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In the late winter, just two or three months after she’d begun smoking, Drew begins to feel the weight of something heavy pressing down on her chest. One night she wakes and thinks she sees a small person, perhaps a child, sitting directly balanced on her breastbone. She tries to speak to it, to reason with it. She asks it to please take a seat elsewhere on the bed; she struggles to move, to try to knock this small body off of her. But it is impossibly heavy, as though it is made of something dense, bronze or lead. She does not stop to wonder who this is, or how they had gotten in. She just starts talking to it, in between gasps for breath she begs for it to leave. Pleading, pulling in air, crying, then yelling – sort of yelling – with what little breath she has. The figure does not move. When she wakes up in the morning, she realizes it must have just been one of those anxiety dreams, naked on the podium, on stage forgetting your lines, that sort of thing. She looks at her chest in the shower-fogged mirror though, before toweling off, and is surprised there are no bruises.

 

Drew’s closet of unfinished business looks a lot like yours. She’d started a screenplay once, painstakingly typed on a pink 1950’s Smith-Corona Silent, so very writerly.  Now it sits, a stack of 74 pages, missing, among other things, a final act and a sympathetic lead. Atop the screenplay sits her brief attempt at knitting, a box of yarn, three half tries of scarves full of dropped stitches, uneven rows. She thought the knitting circle at the coffee shop would be a good place to meet women, women with similar interests. The broken camera, with the light leak, from the summer she took photography classes at the New School still has a half roll of undeveloped film inside.

 

This year she’s taken up smoking, maybe as a hobby? Or an affectation? Drew likes standing on street corners in the cold. She waits in pubs sipping soda water through her straw until a group of drinkers heads out for a puff, then she follows them out and lights up, hovering just close enough to be included in the warm glow of their drunken conversation. She leaves restaurants in the middle of meals, her puzzled waiter having to keep the next course back. Trouble is even in this she can’t finish. She takes a drag or two and the taste, the smell of it, makes her stomach turn, she coughs. The other smokers, the true smokers, eye her suspiciously.

 

When Drew was small her father had marveled at her fearlessness. She would climb onto the kitchen counter to reach the high shelves when she was four. She wanted to ride the bus alone to go to the municipal pool downtown when she was 10. She talked liberally to strangers. She swung the highest and the fastest the swings would go. She always pumped hard all the way up to the spot where it seemed that with just a bit more momentum one could flip the swing around the bar. She’d swung all the way to that place where the chains failed to hold taught and the slack of being parallel to the ground made the chain hiccup a little. In that hiccup, watching her, Drew’s father always feared for her. Irrational, yes, but it made his heart jump a beat. For an instant he pictured her falling to the ground, her small body and pin thin limbs bouncing upon impact, bending at odd angles. He would shudder and look up to see her shining face without a trace of fear. Drew didn’t fear a thing, not until much later.

 

That next morning at work she steps outside the office to faux smoke one of her camel lights. She breathes in deep, but still it tickles, even burns. The weight has persisted. The sense of relief she sees on her co-workers faces as they suck down their smokes evades her, yet. She fails, again. Going back into the office, she spots him looking at her. He is not so small – short – but not freakish, 5’6”, or 5’7”, but he is extremely muscled, like a gymnast grown older. He is dense and sinewy, she can tell even through his rough broadcloth uniform. In each step there is a sense of coiled energy. He moves as through the air around him is gelatinous. He looks unflinchingly into her eyes as he pushes the large head of the wooden broom closer and closer to her. She stands stock-still, unable to smile, or blink – unable to break the gaze or even step out of the way.  He sweeps an arc, then another, making a small circle around her. She can hear him now, as he is close, he is singing something in Spanish. She makes out “triste” and “mujeres” and a few other simple words, but she can’t really understand it, she does not speak Spanish. Then suddenly, he breaks the gaze and moves on to sweep another area.

 

She tries not to feel sad as she trudges up the escalator to her desk, to her small gray office carrel. She has pinned a number of white copy-paper cutouts that are supposed to look like fluffy clouds to three of the four fabric walls of her cubicle with pushpins. There are no pictures of family, no knick-knacks, or award placards. Drew is a temp. She sits at her desk, and smoothes her skirt over her knees. There is not a single vantage point from inside her cubicle where one could crane, or stretch, or contort to in order to catch a glimpse of the real sky. The windows are all hidden around corners, behind walls, past stretches of gray cubicles.

 

Drew has had her job, entering data, for four months, two weeks and one day. Before this she had been let go via downsizing from the Internet marketing firm that had her writing advertising copy. One of the firm’s experiential marketing campaigns in which people in Times Square were invited into giant plastic bubbles, heated with tanning lamps and floored with sand, to sign up to win a “Bahamacation” went terribly wrong. Before that she’d waited tables at a Mexican restaurant. She’d been a cat sitter, and a dog walker, and a telephone sales specialist. She had been on 14 1/2 dates. Slept with three men, one woman, and had her own cat die. All in the last four years, the four years from moving from home, to this city. The city always looks best to Drew from afar. From on a bridge at night, or from an airplane window. Up close it is mostly gray and cold, or hot and smelly, depending on the season.

 

Drew came here to BE. Drew came to make great and wonderful things and make a name. DREW. Okay, maybe more like DReW, she didn’t want to be pushy. She isn’t pushy, she’s Minnesotan. She’s nice. She wanted to write a book maybe, or start a rock band… but you know, a nice rock band, not too loud or anything. But somehow every time she started to write, or rock, or knit…she got stopped. She’d see the scarf, her color – the same color – in the store somewhere, already knitted. Or the words of the sentences of the novels she was reading were strung together so cleverly, and she’d begin to fear it. Fear all of the completeness out there in the world. In the face of so much stuff, already done. Was there room too for Drew?

