His eyes looked more vacant than normal. With each longing stare towards him, Robert knew that they could never be together. It was always a case of forbidden, unrequited, involuntary, irrevocable love. The two of them would never cross paths, and he was very much aware of that exact fact. For every next step Robert mechanically planned out in his head, he realized that this was the last time they would see each other. It had been the best 72 hours of his life, but Dmitri wouldn’t know that—he possibly couldn’t.
Robert began packing up his messenger bag, an olive green color his mother thought would suit his “aura” well: earthy, deep, grounded, and firm, just like the way he was raised. Ever since he was a young boy, his mother would remind him just about every day to be strong, and stay guarded. Never trust those with whom you come into contact, only those who you know. Family is key, and don’t make eye contact with strangers as you walk down the street. Mystery is important when trying to keep your relationships interesting, always use a firm handshake when meeting new people, only smoke alone. If you must smoke with someone else, only use Winstons. And don’t share unless specifically asked to share. That’s just purely a faux pas.
“Let me know if there’s anything else we need to do before submitting,” Robert blurted, the words getting stuck behind his tongue, as if it were barbed wire.
“I think it’s probably fine for now.” Dmitri’s response was bland, reminding Robert of the bitter aftertaste of coffee left in his mouth. Everything felt dry and snippy.
All Robert could bare to utter was a sigh and a half-hearted smile. His foot had fallen asleep inside his boots, which were tied slightly too tight. He continued to pack up his bag; first the laptop, then the worn-out moleskin notebook, brown and shabby to match the color of his untamed hair. Taking a break from packing up, he scratched the back of his neck, trying to avoid locking eyes with Dmitri, an experience he knew only too well at this point. Fuck, time for a haircut. Again. As he ran his fingers through the curly locks that grazed the nape of his neck, he straightened his spine and picked up his coffee cup, which, of course, he brought from home. Never trust a coffee house with mugs wider than the muffins in the glass case at the counter. A good tidbit of knowledge to remember.
And with that, he gathered his things, watching to see if Dmitri would acknowledge his presence one last time. Dmitri’s eyes remained locked on his computer screen, which appeared to be asleep, despite his fervent focus.
“Well, I guess this is it.”
He was still waiting for a response. Still.
“I believe that’s true.”
“Alright, I’ll be on my way, then. Thanks, again.”
Walking away, Robert felt a pit in his stomach. Probably just hungry again, he assumed. Coffee always did this to him. He looked at his watch, the face laughing at him manically. Even time knew that Robert had overstayed his welcome. He promised himself he wouldn’t look back, for his own sanity.
Just the Monday before, he had received the call. His eighth assignment for The New Yorker.
“Keep in mind, Mr. Andrews, that you won’t be working alone. This should feel more like a Foster-Wallace piece, but as if he wrote with a partner.”
“And who is my mystery co-writer, if I may ask?”
“We haven’t assigned anyone yet, but they should reach out to you within the next couple of days to get started,” Colin droned. His tone was wet and sloppy, but each word had a depth to it. Robert appreciated his ironic condescendence.
Once he hung up the phone, Robert rubbed his right eye with the bottom of his palm, the pressure making him see spots once releasing. The dimly lit Edison bulb that shone on the edge of his desk seemed to undulate with light, getting brighter and darker with the movement of the wind. With each whistle that echoed through the nighttime air, Robert felt himself getting sleepier and sleepier. After getting up from the desk he coined his “office”, he grabbed his watered-down whisky snifter, poured the remnants out in the sink, and slinked off to bed.
The next morning, he knew, was expected to be a long and arduous day. A new partner, a new assignment, a new everything, none of which he particularly enjoyed. His life continued to drone on until he sunk deeper beneath his silky, 400-thread count satin sheets, falling gently asleep to the flickering of his alarm clock.
The phone rang, once again—this time, however, earlier. It sounded more alarming than it should’ve, causing him to jolt out of his deeply dissatisfying slumber and slump over. The matte gray clock that sat on the edge of the nightstand read five thirty.
“H-h-hello?” Robert coughed, a little bit of phlegm loosening in his throat.
“Hi, sorry to bother you so early. These time zones tend to fuck—pardon me—mess me up.” The mysterious voice on the other end of the phone was rich, full-bodied like a bottle of cabernet…enticing.
“My name is Dmitri Emerson; I work part-time for The Atlantic. I was told we would be collaborating on the newest New Yorker piece together. David Foster Wallace-esque, yes? Something along those lines. Anyway, I understand it’s abrupt, but I figured we should get started right away. Our deadline is already creeping up on us.”
“I, um, agree. Absolutely,” Robert retorted, his lips getting chapped as his eyes glazed over.
The two of them proceeded to schedule a meeting. A local coffee shop, seven o’clock sharp. The early bird gets the worm. Another one of Dmitri’s platitudes that Robert would soon learn to find uncomfortably endearing.
The next couple of days sped past Robert, like the strong winds that blew the overgrown sycamore tree leaves he drove by on his way to the coffee shop. Simultaneously, each moment he spent with Dmitri oozed on and on, every minute seeming to last for hours on end. He soaked up Dmitri’s icy demeanor, only because he could tell that there was much to be uncovered that laid deep beneath the surface.
And thus, they began to work.
They immediately sat down at the table furthest from the door and next to the glass window stained with old rain droplets—Dmitri said it would be the best table for “optimal productivity.” Once Robert pulled out his chair, straightened his jacket, and exhaled all the air that had filled his balloon-like chest, he opened up his laptop and proceeded to type.
To Robert, Dmitri was like a crystal: delicate, yet dangerous if not handled properly. He was to be treated like a safe, which was clearly never going to be opened. Not by Robert, that’s for sure. And he knew that. But, it was just enough to see him. Smell him. Pretend Dmitri trusted him. Think that maybe, just maybe, Dmitri would remember these few days in the same way that Robert would…an unlikely story, Robert remembered.
It was silent. Not a word was spoken other than a simple, “did you see that op-ed on Huff Po?” or, “try editing the sentence right above the paragraph break—it seems choppier than you might’ve intended.” Everything felt systematic, almost as if they were machines, made to produce work after work, day in and day out. And, even though Dmitri kept his lips shut tight while he typed fervently on his outdated, clunky laptop, his eyes reminded Robert that these were the moments he should cherish.
He never fully disclosed anything about himself. He was enigmatic. Well, they both were. The hours melted past as the keys on their computers wore out with the mighty touch of each fingertip. How was it already the next day? They had left the coffee shop, clearly. They had, hadn’t they? For Robert, at least, time seemed to meld together. It didn’t matter, however. Dmitri mattered. Dmitri mattered.
Now the moments passed with extreme rapidity. The deadline quickly approached, creeping up on the two of them, tapping them on the shoulder and laughing. Their time together was coming to an end, and Robert needed to come to terms with that. But how was he to let Dmitri go? Just like that? No goodbye, no nothing. They were just writing partners, nothing more. Nothing more, nothing more, nothing more, Robert repeated to himself.
“It looks pretty good; don’t you think?” Dmitri uttered suddenly.
“I would say so.”
“Well then, we best be on our way here. No time to waste.”
“I would say so.”
And, just as quick as it had begun, it was over. Dmitri scratched behind his ear with his fingernail, staring blankly in front of him. The smell of cold coffee and brisk winter air lingered all around them. The New Yorker received the piece within the next 36 minutes.