Part IV of New Beginnings, as requested by one of my readers. You can find Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.
He offered me a sheepish smile. “Sorry about earlier. You know, the pissy attitude and all.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Guess this whole trip is eating away at me more than I expected. First-time traveler and all.”
“Oh yeah?” I grinned back. “Not a veteran of long bus trips up North?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “Not a veteran of any trips. Haven’t left town since we moved here back when I was three.” A distant look crossed his face, then he stuck out his hand. “Anyway, I’m Eric.”
I glanced down at his hand and shook it. “Nixie,” I introduced myself.
“Nixie?” he echoed, raising an eyebrow. “As in, Nikki? Nicole?”
I corrected him. “Nixie. It’s a name most people get wrong. Nixie, as in, Phoenix.”
“Rad,” he replied, “you reinventing yourself?”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “Rad?”
“I’m bringing it back.”
I shrugged, then slouched back on the bench. Somehow, his being eager to talk exhausted me. It was like being around a wound-up puppy when you were used to old dogs. He sat down beside me. I rummaged through my beat-up bag and yanked out my tarot cards. I did a three-card spread for myself.
He sunk into himself, humming a melody under his breath. “You hungry?” he asked, gesturing toward a food cart. “Thinking about getting a sandwich.”
I gnawed on my lower lip. Out of nowhere, my stomach gurgled. Must be hungry. “Sure, I guess.”
Eric strolled over to the food cart with a sloping sort of confidence, the nonchalance of a kid who didn’t care much about anything. It was in his walk that I realized this guy could actually be a powerful weapon to have in my arsenal.
I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I definitely wouldn’t have any friends in Montreal.
He came back, small triangular cardboard boxes in each hand. He tossed one my way. “Didn’t know what you liked, so I got you a vegetarian one. Cucumbers, mayo, sprouts, I don’t know, maybe shredded carrots or something. That cool?”
I nodded. Anything sounded good in that exact moment. My phone rumbled in my bag, vibrating against some of its contents. I ignored it, some of my old nerves reawakening as I ripped open the cardboard.
Eric shoved a mouthful of egg salad into his mouth and began asking about the cards I had pulled.
I told him what each one meant, but I didn’t tell him that I saw trouble in my future.
Correction: I saw trouble in our future.
He said, “I play an instrument, and I was in a band. The band kicked me out when they realized they’d rather shoot up than play gigs. I heard you can make a killing busking out in Canada.”
“An instrument, huh?” I replied between bites. “What do you play? The mandolin? A didgeridoo?”
Eric sighed, exasperated. “I used to play drums, but I’m not bringing those on the road, so I stuck with guitar.”
Through the glass dome ceiling, a streak of lightning split the sky and thunder shook the building. The hairs on my arm rose.
Part III of New Beginnings, you can find New Beginnings Part I here and Part II here.
I tapped my soft box of cigarettes against my hand, more for something to do with my hands than to pack the tobacco. As I shuffled to a wall behind us, I wondered what I was doing with my life. Leaning against it, my stomach twinged. I flicked my lighter and inhaled deeply. The comfort of tobacco and cloves flooded my nostrils.
The clove was more pungent than I remembered, but maybe my senses were more heightened than usual because the gold cellophane wrapped around the box seemed to shimmer in the dull light.
I tried not to think of what I was leaving behind but to the future. The great unknown I was throwing myself into. The smell of my cigarette reminded me of the first day I had smoked.
I had cut history class and walked to a cemetery near campus. The air was crisp, cutting through my jacket then, just as it did now. I had found a sprawling tree to sit under and watched a burial a few feet away.
Vee had seen me that day. I hadn’t known her yet. We barely spoke, but we shared thatcigarette like it was the last one on Earth. She had snatched my phone from my back pocket and typed her contact information. That night, when I had called her, her smoky voice sounded as though she had expected my call.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to block out the past five years of memories with Vee. We began dating when I was seventeen. Still a teenager and moldable. I was a lump of clay and she was the sculpting chisels and hammers.
Almost unbidden, I remembered the hell that was high school. Slouching in a chair in the guidance counselor’s office. Mrs. Reed’s heels clacking against the linoleum as she paced back and forth. The way her watery gray eyes traveled from my mother to me. Thinking of all the time I spent with Vee instead of working on my homework. All the times we snuck out and smoked in the cemetery. Mrs. Reed telling my mom that I had been cutting class. That I was reckless.
“Maybe it’s just a phase,” Mrs. Reed had said, hope glittering in her eyes. Mrs. Reed who smelled like Christmas cookies had begged my mom not to let me ruin my life.
