Auden

“I—” Rose started, then stopped, because the words got stuck in her throat. A strange feeling was welling up inside her chest. It was anxiety and fear. It was relief, it was love, it was hope. Most of all, it was the feeling that for once, a year after moving to New York, she wasn’t alone. 

Teary eyed, for the first time in what felt like forever, she smiled. A real smile, one that spread across her face and pulled at her cheeks.

“I’ve been waiting for you, too.”

Though the sky had darkened, the swampy city air wasn’t even beginning to cool as Rose approached the steps to her apartment. Her feet ached. The sides of her black leather heels dug into her flesh, leaving it red and inflamed. One of these days, she always told herself, she would remember to bring sneakers for the walk to the subway station. Every day, on her way out the door, she forgot. 

Wincing, she made her way into the building, through the dark hallway, and up the stairs to her flat. 

Rose jammed the key into the brass doorknob and wiggled it so it turned all the way, then felt around in the darkness for the lightswitch. She flicked it, and the familiar sights of her apartment greeted her: a gray loveseat, surrounded by houseplants with wilted, yellow leaves (she never remembered to open the curtains in the morning, and she always came back late); a shaggy blue rug; a small table; a tiny kitchen with an oven that always broke; a fridge covered in shopping lists and Post-It notes with messages like send report to Will and meet w/client @5AM. Rose breathed in the air, which carried the vague lemony scent of the candle she’d lit the night before, and sighed. 

She kicked off her shoes, then made her way to the kitchen and rummaged around in the fridge. Half a chicken breast, two eggs, leftover rice—it would do. Grabbing her phone, she scrolled through her music, put on the headphones that she’d left on the counter and pressed play.

Happiness hit her like a train on a track

Coming towards her, stuck still…

There was a rustle from the bedroom, then the squeak of a hinge. Rose, in the middle of cutting up chicken, turned her head to the bedroom door and smiled as Auden walked out wearing an old sweatshirt and a pen tucked behind his ear. 

“Hey, Rosie.” He came up beside her and kissed her cheek. “How was work?”

Rose frowned. “Will’s asking for the proposal three days earlier than we agreed. It’s due in two weeks and he just told me. Something about ‘extra revisions before sending it to the client.’ Well, I think that’s bullshit.” She gave the chicken an aggressive whack. “It’s just going to sit in his inbox for three days, unopened, and I’ll have busted my ass for nothing.”

“I’m sorry. You deserve better.”

She sighed. “He’s always been like that. I’m used to it by now. How was your day?”

“Oh, you know. Just more door schedules.” Auden laughed. “The most glamorous part of my job.”

“Well, every time I walk through a door in the Museum of Natural History, I’ll be thinking of you.”

“Aww. I’m honored.” 

The dog days are over

Can you hear the horses?

“Hey, it’s our song. Rosie, milady.” Auden swept into a clumsy bow and held out his hand. “May I have this dance?”

“Oh, I suppose,” Rose teased, “but only because you asked so nicely.” 

She smiled and set down her knife. Auden took her hands and they began to twirl around the tiny kitchen. Rose stumbled forward, stepping on his foot; he laughed and spun her around. Her hip bumped against the cabinets, sending a momentary jolt of pain down her thigh, but she was laughing, and Auden was laughing, and the chicken was long forgotten….

The intercom buzzed, and Rose nearly jumped out of her skin. Her grip on her knife slipped, and the chicken-covered blade nicked her finger. “Shit,” she hissed, running over to the sink to rinse out the cut with hot soap and water. The soap stung, and Rose let out a small yelp of pain as the intercom buzzed again. Was it louder this time, or was that just her imagination?

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she yelled, though she knew no one could hear. She hastily wrapped a paper towel around her bleeding finger, then ran over to the intercom and pressed talk

“Hello?” she asked, breathless.

“Surprise, Rosie, it’s me! Can you let me in?”

Rose’s eyes went wide. It was crackly and distorted, but there was no mistaking the voice. 

Hannah. Why was she here? 

Rose hesitated, and for the briefest moment entertained thoughts of walking away from the intercom and leaving her sister to wait outside until the downstairs neighbors called the cops on her for loitering. 

“Hello?”

Rose sighed. “One second.” Then, she let go of the intercom and went to find a bandage for her finger. 

***

When Rose opened the door, Hannah was standing there with a big, cheesy grin on her face and a bottle of red wine in her hand. 

“Rosie!” she squealed, moving in for a hug. Rose allowed herself to be embraced. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in so long!”

Rose answered with another question. “What are you doing here?”

It wasn’t that she disliked her sister. After all, who could dislike Hannah? She was a pediatrician. She ran in charity races and donated to shelters and always used her turn signal, even when there was no one watching. 

No, it wasn’t dislike. It was more like vague irritation. 

“Alex and I are here to see the New York Phil,” Hannah said, hanging her coat on the rack and walking over to the kitchen table to drop off the wine, “so I decided to pay my little sister a visit.”

