Crystal N. Galyean lives in New Jersey, where she makes sweet sweet bluegrass music with her band the Great Grassby. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Fiddleblack, and Five Quarterly, among others.
Richard waited alone in his apartment, the glow of the television flickering on his face. The news anchors were calling neighborhoods for last-minute evacuations, and he followed the ticker of names at the bottom of the screen like he was willing matching lottery numbers to appear. The storm was coming later than the weathermen had predicted. At first, around five in the morning, they thought Hurricane Athena had jetted back out to sea and, while the newscasters celebrated a disaster averted, Richard’s heart sank. But then, the radar pulsed with a mass of something ominous heading back toward the harbor. Outside, the skies began to darken, and a gust rustled the Puerto Rican flags hanging from window ledges across the street. He went downstairs for a cigarette and saw men and women scurrying to the bodega, hoods pulled over their faces, carrying bread, milk, candles. The wind blew the stoplights in a noticeable sway, giving the few cars left on the street an excuse to ignore their signals. A slight drizzle that had persisted all night became more insistent.
Back inside, he watched the coverage and looked often at the luggage piled by the door. He had spent little money over the last few years. His apartment was cheap, and he cooked for himself. He had, he figured, probably enough for at least six months of simple living, much longer if he went far from New York.
His university had cancelled all classes for the day. He had stayed up the entire night composing a letter to the department, explaining his disenchantment with academia and rhapsodizing about fundamentally reshaping higher learning. Then he realized he was deflecting and went penitent, apologizing for his wasted academic potential, begging forgiveness for misplaced trust. In the end, he discarded the letter and penned a simple note saying he had been called away to a family emergency and would need an extended leave of absence. The fall semester would be over soon, and his winter had been cleared for research. The department would be able to find a new professor from the hordes of hungry Ph.D.s by spring term, no problem.
He was strangely calm. Once he resolved to abandon, perhaps for good, all that he had spent the last decade working toward, his only concern was how to leave it more quickly. He packed three duffle bags full of clothes, only the sturdiest and well-made ones, leaving his cheap sport coats and made-in-China neckties in the closet. He filled a small crate with his notebooks, packing in more than ten years of writing. Looking around his apartment, he marveled at all that he would leave behind. Craigslist scraps and Ikea furniture. Vases and picture frames that had never been filled. Piles of books and CDs he hadn’t looked at or listened to in years. And then there were the knickknacks, gifts he neither desired nor knew how to get rid of. Inspirational magnets and clever mouse pads and ornate figurines from the vacations his parents took after he had left them free with their time and money. Diplomas and awards in matching wood frames. Pens, highlighters, Post-its, blankets, extra pillows, flea market mugs, instruments he hadn’t learned, cookbooks never opened. He slipped a note under his neighbor’s door—a friendly, potbellied woman who always offered to cook for him—to take whatever she wanted.
Outside, the wind was howling loud enough to pierce the thin apartment walls. The newscasters held on to their hats, their brightly colored ponchos flapping in the angry wind. Richard hoped the storm would make up its mind to invade earlier rather than later. If the power grid failed after dark, leaving the city would be a blind man’s ballet. He stood near his apartment window and watched the traffic lights sway dangerously in the wind, green, yellow, and red lights flickering in unison. A dark object hit the window pane suddenly, and he stepped back, staring briefly into the eyes of a wind-tossed pigeon before it broke free and dove down, seeking shelter. At once he was anxious, and he welcomed the feeling as a reminder that he still was a rational creature and had not abandoned all sense—just most of it.
He had decided just two nights before, while sitting at the bar on the corner, that he would leave. On the television screen behind the bar were images of the Alaskan landscape. He wondered why he was here, in this cramped and crowded buffet of human meat, when there was such unspeakable beauty in his very own country, and he had never even seen it. Why should he be the one stuck inside, perpetually inside even when outside on the streets of New York, instead of a part of that sublime wilderness? Watching the television, Richard imagined himself moving to Alaska, equipped with flannel shirt and rifle, intent on uncovering those breathtaking Animal Planet moments.
While he was daydreaming, the television cut to a worn looking man standing before alarming, swirling graphics chugging in pixillated spurts toward the mid-Atlantic. The storm was roaring up from the Caribbean straight for the New York Harbor, bringing the sea with it. Hurricane Athena, they had dubbed it. How wonderfully ironic. The guardian of the city who may well destroy it. Cleansing by flood. Newsmen had been ringing the alarm bells for days but the Brooklynites lazed on, talking, half in jest, about storing up on extra batteries, canned food and sand bags. But these were no property owners, and no real sense of urgency had yet gripped New York. If the waters did rise, they would likely only touch the vacant, rusted industrial buildings that perched on the Brooklyn waterfront like jealous gargoyles. Surely the sewaged waters of the East River would not be so presumptuous as to creep farther in, up Bedford Avenue and into apartments, water logging desks made of repurposed barn wood and destroying lampshades woven from imported hemp and, you know, nice things made by people with not only reverence for the lines of design but respect for Earth’s resources.
