by Alex Scaife
Water drained slowly into the copper pipes beneath me, with a churning sound that continued until the spinning mass of liquid had disappeared. I lay naked with damp, tangled strands falling across my face and beads of sweat clinging to my forehead. Red veins meandered through the whites of my eyes before halting at the basin of my iris. Breaths rose unsteady and timid, my chest expanding gradually before my whole body collapsed into an exasperated and stuttered paroxysm.
I felt tender at the point where he kissed me, and I recalled so clearly the sound his footsteps had made as his black boots struck the aged concrete of the station floor, getting quieter until they faded into the dull, uninteresting sounds of everything else. The words had been harsh. His thumb brushed the tears from my eyes as his palm held my cheek. Coarse and callused. They had always reminded me of a welder’s. I lit a cigarette after he left and contemplated the tracks. Trains came momentarily, boarded the passengers and then left, slowly getting smaller and smaller until I could no longer see them. I watched this until I ran out of cigarettes and my eyes began to hurt.
At the apartment, dishes were piling up in the sink and I had been spitting my toothpaste into a bowl which I would place at my bedside table whilst I brushed. Back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. I repeated this until I felt it had been about two minutes, measuring this in the amount of ads that had played on my quietly whirring television. Occasionally, I would keep the toothpaste in for longer when it felt too difficult to move myself from my present location to the bowl. More often than not, I would simply stand in front of the bowl, do the movements for maybe twenty seconds and spit the blue mix of toothpaste and saliva into the container. The bowl had originally been plain white, but the paste was congealing at the corners and the liquid hardly moved when I tilted it. To hide my shame, I would put it on the top shelf, across from my bed where I would often keep the dishes with my recently finished meals before tossing them in the sink with the rest.
In the morning, as frost crept up my apartment window, I sat in front of my brown leather notepad and hoped something profound would spring from my mind to the lines of the empty page. Most days, in a state of absent-mindedness, I would doodle a square, or a noose, or a face, or some symbol I had seen on my walk to the tobacconist, or whatever seemingly salient thing was floating away in the deeper yet entirely uninteresting recesses of my mind. Now and then, I would get a sentence out, and then I’d stare at the page and silently will the words to embody the same sickness that had been residing in my heart for the last three weeks.
The words would sit there, judgemental in their stillness, as if they seemed dissatisfied with me for bringing them into the world. They didn’t move me, and I didn’t move them. I looked outside my window. A pale winter blanket gathered on the roof of a Buick that hung off the edge of the sidewalk. Footsteps marked the snow, revealing the cracked gray stone that resided underneath. Apartment buildings loomed over the scene, seeming apathetic to the entire thing. I missed my mother. My head hurt. I decided to go back to bed. I should have been a painter. I should have been a sculptor.
Ronny, who lectured at Columbia, had invited me along to a talk given by a traveling professor from Chicago. The talk was on the topic of Irish literature and the theme of paralysis in Dubliners by Joyce. Then a speaker would talk about Irish modernism and its relation to the nationalist movement of the early twenties. Normally, I’d avoid these sorts of things, as they reminded me too much of being a student but my love for Joyce overrode my better judgment. Originally, I thought Ronny was from Boston as he had one of those clam chowder Kennedy-like accents, but it turned out he was from Chile, moving here when he was fifteen and later getting accepted into MIT. Then he dropped out from his engineering course to study comparative literature at Brown, before moving once again down to New York where he lectures and sometimes writes columns in those underground, dissident papers. Papers called things like “The Heterodox Times,” or “The View from Below.” He definitely has remarkable qualities, but I could tell he never really enjoyed my poetry, which was fine, as I thought his was awful.
The articles he wrote were very good though, and it was only a matter of time really before he’d get snapped up by a “proper publication.” The talk was one of those things that became trivial at an astonishing rate. I slumped in my chair, moving sporadically and finding no particular point of comfort. I saw Professor Lesley from the Visual arts department, a gaunt man with low sunken eyes that sat behind his glasses like caged opals. He tended to wear odd things, colourful stuff that would become irritating on the eyes the longer you were subjected to it. We had a discussion a few weeks prior, at a dinner party hosted by Ronny, on the topic of Adolf Deutsch and Max Steiner. He seemed to think Steiner was the far superior composer to Deutsch and I disagreed.
