It started somewhere between summer’s wilting dandelions and the fading memories we pretend we aren’t missing in the fall. When friends go from being there for us to being mysteriously unavailable, sucked into the undertow of change and lives in flux.
It started in New York.
I traveled with a pair of suitcases. Suitcases like you’d see in old movies: peeling brown leather, frayed handles, and covered in travel stickers from everywhere my dad—and his dad before him—had ever visited. I know I must have looked like I belonged in some other time period, wandering out from the arrivals gate at JFK looking for Matt.
We’d never met before, Matt and I. Our fathers served in the navy together—some enigmatic past my dad never talked about. But when I took the design job in New York, he told me he had an old navy buddy who also had a son, and that Matt also lived in New York. It’d be an easy way for me to get my feet off the ground, he said. Having a roommate might be helpful and all that, but I was cognizant enough of my own confidence that I’d be okay on my own much sooner than later.
And Chelsea was likely coming out to the East Coast, too.
When I saw the guy holding the upside-down sign that read: ‘Kris (sp?)’ I knew I’d found him. He was lanky with a lazy slump to his posture; a mop of unbrushed hair which made his head appear unsymmetrical; the pointed, whiskery face of a ferret. He wore a jean jacket littered with patches and Sharpie’d sketches of faded skulls, flames, and band names. Big headphones on, too.
It was mostly just small talk as we rode the AirTrain, but when we transferred onto a subway at Jamaica, I suggested that he didn’t have to go so far out of his way to meet me at the airport.
“I mean, I probably could have figured out the transit system on my own,” I said.
“Always be grateful,” Matt told me. “Be grateful for what you have.”
“No, you’re right. I am grateful. Thank you.”
“You can’t get something back once it’s gone,” he added, which was a fairly weird thing to say, I suppose. But I think Matt was probably on something good, and in my experiences, people could say weird, transcendental things when they’re on something good.
I pointed at the cardboard sign he was still holding, though folded up now, about as well as corrugated cardboard can be folded up. “Why’d you spell my name with a K?”
“I wasn’t really sure how to spell it. That’s why I added the ‘SP’ and the question mark.”
“Why not just Chris with a CH? Isn’t that the most common spelling?”
Matt opened up the cardboard in his lap and stared at what he’d scratched in black. I could still smell the ethanol fumes from the permanent marker. “I’ve known way more Chris’s with a K, if I’m being honest.”
We got out at the 71st Avenue Station and walked a couple of blocks into Forest Hills. The sun was starting to set, the sky turning into midsummer colors I’d never seen before in Colorado, and I tried looking past the so-far uninspiring buildings around us. “How far is Manhattan from here?”
Matt waved both hands around unconvincingly. “Just out thataways,” he said. I think he must have left the sign he made back on the subway because he didn’t have it with him now. “You’ll find it,” he added, like the island of Manhattan was something both hidden and entirely unavoidable.
Just as we arrived at his apartment, Matt lit up a cigarette and took a seat on a low, concrete garden wall outside the entrance. Air conditioning units from some of the windows chugged away, some working harder than others, and I almost didn’t hear him when he asked about my girlfriend. “Her name’s Chelsea,” I told him. I tried to peer inside the apartment’s darkened lobby, but the large windows were like black monoliths; all I could make out were my silhouette and the embers from Matt’s cigarette. I didn’t recall mentioning Chelsea along the way, but I suppose I must have.
“Those long-distance relationships never work though, do they?”
“They don’t fail exclusively, either.”
“Probably not.” He went silent for a long time, taking a few drags from his cigarette. “But the ones that do work are like the Chris’s with a CH. I don’t hear about them nearly as much.” Matt went to flick the cigarette from his hand into the garden, but accidentally dropped it on the ground instead, then he contemplated it for a moment before stamping the whole thing out. And then he finished his last thought: “To the point where I almost don’t believe in their existence.”
When we finally got upstairs to the third-floor apartment that I would be calling home, I dropped my old suitcases onto the bed and removed my phone that had been buried in my pocket. No messages. No missed calls. I called Chelsea, but there was no answer. I left a brief, scattered message, not saying all that much of anything important, really.
~ ~ ~
I woke early the next morning, not having slept very well. First night in an unfamiliar bed, I suppose. It was a Friday, and I’d arranged to go into work that day, just the one day, and then have a weekend in New York before things became routine. It was too early in Boulder to call someone, either Chelsea or my dad. I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d felt like talking to, either. Random thoughts of growing up rattled through my mind; good memories and bad ones, promises kept, things left unsaid. It was a line in the ceiling that eventually caught my attention, snapping me out of my spiraling mood: it was a winding crack, starting above my bed and trickling all the way to the bedroom door. Pulling the sheets off, I followed it out into the apartment, where it made some unnatural turns before disappearing into the wall above the door to the third-floor hallway.
I opened the apartment door and looked up, but the crack in the ceiling was gone. There was a strange old man down the hallway, looking my way, and I was quick to close the door.
I hadn’t even noticed Matt was awake and sitting in a chair by the open window. He had headphones on and was rolling a small pile of joints on the windowsill. “What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Just seeing where this crack in the ceiling leads.”
“What crack?” He looked up and shrugged, not bothered at all by the line splitting his ceiling in half. “It’s probably not a big deal.” Moving slowly, Matt screwed some lids back onto green plastic bottles, clearly medicinal marijuana. I’d only known Matt less than twenty-four hours, but I think my assumption—probably due to how he’d shift from calm to laughing to angrily shushing me—was that he was bipolar. But I still wasn’t sure.
I nodded toward his mini dispensary piled up on the windowsill. “You’re not afraid those will just fall out the window, are you?”
He shook his head.
“What do you take it for?”
“Tinnitus,” he said, pulling the headphones down and sticking his middle finger into one ear.
“Like a ringing in your ear?”
“It’s a phantom noise. It’s like . . . Take a deep breath. Like a really deep breath.”
I did. My lungs strained. Burned.
“Now quickly, let all that air out of your mouth.”
I blew out, and was already panting. God, I really needed to start running again.
“That blowing noise. That’s what it sounds like. Only more annoying.” He watched me trying my best to catch my breath. “Man, you need to exercise more if that’s the best you can do.”
