A City Night by Kathy Graves
The inscense burned a light musky scent in the room. The TV screen flashed images and voices flittered in the air. Another average night at Daniel’s apartment and she was there. Lisa exhaled the smoke from her lungs and watched Daniel put the blunt out. The ashtray was from her last trip to Miami, and it was the most hideous thing she had ever seen. But the little brown Rastah man lounging on the marijuana leaf made her think of no one but Daniel. And he certainly made good use of it by the amount of ashes and roaches it held. Daniel choked on the exhale, reached for his signature rum and coke and took a slow swallow.
Lisa relaxed into the groaning couch, her head feeling light, her mood mellow. She sighed, feeling calm and at peace in his studio apartment. Her eyes too in her small sanctuary; the green leather loveseat she relaxed on in the living room; a tan office chair; the cherry wood entertainment stand with a large flat screen TV and shelves full of miscellaneous junk; a light colored wood desk that looked homemade and a small green and white area rug. His queen size bed swallowed the space next to the one person kitchen. She chuckled knowing it was there for convenience because he can reach the refrigerator when laying there. The walk in closet, with all of his clothes hung neatly, a dresser tucked in the back and shoes spewed across the floor was right next to the bathroom. Anyone else would feel trapped but Daniel didn’t care.
It was simple and cozy, and to Lisa, that’s what made it so nice. It stood as a reflection of him, no pretense. You get what you see, nothing more and nothing less. That is what drew her to him, his complex simplicity. Daniel was unlike any man she had known or been involved with. For that reason Lisa always found herself right where she was that night.
“You know how to play chess?” He asked pulling Lisa from her hazy thoughts.
“Huh? No. I don’t even remember how to play Chinese checkers.”
His mood flipped and he looked like a kid fresh off of punishment. His eyes were wide and eager.
“Well I’m gonna teach you.”
“Are you serious?” She laughed at how much his eyes lit up.
“Yeah. It’s easy, and you’re a smart girl so you’ll catch on.”
He pulled himself to his knees from the floor and reached for a box beneath some dusty books on the dusty shelves. From the thick layer of dust on the box, it looked like it hadn’t been played in years. His biceps peeked out from his shirt and his muscles contracted as he maneuvered the box out. His contorted body looked unnaturally graceful and languid, and heat rushed through Lisa. He had that affect on her; the way he moved, his voice, looking into his eyes made her stomach leap in circles. And when she was high it was so much more intense. He crawled over to the couch and placed the box on her lap and she couldn’t contain her amusement.
“Ok, red or black?” He asked, setting the board up on the cushion beside her.
“I don’t care.” Her voice rose and fell like a bass line, “Whatever you want. I can’t believe you’re for real right now.”
“You’re red, I’m black. This is how it works.”
His mouth started moving but Lisa couldn’t grasp his words. He was explaining how the pieces move and her mind was gone. Daydreaming about them being in bed, kissing and touching made it impossible for her to listen. His words sounded like gibberish and hung in the air in front of her.
“What?!” Her face frowned in confusion, “I don’t even know what you’re saying.”
“Look and listen. Damn, girl, I swear you are slow sometimes.” His deep laughter fell over her like a snowdrift.
“I agree! Which is why you are so wasting your time.”
A heavy knock sounded from the back door and Lisa’s paranoia instantly kicked in making her heart race. Daniel looked out the corner of his eye and laughed out loud. She looked like she was about to jump out of her skin.
“That’s the weed man,” he chuckled. “About damn time, I’ve been waiting since like five.”
He rose slowly, turning the corner and his flat feet slapped the linoleum floor. Six steps and then the blinds crinkled open. Daniel peeked through to see his neighbor on the other side. He mumbled what may have been English, but Lisa couldn’t tell, and opened the door.
“What up man?” They shook hands.
“Nothing,” he said, dropping his head. “Dude, somebody got shot out front.”
“What the fuck?” Daniel’s head snapped up.
“Yeah. You didn’t hear it?” He crossed his arms over his chest, “The police are out there now.”
“Naw, man, I didn’t hear nothing. Let me get some shoes and I’ll come check it out.”
Daniel rounded the corner and slid his feet into his Nike sandals. He looked at Lisa, surprised to see her eyes almost bugged out of their sockets and her mouth hanging open. He could see the water pooled in the corner of her eyes and avoided her gaze.
“I’ll be right back.” He turned quickly.
Before Lisa could form words in protest, he was gone. Double footsteps trotting down the three flights of wooden stairs rippled through the air until they sounded like faint echoes. Oh my god, what is he thinking? What if something happens to him? Her breathing became heavy and her nerves made her legs antsy. If he gets hurt what will I do, what can I do? Nobody even knows I’m here! Her high had her brain fuzzy, making it hard to focus. Unconsciously, she slid the chess pieces into the box, folded up the board and put it away.
