Short Story: Tristan

Rain again today. Tristan shuddered beneath his thin jacket and could not tell if the crash he heard was thunder or an unidentified rumbling from across the docks. He knew it was probably just another dolly loaded up with backbreaking crates of fish. The only thing he could smell was fish, anyway. For all he knew, the boxes he moved could contain illegal firearms or piles of drugs. Despite years on the job, acting as a beacon at the end of the pier, he had never bothered to peek inside to satisfy his curiosity. His mind has always been a more interesting place. How else could he stand to work the docks?

His coworkers avoided talking to him. It was easier that way. Hardened men of sea and shore, they all had experience on ships as well as land. Their tanned faces were cracked like mud baked by the sun, and they wore more or less the same ensemble of flannel and denim through the year. Their unattractiveness was a badge of honor to them. They wanted to deny the modern world by carrying on the tradition of hating their jobs, drinking too much beer and whiskey, and sharing a superiority complex over anyone whose career did not involve physical labor.

With Tristan, it was different. There was just something wrong about him. Something off. They resented his youth and pallor. Only a young man of twenty-two, he might as well have been an infant to them. His tan only soaked in during the most brutal weeks of summer, and even then he looked golden rather than ruddy. Little freckles would stand out on his nose and cheeks then, and even at six feet tall he would seem like a boy. His light brown hair would become bleached by the afternoon’s fierce rays. The Golden Boy, they called him.

They couldn’t begin to understand him. Why would a young, striking man isolate himself amongst the crates? This wasn’t a life to experience; this was death. The machines would come eventually. They started at the center of the city, but they would expand their domain to this shipyard. The owners would not have to worry about belligerent machines drinking too much and leaving broken bottles everywhere. The work of ten men could be handled by a single structure with a part-time, uninsured individual at the controls. What kind of a future is that? Who would enter an albatross career?

Tristan never shared his motivation. Instead, he would smirk at his elders, his peers, and tell an unrelated story. He especially liked to light up a cigarette as he began. He only bought cloves. He would take a tentative lungful and stare at the dark cigarette as he exhaled. “I still haven’t smoked a regular cigarette yet,” he always began, as though his listener cared about his tobacco use. “I had my first one of these the summer before I turned eighteen. God, did I feel powerful. I thought I was dangerous. I used to get on my bicycle and pedal around the neighborhood slowly, like molasses. It was like my tires were melting on the pavement. There I’d be, mounted on my bike moving so slowly a breeze might’ve blown me over, and I’d have one hand to steer and the other to wave around my cigarette like a burning flag.

“This one time, I saw two neighbors arguing. I don’t know what it was about, but judging by the way the one man’s dog was howling like it was the defendant in some controversy, I imagine it’d done something to offend the other party. Well, I threw my cigarette right between their two ugly faces to the bush just beyond them. I wanted to scare them, make the bush burn. I wanted to conjure up God and have Him spread His holy gospel to the men or at least brew up a good plague or two.”

To them he spoke too strangely, as though he’d written down his script long ago and memorized the words but not emotions. He always laughed too loudly, possibly from the clove numbing his throat. It did not help anyone understand him. If anything, it increased the awareness that this was not a boy who should be spending his time mindlessly moving cargo. He looked so calm, but there was a sharp militancy in his mind. “He should’ve been in our generation, gone on over to `Nam,” Richard speculated one day, or maybe it was Jim. They all looked the same. “The kid is ornery. Being too cute must’ve done it to him. He just wants something ugly in his life. Don’t know why he don’t quit. Shoulda gone into steel if he wanted something really dangerous.”

Everyone pretended not to notice the day Tristan went missing. He had not been doing anything all that important or different. He was the only one loading a dolly up with crates and retrieving them to bring to a waiting truck. The driver paced impatiently and went through two Marlboros before approaching a worker. “I have to clear out of here in half an hour.” He jabbed emphatically at his simple pocket watch. “Where the hell’s that kid?”

The sun was barely poking over the horizon, not that it mattered that much with the rain coming down like it was. At least it was a step above the fog of an hour before. The inky water and poisoned sky had only been separated by a cloud that seemed to cling around the body. It was a miserable day to work, but the conditions made it difficult to go fast. It was great for overtime.

Suddenly, he knew where Tristan was.

Richard had seen dead bodies before, but they had all been at funerals or on the television, perfectly posed and isolated from the world of the living. One time, he saw a lost tarp floating on the water and had raced to the water’s edge to dive in without a second thought. His shame had haunted him the entire day each time he took a step and felt his soggy sock stick to the sole of his shoe. That ghostly embarrassment crept up his spine and sent a shiver through his shoulders. This was no tarp.

Tristan was barely beyond the pier. Richard pantomimed his trial run with vivid memory. He ran as fast as he could and put his hands together over his head to make an almost graceful dive. The water was cold. His heart seized up defensively at the shock. He cursed at his body to go on already.

Tristan was in no hurry.

It was all nearly too much for Richard to do at once. He had to remember to kick his legs and move his arms and order the air to go into his lungs and keep the water out. He thought his thrashing was loud enough to draw the attention of the entire county, but no one came. Why didn’t they come? Did Tristan sound like this when he’d slipped into the water? Did he struggle so much only to come to the realization that he was so alienated that no one would even bother to save his life?

Richard looped an arm around Tristan. He felt so much like that old tarp but heavier. His face was down, and Richard immediately yanked at his thick clothing to roll him over. He did not look angelic or serene, just cold and bluish and so still.

Richard remembered then how to scream.

His cry went from a shriek to an angry roar. How could they all let this happen? How could they ignore him and let him die? Why didn’t Tristan scream? But had he? The questions were too numerous, but no matter the deciding factors, the combinations all resulted in a limp body. Richard knew the stories about people finding superhuman strength in emergencies, but he did not consider his actions very special as he pulled the young man from the water. He only cared about surviving. If Tristan had felt half this terrified when he went into the water, then he deserved to live. Even an animal would know to fight for itself.

The only sound Richard could hear over his own labored breathing was the slap of Tristan’s wet limbs against pavement. He landed spread-eagle on the pier, a tangle of mannequin parts, an impersonation of a person. Even his hair color looked too drab to be natural. Richard attempted to focus on instructions he had received years ago. Tilt back the head. Clear the air pathway. What if there was water in the way? Oh well. What went first, CPR or mouth-to-mouth? How many times to press down on the chest? How hard? How long?

He tried not to wonder about Tristan’s life flashing before his eyes as he worked. He did not hear the other men crowd around him, nor did he feel their bodies pressing into an increasingly tighter ring around him. Only when they started to gasp and cheer did he raise his head to see blue jeans a few inches from his face. There was a weird sound beneath the cries: a gurgle, a blast of air, a gulp for oxygen.

Tristan coughed until Richard feared he would break a rib. “You’re alive, kid!” Richard exclaimed to him. He had not smiled so widely since the birth of his grandson. “Thought we were going to lose you there for a minute.”

Despite his ordeal, Tristan forced a weak smile. “By the way you’re all acting, it looks like I was lost for a while.” He tried to sit up, but three pairs of hands flew to his shoulders to hold him down.

Richard had an easy enough time slipping through the crowd to get to his truck. He always carried an extra jacket just in case something happened, and there was a blanket under the passenger’s seat because his wife always fussed about him not turning up the heat enough. He wished he had something else to change into because his whole body was becoming a block of ice.

“Aren’t you going to celebrate with everyone else? It’s practically a party down there.”

Richard turned and somehow felt no surprise to see Tristan standing before him with an awkward smile on his face. His lanky body was clothed in jeans and flannel far too large, which made him look like a child rather than a man rescued from death. “At the very least, they can give you some dry clothes,” he continued. “You left soggy footprints all the way up here.”

“Everyone loves a hero,” Richard said dryly. He kept his eyes locked on Tristan’s unusual clothing to shrug off the awkward awareness of this body before him going from limpness to animation, death to life.

Tristan laughed breezily. “And everyone loves a victim. Everyone wants to pretend to be my best friend right about now. They’re all exchanging inaccurate facts about me like they’re my nearest and dearest. I give them a week before they start to think that I jumped in to get money or attention or something.”

“They wouldn’t,” Richard lied. To his surprise, Tristan just laughed again.

