He was nervous, and with good reason.
Time Square bustled in a bad way. Cold rain, bombarded by the bright lights of advertisements, fell from a dark sky and onto people with no interest being there in the first place. Feet darted over deep puddles in exchange for landing in those looking shallow. Passing strangers only spoke in puffs of cold breath. Misery pressed down from above, and it pressed down upon all of them.
And there it was. Another hat.
It lay on the cement near an overflowing trash can, abandoned. Water soaked it through and through. When he saw it, his heart begged no no, but he knew there was no turning away from such a thing. There can be an attractive quality to vicarious pain; it offers one’s life a chance for calibration.
“Just don’t let the memories flood,” he whispered to himself as he drew near. He picked up the baseball cap. On the front was the soiled icon for the New York Yankees. He looked around without cause. No one was watching. Those that even held a chance of caring only hurried by. Often, time is money, but in a downpour, time is dry.
Giving the bill a gentle squeeze, his heart begged once more. Only sorrow is coming. You know this.
But still, he did.
Closing his eyes and holding his breath, he placed the cold, wet hat upon his head.
And the darkness came.
Looking back, having the chance to do it again, he would have wished for a flood. Floods push through and steal away and are gone again by morning. Floods only leave a vague recollection like a dream. As he liked to call it, the memories never stained. Had these memories surged his mind, some may have slipped by unnoticed, forgotten.
Such is the occasional misfortune of getting what you ask for.
Instead, the memories trickled in like a lazy river, each savoring the depth of their pain. The memories were simple, and their simplicity made it unforgettable for he who now wore the hat.
Darkness and cold and pain was pushed back by a clear imagine again and again, needles seeking veins. Needles stabbing into forearms and elbow bends and hands and legs. Any location blood dared to flow. Then the subtle movement of a plunger. Then warmth.
But the warmth was always shallow. Never permanent. Never meaningful. It was like stoking a night flame in the vain attempt to chase shadows away. Soon the fire withers and dies, and the darkness crawls forward again. Choices are limited. Stoke the fire or let the cold and the dark swallow you.
Again and again, there is a picture. Two people. A mother and her son. His wife and his son. They’re both blonde. They’re both smiling. They’re both beautiful in the way that can only be seen by love. In the boy’s eyes, maybe a lad of six or seven, is the look of utmost admiration. It’s the look of a boy who loves his father. Only through tragedy can a look like that be stolen from a child’s eyes.
And so, tragedy comes.
It comes slowly, heavy and thick like a glacier that’s forever moving while going nowhere, forever grinding stone. That tragedy grinds on the poor man’s soul day by day, inch by inch. The tragedy comes from water, salty and warm. A New Jersey coastline. A summer day. A man is screaming, he is screaming, losing his mind, sprinting from a mild ocean with a lifeless, blonde boy in his arms. Call 9-1-1. Try CPR. Sand sticks to the nose and mouth from the effort, from the frenzy, from panic setting in. He opens the boy’s eyes and sees beautiful blue. It’s still there. It’s right there. But they’re not moving. They see nothing. He shouts his name, he begs the child back from the brink, but the eyes look upward, nowhere. There is no look of admiration in these eyes.
Screams and tears and pain. And pain and pain and pain.
Over time, the woman loses the love in her eyes as well. There is shouting, although no one remembers why. Darkness crawls in. The glacial memory grinds and grinds. So plunges the needle into the skin. So it plunges again and again. Darkness and warmth is born into its perpetual cycle.
The man pulls the NY cap from his head and lets it fall to the ground. The cold rain continues, but his cheeks are warm with strain and fresh tears. The memories of the stranger have stained. The pain is no longer vicarious. Alone and cold and wet, the man crumbles to the curb. While he weeps with closed eyes, his mind sees a picture of open eyes filled with admiration.