Lisa tried to look through the blinds but his apartment was in the back on the third floor, giving no view other than the building across the courtyard. She stood in the living room absorbing the quiet. Then suddenly it was too quiet. The thud of her heart and her thoughts reverberated off the walls. Distant footsteps came from the stairs, louder, louder, then he opened the door breaking her trance. It felt like hours had passed and she breathed for the first time.
Everything in the room slowly came back to life. The voices from the television murmured the light in the bathroom buzzed, and the refrigerator hummed. Daniel entered the living room with a somber face.
“The police are everywhere. He was just a kid, they think like sixteen. All I saw was his feet.”
“Wow.” Lisa fell onto the foot of the bed, watching Daniel pace in front of her.
“I know. You should probably wait a little bit before you leave. They have the street blocked off.”
Daniel sat on the bed, so close she could feel his body heat. Neither of them spoke; what could be said? Daniel reached for her hand and she held tight to it. Neither could comprehend the thought of a dead body laying on the ground just outside the big iron gate they walked through every day. Daniel kept thinking that the young man had a mother and a father, maybe even sisters or brothers, and he wanted to punch something. It made him sick to his stomach. Made him angry at society and the system that let young men fall through the cracks. He saw kids every day, had their best interest in mind eight to ten hours a day. It was his job, but at the moment it was so much more.
“You ok?” He squeezed her clammy hand.
“Yeah, I guess. Just shocked. What if I had been leaving when it all happened?” She looked at him, “I don’t understand it.”
“That’s why I don’t want you walking to your car alone.” Their eyes connected and the air became charged with emotion.
“Ok, but then you have to walk back here alone. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“You know I’ll be ok Lisa, I’m a grown ass man!” He laughed, trying to ease her angst.
“Even grown men get shot,” she sighed and lowered her gaze. “You can walk me to my car, but if I’m far I’ll drop you back off.”
“Ok. If it will make you feel better.” He shrugged.
Lisa smiled past her trembling insides. Daniel let go of her hand, wrapping his arm around her, pulling her closer to him, against him, and squeezed. He should have told her how he felt but the words never came, so he made the choice to show her. In the way he cared for her, looked out for her; in the late night intimate calls filled with laughter and conversation. Or the secret nights they spent in his apartment. In his mind Lisa knew because his actions told her more than any words ever could.
Daniel had always said their situation was complicated. He was involved with another woman and Lisa had recently ended a three-year relationship. Their relationship was easy, comfortable. Each finding a piece of themselves in the other. There was an undeniable, unspeakable magic that both had finally stopped fighting. And it was the way it all fit and felt so right that made it hard. Hard to not blur the lines and confuse their fantasy with the reality outside of those walls.
Lisa stopped asking questions and pushing for answers about them. Daniel had begun to let down his guard and expose himself. He told her to relax and let it flow. And now they were best friends, each others confidant, and lovers. Daniel feels something deep, an emotional river, running through him. She relaxed into him and he smiled.
Their mood weighted heavier with sadness and time ticked at an agonizing pace. Lisa sat up, adjusting her shirt when he leaned over and kissed her. Her breath caught, allowing him to devour her mouth with his. Their lips parted and neither spoke, the silence speaking their thoughts. He interlocked their hands and pulled her body closer, touching his lips to her cheeks, ears, neck, momentarily escaping the thoughts that haunted them.
“I should probably go,” she said in a whisper. “I need to get my mind and my papers ready for tomorrow. Can’t let the kids know I’m a mess.”
“Ok,” he pulled back, “where’d you park?”
“Right across the street.”
They sat for a moment, fingers locked, breathing in sync. Breaking the connection, Lisa grabbed her purse from the chair and walked the few feet to the door. Daniel came up behind her, touching his body to hers. Lisa leaned back resting against him, wanting to melt into him.
“Come on,” he said, nudging her limp body out the door with his chest.
Walking down the stairs Lisa felt like she was headed towards the unknown. Something in the air said life would be very different after this experience. They stepped into the courtyard to see the blue and red lights from several police cars flashing against the buildings. Lisa hoped it was the last of everything, but as they stepped quietly closer to the gate it was clear things were just beginning. Although it appeared as if the whole neighborhood was outside, it was absolutely quiet. The trees would not have even rustled if the wind blew. He pushed the heavy gate open and they walked through, letting it slam lightly behind them. The street and sidewalks were filled with people. The coroner’s truck was parked on the corner, halfway in the middle of the intersection, just under the viaduct. The street was still blocked off on either end by unmarked police cars.
