riot police

It was the sort of protest that's a few minutes away from rioting, and I'm not really sure what it was about. Maybe nobody else there did, either. There was just so much anger in the air, and it seemed like any time I asked people what was going on, their response just didn't fit the anger. Maybe it never does. I think that's something to remember.

Some of them didn't like my camera, even though I was just snapping pictures. Some of them would pose or shout their slogans for me. I didn't write anything down. I don't remember what they were shouting. I don't remember why I was there. I just remember getting caught up in it at some point, and I barely remember anything about that. Shouting things I never thought I would into a microphone.

I remember, standing up there, seeing a friend who had come with me framed against the riot police lined up just outside. She was sort of in the fringe of the crowd and I don't know if she saw me. It was a strange image. She was a peaceful person. I took a picture later on.

On the way home she asked me how it felt, and I told her I wasn't sure. I mumbled something about how I just wasn't really me anymore. That was the best I could offer. All I knew is I was glad I had the pictures, later on.


a challenge

I gave her everything except a challenge, and that's probably why it went so badly. People said--she said--I let her walk all over me, and I never really understood. It wasn't like it was a sacrifice, or if it was, it was one I made willingly.

Maybe I didn't understand what she wanted. That's always possible. Maybe she was hoping for something more from me. Maybe she wanted me to do something besides shrug when she made another request and didn't offer anything in return. Maybe. Sometimes she'd try to argue with me, but I'd never put up a fight. It just wasn't worth it.

Normally I'd say something changed but that's not true. Eventually I could tell that she'd gotten exactly what she wanted from me and she wanted none of it. Or, worse, she just came to expect it. Like maybe she deserved it from me. And eventually I realized that she didn't care, or appreciate it. And normally when that happens I'd just sulk, but this time I snapped.

It was brief and nasty. It didn't take much for her to go from exploitative to contemptuous, and for my part the venom was easy enough to unleash. To say that the split was mutual is to miss how much acid there was to it. Two living humans could not have been more hateful to one another. I was happy to be rid of her.

But now it's Monday night and normally we'd be watching television shows I didn't really like right now, and you know what? I'm starting to miss that.

the death of summer

This summer I started noticing the crickets in the evenings, when it was hot out and they seemed so excited. Maybe I shouldn't ascribe emotion to them but that's what it always sounded like: they were excited for it to be summer. It was nevertheless a peaceful sort of sound. It may have been unpleasantly muggy but everything was more or less right with the world.

Of course, like all background noises I eventually stopped noticing them for some reason or another. Maybe I still heard them but they weren't there or maybe I simply stopped being in a position to notice them--the point is I didn't really notice them again until tonight, when I noticed them again, slower, almost mournful, like they were on the verge of not chirping at all. Like maybe they were mourning the death of summer, or perhaps the death of summer was nearly killing them off.

It's one of those things I've never really known anything about in any real sense. But I know there's a point where they stop, and there's something a little sad about that.


before or since

Sometimes I take people at their word. As far as I knew, when she said "We'll always have room on our floor" she meant it. Even after everything fell apart--especially then. There was that look in her eyes, like she knew what was going to happen and she meant it still. And we shook hands--I don't think we ever did that before or since--and she called me a name she never calls me, and it was like she knew. Not that I knew what that meant at the time.

Maybe it was a mistake to believe her after everything we said. Not all of it could be unsaid, and I still remembered the sting of every one of her words, and still wince every time I think of mine. There's always regrets.

When things fell apart that didn't have anything to do with her and all of my other options failed me I decided I'd try to stop by. It had been over a year. There wasn't a lot else to do. I knocked on the door.

She looked better than ever and she smiled, sort of, when she saw me. And she made coffee and we talked for a while, and then I asked if I could possibly sleep on the floor. There was a pause and her smile froze, and she said that tonight wasn't good. She said that she was sure I could find a place.

Six months ago I would have called her on her promises. I'm still not sure what changed.


the other kind of fog

I'm not sure when it started, but I've been in this fog lately. It's not that my mind is any less sharp than it usually is, or even, in a certain sense, that I'm less perceptive--but in the other sense that's exactly the problem. When my mind isn't focused on something, I don't notice anything. I'm unsteady when I walk. I don't notice obstacles or people. Today I was walking home and someone I know was standing on a street corner and greeted me, and I just stopped and stared at him for a moment before I realized he was actually talking to me.

