City Year

by Katherine Robb

The year things shifted, Riet left the office at 5:30 sharp. Before leaving she smoothed her fine red hair into a ponytail and spat out the spearmint gum Steve from forecasting gave her after lunch. She rolled her ankles and stretched her back. She shuffled off the elevator, passed Jim, the security guard, and pressed her headphones into her ears. She took Broadway so as to watch the suits flee their towers as she built her pace from a slow trot to a cathartic clip. Weaving herself between briefcases and messenger bags, she considered the lives of the suits. On Mondays, she wondered about their occupations. On Tuesdays, she wondered whether they were married. On Wednesdays, she wondered if they had children. On Thursdays, she wondered if they cheated on their spouses. On Fridays, she wondered if they were happy. On weekends, she didn’t run those streets.

A month ago, on a cold Tuesday in July, she saw Peter unexpectedly. She watched him push through a circular glass door and catch the eye of a pineapple blonde. The blonde threw her arms around Peter’s neck. From across the street she strained to see Peter’s eyes, to weigh his response, but the blonde obscured his face with her astringent waves. On instinct, Riet turned onto 10th Street, abandoning her normal route. Her whole evening was thrown off. The rest of the way home she wondered whether his eyes were gleaming in that den of blonde or if they were just hunkered down in wait. She hadn’t slept well that night.

But tonight was different. Tonight Riet ran all five blocks on Broadway before turning right onto 12th Street. She turned left on Lusk and glanced into the kitchen window of the city’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant. The chef, a wiry man with a twisted red bandana looped round his head, conducted the staff’s staccato movements.

When the restaurant opened two years ago, she’d rounded the corner as the chef and a thick squat man she came to know as Edgar moved an oversized mixer into the kitchen. To keep from smacking into it she’d thrown her arms against the giant mixing bowl, rocking the steel monster. Edgar and the chef’s knees had buckled as they compensated for the unexpected movement. Once the mixer stabilized they told her to go on, no worries, they could make it. At the end of the block, she’d looked back. The chef was clearing the kitchen doorway. Tattoos peaked out from his rolled up sleeves—a boning knife and a whisk. She’d framed them with her hands, her left eye squinting, measuring the potential photograph. Click.

Tonight when she passed the restaurant the kitchen boys paused, a shuddered freeze like an army of music box ballerinas stopping as they processed the chef’s panicked movements. Edgar saw her and smiled. Riet grinned back. She imagined his image, arms crossed, grin wide, as a portrait framed over a dining room table.

At 7:30, Riet arrived home and collapsed onto her studio’s laminate floor. She hovered her tanned hand over her chest, tracking its movements, up and down, up and down. An hour later, as the sun finally set, she fell asleep staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars Peter glued to the ceiling three years ago when she moved to San Francisco from West Texas. At 3 in the morning she awoke, cold. She pulled herself onto the couch, yanked up the quilt Mama made her for high school graduation, and curled into herself.

Richard called when the Indian summer struck full force.

“Come back to New York,” he pleaded. “I have a job for you.”

“I can’t,” she said, “I have things to finish here.”

“Finish what Red?”

Her chest ached at the pause in the line.

“You getting married out there? Pop out some gingers?” Richard said. “That’s not you. You belong on the street. Taking photos.”

“I know,” she said, “I can’t make it work yet.”

“Red, Har-riet, you need to figure this shit out. I’ve got time for talent, but it’s not infinite. Don’t wait too long.”

Harriet. It was an old fashioned name. Her grandmother’s name. She came from a place where people named children after family, even when the names were antiquated. But nobody called her Harriet. They called her Red, for her hair. When she turned twelve she lobbied people to call her Riet, but it was nothing doing. Red had already stuck. Her high school boyfriend loved called her Red. Nobody can ever really touch you, he said to her. She smiled at him and stretched out in the bed of his rusted pick-up truck. You’re like fire, he said before smothering her in night-cloaked kisses.

