Time Machine

 

Remember Tic-Toc, the mechanical man
from the Wizard of Oz?

(Does Everything But Live.)

He had to be wound up
to operate, and eventually,
his inner workings would slow
down like a roulette wheel until he stopped;
Stuck inside a frozen body. Looking out
through unresponsive eyes;
alive, but unmoving.

Life in a tin can.

 

 

Foster Home #2: The Well Intended Couple

*This is an excerpt from a longer essay titled, “Into the System.” (W.I.P.)

 

They live in a rich community, and they can’t get pregnant. They feel sorry for me. They bear a vision of how I will be, with just a little polish and shine.

Their house looks like a furniture brochure. I look like a dust ball on their carpet. Stephanie takes me shopping. Blouses and pantyhose. A haircut and new earrings.

I get my own room upstairs, so clean and white. I can’t relax. I tip toe to the bathroom. I steal salami from the refrigerator.

I dream that they will adopt me and we’ll go on exotic vacations. They’ll fix me, and I’ll be their daughter. The child they couldn’t have.

Stephanie instructs me how to make lemon meringue pie. We talk. My voice sounds thick and unwieldy in the stainless steel kitchen. I strive to dazzle her with my charm and wit. I’m obedient. I’m a quick study. I’m worth keeping.

Sometimes I make her laugh. Sometimes I think she likes me.

I stay away from Bob. I don’t want to be alone with him, just in case. He works all the time. I wonder if I’m here as Stephanie’s project. I don’t mind.

Things are looking good for me.

She lets me have a sleepover. I show my friends around, proud. See what I landed. See how big my room is. See my new pretty family with sophisticated tastes. They are my family now, all mine. I get comfortable.

I get careless.

I want to be good for Stephanie. But I can’t tame my hair. Or my anger. Or my crying jags. I can’t smile all the time. I’m not organized. I’m not obedient. All the nice stuff they give me does not cover up the dents and dings.

I sense her disappointment. She is pulling away from me, finding new ways to occupy her time. I hide in the bathroom. I steal cold hot dogs from the refrigerator.

After school, I find the Social Worker on the couch with Stephanie. Stephanie has some issues. She has some concerns. You don’t clean your room, Stephanie says. You don’t use soap in the bath, she says.

I used the gel, I say. That’s for shaving legs, she says.

I’m sorry, I say.

She’s talked it over with the Social Worker. They think I would do better somewhere else. They are not the right people for me. I panic and beg. I plead until I run out of breath. I promise a spotless room and a clean body and perfect grades and the right attitude, anything if I can just stay.

One more day, I cry.

Go get your things, they say.

But I have no things to bring.

 

 

 

Remember These Things

I don’t know why I remember what I was wearing: tie-dye tank top and loose shorts past my knees no bra no shoes I went barefoot everywhere and that day the bus was empty I sat in the back just one long seat taking up too much space looking out the window smudged from greasy foreheads or fingers maybe a little girl’s head pressed against glass making hearts with peanut butter and strawberry jam hands? And that was the day my breast was sore from tiny marks around my aureole left by his braces. Train tracks he called them. It wasn’t love but it was fun and the bus hit a bump an empty beer can rattle-rolled back and forth in time with my belly sick and dizzy and full of fear I remember that rattle but I don’t know why.

I don’t know why I remember falling on the sidewalk, I just do, I do remember it solid cold grating against my cheek like a five o’clock shadow all those pebbles green and silver and yellow and tan making white concrete when you’re standing upright and I needed to be upright and not facedown tonguing the ground so I pushed myself back up into the world. It was a quiet day a perfect sunshine day a tiny breeze ever refreshing and all the quaint houses with their little green yards and beds of bright poppy flowers and sprinklers tick-ticking away a lovely neighborhood so lovely and not mine, I remember now it was the wrong bus stop and if there was a reason, I don’t know why.

I don’t know why I remember these things.

