The Crystal Bowl

Fiction
Sydney Parrish


Photo Credit: Liz West/Flickr (CC-by)

It was around eight o’clock in the evening when Audrey Morris sensed that it would rain. The thick August air clung to her skin like hot breath and flooded her lungs with suffocating warmth. Though it was late, the sky was a vibrant blue that usually made Audrey wistful and nostalgic for carefree summer vacations as a child. Audrey waited at the crosswalk for three glowing yellow taxis to pass. She found herself scarcely able to muster the patience as she dreaded being caught outside for the impending first drops. Above her, grey storm clouds were looming—threatening to envelop the city in a thick cottony fog and erase the stubborn stench of summer’s refuse. As she reached her building on Lexington Avenue, she felt around her bag for her keys with one hand and wiped the beads of sweat off her forehead with the other. The latch clicked open and she was greeted by the gentle caress of cool air.

The small mailroom behind the front door was almost always empty. Her neighbors, an elderly couple and a reticent young artist, seldom left their apartments and almost never received parcels or letters. This is why Audrey was startled by the unusual sight of a brown box sitting at the foot of the mailboxes. Although she herself was not expecting anything, she knelt down and curiously inspected the package. Her name and address were printed plainly in blue ink on the label, while the space for a return address was left empty. Audrey’s lips curled into a wide grin. She held the box above her head and checked every angle for a clue about its sender, but her search yielded nothing but the word “fragile” written in the same blue ink. Regardless, as she walked up the two flights of stairs to her apartment, her mind was inundated with fanciful ideas of what was inside and who it could be from. Had someone she had known been in love with her but too afraid to confront her himself? She racked her brain for the possible identity of a secret admirer.

Upon reaching the landing, she hurried into her apartment, the door to which she always left unlocked, and set the box carefully on the small dining table. Audrey slung her purse on a chair and threw the windows open for the relief of a breeze. The apartment was a cramped stuffy studio, and though it was all she could afford, it was what Audrey had always imagined for her first apartment alone. She dashed to the kitchen in search of a box-cutter but found that a paring knife would do the job just as well. Crouched over the package, she gingerly sliced the tape down the middle of the box and around the sides. Peeling back the cardboard flaps, she uncovered the item inside wrapped in a thick layer of bubble wrap. She lifted it to eye level. It was quite heavy and about the size of her head, with no distinct color to identify it. She undressed it carefully and tossed the bubble wrap to the floor. Her ruddy complexion quickly faded. In her hands, she held a crystal bowl. Frozen for a moment, she stared incredulously at the gift. With her eyes fixated on the bowl, she set it slowly on the table and sat down beside it. Audrey peered once more into the box for a note from the gifter but found none.

The first time she had seen the bowl was almost exactly a year ago in a store somewhere in Midtown. She and her friend Margaret were doing what they typically did when they had a few hours free: walking into every store that caught their eye and buying nothing. Audrey always admired the things of others. However, she never afforded herself what she thought were unnecessary and superficial expenses. In fact, her apartment and wardrobe were completely void of any decoration or style for that matter, as she bought all her furniture from the previous tenant and rarely succumbed to her desire to possess beautiful things. Nevertheless, as she walked through the store lined with expensive arty furniture, she could not control the urge to pretend it was all hers. She remembered the crystal bowl quite distinctly. It was perched on a shelf alone, where it caught the rays of the sun shining in through the store window.

“Margaret, look!” Audrey said, as she gently picked up the bowl and held it to the light. The honeycomb pattern etched on its exterior diffracted the sunlight like a massive diamond in her hands.

“Very pretty.” Margaret lifted her eyes from an array of china for just a moment. “You better not drop it.”

Ignoring her friend’s comment, Audrey traced the curvature of the bowl with her finger. “I don’t even know what I would put in it, but I feel like I could steal this—like I have to have it.” Audrey smiled, never taking her eyes off the glistening crystal.

“Maybe cherries. Seems like a good bowl for cherries.” Margaret walked up next to her friend. “Can you imagine what people would say when they came over? ‘Where did Audrey get such a beautiful thing? Someone must have died for her to have it,’” she said with feigned affect. The girls laughed and Audrey reluctantly set down the bowl.

“Why cherries?” she chuckled, eyeing her friend by the door.

