Vinyl rolled down her sleeves despite the heat and stared outside at the frozen street.
Though the window was all fogged up, she could still make out the features of the pedestrians walking by. Some had hollow faces and some were fat with opulence. Others were tall with noses peeking out from behind thick scarves. Though they wouldn’t meet her gaze, she could feel them watching her out of the corners of their eyes as they passed by. The girl in the coffee shop clutching her phone. Perhaps waiting for a date, or an interview. Maybe lost in thought, maybe not. She was something else to every single one of them. It frightened her that so many different kinds of people could even exist at all.
Behind the crowd, a bus rolled around the corner and cut off traffic in the opposite lane. As it jolted to a stop, an espresso machine hissed behind the counter. A barista called someone’s name. Coins rattled in the tip jar. Vinyl gripped her forearm and checked her phone again. The text she had expected to come two minutes ago had not. Maybe everything was fine. Maybe not.
She turned the phone over in her hand and looked outside again, past the glass and into the oncoming crowd. As she scanned their faces she imagined what the street corner must have looked like tens of millions of years ago. Cold. Quiet. Waiting.
As the minutes went by, she picked up a conversation behind her. A boy and a girl just a year or two younger than herself argued in hushed whispers--just not hushed enough.
“I haven’t been feeling this relationship,” she said. “Part of this is my fault--”
“You haven’t been feeling it?” the boy replied defensively. “How long have you not been feeling it?”
“Since summer. We’re just growing apart. That’s what people do. They grow.” Vinyl sipped her tea as the girl continued, “Part of this is my fault for not telling you. But you don’t talk to me anymore.”
“I’m talking with you right now. I’ve done everything I can for you--”
The barista shouted out a name and a drink order. Coins rattled in the tip jar. “I know, but it’s not enough for me. You’ve made all my friends green with envy, but I don’t feel like your heart’s really in it. I want you to talk to me.”
“Well then, let’s talk!” A few customers cast weird glances their way. The boy exhaled sharply and pressed his cup against his lips. “We’re here now,” he mumbled. “Let’s talk.”
“Ok,” the girl said. “Let’s talk.”
As they whispered, Vinyl noticed another bus lumbering down the street. The destination sign read Ohio/Illinois. She sat up in her chair as the argument behind her intensified.
“You’re so secretive,” the girl said. “Why won’t you share what you’re doing with me?”
“I thought it would bore you,” he replied. “It would bore you. Do you want me to tell you how my drive here was?”
“Yes! That’s what I want. I want you to share with me.”
The bus hissed faintly as it rolled to a stop. Vinyl wrapped her fingers around the collar of her jacket and waited.
“Alright, I’ll tell you. It was cold, my heater doesn’t work, and I hit two red lights and six green ones. Do you feel like our relationship is saved now?”
The door slid open. Hollow faces and fat bodies and long scarves came rushing out. Dirty frozen snow shone the same color as the bus windows.
“I thought everything was fine,” the boy said. “I thought you and I were fine. Why didn’t you tell me?”
The boy’s phone went off right as Octavia stepped off the bus. The static pedestrian figures parted around her to frantic belltones. Vinyl felt an electric charge run through her, like circuits lighting up in the chair beneath her. In an instant she was up, swinging her backpack over her shoulder, slamming the rest of her tea in one gulp, crying out as her tongue went numb from the heat, and rushing out the door. Just before the coffee shop door swung shut behind her she heard the girl sitting behind her yell, “Who’s Gilda?”
Winter hit her the instant she walked out the door. Even with her eyes watering up she could pick out Octavia from the crowd. Her tall coat collar hid the delicate curve of her neck. The cello case she carried on her back framed her natural curvature. Pale wood laid over maple ribs. Hair pulled back like strings over the top of a fingerboard. Belt buckle like a bridge. Black shoes tapping the ground in soft, convincing strokes like an endpin being placed against a stage. Ready to be played.
“Octavia!” Vinyl shouted. “Octavia, hey! Wait up!”
“Vinyl?” Octavia stopped. She clutched her coffee cup close to her chest. “What are you doing here? I didn’t think you’d be up before noon.”
How her voice resonated! Vinyl loved the feel of her voice. Octavia was no operatic wonder--no, she was far better. She was the whole damn symphony.
“Let’s move in together,” Vinyl blurted out. “Tonight. I’ve already got all my things packed.”
“What?” Octavia looked around. Perhaps she expected something else. One hand on the coffee cup, the other grasping a cello strap.
“I said, let’s move in together.” Vinyl took another step forward. “I’ll sell my apartment. It’s a dump, Octavia, but it’s a dump I can get some good money for. Between our two incomes, we’ll be more than okay.”
"Vinyl, please." Octavia's tone turned dry and cracked. She looked around again. Vinyl wasn’t sure why--everyone just kept on walking anyway. "Are you okay?"
"What? Yeah, I'm fine." Vinyl realized there were tears running down her cheeks, clinging to her jaw and rubbing off on her collar pleat. She wiped her face frantically with her sleeve and tried to reassure Octavia. “It’s the weather, it messes with my eyes. You know that. Look, I know moving in together is a big deal, but I really think now’s the time.”
