Evening tiptoes around the mall like a thief. Hallways turn quiet as the thinning flow of workers and commuters mark the hours with the reliability of a Swiss watch. Nestled in the basement of an office tower, the shopping centre opens like an underground cave. Artificial lighting shining through crystal chandeliers belie the darkness descending on the city.
Against the off-white marble of the floors and walls, fluorescent light flickers with harsh loneliness. Each store floats like an island with its unique lexicon and culture. A diverse cast performs closing rituals in silence, counting bills and retrieving castaway clothes. Dreary, November brings a slump in the retail landscape. Numbers are down, sales are slow, eyes are red and hands are chapped.
The first days of November had been cold in the usual back-and-forth of Fall. Bait and switch, catch and release. Crisp and warm sunny days rolled into the bitter windy cold of winter without the calming effect of snow. Attacking a pile of sweaters, a young woman takes note of her 18th birthday as it disappears into a hazy day of classes and work. A fitting welcome into adulthood, she thinks with a smirk. A pang of longing for the simplicity of childhood and the smothering of family comes and goes. She glances at her watch. 5 more minutes.
Lifting her eyes from the clothes she is folding, she sees him hopping off the escalator. His step is bouncier than usual and he smiles in the manner of someone caught in the delight of his own joke. His eyes break into two crescent moons when he sees her. She catches her breath. Whenever she thinks she has this crush licked, he knocks her out with a smile.
Their friendship had been born in the most usual way, bound by the experience of unrequited love. She loved him and he loved a girl who didn’t even know his name, like Charlie Brown and the little red-haired girl. He needed someone to listen and she needed him. Their bond flourished in the imperfection of who they could be to each other, without pretense or artifice. A flawed version of love to a heart wired for romantic passion, yet something closer to the freedom and safety of unconditional love. They lived in a space of longing and dreams where grand romantic gestures were given and received without fear or expectations.
He couldn’t stand in place when she walked out of the store: “Come on, I have something to show you!” They started walking side-by-side in silence. “Thank you for picking me up,” she said, not expecting a reply. They turned a corner as the store shutters closed around them, dropped a quarter in a lonely merry-go-round and walked away as the music echoed in the empty corridor.
Up ahead, a wall of glass doors leading to the street appeared as a perfect dark rectangle. Looking at the darkness, he stopped saying: “Now I have to cover your eyes! It’s your birthday gift!” He took a handkerchief from his coat pocket, the one he usually wore on his forehead like Axl Rose, and tied it gently behind her head. The smell of his hair made her knees buckle but she was too curious to give this sudden intimacy more than a moment’s notice. She could hear the excitement in his voice as he led her to the door and stepped out into the crisp evening air. “You can look now!”
When she removed the blindfold, large snowflakes were falling on her face, lit by a single street lamp. A thick layer of snow laid untouched on the street and sidewalks, absorbing the sounds of the city, making everything cozy under the overcast sky. November had lost its sharp angles, replaced for an evening by the warmth of a Winter’s night.
“Happy Birthday!” he said. They walked away arm-in-arm like two giddy children, leaving four footsteps behind them.