The old clock on the windowsill by my bed advises me it’s seven o’clock, and another Monday morning confronts me. As I peer at the street from my fourth-floor bedroom window, I assure myself that I will venture out today.
Although the sun barely lights the sky, Brooklyn is awake and announces its verve through a crescendo of motion. A procession of cars, buses, and delivery trucks glide along the one-way street in a synchronous line. Across the street, among the pedestrians ambling along the sidewalk that rims Prospect Park, I spot a man with a black baseball cap walking a small dog; a poodle, I think. Behind him, an older woman in a shapeless flowered housedress pushes a navy-blue stroller. They appear calm and unafraid as they move along the pavement.
I can manage a short stroll along Prospect Park. I have an hour before I need to log in for work.
The shorts and T-shirt I fish out of my drawer are clean, but I sniff them anyway. The scent reminds me of particle board and cheap dryer sheets. That’s okay, I tell myself. The odor isn’t offensive. It’s more of a staleness, as though the clothes are stored in an airless vault. I make a mental note to rotate the contents tucked in my dresser and silently acknowledge that I wear the gray sweatpants more than I should.
While brushing my teeth, a waft of mustiness reaches my nose. With every inhale, the stink of wilting lavender tinged with sawdust accosts my nostrils.
Without rinsing my mouth, I tear off the shorts and T-shirt and throw them into the hamper. Back in the bedroom, I rummage through the drawers. Everything reeks of stagnation. The gray sweatpants, the ones she wore, hang from a hook on my closet door. I put them to my face and inhale. They smell like her: a combination of citrus and vanilla. I slip them on, chiding myself for a lack of resolve, then shuffle to the kitchen and brew a pot of coffee. No walk this morning.
My phone rings while I pour coffee into the squat, stainless steel mug she always used. The screen tells me the caller is my mother.
“Hello,” I answer.
“Lexi, sweetheart, I’m just touching base. How are you?”
“Same as yesterday.”
Coffee sloshes in the mug as I drag myself to the dining table, which doubles as a desk. The short side of the rectangular top abuts the wall underneath the living room window. I can see the park across the street through the aged glass pane.
“Can I take you to lunch?” Her voice sounds hopeful. She worries about me, but I’m not ready to sit in a booth and chat about mundane topics while sipping on iced tea and consuming a chicken salad sandwich with a knife and fork.
“I’m really busy with work,” I reply. “Deadlines are at the end of the week. I don’t have time to take a long break.”
Her silence tells me she’s processing my response. Mom knows I’m hedging.
“Well, then,” she says after a few quiet seconds, “can I bring lunch to you?”
“I guess so.”
“One o’clock okay?”
I agree to her time frame and menu choice, then disconnect the call. The laptop faces me, ready for start-up and login. The screen sits parallel to the wall in front of me. Beyond it hangs the painting she created.
The painting, ink and watercolor on handmade Japanese paper, spoke to me. Two women, cheek to cheek, share a tender moment. Bold strokes of black ink outline their faces while hues of blue, red, and yellow wash over the surface of the canvas, blurring boundaries as one color evanesces into another.
“Do you like it?” She came up behind me as I admired the piece.
“The love they portray is simple, yet complicated. For a moment in time, bliss touches their lives in the form of a sweet kiss on the cheek. But the wash of color.” I paused, trying to articulate the feelings it stirred within me. “It’s fluid, undefined, and… fragile. Like their relationship, which could be torn apart at any moment by the world around them.”
“But, do you like it?”
“I do. It makes me happy for them, but sad as well.” I turned to face her. “What about you?”
“I think this is the final kiss between them. Facing the world together is much too hard for this one.” She pointed at the woman with yellow hair. “See how her eyes are closed? She’s sad, yes. But relieved, too. People can be so unkind to those who love differently. That woman didn’t have the strength to follow her heart, so she broke the heart of the dark-haired woman instead.”
“Such a poignant story,” I replied. “Very raw and personal. Are you acquainted with the artist?”
“I am,” she answered. “The artist is me. I’m Gabrielle Marcel.”
I bought the painting that night so I could experience joy and heartache every day. I hung it on the living room wall behind my laptop.
The next morning Gabrielle and I met at the coffee shop near my apartment.
My fingers automatically type my username and password into the software program. It’s a rote skill honed over many years. I stare at the screen and attempt to focus on the words it displays. My attention, though, drifts to the window.
Walkers, runners, and bike riders crowd the sidewalk across the street. It’s a collection of individuals; each person is content to progress as one entity among the many. Most don’t notice the others. Instead, invisible blinders keep everyone focused on their own bubble of space while headphones and earbuds silence the noise of humanity around them. Unaware is synonymous with not responsible, which absolves them of guilt when cries for help go unanswered.
