By: Nikki Williams
Ashley had had it with the litigator, Joachim, but still found herself going through the motions. Suffice to say, she was barred by his arresting appeal. Slowly, she retrieved shoes, dresses, inter alia from his house, lighter things she later found weighed on her heavily. She’d learned love was its own caveat, like a rosebush riddled with perfection, like soft paws hiding claws.
Items and itinerary hung in the balance; the irony of ‘joint custody’ eating away at her core. So far, he’d managed to retain her wine opener, half of her Glad tupperware, the after dark reruns in her mind.
On the days she was the most strung out, she’d drop by to pick up something else so they could sleep together. She couldn’t fathom that any of the last times was the last time, their season wrapped, the script shelved — memories left on bone-white sheets, now as crumpled as a receipt.
Her mind tossed and thrashed the way they once had in the Pacific blue.
She’d imagined herself folding like layers of kimono silk into each stanza of his future, their future. Things were once as loud and lit as Wangfujing; then, he’d rolled the dice. Litigator, gambler, gregarious, whatever.
Weekends were no different than the doppelgänger days. The job that worked her last nerve was all that helped her hold on to it.
Jim from Admin’s ‘suppressed feelings’ had leapt out of nowhere just two weeks prior. Go figure. He was on her line again, peddling his midweek supply of affection.
She made a note to get his thoughts on HR’s last compliance memo, and let white lies slip through the cordless as she browsed Boohoo’s clearance sale.
“That’s ok”, came the synthetic voice. “Maybe Mira might want to go, the tickets are good until..”
Racy, bubbly Mira-Sue. Tech intern extraordinaire.
He tried serving up envy with his unctuous scoop; Ashley didn’t bite. “..approachable, she’s kind of sweet, you know, easy-to-like, maybe salsa les..” She made a face. The male gaze was an unfailing enigma; unblinking, roving, faraway. Still, Jim was as close as she’d g to the grapevine. Rearranging her Cart as he pored over the variety, she wondered why it wasn’t clicking; Mira wasn’t her cup of tea.
She fished some chips from the Garden of Eatin’ bag, drowned out his droning with some Red Hot Blues.
Right around when the breakup hit fever pitch, Ashley realized that she and racy, bubbly Mira sat out lunch hour purgatory in their cars. Jim Morrison moaning, “Girl you gotta love your man” from the electric blue Ford didn’t help Ashley’s mood, but Mira’s mystique grew.
Things picked up after a random elevator ride. Ashley had almost missed the door fussing over a broken umbrella rib, then saw the outstretched arm blocking the sensor. When Mira moved over to the handrail as she slipped in, Ashley was brought up to speed at a glance.
“Cool bracelet,” Ashley said, shifting her eyes. She meant it. It was a keen mix of elegant and edgy; you couldn’t tell if it was a family heirloom or a flea market find.
“Thanks,” Mira said, turning her head,
The plum pout parting into cigarette smile.
The ‘ding’ of the transit fulfilled.
Stilettos down the vinyl stretch.
They were cordial after that, though Ashley wouldn’t call them friends. It felt like a perfect time as any to invite Mira over for drinks.
They arranged it for Saturday night, just an hour or two on her way back from the garage. Ashley gave her some route options, didn’t mention the strata of shadows lurking at the final bend; Mira didn’t seem to spook easily.
Nothing, not even shopping or sage killed the embers of Ashley’s smouldering old flame. The spectres of love lost hid in corners, hounded each second of Ashley’s dog days.
It shouldn’t be this hard either, she thought. Joachim was far from perfect.
Once, he fell asleep on the highway heading back from a wake. A malfunction would be a mild understatement.
Too many times she’d dropped everything so he could interrogate, probe, linger. Her eyes aflutter like clouded Apollo, white wings waning under hot, hot light.
When his fiancée freed herself that summer, Ashley’s phone shook until she stirred at 4:00 A.M. Plugged in on the opposite side of her bedroom, her phone may have been out of reach but she decided each time she was not.
Nothing in her house worked the way it did before they split— not the hardwood Hoover her mom had loaned her, nor her own cast iron resolve.
She could hardly recall her last night out or in for that matter without Joachim; the walls seemed to be pushing her out of herself. But company was on the way; she hurried to hide the salty tide as well as the mop.
