Short Story: 13:55 Eastern Standard Time

Alice stares at the Christmas lights, reflected and flashing on the shiny streets of the city below, then she pulls back her focal point and watches as the droplets of rain chase each other down the pane.
“Eight million…” she says quietly.
She leans forward and rests her forehead against the glass. It is cold and unyielding – uncomfortable and hard. And yet… And yet, in some strange way the discomfort comforts her. It almost pierces the bubble – almost breaks through the numbness.
She sighs heavily and straightens her back, then raises a hand to support herself. Three yellow cabs slither along the street below.
She turns from the window and looks back into the room. The light is fading and she should switch on some lamps. Or go out.
She could go and sit in the bar again. The waiter was friendly enough. She could sit there until another freak starts trying to buy her a drink and then come home again. She could maybe try another bar. But the barman might not chat to her. Or the freaks could be worse. They usually are.
She throws herself on the sofa and pulls the remote from beneath her buttocks. TV. It takes away the pain. But it doesn’t solve anything.
She wonders – again – what would happen if she got rid of the TV. Would her life be different? Would some process be unleashed – the boredom building until it got so bad that… Maybe that would make things change? Maybe it would get so bad that something would just have to happen? Or would she just sit and stare at the wall. Would she just go out of her mind?
She tips her head back and looks up at the ceiling, listening to the sounds of hard shoes on the tile floor above. Eight million! she thinks.
There are people above her, forty floors of them, and below her feet, another nine floors. There are people just behind the wall to her right, left, behind her. There are people everywhere except here. She glances at the window, at the thousands of squares of light opposite and wonders if behind one of those squares, somewhere in New York city another person is sitting, another person as lonely, as desperate for company as she is right now.
She sighs and fingers the remote again. Her finger lingers over the large orange power button.
So many nights watching TV. Nights in New York, and before those, nights in Alabama.
She thought moving would change everything. She thought that getting rid of the yards of lawn around her, of swapping them for these thin walls would change something. She thought giving up the silent bubble of her daily drive to work in the Ford – of trading it for the bustle and squash of the subway would break her isolation. Once and for all.
And of course, everything has changed. There are people above, below, behind her – inches away. She no longer listens to 987 Kiss as she drives to work – she listens to her Walkman instead. She glances at it lying dead beside her. Listened. Even Japanese products die one day.
She scans the room and her eyes settle on the new red refrigerator. It’s a beautiful object. Rounded and substantial and friendly. There’s nothing inside – just a deli-box and some Chardonnay, but she knows why she bought it. The refrigerator is part of the dream.
She opens the door – it’s brimming with fresh produce. She pulls fillets of fish from the top shelf, some broccoli and mushrooms from the second, and starts to rinse the vegetables and throw them into a wok. One of her friends, for there are a whole bunch of them here counting on her for dinner – she’s famed for her cooking – offers to refill her glass. She cooks and drinks and they laugh and joke about. Someone puts some music on. They eat, chatting about books and films; the food is great. Then maybe they go out for drinks. Or maybe one of the friends is a guy. Maybe one of them is her guy. And as soon as everyone has gone they have sex on the kitchen worktop.
That image, the image of the life she thought she would have – the life she believed, that Rhoda told her was her birthright, that Friends and Sex and the City confirmed, is so vivid it pains her like the memory of a lost friend. She feels actual bereavement for the loss. But she never had that life. Friends never did just drop by. Not even here. And that seems worse. It seems to indicate some very personal failing, surely, the fact of being alone in a city of eight million people.
She stands and crosses the room to the kitchen; yanks open the heavy red door. The deli-box awaits her hunger; the wine chills, ready to soothe. She pulls the bottle from the door.
Another weekend alone. Another weekend where she probably won’t speak to anyone from now until Monday. Unless she phones someone. Maybe Miriam in Boston, or her mother in Wisconsin. Maybe Michael – her brother – in Berlin. And what the fuck is Michael doing in Berlin? she wonders. And how did that happen? How did the world change so that everyone got to be so far away?
Tomorrow she might speak to someone in a store, exchange a few words. Yes, she could go shopping tomorrow, if she can think of something she needs. She scans the contents of the apartment. Sofa – new, table – new, telephone, LCD tv, TiVo – all new. Even something she wants, something she vaguely fancies, some frivolous pointless object would do the trick. She could buy some Christmas lights, a tree… But what’s the point when there’s only her to see it.
She pulls the cork from the bottle, and returns to the sofa. She hits the orange button. The screen fills with trendy silhouettes dancing around on a colourful background. These people, these dancing silhouettes are happy grooving around with their headphones on. They don’t need other people.
That’s what I can do, she thinks. Get one of those and spend the weekend loading my music in; listen to it on the subway on my way to work. She sips her wine and feels a little better. She has a project for tomorrow.
“A thousand songs in your pocket,” says the ad. The commercial break ends. Alice takes a sip, then another, then refills her glass and settles more deeply into the sofa.
Rhoda walks onscreen. The camera zooms in. Rhoda’s earrings don’t match. Her friends and the studio audience all laugh. Alice smiles, despite herself

