Good Old Days

cup 2

That night, when Nostalgia knocked on my door just before dawn, I had just enough time to catch her coat as she slipped it off and staggered into my apartment. I held the plush, furry thing at arm’s length, hesitating to hang it up and let its cheap, floral perfume seep into my closet. Before I could make up my mind, she had knocked over my pot of geraniums on her way to the couch.

They were dead anyway, the petals crisped and browned for lack of light.

“My lecture notes are under your —,” I said, trailing off as she nestled deeper into the cushions.

“Coffee, dear. Extra milk, extra sugar,” she said.

I only drink my coffee black, I said, and didn’t have any of her extras on hand. But she was snoring heavily and I figured she wouldn’t mind if I draped the coat on my shoulders and aired the thing out. I was beginning to suffocate.

When I returned, holding one of those blue and white paper cups that I thought had all but disappeared from street cart circulation, she met me at the door, her long and lacquered nails digging through the thick fabric.

“You haven’t been mugged? Pickpocketed?”

I told her I hadn’t, but she rummaged through the deep pockets, pulling out takeout menus, yellowed ticker tape, and colorful handfuls of museum badges.

“I almost paid for the coffee with one of those,” I said as she tossed aside a transit token.

“You’re probably too young to know what they are,” she said.

I was about to disagree, and insist that the pink rubber ball that was now bouncing across my floor was a favorite at my childhood block parties, but she was silently counting dried blades of grass.

“There’s junk, and then there’s -”

“Remnants of the original High Line,” she said.

As I watched her sort through bagel crumbs and Broadway ticket stubs, tucking them back into pockets that seemed to contain multitudes, a garbage truck started to screech and puff outside.

“Remember the good old days, when mornings pulsated to the rhythms of George Gershwin and the world moved in black and white?”

She looked at me with contempt.

“Now you’re talking about a city that never existed.”

After she left, I watched her cross the street, cocooned in faded furs, and poured the cold coffee on my geraniums, hoping the milky fluid would revive them.

Wallflower

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It was one of those weekday mornings in early spring when Marjorie and I could wander from chapel to chapter house with only security guards for company.

“I’ll be in the gift shop,” she said as I walked around the courtyard one last time, trailed by the light scent of citrus trees that leaned into the sunlight, leaves pressed against the glass. I kept my face down, watching the stone columns extend long shadows across the path, their grotesque faces dissolving at my feet. Just as I passed the tapestry room, a dense, almost putrid smell hit me.

It didn’t have the sharp alcohol touch of cheap perfume but was cloying and fleshy, like the exhalations of saints or the liquid distilled from their relics. Branches crackled under my feet and I could hear barking in the distance. I started backing up, looking for the courtyard, until I hit a low fence half-submerged in the millefleur overgrowth.

My hand brushed against the flimsy, splintered wood, leaving traces of red I thought was my own blood. But they tasted sweet and tart, like pomegranate juice.

One by one, I picked up a blue damask collar, silver chain, and pair of rusted iron letters left scattered in a patch of moss. I had just managed to make out “A” and “E” when I heard intense sniffing and looked up to find those same initials embroidered on the collar of a greyhound, all slender limbs and bared teeth.

At the sound of a horn, I started running. After every thorned bush I brushed out of my way and every berry that exploded underfoot, I expected to reach a clearing that looked down into the Hudson valley. By the time I reached the marble fountain and plunged my face and hands into the clear water, my skin was covered in a thick, viscous crust, the merciless onslaught of a thousand flowers.

“Now! Take the beast now!”

Before I shielded my eyes, blinded for a moment by the sun’s reflection on a spear pointed in my direction, I caught a glimpse of yellow silk stockings streaked with mud and a plumed hat missing half of its feathers.

“Walter! There you are,” Marjorie said. She was picking up a stack of postcards from the hardwood floor. “Look at what a mess you’ve made. Why are you running around like a wild animal? And what’s that?” She reached up and picked out a spiny branch of hawthorne from my sleeve.

Moth Man

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I don’t wear a hat anymore, not because it would be as old fashioned as putting on tailcoat or dangling a watch from a suit pocket. No, I don’t wear a hat because I don’t want to spend my nights trapped underground, my wooly wings fluttering against the doors of passing trains as I wander through dark tunnels in fear of touching the third rail.

The first time it happened I was waiting for the local in one of those underground stations that lets a few rays of battered moonlight through the grates on cloudless nights. Trains came less frequently after midnight, so I stood on the platform right on the yellow tape, watching the light glide across my fingers.

It took me a long time to trace the catalyst for my transformation, but, looking back on it above ground, I am almost certain it began with the hat. The light hit the edge of that platform at such an angle that all of me, my whole shadow, was contained within the perfect circle that lay at my feet. Somehow, the hat had tucked in all of my limbs, smoothed all of my sharp edges, so that I became an inverted pin, my gaze magnetized towards the moon.

What remains fixed in my mind, and makes me want to take that hat out of storage, was not how I scaled the faces of buildings, my shadow dragging behind me like the velvet cloak of an overdressed superhero. I did not think much of the slippery surface of windowpanes, or the smell of dinner escaping from a stranger’s half open window. No, what tempts me still was my unwavering belief that the moon is a hole at the top of the sky, and that if I climb far enough I will be able to poke my head through that opening and drink in the moonlight.

On that night the kiosk vendor had no such illusions. “Step back, sir,” I could hear him shout as I tumbled towards the ground, my tired wings fighting a losing battle against gravity.

“A pack of salted almonds and a water, please,” I said and examined the faces of magazine cover models to avoid his gaze. But he had a flashlight and pointed it directly at me so that when I gave him the money I thought, for a moment, that I was facing the moon, that I had come closer than I ever had before. He switched the flashlight off and left me blinking in a daze of pastel colors.

“Your eyes,” he said. “They’re black. The pupil, whites, everything.”

He was still staring, waiting for an explanation, so I cupped my right palm over my right eye and handed over a tear, my only possession, as precious to me as a bee’s sting.

“It’s pure enough to drink,” I said, and turned towards the approaching train.