It’s a death trap. Damn druggies, breaking the lock to count a pile of quarters they ripped off from the laundromat. The landlord will probably never fix this door.
“Let me out. Let me out.”
I can’t believe I’m stuck inside a vestibule—it’s definitely not a lobby; it’s hardly big enough for two people. I’m freezing in this old T-shirt—his old T-shirt. I could have at least put on a pair of leggings.
Damn it. My credit cards, my cell, they’re all in my other purse. Great. I’ve got five dollars, three pennies, and a broken tube of lipstick. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if I die here; I’m not going back up those stairs.
I bang at the outside door; do I think someone might hear me? My knuckles start to ache. I slide down the yellow wall in defeat. He painted the stairwell last month, a deal he made with the landlord to not pay that month’s rent. The first time I saw the painted walls, I gasped. They were the exact shade of yellow as the pair of canaries at the pet store around the corner; a chill went up and down my spine.
The first week I moved in with him, I passed by the pet store; the birds in the window ruffled and flapped their wings at one another. I stopped for a moment. Suddenly, the birds flew at one another, pecking each other mercilessly in their tiny cage. I ran inside to tell the man at the counter; he stared at me blankly. “They’ve got nowhere else to go.”
I pull myself back up to standing and will the power of Samson into my scrawny, ninety-eight-pound frame. A force of air, as powerful as a cork flying out of a bottle of champagne, sends me into the night.
My heels, barely encased in a pair of terrycloth slippers—a gift for my upcoming bachelorette spa party—flap hard onto the cement. My body wavers side to side, threatening to fall onto the sidewalk stained with spit and urine. I see that a stream of liquid is heading toward me from a mounting pyramid of garbage bags. I straighten my spine, willing my lower limbs to move.
I see my reflection in the laundromat window as I run. My hair looks like squashed cotton candy on top of my head, rolled tightly into a clip, from just washing my face. There are small balloons inflating below my eyes from crying, and my nose has turned the color of Rudolph’s. I could lead a sleigh in this icy fog.
I should be at the piano bar on Fifth Avenue, wearing my new angora sweater dress, ordering a dry martini—straight up—with a salty green olive; or no, maybe I would get a toothpick full of those tiny onions. I would flip my hair as I took my first sip and laugh when the bartender told me a funny joke, and then I would leave with the first business suit that looked my way. Too bad I don’t drink martinis.
As I continue to run, my heart’s ba-bump is loudly echoing in my eardrum. My heart may burst right through my bony chest and crack it wide open. I press my purse tightly against my chest as if it’s a wound dressing.
The city’s silent. It feels like the end of the world. I’m starting to see the light. An old diner I call Sanctuary.
The neon sign’s letters are sparking and fizzing. The n and r keep disappearing. In one blink the sign flashes Diner, the next, Die. I double over for a moment, take a deep breath, and then swing the door open; a bell overhead makes a clunking sound, like a large metal pot has just dropped onto the floor. It barely makes a dent in the thick silence of the diner.
I slip into the second booth—it has a side view of my apartment building—fifth window up to the right. I strain to see past the sticky fingerprints on the glass. I wonder who leaves these and when? All I can see is the halo of the streetlight; could he be out there looking for me?
I jump at what sounds like a slap. It’s the plastic menu, so wide it takes up half the aluminum table. Large sausage-like fingers move backward through dense, wavy black hair as the waiter’s cavernous pupils cast their tiny lasers toward me. His chunky fingers grab a pen from behind his ear as he pulls out his order pad.
Why does he always play this game? He knows. It’s always the same. I pull down the T-shirt as he glances at the fabric crawling toward my buttocks. I feel my face flush. I push away the menu with the crusty food stuck up and down the edges. He taps the order pad faster and faster as if he’s sending Morse code.
He raises his thick and furry eyebrow. His top lip curls up on one side. My eyes drop to a blob of gravy on the pocket of his white shirt. He opens his mouth, revealing two black fillings and one gold tooth. I wait; he doesn’t speak; his mouth closes into a straight line as he storms off with the menu.
His shoes are pounding into the linoleum floor as his arms sway from his sloping shoulders, creating the effect of a half-beast, half-human, like in a fairy tale. I imagine he’s trapped in a spell, forced to forever live in a diner. His prison is my sanctuary.
I bite my lip as I pull out a pile of thin napkins from the silver holder. How many times in the past month have I shown up here late at night—no makeup, swollen eyes? The fights with him more and more confusing. Tonight it was different. There wasn’t a fight; only a simple declaration, as if he needed to tell me to get milk: I don’t want to get married. Tears roll out of my eyes as I look back out the window, the napkins turning into wet clumps.
A glass slides across the table; tiny chocolate puddles follow it, in the waiter’s other hand, a silver tumbler. A small green paper bill stuck to the frosty outside.
“Closing, ten minutes.”
I nod and grab the five-dollar bill out of my purse; our eyes lock. I lay it on the table.
“You can keep the rest.”
