© Terrible Orange Review 2019. 

Katherine Kesey

Voicemails

It takes me thirty minutes to find where people get picked up by their Ubers at JFK, and I end up back on the exact curb I started on anyways. I trip out of the Honda Pilot forty dollars and as many minutes later and call Alex again. He tells me to buzz 2R. I had thought he was down the street doing laundry but there he is, at the top of the stairs, his voice greeting me simultaneously from the phone and from the open doorway.

     Alex is in the middle of plunging the toilet. We laugh about it. Blame it on Monty, the huge orange tabby, who will only be around until tonight when Cam picks him up. Cam just got back from his honeymoon. Now Alex’s brother Jake has taken the second bedroom, but he’s out just then. Alex hasn’t seen him in a day or two. I am unsure whether to stand or sit.

     Climbing across a crisp half-footprint on the windowsill, I follow Alex up the fire escape to the roof. We wave at Pete across the street. Here, above the footprint, above St. Nicholas Avenue, I become an anomaly. An astrological blip, dropped out of the sky directly onto this spongy white rooftop, abstracted from both directional familiarity and productive responsibility. I autofocus between my cousin, the street below, and the first new high rise out in Williamsburg. Alex says this new skyline is controversial.

     Down at the Laundromat, I hover in everyone’s way while he transitions bed sheets from washer to dryer, rambling about work. It takes seventeen quarters for a wash and dry cycle. The sheets are for me. Alex sleeps on an air-mattress in the living room for the weekend and I take his bed.

     I want to meet Pete, from across the street. He sits outside his garage with Eddie, both stocky Puerto Ricans. They have greased hair and Harley Davidson mustaches. Occasionally, Pete repeats our conversation to Eddie in Spanish. Says he wants to retire to the South soon, maybe Alabama where he was born, or to Texas like where I was. It’s slower there, I know.

     A girl like me, South Carolinian, hasn’t had moonshine. Pete hands me a clear shot in a little paper cup. I laugh at the absurdity and at my own glee. Take a small sip, hand it to Alex. It feels light, slides down easily, stays hot and slows for ten minutes around my middle.

     “Now here’s what you should do tonight,”–Pete’s eyes widen, his eyebrows rise–“is get a bottle of wine. For the two of you. And have a couple glasses, maybe four glasses, and then you go out and you look at the art.” He weaves wine into the conversation three more times. Shows me his paintings. We stay there for the better half of an hour.

     “You just tell them my name. And they’ll leave you alone.”

 

______

Coffee, slice of pizza, Alex says this is his first meal today. I ask him more about his life and he tells me about his video work with the United Nations. I think intermittently about how I look like I am on a date. He couldn’t be directly at the meeting with the head of advertising at Facebook, on account of Cam’s wedding. Cam is probably at the apartment now, getting Monty. There are seventeen new advertising awards for each of the UN’s seventeen Sustainability Goals. Facebook hasn’t called back yet, though.

     We talk to the cashiers at every restaurant like they’re friends.

     “Oh! That must make you Alex, doesn’t it?” Hillary works with Jake at The Three Diamond Door.

     “I’ve never been out of the state.” Benny has the largest earring I’ve ever seen on a guy. He looks about my age, like everyone else.

     “That’s the thing about cities,” Alex talks continuously during all of our walks - New York City has run out of Adderall, “is they really change your perception about what can surprise you.” I look past him just as a strikingly thin man in an ultramarine blouse gets out of an Uber. We pause to let him enter the doorway first, his platform stilettos clicking on the cement threshold. Alex’s eyebrows wave to me, flagging the irony.

 

______

 

The Met is smaller than I thought it would be, and we make it to three out of six wings in as many hours. In the Egyptian wing, I want to throw the penny I have in my pocket into the fountain, but the security guard is watching us so closely that I surrender. Hold it instead, secretly in my hand, wishing to myself Will would manage to kiss me tomorrow. I think vaguely about passing out, I should have eaten when Alex did.

     By dark we have had dinner and almost make it back to Alex’s but walk past Pete’s open garage again. He stops us with Modelos and we watch them play dominoes and smoke. Everyone is in good humor and keep asking whether Luis Fonsi is fine music for my tastes. Pete’s son Michael and a guy who looks like he may be Pete’s brother demonstrate a secret handshake for me, twice. Pete scolds his brother for offering me a joint.

     “Come on man, she is innocent…How old are you?”

     Alex secures Michael as his new dealer while Pete tries to convince me to become a fashion designer. After what I hope is long enough I quietly place my half finished Modelo on the ground below my folding chair. Alex and I back slowly out of the garage, Pete continuing to talk as we go.