I'm not sure when it started. Maybe it's always been like this and I've only just noticed. I don't think anyone else has noticed yet, unless they notice the strange look in my eye as I try to force myself to focus on basic tasks. One foot in front of the other. Don't walk into the man waiting for the light to change. Don't walk into traffic.

And then I sit down and I smile and I force myself to focus and for a while I even convince myself. But eventually the fog rolls in again.


no apology necessary

She finds me in the back of the library and sits down opposite me and says, "Hey," like nothing was ever wrong. Yesterday we weren't speaking and she was pointedly avoiding my gaze. I sigh and mark my place and say, "Hey." I want to ask her what she wants, to tell her that everything is not okay. Instead I ask her, "How's it going?"

"I'm good. I'm good." She seems more self-conscious of the volume of her voice than the fact she is talking to me at all. "What are you up to these days? I haven't seen you in forever."

"Yeah, I've been busy. I haven't been very exciting. I guess that's why I haven't called or anything."

"Well, hey, if you're free this weekend--"

"Uh, what day?"

"I don't know. Maybe Saturday?"

"Sure, sure. Uh, go on."

She nodded. "I was going to watch some movies, at my place. You're invited, if you, if you--" she trailed off, then smiled.

"I think I can make it."

"Good. I'll, uh. I guess I'll see you then."

And she leaves and despite everything I can't bring myself to keep holding a grudge.



"It's been forever since we've had fog like this," she said. I hadn't even noticed it was foggy. The streets were still wet with the rain earlier, though it was just a fine mist now. The street lights over the parking lot had little cones of light coming from them. She sat down on the curb and put her camera down next to her.

I sat down a few feet away, my feet astride a small puddle reflecting the street light above us. She continued, "It's been forever since we lived in a place that gets fog like this." I nodded but didn't say anything.

"I never thought the thing I'd really miss about home was the weather, you know?"


She fiddled with her camera some, then pointed it at me and snapped a picture. "Wish we were there," she said wistfully. I kicked the puddle in front of me and broke the reflection into a thousand tiny lines of light.


cigarette voyeur

Lately I've been watching people smoking--sometimes stealthily, sometimes just as part of daily interactions. It's no secret it's a social activity, but what's interested me are the ones who make it part of something else--like the people who only smoke when they're walking somewhere, and unless you see them when they're in transit you'd never know they're smokers. Or the girl sitting outside on her laptop smoking like it's the most natural thing in the world, like it's just something you do all the time. Or the girl I've written about before who smoked and stood waiting for the bus stop with such disdain.

I used to go outside to join other smokers, socially, but I've stopped that. I only smoke when no one else is. It's not a secret, but if someone else lights up I'll quietly snub mine and save it for later. I'm not sure what it is. Maybe I just like the attention, even if it is mostly people giving me strange looks or telling me those things will kill me. For a minute everyone has to pretend to care about me, and only me.


secrets and changes

She called us her best-kept secret, and I suppose that was probably true. It was probably the only secret she managed to keep even from me. Maybe that's for the best. I never understood why I slept on the couch the night we first kissed, when it was raining and we spent forever just kissing in the rain after getting dinner at a dimly lit cafe. We were soaked, and left our clothes hanging in the bathroom and curled up in blankets and towels in front of the TV. I never questioned that it was right of me to wake up at daybreak and go home before she woke up.

Over the years we'd fight, we'd make up, sometimes in the same night. It was a game, but it was her game. I couldn't win. I wasn't sure I wanted to. I didn't really know what it entailed.

But fighting or not we were inseparable and, of course, everyone asked if there was something going on. Sometimes we'd pretend; sometimes we'd just deny it. I wasn't sure what we actually were, so I'd just go with what I felt like at the time. I knew this: I could show up on her doorstep at four in the morning and she'd welcome me in with a smile and put some tea on if I wanted.

I was never sure what changed, or when it happened. We fell apart. It happened just as naturally as anything else did. We ran into each other at the cafe once again, but now the sun was shining and summer was high and the magic was gone. She nodded at me when she saw me and sat down a few tables down, and I finished my sandwich, paid the check and left.


trust me

I had my arms folded and was standing against the wall when she approached, clinging onto her bottle with two hands--like it was liable to escape, or perhaps like it was the only thing keeping her from escaping. Maybe it was both. But she was smiling easily, and she said hi even though I was clearly distancing myself from everyone, and I said hello and relaxed my arms.

