Mike Lee is an editor, photographer and reporter for a trade union newspaper in New York. His fiction is published in The Scarlet Leaf Review, Taxicab, Ghost Parachute, Reservoir, The Airgonaut and The Alexandria Quarterly. He also is a blogger/interviewer with Focus on the Story.
UNTIL THE END OF THE DAY (MIDSPRING DITHERING)
Awakening, Katerina felt metal in her mouth. Through the curtain half pulled across the window, the clouds shielding the rising sun lent a dull grayness to the early morning. Katerina pulled the black sheet away and padded across the parquet floor, into the bathroom. She remained on the toilet for fifteen minutes, looking at the shoe ads in a fashion magazine and cursing her age.
Katerina liked her West Elm chocolate brown furniture, the bookshelves neatly arranged, the coffee table square and modern, the lamps cheaper than they looked, the framed prints on the wall: Magritte, Rothko, classic Mike Kozik alternative rock show posters from Austin in the early nineties, back when that city was fun, before California, Mexico and New York moved in and fought for the couch. Yes, New York, she thought. I was going to be a writer.
Manhattan. Katerina moved there at twenty-seven in 1992, after graduate school and a job in publishing. Went straight to associate editor, promoted to senior editor in six months. There was still family money left over and the pay was good, so she could afford the apartment at the edge of the East Village in the sprawling red brick nothing known as Stuyvesant Town. It was rent stabilized and on the L train, an easy commute from her stop on First Avenue and 14th Street, two stops to Union Square, transfer to the Lexington four-five to Midtown, and a single block and an elevator ride to the 37th floor.
Katerina dressed like the six digits she made. She liked her high heeled Laboutins even though they were hard to find without platforms which made her feel like a stripper, and the somewhat butch power suits with pencil skirts and pants designed and tailored on the Rodeo Drive of rich hipsters, East Village 9th Street. Katerina was five-one and a little on the zaftig side, with streaks of gray fighting her auburn hair for space, and therefore required a look that exuded her authority, albeit not much more than stage managing three different lifestyle magazines for a company on the edge of collapse between the twin plagues of endless recession and the Internet. Katerina built up her design skills and had her resume at the ready since 2008, but she knew better. 47 had become the new 60 to this postmodern economy, and so she obsessively checked the stock portfolio from her parents’ trust fund as well as the investments made with the money left by her grandparents. She had a work 401(k) that was dented hard from the crash, but it remained enough to pay whatever capital gains taxes she would have to, and there was always Texas.
Texas. Home, though Austin and the surrounding Hill Country had changed dramatically. Home was Mom, Dad in a suburb overlooking Lake Travis, going to football games with her best friend, and punk rock shows at Raul’s and Club Foot. All that had gone and went away—consigned to nostalgic sentimentality on Facebook. Katerina was wise to reread her diaries. It was one matter that the bands she saw left more of an impression than the people in her life, quite another that the daydreams expressed in cursive on college-ruled lines were invariably better than the daily reality.
When she returned to Austin—and Katerina was somewhat resigned that she would—it would be to a skyline like Houston without Philip Johnson, expensive restaurants rivaling Manhattan’s in fare, price, and sprawl. The little suburban community she knew at thirteen was built-up mansions over every hill—even the house she grew up in had been torn down in the mid-2000s for a horror of French whatever, complete with driveway fountain. It made her sick to see it, considering her father had designed the original neighborhood when the first spades struck. There was still good BBQ to be had, which she missed, and the music scene was worthwhile, meaning she wouldn’t mind at all being the middle aged lady rubbing shoulders with the peers who had decided to stay. Most importantly, she could afford to live there, and being lonely in the sun in Texas was far better than dying alone in New York. She needed to leave, but still resolved to hang on until she could no longer.
