Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

In the morning, light gathers in the folds of my comforter while I think about how I’d like everything in my life to change. Life rarely changes from bed, though, so I get up to shower. In the shower, I sense something seismic brewing inside me, and I can tell I’ll spend the whole day wishing I could tether the world to me, wishing that I said hi to everyone on the street or danced on the metro. As the water cascades down, I close my eyes and say the serenity prayer. Deep down, I know that today will be like any other day.

To quell the seismic feeling, I lie in bed and watch Instagram stories – someone is asking whether they should make apple or pecan pie, someone else has a picture of a bathing suit and is longing for summer, another person has stitched together several pictures of New York – the elongated shadows of buildings, a string of city lights, a freshly fallen snow coating a statue in Central Park. As I watch, I try to do so without feeling intensely jealous. I try desperately to not imagine their lives as my own. All morning, I cling to the thought that I am as real and important as anyone else.

Outside, row upon row of thick clouds have obscured the thin vestiges of morning light. The drive to work begins to chip away at my goodwill towards men. A large Ford truck cuts me off and another person jets ahead of me at a four way stop. It is as though, even in my car, people don’t see me. I think about honking my horn, good and loud, but I am aiming to be the change I want to see in the world. Everyone in this self-important city is listening to NPR, feeling terrible about the President. I flip on Christmas music and think of how I need to call my mother.

Once at work, I settle into my desk and do twenty minutes of emailing. My therapist has been imploring me to give dating a shot. I take a break from email and message every person I’ve matched on Tinder. Hi, I type. Then hi again. And again. I send my hi’s out into the world one after another. I imagine the route my hi’s are traveling through the city, flowing round the Washington Monument, switching lanes at DuPont Circle, transferring from the red line to green, riding all the way to Shady Grove, taking an Uber to a coffee shop in Shaw – a vast network of hi’s linking me to every part of this goddamn lonely city.

What if no one is messaging on Tinder anymore? Should I have added Bumble, added Hinge, added all the other ways people try and find one another or get fucked these days? I walk past Jennifer’s cube. She’s reading a gossip article on TMZ. We chat for a while about our weekends. She says she’s happy to be at work, getting a break from her husband and children. She says she’s jealous of me for living alone. She asks how I feel about Meghan Markle. I say my feelings about Meghan Markle are mixed and excuse myself to use the restroom. My feelings about Meghan Markle are not mixed. I love her.

I walk to the meeting room at the back of the office. From there, I watch a light snow begin to fall, the first of winter. Snow falls like sadness across the bare limbs of an oak, falls across the cement, coats the half-dome of an adjoining building, falls along the edges of a fence, coating the world in a quiet white.

I do five more minutes of work on a spreadsheet and contemplate answering a customer service email. I am unmoved by the contents of the email and possibly life. Instead, I daydream about the older man, David, I’d dated during my early twenties. He had been so emotionally unavailable that I couldn’t wait to give myself to him. Or at least that’s what my therapist said. At the time, I think I loved him as deeply as I’ve ever loved anything. I had wanted the two of us to sink to the bottom of the sea, where we could find a little cave and make love for as long as we both lived. We had been so incredibly happy.

I did a Google image search for his name, David Rogers, and looked at pictures of him and other people named David Rogers. The other David Rogers were not particularly interesting. My David looked much older now. He had a widow’s peak forming and his beard was suffused with white. There was a cute photo of him and his wife. They were wearing nice clothes – he, a black suit, and she, a backless black dress. His hand was wrapped round her waist, pulling her tight to his body, and her lips were curling into a smile. Once, I’d hated her with an intense passion. Now the sight of her confirmed my daydreaming had been just that. Now was the happiest he had ever been.

With this knowledge of my insignificance, I felt I couldn’t work anymore. I grabbed my coat and walked outside and into the cold. I curled my lips, mimicking David’s wife’s smile, and blew out fogs of breath, one after another. I am here. I am here. I found, in the small pockets of air, something comforting, and I followed that feeling to Starbucks.

Inside, they were playing Christmas music. The store was decorated with wreaths, snow globes, holiday candy. I ordered my drink and sat. No one waits absently anymore, so I checked for messages on my phone. I had a message from Andrew, who was forty-two. He liked old movies and skiing. Hey, how are you? his message said. Tom, who was thirty-nine, and who had nothing on his profile, had also messaged, hi to you as well, lovely lady.

It sent a slight thrill through my body to read the words, lovely lady. A thrill I loathed because I didn’t want to depend on anyone else for my sense of well-being but that I felt nonetheless. I wanted someone to say that to me every morning. And I wanted someone to say every dirty thing I’d ever imagined while we had sex. I wanted to go to someone else’s house for Christmas. I wanted more than my small phone could contain, and I felt myself practically erupting for the second time that day.

How’s the day, I typed to both, then curled my fingers around the warm cup, staring at my phone like everyone else. Michael Bublé was reminding us all that the weather outside was frightful. Michael Bublé was very helpful and charming, and I wished that he were messaging me instead.

Tom said, I’m okay, but my day would be going better if you were here.

Andrew said, Not bad, How is your day going?

With all the possibilities of language available to them, Andrew and Tom had said precisely the sort of thing everyone always said to me on dating apps, a pass or nothing interesting. My therapist said I had a tendency to rule people out without giving them a proper chance. And so, for once, with sadness accumulating outside, a half-inch now coating the streets, I looked back at my phone.

Is that so ;), I typed to Tom, hating myself.

Oh, not bad, I typed to Andrew. The weather could be better, haha.

