You never think of it, how the city is a lonely place. Surrounded by strangers at every turn, yet you can go for weeks without a conversation, let alone a genuine one. Hundreds of thousands of people dying for human contact.
Often it reminds me of my honors biology teacher at Gompers High in Council Bluffs, telling about the many survivors of submarine attacks in World War Two, who went on to die in their lifeboats. What killed them?
"You can go many days without food," he said, "but only three days without water."
But the castaways were surrounded by hundreds of miles of water, right? True, but it was saltwater, and saltwater quickly dehydrates the human body: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. So unless salvation fell out of the sky in the form of rain, they died of thirst in the middle of the ocean.
I thought of Mr. Klaus' words as I walked the streets of my neighborhood. A bustling, young neighborhood, full of traffic and nightlife, especially down Clark Street.
People teeming along the sidewalks, spilling out of pubs and nightclubs, laughing, shouting, cars honking and pulling up to and away from the restaurants. I stalked past it all. Hands stuffed in my leather coat, I passed without notice like a ghost, and disappeared into the night like the white wisps of my breath.
Klaus himself is gone now, from a sudden heart attack. But at least he had a pretty wife and kids, probably grandkids. I'd come home to nothing but a silent, empty apartment that I didn't want to go back to in the first place. Instead, I continue walking. To get out of the lights and noise, I turned down one of the side streets.
Roscoe Street was darker, more private. I walked along the tree-lined sidewalk until I came to the alley. If I used this as a shortcut, my street was only two blocks away. I didn't have anything going, so why not? Cutting between the parked cars, I waited for a taxicab with a drag queen in back to pass by, then crossed the street and ducked into the alley.
It was pretty clean, as alleys go. Most of the garbage was put up, and there was a working streetlight down the middle of the alley. But these were nice buildings, filled with professional couples and students with well-off parents. Further down the alley were more boisterous sounds echoing off the steep canyon of buildings. There was a party on one of the large balconies that you see attached to the back of many apartments in the neighborhood. Most nights, you can't get away from the sounds of revelling and merriment--or the feeling that once again you are missing out on something. I've felt that tug in my stomach throughout my life. Then again, once or twice a year, an overcrowded balcony or cheap do-it-yourself job would come crashing down, taking a few partygoers along for their last ride. Natural selection is a bitch.
The streetlight illuminated a blue cone of fat snowflakes that had been falling since the afternoon. It was the first big snowfall of the year, and an early one, in November. These were thick, wet snowflakes that crunched under your shoes and felt good melting on your cheeks and tongue.
I jumped when a heavy weight crashed down into the open dumpster on my left. The people on the balcony must have dropped a couple of very dangerous sacks three or four flights down, so I was momentarily pissed off--but overall I did not know what to think, or to do. Because...dangerous sacks, with flailing arms and legs?
Before I could think about it, I climbed up on the edge of the dumpster. I dug through snow, plastic sacks and newspaper, and there I found a girl. A stunned face, her mouth in an O, a pair of great wide eyes looking up at me.
"Hi." I brushed a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes.
Her breathing came fast and shallow like a bunny's. She seemed to be going into shock. I took off my coat and covered her up to her chin.
"Stay still." I dialed 911. I thought I'd heard a clanging sound when she landed, maybe her head. "Can you move your fingers and toes?"
"I think so."
"My mother always called me a klutz."
"But a very good diver." I winked at her as the operator answered. I had a hard time hearing over the screaming and commotion on the balcony and the exterior stairs. "This is an emergency. Send an ambulance right away..."
When I finished the call, we were surrounded by people, my age and younger. Belligerent guys yelling, pushing me away as if some molester. Before they succeeded, I looked to the girl under my coat. Her eyes were trained on me. I leaned in to hear her say, "I'm a dumpster diver." Her eyes twinkled.
They pushed me onto the pavement. I shouted over and over, "Don't move her! Don't move her!" Thankfully the idea took, and others began repeating the same.
I hovered nearby, the intruder, keeping watch until help arrived. Thankfully it was only a few minutes until the approaching siren and eventually the ambulance headlights turned into the alley. For such an awkward setup, the paramedics were quick about transferring her to a stretcher and lowering her down and into the truck. They stabilized her head with a strap and brace, but pronounced her all right.
