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You live alone now. You open Google Maps and imagine circles. Your rental room is a point on the curve, and you can follow the arc out, far out, but you must always return on foot. The T is off-limits and you have no car. You just moved to this neighbourhood, to this rental room you found for cheap on Facebook.
Your room is in a mud-coloured house on Carlisle Street, near Inman Square, and the front entrance of the house is always strewn with empty takeout containers and red solo cups and lottery tickets rotting into the asphalt. Your housemates, both grad students, adopt an orange foster cat named Tommy then rename him Edgar. Edgar has cat HIV. You have a large wooden desk in your room that faces the backyard and you can see rats scurry by. The old Hispanic couple across the fence water their plants and sometimes grill on a barbecue wedged between two clapboard walls.
You are locked-down. All day you are outside, walking, alone. The businesses, save for a few, are dark and shuttered, the streets empty.
You go to Christina’s Ice Cream and get the strangest flavours on the wooden slates: carrot cake and kefir and rum-raisin. You have your choice of liquor stores, the one for hip yuppies on the corner or Martin Bros a few doors down, where red-faced, blue-collar men exit in a huff.
You always walk towards the river. Inman is the centre of the circle and every street that shoots off is a radius that takes you to a different part of the Charles. Down Hampshire Ave., past Oleana and Formaggio and Lord Hobo Brewery, past the Smoke Shop and Mamaleh’s Deli to the glass and steel of Kendall. Here’s the biotech company that super-spread the Boston outbreak. There’s the building where your ex-boyfriend’s cybersecurity company used to be.
You walk to Central Square more and more rarely. You used to cross the rainbow paths in front of the Cambridge City Hall every day to go to the Y, which was like a fortress of underground tunnels and secret staircases and smelled like sweat and no sunlight, where you did abdominals in a classroom that used to be a squash court. A silver-haired man came by during lunch hours, and you never said hello. Still, you would be the only two people in the room, each on your little mat doing the usual array of exercises. You used to think about dropping the pretence and succumbing to sudden, wild love-making, but of course you never did anything besides a hundred crunches.
Down Mass Ave. there’s People’s Republik, where you drank way too much on your last birthday, and your friend’s last birthday. You loved the liquor store down the block from People’s Republik that had the neon sign with “LIQUOR” and an arrow outside, they sold white Russians and Old Fashioned cocktails in small cans. Once you went to an MIT formal with your pockets full of them, and when someone asked: “Is that the jumpsuit from Fleabag?” you’d produce a small canned cocktail from your pocket. You don’t go to MIT. You don’t drink those anymore.
Your circles get wider. You walk up the shore, along highways and by Walmart, past cemeteries and bleak swamps. His ground-floor studio is always dark. You both sit naked in his bed and drink from tall cans. You know the next day you’ll leave with a crushing hangover and depression like seaside dampness, deep in your bones. But you’ll walk it off. You follow the coastal highway where once you stumbled across a small college campus right on the edge of the sea, art students and techno-house music on concrete slabs, a secret beach in a moody winter that feels like yet another Finisterre, the end of Earth. You walk all the way to Manchester-by-the-Sea, and wait for sadness to recede like the tide.
Then the circles get smaller again. Summer is near, you go on a date. You buy cheese and prosciutto that is carefully sliced, translucent sheets in thin paper, and you meet him in the park and he is shorter than you thought. He works in tech. When later that night you aren’t really into kissing him he pulls away in shock. “Have you ever orgasmed,” he asks, earnest. You don’t want to walk home in the dark at one AM, so you ask to stay on his couch and to please be left alone. When dawn breaks you speed down Mass Ave. faster than you ever have. You eat the sweaty remaining cheese still in your backpack and go to sleep.
That month, you take the P-Town ferry. You’re pretty sure it kills a great white shark, red foam gurgling in the ship’s wake. The ferry slows, and it sounds like the captain will make an announcement, but then he changes his mind.
Finally you are on the river. It’s summer now. You’ve rented a paddleboard and you’re no longer circling the Charles, you are in the middle of it, every wave thwarting your balance. It’s the Charles but it’s also Boston Harbour, the sea is so close, and all of a sudden the waves grow big –wild wind, a sudden summer storm. You paddle ragefully, trying only not to be swallowed by the river, and for every foot you gain a gust of wind blows you back to where you were five minutes prior, closer and closer to the underbelly of the Museum of Science. Suddenly you hear sirens. It’s the Cambridge Fire Department, throwing you a rope, and you and your paddleboard are temporarily moored at the Boat Club as the thunderstorm bursts in earnest and you assure the firemen you are fine, perfectly fine. There’s an old couple at the Boat Club sitting on plastic chairs: they called 911 on you. You suppose you should thank them. They invite you to sit on the plastic chairs and wait for the storm to pass. If there is a bar here, it’s shuttered. When the torrential rain eases you walk home in your squelching wet flip-flops, and you wonder if everyone on the street can tell you just nearly drowned in the Charles.
“Where you been?” Your housemates ask.
“Just out,” you say.
Aube Rey Lescure
Aube Rey Lescure is a French-Chinese-American writer and Deputy Editor at Off Assignment. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Guernica, WBUR, Jellyfish Review, Entropy Magazine, and more. She is a forthcoming contributor for Best American Essays 2022. She is currently finishing her first novel, a story of coming of age in Shanghai.