Gray

by Nina Semczuk

 

Morning light illuminated the dirt pathways of Forest Park. Birds sang greetings as specks of golden dust seemed to hover between tree trunks. The place felt worlds away from the city. Abby barely noticed. She was pulled inside herself, repeating the conversation she had with her mother the night before. Advice. That’s what she needed before making a decision; that’s what friends were for.  

Turning a corner, she saw them. Rebecca was curved over the stroller, adjusting baby Toby in his seat. Nate stood to the side, stamping his feet. It looked like impatience, until she noticed the flashing sequence that played each time the ground met rubber. She hadn’t realized light-up shoes came in such a small size. A month had passed since Abby had last seen her friend. Now that there were two kids, it was hard. Abby had willingly made the trek from southern Brooklyn to see them.  

“Reb!” Abby called. She trotted toward the trio. Thank god Dave was home working, she thought, a sigh of relief tumbling through her mind. These days, it was rare to catch Rebecca without Dave in tow. Dave was fine. Tolerable. But he reminded her of a cliff. Abby would ask questions—polite ones, deep ones, funny ones—and it was as if she had tossed a bundle over the edge of an abyss. No reactions, no wafting back the conversational birdie.  

“Help Nate find his ball,” Rebecca said. She didn’t look up from Toby’s shoes, where she adjusted the straps. “He tossed it somewhere over there.” A jerk of her head indicated the sloping wooded area. Abby paused. Should she lean in for a quick hug? Just then, Nate started screaming.  

“Abby, please. He’s going to get worked up.” Rebecca tightened Toby’s seat buckle.  

Abby looked at Nate.  “Hi, little guy!” Her voice sounded garish, modulated bright and child friendly.  

“Let’s find your ball,” Abby said, feeling a bit stupid. She started down the side of the path, her eyes scanning left to right, right to left. It had rained a few days ago, and the ground was soft. Her shoes left indents. 

Abby heard Nate whining. She looked over her shoulder. He tugged at Rebecca, who ignored him. Rebecca’s thumbs stamped into her phone, her forearms resting on the stroller.  

Rebecca glanced down the hill and caught Abby’s eyes. 

“Forget it. I’ll just get him a new one,” she called. “Let’s get moving otherwise we’ll miss nap time.”  

“Oh. Alright,” Abby replied. She started up the slope. She felt the sticky black mud cling to her sneakers. She wondered if she’d be able to wash them in the tub without upsetting her roommate. Jen expressed herself by taping index cards to objects. Close the lid when you flushno candles in the living room; stop cooking after 9 p.m. Classic passive aggressiveness, Abby’s friend Victoria had said. Do you ever communicate in person? she had asked. Abby had shaken her head. Somehow emails, index cards, and text messages had become the forum for their relationship. We may have never had more than one conversation in person, Abby had said, but at least she cleans her dishes and takes out the trash.  

But you live with this person. Don’t you want to be friendly?  

She shook her head again. What’s the point? We’ll each replace each other sooner or later, move on, that sort of thing.  

Rebecca was walking down the path. Abby hurried to catch up.  

“Sorry,” said Rebecca. Her lips attempted a smile. “It’s so much harder with two.”  

“Of course.” Abby slung an arm around Rebecca’s shoulders and gave a quick squeeze. “No need to apologize.”  

They walked down the path, Nate wandering in front of them, Toby cooing from his front-row seat. “How is everything?” asked Abby. 

“Oh god. Remember when I said the boys were in a motion sickness phase?”  

Abby nodded. Rebecca continued. Those rear facing car seats were murderous on inner ears, and upholstery. Next, Dave refused to help with the kids in the morning. He needed the mornings to prepare for work. That was rich seeing as his commute was less than two strides—he worked from the dining room table. Then, how Rebecca’s parents were avoiding confirming Memorial Day plans. They always gathered in Central Park for a picnic, why wouldn’t they just stop being difficult for once? Didn’t they know how little time she had these days? 

Abby listened. She nodded or shook her head at the appropriate times. When Nate fell down, she fitted the vee of her hands under his tiny armpits and set him back on his feet. 

The sun had moved overhead by now. The park suddenly was crowded with dogs and their owners. Rebecca stopped talking. Abby glanced over. Rebecca flicked through pictures on her phone.  

“But what about you?” Abby asked.  

