by Sarah Herrington
He was poison. Green poison through veins, lips, any opening found or made. Racing lunging toward his heart, an organ playing catch-me-if-you-can. He was always running inside himself, towards or from nothing – it was the sensation of running that he lived by.
He moved to a city that beat and rushed like him. In long narrow spikes like needles, underground ways, litter-strewn paths lit with neon. He felt at home here, like he was inside himself. Everyone here seemed to understand darkness and running, whether they were into poison or not.
“The language of New York is self-referential. We all use ‘I’ too much,” said the girl in the coffee shop, eyes and nails painted black. All of her was letting off smoke like the cup in her long fingers. She was a girl who was not running. She was standing in the middle of a storm that made her turn dark.
He liked to watch her and swirled around her sometimes, but he couldn’t stop with her. It was not his way. This made her lonelier.
“Even you have become a New Yorker.” It was the greatest insult she could give, the greatest compliment he could receive.
“Oh, I’m just a Jersey boy.” If only he could believe his heart could race on its own without injecting New York into it, she thought.
They had both moved from suburban New Jersey around the same time. She often felt it had been out of a morbid curiosity or a wish to escape suburban stagnation. She’d chosen the opposite. Now she felt at home in neither place, but more so inside herself, as if she was slowly defining herself by the process of elimination.
She watched him swimming in himself and wondered when too much of oneself was enough, and wasn’t it better to be nothing?
“But who are you without the rush of New York? You are all fish out of water once you leave the Metro area. It’s uncomfortable to watch.” She took a drag and smiled with her lips but not her eyes.
This thought upset him, but he didn’t like confrontation. When a boy walked by with flashing eyes, he followed him to the bathroom on instinct. Her eyes turned down a notch, into more darkness. She smoldered and sank into her book.
When he returned his eyes blazed deeper blue. She had lost him now, as she did every night, and she wondered if she even could know who he was if he didn’t know himself. She looked at him as if into an empty mirror and was glad she had the heat of the cup and the words to keep her company.
“What were we saying?” He was drowning in himself now, and enjoying the ride. He began laughing, in ripples and waves that crashed upon her. When he was drowning, he liked to splash.
“Nothing.” This was how she got to know herself. It was the only place to go when backed into a dark corner.
Light streamed through the curtains of her East Village studio, an old four-story walk-up tenement building that had never shaken its rough and tumble vibes. She lived two blocks from the Park, and though it was now gentrified and filled with nannies and strollers and little dogs at the little dog park, it was once called Needle Park. Then, it had felt dark, even in the daytime. This was before her time. But she could feel it a bit in the Southwest corner, where the homeless lurked, shrouded in a black darker than night. “They’re called Crusties, Paige,” he’d told her one afternoon. “Those homeless kids with safety pin earrings. You know, the ones that walk around with fingerless gloves carrying pet rats on their shoulders, they’re Crusties. They call themselves that. I saw it online. I guess they’re runaways. I bet some of them are just Bridge-and-Tunnel.”
She wanted to say they were Bridge-and-Tunnel too, being from Jersey. Or maybe after five years near Needle Park you’re a New Yorker?
She tried to keep her apartment bright, more white, more sunshine. But the reality of her Needle Park mornings were eyes still painted dark, smeared from sleep, two dingy curtains billowing for attention.
Bang Bang! “Paige! Jesus, get up!” It was morning and he was crashing down again, and that meant she had to get up. It was hard this time, harder every time. The floor boards creaked and moaned beneath her.
She kept the chain on the door, but there he was, slivered into the frame of light, a dark line against the dawn. All his hair had moved to one side of his head and his eyes were dizzily trying to figure out how to slip through the crack between the door and frame. She could see all of him through the crack, as if he had shrunk in the wash of last night. “Jesus, Paige, just let me in.”
She slid the metal with her dingy fingers until the door was unlatched, and he barreled through like a tornado. He flopped on her futon and looked up into her eyes. His eyes were no longer blazing, but tired. It looked as if he had dried tears on his cheeks. “Have you been up all night?” she asked. She went to the kitchen counter to make coffee.