“I don’t care, mind you. I am alive. Can they say the same thing? I’ve always felt more alive than the rest of them. They couldn’t even slip out of their comas when a man splashed into the water. You did. I wanted to thank you for that. It’s silly, thanking the person who saved your life because it’s so obvious, but I really mean it. I died so at least both of us could live.”

Richard became all too aware of his socks sticking to his shoes. “This is a dangerous job.”

Tristan nodded. “Especially if you can’t swim. Risk makes life beautiful because you become so thankful to just live. Maybe one of these days I’ll learn, but that would take away the danger and excitement, wouldn’t it?”

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Concert Etiquette: The Meet & Greet

Somehow, your fantasies have come true. The clouds have parted, the cherubs have fucked off because they’re not who you paid to see, and you find yourself actually coming face-to-face with the object of your musical affection. “I can’t!” you cry to your friend as you squeeze her forearm right on her camera strap bruise. “I’ll just babble and sound like an idiot!” Rest assured, music fan, you can actually talk to a musician and not explode into a cloud of goose feathers and pheromones. Just try to keep a few simple things in mind, okay?

– They’re only human. Yes, they may be surrounded by the shimmering aura of the Chosen, but they are actually people. They eat, they drink, they sleep, they occasionally procreate (probably not with you). Talking to strangers can be just as awkward as approaching someone you admire, but at least you have a starting point. Just be genuine and show your appreciation, and unless you’re dealing with a total asshole or end up speaking another language, it should go fine. Just don’t try to push your tongue between their lips because that is not a good way to single yourself out.
– Respect personal space. If you see a celebrity in the street, it’s okay to say hi. It goes with the territory, and they’re not obligated to do anything in return. If you’re triangulating their location via a map and their Twitter information from the past thirty minutes so you can confront them at the next stop sign they encounter on the road, you really need to slow your roll. Know that being in the same place doesn’t mean you’re there, together, sharing, oh my god look at us we’re friends. Likewise, try not to trample other fans because you NEED an autograph before they jump into a white van and retreat into the disappointing night. It’s just not polite, and a shoving frenzy doesn’t exactly invite someone to relax and mingle.
– Strength in numbers. It’s better to make a friend rather than an enemy of the person next to you. Combining your awesomeness, you have someone to take your photo, hold your stuff, and generally back you up so you don’t spit out a proposal or rudely ask where the hot guitarist is hiding out. Also, having friends nearby means that if the person next to you is obnoxious, you can come up with all sorts of clever ways to start your own miniature war against an enemy that does not recognize the declaration. Bonus: bone up on The Art of War! My college roommates used to hang excerpts of this tome in our sophomore bathroom, and it clearly changed my life. I’m sure Sun Tzu was great fun at parties.
– Be prepared. If you’re waiting outside, dress warmly. If you want something signed, bring a Sharpie. If you want a photo, stop ruining the world with your Instagram shots that have minimal lighting before you add your awful filters anyway. Being prepared gives you something to do while you nervously wait, and it makes you look attentive and special later on, just like you so obviously are.
– Gifts are good…sometimes. Life on the road can be challenging, so sometimes a nice book, a CD, or just a chocolate bar is just what someone needs for a quick lift. Homemade crafts can be sweet. Just know your boundaries. Unless they express undying devotion to baked goods, you should probably steer clear of actually offering them freshly baked treats from your own home. After all, would you eat a cookie that someone handed you in the street? Oh, you would. Well. Awkward. Anyyyyway. Don’t spend too much money, and don’t expect something specific in return for your effort. It’s a gift, not a bribe.
– It’s not a contest. Feel free to share a little about yourself. If you had your life changed by a song in some way, sometimes that’s great to share because really, what’s more empowering than saving a life? Just don’t make it a competition. Spending the most money, logging the most miles, having listened for the most years? Those things don’t matter. Someone will always outdo you, but that doesn’t make them better. Can we not be one encouraging, nurturing society that wants people to go after what we want? No, because we’re selfish human beings. Shit.
– You are lucky OR you have not been rejected. Look, not every gig gives you a chance to meet your idols. Do you realize how incredible it is to go to a concert and hear the songs you love, live, in person, with all the beauty and flaws and chaos and unpredictability of the present tense? I grew up in West Virginia, and the only tour that blew through my hometown when I was growing up was 98 Degrees. Needless to say, I did not attend. Live music is powerful and a privilege. Sometimes shows go badly, but it shouldn’t be because they didn’t play a specific song, your camera batteries died, or you didn’t get a hug after the show. These things are superfluous, and it’s no slight to you if your Future Husband doesn’t come out to meet you even though you’ve been waiting two hours in the rain. You still got to experience something that 17-year-old me would have killed for, and even if it only happens once every two years, that adds up. You’ve paid for entertainment, so enjoy yourself, make some friends, make some goddamn memories. And if you get a really great photo and an autograph, well, then you can high five that image of yourself for years to come, baby.

“Rag Doll”

I was sitting in this chair when we first met. “We” meaning she and I. She used to be you though, the “you” to whom I addressed all of my thoughts. She was my confidante, my companion. My captor.

The beautiful thing about muses is that they can take any form. Most of the time mine like to cling to curves hidden beneath flowing dresses, long skirts, baggy clothing. My muses are subtle; they like a challenge. They refuse to do all the work, instead calling upon my imagination.

It started out with the jingle of the door. Though I love this coffeehouse like a second home, I resent the bells they place on the inside handle at the beginning of December. If anyone sees me in here during that month, perhaps not the coldest outside but certainly the chilliest in my heart, they must think of me so poorly.

For your benefit, for you are not her, I will attempt to sketch myself from an outside perspective since I was so hollow that only my exterior counted at the time anyway. When she first entered the shop on that bleak day, she did not find the solace of smiling faces. At just shy of eight in the morning, the crowd clustered in the far corner, though they did not do so to browse the strange, overpriced kits that let you brew your own espresso at home. No, they just wanted to avoid the cold blast of air that barreled in behind every entering customer. I always sat by the door. I don’t mean to brag, but I think they admired me for it.

You could register their jealousy in their body language alone. As an artist, I consider myself more acutely attuned to reading people. It’s important to master the skill of translating life. After all, people can deceive in hundreds of tongues, they can conceal, they can omit, they can manipulate. But while they’re concentrating on their words, their tone, maybe even their facial expressions, there are countless other outlets across the skin. The mind has an inclination toward duplicity, but the body wants nothing to do with games.

She was unassuming when she passed through the door, so meek that I might not’ve noticed that she anyone other than one of the regulars simply hunched over from the cold. I deduced that she was different because she hesitated as soon as she walked through the door, not even noticing me as she looked around the room. She was trying to figure out where the menu was—hanging over the barista’s head and printed in letters so large you could read them from our vantage point. I watched her unwind a scarf from around her neck—blue and green, fluffy, something you wouldn’t really expect on a woman who was in her twenties, which I suspected she was. She didn’t have on a hat, and her long, wavy brown hair had been tossed into tangles that started around her shoulders and continued down past her breasts. It would probably take ages to brush out. Her coat was long, burgundy, and it kept me from being able to tell if she was wearing a skirt or a dress. Either way, the bottom skimmed the edge of her tall leather boots. She was wrinkled, frazzled, alone…yet somehow serene.

I wanted a complete description to satisfy my creative impulses. I could tell from the way she slouched and still looked sleek that she must’ve been a healthy weight, thin but with curves, and my fingers told my eyes they had to know dimensions, shapes. Immediately I knew I wanted to draw her. I needed details: eye color, her preferred nail polish, where she dipped in and where she curved out. I’d settle for knowing her name.

After staring at the various ways the barista could clean out her wallet in exchange for a combination of water, milk, and beans, she looked around the shop. I think the ambiance warmed her, and she wanted to figure out where she would sit or what there was to read or if her cup might be made of paper, Styrofoam, or some coveted, familiar porcelain. She turned right first, toward the other regulars who had stolen all the chairs as far away from the door or windows so they might preserve their warmth. I waited patiently to receive her gaze, passing my time by blowing steam away from my black coffee. I never ordered anything else there. I am a slave to caffeine, not sugar.

Her eyes were brown, and I noticed spots of gold that couldn’t be mere reflections. Hazel then. Her cheekbones were high, but her cheeks were round and soft, connoting the tender warmth of youth. She wore no make-up, but she needed nothing to enhance her full lips that were curled into the shadow of a smile. I appreciated that the most. Too many lips frown instinctively.

