After Sean died, he moved to New York City. It made sense, he thought. His parents had always said everyone in the city was dead on the inside, so Sean figured maybe he’d feel at home there. He found a tiny, overpriced apartment, and his cousin managed to get him a job waiting tables at an Indian restaurant in Brooklyn, and between that and the little money his parents had given him he managed to scrape by. At first, it hadn’t been any better. When he moved to the city, it was September, and the streets were packed and smelled strongly of copper. It was hot, so the signs on the bank buildings told him, but of course, Sean couldn’t tell. The people were rude, and they stared at him, singling him out and making it clear that they knew he didn’t belong. A homeless man on the street had once followed him for two blocks, calling him Tom. Tom was his father’s name, but Sean tried not to dwell on that experience. His first two months were miserable, but then winter came, and the looks stopped. He finally belonged.
He started going to Central Park every day. He’d hop the number three train up to 96th street, and enjoy every second of it. Sometimes he’d get so absorbed in the train ride that he’d miss his stop, at which point he would have to get out, cross the busy platform, and take the train traveling in the opposite direction back to 96th street. He never minded, though. If he were completely honest with himself, he’d admit that sometimes he missed the stops on purpose, because during those short trips, the subway car shook and rattled and juked in a way that Sean found familiar and comforting. It took him a few days to place it, then one day it hit him. It was like being back on the ice. Sometimes, the train would take a curve in the track in such a way that Sean could almost feel the blades under his feet again. The other passengers gave him odd looks that would have bothered the old Sean, but the new Sean reveled in it. Every skeptical glance was simply a reminder that he was alive.
It became a ritual, the only one that he still observed. There’d been a time in his life when rituals consumed him; when nothing seemed random and everything was premeditated. Sean knew, on some hard-to-explain instinctual level, that he could remove the element of chance from his everyday life, provided he repeated a certain set of motions regularly, like wearing the same briefs under his uniform every game, or the way he touched every mirror in his car before starting it. His mom had gotten him evaluated for OCD when he was seven. His dad had introduced him to hockey around the same time.
When he started playing, he’d had a ritual for that, too, of course. Kiss the gloves, kiss the stick, and kiss the helmet. The jersey didn’t get kissed, nor did the rest of the pads. The way Sean figured it, if he was good enough, he wouldn’t need them. If no one could touch him, it wouldn’t matter how well-protected he was, and besides, by that point it was too late; it was already a ritual, and changing it could prove to be disastrous. His coaches told his father he flew on the ice, and his father had told them “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” By the time he was lapping adults at the rink, his mom discovered the psychiatrist they’d hired to test him had vanished.
“Why would he just up and leave?” she asked Sean’s father one night, long after Sean was supposed to have fallen asleep. He crouched on the fourth stair from the top, not low enough to be seen, but just low enough to be able to overhear their conversations so long as they didn’t whisper.
“Maybe Sean was too crazy,” Sean’s dad had joked. “Maybe he drove the guy to jump off a cliff or something.”
Sean went back to his room, but didn’t sleep that night. Balding men kept jumping off cliffs every time he shut his eyes.
His mom gave up. She decided to leave well enough alone, and Sean got to keep his rituals. He was allowed to run the shower for exactly ten minutes before getting in (the stopwatch became a permanent fixture in the second floor bathroom), he was allowed to eat his dinner in the exact same pattern (in descending chromatic scale, though he was not allowed to eat the same meal every night), and he was even allowed to keep the exact amount of change in his pocket (fifty-five cents) at all times. His parents figured, “it’s Buffalo; what’s normal, anyway?”
Now Sean only had the one ritual, and it suited him just fine. Back home, there was a two-stop Amtrak train that ran through downtown Buffalo, but it was a smooth, quick ride, and not at all like the subway he had grown to love since coming to New York. In a lot of ways, Sean thought, the subway was like God. It was impossible to know the intentions of the train, but people still got on every day, trusting their lives to it, praying that it would keep them safe and get them where they were going. He recognized that it was a small thing to care so much about, especially since he lived in a city full of people that took it for granted and talked endlessly about all the ways it could be better, but to Sean it was perfect, absolutely perfect, just the way it was.
So on the morning of November 30, in the bitter cold, when all the other New Yorkers were huddled in the warmth of their beds and blankets and loved ones, Sean walked the twenty-two blocks between his apartment and the subway station only to discover that he was the only person in the whole borough trying to go anywhere. That realization made him feel proud, and daring, and he boarded the train same as he always did. He took a seat in one of the hard plastic chairs, one right next to a window, and closed his eyes. He leaned his head against it and enjoyed the cool glass against his skin, but the steamy breath that roiled out of his mouth and fogged up the window made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t feel it on his skin, even though his mind told him he should be able to. Something failed to connect, the same way it always did.
He had been surprised to learn that, despite the blizzard, he still had physical therapy at five. Dr. Stanton had called him that morning, to confirm that he was still coming in.
“They tell me it’s cold outside,” he’d said, amusement evident in his tone. “So I’ll understand if you can’t make it.”
Sean could. The Harwick Institute was fairly new, but was becoming well-known for their advances in the world of nerve damage rehabilitation. Sean’s doctor had recommended it to his parents after the accident, but it was all the way in New York City. His dad had been against it, and for once his mom agreed. The city was too far away, too dangerous, and he was still too weak. Sean disagreed, and finally talked them into letting him put off college until he’d gone through the program. The hockey scholarship was gone by this point, anyway, so it was the only move that really made sense. Get a job, get some experience, save some money, then go to school.
An unintelligible voice crackled over the subway’s PA system and then shut off. Sean couldn’t understand what it was saying, but he knew this was his stop.
He hiked his old Sabers parka up higher around his shoulders. It was just a formality now, on two counts. One, he didn’t need it, and two, he hadn’t watched a hockey game in almost a year. Instead of having ‘game night’ with his dad, he went to night classes, and besides, watching it hurt more than trying to walk. As thrilling and exciting as the games were to watch, they couldn’t hold a candle to actually being out there, flying down the ice with nothing under his feet. That frictionless glide that he never got tired of, even on the rough ice of the pond near his house, where he would sometimes go to skate when there was no one around. Days like today in New York City.
On days like this, days when he felt like he was the only living thing left in the city, he liked to imagine that it was all some big secret between the city and himself. The trees and rocks refused to face the way the world had become, and so instead sulked under their thick blankets. They demanded change, protesting tempestuously in their silence, raging against the seasonal machine that left them tired and dying. Sean remembered that feeling all too well, and when he did his chest ached with phantom pain and memory. He felt the spreading cold that slowly wrapped his mind up in wax paper and sequestered it away from the rest of his body, and the invisible, multitudinous clawed hands that dragged down on his eyelids, and worst of all, the sensation of all of his synapses firing more and more erratically, like a half-loaded pistol, forcing all of his thoughts to stumble through impenetrable fog banks just to reach his frontal lobe.
Now Sean always felt cold, so he liked to wander through the city on days when streetlights and storefronts were blotted out by walls of white. All the way down 104th, to Central Park.