FICTION: Running in Traffic by Olivia Lowenberg

Her face has always been as familiar to me as my own. But this time, on the bus to the airport, I almost don’t recognize her. Then Alexis turns and pulls off her shades.

Alexis starts telling me, unprompted, about her capture in Syria. She feels like honey when she talks, all teeth and pleasantries. Alexis tells me that when she was in Damascus, the insurgents that captured her immediately knew who she was. They watched reruns of her cancelled reality show together whenever the generator kicked on. The leader of the insurgents would point excitedly at the screen, stroking his machine gun with one hand and her hair with the other. Alexis tells me they waited until the morning to kill her boyfriend. She shudders, picturing a memory I can’t see, can’t comprehend.

I ask the obvious question: “Why were you in Syria?”

“John was a journalist. He told me it would be dangerous, but I begged him to let me go with him.” Alexis clenches her fist. “I was so stupid, so immature.” She lets out a breath. “Tell me what you’ve been up to. I need to think about something else.”

“I’m a stripper,” I say, anticipating the response. It’s usually only men who think my job is glamorous. Women will immediately get a worried look in their eyes, but then lie and say they respect my decisions.

But Alexis has been my friend for six years, since before she became famous. She just nods and smiles. “Are you making good money?”

“Enough.” I put my feet up on the seat in front of me.

She pulls a box from her bag, a tube of wrapping paper, and some tape. “It’s for Eric,” she says, before I can ask. “He’s been in the hospital recently.” Alexis starts wrapping the box in quick, precise strokes.

Eric, her brother, is even closer to the center of Alexis’s world than I was. When he has appeared with her in tabloid photos, which was rare, he is always the one wearing bigger sunglasses and higher heels.

“I’m sorry,” I say uncertainly. I don’t know what the right response is, but she nods and seems to appreciate it. “What’s in the box?” I ask, changing the subject.

“Headphones. He says listening to classical music is calming. He was planning a fashion show,” Alexis goes on, “before he was in the hospital. It’s still scheduled for next weekend, if you want to come.”

“I’m flying back to Ohio tonight. I can’t be there.”

“Oh.”

“I’ll try to make it,” I say politely, but Alexis is quiet. She puts her sunglasses back on.

We end up at the same terminal, but we might as well be going to different worlds. Alexis isn’t famous like she used to be, but the people at the check-in counter still know who she is. She turns and gives me a half-wave before stepping to the front of the first-class line. I set down my oversized backpack and wave.

It’s not until I’m in line for security that I realize she left the box for her brother with me. I find my gate and pull out my phone. Do I even still have her number? When she booked the reality show and catapulted into fame – or infamy, depending on your point of view – it seemed like she was changing her number almost every other week, and she wasn’t always good about keeping me updated on which number was the right one to use.

I find her name and dial. It rings for a while and then I hear her voice.

“Hello?”

“Where’s your gate? You left your brother’s box with me.”

“I’ll be right there,” she says.

She arrives a few minutes later. Alexis is still wearing her sunglasses, yet the people at the gate turn towards her, almost instinctively. A couple stop playing backgammon; two young girls look up from filing their nails. Alicia ignores them. She bends towards me and slides the box from my bag. “Thank you,” she breathes. Then she pinches my shoulder, just hard enough to leave a mark, and is gone.

“Wait,” I call after her. She turns. “I’ll come to New York.”

Alexis smiles, the wide, electric smile that wowed the casting director of her show. For a moment I get caught up in it, thinking Alexis is excited about me. Then I notice a teenage boy with a constellation of acne on his face and neck. He just asked Alexis for her autograph.

I call Alexis again after I land in Ohio, to confirm that I’ll come to her brother’s show. She answers the phone immediately, and this time she’s happy for real. “Eric will be so glad to see you.”

I explain to my boss that I will need to miss work for a few days. I say it’s a family emergency, which is only partially a lie. It reminds me of a time when all Alexis had to do was snap her gum and I would follow her anywhere.

I take an afternoon flight back to New York and call for a taxi when I land. Alexis gives me directions to her apartment over the phone. The plan is for me to stay overnight with her, then visit her brother in the hospital tomorrow, and go to his fashion show in the afternoon. The taxi driver drives with one hand and peels a clementine with the other, filling the cab with its tight, clean smell. The taxi sways, and my head bumps against the window, leaving imprints of makeup on the glass.