Katerina unrolled her mat and began her Pilates, stretching in bra and panties. After an hour of that and then lifting weights, she retired to the shower, scrubbed and cleaned, and dressed up in a pair of red gym shorts and a white ribbed tank top, leftovers from when she worked out at the gym. She had stopped going last year when she realized she could do everything at home and the girls around her were getting younger, while the older ones were flailing against the brick wall of the calendar. Katerina preferred to wrap her insecurities in a blanket. She liked her legs just the way they were, and while a little flabby in the middle and saggy ever so slightly in the rack, Katerina still enjoyed the attractiveness of her body. It was the face that she had issues with—it seemed everything bad went there. Her forehead furrowed like the rivers of Mars and crow’s feet apparent from decades of eye strain. She accepted this as part of her transition into middle age; to fight reality would only add to the stress. She had a coworker, Evelyn, who had already gone in for surgery. Evelyn came out looking so stretched out that she reminded Katerina of her cat. She wasn’t going to embarrass herself, that much Katerina resolved every morning applying makeup, and in the evening with the cold cream. She also took a certain pride in her looks, telling herself these were marks of experience. Just not today. She did not want to look until she had a reason to, on her self-imposed mental health holiday.
Katerina sat behind her vanity table, also West Elm chocolate brown, and brushed her hair, this time not avoiding her face. Her glasses were off, so the softness from aging vision buffeted her sensitive nature as she untangled wet wavy locks before rising and moving into the living room. She toasted a bagel in the kitchen and made coffee. She picked up the remote and clicked on the stereo, listening to REM’s Murmur, college days music, yet without much sentiment. Sentimental to Katerina was Simple Minds and The Damned, REM was nothing but orchestrated elevator music. Listening to these songs now as MP3s or playing the old videos on YouTube brought out mixed emotions. She still snickered, however, over the goofy lyrics of Pilgrimage. Twenty years after first hearing the song, she still thought the opening included the words “take out washing.” She hummed along to “your hate, two headed cow,” then munched on her bagel.
She spent the morning doing laundry downstairs and taking dry cleaning over, stopping off at Starbucks for her venti coffee, and then an hour watching a game of squash, sitting anonymously in the shade under blue skies. Her cell was on mute, Katerina steadfastly refusing to take any calls from her neurotic assistant, Deidre. Katerina felt like a cigarette. She had smoked a pack a day from high school until graduate school part two, as it were, and gave it up when she moved to New York. Too expensive these days. The urge returned on occasion, but this was the first time in years she’d had a nicotine fit coming on, albeit a mild one. Katerina was surprised; did not know where that came from, remembering it had also occurred during her anxiety attacks before she went into therapy, was prescribed medicine, and learned yoga. That was fifteen years ago, which Katerina termed as the Middle Ages, while her time in Texas was the Classical Age. Katerina timed her life in epochs, framing her regrets as chapters in a history.
She wasn’t any closer to being a writer than she had been when she decided to make a go of it in the big city. Shortly after breaking up with Manny, she had been sitting behind the railing at Captain Quackenbush on the Drag, drinking a double iced cappuccino, and a bum had walked by and handed her a book, saying, “This is something I think you ought to read.” It was The Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille, and it was then that Katerina decided to get the fuck out of Austin, away from Texas, travel beyond the edge of the known world. Yes, being handed a book—especially that one—was enough to say, that’s it. Katerina consoled herself still that she had left not because her two great loves failed or she felt alienated from her circle of friends—no it was a dragworm, of all people, handing her a novel as she sipped her double iced cap. No man or woman would drive her from home into northern island exile.
