Present Tense

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December 15, 2012 by The Citron Review

by Heather Rick

 

A return and an afternoon. Blocks of time, cut and dried, set aside for the duty of reconnection. A booth in the nearly empty front room of Earwax on Milwaukee Ave, swimming with paralyzing humidity and razors of 3pm sun. Lunch with an ex-girlfriend, her roommate tagging along.

She was an uncomfortable buffer between us, that roommate, wearing a black skirt as a dress, with heavy fake gold and crystals anchoring her skinny head and neck to her body.

She twined thin freckled fingers around the straw in her smoothie, asked, “so where are you living now?”

Showing just how little she knew about me, how little she cared. She was only here to make sure her roommate didn’t give in to the temptation of regret that an old lover always brings.

“Massachusetts.”

“Oh.” Chunky white-orange pureed mango and yogurt did a reverse peristalsis up the straw, disappearing between lips cracked and dry as tar beneath a summer sun. “I can’t picture you living there.”

Said flat as the heat, dry as the bun sandwiching my ten-dollar tempeh burger. A tone that said, “I cannot picture you living there because I do not picture you at all. You have ceased to exist in this reality. Your city does not remember you, offers you no refuge from the heat and the long day in her avenues of concrete and light. The things that were so much your own – your friends, your routes, your haunts – now feel like tourist trinkets. Bright baubles picked up on vacation, devoid of real meaning, paling to chipped memories once you introduce them to the tepid tea-water ordinariness of home.

“Your friends hand you beers and look right through you, leave you behind in the wake of new acquaintances, new lovers, new jokes, new scandals, and in two nights you will be standing on a twenty-fifth story rooftop patio on State and Madison, their happiness at your back like the heat of the setting sun. You will lean your elbows on the cool stone ledge and stare down into the kaleidoscope of neon light and midnight-blue depression that swims between the flanks of buildings. You will look at the hard thin mouth of the street below, and you will wonder how many seconds it would take to straddle the ledge and swing both legs over, and whether the street would open its asphalt lips to swallow you. But you will not do it, because you already live as though suspended between the ledge and the street. Your life is a stillness aching in borrowed time.”

I swallowed a cardboard mouthful of bun, romaine and tempeh. Food dry and layered as strata of emotion. The conversation churned, moved on. The roommate’s hollow agate eyes flickered away from me to the tired waitress, sheened with a pretty sweat, who came over to refill our water glasses.

I watched the condensation run down my glass and suddenly wished my nine days in Chicago would be up by the time the droplets reached the scarred graffiti-covered tabletop. I wanted to be curled into a plastic chair at O’Hare instead of in this restaurant, eating dead feelings off the faces of old flames and enemies. I would feel comfortable there in an airport, in a holding pen controlling influx and exodus. A good place for people suspended between past and future, staring the present in its dry asphalt mouth.

My present was stale water in a grimy glass. Mayonnaise dried between the tines of a fork. The humble feeling of realizing myself to be irrelevant, obsolete. Reconnection no longer an option. Recognition peeling like flakes of dead skin. My ego deflated by the passage of time and the weight of three million people moving through the city, through the life of the world, while I stood still. Seeing my own life as specks of ketchup and crumbs scattered across a tabletop gouged with other peoples’ initials and cryptic messages of love and hate.

I am, I realized, tiny and pale as the freckles on the roommate’s arm as she signals to the waitress for our check and it is time for me to decide where to go next, alone, in the late afternoon of the city’s summer.

 

Heather Rick is a New England-based writer with a Midwestern heart. An art school drop-out, she is currently churning through the bowels of community college in the cultural wasteland of north-central Massachusetts. She is suspicious of writers with fancy degrees and believes in the power and importance of fucking up.

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