Central Park: A Ghost Story

BY MIKE ZIMMERMAN

First, let me say that what you are about to read is not an indictment, in any way, of Central Park, the Central Park Conservatory, or the City of New York. The park is a perfectly safe place for your long afternoons, your sunbathing, your baseball games, and your kid’s party where the directions are drawn in colorful sidewalk chalk. I have, myself, in fact, been back to Central Park no less than a dozen times since that night, not quite a year ago. Today, a lovely fall Sunday, my husband and I took our little corgi, Rosco, and all three of us spread out on the Great Lawn, sunning ourselves on the rough, blue blanket we keep special for lazy days. John even left the dog and I just now for a few short minutes to buy a bottle of water, and I feel perfectly safe. Nervous, but safe.

“Nate, you sure you two will be okay?” he asks.

“As long as I’ve got our little guardian to protect me,” I say, holding Rosco. “I’m really fine.” And I am, though I sit up on the blanket, watch him walk to the vendor, buy the water, then wait for him to return, just like the dog.

Okay, so maybe I do still sometimes get a bit unsettled. But haven’t you had a night that sticks to your soul like ice freezing over the sidewalk, ice getting in between all the little cracks, ice expanding those cracks bigger, and bigger still? Oh, no—the park itself is fine. Maybe it’s that thing inside I’m still watching out for.

It snowed early that day, a Tuesday, almost six months ago. Heavy, fluffy stuff that I greeted in the morning with a mixture of childhood delight and city-born pessimism. Strange, but no matter how wet my suit gets, something about the snow that day still felt wonderfully otherworldly, like shredded angel wings, as I walked from the subway to work. Once I took the elevator up to the office, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see any of it—there are no windows in my section, just cubicles and computers.

Before that night in the park, I still worked for a medical publishing company that published four or five of the major academic medical journals in the United States. I myself have no knowledge of medicine—I majored in English. As the articles came in reporting on new studies or commenting on issues in the science community, my job was to read and edit them for grammar—it’s as dull as it sounds. That morning, as I was still struggling to make heads or tails of the first document I had to review, my manager stopped by my cubicle.

“Nathan, I’m sorry to start your day like this but the Mendalsohn Cancer study is due to go to print tomorrow morning. I need you to stay till it’s completely reviewed tonight.”

“Yes, sure. I’ll stay tonight and get through it.”

“Perfect. How is John, by the way?”

“He’s doing great. His design program is going great.”

“Good to hear. And thanks for being a team player. I won’t forget it.”

That’s how I ended up with the late assignment. I’d been struggling to keep up at work ever since John left this job—he and I had met as co-workers here, but then we both applied to an MFA program. He got accepted, and I got rejected.

As I sat behind my computer that day, resenting everything already, my mind wandered to John. I’d met him at a training for new employees. This guy—this perfect combination of scruffy and baby-faced—sitting next to me . So I said, “Hey—how long do you plan on running in this hamster wheel?”

“Just until I get into design school. You work in editing, right? Plan on staying in the wheel forever? It’s certainly keeping you fit.” He gave me a melting little lopsided grin.

“I might go back to school, too. Writing.”

He and I kept emailing all that day, got a drink that night, and woke up together the next morning. It wasn’t like either of us to be so fast, so forward, but I think what drew us together so quickly were shared ambitions to do something more with our lives. We moved in together by the end of that year.

Many late nights, lying sweetly next to each other in bed, John would say, “Let’s quit the wheel. Go back to school. Live like gypsies for a while. Apply to an MFA program, you with your writing, me with my design.”

It had sounded like a dream plan, which we then pursued, but after John got accepted, and I didn’t, there were no more lunches together, no more dirty office emails, and a new life for John. He started his design program in the fall, a few months earlier, before that night when I had to stay late in the office on the hamster wheel. Part of me tried to be happy for John, another part of me couldn’t help but wonder why I didn’t get accepted. Why him and not me? I was haunted by these questions.

