Nadia has only just now realized that today is her birthday and it is 5 AM. She has stayed up writing through the night, pretending to write a book. It has been immensely difficult. Many hours have passed since she has interacted with any human presence beyond her own, including her own humanity. When she writes, her humanity fades and she becomes an unconscious mind streaming words to soft black keys that miraculously transform into the prattle of the dim screen before her. The only thing that exists is language, and maybe her laptop, maybe even the empty mug beside her. But not Nadia, not herself.
She licks her dry lips and gets up to make a cup of tea. The smudgy kettle already holds stagnant water and Nadia sets it on the stove. Staring out the window above the sink, Nadia registers motion across the street, identifies the form of a woman and her sleepy-looking dog. The dog yawns and Nadia yawns too. She remembers that she is made of flesh and bones and curses herself for forgetting to sleep again. But she did not really forget. There is no time for sleep, no place for sleep, for Nadia rationalizes that good writing only comes in the off-hours of thinking. When the mind forgets its humanity and exists only as itself, only then it may it be born, and be free to contort, free to thrive.
On this particular night, however, Nadia believes that she does not have much to show for this theory and has the sudden impulse to throw her cup of tea out the window and hit the woman and her dog on the other side of the street. What she might obtain by doing this is unclear. Perhaps she might feel a bit more in control over herself and her rationality. Perhaps if she did something entirely uncalculated for once, she would feel better about herself. But planning how to do something spontaneous immediately falsifies it. Nadia is disheartened. She vaguely wonders if she is depressed; she has the signs of being depressed, but depression is for those who are much more lost that she.
She sips her tea and the mug remains securely grasped between her palms. She looks out the window again and now the woman and the dog are gone, and only the lonely streetlight remains. She feels somewhat foolish for staying up so late and for what she has been writing. The document illuminated on the other side of the room is twenty pages long. Some of it is incoherent gibberish, but most of the pages are letters written by a boy named Micah to his sister Mira. Micah is attempting to console Mira, for she is devastatingly sad for one so young. She is only twenty-seven and already she has realized that she is ancient. Micah writes her a letter on her birthday and tells her not to think about her age so much, it will only make her sadder.
Happy birthday! You are ever in my thoughts, and today especially. I know it has been quite some time since we have seen each other, but remember that I am with you in spirit. No matter how far apart we may be, even if it is a distance of life and death, we will always be close. I am right beside you, I am in your heart, I am part of your soul. I know that you have been anxious about your future—but rule it instead of letting it rule you. Reach out and grasp it, take it by the neck and direct it wherever your heart takes you. You worry about potential that you haven’t fully realized; I wrestle with that too. If we come down to it, who am I to give advice to you? What have I to show for my life except for the record of me that others tell? In the end, maybe that is the best that one can be given. Let them say that you followed your heart and realized your dreams. You don’t have to be counted among “the greats” to be someone or be remembered as someone. All you have to do is be true to your heart. Don’t let anyone or anything hold you back, especially not me. Our whole lives have been one life, but things are changing. Go out and live and be you; celebrate the years that you have lived so far and do not think of the number before you. Take each as it comes and embrace life for what it is, the hardships and grief included. They make you stronger, they make you who you are. Don’t forget that. Happy birthday, Mira. I know you’ll be thinking of me today (it is my birthday too, after all!)
Nadia isn’t entirely sure if she believes Micah or if she believes what she’s writing. And neither is she sure that what she is writing is fiction. She has a hunch that maybe Micah is writing from purgatory, and that maybe he is dead, writing letters to his sister still on earth. She wonders if she should have gone to that grief-counseling meeting her mother begged her to go to. She rationalized at the time that other people probably needed it more than she did, and that she would be fine without it.
Nadia leaves her half-finished tea on the countertop and collapses onto the bed. She lies awake for a while counting the years of her life, contemplating her age and calculating what to do with the dwindling remains. She pulls the covers over her head and tries to block out the sound of the delivery trucks making their early-morning rounds on the streets below. In her dreams, she recalls that she is in love, and her hands fish through the covers for her lover’s, but she finds only crumpled sheets. She can’t remember why he is gone. Isn’t someone else gone too? She dreams about Micah writing letters in purgatory. She tells him to come back to earth and deliver the letters in person. But someone takes her hand and tries to pull her away. It is her boyfriend, and he tells her that Micah can’t leave and that they have to go back. Nadia cries in her sleep and curses them both for leaving her alone.