I could only agree, before heading out for my first day at the new job. As I waited for the E Train, I tried Chelsea again. Still no answer. Not even her voicemail anymore.
~ ~ ~
Almost immediately upon emerging from the 23rd Street Station, I was overwhelmed. Manhattan for the first time is something else; it doesn’t take someone long to feel insignificant amongst it all. Back in Boulder, it sometimes felt like everyone knew me. Here, I was just part of the crowd. Maybe I stood out because I was walking a bit slower than the rest, but I was actually looking forward to a little anonymity for once.
Just before entering the glass office tower, navigating past bike messengers and across crumbling asphalt, my phone buzzed. My dad. He was calling to wish me good luck on my first day in the Big Apple. He had no clue why New York City was called the Big Apple, and neither did I. I asked if he’d ever been here, and he laughed at first, then fired a couple of ambiguous lines about his time in the navy. “Days felt like weeks,” he said. I could feel his wink over the phone.
“Has Chelsea come by?” I asked. Chelsea always had a way of getting along with anyone. Sometimes I’d come home from school and she was already there making dinner for me and my dad.
“She has, actually. Seemed annoyed.”
“Annoyed? About what?”
“Son, I’m old enough now to know better than to assume why a woman is annoyed. It’s not safe.”
“Well, what do you think the reason is? She must have said something.”
“If you want my honest opinion, I think it’s because you took the job in New York.”
“Is that what she said?”
“That’s my honest opinion.”
“She was the one who told me to take the job!”
“She did say you’re immature and delusional.” What is my dad now, her therapist?
“Aren’t we all?”
“Trust me kiddo, I know. But eventually, you’ll find the right way to make things work right. With the right girl. Or the right woman.”
He tried changing the conversation by telling me he had some guy come by the house the day before to look at the old cottonwood tree outside. My dad loved that big tree, but he had a sense that it was dying. Guy told him he was pretty sure it was rotting from the inside.
I said I was sorry and he said he was, too. About the tree or about Chelsea, I wasn’t certain. Maybe both though.
I tried to wrap up the conversation, and he told me to have a great day.
~ ~ ~
King City Shoe Company was a cool place. Chip, the owner, was one of those rich kids from the beaches of California, who, if they felt like it, could just start a skateboarding shoe company, lease a big office in Manhattan, and start paying some art school nobody (re: me) to design shoebox art. Part of Chip’s company blueprint was having different art for every shoebox. I’d already designed a few for King City pro bono, and he liked me enough to offer me my own sixth-floor corner office that overlooked the High Line. I still didn’t know what the High Line was, but he talked it up like it was some glitterati-filled, twenty-four hour party scene.
Turns out it was just a long park built onto an old elevated rail line.
My first day ended up being not much more than an early lunch and late drinks with the team. It was fun, though I didn’t immediately connect with anyone like I usually do. Maybe I will, I thought. Or maybe it was what my dad had said about Chelsea that was making me rethink my decision to be in New York.
When we stumbled back into the office—not a lick of work accomplished so far—Chip presented me with a tower of shoeboxes. These were the final products of the designs I’d already done for him. “They’re all full with brand new pairs of high quality King City sneakers, too.”
“I took the train here,” I told him. I don’t know why my first thought was questioning how I’d ever get these back to Matt’s apartment. I should have just said thank you.
“I’ll courier them,” he said. “No big deal.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon adjusting the settings on my office chair. When the girl from I.T. popped her head in to tell me my computer wouldn’t be set up until Monday, Chip told me to get out of there. He suggested I start checking out the city, but I ended up going back to the apartment in Forest Hills instead.
By the time I got to Matt’s place, there was already a pile of shoeboxes in the lobby with my name on them.
~ ~ ~
That evening, Matt said, there was a party at a house in Woodhaven. “Woodhaven? How far away is that?”
“Not far. Honestly, we could walk there in the time it would take to go by train. And you can’t smoke on the train.” He threw a joint my way and added that both the walk and the party would be good for me. He didn’t say it in so many words, but he was still pretty stuck on the idea that what my long-distance relationship could really use was a bit more distance.
The house wasn’t very memorable, in the kind of forgettable way that crooked doors, crumbling stoops, and peeling siding seemed status quo in that corner of Woodhaven. I imagined the street must have been vibrant at some point, but the red, green, and blue houses were now more of a muted artist’s palette, browned and dullened by time, neglect, and lack of inspiration.
The party was mostly out in the backyard. I was outside on the deck, staring into a black hilly patch in the city, just north of the house. Matt told me that was Forest Park, which I thought was a deceptively stupid name for a park. I actually felt like chucking my phone in its direction, hoping I could sink all my ignored calls deep into the trees.
Disillusioned, I stumbled into the kitchen. A couple was standing in front of the refrigerator, crumpled into one another and whispering, the electric hum of the fridge trying its best to drown them out. There was a single window in the kitchen, above the sink full of paper plates and Solo cups—not very large, and nearly covered completely by wooden chotchkies, hanging plants, and shimmering crystals—and I could see the crowd of revelers outside in the backyard. The static blaring of some 90’s grunge music rattled the glass. I had a sense of being watched. It wasn’t the crowd outside that was eyeing me, however.
Spying my own reflection in the kitchen window, I spotted someone else behind me. There was a small table in the corner, and a girl sitting alone. Sitting lonely. I couldn’t tell if she was staring in my direction specifically, or if she was just zoned out toward nowhere in particular. The heels of her scuffed brown combat boots shook nervously, agitated, beneath the table.
I turned to her. Her eyes were nearly on mine, almost, but she was definitely looking out the small window behind me. She had a look on her face that I couldn’t make out if she was smiling or not. Her hazelnut-brown hair fell past her shoulders; her straight bangs and pointed chin made her face appear sort of shield-like. Or like a yield sign, maybe. I ignored any signs and approached without caution.
The table had four wicker placemats around it, and a wooden bowl of stone fruit in the center. Peaches, plums, apricots, and nectarines, it looked like.
