Central Park benches are questionable. You never know if someone slept there under a pile of newspapers the night before, or if some intoxicated ditz stumbled over in her too-high heels to toss her cookies on it during her walk home from the bar. Either way, it didn’t phase Ali. It was all just another part of the human condition, and as long as that bench was clean and available, it was where she sat every afternoon. It was just far enough away from the sounds of the bustling city, and nowhere near any specific attraction that would invite people to stop and want to talk.
Today she was feeling the heat of the sun just a little too much, and was thankful that the walkers kept on walking, the joggers kept on jogging, and the strollers kept on strolling because there was no money left in her budget for another stick of deodorant. Indulgences like those are reserved for the employed, and this is something that Ali was not.
It wasn’t for lack of trying that Ali couldn’t seem to find anyone in New York City that wanted to offer her a paycheck. She either went on an interview or to the temp agency every day like clockwork. Her phone still hadn’t rung with good news, her patience was running thin, but she stuck to the grind. Without a routine she would lose her drive. If she lost her drive she would wallow in the past. If she wallowed in the past it would start to hurt again, and if that despair made its way back into her life then it was all over. The only place to go was home. Home is where he was, so here is where she would stay. Sitting on her bench, drinking her coffee, wearing her thrift store business suit.
The shadows of the trees on the ground were getting long enough for her to know that it was time to get going. She could only put off the inevitable for so long before it became risky, so she bid her bench “adieu” for the day and made her way to the six train.
“Home sweet home” she thought to herself cynically as she unlocked the fourth and final padlock on her apartment door. She heaved a sigh of relief as she shut the door behind her and threw the weight of her body against it. Four locks later she stepped back and admired her work. She could still hear the muffled baby cries floating down the hall though, each one plucking a different note on her heartstrings. Her belly ached. It was empty. There was nothing she could do to fix it, so she simply flopped down into the butterfly chair that followed her there from her dorm room, lit a cigarette, and turned on her laptop.
No new job postings. No new emails. No leads on a new future.
Ali had recently found a deli around the corner that sold cheap home rolled cigarettes from an Indian Reservation out on Long Island. She bought herself one large sack of them and swore that by the time she wanted to buy another, she would be buying it with the money from her paycheck. The bag was looking rather empty, and nothing was changing. Fast.
She had exactly fifteen hundred dollars left in her bank account from a student loan that she took out during her last semester. It was supposed to be her living money, but it felt more like her death sentence instead. There were precisely thirty days before she would have to make the next $1000 payment on her “apartment.” It was really more like a bedroom with it’s own bathroom, stove, and one of those tiny refrigerators that made noise from the mid 1900’s. She rarely used it. She lived on coffee that she bought with a generous gift card her quirky aunt had sent her for graduation, and occasionally splurged on a doughnut when the hunger made her nauseous. She lost her appetite a few months ago, along with just about everything she thought her life would become. Needless to say, a seedy room in the Bronx wasn’t really something she had planned for her post-grad life.
The road signs finally read “Back Bay” after a long and grueling drive.
“B,B,B,Benny and the jeeeetttttssssaaaahhhhh” Brooke sang obnoxiously.
“Thank god you’re here,” Ali said with a smile on her face and a chuckle in her belly. “I would have nodded off an hour ago and driven into oncoming traffic if you weren’t serenading me. Does this bilpolar playlist have a name? It’s totally random.”
“Oh yea, I’ve been working on this one for years. I like to call it ‘Songs I Know All of the Words To.’ What do you think?”
“I think I like it… Everything except for that one about pushing your fingers into your eyes. What was that?”
“That’s Slipknot. My brother loves them, and I couldn’t help but get hooked.”
“Is it really necessary to thrash your hair around like that when it’s on?
“Absolutely. It’s not just this one song. Heavy metal is a part of the american aesthetic. It’s surrounded with this negative stigma, but people need to learn to accept it and stop treating it like Satan worship. The energy and anger in the music is extremely cathartic, and the nonconformity of the method of dance associated with the genre is just another part of the culture. How many concerts do you go to where people are punching each other in the face and loving every second of it?”
“Exactly zero,” Ali said, laughing. “Only you could psychoanalyze heavy metal music and mosh pits. It sounds like you’re giving a seminar or something. Is there any kind of music that you don’t like?”
“Polka. I fucking hate polka.”
They laughed heartily as Ali pulled the BMW off the thru-way to Back Bay, not knowing that the honking, snorting sounds of her own awkward laughter would be left on that highway, not soon to be found.
