The glare of the neon lights reflected off the darkened bar windows, shining eerily on the skeletal fire escapes which lined Bleecker street. He crossed the street with a slight stumble, anyone who would have noticed had long gone home or somewhere else. The only ones left were the homeless and the whores who gave him crooked smiles as he wandered past the line of stunted trees. Lumbering down the cracked stairs to the subway below, he felt the air turn stale. Walking past the buskers trying to stay awake, he continued down the hall towards the platform. The fluorescent bulbs above him hummed silently, as he started to sweat under his stifling jacket, though he didn’t take it off.
He stood out on the platform waiting to hear the screeching of the train, though it was completely silent. The benches had already been occupied by the sleepers layered with their jackets and meager possessions. He could see the strange glow of the lights in the tunnel pummeling towards the station, and quickly screeching to a halt. He sat on one of the plastic benches in the far corner and kept his eyes open and waited to arrive at his stop, as he thought of going back to the office on Monday.
Climbing out of his station in Brooklyn, he had no idea what time it was. The sky was still dark and the streets still empty. As he walked the few blocks to his apartment he looked down at his wrist only to see his watch wasn’t there, though he didn’t think much of it. Shuffling his fingers through his pocket, he extracted his single key and fell into his tiny apartment, then locked it four times. He didn’t bother to turn on the lights as he glanced at the oven clock, which read 3:45 AM, though it never told the right time. Removing only his old trainers and sweaty jacket, he collapsed into bed, his eyes unable to penetrate the darkness of his room.
The shrill piercing sound of his telephone ringing next to his bed startled him out of bed. Straining his eyes, he could only see the first signs of the dawn through his curtains as he lazily reached for the phone.
“Adam?” asked a soft woman's voice. He stared out his window. “Adam?” she asked again, a little louder. He snapped back to attention, and he began to remember that sound.
“Isn’t it a little early?” he mumbled.
“I guess it's been a while, hasn’t it?” she replied. I began to recognize the contours of her voice again and his eyes lifted slightly.
“Adam. It's Diana.” she said, sounding restless.
“Diana? I can’t remember when I last saw you. The sun’s not even out yet, what's the matter?”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just wanted to talk to someone. I’m in Alaska now, in one of those old gold rush towns you used to see in those old Westerns.”
“I’m always pretty free to talk, but why the hell are you up in Alaska?”
“I don’t know, it's cold up here, and I hate the cold. Maybe I just needed some sort of change.” He grunted some sort of affirmation, and she continued to talk though he was only half listening as he watched the sun slowly rise above the buildings from behind his curtain.
Neither I or Diana could remember how we came to know each other. We had gone to the same, completely unremarkable college, though it wasn’t until the second year of it that we had really spoken though usually it was only her who would do the speaking. We’d sit at bus stations and behind buildings smoking packs of cigarettes and I would only ever listen to what could only be described as rants of a never ending variety of subjects, but sometimes we just sat together in silence.
Her father had died in some sort of accident when she was young, before she could have known him, and she had no desire to know him. She was raised by her mother with her older sister in a Midwestern town, always wishing she was somewhere else, I remember her saying. She had never been abused as a child or anything, just bored. She had viewed her entire childhood with a glaze of passivity over her eyes. She watched her mother’s slew of boyfriends come and go and her sister pass to and from the house with her friends. Diana always said she viewed her childhood from a distance as if it were a disappointing marionette show, keeping her social life and grades in school as close to average as possible, going through the motions of what was expected of her as quietly as possible, as long as it was enough for her to get out one day.
I never knew her hair was brown. When I first met her in university she had bleached her hair to the point it was almost yellow as if to drown out every pigment of brown from her head. I’d never seen her in any of my lectures, the only thing we shared was the metal bench at the bus stop. I’d never really noticed her there before, but she sat there on that metal bench, pale skin and bleached hair smoking vigorously. I asked her for a cigarette, and she handed me one without a word, but I only twirled the slim figure between my fingers.
“What are you waiting for?” I asked her.
“The bus” she replied, staring off into the distance at the dreary campus buildings shrouded in the fog. A light drizzle came down on the thinning leaves around us.
