Early spring mornings, before the sun came up enough to warm the concrete and asphalt, were cold in New York, but Mia couldn’t tell, because she was always cold nowadays. She hunched down behind Peter, using him as both a shield against the weather and her guide through the crowds. Where she grabbed his jacket, her knuckles turned white against the redness of the rest of her hands. Like one unit, they made their way down the concrete steps of the subway. At the turnstile, he pulled a worn wallet out of his back pocket and withdrew a MetroCard. One card, he had told her, was easier than two. Less chance she would lose hers, and he would have to replace it. Peter scanned the card and nudged Mia through with his shoulder. He scanned it again for himself.
“Stay close.” Peter made his way down the platform. Floors tiles, now dingy and gray, looked as if they had recently been polished. Ceiling lights reflected blurry spots on the finish.
People rushed through the corridor like lab rats, racing toward the reward at the end of the tunnel. Mia put her hand on Peter’s back again and trusted him to guide her through the maze. She watched the loafers, sandals, pumps, and tennis shoes scurry past. The hems of jeans and suits created a monotone rainbow of blues, blacks, and browns. Mia let her mind flow into the trance of the motion. When Peter stopped near the front of the platform, Mia ran into him, then jumped back a step.
“Watch it,” he said.
Mia shifted her weight to step closer to Peter, but her foot slid out of her shoe when it stuck in the dried puddle of something that used to be sweet. Coolness rushed over her toes. She shoved her foot back in, finding warmth, and drug her shoe free. It made a sucking sound. Peter looked down from his six-foot-two height and squinted his narrow eyes. Mia forced a smile and shrugged. Peter’s dark hair flopped in his eyes when he shook his head. Mia wanted to brush it back, but she knew Peter hated it when she touched his hair.
The voices of the crowd blended in a symphony of noise. Moist air, smelling of urine and bodies, overcame Mia. She wanted to pull her shirt up over her face, but the one time she had done that, Peter had tugged it back down and called her childish. So, rather than draw attention to herself, she breathed through her mouth while they waited.
“Come on,” Peter said. He pushed through to the front of the platform. Mia welcomed the rumble of a train, which grew louder than the song of the crowd, because it was a steady sound, a reliable sound, a sound that didn’t require interaction or forced smiles and laughs. It expected nothing from her, and while it roared, no one, not even Peter, could tell Mia what to do.
Mia watched the headlights approach. She could feel the vibration of the train under her feet, up her legs, and through her body, thrumming in her chest and ears. Along with the train’s resonance, a rush of air blew across Mia’s face. Stale dust and oil replaced the offensive odors for a brief moment.
The doors sighed open, and Mia shivered.
Peter boarded the train and moved toward the back of the car where there were two adjacent seats. Come on, Peter motioned with his hand, and Mia could see the impatience in his motion.
“You took too long getting ready,” Peter said when Mia took her seat next to him. “You’re just pouring coffee all day. Who you trying to impress anyway?” He winked. Mia felt the bite of his words, and his attempt at affection fell flat in its wake.
“I’ve got loads to do at work today.” Peter continued his monologue. Now Mia knew all she had to do was nod and inserted an occasional, “Mm hm.” While she watched Peter’s mouth move, the whir of the car gaining speed on the track sang in her mind. Lights from the tunnel flashed a rhythm. She nodded her head to the beat. Faint sounds of Ella Fitzgerald joined the chorus from a phone of a stranger.
Ella Fitzgerald. Ella always played when Mia was small. She would stand on Mom’s feet, and they would dance around their small apartment. Mom giggled, then, and Mia felt important and loved. But the older Mia got, the less Mom danced, and by Mia’s pre-teen years, the music stopped, too.
The next thing to go was Mom’s laugh. And then her smile. During the last summer, she traded her tank tops and shorts for long sleeves and pants. Mia washed all the laundry, hanging Mom’s jeans, just the way she liked. Her hair began to thin and the dark circles around her eyes worsened, and Mia made spaghetti with a recipe handed down from her grandmother. In the morning, it still sat on the counter, untouched, except for the fly that died in the cold sauce.
