Kate Axelrod

So Long

Ana grinned as she walked toward him, weav­ing her way through the heavy traf­fic of Canal Street. Michael smiled and pre­tend­ed to look some­thing up on his phone. It was late May but Manhattan felt like a desert that day; blind­ing sun­light and a dry, brit­tle kind of heat.

Michael!”

Ana,” he said.

They hugged and his arms were loose around her most­ly bare back. She stood on her tip­toes and clasped her hands around his neck.

The sun is bru­tal,” he said. “Let’s go inside?”

They walked into a Starbucks and found relief in the cool, indus­tri­al air. They stood in line and Michael stared at the flur­ry of activ­i­ty just beyond the win­dow. Two elder­ly Chinese wom­en crouched beside a blan­ket cov­ered with bright, geo­met­ric-pat­terned pock­et­books. A trio of men stood beside them on the cor­ner, sell­ing hookahs; tall con­trap­tions with bul­bous lanterns and met­al pip­ing. They looked like rulers of a minia­ture, ancient king­dom.

Can I have some­thing real­ly cold and real­ly sweet?” Ana asked. “Like the peach thing on the poster? Michael, what do I get for you? Iced cof­fee?”

He turned toward the coun­ter, “Sure, sure, thanks. Anything cold. I can pay.”

They hadn’t seen in each oth­er in three and a half years. Ana’s hair had always been blond, but today it was near­ly plat­inum, shades lighter than the last time he had seen her. Once she’d had a tiny sil­ver stud pierced through her chin, but it was gone, leav­ing just the faintest scar. She looked inex­plic­a­bly younger, as if the years away from him had reju­ve­nat­ed her.

Their drinks arrived and instinc­tive­ly they sat on the same side of the table.

Muscle mem­o­ry,” he joked. They were par­al­lel again­st the cool vinyl bench but Ana turned toward him, just slight­ly. If some­one had tak­en a pho­tograph and ana­lyzed their body lan­guage in a mag­a­zine, it would say: the way she angles her legs toward him, the way her knees graze his, she wants some­thing from him that he isn’t will­ing to offer.  But the tabloid would be wrong, would not appre­ci­ate the hid­den intri­ca­cies of their past.

It’s so good,” Ana said, tak­ing a sip of her cold, frothy drink. “You know, there’s some­thing so com­fort­ing about fran­chis­es. That every­where you go will just have the exact same thing.”

Well, I know you feel that way! Like when we went to Mexico and every time we passed a PF Chang’s or Johnny Rockets you just had to go in.”

Comforting!” she said again.

It’s point­less to trav­el if all you want to do is see an Americanized ver­sion of the place you’re vis­it­ing.”

You’re a lit­tle grumpy the­se days, huh? Now that you sold your book you have to adopt the trope of the dark, cyn­i­cal short sto­ry writer?”

Ha ha, very fun­ny.”

He looked down at the table, at Ana’s hands draped around her drink. She had stopped bit­ing her nails (they were long and oval, paint­ed coral). He want­ed to ask if she still picked at her cuti­cles. He remem­bered the tiny dots of red that bloomed from her nail beds.  Now they were groomed and even and he craved some indi­ca­tion that she was still a lit­tle bit tor­ment­ed, still tor­tured by the sup­posed things that kept her from being with him.

I’m real­ly so hap­py to see you,” she said. “So glad.”

So, you’re just here for a few days? For the big day?”

I am!”

Just out of curios­i­ty, why’d you feel the need to come back to New York just to get mar­ried?” He hoped he was ade­quate­ly mask­ing the hos­til­i­ty in his voice. He took a long sip of his cof­fee, watched the liq­uid drain from the cup.

Well, Dean is here for some shows. He does visu­als for the­se big, ambi­ent noise events. The restau­rant gave me a few days off and our anniver­sary is this com­ing week­end so we just fig­ured, city hall, you know, why not.”

Got it.”

Tell me more about your book. When does it come out?”

November,” he said. “But it’s seri­ous­ly not a big deal. It’s a real­ly small press. I basi­cal­ly paid them to do it.  Got reject­ed from like, fif­teen edi­tors before this place agreed to pub­lish it.”

Oh, come on!”  Ana slapped his shoul­der light­ly and he could feel the pres­sure of her fin­gers after she pulled her hand away, like sound echo­ing from a micro­phone.  “Don’t do that,” she said. “Don’t be so mod­est, always. It’s a big deal.”

Yeah, it’s some­thing,” he said. “It’s not noth­ing.”

