Mara and Alicia

Mara seemed to radiate as she crossed the stage. It was her night. All eyes were on the small figure with the big hairdo, tightly fitting clothing and long legs. As she began to dance, she could feel every muscle in her body stretching and contracting in just exactly the right way, willing her to use it to the utmost. It was the opening night, and she was a star.
When she was onstage, she could forget about the real life. In her real life, she was named Alicia. In her real life, she had to go to the hospital twice a day to check up on her mother who had recently gotten alcohol poisoning. Again. The doctors had insisted on keeping her there for a while because they thought they also felt something strange in her breast when they’d done a full physical. Alicia had no idea how they were going to pay for it all. Alicia knew she needed to call her father again and plead with him to send them more cash. Alicia fell asleep every night with her tears drying on her face.
Mara, on the other hand, didn’t have a mother. She lived as a tenant with an older woman, yes, but there were no ties between them. She told her friends that the old lady had gotten alcohol poisoning and how pathetic that was. They all nodded sympathetically, with their too-big eyes drifting away to their tiny cubes of cheese which were their only sustenance for the day. Mara hated them all and she knew that they hated her too, but they had to get along because they didn’t want their director/choreographer to give them another lecture. Then, too, was the fact that none of them had any other friends anymore. That tended to happen during the strenuous periods before new shows went on, because they spent so many hours of the day rehearsing that they naturally could only talk to and complain with each other, since no one else understood exactly how much their toenails hurt, how hungry they were, how itchy their scalp was because of the hairspray and how much they craved a cheeseburger and a beer on the beach.
Alicia knew she wasn’t well. Alicia went to a therapist twice a week because she was terrified of herself and what she was doing to her body. She hated the feeling of her fingers going deep and the vomit creeping up her raw and swollen throat. She hated the raspy voice she’d developed, even though the man she worked for told her it was “tres sexy.” She hadn’t needed to do this only two years ago when she’d gotten accepted to the company and there was really no reason for her to be doing this now, except that everyone else was and it seemed to be expected. But she worried about needing replacement teeth and she knew she didn’t have enough money for that.
Mara never worried about money. When she went out with the friends she hated, she was the one who managed to get free drinks by nuzzling up to the older men on the bar. She would sometimes find herself in their beds in the morning, but she didn’t allow herself to worry about that too much. It was worth it, she figured, for the feeling of bliss that crept over her when she had had so much to drink that her head was fuzzy and the room was spinning gently and she knew that no matter what – no matter what – nothing could really hurt her at that moment.
When Alicia and Mara met, as they sometimes did, accidentally, when the were switching out the use of the same body, they seemed to hedge warily around each other. Alicia idolized Mara and Mara looked down on Alicia. But Alicia also knew that Mara wasn’t practical, and that she would ultimately destroy her. She hated Mara, even though she envied her carefree lifestyle and her confidence. She also worried, because she knew that the facade of Mara was wearing thin. She wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to keep it up.
But right then, under the hot spotlights, knowing that the audience couldn’t see how hard she was working or the sweat already rolling down her back, knowing that they only saw this graceful body moving with the utmost precision – at that moment Alicia took over from Mara and allowed herself to simply be within the dance, to fly and leap and soar and tumble to the ground in an ecstasy of movement.

Julie’s Last Blind Date

Checkered shirt tucked into tan-colored pants, the man struck an image that wasn’t charming or heartwarming, but somehow caused those who saw him to feel sorry for him. He knew that he had this influence on people, and he didn’t mind at all. On the contrary, he worked to preserve the sympathy that was directed his way because he knew how quickly it disappeared.

The problem was that underneath the thinning hair, bushy mustache and rather bulldog-like cheeks lived a mind that was almost entirely fixated inwards. The man heard a child crying and thought about how he’d cried when he’d been taken out of his mother’s arms in his earliest memory; he saw a documentary on a village that a big volcano had destroyed and he thought about how awful it made him feel; he saw the death of a distant third cousin as a cause for self-pity and an excuse for not listening to what other people said.

On the first date, however, Julie didn’t know any of this. She simply walked into the restaurant where she’d made plans to meet him, and saw a slightly scruffy face, strangely hairless arms and a nervous, scared look in the man’s eyes. She knew immediately that here was the man who was waiting for her. After fifty-one blind dates in the past year, Julie was proud to say that she could recognize that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that graced almost every man’s face as he waited awkwardly to meet his future wife.

