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Apple of My Eye
By Hannah Shaw
I waited among the Wall Street yuppies by the low tracks of Summit Station, rubbing my elbows in my threadbare sweater. I scanned the crowd once over to be sure there wasn’t one who could say: “You’re Chuck Mathers’s girl, aren’t you?” Thank God, the ones who would know my old man are all bankers and brokers old enough to drive to work. Yep, just yuppies here. A small crowd was gathered across the tracks, waiting on a westbound train, the small town workers. There was a frumpy woman in a sweater: a family friend, perhaps? No. And a man in a coat, who looked an awful lot like my dentist, but he wasn’t. There was no one I knew: no one to witness this getaway and no one to make legends of it. Good.
I glanced up at the clock hanging from the station’s wall for what must have been the ninth time. 8:51, no train in sight. No Luke either. I had the feeling that I was being stood up.
Maybe I should call…No. Calling is for the desperate, Clare told me. It’s for the bottom-feeders, and you and I are way too hot to stoop to that level. Clare was my best—and perhaps only—friend. We found that we clicked sophomore year in fourth period Spanish where we took turns sipping Grey Goose from a Fuji bottle shared between us. Clare swore that with each flaming sip, her mediocre Spanish took on an air of fluency and I believed it. However, Señora Ramirez did not. Clare was childish about the whole thing and one slap on the wrist turned out to be a slap that hurled her half way across the state to a different school that would supposedly turn her into a lady. I didn’t have that problem. And somewhere along the way, she and I forgot to keep in touch, though her number still buzzed in the back of my mind and my fingers were still tempted to dial it.
But I couldn’t call then. Not Clare, nor Luke. From the depths of my sweater pocket, my phone was buzzing angrily, probably Headmistress Rosen and probably best unchecked. Rosen had taken to calling me after eventually finding that both my parents are virtually impossible to reach: my father in his city corner office, guarded by a short-skirted secretary and my mother off throwing herself into the world of fashion, shopping the day away with her latest accessory, Chloe, her puffy Pomeranian. Old Saint John’s has gotten pretty good at figuring out when I’m not where I’m supposed to be. It isn’t even second period.
My eyes darted back to the station’s clock. 8:53. Where the hell is Luke?
Around the time I lost touch with Clare, Luke fell into my life. Luke was a senior at Everett Academy, who drove a flashy, little, black Mustang. A balmy July day, he winked at me from the lifeguard chair at the Fairmount Country Club pool and I decided he’d be mine. We started splitting bags of Skittles and lukewarm cans of Coke and fooled around on the mossy grass of the putting green. And once, just one time, I talked him into buying me dinner—a skill that required a short skirt and a bit charm.
But Luke rose to the occasion and donned his coat and tie. He whirled me off to some nifty seafood place downtown with a dress code and white tablecloths where he fed me buttered lobster— something I had never dared try before—off a tiny trident fork. We slurped up oysters in shells and loitered late into the night until I became his. That night, I felt like a lady. Since then, six months had gone by: six months of video games and cruising around Central Jersey in his Mustang, honking at girls out to jog. But today was the exception, today, I was a lady and today we’d see the city.
“There she is,” Luke hummed.
I turned my head and there was Luke: spring coat, T-shirt and jeans, one ear bud; its twin dangling and bleating tiny techno music.
“You’re late,” I said. “The train was supposed to leave a few minutes ago.”
“Hey, but it’s late and I’m ready for it as promised.” He pulled me into his wool coat and planted a dry peck on my lips. As promised--those words struck me funny and I couldn’t tell why.
I dropped the subject. “So, what’s the plan once we get in?”
Luke shrugged and stood by my side at the platform. “Hang out in the city? It’s what you wanted.”
“Well, it’s your trip too…” I offered. “I just want to go ice skating and go for a carriage ride in the park…Oh, also drinks at the Plaza! As long as we can fit all that in.”
“Whatever you want, Meg.”
After a minute more, the train whooshed into the station, stirring waves of stale metallic air. The station’s crowd rushed forward, spilling into the car. My fingers twisted into Luke’s, tugging him into the crowd and pulled him towards the open, sliding, traincar door.
