Category Archives: flash fiction

Ice Cream (or Fat Girls)

This story was originally posted on Year Zero.

She fumbled with her keys outside her locker and kept her head down. Despite all the noise and the rush of people in the hallway, she held her breath thinking and hoping that if she continued to do so she would shrink away and no one would see her. She held her breath often, and had been in the practice of doing so since she was a little girl. Not so little, in fact, she was a fat girl.

Once the mad rush of high schoolers left the building, she lifted her head and peeked around her locker, but not as if she was actually peeking but nonchalantly, as if she was relieved they were all gone and now she could breathe. She breathed. The release was always a relief, and gave her a little, joyful sense of freedom, when she knew no one was looking at her. But then she felt her rolls of fat, and her belly protrude from underneath her shirt, and she was uncomfortable and self-conscious once again. This is why she held her breath: so that she could feel that little bit of joy when she let it out and breathed again. And then the moment was over.

She grabbed her backpack and zipped it shut, and flung it over her shoulder. She closed her locker, careful not to slam it like the standard practice seemed to be. She took one last look behind her to be sure no one was there to see her. Ever since she was a child—a fat child—she was conscious of people behind her laughing at her large butt.

She walked to the exit at the end of the long hall. She was conscious of the shush-shush sound of her jeans chafing together, the fat girl walking sound, she thought. She focused her attention on the sound of the trinkets she attached to her backpack, instead. She had a lot of trinkets: cute, funny, fuzzy, little trinkets pinned to her backpack.

She thought that cute little things would take the attention away from her fatness. She collected little figurines, small dolls, anything miniature she could, she stacked them on her shelves in front of her mirror in her bedroom. Or pinned them on her jacket. Or attached them to her keychain. And her backpack. Little, cute things dangling from everywhere.

It was the last day of school and she had no plans. She had done very well this semester and was proud of herself. She deserved a treat. But this is what Dr. Wassel told her she should not do. Each time she felt bad or good she would reward and treat herself with food, and that’s why she is fat, he told her, in not so many words.

She drove home. The house was quiet, as it usually is. She had the day off from work, since her boss thought she might have some end of school celebration with friends. Just because she was fat didn’t mean she didn’t have any friends. She had friends. She had fat friends. They were fat together, and that’s the reason they were friends. There were five fat girls. They drove around town cruising the strip in her 1992 Celebrity with mismatched doors, from the accident her brother was in years ago.

She put her bag down and went into the kitchen. She opened the freezer and pulled out a half gallon of ice cream. It wasn’t a half gallon any longer, she noted, but it was still called a half gallon for marketing reasons, anyway. That’s something she did a report on for her economics class. Instead of eating from the carton, she turned and got a bowl from the cabinet. She put it on the kitchen table. She got a spoon from the drawer. In a different drawer she fished out an ice cream scoop.

She scooped several scoops of ice cream into the bowl. She knew this was not a good choice. She put the scooper back in the carton but it fell out on the kitchen table top, with a clang louder than it should have been.

She started to cry, quietly, and put her head squarely in both her palms. Her whole body shook as she wept.
She sniffled one big sniffle and wiped under her eyes to be sure her makeup wasn’t dripping down her face. She cried so often that she could get it under control quickly, and she knew exactly where to wipe on her face to manage the make-up situation. She sat down on the chair and moved it back about a foot or two away from the table. She sat there with her hands in her lap. She looked at the bowl, the carton, the unruly scooper, now beginning to drip ice cream on the tabletop. She looked at the spoon. It was clean and hadn’t been touched. If she kept that spoon clean, she thought, she wouldn’t be making a mistake.

She concentrated her attention on the clean spoon. This is a tactic Dr. Wassel tried to teach her, to focus on something that will keep her from making a bad food choice. She intensified her gaze at the spoon, and tilted her head slightly so that the spoon would catch the light from the window behind her. She tilted her head ever so slightly to create a slow flash of light on the spoon. For a moment she may have meditated using the light and the spoon glare.

Then her concentration broke as some of the melted ice cream from the fallen scoop begun to drip to the floor. Her reaction was to clean the drippings immediately and she begin to reach for a towel, but then she thought about the implications of changing her focus from the spoon. She tried to let the melted ice cream continue to drip on the floor.

It was a hot day in June and she hadn’t yet opened the windows or turned on the fan in the kitchen. It was stifling in the kitchen. The entire carton of ice cream was sweating on the table, which was mixing with the melted ice cream from the scoop. She just hated a mess. She inched her chair back farther, to distance herself from the mess and the increasingly difficult bowl of ice cream to defy.

The bowl looked like a commercial or an advertisement for ice cream. She had never before scooped ice cream to look so perfectly round and enticing in the bowl. The sun behind her from the window felt like it was burning through her shirt and sweat was pouring down her back. She was agonizing now. She started rocking back and forth in the chair and humming a tune from Sunday school. She fixed her eyes on the spoon, now in the path of water almost streaming from the sweating carton. Please, spoon, please, don’t get wet, stay clean and dry, and we’ll be home free.

The spoon lay there innocently until a large gob of ice from the side of the container slid off, like an avalanche, landing within an inch of the spoon. She was now at the edge of her seat, rocking, humming, and rubbing her hands repeatedly up and down the top of her jeans to wipe the perspiration.

But now the spoon was in great jeopardy—in just a moment it would be tainted, dampened, dirty. She watched as the melted ice slowly made its way to the spoon, soon engulfing it. She felt hopeless now; the spoon left her gaze and shunned her loyalty. The spoon now belonged to the bowl of ice cream, fouled by the carton’s pollution. She leaped from her chair and grasped the spoon. She plunged it unhesitatingly into the bowl’s contents, now a soupy disaster.

She was left with no other choice.

Advertisements

18 Comments

Filed under flash fiction, Uncategorized

The Russian Photos

(From the upcoming issue of Gupter! Magazine)

Barry emerged from the subway after another shitty day at work. He climbed the stairs and breathed deeply as he looked up to the sky, as if 6pm was the dawn of a new day; relieved that he was outside of striking distance from his boss. He never felt the crushing tedium of commuting with the hordes of other sad souls, moving in tandem out of the train doors, up the designated exit stairwells, and on to the street where they would spread like a virus at Astor Place and mix in with the natives—a Diaspora of corporate prisoners let free. Rather, he always looked forward to returning to his neighborhood when he felt his personality and creativity awaken again and he became himself.

As he walked east on St. Mark’s Place and down First Avenue to his apartment situated above a Polish restaurant, he noticed a broken cardboard box on the sidewalk. It wasn’t at the gutter for garbage pickup, but it wasn’t settled next to the building, either. It was right in the middle of the sidewalk. First Avenue between Fifth Street and Sixth Street doesn’t get an awful lot of foot traffic, but it was still odd for a box to be right in the middle of the sidewalk without someone having swiped up the box for its contents to be hawked in Tompkins Square Park alongside some used string and other useless items up for free trade by the neighborhood addicts. It looked like photos in the box, which was split along one corner so someone may have dropped it, or it was just broken to begin with. Photos—like looking at someone else’s life.

