A Homecoming in Brower Park

Elia is finishing the night shift at the hospital, her petite body exhausted from the work of the past 12 hours. She peels off her scrubs, leaving them in a pile on the locker room floor. She puts on her street clothes and thinks about her current patients: the young girl whose foot was severed in a bicycle accident, the comatose father of two who fell off a ladder while building a tree house, the infant boy injured in a freak crib collapse. As their faces flash in her mind, her heart hurts for their loved ones.

Most of her colleagues try not to dwell on the families of the injured. They don’t think of the pieces that are left to be reassembled when the patients’ wounds have healed.  But these thoughts incessantly haunt Elia. She has never mastered the art of delivering bad news. She gets choked up when speaking to wives and fathers and siblings. She cries in the bathroom and always carries eye drops to try to hide the evidence. She behaves this way not solely out of empathy but also as a result of the searing loneliness that comes from knowing she will never have the love of family as her patients do. She will never have someone to weep at her bedside.

Elia stares at her tired face in the mirror, noticing the first signs of wrinkles appearing around her lips and forehead. She’s only 28, but her eyes carry the life of a woman more than twice her age. She brushes her sweaty dark hair back into a ponytail, washes her face with cold water and antibacterial soap and quickly swishes minty mouthwash through her teeth. As she normally does when it is late and she is tired and alone, Elia allows her mind to obsess over all the lost connections in her life: the ex-boyfriends who came second to her medical career, the friends she lost over petty arguments, co-workers she had drinks with once but never again. These are the people who might have taken the place of family.

She barely registers her bleary-eyed, one-hour commute on the subway from Harlem into Brooklyn. She finally arrives at her starkly furnished one bedroom apartment in the wealthiest area of Park Slope at a quarter to six in the morning, drops into bed and falls asleep. Her mind cycles through peaceless dreams.

She awakes around one in the afternoon. It’s Friday, her day off. Usually this would mean the gym, chores and a movie on the couch, but earlier in the week she had agreed to volunteer at a food shelter in Crown Heights. She tries to go to her father’s childhood neighborhood at least once a month, visiting his synagogue or the kosher factory where her grandfather worked. It’s her effort to hold on to the heritage that runs in her blood but which no longer has a presence for her on earth.

She gets out of bed and takes a quick shower, pulls on a pink and green striped t-shirt, a grey cardigan and tattered jeans and swipes her face with a bit of concealer, purple eye shadow and peach blush.

When Elia arrives at the food bank she is greeted by hyper-friendly volunteer coordinators. “Hello! Thank you for coming! Please take a name tag! Orientation’s in a minute!” Elia dutifully fills in her name tag and fixes it above her right breast. Less than 15 minutes later she is scooping macaroni and cheese onto plates held by hands linked to apathetic faces. Some grumble “thank you,” but most shuffle along to the next station without making eye contact. After the novelty of her post has worn off her mind starts to wander. A sharp voice shocks her back to reality.

“Oy, beautiful. How ‘bout I get anotha’ scoop?” said a strangely handsome yet bedraggled man of about 40. He is looking at Elia with strong, green, laughing eyes.

“Ehm, uh… I think one is the maximum, sir. I apologize.”

“D’ya think anyone’ll notice?”

Elia looks for one of the coordinators for help, but they are distracted by a brewing fight in the opposite corner.  She replies, “Well, we serve until five thirty. If you come back then and there’s some left, you can have it.”

“Ya betta’ save some, in ‘at case.” The man winks at her and walks on with a confidence and dignity that the other patrons lack. Elia instantly regrets not giving him what he had asked for and wishes she could call him back, but doesn’t want to get into any trouble.

She finishes the rest of her shift constantly on the lookout for the man with the green eyes and wild blonde hair. She has in fact saved a scoop of the mac and cheese for him and she knows the rock in her stomach won’t cease until he has it. At 5:27 the man appears at the door to the shelter.

“Missed me, eh?” he says as Elia’s face relaxes into a grin and she hands over the now cold and congealed cheesy concoction.

“I aim to please,” she responds.

“So, where ya off ta’ now? Boyfriend pickin’ ya up?”

“Ah, no. I’ll probably just head home.”

“How ‘bout a walk? D’ya know Crown Heights?” The man takes two small bites of the mac and cheese and leaves the rest on the counter.

“Ehm…”

“Oh, come on. A gal as beautiful as you shouldn’ be spendin’ Friday night alone.”

Elia has to admit to herself that she is grateful for the insistent flattery, even if it is coming from a man who seems as desperate for company as she is. She does love Crown Heights on a Friday evening, watching the wives and mothers scramble to get their gefilte fish and challah bread before sundown. She sighs and agrees to a short walk. The unlikely pair leaves the shelter in silence while Elia searches for neutral topics to engage her companion with. To her relief, he begins speaking first.

“Why d’ya like hangin’ around a place like this for?” he asks.

“Ehm, uh… I guess I like helping people?” Elia responds, anxious about seeming inconsiderate or privileged.

“Oy, those people needta start helpin’ themselves,” he answers, without a hint of irony in his voice. “I like helpin’ people too, ya know.”

“Oh? How do you help people?”

“Well, I find out what they want and I give it to ‘em.”

“I see. Sort of like a genie?” Elia lets out a near-silent squeak, meant to be a laugh.

“Hrmph, I s’pose,” the man says.

They continue to walk, shops starting to close their shutters, as Elia contemplates her companion. She realizes he smells like a mixture of cigar smoke and soap, and it’s not at all unpleasant.

“So, what d’ya want in life?” The man has broken the comfortable silence.

“Oh, well. You know… the usual things.”

“No such thing as usual things.”

The sun is nearly gone from the sky and the streets are empty.

“Ya got nowhere to be?” the man asks. “Shabbat dinner?”

“No… no Shabbat for me anymore. How did you know I–”

“Yer name.”

“Ah,” Elia blushes and becomes flustered, ripping the tag off her shirt. She realizes she doesn’t know the man’s name, but she doesn’t ask.

“No family?” the man presses further.

“Erm, no. Well yes, but they have all passed.”

“Passed?”

“Yes… car accident.”

“I see.” The man nods, unsurprised.

Not wanting to say any more, Elia shivers with the evening chill and says, “I should probably head home now.”

“Oh? We were just getting somewhere.”

Confused and suddenly wanting to leave, Elia becomes agitated. “I really just want to go home. It was nice speaking with you.”

“Can ya have home with no family?”

“Sorry?” Elia asks, shocked at the man’s brazenness.

“Yer family. They’re not home. So where ya rushin’ off to?”

“Uh… I… I really must go.”

They are now in the middle of Brower Park with no other soul in sight, only the sound of swings creaking in the wind. Elia’s confusion has escalated to terror and her instinct tells her to run. Before her legs can respond the man has grabbed her by the arm. “I can give ya what’ya want,” he says, his deep voice echoing off the trees. He reaches into his coat pocket with his free hand and pulls out a switchblade.

Elia’s screams remain trapped in her chest. The man plunges the blade into her heart. Elia crumples to the ground, a narrow river of blood snaking through the fallen leaves beneath her. In her final seconds of clarity she can feel the knots of loneliness in her stomach melting. She dies with her eyes open, filled with relief.

Nobody realizes she’s missing until the sun sets on Saturday and she is two hours late for the night shift.

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