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 Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and his blog.
“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 that 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 dating in bars, 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!
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.
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.
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?”
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.
I weep, but I am not a widow I divorced her, left, Walked out Learning that I could be loved by another Many others, if I let them Didn’t have to settle, no longer meddle Muddling in waters that could not quench my thirst I tried, often lied Pushed aside rocks, bugs, and fought bears to fish in search of nourishment and to nurture To let the river flow Upstream, downstream, and anywhere in between To where the sun would shine, glisten, and glean In places lying fat and lean
How much meat can I get from a doe or a buck? I’ll take both My freezer has many shelvesI packed an ice chest in my trunk; I like a lot of junk back there
Stepping away from the cold concrete Onto the gravel Down the dirt paths To walk among the rocks Along the stream To sit among spurts of green things Whispers from flying foes who wish to snack on my flesh Whispers from the wind who talks through the trees Whispers from the water passing over layered ground That rises and falls In some spots the water is standing In others it bubbles and flows Rocks direct, protect, parry – But what lies beneath commits no small feat The dips and trenches affirm direction Whether standing strong or flowing freely
A’ Ja Lyonshas been published in several print and online publications, including Sinister Wisdom, Decolonial Passage, Response, and Lucky Jefferson.
Hades, My daughter is not another soul to collect.
It started in the field, didn’t it? It was on the edge of our property, and she laid in the tall grass while I tended to the wheat in the next patch over. It was summer, and she was in her daze as she always was. She was traipsing behind me every now and again and singing her song in her proud and wild way.
“Persephone, why don’t you make an effort with this harvest?” I asked, looking over the villagers’ crops as they went back into their homes for dinner. “You know you are the only child of mine that can help me, help them.”
“Why must they make their sacrifices?” she asked. She sighed and plucked wildflowers from the tall grass around her feet. “That is the unspoken agreement between them and us, god and mortal,” I said. “They held up their end, and we must reciprocate.” She sighed once more. I knew she did not care.
My most arrogant child responded with absolutely no conviction of her ability, looking at the fields around us and made them grow almost on a whim. Flowers bloomed out of nothing, as did the vibrancy of all things vegetation. Small animals came wandering behind her, deer and rabbits. Even if it is her nature, literally and figuratively, she didn’t care, and I don’t believe she still does.
And then there was you.
I noticed a dark stain in the undergrowth out of the corner of my eye, and I should’ve known better. I knew it was you, and I knew we were near your cave, your lurch into the kingdom below. I merely thought you were silently warning us not to come near, but no. No.
I looked at you and then to my daughter and noticed one of the flowers she was holding between her porcelain fingertips had crispy, wilted edges. I should have taken that image for what it was: an omen. I was broken of my fixation on the flower when she asked a question.
“Mother, who is that man?” Persephone did not face me, and I could easily define the silhouette of her face, the tip of her nose down to her lips.
I told her, “That is Hades.”
She saw what I saw, the darkness that wisped around you, a souvenir of your realm.
“God of the underworld and the dead?” This was the most focused I had seen her.
I nodded. “Correct.”
She left it at that, and we forged ahead unto another. We came back and forth between this rural string of farmlands and Olympus as farmers sacrificed their cattle and goats to turn in our favour over the next several weeks. Persephone lagged behind, my lonely child, separate from her several other siblings because of her similar ability to myself. She gazed off into the undergrowth every now and again with a slight cackle under her breath, like the ravens that plucked their claws from tree branches to fly. That’s when I knew she was already under your spell—what hex was it? What enchantment did you see fit to take my sweet child?
On one of our runs to the mortal world later that week, Persephone went off on her own accord as she did when I didn’t redirect her to help. I went on my own to other village’s fields, helping their harvest, checking to make sure each sacrifice would balance out. At the end of the day, I returned to Mt. Olympus and assumed that she had returned without me, but looking around the great feast table with the other gods, I saw that her seat was empty. No one had seen her. My daughter was gone, and the hard chill of panic entered my being.
“I wanted more. I wanted her, and I would have her.”
I went to every nymph, god, and goddess to tell me what they knew, and all leads went back to you. My suspicions were correct. You fully realized the bind you put me in. You knew that if you took her, I would not be able to retrieve her because I am not allowed to enter your kingdom. You knew all of this; you calculated swine. In fact, you are worse than swine, worse than the dirt that surrounds you down below in your realm. Crooked grins, sly hands, and a dangerous voice: you should be ashamed of yourself.
You’ve had her for too long. Bring her back to me.
I would like to start by saying that your daughter is safe if that’s your concern. Know that I apologize for not coming to you sooner to request for Persephone’s hand; please know that I have loved your daughter since the first moment that I saw her, that day in the field, and vow to take care of her for eternity.
A servant came to me earlier that day as I sat alone, just as I have since the beginning of time, in my dark, stone throne room and informed me that you and she were going about your duties to the mortals too close to my realm’s entrance. I sighed as I stood up, knowing that I would have to bear the sunlight of the waning summer day. I could have sent a servant, I could have, but my weary self needed the change from overseeing the souls. An eternity of overseeing and being bound to the bleakness of my realm has turned into one long, dark night. I’m actually thankful that I didn’t send a servant because otherwise, I would have never seen her.
I emerged from the entrance enclosed by boulders leading out unto the undergrowth and saw you both fulfilling your duties to the mortals that submitted their sacrifices. I knew of your duties, Demeter, but did not know that one of your children possessed such an innate ability to create life from her tiny, fragile fingertips. Not only did her ability enrapture me, but her pure beauty: her lengthy locks that graze over the wheat heads, but is made of golden silk, her naturalness and place among nature and life—it was instant. At that moment, I knew that she was everything I am not, a natural opposite, but a pure, youthful goddess that could bring out the best in me as I her.
When Persephone and I looked at one another, my heart stopped. Before, I was going to speak out a warning but was left utterly speechless. She must have asked you about me, and that’s when her own interest in me began. All of us walked away, but she never stepped out of my thoughts as I returned to my throne. I replayed the moments, though as brief and mundane as they were, over and over in my head. With each passing soul into my realm, I began to notice features in each of the women that could have possibly resembled her, but none ever came close. It was a fool’s wishing because, after all, no one could ever match the sheer quintessence of Persephone; that much I knew was a fact.
It became nonstop, especially as I realized that above my very head that the mortals were persisting in making their sacrifices to you and your daughter for an excellent harvest. That’s when the idea came.
“Furiae,” I called to my three main servants. “Inform me when Goddesses Demeter and Persephone come within close proximity of my realm.” And they did as I asked.
The next time you both came to a string of farmlands that curved in and out beside the undergrowth. I watched you both as I stood in between spindling ancient trees, thinking of what I would say, how I would ask your permission, how I would properly introduce myself to the lovely Persephone. When you both were close, I attempted to call out as a greeting, but a crow flew right past me and nearly made me fall over. It squawked as it flew away, and I noticed Persephone laughing; that was that crackling you heard in her laughter. If my minor embarrassments are works of enchantment, then I would hate to see what you think of my actual powers.
But that bird was perhaps a good omen because, without your noticing, she waved to me, greeted me with a warm, honeysuckle smile that spread a feeling over my being like none I’d felt before.
I wanted more. I wanted her, and I would have her.
As I had instructed days before, my servants called to me to rise above to the mortal land of sunlight, and though I always despised doing so, now I had an absolute purpose. This time, as I strolled through the dark shrubbery and trees, there she stood (of her own free will, mind you) on the very edge of the field and the undergrowth. She knew of the boundary I could not cross and that I cannot cross into the field as it is not part of my realm, only the undergrowth of my entrance and no more. She was waiting for me.
My heart pounded. “Hello,” I said.
“Hello.” Her voice twinkled with warmth.
“I realized that perhaps deeper beneath her beauty, she had iron underneath, a deep, churning metal that made her empathetic.”
We stood in silence, looking each other up and down. Then I took her hand. I couldn’t feel myself reach out to her, and yet her small, doll-like hand was placed perfectly, fitting in mine like two halves of a broken stone tossed around by the blackened sea then somehow washed up next to each other. It was so sudden, even for me, that I thought she would scream for you, run away, or use her powers, but she did none of that, just smiled on and continued to hold my hand back.
