Sometimes you don’t realize you’re in a battle until you’ve already lost. 

I went to lunch because I needed to eat. Because my mother said she would transfer thirty dollars to my account for the meal, a gift presented without the usual snide comment about my lack of financial independence. Because there was the possibility that Manju would pay for the whole meal anyway, and then I could keep the thirty dollars for something else, barring the possibility of my mother transferring it out again. So my mind, that Tuesday, was mainly on that thirty dollars. And also, somewhere under that, I was thinking about the sale of Manju’s most recent work at Christie’s, and how our mothers were still friends, and maybe another memory was lurking down there too, a shadow of one, beneath all of that, moving slowly across the plane of my mind as the sun moved across the sky. 

Via our mothers, Manju and I had obtained each other’s phone numbers, even though I have had the same number since high school and in this age of immortal, immemorial technology it seemed rather deliberate of her to have forgotten it. She charitably allowed me to pick the venue for our meeting, since she no longer lived in New York and claimed, in her text, to not remember any of the good spots, lol xx. I chose a Le Pain Quotidien on the edge of Bryant Park to show how little investment I had in this lunch. Manju has always bored me, I told myself. She was always too eager to please, too quick to smile, a hint of desperation in her eyes.  

I left late from Williamsburg intentionally, closing the door to my room at the end of the hall and bidding goodbye to Erin and Shiva as I passed them fondling each other in our communal kitchen. The apartment, as always, was achingly full.

“Don’t eat my egg salad,” I called in parting.

“Fuck off,” came Erin’s reply, her mouth barely separated from Shiva’s. It sounded like she was speaking to me through a wet scarf. 

 On the train into Manhattan, I thought about all the egg salad thirty dollars could buy.

I arrived, with dismay, to find that Manju was later than I was, and that I would be forced to sit at the corner table alone until she materialized. She had not texted an apology and I would certainly not text a polite inquiry as to her whereabouts. We were on war-footing, though at the time the spring weather and the fresh money in my account and the promise of new egg salad, seasoned with curry powder from the Union Square Trader Joe’s, was softening the wait. I was unprepared. I was too little myself, or perhaps too much. 

I ordered a green tea and steeped the tired leaves myself, waiting in an undignified sulk for her to show until it occurred to me, with a fleeting delight, that perhaps she wouldn’t come. Of course, she chose this moment appear, stepping in from the heat in as an effervescent mess—sweaty brow, windblown black hair, the superfluous jacket in her hand slipping from her grasp as I watched. She was wearing too many layers for the day. It was the sort of mistake one makes when they’ve been out of the city for too long, when they’ve forgotten how the warmth of the day can creep up when you’re trying too hard to move fast, to show no weakness, to be one with the living mass around you.

Through a pathetically breathless grin, the first words she said to me were, “I like your shirt.”

“Thanks,” I drawled, with a tight smile, as if mildly embarrassed by the compliment. I looked at the pattern on the wall behind her head to distract myself. The orange and blue of the tile pattern made me think of the anti-anxiety medication that a psychiatrist in Washington Square Park had prescribed me last month. Afraid of the possible side effects, I hadn’t taken any of the pills, and instead placed the prescription on the kitchen windowsill. Passing the orange bottle everyday had spurred, eventually, a new project, and I’d been going around photographing people’s windowsills for the last few weeks, looking for meaning in the accumulation of objects around something so often associated with transience. Windows were portals, but we surrounded them with plants and cards and tchotchkes and pill bottles, like offerings at the foot of an altar. Prayers, perhaps, to ground our own reality so that it didn’t slip through the glass. I had an interest in what piece of the known world we were so afraid of losing.

My tea had gone cold; it now tasted like a wet cigarette. Manju’s gold earrings swung forward as she pitched herself gracelessly into the opposite seat, ordering an omelet with onions and chives. Before long she was settling her gaze entirely onto me. I met it with half-hearted disinterest. 

“Well, here we are,” I said. It came out likely a little more deadpan than was conventionally polite. 

“It’s pretty wild,” she said, smiling without a trace of discomfort. “All these years it took for us to get lunch. Even though our moms get monthly pedicures together.”

“Well, you know. Life.” I shrugged awkwardly. “It gets in the way.”

She seemed amused by this response, and I felt a rolling wave of annoyance follow the next mouthful of tobacco-flavored tea down my throat. But there was something else there, too. That shadow of memory was back, lurking somewhere beneath my mind, rather than inside it.

