A painting of three young women who look like they’re dancing.
The Dance — multimedia printed on Arches paper. by M.A. Schwartz

You think you know how your life will go: a good college then a successful career and somewhere in the middle you meet your soul mate and everything fits together so perfectly nothing could separate it back into its original parts.

But that is just a dream. A fantasy. I know exactly how my life will work because she tells me. Flickering like bad video, she reveals things about my life, its unraveling, but doesn’t give anything away, except the future. And only the parts she cares about.

“When you get to the corner of Chrystie and Houston, stop. Don’t walk. Even if it’s a red light. Just wait for the next one.”

“What will happen if I don’t?”

“Something bad. Believe me.”

I keep brushing my teeth hoping she will disappear now and leave me to use the bathroom with some privacy, but she doesn’t. Just sits there staring. At least she isn’t talking. She kept me up all night talking. About Mom and Dad and their divorce and everything after full of poverty and insecurity. They ruined my life and hers.

“I wouldn’t have to be here if they were normal,” she said and I just nodded, turning over with my back to her, hoping that would stop her. But it didn’t. It never does.

Years ago I would have tested her cryptic warning about the red light. I would have walked out into that intersection against it. But two broken bones and a mugging have taught me to obey. She only gives warnings when I am in trouble, when things could go terribly wrong for both of us. I don’t ask the obvious questions because she won’t let me: How does she know these things? How is she still the same when I am changing things or is this how it has always been — she with her own static-y ghost nagging her wherever she is.

The flickering gets worse, erupting into white static noise and I try not to look even though she is standing in front of the only full-length mirror in the apartment. There is no reflection so I know it is a hallucination. I may be crazy, but she is still always right.

I look through her perfectly cut dark suit covering her thin frame and expensive hair at my ill-fitting corduroys, cheap t-shirt and sneakers. You would think with her bank account she could afford better reception. Sighing, she shakes her head with disapproval or maybe disgust and disappears in a loud electric crackle.

She doesn’t follow me onto the subway so I know I am probably safe even though the train stops underground for thirty minutes in the thick, terrified heat and I am standing between two enormous men who smell like bad cologne and sweat. I say probably because she has withheld information before about dangerous things.

When I asked her later she said it was for my own good. It was necessary. But everything she does or says is necessary.

She doesn’t show up again until the morning staff meeting, a distracting flicker and heckling sneer behind my partner, Mark.

“He’s going to fuck you over,” she says in that annoying sing-song way that is supposed to be cute, but isn’t.

I ignore her, so she starts to say it again.

“Shutup!” I hiss and everyone turns to look at me. “Sorry,” I mutter and sink down into my seat still glaring at her. She is laughing now and Mark is staring so I look away again.

“…and Mark finally brought me a concept that has legs,” my creative director, Gordon, says and I feel something ugly twist inside me. She just smiles that I-told-you-so smile as my own crude outline appears on the wall. “And he also made sure to say that Erica was a huge help with the initial idea.” A weak smile in my direction and for the first time I notice that Mark is dressed a lot like Gordon.

I flip through my tattered journal to the page full of notes and rambling that lead to the concept on the screen above us all.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask angrily when I finally reach the safety and relative privacy of my office.

She just lifts an eyebrow and stares at her perfect manicure. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. It’s not like it’s the first time.”

She is right, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I needed to bounce ideas off someone and he is my partner. And the only one who can understand where I am going with these crazy ideas that eventually evolve into the holy grail of ‘concept’. But if she had just been there. If she had simply stood behind him with that smug sneer, I would have stopped. I would have known. But she didn’t.

“You could have done something. Now he’ll get promoted and I’ll get shit again.” I whine and wonder exactly when my own voice got so desperate and annoying.

“Yeah, or maybe you’ll actually grow a spine,” she says coolly and a line of interference tracks across her face. So that’s it. It has all been some sort of lesson. “But you won’t.” She shifts slightly, her pale hands coming to rest in her lap. “Yet.”

“Bitch.” I mutter and feel the ugly thing twist and flutter inside again, but she just smiles — with teeth this time.

I spend the rest of the day shut away in my office writing lengthy emails to Mark and Gordon and everyone and not sending them. It would be so simple. I have all the notes that lead to that concept. If this were a movie I would go to Gordon and explain and it would all be made right. But it isn’t a movie and I start sweating just thinking about it. Gordon talks to me like my father does in that voice that tells me I am still a little girl and shouldn’t I know better? I should be patient. I should be modest. All my hard work will pay off just like it did for Mark. I shouldn’t be jealous of Mark, I should see his work as an inspiration.

She is still sitting there on the edge of my desk, fading in and out and I wonder what I look like to her. Am I a channel she changes or a movie that she can play and pause?

“What am I like to you?” She looks up from a ghostly laptop I hadn’t noticed before, her gray eyes blinking on and off.

“Like what you are. Someone I’d rather forget,” she shudders or it looks like she does. It could just be bad reception.

Late in the afternoon, Nicole and Pete come by to console and commiserate. There are a lot of ‘you should go in there and tell him what a fuckwit he really is’ and ‘if you don’t, I will’. But no one does and we end up deciding to leave early for drinks for our revenge.

