“No mother, I haven’t heard from dad! Why would he call me? And why do you care?”
Louise could feel her voice growing louder but was yet unaware of the stares she got as she hurried across the street from East 72st street and into Central Park.
She usually hated the people on their phones in the middle of the day, especially in the park. On most occasions before getting ready to shoot she wouldn’t even pick up the phone. Especially when her mother was the caller. But she had moved too quickly. An regretted it too late.
“Listen, you are both adults. It’s been fifteen years. You need to let it go!”
She took a left on Terrace drive and had to quickly step aside for a couple on bikes who rushed past. The mans elbow hit her camera bag sending it looping around her shoulder.
“Hey!…” She tried to get the bikers attention but the couple were too far away already.
“No mom I wasn’t talking to you…Look. I can’t do this right now. No, I am busy… Noo not at work.” Louise could already guess the next question.
It was a sunny gorgeous day and the park was brimming with life. The thick green trees cast speckled flowing shadows across the street.
Louises took aim at her regular spot next to Bethesta fountain. She held the phone pressed against her ear and felt the tension in her jaws like two burning thumbs pressed against them on each side. This was NOT a good day.
“Ok. I am hanging up now. What you and dad have against each other is not my business. I can’t stand listening to it!”
She almost ran down Bethesta Terrace and stopped right before the last step.
“You have ruined my life with your constant arguing! You have ruined relationships, ruined trust, ruined LOVE!”
Tears burned in her eyes now. Anger and rage but also, a well of sadness twenty-five years in the making. People were staring but she didn’t care.
“I’m done. Don’t call me until you understand why it has to be this way. Just don’t”
She hung up. The phone stuck to her sweaty palm as if it had melted and fused with her skin. She walked the last step of the way and sat down by the fountain.
Even though the park was filled with people, next to the fountain was still rather calm. Louise was relieved. Usually she could take a variety of photographs based on the visitors here. Today however, she no longer felt creative, and she didn’t care for people either.
Out of habit she opened her bag and took out her camera, the tripod and her nifty fifty. She could at least hide her face in the camera window. She did not notice her phone drop out of her jacket pocket. The sound of the device bouncing off the stone made her jump and as she turned her head she could just helplessly watch as the phone slid off the edge and into the water.
Louise chased the phone through the surface managing to grab it. Drenched with murky water running down her arm and into her shirt the phone lit up for a second- and shut down.
”No! God dammit NO!”
It was too much. The day had started badly and now as she was balancing on the edge of a complete breakdown , this….
All her strength left and Louise sank down on the edge of the fountain and wept.
As she sat there, tears streaming down her face, she leaned across the water. So many ways her life could have gone. Yet here she was, almost thirty, single and alone. With a crappy job she didn’t care for and a hobby that didn’t pay. Her tears broke the surface sending ripples that distorted her reflection, making her look older.
Suddenly a glare below the surface caught her eye. As she stared into her own pained expression, underneath she could make out a glowing shine, like a tiny red flame. It came closer as if drawn by her tears and as she looked - a goldfish appeared.
The animal must have been at least ten inches. Orange and yellow scales made it shine like gold when the sun poured across its back. Fins flowing like expensive robes.
Louise watched the fish just below the surface. She could see its mouth moving, almost as if it wanted to breath the air. The eyes, strange as it might be, seemed fixed on her. For some strange reason she felt comforted by this and stopped crying.
The fish hovered and drifted slowly beneath her. Poor thing, she thought. It must have thought I was feeding it. All the animals in the park had familiarised themselves with humans and their habits so the park would be virtually empty certain times of the day when people visited less frequently, only minutes later be overrun with squirrels, pigeons and other birds.
She could not remember seeing any goldfish before though.
Louise looked up at the 26-foot Angel of Waters and wondered how she could have missed fish in this fountain before. Or if this was something new.
As she looked back into the water. The goldfish was gone.
* * *
The coffee-house was cosy and the wooden beams in the ceiling made it feel more like a log cabin in the alps rather than a classy New York hang out. Rows of different shaped lightbulbs hung from the ceiling like glowing sausages in a butchers window.
Louise folded a receipt and put it in her purse just as Catherine sat down.
”Eight days?! Girl they are scamming you! Did you get a loaner at least?”
