In the Armpits of the Night

Excerpt from current NaNoWriMo

You didn’t tell him your name, you realize as you walk back into your house, if you can call it that. A shack resting on bricks is a description more suited. It’s a moving house, the kind that can be carried on trucks to places far away and made out to be charming and quaint. The kind of house children lean out of windows to watch as they go by because they don’t know that whole structures can move on trucks big enough to hold them.
You only told him your position. Your role. Your so-called calling. That you’re a priest. You don’t know why. Maybe it was the color of him, the starch darkness of it, the way he lay on the ground and thought you were a threat. It reminded you of your friends back in the eighties, when things were bad, how some of them dropped away from you. Years before you joined the Catholic faith, of course. Back when everything and everyone you knew was first disgusted and a few years later, scared.
You woke up tonight not because of the boy in your graveyard–your realize how proprietary you’ve become of the stones, old and new, burnished and faded to nothing. The grass, which it is not your job to tend, is long and messy because the person whose job it is to tend to it has not come around for two weeks. Sick mother, he said over the phone, in a heavy accent and a voice so strung out that you know he’s lying. You’ll have to do something soon. Reach out? Visit? Just call a bureaucrat and ask for someone new? Make the phone call yourself to fire him, the poor Dominican man who still lives with his mother and father and grandmother even though he’s thirty, because he can’t hold down a job?
You should have more sympathy, more compassion. But you don’t. Your life for the past twenty-five years has been not so much a lie as a fabrication stitched together from truths and half-truths, snippets of belief sewn alongside a safe escape, and tonight was a stark reminder of what you’ve been missing, what you miss. You could see it in his eyes, the youth’s, the boy who missed his friend a little too much, a little too hard, a little too lovingly. You recognized it in him because you’ve seen it in the mirror for years. Which is why you don’t have one in your house, why you smashed the one you had as an heirloom from your mother, your hateful mother who gave you a dying gift of a gilded mirror with a Post-It note on the back reading “Behave.” As if you hadn’t been. As if you hadn’t already reformed your ways and become the man you are today.
The teakettle is whistling away when you get inside and you rush to turn the gas off. You forgot you’d put it on and left it on. You could have burned out the bottom of the kettle, which is darker now than it used to be but still usable. You could have started a fire. You could have let the flames take your possessions, your house, your calling. The pictures. You collapse in a chair. Not the pictures. Never the pictures. You’ve tried to burn those before. It hasn’t worked. Though if it were out of your hands… In God’s…
But God didn’t burn down your house. And He hasn’t struck you down yet, despite your sins. He is forgiving, like they told you He would be. And He is merciful, which is not the same. You get up and pour your tea, saying your prayers silently, thanking the God and the man who became God and was God all along for your salvation, for the life you’ve come to live. For your safety and security.
A knock on the door makes you spill hot liquid on your hand and you curse, your usual goddamnit, which somehow you haven’t managed to train yourself out of. And the knock comes again as you’re running the cold tap on your hand and apologizing for the curse, for blaspheming. You think it must be the boy, the boy in love with a boy who’s dead, the boy whose eyes you could have drowned in and whose voice, traced with the slightest English accent, you wanted to feel vibrating through his throat. Your insides jump. You have kept yourself away from temptation for so many years. If it falls into your lap, what will you do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? You haven’t listened to music in a long time, not music that is solely for pleasure, but you remember lyrics from before.
“Who is it?” you ask, because there is no peephole in the not-heavy door that could be broken by the slightest fisted or shouldered pressure.
“It’s me!”
You start breathing again and allow your shoulders to slump. It’s not the boy. Of course not. Even if he did dream the way you think he does, why would he come to you and yours about it? “Come on in,” you say and open the door.
“Finally.” She barrels in like a hurricane. Named for one, too, the one that started on the day she was born, on a rooftop above floating cars and carcasses. It was bad luck, you always think. But there’s no such thing as bad luck, you always remind yourself. Still.
“Hello, Kat.” She’s already sitting on a chair, her hands wrapped around your mug of tea. You turn to make another one, not wanting her to see the annoyance on your face. She’s quick to pick up on these things.
“Hello! It’s late,” she says. “Why are you still up?”
“Why did you come visit me if you thought I wouldn’t be up?”
“I wanted to wake you up! You’re always funner when you’re sleepy. And funnier.”
“More fun.”
“Funner.”
“More fun.”
“I checked. Online. Funner is okay now too.”
“Never mind.” It’s a losing battle and you know it. You don’t have internet in your own house , though ironically the church has free wi-fi that just doesn’t reach as far as your house, so you have to carry your laptop there and sit in a hard pew if you want to write emails or read articles.
“So what’re you doing?”
“I was having tea until you took it.” You’re over your annoyance now so you bop her on the nose with the new teabag before putting it in another mug of hot water to steep.
“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound apologetic.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Drinking your tea,” she says, grinning, which twists her upper lip to one side. She had a cleft pallet surgery when she was young; she’s never told you this, but the scarring on her lip, clearly not taken care of well after some reparative surgery or it would have gone away, has marked her. You looked up pictures to figure out what she could be scarred from and then wished you hadn’t. Children with mouths gaping open, some with their entire cheeks torn asunder-it made you wonder why they’d been marked that way. What they’d do later in life. What God’s plan was.
“Yes. You are. But why are you here?” You don’t need to add “this time” because you both know that’s what you’re really asking. Katrina shrugs and plays with the string of the teabag, tucking it in and out of itself in the knot you taught her how to make around the handle of the mug.
“He did it again.”
When she’d first started coming over after dark, after she’d met him at church and been to confession a few times, you were apprehensive about what “it” was. You thought “it” was even worse than it was. Not that her “it” isn’t bad enough. But-and it’s terrible that you think this way-it’s better than what your dad did to you when you were her age. You’d have exchanged those its in a heartbeat. Especially as your it, you believe, is what made you what you are and what led to your positive diagnosis, which led first to recklessness and then to self flagellation in the form of a different sort of recklessness, and finally led you here, to Him. But here she is, led to you by her him more than your Him.
You wait her out.
“With a belt this time.”
You want to wretch, though you’ve heard worse over the years, but usually with the pretense of a wall between you and the other. This girl, so vulnerable but trusting… What if you were someone like him, this so-called father of hers, rather than a Father whose vows and beliefs run entirely contrary to his? What if you were one of the priests whose behavior is so repugnant that finally they are being expelled, slowly but surely, or at least attacked in the court of public opinion? But Katrina, she knows you’re trustworthy. She sees you as you are and she knows that you’ll take her into your home and sit with her alone and that you will do nothing, not touch her, not hit her, not yell at her. You will listen to her and you won’t make the faces she’s seen on others. You will keep your face calm for her, to make it easier.
“With a belt, huh?”
“Yeah.”
“Was he really angry?”
“He was really drunk.”
“Ah, yes. Well. What was his reasoning?”
She shrugs again. Takes a sip of tea and then says “Fuck!” You give her a look. She mumbles an apology she doesn’t mean. “No. He was drunk.” As if that is explanation enough. “He smelled bad when he got home so I told him so and then he-” She mimes the lashes.
“That’s no reason. That’s an excuse.”
“I was mean.”
“No, honey. You were honest.”

