Friday

A Flash, Draft 2

Last-minute Christmas shopping was just the kind of hellish lifescape Andy tended to create for himself. He trudged through the snow, weighed down with bags that would trigger buyer's remorse later when they stood empty and upright like gravestones. Steps from the subway and only two stops from home, he made an about-face when he saw the yellow glow of a Best Buy and remembered his Roku remote was out of batteries. 

Christmas muzak played on an infinite loop and the light from a million LEDs pulsated in an epileptic frenzy. Andy forgot why he was in the store. Hypnotized by shiny packaging and price tags promising deep discounts, he started browsing the bargain bins to mine for gold. It was then that he saw her, there, among the tablets that were so sleek it made a person want to burn their old device to justify the purchase of a new one. 

He put his bags down to rub his eyes. No, it couldn't be her. Her profile said she was living in Bali, where she moved three years ago with a Kelly Slater look-alike. But it was Christmas, the season when prodigals came home to be counted, so it could have been her. He picked up his bags and got the hell out of there. As the automatic doors began to open he found himself on the threshold of pleasant warmth and piercing cold. He hesitated. Yes, that's what it was. He forgot the damn batteries.

Instinct impelled this out-of-shape, 43-year old software engineer to mimic tactical movements his avatar usually made in war games. As if she were an enemy combatant, he stalked the aisles to find her position and maintain a safe distance. He cursed his civilian sneakers with their wet and squeaky rubber soles.

He sighted her again among the DVDs.

DVDs, he sneered. Who the hell buys those anymore? He began to deride her until a wave of self-censure washed over him: Maybe she doesn't have internet at home. Probably thinks 'streaming' is a water sport.

Andy knew that she would be staying with her mom in that third floor apartment he used to know so intimately. He missed the masculine armchair that he called his own, the tacky Monet reproductions on the wall, even that hateful cat Mr. Javits. Javits, after the convention center where they had found him as a mewling. Who knew that as the cat grew up it would also grow to despise Andy's frequent visits? Last he recalled, the cat had been diagnosed with kidney failure, and he had made the joke that the women would finally inherit the great Javits fortune. They laughed, but mother and daughter both had a pained look on their nearly identical faces.

Once, Andy broke a blue crystal vase and let the blame fall on Mr. Javits. (That particular memory was quickly retrieved and vividly rendered, a sign that it was a well-worn neural pathway.) He was in the living room waiting for his girlfriend to get dressed for a party. As he approached her room to air his impatience, he noticed that the bathroom door was open just a sliver. A draft of warm and humid air that smelled like monoi blossoms opened the door a little more as it caressed his face. He could see his naked girlfriend enveloped in steam against a pink tile background. It was the first time he had seen her this way, not only in the nude, but himself as a voyeur. He was especially captivated by the journey of a single water droplet as it fell languorously from her hair down her right breast, dangling for dear life on her rosy nipple before rounding the curve and submitting to gravity's cruelty. His mouth was parched. He stood there and feasted his eyes as if the world had stopped spinning and he was anchored to that spot for the rest of eternity. It was only when he heard the sound of a key turning in the front door that he snapped out of his trance. He rushed back into the living room to grab a magazine or a couch cushion to hide his arousal. But it was only the neighbor next door. Andy let out a sigh before he made eye contact with Mr. Javits and understood that the cat had witnessed it all. The cat stared intently at the tentpole in Andy's crotch and lunged at it. Andy swatted him away just in time, throwing the cat in the path of the vase. The vase hit the corner of a side table and sang a clear tone as it shattered. Stunned, Andy picked up a shard of crystal and cut himself deeply. His blood stained the rug.

Nearly 20 years later he knew the stain was no longer there -- he had removed the spot himself -- but he wondered if they could still find traces of blood with one of those blue lights they use on CSI. He wondered what other traces of himself remained in his high school sweetheart's childhood home.

She went away to college as Andy began his senior year of high school. Before she left, on the last full moon of the summer, they went out on her fire escape and she swore undying love and steadfast devotion. He remained silent and entertained his own thoughts. She rushed to fill the void of his passivity. She lured him inside her bedroom, two lazy fingers pulling on the hem of his shirt. They sat on the quilt her mother had made for her out of old T-shirts. Andy ran his hand over it. He saw that one of his shirts had been included in the design. She smiled and kissed his square, and then she kissed him. The prospect of imminent separation galvanized every touch. For him it was like fucking the moon, which reflected in her eyes and gave her black hair a blue halo. But for her it was difficult to see; the moon shone so intensely from behind him that all she could see was Andy’s silhouette. It was as if a dark incubus were penetrating her, a sensation that both frightened and excited her.