So she named her cat Manny and her MacBook Sherry, Sherry being what passed for her high school sweetheart, dysfunctional at heart, dominating, manipulative, needy and clueless. Sherry was edited from Katerina’s sexual experience biography, whenever it still mattered. Struck from the book and what the hell, it was a long, long time ago: Middle Ages, not relevant to her Modern Day forty whatever, except on the occasions when she decided to express her Domme, slipped into latex and headed off to the spanking club. She once did a smart chick lecture about BDSM to a bachelorette party. She was interested in one of them, a gawky blond—but couldn’t bring herself to ask to kiss, to connect. She talked her into the cage and cranked her to the ceiling, sharing giggles with her girlfriends, but when she stared at the blond clutching the bars of the cage nervously, Katerina saw seventeen again and doing whatever Sherry told her to do. She turned the crank, bringing her down to cracked concrete, watching her click away in cheap platforms, probably thinking perhaps possibly would have been interested, but Katerina had already stepped away from the cliff. Mistress Kat went back into the closet, on a hanger behind the prom dress from 1982. She thought about that young woman, though. Blonde, asymmetrical cut with bangs, angular and thin, and tall, tall, tall. She so did what she was told.
Manny never did what Katerina wanted to tell him. Somewhere in one of her old journals, Katerina had made a list of everything she wished she had said to him when they were together. Remembering the first entry still hurt, in the place in her mind where regret and stupidity resided as neighbors. If you like it, put a ring on it. After waiting forever to say, or for him to express, Katerina left, over the fence, into the fields, through the mountains, across the river, to the shore, and beyond the sea.
Back to Sherry, but briefly, because returning to teenage vomit was always a mistake; Sherry went off her meds and it reverted back to co-dependent la la woo woo moonbat crazy bitch into bondage and Katerina finally figured out Sherry really hated women.
After abandoning Sherry, Katerina gleaned two important lessons from the experience: one, if it was bad the first time, leave it be, and two, she did not understand women until she figured herself out. Those were the days lost lost lost lost lost--
She froze: Did I remember my meds? Shit. Chest tightened, cramps rolling like cookie dough across her shoulder blades, left eye fluttering. She really hoped it was an anxiety attack. At her age and with her family history, she was not so self-assured. Breathe, Katerina, breathe. Chest rising, remembering she still had a clean bill from the last exam. Repeat to yourself, it ain’t happening.
Breathe. Breathe. Katerina closed her eyes, dropping her arms to her sides, palms up. Wipe free the thoughts from thy mind, travel to the grayness of oblivion, that which no one who hurts may enter. Try not to think, in other words, just shut up.
Katerina rose from the bench and went inside her building. Home, she unrolled her mat on the living room floor, put on meditative music and worked through her old yoga positions. It calmed her, focusing her energies, centering as if by rote, and after an hour or so of working herself, clutching her ankles, mind blank, Katerina rolled up the mat and took a bath. It was still morning, close to eleven, and she already felt she had put in a long day. After soaking, she decided to go pretty before going off to wander. Katerina could still pull off white Capris, leather gladiator sandals, and a red silk blouse, late-May warmer than usual Manhattan spring. The anxiety attack pissed her off. She had to put up with the twinges for a while, even after she belatedly took her Atavin. She should have just not remembered Sherry, but twenty years later, the nasty bitch remained squatting rent-free in her head. It sucked, but sometimes that is just the way it is, Katerina thought, waiting for the bus on the corner of Avenue A.
She forgot her headphones; however the bus was coming down 14th Street, so Katerina shrugged and pulled out her MetroCard. She made her way to the back, standing instead of sitting next to a corpulent woman breathing heavily, half her ass covering a third of the remaining available seat. Katerina pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head and leaned coolly against the pole by the rear door. She reached into her bag, pulling out her book. Katerina had gotten back into Ernst Junger, having read Roberto Bolano’s references to his work in The Savage Detectives and 2666, and had to search online for a copy of her favorite novel of his, On the Marble Cliffs, finding the first Penguin printing for thirty bucks used. At Union Square, she stepped away to avoid the crowd emptying out, found a single seat on the left hand side, plopped down, and continued reading all the way to Abingdon Square by 9th Avenue. She got out at the bus stand by the park, walked north to 14th, and went into the market in the old Nabisco factory. Since it was a Tuesday, it was not as crowded, and she didn’t have to wait to pick up Swiss cheese, her favorite stone ground wheat crackers, a Soho vanilla crème soda, and ripe grapes from the boutique grocers. Katerina moved through the indoor market, décor done up in post punk rusted metal and Fritz Lang without his glasses, to the rear entrance and the stairwell leading up to the High Line. Katerina especially liked the walk at night, but today’s cloudless blue and temperatures in the eighties made coming out in the day appealing. She made her way to a table in the shade and began eating her snack-slash-lunch, sipping her soda through a straw, and checking out the tourists, attempting to guess country or state. Most coming to New York these days were German, though she swore from the accents there was a tour group from Alabama.