Barry stood over the box and stared at it for what he even felt was an awkwardly long period of time. If he stood there long enough, it might seem like it was his box and he had just dropped it. Because if he didn’t create that appearance of ownership, it might look as if he was taking someone else’s property. Which of course he was, but really, it’s sitting on the sidewalk with no sign of an owner in sight. So it wasn’t stealing. He peered into the restaurant to see if perhaps the owner was sitting at the counter sipping a coffee, waiting to trounce on the interloper of his photos. He then looked across the street thinking someone was filming the entire episode for some short NYU Film School project. It would make an interesting short film, but there was really no climax, at this point. But climaxes are cliché anyway.

Barry was a relatively unobtrusive guy, though he was very tall and lanky. He always wore a black messenger bag across his body and was rarely seen walking the streets without his earphones plugged in to his head. He pulled out his earphones once he decided he would pick up the box, for no other reason than perhaps to hear if someone yelled, “Hey, what are you doing, asshole, that’s MY box!” He slowly bent down to pick up the box, taking extra time so that he could figure out how to pick up the box without all of the photos slipping out the split end.

He put his arms around the box taking careful measure to cover the split side so he didn’t look like a dick stealing someone’s box of personal things and then making a whole drama about the event. Seamless is how he wanted it to look, but by the time he finally decided to pick he box up he realized it had been such a long time – perhaps a minute – that just standing in the middle of the sidewalk that he was already attracting attention. The difficulty now was that with both arms hugging the box, he couldn’t easily reach in to his bag to retrieve his keys. So he turned and walked to his building and used the small stoop to prop the box on his bent leg while he swung the messenger bag around to reach in and grab his keys.

Finally, after what may have been about a millennium, Barry entered his building and double-stepped the stairs to his apartment.

“Hey man. Look what I found,” he said to his roommate, Doug, who was just sitting on the futon. Doug frequently just sat on the futon, with no television, music, or other entertainment. He never read, but otherwise sounded really smart.

“That is indeed a large, broken box. What’s in it?”

“Photos. I found photos on the street. It’s going to be like a personal look into people’s lives, and it’s been left for me to piece together.”

“Shitty day at work, huh? Most people just go out and grab a beer. You have to make some grandiose scene in order to wash away your shit. You’re a funny dude,” Doug said dismissively.

“No, I’m really psyched about this,” Barry said calmly as he set the box down on the milk-crate coffee table.

He took out a stack of photos and flipped through them carefully, touching only the sides.

“These people aren’t from here. I can tell they’re not from here,” he said.

“How can you tell?” Doug asked as he leaned over with interest.

“I just get this feeling – I mean, these ones right here, at the party, it’s like they’re speaking another language. Russian maybe. Or something Scandinavian.”

“Yeah because I can’t definitively see like a different shape of their lips in making different sounds. They don’t necessarily look different, either, but I see what you’re getting at.” Doug turned a photo upside down and gazed at it, while he pondered.

Doug looked at the photos that Barry spread out on the futon between them and picked one up and studied it closely. They each took several photos in their hands and studied them carefully. It was a long while before either one spoke. As if this was a big, serious project.

“Yeah, man, Russian. That’s it. These are people from Russia. And they aren’t recent, either. These things could be 20 years old. Look at their shoes,” Doug said.

“You’re right. The shoes are the dead giveaway of the physical attributes of being foreign. But there is something else that’s just intangible. I know they’re not speaking English. I just know it.”

“I do think the photos are in New York, though. If you see the windows they look like they’re from a Lower East Side apartment building. And the radiator. These are taken here. But the people are definitely not from here. I can put myself right there at the party and almost hear their conversation and it’s most definitely not in English.”

The two continued for a few hours examining the photos and piecing together a very creative story about the genesis of the photos, the history behind them, and the clues that led them to their pre-conceived conclusion.

There were more than just party photos, also. The one thing that struck Barry was the photos of people who weren’t smiling—they could have been just candid snapshots, but Barry gave more thought to them. It’s like they were photos of strangers, but many were on the streets of New York. Why would the photographer snap photos of strangers—Russian strangers, no less?

###

“I have to find out who these people are, where they are, I don’t know, just find out about them. Connect with them the way the photos have connected with me,” Barry stated to Doug.

“Ok, first of all, I thought we figured out these were from years ago and second of all, why the fuck do you care? I mean, it’s interesting and all, and I’m right there with you. We’ve indeed got a mystery on our hands. But you’re no Inspector Clouseau and what do you think you can possibly find by investigating? You don’t even speak Russian.”

“Well, Doug, you idiot, Inspector Clouseau was a klutz, and if you liken someone to a detective there are plenty of other fictional characters to name them after, like Sherlock Holmes.”

“You’re off topic and you haven’t thought this through, that’s all I’m saying.”

“I just figured I’d run some classified ads in the Russian newspaper, I think it’s printed in Brooklyn. Some of the words here are in English so it’s not that hard to figure out.”

“Oh, that’s not a bad idea. Sorry man. Sometimes I get carried away.”

“Right.”

So Doug proceeded to send two photos to the newspaper with a check for $45 and his address simply to be printed under the photos. He picked up the next issue of the paper at the deli near his apartment and bought a copy of the paper, to find his ad placed prominently. He stood in the deli for a few minutes captivated by his ad.

“Here it is, Doug, we’re getting somewhere,” he proudly showed is sometimes-skeptical roommate.

“Wait a minute, man, you put your address in the paper?”

“How else are they going to get in touch with me? I mean, yeah, I could have put my email, but I don’t even know if immigrants use email.”

“Are you a fucking idiot? The whole world uses email. You’re safer even with your cellphone number—“

“Whoa, safer? What do you mean by that? Like some Russian mobsters are going to come busting down the door?” Barry asked.

“Yes, Barry, that’s actually exactly what I’m worried about. You don’t put an address in your classifieds unless you’re selling a car, and even that’s not a good idea. You’re not selling a car and you have no story to back up the fact that you stole these pictures. They belonged somebody.”

“Shit, man, Russian mob?”

“Russian mob. We’re right next to the center of their activity over in Brighton Beach. And you lure them right to our apartment. I don’t feel safe, now, man, really, that was a dumbshit idea and I wish you’d asked me first.”

Barry thought for a moment about the plausibility of such a scenario, but jumped ahead to paranoia instead. He walked over to a window overlooking First Avenue and pulled back the shades.

“If you think you’re going to be able to see them coming first, you’re wrong. These guys are stealth,” Doug said, just sitting like he does, on the futon, staring straight.

“What should we do?” Barry asked

“I don’t know, man, I don’t know. If you stay here, you’re a sitting duck. You could go out and confront this dragon head-on and go out to Brighton Beach.”

