Cars and Pedestrians

If death is like sleep, maybe we want to die.

The thought kept Henry awake, bouncing around his dark room. The logic was too piercing to allow for more sleep, even if it meant he ought to fall back asleep.

“What’s logical is illogical and what’s illogical is logical.”

The words opened Henry’s eyes, bouncing around his dark room. Who said them? Harold. But when, and where? Last night… the club with the yellow-green strobe lights… or was it the jazz bar? Yes, probably the jazz bar. All he remembered was Harold wagging his bony index finger, barking like a prophetic madman: “What’s logical is illogical and what’s illogical is logical.”

Henry sprung from bed and went into his kitchen for a cup of coffee. Midday light poured through the half-drawn venetian blinds, throwing a yellow varnish onto the cherry wooden floor. The electric kettle rumbled and steamed. Henry leaned against the countertop and stared at the painting that hung above his kitchen table, the only piece of art in his one-bedroom, Morningside Heights apartment. The painting depicted a dirt road leading into a small European village with modest homes, pine trees and a plain white church whose steeple rose into the picture’s ceiling, poking at the abyss like the tip of a needle. Henry often scrutinized the white spire’s endpoint, looking for the speck of blue sky between it and the black frame.

Bouncing around his kitchen, he sipped on coffee and repeatedly pressed his iPhone’s Home Button. Bored, he raised the half-drawn venetian blinds and rested his forehead against the frosty glass pane. He felt gravity pulling him down, toward the cars and pedestrians. Then he plopped down on his living room couch. He turned on the television and stared at the ground while chewing on his fingernails. Soon he got up and took a hot shower.

He decided while showering that he would study for three and a half hours tonight. But first he needed a light meal and a hard run. He would eat a salad in midtown and run home. He would invite Harold so they could rehash the previous night. If Harold wasn’t available, it would be okay. He would still eat light, run hard and study for three and a half hours.

When Henry finished showering he put on his running clothes, ate a Greek yogurt and brushed his teeth. He then poured himself a glass of water and returned to the living room for his iPhone. His muscles tensed when he picked up his iPhone: a sharp, wild impulse to call Alicia, but he kept to plan and texted Harold.

“Lunch?”

“Okay. When/where,” texted Harold five minutes later.

“Let’s meet midway. How about Glenn’s Eatery, the place just south of Hell’s Kitchen. Say 2:00?”

“See you then.”

Henry turned off the television and sat at his kitchen table. He opened his laptop and saw it was 12:30pm in the afternoon. Since he didn’t need to leave for another hour, he would organize his schedule for the upcoming week. His first order of business was accounting for his appointment with Professor Templeton on Thursday afternoon. To optimize their discussion, he needed to allocate two additional hours of reading to Quantitative Methods. On Thursday mornings he was on-call for Securities, so Wednesday evening was a no-go. Tuesday evening would need to be sacrificed – or Wednesday morning. But his Law Review assignment was due on Wednesday at 2:00pm, and his editorial finesse was sharpest in the morning. Tuesday evening it was, which means he would skip his Comparative Employment study group, which was okay because he was a chapter ahead of schedule. But a girl was in his study group, and considering how Steve had engaged that girl in conversation after class last week… that could not happen again, not unless he was willing to risk the opportunity of the girl being lost. He wasn’t. Not yet at least, so Tuesday evening was booked after all. Monday evening then. It would be a late Monday, but that would be okay.

And so Henry constructed his week; and so, before long, the yellow varnish covered the lonely painting, lending an empyreal glitter to the white church’s wooden fibers. It was 1:30pm. Henry hopped on the 1 and got off at Times Square and Forty-Second Street. Approaching Glenn’s Eatery from the east, he spotted Harold leaning against a bus-stop smoking a cigarette, wearing the same flannel shirt from the previous night. Noticing Henry, Harold flicked the half-finished cigarette onto the pavement. They entered the restaurant and were greeted by an older man with a grey mustache. He led them to a table and put down two menus.

“May I get you gentlemen something to drink?”

“Water,” said Henry.

“I’ll take your strongest IPA from the tap,” said Harold. The man nodded with a little bow.

“Drinking already?” asked Henry when the waiter was out of earshot.

“What’s it to you,” said Harold.

“It’s nothing to me. I’m impressed by your stamina is all.”

“As you should be. I was up ’till six in the morning.”

“You weren’t.”

“I absolutely was!” cried Harold defiantly. “Ended up in Brooklyn with those nice people we’d been chatting with at the jazz bar – well, trying to chat with over that damn saxophone – but yeah, I ran into them at the club. I think you were gone by then, it was near closing time… Oh, you know what else? They have a hot-tub in their apartment.”

“How?”

“It’s a blow-up hot-tub. They got it off Amazon for like three hundred bucks.”

