the wax paper

Emily Ling

DON'T BLINK

      Before the earth’s gravitational pull dislocated the moon from its orbit and drowned New York City, Georgie spent his weekdays stuffing envelopes on the top floor of a financial company building. There, he met Maria, who had only worked for a few months before quitting and taking a management job at a sex shop, but not before deciding to move into Georgie’s small apartment in Queens. This was when they still bought cherries in Chinatown, smoked pot in abandoned buildings, and rode the subway all the way to Chelsea, where Maria taught Georgie how to roll his own cigarettes, and make tamales with their Puerto Rican neighbors every Wednesday night, back when nights meant hooking up and getting sick to their stomachs after sipping on too much rum and Coke and spinning in Georgie’s office chair. They used to be something like best friends.

Then the water started to rise. People were washing plates and taking out the trash when the Hudson River lapped over cracked roads and washed out the streets. The mayor, Vic Sirpo, told them not to worry, that the water would recede. But it kept inching up and eventually broke through people’s apartment windows, stained their good carpets, and drowned their pets. The mayor was forced to put the city under a state of emergency and create a mandatory evacuation. By this time, the water was sixteen stories high. 

“Don’t worry!” said mayor Vic Sirpo. “We we’re going to get BIG tubes and suck out all the water. BIG tubes! It’s going to be great.”

Georgie and Maria said goodbye to each other and their Puerto Rican neighbors, and both went to stay with their parents—Georgie in Indiana, Maria in Texas. The project was only supposed to take a couple of months, but when they put in the big tubes, they interfered with giant internet cables that ran on the Atlantic Ocean’s floor, and the whole country lost satellite connection, so Georgie and Maria could only write to each other. This took weeks because everyone was trying to send letters to the ones they loved, and sometimes letters got lost.

Maria liked to write about everything that was going on. The first letter said, I miss the spicy smell of that Yemeni restaurant we went to for my birthday. I’ve been craving their honeycomb bread. For now, I’m eating pasta salad, and nannying my brother’s toddler while he’s at work. This morning he tried to throwhimself out of his highchair after I wouldn’t give him a cigarette for breakfast, and this is the exact reason I don’t want kids. What about you? How are you coping? I haven’t moved my things out of the car yet, but tomorrow I have a date with a nice guy. Maybe everything will stop feeling so far away.

Georgie wrote about everything he wanted to remember. He said, Do you remember the one time we took LSD and snuck into the pool of that hotel by our apartment? How you said “Let’s see who can run out of air first,” while pulling me by my shirt into the water. You kept your eyes open the whole time. We let ourselves sink waist deep, and even further, until the tops of our heads were completely under. We let out large pockets of breath that sounded like thunder, until neither of us could take it any longer and pushed our bodies up. We left the pool and dried ourselves on the hand towels with the blue stripes that we found in the laundry room along with other people’s clothes: a green cardigan, brown slacks, a Wilco shirt I stole, even though I refused to at first, I took it because you told me to and because this was normal. I thought we were going to stay there forever.

After about a year of this, officials in New York realized they couldn’t fix the flooding. The big tubes only led to more water being pumped into the city, so they removed them. They just couldn’t do it. Mayor Sirpo said they would build a bigger and better New York on the upper levels of the buildings and turn the lower levels into scuba diving and snorkeling attractions.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the new city will make the old one look like the slums. This new New York is going to put all the other major cities to shame. The new apartments are equipped with snorkeling gear! Beautiful, just beautiful,” he said.
Georgie and Maria made plans to move back, but instead of living with each other, Maria was bringing her boyfriend from Texas. They were going to share a small apartment together. They had to fill out FEMA forms, and government officials were still figuring out how the buildings worked, but everyone was able to come back. 
                                                                                                              ❖                                                                                             Georgie moved back in with a U-Haul boat that was loaned out by the city. The skyscrapers casted reflections on the water. Inside these skyscrapers were shopping malls, apartments, and theaters buzzing in neon flashing lights. The newer buildings were tangled in strange geometric figures that served as sky bridges and roads. To Georgie, everything looked like Times Square but on steroids.

"Even the alleyways are pretty!” Vic Sirpo said from the TV.

