Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Urchin

The urchin walked down a snow-covered sidewalk, his rag-swathed feet soaked and numb. His clothing hung loosely from his emaciated form: ragged pants that hardly came to his ankles, a shirt whose collar hung midway down his chest. Bones stood out everywhere on his body, the outline of his skeleton apparent to all who cared to look. People rushed by him on all sides, unmindful of the small creature. He was bumped several times, jostled, pushed. He didn't care. His eyes gleamed like newly-cut diamonds, a smile was spread across his cracked lips. He had his ticket. A hunger cramp momentarily doubled him over, stealing a gasp before he clenched his teeth over the pain. He had eaten almost nothing for a week in order to make the purchase. Rising slowly, he reached into his pocket and patted the small slip of paper before continuing. Turning a corner, he saw his destination, a large concert hall, the type nearly every city had in those days. A place where pompous old ladies could drag their reluctant husbands to spread their feathers in front of other pompous old ladies in hopes of blinding them with their razzle and dazzle, then hissing spitefully when someone's sparkle fell into their own eyes. Meanwhile, the husbands march to and fro in the lobby, puffing out their chests like overblown cocks and recanting old war stories in which they were always more heroic than the fellow who spoke before them, but a coward compared to the man whose tale followed. There was also an orchestra there. Not that anyone cared. Except the urchin. He had no razzle, no dazzle, no war stories. All he had was an empty stomach, barren pockets, a cold corner to curl up in later, and his ticket. Ah, the ticket. He had heard the symphony one night, through a cracked door behind the theatre. He hadn't dared to go in, but dreamed of what would happen if he someday managed to attend a performance. The smartly dressed doorman would lead him inside and place him in the very best seat, front and center. All the ladies would comment on what a dashing lad he was, the men would pat his head. People would see him, finally notice him, give him more than a derisive glance or a sneer. He would belong. He would be part of that beautiful noise that beckoned from behind the theatre. For a little while he would be a real person, not a dog, not a piece of filth, but a real human-being. So he had scraped, and he had pinched, and he had starved, and he had gotten his ticket. Now he neared the hall. He could see the crowds out front , the hissing ladies and puffing husbands. Taking his place in the line, he withdrew his ticket. No one seemed to notice. The line grew shorter, his heartbeat gaining momentum with every forward step. Any second now, he would hand the man his ticket and his fantasy would commence. The last lady ahead of him moved away. It was his turn! His turn to hear the music! He proudly stuck out his ticket to the doorman. A moment passed. The doorman looked down, down, meeting the excited eyes of the urchin. He took the ticket. The urchin beamed upward. The doorman looked at the ticket. Then he looked at the urchin. Looked at the ticket. Looked at the urchin. The ticket. The urchin. Ticket. Urchin. Sweat beaded on the urchin's brow. Why was he glaring at him like that? He wasn't a piece of filth anymore! He had a ticket! The doorman shook his head, crumpled the ticket, and threw it in the snow. Beat it scum, the doorman's eyes said. The urchin stood there, disbelieving. His vision swam. His lip quivered. Someone shoved him from behind. He landed facedown in the snow, next to the crumpled ticket. The line moved on, unmindful of the shivering bundle a few feet away. The urchin grasped the ticket and pulled it to his chest, clenching shut his eyes. His ticket -- his dream -- worthless. The snow was freezing, the cold biting through to his skin. No matter. His tears would melt it all soon enough.

Pushkin's Egyptian Nights Cont.

“Explain, dear lad, your young heart’s yearning
To so readily end your life,
When you have so many years for spending,
Chasing pleasures, both long and trite.
Tell why you choose of your own volition
Consignment to a bed that’s dank,
When all see your natural position
Is next to maidens, flank on flank.”

The assembled crowd nodded and murmured
Approval of the queried check,
Each one thinking the lad had blundered
In making a choice so abject.
Kriton, for his part, with poise and measure
Stepped forth, and with a gleam in eye,
Readied himself to contradict the censure
By raising an arm to the sky.
All gathered followed the indication
And to the heavens cast their gaze,
Out of the skylight above the reception
Wondering what the youth would say.

“My dear friends, I understand your confusion,
And your concern touches my heart.
But for the curious resolution
Exists above, among the stars.
For there you will find riding high on moonbeams,
Beyond the scope of mortal sight,
Gods and the penitent, who are now free
Of hate and fear, anger and spite.
The pious know that in order to join them
One must lead a loving life, till
Their hour is up and death casts upon them
A fate with which all men must deal.
So if this is true I can live forever,
Knowing that I’ve sealed the bargain,
By choosing to die for love, an endeavor
In the bed of our sovereign.”

The crowd was taken aback with this logic,
And the queen nodded her assent.
A man stepped forward and raised a digit,
Soon followed by a mass hell-bent.
They followed the example of Kriton,
Hoping to board his blessed ship,
And Cleopatra, with lust of a titan,
Watched women, children, and men trip.
They fought for the chance to enjoy her bounty,
To avoid years of repentance,
And it is easy to see why Antony
Loved her for her benevolence.

The improvisatore ended his recital and uncrossed his arms, taking a step back from the edge of the stage. Charsky stood agape,staring at this wondrous talent that had seemingly fallen from the sky. He suddenly remembered himself and closed his mouth, passing a hand over his forehead to clear away the sweat before anyone noticed. A vain gesture, to be sure, for as he turned to ascertain the reaction of the audience, he saw them all standing as he had, some of the women with tears in their eyes. The white-gloved hands were the first to come together, and soon the entire crowd joined the beautiful young lady in deafening applause. An odd smile broke out on the face of the Italian, spreading over his teeth to give him the appearance of a wolf at the gate of a stye. Charsky, seeing this, halted his hands a mere inch apart before clenching them together in a motion parallel to his tightening lips. The action went unnoticed amongst the roaring tumult, and for a moment Charsky was lost in thought. He saw the Italian, beaming like a debutante, and his initial distaste with the man’s obvious greed blossomed into full-blown disgust. He mentally chastised himself for lending his support, and though part of him felt exonerated by the audience’s delight, he found himself wondering whether it was genuine. Of course the recital had been astounding, but most of those present had no knowledge of the language it was presented in, and therefore possessed not an inkling of what it was they were clapping for. Charsky turned and saw himself surrounded not by savants, but by ignorant socialites, each leaping at the chance to be the first supporters of the newest fad. This was not art, it was fashion, and the Italian was hardly as much a craftsman as he was a provocateur.
The paleness of the Italian’s skin blushed crimson, matching the color lent to his eyes by the lingering fire of inspiration. He bowed several times to the throng, coming up after each to toss kisses upon their worshipful heads. With this the ladies stood and the men stepped forward, redoubling their gestures of appreciation. Charsky turned to leave, wishing for nothing more than to return to his study and ponder over this man who so soon had revealed his contemptible nature.
He was halted by a shout that rose above the din.
“Ho, Charsky, leaving so soon?” said a man whose numerous medals gave the impression of some golden-teated cow. “Why not stay for the encore?”
Charsky managed a constricted grin and waved a hand in a gesture of declination before turning again for the entrance. Just as he was about to motion for the gendarmes to allow him passage, another voice arose from the crowd.
“Encore? Why not a competition? One great poet against another!”
The crowded salon erupted anew as everyone turned towards Charsky, laughing and voicing their approval. Charsky blanched and looked towards the Italian, who had begun to shake with excitement from the proposal. Their eyes met and he was taken aback by the strange gleam in those of improvisatore, one that seemed to preclude a malignant intent. The audience began to clap in unison, chanting their desire and forgetting their propriety. The Italian raised his arms in a gesture for quiet. The noise subsided to a murmur.
“A splendid idea, don’t you think, friend?” he said in his broken French, still holding Charsky’s gaze. “A perfect opportunity to remind Petersburg of the talent of her native son.”
Charsky’s eyes narrowed in reponse to the man’s audacity. What had happened to that unsure, stuttering creature that had accosted him in his study? What had brought forth this newfound bragaddacio, this cutthroat desire for dominance? Perhaps it was the untold amount of time spent in rags. Charsky realized then that any highminded ideals the Italian may have once nurtured had been smothered beneath the weight of poverty. All that mattered to him now was material success. He saw the light at the end of the tunnel and was rushing towards it madly, willing to vault off the shoulders of anyone in his path in order to gain an extra step or two. If they fell down in a heap, no matter, for the shadows of guilt would be instantly banished by the preminent radiance of a glaring sun.
The men in the crowd began to call out Charsky’s name, some of them even chanting it in a ridiculous pantomime of patriotism. The women, too, chimed in, their natural reservations sublimated in the face of a demanding consensus. The encouragement grew louder and louder, and the Italian was forced to yell in order to egg Charsky on.
“I must admit I’m a bit fearful of your talents!” he cried, each word somehow managing to maintain the subtleties of biting sarcasm. “The audience may well forget their appreciation for me when I pale in comparison to you, beloved poet!”
Charsky’s left eye twitched imperceptibly at the second mention of that accursed label. The damned Italian was falling deeper and deeper into his bad graces, encouraging as he did this ridiculous appeal. Charsky was a nobleman, not some trained bear meant to dance onstage for the amusement of his compatriots. He had no choice, though. The chanting grew in intensity, drowning out all thought, reaching a fevered pitch not heard since the time of gladiators and plebeians. Charsky was trapped, cornered like a fox by a group of bloodthirsty hounds. He swallowed, his tongue sticking momentarily to the back of his throat, and after waiting a moment for the cries to abate, addressed the Italian in a voice belying his outrage.
“Alright, I accept.”
The audience cheered in triumph. The Italian began to quiver with glee. Charsky started to make his way to the stage with slow, measured steps. The improvisatore impatiently brushed away the hair that had fallen into his eyes and once again addressed the assembled.
“He accepts! Truly we are all indeed lucky! How should we go about this? Perhaps a sort of versical duel!” The crowd voiced their approval with laughter and clapping. “I will allow dear Charsky to go first, according to the honor due to him, and will give him a topic from which he must compose a few lines! The audience here may decide the victor!”
Charsky climbed onto the stage with his back to the crowd, which was preoccupied in voicing its agreement to the terms. He nodded his assent, wishing only to end this farce as soon as possible and mentally swearing to himself that the next time a vagabond Italian showed up at his door, he would have his servants throw him out into the street.
He took his place next to his newfound rival, trying hard to mask his disgust. The Italian turned to face him, closing his eyes in thought. The crowd fell into an anticipatory silence, all waiting with baited breath. A few moments passed, and Charsky was unable to resist the temptation to tap one foot impatiently. Suddenly the lids of the ambitous wandered snapped open and he turned to address his audience.
“I apologize, but I find myself unable to come up with anything worthy of my esteemed opponent.” He paused a moment for effect. Charsly bit his lip to hold back an irritated sigh. The improvisatore continued. “I think instead, in the spirit of fairness, that we draw from the suggestions already proferred by our glorious attendees!”
The people were delighted with this proposition, exicted as a group by having another chance to participate in the game. The Italian picked up the urn that had been placed near the edge of the stage and looked towards the white-gloved beauty who had drew for the original performance.
“Would you be so kind?” He asked, giving her his impression of a charming smile. The young lady smiled and nodded, proud to again be the center of attention. As the Italian held out the urn it suddenly slipped from his hands and fell to the ground, clattering loudly and causing the women to collectively jump.
“My apologies! I am such a clumsy fool,” he stammered, stealing a glance at Charksy who was eyeing him suspiciously. The Italian bent down to collect the scraps and closed his fist around them. He placed his hand into the urn and withdrew it a second later, still clenched. Smiling embarassedly, he gave the urn an obligatory shake and again held it out to the woman, who this time reached a bit more tentatively, lest it should fall again and land upon her daintly slippered toes. After a moment she withdrew a roll of paper and handed it to the Italian, turning in response to the audience’s congratulations to make a small bow.
The Italian waited for her to be seated and turned to Charsky.
“Are you ready, friend?”
Charsky said nothing, uncaring of the obvious nature of his rudeness. The improvisatore gave him a toothy grin and unrolled the paper, turning to address the watchers.
“The topic chosen is . . . L’ultimo giorno di Pompeia!”
Charsky held back a scathing protest, seeing exactly what the Italian was trying to do. His desire to see the situation finished outweighed the wish to brook an argument. The people in the crowd clamored as they did at the reading of the first roll of paper, thinking it delightful. The Italian motioned towards the musicians to begin playing in order to allow Charsky a moment to think. The music started and Charsky plunged into thought, ignoring the whispers of the audience and the heavy breathing of the Italian. A minute passed and beads of sweat began to form upon his head. His mind was a blank, anger and frustration at the situation killing all of his creative faculties. The Italian stood silently, assuming the air of a vulture awaiting the verification that its chosen meal was indeed dead. The audience sat, a few turning to whisper to their companions while watching the squirming Charsky. Another minute passed, and still nothing. Charsky racked his brain, cursing his weakness, hating himself for allowing this charlatan to fluster him so. The musicians slowed their playing, turning to ascertain the delay. The audience began to murmur, each passing moment serving to exasperate them further. Charsky began to sweat torrents, his lips peeling back in a grimace.
“Well?” said the Italian.
Charsky looked him dead in the eye, every fiber of his being struggling to resist the urge to strangle him then and there, and without another word he stepped down from the stage and hurried towards the doors, his face hot with humilation, the uncomprehending stares of all in attendance assaulting his back like hot needles. He made his exit and stumbled into the street, the doors closing behind him but failing to drown out the eruption of laughter that was quickly followed by the first few lines of the Italian’s brilliant rendition.