Raggedy Ana Does It Again

Why does she do this to herself? Her arms are so pretty so shiny and squeaky clean skin soft like lovers say and here she lies in a bed of roses or rose drops or blood drops in a bathtub or red ties on the metal rails of a hospital bed.

…Mom Dad Someone

We’re right here, darling.

You are

Yes, can’t you see us?

I can see I don’t know what I’m seeing where am I how and why am I tied I don’t like

You tried to do it again, sweetheart.

I did

Yes.

How this time

The same as usual.

No different

No.

No change

No.

And she starts to laugh, the maniacal laughter that comes from being found freshly alive in a heapful of bodies, all the ones that live in her head, all with her face on them. But none of the others go the way she can, they’re all mangled or strangled or squashed against concrete or cartop or poisoned with malaise and arsenic but she, the one found alive no matter how far she burrows down into the heap is the only one who can’t get it right, too enamored with the process to let it go all the way.

Have I been here long

No, hon, only a couple of days. I miss you, though.

Are you sleeping with her already

No! Why would I do that? I love you. Only you.

You won’t not for long trust me

Yes, I will.

Okay

She will heal again, one sealed stitch at a time, a rag doll more than anything, dragging on everyone’s nerves, grating their elephantine skin and peeling their waxen faces and breaking them until they’ve broken her to fix her and put her back together again like a watch without a face and only the hands moving correctly, finally, until the next time someone, her most likely but sometimes someone else, accidentally or on purpose reaches into the clock and wrenches the hands up and out and breaks them, or twists them the wrong way until the time is all gone and out of shape.

Hello is anyone there

I knew you’d leave all of you proved you right didn’t I

Oh there you are you just don’t want to talk because you’re crying

…yes.