Julie didn’t have any intention of marrying this man (Pete, she reminded herself sternly, this one’s name is Pete). She’d never had any idea of marrying any of the men she’d been hooking up with through 1-800-FOURTYS, a dating hotline, but they all seemed to be sure that she was going to be their next, or sometimes their first, love. It made her sad to think about this, so she tried not to. Instead, she enjoyed the meals out, and collected material for her book.

Special-novelty-concept books were in now, and she had bowed down to popular demand. Her weekly column in the paper was doing well, but her fans wanted something longer, something substantial to hold and to put on their bookshelves. Her agent told her she might as well try, so she’d come up with a name for her book: “The Year of Dates.” Her agent was skeptical about the name, but he liked the concept.

Now Julie was on her fifty-second date (although the first with this man) after which she could finally finish the book. She breathed a sigh of relief as she walked through the restaurant, a smile fixed rigidly on her face, and thought about how she could spend next Saturday evening alone for the first time in a year.

“Julie?” the man in the checkered shirt had gotten up abruptly as she approached his table. He had a bit of a stoop, and he looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

“Yes,” she continued smiling. “Pete, right?”

“Yes.” He sat down almost violently, as if punishing his chair for something. Julie fought the urge to raise her eyebrows and sat down as well.

“So…” she tried. She dropped the smile, felt her jaw muscles relax and leaned back in her chair. She had already decided that she had enough material for her book already, and that she was only going on this date so as to come full circle and finish the thing properly. Still, there was no reason to make much of an effort.

“I’m married,” Pete said abruptly. He gave a small, sniffling laugh at Julie’s expression. “Well, still married that is. I’m going to get a divorce, of course.” His accent was strange, not New York or Boston, but also definitely not California. Julie couldn’t place it.

“Oh,” she said politely. “Been separated long?”

“No, well, yes, of course. I don’t know. After twenty years of marriage is six months a long time?” The last half of the sentence was muttered and Julie had to concentrate rather harder than she wanted to in order to understand him.

“I don’t know,” she said hesitantly. “I suppose that’s not very long at all. Not after twenty years.”

Pete stared at her intently before dropping his gaze and shifting positions in his chair. He seemed to have a breathing problem (was he asthmatic?) that made him sound like he was snorting with every intake of air. Julie didn’t find this attractive in the least.

The rest of the evening seemed to take its cue from the way the first minute of their conversation had gone. They spoke haltingly, uncomfortably, and of disconnected subjects. Pete’s eyes seemed to burn with fiery passion when he spoke of films of which Julie had never heard. He mumbled and became awkward when she tried to ask him about his personal life. All in all, Julie felt the evening was a failure.

“Can you believe I’ve been on twenty-five of these things?” Pete asked as they split the bill (Julie only let the men she’d enjoyed spending time with pay for her meals.)

“What things?” she asked distractedly, trying to calculate the tip. Math wasn’t her strong point and she was focusing quite intensely when Pete’s next sentence caught her off-guard.

“Twenty-five blind dates,” he said. He snorted and went on. “One a week since my cupcake moved out. Crazy, eh? My head’s not quite right these days.”

Julie looked at him and wondered if she could have heard right. So there was someone else as mad as she was wandering around? A date every week for months on end? With a different person every single time?! Nobody, she thought, in their right minds would do that.

“Do you want to go out again?” she asked abruptly, surprising herself. Pete looked surprised too, and Julie could tell that he’d never been asked that question in all those dates. She could sympathize with the other women – he wasn’t a very good conversationalist and seemed a bit odd – but for some reason, she suddenly couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again. It was as if his own brand of unique madness made her feel a little less crazy herself. “Not on Saturday, though,” she added quickly. “We can go out on Friday.”

“Alright,” he said. “Sure, yeah.”

They parted chastely in the parking lot, shaking hands rather than bumping cheeks. Pete walked to his car with an odd, off-balance gait, and Julie unlocked her own car and watched him go. She felt repulsed by him, but also fascinated. Maybe, and a bit of a grin began to form on her face as she thought this, maybe she’d just found the subject of her next book.

 

 

Joshua

Josh put down the Starbucks paper cup and breathed a sigh of relief. He’d been craving his chai latte since three in the morning when he first woke up. The dreams were back, and he was sleeping worse than ever. His therapist kept asking him if he could describe them, and he tried, he really did, but the problem was that the moment he talked about his dreams, they’d flee his mind. It was as if the contents of his horrible nightly escapades were only alive when they could torture him, and him alone. If he tried to confide in anyone else, he would suddenly find that he couldn’t grasp any detail of dream. He wouldn’t find the words to describe the monstrous visions or the frightening scenarios, and he’d finally fall silent, muttering feebly that he knew the dreams were horrible but simply couldn’t remember them at present. His therapist thought that he was repressing something, and was very worried about him.