The small classroom was pervaded by a quiet luminescence, feebly provided by the few dull, weak rays of sunlight that managed to sneak in around the edges of the closed blinds. These carried with them small particles of dust which danced lazily through the still air, drunken will-o-wisps that drifted aimlessly before settling like a sort of heaven-sent soot belched forth from the belly of some fiery god. All the room’s accoutrements were ashen and dead, victimized by the pale radiance. The scattered toys looked old and tattered, of the sort typically donated to orphanages; childish drawings, reflective pools of exuberance, hung on the wall like wilted flowers. Such a merry place, this room should have been, so full of life and color; it sat forgotten, though, shut up and closed, while outside it’s bouquet of rosy children pranced about in play.
Something stirred beneath one of the tables. A small boy, left unnoticed and forgotten. He turned over onto his side, then again back onto his stomach, his eyes closed, face twisted in an expression of distress. His mouth was clenched tightly, as were his hands, and a soft mewing could be heard seeping from his lips. The sound grew slowly in intensity, building like the plaintive cries of a hungry kitten, and suddenly, without warning, his eyes snapped open, his mouth fell agape, and he cried out, rising from the ground and slamming his head into the bottom of the table. He immediately fell back, grimacing slightly and reaching up to rub the hurt spot. When he again opened his eyes they were clear, the fog of sleep had lifted and was now replaced by a look of confusion. Where were his classmates, he thought. Why was he alone? Small boys shouldn’t be abandoned in dreary classrooms, especially not one who was this small, and especially not in a classroom this dreary. He crawled out on hands and knees and stood, turning his head this way and that to make absolutely sure he was the only one present. Outside he could hear the sounds of play, and a quick glance at the clock confirmed what he feared: that everyone was at recess and that he had been left behind. The teacher must be punishing him, though he couldn’t remember doing anything wrong. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t eaten his lunch. Or maybe because she had seen him chewing on some of the macaroni they had used in a project.
His musings quickly dissipated when he noticed the tightening pressure in his bladder. His small hands flew to his crotch and his thighs drew together. He had to use the restroom…quite badly. The mewing began to issue forth from his throat again, and he began to raise himself, up and down, on his tiptoes. What to do? Where to go? He quickly ran to the door and strained to look out the window. No one in the hall, not a soul. His distress grew and he began to walk circles around the room, tears welling up in his eyes. If only there was someone, anyone, from whom he could ask permission. He knew where the bathroom was, he was bright, but he couldn’t leave without asking first; he was being punished, after all. His pace quickened, the tears streaming forth in earnest, and he started to hit himself on the sides, every fiber of his being straining to hold back the urine. It was too much, too much effort. The call of nature overwhelmed the threat of punishment and he dashed for the door, grabbing the handle and throwing it open. He made it five steps into the hall, within sight of the bathroom, before he stopped and looked down. A wet spot had begun to form on the front of his trousers. Horrified, all he could do was stand and watch. It grew larger, his underwear soaking through, a trickle running down his legs. The little boy could only stand and weep, alone in the hall. He was a good boy, such a good boy, and good boys don’t soil their clothing. Neither do they break the rules, even if it means refuting their nature.

