UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

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‚Äôt 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.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúReb!‚ÄĚ 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‚ÄĒpolite ones, deep ones, funny ones‚ÄĒand it was as if she had tossed a bundle over the edge of an abyss.¬†No reactions, no¬†wafting back the¬†conversational¬†birdie.¬†¬†

‚ÄúHelp Nate find his ball,‚ÄĚ Rebecca said. She didn‚Äôt look up¬†from Toby‚Äôs shoes, where she adjusted the straps. ‚ÄúHe tossed it somewhere over there.‚ÄĚ 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.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúAbby, please. He‚Äôs going to get worked up.‚Ä̬†Rebecca¬†tightened¬†Toby‚Äôs¬†seat¬†buckle.¬†¬†

Abby looked at Nate.¬†¬†‚ÄúHi,¬†little guy!‚Ä̬†Her voice sounded garish, modulated bright and¬†child friendly.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúLet‚Äôs find your ball,‚Ä̬†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. 

‚ÄúForget it. I‚Äôll just get him a new one,‚ÄĚ she called. ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs¬†get moving¬†otherwise we‚Äôll miss¬†nap time.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúOh. Alright,‚Ä̬†Abby replied. She¬†started¬†up the slope. She¬†felt¬†the sticky black mud¬†cling¬†to¬†her sneakers. She wondered if she‚Äôd 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 flush;¬†no¬†candles in the living room;¬†stop cooking after 9 p.m.¬†Classic passive aggressiveness, Abby‚Äôs¬†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‚Äôs the point? We‚Äôll each replace each other sooner or later, move on, that sort of thing.‚ÄĮ¬†

Rebecca¬†was¬†walking down the path. Abby¬†hurried¬†to catch up.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúSorry,‚ÄĚ said Rebecca. Her¬†lips¬†attempted¬†a¬†smile. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs so much harder with two.‚Ä̬†¬†

‚ÄúOf course.‚Ä̬†Abby slung an arm around Rebecca‚Äôs shoulders and gave a¬†quick¬†squeeze.¬†‚ÄúNo need to¬†apologize.‚Ä̬†¬†

They walked down the path,¬†Nate wandering in front of them, Toby cooing from his front-row seat.¬†‚ÄúHow¬†is everything?‚ÄĚ asked Abby.¬†

‚ÄúOh god.¬†Remember¬†when I said¬†the boys¬†were in¬†a motion sickness phase?‚Ä̬†¬†

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‚ÄĒhe worked from the dining room¬†table.¬†Then, how Rebecca‚Äôs parents were avoiding confirming Memorial Day plans. They always¬†gathered¬†in Central Park for a picnic, why wouldn‚Äôt they just stop being difficult for once? Didn‚Äôt 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.  

‚ÄúBut¬†what about¬†you?‚Ä̬†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‚Äôs relationship. But now her desire¬†manifested¬†had been rough. Rebecca¬†blacked the screen and looked at Abby. Tears¬†threatened¬†the corners of her eyes. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm so tired.‚Ä̬†¬†

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.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúYour turn,‚Ä̬†said¬†Rebecca.¬†¬†

Abby inhaled. ‚ÄúWell.¬†Last night, my mother called.‚Ä̬†¬†

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

Rebecca‚Äôs face¬†was¬†crumpled in concern.‚ÄĮ‚ÄúBaby,‚Ä̬†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.  

‚ÄúHe'll quiet if I run him,‚ÄĚ she said, starting a light jog.¬†‚ÄúPush the stroller, would you?‚ÄĚ 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. 