“I’m sorry,” I told her, not taking my hand away.
“Why are you apologizing?” she asked. Then, I took my hand back at my side.
“You-You’re incredibly beautiful,” I said. “I never meant to stare or pry, but you have the most graceful powers I’ve seen among all of the goddesses.”
I couldn’t believe I said it. Where is all this spontaneity coming from? I thought. But I knew it was her; she brought that out in me.
“Well, many thanks, indeed, Hades,” she said my name with an emphasis.
Then she stared at me, bore her pale eyes into my soul like a cat that doesn’t want to blink at some moving, interesting thing. I chuckled a moment.
“Aren’t you afraid of my darkness, dear?” A slight smirk.
“Oh, no,” she said. “You haven’t had a chance to see mine.”
My smile loosened into a line. My heart thudded like great shrine drums.
“I must be going; my mother keeps a watchful eye on me constantly.”
The summer cicadas crescendoed their filmy calls.
She took a few steps close to me, so incredibly close that I could feel her slight breaths from her nostrils. Then she kissed me and tasted like strawberries, something too sweet that I couldn’t take. I almost trembled.
As she broke away, she said, “I will return in a fortnight, and I wish to visit your kingdom.”
She glided away with the wind undulating in the wheat as her locks trailed behind her like a lioness’s tail. I thought hard to believe that such a young goddess, She glided away with the wind undulating in the wheat as her locks trailed behind her like a lioness’s tail. I thought hard to believe that such a young goddess, or any goddess, for that matter, would have any interest in coming to the underworld of their own will, let alone for a ‘visit.’ And then, as I returned home and gazed over the lands of my kingdom, I realized that perhaps deeper beneath her beauty, she had iron underneath, a deep, churning metal that made her empathetic to who I was, what I was ruler over. It seemed she understood that not all darkness is bad because she seemed to have a bit of it in herself. For as fast as it was going, I felt that this had to be destiny, that we were meant to be together. We brought out a different side in each other that was perhaps better for the both of us.
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When a fortnight was upon us, I came above once more and waited. I saw you heading over to a field at the foot of the mountain, out of my reach to call you, and though I should have, it almost felt wrong at this point, like you should not have known. There was something in Persephone’s voice that last time I saw her that internally warned me of that.
Though I saw you, Demeter, I could not catch sight of your daughter across my line of vision. I focused in on a black speck over yonder and thought that it was a crow. Something yanked the sleeve of my robe, and my love had found me.
“We must hurry,” she whispered. “Let us go to your realm.”
She pulled me to walk beside her, and I was astonished at her eagerness to join me. I took one last look at you heading for pearly Olympus as we walked to the entrance of the underworld, large gray boulders leaning on each other in such a way to create a small mouth for souls, etc., to journey down.
Because she naturally had my permission, Persephone was able to enter, but before setting foot in the darkness, she stopped, making me halt with a jolt.
Her face was inscrutable, but I could tell she was thinking hard about something—I assumed the decision she was making to join me in my realm, the choice to stay with me. I would prolong the ‘visit’ as much as I could so that she would want to stay. I stood next to her on the precipice of the darkness and turned to her.
“I tell you such fine music waits in the shadows of hell,” I said.
She took that in with such deep eyes with small glints of black, then took her steps inside.
So, Demeter, your child decided on her own to come with me into my home. I believe she loves me as I love her. It is a shame as I hear the world above has decayed that Persephone’s hard work has gone to waste in order to transform into a wasteland, creating autumn and thus frightening the mortals with their now dead crops. My love has taken the spring and summer with her, and she doesn’t seem to care. She has taken to the darkness, and I believe that she showed her proclivity to this place when I saw the deepness of her eyes, the small inherent darkness that she let me peer into and allows me to peer into now as I show her my duties and all of the lands beneath your feet.
As I said before, I apologize for not asking you before taking your daughter’s hand; she has apparently taken mine on her own. She wears strength and darkness equally well; the girl has always been half goddess, half hell.
Whether or not you believe Hades is none of my concern, but you must take it from me before you wreak havoc onto the mortals’ lands: I am the queen of this realm now. I don’t know why you aren’t surprised by this newfound situation. I was bored of your world, Mother, always bored. You say that what I have is a gift and that it should be shared with those mortals that sacrifice for us, but I disagree. Before I left for this world under your world, the mortals would sacrifice more and more, and we would give more and more. I know it is the agreement, but they do not know hardship, never have. I have nothing personal against them, but I believe that without hardship, how would anyone remember what the good was? How would anyone know that there is a light at the end of a struggle, that there is hope?
I know about these things because you have had me under your thumb since you knew that my abilities matched your own, possibly even surpassed them. Your powers have always been great, but we both know that they wane, and I can make all of the abundant flora and fauna faster and greater than you ever could have. It would seem that even the mortals depend on me more than they do you. You’ve consistently wished me to use my abilities because you know that you will retire, and it will be my time to take on the duties every year for eternity.
You’ve never let me out of your sight or go beyond your general area. These same rules applied that day in the field, but there was something different. He was something different. Hades looked at me like no one had ever looked at me.
“He was handsome, but not in a way that I had seen before.”
Though darkness surrounds him, there was something enchanting about the depth at which he gazed upon me, not that I was just another beautiful face, but that I was something more. Those flowers I picked the day we saw each other were already crisp with death, and it was something so outside of myself, so outside of my knowledge that I knew he had something to offer me—a way out.
I went to him several times, made him mine, enraptured him until he felt it even at the base of his spine. I told him I wanted to visit his kingdom, but I think we both knew it would be much longer than a visit and would involve so much more. As I took his hand and made him lead me to the actual entrance, I did doubt myself. I had never taken a leap like this before, and I wondered if it was worth it.
Then he said to me,” I tell you such fine music waits in the shadows of hell,” and I knew I had to make the plunge. So I did.
His world was all blues and blacks, filled with stone and smouldering spots. I only saw the souls from a distance, but it wasn’t until we boarded the long wooden ferry with the skeletal, hooded Charon that I decided to look into the luminescent river. They looked like cobweb faces, ethereal and almost like stringy tissue swirling around in some potion of a cauldron. I thought it almost looked beautiful. Hades beamed at me.
His personal chambers were filled with music. The Furiae, three female servants, sung their songs and played on ivory flutes to a tune that was so drawn out and sharp that its melancholy almost made me cry. His other servants welcomed me with a feast of meagre food, but it was food. A small roast of a bird, fruit, and wine.
“My dear, what do you think of this place?” he asked me.
As I looked up at cracks along the stones of the walls and the torches that lit every so often between the ribbed pillars, I felt both uneasy and excited.
“I’m not sure,” I said, honestly. Then images of the sun, the warmth of the day, and the flowers I would pick day in and day out. My eyes started to water.
Hades rushed to my side from the head of the table and held my hand, perfectly fitting into his.
“My dear, my dear, it is not so dreadful here,” he said. “Come, I will show you.”
We walked from his stone temple back to the ferryman, but he had another destination in mind this time. We sailed across the glowing river in silence until we came upon the mouth of another cave that had a light at the end of it. With a smooth grind onto the flat rock shore, Hades jumped out first then plucked me from the boat. As we headed into this cave, the unknown source and strangeness of the light made me anxious.
I thought that perhaps this was too fast, and I made a hasty decision with a man that I thought I could make assumptions about. But as he held my hand and we walked further down the tunnelling path, we came unto a clearing of a green pasture seemingly with its own sunlight. There was a forest just beyond, and I thought we were back above ground in a place that was warm and familiar to me.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“This,” he said. “is one of the many lands of my kingdom. Not all souls linger in the river; many end up here, in the In-between.”
“The In-between,” I repeated.
“Many souls are confused on where to go, what decision to make, what change needs to be made.” It was as if he knew what was going on in my mind.
Soon, off lingering by olive trees were fully-embodied ethereal souls, walking around like he and I. They noticed us visiting their land and waved to us, and we did the same. I looked up at him, his dark circles protruding from under his thick eyelashes and thought he was handsome, but not in a way that I had seen before. He was handsome when I first saw him, but he looked beautiful in this artificial underworld sun. A monster trapped in a beautiful body.