I sat down across from her, which still didn’t seem like quite enough to grab her attention. She wore an unbuttoned brown sweater over a top that felt mismatched; sparkly, like she was just at another, fancier party somewhere else. “I don’t know how I got here,” she said with a lazy, dulcet tone. She held a cellphone clumsily in her hands, and glanced down at it with a sadness in her eyes.
I peeked behind me just to make sure she wasn’t talking to someone else. “Do you mean, like why did you ever make the choice to come here in the first place? Or, you were literally somewhere else and then—Bam!—now you’re here?”
With one hand, she pulled her sweater together in front of her. Finally, her spice-brown eyes settled on me. It was a fantastic feeling. “Definitely one of those two things.” Again, I couldn’t tell if the corners of her mouth were smiling at me or not.
“I’m Chris,” I introduced myself, still not yielding.
“Jane,” she said quickly, then grabbed a piece of fruit—a peach—from the bowl on the table. Holding it gently with the fingertips of one hand, she took a moment to feel the fuzzy skin with her other palm before taking a tiny bite. Her sharp teeth were so white.
I said, “It’s not really peach season though, is it, Jane?” It was that part of summer when one day it’s suddenly cold and dark when it was the total opposite the day before.
“Tastes pretty good to me.” A bit of juice trickled from the side of her finely curled mouth, down to a pink blemish on her chin I hadn’t noticed until now.
I took a peach for myself, and didn’t hesitate to take a bite out of it. But it was like room-temperature mush in my mouth, the taste of like when orange juice has gone bad; I grabbed a Solo cup from the counter behind me and spat the bite into it, leaving the rest of the peach in the middle of the table, in the space between us. “Blech. I knew it wasn’t peach season.”
Jane held hers out for me. Offering it. I took a bite, and it was like we were living in two different moments of summer. “That is delicious,” I said. “You just never know with fruit sometimes, do you?”
“Sometimes, sure.” She rolled my discarded peach back over to me, and she continued to take small bites from her own, seemingly not so interested in keeping up the conversation any longer. What there was of it, anyway.
Jane had the kind of beauty about her that was like—well, she had no right to be sitting there all by herself. Someone was definitely missing out by not being next to her. She kept stealing sad glances at her phone on the table. Song after song continued to blare outside, reverberating through the kitchen; I was losing track of how long I’d been sitting there. “What were we talking about again?”
Jane shrugged her shoulders, almost imperceptibly.
More silence. I looked around the tiny kitchen, hoping to come up with some topic that might get her talking to me. The couple at the refrigerator had moved along somewhere else. Her gaze returned to the window, and I wasn’t sure if she was simply zoning out to something again, or if she was keeping an eye on something. Maybe someone.
I called attention to the colorful shirt she wore beneath her brown sweater. “Were you out somewhere else before this? At a different party?”
“Not really, no.”
“Did you come here alone?”
“No. Not really.”
“Are you alone right now?”
“I was before you sat down.” Was that meant as a flirty jab or a hint that she preferred things the way they were without the present company? With that, she bit the last of the fruit off, then discarded the peach pit into the cup. It made a heavy thunk into the plastic. Jane looked around, like the real answer to my question was tucked behind or within something in the room. She found satisfaction in the window again.
“I don’t think I’ve ever called someone aloof right to their face, but you are rather aloof, aren’t you?”
“Does aloof paint me in a negative light?”
“I feel like even the shittiest light would still look good on you.” I can’t help it, I’m a fool for bad one-liners like that. She was on to me immediately.
“Have you seen a cat anywhere? Black as deepest space. Eyes as green as the middle of a rainbow.”
I shook my head awkwardly, hoping I didn’t seem aloof at all myself.
“Hmm,” she said, maybe defeatedly. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asked out of nowhere.
“I think, technically, yes. Actually, maybe not? Chelsea’s kind of being a bitch, if I’m being honest.”
“Being a bitch to someone is not the same as being a bitch.”
“Do you love this Chelsea?”
“Pretty sure I did.”
“And where’s this Chelsea now?”
So all of a sudden she’s the chatty one? “Could you maybe stop saying ‘This Chelsea’ so much? It’s still a bit of a sore spot.”
Jane turned to me and definitely smiled, though it only served to make me more unsure about her. “Would you excuse me for a minute? I’m looking for a cat.”
“The black and green cat?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“How will I know if you’ll be coming back?”
“You’re just going to have to trust in my aloofness.” She checked her phone again, then walked away from the table. And from me, waving goodbye with her eyes. Her boots clomped along the hardwood floor, and she had a long skirt that trailed behind her ethereally. Some beads or something that were sewn into the skirt rattled as she moved. “But maybe try a bite of that peach. It might not be so bad now.”
Jane flitted out of the room carefully, like a kid in a house of mirrors. She turned back to me for a brief look—that cryptic smile on her face even more cryptic—then disappeared.
Tentatively, I took another bite of the peach, and it was not so bad anymore. Sweeter than it should have been, actually.
~ ~ ~
Matt finally found me, out on the sidewalk. I’d given up waiting upstairs in the kitchen, and had been outside for maybe an hour, hoping to catch Jane exiting the party. There was another girl sitting closer to me than I wanted, drunk and rambling on and on about the thrills and sensations of the attractions at Coney Island. Like she was trying to sell tickets or something.
“I’m going to get out of here,” Matt said with a joint teetering on his lip. He was in obvious discomfort from the noise, and adjusted his headphones.
I jumped to my feet. “There was a girl who was looking for a cat. Have you seen her?”
“Have I seen a cat?”
“No, a girl.”
He took one look at the drunk girl on the sidewalk, still talking. “Is that her?”
I shook my head, disappointed in him and his answer. “Her name was Jane. Do you know a Jane?”
“I don’t think so. And for the record, before you ask me any further questions, I don’t think I’ve seen her cat, either.”
“I don’t think it was HER cat. She said A cat.”
“A cat. Like there’s any number to be had in this place? Like there’s one hidden around here somewhere just waiting to be found?” Matt took a peek beneath two white plastic lawn chairs stacked up with the trash on the curb. He kicked at one of the garbage bags and it wheezed out some foul-smelling air from an unseen hole. “Well, I don’t see one.” There was a potted plant on the seat of one chair, too; a bit wilted, yet I felt uncertain if it was meant to go out with the garbage or not. Matt nodded towards the chatty girl on the sidewalk. “Who’s she then?”
