“Elle” by Michael Koh

She stood alone on the corner of East 50th Street and Madison Avenue. She was slim, attractive, and fashionable. Her blue purse matched her blue cardigan and with every passing breeze, her navy blue skirt had become dangerously revealing. Her sunglasses concealed the colors of her eyes, and perhaps the anxious concern for her boyfriend as well, who was now well over twenty minutes late. She held her iPhone in her hand and checked it with every passing minute.

It was 55 degrees out in New York City, and she was dressed for the weather. It was a Sunday. The sun was out, and clouds were scattered throughout the sky. She wished that he would’ve chosen a better place to meet. She didn’t like standing on a corner, by the 50th Street subway and felt like a vagrant or some prostitute and tried calling him again, but the call immediately went to his voicemail. Exasperated, she decided to go sit in Ferro’s and wait for him. She looked across Madison Avenue and waited for the light to change. People bustled by, ignoring the lights, timing their walk against the speeding cars, as if they were playing real-life Frogger, where there is no prize for winners, and certain death for losers. She preferred to wait. The light turned red and it was legal for pedestrians to walk across the street, and not fear getting hit by an aggressive taxi driver. In her imagination, a twenty-something Robert de Niro making a left on to Madison from 50th Street called out to her and she smiled to herself. A well-dressed gentleman thought she was smiling at him and mini-saluted using his index and middle finger, touching them to his forehead, to bid her good morning. His cheery disposition annoyed her and so she ignored him and walked on.

Ferro’s was packed with customers and had a half hour wait. She didn’t want to stay but she had already waited half an hour for her boyfriend. She gazed out the window and noted that the sidewalk had a depressing grey tone, staccatoed with dark circles, as if it were a perverse attempt at postmodern art. Wondering how old the sidewalk was, with its cracks, and old gum, and unidentifiable stains trampled on by millions, she compared the city with her old neighborhood in Indiana, and realized that she could not compare the two without bringing up the number of minorities she had become friends with in the city.

Her phone vibrated. She jumped. She hadn’t expected it to vibrate; she had forgotten that her phone was in her hand. It was her boyfriend. She received a series of text messages all at once. It all culminated into finality: he was breaking up with her. She called his phone. It rang twice, but went to voicemail. She called him again. It rang once this time and went to voicemail. She felt invalidated and shocked. She sat on a chair and mulled her thoughts over. She could not process what had happened and began to weep. Her mascara began to run, but her sunglasses hid it, at least for now. Snot formed in her nose as the tear ducts began to overwork itself to compensate for her heightened sense of sorrow. People looked at her with pity. Men asked what had happened, as if they were able to protect her from whatever it was she was crying about. She pushed them away and left the diner.

Outside, she dialed her friend from her iPhone. The phone rang until it went to voicemail. She sobbed into the phone and hung up. She redialed the number. There was no answer. She cursed her friend for not answering and consequently dialed her now ex-boyfriend.

She remembered the morning she first awoke with him. She remembered her clothes strewn about around his room. She remembered their first Thanksgiving together, Christmas, New Year’s, and their New Year’s resolutions. They had not completed anything on the list, but she hadn’t cared – until now.

He didn’t pick up. She ripped her sunglasses off and leaned on an old metal skeleton that had once housed a payphone. It had been once operated by Bell Atlantic, but now became a defunct relic of the 1990’s. She shouted obscenities into her phone and put her forearm up to her face in an attempt to conceal her eyes. Her expensive cardigan soaked up her tears and she realized this when she felt moisture penetrate her undershirt. She began to cry into her hands instead. Passersby walked around her, staring, not offering help, reasoning that it was not their business. An old woman stopped to look at her and shook her head in disgust and muttered something about how young people like to make a scene.