The last one lasted longer than you you’re leaving now aren’t you

…yes.

Okay

And she will still heal again, and it won’t matter how many times she is broken and picks herself up again, or gets picked up again, or has the crows pick her clean as carrion again, she will always go back to the old scars, she doesn’t pick new ones, it’s been long enough that she has her favorite places where things open again and open so well and so tasty, the blood melts in her mouth like curry, pudding, chocolate cake with candles in it. Burning the roof of her mouth. Scorching her until she laughs again for no good reason other than the swallowed cigarette trick she remembers from an old black and white movie and always imagined must have felt like this.

Good morning. How are you feeling?

Cat got your tongue?

Oh, I see. Yes, I see. That’ll definitely sting for a few days. But it’ll heal. The mouth is the fastest part of our bodies to heal, did you know that?

It’s because of all the blood vessels there. The mouth is very resilient.

hith ith

Better you try not to speak until it heals, sugar. The doctor will come later and see if we can remove these ties, okay?

Oh ey

Good girl. Or woman, I should say, shouldn’t I? Forty-six, you’re as old as my oldest daughter.

That’s right. Just buzz if you need water or anything. It’ll heal fast, I promise.

Let It Not Be Said

“Ma, come out of the shower.”
“No.”
“Ma. Ma, come on.”
“No!”
Melanie stands outside the bathroom door, practicing the now nightly ritual in which her mother locks herself in the bathroom, gets in the shower with at least some of her garments still on, and refuses to come out. There is only one bathroom in the small house, and the closest neighbors are over five miles away.
In retrospect, Melanie thinks she should have had her mother move to Atlanta with her rather than moving back to her childhood home, which used to be a farm but is now a small house with acres of land rented out to corporate growers. Where a stable once stood, there is now a rotting semblance of a building where termites, the exterminator told her, were impossible to get out now. All he could do was protect the house from their spread. Which was something, at least, Melanie thought, hoping that the extra favors she’d given him helped to make sure that he did the job right.
A girl could get mighty lonely living with her possibly senile, maybe paranoid, and most definitely difficult mother for over a year.
“Ma, I need to pee.”
“No! They’re coming to get me, don’t you get it?” This is hissed now, as Melanie’s mother moves from her obstinate stance to one that had a reasoning, whether invented or truly believed.
“No one is coming for you.”
Silence.
Melanie sighs and walks away from the bathroom towards her childhood bedroom.
“Don’t leave me!” The cry echoes after her, but Melanie knows that if she were to rush back to the door, her mother would revert to nay-saying.
In her room, covered with posters of irrelevant and broken up boy-bands, models, and basketball players that Melanie didn’t bother to take down when she first moved in, she picks up the paperclip she’s been using for the last few nights.
“I’m here again, Ma,” she says, back at the door, on her knees in front of the doorknob.
“Go away! Let them find me! Save yourself, baby!” The cliches came fast and automatic, echoes of movies Melanie and her mother had watched over and over again, years ago. This is her mother’s grand performance, the role of a lifetime played by a woman who’d never wanted to be an actress. All she’d wanted to be was a rodeo rider, but that was only for boys when she was a girl, so she became a factory worker instead, and then a homemaker, and then an sort of Jill-of-all-trades when it came to anything involving a needle and thread. She altered wedding dresses, made baby clothing out of hand-me-down big brother rags, patched together old family quilts, and hid teenagers unwanted pregnancies for as long as she could by letting out hemlines and creating collage shirts that seemed like the height of alternative fashion, clashing patterns purposefully loud so as to distract from the bump of a belly under them.
There hasn’t been a needle in the house since Melanie moved in, soon after her mother tried to commit suicide with them, a process so ridiculous that Melanie almost started to laugh when she saw the doctor’s photos of her mother looking like she’d been to the acupuncturist and gotten up and wandered home before the treatment was over.
“Ma, I’m coming in now.” Melanie begins to pick the lock, deciding that tonight she will finally unscrew the doorknob and make the door unlockable for once and for all.
But her paperclip isn’t working. Or then again, it is working, she can hear and feel the lock moving but she still can’t open the door. “What have you done now?” she yells through the door.
“I’m only protecting myself, Mel! You of all people should understand that!”
Melanie regrets now more than ever having confessed her rape to her mother. It didn’t heal her, and it’s only given her mother more bizarre ammunition to use against her now. Melanie moves to the living room and then the kitchen and finds what she’s looking for – an absence. A chair missing. Her mother has used the old chair-under-the-doorknob thing. Melanie has always thought that this only works in movies, but as her mother is putting on a Raspberry-worthy performance at the moment, she assumes that her life is simply like this now. Melanie is nothing if not a realist.
“Ma?” Back at the door, she tries again. “Ma!”
“No!” It’s a screech.
“Okay, Ma, I’m going to go pee outside and then I’m going to bed without brushing my teeth.” Melanie walks to the front door and as she opens it she hears behind her the opening of the bathroom door.
Her mother, underwear soaking and her bra undone in the back but still dangling on its straps around her shoulders, stands in the doorway.
“Don’t be silly, Mel,” she says. “You can’t go to bed without brushing your teeth.” She traipses along the hallway to her bedroom and lies on top of the bedspread and stares at the ceiling. Melanie watches her for a moment and then goes back to the bathroom where the shower is still running. She shuts the water off, pees, brushes her teeth, and then returns to her mother’s room. She will dry her, dress her, and give her the medication she is still getting used to. She will put her to bed and kiss her goodnight. And then, as she does only every so often, Melanie will put on boxer shorts and a tank top and she’ll crawl into her mother’s bed and lie there, awake, listening to her mother breathing, snoring, dreaming. And Melanie will pretend that she is six, and that her mother’s snores help to put her asleep. And she will pretend that there will be cereal and chocolate milk in the morning and a yellow school bus stopping a mile down the road to take her to school. And she will remember her mother waking her up and telling her she sleepwalked into her big grownup bed again, and herself pretending that she did indeed, and that it wasn’t on purpose.

