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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.

Full book available on Amazon - 99 cents for ebook (Kindle, iPhone), $7.99 paperback:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Shadow Swans Chapter 2

Chapter Two

A ruby-throated hummingbird weighs as much as a penny.

As I fastened the necklace to my body (it has not been unfastened since that moment), I decided that I would not go to work that day, or, perhaps, ever again.  Instead, I would return to my decrepit palace. 
Since childhood, I have been obsessed with secret and abandoned buildings.  Early on, I made a habit of trespassing, particularly in structures that exuded darkness and tragedy.  I’ve climbed into castles, crack dens, caves (both man-made and natural), abandoned police stations and libraries, condemned apartment buildings, old theaters, and, in other countries, ancient war fortifications.  But each time, though I resurfaced with rushing blood and fabulous stories, I found myself generally as empty as before the adventure began – hungry for the next thing, rather than satisfied with the last.  Until I made my own castle from the ruins of a dead one.
My apartment was magical.  Plywood covered the entire lower level of the building, just off Avenue D.  The bricks of the upper levels were shrouded in exquisite swooping gang symbols, full of passion, color, and grit.  Never did their meanings make themselves known to me, and yet I could stare at those symbols for hours, lost in their magnificent lines. 
One side of my building fronted an abandoned lot – the plywood planked up on that wall was loose, and behind it hid a side entrance to the building.   I squatted on the second floor, up a grand dark wooden staircase embellished with curled century-old carvings, past the peeling yellowed wallpaper in the hallway, in a one-room apartment that had probably sheltered hundreds of Russian, and Prussian, and Ukranian, and Irish immigrants over the decades. 
                  My floors, near collapse, revealed patches of tile and layers of wood that had been laid down over the decades.  I covered my windows with thick, opaque, blue velvet curtains so that nobody would discover my presence.  At night, sometimes, I opened my curtains and lay in the dark, permitting the night air to envelop me.
                  I painted each square inch of wall and ceiling in my apartment in great irregular swaths of every imaginable color, to help me deny the true nature of the world, which in my opinion was, at its heart, the color of bruises – black and purple and burned.  But I never found a combination of colors powerful enough to eradicate the heart of the world.  For that, I relied upon my avian friends.
Flying around my ceiling was a flock of hummingbirds, which I spun out of colored electrical wire and copper wire and every other kind of wire that I could pull from discarded televisions and stereos and old cars in the junkyard.  On that day, I had 462 of them, but that number did vary (and it was documented in my weekly census).  At its most populous, the flock numbered 487.  Sadly, some of my birds flew away – I gave them too much soul and spirit, and they couldn’t stand to be confined to my room, so they just took to the sky.  I don’t blame them.
                  A small generator powered my lights, my computer, and my stereo.  My heater was battery-powered, but I rarely used it; the cold made me feel more agitated and productive.  For some reason there was still running water in my building.  This, I cannot explain, except to say that New York must be the most inefficiently administered metropolis in the world. 
It’s true, I didn’t get hot water, but my gas-powered stove could heat a lake full of water.  Like a pioneer, I poured giant boiling pots into my old claw-foot tub, on which rust had almost entirely devoured the once-shiny porcelain. The tub legs erupted into violent life-sized tiger paws, their massive claws sharp as death.  I had re-finished the veneer on the inside, where my body would lie, and the rest I left to the mercy of the elements.  I loved to seek refuge in that tub for hours and imagine all of the bodies that had slithered into its slick white sides.
After I met Den, I disappeared into my claw-foot tub with a notebook in hand, and wrote out every detail of my morning.  I felt, for the first time in years, a sense of visceral excitement.  Some part of me believed, or wanted to believe, I had found a soul-sister, or a prophet who would enlighten me.  Even today, I cannot explain why a young woman as generally distressed as myself should have found such bliss in a chance meeting with a vagabond, except that perhaps I had already begun to fall in love with her, just a tiny bit, on that first day.  And perhaps I somehow knew that the book of my life, which I had been writing for so long, had just taken its most audacious turn.
Since childhood, I have recorded copious notes about my daily life.  I always had a notion that my life was in some way monumental, and my epic autobiography would be read by millions of minions across the globe.  These days, I’m quite sure I’ll never have minions, and I’m not sure there’s ever been anything monumental about anybody’s life (with a few notable exceptions) but I am still fascinated by the notion of my life’s potential, or lack thereof, the notion that almost nobody out there will ever notice what I do with that potential, or lack thereof, and so the copious notes continue to abound.  To date, I have filled 213 small notebooks with profane observations and witty conversations and endless explorations of my irascible mind.  And in those notebooks, my reservoir of distress and wonder has spewed and swelled, year by year.
On that particular day in February, my writing was filled with wildly optimistic dribble that failed to portend the untamed tornado that my life would soon become.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Shadow Swans - Chapter One