She brushed her hair out of her face and took out a tissue from her blue purse and cursorily dabbed at her eyes. Her makeup was distorted and made her look fashionably pitiful. She shoved her sunglasses into her purse and walked on to the curb of 50th Street and hailed for a cab. Taxi number 1401 stopped to pick her up. She asked him to drive to Central Park. She wanted to be alone, yet that was where she had first met her boyfriend.

He had met her at a SummerStage event two years ago in August. She vaguely remembered the name of the band. They were both volunteers for the event and got to talking about the music scene in Brooklyn. She hated Passion Pit; he loved them. She loved Grizzly Bear and Bishop Allen; he couldn’t stand the voice of David Portner and thought Animal Collective was pretentious indie ‘bullshit’ music. She smiled when she remembered him saying it – he dragged the ‘u’ out in bull.

Buuullshit.

They went to a bar after the show and he invited her to his place. They had sex that night. She remembered waking up to the sun coming in through the blinds. The room was lit yellow, and dust danced in the air as she got up from the bed. He lay next to her, shirtless, and she wondered if he remembered her name, but she became momentarily distracted as he stirred from the bed. His eyes smiled when he saw her, and she vibrated. He called her name and opened his arms. She crawled back into bed, curled up next to him and she cooed as he rubbed her back. She could feel his heart beat and checked to see if their hearts beat in sync. She felt comfortable and protected with him. They got up an hour later, dressed, and went to have brunch. She had French toast. He had pancakes. They talked about places they’ve been, places they wanted to go to, places listed in their itinerary of life. He smiled every time they agreed on something. She liked his smile. It reminded her of Hank Williams, on the cover of King of Country, smiling as if he had just nailed a broad before the photoshoot. That naïveté interposed with his serenity made her feel complete. He paid for the meal and they left to get coffee at a nearby Starbucks. He mentioned that he was the mayor of the property and when she had questioned him, he mentioned foursquare; she dropped it after that. She hadn’t cared for applications for cell phones except Brickbreaker on her old BlackBerry.

He kissed her goodbye under the pale blue dome accented with constellations, kissed her again by the Vanderbilt entrance when her train arrived. They agreed to see each other again on Friday. He would pick her up at the terminal and they would have dinner at a Zagat rated restaurant.

They drove in silence. The cab took her uptown, across Central Park, and stopped in front of the Dakota Building. She asked him if she could sit in the cab for a little bit. He said he didn’t understand.  She said she would pay for the time in the cab in addition to the fare. He shrugged and kept the meter running.

She dabbed at her eyes with the tissue she held on to since the beginning of the ride. She sighed and said that she didn’t understand why guys take her for granted. She explained that she was a great girlfriend and that she did everything for him. He turned around and said men are men. She scoffed and said men are dicks. He smiled and said yes men are dicks because men have dicks. She smiled, but didn’t say anything and looked out the window.

He asked her if something had happened. She nodded, looking at the slow moving traffic. She said her boyfriend broke up with her. He apologized. She waved him off and said she hates it when people say that. He agreed, apologized again and looked uptown. She asked him why her boyfriend would text her instead of meeting up with her. He said he didn’t know. He speculated that he was scared to see her and that maybe he was afraid of what she would do to him. She asked him what he meant by that. He explained that maybe she would make a scene in public. She laughed and said she would make a big scene.

They were silent for a moment after that. He coughed. She said she remembered the time that she and her boyfriend flew out west to San Francisco for a week last summer. She said she thought they had bonded further and thought she was going to spend the rest of her life with him. She talked about the two of them going out to dinner every day and spending the afternoons on the beach and waking up with a smile in the mornings. She talked about how they both would smile and tease each other. She sighed and wondered what had happened. He said that it was a shame that she and her boyfriend broke up. She thanked him and decided to leave the cab. He said she didn’t have to pay for the ride and cleared the meter.

She gave him a $10.00 tip. He refused at first, but acquiesced at her insistence. He thanked her and told her to feel better.

