Tag Archives: Romance

THE DAWN AT NIGHT

By Bruce Crown

Have you stumbled and wandered the streets,
Searching for beauty and splendour like this?
Every evening, she sleeps tucked in your sheets,
Every morning, she wakes you with a burning kiss.
But everyone knows nothing in this world is eternal;
Watch the sunrise from the roof; and become the sky,
She’ll always greet the day to the forever nocturnal,
Her touch is a dream, you might as well jump and fly.

Oh, how that hair is caught in the morning breeze,
The goddess of the dawn who departs silently
And with a quick glance does our souls freeze;
Reaching out, touching, she takes our hearts.
All night we yearned for her coming pleasure:
The light of sex, sparkling sweat, bodies shining
Beyond any earthly desire or divine measure,
Becoming the night, looking at the stars, pining. 
An apparition, a love which always has a cost…
Your dreams are only dreams, awake tired
When the sun arrives, your heart now lost,
With no care to what you last night desired.

Have you stumbled and wandered the streets
Searching for beauty and splendour like this?
Every evening, she sleeps tucked in your sheets,
Every morning, she wakes you with a burning kiss.
But everyone knows nothing in this world is eternal;
The sunlight always surprises, becoming the sky,
She elegantly rises and lovers are cast to the infernal,
How harsh these prizes, if for love you wake and try.

You are special, to have the pleasure of her presence
Even though she may tire of those hearts and desires,
To chase away those bright moments of pleasance
And sleep in her arms made of ice and purging fires.
Will she return with the moonlight as the light fades?
You can’t compete with the sun in this daily hell,
Wandering those avenues waiting for those shades,
So many people around you but not a soul to tell. 

Have you stumbled and wandered the streets
Searching for beauty and splendour like this?
Every evening, she sleeps tucked in your sheets,
Every morning, she wakes you with a burning kiss.
Only the sun has the pleasure of her daily company,
Your dreams are made of glass, broken by her gaze
When night comes to pass; those moans a symphony
Of ecstasy that fades like the ashes of a dream ablaze.

You’re on the streets, cold in the drunken night,
Searching, bewildered, but Aurora’s gaze is gone,
Until her indelible fingers wake you at first light 
And that burning kiss leaves your heart undone.
Every morn and night, she smiles until she departs
To brighten other souls for the long coming day,
But yours, she happily adds to her collection of hearts
And with a smile, condemns you to your merry way.


Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He is an alumnus of the University of Toronto and the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, the Riviera, and Toronto. Find him on Twitter: @brucecrown, Instagram: @wittyoutlaw, and on his website brucecrown.ca.

DREAMS THAT FLY

By Bruce Crown

I woke with the dawn
Shining on my face,
Away from you
My love. 

I went to the bakery
And I bought bread
For you
My love.

But you’d already left. 

I went to a florist
And I bought flowers
For you
My love. 

But love was already blossomed in you.

I went to hell
To bring fire
For you 
My love.

But you were already ablaze.

I went to a jeweller
And I bought a diamond
For you
My love.

But you stole its sparkle.

I went to the sky
To bring you the sun
But I found you there,
My love.

And you were already alight.

I had a dream
Of heavenly paradise,
You were there,
My love. 

And you told me to leave without you.


Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He is an alumnus of the University of Toronto and the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, the Riviera, and Toronto. Find him on Twitter: @brucecrown, Instagram: @wittyoutlaw, and on his website brucecrown.ca.

JOYRIDE

By Isabel Wolfe-Frischman

Naomi had planned to stop for a date shake that morning, at the turnoff to the high desert, before she journeyed on in the hope of adventure or a hamburger and a couple of beers, whichever came first. Still, she got sidetracked by the hand-painted sign: CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. A blood-red arrow pointed toward the San Gabriel Mountains. Naomi turned left abruptly and zipped past a stand of sage bushes with blue-purple flowers. She stained the blacktop with rubber tread marks.

A couple of miles down the road, a large tumbleweed rolled in front of her car; she veered to miss it and nearly hit a rabbit. Naomi slowed down fifty feet from the shop, a small faded pink stucco house. She parked her car on gritty dirt and went inside. She was greeted by a middle-aged Indian woman, dressed in jeans and a denim work shirt, a white streak tinged with vestiges of green dye shooting through her black hair. The woman wore three gold chains, one of which sported the name Linda, written in script. 

The woman paused the old episode of Cheers she had been watching.

“May I help you?” she asked, smiling.

“I’m just looking,” Naomi said. There wasn’t much to look at — a few geodes, dust covering the amethysts and topaz and quartz, and some beaded bangle bracelets, a good supply of Concord grape-coloured bandanas, a couple of packaged tee shirts, also grape-coloured, and a reach-in refrigerated case filled with soda, beer, bottled water, and snack products. Naomi picked up a tee-shirt.

“Linda?” Naomi said, “Can I open this?” Naomi asked. 

Linda, who had resumed watching her episode, looked down at her necklace and back up at Naomi. She waved her hand, sure, and turned back to her screen. It took Naomi two minutes and a broken fingernail to open the tightly-secured shrink-wrapped package. 

“Shit,” she said, putting her finger in her mouth and biting off the rest of the nail. The Indian woman turned around.

“That’s a good colour for you with that yellow hair,” she said, pointing at the half-opened shirt package.

“Yeah, I just — Naomi stopped speaking as she shook the shirt out to view it. “Ooh. That’s pretty,” she said. “A dream catcher, right?”

Linda nodded. “It’s good luck,” she said, and she turned up the television.

Naomi pulled a credit card out from the depths of her Forever 21 plastic purse.

“Cash only,” Linda said.

“But I need the cash for — ” Naomi began. “Good luck?”

A few minutes later, Naomi walked out of the Cahuilla Gift Shoppe wearing her new tee shirt and three bangle bracelets and carrying two bottles of Budweiser and no cash. She had thought about the bologna and cheese snacks and the bottled water, but the bracelets were great, and she could buy food later, with her nearly maxed credit card. Besides, a drive like this one, an adventure, deserved some beer. She looked at the bracelets on her wrist and sighed with satisfaction.

Naomi drove on until she saw another sign: NO TRESPASSING. Since there was no immediate place to turn around, she ventured farther, hoping the used Toyota her folks gave her for her twentieth last year was up for the task. When the highway narrowed, and the shoulder disappeared, Naomi’s upper lip began to sweat, and she bit down hard on the lower one. Her back stiffened as the paved road ended without warning — now, there was no way to turn around without the risk of spinning her wheels in the desert sand. Naomi found herself driving over an almost barren field, fording a surprisingly robust stream — she was getting scared and feeling dizzy with the bounce of the ride. She hoped the Toyota wouldn’t roll over or get stuck. Then. Cows. Right there. Sweat-like bee stings in her eyes as she drove around them, as they ignored her, perhaps miraculously. Finally, a road, and it seemed to circle back in the right direction.

Just a couple more miles, she told herself. She picked up her phone to get the GPS happening, but there was no reception. How long had she been driving? She knew it was past noon because the sun had been high and seemed to be on the ebb. If only she had paid more attention at Girl Scout camp. Orienteering, they called it.

I need to calm down, she thought. Naomi pulled over to the side of the road. She put her head down on the wheel and counted to sixty before she twisted the cap off of the first bottle of beer.

“Oh god, what is that?”

The light was getting dusky, the sun going down. The beers had helped her nerves and given her the confidence to continue on. Still, after a half-hour of passing nothing but a couple of empty houses and an old Chevy parked by the side of the road, Naomi was shaking with anxiety. When she finally saw living, breathing people standing behind a two-foot-high stone wall, next to what appeared to be a church, she gasped with relief at the thought of help. As she pulled up next to the building, Naomi heard a drumbeat and chanting. She shut off the engine and got out of the car, faint with hunger and a vague need to pee. She took a step forward toward the gathering of people — maybe there were twenty — and lurched slightly to the side. She leaned against the car for a minute to get her equilibrium. When her breathing became steadier, and her eyes were able to focus through what she realized were tears, she saw one of the men in the group place a shovelful of dirt on the ground. No. On a grave. Naomi gasped, and her hand flew to her mouth to cover her shock, the bracelets adding to her distress with their jangling.

She put her hand on the door handle of the Toyota, ready to get back in and drive away, to take a chance on finding a way out of this maze.

The drumbeat stopped, the chanting stopped. The man with the shovel looked up, shielding his eyes from the glare of the setting sun. An old woman with fire in her eyes said something to him, visibly spraying spit. The man handed the shovel to the woman and took long strides to the cemetery gate. He opened it and continued over to where the little car was parked.

Naomi closed her eyes and bowed her head — the dream catcher appeared on the inside of her lids.

The man spoke in a soft voice. “Do you know what it is you are interrupting?” he asked. 

Naomi shook her head no without lifting her eyes. She could see the cuffs of the man’s black church suit and his polished black shoes. 

“Yes,” she said.

The man said nothing.

“I — I am lost,” she said, too quietly for him to hear.

As the man looked over at the group, Naomi raised her head and looked at them, too, the mourners. The women wore circular skirts and turquoise jewelry. The man with the drum wore feathers and beads.

“It was my grandfather,” the man said. He spoke in a near whisper. “He was respected. The old woman looked up, displaying a face carved with lines of grief and anger. “That’s my grandma,” the man said, gesturing with a nod toward the woman, who was exhaling storm clouds. He turned to face Naomi directly. 

Naomi let out a single sob, a sound that had been jailed and came limping, strangling, to freedom. 

Before she could think of what to say, a simple question, how do I get away from here? The man pulled Naomi’s passenger door open.

“Get in,” he said.

She did, a numb reflex, and before she could logic together that she was no longer in charge here, the man got in on the driver’s side, revved up the engine and sped off. 

“Where are we going?” Naomi asked. 

“I’m getting you out of here.” 

The tears slowed, and Naomi hiccupped for breath. The fears of the day washed over her. She had wanted an adventure. She hadn’t wanted to die. She took a ragged breath and turned to her new chauffeur.

“Thank you,” she said, with adrenalin-fueled self-assurance.

The man said nothing.

Naomi remembered the Swiss army knife she carried at all times, the knife she used to show her friends how cool she was, how prepared she was — she had learned that much in Girl Scouts — how she could always cut open a package or open a bottle of wine. Especially that, open a bottle of wine. She was so thirsty.

“I’m going to get a cigarette out of my purse,” Naomi said to the man. She was sure he didn’t want any false moves, that he wanted to see her hands at all times.

“I thought it smelled a little smoky in here,” the man said. He laughed. “May I have one too?”

There was only one Marlborough Light left, and she knew it. Naomi dug in her bag and found the cigarette pack and the knife, pulled them out together, palming the knife so that her captor couldn’t see it. “Oh,” she said, “there’s only one. I guess you could have it.” 

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m Red Feather. You smoke it.”

“Naomi?” she said, with a little girl question mark.

Naomi looked at Red Feather’s face, only turning her eyes. He had large, sharp features and a deep dimple on his chin. She couldn’t read his expression. “I’ll put my window down,” she said, and as she searched for her Bic lighter, she thought about dropping the knife back into her bag. She didn’t, though — she kept it palmed as she pulled the lighter out. She lifted up one butt cheek and put the Swiss Army knife beneath her thigh, lit the cigarette. At the first inhale, she had a little coughing fit.

“You good?” Red Feather asked.

Naomi nodded through her cough, and when it subsided, she said, “Yeah,” and she tried again. “Where are we going?”

Red Feather didn’t say anything for a good minute. They were still on dirt, no pavement to be seen ahead, and as they went over a bump and the knife dug into Naomi’s buttock, Red Feather said, “My Grandpappy.” He shook his head. “He would have liked you.”

Naomi didn’t know how to take that. “I’m thirsty,” she said. 

Red Feather laughed. “When we get to Yucaipa, I’ll buy you a Coke.”

 “Oh, that’s not necessary,” she said, sitting up straighter. She could feel the oblong knife shape. “How far is it?” she asked.

“Coupla miles,” he said.

Naomi licked dry lips. “But where? Where are you taking me?”

“Away from the Rez,” he said. Nothing more. 

Naomi snuffed out her cigarette in the car’s ashtray. Neither Red Feather nor Naomi said anything else until they got to a small white aluminum-sided building with gas pumps out front and a sign that said EAT/TRY OUR FAMOUS PEANUT BUTTER PIE. Red Feather pulled the car up in front of the pumps. “You’re out of gas,” he said, turning around and walking into the building. 

Naomi climbed over the divider and got in the driver’s seat, the knife falling to the floor. She turned the key and hit the gas, then looked at the empty gauge. She turned the car off and got out, grabbed her credit card and inserted the nozzle into the neck of the gas tank. The tank was full when Red Feather came out of the place, carrying a can of Coca-Cola.  

“Here,” he said, “Now get in your car and go back to L.A.”

Naomi raised her eyebrows. “San Diego.”

“I was close, wasn’t I?”

“Off by a hundred miles and a lot of bullshit,” she said.

 Naomi turned the key, and the car started. They looked at each other again. She turned the key the other way.

Red Feather and Naomi walked into a bar. 

The white building was a truck stop, really, not a bar, no alcohol served — The Trading Post, it was called, and it was frequented by both locals and tourists. 

 “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” Red Feather said. He waved to the waitress and a skinny old man sitting at the counter and led Naomi to a booth.

She didn’t sit down.

“Where’s the —‘’

The waitress pointed to the back of the place, and Naomi walked quickly to the restroom and went inside. I’m crazy, she thought, but she was really hungry and really thirsty, and here she was. She peed, washed her hands, and checked a pale image in the warped metal that served as a mirror. When she came out, Red Feather and the waitress were talking.

“It’s a crying shame he’s gone,” the waitress said, and she wiped a tear.

Red Feather nodded. He turned to look at Naomi.

“Naomi, right?” he said. “This is Little Pammy.” Little Pammy was not little. “I’ve known her since was little.”

“And since was,” Little Pammy said, and she laughed, her chin like Jello.

“I think you’re beautiful,” Red Feather said.

