The Tenth
Contributor
Written by
Kari
September 2010
Contributor
Written by
Kari
September 2010
This is a short story I wrote for a recent class. Any feedback is appreciated. === The Tenth Stephanie waited in the wings as the ensemble members took their bows. She bounced on her toes, the adrenaline from the show still coursing through her veins, a high she knew could never be duplicated chemically. Too bad, she thought, not for the first time, someone could make a killing if they could bottle this. She felt Callie’s long, lean fingers twine their way between hers. Her co-star grinned and squeezed her hand, her blue eyes iridescent in the low light backstage. Stephanie gripped back, mirroring Callie’s smile. When their cue arrived they jogged to mid-stage and faced the audience. They paused a beat, letting their eyes adjust to the glare of the spot lights before they walked downstage, hands clasped, as they’d done eight times a week for the past four months. The audience shot to their feet as one, the applause redoubled. Stephanie let the sounds roll over her in gratifying waves. Her eyes scanned to the corners of the hall, though in truth the lights prevented her from seeing past the first few rows. It was a piece of advice given early in her career: Look around, look at every seat in the house, make that connection and they will never forget you. She never forgot it. The cast formed a line at the front of the stage and gave a final group bow before the curtain descended. The applause faded, replaced with the rustle and murmur of the departing crowd. The actors quickly cleared the stage as technicians took over. Stephanie felt the bliss of just a few moments ago seep away as if through a sieve. It wasn’t unusual: the energy of the show, the rush of giving everything, leaving it all out on the stage once again, the adoration of the crowd; it was intoxicating. But when the final curtain fell, it was like a guillotine, cutting her off from everything that energized her, leaving her once again to her real life. She’d become accustomed to that swing, the immediacy and the depth of the crash. As she showered and changed, she considered backing out of her plans. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d broken a promise to herself. The thought of going made her heart rate jump. Lungs that could belt a song to the rafters without a microphone suddenly failed her. She’d battled crippling anxiety attacks all week. Andrew. The name barreled its way through her consciousness with the keening screech of a subway train. Images of the man accompanied it: Tall, with broad shoulders and a trim waist; dark hair that fell in unruly curls when he went too long without getting it cut; eyes the color of dark steel with the merest hint of lines creasing the corners, though he was only twenty-seven; a quick, easy smile, seen frequently, its only imperfection a small chip on one of his front teeth that he refused to have fixed. Beautiful, she heard him say to her, heard herself say to him. NO! her voice screamed in her head. NONONO! Her palms punctuated each mental refusal, slapping the vanity hard enough to rattle the jars and brushes. Not here, not now, not yet. She blinked rapidly, forcing herself to take deep, even breaths, staring into the mirror until the pictures of the man disappeared like smoke in a breeze and she was once again in her dressing room, alone, haunted eyes glaring back at her. She exited the theatre, summoning the actress inside and donning that persona like a costume once again for the waiting crowd. She smiled for photos and signed Playbills. Once through the line of fans, she pulled out her cell phone and hit speed dial. She stepped to the curb, scanned the oncoming traffic and raised her arm. A cab swung over, lights splashing across the sidewalk, and halted in front of her with a chirp of tires. She slid into the back seat, ignoring the cloying scent of cherry barely masking the undertones of garlic and sweat. She hung up when the familiar voice told her to leave a message. She played with the band on her left hand, spinning it around her finger, feeling the familiar contours of the stone, the prongs of the setting rubbing against the pad of her fingertip. “Where to?” Home, she wanted to say. She saw Andrew’s smile, his head tilted slightly, his arms outstretched, waiting for her. She sighed. She felt the weight of the cabbie’s stare in the rearview mirror. She’d promised herself. More than that, she’d promised Andrew. She took a deep breath, straightened her spine, tucked a wisp of blonde hair behind her ear and lifted her deep brown eyes to meet the driver’s gaze directly. “Ground zero,” she answered. She rocked to the side as the taxi cut sharply and accelerated into traffic. The next corner was Times Square, the glare of the lights and signs as blinding as the sun even at this late hour. The mass of humanity in the square shifted and undulated slowly as people