Dinner that Friday wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. He had taken her to a restaurant in Gramercy. It was cramped, crowded, and a little bit ostentatious; and within the crowd, she felt a quintessential New York vibe. He recommended the risotto, stating it was the best in New York City. She didn’t believe him, but in the end thought it judicious to do so in fear of offending him. The risotto, she remembered, was creamy and especially flavorful. Later, he remarked on her beatific face and her smile that seemed to linger after each sip of her wine. She blushed and told him that he wasn’t wrong about the risotto and that she enjoyed his presence. He nodded, leaned over and caressed her face.

She walked into Central Park to look for a place to sit and think things over. She found a lone park bench by Bethesda Fountain. She did not understand why he decided to break up with her. She was angry, confused, frustrated, and horrified. She sat down and called him again, but was deferred to voicemail. This angered her to no end. She began to think of him as a cop-out, a pussy, a spineless fuck. This made her feel a little better. She tried to think of the worst names she could call him to his face once she was able to confront him vis-à-vis. Anal retentive fuckface, pretentious cockbag, immature fucktart, self-glorified asshole.

She felt empty inside. She remembered his firm, muscular back; she was almost always the bigger spoon. She remembered his fragrance, and his temper tantrums. He smelled like pepper when he got angry; she was always able to tell, just like how one knows when it will rain by smelling the air. This upset her further, and she howled and it shook her body, like an elk crying out in frustration of its lonely lifestyle. Her cries were filled with emotion. Every sob, if bystanders were to decipher them, were a blend of self-pity, remorse, and a hint of uncertainty.

People walked by, staring. One selfless woman attempted to comfort her, persuaded by her doleful, wailing eyes. This gesture however, made her feel alienated, marginalized, outcast. She, in a flagrant display of disgust, stood up from the bench, ignoring the prodding questions of the selfless woman, and threw her tissue on the ground. She began to walk away, leaving the now distressed and irritated, yet still selfless woman behind on the park bench behind her.

She was full of contrite sighs while walking towards Central Park East. She wondered if it could get any worse, and noticed a disheveled man looking at her. She looked the other way and began to walk with greater speed. He promptly began to follow her and approached her after a short while to ask for some change. The contrast of the unkempt, tatterdemalion man to her well-groomed, expensive attire caused many passersby to take a second glance at the two exchanging words.

In disbelief at his persistence, she rebuked the man, refusing to give him any money because she, as a banausic woman, could not understand the lack of self-motivation to hold down a job that most vagrants possessed. He backed off, but not before shouting obscenities in her face. She recoiled, not at his words, but at his breath. She momentarily forgot about her day and began to fume at the impudent man and unwittingly began to walk in the direction of where it had all started two years ago.

She looked up and found herself standing in the very same spot she had met him. Standing in front of the empty stage, the skeletal remains of the Central Park SummerStage, she was reminded of the night she first confessed her love to him, and this made her feel longing for his touch. As she gazed at the structure, she felt her phone vibrate three times. It was a phone call. Her heart momentarily stopped and she half-hoped it was him and half-hoped it wasn’t. She took her phone out and turned out to be her friend, who had gone out the night before. She picked up the call and her friend, still crapulous from last night moaned into the phone. She cut her friend off and explained what had happened to her today. There was a moment of silence and she heard rustling over the phone. Her friend, now sounding concerned, began to ask a barrage of questions about her well-being and about her current emotional status. She said she was okay for now, but would need to see her friend immediately when she arrived home. Her friend agreed and asked her to call her immediately after she had gotten off the Metro-North. She said she would and hung up.

She turned away from the stage and walked towards Lexington Avenue, and began to wonder what he was doing at this very moment. She briefly considered calling him, but instead called her friends. They all sided with her and the majority of them concluded he was an idiot, a jerk, and worst of all, a coward. One of her friends questioned his masculinity, arguing that a real man would do it face to face. Another one of her friends told her she was better off without him. None of these statements helped her feel better.

