He caught convo snatches as they rode the red line: her on the phone with a friend, or so he hoped, every day, and him on his home screen, catching her reflection on the glass past carved-in gang signs, telling himself his good intentions made him not a creep. Her hair was a fireworks show blooming from the bottom of her winter hat: sparks of orange and red and green and blue. Her hair was: trouble. The way her tongue cupped her top teeth when she smiled was: trouble. Her catching him staring and the way she’d puff out her cheeks, cross her eyes was: trouble. She started leaving things behind–newspapers at first, magazines, library books. As the season wore on, resorting to gloves. Scarves. He collected them all till he had the courage, getting off one day, at her stop, a backpack filled with her things and a phone she could put her number into.
A storming of the city, block by block, their siege overtaking record shops, dusty bookstores, alleys where Banksy left his mark. Boots plodding through Icee slush, steam claiming glasses as they’d huddle in museums for warmth. Love like a statement against the bastard that time can be, the old friend it can become. Catching seagulls as they’d perch on the periscope of a half-sunken ship, through the lens, on vacation somewhere all the pictures seem photoshopped. Snapping shots of fanny packs, opened guide books, leashed children. Plans made in half-whisper, under sheets, faint light of daybreak making it through. That there are moments woven into the fabric of a universal destiny.
Je mange une baguette avec beurre, yelled through the bathroom door: shared lessons. Learning how to hold a saber. Throwing tomatoes at a Renaissance Faire cast member. Games played multiplayer on the couch till the sun came in and they’d need blackout curtains to get to sleep. Backpacks overloaded, marching over English highlands, fog erasing horizon, practicing British accents on grazing cows. Graduating, and the world like a childhood gumball, endlessly turned over and chewed.
Sleeping on the floor, cornflakes in Solo cups, reading by el train light, marathoning some show on stolen Wi-Fi. Meeting in the morning and night, scooting past each other to brush teeth, to ease blankets out from under cold bodies. Reading self-help. Eating Halloween candy. Laughing too loud at texts from other people. Swiping through their feeds.
A lesson in thermodynamics: cold isn’t something intrinsic, of itself. It’s the absence of something else. Of heat. The inevitable endpoint of our sun. Of all stars. Energy always transmuted into something else. Always repurposed.
Of standing in an empty field, not Instagramming, not Snapchatting, not sketching, not talking. Of inhaling snowflakes and trekking over permafrost, kicking at the snow to get through to grass but finding only more snow, dirt beneath that. Of digging with his hands, taking gloves off to feel the earth under his nails, absence of heat spider-webbing through his fingers. Of going back home and finding half the apartment amputated. Half surgically removed.
Of whole days sleeping. Of whole days sketching. Of eating and drinking because these are things he needed to do. Of covering walls in paint and giving away what he didn’t need.
Of going to the museum and looking at what came before. At sketching all he saw. Of studying brushstroke and style and application. Of taking notes. Of looking down the bench he sat on. Of seeing a woman as she saw him, and the way her eyes caught his, only briefly, blink-and-you’d-miss-it, before she looked away.
Nicholas Olson is a writer from Chicago now living in North Carolina. He was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s 2016 Very Short Fiction Award, his work was included in America’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction, and he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, decomP, and other fine places. Read more at nicksfics.com.