Gagging is a visceral response: something that one’s body does automatically, without any conscious input. A type of reaction on the same level as tearing up when dust blows into your eyes, or yanking away your hand when touching a hot skillet. It is the simultaneous feeling of your throat closing up, and your stomach trying to escape through it. It can be triggered by many things: the smell of rotting meat wafting through the air, the sight of something so horrific you’d rather not see it. The taste of something truly detestable on your tongue, or the feeling of something awful crawling on your skin. Hearing something that you never wanted to hear could also cause that reaction.
Caleb woke up gagging that early December morning. The cold winter wind whistled through the thin cracks in my window underneath the moth eaten sheet hung up as a curtain. He put his hand over his nose and pushed himself off the old mattress, laid over the old metal frame of a bed. Each movement sending reverberating creaks to the springs below. He tried to be as slow as possible — the downstairs neighbors had already complained about the sound he made sometimes during the night when he spent them working on something or another.
He stepped tenderly on the wooden floor, as to not illicit the familiar groan it made from the rotting foundations: pressed against leaky pipes, and headed towards the window, hand still firmly planted over his nose. Over the months, he had grown confident in his ability to navigate the darkness of his room, and with confidence, he strode forwards…slamming his shin into the cast iron leg of the old bed. It scraped against the wooden floorboards, and bounced with the sudden jolt.
Pain shot up his leg, and he bit the inside of his cheek to stop the curses welling up at the tip of his tongue, and waited for the springs to stop shaking to see if his neighbors downstairs awoke from the noise. No movement from them: none of their usual knocks on the ceiling when he had done something to wake them, so he continued on his way to the window.
Quietly, he moved across the wooden floor, and quickly he pulled aside the moth eaten sheet, and peered down into the street below. A smattering of snow hugged the grown in thin banks as far as his eyes could see. Cars rushed past, and the night still hummed with activity. What time was it? The moon was hidden beneath a thick veil of vomit colored light, pouring out of every orifice of this damned city. How long had it been since he’d seen a star?
Sure enough, leaning against the red brick wall of his apartment, two stories down was a man. He was a lot better dressed than the normal person who did the same, and he smelled a lot more of expensive alcohols. He hummed along out of tune with the bass music of the club down the street as a yellow puddle formed in the well worn snow below him.
A few seconds after the curtain snapped open, the man glanced up to him. Caleb wasn’t able to make out the words he shouted that came through the thin glass layer as muffled yells towards him. The man tossed up a middle finger, a gesture that Caleb was more than willing to reciprocate. At that, the man bent down to pick up a handful of yellow snow, packed it tightly and threw it with all of his might at the window. The snow smacked against the window, and the stone tucked inside splintered the glass.
He was able to hop backwards as soon as he heard the grass cracking, and dodge all of the glass that had come flying inward. Caleb sucked in the freezing air now flooding into the room, and tip toed around the glass. The man had pulled up his pants by the time that he was able to peek out again, and had a noticeable wet stain in the front of his already dark jeans, and was stumbling back towards the club, a string of curses hanging on the air.
“Yeah, fuck you too, buddy.” Caleb yelled out the window, the man didn’t seem to notice.
He gagged for the second time that morning, as he felt something wet and cold squish beneath his toes, and hopped backwards. The floor creaked beneath his feet, causing him to pause once more. They still didn’t stir.
The air inside of his cramped apartment quickly got cold, and the smell of fresh urine was quickly becoming overwhelming, even through his hand. He had to get out of the apartment: at least until he could tell his landlord about this and, hopefully, get a replacement for his window, or, at the very least, pick up some cardboard and duct tape from a hardware store. There was no way to he would be able to make it through the last few hours of the night through the smell.
His closet was across the room, so he stealthily made his way across it, making a wide arc around the metal frame of the bed, stepping as gingerly as he could on his tip toes. Now, he wouldn’t make a single sound as he slid across the floor, as softly as a mouse darting through shadows.
Through the darkness he deftly made his way across the room, step by quiet step, he’d not make a sound this time…not a single one. Or so he thought, before the same shin rammed into the leg of the baby grand piano that sat on an elevated platform across the room from his bed. Once more he muffled a curse on his lips as the strings inside sang their harsh vibrato from the shaking of the case. The lid of the piano crashed down shortly after: a dull thud rang out throughout the cramped apartment. Before he even had a chance to mutter another string of curses, the nearly empty liquor bottle that rested near the edge of the wooden case fell over on its side and rolled towards him, like the percussive rolling of a snare drum, ending in a loud cymbal crash of broken glass at his feet. Underneath the shimmering shards of glass, and beneath the brown alcohol was a sheet of paper: five bold lines printed on it, with three nights worth of work running off the pages in black streaks. He sighed.
Three loud knocks resonated from underneath his feet: his downstairs neighbors were definitely awake now, and he would no doubt get an earful from his landlord whenever he woke up and made his way down here, he hoped that he wouldn’t be kicked out: shitty as they were, these were still the most affordable apartments within the city, and he couldn’t afford to just pick up and move out.
The time for silence has passed, as the sound of his neighbor’s angry shouts came from below.
