No Refunds

The yellow light in the lobby moves through the door’s framed glass and out into the street at midnight. It understands my shape on the asphalt out front, with my outline propped delicately over the sidewalk, whose burnished edge looks weirdly razor-like in the glow. My hand is on the glass behind me, and the heat from my fingertips gets pulled off in moist prints on its surface. The door closes with a hard sound, and I take the three steps down slowly. The night is brisk and dry. All along the Seventh Avenue sidewalks, lampposts form a colonnade that guides the eye toward Flatbush Avenue on the right and the Prospect Expressway overpass on the left. Overhead, stars defy the bright communion of the metropolitan night, shining.

  I’m already walking toward Flatbush Ave. when I realize that there won’t be any cabs tonight. I’ve stayed later than I should have, I know: longer than I usually do on nights like these. The walk uptown is long and strange, and there is something about the particular air that settles in the streets at night that fills men with a sense of death or cosmic loneliness. Maybe I should’ve stayed, tried to patch things up. Maybe that’s what she was hoping for, keeping me there so long. I can still go back.

  It’s been this way for three months, but it only feels like a couple of weeks, and it could have actually lasted for a half-century the way it all cycles back on itself. We won’t speak to one another for days, a couple weeks at most, and then she’ll call. Sometimes I call too, but I’ve tried not to these days. She’s sensed it. She doesn’t even pretend to have reasons anymore. And then I’m there, and a cigarette is lit and a cockroach is smashed and a star collapses and we’re screaming at one another as if nothing had changed, as if we were still together. Or we’re so quiet we could both be underwater. The period that Ellie and I were together is most easily remembered as the period where we were breaking up.

 And tonight is the same, but maybe she really does want me to hit the buzzer, to apologize and we’ll go to bed and wake up in the morning baffled and miserable and smiling like machines. On either side of me, the night renders the dignified and crumbling facades of the old brownstones completely obscure. I can still go back. The light inside the slouching afterthought of the Seventh Ave. subway stop is bright and depressive; a light that strikes out against secrets. Inside the turnstile, there is a sort of abbreviated antechamber tiled from ceiling to floor in off-white ceramic with hints of flower-vine patterning at the eye level. An almost life-and-a-half sized wooden bench, wrought with illegible carvings and magic marker scrawl, sits on the landing between two staircases. The left, a sign indicates, takes you to the platform for the Q and B trains running uptown, toward Manhattan, toward home. The right, says another, leads to the same trains running downtown, through Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach, past the Aquarium, all the way to Coney Island.

I’m not going back. In this truthful light, I study the blue blood beneath my skin, and I’m filled with the giddy and melodramatic impulse of all true children: to become lost beyond all responsibility. I am certain I will board the next train that arrives, and I’m certain that it will take me downtown, towards disaster and Coney Island. I imagine Ellie waiting up countless hours until she decides that I really have gone home. It’s satisfying enough to know that she’ll be wrong. I erase any thought of rest or reconciliation from my mind. Already it feels as if I’m about to board a spaceship, momentous and apocryphal.

I can hear the nondescript rumbling of the Q moving into the station, and I take the stairs to the downtown platform, where a boy with green slacks, white t-shirt and an olive complexion is standing beneath one of the only working bulbs on the platform. The youth’s hands are in his pockets. He could be about 15, but tall for his age, and he stares past me as if I were invisible. His eyes are black, or appear to be, and his mouth is shut tight. There’s something about his posture that makes him look either highly dangerous or chronically ill. When the train finally pulls in, he never moves. I walk past in silence, watching him. Maybe he has some other agenda. There’s no one in my car when the automated bell sounds and the doors of the train slide shut. Maybe he’ll get the next one. It doesn’t matter. The trains run all night.

We move. The night is indifferent to elaborately vandalized concrete walls of the trench that accommodates the BMT Brighton Line, and the only thing I can see in the window is the reflection of the car’s interior; empty plastic bucket-seats, vertical handrails, rows of leather hoops along the aisle, and my own face. Above the windows, advertisements prod those passengers absent of mind or without any other recourse, “Earn Your GED,” “Give Blood,” and “Ask For Help.” On another, a cheerful blond child is running through the spray on a beach somewhere warm with the caption, “Jimmy Doesn’t Know He Has Lymphosarcoma.”