In between dialing calls and texting, she arrived at the entrance of the 68th Street subway within what seemed like a fleeting moment. She stood at the top of the stairs to peer down into the bleak world below the crowded streets of Manhattan, sighed, and made her way down to the platform. She wondered if anyone would feel guilty if she jumped in front of an oncoming train. From the platform, she peered down at the hundred-year-old subway rail system. The dirt-encrusted ground was peppered with old remnants of plastic bottles, cellophane, and small puddles of grime and sewage. The lone shining surface was kept smooth by the constant friction of forged steel against one another. She thought about her lifeless body and the scattered trash and decided that she did not want to die amongst filth. In the near distance, a lone light pierced the darkness bringing with it, a droning rumble that reverberated through the ground. The train would give her time to reconcile herself she thought, but she was upset that he had not seen her today. She picked her outfit out for him. He loved the color blue. This would have been their 168th date. Upon realizing this, tears streamed down her face and she recalled an Akron/Family song. You are no longer river to me…

Her 167th date, she recalled, was on Friday night two weeks ago. He took her out to a wine bar somewhere on 31st Street. She remembered having exactly two glasses, while he had three. Pinot Grigio. That was the type of wine they had. She had worn a sleek, black dress that complimented her long legs. He had commented on her figure, and she had playfully slapped his chest. He wore the tie that she bought him. They talked mostly about current events and Lindsay Lohan. He had a smile on his face as she revealed that she was somewhat jealous of the convivial socialites that regularly made the front page on celebrity magazines. He had asked her if she was serious and she replied that she was. He laughed. She loved the way he laughed. He would toss his head back and all of his teeth would show. He would tilt his head to the left and come back level, revealing a toothy grin.

They walked crosstown, holding each other’s hips, smiling and talking, sometimes punctuated by laughter. He stopped in front of a deli and asked her to wait outside. He came back out a few moments later with a pack of cigarettes. She had asked him when he had started smoking. He told her it was because of work. She said she didn’t like the smell, and he put the pack away. She asked him how he was handling his new job. He said it was okay. She wasn’t satisfied with his answer. She asked him again. He said it was okay. She complained that he never told her anything substantial about his work life. He sighed and said he was enjoying it but didn’t like the long hours. It wasn’t what she had hoped for, but it was better than his previous answer. They walked east, towards his apartment. He mentioned that he was going to be busy with a project the following week and that he would not be able to see her as often as he did. She said she understood, but secretly felt under-appreciated. He kissed her cheeks and told her he loved her.

The 6 train took her down towards 42nd Street, following Lexington Avenue. She sat next to a man and what seemed to be his girlfriend holding hands and whispering to each other. It was as if strangers knew about her circumstance and that offered her no respite. She looked around and noticed others were doing it too. A feeling of resentment and envy crept into her and she could not control herself. The train came to a stop at 51st Street and she made her way off the train, leaving behind the crowd of ostentatious lovers.

She walked down Lexington Avenue, hoping to hide within the crowd. She wondered if, by chance, she would run into him. She hoped that he would see her and feel guilty at what he had caused, and realize that he had made a mistake. She missed walking with him, hand in hand. She opened and closed her left hand, knowing, that he would never hold it again, and she began to sob. The buzzing of pedestrians, coupled with the plangent roar of V-6 engines of the ancient Lincoln Town Cars masked her cries as nothing more than a mere melody of distant wind chimes in the windy desert of the Midwest. She walked hurriedly, to avoid the gazes of judging foreigners. She wondered how Europeans would react if she were in a similar situation in France, or Italy. Would they break up via text message? She longed to talk to him, she wanted answers; she wanted to feel relevant.