When Riet moved back home the summer after college she wanted to stay forever, but the September looming in the distance seemed to run on a faster plane of time. It climbed the porch steps and knocked on the front door before Riet had accepted its eventual arrival. At the barbershop, Riet overheard the townspeople whisper what a blessing it was for her to get away from Mama and Lucinda, what with her condition and all. But Riet ached in leaving. She wanted to stay and photograph their deflating countryside. If she was pinned in by expectations, prohibited from running away overseas to snap images while dust coated her tongue, she wanted those expectations to be about recordation of honor rather than loyalty and obedience.

But Peter was waiting on the other end in San Francisco, grinning as always, as he had been since they’d met at their college’s Halloween party, his Bullwinkle to her Rocky. Mama told her she had to go to San Francisco, said she owed it to herself not to dwell on Lucinda, said she owed it to Peter to keep him smilin’. Mama told to her to git on, no point in looking back. Riet didn’t tell her it was the looking forward she dreaded, although the summer before she left for the tilted city, Riet and Mama got into more fights than all the years before.

“Mama,” said Riet during one argument, “you don’t have to be just that anymore. Women can be anything now.”

“Oh honey,” said her Mama.

Oh honey.

Oh honey.

“You always that. That won’t ever be ending. They pile more on you sometimes, call you progressive, but you still got that. It’s one load we’ll always be carrying.”

Mama flipped the eggs.

“I went to University once,” she said.

Riet had not known Mama went to University, had not known Mama went anywhere beyond the county line.

“Can’t stop foolishness in the young. Majored in English. Thought I’d write some great American tale.” Mama paused as she flipped the eggs onto three plates. “Know what I learned? Typing. Lord could I type! Learned short hand too. Learned no man gonna publish no story by me. They’ll sleep with you, though. Sure. As. Sunday.”

It was the first Riet heard of such a time in Mama’s life. Growing up she listened to Mama tell stories about the farm, about chickens and morning milkings, about sharing a bed with her cousin Lucille. But at the close of those stories, Riet thought the mama left was just a simple woman shelling beans and ironing clothes, a mama whose wrinkles creased deeper the more buttons she sewed, whose withered sighs multiplied the more rugs she beat over the porch rail. Riet never thought to ask Mama if she’d had a middle period. She always assumed Mama went straight from milking cows on one farm to feeding pigs on another. In that minute she wanted to ask Mama: Did you want out? Did you want something more?

But as Riet was about to speak, Mama said, “It’s why you need to marry well. Why you best marry Peter. I don’t care what you gots to do, you marry that one, you hear?”

Right then Riet decided Mama couldn’t possibly understand, that Mama had never understood her. Mama never felt the way she felt, never flinched in the face of domesticity, frigid in her duties. Riet decided Mama’s mind could never wander far from hanging laundry, even if she had gone to University. Anything else hurt too much to bear. The remainder of the summer, Riet avoided Mama’s eyes. When they said goodbye on the train station platform in September, Riet stuck out her hand to shake Mama’s, as if she were drawing a line over which their history would never cross.

Riet never took to the tilted city. Too much fog. Too many curved hills. When she ran through the choked jungle of eucalyptus-scented sidewalks and excrement-cemented alleys she always knew Peter was waiting for her. Even when she ran for hours, framing shot after photographic shot with her hands, her breath never smoothed.

Peter told her to quit, quit everything.

“You don’t need to work with these investment banker pricks,” he said, “I’ll take care of you, of us.”

Peter never understood her studio apartment in the Tenderloin. When he bought her pepper spray she threw it out, both times.

“Move in with me,” he said, worried after she was mugged the first time.

“Don’t worry,” she said, kissing him, “my Daddy taught me how to fight.”

He locked his hands around the small of her back and said, “You and I both know you’ve never had a Daddy.”

In the end, he was the only thing she quit.

Riet went on a date the first Thursday in October. The man liked Riet, as men tended to do, especially the settling kind. It may have been her wide hips or the Southern drawl, or maybe it was what Mama always told her, that every boy wants to ride a horse and every man wants to tame a stallion. Riet did not return his calls. Over weekend drinks with her friends she told them he wasn’t her type.

