From my fire escape, I stared off into Manhattan with eyes that didn’t want to stay dry. This took a lot of concentration, which popped when my neighbor burst outside.
“Happy Birthday, dude!” she shouted.
“Thanks, Emma,” I replied.
“My name’s not…” she started to recite, until she noticed that I had gone off-script. Before she could react, I slipped back inside.
Emma called after me, “Where are you…?”
She couldn’t finish her thought because I slammed the window shut and drew the blinds.
About three minutes later, somebody knocked on the front door. Against my better judgment, I answered.
“What the hell, dude?” Emma asked.
“I’m going to close this door in your face now.”
“Really,” she dared me.
“Fine,” I grunted.
She slipped past me and headed straight for my bedroom.
“I’m surprised you can find it from this angle.”
She brushed an unruly, cinnamon curl behind her ear, smiled her crooked smile, and, for just a moment, I almost forgot why I was so glum.
“Why did you call me Emma?” she asked after I closed the door behind me.
“That’s your name.”
“Dude,” she insisted. When I didn’t react, she folded her arms. “Dude.”
I groaned in defeat. “Do you remember when you and I first met?” I asked.
“Screwing on the couch?”
“Right before that.”
“I’m lost,” she told me.
“You said that I was treating you like a rebound, whatever that meant, and I said you were crazy, and that’s when I threw you on the couch, and the conversation kind of stopped.”
She sighed. “When you’ve been with enough guys, there’s this… way they get the first time after a long relationship. Like they forgot how. For a second there–“
Her eyes went wide. “Seriously?”
“So what does this have to do with…?” She started to ask until understanding took hold.
I shrugged again.
I gave her another shrug.
She reached a comforting hand toward me, but froze. “Is it okay to touch you right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is there anything I can do?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Anything I can say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” she asked, “what do you know?”
“I know that I’m stupid.”
“Stupid I can work with.” Dramatically, she cracked her knuckles. “So what makes you stupid?”
“I’m gonna need you to narrow that down, dude. Can you do that for me?”
I shook my head. “If I get anymore specific, I’m going to fall apart and lose it and cry… and there I go… anyway…” I couldn’t continue because attempting to talk would only result in spastic sobs. These tears were a lot further along than I’d intended to get in the first place.
Emma put her arm around my shoulder, but I pushed her away.
“Not… help…” and here came the sobbing. It took a while to die down, and the whole time she sat in the corner and didn’t make a sound. When my body was too tired to cry anymore, I finally got a word in. “You should probably go.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“I don’t know what I want.”
She took a deep breath, drawing as much patience as she could from the air around her. “I’ll tell you what I want,” she said. “I want to stay in this room until I’m sure you’re okay. Is that all right?”
“I’m probably never going to be okay again.”
“Then I’m never leaving this room.” There was that crooked smile again. “If that’s okay with you.”
“What if you have to go to the bathroom?”
“There’s a window.”
“Then you can stay,” I told her.
A few minutes of comfortable silence passed. When she felt that enough of it had gone by, she asked, “can you tell me her name?”
“Cariño,” I replied. “She used to be cariño.”
She frowned. “Why ‘used to’?”
“Cariño is a Spanish affectation,” I explained, “like honey or darling or dear; and now…” Shit. Here’s those tears again. “Now she’s just Carissa,” I managed to get out before the sobs took over.
She reached for me again, and this time I didn’t push her away.
“Three months,” I said when I’d calmed down. “That’s all we had. That’s all it took. It’s a barrier now. I can’t turn around and look back at my life without her getting in the way. I can’t look forward, because then I have to look at the past.”
“Dude,” she told me gently, “you have to start making some sense.”
“I just ignored her so I could stay in the here and now,” I tried to explain. “That’s the only way I can keep going: one step at a time. And she snuck up on me on my fucking birthday–that day when everybody thinks about their past, present, and future. And now that’s all I can think about–that I don’t have her anymore. I haven’t had her since February. And it’s fucking October, and I’m just now remembering that.”
“Back up, dude,” she said flatly. “What do you mean by have?”
I blinked in surprise. “What?”
“Because if you have some kind of possession thing,” she clarified, “then I’m not going to feel a whole lot of sympathy here.”
A little insulted by the implication, I tried to explain, “I mean have as in having a friend or a partner or someone who cares if I make it home safe. She was the first person I would have called when I got this apartment, or when I got mugged, or when my oldest friend came into my life again.”
She didn’t say anything while I marinated in my own words for a while.
Eventually I added, “I go out every other night and make friends with everyone. Do you have any idea how lonely I am? What have I got to show for any of this?”
“You got me,” she replied.
She leaned forward and kissed me tenderly on the lips. Pulling away, she told me, “That’s all I can spare, dude.”
“I know,” I said. “Boyfriend and all.”
She checked the display on her phone. “Speaking of whom, I’m late to dinner.” She opened the window to exit, saying, “Look, dude, you’re not even thirty yet. Birthdays before that are supposed to be fun. Go out and make friends with everyone. Get wasted and get laid. You can worry about all this other shit some other day.”
As she left and blew me a kiss, I called after her, “Thank you.” Thank wasn’t the first word that came to mind, but it would have to do for now.