The vagaries of the weather seemed to be fitting for my predicament. Outside of my window, the sky was a sheet of grey clouds and rain lightly tapped the window, collecting more drops as the heavier ones trailed down the glass like snowballs collecting more snow. It’s this time of day in New York that people are cozied in their apartments and high rises, letting the nullity of the rain lull them to sleep as they dream of whatever the sub conscious creates for them. I wasn’t one of those people. Instead, I was anxious as a hummingbird darting from tree to tree as I sat on the edge of my bed, shaking my leg like someone needing to use the bathroom, hearing the wood creak under my foot. Twenty-six years old with severe anxiety and a portable speaker that plays music throughout this lofty flat, I never thought of the day that I had someone to call my own, but I also never thought of the day that’d I’d be bringing that someone to my apartment and the gestures that would occur afterwards.
It’s not one of the most luxurious places. I mean, between the living room with the single couch and box T.V. and the kitchen that has more dishes and pots and pans to deal with, though I mostly get takeout or pizza from Mal’s across the street, the place can fit about six people at a time. Of course, six people caused me to shut down pretty quick, so I tended to keep it around two or three. It’s not the most…romantic setting, but it’ll work…right? On my nightstand, among the pencils and annotated obscure books like “White Oleander” by Janet Fitch and “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher, my phone buzzed. It’s him.
“Hey Nico, we still on for tonight?”I never really liked phone calls and hearing the timber of his voice caused my heart to beat faster.
“Umm…yeah, yeah.” I got up from the bed and paced the room. “Are you…still on your way over?” I straightened a picture frame on the wall, an abstract landscape.
“Yep. I’m stopping by Nikki’s first to bring her some Advil. She was drunk out of her mind.” I remembered the hotness of her breath as we helped guide her home after a party at the Mills two days ago. Naturally, I didn’t want to go, but Dillon insisted I abandoned my apartment for a night of delight, although the delight was more obscene as I leaned against one of the walls, watching twenty somethings getting wasted and passing out on the haystacks.
“Hey, I’m on the Metro and were about to go under a tunnel. I’ll be there in, what, an hour in a half?”
“Yeah, sounds, yeah…that sounds great.”
“See you later, Magnussen.” I ended the call. Weird of him to nickname me the daughter of a mother who killed a lover with Oleanders, although when I thought about it, he wasn’t far off. I don’t mean in the sense of being an orphan, but merely living in the shadows, never letting the light of life envelop me in its bittersweet embrace. Along with it was Dillon, and after what happened two weeks ago, I’m surprised he hadn’t moved on.
We were both in my bed. Yes, our clothes were on. I was reading to him a passage of a book I bought, the only sounds in the room the turning of pages and my modulated voice as I read to him. Then, out of nowhere, he started to kiss my neck. At that instant, my skin prickled, my breathing hitched, and my veins struggled to pump blood as I sat up straight like an intruder was walking around my mind palace, skulking around trying to find anything valuable to take or to smash.
“What’s wrong?” He said. He touched my shoulder and I jerked away.
“You have no right, Dillon!?” I cupped the part of my neck where his lips once were.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I was just trying to…”
“No.” I saw hurt in his eyes. He could tell that I needed space. He tied his shoes and left, grabbing his brown messenger bag with him.
With only twenty minutes to go, I made sure everything’s okay around the apartment. Food consisting of Chinese noodles and leftover Mongolian beef? Check. Books placed neatly in the bookshelf near the window in the living room? Check. My dark blue button down and shorts neatly ironed? Check. After making two rounds around the bathroom to make sure it was clean, or the cleanest it can be in an apartment building in New York, Highland, I sat down on the couch, surrounded by the blackish bluish walls.
A knock at the door. I rubbed my knees and pushed myself off the couch and zombie walked to the door. After undoing the brass locks and deadbolts, I saw him.
“Nico,” he said, his head leaning on the chipped doorframe.
“Hey, Dillon.” I said, looking at the base of his neck. The dim hallway lights made him look like an apparition. His nose, usually narrow and hawk like, softened under the tiny dots of lights hanging in the hallway. His eyes were tired, but traces of vivid green were visible under his lids. A blue flannel jacket’s on his person, and underneath it, a t shirt with some writing I can’t make it out. He has his messenger bag with him, some paintings sticking out.
“So what?” I ask.
“Unless I’m mistaken, this is usually the part where you invite me in.”
“Oh…right…yeah, right, c’mon in.” I closed the door behind us and locked it.
“How’s Nikki?” I asked. I took his flannel and toss it on the arm of the couch. He’s donned in jeans and a dark blue t shirt with dried paint spattered on it, sprinkles on ice-cream.
“You know. Fucked up, but impressively still able to remember the guy she hooked up with.
“Don’t you mean guys? As in plural? As in, more than one?” I joked. He pointed a finger at me.