Little Pammy snorted. She looked Naomi in the eye and said, “He didn’t think that when he and his drunken buddies raised hell in here last week,” she said. “I told them to go back to their government-owned land.”

“That was harsh,” Red Feather said. 

“You know we don’t allow no booze in here,” Pammy said. She winked and walked away.

Red Feather called out to her back, “Two peanut butter pies, please.”

Pammy turned and eyeballed Red Feather, dressed in his funeral suit, raised one of her pencilled eyebrows and blew a rusty red corkscrew of a curl from in front of her face up to her hairline, where it somehow managed to stay. Red Feather shifted in his seat, took off his tie, shrugged small, mouth twitching to smile. 

Naomi dug into that pie the second she got it, a hungry wolf pup. She had gulped half the piece before Red Feather picked up his napkin and dabbed at the corner of his mouth, eyebrows raised to indicate that there was something at the corner of her mouth – Naomi lifted her napkin and wiped pie goop away, and some whipped cream. She crumpled the napkin and threw it down on her pie slice.

“This place doesn’t even sell beer?” she said to Red Feather.

Red Feather stood up, seeming to wrestle with his demons. “Wait here,” he said and went out the door. Naomi watched him talking on his cell phone, not sure what to do. She took out her wallet — she would pay for the pie and get out of here. She looked up and saw what seemed to be her destiny — a CASH ONLY sign; she was beginning to rummage in the plastic purse for loose change when Red Feather took the phone away from his ear and came back inside.

“Um, this is awkward,” Naomi said to him, “but I can’t pay for anything. I don’t have any cash. I call myself ‘cashless wonder.’ I don’t carry it because when I have it, I spend it, but I better go, I better get back home, I better — ‘’

“I can pay for your pie, don’t worry,” Red Feather said. “My — he raised his hands and made air quotes — drunken buddies gave me a bunch of cash this morning because I let them borrow my truck.”

“I owe you,” Naomi said. “I feel like I owe you.” She screwed up her mouth.

 As they spoke, a young guy in a Lakers jersey and baggy pants placed a white paper bag on the lunch counter next to a toothpick holder, turned and smiled at nobody in particular, and left. Red Feather strolled over casually, took a toothpick, put the little stick in his mouth and picked up the paper bag with his other hand. 

“You’re not in my debt,” Red Feather said, back at the table and opening the bag. He pulled Styrofoam soda cups, lidded and full of beer, out of the sack. “I was thirsty too.”

“Oh god, what is that?” Naomi said, feeling the saliva come into her mouth, like one of Pavlov’s dogs. 

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Another paper bag came a half-hour later, and then another.

“I’m gonna call you Little Paper Poppy, ” said Red Feather. “Because you don’t have money, like those kids that sell those poppies.”

“No, seriously,” said Naomi, “I cry when I get those, you know, those little beaded things in the mail. And the pictures of the kids, the poor kids who don’t get enough to eat, the — ” She stopped, blew her nose on a napkin.

“Like I said a few minutes ago. It’s not your fault. And for the hundredth time, the ceremony was almost over. Grandpappy is okay with us having pie.”

The last few sips of beer had taken Naomi visibly over the line into wasted drunk territory. She moved her foot under the table, so it touched Red Feather’s foot.

“Whoa, I’ve got to use the facilities,” he said, getting up so fast he knocked over a ketchup bottle.

When he returned, Little Pammy was sitting at the table, holding Naomi’s hand. Naomi was crying. Little Pammy looked at Red Feather. “Did you want your check?”

Red Feather stood up. “Yes,” he said. “Please.”

“At least let me —” Naomi reached for her bag, then remembered the no-money thing.

Red Feather put his finger to his lips. “Shhhh,” he said.

She wanted to kiss him, she wanted to — she wasn’t sure what.

Red Feather threw a twenty on the table, put an arm around Naomi, and guided her outside, lifted her into the car.

Naomi passed out as soon as they started moving, and when they got to the reservation, Red Feather parked the Toyota in his truck’s space — and left the kid in her stupor. He covered her with a blanket, dropped her knife into her plastic purse, which he placed on the other seat, and cracked a window.

“It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed.”

“Little Poppy.” Red Feather was shaking Naomi awake. It was almost dawn. She lay under a blanket in the passenger seat of her car. A light rain was falling, rare in this part of the world. “You had best get your sweet self out of here.” Red Feather fished her keys out of the crevice between the car seats.

Naomi felt a cosmic disconnect as she took the car keys out of his hand. Her brain was packed in bubble wrap, and she was afraid if she made the wrong move, the bubbles would begin popping and cause her head to explode. Naomi once again climbed into the driver’s seat in a trance, pushing the purse to the side, and started her car. Red Feather pointed. “That way,” he said, “straight, all the way. Up over that hill.”

She saw where he was pointing and understood his urgency, although the reasons did not come to mind. She smelled beer; her stomach was slush. Her bladder felt like a football. Vomit rose like lava – she gulped it back. Head pounding, vision skewed, Naomi tried to speak. Thank you? Is that what was required? Words did not come.  

Naomi started the car. It stalled, then restarted and jerked to speed. She straightened the wheel just short of driving off the shoulder and lurched away. She tried to lift her leaden hand to wave. Body not working. She made a peace sign on her thigh, where nobody saw it. When Naomi crested the hill, Red Feather turned around and walked home. 

“Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering.”

In a parallel universe, Redfeather’s drunken buddies had been matching Naomi’s beer consumption. One of them, Big Al, had been ranting most of the night about the blonde that fucked up Red Feather’s grandpappy’s funeral. When they saw the little Toyota, Big Al revved up the engine of Red Feather’s truck, skidded and squealed out after it. Dogs began to bark.

When Naomi heard the truck roaring behind her, the barking, when she glimpsed the men in the truck in her rearview, when she heard them shouting and laughing, her cobwebbed brain became a little clearer. She pressed her foot down on the gas pedal, and the little Japanese car jumped and began to go as fast as it could — the speedometer read ninety. 

“White WOMAN!” one of the guys shouted. “Get your white ass off my land!”  

“Gonna rip you up, honey!” someone else yelled. Laughing. 

She squinted to keep from seeing it double, the sign up ahead — CAHUILLA GIFT SHOPPE – SOUVENIRS. Linda. Linda had been so nice. Another minute to get there, and then to the main road. Her hands were slippery, sweaty, and she had trouble steering. Fear had her right where it wanted her. Maybe she didn’t deserve to get to the road. Maybe she had to pay for the sin of trespassing. And for interrupting the sacred — Jesus, God. 

Naomi’s mouth was dry; her lips were stuck together; her tongue was thick and covered with moss; bile rose in her throat; she was about to wet her pants. She said a prayer, not even sure what prayer it was, maybe the one the alcoholics say, the serenity one. She fingered the dream catcher on the front of her shirt. It was for luck, good luck, perhaps the thing she had started out to find.

She was so thirsty.


Isabel Wolfe-Frischman’s fiction has been published in The Listening Eye, Paterson Review, and others. Her photographs have appeared in Trajectory and Olentangy Review. She has fiction upcoming in the fall issue of Fugue and a personal essay in a winter edition of Streetlight.

The Muralists

By Aimee Brooks

I showed up early with a few suitcases of paint-splattered clothes, feeling more like a sojourner than ever. The church was unlocked, so I left my things near the entrance and followed the labyrinth of hallways to the sanctuary. My feet squished into the dark red carpet, and fragments of stained glass filtered light danced all around me and over my body. I took my seat at one of the wooden pews and briefly examined the cloth covers of the red King James Bible and black hymnal.

My body conjured up a powerful hollow sensation against my wishes, the intermingling of anxiety and longing that often pierces my chest when I exist in wide-open spaces. I tried to lean into it, to remember that feeling and hold it tight as if it were some sort of physical object.

Soft footsteps left the tile from the hallways that led into the sanctuary, and goosebumps prickled my arms.

“Isla?” A voice called my name.

When I looked up at the person coming towards me, I came to the realization that I would be spending the summer with my ex-boyfriend.

“Javier,” I said his name back, unsure how to respond. It felt inappropriate to hug him after our skin had not touched in so long.

He took a seat several pews up from me. I felt even smaller with the two of us in the vast room.

“How have you been?” I could see something cross over his eyes — pain, maybe confusion. He was trying not to make too much eye contact.

“Fine.” My answer was hollow. It always was. Empty words describing an empty person. He knew that already.

“And you?”

“It’s been okay. I’m making it.”

His profound honesty struck me. There I was, in disguise in plain sight.

They say ‘take her swimming on the first date,’ — the nasty men that are in the business of sizing women up like a piece of meat at the butcher’s. You wouldn’t want to get a bad one, someone who doesn’t live up to the narrow expectations of what it means to be beautiful.

Javier had taken me swimming. Not on the first date or ever, really to my recollection. But he saw my makeup melt off of my face, mascara drip from my lashes. My foundation flaked away, revealing acne-scarred cheeks and dark circles under my eyes. He had seen my body as it dove into the water, the bit of pudge that my swimsuit couldn’t hide, the cellulite on my thighs.

Take me swimming.

‘Take me swimming,’ I wanted to say.

Reveal me. I’ll strip myself down before you can do it with your eyes. I would have taken a sponge to my face right there. Because I wasn’t afraid of showing what was already apparent — what clothes, or powder, or even a false sense of confidence couldn’t hide, but of what I could not show on the first date or the last.

Before I could embarrass myself, the pastor entered the room, introduced himself, and began explaining our first tasks as the muralists.

The internship application promised that it would be a summer full of networking with other artists while doing good for the community, painting large-scale works that all could enjoy. As the pastor droned on about the next two and half months, I became increasingly aware that all of the networking had already been done.

I rode in the back seat to the rec center owned by the church, staring down the dusty streets with colourful houses. I leaned my head against the window, looking up at the sky. The clouds chased each other as the wind blew them parallel to where I sat. That small moment of peace felt like a consolation prize for being stuck in one of those towns where my nationality was a slur.

The pastor explained to us that we would be preparing the wall of the center facing the highway so that cars passing by could see and planning another near the basketball courts for kids to take pictures in front of.
I began to sweat upon arrival. My hair became hot to the touch, and I tried not to make it obvious that I was checking its temperature every few minutes just in case it were to spontaneously combust.

He told us that all of the supplies and water bottles that we would need were in the gym and that he would be back to bring us lunch.

“I don’t know about you,” I said, staring forward at the grayish wall, side by side with Javier. “But I already think I have regrets.”

“No kidding. Let’s go inside and get some water right now. We need a game-plan.”

Our calculations showed us that our best schedule would follow the sun, rotating between both murals to avoid overexposure, not that it was completely preventable in that barren wasteland.

We sat with our damp backs to the cool inside of the gym, keeping our distance while we took small sips from ice-cold water bottles. A group of kids was playing basketball. Shouting voices, the distinct squeak of rubber on vinyl, and the sting of each dribble echoed off of the walls. No one seemed to notice us. It was not our frontier, though I assumed we would be spending quite a bit of time in there until we finished.

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After scrubbing the dried mould and other potentially harmful scuff marks off the gym’s stucco wall, Javier informed me that we would need to prime the surface before we started with any kind of paint. I could tell that this was more of a process than I had imagined.

“I can’t believe that guy left us here.” He let out an exaggerated sigh and wiped the sweat from his hairline that was threatening to run over his sharp brow and into his eyes.

“Did you bring your car? We can take mine tomorrow if you want.”

He didn’t bring his. A city boy at heart, he hadn’t thought much about the lack of transportation in the rural south. We both agreed that it was the best course of action to take my car the next morning.

There I was, already giving in to temptation. Or was I simply being nice? I had the sun, my ruthless interrogator, to force me to grapple with this for the rest of the day.

By the time the pastor came to pick us up at the end of the day, we were fairly war-torn looking for artists. Our skin was that reddish hue that pointed towards damage later down the line, and our clothes were stiff and salty. Neither of us said much on the car ride to the little apartment complex that the church had put us up in.

I said my goodbyes and walked upstairs, not even bothering to shower before lying across the plastic mattress and falling asleep.

In the middle of the night, I woke up and stood under the lukewarm shower, unable to move. It served as my sensory deprivation chamber and allowed me to wrestle with my thoughts while water dribbled over my body.

If I were to spend the rest of these sixty or so days with Javier, we were going to have to talk things through. We were the only people our age in this entire town. Our days were going to be spent alone together with the scorching sun beating down on our backs and faces. We were going to see each other and all of our ugliness, so we better make the most of it. As our bodies wore down, got sore from the labour, blistered our cheeks and cracked our thirsty lips, the conversations to come were all we had.

“How did you find out about this internship?” I asked early the next morning. We had gotten out before the sun was fully up to avoid the most powerful rays.

“If I’m being honest, my mom found it for me.” He did not look at me, just kept priming the wall. “I think she thinks I’m some kind of burnout or something and that I’m never going to do anything with my life. You know.”

I did.

There were many reasons why we cut ties. The constant comparisons got to him. His parents adored me and my conventional style of fine art while trashing his illustrations, telling him that he wouldn’t make it in the art world and that he needed me. He needed to seal the deal with me while he still had the chance. Javier had an aversion to settling down, and I liked being idolized as a concept more than respected as a whole human being. That was just the beginning of it. It’s hard to love when you feel dead inside.

The day was long, and by the time one of the ladies from the congregation dropped off a casserole for us, my body throbbed my sunburn started to peel. I sat at Javier’s desk chair and picked through my flavourless ground beef and beans. He sat with his back to the bed, knees up on the floor, slightly wide-eyed at the amount of visible grease pooling at the bottom of the clear plastic.

“Would you want to get pizza?” He suggested.

“That sounds great.” I was relieved that I didn’t have to ask first.

We walked to the local place right around the corner. We then sat on some of the splintery picnic benches outside to enjoy an only slightly less concerning dinner.

This became the beginning of our rituals that summer — walking to the pizza place, driving around after a quick trip to the drugstore and just listening to music. We formed a secret society, just the two of us, outliers in a town that seemed all too much the same.