“Have you watched Northern Pursuits?” I asked.
“I have. The score isn’t by Deutsch though. That was Shea who worked on… St. Louis Blues I believe. Same director.”
“No, it’s Deutsch. I have the record in my apartment.”
“I don’t think so.”
“That it was Deutsch.”
“You’re wrong about that.” He didn’t respond. I took a breath. “Maybe you’re right. I don’t know, I guess you’re more likely to know than me.”
He was wrong, but I wasn’t sure until I got back to my apartment. I was so angry at him for speaking to me like that, but the more I thought about it, I couldn’t tell what tone he had really used with me and why this undefinable tone had made me feel that way. It was an honest mistake I told myself. Don’t be so childish. A few seats down from Lesley was Dr. Anna Benevento who lectured on medieval Italian literature. At the time I remember being struck by the softness of her features, and how, despite her notoriously erratic schedule, her eyes betrayed no signs of tiredness. She had been writing a novel about transubstantiation and the eucharist tradition, something she did in her spare time on top of a full day of lecturing, marking, meetings, etc. I didn’t really know her, but Ronny had mentioned her before and I remember feeling strangely impressed at her time management skills, even more so now that my day began late in the afternoon.
Sitting in the auditorium, surrounded by academics, and artists, and future employees, and bosses of the world, I became struck by my own pointlessness. For the last six months, I had not actually written the final draft of any poem, and I’d never be able to write anything long form like Ronny. The idea of doing all the things Benevento did made me gnaw at the edges of my fingernails. Inside my notebook were vague scribblings alluding to ideas for poems, thoughts I had throughout the day, and general tedious observations. One note, I remember finding after being hungover one evening, simply said “Don’t forget this!” followed by an arrow I had drawn which led to the word “should.” Ronny wrote poems in his second language and Lesley, despite being wrong in a hundred percent of our discussions, at least had the strength of his convictions. I was inadequate. A judgemental, unlikeable little man. My degree was in music. Why had I changed it? I should have never been a poet.
The evening was beginning to fade, and I saw a few white specks appear in the sky, like torchlight shining through poked holes in black parchment. I didn’t want to go back to the apartment. I got the bus out to Harlem before taking the 125 down to Westchester, feeling the weight of the preceding days resting heavy on my eyelids. I had a friend who lived out there, and I thought it might be nice to pay him a visit as I hadn’t seen him since his kid’s birthday last June. He was a wonderfully thoughtful person, with a great eye for cinema. I remember thinking that I must ask him about Sergei Eisenstein, as an unkempt man in my apartment block had insisted that he was the zenith of Soviet cinema. I didn’t know what to think myself and had stalled any engagement with him until I had a mind of my own on the subject.
Looming trees stood over me as I walked like a pensive smoker, reflecting wistfully on the day as they leaned over the balconies of their spectral apartments. The sidewalk was an endless procession of regimented grey stone, intermittently lit by overhanging streetlamps which shone this harsh orange glow that, somehow, and almost quite unnaturally, mixed into a wonderful image with the snow-laden path I trod. I looked back at the trail of footsteps I made, soon to melt away beneath the lamplight. Little snowflakes fluttered down onto the trail, and I smiled at the fleeting beauty of the moment as I inhaled the curling fumes of tobacco from my dimming cigarette. Then I thought of him, and the smile faded. I turned back, my friend wouldn’t want to see me.
I listened to a radio broadcast amongst my wrinkled sheets:
“Britain has been hard hit by blizzards which cover the island with deep snow, stopping transport except for in the southwest counties, drifts up to six feet, blocked roads, London airports were shut down. The 17th is looking to be the coldest day of the year…”
Nothing about this interested me, but I knew that he would have had something to say about this. He’d make a little comment about Britain with some needlessly obscure fact that he knew from a book that he read a few lifetimes ago. Then, he’d light my cigarette and I’d attempt to reply in a sort of witticism, the type of humor that attracted him to me in the first place. Towards the end of things, I found only lame and useless lines which hung briefly in the air before plummeting like a clay pigeon. My thoughts, perhaps the entire time, were so pointless and uncomplicated. No comment could be found for the vagaries of blizzards over Britain.