Playing House

In the den of his one-bedroom apartment, Reginald Stevens, a fifth-year philosophy and Chinese major, sat Indian-style on the floor, four feet from the screen of a 30-inch plasma television. His eyes were wide, his forehead covered with a thin sheen of sweat, as he focused all his attention on a video-game karate fight. Seated on the couch behind him was his live-in girlfriend – Jennifer, a thin, twenty-two year-old Chinese girl, pale, with large black eyes. Her lap was covered with clothing that she was folding and arranging into piles. She fought to keep her eyes open . . . The clock above the TV struck midnight, and she had gotten up at 6am for her first class. Afterward, the doctor supervising her internship had asked her to stay late, and she hadn’t gotten home until 9pm. The apartment had been a wreck, dishes piled in the sink, clothes piled in front of the washer, beer bottles and filled ashtrays on the coffee table; Reginald had had some people over. One more load in the dryer and everything would be set to rights, however; she could collapse into bed.
“Robo-Suzuki’s Lightning Strike is faster and does more damage than Chrono-Suzuki’s, but only hits once . . .” Reginald muttered to himself. “It’d be a good combo starter if it hit, and if they jumped it, you could surprise them with a Flame Thrust on the way down . . .”
Reginald paused the game, picked up the guide he had printed off the Internet, and flipped through the pages until he found a diagram that showed how to execute the Flame Thrust.
“Forward, Crouch, Up, Slash,” he said. “Robo-Suzuki does a back flip and swings his sword in an upward arc, catching the opponent on the way down and tossing them back into the air. If they block it they don’t have time to recover, and they’re vulnerable to a combo on the ground. Sweet. I wonder if it works . . . Hey, Jen, play me for a second.”
Jennifer finished folding a towel and got up from the couch. She sank down next to Reginald, bending her knees and sitting on her feet. He handed her a controller.
“Alright, I just need you to walk back and forth; I want to see if this combo works . . . Ready? Okay, I’m Robo-Suzuki, you can be whoever . . . wait, no, not him . . . not Baiku, I know it won’t work on him. Pick someone else. Yeah, be Axl. Ready? Now just walk back and forth . . . let’s see, Lightning Strike . . . no, Jen, you can’t block it, this has to hit . . . actually, just stand there. Alright, Lightning Strike, and . . . Flame Thrust! Dammit, Jen, you moved! Why’d you move?”
“I didn’t do anything. I was only holding the controller.”
“Jeez, well,just put it down and watch. See? Look . . . Lightning Strike . . . bam! . . . Flame Thrust, bam! You hit the ground, and . . . bam! bam! bam!, three hit combo! Kick-ass! I should write this down . . . hey, Jen, I need a pen. Can you get me a pen and paper?”
Jennifer grabbed the pen and notebook she had taken to class from the coffee-table and offered them to Reginald.
“No, no, my hands are full. Just write what I tell you, it’ll be easier. Alright, ready?”
Jennifer flipped through pages stuffed full of chemistry equations, searching for an empty page.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Okay . . . Lightning Strike, Crouch, Up-Forward . . . then Flame Thrust, Forward, Crouch, Up. Got it?”
“Yes,” she said, closing the notebook.
“No, I need that. Tear it out for me.”
Jennifer re-opened the notebook, tore out the page, and set it on the floor. She had taken notes on the reverse side, but didn’t say anything; she figured she knew the material well enough.
“This is great,” said Reginald, as he began a new match. “This one is gonna blow the guys away. Hey, are my carpenter pants clean?”
“Yes. I just need to throw them in the dryer.”
“Awesome. I want to wear those tomorrow.”
Reginald turned back to his game and resumed practice, this time against a computer opponent. Jennifer, notebook in her hands, remained seated, silent. She never said much, even when attention was paid to her; most times she was too busy with her own thoughts, and would sometimes space out, oblivious to the world around her. . .
Since Jennifer had moved away from home for college, she had dated several boys like Reginald. She met them all the same way, in her classes, where they would notice her sitting at the back of the room, silent, and always in the same spot, with at least one empty chair on either side of her. She would say that their method of courtship was peculiarly awkward, if she had experienced it only once; it began with the boy occupying one of the chairs next to her usual seat before she arrived, so as to make their proximity seem like chance. Questions about the assignments would lead to casual small talk, and, after a week or so, they’d ask her to lunch. This request was always made haltingly, while the boy looked at the floor and fidgeted. Jennifer always said yes, and as the lunch dates multiplied, then the movie dates, she was able to witness the slow metamorphosis of her insecure paramours. None had had a girlfriend before, and as they got used to being around her, the change was nothing short of miraculous. Palms stopped sweating, shoulders straightened, conversation went from hopelessly frantic to comfortably banal; after a couple of weeks, they were able to look her in the eye without twitching. Jennifer knew why she attracted them – she was like a bike with training wheels, not so attractive or aggressive that they felt threatened, but just right, cute, and obliging.
Eventually, though, they’d become bored with her, and their newly found self-confidence would spur them to pursue more exciting girls. She consoled herself each time with the belief that she had committed a selfless act and done a very special thing for every one of them. Her looks belied her experience in this regard; a casual observer would be shocked at the number of boys this unassuming girl had ushered into manhood. Reginald was her tenth . . . She knew that he, too, would soon try his luck elsewhere, and shed her like old skin. The decision to break up would be entirely his, and she would accept it gracefully, as she had always done, bowing out with her dignity intact. It hurt a lot less that way, she found.
A sudden knock on the door broke her reverie.
“Come in!” yelled Reginald. He paused his game and stood up.
In walked Colby, Reginald’s best friend and fellow gamer. Jennifer remained seated and looked up at the visitor.
“Hey, man, I need to ask you a favor,” said Colby, as he slammed the door. He spoke quickly and immediately began to pace back and forth.
“What’s up?”
“Your girlfriend is taking Chemistry 310L, right? I need to borrow her notes, man. I haven’t been to class in a fucking month, and I saw there was a goddamn test tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” replied Reginald. “Hey, Jen, where’re your Chemistry notes?”
“ Right here,” she said, picking up the notebook. “Not that I need them or anything . . . ”
“Aw, come on,” said Reginald, taking the notes. “You know this stuff like the back of your hand. Colby here is an idiot, aren’t you, Colby?”
Colby grabbed the notes and flipped through them eagerly. “Yeah, yeah, a fucking idiot,” he muttered.
A loud buzz sounded, signaling that the washer had finished its cycle. Jennifer stood and left the room. Colby looked up from the notes. The moment she was gone, he tossed the notebook on the couch.
“Dude, seriously, when are you going to fucking dump her?” he said, stepping up close and speaking softly.
Reginald breathed in sharply through his teeth and looked away, in the direction of the laundry room. “Geez, man, I don’t know . . . she does kinda live with me.”
“Goddammit, stop using that as an excuse! Where’re your balls at? We should be out right now, this second, raking in the bitches nasty-style! But here you are, sitting at home, playing house with your thumb up your ass. Fuck, man, leave the domestic goddess to her chores; let her practice her sewing, or whatever the hell it is she does for a hobby. ”
“I couldn’t do that . . .”
“That’s my point! You’re too nice of a guy to cheat on her, so just throw her out and end it.” Colby assumed a serious expression and placed his hands on Reginald’s shoulders. “Take this, brother, may it serve you well.”
“Take what?”
Colby rolled his eyes. “The advice, jackass.” He threw a quick glance in the direction Jennifer had gone. “Look, what’s your sex-life like?”
“It’s alright, I guess.”
“You shouldn’t have to guess. Do you always fuck her in the bedroom?”
“Um, yeah.”
“Under the covers with the lights out? Every single goddamn time?”
Colby raised one eyebrow and stared Reginald dead in the eyes, mouth set in a firm line. Reginald swallowed hard.
“You’re right.”
“You’re goddamn right I’m right”.
The sound of the dryer starting made them both jump, and they turned to meet Jennifer as she re-entered the room. She stopped short and looked from one to the other.
“I’m sorry, did I . . . ?”
“No, no,” said Colby, breaking into a smile. “I was just leaving. Hey, man, thanks for the notes,” he said to Reginald, grabbing his hand and shaking it vigorously. “Remember what I said. I’ll catch you guys later. Bye, Jen.”
Colby grabbed the notebook and exited, slamming the door on his way out. Reginald and Jennifer remained standing, looking at the floor. The apartment was silent. Reginald glanced at the TV; his game was still on pause. Jennifer raised her eyes and studied his face.
“What did Colby say?”
Reginald started, as if she had screamed in his ear.
“Oh, Um . . . nothing. Just something about Street Boxers.”
“Oh . . .” she said softly, lowering her eyes. “Well, your pants are in the dryer. I’m going to bed.”
“Alright. I’ll be there in a bit.”
Jennifer left the room, her feet soundless on the carpet. Reginald watched her, his brow wrinkling in thought. He walked to where he had dropped the video game controller and looked down at it, unsure of what to do next. He knelt and picked it up, fondled it for a second, and then placed it down and turned off the system. The apartment was suddenly dark. Reginald went to the fridge and grabbed a beer, unscrewing the cap on the way to the couch. The silence was oppressive, and he had to fight the urge to turn the television back on. He tipped the beer back and took a swig . . .
Reginald didn’t like allowing his thoughts free rein. He was, by nature, obsessively introspective and would constantly analyze himself in regard to the perceived reactions of some imaginary audience. Social situations were unbearable for him; he would feel paralyzed, unable to mingle for fear of saying something stupid, yet entirely conscious of the awkwardness of his silence. Left to his own devices he’d worry himself sick over a million and one things, until he was so anxious that he couldn’t sit still or think clearly. That’s why he liked video games so much; they were his tranquilizers. While he played them, his attention was riveted, and there was no room for little thoughts.
