The Summer Fling by Cynthia Blank
It was a warm summer evening in early August and the sun hung restlessly in the air, waiting to descend into the Hudson River. The streets were bustling, overflowing with the smell of sour milk, overripe fruit, and the occasional whiff of perfume. Jake emerged from the crowded Union Square subway exit, and began walking in the direction of First Avenue.
At 25, Jake had been working as an investment banker for the three years since college. He walked briskly, the humidity of New York City in August barely affecting him, despite his dark blue suit. The concept of summer as vacation or relaxation had long since passed from his mind. It was now just a short period of months, like any other, except the days were longer and the weather hotter.
As he turned south on First to walk the final two blocks to 12th Street, his phone rang. He slid it out from his pocket, and answered without stopping to look.
“Hello,” he said. His voice was a mixture of impatience and a strange charm, both warm and aloof. It had an effect on people, women especially, which he did not particularly understand nor deeply mind.
“Jake,” he heard his fiancé Judy say, her voice sweet but shrill. That shrillness was often mixed with petulance. Judy was similar to a spoiled 10-year-old girl with great manipulative powers and a thrill for dramatics. It was not that Jake was immune to these negative qualities so much as he had chosen to ignore them long ago. “Are you coming over tonight?”
“No,” he said, the lie on his lips, creating, for the fraction of a second, a bubble of guilt in his mouth. “I have to work late at the office tonight.” The bubble dissipated as quickly as it surfaced, the steps to reach Emma's apartment becoming smaller. A feeling of restrained but excited apprehension washed over him instead.
“Oh,” she replied. He could visualize the frown forming on her pretty foxlike face. “You work so much.”
He said nothing.
Judy sighed. “So I'll see you tomorrow night for dinner with my parents?”
“I love you,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “You too.”
Jake reached the walk-up between First and Avenue A, and buzzed the apartment with a grimace. This was the only building he ever visited without a doorman. You were on your own in this jungle, he thought. The buzzer rang loudly and he pushed open the door to enter. The vestibule was almost as hot as outdoors, and he sighed, breathing in the warm secondhand air. Jake walked up the five flights of stairs, a trickle of sweat beginning to form on his brow. The stairs were rickety and not well-lit. A far cry from his standard sleek one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, equipped with plush lobby and marble-plated elevators.
When he came to the top floor, he turned left and knocked on the old tattered coat of her door. She opened it slowly, not very widely, so only her face was visible. She smiled, her head tilted so that one eye moved higher than the other, the normally expressive round face suddenly taking on the mysteriousness of a full moon, before revealing the rest of her body in the narrow door frame.
“Hi,” she said. Her smile returned to normal, her large blue eyes evening out before his average-sized brown ones.
He looked around the cramped but neat apartment—the small bedroom tucked into a corner, the kitchen the size of a fingernail—before settling on the worn, but admittedly comfortable, couch. He was certain it had been handed down between various friends and families for years, although he never remembered to ask.
“How are you,” she asked, bringing him a cup of tap water in a cracked glass.
“Alright,” he murmured.
This was not the type of dalliance he felt an emotional need to justify with a why, an attribution of everything from nerves over settling down, the frustratingly fragile and untenable position of engagement, or to uncertainty if Judy was the "one." He knew she would be a fine wife. She was beautiful, a good cook, and wanted children. There was nothing else he could ask of her. Hence the proposal with a dozen roses on their three-year anniversary in January, and the wedding—a lavish party in Los Angeles where Judy's parents were from—over Labor Day weekend. But neither was it a quick falling into bed, a lust-filled hour to satisfy some carnal craving he could easily fulfill elsewhere. The affair was neither emotional nor physical, but rather transcendental—as if it were happening on some other planet, remote from, but still intrinsically tied to, earth.
Emma came over and sat on the opposite side of the couch, cross-legged Indian style. “Did you know,” she asked, “that you have the same birthday as Napoleon?”
“No,” he replied. “No, I did not.” He caught her eye, and saw the silly smile she was giving him, understanding her code for the meaninglessness of this non-conversation between two people who had always been able to communicate better in silence, not even with tangled limbs, but absolute complete silence. He smiled too and began to laugh. She joined him, their laughter filling the otherwise quiet apartment with an unrestrained, almost ridiculously natural sound. Eventually, the laughter subsided and they became placid and contemplative, as happens when two people google uncontrollably at something that is not so funny for what feels like an eternity. The sun's shadows shifted then and the apartment seemed to become darker.
