by Anna Louise Steig
8.468 million human beings congested into a comparatively pitiful 468 miles, meaning that there are about 29,729 living and breathing bodies squashed into each square mile–New York City is a cesspool of flesh. There are too many bodies–I’ve always said it, no matter the glaring looks I get from nannies pushing strollers and mothers nursing babies–and this city could seriously use another plague.
The streets are nothing more than tunnels, funnelling pulses to and fro, forever. It’s endless. It’s inescapable, and I have somehow failed today: the routine I established over thirty years ago when I immigrated to this hellscape has kept me safe day by day, reliably so. Rush hour here arrives around five p.m., as the midwinter horizon darkens against the glaring fluorescents of the city, and I leave my cubicle at precisely 4:25. By 4:30, I have exited the building through the rotating doors–yet another cyclic movement of this circular city–and have escaped into the streets, which are mostly desolate by New York standards but now buzzing with anticipation. The energy emanating from businessmen in their skyscrapers hums like a drone inside a hive. After a brief and brisk walk, I then hail a cab from the corner of 87th and Kennedy–the same cab, mind you, with the same Kazakhstani driver who thankfully never bothers to cross the language barrier–and let my eyelids flutter closed for the eleven minute travel. I can tell the driver is hustling to get me home before the rush hits, knowing precisely how our schedule operates and adhering to it with great respect. I am always undressed and already sunken into the stained suede of the couch in my cramped studio by 4:58, two minutes until the gates of Hell unleash a swarm upon the city, and I know that I am safe within those familiar four walls. But today, I can’t tell where I went wrong.
Was it the gratuitous trip to the coffeemaker, the extra shot I did not need? Was it the salutation to the new receptionist in an attempt to make a friend? Could it have been the search for a new pen when my trusty number two pencil finally failed me? It must have been that; today was a day of unreliability, of betrayal from my most trusted assets, of corruption of my way of life. Everything felt dreadfully wrong as I emerged from my office building onto the filthy street, where the scent of sewage floated up from the gutters as a rat skittered through the crosswalk and was promptly flattened into a rodent pancake by a speeding Audi. Death was sudden and tragic: oozing blood, though hardly a capful, and the splay of stringy, noodle-like intestines onto the asphalt. A heavy rain cloud descended then, casting a pall over the city, and the last truly coherent memory I have is the sonorous chiming of a bell tower in the distance, announcing my inevitable demise.
Before there were bodies, there were voices. Thousands of male voices shouted belligerently over each other, with the only words I could decipher being Wall Street, strip, Brooks account, and dinner. And then came the flood: a wash of Armani, a tsunami of suits and ties, all the trending haircuts colliding into one space. The fleshy odor nearly struck me down: sweat and tears and menstrual blood but mostly drying semen, athlete’s foot and of course cologne, the rot of a public space. The rot of human essence; the rot of life itself. And it was all running headlong toward me.
I was just a woman, a small woman in a pencil skirt and stiletto heels trying to escape. I dashed across the concrete as the skyscrapers behind me, like Nephilimic creatures with glaring eyes and gaping jaws, began to sink into the ground. There was metal grating against asphalt, the smell of tar baking into primordial dirt below and wafting up to coat the air in soot. I tugged my blouse up to cover my nose and exposed the soft chub of my belly. Surrounding me, I watched in horror as the men began to jeer: They pointed long index fingers at my navel and let their mouths stretch across the stubbly expanse of their white faces; all I could see through slitted vision were ocean blue eyes and black eyebrows, furrowing as they chased me in slow motion. I was carrying one heel in my right hand, sticky with tar goo, the fluids of the earth. I felt naked, and no one was coming to my rescue.
Behind me, I could not block out the rumbling of low-heeled dress shoes, stomping across every intersection, jumping over every yellow taxi cab hood to reach me, and yet somehow their grabbing hands fell short every time. Overhead, the sun had gone dark. Obscured by some cloud or planet or star, all I could see was a void. As a result I found myself chasing the horizon through near black darkness, only vaguely aware that I was heading in the right direction. The desire to find home compelled my every step, even though my hips were screaming in agony from the off-kilter movement I was hobbling in, because my left foot was still arched in a nude high heel. This felt like the apocalypse; this had to be the end.
8.468 million pulsating, craving, itching human beings filled with raw meat and tender skin and snapping tendons stretched between the bones chased my trampled body through the streets of New York City, all while the cityscape around us crumbled into the pavement. And it was all because I was late: late in life, late in love, late in faith. The destiny of a minute, of a moment, of one breath taken a second too soon on this irrevocable jungle of the earth. And somewhere overhead, a clock was singing the hour.
Anna Louise Steig is a young Jewish writer from the Appalachian hills of western Maryland, and she will be attending Shepherd University in fall 2023 as an English major. Her other works can be found or are forthcoming in Cream Scene Carnival, Uppagus Magazine, The Basilisk Tree, and elsewhere.