From his front door, Georgie smelled curries, vanilla ice cream, and tobacco drifting out of open windows. If he closed his eyes, everything seemed normal. You could still hear the high-pitched sound of horns, the squeakiness of construction equipment, and someone closing a door across the street. When he opened his eyes, he saw men and women going to work on gondolas, kayaks, and water taxis. They had created vacuum-sealed suits, so  you could stay dry if you wanted to swim to school.

Maria and her new boyfriend had moved back a few weeks before, so it wasn’t a surprise when they showed up on Georgie’s door step. Maria stood behind her boyfriend with squinty eyes like she always did when she greeted someone. Georgie noticed that her once black hair was now dark brown because of the Texas sun. She had a new nose ring that looped around her right nostril. Her posture was straighter, and she didn’t have that laziness to her smile anymore. She pushed past her boyfriend and hooked her arms around Georgie’s neck.

“You look good,” she said.

“You’re here,” Georgie said. Maria’s boyfriend smiled behind her. His arms took up the majority of Georgie's view like he could kill you if he wanted too, so Georgie hoped that he didn’t want to.

“This is Victor,” Maria said while locking hands with him. “Like the mayor?” Georgie said.

“No he’s Vic, I’m Victor,” Victor said.

“Gotcha, Mr. Mayor,” Georgie said. “Here, come in.”

Georgie brought out a few beers and placed them on the coffee table. Maria made a comment about how much his apartment looked like the one in Queens, and Georgie just laughed and said he liked his old stuff. Georgie watched Maria and Victor sit down on his couch. Victor put his arm around her and whispered something in her ear and Maria cuddled into him. Georgie thought he looked like a total tool. Like one of those men you see on health smoothie infomercials, who have dedicated their life to working out in front of other people for show.

Georgie pulled out his cigarettes and offered them to the couple.

“I quit smoking, and all the other stuff,” Maria says. She told him that it was hard keeping the toddler out of it, and that it was for the best.

“So what else is new?” Georgie said.

“Maria is in night classes for cosmetology and waitresses at a karaoke bar,” Victor said.

“That’s actually where we met.”

“Cosmetology class?” Georgie asked.

“The bar,” Maria rolled her eyes and took a sip of her beer. They stayed and talked for a while, but when Georgie suggested going out that night, Victor said that they had a church brunch with his mother the next morning. Georgie tried not to laugh as he imagined Maria going to an event like a  church brunch.

That night, Georgie couldn’t sleep. The apartment was too quiet. He kept wondering what Maria was doing, if she was reading aloud to Victor like she used to with Georgie. He got up and began rummaging around the house, doing things they used to do during the evening. When flipping through the TV didn’t work, he decided to go for a walk. He went to grab his shoes from the closet when he found the snorkeling gear that the state provided for everyone. He wanted to throw out the gear, but decided to give it a try. Georgie dove in a few streets down from the apartment. Under the water, which was strikingly clear, a school of French angelfish navigated in and out of a blue Camry. A string of traffic lights were draped over a subway entrance. Stop signs were all bent in the same direction. Coral has started to reclaim the bottom of apartment building bricks, and the cracks in between the sidewalk. Everything moved so slowly. Georgie shook his head side to side. It was like he was in a dream. He could see the remains of the bar he used to take Maria to for salsa night after one of her ex-boyfriends did her wrong. Next to that, the Yemeni restaurant. Georgie swam past flipped-over hotdog vendors and fallen silver maple trees. Most of the gates that protected apartments hung open. A few eels swayed in and out of windows. Algae had reclaimed the lamp posts and the white traffic paint.

Everything about the city revealed that people left in a hurry. Friend’s Cafe & Deli still had their open sign flipped toward the street. Georgie passed an Associated Supermarket, a McDonalds, and New Kennedy Fried Chicken & Pizza before reaching the Yemeni restaurant. The glass door was shattered enough for Georgie to swim through. Everything looked the same. The green and white tiled floor, the round silver tables, the glass refrigerator of fruit sodas. All under water and trembling a little. Maria was the one who introduced the restaurant to Georgie, but he felt like it was just as much his place as hers. Though that got him thinking if she ever brought Victor to a restaurant in Texas. If so, what kind was it? Did they go there often? Had she ever mentioned Georgie on their dates? What did she say about him? A part of Georgie wanted her to have said that they were soulmates in a way, but he knew that wasn’t Maria, so another part of him hoped that she didn’t mention him at all.  
                                                                                                          ❖
Two days later, Georgie met Maria at a new bar on one of the upper levels. The bar was white with purple masking tape designs on the walls. The first level contained a floating bar and a few stools, and the second was the dance floor and the disco ball, and lounge chairs. They sat upstairs in a two-seater. The tables were all lit up with light bulbs that changed color. To Georgie, it all felt artificial.

