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Short Stories

FLIGHT OF THE HENRYS

Down a street on the west outskirts of Hoboken New Jersey, sits two divergent businesses side by side. These buildings are shorter compared to the newer architecture of the last century. The one to the right on the corner, is a café that looks like a snapshot of 1965 (or what you’d imagine 1965 to have looked like if you had not lived then). The windows give no mystery to where the patrons sit. The bar top stools and booths parade a shade of orange that people only ever see anymore on TV show reruns of the Brady Bunch or flowers dawning a miniskirt worn by a young Nancy Sinatra. There’s a gentle energy to this place. The servers are never without a coffeepot in their hands as they shuffle from booth to booth, giving diners a comforting feeling of being nurtured over a home-cooked meal. The diner is never too busy, and never too empty. The visual contrast to the left side of this business couldn’t be any more incompatible. This space, along the front of this area, are no windows. Black paint covers a smooth surface only broken by a heavy metal door, a shade lighter of black. There are no signs or names that the reputation itself couldn’t answer for onlookers. This is Wahid, the nightclub responsible for half of the neighborhood’s use of noisemaker machines as they sleep.

 

Directly across the street, with the best front-row seat to this constructed spectacle, sits a four-story-high brick apartment building. The window on the fourth floor facing these businesses belongs to a thirty-five-year-old woman known to her friends as “Retta.” This nickname comes from her full name Henrietta, which only appropriately suits the age of the brick apartment building she shares with her roommate, Hadley. Henrietta’s mother’s mother was named Henrietta and she had passed away three months prior to the birth of Retta. So it was that Retta got a name from the 1800s while her brother and sister were camouflaged within the ether of common school names of their generation.

Being the firstborn with the uncommon name, she was mocked without mercy which left her with the looming feeling that she was somehow lesser than or inferior compared to the other children. This resulted in a low self-image and isolation from an early age, which much to everyone’s delight, brought forth a dignified writer and journalist with a keen perspective. Each week, Retta’s readers and followers religiously sought wisdom from her opinion column in the New York Times. Retta would love to believe the optimism she poured onto the page from her own mind, but she simply followed orders to “provide the city with a fresh breeze of good cheer to contrast the ongoing realities pounding us into the ground every day” as her chief editor Burt put it. Most of the time, she could gather perspective from people she sought to interview, who all reminded Retta that no matter how she felt about life, someone else had reasons to feel worse about it. Perspective could give you the strength to rise above anything. These insights were exactly what she felt needed to be printed and delivered to the variety of people in New York. If only she had her own inner source to contribute, she wouldn’t seek outside of herself every week. But Retta didn’t feel strong. She felt like she had fallen into a dark hole somehow. It wasn’t exactly clear to her what she was supposed to be doing or whom she was supposed to be to feel this “empowerment” that her roommate Hadley seemed to embrace so effortlessly.

Retta loved Hadley like a sister and never had a mean thought about her. But she couldn’t help feeling envious of her stunning roommate when she emerged from her bedroom each morning looking like someone effortlessly tussled her long blonde hair and dressed her for a photo shoot in an article of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Everybody loved Hadley, and for good reason. She was just as beautiful on the inside as her outward appearance suggested. Retta felt very protective of her because Hadley had an innocent heart. If a guy said he didn’t want anything from her but “the pleasure of her company,” Hadley would believe him. If a businessman told her he wasn’t married and the woman he sat with at the restaurant was his sister, Hadley didn’t look for any reason to not believe him. She would simply say, “Wow, they must be a very close family.” She trusted that people meant what they said and say what they mean because, why wouldn’t they? This was why Retta found herself on edge this particular Friday morning as she sat at the small round breakfast table crunching on her traditional breakfast of Corn Flakes with almond milk and a small glass of freshly squeezed orange juice when a tall man about 32 years old with his own magazine-ready morning look came stomping out of Hadley’s room. He walked directly to the fridge without even glancing at Retta. She sat watching his every move like a family cat.