strolled, stopped, took photographs, or simply stared in wide-eyed wonder. Eleven o’clock on a Friday night. Just wait until the bars close, she thought to the bobbing heads around her. As they waited at the light to turn onto Seventh, she noticed a couple at the corner. They were young, early twenties at most, and while everyone else was looking up, always up, at the lights and the buildings, these two were lost in each other. The light changed and the cab pulled forward slowly. As they passed the couple, Stephanie saw the man lift the girl’s hand to his lips and brush a kiss across her knuckles. The girl smiled, her eyes locked on the man beside her. She remembered walking the same streets, pulled along with the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic, feeling the brush of lips across her fingers, smiling up at Andrew the same way. The lights of Times Square receded behind them. Stephanie closed her eyes and settled into the seat. Memories seeped through, taking advantage of the crack in the usually impregnable fortress that was her brain. Nine years. I’ve spent nine years pushing them all aside, locking them up. Nine years losing myself in roles and shows and tours. Nine years. God damn it, Andrew. She didn’t realize she was crying until she tasted salt on her lips. “I’m Andrew. I’m really sorry about the dress.” This after spilling a newly refreshed gin and tonic down her front in a crowded bar shortly after she’d moved to the city. She fished the lime from between her breasts and dropped it into his outstretched hand. “Stephanie. Here’s your lime back. I have to go now.” He’d handed her his card, insisting that he buy her dinner to make up for the poor first impression. She looked at him again, noticed the color of his eyes, the chipped tooth, and the small scar on his chin, what she called a “boy scar,” because every boy she knew had one from some childhood mishap or another. She called him the next day. They had their first date the following weekend. “I got it,” she’d said when he answered his phone three months later. “You got it?” His voice, normally subdued while he was at work, rose excitedly. “RENT, baby. I can’t believe it! I mean, it’s just ensemble, but it’s RENT, at the Nederlander. It’s Broadway. I…oh, God.” She was silent, the noises of the city dropping away around her. “Andrew, I got a role in RENT.” She remembered feeling dizzy, walking down the street, seeing the cars and the people everywhere and hearing nothing but the blood rushing through her ears and the distant noises of Andrew’s office on the other end of the line. She heard him take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m so proud of you. I…I love you.” She heard his voice crack with emotion. The world around her came into sharp focus, the pulse of the city started up once again in a cacophonous wave when she heard him say those words for the first time. A hundred plus stories in the air is dizzying, she finds out seven months later. She squints out the window, wondering if she can see England. Or at least Greenland. They make their way around the observation deck and she traces the thin lines of the streets like arteries and veins and capillaries through the island. “I’ve never seen the city look so small,” she says as she leans closer to the glass and peers down. She draws back quickly from the vertigo-inducing angle. She nearly trips over him in her haste to right her equilibrium. So enrapt had she been with the view she hadn’t noticed the small crowd that had gathered nearby, or the hush that fell over them. Or that Andrew was on one knee. Her fingers danced around the narrow platinum band with the solitaire diamond. The stone slid to one side, rested against her pinkie, then was pushed the other direction until it stopped against her middle finger. Back and forth it went, slick in the nine year groove at the base of her finger. She tried to imagine the additional weight of the wedding band that would have accompanied it. This would have been our eight year anniversary, she thought. “What side?” The driver’s voice made her jump. “I’m sorry, umm…” She pulled up a mental map of an area she had studiously avoided for nine years. “West side. Near the park.” He quickly cut over two lanes and pulled into a side street. Her hands shook as she fished in her bag for her wallet. Her heart tripped and stuttered in her chest, her breaths were quick and shallow. She didn’t hear the total for the fare. She grabbed what she hoped was a twenty and pushed it through the partition. She lifted the strap of her bag to her shoulder and turned in the seat, gripping the door handle, but not pulling. Turn around. Get out. Go home. Go see. Indecision and panic froze her in place. The driver lifted some crumpled bills her way – her change. Get out. Get it over with. Just do it. “Keep it,” she told him and jerked the handle, pushing the door open and spilling onto the curb. The taxi pulled away. She watched the