Mikey and the Chickadee Ch. 01

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Amateur

In a word: stability. This man in his grey suit radiated stability, there in the rain next to a lamppost, not leaning against it as I would have done, but standing on his own two goddamn legs as he texted furiously on a massive phone.

I stood just under the eve of a bus shelter, on the cusp, as I was these days, of a life more adventurous.

Not the least bit troubled by his screen becoming flecked with water, he glanced left, west, the direction from which he, both of us, several of us, knew the bus to come.

Pathetically, this was the latest along a string of encounters acknowledged only, it seemed, within my own mind. The thread had grown lengthy enough to reach back six months to a time when a summer spent traveling clung on by one finger and I settled into my first post-grad occupation in Accounting. Yes, it’s true that I had traveled, seen Europe with two friends from my college program, and it was an experience every bit as enriching as they had convinced me it would be. For nearly two months I screamed, I laughed, I became someone; I met people on the road whom I revealed my whole self to unhesitatingly. Later on, the enormity of my personal growth would serve only to enhance my disappointment and self-loathing when I slipped with alarming ease back into complacence, gasping fish into pond, at home in my new job.

Perhaps there had existed a small window of time during which I would have approached him, maybe even with some semblance of confidence. This window began when I first assumed our shared bus route, set back down on the earth still ready to run, still willing to share myself, still holding the point of view that I was worth sharing. It ended when my mind no longer grasped so firmly the temporary perspective I had taken on, when outlines of memories were no longer in focus.

If this tiny window had existed at all, I had not taken significant notice of him from within its bounds. That happened later, on one of the last truly warm, sun-filled days, when I sat directly behind him, and he sat next to a small elderly woman. I was first exposed only to the back of his head, a shock of black-as-night hair that spiraled outward from a common center to form a structured mess that occurred to me as nestlike and effortlessly charming. Phone to his ear, he spoke with a voice that scooped up the surrounding air, in a language which, only after some time and with considerable effort, I identified as Thai. Apparently aware of his conspicuous presence on an otherwise quiet bus, his phone conversation was brief, and then he sat in silence.

In this town I would not take for granted another person’s ability to speak english, however, the old woman next to him seemed to hold no such reservations.

“Do you ride this bus often?”

He turned to her and I caught one side of his face: the smooth skin of his cheek (not very dark but certainly darker than mine), the left eye, deep-brown and heavy-lidded, abbreviated nose, linear jaw angling cleanly upward near the neck.

“Yeah I do,” he said with no particular accent that I could detect. “I ride it to work.” He then smiled with such genuine compassion that the woman may as well have been his own grandmother.

“I thought so,” she said. “I remember you from the last time I was on, but that was weeks ago.” Her shoulders shook in quiet laughter.

“I’m sure it was me. I’ve been riding this route for more than a year.” He then proceeded to ask her about her day and, as her answers came, regarded her with careful interest.

As I listened, forever a shameless eavesdropper, I, too, realized it wasn’t the first time I’d seen him. And in the months to come I would continue to notice him. It wasn’t something that happened every day. I did sustain a compelling interest in my career of choice, and I will admit that there were days when I was so engrossed in preparing for work that I couldn’t have recalled whether he had ridden the bus that day at all.

So, it appeared, did he. On days when I noticed him, his gaze would often shift from papers perched on his lap to his phone’s screen and then back again. Occasionally he would hold conversations in English over the phone regarding presentations and clients and many other business-related concerns, but his field never became clear to me.

And unclear it remained on this day in the rain at the bus shelter. Looking up from his phone, he seemed to think better of letting the rain soak into his suit pendik escort and, in his casual manner, trudged over to stand under the eve, next to me. Although not very broad-shouldered, he filled out his suit well. He was also tall; I had already known all of this but our standing proximity had never permitted me the chance to size him up properly. Without looking over I could tell that he was a couple of inches taller than I was, and I stood somewhat above average.

I imagined a fantasy world in which he noticed me just for one second. What was his impression? Lighter skin, darker suit, this fledgling white boy. Younger maybe, but if so, not by much. Did he fill out his suit quite so pleasantly? Did he stand with any ounce of confidence at all? Was his compulsion to exercise alone in his bedroom evident in the muscles of his neck?

In my past I had beckoned the attention of a few boys whose looks I estimated to surpass my own, and although my conceptualization of the person I projected outward was ill-defined, I lacked much of the insecurity concerning one’s own appearance that I sometimes noticed in other people. I cut my dark-blond hair short, as there was a lot of it. I was dealt the fortunate hand of a clear complexion. My face was structured in a way that I believed to be pleasing. In truth, I rarely considered my physical being beyond an approximate effort to maximize what was there.

The bus arrived much more full than I’d ever seen it. I boarded directly behind him and watched him sit against the window in the last remaining open pair of seats. There were other single seats available farther down the aisle, but no matter where I chose I would be seated immediately next to someone. There was no reason not to sit next to him. I understood this then and did so.

