In winter, the light in apartments across Minneapolis hardens and shallows—transient pockets of it all but disappear before dinner, leaving base-colored walls dim and nagging. Hallways narrow, the four corners of living rooms and bedrooms reach toward one another until studios, one-bedrooms become cells. How many of these apartments are spread throughout the high-bricked uniformity of Loring Park and Stevens, its low rent twin? Through Whittier’s cut up mansions and Seward’s divvied two-stories? Hundreds of apartments with splintered woodwork and decaying bathrooms, windows that leak in north wind, radiators that whistle but do not work.
These are the in-between places; no one stays in them forever.
This is what Meg tells herself as she stares at Tom’s t-shirt slung over a chair in her kitchen, precisely where he had left it the last time he was at her apartment. The shirt appears bleached despite its shell-pink color. It has achieved fossil status. It is all she has left now, this one shirt: the name of some Californian beach emblazoned on the front in tourist font with too-bright graphics above and below it. She still wonders why he bothered buying the shirt at all, since while rubbing her breasts one night, he promised to show her California beaches less visited—the “real” beaches—the ones he had been surfing for years. Repeatedly, he claimed knowledge of secret places, and to Midwesterners, California is a land shrouded in lore, and those who ambassador between it and the Midwest are luminous in the minds of the land-locked. Its attraction is its mystery, a frontier calling.
But there is no longer mystery in the shirt for Meg. Right now she detests it. It reminds her of families she has photographed at Sears, families obviously just back from vacation, whose faces glowed from the West coast sun, while she stood pale in the darkness behind the camera and said, “Smile!” or “Digas queso!” when she felt smart. Still she keeps the t-shirt because it is the only reminder she has of his smell and thus their sex. This winter she will go without, holed up at her in-between place, finishing the work of cleaning out the remnants of Tom. The cloud-streaked sheets went first, followed by the towels, the extra toothbrush, but she is still finding strands of his hair, the half-moons of his fingernails, which collect together in various cracks and corners like mines in abandoned fields. The shirt will be the last thing to go.
The longer she stares at the t-shirt, the more she wants to get out of the house. It is just above zero degrees, but she is out of cigarettes—a strong motivating factor. Plus, now that Tom is gone—he had often hidden hand-written notes in her packs of cigarettes: Smokers are jokers. Non-smokers make better lovers. —she feels like smoking simply out of revenge.
Turning 29 only increased her desire to smoke. There was more stress. Life carried a different urgency, the time she spent in between loves, jobs, neighborhoods more profound: Tom, photography studios, Whittier and Stevens. Each seemingly insignificant gesture she made had the potential to result in dire consequences: spinsterhood, unemployment, a less-safe neighborhood. And as she strived to carve out a tolerable life for herself—which is what she ultimately wanted, a life she could tolerate with a man who was easy to be around—she increasingly put herself into context, which only made her worry about dying. In her most recent dream, she looked up and out of a casket. But the casket was not at her funeral; rather, it was on display in some funeral house showroom. People walked by touching the pale satin coffin lining, surveying the dark, smooth wood finish, using their thumbs and forefingers to touch the fabric of her burial garment, which was nearly always made of pastel cotton, as though she needed to be cool and comfortable in the afterlife. Throughout the time the customers shopped, she kept her eyes closed, listening intently as they murmured phrases like “Hmm…soft,” or “too good to be dead in.” Then, they moved past her, and when she heard their footsteps recede, she opened her eyes and stared at whatever part of them she could see from her supine position: a wool-suited back or a pair of hands, gold wedding shining on a finger, twisting a Kleenex around and around and around. The mornings after these dreams, she felt sullen and heavy, cursing the sun if it shone, wishing for drizzle, and expecting Kind of Blue to start playing all around her, music written in the blood of breaking hearts.
Tom had always insisted she wear high heels; she had often refused, but before leaving the house today, she puts on patent leather heels lined with red satin fabric and thin ankle straps. She knows her choice is impractical, but today she wants to be impractical. She wants consistency inside and out, and so she puts on the shoes and walks up 24th Street careful and slow, one foot then the next, click and step, the same rhythm she remembers from hearing her mother’s shoes on the pavement as her mother walked away.
The city without Tom is far different from the city from with Tom. It seems bigger, less navigable. The lights glow more harshly, the busses run more loudly, the cars speed more quickly, and the homeless seem more destitute, like walking ghosts. In the burgeoning darkness, light snow flakes spin and drop, collecting on the toes of her shoes and occasionally melting on her hosed foot. She thinks of nothing and everything at the same time until mid-canter, a bearded stranger in a knit cap interrupts her thoughts, shadowed body ominous against the pristine columns of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
He should know better, Tom says. It’s too dark to approach strangers.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he says.
“Yeah,” she replies, already walking away.
“Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”
“Yes. Yes I do,” she says, neither hesitating nor making eye contact with him.
“Bless you then, ma’am,” he replies, “Bless you,” he says again after she has already passed him.