Sometimes Javier wanted to drive my car, so I would let him and lean my head against the window on the passenger side, feeling like a stranger in my own mode of transportation. It was best when it was night, and I could see the stars at a standstill even in my motion. I felt small and began to crave that feeling, the first sips of summer air.

Towards the end of the rec center murals, we started to get sloppy. Filling in some of those finer details felt useless and tedious when they couldn’t be seen from the road. I knew Javier was thinking it too, but he was too prideful to ever speak it out loud.

I took more breaks, sometimes drinking long slow sips of the steamy water from my bottle so I could at least pretend like it was part of the process. Still, Javier got faster, looser, messier. His brushstrokes became inconsistent with any previous blocking that we had done. But I liked it. It felt like him.

One afternoon, in the hottest hour of the day, I sat watching him. He was up on a ladder, his face and arms bronzed, the ripple of his muscles through his shirt.

I crouched in a duck pose, popping both of my knees in the process, knowing that I wouldn’t want to get up if I sat down. The feet of the ladder rocked, and my eyes darted back over to Javier.

He was reaching his brush so far out that he only had one foot on the wrung where he should have been firmly planted. I wanted to call out to him and tell him that he should take his time or just be careful, but I didn’t want to micromanage him.

The incident happened before I could even inhale to shout — the ladder slipping out from underneath him, the clatter of metal against concrete, his body falling and the sharp crack that coincided with the impact. He lay crumpled on the ground, the stillness hanging heavy in the air before the fibres in my muscles frozen to stone eased, allowing me to move towards him.

For those brief moments with that heavy dose of adrenaline coursing through my stiff veins, I was not myself in my own body, unable to move, powerless to breathe. It felt like too long before I was at his side.

Javier was flat on his back, his eyes fluttering to stay open, unequal pupil sizes. However, I only remembered this in retrospect.

“Are you okay to sit up?” I asked with full knowledge that we needed to get to the tiny hospital as soon as possible, briefly wondering if they could even treat him there.

“Yeah,” he said but didn’t move.“It’s okay. Just give me a second.”
He started to maneuver very slowly into a position where he could sit up, and that’s when I noticed that his arm was clearly broken.

“Wait.” I panicked in forceful voice. “Let me help you.”

I knew he wouldn’t want it, but there was no other choice. Looking back, I guess there were other options, like EMTs stabilizing his neck and making sure the bones in his arm did not move around too much. Again, I was not thinking as clearly as I could have been.

Pushing from behind, I helped him come up to a sitting position, careful to make sure that he didn’t put any weight onto his arm, which he has since noticed and was staring at intensely.

“Does it hurt?”

“I can’t feel it.”

“Okay, we can hurry and get you to the hospital.” From what I remembered about anything medical, the shock of events like that could wear off all of a sudden, and the pain comes on quickly.

He stood slowly. I grabbed his other hand and helped pull him to his feet, trying both to be gentle and to use all of my body weight.

The ride to the hospital was mostly silent. His pain had begun to grow severe from the look on his face.

I was driving like a maniac. Every time we took a sharp turn, I would whisper, ‘sorry.’ He wouldn’t respond. His eyes were closes, and his head tilted back against the rest. He held his broken arm around the back of his tricep to help keep it still, close to his body.

After he checked in and I filled out his forms for him, we waited in the emergency room lobby for what felt like an eternity. I know that ER’s are not known for their speed, but it seemed ridiculous how long we waited, with almost no one else in the waiting area.

The transition from the boiling outside to the sterile interior of the hospital made my arms prick with chill bumps, and I tried to run my hands over my arms to warm them. The sweat on my back was ice cold. But it felt wrong to comment on it, even if I voiced it as an observation and not a complaint.

“Good luck,” I said when they called his name after what seemed like ages. I contemplated following him, but I didn’t want to overstep my bounds.

He hesitated, opened his mouth a little, but said nothing and followed the nurse back through the double doors.

I started to cry, just a few warm tears on my cool skin. I had too much dignity to let myself fall into one of those deep shudders meant to be practiced alone. My eyes fixed on the white baseboards closest to my row of plastic chairs so that if someone did happen to notice, I wouldn’t have to meet their gaze.

I think my shock had worn off, not just from this event which was undoubtedly traumatic, but from months of suppressing emotions that came rushing in all at once.

Instead of wailing in the shower and eating tubs of ice cream for a few days until I could muster up the strength to hit the gym to get my revenge body, I carried on like Javier, and I had never broken up. I didn’t even tell anyone unless they asked. But my pain was waiting for me, never processed, an untreated wound festering somewhere deep within my flesh that I could not see. Part of me believed that those kinds of things go away with time, but this public display of weakness proved otherwise.
Half of me wanted to steel myself, harden my heart and lessen my capacity for love for then and forever. It would be the same as it had always been. I was an emotional hermit crab, and no one could pry me from my shell.

The other part of me wanted to embrace Javi as soon as he walked back through those double doors and gingerly kiss each finger poking out from his cast and read to him out loud while he closed his eyes and recovered from his concussion.

I assumed that the church would send him home from the internship with his dominant arm broken. Still, I visualized us running through the church like children and kissing in the sanctuary when no one was around. God, I missed those lips.

I waited for hours alone in the lobby with nothing but my thoughts, weighing my options and calculating my risks, making promises to myself that I didn’t know if I could follow through with.

“Take care of him.” The nurse told me as he opened the door for Javier, ushering him into the lobby with his hot pink cast reflecting a warm glow onto the bleached walls. We locked eyes, and though a little weaker than usual, a small smile graced his face.


Aimee Brooks is a twenty-something pseudo-hippie living in Texas. She spends her time coffee shop hopping, eating Koren breakfast foods, and wandering the local college campus searching for Andy Warhol prints. Sadly she’s not from Canada but has visited and found it quite an enchanting place. Follow her on Instagram

The Best Man’s Speech

By Anita Haas

Pam

Ping. Pam, hair wrapped cold and wet on her head, fumbled in her bag for the cell phone. It was not an easy task. She was sitting in the salon where she came to get her hair done every Wednesday before meeting Ted. 

It was a message and friend request from someone called “the best man.” 

Hi Pam. Stewart Wallace, here. You may remember me from one of Ted’s parties. I suppose you know he is marrying Noreen, our boss’s daughter. He asked me to be his best man. As Ted and I have not worked together long, I thought I’d ask some of his old friends for anecdotes or funny stories I could incorporate into my speech. It’s my first time as best man! I ask that you keep this a secret, as I want this to be a surprise for Ted. Thanks in advance for any assistance.

Shock waves washed through Pam’s body. Ted marrying Noreen? He hadn’t told her that. They met every Wednesday, and the whole time he had his own plans! 

Should she not go? Should she confront him?

“Pam …” the hairdresser’s sing-song voice called her back to the present. 

“Oh, sorry, Romi, Yeah, go ahead, do it the usual way. Looks great.”

Forty minutes later, Pam was in her white sports car, the one her husband Curtis had given her for her last birthday, just after she had started asking him about a certain woman named Rita. She checked her make-up in the mirror and drove off to the law firm where Ted worked. He never wanted to meet there, insisting on a restaurant or his place. Now she understood why; his fiancée Noreen worked there too. 

Shaking, she waited a moment. She imagined herself storming into his office. He would just laugh at her angry face. Maybe she should act cold and dignified. He would see through that, too. 

“What’s all this about?” he asked, irritated as she presented herself at his door. “I thought I told you not to come here. We were meeting at Clanetti’s for lunch.”

Pam felt her willpower failing, but she had to go on. “What’s this about you getting married?”

“Oh, you got the invitation already? Noreen just sent them out yesterday. That was quick.”

“You never mentioned it to me.”

He was reclining in his chair, his long, lean body stretched out, and chuckled, “Well, a man doesn’t talk about certain things when he’s … are you sure I never mentioned it?”

Pam collapsed on the chair opposite him. Her anger had lost its steam. How did other women do it? The ones who marched around demanding explanations? 

“It’s just that I thought maybe someday we’d ….”

“Come now. You’re perfectly fine married to Curtis. He’s too busy with work to notice. He buys you everything you want, and you have the time and money to stay beautiful. And you are beautiful.” He stood up and strode around the desk. He placed his hands on her shoulders, pulled her long tresses back and started kissing her neck. “We can go on as we are. I’m only marrying Noreen so that one day the company will be mine. Oliver Wendell likes me. He thinks his daughter is too naive to run the business, even though she is a lawyer too. He has her working here as a receptionist because he doesn’t trust her!” Ted chuckled. “That’s where yours truly comes in.”

Pam squirmed, making a timid show at pushing him away. He insisted. “Well, since you’re here now, we can get to the good stuff before lunch.”

This had happened before; in fact, every time, they disagreed. He just had to touch her, and she would give in.

She gasped as his hands slid down into her bra and cupped her breasts. He pulled her up gently and guided her towards the table. 

“Your colleagues?”

“Out for lunch.” She leaned forward over the table. He held her down with his left hand and undid his belt with his right. 

Pam was still furious, but she would think about that later. For the moment, she pushed her new lace thong down and arched her back.

He smacked her butt and groaned. “Knew you wouldn’t stay mad for long. Wish all women were so easy to tame.”

When they finished, he sent her off, saying he didn’t have time for lunch in the end, too much work. “I wonder if Curtis knows what a slut he has for a wife.”

Pam shivered. She pulled her sweater closed and turned her face away when he tried to kiss her goodbye. He smirked. “Okay. Go be dignified. See you next week.” 

That night Curtis came home late, as usual. He was surprised not to find Pam watching TV and keeping dinner warm. She was at her computer instead, clad in a tracksuit, no make-up, hair in a ponytail and glasses on. Her dog, Midgy, given to her when she started talking about kids, snoozed on her lap.

“What’s this?” he barked. “You look like crap.”

“Oh,” she removed her glasses and turned to him. “Sorry. What time is it?”

“Ten o’clock. Who’ve you been chatting to?”

“Just Romi. She’s having problems at work.”

“Well, tell her you to have to sign off. Your husband is home. God, next thing I know, you’ll be fat and wearing huge flowered house-dresses with your hair in a bun.”

Pam got up and slipped past him into the kitchen. She avoided his eyes but could not avoid the reek of whisky. She opened the fridge, “There’s some leftover chicken. Or a frozen pizza?”

“Should have picked something up somewhere. Yeah, okay, chicken.”

The kitchen chair creaked as Curtis sank into it and started leafing through the mail. 

“Hey, guess what? Ted’s getting married again.”

Pam, her back to him, opened the micro-wave and shoved in the chicken. “Oh?”

“Yeah, and what a guy! Didn’t even tell me himself. I got this weird message from … do you remember that dude we met at a party once? I think that’s him. Someone Ted works with named Stewart. Says he’s going to be the best man.”

“Strange he didn’t ask you again. You are his best friend.” 

“Naw, I don’t care about that stuff. Better this other guy.”

Pam heard the waver in his voice. Why did he have to put on the act? And for her?

“What does this Stewart guy want?”

The microwave dinged, and she withdrew the dish.

“Something about funny stories. You know how the best man has to make a funny speech.” He hooted too loud. “That’s probably why Ted doesn’t want me to be the best man again. Remember the last time?”

She did remember. It had been pathetic. Curtis had been so nervous he got pissed drunk beforehand and then embarked on a slew of dirty jokes and tall tales. 

She brought the steaming plate over to the table. “So, I guess he’s marrying that girl from the party too. What was her name?”

“Can’t remember. Not much to look at. Then again, neither was Paula. Ted sure has bad taste in women. Not like me.” He leaned forward and tweaked her cheek. “Hey, sorry about what I said before, kid. You will never get fat.”

Her plate was empty, as usual. She watched him eat dutifully.

Pam remembered how they used to laugh about Paula. Dark, short, tubby, with heavy eyebrows and a faint moustache, while Ted was so tall and attractive. Now, she wasn’t sure there was so much to laugh about. Paula had recovered from the divorce, she was a success in her job, and the last time Pam ran into her in the mall, she looked radiant. Maybe not tall, tanned and gym-toned like herself, but radiant.

“What are you going to tell him?”

“The truth, of course!” Curtis snorted, his mouth full. “Going to tell him what a bastard his new friend is!” He raised his beer glass to her, “Hey, aren’t you eating?”

“Not hungry.” She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. 

“Better. Nothing worse than a fat wife.”

What would you like me to tell you? she had asked Stewart on chat earlier that evening.

Tell me how you met.

Here at Somerleigh University. Ted and my husband were best friends. Well, best friends and worst enemies.

Oh?

You know, rivalry. Both are tall, good-looking, smart, competitive. Both are successful in their careers.

I see.

I’m younger than they are. They played basketball. My girlfriends and I would go and cheer them on. God, how silly that sounds now.

Before she knew it, Pam was telling Stewart intimate details she hadn’t even shared with her closest friend. She told him about her marriage and about her various failed attempts at developing her own interests; the shoe boutique, the design studio, even a stint at selling cosmetics. 

She was on the point of disclosing her affair with Ted when Curtis arrived. She was grateful for the interruption. It cooled her head. How could she possibly tell a perfect stranger about that? But when she heard Curtis snore, she felt drawn to the computer. Would Stewart still be there? There was something in his distant yet understanding way of “listening” to her … 

Curtis

The next night Curtis lingered at his desk. It was past quitting time, and he had had a gruelling day. He considered going for a drink but was too exhausted, and at home, he would have to chat with Pam. 

He thought about writing this Stewart guy to reminisce about the good old days. It was strange writing personal things to someone you didn’t know. It reminded him of something that had happened in his office a while back; he and a couple of other guys on the floor had played a joke on Russell, a shy, nerdy type, by inventing a girlfriend for him on Facebook. 

But this was different. This was a real person, and he’d actually met him at least once. But it seemed a bit unmasculine to hide behind a social media page. Couldn’t he just call? Or better yet, meet for a few beers?

He opened the chat. 

Hello Stewart? You wrote me yesterday about Ted.

Hi Curtis. Thanks for responding. Hate to bother you. It’s just, I’d like to know some odd things about Ted. Nothing too serious or personal. Maybe just tell me how you met.

