First Words, Last Words

I find people fascinating. I just don’t like them.

Those were the first words she said to me. We were sitting next to each other on a park bench. She had a cigarette poised between her index and middle finger. I had a pen pressed between my thumb, index, and middle finger. Ahead of us, a middle-aged man in jeans and a blazer circled around a tree as he screamed into his phone. To his left, four young women were drinking from a wine bottle and playing a card game. At every turn, the middle-aged man glared angrily at the group, as if they were the ones disturbing the calm afternoon.

Why don’t you like people?

She responded by pointing at the pacing man.

I nodded and returned to writing in my journal. The woman ground her cigarette out with her sandal and moved towards me.  

What are you writing?

For someone who doesn’t like people, you don’t mind interrupting them.

As I said, I find them fascinating.  

I nodded my head and turned to my notebook.

I take it you don’t like people.

No, I do.

The woman began tapping her fingers, a visual reaction to my curt responses.

So, you write?

I do.

Fiction?

Yes.

You writers are like me. You find people fascinating. But you don’t like them.

What do you mean by that?

Writers are fascinated by people. They love getting deep into their minds and emotions.

That’s true.      

But they are reclusive. So they have a low tolerance for people’s shit. Like you.

Like me?

Like you.

You are making some big assumptions here.

Well, you didn’t want to be interrupted.

True. I didn’t.

I was annoying you.

Somewhat.

But I caught your interest.

Somewhat.

Enough to get a drink?

I cocked my head, amused by the woman at my side.

I could inspire a character in your writing.

I laughed and closed my notebook.  

For someone who doesn’t like people, you’re a good sales person.

So, let’s go?

Let’s.

She stood and motioned for me to follow.  We walked west on Union Street and down Fourth Avenue before stopping at a building with an aqua blue façade and a large planter underneath two open glass windows.

What do you think about this place?

I like it.

She opened the door and motioned for me to pass. I entered into a narrow space with a ceiling full of greens and flowers. She stepped ahead of me and brought me to the back of the building, where there was a patio with rainbow-colored walls. We walked to the left corner and sat at the table in front of an orange-colored panel.  

Are you hungry?

I could eat.

She leaned forward and passed me a paper menu.

Pick anything. I’ll buy.

I thanked her and curved my upper back towards the table. I read both columns twice before the woman began swinging her foot and tapping her fingers. Catching her impatience, I straightened my back and placed the menu in front of her.

Do you know what you want?

A corona.

Just a corona?

You can pick the food.

Wings and fries?

I like wings.

What about the fried pickles?

Those sound interesting.

You good with sharing?

I’m okay with sharing.  

You’re very agreeable.

She shifted her left foot to the ground, rose from her chair, and walked through the patio door. Once she left, I leaned back and closed my eyes, clearing the stimuli around me.

Everything okay?

I opened my eyes and found the woman watching me.

That was fast.

She sat down and placed a beer bottle in front of me.

Were you just meditating?

You could say that. What’s your name by the way?

She laughed as she pulled a cigarette pack and lighter from her bag.

That’s right. We didn’t introduce ourselves.

No. We never got around to that.

Isabella. And you?

Andre.

I must say, we both have pretty names.

I agree.

She leaned back and lit her cigarette. 

Do you think our names define us?

I haven’t thought about that.

Do you know what your name means?

I don’t.

Isabella means devoted to God. Or- more accurately- God is my oath.

Are you devoted to God?

She drew in smoke from her cigarette and gave a pensive stare at the wall before speaking.

I consider myself agnostic. But I’ve been questioning recently.

That’s interesting.

She tapped her cigarette and shrugged.

So, you are a creative?

You can say that. I write and play the saxophone.

That’s more than most.

Do you consider yourself a creative person?

No. I mean I love music, art, film, literature, and all that. But I don’t create any of it.  

Creation isn’t limited to artistic mediums.   

She leaned forward and pointed her cigarette in my direction.

I like the way you think.

Thank you.

You don’t have to create art to be a creative person.

You sure don’t.

She leaned back in her chair and gave a satisfied smile.

You know what I’ve created?

Tell me.

A life.

I looked at her and laughed.

