Chapter Two: Self and the City
There was another person who didn’t die that day, in fact she woke up early to make it down to the gym to swim a few laps before most of the die-hard fitness Nazi’s came in to monopolize the pool. She showered off and dressed in the locker room, standing in front of the mirror and running a brush through her blonde, bob-cut hair. Saturdays for Danielle Callo meant doing all the errands that she’d never had time to get done during the week. Speedo needed to get to the vet for his shots, her library books were due back unless she wanted to pay 50 cents per book per day, then there was the rented movie and that skirt that needed dry-cleaning, which was looking to be her entire day.
She heard her cell beeping to alert her of a missed call and she shouldered her gym bag and walked out of the locker room. God, it was Alec again. Danielle tossed her hair and scowled, stepping out onto the city sidewalk and heading towards Bainbridge. If she didn’t call him back he’d just keep calling all day, but talking to him again was just going to rope her into the same old conversation, the one she swore to herself they weren’t going to have again. This was all Stu’s fault and Danielle made a note to kick him in the good ol’ jimmy for introducing her to him in the first place.
Hey, you should meet my friend of an old friend Alec! I really think you’ll like him but then you’ll realize about eight months into dating him that you don’t but won’t be able to think of a good way to tell him because he’s a wonderful guy and it’s really not him, it’s you. So then you’ll just cut him off and not tell him why, and yeah, you’ll know you’re hurting him but it was his fault for liking you in the first place. This is what Stu should have said, but what he didn’t, as he could neither read minds nor see the future.
Didn’t this seem to happen to everyone she dated? Each time Danielle was so sure that they had chemistry, so sure that she could make it work. Something always went wrong and while at first she’d blamed the men (and women, there’d been several of them during college) she dated, by now she’d realized it was all her. Stu, bless his heart and optimism, kept trying to fix her up with folks and still sat ‘relationship shiva’ with her (as he liked to call it) after each one tanked and Danielle got depressed again. So yes, while she had the best gay, Jewish queen in the world as her best friend, her other friends from childhood and beyond had slowly fallen out of touch after she moved to Philadelphia.
This wasn’t a good city in which to be lonely, but then again, what city was? Her dating pool was so big and so deep, but it only felt like she was drowning in it without finding a lifeguard (yum!) to cling to. Or maybe not even a lifeguard, maybe even just someone sitting under the trees on their big towel waiting for her to get out of the pool to ask her if she minded just going out for dinner tonight instead of cooking? The truth was Philadelphia wasn’t any easier on the single gal than the Cleveland suburbs had been, even though it was a lovely old city.
Deep down, Danielle was getting worried, already 26 and no steady relationship. All her cousins were already married with children or with little ones on the way, and here she was every Christmas as a free agent between the kids’ table and the two adult tables. So maybe the women of her family were a bit envious of her running off to a big city, her own apartment and big-time job; just like the beginning of the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ with her stopping in front of One and Two Liberty Place and tossing her hat up in the air. Yeah, right. Life was just life and she was sick of them acting like she was some important person just because she lived where she did. It was time for them to live vicariously through someone else as she had her own problems to take care of.
Speedo must have known he was going to the vet because he wasn’t sitting by the door when she unlocked it. Danielle shook her head and threw her gym bag on the couch figuring she’d take the wet clothes out it to wash later (well, probably).
“Speeeeeedo! I have treats! Speedo, come!” she called as walked through the small apartment. What had her father called it when she sent him the pictures, a ‘hole in the wall’?
Hitting the blinking button on her phone, Danielle got down on the floor to peer under her bed and an angry calico kitten stared back and tried to make himself smaller.
“Don’t make me come in there after you,” she warned idly.
“Good…morning…you have…2…new messages. First…message. ‘Hey there, sweetie! Listen, I don’t know what you’ve got planned for tomorrow night, but cancel it! My writing group’s meeting for a reading and that gorgeous redhead I told you about will be there. I’m set to read and I need you there! Just wait until you see him…mmmm! Anyway, tah-tah, call me back!’”
Straining, Danielle started shifting the big bed. “Stu, I love you,” she mumbled, ready to pounce on the cat.
