I can feel his labored breathing on the back of my neck. It takes everything in me not to shudder in disgust. Immediately my shoulders slump under the weight of what I am about to do. It wasn't always this way with him. Like all the others it started well, really well. It started with a night of horrible country karaoke and running out of the rain into a first kiss that I was sure meant that this time it would be different.
I curse under my breath as my key decides once again to defy its purpose in life and not fit in my lock. My teeth grit together and I put my shoulder into the effort hoping it will aid in making this moment end. He chuckles nervously and I can smell the Chinese we just had on his breath. I've always hated beef broccoli.
"Lemme try," he offers. Just as he begins to snake his hand down my arm in what I'm sure was meant to be a sexy maneuver, my luck changes and the door pops open. I throw my hands up victoriously and smile at him, then regret it instantly.
His smile is too toothy, and there is very possibly a piece of the previously mentioned broccoli in his teeth. I sink back from his outstretched arms and push the door between us like a shield.
"I'm thinking this is going to be the end of the night for me Mike. I'm feeling really tired."
I throw in an exaggerated yawn and hope he buys it even a little. The confusion on his face is depressing. If he only knew that this was the end. Not that I was cold hearted enough to just shut him out; this was only the beginning. First I would transition all our dates into group activities and then I would begin inviting girls I think he might like along and soon enough I would just be the one who introduced him to his newest girlfriend.
Believe me. I'm a pro. I've done this enough times, that some of them even think they ended things and its better that way. A much nicer picture than the truth.
"Ok, well I'll call you later," he suggests.
I nod tightly and push the door shut before he can attempt to smother me with his well intentioned lips. I know I come off as the evil party, but I only do this to save them really. Any other option would be so much worse. I've seen it.
Does why ever actually matter? Does it really matter why I do anything that I do? Everybody reaches their own conclusions way before why ever even becomes an issue. That's just the way it is. So no, I don't think why ever actually matters. I think we just do what we need to do to survive and I think the why just stops mattering.
I lean back against the wall of the Columbus Circle subway station and rub my forehead. It's Friday but Friday lost its appeal to me years ago. Friday only means two days and then I have to get back to the office.
Friday is nothing that it used to be. When I was a kid Friday meant freedom and fun and danger and excitement. We lived for Fridays when we were kids. Somewhere along the line all of that disappears. We still live for Fridays but more so for the paycheck. And somewhere along the line you start to realize that that feeling of freedom doesn't actually exist. There's no such thing.
There's a girl standing in front of me and she's laughing loudly, too loudly. The sound is obnoxious. She's unwrapping a roll of LifeSavers. When she sees me watching, she grins and offers me one.
I don't like sour apple but I pop it into my mouth anyway. And my mother's words ring in my mind: Edward, never take candy from strangers, and something about my defiance makes me smile slightly. I'm a grown man. And she would shudder and slap my hand and make me spit it out if she saw me.
"Yes!" The girl shouts and I see her feet lift up off the ground in her excitement. Her bright pink backpack bounces and everything inside of it rattles loudly. Where is this train? "Start playing!"
I look up to see who she is talking to. She can't be a day over twenty: bright green eyes and short blonde hair. She looks at me and motions with her chin. Two kids that look like they're Blondie's age are standing across the tracks holding guitars.
"Who are they?" I ask her and feel my heart begin racing.
"They call themselves the Vanishing Act," she says with a grin. "They go from station to station covering songs. And then they vanish on whichever train is coming."
I nod and hope that by willing alone, I can get the train to come now. But things like good timing never happen to people like me. And the train doesn't come. Instead, the two kids begin to strum their guitars.
I slip my hand into my pocket and wrap my fingers around the ring in there. My breathing becomes shallower as I rub my thumb over the stone, back and forth, until I feel enough pain to get a small amount of release.
It's useless though, because when they begin to sing, my lungs stop working entirely. "Standing on the corner/ suitcase in my hand/ Jack is in his corset and Jane is in her vest/ And me I'm in a rock n roll band./ Riding in a Stutz Bear Cat, Jim/ You know those were different times."
And I can't. I simply can't. I cover my ears and walk quickly towards the stairs. I don't care if I already paid, I don't care about any of this. I just run towards the stairs and then I run up them and I keep running until I can't hear it anymore.
