Credit: Vaidehi Tikekar

Rosa was on her way out. All her bags were against the apartment door. She looked at the thermostat. A home is a home is a home is a home outside your own. It was the illusion of control that was frustrating. The energy company had to be raising the thermostat numbers remotely, or at least that was Rosa’s theory. Jay agreed, given the recent stress on the grid: two major heat waves over Jay’s six weeks in the city, one that July and one in early August.

Six weeks was strange to say like it was over. Especially when the whole time, time felt as though it was moving like … months in a body? Warm, and circulating.

You see this finger? Jay said next to Rosa on the couch neither of them liked. Jay held his index finger out. It’s your brain. Your nerves go all the way here. One system. All the way down.

Rosa looked at him, his nose. Jay was weird, the way they all were now that they were older. Since high school, no one had been normal? You can only understand people who are your contemporaries. You cannot understand people who are not. Rosa felt she knew what Jay wanted, partially because they were the same age and partially because they talked. Talked comfortably about where they were from, like people their age could. There were pictures — Jay said, after reaching over Rosa to get to his phone. She kissed his shoulder.

Yeah, he said, falling back. Here’s one.

Rosa squinted. Jay’s grandmother sat in rolled-up capris while a young Jay stood in the driveway, his hands on a dirt bike. Jay zoomed in on the bike. Billie — that was the name of the bike, he said. Probably still there. In some junkyard or shed somewhere, I don’t know. Left behind. Their generation still believed that — believed in a behind, and like that, that things could be left in it.

Jay tucked Rosa’s hair and faced the phone down on his chest. Thanks, Jay said, when Rosa got up to check the thermostat. No one had anything to say about the heat — neither Frederic R., whose host picture was a barbecue grill, nor the neighbors, whom Rosa only saw a handful of times. Rosa had seen the one neighbor downstairs being carried out on a stretcher earlier that week. If she saw her again, Rosa resolved to offer to check-in — though it wasn’t clear what she could promise, being a guest, or with Jay being the guest, and it being unclear what that made her. A local with a library card. Jay carried what he needed in a clip. His passport was always on the nightstand. Rosa looked through it once, just to make sure.

Jay always knew the date he’d be leaving. September 5th and the beds were stripped, linens and towels in the washing machine. Her generation was the short-term rental generation — or it was in the city. Rosa was from a small town, like Jay. Her home friends owned homes. A home is a home is a home is a home outside your own. Lines stuck in her head. Her home friends were too far to have ever met Jay and yet, not many of her friends in the city had either. She could feel it, then, in the hallway about to leave — no one to confirm that the time had been real.

10:54, that was the other number on the thermostat. Checkout was 11am. Rosa was still in her pajama tank top, with her nipples a little visible, or invisible. It didn’t matter in the city what anyone thought, or who was watching. Their generation wanted to be noticed, but less so. Her chest tightened when they said goodbye on the curb. She saw his sweat under his backpack strap. He said, don’t be a stranger.

Turn it off, the instructions read. It felt good, to have Jay kiss her part. She could still feel his breath in her roots. There was no noise between the furniture — especially in the bedroom, where Rosa went after the thermostat. Her bags were still outside the door. She didn’t know if she should trust the neighbors. If she were her grandmother, she’d have kept the door locked and windows shut. The window in the bedroom overlooked a construction site. With the noise and the heat, they almost always kept the window shut. Rosa’s grandmother had strange, dated notions about outside air and inside air. I’m not sure she was happy, Rosa said when she showed Jay an old picture of her. It was never clear how she felt. Rosa pulled up on the bedroom window. Next to the chipped white paint and exposed wood was an ant on the sill. Its elbows were bent. A breeze came in and rocked the body gently. Her grandmother had always been so repulsed by insects. Rosa steadied the body. She was getting used to them.

The water was in the pan and M. brought it to a boil. M. looked at her boiling water, and the forehead of the steamer. She wiped her brow. There were always reasons to be nervous. Was her phone charged? Her niece would text when she was on her way. After the events of that week, the doctors recommended she keep her phone charged. What bad timing that had been: the heat exhaustion and the pot, caught by the handle, coming down with her. The burnt beans cooking on the floor, heaped against her leg. The throbbing in her chest, then up-down her leg. The door hinge and the footsteps, the one paramedic coming to her side, and brushing the beans off her bones, and lo, archaeology, here were her shattered pots and pans. His partner turned off the stove. Her head was lifted so she could see the fire. There was only one thing she feared, and it was this part: the pain, and feeling separated by it.

M. breathed. The fall hadn’t made her fear fire, or cooking. See? Look where she was now, feeling less nervous. Not much had changed. The neighborhood was changing, and that made her nervous. New people move in and they bring with them their gods. The vacation rental above had been a test run, and now the owner of the building was beginning to evict tenants. He’d started with P. Was that legal? Letters under everyone’s door. The worst was the waiting. Are you all right sweet, she wanted to say to the girl in the hospital bed next to her. The rich girl in the coma, her rich family that could do nothing but wear jewelry when they came in, and wear jewelry when they went out. When the rich girl left a new girl came in. The rich girl’s bouquet remained, behind.

