A Short Story
What do you do when you’ve decided, irrevocably, that this is not the life you want to live?
Easy to say. Easy to believe too, while hope is a bright ember.
Except there are two kinds of embers: the kind that flares into flame with the barest encouragement, and the kind that is prodded too hard and extinguishes, lingering only as smoke, the dark memory of better days.
I am the fading ember, the memory, pushed to breaking. And change, though attractive, is as ephemeral as smoke.
So what do you do?
I discover the answer one night, alone in my dank apartment, the smell of must and mold coating every hair in my nostrils:
It turns out the remedy is as obvious as two plus two, if less elegant.
In the newborn hours of April 1, I make my way to the roof of my building. Ironic, you say? Personally, I’ve never had much patience for irony. I was never one for procrastination, either. I will make this quick. No lingering, no giving away objects or sudden professions of love. My only requirement is a private spot. I can’t stand the idea of using a bridge that has statistics attached.
On the roof it is warm, which is nice. There are stars, as many as a few dozen, and that is nice too. I allow myself a long pause, taking in the night. I am making sure. Only the image of smoke comes to mind—curling upwards, happiness and hope disintegrating on the breeze. There are feelings attached, but only for things that are already dead. The future is dirty ash.
I step up and onto the edge. Below me is a narrow alley, dirty, but private. I like the idea of resting for a while undisturbed. I reach my toe over the edge and begin forward motion.
My foot stumbles into blank air and my stomach jumps as if gravity has already taken hold of it. My arms pinwheel, seeking balance and finding it only after I am sure they won’t. It is counter-productive, of course; falling is the goal. But suicide is about intention and I’ll be damned before my last inch of control is snatched away by an angry voice.
And it is angry. Not surprised to find me up here, not frightened at what they might witness. Just unapologetically pissed off.
“Find your own roof,” it continues.
I step carefully down and turn. The woman standing there is as slim and dark as the shadow cast by a lamp post. Her hair is sheared into a do-it-yourself pixie and she wears cheap bracelets that reach to her elbows.
“Fuck you,” I reply, returning the favor. “Wait your turn.”
Indignation rises in me, filling the void where I’d searched for feeling and found none moments before. Life is made of lines: for roller coasters, for groceries, for traffic lights. And here was this woman, honking her horn the second the light turned green. The sense of privilege makes me burn.
The woman stares at me strangely, bangled arms crossed under her breasts. No less angry, but maybe a little surprised.
It is only then that I realize a normal person would have stopped at the expletive. That a normal person wouldn’t want a turn with their foot dangling over a roof. That we are offended for the wrong reasons.
We are the same, and we both know it. It is intimate and exposing, an invasion of privacy far worse than the tearing of clothes.
“Look,” she says finally, when the moment fades. “Just do your thing. I’ll wait.” She waves dismissively toward the edge, and it is that which sends my burn into a boil.
“Like hell,” I spit. “I’m not going to let some privileged bitch watch.”
She rolls her eyes. She is standing close, close enough to push me if she really wants to press the issue. She grips her own torso tighter as if to hold herself back.
“Fine,” she scoffs. “Have it your way. I don’t mind an audience.” She uncoils and makes to push not me, but past me.
I grab her bare arm in one hand, fingers meeting around her flesh. She jerks forward, animal desperation culminating in an animal snarl.
“Find another place.”
“Genius,” she says sardonically. “It has to be here. Call me sentimental. What’s your excuse?”
“I live here.”
“If you want a show, hanging is better.”
“You have really thought this out,” I match her mocking tone.
“How you kill yourself…it makes a statement. Unless you can tell me yours, get out of my way.”
She moves forward with undisguised intention, but she is a waif, and I still have hold of her arm.
She breathes carefully, calming herself in a way I am not yet ready to be calmed. Anger has pierced through me like a thick spear, carving a hole through my middle. I am a shell and this woman is keeping me from peace. Maybe I have already fallen and this is Hell.