From this kind gesture, I knew that I made the right decision. He made me feel at home while I was transitioning quickly to these strange, new surroundings. He knew I missed certain aspects of the world above, the one I knew so well with light and sunsets and land. He took me to a special place down below that would always remind me of above. Perhaps it was through this and more that he did love me, and for that, he became more than a way out, and I then loved him, too. This place will never even be Olympus filled with glorious banquets at the long, shining table with all our gods and all our family, but down here, it is enough because Hades is my family now, and he has all of the festiveness, but in his own way. I think I bring out the light in him as he brings the dark in me. We are strangely the same.
“Encrusted in all the darkness is his bright eyes that are the same colour as the wheat fields above. It’s enough home for me.”
Mother, I was not abducted; I wandered down into his shadowy land of my own volition and fell in love with him.
Therefore, there is no reason for you to rage unnecessary havoc on the mortals above as my absence has already damaged their crops. The Furiae told us of this as we sat at the long stone slab dining table. It had been some weeks since I made my venture, and we were sitting for another meal of a different roasted bird, fruit, and wine.
“My Lord and Lady, Goddess Demeter has brought to the attention of the other gods of Lady’s disappearance from the upper worlds. Goddess Demeter has been denying the mortals’ sacrifices as well as causing famine and disease.”
“Of course you didn’t tell her, as I suspected,” Hades sighed.
“I have told you of my mother!”
He rested his hand on mine. “My dear, you are still such a young goddess, and you still have a mother that loves you. I will send a scroll and do my part, but I’m afraid you must return to her. We have no purpose if no mortals are left alive. You have spent your time here, but you let the mortals have their time of rebirth, their spring unto summer.”
Panic set in. “Hades–”
He lifted a finger. Beside him on a golden plate were blood-red pomegranates sliced down the middle with their numerous jewelled seeds exposed. He grabbed one half with his other hand and gave it to me.
“Eat, and you will always come back to me,” he said. “She can have you for a little while, and it will do you some good, but do not fret because you are mine, and I am yours.”
Mother, I wanted pomegranates, I wanted darkness—I wanted him. I plucked the seeds of my own accord, and Hades did not place my crown upon my head; it was me with my own hands.
Before I planned my departure, Hades had been writing in his scrolls, occasionally burning them because he doesn’t think they’re any good. He never tells me what he’s writing, but I can tell when he doesn’t like something. Encrusted in all the darkness is his bright eyes that are the same colour as the wheat fields above. It’s enough home for me.
He showed me that in the coldest of places, we can make a wonderful home.
Until I return,
Leslie Benigniis a current MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University in Ohio though she originally heralds from Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has been published in Perhapped Magazine, :Lexicon Literary Journal, and Athenaeum. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
I never heard you cry But I see the tears in your eyes as you hold a cup to my lips.
You tremble when you walk dear mother, Will your child be as ghostly as you?
I see the angel stretching its failing limbs in a scene of pleading As my body begins to break in my deepest heart’s core.
The blithe under our eyes and behind our lungs Eats away at the soul like the leaves beneath our aching feet.
RR Ewart(she/her) is a writer and artist from Reno, Nevada. She works as a high school English teacher, is an accomplished book-hoarder, and a recovering procrastinator. She is completing her first novel and chapbook publication. Follow her to read more of her work on Instagram.
Rose Phillips stands in front of the full-length mirror and stares: cheeks stained salmon-pink and skin glowing like it’s been spritzed with dew, her hair artfully curled and worryingly flammable with the amount of hairspray holding it in place. She doesn’t look anything like herself, which is fitting in some way – this is, after all, the day Rose Phillips dies.
She scowls at herself for thinking so macabrely, but the thought won’t leave her head. It’s true, really. A part of her brain insists as it had done for the past year. After today, Rose Phillips won’t exist anymore, and Rose Wilson will take her place. She will become someone else entirely after saying a few words and signing a piece of paper, a simultaneous death and birthday wrapped up in a pretty white dress.
She really needs to stop thinking like this.
It’s funny that today, of all days, everything that made Rose Phillips Rose Phillips seems to be demanding to be acknowledged. It’s as if returning to Cumbria has prompted her to pull back all the layers of her life that she had built up over the years since she left. In the week leading up to now, she had shown George around all the places that held the moments that shaped her, a whistle-stop tour of her life before him. Naturally, there were some places she couldn’t bring herself to take him to, like Penny’s. It would have just been rude, intrusive in some abstract, unexplainable way that she wouldn’t let herself contemplate.
It had been strange, taking these pitstops around her old life with someone who was to be her future. But she was glad for it – relieved, in fact, to be getting married here rather than in London or even somewhere else. It’s like the closing of a chapter, a cyclical release that she didn’t perhaps even know she needed.
It’s good to be here again. She has never grown to love living in the London as much as George does – although Rose supposes that’s to be expected, seeing as though he’s lived there his whole life. Rather, she tolerates the city: the grey streets peppered with spits of chewing gum and pigeon shit, the dirty air, the hard water. The nightmare that was the tube at rush hour. The rats. The rent. The rude people. Sure, there were theatres and quirky bars and their entire bloody professional lives, so they stayed and were mostly happy. Rose had to admit that the rush of it all could be sweetly addictive, and returning to the lumbering lanes of Cumbria only seemed to slow her down; over time, her visits home grew less and less frequent until they finally stopped completely.
So it’s been seven years since she was last here, and she’s happy to be back on what is to be one of the most special and pivotal points of her life. It’s funny how it all works.
Rose has always been told that she has her head screwed on straight. And it holds truth – after all, her life is on track. Here she is, in step three of her life plan (move to London – done; get a career in journalism at someplace that’s not The Sun – done; get married – imminent; have kids – pending; dream of buying a house – eternally pending.) Rose thinks that if little Rosie Phillips could see how her life was turning out, she’d be pretty satisfied, especially in this very moment standing in front of this mirror in her nauseatingly expensive (but totally worth it!) white gown. Growing up, Rose had always dreamed about her wedding day – the floating down the aisle, the fairy lights, the fanfare – but had never really given much thought as to who it was that she would end up marrying. Every time she had pictured her wedding, for all her planning and dreaming, only a faceless smudge of a shadow would be hovering at the end of the aisle.
And then she met George. A good man, kind and patient, who listens to her and all of her eccentricities. Steady as an ox, unflappable. Someone she can build a life with, someone she loves enough to sacrifice her name on the altar of their marriage and create a whole new sense of self. She has her head screwed on straight, and it told her that he’s the right one for her.
Her reflection looks at her, expressionless from behind the mask of makeup.
It’s inexplicable, the human mind. It likes to remind you of things you truly thought you had forgotten or would rather not remember at all. Rose doesn’t know if it’s back her hometown or her impending last minutes as the person she has spent close to three decades being, but in this moment, the past has woken up and is fully wrapping itself around her, hungry to be acknowledged, a serpent waiting to devour her in memories.
And who is she, as sentimental and self-flagellating as she is, to deny that great snake of times gone by?
“It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine.”
She lived down a winding country lane that you would miss completely if you didn’t know to look out for it, in a small cottage laced with honeysuckle that sat squatly in front of a cluster of trees that led out to the woods. They met in the summer before Rose went to university, both working at a local boho-esque café with large, leafy plants in the windowsills, chalkboard menus, and an eclectic mix of tables and chairs.
Rose could tell that she didn’t like her at first. Perhaps, with all her chattiness and naïveté, Rose came off as annoying and too eager to be liked, or maybe she just liked to be judgemental about new starters. Whatever it was, Ophelia Deane did not rate Rose very highly at all in those early weeks at Penny’s. Ophelia barely spoke to her beyond asking her to check on a table or fill up the sugar bowls, no matter how much Rose persisted in trying to draw her into a conversation.
