Lee balances on the eaves, beating the rubber soles of his navy tennys against the brick façade to create a pulsing thump. It surprises him that after all that’s happened, behind walls of muscle and sinew, his heart can still do the same.
As a child, he was never one for heights, finding the distance between the dirt and the seat of his dad’s shoulders too daunting. Now, he thinks the greater the space the better. Today, it makes him feel like a third-person, somewhat omniscient narrator as he watches his neighbors mill about seven stories below. Hustling to cars, hollering out windows, trudging down sidewalks with plastic bags from the corner Stop ‘n Shop cutting into their palms.
A quick run back to work after forgetting an important file. A call for an “I love you” lost in the hurry of the day. A date night waiting beyond the front door.
Down at the corner, he sees his girlfriend Lenore appear, headphones wrapping around her skull like askew earmuffs, one ear taking in the music while another is exposed to take in the noise. Lee draws back, moving his feet onto the flat cement to hide even though Lenore isn’t looking his way.
At least a dozen times, Lenore has told her not to go onto the ledge. That one day, Lee would perch too close to the precipice and one wrong shift or errant bird swoop would send him tumbling down on the pavement. But Lee has always flirted with risk, and in comparison to the others he’s taken, his rooftop spot seems minimal. Besides, from what he now knows, Lenore’s not really in a place to be telling him what to do.
Looking away from the sidewalk, Lee’s gaze rises above shingles and canopies to take in the sprawl of city surrounding him. When it was first founded, it was nothing more than tall grasses and a smattering of homesteads inhabited by people trying to forge a life. Over the decades it grew—steamboats on the nearby river, and traders bringing hides and pelts contributing to the population boom. Wood planks from surrounding forests became walls, and grass—flattened from carriages—became dirt roads and later asphalt. Now, it was steel upon blacktop and street upon street, with the only vestige of what had been a plaque commemorating the first settlers.
Would the expansion baffle them, like they had brought about their own Manifest Destiny? Or would they look at it with disgust, wanting to go back to the kerosene lamps in their few windows, and the yards that laid themselves wide open to the stars, rather than looking up into a sky polluted by light?
If he could speak for them, Lee would say the latter—and not only because he longs for the expanses of green and the quiet street he had lived on, from his days of sucking on pacifiers until he started needling ink into his skin. It’s because humans have a way of taking things from smooth courses to rocky terrain without slowing down, thinking they can handle the change, and everything will remain as it once was.
And eventually, the decision to keep their lead foot on the gas sends them spinning out of control. Once in a tailspin, we can’t help react, but the fix is almost always an overcorrection. We thrash, we lose more control, and even if we emerge safely, beneath the surface, damage remains, and some aspects are never recovered.
Outside their building, Lenore swings her lanyard until her keys land in her palm, and she steps onto the stoop, vanishing from Lee’s view. Eventually, Lee knows he’ll have to go down and speak to her, even if it’s nothing more than a forced hello before he closes the door of their bedroom in her face.
He can’t pretend he hasn’t heard the whispers into the receivers, or seen the flash of light from the cell phone screen that is all-too-quickly dimmed. He can’t ignore the t-shirt that wasn’t his nearly hidden beneath the bed skirt, which he has now left on the table for her to find, or that her choice to go off-road has left them without a way back to the route they’d been traveling.
The betrayal may be unuttered, but it fills the apartment, pushing against the walls until they groan from the pressure of knowing they’ve had more occupants than the two written on the lease.
Below him, the traffic begins to dwindle. People stroll home with brown bags splotched with grease. Lights flick on in windows as if Vanna White is selecting each for a grand reveal. Beside him, his phone vibrates, the metal grating against the stone’s pebbled top. A message fills his screen.
Can you come talk to me? Please?
No, he thinks, but doesn’t type it out. He only sighs, flips the phone facedown, and stares out at the horizon, where the city turns to open roads and what could’ve beens.