Alexis meets me in the lobby. She fishes in her bag for her keys, finally finds them in a jubilant chorus of swear words. We ride the elevator six flights up to her apartment. Notes of Eric’s presence are everywhere: a pair of high heels too large for Alexis’ feet; a set of wigs on mannequin heads.

“Make yourself at home,” Alexis says, kicking off her shoes and wandering into her bedroom. Late-afternoon sunlight glints off a bottle of orange juice on the kitchen counter. I open the refrigerator. There’s almost nothing there, just a bottle of hot sauce, some ripe bananas, and a carton of milk. I take one of the bananas.

Alexis comes out of the bedroom. “Eric’s nurse called,” she says. “We should probably go over there tonight.”

I pull her into a tight hug. “Let’s go.”

They put Eric in a private room. I haven’t seen him in ages – he looks tired and thinner. His chest rises and falls in shallow beats. There are thick bandages covering each wrist.

“Hi,” I say, and he opens his eyes.

“Holy crow,” Eric says. “What are you doing here, Nadia?”

“Alexis invited me. She said it was important that I be here.”

“We ran into each other on the bus to the airport last week,” Alexis explains, nodding and smiling. I nod and smile, too.

For a moment we’re interrupted when a nurse comes in and checks on Eric. Then Alexis encourages me to tell some stories, and I describe some of the men I’ve met at work. Most of them are truckers, drifters in from out of town. The muscles in their arms stretch out inked images of grimacing cats with raven wings, spiders with jeweled heads, and, sometimes, roses. Eric laughs when I tell him about the John Lennon postcards one of my regulars always gives me. Before long, five hours have passed, and the nurse has come back to tell us Eric needs his rest.

“Thank you for coming,” Alexis says as we step back into the elevator. “It really means a lot to Eric to have visitors.”

“Is Eric okay? I know it’s a stupid question, but I saw the bandages.”

“He was fortunate that I came into the kitchen when I did,” Alexis says, and then shuts a lid on the conversation. Back at her apartment, we each get ready for bed in silence. I fall asleep, listening to her breathe.

In the morning Alexis has already showered and dressed by the time I wake up. The smell of her perfume lingers in the air, notes of peony and raspberry invading my nostrils. I step into the kitchen to ask her where the spoons are. She’s on the phone. Her voice is low and exact, her tone patient, like spelling a name for customer service.

“Yes, Mom. We went to see him yesterday. No, they said they’d wait and check his levels in a week. No, I don’t know. Yes, he has a therapy appointment –” she spots me. “I’ll call you back.”

“I didn’t hear much,” I tell her, because it’s polite.

“My mom is doing well, if you’re wondering,” Alexis says, changing the subject.

“Did she know you were captured?”

I know Alexis enjoys talking about herself. Sure enough, she preens, adjusting her hair for an invisible camera, perhaps working on bringing a few tears to her eyes so she can cry on demand. I don’t know why I’m being cruel to her. Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since I’ve seen her. Because she vanished from my life like she vanished from her brother’s: for a year, and without a trace.

“She only knew as much as my publicist did, which means she knew nothing,” Alexis says, and she sighs. “It’s not like we had electricity and running water over there, okay? They had a WiFi signal sometimes, but there were so many phones connected to it… and it wasn’t like I was a priority.

“There was this long electrical outlet in the center of the room, and a tangle of wires leading away from it. There was a green glow, from all the phones charging, and it would keep me awake at night. The green light, and the sound of bombings.” Alexis stares at me, daring me to ask another question, like she knows what I’m thinking. That all she’s ever been was a pretty, unintelligent girl who happened to be famous once.

“I’m sorry for –”

“Don’t be,” Alexis says. Then she claps her hands. “So, fashion show. And then I need to go see Eric again. He’s…” she trails off, and I don’t pry.

We drive an hour to a part of the city I’ve never been to before. The fashion show is held in a warehouse that snakes up three stories high. The parking lot is filled with people – men, women, and others who have no gender. They pull each other close, running circles across each other’s skin, commenting on eyeliner colors and new tattoos. It feels like home. Alexis looks at me, and it’s a look I recognize. The look that says take me with you, there is always one more thing.

glasses

Olivia Lowenberg

Lowenberg Photo

Olivia Lowenberg is a current master’s student at MF Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo, Norway. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Argot Magazine, Cat on a Leash Review, The Zodiac Review, and Spry Literary Journal.
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