to be. Is that enough to qualify?
Are any of us, really? Maybe you were only mistaken. Perhaps she didn’t do any of those terrible things.
Then it’s obvious she’s deceived you too. You wipe your mouth with your sleeve again as I consider the idea of perceived deception. What supernatural element decides whether a relationship will end amicably or in anger? Why do we seem to conveniently forget about the good times? I don’t know if whatever she did to me would have happened regardless of whether we met or not, but I still find myself questioning my own sanity at times. I search myself for some truth to it all; some certainty that I’m still somewhat in control of who I am: my hopes and fears and heartaches.
I catch the light out of the corner of my eye; I see it just as it floats effortlessly off the rooftop. And when I turn to ask if you saw it too, if you caught this maybe-wonderful/maybe-portentous thing skipping away into the distance, you’re nowhere to be found.