That night they whispered promises no one can possibly keep. They fell asleep facing each other but the gradual advance of dawn leached them of oblivion. She turned her back to the light. He fought fitful dreams of falling from a great height.

Andy woke in the big spoon position and stared at the back of his girlfriend's head. He was tempted to untangle the nest of knots, but held back so he wouldn’t wake her. There would be hell to pay if he did. Instead, he got out of bed, got dressed and headed to the kitchen.

He bumped into her mother in the hallway. She squeezed his shoulder and patted him on the back.

“Morning Andy. I’m going to make some coffee. Want some?”

“Sure,” he said. It was the first time an adult had ever offered him a coffee. He stood a little taller and followed her to the kitchen. In her wake he recognized the scent of monoi blossoms. He sat on a barstool and watched her prepare the coffee. Unlike his father, who pre-programmed a coffee maker the night before, she used a stovetop espresso maker and foamed the milk by hand. She served Mr. Javits a saucer of milk before handing Andy a perfect cappuccino.

In his romantic high school heart, he thought this woman would one day be his mother-in-law. It made him happy to imagine that his girlfriend would age so well. He knew what his friends would call her; they would call her a MILF and try to punch him in the nuts. But Andy was more mature than those idiots. He loved the idea of being a dutiful son-in-law. On Sundays he would sometimes bring her flowers and she would make him a cappuccino. They fell into a routine and developed a natural rapport. Sundays turned into Thursday night dinners and Must See TV. She would imitate Elaine and he Jerry. In fact, they started calling each other Jerry and Elaine and speaking in a private language all their own.

When his girlfriend returned home over Spring Break, she was cautiously amused about the culture that had developed between Andy and her mother. At first she tried to join in, but she felt inauthentic copying their banter. So she launched into a monologue. They listened to her politely as she regaled them with stories of dorm life, but as soon as she was done they were back to their comic routine. She lost her appetite. 
After dessert, she told her mom that she and Andy were going out for a walk. 

“Can I help with the dishes?” asked Andy.

“No,” she said, “You two enjoy.”

Outside, they held hands. She avoided eye contact. A guy would have to be blind to miss a signal like that. But he didn't want to know, or rather, he was afraid to know, so he didn't ask what was the matter.

“Been spending a lot of time with my mom, huh?”

“What?" he said.

“Nevermind.”

“Oh, your mom. Yeah, your mom’s awesome,” he said.

“Yeah, I know,” she said defensively. “So … what’s been going on with Benny and Lucas?”

“Those assholes? You know, they’re still sneaking into raves and hooking up with Bridge and Tunnel girls. They probably have all kinds of gonorrhea,” he said.

“What about you?” she asked.

“I don’t have gonorrhea! Why? Do you?” he asked, letting go of her hand.

“No, I meant: What’s going on with you? We haven’t spoken in a while,” she said.

“You know,”  he said, reaching for his back pocket. “I’ve been --”

“-- wait, why would I have gonorrhea?” she asked, raising her voice. “Why did you say it like that?”

“I don’t know, why would you have gonorrhea?” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.

“Andy, shut up. You’re being obnoxious,” she said, aware of the strangers surrounding them on the sidewalk.

You’re being obnoxious. You were really rude tonight. All you did was talk about yourself,” he said.

“I was being rude? I didn’t understand half the things you guys were saying! I felt completely left out!”

“Well maybe you would know if you called us more often,” he said.

“What are you, my dad?” she said.

“That’s mature,” he said, rolling his eyes. He tried to grab her hand to lead her away from the small crowd that was forming, but she recoiled from him as if it were her cue to go center stage.

“I called you three times last week! Your dad said he told you. Why didn’t you call me back?” she asked.

“That's rich, coming from you,” he said. “I have to call you like what, eight times before I get a call back? You know how humiliating that is? Your roommate probably thinks I’m a stalker. I was just giving you a taste of your own medicine.”

“Who’s the mature one now?” she said in her best impression of Seinfeld.

“Wait,” he said, a smile growing on his face. “Are you jealous?”

“Jealous? Of my mom? My middle-aged mom?” she taunted.

