Stories that Stick: On Different Pages Pt. 5

Posted on February 13, 2014

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful snow day. If you’re reading this from somewhere warm, just know I’m stalling my envy  happy for you.

Well, we’re winding down our Stories that Stick series and we’ve come to the last part of Ayinka’s short story, “On Different Pages.” Because it’s a snow day and Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, this post is a bit longer than the last few. You may want to grab a warm blanket and get cozy on your couch.

If you’re just joining us, I encourage you to read the first four parts (here, here, here, and here).

Without further ado:

On Different Pages: Pt. 5
By: Ayinka Nmami

Four weeks.  It was the first time he had gone that long without calling.  I’d expected at least a phone call after our last night together. I had said this to Brie.

“He got what he wanted,” Brie said.

“He could have called or sent me a message. Something.”

Brie hadn’t been remotely sympathetic. “What? Did you want him to send you a thank you card?”

I had lost my resolve and called Joshua twice, but he didn’t return any of the calls. Sitting in my office, I read over the last text message I’d sent him: I miss you. I read it again. And the more I read it, the more desperate, full of wishes and longings the three seemingly innocuous words conveyed. I had written the message the night before while sitting in my apartment, reorganizing the pages of my portfolio, trying hard to concentrate on the pictures on each page. I’d shivered suddenly and gotten up to change the thermostat. As the room filled with warmth, it was as if my feelings rose along with it, and they were like a thousand magnets, clumping together into a stronger force.

It’s what made me text to say I missed him.  And now, whenever I checked my phone to see if he had responded, it was like frustratingly turning from one static radio station to another, trying to make it tune in, straining to hear some semblance of a voice.

I called Brie as I was getting ready to leave work.

“You sound down,” Brie said.

“No, I’ll be alright.”

“Look, there’s this new café that just opened. They’ve got live jazz.  Interested?”

“I don’t know, Brie.”

“Why not?”

“I’m tired. I should head home.”

“And do what?”

“Read. I’ve got some work to finish up too.”

“Oh, please. Just come out. Only for a little bit. We’ll be in and out. I’m leaving now so I’ll meet you there.”

The air was crisp, and the sun was just starting to set when I walked outside. I looked at my phone again.  Still nothing.  Four weeks. The anxiety seemed to have wrapped itself around me, slithering and squeezing me, making it difficult to breathe.

Brie was already seated when I arrived; she was perched on one of swivel bar stools, sipping from a large, red mug and another plum-colored mug the same size across from her.

“Isn’t this place nice?” Brie said, grabbing the menu to show me. “It’s half off anything you order tonight. I got us some hot chocolate.”

“It’s half off, and you got hot chocolate? You sound like you’re ninety.”

“Some days I feel like it,” Brie said.

“Thanks for making me come out.”

“It’s nothing. They have half-off appetizers too.”

“I like the feel of this place.”

“I knew you would,” Brie said. “I scouted the place too. Walked up and down the aisles.  No sign of Joshua.”

I smiled at her report, I’d almost forgotten. I hung my coat on a hook conveniently located under the table top and swiveled on the bar stool to survey the café.  It was only their third night open, but the place was filled with customers who sat talking comfortably as if they were regulars. The musicians of the jazz trio were tuning their instruments on the small stage by the window preparing to play. Framed oil paintings of Louis Armstrong accented the walls, his gold trumpet raised and prominent, seeming to leap out of the boundaries of the frame.

I pointed to one of the portraits. “I want that for my living room.”

Brie rolled her eyes. “Can we ever go out somewhere without you wanting to steal the wall art or paint color?”

“The décor is fantastic. I could get some inspiration for work.”

“Great. Let the manager know.”

“Maybe I will.” I smiled and settled into my chair.

Brie launched in. “Let me finish telling you what this child Henry did in class today.”

“Oh no. What now?”

“Flipped himself over a desk.”

“While you were teaching?”

“No, I left my classroom for two seconds, and this child almost broke his neck.” Brie sighed.

I chuckled.  “Was he hurt?”