Girls had always left him flustered and tongue-tied. Jennifer was the first he’d been with, though he’d not admit it. He had goaded himself into approaching her after a weeklong bout of self-deprecation, initiated by the damning realization that he was a twenty-one year-old virgin. The first few dates were god-awful, nervous affairs. He’d spend days afterwards reviewing them, dissecting every word and grading his performance. Jennifer could do no wrong; she was the one who held the power of approval. Reginald saw in her his chance to prove himself worthy of female companionship. After the first kiss, his feeling of gratitude was so immense that he mistook it for love. Before he knew it they were a couple, holding hands in the street, seeing each other everyday, and, after a few months, living together.
It was then that the idea of Jennifer gave way to the reality. She was no longer his saving grace but rather his roommate. The smells she sometimes left in the bathroom proved that she wasn’t, in fact, made of lilies and roses. He discovered that underneath the makeup and hip clothing there lurked a plain, pimply person, one that he woke up beside, each and every day. His blessed redeemer, stepping out from behind a blinding light, had turned out to be nothing more than an average, insecure girl. Now Reginald found himself dogged constantly by the same persistent question: At what point should he stop saying ‘thank you’ and move on?
He knew what he had to do. He told himself it would be for the best, better sooner than later. Plus, he was tired of Colby giving him shit. He drained his beer, slammed it on the coffeetable and stood up in a dramatic and resolute fashion. His strides to the bedroom were evenly spaced and self-assured. When he reached the doorway, he stopped dead in his tracks. Jennifer was only a faint outline in the dim light, but he felt her stare like it was a tangible thing. After a moment, his vision adjusted, and he saw that she was still dressed, sitting on top of the sheets, waiting. Their eyes met.
“Hey . . . you’re still up,” said Reginald.
Her gaze was fixed, heavy, and held him rooted to the spot. It clung to him like sodden clothing, and he began to fidget. Feeling his resolve beginning to wither, he moved impulsively to sit at the foot of the bed, turning his back to her.
“Look, we need to talk,” he said.
Jennifer’s lashes fell to hide her eyes.
“Yeah?” she said in a soft voice.
“Yeah . . . Um . . . You see, Jen . . . ” he began, “It’s that . .”
He stumbled around a few monosyllables and trailed off, at a loss. With a sigh, he started drawing tight circles around his temples. The bed vibrated from the tapping of his foot.
“What is it?” Jennifer asked tentatively.
Reginald tensed for a moment, then steadied himself. The bed stopped shaking. He looked to the ceiling, as if petitioning the heavens for assistance. A sense of fatality came over him. He turned to face her.
“We have to break up . . . we have to end this,” he blurted out. “I . . . I’ve been thinking a lot, and . . . “
He broke off, confused, unsure of what to say next. His mouth opened and closed several times. His hands began to shake, and he clenched the bedsheets reflexively.
Jennifer understood. She watched him, a pale, trembling lump at the foot of the bed, and waited for his words to sink in. Then a strange thing happened. As she searched the depths of her reservoir of pain, seeking a place to store this newest hurt, she felt an odd swelling in her chest. At first she thought it was love and was frightened and excited at the same time. Then it began to hurt, to hurt terribly, and she realized in an instant that it wasn’t love, but an overwhelming sense of grief. In the deepest grottoes of her heart, where she had sunk the anguish of one rejection after another, shameful remembrance had given birth to the deformed, fetal, bastard children of love - regret, obsession, and hatred – which, left to rot like aborted triplets in-utero, had bloated up until they burst their confines. Death within corrupting life without, Jennifer’s carefully hidden pain had seeped out of the recesses and poisoned her entire heart; any more might destroy it forever. Frightened and bewildered, she suddenly saw her graceful exits as running scared, running from resolution, and the knowledge it would have imparted of her vulnerability. Now, she couldn’t ignore the throbbing chancre in her chest; she couldn’t run from resolution any longer.
“Why?” she asked, her voice trembling.
Reginald shook his head and said nothing. He hadn’t thought to prepare an excuse.
“Why?” she repeated a little louder, leaning towards him, emboldened by his silence.
He blanched and shrugged, jumping up. He felt an answer lurking in his spleen, but feared the taste. She inched closer, mouth half-open, chin trembling.
“Why?” she said again, her voice now thick with emotion, the stunted manifestations of a frozen anguish coming to life.
Reginald, his tongue thick and filling his throat, felt his stomach turn.
“Why?!” she screamed suddenly, leaning forward on all fours.
Reginald flinched.
“Why?!” she screamed again, tears streaming down her face, freed from a grief that was at best parsimonious. She wanted to give it all at once, to set it in Reginald’s lap and ask ‘What the fuck is this?’ She wanted an explanation, would demand it, would force Reginald to answer for every rejection, every casual dismissal, every callous disregard for her feelings, her needs.
“Tell me, goddammit! Tell me why!”
Reginald felt ill. Words rose in his throat like bile, and he struggled to choke them down.
“Answer me,” she pleaded, hungry and desperate, ten broken hearts breaking her in two. She reach out and grabbed him by the waist, her voice rising to a fevered shriek.
“You owe me a reason! Tell me! Why aren’t I good enough?! Why aren’t I fucking good enough for you?! You owe me!”
“I don’t owe you a fucking thing!” Reginald yelped, knocking away her hands. He felt himself cornered and started to panic. Jennifer made a growling noise, and in a sudden movement grabbed his face, wrenching it down to hers.
“Like fuck you don’t!” she hissed, livid. “You owe me everything! Just give me a fucking reason, one goddamn reason! Tell me the truth!”
Reginald felt her hot breath on his face and was forced to look into eyes that were mere inches from his. He saw in them naked misery and realized that at that moment Jennifer was fearless. Something clicked in his head. He unconsciously opened his mouth, like he was about to hyperventilate. The words fought their way to the surface . . “Is it because I’m ugly?! Because of my – “
. . . and it seemed to him there were no such things as truth and falsehood, only. . .
“-cooking?! The fact that I don’t play your stupid video-games or suck your–“
. . . honesty and dishonesty, freedom and bondage, since . . .
“- cock to wake you up in the morning?! Is that what it is, you –“
. . . lying to others means one is enslaved by expectations . . .
“ – fucking pervert! Because I’m –“
. . . and lying to oneself is to be enslaved by convention . . .
“not good enough in bed?!”
Reginald was tired of being enslaved. Colby’s influence was a chain, just like his relationship with Jennifer; he needed to end this, but he also needed to be honest about why. He quit looking for the answers in his head; they streamed up from his gut.
“Shut-up!” Reginald yelled at the top of his lungs, pulling himself free. “Shut-up, for God’s fucking sake!”
Jennifer drew back sharply, momentarily taken aback. Her face screwed up to spit a retort, but Reginald cut her off.
“You want to know why I’m ending this?” he said in a commanding tone, “I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m bored, Jennifer. You fucking bore me and I’m sick of it.”
Jennifer drew back sharply, eyes widened in shock. Reginald’s face turned a bright red, his eyes narrowing. He continued:
“Because I come home everyday, and here you are. Here you are - small, quiet, ready to cater to my every fucking whim, asking me how my day was, turning down the bed, standing until I sit, never speaking unless spoken to, never laughing, never joyous, never excited, just here, just false, acting appropriately but never honestly, hiding your face for fear of being slapped, giving me nothing, absolutely nothing, that you wouldn’t give just as readily to someone else!”
Reginald paused for a moment and caught his breath. A couple of tears trickled down his cheeks. He wiped them away without an ounce of remorse before going on, his voice lowered to an accusatory croak.
“You,” he said, pointing at Jennifer, “have never once made me feel special. I’m just another roll of the dice. You act as if this is as good a place as any, so long as someone pats your head and you’ve got a warm body to curl up next to. You’re like a whipped dog, Jennifer.”
The words hung heavy in the air. Reginald’s breathing slowed. Jennifer’s face was a mask of misery, veiled by a steady stream of tears. She gasped convulsively, unable to draw a full breath. Reginald felt something like pity. Her lungs found purchase, and the gasps turned into wrenching sobs. Reginald passed a hand over his face.
“Look . . . don’t cry, please” he said in an exhausted voice. “It’s not worth it. We don’t love each other, so we don’t deserve to hurt each other. We’re pitiful, you and I. All we’ve done is take pity on one another.”
Reginald fell silent and let Jennifer cry. Her sobs gradually lessened in intensity and turned into quiet sniffles. She was no longer looking at Reginald, but out the window, her eyes distant. She wiped her nose and drew herself into a ball, hiding her face. Reginald sat down again on the bed, and, as the minutes passed, he gradually scooted over next to her. He placed a hand on her back.
“Ask yourself why we’re doing this,” he said gently, “why we’re willing to be unhappy, so long as we’re comfortable. You’re afraid of being alone, I know; I’m afraid of not finding anyone else. So we settle for one another, and we go through the motions, like a couple of stupid kids playing house. We tell ourselves this is all there is, while dying inside, because it’s not enough.”
Jennifer’s sniffles ceased. Reginald rhythmically stroked her back and said nothing more. The air-conditioner clicked on with a hum. Jennifer reached around and took Reginald’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
Reginald wrapped his free arm around her, and curled against her on the bed.
“Me too, Jen. Me too.”