‚ÄúRebecca!‚ÄĚ she called. ‚ÄúHow do I¬†work this?‚Ä̬†The¬†park¬†swallowed her words. She craned over the shade to look at Toby. He¬†stared¬†at the distant figure of his mother.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúDon‚Äôt worry,¬†little guy.¬†She didn‚Äôt forget you.‚Ä̬†¬†

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. ‚ÄúYou have to release the lever on the bottom,‚ÄĚ said the woman, jogging in place. ‚ÄúI have the same model.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúThanks!‚ÄĚ said Abby. The woman‚Äôs head stayed forward¬†as she glided off. She was either too focused or too far to hear.‚ÄĮ¬†

* 

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‚ÄĒshe checked her phone again‚ÄĒShake Shack. Lynn and Robert were near the front of the long,¬†clustered line.¬†

‚ÄúHey guys,‚ÄĚ Abby¬†said,¬†maneuvering¬†her way near them.¬†¬†

Lynn turned. ‚ÄúSo sorry! I thought Robert made the reservation at Friedman‚Äôs‚ÄĒ‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúBut you said¬†you did,‚ÄĚ broke in Robert. He turned to Abby. ‚ÄúSorry. This was the only place with gluten-free stuff for her.‚Ä̬†¬†

Abby looked around.¬†There were ledges to eat¬†on,¬†but¬†no tables, no chairs.‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúNo worries!‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs sister.¬†‚ÄúI‚Äôve been sitting all day anyway,‚ÄĚ she¬†lied.¬†She had learned early to make others comfortable, a reflex she couldn‚Äôt suppress.¬†¬†¬†

Lynn angled her jaw toward Robert. ‚ÄúWell, I haven‚Äôt. I worked from my treadmill desk all day.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĮ¬†

Robert lifted his arms, his two palms facing Lynn.‚ÄĮ¬†

Lynn¬†continued. ‚ÄúI was looking forward to having a nice,¬†cozy,¬†seated, chat¬†with¬†our¬†friend.‚ÄĚ‚ÄĮ¬†

Abby forced a chuckle. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôll be fine!‚Ä̬†She looked¬†from Robert to Lynn.¬†¬†

‚ÄúCan I take your order?‚Ä̬†¬†The cashier¬†stared at¬†the three of them. Lynn¬†stepped forward.¬†

‚ÄúHey, you cut the line,‚ÄĚ said a woman behind Abby. Abby bit her lip. She felt a hand tapping her shoulder. She turned.¬†

‚ÄúWe‚Äôve all been waiting much longer than you.‚ÄĚ 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.¬†‚ÄĮ¬†

‚ÄúI‚Äôm sorry, I‚Äôm with my friends,‚Ä̬†she offered.¬†Her face warmed. The line, zombified with hunger,¬†had awakened¬†to see what would happen.‚ÄĮTwo teen girls looked up from their phones to watch.¬†One¬†angled her phone¬†in¬†their direction.¬†

‚ÄúWell, that doesn‚Äôt help me, or anyone else who waited¬†their turn, does it?‚Ä̬†¬†

Abby turned around again, looking for help. Lynn and Robert¬†waved from the side; they¬†had found¬†ledge space. Lynn mouthed ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll save you a spot.‚ÄĚ Robert took his phone from his jacket.¬†¬†

‚ÄúWell?‚ÄĚ asked the woman.¬†¬†

‚ÄúNo fucking cutting,‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm sorry, I‚Äôm sorry.‚ÄĚ She sidestepped around the woman who stood like a blockade in her path.¬†¬†

‚ÄúSure ya are,‚Ä̬†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‚Äôs waist.¬†She¬†squeezed.¬†‚ÄúI was famished! I feel so much better now.‚Ä̬†Lynn¬†released Abby‚Äôs waist¬†and reached over¬†Abby‚Äôs head¬†to¬†ruffle Robert‚Äôs¬†hair.¬†

‚ÄúSame,‚ÄĚ 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. 