If he was being honest with himself, Josh was worried too. The last time he’d had the dreams was when he started law school. They’d caused him to drop out after a while, and he’d spent almost a year in a haze of pot, occasional boozing and general self-destruction. It took him a long time to force his life back together. He’d felt like Humpty Dumpty for years, putting himself together piece by piece because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men had given up on him.

Now he was thirty-five and was the manager of the distribution offices in a company that sold furniture. It wasn’t an impressive job by any means – his office was one of many that were spread around the country, and so there were some fifty other people in the company with the exact same job title as him. That wasn’t to say that he hadn’t worked hard to reach this position. He had, and he’d suffered for a few years at the entry level customer service before he began climbing the ranks. All in all, he was pleased with his job. He had his own office on the tenth floor with a view of the courtyard that his building shared with the other five in the office complex that was comfortably nestled in Downtown.

Josh rubbed his eyes and tried to wake himself up. Since three that morning he’d dozed on and off until six, when the alarm clock rang and his day began. He’d gone to bed at one in the morning, so he had, in reality, a total of two hours sleep. He smiled as he took another sip of his chai latte. At least his slow and tentative relationship with Mia wasn’t being screwed up by his dreams. She’d kissed him sweetly last night after they’d enjoyed a glass of red wine at the bar he took her to after dinner. They’d talked for hours, sipping their wine slowly in a corner table and enjoying the dim light of the bar that made them feel as if they were all alone. When he’d walked her home, she’d kissed him at the door, called him a perfect gentleman, and then, with that ever-surprising grin of hers, she’d ducked into the building and shut the door firmly behind her. He’d walked back to his own apartment in a delirious daze.

Mia had been part of his life for two years, although she hadn’t realized how much she’d meant to him. She’d been serving him chai lattes, apple pie slices and chocolate chunk cookies at Starbucks almost every morning since she’d started working there and Josh had fallen for her just a little bit more every day. He’d finally gotten the guts to ask her out after she’d been promoted to assistant manager of her branch and wasn’t working at the counter anymore. Josh’s therapist was very proud of him and felt that this was definitely a positive step forward in his constant struggle to keep the normal, functioning life he’d built for himself.

He hadn’t told Mia about his dreams. He hadn’t even tried. They’d been going out for over a month, but Mia, as she told him last night, was in a precarious emotional state. She had survived a badly abusive relationship and had abstained from going out with men for about three years. Josh was the first man she’d felt comfortable enough to go out with, and her own therapist, she reported to Josh, was proud of her as well. They’d joked about having a conference call with their respective psychologists and fixing them up. They’d also wondered idly whether the two were married already without their patients’ knowledge.

But Mia had kissed him, finally, and Josh was ecstatic. As he finally turned from the window in his office toward his computer and the work that was waiting for him, he decided that he’d call her later that afternoon and tell her that he’d had an incredible time last night and that he hoped to see her again. Soon.

He reached for his diary and checked which tasks he’d written down that were a priority that morning. He decided to get the phone calls over with first and then turn to the stack of reports that were awaiting his scrutiny. It was as he clicked on the speaker-phone button that he remembered that Mia had been in his dream. His hand froze over the buttons and eventually the dial tone was replaced with the beep-beep-beep of a phone off the hook. Josh sat still as a stone as horrible visions flashed through his mind again, Mia’s face featuring clearly in them.

Finally, he turned off the speaker and held up his Starbucks cup. He stared at it, unseeing, and turned it around and around in his hands. Not Mia, he thought, pleading with his subconscious. Please, not Mia…

The Later Bus – A Rantle

RANTLE: A newfangled word, invented by a slightly ignorant writer, RANTLE means a rant that is also a ramble, specifically of the kind that is told (or written) in story form.

“There’s only one seat left,” the bus driver warned me. I looked quickly at my watch. I had time to spare, but not enough to take the chance of waiting for the next bus. I climbed up the steep steps and give the bus driver a few bills.

“Two ways, please,” I asked politely. I’m always polite to bus drivers. So many people are mean to them – abrupt and impatient and assuming, and I hate that. I know what it’s like to service people in one capacity or another, and every job like that is made better by nice people.