“Is Alex coming?”

“No. He’s visiting a friend in SoHo. But if you want, I can tell him to stop by later?”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to.”

Alex, her brother in law — she didn’t dislike him either. It was inexplicable, really, because he hadn’t done anything to her. Just the opposite, in fact. She had lied once and told him once that she liked chess, so he always played a game with her at family get-togethers. He had even helped her move all her furniture into her apartment. 

She supposed it was their happiness that she disliked. Hannah and Alex lived by the ocean and had great work-life balances. They had a cute little corgi that they adored, and they always sightread string quartets with the rest of their musician friends from college. Meanwhile, Rose had nothing. 

Besides Auden, of course.

“I didn’t know you were coming,” Rose said, “or I would have made more food.”

“Don’t worry about it. I ate already.”

“Well, I’m just going to finish cooking, then.”

She made her way back to the kitchen while Hannah examined the couch, the dying houseplants, and the small pile of books on the table. Rose whisked the eggs and submerged the chicken in a blend of sauces, then pulled out her phone and began to scroll, determined to avoid as much conversation with her sister as possible. 

“Hey.” Hannah was holding up a hardcover copy of Emma. “You’re reading this?”

“No,” Rose said, barely looking up from her phone. “I haven’t had time.”

“What about this one? Ten Canonical Buildings: 1950-2000. I didn’t know you were into architecture.” 

That’s Auden’s, Rose thought, but she said nothing. 

Hannah sat down on the couch, presumably reading. The chicken was done marinating, and Rose finished cooking in silence. She brought her steaming bowl of chicken and rice to the table, then grabbed the only two wine glasses she owned from the cabinet. “How much do you want?”

“I’m good, thanks,” Hannah said, taking a seat at the small table. 

Rose frowned. 

“Are you pregnant?”

Hannah looked around, as if making sure that no one was watching, then nodded, an exhilarated smile on her face. 

“I found out two weeks ago. We’re keeping it secret for now.”

“Well, more wine for me. Congrats.”

Bitterly, Rose acknowledged that Hannah and Alex would be great parents. 

She poured out the wine, corked the bottle, and began to eat in silence. Her sister was staring at her — she could feel it. What did she want?

“How are you doing, Rosie?”

Rose looked up. “What?”

“I mean, how are you really doing?”

“I’m fine.” Rose took a gulp of her wine. “I don’t know what you’re getting on about.”

Hannah reached forward, trying to take Rose’s hand. Rose jerked back, so Hannah balled her hand into a fist. “We’re all really worried about you, you know? Mama and Baba said you haven’t called in months, and God knows you never call me. You live in a one-bedroom apartment all by yourself. Do you even go out? Do you have friends? What’s going on, Rose?”

Rose crossed her arms and scoffed. “So that’s why you’re here.” 

“A little bit, yes. Rosie, we barely even knew if you were alive.

***

Auden was at her side. “What’s happening?”

“Nothing. I’m okay. My sister is just being a nosy bitch,” Rose huffed. “God, she just waltzes into my home unannounced and pretends like she cares about me. I’m sick of it! Why can’t she just go back to her perfect life and leave me alone?”

“I’m sorry, Rosie.” He wrapped his arms tightly around her, and she collapsed into his embrace. Auden always understood.

***

“Hello? Rose?”

“I’m fine, Hannah,” she snapped. “Look, I haven’t been calling because work is hard, but I’m fine. For real. I — I even have a boyfriend now, so I’m not lonely anymore. You don’t have to worry about me, okay? Tell Mama and Dad not to worry about me either.” 

There. Would that get her sister off her back?

Hannah narrowed her eyes. “Tell me more about your boyfriend.” 

“Why?”

“Because you’ve been distancing yourself from everyone lately, and I need to know that he’s not abusing you.”

“Of course not. Auden’s not like that.” As she thought of him, a warm, fuzzy feeling spread throughout her chest. “He’s the smartest, kindest, most caring person I’ve ever known. Really. He makes me so happy.”

“Okay… I believe you.” Hannah still seemed suspicious. “How did you meet? Where does he work? Does he live here?”

“He’s an architect. He doesn’t live here, but he comes around pretty often,” Rose answered. “We met back in college after he helped me when I crashed my bike — you remember, right? I had to miss my physics final because I couldn’t walk the morning after. We ran into each other again a few years ago, and it’s honestly been like a fairytale ever since.”

Rose leaned back. Surely now her sister would be satisfied. She looked up, expecting to see a smile on Hannah’s face. 

What she didn’t expect was open-mouthed shock.

“Hannah?”

“What’s Auden’s last name, Rose?”

“Fisher?” She didn’t see where this was going.

“A half-Japanese guy, right? Does he work at Studio Gang?”

“Yeah… why?” Ever so slightly, Rose’s palms began to sweat. Did she know him?