By the time she got to Grand Central, her heels were blistered, and she felt the irritating sting with every step in her patent-leather flats. She felt exhausted and looked for her train. It was due in twenty minutes on Track 42. She looked up to see the imitated sky with constellations interspersed throughout. She looked for her sign and looked for his. They were on opposite sides of the ceiling. She wanted to scream and hear her voice echo. She wanted to scream at the monotonous, fast-paced lifestyle of New Yorkers who paid little attention to her. Her eyes felt puffy, and she felt self-conscious. She rummaged through her bag to look for her sunglasses, but decided that it would be better to wear it on the train, than in the station.

She felt anhedonic, defeated, irrelevant. How could he do this to her after two years? Was she not thrilling enough for him anymore? They had been adventurous in bed, among other places. She remembered the time they had sex in a public restroom at Playland. She remembered the time they had sex in a closet at a friend’s party and remembered the times he touched her in inappropriate places during inappropriate times. She missed the thrill of it all.

She called him one more time. The phone rang until it went to voicemail. She texted him: I want to talk to you. Her thumb lingered on the Send key, while she debated whether or not if she should send the obviously desperate message. She decided to anyway. She went through her phone and looked at pictures she had taken while she was with him. She noticed a picture where her eyes were half closed, and deleted it, wondering how she had missed it after all this time. She sighed in resignation and felt anxious. Why doesn’t he call back? She wondered if he was with another woman, and she felt bitter. She felt cheated out of two years and wondered how she would get her things back from his apartment that had accumulated since their first meeting. Did he de-friend her on Facebook?

She thought of all of the people who had seen her today, and imagined herself at home on her 3-year-old Macbook Pro browsing Craigslist for missed connections. She imagined a whole page about her today on 50th Street and in Central Park. “To the beautiful woman that I saw crying today in front of Ferro’s…” “You weren’t ashamed to cry in front of everyone, you give me hope that there are people with emotions in New York City…” “I wanted to hold you in my arms, but you looked too angelic to touch…” “The raw emotion that you conveyed today stopped me from killing myself…” “U R HAWT…” “Just when I thought authenticity in New York was a myth, you proved me wrong, you are the most true person I’ve seen…” “I’d love to get coffee with you and talk for hours about backpacking through Europe, but never actually get around to going…” “I wanna fcuk u in every room of my house…” “I want to run away with you…” The thought of people writing anonymously about her made her feel validated in life, and she felt better about herself.

She walked down the platform and boarded the train. She decided to sit facing backwards. He had always hated sitting opposite the way the train went. She longed for a shoulder to rest her head on. She longed for the generic, repetitive conversation they had every time they were together that she had disliked so much when they were still a couple. She wanted to know how he was doing, and what he had for lunch. She wanted to run her fingers down his hand and ask him if he would ever move in upstate with her. She wanted to ask him about the scar on his knuckles, even though he had told her numerous times: a dog bit his hand when he was five. She wanted to trace her fingers around his chin and comment on his stubble. She remembered his nonchalance when complimenting her, as if it were automated. She had appreciated it, but had hoped for something more personal. She felt sick and hated herself for thinking about him all day. She closed her eyes and tried to delete him from memory like she had deleted the picture on her phone. She couldn’t.

The train left Grand Central, two minutes after its projected departure time. The sun blinded her as the train escaped the dreary darkness of the tunnel. She listened to the rhythmic clacking of steel on steel, train on rail, like the rhythmic pumping of an iron heart; racing to get to its destination, dying when it gets there. She gazed into the New York skyline and remained silent as the buildings grew smaller and smaller, eventually becoming indistinguishable from one another, resembling a steel box around the island of Manhattan.

Profile: Michael (H.C.) Koh

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2 thoughts on ““Elle” by Michael Koh

  1. i don’t understand “wind chimes in the windy desert of the Midwest” , there are no deserts in the midwest, however there are deserts in the southwest.

    i like how u captured the feeling of someone breaking with you. seems sad. this is good.

  2. Michael,

    I really enjoyed your story. I felt you captured what a woman would/could feel in that situation….continual fleeting thoughts going thru her mind.

    Very good read.

    Tris Paniccia

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