“Blow-up hot-tubs are a thing?” asked Henry.

“It’s 2017, man.”

“How big?”

“Fits four people.”

“It was you, the girl, who else?”

“Her sister. And some guy.”

Her sister?” repeated Henry, visibly annoyed.

“She was in town for the weekend or something.”

“I thought you were working on her.”

“Who?”

“The girl with the sister.”

“I was.”

“So what the hell happened?”

“What is this, a direct examination?” shot back Harold.

“Cut the shit.”

“You really are some type of gunner, Henry. I hope you know that.”

“C’mon now.”

“We haven’t passed the Bar, buddy. Not yet.”

Henry smiled and erected his posture. “Not yet, but it won’t be long. Speaking of, when is NYU’s commencement ceremony?”

“Fuck if I know, it’s only March. When is Columbia’s?”

“May twenty-eighth.”

“I see… why do you ask?”

“Well,” said Henry, glancing toward the door, “it was just the other day. My parents said they’d be interested in stopping by your graduation. Since they’ll already be in town,” he added, tapping his fingers on the edge of the table. “They mentioned they’d like to see you again. If there’s time.”

“Awww, isn’t that sweet,” croaked Harold cynically. “Well, for their sake, I hope our ceremonies are on the same day. Commencement is fun in theory, but sitting around in swampy heat is in fact a real bitch. Especially when you’re hungover – Ha! I still think about our undergraduate ceremony, how Dave puked on his gown while our speaker prattled on about politics.”

“Oh God,” smiled Henry. “I’ll never forget how our president refused to shake Dave’s hand when he went up for his diploma.”

“Those were the days, huh? Before our bodies hated us. And before you went north like the Benedict Arnold you are,” said Harold with mock scorn.

“If we’re talking revolution, I prefer to think of myself as a Myles Cooper sort of figure,” said Henry with his close-lipped smile. “In any case, I’m excited to tell my kids that I attended both of New York’s premier educational institutions.”

“Your kids will be overjoyed at the fact.”

“Anyways,” continued Henry, gravitating back to his line of inquiry, “I’m just asking, mono e mono, what happened with the girl?”

“You know that’s not a real expression, right?”

“So what happened?” repeated Henry, his voice a little louder.

“Look man, I don’t know what happened. Her sister turned out to be in town, which obviously wasn’t conducive to my ends. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

“Alright, alright. That’s fair.”

“It was a good time, though,” added Harold, rapping his knuckles against the table.

The waiter returned with their drinks and asked if they had decided on food.

“Cheeseburger with avocado please,” said Harold.

“For your side?”

“Fries please. Extra ketchup too if you could.”

“And for you, sir?” asked the waiter, turning to Henry.

“I’ll take a side of the house salad with dressing on the side.”

“Alright. We’ll have that right out for you gentlemen.”

“Side portion of a salad?” repeated Harold when the waiter had left. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Henry shrugged and watched his friend sip on the foamy beer.

“No, but seriously,” continued Harold, pausing to belch. “What in the fuck?”

“I ate this morning. Plus I’m running home.”

“Running?”

Henry stuck out his leg from under the table, nodding toward his sweatpants and running shoes.

“Christ, of course you are,” scoffed Harold, rolling his eyes and drinking more beer.

Henry leaned back in his seat, craning his neck and peering over his shoulder to survey Glenn’s Eatery. Their waiter stood at his host-stand, watching the rhythmic sway of Forty-Second Street. The restaurant’s green-and-white ceramic tiling was covered under a thin layer of dirt. The wall’s red plaster was hardly visible beneath the dozens of black-and-white photographs: rugged men dangling from steel beams of uncompleted skyscrapers; young women smiling in maillot swimsuits on Coney Island’s seashores; Eastern European clans with rigid postures and austere faces. “It’s just a sampling,” thought Henry. “A sampling from the great gamut of life.” His hawkish gaze absorbed each image.

“What are you looking at,” sighed Harold without looking up from his beer.

“Old buddy,” said Henry, bypassing the half-hearted question and swiveling back around with his close-lipped smile. “How many times do you think we’ve been to this café?”

“Interesting question,” said Harold.

“And why is it interesting,” continued Henry with his shepherding, lawyerly tact. Harold thought for a moment before responding.

“Because people ask that question about places they’ve visited a million times. I don’t think we’ve been here more than four or five times since we got to the city.”

“Precisely!” exclaimed Henry, snapping his fingers. “And it makes you wonder,” he said softly, leaning over the table with convincing gravitas, “why do people bother to ask the question when there’s no hope of getting a right answer?”

Harold laughed. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Look,” continued Henry, amused but visibly impatient, “let’s say this is our eighty-ninth visit to Glenn’s Eatery and I ask you the same question. Is there any chance you’d guess correctly?”

“That this was our eighty-ninth visit?”

