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Through a pink gel lense, the entropy of the city presses us into a vacuum roughly man-sized. Still crusted with appetite, he keeps his credentials drily folded in his heart. Unpaid bills tacked on the foam board in the group house kitchen trace a metaphysical line blue-penciled through the brain like a river ‘cross a poppied field. He checks his phone, familiarizes himself with the face he’s meant to find in the brimmed and bone-white bird cage of Chinatown. Inside the metro station he watches a junkie and a drawn syringe, one shining droplet hanging at its tip like some form of pure foreplay. The needle sinks into muscle and delivers the junkie as a figure reincarnate, wings outspread, full quiver, eager lips. Friends, here is salvation! The train arrives and he boards.
The girl in the plastic seat across the aisle evokes an ancient kind of nostalgia as they rattle through the underground–the kind he imagines is rarely felt by anything but the rain-washed ruins of the Seven Wonders. He checks his phone again, less to remind himself of the woman’s face than to look busy. It feels illegal to be unburdened in the city. The photo on his phone feels like a tract of raw and uncharted canvas–and the emptiness of it, the investment it will take to fill it, feels daunting. Like a hesitant artist, he wonders if he can truly do it again. Invest–I mean–all for another grotesque non-masterpiece: mascara running, two whole years mislaid then displaced–reduced to the removal of names and addresses from daily vocabulary and reruns of the ghosts they represented until he is passed out or skewered into an aphasiastic state. An 877 number calls his phone–debt collectors seemingly forego clocks when they get to measuring lateness. He silences the call, returns phone to pocket. Smiles at the girl. Gets off at the next stop.
Outside the designated restaurant he flutes up, listens to the shifting dregs of would-be rock roll out to the streets and over two mounted police officers that pass in a twitch of reins. Construction across the street glints of a future faux colonnade and frieze, symbols all of his generation’s cheapness–at least this is what he’s been told. He draws twice on an electronic cigarette and pockets it, entering the dim-lit and red-awned restaurant behind him in a fit of beguiled anxiety.
A hostess guides him to a candlelit table for two thirty feet left of the entrance. He sits facing the door so he might wave to the girl when she arrives–if, in any case, she doesn’t end up recognizing him from the small album of his photos available on the app. He orders a beer and checks the time–then checks his bank account, which rests at $83. A quick scan of the menu tells him if he orders something under $15 and has less than 3 drinks, his date can order anything on the menu (minus maybe the 12 oz filet, but she lists herself as a vegetarian in her profile. Hopefully this hasn’t changed), plus a few drinks, and he’ll still have enough money left to offer payment, to tip the waitress, and to buy enough rice and beans to last until his paycheck arrives on Friday.
Women enter the restaurant and stand near the door like soldiers who’ve just stepped off a plane home from war. He watches these anxious lovers find their smiling partners the stress from their shoulders suddenly letting loose, himself set slightly behind salt and pepper shakers like some matriarch of spices waiting for his warrior to step out of the shadows of the airplane door, to hem the tension out of her redwood-tendoned legs and step down the airstair like some powerful goddess reincarnated as an actor in the 1960s–all khakis and coke–but the world outstrips us and tonight she doesn’t show up, and it’s fine. It’s fine.
Perhaps her page-turner impression of him had yawned and slackened. Old college photos or some song lyric status update might have made his glassy exterior suspect. Maybe she’d found his LinkedIn page–where his job is listed as “Communications and Projects Associate” at a reputable firm–then gone to the organization’s website and found that he is truly titled “Communications and Projects Assistant”–that exchange of A-words signaling not just poverty but dishonesty. Maybe she, ever the fashionable cosmopolite, found his blithe dress as a shrug-off of accountability. Maybe she’d showed up and left after looking through the window at him catty-cornered with his nervousness. Maybe she lived in Idaho and spoofed her location. Maybe it didn’t matter. He finds his disappointment enveloped in relief. Maybe she’d sensed the pressure he’d let grow on himself like barnacles and realized he wasn’t aware of how sharp his embrace had become–dodging pressure that wasn’t meant for her but would’ve been her’s anyhow. Acknowledging the difference between maybe I’m not ready for this and maybe it’s ok that I’m not ready for this is an epistemically fundamental occurrence not learned by rote–and for this lesson he feels no guilt over his gratefulness.
The man drinks two beers at the table and refrains from food. There were nights he might’ve reacted differently, gone far from the place and drank past all endurance–woken up hungover to the city blaring like sour notes from solar violins–but tonight felt more like a baseball card ageing in a shoebox than a napkin on fire.
When he is finished he rises and thanks the waitress for her kindness and steps out into the terminal prettiness of his generic city, each storefront lit up in the last of a broad sunset strung with gems. He walks like he is wary of collecting dust, forgetting for now his phone, his plans, his neuroses, embracing instead a wandering devoid of adjectives like his presence signaled the first symptom of a new artistic movement. As though the very here and now were becoming a kind of heaven to sit in, listening, largely mindless of the risen, cloudy brilliances above. A shower of self-lifting grate-smoke falls and our character shifts towards the old, abandoned patterns; of joy eventually, and self-forgiveness–segment by segment, nonetheless a mind made up of taste and sunlight–hoping that the next lover who drinks its juice be satisfied, disposing gently of the empty rind. All the old poets know to make wanderings into a homecoming of sort and here is where we do so, leading outward into the bright spin of things. Our separate routes. Each atom of the noise beginning to learn what it will ripen into.