One and a half blocks
by Anne Cammon
[ fiction - march 07 ]
"You're smoking a lot lately." The girl says, falling into step with her boyfriend on the platform, the slightest hint of uncertainty in her voice.
He responds without hesitation: "I don't smoke at all during the day."
Rachel shudders at the eeriness of hearing her words echoed back. For years she has used precisely that line of reasoning: smoking is a pleasure, not a habit. She can quit whenever she likes. What a piece of luck! She thinks, plotting how she will write it down.
The crowd passes through the turnstiles, divides, funnels toward the stairs. She finds her place at the broad end of the funnel.
The direction of my life has become this, she thinks, peering into the holes where she plugs the minutes of her day. Sweat breaks around her nose. Constantly, she is thinking about how to land the next position, find the right contacts, whether she works hard enough during the day or too hard at night: whether she will achieve her goals. But she doesn't actually write.
The daily competition of mounting the subway stairs continues. People slow to answer cell-phone calls, nudge with impractical handbags, selfishly take up too much space on the stairs. Rachel is filled with violence, a sensation that alarmed her when she first moved to the city, but has now become commonplace. The crowd presses, but she restrains from moving forward until enough space has opened to put her foot on the step.
The couple is now ahead. They air-jog, synch with each other's movements, swing their arms purposefully in the air, as if everything will be OK if they can just keep exercising, ascending -
The evening exhaust clouds above.
But Rachel's senses have been enlivened by two muscular young men, one black, the other Latino, who are bounding up two, three steps at a time. Barely touching the ground, they sway sideways, diagonal, tripping the top of beleaguered subway plodding like a pair of mountain cats out for a joust. They reach the top of the stairwell in seconds. The Latino's shirt swings loose from his back, and she sees a Celtic tattoo half-disappearing into the top of his briefs.
For all of their effort the couple moves no faster than the walkers. Rachel prods at the corners, searches for an opening through which she can pass. Overtaking them finally on the street, she squeezes between the glass wall of a bus stop and the boy's clumsy step.
Unable to conceal her curiosity, she glances over her shoulder to catch the girl's pale, frightened face as she searches for common ground with her boyfriend. "You're smoking a lot lately," she says. Rachel plots how she will write it down.
Entering a clear, open space of sidewalk, she relaxes as the warm night air sweeps over her like a wave. She looks around at her lively Dominican neighborhood, which celebrates the onset of summer like a pod of porpoises returning to favorite feeding grounds. A little girl with carved mango on a stick holds the fruit up to her father, one small set of teeth marks on the side. An old woman shuffles forth from her storefront and shakes her head. A middle-aged man and woman banter flirtatiously, weaving slowly through the semi-dispersed crowd. Lights from a police car flash a slow red then blue like poorly rigged party lights The woman slaps the man's thigh and laughs. Two officers adjust the handcuffs on a young black driver's wrists.
Rachel is suddenly weary, as though a bag has slipped from her shoulder, and, having let it down, she doesn't want to lift. She thinks ahead to the moment when she will walk into her apartment, to the myriad things she will find to do there instead of write. She may remember this moment, that stolen snatch of conversation, but she will not write it down.
A cluster of middle-aged men stand talking at the corner where she needs to cross. They fall silent and fix their eyes on the curve where a velvet hoodie clings to her breasts. There is a deliberate moment of discomfort, almost a hiss in the air as they wait for her reaction. She is wearing black, sleekly dressed down, and feeling very tall. These men are in her way. She plunges into the center of the ring and steps off the curb.
The cars are a block away, coming up on a red light. She crosses the dotted white lines, stares at the mottled tile on the divider, thinks how she could write a few words in the notebook, surely she could manage just that. A car zooms by, not a foot away. She remembers. This is where she nearly gets hit, because the lights are timed differently up the avenue from down. She forgets to stop, and at night the cars whistle by as though they could escape.
A breeze ripples through a tree at the top of the street, a sound that feels like lying in bed near an open window. The leaves are bright green, rendered precisely by an ultra-strength light. It was installed to deter loitering drug dealers, none of whom are present tonight. She runs down the hill a little, as she often does when the street is empty of people.
In a rare touch of grace, her ankles resist wobbling as each wedge heel clocks the concrete like a small flat stone skipping water. She hurries, as much from excitement that the day is done as from an urgent need not to waste another minute.