A young man and woman held hands and chatted to one another as they made their way through the length of the hallway, walked down two flights of stairs, and kissed each other goodbye in the frozen air. They held one another for a time before their departure. The woman picked up her backpack from the floor and boarded the train, picking a seat by the window so she could still see her lover. She grinned at him, but just the same, already felt a loss. It’s a kind held evident in the eyes. The train billowed smoke and soon slowly rolled out from under the platform. The man stood there until it was out of sight, put his hands into his empty pockets, and walked away alone.
I didn’t mind. As midnight was coming any minute now, we were rather ghostly company for each other.
As I watched, memories from earlier that day surfaced in a very unsynchronized manner. Diane’s face inches from my own, her eyes bugging so wide that her eyelashes disappeared somewhere in her brow line. In the background, the wind whistled outside in that wintry, six-p.m.-actually-feels-like-ten-p.m. way. The pendant on my necklace slid back and forth on its chain as my hand moved absently, restlessly. Diane then demanded I tell her what was going on “right this instant” and if I didn’t, I’d be homeless. She’d tell foster care she didn’t want me anymore, and that they’d pick me up that evening. But before she could, motivated by some built-up resentment over the years, I accepted that offer on the spot. I told her I’d be pleased to leave. She didn’t take me seriously until I had my guitar, entire savings, and a backpack out the door with me. She yelled all sorts of things at me but never moved off the porch, and I walked headfirst into the cold air of November on Long Island.
I bought a train ticket for Grand Central Station. I really, really couldn’t stay any longer.
The guitar I lugged over my shoulder had been a personal gift to myself. I began guitar lessons four years ago, when I moved in with Diane and her late husband. I loved lessons so much I bought myself a real acoustic guitar with Christmas money. I spent many hours picking, plucking, and playing it the local store. It went for $450 (it cost me all my money and then some) but it had already felt like mine. Especially since I gave it her name before she was properly mine—Andromeda. She was deep mahogany and had a pretty thin neck. I’d been gifted with music really since I could pick up a guitar.
When it came time for me to board my first train into Manhattan, I was already exhausted. At the very least it gave me time to get my thoughts together and work out a more sound plan. I rested my eyes, wracking my brain for a place to stay for the night. But I had trouble concentrating as my brain went back to random, old, irrelevant memories. I wasn’t sorry for leaving, since I needed to in more than one way, but I wouldn’t be eighteen for one more week. It didn’t really matter though; I planned on signing out of foster care that very day, anyway.
Either way, the next day Diane would surely contact my family specialist, my caseworker, and my independent living specialist if I didn’t return. Not because she cared about me but so she could save her own ass. So she could ask sweet, innocent questions, such as whether she should pack up my room to make way for another foster kid or if it’d upset me too much in case I came back. She may have been nothing but a bitch, but she was also intelligent, and she knew as soon as I left I was not returning. I wondered for the hundredth time why she hadn’t just kicked me out onto the street earlier.
Eventually the train stopped at Grand Central. It was pretty late, around eleven thirty. I woke from a doze as the train pulled in.
NYC. The dazzling, blinking, striking billboards and lights are mesmerizing for any newcomer. However, I spent a decent amount of time in Manhattan, just as any Long Islander has, so I knew where I was going. I was grateful because between the flashing, distracting lights and multitude of passing men and women, Manhattan was the very best camouflage I could have hoped for.
Once onto the less commercialized streets, I decided to slip into one of the only places I saw open: a late night coffee shop. It was very modern and new-age. Plump couches, bean bag chairs, and even hammocks set up on posts made up one section. High tables for dining were in another. In the back there were several rows of bookshelves and an indie radio station played overhead. It had very nice vibes. I took off my guitar and set it on a couch as I peeked around. There were only two other people there. One stood behind the counter, and the other leaned against the front of it. The guy in front had tattooed sleeves and thick, black-rimmed glasses. The guy behind it looked like he could be his brother due to their matching dark hair and similar physiques. Both turned to watch me mid-conversation as I made my way to the books. Once there I settled against the wall.
I grabbed a familiar book so I’d look like I actually had a purpose for being there. I closed my eyes for a brief moment and imagined a map of this part of the city, trying to find a local, relatively inexpensive hotel.
“Personally, I never really liked Mockingjay too much. The ending severely disappointed me. Catching Fire was my favorite.”
Immediately my eyes looked for the source of the voice. It was the guy standing behind the counter, alone now, leaning back in his swivel chair nonchalantly. He simply looked at me expectantly. I stared dumbly at first and then the words came out. “Catching Fire dragged on. The plot was weak until the Quell, and then I feel like everything happened all at once. . . . Actually, I only liked Mockingjay because of its ending. And by that, I mean the very last few pages.” He smiled at that. I half-smiled back and looked away. I was aware of him crossing the room to the bar.
“I mean, if you’re into bittersweet, then it’s perfect,” he said, suddenly appearing behind me. He held two cups of blazing hot chocolate in his hands and gestured for me to take one.