Flirting cicadas trilled in the twilight as the Focus entered Ashley’s driveway. Lemon Zing wafting, eyes glistening, Ashley opened the door to sweep out the last lines of dust and nearly hit Mira mid-swing. The blonde was on the balcony recovering from the stairs, peering into the old pool in the middle of the complex. She turned to face her host, smiled at her effusive remorse, still rubbing her protesting knees.
When they stepped inside, Mira went silent, staring at the sea of city lights. Her gold lariat glinted in the twinkling haze.
“I haven’t seen a sunset like this since Denver,” she said finally, handing Ashley the bottle of Reisling. Ashley noticed the rings on every other freshly lacquered finger.
“Sweet”, she said, glossing over the booze. “You know, you don’t give me Colorado vibes at all,” Ashley said, reaching for glasses she wouldn’t need.
Really? Mira raised an eyebrow, thumbing her Zippo.
A sly smile crept across her persimmon lips, like the low sun had found a worthy lair.
They both chuckled, and Ashley may have blinked a few times too many. She caught Mira’s slow wedge-heeled strut across the living room.
“Loveland”. Mira smiled at the appellation. “It’s miles away, not exactly miles ahead, but it’s home, you know. It’s like, an hour outside of Denver. My family, all my firsts, everything’s there.”
“Loveland.” Ashley nodded. “Sounds.. lovely?”
Laughter. Easier this time. She could do this, she thought, it was only a few hours. Ashley eyeballed the bottle’s fine print, sounding out buzzwords, pretending to understand tannin.
Mira cleared her throat. “So”, she chirped, when she arrived at her bay window target.
Ashley lifted her eyes to find Mira’s furrowed brows. An unlit cigarette shook as she spoke.
“You wanna tell me about him or are we gonna talk about our pets all night?” She leaned back and lifted the latch, turned so she could see Ashley properly.
“Who?” Ashley asked too quickly, frowning.
She was caught between wondering how she hadn’t been more subtle, and not wanting to bore her only guest since God knows when. She thrummed her fingers on the sink, stared down at the delicate bottle neck.
“Have at it”, Mira insisted, amused, anticipating the rest of the onion tears.
Ashley sighed. She lifted the tail of her t-shirt over the cover, squeezed— crick-crick-crick — left the cover where it fell.
She put away plenty and was pouring out in no time, walking along walnut planks to the red La-Z-Boy Winchester. For a few split seconds all is well, peachy as the wine breached. Ashley felt freer than the streams of silver smoke Mira blew towards the moon.
Many hours and more than half the bottle later, Ashley was a somnolent heap. There had been heaving sobs, quieter ones. Now: soft snores, shallow breaths. The faint siren of her ticking heart.
Mira shook out a new cigarette; her lighter clicked, closed. She was stunned she hadn’t seen it all along. Mira was only light-weight in her looks. She had other qualities; hers was an uncanny vintage. People felt like they could tell her anything. And they did.
Folks from her neck of the woods ripened early. In all her Aunt Blanche’s old stories, her hands were honey. One suitor called her the elixir of life as moonlight from a motel window bathed her vernal flesh. Mira remembered how her mother’s jaw had tightened as Blanche tittered at the memory. She had the same look years later when her zesty seventeen year old went to live with her father in Denver.
The daughter her mother wanted had a six year advantage and not a sordid bone in her body.
Her sister would have liked Ashley; her mother too. They were pretty proud of their high-brow penchant — ‘zeal’, her mother had said — any sense of richness being their ideal pairing. Too hard to resist.
Mira was once under the sway of Loveland. Was. People had lots of names for that sort of thing she realized, loudest among them: safe.
Blanche, sharp as she was savvy, saw sentences in Mira’s eyes, spools that would not sound. Her big eyes burned when she gave her her blessing and the secondhand first car of her dreams. Against the quickening night, Mira filled her like new Focus with clothes, books, notes. Caution and strain hit the breeze when she floored it.
Colorado was 1,118.3 miles away, yet here she sat in its ghoulish gaze. Click, close. Still in her heels, Mira rose slowly, loosened her shoulders, inching her way around the flat. Above her head, English Ivy garlands hung in salute; lusty Pothos let down gold streaked strands. She fingered the wraparound bookshelves, the tower of bestsellers, fiction, picture frames. Mira scoffed at a well-thumbed copy of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Her eyes passed over the streaks on Ashley’s jowl. “Like that’ll help”, she muttered.
