August 5, 2020KR OnlineFiction

The Quiet Current

Nights after class on the B44 Select Bus, I kept my phone in my pocket, praying for a vibration. Great comment on Franzen tonight, you might say, or I really like your hair.
But you didn’t text me.
My super did, though. Need access to your kitchen sink. Won’t take as long this time. Leak downstairs.

 

My father had been gone six months. It was an accident. No, not a car accident, I found myself saying a lot. I wasn’t trying to be cagey, I just didn’t want to freak anyone out.        
Writers love drowning metaphors. It’s hard to find a short story without one. But no one I knew actually knew anyone who’d succumbed to water.

 

It wasn’t just writers. My roommate was enrolled in a nursing program that required her to work through the night, drink coffee for dinner, and chase down sleep in the afternoons.
I’m drowning, she said to me one night, dazed, through a bite of peanut butter toast. Totally drowning.
No you’re not, I thought.
That’s horrible, I said. That’s awful. What can I do?

 

I’d overheard you tell our classmate that you had a weakness for unlikely animal friendships. A rhino and a lamb, you said. I love a rhino that is friends with a lamb. I spent that night on YouTube, searching for the perfect combination to e-mail you. A kangaroo and a pig. A tortoise and a hippo. A lion and a chicken.

 

Finally, I spoke to you. I’d had one drink. I want to lay you on top of a blanket, tie the corners of the blanket in a knot around you, attach the blanket containing you to the end of a stick, and walk around with that stick on my shoulder.
Like a bindle stiff? you said.
Yes, I said. Exactly.

 

The odds slanted against me. I had a low fade, a muscle shirt, a baseball cap. A butcher near Bergen Street handed me pork shoulder and called me champ. A man on the G train called me boss. I was dude. I was bro. I was sir, sorry, ma’am. But I was never the real thing.

 

Then one night I confessed. We were sitting outside a bar on Franklin drinking a lot but not getting drunk. I was full of desire. I think I have a crush on you, I said.
I feel the same, you said.
You mean you also have a crush on yourself? I said.
Yes, you said. That’s exactly what I mean.

 

After the first time, we lay in my bed. I was touching your face. We had a window open, and the breeze smelled like hot dogs. It was so late that it was morning. Up until now you’d been very shy. So I was surprised when you fell into uncontrolled, tearful laughter simply by listing Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Flat-bush, you whispered. Bush-wick. 

 

We tried to keep our romance a secret, which was difficult because we also couldn’t seem to stop touching. We ducked out of a bar together, preparing for another sleepless night.
Where are you guys off to? our reasonable classmate asked.
There were a number of good answers to her question: The subway, for instance.
To the discotheque, you said.

 

On Nostrand, we followed a bending sidewalk on which an enormous bulldog was drawn in white chalk. The bulldog’s head was smushed to fit inside the square of concrete, but otherwise, it was all right.
Wow, you said. I wonder if the artist used a photo.
You were serious. I couldn’t stop laughing at you. It was not that good.

 

I just want to bear witness to life with you, I said. You agreed. Later that day we watched in rapture on the 3 train as a man shoved a long balloon down his throat and then gagged it back up. People cautiously applauded and handed him soft dollar bills. You gave him one. For his medical bills, you said.

 

On the subway platform, a woman told me there was blood on my hands. She was referencing my fur-rimmed hood. The coyote, she explained, is the brother of the dog. I was well acquainted with guilt. I’d failed to undo the accident. I bent my head in shame. The 3 train arrived like an angel. It pulled me to your apartment, to your kitchen, to your water and soap.

 

My dreams were relentless and obvious. I fumbled my phone until it fell into a lake. I rode a train through a tidal wave. I flew a helicopter into the ocean. I drove a truck through a puddle of quicksand. I encountered him at the Baltimore Aquarium, enthusiastically admiring the jellyfish.

 

I’d heard a lot about your spaghetti Bolognese, from you. It will be the best pasta you ever had, you said. Ground beef and onions simmering. I salivated in your bedroom. I looked at a photo on your wall of your glamorous mother until you called, OK. When we sat down to eat, you burst into tears. I’m afraid you won’t like it, you said.

 

We sprinted to your apartment in a sudden downpour. Neither of us had an umbrella or a raincoat. The streets sparkled for some reason. Of course this created some romance. But halfway there, I remembered my phone. It was in my back pocket getting drenched, two voice mails from my father, up against water.

 

Looking back had become my expertise. If only there had been a lifeguard on duty. If only he’d stayed closer to shore. If only we had all stayed inside playing hearts. If only we had seen the posted signs. If only there had been posted signs. If only he’d had gills.

 

At the Museum of Natural History, a man unlatched a vinyl belt to let us inside a domed theater where we watched the history of the universe unfold. We were alone in the theater, except for that employee, who stood behind us, breathing through his mouth. The video was four minutes long and still included Pluto.
How many times have you watched that, you asked him.
Billions, he said, emotionally.

 

I wanted to buy you everything so that you’d love me forever. But I was broke. At Penn Station, Amtrak had a booth. At the booth you had to watch a two-minute video about Amtrak’s guest rewards program in exchange for earplugs, lip balm, and an eye mask. When I got home, I made you wear them all. First the lip balm, then the earplugs, then the eye mask.

 

At the Battery Conservancy, we rode giant, coral-colored glass fish that swam in slow, incomprehensible circles. New York had spent sixteen million dollars on this adult ride. Occasionally the fish would swivel in a way that forced us to face one another: strangers, caught in this bizarre dance. What are we doing here, we silently pleaded. How many times are we allowed to ride?

 

My father, gone one year, showed up to our Bed-Stuy apartment. He held two brown-leather suitcases. He was just like I remembered him, skinny with a round stomach. His expression was of someone who’d taken many flights, trains, and cabs to find us. You handed him a beverage. You told him to make himself at home.