It occurred to Lennon McKinney that she loathed her hometown of New York City on the subway, somewhere in a tunnel between Lexington and Fifth. The thought lodged in her mind when a man twice her size wavered, unable to withstand the unstable rocking, and knocked her into the surrounding bed of unyielding bodies, none of whom wanted to be touched, during the morning rush hour. As the train slowed down, the bodies shifted, knees and legs braced to ease the sudden stop that was sure to come.
Lennon’s legs splayed apart to absorb the shock of the train screeching to a halt as her hand snaked about for the nearest metal pole, burrowing in between one woman’s carefully styled hair and the crook of a man’s elbow. The train pulled into the next station. Lennon, her grip precarious and her arm held taut and tense to hang on, watched the man who’d bumped into her with narrowed eyes as he exited the car. Lennon wished she’d stomped on his foot. She wished it were permissible for adults to throw tantrums, to scream, hit, cry and be rude.
It would’ve made her feel better if, in the universe where adults were allowed to let out their emotions in tantrums, she’d stomped on the guy’s foot until she made him hop up and down and yelp in pain. Then she’d call him out on his lack of balance and lack of concern, and then point at the dog-eared, battered paperback the man had been reading and heckle him for his bad taste in books.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please.” The three open doors slid closed, only to reopen abruptly. It was May and the city had been cursed with an early heat wave. Hot, humid air blew into the crowded subway from the platform. Lennon could visualize clear sweat pouring down her back as the heavy air wafted in. As the doors closed and then jumped open again, Lennon began to hear restless shifting, feet tapping, a few muttered curses and pointed glances at watches.
Sometimes, she’d be amused by and happy about the predictability of New Yorkers. Lennon had been born and raised in New York and except for her four years of college, had lived nowhere else. She took pride in the city’s reputation and in the thick skin it took to survive there. New Yorkers had a strained patience. They were tough. They were cynical. Lennon was one of them.
But that morning, as Lennon held onto the metal pole until her knuckles turned white, until the bones underneath her pale skin showed clearly, she wondered what had possessed her to return here, to this dirty, overcrowded city, where she stood among the crowd, unseen, and alone.
The day had begun as it normally did for Lennon McKinney. Around six-thirty, she heard the distant sound of her father leaving for work. At six-forty-five, as she floated in between dreams and grouchy wakefulness, thanks to a garbage truck making booming metallic and creaking mechanical noises directly below her window, Lennon’s bed was invaded by a tiny, hot body.
Lennon rolled over onto her back and squeezed open her brown eyes, squinting to make out the shape of her twelve-year-old sister, Hikari. Lennon frowned at her sister and mumbled, “What do you want?”
Hikari merely shrugged as she clawed her way under the lavender and pink sheet that was twisted around Lennon’s body. She did this at least three times a week.
“Atsui!” Lennon exclaimed in Japanese as Hikari’s almost feverishly warm, chubby tanned leg collided with her longer, alabaster one. “Why are you so hot all the time?”
“Len,” Hikari whined for a moment before she shut her brown eyes. Within a minute, her hands were balled up at shoulder level and her mouth went slack with sleep. Len rolled her eyes and then closed them, determined to snooze as much as she could.
The alarm clock went off forty-five minutes later. She raised her head off the pillow long enough to glare at both the sun peeking in through her tightly closed blinds and at the fuzzy outline of her alarm clock, which cried out from its station on her dresser across the room. Hikari stirred, rolling onto her side and shaking her head from side to side like a bobble head, a sign that she was waking, so Lennon rolled out of bed in a somersault and padded across the room to turn off the damn alarm. She hated setting the thing every night, but learned in high school that it was best to keep the contraption away from her flailing hands. At least two clocks had been dropped on the floor or thrown onto the carpet in her first-thing-in-the-morning bitchiness.
Lennon watched her sister roll over with a sigh into the space she’d just vacated. She missed being twelve and innocent, but she missed having a summer vacation to look forward to even more. With a sigh, she picked up her glasses and left the room, her sanctuary. Opening the bedroom door was becoming a much-hated chore every morning. She’d caught herself a few mornings ago staring at the white door. She couldn’t bear to reach for it in order to open it.
