The Question of the City

Jerome’s collar put pressure on his windpipe and his backpack dug into his shoulders. It was the discomfort typical to every morning’s train ride and he soon forgot it. His thoughts drifted back to where they’d been since the previous night when Meg shut off the T.V. and arranged her body to face his. He’d heard her words and a moment later he took her in his arms. He looked over her shoulder at the room and wondered when, exactly, it became his family’s (was it the instant she told him, or would it be when the baby was carried into the apartment for the first time. Had it been when Meg first learned about the pregnancy, then stood in the room alone, imagining the things he imagined now. Or had the room been their family’s always, before they moved in, before they themselves were born), and he was confronted then with a realization that the future exists.

He’d had girlfriends, a couple of them very serious, and he’d considered the possibility of marriage and children. But as each relationship came to its end, his endearment to love itself began to dissipate, until he wasn’t sure he believed in it, or if he wanted to.

Then he’d met Meg at a finance conference in Houston. He saw her take a seat in the first row of an auditorium with a stage and podium at the front, but hadn’t been immediately attracted to her. She appeared dour and her limp eyelids and pursed mouth communicated a feminine impatience he found intimidating. He forgot about her and turned his attention to the carousel of rehearsed informative presentations that lasted until lunchtime. Two or three hundred brokers congregated in an adjacent room decorated with simple white-clothed tables and a buffet of Subway sandwiches, soda and fruit. Jerome attempted to locate someone from his branch but failed and sat at a table by himself. The tables had chairs for ten people each and his slowly filled. Men in suits, bent over their plain lunches, betrayed their dignity, and women with mousy hairstyles and moustaches caked in skin-colored make-up sat up straight chewing delicately under the delusion that elegance was attainable there. One chair at his right remained. Meg seated herself there without speaking and took a couple of bites in his peripheral vision. Then she said, “I hate Subway.”

“If you hate this,” he replied, “you should try their sandwiches.”

Meg laughed. They noted each other’s nametags then fell easily into a refreshingly familiar conversation. She explained that she grew up in Houston and considered leaving but hadn’t gotten around to it. He told her he was living in Chicago but wanted to move to New York.

“I’ve always wanted to move to New York,” she said.

“You can come with me,” he said, aware that he was flirting. Aware, also, that she knew it.

“Really?” She leaned toward him and smiled, a large smile that accentuated the wrinkles from the edges of her nose to the center of her chin. Her skin was the first he’d come across that he might describe as olive, and she had freckles on her high cheek bones. Her hair was black and cut to the bottom of her neck. Jerome chose then to see her as beautiful.

They moved to a panel of executives they’d both been assigned to and for the rest of the day Jerome found himself watching her from several brown-cushioned chair rows back, attempting to get to know her silently. She rarely looked his way, but he was sure she knew he was looking; as sure as if he was tapping on her shoulder.

They ate lunch together the last two days of the conference, choosing to take their sandwiches outside the hotel where they leaned against the Regency’s sidewalk marquee and observed the humid bustle of downtown Houston in the summertime. After they ate she would smoke and he would watch her expert exhalation and the casual crossing of her small chest with her jacketed arms. Her nails were painted red and her fingers were pale. He took notice of her details between the ebb and flow of their increasingly personal conversations, just on the other side of an irreversible confidence.

At the end of the conference they shook hands in the lobby of the hotel and parted, but not before exchanging email addresses. Jerome emailed her from his laptop before boarding a flight to Chicago: I think I might miss you already.

He shut the laptop and lined up at the gate, aware that he’d taken a risk with a woman he might never see again.

When he returned to his Lincoln Park apartment and retrieved his email he saw her response: I’m pretty sure I miss you too, friend. I guess things like this really do happen.

She didn’t leave his thoughts. One bright afternoon he sat overlooking the Loop from his office window and strained for half an hour to recall her smile. After several minutes of apprehension he sent her an email explaining that he’d been thinking about her. She responded with a long monologue about how she hated her work, why she’d started going to a gym, and she even mentioned, at one point, a stuffed bear she used to own. It was a brown teddy bear with a green bow tie, she wrote, and she’d spent an hour in her mother’s garage the previous day trying to find it. Thereafter Jerome and Meg exchanged emails several times a day, until he asked for her phone number and every night, before bed, they spoke.