“Yeah. If someone put a gun to your head and demanded an answer, you think you could correctly guess that we’d been here eighty-nine times?”

“Doubt it.”

“But when you say four or fives times, you feel like you might of guessed correctly, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Well guess what, Harold. You guessed correctly. Well, more or less correctly. We’ve been here exactly four times.”

Harold set down his beer and looked across the table. “How would you know that?”

“Because I remember. Think about it. The first time was near the beginning of our Freshmen year when we walked through Times Square. The second time was after that Mock Trial competition in midtown. The third time was with Mirabelle and Alicia after seeing the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. And the fourth time,” said Henry, pausing to glance at the ceiling, “is right now. Right here, Harold, in this very moment,” he finished dramatically while leaning back in his chair, crossing his legs and chuckling to himself.

“Jesus,” said Harold, laughing and shaking his head. “You’re fucking crazy, man.”

Henry continued chuckling while tapping his fingers against the edge of the table.

“Speaking of Alicia,” started Harold cautiously, “I bumped into her and Mirabelle last night.”

Henry’s fingers went still. He locked eyes with his friend. Then he grabbed his paper napkin, gently removed the paper band, and started arranging his silverware.

“Did you now,” asked Henry in a disinterested voice, adjusting his knife so its base hugged the edge of the table.

“Yeah, I did,” said Harold. “They were at the club. I was ordering drinks from the bar at the front when I bumped into them. I must’ve lost track of you by then. I think you were with the girl in the green dress, weren’t you?”

Henry picked up his fork and examined it. “Yeah, I was with her. Near the back.”

“Did you see Alicia?”

“I did,” said Henry as he set down his fork and took a sip of water, glancing up at his friend.

“Did something happen between you two last night?”

“No, of course not. It was nothing,” shrugged Henry.

“Nothing?”

“Nothing,” repeated Henry. He readjusted his fork so its base hugged the edge of the table and ran parallel to his knife. “A little squabble,” he added, smiling.

“Nothing or a little squabble? It’s one or the other,” said Harold.

Henry took a sip of water and looked across the table. He had known Harold for seven years but suddenly Harold was nothing to him. Nothing but a nameless man standing in his way.

“It was nothing,” said Henry a third time, unblinking and motionless as a series of impressions seized him: the woman’s flesh grinding against him; Alicia’s face materializing and the splash of her cranberry vodka on his neck and face; the flash of green dress disappearing into the crowd, followed by the ripple of Alicia’s cheek as his palm struck; the familiar satisfaction of full rotation, accompanied by a brief Proustian journey to his boyhood days on the mound; the familiar terror in her plaintive eyes; blinding music and roaring strobe lights; and words – always words – bouncing around a dark room.

“Yeah, whatever you say,” replied Harold, swigging from his glass.

“Look who’s performing the direct examination now,” observed Henry with academic detachment.

“Look,” said Harold, pausing to take another swig, “I was just surprised to see her. That’s all.”

“Did you speak with her?”

“Yeah, right when she and Mirabelle entered. I’m guessing you spoke with her too then?”

Henry laughed to himself. He picked up his butter knife and ran his index finger over its dull edge. “I’m not sure I’d call it a conversation.”

“Like I said,” continued Harold, watching his friend stroke the knife, “I was near the entrance and didn’t know where you were. I bought them drinks and caught up with Mirabelle, but Alicia left us almost immediately. Then five minutes later I saw her pushing her way outside. Mirabelle flew after her and then I was alone.”

“You told them I was there, didn’t you,” said Henry calmly.

“I didn’t tell them shit,” shot back Harold. “Look,” he said, lowering his voice, “once Alicia saw me, she knew there was a good chance you were around. That’s all there is to it. She didn’t ask and I didn’t say anything, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t know you might’ve been there. Don’t play stupid, you know that. All she had to do was look.”

“Here you are, gentlemen,” interrupted the waiter, setting down their plates. Harold bit into his burger. Henry drizzled lemon vinaigrette onto his bed of greens. They ate in silence. Harold devoured his burger and fries, pausing only to drink and belch. Henry chewed slowly and methodically, lost in calculations and perorations.

“Well,” said Henry when they’d finished eating, donning his penetrating sneer. “Speaking of… romances, whatever happened to you and what’s her face? The pizza girl?”

“Her name’s Jenny.”

“Sure. You haven’t mentioned Jenny in weeks.”

Harold bit his lower lip and studied his beer.

“No good?” said Henry.

“Ehh,” mumbled Harold, taking an impulsive swig of beer.

“Cut the shit. What happened?” asked Henry, affecting an air of friendliness. Harold took a little sip before responding.

“Man, she held my Goddamn hand too much.”

“She held your Goddamn hand too much,” mimicked Henry with an incredulous smirk. “That’s your reason?”