Because neither of us were small in stature, this move immediately lacked any of the relaxed feel I’d hoped for. We were not uncomfortably close, but a brief acknowledgement of the circumstance felt inevitable. I was, however, silent for a few minutes.

Finally I said, “Busy today.” I don’t remember deciding expressly to speak, and yet there it was. “Must be something going on downtown.”

“It’s Pride,” he said.

“It’s what?”

“Gay Pride,” he said. “Well, as in, the event. Not just the everyday, you know, look at me, I’m gay, I’m proud.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at this.

“I don’t mean to offend,” he said, “if you’re gay or something. I can be a little awkward around strangers sometimes.”

I had trouble believing that. “I am, but you didn’t offend me.”

“Oh,” he said. “Well that’s good.”

I felt stupid for not having remembered the winter pride event that took place every year. Although it was smaller and by design more somber than its shimmering mid-summer counterpart, I had attended before, more than once, compelled by my own curiosity. It crossed my mind that in my haste to become a functioning adult, I had abandoned a few of my old interests (not to mention a few people I associated with them).

We kept to ourselves for the rest of my twenty-minute ride, and there was no point in my wishing we hadn’t. He was still for a minute, maybe out of courtesy to me, before retrieving his phone from his coat pocket. I did not try to steal any glances at what he was up to. Already I was folding back into myself. It had finally happened, and now it was over. Nothing had come from our voices’ first chance to intertwine in conversation except, I guessed, transmitting the one and only crucial fact about me that I would have wanted him to know—that I was gay.

If I stood any chance at all of gaining the particular kind of attention from him that I desired, this otherwise arbitrary detail about my life was the best thing I could have divulged. Furthermore, I hadn’t said anything uninvited; in fact it was something he had all but set me up to reveal. This could have been unintentional on his part, but I refrained from wasting any more energy in analysis. At least now he knew.

Each day I left the bus behind at one of the city’s busiest intersections, a two-block walk from my company’s offices. I could never have known how much longer he remained on the bus, but today, as I departed, I turned back for one last glimpse of him before entering the rambling hive of pedestrian traffic. He looked directly into my eyes, and then back down at his phone. He didn’t smile. He also did not seem unhappy.

I maltepe escort would be a liar if I said I didn’t think of him on and off for the rest of the day. In all honestly, though, I believe it to be the first time thoughts of him stole more than a few seconds from each passing hour at my desk. That night I wondered, cynically, what situation could possibly lend itself to further interaction between us.

As it turned out, my wait for an answer was brief.

The next morning was colder, but dry. I had overslept and was walking with purpose from my transfer when I was stopped short by his approaching form, gliding above the earth, away from the bus stop.

Once within an acceptable distance he said, “The bus is down. Looks like it could be awhile.”

This was unfortunate timing. I had scheduled a performance review with a supervisor whose opinion I valued, and in whose hands lay the responsibility of determining wage increases. Now stomaching the idea of calling for a taxi I could not comfortably afford, I looked past him toward a handful of fellow bus riders who stood talking on their phones. “Do you think any of them would split a taxi with me?” I wondered aloud.

“Don’t worry about that. My place is close and I have a car. I’ll drive you.”

He looked at me with such devastating concern that I very nearly needed to hug him then and there, to assure him that I felt deeply nurtured by his offering. “You really don’t need to do that.”

“It would make me happy if you’d say yes.”

His dark eyes divulged a fleeting sadness, which I spent the next instant wondering if I’d actually seen. I had a number of reasons to say yes. “Alright,” I said, “I’ll go with you.”

He didn’t say anything but smiled and started in the direction he’d been walking, and I fell in alongside him.

“How old are you?” I asked. The question came to me out of nowhere, and sounded extremely bizarre now that it hung in the cold, clear morning air.

“Twenty-three,” he said. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” I replied, in a deliberate tone that mirrored his apparent lack of sentiment for his age, and immediately struck me as idiotic, since I had obviously cared enough to ask in the first place.

“I figured we were close in age,” he said.

I wanted to ask him if he had any reasoning that ventured beyond appearance, but it felt like another strange thing to ask, so we just walked in silence for a minute.

“It’s not much farther,” he said, “just around that corner. Do you live close to here?”

“Not really. I get off the 40A at Stratham and walk from there.”

“That comes from Corbin right?”

“Yes,” I said. He referred to the nearby suburb in which I rented a clean, small studio. On my street, the buildings did not crowd together and up against worn sidewalks the way they did here. I envied him a little for calling this cozy, bustling part of town his home, but the rent was out of reach for someone like me.

“I grew up in Corbin,” he said. “I don’t go back there too often anymore, though.”

“Oh, cool,” I said. “I grew up there, too. Never quite made it out, I guess.”

