“Kind of Like You” (online)
Opium, which published “Kind of Like You” in August of 2012, closed. When it reopened their archives were deleted, so I am reprinting “Kind of Like You” here.
“Kind of Like You”
(approximate reading time 30 minutes)
Archie had never had a girlfriend. Up until a certain point this had not seemed unreasonable. In high school he was called a dweeb, and he more or less accepted this stereotype of himself, although he never doubted that even the most shallow-appearing girls must have a fascinating and complex inner life, if he only knew how to get past their constructed facades. Only when Brian Hammermill, with his pockmarked face as slick and greasy as a fast food burger, kissed Elaine Dunot and pawed her pendulous breasts, did Archie become seriously alarmed about his own solitary state. What was wrong with him? Was he waiting for something better than what he might realistically be able to get, or was he just too scared and generally freaked out to veer from the narrow path that had been mapped out for him?
When he got to college, though, Archie felt as though the air had been released from an inner tube that had been filled too full around his head. He finally met other people like himself, students who were even respected for excelling in subjects like algorithmic analyses or differential equations. After freshman year he traded in his high-waisted khakis for a pair of Levi’s, and he brushed his fine, ash-blonde hair off to the side rather than letting it clump in the middle of his forehead with bald-looking patches on either side. He still found exercise to be generally unpleasant, but he did ride to class on a second-hand bike that he bought for fifteen dollars and repaired himself.
The issue of girls, however, remained static. There were not a lot of females in Archie’s math classes, and he was also frankly overwhelmed, as the workload in the Ivy League College to which he had been admitted was significantly more than anything he had encountered in his midwestern public high school. He was no longer the smartest kid in the class, and this bothered Archie more than not having a girlfriend.
He studied hard, though, and after college he got a job as a quant at an investment bank on Wall Street, where he worked such long hours that he had even less opportunity to meet women. Archie performed well at his job, however, and after several years he was able to put down a deposit on an apartment in a doorman building in the financial district. When he came home late from work with take-out from Harry’s Italian Pizza Bar or Backyard Chicken, he would look out his living room window to a patch of East River that fluctuated from mud gray to shimmering blue depending on the sky, the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge bisecting the span with a grace and precision that made Archie’s heart ache. He was twenty-seven, and he had never been kissed.
One Saturday morning in early spring, Archie rolled out of bed, groped in his dresser for a clean pair of socks, and wondered how he could have neglected this flagrantly obvious part of life for so long. He carried a bowl of Sugar Frosted Flakes over to his wall of windows, pondering the likelihood that he had missed so many developmental milestones that it was not only possible, but likely that he would remain single for life. Here he was, kitted out in sweatpants and sweatshirt, bracing to venture out into a world that emanated a pinched, raw grayness, and for what? Before he could surrender completely to despair, however, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted over to him from his Braun coffee maker. Jolted out of his torpor, he resolved to make good on his New Year’s resolution, which was to start jogging.
On his way down in the elevator he was joined by a woman who looked familiar, and he tried to recall where he might have seen her. Sensing that she was being looked at, she turned to Archie with an expression of covert hostility, her gaze lingering just long enough for Archie to notice that her eyes were greenish brown with corners that tapered upward. He also observed that while she was not small, exactly, there was something un-robust about her, what his mother might have called “peaked.”
You’re looking rather peaked today, Archie. Are you sure you’re not coming down with something? The woman in the elevator had this quality, although as she bolted out the door once they reached the lobby there was a spring to her step that contradicted Archie’s original impression. Turning down John Street, Archie launched into his jog; he was not self-deluded enough, even after several years on Wall Street, to call what he was about to do running.
