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City of Kites and Crows

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The Greeks didn’t lack the color blue. It’s a myth that the ancient people were so different from today that their world looked different. They knew blue, they saw blue. Blue was called caeruleus , from the Sanskrit root kuanos , and it hasn’t changed. Cerulean: the color of the sky. Presumably they had a word for grey as well, and yellow, and whatever silver was before it was the price of a good suit. 

If there is a truth to the universe that is not utterly cliche, bland, and ugly once you’ve learned it, let any who know it come forth. Let it be the holy grail, the beast at the center of the labyrinth, the gold at the end of Ulysses. Let no one hold their breath in the meantime. Life is essentially unromantic. What waits at the end of the adventure, other than 6pm? What will each “new day” bring other than dim twilight drowned by street lamps and bulletin boards? What does a breakthrough result in, other than more work? What can sincerity get you that you did not already have and already did not want?

Maybe that is too poetic. He wants to say that he’s been awake for twenty hours and cannot be blamed, but it is not true. He woke up at 6:30. It’s not even 5:45. Maybe it’s that poetry no longer lives here. She can’t afford the rent. Maybe it’s that all his twisted, extended metaphors are bad.

It’s not that he’s afraid of being alone. Really, it’s not. He’s not scared of living by himself. He’s not scared of rent or electricity bills or taxes or meal-planning. He’s been taking care of all of that for years, since high school. He’s concerned, maybe. Anxious--of course. He’s always anxious, but it’s not the same thing. 

He is not afraid of being alone. He just got used to not being. 

There’s a message from Hercules sitting unopened at the top of his phone display. He glances again at the route he’s supposed to be taking, then switches over.

Hey man, how’s the windy city?

You can text from the train stations in Chicago, because they’re above ground, sometimes. The signal doesn’t always cut out once you get past the barrier. The trains are cleaner than the ones in New York. So are the stops, or at least the ones outside the Loop. This one has gum under the seats and the usual newspapers and tabloids scattered around. The advertisement in the window is new, for the iPhone 9. His samsung s5 blinks loyally in his hand, even though the screen has gone dark, little green light flashing to let him know he has a text. He clicks it on again, swipes away the notification. The metro app tells him the train should be arriving in four minutes.

He hasn’t yet figured out if the schedules in Chicago actually mean anything, or if they’re just numbers on paper. Or phone screens, as the case may be. At the very least, the train arrives as advertised four minutes later. He takes a seat against the windows and opens the text from Herc again.

The keyboard comes up with a tap of his thumb, but after a second, he closes it down. He scrolls up through Herc’s recent messages: last week, when they texted about Herc’s cool new job and boring new roommates; two weeks ago, him texting Herc that he made it to Chicago in one piece, and Herc’s text before that about when he needed to be at the airport. Then months of weekly hello ’s, check in’s about Alex’s summer job and related adventures, Herc always trying to sound chill and noninvasive. It’s nice, he reminds himself. He likes Herc and he likes Herc’s texts. He scrolls back down to the most recent message.

The train chimes for the next stop. The trains themselves are the same, an odd-but-comforting consistency. It’s the same script when you pull into a new station, the same mechanical feminine voice, the same noise on the buses when you signal to get off. Between the buses and the public libraries, there’s a little piece of Chicago that seems determined to make him feel like he’s been there forever. It’s sometime to smile about.

He gets an email before he starts typing, some promotional from his insurance company. He reads it anyway, then looks up at a couple of tourists who just got on and are chattering in the seat in front of him. The city rolls past. One of the tourists catches his eye and suddenly they’re asking for directions.

“Sorry, I’m not from around here.”

There’s no reason to get into it. 

He unlocks his phone again, but the lady on the computer comes across the speaker telling them they’re pulling into Northbend Station, and his stop is next. He slides his phone into his pocket and shifts his grip on his backpack. There’s more time between stops here, too. He keeps forgetting. He’s on his feet as soon as the platform comes into view, tilting his head like he’s wearing headphones, even though he isn’t wearing headphones. The doors slide open and he’s off, backpack hanging from one shoulder.

He doesn’t text while he’s walking, as a rule. He likes being able to call the people in New York who do idiots. He also waits full stops at traffic lights, regardless of traffic. The pace of the city is different here. More regular, more regulated. The ground feels flatter, though he knows that’s false. Another one of geography’s romanticisms. The sidewalks are wider, at least in his new neighborhood. His apartment building has stairs up to the front door, faux brick walls. It’s the same age as his last building was, ‘70s units that got renovated in the early 2000s. His room is tiny, but it’s his.

It’s quieter here too. Maybe it’s just that he lives in a tiny half-apartment in an older neighborhood, a one-bedroom folded into the rest of the two- and three- bed units like the developers had extra space leftover they didn’t know what to do with. Or maybe it’s that he lives alone, now, and there’s no roommate to be coming and going. But Chicago also feels quieter. The evening sets in at about 6 pm and everyone seems to stay in on the weekdays. It almost feels like the whole city has a bedtime, like most people here actually sleep.

Herc would like that, because he’s boring like that. Reasonable like that , he can hear him saying. Although he would never admit it to Herc, Alex is also half-hoping that the change will force him into a better sleep schedule. He hasn’t figured out nights yet, but having an apartment alone feels like the kind of thing an early riser would do. 