I don’t think she saw me looking at her because she gave no indication, and she was obviously the sort of girl who wore her expressions upon her face. I imagined that if I watched her long enough, I would witness a thousand separate lifetimes, heartbreaks, reunions, elations, all in the subtle shift of muscles around her eyes and mouth. It would take a trained eye to truly understand.

As soon as she turned her body entirely toward me, my gaze was down upon my mug of coffee. I wanted her to see the color of my eyes or perhaps just a hint of it so she could ask herself if she’d ever seen a man who really had gray eyes or if the morning light was too dim, muting blue into a simpler shade. She saw a man with pale, faintly freckled skin, a week’s worth of scruffy facial hair, and light brown hair that was long enough to need a brush but too short to worry about tangles. I believe I had on my tan corduroy jacket; it gives me a bit of a distinguished look, which I like when I’m out for coffee so the assholes there know that I can be as professional as they are. Coupled with jeans and a t-shirt, I looked quite dapper in that quickly, carefully-yet-effortlessly put together sort of way.

She stepped up to the barista and pulled her wallet out of her coat pocket, no purse. Her order was a small mocha, and she laughed shyly when the barista told her about all the different ways that her mocha could be augmented for a few trivial coins extra. She declined, and the room became filled with the roar and squeak specific to coffee houses. It was a racket that nobody else seemed to notice. The inconveniences we endure for the supposed sake of convenience.

Fridays became her day. I notice that most of the regulars come in every day of the week, but if they pick a specific day to be their coffee day, it tends to be Monday. After the weekend, they need a little personal bribery to summon up the courage to face the blank walls of the cubical once more. I cannot blame them for their habitual reticence since I fear the futility of that existence more than most. That is one of the many reasons why I am an artist.

If she is not one of my kind, then she must have creative inclinations since I see quite little motivation to have one’s weekly coffee pilgrimage early on a Friday morning. Perhaps it’s the reward for all her hard work during the week, but if so, it would make more sense for her to come in at the end of the day, once her labor is completed and another weekend asks for only a bit of caffeine to brush off the dreary dust placed upon her crown by a likewise dreary job. No, she must play by her own rules. Her clothing is too old-fashioned—almost hippie in a way, with her long hair and her long skirts and dresses—for her to trapped behind a desk greeting people all day. I think auras are a load of bullshit to tell the truth, but you can definitely sense a shy sort of ambition just by looking at her. She must be brilliant. Who am I to speculate about her ways?

Ah, yes, of course, an artist. That term gives me license to say as I wish and imagine as I must because I know too little and want to know too much, the opposite of the malady that plagues many people.

It’s a warm spring now, but her skirts have not grown shorter. Instead, she’s discarded her long, heavy coat for cardigans of black, gray, burgundy: never a light shade. Others seem to be dismissive of her dull tones, letting her blend into the furniture as she passes from the entrance to counter, counter to exit. They miss out on so much. But I refuse to count myself as one of them.

Why? Because today will be the day that she and I meet in the proper sense. I’ve gathered my thoughts, sketches, and observations, and I am certain now more than ever before that I must speak with her. I’ve been attempting to draw her all week from memory, but my memory casts shadows across her feature and suddenly I can’t recall if I really would classify her eyes as almond-shaped. The trick with reminiscence is that it isn’t stable. I’ve seen her from so many different angles and distances, but the images don’t melt together to place a mold of her in my mind. Instead they overlap, conceding differences and making alterations as they see fit. They are dishonest for the sake of consistency. In order to faithfully reproduce her, I need her. I must have her sit and pose for me, if only in the confines of the coffeehouse, our mutual public domain.

This proposition should have me nervous, but my heart pounds in a lively, practically chipper fashion as I dress: green khakis, a black t-shirt, my corduroy jacket. I wear nothing special because I do not aim to impress her. After all, she is the one who has initiated the attraction. All that’s required of me is to show up with my paper and pencils. I prefer the finished product to be in paint or at least ink, but these are not necessities and would only be a nuisance, staining my hands as I tried to juggle a brush or pen in one hand and my cup of coffee in the other. Besides, if I inform her of my preferences, it is entirely possible that she shall acquiesce to any humble suggestions that she stop by sometime. Perhaps then I can see her a day that isn’t a Friday. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, aren’t I?

I grab my sketch pad and pencils, which I throw into a green canvas messenger bag. That’s all I really need in order to head out for my morning coffee. I don’t bother to look at myself in the mirror on my way out the door. That will only make me more self-conscious, and I don’t need to judge myself by others’ standards. I fling my bag over my shoulder, lock the door behind me, and make my way down the stairs and out the front door of my apartment building. My bike is locked up outside, somehow never stolen or vandalized no matter how long I’ve left it to its isolation. It looks a bit sad with its worn paint and small metal basket over the rear tire, but it has treated me well in retrieving supplies over the years. I toss the lock into the basket and push the bike for a few steps before I throw my leg over the side and get my feet on the pedals. It’s still a bit chilly, though I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or the time of day. Either way, bicycling doesn’t help much, but it encourages my blood’s circulation. My heart could use the incentive.

By the time I make it to the coffee shop, I’m breathless. It can’t be from the exertion of the ride, though I tell myself I’m simply out of shape. The winter’s transformed muscle to insecurity and buried it all inside a scrawny shell. I circle the parking lot a couple of times before I find the bike rack, masked by an evergreen bush that looks like it might damage my ancient bike tires. I take my chances and scratch up both my hands while applying the lock. Life can be so impractical at times.

My body refuses to listen to my commands. I ask it to kindly catch its breath and stop feeling so nervous, but there’s a discomfort in my stomach that asks me to suspend my plan until next week. Where is my usual confidence, the faith in my artistic vision? If I were more insecure, I would make my fingers bleed trying to unlock my bicycle as quickly as possible to retreat back to my apartment. Thankfully, I am part of a bigger picture. Art is not always an expression but a duty. If I do not exorcise the ideas from my mind, they linger there to haunt and to taunt. I don’t regret having such drive. It makes this a little easier.

My blood is pooling in my cheeks and fingertips when I touch the front door. The air is stale and polluted by invisible clouds of coffee grounds. Breathing is like ordering an espresso. Becky, the barista who always looks like she’s going to fall over from a caffeine overdose, smiles at me and asks me what I want. She knows my usual, but she asks every time, trying to con another couple of dollars out of me. I laugh. Shake my head. “For an artsy guy, you’re not very open-minded,” she criticizes as she fills a ceramic mug. I dig out two dollars and exchange this currency for a warm cup. Liquid courage. I turn to retreat to my chair to regroup my thoughts and hopefully form a plan that requires more than placing confidence in fate.

There she is.

It’s a sensory overload, and for a second I think I’m having a heart attack because my face is warm and my limbs are numb. Then the flash subsides, and I see exactly what it was I thought I saw: her elegantly casual body leaning against one of my chair’s armrests. My chair.

Maybe I underestimated fate after all.

Well, that’s decided it then. I have to do this. The place is by no means crowded, with the typical clique crowded into the far corner, but I walk right up to her and stand before the couch that juxtaposes my chair. “Excuseme,” I mumble, the words flowing into one and making my voice sound terribly small. I clear my throat, and she looks up at me with raised eyebrows. This is an easy bodily indicator of interest. “I know it’s not particularly busy, but may I…?” I trail off, waving my left hand toward the sofa behind me.

“No, go ahead,” she says. I’ve never heard her voice this clearly, but it still sounds as soft as I remember it being from a distance. She gives me a tight-lipped smile, trying to make the both of us comfortable.

“Thanks.” I shrug off my bag and set it down on the middle cushion, an excuse for me to sit on the end nearest her. Forcing a laugh, I add, “Usually I’m a creature of habit, like how everyone usually sits on the other side. But me, I usually sit in that chair there.”

For a second, she sips at her coffee, eyes downcast. Then my message becomes clear, and she leans over to set down her coffee on the table between us with such haste that I fear she’s going to bash her shins off the furniture. “I’m sorry!” she says, her eyes large with apology. “I didn’t realize…”

Her verbal ellipsis is the perfect time for me to interject. “Oh no, it’s fine, really. It’s not like we have assigned seating around these parts. Besides, it gives me the opportunity to see the room from a new angle, indulge in a new perspective.” I flash her a winning smile, and she relaxes back into her seat with a tentative quirk of an eyebrow.

