Estlin rolls over and puts his arm around Isabelle. He squeezes her close to his body. He kisses her head, as she moves to get out of his embrace.
“Stop,” she mumbles. “I’m trying to sleep.”
Estlin sighs and rolls out of bed. It is noon already and he can hear the noise and music coming from Fifth Avenue, twelve stories down. He walks into the living room, across a floor strewn with magazines, clothing and the remnants of a lamp. At the window to the street, he looks down at the mass of people dressed in bright colors and rainbow designs, some with fluffy faux-feather boas draped around necks and used to intertwine other necks during the greeting of lovers and friends and strangers alike. A float moves like a lowrider to the beat of a constant bass line. The oiled men atop it wear only red thongs and sneakers; and dance and toss condoms and lubricants as if they were Tootsie rolls and Dum-Dum suckers. The late June sun hangs firm and tall without any length of strata to get in the way. Long grey contrails zig-zag and fade like patterns on an old wool quilt. “Probably over Jersey,” he thinks. Just two years past and he still questions every jet in the sky. Pushing the persistent anxiety aside, Estlin breathes in and grasps that the day is, as they say, perfect for a parade.
Estlin opens the window and the muffled sounds explode into his apartment. He laughs a little as a man dressed like a brothel madam shouts through a megaphone, “That’s right ladies! Shake it! Shake it! Shake it!” He bounces words around his head to describe the scene. Fantastical seductresses in triumphs of freedom. Liberation now! Supreme over-glee on display.
Estlin likens himself a poet. He daytime dreams about being the next Manhattanite poet ala Whitman, Thomas or Hughes. He has yet to be published in any major literary journal or magazine, or any minor journal for that matter, which he considers to be a serious hindrance to his talent; and thusly he could not truly consider himself a poet until he becomes published. He is a part-time NYU student, where during his previous semester the Stern school placed him on academic probation while he takes his time toward a Bachelors in Political Economy – a throw away degree in his mind, but a major his father said would pay off for him in the long run. His father said to him, in a voice commanding and resonant, “Art will only take you so far. You can’t make money being an artist. And if you want to be great at it, you either have to kill yourself eventually or be a fucking lunatic.”
His father, Jack, runs a hedge fund that holds a majority investment from a sheet metal worker’s pension; though it’s just something he is doing for the moment and among other various bullet points of appointments, positions held and things accomplished was once the assistant city treasurer, an adviser to various congressional committees and congressmen, including the Ambassador to Iceland and was once a category 2 semi-professional cyclist. Jack opened a trust for Estlin, years ago, a trust that, steadily decreasing, pays for the Fifth avenue apartment where Estlin sits along the window sill and provides the stream of cash and good credit, he and Isabelle use to carouse the city in a cartwheel of bar receipts, show tickets and boxes of clove cigarettes Isabelle turned Estlin onto within the first blank-eyed and stomach fluttered weeks of their now tenuous relationship.
Estlin searches the mess for a lone, smoke-able clove. His thoughts drift into pieces of the night before, during their argument that lead to the mess on the floor. The pieces of a lamp thrown at him with a pop of electricity from the outlet as she yanked it with exaggerated passion. Her effort was comical to Estlin. The lamp did not come easily. And she was thin in the arms. He chuckled as she pulled and as the cord stuck firmly. When she finally wretched it from the outlet’s hold, the moment to throw something at him had passed, but Isabelle, undaunted, threw it at him anyway. Inside a square black paper box he finds one, lights it and returns to the sill. It burns between his fingers hanging in the air just outside the window as the blue aromatic smoke curls away.
“Issy,” he says as if she were in the room with him, “you should come watch this with me.”
Over a year ago, before Isabelle, Estlin took a poetry workshop at a community center in Queens. He thought it was beneath him though – a NYU student named by his mother after Cummings – because he was destined to become a heralded poet anyway and didn’t need the remedial workshop, nor the collection of working class dolts judging his efforts with remarks like; “too wordy” and “getting carried away here” and “what are you describing?” But he didn’t want to enroll in a class at NYU and expose his sensitivities to his peers. He had built a reputation among a specific subset of students as an all-nighter. A partier. Someone who lived a life a little bit cooler than most. NY Estlin, as he was sometimes called, the son of a successful businessman and diplomat, NY Estlin with the revolving door of alluring women at his side, brushing their noses off and seemingly just there for the moment, no real feelings holding onto his arm; NY Estlin wasn’t that him outside that off Broadway theatre for the opening of that ballet with a DJ orchestra?; NY Estlin was that him diving into the back seat of a town car outside the new, (again), invite-only club in Tribeca?; NY Estlin who disappears at night into the depths of the city for libertine experiences well beyond and more hedonistic than the average student’s night out with a fake id at a West Village Mexican restaurant or sharing swills from a bottle of 99 Bananas in a Rubin Hall dorm room while discussing topical politics. Or perhaps, none of that at all.