Ophelia was one of those girls who was so comfortable in her own skin that Rose almost wanted to peel it off and wear it herself. Rose was mesmerized by her. She exuded a quiet confidence, watching the world from behind the café counter and giving no indication of the thoughts forming behind her dark, unforgiving eyes. Ophelia dressed in a way that Rose wished she could pull off but knew she never could – the ends of her long black hair were dyed a loud magenta, and she wore Doc Martens with floral skirts that would sometimes hike up a bit and show her thick, hairy legs. She wore statement earrings that she had made herself out of clay, and a fuzz of hair grew underneath each of her arms, which Rose noticed one day when Ophelia was restocking the shelves. Ophelia was content to say as little as possible to her and to anyone, scribbling poems on the back of her notepad instead of talking. Rose spent hours wondering what she was thinking, what she could maybe say to end this coolness that seemed to exist between them despite the heat of the summer sun.
But it wasn’t as if she was entirely unapproachable either. Ophelia was warm and genuine to customers, and sometimes some of this would even extend to Rose herself if she happened to be nearby. It was moments like these that threw Rose’s brain into a scramble, frantically ticking through the right thing to say to make the conversation last longer, to find a way to peer behind the thick curtain that always, inevitably, descended back over Ophelia again as she would go quiet, back into herself. Rose found herself hoping that there would be more and more moments behind that curtain as time went on.
Two weeks after Rose started at the café, Dan from the kitchen had a birthday picnic gathering on the banks of the River Eden, and he invited everyone from Penny’s. Rose was surprised to see Ophelia there, lounging on a tartan blanket with her legs stretched out in front of her and a small, almost knowing smile on her face as she saw Rose arrive. Rose ended up sitting next to her as they all clustered on the blanket, passing fruit punnets and sipping tinnies and soaking in the sunlight. Though she laughed openly and smiled at the others with what she hoped was a carefree look, Rose could feel her heart thrumming in her chest like the bumblebees that drifted by them, the heat of Ophelia’s knee as it pressed casually against her thigh. Her skin was so warm, warmer than the sun.
The next shift they had together, Ophelia greeted her with a crooked smile and an actual hello. Rose blinked, surprised and strangely relieved that she seemed to finally be making progress, although also unable to figure out why it mattered so much.
‘I take a while to warm up to people,’ Ophelia said out of the blue a few days later. Rain pattered softly against the windows; thick clouds blocked out the sun, so they had the lamps on. A classic British summer. It was cozy inside and slow. They both nursed cups of tea in clasped hands.
‘I can tell,’ Rose said to her, flashing her a smile that she hoped wasn’t too much. ‘I know I can be a lot to start off with, so I guess I’m used to it.’
‘You shouldn’t think like that, Rose,’ Ophelia said soberly, her fathomless eyes not leaving Rose’s face. Rose suddenly found a brochure on the counter advertising local produce very engaging and started to leaf through it. Ophelia set her tea down on the counter and went to clear a table, and nothing more was said. Rose chewed over the words she should have spoken for hours after.
It came as a pleasant surprise one afternoon when Ophelia invited her to the cottage where she lived. Rose felt her heart fall into her stomach and leap back up again as she accepted, only managing a wordless nod and another overly-excited smile that she proceeded to agonize over for another length of time. She couldn’t explain these feelings – all she wanted, somehow, was to impress Ophelia, for Ophelia to like her, but she couldn’t help but dissolve into nerves at the thought of being alone – really alone, no customers – with her. She was effervescently anxious but couldn’t dream of saying no.
It was one of the hottest days of the year when Rose went to the honeysuckle-draped cottage for the first time; grateful Ophelia had met her at the café to guide her else she would have never found it. Inside, the cottage was refreshingly cool and light, with low ceilings and exposed wooden beams. Flowers sprouted from ceramic vases on almost every available surface.
‘My parents travel a lot for work, so it’s just me here a lot of the time,’ Ophelia told her, offering Rose a glass of water freshly poured from the Brita filter. ‘I’m staying here until I find my own place.’
‘Are you going to live on your own?’
Ophelia shrugged. ‘Maybe with someone from work, I don’t know. When do you leave for Goldsmiths?’
It suddenly struck Rose that she didn’t know much about Ophelia, but she herself was such an open book. Rose often felt that everything she was sat plainly on the surface, ready for anyone to know with a glance. It was this way, no matter how hard she tried to be elusive and enigmatic, like how Ophelia was.
‘Mid-September,’ she responded.
‘A month away,’ Ophelia said. Rose couldn’t tell if she was stating a fact or expressing disappointment.
‘Didn’t you want to go study somewhere?’ Rose asked, leaning against the kitchen counter with what she hoped was an easy air.
Ophelia shrugged. ‘There’s time for that whenever. Maybe I’ll travel. I don’t know. We’re so young, you know? We don’t have to have everything planned out. There’s no rush.’
‘I’ve always been told that I have a good head on my shoulders because I know what I want to do.’
‘Who says that?’
‘My dad. Everyone.’
Ophelia scratched the tip of her nose. ‘What’s your plan then?’
‘Ah, go to uni. Work hard. Get a good job. Get married. House. Kids.’
‘I’ll be honest, it sounds pretty vague. Basic even.’
Ophelia laughed, a deep belly laugh that made Rose giggle too, feeling heat rush to her face.
‘Hey, if that’s the best you’ve got. I’m happy you’ve managed to squeeze me into your schedule.’
‘Yeah, don’t make me regret it.’
Ophelia smiled at her, the corners of her eyes crinkling. ‘Let’s go foraging,’ she said suddenly, and she took Rose’s hand in her own and wheeled her in the direction of the back door. She paused a moment, briefly letting go of Rose’s hand to throw a bag over her shoulder, before clasping her hand in hers once more and pulling her out into the garden that spilled out to the woods.
The sun was bright and hot in the sky, beaming down on them as Ophelia and Rose half-ran, half-skipped, exuberant, down a small trail into the trees. Rose had no idea where they were going but couldn’t care less. She could sense their sweat mingling on the palm of her hands and felt nothing but free as the light summer breeze on their backs seemed to propel them forward.
‘What are we looking for?’ Rose asked, her voice breathless in the wind.
‘Whatever we find,’ Ophelia called over her shoulder.
Soon, the trail began to wind its way along the river. Ophelia let go of Rose’s hand, and they slowed down to an ambling walk, the birdsong and gentle bubbling of the stream over the rocks filling the comfortable wordlessness between them. Sometimes, Ophelia would pause to gather dandelion stems or nettles, wrapping the folds of her long skirt around her hands to protect herself, lips tightly pressed together as she concentrated on not getting stung. Once safely stored in her bag, she wiped her hands on her skirt and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
‘You have the strangest look on your face, Rose,’ Ophelia said, turning back to her. ‘And usually, I can tell what you’re thinking.’
‘Am I so easy to read?’
‘You know you are.’ Suddenly Ophelia was taking her shoes off and treading across the grass to the river, her sandals held aloft in her hands. She plonked herself on the riverbed and dropped her feet in the water, leaning back to rest on her palms. Rose followed, sitting down beside her and folding her legs over themselves.
‘Aren’t you going to put your feet in?’
‘Maybe in a sec.’
‘So go on then. Tell me what you’re thinking.’
‘I hardly think that’s fair.’
‘I never know what you’re thinking.’
Ophelia laughed, throwing her head back to the sky. ‘Ahh, Rose. You really do make me smile. I should show it more.’
Rose twiddled some blades of grass between her fingertips. ‘I just really enjoy being out in the sun with you, that’s all,’ she said, regretting it almost instantly, looking straight down at the water in front of her. But Ophelia’s smile widened, and she said, ‘Me too, with you,’ so calmly, kicking her feet gently in the river. The words fell from her mouth as if it really were nothing at all.
It was getting uncomfortably hot. They shifted downriver slightly so they could sit underneath the shade of a river birch tree, but after only a few minutes, Ophelia announced that she was too warm and stood up.
‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m cooling off. You can too if you want. No pressure though,’ and she pulled her vest top over her head, tossed it on the grass and shimmied out of her skirt so that she was standing only her knickers, pubic hair peeking out the edges. Rose watched at the way Ophelia moved, the way she held herself, completely at ease in her own body and almost nakedness in a way that Rose herself had never felt before. Ophelia turned to the river, the skin on the backs of her thighs kissed with dimples, and lowered herself slowly in, breathing deeply, floating, the water gently lapping at her breasts. Rose had never seen anyone quite so content to be themselves, anyone quite so beautiful.