“Only a few more miles!! I’m so excited! Thank you so much for taking the ride with me.”
“Ain’t no thang but a chicken wing, girl. You know I love an adventure, and I don’t mind spending the weekend in Rich-Town, USA all that much either.”
“Oh stop it,” Ali said blushing. “We’re hardly millionaires.”
“You’re a lot closer than I am, let’s just say that.”
“Fine, as long as you promise not to call Carmine ‘Jeeves’ again.”
“Fine, fine… but can we ask him to bring us mimosas in our pajamas tomorrow?”
“Ha ha ha, just as long as you promise to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”
“All set,” Ali said as she re-entered her room from the walk-in closet. She glowed pink from every angle. Her cheeks were naturally blushed with excitement, her dress was the perfect blend of modest spring blooms and sexy haltered suggestivity, and her heels sent a message loud and clear that she was ready for anything. Anything but a long walk on uneven ground, that is.
“Absolutely gorgeous!” Brooke declared when she saw her. She popped up from laying on the California King to sitting on her feet. “Brandon is going to love it.”
“Well he better! I drove forever and still managed to look this good! That just doesn’t happen to people.”
“You’re right, I usually look like I got punched in the face seventeen times after a long ride like that. I hope he didn’t decide to surprise you in the city tonight and all of this was for nothing.”
“No no, no way. His little sister had her Honor Society Induction tonight. He wouldn’t miss that.”
The alarm clock buzzed, and for that brief moment between dream and reality, she wasn’t sure where she was. She remembered the way the stucco ceilings of her dorm room looked in the morning. She remembered the way that the sheer pink canopy over the bed in her room at home caught the sun and made her look forward to the day.
No. That wasn’t home anymore.
She opened her eyes to view her new reality. The particle board drop ceiling was covered in brown circles from what was, most likely, the leaky plumbing of the tenant above her.
“Note to self,” she said to the ceiling above her, “move this mattress before I’m sleeping in someone else’s pee.”
She quickly hopped up and gave the mattress a shove across the room, which wasn’t difficult since it was laying flush on the floor. It was time to get out of this hell hole and try to get on with her life.
What life that would be, she had no idea.
They pulled into his driveway at about ten that night. Brooke was so pumped for the surprise that Ali had to “shhhh” her several times. She knew that his parents wouldn’t mind her stopping by, but she wanted to see his face when he first saw her. After seven years together, these last six weeks were the longest they had ever gone without seeing each other since she had left Massachusetts for NYU.
“The terrace,” Ali stated matter of factly. “I’ll just climb the stairs to his terrace and surprise him there. I’ll make my grand entrance and he’ll flip! You wait here and right after I give him a proper hello I’ll pop my head out of the front door and you come hang out with us. Are you sure you don’t mind waiting?”
“Yea no problem. You guys have your ‘couple time’ and I’ll just sit here and…” she slowly turned the volume up with time perfect enough to catch the very beginning of the verse “I push my fingers into my…” With wild eyes Brooke stuck her tongue out of her mouth and started swinging her hair around again. The action looked so unnatural on her petite face with her well manicured hair and nails, but that was Brooke for you. Perfectly proper, but full of surprises. Ali smiled, shook her head, and got out of the car.
It wasn’t difficult to get to Brandon’s terrace. All she had to do was walk around the side of the house and climb a single flight of stairs with ivy lined railings. She had climbed those steps more times than she could count, but with each passing step she felt her stomach sink a little deeper. There was only a dim light glowing from his French doors, and she could not understand why that made her so nervous.
She reached the balcony and turned to the doors. There he was.
He wasn’t alone.
Her body froze as the sky cracked like an egg and the pieces rained down around her, each star leaving a dent in the earth even deeper than the one that crashed before it. Her vision went to grayscale, and she felt all of the skin on her body melt and slide down her bones into a slimy puddle of pain beneath her. She stood there still, silent, feeling naked, with her mouth hanging open and tears slowly rolling down her cheeks. She watched silently as he raised his wandering hand from the girl’s waist, slowly approaching her breast. At that moment Ali realized what she was seeing, and her defeat quickly transformed into the hot rage of betrayal.
She spent seven years of her young life believing that she had found the one, and Brandon wholeheartedly agreed. She hadn’t imagined that. They were one. They could survive anything, and the love they shared transcended all forms of love that had come before them or that would come after them. They were the lucky ones that had found their soul mates before ever needing to search. Nothing would ever keep them apart, and as soon as she graduated from NYU in May he would propose and they would continue down the path that the stars had aligned for them. They would follow their destiny down the isle and spend the rest of their lives together with their children, and their children’s children, surrounded by nothing but love.