“I’ve never seen anyone smoke as much as you are right now.” she turned her head silently, her pale blue eyes piercing me. Though her eyes lacked any judgement, I could feel her searching me.
“You going to smoke that?” she asked with a faint grin with thin lips, looking at the cigarette flying through my fingers. I looked back at her for a moment, avoiding those pale blue eyes. “Can I get a light?” She handed me a cheap plastic Bic, and I inhaled.
“Diana.” We stood there in silence for a time, watching the small drops of water fall from the sky while the bus never seemed to arrive. The short spurts of conversation we made seemed almost just as quiet as the silence which it emerged from. Standing in the rain smoking, her pale blue eyes surrounded by dark eyeliner seemed a thousand miles away. She told me she was studying theater but she didn’t say why, though I doubt she knew herself. I just nodded along with what she was saying.
When the bus finally did arrive, I climbed on, expecting her to follow. Instead she wrote her number in pen and handed me the slip of paper and she said goodbye before I could say anything else. Looking back through the grimy bus window I could see her slim figure sitting on the bench taking drags from her cigarette, the back of her bleached head turned towards me.
“You ought to come to Alaska sometime, Adam” I heard her say through the receiver.
“Isn’t it cold up there?” I could have responded with anything else.
“I’m sure you’re already used to it.” We spoke a little longer afterwards, though looking I suppose we didn’t really speak at all. The sound of our voices came out of the cold metal telephones, though the words seemed to have been scattered across the phone lines. When she eventually hung up the phone I fell back into bed and slept well into the day.
I haven’t gone to work in a week now. I called in the day after Diana’s first call saying I was out of town for a family matter and hung up before my boss could ask for any specifics. I only spoke to Diana on the phone a few times, but usually we just ask each other questions to fill in the blanks of our timeline or we reminisced. There's a shallowness in her voice, it's quiet and small, as if I were listening to cold wind shake grasses on the distant Alaskan tundra. It drew me in to her, and I wanted to stand upon that barren land and feel that wind, but all there was was the messages coming through the telephone. I walk up and down the city now, until late at night sometimes, just to kill time in the throngs of people who do the same.
On one of these evenings I emerged from the subway station and out into the frost of Rockefeller center. Masses of people drifted through the streets in their high heels and mink coats and their tattered jeans and formless caps. I maneuvered through those forms and ended up overlooking the ice sheet below. There, multitudes navigated their way along the ice. Some stumbled around the perimeter slowly, the young children grasping each other, sometimes desperately trying to hang on. Others glided gracefully, sometimes side by side with another, their razors cut into the ice each time with a glint of metal as to prevent their slipping. Though in the middle, one couple, professionals perhaps, danced upon the ice in a swirling melody only they could hear. Their blades made no noise and left no marks upon the surface as they pushed one another away, and drifted again towards each other. Though as I watched closely I could see their flesh never touched one another, an intricacy of their dance, or perhaps an intonation of their melody had kept them from each other without fail. But they twirled and spun, bending and bowing their lean bodies as they followed an invisible course in the ice while the small, careening figures circled around them like faulty satellites. In the end it was quite a beautiful dance.
I stayed in the city for a while longer that night. Rain clouds had obscured the stars above me as I walked through the frost in the dark, lit only by the neon signs and the dim street lights. At this point everyone was hurrying home to avoid the night crowd which would emerge soon, but I decided I was in no rush. I sat in a park for a while on a metal bench and I stared around at the skyscrapers around me as the lights slowly went off in those distant windows. I thought I could see my office building somewhere in that menagerie of concrete and glass, all its windows darkened, though looking into the winter sky for so long had made me realize just how deep into my bones the chill had gone.
In the shadow of a lamp light a little down the path from me there was an empty phone booth. I got out of my seat and headed towards it. There weren’t many people left in the park now, just a few dark figures roaming the grounds, sometimes alone and sometimes in pairs, but otherwise, for downtown Manhattan everything seemed dark and silent. I had no real idea of what to say to anyone, but I absently dropped a few quarters into the machine and dialed a number. Diana picked up after a few rings.