“No, he wasn’t hurt.” Brie said, rolling her eyes. “I ran in and he was on the floor, laughing his head off.  That’s why I feel like I’m ninety.  These crazy kids will wear you out.”

“They’re just boys being boys.”

“Whatever. I can’t wait for break.” Brie reached for a spoon to stir her hot chocolate.  “What about you? How’re you feeling?”

“Better.”

“Really? No desire to do anything crazy?”

“Like what?”

“Slash his tires?”

I laughed. “Maybe a little. But I’d rather take a page from your book tonight.”

“What’s that?”

“Let’s not talk about him.”

“Done,” she said, and dramatically extended her hand to shake mine.

The jazz musicians started playing a fast-paced song fitting with the mood in the coffee shop.

“Let’s dance,” Brie said, jumping out of her seat.

“No one else is dancing,” I said.

“So?”

We danced for the rest of the evening. Brie, with her alluring personality and exuberance, struck up conversations with members of the band. She made personal requests, which were played with surprising alacrity, and before long others had joined us on the floor, and the space felt as tight as being on the early morning train.  For the first time in a long time, I danced without wishing Joshua was near. I danced without wondering where he was, what he was doing or how he was feeling. And the thought that he hadn’t responded to my message was forgotten, lost and drifting along with the notes that the band played, somewhere past the ceiling and into the night.

*

When it happened, Brie and I were laughing, still on a high from the excitement of the night, from the dancing, the music, and the energy of the crowd. Brie was planning to walk the few blocks back to her apartment, and I was about to take the subway to mine. We crossed the street to the corner where we were planning to part.

And that was when I saw Joshua.

He was standing under a red marquee, tall and handsome, with his brown leather jacket, removing his gloves.  Without thinking, I raised my hand, wanting to wave him over, but he wasn’t looking in my direction.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Brie said, pushing my hand down before I could get his attention.

“What?” I said.

It was as if the crowd parted, and everything was in focus for me to see clearly.  The lights under the marquee increased in intensity where Joshua stood, and the lights around the other moviegoers dimmed.

He was talking to someone.

A woman was looking up at him, laughing at something he must have just said to her. Her hair, dark brown and very curly, cut right above the collar of her wool blazer. He touched her face and then kissed her before leading her into the theater with his hand on the small of her back. Then everything crashed back together all at once. The light fixture once extraordinarily bright was now indistinguishable from the rest of the lights.  People moved about, tickets in hand, going in and out the doors as before.

“Elise, I’m so sorry.” I heard Brie say behind me.

But I didn’t look at Brie.  I didn’t want to see her face: the pity, eyes wide in surprise, or hear the soothing words.

She moved in front of me. “Let’s go, Elise.”

For a fleeting moment, I thought she wanted us to chase after Joshua.

“I can’t go after them,” I said.

“What?” Brie was confused.

“You said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Brie laughed and said gently, “I know, Elise.  I was saying, let’s go home. I’m not chasing after that fool.”

She unclasped her clutch and handed me a tissue.

“What for?” I asked, holding the tissue in my hand.

“You’re crying,” Brie said simply.

I couldn’t remember how I got home, but I knew that Brie had come with me.  Had we taken the train or did we walk all the way back to my studio?  How had I made it up the flights of stairs? I vaguely remembered Brie telling me to call her if I needed anything.  Then I remembered lying on my couch for a long time thinking that all the dreams I’d had about Joshua and I, and the possibility of us being together were gone.

*

Joshua’s name flashed on my phone a few days later.  I was surprised. Was he calling because he’d seen me that night? Did he sense something? I’d spent the past few days wondering about my place in his life and how my friends had been right all along. I should have moved on a long time ago. I glanced at the phone again. Should I give him room to be honest with me? I didn’t realize how unprepared I felt to talk to him, and I suddenly felt very tired.

I picked up.

“Elise,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”

“It has.”

“I just needed to hear your voice.”

I was silent.

Joshua continued.  “I have Saturday free and thought maybe we could do something.”

These were words that I would have longed to hear before; I would’ve cleared my schedule for him on Saturday and asked friends could we reschedule.  But now, I knew those words only meant that someone else wasn’t available to him, and so he was calling, as if he missed me, but he was only using me to pass the time. Several thoughts were running through my mind but I didn’t know which ones to grab. I took a deep breath.