This blonde Ken doll began drinking Retta’s orange juice out of the glass jar when he suddenly caught her blank stare out of the corner of his eye. He almost choked mid-gulp as he wiped his mouth and with the whitest teeth she’d ever seen, smiled, and said, “Oh hey! My bad! I didn’t know someone was sitting there!” Retta coldly replied, “Clearly.” Her disposition didn’t faze him a bit, “I’m Brian!” Hadley then emerged from her doorway quickly wrapped in her chiffon robe that left little to the imagination. “Oh, Retta!” She said as though she was surprised, “You’re awake!” as if this weren’t her exact time and routine for the last eight months they’d been living there together. Retta looked at the kitchen clock “Yeah… I’m awake. And I am leaving for work now.” Retta got up from the table, awkwardly moved around Brian, and placed her dishes in the sink. As she walked to the front room, Brian said, “Nice to meet you!” As Retta grabbed her backpack and keys, Hadley stopped her at the front door. “You have to do me a favor, Retta! Please.” Retta’s eyes widened for she couldn’t possibly come up with any memory or reason why she would owe Hadley anything at all. “I do?” Hadley giggled and said, “Well, I’d really appreciate it. Brian’s roommate Elijah is coming from Manhattan tonight, Retta! That’s where they live!” Her voice dropped to a whisper, “Upper Eastside Manhattan!” She waited for Retta to look impressed then continued anyway, “I need you to please come have drinks with us! I already told them you were coming out with me tonight because I didn’t want them to cancel.” She made her French woman pouty lip, “Please Retta. Please!” Anyone who understands Retta would know this was like asking a conservative to an AOC pep rally. “Hadley, you know I hate double dates…” She was cut off by the pouty pleading again, “You don’t have any plans, Retta!”

Retta paused a moment. “You don’t know that Hadley.”

“You never have plans on weekends, Retta,” Hadley said with no expression.

“I could have plans” Retta defended.

Hadley tilted her head and gave her a sad look, “No, no you couldn’t.”

Retta couldn’t think of a logical argument.

Hadley squealed, “Oh my god this is going to be so fun! I’ll do your hair and makeup, and you can borrow my ‘I’m getting some tonight’ red heels!” As the front door began to shut and Retta hurried out, she thought about asking Hadley if she had any “please don’t talk to me” shoes she could wear instead, but the moment had passed. She pushed the elevator button to the ground floor very slowly today. She was doomed.

 

Inside the apartment, a cell phone rang from Hadley’s bedroom. Brian recognized the tone and he rushed in and answered, “What’s up, homo?” The voice on the other end was Elijah walking to work. He was not amused.

“Dude, I told you that’s totally inappropriate to say.”

“Why? Are you saying homosexuality is bad thing?” Brian replied.

Elijah quickened his pace, “No Brian, I’m not. You’re using it as slang though.” 
Brian got a smirk on his face, “Am I? I could be using it as a compliment.”

Elijah stopped walking. “Dude, I’m about to hang up.”

Brian, quite pleased with this reaction laughed to himself, “Alright, what’s up?” Elijah reluctantly continued walking and said, “You didn’t come home last night. Are you meeting me at the gym during lunch time or what?” Brian acted as if he hadn’t even heard the question, “Bro, of course I didn’t come home! This gal is so hot. I’m in her room right now. Her sheets are bamboo, I think. So soft…” Elijah cut him off, “Dude. Will you be at the gym at 11:30 or not?” Brian asked Elijah if he was on his period right before their call was purposely terminated.

Elijah was used to these annoying interactions with his roommate, but they never were tolerable to him. His phone beeped with a text message from Brian, “Tonight, 8 pm, diner then Wahid in Hoboken. I’ll text you the address later.” Elijah stopped again on the sidewalk. Why in the world would they go to that dump of a nightclub? He didn’t have a pair of shoes he wanted to allow into that place. He rolled his eyes when he realized it must have to do with this new girl Brian met. It was typical of his roommate to choose places closer to where the girl lives, so that he could (in Brian’s words,) “Do the deed, then ride off on the steed.”

