Finding the Words

Henry sits on a bench in Washington Square Park, not too close to the frozen fountain yet not in the corner with the drug dealers. His face and neck sting with the combination of razor burn and the whipping wind’s crack. With tears in his eyes—from the wind—Henry waits for Sophie to arrive. The last time they spoke, maybe three weeks ago now, they didn’t leave things on the greatest note. As usual Henry did not say the right thing and was not ready for the next step, whatever that might have been.

Henry accesses his camera app to gauge his look before Sophie has the chance to criticize it. His eyes are dark and puffy with round red cheeks, a strong jawline, and hair askew. Sophie might find him cute in a disheveled way.

A little boy drowning in Northface layers plays catch with someone whom Henry believes is his father. They stand about five feet apart, which is double the boy’s height. He can lob the ball pretty well given his stature but he cannot catch. Every time the football hits his hands and plops at his feet; every time it bounces at an odd angle, the boy lets out a high-pitched squeal of delight. Every time he laughs, Henry smiles. Nevertheless the boy is too stiff in his expensive coat. Henry questions the idea of children’s clothing considering their sizes are made to be grown out of. Maybe his mittens and the restriction of his jacket hold him back from being able to catch the ball. When Henry imagines this restriction, his body instinctually tenses. He can go for game of catch; he can’t remember the last time he had a good one.

Without pulling him from his thoughts, Sophie slides down next to Henry, nudging him just enough to bring him back to reality.

“We couldn’t meet in a coffee shop or get food or something?” Sophie’s lack of a greeting displays a familiar level of comfort with Henry that he believed had detonated long ago.

About a head shorter than Henry, Sophie always commands the room with her mane of fiery hair and large almond eyes. He can’t even begin to guess how many hours he has logged just staring into them; Sophie, however, doesn’t care. Her hunger and low body temperature is paramount to any bullshit romance Henry can spew. He considers hugging her, which leads to his hesitating too long with the choice and thus making it a moot point for him without effort.

“We can,” Henry says. “I just thought meeting here would be easier.”

“How is us being here together easy?”

Thoughts of a high school Sophie with braids and braces in a plaid skirt carrying a checkered Dickies bag flicker like a dying light bulb though Henry’s mind. The memory of her walks the lip of the fountain as he recalls his running through homework on their bench just to be around her. A shadow of the flavor of her lip gloss reemerges on his lips.

He licks them and wonders why trying Four Loko and kissing her, his best friend since childhood, were a good idea, or why texting her to meet at their bench today was a better one. He had hoped nostalgia was on his side today.

“Snap out of it, dude,” she says, tearing Henry away from his memory and thoughts of what was, what shouldn’t and could have been.

“Sorry,” he says. “Let’s get some Two Bros.’.”

“Not even Ray’s?” Sophie says. Henry feels the waters being tested; he could never swim well and the ocean’s endlessness terrifies him. Her eyes peek at him, almost pleading for something, nothing of which he might know. Like a sailor lost at sea for years who has no idea of when he might see land, Henry remains a poor navigator of Sophie’s emotional landscape.  

“If you’re pay—“

“You don’t even have enough to pay for a real slice of pizza?”

“I’ve always been more of a deep-dish fan.” Henry laughs. Sophie punches him hard enough to deaden his arm.

“Let’s go to Ray’s,” he says.

Sophie jumps up in glee and leads the way out of the park. Henry slows his pace to watch her before they walk together. Sophie turns, catches him staring, and smiles. Henry hears one last squeal from the little boy playing catch.

Sitting in one of the World Famous Rays’ at the corner of Marijuana Alley and St. Mark’s Place, Sophie stares at Henry as he inhales his three slices and pepperoni pinwheel. The table has a sheen of grease about it and the chairs are uncomfortable to suggest no loitering, but the pizza wouldn’t taste as good without the furniture or the wall of autographs of infamous mobsters, ballplayers, and other celebrities.

