*Not your average publishing company

Just Friends

I know it is over when I see you across 53rd St. You were twenty minutes late for our arrangement to meet at the MoMA. I counted these telling passes on a stoop on the south side of the street until you bustled past me on the north, walking west.

Look across the street, smartie

You look down at your phone but don’t reply, and if you smiled at my teasing it didn’t reach your eyes (I know because, if this situation wasn’t absurd enough on its own, there is also a pandemic). You still wore your mask outside, even after being vaccinated. I can no longer romanticize the thought, although I used to be fairly adept at doing so.

We walk in parallel until I cross the street between two taxis and try to take your hand. You take mine and squeeze it, then let it fall, and you don’t dip your mask for a kiss.

We line up for the museum amid a crowd of tight-lipped tourists and I press an X into my palm with my thumbnail to abate the nausea that is rising in my throat as reality sets in. You buy my ticket (on principle?) –pastel pink and kelly green– after the salesperson tells us that our student IDs no longer give us free admission.

When we turn into the first exhibit my mouth is overflowing with the words I want to say, but I swallow hard when you tell me we’ll talk after; you “don’t want to be rude to the art.” You keep a five-to-ten-foot berth from me, and I appreciate the art like too-strong whiskey – deeply focused on convincing myself that I am enjoying the practice of reading every placard ad nauseam. We exchange jokes about the pretentiousness of the artists every time our pacing runs tangent to one another.

For a moment, we settle on one of the black cushions that crowds the galleries in front of a still life of a pie and a bowl of fruit and I tell you that living in New York City has made me appreciate that fruit used to be a status symbol. You laugh at my joke, but with none of the same thank-god-you’re-you I’m used to seeing in your eyes.

We (I?) stomach a few more galleries before you check the time and say we should find somewhere to talk. We walk through midtown, and I tell you that I feel like I am in a bad rom-com, meaning both interpretations. On 49th St we find a place called CURRY INDIA and you order both naan and roti because I tell you I don’t know which I prefer when in reality everything has just begun to taste like sandpaper.

You let me tell you I still want you before you tell me you can’t and it would be cruel if I thought either of us were capable of cruelty. I know you’re not because you keep the ring I gave you and hold my hand from when I first cry on the white tablecloth to when you take the A train with me from midtown to Washington Square Park, where you release me with a hug that still feels nauseatingly right, even though I am near you and not with you.

My friend who has been designated the first shift post-breakup isn’t even a friend yet. He’s the unlabeled romantic something of one of my closest and oldest friends. He is now, however, –by my naive scheduling alone– saddled with the arduous task of reminding me that I am still myself without you.

I find him next to the fountain, where street performers are capturing tourists in massive and iridescent bubbles. It is around 8 pm, and the slowly darkening sky makes the masses look like they are underwater. He greets me, then continues shooting photos.

When we start walking, he talks so quickly that my brain lurches and I tell him to slow down and he says I’ve changed since high school, where we were debaters at rival schools. I tell him he’s changed since high school, if strictly because we’re engaging beyond structured yelling at each other in the classrooms of various Oregon colleges.

He asks me if I’m hungry and I tell him about the naan and the roti and how I ate next to none of either. We near-run to the Trader Joe’s in Union Square and buy Joe’s Os for the walk and the pit in my stomach and Orange Chicken for the curative powers of nostalgia.

He’s a native New Yorker, transplanted to Oregon at fifteen; on the way back to his apartment, we pass his middle school and he tells me I’m his only friend from the west coast to see it in the same breath that he points to Mt Sinai Beth Israel and tells me its where he was born. He makes me a part of these beginnings and as I commit the beige building to memory I feel a little less of my present end.

We stop at the cube by St Mark’s Place and he tells me to push it. I move the corner a little, then he employs some passing students to push the other side. I kindly pretend I didn’t notice, and after a full rotation he returns the kindness in a high-five.

Back by his place, I realize we are paces from your favorite coffee shop. I channel an anger I don’t really feel and hurl a Joe’s O at the door, where it falls to the sidewalk and shatters. I hope, passively, that you see it. I post a picture of the box of cookies to my Instagram story to give you the chance to connect the dots.

At my friend’s dad’s apartment –his childhood home– he points me to a spot on the floor outside of the kitchen and settles me there, telling me it is where he would sit to watch his mom cooking growing up. I press another X into my palm, and he goes to the small closet, retrieving a brown leather jacket. He throws it to me, tells me to put it on, appraises me, and tells me it is mine.

When the chicken finishes, we take the elevator to his roof, where the whole city opens around us. When my stomach churns as flashes of you appear in angles of the skyline – a rooftop kiss at your birthday party, a dance on the pier – my appetite disappears again.

He is a physics major and folds the MoMA ticket into a paper airplane. I throw a map from our trip to Six Flags and the plane over the edge, but there’s not a lot of heat. I drink the martini he made me quickly and eat all the olives off the skewer I assembled in one pass. It was my first martini. Months later, he will make me another and remark that he knows I like a lot of olives.

Back in his photographer father’s apartment, we look at books of grotesque and funny and erotic images. We talk about hating Robert Frost and I show him my favorite poem. We agree on the brilliance of the “soft animal of your body” and I tell him I love it because “You do not have to be good,” once made me sob so hard I couldn’t breathe.

It is too late to go home so I settle on the small couch and he says I look Freudian. Once he is asleep on the other side of the partition I text you –

I hope you’re okay.

– and mean it. You text me that you’re sorry and I think you mean it too. We exchange a few more words that summon tears out of my eyes and I fall asleep after deleting the photo from your contact.

