It started as he was walking down Newbury Street, just a few days into the year. He paused, struck by the realization that it may never have happened to him. Though expected on this day, it still caught him by surprise, to be outside at the actual moment a snowstorm began.

Surely he had been out when it was snowing before, and probably close to the very start of it, but not like this, when the snow was just barely appearing in the sky, when it evaporated before it came close to the ground, when the air swallowed it up instead of spitting it out. He would follow the downward trajectory of a large flake and it would simply disappear. He watched them fall, against the dark background of bricks, and still none of them managed to last. It was a strange thing, the way it started, the way everything started, and how rare it was to notice the beginning. He continued on, pulling his scarf tighter around his neck.

The stores still had their Christmas decorations displayed. What had always been a bother to him, a bump on the road of getting on with it, was, in the days after Christmas, more of a comfort. They no longer shouted false or forced merriment, they were a sign of the effort. Speaking in a quieter manner, they resonated differently with him now, their meaning and intention somehow more pure as soon as the hubbub had died down. If he was a person who took pictures, this would be the time when he would take them. The days after rather than the days before. Anyone can get themselves worked up into a frenzy of a few days – it’s what happened afterward that always proved more fascinating, and troublesome. That was where the tension was revealed.

He needed new boots, and the impending storm impelled him out on this Saturday morning, when otherwise he would have gladly slept in, the luxurious relief of an absent roommate punctuated only briefly by a few sparks of lonely terror, pangs of something akin to homesickness.

In the shoe store, he sat down on the low bench and waited for the woman to return. She gave him a fake smile. He wondered if everyone saw how obvious some people were at pretending. He wondered if he would ever be handsome. He sucked his stomach in just in case.

The boots, rubber-soled, fit well enough. Maybe they were a mite too snug, lined as they were with some sort of off-yellow fleece, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t dare look to the salesperson for approval or reassurance. His hooded jacket suddenly felt hot, and he pulled it off quickly enough to transfer a bit of static to his hair. In a mirror behind the counter, he caught a few wisps of unruly pieces rising like they did when he was a little kid. Tamping them down, he quickly proffered his credit card. The woman slid it expertly through the machine, giving out another false smile.

With box in bag, and bag in hand, he put his coat back on before going outside. Above, the sky turned darker, a shade of wet cement, deadened and upheld by bare tree branches and strings of unlit Christmas lights. Still the snow fell and fell and never reached the ground.

The forecast had called for a foot of it. He would need food. Trying to picture what was left in the dark half-fridge of the apartment left him feeling lonely. The thought of stocking it filled him with the closest thing to hope. A market was on the corner, a line of leftover Christmas tree tops meandered around the entrance. Nailed into wooden slabs, the tops of the trees looked especially desolate. He wouldn’t glance at the price or the markdowns, pushing instead into the cramped store to the sound of bells clanging against the door.

A man at the counter eyed him wearily. Two young women giggled in a corner. It sometimes felt like there was nowhere in the world where he might belong, where he would be welcomed. Hurriedly, for he was suddenly uncomfortable in the small space, he picked out a loaf of bread, some butter, a box of pasta, and a jar of sauce. One step up from a can of Campbell’s or Chef Boyardee. At the register he grabbed a candle and added it to his pile. Behind the counter, the man absently bagged up the sad collection of provisions, saying nothing of the impending storm.

He walked along Newbury, not because he needed anything else, but because he wasn’t ready to go back to the apartment. The sky was dark, though the snow had not started sticking. He looked up, tilting his head back, darting his tongue out like he did when he was a boy, feeling the tiny death of a snowflake on his skin. He stood still in that stance, not noticing the snickering of a couple, the puzzled gaze of a child holding absently onto the hand of her mother.

As alienated as he sometimes felt around people, he found comfort being in their presence. Sometimes it was enough to watch them, to surreptitiously join in their mundane tasks, to feel like he was one of them. The ease of others was infuriatingly out of grasp, ever just ahead, beyond reach, beyond understanding. They made it look so easy, and all his life he had done nothing but struggle. As he got older, he realized it wasn’t youth that was holding him back. He began to think it was him. Even so, he stayed on Newbury a little longer. To be with them. And to watch the snow.

He was nearing the cross street that would take him back to the apartment. His arms were weighted down with bags, the plastic handles stretching and cutting into his hands. He should have worn gloves. A coffee-shop glowed on the corner, its windows shrouded in cloudy condensation, a few rivulets of water already starting to streak. Only when confronted with the opportunity of warmth did he feel the cold. He had mastered the gestures, the crossed arms folding in on themselves, the hunched retraction of his head into the folds of a scarf, but they were just show, just what he was supposed to do.

