issue thirty-two

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(1040 words)
John W. Buckley
Ariadne in the City
Aida had never been in a subway before she moved to the city. The first time she took it, down in the infinite-seeming manmade tunnels below the city, she imagined the tracks as a ball of string with a minotaur lurking somewhere out there in the darkness. It all seemed so exciting and a little scary and somehow mythical, this place she'd always dreamed of living, with its glittering towers and its mysterious labyrinths and its variegated denizens.

Now that she's leaving, she knows it's the city itself that's the minotaur, misshapen and reeking and oblivious, and that there is no ball of string. How nave to think there'd be any sort of guide on her journey. Not even the outdated subway maps show every pitfall.

On her last day in the city, she lugs the box down the too-narrow stairs to the subway, not sure why she took it or what, exactly, she's going to do with it. Its contents have no value, as she has come to find, and are certainly of no practical use, which, of course, she always knew. But still, it was all she had to show for her years in the city and she wasn't going to just throw it away.

She manages to lift the box over the turnstile, bulky and angular in her spindly arms, and hefts it onto the subway platform. Her arms and back already ache. But the physical pain of carrying the box is nothing compared to the mental anguish it took to create its contents.

Dropping the box somewhat roughly on the dingy floor, she wipes her brow with the sleeve of her thrift store coat. This place is freezing above, she thinks, but boiling below. Surely there's some sort of metaphor there.

The next train still several minutes away, she slides down against the back wall of the platform and sits next to the box. The other commuters gaze into their phones, put in earbuds, pace nervously. Aida stews. Gazes into the abyss. The florescent lights glare overhead.

Next to the old subway map is an ad for a local university. Beaming youths carrying their books -- calculus, biology, Shakespeare.

"The city's a hard place for liberal arts majors," her last online date had said when she told him what she did for a living. He then launched into a monologue about cryptocurrencies.

"Is that what the ferryman takes to get you across the River Styx?" she'd said after downing a third whiskey sour. She couldn't remember his name. The ferryman.

"Who?" was all her date had said.

She'd bailed not long after. He sent her a LinkedIn request a couple days later. Thus ended her quest for romance in the city.

When the train comes, she half-pushes, half-drags the box into the car, rebuffing the offer of help from the hairy-knuckled older man.

"And don't call me 'girl,'" she says, mostly to him.

Aida gives herself until the end of the line to figure out what to do with the contents of the box. The bowels of the city scroll by -- cracked, graffitied, soot-stained -- as she considers her options. Donate them? But to whom? Give them away to her friends? She didn't have many actual friends in the city. Burn them, like they were going to do anyway? An image flashes in her mind of dancing maniacally around the funeral pyre of her dreams, but she knows she couldn't actually destroy what was in the box.

Sell them? It was never her intention to make money, not really, but there might be some small satisfaction in that. She knows now where to go.

At her stop, she lugs the box off the train just before the doors close. No one offers to help her this time, her fellow passengers wandering their own mental or digital labyrinths. Everyone gets lost in their own unique way here.

The city is gone when she comes up out of the sweltering tunnel. At least, it seems that way -- it is buried beneath great, tumbling gray-white drifts, its sounds stifled by a great, keening wind. Her destination is just a few blocks away. She tightens the downy lining of her coat around her neck, hoists the box, and presses on.

The clerk at the used bookstore gives her a funny look when she peers inside the box.

"All the same?"

Aida nods.

"I'm not sure anyone will buy these."

"Tell me about it," Aida says. "It's either this or throw them away. Please."

The clerk cocks her head, scrunches her lips so that the piercing there gleams momentarily.

"What the hell," she says. "Ten bucks. Or twelve-fifty store credit."

Aida gets a book of Bukowski poems with the store credit. Maybe she'd try his side of the country next. Trade one coast for the other, snow for sunshine, subways for freeways. Why not?

On her way out, she stops at the counter, where the box still sits like an unwanted gift. She slips her hand inside and takes one out.

"For posterity," she says to the bemused clerk.

The cover of the thin volume reads Ariadne in the City: Poems by Aida Cybulski. She slips it into her coat pocket next to the Bukowski. The closest I'll ever get to literary acclaim.

Outside, she fights her way through the still-falling snow and back to the subway entrance, a filthy concrete maw that looks like it needs a warning from Dante engraved over it. She's sweating again by the time she's down the stairs.

Waiting for the last train she'll ever take in the city, Aida thinks of what awaits her back in her apartment. Boxes. Of course it's more boxes. She'll fill them with her clothing, her belongings, her memories -- contents more valuable but at the same time of far less worth than the box she just left behind. No, what goes into the boxes won't be her life. But she'll fill them just the same, and move them from one boxy urban dwelling to another, she knows. That's easy enough to do.

As the train screeches to a halt in front of her, she wonders if she'll fill a blank page ever again.




*

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This work is copyrighted by the author, John W. Buckley. All rights reserved.


Artwork by
Jol Sueur