“I have no idea. But she knows a lot about amusement park rides if you have any questions.”
Matt shivered at the thought. “I can’t do thrill rides anymore. Too loud.” He walked a few steps away from the house, and from me, before turning back. “You coming then?”
Through the trees, the streetlight flickered a sickly yellow; its staticky hum scratched down my spine. I decided to sit on the sidewalk again, though a little farther from Chatty Girl this time. “I’m just going to wait a bit longer.”
“For Jane?” Matt asked, tilting his head a little in confusion. I liked the sound of him saying her name.
“I think so.” I hoped so. But I didn’t really know so. Not for sure.
Matt made sure I knew how to find my way home from there, whenever I was ready to stop waiting. And I must have sat there for another hour before wandering back up into Forest Hills.
~ ~ ~
There was something about the stillness of that Saturday morning blue sky that made me want to get out. I pulled a pair of King City runners from my closet. They were brand new all right, with paper balled-up inside each foot and the laces all tied together nonsensically. After I squeezed the shoes on, I ran—literally ran—outside; into the hallway, down the stairs, and out onto 71st. It felt good, actually. My bones and muscles were waking up.
On an empty stomach, I ran all the way to Martha’s bakery, the night’s waning cold almost tugging me through the neighborhood. I grabbed a fresh corn muffin and an Americano, then made my way right down through Forest Park and back into Woodhaven, where I tried to retrace where the party had been the night before. Finally, just as my body wanted nothing more than to keel over, I found it.
The potted plant was still cradled loosely in the seat of the plastic chair outside, though it looked more alive than it did the night before. Like it might have been trying to give up altogether but changed its mind overnight. Out of breath, I pulled one of the chairs from the curb and sat down. I’d not run so far or so long for a while. I used to exercise daily, but had fallen out of habit. The neighborhood smelled like orange peels that morning. The curious scent stung my nostrils.
As I was catching my breath, a black streak shot past my peripheral. It darted into the small hedge outside the house before jumping up into an open window. Two green eyes watched me from the dark of the house.
I stepped from the lawn chair to the window, the black cat with green eyes watched me closely. “Have you found Jane yet?” I asked the cat, for no real reason other than simply feeling elated that I might have found it first. If nothing else, the cat was a connection to the night before, bringing me right back to that brief encounter in the kitchen. “Do you know where she is?”
There was a sharp “Meow” behind me, and I nearly fell over into the hedge myself.
It was Jane. She wasn’t wearing the sparkly shirt or the long skirt like she had last night; this time it was a loose, wrinkled tank top and a pair of plum-colored cords. Her fingers were scrunched into the small pockets of her pants; bent at near-impossible angles. She still had those brown combat boots on. Jane asked, “Do you normally go around talking to cats in windows?” The melodious tone of her voice tickled my memory immediately, the way that wonderfully particular sounds can’t be recalled until heard again.
“Just as you’d lost this cat, I thought I’d lost you last night. Hi again.”
“Do I know you?” There was that ambiguous line between her lips once more. Uncertain dimples in the corner of her mouth.
“You don’t remember? We talked last night.”
“Narrow it down for me.”
With an awkward finger, I pointed to the house over my shoulder. “We were here. Well, in the kitchen.”
“I was in that kitchen for a while. Do you know how many guys came and sat down to talk to me?”
“We spoke of your aloofness. Which is not as prevalent at the moment.”
Jane paused for a moment, and I was immediately unsure of everything. “It was zero,” she said, finally.
“There were zero other guys who sat and talked with me in the kitchen last night.”
“So, you’re shitting me then?”
The black cat pounced from the open window into Jane’s arms. She threw me an eye roll that said, Yeah. it’s pretty obvious I’m shitting you, Dumbass.
“What’s your cat’s name?”
From somewhere, Jane pulled a string out and was holding it high for the cat to claw at. “Salvatore. But he’s not mine. Salvatore lives here. I live next door.” She directed a thumb to the robin’s-egg-blue house with the cracked and peeling siding beside us. Then she held Salvatore out for me. “Do you want to hold him?”
I waved a hand between us. “Allergic,” I said quickly.
“Is it bad?”
“Bad enough that I prefer to avoid cats.”
“Unless you find yourself talking to one through a window, right? Anyway, you’d be fine with Salvatore.”
I continued to dismiss the idea with my hand. I asked her why she was in the house last night, looking for the cat with green eyes. She said the people who lived there were away but asked Jane to watch Salvatore. She had no idea who it was that threw the party last night. “People just seem to come and go in this house. In this neighborhood, and in this city.”
Jane talked like she hadn’t been in New York long, though it was very likely a fair bit longer than me. When I asked her, she said “Only a month.” And when I asked her where she was from, she changed the subject. “How was that peach?”
It took me a moment to recall the peach in question. “Pretty good, actually. You were right.”
“Sometimes I am.” I was already getting used to those looks she’d throw; her jittery eyes and the way she’d bite her lip after saying flippant things, like she was unsure of the meaning behind her own words, or why she’d ever said them in the first place. She pursed her lips, and took in some air, as though finding the strength to continue her thoughts—maybe trying to find the right words—until finally electing to simply repeat herself. “Sometimes I’m right,” she said.
I asked her, “So what do you do besides watch the neighborhood cats?”
“I run a library. It’s just over there. Would you like to see it?”
I agreed, because why wouldn’t I? She asked me to take the potted plant before we left, and when I questioned her, she said, “Would you rather hold the cat?” I put my hands up defensively once again. She asked, “It seems a shame to throw a good plant away, don’t you think?” I didn’t know how to answer her.
I took the plant and Jane led me up the street, past the blue house next door, and toward Forest Park. At the corner was a small wooden structure, hand-painted with colorful butterflies and mushrooms and other plant life. There was a glass door on one side, a tiny latch kept it closed. Inside there were three shelves of books; all sorts of ratty paperbacks and even some public library discards with laminated covers and the call numbers still on the spines. She lifted the latch and opened the door, and with an open palm like a stage magician, she presented me with a choice. “Pick one,” she said.