“He’s rich,” said Cynthia, “he’s everybody’s type.”

“You know what they say,” said Penelope, smiling sideways, “if you don’t find a man in San Francisco, you can always find a woman.”

The girls laughed. They twirled their blowouts in unison. Riet wondered if the people in her hometown knew about blowouts, that there were entire stores dedicated to drying hair. West Texas wasn’t represented here. West Texas was almost gone. Riet pulled her silicone-encased hair through her fingers and wondered what it would be like to go home again.

In November, on a whim, she turned right on Franklin. Near Foster Park she passed a man in an olive green technical jacket over a blue button-down. He lifted a little girl in the air, spinning her as she giggled. The girl’s curls wafted yeasty simplicity, a precursor to the perfume of hair products built up over years. Riet craned her neck toward them. She inhaled their scent. It reminded Riet of her sister Lucinda, of peeling beans on the back porch, of those moments when family felt like something more than just a by-product of circumstance or shared lucidity.

In late January, Riet’s breath puffed clouds of cotton in the cold night air. She found the early darkness of winter hard to manage. It weighed heavy, made her sentimental. As she ran against the tide of a one-way street, she came upon a maroon sedan. At fifty yards out, she saw a woman raise her head from the passenger seat and flick back her hair. At twenty yards, she saw the woman spin open a piece of gum with forefinger and thumb. Riet imagined the explosion of cinnamon saccharine sweetness as the woman placed it in her mouth like a trophy on its shelf. At ten yards, the man in the car pulled down his ball cap. The glove compartment opened. His hand flashed. The glove compartment closed. The woman blew a bubble as the man opened the car door and stepped outside into Riet’s path. As Riet zigged around him, the woman gasped the lopsided bubble back into her mouth and licked her swollen lips.

Riet sent half her money home every month. For the first year, Lucinda sent Riet cards with scribbles and hearts and her own imagined outlines of the tilted city. When their uncle Ray heard Riet was taking a job in San Francisco he said: Did you know the United States is tilted? He held his hand parallel to his chest, palm down, his fingertips sloping toward the dirt, and said: All the crazies roll on down into San Francisco. Lucinda shrieked and clapped her hands at Ray, echoing, Crazies! Crazies!

Although Lucinda’s cards no longer came, when Riet ran the painted ladies’ hills she thought of her sister’s sloped drawings, of a city built inside a giant heart. The last card arrived at the beginning of the year, after Riet told Mama she’d refused Peter’s marriage proposal. Lucinda had filled the card, edge to edge, with red crayon pressed on thick. Inside, in Mama’s handwriting, it read: That one Christmas your Daddy showed, I told him not to give you the camera. When you looked through the lens, you was gone. Regret’s funny, it’s the one thing you own all by yourself.

In March, Riet ran past the feral cats due to a construction re-route. Whole blocks were torn apart. The crew finally told her she couldn’t sneak around the edges anymore. It wasn’t safe. She had to follow the detour path like everyone else. The cats on the detour route were fat, bigger than the stray dogs on Franklin. A tired-looking man rode the area on his bike tossing them handfuls of food from his saddlebags. The cats waited for salvation in rain soaked cardboard boxes across from the canal. They grew fat in their waiting. The city spent $6 million to improve the waste disposal plant on the canal, but the stench still roiled like fraternity bathrooms after pledge week. Riet hated the sight of the cats, watching them wait for their payout. They smashed themselves against the feces scented sidewalk gates, lubricating their faces in remnant scent. Riet dug her toes into the ground, kicking pebbles at them on her up-step.

It was a Tuesday morning in June when Mama died of her smoking cancer. Riet flew home the Friday before knowing everything she ever knew was almost over. Between midnight and dawn she listened to crickets chirp over Mama’s labored breathing and thought about what to feel, vacillating between nothing and devastation until the sun came up and she knew for certain Mama was gone. Only then did Riet realize her feelings weren’t participatory, but reactive, a reflex to the last twenty-five years of uncertainty. Her reaction was livid but silent.