I don’t know why I remember these things about my mother: tarot cards, skinny jeans, a roach clip, a cigarette ember, white musk, a suitcase and a gun. She called me pumpkin. She divided my dark hair on each side to yank and braid and smooth and tie to perfection. My friends had a secret club they wrote her love letters and when she read them she smiled, happy for once. I remember swimming all day long, no I rode my bike all day long riding over to their houses to eat their food to take a bath in their tub to try on their clothes, play their games, any games they had so many like race cars, teddy bears, baby dolls, soccer balls, family nights, movie nights, please let me stay the night! Let me go camping with you! Let me go to the amusement park with you! I’ll even go to church! I remember a night at one house frozen on the hardwood floor no pillows or blankets or room on the bed and their house creaked so scary the shadows like claws on the walls wishing for my room my bed my mom I loved her so much I wrote her love letters, I remember. I remember my love red hot a terrible inferno.

I don’t know why I remember the bus number: 58. Route 58 from Boulder to Lafayette and back again every half hour from 6 a.m. to midnight except Saturday and Sunday good luck finding a ride then. It was the right bus the wrong bus stop. I had a little cry on the ground and heaved myself back into the world. Bold colors everywhere even on my ugly tie-dye. I wandered through the stupid fucking streets with the crappy little houses full of asshole people. The heat oppressive and my heart jackknifing in time with my heavy feet. Then there was the rattle in my pocket my fingers rolling back and forth across the label the scratch of fingernail to paper and plastic a ball of lint caught between my pinky and ring finger. Why would I remember that? Or how it was bright enough to want sunglasses and hot enough to want water and easy enough to swallow a bottle of pills all cotton mouthed and chalky throated and kids playing in the park, kids laughing and moms watching and dads working and all the people doing all their things and I told myself to remember it, I told myself…

…I don’t want to remember this next part.

Why I remember. Out of all the things I could remember: I wasn’t wearing a bra. I had no shoes. That my legs were hairy and I wanted to say sorry. That they were going to find the train tracks: it wasn’t love but it was fun. Everything was white lights and needles and loud machines: their hands, my head. My head especially firecrackers of blooming white flash bulbs of emergency crowding around me with distant voices and solemn faces looming full of slurred and silly gibberish. What a nonsense thing to remember but I do doctors and nurses and interns and my mother off camera and I was there too!  I was there black coal fizzing out of my throat the tube so cruel to my tongue and sucking up a swirling mess sick like on a swaying ship and no balance (no bra!)I’m choking on ocean I reach for the air, or wait— I grabbed for the rail—it was metal I think, no, no—it was a wet noodle it was a fish I couldn’t catch it was a pinprick in my arm and it was a little red balloon no a little green monster no it was blurry blubbery snotty fear no more voices no more white I hear them fuzzy through a tin can and I remember the earthquake feeling a terrible shaking a volcano ripping me like an inferno a tidal wave a bitter black heart that only I could see.

*This Essay was published in the March 2017 issue of Indiana Voice Journal. Check it out!

A Letter to My Therapy Group

Dear Group,

This illness has been my single most defining force, whether I wanted it to be or not. It has destroyed the last decade of my life, aged me beyond my years, worn me out and separated me from people I loved and from people who might’ve loved me back. It has always chosen the hard path, the path of most resistance, the quick escapes and easy ways out. It has shrunken my brain, widened my body, sagged my cheeks and dulled my eyes. It has stolen me from myself, stolen my time here on earth. It has been cruel. It has been unforgiving.

I sit here today, one hot mess.

I have been on medication now for two years, a.k.a. “managing my illness.” Progress has been slow. Before I finally admitted my illness and accepted help for it, I spent 10 years sequestered in my apartment. I’d go weeks without leaving or talking to anyone other than my husband. He was my only friend and my only family. Everyone else had abandoned me, some of them for a good reason. I simply did not feel like I deserved to be alive. I felt like I had failed as a human, and it was important to keep myself away from people so that I wouldn’t hurt them, and so they wouldn’t hurt me.  Isolation was my self-medication. It was my truth, my life, and my slow, tortured attempt at suicide.

Things have changed in the last two years. I am not constantly in the grip of my illness and medication has created a window of opportunity to think before I react, a skill impossible for people with bipolar to master without help and practice.  I have done a lot of healing and learning.  I am starting to want things for myself, and sometimes I even feel *gasp* hope.