I lean against the now shut door and listen to his retreating steps. Once I'm sure he's not coming back I push myself off and head for the kitchen. It's time for my nightly ritual.
There are few things that speak to my soul and fix a crappy day like chocolate milk. I wasn't allowed to have it as a child. My mother said that it was just a horrible way to trick children into thinking milk was good. My mother also thought anyone who ate fish was a murderer. What can I say, she is eccentric.
My first feat of defiance was to sneak a carton of chocolate milk back to the house from grade school. I didn't even drink it; just let it sit under my bed as a memento to not listening to my mother. When I did first try it, I was hooked. It's the only long-term relationship I've ever had and I won't be slamming the door in its face any time soon.
The fridge door groans as I pull it open and begin my search for my only love. My hand grasps the familiar carton and I can't stop the smile that spreads over my face.
"You run off 22 yet?" The familiarity of the voice doesn't stop me from jumping and almost spilling my prize. He has this morbid practice of calling the men in my life by numbers instead of names. Gets some sick kick out of it.
"Good Lord Emmett, have you been practicing being stealth again?" I accuse gripping the carton to my chest. Emmett and I share more than this shit hole apartment. He has also taken to my vice and I don't share well.
He reaches over my head easily and takes two cups from the cabinet and sets them on the counter expectantly. I sigh and relinquish my hold of the chocolate milk pouring it into the cups like shots. He raises a single eyebrow as we throw them back and laugh like idiots. I suppose it's healthier than the boozing we could be doing.
Then Emmett reaches for the Captain Morgan and suddenly it's not so healthy anymore. The alcohol mixes with the chocolate still coating the glasses and I gulp at it loving the combination. I set the glass in the sink and turn to face Emmett who is still swirling his mixture.
It would be so much easier for me if this was the way it looked. If Emmett and I harbored secret love for each other and one day we would both wake up and realize that what we wanted was right in front of us, but that's not the way it is.
Emmett was actually number 6. It lasted longer than most, almost breaking my three week record before I figured out that I liked him too damn much to let him waste his time on me. And I had been stuck with him ever since. Not that I mind at all.
"So?" he urges. I roll my eyes and pause on my way to my room.
"22 is on the way out. Give me two weeks and I'll have him dating that little red head from the coffee shop."
Emmett grins knowingly and shakes his head. No lecture this time. He didn't particularly like 22. Not like 17, he was really rooting for 17 and when I put that to rest it was an entire night of me, Emmett and the captain going round and round. I will my feet to make the quick trip to my room even faster and as my hand encircles the doorknob I feel release.
I fling the slab of wood open and then push it shut with all my body weight, trying futilely to keep all my problems and issues behind it. My eyelids drop involuntarily as I take in my bed. It had been a really long day.
It was stupid to pay $20 for a ride that should've only cost $2. I can't bring myself to care right now though, what with it being Paycheck Friday and all. I close the door quietly behind me; drop my briefcase on the floor, and just lean against it for a moment, just breathing in the silence.
"Hannah?" I call out when the silence lasts longer than it usually does.
I push myself off of the door when I don't get a response and walk into the kitchen. There's a note on the fridge in her perfect script: Edward- I went out with Jessica because she was having a crisis. I shouldn't be late. Left you food in the microwave. Xoxo.
I open the microwave and lift the aluminum foil only slightly. Chicken. Again. I give her points for trying but Hannah is a terrible cook and she's been trying to master chicken for the past two weeks. Every single one of her efforts has resulted in either really dry or really burnt chicken.
It's okay; I'm not in the mood for food. Not now. Now it's silent and I just need to sit for a moment.
It's my quiet right now.
I walk into the living room and kick my shoes off. I unbutton my pants next and pull my white shirt out. I take the ring out of my left pocket and place it in the Advil bottle on my nightstand. Hannah is allergic to Advil so I don't worry about her finding it there. Each button gets worked out of its respective hole before I pull it off. The clothes can stay on the floor for now.
I walk into the bedroom next door that we use for storage. Impractical, I know, but we both had a lot of shit and not enough room for it. I walk to the closet and in the back is the box. Hannah doesn't understand why I haven't thrown out an old record player that doesn't work. She doesn't know that it works. And then all the way in the back, behind the record player is my salvation.
