Old City

This is a short story I wrote about two months ago, almost erased it a month ago, but decided last week, “what the hell!” I’ll edit it and post it to medium, and see what happens:

Marlowe was supposed to pick me up at the third terminal in Old City International Airport. Told me it was the closest to an exit newly paved during my absence. For at the time, our love being as young as those highways, time was of the utmost importance. Reflecting on the impatience of our intimacy, I realize now that three weeks, the time I had spent in New York, was brief but for love, a very long time. So when I exited through the revolving doors, escaping the sultry air of baggage claim, I walked to the awning of the third terminal that extended into the street with a protruding, tawdry metal sign decorated with plastic spikes, determined to make up for the lack of love I was sure she had endured. But, despite my eagerness, I could not shake a sense of emotional delirium that made me unsure of whether I had the vivacity needed to reconcile the lowly-lit lonesome evenings in our small bungalow home on the west side, adjacent to the forgotten industrial parks.

When I reached the terminal I stopped beside a rusty backless bench because I was beginning to feel uneasy. Burying my head into my arms I could feel the resonating thump between my temples. I needed a cigarette. I wiped my clammy hands on the rips of my jeans, pulled out a freshly rolled cigarette and planted it in my mouth, bouncing it on my dried lips. I took small puffs until a perfect, triangular ember burned at the tip, taking pleasure in each drag as if I inhaled long enough the momentary buzz would find a resting place deep within the recesses of my soul.

Since I met Marlowe, I had developed a habit of smoking whenever there was more than a minute to spare. Not that I hadn’t been a nicotine addict before I met her and whether it was a consequence of our unstable relationship I am unsure, but it was certain that I had increased by at least three cigarettes a day. She smoked too, though I believe I smoked more, however what she did when I was away in New York, begging to get published, I will never know and have a constant preoccupation over. Though Marlowe never voiced concerns, our friends became apprehensive. They told me that it would cut my life short and it was a false stereotype of a writer, a sort of identity I had claimed at the time, having done so with childlike exuberance and the illiteracy of a twenty seven year old who had lived within the 50 mile radius of his childhood home for his whole life. Nevertheless, I feigned courtesy to their concerns, knowing that they in fact had a genuine interest in my well being, but later disregarded them because they did not understand I needed it to keep my knees from shaking and because I simply could not write about my memories or myself without falling into a sort of literary preambling debacle. It was easier to observe and write about the small innocuous pigeon with brown leaves and twigs in its talons that tried to land on the awning above me, and the dark Middle eastern man walking across the street with a look of bewilderment amongst the clamor of honking horns and how his brow furrowed when he passed the security guard. About the security guard who watched the dark man cross the street, holding his daughter’s left hand and his wife’s right hand, and kept his gloved hand on the leather strap of the police belt. About the dark man’s wife who only exposed her eyes and ankle and cradled an infant in her right arm, who cried as the snott dribbled from its nostrils and down to its lips, and observed the blue-eyed family on the other side of the street, waiting for the chalk-white “walk” traffic signal. About the blue-eyed family across the street that watched the dark man, and his daughter, and his wife, and his infant, running across the street, but with an opacity in their eyes that made it seem as if they were looking at nothing. And about the man with the porous sun-burned skin, and thick black hair who was sitting on a rusty bench with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of water in the other, blowing smoke through his nose because he did not want to expose the yellowness of his teeth and watched a pigeon sent off squawking from the poke of the plastic spikes on the tawdry metal sign above the awning.

I took another long drag from my cigarette and looked down the street to see if Marlowe’s car was approaching. No sight. I thought about Marlowe and her grungy station wagon. She had this charming Volvo from 1984 that coughed and wheezed when it started. The white doors hung onto the car like saggy breasts, and the hubcaps shivered like a shitting dog whenever the car went over twenty miles an hour, but she loved it anyways. And that was like her, to enjoy the junky aesthetic, being the aberrant, drama major college dropout, dilettante she had become when she moved to Old City.

