The room is a smoky kind of dark, though without any trace of cigarettes or exhaled breath. Every single one of us are temporary inhabitants in this twenty-three story building, spending our money on squishy oil pastels and breakfast sandwiches, rather than cheap desk lamps that will be rendered useless once our short-term leases expire. The lightless room hangs a dusky grayish hue that reminds me of charcoal smudges. I am certain that if there was no light outside that seventh floor window, that if New York City were to suffer a brown-out like its west coast counterpart, then the skyscrapers would look like the skyline I had drawn this morning; powdery black figures that I had smudged into existence with a blackened thumb, dissolving their edges into virgin whitespace.
The sun throws itself over the surrounding buildings proudly, making our drawing pads hot to the touch. Mateo sits beside me, cracking soft sticks of charcoal into broken bones. “There are these keeds in my neighborhood,” he tells me in his cheerful Colombian accent. “When they wanna get drunk, they mix Kool-Aid with rubbing alcohol.” My throat burns and my tongue dries as I unwillingly taste a tingling river of bitter carmine, like poisoned childhood.
Now, in inky darkness, I can only discern the rich flavor of chocolate. It collects in melting wads, staining these sheets and our fingertips. Francesca sits somewhere nearby in her torn-up tights, cross-legged on somebody else’s bed. I can’t see her face, only the blurry outlines of our bodies blended into our own shadows. I rely on the sound of her dangerous laughter to guide me in her direction, to the smell of vodka and Doctor Pepper on her breath. She reaches out and pulls my face a few inches from hers, so I can faintly see the pigment of her eyes. They are a liquid reddish-brown, like a knocked-over wine bottle spilling into soil.
Her fingernails dig crescents into my thigh, while the other hand pushes a half hunk of chocolate doughnut into my mouth. We giggle hysterically, choking on pastries, like children who forgot their innocence in a subway station somewhere.
Evenings later, the silver streak of the Metro halts abruptly, and we stumble onto the platform with shaky hands gripping coffee cups. New York City smells like humidity and rubber, an odor I crave with a naive suburban nose. I absentmindedly wipe a thin veil of sweat from my forehead and dash across the gritty street, squinting into the fluorescent glare of the street lamps. My roommates are yelling, or maybe they’re just cheering, because the air is humming and we know we’ll all be gone soon. We survived a summer on our own at seventeen. Above me, the illuminated sky is a faded version of charcoal dust, shaking steadily as thunder rips it apart.
Seconds pass and the downpour begins, and the city melts into a hazy pool of colors that collect around the soggy soles of my Converse sneakers. We skid across the greasy concrete, down Seventh Avenue, and my eyes begin to water. Through a collision of tears and rain, Times Square appears to be smeared in glossy oil pastels. I inhale this image, even though I know that it is not the thing that will be disappearing. I am the one with the damp train ticket in my shoulder bag, pointing me in the direction of my hometown, where everything does not taste like chocolate, or feel like smooth charcoal sticks, or look like a collage. I allow it to, for just one more brief second, before the walk signal appears and we plunge back into the storm-drenched streets, carried by the fleeting freedom of pretending this is home.
ENDNOTES: To supply some background, I wrote this piece as an exercise in ‘ekphrasis’. It is a flash narrative that behaves in the style of Joan Mitchell’s painting, “Cityscape”, utilizing visuals, texture, sensation, and imperfections to tell a cluster of stories that are ultimately tangled together.