He did not see the woman again that day, but having connected the dots in his mind, he started to notice her everywhere. He saw her, in fact, the very next afternoon as he was standing in Zeytuna’s, trying to sift through the confusion of so many choices of fruits and vegetables. She was buying coffee, and he was able to observe her without being noticed. She had a small, straight nose and her frame was thin within her belted, navy blue pea coat. Her eyes, as he had already noted, were greenish brown with a pleasing upward slant. Her eyebrows were neither too thick nor too thin. Ditto the mouth. With features so regular, it seemed to Archie that she should be prettier than she was, and yet the overall impression she gave was somewhat mousy and plain. When she pulled off her hat her hair flew away in a riot of static electricity. Inexplicably, Archie felt the urge to sidle over and smooth the errant strands back onto her head. Instead he filled a bag with green apples and headed purposefully to the cash register.
The next time Archie saw his neighbor, whom he had come to refer to as “There-she-is-again,” he was climbing the steps of the Fulton Street subway stop. She was in front of him, and he recognized her gait. As he tramped behind her he tried to define what about her walk was so identifiable. It wasn’t, he decided, the quirky bounce in her step, but more a kind of courage-in-the-face-of-life quality that was difficult to define. It was eight-eleven in the evening, and beneath her pea coat she was wearing a navy blue skirt with navy blue stockings and medium heeled, navy blue shoes.
By the time she turned into Izzie and Ike’s, the deli where he also, on the spur-of-the-moment, had coincidentally decided to go, a certain familiarity had grown up between them, at least in Archie’s mind. No matter that Izzie and Ike’s would not have been his first choice for dinner, as he considered it a lunch place, and it was more or less deserted now. While There-she-is-again ordered a chopped Cobb salad, creamy Italian on the side, Archie stood close enough to smell the cool air in her hair. When she turned and found him so near she frowned and brushed past him.
Although Archie looked for her on the way home, she seemed to have sprinted out of sight in the time it took for his turkey pastrami sandwich to be made. He was surprised, then, to discover her waiting for the elevator when he arrived back at his building.
“Izzie and Ike’s,” he said, holding up his food bag in what he hoped was a casual, friendly gesture.
“Right,” she said, staring above the elevator at the lighted numbers that were descending from twenty-six down to one. Archie followed her into the paneled enclosure, unsure how offended he should be by her excessive focus on the chrome doors. Wouldn’t a more experienced, player-type guy whip out a comment that would draw her to him like the girl-magnet that he was? Twice on the way up to the sixteenth floor, where she got off, Archie opened his mouth to say something, and twice no words came out.
By the time he deposited his briefcase inside his own front door he was annoyed almost to tears.
What the hell, he muttered. I don’t even like turkey pastrami! And Izzy and Ike’s? Who goes to Izzy and Ike’s for dinner?!
Staring with disgust at his unappetizing sandwich, Archie resolved to avoid his neighbor from now on, and for the next few weeks fate complied and he did not run into There-she-is-again in the neighborhood. At work his efforts to avoid thinking about her were largely successful, aided as they were by three large computer screens set up on his desk that generated a relentless stream of stats and figures and over a hundred emails a day.
In the evenings, however, he was more susceptible. Without warning she would appear unbidden in his mind, with a bewitching combination of aloofness and vulnerability, an expression of keen intelligence on her face. Before he had a chance to banish the image he would be overcome by the urge to draw her to him, practically smelling the loamy scent of damp wool as he imagined his cheek brushing her shoulder. Immediately Archie would remind himself of her bad qualities, not least her fly-away hair and complete lack of social skills, or her appalling taste in take-out food and her deer-in-headlights way of staring at him as if he were some kind of axe murderer prowling the halls of 99 John Street. This was usually enough to keep the picture of her at bay, but not before a certain amount of damage had already been done to his peace of mind. Once he even dreamt of her. Enough said on that.
In desperation he took to running four or five times a week, the relentless pounding an effective antidote as it caused enough pain in his joints to distract him. On one such jaunt early in June, Archie was slogging his way back down the narrow strip of park that ran alongside the FDR highway when the sky opened up and a deluge of rain fell on Archie’s head. For a fraction of an instant the avalanche felt refreshing before it became oppressive and cold as it stung Archie’s cheeks, plastering his bangs onto his forehead and running into his eyes. He was almost home, his building in sight, when he stepped off the curb into a rushing stream of dirty, muddy, New York City rainwater.