‘Are you coming in?’ Ophelia asked her. ‘It’s really refreshing, I promise. It’s quiet here, too, you don’t have to worry. Come on, be Shakespearean with me.’
‘Oh, God. Please don’t drown.’
‘I guess I should probably read the damn thing. I really have no idea what I’m talking about.’
‘I can tell. Spoiler: Ophelias and rivers don’t mix well.’
‘Well, this time, they do,’ she said, tracing patterns on the water’s surface with her fingers.
‘It’s on at the RSC soon, I think. We could go. Or there’s a Kenneth Branagh movie. It’s four hours long, though.’
‘Is he in it? God, I can’t stand him sometimes,’ she splashed water in Rose’s direction.
‘Hurry up and get in. Live a little. Or is that not in your grand-and-super-important-yet-also-kind-of-vague life plan?’ Ophelia grinned before leaning to float on her back.
Rose took a moment. She saw the dappled patterns of sunlight on the grass, how the water glimmered like it was surfaced with diamonds. The fresh air, hot sun, the scents of summer caught in the breeze. She saw Ophelia floating, her eyes closed, completely at peace in the river like her Shakespearean namesake. Birdsong floated around them, a soundscape of melodies and wings fluttering across leaves. And there, in that moment, it all started to feel a little bit magic.
Rose wriggled out of her shorts and top, pulled off of her shoes, and marched herself to the river.
‘It’s cold!’ she said as she dipped a toe in.
Ophelia opened her eyes and pulled herself up, so she was resting her feet on the riverbed once more. ‘You know you’ll get used to it, just have to get in.’
Rose put one foot in front of the other and lowered herself down into the water. It was bitingly cold, a tonic to the sunshine. Rose submerged herself completely underwater once, the water rushing over her ears, coming up smiling so hard she thought her face muscles might spasm. It was like something had loosened in her belly, something that she hadn’t realized was wound so incredibly tight.
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They listened to the sounds of the wind in the trees. After a while, Rose said, ‘I wish I could be more like you.’
‘You’re just so… you.’
‘What’s wrong with you?’ Ophelia asked, frowning.
‘I’m too much. Annoying. You even found me too much, to start off with.’
Ophelia’s frown deepened, but she said nothing.
Clouds drifted across the sun, casting shadows over them and hasting their decision to get out. They pulled their clothes back over themselves and sat beneath the tree. They made daisy chains and draped them across each other. Ophelia, resting against the tree trunk, scribbled in a notebook she pulled out of her bag. Rose lay on her back and watched the clouds journey across the crystal-blue sky.
After a while, Ophelia gently closed her book and let it rest on the ground and came over to lie down next to Rose.
‘About what you said earlier,’ Ophelia said. ‘About you being too much.’ Her voice was low, serious, filled with an intensity that Rose hadn’t heard before.
‘I don’t think you’re too much,’
‘You don’t have to say that,’ Rose said.
‘I’m not. I think it’s a beautiful thing for you to be so open. To have your heart dripping on your sleeve like you do. Don’t let my standoffishness be the reason you want to change yourself; I’d hate that.’
‘So you didn’t find me annoying to start off with?’ Ophelia paused.
‘You see? It’s fine, don’t worry.’ Rose sat up, drawing her knees to her chest. Ophelia did the same, lightly moving her wet hair over her shoulder.
She spoke slowly, choosing her words carefully. ‘I didn’t find you annoying,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t you. I just – I’m closed off, I guess. Maybe I knew how much I would like you, and I was afraid.’ ‘Of what?’
‘You’re not going to be around, and you’re going off to uni. Which will be so great for you, a whole new life, the next step forward in your grand plan. I guess I didn’t see the point in us becoming friends because we wouldn’t have much time to enjoy it.’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
‘That’s silly, that’s not a way to think,’
Ophelia fidgeted on the grass. ‘I know. But sometimes it’s easier for me.’
‘Okay,’ Rose said, not knowing what else to say. Then: ‘Do you regret it then? Getting to know me?’
‘No,’ Ophelia said softly. ‘No, I’m having a great time.’
‘It’s not like I’m going to disappear, you know,’ Rose said. ‘I’ll come and visit. Keep in contact. It’s not too far, in the grand scheme of things.’ Ophelia smiled a small smile that didn’t warm her eyes like it usually did.
‘Sure,’ she said.
‘I think you’re wonderful,’ Rose said. ‘I’m really glad I know you.’ Ophelia stared at her for a lingering, charged moment before shifting a little closer to Rose. Rose could count the freckles across her nose now, see her wet eyelashes clinging to each other.
‘And I’m glad that I wasn’t too much for you,’ Rose said softly. ‘You couldn’t be too much,’ Ophelia murmured. She was so close. Rose’s heart pulsed electricity through her veins, and she was tremoring ever so slightly.
‘And I think that you’re wonderful too, Rose Phillips,’ Ophelia breathed, her eyes wide, spilling open. And then slowly, she leaned in so close that their noses were almost touching, waiting, watching for Rose’s reaction. Rose kept very still as if waiting for a butterfly to settle on her mouth, her gaze never leaving the dark pools of Ophelia’s eyes.
Slowly, Ophelia brushed her lips against hers. It was a light touch, barely there, and she pulled back after only a few heartbeats.
The corner of Rose’s mouth lifted.
‘What?’ Ophelia asked an eyebrow arching.
‘You look so serious,’ Rose laughed, and she kissed her again.
The world seemed to shrink and hold only them. All Rose could sense was Ophelia: the heat of her body through her damp clothes, her breath hot and falling on her face as their lips parted. The sun emerged from behind the clouds, and they were cast in dappled shadows as they pulled each other close underneath the tree.
And the rest of the summer days passed much in the same way: when they weren’t working, they were foraging, swimming, falling into one another and their sun-kissed skin. Some days, they lay in the grass under the sun in Ophelia’s garden and paint with watercolours. When it grew dark, they would retreat inside and dance to Dolly Parton or ABBA, drink red wine and make nettle soup. Occasionally they would curl together under a blanket and sit beneath the stars, and count as many as they could before they drifted off to sleep.
It was a dream, another life, a pause. Rose had never been so happy or so afraid. While she had no reservations about keeping in touch and visiting when she went off to university, as the day slowly approached for her to leave, she could sense Ophelia pull away from her, as if she was slowly and gently starting to untangle herself. The thought of losing Ophelia because of something as small as university filled Rose with concern, but she didn’t know what to say.
Time moved inexorably onwards, and too soon, it was the last night before Rose was due to leave. They were sat in the garden, on the grass, Rose in Ophelia’s arms as the sun started to go down. She tickled the palm of Ophelia’s hand with her fingertips, the atmosphere between them sombre, heavy as if waiting for a weight to fall.
‘I’m going to miss you,’ Rose murmured.
‘I’m going to miss you too,’ Ophelia said, and she sighed.
‘You’ll come visit?’
‘If you want me too,’
‘Of course, I will,’
‘You don’t think I will? Want you to visit?’
Ophelia sighed again. Rose sat up and held Ophelia’s hands in her own. ‘Talk to me,’ she said. ‘Please.’
‘I don’t – I don’t fit into your plan, Rose,’
‘Are you joking?’
‘You and your screwed-on head. You’ve got it all figured out. Uni. Marriage. House. Kids. I’m not like you. I don’t know if I want all that. I don’t know what I want.’
‘As if we have to know all that now! You said it yourself – it’s all vague. It can all change. You’re worried about nothing, nothing at all. I want you in my life; that’s all I know right now for sure.’
‘You’ve got a whole new chapter starting. You don’t need one month with me to shape so much of it.’
‘But I want it to.’
Ophelia let out a huff of surrender. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I will suspend my disbelief.’
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I don’t not believe you. I just – I know how things go, you know? Sometimes worlds are just too different. All I’m saying. Some things have to get left behind.’
‘As if you’re calling yourself “something,” Ophelia. You will never be that to me.’
Ophelia chewed her bottom lip and looked down. Rose hadn’t seen her look this unsure of herself before.
‘I actually can’t wait for the day, years from now, when I’ll get a chance to say that I told you so,’ Rose said teasingly, trying to draw Ophelia out of herself.
A small smile twisted her lips as Ophelia stared somewhere beyond their conversation. ‘I’m sure you can’t.’