I unlock it and take the guitar out, letting my fingers slide over the faded black for a moment before I reach back inside for the record I need to hear just for tonight.
I crawl back out of the closet and sit on the floor next to the record player. I set it to play and then I pull the guitar onto my lap. I wrap my arms around it as the song begins to play and I wonder why it can't hold me back, not the way it used to anyway.
"Childhood living is easy to do/ The things you wanted, I bought them for you./ Graceless lady, you know who I am/ You know I can't let you slide through my hands." I let the song wash over me entirely. It was his favorite song.
And then, just for now, I let the tears fall. Some of them land on my glasses, the others slide down onto my guitar. It doesn't matter now though.
The message machine blinks with ferocity, but I simply hit the delete button and feel insurmountable pleasure from doing so. I can't deal with it right now. I should feel obligated to listen to the voices on the tape, listen to whines of my mother and the monotone drone of my father, but I just won't. Not today.
Because as much as I know it's the right thing to do, every time I add another number to my roster I can feel another fissure open in my chest. Another small tear that will tag along with me day after day, reminding me of what I gave up. A small tribute to the martyr I like to think I am in that I am not her. Because a tear in me, is better than a shredded him.
It's better this way.
That's my consolation, my mantra. The thing I repeat over and over in my head every time someone tells me that it's time to settle down, or looks at me with pity when I'm the only girl in the room without a partner. I chose this for myself. No one but me, so at the end of the night when I'm faced with a cold pillow and a glass of chocolate milk, I still sleep relatively well because I didn't do any harm today.
I shake the melancholy from my mind and slip my shoes off. I have only one objective and that is to find peace in my favorite escape, sleep. There I am rarely burdened by reality or pain. Luckily for me it's usually dreamless and heavy. No sides of anything to read into.
I slip on some sweats and an old t-shirt and sink into my bed. Before menacing thoughts can ruin my moment I pull my work into bed with me. The numbers dance and swirl in front on my eyes. The heels of my hands meet my eyes and I try again. It still looks like a magic eye rather than a financial document.
When I started the business I conveniently forgot about this part of it. All I could see were kids and guitars and tiny fingers caressing piano keys. Everything else just seemed like it would come together for such a great cause. I mean who doesn't want to hear the kids of the world sing?
That was my dream at first. Resurrect a dying art. Bring music back to school, joy back to kids who thought school was only for homework and recess. I was young, straight out of college and naive enough to think that if you were out to do good, karma would just take care of the rest.
Well karma forgot to tell me that it was shit at numbers and I was now so backwards and sideways in a mess I didn't think I was going to be able to climb out.
I shove the papers unceremoniously to the floor and resolve to deal with it tomorrow. Maybe I'll even hire one of those paper pushers to deal with it for me. For now I need my pillow and the nothingness of sleep.
Because 22 is secretly more than I want to remember and more than I can hide the pain of tonight.
When the door opens and Hannah calls out my name, I'm sitting on the couch watching recaps on ESPN with a bowl of ice cream.
"Hi," she says and smiles at me.
"Hey." I pat the space on the couch next to me and she comes over, leaning in to kiss me briefly before settling into the sofa.
"How was your day?"
"Long, but it's Friday," I say and offer her a smile and then a spoon of ice cream.
She shakes her head. "I don't eat ice cream, Edward; you know this."
I shrug. "How was your day?"
She groans and places her hand on her neck. If this is a ploy to get me to give her a neck rub, I'm not falling for it. I don't have it in me tonight.
"Jessica is just a mess."
"I'm surprised you didn't stay with her," I say, hoping to skip over the why so that I can go to bed within the next twenty minutes.
She frowns at me. "I wanted to come home. And anyway, she needs to talk to Drew. They're just… I don't know. It's just not there for them anymore, you know?" She crosses her legs and shifts so that she's facing me. "I don't get how that happens. How do people go from being in love to just not?"
I don't know how or why it happens but I know that it does. Then again, who knows what our true capacity for love is? Furthermore, who's to say that we even have a capacity for it at all? What if we just think that we feel it when all we're feeling is a little bit of excitement mixed in with fear? What if we're just so terrified of losing somebody and of being alone that we convince ourselves that we're in love when we're really not?
I shake my head. "Edward," she says and touches my hand lightly.
I turn my hand over to hold hers. "People change, Hannah. It happens."