I Take It Back by Warren Merkel

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Most Memorable: April 2017

woman running under street light, seen from a distance, dark and shadowy

I’m running down one side of an empty street. You, down the other. I don’t know your story, but mine is innocuous – it’s just shy of 5 p.m., and I’m late for a job interview. This is my fault, I suppose; I’m not from here and have yet to come to terms with the caprice of city transport. The subway doors open, and I sprint down the platform. A moment later I find my bearings, and now I’m matching you stride for stride.

There’s no sidewalk on your side, as far as I can tell. You’re jogging atop a small mountain forged by plows. You’re swathed in athletic gear – black leggings and a thermal top. You burst in and out of the funneled glow of a street lamp, and I glimpse the single wire that sprouts from the Walkman in your hand, then wishbones around your neck, and vanishes beneath your hair.

That’s when you glance over your shoulder. We make eye contact. What looks like raw fear is slicked across your face. I want to say, It’s okay, I won’t hurt you, but how many times has a man said those words to a woman, only to hurt her anyway?

I want you to know I’m not trying to keep pace with you; that’s just how this moment is unfolding. I’m afraid to slow down because I don’t know how far I am from my destination. You’ve since picked up your pace, but I have mine as well. And then there’s the bleak January darkness that fuels the disquiet. It will cling to the city until morning, and we’re both stuck in it, like ants in amber.

“Stop following me,” you yell.

“I’m late,” I call back. Your song drowns me out.

* * *

I want to tell you I grew up in suburban Wilmington, Delaware. Clean streets. Peepholes an accessory. No neighborhood watch, no rentals, no plastic lawn decoration. If only you knew that my family – most of it anyway – went to college. And that in 6th grade, I was ousted from the spelling bee on the word “chauffeur”; I swallowed snot and regarded my sneakers as I left the stage and sat down. Or after the oil spill, at the behest of our parents, my sister and I cleaned gulls at the shore.

Given the chance, I would tell you I’ve papered trees and egged houses, relieved cars of their hood ornaments. That I once lifted a pack of gum from 7-11, tucking it up my jacket sleeve. Then I walked out, to see if I could. But that’s the worst of it; I haven’t done anything bad.

* * *

You scream at me again; I scream back. I imagine that the words I’ve thrown across the street have not been caught for what I want them to be, but for the vilest meaning they could ever convey.

I imagine you also see this: a creep in a suit, amok in the dark, content with glass ceilings. But this getup isn’t me; it’s by the numbers, corporate. And it’s not just the suit – my fear of employment dwells in my striped tie, my corpse-stiff loafers the color of red velvet cake. There’s also the leather folder, a golden WM emblazoned in the corner, with resume copies printed on foolishly thick sheets, as if paper quality will decide my fate.

I want to run across the street, to let you know that this is almost funny, a misunderstanding. I want to tell you that I’ve had sex, but rarely with confidence. That I want this job to distance myself from my parents, not to jumpstart a career. That I’m still figuring out who I am.

“Fuck off,” you scream. You lose your footing and crumple to a knee, then right yourself. I stop, breathless and frustrated, deciding it’s better to be late. You disappear beyond the flicker of a streetlight.

Twenty years later, I still want to tell you I meant no harm. But I am forever that guy who tracked you, who you wouldn’t dare – not on your life – risk confronting. And no matter how many times I resurrect that night, I know I’m never allowed to catch you. But I can’t help wonder if this memory stains your past as it does mine, and if you ever remember me as something other than what I was.

Warren Merkel4Warren Merkel is pursuing a Ph.D. in foreign language and ESL education at the University of Iowa. This is his first published piece of creative nonfiction.





STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/bort.i

  4 comments for “I Take It Back by Warren Merkel

  1. Feels good to see your story in print, doesn’t it? Especially when your story is so engaging; I agree with Autumn’s assessment.Congrats!

  2. Great imagery and I love the voice. I really feel the narrator’s desperation and frustration and that icky feeling in the pit of the stomach.

  3. I love the voice in this piece. It’s very “Dustin Hoffman.” The story unfolds beautifully and so visually. I could see the entire scene in my head. Wonderful!

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