Rose cupped her palm on Ophelia’s cheek, lifting her face, so their eyes meet.
‘I love you,’ Rose said for the first time.
Ophelia kissed her softly on the mouth, an echo of their first embrace, and they didn’t need to say anything more.
“She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if didn’t.”
It won’t take too long, Rose thinks. The ceremony will be over quickly, and then it will be a fun party, and she won’t have to spend long thinking about the fact that she has just killed/replaced Rose Phillips with a brand-spanking-new and completely unknown edition. She’s erasing her whole history, her whole life, in a way. Isn’t she? She imagines what George would say to her if he were in the room right now, and she let her mind spool out to him: he would kiss her forehead sweetly and tell her it was her silly little brain that he loves so much running away with nerves. But she doesn’t feel nervous, not really. If anything, she feels kind of numb.
This is everything she has always planned for. Everything is falling into place. Another life milestone to check off the list. This is where she has always been heading to, the path she’s been walking since she left Cumbria behind.
And George is a good man. A wonderful man. She does love him. She wouldn’t be standing here if she didn’t.
Someone calls for her outside the door. The car’s here. It’s time for her to go.
Her reflection stares back at her blankly as the seconds tick on, rushing her to the future she has always thought she wanted. Rose holds herself in her beautiful white dress, unmoving, and dreams of the honeysuckle cottage at the end of a country lane.
Maxine Meixner (she/her) is a UK-based writer, poet and floral print enthusiast obsessed with the moon. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway, University of London and her work has previously appeared in small leaf press, Second Chance Lit, and Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
“What do you mean you’re not going to tell Charles?” I can feel my mouth hanging open; disbelief etched on my face like crude graffiti.
“Exactly what I said. I’m not going to tell him.”
I shake my head, trying to dispel the words attempting to lodge in my cerebrum as solid fact. My new husband’s proclamation hovers between us, something nearly corporeal, the first invisible obstacle upon which our fledgling marriage has stumbled.
“I’m not going to tell David either.”
At this, I close my eyes briefly, struck with a jolt of visceral psychic pain. He closes the door behind us as I toss down my black handbag and kick off my black heels, pulling the clip from my hair. It springs free and resumes its natural state of frenzy, a lifelong burden which Mark requested I tame prior to his ex-wife’s funeral.
“What’s that look for?” he asks guardedly. I’m certain he already anticipates the objection I’m about to draw. He does not anticipate these feelings’ ferocity; how quickly and deeply I have bonded with his sons.
“Mark,” I begin and pause, taking a breath and placing my hand on his bicep before I start again. “I love Charles and David like I grew them in my own womb. They are not my stepchildren; they are my children. You know that, right?”
“Of course,” he says tersely, shifting slightly, so my hand falls from his arm to lay by my side. “They love you, too,” he adds, an afterthought as he turns to walk down the hallway.
“Well…,” I start, trailing after him, fully prepared to advocate all night for these children – for my children. “I’m glad to hear that. I think…”
Mark stops abruptly and whirls around to face me.
“But they’re not your children. They’re my children and Candice’s children, and this was always our decision.”
I reel back. It has been so long since he has said her name; when absolutely necessary, it is only ever “Charles and David’s mother.” Now, it seems sacrilege to have spoken something we’re always forbidden to utter, like it will jinx the boys; like it will rub off.
“But…” I protest uncertainly. “But I…”
“Just drop it,” he commands and disappears into the gloom of the kitchen.
I know he does not mean this the way it sounds. He is grieving. He is in shock. But he is wrong because Charles and David are my children now. Their future is irrevocably tied to mine; their happiness is my happiness.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
And I truly believe they both deserve to know.
“Because there is no cure.”
The old name comes from the Greek word for “dance.” That word is “chorea,” and thus this hellish disease used to be called “Huntingdon’s Chorea.” It is a macabre moniker; it refers to the involuntary jerks, and tics patients suffer as their nerves literally break down. Unfortunately, that’s only the beginning because the condition is degenerative. Eventually, patients cannot move, unable to speak, unable to swallow as their mental faculties decline into dementia.
Nowadays, it’s called “Huntingdon’s Disease,” and it is genetic. It is very, very genetic. It takes only one carrier to pass on the gene responsible for Huntingdon’s; only one mother or father, only one of the men and women who answer that Darwinian drive to reproduce, nurture young, and propagate the species. It takes only one chromosome to ruin generations, to ruin human lives. It is hard to grasp the true tragedy of the disease through the sterility of Mendelian genetics, but nonetheless – as dictated by that good old Punnett Square – any offspring born to a Huntingdon’s carrier has a fifty percent chance of inheriting the disease.
You’d think it would be more complicated than that, but it’s not. Fifty percent. Yes or no. Heads or tails. Life or death. A future, or the lack of one.
Because there is no cure.
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“Do you want to know how it was?” Mark challenges. “Do you want to know how bad it got before you were even in the picture?”
“Please!” I say desperately. “I’m not trying to hurt you, or undermine Candice, or insult your parenting!”
We have been fighting for hours.
“But you are,” he states firmly. “You’re saying you know what is better for my boys than I do; than their own mother did.”
“But I’m not!” I exclaim, begging him to see my point of view. “I just think Charles and David need to know what could happen. They deserve to know if this is something they will face.”
“You don’t know anything,” he sneers, anger emanating from every pore. “They had to watch their mother die. Even after we moved out and I married you, they had to see it. And there is no way I’m going to tell them the same thing could be in their future. They’re too young!”
“They won’t be young forever,” I say quietly. “They’re going to ask questions eventually.”
“But they’re not really going to get it,” Mark yells, and I understand everything in a flash of insight. Never underestimate, of course, the power of compartmentalization, the power of denial.
“They’re not going to get it,” he repeats, and turns his back on me to retreat into the bedroom.
I sigh heavily, disturbed and deeply exhausted. I think of Charles and David, safe at their grandparents’ during Candice’s funeral, and feel a flash of terror. I wince; my breath hitches. My emotional mind spirals – I think of them stumbling and stuttering, quality of life draining away, unable to communicate, unable to move – and I have to force my brain away to contain the bile that rises into my throat.
Finally, I toss my wine glass into the sink and walk into the dark living room to collapse on the couch. Right now, I have no desire to sleep next to my legal partner, the father of the children I am legally adopting. Instead, I lie awake until morning.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly
There is a test.
It is, to be clear, only a test. It only predicts; it does nothing to heal. It is good for identifying the genetic marker; it is good for letting an individual know what is in store.
A child, for example, who has a parent with Huntingdon’s can take this test; they can see the 50% into which they fall. They can know, as early as infancy, if their life will devolve into something unfathomable before they’ve even had a chance to come into themselves; they can know if they will die young.
But – and here’s the existential part – is that a good thing to know?
Does it help to know the future? Does it help to know now what will come to be? Does it help to risk the loss of hope for the chance to end up with all the hope in the world?
And who gets to make that decision?
“I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.”
I spread peanut butter on bread, smiling at my stepsons over the breakfast bar. I am making school lunches the next day while my husband showers for work.
“Eat your breakfast,” I encourage.
“I don’t like oatmeal,” complains Charles, the elder boy. He is opinionated and stubborn, the spitting image of his father. David is several years younger, the rainbow baby after Candice had a series of miscarriages, from what I understand. He is thoughtful and soft-spoken; he looks like his mother.
“I know,” I say. “But eat it anyway.”
“I miss Mommy,” says David, apropos of nothing, and I pause with the knife in the peanut butter jar.
“Mommy is dead,” says Charles witheringly, and I hear the agony under his words.
“But I want her,” says his brother, tears starting to fall, and my wise mind suddenly glimpses the future.
I see my stepsons’ graduations. I see their weddings. I see daily life, and vacations, and New Years’ Eves. I see their blissful ignorance to the monster in their DNA. I see the birth of my grandchildren (step-grandchildren, I suppose, but that still makes them mine); I see those grandchildren grow.
Then I lose wise mind, and I see Charles and David, confined to their beds, trapped in bodies which no longer work. I see their funerals before either has reached the age of 40. And then I see the same story yet again, the same tragedy, only it is the grandchildren; and on, and on, until I have to physically dig my nails into the flesh of my forearms to stop the vortex.