 

As Elijah finished his walk, he began thinking about how many times recently he had been presented with an opportunity to be with a girl but didn’t go for it. He had anxiety thinking about it. It wasn’t because he had high standards, no. He was terrified. Elijah was scared he wouldn’t be able to perform or satisfy. This terror came upon him a little over a year ago when he was about to score with a curvy brunette from the gym he’d been eyeing for months. They had a few drinks, played an unfinished game of pool, then went back to her place to finish their own game. The moment her shirt came off, he was ready to round third base. When her pants came off, he struck out. Nothing “down there” would move. The excitement escaped him the more intimate they became. When the same ordeal happened two more times, he swore off even trying to hit on anyone again. It wasn’t for lack of interest or attraction. Elijah had an intense sex drive this was certain. But only when he was in front of his computer late at night. There’s no shame in porn to get you off and satisfied. What Elijah didn’t know how to talk about with anybody, was the dissatisfaction he now had with intimacy in real life. He’d been fantasizing about the women on screen since he was a teenager, and his very essence was now enslaved by what they seemed to want from him. And he no longer knew how to feel with real women what he felt while alone online in his chair. Elijah walked through the gym and sat down at his desk in the back office. Hanging on his wall was a poster of a mountain climber with the word, “Achieve.”

Retta was typing away at her desk when she was gently interrupted by the sound of a low, smooth, familiar voice, “Would you like me to grab you a coffee while I’m out?” It was Sam, the primary researcher at the magazine. Retta loved being around Sam. He was always thoughtful with her and reliable when it came to work favors, finding errors, coming up with solutions, ideas, or just about anything. He had a familiar quality that brought out in Retta a strange desire for a home-cooked meal or the sensation of soaking in a warm bath. It was also this very reason she found him annoying too because she didn’t have time to slow herself down with such confusing, weighted desires while on a deadline. “Hey, Sam. I really appreciate that! I’ll have my usual and I’ll get you next time.” She never took her eyes off her screen. Sam seemed slightly disappointed by that, but he half smiled anyway and said, “Almond milk latte, no sweetener, extra shot. You got it.” He slowly left her desk. Retta looked up from her screen to watch him walk away. She smiled at how predictable his walk was in his khaki pants with his hands in his pockets, taking long strides with his good posture and wavy brown hair, like a duke on his way to court. She suddenly felt awkward and confused as to why she was watching Sam walk at all. “Oh my god can you concentrate today please?” she mumbled under her breath as she continued writing this week’s column; “A Walk in the Park -The Benefits of Vitamin D During Your Lunch Hour.” She took a long deep sigh, internally blamed this morning’s interaction with Hadley for her current ADD, then went back to feeling nothing.

Sam was a genuine introvert. If it were up to him, he could easily spend several days alone in a cave and have zero interaction with people or knowledge of what was happening in society. As he stood in line waiting for the unnecessary coffee order, his observations of people around him only made him more aware of the lack of connection one is left within a technology-driven era. Once he was back at the office, he gently placed Retta’s latte on the edge of her desk. Without looking up from her screen, she mumbled a “thank you” and that was that. And that was Sam’s 100th attempt at connecting with Henrietta. As he walked back to the opposite side of the building, he thought about how he felt like he truly understood Retta in ways she maybe didn’t understand herself. The way she dressed or fixed her hair suggested an awareness or a concern with neatness but without an overextended desire or obsession over ideas of outward perfection. “Balance,” Sam thought to himself. “She is absolutely gorgeous and yet this is not what she finds truly valuable.” Whatever her values were, he felt drawn to her and felt they could share something deeper than they experience in average daily interactions with others. Was this love? Every word she spoke was savored by Sam. Every tap of her pencil against her front teeth when she was in deep thought, he felt was a ticking time bomb between his observations of her, and his unquenchable desire to pull her close to him and soar towards whatever the future of the world may hold for them… together.

Sam was shocked by the irony of the day’s thoughts after work when later that evening around nine, he caught a glimpse of Retta, only several feet away crossing the street towards the diner he was sitting in. Then his heart felt like someone punched it as he noticed she wasn’t alone. She was walking with a well-dressed man, who looked to Sam to be in his early thirties. They were smiling and chatting, but at least they weren't looking at each other. Sam put his book down in the booth and watched the door in anticipation. But they never stepped into the diner. They made a sharp left and walked passed the door. Sam let out a deep breath. He wondered where she was going… and who the man was. And... was she wearing makeup? It had all gone by so fast. “Man, pull yourself together.” He picked his book up, and the waitress refilled his decaf. After about ten minutes of reading, he realized he was still staring at the same page he started minutes ago. He had no idea what was on it.