After I finished my second cigarette, Marlowe pulled up to the sidewalk. Her car rasped as she slowed down and through the dusty window I could see her impish smile, “Get in, it smells like shit here!” she shouted from the street. I walked over grabbed the rusty door handle and swung it open. The hinges squeaked and I hesitated for a moment to enter her car, as the door felt so loose I feared it might fall off if I tried to slam it closed again. I sat down on the ripped blue seats, turned to her with my leather canvas bag on top of my feet and felt an anxious knot curling in my stomach. It had been three weeks since I’d seen Marlowe and as a result I’d begun masturbating an unhealthy amount. The memory of her breasts and long brown hair fueled each fantasy, in which this moment, when I could hold her delicate snowy hands, had become my only reality. For the lack of love in the last three months, I could only conceive of Marlowe as an idea and she was the only idea in my mind. Because I knew that even with my thick black hair, porous sunburned skin, and my grease she would embrace me. It was in the way I rolled my r’s, the way my hair grew long and thick, the way I smoke my cigarettes and I drank my alcohol, the way danced, and the way I wanted her to learn Spanish. She went so far as to acknowledgment my grease, to harness it and learn it, but did so as a savior. She took it as her burden to accept my grease, because it was maybe hip to do so, or perhaps it was her God-given duty, or it simply was in her nature to hold on to the poor brown boy and give him place in her big purple heart because of his grease.

But that moment had bloomed in my imagination a long time before then and as a result I could not summon the eagerness to plunge, feel, and give her the love that I thought she needed. The setting was off. The ripped leather seats made my ass uncomfortable, drenched in senseless sweat, with a mix of vomit and cigarette breath, looked thirty-five even though I was only twenty-seven, had yellowed teeth and jaundiced eyes from nicotine addiction. So when I looked at Marlowe, I stared into her eyes without desire and with a sense of hopelessness, aware that giving her what she wanted, fucking her and loving her at the same time in some holy wonder, was beyond my imagination. And though the sun was setting, I only wanted to be wrapped in her arms, while all the lights on the earth dimmed down and the darkness rolled on top of us.

Marlowe flung her brown hair to the side and embraced me, not knowing that I harbored a growing sense of shame that stemmed from my inability to reciprocate her heartfelt touch. I moved in to kiss her. She pressed her face into mine and I placed my hands on the side of her head, feeling her small ears with my palms. We pulled back for a moment, but only far enough to speak to me and said, “God, I missed you Mackie.”

“I know, I’m sorry. You know Leo and Adam. They always say that they found someone who can publish me, and it just never works out but somehow they always convince me that this time it’s going to be different.”

“Please don’t leave again any time soon. I hate it when you’re gone, especially in the summer. Everyone is dancing till morning, and all I want is to dance with you under the streetlamp until the sun comes up,” she responded.

Marlowe intertwined her hand with mine and I shifted the car into drive for her. I turned on the radio and Robert Johnson crooned me to sleep with Love in Vain.

Marlowe whispered in my ear, “Wake up Mackie, we’re home.”

I rubbed the hardened crumbs out of my eyes and walked up to the staired entrance of the small bungalow. Our home was tucked behind the port of Old City, the last remaining part of the city dominated by metal and grit, neighboring a large coffee factory, which began roasting at seven a.m., and a waste center where they collected scrap metal and built mazes from bleak car machinery, ripped tires, and old street signs. From the kitchen window we could see in the distance gunmetal cargo ships floating away, as the white birdlike steel cranes sat on the dock, leaning over the oily Frisco Bay with bright shipping boxes in their talons.

Marlowe walked ahead of me and I stared at her ass, swaying as she went up the steps. She opened the door and the living room was dim, lit only with string lights that hung from the walls. Six months before I left to New York, Marlowe had moved in because we started having sex more often and eating lunch together more often and it seemed customary for us to begin living together. I guess it was getting serious. She lived in a nicer part of Old City back then, a small neighborhood to the north called Temescal, on the third floor of a new luxury apartment building. Everyone in her building was young and made me feel old, so when things began to get serious I asked her to move in with me because I didn’t want to be surrounded by trust-fund babies. To my surprise she agreed. There was a quality about my apartment that she loved. Though I never asked her what exactly it was, when I asked her why she moved in without hesitance, she said she enjoyed looking at the dilapidated warehouses from the front porch, “It looks kind of like an industrial playground, don’t you think?” I never quite understood what she found so magnificent in the iron vegetation. It was cheap, quiet, and the liquor store two blocks away sold me Turkish Royal cigarettes for only three dollars, and that was the only reason I hadn’t moved.

