It was Christmas Eve at the Terminal Hotel. Sam woke up, peed in the sink and made a cup of coffee in the microwave. It was 6 a.m. and his neighbor across the air shaft was shooting up. With the shade half drawn, he could only see her from her shoulder to her hip. The rectangle was filled with yellow light. On the right side was a blue bowl, heaping with orange macaroni and cheese on a gray linoleum table. On the left was the black skin of her elbow against the pink nylon draping her nipples. Sam sat on the bed every morning and stared at her in a kind of reverent awe. He painted her in oils and wrote the novel of her life. He decided she was beautiful and pictured her before 22 floors of midtown misery compressed her into a 20-inch frame between the grease covered shade and the soot-covered sill.
When Matthew was eight years old, his parents told him what they did, and what he would someday do. His response was simple, was innocent, was as it should be: “But, isn’t it wrong?” he asked.
Now he was twenty, and more aware of the world around him. He understood. Didn’t fully agree, but understood.
“Everything in this world has its purpose, Matthew,” his father said. His father was not so different than a man who’d failed to become the scholarship quarterback and thus pressured his son to accomplish things he had not.
Matthew’s mother, Kimberly, had received much more attention than his father, and it was no secret Isaac didn’t appreciate it. Isaac was intent to make Matthew the family star.
“When you’re out there, remember your mission,” Isaac said.
“Remind me father?”
“I’ve reminded you already.”
“Once more. Please?”
Love sits beside me in the dimly lit room, gently running his fingers up and down the length of my back. I rest my head on my clasped knees, trying hard not to cry. It would hurt his feelings. Common Sense and Ego stand by the corner, watching. Patience paces up and down the room. Mine is short, not tall like my mother’s and some other people I know. Still, she is usually the last to break down. It made up for the times that I wished I had more of her.
“You need to move on,” Common Sense says. He is tall and lanky. In the past, people have commended me for having so much of him. But looking at him now across the room, it seemed as though he had shrunk. Like bits of him had fallen off without my realizing it. “You think you can’t live without him now, but you’d never know until you try,” he continues quietly. I have always listened to his calm gentle voice. Until very recently.
I was in a bistro near the dockyards in Ventspils, Latvia, with just a carafe of the house red for company. It was a blustery Monday evening, and the place was deserted but for an English couple sitting at a table nearby. They were both dressed in jeans and fleeces, and their wet cagoules drip-dried on the coat stand. They sported backpacks and Gortex boots, so I assumed they were there for the forest walks. I hadn’t heard much English spoken in that out-of-the-way city, so I couldn’t help tuning-in to their conversation. They were talking about quantum physics, or at least he was. She had the look of someone who wished he’d take a running jump into the Venta River.
“The Many Worlds Theory has been around for years,” he told her, “it suggests the existence of universes other than our own, but now there’s a new theory proposing universes that interact with our own…”
She looked at him as if he was reciting the weather forecast in a language she didn’t understand. His words were punctuated by a ferocious wind thrashing the window and occasional thunderous crashes from the cargo ships loading at the Baltic Coal Terminal less than fifty yards away.
I went in search of three things: a dry blanket, a sense of self, and an apricot. I got two of those things. The dry blanket—not easy, because of all the tears, and the water. Not just the drinking water, but the rain. And the sweat. Blood, too, looking back.
(The problem isn’t that we loved too hard, or too fast, or too long. The problem was that our love was a string in a thunderstorm.)
As I sat under the sprawling banyan tree in front of the house looking at the red ball of the setting sun, I remembered my last visit there. Almost fifteen years ago. Father was in his deathbed, fully conscious and well aware that his moments were numbered. Don’t you worry about me, my son, he had said, clearly though feebly, laying his wasted hand in my lap. Death happens only to the body. The soul transmigrates to another healthy one…
We trek and slip-trance into the night. Me, hung over from a breakup with a girl who collected butterflies and Gothic art, and Munch, still looking for the perfectly human man, one who could rectify bad body image, make one forget the cheek holes, the mismatched eyes. Munch, still weighted down with the ghost of the father who had too many hands and sour puns, has learned to take small elegant mouthfuls at the dinner table where silence is the main course. Choking on it is strictly forbidden. In our apartment with mirrors that never see us as we want to be seen, a Play Station thrown in for distraction, and a little mechanical dog with a broken bark, Munch poses, practices the sleekest dance steps in an effort to attract Mr. Fix-Me. He wants to prove that he is both bone and amenable soul, not simply the android he feels himself to be. Last month was the third time I found Munch swinging in a failed noose. The ceiling is beginning to crack. (Around here, we imagine death as the curves of a loose busty woman addicted to going down.)
Sarah’s initial reaction was a whispered “Oh my God.” She clenched the arms of her chair when Connor started his way down to one knee. She’d played this moment over in her mind a thousand times and though it was finally here she was desperately unprepared. Her emotions laid bare as took a deep breath, searching for support in Connor’s kind eyes, trembling as a stream of soft tears gently caressed the smile lines of her face; a tiny locket dangled from her glistening neck near the pattern of a red heart, sewn to her blouse especially for this occasion.
“Somebody come here and give me a hand,” the elf growled through cigar-stained teeth. “Santa’s hittin’ the sauce again!” His fists clenched as he stomped across the floor, crunching sugar plums and gumdrops beneath his feet. Before him sat a bleary-eyed Santa, unrecognizable save for the suit and beard. “For God’s sake Kringle, what were you thinkin’?” he scolded while struggling to pull the bloke to his feet. It was no use; Santa was twice his size, and his dead weight was made heavier by the sloshing of Smirnoff in his oversized stomach. “Bowl full of jelly my keister!” Bluebell cursed. Santa belched, then flopped back into his chair giggling. “Well at least you’re a jolly old elf!” Looking over his shoulder Bluebell bellowed again, “Hey…I said give me a hand! Ain’t no presents goin’ outta’ here tonight if we don’t get Santa sobered up!”
I crawl to the crest of the hill and slowly raise my head enough to see the other side. The wind blows in my face bringing the laughter of the men in the campsite below, and the smell of their cooking. If I can smell them, they cannot smell me.
Fools. They think their hideout is safe and stand too close to the fire. There are no out-guards, only the two armed men who stand and face the fire instead of watching the meadow and forest beyond. No one looks up the hill in my direction. If anyone attacks them, they will be blind when they turn away from the fire.
With slow deliberation and great care, I raise my night scope to check the area below. I avoid the campfire or I, too, will be blind. Five men. There should be six. I listen and I watch. I hate this part of the job. I hate this job. All of it. I want to retire, but in this business, there is no retirement.