Before she knew what was happening she was in his room, and the mystery woman’s face was all too familiar for comfort. High School?
Ali’s dress wasn’t very pretty now that it was wrapped around an irate woman with strength she never knew she had. Strength to rip a grown woman off of a bed and throw her on the floor. Strength to throw a punch at a man’s face and leave an immediate purple knot beneath his eye without once even feeling the sting of the strike on her knuckles. This was the man that she thought she would marry, pathetically searching for words to justify what she had seen, begging her to stay and listen.
“Please baby, just calm down. I never meant to hurt you.”
“I’m not your baby.”
She grabbed his Derek Jeter autographed baseball from the bookshelf, looked him dead in the eye, grinned the menacing grin of a broken woman on a rampage, and threw it directly through the bay window.
“I wish I never met you, and I promise, you will never see me or hear from me again.”
“Babe, please just let me explain…”
But he was too late. She was at the french door without a backward glance. She left that bedroom the same way she had entered just moments ago.
When she climbed back into the driver’s seat and shut the door, Brooke popped up from a reclined passenger seat in surprise. The sight she found before her was not the doting, thoughtful girlfriend that had left her just moments earlier. This woman had a twisted face with lines of black mascara going in every direction, a heaving chest that looked like it might bust right out of the halter dress that contained her. Her hair was disheveled, her knuckles bright red and swollen.
“Ummmmm, exactly what the fuck just happened…”
“I’m single.” was all that Ali could muster.
She couldn’t possibly allow the words to escape from her lips to describe it. She couldn’t relive it just for the sake of common knowledge. All she could see in her mind’s eye was that traveling hand. That hand was going to put an engagement ring on her finger in a few months. That hand was going to hold hers in the air as they were announced to their loved ones as “Mr. and Mrs. Brandon Fallon.” That hand was going to hold hers while she was writhing in pain, bringing their children into the world. That hand was going to hold her as she grew old and ill, and it would bring her comfort and security in her final days on this planet.
That hand was the only thing she ever really knew she could count on, and now it was gone.
“Care if we just go back to school?”
“Whatever you want, girl. Whatever you want.”
They rode in silence all the way back to Manhattan. There was nothing to say that could fix it, so nothing was said.
From that day on there was not one tear shed for Brandon Fallon, and Ali would never return to Back Bay, Massachusetts.
This day was a particularly beautiful day. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t too bright. There was a steady breeze, but nothing so strong it would mess up your hair. You could wear long sleeves or short and still feel comfortable. You could order your coffee hot or cold, but either way it was perfect.
“So what’s it gonna be today, business lady?”
“I can’t really make up my mind. It needs to be caffeinated though, I can tell you that much.”
“Do you trust me?” the barista asked Ali.
“I don’t trust anyone.”
“How about this. I’ll make you a drink, and if you hate it, it’s free, and I’ll make you something else. How about that?”
Ali looked at the girl with her long dreadlocks, nose ring, three visible tattoos, and absorbed the faint odor of incense that she carried with her. She cocked her head to the side, crinkled her eyebrows, and put her feet into this girl’s shoes for a few moments. This rebellion toward societal norms; was it a rebellion against something personal that became the message that she chose to send to the world with her appearance? Or was she simply a person that believed in different forms of beauty and expression? Ali was just reading too far into things again and could tell that this girl was waiting for an answer.
“You look like like a person that I could learn something from. I’ll take the mystery drink.”
“You won’t regret it, I promise.”
Ali sat down at the table for one and listened to the muted jazz playing in the background. She wondered if the musicians that spent so much of their time and energy writing this music and performing it to perfection in a recording studio really had “plays in the background in a coffee shop” in mind for where they hoped it would go.
“Business Lady!” rang through the empty shop, and Ali couldn’t even help but give a little chuckle at the fact that the barista felt it necessary to call out her very random nickname at full volume.
“So what do we have here?”
“Aaaa suck it up, Nancy! Just give it a try, Miss Priss.”
She was a little taken aback by the sudden tone that the barista had taken with her. What had changed in the last four minutes? Did she somehow offend this person? Her nerves were heightened and she felt that flutter in her chest that she gets when she’s stuck in awkward situations.
“Umm…. I’m very sorry if I have somehow offended you…”
But her apology was interrupted by a boisterous burst of laughter from the barista; open mouthed and hearty, practically leaning over the counter to laugh in her face.
