There was once a chance that I didn't take. He looked back at me from the subway window, his mouth partly open with his panicked breathing; his eyes distantly hopeful, nearly black with all the words he was holding back behind his teeth.
"Come with me. Help me get through this." The bland, mustard yellow of the lights silhouetted him, created shadows beneath his eyes and sharper angles in his face. I felt every inch of that slow subway train start, every centimeter tearing further along the seams of my steadfast decision. My judgment call suddenly seemed very, very stupid. Rushed. Unfettered by emotion or fantasy, sure; but empty and cold because of that. At my side, my fingers twitched with the urge to touch him, to reach out to him pleadingly.
Don't leave me. I could taste the copper thunder in my mouth, I said, "I can't." The silence in my head was louder than the rumblings of the engines.
"But I need you," he crooned.
My desperation, my unannounced remorse, remained my own. I stood enduringly in place. The hustle of the subway moved around me, streaks of color and movement that my eyes never flickered to. Shouts and bursts of laughter erupted from all directions. I wanted to cry out, I wanted to open my mouth and scream with as much force and passion as I had buried deep in my chest throughout my life. I felt every rational decision build up inside of me. Each time, the suppressed emotions engorged on themselves, beneath my skin they simmered into a deadly pressure. A pressurized can just waiting to burst; waiting for flame or puncture, waiting for the chance to release everything. I watched him in the window until the subway train was gone.
The truth was, even though I could barely swallow the silent admonition of it, I simply could not handle his failings anymore. Seven years prior, I’d have gotten on that train with him. I’d have run off to wherever he was taking us, I’d have gotten a meaningless little job and paid the rent while he struggled to find work and spent all of my spare money on crack or booze. But seven years before had just been the beginning; seven years earlier I hadn’t wasted almost a decade chasing him around the continent and watching him throw his life away.
I've never gone back to the subway. I’m too afraid I’ll see him there, peering out at me from behind one of the dirty windows. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, sweat pouring from my hairline and my heartbeat so frantic it feels like it’s clawing it’s way through my throat, awakened by some haunting memory of his tired eyes and stuttering promises.
I left our small studio apartment above a bakery three months after he did, during a special bake-sale the bakery was running; for nearly two weeks straight they baked and sold nothing except chocolate chip cookies. Every variation imaginable: dark chocolate chip, white chocolate chip, chocolate cookies with any number of chips, chocolate chip and walnut, some with cranberries and some with raisins. The smell of them wouldn’t leave the apartment. I fell into a pit of wretched self-loathing; I only left the apartment to go to the liquor store or to find old friends I hadn’t contacted in years. Simon had been in such need of all my attention, to keep him from leaping off buildings or swallowing a bottle of bleach after a bad day, that I’d dropped my own habits without even realizing it at first. I had always hated the revolving door of old habits; I never seemed to get far enough away that a thorough breakdown wouldn’t send me crawling back to my crutch. Opium had always been my favorite.
Surrounded by the smell of chocolate chip cookies, I ran for miles on the treadmill, my feet pounding step after step, perspiration dripping from nearly every pore of my body. I ran to keep myself from thinking, to keep myself from recognizing the memories that lurked dangerously beneath the aroma of a delicious snack. I ran until my knees turned to jell-o and I face-planted onto the tread-belt. As I sat on the couch, head titled back and my eyes shut, holding a towel beneath my bloody nose, I heard the door open. When I looked, there was no one. I turned on the TV, hoping to drown out the sounds of the building to keep myself from freaking out, and flipped through the channels mindlessly.
From behind me, he said, “Mm, this place never smelled more like home than it did when they were baking chocolate chip cookies.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sound of his voice, dropping my bloody towel onto the couch and spinning around to see him. From two or three feet away, he smiled at me, and I couldn’t believe how much he’d changed. His hair was longer, hanging down to his shoulders in loose brown waves, and his dimples were back in his cheeks. He looked more like the Simon I’d met in a small diner in Louisiana. Every molecule of my body vibrated with the elation that was welling up in my veins and I threw myself over the back of the couch into his open arms. He smelled like chocolate chip cookies and leather. “I can’t believe you’re home,” I cried into his jacket, giant crocodile tears. For the rest of the night, Simon and I sat on the couch and watched TV. We didn’t discuss what had happened in the subway, or what was going to happen in the morning. We didn’t say much of anything. He held me against him until I fell asleep.
I woke up feeling like I’d been beaten over the head with a mallet, with dried blood covering most of my chin and mouth. I freshened up, brushed my teeth and put on a pot of coffee before I wandered out into the hallway to find Simon. I hollered for him down the stairwell but no one answered. He’s probably down in the bakery, purchasing up half of their chocolate chip cookie supply, I rationalized, turning around and scooping up the newspaper on my way back inside. On the front page was a color photo of a nasty motorcycle wreck just outside of the city. A mangled body in a leather jacket lay on the side of the road. The caption read, in bold print: Man, 26, dies in late-night fatal crash. The article went on to say the man’s name was Simon Throwe, and that he'd died just hours before he appeared in my apartment.
Unable to face the desolate studio apartment alone, I left New York City that day. I couldn’t stand the hollow feeling in my bones or how it was only a faint echo of the emptiness of the apartment, or the familiar smell that I couldn’t escape. The warm aroma of chocolate chip cookies still makes me cry.