Old Gods Done Gone

Josef always remembered the first time he really read a book. It was the summer before his freshman year of college, and he lived with four roommates in an apartment behind a strip mall. He had found a job doing floors for a local remodeling company, work that required him to spend long shifts over a buffer, or on his hands and knees scraping glue. The work began at the crack of dawn and ended with the heat of the day, around two in the afternoon. By the time Josef got home he was dirty and exhausted, totally spent, at a time when most working people were returning from lunch. The one caveat was that his roommates belonged to this group, so Josef had some time alone at home everyday. He enjoyed this solitude; company had never suited him for long, as he had trouble relating to people. The afternoons were a welcome respite from noise and distractions. Josef didn’t care for noise. Since childhood he’d read books in his free time, nothing serious, usually fantasy or sci-fi. He particularly loved books that ran into long series, long enough to get attached to. As time passed his tastes matured – from R. L. Stine to R.A. Salvatore he graduated to Tolkien and Moorcock – but his reason for reading remained the same, to pass the time.
One day, after having returned home and showered, Josef found himself on the couch with nothing to do. He had finished the last of the Moorcock books he brought from home and had realized with the last one that he was predicting the plot from chapter to chapter. Bored with the clichés of sword and sorcery bullshit, he was ready for something new. A list of titles scrolled through his head, but nothing inspired him to jump out of his seat. After a careful tabulation of all the books that he thought he someday ‘might’ read, Josef decided to throw caution to the wind and go for a browse.
The only bookstore he knew of was a large, centrally located Barnes and Noble. After a brief search for parking, he was comfortably inside, perusing the shelves. He first stopped to visit his old flame, science fiction. His eyes roved over shelf after shelf of familiar territory, and nothing caught his eye. He pulled a few books out of habit and recognized the same story repackaged again and again. With a sigh of frustration, Josef turned and headed to the Fiction section.
Josef’s experience with “adult” fiction was somewhat limited. In high school he had read the required classics but wasn’t inspired by a single one, and in fact hated more than a few of them. As he walked down the crowded aisles he recognized a few of these, sprinkled among a galaxy of unfamiliar books. Growing frustrated, he decided to purchase something by an author whose last name began with the same letter as his own, and accordingly headed over to the Ms. Josef started at the beginning and read each title slowly to himself, tracing them with his fingers and rolling them on his tongue. He stopped at one that immediately appealed to him: Tropic of Cancer. Josef was a Cancer, after all. With a shrug and a feeling of adventure, he pulled it off the shelf and made his purchase.
Later that afternoon, having returned to the apartment, Josef made himself comfortable on the couch and cracked the book open. The first lines slithered into his ears like a whisper from a few feet away. Intrigued, he read more, the impression growing stroner with each word that he was not reading but hearing, the spoken sounds of a measured and congenial cadence. Syllables rang out to fall on his brain like a shower of coins, each a singular sensation, yet all bound together by the rhythm of a speaker whose accent spattered the page, imbuing dead letters with the warm tones of a living Brooklyn brogue. Stunned, Josef had to tear himself away. He felt a warm sensation in his chest, akin to what one feels after a pleasant encounter with a stranger. A slight smile adorning his face, Josef returned to the pages, and remained glued to them until his roommates returned. As they walked in the door he stood, closed the book, and went to a coffeeshop.
It took him a few days to identify what it was that attracted him to Tropic of Cancer. He eventually realized that it was the presence of ideas, real, live, original ideas, around which the text sparked and drew breath. Comparing it to the books he had read previously – in a past life, it seemed – he saw no similarity beyond the physical. The former was weighty, a physical product born of sweat and effort, so real and honest that Josef wanted to buy it a drink. The latter were nothing, mere entertainments, like Saturday morning cartoons. After this epiphany Josef never again saw the cartoons for other than what they were. His reading expanded from Henry Miller outward, in a great arc tat became a voracious pursuit of true writing, honesty on the printed page. He found Durrell, Nin, Hamsun, and Thoreau; then the Russians, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, and Pushkin. Unsated he moved on, seeking the wisdom of his homeland in Emerson, Melville, and the messianic Whitman. Coming to terms with himself, he found guidance in Camus, Nietzsche, Plato, and Sartre. His soul was humbled before the brute force of Durante Alighieri. Nabokov taught him of beauty’s elusive nature. And in the form of Shakespeare he was impressed, as a late convert, with a model whose greatness was beyond all comprehension. Josef found in books everything he missed in the world around him, and saw them as the idyllic creations of men and women convinced of the existence of beauty, if only within themselves. As his eyes grew accustomed to bearing witness to the fruits of creation, Josef began to wonder if he, too, could fashion something wonderful. He began to dream of a life as a writer, and despite an uninterrupted series of abandoned attempts, even came to see himself as one. Having entered university on a pre-pharmacy track, at the beginning of his sophomore year he switched his major to English.
Countless hours spent in fluorescent classrooms taught Josef a few things about literature – namely, that no one cared about it. It struck him that his fellow English majors only infrequently performed the reading assignments, rarely understood what they read, and never said anything original or thought-provoking. Every once in awhile he would encounter a kindred spirit, though often the person’s preoccupation with literature would reveal itself as no more than a hobby born of pretense. Professors mumbled their way through lectures memorized by rote, seemingly no more thrilled with their surroundings than the frat boys. After class, Josef would watch them scurry out of the classrooms towards their offices, like displaced hermit crabs. He pictured them behind locked doors, huddled over computer screens, masturbating as they agonized over apostrophes.
The books are what educated Josef. He chose courses with interesting titles, like “Banned Books and Novel Ideas,” or “Time and Memory in the European Novel.” Through them he was exposed to writers he had only vaguely heard of, and the assignments instilled in him a discipline that strove to find something worthwhile in even the most maudlin texts. It wasn’t until his Junior year that he tried seriously to write, having enrolled in a short story workshop. He found quickly that he lacked enthusiasm, starting many pieces, but finishing few. He found a solution in the form of amphetamines, and became an enthusiastic tweeker. He would stay up for nihts on end, for the benefit of his writing, he would tell himself. There always came a moment, though, when the words stopped making sense to him, and he would spend small eternities agonizing over single sentences. Josef finally gave up the drugs because they exhausted him, and because he realized that his writing no longer belonged to him; he could lay no rightful claim to something born outside of him. Time passed, and writing became a mundane task, a chore done in the shadow of a remembered euphoria. As graduation neared he wrote less and read more, convincing himself that he only needed more instruct, more inspiration, before he could begin to write. The piles of books grew larger, the lines remained frozen, always tripped up in conception, never falling onto the page. At a loss, no victim to a vague unease, Josef decided to become a teacher.
The first day of Mister Josef’s English IV was an exercise in futility. The lecture he had prepared with love and insight fell upon ears still ringing with the sounds of summer. Undeterred, Josef prepared a challenging, thought-provoking lesson plan to follow up the initial reading assignment. Again, he was disappointed. The scene of his disenchantment was a small, well-appointed classroom, blessed with large bay windows and plenty of natural light.
“Alright class, who can tell me the dominant theme from the reading?”
The pampered products of private education sat uneasily shifting in their chairs.
Our hero fingered his notes enthusiastically, sweating, a spore of anticipation.
Silence. A pencil rolls off a desk.
“Okay . . . who has done the reading?”
Silence. A boy in the back snickers, flashing braces, black curls peeking from under a knit cap. Josef’s blood runs cold.
“Okay,” he says, voice shaking, notes held like an offering. “Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
And so the days passed. Josef quickly realized that the only way to get the kids to read was to quiz them at the beginning of every class. He remembered hating professors for employing the same tactic. The first few weeks were rough, as he sought to fuel the class with the energy of students ignited by true engagement with the material. It was hopeless, though; lured into passivity by video games and television, unused to employing their minds for anything other than observational purposes, the children had lost the ability for original interpretative thought. Josef was forced to realize that the solution to a dull classroom lay not in them, but in him. Soon he was teaching on topics that interested him, and his excitement rubbed off on his class. The quarter on Dante’s Inferno threatened to flounder early on, when Josef attempted to lead discussions on thematic interpretation; however, once he began leading them through it line by line, taking on the role of tour guide and performer, the kids became entranced, falling into the comfortable role of audience. After awhile, when grading essays, Josef began to recognize two and three sentence progressions taken exactly from his lectures. He felt flattered.
Josef soon became the favorite teacher at the school, loved for his energy and sense of humor, and idolized for his ability to communicate complex literature and concepts in a way understandable for every student. He basked in his reputation as resident intellectual, and pushed himself relentlessly in a quest to make English the favorite subject of every student. The years passed quickly in a haze of research and academic writing on the material he taught; while he never shared his essays with anyone, he found them indispensable for keeping things organized in his head. Vacations were skipped, 40 hour workweeks flouted, all in his endless drive to “get prepared.” Josef’s own knowledge of literature ballooned; there was hardly an author he hadn’t sampled, a concept or term he’d not heard of. He took to attending conferences, taking detailed notes so as to return and teach a quarter on a specific writer, flooding the students with as much information as anyone would need for a nuanced understanding of a literary work. One day, however, he felt a numbness originate at the base of his skull. It became hard to focus while reading, and he found it difficult to maintain the pace of research he had once kept. One night, realizing he was simply too tired to craft an original plan, Josef decided to devote the next day’s class to a student led discussion of the work they were reading, The Dead by James Joyce. Pleased with this solution, Josef finally, for an evening, slipped off the yoke and went to a movie.
The next day he stepped into his classroom rested and excited to hear what the students had to say. Much had changed in the intervening years since he became a teacher. He had seen classes come and go, had nearly worn a groove in the floor from his customary pacing during lectures. He occupied a respected position in the faculty, Director of Humanities, and designed curriculum for both the History and English departments. The students loved him, and would almost always devote the utmost attention to his famous lectures. As they filed in and took their seats, Josef was seated in a chair facing them, a blank chalkboard behind him. The children, used to him standing and writing as they entered, met his gaze with visible confusion.
“Hello class. Today we’re going to try something different,” Josef began. “Lately I’ve gotten rather tired of blathering on everyday, and I wanted to give you guys a chance to lead the class.”
The students shifted in their chairs, some of them glancing at their neighbors. A few placed their pencils down. Josef smiled and continued:
“Alright, so, to kick things off, who can tell me what they think is a dominant theme from the reading?”
The rows of students sat silent and gently shifting, like rows of cornstalks caught in a breeze.
Josef, his smile fading, cleared his throat.
“I say, can anyone identify a theme?”
His glance roved from stare to blank stare, a speeding vehicle confronting a regiment of deer.
“Anyone? Come on, guys, you know how to do this. What did the text make you think about?”
Again, silence. A dark-haired boy in the back row glanced shyly at his neighbor, a pert blonde with a cheerleader face. She looked down at her desk and blushed. Josef’s lips tightened.
“No one?”
A girl in the back tentatively raised her hand.
“Yes,” cried Josef, “Katie!”
All eyes turned to regard the savior as she lowered her hand and said with hesitation, “Is it . . . revenge?”
Josef stared at her blankly.
“Um . . . what gives you that impression?”
“Well,” Katie said, “doesn’t someone die?”
Josef’s eyebrows furrowed in an expression of annoyance.
“Did you do the reading, Katie?”
Katie’s eyes flitted back and forth as she drew her elbows in to her sides.
“Yes. Kinda.”
“Then it’s no, right?”
“Yes,” Katie said, lowering her head.
“Did anyone do the reading?”
Josef didn’t know what to say. He removed his glasses and wiped his suddenly perspiring face with the back of his hand. In the eyes of each student he saw himself reflected, as if he stood in a corridor of mirrors.
“Okay. Let’s take twenty minutes so everyone can read.”
The next day, Josef turned in his resignation. No one understood, and he offered no explanation. The faculty and student body were distraught and organized a large farewell banquet on his behalf. He did not attend. The next week he packed his belongings and left town.
For a few years Josef traveled, living off his savings and retirement plan. He finally settled in a large northeastern city and made ends meet through private tutoring and freelance writing. One day in a bookstore he saw a maroon-haired girl browsing in the Fiction section pick up a used copy of Tropic of Cancer.
“Great book, that one,” Josef said with a smile.
“Oh yeah?” the girl replied, turning and looking him in the eye. “I’ve heard it’s kinda naughty. Have you read it?”
“Yes I have,” said Josef, “as a matter of fact . . . “
Her name was Marie and three months later they were married. It was a perfect match. They pooled their resources and managed to buy a struggling used bookstore. Josef culled the stock and revitalized the selection with a diverse assortment of modern and classic fiction. He also hosted weekly open-mics where aspiring writers could present their work to a sympathetic audience. Josef was a regular contributor, and was always applauded by those in attendance. His first short story was published in a quarterly review the summer of his thirty-fifth year. Five years later he had developed a small reputation as writer of some ability, though he was a bit too literary for most peoples’ tastes and not very commercial. His supporters called him the keeper of a great tradition. His critics simply called him derivative.



Margarete plans to drink the water at nightfall. She looks down and envisions the grave she will carve. She will lie unconfined. A sibilant breeze ruffles her hair. It caresses her skin like the tongue of a lover; she imagines the water as a velvet embrace. Margarete stands on the precipice, her fall a foregone conclusion. She has no fears, no qualms, no hopes. Her face is a mask of resignation, her eyes opaque. Her hair is golden, a gilt frame for sunken cheeks. Even now, she is almost beautiful. A little life, and she would be beautiful. Margarete used to be beautiful.
There was a time when life was as open for her as a savannah at sunrise. She made the most of every opportunity, exceeded every expectation. Success was a fruit waiting to be plucked. Something got in the way, however. Things changed in her third year of college.