The things he told her were not things he had never told anyone else. He didn’t have any deep secrets that he only shared with her. But she made him feel immediately that what secrets he did have were important to her. He was reassured that even those secrets culled from the darkest places would never turn her away from him in their after effect. He disclosed himself to her and by winter it had dawned on him that she was doing the same.

It was New Year’s Eve and he was standing on the top of his building. On the other side of the roof, facing the skyline and the lake, his friends were drinking champagne and preparing for the fireworks at Navy Pier. He stood alone against the rail facing north, huddled in his long winter coat, his cheeks burning against the hard wind, his phone in his hand.

“Meg,” he said, “I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

“What,” she said.

He rolled his eyes at the poor reception that insinuated itself between them.

“I love you,” he said.

“I love you too,” she said, without hesitation, but with a widening sadness that accumulated at each word’s passing.

“I’d do anything to kiss you right now,” he said.

“That’d be wonderful,” she said, and Jerome felt his cheeks warm up against the freeze as he realized that what they’d exchanged was just as good as any tender, small physicality.

In February he flew to Houston. He paid for a hotel but he only stayed there once. After the first night he stayed at her apartment where they slept together, frantically consummating their unlikely affair. He could smell and taste red wine on her tongue and on her lips, and in their months apart he was returned often to the scent and the clean white sensation of her fresh sheets.

The following spring Meg came to Chicago. There was no pretense of a hotel. She slept with him in his room and in the morning they jogged together along the lakefront past family barbecues and men playing basketball. The evenings were reserved for friends and dinner parties where they drank beers until midnight when they went to his room and embedded themselves in each other.

It was a little more than a year after their first meeting when Jerome announced he was ready to move to New York, and he wanted her to come with him. There’d been an understanding all along that one day they would live together somewhere and New York presented the opportunity. Meg agreed and their transfers were approved shortly after. They moved into their Upper West Side apartment in the fall, when trees above the western wall of the park were orange and shedding into busy playgrounds and against quiet stone church steps. The apartment was on Amsterdam Avenue just north of 86th and across the street from a cluttered computer repair shop and a Middle Eastern restaurant called Mataam Al-Mataam.

Their first year together was characterized by the adventure of a new life in the most exciting city in the world. They excelled at the game of discovery and took extreme satisfaction in the buildup of restaurants, parks, bookstores and museums – places they could claim for themselves. Even more satisfying was the excavation of each other. They both breathed a sigh of relief at each layer of revelation that exposed a more perfect, more loving incarnation of the person in whom they’d placed so much hope.

They worked in the same office downtown and took the train together every morning. After a few months, however, Meg became depressed with work, and each day her depression threatened to invade the rest of her life, and then his. She slept at odd hours and had unpredictable bouts of nausea. The exhilaration they’d shared began to shift until Jerome worried he alone preserved it. Their morning commute became an exercise in silence. Meg could only concentrate on the interminable tedium of the day ahead, and Jerome stayed quiet with her as though in common mourning over some long dead friend.

It was late, past three, when Jerome woke and the bed was empty. He left the bedroom and saw the light on beneath the door of the bathroom. He knocked. There was a cough inside and a moment later Meg told him to come in. He opened the door and she was sitting against the bathtub, her legs curled under her.

“You were sick,” he said.

She nodded then said yes in a quiet voice made of air.

“What is it,” he asked.

Meg closed her eyes and let out a long breath. Her shirt and pajama pants made her body seem insubstantial and hollow against the tile. Her feet were dimpled with pale spots and shaped into crescents of thin bone and veins. She was always tired now and looked it. Gray pools had formed under her eyes and her mouth didn’t close all the way as if she was too exhausted to keep her jaw up. She shook her head.

Jerome sat next to her, his back rested against the sink cabinet, and ran his hand over her hair. He understood it wasn’t the work itself that made Meg unhappy. Instead, she suffered at her looks into the future, which revealed an unending tide of narrow, uncolored years. Meg imagined a life of events, but had yet to experience one. The future she’d invented for herself was one of revolving encounters that turned on her own initiative. The move to New York had been Jerome’s doing, not hers, even if it had taken her own resolve to decide upon it. Now she wondered where her own direction went, and if she could find it.