She asked if I liked her shoes and I said, more or less honestly, that they were very nice. They were bright green and looked new, and she was modeling them for me, very briefly, still clutching her drink protectively. There was a wary look in her eye, too. I wasn't sure of it until she said, "I don't trust you."

I said, "You probably shouldn't," and she smiled.

"Do you know why I don't trust you?" she said. It was a game.

"You don't have any reason to."

"That's not it." She smiled again. "But you're cute. I'll let you take me home with you tonight."

I had little interest in doing so, and yet--"I was just going to watch movies when I got home tonight. You are welcome to come if you like."

"Okay. But we have to say good bye to everyone first. And we'll need to tell people each other's names."

We exchanged names--mine was real, but I have the feeling hers was made up--and she took my hand and we went around chatting with people like a couple. Then we left and went home and watched a movie or two and didn't watch a lot more, and eventually, lying half-asleep on the floor, she whispered, "I still don't trust you."

record temperatures

She doesn't recall the last time it was so cold so early in the year. She brought a jacket, but it's too light and with the sudden rain and the wind it's almost unbearable outside, so she is cold and wet and sitting against the wall of her friend's studio apartment. It is late and she is struggling to stay awake, and she is starting to think that last glass of wine may have been a mistake. She is tired and wants to go home.

Her friend is talking about something, and she isn't paying attention. She hasn't been paying attention for some time now, though occasionally she catches a few words. One of them is "winter," and that is a little concerning, so she opens her eyes. "What's that?"

"I was just talking about how I was thinking of going back south for winter break. You haven't made plans, have you?"

"No." She looks at the clock. "I don't suppose there's any public transit still running?"

"No, but you know you're always welcome to stay here."

"Thanks." She looks out the window. "I just really don't want to go back out there."


shoulder to shoulder

He is at a conference now, which was overbooked and is far too crowded, and it is getting late in the evening but he has to stay. He made a speech--no, gave a presentation--earlier and it would look bad if he left now. He is handing out business cards and pretending to be happy to meet everyone, and it is difficult. He keeps checking his watch--furtively at first, but now he no longer cares. Surely it must be coming to an end soon.

And there is a woman here who looks familiar, but he can't put a finger on it. She has her arms folded and uses her glass of wine as a shield. He has been trying to keep track of how many she has had, but in the crowd it is impossible. All he can tell is it has either been a great deal or not very many at all. Perhaps it is both.

As she approaches his cell phone vibrates, once, and he glances at it briefly. It is from work and, so, can wait. She pauses a few paces away, and there is a moment of awkward silence. "Hi?" he says, and curses himself for sounding so confused, so curious.

She says hello, and asks him how he is doing, and for some reason this makes him think he knows her--the tone, the inflection, something about it. "I'm fine," he says. "How are you?" She is also doing fine, she tells him. She tells him that she enjoyed his presentation. She empties her wine and says she should be going. She bids him good night and hands him a business card. He does not recognize the name. He turns it over. She has written something on the back, and he does recognize the handwriting. It says she is staying in his hotel. It contains a room number.

He glances at his watch once more and decides that it is time to call it an evening, at the conference in any case. He hails a cab and bills it to the company. He is not certain if he will accept this penciled invitation. There is a lot to leave unsaid.


against the windowpane

The last bus home arrives and she climbs aboard and fumbles in her pockets for her transfer. She apologizes to the few individuals waiting in line behind her, then sags into a seat and for a moment tries to read. The bus stops at several more stops, and her eyes close for a moment, then she nods and starts awake and, sinking further into the hard seat, clutches her bag and her book about herself tightly and shuts her eyes again. Once again she nods. This time she does not start awake, and she continues to sink into the seat. The book slips from her hands.

Her eyes open once again, just before her stop. She looks phenomenally unhappy now, confused, concerned, unsatisfied with the sleep she didn't really intend to take. She rubs at her eyes and runs her hands through her hair and stands up and, when the bus finally stops, gets off and sneaks into the night, head bowed, shoulders hunched. The book finds its way into the hands of a man who never knows anything more about it besides the fact that it was "to Melissa, from Nicholas. With something resembling love."



My window looks out on the courtyard of our apartment complex. From my desk, sometimes, I can see people walking around--when I look up from my work, which is seldom these days. The window's at a funny angle to the desk, anyway. I only get a little sliver of it.