It sounds simple. But I think it’s the hardest thing to build.

What do you mean by that?

Most people don’t create their life. They just follow.

You really think that?

It seems that way. It’s the same thing every day. Commute, work, commute.

That’s a bleak way to look at life.

I- on the other hand- make sure I do something different every day.

That sounds exhausting.

It’s exhilarating.

How do you manage that?

All it takes is to walk down a different road. Or ride a bike instead of take the subway.

I see.

It’s that simple to change up your routine.

I take it you haven’t been here before.

No, I have.

But what about walking down different roads and changing up your routine?

I’ve never taken someone I don’t know here before. That’s different.

You seem flexible with the degree of difference.

Life is hard if you aren’t flexible.

I would agree with that.

An employee approached to inform us that smoking was prohibited on the patio. With a sincere apology, Isabella tapped the cigarette out with her lighter and rolled the remains into her beer napkin.

Sorry. I never asked if smoking bothered you.

It does. But we’re outside.

Do you travel much?

Hardly.

It’s interesting to go places where smoking isn’t banned.

Did you just come from such a country?

It was here. At a cigar bar. You can smoke in those bars.

In New York?

In the West Village.

I nodded my head and turned towards the patio’s entrance, where a couple holding hands were walking through the open door.

Traveling doesn’t interest you I take it.

I have a comfortable life at home.

So, you’ve figured out how to make a good life for yourself from writing?

I have.

How?

By writing.

I know. But how do you sell yourself?

I don’t. I ghost write.

You don’t write your own work?

I do. But I don’t make money off of that. 

Do you share your writing anywhere?

No. I’m quite private.

Maybe you should try sharing it online.

That would be a good idea.

You could create a website. Or submit your work to literary magazines and anthologies.

I could.

What’s stopping you?

There’s the first step of researching how to create a website and where to submit my work to.

You really don’t like trying new things.

I don’t.

Or getting out of your comfort zone.

Or that.

Well, let’s break you out of that. What is something that you want to try?

That was a question I didn’t want to answer. Luckily, I saw our waiter walking towards us with a tray of food.

Looks like our food is here.

Isabella moved her beer glass from the table’s center to make space for the plates. After confirming that we were satisfied and comfortable, the waiter left us with our food.  

I ordered a burger for us as well.

I see.

Should I cut the burger in half?

No need. The wings and pickles are enough for me.

You sure?

Positive.

I watched as she bit into the burger and proceeded to speak as she was chewing.

So, what’s something you want to do?

Something big?

Big, medium, small. Doesn’t matter.

I sat there, fried pickle raised to my mouth, and considered what in my life was lacking.

You know, I’d like to play pool.

She placed her burger on the plate and pointed her finger at me.

Now that’s the type of answer I was looking for.

It seems simple.

Those are the best answers.

You think so?

Yeah. I don’t know why most of us feel the need to complicate our lives.

Maybe school. Your encouraged to give the best answer, not just an answer.

You seem like someone who did well with school.

I didn’t mind it.

Isabella grabbed her napkin and wiped mayonnaise from her face.

So, can I make a plan?

A plan?

A plan for this evening.

For us?

Yes, for us.

She noticed me open and close my mouth in hesitation.

I’ll tell you what. I’m going to take you to a pool hall.

Do you know where to play pool around here?

No. But I have my phone.

She took her phone out of her bag and began searching for a pool hall.  

So, there’s a place called Oceans 8 that’s a fifteen-minute walk from here.

We’re really doing this?

We are. Start eating.

I’m not a fast eater.

You don’t like being fast-paced.

I prefer a slow pace.

Then why do you live in the city?

Good question. I like the creative energy.

That makes sense.

And its home. I’m from here.

Have you ever moved from New York?

Nope. I’ve lived here my entire life.

In Brooklyn?

In Brooklyn.

What’s it like never leaving where you grew up?

The city is full of culture. It’s not like living in a small town your entire life.

That’s true.

I take it you aren’t from around here.

No.

Where are you from?

I’m from the great big city of Winooski, Vermont.

A city? Never heard of it.

That was a joke.

I got that.