There is sauce in Henry’s faux-beard and Sophie forces herself to refrain from dabbing it or, worse, licking it. His eyes catch hers on her strained face. Intimacy was only difficult for the couple when they stopped being a “them.”

“You got a little something right there.” She gestures to her own lip. Henry wipes his sleeve across his mouth and folds half of his last slice down his gullet. Sophie is simultaneously aroused and disgusted, but she mysteriously reveals only one with a too-giggled “ew.”

Henry looks at her, smirks, and takes a gulp of his beer. Sophie is surprised: she thought he hated Heineken because of his father. Henry catches her puzzled stare at the bottle and answers her question before she can ask it.

“The taste grew on me,” he says. Henry is the epitome of a man-child with his playful, rugged nature and perpetually mischievous demeanor. Sophie simultaneously loathes and craves him for it.

“All of a sudden or did you need to practice?” she asks, half-joking.

“When there’s nothing else around and you can’t afford your own beer,” he says then takes a swig, “you can’t complain about what you’re drinking.”

Sophie nods and smiles but looks away too quickly. Henry’s mouth slants down.

“Why’d you want to meet up?” she says. “I figured you were still in ‘you’ mode again.”

Henry looks down and shuffles in his seat. “I am, but I really don’t want to be.” He rubs his eye without removing his glasses. They tip up just a bit and Sophie knows that he’s smudged them. “Sophie, I want—“

“I’m seeing someone,” she says. Her heart pounds loud enough that she fears Henry can hear it; but if he does, he certainly doesn’t let on.  Fuck him, always looking to make her feel comfortable, but it’s his fault they are the way they are.

He picks up his beer and finishes it in one long draft. Sophie would never say it, but he is his father’s son.

He nods, thanks her for the pizza, and exits Ray’s.

This was his day to tell news, to say how he feels, what was finally going well in his life, and just like everything else, she takes it from him.

It is blindingly grey and white outside, the like of a sky before heavy snow. Henry sees no one and hears nothing as he crosses the awkward intersection. His shoulders clash with other bodies but they’re all just live pieces of meat in a freezer to him. Behind him he senses her scurrying, chasing after their conversation. He wishes he were on the plane already with nothing but the clothes on his body. She made his decision without his even asking for her opinion. At the very least he can thank her for that.

“Wait!” she says. Before descending into the muggy underground, he stops and faces her. Steam rises from his head and his ears burn.

“How is it that you can disappear as you please but the moment I make a move in my life you storm off as if I’m the one who’s done something wrong?” She’s crying. This is the fifth time in all their years together and otherwise that he has seen her cry because of something he’s (not) done or (not) said. He will never stop hating himself for causing her pain.

She’s right and he’s well aware of how unfair the situation is to her. She deserves to be as happy as possible and he just can’t do that for her like he once did. But he deserves happiness, too.

“I’m leaving for Chicago,” he says. The deep-dish joke isn’t as funny now that he’s said it. She stops crying. Surrounded by the faces of countless irrelevant people, in the middle of the Village on the island with the subway entrance and therefore the most pedestrian traffic, they have never felt more alone together than they do now. Rain begins to glaze his glasses, slowly deteriorating his vision more than his accidentally smudging them at Ray’s.

They sit on the uptown six with a couple inches of breathing room between them. The air of the subway car is thick with humidity, sickness, and body odor: New York’s finest scents. Every other light is flickering in a migraine-inducing pattern, but for once the seats aren’t entirely occupied and the floor of the train is not entrenched in litter. Sophie needs more than just a couple inches. Henry’s glasses are in his hands and his face is flushed. A toddler in a puffy pink jacket is crying across from Sophie. She cringes.

“When?” she says.

“This weekend.”

“Do you have anything lined up?”

“Hopefully.” Henry scratches his cheek and cracks his neck. “But I guess nothing’s guaranteed until I sit down at the desk.”