“Next…message. ‘Hey, Danni? It’s me, Alec. I, ah, I tried to call you on your cell and all, guess you were somewhere else. Look, um, I’m not sure what’s going on, and this’ll be the fifth day in a row I’ve been calling. I’m sorry for whatever it is that I did. You know, if we’re moving too fast, I can back off, it’s ok, I don’t mind. It’s just, i-it’d be nice to know you’re alright and everything. A-and if you are, well, yanno, like I said, if I did something, then I’m really sorry. Look, give me a call, cell or home phone. I’ll, ah, I’ll talk to you later, bye.’ End of…messages.”
Danielle emerged from behind the bed covered in dust and clutching the tiny tom by his scruff. Speedo twisted and pawed and gave his little low growl but was popped into his carrier with a toy and blanket anyway. Sneezing once, she put the carrier by the door and walked over to the phone. The message button was no longer blinking but the ‘2’ still displayed on the screen. Stu would be called back later that night, which is what he would expect and as it was Saturday night he’d probably be on his way out clubbing when she called. Alec, now, what to do about Alec?
It wasn’t that she was trying to hurt him, it really wasn’t. He really was a great guy, smart, funny, caring, just the kind of guy she could really gel with. The problem was just that; she’d woken up one morning and realized she didn’t want to ‘gel’ with him, she liked him enough but she didn’t want to be Mrs. Alec Riger for the rest of her life. After that it was the same downhill progression that all her relationships devolved into and every little thing about him just drove her to distraction. It was like once she felt the doors closing and the relationship becoming more solid, all she wanted was escape and freedom. Wasn’t fear of commitment supposed to be a male problem?
Sighing again, she picked up the phone and started to dial only to hang up midway through Alec’s number. Danielle shook her head and gently placed the handset back in the charge cradle. Sometimes the best thing to do, she thought, was walk away. If you weren’t happy with where you were, what you were doing, or who you were with, then walk away. That was really what brought her to Philadelphia after college even though she told Stu and her coworkers it was for the city life and job opportunities. The truth was there had been ‘someone’.
Oh God, it seemed so trite as she thought about it. Someone. The tragic end of a relationship that wasn’t her fault for once, then her running into the arms of ‘someone’ for comfort. Thing is, most guys this generation must have been trained to expect fickle female behavior (she blamed sitcoms and women’s magazines) and after the initial breakup, moved on. Willie was a mistake, pure and simple. She hadn’t really been as infatuated with him as he seemed to think and the whole mess just seemed to drag out and become stickier. No, she thought as she defiantly strode back towards the door, I’m done thinking about him, he’s not here and this is my world, my life.
Speedo angrily voiced opposition to his unfair confinement the whole way to the vet’s office and for the twenty minutes they sat waiting. All in all the shots were over quick and he got a clean bill of health if not a bruised pride and once Danielle let him out back home, he ran behind the toilet to sulk. There were still the movies, the library books, the dry cleaning, and surprise when she opened the fridge, she could probably do with some food too. What had started out as a Saturday full of possibilities had dwindled to a mid-afternoon of errands.
Right after she’d moved to the city, Danielle had loved running errands on the weekend, it had made her feel so urbane and hip, like someone with a plan. She imagined a stylized drawing of herself on a novel cover with a cute little purse under one arm and a huge shopping bag in the other on her way to some fantastically amazing social adventure with maybe Speedo’s ears and tail visible in the bag for comic effect. It would be such a witty romp from parties to boardrooms and lots of scenes in bedrooms. It would make the New York Times Bestseller List and stay there for a year and all her friends and relatives back home would read it. Of course, it would have a great, tres cool title like, Girl, Going, Gone!
However, by dusk Miss Danielle High Life 2004 was curled up on the couch in a set of flannel pajamas featuring pudgy sheep with take-out Chinese arrayed on the coffee table and Speedo lounging on the armrest and purring, prior indignity forgotten. The cheesy Court TV movie was still on and their usual Saturday night forensic programs hadn’t started yet so she found herself opting for the Lifetime movie of the day, titled something like, ‘Her Passion for Justice’. Maybe it was ‘Her Passion for Life’, well, her passion was involved one way or the other.
Fishing around, fork searching for another shrimp possibly hiding the thick forest of lo mien, Danielle sniffed and rolled her eyes at the TV. The movie’s main heroine, a district attorney or social worker, or someone with a fairly professional looking job during the office scenes, had been tailing a dark, mysterious stranger through the wet city streets. He’d finally gone into an old warehouse converted into apartments and she followed him to his studio apartment where he (surprise!) knew she’d been tailing him and invited her in. Alone in the apartment of the handsome young, slightly sinister looking man, they talked and then cut to a scene of wild lovemaking as the rain hammered against the window.