    I wrote Shadow Swans during Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month.  Every November, scores of invisible writers all around the world commit to writing 50,000 words during the month of November, and they log their daily word counts on the Nano website,  As I wrote, I loved to imagine all the thousands of writers out there, somewhere, spending every second of their free time writing, just as I was.  In two successive Nanos, I created my Shadow Swans manuscript.  In celebration of Nanowrimo (which is currently ongoing once again), here's the first chapter of Shadow Swans...

Chapter One

Hummingbirds use stolen spider webs to help build their nests.

I stood on the subway platform, imagining that my skin was being licked by the vapors of old trash and excrement, and that was enough to keep me steady.  I had to do something to take myself away from that place; not because of the filth, but because I couldn’t live, for one more second, in the same reality as the New York City masses around me.  Those corporate slaves, those automated piles of flesh, not even worth the noxious dust that licked our faces.  At least the noxious dust lived by its own rules. 
Not one detail of that day escapes me, perhaps because my nerves were so raw and open that they recorded every blistering sensation.  Or perhaps because that day, when I became mesmerized by a girl who lived inside the city’s belly, was the hinge upon which the rest of my life would swing.
On that February morning, skewered by a penetrating cold, I shoved and battered my way through the bitter F-train platform to find a spot where I could wait with an ounce of peace, disappear into my headphones - into music that nobody else could hear – and think about how tragic and hurtful and hateful the world had become, and how we’d all be dead soon, and how I didn’t understand why everyone was not in a panic every second of the day.  And I thought to myself, that girl next to me in her carefully distressed designer jeans and tousled hair is trying so hard, way too hard, and she really should re-think those skinny jeans, because it’s really not everyone who should be wearing skinny jeans, especially in winter, when we’ve all packed on a few extra pounds, and oh my God what is wrong with me, I want to beat all of these people over the head with a fire extinguisher and then blow the fire extinguisher’s guts out and asphyxiate all of us down here in this filthy tunnel, and why the hell does everyone always stare down into the oncoming train tunnel, desperate to see the two bright shining eyeballs come around the bend, as if the desperation will make the train come faster and the day end sooner...
                  If I had known then what I know now, I might’ve tried to contain my fury, I might’ve tried to calm my messy mind, but of course I didn’t have the wisdom of age; I couldn’t imagine myself as I am now, squirreled away and lonely to the bone.  So I stood on the platform, immersed in my own na├»ve fear of the world.
                  The subway’s eyeballs appeared, and the minnow-people shuffled and jockeyed for the best train-mounting position, ramming through pregnant mothers and stepping on children and despising homeless people.  I thought to myself, there’s not a single person in this country who cares about anything except his or her own position on the platform. 
                  Chatter and sweet garbage air still licked my face and my hands. I stood there, shoved in every direction, riddled by the sounds of footsteps and hostility, thinking what a beautiful swirl this is. The doors closed.  And I stood there still.  And I looked around and thought to myself, I’m impervious to all of this.  I’m living my own life, and I don’t need to follow the minnows unless I really want to, and I didn’t want to.  I was so sick of the common routine – wake up, subway, work, eat, work, eat, subway, home – tedium was driving me to an emotional death.  All of the potential that I’d gleaned from so many years of study at well-manicured educational institutions had begun to hollow me out from the inside, like an avocado sucked from its shell, and what remained of my core had become a fetid, gelatinous mess.
So I kept standing there.  For over an hour.  And the morning rush ended.  God, that felt powerful: every moment in my life was a choice, and at that moment, I made the choice to do nothing other than listen to music, and stand perfectly still. 