I am better now, but here is the thing I need to share with you:  I am full of fear, and in spite of help and medication, I am continuing to punish myself through isolation. I recognize that I am at the stage in my recovery where I need to forgive myself, and rejoining the world is part of that process. But, group, my heart still believes that I don’t deserve life, friends, family, or a chance at some kind of self-fulfillment. I am paralyzed by the notion that I am unlikable, that I won’t be accepted, and that I have nothing to offer the world or myself.

It’s been so long since I’ve had relationships with other people. I am afraid that I will manipulate and hurt and sabotage them like I did so long ago. I am afraid to connect to people, feel close to them, go through the good and bad of what relationships have to offer.  I am afraid to find out that, even with the illness managed, I am simply not a worthwhile person.  That I am too needy to be a good friend. So far, I have not found a way to forgive myself, and I’m afraid I will never be able to figure out how to do so. It’s an infuriating and willful place to be.

That’s where I am, group. I’m lonely, I’m scared, I don’t really know who I am without the grip of mental illness defining my personality.

Thanks for listening,

Amy                                                                                                                      June 12, 2012 

(found while cleaning my desk)

*Photo Credit: Porsche Linn

Excerpt from 2016 Pacific Crest Trail Journal

*Earlier this year, I backpacked 700 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (A 2,660-mile trail from Mexico to Canada.) The plan was to hike the entire distance, but I did not make it. Here is a journal entry from Day 7. Interested in reading more?(Bonus: I met a nudist hiker a few weeks in) Day 1 PCT 2016 I may share more here as I rummage through my journal, reminisce, and try to talk myself into trying again in 2017. It would be my third attempt. As Churchill says: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

(Day 7: March 20, 2016)

The trek from Chariot Canyon to Scissors Crossing was my final day on the trail last year, and it was an extremely painful 15 miles. I have regaled Aaron with stories about how the elevation profile for this part is a dirty LIAR and that we will go up for HOURS instead of a lackadaisical DOWN like the profile PROMISED. Of course, my memory is tainted with the amount of pain I was in. I remember the traverse of granite mountain as hellish, and the flat, crazy hot,  going-the-wrong-direction trail to the underpass as hell’s middle finger aimed at you when you turn your back. (Yes, I know hell has no fingers.)

What happens is: we wake up at dawn, tumble out of our tent with sleepy eyes, try to get water without waking up some hikers that came in the night, super- bandage all the blisters, click our packs, and take deep breaths. “This will be HORRIBLE,” I tell Aaron. And so we go.

And it’s….not so bad. The fact that it’s early morning and in the shade helps. A lot. “Just wait, suddenly we’re gonna go STRAIGHT UP,” I keep saying, but it never happens. Steep parts, sure. Hard? Yes; pretty much the whole trail is hard for me. But it’s not the monster that has plagued me for a year. “Whew, hard.” Aaron says when we reach the top, but I think he’s just protecting my ego. “Blisters, pain, so thirsty…” I mumble, a little shame-faced.

Thirst has been catching up, btw. We bring enough water, but not ENOUGH water, right? This morning I woke up a little horse. And water seems to be popping into unrelated thoughts more and more. Showing up in song lyrics. When Aaron tries to get me to play “What we’ll eat in Julian”, I can only conjure visions of water pouring from a pitcher.

We reach the flat, last few miles to Scissors Crossing. It’s so long. The dirt is burning my feet, expanding them, turning the skin into bubbles of future pain. And the trail goes the wrong way. Then changes its mind and cuts back along the road. Hot. Hot. Hot. Water.

We have water. But we don’t count on caches, so we mete it out because we will dry camp tonight. Yet both of us are secretly wishing: Please let there be water at Scissors crossing. Pretty please. We cross the street before the underpass, and spot some plastic hidden in the bushes. We rummage through them. “Nothing.” Aaron says, disappointed. Then I see it. “There!” I shout. One single, glimmering, beautiful 19oz bottle of fresh, glorious water. “Let’s share.” we gulp it down in minus 1 second. Oh, man. that’s the stuff.

