1994-1995

Two months after he bummed his last cigarette from her she climbed out her bedroom window into the fire escape with a shoebox full of mix tapes and let them drop six stories into the alley below one-by-one. Most of them were a mash-up of songs they had recorded together off the radio, sometimes half-cut off by advertisement and news reports. She knew them all by touch, without even having to read the notes scrawled on the back in ball-point pen in boyish, cramped handwriting, and despite the box being emptied within moments, she could hear all the recorded sounds all at once, as if they were all simultaneously playing from the alleyway below, a symphonious recollection of the rainy afternoons they had spent together.

She stopped listening to the radio. Her records collected dust on the shelves for another few weeks before she took them all down to the vintage store and exchanged them for a two new black dresses and a pair of ankle boots. She started going to the opera house on Sunday afternoons, mostly for the lonely bar where she could watch all the elderly couples shuffle around and exchange news of death with their acquaintances as she drank bloody marys on her own tab. She told her friends she was trying to meet people outside of her usual social circle, but really it was because he still frequented all the same dive bars where they used to go to see the wash ups sing lounge music quietly and sadly in the uncomfortable corners of makeshift stages. She traded in her red bandanas and denim jacket for jumpers that buttoned all the way down the front and pulled in at the waist. She took out her lip piercing and started wearing make-up. She avoided the cafes and record stores where she thought she might see him.

She stopped driving everywhere. At first she took the Metro, then took up bike riding. She traded in her ankle boots for $40 towards a Schwinn from the 1970’s and picked up a can of cherry red spray paint. She carried the bike up six flights of stairs to her studio apartment and then almost died from breathing in the mixture of fumes when she forgot to open the window. To combat a fear of dying alone, she adopted a stray kitten who, once grown, became lazy and spent most of his time sitting on the fire escape watching the pigeons flying just out of reach kept out of the alley by a rooftop net.

She read all the great works of Russian literature, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, and fell in love with all the tragedies as if they were her own. She visited Tompkins’s Square often to watch the couples in outdoor ballroom dance competitions. She eyed other women’s boyfriends when they wore nice clothes and had soft eyes and danced with their partners sincerely. She began spending her mornings in coffee shops. She never went to the same one more than three times in order to keep her options open. She’d remind herself that there were always more coffee shops she hadn’t yet explored, and then she moved on to the neighborhood delis, and then to the smoothie shops. She practiced her violin. She looked into ways to get involved in her community. She began to meet other people, make new female friends, to feel a sisterhood amidst her solitude, spending most of her spare time alone in a cramped room with a disinterested cat and relics of abandoned hobbies and interests.

She decided to go to grad school for English literature. She decided to become an English teacher. She remembered her high school English courses and reading great American literature with a sense of fondness and nostalgia that she felt she could obtain again. She read Moby Dick and felt empowered, renewed, as if she were Ahab himself. She decided she needed to kill the white whale. She bought nylons and suit coats, began to wear lipstick and pull her hair back tight. In one of her classes, she met a man who finally pursued her. She didn’t know he had a girlfriend, but once she knew, it didn’t stop her from seeing him. They went out late on Saturday nights, drank heavily in bars where no one would see them, and danced and held each other until they went back to her apartment to kiss and touch each other until it was almost time for the sun to rise and he would slip home. When the semester ended she waited for him to call her. She spent her weekends watching old movies and occasionally drinking wine with a friend. Some nights they’d cry about lost love together. Other nights they’d forget the things they’d said. A few weeks passed and she didn’t think much of it, she continued her life as before, without the faint hours of passing until Sunday morning, sleeping alone instead.

She decided to clean out her car. She kept it parked in a garage for a monthly rate for almost a year, only using it a few times to visit her family in Long Island for the holidays. It’d been almost a year since she bummed him the last cigarette. She never touched the garbage he left on the floor, the newspaper from the day of the summer music festival, the cup from a fast food restaurant they ventured to one night when they couldn’t fall asleep, the gum stuck on the side of the emergency break, the mix tape jammed in the tape deck. She turned on the radio for the first time since she last saw him. A song began to play. It was some top 40 pop song from over a year ago, one so overplayed it made her cringe. She turned off the radio. She fished out the tape with a butter knife and watched as the spools of metallic ribbon spilling out under the pressure fell into her hands. She yanked and pulled them, ripping them apart into tiny spirals, letting them float through the cluttered interior like snow. She removed the pieces of him left behind that she could catch, throwing them out the window she started the ignition and peeled out of the parking spot. She began accelerating down the parking garage ramp, making wide turns, other vehicles slowly swerving out of her way as she rushed out into the city street, narrowly avoiding pedestrians, heading west through Manhattan, down towards the Holland tunnel, out onto the turnpike, out onto the highway, out onto the open road, out, out, away.

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