Under my hand, the woman shifts; I feel her muscles turn from coiled steel into pliant clay. Her eyes grow warm as she stares up at me. She smiles.
“Please?” she simpers, dragging charm up from the depths like a sword drawn from a sheath. “I already wrote my note. I promise I’ll be quick.”
That burning again. I can’t let her go first. I can’t.
“Together, then?” she wheedles.
I think about it. Really. Together is different than watching or being watched. Together is very close to comfort. Together is like being together. Longing bounces like a pinball inside me, echoing in that cavernous space, searching for a place to settle. I understand with very little emotion that if I had the comfort of together, I might not be seeking solace from the pavement.
I shake my head.
“Jesus Christ, you’re stubborn,” she curses, all pretense evaporated.
Without warning, she collapses to the ground and breaks my grip. She sits, cross-legged and cross-armed, with her back pressing against the ledge of the roof.
I am left standing close to the edge. Below, far below, the alley waits. It promises relief. When I hit, the pinball will settle, satisfied. It is what I want. I’m tired. So tired.
“This is one hell of a Mexican standoff,” the woman complains.
I can’t share this. And I am too petty to let her have her way.
I sit next to her because she will undoubtedly take an advantage if she finds one. The wall is cool, the stucco clings to my hair. I leave my arms uncrossed so I can grab her if I have to. She tests me twice, adjusting subtly and even twisting her torso until I clamp a hand on her thigh.
We sit. We breathe. It is exhausting.
I can no longer stand the silence, the sensation of being alone in a crowded room.
“What was in your note?” I ask.
“Piss off.” She stares straight ahead.
“Why does it have to be here?”
“Why won’t you go away?”
“I live here.”
“But you don’t want to. Clearly.”
“It’s a shitty place.”
“Yeah. It is.”
Her resignation barely shows. The tension that turns her body into a tuned wire doesn’t touch her voice. The desperation that transforms her into a panicked animal is only obvious because I am one too. Time is passing. Too much time. The approach of tomorrow is unbearable.
“We need to figure this out.”
“I didn’t come up here to problem-solve.”
I want to laugh, but can’t find the proper mechanism.
“You’re the one holding us back.” She still doesn’t look at me.
I know. I wonder why.
“What was in your note?”
“Goodbye, Cruel World.”
She looks at me. Her eyes are brown. Her witticism doesn’t light them up. They are empty.
“You’re not going to try to save me,” a statement.
I manage a wheezy scoff. “Saving isn’t on my agenda.”
“It’s for my sister. She’ll miss me.”
“Will you miss her?”
“I’ll be dead.”
I hadn’t thought about that.
“Your turn,” she says. “One fact.” Her gaze is devoid of curiosity.
I think. It takes more energy than I have left to sift through the past, to look for one fact that doesn’t tumble into three more. Finding my answer was like learning the real lyrics to a verse you’ve stumbled over for years. I have to grasp for the chain of logic that led me there.
Only one thing comes to mind:
“I tried.” I hear emotion in the words and feel my knuckles scrape against the floor as my hands curl into fists.
I wait for her to comment. Instead, she continues.
“I made a promise.”
A beat. She makes a go-on gesture with her hand that is somehow sarcastic.
“I hate the day time. It means I’m supposed to be out of bed.”
“Fuck ’em,” she says. “Stay in bed.”
My lip twitches. I think it’s a smile. I move the muscle again, just to feel it.
“Tonight is the anniversary,” she continues, a fact, not coercion.
“It’s not going to get better.”
She sighs and the bellow of air is immense. “I tried too.” The words are quiet. The rest, when it comes, is even softer. “My best friend used to live here. We would play hide-and-seek in the lobby. She died.”
I listen like a priest assigned to death row.
“I tried to keep going but…. She was my soul mate. I promised myself that if I tried to make it, really tried for one year, it was okay to quit.”