PART TWO

Alice stands in line. She scans the glowing whiteness of the store, checks out the people, almost exclusively men, dotted around the place.
She looks at the youngsters behind the counter: dreadlocks, pierced ears, ripped jeans – even the guy in the suit has somehow managed to make it look dishevelled. She feels suddenly old and dowdy. She wonders if her clothing choices haven’t become a little too conservative. She wonders when the people in these places started looking like artists instead of like geeks.
The queue shuffles forwards. She glances behind. The guy behind her has to be her age, but he’s dressed like the people here. He has a pair of those twisted-seam jeans and an orange t-shirt with Grotesque written across it. It’s probably the name of a band. She should probably know that.
He pulls a tight-lipped but friendly smile at her and she snaps her head back to face the front of the line and blushes. He probably thinks she’s eyeing him up.
The line moves forward and the guy with dreadlocks steps forward to serve her.
“Hiya,” he says. “What can I do you for maam?”
He’s only trying to be cute, but the maam makes her feel even older.
“I bought this, this morning,” she says, pulling the iPod from her bag. “There’s no music in one ear,” she says with a shrug.
The guy nods in time with the music that’s playing throughout the store and pushes his lips out. “Dead channel, huh?” he says.
“Excuse me?” It’s the man behind, trying to jump the line. She hates people who just can’t wait their turn. How can anyone get to forty without learning even the basic element of discipline that is waiting in line? She wonders. She opens her mouth to rebuke him.
“I couldn’t help overhearing,” he says. “I also have no sound on one side, picked it up just an hour ago.”
Mr dreadlocks continues to nod his head. “Weird huh?” he says. He nods upstairs. “If you two dudes wanna go chat with the guys in the Genius Bar… they’ll fix you up.”
Alice frowns. She doesn’t want to chat to someone in the genius bar, and she doesn’t want to be called a dude. And she doesn’t want to go upstairs with this other dude either. She wants this adolescent, who, she is now noticing, has zits, to exchange her brand new non-functioning iPod for a brand new functioning iPod.
“They’ll swap them for new, right?” asks the guy in the Grotesque T-shirt.
Dreadlocks continues to nod. “Sure thing,” he says, looking already to the next customer.
Grotesque shrugs at her cutely and holds a hand out to indicate that she should go first.
Alice forces a smile despite herself and heads up the glass staircase.
The genius has an incongruous piercing through his nose. He doesn’t really pull off the arty-look of his colleagues. He looks like someone from a bank, only with a piercing through his nose.
“Hi there,” he says, glancing at the two boxes they have placed on the counter. “Ipod hassles huh?”
Alice tries to remember what words the guy downstairs used. It sounded better than her, “No music in one ear…”
“We both have dead channels,” the Grotesque guy tells him.
Genius raises an eyebrow. “Both of you? That’s bad luck,” he says. “Gimme five.” He sweeps away with the boxes.
Grotesque grins cutely at her. “They’re so busy being cool…” he says with a shake of his head and a crossing of the eyes.
Alice slips into a smile and blinks slowly. “Yeah,” she says with a nod of her head. “It would be cooler if the product worked. I feel like saying, hey, you just work in a store, you know?”
Grotesque grins and holds out his hand. “Will,” he says. “William… but everyone calls me Will.”