The sky was silky navy blue, and so clear the stars looked like glass teardrops. In the still darkness, the air was sat heavy with sadness. Daniel led her through a group of people whispering about the dead boy on the sidewalk. Two more steps and she paused, jolting Daniel to a stop. Her eyes focused on the sidewalk and he followed her gaze. The body looked like a life-size ragdoll thrown to the ground. There was a frenzy of activity around the body and he lay lifeless. The bottom of one white gym shoe and the other leg bent inward at a right angle with a white sock stood out against the backdrop of people buzzing around it. His pant legs were up, and Daniel was thankful that they couldn’t see more from where they stood. Trembles rolled up and down Lisa’s body and he put his arm around her.
A loud wail came from the corner and drizzled over the crowd. More people, family Lisa thought, began to huddle in a group screaming and crying. Daniel tried to pull Lisa along but she wouldn’t move. He wanted to get her in the car and was angry with himself for not making sure the scene had been cleared before bringing her out. As Lisa pried her feet from the cement, the back of the coroner’s truck opened and two men hopped out. She and Daniel stopped paused knowing what was happening next. The Red Line chugged by slower and quieter than normal. It too seemed to be having a moment of silence.
A soft breeze floated through as the officials unfolded a blue tarp. It crackled and snapped with the wind picking up and flowing around it. More cries pierced the clear sky, shattering the calm that had settled. Two men held the front corners and walked with it open, flying in the wind like a flag hanging listlessly on a pole. The gusts of wind came stronger and more frequent and the artificial material is howled. It’ screamed to the heavens in unison with the family. The sounds bounced off each other, sending the yelping cries one way and the ripple of the tarp another. The cloth was restless in their hands, trying to escape them. Like it was protesting the life that had been taken too soon.
Daniel tightened his hold on Lisa. If he were not the man that he was, trying to be strong at that moment, the tears clinging to the whites of his eyes would have fallen down his cheeks. His face was stone looking toward the scene, not willing to crack. Not wanting to break that damn of emotion that was wavering inside of him. Lisa stared up at him, touched by the sadness in the lines above his eyes. The tarp blew in the suddenly endless wind, now cool and sharp, as the officials cover the body. A high pitched scream caused goose bumps to travel over Lisa’s arms and she tucked her head into Daniel’s shoulder. Her mind tore through images of the kids she saw at the high school. The kids she tried to put on the right track so they wouldn’t end up in the street or another statistic. Faces and names popped up like fireworks behind her eyelids and she sank deeper into Daniel’s chest.
Daniel led her to the car and stopped. She wasn’t sure she could feel, or breathe again. She wasn’t even sure she was thinking. Then he hugged her tight to him, kissing her forehead lightly. It was like a drizzle of rain on a sunny summer day, making her aware of the present. She blinked up at Daniel peering at her. Looking at her. Inside of her.
“Hey,” his voice a soft, husky whisper of concern.
“Yeah,” she squeaked, trying to smile, her resolve dissolving as she stared into his eyes. “He can’t be more than sixteen.”
“I know. This shit is fucked up. They’re saying it might be gang related.” He tilted his head back and gave a sad smile, “This is not for me. I need to move from over here.”
“I agree. This is too much.”
Daniel hugged her again, and Lisa wished they could always be that way. They had never been closer, and she hated to leave. She closed her eyes and breathed him into her. The tarp gurgled, doing the wave over the body. The cries hiccup through the sky and their grip on each other tighten. She wanted to tell him she loved him, she needed to. Her mouth opened but words escaped her. She was stuck, just clinging to him, not wanting to let go. Daniel leaned down the six inches, kissing her lips gently, longingly. He took her key, unlocked the door and opened it.
“Call me when you get home. As soon as you get in. Don’t be waiting like you usually do,” he ran his thumb down the side of her face.
“Ok. I promise,” she nods, eyes still closed.
Daniel grabbed her hand and gently kissed her cheek. He has never been this affectionate and Lisa is very aware of his closeness. She decides that it’s the mood of the night that’s causing him to act this way. Whatever the reason, she was grateful. It was a small glimpse of his feelings but enough for her. These occasions of raw emotion were few and far between, so she didn’t push the moment any farther. He had comforted her and she had to bank on that.
Lisa folded her body into the car and he closed the door. Daniel motioned for her to lock it, winked and walked away. Waiting for the roadblocks to be moved she watched him pause on the curb, look down the street and drop his head. His shoulders slumped like the weight of the world was on them. If she had the strength she would have jumped out of the car and run to him. She shook the thought from her mind. Her life was no movie and would never play out like one, or have that happy ending.
Exhaling the roller coaster of emotion from the night’s events, Lisa took one last glance back at him. The stars illuminated his skin, making his bald head glow a polished chocolate brown. She licked her lips trying to taste what remained of him. When he approached the gate, he looked back at her and smiled quickly, a flash of white stopping time.
“I am so in love with him,” she whispered aloud for the first time.