The article and engagement photos of Peter and blonde Rebecca were in the Times the Sunday Riet and Lucinda buried Mama. Peter’s letter arrived at her Tenderloin studio the following Monday, but she didn’t read it until weeks later, after Lucinda was placed in a respected upscale home for the mentally impaired.

Dear Riet, began the letter, which pleased her since he’d always called her Red when they were together. I thought you might have seen the announcement, although you probably still don’t read the wedding section. Rebecca and I are getting married. Rebecca says she’s not sure I’m over you, but she loves me anyway. Maybe I’ll never get over you completely. I think I’ll always be waiting for an explanation. Why did you say not ever? I know you won’t answer. I’m not even sure why I’m writing. I guess I just want to say, I’m ok. I think I’m finally happy again. I hope you are too. – Peter

Relief brought Riet cross-legged to the floor. She felt an unfettering from expectations. Sometimes, she thought, people grow away from their former selves so slowly that, while slicing bread, or changing sheets, or updating spreadsheets, they look around and realize they’re standing in a place already relinquished. On the other hand, sometimes change thunders in like the flash melting of ice caps, cutting gorges into souls, drowning out old paths and the missteps of before.

Riet smiled. The year began with Peter’s heartbreak, but he’d found someone to cradle that heart, to wash its laundry and coordinate its dinners, to stand next to it at events and be introduced as its wife. There was sufficient money in the account Riet set up her first month of college to take care of Lucinda’s needs. She wouldn’t live much longer anyway. Riet pulled herself up off the floor and called Richard.

“I’m ready,” she said. “I want to go cover the war.”

“You can’t go now,” said Richard, “Everyone is getting kidnapped.”

“I won’t. I can outrun them.”

“You don’t have a contract. Everybody’s staffed up.”

There was a long pause. Riet waited for Richard to speak again.

“I saw the announcement,” he said finally, “That godforsaken wedding section will put real reporters out of business. Point is, now’s not the time. Too dangerous. Nobody should send you over there right now.”

“I’ll go on spec then,” said Riet. “Send me the email address where you want the shots sent.”

She hung up the phone before Richard could reply. Riet knew life held other dangers, the subtle kinds that comfort before they suffocate. She was prepared to face all consequences. Richard sent her the email address. Three weeks later, the day before Riet boarded the plane, his phone buzzed. Richard watched it vibrate across his desk before he walked outside to buy a cup of coffee. Still, he published every photograph she sent. When she landed abroad, Riet chopped off almost all her red hair and dyed the remainder muddy brown. She wore oversized shirts and ran through crumbling streets snapping photographs, sending them off to Richard during eerie troughs of calm. She slept curled into herself as bombs touched down around her, taking lives with their smoke breaths. When fame arrived, she refused to return to the states to greet it.

When Lucinda died, Riet instructed the undertaker to throw the biggest celebration possible, but she didn’t return home. She sent him $50,000 in cash and her Peabody award check endorsed: to Graceland on behalf of Lucinda Preston. The undertaker threw the party, filling it with employees and a few nurses who spoke briefly about Lucinda: She was always kind. She was so gentle. A woman without a family, yet so full of love. The nurses drank shandies and billed their time to Blue Cross. The undertaker paid his daughter’s state college tuition with the extra funds, but was still careful to keep pink peonies on Lucinda’s grave, even when they wilted overnight in the unyielding Texas sun.

The week the flames engulfed Riet, there was an announcement in the paper about the birth of Peter and Rebecca’s second child. When her foot triggered the explosive, Riet paused for what seemed like a lifetime, but must have been mere moments. She collapsed to the ground and rolled, swaying her hips against the sand, trying to grind out the flames. People watched from the protection of their shops knowing nobody could quench such a fire. They leaned against their doorframes mesmerized, unable to turn away from the redness of the heat. In the end, there were no flashing memories, no time for apologies or regrets, just a pebble of a feeling that sank deeper as her flesh swelled, a feeling of molting, of freedom, of a city year and the legacy of dreams that followed, and finally, as her organs shut down, of peace.