The last time I saw Michael was in New York City. It was two years ago almost to the day. I remember how the Brooklyn Bridge traipsed across the horizon outside the hotel window; how the scent of ripe garbage wafted up the fire escape. That morning, Michael and I both had a grapefruit and half a bagel for breakfast. I remember exactly what I was wearing: a jean skirt, yellow t-shirt, brown sandals. Michael wore jeans and Doc Martens. We argued about his wearing boots to the beach. Later in the day, there was an ambulance parked by the roller coaster. I remember the conversations of the people watching, their stretched necks, their expressions a mixture of amusement and pity as they secretly thought, at least it’s not me.
It was a Sunday, mid-August, too hot. We took the D train to Coney Island and peered out at the schizophrenic architecture when the train emerged above ground. Old world strip malls with faded awnings, brownstones, post-war cement ghettos, and grandmotherly houses with dirty windows. I leaned against Michael’s shoulder the whole time. He kissed the top of my head and lingered there, as if he might forget the smell of my hair once I was gone.
Coney Island was exactly the way I imagined it would be: slow driving cars on the boulevard, the smell of sugar-powdered grease in the air. A man with flipper arms played the drums outside the Coney Island Freakshow while a woman in fishnets prowled across a stage, waggling a jar. Behold the space alien embryo!! she said, thrusting the jar toward us. Inside, a soft blob with slit eyes glowed under a green light.
At the corner of Mermaid Avenue, Michael stopped in front of a ground floor apartment. Behind the paisley curtain, I could see a red sixties-style table with a typewriter on it. The typewriter looked identical to Michael’s. There was a for rent sign in the window. Michael placed his hand on my stomach the way a man might touch his pregnant wife.
“We could live here this winter,” he said.
I knew what he was doing and I didn’t like it. I removed his hand from my stomach. Something tugged at the lines on his face when I did it, and I thought for a moment he might slap me the way he did in bed when I asked him to. I almost wished he would so we could start talking about what was happening instead of pretending everything was fine.
We followed the tinny beach music and carnival sounds to the boardwalk. Children were scattered like marbles across the wooden surface. Girls in plain sundresses and boxy bikinis waited for their mothers to catch up and little boys stuck out their stomachs and fiddled with their shorts strings. Inside the amusement park, people waited in lines, shifting their weight from one foot to another. Spindly legs hung off rides that spun into the sky and back; screamy open-mouthed laughs rose and fell in unison.
Michael had been on the Cyclone before. On our very first date, in a dark basement bar with old chandeliers, Michael had told me nothing in his life had prepared him for that first drop. When the coaster careened downwards, his jaw clacked with such force that one of his incisors broke. He pulled at the corner of his mouth to show me. I slid close beside him and ran my tongue over the damaged tooth, feeling the bumps and contours like it was my own mouth.
Our meeting was an accident. I was looking for a ride from Montreal to Halifax on Craigslist and ended up browsing the missed connections. The ad said, “You: riding your bicycle, singing Etta James. Me: at the corner of Parc and Esplanade, reading The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. We must meet.” I answered on a whim. Michael and I wrote back and forth about the problems of the human spirit and our grandmothers who both came to Canada from Hungary during the revolution. When we finally met, I could tell by the look on his face that he’d seen a different girl riding her bike, but that I was somehow better.
Fast forward through steam-heated nights and whisky fuelled marriage proposals after three weeks of knowing each other. Linger, perhaps, for a moment on a Thursday in early June when we stayed up all night because the first hot day of the year was coming and we wanted to feel the slow, restless vigour of it coming to life. That morning on the roof, bathed in sunlight and sleepy ecstasy, I told Michael he was not allowed to love me because I was moving to Vancouver for school. He laughed and said you will never leave me.
Two months later we were in Coney Island spending our last weekend together. It was the kind of day where heat punches you in the stomach. The line-up for the Cyclone stretched all the way past the last souvenir shop. Michael stood beside me with his arms crossed. Perspiration glittered on his forehead and he said it again: “We could live here this winter.”
As the end of summer approached, Michael had started testing me. Suggesting plans that would only work if I dropped out of school. Let’s run away to Hungary, he said. We’ll have a gypsy wedding in a dark forest near Vajslo. Let’s build a cabin and live off the land. Anywhere in the world, you choose. At first the part of my brain where logic lives started to shake and crack. In the dim glow of his bedside lamp, skin on display, I said let’s do it. Fuck everything. But by August, I had a bachelor apartment rented in Vancouver.