“You’re sure?” She feels she owes me something now. She’s apologetic without understanding the cause of the emotion, which only confuses her further.

As she struggles to keep afloat in her puzzlement, I easily guide the conversation. “My name’s Lucien,” I tell her. It’s a statement, not a goodbye. She knows she ought to stay.

Her legs slowly cross away from me, but she smoothly corrects this. Her foot points directly at me; this means I interest her. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Lucien before.”

Shakespeare vastly underestimated the power of a name. “I suppose it’s not very common, is it? It means ‘light.’ It was my grandfather’s name. He was French. Everyone loved him very much. Died before I was born though. I guess they were aiming for reincarnation. I must’ve been quite the disappointment.”

Her eyebrows get a little closer together at my self-deprecation. She’s concerned. “I don’t think you could disappoint people just by being your own person.”

“I’m sure.” I smile. She smiles. Relief. “And your name is…?”

“Hardly as interesting as yours, I’m afraid.” She laughs. I don’t. I hope she can’t tell just how badly I need to know. “Anna.”

It’s so simple a name that it must be underestimated. It’s absolutely suited to a gem disguised as a simple stone. She has to catch the light at just the right angle for you to even realize you could be missing something about her. “I know I’ve met Annas before, but none has done something so awful to me that I bear a grudge against all Annas.”

She chuckles and tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. It’s a cute, impish look, but then she reconsiders and tugs the hair back out. Preening, as you may or may not know, is a dead giveaway as far as body language goes. Why would she fix her hair if not to grab my attention? “I always thought it was very plain. I was never the blonde Anna or the thin Anna. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd of Annas.”

But not if you’re this Anna. She must know this about herself by now. “I bet you’re many things people don’t expect though.”

“Oh? And how do you know I’m not the opposite of everything you expect?”

What a wistful little challenge! It’s only unfortunate she doesn’t realize that such independence is what I’ve always anticipated. “I’m fairly skilled in reading people,” I explain simply.

“Then what am I thinking right now?”

“That I’m full of shit and won’t guess right.”

By the way she laughs, I know I’m at least partially right. “What are you, a therapist or something?”

“An artist, actually.”

“An artist?” What, she’s surprised she’s not speaking to Lucien the stockbroker? I don’t hold this against her because she seems secretly delighted. The term alone impresses her. She has to know more. “An artist in the sense that you’re creative, or an artist as in you paint?”

“Well, I prefer paint, but sometimes I settle on ink. I have my sketchbook if you want…” I trail off because this requires that she answer.

“Yes. Sure.” She slides forward in her chair—I surrender it to her, at least for now—as I pull over my bag. The pad of paper covered in splotches of paint from all the times I haven’t had the patience to find a more appropriate palette.

“Nothing’s going to rub off on your hands, I swear,” I joke as I hand it over. I don’t open it for her. “There are copies of my card on the inside of the cover, in the little folder pocket. You should look at those first. To prove I actually make my living this way rather than going up to strangers and bragging that I can paint, you see.”

She obliges and fans out five or six in one hand. “They’re all different,” she marvels. I’d never understood the artist’s need to surrender creativity in order to promote his or her talent in Times New Roman font and embossed text. In my own miniature act of defiance, I produced them all up myself, as one can do with the marvel of the personal computer. I’d left adequate room on each for an original sketch. “Do you draw on all of them, or do you print sets and repeat patterns?”

“I thought it was a nice, personal touch to doodle on them all. Take the one you like most.”

“God, it must’ve taken you ages.” She leans over the business cards as though she’s never known the power and extent of beauty. I want to tell her my theories on aesthetics and how we could all do to follow our eyes and hearts a little more, but she’s made her decision. On the card where a logo might go, I’d sketched a rag doll lying down except for its head propped at an odd angle against a pillow, as though the doll’s neck were broken. I’d expected her to go for the hummingbird. I ask her why that one, and she smiles more with her eyes than her lips. “Because it’s not what you think it is.”

“But I made it. Wouldn’t I know?”

“I don’t think Van Gogh knew.” I take this as a compliment, and she sets her card aside so she can browse the pages of graphite and ink. Each piece of paper has its own potential for imagination, realism, or a combination. “You’re very talented,” she says when she sees the drawing I’d done of my mother. I don’t have the heart to say I’d finished it just before her death.

The pages give way to angry scribbles over the eyes of a young woman, blindfolded because of my inability to complete this specific drawing. On the next page, her face has no features at all. “Were you having problems with a model?”

“Sort of.” I watch her so carefully that I don’t even notice what piece she’s on anymore. “Does she look familiar?”

“Somewhat?” Her answer has a question mark, her voice rising at the end of the word. She doesn’t know how or why we would have a mutual acquaintance yet never meet one another out in the real world.

“She should.” I pause so she can lift her eyes to mine, but she keeps staring at my amateur squiggles. “She’s you.”

She’s speechless, flattered. I know she is. “Lucien…” She’s prompting me to explain. Now or never. “I can’t draw just anything, you know. Something has to catch my attention, and once it does, I can’t get it out of my head. It has to go through my hand, basically. And I can’t get you out. I need you to pose for me, or let me photograph you. It’ll only take one night. Day. Whenever’s convenient for you.”

“I don’t know.” She’s already commended my skill, so now she’s just being modest. Then she flinches and stands. Her boots take her from average to tall. Her eyes rain regret down upon me. “I just realized I’m running late.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean to keep you,” I apologize, though I do get a flush of satisfaction for being so engrossing that she lost her orientation in time. “Well, you’ve got my card, so call me later. We can work something out.”

“I will. It was nice to meet you, Lucien.”

I’m a bit disappointed she doesn’t offer her hand for a shake, but with the way she’s moving toward the door, it’s obvious she is in a hurry. “See you soon, Anna.” It’s a blessing to say her name and to know I’ve learned it directly from her. The air is momentarily mourning her departure by clinging to her perfume, a floral scent that is a welcome change from the smell of coffee grounds. My drink’s gone cold, but I sip it as though it may burn me yet. As I gather up my sketches, I spot something next to her cup. My card.

I snatch it up and race out the door. She’s not even half a block away. “Anna!” I cry, holding up the card to show her she’s forgotten.

Suddenly she’s running, and I am too.

 

I was in a car wreck once. My boyfriend at the time drove us straight into the back of a red Dodge Neon that had stopped inexplicably on the only bend in the road for fourteen miles. I closed my eyes as he screamed, but time expanded in my mind as I was powerless to act. As I cried later, I wondered why it had taken so long to actually collide and whether I might have been able to grab the steering wheel after all. I’d had no control over my own life.

This man makes me think of the wreck, how powerless I’d felt and how time seemed like a measurement people made up in a moment of masochism. His fingers bite into my bare arm, dirty nails making me wonder how long he’s been drawing me or leering at me. He won’t blink. Those gray eyes are wide and focused on me. I don’t know what’s worse, this guy—Lucien—saying that he knows me better than anyone else could, or that those muted eyes make me believe it.

His lips twitch faintly. I think he’s going to speak, but that little mouth of his curves into a smirk. It looks forced, like his muscles don’t remember what his eyes do. I shiver and pull my arm hard enough to free myself.

The scratches are pink on my skin, but at least they don’t bleed. I won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. He would just fold his arms around me and tell me I need him, his comfort. That’s how stalkers act. Jesus, I have a stalker. I can’t believe it. He’s already stunned—his mouth hangs open slightly. I know now is my only chance. I run.

The wind steals the tears from my eyes to spite me as I sprint down the sidewalk. My hair lashes my face, my neck, but I ignore the sting that only makes me cry harder. He’s behind me. I hear his heavy breathing and, between pants, my name.

How did I even get into this situation? How can a stranger just come up to me, start talking, and then reveal that he’s been watching me longer than I’ve realized he’s been in my life? How can he just assume I need him as much as he wants me? How can he think he needs me?

My boots hurt my feet each time the heel becomes violently wedged between my foot and the cement below. He’s close. If I keep going straight, the row of tiny shops just keeps going. I could ask someone to help me. Or he might catch me.

I wish I could understand why he frightens me so much, but I can’t. There’s just something desperate about him that I can’t comprehend. He looks at me like he has no other hope. I know he can’t possibly understand the meaning of no. He wouldn’t have grabbed me like that if he did. There’s something wrong with him. I almost feel sorry for him, but I don’t want to feel anything for him at all. All I can do is keep going.

