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Déjà Vu

By @Madison

September 29, 2001

“Have you ever been in love?”

We were half way to New York City when Grant hit me with this question. It was one of the simple, calm moments I was trying to experience more of, the two of us nursing our cups of coffee in a small diner in New Brunswick. Then, out of nowhere, he decided he’d ask me that.

My heart beat frantically in my chest as I saw a flash of blue-gray eyes, a glimpse of dark curls and gangly limbs.

“Maybe,” I replied, picking up the mug my coffee was served in with slightly shakey hands. “Why do you ask?”

He shrugged. “I just wanted to know,” he said. “Seems kind of important.”

“Not to me,” I replied.

The waitress brought us our platters of eggs and bacon before quickly scurrying towards the next table.

Grant picked up a slice of bacon, looking at me inquisitively. As usual, he wasn’t going to let it go. “So you have?”

“Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t.” I looked down at my coffee as I stirred it, desperate for any distraction at all. “Either way, it isn’t really a big deal. Nothing you’d want to know about.”

He kept staring at me, as if he wanted to argue. My guard was already up, knowing that Grant had been known to pry the truth out of me. To my surprise, however, he didn’t continue to press. Instead, he shrugged, digging into his eggs with his fork. 

His eyes no longer fixed on me, I relaxed. Just like that, the tense moment disappeared, melting away like sugar stirred into a hot cup of coffee.

New York City used to be the place that everyone dreamed of running away to. I saw it happen firsthand years ago, when Amy got the acceptance letter in the mail. She and Mom jumped around the kitchen, screaming and hugging as they passed around the envelope while Angeline and I took turns giving each other looks of concern. When she put the letter down on the table and I began to panic, she assured me that she’d take lots of pictures of all of the skyscrapers and famous places I had seen in the movies. Like that fixed everything.

Back then, it was still the land of dreams, the place most ambitious young souls wanted to be. The Polaroids Amy sent in the mail every week gave me glimpses of a tiny version of paradise, gargantuan buildings with sparkling windows reaching into an endless sky, filled with possibilities. Though I pretended not to like them, I taped those pictures to the mirror in my bedroom, promising myself that I’d join her there one day.

Eight years later, being there made my stomach hurt, for more reasons than one. The skies seemed less endless now that I was the one underneath them, inspiring an odd sort of claustrophobia, as if they could fall on top of me at any given moment. Rather than being filled with adventures waiting to be had, the city’s skyline now seemed empty. Though Grant would have surely told me I was overthinking if I told him, I knew that there was a very important puzzle piece missing there. To anyone in their right mind, it was obvious.

Grant, however, seemed oblivious. He stared out the window at the passing streets with the wonder I had expected myself to have all those years ago. Watching him take it all in, eyes shining along with the city lights, I wished for a moment that I could be in his shoes. As the heaviness of being in the city of so many tragedies set in, I wished that I, too, could forget everything.

We ended up at a remarkably large, rather fancy hotel. The lobby was about as big as the entirety of our motel in Richmond, lined with what may or may not have been real red velvet. A guy with wild curly brown hair sat behind the reception desk, smiling as if he actually enjoyed his job.

“Hello!” he cheered when I was halfway to the desk. “I’m James, your humble servant for today. How may I assist you?”

I couldn’t help but smile at his enthusiasm. “Just one of the cheapest rooms you have.”

“Well,” he began. “Each room here isn’t much cheaper than the next, but I can get you a pretty sweet room on the third floor for an alright price. How long do you plan on staying?”

I thought about this. Considering the fact that New York was the last state Grant’s path lead to, I figured we’d probably have to stay for a while to scope everything out. With this in mind, I worked with my estimation. “About a week.”

“Gotcha.” He wrote something down in a notebook before handing me a slip of paper and a key. “There you go. Enjoy your stay, and if you need anything, feel free to call the desk and ask for me. I’m always here, believe me.”

“I will. Thanks.” I gave him a friendly wave before walking back to the parking lot to get Grant.

He sat in the driver’s seat of the XT, waiting for me. Though I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him drive in the city traffic, I found it both amusing and worrisome that he felt so comfortable there, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel. I knocked on the window, beckoning for him to roll it down.

When he did, I showed him the key. “This one’s a go,” I said. “So you might as well lock her up.”