Is this really what everyone thought about women? Christ, and on the supposed ‘network for women’ too! She grumbled wordlessly and fumbled around, feeling for where the remote had fallen. Most everyone seemed to portray a woman’s emotions like a 3 year-old holding a semi automatic weapon; dangerous, volatile and libel to go off at any time much to the confusion and helplessness of its wielder.
“Give us some goddamn credit,” Danielle actually said out loud with a hand wedged deep between the cushions, “I mean, where’s her head, where’s her common sense? For God’s sake, he’s not even wearing a condom! ‘Feminine Mystique’? Psssh, try feminine mistake. Ah!”
Suddenly the heroine’s attempt at a sultry, pouty expression became the theme song and opening credits of ‘Cops’. She sighed and set the remote down on the table, and picked up her beer, relishing the sip of Yuengling. Thinking back, it was hard to exactly pin down when she’d first started liking the taste of beer. During high school she and the other girls had tried it at their boyfriends’ behests and all promptly made the ‘skunky beer face’ from the commercials and spit it all over the floor. The boys had all laughed and the girls had pretended to be annoyed and gone back to their box o’ wine pinched from someone’s mother’s cellar; teenage drinking went on as it had for generations and young Buck Kessler got lucky with Lucy Gonzalez.
College drinking had been kind of hard to remember, but then, with the amount everyone drank in college, was that really so hard to believe? All sorts of new liquors and mixers and girly drinks and shooters and…whoa, the floor, had been discovered. The beer everyone drank in college was cheap and shitty and that’s exactly why such beers exist, because there’ll always be college students poor and desperate enough to pay a homeless guy to buy 4 cases of Milwaukee’s Best. Somehow Danielle had settled into her routine of certain favorite drinks, beers and ‘malt beverages’. She’d had a sorority sister who’d sworn by Mad Dog 20/20, often called the bum wine of choice but that girl hadn’t lasted much past freshman year.
If Pennsylvania was good for anything, she decided, it was great for breweries and microbreweries, foremost among them being Yuengling. It was a good, solid beer for not a lot of money, so if you didn’t want watery light beer or heavy, horrible German stuff, Yuengling was the beer for you. Danielle usually had a six-pack in the fridge though she rarely got drunk at home alone. Getting drunk was for clubbing and clubbing was for Stu, and thinking of Stu reminded her that she had wanted to call him back before he hit the scene for the night and became completely unreachable altogether.
Reaching across the table for her cell, she dialed his number and waited, while on TV an officer explained a complicated prostitution sting to the female officers posing as hookers.
“Talk to me!” Stu cheerfully nearly sang suddenly in her ear.
“Hey, stud. You called earlier?”
There were other voices mingling in the background, probably he and his self proclaimed ‘Bod Squad’ were hanging around at someone’s apartment and waiting to be fashionably late to the club. “Yes! Tomorrow night, the Market St. Barnes & Noble, it’s the monthly reading and I’m one of the readers. Craig, that redhead I was telling you about, you know?”
“The one with the big-looking…”
“That’s him!” Stu cut her off excitedly, “anyway, I found out for a fact, a fact, girl, that he’s a meat-eater and if I can impress him, well, then it leads to coffee and then off into those sweet fantasies they only show on Cinemax.”
“Aaaaand I come into this, how?”
“For moral support, Danni darling! I think he, oh, wait! Got to run, I’ll call you tomorrow!” Then the sound that was Stu joined the mingled mash of sounds before the cell clicked off.
Danielle just had to smile and take a deep, contented sigh. Stu was a bundle of energy and drama and more of a stereotype than he’d like to be, but sometimes he was the best friend a girl could have. A half-hour later her beer was gone and she felt good enough that a new one was in its place and she was teasing Speedo with a toy and singing along to the ‘Cops’ theme song.
“Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?”
The knock at the door and the voice came suddenly and at the same time, spooking the kitten and making Danielle leap at least a foot and back onto the couch.
“Danni? It’s Alec, you in there?”
