Waiting to be Deciphered



30-66 36nd Street, Astoria, NY 11105

Neighborhood: Astoria, Queens

On the way to the laundromat I passed a message chalked out on the sidewalk. In large, neat block letters on a square of pavement it read: “The best part about the night was taking the train home with you.”

The note seemed to be directed at the building across the street, but looking up it was impossible to tell which window the writer might have meant to address. The message looked fresh, so the train-ride in question probably took place this evening, but other than that there was nothing to identify the messenger or the recipient.

While I filled up the washing machine I considered the writer. Was it a man or a woman? It seemed like something a love struck young man might do, but it could just have easily been a young woman. Whoever it was, they must have had chalk on them. Perhaps they were a teacher.

I pictured an idealistic young man wearing an old-fashioned corduroy jacket with patches on the sleeves. It was his third date with the girl from the admissions office, and he had invited her to go to dinner and a movie. They saw “Lost in Translation,” and he felt only a little disingenuous when he declined to tell her that he had already seen it. It was the perfect date movie, he reasoned, and why take a risk with the new “Matrix.”

They ate dinner at a Cuban restaurant and joked about their coworkers. At one point she was laughing and reached over to squeeze his hand, which he interpreted as a good sign. After the movie, though, he ran out of ideas. It was Sunday night, and she needed to be up early for school, so they agreed to call it a night. On the subway ride home he measured his options and kissed her and was pleasantly surprised when she pulled him closer. They were silent as they walked down the dark block to her apartment while they tried to work their way through the pull of intimacy and its complications.

She invited him upstairs but for some reason he said no, he’d better get home, and they should move slowly and savor this. She smiled with relief, and he congratulated himself internally on his knack for reading her mood. They kissed with a passion that might have been a little forced, but which felt right.

After she left he lingered downstairs and watched for her apartment light to come on. When it did, he imagined her putting her bag away and folding her coat and suddenly he wanted to yell up to her how happy he was but instead he pushed his hand into his coat pocket and worried a piece of chalk that he always kept there.

This seemed like a pretty good explanation, but something was missing. The message seemed too direct for a third date.

Picture instead a couple, say two young women. They have been dating for several years. They met at a party for a mutual friend who was celebrating his first gallery opening. They were both intolerably bored, and they gravitated towards one another. After chatting a bit they left to get a drink next door, where they laughed at the pretensions of artists. One of them was herself an artist, although she was loath to call herself one. She made things out of whatever was at hand. She sewed sweaters with ironic logos, tea cozys embroidered with lines from Revelations embroidered, magnets out of melted marbles, that sort of thing.

Their fights involved moving in with one another. The woman in the apartment down the block wanted the artist to come live with her. It had been five years, after all, and she was tired of splitting their time between the apartment in Astoria and the other’s loft in a seedy section of Brooklyn. But the artist didn’t want to give up her independence, and what started as a small, bantering argument soon blew up into a fight where all of their unsaid frustrations were aired. “I’m tired of this,” the artist said. “I’m tired of living like a business woman. I’m tired of waking up every morning and getting our coffee and getting on the fucking train and going to our fucking jobs. Don’t you see what we’re becoming?” The woman who lived down the block was silent after this last outburst. That was her favorite part.

The artist left the apartment and went down to the street. She wanted to go back in but she was stubborn, and she felt like she had gone too far to change course. When she wrote the message on the sidewalk it wasn’t clear to her if it was an olive branch or a goodbye, but at home alone that night she knew.

I got some change and put the laundry in the dryer and watched some Spanish TV and then went out for a cigarette. Down the street three young women on their way home from the city stopped to read the message. They discussed it as they passed me.

“That’s creepy,” one of them said.

“Sounds like a bad date,” said the second.

“Or maybe a stalker. Can you imagine that? What if he rides the train home with her and tonight he decided to follow her home?”

I wanted to interrupt and say, “Why would the stalker carry chalk?” but I realized that they had a point, and they were looking at me suspiciously as it was.

I took the laundry out of the machine and walked home past the message and looked up at the windows above and tried to picture the person up there for whom it was intended. I’d like to think whoever the message was for appreciated it. Maybe they will be drinking coffee tomorrow morning and they will look out the window and spot the message and laugh out loud. Or maybe the message will tell them that it is over. Or perhaps the women were right, and someone will look out the window and feel a chill, and picture the faces on the train. Didn’t one of them look familiar?

Whatever it is, the message is there, tonight, waiting for someone who knows what it means to come along and decipher it.

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