Rebecca had craved motherhood. Kids would happen, or she would leave, was what she had said to Dave. Abby remembered that storm in her friend’s relationship. But now her desire manifested had been rough. Rebecca blacked the screen and looked at Abby. Tears threatened the corners of her eyes. “I’m so tired.”  

Abby reached a hand for her shoulder. She nodded again for Rebecca to keep talking. Rebecca continued, her troubles falling over themselves as they exited her mouth.  

Eventually, they came to the train tracks that marked the end of the walk.  

“Your turn,” said Rebecca.  

Abby inhaled. “Well. Last night, my mother called.”  

Just then, Nate tripped. He fell to his hands and knees. He looked up at his mother.  

Rebecca’s face was crumpled in concern. “Baby,” she cried.  

Nate’s face morphed from stunned surprise to distress. He opened his mouth and shrieked. Rebecca scooped him up. She started walking away.  

“He'll quiet if I run him,” she said, starting a light jog. “Push the stroller, would you?” she said over her shoulder. She bounced away. 

Abby placed her hands on the bar and pushed. The wheels remained static. Abby looked up. Rebecca and Nate were yards ahead. 

Abby stared at the stroller. There were tabs on the side. She pressed them. No movement. 

“Rebecca!” she called. “How do I work this?” The park swallowed her words. She craned over the shade to look at Toby. He stared at the distant figure of his mother.  

“Don’t worry, little guy. She didn’t forget you.”  

Toby’s eyes stayed forward, intent on keeping his mother in his frame of sight. Abby bent down to look at the wheel. She prodded it. 

A spandexed runner took pity. “You have to release the lever on the bottom,” said the woman, jogging in place. “I have the same model.” 

“Thanks!” said Abby. The woman’s head stayed forward as she glided off. She was either too focused or too far to hear.  

* 

That evening, Abby found herself shrinking away from the tall man next to her on the subway. The crush of riders had squished her under his armpit. She twisted sideways to avoid touching him, and adjusted the earcups of her headphones. She turned up the volume on the ambient playlist and tried to pull her body into itself. She was almost to Penn Station. 

Her music stopped. A phone call cut through. PAMELA WARIN read the notification banner. Worry bound Abby’s breath. She stuffed it down. An exhale wheezed out. She pressed dismiss. It was too soon. She hadn’t figured out what to say.  

The train slowed to a stop. Abby was carried out of the doors by the collective surge. She wove through the congestion of people to make her way to—she checked her phone again—Shake Shack. Lynn and Robert were near the front of the long, clustered line. 

“Hey guys,” Abby said, maneuvering her way near them.  

Lynn turned. “So sorry! I thought Robert made the reservation at Friedman’s—” 

“But you said you did,” broke in Robert. He turned to Abby. “Sorry. This was the only place with gluten-free stuff for her.”  

Abby looked around. There were ledges to eat on, but no tables, no chairs.  

“No worries!” said Abby. She knew they were busy with renovations for their house in Hudson, and with their careers in finance. She was grateful to spend time with them before they headed upstate to Albany to see Robert’s sister. “I’ve been sitting all day anyway,” she lied. She had learned early to make others comfortable, a reflex she couldn’t suppress.   

Lynn angled her jaw toward Robert. “Well, I haven’t. I worked from my treadmill desk all day.”  

Robert lifted his arms, his two palms facing Lynn.  

Lynn continued. “I was looking forward to having a nice, cozy, seated, chat with our friend.”  

Abby forced a chuckle. “It’ll be fine!” She looked from Robert to Lynn.  

“Can I take your order?”  The cashier stared at the three of them. Lynn stepped forward. 

“Hey, you cut the line,” said a woman behind Abby. Abby bit her lip. She felt a hand tapping her shoulder. She turned. 

“We’ve all been waiting much longer than you.” A stout woman with a cloud of wiry red hair glared at Abby. She adjusted her bag and angled her body. Abby felt slivers of panic start to pierce her insides.   

“I’m sorry, I’m with my friends,” she offered. Her face warmed. The line, zombified with hunger, had awakened to see what would happen. Two teen girls looked up from their phones to watch. One angled her phone in their direction. 

“Well, that doesn’t help me, or anyone else who waited their turn, does it?”  

Abby turned around again, looking for help. Lynn and Robert waved from the side; they had found ledge space. Lynn mouthed “We’ll save you a spot.” Robert took his phone from his jacket.  

“Well?” asked the woman.  

