Lower East Side Love Story – A love story between native New Yorkers – by Sarah M. Flanagan
She walked home because she needed light. Between free lunch and fear of missing out on teambuilding events, she hadn’t left the office even for a coffee before 7:00 PM in weeks. In the summer it was bearable.
In the winter it was always night.
The labyrinth she worked in had just broken its decade-long anonymity with a giant plastic sign added to the side of the building. The sign looked just like the banner that appeared on her computer screen everyday – flat, tacked-on to real life. It could just fall off. The beautiful old bank was now a luxury drug store where you could get your sushi and Plan-B all in one place.
If she cut across Greenwich Ave the trip from West to East wasn’t too bad. She passed the apartment Mateo rented for a summer in 2008 and wondered if her mother’s tennis racquet was still there.
Glass buildings that resembled paper-doll cutouts hovered awkwardly between shedding trees and brownstone steps. She stopped in front of her old nursery school to unstuck some gum from her shoe. The block she grew up on still looked like her childhood photographs. The new buildings reminded her of Pixar images superimposed on a vintage picture. At least they had natural light.
She passed the playground where she spent grammar school afternoons with her best friend Ana. She remembered returning to the Bleecker Street swings at age fourteen, watching her combat boots almost hit the tree branches. While swinging she had imagined her life as a twenty-something. She would work at Magnolia Bakery between music gigs. She would have a Martin acoustic guitar, which she would lean behind the counter, careful not to get pastel frosting on the nylon strings. Her guy-friends would have beards. Instead she was living in a world of computer screens and office lighting. She was disappointed by the comparison.
She and Mateo had used those Bleecker Street swings as a meeting spot. Summer of nineteen. She was returning from a family vacation. They couldn’t wait to see each other. He was mad that she had abandoned him in this strange city for two whole weeks. Once they saw each other he couldn’t stay angry. Her freedom at the time was contagious.
Today she passed the swings. It was too cold and David was waiting at the restaurant. They arranged for a pre-anniversary dinner at Edward’s in Tribeca. David grew up going there when the ratio of artist to bankers was still in his favor. With a Halloween anniversary they had to get in one-on-one time in advanced. Before Greenwich Village was taken over by parties of ghouls, goblins and drunk chicks. She didn’t want any sexy-devils, or sexy-Obama’s, or even sexy-falafel costumes distracting her man on their big night.
The couple shared a perfect pot pie. Handmade tissue-ghosts hung on the walls. “I used to make those when I was a kid! I need your phone!” She tried to capture the nostalgia she felt for her childhood in iPhone filters.
“I’ll get you an iPhone,” David chimed in. “You’d really like it... we can write it off as part of The Business. My dad said he would pay for it.”
‘The Business’ was their project. Once they got it off the ground they would never have to work for anyone else ever again. It would be a forum for creative people called ‘Recession Proof.’ Recession Proof would be a window into all the creative energy of their lost generation, who was now mostly known for being unemployed.
The Business was also just a website. A blog, really.
But David was good with websites. He was good with computers. He knew codes and tricks and short-cuts.
She didn’t respond to David’s offer. She didn’t want to owe him an iPhone. She wondered if Mateo was working for anyone these days.
One hundred Instagrams later, the happy couple had satisfied their need to prove their happiness to the world. Time to go home.
Why did every apartment he chose have to be a six-story walkup? She stepped over the recycling and began her ascent up the winding stairs. The windows in the hallway were broken.
“Halloween is really the best anniversary,” he flew up the stairs looking at her over his left shoulder.
“Day of the dead,” she huffed.
“I think it was right at midnight that we met... like right at midnight on Halloween!” he was now looking straight up.
“No. I wasn’t quite wasted by midnight. It had to be after,” she responded, half a flight behind him. “Wait - doesn’t that make it not Halloween?” she added once he was a full flight above her.
He either ignored the comment, or did not hear.
“We could have a Halloween wedding full of BOO’s!” David’s voice echoed down.
Boo’s. Those were the round stuffed animals sold for five bucks in the designer drugstore by her office. She bought him one every now and then. She felt bad for not having finished his birthday present. She was in the process of painting him a painting. Of himself. But she couldn’t get around to finishing it. His birthday came and went in July. The collection of Boo’s was getting extensive. He kept them piled on a shelf next to his bed.