An hour prior to Sam's distraction, Elijah had nervously approached the front door on the fourth floor of the apartment building across the street from where Retta's co-worker was eating Corn Flakes at the Diner. Elijah knocked only once before the door swung open. Hadley’s excitement startled him, “You must be Elijah!  Come in!” He smiled and reluctantly stepped inside. Brian was eating cheese and crackers by the table, and offered a full-mouthed, “What’s up, ‘Lijah!” A flash of red caught Elijah’s eye and he looked to the right. Retta was sitting stiffly on the couch with a glass of white wine in her hand, looking as though she was about to have her portrait painted. Hadley didn’t skip a beat, “And this… is the bestest, most amazing roommate on the planet, Henrietta!” Retta shot Hadley a quick intense look then looked back at Elijah. He came towards her to shake her hand as she awkwardly stood halfway to meet him. “Retta.” She said, “No one calls me by my full name except for my mom when she gets pissed off.” Elijah chuckled. “Is that really your name? Henrietta?” Retta nodded with a crooked smile. Elijah, searching for something else to say, sat down on the other end of the couch and said “It’s cool actually! We kinda share the same name!”

“What do you mean?” Retta asked.

“Well, my last name is Henry. And your first name is Henrietta.” His last two words were spoken slower than the first, as Elijah suddenly felt the cringe factor of his observation.

Retta wasn’t sure how to respond to such a stretched attempt at a topic. But she was amused at the effort. Crumbling under the awkward silence, Elijah asked, “So... Has anyone ever called you Henry?”

“OK!” Hadley interrupted, much to the relief of the couple on the couch. “A mixed drink for you” she handed what looked to be a Rum and Coke to Elijah, then turned to Retta, “and a refill for you!” Before Retta could protest, Hadley poured more Zinfandel into her glass, which was about the size of glass you’d expect a forty-five-year-old cat lady to be crying in her bathtub with on a weeknight. “Now if you’d all like to sit at the table! Dinner is served!” Which meant, Hadley had finished unwrapping the Chinese takeout and scooping it onto glass plates.

 

Surprisingly, dinner was quite nice, and conversations seemed to flow very well between the four. Retta was able to pick up on the fact that Elijah was different from his wristwatch posterchild roommate. She blushed when he picked up her napkin that had fallen on the floor, and as he handed it back to her, he looked her in the eyes and smiling, said, “Nice shoes.” And he meant it. Retta looked at Hadley, and Hadley smiled her huge smile and lifted her glass for a private “cheers” between the two of them. Retta could always rely on her best friend to support her. Hadley always had her back. When they had finished eating, Hadley announced it was “shot time” and they all made their way to the front door to walk across the street. As the four of them were waiting for the elevator in the hallway, Brian realized he forgot his wallet in the apartment. “You two go ahead of us and grab a booth! We’ll meet you there!” So, Elijah and Retta shuffled across the crosswalk to Wahid.

When they walked into the club, Retta didn’t know which was more excruciating; the sounds being regurgitated by the DJ stabbing her ears or having to move past the bodies whom all seemed under its spell.

“I think I see an empty booth over there!” Yelled Elijah.

If there hadn’t been music, he would have been viewed as either insane or under attack but here in the loud club, everyone had to scream their communication. Elijah ordered from the bar, then returned and sat next to Retta and handed her a drink.

She looked at him, smiled, and playfully said, “Hello!”

“Blue!” He yelled back.

Retta looked at him and said, “Huh?”

Elijah repeated, “Blue! You said yellow! I thought you were being funny!”

Retta wanted to sink into the booth and disappear from how awkward that moment was.

“No!” Retta yelled. “I said HELLO!”

No response.

The two silently took sips of their drinks and looked around at nothing on the walls.

 

Finally, Hadley sat down across from them while Brian bought them another round of drinks. Always the mood-enhancer, Hadley smiled and handed Retta a shot glass of vodka. “Here! I got this for you!”

“Gladly” Retta reached for the glass.

“What?” Hadley yelled.

Retta downed the vodka, and after shaking her head two times yelled, “I said get me three more!”