As I pack up my stuff to leave, she materializes again, that smug smile still on her nearly colorless face.

“Remember, Chrystie and Houston. Wait. Don’t walk.” She never reminds me anymore, ever. So sure that I have learned my lesson through broken bones, terror, and humiliation. And something about the nagging on top of the day’s frustration winds up that ugly twisting thing a little tighter.

I used to get this catch, almost a glitch when she gave me one of her warnings. My heart would stutter and convulse against the muscle and bone of my chest. Other people say they’ve had premonitions, but she is so impenetrably specific and so is what follows. I begin to feel it like I always do. The world tightening, constricting around today, pinching off the arteries and vessels that lead to tomorrow. But the alcohol makes it all fuzzier — bigger — so I can forget while Chris talks about the night Mark made a pass at her in gorgeously humiliating detail.

I order another round and realize that I’ve run out of cash. It’s not until I’m almost at the corner on the way to the ATM on 2nd Avenue, looking up through a slight vertiginous buzz at the street sign, that I remember. The walk light is blinking fast and has been for the past ten feet, but I don’t even slow down as the world clenches around me like a fist, like a heart attack.

It’s the corner of Chrystie and Houston and I push against that tightness, trying to break through to something else, something even she can’t see.

I step off the curb knowing that I shouldn’t, but she doesn’t show up to warn me or even to stand ghostly and insubstantial in my way. Three steps into the four lanes of Houston and the blinking turns to the steady danger sign every pedestrian knows. In mere seconds, all four lanes of speeding, selfish New York traffic will bear down on me.

I jog slightly and smile at the warm fuzziness from the alcohol knowing that I will make it across before the light changes despite all of her warnings. Everything feels slow and sluggish. Heavier. As if this street, this moment are more important than all the others. Maybe I’ll die here. At least her warnings will stop even if she was right.

“Erica?”

I feel it release in one stumbling moment of weightlessness as I take the last steps to the curb and wonder if it is her with a last-minute warning. But the voice is different, familiar and solid without the stuttering hollow of static. This voice is a key to a lock buried so deep I couldn’t even feel it. When I turn to look it hits me but the world doesn’t go black immediately. There is a hard and fast jolt, a stunning pain as I am thrown to the side and into something hard and hot before the countdown gray.

“What happened?” I ask, but it doesn’t come out as words. My mouth isn’t really moving, something is holding it shut. Strong cold hands that work from the inside. I imagine her glittery silver eyes and decide this must be what her touch feels like.

My eyes open too slowly to surprise her and the room slides in and out of focus, exactly the way she does. Maybe I have finally been transported to her world to haunt and warn her. But how will I know when she should step off the curb, when she should stay home?

“Ric?” I know that voice and it isn’t hers. “You’re in the hospital. You were…a bike messenger hit you.” My eyes refuse to focus on the familiar voice, searching the room for that gray, insubstantial prophet. But she isn’t here. There are two amorphous forms in my field of vision that resemble people and I try to focus on them, still not sure that I am not dead.

“Your Mom is flying in,” another familiar voice says. A voice I know immediately as Eliot’s, which means the other voice has to belong to Katie. My best friend. The girl she said was no good. The girl who would hurt me and pull that bright future apart. I gave her up. I had to. She was beginning to wonder who I talked to all night long anyway.

There is a strange sort of groaning mumble that I realize eventually is my own attempt at a voice and a hand touches my arm, warm and soft. “Your jaw is broken, they wired it shut.” Katie’s voice again, almost a whisper. “And a concussion, with stitches.” Cool fingertips press gently on my forehead, which feels enormous and potato-ish.

Katie is almost in focus now. I can just make out the soft outline of her round face, warm and solid and right there. I reach out with the arm that isn’t weighted down and touch her cheek to make sure that she is, yes, real. I would smile if I could but there is only the watery blur of tears.

“Your arm is broken too,” Eliot says somewhere behind her and I look toward him catching the flicker of her just to the right of him. Bright with anger, she talks in a fading static-filled whisper that cuts out intermittently.

“She’s…I told…always so stupid…”

Those silvery fingers point at Katie, whose back is to her, unaware of her ghostly accusations.

Maybe it is the drugs or the pain, but I see it all finally in one of those breathless moments that stretch out and around the now. This is the future she was trying to prevent or the start of it anyway — Katie. Katie is the thing that separates, that pushes me farther and farther away from her future full of sharp and sexy success.

And I know if I choose this girl with the mud-brown eyes, my life will be full of broken bones and jobs nobody wants and no one to warn me when the time comes. Nothing will be set. Not even Katie. I will ruin us with all of the uncertainty that clouds my life.

I trace the line of Katie’s jaw with one shaking finger and wish I could return her awkward, confused smile. This feels better than every job and dollar she has ever made for me. This is certain: skin on skin, her smile, pain both dull and hot.

Since then, she has been sullen and silent, fading in and out like a forgotten photograph, like regret: colorless and crackling with mute rage.

Work published at Tin House, Electric Lit, Hobart, The Offing, Future Fire, The Toast. I research for Roxane Gay. | melissamoorer.com

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