A journal of narrative writing.
Equinox Crashing

The second floor rear walkway, which had been condemned just three weeks before, wrapped around the backside of all the apartments. A rickety staircase, with missing steps, led down to the courtyard. When Boris, Loraine’s landlord and part-time drug dealer, first told her that the whole outer structure was going to be razed and rebuilt, we stayed off. But after the workmen and bulldozers never materialized, she moved her potted plants back outside and set the weathered ceramic ashtray back on the wooden railing.

According to Loraine, the spot just outside the backdoor was okay, so long as we remained relatively still and didn’t lean against the railing. She weighed only ninety pounds though, and always walked out after me, watching my every step uneasily, as if I might go crashing through the wooden planks, leaving behind only a splintery dark hole.

“I’m sure it’s still safe,” she said, as we shared a midnight joint under the dim yellow light, outside her screen door. “I mean, it was safe yesterday, and the day before that.”

Rain came down in heavy hypnotizing sheets, bouncing off the stairs and pelting the roof. The awning sheltered us, and I felt agreeable, standing there, just on the comfortable side of that threshold between the warmth of her apartment and the sublimity of the storm. Intermittent flashes of lightning brightened the courtyard, momentarily revealing all the barbecue grills, tricycles, and skeletal lawn furniture below. With one extended arm, I gently rocked the loose railing back and forth, a captain at the helm of a sinking ship, plunging through luster and shadow.

Loraine exhaled blue smoke out into the rain. “Did you know, Charlie,” she asked me, “that there are elephants in Thailand that paint murals?”

“I think I saw something like that on television,” I told her.

“They’re trained from when they’re little to hold a paintbrush with their trunks.”

“Yeah, right, the elephants hold the brush, but it’s the trainers that are…you know…doing the real painting, making it look like a vase of flowers, instead of just a mess of colors.”

“No, Charlie, the elephants don’t just hold the brush, they paint the pictures by themselves,” she said, fidgeting with the beads that she wore around her wrist. “Each elephant has its own style.”

“Really?” I asked, not believing it. “Do any of them wear berets?”

She frowned at me. “Don’t be stupid,” she said.

* * *

Lorraine taught anthropology classes at the university on an assistantship. Because she was Korean, everyone expected her to speak the language. She barely knew a single word. She didn’t even like the food. Her ethnicity inevitably lead to tedious conversations in which, out of politeness, she had to tell her life story to near strangers: third generation, born in Cleveland, as American as apple pie. At first I thought it took a certain amount of patience and grace, but she said that no, she most often just belted it out, like from a script—she didn’t even have to think. Everyone wanted to tell her they had a Korean neighbor or boss or had sat next to a Korean kid in grammar school. Lovely people, they told her. She smiled and nodded her head.

School closed and I didn’t get the summer teaching position I applied for at the high school. I could have tried a little harder to find something else, followed up a little more diligently, but instead I woke up late, got comfortable with the idea of not having responsibilities. Loraine didn’t have to work much either. She waited tables, but not regularly. A little drawer in her dresser always held a bag of weed—that was one thing she always took care of. I only went back to my place every few days, when I ran out of clothes. We slept late most mornings, listened to the birds chirp, and then went back to sleep. Sometimes we made love, and other times just breakfast.

When the sun came out and we felt like it, we walked the few blocks to the coffee shop on the corner. She still collected her stipend but had less money than me, or so she said, so I ordered us rolls and big strong cups of coffee. I had three credit cards, and so long as no single balance got too high, I felt okay about it. School started again in September and I could always get back on top of things then.

As we sat on the patio in front of the coffee shop, people in cars drove back and forth. After I finished reading the newspaper, I folded it up, stretched my arms out over my head, yawned loudly, and just watched the traffic. Everyone on their way somewhere important seemed so busy, so unhappy. It showed on their faces. They mostly stared straight ahead, out the windshield, without even the hint of a smile. The ones that turned to look—the ones that gave me a sideways glance—I felt the most sorry for.

* * *

“Take me somewhere Charlie, somewhere I’ve never been before,” Lorraine said to me.

“I know what we can do,” I told her.

I took her to Chicago’s Gold Coast, the Magnificent Mile. We did it right, one night in the Drake, dressed to the nines, sipping down vodka drinks in that plush leather-chaired lounge. Loraine, so sexy in a skirt, held a cigarette lazily over her shoulder, like we had always led a life of fancy-drinked luxury. With her other hand, she ran her long red fingernails through her hair and smiled—I swirled my drink with a straw, laughed at all of my own jokes, and handed the waitress my platinum card.

The old world hotel rooms reminded me of cabins on a ship—small and one right after another. We went after each other as soon as the door closed behind us—went at it so loud and so long that the neighbors on both sides banged on the walls and slammed their closet doors. Afterwards we tried to stifle our laughter, as if that would recompense.

“I think I love you Loraine,” I told her.

“Oh you,” she said.

* * *

On Sunday we became Bohemians again, cruising the yard sales at the big houses along the lake, buying books and board games and picture frames. We never knew for sure what we might come across—small treasures. Inside the pages of Malone Dies, by Beckett, I found an old bookmark, a message for Chas Johnson in room 241 of the Edgewater Hotel to call a Miss Harrington, time stamped 11:21 AM, August 22, 1938. Loraine said she knew someone who once found a first edition of On the Road, lost in a pile of forgotten books, a sticker on it for thirty-five cents.

I held up an old hiking backpack on a metal frame. It looked ancient, like it was made over a hundred years ago, but only used a couple of times at most. No wear and tear. I imagined George Mallory conquering the foothills of Mount Everest but then changing his mind when he got to the first rock face. “Sorry fellahs,” he said to the Sherpas who were just beginning to reach their arms up toward the ascent. “Not exactly what I had in mind,” he told them.

I shook the bag slightly and it seemed sturdy enough—a pot and pan were tucked inside, unnoticed.

“Make sure it fits first,” Loraine said to me as I examined it.

I hitched it up on my shoulders and Loraine went around behind and cinched the straps. She came back around and looked me over. “Perfect,” she said.

An old lady came around and Loraine talked her down to seven dollars, which, it seemed, she could afford.

“Where are you from?” the lady asked, as she handed Loraine her change.

“I’m from Cleveland,” answered Loraine. “But he’s from here.”

“How nice,” she said. “How did you two meet?”

“He made eyes at me in a bar.”

“Lovely,” the lady said, smiling.

Lorraine looked like she was about to continue, say something more about what happened after the part about the eyes, but I gave her a look, and she let the lady walk off to help another customer. Instead, she turned her attention toward me, started filling the bag on my back with the things we had bought. I caught a sideways glance of myself in a full-length mirror that sat up against a tree on the lawn.

“Who do you think owned this bag before me?” I asked.

“A little old lady,” she answered, “with a wad of cash in her pocket.”

“You know what I mean.”

She looked the bag over, ran her hand along the outer seam. “There’s no name tag, but I would guess that whoever owned it is all grown up now, maybe even dead.”

“You think I’m wearing a dead man’s bag?”

“How do you know it belonged to a man?”

“Let’s just say.”

“Listen, this here bag belongs to you now,” she said, decisively.

“I feel healthy enough.”

“You look it too.”

“I’m in the prime of my life,” I told her.

“Watch yourself,” she said, leading me back toward the car by the elbow. “That’s usually when the other shoe falls.”