By: Joseph Harmon
If he were anything at all, he thought he might be a homing pigeon. That night, he tripped over a crack in the pavement, split his knee, and tracked a trail of blood spots through the halls of their building. Maribel had to go back and clean it up so it didn’t look like a murder. While she took care of business, he sat on the kitchen floor and buried his head in his hands. It was half a joke.
She came back through the door with her hair coming loose from her ponytail, falling apart in little ways but surging toward him, somehow in control. He felt the familiar warmth spread from his stomach as he watched her. It was sunny and dumb, sort of like liquor. It was also a reminder: he was magnetic through all of his mess, and that was why he was a pigeon. The magnetism was in their brains, it told them where to fly. He could screw it all up but find his way home.
He kissed Maribel on the neck and breathed in her laundry smell.
“Shouldn’t have happened,” he mumbled into her ear.
“Oh, the knee,” she said, remembering, and fetched the first aid kit. “You’re no superhero.”
“What?” he said, even though he heard her.
“You bleed like everyone else,” she said.
He wanted to argue. No, no bleeding. Ty had tried to call him a cab, but he had walked all the way home. He needed nothing, no one. He was invincible.
Then he started to crack himself up. Invincible, who was he kidding? His head was just hollow, filled with the same old echoes. Work the next morning was an alarm in the background.
“My earbuds are broken,” Maribel told him. “You want to be a superhero, you can fix those.”
“What happened?” he asked, barely moving his lips.
“They went through the wash.”
“Sometimes I get little shocks when I listen.”
“Like that thing to start your heart. Defrill…”
“Defibrillator.” Maribel knew what she was talking about. She rubbed her hands together to mimic the paddles, and he imagined how that jolt of electricity would feel when it tore through his body. She would know how to make it painless.
“Hey, you saved me,” he said, before she could touch him.
She fixed him with a complicated look that his mind couldn’t untangle.
“Clear,” she said. “They say that right before, so everyone knows about the electricity. So they can get out of the way.”
He nodded, that was all he was good for, and she settled her hands over his heart.
* * *
Lately, on the way to work, he had noticed people looking at him in the street. Their eyes looked as vacant as the goldfish Mom had got him as a kid. So blank, but they were searching somehow. As if they might know him, as if they expected to find answers in his face. What the hell? He was no answer.
He emerged from the subway and tried to savor the movement. He worked as a security guard and had to stand still for hours on end. When he got antsy, he tried to convince himself that it was better than, say, coding. Up in those shiny glass towers, tapping out numbers for no good reason.
He felt best during his smoke break. He breathed out, he could see it in the air, and it was that easy to create something.
Back in the day, he and Ty used to smoke together in the tunnels. There was a creek that ran under the nice neighborhoods, but it was just a trickle, so they stood on the edges and their sneakers got a little soggy but that was it. They’d spray paint the walls with all kinds of wild shapes, and they’d talk about—not about the future, exactly, but about how things might be. The little feelings that melted in and out, when he couldn’t be sure whether they would come back or if that was just the paint fumes talking.
That didn’t matter with Maribel, because they were both funny people. Everyone got the same boring normal things delivered to them each day, but funny people knew how to scramble them up into something electric. They couldn’t leave it stale and flat, no sir. Most people won’t tell you that because they don’t want to let you in on the trade secret, but he’ll tell you. He’s honest that way.
They had been introduced at a party. Her friend, Melissa, shoved them together. She had been a little tipsy, a wild gleam in her eye that reminded him of a racehorse straining for speed.
“Maribel,” she had said, pointing at her like an Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster. “You have to meet him. I know you two will get along.”
They had said hi, and he had bugged his eyes out a little bit in Melissa’s direction. Saying, look at this, but also making fun of the idea that anyone would point out a thing like that. He operated on a different script and he could show her the way out.
Maribel had looked at him and it was clear that she understood, but she flicked her eyes to the party. The way out was all around them, pouring drinks and laughing. As they continued to talk, he had known that someone real was standing in front of him. So many people just repeat what they hear, too locked in to follow him down interesting paths.
“You ever hear about racehorses?” he had asked her.
“Yeah,” Maribel had said, quick to the sarcasm. “I get that all the time.”