The television set was on when we walked in. A reporter was standing on a street corner in North Oakland reporting on a murder. In the background I could see the hollowed out Telegraph Lofts building, with a “For Rent” sign on it. Marlowe walked over to me, took the canvas bags out of my hand, and laid it next to the rattan chair across from the television. “Take your clothes off and come to bed with me, but don’t fuck me. I want you to kiss me like it’ll be the last time you ever kiss me, and until I beg you to, don’t fuck me. I want to feel loved, and I want you to feel like you’re conquering my body,” she said. Before I could respond she grabbed me by the belt and pulled me toward her, putting her tongue deep into my mouth. I reached around and squeezed her ass, lifting her off her tiny feet and she let out a sexy whimper that made my cock rise. Marlowe pulled back my hair so she could suck and bite on my neck, and I pressed my hands against her small breasts, feeling for her nipples with my fingertips. She arched her back and I placed my hand between her shaking legs feeling the heat radiating from her pussy. Unstrapping her bra and taking off her green tank top, I pressed my lips harder into hers, while she wrapped her leg around me. I dug my hands into her waist as she unbuckled my jeans and gripped my cock. Not rubbing it, but holding it motionless while it throbbed. Kissing her, I placed one hand around the back of her neck and unbuttoned her pants with the other. She whispered in my ear, “Rub my clit baby.” With my hand in her pants, she walked us toward the bed holding my cock and clutching my forearm. Marlowe fell back and stretched her hands to the side, scratching the cool blue sheets of our bed. So I mounted her, thinking of how I needed to overwhelm her with love. There was an angst in her body movement that told me that this time, this fuck, this procreation needed to be a holy performance. She needed this and I needed this for the sake of love left in the corner, because if I didn’t fuck her and make love to her at the same that I feared what we had would die unbloomed.

I propped Marlowe’s head up onto the yellow stained pillows of our bed. She grabbed my cock again and put it on top of her clit, moving it around her soft vagina lips before sliding it inside. I hovered over her body with my arms extended into the bed and she scratched my sides, wishing I were deeper. Beginning slow, back and forth, I teased her for a while until she rammed my hips into hers and said, “Now, fuck me baby.”

I stroked her hard after that. My shoulders shook, and her head bounced on the pillows. I’d wanted her so bad, had imagined this moment over and over, and now she was gripping me, releasing little gasps and moans every time I went deeper. I started going harder and I could feel her waist tightening, on the verge of orgasm, when she rolled us over and straddled me. She dug her nails into my chest, leaned down, grazed my ear with her lips and under her heavy breathing said: “I had a dream about you last night. I was riding you and I felt my chest open. And you felt my insides, you felt the teddy bear I used to sleep with as a little girl and my old ballerina shoes. I felt blessed while I orgasmed. It was like I was outside of myself, watching myself, and watching you. Both of us coming at the same time.”

When she said that I felt a sexual vibration through my body. Sensing this, Marlowe rode me with all her might. She pumped me on and on, holding my wrists down. Five minutes of straddling had passed by and I couldn’t come. The knot in my stomach from earlier came back and I felt like I was going to fail her. My cock began to go soft and Marlowe felt it slipping away, and yelled, “Come for me, baby! Come for me!”

But I couldn’t. She rode me until my cock flopped out of her and I turned over on the bed wiping the sweat and sex juices on the cool blue sheets. I could hear my heart pounding and my face was red hot. I laid on the side of the bed, limp, and wondered what Marlowe was thinking. She reached over and brushed her the back of her delicate hand against my warm cheeks. It felt sad.

In five minutes she was asleep, and I soon after that.

When I woke up the next morning Marlowe was sitting up with the sheets wrapped around her like a toga. She had a stretched and jagged scar along her shoulder blade that I always admired. I though it looked sexy in the California morning sunlight, so I leaned over and caressed it, feeling its rough surface. “Let’s shower and get breakfast at Don Julio’s on 16th street,” I said, grazing the bumps of her scar with my fingernails.

“How come you’ve never showed me this journal?” Marlowe asked, as she flipped through the pages, looking for some particular passage.

“I don’t know. I started writing in it about a year ago. Leo and Adam thought it would be a good idea to have one just for myself,” I responded.

“Some of these stories…they sound like they are about you and me,” she said with a tremor in her voice. “Is this why you think I came to Old City? Why I stayed with you?” she demanded.

“Marlowe, it’s just a journal, it doesn’t mean anything,” I said.

She began to recite a page in my journal from a week before, “Margot Vaughn, studied drama in college. Twenty-two years old when we met lived in apple picking Oregon. She waited on tables in a dusty gas station diner where big hairy ranchmen called her flower girl and asked her if she wanted to play hobby horse on their burly laps, admiring her snowy white skin and the brown birthmark on her chest that peeked over the mesh fringe of her blouse. And sometimes they grabbed at her legs with mischievous smiles, while she brought them black coffee in stainless steel mugs. But she, grew tired of the dusty pine smoke in the air, and indulging men only when she was in the mood for it so one day, when the clouds rolled in and the little dusty diner was hidden under a drizzle of rain, she drove down to California until she found Old City. A place where she could drown herself in a false façade.” She sat in silence with her back to me, contemplating what I’d written about her. It was a cutting stillness that felt unbearable and right before she broke the silence the Amtrak train rumbled by, and shook the windows and hanging light bulbs above us.

