This chapter Rated R.
Rachel stood alone in the center of the empty room. It was a pretty room, she considered. Hardwood floors, big windows, walk-in closet...not too shabby at all for the $700 a month she'd been paying for so long to live in the Village.
Ah, the Village. She walked towards the big window where the shade was drawn and lifted it, admitting a cascade of the afternoon's dying rays into the room, like they'd been waiting all day at the sill, begging to be let in. She glared down at the sidewalk several stories below. The setting sun cast heavy shadows across all the passers-by's faces, and a light wind ruffled the trees. She was really going to miss this place.
That wasn't all she was going to miss.
If she were being honest with herself, she hadn't really gone to the window to people-watch one last time. She'd gone in search of something-of someone. She'd crossed the room with high hopes of some quintessential, storybook, Neverland ending that, all along, she'd known wouldn't come. Since when was anything about her life storybook?
Not true. Everything about her life had been storybook for the past 6 months. It had all been so flawlessly fairytale, in fact, that it easily made up for all the 23 predeceasing years, in all their lacking. This was just going to be one fairytale without an ending.
Maybe it was better this way, she thought, an absentminded tear rolling down her cheek, the presence of which she was not aware. Maybe Dylan Thomas was wrong, and it WAS better to go gentle into the night-to die quietly with dignity, rather than explode for one last time into a heart-wrenching ball of raging fire. Maybe all those painstaking last goodbyes are better left unsaid. At least that way you'd remember the person for their moments of solidity, and not for that final, awkward fumbling of meaningless gestures.
But human beings are masochistic by nature. Their craving for melodrama and heartbreak and pain is so innately ingrained-so finely instinctive- that they cannot possibly will themselves to do the healthy, rational thing when it comes to any matter of the heart. They can't even sincerely WANT the healthy, rational thing. They want the romance. They want the passion. They want the fire-even if it will most certainly burn them. They cannot help it. It's reflexive. It's...human.
So, for that very reason, she did not cast the blinds one last time, turn from the window and flee the room. Instead, Rachel collapsed against the wall and slid all the way down to the floor, leaning her back against the cool plaster and holding her face in her hands.
The healthy, rational thing just took too much strength-something she had no more of. He'd taken the last of it with him.
He sat alone at the end of the bar, his head hung low and his eyes averted. The place was seedy, with dense smoke polluting and the bitter stench of alcohol polluting the air, even at 6 p.m. Big guys with tattoos and facial hair belched and cursed around a pool tables near the back, which widowers and 30-year-old virgins congregated at the bar, each in his own isolated, self-deprecating lull. The man who fit none of those categories-the one at the end of the bar-gripped his scotch in one hand and starred down at the cigarette burns on the waxy counter.
Ross hated the way cigarettes smelled, and, really, the way alcohol tasted, but he secretly loved the way both burned his lungs and numbed him. He'd been there since 5, and was sufficiently buzzed, but had no intentions of stopping the masochistic intake of poisons into his bloodstream until 9 p.m.
At which point, he planned on stumbling out to the street corner, tossing a debasing few dollars in the way of one of the hard girls who worked this side of town, and taking her back to his place, where he could fulfill the only cardinal sin he hadn't already taken care of today.
He knew he wouldn't do it, though. He'd only end up picturing her, like he did every morning when he got off in the shower, and while that act was sickeningly degrading enough, he just couldn't bring himself to associate her in any way with a hooker, even if it was only to dull the pain. Nothing was worth tarnishing this ideal he'd built up in his mind of her. It was all he had left. Even being the unassuming, shy, gentle man he was, he knew he could slit a man's throat for disrespecting her. Even if the man was him.
He stared up at the clock behind the bar. 6:32 p.m. Two and a half hours to go.
He laid his head against the bar.
"So I guess this is really it, huh?" Erica asked, a hint of unsteadiness in her voice. She rubbed her roommate's shoulders. "I'm really going to miss you, babe."
"Oh, I'm really going to miss you, too," Rachel admitted, wrapping her arms around her friend. "I don't know what I would have done without you these past few months."
"Months?" Erica teased, provoking a smile from Rachel, which looked out of place against the backdrop of tears running down her red cheeks.
"So you're really going to do this, huh?" Erica asked abruptly. Rachel only wished she was a better actress, so she could at least pretend to not know what Erica was referring to.
"What do you mean?" she asked weakly. Erica rolled her eyes.
"Don't start. You know what."
"Look, Erica, I've got to start making more adult decisions. Everything I've done up until now in my life has been because I wanted it. I need to do this because I need it."