                  I started counting things – pillars, pieces of trash, rats (which I’ve always valued as one of New York City’s only indigenous land species).  As it had since childhood, counting things brought me a sense of placidity. 
I counted everything in sight and listened to more Bjork than most people would care to hear in a lifetime when, down deep in the tunnel, I saw a movement much too large to be a rodent.  A masculine swagger and a confusing wad of distinctly feminine hair.  The shadowy thing hunched its way to me and became more and more a girl. Even at a distance I saw, in the eyes of this stooping form, a ferocity that nearly made me turn away.  But I loved it, this impossible idea – a girl from the bowels of Metro Transit.
                  She jumped the highly electrified third rail, threw her hands up on the platform, and hoisted herself up to stand in front of me, nose-to-nose, intense, and reeking of something long ago discarded.  She wore old black army boots and her blonde-ish hair was tied in a stiff and pointy mess on the top of her head just like the heroin-hungry models in Europe, a style I found remarkably hip for a homeless person, although the rest of her betrayed absolutely no notion of current fashion.  Her jeans and striped sweater were relics from the 1980s – I couldn’t remember when I had last seen a young woman wearing jeans that actually fastened above the belly button – and she wore a stained puffy coat that must have once belonged to a smallish man.  Less than a foot from my face, she cocked a delicate chin, curled her mouth into a sneer, and barked:
                  “If I give you money, will you buy me some stuff?”  Her voice was too loud, as if she dared anyone to listen to her, to hear what she had to say, and to take exception.  Although she was as white as snow, maybe even whiter, she had a hint of that East Village street accent that says, I live hard, I am not afraid of you, and I am not afraid to eat your face if you get in my way.
                  “Who are you?”  My voice was meek in comparison to hers.  But she had me hypnotized; I was six inches tall, and she was a giant.
                  “Credenza.  Who are you?”  Her eyes didn’t waver from mine.  She had hollowed eye sockets, and her blemished skin was translucent white—almost grey—almost hideous, as if it were rotting, even while she lived inside it.  But she was one of the prettiest people I’d ever seen.  Under the grime, she had the infectious features of a hometown cheerleader.  Her eyes shone ice blue – somehow that seemed strange – such a pure clean beautiful color.  I always had imagined vagrants having dark eyes like mine, but red-veined and hollow, the whites turned yellow.
                  Standing still, I whispered, “Ruby.”  I always despised my name, “Ruby Cooper,” in all its jeweled cuteness.  I had thought about changing it to something mysterious like “Five” or something ironic like “Sudan,” but then I decided that it was romantic to suffer a name that I absolutely hated, so I kept it.
“Well, Ruby, I can see that you’re bored.  You’ve been standing there for over an hour waiting for something to happen, because you hate your life so much.  And you’re really excited that a crazy girl just jumped out of the tunnel.”
At this, she threw her head back and laughed; not a sweet laugh, but brash and loud, like a hooker in the hands of a high roller.
No response from me.
“So, since you obviously can’t deal with whatever is at the end of that tunnel, and since I’m the most interesting thing you got going on today, why don’t you just do me a favor and go get me some food?” Her power and ferocity filled the station.
I tried to be tough, like her, “What if I don’t have any money?”  I wanted to raise my voice, but it refused to be raised, and my lip quivered, and I felt pathetic and small. 
“Oh my God, I’ll give you the money.”  She smiled at me like a mother amused at her young child, and reached into her jeans pocket, drawing out a crumpled wad of bills, extending a hand.
Everything around me disappeared.  I watched her watching me, felt her penetrating my subconscious, noodling around inside me, and I considered my options.  I could refuse her request, send her back into the tunnel, and hop the next train to sameness.  Or I could get her some groceries, and at least have something to think about for a few hours.  My choice was clear.
“Okay.  What do you want?”  I shifted my stance, from one hip to the other.  She still stood square, with her feet apart, strong and resolute, and held out a list.