That afternoon, I needed a third cup of coffee, so I got up and walked past three other cubicles, each one with a little hamster editing away, to the pantry, grabbed a cup from the cupboard, and poured some coffee. I stared into it, swirling it with a little coffee stirrer, the darkness like a black hole. Then I heard, very close to me, a footstep and a cough.

“Hey, Goodman. Really contemplating that coffee, huh?”

It was Brandon. He, John, and I started work the same week and became fast friends. John always joked that if he hadn’t started dating me, Brandon would have snatched me up and strung me along. I did wonder if there wasn’t something there, and would sometimes play out an affair in my mind while I was sitting at my desk. I never acted, of course, but considered my fantasies of cheating on John evidence of how lost I really was.

“I really am,” I said.

“How many cups is that?” Brandon poured himself one.

“Cup number one thousand. You ever think they put this coffee maker in here just to keep us from leaving?” I asked.

“Think? I know it. Getting home is going to be a shit show man. You been out yet?”

“Just this morning. I’m powering through the day, like a real team player.”

“The weather’s terrible, and you should get home to John. How is he?”

“Good. Loving his design program. How’s that, uh, personal trainer of yours?”

“Bliss. Best thing I ever did was hire a personal trainer, then hop into bed with him.”

A few moments later, I sat back down at my desk with the coffee steaming in front of me, scrutinizing the syntax of the Mendelsohn cancer study. When I looked back up, the coffee cup, still full, had stopped steaming. I had noticed a few people leaving early around in the afternoon, and others drifting out after them—I’d heard the ping of the elevator a few times. Brandon had even stopped by again a bit before five to say goodbye, telling me to get going. But I hadn’t realized how much time had passed until I looked at my phone—eight, already. My stomach growled since I’d skipped lunch. I shot John a text to let him know I was leaving the office and set my cell phone on the desk. Turning to take my coat off the coat rack, I grabbed my bag and bundled up with scarf and gloves. The building seemed immense and empty, the shadows of things always bigger than the things themselves.

When I got outside, it was really snowing out, thick white cotton balls. My office shoes were not suitable for the snow, but luckily I lived on the West side, just across the park. My best option here was to shuffle carefully through the snow in my dress shoes to the crosstown bus stop, hoping to get across the island of Manhattan, which was divided into the East and West Sides by the Park. The stop was crowded—about fifty people—all chatting about how long they’d been there, how they hadn’t seen a bus in almost an hour. Then a man came out of the Duane Reed behind me.

“No crosstown buses due to weather. This is some bullshit. Some real bullshit,” he announced.

“Dammit,” I said, thinking through my options. The fastest was to take the twenty minute walk across the park, so I left the bus stop and walked down 86. The city was empty and the lights on in all the high rise apartment complexes told me that most people were at home, no doubt curled up with a warm body beside them on their couches. I pictured John at home, deliberating over dinner, wondering where on earth I was, working on a bottle of Pinot Noir. I reached into my pocket to text him and then realized exactly where I’d left my phone—back in my cubicle. Drawing my scarf tighter around my neck, I walked towards the park and, by the time I got to 5th avenue, I realized I was the only person on this street. The path to the park was coated with a sheet of solid, white ice packed with snow, compressed by the weight of people walking on it. It felt smooth, unnaturally sculpted under my feet.

Next to the Metropolitan Museum seemed walkable, some Museum staff must have shoveled that day. The path led into, not through, the park, but, I thought, John and I had definitely walked along this path before. I recognized the glass rectangles of the Met on my left as I followed, with careful shuffling steps, the narrow walkway. I would navigate by landscapes. They wouldn’t be that different at night.

I kept walking until the Met was tucked behind some trees and I was walking next to some fenced in baseball diamonds. Then, I heard a noise in the snow—footsteps.

A woman, the first person I’d seen since trudging into the snow-covered park, startled me. She was in a heavy red overcoat and impractical shoes. Her blonde hair, perhaps formerly in a bun, was a mess of strands all over her face. She looked bewildered.

