Read by Freddie Machin
As Max stepped outside he delighted in the fine mist dampening his hair, the sudden slickness of the pavement greeting his Oxfords. The rain began to soak his shirt, thunder clapped in the distance, and he felt himself relax, knowing this would mean fewer pedestrians on his streets. Yes, it was around 10 o'clock on a Tuesday night, but this was New York, after all, and there was always someone around. What Max prized about his home—the fact that after trading hours, almost no one hangs around Wall Street, making the area a ghost town—his wife Lena detested. More and more Max felt himself drawn out onto the streets, and on these occasions, he valued the deserted, almost post-apocalyptic air of the neighbourhood.
No umbrella, no jacket: Max preferred the vaguely adventurous and unthinking man-vs.-nature trampings to the undignified, useless struggling with a coat, hat, etcetera, none of which ever worked. If he walked long enough, he'd start to feel a part of nature, rather than an adversary to it.
His relentless pace allowed him both to focus and escape. He felt he'd solved many a problem by taking it to the streets like this. Answers once obscured suddenly became clear. Max believed modern conveniences could only slow him down, trip him up in situations like this, and he grew only to trust his brain and his feet.
Lena never understood. She told him he was running away. But to Max, going about everyday life as normal was running away. Eat, sleep, TV, work: all distractions. The answers were out in the streets. He just had to find them.
Someone was coming towards him, a teenager, androgynous in hoodie and jeans. Assuming his usual grumbling stance towards the youth, Max prepared to be jostled. But the person, running, suddenly stopped short. A girl, Max thought, as she looked up at him with saucer eyes. 'Um, I'm trying to find the Brooklyn Bridge ...' she began.
'Yeah, just walk up Broadway till you get to City Hall, and the bridge is right across from it,' Max said shortly. The girl looked a little bewildered. 'It's only about a mile. Maybe five blocks once you hit Broadway till you get to City Hall.'
No response. Max sighed. 'You're not from around here, are you?'
The girl burst into tears. 'Well I was visiting my boyfriend but we kind of had a fight and I don't really know where I am now, I just walked a lot but I think the Brooklyn Bridge is around here somewhere and I really wanna go there so yeah,' she rushed out, finishing anticlimactically.
She couldn't have been older than 17, Max guessed. He wondered what the fight had been about. Max liked to play a little game with himself sometimes: whenever he saw someone crying in public, he'd try to guess what it was the person was crying over. Cynical, perhaps, but he found that these occurrences were not so rare as to be unusual, yet not so regular as to be common, so he found it an engaging hobby. There was a woman last week who cried as she tried and tried and tried to swipe her MetroCard, but the turnstiles just would not let her through. She'd lost her job recently, Max figured. Clearly there was some bigger issue there to cause tears. The suit that didn't quite fit said 'job interview' and the frustration at not being able to complete a task: well, it all made sense.
But he'd always observed from a distance, never revealing the entertainment he found in these people. Now one of them was right here in his face. He felt touched by the shabby clothes the girl wore: dirty sneakers, hot pink hooded sweatshirt, and jeans. She must have loved this boy if she felt comfortable enough to visit him wearing these things.
'Look, come with me and I'll walk you there. It's not far,' Max offered.
'Are you sure?' the girl whispered, barely daring to turn the sentence into a question for fear he'd change his mind.
'I'm going that way anyway,' Max lied.
The Brooklyn Bridge was decent for walks, Max thought, although at night there were a fair few homeless people there and that interfered with his solitude. But given the rain, they'd probably found somewhere else to sleep tonight. He knew the bridge was admired for its romance, but he enjoyed it for the sense of accomplishment he felt after walking across it, and for the pride he took in living in Manhattan one he stepped back onto the soil of the city.
Suddenly he had a bad realization. 'You're not going to ... do something stupid, are you?'
It took her a couple seconds, but she understood. 'No, no!' she said. 'I just ... really need to be there right now?' she half-asked. 'He – my, um, boyfriend – he took me there, the first time we went out. We walked over from Brooklyn and it was really, really cold, like freezing, like in January. And it's kind of been our place since then.' She paused. 'To me anyway.'
'You're OK, though, right?' She looked bedraggled and unhappy; she'd clearly been walking for hours.