Mom often disappeared. It wasn’t unusual for days to go by without her coming home, so Mia thought nothing of it the day she came home from school and called out for her mother, and stillness greeted her. She wandered into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. The squelching sound of the seal being pulled away from its frame reverberated through the silence. The whir of the fan came on. The scent of sour fermentation floated on the cool air. A half-gallon of milk, a nearly empty jar of mayonnaise, a nearly-gone jar of jam, and a few plastic containers full of left-overs sat on the shelves. Mia shut the fridge, and her stomach rumbled.
That morning, Mom had been asleep, and Mia followed her typical routine, eating breakfast alone before brushing her blonde hair into a ponytail, the way she had done it every morning for the past year, the only way she knew how since her mom had abandoned the brush. Mia had smeared some peanut butter and jam on two pieces of bread, after she tore off the mold spots. She wrapped the sandwich in a plastic grocery bag and tucked it into her backpack, away from the hole in the bottom. She swung the pack over her shoulder and looked toward Mom’s room. Mia took a few steps toward the room and paused. Mom was always tired, and Mia thought it would be best to leave her be. She turned around and walked out the door.
Mia often wished she could go back to that morning, that she would have taken those steps, even if she didn’t wake Mom, just to see her one last time, to have said goodbye. Mia was fourteen.
Over the next few months, Mia had imagined her mom being swallowed up in cold darkness, like thick, oozing tar that started at her feet and worked its way up and over her head. It was easier to believe this than to think that mom wanted to leave, that she had an option to stay. In Mia’s thoughts, Mom wouldn’t fight it. She wouldn’t call out. She wouldn’t say goodbye. She’d simply stand there and allow the gooey mass to consume her. These images worked their way into Mia’s sleep. She would wake screaming, and Dad would rush to her bedside. He’d pat Mia’s back and head without a word. And in those moments, Mia wished it was Mom who had come into her room, wrapping her up in a warm embrace that would chase away the darkness.
The memories of Mia’s dream oozed into her days as well. She’d see glimpses of her mother in the face of a stranger and hear her whispers in the dark. Mia looked for her at the grocery store and the library. She would listen to the last phone message her mother had left her, just to hear her say, “Call me.” Mia hit redial, only for it to go straight to voice mail, and Mia left her own message, “Call me,” over and over again.
Mia’s screams signaled Dad one night. Her hands trembled and her forehead glistening in the moonlight. Dad wrapped his warm hands around Mia’s cold ones. In the dark, she could imagine concern in his eyes. “She’s not coming back,” he said.
Mia shook her head and cried. She couldn’t respond through the tightness of her throat.
Dad pulled Mia’s fleece blanket around her shoulders. “She’s not coming back,” he said once again before he went back to his room, leaving Mia to feel the echo of his warmth on her hands. He didn’t come back to Mia. But he didn’t have to.
The next day she scrubbed the bathroom, cleaned out the fridge, vacuumed the carpet, washed the windows so the sun shone through, and she made meatloaf for her and Dad.
Mia blinked and looked at Peter. She nodded and watched him as he spoke of the Yankees and the game they had won. He recited names of players who meant nothing to Mia. She nodded again before resting against the window behind her. Six years later, Mia wondered if she had said I love you that morning, perhaps Mom wouldn’t have left.
A new piece of art near the ceiling caught Mia’s attention. She tilted her head, pondering it from a new angle. She marveled at the skill and guts it would take to get the painting up there. Anyone could paint on paper or canvas. But to use curved metal, illegal as a medium, held together by rivets and screws, that took some courage.
There was a blood red half circle above a navy blue design. It looked like the sun setting on a battlefield. Within the composition, fine lines danced and swirled in angles that didn’t seem to be from a regular spray can. She wondered what tools this artist had used. The nozzle would have to be smaller and more precise than a regular can to have allowed a tiny stream rather than the wide spray, like the industrial sprayer Dad had used. She followed the lines with her eyes, over and around, faster, in one continuous motion until she felt dizzy.