On his last day of the workshop, weeks before its scheduled end, he met with the instructor after class. He had hoped to sleep with her, a woman, he felt, who was under constant pressure by the city’s stresses to pay bills, arrive on time and make something of herself. He thought he could swoop in, her marvel student, the future Manhattan laureate, suave NY Estlin and show her a good time; with her bland, faded makeup and curly black hair, long heavy sweaters and a book-filled tote bag always slipping down her shoulder; pulling her down like the stresses of her life and probably never getting a proper lay in recent years.
She couldn’t stand him though. And he was dumbly unaware. His smug, self-assured half-grin. She had seen a cavalry of self-aggrandizers just like him; dudes with too much belief in the myth of themselves. In whatever it was they would become. Poets. Politicians. Athletes and Litigators. Maybe that’s what it took to become successful, but she didn’t like it. To her, it wore on them like a bad haircut or an ill-fitting t-shirt.
After absorbing a bit of his fumbling come-ons mixed in with half-read, boorish poetic theory, she asked him, “Do you think that it’s possible that you’re just not a very good poet? And you probably never will be? And that maybe you should invest whatever available resources you have been luckily bestowed, to discover what it is you may be good at? And for that matter what you may be good for?”
Estlin’s face turned red and he swiped the books from her desk to the floor and called her a bitch on his way out never to return to the Poetry workshop at the community center in Queens. She was startled by his reaction, but was nonetheless thoroughly amused and would be for the rest of her life.
That night, Estlin visited his mother, Audrey. Often, in moments of emotional havoc, he visited her. Most times though, he never told her what was bothering him. When she would ask and he would say, ‘nothing’ she would reply, “You’re just like your father.” It had almost become their standard greeting. A routine exchange following a hug. To deflect his feelings, they would sit and talk about things unrelated to whatever current dramatics encircled his life. According to the season, Audrey would serve him a drink; homemade eggnog with a small spike of cinnamon brandy in the early winter; grapefruit spritzer with a peach syrup in the early summer; Matcha tea with a honeycomb float anytime maybe; or she’d warm up a little bit of a leftover vegan meal; zoodles in in a yellow curry with seitan fritters and roasted butternut squash in the autumn. She loved playing host, she threw dinner parties often. He often told her, (as was the routine of his conversations with her, repeating statements and questions), that she was a seasonal genius.
“You always know how to pair the right drink or meal or decorations with the time of year. It’s a gift. You may have missed your calling.”
“Oh,” she smiled, “what would that have been? Seasonal adviser?”
“That’s it. Advise the people on what sort table arrangement is correct for August or what type of hat they need to be wearing for May. Like a spiritual adviser, only with less crisis. There is nothing existential about summer soups.”
Audrey smiled and sipped her drink. “Well, this is New York. Everything is existential.”
In the visits with his mother, Estlin mostly enjoyed reminiscing with her about their life in his early years; in Estlin’s mind an idyllic period of romping through a well-cut lawn with a big fluffy white dog named Grubby.
“Gorby.” His mother corrected him. “You always called him Grubby, though your father named him Gorby, after Gorbachev, because he had that little splotch of black fur on his head. But your father just let you go on calling him Grubby, because he didn’t want the neighbors to think we were Soviet sympathizers.” She sat on a stool in her kitchen, both hands around a mug of peppermint tea, her posture straight, seemingly flexed and balanced as if on a ball. Her hair, once hazy blonde and banged to the fashion of the time, was now fading into the color of dusty concrete, hung loose near her right brow, forever pushed back with a hand or an exhaust of breath.
“Remember that neighbor with the flag pole?” Estlin piped up. “With the rings that banged against the pole at all hours of the day? Who refused to take down the flag before that remnants of a hurricane or whatever struck the island?”