It is 7:30 and a loud rap on the door interrupts her sleep. Nadia is not expecting anyone, and mutters for her visitor to go away as she tumbles towards the door. She bumps the mug on the counter and it nearly tips off the edge, but it shudders into stability and remains intact. She inspects the peephole and though she sees nothing but blackness, she unbolts the door. The hall light has burned out and there is no one there, but on the ground beneath her slippered foot is a folded sheet of paper. It is a note from Kitty, the girl who lives down the hall. In her loopy handwriting she asks Nadia to watch her cat again next weekend and signs it with an unnecessary amount of x’s and o’s. Well really any amount of x’s and o’s is unnecessary. She could have simply waited to ask her in person instead of leaving a note at 7:30 in the morning. Nadia slides the note into her sweatpants pocket and supposes that she will stop by Kitty’s apartment later to talk to her about the cat.
Nadia looks at her watch and the angry red mark it left on her wrist while she slept. It’s 7:30. Is it Saturday? Oh, right. It is her birthday. Happy birthday to me, Nadia softly wails to herself as she turns around and shuts the door behind her.
When her eyes adjust to the lightness of the room, the apartment seems somewhat unfamiliar, as if she is looking on it with new eyes now that she is almost 30. Is she really the one who lives here? She has lived in this one bedroom apartment for a little more than a year and the walls are still gray and the bookshelves still nearly bare. She wonders what that says about her; she rarely has visitors, though she does have a few friends. But she doesn’t have many here. Truthfully, she has very few acquaintances here, except for those she knew when she was very young, but this is all by her own doing. Nadia hasn’t tried very hard to make friends, but it is starting to take a toll on her, especially now. She is lonely and really ought to get out and talk to people more, or at the very least be honest with herself about what she is thinking and writing these days. But to do that, she would have to face the things that are haunting her, and she would prefer not to think about the past, though she cannot avoid it today.
Nadia goes into the bedroom. On the dresser is a photograph of a pastoral scene in a rickety silver frame. A little boy and girl with identical dark hair and pale eyes stand grinning in their summer clothes, hand in hand. Though she didn’t realize it as she was writing, Nadia envisioned Micah and Mira to look like the pair in the photograph. Nadia picks up the photograph and traces a finger along the frame. The longer she lingers over the photograph, the more she realizes that the figure of the boy is dissolving into the background. The girl is alone with her arm outstretched, fingers curled around nothing.
Nadia remembers searching for a hand in her sleep. She remembers searching for someone else in her dreams. She looks down at her hands, bare except for the watch on her wrist. Jared had talked of proposing before he left; if she said yes, there might be a ring on her barren hand. She hadn’t known what to say when he brought it up. She tried not to think about the future. But now here she is, almost 30, and she needs to start thinking about these things. Nadia closes her eyes and tries to shut out her mind but it won’t stop bombarding her with the what if’s.
She can’t breathe and so she tries to escape. She puts the photograph down and rifles through the closet and in the back, under a small suitcase and a broken umbrella, she finds what she is looking for. She slides her bare feet into dusty running shoes and ties the laces tightly. She shimmies into a sweatshirt, grabs her keys, headphones, flicks the lock behind her.
Her feet slip down the stairs and the building’s door screeches closed behind her. She has not run for ages and her muscles protest. They scream and her lungs scream too and Nadia begins to regret her impulsive flight. Then they sink into rhythm and she becomes numb and totally aware. The sky is pale and leaves a foggy residue on her face and hands and the sweatpants she was wearing last night twist around her legs and she feels and sees everything in an enlightening haze. That wrapping on the ground is from Jim’s. The wind is coming in and snaking around the buildings from the northeast, and it swirls down the street to the west. The boy in front of that newspaper stand is about to steal something, and he’s stolen from there before, and no one sees him but her. Nadia keeps running.
In college, Nadia and her brother used to run together every morning. He had been better than her, stronger, but her legs were longer and she was determined. They ran wordlessly and neither ever won because it was never a race. That was in a different city and some years ago. Now it seems like a dream or maybe even something less than a dream—just an image or a feeling that fades more each time she runs alone.
She doesn’t know where she is running. Her feet follow a path drawn out in the recesses of her mind; where she turns and where she stays is reflex or premonition. She is mildly amazed when she arrives in the churchyard of the parish she attended as a girl. Her feet follow the weathered stepping-stones mindlessly around the back of the building to a shaded plot of grass still covered with dew. Nadia pauses and crouches to the earth. She unfurls her limbs and lies on her back. It smells of dirt and wetness, life and death. The crosshatched branches frame the struggling sun behind the clouds, aching to break free from misty captivity. Nadia reaches a hand over head and meets smooth marble. The carefully chiseled stone has been there as a marker for a little more than two years. Nadia closes her eyes and covers her face with her hands. She mourns her other half, her childhood.
She lies there for decades, until she is wrinkled and white and ghostly. Her watch says it has been ten minutes since her body fell upon the earth. She looks somewhat nauseous, but is nowhere near death. The branches above her shiver and a red leaf drifts onto Nadia’s hands. She rouses herself, shakes the leaf off and inadvertently crushes it beneath her foot as she rises.