I picked out a plastic, green seat by a window across from a few blue-collar guys from further down the Dover line. They all wore hoodies and dust-stained jeans. If I had been alone they would have scared me. But I wasn’t.
The train jerked to a start and swayed from over the tracks as it picked up speed. Luke and I settled in as the train swept through suburban backyards, past dogs and picket fences. The conductor ambled in at some point, clicking away at his hole-punch as a crab would his claw.
“Where to, kiddos?” the conductor inquired.
“New York Penn Station,” I answered.
“Going to the Big Apple, eh? It’ll be ten dollars.”
Luke pulled out his wallet. “The Big Apple’s a stupid nickname, wonder who came up with that one…” He handed over a crisp $10 bill.
Obviously he wasn’t paying for me. I coughed up ten bucks for my own ticket, scrounging through my purse for what seemed an embarrassingly long time. “Actually, no one came up with ‘The Big Apple’ per se.” I turned to look out the window. “No one really knows where it came from. Some say it was from the name of an old jazz club- or from placing bets at the horse races. Or even crazy 20’s dance moves, the apple from the garden of Eden—or maybe just a hooker named Eve...Just seems to me like it came from people’s worst vices, like gambling, lust…stuff like that. Don’t you think?”
I flipped my head back towards Luke. He still looked out the window; both ear buds plugged in and his mind off somewhere in a cloud of heavy bass.
I huffed, quit talking to the wall, and let my eyes drift back to backyards, dogs and picket fences.
* * *
A dozen and a half blocks up from Penn, the city aroma grew stagnant and reeked of cigarette ash, gutter rainwater, and day-old street food. The streets became dense with moving bodies, each rushing at their own pace, covering the thick, long sidewalks. On the corner of 7th Ave and 46th Street, Luke bought a hot dog off a cart from a man who didn’t speak English.
“You’re really gonna eat that? It’s barely 10 a.m.”
Luke stuffed half the hot dog into his mouth; his cheeks puffed like a hamster’s.
“You know, those hot dogs aren’t Hebrew National. Those they still make from pig lips and pig butts,” I told him.
“Tastes fine to me.” Luke swallowed it down.
“Well, you’ll eat anything.”
“You never eat.”
“I eat,” I spat back.
Luke stepped towards me. “Bet you haven’t eaten today,” he dared.
“Well, I have, so get off it,” I lied. Last I’d eaten was a fistful of gummy bears at 2 o’clock yesterday and I didn’t intend to eat much today either.
I turned on the bone of my heel away from Luke and stared up at the flat screen billboards that lit up Times Square.
“We ought to take a picture here,” I told Luke.
An old man in a trench coat lit up three feet from us and exhaled a stream of smoke. I grimaced. The smell would linger. I caught Luke as he inhaled deeply. All former smokers seem to love fresh smoke.
“No pictures, Meggie, please…” he sighed.
“Come on! It’ll be cute. We need more pictures! As it is, my grandma’s only ever seen that picture of you and me from New Year's- that one where we’re both wasted. So, yeah, new picture.”
When the light turned, I grabbed Luke’s wrist, crossing to the median. He didn’t resist. We walked to a spot somewhere around the middle of the median, herds of tourists around us, the wavy-screened Coke ad squared to our backs. I whipped out my iPhone, extending it to arm's length.
“No! Picture’s off. You never said it’d be a selfie. Sorry, Meggie, that’s a deal breaker.”
“I’m not going to give my phone to some stranger who could just make off with it! What did you expect?”
“I don’t know, just that selfies are pathetic and we’d look like thirteen year old girls!” An Asian couple started to stare.
“Fine, then. No picture.”
The crowds stirred around us, revealing a raggedy Elmo feeling up the crowd for free hugs and photo ops. Elmo wasn’t alone. Plastic-faced Mickey and Minnie wandered through in silence. Their tall plastic ears stood out above the crowd. A skinny, costumed Hello Kitty playfully toyed with her whisker and gave for free almost too bashful waves that made me feel uncomfortable. A dude dressed as Lady Liberty in full sea-green body paint stood tall across the street. His face stood out between the yellow flashes of taxis.