Mia closed her eyes, and the scent of the paint rose from her memory. She recalled the image of Dad’s hands, moving back and forth with the sprayer that could turn a car from old to new. She would watch Dad work, and she’d sway with his motion. The muscles in Dad’s arms rippled along. His hands always held flecks of color. Even in his casket. White and silver and black spotted his lifeless hands that day.
When it was only Mia and Dad, he painted cars by day and frequented bars at night. Mia could only watch the hands she loved as they trembled in the rare moments of sobriety. He would apologize, tell her he’d do better, be home more. After his third DUI, he’d stare at his feet when he walked past Mia, mumbling a hello and patting her on the head in an empty gesture.
Dad’s fourth DUI took his life. Mia sat on the pew of the church. The hard wood pressed into her shoulder blades, but no thoughts, no feelings would come to her. She stared at the closed casket. Lucky, Mia heard the priest say. Lucky that she was eighteen. An orphan, but not a ward of the state. She didn’t feel lucky. Empty, is how she felt, and alone, too.
The darkness had begun to creep in again. The heaviness started in her feet, and each day it worked its way a little higher. It rose into her chest, and she was sure each day would be her last. She thought of her mom, so often staying in bed for days on end, and she considered doing the same. But she needed her minimum wage income now, so she poured coffee, wrote down customer’s orders, and carried food to tables. She smiled at the people she served, but it never reached her eyes, and their faces were all a blur.
A voice had broken through the fog one day. “You okay?” A man with dark hair that fell over his forehead in a soft wave stared up at her with small blue eyes. He smiled and reached out a finger to touch the back of her hand. “Your hands. They’re cold.” And he wrapped his around hers.
Mia blinked back the tears, but one escaped and rolled down her cheek. She refilled his mug that day, brought his food, and saw the face that went with his voice.
Peter came in every day after that. He began showing up at the end of every shift to walk her home. He’d lie on her couch and watch TV on her days off, just to be near her. He bought her a cell phone, so she could call him if she were stranded, and so he could text her through the day. He gave her designer jeans and silky blouses, insisting she throw her old clothes away. A pedicure and manicure and a haircut and highlights came next.
And when Mia was all fixed up, Peter took her home with him. He kissed her and held her, and when he slid her shirt over her head, she told him she was afraid, that she hadn’t done this before. But he promised he would take care of her – that night and forever. So she allowed his rough hands to caress her breasts, and in it, she felt alive. His kisses became harder, and he repeated his promise to her with every breath. With that, she laid back and gave herself to this man who would be her protector. And she was not alone.
For two years now Mia had been with Peter. He would often pop in at work, unannounced, to see how her day was going. He would bring her a salad on those days, not wanting her to eat the fried food at the cafe. She would sit with him at a booth, and he would watch her eat, making comments about the cook, and how his hair looked greasy. Peter would call the manager names in a dull whisper. Every male who worked there was on Peter’s list to ridicule.
In the mornings when Mia got ready for work, she would brush on a bit of powder and a thin coat of mascara. On the nights she went out with Peter, she would add blush, dark eye shadow, a few more coats of mascara, and red lipstick, just the way Peter liked it. She would pull on the tiny dress, the same color as her lips, tugging it down to where it clung to her thighs, inches below her bottom. Peter’s gaze was hungry on those nights, and his hands never left her.
On one such evening, they stood at the bar. Whiskey for Peter; Mia preferred mojitos. She dropped her chin into her hands, elbows on the bar, waiting for the next round. She shifted her hips, and her dress inched up.
“Nice ass,” said a man passing by.
Peter threw a right hook to the guy’s head and knocked him out. Protecting my girl, he told Mia. He’d protect her at all costs, because he loved her. His hands were cold and hard on her skin that night.
When Mia’s girlfriends asked her to go to a concert with them, Peter asked why she’d want to go without him, but he told her to go, that he would make a sandwich and watch TV, that he’d be just fine sitting at home all by himself. His voice turned high and cool, and Mia stayed.