As the relief spread through the crowd of onlookers, I nudged through to get my coat. "Where are you taking her?"
They secured the stretcher in an instant. Before they could close up, I leaned in. "What name? What name if I want to visit?"
They were going to shut the door on me, but stopped. She was saying something, from the stretcher. "Camden," the medic said. Then he added a word. "Kiki."
"Kiki. All right?"
I'm pretty sure 'all right' wasn't directed at me, because he didn't wait for an answer before slamming the door in my face.
The ambulance turned out of the alley, under red lights and sirens.
# # #
It was pretty late when I knocked on the open hospital door. The TV was on low, and in the corner was a girl in a coat slumped in a chair, sleeping, which suited the atmosphere of the entire drowsy ward, preparing for the night. When I peered inside, a thin arm waved from the lighted bed.
My heart sprang as I entered the room. There she was, the blonde girl, laid out perfectly flat and straight under the sheets, with golden hair spilling over the white pillow. But it was her bright smile that reeled me in, and a flick of her wrist that urged me to hurry, like she had been waiting hours especially for me.
Her eyes were large, conspiratorial. "Hi."
It was the same hi as when I first saw her, and I grinned at her ability to joke about it--so I returned the favor. "Hi. How are you feeling?"
She beckoned me closer, until I bent over her. "Good." Her voice barely above a whisper.
"Did you break anything?"
"Maybe. So far so good. More tests tomorrow."
"You're not paralyzed or anything, are you?"
It was difficult hearing her, so I pulled up a chair.
"Your name is Kiki? I'm Martin."
"Martin. Martin, I want you to stay with me. You saved my life."
"Visiting hours are over. I'm lucky I made it up here. What about...?" I turned to indicate her company in the chair, snoring.
She screwed up her face and rolled her eyes. "She didn't find me."
"What happened, anyway?"
"I'm kind of a klutz. It was just, suddenly, like, whooo."
"Suddenly, like, whooo?"
"I didn't realize it was icy. Until whooo."
"Whooo, you're lucky."
Staring into her eyes, I marveled that they were both blue and green, like intricate jewels. Her eyebrows and lashes were a uniform coffee brown that offset her bright eyes and complexion. To me, she looked exotic, beguiling, and she was inches away.
Eventually it dawned on me, deep in my trance, that her breathing was choppy and shallow, like it was when I found her. A jolt of alarm rang my brain: Wake up, idiot! "What's wrong? Do you want me to call for help?"
"No. You're rubbing my boob."
I sprang back, horrified. She laughed and loudly, with plenty of lung power that I never heard before. Suddenly I knew it was all a game to her. But a romantic one.
"Look how embarrassed you get. That's so cute."
A nurse stopped in the doorway, drawn by the outburst. "Visiting hours are long over."
The nurse shook her head over Kiki's protest. "No."
"But he just got here."
"He can come back tomorrow." This nurse wasn't budging without me following.
"There, you can come back tomorrow." After I waved and neared the doorway, Kiki said, "Martin, at least we know it still works."
# # #
I visited Kiki the next day, and the day after. They found a hairline fracture in her C5 vertebra, or as Kiki liked to put it, "I broke my freaking neck." It was hard not to stare at her sometimes like she wasn't a freaking ghost, after falling, what, 30 feet? 60 feet? That, and she had really cute little ankles underneath her hospital gown.
And even stranger: How was it that this beautiful girl glommed onto me like she did? Because she absolutely did: She wanted and expected me around every day. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, she wanted me there. I understand gratefulness and feeling indebted, but each time I looked at her I was reminded that fine-featured, shapely women like this one have nothing to do with guys like me, except to get test answers.
Of course, when said fine-featured, shapely woman asked if I'd take her home the next day, I said, "Of course. What do you think?" as nonchalantly as possible.
Kiki was discharged wearing a halo brace to immobilize her head and neck. Thankfully she fit well in my tiny Honda. I think I drove that stretch to her apartment more slowly and carefully than I ever have.
"Only turds drive with two hands, Kyle. Gees." Kiki was doing Shelly Marsh from South Park, who wears braces, not a halo--but it worked anyway.
"Thanks for the safety tip, sis. You suck." I was doing lifelong geek desperately trying not to frighten away epic babe--but it worked anyway.
"That's what I said, dorkus." She slurped from the sides of her mouth for the win.
