Associate

The day was just beginning its slow collision into night when I stepped outside that morning, the sky still a deep blue, the air fresh and powdery-smelling, suggesting babies. I was feeling newborn myself: new thermos, new tie, new manila folders inside a new leather satchel. I’d made a deal with myself not to buy anything new until I got promoted or terminated, then The Bosses invited me into the conference room last Friday, frowning and pretending like they were about to tell me Mama died. Suddenly they all started clapping and smiling and congratulating me. One of The Bosses said I was the first black person to make Associate, then he corrected himself: African American.

So, out with the old.

I was up earlier than usual because I wanted to beat The Haters to work. The Haters were the first ones to stop by my desk when word of my promotion got out, all fist-bumps and smiles. Would a handshake kill them? I knew how The Haters operated. I knew how they spread rumors about you, a casual non sequitur here, withheld praise there, building a story around you, maybe around the phone calls I’d made around the holidays last year. If anyone still remembered that, it was The Haters. The Haters were masters of subterfuge and sabotage, and now that I’d made Associate, I had become their biggest target. I knew The Haters were already fantasizing about my termination, about that day in the future when they would gather around their desks shrugging sympathetically and whispering loaded phrases about how sad they were that their suspicions about me had been confirmed. But I’m smarter than them, and they’re the only ones who don’t seem to understand this.

I pressed the complicated lid of my new thermos to my lips and sipped coffee, awaiting the pleasant chest-flutter of caffeine. Ah, there it was. Fuck The Haters. Everyone dies eventually. For now we’re all alive, we’re all here, in our fleeting mortal coils, enjoying this great gift. I really talk to myself like this sometimes.

The train station is a good ten-minute walk along the park, and I was going at a luxurious pace, enjoying the eerie calm of the street. Up ahead at the crosswalk, the flashing orange hand of the DON’T WALK signal offered a challenge: stop, or run? Naturally I ran, lunging towards the crosswalk just as a blur of dim garments whizzed so close past my face that I could hear fabric rustle, taste cologne. I nearly tripped trying to stop myself from bumping into it. The blur said Excuse me in a lazy baritone.

The man who had almost blindsided me crossed the avenue to the far sidewalk. There was a glide in his stride, but also a lurching heaviness that made his shoulders keel in counterpoint to his footfall, heels clacking loudly. The extravagant confidence implied by his walk reminded me of a horse. Swagger vibrated up from the sidewalk through his legs. I might have even heard him neigh. When he stopped at the corner, our eyes met—not in an unfriendly way. He did one of those annoying head nod things black men do when their eyes meet, or maybe I did it first. Anyway, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge each other, as human beings who were up at 6AM walking towards the subway on opposite sides of the same lonely street. He probably had haters of his own he was trying to defeat.

And yet. There was something about his nod, an edge it had, chin held a millimeter too high and a millisecond too long. At first, the lingering nod registered only as a vague disturbance at the edge of consciousness. It reminded me of the skeptical tilt of Mama’s head, the grim way she looked at me whenever I discussed my job or the Haters, which in turn reminded me that her birthday was soon. Only with the advantage of hindsight can I articulate what I had been truly feeling: this guy was bothering me. I sped up a little and hid another glance behind a coffee-sip. He was staring back with an even stranger glint, lips curling over his ergonomic thermos. I looked away, squinted as though reading something in the swishing leaves of trees in the park, needlessly checked my phone.

At the next block, when I saw him greet the wheelchaired vet at South Portland in a familiar way, I wondered if maybe there was a simpler explanation for the lingering head nod and all the staring: he was trying to recall if he knew me from somewhere. It was more or less what I had been doing, trying for a split second to place him in my memory. I put my thermos on the ground and lifted my shoe onto a hydrant, unknotting and retying my laces, giving him time to walk ahead. I wanted to get a better look at him. Specifically, I wanted a better look at his shoes. The heels were certainly louder than mine, which suggested wood, which suggested they were probably just as expensive as mine, if not more. I pulled the laces hard through my winking eyelets, felt the new leather constrict around my foot. I didn’t notice if his heels were especially high. High heels could suggest a gay streak, which could in turn suggest an altogether different meaning for the lingering head nod: lust.