That was before the state psychiatrist and psychologist. Before the diagnoses. Before the hospital stays in psych wards.
My relationship with Vee had endured five tumultuous years, but numbers were just numbers. 1,825 days didn’t matter unless you gave them meaning. As I smoked, I didn’t notice the guy from the bench approach me. After a minute or two lost in memories, I saw him.
I wondered how he saw me. Dyed auburn hair with black roots. Heavy eyeliner. I felt like a childactor, pretending to be an adult. He made me doubt me, and he had barely spoken two wordsto me.
My hands began to shake when my phone vibrated. I stubbed my cigarette against the wall and began to curse.
“Expecting a phone call?” he asked with a smirk as I stared at my cell phone, horrified. What would I tell her? What could I tell her? She probably had just finished her shift at Blackburn’s. Maybe she was already back at our apartment. I began to shake violently.
I took a drag of my cigarette and buried my phone deep in my bag. His eyes flashed. “You forget to tell someone where you’re going?” he asked, his voice a touch concerned.
“Doesn’t matter,” I muttered, “what about you? You tell your whole family and all your friends where you’re headed?”
“Hah.” He rolled his eyes. “Like Veronica cares.”
“Girlfriend?” I arched an eyebrow, watching his face.
“My mom,” he mumbled, “my friends won’t even notice. Too high to even notice if I’m in the same room or not.” He waved the idea away. “Doesn’t matter. They won’t ever think to look where I’m going.”
“Where are you going?” I asked quietly.
“Montreal.” He grinned, his dimples deepening.
I didn’t speak but thought I had just found a partner-in-crime for the trip.
Jonathan O’Neill took a deep drag off his joint, the thin paper crinkling and crackling as he inhaled the piney smoke. He had smoked every day for the last twenty-two years and decided if this was what it took for him to forget, so be it. He sighed. His children had all moved out ofthe house years ago. Now, they were starting families of their own. He knew that soon, their children would be crawling around the worn Berber carpet. Angie was in the other room, watching television. The faint voice of the late-night comedian reached him through the thin walls.
Closing his eyes, he brushed aside a thought, a wisp of a memory: the smell of magnolias andpatchouli. After he opened his eyes, he picked up the slim volume of poetry, inhaling again. The mint pine filled his lungs and he coughed. Angie would snicker at him, had she known he was reading poetry. The black words on the ivory page scattered.
He was forgetting.
Good, he thought,took you long enough, you old codger.
With great deliberation, he set his mind to his wife: her pillowy breasts, her comfortable stomach, her love of chocolate chip cookies and black-and-white classic movies. They’d been together since they were teenagers. High school sweethearts. Angie claimed him after a homecoming game sophomore year. Told him she’d marry him some day.
They were only eighteen when they married. Young and full of hopes. A flash of honey blonde hair shimmered in his memory, and he exhaled her name. A name he hadn’t spoken aloud in over twenty years. “Danielle.”
He remembered her curves, the way his hands could wrap around her waist and pull her in. He shook his head as though to shake the thought from his mind. Her silver-gray eyes. The way Angie had sobbed when she found out: her shoulders shaking, her plump lips trembling, tears glittering in her gray eyes.
He wished he could have told her the fierceness with which he loved her could devour a man’s sanity. The possessiveness with which he clung to her could dissolve any solid man’s reason. That, though he had signed that marriage certificate all those years ago in a courthouse, Angie by his side, his heart was signed to her, a contract only his soul could fulfill. Their love might have been forbidden, but Danielle, sweet Danielle, she had been his once upon a time.
Stop, Jonathan scolded himself, let it go. She has forgiven you. But still the memory of Danielle struck him. He had never cheated on Angie before, but with Danielle, it didn’t feel like cheating. In fact, the nights he laid his head on the pillow beside Angie and inhaled her lavender sachet and fresh linen, those were the nights he felt he was cheating.
He remembered how they talked about taking her yellow Volkswagen Beetle cross-country, driving all the way to the East Coast, then driving west to Colorado. He thought about the way they talked about going to music festivals where she could sell her art and inhale music like it was a drug. He savored the memories. The memories that never were. He thought what if he had met her first.
He steeled his eyes into an empty stare. His glazed, honey-brown eyes softened as he took in his surroundings. The leather wingback chair in his office. The antique typewriter. First-edition books. His diplomas on the wall. Life was good. Comfortable. He heard Angie chuckle at one of the comedian’s jokes on television. Jonathan inhaled another drag, willing himself to forget.