“Your mom’s hot. I would do her,” he said with a smirk, spreading his arms as if to welcome a counterattack.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I’m fucking someone else anyway.”

“What?” The blood drained from his face and he froze like an animal about to be slaughtered.

“I said I'm fucking someone else! Lots of someone elses!” she screamed. “I probably have “all kinds of gonorrhea” from all the fucking I'm doing.” 

“You’re -- you're just saying that,” he said, shaking his head. He pulled out a piece of paper from his back pocket. It was an acceptance letter to her school. He had wanted to tell her in person. He was afraid he would give it away on the phone. It was the reason he hadn’t called her back.

“I'm not. I think we should break up,” she said. “I'm too young to be tied down. I want to see the world and meet new people. I want to be free.” 

He crumpled the piece of paper in his fist. The thought had never occurred to him that they could break up. He thought he would join her at college in September and move in together. Play house. Get married after graduation and buy a real house. Kids, weddings, funerals, the whole nine.

He stood with a stoic look on his face while his insides imploded. She started crying. Strangers walked by the scene, some oblivious, others acutely aware of the human anguish that was unfolding in front of them. Andy lost all power of speech, and could not bring himself to comfort his erstwhile girlfriend. He just walked away. It took all his mental energy not to cry. Andy promised himself he would not cry.

Andy was surprised to find himself crying. He wiped his face on his sleeve and scanned the area. He was standing next to a shelf of video game consoles. A little boy wearing a Mario costume stared up at him. 


He found her again. This time she was over by the wireless speakers. He resolved that he would go to her. He would tell her what he never said all those years ago. He would...apologize. He would wish her well and he would leave with his head held high.

She had aged, that was for sure. But age had only served to frame her vitality. She knew herself better now, knew what makeup to use, how to cut and style her hair to the best of its potential. Her cheeks, formerly round and rosy, were now angular and foreign. She wore clothes that were appropriate for her age and bohemian temperament. She looked exactly like her mother did at that age.

He practiced some lines in his head. For a brief moment his confidence waned. He stopped and pretended to look through a bin of identical flash drives. Then he exhaled, made up his mind and tapped her on the shoulder.

"Excuse me --"

"Yes?" She looked up at him and smiled. He hesitated.

"Hi, um ... sorry, never mind."

He walked away swiftly. It wasn't her. Up close, he could see that right away. This doppelgänger was a pale comparison to the original. She was an attractive woman in her own right, but she wasn't the one that matched his memory. He felt like he had dodged something, and this put a big smile on his face. Strangers on the street saw a man bursting with Christmas cheer.

Alone in the elevator though, his thoughts returned to her. Their first kiss was in an elevator. They were just teenagers then, leaving the apartment of a mutual friend. He didn't get on the elevator right away. It was covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors and he was surreptitiously checking out her backside. "Are you coming or are you just going to hang out in the hallway?" she asked. He ran his hand through his hair to hide a cowlick and got on. As she reached across him to press the floor, he moved ever so slightly away from her. She saw this and moved toward him. They stood with their noses almost touching. She kissed him. Just like that. He was so surprised he didn't have time to close his eyes and saw how the mirrors reflected infinite frames of their embrace. Subsequent first kisses never came close to the magic or locus of that one, with her.

Safely inside his apartment, he put the shopping bags away, opened his laptop and signed into Facebook. First he Googled whether people can see who viewed their profile, just to be sure. Then he typed in her name. Her cover photo was an immaculate beach. She hadn't posted or updated any info since she moved to Bali in 2014. He tried to see if her mom had a profile but couldn’t find her. He opened up Messenger.

Hi, long time no
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Funny story, I thought I saw you
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I miss
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Andy closed his laptop and, after some thought, flung it open again to sign out of his account and delete his browsing history. He wrapped the presents he had bought and placed them under the tree. Quiet as a sugar plumb fairy, he went down the hall to check on his 8-year old son Carter, who was coming out of a dinosaur phase and moving on to superheroes, and his 5 year-old princess Lulu, short for Louisa, who often slept with one leg sticking out of her Little Mermaid blanket. He got himself a glass of water and took a vitamin before taking off his clothes and getting into bed with his warm and unwitting wife. Then he turned off the light and listened to her breathing until he fell asleep.

3 comments:

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  2. Great story, Hana! I think it is a lot stronger than the first draft. The story now focusses on the two young lovers and less on the side-plot of the young man and his girlfriend's mom. Maybe there will be room for that in another story soon. Hope so!

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