We talked about New York, as new New Yorkers do. “We were so lucky to get the chance to be nineteen in the city. Like, it was a totally fresh start,” she said. Despite the rather trite sentiment, I found myself agreeing. She looked at me curiously. “So, what are you up to these days?” She seemed acutely aware that she was asking me to recap more than a third of my life in a few simple sentences while also aloof to the largeness of her question. 

I said something vapid about my photos, about adjuncting on and off. About a recent showing in the Bowery that had gone well, but I didn’t mention that I’d only pulled it off in the first place because Erin’s cousin owned the coffee shop. I said nothing of the window project. She took hearty bites from her eggs and nodded vigorously at the end of each of my sentences. 

“I have a friend who’s getting married in the Hamptons next month that still needs a photographer, if you’d be interested,” she said, after I’d finished. I looked into her dark eyes for something other than good will, but found that they were impenetrable in a way I’d never witnessed them before. 

I tried for my best condescending smile, and was satisfied with the result. “That’s not really the kind of photography I do.”

The check came. We paid separately. I thought about the fact that once, when I was a child, we drove through South Dakota in the early hours of the morning as I was resting in the space between sleep and wakefulness, just as the sun began to glow behind the hills. The emptiness of the world outside was consuming; I rested my head against the glass of the car window and felt myself begin to slip into the mirage of it as though falling asleep. There are no objects to ground a car window—no pill bottles, no cacti, or novelty shot glasses. The expansive unreality called to me. It was easy, then, to respond. To become unmoored.

“It was good to see you,” she remarked, once we were standing outside on the curb. I pretended to be looking for a cab that I couldn’t afford. 

“Yeah, our moms will be pleased,” I replied, with a good facsimile of distraction. 

When she chuckled, I finally looked back at her. She wasn’t looking at me, but at some point in the distance, her expression sharp-edged like the cracked remains of an egg shell. Something cold ran through me, then—I was possessed, suddenly, by the thought that this was incorrect, that I had missed everything salient in the last few minutes. I already couldn’t remember the conversation we just had. It was like waking up to find all the furniture rearranged. I felt myself tripping over imaginary bookshelves as I waved over my shoulder once and made a break for the subway. 

I thought about eggs on the way back to Williamsburg. About blank slates, the pressure of memory heavy on my skull. About primordial animals living inside windowless shells, both inside and outside of reality. It seemed like a prudent choice, on their part. I wished for something similar as I settled onto the train. Something to wrap the fibers of my being in a vacuum, devoid of past and present and future. I prayed for erasure and I was beginning, on a subterranean level, to understand why.

I viewed the balance of my checking account on my phone; twelve dollars remained for egg salad. It was then that I heard her voice. 

She was facing away from me, speaking animatedly to the wall on the far end of the train car. It took me a moment to realize she was holding a phone against the side of her head, partially obscured as it was by her of dark hair. I watched it shine under the fluorescent lights as she bobbed her head in laughter. A few other subway patrons were interspersed between us; I wondered if it was possible she hadn’t seen me. If there was anyway that I could duck myself out of existence and avoid another insipid conversation. I looked down and absorbed myself in the contours of my lap. 

But I couldn’t block out her voice, even as I attempted to will myself into empty space. Her words were loud and assured, cutting through the din of the train. She laughed and it sent a painful jolt through my frontal lobe. I tried very, very hard not to listen to her words. 

I failed. 

“...wasted an hour of my life,” she was saying, and I could see the edge of her cheek curled up in a smile. “Mom made me. No, it wasn’t terrifically enlightening. And she’s not up to much.” She laughed again, and then continued in a mocking tone. “Truly shocking.”

Sometimes you don’t realize you’re in a battle until you’ve already lost. 

At some point, my gaze had risen from my lap. My eyes felt stretched too wide. I looked out into the black of the tunnel outside the train. There was no escaping into it—no way to become unanchored from the slinking, time-stamped memories her voice summoned to the surface like cream collecting on the top of raw milk. The darkness pushed, rather than pulled. 

I managed to look to Manju again just as the train slowed. She glanced back over her shoulder before she stepped off onto the platform and saw me sitting there, framed against the impenetrable black egress of the train window. She gave only a cold-eyed smile and, finally, I knew where we stood. 

She knew I had heard the whole thing.  And, as she stepped onto the Union Square platform without looking back, I knew she didn’t care. 

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