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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Shadow Swans Chapter Three

Chapter Three

If continuously active, a hummingbird can starve to death in 2 hours.

                  The week after I met Den, I imagined that there were people watching me from all directions – their eyes peering out from manholes, from the hollows of Tompkins Square Park’s great trees, from inside those solitary water towers on top of every building.  And I imagined lithe and beautiful and filthy people with cobalt eyes.  I obsessed over the underground populations and spent hours researching them.  At the last count (which was nearly thirty years ago), at least 5,000 homeless, often referred to as “mole people,” lived in the New York subway system.  Some had purportedly organized into structured communities with teachers, mayors, and “runners” who traveled to the outside world to get food and supplies.  These communities were rife with drugs, prostitution, crime, and disease. 
                  And officially, the Mole People didn’t exist.  The city of New York asserted that it had purged the subway system of its homeless plague.
                  I wondered what the spirit of the underground felt like.  It seemed so dark and cold, but I imagined it might be richer than my spare, spirit-filled home. 
                  The thought that I wouldn’t see Den again filled me with strife and anger.  Never had I been confronted with anything or anyone so captivating, and I had no idea how to maintain a handhold on my newfound fixation.
                  I wanted to fly down into the tunnel and slip through cracks and crevices and fight off demons until I found her; but I didn’t.
                  Over the course of the following week, I occasionally went to my office, where I sat at a fancy desk and surfed the web, ignoring the mediocre minds moving around me. 
                  I was the Director of Network Operations for Geekspace, a friend network geared entirely toward the sector of society obsessed with computers and mathematics and fantasy role-play.  I had started up Geekspace for a Computer Science project at Brown University.   Technology junkies joined, from all across the country, by the thousands.   They loved Geekspace, because, for the first time in their lives, they were making friends, fitting in, and getting laid, since the entire courting process happened online, allowing them to overcome the fact that they had absolutely no “game,” and minimal social skills.  Also, nerds from Kansas who wanted to talk about course wavelength digital multiplexing, or vector markup language, could find someone in Rhode Island who was equally excited about that subject’s nuances. 
                  And because I had so many technologically-obsessed new friends willing to help me streamline Geekspace, it became one of the most efficient friend networks on the web.  Myspace and Friendster and Facebook and others entered a bidding war for my site, and I eventually sold to Myspace for ten million dollars, and the promise of $200,000 per year to serve as Director of Network Operations, a meaningless and unnecessary position.
                  Basically, I got paid to come to work when I pleased, and answer a few questions.  A ridiculous job, it allowed me ultimate freedom. 
                  My colleagues, or, more appropriately, my employees, were well-intentioned computer geeks, and a few businesspeople who also tended toward the technological ilk.  Awkward, poorly-dressed, and somewhat brilliant, most everyone at Geekspace shared with me an impatience for the trivial and avaricious nature of the business world.  At least half of them just wanted to sit in a room all day with their computers, solve problems using ones and zeroes, receive their paychecks, and then return home to play online Risk with their buddies in Japan. 
At lunch in the building cafeteria with my slightly interesting boyfriend Mark, who actually did the work I had been hired to do, I asked, “Have you ever seen a hot homeless person?”  Mark sat back in his chair, a black hoodie obscuring half his face, and said, “No, but Halle Berry was homeless for a while, and she’s hot.”
I leaned in, and whispered toward the hole in the hoodie, “I saw a homeless girl as hot as Halle Berry.”
“Cool.  Where?”  Mark shoved a noodle in his mouth, sat forward in his chair, and pushed his hoodie back.  Messy brown hair laid down on his forehead, nearly obscuring his masculine but bookish features.  I peered at him closely, certain that he was attractive, but wondering whether I actually liked him, unable to tell.
I would not divulge where I had met Den.  She was my secret, my prize.  Instead of answering, I said, “Have you heard of people who live in the subway tunnels?”
Mark leaned into me, suddenly seeming less masculine and more childlike, and grabbed my wrist.  “Did you go into the tunnels?  Why didn’t you take me?”  As always, he was far too needy.
I panicked, realizing my mistake, fearing that I had betrayed the sanctity of my secret.  Glancing at the clock on the wall, grabbing my backpack, I made a false show of professional urgency, “No.  I didn’t.  Just was wondering if it’s true that there are people down there.  We gotta get back to the office.”