”You know what. It’ll be good for me. I need a break.”
”Eight days without a phone? I thought we would swipe together?” Catherine swiped the air and cracked a whitened smile framed by frothy créme.
”But…Tinder? I don’t feel it. Can’t phone-in love you know. Don’t know how else to to it but - just not that. My parents messed me up for life.”
She let the skinny spoon trace the inside of the coffee cup.
"I need a change. Whatever I’m doing is not working. Sometimes even photography feels off. All these shots of care free people in the park. Their happiness gives me anxiety”
”Oh come on. You just need some new scenery. Black and white misery is considered art nowadays. Try that. And then get a couple of cats”
Both women cracked up. A young waiter came by and started clearing their table. Louise nodded towards her uneaten bagel.
”Can I take that to go please?”
A short walk later the women hugged each other goodbye.
”It´ s gonna be ok honey, I promise.”
Katherine nodded towards the paper bag in Louises hand and said:
”Now YOU promise me something. Don’t eat that dry bagel alone in a park like some loon ok?”
”Get out of here!”
Mid day and traffic was hectic. The people emerging from the subway were shiny and red.
Entering the park a light breeze and the long shadows felt soothing against her skin.
The four cherubs under the Angel of Water looked happy and the water falling around them created the illusion that their tiny hand were beckoning her to join them
Louise sat down. The pool seemed clearer now and she could see the green algae along the bottom and the roots of the Red Star Ludwiga that grew out of the water.
She took out the bagel.
”Fishy? I’ve got something for you.”
As she started breaking chunks of the bread and dropping it in she looked over at Bird-Man Bob. He was surrounded by pigeons who ripped into his worn coat trying to get at the seed in his hands. When he looked up at Louise he smiled. Always happiest when feeding his birds.
The bread floated a while before slowly starting to sink. Louise drew an s in the water. And then she saw it.
Bright and golden, as molten iron, it came towards her. The long fins billowed like lava around it.
She had thought it would go straight for the bread but to her surprise it didn’t. Instead it rose to the surface until the water flowed across its back.
It was close enough to touch. A strange moment. But weirdly exciting.
Through the water she could see the round silver circles and the holes of pure black that made out its eyes. As the first time, she felt as if the goldfish was looking at her.
”Hi there buddy. Remember me?”
Louise raised her hand and put it over the water. The fish didn’t move.
”You are a brave little one aren’t you? Hungry?”
She broke a piece of bread and dropped it into the pool. Even before it hit the surface the fish snapped its head out of the water and caught the bread.
Then something else happened that caught Louise off guard.
The fish shot away as if startled and swam along the inner edge of the fountain and disappeared. Before she could react it had rounded the whole pool and again stopped in front of her.
”What was that huh?” The fish floated, eyes fixed.
”Want some more? All right. Here it comes.”
Another piece of bread hit the water. As before the fish caught the bread, spun around and circled the pool. Clockwise this time. Lightning quick.
She tried the trick for a third time half expecting it to fail but the fish caught the bread and made a victory lap. Again, in the other direction.
Without realising it, Louise let out a laugh. A happy excited laugh she hadn’t heard for a long time.
Filled by a sense of wonder she carried on feeding the fish, watching it make tricks for her as if she was a successful trainer at a dog show. If there had been other people around her now, she wouldn’t have noticed them.
Suddenly the bag was empty and only crumbs remained.
”I’m sorry buddy, I’m out” The fish said nothing but Louise could almost see disappointment in those silver eyes. Without warning the goldfish darted away and disappeared below the hyacints. Louise sighed.
”Alright. I guess you only used me for food”
Before she could stand up the fish returned. It slowly swam along the bottom , throwing up clouds of algae and dirt and seemed to dig for more bread. Then it ascended towards her, something sparkling in the water. Amazed Louise watched as the fish broke through the surface again - and on its head lay a small silver coin.
This had to be an amazing coincidence but the big fish didn’t move and the coin lay perfectly still between its cylinder eyes.
It was crazy but it felt like it was giving it to her.
Louise looked around. Bird Man Bob was covered in pigeons now. Like he himself was a hundred birds in an overcoat. She turned to the goldfish.
”You want me to have this?”
Again, the fish said nothing.