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Finally at the Scissors, we find water, La Croix sparkling water, shade and cell service. Again, I marvel at strangers so going out of their way to help other strangers. We lounge in the shade like kings, taking pictures, texting, napping and making our customary stupid jokes. We do drink some of the water there, but don’t refill because others might need it more. It’s a fantastic break. Last year, when I got here, my feet were bloody and gross. Now they’re just….gross. Blisters, but not get-off-the-trail blisters. Not yet. Hopefully never.

It’s 3 and the hottest day, it feels like. But we want to head up into the San Felipe Hills. The trail looks daunting, how it hugs the side of the mountain, cutting steep-looking zig-zags up the slope. Oh well, let’s go.

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We cross the street and it’s like the desert instantly changes. There are all these alien-looking cacti everywhere. Things are stark. Things want to poke. Yet they are also blooming, giving mixed messages. And we are climbing, climbing, it’s windy and steep and never ending. It’s scary. But gorgeous. We are so far above Scissors Crossing. Did it even exist? Were we actually there? Maybe we’ve always been here, forever climbing.

The sun hits that magical hour where colors are enhanced, everything is super saturated and my heart swells with the beauty I am in the midst of. We find a campsite off the trail that feels like we are nowhere near civilization. It’s just us and red rocks, plants ever aiming their needles at us, a purple-pink sunset spreading over us while a blueish-white moon patiently waits for her entrance cue.

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Pool Girl

The ad said:

Wanted: Pool Girl

Employer: MC Killa Cuddly Where: The Cuddly Mansion

What: Do you have what it takes to live the big life? Can you rock a swimsuit? Ready to see and be seen? MC Killa Cuddly is on the prowl for a special girl to swim in his infinity pool. Mermaid Tank Girls also considered. Must have your own snorkel and flippers. Big $$, commensurate with experience.

(Note: Daily pool cleaning is REQUIRED.)

 

I showed the ad to Christy. “Oh, hell no,” she said. She had her textbooks scattered across my kitchen counter: The Art of the Steal, Cat Burglar 101, Modern Thief. “Don’t tell me you’re considering it.” She tucked wisps of blonde hair under her signature black hairband.  The diamonds in her ears sparkled. They were her latest nab. People on the streets dubbed her “The Black Panther,” on account of her black leotard and safe-cracking skills. Not even a Junior yet, and it was evident Christy was going places. Mom and Dad were so proud.

“Would that be so bad?” I opened my closet. I knew I had an old snorkel set from when our parents took us to Hawaii—a mea culpa for their endless hours masterminding hijinks while leaving us to fend for ourselves. “The pay is good.”

“The pay?” Christie snorted. “Don’t let Mom hear you say that. She didn’t raise us to get paid. We’re The Bandits Four; we hoodwink and bamboozle. That’s our modus operandi.” She continued to sharpen her nails. Christy had decided her feature affectation would be picking locks with her fingernails. I was supposed to finish my BA in Munitions and join her on runs as, “CATastrophe.” I hadn’t told her yet that I was failing my TNT exams.

“Do you even know how to swim? Like the backstroke?” She jabbed her newly tapered claw my way. “You know “Pool Girl” is just code for S-E-X, right? Killa Cuddly has a reputation.”

I wiped the dusty flippers off on my jeans. “Christy, Killa Cuddly is known for cuddling, duh. Everything else is hearsay.” Pulled the snorkel mask over my face. Looked in the mirror. Would Killa Cuddly want to cuddle me?

 

 

Killa’s foyer was bigger than my entire studio apartment. His crew, known as “The League of Extraordinary Embrace” struck me as brooding for people whose claim to fame was mega cuddle parties. Even the hype man was silent. One by one we were called to head out to the pool deck, where Killa Cuddly sat on his wicker throne, clipboard in hand. Finally, it was my turn, and hype man gave me a tiny bit of cloth.

“Your costume,” he said, and pointed to a door. “Put it on in there and then proceed to the pool area. Don’t speak unless spoken to, understand?” He eyed me up and down. “Good luck.”

My costume was the skimpiest bikini I had ever seen. The bottoms were two small triangles held together by a ribbon, and the top barely covered my nipples. I parted my dark, frizzy hair and draped it over my cleavage. That helped a little. I slipped into the flippers and pulled the mask over my face. A pair of inflatable arm floaties with cartoon rubber duckies sat on the vanity. I put those on, too, and waddled my way outside.