"And I respect that," Erica confessed, wiping a tear from her friend's cheek. "It just seem to me like 'this' is all you need."
"I don't need him," Rachel lied, saying 'him' and finally ending this game of illusive double-speak they'd been playing.
"Whatever you say, babe," Erica whispered, shaking her head and hugging Rachel again. This time, Rachel gripped Erica more tightly and buried her face in her shoulder. Her whole body shook with her sobs.
The suitcases in her hands dropped to the floor.
"I'm cutting you off," the husky man cleaning shot glasses behind the counter grunted. Ross merely nodded, not having the strength to argue with the man. The truth was, it was only 7 p.m. and he honestly wasn't that drunk, yet, but a few more shots weren't worth a potential bar fight with a man twice his size.
He threw a few bills down on the counter and nodded at the bartender before pushing off his stool and standing to put on his jacket. He didn't stumble. Good sign.
He pushed the door open into the dark, dingy ally, smoke rising around him from the gutters. The cool air stung his face at first, but then felt nice, his slight five o'clock shadow shielding his skin a bit. With his hands stuffed into his pockets, he climbed the stained, concrete stairs up to the street, blending in with the heavy traffic of a New York sidewalk in early evening. He briefly considered finding another, equally sleazy bar, but the novelty of the idea lost its appeal after he realized he didn't want to be drunk tonight. He wanted to remember every moment of this evening-every painstaking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, vile moment. He wanted to remember the taste of the bile in the back of his throat. He wanted to remember the way the looming tears never stopped stinging his eyes.
He wanted to remember everything about the night she left. Always.
Finding a bench amidst the crowds of people, he sat down alone, facing the storefronts of SoHo. He watched the women with their children rushing in and out of high-class stores, buying things they didn't really need with money they didn't really have, their faces beaming with pride to even enter some of the classier stores. Ross knew they were probably hoping people were watching them. At least he was.
He watched the fathers carrying sons on their shoulders, laughing and joking like old buddies; 11-year-old boys pretending to sucker-punch their little brothers; babies asleep in strollers; teenagers out on dates, content to stroll hand-in-hand for hours, letting their hearts pound and their palms sweat without ever really going anywhere or doing anything.
Through the hundreds of passers-by, his eyes eventually settled on one couple in particular. They were standing in an alcove under an overhang a few stores down. They were leaning against the glass pane of a store that was currently "Closed for Renovations", the girl standing with her back to his chest, and the boy's arms wound around her waist. They looked no more than 20, stylish and confident-NYU students, no doubt. The girl's hair was long and golden-flowing-while the boy was a bit taller with dark features.
They were staring right back at him.
Ross felt awkward at first, looking around him to make sure it wasn't someone behind or beside him they were making eye contact with him. Once he realized it wasn't-that it was him they were looking at-into-a calmness washed over him and he smiled back. Then they smiled. It was quite bizarre, Ross thought, but...nice. They'd been people-watching, too, he realized, the same as him. They hadn't been so busy like all the rest-looking desperately for overpriced food or knick-knacks to fill their apartments with. They'd merely been there...together.
And they'd sought him out, as if to tell him something.
Erica glanced up at the clock on the kitchen wall. 7:27 p.m.
She filled the glass with water and returned to the living room, placing it on the coffee table before her stoic friend. She knew that, realistically, Rachel should have left for the airport about half-an-hour ago. When she'd let her go after sobbing into her arms, though, she'd simply sat down on the couch, composing herself.
She hadn't moved or spoken in almost an hour.
"Rachel?" Erica beseeched quietly, not wanting to break the silence for fear that it might subsequently break something in her. Rachel looked up at her cautiously through tear-stained eyes. "Honey, it's almost 7:30. If you want to make your flight, you really need to be going."
There. She'd totally left the ball in her court. She'd strategically added "if you want to" to give her total control over the situation. She didn't have to if she didn't want to. And they both knew what Rachel wanted.
Much to Erica's surprise, though, her roommate nodded and stood.
"Yeah, you're right," she whispered, her voice raspy from crying.
Erica helped her gather her things from the floor. She wouldn't push the issue anymore. This was it. She knew her friend, and if she was going to do this, she was going to do it. There would be no more second-guessing or second chances.
The girls hugged again, but said nothing this time, knowing everything had already been said and words were no longer adequate between them. They'd lived together for 3 years. They knew what was implied.
As Rachel crossed the apartment to the door, Erica close behind her, she paused and turned back right before reaching the door.