The girl waited a minute before responding, either to think or to stop herself from crying. 'When I said goodbye to him – I was getting on the bus, and he kissed me, and I said “I love you,” and he didn't say anything, and he just looked at me, and when I looked out the window driving away he had the same look on his face.' She looked up at the sky, at the swirling rain. 'He doesn't love me,' she said simply.
Were all teenage girls like this? Max wondered. The first time he said 'I love you' to Lena, nearly 10 years ago now, she'd eyed him suspiciously. She'd sat up in bed, crossed her legs. 'Say that again,' she demanded.
Max was happy to. 'I love you,' he'd declared, ecstatic with the power of words and love.
Lena looked down, twisted the charm on her necklace back and forth between her finger and thumb. Finally she tilted her head slightly and said, passionlessly, 'I love you too.'
Max had wondered then. He believed her, but he wondered. She told him, much later, about saying 'I love you' too soon, at college, at age 19, or maybe 20. The guy had smiled, almost a laugh. Lena vowed never to get caught out again.
She was careful with her private life and Max realized sadly he hadn't heard any such revelations about Lena's past self in a long, long time, possibly years.
'I'll know what to do when I go there,' the girl by his side said, bringing Max back to the present. 'Because it has to be OK. It'll be OK, right?'
Tomorrow, Max thought, he would wake up from a bad night's sleep as usual, rearrange the cushions on the couch, make a cup of coffee, attempt in vain to get the crick out of his neck from sleeping at an odd angle. He'd get dressed without bothering to iron his shirt and dash off to work before Lena woke. He'd stay later at work and avoid the screaming match that drove him out onto the streets tonight. Maybe at lunch he'd remember to call his lawyer.
'It will be OK,' Max said. What was the point in telling her the truth? Give her another night, another few hours to enjoy being in love. She'd walk over the bridge, have some sort of epiphany, and invariably ring the guy at some inappropriate hour of the night. She'd have her heart broken soon enough; Max couldn't bear to do it for her.
She seemed mollified, or maybe not, but she quieted down. There in front of them, the bridge spanned the East River. Its beautiful arches were taking a beating from the rain, but stood strong as they had since the 19th century. The river looked black below the lit-up bridge, churning, unsatisfied.
Lena shouldn't be here, really, Max thought. His favourite things about the city were alone things: walking, the cinema, watching people, reading on the subway. Hers were all opposites: her work friends, the couple who ran the shop on the corner, meeting the owners of friendly dogs in Battery Park. The city wasn't there to be your friend. Max thought Lena was beginning to understand that now.
The girl looked off uncertainly into the distance. Max was a million miles away. He focused for a moment. 'You'll be OK, one way or another. You will.'
She almost smiled a little. It wasn't a smile, but he could see a bit of affection for this boy showing through her face. 'I know. I'm going to go see him tomorrow and explain everything. And we'll be OK.'
Max gave her half a smile, then nodded and turned towards Nassau Street. He was soaked by now; his shoes were probably ruined. He had this image in his head now, of Lena, not on any special day in particular, but one day he remembered, a few years ago. He'd rushed home on his lunch break to get something he'd forgotten—living 8 minutes from work had its advantages—and flung open the bedroom door. His wife was sitting there in her slip, applying lipstick, her hair pulled up into a messy bun, her eyes wide with surprise but beginning to soften upon realizing the intruder was only Max. She'd dropped the lipstick onto the bed, ran over, and fairly jumped into his arms, knocking him against the wall. He felt happy, almost lightheadedly so. He remembered well that feeling, the feeling of being in love.
Brooklyn Bridge by Jessica Kranish was read by Freddie Machin at the Liars' League Dark & Stormy event on 12 October 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London
Jessica Kranish is an American writer living in Camden Town. She is a postgraduate student in arts administration at City University London and this is her first story for Liars' League. Her favourite writer is Alan Hollinghurst and when not reading his books she spends her time playing guitar.
Freddie Machin is currently rehearsing with director Vik Sivalingam for The Death of Tintagel by Peter Morris at People Show Studios. Theatre includes: Manor (Soho Theatre Studio), Off Cut Festival (Old Red Lion), Avocado (King's Head), A Taste of Honey (Lowry Theatre Studio), Kes (Royal Exchange). As a writer his plays have been read at RADA, Chichester Festival Theatre and Chester Literature Festival with a co-commission scheduled to tour autumn 2011.