This story is by Elena Cherine and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He woke up to see her sitting naked on the windowsill, her legs dangling out the window. It was barely light. He could see the moon poking out above her head. He watched its reflection shine on the brick of the brownstones across the street. He told himself no one would be able to see her because everyone in his quiet Queens neighborhood was still asleep. He let out an inaudible sigh of relief.
“Do you want me to put on some clothes?” she asked without turning around.
Maybe the sigh wasn’t so inaudible. He gulped.
“Oh, eh, no, um, it’s your body…” he stammered, his voice fading out as he spoke. Pathetic.
She let out her rippling laugh and turned around to face him, her green eyes blazing beneath her perfectly arched auburn eyebrows. He couldn’t breathe. He tried, but his whole body clammed up. He waved instead. I’m sorry, everyone, he thought to himself. I thought this was the room for neurotic idiots. I’ll be going now.
But then she reached her hand out and her confident laughter turned into a gentle smile.
“Come here,” she said quietly.
Despite all his better instincts, he took her hand and squeezed in beside her on the windowsill. He felt very exposed. His penis wrinkled in the morning breeze. What if she thought he was unusually small? Had she thought that last night? Or any of the other nights?
“This is nice,” she said. He looked at her and saw she was speaking to the dusty clouds which were turning pink with the dawn.
A month later, she sat cross-legged on her bed, watching him dress in the moonlight and reflected neon lights from the club across the street.
“Early morning?” she asked, her voice as monotone as she could muster.
“Yeah, oh. Yeah, mm, gotta get back to…you know Queens is kind of far…” he muttered.
Three nights in a row leaving at midnight, she thought. He must be growing tired of me.
“Well, see you next month,” she said quickly and a little more aggressively that she had intended.
He stopped buttoning his pants and looked up at her for a moment. His brown eyes were sharp and quick to show his emotions. He paused for a whole minute, one hand on either side on his fly. She knew him well enough to know he was weighing the pros and cons of his next social choice.
Finally, he said in a voice deeper than she’d heard before, “Next month.”
“Yeah,” she monotoned. Then before she could stop herself, she added quickly, “You just seem so busy lately.”
They stared at each other. She could hear the rain rushing down the gutter outside her window. But she stopped herself from mentioning it.
Three Saturdays went by before they saw each other again. Then one day, at five in the morning, she showed up at his apartment. Bleary-eyed and crumpled, he answered the door and stared at her.
“Abi. Hi,” he finally said.
“So, there’s this rope,” she said, with a forced cheery lilt.
“This rope. In the middle of Central Park. It’s hanging from this firefighter pole thingy that’s like, 100 feet tall. It’s for some event this weekend but they haven’t blocked it off or anything. There’s no security. I checked last night. And I think we should climb it.”
“When we’re done climbing this rope, we’ll know if we should be together or give it all up,” she told him matter-of-factly, as though she was concluding a master’s thesis.
“I honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Get some clothes on.”
Thirty minutes later, they were on the N train, sharing a car with a young woman in a McDonald’s uniform, a man carrying an aquamarine bowling bag, and a teenager who proceeded to stuff three croissants in his mouth between stops.
Brody and Abi didn’t say a word to each other until they got into Manhattan. The train screeched to a stop at Lexington and 59th.
“Do you want to stop for a bacon, egg, and cheese?” she asked.
“I thought we were doing the rope thing.”
“It was just an idea.”
But the doors had already closed, and the train was moving again.
The rope hung from a wide, metal pole and was tough and splintered at each twist. It was too dark to see the top, but it looked 100 feet tall, just like she said. They stared up at it together. Finally, he looked at her.
“Are you saying you want to be exclusive?” he asked.
“The rope will decide,” she said, still sizing up the height of it. Then she grabbed the rope with two hands, dug one foot, then the other into the little metal pegs that lined both sides of the pole, and began to climb. She got fifteen feet up before looking down at him.
“Jeez,” she called to him, her smile taking up her entire face. “I am HIGH!”
Brody could only stare. This was entirely unlike any situation he had ever encountered before. Central Park in the dark with a girl he barely knew so he could climb a rope without safety equipment of any kind? Insanity. He suddenly felt like a ridiculous little boy again, trying to imitate his older brother’s perfect dive off the highest diving board. He was belly-flopping.
“Come on, Brody,” she said, her voice brimming with encouragement. “Follow me.”
He looked up at her and felt her voice ringing through his body. No one had ever spoken to him like that before. So much love in her voice, so much earnest belief in him. He was paralyzed by the emotion of it all. He ran his hand through his hair, glancing at the trees and taking stock of the benches. No one was there.
Abi took one hand off the rope and reached down to him. He gasped as he watched her swing perilously for a few moments, but he seemed to be the only one of the two of them that was afraid.
“Come on,” she called down again, still smiling.
She was too far up for him to reach her hand, but he grabbed the rope and began to climb.
She let out a loud “WHOOP!” Loud enough for all of the island to hear, Brody thought.
They continued to climb. Abi could feel her heart pounding, a rush of adrenaline exploded through her arms and legs. He followed me, she thought.
The higher they got, the more Brody’s chest started to tighten, like he was pumping too much air into a balloon that could pop at any moment. He tried not to think about the fact that if Abi slipped, she would slam right into him, and they would both fall to their deaths. He took some comfort in the rhythm of the climb. Left hand up, right hand up, left foot up, right foot up. Brody only looked down once, which was a terrifying mistake. He decided to just focus on the rope.
Thirty feet up, the rope started to shake. He looked up and could see Abi swaying from side to side.
“What’s going on?” he called to her.
“I’m getting tired–my arms–” He could hear the terror in her voice. That sudden slap of reality he knew better than anyone.
Without hesitation, he quickly climbed up to her and slipped an arm around her waist.
“Let’s climb down,” he said.
He was strong. He had rowed in college and had never given up the workouts. He knew they’d be safe as long as she kept one hand on the rope and one arm looped around his shoulder. Abi felt a wave of relief. Thinking ahead never was your strong suit, she thought. She hadn’t worked out in months.
It was 6:11 when their feet hit the ground. It wasn’t so dark now, but the sun was still hidden behind the skyscrapers surrounding the park. Their arms were shaking. They could each feel the beginning of their own versions of anxiety attacks. The moment had come.
“So?” she said.
“That was…crazy,” he said.
“Thanks for helping me,” she mumbled sheepishly.
They both looked at the ground until Brody tipped his head up.
In a confident voice even he didn’t recognize, he asked, “Same time tomorrow?”
She looked up at him, her heart racing again. She searched his face.
“Really?” she whispered.
“We climbed the rope, didn’t we?”
She could feel the adrenaline pulsing through her face.
“See you tomorrow then,” she grinned.
They left the park and the sun broke open the sky.