“Auden is Alex’s sister’s fiancé.” Hannah’s expression was deathly serious. “Did you know about this?”

*** 

The world shattered. Rose, in shock, couldn’t say anything. 

“Rose. Answer me.” 

Hannah was angry. Rose hadn’t seen her sister angry since the time they were both in high school and Rose accidentally broke Hannah’s violin bow. Hannah had been furious. She’d slapped Rose, then, square across the face. Would Hannah be capable of hitting her now?

“I—”

She could tell that her sister was growing impatient. Time seemed to slow as Rose weighed her options. To be pathetic or to be reviled. Which was better?

Pathetic, she decided.

But only slightly. 

Rose balled her hands into fists. “We’re not really together,” she mumbled. Tears threatened to come to her eyes, and she blinked them away.

She was a loser. A disturbed, disgusting loser.

Hannah squinted. “What?”

“I just pretend that we are.” Rose didn’t look up. “I… daydream about him sometimes.”

All the time.

Hannah leaned back and exhaled heavily. For a long time, she was silent, and Rose could see her jaw working. 

“That’s not healthy, Rose.”

“You think I don’t know?”

“I — God. You always liked to daydream, but you — you’ve really been pretending to be in a relationship with a stranger for years? Does he even know you exist?”

Rose opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. Hannah sighed. 

“You need to stop.”

Rose shook her head. “I can’t.”

“You can’t? Why not?”

“Because, because,” she started, then broke off. She hiccupped, and the breath hitched in her throat as tears started streaming down her face. Rose slammed her hand down on the table, making her wine glass shudder. 

“It’s so easy for you, Hannah.” She hiccupped again. “Everyone just adores you. You have Alex and Peanut and you’re about to have a baby. Meanwhile, my coworkers hate me. My boss overworks me, then takes all the credit when it’s good and blames me when it’s bad. I haven’t made a single friend in the four years I’ve lived in this city. Did you know that?”

“Rose —” Hannah started.

Rose cut her off. “I’m so lonely, Hannah. Auden is — he’s the only person who cares about me. Who makes me feel loved. And I’m not hurting anyone, so why shouldn’t I be happy?”

She buried her face in her arms and began to sob. 

“Rose, look at me.” 

She did as she was told. 

“He’s not real, Rose.”

“I know that.”

Except for the low hum of the refrigerator, the apartment was silent.

“Look, Rosie.” Hannah leaned over and grabbed Rose’s hands. “If you’re miserable, there are things you can do. You can go to therapy. You can quit your job and move back home for a while. You can get a dog if you’re lonely — you can even borrow Peanut if you want. You can make new friends! But you can’t keep living like this. You can’t love someone’s shadow.”

“My apartment doesn’t allow pets,” Rose muttered.

“I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me about any of this. Why?”

Because I have Auden. I don’t need you.

Hannah glanced at her watch. “I need to go. But I’ll get Alex and we’ll be back here tonight. Don’t go anywhere.” She stood up to leave. 

“Please don’t,” Rose protested, but Hannah was gone and out the door before she could finish. 

Stupid Hannah. She never did listen. Wiping tears from her eyes, Rose stood and slowly went to lock the door behind her sister. Then, she walked over to the couch and threw herself down. With shaking fingers, she opened Instagram and began to type in a username. 

a-u-d-

His profile came up instantly. Auden Fisher. In the past, she must have visited that page a thousand times, saving every last picture — Auden with his coworkers, Auden in a national park with his family, Auden five years ago at his college graduation. But it was too painful now.

With a sinking heart, she expanded the most recent picture. Rose saw Auden first. Auden — handsome and radiant, with a smile like the sun. He was holding a woman, sobbing happy tears, in his arms. Her hand, with a sparkling diamond ring, was on his chest.

Stella, my star. I must be the luckiest man alive. @stella_xin 

Stella — it was her in the coffee shop that day. Rose forced herself to remember the events as they were, not the way she dreamed them to be. She remembered Auden walking in. She remembered waving at him as he stood in line; she remembered his kind smile that bore no hint of recognition. She remembered watching as Auden took a seat at the empty table, clearly nervous, clearly excited, looking all around the café. She remembered the girl walking in, far more beautiful than Rose could ever be. She remembered how Auden stood up so quickly to greet her that his backless red stool toppled over and clattered on the floor.

Enough. She was done remembering. 

Rose scrolled through her music, chose a song, then threw her phone to the other side of the couch. She closed her eyes. 

Happiness hit her like a train on a track

Coming towards her, stuck still…

Hannah had been right — a dog would be nice. She imagined a fluffy corgi — no, a samoyed — nestling beside her and resting his head on her stomach. Max. That was his name — Max. She imagined the feeling of his fur, warm and soft. She imagined Auden opening the bedroom door, closing it quietly behind him, and coming to sit beside her.

“Rosie, my love. Are you alright?”


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