“I used to love the summer,” she said. Her neck was twisted toward the window and her eyes seemed to be following something outside. “But now I prefer the spring.” He understood. In months like April and May, when the flowers begin to bloom, and the cold breeze slowly subsides as the days stretch out into infinite oblivion, there is still the expectation of something to look forward to.
He stood up and walked to her side of the couch, gently pressing his fingers into her shoulders, looking out the window with her at the dismal sight of other apartment windows, cracked fire escapes, and decades-old string, once used by sad, tired mothers for drying laundry. He raised her up by the flesh of her arms and turned her around to face him. He kissed her collarbone, her jaw, and then her mouth. The sun was finally setting as they blended together, the white sheets of her bed splotched with the orange pinks and purples of the darkening sky.
Emma was no stranger. She had been close friends with both Jake and Judy in college, one of those people you assume you will always be friends with. They had simply fallen out of contact in the months following graduation. He accustomed himself to 80-hour work weeks—nights filled with Chinese take-out at his desk and collapsing into bed after midnight only to wake up five hours later—and busy weekends socializing with Judy and their other yuppie friends. Emma became a struggling actress, working as a waitress for shift after shift, and non-stop auditioning in hopes of a big break.
It had started in the bare beginning of June. One Sunday morning, he had woken up and walked into his living room to find Judy surrounded by paper swirled and glossed with bold black calligraphy.
“Hi, sweetheart,” she said brightly, lifting her head up to meet his lips in a kiss. “Look, it's our wedding invitations.”
He grinned and joined her on the carpet, helping her stuff and seal the thick creamy paper into smooth white envelopes, already addressed in Judy's neat stylish print. He came across one invitation and stared at the name. It was hers. He hadn't thought of her in months, not out of spite or forgetfulness, but simply because he had slipped so completely into his adult life that anything from the past seemed distant and out of reach. Thinking about it only served to disorient him. Emma White, he whispered to himself, pronouncing the three syllables slowly. He picked up the envelope, twirling it inside the palm of his hand as if it were a slippery coin.
“You invited Emma?” he asked.
“Mhm,” Judy replied absentmindedly.
“You still keep in touch?”
She shrugged, her brown eyes undisturbed, her long manicured fingers folding carefully and elegantly. “Here and there.” She paused, meditating on it. “We were such good friends in school, so I thought, why not.”
He nodded and returned to helping her. Subconsciously, he memorized the unfamiliar address, written gracefully in blue ink across the front of the white envelope.
A few days later he found himself standing outside her dilapidated building. The orange tulips he carried—her favorite, he remembered—sure to die in three days. After finding her name that Sunday, his mind kept wandering to memories from college: days spent studying in the library, nights eating bags of M&Ms and watching old movies, their arms nearly touching as they squeezed close together to see the small screen. His favorite was what they called "alone time." Reading or thinking together—phones off—and keeping company with an unobtrusive silence.
He had felt himself getting distracted during the long hours of work. He was unable to sleep, instead spending nights, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling. His only solution was to see her. And so, one late night after work, he went to the address tucked away in his head, and braced himself to enter the building. The door buzzed open without question and he walked up the stairs to her apartment, knocking tentatively.
Emma opened the door. She looked the same, perhaps thinner than he recalled, but the long golden-brown hair hanging in waves down her shoulders was just as he remembered. She smiled. “Jake,” she said, tilting her head sideways, surprised. “What are you doing here?”
He held up the flowers as though a peace offering and said, simply, “Old time's sake?”
She laughed and let him come in. He took a moment to look around. The mostly bare walls, the sparse furniture. Somehow, though, it felt cozy and carelessly neat, as if it would be too much trouble and too costly to actually create a mess of belongings inside it. “Nice place,” he murmured, and she winked back at him. He sat down on the couch. She joined him. They faced each other, the cushioned gap in the middle serving as no man's land for their arms and feet.
After two hours of reminiscing she expressed the sentiment they had both been feeling. “I've missed you, you know.” She looked over at him, biting her lip ever so slightly, her face contorted in a look of irrational fear that he did not or had not felt the same since they lost touch.