“Oh yes,” Audrey replied. “I used to imagine that clanging to be the chains of a ghost prisoner. Such a dreadful thought. I think, he was denied a medical benefit from the Veteran’s Administration, or something or rather. He was also being audited by the IRS. He was in a one-sided fight with the government and wanted the flag to stay out and get ruined. Some minor political statement or rather. Your father went over and demanded he take down the flag and he refused, so your father found some archaic law about flag desecration, called the police and had them take it down. I found it all quite trivial and hilarious now. You, Estlin, you were marching around the house and singing Grand Ol’ Flag, but you didn’t know much of the words, so you sang it, ‘You’re a grand ol’ flag, you’re a high flying flag, you’re a flag, you’re a flag, you’re a flag.’ I could never figure out where you had even heard that song before. You were four, five? What four or five year old knows that song? It was the late eighties. Not the fifties. You were so funny.”
In the reminisces that didn’t involve his father, Estlin would eventually ask the same questions; “What was dad doing at the time?” or “What did father think about that?” Audrey regarded those memories with a fondness that briefly stretched across her mouth in a smile, recalling the love she used to feel for him, those moments when she’d see his face across a crowded room or enter a door way or his hands on her shoulders, chest against her back, the way she liked the sound of his name, Jack, resonate from her vocals chords, over her tongue and through her lips and off the wall of the master bath or into the air from the window above the driveway, but then she quickly extinguishes the feelings with an “Oh your father was probably in a meeting somewhere” or “Your father probably had a plane to catch” or “Your father was probably devising a plan to take money from people.”
It was Audrey’s business, an interior design firm on Greene Street, whose failure preceded their divorce. He had provided the capital necessary to get the company beginning and running, and from his position, at the time, as the assistant city treasurer, awarded her firm two bids for city projects. He funded her firm from a shell trust to insulate himself in case of its failure. After Audrey had started a satellite location in Southampton to be closer to home, she hired entry level positions to keep payroll low and ideas high. Her Manhattan location soon garnered a reputation for vastly overcharging. After a reviewer in the Times style and design section wrote the brief, debilitating review; “…located in SoHo, if what you are looking for is a team of Gen Xers in Zeppelin shirts and Doc Martens informing you that the new trends are natural light, (see new windows, construction permits), artwork that calms (see Rothko knockoffs from uptown estate sales, invoiced at near Rothko-like prices), and furniture that invites (see corduroy bean bags?)” the firm was shuttered and their arguments in the kitchen made Estlin cry in his bed under the blankets. Jack was removed from his brief position as assistant city treasurer and faced audits from the IRS and a grand jury for the impropriety of awarding bids for city jobs.
Estlin remembered his father’s words spoken like an actor filling a theatre; “I knew you could never do this. I told myself, maybe if I helped you get off your feet. Maybe if I gave you a little push, then just maybe you could make a go of it. But I knew. I knew. You will never be able to handle a competitive business’s day to day. Just stick to this, this messy painting or cooking or yoga in the park or whatever goddamn moon cycle retreat you do with those space-headed morons. Or better yet, try to mother that boy upstairs a little better so he won’t turn out an eccentric failure. Like you.” He didn’t mean any of it, of course, Estlin knows. He was under a lot of pressure. And drunk on scotch. But, that was it. A husband can’t say things that chisel the spirit of a wife and expect it to be forgotten. “Oops,” does not exist. Estlin has a hundred poems about that night. All of which he reads over and over, changing a word here and there. Never submitting any of them for readers. Each one gives him the sad chills he experienced when he heard their fighting. The chills like a massive thunderstorm rattling windows and walls. The porcelain mugs and bone china plates clanking in the cupboards. The brick walls, vibrating just enough from a rumble of thunder tens of seconds long to turn miniature bits of mortar into dust.
When Estlin told Isabelle of his parents, she laughed.
“Why do you laugh?”
“Oh you know, business daddy, artist mommy, yada yada yada,” she said as her accent faded from the hardened Picardie into hurried New Yawker and back again. “He has a name like Jack, business man American Jack. Jack is strong. Jack makes wealth. Your mother, Audrey, like Hepburn, beautiful probably and artistic and probably likes to drink peppermint tea at night and do yoga in the sunlight. Contrasts in personas, no? Then, poof, they have you, the lovely boy and so the lovely artist and the stiff businessman get a divorce and the rest of his childhood and life the boy gets torn between the two. He could run away from them in college, but no, he stays in the city where he’s lived all his life and tries to be a poet for his lovely mother, and study politics and business for his hard father. And all this American made boy wants to do is drink and fuck the French women he meets at clubs.”