He nodded, rolling the window back up before turning off the engine. Upon stepping out of the car, he clicked the button on my keychain, locking the doors.

We walked through the hotel’s spinning doors. James waved at me from behind his desk. Unlike the cheerful demeanors of the many waiters, cashiers, and gas station attendants I had encountered on this trip, his enthusiasm seemed to be far from fake.

“You know him?” Grant asked as we stepped onto the elevator.

“Not really,” I replied, pressing the button for the third floor. The metal doors clamped shut with the ‘ding’ of the speaker above us. “I know that his name is James, and that he’s probably on Prozac.”

“That’s all?” Grant laughed.

I shrugged. “Maybe he’s also taken a toke or two. Don’t ask me how I would know.”

Grant rolled his eyes. “I meant that that’s all you know about him.”

“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “He said to call the desk and ask for him if we needed anything.”

“Great,” he said, rubbing his palms together as the elevator came to a halt, the doors opening once again. “It’s always nice to have a friend wherever you end up.”

James was right: the room he had gotten us was pretty sweet. It was less like a hotel room and more like a small apartment, including a decent sized bathroom, a closet, and a balcony with a terrific view of both the skyline and the streets. The only thing about it that was less than convenient was the fact that it only had one bed. Then again, it just so happened to be a king sized bed, and there was plenty of room on the floor and couch included for one of us to sleep.

“Well, April,” Grant said. “I’m impressed. You’ve gotten us some pretty nice digs.”

I grinned. “I tried,” I said, though I really didn’t. Once again, good luck had decided to grace me with its presence.

We didn’t discuss who would get the bed as we sat our luggage down, silently milling around the room as we prepared to make it our home for the next week.

After a while, Grant spoke. “We still have a whole afternoon,” he said. “Wanna go exploring?”

I thought about this. I didn’t quite feel ready to head into the heart of the city; considering that I’d have to prepare myself for that, we probably wouldn’t be able to do that until the next day. I couldn’t tell Grant this, though, and I knew that we’d get bored quickly in our hotel room, no matter how swanky it was.

“Sure,” I said. “But we can’t go far. We’ll probably start getting hungry soon.”

Grant nodding in agreement, we headed back downstairs.

We ended up deciding to walk, Grant wanting to stretch his legs and get some fresh air after the ride. Being in New York City, the street the hotel was on alone had plenty of interesting sights to see. My mouth watered slightly at the wafting scent of the food stands as the two of us roamed the sidewalk, passing tons of people and dogs of a million different breeds.

Grant came to a stop in front of a small building. He looked up, reading the sign aloud. ” ‘One More Chance.’ ” He turned to me. “Wonder what that’s about?”

I shrugged. “Maybe we should find out.”

 I wasn’t quite sure what awaited me inside the building. Considering the business’ name, several things came to mind, each new option different from the last. Maybe we’d step inside to find a bunch of rescue animals, staring at us with wide, sad eyes from inside their cages as they waited to find a new home. Maybe it was a rehabilitation facility, filled with ex-inmates serving the public with a smile. Maybe it was a religious thing, giving the many mortals of NYC a convenient place to confess their sins.

When we walked inside, all of my many guesses proved to be incorrect. All that awaited us was a red haired woman talking on a cell phone behind her desk, surrounded by racks of clothes and shelves of random knick knacks. As it would turn out, One More Chance was a thrift shop.

The woman noticed Grant and I’s presence, the smile fading from her face as she spoke into her phone. “I think I’m gonna have to let you go,” she said. “I’ve got customers.”

The person on the other end said something that caused her to giggle and blush. “Alright. Love you, too. Bye-bye.” She snapped the phone shut and placed it on the desk, giving Grant and I a broad grin. “Welcome to One More Chance, guys!”

She stepped out from behind the desk, making her way towards us. “Can I help you with anything?”

When I saw her up close, it was all I could do to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor.

Barely hanging on to her curvy frame were a pair of oversized overalls. Despite the fact that they were way too big on her, they might not have been so bad if they weren’t covered in a horrible purple and orange checkered print. To put it simply, it looked like Halloween had thrown up all over her.

And I worried about Grant’s clothes.