Four and a half. How was he flying up so fast? Didn’t he get winded?
“Sure,” she played along. “We could make it a freak-tastic masquerade.”
She paused on the fifth landing to indulge in fantasy party-planning: “It could be like Phantom of the Opera. We could even have a chandelier crash on the guests.” Maybe she could get into this wedding thing after all: “People wouldn’t be uptight... because they’d be wearing masks! Did you know Halloween is the night with the most one-night-stands?” She prodded. She knew the comment would dampen his glorified version of their first encounter. She said it anyway.
“No.” Unamused. “I didn’t know that.”
“Think about it: everyone’s drinking. It’s a holiday with no active religious ties. People can dress slutty. They all pretend to be someone else.... Actually, that kind of just sounds like a regular night on Ludlow Street.”
He turned around with a big grin. Could agree with that part at least.
“It will be epic!” his enthusiasm had returned. “We’ll get engaged next Halloween and married the next one!” he turned and smiled at her in front of the door, key in hand.
She paused. Her smile, a moment behind, also needed to catch its breath.
“Hah” she heaved. Unconvincing. “Maybe... three halloweens from now” she winked. Didn’t work.
“Why do you have to take everything I say seriously? I was just kidding. It’s not like I’m... ”
“I know, I know...”
She looked over at another cracked window while he fumbled with his key.
She remembered when Mateo accidentally broke the stained-glass window in their dorm hallway. He was upset because a campus police officer caught him drinking. He wasn’t trying to break it, he just didn’t know his own strength. David was at a party next door, but they didn’t know each other yet. His party got the blame for breaking the window after she and Mateo escaped, laughing.
The door swung open and the tension was released through the tiny apartment.
She was so glad he had moved. The windows allowed so much more light in the morning. It was dark by the time they got in.
She tossed her purse on the bed below a painting she did one rainy night. David hung it there to hold the place of his expected birthday portrait. The painting was a sloppy rendition of the view of Broadway from her fire escape. At least Renaissance painters could blame absinthe. She was just uncommitted. The cityscape hung next to a name-plaque David kept since he was a kid. It even had glitter. “Samson David Black.”
“Why don’t you go by Samson? I love that name. It’s a hero’s name! And you’re... strong.” She was trying to make up for her doorway comment.
“I don’t like it.”
She knew that.
He didn’t like the name because Samson from the bible was betrayed by a woman. He started going by David when he and his ex-wife broke up in a drug-fueled fury. She tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. They lived in the suburbs. The marriage only lasted a few weeks. She wouldn’t know what that kind of drama was like. She wouldn’t know what life in the suburbs was like either. Drama like that didn’t happen to girls like her. That happened to him in some other life, where he had some other name. When some other girl was the object of his obsession.
After six seconds that lasted six times as long, she put on her blonde voice and chimed “will you propose with a spider ring like the boy at my nursery school? He used to propose to me on the playground once a week...”
“A spider ring every day for a year!” he said, wrapping her in his huge, tattooed arms. She smiled while an image flashed through her memory of the black spider ring he used to keep over his desk. That was in his old apartment. The old apartment with mold and too many memories. He kept it as a memento of a girl he knew that died in a car accident. She didn’t know anything about that girl. Except that he didn’t want to talk about it.
But that was in the old apartment where they didn’t have any light. This new apartment was surrounded with windows.
“I started this other movie you have to watch the rest of it with me! It’s scary don’t want to watch it alone.” His giant arms were so comforting.
“Wait... the horror movie we were watching last week?” “No, I finished that one.” he said. When?
“You finished it alone?”
“Yeah, I had to see the end. And I knew you didn’t like it.”
She indulged in his hold for a few more seconds.
But it was bullshit.
She broke away. “I have to do work but you can watch it.” Her words were inflated. Her raised eyebrows spoke in real currency. His eye-contact connected with the wall over her head. He was tall enough to do that. Cock.
There was no point in asking a question when silence had the same effect. If she asked, he would lie. If he lied, it was moot. No poetry would convince her of his innocence. She knew why a guy would not finish a movie. He had to finish someone else. Did she care enough to start a fight?