Louise leaned forward and carefully plucked the coin from the goldfish head.
Now she saw it wasn’t a coin. Round and silver but with a pentagon cutout in the center. Four words imprinted in the metal - GOOD FOR ONE FARE. She knew what this was - an old subway token.
”Don´t know if you know this but we don’t use these anymore”
She looked into the water again but the fish had disappeared.
* * *
Louise stood on the platform and could hear the rail hum as the train approached through the tunnel. Around her neck, on a thin necklace, hung the subway token . She twisted it between her fingers. A habit she had picked up the last couple of days since her last mystical meeting with the goldfish.
The train came to a stop before her and the doors slid open. People poured out like cereal grain from a stabbed bag of barley.
The camera was pressed against her chest and she gripped it tightly with both hands. The idea had formed since she’d received the token. Urban environments. Something other than gleeful images in the park. A change.
She had already snapped a dozen of images. Tops of heads on the move. These in-between moments when people didn’t seem fake. She laughed quietly to herself. ”I’m so artsy”
She set the focus at a sign on the opposing platform and waited. As another train blew past she pressed the shutter and the camera snapped twenty images in rapid succession.
The train carried on through the tunnel and as the sound died down Louise had already turned the camera around and started looking through her images. Coloured motion blur smudged the images but as she had hoped, between two speeding cars she could see a focused image. But not the sign she had picked out. Instead a face appeared in the blur. A mans face.
Louise looked up. The platform across from her was empty. She continued browsing through the images. The following image was all blur. Then the man again. Looking right. Blur. The man looking down. Louise smiled. This was cool. Next image. This time the man looked straight to camera. Louise stopped. He had dark eyes and curly brown hair. Nice looking she thought. Somewhat boy band-ish but not a child. He couldn’t be older than thirty. The next image was another blur of a spray painted subway car.
And then - the man smiled at her!
Louise quickly lowered the camera as if she had been caught spying. She looked across to the other side but the man wasn´t there.
”I must be losing it” she thought and screwed the cap back on the lens.
She turned around and the man smiled at her again.
Caught by surprise Louise didn’t know what to say and could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks.
”Did you catch my good side?” His voice was warm and smooth like green tea.
”Can I see? I mean IF you caught my good side you would be the first”
Louise looked up at him. His eyes were friendly and he didn’t seem offended.
He stood close as she went through the images.
”Hey these are good! Really cool. And I don’t just mean my face-ones but…the rest as well. Do you do this for a living?”
”Haha thanks. No it´s just a dumb hobby.”
”Hobbies aren´t dumb. They are the carousels of life. The fun breaks we need to stay sane”
He looked at her. She liked this guy. Cheesy but charming.
”Carousels of life huh? Can I use that?”
”You may. What’s your name? I’m Thomas”
She introduced herself and Louise thought it might be the first time she’d ever spoken to another person on the Subway.
”Hey Louise? I hope this doesn’t make me sound vain but I would very much like one of your photographs - of myself - You know because its cool with the blurry train and all. I could pay for it if you want?”
She laughed again. Not only because he was clearly joking. But also to let some of the butterflies out.
”Of course not. I won’t charge for that”
”Oh good. You could send it to me or we could meet sometime when you have put them on your laptop?” He looked at her again. Those hazel eyes.
Nervously Louise played with the necklace around her neck.
Thomas eyes widened.
”Hey! The Five Bouroughs!”
Louise was surprised.
”This? Just an old subway token. It’s special to me.”
”I know! Its called the Five Bouroughs. It was the final subway token they made. It was introduced in -95. I got one for my birthday!”
”And now you….collect them? How come you know so much about them?”
Thomas winked at her.
”Because it was my birthday….the year I was born!”
There was something about this moment they both became instantly aware of. Something strange and odd, and yet pleasantly welcome. Louise looked at him.
She always tried to avoid the subway. She hated the crowded smelly subway cars. Hated the people who never smiled. Always on the move. Always stressed. She would never have been here. Should never have been here. She would have been at her regular spot in the park.
If it wasn´t for that token.
Their eyes met. Louise was surprised at how clear her voice was and what she said when the moment finally passed.
”Would you like to take a walk with me Thomas? There is someone I would like you to meet”