                  The next Friday, I swam back through the rush-hour river, my shoulder brushing up against a scum-stained tile wall, my feet scraping on concrete soaked with decades of urine.  I put on my iPod, sat on the bench, and waited.  For three hours.  And she didn’t come.  So I got on the train and glided to work in an existential fog, not feeling the jostle of the tracks underneath me, or the cold oily slip of the pole under my hand. 
                  The following week, I placed a hummingbird under the subway bench.  Its wiry mouth held a tiny piece of paper with my phone number and the words “Den, call.” I waited, and heard nothing, for two months.  The bonfire in my gut began to dwindle, and I sank back into the state of ennui that had pervaded my life for more than two decades. 
Until my phone rang, and that loud, hard voice said, “I saw you waiting that day.  I didn’t come because I wanted to see how long you would wait.”
                  “When? Weeks ago?” I snapped, my heart racing.  I wanted to vaporize myself and fly with the telephone signal, up to the satellite floating by the moon, back down to another phone somewhere in Manhattan, so I could see her.  “So why are you calling me now?”  My tone wasn’t nearly as indifferent as I wanted it to be.
                  “I need some more stuff.”
                  Mustering hostility, I said, “You think I’ll do whatever you tell me to?”
“Yep.  You gonna help me?”
I felt used, and angry, and vanquished, and thrilled.  “Who’s been at your beck and call for the last 2 months?”
                  “I had a guy, but he doesn’t want to help me anymore.”
                  “He got pissed because I wouldn’t take him to my house.”
                  “I don’t blame him.”  House?
                  She was losing patience.  “Dude, are you going to help me or not?”
                  “Fine.  Where?”
                  “First Avenue station, at three o’clock.  If I don’t come up right away, just wait.  Can you bring me a book too?  Anything’s cool.”
                  My own patience with this was wearing thin.  “Maybe.  I’ll see if I have one.”  Of course I had one.
“I’ll see you at 3.  Thanks.”
                  I was supposed to meet Mark that afternoon, but I called and told him I was sick and needed to rest.  Exasperatingly sweet, Mark said he didn’t mind, since he was still figuring out how to unlock the Hidden Foundation Level in Halo 2.  At least Mark didn’t ask too many questions. 
                  Gliding on a hand-painted skateboard through streets filled with rage, I closed my eyes when I crossed an intersection, just to see if I could make it through without getting slammed by a car.  People with nothing else to think about wondered at my stupidity.  I arrived at the station on time, but saw no sign of Den until 3:45, when she scampered out of the tunnel and hopped up next to me, a list in her extended hand, no apology for tardiness.  She wore the same dirty jeans and army boots, with a not-so-filthy red sweatshirt.  Her hair sat twisted on top of her head, as before.  But her demeanor was less cold, almost friendly, almost smiling.
                  “Here,” was all she said.
                  “No hello?”
                  She stood like a tough guy, shoulders hunched, hips square, legs shoulder-width apart, list-bearing hand held out nonchalantly.  And, with that mysterious accent, she said, “I don’t have time to be nice.  If you don’t want to help me, I’ll find another sucker to do it.”  The last was uttered without displeasure, as if it were a joke, rather than a threat.
                  Under my breath, I said, “Here’s your book.”  I took the list, and handed her The Magus by John Fowles. 
                  Her cheeks reddened, betraying pleasure.  With the smallest hint of smile, she reached for the book, and said, “Thanks.  What is it?”
                  “One of my favorite books.  Some of it happens underground.  And there’s a lot of magic in it.”
                  She sat down on the bench, opening the book to the first page, reading intently, cueing me to leave her alone. 
Taking her money and list, I skated slowly to the grocery store.  Wandering through grocery aisles, I listened to Stevie Wonder sing through the loudspeaker about his Cherie Amour.  The lights, fluorescent bright, exposed every crevice on the face of an ancient Ukranian woman.  Skinny women milled around comparing Snackwell boxes and thinking about how best to culinarily appease their ineffectual husbands.  Nobody spoke.  I counted 126 brands of cereal, 13 brands of honey, 86 brands of potato chips, taking an unnecessary hour to get Den’s supplies, just to teach her a lesson about promptness and respect.
                  Back in the station, Den glanced from her book, and said, “Did it make you feel good to know I was waiting here for you?”
She acted aloof, but I saw frustration in her clear blue eyes.  I said, “Yes.”
She dove back in her book.  Somehow I could tell she approved of my move.
I sat down next to her.  “Did you like the hummingbird?”
“Yeah, I did.  Some of my friends want to know how you did it.”
                  “I could show them.”
                  “Hell no.  They don’t want to meet you.  They just want to know how you made the bird.”
                  “Well, tell them that if they want to know how I do it, I’ll come give them a lesson.”
                  She looked away, deep into her dark home, and asked, “What’s it like outside today?” 
                  “It’s beautiful.  Let’s go for a walk.”
                  Pursing her lips, she said, “No way.  I don’t go up there.”  I believed her.  Underneath all the grit and fury, she was the palest person alive.
                  “When was the last time you saw the sun?” I asked her.
                  With this, she blushed deeply, all over her face and neck.  “Never.”
                  “Are you kidding me?”
                  “No, I’m not kidding you.  I don’t want to go up there.”
                  Incredulous, I raised my voice for the first time.  “Why?  That’s crazy!”
                  She slid back away from me, and crossed her arms, torquing her face into an angry wad.  “No it’s not.  The world is a mess.  Did you know that the sky is literally falling?  And anyway, can you imagine what people would think of me up there?  No way.  I’d be a damn pariah.”
                  The air around us suddenly seemed thick and unwell, and I imagined breathing only that, for my entire life.  A few people sat on benches 40, 50, 100 feet away.   A girl who looked like a cheap secretary, in an ill-fitting suit, checked her fingernails.  A banker stared into the tunnel, searching for the phosphorescent fish eyes.  Everyone seemed absurd.  Softly, I said, “I bet you’re the only homeless person that uses the word ‘pariah.’”
                  Her cheeks flushed again.  Sitting on the bench, legs splayed like a man, the color in her cheeks seemed so feminine, so out of place, especially when coupled with her boorish attitude.  “You don’t know anything about homeless people.  We’re not all crazy and stupid.  Well, most of us are crazy, but not all of us.  And we’re not all hookers and addicts either.”  She stood up, picked up the groceries.  “I gotta bounce.  Thanks for your help.” 
“Sure.  And I know you’re not all stupid.  Crazy, maybe.”  I smiled at her with my elfin eyes.  As she looked at me, I felt her eyes linger just a half-second longer than expected, as if she wanted to say something nice, something with softer edges, but couldn’t muster the courage.  For that brief moment, I thought I felt her relax. 

She leapt down into the tunnel, disappearing like a puff of smoke from a crack pipe.  I promised myself that next time I saw her, I would sink my hooks into her, and make her lead me to her promised land.

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