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Three Hundred and Eighty-Three Seconds

By: Eoin Connolly

Page 1, This is a short story I wrote. It is the longest thing I have ever written that hasn\'t felt like it starts to ramble. It is about a girl named Eliza who lives in New York City, but that is only partly the point. It isn\'t really the point.

CLOUDS: I wish the wind would blow a bit quicker so that I could get home sooner. 

TREETOPS, CHARACTERISTICALLY INDIFFERENT: Yeah, well, life’s tough, buddy. Be happy with what you have. At least you are going home. We have to stay here in this same park regardless of what the wind does.

CLOUDS: I don’t think that I am bothered by knowing that when I get home, I will fall apart. In a way, I think that I am looking forward to it. 

TREETOPS, CHARACTERISTICALLY INDIFFERENT: Cry me a river, sunshine, Christ! You should buy a journal so us treetops don’t have to listen to this bathetic bullshit. We have got enough on our minds.

CLOUDS: I wish the wind would hurry up.

 

***

 

She thinks that she loves the idea of him. He comes to her in odd, mundane moments, like when she’s at work getting a stale cup of water or like when she’s crossing off Tuesday on her calendar.

   It is not that she finds him especially attractive. She thinks that she finds him averagely attractive. She has decided that he is good-looking by default because she can tell that he’s not bad-looking. Rather than giving her butterflies, the thought of him brings to her a very homely comfort. So that when she’s crossing Tuesday off of her calendar she does not feel irritable and cold in anticipation of the coming Wednesday; instead, she feels warm and safe, although not turned-on. It is a peculiar kind of love, because she is certain that she would not be content for the two of them to just be friends. She is not certain that he would not be content with that scenario, though, and the thought bothers her.

   She has shoulder length brown hair and is on her way downtown. She is sweaty and tired after a long day of work and she is called Eliza. She is walking through the stifled, electric New York air because she did not feel that she could call for her own cab after declining an offer to share one with a co-worker. She did not think that it would be proper, even though the two have slept together twice now. He thinks he loves her. He has told her so on three separate occasions. She thinks he maybe loves being drunk.

   Her apartment is in the Village and her work is in Harlem. It is a long, ridiculous walk to take on such a hot afternoon. She consoles herself with the thought that it is at least not humid. 

   She hates the heat when the atmosphere is moist, but does not mind it so badly when it feels dry. She has made this known to her co-workers in Harlem more times than she can count. She mainly says it as a filler, a helping of pastrami between two lonely slices of silence. She has decided that, as fillers go, it could be a lot worse, although she will admit that there is room for improvement.

   She thinks back, heels clicking on the fragmented pavement, to the time when she went with her family on holiday to Virginia Beach. It was humid and unbearable, although the trip is most notable for the fact that it was there that she lost her virginity. The joke was lost on her at the time. Upon thinking about it now, she realizes that she has never laughed at it since. What was laughable was the incident itself. Sweaty, illegal and clueless, she remembers how seductive and beautiful she felt for all of two minutes. She remembers how unforgiving the solitary light was in how it shone on the white bed and on her white skin; she remembers too how pointless and plain she felt immediately after he had pulled out, and for the rest of the vacation. She remembers trying to exorcise some of that anguish by doing something adult: she propped herself up on one elbow and set her gaze to smoldering, yet tender. She decided that she would trace the index finger of her right hand along a body part she thought was not usually sexy but had decided that she would make sexy. She chose his eyebrow. She traced the index finger of her right hand up and down his left eyebrow. The effect was somewhat diminished by her lack of confidence stemming from the noticeable bulge her stomach made against the starched linen bedsheet. She traced his eyebrow with her index finger for four more circuits until he asked her to stop. He did not say please but he did say thank you. She remembers telling the little shithead, jokingly, that she was probably the first and last Jewish girl ever to make love on Virginia beach. She remembers how revulsed he appeared after she told him that, and she remembers making note of the fact that he probably did not understand the joke as he didn’t talk to her once more for the rest of two whole weeks she was there. She remembers a lot about that holiday. She thinks: actually, it is not so much. 