Sure.

Curtis had poured himself a whiskey. 

We met during the first year of university. Both top of the class, good at sports, good with the girls. LOL.

LOL. I can believe that!

But I was better at that last one than he was.

Interesting! Tell me more!

Don’t get me started, LOL! My wife, for one. We both ogled her. He started going out with her, but she dropped him like a hat when she met me! LOL, That really pissed him off.

I’m sure it did!

Curtis took a sip of whiskey.

So, he started going out with this ugly chick named Paula. What a dog! Smart though, gotta hand it to her. Maybe too smart for Ted.

Oh?

Curtis took a swig this time.

You know. Both lawyers. She got better grades, got a job before he did. 

What happened to her?

They got married around the time we did.

Curtis reached for his glass, realized it was empty and poured some more.

But that isn’t funny anecdotes. Wait till I tell you about the camping trip!

Okay.

Curtis took another swig and paused as his eyes readjusted to the screen. He was feeling a bit foggy.

We used to go camping.

Yes?

LOL, you know how us guys are!

I’ve been on my share of camping trips, yes.

’Course you have. There was that time when …

Curtis paused. His face was red and sweating. 

Curtis, still there?

Yup, still here.

The camping trip?

There were these girls.

What girls?

Just some girls. Came along in a canoe. We were partying with some other guys.

Curtis paused again, glanced at his empty glass, and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if he should continue. It had been so long since he had thought about that trip. Maybe he had never really thought about it at all. Why was he telling this to some complete stranger when he had never confided it to anyone, not even his wife? In fact, he and Ted had never mentioned it again. Why hadn’t they? It would spoil the fun. He felt the sudden need to share it now. He looked at the whiskey bottle but didn’t pour himself another glass.

We were too drunk to think straight. Young. 19, 20, can’t remember.

Yes?

Yes? Yes? What are you, a psychiatrist? Didn’t you say you’d been on your share of camping trips? Can’t you imagine what happened?

You raped one of the girls.

Curtis stared at the screen. The words imprinted themselves on his retina.

Is that what happened, Curtis?

Curtis suddenly remembered he was chatting with a lawyer. How could he have been so stupid? What had come over him? He decided to change his tune. He poured more whiskey for assistance and forced a big belly laugh, all alone in his empty office.

Oh, now, I wouldn’t call it rape! Those girls came in their boat knowing what they were getting into. They were looking for a good time!

Were they drunk?

Drunk and high. We had a good supply with us.

Who went first?

Ted. It was his idea.

You held her arms and covered her mouth.

Ted covered her mouth. 

And, when it was your turn?

Curtis stared at the screen. He had done it again. Damn lawyers! Well, this one had no proof, no names, nothing.

Look, what are you fishing for? Do you plan to use this in your speech?

No, sorry. Didn’t mean to pry. Just seemed like you wanted to get it off your chest.

My chest is fine. And I have said enough!

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

Gabriel

Gabriel headed to the ChitChat Café at 8a.m., as usual. Wendy and her mom arrived earlier to start baking and get the coffee perking. Some students would already be there. 

Lately, his role in the business was taking a backseat, although he had been the one who opened it years ago, barely out of university. 

Gabriel was a Spanish immigrant on a student visa then. It would have been difficult for him to start a business with no one to back him. Still, his friends, Ted and Nick, were geniuses in acquiring money and getting around the law. Both were too slimy for his liking, and now he was married to an honest, hard-working girl who would be shocked if she discovered the tricks he had been involved in. 

Ted and Nick needed Gabriel’s computer skills, creating an army of false identities to promote their businesses, cloning sites, hacking, email scams, industrial espionage and more. He had helped reluctantly but dutifully, knowing he owed them. Nick was already in jail, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Ted would soon be on his way. Gabriel wanted to have as little to do with either of these characters as possible.

When he opened the cyber-café, it was at the heyday of computer technology. Students came to write their essays and make long-distance calls. Now, everyone had tablets and called home using Skype, Messenger or FaceTime. The only customers he had lately were older people who came to his workshops in the backroom to learn how to use their devices. 

Thankfully, his resourceful wife had turned the place into one of the trendiest cafés in town. Soft music played, and coffee brewed as the warming smell of cookies, muffins, and squares wafted from the tiny kitchen. Patrons sat in comfy wicker chairs, either in the reading corner, surrounded by magazines racks and small potted trees, or out on the sidewalk, under the big awning which stretched all the way to the street. Sheers flitted in the breeze, and the walls were always decorated with the exhibitions of some local artist or other, who would celebrate their openings there. Every day of the week was booked; a writer’s group, a book club, language exchanges, children’s hour, even a knitting circle. 

He knew he was fortunate with his in-laws too. Wendy, being an only child, her well-off parents had accepted her marrying a dirt-poor foreign student, investing both time and money in the business. 

Gabriel’s duties were limited to the technical side. He had to ensure the phones, computers and photocopier were working, and give his classes.

He hadn’t thought about Nick or Ted in a while, but this morning on his way to work, he heard the Messenger ping on his phone. It was a message and friend request from someone named Stewart, explaining that he was going to be Ted’s best man. Gabriel shook his head. Ted getting married again after what he had done to that poor girl, Paula. Stewart said he wanted some funny stories to use in his speech. 

After several hours in the backroom doctoring a sick laptop, he wandered to the counter where Wendy and his mother-in-law, Joanne, were attending the regulars. 

“Can I help?” 

“No!” They answered in unison. Joanne stuffed a peanut butter cookie in his mouth and shooed him away, “This is woman’s work.” But he knew better. It was because he was a clutz; he kept dropping things, spilling coffee on customers … it was embarrassing. 

There were no workshops today, so he thought he’d busy himself by looking up some new programs, but he’d quickly check his email and social media accounts. He saw Stewart’s message again. Well, it wouldn’t be polite not to answer. May as well get it out of the way. But what funny anecdotes could he tell?

Stewart? Gabriel here. Got your message this morning. I don’t know how much of a help I can be.

Gabriel! Thanks for responding. Maybe just tell me how you and Ted met.

Well, I’m from Madrid. I came to study Computer Science here in Ontario. I met Ted and his friend Nick through some Spanish students here. Nick was going out with one of them.

And Ted?

Gabriel hesitated. There were so few good things he could say about Ted.

Ted was going out with a girl named Paula.

Yes, I know, but …

You know Ted better than you say you do! LOL Yes, he was seeing one … at least one … of the Spanish girls, too.

How had he let that loose? He could feel the anger well up again after all these years. A mixture of jealousy and protectiveness. He thought of Angeles. It’s not that he had wanted to go out with her exactly, but he envied the awe Ted inspired in women, especially because he knew how he treated them. 

LOL, Good ole Ted. I wouldn’t have expected any less of him☺ 

It was so long ago, and we haven’t kept in touch.

Ted mentioned you run an internet café.

Yes. With my wife.

You and Ted must have given each other a hand sometimes. Professionally, I mean.

This question seemed a bit impertinent to Gabriel. 

Occasionally. I thought you wanted anecdotes. Do you intend to talk about work stuff at the wedding?

You’re right. Sorry for prying. If you can think of anything else …

Suddenly Gabriel felt a rush of remorse. 

Ted helped me a lot. I am very grateful for what he and his contacts did when I needed help starting my business.

There. That was the manly thing to do, wasn’t it? Credit where credit was due, even if to a bastard.

Paula

“Mommy! Mommy!” Five-year-old Adéle hopped up and down to get Paula’s attention. “Remember you have to pick me up from ballet today!”

“Yes, sweetie. Don’t worry. And if I can’t, Daddy will be there.” Paula glanced up at Justin to be sure he was okay with it.

Justin smiled back at her. Everything was okay with him, but she liked him to know she wasn’t just taking it for granted.

“Okay, we gotta go now, princess.” he was saying, as Paula heard a ping in her phone, “Don’t wanna be late.”

Maybe it was Jan from the office. A bit early for messages. She would check after Justin took Adéle to school.

She kissed them both goodbye. Paula had some meetings today, so she was going into the office a bit later. She pulled out her phone. It was a message from Stewart. She remembered him. He worked with her ex-husband, Ted.

As she read, old emotions flooded back. Ted was getting married again. She couldn’t care less. The divorce was the best thing that had happened to her. She was a million times happier with Justin. How could two men be so different? She was so lucky not to have fallen into the same trap as so many others, repeating negative relationship patterns. It hadn’t been easy, of course. She had needed two years of therapy. 

Stewart wanted funny anecdotes to tell at the wedding! 

That poor girl he was marrying, so shy and naive. Ted would eat her alive!

She would think about it later. As she moved through her day, Paula’s mind kept pulling back to the request. That had always been her problem; putting other people’s needs first, never being able to say no. An unanswered email would nag at her until she sat down and answered it, even if it was only to say she would get back to them later.

So, by the time Adéle was in bed that evening, and Justin was busy grading papers, she sat at her computer and stared at the message. Snippets of memory had been snaking through her thoughts all day. 

She began typing. 

Hi Stewart! Nice to hear from you. Of course, I remember you. Love to help, but as you know, haha, Ted and I divorced. Not sure there are many funny things I can tell you. And I don’t want to be a bore and rant like a disgruntled ex-wife. LOL.

There was an immediate answer. 

Thanks for responding, Paula. I suppose it is strange to ask the ex-wife for info. LOL. But you know him better than anyone! Maybe just tell me how you met.

In kindergarten! We are both from a tiny farming village in Northern Ontario.

No! What was Ted like as a kid?

LOL, you won’t believe it. He was the shyest kid in the class.

What?

Yes! I felt sorry for him. I adopted him like a little brother. The other boys wouldn’t play with him, and he was really hurt by that.

I would never have imagined.

He doesn’t want anyone to know that, so please don’t mention it.

No, no. I’m glad you are showing me a different side of him. His family?

God, horrible! Father was a brute. Belonged to some weird sect. Super-strict. Mother left, but Ted stayed with dad and grandmother, who was just like the father. They turned him against his mother. When she tried to get him back, he wouldn’t go. Now he tells everyone she was a whore and abandoned him.

Yes, I think I heard him say something like that once.

Came to our house a lot. Better atmosphere.

Is he in touch with his family now?

The grandmother died, the father is in a home with Alzheimer’s, won’t talk about his mother. Flew into a rage if I mentioned her.

Wow. So, you were sweethearts as kids already!

Oh, no! I always took care of him, sure. But later, he got more confident. That loud, tyrannical confidence his father had. He grew tall, smart, good-looking. Soon, girls noticed him, and boys respected him. I was like a sister. In university, he was with pretty Pam. Don’t know if he was in love or if it was a status thing. All the guys envied him.

Pam? The woman married to his friend Curtis?

Right. Ted and Curtis met in first year. They became great friends, well, you know. Who said that “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”? That kind of friendship. LOL

So …

Suddenly Paula realized she was revealing a lot of personal information. She certainly didn’t owe Ted any loyalty, but what if he found out and retaliated? 

Stewart, I shouldn’t be telling you this.

No. Sorry. I just wanted to know how you met.

Paula felt terrible. It was true. He had only asked her that. What was it about this Stewart that made her feel she could trust him so? 

No, I’m sorry. You weren’t nosy. See, Ted was kind of the leader among his friends. They admired and hated him. Pam ended up with Curtis. I think that was the most courageous thing she has ever done because of abandoning Ted … but the poor thing went from the frying pan to the fire because Curtis is cut from the same cloth.

What is Pam like?

She’s changed. When I first met her, she was a typical empty-headed bimbo, only thinking about make-up, clothes and marrying money.

And now?

She still worries about those things, but I think she realizes she has missed out. But she’s not sure on what or how to find it. I saw her a while ago in the mall. She seemed drained. Beautiful, thin and perfectly made-up with great hair, but sad. I felt sorry for her for the first time.

So, how did you and Ted end up getting married?

I guess you could say I fell for it.

What?

I always loved Ted. Somehow, I always thought we would end up together. It would just take time. I kept him in line, helped him study, was the one he confided in. I even wrote his papers for him. God, what an idiot I was! Of course, I am not the kind of girl who attracts those kinds of guys. After Pam left him, he came to me. Told me he always loved me, how blind he had been, etc. Later I realized it was because I had a job, could help him, and also Curtis and Pam had announced their wedding. Imagine! Ted being upstaged like that! Of course, he acted like he didn’t care. He sang my praises to everyone, and I must admit, I loved it. He insisted we get married the week before they did. Just because. I was thrilled. I didn’t want to see reality. Tell you the truth, I think Curtis only snatched Pam away to show off. So, there we were, LOL, two happily married couples!

I’m sorry.

She had gone and done it again. Why was it that once you were on a roll, it was so hard to stop? Was that what confession was like? 

How long were you married?

Two years. I got him a job where I worked, but that backfired immediately.

Oh?

Ted has these underhanded ways. I told him I didn’t want trouble. My first job as a lawyer, and I wanted to make a good start. He got us both fired.

No!

But he had other deals going on. Wanted to get me involved, and at first, to avoid fights, I did.

Deals?

It’s complicated. Real estate gimmicks, false companies they got people to invest in. Terrible. And other things. Stopped telling me about them. I finally got a job in an NGO, the kind of thing I love. Still there. He laughed at me, called me a martyr, a goody-two-shoes, all that. Haha! Maybe you can use that in your speech! But he knew how to wiggle his way out. He and his friends Nick and Curtis. Then Curtis got a job in a company. Good for him. Pretty above-board now, more out of fear than honesty. Not as reckless as Ted. And Nick is in jail. Ted should be there with him. Now, he has this Wendell family fooled. I wish I could warn them. 

Thanks for writing. And sorry if it stirred up bad memories.

I am happy now. What bothers me is the memory of that vulnerable little boy. How I took care of him. Always did. Until we divorced. My question will always be; Was he a good little boy who turned bad because of his hurtful circumstances, or was he always a bad little boy, afraid to show it until he had the confidence to?

The Wedding

Oliver and Cecilia Wendell forced smiles as the guests’ cars meandered up their long driveway. Oliver glanced at his watch. “What the hell is going on?” he grumbled to his wife without losing his smile. 

