Urban refrain


Justin Lo



            This is a city with twenty thousand souls squeezed into every square mile, an endless lattice of concrete over the unsteady earth, the anonymity of being right there on the scene but being so small and so separate, bare and calloused feet touching the ground but never taking root.  I was a few drinks deep but not sunken, walking home after parting ways with my friends who were; left empty – streets empty, the din drifting away; streetlights dim, moon bright, but the starry sky erased anyway.  And I spotted her across the street, squatting beside a bum enwrapped in a blanket the color of vomit, leaning in and letting the flame at the tip of her cigarette nestle against his until it lit.

            She sat down beside him.  She was the sort of girl decorated with a hundred-dollar make-up and a ten-dollar t-shirt, perenially in jeans just a little too big or a little too small, rear pockets stuffed all the same with a boyish leather wallet and the latest Generation Z tech gizmo.  Her seraphic face was alight with laughter, his grizzled façade cracking a toothy smile, the flickering orange spot-lights swinging with their animated gestures as though their hands were actors on stage.

            I found myself gradually approaching her, and as she stood up to leave after a few long minutes, ramming her cigarette butt headfirst on the concrete and tossing it indifferently into a public rubbish bin, she noticed me watching.

            “Do I know you?” she asked.

            “Do you need to?” I replied.

            She smiled.  “Of course not.  This is a city with twenty thousand souls squeezed into every square mile.  I bet the mayor doesn’t even know a thousand.”

            She pivoted ninety degrees and started down Prospect, away from downtown.  “Each thousand begins with one,” I said, following her.

            “Isn’t it funny, though?  That after that one, there’s only zeroes?”

            The icy November wind swooped down on the street, shoving the fallen foliage into the angles of the curb.

            “Well, a heart only has so many nooks and crannies in it.  It doesn’t matter how many people are around you, you can only care about so many.  So after awhile, you’re just tacking on a couple more zeroes,” I reasoned.  “And,” I added, “a few more pounds from all the beers it cost to meet them.”

            She turned to look at me.  “Well, someone’s bitter,” she said.

            “You’re the one who brought it up,” I replied, shrugging.  “Anyway, am I leading you in the wrong direction?  I was just walking home without thinking.”

            “No, not at all.  I live down this way, too.”

            “Oh?  Where at?”

            “You know, the three-story townhouse with the skinny-ass white oak tree in the front yard and the blue recycling bin in the driveway overflowing with junk mail and beer cans, and that distinctive black mailbox with gold numbers on it.

“It’s at the corner of that street with the concrete sidewalks and the drains warning you that the water goes straight into the river. 

“With the compact car parallel-parked in front, an advertisement and a parking ticket tucked intimately under the windshield-wiper.  I don’t even have to give you an address, it’s so unique.”

I glared at her for wasting a minute of my time just to crack one sarcastic punchline.  “What a coincidence, my place sounds exactly the same.”

“Moreso than you think,” she said with an asymmetric smirk, rummaging around in her jeans pocket before withdrawing a pack of cigarettes.  “Do you mind?”

“Go right ahead, they’re your lungs,” I replied. 

She wound up her arm and softball-pitched the thing into a trashcan ten feet away.

“Fifth time I’ve quit,” she reported with a salute.  “You know what’s weird, though?  I don’t start up again each time ‘cause I’m craving a nicotine buzz.  It’s because I like smoke breaks.  You can talk to your coworkers and watch the passerbys and just enjoy the open world.”

We’d walked two blocks now; the ground was level but it felt like we were walking downhill because the buildings had shed three stories.  I remained silent.  I’d learned by now to let my temporary buddy relish her monologues.

And you can get away from the noise and commotion and B. O. in the bars and clubs.”  One hundred twenty-six: the number of concrete squares that we’d stepped over together.  I wondered idly how many words she could rattle off per square.

“And you can slip outside your apartment for just a little – just a little while – a couple minutes, to watch the people who live in the same place as you set off to work and come back from school and fall in love and break their damned hearts and get drunk and wander out all hung over, belt on backwards, tie on crooked, but walking more or less straight, God bless them.”

We rounded the corner onto the side street where I lived.

“After all, that’s the only reason I knew that we both call this lovely place home, Catherine dear.”

I looked at her, not all that surprised, but still failing to recognize her.

“I’ve seen you come back a dozen times, sometimes on the phone with your long-distance boyfriend, sometimes texting frantically like a tween half your age, sometimes listening to alternative rock or some god-awful Euro house, or sometimes just fumbling around trying to find your keys in your briefcase.  Anything except looking up to see a foolish girl on the porch practicing her smoke rings.  Just sit down with me this once.”

