On the Anniversary of Not Seeing Her Again

by

01/30/2004

2900 Broadway, New York, NY 10027

Neighborhood: Harlem

Manhattan is the capitol of the unexpected encounter. There are no dogs barking to warn you of the unexpected, no dust being kicked up on a long curving dirt road as a stranger approaches.

So it was that I found myself standing in Nussbaum & Wu, wishing that her presence had kicked up a little more dust. Here before me, oblivious to my presence, rested the face I had framed with care and hung above my head. There had been a photo of her sitting in a café. Six months before this sight I had placed the picture in a cigar box and buried it in an Ohio cornfield. All the while the words ‘interested,’ ‘distance,’ and his name–can you believe this name?–‘Daveed,’ had pinged through me, producing a quiver in my hands as I shifted dirt and hoped that a tilling farmer wouldn’t be injured if his equipment unearthed this. Yet, now she was here, in a similar pose–two hands gingerly lifting the cup–her burgundy hair longer, but still spiked, her wide eyes more brilliant than the grayscale of the photo had suggested. She leaned toward her companion listening intently. We must have looked like that at some point. We’d met in Dublin, laughed at the way the Irish gave directions and two months later found ourselves spending Christmas and New Year’s in various parts of Europe. After nine months abroad we returned home, she to Philly and I to San Francisco. I visited and then returned to my school in an Ohio village and she came here to finish off her education at the University across the street.

Now every trip to New York caused my thoughts to wander to the possibility of seeing her again, in her new environs. I imagined that we would collide on the street, exchange polite apologies and then upon recognition of each other I’d find within myself an impassioned speech about the nature of relationships, responsibility for others’ emotions and the evolution of gorillas in the Congo. My imagination’s ignorance of Manhattan always placed this scene in the middle of Times Square. That was where these things took place. We would stand on a corner inside the city’s Christmas ornament, not here, in amongst dark green counters and speckled marble. What sound was I supposed to shout above? The self-indulgent ramblings of the patrons had all the volume of a window fan.

It would’ve been different had I been alone. Somewhere in the fallout, I’d met someone else and made her into a travelling companion, and this coffee shop with the absurd name was the last stop on our trip. I had met her on one of my earlier trips to the city. We had drank, sat on her bed, and talked about the inequity of the justice system. Later, over the phone we’d agreed to go on a road trip together. I’d picked her up from her dorm down the street two weeks earlier and we’d headed through the South. Something within me–probably the same education that made me view everything below Maryland as backward and misguided–something played out an emotional compare and contrast with my trip through Europe and this one. At any point in the road trip, when conversation was slow in coming or one of my jokes fell felt, the cherubic face that sat in the corner drifted back. It was the mental equivalent of tugging at a scab to find if it had healed.

This moment of recognition confirmed that the wound was still wet. I took another glimpse at her and lingered, part in shock but also with the hope that her eyes would move up and I’d see the effect on her. Her focus remained forward and I slid, like a television cop in a shootout, behind a shelf of ground coffee. I paused, waiting for the determination to well up in me, waiting to find myself propelled over to the table, waiting to feel my subconscious spout the words I wanted to deliver. It never came. The setting wasn’t right, the timing was off, this was not the way to end the trip, I didn’t know what I had to say and stage engulfed me. With a tentative step toward the door, as if the floor tiles were loose, I grabbed my companion’s hand, squeezed gingerly and complained about the wait. We walked to a place where they didn’t toast the bagels and the coffee was bad. Two hours later I was in Pennsylvania, driving west, doing take after take of the scene I’d flubbed, shifting the intonations of my voice and listening to the way anger played in the car’s acoustics.

Last week I got an email from the girl in the corner. I didn’t mention the coffee shop and neither did she. I’ve moved to New York, and I think those moments had something to do with it. I had hated it, and left the coffee shop feeling like a helium balloon from last week’s fair. Still, I understood that here possibility lurks, unavoidably. This discovery drew me back, made me feel I’d uncovered a secret to city living, brought me to Manhattan. As for her, she’s moved to India for the year.

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