How many years since she died? he wondered. Shuddering, the icy chill pierced through hisheart like a frozen dagger and dragged down his spine. No, he told himself sternly. It was best to forget. Danielle was just a girl.
Her mother had compared Danielle to a hummingbird at the funeral: small, magical, alwaysfluttering around. And Jonathan had understood. He remembered the last time he had seen her alive. They walked the perimeter of a pond. She was moving her hands as she spoke quietly about putting her dog to sleep. He remembered the other times too. The softness of her lips. The tentative way she explored the scar on his spine. The glimmering wonder in her gray eyes as he broke open a walnut and fed it to her.
How she had taught him to sip the viscous, amber liquid from a honeysuckle. The poems she had written him. How she swore she was going to write him a play so he could return to the stage some day. The post cards she had written him from California, Montana, Colorado.
You would love it here, she had scrawled on the cards, I miss you. I think of you every day.Jonathan had saved them each and stowed them away in the back of the slim volume of poetry that was hidden in plain sight most days on his book shelf.
Shut up, shut up, shut up, he reminded himself, scolding.
That was the thing about both the marijuana and the early onset of his disease. They might help him forget his current miseries, but the past taunted him. Slightly out of reach, yet still familiar. A dream sparse on details but little snatches coming back to him as the evening progressed.
He remembered the language she had invented and her laugh. The silver sparkle in her gray eyes. Her skin the color of milk. The way she’d talk about the wild animals she saw in her backyard-the coyotes, the foxes, a fawn once.
His bones felt brittle. He felt so old. His teeth sometimes felt too large in his mouth. Thedisease stripped him of words. Sometimes, he’d be talking to Angie and mid-sentence, he’d falter.
But these memories of Danielle.
They persisted, whether he appreciated it or not.
It was as though he wasexperiencing the nostalgia of anemoia, shuffling through old photographs in his mind (the ones he never took, lest Angie discover them when cleaning oneday) and experiencing the wave of sentimental remorse for a time he pretended did not belong to him.
He took a deeper inhale of his joint. Smoke unfurled deeply into his lungs. His thoughts slipped away, and he leaned back in his leather wingback, a dazed smile on his face.
He was forgetting.
And it was bliss.
But then, an image shattered his serenity. The haunting image, though never something he saw with his own two eyes, froze him whenever his memory called it back. Danielle going home one night to her lover after traveling. He had discovered the poetry book she had penned Jonathan and ripped every page out, feeding it to the fireplace. That night, as the fire crackled, the man wrapped his hands around Danielle’s throat and suffocated the light out of her gazes.
Jonathan took a deep breath.
When he had arrived at the wake, he… no, he repeated to himself, I will not go down that path. Stop. He remembered nonetheless. Despite the mortuary cosmetologist’s best attempts, Jonathan could see fingerprints on her slim, pale throat.
Or at least at the time, he believed he had.
It had been so many years.
He was better to forget their past. The smell of magnolias and patchouli. The way her lips parted slightly when she hungered for a kiss. Her soft skin. Her honey-blonde hair.
He’d spend a lifetime, trying in desperation to forget.
In the twelfth grade, my heart was sore like a bruise you put pressure on to remind yourself why it hurts. I hung out with a girl who wore oversized hoodies to hide her abortion and outlined her eyes in black for the drama. One afternoon, we were cutting class, but instead of hiding under a bridge and writing poetry like usual, she took me to a stranger’s house.
We sat around, the air thickly perfumed with pot. I watched a boy several years older. His eyeswere the color of sea glass and distant as well. He didn’t say much, but then, neither did I. A big Siberian Husky lay on the floor. A person everyone seemed to know came in and let in a draft of blustery winter air. We all yelled for someone to shut the damn door. The dog’s name was Neko like the singer.
No one bothered to close the door, so we, strangers and friends alike, huddled close for warmth. Neko jumped up and ran out the door. The boy with light eyes and I leapt to our feet, without saying a word, and in our heavy winter boots, chased down the dog. The yards were covered in snow, and we ran without losing our breath, the winter air crisp in our lungs. We ran down those empty streets, chasing a dog neither of us knew.
What if you were that boy— eyes the color of sea glass?
I don’t know how to tell you this.I once was; when before, I was not. If I told you I remembered the moment I was formed, you’d call me a liar, and I am anything but. A whooshing sound like a strong wind gusted over me, but this was before we knew wind. She told me it was formless when She began. She even described to me how she scooped the waters together in the cup of her hand and separated the liquid from the air- water from sky.
The next day, She gathered the waters to dwell in one place and then, distributed the land. She created trees and shrubbery and flowers and plants of all kind. She did not stop. Animals still needed to be shaped. As though She was molding clay, She formed all these things.