Tentatively, I reached out. My hand shook, quivered, as it hovered over each spine. Eventually I pulled a book called You Can Find Me In My Usual Place. Jane nodded affirmingly, like she knew I’d land on that very book.
“It’s a good one,” she said, and then closed the glass door and set the latch back in its place.
The book’s cover depicted a small, crooked shack in the woods. Behind the front door was the suggestion of a glow—perhaps more of a bright white, crackling energy—seeping through the splinters around the edge of the door. The book’s laminated cover, though yellowed on the spine, was in good shape and the library label had been crossed out with a black marker. I placed the potted plant on top, and held the book with both hands. “I’m not really a big reader,” I admitted.
“Hm. You’ll get to it.” A car drove past slowly, and Jane looked off across the street, beyond the tall chain link fence that surrounded Forest Park. There was something within the trees out there that made her happy. An airy, celestial glow in her eyes seemed to lift her off her feet.
I asked her if she wanted to go for a walk in the park, but she declined, shaking her head slowly. “I need to call home. Last night my father was taken to the hospital.” I remembered the night before when she kept glancing sadly at her cell phone.
“Is he okay?”
“My father drinks a lot. Sometimes too much.” The way she said ‘father’ made her dad seem sort of distant. Maybe he was. Maybe his drinking didn’t help. “I think this will be the time he doesn’t make it home.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, mostly because that’s just what people say. But Jane didn’t seem to need sorries, like she’d already grieved as much as she could. “Maybe another time then? I’ll take you for that walk.”
She sat on the offer for a few long seconds. “That would be nice,” she said, avoiding eye contact.
Salvatore jumped from the cradle of Jane’s arm, and chased something, disappearing around the house on the corner. Jane reached her hands out and took the potted plant from me. “We’ll see,” she said.
I walked her back to her house. It was only the fourth house from the corner, but I tried my best to make it take as long as possible. Jane told me her dad was a clown, like for birthday parties and such. Her mom, some aged hippie. Her parents had two large dogs called komondors, some breed I’d never heard of. Both dogs were mostly blind, and slowly wandered around their house, bumping into walls and furniture. Jane described them as big, hairy icebergs. They had an array of cats and a parakeet, as well as a rabbit that lived in a dollhouse. I couldn’t blame her for wanting to get out of there. It’s not just the cat allergies, I’ve really never been much of a pet person.
For me, I told her, it was just me and my dad. My mom died when I was really young, and I barely remembered her. “She drove off the road one night, right into a tree. It wasn’t raining, she wasn’t drinking. They told us it was no one’s fault. My dad always said it was the tree’s fault.”
“It’s unfair to put the blame on a tree though, don’t you think?”
“That’s my dad for you. It was a big cottonwood tree, the same as we had outside our house. The ironic thing is that I think my dad loved our own tree so much because it reminded him of her. He’ll talk about her to anyone who passes by.”
“My father never had much to say to anyone. He kept to himself. Drank a lot. I don’t know where he ever found the energy for being a clown.”
“I guess we never really know what drives us to do anything.” I almost ended my thought there, but figured I should nut up and admit why I showed up to talk to a cat in the window. “Well, except that I only came out here today in the hopes that I’d see you again.”
She smiled like she knew that already; well, it was fairly obvious, wasn’t it? I wished her dad well once more before we swapped numbers. Jane’s last four digits looked familiar, and it took me a minute before realizing they were exactly the same as Chelsea’s.
I’d only begun hopping back up the block, celebrating small victories, and was about to contemplate the best entrance into Forest Park when my phone buzzed. It was Jane. “I think I’ll take you up on that walk,” she said over the crinkly rustling of the trees beyond the fence. I darted back to her place, but we didn’t make it out for the walk after all. She opened her door, invited me in, and we ended up ordering Malaysian lamb curry and roti for lunch before making out on her couch the rest of the afternoon.
~ ~ ~
I was doing remarkably well for a guy who’d only been in New York for a week. An apartment, the new job, a closet full of new runners, and I was already seeing Jane every day. Being with Jane was completely natural. She had an incredible sense of wonder, in everything and in every place she took me. We explored the artisanal markets in Astoria, Flushing, and Jackson Heights; her eyes would glow as her hands brushed across bohemian skirts and as her nose followed the wind-wafted trails of exotic foods. I found a vendor selling hand-painted t-shirts and I bought Jane a brown shirt with a rainbow snail painted on it.
Everything about her swirled around in her spice-brown eyes. Every thought unspoken, every laugh, all the mistakes of the past and the decisions kept for the future. Sometimes the rest of her was altogether unresponsive. Jane was not a big talker, definitely an introvert, and yes, most certainly quite aloof. She answered with her eyes without barely hearing the questions. She refused to dance to music when I took her hands on crowded streets, and even in quiet corners, too. One time, I did persuade her to scream with me at approaching subway trains. She never smiled in photographs. In the evenings, we would down bottles of red wine and when I caught her laughing feverishly at something I’d said, she would go straight-faced the moment I pulled out my phone for a picture of her.
Matt didn’t mind me talking about her, and I took every opportunity to work Jane into our conversations.
Where she lived—it was basically a spare room and a refrigerator in the back of the old blue house—there was a small poster of mushrooms and moss, and some other complicated bits of nature. I was lost in the patterns and in the nonsensical sort of ways things seemed to exist, evolve, and grow. That poster was framed by dozens of polaroids, mostly photographs of Jane with other people, but some were just pictures of dew drops and ice, all filled with soft glows and an ethereal presence in the backgrounds. The pictures were pinned to one another with corners folded over and mostly covering Jane’s straight face; in all of them, there was a happiness in her eyes but a sadness on her face. “I love your world,” I told her one evening, though I mostly mumbled the words to myself as my eyes jumped across all of the photos while she strained some noodles over her tiny sink.
“It’s not just my world,” she said, steam masking her face like corners of polaroids. And when she spoke of memories and how they oftentimes come and go while sometimes they stick around forever, she added, “We’re born remembering certain things. And we leave this world forgetting just as much.”
