I was on my way to the office one morning, walking up August Avenue, wearing my gray suit cut so narrow I had to take short steps. With my paisley silk scarf tied in a bow, I suppose I looked like any other bank manager in the city. I had no needle marks left anymore, no visible signs under my cuffs that I’d once been a user.
“You’re on a roll, Sue!” my husband Pat had reminded me with a minty peck on the cheek before I grabbed my tote. “You’ve just been promoted. You should be happy.”
I tried holding on to this. But, instead, I was thinking of L. I often did. What if I bump into her? What’ll I say? She wouldn’t have any reason to be walking on August. She hadn’t lived here, she had lived in a houseboat on the water. She hadn’t worked near here either. She hadn’t been working at all, except for an occasional trick when short on cash. But she could be on her way somewhere else. What would I say? The last time I’d seen her was before I got married six years ago. Then I moved. Pat didn’t like her. “She’s a bad influence,” he said. I never said good-bye.
We met after I first came to the city when everything was new. The clubs. The lights. Each moment unknowable, disconnected, and alive like sparks. It wasn’t like it was now, soft and predictable.
I had just five blocks left but as I approached 19th Street I suddenly became weary from walking in the suit and had to sit down. There was a church on the corner, made of time-worn limestone. I passed it each day. Today I saw a man on the steps, cloaked in a thin brown blanket like a monk, and I sat down beside him. He was shivering despite the sun. I reached into my tote and gave him the bag with the coffee and Danish I’d bought for breakfast at my desk.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
I felt a bit better. I freed my throat from the paisley scarf and my feet from the black pumps. Watching office workers pass and turn the corner, I heard Pat’s voice in my head hurrying me on so I wouldn’t be late, reminding me that with the promotion came responsibility: I had people under me now waiting for my direction. Thumbs pressing into my shoulders, his breath a sluicing mint, he drummed into me, “You should be happy.”
I thought of L and smiled. The last time I’d seen her was at a party, the lights in the hallway lower than dinner candles. I saw her on the stairs, leaning toward the man beside her. She’d pushed her skirt up to her hip in an offering but the guy just kept toking away. “Shit,” she said later on, grinning at me as she gathered her red hair into a thick ponytail. “What’s wrong with men?”
Was she clean now? I wondered, or was she still, well, herself? Look at me, I thought, I’m so clean in these clothes, I’m like a retouched photo I can’t find myself in.
“You okay?” the man beside me asked.
I wiped my messy mascara-black tears and mumbled, “Yes,” trying to stop more from coming.
I noticed he had taken off his blanket and wasn’t shaking as much anymore. He had finished both the Danish and the coffee, setting the empty cup on the stoop in the space between us. A passerby dropped a coin inside. His sad look seemed directed at me.
I hadn’t until then realized what a sight I made. I had taken off my suit jacket so I could breathe and pushed up my blouse sleeves. The mascara must have cast half-moon shadows under my eyes. And the crying had incited such a headache I needed to hold both hands to my head to contain the pounding.
There was no point in going to work now, I had suffered too much damage. I would think later of what to do. I leaned against the side of the church and closed my eyes. The shade of the eaves was like a comforter. I heard the man I’d sat with whisper his thanks for the food, then “good-bye.” Or was it “good-night?”
Before I awoke I heard the clink of another coin in the cup, then my old nickname, “Skate!” Even Pat didn’t know that name. “Is that you?” the voice said, reaching me as if through a tunnel. It was low, gravelly. L’s voice.
I opened my eyes and saw a woman in a gray suit turn before she moved on.
Karen Regen-Tuero’s short fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, The Literary Review, and other publications. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA Writing Program, she works in long-form TV and is finishing a novel.