M wrote an email to Frederic where she told him she was born in that apartment. Frederic listed no address. Had he ever been to the building? To use his contact form, she had to do a verification test; she failed to find the bridges. There was a real way in which the apartment held, and bore, her. She treated it accordingly, asking guests to remove their shoes before walking in. There hadn’t been time to clean up the spill when the paramedics came. M. saw the shatter as she was being wheeled out. It left her unsettled. The girl from upstairs in the hallway pressed against the wall to give them more room. No, she didn’t want to be caught there, in the air around the stretcher, nor in the ambulance, trapped in the container. The contents of the whale. It was in refusal that she pushed her mind upright and hovered over the ground. Paramedics scrolled on their phones, rocking with the van. The pouch on the IV pole helped her regain her balance and slow her way forward. The front of the van had more steps than she was expecting, though she knew what was necessary. Half her body leaned in through the wall and into the front part of the ambulance, where she steadied her hand on the driver’s seat. There were two lanes of traffic ahead, back lights on. The driver pressed the brake lightly.

The steam fired toward the ceiling. M. again wiped her brow. Lunch would be ready soon. Two semi-trucks had been in both lanes. How is my driving was printed on their backs. M. remembered the massive trailers and their x-ray insides of cardboard, of pressed processed boxes and unrecognizable things. Looking out at them, all M. could think was how heavy they were. The groan of that highway. How they lumbered in the river.

You ever seen those domes before? the cab driver asked, glancing at Jay in the rearview. They passed warehouses and empty lots. The periphery. Jay shook his head. —Salt. They’re for road salt and sand. For the ice in the winter.

Jay nodded.

You been here in winter? the driver asked.

Jay shook his head. He couldn’t imagine the city in any season but summer. It had been a hot six weeks. He’d remember that about the city — the heat, and the pressure. The trip had been his first big test for his boss, who’d sent him to do research in the city without much to go on.

Temperature ok?

Yep, Jay said, bringing his shoe to his knee and retying his shoelace. The TV on a news channel glitched on the back of the passenger seat.

It’s slow with the construction, the driver said. His right hand had what looked like a mood ring. — It’s unpopular. They always ram it in now, before it gets too close to the election.

Jay felt for his wallet.

You vote?

Not here, Jay said. Wallet. Good.

The driver gestured to the vacant lots. —It’s these parts that have the most power now. You know, the flow.

For the book, Jay had spent a lot of time in the archives. His boss was from the city, and the book was an autobiography. It was interesting to see the neighborhood change. Cities were a slow math; the X in what one person imagined, twenty Ys before.

You seem like a young guy. How old are you?


Right, the driver nodded. —You know there’s been a lot of young people in and out? I drove another young guy last week in the ‘smart city business.’ You heard of that?

I — no.

Decisions made through the lens of consequence rather than the lens of ambition, the driver said. That’s what this guy was saying. Think about that … casinos. Vacancy through the lens of consequence.

Jay’s boss valued ambition. That was the theme of the book.

Lots, the cab driver said, glancing back. —Empty ones. Time.

Jay was looking at the side railing slurring by. Jay’s whole job was time. They were approaching a bridge. A group of runners were coming up along the road, wearing neon bike jackets and headlights turned on. They kept wiping their foreheads, and gesturing others in the pack onward.

What time did you say your flight is?

Noon, Jay said.

And your terminal? The driver’s mood was hard to tell in the changing light.

Jay wasn’t sure. He pulled out his phone. Always rivers, and filtration. A text from his brother, and Rosa. The driver slowed the car and the TV lurched forward, releasing the news reel of the mayor taking the podium. Jay’s boss worked with the mayor for many years. Even, maybe especially, as a visitor, it was surprising to Jay how talked to he felt in the mayor’s few words. He knew the mayor was thinking about him, and what he wanted. It was strange, really: how the mayor imagined him.

The construction site held together. M. knew the deli where the construction workers went to lunch, though she couldn’t see them. The things they liked in the middle shelf. Rosa was sitting on the edge of the curb, though M. couldn’t see her either. When the bus came, she’d go to the end of the block to meet it. Her phone was face down on the concrete, layered and burning at the bottom. No word from Jay.

There would’ve been no way of knowing if or when a prayer kicked in. Rosa saw M.’s rain boots in front of the door on her way out. If M. had a say, she’d have asked for a prayer that opened the hospital windows. The older hospitals had windows that opened. It used to be you’d know the electrician who wired your building and installed all your units. The walls of M.’s apartment were thin and the insulation sometimes fibered her attempts to see out. Someday, staying will mean floating. The building was built by someone. She knew the heat, and how these walls mattered in it. What was the quality of the windows they were putting in? She wondered if the boy would know — the one who stayed behind to eat his sandwich outside on the scaffolding while things hung around him. The silence after the suspension. The clench of the cranes resembling the robotic machines in the hospital, the arms, and the operators. Dig deep enough and —

Not everyone shares what they think, but that doesn’t stop them from thinking it. The boy knew this. M. could tell the boy saw something in the small [for scale] things he watched, eating his lunch alone. The scaffolding poles had been thought up by some other people older than him and younger than her, and M. had a story for them both. The building being built but not yet with AC, and the wind hollowing from one body to the other. The rush on the street where Rosa thought about X. It was good, though. That they had met.


1. Sky Hopinka, Lore

2. Fran Leibowitz, Pretend It’s a City

3. Nannette Jackowski and Ricardo de Ostos, Scavengers in Promised Lands lecture

4. Vincent James and Jennifer Yoos, In Parallel interviewed in Buoyant Clarity

5. Christopher Meyer, Daniel Hemmendinger, and Shawna Meyer, ‘II: Preparing to Stay’ in Buoyant Clarity

Frani O'Toole

is a writer currently based in Ireland. Her art criticism has been featured in The Guardian, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic, while her fiction was most recently featured in The Stinging Fly.

All contributions from Frani O'Toole

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