Michael want­ed to ask her so many ques­tions.  Was she hap­py? Truly, tru­ly hap­py with Dean? Did she ever dis­ap­pear, for days at a time – ignor­ing Dean’s flur­ry of texts and des­per­ate phone calls, only to reap­pear lat­er, smil­ing and affec­tion­ate, refus­ing to acknowl­edge her absence?  Was she dif­fi­cult and with­hold­ing, and then wild­ly gen­er­ous with her love? Were her moods still like a metronome, set­ting the pace of their days? But he did not want to know the answers, not real­ly.

Ana took anoth­er sip of her tea, and Michael noticed the ring of lip­stick she’d left around the straw. He felt a twinge of dis­gust. How plain­ly it sat there – the imprint of her lips taunt­ing him, it seemed. She was so cav­a­lier, leav­ing traces of her­self every­where.

So, it’s real­ly hap­pen­ing, huh? Tomorrow?”

It is!” she said. “We’re just going to City Hall, noth­ing fan­cy. Did I already say that? Have you ever been there? I’ve nev­er even been. Is it nice?”

Yeah, it’s fine… it’s what­ev­er. I mean, we can’t have this con­ver­sa­tion.”

It’s weird,” she said. “I mean, obvi­ous­ly it’s weird,” But still there was a flip­pant, easy qual­i­ty to her voice. “I don’t want you to think that it’s not. That I hadn’t, so many times, just assumed it would’ve been you.”

How can you just say some­thing like that?”

What?”

You can’t just say that, that you thought ‘it would’ve been us,’ and then mar­ry this ran­dom dude tomor­row.”

He’s not a ran­dom dude, Michael. He’s my boyfriend. My fiancé.”

Yeah,  I get that, obvi­ous­ly, but you just throw shit around so casu­al­ly, like mar­riage doesn’t mean any­thing, like it could be any­one you’re com­mit­ting to spend­ing the rest of your life with. There’s some grav­i­ty to that, you know?”

I didn’t say any­one, I just meant that it’s com­pli­cat­ed and of course I still love you. I thought that was some­thing you’d want to hear?”

Is it cool if I sit here?”

Michael looked up, heard Ana say of course and watched her quick­ly move their drinks from the cen­ter of the table. A teenage girl sat down on the oth­er side of the table. She had a sleepy expres­sion on her face and patch­es of vitiligo on her wrists, as if a glass of milk had fal­l­en on her arms.

He felt the famil­iar sting of it: how easy it was, had always been, for Ana to break the fourth wall of their inti­ma­cy. Michael remem­bered moments of unbear­ably ten­der affec­tion: trac­ing the curves of her ears, kiss­ing the del­i­cate skin above her eye­lids, and how effort­less­ly she could be drawn out of them. When a room­mate knocked on the door or her phone lit up with a text mes­sage.

I love those head­phones,” Ana said. They rest­ed around the girl’s neck, bright and bulky, the col­or of green grapes. “Those are awe­some.”

Ha, thanks! From Urban, if you want them.”

I have to leave soon,” Michael said.

Already?”

Yeah, I have a meet­ing with my agent uptown at three.”

Your birth­day !” Ana said. There was a note of glee in her voice. He could not tell if she was sim­ply hap­py to be around him, or if it was the fact of her pend­ing mar­riage. Or per­haps some cru­el com­bi­na­tion of the two.

What?” he asked.

It’s 2:12” she said, tap­ping on the dis­play of her phone. “Your birth­day time. February 12th.”

Look, I’ve real­ly got­ta go. See you in anoth­er three years, or soon­er, or nev­er. Congrats.” He kissed the side of her face and walked hur­ried­ly to the door.

Michael, come on!”

He left Starbucks and walked south and east toward the sub­way. He felt awash in long­ing and then shame — they had only dat­ed for eight months, three and a half years ago! He thought of a Neruda poem he had read in col­lege.  He couldn’t remem­ber the title, just the one line: Love is so short, for­get­ting is so long.

After one stop, the train rose and crossed the East River, the water glit­ter­ing beneath them. The sky over down­town Brooklyn was dark­en­ing; it would rain soon and the heat would break, leav­ing the side­walks damp, the air dewy and fra­grant. The car lurched for­ward and a lit­tle boy in a fireman’s hat dropped a plas­tic cup. “No!” he cried. “No, no, no no, no!”

Michael watched as it rolled down the aisle of the train, a trail of crushed iced and orange soda in its wake.

~

Kate Axelrod’s first nov­el The Law of Loving Others was pub­lished by Penguin in January, 2015. She has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College and a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University.