“Sorry.” Was the only thing that he could respond with, shouting down through a hole in the floor.
“Shit head!” They shouted up back at him.
Caleb hurried his way across the wooden floor, and flipped on the light switch. The sole incandescent light-bulb, swinging from the breeze, blowing in through his shattered window. As the orange-yellow light flooded the room thousands of tiny legs scurried for the safety of shadow, and he felt himself gag for the third time that morning.
He hurriedly threw on some clothes: a pair of denim jeans, a long sleeved undershirt, and a hooded sweatshirt. Along with two pairs of socks, and a solid pair of sneakers, and he was good to go. He had never left the apartment quicker than he did that day — it was almost a relief for the cold blast of air as he opened the locked door to the outside world, as it chased away the lingering, putrid aroma of fresh urine from his nostrils.
With no destination in mind, he wandered the streets, hands firmly placed in his pockets. He had such high hopes for himself when he first moved to New York: high hopes that were eventually shattered. Since his second year in Junior High he had always felt as if he were a big fish in a small pond, and had always looked down on the people in his hometown: and why not? He was better than them? He had scored the highest on all of his tests, he had been the star of the baseball and football teams, and he had already given several piano recitals to the town by the time he graduated highs school — some of them even paid venues! He was confident, some might say arrogant, but there was no doubt in his mind that he was the best that the town of Mavrin Kansas had to offer.
That still radiated throughout his mind, even as he was making his way down the snow covered streets, dodging the frequent homeless, and the occasional person leering at him through the corner of their eyes. A big fish in a small pond, that’s what he believed he was back then, now? Now he saw himself as a sardine in a cannery.
There was nothing that he liked about the city: the twinkling of the city’s lights — which he had once seen as a thousand diamonds ready for the taking, now kept him awake every night with their ceaseless glimmer. The stone streets seemed to scream modernity at him, bringing him out of the stone age of rural living. Now the hardness of every step bled into him. The towering skyscrapers and apartment complexes seemed like distant peaks to climb — distant heights to conquer, but now? Now they seemed to be megalithic mausoleums, burying the masses in human suffering. And the constant hum of the traffic passing in front of his apartment seemed to him, at the time, the chorus of human progress singing to him, now it was the droll hum of a death march.
There was nothing he liked about the city. Nothing. If he could, he’d leave, but he had given up everything to move here: everything. There was nothing waiting for him back home in Kansas. Even if there were, the money he got from whatever small jobs he could find to do around the city that allowed him ample time to write his music, and still earn some money for food, rent, and most importantly, alcohol.
What was the reason though? What further reason did he have for attempting to further his music career: when perspective venues find out that he didn’t go to some prestigious music school, let alone go to a college for music, they shut their doors on him. He missed his chance a decade ago, when he was offered a scholarship for a University in Kansas. He was better than that, or so he thought. Still, however, he held the belief in his music strong within his heart: it was good music, he just needed people to see that….but it was impossible.
Thousands — hundreds of thousands came to New York looking for a chance for just that: finding a career in the arts. How many prospective Broadway actors lived underneath bridges, or with six or seven people in cramped studio apartments? How many painters lived off the fumes of their acrylic and oil paints until they died of starvation? How many famous writers in waiting, how many composers? Countless. There was no room for him to shine. He was a sardine in a pool of sardines, without the temerity to become the shark he needed to be.
No longer did he dream: the alcohol normally robbed him of consciousness most evenings. On the rare occasions that he did, however, it was of rolling hills of grain, golden stalks of towering corn, and endless patches of grass. He never thought he’d miss those simple things, but every dream of home had those same scenes playing out in his mind like a silent film.
Wordlessly, he walked the streets, quietly cursing his fate. There was no escape for him. No way out of the city. No way back home. He was going to die here: surrounded by rats and cockroaches in a too small apartment with the putrid aroma of fresh urine surrounding him.
Mindlessly, he wandered the streets in quiet desperate search for his escape from the cold gray hell that he found himself in. Slowly and steadily, and with measured steps he crossed icy streets, still bustling with traffic. He hurried through seedy alleyways and detoured around avenues and boulevards with groups of people, and eventually found himself wandering between lines of planted and well maintained trees — his feet brushing through the withered, frozen grass beneath.
He passed by freezing pines, and wandered through well maintained gardens, until he found an empty bench, and brushed off a patch of the snow to sit down. Oh, how his frozen body ached, and how his clenched teeth chattered. He looked to the heaven, and the moon — in all of its waxing beauty, could finally be seen.
Only here….in Central Park was he able to find even the slightest semblance of peace. The only people who came by were couples looking for a hidden location to embrace one another in secret, the occasional vagabond, and the destitute. He supposed he fit into that last category. At that realization the sigh that escaped his lips floated to the heavens in white smoke.
He closed his eyes, and the sounds of the city nearly died out, and he could almost feel himself leave his body and return to easier times back in Kansas. He listened as the wind rushed through the frozen, bared branches of the trees around him, and shook the dying blades of grass free of snow as a few flakes lifted, and danced in a flurry around him.
As the sounds of the city faded, and his mind became one with the bleakness around him, he heard something, at the very edge of his hearing. The faintest whisper of a song.