     At The Three Diamond Door, we have beaten the rush. James is already there, waiting for us at the counter. Jake zips expertly between us and the other people leaning on the bar. He’s showing off his Texas Pete socks and ‘Jesus is my Boss’ hat, getting a lot of tips. I get to sit on a high stool nearly the whole time. Alex has to stand, but isn’t staying with us consistently anyways. He tells at least four people within ten minutes that it’s Jake’s birthday, which is true.

     Yes, $25 for an eighth is low, and yes, Michael’s in high school, but this is New York City, not Louisiana. The quality is going to be better. Alex and James laugh about our time with Pete. I order a gin and tonic because it is the first thing I can think of on short notice, and it crosses my mind that I am not bothered any more by not knowing the time. Backtracking, I guess the last time I was certain of it was in front of departures board at the airport.

     James has stepped out for a phone call, Alex has meandered back. Jake brings us a round of shots, says he may get off early. I can’t understand why since if so much as get off my stool it will displace someone else as well. One such someone is leaning on me, with much of himself, heading up the line for drink orders. James notices my discomfort and I watch a second of intervention cross him. It seems to me like poor planning for bars to have stools all the way around them.

     We pool our cash into a $100 birthday tip, but Jake slides it into the communal jar before any of us can stop him. Two people in the corner have been making out for twenty minutes and I wonder if they’re bored. Or maybe they just moved here. I imagine that they have just graduated, don’t even have jobs yet. They are regretful. New. They make me jealous.

     I get a text from Tyler around midnight. Don’t forget your roots. A screenshot of Skillet’s Comatose album. I want to show it to Alex but don’t think he will get it.

     Alex leads us to a second room in the back. There’s a DJ, and the shifting around us is tight and sweaty, dancing without much movement. It has never occurred to me I would ever see James, thirty-six years old and fairly reserved, dance, and I am delighted. The age of everyone around me makes me feel that my presence is appropriate, but I wonder briefly if there are social codes I am not aware of. I imagine the city as an extended college party, and speculate on whether this should make a person like me feel more comfortable or just superior.

     Three of my walls are built by James, Alex, and my own back. A slim girl in a white t-shirt notices the fourth opening. Her hair is up and her eyes are half closed, and I can see eye shadow. She completes our cell, presses inward, splits it. I wait out the mitosis without specifically remembering or meaning to. Half-time thoughts skip across me, so deliberately feigning innocence that I analyze whether or not I am drunk.

     Once, at a concert, Sam Brooks pulled me around the room to dance with her. Bouncing, directionless, it made no sense. This is not like that. This is graceful and innate, easy. Hand pulling lightly on my waist in a way that makes me think about the way books describe people’s hips fitting together. She is so close and careless that I allow myself to reconstruct as another person. I can't understand the physics of the movement but I wonder if this proves I am good at dancing after all.

     A girl anomaly, still holding her coat. I forcefully direct my thoughts to anything but James and Alex, keep my head down. I feel an opportunity, spin out of reach, and hover to retain our former cell. I allow a song to pass like this, worrying that my avoidance of eye contact could be interpreted as coy. She mouths to me that I am cute, and I wonder if she can tell I am new blood.

     Out on the street, a boy comes up and asks for a good club.

     “Thank you, next”, and the boy takes the hint from Jake before I do.

     We joke about the girl I danced with thinking I was into her and I think momentarily I may be talking too loud. It’s funny now that I have returned to myself. I am almost hit by a guy who falls down behind me, pushed by someone else. My cousins have already moved closer to the curb without me.

     We go to another bar, one with a stuffed hyena on the wall and a jar of baby doll heads on the counter. I order a pint of Allagash White but don’t finish it, try to forget it on the counter behind Alex. A stranger takes our photo and I think that I might print it out some time. He follows us all on Instagram. I wonder why I don’t feel sleepy. I feel disconnected. Happy. Tense. 

     Looking at the photo, another text pops up from Tyler. Just kidding, forget them and don’t look back. We drove up to Asheville for that bachelor thing and listened to the worst contemporary christian music ever...why did I decide to stop drinking yesterday?

I send a response this time, joke about bars and dancing with the girl at the Three Diamond Door. I feel distant, cavalier. Like I am missing curfew.

     Where the hell is your mom? Grinding is icky. 

     We’re back sometime between four and five and all I can think of is laying down but Jake and Alex are joking about his hot sauce socks. They stand at the counter eating stale Pop Secret from a bowl in the empty fridge.