Never Has She Ever

1. She never listened to her father’s absence of breath.
2. She never said No when it really mattered.
3. She never said Yes when it didn’t.
4. She never watched her mother cry in the mornings.
5. She never learned how to prevent everyone else’s pain.
6. She never learned how to prevent her own.
7. She never dove in headfirst knowing what was waiting on the other side.
8. She never clarified the terms of her contract.
9. She never bothered to create legally binding contracts for her clients.
10. She never paid her taxes without someone else’s help.
11. She never corrected her own grammar if she thought she could get away with it.
12. She never became a ballerina.
13. Or an actress.
14. Or a dishwasher.
15. She never stopped loving anyone.
16. She never liked someone in the same way as they liked her because she believed that it was a human impossibility to like and be equally liked in return.
17. She never learned how to hate.
18. She never learned how to avoid jealousy.
19. Or envy (which is different).
20. Or schadenfreude.
21. Or guilt.
22. She never learned how to horseback ride.
23. She never took a step off a twenty-five story high building.
24. She never shot herself full of things she wished she could, even for the story.
25. She never felt entirely sure.

Gold-Ringed Syringe

“Put it in me already,” Nell says through the strap in her teeth. I tease her, waving it slowly in front of her, the beautiful gold needle that has a ring to one side for one’s thumb, to keep it steady, a ring which is almost an exact replica of those surrounding our fingers.

“We’re celebrating today, remember?” I say. She nods vigorously, her veins popping out, her head pulling back to pull the pure leather belt around her upper arm even tighter. I’m worried she’ll end up cutting off her bloodstream entirely. “Calm down.” It’s a command, not a request, and she lets the strap loosen just enough. “Good. Good girl.”

She moans, and her eyes are brimming with tears, which she learned to bring on artificially in some acting class in college, but it convinces me and I finally put the needle to her vein, slip it under the skin and draw back, see the blood, no air bubbles, and push back, plunging all the way down, all the way into her. She lets the strap loose, or it falls out of her mouth, and her eyes roll up to the ceiling and she smiles lazily before even that amount of work is too much for muscles and her face goes slack. I pick her up – I’m taller and stronger than her, always have been, they call me the butch, even though they don’t know what a top she is in the bedroom – and lay her down on the couch.

I watch her, ignoring her occasional mumbles about things we need to remember to do, or things she wants me to do to her now. She’s not gone to the world, not entirely, but she is in the land of cotton wool lightness and lying down keeps her safe. Plenty of people walk around like this, but Nell and I have never understood how it’s possible.

My phone buzzes on the coffee table and I pick it up. It’s one of my clients. I automatically begin to pace.

“Hello, Tonya, how are you?”

She tells me how she is and begins to ask about her portfolio, about what I’ve done with her investments this week. She’s not seeing the rise she wants to see.
“Tonya, darling, don’t you trust me? I would never steer you wrong. I can tell you that the two new companies are going places, you just need to wait until the end of the week, you’ll see – they have something new up their sleeve is my guess because they’ve been throwing a lot of hints out there.”

