It was so strange to be back, especially after all this time. He knew exactly why he was there; it was the same reason that everyone else was there. He came to see, to know first-hand.
He was walking alone, oddly enough without her, back to the place where they used to live. It was Wednesday; one of the few off-days left on this abridged tour. He had the thought yesterday afternoon, and impulsive as it was, he realized as soon as the idea struck him that he had to do this. He hadn't wanted to fly, but ironically enough he felt safer now, after everything. After.
He arrived at La Guardia around one in the afternoon, holding a large knapsack filled with nothingness. He hadn't needed much of anything on this short trip, but he thought bringing nothing would be more suspicious than not. So he threw in a towel, a shirt, and a bottle of water. His return flight was at nine o'clock that night.
Now he traversed the streets (large knapsack filled with nothingness slung casually over his shoulder) he had become so familiar with in the last couple of years. This was his home, his life. The two of them had only moved out a few months prior to now, really, and his new house seemed large and strange compared to the cramped and noisy city that he had grown to love.
As he walked closer to It, he noticed something. He noticed many things, but this one was particularly strange. People were…slower. Many wore the same rigid facial expression he himself had learned to adapt early on, but now everyone moved lethargically, as if each step was painful.
He had taken pains to fit into the New York scene his first few weeks living in the city. This included the change from his no-rush, drawly stroll to a quick and 'leave me alone, I'm very important and have to be somewhere' trot that the city is known for. He had felt proud when he could keep up easily with the natives, and only after his near-death experience running across the street in front of an oncoming cab did he truly feel like a New Yorker.
The only difference now was that he was passing everyone, even mumbling unconsciously when he couldn't pass a group of slow people. That's when he looked up and realized just how fast he had been going.
He stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change, and looked around. He was close, so close to his old place. Just a few more blocks and he'd be there, the loft he had lived in for a year and a half. Moving out had seemed like a good idea at the time, him needing more space to work on his writing, she wanting to get away from the noise and live in a house "with a yard and, my God, trees!"
Crossing the street now, Rob had to physically restrain himself from rushing. Observing those around him, he took long, slow steps. Biting his lip in concentration, Rob got across the street and broke from the group he had been following. He turned and went down the familiar street he had lived on.
It was right near Chinatown, which neither he nor she could get enough of. Chinatown is like one big continuous fair, where everything is five dollars. Everything. T-shirts, fake Gucci watches, stolen stereos. It was wonderful. Not only that, but in Chinatown, no one knew who he was. No one cared.
He paused in front of the ancient-looking, yet very new building. This was it, this was his home. Someone else inevitably occupied it now, but that didn't matter. He had to see it, to make sure it was still there. Ridiculous, he knew, since he was more than half a mile away from It. He took a deep breath and ascended the staircase. He tentatively opened the door inside and recognized Carl, the receptionist of the building.
"Carl!" he exclaimed, a little surprised that the old man was still alive. From what he had heard of the illustrious front-desk manager, he had been working there longer than the longest tenant had been living there, which was at least 25 years. He had started working there as an old man and apparently refuses to give into his old age.
The man sharpened his focused and peered at the figure standing before him. "Rob?" he asked hesitantly, as if his memory was playing a trick on him.
Rob, glad to hear his name, smiled and nodded eagerly. "Yeah man, how have you been?"
Carl gave a sad smile. "I've been better. How about you?"
"Um, well…I'm good, considering," Rob replied. He noticed Carl's questioning look and began rather sheepishly. "I came…well I came back here to..to see…"
Carl was already nodding, and rummaging around for a key. "The last person to live in your place was only there for a short time, moved out last month in fact, so if you want to go up…"
"Oh wow, thanks…I mean, I can't - just, thanks," Rob stuttered, reaching for the key. Carl placed it into his open hand and issued a small warning.
"I know we know each other and that you're in now way a danger, but if a guard comes up to you, tell him to buzz me down here and I'll take care of it."
"Guard?" Rob asked, furrowing his brow. "You guys got guards now?"
"On each floor," Carl replied, sighing. "Can't be too careful now, you know?"
A quiet moment passed between the two. "Yeah," Rob finally said, wincing at the sound of his own voice breaking the silence. He abruptly turned and headed for the elevators.
Up to the seventeenth floor. Out into the hall. Peering rather cautiously down the corridor, he didn't notice the presence of a guard. Shrugging, he walked to his old door. Carefully, as if he would break it with too much force, he unlocked the door and stepped inside.
It was a loft more than an apartment, but it had a kitchen in one corner and a separate bedroom, so it felt sort-of-like-a-home. The best part about it, and the main reason why he and she decided on this place, this exact place, was the large bay window facing south. They had a great view of the lowest part of Manhattan, and if you looked really hard, you could see the Hudson River. They spent countless evenings sitting by the window and just looking out into the world, at the twinkling lights, at the inextinguishable life and sheer force of the city.
Smoke, and God, the smell, the acrid smell that was now burning his lungs and digging into his vision. He could see it clearly; he had a perfect view (or maybe lack thereof) of what had happened. He stood frozen in his spot, seeing (or maybe not seeing) everything.
At that moment, it became Real. He had been living his Before life, even during the Aftermath, because he wasn't there, he only saw it on TV. And now his life had become the After. He knew what she felt, because she had been in the city when It happened.
He spent a long time just staring, not believing. Finally (how long? Five, ten, twenty minutes later? ) he slid down onto the floor. He couldn't believe it, but he had to because it was Real.
Hours later he was again at the front desk, handing the key back to Carl. He could tell that Carl understood, and was thankful that he didn't ask anything. Just a simple "Please, come visit again," and Rob was out the door and down the stairs, free of small talk.
The sunlight startled him; it didn't look that sunny from his window (afterthought: funny how he still considered it his window). Slightly daze and very ragged, Rob began walking back. He had only a vague sense that he was heading towards the nearest open subway station.
He glanced at his watch and was surprised to find out how late it was. He walked. And walked. He had been thinking about something before, what was it again? Well, it probably didn't matter - he was sure it wasn't that important. Nothing seemed too important anymore.
Lives changed forever in the matter of a few hours, a different, scarier world. Innocence gone, reality setting in. Different now. Everything is different. Painful.
Wiping feebly at his eyes (God-damned dust), Rob found himself nearing the subway station that would take him to the airport. He glanced at his watch again.
Jesus, he was going to be cutting it close. Had it really taken him twice as long to walk the same distance back to the station as to his old place? How the fuck did that happen?
Rob crossed the street to the station, neither passing nor being passed by any of his slow-moving counterparts.
He never even noticed he had slowed down as well.