 

______

 

I wake up at eight from the light bouncing off the newly painted walls of Alex’s bedroom. Unsurely I drag to Myrtle and Wyckoff, knowing it is a little later than we planned. I anticipate being shit company, no amount of coffee or sitting can fix me. The fruit stand outside the station looks enticing, but I can’t imagine myself walking out from behind the glass window. Standing up, pushing the door open, choosing a fruit, it all seems too heavy. Instead, I sit on the window ledge and remind myself to take note of how I feel when I see him. I imagine how a book character would think about someone’s entrance. It would be dramatic; they would note their clothing. It occurs to me there could be other entrances, so I circle the building once. Try to look both occupied and nonchalant.

     When Will does walk in, I don’t feel anything but reluctant at having to stand up. Gray sweater, black jeans, Doc Martens, like bullet points. I hesitate just slightly, give him a hug. He is much taller than I thought. None of his tattoos are visible around the sweater and jeans, and something about him looks fresh, washed, plain. Later I think he must have taken out his nose rings, but in the moment I don’t look at his face enough to categorize this.

     Buckling to a safe bet, we start with work. I swear to myself I won’t forget the name of the company he works for, but do anyways. The train doesn’t arrive, and we sit next to each other on the dark wood bench, a small girl to my left and a man with his head down to his right. The Myrtle-Wycoff Platform is above ground, an industrious green structure capable of obstructing sunlight despite having no walls. I can’t talk loudly; my voice is shot. Already there are shocks of accidental quiet between us, which beg me to pretend I am comfortable and suggest Will is elsewhere.

     Once, I woke up lying on the short brown carpet in front of a medical office check-out counter. While my eyes and leg muscles pulled themselves to consciousness, my hearing stayed dead for a minute longer. The voice of a middle-aged male nurse floated above me, trying to get through but on a too distant horizon-line somewhere I couldn’t reach yet. They told me I must have held my breath while they took my blood, de-oxygenated myself slowly enough for my brain to stay awake until I had walked twenty steps.

     Will wonders aloud whether the L is running that day, stands up. I follow him, hover a moment behind him. He isn’t actually walking away; I should have stayed on the bench. The people on the platform suggest a train soon, but I think it is just a mental shortage of his. The input factors are too quick, and small thoughts are igniting into accidental offshoots, becoming acted upon movements to break up the stress of trying to keep up. I begin to wonder if this was a bad idea.  

     He works as a designer, like me. Somewhere important, impressive. They do some work for Apple. He’s nervously realizing how much he doesn’t know, but thinks its good they’re such a level above him. Did I feel like college didn’t prepare me, either? I feel small, comparatively with the platform, and I wonder if I am going to pass out. I follow this story line all the way up to Will having to catch me and then explain to strangers that I’ll probably be ok.

     He remembers where I work, asks how it is. I don’t know how to sum up in a way that isn’t tedious. I am worried about how little we are looking at each other. Now that we are on the train, my own offshoots are becoming even more insistent. I am more focused on the city passing by than on my own sentences, and am so grateful to be sitting that I lose track. It makes our conversation dead halt momentarily. This must be the train Alex was talking about going on for the view.

     When Will first moved, a friend asked to stay with him. This happens a lot, apparently. He tried to deflect, but the friend came anyways. Different wavelengths, he says. I interpret this as a subconscious honesty, as a sort of coming clean about my own presence. Every anomaly that appears in New York denotes another four-hour social contract.

 

______

 

On the Williamsburg Bridge, I try to remember how many times we went the wrong way on the train. Whether we did at all. I like the view, but hate that Will’s legs are so much longer than mine. I watch my white shoes alternating below me and think about slowing slightly to see if he matches. He’s describing his family moving him into his new apartment, saying his mom loved being there in the city. After all, he says, every girl has dreams about it. People and bikes and dogs are rushing past us in an endless backwards current, and I imagine we are boat cutting through them. I realize I am laughing a lot, wishing we could stop to take in the view. But I keep walking. I do not have illusions about New York.

     In Lower East, Will tells me this story of a date he went on without knowing it was a date. The punch line is that she was seventeen years old. I ask what happened when he realized, he thinks he ended up being a total jerk. Tried to play the big brother angle. I reason with myself that I am less than a year younger than him.

     Will trips four times on our way downtown. It makes me more aware of the color inconsistencies in the cement. I think it’s endearing but the comment I make comes out judgmental. I think I sound small town or bitter or maybe just whirlwind and don't get comfortable until we are eating. It gets worse after I say I may have to leave soon. Much later, when he doesn’t come to the park, I wonder if he tripped more or less walking without me.