I walked briskly back to the office. The wind was rising, shedding the last spare leaves from a row of gingko trees. It appeared as though small flocks of yellow birds were trying to escape the oncoming snow. The traffic was light, and the sounds were pleasingly muffled as they always are when it snows. I could imagine this small city street as a picture in a snow globe.

You bet. Just look at you.

Yeah. I don’t mind the snow though. Did you grow up around here?

Back at the office, people were starting to mill around, talking about the weather. Evelyn stood by the copy machine, shaking her head and asking everyone who walked past when we’d be sent home. Our supervisors, seven men and one woman, sent out an email saying they’d keep us up to date on the situation, and we all grumbled to one another. I knew enough about the people I worked with, mostly women, to know home wouldn’t be any easier. It would mean gathering the kids from school, getting them to settle down, do their homework, and keep them entertained all day with projects and colouring and Disney movies. It would mean sorting out logistics with husbands, arguing over who would shovel the steps and salt them. And yet the idea of not being sent home left us all feeling frenzied. We had such little variation in our day to day lives. Couldn’t they just give us the day off so we could feel, if briefly, on the way home, the small relief of change?

You’re a flatterer. Aren’t you?

I grew up out west. The longer I stay here, the less I mind the snow. The first bit of it is so damn pretty.

Anita said she was not having this shit; her kids school had just called, and she had to go. It felt as though she’d won the lottery.

I’m more than a flatterer if you give me the chance.

Ah. Where did you grow up? I’ve always wanted to go out west, but I’ve never made it past Missouri. Which just typing, reminded me how incredibly unexciting my life has been. But I guess that’s precisely the sort of thing I shouldn’t type. Whoops.

I could see bosses meeting in the admin office. I was certain we’d be sent home soon. Those fuckers should have never had us come in, said Stephanie. If I spin out on the way home, I’m suing this place. I’ll be on worker’s comp for the rest of my life. I’ll lie in bed and hate this place from an island I purchase with my severance. It felt nice to have somewhere to direct all the rage we felt at life, at the pettiness and insanity. Those fuckers, we all agreed.

Oh, yeah. What kind of a chance are you looking for?

I grew up in California. And now I miss it. The only place more provincial than New York is California though. We’re insufferable about it. As to your other comment, no. I always get really interested when a man says his life is basically boring. It makes me feel like I’ll have a low bar to clear if we get involved. What else could a woman want?

Am I that hard to read? I think you can figure it out. You’re bright.

Ah. I’ve always wanted to go California. It seems like a dream, oceans and mountains. It’s forgivable to be snobby about it. Phew. I was worried I had already killed my chances here and was going to have to go back to watching reruns of the Price Is Right.

On the drive home, the roads were nearly impassable. They hadn’t been salted, and my Civic fishtailed on a side street, narrowly missing a row of parked cars. Everyone else seemed to already be at home, their cars parked along the street, porticos of light flickering down the row of houses. I parked two blocks from the apartment and walked towards home. En route, I saw a flash of red inside a large tree. There was a brilliant cardinal perched on the branch of an elm. I lifted my phone, trying to capture the beautiful incongruity of the cardinal’s red against the grey skies, against the white snow fall. But as I lifted my phone, the bird, for no reason, suddenly took flight, leaving a shower of snow as it flew into the wintry sky.

Am I? Thanks for the credit. Does it involve a game of checkers?

Oh. I wasn’t asking to be forgiven. I was just saying it’s one of my faults, my attachment to California. I figured you’d want to hear about some of my faults after you said your life roughly ends with Missouri. Does the Price Is Right have reruns, or did you DVR them? Please tell me you DVR’d them. Like most women, my dream is to date a man with a DVR full of old game shows.

I walked to the fridge and got yogurt. It was the kind of storm where everyone stocked up on food, as though it was going to be apocalyptic. I had plans to eat yogurt and cereal for days.

Think a bit more bedroom, but the games part is right.

You have faults? Okay. This is never going to work (-: I didn’t say my life ends at Missouri. I merely said the furthest I’ve been west is Missouri. I do plenty of interesting things like grocery shop and mark myself as interested in events on Facebook I later don’t attend. Yeah. My DVR is full of 150 hours of Price Is Right reruns that I watch every evening. It’s kind of amazing how much I know about the cost of detergents, new cars, and washers. Are you impressed? Please tell me you are impressed.

Several friends had cats, cats whose lives were elaborately documented on Instagram. I had been avoiding getting a cat for precisely this reason. I wanted my life to be about more than a cat. But as I stood in my apartment and looked out the window at the flares of streetlights and the purple light of snow, I realised life in this city was never going to feel right or fulfilling. And if I could only wrap my mind around that, perhaps I could carve out my vein of happiness.

I still needed to message my mother. I couldn’t spend all night deciding who I wanted to be. I had to decide, at least for an evening, whether I wanted anything to change. It was dark now, and I was alone. I messaged with Tom for an hour. He kept begging to come over, but I messaged with him until we both got off in the dark.

Later, I sent a text to my mother, telling her I’d be home Christmas Eve. I waited for her to respond, but she must have been sleeping. I deleted all of my matches, then lay my phone down on the pillow and waited for the storm to end.

About Andrew Bertaina

Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC, and currently serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

Andrew Bertaina's short story collection One Person Away From You (2021) won the Moon City Press Fiction Award (2020). His work has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Witness Magazine, Redivider, Orion, The Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from American University in Washington, DC, and currently serves as an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel.

Leave a Comment