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. I thought about her dad, Norman, who was still in the hospital. The doctors weren’t very positive. “My memory’s always been shit,” I said. As I kept my eyes stuck on the polaroids, I suddenly found myself feeling jealous of each and every one of the strangers in her photos, and how they’d all been lucky enough to share the moments in Jane’s life that I’d never get to be a part of. It was an odd feeling, like I’d been in the wrong place this whole time. “My memory is like a tin can that used to collect rain, but eventually rusted and crumbled from the very thing it tried holding on to.”
She paused, then said, “That sounds sad, Chris.”
“I guess. But I’m like everyone, I suppose. There’s no reason to remember anything anymore. We use the internet for that now. You save a memory in the cloud and you can access it anywhere.”
She told me stories of going to an internet cafe from wherever it was she came from before New York, and how she had to scrape change together just to get online for fifteen minutes to check her Hotmail account. Her description sounded like it must have been ages ago, but she made it seem like a recent memory, like it happened only yesterday.
The potted plant from the sidewalk now lived in Jane’s place. It had become much greener in just a few days and I wondered what her secret must be. Salvatore kept himself close; I don’t know how she could have ever lost that cat in the first place. He liked sitting in a ball on my lap, and I found that he wasn’t exasperating my allergies at all.
After that first week, on a late Thursday afternoon when I’d promised to get going before I stayed another night—and spent yet another morning rushing back to the apartment for a change of clothes before work—Salvatore limped into the room. His foot was obviously bothered by something. Jane finished reading the page she was on before putting her book down and reaching for the cat to inspect his foot. “It looks infected,” she said. It appeared as though Salvatore had stepped on something sharp, or was maybe attacked by something; there was dried blood and puss on his leg.
I suggested taking the cat to an animal hospital to get him looked at. Jane assured me he’d be fine, without much more sensitivity towards the injury.
She gave me the most distracting kiss when I did leave; its power so great that I found myself walking south away from Forest Park, rather than towards it to get home. When I stopped to regain my bearings, I turned to see Jane leaving her place, Salvatore in her arms. She’d thrown a white sweater on, and my first thought was that she’d be completely covered in black cat hair. Jane was headed towards the park, but not at a pace that indicated she intended to catch up to me.
I followed her. I kept my distance because sometimes the only thing I wanted was to simply watch her. To observe how she would move through the space around her, and how she might react to a floating leaf or a passing car.
She walked towards the tall, chain link fence surrounding Forest Park. I looked behind me momentarily to see if anyone was watching, and by the time I turned back, Jane was already on the other side. I passed the tiny hand-made library before crossing the street. I climbed up and over the fence and followed her into the trees, her white sweater leading the way through the darkening woods. Oaks and dogwood and beech trees. Jane talked of the magic of trees, and she would list off the most magical of them all for me. Of course, I could never remember the details of any of them.
I watched as she stopped at a particular tree. She held Salvatore for a moment then placed him on the ground. He darted off into the park, like he never had an injury in the first place.
~ ~ ~
Jane moved in. It was Matt’s idea, actually. We’d spent so many nights at our place—just the three of us, drinking wine and whiskey and smoking pot and talking—and Matt was never quite so exuberant as he was when Jane was around. I’d never really noticed how withdrawn he’d seemed before she came by. I had enough space in my bedroom for her things, what little there was that she called her own. The poster of mushrooms and moss, her favorite coffee mug that had a faded silhouette of a swan on it, the potted plant, and some piles of books. Her combat boots seemed to be the only shoes she owned. “I could probably get you a new pair of shoes from work,” I suggested. But she was happy with what she had.
She painted little things around the apartment. Little at first, anyway. Like the edges of door frames or the tips of wooden handles on cabinets. Little flowers, spiders, moths. One afternoon, Matt and I came home to find Jane painting the ceiling. She wasn’t covering up the long, twisted crack above us though, she was adding details around it, like it was a river winding its way through trees and rocks and woodland creatures. One part of the living room had arms and legs and hearts littered around the crack, like it was a long vein. A single vein, running through all our lives.
Matt wasn’t at the window every morning anymore. I no longer found him rolling carefully-measured joints from prescription bottles. At first, I didn’t realize it was his medication we were all smoking, but one evening he told us as much.
“What about the tinnitus?” I asked him.
“Hasn’t bothered me much lately,” he said. “But it’s come and gone before, and I’m sure it will come and go again.” Matt poured some more whiskey into my glass, some red wine into Jane’s. “Let’s not dwell on me tonight, though. How about a toast to Norman?”
Jane’s father died the night before. We were watching some gory alien movie from the 80’s, but she was quietly texting her mother for an hour before saying anything about it to Matt or I. She put her phone down and stopped the movie and told us as much. The image on the television was paused at the part where the alien baby was hatching from the guy’s chest. The screen flickered on that image for so long; it was completely obvious just how fake the blood and prosthetics were.
“To Norman,” we said, clinking our glasses together.
“Always be grateful for what you have,” Matt said. “Because you can’t get something back once it’s gone.” It was just as he’d said to me that first day when he met me at the airport, though this time his words made sense.
Shortly after finishing our drinks, Matt checked out for the night, and Jane and I kissed drunkenly on the couch. But I pulled myself away from her. I couldn’t help from feeling concerned about Matt. “He’s fine,” she assured me.
“That’s the thing,” I said. “He does seem totally fine. He’s standing straighter. Laughing more.”
“I haven’t noticed.”
“I peeked in his room this morning and he was meditating on the floor. He told me he was going to get a haircut, too.”
Jane reached over and wiped a tear from my cheek; I hadn’t realized I was even crying. She took a deep breath in and stared up at the ceiling. It was murky, illuminated merely by the street light outside, and her paintings of hearts and other organs could just barely be seen. Then she released the air from inside her and looked right at me. The things she wanted to say were swirling around in her dark eyes. “I’m thinking of getting my hair cut, too,” she said instead.
I didn’t want her to change. I wanted to ask her more about her dad, and if she was feeling anything at all that was worth talking about. “I think you should,” I said instead.
~ ~ ~
At work, I started submitting new designs. It was not my usual style: this was artwork inspired by Jane alone. Her paintings on the ceiling and on her small book library, her swan mug, her father the clown. Mushrooms, moss, peach pits, internet cafes, and limping cats. Chip thought the sketches were odd—an unusual leap in style—but he could see the fire in my eyes and told me to run with whatever was coming to me.