“SHIT!” he screamed. “God damn it!” His sneaker now a sodden sponge sucking onto his foot, he squelched across the street to see There–she-is-again watching him from beneath a large, transparent umbrella that resembled a jellyfish. He ignored her as he stomped into the lobby trailing a puddle of water. As he swiped his bangs off his forehead he stopped just short of shaking himself like a dog and spraying water across the lobby.
“That was brave, going out for a run on a day like today.”
There-she-is-again was suddenly standing next to him, her umbrella furled by her side.
“Yeah, well, it wasn’t raining when I started out,” he begrudgingly replied.
“You run a lot. I’ve seen you other times as well.”
Seen you? . . . other times—? For a disoriented moment Archie forgot that he disliked her. He dropped his gaze only to be distracted by the water-stained soles of her sandals.
“Don’t you hate the feel of wet grit between your toes?” he asked. “And the way the leather turns almost slimy in the rain? I don’t know what’s worse, sandals or soaking, clammy sneakers.” He barely stopped himself from commenting on how malodorous his sneakers smelled as they dried.
There-she-is-again looked down at her feet. “I guess. What bothers me more, though, is the way once the leather gets wet it never goes back to the way it was; it stays deformed.” She shifted her bag of groceries on her shoulder and gazed at Archie with a frank expression.
The elevator, meanwhile, had arrived.
“What floor?” Archie asked, even though he knew the answer.
As Archie pressed the button he caught a glimpse of himself in the chrome detailing and almost gasped at the sight of his bedraggled appearance. His dripping shorts clung to his thighs, his oversized New York Yankees T-shirt no longer comfortably casual but droopy and ill-fitting over his thin frame. The elevator, meanwhile, glided to a stop.
“See you around,” There-she-is-again said, but instead of letting the doors close behind her, she brushed her hand over the motion sensor in the side panel. “I’m Lea, by the way.”
She stepped back from the doorway, and Archie was met by a smile so luminous that it was as if a patch of his spirit lifted straight into the atmosphere. Only when the elevator doors re-opened on his floor, and a middle aged woman with a Chihuahua entered, did he settle back into the chilly wet casing of his body.
Archie did not sleep well that night. He suffered through the hours in a ricochet of hope and doubt, his sheets a tangled mockery of his mind. Was it possible that Lea—Lea!—liked him? But of course she did! Why else would she smile at him or say that she’d noticed him? There was clearly no other reason for her to tell him her name.
But then the doubts. The insinuating, relentless parade of buts. How many times over the years, had he read more into a girl’s behavior than had ever, in reality, been there? Maybe she felt sorry for him, or found him comical. She could have been bored. She could have not been thinking about him at all.
And maybe, he thought as he threw off his sheet to the stale, Freon-cooled air, maybe he didn’t like her. She was not beautiful. Her colorless hair often served as a major conduit for electricity, and even her slenderness was not particularly sexy. She was simply thin, kind of, he thought miserably, like himself.
Her eyes, though . . . those eyes! When she deigned to look at him, to really see him, they were as lucid as the river on a cloudless day.
Archie pulled the covers up to his neck and pictured the way her shoulders tapered into a graceful back, with a waist that looked as though his arm would glide effortlessly around it, his hands reaching across her ribcage to her breasts the size of his cupped palms.
By morning Archie was exhausted. At work he collapsed into his chair, grateful to spend the next thirteen hours basking in the subterranean glow of his three computer screens.
What he found, however, was that there was no going back. Lea had imprinted herself on his mind, and when he imagined himself through her eyes he started to see himself differently, as well. When he pulled one of his shapeless running t-shirts out of the drawer, its Chase Corporate Challenge logo flaking off, he cringed, hoping that Lea wouldn’t see him in it. One day after work he even ventured into the lurid, psychotropic lighting of a Nike Store to pick out an assortment of dry fit exercise gear. Lea, after all, might be out there, floating through air so humid that she could probably paddle with the help of her jellyfish umbrella.