“You should quit,” he told her.

Her breath rattled out of her with her eyes down on the toilet’s porcelain. Her hair fell in her face.

“I can’t,” she said.

“I want you to.”

Her eyes lifted. She had to know whether he understood his own assertion, and if he meant it. Jerome was used to taking risks. She was not. She needed his faith to be real first, before she moved. If she looked close she could see it, in his sober expression, and in the calm posture of his body like architecture on the green bathroom rug. Meg knew Jerome could go on without her, but in the bathroom with the pink stream of her sick still floating in the water like a constellation, she confessed she couldn’t continue without him.

“Of course you could,” he said.

Jerome sat with her and waited but she wasn’t sick anymore. Then he gave her his hand and helped her up from the floor.

It took several weeks, but after many assurances that he and her savings would care for them, Meg was convinced to quit. They didn’t speak on the train ride home after her last day. She sat next to him, a box of personal items removed from her desk on her lap, and though it wasn’t obvious, he knew she was smiling. The train shook in the tunnel and their heads bobbed equally and in unison. Her fingers were wrapped around the box’s edge and he wanted to touch them in congratulation. He kissed her on the cheek because it was all he could do, then looked again through the window opposite into the passing blackness.


She’d decided she wanted to go back to school and was beginning to figure out where when she learned she was pregnant. They could have everything they wanted, he was sure. Jerome didn’t believe in God, but he thought, if such a thing could exist, his life had been blessed. He lived in a constant state of awareness, conscious always that bad things might happen, though they never did. He began, in his early twenties, to feel an obligatory appreciation for what seemed to be a string of good luck from the moment he’d been born to the moment he stepped on the train that morning. It wasn’t a dramatic luck – the kind that lottery winners had – but a common one that built over time into a balanced, healthy life. There had been no great tragedies to come to terms with. His body was fit and his intelligence was competitive. His parents were still alive and in good health. He had Meg, and now a child was coming. If he was not appreciative, Jerome feared, it might all be taken away. By whom he wouldn’t take time to consider, worried he might unearth some religious tendency leftover from childhood that had never been entirely bleached out of him. All the same, by acknowledging the grace that had enabled him to live fully to that day, he was acknowledging God in his life. Jerome wasn’t entirely comfortable with the realization but found it natural and so accepted it until some further date when he might root it out and dash it away.

Jerome transferred to another train, walking quickly out of habit among the other hurried travelers. A young man with dreaded hair stood in a white t-shirt and stained jeans over an open guitar case and sang a version of “Falling Man” that required him to stomp his grayed sneakers every few beats in exclamation. Jerome boarded the train and stood in the middle of the car over a sleeping homeless man whose assortment of plastic bags occupied the seat next to him.

The train screeched around a bend and the tunnel lit up in intermittent notions of luminescent orange. A middle-aged blonde woman a few feet away in a beige pants suit stumbled forward and a disembodied hand reached out to stabilize her by the elbow. The woman stood up straight without looking back at the person who’d assisted her. Instead she took a more firm grip on the vertical metal pole at her side; a gold ring with a red stone pressed into the thick flesh of her fourth finger.

The train became more crowded until he couldn’t see the woman anymore. His view was obscured by the raised blue-jacketed arm of a man in front of him. The train whistled and rocked and everyone in the car stayed still, so used to the motion of the track that they hardly noticed it.

Jerome thought again of the baby, as far away as it was, so very close by. His belief in fate began to creep back up on him and it both comforted and irritated him. He wanted to believe that people had the choice to make of themselves what they wished, but he was just as sure that there was no escaping an action once it was committed, and that any action once done was always intended. If a person could only map out their life at the end looking back, and see how they might be born and grow, and then love and then die, it didn’t mean those events hadn’t been laid out long ago in some cartographic society of the otherworld. Jerome found the thought suffocating and attempted to reason around it but failed. He was frustrated by the smallness of mind in an infinite reality.