Weekday mornings were the only times it was possible to enjoy the outdoor seating at Maverick’s. Between the hours of seven and nine, dew remained trembling on the landscaped ferns and flowers, the sky slumbered in soft gray as the clouds phosphoresced, and most other regulars were in bed or class. The early air had a waning chill, the sleight of an October day that would end in a sludge of heat. Margarete and Sylvia, two girls in their early twenties, sat across from one another at a small table in a secluded corner of the garden, beneath an oak tree. A pair of coffee-cups and freshly lit cigarettes shared the space between them. A song played softly over the PA:
Sunday morning
Praise the dawning
It’s just a restless feeling
By my side
Margarete took her cigarette and tapped it twice on the rim of the ashtray before raising it to her lips. Her hands were thin, and the skin on her palms was as soft as tissue. Delicate and expressive, they fluttered when she spoke.
“I’ve been thinking about studying abroad next semester.” She inhaled strongly, then tipped her head back and emitted a thin, sharp stream of smoke.
Sylvia watched her friend and said nothing. Her warm caramel eyes were besotted with amusement, and the beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of her glossed, pink lips. Margarete blinked a few times, then said impatiently:
“Well, aren’t you interested in where?”
Sylvia placed one dainty hand over her mouth and cleared her throat. “There ain’t no mystery to it, hon.”
Margarete’s eyes slivered. “Well, I think Paris would do me a world of good.”
“Hm . . . yeah,” Sylvia mumbled. Her eyes drifted away to follow the movements of a slim, young waiter who maneuvered between tables nearby, carrying a tray of dirty dishes. Margarete crossed her legs beneath the table and ashed her cigarette several times in quick succession.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I’m sorry hon, I got distracted.”
“Well, what I said was that I think Paris would do me a world of good.”
A few more patrons had drifted into the garden. A young man with auburn hair wandered among the tables and stopped at one not far from Margarete and Sylvia. He placed his book and coffee down and sat. When his casual gaze panned over Margarete, his eyes widened slightly. He picked up his book and opened it to a dog-eared page; while reading he would, every few minutes or so, glance up at her. Margarete, staring intently at her friend, was oblivious.
“Do you even care that I’m leaving?” she asked in a low tone,.
“Sure I do, Marge,” said Sylvia. She took her cigarette from between her lips and looked at it perplexedly. “Goddamn thing went out. Let me borrow your lighter.”
Margarete sighed, pulled a lighter from her purse, and placed it firmly in front of Sylvia.
“Thanks hon,” Sylvia said, lighting the cigarette and taking a long, leisurely drag. “So, you’re going to Paris?”
“Yes,” said Margarete. She put out her cigarette and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Well, it’s about time, I suppose.”
Margarete waited for her to say more, and after a few moments of silence turned an empty gaze to the greater area of the garden. The café was filled mostly with people between the ages of sixteen and thirty, some hunched over books or laptops, or leaned towards a companion. A soft hum of conversation filled the air, mouths opened and closed while lips curved, hands gestured, fingers drummed on tables, all under a rapidly clearing sky and sunlight that bled into everything, blurring outlines and drenching the garden in color. A man in a rocker appeared to melt into the bush behind him, then reappeared whole as the chair rolled forward. The slim waiter wiped down a vacant table, bent at the waist, his greasy blonde hair falling over his face, torso translucent in a moistened wife-beater. A dark brown, ragged bird hopped towards Margarete’s foot, picking up crumbs with a decrepit grace. It emitted a shrill call, and Margarete kicked at it lazily.
“I need experience, you see,” she began again, turning towards Sylvia.
“And you certainly can’t find that here,” Sylvia replied, her lips curved in a wry expression.
“No . . . no, I can’t. Not the ones I want, at least.”
Both paused and took sips of their coffee. Margarete was the prettier of the two, though her shyness and apparent naivety often drove boys in Sylvia’s direction. She was slight and petite, with bobbed golden hair and moss green eyes. For clothing she preferred things that were loose and billowy, skirts, sarongs, and linen blouses. She kept her eyes on the ground when she walked, and carried her books against her chest. Sylvia was conventional in a counterculture sense. Her hair was also short, but dyed black, which accentuated her large, dark eyes and sensual mouth. She wore small, vintage t-shirts that drew attention to her flat stomach and narrow waist. When speaking, her eyes would drift away from her audience; when listening, she often wore a thin, ironic smile. Margarete hated when she adopted that look. She knew she wasn’t being taken seriously.
“It’s the heat, I think. It’s impossible for culture to exist in this humidity,” Margarete said, looking away.

Sylvia rolled her eyes and tapped her cigarette. “The weather is perfect here seventy-five percent of the time. More bands play here than any place ever. The people are the same wherever you go, and . . . “
She took a long drag and paused for emphasis.
“The one thing you’ll never leave behind is yourself.”
Margarete smiled and smoothed down her hair. “Where did you hear that, Psych. 301?”
“Yes, actually, it’s called acclimation. You should look it up.”
“I know what acclimation means,” Margarete said tersely.
“Well then,” Sylvia began, clasping her hands and leaning forward with a big grin, “you should know exactly how silly it is for you to think that a change of scenery will make you a better person.”
The sun had finished its ascent and sat complacent in the sky. In such heat it becomes easy to do nothing. Summertime in Texas, everything moves in slow motion. Even the flies wobble about drunkenly. Margarete and Sylvia drank iced coffee and sweated in the shade. Sylvia was small and brown and appeared more at home in the weather. Margarete was too pale to be a friend of the sun.
Margarete sat in silence and ruminated on what Sylvia had said. She brushed at a spot on the front of her blouse, and then placed her hands on the edge of the table. Sylvia watched her with an uneasy expression, worried she may have spoken too frankly. Suddenly, a smile broke onto Margarete’s face, and she looked at Sylvia with sparkling eyes.
“But what about the boulevards, the Seine, cafes, and museums? The cheap wine and artists’ markets?”
A soft smile swam onto Sylvia’s face as she settled back into her chair, elbow propped and cigarette poised. Margarete leaned forward, gripping the edge of the table.
“What of charismatic beggars and worldly prostitutes, lovers arm in arm and day-long strolls? What of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Breton? What about them, Sylvia? Where are they in Austin, Texas?”
“Where are they in Paris, France?” retorted Sylvia. “Dead and in the ground. You’re wrapped up in a fantasy, Marge. That place doesn’t exist anymore.”
Sylvia ground out her spent cigarette and pulled a fresh one from their shared pack. Margarete, her face flushed, sat back and looked away to one side. The auburn haired young man was looking at her. She met his gaze absentmindedly, without recognition. A few moments passed.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. It’s what it represents to me that’s important. Even if it is a washed out fantasy land, it has to be better than this.”
Margarete reached for her cup, saw that it was empty, then placed it down again. Sylvia smoked in silence, her smile gone. A grackle hopped on the ground a few feet away. Feeling annoyed and exposed, Margarete glared at the bird. It cocked its head and emitted a squawk.


Margarete strolled around the gallery with a measured, insouciant air. She was surrounded by people – couples holding hands, students with notebooks, elderly men and women wearing headsets, many smiles and much whispered commentary. Tourists mixed about evenly with locals, and their facile eagerness met with occasional expressions of annoyance. A balding American, his short-sleeve button-up tucked neatly into his jeans, stepped in close to a painting. His position blocked the view of a spectacled Parisian, who gestured with both hands and shook his head in frustration. A young couple, leaning into one another with dreamy expressions, started violently at the sudden cry of an infant.
Margarete stopped before a Cezanne landscape and examined it with a frown. Next to her stood a white-haired lady in a sedate, blue dress, wistful expression on her face. Clean daylight fell down on them from windows set in the ceiling. Margarete, who had forgotten to check her bright red raincoat, bent slightly at the waist to focus on a small detail in the corner of the painting. The old woman stood erect, her watery eyes roving slowly back and forth over the entirety of the picture. Margarete, with an air of satisfaction, straightened and turned away.
To tell the truth, she had never much cared for Cezanne, but was almost converted after what she had seen the past couple of weeks. She loved how he bathed his landscapes in light, and yet maintained the firmness of his lines. The way the sun shone in the last painting reminded her of her first morning in Paris, when she woke early to stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg. She would pass through there later on her way to class at the Sorbonne. Margarete smiled as she thought about the class. The most challenging aspect of it thus far had been finding the classroom. It seemed to her that the university anticipated the reason American students chose to study in Paris, and elected not to interfere with sightseeing by assigning homework or marking attendance. This suited Margarete just fine; she could spend more time soaking in the atmosphere, getting the most out of her experience. The more time she spent in Paris, reading Gallimard editions, smoking Gitanes, and drinking café au laits, the more she felt like a bonafide expatriate. She even began to carry a moleskine, in which she jotted her musings and the odd snatch of poetry.
Margarete stopped momentarily to admire a small Picasso. A man passing behind her noticed her raincoat and elbowed his companion with a snicker.
She passed into the next gallery, her mind wandering into plans for the evening. The waning of the Parisian day always filled her with excitement. She had first fallen in love with the city itself from looking at Brassai’s nightlife photographs. The air of mystery and depravity that pervaded the images of bars and fog-shrouded avenues had entranced her. Before she arrived, a part of her imagined it was always nighttime in Paris. While charming by day, the city became intoxicating at night, and when she walked the streets under lamplight, Margarete felt like a character in a novel. Nothing was impossible for her, no matter how outlandish it would have appeared to her back home.
She had just made up her mind to leave when she noticed a man staring at her from across the gallery. He was fortyish, handsome and well dressed. Intrigued and a bit self-conscious, Margarete pretended not to notice and turned to face the nearest painting. As she sensed his approach, the back of her neck grew hot. He stopped a few steps away and looked at the same painting, then nodded his head and made sounds of approval.
She glanced over at him. He said something without looking away from the painting. She laughed quietly and placed a hand over her mouth. He turned toward her, held out his hand, and said something else. She responded and placed her hand in his. He raised it to his lips. She blushed and looked around. The man leaned forward, still holding her hand, and whispered in her ear. Her blush deepened, and she looked down with a smile. The man pulled away for a moment, looked over his shoulder, and leaned quickly in again. She listened attentively to what he said, and an expression of alarm passed over her face. He took her other hand and said something else. She leaned back and laughed loudly, her eyes closed. He motioned with his head. She hesitated for a moment, then nodded quickly. They walked out of the gallery arm in arm.
Margarete had never understood ordinariness. The appeal of security, the lure of a steady job, steady life, steady love, all seemed pale and moribund to her, phenomena of a purgatorial existence. As her admirer led her into the museum men’s room, she caught a glimpse of herself in a large mirror that covered one wall: lightened blonde hair cut in a short, chic style; designer dress bought in a Parisian boutique and paid for by student loans. Her flaming cheeks added a touch of ebullience and vivacity to her features, and even the circles beneath her eyes added something like depth.
The man she followed was confident in his stride and impeccably well groomed. His peppered hair was freshly cut, and the hand that gripped Margarete’s was manicured and soft. They had introduced themselves on the way out of the gallery. His name was Claude, and he said he was an art critic.
Claude pushed open the door to an available stall and waved Margarete in with an extravagant gesture. She giggled and entered, then glanced over her shoulder for one final look into the mirror. She would later remember with a sweep of nausea the radiant, confident gleam in her eyes. Once inside, Claude shut the door and took her into his arms. He smelled of tobacco and aftershave, and his full lips glistened with spittle. Margarete noticed a small scar that descended from the corner of his left eye. He spoke with a heavy accent:
“You have never done something like this?”
Her heart skipped a beat. The sound of his voice so close, sonorous in her ear, filled her with desire. Claude grinned and revealed a row of large, white teeth. His hands slide down her back and squeezed her ass.
“Relax, ma chere,” he whispered heavily, “and let me show you pleasure.”
Margarete, breathing rapidly, felt the bulge of his cock against her stomach. Blood rushed to her head, and her legs began to quake. Without a thought, almost like a release, she feel to her knees and began to fumble with his belt.