###

The next day Barry called in sick, after staying out of his apartment most of the night drinking at a low-key dive down the street, commiserating with anyone who would listen. He took Doug’s advice and headed straight out to Brighton Beach with his Russian newspaper in hand and a bagful of photos, organized and stored in Ziploc bags with different titles, like, “Night Party 1,” “Male Stranger 3,” and grouped by either location individuals. Barry wasn’t sure if the butterflies in his stomach were from his hangover or from nerves. He spied three Russian-speaking people in the same train car, who appeared to be looking over at him often. It’s a long ride to Brighton Beach from Grand Street. It made him uncomfortable enough to switch cars in between stations—a trick he had never tried but had seen in the Warriors, a movie about New York City gangs in the 1970s. It was terrifying and didn’t assuage his nerves.

He was nervous now about being on the wrong train and didn’t want to wind up in the Rockaways, or worse, somewhere else in Queens. But he was more terrified of looking like he was lost and so he squinted and tried to scan the subway map opposite from his seat, but didn’t want to crane his neck or stand up to look at it, for fear that people might realize he’s an interloper. And everything on this elevated subway line looked foreign, the farther he traveled from the East Village. Finally, the train stopped at its terminus and Barry stepped out and walked down the steps to the street.

“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing here.”

He spent the day walking around the streets, going into markets. He bought some knockoff Tupperware for a great price and some replacement earphones for his iPod. He ate some pierogies and strong coffee at a diner that didn’t feel much different than Leshko’s on Avenue A and felt a little better. He then walked over to the boardwalk and watched older women playing cards. He sat peacefully looking at the autumn breezes push the waves lazily along the sand.

###

When Barry returned to his apartment at the end of the day, Doug appeared to be pacing the apartment.

“Where the fuck have you been, man? I was about to call your mom or the cops or something. You’re ok, right? I thought they might have taken you after I left the bar last night—I knew I shouldn’t have left you alone—“ Doug said.

“I’ve been in Brighton Beach all day. That place is nice. Look at the Tupperware I got—this whole set was $8 bucks.”

They both fell silent for a few moments.

“You check the mail?” Barry asked.

“Not yet.”

Barry dragged a chair to prop the apartment door open while he went downstairs to check the box. He came back in and nudged the chair out of the way and let the door slam shut, punctuated by the ding of the old doorbell.

“This is a letter in response to the ad, it’s got the classified number on the front of the envelope,” Barry said without looking up and dropped the other pieces of mail on the table. Doug jumped up and walked over to examine the letter.

“Don’t open it—“ Doug said hesitantly.

Barry looked at him skeptically and proceeded to tear it open.

“It’s in Russian,” Barry said, defeated.

Leave a comment

Filed under flash fiction

Foreign

(Originally posted on Year Zero Writers here)

The airport felt foreign. Emerging from what they make you think is a full night’s sleep–but in reality it is about three hours after they clear the dinner trays and you doze watching the awful romantic comedy without the headsets that they never gave you to hear the soundtrack—I’m in a haze. My eyes are itchy and I feel an all-over body crust and my teeth feel like scouring pads. But I am in L’aeroport d’Orly in Paris, France. The chairs are shaped differently than American airport waiting chairs. And that soothing bong sound before the beautiful French voice makes an announcement. People look different. Less colorful clothing and not as fat, in general.

I have my little rolly bag which doesn’t seem to cooperate with me, and my heavy laptop falling off my shoulder, but I’m trying to keep myself together as best I can. I’m nervous. My stomach is agitated and I’m not sure if it is because I am moving to a hotel in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I have to work at a client site where I don’t know anyone; or if it’s because I didn’t sleep. Or the Cleveland airport burrito yesterday before I got on the plane. I don’t understand what the signs say, even though there are English translations. I don’t understand the icons. They aren’t American icons. There is no Cinnabon. While I realize the Au Bon Pain is an American rip-off of a French bakery, I kind of wish there was an Au Bon Pain in this airport to make me feel more comfortable.

There is no Starbucks and I really need some coffee. I don’t know how to order a coffee from what looks like a café of sorts, so I’m going to pretend I didn’t see it. I just want a Venti with a little cream.

Customs is grumpy and uneventful. So I followed the crowd to the baggage carousel and waited a hundred years for my two suitcases. I can already see that I’m going to have a hard time getting all my bags out the door to get a taxi. In Cleveland my boyfriend helped me carry everything. He’s not here now and I didn’t figure that into the equation. My hand already hurts from carrying the one bag. It feels like a burn right on my palm. I spot a line of carriages, but realize I don’t have any French money to put in the machine. I have to change some money, and conveniently there is a spot. I dig out $100.

“Can you change this please?”

“Vous voulez de la change en euros?”

“What? I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. I just need some money for the carriage over there to carry my bags.”

“Madamme, you want this changed in euros?”

“Yes, please, thanks.”

She hands me a bunch of different sized and different colored bills, none of which apparently will go into the change slot of the carriages.

“Can you make some change of this bill, please?” I ask politely.

“Change into what, Madamme?”

“Into change. For the carriage machine.”

“I am sorry, I don’t know what you are talking about. You have there euros.”

“But I need change, for the machine. It doesn’t accept bills,” I said impatiently.

“What do you want me to do? Please step aside, there are others waiting!” the clerk sharply scolded me.

So I stepped aside, assuming someone would come out of the booth with change. Or something. And I waited. I glanced over at the still empty baggage carrousel.

Like a fool I stood there about ten minutes before I knocked on the window again.

“Is someone coming out to give me some change?”

“Madamme, please!” and she got up from her chair in a huff and literally huffed. I’d never seen anything like it. I think she actually said, “Boff.” It was bizarre.

I drag my bags behind me after grabbing the last of my stuff from the carrousel.

Once I pile everything up and drag it out the door, I don’t see any taxis and it’s raining and cold. I don’t see how it can be this cold when it’s summer. They do have the same seasons here in France as they do in Ohio, right? It’s got to be under  50 degrees. I am not prepared for this at all. I drag my bags about 600 miles up the sidewalk to where it looks like taxis are and flag one down. A short man with an oversized uniform and fluorescent vest comes running over to yell at me. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. Can’t he see that I’m tired and have too many bags and I’m now freezing and soaked?

“Can’t you help me?” I screamed at him. That was mean. But he is being really mean to me. This trip doesn’t seem like it’s off to a good start, but I’m keeping an open mind.

I finally get into the taxi but the driver didn’t even help with my bags, he just sat there in the car. I suppose that’s not uncommon. Just annoying. I am so tired, and hungry now, too.

The taxi is warm, but sticky inside. The windows are fogged up. I try not to act like a tourist and stare out the window at the sights, but I am curious. But there are no sights, and this ride is excessively long. Just highways and buildings and apartment houses that don’t look at all Parisian. I guess we’re not in the city yet.  The driver is talking on his mobile phone the entire time with long gaps in between his words. Each time he talks I lift my head to see if he’s talking to me. I don’t think he’s speaking French anyway.

We arrive at the hotel and he helps me out with my bags. I give him all the money I had changed since I didn’t expect the cab ride to cost that much. He probably ripped me off, but at this point I don’t want to argue anymore. I’ve been in three fights already today.