“Er,” was all she could manage. The TV was on and she’d been singing so how could she now pretend the apartment was empty? One of the downsides to walking away was that sometimes someone would follow you and then you had to put up or shut up.
“Yeah, hold on,” and she got up and opened the door.
Alec, his black hair a little long in the front today, was leaning with one arm up against the doorway. To tell the truth, he looked tired and haggard and his expression only changed a bit on seeing Danielle.
“So, you do still exist,” and he gave a weak smile, trying to make light of everything, “nice pj’s.”
She blushed a bit and turned away from the door. “Would you please come in before the entire building comes out into the hall to see me wearing these?”
“Awww, heh, I think they’re cute. You look just like a little snow bunny, or a winter mouse.”
“They were on sale at Sears and they’re really soft,” she sighed, “you want anything to drink? I’ve got soda, beer, water?” He was doing it, what they all seemed to do, just reduce her to some cute, delicate little thing to be carried around and protected. It was one of the things that really pissed her off.
Alec shook his head. “Not really. To tell the truth, I wasn’t expecting to find even find you here. I was worried something happened to you but Stu would only say you were fine and that it wasn’t his place to speak for you.”
Danielle sat down on the couch, eyes trying to decide if they were going to concentrate on individual molecules on the coffee table or focus on the TV. “Well, he’s right. You know, showing up here like this is kinda a stalker thing to do.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, taking off his khaki windbreaker and hanging it on the doorknob. “Yeah, I know, but…”
“And please take that off there. There’s hangers in the closet.”
Now Alec frowned but did as she said. “Look, I don’t know what I did, but there’s no cause for you to be so damn cold to me,” he threw back as he headed towards the closet.
She reached forward and muted the TV, shot bouncing wildly as an officer and cameraman chased some teens through various alleys and backyards. Right then, Danielle felt like she’d give anything to be there in that chase and out of the sinking mire of her apartment. How did it always seem to come back to the same old confrontation?
“Alec, you’re being melodramatic, I’m not being cold.”
“Alright, let’s think about this, Danni. We’ve been going out for almost at year. We went to that show two weeks ago and had a great time, at least, I thought we did. I tell you I’ll call you on Monday, which I did but got your voice mail. On Wednesday, when I hadn’t heard from you, I called again and you answered but brushed me off and said you’d call me back. Wash, rinse, repeat and you’ve got the last two weeks!”
Danielle shrugged. “What do you want me to say? Things are just…I’m just, I don’t want to rush things.”
“Rush things? This coming from the girl who asked me out, who was the one who called in the beginning, the one who wanted to get intimate? You don’t want to rush things?” Alec shook his head incredulously, “just tell me what I did that pissed you off, or whatever, and I won’t do it anymore and we can get back to talking and going out like we used to.
“You didn’t do anything. I just, I just haven’t felt much like talking recently, ok?” she replied, thinking at least, not with you, and things will never be like they used to be because that’s the last thing I want.
“No, that’s not it. Do you really think I’m that dense? Damn it, Danni, I’m not just some meathead blundering around here! There’s something I can see in your eyes that you’re not telling me. I’ve been thinking about this all day and I decided that I’m done begging and groveling. Now I’m angry. Do what you want, but you at least owe me an explanation.”
Now he was standing right next to her, towering over her, his 6’5” dwarfing her by a foot even when she was standing. Threatened by his posture, she stood too, defiance in her bright blue eyes like an indigo fire.
“I don’t owe you shit! Since when I have had to explain my actions to you? You think you can just storm in here and tell me what to do?”
That did the trick and he backed down, looking wounded and angry. “Fine. I like you, Danni. I was thinking you liked me too but now I’m not so sure.”
“Guilting me isn’t going to work,” but some of the fight had gone out of her words. Danielle suddenly found herself fighting tears and she wasn’t very clear on where they were coming from.
Something instinctual went off inside Alec and he softened a bit. “Hey, it’s ok. It’s me, Alec, remember?” and he moved closer, protectively.
Clinging to her will, she took a step back. “No, Alec, it’s not ok. We’re just not clicking and I don’t want to drag this out into something that’s going to be miserable and messy for both of us. Can you understand?”