She explained that to create me, She used dust and the Breath of Life. Sometimes, I doubt She is capable of all this.
But to doubt is to show faith.
She told me to believe.
And so, I did.
After She explained my task-the maintenance of the garden,a deep longing for sleepconsumed me. She warned me not to eat from a specific tree. That was easy. She told me to name the creatures. That, too, was easy. All the tasks seemed reasonable. The demands? Not the type to splinter my soul. But the ground was warm and soft, my head was heavy, and I slept.
The rays of sun warmed my naked ass, and yet, I feared nothing. She had created me from dust and the Breath of Life.
Idid not feel it, but she opened my flesh, and from it, she stole a bone that was pleasing.Thisbone was called a rib, and when my flesh concealed the bones once more, I had not missed what was taken. This was the first time she had taken from me. She had given me so much. The least I could do was give a rib. In exchange, she gave me a companion.
I had never seen a beast like this: She told me the beast resembled me, but it was beautiful,and I was not beautiful. Her loveliness blistered me, yet I did not feel a warmth to my cheeks like the Creator Goddess described. I wanted to run my hands over her skin and feel its smoothness under my callouses. I longed to touch her bare flesh and feel it rise and fall beneath me.
It was though I was breaking into several pieces all at once because I wanted to teach her the animals I had named, but I also wanted to be very still and simply breathe with her.
Idid not want to restrict her freedoms. She reminded me so much of the Creator Goddess. Their voices rose and fell in the same patterns. Though I had not seen the Creator Goddess yet, She was vast. (Much too vast for me to comprehend.) Subsequently, this beast was vast in her beauty. Understanding her was like trying to describe how the Creator Goddess separated the air from the water. This creature’s voice flowed over me like a babbling brook.
I let her explore. I wanted her to seek whatever it was she chose to seek. She reached her hands out to touch the animals, explore their furs and hides, and marvel at the beauty of plants. But she was the gift I never deserved but desired. I had never seen beauty like hers. Not in the peacock’s plumage or the giraffe’s great heights. The way her hips swayed when she walked? It was extraordinary.
I watched her, but I did not try to keep her like I kept the flowers.
I did not want to possess her. Own her.
The flowers I wanted to shower her with grew taller than both of us, demonstrating to me that I was not in charge. I never was. I was unable to hold the cool waters I wanted her to feel caressagainst her skin could not be contained, but it was right. It was good.
I walked without direction. I aimed without path. She traveled in one direction and I, the other. It was not intentional. If I had set forth intention, I would never be separated from her. Except that rib. That rib separated us. She came from me, not from the vast She who created everything else in this garden.
She went alone. I heard her speaking to one of the animals, and I thought this to be good. It was wise she learned their names and who better to teach them their names than the animals themselves?
I did not listen, but her voice floated, the syllables breaking apart and separating. I could not hear individual words, but these syllables were delicious, inviting. I wanted to learn her body as intimately as my own. There was a reason she was created.
I was not tobe alone in this world.
She ran toward me, her legs flying up barely touching the earth. Her excitement was contagious. That laugh-luxurious. The way she threw her head back as she collided into me intoxicated me. I was under her spell. She thrust a small fruit into my hands. Its coloring was the color of the sky at night. I had not seen a fruit like it before, but I had not explored the same places as she. She found places deep within the garden I had not yet seen.
She fed it to me, its nectar sticky as it dribbled down our chins. We smiled, our gazes soft upon each other. The moment was blissful, but it was just that: a moment.
I wanted to devour her. Swallow her whole. I wanted to take back what was mine. This garden was not meant to be shared. She was never meant to be. Her voice? Far from melodious. It was the sound of claws scraping against my own flesh. She had destroyed me. She had stolen a rib from me, and the wretched woman bared her teeth to me in a smile like it was meant to be a forgiving feature. She was hideous.
I could not drag my nails against her skin nor could I flay her. She was not my creation. She was not mine to destroy. But she had slept against my skin: bone against bone. She had been my rib, and now, she was formed. A monstrosity.
Why did I ever find this repulsive creature to be attractive? I wanted to cover her. Throw leaves over her and create a pyre.
The vast She that created me did not make mistakes, then why was this woman looking at me with desire in her eyes? She had fed me the fruit of knowledge, and this was knowledge I could not untangle. I could not imagine touching her. Being so near her that I could smell the cologne of her musk made bile rise to my throat.