I just want to shower, take a nap, drink some coffee, and eat a croissant, but I don’t have time since I’m expected at the office in exactly 45 minutes.

And of course now the hotel doesn’t have my room ready yet.

“Can I at least use a shower to change? I’m going to be here for a month, can’t you help me out right now? Please?”

“Non. C’est pas possible.”

I opened my luggage right there in the reception area and pulled out my suit and cosmetic bag. I marched over the restroom and cried and cried and tried to change without touching the floor with my bare feet. I, like many, have an aversion to touching the floor of a public restroom.

The toilets here are different. They are not as short and stout. They are slender toilets. The flusher isn’t on the left side, it is a pulley on the top. I tried pushing and twisting it, but alas, it pulls. The flush is loud and fast, not like the extended long flushes in public restrooms in the states. The handles on the bathroom stalls are different, too. It’s a different type of latch that I am not used to seeing. It is more like a little handle, with a red and green in use sign on the front.

There is no hot water. I let the left faucet run for a few minutes while I brush my teeth, but no hot water is coming out of it. I try the right faucet while I slipped off my sweatpants and suit up in my hose. I am hoping no one comes in, because I may just crack. There is still no hot water. So I grab some paper towels from the dispenser and wipe down my face and armpits. The paper is so thin that it bunches up and forms little crumbly balls of wet tissue. My toiletry bag keeps falling into the sink, since there is no countertop to rest it on. It’s dripping wet now and my makeup brush is soaked and useless.

I try to wet my hair down a bit to control it, but now it’s too wet and it’s dripping down my back and my blouse is wet. So I stick my head under the hand dryer, but this is like a super-power dryer like none I’ve ever experienced. I lift my head and as I feared, I look like a crazy person with frizzed out hair. I go through my bag to see if I can dig out a clip, or a makeshift rubber band, or something to put my hair back.

I step out of the bathroom and I wish I could say I felt like a new person, but I feel just as crusty, tired, and gross as I did before except now worse.

I am now running a bit late and request a taxi to the address of the client’s office I am supposed to be at for a meeting that is starting in 5 minutes. The taxi driver starts to argue with the doorman.

“Madamme, this address is very close. The taxi will not drive so close, so you may walk there and I will show you.”

“Wait, what? It’s raining and I’m in heels. I don’t know my way around Paris at all. I just landed an hour ago. Can’t he just drive me around the corner or wherever this is? Just this once? Please?”

The doorman looks at me. I expected he would at least translate my plea to the driver. He did not. He just looks at me.

“Madamme, I am sorry, he will not. Please, you can walk it is not far at all.”

I look at the driver.

“Please can you take me?” I hold back my tears.

My headache is pounding, and I know that is because I haven’t had any coffee. I feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head.

“Can you give me an umbrella, please?”

“Sorry, I cannot give out umbrellas but to guests of the hotel.”

“I AM A GUEST! I AM GOING TO BE HERE FOR A MONTH!”

“But you are not checked in, so I cannot give the umbrella.”

“Where is the fucking address? Tell me how to get there?” I grabbed the newspaper from the taxi driver’s hand to cover my stupid hair and walked in the direction he pointed.

My laptop bag is heavy and my rolly bag is getting really wet. It is supposed to be water resistant, but I know that water resistant and water proof are entirely different things. I prepared reports for my client before I came here, and they are all in the rolly bag.

After walking up and down the block that I think I should be on, I can’t find the address. It says, 15 Bis Rue de la Pompe. I don’t understand what the Bis part is. I don’t get that. I see a bakery at the end of the block and I’m going there. But I have no money on me so I can’t even buy a croissant. It’s now 11:10am here and I am late and lost. And wet. I have stepped in dog poo three times already. The poo is embedded in these metal grates that are hard to see on the sidewalk surrounding the trees. While it seems slightly absurd that there is a man cleaning the gutters with what appears to be a vacuum cleaner machine, there is poo all over the sidewalks.

I find the Bis, en route to the bakery.  I am glad, not so much that I found the Bis, but that I wasn’t forced to go into the bakery to ask for directions because I am starving and would have been like Les Miserables and stolen a loaf of bread. That’s not even funny right now.

I ring the buzzer for the company and get buzzed in. There appears to be no elevator so I walk up the steps a few flights, which is awful, but at least I’m drying off.

I make it into my meeting and the clients are very gracious. There is no one else from my company here. My boss was supposed to be here to make the introductions and help me out, but now that I finally plugged in my blackberry, I see a message from him that he must attend a closing this week and he won’t be in Paris. So it’s just me alone here to run the project. Very few of the client’s people speak enough English for us to accomplish anything without my boss here to help translate. But they are nice, nonetheless.

I think they are just acting nice and they think I am an idiot.

Our initial strategy meeting breaks and I ask if there coffee anywhere in sight. I am trembling with caffeine withdrawal. Someone leads me to a machine which looks like it landed from Mars. I don’t know where the cups are. I don’t even know where to start on this thing. My palms are sweating. I open some cabinets and found some ceramic cups. I put one under what looks like a coffee spout. I pressed the button that has a little coffee cup icon on it. Nothing happens. I press it a few more times. I look on the side of the machine for a switch, but nothing happens.

Someone walks by and says something I don’t understand.

“Sorry, can you help me with this?”

“Yes, please, I can, that is what I asked! You don’t speak French?”

“Uh, not enough, apparently. I’m happy to be here but I am going to need some help.”

He presses buttons and opens a thing and adds water. I need to learn this machine.

“Et voila! You just press this button now and your coffee comes out.”

“Thank you so much! I appreciate it!”

I press the button and a squirt of coffee comes into my cup, maybe about an inch. I press the button again, but nothing happens.

So I drink my inch of coffee and look around the office where I will be living for the next month. I tremble, and I worry. This is all so foreign.

4 Comments

Filed under flash fiction

Ventimiglia

Originally published at Year Zero Writers

[This is a long piece.]

The lights had just been dimmed, dinner trays cleared away, and coffee service was slowly making its way up the aisle. The dry, darkened and sleepy atmosphere fell like a lost handkerchief over the cabin; a sharp contrast against the chaos at the gate and the fluttering stewardesses attending to drinks and pretzels. Terry didn’t bother to ask for earphones for the movie—just knowing that the world had gone on as usual was enough comfort for him. But he had nothing else to look at so he stared at the seatback screen next to him. It was like a déjà vu as he imagined he heard the soundtrack, but then it was just the din of the many headsets tuned into the same movie.

His neighbor eventually interrupted Terry’s interloping with a trip to the restroom. After 45 minutes of watching the screen and clutching the SkyShop catalogue, it was time to do something more productive to pass the time. While he waited for the guy to return to his seat, Terry did some stretches while standing in the aisle. He looked across the cabin, and tried to avoid glances up toward his gaze. No one recognized him. He kept stretching because as long as he did things that were familiar to him, the shock wouldn’t feel so, well, shocking.