“Oh, well, never mind then.” He pretended to be deflated, but she kept a straight face.
“No, tell me. When you start off so bold, you’ve got to finish it.”
“Your mom tell you that?”
“No, I told myself. Why would you assume that?”
“Seems like mom advice.”
“So, racehorses,” he said, acting like she was really holding up his story here, interrupting his wisdom. The conversation was beside the point. She started to laugh but not quite, folding into herself and forward. She reached out to touch his shoulder, as if to say, you’re too much, as if they had known each other for years.
He had told Maribel how he had done debate back in high school and one of the topics had been that. They mistreated the horses, some people covered it up, and there were lots of ethical concerns. He was the second-best debater, and that came as a shock to everyone. They expected him to only be good at football.
“I just tell ‘em, well, I’m a battering ram with a brain,” he remembered saying.
He hadn’t finished high school after all, but got his GED. He had tried community college, but that just felt like more of the same, wasting his time in those cramped styrofoam cubes doing work they told him was important, when he knew it wasn’t important, when he was busting his ass trying to make rent during the day. Maribel was in school then, playing their game. She wanted to be a nurse practitioner.
She had driven for different rideshare companies on the side, and had even lived nocturnal for a while to get by. She had said that her favorite time to drive was four in the morning. The streets were empty, she had said, all yours, and any passengers that you picked up were too lost to care how fast you went.
“Did you book it?” he had said. “I would’ve. All the way up to 100, past 100, and then I’d go anywhere, I’d go to…” He had tried to think of a destination, somewhere far away, but he couldn’t name one.
“Where should I go?” he had asked her.
“Nowhere,” she had said. “Stay right here.”
Melissa stayed by them for a while, struggling to keep up with their conversation.
“He’s such…such a caricature, isn’t he?” she had said to Maribel.
“He really is,” Maribel said, leading her to the couch for some water. She meant to say ‘character,’ but it felt better that way, more real. Over her shoulder, Maribel threw him a smile.
* * *
Usually, he and Maribel texted each other during his smoke break. They pretended to need each other desperately, and part of them meant it. They acted like they hated each other when the other didn’t respond. There were exclamation points and emoji and memes that neither of them understood. Today, radio silence. Her appointment was at 5:30, and that was all he could think about.
He thought about her plans up ahead, and what she would look like running gurneys down halls, saving lives. He thought about his own mom and how her plans were derailed by having him. When his dad stepped out, she stepped up to the challenge. She had been a real superhero, providing for them and giving him a real childhood, somehow, as best as she could. Nothing like Ty went through. He thought about what kind of father he would be, letting the old movies and cartoons echo through. He could almost smell the Cheerios ground into the carpet.
He left work early and didn’t let the kids in the street bother him. Soft hair, wide open eyes. They’d get along because they were both open to anything.
He passed a ghost bike on his way to the touristy section. It was painted white, flowers in the front basket but no photograph to break his heart. That had almost been him. He had crashed as a kid, cracked some ribs, and Mom had feared the worst. He thought about the randomness of endings.
He had wanted to do this for weeks. There was a guy drawing caricatures at the end of the street. He stopped him before he could close up for the day and asked for just one more. The guy agreed, maybe seeing some desperation in his face, maybe just out of human kindness. It only took ten minutes.
He met Maribel at the bus stop and hugged her close, the caricature folded up in his back pocket. On the way to the clinic, she told him stories about her childhood best friend, who was acting ridiculous as usual and dragging herself out of another disaster. He let her take the lead, but they were both laughing and both meant it. When she imitated her anatomy professor’s voice, that got him every time. He knew that she was hurting in a way that he couldn’t access.
When they arrived, he settled onto the sofa in the waiting room and helped her fill out the paperwork. He squeezed her hand when they called her name, when she stood up to go. He had the rest planned out. When she came back, he would take her hand and they would leave that tiny room behind forever. He would pull the caricature from his pocket and show her. She’d laugh. Anyone would. It was funny and it was accurate, his features pinched and swollen, jaw comically square, all adding up to something extra-real. That’s how I want it to be, he would tell her. That’s how I am with you. Together they would find their way home.