She runs harder than before. She does not see the streets or the people or the garbage in the gutters. She only feels the pull of her clothing and the weight on her chest and the fire in her legs. It is easier to think of these things than to dwell on anything beyond them. But it is impossible to limit herself to just that. She thinks of Micah, of Mira, of the things he will tell her in his next letter. Perhaps it is drawing near to his last letter. Perhaps it is time for him to leave his state of limbo and for Mira to go on by herself. Nadia manages to keep these things separate from herself, for now at least. But she will have to face them soon. It is easier to think of the characters she writes than the characters in her own life. She trips up the stairs of her building and slams the door behind her.
The water heater is broken again and the shower is cold. As she shivers she wonders if it was a wise idea to move back here to the city that she grew up in. Now she is closer than ever to her childhood, and it follows her everywhere she goes. She won’t think of its name, but it has a name. It has a face too, and as she stands in towel in front of the mirror, she sees something of a reflection of that face. But she doesn’t think directly of it; all she does is acknowledge the sadness in her reflection. Jared didn’t want to go and leave her here by herself. He worried about her. He suggested going talk with someone, to go to a doctor, to do something besides walk the streets where she and her brother played when they were little. That’s what her mother said too, but she didn’t listen. Nadia moved into this apartment to be close to those memories, and be close to the parish. A part of her cannot let go, and another part seeks so desperately to get away. But she is convinced that she cannot escape, no matter where she goes, so living here makes no difference.
But it has been productive here and Nadia is determined to remain productive. Some draft of something is due Tuesday. She needs to stop flitting between being afraid of and resenting her prose. She needs to stop aimlessly wandering around her apartment and sinking deeper into her depression. Micah’s letters to Mira is not such a bad idea, after all. It’s not so different than running, stretching muscles that don’t want to release, pushing what hurts to get somewhere, to get something done, to make oneself better.
Nadia pulls on the grey ARMY t-shirt Jared left behind, zips up her skirt, walks out of the apartment with wet hair and her laptop. But before she tromps down the stairs to write Micah’s letters to Mira, she walks down the hall to 205. Kitty opens the door and throws herself at Nadia. Happy birthday! She yells so the whole building can hear. Kitty invites Nadia in, and Nadia tells her she only has a minute. Kitty makes her sit down and drink tea from a flowered cup with mismatching saucer. The best way that Nadia has found to describe Kitty and her apartment is kitschy. And very cluttered. Nadia is a bit claustrophobic, or maybe she just thinks she is. Regardless, Kitty has determined that since Jared is overseas for the time being, it is her responsibility to look out for Nadia. Nadia needs no looking after. But Kitty’s cat does next weekend because Kitty is going to Ohio to visit her grandmother. Nadia says she’ll watch him and is introduced to Merlin. She sneezes and tells Kitty that she has somewhere to be. Kitty hugs her again and tells Nadia that she will stop by her apartment later with some birthday cake. Nadia will supply the booze.
She runs out of the apartment and away from Kitty. Nadia finds Kitty exceptionally overwhelming but for some reason feels obligated to continue to talk to her. She is somewhat sympathetic for her and her oddities, but Kitty has brought those on herself as much as Nadia has brought her recluse upon herself. Perhaps that is why they might be kindred spirits—there is some sort of understanding between them. Or at the very least, they both pity each other.
Nadia steps outside and spies the woman and her dog from earlier that morning across the street, as if they hadn’t moved at all. The woman smiles and waves, and the dog barks neighborly. Nadia stares, wide-eyed, and awkwardly waves back. Maybe they’ve met before and she doesn’t remember. It would be polite to go over and talk to her. Maybe later. For now she is on a mission. Tuesday, Tuesday, the deadline is Tuesday.
Nadia is tempted to walk to the Art Museum. But it is her day off and Paul would tell her that she should go do something fun instead of spending the day in the dreary old sculpture garden. Thinking comes easily for Nadia there, surrounded by the likenesses of artists and philosophers in all their ancient glory. She assumes that writing would also come naturally there. But could the men and women of old give her much guidance in how she should write? Most of the artists and the subjects were dead; besides, none of them would be there anyways. She would only be surrounded by others like herself, searching for answers in the cold marble faces.
Nadia walks in the other direction, towards the library with the iron spiral staircase in the center and the stained glass windows superimposed over the modern. And she walks past it. She keeps walking with no end in sight, until her phone rings.
She does not recognize the number: Hello?
Hesitantly a man speaks her name: Nadia?
She nearly drops the phone.
Happy birthday, dear!
Nadia cannot speak.
It’s Jared, are you okay?
For a moment, she thought the man was someone else. Nadia nods and then realizes he cannot see her: I am fine. I thought you were Ezra at first.
The line is silent. What can he say? There is nothing to be said. Nadia attempts to ask him questions about what he is doing but the words don’t come. What can he do?
I love you, he says gravely. I miss you.
I love you too, she says, and I am tired of missing.