The Wikipedia page for Hopscotch will tell you that the game was invented in prehistoric India, dating some time between 600 and 500 BCE. Time counted down, back then. 3, then 2, then 1, then the blastoff of A.D. modernity (a launch that makes Challenger look no worse than a stubbed toe). In truth, NASA didn’t start doing countdowns until gleaning inspiration from a Weimar-era Fritz Lang film called Frau Im Mond (1929). Before then, they counted up.
You’re getting distracted again. You’re trying to tell her something, but the chalky enigmas on the sidewalk are more enticing. She points them out, tells you what to see. The left-behind pastel-smushes in the concrete are winding and snake-like. Mondrian on LSD, you supply. The abandoned hopscotch games trip over one another as their numbered squares ascend, some abandoned before their terminus. You’re imagining a child, now, with paint in her hair, standing on one foot at the end of the sequence, teetering on the waterfall edge of the universe.
You remember the first time you went to the shampoo aisle together. It was three years ago, in February. You were on your way to dinner and drinks, or dinner, or drinks, it wasn’t important which. But you remember the Duane Reade in TriBeCa, and you remember peering through the locked cases. It was still bitter-cold outside, and the artificial warmth of the store tapped against your cheeks.
“Which one do you use?” she had asked.
“I don’t know,” you had replied, which made her chuckle.
Routine eluded you in matters such as these. As a kid, perched high in the shopping cart, your mother would wheel you next to the cemetery of bottles. Your chubby fingers would wander the contours of the selection, your still-soft eyes bouncing off of the shapes and colors. Lavender. Shea butter. Ocean salt. Strawberry. You would shove a flat-tipped finger into the bottle of your choosing, and she would toss it into the cart.
She never understood this. She replaced her shower products like beloved family goldfish – quietly swapping expended items with new bottles indistinguishable from the prior, aside from a slight, glittering newness.
That night, reservations were encroaching, and she was annoyed with your indecision. She jammed her finger into the button. Help needed in the Shampoo Department, the PA-ed voice intoned. A teenager in a black shirt with a jangling beltful of keys ambled over. His eyes said exhaustion and his name tag said ‘Kevin.’
“Yeah?” Kevin asked.
She had pointed at a bottle. Dove, Lavender. “This one please.”
Kevin handed it to her and she handed it to you. The bottle felt like baby-powdered skin.
From colonial times until the end of World War II, New York City observed a singular Moving Day. At 9:00 am on May 1st of each year, every lease in the city would simultaneously expire, ushering thick crushes of people into the streets. The city would scramble like an upturned anthill, dissolving and reconstituting itself in a tidal wave of wingback chairs and iron bed frames. In an 1855 article about Moving Day preparations, the New York Times printed the following:
“When the scratched furniture comes in don’t believe it is utterly ruined, – a few nails, a little glue, a piece of putty, and a pint of varnish will rejuvenate many articles that will grow very old ‘twixt morning and night, and undo much of the mischief that comes of moving, and which at first sight seems irreparable.”
Your building feels far from those stories – renovated in 2011 and leased by a company with ‘Nest’ in the name. The stoop you’re on today is the one you call yours. Divided among each unit of your building, one-quarter of it is. She scoots closer to you. Presumably, she is aiming to only occupy your quarter. You have a tendency to feel like a victim of randomness. She has a tendency of reminding you there’s only one king of spades in the deck, no matter who’s dealing.
You didn’t get Lavender the second time, she did. She showered at your place a few times a week, then. Often enough to replace the eucalyptus branch you hung from the shower head. You didn’t notice that the bottle kept getting lighter. Rather than an effortless squeeze, you began slamming it against your palm, feeling the bulk of the bottle shift from the bottom to the top with a thick glop. Sometimes, the bottle would slip and clatter into the bathtub, and your neighbor’s broom would thump at your feet from below.
She left the plastic bag wrapped around the door, bottle jutting bone-like through the translucency. There was a Post-It on the outside: “let me save you a trip,” in red pen.