His sister’s ordeal had lasted just over two years and now he was returning home to Dayton, Ohio alone. He had vowed to her he would keep a journal for no other reason than if something awful were to happen to him like it did to her, at least there would be a trail; something she had wished she had done, she said.

Starting a journal with expressions of enormous guilt, regret, and sadness is probably not what I should be doing. I should be writing about how I’m returning to my family and how bad the plane food is. But now I’m writing words I never thought I would have to, under any circumstances. My sister, Karen, is now gone for good. A small town in Italy swallowed her. No, the town didn’t swallow her, the universe and all its evil sucked her under, and all her kindness, naiveté, and good intentions couldn’t save her.

It all began when she married that clown, John Jameson. I never liked him from the start, and that he was a reverend in a church I had never heard of didn’t make my feelings for him any warmer. I knew he was a creep from the moment we met, when he tried to sell me on his church. His church, he said, which bothered me so. An uncomfortable handshake is all I needed to know that this guy was bad news. I didn’t know what she saw in him, but that was beside the point. My mother was glad that Karen was married, end of story, with all the problems she had been through. Karen’s hearing was nearly gone, after the accident years ago, but she still clung to a hearing aid before giving up entirely on the sounds of the people and world around her.

Thirteen months into the marriage they took a trip. John’s church paid for the trip, so I assumed it was some missionary thing—and Karen was over the moon they were traveling to the south of France. She had never even been to New York so this trip was huge for her. The planning was only a couple of weeks; I was a little surprised a trip like this hadn’t been planned further in advance. Karen and I talk almost every day by email or IM. It was to be two or three weeks, which to me didn’t make any sense that she didn’t have a plane ticket booked for the return, but she said it was up to John’s meetings over there and how much ground they would be able to cover in meeting with the various parishes. Like I said, it didn’t make any sense, but I was careful not to insult Karen by questioning her husband. That is the biggest regret I will ever have.

Terry’s neighbor read over his shoulder as he wrote.

“Buddy, I hate to barge in on you like this and I know this seems like an intrusion, but we are in close quarters,” nodding at Terry.

“Yeah?” Terry said.

“What happened?”

Terry didn’t respond immediately. He wasn’t prepared for questions about his sister, though he was told to expect calls from the schlock-media upon his return.

“Are you from the press?” Terry asked.

“No, I’m not. I’m a novelist. I edit and then publish people’s journals as novels.”

Terry looked at him awkwardly.

“Sorry, I do it with their consent. It’s a joint project, usually, but with the confidentiality and all, their name never appears. You know how that goes. My name is Garrett Jones.”

“I’ve never heard of you, Garrett Jones. Why would I let you see my journal?”

“First, you just did let me see your journal. And second, I don’t write under my name, of course. We create pen names, since the stories are other people’s lives, but I do the writing. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get these things in good order, sometimes not.”

They both looked down.

Garrett continued, “People don’t write journals to be secret. They write journals to let the world know what they’re thinking.”

Terry thought about the implications of turning his sister’s horrible tragedy into a novel. It was exploitive. But it was a story he felt compelled, strangely, to tell.

“Tell me about your story,” Garrett said, with a soothing, solemn tone.

“It’s my sister’s story, and she’s not here to tell it. I only have the evidence I collected from digging around, and from the inspectors in Italy. She’s lost now, for good.”

“That’s ok, that’s where a good fiction writer like me can take over. Fill in the blanks. Make the story real. Bridge some of the gaps that you just can’t do in real life.”

“Alright, Garrett, we’ve got 5 more hours on this plane. Here’s what happened, in a nutshell,” said Terry.

#  # #

Karen was uncomfortable about the trip, but she never told her brother or anyone about it. When she raised questions to John about the last-minute nature of the trip, he naturally accused her of being ungrateful. This was, indeed, to be the trip of her lifetime. Karen’s passport arrived by FedEx the morning they were due to leave. It was her first passport.

On the plane, John was distracted and drinking heavily. Karen looked at brochures and the tour books she bought.

“Aren’t you at least interested in knowing a little about what there is to do? Are you going to be working the entire time we’re there?” she asked him.

He looked over at her and smiled. It wasn’t such a friendly nice smile. “I’m looking forward to seeing the markets,” she said as she adjusted her reading glasses and dog-eared a page.

Karen didn’t just have an ability to look past the darkness and see good in everyone and everything, it was a compulsion. She baked for the elderly in the neighborhood. She knitted for the babies. She gardened for the infirm. She drove for the handicapped. Karen’s existence was tirelessly perpetual for service to others.

When they landed in Nice, Karen was groggy from the overnight flight but John was anxious, sweating, and hung-over. She tried to tell the taxi driver the name of the hotel in St. Paul de Vince that she thought they were booked in but John pushed her back in the seat and handed the driver an address and gave him a wad of cash.

“Honey what are you doing? I don’t understand, where are we going—I think we should just go to our hotel and try to get a shower and a nap before we go and meet the pastor.”

“Keep your passport out, we’re going over the border,” John said.

It was a long drive, but beautiful so Karen sat back and stared out the window. The Corniche along the Mediterranean was mesmerizing, and the flowering bougainvillea along the road was like nothing  she had ever seen. Certainly not in Ohio.

They arrived at the border crossing and Karen was jolted by the crowds and the fact that they were no longer in France. A large, broken sign, VENTIMIGLIA, lay against a crumbling building.

The driver navigated through the narrow streets with twists and turns, further enervating Karen and her already-upset stomach.

“Et voila, Mesdammes,” the driver mumbled.

Karen looked up at the building and it wasn’t the beautiful, sun-bleached villa that the internet site had displayed. It wasn’t the hotel that they booked. It wasn’t even in the same country.

“I have to be somewhere right now, so you can just get out and take your nap or whatever you need to do.”

“What? Where are you going already? I don’t understand, John, this is not where we were going and—“

“Just get out of the taxi, go into the hotel and give them your name and credit card, and go to sleep. I’ll be back later.”

“Well, gosh, John, really—“

He got out and slammed the car door, yelled at the driver to open the trunk, and took out her bags. He then opened her door, helped her out of the taxi and got back in.

“I’ll be back later.”

The hotel steps were littered and obviously hadn’t been cleaned up from whatever overnight partying had been done on the block. Liquor bottles, wrappers, and a used condom were strewn on the stoop. Karen took a deep breath, looked around, and hauled her bag into the hotel.

“Good morning, I am Karen Cooper—C-O-O-P-E-R—and my husband, John, has a reservation for us, I believe? It’s been a tough morning so far, as you can imagine.”

The woman behind the large desk in the dark lobby put her cigarette in the side of her mouth and handed Karen a large key with what looked like a fishing weight on it.

“You pay for today, and then for tonight. It’s two days, you understand?” she said.

“No, but it doesn’t matter, so just please tell me how to get to my room and I’ll worry about it later,” Karen asked.

Discomforted by the grime on the windows and the lipstick on the pillowcase, Karen nevertheless took a shower and lay down for a nap, hoping that when she woke up things would just be different.