I was walking one way, and I walked past you. You were hand-in-hand with another girl, and I don’t even know if you noticed me. I had never seen you with that girl before, but she looked so happy. Who could blame her? You were holding hands with her. It probably felt as though time had stopped.
I always liked love stories.
I know whenever we held hands, whether it was in the courtyard or in the car, I felt like I was your girl. It felt as though time had stopped. I felt like the only girl in the world. I remember the way you talked about my eyes like they were the most magical thing you had ever seen. You talked about them like they were beautiful.
But we both know you hate eyes like mine.
I still remember the last time I saw you before I saw you with that girl, her nervous smile giving way to the fact that she liked you. The last time I saw you before that, you had told me you loved me. You had driven away in the rain. It was late at night, and we were happy.
All we have are our memories, and like most things, the memories are fading.
Some day, all I’ll have to remember you by is the faint smell of your soap and the scar on my finger.
Warning:This short story is an abstract expression of what it feels like to survive domestic violence. If you find this subject matter potentially triggering, please do not continue reading.
Fingertips against cheekbones. The result? A bruise or a caress. Her flinch is noticeable but only if you look for it. A stained-glass heart shatters, and it could create a mosaic. A human heart breaks, and it could create lace of invisible scars.
The door slams, and she trembles like a leaf before its descent to the ground. It’s the aftermath you expected but did not deserve. She tried to warn you that beauty like hers is a fragile kind. You did not listen. The words fell on empty ears. She may as well have been speaking into a conch.
Tell her she’s beautiful.
Hold her close like a glass angel.
Whisper you love her just the way she is.
Will she ever learn that your love has no bounds, that bruises fade?
The scars are just as fabled as the laugh lines. This is all history, and you’re determined to turn the page.
“I’m scared,” she whispers, clinging to you in the dead of the night. You reach a hand up to stroke her hair, but she shudders as though she was left out in the cold.
Keep watch for progress.
Hope things will be different.
An entire year passes, and she still wears these scars as though announcing her surrender.
You beg that one day she will be strong enough to move on.
Her eyes widen like saucers and shimmer like broken glass.
“Do you remember what love really feels like,” you ask, but before the words are gutted from your lips, her chin trembles and tears trail down her cheeks.
You don’t expect her to reply, but she does. “Patching craters in the wall his fist made. The cracked dessert plates that only needed to be washed. Blood is red, violet is a bruise, I get the love I choose. Love is whispering and pleading, the tears no one saw.”
“You experienced love before him,” you insist.
Memory is a distortion. We exaggerate and undermine, even destroy events. Like the dodge-and-burn technique you learned in a high school darkroom years prior.
The stretch and pull makes memories as pliable as saltwater taffy.
“I once wore a hibiscus bloom in my hair. I felt like a flamenco dancer. He said the color made him sick. I think it was my happiness that revolted him.” She never speaks his name.
Not in all the time you two have been dating does she say his name aloud. Not in therapy. Certainly not to you. It creates a myth out of a coward. A villain worth noting, but not naming.
“Saying his name is like crunching through lightbulbs,” she admits, “fractured filaments split between my teeth.”
One morning, you notice the tissue-paper thin petals of a hot pink hibiscus on the dark hardwood.
You hear her humming her favorite song in the bathroom, her feet bare on the tile floor (not fearing shards of glass from a time past).
When you go to snake an arm around her waist, her skin feels warm. Inviting. In the past, your presence was an intrusion. You were as wanted as a closet monster. The hibiscus in her brown curls casts a rosy glow on her cheeks, and her eyes sparkle as though they were made of diamonds or stars.
Your insides feel as though they are fizzing over, effervescent like champagne bubbles.
This is what love feels like.
Although her heart is in repair, the pieces create a mosaic of beauty. Though the pieces are bright and glimmering, they are still broken. Still they have jagged edges. Yet you see the beauty in each individual piece.
Repair this broken heart.
Mend these wounds.
Do not despair.
There is hope.
There is beauty in the afterglow.
If you or a loved one is in danger or is in an abusive relationship, there are resources. Please call the national domestic violence hotline at 800-799-7233. You are not alone. Please do everything you can to insure your or your loved one’s safety. You are stronger than you know. There is hope.
Hey, y’all! I just wanted to let you know some exciting news; the anthology “Phobia!” that my short story “Something Beyond” is featured in can be ordered as of a week from today!
Next Friday, April 22, 2021, you can preorder a copy of Phobia!
If you order from me, you can get an autographed copy of it. Please let me know if you are interested.Thomas tried not to picture the bony fingers gripping pens and scrawling out fears as if a man with a wardrobe of bespoke suits and shiny shoes could save them.