“No fucking cutting,” said one of the teens. 

Abby felt as if she were on a stage, poised to be pelted by tomatoes. She held up her hands. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She sidestepped around the woman who stood like a blockade in her path.  

“Sure ya are,” the woman said. She stepped up to order, shaking her head at Abby. 

Abby walked to the end of the line. The panic melted into something dark and viscous and sad. A dragging sensation tugged at the base of her skull. Shaking it away, Abby lifted an arm to wave at her friends. Neither Lynn nor Robert noticed, their heads were bent over their phones. The glow illuminated their faces.  

She took a spot in the line that now unfurled into the hall of Penn Station. Was it even worth ordering? By the time she had her food, Lynn and Robert might be done. She waved again; no luck. Abby pulled out her phone. She texted Lynn. Had to get back in line. Lady said I cut. Sorry! Three dots appeared, then a message: No worries! We’ll join you when we finish. So hungry. 

As Abby waited, a mottled ache began to whisper from behind the shutters of her eyes. After twenty minutes, Abby was finally within the footprint of the eatery, but a half dozen people remained in front of her. Lynn and Robert appeared, flanking her. Robert wiped ketchup from his mouth on his coat sleeve. Lynn threaded an arm around Abby’s waist. She squeezed. “I was famished! I feel so much better now.” Lynn released Abby’s waist and reached over Abby’s head to ruffle Robert’s hair. 

“Same,” said Robert, laughing.  

Abby smiled at them. She tried to shove away an uncharitable thought that blurted through her mind. If their positions were swapped, she would have ordered for them, or at least have shared her food. She had traveled from Brooklyn to see them; it wasn’t her fault they screwed up the dinner reservation; she wasn’t allowed to pick where they ate, on account of Lynn’s dietary preferences. Abby swept away the thought. Expecting people to act how you would was a path to unhappiness. That’s what her yoga teacher preached. 

“Excited for Albany?” Abby asked. She wanted to get the small talk over with. The line moved forward. 

“Oh, you know how I feel about Sylvia,” Lynn said. She lifted her eyebrows.  

Robert shot her a look. “You two need to play nice.” 

“I would, if she wouldn’t always ask us for money,” said Lynn. 

“Me,” said Robert. “Not us.” 

“We’re married, so it’s our money, not yours.”  

Robert opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked at Abby. “Enough about us. What about you? Lynn said needed our opinion?” 

Abby grimaced. This wasn’t how she imagined opening the scab that was her relationship with her mother. 

“Yes,” she said. “My mother called the other day and asked me, well... told me—” 

The cashier broke in. “Can I take your order?” Abby’s head toggled from Lynn to Robert.  

“Don’t look at us, honey. We’re stuffed.” Lynn said. “Unless you want a shake?” she asked, looking at Robert.  

“No, the ride will be uncomfortable enough as it is without tempting my lactose intolerance.” He laughed.  

“Your order?” asked the cashier. 

“Go ahead,” said Lynn to Abby. “We’ll leave you to your dinner.” She looked at her phone. “We have to get to the track.” She pecked Abby two inches from her right ear. Robert squeezed her shoulder. “Sorry to eat and run!” They were off with a clatter of rolling luggage wheels. Abby felt something surge within her, threatening to reach the upper limits of her threshold. She lifted her shoulders up, bracing for—something—when the smell of ketchup cut through. The sounds of Penn Station washed over her as she settled back into the footprint of her being.  

* 

Abby shoved the last of the burger into her mouth and stuffed the bag into the overflowing bin on the Franklin Ave stop. Ahead of her on the stairs leaving the station, a pair of friends paused on the steps. One leaned into the other to catch her words. Abby’s heart yawned in envy. She took her phone out of her pocket and called Victoria. She answered after one ring.  

“So sorry to cancel on you!” Victoria said. “Tinder Dan came through and you know how it’s been for me.” 

“Wait what?” asked Abby. “No coffee tomorrow?” At the base of her neck, a buzzing sensation tickled. 

“No, I sent you the text just now. I thought that’s why you called,” said Victoria. 

“I just got off the train. It didn’t come through yet.” 

“You really should get a better phone.” 

“I know, I know,” said Abby. “I wanted to talk to you tonight anyway, instead of tomorrow.” 

“Shit,” said Victoria. “I dropped acetone on the floor. Hold on.” Abby heard her best friend shoo away her orange tabby. 