                  “You can get everything from the grocery store across the street.  There’s an extra five bucks in there for you to keep.  Thanks.”  She placed in my hand the small slip of stained paper, and the wad of cash.  As she moved, her stench, like rotten apples and old whiskey, wafted over me.  Still, her eyes didn’t deviate from mine. 
                  I careened my way to the grocery store.  The streets were bright, and packed with broken mothers and angry children.  My mind reeled, romantically mesmerized by the notion of girls living in tunnels; girls like myself, but more in touch with darkness, and hardship, and fear.  I had heard about people who lived in the subway system, but I always assumed that they’d be delusional criminals, wacked out on cheap crack, sleeping in their own shit. 
                  Some piece of me, deep inside, wished I were a feral subway girl.  I knew that this desire was wrong, but years of confusion and inexplicable sadness had thrown me into a relentless condition my mother chose to call “depression,” but I preferred to call “heightened awareness.”  And in my scarred, heightened stupor, it seemed to me that life in a tunnel would be a fantastically heroic way to live and survive the trials of the world. It would certainly be more heroic than the lives of the broken mothers and angry children.
                  Not until I got to the grocery store did I look at Credenza’s list.  Eggs, bread, potato chips, Vienna sausages (people still ate those?), Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs, New York Times, People Magazine, Home and Garden Magazine, Cheerios, box-o-milk, paper towels, toilet paper, Clorox Cleanup (somewhere down below, there was a disinfected tunnel!), light bulbs (light bulbs?), beer, cheese, soap, double A batteries, D batteries, cat food… 
My checkout girl was a spectacled, slick-haired, pudgy little girl who should have been in school.  Despite my better judgment, and for no particular reason, I found myself saying to her, “I’m taking this food to a girl who lives in the subway station.”  The pudgy girl swiped the groceries, smacked her gum, and, with sleepy eyes, mumbled “okay.”  I visualized myself slamming her indifferent head against her dirty little scanner, and I knew this was wrong, and felt, as always, grateful that nobody could see into my head.  I thought, every day, all day, Americans exercise only their most boring neurons – we mine ourselves for boring fuel until we collapse in a boring heap every single night.
                  Laden with 40 pounds of groceries, I lumbered back down into the F-train (I may be small, but I am fierce – don’t be fooled by my stature), paid another $2 subway fare, bumped down the stairs and back to the end of the platform.  Credenza wasn’t anywhere to be found.  I could for once feel every nerve in my body as I waited for her to re-emerge from the whale’s belly.  And suddenly, there she was.  She flew out of the darkness, hopped up, and threw herself down on the bench like she owned it. She pierced me again with her steely eyes.
                  I became acutely aware of my diminutive stature – she had at least six inches and twenty pounds on me – but then, most of the world has at least six inches and twenty pounds on me.  Suddenly desperate to impress this woman from middle Earth, I tried to startle her with my magical stare.  Lucky for me, my eyes are as big as I am small, and, combined with my extremely long and straight chestnut-colored hair (of which I’ve always been very proud), I’m told that I give off a mixture of great charm and frightening intensity.  I used to stare at people in the streets, or wherever, and it totally freaked them out, especially since my eyes are nearly black, and they seem better suited for a gelfling or a cat than for a human being.  But Credenza didn’t bend to my spell – she saw nothing in front of her but the accomplishment of her agenda.
                  “I had to make sure the booth guy was sleeping, and no trains were coming.”  She sat with her shoulders hunched, legs spread wide, like, I’m hard, I’m not delicate, don’t forget it.  “Now I gotta wait ‘til the next train passes before I go back down. Anyway, thanks for your help.”  With this, she turned away from me, a bit too forcibly, as if her movements were premeditated and dishonest.
                  “Sure.  So, do you live down there?”
                  She said nothing, looked at me sideways, then turned away again. 