Sophie nods slowly. The two of them stare ahead without acknowledging each other’s existence outside of their dialogue. The child’s mother is making raspberry noises on the little girl’s neck and she becomes hysterical with laughter. Sophie glares at the girl not entirely out of annoyance. She starts to think about what it’d be like to have a little “you,” about how selfish it would be to bring another life into this world just to be your progeny. Sophie touches her stomach and makes a pained face.

“What’s his name?” Henry asks.

“David.” Sophie adjusts her bra strap, twirls her split ends.  She stares straight ahead once again, her mind off the little girl.

“How’d you meet Dave?” The man’s name tastes like metal on Henry’s tongue and he can only do so much to stop himself from not gagging. He hopes Sophie doesn’t notice the acidity in his speech.

“At a bar.” Sophie turns to face Henry but stops when she sees his hand trembling just enough to notice. “He bought me a drink and we just got to talking.”

“You hate that, though,” Henry says just above a whisper.

“I do. I hated that I like talking to him, too.”

Now it’s Henry’s turn to nod. “Is it serious?”

“As serious as a couple drinks can be,” she says.

“Was it just a couple of drinks?” he asks. The doors groan open for Hunter College. This was Sophie’s stop twice upon a time. Henry steals a glance at her craning neck to see any professors, teachers, or friends.

She doesn’t answer his question, which answers it enough for Henry’s liking. Two people sit on either side of Henry and Sophie, pushing them together. Their legs touch, but Henry flinches and clutches his together.

“Did you tell your mom about leaving?” she asks.

“She knows about the job offer but said nothing about leaving New York.” Henry replaces his glasses and runs a hand through his hair.

“Mm.” Sophie looks around the car not particularly searching for anything but a resolution that’s nowhere to be found.

The subway car comes to a sudden halt between 77th and 86th Streets. An automated female voice alerts the passengers that the train is being held momentarily because of train traffic ahead of them. Everyone is thanked for his or her patience.

Henry and Sophie look at each other with ghosts of smiles around the corners of their mouths. From her peripheral vision Sophie catches the little girl beginning to cry again. Her almost-maybe smile disappears. Henry sees her lose his eye, lose him, and he takes a breath deep enough to puff his chest out, to feel his diaphragm rise and fall completely.

“It took you so long to meet someone else,” he says, “and now that you did I wish I never left that first time.” The train feels like it is beginning to creep along, but Henry knows that just might be his impatient New Yorker wishful thinking manifesting itself.

Sophie says nothing. She feels the train picking up speed and shifts in her seat. All she hears is Henry’s hollow voice; all she sees is that damned little girl, who is coming down from her tantrum to a fitful sleep. Her mother looks relieved—tired, too. Sophie empathizes for the slightest of moments with her and with Henry yet again; then she reels herself back and faces Henry as much as she can.

“Go home,” she says without looking him in the eye. “You need to pack.”

Henry takes his hand to her chin to pick her head up; Sophie looks him in the eye. Her pupils dilate. The train is slowly pulling in to the 86th Street station.

Sophie hangs her head but doesn’t remove his hand. “I can’t. Not this time.”  

The familiar ding-dong goes off and the doors of the car open. Again, professionals flood in and out of the train.

Sophie returns Henry’s hand to his lap, squeezes it just enough for him to notice, and exits the train going against the grain of incoming passengers.

Henry gets up to chase her, suddenly and finally ready to make it work, like the end of a romantic movie from the 1950s. The crowd stifles his momentum and the doors close with his face nigh-pressed up against the window. He watches her lone figure walk up the stairs. He prays that someone in his car got stuck in the doors so that all of them can reopen and let him out to get her and to talk to her with all of the words he’s always looked for, the right ones after all this time. He finds that in everything he’s said or didn’t, wanted or needed to express, he never truly knew what to say.

The doors don’t reopen and the train begins to pull out of the station and into the dark tunnel. The lights flicker out completely and Henry hears the wailing of a child coming from the corner of the subway.