Rain

On 145th Street, there’s a building full of rain. I don’t mean that it’s flooded or anything. It’s not like when you open the door, the jangly glass kind at the front of a store, there’s water that rushes out and pushes you across the sidewalk in its hurry. There’s only perhaps an inch of water on the floor. It must leak out somewhere, and you can see the stain as it bleeds into the pavement at your feet when you’re right outside. You don’t get hit with a wave when you open the door. You just hear it; ppt ptt ppt ppt tpp prt. Thrumming against the concrete floor.

I found the rain room by accident. I was trying to get away from a thunderstorm, if you can believe that. I was running down the street with my coat over my head and my slippery-wet hand in my girlfriend’s hand, our fingers jamming together. We were laughing like mad. It had just started raining, out of the blue. Really, the sky had looked clear as any day when all the sun wants to do is wrap you in light, but then the clouds had come. They just sort of showed up, uninvited, and then they spilled all over us. Mel and I stopped strolling when we felt the first few drops, and our steps quickened. Then, right away, the rain sped up too and it began beating down on us. We ducked under our jackets and sprinted. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why we were running. We were a bit far from anything, and we would’ve gotten wet by the time we reached a subway or a bus anyway. We just ran, hands clinging and feet slapping sprays of water onto each other. We ducked into a building with a half-cracked door and took a breath of relief before we realized that we hadn’t stopped getting wet.

Mel tipped her face right up to the ceiling and watched the drops fall toward her. I just watched her for a moment, too dumbfounded to talk. When I found my voice, I said, “Just our luck. The ceiling must be leaky. I bet this place is abandoned. Don’t do that, sweetie, the water’s probably all dirty.” In response, of course, she stuck out her tongue. She tasted the water that down the corners of her mouth.

“No,” she said. “The water, it’s just rainwater.”

“Of course it’s rainwater! It’s raining out. And it’s leaking.”

“Not out,” Mel smiled. She always was faster to catch on to things than I was. “It’s raining in here. Don’t you see?”

I looked up too. “Shit,” I said. “No it’s not.”

“Yes. It is.”

The ceiling was dropping water on us. Or at least I think it was the ceiling. I couldn’t really see any plaster or paint through the fog. Well, clouds, I suppose it was. The clouds covered the ceiling of the building and huddled in the corners in sulky gray masses. Mel smiled into the corners, the rain running down her face and twisting her hair into tendrils that streamed down her back. I started to laugh. She laughed too, until the both of us sank down and sat in the puddle that was the floor. We leaned against each other and laughed ourselves helpless at the escape we’d found from the rain outside. At the sheer absurdity of the building that rained on the inside.

We’d had a fight earlier that day, another one about her work that was taking all her time from me. She always answered that by saying, rather cattily, that if I only found something to do then it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d been sullen ever since, but now I laughed and when we paused to catch our breath I pulled her toward me. We kissed, sloppy and soaking, in the room that rained on us. I’m not sure there was a moment before or since that I felt us breathe and beat together like that as the rain trembled to the floor around us.

When we finally went home, we were so drenched with rain that a pool of water spread on our seats on the bus and poured itself down into the grooves on the floor. We were both shivering, still wracked with giggles, drawing stares from the three old ladies who were the only other people on the bus. We got home and took a long hot shower. We broke into laughter again the moment the water began to spray.

Everything’s a little different now. With me, with Mel, everything. I think it can be better, though. I haven’t seen her in a week, but we’re going to meet up on 145th Street. I won’t bring an umbrella, just in case.

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One-Sided

Mr. Murray Mendels was having a difficult conversation with his father. It was difficult because it was entirely one-sided, and Murray wanted advice. He wasn’t getting any. He could feel the anger hot behind his eyes and tight in his clenched hands, but he tried to keep his frustration under control. Of course, showing that he was angry wouldn’t help a bit. Nothing would, really, but he kept talking anyway. He was very determined about it, and had been having one-sided conversations with his father for quite a long time. He had a lot of practice by now.

He tried again. “Listen, Papa, I just want to know what you think I should do. I’m at my wit’s end here, I really am, and there’s nothing I would love more than to hear your opinion. It’s about to get serious.”