The rest of the time at the club was a blur. At one point, Hadley got Retta out on the dance floor while Brian and Elijah got more drinks. Once the girls sat down, Hadley and Brian started making out. Retta noticed Elijah had withdrawn into himself. She really had thought they had a connection.  Her self-esteem, already sluggishly crawling on the edge of a sidewalk, felt as though someone was pouring salt on it. Just as she was about to ask if he wanted to dance, he blurted out, “Right. I have to go.”

Elijah stood up, “You all have a great night. I have an early morning!”

Retta’s heart sank. Elijah smiled at her and yelled, “It was great to meet you!”

And with that, he disappeared through the bodies. Retta looked at Hadley and shrugged as Hadley mouthed “I love you” to Retta. Brian then grabbed Hadley's face and put his mouth back on it.

Retta was ready to exit this scene.

 Retta stood up with difficulty balancing on the damned red cursed shoes and walked out of the noise and onto the quiet sidewalk. She felt the sting of tears starting to form in her eyes and hated everyone who ever sat making out in clubs or wore high heels. Crossing the street, through the buzzing sound in her ears, she could have sworn somebody said her name. “Retta!” When she stepped onto the sidewalk in front of her apartment building, she turned around to see Sam trotting across the street to her.

“Sam? What are you doing here?” She tried to hide her face, but he had already seen it.

“Retta, are you crying?” Retta didn’t want to answer.

Between the alcohol and the softness of the tone of his voice, she knew she could "ugly cry" any minute. She quickly repeated, “Sam, why are you here?”

Sam hesitated but he saw she wasn’t ready to talk about whatever it was making her feel this way. He pointed his thumb behind him, “I come to this diner at least once a week.” Retta laughed, “To that diner? I live right here!” She pointed up at the apartment building behind her. Sam looked down at her shoes. “May I help you to your door?” He gently asked.

Back in Upper Manhattan, Elijah threw his keys down on the hallway table of his loft, went to his room, and shut the door. As he sat down at his computer, he felt like someone had just saved him from a fire and placed him on a soothing cool, green pasture on the other side. He typed in exactly what he wanted, and there she was. There they all were. Familiar, lovely, predictable. After twentyish minutes, he went into his bathroom and started the shower. Slowly undressing, he felt a lump in his throat. He wanted to scream but he didn’t know what to say. He wanted to punch somebody, but he didn’t know who. He stepped into the shower and as the hot water soothed his skin and poured over every deliberately chiseled muscle of his body, he placed his hands over his face… and he wept.

Once inside Retta and Hadley’s apartment, Retta tossed the red shoes into the living room on her way to the kitchen as Sam amusingly watched her from the doorway. “What would you like to drink?” She asked him. Sam slowly shut the door behind him. He could tell she was tipsy and had never seen her this way. Retta peaked around the corner and looked at him with a glass in her hand.

“Sam? What do you want to drink… why are you smiling?” He couldn’t help himself. She was adorable.

“You’re so uninhibited right now, Retta. I don’t know what to think of it.”

Retta felt flushed. Probably from the alcohol. But slowly this heat began to get more intense inside of her. She knew what she wanted at that moment. He was standing right there. His hair fell in waves around his face and his smile, gosh that smile, was the look she had hoped to get by wearing those stupid shoes. But she wasn’t wearing any shoes, and he was still looking at her that way. Retta had no idea how she found herself standing in front of Sam, but something in her head told her, “This is it! Go for it!” and she leaned in, placed her hands on his face, and kissed him. Even though her eyes were closed, she felt like they were lying in a cloud with the warm sun heating their bodies. No one else in the world existed, except for the two of them. Suddenly the sensation crumbled as she felt Sam pull back. “Retta,” he softly spoke, looking into her glazed eyes. “I can’t. I’m sorry.” She felt humiliated. "I have to go, Retta. I'll... I'll see you on Monday, okay?" And with that, Sam walked out of the apartment, gently closing the door behind him.

What the hell just happened? Retta’s hands began to shake as she stepped into her room and backed herself up against her door. The emotions she was feeling when she left the club were a fraction compared to what she was feeling now. She then heard Brian and Hadley laughing as they came through the front door, then stumbled into the other bedroom. She was very relieved when they turned on their music loud enough to compete with the sound from across the street, because no one was able to hear her Retta sobbing into her bed.