Michael probably would have come to Vancouver if I’d asked him. Commercial Drive could have been our Mermaid Avenue. We could have sold our meagre everything, skipped town, left our ghosts in Montreal. But I never asked. The expiry date made us perfect. I didn’t want anything less.
We waited for the Cyclone for almost an hour. The roller coaster shrieked along the tracks while the riders’ screams pinballed through the metal scaffolding. Michael and I didn’t talk much. In front of us, a man and woman spoke to each other in sign language. The woman had short grey-blonde hair and her face reminded me of a German soldier I’d seen in a film. Her husband was a thin black man with brassy curls and one pierced ear. I could not imagine what circumstances had brought them together. The woman signed delicately as if she was conducting a small opera; the man’s pink palms flashed as his hands tread the air.
“It’s a sign,” Michael said.
Michael often looked for signs from the universe. Number eights or tigers could mean his life was on track, whereas the number four or wolves could be reason for concern. At first, I was annoyed that someone so intelligent moved through his life this way. But then I started to see things, too. Once, my bank account balanced to Michael’s birthday. Then, just as I was faxing my lease to Vancouver, “Please Don’t Go” came on the radio.
For Michael, seeing the deaf couple signified that we were destined to be together. It had to do with a chapter he was reading in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter when“I” cycled by singing Etta James. I guess he’d forgotten I wasn’t actually that girl. I think about her sometimes. It makes me feel weird, like I accidentally stepped into her life. Did she feel a shift when I met Michael? Is she still out there somewhere, silently dealing with the unexplainable weight of a lost opportunity?
Up close, the Cyclone looked fragile with its outdated graphics and weathered paint. Giddy riders climbed out of the sweaty bench seats, still reeling from the speed. The deaf couple sat in front of us. The man was so tall that his knees pressed against the front of the wagon. Beside him, the woman took a bobby pin from her hair and slipped it into her pocket. Someone swept a video camera over the crowd, zooming in on each rider. When the camera came to us, Michael and I moved our faces together as if posing for a photograph. I could still smell grapefruit on Michael’s breath.
An employee walked from wagon to wagon and clicked the safety bars into place. The deaf couple fastened their arms around the bar and exchanged a look. It could have been fear, confusion, or something else. Michael slid across the bench and placed his hand between my thighs. I tightened my muscles to keep it there.
The roller coaster jerked as it climbed and we rose into a crosswind that sent my hair flying. Just past the beach, the Atlantic Ocean stretched and swallowed. There was a pause before the first drop, the one on which Michael had broken his tooth. I wanted to kiss him so we would remember how it had been. Before I could, we were already ripping downwards at a speed I never imagined possible.
When it was all over, Michael adjusted his jeans and slid out of the wagon. I remained seated. My stomach seemed to have recorded every hairpin turn and turbulent descent. I rubbed the muscles along my spine and rolled my shoulders back. The deaf couple was still seated in the wagon in front of me. Something was wrong. A baffled silence had overtaken the woman’s face. She shook her husband’s arm so hard that when she let go, his head struck the front of the wagon. It didn’t take long for the strange siren of her distress to fill the air.
“Everybody out,” someone ordered. “Clear the area!”
We stayed as close as the park staff would let us. Parents held their children’s hands a bit tighter and everyone seemed to stretch a few inches taller as if it might change what they saw. The park medics arrived first. The ambulance wasn’t far behind. It was clear the man was dead, but none of us could leave until we knew for sure.
After the ambulance took away the man’s body, we didn’t feel like going to the beach. Michael unbuttoned his shirt and let it flap as we walked down Mermaid Avenue towards the D-train. I took off my sandals and walked barefoot despite the threat of broken glass. When we walked by the apartment with the paisley curtains, a man was standing by the window. His chest was caved in like he’d been in a car accident and never recovered. You could see his entire life from the sidewalk: one sad plant, a stained futon mattress, and a half-eaten sandwich by the typewriter. When the man looked at me, his tight-lipped stare seemed to say you don’t want this, missy.
I still wonder how we looked to him. Perhaps he saw the shimmery mirage: how we kissed so many times the night we met, each time swearing it was the last. When we finally let each other go, an audience had gathered around us. People had clapped like we were the best thing they’d ever seen and someone shouted, “Look! They’re in love!”
Cover photo by Flickr user Kevin Gessner