A fuchsia delivery truck passes on the street below. The white logo on its side flashes by and my chest heaves. Although I can’t read the company name, I know what it says, and what it took away from me. The vehicle leaves my field of vision without incident, but my heart pounds nonetheless.
An alert sounds on my laptop, the tinny “ding” that signals an important message for me is somewhere within the agglomeration of data that lurks beyond my laptop screen. It draws my thoughts away from the street and reminds me of the business that awaits. I glance at the watercolor on my wall before opening the email client and starting the workday.
“Tell me, have you been spared the agony of heartbreak? Or are you recovering from relationship annihilation?”
I sipped my coffee as I thought about an answer to Gabrielle’s inquiry. “I’m not immune to heartache, but it’s been a year since my last obsession.”
“So, you’re single?”
“I am, but open to being a double.” The glib response slipped past my lips before I could stop it, and the familiar heat of embarrassment enveloped my face. “Uh, that didn’t sound nearly as adorable out loud as it did in my head,” I murmured.
She laughed. It was a soft, pleasant sound. “I hear you, Lexi. I feel the same way more often than I want to admit.”
“It’s not easy… meeting people and dating,” I admitted. “Especially here. In New York. We all live in our own microcosm. And we’re hesitant to let in strangers.”
“I’m glad you made an exception.” Gabrielle’s eyes focused on mine as she clasped my hand, and I couldn’t turn away. Encountering her at the gallery opening was the best thing that had happened to me in a long time. I silently thanked my editor for insisting I cover the event.
Not wanting to disengage from her touch, I picked up my ceramic mug with my left hand and took a sip. The cup wobbled in my non-dominant hand, and I spilled a bit of the latte on the table. Gabrielle’s face crinkled with amusement as she watched me.
“My secret is out,” I said, smiling as I dabbed at the spill with a napkin. “I can be messy when a beautiful woman is holding my hand and I don’t want to let go.”
“I don’t want to let go, either.” She leaned in and softly kissed me on the lips.
The knock surprises me, and my thoughts tumble back to the apartment. It must be one o’clock, and my mother is in the hallway with our lunch. I open the door, and she scrutinizes me as she walks in. After one glance at the gray sweatpants I’m wearing, she folds her arms around me. The bag of food bumps against my back. It won’t harm the chicken salad croissant sandwich she brought, but it might crush the potato chips. I pull away and we both sit at my desk/dining table.
“You look good, sweetheart,” she says as she digs our sandwiches out of the bag. I know she’s fibbing. Dark, puffy bags tug at my lower eyelids, and several angry, red pimples threaten to erupt on my forehead. Plus, my hair is unwashed and tangled.
“Thanks, Mom.” I unwrap my sandwich and use the paper covering as a plate. She does the same, and I’m grateful she doesn’t hop up to scrounge around for something more durable.
“Work going well?”
“Have you left the apartment?”
“Oh, okay.” Then silence. I sense my mother’s heart is breaking for me and she’s at a loss about what to do or say. She wants to heal me, and her medicine is offering food and assuring me she’ll be there when I need her.
“I’m getting better, Mom. I just need time.”
She smiles, but the upturn of her lips doesn’t erase the sadness from her eyes. “You’re right, dear. Yet, I can’t help but worry.”
After swallowing my bite of chicken salad, I smile at her. But I’m sure the gesture resembles a grimace. “I’m glad you bring food when you worry about me. I haven’t eaten this well in a while.”
“I want to paint you in Prospect Park,” Gabrielle said as I walked into the bedroom. “With the Terrace Bridge in the background.”
“You do, huh?” I crawled into bed. Her scent—a mix of citrus and vanilla—permeated the air under the blanket. I wrapped my body around hers and inhaled her essence.
She snuggled into my embrace. “Yes, I do. Today. Right now. I can’t wait to capture my feelings about you on paper.”
“Can we eat breakfast first?” I nuzzled her neck with light kisses.
“If you insist.” She answered me with an exaggerated sigh, then pulled my face to hers. “But let’s not dally,” she whispered with her lips on mine. “I don’t want to lose the light.”
Gabrielle extricated herself from my arms and left the bed. “You have my word, Lexi,” she said as she grabbed my hands and dragged me out from under the blanket, “that we’ll continue this later today.”
She yanked on her gray sweatpants, the pair she referred to as her “artist pants.” I wore a white T-shirt and ripped black jeans, an outfit she selected. “I love you in these,” she declared as she perused my wardrobe for the right “look.”