She continues to complain and I sit back down on the coffee table and only listen with half an ear. I watch Nell, smiling again sometimes, her eyes opening and closing slowly, an air bubble popping through her lips and making her simulate a giggle though no sound comes out. I reassure Tonya, finally, and tell her I’ll call her on Friday. I need to stop giving clients my cell number, I remind myself, but they need it, unfortunately. I’m extraordinary at what I do – otherwise how could Nell and I afford this place, this syringe, the clean as fuck dope – and people who make money off of me are paying commissions up the wazoo so I better be available to wipe their ass if need be.

There is only one day I don’t answer the phone, and that’s the day when Nell does it to me. We take turns, once a week her, once a week me. We’re careful. We love it. We still go to meetings, and fake our way through chip after chip. Every one we get we bore a hole into and string it on this long ribbon that we hang on our balcony. It rattles, our personal version of wind chimes.
We like the meetings, the validation, the friends we’ve made, the comradery. And we feel fine.

Once a week for each of us. That’s it. That’s nothing. And it doesn’t count because we monitor one another. We’ll never hit bottom again. Bottom wasn’t fun, and we’re both happy to be here, up top. Nell’s massage business is booming and I’m back on Wall Street like nothing ever happened. So what if I met Nell at rehab. So what if you’re not supposed to date there, or in your first year after. It’s okay. We both talk to our sponsors about it. You don’t run away from the love of your life when you encounter her, no matter where you both are.

Nell raises her head a few hours later. I’m curled up at the other end of the couch with a book, playing with the syringe between my fingers. I’ve always had restless hands. “More?” she asks. I smile, and go and get the rest of the kit. What’s one more time in one day? Still nothing.

Rocks are Solid but the Heart Goes Squish [FICTION]

Hush, my mother tells me. I have been through this and we were lucky to have loved so deeply. But why, Mama, if you loved so deeply, I ask, did it happen? She shrugs. It happens, she says. It is complicated, she says. So why, I ask, cannot I be complicated? Because, she says, no one will like you in the end.

Hush, my best friend, dressed in two guises, tells me. Don’t breathe a word, for you will surely be injured. By rocks and spitballs, stomping cloven hooves and razor sharp nails. But, I say, my skin has been pierced, my heart is hard, my limbs are strong and my mind is sound. Is it, my best friend, dressed in two guises, asks? Is it sound? It is sound enough. My best friend, dressed in two guises, shakes her head and sighs.

Hush, my therapist tells me. Dial down your honesty. Nothing good will come of it. It will serve to hurt you and the others. It will cause a break and a fall; a heart pounding resuscitation may be needed. Why, I say, can I not be honest when honesty is the most challenging communication possible? With honesty, I remind my therapist, life is so much more interesting, especially as others do not practice it fully yet and may not ever. My therapist reminds me that my honesty has killed me before and I remind my therapist that it has also brought me back to life. I am like a curious cat that way, coming back satisfied, licking my chops from the bloody heart of a pigeon caught outside. Remorse and regret come later, like any human killer.

Hush, my married friend tells me. And I think, what if her husband was the one, what if she were the one too, what if their life was what I wanted and could not get? She would understand, she more than anyone, but she would not accept. Few would. Hush, she tells me. Write it out, the frustration and fear. Write out the rocks and do not throw them at your heart. You think it is solid, she says, but it is not. It goes squish when you hold it.

Hush, goes my heart. Hush all the voices other than mine, she says. Hush them all and speak out. Silence is worse than sticks and stones. Ask Alice innocent questions, ask why and how and wherefore art thou. Ask and buckle the answers tight around your waist and squeeze, until you cannot digest and cannot breathe, until your internal organs go squish like me, like your heart, an organ without voice or reason. Listen to my practical pumps of blood, my heart tells me. I have four rooms. You have filled two and one is brimming. You can stand to lose one chamber to a game of Russian Roulette.

Go Away

A chalky man walks around Dora’s brain. He’s hard to pin down, never stops long enough for her to get a good look. She knows he is a man, vaguely, or believes he is, because of the effect he has on her. He makes her squirm, not with pleasure, but with discomfort, as so many others have done before.

But the chalk man, unlike the others, doesn’t berate her. He doesn’t mutilate her. He doesn’t corrode her veins and swatches of her skin with verbal acid. His silence is far more terrifying. It is a waiting silence, a tense and pent-up silence, the kind of silence that you can pull like a piece of chewed up gum, pull and pull and pull until it snaps back and sticks to both fingers and is impossible to get off.