“Last time I was in a bar like this,” Georgie said, “was this summer when I let my sister set me up on a date. It was some EDM club, and the girl got really sick from the bad weed we smoked and threw up on my shoes when we were grinding.”

Maria crinkled her nose, shook her head and for a little bit everything felt normal. She complained about not finding work, and Georgie ordered a few whiskey sours. They went on one of the look-outs, which was just a hexagonal glass box that jutted out from the side of the window. Maria and Georgie watched a Jet Ski do donuts around a pedestrian sign. On one of the glass walls, mayor Vic Sirpo was being projected, a hologram-message.

“We encourage you to not swim to work,” Vic said. “One man tried to swan dive off the Empire State building and is paralyzed from the waist down.”

Georgie told Maria about Stephanie Woolbright moving in next to him. She worked with them at the financial company until her husband got in a car wreck and died. A few months later, Stephanie’s new boyfriend was doing a front flip and hit his head on a cement wall. Now he’s in a wheelchair with almost no brain in one of those old people homes. 

“You going to ask her out?” Maria said.

“Are you crazy?” Georgie said. “Whoever screws Stephanie Woolbright is bound to end up in the grave sooner rather than later.” And he thought he’d get a good chuckle out of her for that, but Maria was not amused. She said that Stephanie was suffering, and she didn’t need Georgie to add to her pain. Maria put her hair up in a bun like she always did when she got all hot and mad.

Georgie could see her tattoo poking out of her shirt on the back of her neck. He remembered when she got it. That she came home and, without a word, lifted up her hair to show him the Arabic word for love. And when he said he liked it, she said it reminded her of everything she hated. He thought about how she used to be something like that: flighty and equipped with a bullshit detector.  
                                                                                                          ❖
The next night, Georgie went snorkeling near the Catholic Church he and Maria would sometimes attend. They would only go when things were bad. Like when Maria would lose her job after showing up late, or when she’d bring other guys home, giving Georgie the leather pullout couch. This was in the winter when Maria would pretend her frozen breath was cigarette smoke on her way to work.

He remembered Maria complaining about the cold, and how warm it was in Mexico during that time of year. Georgie had told her he didn’t mind the cold, because though he was just 22 years old, he could wear hats and hide his already balding head, and a smile tugged at Maria’s face and she grabbed his arm.

“You think you’ll remember this stuff when you’re old?” she said. “Don’t talk like that.”

“It’s all going to pass. All of this. Everything you care about now is going to go away one day. It just will. That’s how it is.”

And Georgie couldn’t think of something comforting to say so they shuffled down a few more side streets in silence. He sat in the back pew while Maria lit candles for them. The smoke curved around her face as she shook the match in her hands. He had asked her if they were supposed to pay for these prayers, and she said that God would understand that they needed the extra prayers. And he’d always thought she was being sarcastic, but he wasn’t so sure anymore.
 Now the church doors were sealed shut by the water pressure, and Georgie couldn’t get in no matter how hard he pulled. The church was physically there, but it might as well have been gone. 
                                                                                                            ❖
The next week, Victor called Georgie to invite him to the float-in movie theatre with him and Maria.

“Yessir Mr. Mayor,” Georgie said. “I’ll be there.”

Victor rented a large pontoon, and Maria bought a case of beer. The movie was about some guy trying to save his father from the Mafia, but Georgie wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy listening to Maria’s bad lip readings, in which she filled in lines for the actors. Georgie hadn’t laughed that hard in a while, and everyone around him was annoyed, including Victor, who kept throwing popcorn at Georgie and Maria, telling them to “shhh!” Georgie noticed that Victor was drinking beer after beer, and every once and awhile Georgie felt his sweaty palm on his shoulder as he slurred in his ear, “that was so cool.”

At the end of the night, Georgie helped Maria get Victor up their apartment stairs.

“That was the best movie ever,” Victor said. “All-time favorite.” He stumbled through his apartment door and passed out on the couch.

