TITLE: The Second Law of Thermodynamics
AUTHOR: Ellen Milholland
ARCHIVE: Ask, please.
SUMMARY: "It's amazing how big, expansive lives full of work and friends and lovers can fit into these cubes of space."
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: With endless thanks to Anna, for reminding me that Natalie's human. And this wanted to be for Shana, and who knows what that means?
It isn't exactly that she's leaving New York; it's that New York, in all its neon-lit, grime-covered glory, has left her. She doesn't know quite when it had happened, only that it was sometime after the glory days of Sports Night and sometime before her job with MTV, which, as these things often do, had turned out to be much less glamorous than she had expected.
All she knows is that one day, she had been alone somewhere near Times Square, after eleven one night, and she had found herself standing on a corner that never saw complete darkness, being jostled by tourists and drunken locals, and she had looked around herself and thought, 'This isn't me.'
And so she doesn't really feel like she can be blamed for the fact that she's paid the security deposit on her new apartment in Seattle, or that she's stepping up to executive producer of a news show there, or that all of her life is packed away into perfect cardboard boxes marked 'kitchen' or 'bedroom.'
She doesn't really feel like she can be blamed for the fact everything has ended this way, or that, sitting on a box labeled in thick, black marker-ink, 'Cookbooks and Utensils,' she looks across the room and says, regretting it even as the words form in her mouth, "Sometimes things end, Dana. They just do."
The light comes through the windows too brightly and too clean, and the colors in the room turn suddenly manic in the searchlight-sun. Dana's hair is this incredible gold against her sweater, the same blue as the sky, her hands, clasped behind her back, almost as white as the snow on the ledge just outside the window. The boxes are too brown, sickeningly so, and the walls are a strange shade just to the red side of white.
There is the faraway noise of the George Washington Bridge, and the little New Yorker Natalie has worked so hard to cultivate mourns the incredible less-than-a-thousand-a-month rent she is abandoning. Dana looks down onto 181st, shaking her head slowly back and forth. She puts her hands against the windowsill, props a knee against a box full of bedclothes, "No. No. They don't. Things don't just end, Natalie. I mean, I've got pretty intimate knowledge of the fact that just when you think you've got everything worked out, bam! That's when it all falls apart."
"This isn't like you and Casey, or me and Jeremy, or you and Leana," Natalie says, almost believing it. "That was years ago. We've figured things out since then."
Dana laughs, turning slowly, nudging at the box with her leg. "We have, have we?"
She had come, inexplicably, to help Natalie pack. Of all the people Natalie had expected to stay as far away as possible, Dana had come up from Brooklyn, from her comfortable townhouse in Park Slope, had come up on the A train in a long black coat and a blue wool sweater and straight-leg jeans and New Balance cross-trainers. Had buzzed from the street, shivering, and called into the intercom, "It's Dana! And it's cold!"
Natalie had opened the door before Dana could knock, and Dana's hand had hung limply, outstretched for an interminable moment before Natalie had asked none-too-delicately, "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to help you pack," Dana said, stuffing her hands into her pockets and letting her chin dip. Natalie had moved to let her pass, and Dana's eyes had darted across the un-taped boxes, the pile of books near the window, the only thing left on the wall: a 2004 Anne Geddes calendar with a date, December 15, circled.
"You're leaving in three days," Dana had nodded.
"Well, seeing as it is the 12th, that seems like a pretty safe assumption to make," Natalie agreed, turning away towards the linen closet, pulling down a pile of washcloths and hand towels and giant beach towels. Refolding and refolding and refolding even when Dana touched her back like she was porcelain and more likely than not to break.
"I'll be in the kitchen," Dana said. And there were hours, then, when they did not cross paths, except for the fact that Natalie hung Dana's coat in the closet and Dana threw, "Thanks," to her like a rock-centered snowball.
It's amazing how big, expansive lives full of work and friends and lovers can fit into these cubes of space, and it is also amazing how the walls of an apartment will always retain something of their previous tenants. And that's only fair, because people take things, too, like how they could come back ten years later and walk the path from the bedroom to the bathroom in the dark without even hitting the corners, or how they could tell you to the nearest half-hour what time it was based on the way the sun reflected off the building across the street and onto the far living-room wall.
And Natalie will take from this apartment, at the corner of 181 and Riverside, all those things, and she will take the shape of Dana's hip as she leaned against the doorframe leading into the bedroom, that first night, and the shape of her shoulders as she clings to the frame of the window, today, September 12.
Back in the early days, they had been fueled by the stuff of Sports Night, which created a buzz like good alcohol, on-air thrill coursing through them until two or three every night. They had spent too much time at Anthony's, drinking White Zinfandel and whiskey sours and strange drinks that Dana seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of, like an icy mixture of Rumple Minze and Jagermeister of which she was particularly fond. It would leave her smelling of mint leaves and licorice, and the scent would leech itself into Dana's hair near her chin, into her clothes, just slightly more subtle than the soft baby-powder scent of her perfume.
They would stumble into the street too late and too drunk, looking for pizza or Chinese or this Vietnamese place that Natalie was sure she remembered the location of, because they'd been bought by Quo Vadimus and they were feeling untouchable and later, because their ratings had slumped and they were going to be cancelled, and so they felt self-destructive.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that after those years with Casey, or after the year with Leana, that Dana should have turned to Natalie and rethought all those casual glances and casual touches. When everything is coming to pieces, a person's natural inclination is to clutch at something, an anchor. And Dana was always a cliché waiting to happen with those eyes and that hair and those perfect teeth and the way her thighs brushed when she walked.