“You’re even worse than I thought!!” she yelled at Ali, raising her arms in the air as if to ask God “Where did you find this one?”
“I beg your pardon, but I meant you know offense.”
“Girl, I’m not offended. I’m entertained! We have to be about the same age and you march in here every day in a business suit like Ms. Career Lady, and I’m still just chillin here, steaming milk, trying to decide if I should call into work tomorrow. Do I jump in the van with a few friends and head upstate to the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors? Or do I want to make the money so I can go to Burning Man?”
Now it was Ali’s turn to chuckle, though not with the same heartiness as the laugh that was sent in her direction.. “I have no idea what either of those things are.”
I’ll have you know that I’m actually not Ms. Career USA. In fact, I am currently unemployed.”
“Then what are you doing in heels and suits? Are you some kind of masochist?”
“It was actually a Mary Kay lady that came to my mom’s house shortly before I moved down here for school. She said that a woman should dress for the job she wants, not for the job she has. Since I have no job at all, it couldn’t hurt to dress as if I do.”
“Makes total sense,” the barista replied.
“No I’m lying through my teeth. If you need a job, why wouldn’t you just ask?”
“What? You mean, here?”
“No, Goldman-Sachs. Yes, here!”
“But I went to NYU, I have a degree.”
“In some sort of jobless field like philosophy I bet.”
“No…” Ali said weakly. “Sociolo…”
“CALLED IT!!! Ok girl, this is the bottom line. You need money. I need a part-timer. I’m sure that fancy school of yours taught you enough to be able to steam milk and brew espresso, so why don’t you come in tomorrow and I’ll show you the ropes.”
“I really shouldn’t. I have to….” Ali trailed off and looked at the barista, standing there with what felt like x-ray vision. “Yes. What time do you want me here?”
“Perfect! Can you be here at 5am to help me open? I’ll get you out of here nice and early and you’ll still have plenty of time to go and do whatever it is that you do. Only don’t wear heels. I’m going to need you in khaki pants and this.” She tossed Ali a polo shirt from the cabinet behind her.
“Ok great, I’ll be here at 5.”
“By the way, I’m Maureen.”
“You look green.”
“Thanks,” Ali croaked. Her garbage can was strategically placed next to the head of her bed ready for anything.
“What did you drink last night?” Brooke asked from across the room, covering half of her face with her blanket just incase Ali heaved. She couldn’t handle vomit.
“You know damn well that I’ve barely gotten out of this bed for a week. I’m not hiding under the covers with a bottle of whiskey if that’s what you’re implying.”
“No, it’s just… well I don’t know. I’ve never seen you like this, so I don’t know what to expect here.”
“Yea, well, same here. I don’t even know who I am when such a defining part of me has always just been ‘Brandon’s Girlfriend.’ How the hell did I become one of those girls?”
“Oh dear god, what if you have the flu!”
“Uuuhhhhhhgg, thanks for the support, Brooke”
Ali rolled over to face the wall and fell back asleep without a word.
“I’m just run down. I feel nauseous all the time. I threw up this morning and my roommate is a germaphobe, so she told me to come here and make sure I don’t have the flu. I probably don’t have it. I just went through a bad breakup last week and I’ve just wanted to puke ever since.”
“Fair enough. Better to be safe than sorry. Just a few simple questions first and then we’ll get you swabbed. When was your last period, Ali?”
The paper of the robe crinkled around her, whispering the harsh reminders of shattered dreams as she shifted her body in discomfort. This was never the plan. None of it. The only robe that should be on her mind right now should be her graduation robe, but suddenly all of that had become a sad afterthought. In the same day she would end two lives: the child she always dreamed she would have with the man she always dreamed she would be with, and the graduate school commitment that she had made to UMass with the man that should have loved and raised that child with her one day.
“Good afternoon, Are you Miss Ali Great?”
“Well then, let’s get started.”
Ali reclined slowly and put her feet up in the stirrups.
No. This was never the plan.
“Goodbye, Seraphina…” she whispered to herself. Her body never left the table, but her mind certainly did.
She sat on her bench watching the joggers jog and the strollers stroll, feeling better today than she had in awhile. Starbucks was never the plan, but it was better than nothing. Since nothing was all she had since everything changed just five short months ago, things must be looking up.
Maybe her next plan would be even better than her first.
Just then a flash of blonde hair flew past her. The little girl flipped her pigtails back out of her face as she rose from grabbing the ball that had been rolling away from her.
Her eyes met Ali’s, and she smiled.
“It’s ok,” she said.
With a giggle, she ran off.