A few minutes passed. The inner buzzing quieted to a dim hum. 

“Sorry about that,” said Victoria. “What’s up?” 

“My mom called—” 

“Your mom!” cried Victoria. “You heard from her?”  

“Yes, actually, she called to—”
“Hold on, hold on,” Victoria broke in. “It’s my lawyer, I have to answer.” 

“But it’s so late.”  

“I know, that’s why I have to get it,” said Victoria. “Don’t worry. Next time we see each other we’ll chat. I have lots to tell you about Tinder Dan.” 

“And my mom,” started Abby. 

“Yes! Of course,” said Victoria. “Gotta go, love you!” 

Abby turned on Sterling Place. She could see her upstairs neighbor outside the building with her dog, returning from their evening walk. 

Abby trotted forward. “Hold the door,” she called. But Nadia and her dog were already in the building. The door shut. They disappeared up the stairs.  

Abby fit her key in the lock and swung the door open. On the vestibule floor were piles of mail, some marked with muddy footprints. She bent down. In the mess, she found the check she had been waiting for. She opened the mailbox. Nothing for Jen, plenty for Abby. She grabbed the envelopes and headed up to the apartment.  

Inside, on the console table lay a neat stack of Jen’s mail. Faint sounds carried from Jen’s closed door. It was Wicked, again. Jen began singing along. Her evening routine. Abby had bought noise-canceling headphones after Jen refused to turn the volume down, or wear headphones herself. “It's not the same,” she had said. “Besides, I can’t sing with headphones on.” Abby had let it go, because really, was it worth starting a fight with someone who has access to your toothbrush and journal? Tonight was different.   

Abby knocked on the door.  

The singing increased in volume. 

 “Jen, let’s talk.” She raised her voice above the music. 

Abby knocked again. “Jen?”  

The music swelled. Jen launched into Defying Gravity, full volume. 

Abby lifted her arm and reeled back. She had a vision of her fist smashing through the door; her hand grabbing Jen by the throat. She took a deep breath. Her arm fell to the side. The anger flared again, lifting her arm in its wake. She shook herself. Exhaled, and deflated. A bath would help. It would be quiet at the other end of the apartment. Abby could pretend Jen didn’t exist.  

She walked into the bathroom. Her mother’s whining, pleading, grating voice filled her head. She had asked for money, again. A year of silence after the last ask, the subsequent collection calls, letters, hounding. She had returned carting the same old tired words. This is the last time I’ll ask you for anything. What kind of daughter ignores their mother? Who raised you to be so selfish?  

Abby looked at the mirrored vanity. Her face, pale and bland, reflected back at her. Something about it struck her as marred. A hint of her mother in the shape of her eyebrows, the set of her mouth. The pulsing began again. The shores of her being began to rise to her inner ears.  

Without consciously instructing her limbs what to do, Abby knelt and opened the cabinet under the sink. There, in the back corner, huddled two small canisters of paint, leftover from some previous tenant. The super had ignored her request to remove them. But now here they were, waiting.  

She lifted the one with white puddles crusting it closed. A flathead screwdriver was still on the floor from last week. She picked it up. She traced its blunt edge on the lines in her left palm, feeling a trail of metallic ice in its wake. Abby jabbed it under the lip of the can. 

She stood. Her hand snatched a makeup brush. Bending down, she pushed the brush into the paint. She raised the dripping vessel and smeared it across the vanity mirror, blotting over her blinking eyes. 

Abby studied the effect. Then her legs bent and again she was underneath the sink. She picked up the other can and levered off the lid. Inside was dark, a smothering black. It felt welcome. Down plunged the brush. She smeared it across the mirror, where it dripped and mingled with the white, creating a shade of concrete. 

Abby stroked right to left, left to right, working up. Her nose and mouth still reflected back, while the top half of her head was obscured. A wail began. Satisfied with the upper half, Abby painted a broad swath across her nose. The wail faded; the sound feathered. Her breath stifled. Abby’s eyes flicked to the last thing of color in the mirror. Her mouth, open. A wordless beacon of hideous pink.  

Her hand jerked down. She drew one line. Then one more.

 


 

Nina Semczuk's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Coal Hill Review, Sledgehammer Lit, The Line Literary Review, Rougarou Journal, The War Horse, MONEY, Tasting Table, and elsewhere. She has received support from the NEA and Poets & Writers. Before moving to Brooklyn, she served in the army for five years.