Alice shakes his hand. “Alice,” she says. “Everyone just calls me Alice.”
Will grins. “That accent sounds real familiar. Where you from?”
Alice smiles. “Alabama,” she says. “Is that bad?”
Will shakes his head. “I like it,” he says. “You remind me of my sister. She lives in Birmingham.”
“You remind me of my brother actually,” Alice says. “But he lives in Berlin.”
Will nods, impressed. “Germany, wow.”
There’s a moment of silence. Alice stares at her feet and tries to think of something to say. “It’s OK here though,” she says. “I guess it’s nicer than Wal-Mart.”
Will grins. “Ain’t that so,” he says. “So how long have you been in New York?” He runs a hand through his hair. His silver ring glints.
“Oh, not long. Only a couple months.”
“Enjoying it?”
Alice hesitates. There’s nothing more unattractive than not enjoying someone else’s city.
Will laughs. “I guess not huh?”
Alice shrugs. “It just takes time,” she says. “To settle in and stuff.”
“You have friends here?” Will asks.
Alice shakes her head and wrinkles her nose. “Work colleagues,” she says. “But, well… It’s hard. You think… in such a big place…”
Will nods. “My boyfriend- his name’s Jude. He moved here, like, a year ago. And he gets real lonely. And, I mean, he’s got me, and my friends, but, well, I know what you mean.”
Alice blushes.
“Sorry, you thought I was hitting on you and now…”
Alice shakes her head and glances along the counter to see if the Genius is coming back to save her anytime soon. “No,” she says. “That’s not it.”
Will shrugs. His smile fades.
Shit, Alice thinks. Now he’s gonna think that I don’t like him because he’s gay. “It’s not… it’s just,” Alice says. “My brother, the one you remind me of. Well, he’s…”
Will nods. “Right,” he says. “He’s gay too huh?”
Alice nods.
“So where you living Alice?”
“Thirty-seven and fifth,” Alice says. “It’s a work thing.”
Will nods. “We’re over on avenue B. It’s kind of cool over there, you know it?”
Alice shakes her head.
“You should come have a coffee sometime,” Will says. “It’s different. It’s less… well, less fifth avenue I guess.”
The genius interrups them. Alice thinks for a moment he has a glob of moisture hanging from his nose ring, but then she realises it’s a chrome ball. She didn’t notice it before.
“Here you go guys. Sorry about that. They’re both from the same batch. Very rare, so sorry ‘bout that. Just go pick up two new ones and give this to the guy on the till.” He hands them a slip of paper.
Outside the store, Will and Alice hesitate. “Hey sis… I’m thinking we should go to that coffee-shop over there and check these out. In case they’re also from the same batch…”
Alice smiles. “Good thinking,” she says.Back in her apartment, Alice feels elated. “I met someone,” she thinks. “I actually god darn met someone.”
She pulls the iPod box and Will’s business card from her bag. Sure, he’s gay, so he’s not going to be anything but a friend. But that’s almost better. A friend is more what she needs right now.
She props the card next to the phone. She’ll wait a week before she calls him. So he doesn’t think she’s stalking him. And then she’ll go over to Avenue B for coffee. She will.
She smiles to herself. He looks so like Michael. Lovely Michael. She looks at the phone, and then glances at the alarm clock. 13:55
13:55 pm EST – makes… she counts on her fingers. About 6pm in Berlin. He’ll be on his way home. She settles into the armchair and dials the number.

Have a great xmas everyone, and remember, “The best things in life aren’t things”.

Nick xx

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