Dora walks through her life with this chalk man threatening her. His blurry outline haunts her when she works at the wood shop, overseeing the new people’s handling of saw and sander. He doesn’t distract her – Dora is not to be distracted – but she is as aware of him as of the cyst on her thigh that scrapes every time she walks. He is a physicality that she can put aside, that she can work with, but that she cannot erase with a hot compress.

One day, the chalk man walks through the doors of her workshop and looks around. Looks for her. Frozen, she stands next to a cabinet she has been decorating with delicate carvings, and sees him see her. She feels him come closer. She hears his voice inside her mind and ears both.

“Hi,” he says. “Long time no see.”

She wants to say I love you. She wants to say come back. She wants to say take me. She wants to say you hurt me. She wants to say, and touch, and forgive, and relive; she wants to drink beer in Munich and wine in Madrid; she wants to buy a house and decorate it with her furniture, and she wants him to carry her heavy things inside, to carry her inside too; she wants to erase his erasure of her.

“Go away,” she says. The live chalk man turns, a look of true disappointment blooming around his mouth and crow’s-feet eyes, but the chalk man in her head solidifies and keeps walking in circles.

It will take another year for the chalk man to blur again, to become unknown again, to restore Dora’s ability to keep her hands steady enough to work again. When the chalk man is blurry, he is safer. Not safe, never safe, but safer.

Journeymen

The first job of the day was simple. So simple that Rush could have done it in his sleep. An old woman hovered near him as he flicked up the fuse switches that had been overloaded and shut down by the summer heat and the overuse of air-conditioners.

“You have to be careful using the A/C, ma’am,” he told her. “Don’t turn the oven and the television and all the fans on along with it.” She nodded, eyes glassy with medical grade weed that reeked from her thick flannel nightgown. She was bald. Probably dead soon, Rush thought. He left the building, got  back into his truck, and checked his list for the next job.

As he drove, he considered his recent predicament. Rush had never been in love with a married man before. It was a novel experience, refreshing as the cold spring near his first foster home. The good one. The spring had been icy and sharp on his bony feet, the tingle as close to arousal as he’d gotten as a child.

The married man was not unkind to Rush. He was a friend, sort of, a distant sort. They went out to drinks with the others occasionally. Rush had met him on the job. They were both union electricians, though Rush was only an apprentice and the married man was a journeyman. Rush knew this was part of the attraction. He was lower in the deck of cards than the married man, whose experience, precision with his tools, and dedication to hours of work made him a Jack, where Rush was  only an eight of hearts.

Rush’s second stop of the day proved trickier. It was at one of the two community theater spaces in town and their equipment was old. He had to untangle wires, find their sources, stream new copper wire into select areas, running back and forth to the fuse box to turn the power on and off to see if things were fixed yet. He worked right through his lunch hour.

The journeyman was not only married, but married to a woman. This too was refreshing but in a less pleasant way. Rush had been attracted to plenty of unavailable gay men before; celebrities, prudes, closeted homos playing the straight and narrow for their Catholic parents. But never in his life had Rush felt something like this for a straight man. A married straight man. A married straight journeyman thirteen years his senior. The allure felt Austinian, Jamesian, Forsterian. Rush read things. He knew the married man did too. It was one of the things that had drawn them together, to an extent. An almost shameful love of reading.

The last job of the day for Rush was at a faraway location, out in the suburbs. He parked his trucked and saw that another was there already, its bed filled with similar equipment. This happened sometimes, double bookings, mixed listings, but Rush was unwilling to slack so he went up to the house anyway. The married man was there already, on a ladder in the garage. A woman with long nails painted a deep purple that looked more like shit-brown was hovering beneath him murmuring “Oh, be careful. Please be careful. Oh, please be careful.” She sounded like she was making love to the married journeyman, her voice breathy, her head thrown back to look up at him, her mouth hanging open between words. The married man said nothing, but continued to examine the wires surrounding the apparently defunct lighting system in the garage.

“Hi,” Rush said. The woman looked down and back up in confusion. The married man glanced at Rush and smiled.

“You’re the second one they sent. Guess they don’t think I can do the job.”

Rush laughed because he knew he was supposed to. “Need help now I’m here?”

“Nah. I’ll be good. It’s fine.”

“Okay. See ya.”

Rush fled the garage and got back into his truck. His heart was racing. The woman in the garage would keep making eyes at the straight married journeyman. Rush would go home and watch straight porn for the first time in his life, trying to figure out what the fuss was all about.