And the wind—the unprecedented knotty gusts the meteorologists had been shrilly warning of for days now—the wind of course couldn’t destroy. It was just air. Wind was for whipping up watery slopes for Long Island surfers and carrying the kites of Upper East Side children in Central Park, and, when it was feeling particularly nasty, for stinging cheeks in skyscraper tunnels. But it could not wreak destruction. Not in New York. In Bangladesh or Thailand maybe, where buildings were not as solid and dignified, but not in New York.
So the New Yorkers and the Brooklynites and the indifferents in Queens were slow to fathom Hurricane Athena. As the warnings grew strident, an almost palpable unease occupied the empty spaces of conversation in bars and filled the air between people brushing past each other on sidewalks. Some—particularly those living on the coastlines, near the rusted structures of Coney Island or the industrial waterfronts of Brooklyn or the financial tip of Manhattan’s downtown—quietly made plans to leave, to visit family or go wine tasting at the Finger Lakes—but they never named Athena. When questioned on their last-minute plans, they would joke, dismissing the possibility that anyone could fear a storm as medieval. And in the eyes of those leaving was pity for those staying, a dimming of the pupils that said, “You might die. I will be safe and dry and gone. But you might be dead.” And in the eyes of their friends, those staying, was a hint of ridicule. There is nothing to panic about.
Under the guise of Athena, he would leave and not come back. But first, he would pick up Samantha. More than that, he would rescue her. They had lived together when he was in graduate school. He forever working on his thesis in their kitchen nook, using a makeshift desk made of plywood balanced on milk crates. She sitting on the couch they had salvaged from the sidewalk, reading or watching television. Every few pages he would stand up, walk over and wordlessly cover her face with kisses before returning to his manuscript. At night they scoured the neighborhood bars. They were happy, but they were too close. The city saw to that. Even on nights they diverged, made different plans with different friends to avoid being that inseparable couple, the bars somehow shuttled them closer and closer until they all ended in the same place, drinks and cigarettes in hand, too tired to protest.
Their dissolution grew quicker when Samantha’s father grew ill. They often visited him together, filling endless glasses of water and reminding him who they were. The man’s forgetfulness made Richard embarrassed. It was like seeing someone naked. They visited the man—with whom Samantha had never been close to begin with—as he receded ever further into dementia in his five-bedroom Connecticut house. They gave him updates on their lives as he lay prostrate, his skin a greenish hue, his right hand shaking somewhere on the side of the bed as if wafting the sweetly sickening smell of chamomile from the graveyard of teabags on the bedside table. Richard felt uncomfortable and resentful, and Samantha could tell, and a wedge widened the space between them.
After Samantha’s father died, the awkwardness from their visits stayed like a ghost. During the summer their love resurged, reborn walking the sunny street fairs of Brooklyn and drinking with friends on rooftops. The winter though. The winter was bad for them. Stuck indoors with nothing but each other’s company and doubts, the constant insecurity they were making each other unhappy, which, in turn, made each more unhappy. Richard started working at coffee shops instead of on kitchen milk crates, just for temporary respites from the accusatory expression that had tainted Samantha’s beautiful face since the funeral. He moved out. She didn’t mind.
The newscasters were calling waterfront neighborhoods for evacuation now. They called Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach and Coney Island and Sea Gate. Then they called Barren Island and Mill Basin and nearly all of Long Island and Bergen Beach and East New York before starting into Queens. He needed that call, that boost to get his butt off the chair, that excuse to go get Samantha to leave with him. The wind bent his windows, and the rain slapped hard against the side of the building. His whiskey tumbler trembled in his hand. For the first time he felt scared of the storm, not just awed by his plan but finally aware of the storm itself, and he doubted the wisdom of it all. Then they called Greenpoint. Close enough. He loaded his box of notebooks, bags of clothes and his backpack, water, and food into the car.
He started the engine, and a ballet of trash whirled across the street. A plastic bag stuck with force to his windshield. As he ran his wipers to remove it, the lid of a steel garbage can flew across the road before the wind pinned it to the door of the corner bodega. Before releasing the brake, he said a short prayer, crossing himself at its end.
He pulled in front of Samantha’s building, not bothering to heed parking signs. He followed a resident into the building and knocked at Samantha’s door. He remembered the double whiskeys from earlier when they reemerged in his throat, but he swallowed and patted at the wetness on his jacket sleeves. Samantha opened the door, and he gave her what he thought was his best charming smile, a kiss on the cheek and strode past her to the bar.
“Richard.” Her face was confused and a little alarmed.
This was not as natural as he had conceived an hour earlier. When was the last time they had been together?