Unfortunately, she quickly caught on to my gaping. Luckily for me, she took it in stride, laughing as she looked down at her own attire. “Oh, those,” she said, as if she were just now noticing them. She looked back up at us, unphased. “It’s this thing I do for business. I take the most hideous article of clothing I can find out of the donation pile, and wear it for the day. It works pretty well, both as a conversation starter and a sales tactic.” She grinned at me. “Would you happen to be interested in them?”

I was trying to come up with a tactful way to tell her I wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot pole when Grant spoke up. “What happens if you don’t sell what you’re wearing?”

She smiled at him as if she was hoping someone would ask this question. “I take it home to spice things up a little.” She turned to me with a wink. “It makes the boyfriend laugh.”

I continued to stare at her blankly, still unsure of what to say after she had explained why she was wearing something so horrible. I wasn’t sure what I found more alarming: the overalls themselves, or the fact that she had tried to sell them to me.

She didn’t seem to take note of my silence, extending a hand to the pair of us, still grinning. “I’m Cherry,” she told us. “Now, you guys feel free to look around, and holler for me if you need help with anything.” With that, she sashayed back to her desk, hideous overalls swishing along with her.

Though I would have been perfectly happy to walk out and go somewhere else right then, Grant stared at me with sad puppy eyes as soon as I turned toward the door. “She seemed nice,” he mumbled. “I’d feel kind of guilty if we just walked out without buying anything. Can we at least look?”

I sighed. “Fine.” I motioned towards Cherry, who was once again busy with her cell phone. “But we aren’t going to buy anything like those. Got it?”

Grant grinned. “No problem.”

Though it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind for our first stop, I’d be lying if I said that digging around in One More Chance wasn’t fun. I flipped through the racks of clothes as Grant examined the shelves of books and other assorted items. We ended up messing around a lot more than I had planned. As it would turn out, thrift shops are gold mines for amusing oddities. I’d model an extremely outdated hat to make Grant laugh, to which he’d respond by pointing out a bizarre figurine to me.

In the end, we returned to Cherry with a couple of books and a small snow globe, still laughing at some of the strange book titles we had come across.

Sensing our presence, Cherry put her phone down with a grin. “Sounds like you two had fun.”

“Oh, we did,” Grant confirmed, fervently nodding. “Lots of fun.”

Though I wasn’t quite sure what it was, something about the way he said that sent me into another fit of giggles, clutching my side ever-so-slightly. Grant joined me, nearly dropping the books he was holding.

Cherry looked on, obviously amused by our antics. Obviously, she knew that she wasn’t one to judge. “I can see that.”

She checked the price tags on each of our items, tapping a couple of digits on the keys of the cash register before announcing our total. I pulled the necessary funds from my wallet and handed them to her. She deposited them into the register’s open drawer, completing our transaction with a satisfying ‘ding.’

She handed Grant our now-bagged purchases, giving me the receipt. “There you go,” she chirped. “Thanks for shopping with us, guys. You’re more than welcome to come back.”

“We will,” Grant said.

I nodded in agreement, tucking the receipt into my pocket.

Cherry smiled, waving at us as we left the store. We waved back, taking back to the streets.

By the time Grant and I returned to the hotel, we had successfully spent the entire afternoon roaming the streets of New York. We dropped by various shops and stopped at various landmarks, ending the day by indulging in hot dogs and pretzels from one of the many stands lining the sidewalks.

As eventful as the day turned out to be, I still ended up having trouble sleeping once it was long since over. I supposed that life just worked that way: it was just so easy for an unexpectedly pleasant day to be ruined by the annoyance of insomnia.

I roused myself from the couch I was attempting to sleep on, only to accidentally step on the bag from One More Chance.

Groaning in frustration, I picked the bag up, inspecting our purchases for any damage. Luckily, nothing seemed to have been affected, including the snow globe.

I pulled out the globe, inspecting it. It had apparently come from a gift shop, judging by the fact that the sticker was still on it. It was obvious that it was Grant’s pick due to how painfully tourist-y it was, two plastic skyscrapers trapped behind the plastic dome, surrounded by water and tiny white flakes. At the base of the globe were the four words that just about every wanderlust-infected dreamer longed to hear: Welcome to New York.