“Yes, that’s my reason. One hundred percent,” puffed Harold.

“Ha!” erupted Henry. “She held your Goddamn hand too much! What kind of reason is that?”

“It’s a perfectly valid reason, dickwad – you’re just not listening to me,” observed Harold, looking at his beer glass and running his fingers over the tabletop as if it were a piano.

“Alright,” said Henry, reassuming his air of friendliness. “Go on then, give me some details.”

“The thing with Jenny,” continued Harold softly, “she was the type of girl who wanted to go everywhere together… she wanted to do everything with me, you know?”

“Go on,” urged Henry.

“Like in the morning, when we left from one of our places… we’d be going in different directions and be on different schedules, but always, and I mean always, we had to be together until the last possible second. Plus the unspoken quotas, like X amount of time we had to spend together in a week, Y number of dates in a month, Z number of texts and Snapchats and all that fake shit. I don’t know man. At a certain point I… I don’t know, man.”

“Interesting,” said Henry, studying his friend’s dovish face.

“Did you ever feel that way with Alicia?”

“Well,” began Henry, thinking through his answer. “No. I never felt… I never felt how you felt. Everything was… open with me, between us. I managed the situation as well as I could have.”

“Yeah, of course you did,” said Harold, gulping down more beer. His glass was nearly empty. The waiter brought the check. The two friends asked to pay separately and handed over their credit cards. They sat in silence, looking at their iPhones. The waiter soon returned with their receipts and bid them a nice afternoon.

“Well, it was an interesting night,” said Harold conclusively. “Reminded me of undergrad. When we hit the bars like that, you know?”

“Yeah, I do,” said Henry. He folded his cloth napkin in half, twice. He then arranged it so that one of its corners nearly hung over the table’s edge. “You know,” he said, chuckling to himself and looking at his napkin, “there was something you said last night. I’m only bringing it up because I thought of it when I woke up today.”

“What did I say?”

“You said, ‘What’s logical is illogical and what’s illogical is logical.’”

“I said that?”

“You did.”

“Fuck, man. I don’t remember. I was piss drunk.”

“But why did you say that?”

Harold gulped down the last remnants of his beer. “Like I said, I don’t remember saying it. Besides, that’s a silly question. Let’s get outta here.”

Outside the restaurant Harold lit a cigarette and offered one to Henry.

“No thanks.”

“Ha! Last night you were smoking ‘em like the devil was after ya.”

“What does that even mean?”

Harold laughed. “Hell if I know man, you were the one smoking ‘em.”

“Well, I’ve gotta run now,” said Henry, pumping his knees to his chest. “It was good seeing you, Harold. Last night and now. Let’s grab lunch sometime in the next few weeks.” He grabbed Harold’s hand and shook it.

“Yeah sure, whatever you say man,” said Harold. He leaned against the bus stop and lit another cigarette, watching his old friend go. Henry started east at a brisk walk. When he hit 7th Avenue in the middle of Times Square, he turned north and began jogging. It was Saturday afternoon, and the streets were overflowing with people. He dipped and dodged his way through the pedestrians. When cars forced him to wait, he ran in-place to maintain his pace. He didn’t run with earbuds because he enjoyed the whoosh of traffic; the rasping screech of overstuffed shopping carts; the drone of warm air rising from cavernous grates; the fragments of chitter-chatter alive for passing moments – he seized upon them all before leaving them in his wake.

When he hit 59th Street and entered Central Park, he increased his speed. The trees were dappled in sunlight and families were taking photos. Spring was emergent as Greyshot Arch shaded him and Tavern on the Green passed by. He exited the park on 72nd street and headed west, toward the water. He turned north into Riverside Park and revved up his motor further, breaking into a fast-paced run. When his path was clear he closed his eyes. He liked to run with his eyes closed because in those seconds he flew. He thought to himself: “Maybe heaven is an empty canvas that expands forever, where I can fly in circles and never think about crashing because there is no possibility of crashing.”

Thus he ran, always faster. He thought to himself, “I will not slow down, I will only speed up, I will sprint the last quarter mile.” He would be faithful to himself. When his body asked to slow down, his mind would overcome his body. There would be continuity in thought and action or there would be neither thought nor action. And so he never slowed down; and so he sprinted the last quarter mile; and so when he burst into his apartment with heaving lungs and wide-eyed cognitions, he roared to the world while staring at the speck of blue between white and black.

6 Comments

  1. Hi, John. I feel like I’m growing along with you at these important junctures in your life, from graduation to Law school. Just a note to let you know that your blog is well put together, shows professionalism and maturity, and that you have a wonderful talent for writing. I especially enjoyed your articles on history and social issues, only wishing they featured toward the front of your presentation, since I haven’t finished toward the end. Good luck and continued success in your journey ahead.

    Like

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