I was pinned by the idea of her, forging her own path, sticking it to the man, dwelling at the apex of human beings’ potential for individuality and self-reliance.  I wanted to crawl inside her mind and take a look around.  I reached in my bag, and she watched me out of the corner of her eye, with rapt attention and feigned indifference.  I thought maybe she’d bolt back into the tunnel, but she didn’t. 
                  “Here.”  I handed her a hummingbird that I had crafted by spinning an endless loop of copper wire.  One long strand, a series of tiny loops, starting at the tip of the tail, and ending at the beak.  “I made it.”
                  Looking at the bird, her cheeks flushed, filling the sickly grey palette with a wash of color, like a spot of blood dropped on dirty snow.  Suddenly, she looked feminine, like a girl, for the first time.  Without reaching for it, she said, “That’s ugly.  But cool.” 
She clearly wanted me to react to the “ugly,” but I agreed with her on all counts.  “Thanks.  You can have it.”
Taking the hummingbird from my hand, she ran her finger over its beak and gnarled legs, and then looked at me, really looked at me.  In less than a second, she assessed my clothes, my shoes, the nascent lines in my face, and something in her expression softened, almost imperceptibly.  I wore my favorite pair of jeans, frayed around the edges, faded to perfection, but fitted enough to show my tight little form.  I was tiny, but I had the requisite curves.  They were just more subtle than the norm.  My tight black T-shirt featured the logo from the band “Kiss,” which suddenly seemed to me embarrassingly kitschy.  Over the t-shirt I wore a blue leather motorcycle jacket, on which Den’s eyes lingered for a split second.  And her gaze paused obviously upon my necklace – a jade koru, from New Zealand (Representing growth and new life, the koru is supposed to be a powerful Maori symbol.  I loved the necklace, although I can’t say that it ever catalyzed any spiritual “growth”).  Den’s stare confused me – I couldn’t determine whether she approved of me, or coveted my clothing, or judged my demeanor - but she was clearly interested in what she saw.  
She said, “You’re a weird girl.”
                  “Maybe.” I was proud of the compliment, hoping it was true.  I thought my abnormality would endear me to her.  I wanted to touch her face, to see if she was a mirage, but my limbs had frozen.  “I think it’s cool that you live here.  I won’t tell anyone.” 
She brushed a lock of hair from her face, coyly, and looked off into the tunnel, her profile striking me with its delicacy.  Her skin, despite the soot and strain, was still soft and young, her delicate nose upturned perfectly.  I leaned back from her slightly, and in my slight, expressionless way, said, “You’re beautiful.”
                  She almost smiled, but did not, and instead, raised her chin, avoided my gaze. “Yeah, they tell me that.” 
                  “I don’t know how you survive here.”  I managed to break the spell, wrench my massive eyes from her face, stare at my hands, upon which I suddenly perceived several old cuts, and dried cuticles, and clumps of dirt under my nails.  Not the hands of a lady. 
                  Credenza sneered, wagged a finger. “I’m fine. I’m the runner.  Without me, nobody eats.  I’m useful, so nobody lets anybody mess with me.”  Throughout the tirade, her New York street accent swelled, cutting off random consonants, so “runner” became “runna” and “with” became “wit.”  I noticed that her chin cradled a tiny cleft.  “Can I come see where you live?”
                  With a manly wave of the hand, “No way.” 
                  A pair of eyeball-headlights poked out at us from deep inside the tunnel, and a wash of hot infected air blasted over us.  The subway wheels screamed madly.  Our hair waved, the train stopped, a couple of people exited, nobody looked at us, and the train dropped back into the darkness.  Credenza handed me a wad of string, and picked up the groceries. 
                  “Nobody calls me Credenza.  Call me Den.  Thanks for the bird.  See ya.”  Flashing a wide and dimpled smile, she flew down into the tunnel, without looking back. 
                  Stunned and suddenly desperately lonely, I looked down at the wad of string in my hand.  It was a thin long strip of leather with a piece of smooth colored glass bound in the middle - a necklace.  

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