He reaches across the table for the money; I jump back. He stuffs it into his shirt pocket. He flees like he’s running from a leper. I rip the paper off the straw, swirling it through the whipped cream. I pluck the maraschino cherry out and bite quickly into its syrupy, plastic-like cover. My body quivers as the red, sugary juice reaches my bloodstream. I inhale the milky mixture. Letting it coat my thoughts, feelings, his words. Until it all disappears.
I drink the last drops and then push my body out of the vinyl seat; a cracked edge of the hard fabric scrapes against the back of my thigh. I wince and grab at the pile of wet napkins to press on the cut. I see the waiter watching me from across the room; he averts his eyes and slams open the door to the back kitchen. The hands on the clock above the door click to midnight as I leave.
A lone taxi drives too close to the curb and I jump away. A homeless woman appears out of the fog, like a magician about to perform. She looks at me suspiciously as she bends down to rip open a slimy garbage bag. Bottles, cans, and old food explode onto the sidewalk and into the gutter. A can of baked beans rolls over my slipper. The woman takes the blanket around her and throws it over her head; as if she’d just said, Abracadabra, she disappears into the wet, filmy coldness.
I run toward the apartment building. I stop in front of the metal door, still flung open. The yellow walls exposed. I walk forward. Each step up feels like my legs are sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. I have nowhere else to go.
Opening the door to the apartment, a naked bulb in the bathroom is the only light I can see. The glass French doors of the bedroom are closed. I hear snoring. I press my hands to my forehead; a tightness takes over my chest and my throat. How can he be asleep? I fall limply into the kitchen chair. A small box on the table is in front of me. My hands shake as I grab and rip the box open: the wedding invitations.
Love is like a rose and you its only seed. The script is entwined around pink roses on satin paper. Beautiful. I want to cry, but my tears are now icy sugar.
I pull open the French doors. His name, at first, I can hardly form in my vocal cords.
“Gregory.” My voice is a tiny squeak.
I say his name again a little louder, stronger. He rolls over and stares at me. I hold the invitation up. “I…the invitations came.”
“Good.” He flops back over and falls asleep. His naked back and disheveled curves facing me. He doesn’t mean it? He wants to get married? The invitation crumbles in my hand from my perspiring palm. I can’t move; my legs shake. I bend down; I feel his breath on my face. He wakes up, startled. “What are you doing? Go to sleep.”
I force my legs to the other side of the bed and slowly slip my body under the comforter. The invitation drops to the floor. The metal disks of the three-thousand-dollar mattress he bought, which supposedly had magnetic powers to heal his back, jab at my ribs like tiny steel blades. No matter where I turn, it hurts.
A high-pitched siren from the fire station down the block screams through the window; an ambulance siren answers. The city is no longer silent. The noise lulls me to sleep as I start to dream about furry brows, pounding feet on roses walking into a river of whipped cream and chocolate ice cream, as a magician throws a cloak to make me disappear.
* * *
I wake up in a panic. Did he leave? I open the French doors to see him standing naked over the kitchen sink, slurping down ramen noodles from a pot. I try to think what to say to him. He extends the pot toward me. “Noodles?”
I shake my head no.
“Going to rehearsal in ten.” His words are muffled as he continues to stuff his mouth with the curly strings. He wipes the broth off his stubbly chin with the back of his hand, then drops the pot onto the stove. He grabs a fig on the counter, biting the end off and spitting it into the sink. I watch him as his teeth pull the fruit into his mouth. I remember our first date to the movies; he brought a bag of figs and a large bag of generic popcorn to hide under his leather jacket. A knock on the door makes me jump. He looks up and walks toward the door.
I run to him. “You’re naked.”
He shrugs and points at the door as he chews the fig while grabbing some clothes from the dresser and saunters his way toward the bathroom. I slowly open the door to a tall, leggy blonde in a micro-mini, standing holding a plate of brownies.
A Cheshire-cat smile sweeps over the girl’s face as she looks down at me.
“So you’re the girlfriend.”
“Fiancée.” I can barely get the title out.
Her smile grows into a grimace. “He really liked these when he was at my place; thought I would make some more.”
He walks back toward us, wearing his usual black T-shirt and jeans. He reaches for a play at the far end of the kitchen table. Romeo and Juliet. Last year, he had performed the bedroom scene naked. Everyone was in shock. He defended the criticism, saying, Why would Romeo be anything but naked if he and Juliet had just made love? I played his Juliet then; I reach for his hand as he grabs his leather jacket, whispering to him, “The bedroom scene?”
The girl, who apparently has doglike hearing, walks over and shoves the brownie plate at me. “Yes, he wants to further explore the scene for class tonight.”
He says nothing and walks toward the door; he then turns back around and drops his jacket into my hands. Is he going to kiss me goodbye? He moves nearer, grabbing his keys on the table. “Almost forgot.”
The girl turns around and smiles as the door is closing behind them. “I told him it’s warm out; he doesn’t need it.” I hear the girl giggling down the stairs.
I put his jacket back on the chair and stare at the brownies. They look delicious; I don’t know whether to stuff them in my mouth or throw them out the window. The cake. I have an appointment in an hour to pick out what type of wedding cake we are going to have.