Jerome tended to ponder too deeply the busy chasms of his terror, and it caused him to hate going to bed alone. When he was a boy he contemplated for long hours at night what death might be and what the end of the universe looked like. Decomposition was especially troubling to him. He’d conjure a face, sometimes, that floated gape-mouthed in his imagination and somehow became more grotesque by the instant until young Jerome forced it away. His insomnia lasted into adulthood until he began leaving the T.V. on to distract him from his own thoughts. It became the only way he could sleep at all. When Meg came to New York with him and they moved into the same bed, he’d found her presence enough to subdue him. He only rarely lay awake dreading the day his parents were gone, or shaken by the thought of his own death, in an airplane, or at the end of a long life when all that was left would be himself and the open entrance to the darkness.

Jerome stumbled on a reservoir of concern for their baby’s well-being. He recognized the flipside, that fear was love and that one wouldn’t go on without the other. He would transform out of devotion into a father.

The train came to his stop and Jerome deboarded onto the shining gray tile marred by years of gum and streaks of shoe rubber. He adjusted his collar and tie while he walked, aware and proud of the click of his stiff heels, then pushed his way through the gold revolving doors into the lobby.

He crossed to the elevators. On the way up he noticed one woman in front of him, petite and wearing a black dress, staring at the ground while everyone else looked up at the numbers as they flashed by. He wondered where she was, and felt, though she couldn’t see him, that he was involved with her. He made out her white knuckles and the short brown hairs on her neck against the paleness of her skin. Then the doors opened and they stood on the platform to wait for the next elevator up, the woman now somewhere behind him. Jerome attempted quietly to distinguish himself in some subtle, just perceptible way for the woman, in case she’d felt him watching her. He tapped his fingers against his pant leg, hoping his silent communiqué might reach her across the vast extremes of the wasteland between strangers.

He reached his desk and sat to check his email. There was a message sent from Meg that morning: Have a great day, Daddy. I love you.

Tears came and he rubbed them away with the ends of his thumb and forefinger. He wrote back: I love you, honey. Thank you.

He answered more emails and returned phone calls left over from the day before. After an hour he crossed the gray carpeted office for his morning’s first coffee. He was pouring a cup when Andrew Barkow asked him how he was doing. Andrew stood leaned against a wall, his wide frame exposed beneath his blazer, a permanent troublemaker’s smile on his face. Behind Andrew a long window on the far wall posed the question of the city far away and little compared to the clear blue sky beyond it. Jerome almost told him then reconsidered. He wanted to hold onto it just a little longer.

He went to his desk and placed the coffee down where it dipped against the mug’s lid and over the side streams of brown hot liquid poured to the faux wood beneath. Jerome took a tissue and wiped his fingers and the desk then tossed the damp paper into the wastebasket.

Jerome’s small office was bordered on three sides by gray removable partitions and on the other by a white dimpled wall with a beige runner. There was no window but he found the wall’s blankness as receptive to daydreams as any window view might be. He was leaned back in his chair with the end of a pen in his teeth, his gaze somewhere deep in the space of the blankness, when without knowing why, he lifted the phone to call Meg. It started to ring and his words began to form when an industrial scream interrupted his thoughts and a loud boom made him drop the phone. A muscular force shifted the building one way then back as though the continent quivered to the wreck of all above. His body and other vulnerable objects were lifted from their places so that pens, paper and wires were left exposed and lost after the lights went out. He heard shouts – a man shouting – and a great buzz that rumbled beneath and around him. Jerome sat on the floor, against a wall, somewhere near the cubicle opening that served as a doorway. He was stunned by the unknowable power that had shaken him out of all life and into whatever improvised zone it had awakened. He couldn’t tell if the force had come from inside or outside, but he knew the buzz born from the scream was inside with them now. Jerome smelled smoke, and he was aware, after a moment, that the floor had become hot, and felt with each breath that he was swallowing conflagration itself. He grasped that something unexpected and terribly wrong had happened. Everything went still and quiet for a long minute, except for the buzz whirring in the invisible floors below.

Sam Ramos was born and raised in Austin, Texas and is currently a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.