She wondered about the feasibility of living like a hermit in the woods somewhere, Walden Pond-style. Sure, she was a city girl and liked heating and indoor plumbing, but being a hermit had seemed appealing to her in high school. Early in the morning, before the world woke up, the idea once again seemed like a good one.
The only other person awake this obscenely early in the morning was her mother, but Mom had a day off today and the door to her room was firmly shut.
Lennon peered into Hikari’s abandoned room. Hikari’s room was neat. She had few possessions and her most prized ones were posters of the current crop of teen idols taped precisely to the wall. Len pulled the door closed as she passed, on the way to the bathroom. Her brother Jack’s door was ajar, but she didn’t peek in. He’d just come home from his freshmen year of college a week ago and…it was better if she didn’t see the pigsty that his room was, the room Mom nagged about constantly, to no avail.
After brushing her teeth and showering, Lennon went back to her room, pulling on a red short-sleeved shirt and tailored black pants with pink pinstripes. She tucked the sheet around her sister’s body. Hikari’s bright pink, Hello Kitty-decorated pajamas, a tank top and shorts, were visible beneath the sheet. Her sister was sprawled out, limbs pointing in four different directions. Len smiled a little. She slept like that, too.
Genetics, Lennon mused, brushing out her thick dark hair, which existed on the color spectrum somewhere in between the jet-black hues of her Japanese mother and the reddish-brown that was Dad’s, before his hair went gray. Whatever the exact color was, her hair was wavy and difficult to keep neat, especially on humid days. Hikari’s black hair was ruler-straight, her eyes dark brown, but unlike her elder sister, Hikari’s skin was darker, more inclined to tan. Len made a face at herself in the mirror as she spread foundation on her cheeks. Her skin was pale, pasty, and in certain lighting, she thought she resembled a vampire. An inheritance from the Irish McKinneys, her skin did the trick of emphasizing the darkness of her eyes, but it was delicate skin. She’d been admonished from childhood to wear sunscreen and hats to protect it. Lennon wore the sunscreen when she remembered to, but hated hats.
She placed contact lenses into her eyes next, then blinked them into submission as she went downstairs, shot both halves of a sliced bagel into the toaster, and stood against the kitchen counter as she drank the remainder of Dad’s coffee. It was bitter, but that was fine with her. Len felt a tinge of bitterness within her this morning that suited the sharp taste of the coffee. Her job was an obligation that led to disappointment, which led to disillusionment, which led to frustration and then bitterness. That seemed to be the pattern of her emotions over the last six months, running circuitously with no way to break the cycle.
Lennon hated her job, although she’d been lucky to be hired, since she was only a twenty-three-year-old graduate student. Coming out of college, she’d briefly thought about entering a Master of Fine Arts program for Creative Writing, her major, but decided against it. Len had endured four years of writing classes and group workshops that more often stretched her tolerance and her manners than her writing skills. She’d had enough of the academic study of the craft.
The fact that she referred to her writing as “the craft”, when most people would call it a profession, a hobby or an interest, told her plenty about her own education. It sounded fine at her small, liberal arts New England college, where her roommate had been a theater major and everyone had an artistic outlet. They were taught to call their chosen medium “the craft.” In the real world, however, calling it “the craft” reeked of pretentiousness. Plus, Lennon couldn’t quite justify the cost of an MFA in Creative Writing and so, had gone to work instead.
In the end, Len decided to study marketing, to enhance her more practical minor. She’d earn her certificate in marketing by the end of the year. To be fair, marketing did interest her, but it didn’t absorb her. Advertising class downright disgusted her; she saw the entire process as manipulation, particularly of the vulnerable, and Lennon couldn’t condone that.
But she’d been the one who decided that doing something practical that still utilized those honed writing skills would be ideal. So Lennon sucked it up and dealt with it.
She wrote copy for press releases, pitch letters and chased after those her boss wanted to contact via the phone, a cog in the wheel at a public relations firm. Len knew that unless someone spoke to her at the office, she had a completely blank expression on her face. Nine to five, in an office with glaring lights and blank white walls, with cubicles that packed people in the lower rungs of the firm like stinky, dead sardines, wasn’t her idea of “doing what you love.” And then there was the ruthlessly practical side of her personality that answered back, “Do what you love? How about do what will pay off your student loans?”
She’d never thought she’d ever work in an office. She wondered if it was too artistically dramatic to say it felt like her soul was being sucked dry.