“I’m leaving the city,” he said, pouring gin. “You should come with me.”
She was so beautiful. She had never let him take pictures of her, and the few he had didn’t do her any semblance of justice. Most people look dead when they’re photographed. The ones who don’t are movie stars. Richard heard a cough from the interior of the apartment. It was undeniably male, gruff and graceless. His muscles tightened, and he felt the beginnings of a migraine encroach at the edges of his skull.
“Richard.” Now she spoke with the urgency of someone who has realized she has an opinion.
“Yes, we’ve established you remember my name.” Richard hated how his voice sounded. Feminine, out of control.
“You can’t possibly be mad,” she said. “Richard, it’s been two years. You can’t act like... You don’t live here anymore.”
He fingered the stem of the martini glass and held it up to the light, looking at the ceiling through the drink. The glass skewed his vision, and he saw the faux crystal chandelier they had bought together broken down the middle. He held the glass up too long, too long to be considered a normal human action. Finally he brought it down to mouth level, drained it, and loosened his grip. The glass smashed into a million pieces, scattering the chandelier’s light in a broken reflection of the ceiling. He brushed past Samantha into the hallway, dragging his feet down rotting remains of carpet and running his fingers alongside splintered hallway walls. He rushed down the stairs and stepped into the cold air.
He paused at the top of the stoop, breathing shallowly. He couldn’t pinpoint when things had turned, but his life had devolved into a lackluster series of failures. A broken heart, a stalled career. Sometimes he wished for a disaster—a true disaster—to break the monotony of chronic disappointment. Perhaps a civil war. An earthquake. Even an epidemic would do. Anything to interrupt the pressing feeling that life mostly consisted of claustrophobia and indigestion.
The wind, reinvigorated, swept plastic chairs off the stoop of the building next door and stung Richard’s ears. He pulled his jacket collars together and started down the sidewalk. His blood was still pounding on the walls of his skull and that graceless testosterone-filled cough echoed in his ears. What was he expecting? How could he lay a claim on a woman after making no gestures to keep her his? He kicked a trash can, immediately bending to clutch his wounded toe. While doubled over, apelike, undignified, cold, he saw through wind-stung tears the outline of his car, waiting.
Driving down the street, his migraine increased, and he shielded his eyes from the glare of daylight. He needed to leave the city. He wanted to drive until the pavement turned to gravel and the hard, polluted landscape transformed into something much softer. He crossed Williamsburg Bridge and drove into lower Manhattan, slowing when he passed the prostitutes, huddled on the side of the road, looking bewildered that they were still outside. They had gotten wider in recent years, thick in the middle and top heavy like overburdened trees. A police car passed to his right, and Richard realized he had just coasted through a red light, but the cop coasted right with him and turned off the road into an alley, gesturing out the window to one of the huddled few.
The city made everything worse. It was too crowded with ideas. Every street meat vendor was a spoken word artist. Every cop a social theoretician. Even the pigeons and rats were students of musical theory. There was no room. All he had wanted was to tell stories. But the more he stripped away layers of history, the more it looked like trodden ground. The beginning of the complete deterioration of mankind would begin in Manhattan.
He continued through the Lincoln tunnel and up, up, up into greener territory. He only had half a tank, but he wasn’t going to stop until he had to. On and on until the buildings faded and in their place stood stagnant pools of toxic slush bleeding out from factories. The highway remained its loud, ugly, noxious self but the landscape was changing. Up to his right stood an old cemetery on a hill, tombstones crowded in shoulder to shoulder. Vibrations from passing semis rattled the bones.
Cars were getting scarcer now, and soon he was alone on the pavement as the highway turned to winding country road going north, north, ever north. Hours had passed since Brooklyn, and he took the curves automatically, watching trees and farmlands appear as the sun settled over the horizon in a pink glow. A stiffness started at the base of his neck and he flexed his fingers, knuckles whitened from his constant grip on the steering wheel. Here was beauty. Here he could wander, free from the gridded existence. He lowered the windows, closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Even the air was different. He felt the oxygen touch the deepest, most starved parts of his lungs.
There was recrimination in the deer’s eyes even before the car struck. An antler pierced the windshield, and two hundred pounds of brown furred meat blinded Richard, who turned the steering wheel wildly to correct his course. In his periphery he saw a grassy field on the side of the road, and he tried to pull the car towards it. The deer, now limp, slid heavily off the windshield as the car careened rightwards, revealing a large oak directly in his path. His hands tightened on the steering wheel, pushing glass shards into his palms, and he was surprised to find himself praying. The car collided with the tree on the front right bumper, tailspinning the vehicle off the road down an incline. As his head knocked between the window and the dashboard, he saw a majestic red barn far across the field. The setting sun glinted off the silo, reflecting onto the fields. At least, he thought as the car began to roll, he would die amongst beauty and Americana.