“Woman,” Estlin said. “Singular. Just one French woman.”
Isabelle moved to New York, some five years ago – the first thing she did was visit Times Square and stood among tourists for hours at the MTV window to try to be an audience member – a seventeen year old editorial and runway model with a mother agency taking more than ten percent from her international agency taking more than ten percent. She had the good fortune, one might say, of ‘being discovered’ sitting on a park bench in Paris while in the city for Le Salon de l’Agriculture with her father, a grain farmer from the Somme river valley lands outside Amiens. She wore a t-shirt with the shirtless image of Jim Morrison on the front. Her blonde hair was in a short, firm pony tail as she turned her lazy green eyes from the sun and made them squint toward the distance. She sat with her legs just on the inside of her thumbs, as she grasped the bench slat and waited for her father to return with coffee.
The American photographer who happened to see her in this moment pointed his Nikon Pro at her and took a burst of photographs.
“Where are you from?” He asked loudly, bluntly, as if she were from a refugee camp with a drainage ditch toilet; and with a tone that he believed all non-Americans needed refuge from destitution.
“Moi?” She replied with a finger pointed at her face.
“Moi? Yes you, little girl. Where did those green eyes get so mesmerizing?”
She responded in French that she would not be called, ‘little girl’ and how dare he talk to her like she was a moron. And that she was from the country, from hard-working stock and his fat American bald head can go try to molest some other little girl, because if he came a step closer or took another photo she would alert her father and together they would be taking pictures of the American’s greasy colon.
The American laughed and flung his business card at her feet. He responded in French, “Your eyes are like the mid-afternoon pale teal tide water of St. Croix, your nose like a soft perfectly formed acorn tucked away in the mouth of a babe squirrel. Your lips, oh what can I say about your lips that couldn’t be described without first a soft brush against a cheek to understand fully their plushness like two tendrils of alpaca lace? Call me if you want the world to see what I see too.” He switched to English and continued. “You may be a fan of the Doors, and ol’ Jimmy Morrison stumbling his way to the next whiskey bar, but my personal American rock hero, Mr. Bob Seger sang songs about hard working folks like yourself. And hardworking folks that left their small towns to search for something else. He said, ‘She was born with a face that would let her get away.’ Little miss, my apologies, but you were too.”
Isabelle was a sucker for words. She didn’t know Bob Seger. She knew ‘Old Time Rock n’ Roll’ but not that it belonged to him, just that Tom Cruise slid across the hardwood floor in socks and his underwear, lip-syncing to it. She gave that a try, once, by herself. She wished someone was there to film her.
Estlin inhales from the clove and looks around the apartment. The mess isn’t that bad. The magazines he had held up and thrown at her, then ripped in half like a phony strongman were the worst of it. The assortment of clothing he tossed from the closet could be picked up without much fuss. He didn’t know why he’d argued with her about superficiality of her life and career. His point was absurd and shallow. When he said, “You live a life to present an image to no body,” he knew he should’ve shut up. He lived a life writing poems no one would read. He walks the few steps into the kitchen and catches a glance at Isabelle asleep in the bedroom. Even after all the nonsensical, drunken fighting they still went to bed together. She never sleeps well. He feels bad for her, having to go to bed after a fight. In the kitchen, he takes an orange from a bowl near the sink. He bites into the rind with his teeth, peels a bit away and leaves the pieces on the counter and the floor as he walks into the living room. He looks to the little alcove by the window to Fifth Avenue. There, his writing desk sits against the wall. He often sits there with the intentions to write, but finds himself blankly staring instead. Out the window. At the little cactus on a shelf. His fingernails. Above the desk, hangs a blown-up reprint of a Charles Cushman photograph, boy meets girl in Street Scene. Estlin considers it, again, for as it often took his attention. He sometimes imagines himself the photographer, sometimes the boy in the photograph, sometimes the girl, sometimes the specter hanging above it all. It is a scene from the lower east side in 1941. A suited man, hands in pockets, leans against a tenement building’s stair railing, chats with a woman in a green skirt and blouse holding a big purse and what appears to be a bouquet of flowers. A girl leans from a second story window and stares at the photographer with a bit of a look on her face. Estlin walks to the desk, a thin blue rope of smoke trails behind him. He stares deeply into the photograph as words form in his mind. He drops the orange on the desk and sits down and begins to type, in a fury, on the vintage