― 01 ―
WHEN IT HITS ME, it hits me hard. By the obscured light of a crescent moon slipping in through the open window and the golden glow of my bedside lamp, I am brought to tears for the third time today. When I close my eyes, I see the words on the backs of my lids, still warm and freshly absorbed.
"I need not sell my soul to buy bliss." I whisper from memory, clutching the open paperback to my chest. "I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive..."
On the silver screen of my imagination, I conjure up a picture of Victorian era elegance, complete with laurel leaf crowns and beige lace corset-strings. When I open my eyes to a blank white wall and the Boston breeze catching the curtains, it's almost like a scene straight out of Bronte's masterpiece.
That is, until the thumping bass from the apartment upstairs pounds its way into my reverie. Sighing, I fold the page corner, place the book on the nightstand, and hold my breath. My betta fish, officially christened Jojan Hjort after the Norwegian oceanographer, ripples his cobalt blue fins with the utmost of elegant annoyance. I assume too much when I mistake the glint of the light in his emotionless black eyeballs as a glare directed towards me.
Nights like these tend to bring out the worst in me. My fingers are still greasy from the chicken tenders five piece combo meal, and the empty box and wrappings are still spread out across my bed, looking like they've taken up permanent residence there amongst my crinkled sheets and open books. I stand up and catch my reflection in the full-length antique mirror my mother sent me as a housewarming gift last December, almost two years after my official move-in date.
My chestnut brown hair was long when she'd given it to me, long and heavy. I remember the feeling of it encompassing me, falling around my arms, down my back, pulling me backwards against every headwind. Now, haphazardly chopped at the shoulders and as frizzy as the day is long, I am magically lighter than I was. My brown eyes, though tired, retain some of their original spark. As if noticing all of this actually means anything, I recite Bronte to myself again, meeting my own gaze in the mirror with a confidence that I imagine Jane Eyre herself would be proud of. I push myself to my full height of five feet, one inch, summon my fake British accent, and...
It doesn't take.
Ten minutes later, I am perched on the ledge of the fire escape outside my window, fresh coffee in hand. The fog swirls around the streetscape below like a living being in and of itself. It isn't just my lack of sleep or the fact that I have so many other things I could be doing instead of staring out of my window at two o'clock in the morning watching the wind move. It's mostly the way the buildings heave continually upward only to be swallowed at last by this massive grey abyss. It shouldn't confuse me, that absolute lack of visibility. But it does. My exhausted brain is unsure of the existence of those buildings beyond the parts of them that my eyes can't see. It's too early to be making sense of things, too early to be assuming that anything still exists beyond its point of invisibility.
I finish my coffee, rummage around in the hidden depths of my closet for a sweatshirt to combat the October chill settling into the air, and water a few sick-looking plants on my dresser. This helps ease the itch for a little while. I make myself another cup of coffee, deciding that any attempt at sleep now would be futile. There is more than one way to quiet your mind and let your body slip away. I find myself locking the front door on my way out and sliding down the main hallway in a pair of grey wool socks. The whole building is reasonably quiet now, as it's past three. Even my upstairs neighbors have lowered their music's volume to a distant thrumming.
I reach the end of the hall in a state of complete insentience. The apartment reads 7B in thin gold lettering, and there's a patch of door where the dark blue paint is completely worn away. This is the place where I knock.
Cooper arrives a minute later, sleepy-eyed and half-naked, peeking out from behind the door chain. He rubs one eye with his fist.
"Grace, what is it?"
I wrap my sweatshirt-clad arms around myself and shake my head. "Can't sleep."
He seems to consider this for a minute, an audible sigh escaping his lips just before the door closes. When he opens it again, it opens just enough to let me slide in. I slip past him into the familiar entryway. While he fetches a tee shirt, I let the feel of the place settle back in: dark hardwood floors cold against my feet, bare windows on the far side of the living room letting in a heavy grey light, minimal furnishings and empty walls. I am accustomed to all of these things, shivering only slightly in the sweatshirt that I stole from him a while ago. He likes it cold. Last time I was here, there was a painting hung up in the kitchen. Eyeing the now empty space on the wall, I am overcome by the sudden realization that I probably should not have come here.
"You want a drink?" He trudges out from the shadowed hallway, rubbing a hand through his mess of ebony-colored hair.
I shake my head, conspicuously not knowing exactly where to look. He shoves both hands in the pockets of his sweatpants and plants himself exactly one foot away from me, looking down on me in what I can only guess to be confusion.
I clear my throat and meet his deep blue gaze. "I came to give this back." I shrug in the sweatshirt, a pathetic feeling sinking into the pit of my stomach.
He smirks, traces the window pane with his eyes for a moment, and then licks his lips. "Hand it over, then."
I open my mouth, but no good excuse rises to the forefront. A flash of hot anger licks at the back of my mind, setting my jaw tight, tilting my chin up. I slide the sweatshirt over my head, trying not to get lost in the navy blue sea of his scent before I lose my resolve.
When I find my way out, he is standing closer to me, helping me pull the hoodie over my head by the sleeves. He tosses it to the side, so close I can feel the warmth radiating from him. I chance the look up only to be met with disappointment. He's preoccupied with something directly over my head, so I follow his gaze to the kitchen. On the counter, the painting lays flat, face down.
I glance back at him, only to find that he's turned away, slowly pacing back toward the dark hallway.
"You know," I start, tripping over my syllables. "I've been reading this book..."
He stops. I take this as an invitation, stepping toward him with empty hands and a mind full of jumbled words and phrases. "It's about a girl."
When he turns around, I can see the tears in his eyes. It doesn't strike me as odd. This is the same Cooper that crawled to my front door two years ago, blackout drunk and rambling on about death in twisted Latin. He'd just read Metamorphosis, as he had been forced to explain to me the next morning after a restless night spent on my couch. Our friendship, if that's what it can be considered, consists of late-night ghost stories over cheap whiskey. It's always a surprise with Cooper.
He laughs off the tears, sending an awkward shudder through his whole frame. "Jane Eyre again? Come on, Sinclair. What is it, the fifth time this year?"
"Sixth," I can't help but smile a little, more to myself. "Not counting the time I read through New Years Eve."
He chuckles, but its a hollow sound. Chipping at the dry skin on the inside of my nail bed, my tongue feels sticky in my mouth. I watch him intently, and it's not weird. He can always tell when I'm watching, or else he just naturally looks this good all the time. Cooper Benson is like something out of a Grecian monument. The structure of his features must've been molded by celestial hands, because that symmetry could not be more attractive. The softer side of me would admit to having had a crush on him when we first met. Now, fighting off hypothermia in his living room at four in the morning, it seems I am frozen solid.
"You can borrow my copy sometime," I say. "If you want."
Cooper doesn't respond right away. "Sometime..."
Wherever it is that the words are supposed to be found between two people, they aren't. I wait a couple empty beats before leaving. Cooper doesn't let me out or say goodnight. I don't expect him to. If the painting had been hung up when I'd arrived, this would be a different story.
Unfortunately, neither one of us can change the past.
Song: An Opening - Charlie Cunningham