His father stayed silent.

“Oh, for goodness’s sake, Papa, I know this is practically the same problem I’ve had for ages, and it’s probably very dull to hear me talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about it. But all that talking isn’t getting me anywhere, and I’m supposed to pay the rent last Saturday, and it’s a big problem! Big! I just don’t know. That woman at the shop, she must know that I’m not going to do anything about it, but I should. I have to. If she just gave me some of what she owes me, I mean never mind that, if she just gave me the interest I’m owed and I’d have half my rent already, I mean really.”

Still, his father was quiet. He spoke no words of counsel or reassurance.

“But what should I do? That’s the question. I mean, do I write her a letter? A strongly worded one. Dear Madam, To Whom It May Concern, You have owed me seven hundred dollars for the last two years and I need some of it back now, please. If you don’t mind, you see it’s important, in that I’m broke. Flat-out couldn’t-be-broker broke. The brokest of broke. I’m not asking because I’m impatient, really I’m not, I wouldn’t even care, it’s just that I need to pay rent by a week ago and would you please. Oh, God almighty I’m no good at strongly worded, this is the kind of thing you should help me with, Papa. You were always very good at getting people to listen to, your whole life. and I haven’t got that kind of facility with persuasion, I’m more of a wheedle and plead kind of guy. Not very convincing unless you’ve got some extra pity to use up and I’m the closest one around. What should I say, how should I say it?”

Murray’s father did not speak.

“And you know that the landlord’s not going to give me much longer. So what am I going to do, get evicted out of this crappy place because I can’t talk to the pretty girl down the street? I’m a pushover, I really am, she asks me for hundreds of dollars as a quick loan, she’ll get it right back to me, aren’t I a dear. And then nothing! Not for ages. Not a word to me, barely an acknowledgement. Maybe she’s embarrassed. No, that’s silly, because she smiles at me every time she sees me.” Murray stood up, pushing the chair back, where it hit his pile of cleanish laundry. “She knows exactly what she’s doing, the minx! Oh for heaven’s sake. This is ridiculous.”

His father probably agreed, but did not say so.

“Come on, Papa, just tell me. What if I tell the landlord that she owes the money? No, he would never buy that, not for a minute. It’s my responsibility. That’s what you always told me, you do what you gotta do, right? This is what I gotta do. I have to march right in there and say— well, something. What?”

Murray’s father offered no helpful words here either.

“This is the least helpful conversation I think I’ve ever had. I’m trying to talk myself into solving my own problems, for all the good you’re doing me. This is useless. You’re not telling me anything, I’m going to have to figure it out for myself just like I did my whole life, same as always. I mean, I didn’t exactly expect you to be there for me. You’re not here, you know, and you never were there for me at all anyway. Even when you were alive, nothing. Why should I expect any different from you now?”

His father did not answer.

Storyteller

I like to tell stories that shift the world slightly. Good fiction should heal, somehow, it should tuck and twist the lines around everything just enough for it all to fit together a little more easily. The universe should make more sense to people. Humans wander around feeling like everything is out of balance, like chaos reigns, like their lives have no meaning and purpose and sense. I want to banish chaos, to restore meaning, to put the balance right. More than anything, people want to be the protagonists in their own stories. They want everything to flow around them a little bit like it would in a well-written novel, where they are likeable and relatable because the main characters always are. Where what happens to them has some kind of drive behind it, and you know that it’s going to have a satisfying ending. If it doesn’t, at least the tragedy or the drama makes you sigh with real feeling. People don’t want to feel like everything that makes up who they are is false.

This is why people give excuses to teachers and parents, professors, coaches, spouses, and priests. My printer broke. I came down with a fever, suddenly, and couldn’t write the paper. I couldn’t get home in time because the car broke down. My grades are slipping because the teachers are out to get me. I was only talking to her to be nice. I was only sleeping with her because the devil tempted me. Whatever. There has to be a reason to it. A story. If there isn’t a story, it’s too empty, too dull, too flat to be real life.