     During the half hour wait for an open table, we cross the street to an art gallery. Where some famous Japanese girl’s work is hung, all of anime girls having threesomes with animals. It’s all very cute and very erotic and I have absolutely nothing to say. Suddenly it becomes pertinent to know whether one should walk around a gallery with the person they came in with. Upstairs is another artist’s work, made out of tiny squares cut from feathers. It’s so brightly lit that I wonder again if I am going to pass out.

     After we are seated, eating eggs, we settle in. Talk about my brother, not ourselves. He begins making eye contact again and I watch myself venture toward ease. Hand reaching across his chest, pulling at his shoulder. I don’t know what he’s saying but I notice clearly the bone structure of his knuckles. There’s a split second of dilemma over the splitting of the check. I had surprised myself with the confidence I found to speak to the host, but still can’t bring myself to ask if he’s dating anyone. I think of physics, how when forces in an action-reaction pair are equal and opposite, they cancel each other out. And because I have not moved, I have to leave. I think I was supposed to be at the park already. This is probably not true, but an offshoot must have ignited. Will says he will come too, after running home for new shoes. I walk to the subway; confidently, cheerfully, in the wrong direction.

 

______

 

After searching Central Park for an hour, I find Alex with Kylie and Sam. Sam is laser-pointer polite, suave. He and Alex work together sometimes. I can’t decide whether Kylie actually likes me or is just indulging Alex. The pair reminds me of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; stylish, connective, artistic. Ominous. Alex adores the pair of them. We sit on Kylie’s pink mandala blankets, paint with watercolor, chat, hide drinks in paper bags. I think about how many more times I will turn down a beer. Kylie tells me my nose is too cute to pull off a nose ring.

     Kylie and Sam's apartment on the Upper West Side is huge. It’s been in Kylie’s family for decades, which has effectively locked the rent. She makes us gin and tonics but we have to go to the store for tonic first. We eat Chinese and smoke CBD and I don't cough at all but I worry my smoky exhales are thicker than the other's. I stain my jeans twice with brown sauce and don’t slow down, but also don’t eat it all.

     "So, you have two parts of weed, CBD, which is the relaxant, and THC, which is the stimulant. So, you're probably gonna feel pretty chill, and if you have any anxiety, it'll go down." Sam doesn't know that this has already been explained to me twice by Alex. He looks steadily down at me from his place on the couch.

     Tyler sends me another text and is trying to play it cool but I can tell he’s worried. I realize I owe him this, because he’s right that my responses have been cagey and disorganized and provoking, so I call to explain I am not gay or questioning. We laugh a lot and I like that the familiarity is a tether but I cut it short because I feel guilty breaking my anonymity to call him and only him.

     When Alex asks, I don't push to go to the bar in Bushwick that Will has suggested as reparation for skipping the park. I don’t have it in me to play the kid who isn’t having a good time. This happens anyways, though, near midnight, when Alex says he would normally stay the night. But I need a shower and Kylie has blessedly given me a towel and I am thinking about stealing toilet paper from her too. Alex flickers disappointed but concedes cheerfully.

     We have to run to the subway because it takes a long time to dig through the dumpster for the journal Alex accidentally threw out earlier with the trash. A rat scurries across the top of the bags and I notice Sam comes down with us, but doesn’t say goodbye. He only grabs the unopened beers we threw out and watches us sprint away. We make the train by thirty seconds but it’s the one going the wrong direction.

 

______

 

On Sunday morning my phone charger is gone and I know Alex had something to do with it, but he hasn’t realized yet. I shower in Alex and Jake’s dirty, half-sized shower. I wonder if the peach colored towel Kylie gave me used to belong to her grandmother. It turns out that I don’t see Jake again before leaving town.

     James told us before that he is working on a feature film idea, layering virtual reality and levels of consciousness. Where one person tangibly shapes another’s experience without them knowing. They are betrayed, but only when they wake up. 

     “In a way,” he says, “humans become gods when they make new universes, alternative realities. When we set something to spin on its own.”

     At the bagel shop I am warm. The guy behind the counter is friendly, tells jokes when I ask questions. I sit down and within thirty minutes I begin to think I am no longer worth my space. I have to kill time, I don’t want to go back to the apartment and Alex is probably still sleeping anyways. So I limp onwards, beginning to entertain the thought that the pain in my hip may be serious. I thrift a belt, sit in Maria Hernandez Park. I have sketched for seven minutes before the rain begins.

     Benny is back on shift at the coffee shop. I feel lighter, in the sense of having been cleaned out. Like a gumball machine in a mall with no anchor tenants. Clinking with coins that run all the way through and land back into your hand. After awhile I lose interest and train to James’s neighborhood early. I do three loops around the block, my umbrella leaking at the center stitching. Buy a veggie wrap, call James to ask whether I can come to the studio early. It’s still raining and I am freezing. Talking to him on the phone feels abnormal.