I shuddered. Time Square became an amusement park from childhood: the noise the confusion, the many, many people, and even the costumed characters who roamed about. I was three or four and my dad dropped my hand to take a phone call. He always had to take those phone calls. A sea of people swallowed me up and I was tossed about in the swells of the crowd for what felt like a millennia. I washed up on a park bench where he found me and continued on with the day.
I grabbed Luke’s hand. “Let’s just go ice skating.”
“The rink at Rockefeller Center is probably still open,” I said.
“Fine…Just lead the way,” Luke said passively.
We walked up 7th Ave, past 47th Street, where the wanna-be singers loiter curbside, pushing their CDs.
“Gorgeous girl!” “Pretty, pretty!” “Come here, you gotta hear my music!” They called out, overlapping. They jumped and leaned towards me as I passed.
Luke wrapped his arm around my shoulder. He always hated the way other boys looked at me.
I had the feeling he would brand me if he could, like a cow- a permanent mark of ownership, like property. He once asked, half-kidding, if I would get a tattoo of his name inked into the curve of my hip. I said no, which cut him deeply—a gash to separate me from him, but made him want this tattoo all the more. He didn’t bring up the tattoo anymore but I knew he wanted it on my body. He wrote his name in Sharpie on my skin at every opportunity until the dried, black ink showed up in grey blotches on my arms, calves, shoulders, thighs. I never scrubbed at his markings but let them fade until my body was covered in dusky, scribbled Ls, bent-up Ks and smudged vowels that all looked like Os.
“Meggie, look!” Luke called.
I turned. Luke had stopped outside Lace Gentlemen’s Club. Under a gray-white marquee, his eyes lingered on the blacked-out glass door as though he expected some thing to emerge.
“It’s happy hour,” he muttered.
Without the tattoo, the rule became ‘look but don’t touch’ when it came to other people, which opened many of the doors of interpretation, one of which included an outcropping of near-nude photos of high school girls Luke knew that popped up in text messages every now and then. Luke said he always deleted them. But that loose bitch, Kathy Gurn, still batted her eyes at him. A snowball’s chance in hell, that’s right.
“Don’t be gross,” I told him.
“You brought your fake, right?”
“We’re going to the Plaza for cocktails later, remember?” I wasn’t about to go in there.
“We’re going ice skating, Luke.” I started walking.
Luke dawdled a moment, weighing his options, before jogging to catch-up, rounding the corner at 51st Street. “Ice skating it is.”
* * *
Rockefeller Center was shaded over; its tall towers blocked out most morning sun. My sweater had worn thin and tore in spots no one noticed: scratches along the elbow, loose strings dangled at my side, a thick rip just below the back of the collar. The wind was battering, streaming through my sweater. It hit me hard, making me feel frail and small. Luke buttoned his coat. Even if my teeth chattered, I doubt he’d offer it to me.
The sunlight that peered through the skyscrapers hit the golden Prometheus, making him shine like a glorified idol. The sunny statue looked with unblinking eyes upon the shaded Rockefeller skating rink.
“See! It’s open, just as I said!” I jumped and tugged Luke’s hands until we could see the icy plaza set below. Children were racing, couples holding hands, and a few retirees gliding in circles.
“Ice skating it is…” Luke grumbled.
We shimmied through the tourist crowds, through a family speaking German and a pudgy sightseeing troop, towards the rink.
“Whoa. Wait just a sec there, Meggie…” Luke halted at the stairs before the rink. “It’s twenty-five dollars per person… another ten for skates… for the both of us, it’ll be… seventy. No. Sorry, Meg. Can’t do it. It’d be seventy dollars down the drain.”
“It wouldn’t be down the drain, Luke! We’d have fun! Come on…I really want to! Besides, it’s not even your money!”
“Not my money?”
“We both know it’s all from your dad’s bank account and seventy bucks is pocket change to him!”
“Money is money, and I’m not spending it on ice skating!”
I huffed and crossed my arms. I didn’t have seventy dollars. Hell, I didn’t have thirty-five. I had eighteen. Twenty-eight this morning until the train ticket took ten. I’d seen Luke’s wallet often enough to know it was filled and refilled. He wasn’t stingy and splurged often. Often, however not on me. Money for both of us was no excuse; we didn’t really need it. My dad gave me one hundred and fifty dollars last weekend. Enough lunch money for the week, Meggie? I can always give you more. I lit it up in flames last Sunday and left the gray-and-green crumpled ashes in a pile on the kitchen counter. Four days later, he hadn’t said a word on it.