Hours later, Karen awoke but John still hadn’t returned to the hotel. She knew her cell phone wouldn’t work, and so she picked up the room phone. She couldn’t get a dial tone except for a sustained, high-pitched beep. The room was stifling and smelly.  Karen dressed and ventured to the lobby.

“Ma’am, do you have any message for me, or do you know if my husband stopped by?”

“No.”

She paused, and hoped the clerk would offer more.

“Um, the telephone doesn’t seem to work, can I make an international call?

“No, the telephone does not work. You no call America, here, ok?”

Stumped, Karen tried again. “Would you kindly bring up some clean towels to the room? There were none in the bathroom and so I used the extra set of sheets in the closet.”

“Towels are extra 2 Euro.”

“ And do you have a street map?”

The clerk laughed and slapped an outstretched hand on the desk before turning her back and walking into the office.

Karen stood there for a few moments, thinking that the clerk would return with a street map. A few more moments passed.

“Hello?” she called.

Karen peered out the front doors. “Oh, heck,” she said as she walked outside.

She walked about 15 minutes before she hit an area that looked like there were some tourists, shops, and restaurants, though not by any stretch welcoming. She stepped into a restaurant with a menu outside that had an American flag, alongside some others, so at least she thought they may speak English.

“Hello, I’m just famished, and can I just eat alone, here?” Karen kept a smile on as much and as often as she could, especially in uncomfortable or tenuous situations.

The waiter was a friendly enough persona and made her feel comfortable, for the first time in hours. In days.

She ordered the special, mussels, and a small glass of red wine. Devouring it all with a large basket of bread and soaking up the sauce, Karen was pleased with her independence and was anxious to show John that she could get out on her own and take care of herself.

John.

The waiter brought the check and she paid with her credit card—realizing at this point she didn’t even change money and had no currency.

“Is there a bank that I can change some money at? I’m dead broke and should probably take a taxi back to the hotel.”

“Certainly, lady, but you should not be alone in Ventimiglia, you know!” the waiter laughed.

“My husband is probably waiting for me there,” Karen said defensively.

The currency exchange was closed when she got there, so she walked back to the hotel exactly the way she came. Or so she thought. Without a street map, and now that darkness had now shrouded the already seedy town, she was unsure of the route. She walked in what seemed like an endlessly futile route, with nothing familiar. She clutched the card from the hotel in her hand hoping to catch the street name somewhere.

The queasiness she began to feel wasn’t just from being lost, broke, alone, and in a foreign country with her husband out of the picture. Something was wrong. She sweated and felt the chills. She tried to hurry in the direction of the hotel but just couldn’t get her legs moving underneath her. She spotted a bar at the end of the block and blearily headed there as if it was the heavenly light. By this time her legs were giving out and her vision was blurry.

“Can you help me, please, I’m sick—I need to find my husband, I am very sick and I need to get to my hotel, here’s the address, could you help me I’m so lost and—“ she leaned on a table and felt the eyes staring at her, “Please, someone, help me, I’m very sorry about this, I’m very lost.”

“I help you—we go, we go now,” said someone behind her who took her by the waist and walked her out of the smoky bar. He was wearing an oversized suit jacket with unmatched pants and black boots. He wore a thick mustache and had thick hands. “You feeling ok? You very beautiful woman, you know.”

In a fog, Karen was eerily grateful she was being carried.

She recognized the smell of the lobby, and as ugly and uncomfortable as the place was, she started laughing she was so happy.

“My husband? John Cooper?” she slurred as the man held her under the shoulders as her feet dragged across the soiled carpet.

The man and the clerk nodded at one another.

When he opened the room and John wasn’t there, Karen began to cry. The man grabbed her neck and shoved his tongue in her mouth, and his grasp around her body tightened.

Karen flinched involuntarily while a tremendous pain wretched her forward, vomiting in the man’s face.

He slapped her and threw her down on the bed and cursed loudly. Covered in vomit, he ran out the door, “Putana, putana!”

Her vomiting was violent and painful. Her headache was splitting and her muscles were aching. Her joints were swelling up and her fever spiked. Her vision was blurred.

She knew this was food poisoning, but she thought she would die. She hoped she would die. That she escaped a possibly violent assault paled in comparison to the fever and gut-wrenching diarrhea she experienced.  Hours later, when all she could puke up was bile, she was already curled up with her face pressed against the filthy tile floor. In the course of hanging over the toilet, her hearing aid dropped in and was irretrievable.

There were no cups in the room to use to drink the tap water from the sink. By the following evening, Karen still hadn’t moved from the bathroom, now splattered with her fluids and she had only the extra bed sheet to serve the dual purpose of sopping it all up and cushioning her head on the floor. She didn’t have the strength to stand up at the sink to drink from the tap, and so she only lapped a few sips of brown water from the bath faucet. Dehydration set in fast and exacerbated her weakness, dragging out her fever.

On day three, loud knocking on the door gave way to a large man and the lobby clerk bursting into her room. In those few moments Karen stood up at the sink and tried to rinse her face, and run some water through her hair, which was knotted and matted from sweat and puke.

“You no pay, you filthy whore, junkie, you leave now! Get out or we call the police! I don’t care you American, you get out now!”

“Excuse me, you don’t understand, I’ve been sick—“ Karen immediately began sobbing uncontrollably, “Food poisoning, it was mussels I think—my husband is gone, I have to get to the police and a doctor, please help me, you have to help me.”

“We help you by kicking you out. You think I don’t know you doing the drugs in here? First you owe 280 euro, and then get out!”

Karen collapsed on the floor and sobbed. She crawled around the room looking for her purse. It was gone.

“You have to help me, I’ve been sick, you don’t understand, they’ve taken my purse and my passport. This is totally unbelievable. I don’t know what to do! Please—“

The man took her by the arm and lifted her off the floor and dragged her out the door. She stumbled enough to get her footing so she could walk down the stairs, all the while crying and screaming for her husband.

“Can you give me a bottle of water, please, I—“

“Putana! Drogato!”

The lobby clerk opened the suitcase to find something of value in it; Karen was too weak to carry it with her anyway. Somehow she thought she might come back to retrieve it when the dust settled; it wasn’t important right now.

“My husband, JOHN! JOHN WHERE ARE YOU?” Karen yelled in the street amid her tears.

Her clothing was soiled and the stench from the diarrhea and vomit was sickening. She continued to walk, holding on to buildings, fences and parked cars to keep her balance. Her hearing was at 10% at best now, so she didn’t hear the curses that were yelled at her from passersby.

A police car stopped at the corner ahead of her. She started running toward the car once she looked up and recognized they could help her. Instead, the two officers jumped out of the car with their guns drawn.  She could tell they were shouting something but she insisted on yelling her husband’s name. She stumbled forward and fell on her hands and knees, and started dry-heaving once again. She choked on her tears again. The officers grabbed her arms and shouted something, but she realized even if she could hear them, she wouldn’t understand. While she was at least somewhat prepared for a trip to France, having spent a summer in Montreal in college, she knew no Italian.