July, meanwhile, arrived with its sultry, sulfurous heat, and the pattern of Archie’s encounters with Lea took on an almost domestic familiarity. There were the inevitable comments on the weather as they stood waiting for the elevator, or if they were collecting their mail at the bank of mailboxes in the lobby they would complain together about how much junk mail they had received that day.
Soon July teetered into August in a blur of haze and ozone alerts, and on one particularly suffocating Saturday afternoon, a time when Archie ardently hoped that he would find the twelfth floor gym as empty as possible, he slid his card key into the sensor and pushed open the glass doors. He approached the weight machines and gingerly lowered himself onto one of the seats. Reaching over his head, he grasped the rubber handles and pulled down hard. The handles, however, did not budge. Mortified, Archie yanked harder, but to no avail. He was just about to swear under his breath when a figure clad in navy blue Lycra appeared by his side.
“There’s a pin. You can adjust the weight.”
Staring at this specter who had emerged as if from a forest of tortured metal trees—Lea, here?—Archie registered only the sketchiest outline of her form before he turned to where she was pointing, at a yellow plastic knob inserted into one of many stacked weights beside his seat. After reaching down and pulling out the pin, he re-inserted it about a foot higher than where it had been, closer to 5 lb. than to 175 lb. When he then grasped the handles above his head and pulled, the metal arms flew down so fast that they jarred his entire body as the pin rattled in its berth.
Archie clung to the grips, afraid that if he let go they would swing him off his seat like a leaf.
“Now I know why I avoided coming here for so long,” he muttered.
Lea smiled, beads of perspiration glistening on her forehead, two tiny ear buds dangling from wires hung around her neck.
“You know when I came here for the first time?” she asked. “After I ran into you coming back from your run in the rain. I thought that was so courageous, and I said to myself, ‘Lea, come on. Just do it!’” She laughed and pointed to the Nike symbol emblazoned above her chest, her breasts high and round and firmly encased in spandex. Gingerly Archie raised the handles of his contraption and was grateful when the machine did not catapult him out of his seat.
“This is all a little confusing,” he admitted, gesturing past the Nautilus apparatus to a battalion of cardio equipment. “Do you know what you’re supposed to do on all of these things?”
“It’s actually not that hard. They have pictures.” Lea leaned across him to point to a diagram pasted to the inner panel of his machine as the scent of deodorant overlaid with sweat and a tinge of fabric softener wafted past his nose. He opened his mouth to speak but found himself drifting instead towards Lea’s forearm, as if to press his lips to the salty surface. . .
“Okay, yeah, I see that,” Archie said abruptly. “My goal is to be in shape in time for the end of summer. Labor Day.”
Lea looked at him quizzically. “Labor Day is only a couple weeks away.”
“Exactly. I want to be ready for the fireworks. Can you see the fireworks from your window?” Valiantly Archie tried to cobble together a series of words and phrases that he hoped might resemble coherent thought.
“Not really. My apartment looks uptown.”
“Uptown! Cool. My apartment has ‘river views,’ but what that really means is an eensy little slice—” He held his hands six inches apart.
“You can also see the fireworks from the roof deck.”
“Right. Of course.” Archie nodded vigorously. “Is that what you’ll be doing this year, going up to the roof to watch the fireworks?”
Lea furrowed her brow. “I might. I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.”
“I guess I was wondering because I’ve never actually done that. Gone up to the roof. I was thinking it could be fun, but, you know, when you go up there and it’s dark, and there are all these people milling around—” He felt a scalding flush rise through his face and resolved to shut up.
Lea, however, was staring at him.
“Well,” she said, draping her towel around her neck. “I guess I should be going.”
“Right, thanks—” He nodded towards the weights.
“No problem.” She started to walk away.
“I was wondering. Would you ever want to get together? Maybe for a bite to eat?”
“Um, okay, sure.”
The following Friday they went out for burritos. The weekend after that they decided to see what was showing at the Quad Cinema, where they ended up sitting through Betty Blue. Archie sat tensely in his seat, watching frame after frame of passion run amok while scrolling through his mind ran his own ticker tape refrain: Nice going, Arch. Really swift. Next time, read the reviews first.