On my lunch breaks I’d go for runs. I ran all over the city, as far as I could get to in an hour; each day I made it a little bit farther. The Garment District. Hell’s Kitchen. The East Village.
Jane was my muse and she was my fire; a fire that was raging inside me; an addiction of sorts that I was finding difficult to manage. From my sixth-floor window at work, I would watch the sun blink in and out as it moved behind the city’s spires and office towers. Thoughts of Jane were blinking through my mind less and less: they were becoming more of a constant now. A humming, almost. A blowing gust of air, like Matt’s tinnitus that didn’t seem to bother him anymore.
Chip was totally right about the view overlooking the High Line. I loved watching the people out there on the promenade above the streets. Joggers and commuters and those who were just eating lunch, stopped like currents in an eddy. There was a conspicuous patch of dead grass that most of the crowd seemed to avoid. A brown square at the edge of the old rail line, probably just from one of the towers blocking the sun.
I texted Jane but didn’t hear from her all day. She had a habit of disappearing from her phone for lengths of time. Blinking in and out like the sun behind the skyscrapers. But now, I found it difficult to leave my phone alone; I kept checking to see if I’d missed a message from her. Did I accidentally text Chelsea instead? I hadn’t heard from Chelsea since I got to New York, but now I noticed my phone actually had a few messages from her. I deleted her contact info without even listening to her voice.
~ ~ ~
I finally heard from Jane on my way out of the office that afternoon. “Come meet me in the park,” was all she wrote. I sprinted to the subway station, and clutched my phone the entire way, running again when I got off in Forest Hills. Before long, I was passing by the house where we first met—the plastic lawn chairs were still outside, both facing the front door now—and the old robin’s-egg-blue house where Jane used to live. I stopped at the tiny library on the corner. The latch had not been secured, and the glass door was hanging open, its rusty hinges creaked a little in the breeze.
My hand found its way to a colorful butterfly painted on the wood; the ripples from the brush strokes of its pink and yellow wings somehow felt electric on my fingertips. I wished I could have been there that day to watch her paint it. One of the books inside had something sticking out from the pages. I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it to find a crinkled, golden leaf.
On the leaf was a message written in red paint: The sea holds more than life and death and secrets. I had no idea what it meant.
I placed the leaf back inside, carefully closing the book again. Pulling another book off the shelf, I flipped through its pages. And another, and another. They all had a single leaf within them. All were in Jane’s handwriting. Some of the notes read like poetry, some sounded like fortunes. Some felt like nothing more than undecipherable gibberish to me.
I closed the latch and made my way into the park. Frogs sang from somewhere deeper within; crickets lurked in the foliage and jumped along the dirt, their antenna flicking like fingers tapping impatiently. There were no further directions from Jane, but I knew where I’d find her: at the spot where I watched her release Salvatore into the woods. Somehow, she must have known I’d find her there, too.
She’d cut her hair short. Gone were the straight bangs and yield sign-shaped face; she looked wiser now. Even more serious, if that was at all possible. It took me a few seconds maybe, but I was convinced she also looked more beautiful. “What are you doing out here?” I asked.
Jane was at a large tree—maybe the tallest in the park—and had both hands on it, like she was feeling for a pulse. Her famous boots were absent, as she stood barefoot in the dirt. “I was thinking of my father,” she said. Maybe she missed him more than she made it seem. Sometimes it takes a while for a thing like death to hit. The frozen image on the television from that night—the alien hatching from the dude’s chest—flashed in my head.
She let me wrap my arms around her, but kept her palms braced on the tree. “Time will heal this,” I said.
“Once he passed, I felt my place in this world change.”
“Your place in this world? You mean, like here in Queens?”
“Wherever I might be. It shifts.” She looked up, maybe trying to make out the very tip of the tree.
I looked up, too. The sky through the trees’ canopy was still blue, but there were already stars twinkling. Summer was definitely leaning more into fall. “I barely remember when my mom died. But it’s weird, when someone’s there and then all of a sudden they’re not. There’s too much outside of our control. And you’ll keep remembering things that were left unsaid. They’ll just continue to pop into your head, in the most inconvenient of times. But you’ll heal. Eventually you will.”
She took a single one of my hands into both of hers, and placed it on the tree. The bark was warm from the day’s sun and it was rough on my palm, but otherwise felt just as I’d suspected it would. “You don’t understand healing the way I do.”
“We all have scars, Jane.” I showed her the back of my free hand, from when I bailed on my skateboard years ago. I was stupid, trying to impress a girl whose name I couldn’t even remember now. “But we do heal.”
“Of course. When you cut yourself, the skin mends. Peel the bark from a tree and it will eventually grow back, too. But it’s the internal pain. Unseen until it’s too late.” She pressed my hand harder onto the tree. “This one. It is dying inside. It weeps and shivers; trembles beneath my hand.”
I couldn’t detect anything of the sort within the tree.
Slowly, Jane moved my hand to her chest. “This one, too.” Her heart was beating fast; to the rhythm of the branches shaking in the strengthening wind.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
She smiled, like it was sweet of me to try to offer. “It’s not possible, Chris.”
“Then what are we doing here?”
“You came looking for me, if you’ll remember.”
“You told me to come here, Jane.” There was a feeling, a phantasm, creeping out through the foliage. It wanted to pluck me—or maybe Jane—from our spot in the woods. I knew the feeling, because it was the inevitable path for souls without direction. Like the crack winding its way through painted organs. I hoped I wouldn’t ever have to feel this with Jane. But just like the ceiling of my apartment, the crack was there first, wasn’t it? “You wanted me to find you here.”
“Not here in the park, Chris. When we met at the house party. When we spoke of aloofness and your girlfriend. You came looking for me there.”
“And then you left.”
“And then you found me again.”
“And then you left again.”
I turned away, I think mostly because I didn’t want to face one more relationship that felt the way this was feeling. But when I turned back, she was gone.
