I sit on the floor. It’s not my floor. It’s Felix’s floor. Here he comes now, sleep-stained, hair a knotted mop on his head. He flicks through a pile of envelopes and mumbles something about the rent. It’s his rented floor. Rented flat, or apartment, as they say here. It’s draughty and patchy and has a smell like wood. This room is half swallowed by the grand piano. I sit underneath it.
Felix carefully lays the envelopes on the coffee table. “Morning, Erica,” he says.
He looks at me, amusement colouring his face, as if I’d said something funny. He says, “Breakfast?”
I say, “Yes.”
He stands under the archway between the living room and poky kitchen. He folds his arms, leans against the wall, eyebrow raised. Just looks at me. Then he nods, smiles, and pours coco pops into two bowls. We sit down at the little white table in the kitchen. It’s dabbled with tea spills. “Needs cleaning,” I say.
Felix looks up from his cereal. “What does?”
“The table,” I say.
“Oh.” He wipes it with his sleeve. “After breakfast.”
I look out the window at the dark brown clouds spilled over the sky. The glass smudges everything. “Windows need cleaning,” I say.
“It’s just the glass. It’s like that.”
“Oh.” I look at my spoon. Suddenly I feel it needs cleaning, too. My eyes drift to the window again. Manhattan’s skyline is out of sight, lost somewhere under the coffee-stained sky.
“My stuff’s clean, you know,” Felix says, his eyes locked on the spoon that I’m rubbing with my sleeve. Concern is so visibly etched on his face that I stop.
“Is something wrong?” he says.
I sit on my hands to stop them cleaning the spoon again. “Why would something be wrong?”
“You seem tense,” he says. “And you’re frowning.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. Your eyebrows are all screwed up.”
I look outside again. Before I came here, I imagined what the view from the flat might look like: the Brooklyn Bridge all lit up at night, the city lights sprinkled along the river like gold dust. It’s not quite that, but somehow there’s a curious charm in the brick-faced Bushwick apartment block, with its fire escapes scrawled all down the walls.
My hands are sticky. “I’m going to the bathroom,” I say.
I don’t like how the towel feels. It’s scratchy and damp from other people’s hands. I rinse mine again. Then Felix knocks on the door.
“Erica? Can I come in?”
“Mm.” I turn the tap off.
He walks in, smiling, stands there with the door open. “I’m taking the day off,” he says.
“What?” I say. “Why?”
“Well, I figured it wasn’t fair for you to spend another day by yourself. You’re still so new to the city. I thought I’d show you around.” And he just stands there smiling, eyes shining and hopeful.
“Uh…” You can’t do that, I want to say. You can’t afford to take days off work. I’m not that important. But I don’t say this. I don’t know why.
Instead Felix adds: “Why were you sitting under the piano earlier?”
I shrug. “I always sit under the piano.”
“I know,” he says. “I found you asleep there the other day. You’d taken all your blankets with you.”
I twist my hands, feeling sort of self-conscious that he’d seen that. “I don’t know. I like it there.”
Felix nods. “That’s cool. I just thought there was something wrong with the sofa.”
“There is,” I say, sort of smirking. “It needs cleaning.”
We take a cab into Manhattan. Even when we reach Central Park, it’s early; through the cracks in the clouds, the sun is still dripping its pale early morning colour. Winter mist clings to the grass and curls round my feet. And all round, behind the scrawny leafless trees, the buildings stand in perfect squares.
“I wish we were in a helicopter,” I say.
Felix walks beside me, hands in his pockets. “So do I,” he says, absently. His face is turned to the sky, smiling, eyes lost behind the veil of a daydream. Then they narrow in confusion. “Wait, why?”
“Because from above,” I say, “we could see how perfect it is. The park is a perfect rectangle.”
“Ah, of course,” he says. A gush of wind suddenly rushes at us, and his scarf flies behind him. It hits him in the face, and I realise I’m laughing. Felix laughs too, his eyes bright. And our walking slows till we’re still.
“Do you know what I think is perfect?” he says.
We stand beneath a tree. The sunlight slips through the branches and dapples the ground. I twist my hands, not really sure how to stand still.
“What?” I say.
He narrows his eyes, as if in concentration, his gaze fixed on mine.
He says, almost whispering:
“The Skylark by Balakirev.”
I blink. “What?”
“The Skylark by Balakirev. It’s an arrangement of part of an opera by Glinka. Farewell to Saint Petersburg, to be exact.”
“It starts with a beautiful alto melody, although in the opera it’s usually sung by a tenor, and then it flows into little tinkling high notes. The alto notes are the person, and the high notes are the bird. The song illustrates the man talking to the bird, and the bird answering.”
“But birds can’t – ”
“The first section sounds delicate and soft and cautious. And then the alto melody is played again, but more virtuosically, and the music sort of fills up.”
Felix’s whole face lights up, and I know he’ll start talking in the way he does when he’s excited, when his voice grows animated and his words seem to fall out his mouth in strings.