He began playing with a hangnail on his left ring finger. “Yeah.” What more was there to say? It was the morning after a storm.
“Here, take a shower.” She tossed him a towel, and he lifted himself to the bathroom. ‘It’s amazing how he moves like he’s 300 pounds when he’s getting skinnier every day,’ she thought, bringing the warmth of the cup to her lips. She heard the water run.
She went to her computer in her “office,” on the opposite side of the room across from her kitchen counter and next to the billowing curtains. They tickled her arm as she opened yesterday’s work. Soon she heard the water turn off, and he flung open the bathroom door. Silhouetted against the light of the bathroom, with his ruffled and clean hair and disappearing body, he looked delicate and moved shakily like a duckling taking its first steps.
She thought of the time when they were still together, when it seemed they were going to always be together. She’d come home one day to find him sleeping on the floor instead of the bed. When she opened the door and walked in, he awoke. “Baby!” he had pulled himself from the floor and ran up to her to give her a skinny hug, the kind only he could: all big energy and skinny arms. “I bought a stethoscope today,” he’d said. She saw it dangling from around his neck like a charm. She placed her work bag down and took off her dress shoes, one two.
“Is this what you’ve been doing all day?” she asked. She noticed the candles burning on the floor behind him and was glad he hadn’t burned the place down.
“I love you, do you know that? I love you so much.” He started to put the stethoscope in his ears, one two. “I bought this from the drug store on Avenue A. I’ve been listening to my heart all day. It’s been telling me things! I love you baby. I want to listen to yours.”
There was something different in his eyes then, the first time she’d seen it. It was as if his pupils were jangled, moving black. She noticed the prescription bottles on the counter, from the same drugstore where he must have bought the random stethoscope.
Things are getting weird, she’d thought.
“I love you, too,” she’d said, and let him place the cold disc to the skin above her heart.
Now, he was here, and she still loved him, but her heart had changed.
Still wet from the shower, he curled into her bed as he had many times before. She looked at the marks on his arms like mutant freckles, watched his ribcage moving up and down. There was a time when they shocked her, but not now. She lowered a white sheet over him. She was always afraid he wouldn’t get up.
But she knew he would, and it would be like every time before. The call and the answer, the lights turning dim outside and the rumbling of evening growing louder. How he would say, “I love you, I love you,” and rush around with purpose. His language would be poetry then, and she would love it and hate it at the same time, the colored verses that came rushing out his lips. How she loved and hated that poison herself, the way it brought life at the same time it took it away.
She looked at him, asleep in the sheets. She looked at his belongings, the black knapsack and combat boots painted with grime. And she knew this time she had to be the one to rush, to take on that pace and direction, she had to be New York, with somewhere to go, ‘I’ being the most important letter in the alphabet. She moved quickly, filling a knapsack of her own: clothes, books, her computer. She looked in her desk drawer for the last few 20s and shoved them deep in her pockets. There she found her darkest shade of lipstick and went to the bathroom. The steam had cleared. She was surprised by her own reflection, she hadn’t looked at herself in a long time. She brought the lipstick to the empty mirror, hoping it was the one place the boy would not miss. ‘I love you too’ she wrote, surprising herself by encircling it with a heart, an unusually girly gesture. But she felt like that, like a girl with a heart. Then she smeared her own lips and kissed the mirror as she wished she could kiss him.
The metal latch remained unfixed when she left, sliding down the stairs as quickly as she could, trying to outrace her thoughts of no, I can’t, I shouldn’t. When she reached the front door of the building, she opened it to the rush of the streets. For once, she was captivated by speed, she felt it in her own heart. Slinging the knapsack across her back, she began to run, letting it fill her, and the more she ran the more she needed, night-painted faces blurring as she passed. She ran past the Crusties, the nannies, strollers, and little dogs. She ran, and the light of all lights, the looming needle of the Empire State, grew larger. She planned to reach it and keep going.
Sarah Herrington’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Writer’s Digest and Francesca Lia Block’s anthology Love Magick. You can find her here: www.sarahherrington.com