I didn’t have anything to say.
“Let’s just get lunch,” Luke changed the subject.
He grabbed my hand. I didn’t pull away, instead, I let him lead me away, down the street.
* * *
We settled on a café Luke picked out on 57th Street with tall glass windows, its name hand-painted onto the glass. A simple hostess escorted us up the stairs, no words exchanged. We were seated by the window on the second floor overlooking the street. A silent waiter came around and handed us heavy paper menus. Luke perused his. Mine rested on the table.
After a short while, Luke spoke: “What are you getting?
“I’m not hungry.”
“It’ll be a long day. You should eat.”
“The waiter will bring water. I’ll be fine.”
“Water isn’t a meal.”
“Water doesn’t cost anything.”
Luke dropped his menu to the table. “So it’s about money again?”
“No, of course it’s not…I’m just not hungry.”
“If it is, I’ll pay for the goddamn food. Just eat.”
“It’s not, Luke. Forget it.”
I’d eat buttered lobster if you fed it to me.
The waiter returned with tall glasses of ice. He poured us both water.
“Ready to order?” The waiter asked curtly.
“Yeah. The Smoked Turkey Panini for me, please,” Luke said.
The waiter looked to me next.
“Nothing for me, thank you.”
* * *
We crossed the Grand Army Plaza in the early afternoon, when the sun had fully risen and was showering down upon the square. The plaza was bare and bright, a few scraggly hedges that hadn’t quite recovered from winter and a massive empty fountain. A small child was climbing it. There were no parents in sight.
“Who’s the naked chick on the fountain?” Luke quizzed me. This was our game. I always knew the “weird things no one ever cares about” and Luke would test my knowledge.
I stared up at the fountain a moment. It was the black, bronze statue that stood before the front doors of the Plaza Hotel, the site of not just the rich but the rich of New York. Of course I knew the name of the statue. “It’s called Abundance but the woman is Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit.”
Luke scrolled through his phone to confirm my answer. I knew I was right but he always checked. I must have been right because Luke put his phone away without a word.
“Wanna go to the park?” Luke asked.
“I want a carriage ride in the park,” I told him, eyeing the buggies across the square.
“Ugh…Don’t start this again…”
“What? We didn’t go ice skating!”
“So? This isn’t ice skating. This is way worse. This would be you and me sitting in some dirty little cart that smells like horseshit for an hour. We’re not going.”
I glared at Luke.
“We’ll go for a walk in the park, same view, same sights, same experience, no horseshit.” Luke was trying to compromise but I knew it wasn’t a compromise when he still got his way and I didn’t.
“It’s not the same thing.”
We walked in silence through the zoo just in time to see the crowds pile up behind the fences to watch the zookeepers feed the seals. We skirted around them, walking over spilt popcorn, scaring the scrawny sparrows. We were still silent, reaching the Literary Walk, a broad, paved street lined with benches. There, there were the vendors selling knock-offs and little artworks on rickety tables, lined with cheap tarps. One vendor dressed in a plastic bag was selling faux Coach bags—one like the one my dad bought me for my last birthday. I never liked the color but never broke the news to him and it lay on my nightstand at home, not to be taken out and not to be put away. Its copies seemed to be stiff, stamped leather.
Around us, there were the walkers of small dogs in every color and pedigree. Raggedy-haired Yorkies scampered about, held on thin little leashes. A Pomeranian chased its tail at the foot of some woman on the phone. It looked like Chloe, my mom’s dog, a cream-colored throw pillow. I felt the urge to kick it. I could probably get away with it here. This was the city. The owner wasn’t watching.
But kicking the life out of that puffy, little squirrel wasn’t going to do squat to Chloe. Mommy’s precious little poochie would still be lying on the couch when I got home. And Mommy would be in Short Hills at the Mall, trying on Prada shoes.
Then, there were the stupid other couples who took their time in the sun. They all talked quietly, probably about sweet things that didn’t demand shouting, and I could imagine them never shutting up. Their eyes always met as though they had nothing better to look at, but there was. The park was beautiful: the flowers in fresh bloom, the grass greener than anything, ducks floating quiet on the lake. But it was irrelevant to them. They didn’t see it and didn’t care to. No wonder they took their time.
