Jim let the rain pelt him in the face as he walked up 2nd Avenue with his hands in his pockets. He squinted against the needles of cold water, not caring or even seeming to notice that they drenched his thinning blonde hair and made large dark spots on his gray trousers. He looked down at the blotches and thought of Paula, and remembered how her tears had spotted those same trousers almost identically only three nights before, her crying providing a momentary respite from arguing, or Jim having to explain himself, or having to wonder what to say. It was better to just watch her tears and marvel at the size of them.
He had not left the house with any conscious plan that morning, walk, get some breakfast, try not to think about her, but as soon as his foot hit the pavement she was everywhere, and the problem wasn't the obvious things like the memory of her tears brought on by the rain, or the woman walking by with engineer boots like the ones Paula wore, or even the flyer on a payphone advertising "Paul's Moving" reminding Jim of her name; the worst part was the twisting, burning tightness in his gut, making him feel like nothing, like not even one cell of his body was right. Poisoned. That was how it felt. Like a virus running through him. How could she? It didn't make any sense. When things were rough for Jim, and rough they had been, it only made him want to be with her more. But Paula wasn't like that. Exhausted from her busy work week and from Jim's "constant need for support" after the layoff, she craved solitude. It didn't make any goddamned sense. Not after the way she'd been before.
A UPS truck cut down East 6th right in front of him as he stepped off the curb, causing a small wave of dank water to rise over his black Rockports, engulfing them completely. He leapt back up to the sidewalk, shook each foot uselessly and thought about turning back, but he was stubborn. Something, perhaps left over from when schedules had existed, made Jim look at his watch. 9:15. She'd probably be leaving her apartment right about now, he thought. And with the rain like this she'd catch the bus as far as 7th Street and hop out there to walk the 2 blocks west to Cooper Union. Jim's heartbeat leapt ahead of him. He was on her path to work. He hadn't meant to be. If she saw him she would think he was stalking her or something. She wasn't going to believe it was coincidence. He'd be breaking the rules, ruining everything. But at the same time Jim realized that a silent voice within him had picked 2nd Avenue that morning, and picked it because it would join their paths, might create a lucky coincidence and bring her into view. He felt a sickening fire in the center of his being and knew the only thing that could make it go stop. Every time they were together he felt it slip away; when they were together he didn't feel doomed anymore, didn't feel ugly or awkward. Why the hell had he agreed to this? Why didn't he just say no? A week? Yes, she said, a week off so she could "get some space." He'd been crowding her. Taking over her life. Now she wanted a vacation. If only he still had his job, he thought. Then at least he'd have that to look forward to, at least to take his mind off her.
He gave up and crossed East 6th and ducked under the dripping red awning of the Korean deli--what room there was anyway, between the bins of cantaloupe and oranges and racks of morning papers, the Post, The Voice--and fished out a Carlton 100 from his breast pocket. It was hard to get smoke out of them, but what he got calmed him as it snaked from his mouth, shifting in the sudden breezes of passing cars. He imagined standing there till her bus came. Could he stay there unnoticed? Maybe she wouldn't see. He studied the bus stop and tried to analyze which way she'd be facing, which way she'd walk, but then the wetness of his fingers dissolved the cigarette paper, and his despair combined with his nervousness of being discovered. He felt his ribs trying to get out of his shallow chest. Jim flicked the butt into the street and crossed at the light to the Ukrainian diner on the opposite corner.
From the moment his palm touched the glass door everything in his field of vision seemed as if in a dream, slowed down, but frenetic like those time-lapse movies he'd seen as a kid of roses opening in early morning, or the graceful movements of clouds. The door swung shut behind him just as the old couple by the window got up to grab their raincoats from the wall hooks. Jim glided to their table, slid into a chair, and a yellow laminated menu dropped from the waitress' fingers to the Formica table top. Jim peeled off his soggy black nylon jacket and before he could drape it across the back of his chair a hot cup of coffee was already steaming under his nose. The waitress stood pigeon- toed, pen in hand. Are you ready to order? But Jim was staring out the window nervously, his lips pressed together, scanning the bus just letting out in front of the pizza place. It was hard to see through the wall of umbrellas blooming up from peoples' outstretched arms as they hastily emerged. He looked for any sign of her, for a glimpse of her red hair, of her proud walk, of her characteristic beige tote bag, or the forest green raincoat she always wore, but as the crowd scattered their various directions and the bus rolled away it became clear that Paula was not among them. Do you know what you'd like? The waitress was still there, her hand on one hip, and looking off into space, chewing gum. You can SEE I haven't even looked at the menu yet, he snapped, knowing what an asshole he was being at the same moment. He didn't know why he'd said it. The waitress glared down at him for a moment, then padded coolly back to the kitchen. Oh well, he thought, as he scanned the menu. It wasn't worth apologizing. Names of breakfast specials went in one eye and out the other. He knew the fucking thing by heart anyway. He didn't know what he thought he was looking for. It didn't matter. He waved the waitress back. Two scrambled and a bagel. Toasted? Yeh. She whisked the menu away and he dabbed water off his face with his paper napkin, his gaze never leaving the window.
