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Identification (a story)

He sat in his dingy, crowded little kitchen, with a thwarted philodendron leaning close, and added a dab of jam to a bowl of yogurt. He thought of the woman in the coffee shop he’d seen the day before, sitting two stools from his. Merely because she was so beautiful, he was interested to learn what she would order. She had removed her black leather gloves and shoved them impatiently to the side–a gesture he found, well, erotic–as she accepted, with an imperious frown, the menu she had requested. Despite the many selections in the oversize coffee-shop menu, she perused them all, taking extra time with the specials handwritten on stained cards in oily plastic sheaths, which supplemented the usual sandwich varietals and the approximately Mediterranean salads.

The shy young man observed her minutely, leaning slightly way to compensate for the greed of his eye, which strained in its corner like a dog on a leash straining after an interesting scent. One eye in profile did the work of two, he became aware, feeling rather ridiculous. The object of his fascination wore all black and had a large camera slung over her shoulder. Was she an artist? A fashion photographer? A tourist?

After some minutes of peevish scrutiny she finally ordered. Cup of coffee. This choice made her seem less interesting and the young man felt obscurely let down. The spark stoked from the impressions that had been amassing died. He decided she must be the rejecting type. Withholding. Unimaginative. Severe. He counted out change to pay for an overpriced and overly sweet rice pudding, and thought, as  he left: Was it worse to be illusioned or disillusioned? Illusioned, he felt snug, a little smug, expectant, summoned to hope. Illusion was fun, even if it was only the illusion of fun. Disillusionment, on the other hand, was too responsible a burden, but somehow, he suspected, nearer Truth.

At home, he energetically resumed his clearing-out project. This year he’d started early, in March, without waiting for the vernal equinox. As he sorted cartons of oddments, his distractible, vaguely anxious thoughts began to form shapes, like smoke exhaled into O’s. The ideas came fast–insightful, descriptive, intriguing. He murmured, “Write them down before you forget.” So he went to his desk, opened his laptop, typed his impressions, and saved them in a file titled “Jottings.”

Back to work. He was determined to pare down any unused possessions. Sorting and winnowing, he anticipated a sense of accomplishment, the acquisition, finally, of space. What made him keep these things–a thick blue bottle, a rosewood humidor, an x-ed out calendar with landscapes of Ireland, produce-crate labels, clocks, game parts, machine parts. Where had he found that outhouse replica, just seven inches high, with a shingle roof, a crescent carved in the door, and two seat-holes complete with a half-inch roll of toilet paper? He filled a couple of banker’s boxes with discards, including a postage scale with outdated rates, a deflated football, assorted informational books. He carried these downstairs and placed them surreptitiously on the loading dock, hoping some passerby would take them. Years before, when the neighborhood was still commercial, trucks had pulled up to the dock to deposit or retrieve goods from his building, which was once a dairy warehouse. Now that the warehouses had been turned into “living lofts,” the platforms lent a bohemian status to the gentrified neighborhood. In the summer months, neighbors used them as porches, sipping cocktails, sunbathing in Adirondack chairs, having meals.

He gazed regretfully at his discards, but there was a limit to how much one could keep. Clearing out periodically was the price of being an accumulator. It was only natural, like cause and effect or give and take, to evacuate periodically. He wondered where he got that trait, the tendency to think of any odd object with sympathy, like a homeless cat with the possibility of becoming, if not companionable, at least a reassuring presence. The other problem was that he tended to see almost everything as beautiful.

As he turned to open the street door, he glanced down and saw a bundle of IDs, bound by a rubber band. He went to pick it up. The photos revealed a young woman with angry eyes, a wary mouth, and the demeanor of a fugitive, like a mug shot in a post office. She looked like Roony Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. One card bore the name of a company where she presumably worked, but no address. The other had been issued by the Transit Authority. It allowed the bearer, because of a disability, half-fare passage. What sort of disability, he wondered. Had she only one leg, or neither? Maybe she rolled herself around on a little raft with wheels, like the truncated man he saw from time to time in the subway, moving apelike down the platform and through the cars, pushing his half-self along with gloved fists, and smiling.

He checked an impulse to fling down the cards; but it seemed wrong just to dump a person’s identification. What if she couldn’t get into her place of work, or use the subway without the discounted fare? Why had he, of all people, found this ID? He was in possession of a stranger’s identity, at least symbolically. Were they supposed to meet? He took the IDs upstairs. This was one object he wouldn’t hold on to. Online he found a listing for the company noted on the card. He sealed the ID in an envelope. He wrote out the girl’s name and place of work. He did not include a return address.

Categories: Short Story

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