 

***

 

It is indeed a ridiculous walk to take under the circumstances. She wonders would her mother berate her if she knew that her daughter was taking such a walk instead of calling a taxi, or even hopping onto a bus.

 

***

 

PAVEMENT, INDIGNANT: Ouch! Get off of me, or at least buy some wider shoes so as to spread out your weight more evenly.

ELIZA’S SHOES, SCATHING: Maybe you should have considered that some people like to look good before you decided to become a concrete slab with which sidewalks would be built.

PAVEMENT, INDIGNANT AND NOW ALSO A BIT HURT: Women don’t need to wear sharp stiletto heels to look good. They look good wearing normal shoes if they look good at all. Besides, I didn’t make this decision. It was made for me. I don’t even know who made it.

 

***

 

Most of all, she thinks, she wants to impress him. She is worried that wherever he is right now, he is being impressed by somebody slimmer and prettier than her. She thinks that this is a pretty logical worry because in her eyes most people are slimmer and prettier than her. 

   She is nearly halfway home. On her left-hand side she can see a Chinese grocery store. It is named - somewhat offensively, she feels - SHO PIN  F O  QI NG PROVIN E. She tries to decide if this is racist or not. Her brow furrows and her eyes glaze over just a little bit, like the negligible sliver of icing that sometimes comes off of Krispy Kreme donuts and sticks to the inside of the box. She comes to the conclusion that it is only racist if the people running it are white. She looks back to the sign over the door, golden letters on an emerald background. With a start, she realizes that some letters have fallen off. It is not as she thought it was. It is instead: SHOPPING FROM QIANG PROVINCE. She feels both foolish and wise at the same time. Foolish because she did not realize that some of the letters had fallen off. Wise because it has just hit her - how many things pass people by because we don’t look twice? She is happy with this, and resolves to mention it to Mandy at the water cooler tomorrow. Mandy is, she feels, an educated yet free-thinking metropolitan girl who is certain to be able to appreciate such insights. She is not convinced that anybody else in her office is as well qualified as Mandy for having epiphanies related to them. On reflection, she is not sure how wise it is after all. 

 

***

 

   She used to try to impress him every day, when they were living together. She made a big deal not only out of impressing him but out of wanting to impress him, to the point where every thing she did needed some angle which might impress him. It became exhausting, too quickly. He grew tired of it and she grew tired. Collectively, they grew tired. She doesn’t talk or vent or moan about it because she thinks that nobody wants to hear about it. Privately, it makes her sad.

 

***

 

WATER COOLER, ACERBIC: Why is that Eliza bitch always trying to impress Mandy? Eliza bitch. Elizabitch. She should know that Mandy is much too beautiful and cultured to ever be impressed by somebody as dumpy and plain as Eliza. Silly Jew.

PRINTER, SHOUTING FROM THE OTHER ROOM: Hey! Don’t you bad mouth Eliza. She has a great personality and a wacky yet refreshingly dark sense of humor. 

WATER COOLER, ACERBIC: What’s that? Did somebody say something?

PRINTER, SHOUTING FROM THE OTHER ROOM: I don’t even know who you were talking to at any rate. I suppose it is possible that I only see the side of Eliza she chooses to display when she is printing something. Maybe you and your type over there in the main office can get a fuller and more rounded estimation of her character. I suppose that I have to concede that much at least.

WATER COOLER, ACERBIC: Who is talking? Speak up! I can not make out what you are saying.

 

***

 

   Ahmed. 

   She used to love the energy inherent in him. It was in the way he spoke, the way he moved around, the way he sat still. She still does love the energy in him.

 

***

 

They went snorkelling, once, the two of them. Off the coast of Florida, where the water was clear. She can recall clearly the drive out, through the shacks and the sand, bumping along the road in time to the waves they could nearly see. She has a vivid, physical recollection of the strange comfort provided by his proximity settling somewhere inside her sternum. What’s funny is that it feels like she can smell that comfort, can taste it - it’s like the senses in her memory got mixed up so that they were not sure which was the original. She thinks: it isn’t that funny, actually.