Eventually, inevitably, I run out of sidewalk. I have three options, none of which is particularly appealing. I could stop, but then he would catch me, and then what? I’m too scared to consider it. I could turn, but that would make this go on. I saw a determination in those gray eyes that shook me more than his words. That leaves me only one choice.

The traffic’s not heavy, so I can probably make it across the two lanes unharmed. I’m going to have to. Now isn’t the time to think about it. My only concern is my own safety. I throw a glance to the left, think about it, and then stop thinking.

The squealing tires mean nothing to me at first because they’re coming from my left, and I’ve already passed the first lane. I should keep running. I’m almost free. But instead I turn.

Everything happens so quickly that I can’t even think about it. The world’s gone staccato. I see it before I hear it. His body crumbles against the car’s hood. He collapses beneath the bottom. I can’t see him anymore. The tires shriek again, but this time to get away as quickly as possible. He doesn’t even scream. I do, but I don’t hear it.

People start to gather on the sidewalk. He’s dead. He’s dead, and it’s my fault. I can’t believe it. I shake as I step toward him, and then I see him moving. I can’t believe that either. God. Why me? Why him?

I’m whispering over and over again, but I can’t hear the sound to know what it is. I think that I’m muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” Then I realize it’s his name. Lucien, Lucien, Lucien.

I kneel down in the street. Nobody’s going to hit me, not now. I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Lucien.

He has a hand up in the air, helpless to stop the car that’s already hit him. I see something poking between his fingers, something white, and I feel faint because I think it might be bone. But it’s too thin. I wrap both my hands around this one of his, taking it from him. It’s his card, the one I’d left behind.

He opens his mouth, but there are no words for him to speak. He breathes in heavily, and it sounds like he’s drowning. His lips move, but instead of words escaping, blood leaks out like he’s bitten down too hard on his tongue. He looks as surprised as I am. “Don’t,” I plead, but I don’t know if I’m asking him to stop for his sake or my own.

I try not to look at his body, but I can’t help it. It’s too much to stare at his eyes and see how sharp the pain is for him. His legs are at strange angles, his chest impossible to make out in the loose fabric of his shirt. His skin is so white. Was it like that before? I hadn’t paid enough attention to him before. I tried to ignore him. I’d hoped he’d go away. If only I’d humored him. If only I’d stopped. If only I’d told him to go away. Why did he have to talk to me? We both would’ve been so much better off if we’d never met.

We’re still for a while. Our hands are joined, but I’m still too scared to see his tension or, worse yet, his release. Hands close around my shoulders, but the touch is strange, foreign, wrong. I shrug over and over, but they won’t let go. When they start to pull on me, I scream.

I’m on my feet, my wrists pinched by someone’s grip. He pulls me to the sidewalk. The crowd parts and then closes behind us. I can’t see Lucien anymore. The stranger’s grasp becomes looser, and I realize it’s because I’m shaking so hard. He lets me go, and I slip down to the ground. It doesn’t hurt.

“Did you know him?”

I turn my eyes up to him, but I can’t see him. The sun’s behind him. He’s the faceless embodiment of concern. Did I know him? No. And now I never will. The sky hurts my eyes, but I find a numb sort of comfort in the broken rag doll on the stained card in my hands. “Yes, I do.”

next steps.

In case the radio silence hasn’t been an indication, my post on Saturday was the end of the tentatively titled Primal Music. In its full form (rather than being chopped up for this blog), it consists of five sections of roughly similar length. If you’ve read through and have feedback, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to leave comments. Especially if you want to talk publishing. Ha.

Now, what’s next? Isn’t paying for a domain a bit silly if I don’t use it? Yeah, I thought so. Here are the content options I have managed to brew up at 8 in the morning:

  • More rants, arguably with a musical skew
  • Band/artist recommendations, because I’m opinionated that way
  • Short stories, of which I have many I could polish
  • Two more “novels” of roughly 50,000 words, thanks to previous National Novel Writing Months
  • Rough drafts as I slog through NaNoWriMo this November

So if you feel strongly about anything or want to nurture my embryonic ego, by all means, leave a comment or try to get in touch. Otherwise I’ll have to figure things out myself, and that’s just nonsense.

Primal Music: part 20.

She didn’t know what she was doing, not really. She kept telling herself that this was the man who had broken her heart, but the rest of her body didn’t care. Bruises and emotions didn’t operate on the same level, and she had long since accepted the fact that her vulnerabilities were showing. Rather than flinch away from him, she was moving closer to take the chicken off his hands. “I got you into this,” she reminded him as she let her hand feel out the bruise. He gasped but didn’t move away from her.

“I’m not sure I’d brag about that,” he pointed out, though the sight of her body so close to him brought a cloud of distraction to his eyes.

She decided to let her body sink down on his lap as she draped her forearms against his shoulders. “You’ve stayed away for years, given me my distance. I’ve had a life that you don’t even know about. I’ve never had a problem that I couldn’t tackle because I know what it’s like to be alone. Truly alone. Somehow you gave me that. I don’t want to thank you for that, but it is what it is.”

Of course he was confused by the mixed signals, his pain and her words and the closeness of her body. They were words she’d rolled around in her head for years, considering how she might treat him if their paths had ever crossed again. Somehow her script didn’t get the response she wanted, so she just had to laugh. “I can draw a bath. I think you might catch something off that chicken if you let it thaw too long.”

“If you say so.” There was doubt in Gordon’s features, but he mercifully didn’t demand to go to the hospital instead. When he slowly coaxed off his t-shirt, his bruised side looked much more swollen than his untouched right side. He looked down at himself, then sneered and looked back at Lizzie. “Ridiculous, isn’t it?”

She thought it was unfair that he should suffer on her behalf. He was a scrawny musician, a lover rather a fighter. She hadn’t asked him to take the beating, and she hadn’t cowered behind him either. “I don’t care what other people think,” she said.

“I don’t either.”

“Well, if that’s how you feel, then you need to take off your clothes.” She saw the surprise on his face and laughed. “I’ll give you a towel, don’t worry. You don’t have clean clothes here, and I’m not letting you stay if you get into the bath fully clothed and then drip everywhere.”

He didn’t understand the request, not really, but he stripped down regardless. T-shirt was discarded, shoes and socks were pushed aside together, and jeans and pants were boxers aside. Gordon was grateful the moment he received the towel from Lizzie. With body and ego limping, he couldn’t have worn the cotton blend with more pride he had been swathed in silk.

“Let me just get the water ready for you,” she told him, but there was part of her that hoped he might take her words for an invitation. She leaned over the tub and adjusted the temperature until it was warm enough for someone to soak in without worrying about how hot it was. As though anticipating some fit of modesty, she found a bottle of bubble bath and spread it throughout the water. She could remember a time when he’d probably tease her for going through these motions, but she pushed that out of her mind. Part of her wanted to sink into the froth with him, to remember when they weren’t so fractured and confused about how to speak to each other. She didn’t know how to be anyone but his lover, not really.

“You may as well go while the water’s still warm,” she entreated him. She tried not to look at his body beyond the bruising. He was still remarkably slim for his height, and she was certain that he was more toned than he had ever been when they were a couple.

“We still haven’t had much of our talk. Not really,” he reminded her, which brought a blush to her cheeks. It seemed petty to revisit the past when the present was so fraught with tension, as she had in her mind so many times as she had tried to suss out exactly how she felt about him. She knew he was stepping into the tub the minute he groaned, but she kept her eyes on the tiles of the floor until there was a splash and he sank down. “Please stay. I might drown if I can’t get myself out of this tub.”

Even through the guilt, she laughed at him. The bathroom light was harsh, the way she liked it to better pick out all of her flaws and signs of aging. It brought out the hollowness of his cheeks and the sharp lines of his frame. Grey hairs kissed at his temples, and he had let his curls go shaggy. The years that stood between them had never been clearer. “You should’ve settled down by now,” she told him, quietly critical.

“Yeah, well, who wants to date a man who’s not even home most of the time?”

“A rock star,” she chided.

“A rock star,” he repeated, his tone mocking. “I don’t wear leather pants. I don’t have a six pack or a legendary tongue. I’m not covered in badass tattoos. I don’t even have traditional good looks. So what about me is rock star enough to make up for the fact that I’m probably on the way down rather than up?”