They braced themselves to return into the sweltering summer heat and made their way back uptown. The next day or so, the girls had planned to meet for coffee at a café by the East River. For the three years the girls had been friends, they were nearly inseparable, and coffee on Sunday had become ritual. That afternoon, Audrey had gotten there first, ordered her coffee, and found her favorite spot in the corner by the window. She set a book on the table to read while she waited for her friend, despite knowing well that Margaret was almost never late. Thirty minutes passed, during which Audrey’s eyes constantly darted out the window in search of her missing companion. Once she had been there for an hour, Audrey shut her book in frustration and walked home by the river. Although it was unlike her friend, Audrey convinced herself that Margaret simply must have forgotten.

Audrey called Margaret as soon as she reached her apartment, ready to tease her friend and demand a coffee in compensation for her time. However, the phone on the other end of the line kept ringing until Audrey finally hung up—stung with chagrin. She sank down in her chair overwhelmed by the sudden awareness that she was alone. Audrey was simultaneously stricken with indignation and with a sense of responsibility for her friend’s action. She had been abandoned by her friend because of something she unknowingly did and the damage was irreversible. She reluctantly swallowed the idea that she was simply unwanted. Unable to bear humiliating herself further, Audrey decided not to call Margaret again.

Then one day, a month after they had last been together, as Audrey was wandering through the Union Square farmer’s market, she found Margaret. She was standing a mere ten feet in front of Audrey, browsing vegetables in a familiar orange sweater. Audrey’s head throbbed as she watched Margaret enjoying her Saturday without her. She lost track of how long she had been watching her until finally, Margaret looked up, and her eyes snagged on Audrey’s. Startled and red-faced, Audrey’s mouth slid ajar as she searched for the correct words to utter. However, Margaret, clearly also taken aback by the sudden appearance of her friend, immediately diverted her gaze and quickly fled to another stall. Audrey’s legs locked into place and her entire body ached. The sounds of a hundred conversations, vendors hawking, and cars honking in the distance all crashed like cymbals in a discordant orchestra. She stood there foolishly as she watched her friend walk deeper into the crowd and disappear once again.

Since that day, Audrey had not seen Margaret. Despite knowing Margaret would not call, for weeks she held her breath as she checked her answering machine whenever she reached home. Each time she did, she was washed over by a wave of embarrassment with her own naïve hope that maybe she would hear Margaret’s voice again. When she walked by their café, she would peer inside, halfheartedly expecting to catch a glimpse of her friend’s curled brown hair. More than a few times, she was so sure she had seen her. Her pulse would quicken, and her eyes would instinctively veer away. She would try to contort her face to seem as nonchalant as possible, then turn back to realize her ghostly friend had vanished. She imagined speaking to her again countless times. Sometimes she would confidently march up to Margaret and demand an explanation. Filled with fury and holding back tears, she would launch into a tirade of accusations. Other times, she imagined sitting limply in front of Margaret and begging to know what she had done to deserve such a cold departure. The insecurities ravaged her mind not only in her waking thoughts, but in her nightmares, where Margaret delivered cryptic answers or none at all. Audrey wondered if others perhaps found her too insensitive or inconsiderate to understand the tacit laws of friendship. Perhaps Margaret simply did not find her worthwhile.

For months, she mourned the loss of the friendship she treasured and doubted her worthiness of another friend as true. Over time, however, the anguish and sadness transformed into contemptuous dismissal. She repeated to herself that she should be happier now—that she and Margaret were not meant to be friends. By now, a year since they had last spoken, the thought of Margaret rarely crossed her mind. She had made other close friends, started a new job, and broken up with her boyfriend from the time. Her life looked nothing like how it did a year ago, and she had healed from the sting of being spurned by her friend.

But now this bowl. Why send this when they have not spoken in a year? Especially when it was she who decided the friendship was over. Audrey flushed hot with frenzied anger. She stared at the bowl, which no longer shimmered like a diamond under the flat orange glow of her apartment lights. The thought of calling Margaret to thank her sent a wave of panic through Audrey’s body, and the fact that Margaret may not even answer the call only deepened her anxiety. For some time, she had been sitting in her chair and staring at the bowl. With her eyes glazed, her mind projected the image of Margaret wrapping the bowl carefully in bubble wrap and inscribing Audrey’s name on the package with her blue pen.

