I thought Kate would kiss me, but she smiled instead. "Why don't you come over tomorrow night?" she asked.
I went over tomorrow night, over to Long Island to her parent's spare house, large and white and many-windowed, hoping that this time she would kiss me, or that somehow we could escape to a room upstairs and chat (intimately, honestly), but instead she spent the evening jaunting from one boy to another, ignoring most of us girls, and getting so drunk that at one point I thought she would take off her shirt, but she just collapsed onto one of the couches and giggled as a boy stuck his head between her legs and mooed.
At work the next day she hardly paid any attention to me. She was wearing too much make-up, and she squinted whenever doors swung shut up and down the hall outside our cubicles. I spent most of the morning collating portfolios for one of the reps; when it came time for my half-hour lunch break I wandered down the hall to see Kate. She smiled when she saw me and said, "Fun time last night, yes?" and all I could do was shrug and smile back and move on, down to the end of the hall where the large window overlooks all of lower Manhattan. I pressed my hands against the window. For a moment I thought I was falling -- I thought the concrete and steel of the city would absorb me, swallow me, and through my mind passed a grotesque and funny image of all my molecules, my blood and bone and skin, exploding and scampering down the streets and sidewalks, filtering through the crowds and cars until, exhausted, the drops and shards of myself settled and rested and were trampled and then washed away by a dreadful rain.
A week later, at the office Christmas party, Kate drank two bottles of wine all by herself. (Her boyfriend of the past three weeks had told her she was an ugly cunt an hour before the party.) By eleven o'clock most people had stumbled home, or at least away, and the members of the band that had been playing '50s pop hits had put their instruments back into their bright white cases and hauled them into the freight elevator, and the head of the firm had passed out on top of the table he had been dancing on.
Balloons began to fall from the ceiling.
Kate slumped in a chair and finished another glass of wine and stared at me, though she didn't seem to see me. I waved at her. "Let me take you home," I said. She nodded. I walked over to her and helped her stand, and she wrapped her arms around me and soon was crying: tears poured down her cheeks as she choked with sobs and some ends of her black hair got caught in the side of her mouth.
I got a cab and we rode to her apartment, and she cried all the way. She tried to say something, but I couldn't understand her words.
At her apartment, I helped her out of her clothes. I found a light blue nightgown crumpled in a corner. While I shook the gown out and brought it to her, she sat naked on the bed and her tired dry sobs turned to light giggles. I tried to help her put the nightgown on, but she pushed me away. "Come here," she said, and pulled me to her. "Can you hear my heart?" she said. "Yes," I said. She bent her head down and kissed the top of my head. "I love you so much," she said.
I lifted my face from her chest and looked into her eyes. We kissed; slowly, carefully. "You're shaking," she said, and I realized that I was, and that I felt cold. She pulled a crimson blanket around us. "This is where we live," she said, pulling the blanket up over our heads. "We can stay here forever."
I woke before her in the morning. Sunlight shot through the window and tore my eyes open. She lay beside me, naked and sprawled across the bed. I was still wearing my dress from the night before; it was wrinkled and twisted around my legs.
I walked out of the bedroom and found, waiting in the livingroom, the boyfriend of the past three weeks who had called Kate an ugly cunt. She had given him a key.
"Good morning," he said.
"Why are you here?" I tried to be as accusatory and cold as possible, but that's hard when you've slept in the one dress you own that requires dry cleaning.
"I need to talk to Kate," he said.
"She doesn't want to talk to you."
"How do you know?"
"You should go. She'll call you."
I thought about saying I would call the police, or I would scream like a raped banshee until he went away, but I just said, "Do you want some coffee?"
"Got some already," he said, indicating a white mug on the floor beside his foot. "I made a pot when I came in. Help yourself."
I walked over to the kitchen, which was really just a corner of the livingroom, and poured a cup of coffee from the pot into a blue mug that looked like it had been made at a summer camp's arts and crafts class by someone without much eye-hand coordination. I leaned against the counter and sipped my coffee.
"So Kate's pretty mad at me," he said. I was trying to remember his name, and wasn't much interested in conversation. I grunted in reply.
He said, "I know what she thinks I said. And I guess I did say it. But that shouldn't mean anything."
I wanted to attack his testicles with a cleaver. Instead, I sipped my coffee.
"I didn't mean it," he said quietly. "I think I love her." And then he started to cry.
He cried for a moment, wiped his nose on the sleeve of his blue Reebok coat, tossed Kate's key onto the coffee table in front of him, and walked out of the apartment.
I finished my coffee and put the mug in the sink. I looked up and saw Kate standing in the doorway of her bedroom.
"Thank you," she said. "I'll be okay now."
"Please. I'm fine."
My own little apartment back in Brooklyn seemed drab and cramped after spending the night at Kate's, though I think we have a comparable amount of space. None of my furniture matches, and the only pictures on the walls are a few bad collages I made one Sunday when I was bored and alone and felt guilty for having bought a Times that I didn't really want to read. Kate's walls had real pictures in frames, but I've never remembered what any of the pictures were.
I spent Christmas alone. My mother lives in Arizona, but there are no other relatives still alive or worth visiting, and neither my mother or I had enough spare cash to get a plane ticket. I suppose if I had saved my money more carefully I could have scraped up enough for a ticket, but Christmas has never seemed like a big deal to me, though I hope my mother's not lonely. One Christmas morning a year or two before I was born, my grandmother filled a bathtub full of water, took her clothes off, sat down in the tub, and slit her wrists with a new kitchen knife my uncle had given her for Christmas. It was a stainless steel knife from Japan that was supposed to be able to cut through anything.
The day after Christmas, Kate called me to tell me she had gotten back together with the boyfriend who had called her an ugly cunt. "We're going to have a big New Year's party on Long Island. Why don't you come?" she said. I said I would, and she said, "Thank you," and we hung up.
I still dream about falling out of the building where we work. Our office is on the thirty-eighth floor. More and more these days I spend my lunch break with my hands pressed against that big window. On most days at that time, the sun is in just the right spot so that my reflection in the window is vivid and real, and I can lean forward and forward until I am about to fall through myself, and I can close my eyes, and I can give myself a little kiss before I fall. In my dreams at night the kiss is not there, only the falling, but when I am pressed against the window during the day, the city lying out before me, there is always a kiss at the moment I fall.
About the author:
Matthew Cheney lives in New Hampshire, where he teaches at The New Hampton School. Previous fictional online appearances have been with Failbetter and Ideomancer.