I knew what was inside of the cup in my hand.
I knew what it was, but my puffed, bloodshot eyes stared at it in the darkness and saw only pitch black poison, a settled pool of toxic ichor spilled from the blighted veins of the vultures I worked for. Still I lifted a tired arm and tilted back a sore neck to bring the cold coffee down my throat like acid rain. It was bitter, horribly so, and desperately cold; I’d found it on top of a cabinet positioned right next to one of the air conditioning vents. Whatever was left of some tycoon’s morning substitute for a day drink was now my midnight analeptic, and I downed it like the alcohol I wished it was and shuddered, my gag reflex already weak from a developing sickness.
I lowered my hand and squeezed the cup. I wished that littering this thing here would actually do anything to the pieces of shit that I worked for. But it’d just be the janitors’ problem, and I had infinitely more respect for them than I did the demons of this corporate empire.
Realizing I was still unmoving, I put use to the painful vigor I’d just subjected myself to and willed myself to press the button I’d neglected to push seconds ago. I was blind in the dark, but I’d ridden this pitiful thing enough to have grown muscle memory for the act of requesting a journey to the lobby. I didn’t even need to turn around.
That was a good thing, because my eyes were focused on something else anyway.
I’d always told Charles that it looked like space from up here. My descent began smoothly, quietly. Tonight it felt like the thrill of a skydive was suspended in some decelerated drop, a slow fall that gave opportunity to take a final look at a rare, spectacular sight that I, for whatever reason, felt I would never see in this way again.
You know, one of the most beautiful things about tears is that, through their blur, the world before you almost seems to duplicate. There weren’t any stars you could see when living in a city like this, but that was okay. The city made its own.
They were scattered across the land like the scales of a dragon, gleaming and mythical, almost as if it should’ve been impossible for me to see them. But the tree of possibility bore wonderful fruit under the duress of ultimate emotion.
The endless void tugged on the ominous clouds that glided in a universal sky. Together they were a shadow that was somehow brighter than its origin, the infinite darkness behind it. Bleak, tenebrous, and evanescent, the atmosphere bowed down to the human landscape beneath it, which varied into the nightly beyond in the same way a gravelly sidewalk wavers in passage to the smooth, paved ground of a renovated property. Far, far, hundreds of feet down, just across the street, that same gritty cement seceded its elder standing to this company’s brilliant, youthful marble.
Streetlights and headlights and lights of any other type were plentiful in the roaring hills of human creation. Some stood vigilant like countless eyes guarding and watching the domain of this modern and mighty yet kingless kingdom. They shined like jewels do on confident elites dancing vivaciously at public galas, making elegant the skyscrapers and high rise apartments from which they glowed. Others moved like comets shooting across the cosmos, dazzling streaks of vibrant color that stood out against the night like life does against the hollow universe.
How many times had I looked out at this scene? I was a woman of habit, I always took the same elevator, always this one. I’d been a temp at this shithole of human inhumanity for what, eleven months? Fuck. Never before had the city seemed so beautiful.
I watched the buildings and the cars and the wonderful grid of metropolitan majesty. The concept of people was baffling to me now. I felt like nothing more than another asteroid floating in some empty belt of other cold, dark, distant asteroids. Yet somehow stars filled our world. They filled our massive, glorious buildings, filled our bustling, vibrant streets, followed us in and out of countless cars. Beautiful light was everywhere, and all of this, this incredible world, I was a part of it. We all were.
It wasn’t the coffee that made my throat tighten. I trembled. I looked out at metropolis, the world that couldn’t seem more full of possibility, and watched my tears bring all of it out of focus. But for a moment, the world was more.
I knew what Charles was going to do. It didn’t feel like my place to stop him anymore. There was nothing I could offer.
Two English majors with crippling college debt gathered over four years of learning about a language they already knew how to speak and write fluently. We signed on as temp workers for this huge company without even joining a temp agency; they were hiring, and we were desperate. Six weeks became three months. Three months became eleven.