“Interesting, interesting,” Killa said before I had made it to the pool’s edge. He was even more fleshy in person. His pale, flabby gut stood in stark contrast to the darker, more built bodies of his League. Everyone was in swim shorts except the champagne servers—all women, naked sans the rubber ducky inflatables around their tiny waists. I gulped. My face mask fogged up, and I stumbled a bit. The League chuckled, but Killa frowned.

“Pool Girl’s gotta have grace,” he admonished. I nodded.

“Okay, okay,” he said. He checked his clipboard. Whistled. “Bandits Four, eh? Your Pops know you’re here?” He stood up, rubbed his belly. “Your Moms okay with you cuddling the Killa?” He saw me flinch and laughed. “I’m kidding, chica. No worries,” his smile faded. “Now. Let’s see you swim.”

That day, Killa had me snorkel to and fro in his infinity pool. He timed how long I could stay underwater. He had me slowly climb the pool ladder and then belly flop back in. I made it past the first round, and he invited me back the next day. Round Two consisted of idly floating on my brand new inflatable rubber ducky, costumed in in a severely cut one piece, sunglasses perched on my face, a mimosa effortlessly dangled from my hand. By Round Four, I was a natural. I frolicked in the shallow end, and my buttocks glistened with the best of them. I fished dead bugs from the pool wearing daisy dukes and a braless halter. I laughed with the guests and poured Champagne down my chin. Even the League seemed impressed, and a few offered me a cuddle on the house.

Meanwhile, Christy distanced herself. She had taken it in stride at first, but as weeks passed, and it became apparent that my move to the mansion was probably inevitable, she turned on me.

“You’re embarrassing us,” she told me one night. “Think of your family.”

“Mom and Dad aren’t even talking to me,” I said. Mom had practically fainted when I told her. Dad silently focused on the blueprints in front of him.

“What do you expect?” Christy’s nails were the finely crafted lock picking claws she had always wanted. She wore an emerald belt now, and people on the street were calling her “The Green Figurine.” She knew I flunked college. “This isn’t what you were meant to do. We had plans. Nefarious plans. We were gonna throw the world into chaos together. Now you’re this…this….” she looked like she was going to vomit.

“Go ahead!” I smiled and held my head high. “Call me Pool Girl.”

 

*This story made it through Round 1 of the Yeah Write Fiction Super Challenge. The rules were 1,000 words or less using the two prompts of emotion and event. My prompts were: disapproval/swims in a pool

 

 

 

 

Monterey

Seagulls whitewash the fences.

Hotels rest on platforms above the ocean

lit up like Disneyland, like the pirate ride

right before you’re swept

down to the depths.

 

Everyone is dressed like they’re at a convention.

Tuxedoed waiters balance silver trays of finger sandwiches

to serve strangers that stare in no direction or

down at their khakis, spying hidden rayon napkins

while patio umbrellas paint a monotone mosaic above.

 

Otters afloat on their back, shucking clams on their bellies.

Moon shine renders their sleek bodies down to a shiny

metal-liquid color that almost matches the ocean.

Magical mermaid flippers propel jovial bodies backward

cutting V’s into the water. Leaving seaweed contrails.

 

 

I sit with my back against all that thin cracked glass.

It stretches too far like it is it’s own land mass.

The blue-black waves roll like belly ache

escaping from a smudgy backdrop horizon

only to foam like spittle at a five-star beach.

 

The seabirds stand as sentinels on concrete pillars

and parking meters calling out friend or foe

waiting for the next big fish, or French fry dinner.

The big ones sound like they’ve lost their buddy, “Mike? Mike?”

The little ones puff up like hype men, tiny balloons losing air.

 

A woman in a green beret has binoculars around her neck

And a phone in her hand. She stands next to a sign that says

For public enjoyment, no purchase necessary.

“Is the WiFi free? Is there a password?” she asks the kid

dressed in the casual wealth of privileged youth

 

who shrugs, bored already.

