Belmont Ave

I.
Scraping along the wet concrete, the parking meters clicking like bars of musical measures, the drizzling applause falling around him. His borrowed sport coat pulled up at the collar and down at the wrist. Gutter swells stirred by traffic, a rush hour overture marching him past brick apartments that don’t quite look like hers but might be. When he walked her home that first night he hoped every building they passed was not hers. Now he unrolled that anxiety in reverse, hoping the next would be hers at last. The brass squawk of air brakes, the gear shift downbeat and diesel engine crescendo, pistons hammering timpanis. Just as he recognizes her building, the city bus splashes against his legs, a cymbal crash that rings into silence.

Her unmistakable body stretched diagonally behind the square window, folding back the curtain, a cardigan exposing her pale torso, the scene painted orange by the streetlight glaring though the naked glass. A thigh swings back to balance her weight and balance the frame. Her chin lifting to observe the indelicate work, pretending not to see the groundling below. A dancer’s practiced hospitality. A mute performance of domesticity timed precisely to his arrival, to challenge doubt, to suggest coincidence. He imagined her body rehearsing the unnecessary chore, the bored window batting its cotton lash. Perhaps a change of wardrobe measured to the navel? She flattered him, she knew the sight-lines of her proscenium, she knew he’d appreciate the scene.
Two actors playing a romance, stock characters flirting with convention, trained to imbue authenticity in every wooden stage, night after night, to transform ink and paint into music and flesh. The gift of their training is the exoneration of artificiality. Every night is opening night. And every player knows the curtain must drop.


II.
You never get over someone, you just wait for that part of you to die.
Until one day you toe the grave of past loves and find the dead part of you is only sleeping, pretending to sleep, wide awake, well behaved, staring up with the concentrated eyes of a pet promised a walk after long patience. And once the animal sees that you see it, it grumbles and wags its rump and yanks its leash off the wall.

It has been called many things but in the end, love is a dog bladder.


III.
New to the city, she landed in a dingy studio on the busiest avenue of the north side. The spine of the neighborhood. A building as old as the sewer and as loud as the twenty-four hour bus route. A visitor, a transient, a soon-to-be ghost. Another guest who wouldn’t stay long enough to sign the phone book.

I avoided that window for months. I lived four blocks north exactly, along the same crossroad, like rungs on a ladder. Walks to the lake wended along sidestreets, to avoid the din, I lied, to explore the neighborhood, I lied. The scenic route in truth was the blind route.

Cars and cabs pulled me alongside the empty window, rushing towards the expressway. I held my gaze to the opposite side staring at the churchyard which comprised her window’s view. Only I saw the body displayed behind the glass. She abandoned the city, but the body bruised a silhouette into that window.


IV.
A block north and a year on, I signed a new lease. Perilously close to the bare window outside of which she left me and the city. My new back deck overlooked an alley of no personal significance. The view of the avenue was blocked by a hideous garage. I exaggerated the apartment’s seclusion. Days before I moved in, a bulldozer leveled the garage and erased my protection from the avenue. Only the church blocked my view of her window.


V.
A strategy of overexposure. Walk past every day. Every route to the grocer, the baker, the library, the coffee roaster, the doctor. Strokes of new memory like layers of paint.


VI.
A year or so later. Another relationship, another ending. My own doing, and repeated undoing. The actor eager for applause, parroting his own repertoire.

She carried the last of her belongings—a lamp, a saucepan, a pillow, a vase of dying flowers—down the deck across the lot, across the avenue to her car where I had parked it after a long night of circling. She’d driven over so I could send her away. The engine hummed. Her arms laced across the steering wheel, her nose pressed into her elbow, long hair shaking with her sobs. I sat hunched forward in the passenger seat, crowded by the lamp and saucepan, cradling the flowers which seemed grotesque now, holding them again as they withered. She sobbed, I hunched, both eager for a lapse in her crying so she could pull into traffic and course through the avenues to her own apartment. Finally I convinced her to return inside, sleep through the night, and leave in the morning. I left the vase on the floor, tucked between the gear shift and the paper sack of brightly colored clothing, sweet with her perfume. I held her door for her and as I dropped my arm around her shoulders noticed the window, free of curtains, illuminated like a one-eyed jack o’ lantern, staring down at the amateur ushering his latest tragedy out of the light.


VII.
Two years and two apartments later, more windows and more women. On the way to yet another miscast relationship, I clamored down the train platform onto the street and without thought I swept along with the going-home traffic down the long avenue, spilling out to the lake. The empty building marking time. On the way home, I’d have to come this way again.
Do I steer clear, or do I pass beneath?


VIII.
How long ago? How many heartbreaks? How many cell phones? How many apartment leases? Were we drinking gimlets then?

I’ve left the city. No errand ever again will set me past the window that shone upon so many years, redirected so many paths. I don’t even remember the final time I passed.

How many bruises? How many strangers? How many windows?