“Did you come all the way here and wait on the street corner for my bus to arrive--” Octavia shook her head in disbelief, “just so you could ask me to move in with you?”
“No,” Vinyl said, “uh, I waited in the coffee shop.”
Another bus came around the corner. A man in a suit bumped Vinyl as he walked past her.
Octavia looked at her watch. “Why?” she asked.
“Well,” Vinyl started, “I was having a dream this morning. I was fresh from the show at Hoofhoff’s club, and you know he always gives me drinks, so it was kind of a drunk dream. But I saw us Octavia. I saw you and me in that coffee shop there. It was just like the first day we met. Summer, birds outside, the one politician had just gotten shot in Turkey and everyone was talking about it--it was just like the day we first met, but we didn’t meet. I didn’t see you, I didn’t notice your cello, I didn’t ask to sit down at your table, I didn’t chat you up--I just didn’t do any of it. I just sat there and stared at all the people walking by on the street. You got up, you left, and as you walked down the street everything changed behind you. When you walked by it was like all the seasons were going by at once, like time was flying away right in front of me. I watched you leave with your cello case on your back, and I felt so hopeless I woke up in sweats. I never wake up before noon after gigs--it’s a sign, it has to be. I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing you walk away like that. I won’t go another day without that guarantee.”
“What guarantee?” Octavia asked.
“That you’re not gonna walk down that street and take the rest of my life with you.” More tears spilled down her cheeks. “Shoot, that was a bit more--that was overdramatic, but what I’m trying to--”
A burst of cold wind blew between them and cut Vinyl off. Octavia shivered and said, “I didn’t realize all this was going on. We should talk about this. Tonight.”
“Tonight? Can we talk now? There’s still some time left before you need to be at the symphony center.”
“No, I need to be early so I can tune and discuss business.” More wind. Vinyl realized neither she nor Octavia had taken their hands out of their pockets since they first started talking. “I really can’t keep my cello out in the cold for too much longer anyway.”
Vinyl felt the moment slipping away. The bus let out a sharp hiss and disappeared down the street. In another minute, another bus would arrive. Then another. Then another. How many had she watched from inside the coffee shop? Twenty or thirty? More? She felt like a pervert. The voice of the girl sitting behind her came back to her, yelling, “Who’s Gilda?” Well, who’s Vinyl?
In that same moment she realized Octavia had already started walking away.
“Octavia, wait!” Vinyl reached out just as her cell phone went off. Edgy pop music filled her ears. Electric bumps like circuits lighting up in her pocket. She ripped the phone out and looked at the number on screen. A gust of wind hit her face--or maybe her mind was splitting in two. The cold sunk right through her dried out skullbone. It found a groove in the tissue of her brain and sunk deep into her core. The trail of frozen fluid and ice crystals split the front of her brain right down the middle.
Vinyl took a few more steps and leaned against the side of the building, pressing her hand against her temple. The phone buzzed again, and the tension shattered. “I’ll talk later--let’s talk tonight. Okay? I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yes, of course Vinyl,” Octavia said, but her back was already turned. The tantalizing curves of the cello case moved just out of sight, then reappeared, then slipped away again. Another bus arrived on the street corner. More faces appeared. Hollow and thin, tall and stilted.
Vinyl pressed her back against the wall and slid her finger across the phone’s screen. Up popped a distant memory, an old picture of her and Octavia on vacation last summer. Distant mountains splashed with green framed Octavia’s bright orange bikini. They wrapped their arms around each other and smiled behind kitschy sunglasses they had bought the hour before, their feet slowly sinking into mounds of soft sand.
The glow of the old picture pulled her in like sound into the corners of a good concert hall. She shivered at the thought of sand beneath her feet. Slush pooled beneath her boots. Skyscrapers tarnished with ice and dirt blended in with the clouds. The moment was gone. The image vanished as Vinyl opened the new text message.
change of plan. pick up at vermont and illinois
She took one last look down the street. A fine mist of snow flurries obscuring the top of the symphony center. Ancient looking columns sandwiched between office buildings. Glass stained the color of pavement. Winter advancing from all directions. Octavia, lost in the crowd, walking south.
Vinyl rubbed her arms and headed north.
It only took five minutes of walking and another few moments of waiting on the street corner before someone tapped her on the shoulder and snapped her up in a tight hug, but in the weather it seemed much longer. Vinyl felt herself being lifted off the ground in a moment of breathlessness before her feet touched down again.
“Don’t do that to me, Davenport,” she mumbled as she regained her bearings. An old part of her mind wanted to recoil at the thought of being hugged, but the heat of the moment made her yearn for another.
Davenport threw back his broad shoulders and smiled. A smartphone in the pocket of his pea coat chirped. “How are you, Vinyl?”
She gave in and went in for another hug. “I played another show last night. The label’s finally noticing me now that I can pull a crowd.”