Royal typewriter he never uses. Boy meets girl in street scene while girl above looks on yearning for her own scene, perhaps, while the couple below posture and prepare for their dance, their duel without pistols standing guard in defense of their heart; perhaps one plays it cool, casual and all-the-while ready to pounce when the moment is correct; or even if it isn’t. The other cautious of his eyes, his necktie and the bouquet of daises, perhaps, wrapped in thick paper, the weight of her workday world still lays in her handbag; and conforming into his world and their world, the men, in a scratchy wool skirt suit and functional heeled clogs; wretched painful things and now self-consciousness creeps in with the morning rouge cream dried and flaked, the mascara caked, the hair-do a bit lop-sided, as the late afternoon hour takes hold and his words attempting to get her into a diner booth or a bar stool or, perhaps, and really, the mattress upstairs. But if this is true and they stage in this moment for a shootout of wits, than that ever illusive shedding of clothing for the exposure of complete vulnerability necessary for copulation will occur in due time and appropriate course of actions like firing of guns; it is after all 1941, love has just begun. All-the-while, the girl above looks on like an unconcerned observer or, perhaps, the ever-wise gossip columnist. Maybe she knows more about her, or about him, than she shows or maybe she just wants them to move along and get happy already. Maybe she just wants the photographer to take her picture too. She has more to offer than the dueling couple below. “See me,” she tells him with her eyes. “I am up here. Distract you from the eventual bloodbath below. It will be horrific. Tragic. Lovely and tender too. Take my advice, stay away from that down there on the street. He’s conniving and she’s harried. Won’t be long now. Nothing to see anymore. Photographs of families don’t quite cull the wonder as photographs of lovers do. Take a picture of her when her stomach is bulbous, like a purple onion, when her ankles are swollen and sore and the first kid is hanging off her arm, a mouthful of spit, but wearing a fashionable coat but moments away from needing to make poo. When his hair isn’t slicked into a do and a yellow sweat-through t-shirt clings to his shoulders from putting a socket wrench to the Olds. Or perhaps later in a crisp green scratchy uniform, like hers now but with a name tag and insignia and a belt with a fresh knife and places for magazines of bullets and hooks for grenades intended for surprise attacks in battle; real battle in real war, not this playful hands-in-pockets dalliance you see now. Guts get ripped out for real. Hearts break from shrapnel and bullets and fall from the sky, burning sometimes, in pieces. Hey, I’m up here, photographer. Down there only gets worse. Casserole dinners with frozen peas and cream of Campbell’s brand mushroom soup and arguments about making ends meet. No frills for Christmas this year. A tree, perhaps, and some wrapped boxes, but keep the bank account balanced for a new furnace. Can you take that picture? Who wants to see that? The frantic moment, perhaps, when her womb becomes placenta abrupta and he speeds his Olds toward a hospital through stop lights and past people just walking to live and nearly bludgeoning a few with the chrome bumper; flattening hard-working, tired pedestrian feet with the budget retreads he purchased from that shop in the Bronx where old men sit and drink from little mugs on little saucers; his vortex veins look like red tributaries flooding into milky delta plains, steady lines of sweat, microscopically vibrating, infused with static electricity, perhaps, dripping down his forehead, take that picture instead photographer, that is actual life, what the boy and the girl do now, that’s just for play, that’s not real, I am real photographer, up here, perched on this window sill, you know what’s gonna happen down there. And soon.”
Estlin’s typewriter taps stirs Isabelle from a loose sleep. She folds a pillow around her head, but he types loudly. Like a mad pianist without rhythm. She tastes the vomit on her lips. Her eyelashes are heavy with dried tears. She sits up on the edge of the bed and rolls her neck and looks through the bedroom doorway to the mess in the living room. She smiles a bit at the pieces of the lamp. She remembers that. She stretches her arms and checks the waistline of her panties; putting a couple fingers to her vagina and bringing them, briefly to her nose. She wants to be sure he didn’t try fucking her while she slept passed out. She’s sure he’s tried it before. She only sleeps heavily when she’s drunk. Any other night it’s like sleeping on a string. Thin moments of sleep separated by thick moments of attempting to go back to sleep. Her nights and dreams are not the same since she moved to New York. In France, at her father’s home, she could sleep like a lion; however while in New York, the various combinations and attempts of scented candles, warm-water Epson salt baths, relaxation yoga, white noise CD’s and cold medicine shots all failed in comparison to a hefty night of drinking. She drinks often.
