Night Rules

By Paula Snow

She walks quickly to the subway entrance, its wide steps digging down to the underworld, half a block from her parents’ high-rise apartment in Brooklyn. Without hesitation, she plunges down into the brightly lit cavern below, a hundred lights reflecting on the stark-white tiled walls in sharp juxtaposition to the darkness above. 

Four stops later, and with a river in between her and home, she comes up again. Curly long hair tumbling down her back, she is barefoot, beaded and bangled, and very young to be out at night on the dirty streets of that massive east coast city. A city that bears no resemblance to the apple it is named for. One thing she is sure of: if there are rules, she is going to break them. Simple. Easy as a long drink in a dark bar.

Any parent would cringe at the lengths she went to, right?  Perhaps her parents never knew, or perhaps they couldn’t cope and simply turned away from the challenge. Free of normal boundaries, pushing off the starting line like a sprinter, hurtling away from unspoken rules, speeding toward the edge, she is one head-toss away from danger.

She high-steps through the asphalt and concrete jungle, no destination in mind, no oasis in sight, while the harsh bath of tall buzzing street lamps wash the night with a bleak and gnawing hunger. Here she seeks adventure. No soft landings in this, the playground of her tender years.

Clearly, she knew what was right. Though no parent led the charge, and perhaps that was the problem, or part of it. Nothing seemed worth doing other than to push, pull, and pry away boundaries. She led the chase to find any person, substance, idea or thing that would fit between her legs or knock the thoughts from her unhappy mind. The chase, best at night, was never-ending.

She met a man, barely older than a boy, at the coffeehouse, Figaro. Three doors down and across MacDougal Street from her school, it was over the line into a different world. She drank Tamarindos, not coffee. She had long since discovered that men would look back, if she invited them to, and she could take her pick of the room, and she enjoyed that power. Together she and the man-boy plotted a course for the night, starting at the doorways of the cafes that had live music or poetry readings after the dusk had melted into the streetlight-dotted summer night.

As it grew late, she lost him, deliberately. She knew what he wanted, and she didn’t want to play that game with him. The hot night was full of pungent odors, of garbage, of ganja, of booze. She took the subway again, this time uptown, and pointed her feet into forbidden territory, hesitantly at first, and then more surely, like a small city cat moving toward bleak but familiar hunting grounds. The smells of Central Park, sharp-pointed green smells, palpable hints of things she couldn’t yet identify, replaced the downtown, man-made sensory reek. And those paved park lanes, dipping now and again through sinister, dimly lit tunnels, were the pathways to the muses that called her into the tangle of the midtown garden of earthly delights.

If she could have escaped to the country, she would have — make no mistake. This route was a dangerous second-best.

In the tunnels, her heart beat faster, thumping hard in her small chest. Emerging into the deserted cadence of green-glow dark sky behind, maple leaves were all spread out above; after all, they owned the place, didn’t they? Farther north, there were horses and horse trails. Somehow she knew better than to venture off the wide, paved walks. She moved quietly, from lamp to lamp, like a moth. Were there night bird sounds or crickets? I can’t now recall.

Her time in the country came later. At nineteen she arrived on a small west coast island. And there, the first-growth jungle called to her, exactly as she had been called to the asphalt and concrete darkness where all hell should have reigned yet somehow didn’t.  In the forest, her late-night strolls were rich and deep as velvet cloth, folding back and forth on itself so any tunnel might lead to a different way out.

All that she had ever wanted was to be what she was not.

Sustained with half-crazed-high-on-some-drug determination and energy, she swayed through a stand of the most majestic fir and cedar trees one could ever hope to encounter. These towering sentinels were leftovers from the first massive cull: sub-standard, and yet truly magnificent in their three-or four-headed, twisted, gnarly immensity. The trees talked to her at night, creaking and groaning in a language she tried to decipher but never could. She made up names for them, and they became friends. It wasn’t easy finding them; this forest had no streetlights, and the tall trees obscured most of the moon or starlight. But a torch would have been cheating, and so she sensed her way with her feet, reliving that old sensation of almost-fear, her heart thumping at a sound just offstage. It might not be a mugger this time, but a cougar that would leap out from an unseen lair.

Since then, what? A hundred or more days in pubs, more in an office. There were hospitals, nurseries, ferries, cars, planes, buses, and trains. Nighttime, daytime. All became so normal. These days she thinks before she acts, at least most days. At least she hopes so. And still and always wonders how the persistent memories of those nighttime sojourns inform the thoughts, feelings, and mental patterns that create her now daily, aging, manifest routines.

The siren-studded night no longer calls. Coffee in the morning, fire lit, waiting for sunrise on a winter morning, she ticks off the boxes, and remembers as the early mist slowly claws itself apart, those days when nighttime ruled.

Musepaper Story Prize #58

Paula Snow lives in the mountain town of Nelson, British Columbia, and has come late to the art of writing. Her past life experiences include cooking in remote camps, riding freight trains around the country, and trying to tame large unruly tracts of land. Her stories are born from dusty memories found in cardboard boxes.

* This will be the author’s first work to appear in print. *

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