Margarete sat alone at the kitchen table in her small flat and stared at an empty wine bottle. Her phone and a small piece of paper were before her. When she realized the number was fake, she had gotten violently sick. Then she had gone out and bought a bottle of wine. The alcohol failed to soothe her mind; neither did it dull the persistent ache that gnawed in her chest. For the first time since arriving in Paris, Margarete felt completely alone, abandoned even by her illusions.
A single lamp placed in a far corner did not reach her with its light. Margarete, cast in shadow, appeared ashen. Her left hand trembled where it lay on the table. She stared at nothing, her eyes dull stones. Beyond her window, like a starry sky reflected in a dark, still lake, the City of Light twinkled.


Henry sat alone in his study. It was a beautiful day outside, but his shades were drawn, a lamp turned on. He stared ahead, mute and unresponsive to the sounds of children playing in the street. His face would be handsome if there were any life in it, if it wasn’t slack, waxen, the color of old linen. There was a bottle half full of amber liquid on the desk before him, with a half empty glass next to it. Drinking had made dulled the pain somewhat, and his guilt for this almost overwhelmed his feeling of loss. It was a sunny day outside, children were laughing, yet he sat alone in near darkness.
What were his thoughts?
Of another sunny day, over a year before. She had surprised hm for his birthday with a vacation. He had felt like the most important person in the world to warrant such effort, such expense. When she registered his shock, his joy at the surprise, her face lit up like a thousand candles, and as he kissed her he made a wish that if anything ever went wrong, and a day came when he no longer saw her smile, that he would remember her exactly as she was in that moment.
And so he did, because that morning she had surprised him again. He had woken up to find her gone.
It was a beautiful day, and outside there was laughter. Inside there was a man, and a note that explained nothing.


Henry and Karl sat on the patio at the Longbranch Inn, two beers and an overflowing ashtray between them. It was late afternoon, and the reclining sun blazed orange in the October sky. Henry lifted his drink, took a long swig, and placed it down again. His eyes turned away from Karl to the deserted street that the patio faced. Most people were still at work. Karl lit a cigarette and watched Henry.
“What’s on your mind, cap’n?” he asked, the cigarette jumping with each word.
Henry, still looking into the distance, took another drink, then cleared his throat.
“I’m wondering why this bar opens so early.” His voice, deepened by cigarettes, had slight rumble to it.
Karl grinned. “Well, it’s so losers like us can have a place to hang out. What else are we supposed to do when we play hooky?”
“We’re not playing hooky. We’re adults. We just chose not to go to class.”
“Well, call it what you want. If anyone asks, though, I was sick.”
Henry lifted his burning cigarette from the ashtray and took a drag. He and Karl had known each other vaguely back in high school. When they both moved to Austin after graduation, they gradually became close friends, spending time together first out of necessity, then habit. Henry was tall and thin, with auburn hair and delicate features. His dark green eyes were often cast down, giving him a guarded, wary appearance. Karl was short, with broad shoulders and a stocky build. He kept his hair cut extremely short, and was never clean-shaven. While Henry paid a lot of attention to his appearance, Karl often appeared unkempt and slovenly, though his easygoing nature and boisterous laugh easily made him the more popular of the two. They were both in their fourth year at the University of Texas, and while they often hypothesized about what they might do after graduation, neither had any definite plans. They had not seen each very much the past semester, and when they were together, the space between them seemed shaded with sadness, as if they were in premature mourning for the imminent demise of their college selves.
“So,” Karl began, “met any girls lately?”
Henry smiled and turned to regard his friend. “Always with the girls. I don’t see how you get anything done.”
“Well, I don’t. But it’s because of the drinking, not the girls.” He tipped his beer and winked.
Henry chuckled and took a drag from his cigarette. “Actually, I did finally talk to that girl in my short story class.”
Karl drained his beer and tossed the empty into a nearby trashcan. “Really? Tell me about it.”
Henry ground his cigarette out slowly. “Well, you know how I saw her the other day at Maverick’s?”
“Yeah. She didn’t recognize you.”
“Right. And I thought to myself, ‘How is it that a person wouldn’t recognize someone with whom they had shared classes for three consecutive semesters?’”
“And it occurred to me, because people only see what they want to see.”
Henry paused and finished his beer, looking at Karl steadily in the eyes. Karl raised one eyebrow.
“Rrright. I’m gonna get more beers. Hold down the fort.”
Karl slid out of his chair and went inside the bar. Henry lit another cigarette and turned again to face the street. The sun sat heavy on the horizon, orange bursting vibrate in the sluggish air. Live oak and pecan trees, silhouetted against a flaming backdrop, hunched and brooded over the empty sidewalks. Often, at this time of day, Henry felt as if life was a sad charade, humanity a cast of two-bit actors with poorly memorized lines, marooned on a beautiful set-piece with no director or script. After all, for whom did the sun set with all the colors of flame and magisterial glory? Certainly not for him.
Karl returned with a pair of Lone Stars. He placed one before Henry.
“Here you go, bud.”
Henry turned to his friend and lifted the bottle in a gesture of comradery.
“Cheers,” said Karl. “So, what do you mean, she only see what she wants to see?”
Henry puffed out his cheeks from a long drink and swallowed twice. “Not just her. Everyone. Me. You.”
“Well, her specifically, then.”
“I mean that she’s convinced herself that there are no people worth her time. In Austin, at least. So when one pops up, she refuses to see him.”
Karl smirked and pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. “Sounds like she’s a fucking bitch.”
“She is. But I’m the same to a certain extent. We’re just picky.”
“But you’re not stuck up acting, man. You’re just awkward.”
Henry smiled and took another drink. “Thanks.”
Karl nodded and drew on his cigarette. When he spoke, a cloud of smoke erupted around his words. “Anyway, so what did you do?”
“Nothing. Until the next day in class. Then I talked to her. I figured it was time for her to see me.”
Karl’s face broke into a grin and he reached over to slap Henry’s shoulder. “Atta boy! You finally got some balls. How did it go?”
Henry reached over, pulled a cigarette from Karl’s pocket and lit it as he spoke. “It went well,” he mumbled, “I got her number.”
Karl’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Oh yeah? Are you gonna call her?”
“I think so. I want to give it a few days, you know. So I won’t look desperate.”
“Right. Good idea.” Karl took a long drink, then burped loudly. A thirtysomething couple exited the bar onto the patio and occupied a nearby table. Henry’s eyes casually wandered over to them.
“So, how did it happen?”
The question hung in the air for a moment as Henry watched the couple without responding. Karl had gotten used to Henry’s lapses in attention, and knew he would simply have to wait for his friend to return to reality. Henry stared, his gaze hollow and distant, and Karl knew that he was no longer looking at the couple, but at his own image of them, the story he was writing about them in his head.
Henry saw them, the thin man with a mixed drink, the woman with a beer, seated across from one another and speaking relaxedly. They wore wedding bands, and could have been twins for their similarity of build and complexion. They about the same size, a face which lent the female an air of greater authority and vigour. Her mahogany hair fell in glossy waves about her shoulders, while on her face there existed a mixed expression of contentment and dreamy amusement. Her eyes were liquid pools of caramel complexity, from which radiated a healthful concern and bounteous love directed at the man who sat across from her. He had his back to Henry, though his posture and expression upon appearing were all that was needed to form a hypothesis of his character. There was a general frailty about him, the mark of a man who lives by his intellect rather than his hands. The lines on his face were worn as a burden, rather than a wound or mark of distinction. His hands were large, his long fingers moving slowly and constantly, as if engaged on the keys of a piano. His furrowed eyebrows and marked crows feet were the hallmark of an intense inward focus; his eyes, however, were a great joy to behold. They were not the cold, reptilian organs of a professional cynic or man of letters; they were the twins of his companion’s, warm, soft, wholly intent upon and reflective of her. Henry imagined that, in the privacy of their shared evenings, each was just as likely to be held as the other.
Henry turned back to Karl, smoothly disengaged from his reverie. “She read a story in class. I thought it was really great, so I approached her afterwards.”
“And then? Was she into you?”
“I think she was more flattered than anything. But she gave me her number.”
Karl clinked Henry’s bottle with his own. “Awesome. It’s about time, man. How long has it been for you, anyway?”
“Long enough,” replied Henry. He took a swig of beer and looked again at the couple a few tables away.


The Cloakroom Bar is set below street level, with a stairway leading down from the sidewalk and small, unlit sign. Inside, the only light came from the small lamps placed on each table, and an orange flicker teased the room like firelight on the walls of a cave. The place was almost always empty. Henry Morgan and Sophia Russell shared a small table against the wall. The only other person was the middle-aged bartender, a surly woman with dirty blonde hair who served people drinks like she was doing them a favor. She had performed many favors for Henry and Sophie that night. They sat across from one another, leaned forward, clasping hands, red-faced, shining eyed. They took turns talking in breathless voices.
“You just need to understand one thing, okay?” said Sophia.
“What’s that?”
Sophia paused and sighed through her nose, her big, wet eyes staring searchingly into Henry’s.
“That if we do this, it’s for keeps. I’m tired of messing around.”
“It’s what I want,” said Henry, squeezing her hands. “You’re what I want.”
The moment wavered in the half light, beautiful and bursting with sentiment, like the smiling face of a loved one seen through a veil of tears. Big wet drops slid down Sophia’s face, curving around the edges of her closed lip smile. Henry wore the frown he always wore when moved by something. He had met Sophia just a couple of weeks earlier. They had connected immediately. They were waiting for each other, it seemed. Henry had tired of playing the supplicant in his relationships. There had been Sharese, who refused to commit; Becky, who refused to give up drugs; Anna, who refused to invest emotionally. There had been the one night stands, Alyssa, Kate, Rebecca, who he couldn’t stand the sight of in the morning of ever after; the girls who led him on but never panned out, never called back, Carmen, Liza, Margarete. All the missed chances and might have beens. Now there was Sophia. She was pretty and smart. She said she loved him with tears in her eyes. That was all he needed.
“You’re what I want,” Henry repeated. He raised Sophia’s hands to his lips. She nodded her still smiling, wet face, and leaned across the table for a kiss.


Henry woke with a start, his eyes fluttering open to darkness. The digital clock on the nightstand read 4am. He was alone. It was the third night in a week she had not come home. A mixture of worry and anger began to sicken in his stomach, and he turned away from the clock to face the empty spot next to him. He knew he would not get back to sleep. That he even fell asleep was testament to his naivety. Ever since Sophia had met Claire, she had spent less and less time at home. Henry chalked it up to nerves about their looming wedding day. Cold feet. All the same, he felt something; a leaden anxiety weighed upon his heart and darkened his thoughts. That was silly, though. Claire and Sophia were just friends. Henry stared into the darkness, alone and unable to sleep. Soon the sun would rise. He would get out of bed, make coffee, and pace the floor. Somewhere across town, Sophia would open her bleary eyes, naked and hung over, already formulating a lie.