   What was most clear, though, was the light: it hit her, hard, as soon as they crested the last dune and it made her feel like she was immortal; of bronze and muscular. She thinks it was the most masculine she had ever felt. It was as if up until then she had been on the dark side of a closed door, and was peeping through the lock when somebody on the other side flicked on the light, and it came screaming towards her through a pinhole like a steam train, lifting her bodily off of the ground and slamming her mind upwards, higher and higher until she could not see the ground anymore. She once mentioned to her mother that it was as close as she had ever come to a religious experience, and then regretted it. Thinking back, she can’t remember what made her decide to bring God into things. Maybe she was trying to be poetic. 

   They made it to the sand well before ten.

 

***

   She thinks about the way he bent himself over, almost in two, to sink his head into the sapphire water. A dark, rich blue; and when he unwound himself and sprung back up she thought he looked like some kind of totem pole from a foreign country, stood there with his hair dyed black by the wet and slicked back against his forehead.

***

 

   It was an uncomplicated day.

 

***

 

   She can remember: being unsure about how to pick out the equipment from the shack on the beach, just before the sand became dark and sodden. She was never instructed or educated as to how to go about sizing up a snorkel or pair of fins and was wary of making a fool out of herself in front of the seasoned surfers and wakeboarders. 

   She looked over at Ahmed, who was busy weighing up assorted items of snorkelling equipment and who was paying no heed to the purple-haired attendant hanging off of his arm. She felt a sharp pang of jealousy. She knew it was ridiculous but it still hit her like a bolt from a crossbow, just below the ribcage. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she would be the one fucking Ahmed later, not the hippie they had working in here. They would have a drink with dinner; and then, lacking something to talk about, they would have another and then another until they existed, each of them, behind a gentle veil of irrelevance. It would make the sex more enjoyable than when they were sober, which was no fun at all as she was always too self-conscious and he too awkward - although she thought that he looked great naked, better than when he was clothed, and thus had no reason to be awkward. Sex with Ahmed felt like having sex with your brother, in a good way. It made her feel comfortable rather than ecstatic or excited.

   She looked over at Ahmed.

   In a way, she supposed, he could hide behind his wide-set eyes and uneven stubble. People only expect good things of good-looking people. That is why true love is reserved for good-looking people, and why everybody else can settle for not-bad love. Thrice-in-a-lifetime love.

 

***

 

AHMED’S EYES, BROWN AND CRITICAL: I don’t think that I particularly like the look of you, fins. In fact, I am sure that I do not like the look of you. The snorkel is not so bad but you look like a shady character to me.

WOODEN FLOOR, MAGISTERIAL: I can vouch for both the snorkel and the pair of fins.

AHMED’S EYES, BROWN AND CRITICAL: And who are you to vouch for what looks to me like a couple of ill-repute?

WOODEN FLOOR, MAGISTERIAL: I am a judge who has spent many years and many units of currency learning my trade in a law school. I have presided over many more than ten cases and so consider myself to be a good and impartial judge. 

AHMED’S EYES, BROWN AND CRITICAL: I would like to see some identification, because although I don’t doubt your claim, I do not fully believe you, either. I think that the notion that you are in cahoots with either the snorkel, the fins or any combination thereof is not entirely ludicrous given that we are only new to this store and given that you have been here for many years, going by the ease that you have with each other and with the proprietor. I would like to see some identification, please, if it is not too much bother, before I accept your word as gospel.

 

***

 

   The light is burned into her retina; maybe permanently, maybe not. She hopes that it is permanently burned into her retina. She thinks: maybe this is what people feel with regards to tattoos. Maybe they want something permanent so they don’t have to think about anything else permanent, like death or dying. She thinks: maybe I just like the light. She thinks: like and not liked because I can still feel it, making me like a Greek statute or like a Roman statute or like whatever statues were built out of bronze, meticulous and immense.

