Sorry, Beautiful

Posted on: February 4, 2014

From the top of the water tower, I can see the whole neighborhood—the roof of the library, the buses ferrying everyone home from work. Everyone’s feet hurt because it’s Thursday, and one can expect sore feet by that point in the week, so the men and women are shifting in their seats and thinking about dinner. About the ice crystals melting from frozen burritos. About the chicken and rice in the slow cooker, all of it waiting.

Inside the library, Caroline is helping an elderly man reset his Yahoo password. Or she’s scanning the barcode on the back of Charlotte’s Web. She always liked Charlotte’s Web. If Caroline finished whatever she is doing and went out the side door to take a smoke break, she might look up and see me.

When you fly, just one small passenger in an airliner hurling itself through the atmosphere like a precarious bullet, you look down during takeoff and feel fragile. But from the top of the water tower, I am more like a god. The people aren’t ants, per say. They’re still very real and large in their own way, but up here, I’m untouchable.

Caroline will get off work at 5:15, and then she’ll run the carpet sweeper in the children’s room to pick up the confetti of crumbs—sticky Cheerio bits, beheaded teddy grahams. Then she’ll come outside and wait for the 5:36 cross-town bus, and I’ll yell “Caroline!” and she won’t hear me, but she’ll get a tingle at the back of her neck. She’ll think the tag of her wrap dress from the Loft is irritating her skin, only to reach back and remember she cut it out weeks ago. I’m here, the tingle will say, and she’ll shrug it off and get on the bus, winding through the aching and hungry people until she finds a seat beside someone who hasn’t been sweating or drinking. Maybe a nice, middle-aged woman who smells like lavender lotion.

I’m not going to jump, if that’s what you’re thinking. Caroline breaking up with me won’t send me over some psychotic or literal ledge. Of course I miss her. Of course I miss everything about her. The things, mostly. The human detritus. The twist of her hair she stuck on the shower wall so it wouldn’t clog the drain. Her empty mugs with used tea bags huddling at the bottoms like luggage left out in a storm.

It’s always the things. I could go on: the bleach spot on the carpet where she spilled nail polish remover. The Netflix queue she trained to suggest cerebral independent comedies. The things she doesn’t even know she left behind—a single wool sock, a hairpin, a tiny fake-gold earring back resting near a bathroom baseboard. All the matchless things.

“Caroline!” I yell.

I can see the top of her head, her hair pulled up into one of those awful sock buns that looks like something a bird would construct. She’s shifting her leather tote from one arm to the other. She’s poking at her cell phone screen.

“Hey!” I hear, but it’s not Caroline’s voice. Across the street, Caroline is still gazing into her phone. It’s telling her everything she wants to know. It’s showing her pictures of all the things she deserves—expensive wallpaper, smiling children, the secret to a slender and happy life, one Instagram at a time.

“Hey!” I hear again. “You’re not supposed to be up there!”

Supposed to. So many things that are supposed to be never become.

I tear my eyes from the bird nest of Caroline’s head and look below, near the legs of the water tower. It’s a bald man with a uniform shirt and a blank face.

“This is city property!” he’s yelling.

“Is it?” I say.


“Is it city property?” I say, this time loud enough for the bald man to comprehend.

“Come on down, now, sir, or I’ll call the police!”

I consider a list of my crimes: trespassing, stalking ex-girlfriends, shoplifting a birthday card once when the line got outrageous at the Hallmark store. I needed the card, not the hassle. Caroline is the type of girl who never forgets important moments. I tried so hard to do the same. I needed that card.

“Sir, what you’re doing is dangerous!” the bald man yells.

None of this is building to an epic moment. A graceful dive, at the end of which my vertebrae collapse like a compressed accordian. Or a police chase, where Caroline looks on as I lie gasping like a fish, my skin pierced by the barbs of a pulsing taser. There will be no thunk of the police car door, no smack smack as the cop sends the message to his partner, he’s in, all clear to go.

I have come to realize that actually, bald man, nothing I do is dangerous. There is nothing dangerous about me. There’s no edge. And that, in the end, has to be why Caroline left. I’m the sort of person who is complacent in his car insurance job. The type of person who knows that processed foods will cause me to die an artery-clogging death, but still buys store-brand, frozen lasagna. The person who goes home to Ohio for Christmas and gives his mother a scarf from an upscale store because only quality will make up for not knowing what she truly wants. For knowing who she, and every other sorry, beautiful person, truly is.

So I climb down the ladder to the ground, just as the police car pulls up. The 5:36 cross-town bus glides into the stop, and Caroline boards. She finds a seat by the window. She looks up from her phone. The officer and I have a civil conversation as the bald man watches, his arms crossed over the front of his uniform shirt so I can’t see his name. I promise the officer I will never climb the water tower again. Caroline squints out the bus window. She sees me. The officer writes me a ticket on a piece of flimsy yellow paper. The bus pulls away.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg
Photograph by: Daniel Vidal

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