***

“You. You just came in? Is this the road out?” she asked, practically yelling at me. She was older than I thought at first, with the husky voice of a smoker.

“Yep. Just follow the path until you see the Met,” I pointed to the path I had walked in on, though the museum was out of sight now, and then started walking away, intent to get home as soon as possible.

“Thanks,” she called after me. “Hey—wait. This is going to sound a little crazy.”

“What?”

“Well—nothing. Just stay on the path.”

I looked back and saw that she, despite the dangers of slipping and falling, had broken into a dead run toward the museum.

As I walked, a solid white path emerged ahead. Amidst the falling snow, the dim lantern lights faded to a gentle yellow, like a flashlight covered with gauze. Walking carefully, I tried to take in the scenery. Trees lined an icy pond and the park was absolutely still. “Good,” I thought. “Turtle pond. I definitely remember seeing that before.” I walked faster now, encouraged by the landmark of a castle up ahead. I would head up the hill, then after the castle was a small grove of trees, and downhill brought me to the street, right? As I approached it, straining on the steep path, the castle looked unreal over the pond, like I was trapped inside an oversized snow globe. I just had to watch my steps, walk carefully once I was headed downhill. But, of course, no sooner had the thought of caution crossed my mind than my shoes found a patch of ice beneath a thin layer of fresh snow.

I fell flat on my ass. Stunned, I blinked once or twice, feeling the wet ice soak through my pants. I got up by pressing both of my hands into the cold ground, snow still swirling around me, trees in front of me, the twisting ice landscape behind me. I understood, as I caught my breath, that I had gone too far and become too turned around to find my way back. Like any lost person, forward became hope—the belief that every path is a way out.

“I’m okay,” I said. In front of me, a marker read, “The Rambles.” That was the grove of trees; the castle was on the hill to my right. That’s the right way. Plus it seemed well lit and it was definitely west. Or was I just convincing myself that? At any rate, this is New York, I thought. No one freezes to death by being lost in a park.

“When this is all over, I’m quitting. Swear-to-god I am,” I said.

I continued through the trees, ignoring the pathways, just trying to head to what I thought was west. White seemed to go on forever, and it occurred to me I had been alone in the city that never sleeps for almost an hour, judging by the throbbing in my toes. The cold ached in every part of me. I imagined taking off my shoes, showing John the frostbitten tips, like burnt sticks. I would kiss John and tell him to rub my feet until they felt warm again. He would soothe me with his soft, comforting voice.

But instead of John’s soothing voice, I heard a cough behind me. Oddly, rather than feeling relief that I was not alone, I felt the cold air sit heavier around me.

“Hey there.”

I turned in the flurrying darkness to someone approaching—tall, in boots and jeans, a red flannel shirt. For a second it looked like John, scruffy and baby faced, and I almost ran over. But as he drew closer—though the resemblance was there—this man was much more built, his hair fuller, eyes a shade darker. He was beautiful.

“I’m trying to get to the west side, and having a hell of a time.”

“But you just got here,” he said, grinning, striding steadily two steps closer. His eyes reminded me of the black coffee in the office and, somehow, and despite the heavy snow still falling, he was perfectly dry.

“I’m sorry? Which way did you come in?”

“That’s hard to say.”

“Yeah, it’s confusing out here. But you look like you just walked in.”

“I’ve been here a while.”

“Aren’t you cold?’

“No.” He grinned.

“I—I really want to get out of the park.”

“Why are you so ready to leave? Nobody gets lost if they have something to get back to.” Then he smiled, his teeth even whiter than the snow, flashing at me the way a sharp knife might flash. He walked closer so that we were face-to-face. I wanted to run, but I stood, transfixed, frozen, like so much of the park we were standing in. Everything about him was strange. His eyes were too intense, his walk was too calculating and confident, despite the ice—like a cat stalking a mouse.