It was his turn to back up, tan, smooth shaven face curling into a scowling sneer. “I understand, yeah, I understand perfectly! ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ ‘Let’s just be friends.’ ‘I’ve got a problem but I won’t say anything about it until I can’t stand you anymore.’ ‘I’ll just drag you along for almost a year then end everything when I feel like.’ You want to know what, Danni? I heard about you from a guy at my gym, you dated him a while back, and just because you’re fucked up and beg for attention then push everyone away is no reason to go screwing with me!”
That was it. That hit the white-hot nerve. “Then I won’t, so get the fuck out!” and she screamed so loud that Speedo, who’d been hiding under the couch, made beeline for the bedroom.
His right arm tensed and fist clenched but Alec swallowed and held it. “You crazy bitch! Gary told me you were nuts but no, I defended you. Fine, I’m out of here, go cry to your faggot best friend, fag-hag!” and he slammed the door on the way out.
“Don’t you leave your fucking jacket here!” she cried and wrenching it from the closet, opened the door and threw it into the hall before slamming herself into the safety of her apartment.
A terrible crash answered from the hall, as she was sure he smashed the wall with both fists. “I hope you die alone!” Alec roared as he made for the stairs and though Danielle wanted to be enraged, she knew that by the time he reached the street there’d be tears on his face.
Sobbing, she crumpled into a ball on the couch. No, why was it going this way again? Alec was…ok, he just wasn’t what she wanted and nowhere near what she needed. Hurt and embarrassed, she finally stood up and turned off both lights in the front room, oddly comforted by the white/blue flicker of the TV. The Chinese food, which had been so good before, was still sitting out open and the smell made her feel ill. Soon the food was all in the fridge, sound had returned to the TV during a show on a murder in the woods, and Danielle was wrapped in a heavy fleece blanket on the couch.
Sensing that normality might be returning and conditions were safe, Speedo crept out of the bedroom and up into Danielle’s lap, kneading and purring while she still cried softly. She smiled at the kitten and petted him while he went about winning the Academy Award for Cutest Kitten in a Starring Role. Now things were settled again and she felt a bit safer. Alec wasn’t here and she probably wouldn’t have to deal with him ever again. It was dark and warm inside her cozy little apartment with the three locks on the door so no one could get in. This place was like a den, a safe den and she could hide there from anyone or anything that tried to hurt her.
Such cowardly thoughts shamed her, because Danielle was usually so confident, so sure of herself with such a strong will. It was like there was a secret hole in her armor that certain guys could find and use it to take her down into this weepy, decrepit state.
“No more, uh-uh,” she whispered, sniffing, “this is the last time.”
Obviously, she must be talking to him, so Speedo put his front paws on her chest and stood up on his hind legs to nuzzle her chin.
“Except for you, you and Stu. A gay guy and a kitten, the only men I need in my life.”
Eventually the rest of the six-pack was drank and she fell asleep on the couch while murders took place and the murderers were tracked, discovered and caught. Around 3am, an infomercial for household cleaner provided the only light in the apartment. Like rays breaking Heaven’s clouds, the light flickered over the sleeping form, beatific and innocent in slumber.
There is a design to the world that while beings sleep, they regain their original innocence regardless of themselves or their deeds. Sleep is the great pacifier, the Little Death, the great equalizer of humanity. No matter what you have said to your fellow man or the vitriol he spewed back at you, you both must sleep at the end of the day. Like a the cool, calming hand of a mother over the fevered brow of a child, sleep steals across and puts a temporary end to troubles and worries. In bed we are the safest, wrapped in blankets like an earthly womb, asleep where we can’t be harmed. However, as we all sleep, we must all wake.
The worst thing about waking up is that the world is usually the same as you left it when you went to sleep. Those first few moments of consciousness still hold the innocence of sleep, the feeling of a new day and a clean slate; then the memories of the night or day before flood back in. Yes, that really happened, yes, you really said that, yes, she really said that, no, this won’t be fixed easily. Maybe this why sleep is so like death, that unspoken prayer that one will awaken to a world where the troubles haven’t happened and they will be born again to live life anew. None are so lucky.
Just as a good night’s sleep can refresh it can also depress. Another day has gone by, another day closer to death and another day living through whatever problem vexes you. Most people don’t think this way, most people just fall asleep and wake up and start their day. Perhaps this is for the best, as to constantly be considering the meaning of sleep and what it does to a person would definitely not be healthy. Thus, Danielle simply woke the next morning a bit hungover and took a shower. Another day, another near-death.