 

­______

 

In East Village, James and I elevator up to a studio with big bright windows and big white walls. It isn’t raining in Manhattan. I notice I still don’t know what time it is. No one sits until I do. James has a scotch, I drink the whole carafe of water. Morgan’s paintings are huge, four on one wall. They are the four seasons, which I can’t help thinking is lame, but I haven’t just quit my job at Swarovski to work at a studio in East Village. She has a book for almost every artist or style we discuss, and particularly loves a 1950s Japanese group called Gutai. James asks her about what she thinks beauty is, and she rambles for a bit about truth. Later, James tells me he disagrees. 

     “A bunch of postmodern regurgitation,” he calls it.

     Morgan is both from Texas and a twin, like me. More polite, more southern, doesn’t know how to explain how she got where she is any more than I would. She refills the water carafe and I begin to think we are friends. The three of us walk to a speakeasy around the corner from her studio, which you enter through a phone booth inside a hotdog shop. We order hotdogs while we wait for a table. James pays for the hotdogs and for the drinks, and asks Morgan if she will quickly critique my own work, based off my Instagram. I find her insight entirely unhelpful but feel important. When I make a large arm gesture the bartender tells me to please not fall off the stools.

 

______

 

Back at James’s studio, Alex joins us. He's stoned, brings my warmer coat from the apartment. The three of us watch videos and eat tortilla chips and drink IPAs, which I hate. We watch a short film about space and the timeline of the universe. Alex offers me the Juul, but I pass. My IPA is sitting on the table behind the couch and I hope they don’t notice it until after I have left.

     I’ve started thinking about voicemails, about how they sound when you listen to them. I imagine how my voice would sound in a novel, as a voice over, on Will’s phone. I call him and it goes straight to recording, giving me no time to prepare.

     “Hey. So, since it went straight to voicemail I am guessing you're probably sleeping because you work and it’s late. Uh, but I just wanted to say I had fun yesterday and thanks for hanging out. Um. I hope we stay friends.”  I mean this but it was not what I mean. “In terms of the sketchbook trading, I fly out tomorrow morning so maybe mailing the sketchbook is good. Have a good day at work tomorrow I guess. Bye.”

     I immediately forget everything I’ve just said. I stand there in the dark of James’s bedroom and ponder the harsh literality of the phrase ‘leave a voicemail’. I hate myself for sounding so disorganized and sheepish, and I hate that leaving a voicemail means you’ll never see it again.

     I think of calling again to say what I mean. I think about my ideas of honesty. About how I wish we’d had more time and weren’t distracted and that I hadn’t referred to him as a friend so many times to Alex. My second voicemail would say that I wish I hadn’t left for the park, and that despite all the subway rides and tripping I still don’t understand Japanese art or why I feel like a child. 

     The short film we watch tells us that the universe will become very, very old. At the last cry of its birth, human life will already be over. Our universe will spin into other universes until they merge to become black holes capable of creating other newer universes.

 

______

 

We train home and Alex eats a pb & j before bed. My phone charger has reappeared. I tell Alex how Tyler didn’t like Will, despite never meeting him, about how I don't know what I am here for. He says that in light of the universe being as old as it is, and how liminary humanity is, it seems more reasonable to do dramatic things. He doesn’t specify what things those dramatic things are, and I can’t tell if it’s about me, the film, or the universe. He might still be stoned.

 

______

 

In the morning, I say let’s get bagels. Realize my flight is two hours earlier than I thought. Alex drags his feet, has lost his keys. I am less patient. It is cold and the bagel is just ok, Alex doesn't eat anything. I call the Uber and leave, saving half the bagel for later. Alex was right; I end up at the airport much too early.

     I get a text from Will. Hey, my bad I missed your call. My phone was on do not disturb and I was working pretty much all night.. anyways just listened to your voicemail, ill try to sketch a bunch before I come home in May and we can trade then. On the friendship front, yes I want to continue being friends!! Glad we could spend a bit of time together in the the tumultuous terrain that is NYC.

Katherine Kesey is an emerging artist based in Charlotte, NC. Her work focuses on human need to understand, recognize patterns, and ally with one another. Her pieces layer ancient themes within contemporary contexts, assuming that everything belongs, simply because it is human. Recent publications and exhibitions include the Spring 2018 issue of the Clemson Chronicle, Artfields SC, the Charlotte Art League Gallery, and The Arts Council of York County.