Well, not a fight. But she might play a little. Light tug-o-war, perhaps:
“Why did you start the horror movie and not finish it?” she chimed.
“I was scared.”
“But you finished the last one alone? That one was reallllyy scary.”
“I had to. The suspense was killing me.”
“It didn’t freak you out?”
“I covered my eyes.” Well that’s one way of putting it. Sure. Fine. She didn’t want to stress herself out right now. Another layer of invisible tension settled onto their shoulders. They were on their way to building diamonds with the pressure.
“I want a cigarette.” She bolted to the window, passing the wall of photo-booth pictures he kept by his bed. The corners of the pictures were bent. They hadn’t been before.
She stopped. “They’re not in the same order.”
“I was rearranging them so they could stare at the Boo’s!”
The tenement fire escape offered a few more moments of freedom before more computer screens and fluorescent lights.
She looked over the city. She loved this city. So why wasn’t this what she expected?
The Lower East Side she used to idealize glowed beneath her. How did she climb up those rickety water-tower steps when she was sixteen? On the roof! And the whole crew of them was always wasted!
How did Mateo climb up that flimsy tree to her window in college that first night they kissed? Good thing the tree was too small to reach the window. If he could have made it up they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves, and the romance would have fallen flat.
The day she broke up with Mateo he threatened to jump out that window. Good thing he didn’t it was only two suburban stories up. And on a hill. The fall was about ten feet and would have been embarrassing. A sprained ankle wouldn't do the passionate, threatening gesture justice. It would have made their whole relationship seem like a joke.
“Heyyy,” David smiled sweetly, bringing her back to the reality. She had forgotten he was there. He was kind of handsome, wasn’t he?
Was she really, finally a twenty-something on the Lower East Side? In the shitty, artist apartment she’d always dreamed about? Did she really have a perfectly fit, artsy, writer-boyfriend? Who would do anything for her? They were on a fire escape on Orchard Street. She loved Orchard Street. She loved fire escapes.
“My writing teacher asked about you.” He still called her ‘teacher’ even though the class had been over for months. This teacher was only about four years older than him. “She keeps asking ‘Where is this mysterious girlfriend you always talk about?’ She and her husband invited us over for dinner! I’m really excited to get some of the writers from the class involved in ‘Recession Proof...’”
She didn’t say anything. She had tried to join him in the last class when he was reading. He told her she wouldn’t get in. She needed a student ID. When she insisted, he said her presence would make him nervous. She could have met this writing teacher many times. She took a drag and looked over at a Chinese man adding his trash to the pile.
For a second David dropped his whirlwind of big-plans. He looked at she and knew he was the last thing on her mind. How could she not appreciate him? She was so cold. Everything she did was so calculated. Fake, like all the other New York girls. Why couldn’t she just be alive for once?
“Why can’t you just be happy?” She was wondering the same thing.
She thought of diamonds and spider rings. She thought of forever. She imagined saying: “Because I don’t trust you. Because I won’t ever trust you. Because this is only going to get worse if we start a business and move in together and adopt a dog named Boo.” But she didn’t. Instead she threw her cigarette down six stories and said, “Let’s go inside. I’ve got to finish my work.”
The big couch was so cozy. The breeze from the windows was so refreshing. Maybe ‘Recession Proof’ could be the answer. After all, the corporation she worked for now started as a website. A website runs from Starbucks on the 86th street. And now it was practically Big Brother.
“I need to use your computer. I didn’t bring mine.”
“Uh, ok.” David began to close windows on his laptop, and then just signed off.
“Why are you logging out?”
“I have a lot of windows open and I don’t want them to get messed up.”
“If you’re not hiding anything, you don’t have to log out.”
“What the fuck, I’m not hiding anything.”
“Fine, geez, I won’t log out.” David wandered into the kitchen. “I’m going to unpack our new espresso machine so I can wake you up with freshly made coffee-Nespresso for the Boo?!”
“Yayyy,” she responded, but she was already well into her work. Today she was approaching her tasks with more drive than usual.
Browser history: recently visited sites.
“There’s a hurricane coming this weekend. It’s supposed to be pretty bad actually. An amalgamation of five storms or something.” She repeated the words of a coworker as if she was just reading it.
Hushmail. Open. Inbox. Open. Deleted messages.