tail lights until they disappeared around the corner a block away. She faced the park, Ground Zero at her back. She couldn’t look, not yet. She walked down the block, feet moving faster and faster, until she was running full speed down the incline at the entrance to the park, sprinting past the NYPD memorial and the small marina to the very edge of the Hudson River. She barely pulled up at the railing, slamming into it, gasping for air. She felt the panic grip her, her lungs seizing, her muscles screaming from the unexpected exertion. Across the inky darkness of the river, the shimmering lights of New Jersey doubled and tripled in her vision. “You’re not going to jump, are you?” Stephanie spun toward the woman’s voice. She was sitting on a bench, the lamp overhead throwing a soft light across her trim figure. Her brown hair was pulled back into a loose pony tail. The jacket of her track suit was partially undone, showing a navy t-shirt beneath, the letters DN in white visible above a portion of a shield through the V of the zipper. The woman lifted her hand and took a long drag of her cigarette, the end glowing brightly as she squinted through the smoke. She flicked the filter with her thumb. Stephanie watched as the end fell to the ground and broke apart, the small pieces caught and scattered in the breeze. Flashes crossed her mind, memories, pictures of the city coated in layers of ash, pieces of buildings, pieces of people, scattered for blocks, the rubble smoldering for days. “N-n-no,” Stephanie stammered. “I just…freaked out. I’m still freaking out. I don’t know why I came here.” “Same reason we all come here on the tenth,” the woman said, a knowing smile pulling on the corners of her mouth as she stared through the bars of the railing at the flow of the river. “Because we have to come, but we can’t come on the eleventh. The eleventh is for the politicians, and the grandstanding, and the people who don’t really know,” she nearly spit the words out. She narrowed her gaze and pointed it at directly Stephanie, sizing her up. “But you know, don’t you?” When Stephanie didn’t answer, the woman took another drag then dropped the butt to the ground and twisted it under the toe of her sneaker. Her voice softened. “Who was he?” Stephanie swallowed, her throat bobbing with the action though her mouth was completely devoid of moisture. “My fiancée, Andrew. He worked at Morgan Stanley.” “South tower,” the woman said confidently, nodding. “Yes,” Stephanie confirmed. “He sent me a text after the second plane hit. He said he was alright, that they were evacuating. He…” A choking hiccup interrupted her. “He said he loved me, that he would get to my place as soon as he could. And then…it just…it fell. It all fell, and he was still there and he never came…” She doubled over as convulsive sobs racked her body. The woman remained on the bench, knowing there was nothing she could do but let the grief work its own course. She lit another cigarette. When Stephanie had calmed to hitching tears, the woman spoke again. “My husband was in the twenty-first ladder company, one of the first stations on the scene. I saw him, on the news.” She smiled but her eyes remained distant, watching the past. “I saw him, and Palazzo, and Jordan, and Nicky Overton. God, he was gorgeous, Nicky was. He could have been a model, he was so handsome. But completely gay. Not in a swishy way. Tommy – that’s my husband – he always stood up for Nicky when the guys started giving him shit. “Anyway, I saw them all on the news, on CNN, right before they went in, them and a bunch of other guys I didn’t know from other companies. And I knew, when I saw them on the t.v. that was the last time. I just knew. And I was right.” Silence yawned between them. The woman added to the small pile of cigarette butts at her feet. Stephanie stood at the railing, the river behind her, staring at the spot up the hill, beyond the walkway. “I don’t know if I can go over there.” Her whispered words just barely carried over the rush of the water. The woman on the bench turned slightly, peering over her shoulder. “There’s not much to see right now. You can’t see it from the street – they have tarps behind the fence. There’s a walkway, though, over the street.” She stood, twisted to one side then the other, her back popping noisily with the effort. “I’ll come with you, if you’d like,” she offered. Stephanie nodded. She took a deep breath, steeling herself. The woman was right: when they crested the rise, she could see nothing but the tops of the closest cranes and larger heavy equipment behind the blocked out fencing. She followed as the woman led her down the block to the right, away from the site. They waited for the light to change and crossed, taking a left when they reached the other side of the street. A part of her registered the newness of the sidewalk, the street, the buildings around her, the missing layers of pollution and grime that gave a patina to much