I held the globe in the palm of my hand, cradling it as if it were something exceptionally fragile. I read those words over, their impact hitting me like a punch in the gut.

Amy had been prepared to hear those words from the time she read the address on that envelope. Her whole life changed then; from the moment Amy learned that she had been accepted into Columbia University, the course for her new life was set in stone. Much to my dismay, this life no longer seemed to involve me.

Amy and I had always been close. From the time I was born, we were two peas in a pod: I was her baby sister, forever loving and loyal, and she was my cool older sister, my role model and protector. Even after we got older and Angeline came along, our bond remained strong, something only we could truly understand. We were like twins, despite the four years between us; where Amy went, I followed, happy to be her mirror image.

From the time Amy entered her senior year, I knew that the time she would leave for college was fast approaching. Of course, I knew she would no longer be living at home, but I automatically assumed that she wouldn’t go too far. As ambitious as Amy was, I knew that she cared about her family more than any sort of degree; she wouldn’t leave us for some school several hours away. There was no way she’d be capable of doing such a thing.

But that letter on the kitchen counter proved otherwise. Come August, Amy would be moving to New York City, and everyone was so very happy about it. Everyone except for me.

My big sister wasn’t supposed to be in New York while I was starting high school. She wasn’t supposed to be chasing some stupid Creative Writing diploma while I was supposed to be talking to her about boys and cliques and all the controversial novels I was reading in English class. It just wasn’t possible; she was Amy. She was always there. It just wouldn’t be natural for her to suddenly be gone.

She quickly caught on to the fact that I was upset about the whole thing. Instead of rethinking her decision like I had hoped, she assured me that she’d send me lots of pictures while she was there and visit every time an important holiday rolled around. Though it wasn’t what I wanted her to do, I was glad that she at least seemed to notice that I was iffy about the whole thing. No one else seemed to care.

From the time she left, she fulfilled her promise. She captured her life in slightly blurry Polaroid pictures with the camera our parents had given her for her birthday. Almost every week, we received a package full of pictures of Amy and her new friends, moments captured during their escapades when they weren’t in class. Though she wrote a note for the entire family to fill us in, there was almost always a smaller package included for my eyes only. It was within those that she went into detail about said escapades, even those that our parents might not want to know about. Then, underneath the letter, would be a special gift all my own. In those packages, she tried to make it up to me.

The first time she sent one, a snow globe almost exactly like that one was the gift included. My fourteen year old self felt a surge of hope as she held the souvenir in her hands, reading those four words over and over. Welcome to New York.

Back then, those words were a promise. I was convinced that, after I got out of school, I’d go join Amy in New York. We’d live in a penthouse that overlooked the city, somehow making tons of money as we looked down at the cars passing below us, laughing and eating bonbons. We’d be just like we were before, only without Mom and Dad bossing us around and Angeline pouting every time she didn’t get one of our inside jokes. Everything would be perfect, and we’d never be apart again.

Though that never ended up happening, I can’t help but feel a spark of possibility looking at the snow globe now. Maybe it was a sign from Amy, telling me that I could still experience the city as the land of hope I once thought it was. Or maybe it was a bad omen, telling me that this trip would end just as horribly as that dream did.

In the end, I decided it was coincidence, putting the globe back in the One More Chance bag and pushing it aside. I opened my suitcase, locating the bag of pill bottles beneath a stack of spare clothes. Figuring it was my last resort, I poured a couple of sleeping pills into my hand, tilting my head back and swallowing them dry.

Before retiring to the couch once again, I crept around Grant, asleep in the bed I allowed him to have, to the door that lead out to the balcony. I opened the sliding glass door as quietly as I could. I stepped out into the crisp air of the night. To my surprise, it seemed to have gone from pleasantly cool to cold, the wind biting at the skin of my arm.

Much higher up than the balcony of my apartment had been, it was nearly impossible for me to make out my own car in the dark, or anyone else’s, for that matter. Even when it was almost midnight, traffic was bustling below me, horns honking, people trying to run across the intersection before the traffic light changed. As always, the city lights shined brightly, the symbol of freedom I had so strongly yearned for all those years ago. All I could focus on now, however, was how empty the sky seemed, leaving both me and the skyline incomplete.

How sad it is when something you’ve waited for your entire life turns out to be such a letdown.

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