She lived in a one-bedroom near Diversey. Nicer apartments around there, the buildings not as stacked up as in my neighborhood. It was a light, airy home, with bright walls, outdoor views (not brick walls) and plenty of houseplants and framed prints. Nice, definitely a girly space. Much nicer than, say, a starting engineer's flat in Roscoe Village whose sagging walls are decorated with newspaper clippings and a tattered Led Zeppelin poster.
Having laid down for much of the past a few days, Kiki felt winded by the time we got her home. She swallowed one of her pain meds. I laid her down, adjusting the pillows under her head and neck until she was comfortable.
She was out like a light. I used the time to clean the place up a little, do some dishes that were left, there wasn't much.
When I finished, I couldn't help but look around the place. Only what was out, no prying around, to get an idea about this girl who simply fell out of the sky. She had a beautiful mother, whose air was upright, severe. An older sister too, with similar blonde features but not quite the looker as her sister and mother. An achiever though, posing with the family, including Pops and a younger Kiki, maybe 14. Sister wore cap and gown for some sort of postgraduate degree, with old ivy buildings in the background. Before my inner Sherlock Holmes got out her hand, I forced myself to sit in the living room where it was bright and welcoming even on a gray winter day, and read an ebook on my iPhone.
Soon I was drowsing.
"Hello? Martin? Martin?"
It was Kiki calling. I didn't know for how long. Too quickly I stumbled up, wobbly but concerned that something was wrong.
Steadying myself on her bedroom doorjamb, I peered into the shadows, where I had drawn the curtains shut.
"I'm so glad you're here." Kiki lay on the bed exactly where I left her. When my eyes adjusted, I saw she held up her arms for me. "Martin."
I went to her, leaned over, still on my feet. Her arms wrapped around me tight and she breathed into my shoulder. Standing at an awkward angle, bounded by her medical equipment, I stayed still and hugged her as best I could, smelling her, feeling her warmth. My back was twisted, my head was racing--and other things were too. But I didn't move an inch, I didn't dare to, letting the moment spool on and on and on.
After a while, she ran her hand through the back of my hair and let me go. "Thanks. I needed that."
We decided she also needed groceries and some take-out. We drew up a list, and after she was situated safely on the living room sofa with the TV on and everything within reach, I dashed out to the store. I bought almost a week's worth of groceries, and also some dinner from a stir-fry counter they had inside the store.
Outside it was already dark and snow was falling again, whipped around by icy gusts from off the lake. The apartment felt warm and cheery. It was good to come home to someone, at least for an evening. We laughed at an old Woody Allen movie where they ate from cardboard cartons like we were doing, and beneath an Afghan giggled at a dumb Farrelly Brothers movie. Under the cover we held hands the whole time. We could have been watching Gone With the Wind for all I cared.
At the end of the night, I was prepared to go, and surprised that she almost expected me to stay "if you don't mind."
"Nah. Me mind? No."
Actually, in the fragile state she was in, I really didn't expect anything, and neither did she. She had her hands full just getting acclimated to her new circumstances.
As I was crouched on the kitchen floor stocking the refrigerator, I heard a loud "ow!"
"What? What's wrong?" I shot out of the kitchen.
"I stubbed my toe on this damn chair." She bellowed a clumsy laugh. "I told you I'm a klutz."
I returned to the kitchen, where I dropped a jar of salsa. The good news was that it didn't break. The bad news was it didn't break because it fell on my foot.
At bedtime, Kiki insisted there was no way I was sleeping on the couch. I stood outside the closed door, letting her get changed, and thinking.
When she called me in, there was a dim mellow nightlamp lighting the room. Kiki lay under the covers, dressed in flannel pajamas covered with penguins in the blue snow. I went to the far side of the bed and took off everything but my jeans. Then I slid under the cover on her queen-sized bed. Her hand lay above the covers and I took it.
"Martin, thanks...thank you for everything." She was crying. She drew me up to her. Her voice broke in a hoarse crack of emotion. "I'm falling hard."
She kissed my fingers and wiped her tears with them. I didn't know what to say so I said nothing, smiling under her gaze, and brought my tear-soaked fingers to my lips and cheek in wonder. Her weeping on my hand was the most sensuous thing a woman had ever done for me.