When I started walking again, my shoe felt like a shackle around my ankle, restricting blood-flow. I looked up the street and couldn’t find him on the sidewalk. I thought he must have picked up speed, or hung a left towards Lafayette. So I redirected my attention to the beauty of the morning. Often, a chilly breeze will blow past me carrying with it the tang of brine, and I’ll remember that I live near an ocean that touches other shores, touches Africa. Just this sort of breeze was sweeping past me down the street, making the branches and leaves whisper around me. That salty Atlantic breeze, rather than inspire the usual stirrings in my soul, only made me shudder, then I heard a voice in the creaky branches overhead say: Look behind you.

I felt my heart plummet through me like lead through an ocean. He had crossed over to my side of the street and was now in a predatory crouch a few yards behind me, pretending to tie his shoes. An unmistakable furrow of fear creased his brow, just as it must have creased mine. It recalled the anxiety I’d catch on the faces of The Haters around the office after the holiday calling spree, the pitying way they looked at me. Why were we afraid of each other? This struck me as silly.

He had slowed down to observe me just as I had, so I sped up to create space between us, and I kind of laughed to imply that he could observe all he wanted. But when I heard his heels clacking, quickly, loudly, against the pavement behind me, gaining on me, a more plausible reality suggested itself, blood thudding in my ears:

I was being followed.

The night before, I’d set every alarm I owned, even the oven, to make sure I’d get a jump on the Haters, but none of it mattered, I realized, because the Haters had the jump on me already. Perhaps there may have been others who’d want an eye kept on me, but it was obvious this man was in the Haters’ employ: his natty suit, his quickening steps, cheap cologne smell closing in, heel-clicks echoing inside my skull, coffee sloshing in his thermos, dummy manila folders rustling in his bag, heart thumping in his chest loud enough for me to hear. The Haters’ decision to hire a stalker who resembled me reeked of the kind of narrow logic that kept them at the junior level, kept me always one step ahead. So as he tried to overtake me on the sidewalk, feigning nonchalance by sipping from his thermos, I sped up.

I also knew why the Haters had wanted me tailed. That was most obvious of all: because of my stupid phone calls. It all started because Mama spent the last of her measly paycheck to buy me a new pair of shoes last Christmas, the very shoes I had on, and when I opened the newspaper-wrapped box, I must have had an embarrassed look on my face. Don’t worry what it cost, she said, they’ll give you that promotion, and you’ll get all your new things, but for now. It was the most expensive thing she’d ever bought me—I was usually the one buying the expensive gifts—and I was so moved, and the shoes looked so nice on me, that I forgot to take my tablets for two straight days. Which is when I started calling people. Three nights after Christmas, I stepped out into the frozen, deserted streets of Brooklyn in the small hours, walking in a trance from one random payphone to the next, calling the Haters on their cellphones. I told them I knew they were trying to defeat me, I knew they were trying to keep me from making Associate, but they would never succeed. The next day back at work, they all came by my desk with those distraught looks of theirs. I laughed it off, told them I’d just been fucking with them. It was clear they hadn’t believed me. Why would they? But it was also clear that I hadn’t been wrong about them. They were trying to defeat me.

Several blocks ahead, I could see the train station drawing near. I knew he could too. If I sped up, I mean really sped up, maybe I could lose him. Right when I thought this, I felt a gentle pressure at my temple, like someone kissing me in my sleep, and I looked over in time to see him take this odd, aggressive, gliding leap forward. Not at all the kind of step one takes on a morning jaunt to the station. As I threaded through a mother and her small uniformed son, both of them stooped with weariness, a long train ride ahead of them, I had this flashback of myself when I was the boy’s age. I was running the mile for our annual fitness test, when one of the rich kids who never spoke to me sped up from behind, matching my stride, and I watched him stick out his tongue at me and sprint ahead, like he was Roadrunner and I was Coyote.

I turned up my beak at this trotting, staring Hater beside me. Meep Meep, I said, poking my tongue out, and then I bolted.

Before I had time to understand what was happening, we were both sprinting down the sidewalk, bags banging against our hips. For one block, two, then three, our legs were blurry windmills, we lunged blindly past the entrance to a hospital just as an ambulance was exiting the lot, sirens echoing vaguely in our wake.

Everything around us had become a whirl of shapes and noises. All we could really see were the green hemispheres of the station approaching, like a widening pair of eyes, and all we could hear was the awful sound of our own labored breathing. I felt he was trying to tell me something about himself, but it was impossible to say what that was exactly.