I got the change from the driver, thanked him and took my ticket from the little machine that spit the little pieces of paper out. As always, I wasn’t sure if the ticket was stuck or if I simply wasn’t pulling hard enough. I tugged at the ticket for another few seconds and it gave way. I tucked it it my wallet for the return journey.

The driver started backing up from the pick-up spot so that he could leave. The central bus-station always feels like an airport in that way – the bus is just like the plane, taxiing to the takeoff point and then setting off from the station and into the city streets until it reaches the highway where it goes up to full speed.

I looked down the aisle and began to walk, looking for the promised seat that was supposed to be left. I though I saw it, but then realized that there was a small girl sitting next to the window. I continued on until I realized that the one seat was being occupied by someone’s extremely large bag. Darn. I should have waited for the next bus. I ended up sitting on the steps near the back door.

The bus was hot and stuffy, and so much the worse where I was sitting. I didn’t have a window or a vent, just a solid door in front of me, two small trashcans next to me and the step behind me that led up to the aisle. I was sweating within minutes. Not the most pleasant experience in the world, I’ll grant you. As I said, I should have waited for the next bus to come.

I took my mp3 player out of my bag and chose a suitably amusing, energetic and yet disturbing band to listen to while I played one of the stupid games on the player to pass the time. My choice must have been a good one since the ride seemed to be over relatively quickly, although my skirt kept sticking to my knees and I had to shift constantly to be comfortable on the hard steps.

Getting off the bus should have been a wonderful experience – emerging from the musty, dusty space into real air. But, as luck would have it, today has been much hotter and more humid than the weekend was, and so when I got off the bus first I felt as if I’d dunked myself into a fetid and stagnant pool of hot water. Within moments, I was sweating worse than ever.

Now I had a choice. Either I could wait for another bus to take me two stops – about half a mile if that – or I could walk the distance. Despite the heat and the humidity in the air that made me feel as if I were walking through soup, I decided to walk. I looked at my watch again as I pulled my book out. Too early – I should have waited for the next bus. There was nothing I could do about it anymore, though. So I opened my book and began to walk. As usual, I didn’t collide with anyone or anything, which is to the good, but I also had a hard time enjoying the short walk because of the sun falling on my exposed arms and heating my black skirt and tank top so much that it felt as if they were burning onto me permanently.

It took me barely ten minutes to reach my destination – early, as I’d thought. Much too early. I couldn’t find a bench that had trees shading it and took a walk up to a park and then back down to the street, searching for a good place to sit in vein. I realized I was thirsty, so I went into a well-conditioned super-market to buy a bottle of water. I often wish that there were public drinking fountains here, like there are in much of Italy. Then I wouldn’t have to pay for water that is almost the same as tap water, except that the industry that makes the bottles that hold it are ruining the environment. But I digress. I bought the water and wished I could stay in the supermarket and continue enjoying the cold air that was being pumped from somewhere unseen. I was on the verge of asking the clerk behind the counter if there was a place I could sit for a few minutes there, but then realized that the man would say that there wasn’t and would shoo me out. Instead of dealing with the humiliation and unpleasentness of that, I just payed and left.

I finally found a shady spot, took out my computer, and typed up my account of the last two hours. The moral of the story? Yes, I should have taken the later bus.

Those

There are those who browse, touching the books as they go.

There are those who straighten the books as they pass over them, as if, like me, it bothers them to see a messy booth.

There are those who look down resolutely, in denial that there’s someone on the other side.

There are those who look up if you greet them with cheer and a smile.

There are those who ignore even that.

There are those who watch other people, who pick up a book someone has just bought, or snatch it up if they didn’t want it.

There are those who listen in to my conversations with customers and try to glean information from them so that they won’t need to talk to me themselves.

There are those who think they’re witty and who continue to badger on with their friends and block the booth with sheer volume and an annoying aura.

There are those who are excited to buy books.

There are those who buy books only because they’re on sale or even for free with their frequent-flier cards.

There are those who tell the stranger next to them that the book he or she is holding is good.

There are those who tell the stranger next to them that the book he or she is holding is bad, even though they’ve only read the reviews.

There are those who are so passionate that they almost have tears in their eyes, and they do my job for me, convincing people to buy this or that book.

There are those who are mean, for no reason at all.

There are those who are nice, maybe because I’m cheerful, but maybe for no reason at all.

There are those who are old.

There are those who are young.

There are those with their lovers.

There are those with their children.

There are those who don’t care a whit about books.

There are those who love them as much as I do.