The caffeine was coursing through Philip’s blood and making his heart dance in a way that made him regret having three cups of coffee and not eating anything before leaving the house. The walk between his apartment and the 72nd and 2nd Avenue subway stop was not long, but it felt like hell in the mornings and especially so this fine day. He had come to notice three distinct zones between his apartment and the entrance to the subway over his repeated morning treks. The first and easily most pleasant part of his entire day was the fresh bread block. That was the block that always smelled like fresh bread in the mornings and smelled like nothing at night, so, aptly, he named it the fresh bread block. That is where the pleasantness stopped. The second section was the block that passed the park which he referred to internally as Dog Shit Hell. It wasn’t just that the block smelled like myriad piles of dog crap, but that the sheer density of dog crap that was smeared on the sidewalk left him in complete awe and disbelief that so many people refused to pack plastic bags when they took their dogs out to shit. He ventured on more than one occasion while talking to girls and trying to look smart and funny that if someone measured the ratio of sidewalk covered in dog shit to sidewalk that you would very nearly approach one. Sometimes he felt bad about his math jokes, but really he just could not help himself. They never worked the way he wanted. The third zone is the zone he referred to externally as fish guts alley. This was, of course, a bit of a misnomer since it wasn’t technically an alley but a two block section along Second Avenue and they weren’t just fish guts but truly encompassed the guts of a large variety of creatures, fish, fowl and anything else that populated the sky, sea and land. It did not make sense for there to be quite as much animal offal here as there was since the fish market was in the Bronx and the Upper East Side was certainly no booming culinary district sought by those who wanted to dine surrounded by the stench of their dinner’s remnants rotting around them. It made no sort of sense that he could digest.
Passing the bodega on the corner, he resisted the urge to buy a lottery ticket and stepped down into the Second Avenue subway station. The station was one of the city’s most recent and you could tell. The grime produced by thousands of subway cars’ brakes slowing down the behemoth metal tubes was not so clearly pronounced here and the station attendants actually tried to keep some semblance of cleanliness. The tiles were mostly unbroken and still had their fresh tile shine. It was a nice station and he was glad that it wasn’t the Bowery. What a hell hole. The car slid into the station and the doors opened, pouring out the miserable souls waiting at the door like prisoners on the verge of parole. They rushed out of the train, knocking Philip out of the way which allowed some asshole with a skate board to rush in and take the last seat on the train. Philip entered the train car and found a spot at a pole to hold. He noticed that his hand was shaking as he loosely gripped the brushed steel pole still warm from the heat of whatever person’s hand had held that spot before he got on. He moved his hand up until it found a nice cold spot and then let it be. He looked around the train and noticed that this was one of those new cars that had the map that followed the train route graphically. It was cool enough, maybe, but mostly intended for tourists trying to get their bearings and find their way to Times Square and not the kind of person who rides the train every day to and from work.
At the Sixty Second street stop an old woman with what seemed like millions of plastic bags full of God knows what stood and got off the train. Philip snatched the empty seat with the dexterity that one develops after years of not giving a damn about whether or not someone else wants the seat. He pulled his book from his bag and found his bookmark and continued where he’d left off long enough ago that he wasn’t entirely sure what was going on in the story. Paper books were an affectation that he maintained while the rest of the world traded their bulky paper in for electronic readers that held tens and hundreds of thousands of books on a lightweight tablet style thing. He liked the heft of the book in his hand and didn’t mind the extra expense represented by having pages made of real paper.
Somewhere under Fifty Eighth street and Second Avenue, a group of spliced out, fucked up, junked out teenagers pushed their way through the sliding doors which you are explicitly told NOT to use while the train is moving but that everyone uses anyway. Philip peeked his eyes up from his book and saw that one of the teens was sporting what looked like lizard scales on his face and cat eyes. No doubt an attempt to make him look tough and to cover up his feelings of inadequacy. He could not understand why kids were splicing their genes with such reckless abandon, or, really, why they were splicing their genes at all. It didn’t make a lick of sense. Why would you want to have parakeet feathers sprouting from the top of your head? Is regular old fashioned human hair not cool enough? You have to have three foot long rabbit ears too? As he half listened to the teenagers deliberately talking loudly about fucking their girlfriends and boyfriends on the otherwise quiet but crowded train, it suddenly occurred to him that this is what it must be like to get old. He certainly wasn’t old by society’s standards—just a few months shy of thirty—but more and more things were becoming strange to him. He did not understand their music or their attraction to splicing or why they insisted on dressing like dolls. It seemed a little, you know, gay, to him. He knew that was how Japanese kids dressed when his father was a young man but the whole retro-kitsch angle did nothing to make the dressing like a doll thing any clearer. He was also sure that given the chance to find out what he was into that they would think he was as old fashioned as he thought he Dad’s old Pantera and Slayer CDs were. CDs? Come on, that’s some stone age shit. Would they look at his favorite things with the same feeling of old fashionedness he got when looking at pre-War things? And even more when looking at music and movies pre-Mil? Why his father kept those stack and stacks of plastic discs around when you could fit the whole lot of them onto a solid state disk the size of your thumbnail he would never understand. He tried to clear his mind and go back to his book, but when he heard one of the boys with blonde Swiss Miss braids in his hair graphically, yet not eloquently, describe what he’d done with his boyfriend’s cock the night before, he decided to get off the train at the next stop.