They'd been cancelled no more than two weeks that first night in Natalie apartment, the sound of traffic loud and perfectly normal, and Natalie sometimes recalls, in moments of weakness, how vulnerable Dana had made herself, on her back, hands beneath the pillow, knees raised, not knowing, or not caring, how or why Natalie would do this. But Natalie had kissed Dana's calves, the tips of her toes, the skin between Dana's navel and the tangle of wiry, dark blonde curls. She was no expert on these things, but she had taken advantage of Dana in just the way Dana had wanted her to, done the things that Dana had said she wanted, but probably had not.
And later, when Dana had kissed the place where Natalie's leg and hip met, the bend at her elbow, the bone at her ankle, Natalie had sworn that she would not make this into something it was not, would not make it more than capitulation to the dark comedy of fate.
Dana had stayed the night, and Natalie had woken up sometime well before dawn, looked over towards the door, and she had seen Dana standing there, naked and bright-eyed, the glow from the street lights reflecting off of what were perhaps stifled tears, all shoulders and hips and fingers, clutching at the doorframe.
"Come back to bed, Dana," she had whispered. "Come on."
There had been something after that not wholly unlike dating, which was perhaps the most surprising thing that had happened. Dana had picked up the check at dinner, claiming that it was time she started to put that Visa to work, had bought Natalie a pair of emerald earrings, had sent her bouquets of daisies once a week for four, five months. It had been something like overkill, something like love, something like desperation.
But the universe tends towards chaos, and so the little things they managed to construct came apart, with whimpers and with bangs, and Natalie was whoring herself away to a media empire and Dana was struggling to regain any footing at all at ESPN, and somewhere in all of it, Natalie had looked at Dana over a table at Monsoon's, the infamous Vietnamese place which did, in fact, exist, and said, "I'm not in love with you, you know," as if it was obvious.
And Dana had shrugged. "What's it matter, anyway? How's your shrimp?" It had happened as quickly as that, Natalie thought, the final, absolute decision to leave New York, to go as far away as she could get a job, and before the sweet dumplings had come for dessert, she was planning which paper to print her résumé on.
She had picked up the check, slapped down her Citibank card, looking over Dana's shoulder through the windows into the creamy, late afternoon sun, watching throngs of Jewish teenage girls and black nannies with their white charges and businessmen in rumpled suits. "I never loved New York like you did, Dana."
"I lived here, when I was a kid," Dana shrugged, pushing a few grains of rice around her plate with a chopstick, her fingers and mouth looking a little sticky with peanut sauce. "So, it's mostly nostalgia, I guess. I have a theory that we just gravitate back to the place we were born, like how some fish always go back to the same spot to mate, every year. How do you think they remember?" Dana shook her head, hair glittering around her ears, glasses frames glinting. "At least we have places on the map, and we can point at a globe and say that this is where we came from."
Natalie shrugged. "Sometimes, you just don't want to be where you are."
Dana narrowed her eyes, then took a gulp of lukewarm tea. "There must be something redeeming about New York. The lights? Broadway? The Yankees? The MOMA?" Her eyes flicked down towards her lap. "Me?"
Natalie chuckled as if she had not understood, but Dana's shoulders moved as if Natalie had shot her, jerking back into this semi-militaristic pose, knee hitting the table and making the dishes clatter. "Sorry," Dana apologized in a mumble, and then added, smiling in a way that made Natalie nauseous, "You want to come back to my place? I have some Kahlua, some Bailey's. A nightcap."
Neither of them expected Natalie to refuse, and she didn't. They had kissed like teenagers on the train uptown, and a few strangers had stared, and Natalie had wanted to turn to them and ask, "Can't you see that we're killing one another, here? Couldn't you give us a little privacy? Don't you have your own crimes to commit? This is New York, after all!" But, of course, she hadn't, just reminded herself for the hundredth time of the layout of Dana's teeth, soft palette, tongue.
And these months later, December 12, Dana is laughing, hysterical and high-pitched. She is laughing, and Natalie tastes bile. "We've figured things out? Is that so? Well, God, thanks for telling me. Was that before or after you started fucking me with your eyes closed, Natalie? Before or after you decided that I could never be the person you fell in love with? Before or after you cozied up to the execs at MTV, even knowing they'd never give you the kind of job you were capable of?"
Natalie crosses and uncrosses and recrosses her legs, staring at her fingernails. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"It looks like you were having an epiphany about the state of our existence while I was busy falling in love with you, Natalie. How ridiculous is that?" She laughs again, and Natalie hears herself saying:
"Stop it, stop it. Stop it."
"I love you, Natalie! How about that? Are you happier hearing me say it, so that you can go away to your new life knowing that you've managed to wreck the last of mine?" She pauses for only a moment. "And do you think it's colder in Seattle, or not? You might need a new coat."
"Dana," Natalie says. "My coat'll be fine. My boots, too." Her words are slow, measured, falling like water from an icicle. "This isn't about you, you know."
"That's just it, Natalie. It was never about me." Dana shakes her head, turns back towards the window. "God, when it snows, you can almost forget that there's so much dirt underneath all that white. It's like putting everything back, like taking so much chaos and putting it back in order."
"But then the snow melts," Natalie says, tiredly. "And everything's the way it was." She wants to tell Dana that she does love her, that she even sometimes stands at the gates to Riverside Park and thinks that she might learn to love this city, but that she's just so tired.
"I hope you like it there, in Washington."
The boxes call out to her in their strange, Sharpie tongues, 'Kitchen! Bathroom! Bookshelves!' and Natalie looks at Dana's foot, tapping a rhythm like a heartbeat against the worn, prewar hardwood.
"How bad could it be?" Natalie asks, and the answer's somewhere in Dana's bitter laughter, in the swath of sky between buildings, in the music from upstairs, the pounding of feet in the stairwell, the car horns, years in this city and nothing to show for them except these boxes, like cages, with her life in them and this lump in her throat as she tries to say goodbye.
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