“Hey, we are human beings, Nico, free to roam around and have conversations and experiences with anything or anyone we so please.” His voice seemed to take up the bravado of a politician.
“Well, if that justifies her making out with the best friend of the host, then I guess it’s okay?”
“Thanks for seeing it my way.” I crossed my arms.
“I didn’t say I did.”
“Didn’t have to.” The tension left my shoulders as we joked about Nikki and her expendable partners.
“Hungry?” I asked.
“Sure, who isn’t?” As he made his way to the couch, spreading his arms on the back of it like a Bald Eagle, I put some leftover rice and beef in the microwave. When it’s done, I bring them to the couch.
“Here you go. My specialty.”
“You make this yourself?” He asked, stirring the rice.”
“Of course. Who else could season beef and boil rice to perfection like this?”
“Obviously not you since the last time Nikki and I came over, you…”
“Hey, hey, hey…first of all, the directions were misleading.
“Riiight.” That smug little…
“No, no, the directions were misleading. How was I supposed to know that the chicken would overcook in the oven at 400 degrees?
“I don’t know. Maybe start off by not setting the oven that fucking high, Gordon Ramsey.”
Rolling my eyes, I leaned back into the couch as I stared at the T.V. This was our routine, for the most part, eat on the couch and watch a movie or two about self-discovery or some shit. He’d ask me about how I was doing. I would say I was fine. He would ask me if I was taking my medicine. I would grudgingly tell him yes. He’d ask me if he could stay the night. I would counteract this with a question like “Don’t you want to be alone to work on your paintings?” or “Are you sure? It’s pretty late. You should head home and get some sleep.” I knew what was on his mind. It was on my mind as well, the unspoken question that lingered in the air around us, clogging each of our senses to the point where we were on ecstasy. I didn’t know when the moment would come, when I would allow myself to confide with him under the covers as the world outside continued to spin on its axis.
“You okay?” I looked to him. He had his eyebrows raised.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re pinching yourself, again.”
Damnit. I looked down at my wrist, covered with faint marks caused by my fingernails. I could feel my anxiety materializing once again into a wiry figurine, like a human coil slowly asphyxiating me with its body alone.
“Here.” He took my hand in his and gently caressed his thumb over my wrist.
“I’ve been taking my medicine, in case you’re wondering,” I said, looking away. His thumb leaves invisible trails of gold around my wrist.
“No, I believe you. I still worry, you know,” Dillon cooed. Out of the window, I focused on the abstract red lights from cars and human figures trying to find their way through the semi darkness.
“That could probably make a good painting, don’t you think?” I looked at Dillon, who looked over at the window.
“Maybe. I don’t know what paint I would use to get the lightness of the rain, or the type of paintbrush. I’m still a beginner, you know?”
I looked to his face again, his worriedness suppressed for a moment. “Your paintings are amazing.”
“Yeah, I know.” He smirked.
“So humble,” I groaned.
Dillon worked at Colors De Nora, an art studio no taller than the house from the old movie “Stuart Little.” Can’t believe I remembered that shit. When he invited me, and by that, I mean when my insomnia got the best of me and I couldn’t sleep, I sat on one of the many stools there, watching him over the wooden table dressed in a white smock, gently stroking his brush along the canvas as the colors melded together, creating new people, new landscapes, new boundaries for the mind to explore. His profile, his narrow eyes, his tongue in his cheek, and his movements, swift, but controlled, melted my anxiety.
After finishing our food and me jabbing him with a fork to the shoulder whenever he brought up that I couldn’t cook, I fished my phone out of my pocket and connected it to the wireless speaker, a birthday present from my Mom. She knew how much I loved music. In high school, whether it was walking through the hallways, going to the bathroom, or eating lunch at the table where it was scarce of any people, I would always have Koda, Jose Gonzales, or some other guitar picking artist with me. I decided to go with “Marinate” by Boy Scouts.
“I’m an introvert”
“Attracted to the”
As the ghostly voices sang and the waves of Nylon strings sent the room into a beautiful bliss, I let the couch engulf me. Dillon, with his legs dangling over the arm of the couch and his head resting on my lap, was staring at the cracked ceiling. I couldn’t see any hands clawing their way out to get me this time.
“Hand me my bag, will you?” He asked.
“What’s the magic word?”
I stood up and carefully retrieved his bag that I set near the door.
“Take out a canvas.”
“You gonna paint?” I sat back down and took out one and laid it on the coffee table in front of us.
“I’m not a painter.” I tugged at my shirt sleeve and my knees knocked together in that incontrollable way.
“You are today.” From a side flap, he took out some paint brushes and a thin tray of watercolor paint.
“This is an exercise that my instructor taught me a while ago. People focus to much on the outcome of the final project rather than the process. Looking too far ahead doesn’t help the primary or contour lines of a drawing become as narrow or sharp as you’d like them to be. Pick up a paintbrush.”