“I thought we agreed that you wouldn’t write about me, because when I read this…all I can think is that you enjoy my company, as just observing me as if I’m an animal,” she said sitting up with her legs crossed, exposing the bruises on her knees.

“We did and I’m sorry, but you know I can’t write about myself or my memory. It’s all too emotional. Everything I remember opposes whatever actually happened. But when I left to New York, the words seemed to flow out of me.” She looked deep into my eyes, trying to understand what I meant but with an opaque cloud over her pupils.

“How would you feel if I told you that I wanted your perspective on my story about you, that I wanted to include it, but couldn’t because I feared what your answer might be?”

“Sad, hurt, disappointed, confused. All the bad adjectives I can attach to a relationship. How do I salvage this knowing whenever we are together, you’re watching me as a subject, to develop some sort of script for your piece? And at any given day if I chose to dissolve this seemingly exclusive romantic relationship, in the editing process of your story you’ll be forced to look at me in your mind loving, fighting, kissing, scratching, dancing, sleeping, feeling, living right in front of you. And when I read your story later, I’ll wonder whether the touch of my lips, or the shape of my hips, is your fondest memory of me.” My knees began to shake. Even though her maturity made me believe that she wasn’t ready to dismiss my feelings, I could see that a virus had rooted itself in her mind making me unrecognizable and forever now, with this disease in her eyes, all she could see in me is the cool bleak stare of a literary fantasy being perpetrated on her in which I am the duplicitous narrator.

Marlowe stood up and the sheets fell over exposing one of her breasts. She walked over to ottoman near the entrance of our room and with her eyes beckoned me to sit with her. I got up and walked through the corridor into the living room to retrieve my cigarettes from my leather canvas bag. Marlowe spread her legs and I laid down between them with my head resting on her breasts. I took out two cigarettes, one for her and the other for me, feeling small while wrapped in her arms. “Do you remember the day we sat in the lounge of your old apartment building and talked about our first kiss? And we tried to recreate it, over and over, but could never produce the same intimacy? We talked about the way I placed my hands on your hips, or the way you grabbed on to my sweatshirt and how that was the most intimate moment of our relationship? It was like an epic, a narrative. In a way, I think I’ve been writing this story in my mind ever since then and I’ve plagiarized your words more than once,” I said as I handed her a cigarette. She lit it with slow drags, leaving me to eagerly await her response.

“How is it that you can’t write about yourself but can say something like that? I think I always knew that you were observing the condition of our love and somehow I find it intriguing that the idea warms my heart. But I think that we’ve become lost in your narrative world and that the lights are dimming away.” I turn to her with my unlit cigarette in my hand and her eyes begin to water.

“I should go. In your eyes I only exist as an idea now, and that why I have to leave. All I see in this city is you and I don’t know if that will ever change.”

“Where are you going to go,” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Adam has a friend named Moisés who lives in Richmond.”

“You’re going to go just like that? Are you coming back?”

“I’m not sure.”

“I don’t want to say anything that I might regret so I’ll tell you you’re an artist.” She pointed to my opened journal, her hand shaking slightly, and said, “This will be your first novel, and you’re going to make more after, I think.” Marlowe rose from the bed and walked to the bathroom, and closed the door. Something told me that was my queue to go.

So I grabbed my journal and tore out the pages Marlowe had read before I walked back into the living room and picked up my canvas bag. The pages were tainted and I could no longer use them. I took out a pencil, and left her a note on the kitchen table, “Call me if you need me.” It would occur to me later, riding the bus to Richmond, that I didn’t have a cellphone. There was no way for Marlowe to contact me, and no chance she would receive that note with its intended sincerity.

When I got to the station, I went to the booth and checked the price of a one-way ticket to Richmond. Fifteen dollars and eighty-five cents was all I had left. I sat down on the long wooden bench waiting for the bus to arrive, and I saw a girl playing with her ponytail on the seat across from me. She reminded me of the little girl I’d seen the day before crossing the street with her family but she’s alone with only a bus ticket in her hand and I thought about how I left Marlowe, made futile love to Marlowe, and wondered if I could ever write about love, about myself, or about writing as anything other than an art form of regrettable sin.

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