“You’re handsome,” she protested. “You just have to get your priorities straight. What you do isn’t going to last forever. Don’t you want to have someone to come home to?”

He smiled and let himself sink into the bubbles a bit more. He was too tall for the tub anyway, and his knees stuck up jaggedly above the waterline. “I used to have someone to come home to. But I fucked that up, and I guess I’m not very good at keeping that. I don’t know if it’s because I intrinsically believe I don’t deserve it or if I just don’t want to keep someone tied down to an unrealistic existence. Who wants to be one of those sailors’ wives, standing on the shore and looking out for the ships to come home?”

“A woman who’s in love with a sailor,” she pointed out. She saw that he still had the capacity to pity himself the same as ever, but there was something more to it. He wasn’t speaking sadly, just matter-of-factly. It was as though he had wedded his loneliness long ago.

Swallowing down her pride, she leaned over to brush the humid curls from his forehead. Just as soft as ever.  “I forgave you a long time ago, Gordon.”

If he’d wanted to keep his response subtle, the water ruined that plan. He splashed about as he turned his torso to face her in spite of the pain that it so obviously caused him. “Why?”

“You were young. I was even younger. We were trying to find our way in the world, and sometimes we just do bad things. You were the first person I ever loved. The first person to really break my heart. But we weren’t really working with each other. Every time you left, I had to build myself up and tell myself that I could be okay without you. Then you’d come back, and I’d resent you for throwing everything off in my little world. I put up walls so you couldn’t fuck up what I’d worked so hard to create for myself. We didn’t connect anymore, but I couldn’t talk to you about it because you were working so hard and finally getting somewhere. What was I compared to that?”

He pressed his lips together in a firm line, searching for an answer. “You were the girl I loved.”

“Sometimes you can’t love a person enough to avoid the bad stuff. We were drifting apart. Something was going to happen to us along the way. I was just a silly girl and thought that I could meet the love of my life when I was a teenager.”

“I don’t think that’s silly.”

“Of course you don’t. I’m the girl who got away for you. I’m the one who can inspire you to write all these songs of longing. As long as I’m not a real person to you anymore, I can be anything you want me to be. But I’m here. I exist. And I’m telling you that I think it’s okay if you move on with your life. I want you to be happy. I never wanted you to wallow and be miserable all the time. You did that well enough yourself.”

The slight still made him laugh, and the back of his hand was too wet to brush light tears from his eyes. He always had been emotional, and his blue eyes always made it easier to tell when he was about to cry. “I guess you’re right for the most part, but you’ve always been a real person to me. I don’t write those songs because I’m in love with an ideal version of you. I just look back on all the shit we went through and wonder how we lost it. I mean, we didn’t have heat, and we were happy. We still managed. Then we actually had a bit of comfort, and it all went to hell. And things have gone so well for me. I can’t think of anything more that I could even want out of the band, but I go to all these hotels that look the same and have people ask me the same questions all the time, and I’m exhausted. I’m so tired of feeling hollow because the only time I’m happy is when I’m singing about you or thinking about you or trying to put you into words. I don’t want to make myself miserable. I want to be happy. I want to be with you, or at least have you say that it’ll never happen again so I can just accept the fact that I had my shot at happiness but threw it away.”

She found herself blinking back tears because they were the words she’d never expected to hear from him. She’d chased him away, hadn’t she? It wasn’t out of a lack of love though, but instead because she feared she would always forgive him for what he had done to her. She hated that he’d cheated, but she also felt that there may have been some reason she had driven him to do that. Too many doubts had raged in her mind and tormented her, and if she had taken him back, she knew she would have just been waiting for the next indiscretion, the next fight. It took all the strength she had, but she whispered, “I don’t even know you anymore.”

He took in the words and nodded. “My name’s Gordon, and I’m in a band,” he told her. She could still remember how he’d stood in the bathroom back then, embarrassed and angry and hopeful all at once. There wasn’t much of a gap between that boy and this man, even if he was soaking up to his chest in bubble bath. “I had everything, but I didn’t realize it. I had the girl, the career, the success. I guess I’ve been running from myself for years, really throwing myself into my work. I think I’m a normal guy. I like hockey. I like watching movies, especially comedies, and my favorite ever franchise is Star Wars. I laugh until I cry when I watch ‘The Simpsons.’ I’m not home a whole lot, but when I am, I try to cook because I think it’s a good habit to have. I really don’t like going to the gym, but I know I’m not twenty anymore. I took up swimming because I overthink. I still overthink, but I can hold my breath a long time.” He took a deep breath, but she didn’t answer, so he decided to keep going. “I want to write a screenplay one day, or maybe a novel. I’ve a few—“

That was enough for her. She gripped the edge of the tub as she leaned over to kiss him. She was cautious because of his tender nose, and she could taste the rust of his blood still on his skin. Still, she didn’t flinch away. He eased into her touch, surprised, shocked, then feverishly trying to cling to the moment before it was taken from him forever. Her calves shook from bending down next to him, but she kissed him until her lungs were pounding out their protest within her. “I thought you wanted to get a swimming pool filled with topless models and be a big fucking star,” she reminded him.

“Well, plans changed.” A big, dopey grin took over his features, and he leaned back in the water to try to catch his breath. “I guess I’ve grown up a little. Not completely, but a bit.” He licked his lip, and she wondered if he could taste the traces of her there. “Why did you kiss me though?”

“I thought it might help me figure something out.”

“And did it?”

There were any number of words she could have used to reassure him, but instead she coaxed her blouse over her head. She feared he could see how short her breaths were, but she had to keep telling herself that things would be okay. This is my choice. This is on my terms. I want to be happy and think that he can make me happy.

He sat up straighter in the water, but she held a finger up to indicate that he just needed to relax. A zip and a shimmy, and her pencil skirt was left in a pool on the floor. There was no need to hide her body because he had seen every inch of her. She’d acquired tattoos in the past few years, small marking that would help her remember while others were intended to signify how she was moving on. His eyes could have gravitated to those inkings, but instead he was watching her face, her eyes.

“Since you, I’ve been chasing men who’d break my heart.” Maybe they weren’t words that he wanted to hear, but she knew that he had to know the truth. “Men who hit me, men who drink too much, men who don’t seem to remember that I exist. Because I think that I can fix them. And if I could fix them, then I could fix you and finally get back to you, because you made me so happy when things were at their best. I never fixed any of them though. I just hurt myself. And I shut down parts of myself so I could stop feeling those awful things, so nobody could get to me.

“Then I saw you, and I told myself not to feel anything. Not to think anything. I’d hear you out, and that would be all. Then you had to go and get hurt, and that scares the hell out of me. I can’t just keep pretending that because I’ve worked so hard and taken care of myself, nobody can touch me or deserve me. If you hadn’t been here tonight, I don’t know what that man would’ve done. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen him at all. Maybe I would’ve done the same thing I did. But maybe I would have taken it.”

“You can’t worry about that,” he murmured. “You can regret anything you want, I can’t stop you, but it’s not going to change what happened. The past shouldn’t stop anybody from living.”

She sniffed and nodded. “I haven’t felt alive in a long time. I guess that’s the price of keeping it together. You just crush everything down and tell yourself that that’s okay, but it’s just getting by. I want to feel anything. Even if it hurts.”

“I hope it won’t though.”

Her skin felt like it was burning as she unhooked her bra and let it drop to the floor. She wiggled from her underwear and didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to know if he was watching or if he was still behaving as far as his gaze was concerned. “I have to tell you something though. Something that’s going to hurt you.”

It seemed ridiculous for the two of them to fold up into the tub when there was barely room for him, but she had to close the gap between them. She stepped into the water and was grateful that it was still hot enough to scald. How he withstood it, she didn’t know, but maybe they were both keen on punishing themselves still. He bent his knees and pulled them closer to his chest, and she encouraged his legs to part so she could settle between them. She couldn’t have him looking at her through this, so she turned to rest her back against his chest.

For a moment, his body tensed, and this his arms circled around her. Even if they weren’t entirely certain how to handle themselves, their bodies hadn’t entirely forgotten how to interact. “Maybe if you tell it like a story, it won’t hurt so much,” he suggested, his lips so close to her ear that she shivered in spite of the temperature of the bath.

