Even after the workday rush slowly fades and night descends, one can never feel calm in the heart of the city. In darkness and stillness it becomes a disconcerting void, the choking specter of empty sports stadiums after the last fan has gone home, of ashen skyscraper columns and corners framing a ghost town where down below obsolete morning newspapers skip along the sidewalks until finally wedging against one of the sleeping homeless.
But a few miles out, in the suburbs, that elusive calm seems possible if one can tear himself away from the TV, the headphones, the online rabbit holes. And so on this November night, after years of city living have run ragged what was once an earnest young man full of dreams, I shut off my own gadgets and step out for a walk in search of a few clear thoughts.
Outside my apartment the brisk still air perks me up and I take in the sounds of insects chirping and the highway in the distance. A few blocks on and the cold has rooted out all the warmth of home, so I pull the sleeves of my fleece over my hands and stuff my clenched fists into the pockets. Mysterious cooking smells from people’s kitchens waft by my nostrils, then mix with the general aroma of leaves and burnt wood as I walk on.
Cars blaring loud music rush past so I move to the quieter side streets as I begin the slow incline toward the hills ahead, their dark silhouette dotted by the yellow lights of houses that blink now and again, and up top a lonely red beacon pulses occasionally to tell the airplanes, “I’m here.” And above it all the brightest stars peer down through the city’s night glare—how wonderful, this rare moment of tranquility to remind me what is real after so much frantic clawing in the pursuit of success.
I begin to take in all the small details of these neighborhoods in a way one never can while driving past—the unique design of each house, the bark on the trees, the feel of pine needles and crunching of leaves under one’s feet. Two old women across the street speak in a strange foreign language but when they quietly laugh the feeling needs no translation. Men and women walking their dogs pass with a friendly “Good evening” as their critters sniff about.
Further up the incline is a park sitting mostly in darkness except for a few lighted buildings further on, but just as I begin to cross the street I see a cat sitting on the curb. Quietly I approach, making affectionate sounds and rubbing my fingers together. I extend my hand to offer him my scent, and a few tentative sniffs are enough to coax him close. He warms up to the soft strokes upon his coat, and after I sit down on the curb he walks in circles around me, brushing against my back and legs and purring loudly, then flopping onto his back and rolling from side to side with wild eyes. After several minutes I bid him farewell and enter the park through its white arching gate.
A few street lamps lead the way toward the library up ahead, and as I approach an old Volkswagen Bug with clicking engine coasts down past me and away. Coyotes up in the hills yelp and howl, yet I continue onward though one could be stalking in the shadows.
The library appears to be an old converted house and the warm yellow chandeliers make it seem inviting—but I decide not go in and walk on. Angling left across the park I come to a gated building that sits in complete darkness. A distant street lamp casts enough light on a sign for me to read that it is a preserved local landmark that gives tours only during the day. Soon reaching the far corner of the property, I head downhill to leave the park through a different gate.
But just out of the corner of my eye—or is it by the bristles of my ears?—something draws my attention to an adjacent tea garden. Here about fifty feet from the fence is another small converted house, and inside I see a group of women…and they are dancing! About two dozen of them ranging in age from mid-twenties to mid-thirties wearing modest leotards are broadcast out to me in glorious bright colors through the large front window, and I duck into the shadows to watch. As their hips rock and sway slowly in unison with a hypnotic rhythm, I feel my hardened heart begin to melt in the warmth of their wholesome sensuality. Their laughter is crisp yet soft, the sound of women who have put their guard down safe in the knowledge that there are no men around. Though I burn to keep watching I feel it would be unfair to them, so I take a final glance through the bars of the fence and turn away.
I stand frozen in the darkness, haunted. I feel limitless hope, burning desire, crushing futility. Over and over I see the slight rise and fall of their bodies, see them gliding in a ballet of angelic grace that holds every mystery and promise of joy. My mind’s eye zooms in onto one woman with fair skin in a black leotard whose dark hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Her head is angled downward to her right and I cannot see her eyes. She holds her arms out with hands together, bent slightly at the elbow as if holding a wicker basket. I see her soft curving waist and then lose myself in a vision of falling into her embrace, feeling her warm breath on my cheek, and though she is but a hundred feet away from me it is simply impossible here, now, like this.
I have striven and struggled out here for many long years, having denied myself immeasurably to keep alive those ambitions which were so easy to believe in when I was young. But one day when I have either conquered or been exhausted I will leave this place. I will find a woman to raise my family in a big bright house, and then I will never again have to be that man smelling other people’s home-cooked meals from afar while living on cheap pasta in solitude.