Out in the mid-morning sun of midtown east, Philip pulled his phone from his pocket and tried to dial the office, but it was fucked up again, piece of shit, so he pulled the battery out of it, counted to five, placed the battery back in and restarted the phone. He speed dialed fifty and it magically called the office. He asked to speak with his boss and with his mighty actor’s voice and command of the subtle nonverbal clues people rely on while communicating with each other faked being sick and told his boss he was going to be out today. When asked what the street sounds were in the background, he deftly lied that he was on his way to the pharmacy to buy some drugs and then was going to go home and pass out. He was then immediately thankful that he did not have one of those “important” jobs where they tag you with a chip and can monitor your location at any hour for any reason. Lying was a lot easier when they had no way of verifying that you are in fact not telling the truth. He just had to stay away from the office and everything would be fine. Since the office was in SoHo, Philip thought it might be a good day to wander around Central Park. The sky threatened rain, but that was not a problem and kept those less committed than he out of the outside.
At the corner of the park he bought himself a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut and ate it in just a few bites. He wandered through the petting zoo with its disheveled looking animals and in up past that sheep part and toward the Tavern on the Green where he was hoping that they might be serving alcohol. If he was going to play hooky, he might as well tie one on for good measure, right? No point in wasting a perfectly good day sober when he had the means and the will to do otherwise. Upon arriving at the Tavern he found that, unfortunately, 9:30 in the morning is before they open and definitely before they start serving alcohol. Determined not to remember the end of the day, Philip wandered toward the center of the park where the mall leads to the fountain to watch the birds and kill some time until he could get his drink on. Along the way he purchased a soft pretzel without the salt which cost him a staggering ten dollars. He stood along the edge of the lake with the fountain behind him and tore up the pretzel and threw the pieces at the geese and ducks floating around the murky green water. He even managed to hit a few of them from time to time. Stupid birds.
Lost in his bird-taunting revery, he had not noticed the woman coming up behind him calling his name until it was too late.
“Philip!” exploded behind him like a plasma grenade, shattering his peaceful morning or throwing shit at idiot birds. He turned around to see who had the nerve to ruin his headspace like that, and…
Oh shit. Margaret.
“Philip, it’s been a long time. How are you?” She still smelled like that fucking horrible vanilla citrus perfume she thought was so nice.
“I’m… you know… good? How… are? you?” was all he could manage. And pathetically at that.
“Oh, you know, I’m good. Just working. How is your job?”
“Oh, it’s… good. I guess.” He wished that she would be hit by a piece of falling space shuttle or jet or ornithopter or asteroid or God please let him die, but what came out was, “How is your job? You look well.”
“Well, I’m between jobs now you know? This whole Canada business has the job market all over the place. It’s been really hard finding and keeping a job, you know?”
He didn’t care. “Oh, that’s too bad. Have you thought about selling a kidney?”
She laughed. He hated that laugh and immediately regretted making the joke. “No, nothing so drastic, just the usual like temp work and stuff. You know how it is.”
“No, not really. I have a job,” and they stood awkwardly trying to avoid each other’s gaze for just a few beats too long. “So… you’re still wearing that perfume huh?” Fuck, why did he have to open his mouth. Quick, try and not sound like a complete and utter prick. “It reminds me of the old days. Before all that mess.”
“Yeah, it’s the same stuff. I really like it. Kind of sophisticated,” for a 14 year old. “I think about you sometimes, Philip.”
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Like what would have happened if we’d stayed together.”
“Really? What would have happened?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’d have a life together, or, if we got a permit, kids. Or at least a kid.” She looked almost on the verge of wistful tears.
“No use crying over spilt milk and what ifs, you know?” He wondered vaguely if perhaps, this time, he’d gone a little too far, but when the tears didn’t come he knew he hadn’t.
“I guess you’re right. I miss you sometimes.”
“You don’t care at all, do you?”
“No, I do. I mean, yeah, sure, I care, but, you know, you can’t change the past.”
“If it means anything, I’m sorry for what I did.”
“Yeah, that’s nice.”
“All you have to say is ‘That’s nice’? That’s all you have to say?”
“Um, that’s real nice?”
“You don’t care about anything, do you?”
“I stopped caring about eight years ago, Margaret.”
“Nothing can change what happened.”
“Yup. That’s true.”
“Fine. Fine. I’m sorry that even came up to you. It was a mistake. I thought that after all this time that maybe we could have a nice talk.”
“I guess you thought wrong.”
“Fuck you, Philip.”
“Take it easy, Margaret,” and she turned around and storm off and he never saw her again. After she was out of visual range he looked down at the half picked apart pretzel he was holding and remembered that he was taunting the birds, but when he looked at them and then back at the pretzel he realized that she had sucked the joy out of yet another thing in his life. He threw the remainder of the pretzel at a particularly stupid looking duck but missed it by about a foot and a half. The duck didn’t even move when the pretzel hit the water with a pitiful splash. He thought about waiting for the restaurant to open, but had lost his taste for getting fucked up and so decided to go home, take off his clothes and spend the rest of the day with the lights off watching Mexican soap operas even though he couldn’t understand a single word of Spanish. It just didn’t seem to matter.