Ventimiglia is a tough little ville, known for crime and grey-market goods. It is filled with transients and is a stopover for drug runners across Europe from North Africa. Its decrepit buildings and ramshackle markets belie the beauty of the Riviera and greater Italian cities. And Karen Cooper, the housewife from Dayton, Ohio, was now tethered to a chain on a bench in an Italian holding cell, sitting in a puddle of her own pee. She had no identification. There was a call from the hotel to pick her up for vandalism, prostitution, drug use, and skipping out on the bill. And her husband, the pastor, hadn’t been seen in days.

“I am an AMERICAN, you can’t hold me here, I have rights!” she called repeatedly. “You have to call the consulate, I know that! I am a citizen of the United States of America! You can’t do this to me!”

The magistrate didn’t know what to do with her. Usually Americans without papers are in town for drugs, and have foregone their passports for money and they are generally quite easy to trace and track. They have relatives looking for them, or more often, schools who are responsible. For the first few days she was incoherent. Babbling on about being lost, the deputy finally asked the nurse on premises to look at her. After having been burned twice on the arm with lit cigarettes by angry cellmates shouting at her to quiet down, the deputy took her from the cage. The nurse promptly diagnosed her with suffering from acute narcotic withdrawal symptoms: fever, dehydration, chills, sores, hallucinations, general weakness, insomnia and slurred speech.

The magistrate put a call in to the U. S. Consulate, nearest in Genoa, about an hour and a half from Ventimiglia. Two weeks was the earliest possible time that a member of the consulate from the U.S. State Department could arrive, since she was unable to communicate over the phone. She couldn’t hear him on the other end of the phone.

In between her shrieking, Karen cried. Unmanageable sobbing kept her and her cellmates awake.

“I don’t have any other words, PLEASE SOMEONE HELP ME! SOMEONE FIND MY HUSBAND! Can you call my brother for me? He’s in Ohio, America. Terry Adams! A-D-A-M-S. This is CRAZY! You can’t keep me here!”

Weeks went by. The infections in her arms were painful and debilitating. Her weight loss was drastic and disturbing, with her skin sagging and her posture bent.

“You, take this, it’s helping you. You feel better. I promise,” a woman in the cell implored with a furtive glance at her hand in a jacket pocket.

“Please don’t speak to me, I’m sick, I need a doctor, I need to go HOME.”

“I promise you, lady, please, you can sleep. When you wake up, things are better, you know that. Please, lady.”

“What do you have there to make me feel better?” she choked, in between tears and rage.

Karen’s pain threshold, while high over the past few weeks, wasn’t keeping up with the reality of her surroundings. Desperation soon turned to hopelessness. Within minutes, the helpless Karen’s life was changed forever and there was no going back.

The magistrate released her from the cell and handed her a paper with a date to return to meet a judge and decide her fate. She tossed the paper immediately after stepping out of the jail, her only record of her claimed identity. She now needed to fulfill her need for more juice: the powder that kept her spirits alive, she thought, over the past couple of weeks.

Ventimiglia’s dark corners offered plenty of opportunities for earning money in any variety of ways. It just wasn’t lucrative or honest. At the train station, Karen made eye contact with a man in a bar.

“Hi there, do you have any money I can borrow? I need to get something and I don’t have my wallet. I have to make a call, too. Can you help me?” she said meagerly.

“What makes you think I speak English?” he said with a smile.

“Everyone who needs to understand me does. I don’t understand you, but if you can help me, I will help you. You know what I mean?”

“Yes, I know what you mean.”

2 Comments

Filed under flash fiction

I Found A Dead Body In The Bathroom

I found a dead body in the bathroom. It was slumped in the handicapped stall on the floor, legs strewn across into another stall. The door was ajar. I knew this person was dead, and not just sick or hurt. I immediately felt that dooming sense of end when I walked into the bathroom; I just didn’t actually expect to see a dead person. Instead of screaming and flipping out and calling everyone in the world to come see and resolve this situation, I experienced one of the highest moments I’ve had in years. I felt entirely special and chosen that I was the one who got to be in a bathroom in an office building with a newly dead person. So perhaps I can’t articulate what I experienced well enough to convey how serene it was in those moments alone with the dead body—I’m just not good enough at expressing these kinds of feelings.

My heart raced hoping that no one else would come in and ruin this moment. It would just shatter this solitude, so rarely had these days when I can never seem to have anyone’s attention alone, not even my own. I looked over at the bathroom door and there was no lock, so I all I had was just hope that no one comes in.  So now it’s just me and the dead body, now the work can begin. Who are you? Why did you die here? Should I be suspicious? What was your life like—were you happy? Who will miss you? People have written books, I’m sure, that ask questions of dead people, so that’s not what I’m attempting to do now, but the questions just began to flood. But not the philosophical ones. I had more logistical questions: Did you take a long time to die? Did you hit your head and die that way rather than, say, having a heart attack? Did you lose your bowels?

Then I began to worry that I wasn’t asking the right questions. Then I worried some more that I just wanted to be alone with this body for a long time. I fantasized about living in this bathroom alone with the dead body and keeping it all to myself, never to let anyone know. Could I lock the bathroom and put a sign up stating that it’s off limits? What about the cleaning staff—they just wouldn’t buy it. I thought for a moment I would move the body to a safe place, but then I realized that my thoughts were a little out of control at that moment and so I began to slow down.

I walked a little closer to see the face, which was hidden to the far side of the toilet. What was most striking about the position of the body on the floor was the chaos of the feet, just sticking up in diverging directions, like they weren’t even attached to the same body. Like the feet were the last to die and they were gripping the floor adamant and stubbornly resisting death. One shoe was loosened, even, as if it was the last stand, literally and figuratively.

I thought about the detective shows when the sleek, supercool detectives take out their pens from their breast pockets and poke the body for no apparent reason. I wouldn’t do that. I was more interested in the feet. And the hands. One hand was still gripping the side of the toilet. Ok, not really gripping it; it just looked plastered to the side of the toilet bowl. The other hand was underneath the body. At first I thought that hand was in a pocket. For a moment I had some great thoughts about this person, and how they were so nonchalant about dying that they slipped their hand in their pocket, coolly, and then died. Like it was no big thing. Whatever. But now I’m not sure the hand is in the pocket so much as the body may have just fallen on top of the arm and died so abruptly that the person didn’t get a chance to lift the hand out and, say, grab a roll of toilet paper, or to put the shoe back on properly.

I am not going to touch the body. Maybe it has a disease that is contagious, even when dead, so I can’t be that grossed out by touching it. So I don’t know what I was thinking when I contemplated moving it somewhere else. It’s just that all these different thoughts are popping into my head about this dead body situation and how overjoyed I am about it. I didn’t really mean overjoyed. It’s sad, of course it’s sad. It’s devastating, really. And I feel empathy for whomever, I do, even though it doesn’t seem like I do. But this situation is happening to me, I was the one who walked into a bathroom with a dead body in it, so the universe has given me this opportunity to experience this and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Kind of like the Grand Canyon, in a way. Like people tell you all about how the Grand Canyon is amazing, and you’ve seen pictures. But until you actually experience the Grand Canyon, you can’t possibly anticipate the feelings you have in response to it. That’s what I’m feeling about this dead body. All those detective shows, and the news, and I feel like I know all about being around dead bodies. But now that I’m with a dead body—alone—I get to own this moment and this experience. It’s all mine.

