Old Friends & Other Cowards

                                                                          “I was a child and she was a child /in this kingdom by the sea…”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        – Poe

Except for a few random phone calls, I hadn’t heard from Anna Belle for a few months—not since her departure, that is. We were rather close for about a year or more in that memorable city, Baltimore. But then, we had each gone our own separate ways. I don’t recall having ever said good-bye. Perhaps it was because our actual good-bye was so painful—at least for me. Perhaps I simply repressed it. I don’t know. I do, however, recall the final time we met, though. It was when we were both living in Manhattan. 

Anna Belle was living in Greenwich Village, going to the university there. I was on the Upper West side, off Central Park, becoming seriously ill, writing surrealistic poetry, and working for a publishing house. I had few friends at that time—my Chinese American boss, a rich girl, DeeDee, who took me horseback riding in Central Park, and my Russian landlord, who always invited me to take part in her weekly seances. (It was an existence close to a I.B. Singer short story.) 

Nonetheless, the last time I saw Anna Belle was a memorable Saturday morning: City-sunny—beautiful in a way that only a chilly Manhattan September morning can be—Summer ebbing, autumn, in the air. One could say romantic…. 

Our “get together” was rather straight forward, we were meeting to have a casual breakfast and to catch up. There was a small restaurant around University Place and East 10th Street. It had those old fashion, heavily chipped and scared wooden booths like you don’t see anymore, with large floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, spotlessly clean, looking out on the quiet early Saturday morning street, where dog walkers and beggars meandered like in a Dali dream. Sad to say, not many mom-and-pop restaurants like that exist anymore—they’re history, like Double Header baseball games. 

It was a picturesque walk from her place on lower Fifth Avenue. I could sense, however, Anna Belle’s estrangement nearly the moment after we exchanged our awkward greetings. It was almost like we didn’t quite recognize each other, although it had been only a few months since we last saw each other…. We weren’t even out the door when she disappointedly announced: — I don’t have a lot of time … I must study … an exam  things to do.     “Okay,” I said” “ Got it. There’s no need to explain.…” “ I’m not exx-plaining,” she answered, but it was said caustically…. 

I was just pleased as hell that she was able to squeeze me into her crowded academic and existential schedule. I should hasten to add that Anna Belle seemed even more beautiful than I remembered. Just being near her was electrifying. Her aura and natural beauty flashed like large silver sparks, nearly blinding me from reality….

I wondered how she felt being with me. I had the feeling that I was—? Intruding … if that’s the right word?

As mentioned, except for a few phone calls, we hadn’t been talking—not since we both moved to crazy Manhattan, and even from my limited point of view, I recognized that the old spark that once flared between us had somehow become dim, if not altogether extinguished. Perhaps we were only meeting because in a way she felt obligated—that’s how I was seeing it or thought about it.  It was more than clear that she was meeting me for old times’ sake, ha-ha! 

Now, of course, I didn’t know for certain, but I felt she really didn’t want to be there with me, but I hoped, and I wanted more than anything for that not to be true. 

I guess I wanted or expected too, too much…. With Anna Belle I never really knew. It was always her big movie; I was just an amusing little walk-on in it.

We had a comfortable meal, I ordered scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. She just had black coffee, and smoked Marlboros, gazing out the window…. We ignored the other customers, when—and it didn’t seem too long ago—we would have been eyeing them, making absurd comments, and laughing even. There was none of that. There were even several long periods of unbearable silence, as if we had become complete strangers, or had nothing in common, not even language. She seemed more bored as the minutes passed—only partially interested in what I had to say, which—as far I was concerned—was more than uncomfortable. 

I did feel certain about this: I wished and wanted more positive attention from her.  I was reaching for the future, our future, while she was dissolving me and our past.  To be sure, our history was disappearing before my eyes like a vapor…. Finally, she said: — I must go. 

I pointlessly suggested another cup of coffee, but she shook her head. Her long brown hair flowing then from left to right, like a small girl’s—a gesture that sent me momentarily into outer space…. 

As we walked back in utter silence, passing remarkable 19th century townhouse along East 10th Street, I recognized that any future with Anna Belle was nearing its end with each step. In fact, before we even reached the corner at East 10th and Fifth Avenue, she stopped and turned to me, saying: —I can make it back form here. Alone. It’s best this way….  I forced an uncomfortable smile, nodding my head as a cool breeze swept past, recognizing that much colder weather lay ahead.