Within the last year, Peter’s grip had begun to leave marks. Once, when the darkness had worked its way up to Mia’s middle, she thought about leaving Peter, but he promised his touch would be gentler. She was beautiful, and he couldn’t stand to be without her for a moment. He didn’t mean the words he spoke, she misunderstood him. He would be nicer to her friends, and how would she survive on her part-time wages, and where would she live. And she stayed.
So did the constriction in her chest. On the days when Peter laughed, optimism sparked within Mia. But his words came back and the bruises had increased and every day Mia became trapped a bit more in the crushing darkness. She would inhale against the tightness.
The rattle of the newspaper page drew Mia’s attention. She glanced up at Peter. He folded up the paper. “No lollygagging after work. I’ll be home at seven.”
Mia nodded while looking at the floor. Peter wrapped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. Peter kissed the top of her head, and she didn’t pull away.
“Love you,” he said.
Mia looked away.
Hands similar to Dad’s, but not as old, not speckled with overspray, caught her attention.
These hands folded together, each finger interlaced with the opposite hand. The thumb on top tapped a beat. She tapped her foot in time. The thumb paused then changed the rhythm. She paused as well, but looked up and found the man across from her watching. When he smiled it reached his eyes, and he sat a little straighter. She tilted her head.
The suit the man wore looked like Dad’s suit, the one that he wore on special occasions – the same suit he wore when he married Mom. Only this man’s suit was newer, more modern, not so threadbare. The man across from Mia had milk chocolate hair that was short on the sides but longer in front where it fell straight over his forehead. His eyebrows, the same color as his hair, pulled together, and fine lines formed at the corners of his eyes. He looked from Mia to Peter.
Mia glanced at Peter, too. His thumb scrolled over his phone. Mia clasped her hands in her lap. She leaned down to retie her shoe, then crossed her feet and tucked them under the bench. She spun the silver rings she wore, watching the rotations, and gnawed her lower lip.
Mia took a breath and glanced up. The man still watched her. He pressed his lips together. They puckered up like a little old man’s, or like he had been sucking on a lemon. Mia fought the smile that tugged on the corners of her mouth. After a moment, the man returned her smile, and the warmth from it worked its way into her chest.
The train slowed. “This is us.” Peter moved to stand by the door; Mia followed. As she stood, she came closer to the man across from her. She felt something, compassion, maybe, radiating from him.
“Have dinner ready when I get home,” Peter said. “And no hockey pucks this time.”
The man looked from Mia to Peter and back to Mia again. His mahogany eyes were warm. He leaned forward and scratched his chin, still watching Mia. His look held no hunger like Peter’s did. Mia wanted to touch his hands that reminded her of Dad’s.
She smiled at the man. He returned the gesture, but he glanced toward Peter again, and the man’s smile fell.
“You okay?” he mouthed.
Mia turned to Peter, his back toward her, his attention on his phone. She looked back to the man, her eyes meeting his, still watching her. Back to Peter, and then the man once again, Mia grinned, and this time, it spread through her body, out her arms, leaving her fingers tingling. She nodded at the man.
“Yeah,” she mouthed back. Yes, she would be okay.
“Come on,” Peter said when the doors slid open.
Mia looked back at the man one last time. The corners of his mouth were slightly turned up; hers were too. When Peter stepped from the car, Mia followed.
They emerged from the subway tunnel. The dew had evaporated and sun peeked between two buildings. The warmth reminded Mia summer was nearly here. She squinted against the brightness and stuck her hands into the back pockets of her jeans.
“I’m late.” Peter kissed the top of her head and rushed down the sidewalk.
“Good bye,” Mia said, after he had already gone. She watched Peter until he disappeared around the corner. She closed her eyes and let the light wash over her before she turned and walked the other way.
Anna Phoenix is an MFA student at Southern New Hampshire University, where she anticipates graduation in January, 2016. She spends her days working with children who have autism and worrying about her own six kids, even though the oldest two have grown up and moved on. She loves sunshine and chocolate and people who make her laugh.
© 2015, Anna Phoenix