I wish I had a cup of tea.

2 Comments

Filed under flash fiction

Like Every Day in Paris, It Was Raining

Thanks again to the amazing and fabulous Moriah Jovan for this Group Creativity Experiment #2! Her muse–something that I would never listen to–reminded me of the imagery I hope to have conveyed in this flash. Reposted from Year Zero Writers.

Like every day in Paris, it was raining. I thought I would be more artful in this diary about the nine months I’ve spent over here, but really I just have to spill it. I guess it isn’t really a diary if I’m just blathering on about my crazy spin with a guy across Europe. I’m in the cab right now and it’s cold out. Bone-chilling, as my mom liked to say. She’s right. Nothing but Armagnac or hot tea can take this chill off. And the dampness–it just creeps through you and winds up your muscles. I don’t know if my palms are sweating because I’m finally leaving here and my emotions are mixed, or if it’s because the cab driver won’t turn on the fan and the car is all steamed up inside, despite the cold and the rain. I never understood how cars steam up like that, and which blower you’re supposed to use to get rid of the fogged up windows. Apparently he doesn’t, either.

Someone is singing on the radio now, and it seems to be a well-produced song, in English. But it’s really awful. I knew every release, almost, in the States before I came here. I could name you every band that was getting radio play. I’m in college, these are the kinds of things I know. But once I came here, nothing was familiar. I’m not talking about French music, per se, but all the English-language pop music you hear in cabs, stores, restaurants, clubs, all over the radio. It’s terrible, boppy, silly music and they just eat it up here. Or maybe they don’t know there’s anything better?

I met J.B. at the Concorde Metro station. It was close to 1am and I was cutting it close. In Paris, the Metro doesn’t run all night. It took me a few days to learn that–a totally inconceivable fact for a kid who grew up on the Upper East Side of New York. I had been in Paris for a couple of months already and felt like I knew the place up and down. Especially the Metro. That unique Paris-Metro-urine smell; the sound of the tires screeching against the tracks. They use tires on some of the subway cars here–it’s like a loud sweeping noise and I still don’t understand how it works. The Tunisian pickpocket guys who wear oversized sportcoats bulging with the random stuff they swiped are particuarly good at their craft underground. The Senegalese hawkers of goods are a great resource–fun to watch, too, since there’s always a lookout for a Gendarme and when one is spotted, they have a signal and they all gather up their things and flee before they get nabbed for selling goods.

So back to J.B. I was listening to my own music and pretty oblivious to the sounds of the Metro that night when he came right up to me and asked what I was listening to. While this isn’t an uncommon pickup line, I looked up and, well, there you have it. I was taken, as they say in the Victorian era. I joined him for a drink, with the promise he would put me in a cab ride home since I was out of money and couldn’t wait till 5am when the first train of the morning started–although I would have liked to spend the night with him. Yes, that fast.

It only occurred to me a few minutes into our conversation that he asked me what I was listening to in English. I wasn’t insulted that I didn’t blend into the city, like I usually was when someone took me for an American. During that first conversation, I felt like it was only he and I speaking in a bubble in the world–like our special understanding and our special language which no one else shared. We sat down in a corner of a large, touristy cafe on Rue de Rivoli and talked mostly about music, Paris, my family, politics and a few other things. Like we knew each other for years. But not really. I drank wine, and I honestly don’t even remember what he drank. It was late. I was tired. My eyes hurt and my voice cracked. Was I going to sleep with this guy or what?

His hands were soft. Ordinarily I would be put off by a guy’s soft hands. I mean, what’s he doing, right? The first time you hold someone’s hand you get a real sense of their life, I’ve always felt. Hands are actually very intimate. They touch everything. They are the first point of contact. They are uniquely one’s own. J.B. took my hand and said he wanted to hold it while we walked. And of course, to make this whole story fit squarely into the cliche that you might expect a Parisian love story to be, we walked along the Seine. I was totally in love with this man and would have done anything for him at that moment, and in the days, weeks, and months that followed.

J.B. was never cruel, mean, or overtly mendacious. He was always respectful, warmhearted, and kind. He never gave any reason to suspect something should be interrupting our beautiful little love story. There was no excuses he gave to me for anything; I never excused him–there was no need. We shared everything. His life was so exciting to me: his friends were all artists, older, successful, Bohemian, independent, and most of all, beautiful. He was surrounded by beauty. His apartment was a crowded little penthouse atop a centuries-old buildling on Ile de la Cite and the glass ceiling had a near perfect view of the Notre Dame rose window. Even the sound of the rain on the greenhouse-like glass surroundings had a rhythmic, soothing beauty. The artwork was beautiful and uncontroversial. His films, writing, and photography were stellar works of beauty. Undeniably beautiful.

I wanted to be a part of his beauty. My awkward teens were now behind me, and I was a beautiful woman when I was with J.B. He kissed my confidence and I reveled in the attention. I was his flower and he paraded me around with his deft (or daft) touch.

I received a call that my grandmother had passed away. She’d been long gone for a while, but I had to get back to New York for the service. I hadn’t been home in close to eight months, so it was going to be quite a culture shock. I wondered if I should bring J.B. with me, but I didn’t want to spoil our otherworldly balance by throwing a rock into this pond. I did, anyway. With a new black dress and my eccentric African-French boyfriend, I marched right through the synagogue to show my relatives and family friends how different and sophisticated I am.

 Later, sitting shiva at my aunt’s apartment, J.B. was yukking it up with my uncle, the dentist, my cousin, the investment banker, and my brother, the lawyer. They were all fascinated with him. In a way I was disappointed that he wasn’t leaving them appalled and shocked. But he just isn’t that type of guy–he’s too likable.

We flew back, still in love, but a little more grown up now. We decided it would be best if I gave up my apartment and moved in with J.B., which sounded about right since my landlord was pressuring me to sign another year on my lease which I wasn’t inclined to do since I still hadn’t gotten a gallery showing.

About two weeks after, I got a series of calls from my mother that I just didn’t return because, well, you know how it is. J.B. was headed to Morocco for a photo shoot and so I had the apartment to myself. I cleaned and moved some art around and smoked cigarettes and drank wine and went out a few nights with his friends, who were now my friends, too. And then he didn’t return. And then his friends didn’t return my phone calls. And then I finally called my mother back.

And that’s when I learned J.B. lifted my grandmother’s jewelery.

So as I sit in this cab in the traffic on the peripherique wondering if I’ll make my 10am flight, I miss him, and I want to kill him.

 

1 Comment

Filed under flash fiction