I quickly turn on the shower and wait for the water to heat. As the water becomes hotter, the paint begins to swell. A chunk of green paint pops off the wall and lands at my feet. A square of violet from a previous paint begins to swell underneath it. I don’t know what I hate most: the peeling paint layers, the fact that I don’t have a bathroom sink and I have to brush my teeth in the kitchen sink, or the mice that lie crying in the sticky traps he lays down.
* * *
I wash in seconds and dry as fast, throwing on my clothes and trying not to let thoughts—like why am I going to this appointment—keep popping into my head. I throw on my best high-heeled boots and run down the stairs. I touch the outside door—it flies open.
I run to the subway, just making the downtown train. The subway car lurches back and forth; I feel strange, but I’m not sure it’s the movement. The train stops at SoHo. As I walk up the stairs, I become lost and confused. I don’t recognize the narrow, cobbled streets in front of me. Did I walk the wrong way? I turn, but stop as reflections of light catch my eye. Sparkling in the nearby window, gossamer-like chiffon and lace accented with tiny sequins and white pearls. The sign overhead says Antique Wedding Dresses.
“Please be open, please.” I push on the door; a breeze makes the fabric flutter. I reach out to touch the dress.
“It’s perfect for you: you’re such a tiny thing.”
Before I can answer, a wild, rusty-haired woman with a raspy voice yanks the dress off the hanger and twirls it in front of me. “This gown has eight layers of tulle and lace in the skirt.” The woman lifts them up one by one; they float back down like soft wings. “It’s a one-of-a-kind. Bought it at an estate sale. The girl never married the guy, walked away.”
“I’ll take it.”
I’m fairly sure this woman is delusional. How could this wedding dress cost so little? Terrified the woman will come to her senses, I hand her a credit card.
“Darling, aren’t you going to try it on?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
As I walk out of the dressing room toward the mirrors, I stop in shock; the dress fits perfectly, as though it was made for me.
“Oh no, I’m late—I have an appointment. A tasting for the wedding cake. I have to go.”
“Fine.” The woman’s laugh turning into a raspy cough. “I just need to tighten these buttons on the back. Fitting on the last Tuesday of the month, same time?”
“Yes. Which way is Prince Street?”
“Turn left, three blocks up.”
At the third block, the scent of vanilla wafts through the street like a sugar cloud. Opening the bakery door, I can see pieces of cake lined up on a table. A woman with a tight-pinched face is tapping her long red nails; her clean and immaculate pressed clothes show no signs of baking.
I sit down at the table; the woman quickly pushes the samples in front of me. “Are we waiting for the fiancé?”
I shake my head no; my stomach swirls. I feel my own face become pinched and tight as I think about the plate of brownies back in the apartment. I pick up a little gold fork, but I can’t get myself to taste any of the white, spongy cakes in front of me. I look over at the last piece on the table. “Strawberry cake?”
The woman nods.
“I’ll take it. It will match my invitations.”
I write down the wedding date; the woman nods at me again as I hand her my now-quite-full credit card. The figures of a tall woman and a man about the height of Gregory look in as they pass by the window. The woman hands me the receipt and I run out the door, my heels tripping on the cobblestones as I run frantically up and down the street. No one.
A taxi pulls up; a voice yells out, “Where you going?”
I look down at the cake receipt. “I have no idea.”
* * *
I have the perfect dress, the perfect cake, and the perfect invitations, but is that all I have? My hands shake as I unlock the apartment door. Is he here? I look around nervously. The plate of brownies has tipped, a trail of crumbs lies across the kitchen table. Did he come back and eat one?
I move closer, my purse knocking the kitchen chair over, and his jacket. Several blue squares fall from the pocket. I reach down to see what they are; as I grab them, in the corner under the table, a mouse looks at me and begins to screech and cry, trying to lift its tiny legs from the sticky trap. I back up. The sharp edges of the blue squares cut into my palm. I open my hand. Condoms. The blue squares are condoms.
My head starts spinning. I begin to run around the apartment, frantically picking up all the other traps and throwing them away. There is nothing I can do; the mouse is doomed, the sticky trap will never release it.
I run out the door and then stop. I turn back around and grab the mouse. I can’t look at it as I run down the stairs. I turn the corner and open the door to the pet store. I set it on the counter. I look down at the mouse. “I’m sorry.”
I can only see a faint flash of neon. The sky still has light. I run. Others are around me, but we don’t see each other. I throw open the diner door. I want to scream and cry but the diner is silent. I sit down at the booth and place my fingers near the other ones on the window. Am I still here? It feels like I’m disappearing.
A silver tumbler slides across the table. I look up at the furry brows and burst into tears.
I drop the condoms onto the table.
He taps at his order pad. “Hey, Juliet, don’t you think it’s time to leave that guy?”
I look up, mystified.
“I can’t. We’re having strawberry cake to match the invitations and my wedding dress has eight layers of tulle and lace; it’s a one-of-a-kind.
He hands me a straw. “Sounds like a trap.”
I rip the paper from the straw, plunging it into the shake. “Yes.”