Wikipedia does call it a city. But there’s not even eight thousand people living there.

How was it going from a city of eight thousand to a city of eight million?

It was a shock to the system for sure.

But- judging by your character- a good shock.

For sure. You ready to leave?

I looked down and saw that her burger plate was empty.

What about another beer?

You want another Corona?

Sure. I can help with the check.

You can cover the pool hall.

That’s fair.

As Isabella walked to the bar, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my notebook. Halfway down the second to last page, I wrote her name in bold letters before scanning over prior ideas. When she returned with our beers, I closed my notebook and looked up at her with a smirk.

You were right.

Right in what?

This has been great inspiration for a short story.  

Just a short story?

I laughed and took a sip of my beer.

So, you said you enjoyed literature?

I like writers. I like creative people.

Do you read?

I used to.

Used to meaning when?

Up until last year.

What made you stop?

Life got in the way.

Work?

No. Not work.

What then?

I’m making sure I enjoy this year. And spending it inside reading hasn’t been my top priority.

I can understand that. I recently had a year or two where I prioritized being out rather than in.

Why?

I got anxious from being in my house all the time.

Really? Aren’t you an introvert?

I am. But I still feel the need to interact with people.

Interesting.

Staying inside all day writing. And having no one read my work. It got lonely.

I can imagine.

And I felt like I was of no use to others. Just wasting time.

It’s hard being a writer, isn’t it?

Hard is an understatement. But what about you? What made you want to get out more this past year?

You drink as slow as you eat.

I glanced at my beer bottle, and then Isabella’s. Undeterred by her deflection, I decided to play along with her words.

You drink as fast as you eat.

I can’t argue with that.

Do you do anything at a slow pace?

No.

Why not?

I don’t have time.

I wouldn’t expect you to think that way.

Why not? I’m fast paced.

You seem too carefree to be stressed about time.

I don’t have time. But that doesn’t mean I’m stressed about time.

I cocked my head to the side, confused about the meaning behind her words.

Finish your beer. I’m ready to play pool.

Don’t you have to pay?

I already paid inside.

You really do move fast.

She began twirling her lighter impatiently. I took a large sip of my beer and stood up.

Okay. Let’s go.

Isabella smiled and used her arms to push herself out of the chair.

Follow me.  

She brought me out of the café and to the left, up FourthAvenue. At the corner of President Street, she studied the map on her phone and took us to Union Street, where we turned right. We walked silently east on Fifth and Sixth Avenue, towards Prospect Park.

We’re heading back towards Grand Army Plaza.

Nearby.

Are you a silent walker?

I’m focusing on the directions.

I’ll stay quiet then.

We turned left onto Seventh Avenue, right onto Park Place, and then hung another right onto the diagonal street of Flatbush Avenue, where the pool hall was a few feet to our right. We entered into a small corridor before walking down steps into a massive rectangular basement. Inside were lines of pool tables, along with arcade games and a two-lane bowling alley in the left corner.

Is that a bowling alley?

Looks like it.

It’s nice here during the day. Calm and empty.

It sure is. Do you live around here?

I live in Bay Ridge.

What’s it like there? I’ve never explored that area.

It’s great. Full of cafes, trees, and cool houses.

Do you live in a house?

I live with my aunt in the first floor of a duplex.   

Rent free?

Rent free.

I would love to have that option.

I’m her part-time caretaker, so it isn’t exactly free. But not paying rent has its perks for sure.

She led me towards a counter, where I paid for an hour at table four- my lucky number.

We got placed at my favorite number. 

A fortunate omen.

She went to a rack, grabbed a pool stick, and began rubbing the tip with the chalk cube.  I copied her actions.

You seem comfortable with the stick.

I do?

I think you’re being deceptive.

I watched as she lined the balls in a pyramid formation inside the wooden triangle. She rocked the balls back and forth- a motion that didn’t seem to serve a practical function- and then lifted the triangle off the green felt before placing it in a slot at the bottom of the table.

Do you want to make the first shot?

I’ll leave that to the more skilled of us.

She stood at the end of the pool table and broke the triangular formation with skilled precision. The solid, purple four slipped into a pocket.

You took my lucky number.