They tell me there's a whole world out there I'm missing. It's not that I never go out, of course. Or even that I never have any leisure time. But there is, as they say, a whole world out there, and I don't know anything about it. It's so unfamiliar. Out there, the unexpected happens. Problems happen. And I don't know what to do about it. It's safer in here.

I know the sound of my keyboard perfectly. I know my music. I know every crack in the wall, I know the texture of the floors and my desk's surfaces. I know the little sliver of a view out my window, every inch of it. These are things I know. I know what my work will be like. I know what to do when something goes wrong with it. And because I know it, I'm in control.

I know there's lots of things I don't know. I don't know why the things I said made her so upset. I don't know why I got so angry when she said she was leaving. It's a mistake, my father always told me, to try to know everything. So I let those things go. It's safe in here and I won't be interrupted at work.

couch surfing

I've spent the last few weeks hopping couches, with nothing left to my name than a few bags--clothes and a computer and a handful of books. Not even the ones I couldn't bear to part with, just a few that might help kill the time.

I always expected it to be romantic when I finally had no ties left, when I could go anywhere I had the money for--so long as there was coffee and cigarettes somewhere. So far I've just been adrift in the city, working odd jobs that I find out about through friends, never staying in the same place more than a few days. They let me shower, of course, but I think it's starting to show. I never expected that, either.

They never know when I'm going to leave, of course. I don't want to bother them with awkward farewells. In the morning I'm gone. Usually I take off at three or four in the morning and find a place to kill the hours. Tonight I woke up to my alarm at about 3:30 and stepped out onto the porch for a cigarette. I found my host already there smoking one of her own.

"Hey," I said.

"Hello," she said, eyeing my bags. "Are you leaving?"

"Yeah." I sat down next to her and she offered me a light. "Thanks for giving me a place," I said.

"Hey, it's nothing. Any time." She looked at me and smiled. In the night it looked strange. "I mean that. It's always good to see you."

We smoked in silence. After a while I stood up, and she followed. We shook hands, and I said, "Thanks again, for everything."

"You too." She nodded. "I mean that, too."

"What do you mean?"

She smiled. "You take care of yourself, kid." She stepped inside and I never explored it further. We all make mistakes.



I told her I'd probably never see her again, and as far as I knew it was true. She said she thought we still might, and I let her think that, but we were going different ways. It wasn't summer anymore, and it would be winter soon, and we'd both be snowed in our chilly cities. I loved her so long as the summer lasted, and she probably loved me, and that's all there was to it. Summer was gone, and we sat outside on a park bench and held hands and enjoyed one of its last days. The next day we parted ways and never expected to see each other again.

That was four years ago. Summer has come and gone several times and left only winter behind, with its snow and its bitter cold. There were other summer romances and I had nearly forgotten that one late summer evening where we knew we'd never see each other again. But tonight as I was in New York on business, sitting on a park bench and enjoying a sandwich I'd bought at a 7-Eleven I saw a girl who looked familiar. She was wearing glasses and her hair was short, and her arms were tattooed now, but as soon as she said my name I knew her.

We embraced. I finished my sandwich and we talked for a while. I thought she was in Chicago still; she thought I was still in Boston. After a while of talking there was silence, where we simply sat like we did years before. Neither of us mentioned who had been there in the summers since we'd seen each other, but both of us knew. It didn't really matter. Summers really do last forever. She kissed me on the cheek and we half-heartedly promised to stay in touch. Maybe we even will.

if this isn't nice i don't know what is

She has grown tired of boys who take her seriously, who kiss her on the neck and leave little bruises, who cling to her and promise never to let go. There is something fundamentally draining about it all. She has not found any more purpose or meaning or drive and is no less confused about life but somehow none of that matters anymore. She wants to enjoy herself, and she cancelled a social engagement to sit on the roof of her apartment and watch the moon rise. She never calls after dates anymore, and she is okay with that.

Her roommate wonders if he is a womanizer, even though he is mostly sincere and doesn't do it on purpose. But he talks to girls who look like they are lonely, because he doesn't want anyone to be lonely, and sometimes they tell him their secrets and tell him how glad they are they found him, how nice he is, how kind and attentive. And he says it's nothing and means it. Sometimes when the moment is right they will kiss, or make love, and they will fall asleep feeling safe with him there. In the morning they find a note where he says that he hopes to see them again soon. He seldom does.

