Fiction: 4th of July, The Battery

By Raisa Norberg

You go to Toronto to find yourself. Everyone knows that in order to get in touch with the inner you, or to fulfill a spiritual need, you don’t go to Rishikesh or Kyoto; you go to Toronto. 
It was impulsive, almost; well, you had to get your passport with the intention of using it. On a warm mid-April day, you were at work, going through the motions of being a library assistant (shelve books, wear glasses, hate your boss). This is when you decide to leave, right this moment, for whoever knows how long. 
“I just need to find myself,” you said to one of the three coworkers you liked. 
“So… Toronto?” She raised a single eyebrow. 
It was the fear of planes. In reality, you would have gone to Rishikesh, maybe have fallen in love and never returned to the west. This was something your father was concerned about, incidentally, since you were a teenager. 
“I just worry,” he said one night, when you mentioned your grandfather inviting you on his business trip to India, “that you might meet a Hare Krishna and never come home.”
You laughed, though he wasn’t joking. There wasn’t a single sign on his face to indicate that he was jovial. It never mattered; you didn’t go to India. 
It was never going to matter, regardless. 
Anyway, the dogwood. The dogwood in the abandoned courtyard of your place of employment, it was in full bloom and the sky was blue — as it usually is — with no clouds. The courtyard, being neglected, was decrepit, with cracked cement and overgrown weeds. Yet there was that dogwood, this bold statement of here-ness in a pit of abandon. Sad, sad pavement. 
It never made sense, to have this courtyard and not utilize it. There’s even an abandoned mural, a work in progress by some introverted high schooler who has already forgotten about it. The dogwood is the only object of promise. 
And perhaps you wanted to be like the dogwood, so you marched up to the administration office and said, “I have to go. Now,” and you left in that moment. 
There was no wait in Niagara Falls, New York to get into Canada. The border patrol woman was awfully nice, but despite her demeanor, you felt like a criminal. It could’ve been the very nature of crossing a border. 
“You’re traveling to Canada alone?” She asked. 
“I know it seems suspicious,” you said, “but I just wanted to… find myself.” You sunk a little in your seat; how embarrassing it was to say it aloud and mean it. 
Luckily, all she did was hand your passport back. “Welcome to Canada.”
There is no articulate plan for how long you’ll be here. On your first night, which is tonight, you’ll eat Chinese food alone in your hotel room, the television off, staring at your own distorted reflection. This is how you normally see yourself. Between bites of vegetable fried rice you’ll cry, checking your phone, understanding that nobody is waiting for you. To be a priority to someone — anyone — has never been your privilege. 
You’ll think of your childhood best friend, Sheena Modi, who literally was only your childhood best friend; you’d know her for a few years in elementary school, crouched under the big red slide behind the school during recess, carving your names into the plastic with a sharpened stick. 
“That’s dangerous,” this lanky, nervous boy, Cory Sousa, said. 
“If you tell anyone, I’ll stab you,” Sheena promised, shaking the stick at him. 
You’d never see her again after fourth grade. And now, you’ll wonder if she remembers you, too. If that slide is still there, if your friendship is eternal, if it was ever real. You’ll wonder if it was life simply providing a foreshadow of how you’re destined to be alone. How nobody will be permanent. 
After not finishing the rice, you’ll break open the fortune cookie, throwing away the actual cookie part. The fortune will say, EVERYTHING WILL FALL INTO PLACE. 
“Yeah,” you’ll say to the wall, rolling your eyes, “like it always does.”
Tariq notices you long before you notice him. It’s easy to spot you when you’re standing under a streetlight, eating from a jar of peanut butter with a plastic spoon. 
This is your fourth night in Toronto, and the first night you’ve not stayed in your hotel room. You went from Kipling to St. George, didn’t feel the slightest bit transformed, and headed back to Kipling. You stopped at Runnymede, for no reason other than preventing more hotel wallowing. 
You’re standing under this streetlight, eating from a jar of peanut butter at 9 PM, and across the road is a speakeasy. The windows are open and live jazz pours out from within. You’re remembering when your school stopped providing peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. You and Sheena would always get peanut butter sandwiches, to the point where your second grade teacher would ask what you wanted, and you’d both say, “the usual.” 
When you see him watching you from inside the speakeasy, the spoon is in your mouth. You freeze, staring at him, unsure if he’s actually looking at you. But now he’s waving, and you’re glancing around only to notice that you’re the only person on this side of the road, under the only source of light. You’re waving back, spoon in your mouth, still. 
“Maybe I would like to love and be loved,” you said to your community college best friend, years ago. You sat with her on the grass on campus, under the sun of one of those 70 degree March days. You shrugged. “Maybe I just want love.” 
She lit an American Spirit and took a deep drag. “You’re not finding that in Rhode Island.” 
“Where would I find it?” 
She looks up at the sun, squinting. “I don’t know. Boston?” 
New England is a cruel cage that isn’t locked shut. You can leave, you have every right, but you just don’t. It could be the misery of it all. Everyone here wants to be sad. 
You began ripping grass out of the earth, shaking your head. “Nobody’s in Boston for me. I hate Boston. I hate New England.” You studied the indifference across her face. “I think I’ll leave.” 
She nodded. “You’ll be back, though.” 
Tariq is a stranger but he eats from the peanut butter jar. You’re talking about how peanut allergies seem like a child-exclusive issue, how adults with that allergy make no sense. And yes, it’s problematic or whatever to talk about how childish an often life-threatening allergy is, but you’re both laughing and sharing this jar of peanut butter. So who cares. 
Soon it’s 2 AM and he wants to know everything about you, and you’re worrying that you might love him. It’s been so long, feeling like this. You never will tell Tariq that you love him; there will not be enough time. There is never enough time; you’ll never be allowed permanence. 