In the bedroom, she looks around the floor for a shirt to wear.
“I need to get my things and get out,” she thinks. She smells the wisps of a clove cigarette and stands without putting on a shirt and walks into the living room ready to yell at him for probably smoking the last one. She is wobbly, terribly hungover and instead heads for the kitchen where she drinks tap water from a glass. She braces herself on the counter. She sees the bits of orange rind on the counter and floor. A trail of refuse wherever he goes. She looks out to the living room and his back as he seems to be typing something too important to turn around and acknowledge her. Nausea sweeps over her like a sudden wave and she coughs a string of foamy water and saliva into the sink. He doesn’t stop typing and she wonders, briefly, what she may need to do to get his attention. Scream like she’s being murdered, probably. She wants to gather her things and leave him, but the thought of returning to her rented den with the curtain doorway in the living room of a South Harlem apartment is not appealing. She doesn’t even know her apartment mates. She thinks, again, of the fast talking, white-haired woman at the agency who promised she’d get a paid-for room in a SoHo loft with other agency models. That was nearly five years ago. Without Estlin, she’d have to go back to the club promotion circuit. Being a pretty face in the crowd of some flash-in-the-pan club with a six month lease, named X-Session, Rize & Roar (R&R) or Clubs Hearts Diamonds Spade all with the card symbols rather than the words and not a card table in sight inside the rented warehouse dock or below street level space where the model wrangler, normally named Benton or Nigel or Donovan – and who wears multiple hemp beaded bracelets, does hot naked yoga and displays a hundred framed photographs of himself in his Williamsburg walk-up – promises there will be protection against the ass-grabbing phony rich guys; the ones with the open collars, shit lecherous grins and jaws full of stubble still drenched in a heavy scent of eau de toillete, at the bar drinking the new brand of triple-distilled grape vodka they brokered into the prominent space along the club’s liquor wall. But the wrangler lies, like normal, just another fast talking, reassuring pimp, paying women cash to show up and drink and flirt and maybe leave unscathed; their sense of self-worth not dwindled to mere flesh to hump or fondle, not shown rolls and fans of cash to retreat to a back room with a big white couch or maybe go for a ride to the bedroom of a Queens apartment shared with video game playing friends in the living room, ‘Hey pals, look at this tight skirt I’m taking to my room, only cost me a few hundred bucks, which I will try take back when she’s not looking.” Or maybe not. More often not. The protection, the bouncers, just give handshakes and fist bumps and over-look the place like the goons in movies who are always the first to get shot or spin-kicked or head-lock neck-snapped by the hero squad coming to save the day. Isabelle did not want to return to that life. She wasn’t sure how she ever met those wranglers, why her contacts were the shady ones, but Estlin provided a way out of that, and though he didn’t seem to be much of a companion, he always told her he loved her. No one else in the city has ever said it to her and meant it. They all throw the words out there like hello and goodbye and bless you after a sneeze. Meaningless. Just words you say. She thinks of her father, the widower farmer, never to marry or date again, and shudders when she thinks of the growing economic plight of farmers in France and their suicide rates and how she moved to New York to help him. She assured herself she would make it, the riches could be had by just posing and smiling or looking focused into a camera lens. She wants to return home, but she knows he would be upset, her leaving home, just to return again, chasing a dream and losing. He had raised her to never give up. But what could she do? Every one she’s met in this city is awful. She even caught Estlin’s father looking at her up and down; undressing her in his mind probably, conniving a plot to pry her away from his son, so he can swoop in and daddy fuck her for a week and give her some cash to ‘help out.’ She finally told Estlin that his father had been staring at her luridly, and that preceded the argument last night. With the torn magazines and shattered lamp on the floor. She knows he thinks too highly of his father.