“Joshua, you haven’t called me.”

“I’m calling you now.” His tone was irritatingly nonchalant.

“Suddenly you’re free?”

He sighed. “I’ve been busy lately.”

“I know,” I said tersely.

“What’s going on with you? Why the attitude?”

I paused, then said. “I know you’re seeing someone else.”

The words were out my mouth before I could stop them, and it was like stepping out on the edge of a diving board. The very, very edge, only heels remaining on the board, most of my feet already over, parallel with the water, but wondering if it was too late for me to turn around.

“Who? Amber?” His voice was relaxed.

“Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to see other people?”

“See other people?” He repeated, as if it were an unusual question. He was quiet then said, “El, if I’m seeing other people that implies that I’m seeing you too. I was dating someone if that’s what you meant.”

His words cut through the air. He hadn’t stuttered and denied it like I thought he would.

I spoke slowly. “You acted like we would get back together.”

“C’mon. You thought what you wanted to think.”

“No, Joshua. You made me think we were working towards something.”

“You never know, right? I can’t predict the future.” He laughed at the notion.

I realized that he had meant his words at the time except he meant them in a general way, like the way someone talked about the weather, indifferent about if it rained or if the sun shone.

He continued. “I think we’re on different pages. I’m not trying to be in anything serious.”

I heard his words but they seemed to be bouncing in different directions and not sticking to any part of me.

I found my voice. “We slept together.”

“You can’t take that to mean anything. We slipped up.”

“Once is slipping up. That’s not what happened with us.”

My head was spinning. It was too much. The confusion. His indifference. The back and forth.

“I have to go,” I said.

“El, don’t do this. Amber’s just a friend. It’s nothing.”

“Like me?”

“Elise—”

“Goodnight Joshua.”

*

Weeks after, it stayed with me.  The image of Joshua and this other woman moving fluidly in and out of my mind. Finding it’s way into my dreams then returning to visit me when I woke up in the mornings.  Though I hadn’t been able to see her features fully, it didn’t stop my mind from creating them.  I imagined her with a heart shaped face, eyes almost the color of midnight, long lashes and perfectly arched brows.  I remembered how Joshua leaned down to kiss her, exactly the way he kissed me, unhurried and lingering, like they were the only two people outside.  I thought too of how I had given myself to him because I believed it meant something more than slipping up.

*

 Sometimes, I found myself automatically reaching to dial Joshua’s number because I felt that we had left things unsaid and unfinished, and I remembered something else I wanted to ask or say.  Sometimes I saw someone who I thought was Joshua.  Like the time I was down on 7th Street looking for blue velvet fabric to reupholster a couch for one of my clients. While sorting through rolls of fabric by the store window, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a man with the same lean build and low-cut hair. The way he stood, hands in his pocket, messenger bag across his chest—I was certain it was Joshua.

I remained frozen in place, holding on to the velvet fabric, oblivious to the store clerk who kept repeating, “Ma’am, did you want to purchase that?”

When the man outside turned around, I felt a strange mix of sadness and relief wash over me when I realized it wasn’t Joshua.  I wondered how long it would go on like this.

Deep down, I wondered if Joshua was right that I was the one who had gotten it wrong. I could even feel myself suppressing the memory of him with this other person. Was it my fault for believing that he wanted us to be together even though he had never said the words directly to me? Was it his fault for leading me on, for calling me, inviting me over, for saying not now but maybe later, for going on sometimes as if nothing had changed even though the title of our relationship was no longer the same?  Was I so caught up in what I felt for him, what we had been, that I couldn’t see clearly how to move on?

*

Eventually, I felt like I was waking out of a haze. The days and nights blended together during those weeks, but now I knew when the day turned to night and from night back into day again. I’d kept holding on to our relationship, but it was like trying to clutch on to the rungs of a ladder, rungs that were too slippery to hold on to for long. It all became too much. But it wasn’t that my feelings disappeared—if only it were that easy to be over someone. No, they hadn’t disappeared; they were still there, waiting.