As he ducked into the place, no one looked up. Ordering a small coffee, he eyed a raised plate of cookies but didn’t get one. Carefully, he balanced the drink with the pendulous pull of the bags, managing to add a bit of cream and two packets of sugar to the dark liquid. He sat at a table looking out onto the street, placing the bags between his legs, ever furtive, slightly suspicious. It was hard for him to trust in people.

He brushed his hair out of his face. It was too long. He thought it would look better, but it merely made him feel sloppier. Blowing on the coffee before him, he noticed a girl around his age, sitting a few tables away, reading a book. She was pretty, in a plain way, someone he would love to talk to, someone he might even like to date, but he would never. How would he even begin? Buried in her book, she had a self-possession that he attributed to well-won confidence. There it was again – the ease of living – and he was just playing along, pretending, trying to catch up and follow the pattern in the hopes that one day it would be real and he wouldn’t have to think about it because that’s who he would really be.

He thought of the cream he had swirled into his coffee, the way it mixed in so easily, with barely a twist of a spoon. Why was everything always so hard? In front of him, obscured by cloudy windows, cars drove by, their lights stretched and distorted. His eyes narrowed, overcome by a wave of sleepiness and lulled by a stomach filled with hot coffee before the caffeine kicked in. Giving one last backward glance at the girl, who didn’t lift her eyes, he threw the coffee cup away.

Outside, he waited for the snow to land. It was sticking to the cars, darkening the street, but only in its melting. More was falling, and soon it would stay. People were moving faster now. They could feel it too.

He wasn’t quite ready to go home, but he had nowhere else to go. Turning toward Copley, he made his way to a couple of towering hotels. His coat was speckled with melted snow as he pushed through a revolving door. In the lobby, the busy excitement of travelers in flux offered a bit of comfortable anonymity. He sometimes went to hotels to find this kind of comfort. It was enough just to sit and watch others coming and going. It reminded him of childhood trips. As much as it pained him, it was a sort of relief from the dull lack of pain he’d noticed lately.

A fireplace glowed along one wall, and a Christmas tree stood fully lit in the center of the space. To most, it would make a merry scene, even coming days after the fact. It filled him with weariness. Already the day was too long. There were no windows here. He couldn’t tell how much it was snowing. He studied the coats and heads of those walking in, but it was difficult to discern. His eyes fell back upon the fireplace, on the tips of flames, lapping at the air. ‘We are so easily extinguished,’ he thought.

A bellman rolled a collection of suitcases across the carpeted floor, the brass-topped cart humming smoothly, the carriage arriving safely at the elevators, and a happy couple making empty chit-chat. Another flawless execution of living. He decided then that he would rather not go through the motions.

An hour or two passed. He felt as though he might fall asleep, even as the coffee tugged at his bladder. He was too far from the windows to tell how much darker it had gotten. The days were still so short. He waited a little while longer. It was easier to go out into full darkness than the tricky abyss of what fell just before. He preferred things to be definite. Nimble nuances and subtle shading were problematic. The unintentionally-cruel words of a teacher, written in a note he was never meant to see, came back to him. “Your son is good at dealing with things that are black or white, but isn’t capable of deciphering the range of possibility outside clearly defined entities.” He remembered the finicky penmanship in which it had been written, and the way the words looked on crumpled paper. He also remembered the way the ink burned, and how it had remained legible before it crumbled into ash. It was all so much rubbish.

Gathering his bags, he stood. When he stayed too long in one place, he felt them turn his gaze back on himself. People started watching him then, and that made it worse. He took a final look at the fire, turned, and walked toward the revolving door in the distance.

According to his half-unwitting plan, it was already dark, but the darkness was buffered. The snow had started to accumulate and was beginning to reflect the lights of the city. What had been hard edges were now softened into white curves, sculpted into an artist’s abstract rendition of a city street. He liked it this way. It felt safer, easier to navigate among the mess than the dangers of a clear sunny day. The snowstorm provided refuge, and the snowflakes were falling fiercely.

They tickled his ears and nose. They shuffled down along hair shafts and tingled against his scalp. They blew into his eyes and he laughed as he cried. He should have changed into his new boots, but it was too late now. With head hunched down, he hurried along to the apartment. It would be cold when he got there. He had to prepare himself for that.

Flecks of dirty salt and wet patches that got smaller and smaller as he ascended the stairs hinted that others were in the building, but he never saw them. A light-bulb was out on the landing between the first and second floor, but his key was already in his hand, turning the lock, gaining him entrance to the emptiness. He closed the door quickly behind him, locking it and checking the peep-hole out of habit. Wriggling free of his shoes, he left them by the door. He would clean up the little puddle later.

In the kitchen, he put the food away. The boots he left in his bedroom, still boxed and bagged. On the table in the living room, near the window that looked out onto the street, he lit the candle. A stool stood between the table and the window. He sat down on it to watch the falling snow.

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