My legs took me outside, as if stuffed with cotton, still, they somehow managed to keep me vertical. My brain disengaged from the present launched only one impulse to disappear. I wished to merge with the grayness of the evening, to be swept away by unforgiving gusts of late fall wind, to dissolve in the icy drops of an intermittent rain. There I stood in the middle of an empty street, as if the city was vacuumed clean of people, cars, sounds, without knowing which way to turn.
The day played scene by scene in my mind’s eye, kept returning to one frame, the one frame I had to erase from my memory in order to survive, or at least to get home safely. Yes, I waited for four months, for this day planning, agonizing about the every detail.
My rain-soaked jacket finally roused me and made me start moving, slowly at first, faster with every block. I walked uptown not noticing anything around me, crossing streets without paying attention to traffic lights. I should’ve known the day would turn disastrous when my boss avoided looking at me when he announced Mike’s new promotion to manager of the Eastern seaboard division: the job that should have been mine, the job I had slaved for the last two years. Oh, how I wished to wipe that smug grin off Mike’s self-confident face! Remembering it anew, blinding anger flashed over me as I dashed through a puddle in the middle of a street. Water sloshed in my shoes and spurted with each step.
Seeing the street sign, I realized I’d walked for twenty blocks. I stopped in the back of a subway staircase, near my favorite ad, the one I passed many times in the last months while searching for the ring. In the ad, a couple looking exactly like two halves of a whole, jeans clad, bright eyed, her hand in his, barely showing the diamond ring, his other hand on her shoulder exuding such tenderness, that for months every time I saw the ad I saw their pure joy and it made me believe in my future. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid me.
I don’t know how long I stood this time in front of the ad. Finally, turning west, I strode with no particular destination in mind, just to get away from the damn, lying picture. When I mentioned my decision to propose to Sarah, to Laura, my recently married friend at work, she knew exactly where to take me shopping. The first time we spent our lunch hour browsing jewelry stores Laura, showed me the blissful couple ad and mentioned how much they looked like Sarah and me. Yes, at the time, we were that sort of couple.
I marveled at the rain’s persistence and tried to remember where I left my umbrella, to think of anything but the disaster. ”Avoidance of a problem is often its solution,” my father always said. But how could I avoid thinking about the losses of today? Sarah’s eyes distant and full of regret when we entered the restaurant made her look as if she didn’t want to be there, but I saw nothing. I was high on the present, anticipating her ”Yes!” never doubting our love. She stabbed me with her ”No!” before our desert arrived, with her ”I am breaking up with you”, with her quiet and dignified walk to the doors and her disappearance into the night. Now, hours later, I stopped in front of a window where eyeglasses displayed. I can see Sarah’s eyes in every lens in the window burrowing through me, denying me, rejecting me.
With the weather worsening by the minute, people rushed to hide behind welcoming doors, to be embraced by the warmth of their homes. I started walking again, my face wet and coarse, rivulets of rain streaming down my jacket reminding me about my raincoat forgotten at the restaurant. I paid no attention to a young man in a hooded windbreaker walking fast, almost running, in my direction until I strode to the right to evade another huge puddle. Hebumped into me, hard. I heard an ”Excuse me” as he continued on his way without slowing down. I reached the end of the block and waited for a taxi to pass. Why not grab that cab and go home? I checked my pocket to see how much cash I had left, but my wallet wasn’t there. Had I left it at the restaurant too, along with my raincoat and umbrella? No, I distinctly remembered folding my nearly empty wallet after paying for the unhappy meal and slipping it into my jacket pocket. It hit me then and there. I turned around and scurried in the direction of the hooded windbreaker. He probably managed to get far away or vanish altogether. Searching for the thief, my gaze swept the street in step with my wildly pounding heart. Two blocks, three, four. No one in sight. About to give up my pursuit, I saw a familiar outline another block away and raced to catch him before he disappeared. Barely able to breathe, I reached the guy, grabbed his shoulder and spun him around to face me. His eyes full of fear, one earphone dangling on a wire, the guy turned out to be a boy of no more than eighteen. My side was killing me, and I couldn’t produce a coherent sound, so we just stood there, my hand still clutching his shoulder.
”The wallet! Give me the wallet,” I managed to whisper. I had to reverse my luck. I had to fight this darkness descending on my life. Right now, right here.
No comprehension registered in the boy’s eyes as he continued to stare at me, not moving or even trying to free himself from my grip.
”Give me the wallet!” I said louder this time.
”Okay, okay, mister!” Hands shaking, it was hard for the boy to extract the wallet from the pocket of his jeans. When he finally did, I took it calmly, stuffed it in my jacket, and let go of his shoulder. The incident over, I raised my hand, to hail the cab that turned into the street and, without saying another word, sat in the back seat slamming the door behind me. As if glued to the spot, the boy was still standing there when my cab peeled away.
The cab ride, uneventful, compared to the rest of the day, has calmed me and, not in a rush to see my empty apartment, I chatted for a bit with a doorman.
Upstairs, the unusual quietness of the corridor made me think the building had been evacuated, not a sound heard, not even my neighbor’s dog who always barked on my approach.
Hungry, I was ridiculously hungry. I dropped the wallet and keys on a shelf in the hallway, took a yogurt from a nearly empty fridge. I sat on a sofa in the dark.
I tried to push all thoughts of Sarah from my mind, but they stubbornly seeped back in. She didn’t love me enough, or at all. How could I have been so blind? How could I have missed the clues? With Sarah gone from my life, all I had to look forward was my job, the job I couldn’t stand any more. Mike’s triumphant face would remind me everyday what a loser I was. Exhausted, I lay on the sofa without removing my wet shoes. Something in my pants pocket pressed into my thigh.
It was my wallet, free of cash.