“Don’t know.” Her smile was as stiff as her golden hair. 

“Well, I know she wanted a small wedding, but this is ridiculous!”

It was almost four o’clock, and so far, the dozen or so guests present were his employees and some friends of his daughter. Where were his business associates?  

He peered at his wife. “Did you send out all the invitations?” Cecilia had been known to show vengefulness over the years, but this would be going too far.

“Noreen insisted on sending them.” Cecilia waved to an incoming vehicle. “Look, here come the Wallaces. Jake! Fiona! Stewart! Hello!” Then, she murmured, “Fiona told me Stewart has been kind of depressed lately. Hope he gives a nice speech!”

“Send them herself? How could you trust her with a responsibility like that? It’s a good thing I found her a husband who will take care of things.” He was annoyed that his wife was taking this all too lightly. “Stewart depressed? He has been a bit quiet lately. To think that before Ted came along, I thought that he and Noreen might … well, thank God Ted came along!” He spotted his daughter greeting some musicians pulling instruments out of their trunk. 

His irritation softened at the sight of her. Tiny and thin with wispy light brown hair and pale, freckled skin, she was his nymph, his fairy. More like airy-fairy! She was wearing a satin wedding dress and a delicate wreathe of lilies. 

Although she had been a good student, he did not intend for her to work as a lawyer. She should be a lady, like her mother, taken care of by a strong man, while she occupied herself with things like home decoration and entertaining. Although she hadn’t done so well in that department this time around! His irritation returned, “Noreen!”

She waved to him, “Not now, Dad! I’m getting the musicians organized.” 

Oliver’s jaw set. Not now, Dad? Who did she think she was? 

Cecilia slipped her arm through his, “Come on, dear. It’s time.” No more cars snaked up the drive. They followed the flagstone path to the back garden with resigned smiles, where several rows of folding chairs had been set up near the swimming pool, facing a podium under Cecilia’s rose arbour. A violinist and solo singer squeezed in between the arbour and a hedge. 

Oliver and Cecilia looked around. Everything was lovely, but very small scale. Noreen skipped towards them with a young minister. “Mom, Dad. I know you must be surprised. But you’ll understand later. I really couldn’t have a big, showy wedding.”

“My little girl.” Oliver touched his daughter’s hair. He had lost the irritation again. “You know you are going to have to overcome this shyness of yours sometime. I was hoping that would be today.” How could she ever have considered being a lawyer if she couldn’t bear being the centre of attention? 

“Oh, Dad. Forgive me. Let me celebrate this day my way. Mom, Dad. This is Reverend Beasley.”

“But Reverend Carlson has always officiated at the services in this family!”

“I’m afraid he is not feeling well today.”

“We’ll see about that! I’m going to call him right ….”

“Oliver!” Cecilia took his arm. “Let’s not make a scene. Thank you for coming in his place, Reverend Beasley.”

Noreen flitted off to greet Ted, who had just arrived. Ted looked as perplexed at the attendance as Oliver, but Noreen ushered him to his place. “Quickly, now, Reverend Beasely has a funeral in an hour!”

The ceremony took exactly fifteen minutes, after which Noreen shooed everyone to the other side of the house, where some tables had been arranged around a make-shift dance floor. A three-piece band had just finished setting up.

Oliver felt faint and leaned on his wife for support, “A finger-food buffet!” he wheezed as he observed the table offering potato chips, olives and other scant snacks. 

“Come on, Dad!” Noreen bounced towards him as the band started up, “Let’s waltz!” She already had a champagne glass in her hand. Ted led Cecilia onto the floor to the cheers of the guests toasting glasses. No one had ever seen Noreen so lively. 

After two waltzes, the musicians fell silent, and the bridal couple took their places at the head table. The moment for speeches had arrived.

The guests took their seats and eyed each other nervously. Pam recognized Gabriel and Wendy, the couple from the cyber-café. She also recognized Rita Clanetti and her new husband, Eddie. And there was Paula and her husband! Did Noreen and Ted have no other friends?

Pam’s stomach twitched when Stewart got to his feet. What if he mentioned something she had said? What if he alluded to her? Curtis poured himself another glass of champagne and began clearing his throat. She knew he was nervous. She glanced over at Gabriel. He was shifting in his seat. Rita Clanetti stared fixedly at Stewart’s face, and Paula didn’t stop fanning herself and wiping her brow.

But Stewart’s speech was nothing more than a mundane list of office anecdotes – poking fun at Ted for little foibles like using the ladies’ room the first day at work and having mistaken his own future bride for a cleaning lady, followed by a tribute to Noreen’s virtues, “I will close now by congratulating my rival (haha), Ted, and by asking him to please care for her and honour her as she deserves. You are a lucky man!”

The guests burst into a round of applause and cheers, as much for the touching speech as for the great wave of relief that washed over them. As Oliver stood up to sing his son-in-law’s praises, Pam could feel the collective release of tension. 

Then Ted stood up to praise his father-in-law, and by the time Noreen opened her mouth, everyone was chatting and checking their cell phones. 

But people started paying attention when they heard their names mentioned. 

“I would like to say thank you to everyone here for helping me put my speech together.” She raised her champagne glass. “Pam, Curtis, Gabriel, Paula, Rita …” 

The chatter stopped, and the phones were put aside. What was she talking about?

Noreen

Noreen felt scared. Noreen almost always felt scared. When she met new people, she was afraid they would find her boring or stupid. Before some new challenge, she lay awake at night, fearing the worst. 

She had been scared in university, always feeling like an imposter. 

And at work, where colleagues waited for the boss’s daughter to screw up. 

And with men. Especially Ted. After he discovered she was not the cleaner, Ted’s attitude toward her took a dramatic turn. It acquired an intensity that both flattered and terrified her. 

The giggly airhead mask had served her as a child when a wide-eyed smile pacified an impatient father and from behind which, she could observe others, like Ted, in the moments when his own mask slipped. She often wished she could exchange it for another, but this was the one she believed she was stuck with. 

And today, Noreen was so spectacularly scared she felt giddy. Risking everything gave her a heady liberation. She found herself in that wonderful moment when you realize it is too late to stop what you have started, like jumping off a cliff. Just close your eyes and hope you land in a better place than where you jumped from. 

Noreen had always allowed herself to be pushed into corners. This time, she had literally smiled and giggled herself into one. It seemed easier to go along with things than to fight back, and there was always the chance that people would stop pushing. But the more she surrendered, the more was demanded until she feared for her own breath. This particular corner – marriage to Ted – was worse than being disowned, ridiculed, or left to fend for herself. 

But what could she do? Couldn’t just run away or stand at the altar and cry!

But crying was just what she had been doing that day not long ago, right here in this very garden, when her mother found her …

Noreen giggled at the surprised faces. “You see, I haven’t known my husband long, and I wanted to find out more about him before I took the plunge.” The group was silent. She had their attention. This had never happened before. It was seductive. 

And that day in the garden, Noreen confided her terror to Cecilia.

“My father wanted me to marry Ted because he was sure I wasn’t capable of running the firm.” She was sure of it too, but where had that certainty come from? Every day at the office, she was relieved when colleagues were entrusted with tasks she found overwhelming. And yet, they floundered too. Often, she would timidly point out a problem or offer a solution, but when she took Oliver or Ted aside to propose her ideas, they hardly listened. Now they all were! She spoke rapidly, so they wouldn’t lose interest and pull out their phones again.

And that day in the garden, she and her mother came up with a plan. Some daring ideas popped into Noreen’s head. And as Oliver well knew, his wife was known to be vengeful at times.

 “Well, Dad, I have done some investigating. You shall be the judge!”

Oliver stood up, “Noreen! You’ve had too much champagne!”

Ted tried to lead her into the house. The guests shifted and murmured. 

Curtis took a gulp of his drink and raised his hand. “Umm. Can I say something”

Noreen ignored him. “Our guests have obliged me well by confiding in our best man, Stewart.”

Stewart got to his feet, “What?”

“Thanks to Stewart’s emails, WhatsApp and chats, he discovered all sorts of fascinating information!”

“Noreen, I never … I don’t even like social media. How could I ….”

“Of course, you didn’t. I did! You don’t think they would tell me the truth, do you?” Stewart sat back down, his face a mix of admiration and fear. 

Noreen reached into her handbag for a roll of paper tied with a white ribbon and handed it to her father.

 Among other things, she had found Ted guilty of rape, wife abuse, and fraud. Once given the opportunity, everyone had spilled so much more information than she had hoped for, like they needed to cleanse themselves of everything Ted. 

“Thank you all.” Was this how the rest of the world experienced life? No worries about offending others or sounding pompous? Like a euphoric actress after a performance, she smiled and curtseyed. 

“I have found Theodore Falk to be guilty of a lot of things, but mainly just of being a jerk.” 

“Noreen! You’re drunk.” Ted shouted, white-faced. “Do something, Oliver!”

But Oliver was squinting at the pages. He raised an eyebrow at Ted.

“Let me see that!” Ted got up and tried to snatch the pages from him.

“Oh no, you don’t! Stewart, my boy, come take a look at this.”

The tension among the guests buzzed. Noreen, delicate fairy gone mad, reassured them, “This is, of course, a kangaroo court, the purpose of which was to show my father that he had made two mistakes.” She looked over at Oliver, expecting his wrath. He looked up from the pages, expectant.

“One, about my husband’s credibility, and two, about my professional abilities.”

Oliver chuckled and shook his head. “I sure underestimated my little girl.” He handed the pages to Stewart and gazed at Ted.

Ted glared at Oliver, then at Noreen. “If all of this was a farce to implicate me, why did you marry me?”

Noreen giggled. “I didn’t! Beasley is no reverend. He is an actor friend of mine. Thanks, Bease!” she waved. Everyone turned. No one had noticed Beasley behind them, now dressed as a waiter. Beasley had been her confidant since university when she had tried theatre to overcome her shyness. Beasley and his boyfriend, Sheldon, the violinist and caterer, had assisted with all the arrangements. 

Car doors slammed at the front of the house, and Bosco, the family dog, barked. Ted, Curtis, and several others tensed. “Oh!” Noreen trilled. “It’s five o’clock. That must be Reverend Carlson and the other wedding guests.” 

The guests gasped and murmured. 

Noreen had successfully shamed Ted. She had won the respect of her father. The last and most daring risk of the evening had arrived. If she screwed up here, all would be lost. But she had momentum on her side. That, and the encouraging smiles of Cecilia, Fiona, Beasley, Sheldon and Candy, her maid of honour. They had helped. With both weddings. The small one here in the side garden, and the larger one behind the pool. 

There was one more close friend whose face she sought out. 

Cecilia Wendell and Fiona Wallace had met in the ChitChat Café’s Thursday night book club. The two families soon became inseparable. They vacationed together, and Oliver had even given Stewart his first job. Noreen and Stewart acted like siblings. Although neither of them made a move, their parents wondered if the friendship might develop into romance. Of course, there had been one or two alcohol-induced indulgences the parents knew nothing about. Still, embarrassment caused the young people to feign forgetfulness.

All that changed when Ted appeared and blinded Oliver with his self-confidence. Who could compete with such charisma? 

And just about the time that Noreen confided in her mother, Stewart confided in his. And so, the final, most important touch was added to their plan.

 What a spectacular way to teach Oliver and Ted, those two puffed-up bull-frogs, a lesson!

Noreen took a deep breath, squeezed her eyes shut and blurted like a child on a dare, “Stewart Wallace, will you marry me?”


Anita Haas is a differently-abled Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. She has published books on film and music, two novelettes, a short story collection, articles, poems, and fiction in English and Spanish. Her fiction has appeared in some publications, including Falling Star Magazine, The Tulane Review, Literary Brushstrokes, The Zodiac Review, River Poets Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Terror House Magazine, Wink and Adelaide Magazine. She spends her free time watching films and enjoying tapas and flamenco with her writer husband and two cats.

How I Got Me Some Standards

By James Hanna

Hi there. My name is Toby Dawes, and I don’t make too good an impression. I live on a small farm in Putnam County, which is in the middle of Indiana, and I been working at the Hillsdale Hog Farm since flunking out of high school last year. Now I’m real good at snagging buffalo catfish and shooting brown rats at the county dump, but Ma says them skills ain’t enough to get me ahead in life. She said to me, “Toby, in a coupla months, you’re going to be twenty years old. If you expect to make something of yourself, you’re going to need higher standards.” 

Well, I thought my standards were pretty good when I asked Brandi to marry me last year. Brandi she’s the prettiest whore in this cathouse in Michigan City—that’s where Pa took me for my seventeenth birthday ’cause he was tired of me swiping his porn books. Pa was hopin’ I’d leave them books alone if I got some mud for my turtle, so he drove me all the way to Michigan City so I could pop my cherry. I never shot no load in Brandi—I came while she was washing my johnson—but Brandi she covered for me ’cause she thought I was a real sweet boy. She told Pa I was a helluva cocksmith and that I made her cum three times, and Pa he patted me on the back and said, “That’s my boy!” 

Now Brandi and I been texting each other, but that stopped ’bout a month ago. That’s ’cause I asked Brandi to marry me, and Brandi she lost her temper. She said she would give me a bargain rate if Pa wanted to buy me another hour, but she weren’t gonna marry no bumpkin who made a living slopping hogs. Well, my life is kinda lonely now ’cause I don’t have no pussy in it. All I do is work at the hog farm, slopping hogs and shoveling shit, and most nights I sit in our living room with Pa and watch Wrestlemania. I get paid pretty good at the hog farm—more ’an three hundred dollars a week—but most of the money I give to Ma to pay for my room and board. That don’t leave me much money to have no social life, but I do walk over to Flakey Jake’s when Saturday night rolls around. Flakey Jake’s is this dive bar that’s just half a mile from my home, and I go there every Saturday night and have me a Michelob draft.

“I ain’t used to that kind of floggin.”