I returned to my place on my side of the bed, and we laid parallel to one another like Rob and Laura Petrie. I took her hand and we fell asleep.
# # #
Another day, another family leave day from work. I had never taken even a sick day before, so my bosses were cool with it. We had to at least get Kiki set up, even if it took a week. I felt a little guilty hoping it was a whole week.
I planned to do breakfast in bed, but we decided she needed to be up and around, to get her legs under her again. That didn't go so well.
"Dizzy, dizzy." She wobbled next to the bed, until I guided her down again.
"That's all right. Let's just sit you up." I propped a pillow behind her so she was comfortable.
In the kitchen I washed and cut up an apple to share. She could use the blood sugar, and I could use the breath cleansing, especially because I had no toothbrush.
"Thanks." She was still pretty weak. I fed her half the slices myself.
"Let that sink in. Sit tight."
Underneath the sink I found a plastic tub, which I scrubbed out in the bath. Added warm soapy water, a clean washcloth, and as an afterthought, a splash of some sweet-smelling body wash, I think tangerine. I brought it in with a hand towel and lotion.
"Would you like to freshen up? I can leave this here, or get you started. Whatever you want." What the hell am I doing?
I set the tub beside her. I was going to leave it there, leave the room. She said nothing, completely silent. Gave me not a clue.
Squeezing out of the warm washcloth. I wanted to give it to her, but her hands remained at her side.
Tentatively, carefully, I reached for Kiki's face. When I was young I watched my mother care for my grandmother in her final weeks, so I was familiar with the motions of what was needed. But I was totally unprepared for the responsibility of actually doing so, as I touched her face the first time. My hand felt jumpy like the arm on my parents' old record player, ready to skip away and, god forbid, wreck the halo. To stop my head from spinning, I concentrated through the cloth, to simply tracing her cheekbones, her chin, her neck, all those beautiful features I had been admiring for what seemed so long now.
I splashed a lot wringing out the washcloth so that I could catch my breath. "Am I pressing too hard?"
"How did I find a person so good?"
"You didn't." I took her wrist to start on her hand. "I found you."
She hiked the sleeves of her PJs, so I washed her arms to her elbows. Then her feet and legs, to her knees.
That was the end of the line, as much as I could do. Before I could leave or say anything, she stopped me with a statement.
"Help me, please." She unbuttoned her top, and leaned forward for me to pull off her sleeves. Silently, she hugged her knees so I could wash her bare back. Peeking out from under the shoulder vest that supported the halo, a purple-and-yellow bruise stretched to her lower back.
"Does that hurt?"
I dried her back and smoothed in some lotion, avoiding the spot. No doubt she could feel my breath on her shoulder.
Kiki lay back, without her top, and did not cover herself, clutching the bedsheet on both sides of her. Her eyes remained lowered. In only the support vest, she was definitely exposed.
Sticking to my task, I sponged her arms, sides and stomach. The vest of soft fleece underneath and hard plastic on top had an unusual shape: it curved in on both sides to expose (and not irritate) her areolas. Straining the cloth to avoid soaking the fleece, I washed her nipples and bunched the towel to dab them dry.
Without a word, Kiki pulled open the bow at the top of her pants, bridging her bottom over the bed and waiting for me. Gently I pulled them off of her legs, and since she remained in the air, I peeled down her lilac panties. This time when she sat back she stared directly at me. This time there was fire in her eyes.
Wow, her body was more luscious than anything I'd seen in real life. It was all there for me, with nothing in between the except for that space pyramid around Kiki's head. Business first, I reminded myself. I dipped the washcloth to get back to work. My hands were soaking wet, but my mouth felt like the Sahara.
I started on one of her hips, reaching around as best I could. Then across her lower stomach (her pussy was the same lush color as her eyebrows--I almost swallowed my tongue) to her other hip. As if I pressed a magic button, she raised both of her knees and pushed her hips forward. I washed one thigh, and then the other. Her breathing was ragged, insistent. I could feel her looking at me.
The washcloth dripped into her belly button, trickling down in her strip of fur. I washed her aimlessly, but she brought her hand over mine and pushed it down, down between her legs. Her bottom scooted forward, on top of her discarded pajama pants.
I washed her, caressed her everywhere. Then I rinsed the cloth and brought it back again soaking. I massaged her with some pressure. She responded with some of her own.