You felt a fizziness under your collarbones. Her goodness was a firm, red apple, back then. It was bigger than your appetite. The kind that made your lips feel raw by the end. The kind that squeaked in the back, right next to your molars. With juice on your lips, you smiled, still.
There are lots of ways to make a bad city. Boston is a preemie, designed for carriages, not Fords. In 2016, twenty of Pittsburgh’s four hundred and forty six bridges were listed as deficient. In 2022, one collapsed, dropping a Port Authority bus into the ravine below. No one died. New Orleans is below sea level, predestined to become Atlantis. In Atlanta, there are seventy one streets with ‘Peachtree’ somewhere in the name.
She loves it in this city. She likes to sit in Sheep’s Meadow and hold hands with the grass, letting the starchy blades nestle themselves into the webs at the base of her fingers. You like to lay beside her, let the soft parts of your belly melt into the soft parts of the dirt. Right now, she wishes she were there instead. The concrete of the stoop is December-cold. She is sitting on her hands to warm them and you can feel the textured gravel gouging new shapes into her palms. You want to pick them up and hold them in your mouth. You want to try not to break them, like they’re delicate things, like they’re eggs or lightbulbs. You receive four New York Times notifications, which makes you look away from your helplessness and toward your phone.
You bought the third bottle yourself, the night of the dinner party. Shampoo lasts longer than you realized, but not forever. The bottle nestled among stalactite pillars of produce and chips in the bottom right corner of the cart. It was becoming bright with the cast of ritual. You imagined yourself into your childhood, eye-level in the cart. You imagined seeing its shimmery iridescence among the other, dulled bottles.
When you got home, she was sitting on the couch peeling potatoes into a white plastic garbage can. She was dropping the skinned potatoes into a pasta pot by her left ankle. You put your thumbs on the crinkles between her eyebrows. She shook you off and kept peeling. You went back to the kitchen and unloaded the groceries.
Frogs can’t keep their eyes open while they’re eating. Pigs can’t look directly upwards. Ciabatta bread was invented in 1985, after Italian restaurateurs became frustrated about the early-1900s-born French baguette gaining popularity as a side to their antipasti.
She told you once about the shampoo she used growing up. L’Oreal, in a teardrop shaped yellow bottle with a traffic-cone orange cap. Tropical Mango. She looked up a picture of it on her phone one night and laughed.
“I can still smell it,” she said.
“Scientifically, scent-based memories are the strongest,” you offered.
“Find the joy in this.”
I don’t want to tell this part of the story.
What happened next:
- They told you.
- You cried, she didn’t.
- You felt like it was possible that you were evil.
- You made Google Searches like HOW TO COPE WITH THE INEVITABLE and cleared your search history.
- You felt like there was a laugh lodged somewhere in your index finger.
- Maybe your femur.
- You came to the appointments that you could.
- You ate four apples.
- You started to feel like you were wrapped in aluminum foil.
- Your selfishness slicked across your skin.
- There were a few months of hope – you spent them in Sheep’s Meadow and under thick, wool throw blankets.
[The terrible thing happened.]
Grief is actually treacherously fair.
Death and taxes are envious.
It’s today, again, and you are trying to tell her something. There’s a shadow next to you, on the stoop, and you convince yourself it looks like her earlobe. You pass your hand through the empty air where she is. It’s raining, a bit, and the already illegible chalk is running in varicose rivulets across the sidewalk. You don’t know how to say it, so you reach into a crinkle of plastic and pull out a smooth, white bottle. Shea butter. You set it on the stoop beside you.
There’s no good way to end a story like this.
You think she might have been perfect.
If it didn’t end like this, you could have believed it.
Now it’s trite.
Maybe she wasn’t, anyways.
Is it more or less cliche if you hated the scent of lavender?
Flip a coin.
I want to be able to talk about this.
I want to be able to make sense of this.