The last time Ellie and I went out together, when she was still living with me, we rode the train after midnight back from a late movie at a revamped peep-show theater in midtown. She insisted that we take a cab, and I can remember using a sort of dismissive, parental tone I knew would irritate her. She wouldn’t talk to me then, not even about the movie, which I knew she had loved, and which I knew I had ruined for her. It was a surf-flick from the 1950’s called “Hang Ten For Two” starring a bronzed half-Latin heartthrob named Johnny Lamar. The main character was a shy surfer-girl who tries to impress the beach crowd by surfing on her hands during high tide at the infamous Big Lip Cliff. But she doesn’t realize that there’s a shark in the water, and in the nick of time Johnny Lamar paddles in to the rescue, cruising back to shore with a foot on the nose of each of their boards, performing the title’s trick—the ‘hang-ten-for-two.’ Afterwards, there’s a luau and a barbeque, and the film’s final shot is the silhouette of Johnny and the heroine in an intimate embrace as the sun goes down. Ellie always had a way of getting embarrassed at how much she enjoyed things; I could see tears in her eyes as Johnny played guitar around the campfire. She looked beautiful then. I had regretted it, felt sick to my stomach about it even as I belittled her, but that never changed anything. She had put her things in boxes a week later. After a few stops, I remember a place my grandfather used to talk about from when he lived around this neighborhood, and I get off at Ocean Parkway to see if it’s still around.

  It’s a short walk down a few blocks of single-story cafes and all-night Chinese groceries where men of indeterminate age sit behind counters, utterly motionless. The bar occupies a small section of an otherwise-vacant complex whose tenant could have been a YMCA or an insane asylum. The edifice is plaster matted in concrete for three stories up, and above the sign that says “Odd Hour Tavern & Grille,” I can see the bottom half of an enormous mural of a black and gold mermaid that covers the whole side of the building. She has long blue hair replete with starfish and wistful gray eyes. A man in a heavy flannel shirt leaning against the wall outside the door is smoking a cigarette and seems to be laughing at me but he doesn’t make a sound. I ignore him and go inside.

The Odd Hour is clearly a locals-only dive, evident from the huddled conversations that collect at its corners. Its back wall is taken up by a bar whose arms reach outward at either end across half the width of the room, leaving a serviceable space in the center with tables and stools. The bar is at capacity, so I order a drink and sit at a table where two people are talking; a man in a black turtleneck and a blazer, and a woman in a blue dress who only seems to nod.

I spent most of last year in Buenos Aires, working for a friend who owns a hotel there. Beautiful country, really lovely people.”

Uh-huh.”

 “Of course, I couldn’t speak a word of Spanish. It wasn’t too difficult getting around though, especially in the city, where most of them speak English anyway.”

 “Uh-huh. I’ve always meant to go.”

The city was beautiful, but only parts of it really, you know? Parts of the region are still undeveloped, so the outskirts tend to be pretty seedy. Filthy, even. I’d say that for the most part, Buenos Aires is a filthy city, with some beautiful parts.”

Filthy, yeah.”

And you get that way too. It’s not just the place. It gets on you, you know? On your clothes. It’s in your food. I was taking showers twice a day, on average. I couldn’t stand the way I smelled and I didn’t want to get used to it. When it got hot enough, which it did plenty of the season, even though its supposed to be winter there when it’s summer here, I would have to stand on the roof of the hotel just to get above the smell of the garbage.”

I’ll bet you couldn’t stand it.”

 “I couldn’t fucking stand it sometimes. Disease too. Something like 60% of the people between 18 and 35 have a venereal disease of some kind. And none of them get treated. One of the clerks had to take off work because of an untreated case of syphilis. This is supposed to be a democratized nation—the Americas are supposed to be developed. It’s worse in the mountains too. And don’t get me started on the rats.”

No, I don’t think I want to go there.”

It’s the same everywhere, really.”

Anywhere.”

It’s enough to convince me that these people are either schizophrenics or some sort of malfunctioning animatronic puppets, and I take my drink to the stool at an end of the bar that’s opened up. I sit elbow to elbow with a woman who, unless I’m deceived, is strikingly beautiful. She wears a long gray dress that barely reveals the tips of a pair of black flats, and short brown hair in bangs over a sharply featured face. Her eyes are green. She seems to be staring at me—back at me.

Never seen you around here,” I say automatically.

 “Nice try,” she smiles.

How about a drink then?”

I already have a drink.”

Right, well. It’s a standing offer. It’s extended, like, temporally, you know?”

You’re funny,” she rolls her eyes.

That’s not the way the metal men here talk.”

The lushes around here have their own language. I don’t pretend to understand it, but how they unwind is their business. I saw that Oskar over there was entertaining you.”

They shouldn’t let a guy like that on the airlines. He’s a paranoid for sure.”

They don’t. Oskar lives with his mother. He’s never left the city. The threads are his deceased father’s. He watches the Travel Channel obsessively.”

You his nurse or something?”

He’s got a new story every week. I can do math. We get the Travel Channel in my building too.”

And where is your building?” I say, with a smile. Risks are the type of thing that one takes in a new environment.