Cars hurried along the narrow street, made more so by endless lines of parked vehicles, punctuated only by the occasional side-street entrance or hydrant.

Suddenly he ran several feet ahead of me, whipped around, tie and coattails flying outward, and pointed at me with both hands. “Bengals.”

I stopped and shook my head. “Chickadees.”

“Aww, get out of here, then,” he said, letting his whole frame slump down as I caught up with him. “Although I guess I would have remembered you if you were a Bengal.”

I laughed. “Sorry to disappoint you.” Although I had no stake in, nor had ever payed much attention to the unusually heated high school rivalries in my hometown, his impromptu display had been completely void of pretense, playful and lovable.

“My car’s in here,” he said, leading me off the sidewalk, through a door, and into a parking garage that occupied the first floor of his apartment building.

His silver Honda Accord sedan sat in a lonely stall near the back, by the alley. I sat down in the passenger seat and noted its newness in look and smell. I asked him about it as he stood removing his coat by the open driver door, and he confessed that it was still pretty much brand-new. “I bought it a few months ago, but I don’t use it as much as I thought kartal escort I would. Can’t shake that bus.”

He sat in the seat next to me, shoved his coat into the backseat, and soon we were off. He reached out to turn up the heat, and I, unable to help myself, glanced up his arm to see that his bicep stretched almost taught the upper-sleeve of his salmon button-down. I then looked quickly away, out the passenger window.

“So besides being a brave Chickadee,” he said, “what is there to know about you?”

I looked back at him. What was there to know? I became suddenly and inexplicably self-conscious. “What do you want to know?”

“Well,” he said, “what do you do for work?”

I told him about the accounting job, about how it was very entry-level and still mostly administrative. I described the meeting awaiting me that morning and conceded that I was anxious about it.

The whole time he listened in silence, nodding and smiling here and there and when I was finished, said, “You’ll have to let me know how it goes,” with none of the gratuitous job-related reassurance that I had, ungratefully, grown a little tired of from friends and family. I rarely sought reassurance concerning my career, but often received it.

“I will,” I said, excited at the thought of our interaction extending even further into the future. I folded my hands together in my lap. “So what do you do? I’ve noticed you look busy on the bus sometimes.” This comment was a little brazen on my part.

“I work for a software development company called Pancaked,” he said. “We help other software companies streamline their stuff. Make their coding more succinct, make their data take up less room, stuff like that.”

“That’s pretty impressive,” I said. “I like the name.” I found myself wishing I knew something about software and coding and data storage. “How long have you been with them?”

“About two years.”

“I hope they pay you well. Sounds like pretty complicated stuff.”

“It varies, I guess,” he said, smiling.

“I see,” I said, although I wasn’t sure if it was the pay or the work that varied. It felt inappropriate to ask him to clarify.

He didn’t say anything after that, and drove in silence for a few minutes. I found myself feeling oddly comfortable just sitting quietly beside him. I could detect, just slightly, the heat from his body, radiating across the console dividing the two seats. In a way I knew to be absurd, given what little I knew about him (and how new it all was), this made me feel safe.

Finally he cleared his throat and said, “I’m sorry. I feel like I was being a little vague. I should say that my pay isn’t completely consistent because I sort of started it myself, so it’s not conventional in that way.”

I looked over at him. “Are you serious? That’s awesome.”

“Well,” he said, “The thing is, I couldn’t have done it without help. I have a cousin who I brought on pretty early in the game and he’s made it way better than I ever could have on my own.” After saying all of this he looked embarrassed, which made me feel sad.

I didn’t know quite what to say in response, but because he had refrained from offering reassurance earlier, I suspected he wasn’t looking for any, either. “Well, I think it sounds really cool.”

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun, most days. That’s about all I can ask for.”

I wouldn’t have described my job as a ton of fun, ever. But I found moments of enjoyment in it, which felt like enough. I considered sharing this with him, but then realized how quickly we were approaching my stop.

“Want me to get you closer?”

“No,” I assured him. “This is just fine. I can’t thank you enough. Seriously.”

He swung the car swiftly up to the curb and turned on the hazard lights. “What time should I pick you up?” he asked.

“What? Seriously?”

“Hurry up,” he said, flashing a grin. “I’m blocking traffic. Same time you board the bus home?”

I was too selfish to tell him no, to say that he’d already done too much. I needed more time with him. “Uh, yeah sure,” I replied. “That would be amazing. Thank you so much.”

“No problem,” he said as I stood up onto the sidewalk. “Stay out of trouble, Chickadee.” He waved and I let the door close with a muted thud. He signaled to rejoin traffic and sped away, leaving me standing there, motionless, taking this time to reflect with happiness for just one minute—time I felt I owed to myself—on what a pleasure it was to finally know this man. If today was all I should expect, if I woke up tomorrow and we never spoke again, at least I had known him once. But I was optimistic that we would see more, know more of one another in days to come.

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