 

On this Mountain

Mountain

“There is nothing a mountain can do to hurt you,” Brian said. We were in the car, heading towards one of his favorite hiking spots, and he could see my chest rise and fall as my breathing quickened and the way my cheeks got hot and my fists clenched. Anxiety, that’s what my doctor said.

Screw my doctor.

“I beg to differ,” I told Brian, except that I didn’t, because what was the point? He was taking me on this trip with an explicit and very obvious reason. A proposal. This wasn’t exposure therapy. This was a romantic gesture.

Screw romantic gestures.

Brian and I had history. Two years of it. And six weeks of dating before that, if it counts. “Meeting through an online dating website does not a forever make,” my mother told me when, in my honeymoon phase glee, called to tell her that I finally had a boyfriend.

Screw my mom too. Except she was right. At least in my case. Still, screw her. Screw her for being right. Screw her for planting that seed of doubt that’s now grown into a weeping willow that I can hide inside and feel safe in.

And then this mountain business.

Brian pulled our backpacks out of the back seats of his SUV, which he called his truck even though it wasn’t, and gave me one. It was lighter than his, almost for sure, but it was heavy enough to reset the disaster reel in my mind. Falling down backwards down the trail, falling sideways off the train and into a chasm, slipping and breaking a leg or an arm or a rib or my head, being attacked by a wild boar or a black bear or a snake or—

“Ready?”

“Yup.”

I followed him towards the base of the trail. I watched his boots thunk down and tried to match his pace. I had always been a devout shoe-watcher. My mom always told me to put my chin up, to be proud, to let others stare at my skin if they had to but to know that I was beautiful. I didn’t know how to explain her that looking down had nothing to do with any of that. Nobody knew where to place me, so everyone put me in a comfortable box and didn’t see me as a thug, because I wasn’t big or a man or dark enough to be a thug. I knew thugs, real ones and ones who just looked it, and they didn’t think I belonged to them either. Mom thought I belonged everywhere. That I was some free-spirited sprite like her, able to jump through environments and homes and societies like an acrobat. Instead, I put my head down and found things that were interesting and similar everywhere. It was easier to move around when I knew that no matter where we went, I’d have shoes to look at. Almost everyone wore shoes. The ones who didn’t, I knew, were even more on the outside than I was.

Brian’s shoes were sturdy yellow Timberlands. I’ll say this for him – they were broken in, not shiny and new. He really was a hiker. He said he was many other things that he wasn’t (tender, intelligent, original) but this one thing was true. He loved the mountains. I used to love that about him.

On the trail, Brian made me go in front of him and kept up a running commentary, so I could never forget where we were.

“Careful of that rock, babe. There’s a tree branch coming up on your left. We’re going to curve here, so don’t look down to the left, okay? It’s not that far but I know it freaks you out so just don’t look. There you go. Good girl.”

Idiot. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I lived in cities all my life. I was afraid of nature. Of this mountain we were on. Of what would happen at its summit.

It was beautiful, I was big enough to admit that, even with my sulky silence. The air smelled different, tasted like cold water when I breathed it in. The trail itself was nothing special, but the views of other mountains was more impressive than the view I was used to: a bunch of identical high rises in what was called, in every city I’d been to, the ghetto.

I was still scared of the mountains. Man made disasters I could understand. I grew up seeing people get into fights that left them bloody. I knew gunshots when I heard them. Sirens were a constant, and the sound of pounding meat as cops beat up on other people was more familiar than any tree. I had no idea what trees were around us. I didn’t know more than a handful of names for tree: birches, furs, weeping willows, regular willows. Apple trees. I knew there were more, but it’s not necessary knowledge for a city-dweller.

An hour in, when Brian told me we were halfway there, I stopped. He bumped into me. We fell. I screamed, even though we were nowhere near an edge. We were firmly in between large rocky bits, on a trail that made a little valley between them. There was dirt in my mouth and Brian was cursing, and he got up and tried to help me, but I only turned over off my stomach and sat there, spitting out dirt and taking swigs from my water bottle and spitting them out too.

“You’re wasting our water,” Brian said.

“I thought you said we had enough for four treks like this,” I told him with a thick tongue, still trying to expel the feeling of dirt from my mouth.

“That still doesn’t mean you should be wasting any. What if something happened?”

“You said nothing could happen.”

He shut up, knowing it was better not to argue with me when I was like this. I would win. My logic was as curving and twisted as a Möbius strip. Those I knew about. I was one of the ones who paid attention at school. Every school I went to, the math or science teacher (sometimes both) did the Möbius strip trick for us, trying to show us how cool it was, how it defied logic or didn’t or something. Once it was an art teacher who showed us how to make one.