We worked in windowless closets filing paperwork that our white-collar bosses couldn’t get off their asses to read through. We brought them coffee from the shitty cafe on the third floor and reveled in the opportunities to at least briefly see the outside world through giant glass walls. But even then it was tormenting, seeing the gorgeous light of day and knowing we couldn’t be in it. Only ever given money to buy what they wanted and not allowed to get anything of our own, we were left to drink from cold, leftover cups just so we could stay conscious during our midnight drives home.
Charles was overwhelmed. We only had three weeks left on the contract, and he didn’t know what he was going to do after that. Frankly, neither the fuck did I.
We finished a good amount of work tonight — nothing near everything on our plates — and he decided to go onto the roof to think. We weren’t supposed to go up there, but no one was ever here besides the janitors, so we didn’t give a shit. After I finished organizing our workspace and cataloging what we’d sifted through, I grabbed my things and went up to check on him.
He was sitting on one of the pipes. It was a good enough height to lean on, and in our many nights here, we’d made it one of the few things on this rooftop that wasn’t completely covered in dust.
“Hey,” I said. The door slammed against the wedge behind me as I walked up to him. “You coming?”
He didn’t speak, but his foot tapped the ground as if adding to the arrhythmic beat of one of the unstable ventilation units. His hands were clenched in one another, and he stared out at the cityscape. When I finally made it around to him and sat down, I could see every single light reflect in his glossy eyes.
He noted my presence silently. I joined him in watching the city.
Seconds passed in time that was irrelevant here. I put my hand on his shoulder. He breathed shakily, and fatigue kept me from saying anything more.
It was hard to talk on nights like this. But eventually he spoke.
“Do you remember when Professor Leysinton was on that tangent first semester about how awesome New York City was?”
I turned to him, stirred from a delirious rest by his words. A distant memory from freshman year flashed in my head, and I thought back to our Literary History professor drifting off course from a boring lecture after being provoked by a student trash talking NYC. It was nearly impossible to bring a smile to my face, but my frown grew smaller at the recollection.
Charles, however, managed a rueful grin. “It was fun. And she delayed the quiz for the end of class, so–” he chuckled softly — “yeah. But I remember something she said.”
Ahead and around us, the city breathed in its intricate, magnificent grace. Charles fidgeted with his fingers.
“She said, ‘You can never truly be alone in a big city like New York. No matter how lonely you are, you’re still surrounded by millions of people. Even when you hit rock bottom, you’re still in a high rise hundreds of feet off the ground. You’re never alone.’”
His voice trembled. I held his shoulder tighter; I didn’t know what to say. There was a palpable grief heavier than what my mind could lift. There always was. Today was nothing new.
“Thanks for being alone with me, Liv.” I knew he didn’t just mean that moment. “You’re a great friend.”
I stared at him and his glistening eyes. Slowly, I moved my hand from his shoulder to his hand. I squeezed. “Come on. We should go home.”
He nodded and stood up with me, and before I knew it he had embraced me in a hug whose warmth was incongruous with the cold of the midnight air. I hugged him back, my concern wavering in a dull, barely conscious mind. My best friend of many, many years, here with me now, broke and broken as fuck in a worthless, degrading job that we were set to lose in less than a month. Our degrees felt useless; we could barely speak. So much for a language we’d paid countless thousands of dollars to learn more about.
We walked back to the door and descended the stairs to the top level. Dim lights lit the way for distant janitors, but shadow was the veil that filled the floor. We walked in the dark, our tired eyes scanning for leftovers or anything else we could take. I grabbed a half empty coffee cup from on top of a cabinet, and we made it to the elevators.
“Fuck,” Charles said, patting himself down. “I think I left my wallet on the roof. Meet you downstairs?”
I just nodded, closing my eyes in a brief loss to the relentless assault of exhaustion. I neglected to even speak to him as he turned around and walked back to the staircase, nor did I watch him and ingrain in my head an image of his person. I just sighed and pressed the call button.
A few moments later, a ding signified the opening doors in front of me. I stepped into the darkness of the elevator and gazed through its glass back wall.
I looked down at the cup of coffee in my hand. I needed to wake up.
Now, stirred from a mental daze, I watched the city in which I was never alone and knew with morbid certainty that Charles would make it to the lobby before I would. Maybe that was better than this.
The elevator continued its slow fall.
Fuck. Never before had the city seemed so beautiful.