She let her hands rest on his. It would be silly to try to draw strength from him, but she just wanted to steady herself and remember what it was like to be able to rely on another person. “Once there was a girl. All this girl ever wanted was to be better. She didn’t know what that meant, not really, but she wanted to be more than she was. So she learned how to dress and make herself up and talk and strut like the woman she’d soon be. This girl met a man and convinced him she was a woman, at least for a little while. And so when she did become old enough, she decided she would find him and see what happened.

“The man was very busy, but he loved the girl, and she loved him. They spent years together, but they were also years spent apart, and it was too much for them. The girl grew distant and didn’t pay attention to the man’s needs. The man misread her. The man felt alone, and he found solace in someone else’s arms.”

Her fingers tightened against him, fingernails finding purchase. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but she was afraid he would draw away before she could finish speaking. “So the girl left. She fled home with her tail between her legs because she didn’t know where else to go. She went to stay with her mother because she’d been living with her father before, and it just didn’t seem right to go there again. Plus her father liked the man too much. Her mom, she’d always been a bit of a tough man-hater.”

Gordon laughed quietly in her ear at the memory of his few awkward interactions with Lizzie’s mother, and she wished that he would stay that relaxed as long as she spoke. “She was starting to feel sluggish and out of sorts. She figured she was just depressed. She tried to get out into the city, make new friends, get a job, that sort of thing, but there was still something off. So her mom made her take a test, which was silly because she didn’t see how it was possible. But it was positive.”

The tears came then, but she refused to wipe them away.  There was no way that she could carry on pretending it hadn’t happened to her. “I didn’t know what to do. I was so young, I’d barely gotten a new job, I couldn’t afford to take time off or even figure out how to raise a kid. I wanted to go back to you, but Mom wouldn’t hear of it. I didn’t tell her what you’d done, just that we’d had a big fight and weren’t going to make it up because we were such different people, and she already had a couple of divorces under her belt. She didn’t think that a kid would be the thing that could make you and me make sense. And I was living under her roof, so I had to do what she wanted me to do or else she’d kick me out. So she made me, she made me—”

“No.” Still, when he moaned the word, she was certain that she didn’t have to tell him. It was clear from their night already that there was no small child sleeping in the bedroom, waiting for her to come home.

“I wanted to tell you so badly. I tried to call you, but you were off touring or something. I couldn’t get through, and then I just kept putting it off. After the ab—the procedure, I didn’t think I could tell you. I thought that I’d betrayed you so horribly that you’d never forgive me, so what was the point? You’d hurt me, but God, I really threw something away that was us. And I couldn’t stand that. So I went to work. I became obsessed with saving up. In a couple of months, I had enough that I could move out, and I came here, back to the city. I haven’t talked to my mom much since then because it just hurts too much. I don’t know if I’m angrier at her for the suggestion or at myself for being weak and listening to her because it was the easy way out.

“But I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t done it, but I don’t know how we could have a baby together. But with your life the way it is, how could we bring a child into that? You were making enough money though. I could’ve quit my job. We could’ve been with you and been a family. And there was nobody I could talk to about it, nobody I could tell because they wouldn’t understand what happened to us or why I did what I did.”

He was quiet behind her, and she didn’t know what to make of it. Her cheeks were burning with pooled blood, and she felt that she’d made a huge mistake. She’d let it lie too long, had made him come all this way and wait hours just to find out that he didn’t know the full story of what had happened between them. All those years of flogging himself for his one indiscretion had been for what? She hadn’t always rejected him, not really. She would have spoken to him, but she had kept her distance in order to mourn for the both of them.

She put her hands on the tub and tried to stand. She had to get away from him and hide in bed until he left. The shame of their past was too heavy for her to endure. But as she tried to pull herself up, his arms were still firm around her, this time coaxing her to sink back against him. “You can’t leave me now,” he said firmly. She could hear the tears in his voice, feel his chest struggling as he tried to keep from breaking down when she already felt like she’d ruined them before they could begin again. “Stay. Just stay.”

She didn’t know what else she had left to offer him, so she listened. This time, she stayed.

Primal Music: part 19.

His hands gripped the railing firmly, and he struggled to hobble up the first step, one foot at a time. “Does that happen every night when you come home?” he asked. He always had tried to summon humor to deflect.

“Are you okay, Gordon? I’m so sorry. I should have warned you it’s a bit rough around here. The neighborhood’s changed the last few years. Honestly, I’ve never had a problem on my own. I don’t know—”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” His features spoke a different story though. He was already firmly into his mid-thirties, and a year seemed to be added to his face with each step as he fought against the pain to close the gap between them. “He was taking a swing at you. I grabbed his fist, but I forgot he had two. Fortunately I blocked him with my face.”

His nose. It was bleeding. After cutting the man, she hadn’t even noticed because her heart was hammering too hard, her mind trying to anticipate every possible scenario. There was still blood on her keys. The sight made her stomach turn, and she nearly sprinted to her door so she could get inside and feel safe again. “Please hurry, Gordon,” she called out to him as she went for the sink. “The sooner you get in here, the sooner you can relax.”

She threw the keys in the basin and ran the water hot. There was a flashlight on her key chain, but fuck it. She could buy another. What mattered was squeezing some orange liquid dish soap between her hands and scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Bile rose in her throat, but she choked it back down. She didn’t feel brave anymore, just disgusted and terrified because someone dangerous knew where she lived and had a reason to resent her.

She should have telephoned the police, but she knew it was a lost cause. The man would be long gone by the time the NYPD arrived, and a case like this wouldn’t matter enough to them to chase. She’d just be another lost slip of paperwork.

When her hands were clean to the point of aching, she ran to get a washcloth to wet. Gordon finally slipped inside and slammed the door behind him, then leaned heavily against the wooden paneling. “Nice place you have here,” he panted as he rested his head back.

“No, you’re supposed to lean forward. Do you want to fucking drown yourself?” she asked as she handed him the cloth. “Don’t worry about staining that. Just tilt your head down and let it drain. Apply pressure. Go sit down.”

“Yes, Mom,” he answered dryly, but she could see that he was grateful. He wiped at the blood on his face and then held the rag to his nose as he shuffled toward the couch. It was covered in silly things, dresses and magazines and bags of shopping that she hadn’t gotten around to putting away yet. She whizzed over to clear some space for him but he just sank down in an empty chair. “Remind me not to piss you off like that. I mean, I’ve pissed you off pretty badly, but Jesus Christ. Did you take up martial arts or something?”

She flushed because she didn’t want to admit what had set her off. “We should get you some ice or a hot compress or something. I don’t know what to do. He kicked you, right? Was it in the ribs?”

He didn’t answer, too busy nursing himself already, so she unzipped his hooded sweatshirt and peeled up the dark blue t-shirt underneath. Even in the dim light from the attached kitchen, she thought she could see a heavy bruise forming on his left side. As though he could feel her gaze on him, he twisted away until she had to let the shirt drop back into place. “Good thing he didn’t aim for the liver. I would’ve been a goner.”

“Gordon, be serious. What if he broke one of your ribs?”

“Then nothing can be done for it. I’ve cracked a rib before. Playing a video game, no less.”

“You didn’t.”

“You should’ve seen the other guy.” He did his best to smile for her, but with the material pressed to his nose, she had to go by the way his eyes creased in the corners. “I have to admit, this is not the way I envisioned my knight in shining armor moment.”

“Well, you certainly were one, what with the way your body took the beating.” She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and crouched by his knees so she wouldn’t hover or pace. “Is there anything I can get you to make you feel better? Or do you want to take a hot bath and soak? I’m really sorry about this. I can’t believe it, I really can’t.”

He chuckled quietly, but the sound tapered off into a groan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts. I just want to sit for a while. And if you have a bag of frozen peas or something, I think that would be fantastic.”

She wasn’t sure how much food she had in the apartment since she embrace the Manhattan lifestyle of using her oven for storage rather than cooking. Still, she rummaged through the freezer and was rewarded with some small piece of chicken that had been encrusted in enough ice to render it jagged. His shirt would at least provide enough of a buffer to make it tolerably cold against his ribs. “It’s no homecooked meal, but I hope it’s okay,” she told him as she held out the frosty piece of meat.

He raised an eye at the chicken but still set it gently against his side. “For all I know, that was a thug you hired to keep me away from your home.”

“I wouldn’t have keyed him if he was one of mine.”

“Maybe you just wanted to rescue me.”

“Well then, mission accomplished.” The adrenaline rush had faded away from her system, and she wanted nothing more than to go to bed to relax. Of course she couldn’t do that while he was still wincing and trying to mend his wounds. “Let’s see your nose then.”