Brian wouldn’t sit. He stayed standing, bouncing on his toes. Everything was going wrong, as far as he was concerned. I wasn’t having fun. It was getting colder than he’d meant it to get. And we weren’t moving, which meant he wouldn’t be able to time his proposal with the pre-sunset colors.

“I want to go back down,” I said. He kicked a pebble around with his foot.

“After all this way?”

“We’re only halfway. You said.”

He didn’t say anything. A gust of wind blew through our clothes and hair. It smelled delicious. I wanted to grab it in handfuls and put it in my pocket and breathe it in every time I had to pass the garbage room and the hallway of my apartment building which smelled like piss.

“I’m going to say no, Brian,” I finally said.

“I know.”

“Then why did–”

“I thought the mountain might change your mind.”

I snorted. “And you say you’re barely Indian.”

He was a half blood like me. No one knew where to place him either. It had been part of what drew us together originally. There was a lot of ground to cover when it came to identity. We had an endless supply of conversational material. Not a day passed when we wouldn’t call or text each other with the latest slur, awkward question, or odd look directed at us.

“Yeah, well.” He was quiet, a shoe-watcher, looking down at his Timberlands and moving them around, back and forth, a tiny dance of discomfort.

“I still love you,” I said.

“You do?”

“I just don’t know how much yet. I don’t know if it’s a forever love.”

“I do,” he said.

“I know you do.”

“Okay, come on, get up,” he said, helping me to my feet.

We began walking down, him in front this time. Either he didn’t want to look at me or he trusted me to walk well enough on my own now. Maybe both. I followed him, keeping an eye on where he placed his feet, and tried to put mine in the same spots he did. His stride was wider than mine. I had to stretch to match it sometimes. I was a game. I was having more fun now. I pointed out birds I’d never seen before, and the shapes I saw in the shadows of trees. Brian answered when I spoke, and I could hear a smile in his voice. Maybe even relief. Maybe I just wanted that part.

We unloaded our backpacks into the backseat of the truck that wasn’t and got into the front. I reached over to kiss him, and he kissed me back. I could feel the lump of a box in the pocket of his flannel shirt when he leaned against me. I put my hand on it.

“Keep it,” I whispered in his ear. “Let’s wait and see.”

He drew away and started the car. “Maybe next time,” he said as he drove us out of the parking lot, which felt more familiar to me than the mountain dust clinging to my clothes and hair. “Maybe we’ll make it to the top, next time.”

 

 

 

The story above got an honorable mention from the judge at Hour of Writes, who was reading the pieces blindly. 

Image / flickr: Doug Wheller

The Barista

cafeSee the scene: a table made of real wood; chairs too; a drone of unintelligible conversation punctured by ire and laughter (they make themselves heard above any din); a man, a woman; a beer, a coffee; one tipsy, one too sober for her own good.

See me, behind a counter also made of real wood. Reinforced with metal hinges. The structure must be sound. It has to fulfill health and safety regulations. Our kitchen has no wood, I believe. Wood absorbs moisture, I imagine. There is varnish on the counter, to prevent this very problem.

I watch them. They are no more or less interesting than the others here. But I take turns, and give each table its due. Even the empty ones. Especially the empty ones. Those allow me to think about what I saw, what I heard.

But now, it is this couple’s turn. Theirs, at their wooden table, one tipsy and happy, the other listlessly merry, There are many kinds of happiness in the world. Theirs is momentary.

“Can I tell you a story idea? I’m tipsy.”
“Please!”
“Okay, so-” but the tipsy one is cut off, because I am there, not-so-surreptitiously picking up the empties, mug and bottle alike. He is beautiful, this man, and I want him to notice me. I smile. He says, “Thank you.” I stop smiling. The sober one doesn’t look at me at all. She is checking her phone. She’s one of the workaholics. I’ve seen her here before. Only memorable because of her piercings. She is not interesting. She is only average.

I wait until they leave, and I follow them. The beautiful man, he gets on the subway heading downtown. The same subway I take.

I will look for him now. In every car. On every ride. He is not more or less interesting than the others I see every day. He is only more beautiful. No one is interesting. This I have learned from countless observations of the fourteen wooden tables, three-seat bar, and twelve-seater old slab of concrete where students clack on keyboards and read Kierkegaard with furrowed brows.

No one is interesting.

 

 

 

Image / Beshef