“I won’t make enough to save the apartment,” she admitted, “but it’s alright. I wanted this.” A second phone of his went off in a different pocket. She felt it vibrate through the coat. A few blocks south, another bus rolled up to the stop and hissed. “Why the relocation?”
Without warning he said, “Let’s grab some lunch. How about the mexican place over there? My treat.”
Vinyl shrugged and followed Davenport down the street. Brightly colored bells jangled against the door as they entered. Pop songs with trumpets and acoustic guitars and lyrics in a language she didn’t understand blared from a speaker hung above the cash register.
While they waited for their food, Davenport laid one cell phone on the table and checked two others before stuffing them back into his pockets. “So,” he asked cautiously, “you’re gonna be homeless, you mentioned?”
“I’m gonna lose the apartment, but I won’t be homeless,” she replied. “I’m actually moving in with my girlfriend.”
Vinyl nodded. “She’s got an apartment north of here. My income’s not stable enough to pay for a place all by myself, but if she pays for rent and I pay for all the rest we should be okay.”
“Well, that’s just great. Congratulations to the happy couple.” He raised his styrofoam cup. “May you never be homeless again.”
“Speaking of being homeless, how’s the business going?” That got a laugh out of him. The window panes on the storefront all but shook. “How are quills and sofas doing this quarter?”
“Let me think. Sofas are good. Quills are in a valley, but you know quills. They’ll recover just in time for sofas to take a dive. That’s how it always is, Vinyl. Every year it’s some shortage of down feathers or some new brand of ballpoint pen shaking up the market. One of them goes up just in time for the other to go down. It’s like I’m chained to an anchor and tied to a buoy. I can’t haul myself out of the water and I can’t just sink and drown.”
“That’s very descriptive,” she chuckled.
“Yeah, laugh. I tell you what, I’m always earning enough to get by well enough. Never ever a cent more and never a cent less.”
“But you’re doing well.”
“Vinyl Scratch, let me tell you something--” Davenport sat up in his stool just as a waiter appeared and placed two massive burritos in front of them. He waited until the waiter had moved onto the next table before continuing. “Let me tell you something, Vy. If I were doing as well as I want to do, you and I would be meeting in my mansion in the hills, and these burritos would be full of lobster and gold.” He leaned back in his chair and smoothed his slicked-back brown hair. His phone on the table buzzed. “There’s never enough.”
Vinyl squeezed his arm in sympathy. “I know where you’re at.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, shrugging her off with a good-natured smile. “You have an apartment and a girlfriend! That’s more than I’ve got.”
“You’ve got a business and a wife.”
He waved his hand at the city outside before picking up his meal. “Exactly.”
Even when he was sitting he loomed over her, but despite his figure she had never felt scared of him. Not even when they first met. If isolation was winter, his laughter was spring. Like the seasons, she wondered what his laughter would bring.
They ate their meal in total silence. The speaker pumped more music into the room. Davenport’s three phones kept on ringing, but he ignored them until his plate was clean. Even then he had the grace to look apologetic as he asked, “Do you mind if I check these?”
Six texts. One voicemail. Vinyl excused herself to use the bathroom to avoid hearing Davenport’s reply. When she got back he had already settled the check. His phones were nowhere to be seen, though she heard one chirp again as she approached the table.
“You really didn’t have to do that,” she said as she put on her coat.
“I wanted to. Call it a good investment.”
As he spoke, more customers shuffled into the restaurant. Hollow and thin, tall and stilted. A rush of cold air whipped through the restaurant and caught Vinyl unaware. She shivered and pulled at her sleeves. Winter would not leave her be. She paused before walking outside for fear it would smother her the instant she tried to escape. But out she went, following Davenport into the snow. She pulled at her sleeves to cover her hands and gave into the crush. Just as she feared, it swallowed her up.
“Jeez,” Davenport muttered as he put on his gloves, “I can’t wait for summer.”
“Neither can I,” Vinyl replied through gritted teeth.
The two walked side by side to the corner where they had first met. Davenport leaned against the traffic light post and fiddled around in his pockets. “So...” he drawled.
“Right.” Vinyl reached into her pocket and pulled out a fifty dollar bill. Davenport shook her hand firmly, then wrapped her in a tight hug. Here was summer--waiting until she was at her weakest and then embracing her. Slipping a ziploc bag into her pocket. Smiling.
He pulled away and turned around. His hands were back in his pockets like they had never even left. “See you next week,” he called over his shoulder, and jogged across the street.
Without his voice to focus on, the relentless noise of the city hollowed her out. It fascinated her that one city could produce so much noise for so long. The buildings rattled against each other all the time. Sometimes Vinyl wondered if all the car noises and sirens and sounds of industry were just echoes of an uneventful day that took place ten or twenty years ago.
She walked a few blocks north and found a good alley to use. No crosswinds. Plenty of cover. Her coat came off, and her gloves soon after. Bitter winds lashed against her bare skin, but other things pushed the pain from her mind. Thoughts of Octavia. Summer. Someplace warm. A cozy apartment on the north side. Music. Help. Home.
She rolled up her sleeve and embraced the memories.