He fiddles with the key in his front door lock and nods at his down-the-hall neighbor who is also coming home from work at 6 pm, presumably to eat weeknight dinner, sit on his couch, and watch TV. The lock gives and he stumbles in the door, tossing his backpack in the corner with his shoes. He doesn’t have a TV. He doesn’t have a couch either. “Unfurnished unit” sounded more fun with Pinterest opened in another tab. Like this was an opportunity. Real adults buy their own couches. He throws his coat over one of the cardboard boxes of clothes. Idiot.

He plugs his phone in to charge and puts on a YouTube playlist of SNL sketches. The kitchen is marginally less bare than the rest of the apartment. Yesterday he stopped by Target after work--another universal constant in American cities. It felt weird shopping at Target in a suit. His shoes squeaked on the gleamy reflective floors. He thought it would be weirder if he also bought laundry detergent, a shower curtain, tylenol, hangers, and a bottle of Jack Daniels (just for the hell of it), instead of just plates and forks. The clerk predictably didn’t bat an eye. Still, he tried to choose a stylish, adult-like pattern. He thinks his past-self would be angry with him, if he wasn’t also slowly accumulating Chinese takeout containers to use instead of tupperware. 

He takes a moment to be grateful that Herc mailed him a double-sized jar of peanut butter and fancy, farmers’ market jelly as part of a care package without asking. He should write that down, text it to Herc. Once he’s finished making a PB&J and listening to SNL. 

Bill Haider says something funny and wildly out of date, from a video from 2011. Laughter fills the apartment. That jittering feeling has set into his nerves again. He paces from the kitchen to the door of the bedroom and back; it takes 10 steps. He’s proud that he made it to double digits. He doesn’t want to have a panic attack tonight. He wants a desk. He’s trying not to decide that he liked New York better. He’s trying not to feel like this was a mistake. 

His phone dings with another email notification, temporarily muffling the dialogue. He picks it up with a sudden urge to throw it across the room, or leave this apartment and walk back to Columbia, or just… take a breath. 

“Take it and do what?”

He should text Herc. That would be the reasonable, adult thing to do. Text Herc. Herc even texted him first. He doesn’t want to admit that it will probably make him feel better. It doesn’t, sometimes.

He sits himself down on top of the other box of clothes and makes himself finish his sandwich. Chicago is the place where he’s going to get his shit together. It’s fine if the start is rough, he just can’t fuck this up. While he eats, he thinks of all the things he needs that he can buy at Target. He can go on the weekend, in normal clothes. After putting his plate in the sink, then circling the apartment a few times before picking it back up, washing it, and putting it in the cabinet, he makes a list of things he will get at Target. Then he makes another list of things he needs to do just around the apartment, without shopping. He doesn’t really want to dig through the boxes to find his scotch tape, so he arranges the two lists on the counter. It’s 9:32. This is probably a reasonable adult time to go to bed.

There is a bed, which he bought his first day here after sleeping on an air mattress that Herc let him borrow. It even has a frame--that was last weekend’s project. He takes two melatonin before he collapses onto it and pulls the covers up to his chin. He rolls over onto his side, and unlocks his phone, resting it on his elbow.

The message from Herc is sitting unread, right where he left it.

Hey man, how’s the windy city?

He breathes for a moment, tapping out half sentences, before just settling on

Different, but okay i think? It’s quiet here.

Quickly followed up by

How are you?

He dreams that he’s in one of his old grad school classes at Columbia. The professor is lecturing about … something. He’s at the front the classroom waving his arms around, and he’s naked. Alex is naked too, sitting in the third row. He only just realized. Someone is talking about lunch, and title IX, and his professor doesn’t seem to think anything is wrong. He knows this professor is weird, he’s had classes with him before, dreamed about him before. The person sitting next to him asks him why he’s naked. He doesn’t answer. He doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong. Then they’re all at lunch. He’s wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt and black leather collar. Kitty from the philology department tries to kiss him. Wants to know why he isn’t going to the bar later that night. He says he doesn’t drink, but he does drink. 

He wakes with a jerk and sits up. His phone tells him he has a new message from Herc, several new emails, and that it’s 3:47 AM. He gulps in a mouthful of air, then starts coughing. When he gets his breathing under control, he lets himself collapse back in bed and tries to close his eyes. He opens them again almost immediately. The apartment is quiet. He reaches over the side of the bed and twists on the desk lamp. He really needs to get a bedside table. 

The light makes him feel a little better. A little more real. He breathes in and out slowly and resists the urge to open his phone. He’d really like to be able to put it on the bedside table when he sleeps. A minute passes. Then another. He glances at the clock again--3:51 AM. He has the familiar thought that it will never again be 3:51 AM on September 7th, 2019 ever in the universe again. It’s a line of thought he forcibly shuts down. 

He lies back down and closes his eyes, leans over and bends the desk lamp to point downwards, dimming the room. When he was a kid, he remembers teaching himself to just go back to sleep after nightmares. He doesn’t remember when, or how old he was, or where he was, but he remembers lying in the dark and making himself not think about his bad dream. He remembers lying on his side, just like he is now, curling into himself and concentrating. It was just a dream. Go back to sleep.

There’s a moment after he wakes up again, less than two hours later, where he thinks he remembers the professor in the dream. There, in the dim-but-not-dark of the bedroom, where he thinks he went back to dreaming the same thing, or maybe he dreamt something different. He tries to remember the last time he dreamed about that professor, but it all sort of slips away from him. He opens his eyes to shadow, and tries to remember what he was dreaming about. He tries to remember why it was scary. Maybe it wasn’t scary, but he knows that it was. He tries to remember why he’s scared.

And then he straightens, turns the lamp off, the overhead light on, and gets out of bed.