I obliged and we sat down on the front steps.  She took out her lighter and gave it a deft flick before shifting her hand over and illuminating the air in front of me.  Ceremoniously.

“Shh, don’t tell anyone else that we’re not really smoking.  Kids don’t need any excuse to lounge around outside, but adults need to keep up the appearance of always doing something,” she said.

“Except street bums.”

She laughed.  “That’s right, except street bums.  They don’t need an excuse, either.  I’ll tell Bill that, too.  He’s got an awful cough these days, after all, so he shouldn’t be smoking just to justify sitting outside.”

I kicked out my legs and stretched.

“He’s probably sick from all the germs in that nasty blanket.  Why don’t you bring him a new blanket next time?”

“Hell no, the last one I gave him, he pawned off for some Jack Daniels, and he didn’t even give me a drop to drink, stingy motherfucker,” she growled.  “I can only say that ‘cause I love him, mind you,” she added.

“You love him?  Do you love me?”

“Of course I love you, Catherine.  You give it a try.  ‘I love you, Estelle.’  That’s my name, you know.  Or don’t.  But you know now.”

“That’s childish!” I said.  “I only say ‘I love you’ to my boyfriend and my parents.”

“But I love you, Catherine!” she said, leaning in so closely that her t-shirt sleeve brushed against my shoulders.  I recoiled instantly.

“And your breath reeks, Estelle.  Did you forget to put on perfume when you heaped on all that make-up?”

“Yuck, perfume’s gross.  And the make-up’s for your benefit, not mine – I don’t have to look at myself,” she said.  “So, why won’t you say, ‘I love you’ to me?”

“It cheapens it,” I said.  “It’s distasteful to be all hipster and call every sentiment of goodwill you feel ‘love.’”

“It no more makes me a hipster than having short hair makes you a feminist or liking money makes you a capitalist or using soy sauce makes you Chinese.  Tell me, who is in your heart right now?”

“My boyfriend, my parents, my relatives, my confidantes and best friends, my mentors?”

She did a little math on her fingers.  “That’s what, thirty or forty people tops?  Is your heart really so small that to give out an iota more love would steal from that which you’ve already allocated?”

“My heart’s not small!” I cried.

“I didn’t think so, either,” she said, nodding.  “You know, I used to believe that, too, that there was only so much genuine adoration you could have, and so many ways you could divide it up.  But that’s mean, that’s like treating your heart like pie, or seats on a cab.  For most of us, we don’t go walking around with pies or cabs in our chests.

“The real reason we don’t extend our love any more than we have to is the same reason billionaires are still billionaires – we think we need more for ourselves than we would ever need.”

I looked at her, this peculiar, ordinary girl with the hundred-dollar make-up and the ten-dollar t-shirt and the jeans which were, this evening, a bit too big.  I looked at this girl who never knew when to stop talking or when to stay out of people’s personal space or when to mind her own business.  And I wondered: is she a child or an adult?  Is an adult a person who has financial independence, who’s lost her virginity, who is married, who owns a house?  Or have we gotten so used to using a convenient surrogate – that an adult is someone who’s gone from having an open, fecund heart to having a beating pie in her bosom?

“Heh, I finally gotcha, huh?” she said.  Estelle looked up at the sky devoid of her namesake.  I imagined she could see them anyway – the stars and galaxies and quasars and wormholes.  I looked up, too, at the boundless ceiling washed over in ultramarine, and suddenly I felt a warmth enveloping me.  “Imagine,” Estelle whispered, still with arms clasped about me, “if only I could convince everyone here that it’s okay – hugging is nowhere near as painful as road rage or corporate meetings or swimming practice or any other daily social interactions.  If only I could convince everyone that you won’t forget how to love your wife or husband or your parents if you acknowledge that you love your neighbors, too.  Hell, imagine if people would just say ‘good morning’ when they passed you by in the morning!

“Then, you know, we’d laugh – twenty thousand people squeezed into every square mile?  That’s nothing compared to the twenty thousand right here in each of our hearts.”

I relaxed a little.  I stopped worrying whether passerbys would think I was drunk or a lesbian or dreadfully lonely or some combination of the three.  And I hugged Estelle back, on our common porch, somewhere along the endless concrete lattice over the unsteady earth, still so small and so insignificant, but with one more precious person in my heart.