“I don’t have money,” I apologized quickly.
“Doesn’t matter. Take it, it’s on me.”
“Are you sure?” I asked hesitantly.
“Positive,” he told me.
I took the hot cup from his hands and thanked him. “I hope your boss isn’t hiding somewhere around here,” I teased lightly.
“Of course I’m not,” he replied, smirking slightly.
I didn’t believe him; he didn’t look much older than me.
“Wait, really? Wow. How old are you then?”
“Twenty. I’m a junior and majoring in biology at CUNY.”
“Very impressive.” I could picture it. He was an intelligent-looking guy. Stubble covered his chin. He also had messy dark hair, a well-defined jawline, and a lean physique. He wore a smart, black v-neck t-shirt, and neat red Vans. I had a mental image of him looking out of place in a white lab coat as he studied petri dishes under a microscope.
“So how old are you?” he asked cheekily.
“Seventeen. My birthday is in a week.”
“Really? I’d have thought you were much older.”
A face of contempt. “Yeah . . . I get that a lot.”
We had been standing in one of the aisles, leaning against our respective bookshelves while talking. The music playing overhead changed to Pink Floyd. His eyes narrowed; he seemed to study me now. “So, what do you normally like to do at past midnight?”
I rolled my eyes. I knew what he was asking. “I’m here because I played a gig tonight and couldn’t go home right away. So I’m going to, you know, either take a cab back or find a hotel room or something. I’m not decided yet.”
His eyes rested on my guitar for a moment before looking back to me. “If you trust me, I’ll offer my couch up to you. I’m really not a crazy person, I swear. My name is Stephen Chase, feel free to do a background check on me if you want. But it’s dangerous to walk alone at night and it looks like you have a lot of stuff weighing you down.”
My stomach churned with anxiety. I didn’t know this person at all. But taking into consideration how expensive cabs are, and how exhausted I suddenly was, I accepted his offer. As I did, I could hear a voice in my head belonging to my best friend Tori, busy yelling at me for how stupid I am.
Blake, this is how people DIE. I’m going to slap you when I see you, if you’re even still alive after this.
Stephen pointed at my guitar case and asked if he could take a look at the guitar. I opened it and rested Andromeda against the couch cushion.
He looked at her with bright, excited eyes. “This guitar is sweet. What do you play?”
“Indie and soft rock mostly. I really want to learn alternative once I save up for an electric.”
“I used to have tons of electrics. I used to actually play metal,” he informed me. “I was pretty decent too but I made the mistake of joining this metal band in high school that wrote some absolutely horrible songs and covers. I was too caught up in the excitement of simply being in a band to realize it but, honestly, we were so bad.” I let out a burst of laughter as an embarrassed smile crossed his face.
“Blake. . . . I’ve never heard of a girl with that name. But I like it.”
My cheeks flushed a little bit. I realized I really liked him. I silently prayed he was trustworthy.
“Here, let’s get you settled in next door.”
“You live next door?”
“Yeah. I own this building and the apartment next to it.”
He closed up the restaurant/bookstore before walking me outside. The apartment itself was fairly ordinary but very comfortable, and surprisingly clean for a (presumably) single male living in it.
All the walls were creamy beige. The kitchen and living room were on opposite sides of one large, conjoined room. Ahead was a small hallway with three doors, which I guessed contained at least his bedroom and a bathroom.
Stephen left to get me some sheets and blankets. I sat down on his couch rather awkwardly and ran my eyes across his room. There was an envelope on the coffee table covered in doodles of eyes with thick eyelashes, randomly assorted diamonds, and multiple stacked cubes. A lot of math problems covered the other side of it.
He transformed his couch into a bed for me and brought me a glass of water for during the night. By the time the makeshift bed was made, I found myself yawning fiercely and fighting off tears.
“Blake, is there anyone you can call? Or if you need to, feel free to borrow my phone.”
I hesitated before answering. “No, I don’t have a phone anymore. And I live alone, and sort of far away, so no . . . not really.” I mean, as of a few hours ago, I wasn’t lying. I also dropped my voice last minute and felt suddenly very self-conscious. Could he tell? I’m not the best liar in the world but from time to time I’ve been convincing. I hoped this was one of those times so, so badly because I couldn’t afford a lecture or hold up. I just didn’t want to get into it.
If there was any level of doubt from him he didn’t pry. “If you need anything else just let me know. Make yourself comfortable.”
I nodded. He briefly smiled then disappeared into the hallway, into the farthest room. I had managed to squeeze a few outfits into my backpack, so I pulled out a t-shirt and sweatpants to lie down in. Once the lights were off, my teeth were brushed, and I was under the covers, I could finally breathe a little slower. His pillow smelled delicious, like a cedar wood chest.
My mind drifted. The day’s events completely didn’t sink in yet, so I reveled in the calm that came over me, and went to a place I only go to in my dreams.