When the movie finally ended, and they emerged onto Thirteenth Street, the air moist and womblike, Archie tried to re-orient himself. He and Lea walked without talking past the shadows of brownstones and dark alcoves until they reached Fifth Avenue, where Archie flagged a cab. As they rattled downtown he tried to figure out how to slide unobtrusively closer to Lea, her thigh taught beneath the slinky blue fabric of her skirt, but she was too far away, a chasm of lumpy vinyl cab seat between them. The next thing he knew they were in the lobby of 99 John Street with its blond wood paneling and not a dark corner to be found.
“Are you going to the gym tomorrow?” Archie asked as they rode up in the elevator together.
“I was thinking I might do some gardening.” Lea volunteered a few hours a month at a community garden in Red Hook. At first Archie had found it odd that she would take a train and a bus to get to the edge of Brooklyn when there were other community gardens closer by. Lea, though, had said that she liked the feeling of getting out of Manhattan. She also enjoyed working side by side with kids who might not otherwise know what it was like to stake a bean plant, to return from one day to the next and find the crumpled yellow flowers fallen away to reveal tiny slips of beans pushing their way into the world.
“The plants are so fragile and resilient,” Lea had said, “kind of like the kids I work with.”
Kind of like you, Archie thought now, remembering this conversation as the cables drew them skyward. Lea was standing with her pocketbook clutched to her side, and in the washed out light of the elevator he found her inexplicably, almost painfully beautiful. She was tucking the fine strands of hair that had escaped from her ponytail behind her ear, and she was so without guile that he wondered how she managed in the hard-driving, competitive world of lower Manhattan. In fact, however, he knew that she managed admirably well.
“Why don’t you come with me some time,” Lea was saying as she gazed at him with that frank, artless appraisal.
“Okay, maybe I will,” Archie replied as the elevator doors opened on her floor.
“Thanks for the movie.”
“No problem, it was fun. I mean—” He rolled his eyes, and she laughed.
“Yeah.” As their gazes met he leaned towards her just as the doors closed, and she was gone.
On Labor Day weekend, a little before nine o’clock Sunday evening, Lea and Archie travelled up to the twenty-sixth floor roof deck. The teak lounge chairs were all occupied, matching planters interspersed at intervals at the base of the chest high roofline. A plastic tub filled with beer, wine and soda had been set up on a table along with a bowl of chips and a dried out plate of crudités.
“Would you like a beer?” Archie asked, reaching into the icy bath to retrieve two Coronas.
“Thanks,” Lea smiled, and as Archie handed her the bottle he wondered, who is this person he had come to know? Was she an IT Consultant who managed software implementation and processed improvement, a job description that he hoped he might one day better understand? Or was she the distillation of her hopes and dreams, of her wish to take ballroom dancing lessons, for example, or the fact that she had “Top of the World” by The Carpenters uploaded onto her iPhone?
Before Archie could figure out the answer to this question, though, he heard the sizzling launch of the first rockets, each hollow pop followed by trailing embers that dissolved high in the sky like tiny, bioluminescent flares. Dark forms surrounded them as Lea lifted her chin to the sky. Inching towards her, Archie brushed her bare arm. She didn’t move. Tentatively, he slid his hand around her shoulder, and when she did not shrug him away he let his fingers linger, exploring the area beneath the hem of her t-shirt up to the smooth knob of her shoulder. He reached his other arm around her torso and found himself hugging her in an awkward, sideways position. Before he could panic, though, Lea, in one miraculous motion, turned to face him. Awed by the living, breathing weight of her against his chest, Archie did not immediately register her face lifted to his until the shock of her lips, the sudden warm, tunnelly wetness of her tongue in his mouth made him feel as though he was floundering in an inland sea. This was a place, he thought, where he might happily stay. Eventually, however, Lea drew back. Archie met her gaze as a burst of orange and lavender exploded behind them, raining its tart sweetness over Lea’s features, rendering them ineffably beautiful and strange.