She follows the orange rinds to his desk, where he sits, hunched over and typing, his eyebrows bent in a deep v. She takes the remainder of the burning clove from his lips. He doesn’t stop typing as she stands close to him and exhales smoke from her nostrils. At the open window she leans out and smokes down the remaining bit before flipping the butt into the air and the street below. He stops typing.
“Issy put a shirt on.” He commands.
She puts her hands on the sill’s edge and leans a bit further forward, letting the city’s warming air envelope her bare torso and face and blowing what strands of hair it can like long strokes of calligraphic letters.
He turns and stands. She pulls her body through the window and sits, legs dangling on the ledge, unsecured by anything. A body on a window ledge, twelve stories high.
“Isabelle,” Estlin commands again and louder as he bounds over to grab her.
“No!” She yells as he reaches out to grab her arm. “I am not jumping,” she says. “You are going to make me fall. Don’t touch me while I sit.”
“That is not safe. Get in here, now.”
“You don’t command me. You don’t tell me what to do.”
“When it comes to life or death, yes. Anyone would tell you not to do sit there. Please come in. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not about you. You selfish American boy. Not always about you and what you are sorry for. You know?”
He reaches again and she slaps his hands away. They both realize a simple slip could send her falling. She suddenly feels stupid for sitting there, but simultaneously doesn’t want to move. Stupidity aside, a different feeling overcomes her like a wave. Maybe the feeling is happiness. Maybe freedom. The sky around, the parade below, who else on this Earth could be experiencing the same thing? As long as he didn’t try to pull her back in, she may sit there for days.
“Don’t.” She commands, as he seems to adjust his body weight to make another attempt. Her voice deep and tinged with genuine fear for the first time. “You, you are all the same. Self-involved.”
Estlin stands behind her and realizes he may not understand her. And he may never have.
“I listened to too many of you tell me what to do. Move to the United States. Let them take your picture. We will take care of you. Smile, turn, look away, don’t blink. Don’t eat this. Go to this. Go to that. You are beautiful. You are gorgeous. You are going to be a star. It is all bullshit. They are telling you that, because they are not listening to you. They are telling you these things, because they want you to do whatever it is, they want. I moved here to be free. To help my father who is trapped in his own way too. Now I am trapped. With you. In this city. Don’t you see it, Ess? Don’t you see how I am trapped, now? This, this out here is free. I am in the sky with the birds. That is free. These people below, they are free. You see that, don’t you? American boy. You see you are trapped too?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Estlin responds. He takes the remainder of the orange from his desk and sits down on the floor, legs crossed, in front of her by the window.
“Oh this is story time, no?” She says. “You are going to eat that orange while I tell you why you are trapped, no? Is that it?”
“I want to understand.” He says.
Isabelle turns her head to the sky, then looks down to the parade below. She could feel the energy. The noxious unity of people celebrating their right and place among society. She imagines spreading wings and gliding down among them, feeling as free and rightful as they do. Freedom from oppression, she thinks, should always be celebrated, but freedom from one’s own situation, perhaps one’s own mind, is a silent, world-doesn’t-care ceremony. One without an appointed date.
She turns her head back to the apartment to ask him a question, but when she does a sliver of the orange strikes her in the chin.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” She demands. He tosses another piece at her.
“What’s wrong with you?” He counters. “You’re sitting topless on a window ledge. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were planning to jump.”
She pulls herself into the apartment and stands with fists, defensively, angrily. “Oh? You’d think so, eh? Well, I can tell you jumping to my death among the hundreds and thousands of happy people down there would be a much better experience than sitting in this apartment with you. Throwing fruit at me. You are a boy, Estlin. A puny, insecure, vain little boy who without his dadda and is momma wouldn’t be but a poor little boy, and still insecure.” In French she calls him an insignificant little shit.
He tilts his head to the side and throws an orange piece into his mouth. Flecks of juice squirt around his lips as he musters a single, dull, “Perhaps.”
“Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps!” She trails off in a yell gathering her clothing from the floor.