“It becomes richer, but still hushed. Then there’s a part where the music trills, fluttering, like a butterfly dancing across the keys.”
“But butterflies aren’t heavy enough to – ”
“And this is the genius part.” His hands dance about like his imaginary butterfly. “The rest of the piece is a kind of variation on the two previous melodies. They interweave, like layers. Like they were so beautiful that they fell in love and had a baby, and that baby is the new melody. And then the music trills and dances again, faster than I could ever play, and it’s perfect.”
He smiles, eyes sparkling. The cold white sunlight falls softly on his face. I start to laugh.
He scrunches his eyebrows, confused. “What’s so funny?” he says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “You. The way you talk. All over-excited like that.”
“Oh.” He smiles at his feet. “You know, you talk like that sometimes, too.”
“Do I?” I say. “When?”
“Well, you used to a lot. When you would talk about New York, and how you’d live here one day. You knew everything about the city, more than I do now, even when you’d never been.”
I feel unsettled to remember this. Because New York was safer from far away. It was numbers and pictures and shapes on a map. Real New York is a different place, a physical, breathing, concrete thing, made of noise.
Now the misty sunlight explodes in one corner of the city, and from there the sky unrolls, bruised and bursting. Skyscrapers poke into the clouds, and seeing that skyline now, something catches in my chest. The realisation that I’m here, that this is where I live, settles quietly and irrevocably in my mind.
“Aren’t dogs supposed to be on the leash here?” Felix says, noticing a dog stuff its nose into a paper bag. I hear the bag crinkling. I hear the dog’s scuffing breath. Something twists uncomfortably in my stomach. Everything around me has grown larger and louder, and all I can think is that the whole world needs to fold itself up into a tiny piece of paper that I can stuff inside a box and hide somewhere.
I feel Felix’s mood shift with my own. “Hey, are you okay?” he says.
“I…” I can’t talk anymore. Too much air is swelling inside my head. The noise of my jacket rubbing against itself every time I move crawls into my brain, contorted and amplified. I try to yank myself free of it, tearing at the zip, but it’s stuck, my hands are shaking, it’s too small, I can’t grab hold of it.
“Erica?” Felix says. “Is everything okay? You’re shaking,” – and he comes closer and rests his hand on my arm and I flinch and fall backwards and scramble to the foot of the tree. The sun’s gone. My shoes are muddy. I squeeze my eyes shut.
He sits beneath a tree a few feet away, shadows and sunlight sliding across his face. The air in my head clears, and everything grows softer, slowly.
He looks up and comes over, sits beside me. It’s one of those bright, sharply cold days, and the wind coils round my fingers. There are no words in my head, so we’re quiet for a while, till Felix says:
“Did something happen? That made you feel like that?”
I shrug, thinking about this huge, sprawling, tripping city, with its buzzing, thumping lights and sounds and people and cars and cabs. I try to explain. “It’s just…”
The words dissolve. A lilting birdsong sails down from above us, and we look up at the branches that cradle us in their shadow. I say, “You know, virtuosically isn’t a word.”
His eyes fall to meet mine. “What?”
“When you were talking about the Skylark,” I say. “You used the word virtuosically, but it’s not a word.”
“Oh.” His face lights up in a smile again. “Well, it should be.”
I move to sit closer to him.
“One day,” he says, “we’re going to have an apartment on the Upper East Side, overlooking the park.”
“And we’ll be able to see how perfectly perpendicular all the buildings are,” I say. We’re going to, I think.
The day ebbs away, and outside the cab window, the sky’s dressed in pink. Beethoven’s face hangs on a purple flag above a shop.
“This is 58th Street,” I say. “Piano row.”
Felix looks at me in surprise. He grins. “That’s right.”
The taxi’s reflection ripples in the storefront windows we drive past. I say, “Did you know the first taxi company in New York was introduced in 1897? It was called the Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, and they ran electric hansom cabs.”
I hear the driver chuckle. Felix laughs too, and I watch out the window as the city spills by, the streets unfolding like a map.
In the musky, wooden smell of the living room, I trace circles on the table with my finger. I’m on the sofa. Felix calls from the kitchen: “Coffee?”
He comes in soon after, cup in hand, laptop cradled under his arm. He crawls under the piano with them. Then he grabs a piano book and spreads it out on the floor.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“I want to show you something,” he says.
Confused, I clamber under the piano after him. On the screen is a YouTube video of the Skylark.
“Listen to this,” he says, “and you’ll see how perfect it is.”
He presses play. The music flows out, and he traces the notes that scrawl across the paper like fire escapes.
“Why can’t you play it?” I ask.
“Because I can’t play it,” he says. “Not well, at least. Now, ssh. Listen.”
Then as he goes to turn the page, he knocks the coffee cup over. Dark brown splurts out and gushes across the paper, painting the song in puddle-coloured clouds.
He looks at me, wide-eyed, mouth open to shape an apology.
Still the bird sings, tinkling.
‘Coffee Stains’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.