Now that you know somethin’ about me, I’m gonna tell you this story. It’s about how I got me some standards so I could do better in life. One Saturday night, I was sittin’ in Flakey Jake’s drinking a Michelob draft, and this woman I never seen before came walkin’ into the bar. The woman she had on a tight black dress that rode real high on her legs, and she was wearing a pair of stiletto pumps that looked sharper than paring knives. Her hair was brown with lotsa white threads and her tits were as small as apples, and her face had so many pockmarks that it looked like she’d lost a fight with a cat. She hadda be about fifty years old—which made her older ’an Ma—but I felt my willie expanding ’cause my standards ain’t too high.  

Well, the woman came right up to the table where I was drinking my beer and she said, “Hon, is this seat taken?” and my heart it started thumpin’. Before I could answer, she sat down beside me and patted me on the wrist. She said, “Hon, my name is Eve and I could use some company. My boyfriend is on the road tonight and won’t be back until tomorrow morning.”

I told her I weren’t too good at making conversation, but that I was a hell of a cocksmith and a hooker could vouch for that. I told her that I’d made this whore in Michigan City cum three times.

The woman she just clucked her tongue. “Sure, you did,” she said. All the time she was talkin’ to me, she kept checking out the bar like maybe she was hoping Brad Pitt would come walking through the door. But there weren’t nobody else in the bar ’cept Flakey Jake himself, and Flakey Jake he’s a big greasy dude who don’t look sexy at all. 

The woman said, “Tell me more about yourself, hon,” and her eyes kept searching the bar.

I told her my name was Toby Dawes and I worked at the Hillsdale Hog Farm, and that I was fond of shooting brown rats at the Putnam County Dump. I told her I was a real good shot and hardly ever missed.

The woman she pursed her lips like I’d put a bad taste in her mouth. “Do you mind if I call you Jackson,” she said. “You look like a young Jackson Brown.”

I told her it didn’t make no sense for a dude to have two last names, but that I wouldn’t have no objection if she wanted to call me Jackson.

The woman she squeezed my hand, and her nails bit my knuckles like red ants. “Maybe you should object, honey,” she said, and her voice it got real testy.

I told her I don’t object to much because I don’t have very high standards, and the woman she got even testier and let go of my hand. She said, “In case you haven’t noticed, hon, I’m a pretty attractive chick.”

Well, the woman was starting to scare me some, and I felt myself starting to sweat. Whenever I get nervous, I sweat like a pig in a slaughterhouse. And it didn’t help matters none when the woman took an iPhone out of her purse. “Let’s pose for a selfie,” she said, and that creeped me out even more. 

But since I don’t object to much, I said that would be okay, and she put her chin on my shoulder and snapped a photo of us. “Honey, don’t look so shocked,” she said as she put her iPhone back into her purse. “If you like, I’ll make a copy for you. You can tuck it under your pillow. You look like the kind of boy who would like a racy photo under his pillow.”

When I told her I already had lotsa racy pictures under my pillow, the woman she just yawned like a catfish gulping a minnow. I thought she was gonna get bored with me quick since I weren’t makin’ much conversation, but the woman she leaned back in her chair and started talking nonstop. She told me she worked part-time at this funeral home where she made cadavers look sexy, and that she’d recently served two years in state prison for possessing powdered meth. She told me she’s now shacking up with a fella who cheats on her all the time—a dude who’s an interstate trucker with a woman in every state. She asked me if I wanted to know how she met him ’cause that’s a kinky story, and since I ain’t got no standards, I didn’t object to that neither. So she told me the dude contacted her on her website a coupla months ago ’cause he liked this selfie she’d posted where she was nude in a tub fulla Jell-O.

I said I was real fond of Jell-O when it’s covered with Readi Wip, and the woman she just snorted and said, “Hon, you’re missing the point.”

I said Readi Wip oughta be the point ’cause it tastes better ’an vanilla ice cream, and the woman she asked me to pay attention because she had something important to say.

“He’s the jealous type, hon,” she whispered. “You don’t want to mess with him. If I showed him that picture of us together, he’d punch you right in the nose. He’d hunt you down, wherever you are, and punch you right in the nose, then he’d beat me good and proper and take away my car.”

“You don’t gotta show him that photo,” I said. “That way you can keep your car.”

The woman she kinda blushed and said, “How about we bargain, hon? How about you come home with me and I won’t show him that photo?”

Well, that sounded like a real good bargain, so I didn’t express no objection. ’Cause gettin’ some mud for my turtle was better than gettin’ punched in the nose.

More from Goat’s Milk Magazine

The woman she held my hand while she walked me out to her car, and her fingernails dug into my palm and they were sharper than catfish spines. Her car was a Ford Fiesta, and it had some dents in it, and it took her a coupla minutes to dig her keys out of her purse. 

Once we was seated in the car, she put her hand on my knee. “Buckle up, Jackson,” she told me. “We’re in for a bumpy ride.”

The woman she drove with only one hand—her other one was grippin’ my knee—and the car it swayed like a drunk on skates as we rolled down Route 231. This Jackson Brown song called “The Great Pretender” was blarin’ from her CD, and the woman she kept singing along and she didn’t miss a word.   

Before the song was over, she pulled onto this narrow dirt road, and the road was fulla potholes and the woman musta hit every one. And every time I bounced in my seat, she gave my knee a squeeze, and her fingernails gripped me so hard that it felt like my leg was caught in a bear trap.

When we pulled up in front of this beat-up house, she let go of my knee. She said, “Keep the door shut once we’re inside, Jackson. I don’t want the cats to escape.” 

Well, I weren’t in no particular hurry to follow her into the house, but my johnson it kept expanding like it had a plan of its own. So I unbuckled my seat belt, got out of the car, and followed her into the house. The living room looked kinda cluttered ’cause there were cats all over the place, and the pissy smell of litter boxes hit me like a truck.

“Would you like something cold before we get started?” the woman said with a smile.

“Do you still got that Jell-O?” I asked her.

The woman she made a face and said, “Let’s try to stay focused, Jackson. Take off your clothes and lie down on the couch. I’m going to fetch the worms.”

The woman walked into this kitchenette and I heard her open a fridge, and since I don’t object to much, I shucked off my shirt and pants. “Don’t move a muscle,” the woman called out as I lay down on the couch. “I’m going to be very cross with you, hon, if you don’t stay as still as a statue.”

She was holding a carton of fishing worms when she returned to the living room, and she dumped a handful of ’em into her palm and sprinkled them on my chest. Well, I weren’t particularly partial to them wigglers on my chest, but since I don’t object to much I lay as still as a stump. 

“Don’t move a muscle,” the woman repeated. “I’m going to freshen up,” and she sashayed outta the room while I lay real stiff on the couch. Well, I wanted to brush them worms to the floor but that wouldn’t a been polite—Ma she always told me that you gotta show women respect. But I weren’t perturbed when some of them cats hopped up on the couch ’cause them cats they gobbled the worms offa me like I was a Bob Evans buffet.

When the woman returned to the living room, she looked like Frankenstein’s bride. Her hair was piled up on top of her head, her eyes were smeared with mascara, and she was wearing this long white dress that puddled at her feet. She was making this creepy, moaning sound as she hobbled in my direction—her voice was so deep that it seemed to be coming from the bottom of a well.

Well, I didn’t want to upset her ’cause she already looked wicked enough, so I lay as still as a road-killed buck as she ran her hands over my chest. After a while, she spoke to me and her voice sounded fulla gravel. “Act as though you’re asleep,” she said. “I don’t want you looking at me.”

Now I kinda wanted to leave the house and go back to Flakey Jake’s, but I didn’t have no permission to get off of the couch. But I opened my eyes when she suddenly told me she had a job for me. She said she needed some punishing before we got down to sex.

Well, next thing I knew she was standing above me with a cat of nine tails in her hand. “Flog me, Jackson, flog me,” she said, and her voice was still gravelly and low. “Flog me good and proper then I’ll cover you with dirt.”

“I ain’t used to that kind of floggin,” I said and I sat up on the couch, and I kinda hoped I could get out the door without letting no cats escape. I had pretty much decided that things couldn’t get no worse, but that weren’t a consolation for long ’cause things got a whole lot worse quick. I heard the sound of a truck pulling up outside front door then I heard this booming voice shout, “Baby, it’s Jell-O time!”

“It’s my boyfriend!” the woman cried, and she sounded more excited than scared. “He’s come home early, Jackson. He’s gonna kill us both”

“Maybe the dude had it coming to him…”

Since I still didn’t have no permission to get up from the couch, I just sat in my tighty whities while the woman opened the door. I could hear her talking with someone, and they was talking loud, then the biggest fella I ever seen came lumbering through the door. He looked kinda like Hulk Hogan but his face was sorta blank, and the dude he folded his beefcake arms and said, “How’s it hangin’, son?”

Well, my pecker was as slack as a bag of oats ’cause I weren’t feeling horny no more, but I didn’t think it would be good manners to mention something like that. So I told him my name was Toby Dawes and I worked at the Hillsdale Hog Farm, and that I’d be real partial to havin’ some Jell-O with him.

The fella he said, “Excuse me, sonny. I would like to talk with Eve.”

He took the woman by the arm and led her into what musta been the bedroom. She was panting as she followed behind him, but she didn’t look scared at all. 

After a coupla minutes, the woman came outta the bedroom. She had taken off her long white dress and was wearin’ just her panties and bra, and she sat on the couch beside me and whispered in my ear. 

“He wants to watch us, Jackson,” she said, and her voice was as husky as corn. “He said he won’t punch you in the nose if we’ll let him sit there and watch.”

“Does this mean we ain’t getting no Jell-O?” I said.

The woman squeezed my pecker so hard that one of her nails broke its skin. She said, “Jackson, please pay attention. I’m not going to let him join in. That louse has women all over the country, so he’s got this coming to him.”

Maybe the dude had it coming to him, but I weren’t in no shape to perform. My chub felt as poor as a drownded worm that was stuck on a fishing hook. And since there weren’t no sense in hanging around to collect me a punch in the nose, I snatched up my clothes and jumped off the couch then jerked the front door open.

“Now you’ve done it!” the woman cried as I stumbled out onto the porch, and she started to howl like a thievin’ dog that caught its paw in a trap. Well, I bolted as fast as a gut-shot stag, so I ain’t sure what got her upset, but I had real strong suspicion that some of them cats got out.

“I guess I shoulda paid for that beer steada standin’ there proud as a lord…”

I ran down Route 231 for a spell then I stopped and put on my clothes. There weren’t nobody chasin’ me, and I suspected that no one was gonna, so after I zipped my fly up and tucked my shirt back in, I strolled on over to Flakey Jake’s and ordered a draft beer at the bar. 

Flakey Jake he gave me a big thumbs-up ’cause he thought I had scored me some cooze, and I told him that woman was hurting so bad that I made her cum three times. Flakey Jake drew us both a beer and said mine was on the house, then he raised his mug above his head and offered me a toast. I guess I shoulda paid for that beer steada standin’ there proud as a lord, but at least I had me some standards now and I felt real good about that.


James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. His has been published in over thirty journals, including Crack the Spine, Sixfold, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon.

Secrets and Whispers

By Mohini Takhar

Since I was five years old, I’ve known him, and we started dating when we were seventeen. In the tenth grade, I had the biggest crush on James Gabe. I tried to hide it, but the thing is, my contagious laughter and gentle eyes can never hide anything. James never said anything; until the day we were hanging out in the foyer of our high school, and I was rambling on about some book I loved, and he suddenly kissed me. Since then, it was and could never be that same; in the best way, of course.

You know, no matter how much we knew about one another, there was always so much to learn. We both had the small quirks that made us work. I would watch the smirk on his face as he leaned against the wall while he waited for my arrival; he’d have this look that would say, why don’t you come a little closer. I thought he would be hesitant to pick me up and twirl me around. After all, this bulky wheelchair of mine had always been an obstacle. But no, that didn’t stop James. No, James wanted me, and he made that clear with the way he would mouth the words I love you in the middle of a crowd. I’d laugh and blush. Those late-night dance parties in my kitchen? He used to want to dance with me, no matter how different it would seem. I never wanted to dance in public, at a wedding or in a bar because it made me feel vulnerable, and James understood that. I remember it like it was yesterday. James would grab his phone from the living room.

“You’re cooking!” I’d say.

“So? No one said that we can’t have a little fun.” James winked at me. He held my hand and his phone in another.

“What are you doing?” I laughed

“Oooh, I found the perfect song. You ready?”

I rolled my eyes, smiled, and pushed myself onto the kitchen counter. I swivelled my body onto the counter and pushed myself up using the seat of my wheelchair. “okay, yeah.” my eyebrows made an arch.

“This is for you, babe. ” He blew a kiss towards me. James pushed play and started dancing all around the kitchen. Spill the wine by The Animals, and Eric Burdon started blaring from his phone.

“Spill the wine, take that pearl!” James sang along as he danced in front of me.

I laughed and swayed along to the music, and we both started snapping to the rhythm of the music.

“You love this song!” James put his hand out. “Come on, dance with me.”

“James, you’re ridicu – you’re cooking! The sauce will burn!”

James sighed, gave the sauce a quick stir, and turned the heat on low. “Now, may I have this dance?”

I sighed as I put my hand in his. One of my arms swung around his neck, and just as that happened, my eyes fell right into his. He slowly removed me from the kitchen counter until I was in a standing position, facing him.

“How’s this?” James held his free hand and found mine. Our fingers intertwined, and we slowly swayed back and forth.

“Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”

“No, I’m okay right here.” I smiled at him and kissed him on the cheek.

Somewhere between this bliss, I started feeling a little tired after three years. Honestly, I did love, James. There was no question. My girlfriends would constantly tell me that feeling this way is completely normal. You just need to find new ways to spice it up. As if it wasn’t already. James stopped putting any effort in after a while, and it made me go crazy, not knowing why. I could tell by the way he’d be notoriously late whenever we’d meet up, the way his mind would be elsewhere when we’d be together. The way he’d reply with one-word texts at times. It made me wonder.