“Someone is waiting for me.” I started to worry now, since his behavior seemed so off, so predatory.

“Who? Johnny boy? You know, little Johnny hasn’t even saved any wine for you. Hasn’t even thought about you all day, between designing for class and jerking off with his classmates. Isn’t even wondering where you are.”

He gripped me by the shoulders.

“How did you—that’s not true.” But I saw John in my mind, on our couch, leaning forward to his glass of wine, taking a sip and swallowing. He used to lean in like that to me.

“Thinking of John? Or Brandon this time?” He gave me a crooked, knowing smile.

“This isn’t real,” I said, closing my eyes, swallowing, feeling his hands grip my shoulders tighter.

“Feel this. It’s real.”

I felt my eyes close, felt myself being pulled forward, felt our bodies locked in an embrace. It was like being pulled into an oven. I could feel firm muscle—a body, a real body—as the heat continued to pulse out.

“Isn’t this what you’ve wanted? A way to get off of the hamster wheel? A way not to be lost?”

I felt my hands, against his back, grow warmer and warmer.

“Why should everyone else find their way out while you stay stuck?”

The promise of heat was so tempting.

“I can’t,” I said.

“You can. Kiss me.”

I watched his lips release the words. I jerked myself away, then I ran forward, fell to my knees. I scrambled to my feet and I ran—I ran and I ran. To my right was another frozen pond, behind me were the twisting Rambles. I heard the faint sound of traffic, saw some hints of lights through the trees. Yes—a traffic light. I’d come to the bottom of the hill, out of the woods.

But I could still feel something watching me patiently, the hairs on my neck standing imperceptibly awry, a breath slithering down my neck. I heard someone, or something—human or not, I couldn’t tell, but the sound was moving quicker and quicker towards me.

Everything blurred into white and dark shadows of trees as I continued to run. I slid, I slipped, I didn’t care. I felt only the staccato stuttering of my heart as I burst out of the woods towards the Central Park loop where I’d seen the traffic light. Illuminated by the comforting green, I saw a statue of a man releasing a falcon into the sky. I ran, following the loop until I could see the park exit in front of me, thinking of it like a victory lap.

When I crossed Central Park West, I looked back across the street. The park looked ordinary, serene even, spackled in a blanket of white. As I ran the ten or so blocks home, people stared at me—I probably looked insane, wet and slipping in the snow. I walked down the steps and turned the key into my apartment.

“Jesus. I was worried about you. The city is a mess.” John was pacing around by the door.

“I knew you would be.”

“Then why didn’t you call?”

“Listen, I’ve got a story for you.” I took off my shoes and locked every single lock on the apartment door.

“You’re trembling. What happened?”

“Sit down for this one. First things first. I’m quitting my job tomorrow.”

“Finally,” he smiled as I caught him in a desperate embrace.

Sitting on the rough blue blanket in Central Park, almost a year later in late fall, the sun embracing me in its natural heat now, my mind comes back from the events of last winter easily. Now, John walks over with two bottles of water in his hand while I clutch our corgi, Rosco.

“See? I was back in a flash,” John smiles.

“Yep. Here with my body guard.” And I really am fine.

You see, it’s only the nights when I wonder—what would have become of that kiss? Late, after John and I curl up into bed, after he falls asleep, I cling to him, thinking about all the snow in all the world. I hear that voice, “Kiss me,” and I see his full lips releasing the words, still uncertain if they were a command or an invitation. Either way—almost a year later—those two words recalled from a winter night still echo long into the darkness.


Mike Zimmerman is a writer of short stories and poetry, as well as a middle school writing teacher in East Brooklyn. His previous work has been published in Cutbank, A & U Magazine, and The Painted Bride. He is the 2015 recipient of the Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press and a finalist for the Hewitt Award in 2016. He finds inspiration and ideas from the people and places he loves. Mike lives in New York City with his husband and their cat.

Image Credit: Jeff Davis

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