Her eyes close. “I just want to be connected to her again.”
We sit. We breathe. I consider what she’s told me but don’t look for an escape hatch.
After a long while, she quietly murmurs, “Your turn.”
I open my mouth and now I am the one on my knees. My confession comes as a surprise. As it leaves my mouth, I hear my motives put into words for the first time.
“I can’t keep up. I’m behind. In everything—relationships, accomplishments, money. I can’t find solid ground, let alone an advantage. I can’t even live in this place anymore.”
“This shitty place.”
“This shitty place. I’m going to be kicked out. I’ll be on the streets. People will watch. Point.” I listen to my own clarity, and at last identify the most important link in the chain. “If I wait until tomorrow, it will be another day that I can’t afford to eat.”
I say it and realize that the sky is beginning to lighten, the stars fading out. We have spent so much time silently seething that tomorrow has already arrived.
“I’m tired of being judged,” I admit reluctantly. It is hard to say. Hard to put those words in the air only to feel them settle at my feet on the rough concrete of the roof.
“Me too,” she places her words down gently so that they sit next to mine.
I look at her. “Together,” I almost say, but we are not friends. If anything, I like her less, for sitting here with me, for making me understand, for being like me when the world is filled with an infinite number of possibilities.
She reaches down the front of her shirt and I am taken aback by the return of my resentment. The motion makes me notice how low her tank-top is cut, reminds me of intimacy that is not there. I recoil, my face twisting.
Her hand comes out of her shirt, fingers clenched. She rests it on her lap.
“We’re not going to solve this tonight.”
“It’s not tonight,” I am trying to be cruel, but the effect is marred by surprise. She’s given up. Somehow I am disappointed.
She unclenches her hand. In her palm, sitting meek and small, is a green paper bill. It is curled in on itself as if afraid to show its face. I see a one and half of a zero. “I brought it with me in case I had to bribe someone to get up here.”
She moves her hand so that her palm is hovering over my lap instead of hers.
I draw back, more distrustful of this gesture than of anything that has ever come before.
“Take it,” she hisses, as vehemently as any curse.
It is the bite in her voice that makes me do it. The lack of sympathy. The exasperation because she hasn’t won.
I pinch the bill with two fingers and transfer it to my own palm. I stare at it with reverence. I feel the weight of it, and the warmth. I still cannot see the number. It doesn’t matter. I feel a thought creep into my head, worming in slowly until it finds a place to plant roots. It grows, filling me, pushing my anger to the side, quieting the pinball of loneliness that has pummeled me raw. It is a balm, a shady tree, the relief of a flood of tears.
I can eat today.
“I guess it doesn’t matter,” she looks around the roof as she says it. I can see the memories floating across her hollow eyes. No thought has made her full. “What’s one more day?”
Laboriously, she pushes herself up.
“You know I hate you, right?”
I know. I hate her too.
“You’d better figure it out,” she growls. “This is my place. If I see you up here again, I’ll change my mind about murder.”
She looks at me dubiously. She turns away, but not before I see the panic in her eyes.
I watch her go, marveling at the pain I’ve caused. Sympathy crawls into me. I don’t recognize it at first.
I know instinctively that the slim, dark woman has found her answer, the only round peg she can get her hands on, because the rest are always squares.
Alone in my dank apartment, I had found my own answer.
Up on the roof with a crass stranger I find the solution.
They are not the same.
An answer is rigid. It is black or white, yes or no, jump or don’t.
A solution asks for more. Another option, a different angle, a knife to chisel the square peg into a round one. It is a grey area that tells you that you can jump, but opens other doors. It is the voice that whispers “maybe I can eat tomorrow too.” And maybe I can. Or maybe I’ll jump. My solution is the gift of choice.
I stretch my stiff knees and stand. I begin walking, my back to the ledge. The paper in my hand is small and powerful, a seed.
I leave the roof and greet the pavement. My feet smack down one after the other and I am moving forward.
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