My story for my college (ex-)boyfriend is that I was falling for him and I was afraid, and we were graduating, and so I veered away in order to avoid all that pain and heartbreak I just knew we would feel for each other. That way, when I told him that, he could feel that razor brush of love, the scrape of sorrow, the wistful nostalgia for something beautiful that could have been true. I don’t think he knew I was sleeping with someone else, but either way, my story lets him believe that we were pure and good and that I loved him. It’s much better to be loved than to be lost.

Last year I told a story to half my family; my friend here was sick, so sick that I couldn’t come home to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I had to stay and visit, make soup and bring casserole. The year before that, another friend’s mother died. My parents like to know that I’m a good friend, a caring person, a responsible and compassionate human being. When I don’t go to the dreaded four-hour meal full of my aunt’s tirades and my father’s stoic silence, everything is a little bit better. My world doesn’t have to be miserable for days, and their world is sweeter because they believe in me.

If you pay attention to the stories, you start noticing them everywhere. They laid you off because money was tight in the company. He left you because he had to go find himself. She stopped calling because she got wrapped up in caring for her child, and you know what that must be like with a kid like that. I told my sister that I needed to visit for a bit because I was depressed, and just wanted to feel close to her again. I told my boss that I was so caught up in it that I worked through lunch. I told my dad that I knew everything would be okay. Everything is easier when you can fit it in a story, as small and cramped as that might be. Sometimes they are close to true.

There’s one story that I don’t tell. The purpose of stories is to heal, not to hurt. If there’s pain in a story, you know it’s there for a reason. I don’t tell stories that wound unnecessarily. I don’t see the purpose in it. Pain can be useful, but only when it brings you closer to some kind of resolution. I don’t tell her that I’m half in love with her. Even for a story, half is not enough.

Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

Disclaimer

I want you to know what you’re signing up for. What you’re getting into, that is. I don’t want you to think that what you know of me is all that I am. I love that you love me, for all that you do, but you don’t know me as well as you will. If you find out who I am, if you know me thoroughly and fully, and you still love me, then that will be true. If not, my heart might break. I want to know as much about you as I can. I want to know what you look like when you’re waking up in the morning with your eyes still half-lidded and dreams clinging to you. I want to know how you sound when you shout and the pitch of your voice when you murmur. I want to know what makes you worry and what makes you laugh. Do you want to know all these things about me? If you don’t, then there can’t be any love that is true. If you want to be with me, here are some things you should know.

I want you to want to know about me, the good and the bad. You will learn the way I tilt my head when I’m listening with all my attention, and the way I nibble on my lip when I’m anxious or distracted. You’ll find out that I love to sing, even though my voice can’t reach all the notes, and that when there’s a song on that I love and I’m alone, or almost alone, I will dance and jump and swing my hips around like a crazy person. You will know my curves and angles, the movement of my shoulders when I crowd close and the way I curl up with my feet folded under me. My moods jump from ordinary to gleeful at unexpected times, and I sometimes surprise myself with my own happiness. When we sit together, I will lean my head into the round of your chest, below your collarbone, and press my skin to yours. I will make ridiculous jokes and let off peals of laughter at myself. Sometimes they will actually be quite funny, because I can be clever when properly fed and rested. When I’m hungry or tired, I’m more silly than witty. I will look at you the way I look at nobody else. I am kind to people as much as I remember to be, and I think about it a lot. I smile at strangers. I hope you will love me for this.

When I am anxious, I am irritated by everything, and I snap under my breath at what you do; that is, I will, when you know me. When I am tired, sometimes I am wandering in my wits and you will find it funny, but sometimes I am spiky and angry because all I need is to sleep. Occasionally I take offense to what people do or say, and the reasons won’t make sense. I can be thoughtless and selfish. I need reassurance more often than you might want to give it. I will go into long rambles at times about my work or my family or my dreams last night, and I will expect you to listen. Pieces of my body cause me pain and I complain about it, and I’ll expect you to accept that too. I’m embarrassed by my singing voice, but I want you to pretend it’s okay, and when you’re around me a lot you’re going to have to deal with listening to me. Sometimes I don’t bother to shave my legs for stretches of time. I have a gastrointestinal system, and I don’t want to ever talk about it. I am prone to getting sick, and I will demand soup and somewhat unnecessary solicitude. If you don’t love the television and the books and the movies that I love, I’ll be annoyed at you about it. I am defensive when I feel that I’m being criticized, and sometimes critical without thinking. In the mornings I am almost always grumpy. There is nothing you can do about it, but I will want you to try anyway. You should make me tea, but I will probably not have time to drink all of it.