“It’ll probably be nothing. Like Irene last year.” Dave was so sure from his kitchen sink.
She flipped through emails purchasing and selling long-named chemicals. Nandrolone. Deca-durbolin. Drostanolone propionate. Testosterone. HGH. rHGH. GH.
“Probably. People love to freak out over nothing.”
“Let me see what the article says about the hurricane,” David popped over her shoulder.
She closed the window with just enough time. “Oh shit I just closed it out I’ve got to get to work. We’ll do storm preparation later.” David returned to his kitchen duties and she returned to her work.
It didn’t take long for her to find what she was searching for.
She opened a new window and emailed the evidence to Ana before David jumped into the cushions next to her. She quickly closed all the windows and forced a smile.
A gust of wind blew through the apartment.
“Where’s the heater? It’s going to get cold in the winter with all these windows,” she stated. “And we should probably get some curtains. I can see everything that Chinese family is doing across the alley,” she said. “Can I see your phone?”
“No? What the fuck, why?” Now he wanted a cigarette. He bolted to the window.
She remembered when Mateo bolted to the window.
“I just want to see your phone.”
“You can’t go through my shit! You can’t read my emails and go through my phone-those are my personal conversations with my old friends! You can’t read my conversations with my friends!”
“SHHHHH” a different window yelled across the fire escape to them.
“I don’t trust you.” The honest words escaped her mouth without her permission.
“Why don’t you trust me?” She didn’t expect him to be this angry already but she wasn’t surprised. “I do everything for you! I do everything! I got this apartment to be close to you! Everything! I bought you a wardrobe so you’d have clothes here! Nice dinners...” His words weren’t carrying him where he wanted to go, so he went low, “I would never hurt you. I would never lay a hand on you. I would never hit a girl like your Mateo did“ FUCK! FUUUCCCKKKKK,” he was so flustered he dropped his iPhone. It crashed down six stories.
“SHHHHHHH!” lights were turning on in every window.
“It’s fine. David. David, relax.” David was running down the fire escape. she began to slowly follow suit. David turned around “It’s gone! It’s fuckin’.. ughhh I have everything on there! All of our pictures from today! SHIT, THE PICTURES FROM OUR TRIP TO ITALY!”
“Let’s knock on the neighbors’ doors.” For some reason she was still calm. The only thing that mattered was the phone. It had all of their memories. It was everything they had built together.
A few doorbells and fifteen minutes later, a confused neighbor climbed back in from his fire escape to return the phone.
“You mean you didn’t see it out there when you climbed down?”
David didn’t answer. “It’s broken.”
“Let me try.”
“No... it’s... totally busted.”
“No, look: the light is still on...” David handed her the device. Most recent calls. His writing teacher. she hit send.
She remembered when Mateo threw her phone across the room. He threw it so hard it dented the wall. The phone did not just break, it was twisted. She’d never seen metal twist like that. He was angry that day because her ex-boyfriend had called her.
David only knew who Mateo was because he was good with computers. Five months before he had given her an Ambien “to relax” and downloaded all of her email to his desktop while she was nodding off. The next day he overloaded her work inbox with emails accusing her of infidelity. He even sent pictures of her and Mateo, smiling. But she hadn’t seen Mateo for years.
“I’m putting it on speaker,” she said. “Don’t tell her I’m here. I want to hear what she says.”
The writing teacher’s voice: “Heyyy yoouuu. What’s cookin’?”
“I’m just hanging out with my girlfriend.”
“I’m just chillin.”
“With you girlfriend?”
This whole time?!” The writing teacher laughed through her shock. He had started her class in March.
“You dirty dog!” Her voice stayed sultry.
She couldn’t be quiet anymore: “Why?”
“Why is he a ‘dirty dog’? Can you tell me? I’m right here.”
When she left the building she took one last look up at the window. David was standing, silhouetted, staring at the floor. She had never seen him stand with his head down before. She had never seen him stand so still.
She heard that not long after Hurricane Sandy blew through all of the windows of his Lower East Side apartment.
Recession Proof only ever turned into a blog. About an anonymous womanizer on the Lower East Side.
Sarah Matilda Flanagan is a native New Yorker with a double degree in International Relations and Russian Studies, a passion for music and an addiction to social media.
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