Her stomach lurched and she suddenly stood up stiffly as if not by her own volition. She walked to the nightstand beside her desk and ran her fingers over the tops of the three picture frames she kept. She picked up one frame containing a photograph of herself and three friends at a restaurant downtown. Audrey scanned the photo for a moment. She had not spoken to these girls in months. In fact, this may have been the last time they were even all together. She flipped it over and tossed the backing of the frame onto the bed, revealing a second photograph hidden behind. She lifted it out of the frame and held it delicately by the edges. Margaret and she were standing side by side—Margaret cupping Audrey’s cheek with affection. Audrey studied the wide grins plastered across their faces as a faint smile crept on to her own. She remembered the hours of that night they spent drinking wine and telling stories, and the hour they spent on the phone the next day complaining about their blaring headaches. The smile faded from her lips. She glanced at the bowl then back at Margaret’s beaming face. She felt as naked and foolish as she did standing at the farmer’s market a year ago.

As Audrey held the photograph, she was filled with an inarticulate hate. Her eyes locked on Margaret’s face. The longer she looked, the easier it was to remember her friend’s idiosyncrasies. She could once again hear Margaret’s sharp laugh, she saw her peeling blue nail polish, and remembered her pale pink coat she wore in winter. Audrey clenched the photo between her sweaty fingers. In an instant of fiery rage, she wanted to blot out Margaret’s image. However, Audrey knew that she could never forget her friend. She placed the photo back behind the other and shut the frame. Audrey released her breath, which she had inadvertently been holding, and collapsed onto the bed. Shutting her eyes, she listened to the din of the city. Tires speeding over asphalt occasionally pierced the rhythmic beat of tree branches against her window. Despite the affection she had for the restlessness of New York, her mind sometimes ached for a moment of stillness and quiet. As she opened her eyes, her gaze once again latched onto the bowl, which cast a ghostly yellow halo on the table below it.

In an instant, she was in the kitchen rummaging through drawers until she came upon a roll of packing tape. Audrey paused, then placed the bowl back in its box, picked up the bit of bubble wrap off the floor, and shakily tossed it on top. Her fingers trembled as she pulled the packing tape around the box, clumsily sealing away its contents once again. She stopped and paused to wipe her wet eyes with the back of her arm. She hurriedly carried the box out of her apartment and into the hallway of the building. She felt the weight of the bowl shifting in the box. With her pulse beating loudly in her ears, she walked to the garbage compactor and hesitated, clenching her jaw tightly. She thought of Margaret sitting at the dining table picking at glistening red cherries from the bowl.

She pulled down the door of the garbage chute and slowly placed the box inside. As soon as she were to shut the door, the box would plummet two stories and the compactor would permanently expel it from her life. Her stomach ached. Audrey’s mother always thought Margaret was a lovely girl. She imagined how mother would adore the crystal bowl. “What a thoughtful gift!”

Audrey clung to the handle of the door. She suddenly felt so tired—every muscle seemed to ache synchronously. Her body wanted to submit to Margaret’s cryptic kindness—to rescue the bowl and place it on a shelf and simply forget about it. However, she knew that she would not forget. Every time she would look at the big glistening diamond, she would see Margaret standing over vegetables at the farmer’s market. She would feel as small, transparent, and as completely alone as she did now. She would always wonder what she had done to render herself undeserving of a friend she adored. She shut the door—grimacing as she heard a muted shattering from the bottom of the chute. In that moment, fear and adrenaline jolted through her body while salty tears slid silently off her chin. The churning of her stomach had finally stopped, and from somewhere unknown place inside her, a loud and sharp laugh lurched out of her throat. She clasped at her open mouth and felt her wet cheeks.

Audrey slowly slunk back to her apartment, closed the door quietly behind her and stood by the empty dining table. She looked out at the heavy grey sky through bleary eyes. Since she had gotten home, the sun had vanished, and it had finally begun to rain. Audrey reached up and shut her window with difficulty—silencing the ghostly orchestra of the city at last.

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Sydney is 21 years old and lives in New York City with her dog, Mia. She recently graduated from the University of Chicago, where she majored in Economics and Global Studies. In her free time, she enjoys drawing portraits, writing short stories, and cooking. In the future, she hopes to attend law school where she can foster her curiosity of Civil Law. Email: sydwillo[at]gmail.com