“Hey, guys…” I say hesitantly, new to parenting, new to grief. “Your mom…”
“Was very sick!” interrupts my husband, entering the kitchen. He shoots me a glare for mentioning her, then picks up his coffee and briefcase and lays his hand briefly on each of his son’s heads. “But your stepmother and I are healthy, and we will never leave you.”
“That’s right,” I agree, for lack of anything else to do. “We’re always here for you.”
Lunches are collected, and the bus is caught, and I wash the breakfast dishes, deep in thought. My feelings have now surpassed concern, or love, or personal opinion. Now, I feel an ethical obligation; I feel a moral duty. My sons need to know what killed their mother; they need to know before they plan for careers and mortgages before they procreate and unknowingly pass on a death sentence.
My phone beeps, interrupting this musing. It is Mark apologizing for his bad mood, for yelling at me, for making me feel inadequate. He is sorry, he texts, for disrespecting me as his co-parent.
There is a rush of love, of gratitude for this wonderful man – these wonderful children – choosing me. I was alone before; I was lonely. Now I am a vital part of a family, and I realize I also have an obligation to the integrity of this intimate unit.
The hours pass. I clean; I pay bills; I fold laundry. Mark calls, offering to stop by the store to pick up dinner ingredients. He tells me he loves me; that I am a wonderful wife and mother.
The boys return from school, bounding off the bus and bursting through the front door. I give snacks, exclaim over art projects, set them up at the table for homework. My husband texts, saying he was pulled into a meeting; he suggests ordering pizza and promises to be home soon.
The boys and I have dinner. We watch a show, and I draw a bath. The whole time, my emotional mind is focused on Huntingdon’s like a laser; it conjures up what I will wear to their viewings when I am an old lady with custody of their children. At the same time, my logical mind reflects on my husband, on our relationship. It remembers our courtship, our vows; it reminds me of orgasms and security and affection and a lifetime of tomorrows together.
I am torn between duty and respect, between love for my children and love for my husband, between all that is right and all that is easy. Just like Cassandra, I am doomed to know the future but never be heeded; I am the only one who knows what might actually come to pass. I cannot stand this dialectic of truth and falsehood, the conflict deep in my soul. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, like a cat pet the wrong way.
I tuck them both into bed, the door downstairs opening and closing as Mark returns. I hear him enter the kitchen, drop his briefcase, check the refrigerator.
I realize, suddenly, that I will have to make a choice.
I look at the sleepy children beneath their comforters; I think of my best friend downstairs.
“Boys…” I say weakly. “I…,” and I trail off as I realize I have no idea what to say next.
“Which came out of the open door – the lady or the tiger?”
Frank Stockton, 1882
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) resides in Philadelphia with her children, soulmate, and persnickety cats. She is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. Shannon is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter.
Claire Marsdenenjoys writing poetry, CNF and flash fiction, and is thrilled many of her pieces have found wonderful homes, both in print and online. When she isn’t tramping through the West Yorkshire woods, she can usually be found squirrelled away writing or on Twitter.
Jennie and the orchestra were belting out Cole Porter. Quick-quick, slow: When they begin…the beguine…it brings back a night…
“He has a pigeon,” Sasha whispered as she passed Rita at the swinging kitchen doors. “Same woman, three numbers now. On the far side, where I’m serving.”
Sasha was Rita’s best friend at the Paradise Inn. She’d helped her get the job and more recently volunteered to help manage Roberto, Rita’s boyfriend. Manage, meaning get him back into line.
From the tables Rita was serving, he stood out: a young man dancing with an older woman. A few open steps, in perfect time with the music, then wheel. Nice variations. She knew Roberto was a great dancer; they’d met in a dance hall. Medium-tall, guapo handsome, hair ebony. A weightlifter’s chest, emphasized by his short brocaded tuxedo, almost like a toreador’s chaquetilla jacket, that he’d found in a second-hand store when all this began.
What mattered was how close they were dancing.
Rita cleared the dinner dishes, left the tray on a rack and threaded through the tables to the dance floor. Roberto’s back was to her. This was an older crowd: the Unionville Class of 1983 Reunion. The woman hadn’t lost her figure or at least wore enough Spandex to still look good. She had shoulder-length coppery hair, which was surely a dye job. Her eyes were closed; his right hand was not at her waist but in the small of her back.
Finally, they turned. Roberto’s eyes were open, watching for other dancers. He saw Rita, gave her a smile and wink. She glared, he wheeled away. She shouldered the tray back to the kitchen.
On the carving counter was a short boning blade, thin and razor-sharp. On impulse, she grabbed it with a dishtowel and put it on a tray of dessert puddings. Hoisting the tray, she paused at the full-length mirror just inside the outbound door. Management encouraged them to look good. More than good, she thought. A Columbiana, she was built at least as well as that ageing Spandexed fake redhead on the floor; she danced better too. Her black hair was as long, although tucked into a net when she worked. She frowned at her reflection, making fierce black eyes.
Sasha, coming in the other door, caught her. “Pretty good, babe!”
A compliment from Sasha meant something because she was, herself, a blonde bombshell. Ukrainian by birth, but a citizen now, lucky lady, with a husband and two kids. She thought everyone should enjoy domestic bliss.
“Thanks.” Rita tried to smile at her in the mirror.
“Enough woman for any man,” Sasha persisted.
“Wouldn’t you think?” Rita said, heading out to serve the pudding.
Sasha hadn’t noticed the knife.
Rita had been a waitress for three years. Although a motel, The Paradise was mostly a banquet hall: The wait staff brought course after course to crowded tables and cleared the rubble.
If the group was male with an open bar, it could become a gauntlet of gropes as the evening wore on. High school reunions, on the other hand, high school reunions were a joy. The women often dressed in school colours matched by crepe-paper streamers; older, not rowdy, only a few drinking too much. Many said ‘thank you’ when you set a plate down— most men with wives. Always a surplus of women, though, divorced or widowed.
This Class of ’83 had wine for happy hour. Rita and Sasha and all the waitresses carried hors d’oeuvres as people renewed acquaintances, talked about how far they’d come, showed off pictures of grandchildren. Their name tags had yearbook photos, which prompted polite lies about how little they’d changed.
In fact, the men were gray-haired, if not bald, and most had varying protrusions of paunch. The women – thanks to hairdressers, facials, yoga, uplifting bras, maybe a facelift or lipo – didn’t show their age as much.
They took a class picture while rolls and salads were put on the tables. Tony James and His Orchestra began; people table-hopped and danced between courses. Most of Tony’s players were as old as the reunion people, so oldies came naturally. Some guests sang along, or mouthed words, or asked each other who recorded that song. The dancing was mostly shuffling back and forth to the music. Even the men who could lead were a bit age-stooped.
So Roberto stood out. A man should dance head back and chest out, playing with his partner how a toreadorplays a bull, first at a distance with the big cape, admiring, then closer in with the muleta.
Rita was ready to teach him about the short sword hidden in that little cape.
She set the tray on the rack again and slipped out to the lobby where Tommy, the desk clerk, played computer solitaire. “There’s a redhead in a long black dress, Tommy. Stacked well enough that you would have noticed her. Is she staying here tonight?”
“A single on the second floor. You want me to ring her? Let you leave a voicemail?”
“No thanks,” she said. “My message isn’t for her. But thanks.” She hurried back to work, biding her time.
“You were late again.”
Roberto had discovered these reunions two years ago. He arrived early to pick her up after work one night and saw those single women looking lonely. He was dressed plainly but asked one to dance, then another, then a third before Tony played Good Night Ladies.
Rita waited until they got back to their third-floor walk-up so he wouldn’t miss the fire in her eye. “What was all that dancing about?”
“That was amateur night, chica. I can make money doing that.”
“Tips, baby. I’ll bet some of those women will pay to dance with me.”
“I’m not enough for you?”
“You’re plenty for me,” he said, patting her culo. “I’m talking about just dancing. We can put the money away to start our family.”
He, of course, knew that would soften her up, but she didn’t let him off the hook. “I don’t want my boyfriend to be a . . . isn’t there a word?”