 

 

 

 

It’s Time to Have an Uncomfortable Conversation With You

I wish there were a way I could talk to you. Somehow skirt around all the buzzwords and inflammatory memes. Avoid the phrases that cause you to relegate real events to political discussions, instead of arousing your sleeping sense of indignity at what is crushing the soul of our country and our humanity.  I want to loosen that tight grip you have on your heart, for you are strangling yourself. You are becoming cold and numb. The tighter you clamp your heart shut, the more you are constricting blood flow to your brain. Emotion has to go through your heart to get to your mind. Insight requires migration through your mind and back down to your heart. It is the circulatory system of knowledge. Knowing what is just and what is unreasonable.

You need to be affected by these deaths. You need to be affected by how we have all been failed by the people we put into a role of authority. Those whom wield power must be held to a higher standard. If they choose to accept the role of authority, they also accept scrutiny. They need to be smarter than us, quicker to glean the crux of a situation, and slower to react to heightened emotional provocation. This is a fair expectation—for our people in power to live up to the badge we have given them.  I know you feel resistive but think of all the other areas where you easily conjure up the expectation of justice and fairness: business, money. The government. We all inherently want the system to be scrupulous and unbiased. We want the institutions to work they way we’ve been told they do.

I feel that you, especially, are quite equipped to stand up to this flawed establishment. You are just as skeptical of authority as the ones in which you currently seem unable to commiserate. I even wonder why you aren’t the loudest of all of us: demanding change, reform. Accountability. I wonder why you don’t feel manipulated by the smooth talkers whispering in your ear and pitting you against your people. Yes, your people: Americans. Humans. Perhaps they contribute to your unwillingness to recognize abuse within an institution you hold up as honorable.

What can I say to you that won’t make you defensive? I want to tell you to look at your family. Your children. Envision them getting pulled over and something going horribly wrong. Imagine the phone call informing they are dead. The loss of control. The terror. The inability to change the outcome. It’s not a political thing. It’s not an ideological platform or an agenda or an opinionated debate point. It’s not even who is right or wrong. It’s just you, and your dead child. You can connect to that, right? Take out the rhetoric, and you can relate, right? Can you loosen your opinions, your vice-like grip even a little bit, and let in the shock of bitter loss? I want to believe you can.

I’d like to ask you to empathize. Just a little. Picture living in a community where no one looks like you. A community that has been told to fear you. And you have been told to fear them. Please don’t make arguments or conjectures. Just picture it. Feel uncomfortable, feel anxious about how you are perceived. I wonder if you need to experience this ‘difference’ to find common ground. Proximity can often breed compassion. I don’t know how else to counter the very human urge to believe that one’s opinions about the world are truth. That how things are for you are how they are for everyone. They are not. Acknowledging that on a fundamental level is not betraying your traditions or your politics or your way of life. It is a neutral acknowledgment. It is part of being a real person.

My guess is that deep down, you are scared. Scared of guilt and blame. Scared that wounds we were taught in school to think of as healed, might not be. You want to believe that our civil wars are over, and you don’t want to consider that you might be wrong. You’re scared to make room for all the different points of view, because what will that mean for you? Your perspective has been the main perspective for a long time. You haven’t truly been challenged like this before. You haven’t had to experience open hostility or judgment over things you can’t control. Like the color of your skin. Your motives haven’t been questioned so vocally that it has become part of the tapestry of our current cultural mood. But you need this growing pain. People are asking you to recognize the wound; that even if you can’t see it, trust that it is there. Because it is making us ill.

I can’t seem to figure you out. I’m confounded by your refusal to look and see what is happening. I’m often embarrassed, and I’m tempted to write you off and name you hopeless. But maybe that you feel fear is a good step. I say go into that fear. Feel uncomfortable. Be the unfavored group. Allow yourself to see what it is like to be characterized. Maybe it’s just finally your turn.

I’d like to consider you as able to be brave and grow, that you can be touched by the ordeal of others, you can do what I am doing now: trying to understand you. I am trying to see the flawed, yet generally good person that you surely are. I am trying to acknowledge your fears and motivations, trying to be kind and gentle with them. I’m telling you: loosen that death grip on your heart and you will feel a kind of relief. You will watch those videos and cry. You will hear that audio and want to tear your heart out. You will mourn our collective loss and hang your head in our collective despair. Come, and join us.