She continues walking toward Hark’s, toward cigarettes, thinking about how simple lying had been. She wonders if her life would have been better or easier somehow if she had lied more. Yes, Tom, I do think trying to start a surf shop here is a good idea.
A bright green sign reading “EBT ACCEPTED HERE” is back-lit by the florescent light inside Hark’s. Meg remembers that people had figured out how to use their food stamps to buy cigarettes and she sympathizes with them as she pulls open the door. Warmth rushes toward her from the bright and cramped store, its patrons clothed in bulk, shrinking the store’s already cramped interior. She maneuvers past the automatic teller machine and to the back of the store where neat rows of beverages line coolers. After grabbing a Coke, she fights past a couple wearing matching leather jackets, who in their myopia are kissing in the chip and candy aisle, their hands firmly on each other’s backsides. Behind the front counter, cigarettes dressed in their smart packages smile out at her.
Nervously, she grips her checkbook. When Tom left, she made the decision to let things go for awhile. “It can all go to hell for awhile,” she told herself out loud over her final beer one evening. Hell meant not balancing her checking account. Hell meant eating out, eating leftovers, not cleaning. Hell meant she called in sick for work twice in less than one month. Hell meant she started writing checks because of the delay between promise and delivery. She is nearly positive that her account is over withdrawn, and payday isn’t until next week. But checks are small hopes, and she is trying to be hopeful.
A young man who is maybe Lebanese or Israeli rings up her purchases and smiles at her.
“Can I write my check for $20 over?” She asks.
“Yes—for you—yes,” he smiles. “You are our regular customer.”
She hands him the check, feeling lighter as the exchange is made.
The cold slaps her legs as she exits Hark’s. She peels the plastic from her cigarettes and lights one, smoke trailing behind her as though she is her own locomotive heading north. By the time she passes Franklin, darkness has completely fallen. But it is still early. She walks toward the heart of Minneapolis—Nicollet Mall, its blacktopped, concrete vein, is illuminated by lights slung around the naked branches of the trees. A howl of loneliness erupts in her belly as she travels closer to its beat.
At 10th Street, she peers into Brit’s Pub, its windows warm and alight, the diners in their fine clothes animated dolls behind glass, movements familiar and exaggerated, laughter loud and prolonged. Tom would have never taken her there; he hated downtown, preferring neighborhoods where culture was standardized, reliable. So tonight, she walks into Brit’s to buy a whiskey for warmth.
The bartenders greet her with cordial nods. “Cold out there tonight, huh?” The bartender says as he pours her Bushmills, neat.
“Yes,” she says. “I need strength to go on.”
“The perfect thing,” he says, making eye contact as he pushes the drink toward her.
Her hands are on the $20, but she doesn’t want to part with its tangibility, not if she doesn’t have to. “Do you take checks?” she asks.
He nods. “Sure.”
“Great. Why don’t you give me one more and then I’ll close out.”
He pours her another whiskey and she writes another check, carefully adding a tip on top of the amount, carefully signing her name. As she hands it over to him, she feels light and good and she drinks the first whiskey wishing someone would talk to her but expecting nothing—it’s still early. No man has ever spoken to her before 12:00 am at a bar in Minneapolis, though at midnight, booze-hazed, they came out of the woodwork.
As she finishes the second whiskey, a photograph of Queen Elizabeth catches her eye, decorous and finely suited, the Queen stares out at her and she thinks back to when she had actually taken photographs because she wanted to, not because she had to. In the one year of college she completed, her black and white photographs garnered the attention of a couple professors. Full of light, was what they said, full of so much light. Tonight she wishes she was on the way to dine with artists, photographers who admired her work. She imagines walking into a fine restaurant in her patent leather shoes and black skirt, standing on her good, strong legs, and inside, some well-dressed would be waiting for her, holding postcards of her photographs. He would greet her with praise and she would unfurl compliments from his fingers with an admirable measure of grace. Why had she stopped taking pictures? If photographs were the imprint of one moment of time as seen through the human eye, then all she had to say was that she had stopped being able to see. The unseeing had not been dramatic; rather, it had been a tapering in her vision, a narrowing that had occurred as her relationship with Tom grew more serious, their love something akin to comfort food. She became content and lost the hunger to pursue a vision she had never been able to correctly focus in the first place.
After she finishes her second whiskey, she probes the $20 with her fingers again. It is just after Christmas and Macy’s, only a few blocks away, has sales. She decides to walk around the store simple for the spectacle. Outside, the streets are relatively empty; everyone is in the skyway. She lights a cigarette, and looks up at one branch of the skyway, watching people in suits and dresses, jeans and sweatshirts walking in opposite directions talking, laughing, carrying briefcases and bags and she wonders what it is they are talking about and where they are all going. There are no stones in her heart; there is no pull, and looking at all those people whose trajectories seem simple and true, she feels silly—a small life, a brief life. She lights a cigarette off the one she is smoking and keeps staring. Public spaces like this one were a real slice of life, Tom had always said. Once, when a man hassled her for change in the skyway, he just stood there and watched, subduing his naturally outgoing personality. I’m nobody’s hero, he said.