 

***

 

It is precisely five minutes before six o’clock when Eliza walks out of a dimly lit beach house bedroom and straight into the barrel of a gun. This is not a figure of speech. She walks forward, unwitting, until the gun pokes her just below her left breast and snaps her out of her reverie. It is wielded, unfortunately, by what looks to be a fifteen-year old boy wearing a red and white striped bandana over his mouth and a black hood over his head. This is unfortunate because she thinks that this is exactly the demographic that might be jumpy or stoned enough to actually shoot her with his gun.

   The boy is short. She has at least two inches on him, maybe three; he is indeed short. What is interesting is that he is not moving, not one bit. His hand does not even quiver as the murderer’s hand so often does. She thinks: if I am of bronze then he is surely of marble. She thinks: fuck. She can not even tell if he is blinking. She thinks that it is possible that he is blinking because she could just be blinking at the same time. He is wearing dark jeans and has dark skin. This last fact disappoints her. She thinks that the last thing the blacks need is another teenaged gunman.

 

***

 

Her head feels cold, like it has been dipped into a rectangular sink that has been filled with freezing water. It is like being drunk, only less pleasant. She is suddenly aware of the excruciating pain she puts herself through everyday by wearing four inch heels. She thinks that if she is given a chance, she will never do that again. She wonders if this promise is something she can use to negotiate with God.

   “Hi,” she says, without meaning to and without looking at his eyes. It comes out clear and unwavering but she still feels like she has wasted her advantage on a syllable that did not even need to be said. 

   The boy does not say a word. She is not even sure that he heard her. He makes no sign that he has heard her.

   She looks around by turning her neck on its axis without moving her shoulders. This gives her a field of vision of approximately 150 degrees because she forgot to warm up before doing her yoga last night. If she had remembered to warm up she would not have had a stiff neck this morning and so might have been able to see as much as 180 degrees around her. She feels that she will be irritated if it is this trifling mistake that comes to be her downfall. 

   There is nobody around. They are within seeing distance of her apartment but it is a bad time to look for help from the residents of the Village, most of whom are sleeping in anticipation of tonight’s rave. The black boy and Eliza are standing on the sidewalk. It is quite possible that nobody will come down this way for at least ten minutes. She knows this from experience.

   She rights her neck and looks once again at the statue standing in front of her. He wears faded sneakers and he has black woolen gloves on his hands. He doesn’t seem to be sweating; in fact he is not sweating. She looks into his eyes for the first time and is amazed to see that they are as blue, if not bluer, than the water in which she saw Ahmed’s penis for the first time, when his swim trunks fell off in Florida. She didn’t think that black people could have blue eyes. She wonders about whether or not this was racist of her.

   She thinks again of Ahmed, and where he might be. She hopes that he is safe. She feels that it is only fair for him to be safe when you consider how much he has made her feel safe over the years. She wonders if she will ever see him again. She does not yearn to see him again, but she does wonder. 

   

***

 

BLACK BOY’S BANDANA: I am not scared. It may be true that I am nervous but being nervous is quite another thing from being scared.

BLACK BOY’S BANDANA: I am not even scared.

 

***

 

Elsewhere in the city, life is passing people by. 

 

***

 

TREETOPS, CHARACTERISTICALLY INDIFFERENT: You know, mac, it’s a hard life being stuck on this sidewalk in this shitty party of town. Maybe that is why we don’t give a damn about anyone or anything, even when we are supposed to help them, like little boys with their kites. Perhaps that is why we just stand here and allow their kite string to get tangled up in our fucking branches like a piece of chewing gum in a little girl’s hair. Maybe that is the reason after all.

 

***

 

The police sirens were red and red. It was as if the gunman’s eyes had sucked all the blue out of the surrounding world - even the sky was a monotonous, cast-iron gray. She thinks that there was no great need to stuff him in the back so unceremoniously. He was going quite complacently himself. They took his bandana off of his mouth, as well, and threw it into the dirt by the sidewalk. The police officers weren’t white and they weren’t black. They were latino, both of them, maybe Puerto Rican. She thinks: it isn’t important where they come from because I have seen how they act. She wonders about what their mothers would think if they could see the way their sons had treated such a young boy. The gun was not even loaded, as it turned out. 