It was a Saturday night when I decided to invite some of the girls over for a girls’ night since James said tonight didn’t work for him, or so he claimed. You could never trust him these days. Daniella, Madison, and Julia came over. We all were spread out among the couches in my living room. Between us, there was a coffee table with nail supplies, hair straighteners, hair ties, makeup, and all the snacks you could imagine.

“So, what’s the tea?” Madison asked as she plopped her body onto the couch and looked at the state of her nails. “Oh, Paula, come over here, and I’ll make you look hot for that cutie of yours. She winked at me.

I chuckled and moved closer to her. Did James even count? He was so distant. So what was I supposed to say? The questions went on and around in circles in my head.

“Paula, where is your head at?” Madison shook my body; I suddenly remembered where I was. “You were about to burn yourself with the hair straightener!”

“Oh my gosh, I don’t know.” I sat up straighter and took a deep breath. For a moment, I spaced out. Or maybe it was more than that.

“Are you okay?” Daniella asked as she grabbed a Cheeto from the chip bowl.

I nodded. “What are we doing?” I said as I cleared my throat.

“I think that I want to play with that hair of yours,” Madison said.

“Absolutely!” I let down my hair that previously was in a messy bun.

“Welcome to my salon! Are we thinking straight hair or curls today?” Madison asked

“Obviously, curls.” I proceeded to do a hair flip for a dramatic effect. Madison and I chuckled as she continued to separate parts of my hair with leopard print butterfly clips.

A concerned look remained on Julia’s face as she leaned back on the couch with a soda. “What were you thinking about?”

“Uh…well, James,” I replied. The facial expressions of the girls brightened up, but not the way they should have. It wasn’t their fault; they didn’t know. I flinched as I felt the hot head of the hair straightener against my neck. A curled strand of hair bounced down as Madison was deciding what part of my hair to unravel first.

“Oohhh, James,” Julia threw a slight wink in my direction. “how is he these days? I mean, how are both of you?”

I shifted slightly when Madison pulled the hair straightener away from me momentarily. “Things are…off.”

“How so?” Julia asked.

I brushed a curl away from my face. “He used to be different, James used to send me cute text messages in the morning, and I don’t know, I think somewhere along the line, things changed.”

“What if – I don’t know – is it possible that he’s just having a bad week? Why don’t you give him the benefit of the doubt?” Julia asked.

“That’s the problem – he usually tells me. He’s just so distant these days.”

“What if – I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t say it,” Julia said. The rest of us looked at each other with intrigue.

I leaned forward. “What? What do you think it is?” I chuckled and put my hands up midair. “Because I’m running out of ideas.”

“I’m sorry, I think he’s avoiding you. I mean, do you think there’s someone else?” Julia asked.

“No, ” I noticed the way she tugged at her fingers and looked at her phone. I look away for a moment. “At least, not until now. Do you know anything, Jules?”

Julia sighed. “I don’t want to hurt you,” she whispered. Julia put her drink down and headed for my room. Daniella and Madison looked at each other, confused.

I followed Julia into my room and closed the door behind me with my back tires.

“I think I saw something – once. I mean, it wasn’t too long ago, but I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up.” Julia said.

“What was it?”

“So, you know how I work as a server at Cactus Club.”
My face stiffened up. “Yeah?”

Julia sighed, ” I saw them at dinner together…”

“And you didn’t tell me? You said nothing?”

“I wanted to tell you! Paula, you have to know how badly I wanted to tell you. James messaged me that night after my shift, begging me not to tell you, ” Julia sat on my bed. “But I’m telling you now. James said that he would tell you or that it was a mistake. It was late, and I wanted to get to bed at the time, so I agreed.”

“How long ago was this?”

“A month ago. I’m really sorry.”

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I felt my heart stop. 

James and I decided to have a date night, you know, the ones where you want to dress up with your favourite little black dress and your go-to makeup look. I was in my bathroom as I looked myself in the mirror where I wore the black dress, and my makeup was close to done; I had to add some finishing touches. My hair was straight; I had asked Madison to come over the other day to help me out with my hair. She asked me why I was trying to put in the effort for him and said that this was for me. In all of this, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t allowed to lose myself in the process of losing James. Madison nodded as she listened to my spiel, then continued to drink coffee with me as she worked on my hair. I looked in the mirror with my black dress on, a full face of makeup, and I put on some rings. There was a pair of earrings that James bought me for my birthday; I thought tonight was perfect a night as any to wear them for the first and last time. This was a night I wouldn’t forget, and I knew that; I wanted to look my best so that I would want to remember something. There was a knock at the door; I put a shawl over my arms, grabbed my purse, and opened the door.  

“Hey,” James said with a warm smile and flowers in his hands. 

We were at Milestones, a restaurant we went to often; tonight felt like the last. There was a candle in the middle of the table, and the restaurant was mostly dim. People came to milestones to meet a friend for drinks or to have dinner with a significant other like James and I. Both of us looked at a menu as we were deciding what to order. 

“What are you thinking?” James asked. 

Honestly, I wanted to ask about the night at cactus with some woman I didn’t even know, but I didn’t want to know – I couldn’t. “I’m feeling the chicken bites. How about you?” I caught James staring at me. “What?” I chuckled. 

“Those earrings – I got you those for your birthday. You’re wearing them tonight,” he seemed shocked. 

“Yeah, I thought tonight was a perfect night as any.” I smiled at him. Someone approached us before James could speak.  

“Hi! I’m Annabelle, and I’ll be your server for tonight. Can I start you guys off with any drinks?” She had a notepad in her hand. 

“I’ll take a root beer,” I said. 

“Make that two. Oh, if you could bring a straw for one of those?” He smiled at me.

“of course,” Annabelle said as she made notes on her pad. “have you decided on what you’d like to order?”

I looked at James, and he seemed hesitant. “Maybe we need a minute?” I said. 

“Absolutely. Take your time.” Annabelle left the table. 

We sat in silence for a moment while he looked at the menu. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “It’s just – we come here all the time.”

“Yeah, of course. I just wanted to switch it up. I think I’ll get the chilli chicken bowl.” He closed the menu. “You still want the chicken bites? Should I get a plate of fries?” 

“Yes, I’m craving those chicken bites now. I don’t think I want fries; you can get your own if you want them, though.”

“So you can steal some?”

“It’s tradition.” I smiled, and then we both laughed. 

Annabelle approached us again. “Are you two lovebirds ready to order?” 

“Can we get the chicken bites, a chilli chicken bowl, and one plate of fries?” James responded. 

Annabelle wrote down the order. “Anything else?”

“No, I think we’re okay,” I said. She left.

“You look wonderful tonight.” James reached out for my hand. His phone rang, I caught a glimpse of the caller ID; when James realized who it was, he instantly pulled his hand back. 

“I’m sorry, I just have to send a quick text.”

“Of course.” I looked around the restaurant; at the corner of my eye, I spotted a man who was looking at me. He was at the bar, and I swear his sparkling smile was towards me. Perhaps it was James’ lack of affection, which made me think that. When I turned my direction back at James, he was still on his phone, and he didn’t even try to get off it any faster. I sighed and looked back at the man at the bar. He had a drink in his hand, his body was relaxed on the barstool when he mouthed, “What are you doing with him?” then I opened my mouth but couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything because, technically, I didn’t know. 

Annabelle returned with our plates and set them on the table. “Let me know if you need anything else.” She smiled at both of us, then left.  

I started eating my chicken bites. I guess my face gave off a sour reaction because James began chuckling. “What?” I scoffed. 

“You love a good kick when you eat,” James said as he took a bite of his chicken bowl. 

“You know that I do.” I gave him a nod. The type you couldn’t describe; it was like we spoke a different language. It happens when you’ve known someone for a while. “I’m the one that got you into it.” 

“Yeah, and now it’s a habit. What can I say?” His phone rang yet again. He silenced it right away then looked towards me. “It’s just work. We have a big deadline at the office, but I’m with you.” He attempted to reach for my hand, but I pulled back. James was in school for journalism, and he was an intern for a newspaper.

I held a fry between my fingers with a serious look on my face. “Was it work thing a month ago?”

“What do you mean?” 

“No, it’s just – Jules said something really interesting. I wanted to ask you about it. I mean, I know work follows you home, and I get that. Mine does too as a writer, but I’m not sure if it’s something else as well.”

“What did she say?” James nervously asked. 

“James,” I softy chuckled. “is there something I need to know?”   

“Do we have to do this now?” He whispered. 

“I’m just saying – you have an opportunity here,” I whispered back.  

“You know.” He sat back. 

“I want to hear it from you.” I crossed my arms together.  

“I kissed someone else that night. We met through work, and it was late that night -“

“You know what – don’t finish that sentence.” 

Annabelle approached our table. “Can I get you guys anything?”

“yes, the bill, please” I rotated my body to get my things gathered together. 

“of course, I’ll be-”  

“No, we don’t.” James cut Annabelle off. “Paula, you cant leave. I mean, not like this.”

“I can. This is over. You lied. “

“Let me explain…”

“I don’t want you to!” I said. 

“I’m sorry, did you still want the bill?” Annabelle asked. 

“Yes, please.” I put my coat on; my hair got caught on the inside of it, only for a moment.   

Minutes later, I paid my bill at the front as a way to avoid James and headed outside.  

Summer came around; I thought about James for a while after the night at Milestones. A long time. It still felt pretty raw. He would text me once in a blue moon, but I never replied. On the off chance that I did, it would be one-word answers. He didn’t deserve more than that. I was at Waterfront, and as I looked out into the ocean, I felt the breeze on my skin. Then I realized, for the first time in three years, I forgot how to be alone. How to be happy and alone. When I wasn’t with James, I was with my girls, so in the midst of that, I never got the opportunity to experience the beauty of solitude. 

I rolled down the street, away from the water, as I headed towards my favourite coffee shop, Trees coffee. It was always my favourite place to go after a long, warm day by the sea. I got so much writing done there every time that I went. My order was usually a piece of chocaholic cheesecake and some kind of latte. A buzz came from my phone; I checked the notification, and it was James. It read. I’m sorry. Please, can we talk?  As I shook my head, I put my phone down, opened my laptop, and continued working on my novel. As I took a bite of my cheesecake, Madison texted me do you regret being with him?  Ugh. She did that now and then. It was annoying, but I think it was her way of saying I love you. I’m here if you need me. I texted back no, that was three years of my life. And I loved him. I mean, I still do. So no.  When the dust settled, we grew up together, and I think, for a while, he was the only guy I really knew. 

After I wrote a good chunk of a chapter, I looked at the time and decided that it was the perfect opportunity to catch the sunset.  

“Same time tomorrow, Paula?’ A woman from behind the counter called out. “Maybe.” I laughed. “Do you think I could get this to go?” I pointed at the half-empty mug in my lap. “Anything for you, love!”

I drove back down the street to Canada Place, where I searched for my usual dock. There was a man who was already there. I’ve always watched the sunset from this dock, so I went up on it anyway; I got out my beach towel from my bag and set it on the floor. Then I slid out of my wheelchair and sat on the beach towel. I leaned against my wheelchair for back support. I needed that once in a blue moon. 

That evening’s sunset was mesmerizing. The sky looked like cotton candy; colours like pink, orange, and hints of blue peeked through the spread apart clouds. 

It’s a beautiful sunset tonight, isn’t it?” The man turned his head slightly but kept his eyes on the sunset. 

“Gorgeous.” I spent the rest of the evening thinking about how sunsets made everything fade away, even with someone next to you. It made me think about how crucial solitude is. The birds were chirping away in the sky, perhaps because the day was turning into night. The air was much calmer, and the temperature became cooler, just the way I liked it. I put a shawl over my body; I always carried one everywhere in the summer, took a sip of my latte, and enjoyed the silence of the night air as the sun continued to go down.  


Mohini Takhar is a disabled writer and spoken word poet based in Vancouver, traditionally known as the unceded land of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations. She studies Creative Writing at Douglas College. She was a featured poet in June 2020 for pulpMAG. Takhar has performed spoken word across virtual stages such as Vancouver Poetry Slam, Hot Damn It’s a Queer Slam, Canadian Individual Poetry Slam, and Voices of Today, where she was a 2020 finalist. Her essay is called I’m Different; You Know It, I Know It. Let’s Talk About It was published in Pearls 40: An Anthology Of Work By Douglas College Creative Writing Students. Her poem If Our Forever Were Different recently was a part of the Roundhouse Community Centre’s Balloons That Flame Poetry Exhibition. Pieces Of Me is her newest collection of poetry available through her Linktree. 

This Love

By Yuu Ikeda

Sharpness of love
pierces my silent skin
that wants softness of eternity

This love is so sharp
that I can’t make a pendant of forever

Like needles of loneliness,
this love weakens my heart
and
takes energy to live away
from my soul

But I crave this love
My skin craves this love


Yuu Ikeda is a Japan based poet.
She loves writing, drawing,
and reading mystery novels.
She writes poetry on her website.
Her published poems are
“On the Bed” in <Nymphs>,
“Pressure” in <Selcouth Station Press>,
“The Mirror That I Broke” in <vulnerary magazine>,
and more.
Her Twitter and Instagram.

A Subtle Breeze of Romance

By Tom Squitieri

As summer comes
False love appears
Let it flit by
Like an unwelcome gnat
Patient for
the real thing.

It shall come
I feel it in the 
Silent seconds of
A surprise smile
In the sigh of the silence
Before the pop
From the slow soar
Of whoa

Meet me on the green grass
Of the outfield
Late innings just for us
We will enjoy the stars
In the sky
And not those who
Left the field.
We will steal real kisses
Not bases

I just want to nest my lips 
on your belly 
and proceed from there
As I dream of us
Under the olive tree
I long to do that 
for a very long time


Tom Squitieri is an award-winning war correspondent, is blessed to have his poetry appear in several publications, the book “Put Into Words My Love,” the art exhibition Color: Story2020, and the film “Fate’s Shadow: The Whole Story.” He writes mostly while parallel parking or walking his dogs, Topsie and Batman. Find him on FacebookTwitterInstagram and his blog.