When he pulled the cloth from his face, the bleeding had stopped, but there were still dried flecks of blood clinging to his nostrils. “Probably a less attractive sight than I was an hour ago,” he stated knowingly.

“I never said you were attractive then,” she reminded him. Still, cringing, she took the washcloth from him and took it to the sink so she could rinse it out. She tried not to think about how much blood had been washed down her drain that night as she offered the ruined rag to him again. “Here, clean yourself off.”

He dabbed at his nose but seemed reluctant. “So, what happens next? You kick me out as soon as I feel better, and that’s that?”

“No, of course not.” Color flooded her cheeks because she was trying to figure out how he could spend the night and sleep on her lumpy, budget Ikea couch. It wasn’t a comfortable piece of furniture, and it seemed cruel to subject him to a night in her messy living room with his bruised side. “Do you need a shower or bath or something?” she asked him. After a thick pause, she added, “I can help.”

He looked down at the spot where the chicken cutlet had begun to leave a wet patch on his shirt. “I suppose I could use a tiny bit of help,” he admitted.

Primal Music: part 18.

He gave her a cautious look, as though trying to read exactly what she was suggesting. She really didn’t know herself. To sit and dig up the past with him in public felt too revealing, and there was always a minor chance that someone might recognize him and make a big deal out of things. There were few options for where they could really be alone though, and she understood the consequences of opening her life to him again. Maybe he got that as well. “Well, I did fly across the country to see you, so catching up would be…lovely..”

“Lovely.” She wasn’t sure that was the word she’d use for it. But maybe there was potential. Or maybe she shouldn’t find forgiveness within herself. She didn’t even really know this man, just the segment of their histories that had overlapped. What she knew—what she thought she knew—was that there must be some piece of him that still loved her if he still wrote about her.

Outside, he began blindly walking down the sidewalk, and she had to grab his arm to steer him in the direction of her apartment. Maybe it was the dangerous choice to take him there, but she didn’t feel comfortable with anything else. There were enough rooms that she could keep doors closed and retain her privacy, she reasoned. They’d shared every intimate detail of their lives, so why should this be really difficult? She could always cast him out into the street. Wouldn’t be the first time.

“So, I read what you said about me in that article.” As he walked, he tucked his hands into his pockets. The jeans were a much tighter cut than he used to wear, and she could tell that he wasn’t used to the fashion by the way his fingers could barely wiggle their way in. “You were way too gracious, you know.”

“Why?” She watched him curiously, wondering if he was trying to get an explanation out of her. Surely he wouldn’t go so far out of his way just to pick her mind. That’s what phones were for.  “I mean, the guy asked plenty of questions, but it’s not like I feel like airing that sort of business in public. My family liked you too much. I wasn’t going to tell the entire world that the song they dance to at weddings is about some bitch who couldn’t bother to give her boyfriend attention on Valentine’s Day.”

“You’re not that.” Even as he spoke, it was clear he knew that that was what had driven him to cheat. His Adam’s apple bobbed, but he found his words quicker than she expected. “You were right, you know. To leave me for what I did. It doesn’t matter what I thought you had or hadn’t done, it was still wrong of me to react like that.”

“Gordon. You don’t have to apologize now. It’s a bit late for that. It was a long time ago.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“That doesn’t make it relevant. You were the first man I ever loved, you know? And you broke my heart when you did that, but you taught me a lot about the world. That was when I had to land on my feet and support myself. I could thank you for doing it because I went straight from living with my parents to living with you. I never learned how to be on my own.”

“And then you went straight back to your parents?”

“For a while. Until I could afford to come back here and get my own place. I was used to working hard, so it didn’t take me very long to save up for that.” She smiled so he’d know that it wasn’t a go at him for relying on her money for so long. She fumbled through her purse so she could get a cigarette. It was best to have her hands and mouth as busy as possible so she wouldn’t focus so much on him. “Dad loves the song, by the way. Says I was crazy to leave you.”

A bit of color entered his cheeks. Good, she thought. Keeping him on his toes was all she had when he was used to wheeling and dealing. “What did you think of it though?”

“When I first heard it? I don’t know. It’s not like there’s anything in it that identifies a specific girl. And it’s been half a decade. Who knows how many women you could’ve been with in the meantime.” The dig was slight, but she couldn’t help jabbing at him just a little. It was a defense she was used to employing to keep herself from getting hurt these days. “I had my suspicions. You were always the sentimental sort, especially about things that you didn’t have anymore. It would be just like you to feel sorry enough for yourself to tell the entire world how contrite you were through a song.”

“It wasn’t about that. It was just about…” He trailed off and tugged at his ear. The nervous habit still drove her crazy, and she grabbed his hand to make him stop. If this was the way he was going to be through the conversation, then he’d be short a lobe before they made any progress at all. “It was about remembering the good times that we had together. I couldn’t give you a future, but I guess I could do something with the past.”

Her fingers were still around his wrist, and she remembered what it was like to have her palm to his, how safe she felt when his rough calluses closed around her smooth skin. “Did you think that maybe it would be a bit painful for me to hear that? Like you were guilting me after all those years had passed and I was just trying to move on with my life after you hurt me so badly?”

“No. I don’t really stop to think about songs being anything but therapeutic. Did it hurt you?”

“No. I thought it was sweet.” Seeing the panic rise up within him had been enough. He was all too wrapped around her fingers anymore. Was it his way of atoning, or was he just in love with the girl he thought had gotten away from him forever?

She briefly considered kissing him on the cheek in appreciation for the way he was behaving. This wasn’t the Gordon she remembered but one who had regressed even further back than his indiscretions, one who was a shy teenager again. At least one of them had gone through that phase.

But no. There was the front door to unlock, the apartment to think about, the bare cupboards to worry over in case he hadn’t bothered to eat before looking her up. Politely, he hovered behind her so she could lead the way up the stairs.

There was the jingle of another set of keys behind her. No doubt one of the younger tenants was impatient to get inside to dabble in some sort of drug use.  She wasn’t entirely proud of where she lived, but it wasn’t with a roommate or with her parents, so she counted herself lucky. “Just keep it in your pants for five more seconds and we’ll be inside,” she grumbled.

She didn’t hear the blow, not really. One second she was trying to turn her key, and the next someone shoved her up against the front door. She couldn’t shout out because she was too confused, too surprised that her arm was suddenly twisted back. A cry of pain behind her, and she was knocked against the metal door again, this by a much heavier body.

Gordon was saying something as he tried to get up, but with the way he groaned and abandoned his sentence, she knew that he’d been kicked in the stomach. Fear shot through her body, but there was more to it than that. She had brought him here and was responsible for this, whatever was happening. If she were the only one to be attacked, then she might have been paralyzed by fear. With Gordon, guilt and protectiveness made her whirl around with her keys, lashing out at the first bit of skin she could find.

The metal slashed against a young man’s face. She pushed hard with the jagged edge and felt skin give, leaving a raw, angry cut upon the sunken cheek of the junkie. “You stupid cunt!” the man shouted, reaching for his pocket.

She was quicker as she dug into her purse. She knew she had mace–it was unreasonable to live alone in a neighborhood like this without it–but the first thing her fingers closed around was a travel can of hairspray. With shaking hands, she tore off the cap and pointed the nozzle at the stranger.

The mist blasted into the cut. The man howled in pain. He reached out for her, but she aimed for one eye, then the other. She didn’t know where this boldness came from. She just knew that if he touched her, he could hurt her in ways she couldn’t even imagine. She wasn’t about to let that happen. She wasn’t going to let this asshole ruin the life she’d built for herself. So maybe it wasn’t necessary to swing her heavy purse to hit him in the testicles, but well, she was angry.

The man slouched down to the ground, howling and cursing. She was thinking about the advantages of a well-placed kick from a stiletto when she felt a hand at her elbow. She was ready to land her next blow, but then Gordon’s grimace came into view. “Come on, we should call the police,” he told her. When he stepped back to the door, she noticed just how slowly he was moving.

She squeezed past him and stood in the front hall. He was barely in before she closed and locked the heavy door. “I’m just up on the second floor.” She started to hurry up the stairs, fueled by adrenaline and a fear that the man outside lived in the building and could get inside as soon as he recovered his wits. She was to the first landing when she noticed that Gordon wasn’t directly behind her.