The bus stop. Her bus stop. If he hadn't missed her already, that is. Oh shit, he panicked, what if she went in early? She did once in a while. He stared at the corner and tried to picture her there, but it was hard to see her clearly; he didn't know what expression to give her. Maybe she'd look sad and wistful, a sign that she missed him, some hope. No no, he shook his head, that was no good. The break was supposed make her better, let her relax. She should look rested. But if she was looking happy and rested, maybe that meant she didn't miss him, was doing fine. But he didn't want her to be fine. Well, yes he did. He loved her and wanted what was best for her, didn't he? Jim gritted his teeth, unable to decide what he really wanted to see, wishing he could shut off his brain or change the station it was playing, anything to get the damn thing to stop it STOP IT. Stop trying to decide what was right or wrong for him to feel. Anytime he thought he knew the answer he could think of a reason it might also be wrong. No matter how many times he played back the events of the previous week or two weeks in his mind he always came out feeling guilty. Why? What had he done that was so wrong? He just wanted to be with his damn girlfriend, wanted to feel that acceptance. Now he felt horribly wronged. It was so damned confusing. All he knew for certain was his desperate desire to see her again. To know that they were still going to be like before.
Jim sipped his coffee and stared out the window at the bus stop. The rain had slowed, and he worried for a second that she might not have taken the bus that day after all. No. He looked at his watch. She would have had to leave at 9, while it was still coming down hard, and she would never have tried to walk it. Just hang out. Just sit tight.
Another bus was coming, he could see it at the light now as his eyes strained at the silhouettes behind the dark windshield. he could not make out enough to distinguish faces yet, or even tell men from women. He waited impatiently, biting dead skin off his lower lip. His eggs arrived, quivering beside steaming home fries, and the waitress slapped his check face down on the table without looking. He ignored his breakfast and the waitress and watched the bus approach.
It made a squalling sound of metal on metal as it crunched to a halt. The doors opened before the wheels had fully locked and several people immediately tried to get on against the ones trying to leave, resulting in a momentary stand-off. Shoulders squeezed into shoulders as the waves of commuters finally passed each other gruntingly. What a bunch of assholes, Jim thought. He watched a fat, black woman with a tiny red umbrella get out and look up and down the avenue, confused. She looked so ridiculous, the umbrella simply useless to guard her round body from the chilly rain. Several tan-trenched yuppies quickly stepped around her, their large umbrellas tapping hers as they passed, and a cascade of water leapt from the woman's umbrella, showering her calico dress. She grimaced sadly, and paused for a moment before ambling south, out of Jim's sight.
Paula. She had slipped out the back door, while Jim was watching the fat woman. He felt his heart jump through the window at the sudden sight of her, but slumped down lower in his chair afraid she might see him. Minutes before, Jim had been unable to clearly see her in his imagination, now here he was, gazing at her delicate, morning-flushed face, regal somehow, like a marble statue.
She lit a cigarette as she turned down East 7th and continued, chin up, staring straight towards the brown school building dead ahead. Jim craned his neck to keep her in view, standing halfway up, and turned nearly full around to watch her gently swinging hips beneath her thin raincoat, departing the scene. A skinny, brillo-haired man in a yellow T-shirt at the table behind his was watching Jim over his Newsday, and chewing kasha with his mouth open. Jim blushed, but then felt his embarrassment boil over into anger and he growled, "What the fuck are YOU looking at, dickhead? She's my GIRLFRIEND!" The man snorted and turned back to his paper. By then the vision of Paula was a lost moment, her face out of sight before he had a chance to really analyze her expression. Jim slowly sat back down, picked at his eggs, and wept.
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