Roberto was a boricuatwo-century but had left Puerto Rico young enough to get a good New York education. “Gigolo,” he said.
“You don’t just jiggle when you dance.”
“No, no. Gigoló. A dancing partner. Perfectly respectable. I’ll dance with reunion ladies, and we’ll put the money in our nest egg.”
She relented. Still, she went to the library to look it up. Male dancer, yes. But also ‘a younger man supported by an older woman in return for his sexual attentions.’
His new sideline was at first as squeaky-clean as he promised. He took Rita to The Paradise, and if he found it was a reunion crowd, he went home for a shower and shave, dressed up and came back to stroll among the tables. After a time, he’d start inviting single women to dance. Rita never heard the invitation, of course, but he bragged about his technique as he drove her home.
“Hello there,” was his line, “I wonder if you can help me? My name is Roberto. I’m a ballet student, but just now can’t afford to keep up classes. I need to keep practicing, though. I wonder if you would do me the honour of taking a turn on the dance floor?”
He wasn’t a ballet student; he drove a bus. But with his looks, they believed him and loved how he helped them cut a fine figure their classmates would admire. When he escorted them back to their tables, they invariably slipped him some cash to help resume his supposed ballet classes.
He bragged about his performance on the way home but always handed over the money, more than a hundred dollars most nights.
She let the money stifle her jealousy. She opened a savings account at a neighbourhood bank, and their start-a-family savings began to grow.
Then one night, Roberto sought out Sasha. He told her he had to leave early and asked her to give Rita a lift home. He was dragged into their apartment at four in the morning.
She was still awake. “Qué diablos! Where have you been?”
“I gave a guy a ride home.”
“Sure. A guy. In your bus, I suppose.”
“No, really; he was too drunk to drive himself. He offered me $200 to take him home.” He pulled two century notes out of his shirt pocket. “Here, for our family fund.”
Too tired to argue, she went to sleep, turning her back, so she barely felt him crawl into bed.
She felt him next morning, though, hard as a rock at ten o’clock, wanting to make love. “You’re supposed to be at work!”
“I called the dispatcher. Said I was sick. I want to be sure we’re still okay, you and me.”
Roberto wasn’t only a good dancer; he was a wonderful lover. She wanted to believe him. He promised she’d never need a ride home from Sasha again. They made love without a condom.
When her period didn’t come the next week, Rita got a test kit at the drugstore. Pregnant. Which made a difference the next time he had “a man who needed a ride home.”
In Sasha’s car, she cried most of the way to the apartment. Sasha turned the engine off. “You don’t have to put up with this,” she said. “There are other men. Throw the bastard out.”
“I can’t; I’m pregnant.”
“Oh, God! Does he know?”
“Rita, you gotta tell him. He’s going to be a father; he’s got to be responsible. I’ll have Ted find him at the depot, talk to him.” Ted was her husband.
“And tell him I’m keeping an eye on him. I do the tables nearest the dance floor.”
“Thank you, Sasha.”
Rita didn’t tell him right away, though, and Ted may not have spoken to him before it happened again.
“Does he know yet about the baby?” Sasha asked as Rita wept again on the way home.”
“You’ve got to tell him. And tell him you don’t believe his giving-rides-home stuff. Don’t tell him tonight, though, in the morning. Be all sweetness and light, and then lay it on him over breakfast when he’s not expecting it. When he’s vulnerable.”
So Rita didn’t wait up and pretended not to hear him tiptoe in. In the morning, she woke him without a kiss and got breakfast. They couldn’t afford eggs often, but Roberto always wanted them after they had sex – “restored his resources,” he said – and she put eggs over-easy in front of him.
If he got the signal, he didn’t show it. She pressed the point.
“You were late again.”
“Another guy who’d had too much.”
“And where did he live?”
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He took just a moment too long. “West Newbury.” He embroidered it. “Someday, we’ll live in a town like that. Nice neighbourhood, two-car garages. His wife hadn’t come last night. She’ll bring him this morning to get his car.”
Maybe I should write down the numbers from the car’s speedometer to get the truth out of him, Rita thought. No, hardly necessary. She ignored the lie and did what Sasha urged. “We’re going to have a baby,” she dropped on him.
There was no joy on his face. “Oh, my.”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s sooner than we’d planned,” he said and managed to add, “but it’s wonderful! We should get married.”
Be tough, Sasha had urged. “I’m only interested in a faithful husband,” Rita said.
He got it and gave her a lengthy apology. “I don’t mean these things to happen. The devil puts temptations in my path.”
“So I should give you five Hail Marys, and all is forgiven?” Rita said. “Go see a priest.”
He actually wept; it would never happen again.
“You’ll give up the dancing?”
“We’ll need the money for the baby.”
She relented, he promised, they made love.
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
Two months went by; more dancing, more money in the bank, no funny stuff. Until this night with the Spandexed redhead.
“Did he see you watching?” Sasha asked.
“And he didn’t right away take her back to her table? Bad sign.”
“I’ve had it,” Rita said. She let Sasha see the knife. “It’s time this toreador got gored.”
“Oh my God! You can’t do that. You’ll go to prison and then get deported. Your baby will be put up for adoption. Why ruin your life?”
“I don’t care; he’s already ruined my life.”
“Let me think,” she said. “Go tend your tables. And give me that knife.”
Rita let her take it.
Ten minutes later, in the kitchen, Sasha had another plan. “You’re barely showing. Picking up a man for the night is entirely credible.”
She explained her plan: Turn the tables on him. It was time to teach him his lesson.
And then throw him out, Sasha insisted. It wouldn’t be easy, living alone on waitress earnings. But the new baby bank account was in her name, so she had a cushion. She could find a smaller apartment. Maybe think about abortion; she’d be unlikely to find a new man willing to disregard a swelling belly left by another man. In any case, show him the door.
Okay, Rita said, let’s do it. So she told the kitchen boss she was sick and took a taxi home. Sasha would catch Roberto toward the end of the evening, between dances. “Have you seen Rita?” she would ask. “She said not to wait for her tonight. One of the guests is drunk and needs her to drive him home.” And, she would add naively: “Does that make any sense to you?”
Roberto dropped the redhead like a bomb and stormed out to the lobby to ask Tommy if he’d seen Rita. “No,” Tommy said truthfully. Rita got all this later, of course. Roberto strode out to ask Vincenzo, the doorman if she’d left with anyone. He hung around until the guests had gone home and staff had cleaned up. Sasha waved goodnight to him.
Meanwhile, at home, Rita packed his belongings. Everything. They only owned one suitcase each, and she didn’t want to lose hers, so most of his stuff went into plastic garbage bags. Then she took a bath and went to bed. Maybe he dozed but was quickly wide awake when he came home at two.
“You’re late again,” she said, playing innocent. “Someone else needed a ride home?”
“Never mind that. Where the hell have you been?”
“Right here, sweetheart. Didn’t Sasha tell you I came home early because I wasn’t feeling well?”
“That’s not what she told me.”
“Maybe you misunderstood. I had morning sickness.”
“In the middle of the night?”
“The doctor said it could come at any time.” She was cool. “What did you think?”
That stopped him. He didn’t want to say what he’d been worrying about all evening.
She let him stew for a minute before asking the question that was the punch line of Sasha’s plan. “How did you feel about our marriage the last few hours?”
It was a pleasure to watch him; she told Sasha later. He frowned, trying to figure out what she meant. Then his eyes opened wide as he got it. He started to scowl, angry at being duped. Finally, his face softened into a smile, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I guess I deserved that.” He looked around and saw all his stuff on the floor. “Are those things mine? What’s that about?”
This was the moment. Pick ‘em up, you gigoló deceiver, she was ready to say, and get out!
But first, be sure he knew what he was going to miss. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting what he’d let slip away, wishing he was still with her, helping bring up a man-child.
“If you put your ear on my stomach, you can hear the heartbeat,” she said. “The doctor says it’s a boy.”
Don Noelis retired from four decades’ prizewinning print and broadcast journalism in Hartford, CT. He took his MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University in 2013. You can visit Don at www.doneonoel.com.
Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Orange Blossom Review, Funicular Magazine, and EcoTheo Review. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes, and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He can be contacted at matthewjandrews.com.