I turned the knob on the radio and the voice dogging me fell into silence. Walking to the apartment window which overlooked Bleecker Street, I took a pack of Newports from my pocket and rested one of the sticks between my lips. I opened the window, allowing the stale air to drift out and be replaced with the clear air from the street. A few months prior, I recalled, I had brought him to an exhibit that I had helped curate selected works by the great American sculptor, David Smith, held at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown. I remember walking around in that great white hall filled with the things I loved, talking to him about some of the works and telling him about the selection process. I remembered turning to him after I had given some long speech involving the word “equipoise” and seeing his face in a shape of utter confusion. He told me later that I was imagining this look, that he had enjoyed the exhibition, but that maybe he was just a little tired.
“What did you like about it?” He had asked me in this vague, defensive way.
“I liked the kind of orangeness. It had this kind of feeling around it that just reminds me of Orange.”
“Every part. It was all very orange. It’s funny but I don’t know how to describe it better than that.”
“I feel like you’re making fun of me.”
“Maybe,” I said before pausing for a moment. “It’s true though, I can’t describe it any better than that. If I could describe it otherwise I would.”
We had walked past 23rd and Seventh Avenue and I remember wanting to lay on the ground in the middle of the road and just be run over. It was such a silly thought. My nerves hummed looking at the tread marks that had been left by the cars. He didn’t understand me at all, not in the way I wanted. My mind returned to the Newport and I picked up the box resting on the windowsill. As the fire of the match kissed the head of the cigarette, the space between them became consumed with a bright orange glow. I inhaled the smoke, feeling it deep in my lungs before exhaling it into the streets below. A tart taste hung on my tongue. I pushed the window open further, and let the ash fall to the sidewalk.
Today is the coldest day of the year. Men are leaving Madison Avenue with tiny white specks darted all across their thick gray, brown, and white overcoats. Little mounds grow tall down the road of East 38th, a child kicking a lump into the ice-ridden road before treading softly in the crunchy white mass on the sidewalk, the hands of his mother shielding his ears gradually turning the shade of a tomato. In Times Square, footsteps break through the soft expanse of the ground, illumined in a red hue by the words “Coca-Cola” which hangs like the setting evening sun above the wandering masses. Red noses, wrinkling like shuffled newspapers, turning green under the stoplight bidding, “walk,” to the immobile and shaking few that stand below.
Outside, Mr Chanler’s old Ford sits cloaked in the white mist of the season. In the morning, he will leave home for work with a shovel in his gloved right hand, unearth the rubber of his car’s wheels from the snow that envelops them, and drive to work wishing he hadn’t.
The only thing to do is simply continue.
. blue & ♡
Alex Scaife is a third-year Classics student at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Although never previously published, Alex has been writing for many years exploring themes of depression, creativity, meaning, capitalism etc. His work is inspired primarily by James Joyce and the poetry of Frank O’Hara.
water-ish was born and raised in Japan. When she was 17, right after graduating high school, she dragged her suitcase and moved to Santa Barbara, California. She got an A.A. degree in studio-art, sbcc, then moved to Carlsbad, San Diego, to continue her studies at gemological institute of america. She graduated in jewelry design and gemology with two diplomas in these fields (applied jewelry arts & graduate gemologist). Later, she returned to Japan and started working as a jewelry adviser at a jewelry store in Kobe. Then she started working at one of the American clothing companies, and very fast, she was promoted and worked as a store manager and as a regional sales manager, followed by moving to LA to work as a jewelry category developer at their HQs. As soon as the company went bankrupt, she returned to Japan and started working as a visual merchandiser for some luxury brands. water-ish started living her life as water-ish and joining art exhibitions in NY, Paris, LA. Life goes on.