My building is in Shangri-La, pal. Why don’t we start with names? And where’s that drink?”

Lily laughs at my dumb lines, one after the other. I haven’t used some of them in years—haven’t had to. Even when we were barely speaking to one another, I found the idea of infidelity with Ellie repulsive—beyond forgiveness—mostly because I knew how it would crush me if I ever heard something on the other end. But tonight I’m free, and I’m as lost as I can be, and the faces down the bar are like masks of solemnity and confusion, as if a funeral procession had forgotten the name of the departed, and all stood still for a moment longer than they could to ever escape. And the two of us are alive and real. I can feel in her mocking laughter the grain of softness that could be affection or love or nothing. Before the end, Ellie accused me of being an essentially methodical person; “You’ve always already made up your mind about someone, and that’s why you’ll never reach out to anyone. I feel sorry for you.” If I had wanted to say something back, it would’ve been, ‘It’s extraordinary that you know how to break what’s already broken.’

The drinking has come to the point where physical pain is no longer an issue. Lily keeps ordering a drink called a ‘Cyclone’ and I keep paying for them. I’ve let my advances fall by the wayside—I’m forgetful, if nothing else—and I’m becoming restless. I suggest we go for a walk.

I don’t know if I’m equipped for that,” she indicates a third empty cocktail glass. “You should probably just take me home,” she says in complete seriousness.

Shangri-La?” I can’t help but smile.

Charming. No, Beverly Road. You’re going uptown anyway, right? Manhattan? Mr. Heartbroken. The trip won’t take so long with some company.”

She fits herself underneath my arm and asks that we walk slowly. I forget about Coney Island and every promise I’ve made to myself. I kiss her once, gently on the lips, and she smiles. Clouds are growing paler out over the sea. Our shadows are faint and doubled by the overlapping orange light of the lampposts. We walk past the cafes and the groceries all over again, and the mermaid diminishes and finally disappears at the turn onto Ocean, its gaze barely penetrating a moment close to dawn in early autumn. I am suddenly overcome by a tension and a fatigue in the whole of my body, of waking from a dream of the world.

I never learned to swim,” I say, and my voice cracks.

What?” Lily leans her face into my cheek. Our pace is slow and the walk seems interminably long. I feel as if I could cry at any second. I’m not sure if I really can’t swim. I can’t remember if I ever learned or not, but something hurts me and those are the words for it.

I never learned to swim, its nothing. I just—let’s not stop. It’s not a big deal.”

She turns in to kiss me again, this time more forcefully. She has the lapels of my jacket in her hands and pushes her body towards mine. I can feel the hope in her eyes, which are closed. I can feel her expectations rising. She’s forgotten she has no idea who I am, and I remember. I’m certain at this that moment I’d rather be holding on to anything else. The sound of the Q pulling in to the downtown platform rips my thoughts away. I set her back on her feet and walk toward the turnstile.

Where are you going?” Gone is the nonchalance. She’s adamant in a way I didn’t anticipate. She stumbles forward and steadies herself on the ticket-taker. Something is wrong with her balance, I realize, that has nothing to do with the alcohol. But it doesn’t matter.

I’m going this way. I don’t think either of us need me to go that way. We’re both better off if I’m on this one.”

You’re not making any sense… What’s wrong? Tonight was so…” I can hear in her voice the sound of something slipping away, something frantic that can’t be undone. Her posture has become unhinged, and she’s listing back and forward. Lily falls over the metal spokes of the turnstile and onto the concrete on my side. She catches herself with the heels of both hands, sparing her chin, but fails to totally conceal the obtrusion of a hard, flesh-colored plastic mass where her right leg ought to be. A sudden gust of wind carries the beginning of her sobs and blows the sound inward to reverberate off the walls like some guttural language, as I put my hands under her arms to pull her upright. Hot tears are flooding her cheeks, tears that aren’t proportional to anything that, in an instant, could be clear. I understand that her tears have always been missing. But then the truth of it falls away from me, and it’s never near enough to grasp again, as if everything were behind an asteroid belt or a great reef. I leave her standing against the turnstile and as I walk down to the awaiting train, I can hear her or someone like her repeating the word pig over and over in the stairwell that has become an echo chamber.

Between Brighton Beach and Coney Island, the line moves out of the trench and onto an elevated track that has a view of the surrounding neighborhoods, whose inhabitants, come dawn, have either returned from their sleepwalking or awakened from the hypnosis that, by night, seems to take this city by the throat. The morning is dewy and overcast, and clouds heavy with seawater fill the sky. I don’t think I will ever see Lily again in any of our lifetimes.