Estlin chucks the last sliver of orange out the window. He wonders where it may land among the revelers; possibly colliding into a skull with a wet splat. That person, inconvenienced briefly, gets a juicy bit of addition to the narrative story of their day. “And then I was hit in the head with an orange slice!” He imagines the person saying to a group of gathered friends at a high top table in the bar of a restaurant somewhere in midtown, next week or the week after, only as long as the gathered friends still want to hear it. He remains there, staring through the window, lost in the imagination of someone else’s life. He wonders what that may be like, to suddenly become transplanted into the life of someone else like a switching of souls. Would it be better? Would he go searching for what used to be himself? Would he take more chances in the body and life that isn’t his? He doesn’t hear Isabelle moving about the apartment and around him, her breath heavy, making little grunts as she gathers her things.
“I’m leaving,” Isabelle says, a lumpy duffel hangs from her arm while she holds a half-zipped knock-off Louis Vuitton roller.
“I like that shirt on you.” He says to her, still sitting, legs-crossed on the floor. It is a vintage Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band tour t-shirt she rustled from the stuffed rack of a thrift store in the East Village. “I remember the day you got it. It was our first Sunday together. We woke up too late for the goat cheese omelets from that spot on Grove Street I’d been telling you about all night. So we had bagels and bananas from the market by the park and you remarked how you didn’t understand Americans’ fascination with heavy breads in the morning and drip coffee in paper cups on the go. Coffee should be drank in respite, you said. Considered in pauses and paired with a light bread, something that could be dipped, maybe. And fruits. Berry jams most especially. A little bit of natural sugar to get the energy flowing, you said. I loved that about you. We had our drip coffee in paper cups as we sat on the bench in the park. We watched an artist arrange little clear cups of colored liquid into a portrait of somebody famous. I can’t remember who now. Bob Marley maybe? We talked about that day a couple years ago and how guilty you felt for not calling your father until the evening, because you’d spent the night drinking until six? Seven in the morning? You wanted him to worry, you said, because at least he would think you may have been nearby doing a shoot. Actual work. But, you couldn’t tell him the truth. You partied on a Monday night. Nearly every Monday night. And when you finally called him from a payphone, you told him you’d been away with work in Philadelphia. There was a photographer there. He had a waiting-list. That part was true, but you’d seen him months before. He charged you too much and equated nudity to art and you left him without even kissing his cheeks goodbye and you thought that was the reason the photographs he sent you were shit. Anyway, we wandered around that day, and despite our hangovers and probably to cure them, we had slushy, heavily salted margaritas at that upstairs bar on Avenue A, we wore our sunglasses all day and into the night and at that shop on Second Avenue we must have tried on everything we liked. Remember that polka dot dress? The black and white one with the random yellow dot here and there? That was beautiful on you. It all was, really. The runner’s tank top, the striped polyester jumpsuit hugged your hips in a way that made me jealous, I wanted to rip them off of you for being so close, I still think of you in them, though, sometimes I jerk off to it. But that dress, somehow with you in it, declared to me just how important you were going to be to me. I wasn’t sure if you were actually a model then or just said it to me as a lark. You know? I’ve met a lot of people in this city, coming here from Indiana or Tel-Aviv or upstate someplace with nothing around them like the opportunity to survive here, to really live it out and attempt the big dream and they tell me what they want to be not what they are. Such a shame we judge others based on their profession. Tell me you’re a fighter. Tell me you’re a kind heart. Tell me, when you actually sleep, you have a reoccurring dream of flying without wings over an ocean, an endless, silver expanse, as gulls surround you and swoop down into the white, frothy wave crests like dive bombers and every time you hear a song with the word ‘love’ in the lyrics you replace it with ‘drug’ and the song still plays the same way as if love and drugs are interlinked in some deep subconscious neuro-transmission. Tell me, Isabelle, you’re not like other models, so full of themselves in front of a mirror and among crowds, you never pucker your lips for anyone whose staring and you are never too cool to be seen anywhere with anyone and utterly flippant toward going out of style or in style or whatever the fuck keeps people looking cool anyways. I fell in love with you at that thrift shop, while you wore that dress and not because you are French and a model and gorgeous, but because you told me, Isabelle, without saying a word, that you could improve the life around you. You were freedom. I was caged. I thought, in some schmaltzy, cheeseball prime-time movie way, that you could free me. But I see it now. After a year of this, all I’ve managed to do is to cage you too. I’m sorry, I love you. I’ll walk you out.”
“No,” Isabelle says. She lets the duffel slide from her shoulder and stares at him, sitting on the floor like a child and then out the window, her green eyes following a bird, struggling against gravity and the wind to get above the high rises. “I can walk myself out.”