Last time you told a boy you loved him, first of all, you didn’t know what love was, you were 17 and just lost your virginity, and you thought it was love. Second of all, he laughed in response. He would never love you. And it was your longest relationship, carving all that you had to offer out of you, leaving this hollow shell.
Tariq’s asking you where you’re from because you don’t sound like you’re from Toronto. You hesitate, saying you’re from Rhode Island. 
“I don’t know what that is,” he says. 
You can stay in Toronto for six months. It’s June, now. You’re running out of money. 
Tariq has spent just about every day with you since you met. It’s unnatural to have someone on the other side of your phone, waiting to hear from you, wanting to talk to you at all. Wanting to know you. It’s uncomfortable; you want to push him away. But the thought of not having Tariq around is authentically unbearable. 
You’re standing in the CN Tower at sunset now, gawking at the view. You’d been up the Empire State Building before, but this was something to behold. Tariq’s not looking at the city, no, he’s looking at you. You’re feeling this. 
“What’s your favorite color?” He’s asking. How could he ask such a pointless question at a time like this? 
You turn to look at him. The sun hits his face in such a way, illuminating his deep, dark brown eyes. This feels like forever. You wonder why the greatest poets haven’t written about Tariq’s eyes, specifically, why had they not anticipated his existence, that there would be such a beautiful creature living on earth? 
“Brown,” you say. 
Tariq scrunches his nose. “Why?” 
You know why. “I like it,” you answer. 
His hands are holding your face now, your heart pounds against your chest. “What’s going on in there?” He furrows his brows, tilting his head. You realize you’re frowning. He will never kiss you. 
At the end of June, Tariq is looking unsettled. He’s distant from you, and it’s fine, you anticipated this. Every day, you’re ready for heartbreak. It’s so much easier when it does happen, if you’re expecting it. Maybe if your father didn’t insist upon the idea that love is required to be short and end in pain. Maybe if your parents weren’t your parents. Maybe if you weren’t destined to be alone. 
Tariq is saying that he’s having a lot of family troubles, that his grandmother is dying which is causing the family to be torn apart from the inside. Inheritance. Repressed feelings. You’re all too familiar with this exact conflict. When was the last time your family was in full attendance? What do you do when you realize that you’re cursed? 
It feels wrong, today. This is ending. It’s ending now. You will not see Tariq after this. 
The next morning, your phone is silent again. And it will continue to be. 
You’re in New York City on Independence Day because your aunt’s boyfriend is officially an American citizen, “and what better way to celebrate this than to see the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July?” 
You began to name things that were indeed better, but your aunt cut you off. “Just come with us. You feel like a stranger.” 
What’s so great about New York City is the amount of people constantly within its confines. It’s impossible to make an impact here. Nobody knows you. Nobody cares about you. It feels normal. 
“Would you look at that!” Your aunt is gushing over Lady Liberty. You’re on the ferry, and it honestly is a sight to see. This oxidized copper woman, one foot forward, strong and resilient. Maybe you don’t want to be a dogwood so much as a strong woman, withstanding disaster, not dying in the winter. You don’t want to wither away at the first feeling of a chill. 
Your aunt’s boyfriend spends a stupid amount of money on cups of fruit, which aren’t even all that refreshing since the sun has been beating down on it for hours. You eat the fruit though, because he buys you a cup of pineapple chunks, your favorite, and it means something that he remembers this little thing about you. As if you’re worth knowing. 
“What is that?” He asks, pointing at the back of your phone. You’re sitting in the shade on a bench at The Battery. The line to get back on the boat from Ellis Island turned the three of you off from continuing to be tourists. Confused, you turn the phone over to see that fortune from mid-April. 
“Oh,” you’re saying, “just a fortune I got in Toronto.”
“You know those things mean nothing,” your aunt says. 
You look down at the pavement, some sunlight escaping through the leaves. “I know. But I like it.” 
You hate traveling with anyone but yourself, so you’re walking around Battery Park while your aunt and her boyfriend are somewhere. The fireworks started a few minutes ago. Being a firework makes sense; you contain yourself for so long, eventually unable to handle the burning pressure, and off you go. This big burst of light. 
A flash of yellow shines on him. You stand there in the brief darkness, until another flash confirms it’s him. 
Tariq is gawking up at the fireworks. 
In all of New York City, in all of the world, Tariq has to be right here. This one-in-eight-billion chance. 
Timidly, you approach him, tap him on the shoulder. Slowly he turns around, catching your eyes. 
“What are you doing here?” He asks, not particularly excited, but more like he wishes you weren’t here. You tell him why you’re here. And similarly to that night on Runnymede Road, you’re both going on and on about something questionable, like how truly embarrassing this country is, so why are you even celebrating its independence? You just like the fireworks. 
For a moment, in the silence — verbal silence, not counting the deafening booms of explosions — you’re looking into each other’s eyes, perhaps trying to reach the soul. Trying to say things without having to actually say them. 
“Tariq,” you begin, “I…” 
This beautiful woman, the same age as you, approaches Tariq. She puts her arm around his waist. She’s staring at you, severely disturbed. She looks exactly like Sheena Modi. 
“Yeah, look,” Tariq is saying to you, but his words are barely coherent, “I gotta go. But it was nice seeing you. Really.” 
You’re suffocating. Everything around you disappears; even the fireworks are quiet. And the light illuminates the fortune on the back of your phone. 
Maybe things don’t fall into place. 
Or maybe they do. Maybe this is exactly how it was meant to fall. 
You will return to New England.

Raisa Norberg is a writer and aspiring librarian. She lives in Rhode Island but plans to change that.


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