We were only a block away, when, hurtling through the crosswalk a few steps behind him, I failed to see the gleaming grill of an oncoming Escalade. There was no time to stop. I shut my eyes and felt, as I sailed over the hood, the hot, burnished mass plow under me like a bull beneath a matador’s cape. The same voice on the wind I had heard earlier bade me to look mid-flight at the windshield, where I saw no driver, just my own lonely body, arms and legs akimbo, reflected in the dark-tinted glass. When I hit the sidewalk, the buckle of my satchel bag dug roughly into the small of my back, and I saw, with a clarifying hunger, that nothing stood between me and the station but a blank stretch of sidewalk.

A flight of stairs led down into the subway, and even though I was ahead, he made a final, desperate lunge down the stairwell just as I catapulted myself off the railing five stairs too early. The station agent whipped her head around at the distinct sound of two separate pairs of dress shoes hitting the smooth gray floor of the subway station at the same instant.

We took off for the turnstiles, reached for our Metrocards with the same hurried gestures, exploding coins out of our pockets, swiped quickly, too quickly, failed to notice the Please Swipe Again prompts on the display, the double bang of our crotches against the metal arms reverberating through the station.

It was as though the turnstile could sense our desperation. One anxious swipe after another—Please Swipe Again Please Swipe Again Please Swipe Again—yet we were still trapped. It beeped and beeped, and we growled and stamped our feet. The air between us was constipated. Finally, two separate beep-clicks sounded at the same time, and we churned through.

The Manhattan-bound train was arriving at the station, and this time, I got the step on him, edged in front of him as we barreled down the staircase, and heard my feet hit the platform first.

The train doors slid apart, and when I stepped on, I could feel someone’s breath hot and close against the back of my neck. I walked to the far end of the car and pressed my sweat-drenched backside against the door, took a casual sip from my thermos. I caught our reflections in the subway door, two heads similarly crowned in sweat. The train junked along on the rails of the bridge. Across the surface of the river, waves raced to form the wobbly apparition of buildings. I noted the time on my phone. I was thinking a million things at once, when I heard his husky voice intone, Are you following me? I told him I was about to ask the same question. I know why you think I’m following you, he said. I was getting agitated, though I couldn’t explain why. I wasn’t afraid of him, not anymore than he was of me. I had beaten him to the train. I had defeated him. Take a tablet, Hartley, he said, I can tell you’re getting agitated, and none of us wants another episode. It was as though he could read my thoughts. He knew my name. He knew I hadn’t taken a tablet that morning. He knew everything. I tried to stop thinking, tried to calm down. I wanted to know who sent him, if it was the Haters, or maybe The Bosses, but all he did was laugh and shake his head. At the Canal St stop, he got off the train without saying goodbye, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

The sweat had crusted on my brow by then, even though my heart was still racing. I needed time to cool down before I arrived at the office, so I got out of the subway a couple stops early and walked to Washington Square Park. From my bench, I watched the walkways fill with tourists and junkies. I was waiting to run into him again, to apologize. Hey, man, we’re brothers, I would say, slapping him five. I was no longer early for work, I wasn’t even on time anymore. I took my phone out and stared at a building over the tops of the dancing trees. It looked identical to our office building. Maybe he worked there. The sun was a blurry beige circle reflected in its glass and steel façade. The sun looked like one of my tablets. Fuck him though, telling me to take one. I could think more clearly without them, and so I started piecing together the clues embedded throughout the story of my morning. I had left the house at 6AM. Mama was turning sixty-six this week. It was June now, the sixth month of the year. Our company was on the sixth floor of our building, and Mama’s birthday was exactly six days away. My heart beat faster upon the realization, as I scrolled six names down in my phone’s contact list and felt the veil of ignorance fall from my eyes. I pressed CALL, and on the sixth ring, Mama picked up. Well, isn’t this a surprise, she said. I asked her if she’d had me followed this morning, and after she didn’t say anything for a while, only asked me where I was, I shouted, Are you denying it? My shouts drew the attention of a woman sitting on a bench across from me. She looked like Mama actually, and as Mama’s voice rose to match mine on the other end of the phone, asking me where I was, the concerned eyes of the woman on the bench met mine over the top of her book. One of the words in the title was SEX, which everyone knows is Latin for the number six. 

Contributor

Mikael Awake

MIKAEL AWAKE’s fiction has appeared in Juked, Witness, Callaloo, and other places. He works in Manhattan and lives with his wife in Brooklyn

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