He nodded. “Why didn't something ever happen between us?” he asked jokingly, but with an earnestness that allowed him to get away with such questions. He leaned forward toward her, expectant.
Emma shook her head, a sad smile on her face. “Didn't you know I always wanted it to?”
“Really,” he said.
She said nothing, only looked at him, embarrassed by her honesty.
In that moment, when his eyes met hers, he felt his breath catch, and suddenly he drew her close to him and kissed her, feeling at once her soft lips, the light hairs standing on end along her upper arms, and the strange non-scent of the odorless orange flowers seeping through the room. They separated and she stared at him, her eyes reflecting the confusion and anticipation mirrored in his own.
“Where's your bedroom?” he asked, although it was not hard to see the door hanging ajar. Her head leaned in its direction. They walked there quickly, falling into bed with awkwardness and a fearful urgency, as if someone would come and knock on the door in the next moment and catch them before they had even started undressing.
“Are you sure this is what you want?” she whispered later while they lay side by side in bed, their breaths steadily returning to normal. He felt stricken by her manner, her words questioning his innermost desires, but also her belief that this was leading somewhere, when he had not been thinking past the minute that lay before him. And now he found himself without an answer to a question he had unknowingly created of his own volition. He did not respond, but placed his arm around her slender back and held it there as their breaths slowed even further, and the city became quiet around them.
The sun had long since sunk beyond the river, traveling west, darkening each big city and small town it passed. Jake and Emma awoke to the August night. They got dressed slowly, and, without any conferring, left the apartment to walk to Tompkins Square Park. They were quiet. The park was mostly empty, but those few people still there they ignored. Several birds, still awake, chirped in the trees above them as they settled on an arbitrary bench without much thought. To the left was a playground, and to the right, tables painted with squares for chess. It was all similar and yet foreign to eyes that only pretended to pay their surroundings much attention.
“Did you get that part you were talking about,” he asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “I auditioned for another and got it.” She did not elaborate.
Beyond them they heard two teenagers arguing loudly, gesticulating as if their lives depended on theatrical motion.
“Do you remember freshman year? When Judy and Max got into that fight?” Emma asked, laughing, alluding to his good friend and former roommate.
He smiled. He did. It had been a stupid fight. “He barely came out of our room all year after that.”
“Yes, yes,” she exclaimed, with the happiness of a child who had successfully educated an adult or been granted an invaluable wish.
It became quiet again.
“Does she know?” She snuck a glance at him as she asked, her voice barely above a whisper, before turning her eyes to the ground below her.
He did not answer, preferring to stare off into the dark distance and pretend the question had never been asked. Jake glanced at a tall tree, whose trunk had over time curved into a backwards looking C. He felt himself becoming entranced by its crookedness, the way it was sorely bent. He told himself that all men find infinite beauty in pictures, whether ephemeral or eternal, whether of a woman they temporarily love, or a phenomenon of nature that never ceases. But those pictures, like any piece of true art, can never fully encapsulate the range of emotions in a human heart—can never attain perfection or wholeness. And no matter how long one yearned for the satisfaction of completion, of absolute unflawed beauty, it was impossible and always out of reach, like a child or fool's attempt to pull stars out of the sky by capturing their reflection in a pail of water.
Neither said anything for a long time. “Is there an end to this?” Emma asked, breaking the silence they had weaved so carefully with skin and bones.
A loitering, bored-looking policeman approached them. “It's midnight,” he said. “Park's closing.” With a pointed look, he hurried off to another section to repeat the same mindless task of clearing bodies off benches.
“We should go home,” Emma said.
Jake was silent for a few moments, watching and not-watching the other summer stragglers begin their descent from the park, before replying. “Yes.”
He did not move, and she sat there, still and silent, with him.
© Cynthia Blank, 2018
Cynthia Blank received her MFA in Poetry from Bar Ilan University's Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Graduate Program. She also holds a BA in Dramatic Literature and Creative Writing from New York University. Her poems have been featured most recently in New Reader Magazine, Grey Borders Magazine, The Cerurove, and Fourth & Sycamore. More of her work can be found here: https://cynthblank.wixsite.com/website.
The Summer Fling was read by Kira Davies on 3rd October 2018 for Courage & Cowardice