"Hey, Erica, will you tell-" she almost managed, and both girls knew what she'd meant to say. But she never finished, and both girls also knew why. Turning back towards the door like a death row inmate before her executioner, Rachel winced and bit her lip, knowing it would only take a few more steps before she'd be past the point of no return. On the one hand, these last few steps across the linoleum were silly. On the other...they were the hardest thing she'd ever had to do.
She gripped the metal doorknob in her hand, flashbacks plaguing her mind from over a week ago when she'd gripped another doorknob and uttered those pivotal words.
Then I have to say goodbye.
And now she did.
She took one last deep breath and turned the handle. Something stopped her from exhaling, freezing her dead in her tracks.
There are a handful of moments in everybody's life that, in hindsight, somehow managed to interrupt time, halting it in a suspended dream. First kisses, last dances, wedding vows, funeral requiems...
That fateful knock on a door you'd thought had been shut forever.
To say she was surprised to see him was not entirely accurate. More like a deep relief for something expected but unsure. Like a reaffirmation. Like a validation. Like a coming home.
It was not like a scene from a movie. He did not immediately take her face in his hands, throw her against the wall and kiss her with every fiber of his being. He did not have some pre-rehearsed love sonnet to recite, expressing everything he was feeling, linearly and poetically, down to a T. He didn't even have flowers.
All he had was his gaze locked powerfully on her, and hers back on him, in a visual game on chess.
Without word or commotion, Erica retreated quietly back to her room, giving the two their privacy.
"What-what are you-"
"I don't know," he splurged, cutting her off.
She nodded. It was now 7:45, but neither of them knew it. Neither cared. She was gripping the side of the door in her fingers, holding it only half-open, still feeling guarded and unsure about his presence here-about what it meant.
"I don't know if it's such a good idea for you to come in," she admitted.
"I didn't ask," he retaliated.
More silence. More staring. She could say he shouldn't come in all she wanted, but the fact was it had been almost 2 minutes now, and she hadn't dared close the door on him. Then, it happened.
He stepped closer to her. For a split second, she thought he was going to kiss her, and though she didn't know how she felt about that, her body obviously did, as she didn't move away. When he brought his lips to her ear, though, and not to her mouth, she was confused. She closed her eyes, feeling the heat of his proximity radiating between them. His chest was pressed up right against her breasts, his hands just barely grazing the sides of her legs, his head cocked down so she could feel his warm breath in her ear.
One word to change both their lives forever.
Everything after that was a bit of a blur until morning. Ross still had the slight buzz going, and Rachel's own high was setting in from the scent of his cologne.
As soon as he'd uttered the word-maybe even simultaneously- she'd wrapped her arms around his neck and had begun assault to his lips with hers. His reaction was immediately, too, his hands going to her waist like a reflex and their bodies coordinating to stumble back into the apartment.
His hands had roamed beneath her ass to pick her up and carry her up the stairs to her empty bedroom, neither coherent enough to be concerned with Erica being home to hear them. Certainly neither of them concerned with the plane that was taking off as they undressed one another.
Her delicate fingers had worked diligently at his zipper and the buttons of his shirt as she'd kneeled before him on the floor, the pace a perfect combination of neediness and a slow, willing relinquishment of one to the other.
He'd kneeled over her naked, stretched out body on the bed for a while, licking, biting and kissing the slopes and crevices of her toned, silky skin-enjoying the drawn-out taste and smell and sight of her for a while, and knowing it was for eternity.
They'd made love lazily and easily, for what seemed like hours, moving at some point from the center of the room to the window, stirring in and out of one another, sometimes in slow, idle circles and at other times with almost violent thrusts that caused both to emit sounds of pleasure they'd never thought possible before.
Both remembered vaguely some point during the middle when he'd pulled out of her long enough to stand and hold her in his arms, reentering with her legs wrapped tightly around his waist and his hands supporting her beneath her ass. It had begun to rain through the darkness of midnight, and he'd pressed her back against the cool window pane, watching the droplets slide down the glass as he moved divinely in and out of her. He'd licked her shoulder, then her neck, and finally kissed her mouth, moving his tongue in circles around hers with a heavenly laziness. Then, he'd uttered the only words either of them would say for the rest of the night.
"I love you," he whispered.
"Always," she'd confirmed.
And that had been enough.
They fell asleep that night spooned together beneath a thin blanket on the floor of her vacant bedroom. With her back to his chest and his arms wrapped protectively around her middle, they faced the window and gazed silently out over the blackened city until they both fell asleep.