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The Story

“It was a cold, dark night,” he begins, and I stop him right away.

“Wait, wait. Wait.” I say.

“Yes?”

“Are you kidding me? A cold, dark night?” It’s been months since Mark and I parted ways. He called me up late one evening and begged a get-together. Underneath his usual droll tone, I noticed a certain weightiness to his request, so I agreed to meet him.

“Well, it was,” he sniffs, offended. “60 degrees, at most. I had to buy a scarf, even,” he fingers the purple ribbon-like scarf wrapped around his neck. “From one of those tourist traps. Can you imagine?” He rolls his eyes. He doesn’t understand why anyone would live in this city. What a freakin’ dump, he says. He also thinks he’s slumming it if he drops the “g”. “As I was saying…”

“Go on.”

“It was a cold, dark night. So dark, I could see the stars in the sky, even though there was the usual light pollution from downtown. Like tonight.” He pulls out his phone. Scans Facebook. Snorts. “I swear; Maria is going to be one of those crazy cat ladies.” He’s teasing, but there is no mirth on his face. He seems pensive now that he’s started the story. I figure he’s gonna tell me that Robert has proposed, and is worried I might still have feelings. I might.

Ma-ark.”

“Oh fine. Dark and cold, yadda yadda. Robert said he was going to take me to this posh seafood place by the pier. Instead, we wound our way toward the middle of the city until we landed in a cramped alleyway. There were mounds of rubbish everywhere, and I was like, what the hell, Robert? But he just pulls me to his chest and shuts me up with a kiss,” Mark sighs. He stands with his back propped against a street light; his jaw silhouetted against the hazy ocean view. He almost looks like a dapper ship’s captain. Or a pirate. He glances at me. There are circles under his eyes. “Let’s walk,” he says. “Bum me a cigarette.”

“How’d you end up with such a romantic?” I grin, tossing him a smoke. We walk along the boardwalk. Trash from the day’s tourists overflows from the waste baskets scattered along the wood planks.  Soon the beach rats will come and pick through the refuse like grannies at a second-hand store. The skin on Mark’s hands are so pale and white; they almost glow in the dark. “Robert might as well walk around with a royal red cloak and a crown on his perfectly coiffed hairdo; a rose placed between those gleaming Prince Charming teeth.”

Mark doesn’t laugh. “More like a black cape and a widow’s peak,” he says.

“Huh?”

Mark flicks the unlit cigarette out toward the sea. “Nothing,” he says. Frowns. “I guess none of us are ever what we expect each other to be.”

“How oddly introspective of you,” I joke. I reach over to pat his cheek and pull my hand back quickly. “Jeez, you are freezing!”

Mark stops to look down at me. He stares into my eyes until I  feel woozy and uncomfortable. He clamps his fingers around my elbow. “You’re right. Come. I know where we can go,” he says, pushing me to the left, away from the ocean and into the city. He strides with sudden urgency, and the change in pace makes me light-headed, buzzy. “Okay,” I say, giggling in a way that sounds unfamiliar to my ears. “Lead the way, Oh captain, my captain!”

“That’s a mourning poem,” he tells me, as the road we follow twists and turns until I’m not sure where we are anymore. “Lincoln’s assassination.” His nails dig into my skin. They are pointy and long, too long.

“I’ve never been to this part of the city,” I say, trying to pull my arm away. But Mark holds tight, steering me in front of him like a captive. We come to an alley full of clutter and trash and the most abhorrent stench. Mark stops me short. I can sense his lips close to the nape of my neck. “Your story….” I say. My voice is thick and dreamy. “You didn’t finish your story….”

“Yes?” He says, and I cannot feel his breath on my skin.

“A dark and cold night?” I ask. My eyes tear up. Through blurred vision, a form approaches. It wears a cape.

“Yes?” He says.

“The ending?” I whisper.

“Yes,” he says.

Yes.

 

Dermatitis Wars

The war was over. Lotion, cortisone and Vaseline tubes lay crumpled and spent along the bathroom sink. A shrunken tar soap bar fizzled suds futilely by the drain.  Triumphant dot-like lesions marched up my abdomen and claimed my navel. A new era of flaky skin had begun.