WRITTEN BY NICOLE LI
The city is a thrumming thing in November, all crackling leaves and car horns. Congested too, early holiday shoppers and families bumping all up against one another. Ahead of me, dusty children kick an orange peel around, obstructing the sidewalk. I cross the street impatiently. I’m seeing a friend today, and I can’t be late.
The sweat-sharp smell of the subway entrance hits me soon enough, and I imagine Don on the other side of the city descending an identical set of stairs. In my head, we both lean back against the wall as the train approaches—never know when some creep could push you in. Don’t know whether he really takes the subway, but I’ve always liked its mind-numbing speed, so I bet he does too.
Six minutes later, I’m spit back out into the cold. I wave to the lady in khakis and badged shirt by the entrance of the park next to the station. Part of the park police, I suppose, though what she guards us against I never knew. I take a seat on the familiar iron bench across the hot dog stand. Now it’s a waiting game. Don’s always here by eleven am, so I make sure I’m here by ten fifty-five.
So much has happened that I need to tell him about. Maybe I’ll start with yesterday night. Mom told me she’d come home early since it was my birthday, and last month she said we could get one of those expensive sea-salt cupcakes from Zingerman’s that taste better than heaven. But she didn’t come home. I didn’t hear the garage door open until maybe three in the morning. I don’t blame her though—she probably had extra work to do. I thought about going downstairs to see if she’d secretly left one on the table for breakfast but then it wouldn’t be a surprise so I didn’t.
Don will squint his eyes like you do when you’re thinking hard about something. Perhaps she’s going to get you a dozen today instead, he’ll say, because sometimes people make you feel like they forgot about you just to surprise you with something even better. Or he’ll say, maybe she’s just a witch.
I check my watch again. Eleven ten. The faded banner of the nearby hot dog stand flits in the autumn breeze. Don’s Hotdogs, its serif font reads. Usually, a short man with a nose wart works the previous shift, but it’s past eleven and he’s still here. At eleven twenty, I try to tamp down the small, nervous thing that bounces around my ribcage. He might be sick. Or have some family business. Or a doctor’s appointment. Normal people take days off from work and don’t tell their friends, right? I’ll come back and he’ll be there, humming some unfamiliar foreign song like usual. As I’m heading back towards the entrance, I remember the park ranger lady.
“Hello ma’am, do you happen to know anything about Do—that hot dog guy that’s usually here in the afternoons? Stout, got a real bushy beard.”
“Hmm… I don’t know, honey. Hey, I seen you sitting there sometimes. What you doin’?”
“Oh, nothing much. Enjoying the weather, you know. Just thought I’d ask since I’ve seen him around here a lot.”
“Wait, I know who you’re talking bout. I think Antonio, that’s his name, mentioned he found a new job a few weeks ago?”
The thing behind my ribs ricochets.
“Yeah, something at one of the banks or insurance companies downtown. Y’know, I’m happy for him. Never thought he’d become one of those nine-to-fivers but I guess it pays more than bein’ a hot dog man, ha. Do you know him?”
I pause, a strange burn creeping through my veins. But if mom taught me anything, it’s that lying catches up to you no matter what.
“No, no I don’t.”
I roll the weight of this information around my mouth on the way home. A flock of girls passes, giggling in unison about something on a phone. One of their pointy elbows hits me in the side.
So Don—no, Antonio—is gone, has been for weeks. I’m not sure what I expected, what to feel. At least he lasted longer than the Costco cashier or the tour guide or the boy on the subway. As I descend the steps to the station again, I remember that last person – the moment he walked out of the car and I walked in. The fleeting second we made eye contact, and the next when the doors snapped shut. A thousand alternative realities had fast-forwarded through my mind. In one, there was a white-picket fence around a house stuffed with laughter. In another, dozens of afternoons we spent skipping stones or digging holes to China. Instead, the subway had only bulleted away in the dark, impossibly unstoppable.
After reaching the apartment, I take my keys out of my pocket, and my hands are raw from gripping too hard. I know what I’ll find behind this door. Dust collecting in the cracks of the furniture. The unwashed milk glass I left on our plastic garage-sale table this morning. The second glass, untouched and souring even in the cold. Just a silly second-grade relic for Mother’s Day, painted with exaggerated hearts and people holding hands. When I was younger, mom made me drink milk every morning. Said it was good for the bones. So it’s only force of habit that I keep leaving two cups out like we’ll sit around the table and eat breakfast together like we used to.
My thoughts drift to the frivolous girls and dirty kids and yapping parents from today. All of them caught up in their own eddies of hopes and fears, tangling so effortlessly around others’. I silently tell Don, subway boy, Costco cashier, all the other strangers I’ve fallen in love with and will fall in love with, the same thing. That I get it. People have things to do and places to be. People who leave you are just headed somewhere better. I’m not sure if I say it for mom too.
Sighing, I pick up the two glasses and make my way into the kitchen. The faucet is nearly rusty with disuse. I rinse my glass, but when I move on to Mother’s, I realize the milk has congealed onto its sides. Must’ve been there for a week, at least. I yank the faucet left until it can’t go any further and steam rises and splits my skin pink. Finally, the milk peels off in curling strips. I dry the glass off and tuck it somewhere deep in the cabinet, somehow feeling a little like I’ve been reborn.