Maybe it’s been so difficult to put a stop to all this because I can’t remember when it started. Is that what you want me to say, that I’ve wasted a year—it may as well have been ten—searching for someone I know I’ll never find? She was always so good at hiding, Ellie was—did I tell you that? She was like a child in that regard. She always had a way of fitting herself behind a bookshelf or in the folds of our comforter in just the right way that I would never know that she was still there. And that’s what it’s like now, except that I know she’s there and she doesn’t. Or I only know one thing and she knows everything. Or I know everything, but I keep forgetting the most important parts, and she couldn’t care less. Christ, it’s enough to make a man drunk! Where to now, Ellie? Coney Island? Is that where I lost you, where it all dissolved like a strip of film in an acid solution or a sea of ghosts? Is it that easy for me to forget the question? Or is it some new question? But the question never changes, only the answers.

The train station at Coney Island is built like a cathedral whose narthex is a shooting gallery. I pass down flights of green iron stairs with slats between them. I walk through a sort of cavernous passageway filled with grotesque mosaics; a minstrel clown, a thief and a dog. It’s still too early in the morning for the vendors to bring their carts around, and barely any customers move through here during the fall anyway. The mist is heavy over the beach as I move toward the boardwalk. A small pavilion striped in purple and white has been erected in the sand about 25 yards away, and a woman in possibly her early seventies is sitting in a folding chair, with an absent but contented expression, holding a sign that says “THE CHAMBER OF THE ASTRAL MIRROR: KNOW THE FUTURE AS ITS WRITTEN IN THE STARS. $7. NO REFUNDS.”

What’s inside the tent?” I ask when I reach her.

Oh well, what to say, it’s different for everyone I suppose!”

But what do you see when you go inside?” I’m almost pleading now. I notice that her face looks much older when she speaks, because her wrinkles stretch themselves tight at the strain with which she appears to constantly smile.

Oh well, what to say, what to say? I don’t go in much anymore, not me. Not much of a future left for me, but the Mirror—now it’s perfect for a young fellow such as yourself, I think! You see, the stars sit in the sky for billions of years—believe you me, I’ve been around the block quite a few times! But for them, our lives can be understood in the blink of an eye. When the light from our planet reaches them, they send it back in a superwave that moves so fast it catches things that we don’t know have already happened! Yessir, its no accident neither—how did you think I got the idea? I saw myself get the idea in the mirror itself! But just this mirror. It’s the one that catches the special kind of light you need. Yessir, and we take it out in the nighttime and then trap it in the chamber you see behind me. Just seven dollars! Step right in—no refunds.”

I give her three bills and I pull the flap of the tent aside. There is a fine scent of rotting seaweed inside, and propped against one of the pavilion’s poles I can see the Astral Mirror, a corroded antique looking glass with an ornate wooden frame whose white paint is chipped. Next to the mirror, four people are sitting at a picnic table in the shadows eating McDonalds hamburgers wrapped in wax paper and drinking orange juice from clear plastic cups. When they look up, I realize that the youth I saw on the platform on Seventh Ave. is among them. He’s sitting next to his younger sister, who wears her dark hair in pigtails. He doesn’t recognize me. The boy’s father, a round and balding man with a full, dark mustache, turns around and looks surprised, and then gestures to his wife, who’s similarly shaped and wears her hair in a bun. The woman looks at me.

Did my mother let you in? She’s very old, she forgets we don’t start for another hour with this. I’m sorry, we’re right in the middle of breakfast.” She whispers something to the father, who takes out his wallet and offers me seven dollars.

You’ll never get your money back from that one,” he chuckles. “She didn’t just make the policy, she is the policy.” I make a motion without words to refuse the money, and I walk back out the way I came. The old woman’s expression has changed. I can’t tell if she’s heard what her family has said, but her face is even more haggard now. She has a look as if she’s been thinking with great difficulty, as if she had discovered that it was her life through which the course of human history must proceed before there can be any rest. She looks at me, only now realizing I’ve returned, and forms her trembling mouth to the words.

What did you see?”

 

* * *

 

In the winter, the beaches and the boardwalks of Coney Island are deserted, and at dusk on this day, it would be no different except for the solitary gray form, leaning against the railing, of two people in an embrace. They stand bundled in coats and scarves, indifferent to the wind that cuts from off the surface of the water. The man and the woman never speak to one another, or if they do, their words are muffled or lost in the wind. It’s difficult to say when it begins to snow, but when the flakes fall, they collect in the man’s collar and in the long brown hair that falls from beneath the woman’s cap. The sun, almost setting, casts veins of ochre light from behind the elongated clouds. They do not turn away from one another, but in the wild of the near-night, neither man nor woman has ever seen the sky so close as it is for them at this moment on earth. A long time seems to pass, and they don’t so much as shiver, nor even seem to breathe. They remain, holding one another away, as if concealing each other from some hidden name, or a world into which they are not yet born.