We headed across the street to the park. She carried the easel and portfolio with her fancy Japanese paper tucked inside. I hauled a foldable chair plus a backpack loaded with her pencils, erasers, inks, pens, paints, and brushes. As we approached the bridge, the early morning sun peeked through the tree branches and cast shifting patterns of dark gray against the bridge’s aged concrete arch and abutments.
“This is perfect,” Gabrielle said. She turned toward me with her brows drawn in thought. “Lexi, stand here and face the water.” She guided me to the iron guardrail that bordered the stream flowing under the bridge and gently arranged my body and positioned my head. Then she snapped several photos of the pose with her phone.
“You’re so beautiful,” she muttered as she set up her chair and easel.
Her words left me speechless, so I smiled as I grasped the handrail and stared past the other side of the stream.
Below my window, shadows from my building darken the street. The calmness of the afternoon subsides as a succession of cars, trucks, and buses crowds the road. Drivers honk and shout at one another as they maneuver their vehicles to unknown destinations. Pedestrians dodge bumpers and fenders as they dash from one side of the street to the other during infrequent respites in the traffic’s continual movement.
I try to look away, but I’m transfixed by the activity and the macabre possibility of a casualty. How would people on the street respond? Would they notice or continue onward in their own spheres? How would I react? Do I have the strength to witness an injury or the indifference of bystanders if one would occur? Or would I turn away?
Mankind is unpredictable, and its erratic nature teaches us bitter lessons. Because of this, my questions are unanswerable.
The tune Gabrielle hummed was unfamiliar. Although the melody was haunting, her voice resonated light and clear, the way I imagined an angel sounded.
“That song’s beautiful,” I commented as we strolled along the pathway that led to the street near my apartment. “What is it?”
“Mad World. It’s one of my favorites.”
“I’ve never heard it before.”
“It’s an old one. But the music and lyrics… well, they’re still relevant. We go through the motions of living without really seeing one another.”
“That’s so sad. Do you think it’s true?”
“Yeah. Sometimes I’ve felt invisible, as though people didn’t see me for who I am… what I am.”
Gabrielle stopped, and I did, too. “It’s a rare gift to find someone who sees you… the real you,” she said as she held my gaze with hers. “And accepts you anyway.”
I put my arms around her waist and drew her as close to me as I could. She laughed as we both bumped the portfolio and easel in her hands. “You are a rare gift, Gabrielle,” I whispered as I leaned in and brushed her lips with mine. “And I think I’m falling for you.”
“I know the feeling,” she replied as she returned my kiss, then pushed me away. “Let’s stop wasting time here and get back to your bedroom.”
The joy I felt at that moment left me breathless. I couldn’t help but laugh. I wanted to shout for everyone to hear that I had a girlfriend. A beautiful, talented girlfriend who lit up my life like the sun. I picked up my pace, anticipating the lovemaking we’d soon share. And she kept up with me.
We reached the street. My building stood a few yards beyond it. She and I stepped off the curb and passed between two cars parked in the perimeter lane. Both of us were impatient to reach my fourth-floor apartment. As I’ve done countless times before, I spied a lull in the flow of traffic and darted across the two-lane road. Winded, I reached the sidewalk on the other side and turned to grin at Gabrielle. But she wasn’t beside me.
I spun when I heard the screech of brakes and the crunch of metal on metal. A fuchsia delivery van filled my view. In front of it, a lone figure laid crumpled on the asphalt. Without thinking, I ran into the street. Cars stopped and horns blared, but I didn’t care. I had to get to Gabrielle.
Someone caught me as I raced toward her and locked me in an embrace. The arms were soft and the essence of honeysuckle emanated from the voluminous bosom.
“You don’t want to see her like this, sweetheart.” The voice belonged to an elderly woman. I tried to break free, but the soft arms were stronger than my courage. I gave way against her, and she held me as I sobbed.
Darkness claims its grip on Prospect Park and I watch through my window, an audience of one. In the street, the surge of cars continues while pedestrians, unafraid of the night, stroll along the sidewalk. My laptop still hums, and I absently swipe the mouse over its pad to wake up my screen and shut down the system.
I contemplate the two women in the painting on my wall. The yellow-haired woman is Gabrielle, and the dark-haired woman is Lexi. Neither gaze in my direction. Gabrielle shuts her eyes while Lexi gazes at something unseen. But my interpretation of their expressions differs from the one the artist shared with me months ago. Although they are sharing their last kiss, Gabrielle isn’t afraid for the world to see who she is. She closes her eyes in bliss, for she has known love.
Lexi is heartbroken, and yes, losing Gabrielle is the source of her pain. But in my version, it’s Lexi, not Gabrielle, who lacks the strength to face the world.
The clock on the windowsill tells me it’s ten o’clock. I crawl into bed and wait for the morning to confront me. Maybe tomorrow I’ll venture out.