Macy’s, with its light box windows, is ahead of her and she stops out front and studies the inscrutably-lipped manikins. She walks closer to the glass, until her face is just below one of theirs, the one wearing black pants so tight the drop and curve of her legs are visible through the fabric. On top, the manikin wears a gray cowl neck sweater that looks warm, and because of the reflection, Meg can almost see the whole thing on herself. She likes the way it looks.
Just inside the door, she stamps her shoes gently on the rug. A young boy wearing blue snow pants holds his mother’s hand crossing from street to store, their glasses fogging up as they traverse the threshold into warmth. Christmas music plays though the holiday has passed, and the sales floor is still adorned with the red, sparkling torsos of manikins, a graveyard of joy. After a few minutes inside, she becomes over warm, her cheeks pink with the heat. She takes off her jacket and slumps it over her arm. Her nose runs and she wipes it discreetly with her index finger. She walks nonchalantly past the regularly priced items, stopping to rub a few soft fabrics between her fingers before reaching the sale racks. Dresses: party dresses, evening dresses, day dresses. Black dresses with silver beads and thin straps and long skirts. Satin and taffeta, no cotton. They are dresses that did not find homes for Christmas or for New Year’s; they attended no parties, nor did they make any resolutions. They hang silently on the racks, cool, and crisp on their hangers, and Meg is overwhelmed with sympathy.
She rifles through the garments, pulling off any that she can imagine on her frame. After she walks all around the rack, she is holding at least ten dresses. The fitting room is nearby and she smiles widely at the clerk who is waiting to count the number of items Meg is holding.
“Great sales right now,” Meg says.
“Sure are. I bought this one,” the clerk says, holding up one of the dresses.
Once in the dressing room, Meg quickly takes off her clothes, mindful of her stockings, which she pushes carefully down her legs. With each dress she tries on, she sees different pictures of herself: she becomes a writer, an international business woman, a college professor, a dancer. She sees herself at parties, holding a gin martini and smoking an expensive cigarette, pontificating to a flock entranced by her diction, her style, her charms. She is the woman on the postcard, the one worthy of being photographed.
Finally, she finds her favorite dress of the group. It is black satin, tea length, and gently hugs her waist and rear end, moving to a soft a-line at the bottom. The straps are thin; the neck is low. She runs a finger along the top of her breasts, pleased with how they look. She puts shoes back on and examines herself from all angles. Then she takes off the pumps, puts on the stockings, and does the same. The hard light of the dressing room—which makes her skin appear more pale, her dishwater blonde hair more ashy—softens and she looks completely sophisticated. There, in the dressing room, she can see herself moving from circle to circle, a sudden moon with the ability to adapt to any orbit. Yes, she can; she can leave planets behind if she wants. She can start taking pictures again, she can stop Tom’s voice from entering her thoughts, she can—she can…
She takes the dress to the register. The same girl working the dressing room is at the till and she smiles at Meg over the top of the dress.
“Did you see the earrings I’m wearing?” The clerk asks.
“Beautiful,” Meg says.
“They are on clearance right now, too.”
“I had a woman buy this dress and a pair of them. They looked really great together.”
“Where are they?”
The clerk points Meg in the direction of the earrings and she walks to the department. The light is low and the jewelry sparkles on the racks. She finds the earrings and holds them up to her cheek. They are chandeliers made of black beads whose cut reflects the low light beautifully. There is a matching bracelet and Meg picks one up and put it on her wrist.
Next, she finds herself in the fragrance department where women are eager to hand her cards spritzed with various aromas, each a new breed of flower or musk. She walks through the smells thinking of botanical gardens, hearing her heels click on the tiled floor, the weight of the dress on her arm. Everyone is lovely—the way they are dressed, the way they look at her. Everything is lovely—the way the perfume bottles shine in the light, just like the earrings and bracelet in her hand.
Her cramped apartment, broken radiators, suddenly amount to dead leaves underneath a tree: in the spring, they will disappear.
After selecting a floral perfume, she walks back to the smiling clerk in the dress section, who rings her purchases up. Meg fingers her checkbook. She does not care about her checking account, about the bank, about anything but going home with what is in front of her. Her total is $516.83 and in her best handwriting, she writes a check.
The clerk runs it through her verification machine and they both stand there, waiting. The clerk sniffs and looks down at the machine. “They’re slow sometimes,” she says.
“I will be anything else,” Meg is thinking, “anything else at all.”
Sweat begins to collect underneath her armpits. It’s just money, Tom says. But money is never the problem; the lack of money is.
But then, the machine begins to sound. “There it goes,” says the clerk.
Meg smiles at her. She takes the escalator downstairs and then walks out onto the street feeling light. Yes, lighter as busses and people move by moonlight, by street light, and snow falls heavier on the Mall. Each person begins to look like a postcard so that as she moves through them it is as if the city is a photograph made of many small photographs. She passes the alley between a furniture store and an import store, where a trumpet player wearing a coon skin cap stands statuesque over an open case lined in funeral silk and plays a note so loud, so perfect it simply sounds like silence.
Front page image by ThomasSoerenes.