I feel my phone vibrating in my back pocket, but leave it to have its calls muffled by the fabric of my denim pants. In front of me, a young man at a food stand is preparing the only dinner I could get at such an ungodly hour. He flings his bottle in the air before twirling it upside down to squirt the white and red sauces on my chicken over rice in the exact amount that I like. He is speaking into his earphones in a language I don’t speak, to a person I can’t see, his eyes shifted behind me, smiling hello to the next customer in line. We exchange food for money, and he takes the young lady’s order, her slim body all fluffed up by a marshmallow down jacket. He gives me the usual nod and her a wink. I place a dollar into his tip jar, hoping that next time, he would ask me what sauce I wanted.
Taking a seat on a bench not a minute away, I hear the wailing of sirens in the distance, so prominent I could almost see the vehicle through the buildings, its lights ablaze in a spiraling frenzy of red, white, and blue. The wailing approaches, an ambulance, passing through the empty street, growing louder and louder until it becomes almost unbearable, only to subside into the night and out of existence. I am left dazed by the brilliance of the light, making me wonder if we were to ever run out of New Yorkers to put in those white vans someday, it would be my turn to take a ride.
Most of the long grains of yellow tumble off my plastic fork when I try to bring some to my mouth. The perfect streak of red gets mixed into the thick zig zags of white as I run my fork through, amalgamating into a disgusting pinkish yellow. A man seated at the base of the glass showcase of an H&M is rattling coins in a plastic cup. He is painted brown from top to bottom, his beanie stained with years of cigarette smoke and air pollution, his camo trench coat looking as though he had just crawled through a bog dodging bullets. The H&M behind him stands devoid of people but with its lights left on. The city that never sleeps, but somehow manages to be associated with people and their dreams. My phone buzzes again. An unknown caller from Oregon, the same number from before. An icy wind blows into my face, making me feel as though the skin on my face will crack open if I moved a single muscle to smile or frown.
As much as I prefer to have my dinner in my apartment and away from the cold, I know that the sound of me coming home would wake my roommate up. But then I imagine that maybe he would be awake too, nails dug deep into his arms and legs, crushed by the same strange tingling in his chest, the insatiable need to be touched, not his skin, but his bones, or whatever that lies at the core of it all. Maybe he, too, in some odd coincidence, wishes that somebody would come home to walk in on him in the kitchen, taking himself hostage with a razor, demanding a ransom that he alone could pay. Maybe he, too, will decide after only the first few trickles of blood to get a midnight snack at a local food stand.
A single sheet of navy hangs above the city of New York, and on it, a moon to shoot for, but no stars to land among if you missed. As the silhouette of a dark cloud creeps over the corner of the moon, I wonder if I have missed, only to plummet back to where I started. If so, did I forgive myself for being a failure, and if not, could I forgive myself for becoming a quitter?
‘I’m scared you’ll find someone else. Finding love in the big city, it’s true, you know?’ Suzie held my hand at the airport with misty eyes all those years ago. ‘You’ll become a great writer. I know it.’ My parents nodded along with her, their cheeks pink, struggling to contain their splitting grins. The first in our family to attempt anything beyond a BA; it didn’t matter to them that it wasn’t in science or business, something that could lead to direct success.
‘It was our duty to ensure your happiness. Now, it’s your own.’ Those were my dad’s words when he patted my back, the last words I heard from him before I set off through the departure gate. My mom got to give me the last hug, saying, ‘I’m proud of you. We all are.’
I notice that my dinner has gone cold in my hands, and the radiance of my parents’ faces disintegrate into the frigidity of the city winter. I feel a light tap on my shoulder and raise my head.
“You alright?” It is the homeless man, still rattling his cup.
I nod, yes.
“Good, good,” he smiles. “Are you gonna finish that?”
No, I shake my head. I’m not hungry anymore.
“Cool,” he says, taking my dinner from my hands. He stuffs a forkful of rice in his mouth, not seeming to mind that he is spilling more than he is eating.
“This is the first meal I’ve had in two days,” he says through his food. Grains of rice fall from the sides of his mouth and bounce off the ground, tumbling in between my feet. “It’s cold, but it’s alright. Thanks, dude.”
The man walks back to his spot under the H&M to finish his meal. I take a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. There’s only one left. I rub the back of my hands, stained with brown burns that I have acquired throughout my time pouring coffee in the morning and flipping burgers at night; time that could’ve been spent writing something, anything.
I light the cigarette in my mouth, lifting my eyes from the new man’s disheveled Nikes to his blue lips and baggy raccoon eyes.
“I saw you give that man some food. I’m just trying to get home, sir. Could you spare some change?”
My phone lights up in my hand and begins to vibrate; again, from Oregon.
She used to visit me every summer for the first five years. The last night I spent with her in my apartment, she insisted that we have sex to Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” I was delighted, thinking that the ones falling in love were us. I found the CD left on my bed when I came home from work the following day, a post-it note stuck to the front with the words “Best of Wishes” scribbled in the same wavy handwriting that I had seen so many times before.
“Hey, did you hear me?” The man takes a step closer, resembling a dark mannequin as he hid the crescent moon with his head. “You have some cash? Any change?”
I shake my head. No, I don’t have any. Sorry.
“You sure? Then how did you get that guy his food?”
“That was all I had, I’m sorry,” I say.
The man grunts and walks away, spitting, “It’s your duty, asshole.”
I find a long tail of ash forming between my fingers. I contemplate taking another drag, but decide against it and throw the cigarette into a trashcan. The orange glow hurtles through the air and disappears into the abyss like a firefly shot mid-flight. My phone gives one last short vibration, a number unknown to my phone but all too familiar to me. I put the device in my pocket and start walking. It’s getting cold, and I know I have to go home.