Henry, a thirteen-year-old boy, sat upon the ground and crossed his legs Indian-style. From the interior pocket of his jacket he removed a small spiral-bound notebook and placed it open upon his right thigh. He leaned back against the concrete wall behind him and carefully flipped through the pages. Henry stopped at what looked like the most recent entry and spent some time reading it over. It covered one page front and back:

November 1, 2006
H. Morgan
South, Texas

Next year I should be a cowboy. It’d be easy to wear and I wouldn’t feel silly leaving the party to go get lunch. I can’t believe the gorilla won. People have neither taste nor imagination when it comes to costumes.

I need to write Kal a letter. She’ll be wondering why it’s taking so long. Ask her where she’s going for vacation this summer. It’d be neat if we could meet up. Tell her thank you for the stationery. Need to find her a present. I wonder, if we went to the same school, if we’d be friends. Probably not, she’d be a cheerleader or something, and wouldn’t know that I exist. She’d be beautiful and tall and tan, wearing her cheerleader outfit, jumping and yelling with a smile on her face, dating Brad or Tanner. They’d get drunk on Fridays and ride around town. I’m sick of writing letters.

Spaghetti would be good for dinner tonight. I should go with Mom to the store, to make sure she gets the right kind of cheese. Kraft is bullshit.

Maybe tomorrow I could sit under the bridge and write. After breakfast, make an early start of it, work until lunch, then read in the afternoon. I need to not watch cartoons. Breakfast, coffee, then outside for an early start. No more wasting time.

Words to look up:

Henry pulled a plastic ballpoint pen from the hip pocket of his shorts, uncapped it, and began to write on the next page. He smoothed a small patch of ground in front of him and laid the notebook down, leaning forward in concentration.

November 2, 2006
H. Morgan
South, Texas

This morning I made eggs. They turned out well. The day has begun and so far I’m on track.

I must beware the perfidy of my desires, though.
Ambuscaded distractions might get the better of me.

I think stores should be closed on weekends. Everyone could have the days off, and no one would be tempted to shop. Shopping is stupid. Mom should read books instead of sale ads.

Today I will sit and write until I get hungry. Then I will go inside and read while Mom and Dad are at the flea market. I think I can get a lot done. Be sure to not allow Colby to come over. All Colby does is distract me. I’ve wasted too much time doing silly things. Video games have their time and place, but so does serious literary endeavor.

After making this last entry, Henry paused and thought for a long time, holding his pen close to the paper. He made the first mark for a new letter, and then abruptly stopped. A car passed over the bridge above him with a roar. The tires made three clicks as they coursed over the joiners.
Henry did not realize that he was being watched from a short distance away. About ten feet to his right, crouched among the weeds, a young girl steadily observed him. She had not been there when he arrived. It appeared that she was comfortable in her position, as she rested entirely motionless, like a cat about to pounce. There was nothing in her posture to suggest aggression, however, and the tilt of her head indicated curious engagement. Her eyes focused on Henry’s right hand as he held the pen poised above the paper, as if willing him to continue. She looked about twelve, though the intensity of her gaze belied such youth. Henry capped his pen, an action that caused her to rise slowly and move through the weeds toward him, stepping gingerly with bare feet. The only sound was the rustle of her cotton dress as she parted the stalks with sweeping motions.
Henry seemed oblivious of her approach until she stood directly beside him, at which point he closed the book and placed it and his pen on the ground to his left. They remained like this for a moment, the girl looking down at him with an expression of tenderness and concern, Henry focused on the spot where he had laid his accoutrements, mouth tight, eyes shaded. A breeze blew through the area beneath the bridge, ruffling the girl’s dress and tossing a few locks of hair across her face. The air carried with it a faint hint of lavender, and as the scent filled Henry’s nostrils he felt himself relax. He looked up at the girl.
“Do you mind if I sit?” she asked, inclining her head in a gesture of cordiality.
“No, but the ground’s kinda muddy,” Henry said, “and you shouldn’t get your dress dirty.”
“I don’t mind,” she replied. She sank to her knees next to him, settling down on her heels and tucking her dress underneath her legs. Her eyes never left Henry, and her soft expression remained unchanged. “How do you feel that you waste your time?” she asked.
“I’m not at this precise moment,” said Henry, “I’m listening to you.”
The girl placed her hands upon the tops of her thighs. Henry’s gaze traveled down to them. Her long fingers tapered to small nails that glimmered with a nacre-like iridescence. They caught a beam of sunlight, a third presence that had invaded their space and rested on the ground before them. Tiny particles of dust floated within the pale light, suspended between rising and falling like a dream that borders on the edge of wakefulness. Henry dipped one hand into the light up to his wrist, cupping his palm to scoop the golden effervescence. The dust shattered momentarily, as if shocked by the intrusion, before settling a moment later into the same half-stasis. The girl offered her hand with a movement as silent and graceful as the drift of a feather. Henry took it, pulling her hand from the light and covering it with his other.
“Sometimes I wonder how important I am to you,” said the girl in a voice that betrayed neither anxiety nor sadness. Her soft smile remained fixed. Between Henry’s two coarse, grubby hands, hers appeared impossibly white and fragile.
“Your hand looks like it’s made from porcelain,” Henry said, ignoring or not hearing her.
“Does it?” she asked, leaning forward, her face marked with an expression of intense interest.
“Yes,” he continued. “And your fingernails shine like mother-of-pearl.”
The young girl laughed, throwing her head back. “That’s wonderful,” she said. “What does my hair look like?”
Henry shifted his weight onto one hip and turned more fully toward her. He stared at her hair for a moment with a vague and dreamlike expression, his lips moving soundlessly.
“Does it look dark?” she said. “Dark as pitch? Dark as the blackest night?”
Henry looked at her. “No. It’s darker than that. It’s dark like the end of a highway on an unlit stretch of road. Darker than the other side of that even.”
The girl lowered her gaze.
“Darker than the inside of your eyelids. Darker than anything, dark as the space between the stars. Dark as the bottom of the sea.”
The girl looked up. She slid her hand free of Henry’s and placed it on top of his. He was chewing on his bottom lip while searching her expression, eyes no longer dreamlike, but feverish, darting over her features, as if seeing her clearly for the first time, as if creating her.
“Tell me more,” she said softly, “how else do I look?”
“You’re very pale. Your skin is in perfect contrast with your hair. You have big eyes, big brown eyes with beautiful lashes that sweep down like velvet curtains.”
The girl giggled. “Do they?”
“Yeah,” Henry continued, smiling, “and you have a small, oval face, with a nose that crinkles when you smile, and a left ear just so very slightly higher than your right.”
“I have lopsided ears!” the girl said with a laugh. “When did you first notice?”
“The day that we met, of course.”
“And when was that?”
Her question hung in the air. As her words died away, the space between them filled with silence. An expression of forbearance crept onto the girl’s face and mingled with the soft smile. Henry’s neck tightened and his expression became rigid with thought. He withdrew his hand and raised one finger absentmindedly to his mouth.
“We met the first day of fifth grade, when you were a new student who had just moved here,” Henry began, slowly and hesitantly. The girl nodded, urging him to continue.
“I thought you were so pretty. You weren’t like any of the other girls in my grade, the way you dressed, I mean, and the way you wore your hair. I wanted to know you immediately, I wanted to be your friend, and I imagined us being friends, talking at lunch, passing notes in class, walking home after school. I thought these things from the moment I saw you.”
“How did you get to know me?”
Henry smiled, warming to the creation. He reached out and took the hem of her dress between his fingers, trying to understand it, to hear it.
“We got paired up in Science the second day of the year. I was so happy, you can’t imagine. I thought I would fall over dead from happiness, when the teacher numbered us off together. I’d created so much of you the night before, in my mind, what things you liked to do, what we would talk about –“
“Yes, yes,” interrupted the girl, clapping her hands in excitement, “tell more about those things!”
Henry laughed in surprise at her response, his face breaking into an exuberant smile. “Well, you would have loved to read! You loved books so much, and stories, that we would sit and talk about what we were reading for hours, and we would read the same book and race each other through it, finishing whole books by dinner and then talking about them all night! We would write stories, and poems, and leave them in places for each other to find!”
“We’d read them to each other, right?”
“Yeah! We’d read them to each other, and we would write beautiful things, especially you, and I would always write about you, but I’d be embarrassed and tell you it was about someone else.”
The girl beamed at Henry, her nose crinkling, her face glowing.
“We would have a secret meeting place, where we would go after school, or in the middle of the night, when we were supposed to be asleep,” Henry continued, “it would be, like, a glen in the forest, or –“
“Under this bridge!” cried the girl in glee.
“Exactly!” said Henry, his eyes wide. “Under this bridge! And one night we would come down here, after sneaking out of our rooms, and we would meet as spies on a dangerous mission. The utmost secrecy would be required, and after exchanging information, excited by the danger of it all, we would seal our secrecy with a kiss. Then, after that we would start going steady with each other, but we would keep it a secret from everyone else, so people wouldn’t make fun of us. And we would start spending more time together, until we became inseparable. You would come to my house, or I would go to yours, and we would spend the whole day running around outside, pretending to be archaeologists on a dig. When it got dark we would come inside and play games on the floor of my bedroom, and sometimes we would kiss. You’d come to all of my family stuff, and I would go to yours, and our parents would take us to movies and out to eat, and you’d be like my real girlfriend. We would hold hands under the table, and then –“
Henry stopped for a moment and wiped away a tear that trickled down his cheek.
“And then, one day you’d say you loved me. And we would hug and spend the day walking through town. When it got dark we would come here and promise to never leave each other. To love each other forever.”
Henry stopped and rubbed a hand under both of his eyes in turn, sniffling to clear his nose. He was alone underneath the bridge. The sun had risen high in the sky, directly above, and the space where he sat was sunk in shadow. Picking up his pen, he removed the cap, then picked up his notebook from the ground next to him and opened it to the page following his last entry. At the very top, in the center, he wrote “Ariel,” then closed the book and rose, suddenly hungry for lunch.