  They had stood, opposed, for three hundred and eighty-three seconds before somebody called the police. Eliza didn’t know who called the police, or even if somebody did call the police. For all she knew the police could have happened by the scene completely by accident, a one-in-a-million fortuity. Maybe not that much. Maybe one-in-a-thousand.

  He was not crying at the time and his eyes were not red or even raw. He was not shaking uncontrollably, or controllably for that matter. He was not speaking in tongues or fiddling with cylindrical steel detonator, and he did not - on the surface - appear to be gay. She could think of no reason the media or anybody else could give her for him to behave the way he did. She wonders was he maybe sleepwalking, or was he maybe in love. She can think of no other logical explanation.

 

***

 

She is wrapped in a luminous, foil police blanket that looks like it should be catching the air attached to a mast somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, or maybe the Atlantic. It is ten minutes past six o’clock and a police car is still parked at a hazardous angle to the sidewalk on which she is sitting. The blue-eyed boy has been taken away, though - it is another police car that has pulled up in the meantime. She wants to laugh when she considers that they have dispatched four whole policemen who could be saving a life or at least a kitten in some other part of New York for a case where nothing even happened. She thinks: actually, it isn’t funny, any of it, and I don’t want to laugh at all. 

   She has been told that she is in shock. This, to her, seems like something that she should be able to judge for herself - but then, she has no experience in such matters. She does know that her head is slowly warming up, that the frozen vice which had been tightening and tightening right up until the boy was taken away is slowly being unwound. She knows that there is no reason to talk about this to anybody at the office, and that tomorrow she will probably have to resort to her hatred of humidity as a conversation starter, filler and finisher. She thinks that maybe Mandy wouldn’t have anything to say to this story anyway. The thought warms her further.

   More than anything, she wants Ahmed to be nearby. She wants to feel the almost filial companionship the two share and she wants her nostrils to taste again his peculiar mix of roll-on deodorant and irrepressible body odor. She would like Ahmed to be the one sitting beside her on the kerb with his knees nearly touching his chin, handing her a cup of hot chocolate and telling her that everything was going to be alright. She feels that Ahmed is in his own way her personal medicine, and that she has a bottomless prescription. She realizes that she only feels good that she is around him, and the thought troubles her until she takes a moment to think about it. She wonders is she addicted to him. She thinks: there are worse things to be addicted to. I could be addicted to sex or chocolate or heroin but instead I am addicted to a moderately chubby Arab named Ahmed. 

   She thinks of the time, during those ivory days in Florida, when Ahmed tried to teach her to play chess. It had been passed down through his family, he said, the chess playing gene, and that he was now going to pass it on to her. She remembers being frustrated when she drew Black. She did not see the fairness in allowing one side to go first. Ahmed spoke to her in Arabic for the first and last time, then. He said: يد واحدة ماتسقفش. He translated it as: one hand doesn’t clap, and then explained: it means that anything worth accomplishing requires co-operation from all sides. The way he spoke it, it sounded like rocks tumbling down a barren and dehydrated waterfall heard from a long way away - gently, which each each syllable hot on the heels of its predecessor. She thought that it did not sound anything like how Arabic was portrayed in movies and on TV. As far as she can remember, it is the only time she has been explicitly turned on by him. He went on to say that the proverb could apply as readily to life as it could chess. He said that anything of beauty exists only because somebody has had somebody else to think about. She thought that that was bullshit, the whole thing. They had a fight about it, later, and Ahmed ended up sleeping on the couch. He flew home to Tunisia to visit his mother the day after that day’s tomorrow. She does not know whether or not he has left since.

 

***

 

   When she thinks about it now, chilly and alone, she still thinks that it is bullshit. She thinks: but there is more to some things than their meaning alone. She thinks that it sounds nice, in Arabic, and she thinks too that that is reason enough for saying it, and for continuing to say it.

 

***

 

She thinks: it is reason enough.

© Copyright 2014Eoin Connolly All rights reserved. Eoin Connolly has granted theNextBigWriter, LLC non-exclusive rights to display this work on Booksie.com.

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