“Hello?” she asked in her usual voice, if only with just a slight slur in it.
“It's me,” I said.
“Nothing I just wanted to talk, I guess.”
“Well I’m just drinking alone in my room I guess I’m free” she laughed drily. There was a silent pause. I really didn’t have anything to say.
“You know, all that time you spent looking for me after we finished school, I was up here the whole time. I didn’t tell anyone.” she said after a moment, as if the thought had just sprung into her head.
“What makes you think I was trying to find you.”
“I know you were.”
After I first met Diana at the bus stop, we realized how much time we spent crossing into each other's days. I started to notice her bleached hair and her pale eyes behind her makeup and we had become friends as we saw more and more of each other, I’d go out to eat with her or sit at bus stops and we’d smoke together, and we unraveled ourselves. She told me her story, of her youth and of how she thought, but I knew there was always going to be something more. I listened to her and pieced together my own perception of who she was, and no doubt she was doing the same to me, but always I knew that what I saw of her was only the reflection of the pale blue eyes that stared back at me. I never paid it much mind though, I thought I had never spoken on such a level with anyone. I had been with my share of girls in highschool and college but only ever for some vague notion of superficial attraction. But Diana wasn’t someone I wanted for romance, I gravitated towards her because with her I didn’t feel any feelings or desires, just a warm contentment. Even with that unfathomable distance between us, we’d talk and I would somehow understand, as if I were the tide crashing upon the beach of her own consciousness, and everytime I was inevitably pulled away I’d bring with me the few grains I could carry.
Those grains of her consciousness I carried with me were not enough to create a full sculpture of her form. When she suddenly left school I had no idea why. My unfinished rendition of her in my mind had evaporated into the sea and had been carried off into the depths of the ocean. I scrambled inside of myself looking for a reason why she had carried herself off as suddenly as she did, but it wasn’t until much later I realized it was something inside of her that had propelled her away, that had constructed that impenetrable space between us.
I graduated later that year, which I had spent doing hardly anything other than odd jobs, studying, and sleeping with the occasional woman I hardly knew. Occasionally Diana’s bleached hair and pale eyes appeared in my mind, but the only clues to where she was rested on that beach, and so the tide receded from her part of my mind.
“Why did you leave. Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, maybe a little more forcibly than I should have.
“It would’ve defeated the entire purpose of everything if I told you, or anyone.” she paused. “I’ve always felt alone, you know that. Even when we were together we were alone. We were just sending off words into that empty space between us hoping one of us would catch them, like we were satellites. The fact that you understand that is why I left. The fact that I felt something short of isolation scared me because it meant the stones in my wall were starting to crumble. It meant that the tide was rising and the only place I could go to escape it was here, the End of the World.”
I tried to imagine her on that barren plain. Standing amongst the brush of the tundra with the grey sky over her, the calling gusts of arctic wind blew through her as even her hair was completely still. I saw her looking back at me from that desolate place, her eyes almost blending with the sky, but I could feel them watching me as they always had. I turned away from them and when I turned back I only saw the metal wall of the phone booth, reflecting my form, clutching the phone, the only thing connecting me to her voice in the midst of the entire city. Though for a split second I thought I could feel that wind in my own hair.
“And you called me because the tide finally caught up to you.”
“Yeah.” she said quietly. “At that point there wasn’t much point in building anymore walls around myself because I already reached the end of the line.”
I couldn’t think of anything else to say to her, I was deep in my mind remembering all those conversations we had before she left, every silence there was between us as we sat together, and she was right. The line hadn’t gone dead yet, I could still hear her faint breathing on the other end, and I looked around the empty park as if desperately searching for another shadow in the light of a street lamp but there was none.
“Diana. What does the moon look like to you right now.”
“It's kind of yellowish, I guess. Just slightly off from a full moon. Definitely not the prettiest moon I’ve seen.” she replied, quietly surprised.
Holding the phone, I looked up to see a moon of her exact description. “Maybe the End of the World isn’t as far from here as it seems.”
The End of the world
BY Ian Curry