           

The next morning Retta felt like she was slowly waking into a hazy dream. A very painful, bright, and unwelcome dream. As her eyes began to adjust to her room, there on the windowsill sat a white dove. “I must be dreaming.” She thought to herself but then the memory of last night returned to her, “Oh god, a nightmare.” Tears welled in her eyes again as feelings of self-disgust came into her mind. but she couldn’t keep her eyes off the bird in the window. “How lucky are you?” she was imagining the dove could hear her thoughts. “You don’t have to worry about anything. All you need to do is fly, perch, make your sounds, eat, and keep on being.” The dove seemed to be looking directly into her eyes. Retta thought she might be losing her mind, because in that moment, she heard the words, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Then the dove flew away.

“What’s stopping me?” She spoke out loud to herself. At that moment, Retta felt a light turn on inside of her as pieces began shattering inside of her, piercing through what felt like a thick wall that had been holding her feelings and thoughts back for quite some time. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing!” She laughed and lept off the bed. After a quick shower, Retta sat at her laptop and began her first inspired piece for next week’s article,

“Take Flight – Rising Above… Yourself.”

 

Monday morning, she sent her piece early to an alarmed Burt, who (finally leaving his office chair after a few hours), walked to her desk and asked her, “What did you do, use the chat robot thingie? What was that article, Retta?” She smiled, “It’s me. Well, it’s you too. It’s all of us really.” Burt cocked his head at her. “Well, it’s different. There seems to be a lot more opinion and less information in this piece. I’m not so sure the readers are going to receive it well.” Retta turned her chair to face him and calmly spoke, “Burt. How long have I been writing for this section? How many of those have ever failed to maintain our demographic? This one time, can you take a chance on something a little different and see how they respond? If it fails, I promise to be extra boring next time.” Burt scoffed at her sarcasm. But he walked away shrugging. The shrug was “Burt” for “ok.”

Retta stood from her chair and walked heavily to the other side of the building to the desk with “The Office” coffee mug steaming next to a miniature Rubik’s Cube. Typing away, unaware of her gaze was Sam. After a couple of minutes, he reached for his coffee and then froze when he saw Retta. “It’s ok, you can still take a sip of your coffee.” She joked. Sam smiled. “Nah,” he said, “It’s weak. Jen from Sports made it this morning. You’d think a sportswriter would achieve something bolder, you know?”

He scratched his head, not knowing what she might say next.

Retta softly said, “Sam, may I talk to you for a few minutes?”

Sam stood up and smiled at her, “Retta, I want you to know, you were first priority as soon as I finished replying to this email. I’d love to talk. Let’s meet at the picnic area outside in ten if that’s ok?”

She agreed and walked back to her desk. That warm feeling was all over her again, followed by a pain in her heart from the memory of last night.

Outside at the park picnic table, across from one another sat Retta and Sam.

“Sam, I’d like to apologize” she started.

Sam quickly replied, “No need, Retta. Truly. I am relieved that happened.”

Retta was confused and a little amused, “Relieved? You seemed repulsed!”

Sam’s eyes widened and he slid his hands across the table and held her hands between them, “Oh no, Retta! Is that what you thought? Not at all.”

She was quiet. Her hands felt like electricity was vibrating through her wrists, up her arms, and to her stomach. Sam continued, “Retta, it showed me for the first time that you had any ounce of attraction or interest toward me. I had zero faith in that possibility.”

Retta looked blank. “Attraction?” she thought to herself, “Interest? in Sam?”

She felt her heart beating heavier and her breathing got faster and deeper.

“But you ran away, Sam. If you liked me, why didn’t you stay?”Retta asked.

His hands wrapped around hers a little tighter.

“You weren’t completely present, Retta. I have been dreaming about the first possible moment of kissing you. It never seemed within reach! I left because…” Sam blushed and looked off to the side. Retta’s heart felt like someone was squeezing it from inside. Sam faced her and looked into her eyes, “Because I want you so much. YOU. And I want you to know for sure, with no impairment, that you want me.”

Retta smiled a huge smile and she blinked away the mist that was rising in her eyes.

“Holy shit” she thought to herself, “I’m falling!”

Then she looked at Sam’s smile as they leaned across the bench towards each other.

“No,” she silently thought… “I am flying.”

#catchkrista

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