of the city. She slowed as they approached the site. A staircase doubled back on itself, leading to the walkway that crossed over West Street. The woman maintained the steady gait of the knowing as she climbed the stairs. Stephanie’s feet felt leaden, as if the pull of gravity somehow doubled, tripled in this area. She advanced slowly, her eyes on the white stripes of the track suit ahead of her. The stairs seemed to go on forever. She made the mid-flight turn and looked up. Andrew was standing at the top, smiling down at her. She screwed her eyes shut tight. It can’t be. He’s not there. He’s not here. When she opened them again, Andrew was gone. The woman had reached the head of the stairs and had turned, waiting patiently for her to follow. Stephanie lifted one foot, then the other, and with great effort continued the climb. They walked together, the blonde and the brunette, to the window overlooking Ground Zero. The crater was filled, but only to street level. Flatbed trucks were parked in the corner, piles of rebar frames stacked on them, waiting for the base to be ready before another skyscraper could be erected. Darkness prevented them from seeing the whole of the site, but Stephanie had seen all she needed to see. Somewhere, in there, is Andrew, and this woman’s husband, and thousands of others. The magnitude of the thought threatened to overwhelm her. She pressed her hand flat against the window and leaned her forehead against the glass. It was cold against her skin. A circle of fog appeared, disappeared and reappeared with each breath, clouding her view of the mounds of dirt and concrete below. I wish…I wish you’d gotten out. I wish I could have known what it was to be your wife. We should have had a lifetime together. I wish…I wish you were still here. She let the thoughts flow, everything she’d wanted to say for nine years, everything she’d withheld from herself, pushed away, hidden, ignored. The deluge of conflicting emotion trailed across her face. The woman standing a respectful distance away could see the distinct changes as anger, sadness, pain, confusion all made their presence known. Stephanie lifted her head and looked over at the woman. “How often do you come here?” “Every year,” she answered. “Does it ever get…easier?” The woman lifted one shoulder in a non-committal shrug. “Yes and no. The place changes. It’s soothing, though. But losing Tommy?” She shook her head. “That’s a different story.” The woman checked her watch. “It’s almost midnight. I need to get home. I left my son with a sitter.” She pulled a cigarette out of the pack but didn’t light it. “I’m sorry about your fiancée. But between you and me, I think they’re all still around, checking in on us from time to time, making sure we’re safe.” Stephanie nodded. “I’m sorry about your husband. I’m sure they did everything they could.” “New York’s bravest,” the woman said with a proud smile. “Maybe I’ll see you again next year.” “Maybe,” Stephanie offered. The woman gave a small wave and descended the stairs, stopping a few steps down to light her cigarette. Stephanie took a last long look at the construction below her. She no longer felt the keen edge of madness at the thought of Andrew. Soothing, the woman had said. She wasn’t so sure she felt soothed, exactly. Better, maybe. She stepped away from the window, turned and made her way down the stairs to the street. She fished her phone from her bag and hit redial. She waited for the voicemail to come on, as it always did. “Hey, it’s Andrew and you got my voicemail. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can. Oh, and Steph – I love you.” She’d paid the bill for nine years, just to hear his voice, to hear him say those words. After a short pause, the beep followed. “Hey, baby. It’s me. I, um, I came down to see you tonight. I know, it’s been forever. I met a lady, her husband was a firefighter. His name is Tommy. Maybe you know him. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you I love you, and I miss you. I’ll talk to you soon, ok? Bye.”

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Comments
  • Zetta Brown

    WOW!...This is excellent. You weave character, description, emotion with plot and setting. I prefer stories with a strong sense of character and this has it.

  • Kathy Mackay

    Wow! You write beautifully--such emotion! I could envision the characters standing there at ground zero and the utter sadness and discomfort they felt, while at the same time the intense connection they had with one another having both lost someone close to them. It was really moving! The only question I had was with "her plans" (the ones she considered backing out of). Did she have something else planned that she was going to back out of to go to ground zero or was her trip to ground zero the plan that she considered backing out of so that she could break the cycle? As I read through it again, that was just something I questioned. Again, beautiful!