*

Outside, the air rushed against my skin, cooling it instantly. I walked without my coat buttoned up; my face was flushed from dance practice. I’d forgotten my umbrella and had to wait until the rain subsided before I was able to leave practice to head for the subway. I knew I’d probably missed my train, but unlike Brie, I was willing to wait around for the next one to arrive.

I walked past a row of vendors and watched as one vendor piled strings of sautéed onions on a hot dog wrapped in foil and passed it to a waiting customer. I was reminded of how hungry I was and how empty my refrigerator would be when I got home. I decided to order a soft pretzel.

I walked on, pulling bits of the pretzel apart with my fingers, listening to the sounds of the night. I walked slowly, evading the trash on the sidewalk, circling around the people that had gathered to watch a street performer on his drums, despite the cold temperature.

“Elise,” I heard someone call.

I knew the voice.

My throat began to burn from the tip of my tongue down to my chest. I felt like I’d swallowed the entire pretzel, and it was lodged in my throat. I loosened my scarf and turned around.

“I thought that was you,” Joshua said. He was by himself, dressed in light blue scrubs, with his messenger bag slung across his chest. He reached to his ears to remove his headphones.

I hadn’t seen him since that night. I hadn’t heard his voice since that call. It was like gazing upon a painting whose lines and shadows once intimately known were now only vaguely familiar.

I waited for him to speak.

“How’ve you been?” he asked. He seemed to be trying to read my expression, wanting to know if he should have called my name.

I needed to keep walking. To say I was busy and wanted to get home.  To tell him that I had to catch the next train.

But I stayed.

“I’ve been good,” I answered.  I held the pretzel in my hand, my hunger momentarily vanished.

“It’s been a while.”

I nodded.

“Can I walk you home?”

I shook my head. “It’s okay. I’m heading to the subway.”

“El, I know you won’t believe me.” He rubbed his neck as if trying to massage the words out of his mouth.

“Believe what?”

He was silent.

I waited.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“What are you sorry about?”

“I don’t know honestly, but I don’t want it to be like this between us. Things are different without you.”

“I thought you were seeing someone else…”

“That was a mistake,” he said before I could finish. “I miss us.”

“Joshua, you said there was no us.”

He appeared wounded by my remark. “Things have changed, El. Listen, I thought about calling you, but I wasn’t sure you wanted to hear from me.”

I thought about how many times I’d longed to hear his voice on the other end, hoping every phone call would be from him. What if I’d never run into him? Would he have called me? Would he have reached out? But he was here. In a way, he had reached out to me, called my name though he could have gone in another direction, and I would have never known.  He was here, standing in the cold to talk with me.

And he had apologized.

“I wanted to hear from you,” I found myself admitting.

We stood across from one another as if waiting for something to bridge the gap between us and move us towards each other.  I heard the sound of young kids playing and laughing on the stoops of their houses. I heard the faint sounds of the street performer’s final drumbeats and the applause of those who had gathered around him. Then the wind, which had been calm just moments before, suddenly picked up and whistled through the bare trees branches.

I shivered slightly.

“Cold?” Joshua asked.

“Just a little.”

Without a word, he moved closer and wrapped his arms around me. I leaned against him, resting my head on his chest, my breathing slowed, the tension between us temporarily broken.  I closed my eyes and thought of nothing else but simply how right it felt being in his arms again.

***

Now it’s your turn: Did you think the story would end this way?

Tell me in the comments section below. And if you’ve enjoyed this story, please show Ayinka some love by dropping a line.


2 Replies to "Stories that Stick: On Different Pages Pt. 5"

  • Nichola
    February 13, 2014 (1:45 pm)

    I did NOT expect the story to end this way. It leaves me wanting more. I see so much of myself and friends of mine (men and women) in Elise.

    Very powerful, eye opening, and engaging! Thank you Afa for showing me this piece.

    • Shakirah Adianna
      February 14, 2014 (9:23 am)

      Hi Nichola,

      I was shocked too. Ayinka did an amazing job keep us at the edge of our seats. And I completely agree, the story felt very real and hit close to home.