Well, purple is my favorite color.

I nodded my head and began to study the table below me.  To an experienced pool player, it was a maze of angles and geometric shapes. To me, it was a chaotic mess of pool balls.

I have no idea which ball to go for.

It’s not your turn yet.

She shot her next move. It was a miss.

At least you aren’t a professional.

I told you, I’m not being deceptive.  

We stood across from the table, looking at one another. Her eyes were narrowed, studying me.

So, which ball should I go for?

She lowered her gaze and pointed her index finger to the far left of the table.

Go for the fifteen.

I walked to the left and angled my body at the white ball. Pulling the stick back and forward, I made contact. But the force was so weak that the ball rolled a mere inch to the right before stopping near the center.

I’m not good at visual tasks.

Did you ever play sports or video games?

Neither. You?

Both.

She leaned over the pool table and shot the green six into the pocket at the left corner.  

Seems like I don’t have much of a chance in this game.

There’s still beginner’s luck.

I moved to the side to let her pass. This time, she sat on the edge of the pool table and leaned back to position the stick. The red seven bounced off a corner and rolled to the center of the green felt.

See, I’m not that good.

I shrugged and moved across the table to set up my next shot. It was a miss. Disappointed, I moved back to let Isabella prepare. She pocketed two balls in succession before missing her third shot.

Maybe this isn’t for me.

You’re giving up that easily?

It seems I like the idea of being a pool player more than I enjoy playing the game.

Here. Let me help you.

She walked around the pool table with her face lowered in concentration.  

Go for the blue stripe. And this time, hit the white ball in the center. And with more force.

Easier said than done.

Just try it.

I hit the ball. It bounced off the right corner and rolled towards the middle-left pocket.

Too much force this time.

Beginner’s luck, huh?

You might have a chance yet.

I didn’t share her optimism, but I smiled nonetheless. Bored with the game, I turned my attention to the wrestling match playing on the television screen above.

See, beginner’s luck.

I turned around and glanced at the pool table. All I noticed was a disproportionate amount of striped to solid balls.

What do you mean?

You won.

I won? 

You won. Without pocketing a single ball. Beginner’s luck.

I scanned the pool table and noticed that the 8-ball was missing.

You pocketed the 8-ball.

I sure did.

Beginner’s luck.

Another game?

I’ll stick with my luck. 

Really?

Really.

We hardly got a chance to play.

We played a short game.

And what about wanting to learn?

I spoke too soon about that.

Well, do you want to bowl?

You know, I might head back and write.  And I should check up on my aunt.

She sighed and leaned her upper thighs on the edge of the pool table.

You are lucky that you found that thing you are passionate about.

I am. I’m aware of that.

Maybe all my searching in life has been find that passion.

A silence ensued, so I hung my stick on the rack.

So, I’m going to head out. Are you coming with me?

To your place?

I mean, no. Not my place.

I’m going to stay here for now. But I’ll step outside with you. I want a smoke.

Sure, sure.

I’ll bring the pool balls back when I come inside.

We walked up the stairs into a dimming evening sky. I turned towards Isabella and watched as she lit the cigarette dangling in her mouth.

Can I ask for your number?

I’ll put it in your phone.

I pulled my phone from my front pocket and placed it in her outstretched hand. When she handed the phone back to me, her full name and number were displayed on the screen.

We will stay in touch, Isabella Cardona.

The corner of her lips rose in a smile as she blew cigarette smoke to the side.

Take care.

Take care.

I waved goodbye and walked north on Flatbush Avenue towards the Q train.

***

I didn’t know it then, but that evening would be the start of a new adventure in my life. One that brought pain and pleasure, loss and gain, and my first encounter with love and death.

As I’m writing this sentence, a laminated four-leaf clover sits on my desk. Labeled underneath is a smiley face with long lashes and a protruding tongue.

Four was my lucky number. But it wasn’t hers. She died on April 4th.

It’s August now; exactly four-hundred days from that initial encounter. Besides noting down her name in my notebook, this short story is the first I’ve written about her.

It’s what she asked me to do. Her last words.

You’re a writer, Andre. You have your words. Use them for me when I’m gone.

first words

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