The next morning, he makes me coffee which I spill on the couch and down my day-two shirt and I am feeling worse in a way that redoubles when we find the MoMA-ticket-airplane in the crosswalk on our way for bacon-egg-and-cheeses. I buy them for us because I feel properly bad about it all and eat half before I start to feel the process will soon reverse. He takes a picture of me staring into space looking devastated and I tell him I like it because it is true.

After, we meet up with one of his dad’s photographer friends in Washington Square, and she shoots pictures of his emerald painted toes in the grass for a collection about androgyny. We make our way around the park, and he photographs a jazz band while I drown in the memories of you seeping out of the tree bark.

We take the train to Central Park because he found a Facebook group for something called acro yoga which he thinks I should try, and I oblige if nothing else because what I need in that moment is a current. We walk through Sheep’s Meadow looking for them until his phone pings that they have moved to a spot by the Great Lawn. There is time to kill, so we share a plate of Halal cart lamb by Belvedere Castle, which he refuses to try to pronounce. I cry again and he tells me to be patient.

Walking toward the Great Lawn, he tells me he is worried that he is doing something with his life that he will eventually regret, and I summon the emotional energy to tell him that he probably is. He asks if I regret you, and I tell him I don’t and mean it.

The acro yoga crowd is nothing I could have expected – a muddling of transplanted twenty-somethings invested in physical feats that are somewhere between circus and magic. We introduce ourselves in a circle – names, pronouns, and what type of pie we identify with. I think about the still life and ache a little, then say I am pumpkin pie because it is low-maintenance and particularly seasonal.

After, I stack my hips onto his bare feet and lean forward until I am flying. I fall when I laugh at how ridiculous it all is –my full weight on someone whose contact isn’t even saved in my phone– and it is the first time I realize I had briefly but fully stopped thinking about you.

I would have cried, but shortly after we have inverted and he is stacked on my feet and I am focused on balancing two-hundred pounds of muscle on legs which have not attempted athleticism since quitting swimming at fourteen.

When he notices my eyes are discernibly wet again, we depart from the acro crowd, and I promise to join their Facebook group and wish they met a different me.

We walk until we find ourselves at the MET and he runs across the street to try and capture a photo of a runaway Fourth of July balloon against the grand facade. He misses the shot, and when he comes back, I am shuffling a deck of cards on the steps to occupy myself. He takes some pictures until I notice, at which point we play a cursory hand of Egyptian Rat Screw which he clearly lets me win.

I text my parents and let them know that you and I are just friends. Their messages come back, but I don’t read them yet.

We walk the transverse road through the park to the Natural, where he has been summoned by a Facebook group promising swing dancing. I imagine a cloud of Facebook groups around his head and wonder why I have never thought to check for them before when I notice that my wallet isn’t aching.

I cry as we walk the road because it is echoic of our first night. I heal myself by telling him how I feel like Princess Diana whenever a Lyft takes me through the tunnels at night, and he heals me by telling me that it is deeply fucked up and dark through a suppressed laugh.

At the Natural, jazz music is playing through a tinny speaker. I don’t feel like dancing, but an old man who tells me his name is Ron invites me onto the floor and teaches me the steps through a thick New York accent. Eventually, I catch the rhythm, and rotate through a cast of seventy- to eighty-year-old partners – Dan with the gold hoop earring, Jeff in the checkered shorts, and Spencer with the wide and nervous eyes.

My friend takes the last few dances with me and tells me to stop looking at my feet. When the music wraps, we take three trains back to the West Village and look for his childhood hotdog place which a ‘FOR RENT’ sign informs us has fallen victim to the pandemic.

Back in his dad’s apartment, he makes me a cocktail and cooks us steak and baked eggs. The eggs are expired, but after some cursory Googling we decide to roll the dice. He tells me he can ‘talk to the meat’ which I tell him I think is ridiculous; when I taste it, I see his point.

We are back on his roof, and it is the Fourth of July, so the horizon is haloed with fireworks. He asks me if there is anything else I want to throw, and I tell him I am looking for emotional bruises to press and having a hard time finding any. He tells me the hurt will be back, and it is strangely comforting.

I carry the casserole dish back downstairs and fill it with water in the sink while he showers. I shower myself after and am disgusted by the film of sweat that seems to slough off of my body.

When I come out of the shower, he is already asleep in bed. I put back on my clothes and close the window and lay down on the couch, my muscles aching from the day. I type and delete a text to you, then go to sleep.

The next morning, I am greeted once more with coffee, and an even louder complaint from my body about my simulated athleticism. I check my phone and I have messages from you, one a thank you, one an apology. I answer, and tell you about acro yoga, wish you a nice day.

I tell my friend that today will be a success if I do not spill my coffee. At the kitchen table, he tells me about fractal geometry and how dimensions affect the relationship between scale and size. He tells me that Jackson Pollock paintings follow principles of aesthetic fractal dimensions despite being painted decades before. He tells me that our brains find comfort in the symmetry. I wish I could focus more but manage a loose hold on my end of the conversation because I am feeling somewhat better.

I leave his apartment, and he thanks me for the last few days. I apologize. He thanks me again, then tells me to ‘get the fuck out,’ which is comforting.

I buy a coffee from your favorite shop and the shattered cookie is gone. I hope chocolate doesn’t kill pigeons because you always talked about liking them. I drink my latte in the park. I take the A train home.

Claire Fennell is a senior in NYU’s Creative Writing Program who firmly believes that Big Macs are the best fast-food burger. Claire’s work is featured in Maudlin House and BarBar. She grew up in Pennsylvania and Oregon and now lives in Brooklyn Heights. In her spare time, Claire can be found (hopefully).

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