Know, please, that this is an incomplete list. You’re thinking of entering into something that isn’t certain, and I’m not all cataloged. I hope you will spend a long time reading the fine print.
Sign on the dotted line

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Colossal Mistakes

Ellie crossed the street the way she did absolutely nothing else. She left the curb and plunged into traffic, ignoring green lights and headlights and the warning voice of her mind telling her to please not get splattered across the sidewalk. She dove into the swarming cars as though nothing could possibly go wrong. When she climbed stairs, or made phone calls, or typed memos out for her boss, she was never reckless. She was meticulous and grammatically correct. Nobody ever had a reason to swear at her or click their tongue impatiently or roll their eyes. But when she crossed the street, the falling wails of car horns washed over her and she just didn’t care. Nothing else felt that safe, for her to put herself in danger.

Sometimes her boss sent her on weekend trips to meet somebody upstate. That was the only time Ellie ever drove a car herself. She would rent one for a couple of days and keep the receipts for expense reports, and drive on the winding highways until she got somewhere that she’d probably been before. In the car herself, she knew the impotent rage of the drivers watching somebody cross the street in front of them. Until she got out of the city, she tugged at the steering wheel and screeched while people blithely stepped in front of her car, as though they couldn’t see her coming and didn’t care about the tons of metal barreling toward their unprotected bodies. People are so soft, she thought, and they don’t realize that when you hit them they might break open. Her phone rang promptly as soon as she got onto the highway, past the red lights and out into a stretch of speed that felt like unbending muscles into the air. Ellie glanced at her phone, just to see, and nearly swerved. Her father’s name was on her screen for probably the first time, ever, that she could remember. Since she’d been old enough to have her own phone. She turned her eyes back to the road and fastened her fingers on the wheel. She didn’t ever answer her phone while she was driving. It was far too risky and irresponsible. She would think about calling him when she got to Croton or wherever it was that the GPS was telling her to go, when she got out of the car, when she had started to believe that her father had called her.

The robotic voice telling her that she had reached her destination startled her. She’d been thinking about her father for what felt like hours, and she’d barely paid attention to the route. The GPS directed her, and her body moved to answer it without her brain interfering. Ellie hadn’t spoken to her father in more than a year, since last Christmas when he stopped by her aunt’s to say hello and then left just as abruptly. She hadn’t called him since she was in college, when she’d been in the hospital and thought she’d needed him. He hadn’t called her, she didn’t think, since he’d told her he couldn’t make it, he was sorry, work was bad, she understood of course. In between obligatory family holidays she almost forgot the halting rasp of his voice.

Ellie got out of the car and put quarters into the meter, mechanical, reaching into her purse and feeling for the coin slot while her eyes rested farther away, unfocused. She turned and pulled her phone out to check for the address. Her boss’s name was on the screen under her father’s. She had a voicemail. She clicked on it expecting, somehow, that it would be her father’s message, but it was just her boss. Some halfway through the message she registered what he was telling her. “I’m sorry, El, I sent you up there for nothing, it was really last minute, of course the company will still cover the car and everything, if you want to stay the night because the reservation is there already you might as well, think of it as a paid vacation or something, I hear there’s a really good bar. Can you send me that report from Thursday sometime today?”

She stared at her phone. It faded and went to black, and she looked at it in her hand without seeing it, and then she got back into the car. In the driver’s seat she leaned against the steering wheel, resting her forehead against the leather, and touched her father’s name. Maybe it was important, she thought, what the hell. If she was careful and didn’t call him, she would never know. The phone rang against her ear and Ellie braced herself for his voice, the tone of surprise or accusation when he picked up, whatever it was that made him call her in the first place. It rang, and she tensed, and then it ended. He didn’t even have a voicemail set up. Ellie stayed in her car with her head pressed to the wheel for a long time before she straightened and carefully, methodically, painstakingly maneuvered back onto the street and turned for home.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.