“Which one,” I asked. They ranged from pointy and small to longer in length and short in width.
“Whichever you like, Nico.” I decided with the one that resembles a lightbulb in the shape of a flame.
“Good.” He covers my hand with the brush I’m holding. “Now, I want you to paint.”
“Paint what, though?” I asked. He remained silent. The only notion of rebuttal was his arm around my shoulder and his hand waiting for me. So I began. I dipped my brush into a cup of water and chose black. After straining it, I started with the edges, going around in a circular motion while the song on the speaker changed to Koda’s “I Don’t.”
I decided to change colors. Straining the black from the brush, I dipped into the blue and continued the circular motion, going inwards, a spiral of blue, black, yellow, reversing back to blue. The paint glimmered on the canvas from the natural light of the clouds outside. I wondered what the meaning of it was, this spiral, and how the only light color was yellow as opposed to the darker ones. The yellow was here and there, coexisting with the moody blacks and bittersweet blues. Dillon’s hand never left my grasp, as I completed my spiral. Dark. Light. Dark. Light. Light. Dark. Dark. Light. The realization hit me. I knew what it was.
“My anxiety,” I said, breathless. I put down the brush.
“Looks pretty accurate,” Dillon said. I looked over at him. His fingertips were coated with wet paint. I agreed.
“Why the yellows?” He asked. His chin was on my shoulder and his hair, a tangle of roots, tickled my ear.
“I guess as I’m having one of my…episodes…there’s some good along the way.”
“Of course.” I shifted on the couch. “When I first moved to New York three years ago, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I knew where I would live and with the money my parents scraped up, I was set until I couldn’t find actual work, but I guess I was lost so to speak.” The blacks. “It wasn’t until a certain girl,” I nudged his shoulder, “came banging on my door, asking if Mark was here, that my anxiety didn’t seem as bad.” The blues.
With a hand over his mouth, Dillon laughed. “What a great way to introduce you to Nikki, right?”
I nodded my head. “I could practically see her liver burning bright. That’s how drunk she was. But then….it was when I was left alone here in my apartment that it would come back.” The cracks in the ceiling were in my peripheries. “It was suffocating me. All the what ifs, you know? Like, what if I couldn’t make it on my own? How would Nico Marez survive in New York.”
“Then what happened?” The blueish black walls and raindrops from outside made the timber of his voice soothe my nerves.
“You.” The yellows. It was three weeks after I moved here, after having my place set up. I was heading to Mal’s across the street for pizza when I saw him sitting cross legged on the outside, wearing a black long-sleeved sweater and jeans. I thought he was homeless because of the paint on his clothes and the disheveled look he gave me when I walked by. By the time I came out of Mal’s he was gone, but he left his canvas. It was a landscape, a blue sky with stringy clouds and green hills underneath, the one in my bedroom. On the back was his number.
Out of nowhere, I kissed him, which surprised him and myself. Normally, he would be the one to start, to do what I was afraid to do. It was me, Nico, the anxiety expert. I could feel his body, the tense muscles that came when it dealt with me. But as I seeped into him, he relaxed. It was gentle, fragile as a glass bird or star, but also firm. It radiated down my throat, in my stomach, and around my bleeding heart, which ceased to a slow pulsation. When he pulled away, I opened my eyes.
“New York just got a whole lot lovelier.” He kissed my eyelids.
“It’s about to get even more lovely.” The speaker started playing “Shallows” by Daughter. We both stood from the couch. I held his arm as he held my hand, me leading the way to my bedroom. When I closed the door, he was on me again. He kissed my lips and trailed slowly down my throat. I unbuttoned my shirt and he took his off too. The lambent, orange glow of my lamp made him look divine, but also human. Each gesture, each touch, made my anxiety shrink back into the recesses of my mind. I knew it would come back, as it had my whole life. But tonight, I feel a sense of self-aggrandizement, a feeling I rarely experienced since moving here. As we lied there in my bed, the sheets keeping us warm against the cold, I began to notice myself; how long my arms were, how my voice shifted from modulated and jumpy, to dripping with emotion and equanimity, and how my presence, my skin, my personality, made Dillon wrap his arms tighter around my waist. I don’t know when my anxiety will come back, but I’ll look at it with a brave face. I’ll let it envelope me, but not for its own amusement. It’s for my own. It won’t stop me from connecting with people like Dillon and Nikki. It wouldn’t stop me from finding my place in New York. I’d let the hands in the cracks of the ceiling come. I’d let them wrap my consciousness in its grasp, because between its spidery fingers, there were shafts of light and I’d bathe in its ambiance for as long as it would allow me to as I made my way down the spiral.
I turned off the light. Dillon told me goodnight. I kissed the bridge of his nose and we slept to the sound of our own music and the newness of our lives.