“Jane—?” A cricket jumped from somewhere onto my shoulder. “Jane? Where did you—” The cricket jumped into the dirt where Jane had just been standing, into the cratered patch from her naked feet. I crushed it under my foot.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was Jane. “Where are you?” her message asked. I scratched my head at the oddness of the question. Trees around me lit up blue from my phone. Tiny, sparkling eyes watched me, maybe waiting for my next move. Scrolling up, I read her previous text: “Come meet me” was all it had said.
~ ~ ~
I ran again. This time from Forest Park to the apartment. My posture was getting much better, my strides more comfortable, and my breathing more rhythmic. My running felt like it should have—it felt as easy as it did back when I ran all the time—but something about it still felt a little unnatural.
It was dark by the time I got there; summer was finally fall. I slowed towards the apartment lobby and stopped outside for a minute. In the darkening window, I caught my silhouette wobbling. Hesitating, maybe? Scattered around the front garden were the greyed and wilted stubs of Matt’s smoked cigarettes.
Upstairs, our apartment was dark, too. I followed Jane’s paintings on the ceiling towards the open window, out to the fire escape. Jane was there, the tears on her face reflecting the street light below. She sunk into my open arms again. I had no idea what was happening.
“I was just in the park,” I told her, holding her head tight to mine. I couldn’t tell if she was surprised or if she already knew everything. Her whole body was shaking. Slipping away.
There was the thin scraping sound of a plastic cup on the street below us. It rolled back and forth, blown by a passing car from one direction, then again from another. A pair of leaves fluttered past us in unison; I noticed their stems were growing from one another. Some moths danced around the neighbors’ lit window next to us. We watched it all, and we watched one another. Jane noticed me eyeing her shirt, the same shiny one she wore the night we met. With another cryptic smile she said, “I just came from somewhere else before this. A different party.”
Matt wasn’t home. I don’t think I’d ever actually sensed someone’s presence before, but I could feel his was missing. Had he disappeared inexplicably, just like whatever it was that happened to Jane in the park? “Is Matt gone?”
“I healed him,” she said.
“You healed him? What does that mean?”
“His ears,” she said, pointing at her own. Her color was washed; her whole face seemed more pale. “His ears are better now. Like the sick tree in the park. Like the plant over there.” The potted plant we’d brought with us from her old house had been flourishing outside on the fire escape.
“Where did he go?”
“I’m not sure where he went,” Jane said, leaning on the edge of the fire escape. “Wherever it is people go once they’re no longer the person they were. Once they’ve healed.” She kicked some dirt from the soles of her boots, crusty flecks floated down onto the street.
“And your own sickness?”
“My mother taught me that we are meant to help others, not ourselves.”
For some reason, I imagined Jane and her mother like some magical spirits of nature, floating through the forests of wherever it was she came from. I don’t know. I didn’t know if I should take any of my thoughts seriously. “What are you then? Like a fairy?”
Jane laughed without making a noise, and said, “No. Definitely not.”
Jane shook her head and smiled. “Not everything that exists has been written about before. But I’m no evil spirit—I’m not a monster—if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I wondered if the things that didn’t make sense to me were the same things that didn’t make sense to her. “If you break my heart then you’re most certainly monstrous.”
“Broken hearts can be healed too, Chris. They always have been. And they always will be.” With that, Jane stepped back into the apartment. I followed her, keeping close out of worry that she might simply disappear again. On the floor beside the coat closet, and under an unopened shoe box, was the book I took from her library. You Can Find Me In My Usual Place. Jane picked it up and handed it to me.
“I’ve been meaning to read that,” I said.
“You’ll get to it.” She had one more cryptic look for me, waving goodbye with her eyes again. She moved, slowly but moth-like, closer to the door.
“Are you leaving, Jane?” I knew she was leaving, but I asked in spite of what I’d known.
“I have to go.”
“Will we meet again?”
“If we’re lucky. And if we’re lucky, we’ll remember.”
“The reasons we had to meet in the first place.”
The apartment door didn’t make a sound. It barely opened and closed. But Jane was gone nevertheless. When I looked up at her paintings, the crack in the ceiling was gone, too. I followed her drawings back through the apartment—through the living room, the kitchen, and into my bedroom—but didn’t find a trace of it. The ceiling had been healed.
Her paintings remained, like incomplete ideas.
~ ~ ~
Fall’s change to winter happened so fast. I hadn’t realized I’d been in New York for three months already. Four now. Christmas was on its way, too, but there was still no sign of snow in the air.
From my office window, I continued to watch the crowds along the High Line below. The once-dead patch of grass was clearly green now.
I called my dad to wish him a happy birthday. It had been a while since we’d last spoken, and I tried to tell him I was doing well—and I was, actually—even though it felt like I should have been wallowing.
Dad told me the cottonwood tree outside the house was somehow regrowing. “The tree guy couldn’t explain it,” he said. “We almost took it out of the ground.” That tree was how my dad chose to remember my mom; I couldn’t imagine how he would have felt without it.
After we said goodbye, I sat and thought about that tree some more. I thought about the peaches that Jane and I ate together the night we met in Woodhaven. The peach in her hand was delicious. The one I took was terrible. And then it wasn’t.
The longer I stared out the window, the more people I began to recognize. Matt was there. Chelsea. My mother. The cat, Salvatore. Whatever it was they were doing there, they must have been wherever people go once they’re no longer the person they were. I saw all the people who’d ever left me. Except Jane. Jane wasn’t there. I didn’t think she was a monster for breaking my heart. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if she did break my heart. I wasn’t sad, at least.
On the subway, on my way back to Forest Hills, I finished the book, You Can Find Me In My Usual Place. I couldn’t really define what it was all about, but it was exactly as I’d expected. And of course, the book contained its own crinkled, brown leaf within it. It was marking the page where the two characters first met. Where boy meets girl. Where A meets B, just like any good story. I went for a run later, I brought the book with me, and I ran back to the old robin’s-egg-blue house and the library on the corner. I placed the book back on the shelf, but I kept the spice-brown leaf—the same color as Jane’s eyes—with the words scrawled in red. Always be grateful, it said on one side, in Jane’s handwriting.
On the other it said:
We are born remembering
We leave this world forgetting,
The reasons we had to meet