The last girl he slept with cried at first when she realized he was not coming back, but after a night of heavy drinking with her best friend from high school, who was in town for the weekend, she woke up with the worst hangover she had ever known and no memory of the night before. With the morning came the realization that it is simply not worth it. She smiled when she went in to work the day after and for a while, at least, no longer found herself troubled by the world's problems. She asked out a boy she knew from her sociology class who seemed like he was nice, and bought new shoes for their first date.

Her best friend from high school does not talk about her troubles to anyone, and spends most of her time trying to help everyone. She does not think she is an exceptionally nice person, and tells everyone it is just what she assumes anyone would do. She fears that despite all she has done she has no true friendships, and that people keep her around because they are simply using her. She has always been there as a shoulder to cry on, or to hold back the hair of her best friend from high school, and then to help her stumble home and into bed. Even the drunken slurred "I love you" did not entirely quell those fears, and she slept on the couch and left at daybreak.

Her new best friend is a boy who worries that, despite all his efforts, he is not a person--that he doesn't feel what he is supposed to, or do what people do. He is very self-conscious, and can't stand people who are not self-aware, in part because he envies them. His analysis has caused him to terminate many relationships. He sometimes tries to explore human emotion on paper, in poetry or prose, but is never satisfied with the nuance, no matter how he tries.



By the time she met me she had perfected the art of making herself sound blameless in any situation, or very nearly. I was the only person she really trusted enough to talk about it openly. The trick, she said, was to know what you had done wrong. You could gloss over that part. You could alter the story just enough, add or omit details. Then it sounds like you did the only thing.

Most people do this, of course, but she had made it an art form. She wouldn't tell me the true story most of the time, but it was a little game we played where later on I'd try to guess what really happened. I'm telling you this to explain how strange it was when she had a story about someone who had wronged her and she didn't have anything to say. "I don't want to talk about it," she said. She was sullen and closed off all evening.

Eventually I talked the story out of her. Something had gone wrong and she didn't know what she'd done, why it was happening. She couldn't find a way to tell it which didn't make it sound like she must have done something wrong. Everyone in the story ended up sounding like monsters. She had no idea what she'd done.

I couldn't tell if she was apologetic, concerned that she was such an uncaring person she no longer even noticed when she slighted someone, or if she was just worried that the story got away from her and she wasn't in control. I suppose it could be both.


grifter, reprise

[By request, with apologies. - Ed.]

When I say that she was a pathological liar, I want you to know it's not because she hurt me or lied to me. She was a criminal. She had stolen thousands of dollars from hundreds of people. She'd heard I'd be in Chicago for the weekend. She figured she'd make me one more victim.

I think it was her sob story that made me suspicious. I googled her name and found that she was wanted for massive fraud out of state. I should have done something--called the police, anything. Instead I decided I'd make a game out of it.

She said she was pregnant. She said she had cancer. She said the father was an abusive boyfriend she was running away from. She'd always been a big fan of my work. She wanted to hang out while she still had time. I pretended to believe her. It wasn't hard to pretend to like her. She was clever, if not terribly original. She was likeable.

She was utterly fucked up.

We almost went out for drinks later that evening, but she was clever enough to know that would tip her hand. She regretted not being able to and invited me back to my place. I started to feel sick, exploiting her like this--she wouldn't get a dime out of me.

In normal circumstances, it would have been a quiet, intimate evening. She confessed all of her entirely false fears, and each one made me feel sick. I told her how sorry I was. I told her I wished I could stay, or make it better.

We kissed in the dim light of the half-moon. I had never felt so wrong in my life. Then as she lay there in bed, not quite asleep I slipped outside to have a smoke.
When I returned she brushed a hand against my cheek and then sighed. "What's wrong?" I asked, sensing this would be her attempt to con me at last.

She framed it nicely. She didn't even make the request. She just made it sound so sad and lonely--she has no money to make sure everything is all right for her baby, to make sure he was taken care of when she was in the hospital. I told her I could give her something, but it was at home. I told her I'd go home and get it tonight, and made her promise to meet me at a restaurant halfway there so I could give her the money. "I'll even buy you lunch, if you want."

On the way home I had another cigarette and phoned the police. "She'll be there," I said. "Just tell me what to do."