She faced the Veronese statuette of Yama, the Restrainer. From where she’d sat at the window, the Hindu God of the Dead looked like he was riding a dark horse. Clarification. Not as dramatic but sinister still — his buffalo soldiered on along the blacktop of good intent.
She wasn’t one hundred percent listening when Ashley reeled off her ex’s two-timing.
From what she gleaned, Ashley kicked him in the balls the final time, with her good knee, (the left one). That was another thing — they’d each had a knee injury; his left had been rugby wrecked. The matching affliction was a cute running gag, until Ashley accepted he wouldn’t be getting down on either one.
Mira was admiring the mandala wall decal while Ashley waxed on, thinking of recoloring the tribal sun tattoo around her navel. Her mother had wept for hours when she discovered the starburst on her smooth flesh.
Mira was mulling over the lurid old patterns when Ashley stirred.
She looked around, connected the wine-dimmed dots, and sat up. Mira kept piecing her thoughts together. Earlier, her skin had blushed and bristled when Ashley’s hands touched her shoulders at the door. She picked up the wine bottle, sweetwater at low levels, and planted herself at the opposite end of the couch. Swig, swish, swallow. Ashley raked back black curls, tendrils etched onto her bare temples.
Ashley sighed. “I’m sorry about earlier. I didn’t mean to ruin your night with all…that. I…”, her voice trailed off. Grasshoppers sent out their last call from the shrubs and shadows. “How long have I been asleep?” she asked, eyes lowered.
Mira wanted to say, ‘a while’.
The question rolled currents within her, fanned forgotten names. Clear as day and tracing darkness. It was Mira’s turn to dive into the biting blue.
“You know the story about the birds and the bees right?
“What?” Ashley burst out laughing. “What’s that got to do with..”, she started, squinting at her wrist.
“Just hear me out on this one”, Mira said, placing the bottle in Ashley’s palm.
In Mira’s version, the birds were vultures; the bees bumbled in and out of people’s lives, back and forth and back again because they could.
Mira asked Ashley if she’d ever heard of the Devil’s Backbone. No? A shame, she said. It was a Loveland landmark, a nature trail in the heart of her hometown — beautiful, open, empty. Everyone raved about it except for anyone who’d ever lost their balance on the scree, landed on their knees; anyone who’d survived the looming snakes, the looping trails.
The sun scorched everything in the yawning space; arid acres, wild flowers. Still, people came—some for the picnics and the sunsets, some for the backseat feasts.
And then, as with everything beauty, it gets old.
When the hunter’s trail and the keyhole view no longer got her blood flowing, Mira chose to take a hike. For good.
She hesitated for a moment, then went on talking.
“Sometimes it’s ok to leave when you’re inclined you know, before shit gets really rocky,” she told Ashley.
Before things get too steep, or the formation crumbles, she said to no one.
Mira said everything slow and kind. Swig, swish. A calm silence lingered save for the private party next door.
Ashley’s hometown had lots of fruit and no snow. She’d take surfing over a summit any day, but racy, bubbly Mira had struck a chord somehow. Even the lines that lodged between larynx and latitude, where none but the leggy blonde could go. Warm fingertips curled round the long neck, inched toward the dewy finish. Swish, swallow.
Soft peach rays ambled into the apartment, sliding in with the cool, cool air. A question burned in Ashley’s throat.
“What happened? To.. um.. him?” Ashley asked.
Mira met Ashley’s gaze, then dipped her head, fumbling for her keys.
“You know, I read something once..” she said into her shoulder.
Ashley cut her off with a light jab – “Should I sit down”?
Mira laughed. “Short answer. Promise.”
The keys came loose with a tug.
“How did it go…When the ax… got to the forest, the trees thought the handle was one of them.”
“Who knows?.. Maybe the ‘ax’ is still out there… somewhere.” She slicked venom on the word with air quotes, swiping the air with her free hand.
“That, or I gotta spend way less time on Pinterest.” Mira said, rolling her eyes.
Her secret smile drifted to Ashley’s face, lifted them both above the dance of the dappled light.
Nikki is a journalist and music critic who wishes she was fluent in Spanish. Her work appears in The Citron Review, Ellipsiszine, Sublunary Review, LEON Literary Review and is forthcoming in HOOT Review and PreeLit. She munches trail mix and takes stunning photos when not busy writing. She tweets: @ohsashalee / See more: linktr.ee/writenowrong
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