Friedrich, The Matchmaker

By Jozef Leyden

“Jake, it’s time you started thinking about a serious relationship,” Uncle Maurice says on the day of my thirty-fifth birthday. “Serious,” he accentuates. 

“You need to find a good person. A good woman!” he stresses.

“Character is more important than riches and beauty.” Uncle Maurice is not averse to clichés. 

He should know, he first married when he was only twenty-one; now, he struggles with his fourth marriage at retirement age. 

It is a Sunday afternoon at my parents’ house; early spring sunshine fills the living room; my mother has baked an apple-strudel; my father has opened a bottle of old Armagnac, all in honour of my birthday. 

Listening in, my mother eagerly nods several times; she seems to agree with her brother. In her mind, she adds to his criteria “preferably Jewish, a doctor or a lawyer;” no doubt about it. My father does not offer any opinion, but his facial expression speaks volumes. He does not think highly of Maurice’s wisdom when it comes to relationships. 

Me, I nod too; only once and unconvincingly. Just to get them off my back. My current status of romantic affairs (they have probably dissected this subject already before my arrival) is uncomplicated ̶ single again. A month ago, Luzia and I had split. Not considered as a tragedy by anyone around the table. Not even by myself. No regrets. 

It was a passionate liaison, flamed up like fireworks. We met by chance at Lisbon airport; a week later, we were a couple, madly in love. She put her microbiology research at the University of Lisbon on hold, arranged a sabbatical and followed me to Canada. 

After a year of fiery love, the flame suddenly went out, as abruptly as it had ignited. She could not stop herself from flirting; or even worse, who knows, with other men. Mistrust killed my affection. 

We had a few harsh altercations; Luzia returned to Lisbon; an ocean came between us. Memories and expired love declaration emails were all that was left. Strangely, I was not heartbroken when she disappeared from my life; I was open to new encounters when the time would come.

“It’s hard to find my ideal match, a girl with spunk, characterful, intelligent, an art-lover, well-read.” I pick up the thread of the birthday-Sunday round-table conversation. 

“Nay, Jake, that would be just a retouched, idealized version of you. Seek a goodhearted better-half; you’ll never get bored,” experienced Maurice preaches again. 

No further comments are uttered; the strudel is consumed in harmony.

“Have to leave now; to look for a clairvoyant matchmaker,” I announce and kiss everyone in the room on both cheeks. A family habit inherited from my East European grandparents.

I did not tell them that a quest for a new amour could not be my priority in the coming months. First, I must finish my badly belated study on algal Photosynthesis, already a year behind; my research grant at the university is as good as depleted. 

The whole summer, I slaved away, browsed through zillions of articles online, mostly penned by researchers desperate to comply with the holy commandment of frequent publishing, a prerequisite for entering the iron gates of the remunerated academic world. I am no exception. 

When autumn came, my scientific creativity was drained; I felt I needed to resume my inspirational trips to the National Art Gallery. And I mean ‘inspirational.’ Photosynthesis and visual arts have got to be correlated; both are essentials of human life; both depend on solar light. My proprietary hypothesis. I might quote it in my dissertation if I ever finish it.

For years now, I have regularly sought my refuge in this glass castle above the river. There are specific pieces on exhibit which I favour for a while for whatever reasons. This fall, an oversized bronze bust of Friedrich Nietzsche is my pick. The old guy’s face fascinates me, implies a trove of human insight behind his arched forehead, sage eyes look off into the space, a grin hidden behind a monumental moustache; his trademark. 

He looks intensely pensive; had probably practised in front of a mirror for this pose; now, immortalized in bronze by the artist-sculptor.  

It is not because of the philosopher’s works that I like the sculpture ̶ my knowledge of philosophy is limited to basics, mostly extracted from reading popular literature ̶ it is the aura of the sculpture. Positioned among European post-impressionist paintings; a sombre face between brightly coloured landscapes ̶ that keeps me captivated for months. 

There is a low wooden bench in front of the sculpture, my vantage point for this season. Gallery guards had taken note. 

After all those years of frequently visiting the Gallery, the guards got used to my fluctuating fascination with specific artworks. First, they watched me with suspicion when I lingered too long and too often in front of a masterpiece; now, they wordlessly greet me in friendly acknowledgment of my presence. I have become a recognized regular.

Along with the aesthetic appeal of my chosen artworks that compels me to return to them, I love to overhear observations and commentaries of other admirers of my ‘darling-pieces.’

‘My Nietzsche’ is a hidden gem, strictly for connoisseurs.  

I keep tabs on Friedrich’s incidental aficionados. Some of them are regulars, just like me. 

Father and daughter; he is in his fifties; she is in her early teens. I have caught them twice already, eyeing the philosopher. Father subtly tries to educate his cherished offshoot; the loving daughter pretends to hear his nuggets of wisdom for the first time.  

“You remember this guy?” the father lectures. “A giant among the thinkers; that’s why this bust is so massive. Look at the moustache; you can’t see the corners of his mouth; there must be a message behind growing such a dense, extended brush.”

“A message?” the daughter disbelieves.

“How about ‘Guess ̶ am I smiling or am I sad?’”

“Or ‘Read my lips, if you can.’” 

An original angle. 

Two students in their low twenties ̶ undergrads, my guess; the university campus is on walking distance from the Gallery. They don’t seem to be a couple; not yet. I wonder who is going to try to impress whom. 

Him: “Here he is, my anchor point, my mental watering hole in this plantation of cultural enlightenment! Let me introduce my friend Frederic N.”

Rather pompous for an opening move.

Her: “Your role model? Frederic, eh? Wouldn’t be mine. He was Hitler’s favourite philosopher. Let me show you my favourites.” 

A clincher; they wander briskly towards the Impressionists. Will Friedrich/Frederic get a second chance with her? Or will her friend readjust his preferences, choose some other sculpture to appease her? Hopefully, not the monstrous female spider of steel, dangerously spreading its eight extended legs close to the entrance of the Gallery. 

Now, I must admit that it is pretty cheap to be derogative. At the same time, I watch and eavesdrop on my fellow Gallery-goers. That’s not why I am here. After the summer, my sittings on the bench have an extra purpose, pursuit of a new flame.  

Casually talking to strangers, making contacts in art galleries and museums is the weapon of my choice when on the dating path. It’s a bare necessity; I am not a bar-goer. A date in a bar does not work for me. Loud music and dim lighting distract me, completely kill my sharp conversational skills, and make me appear an undesirable, dull loser. Either way, I doubt my sought ideal alter-ego would be found in a bar environment.  

Meanwhile, the Nietzsche-bench becomes my lookout to discover and select worthy, long-term relationship candidates. I imagine a young woman interested in the classical philosopher could be my true soulmate, maybe even the chosen one. 

With a bit of luck, such a human gem might even fit within Uncle Maurice’s realm of pristine characters. The combination of a penchant for profound art and a heart of gold should not be unusual among intellectuals, should it?

It’s a dark November afternoon; the icy wind blows dead leaves from the curb toward the tall Gallery windows. Not far from the city, deep in the forests, deer hunting season is in full gear. Hunters shiver in cold hideouts, wait for their prey. At my lookout in the Gallery, I am better off. With my buddy Friedrich, I wait and watch. 

It takes a while before my perseverance is rewarded. A dark-haired girl deliberately steps into the space between my bench and the sculpture. Charcoal rib-knit dress, fashionable eyeglasses, expressive face, about my age, a laptop bag over her shoulder. These are not permitted in the Gallery; she must be an insider. Gallery catalogue in her hand.

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She notices me, looks briefly into my eyes. The moment of truth?

“Nice moustache there.” She directs her comment to Friedrich. 

“Movember prophecy,” I respond from behind. 

“Nothing is known about Nietzsche’s men’s health issues,” she comes back, now looks at me, adds, “Are you a Movember fundraiser-professional? Are you waiting here to ambush potential givers? A donor chaser, so to speak? This bronze thinker is a nice decoy.” 

“Far from it. I’m just a humble scientist resting here. I hope this Friedrich will give me inspiration for my concept of quantum photosynthesis.” 

Ouch, what colossal BS, a pretentious introduction. I need somehow to mend my image, to show some genuine interest in her.

“What about you? Are you a urologist? Are you here investigating sculpted celebrities for signs of mortal diseases?” 

“Close. A dermatologist. And yes, you can learn a lot about mental and bodily ailments from artworks. No doubt about it. It’s a study I work on along with the Gallery curators.  

By the way, I already noticed you sitting here last week and critically watching bystanders. Like a deer hunter on a stakeout.”

“Embarrassing; sorry. Believe me, I’m harmless. I’m just curious to see who would be attracted by this impressive artwork. My champion piece of the season. You said, ‘a hunter?’ More like a trapper, though; this bust is my bait.”

“Trapper, eh? Can I buy you a coffee, trapper?” she responds, smiling.

“Coffee? Why not. They brew decent espresso downstairs in the cafeteria.”

We settle at a table beside a large window facing the river, small cups of espresso in front of us.

Time to properly introduce myself, “Jacob Levin is the name.”

“I am Zarah Bergman. Zarah, not Sarah,” she tells me. 

“My mother was teaching a course on Nietzsche at McGill at the time when I was born. She would have preferred to name me Zarathustra had my father not intervened. Zarah was a compromise. It sounds almost like ‘Sarah,’ my grandmother’s name.” 

She looks at me and, out of the blue, declares, “Internet dating doesn’t work for me; I had some disappointing experience. I prefer direct encounters at places of my choice.”

For a moment, I’m at a loss for words; this Zarah ̶ no beating about the bush.

“Zarah, you caught me here off guard, your openness, so to see, we are both on a quest. About online dating, not my cup of tea either.”

But why me?” 

“Well, Jakob, you seem to fall into the category of ‘right guys.’ I mean, into my category of ‘right guys.’ About my age, a museumgoer interested in thinkers. You don’t look freaky. You seem to be single; I checked your hands. Last but not least, I vaguely remember seeing your face last Rosh Hashanah in the shul downtown. 

Tinder wouldn’t be able to find me a better match. So, why shouldn’t I give it a try?”  

A straight shooter is she, this Zarah. Her directness in the delicate matters of courtship is thrilling; I am sold.  

And thus, we started dating, very conventionally, in phases. What a difference from my previous fiery liaison!

Phase One. 

We see each other once or twice a week, have lunches downtown, go to see avant-garde films in independent movie theatres, and needless to say, regularly pay our respects to Friedrich, the matchmaker. 

We become close, tell our family histories, relish each other’s company, reach a degree of intimacy, intimacy, not passion. 

Phase Two.

I like her, I like her a lot. It shows. She is not hiding her affection either. 

We confess our past loves, triumphs and heartaches.

More than a month has passed when Zarah invites me for a Shabbat dinner at her place. She has made an effort to put a great meal on the table. The soft music of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition in the background. A well-orchestrated evening.

“Zarah, you indisputably beat the culinary accomplishments of my entire clan,” I declare truthfully after dessert. 

“An exquisite five-course dinner with candles and challah; brachot before and bentsching after; the whole nine yards,” I share with my father over the phone later in the week. So far, he is the only one of my kin ‘who knows.’ I don’t tell him that I stayed for the night.

Phase Three. 

Yes, we are now an acknowledged couple. Acknowledged by friends and family. Spend weekends together, my place or her place. Hold hands in public. Admit being in love. A few moderate, controllable disagreements; very civil. 

Rather reluctantly, I have complied with the unwritten code of the step-by-step serious dating course and asked Zarah to meet my parents. For coffee and cake on a Sunday afternoon. 

My smart Zarah, unlike Luzia, has charmed the family panel, smoothly passed the litmus test. 

Do I ever think about my butterfly-Luzia? N-no.

We have been dating for almost four seasons, faithfully follow contemporary social patterns and rituals. Living-apart-together; joint dinners; weekends; visit friends, family; save for a down-payment. 

Her parents, the Zarathustra expert-scholars, live in Vancouver, half a continent away. That gave me some slack to prepare my ‘right guy’ act. We flew to Vancouver for Labour Day weekend. I was approved. 

It is a cold November day, our first anniversary; we pay a visit to our matchmaker. We walk by Friedrich in thankful acknowledgment; we wander from painting to painting, look for our favourite pieces. I feel restless, have an inexplicable urge to provoke my Zarah.  

There is our Mondrian, exhibited in the Dutch painters’ hall; we slow our pace. 

“Don’t you think, Zarah, that our relationship is a bit like this painting; a neat arrangement of rectangular objects in uncomplicated primary colours, straight lines, eye-pleasing?”

Why am I saying this? Am I transmitting that I miss thrilling adventures and fireworks in our intimate association? Zarah looks up, unsettled picks up the gauntlet. She leads me to a large Jan Steen ̶ a messy family gathering tableau.

“Would you rather prefer this metaphor?”

Touché.

Zarah looks agitated; I must have hurt her. She leads me to a Degas, an expressive painting of a young ballerina. She knows that the canvas is one of my favourites. Not hers. 

“If you seek pictorial allegories, would this be your luscious Luzia reminiscence? Do you think you’d be better off with her?

I am startled; try not to show it. Is she right? Have I missed the boat, my Santa María underway to exciting treacherous discoveries of exotic worlds ̶ by letting Luzia go?

Renouncing my stormy affair with Luzia, am I now willingly headed towards the rationality of a well-reasoned ‘tying the knot?’   

The dark clouds above the wintry landscapes on the wall threaten to diffuse into the Gallery’s spaces, to invade and contaminate our comfortably premeditated romance.

Seeking a compromise, neither of us is ready for a caustic argument, we turn to a peaceful Dutch vista ‘Calm at the Mouth of a River.’ The picture of boats with white sails mirrored on unruffled water surface emits pacifying air desperately needed for any reconciliation. The calm before the storm?

In silence, we descend to the cafeteria. 

Mayday, Mayday. God help us.


Jozef Leyden (pseudonym) lives in Ottawa, Ontario. He was born and raised in Bohemia and lived for a few decades in the Netherlands before finding his home in Canada. His writings often reflect on his European roots and his career. He has worked in academia and industry as a physicist, sailor-oceanographer, environmental surveyor, and university professor.