‚ÄúExcited for Albany?‚Ä̬†Abby¬†asked. She wanted to get the small talk¬†over with.¬†The line moved forward.¬†

‚ÄúOh,¬†you know how I feel about Sylvia,‚ÄĚ Lynn said. She lifted¬†her eyebrows.¬†¬†

Robert shot her a look. ‚ÄúYou two need¬†to¬†play nice.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúI would,¬†if she wouldn‚Äôt always ask us for money,‚ÄĚ said Lynn.¬†

‚ÄúMe,‚ÄĚ said Robert. ‚ÄúNot us.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúWe‚Äôre married, so it‚Äôs our money, not yours.‚Ä̬†¬†

Robert opened his mouth, then shut it. He looked at Abby.¬†‚ÄúEnough¬†about us.¬†What about you?¬†Lynn said¬†needed¬†our opinion?‚Ä̬†

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

‚ÄúYes,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúMy mother¬†called the other day and asked me, well...¬†told me‚ÄĒ‚Ä̬†

The cashier broke in. ‚ÄúCan I take your order?‚ÄĚ Abby‚Äôs head toggled from Lynn to Robert.¬†¬†

‚ÄúDon‚Äôt¬†look at us, honey. We‚Äôre stuffed.‚ÄĚ Lynn¬†said. ‚ÄúUnless you want a shake?‚ÄĚ she asked, looking at¬†Robert.¬†¬†

‚ÄúNo, the ride will be uncomfortable enough as it is without tempting my lactose intolerance.‚Ä̬†He laughed.¬†¬†

‚ÄúYour order?‚ÄĚ asked the cashier.¬†

‚ÄúGo ahead,‚ÄĚ said Lynn¬†to Abby. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll leave you to your dinner.‚Ä̬†She looked at¬†her phone. ‚ÄúWe have to get to the track.‚ÄĚ She pecked Abby two inches from her right ear. Robert¬†squeezed her shoulder. ‚ÄúSorry¬†to eat and run!‚Ä̬†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‚ÄĒsomething‚ÄĒwhen 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.  

‚ÄúSo sorry to cancel on you!‚Ä̬†Victoria¬†said. ‚ÄúTinder Dan came through¬†and¬†you know how it‚Äôs been for me.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúWait what?‚ÄĚ asked Abby. ‚ÄúNo coffee tomorrow?‚Ä̬†At the base of her neck, a buzzing sensation¬†tickled.¬†

‚ÄúNo, I sent you the text just now.¬†I thought that‚Äôs why¬†you¬†called,‚ÄĚ said Victoria.¬†

‚ÄúI¬†just got off the¬†train. It¬†didn‚Äôt come through yet.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúYou really should get a better phone.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúI know,¬†I know,‚ÄĚ said Abby. ‚ÄúI wanted to talk to you tonight anyway, instead of tomorrow.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúShit,‚ÄĚ said Victoria. ‚ÄúI dropped acetone on the floor.¬†Hold on.‚ÄĚ Abby heard her best friend shoo away¬†her orange tabby.¬†

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

‚ÄúSorry about that,‚ÄĚ said Victoria. ‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs up?‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúMy mom¬†called‚ÄĒ‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúYour mom!‚ÄĚ cried Victoria. ‚ÄúYou heard from her?‚Ä̬†¬†

‚ÄúYes, actually, she called to‚ÄĒ‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúHold on, hold on,‚ÄĚ Victoria¬†broke in. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs my lawyer, I have to¬†answer.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúBut it‚Äôs so late.‚Ä̬†¬†

‚ÄúI know, that‚Äôs why I have to get it,‚ÄĚ said Victoria. ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt worry.¬†Next time we see each other¬†we‚Äôll chat. I have lots to tell you about¬†Tinder Dan.‚Ä̬†

‚ÄúAnd my mom,‚ÄĚ started Abby.¬†

‚ÄúYes! Of course,‚ÄĚ said Victoria. ‚ÄúGotta¬†go, love you!‚Ä̬†

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.¬†‚ÄúHold the door,‚Ä̬†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‚Äôs mail.¬†Faint sounds carried from Jen‚Äôs 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.¬†‚ÄúIt's not¬†the same,‚ÄĚ she¬†had¬†said.¬†‚ÄúBesides, I can‚Äôt sing with headphones on.‚ÄĚ 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. 

¬†‚ÄúJen,¬†let‚Äôs talk.‚Ä̬†She¬†raised¬†her voice above the music.¬†

Abby knocked again. ‚ÄúJen?‚Ä̬†¬†

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.‚ÄĮThe 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.