Luke stopped walking at some point around the Bethesda Terrace and lifted a filtered Marlboro from his coat pocket. He lit up and breathed until his breath smelled like ash.
“You told me you quit,” I muttered.
“Meggie, I’m too young to quit.” Luke exhaled his fumes like a car.
I looked away: my eyes stretched over the lake and the pairs drifting out in little rowboats. “What does that even mean?”
Luke took another puff, “I like it, so why quit?”
“You know how I feel about it.” The rowboats made no sound and silent ducks paddled by.
“And I’m okay with that.”
“But you told me you quit.” I clenched my jaw and a fat pigeon sailed across the sky. Suddenly, there was Kathy Gurn. I could imagine her crappy pink lip-gloss staining his skin, her body exposed like the pictures on Luke’s phone.
“You hate it and I wanted you to quit barking at me, so yeah…But it’s been a long day and I want a smoke. Just lay off.”
I imagined Kathy’s ponytail twirling to the odd blank bleeping of my father’s answering machine: Please leave a message after the tone. My dad who wasn’t there. My dad who always had to take those phone calls.
“Lay off?” I flipped my head around. “You’ve been lying to me!”
“A little white lie. It made you happy.”
“Do I seem happy now?!”
“Alright, I screwed up!” Luke shouted. The people of the park waded around us. “But you’re not so perfect either, Meg-“
“Of course I’m not perfect, but I’ve never lied to you! I’ve been so good to you and this is how’ve treated me!” I felt a dozen and a half` eyes beating down on me, but no longer cared.
“Good to me? When are you even nice to me? You push me around and ask for money. You never compromise, hate the things that I wanna do—you’ve gotten to be a real bitch!”
My eyes met Luke’s, no longer the boiling anger or hair-wrenching frustration I knew, but a silent hate. Mine welled with salty water. I breathed stilted breaths so the tears wouldn’t fall, but this act was fooling no one. The crowd was ready for the waterworks.
Luke stood up, dropped the cigarette and rubbed it into the brick floor. “You’ve made a scene.” He turned and started off toward The Boathouse. The onlookers too suddenly went on to separate ways.
I didn’t chase him, didn’t call after him, didn’t move. I stood by the fountain on the Bethesda Terrace, suddenly alone.
* * *
I crossed over the mosaic floor into the lobby of the Plaza Hotel. The room buzzed with the light chatter of men in jackets and women in pearls. They gathered in small circles, each with their own party, holding long-stemmed champagne glasses. They stood, they lounged, they sipped their cocktails. I walked with a leisurely pace up a grand marble stairway into the Rose Club. No eyes followed me.
Under soft purple light, I eased into a tall, snakeskin-leather bar chair. I straightened my back in my seat and, though I was small and skinny, with confidence these servers question nothing. One in a white dress shirt brought me a menu as I counted the bills in my wallet. Three fives and three singles. And a train ticket home costs ten. But I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to go anywhere. Here felt safe enough and in the last few hours, the city had grown huge and dark, the streets longer and the shadows deeper. My eyes skimmed over the prices listed in the canvas-bound drink menu, twenty bucks for a drink.
I stopped caring. “Just a rum and coke.”
The bartender didn’t ask for an ID, but for seventeen, tonight, I was aged and gaunt. The bartender poured it together and slid the glass across the counter.
I sipped from the glass until the sips became gulps and I felt I was being obvious and the rum left stains as it ran down my throat. I wanted to be drunk. I couldn’t afford that, not at twenty bucks a drink in a place like this. Not when I couldn’t afford the glass in my hands.
I finished off the glass and let the dizzy buzz set in. The wood-paneled room seemed bigger than it was and the city must have been infinitely bigger than that. A fat woman reclining on a plush leopard chair laughed her hearty chortle and a man with an over-groomed moustache played with his wine and the wine raced in circles and circles and circles up the sides of the glass. And suddenly the room smelled of lobster under the purple glow: cold and raw and old.
I was going to be sick.
I held my head in my hands and hoped no one dare say a word.
Hannah Shaw is a student at the College of the Holy Cross in New Jersey.