It was rather simple, her cheese and crackers. Katerina had her experience with the fancy and pretentious, but at heart she was a good Texas gal with simple needs when it came to taking her solo act into the open. She was, in a word, boring, but Katerina did not mind. Security was more important than excitement. Sometimes, however, Katerina locked herself in the bathroom and cried.
Yes, cried: dashed of so much. No kids, no relationship, no published work beyond occasional short stories—and she had not bothered to do a public reading since the late 90s. She worked in obscurity, lived isolated and had become faceless, though a pretty face still, despite the lines of early middle ages. She munched on cheese and crackers at her metal table, thinking about how much she missed—starting with Manny. Was he the love of her life? She asked herself that again. Maybe I should just say fuck it and move to Singapore and teach English, she thought. Grow old as the crazy Jewish lady; maybe keep lots of parakeets and the like. Probably can’t take the cat. “I love my cat,” she murmured. “So, Texas it is. Home, after a fashion.”
“Manny. Maynard. Boy. Girl.” Katerina stared ahead, stared inside herself through a telescope, standing in a snowy field. She took a breath, shut her eyes, and added, tongue rolling over the words, “Us. Together. A we. Then, no more. Alone.” She placed her hands on her knees. Three and a half years of her life in a twelve-word mantra. Twenty years after they broke up, memories of Manny were painfully consigned to journaling and dozens of sessions with three consecutive therapists boxed in little rooms in various locations of lower Manhattan, so she stripped the story to single word bursts of postmodern eloquence, as if that were more than an avoidance ritual, keeping her from expressing what she felt. Manny, Maynard, My One, That Boy, the boyfriend, began as a novel in her mind and now a shopping list on a notepad, torn and jammed, folded, in a pocket.
Yes, missing Manny, who moved on, married with children and blocked from Facebook because Katerina just did not want to know because it hurt to look. Missing Sherry, too. One girl love, yin yanging with the solitary boyfriend, swinging half past noon to midnight. Neither meant to be, which left Katerina with her cheese and crackers on the High Line. Alone—yeah, that’s it—alone. Katerina thought of a word she had learned from Manny, the night they met—kissless. Perhaps she should use it in another short story that would be completed, sent out, and rejected. Until then, it was a description of what she had become. Katerina smirked. Five years since she hadn’t made it with a guy, and seven with a woman. She sighed. Consider me, as usual, bi-furious, or just plain fucking rejected—two years, four months, and a week in therapy on that since it was the overriding theme. Yes, dear Katerina, always kissless until tomorrow and tomorrow never comes until tomorrow and tomorrow is forever eternal until nothing more tomorrow nor.
Katerina neatly folded the wax paper seal over the cheese and closed the cracker box, placing them in her bag, along with the untouched grapes. She rose from the table, her stomach slightly upset, slipped on sunglasses and walked into the northern breeze. With Jersey on the left and Manhattan on the right, Katerina thought about Texas. You can’t, Kat, she murmured, there is no home there anymore.
She sighed, addressing herself, “In New York, I have my ghosts to keep me company. Ghosts don’t talk back. They do not hurt me. They never leave me, so I am never alone.” She looked around her, noted the stares, and smiled, nonplussed.