“Yessir Mr. Mayor,” Georgie said. 

He stared at Maria for a few seconds until she finally looked at him and said, “he’s good at some things.” She threw a knitted blanket over the lower half of his body and propped his head up with one of the cushions. Georgie went into the kitchen to grab a beer. Victor and Maria’s apartment looked like a New Age Living magazine threw up in their home. They had mason jars for glasses, and real lilies in every room. All of their tables and chairs were made out of thick wood, and their wallpaper was a brick design. Georgie couldn’t find one thing Maria had put up from the old house. No drunk paintings or word magnets. She even had new bedding. Stuck to the fridge was a poem Victor had written Maria for Valentine's Day.

“He’s sweet,” Maria said, leaning on the counter top. “Sure, he’s sweet, but he’s a total doofus,” Georgie said. “He loves me,” she said.

“You were always good at making people fall in love with you,” he said. Maria her shook her head.

“Remember the guy who loved you so much that he was going to divorce his wife. Just for you. Just after one night. You were always meant to be loved deeply.”

“That’s not me,” Maria said and looked out the window at the new, big shops and the people on escalators holding brown paper bags.

“Bullshit,” he said. “Remember the lamps you would throw when you were mad? How your hair would change lengths every two months? Taking tequila shots before work on Mondays because you said no one is ever feeling sexy on Mondays? You were so happy.”

“I am happy, and you can’t worry about me forever.”

Georgie thought about the two of them, Maria and Victor, lounging around in a small clay house in Texas, watching home renovation TV shows, making popcorn on the stove, taking turns singing Wilco songs in the half-lit karaoke bar on a Friday night. He wondered if this is what her days meant to her now.

Maria said that Georgie should leave. That it was late and that they were both tired, and she didn’t feel like reliving her past. Georgie went back home only to get his goggles and snorkel. A few minnows swam in between Georgie’s toes as he moved past Pax Panini Shop. He was headed nowhere in particular, swimming leisurely, but the route seemed familiar. It wasn’t until he reached the algae-infested financial building that he noticed where he was. The building he and Maria worked in was small enough to be underwater, but large enough to only allow Georgie to be waist deep when he sat on the ledge. Everything further below was warped by reflections pooling in the water. Above him, advertisements flashed onto the sides of buildings. E PHONES WATERPROOF 2 FOR PRICE OF ONE, and, Tired of waiting? Jeb will get the job done in a blink. And the phrase looped around Georgie’s head, done in a blink. He thought about the past year. There was a place called New York, he lived there with his best friend, and then New York was gone and so were they. He was sleeping with Maria, and then he wasn’t, and then she had Mr. Mayor. Just like that. The advertisement then changed to a teeth whitening commercial, and it too was gone. Done in a blink. Fleeting and artificial and harsh under an imperial light, it was all over.

Georgie kicked in the top window, took two big breaths, and dove in. He swam around to where his desk was. Pictures of he and Maria had fallen onto the floor next to his chair. The first one he picked up was of them and their old Puerto Rican neighbors sitting outside of their apartment building. He remembered how Maria used to throw paper notes across the office dividers that read fuck you, and how he would write one back that said fuck you! And the older people in the building would always judge them, but they didn’t care. Georgie grabbed the picture with both hands and pushed it against the corner of his desk until it cracked. Shards of glass floated up and nicked his chin. He snapped off the keys on the computer and they floated away in the water. He kicked the rolling chair and it slowly toppled over onto the floor. Georgie picked up the telephone on his desk and pulled the cords apart. He rammed his fists into the desktop screen over and over again, making bubbles and underwater thrashing sounds. He swam up to pull down on the hanging light fixtures, grabbed hold, and swung his body from side to side. He pushed over the dividers and pulled out the filing cabinet drawers until the whole damn office eventually came down – all in slow motion, the water churning around him. Georgie looked up at the harsh light through his yellow tinted goggles and waited. He didn’t want to go up yet. For a moment, he glowed, destroying, but he was running out of air. He destroyed all evidence that people named Georgie and Maria had ever been there. He told himself that he was doing Maria a favor, and then he thought that maybe he was doing himself a favor too.

 

Emily Ling is from Greenwood, South Carolina. She is a recent high school graduate from the Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.  In the fall, Emily plans to attend The New School—Eugene Lang.