 

At home in her apartment, Drew undresses, folds the clothes and piles them neatly on an overloaded armchair. She avoids putting her clothes into the closet these days. The closet is just the catacomb for the unfinished work. It’s all inside begging to be looked at. But she can’t restart, because sometime after she gave them up she grew past them, or fell beneath them. Who’s to say which it is? It would be nice to think of life as a progression, as though with age we learn more and are wiser, smarter, saner, more loving and lovable…but it’s not true. Especially not for Drew. This year she just wants to finish a cigarette.

 

In bed, before sleep, Drew thinks about the floor sweeper. He had dark brown eyes, so dark that line between pupil and iris wasn’t there. Eyes like a cat. Laying in bed her breath while reclining is shallow and she has to pull hard to move air. She coughs up a ball of shiny deeply yellow colored mucus. It almost looks luminescent or radioactive. She balls it up into a tissue. “Goodnight Mr.…?”she thinks. Drew wonders what his name is.

 

In the morning in the building lobby she scans for him. He isn’t there.

 

At lunch she stands outside peering into the glassed lobby and chain-smokes, as best she can. She tries to dry heave attractively, if that’s at all possible, in case he is watching from some hidden vantage point.

 

She takes the dreary job of going on the afternoon coffee run. She collects orders, and risks ruining her good standing with the floor’s secretarial pool by bringing back the wrong sweetener, just to try to spot him.

 

She has taken to calling him “Michael” in her head.

 

One week passes before she sees a flash of dark institutional looking coveralls out of the corner of her eye and her heart skips a beat. She practically runs to the man across the lobby, and puts her hand on his shoulder to turn him around. She realizes just as her hands lights upon that shoulder, that she has the wrong man. Though she has never touched him, she knows that this shoulder doesn’t bear the density of muscle Michael’s would. The janitor turns and smiles at her, he looks politely confused.

 

Her cough has grown ragged, persistent and wet. People glare at her in elevators, and silently scoot a few millimeters away, the imagined space enough to send a message of disapproval, not nearly enough to really escape any contamination from germs. She has the hangdog look of someone who is sick and beaten down by it. Her nails break easily; her hair is slick and unwashed with oil. Her lips are ringed round by a pale circle of poor circulation.

 

It has been weeks. No Michael. Her cough makes trying to smoke even harder. She isn’t eating much. Drew just wakes up, goes to work, stares at the paper clouds in the gray fabric sky. She types string upon string upon string of numbers into her computer. At night she returns to sleep. Tonight she comes into her room and the window is open, though she doesn’t remember leaving it that way. She likes the cold breeze against her feverish skin. She peels off her clothes and lies naked on the bed, over the covers. In the past few weeks the bit of heaviness around her hips and belly have been absorbed back into her. The lines of her stark white body are long and lean.

 

She wakes, he is on top of her, they are both sweating profusely. She calls out his name, “Michael,” into the dark and her whole body flushes pink as they come together. She lights a cigarette. She doesn’t remember leaving an ashtray by the bed, with the cigarette and matches laid out, too. In fact she thinks lazily, through her sex stupor, I don’t own an ashtray. Drew never smokes at home, only in front of others, so there would be someone nearby to give testament to her accomplishment, if she’d ever finished one. She sucks down the cigarette, and gets a warm and friendly head rush. She finishes the cigarette. There is no one there to see.

 

In the morning the sheets feel wet with sweat. The ashtray is gone. Drew checks herself into the hospital. The doctors take X-rays and show her the dark black splotch that appears on her left lung, they tell her it’s a spot of infection, of pneumonia. She is pumped full of antibiotics. They make her nauseous.

 

Back at home she rushes to the toilet to throw up. She vomits into the bowl, and notices the fully smoked cigarette butt bobbing in the mess before she flushes. She thinks maybe she can get the names of the people who clean her office building off of some employee directory. “I wonder if he speaks English?” She thinks she will write a story about meeting a short, strong man, who lifts her high above his head and twirls her around when they dance. She will write about the shape of his fingers and the spots where he chews his cuticles till they bleed. She will write about the smell of him after they make love, he will smell like the Southwest, like creosote after the rain. In the story, at the end, they will fall in love.

 

Valerie Chisholm

 

I’m an actor, a writer, and a recovering foodservice professional living in NYC. I’m working on a cookbook. It’s largely about how to placate your family at group holidays and which nut milks make the best flat whites. Ugh. Just kidding, I’m almost 40, so none of that makes any sense. But I do live in NYC, for better or worse, that part’s true.

2 comments

  1. Jill M. Talbot ( Likes: 720 ) says:

    Hmm I think society tells us not to like stories like this. The other comment reflects this attitude… Characters who are women, lost, domestic, interested or not in love… We are told these are less serious and less valid.
    This is nonsense.
    By saying it feels like a fairy tale I think we’re saying it feels like we aren’t supposed to like it.
    It could be more, of course.

  2. Dan Glover ( Likes: 618 ) says:

    I like how this story reminds me how it felt to start smoking. Not that I want to start smoking again, mind you. I think that’s what stories are supposed to do, to allow the reader to relate to circumstances maybe they’ve forgotten or misplaced somewhere along the way.

    I like how this story reminds me of how it felt to fall in love. Not that I care to fall in love again, mind you. But I cannot help think this story reads like a fairy tale, a lost princess searching for her prince in a land of make believe, a prince who only exists in her dreams.

    I like how Drew reminds me of someone I knew a long, long time ago, someone who I once knew but only fleetingly. Someone who I thought I’d have plenty of time to get to know, only I was wrong. I turned around one day and she was gone.

    All in all a nice slice of life. Thanks for sharing your story!

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