short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
No angel crafted by God, no words of pope or poet etched on parchment, no magic of sham or shaman, no conjuring or conjecture of Man, could ever draw simile or metaphor, paint or sculpt, to mark the twain, to take the measure of what time and flesh has stolen.
I’m not trying to explain anything. I’m just saying the way it is.
Diane called, again. “I was hoping you’d change you mind. Mom and Dad really wish you’d come.”
“Not likely. I’ll see you day after tomorrow. We can have our own little Christmas.”
“I just don’t get it. You could at least stop over for a little while.”
I knew she stamped her foot like a six-year-old.
You’ve said, a billion times. “There’s nothing to get.”
“What? Tell me. Do you hate God, or what?”
Now, you’re just getting irritating. “Has nothing to do with God. I told you: sometimes, particularly on the holidays, I like to be alone.”
“You can do this just once, for me?”
“I told you over and over. You said it was okay. Why’s it not okay any longer?” My question was rhetorical, an old story in human relationships.
I could not appease Diane. I did get her off the phone, clearing my mind, unwinding on the comfortable chair by the second-floor front window in the back of the horseshoe court of the Harrington Manor apartments. Cottony gray clouds quicken dusk, lighted windows glowing from all directions, the wind hinted by the movement of bare-limb trees and leaves dancing along the ground.
Snow, squalls at least.
I sipped tea: Lipton, double-bagged, steeped, a lime wedge, two dashes of Angostura aromatic bitters, a chunk of natural honeycomb and a shot and a half of Old Grand-Dad, 100 proof. “Christmas Eve.” I offered a long sigh to the night. “Finally.”
The 3’ spruce stood proud atop a box in full view of one of the two front-facing windows, the twinkle lights the only illumination in the apartment. My childhood hung from the branches, bookmarks of other times, innocent times, good times, times lost to the sweeping hands of the clock.
The angel, my mother’s angel from her childhood, one of two keepsakes I had of hers, watched down as I slipped the key into the Yale padlock, which secured the clasp on the living room closet door.
Diane commented on the lock six months before, her first visit to the apartment. “What’s so important you have to lock it up?”
I answered with a shrug. “The lock is to keep the demons in, not people out.”
“Yeah, demons. You know, unworldly creatures that can destroy people’s lives.”
Habits. I switched the tree lights off. I knew rationally twinkle lights, unlike the lights I grew up with, would not start a fire. Habits are rarely rational.
I retrieved the velvet-like purse, deep blue, a multicolored embroidered flower on the flap, from the shelf, breathing in the rich odor of Obsession and makeup. Like children lined up to enter school, I arranged items on the bathroom sink: the moisturizer, Covergirl Creamy Natural foundation, pressed powder to match, Covergirl black-brown mascara, Maybelline Natural Smokes eye shadow set, Tulip lip gloss, sea sponge and two cosmetic brushes, natural pearl nail polish, Secret deodorant, 1” gold snowflake posts and gold chain with a ¾” cross, a diamond chip in the center, a Christmas gift from me, to me three years before.
Somewhere beyond the darkness a TV droned, apartment doors opened and shut, people called joyously, people laughed, all unintelligible white noise held, caressed by the swirling wind. The hot water spilling from the spigot melted the white noise away, the dozen pillar candles pushing the darkness back, painting dancing shadows on the walls and ceilings, filling the air with reminders of Christmas past.
The water, topped with white foam like the birth of Aphrodite, almost too hot to tolerate, invited me like a return to the womb. The dancing shadows, the hot water, Aphrodite’s foam and the Ivory soap pulled me into a peaceful dream and wonderful sweat. With the care of a master sculptor, a new blade in my razor, I shaved my legs, finished my second cup of tea and almost fell asleep floating on the clouds.
With the tub drained and meticulously cleaned, I slipped into my white satin nightgown and white bikini briefs from the closet, extinguished the candles in no hurry and then stood, breathing in the darkness of my apartment. All my life, since I can remember, I’ve had an unreasonable, neurotic fear of the dark. When dressed, I had no fear of the dark whatsoever.
Putting my damp four-inch-below-my-shoulder hair up in curlers in the soft glow of a single candle, I placed four wrapped boxes under the tree, snuggled in with my blankets, listening to the sounds in the distances like so many wraths dancing on the roof, soon to be chased away by a sleigh and eight reindeer.
I awoke peacefully just before 2AM, put flame under the percolator, carefully shaved in soft candlelight, worked moisturizer into my face and then gave life once again to the lights on the tree. With my first cup of coffee, black, no sugar, on the bathroom sink, I worked the foundation in, setting it with powder. I absolutely loved the china doll look on me, warm, inviting. I used three shades of soft brown shadows, bringing my lashes out with the mascara.
Years before, when I went through a Goth phrase, I went heavy and dark in the eyes, lying on a black liner. Though I felt the look was great for me, the years moved me on to the subtle browns, no liner, complimenting my chocolate-with-the-hint-of-deep-mint eyes. I glossed my lips. Again, I went through a bright red phrase, but came to like the hint of color, as with my fingernails, which I meticulously shaped and coated.
Watching myself in the bathroom mirror, each roller unwound in turn, dropping into the sink. Sitting on the toilet bent over, I bushed my hair from the back, then worked a dime-sized dab of gel through. The results were lots of waves and twice the volume to my chestnut hair. When I stood in the candlelight before the mirror, as usual, I was spellbound by my appearance.
I wet my index finger with Obsession, applied my finger to my wrist, then rubbed my wrists together. Again, my Obsession was a Christmas gift to me from me years before.
Another sigh, another cup of coffee, sitting watching out the front window, my transparent reflection looking back, lights, dark and cold beyond.
Carefully opening the square package, I unfurled the No Nonsense pantyhose, tan, sheer to the waist. Words to put to the feeling fail me, my heel on the chair, working the material over my toes, around my heel, my leg going straight, the pantyhose caressing my flesh, my other heel coming to the chair, repeated, standing, pulling the waist into place. I was nine years old when I first fished my mother’s discarded stocking from the trash. I recall distinctly the feeling: warm, soft, whole, filled. The years changed nothing, the same feeling washing over me Christmas morning.
Removing my silk nightgown, I folded it, replaced in its box. In my younger days, I wore bras, stuffed. I enjoyed the illusion, never going over the top, sticking with a B. Christmas, I went with a lacey camisole. I stepped into my button-front brushed denim half-sleeve dress, empire waist, breaking at my knee, scoop neck to show off my gold cross.
My 3” heeled round-toe black patent leather pumps completed my outfit.
With my third cup of coffee by the window, toasted English muffin with orange marmalade, I sank into a bliss of being I’ve never elsewise experienced.
The court glowed from most the windows, yet the night-into-morning sat dark under deep cloud cover. “Silent night.”
Winding a knitted red and white scarf around my neck, I slipped into my blue wool coat with the faux fur collar, leaving my gloves in the pocket, temperatures close to 30. I pulled the plug on the tree, washing my apartment in darkness, only pausing briefly to pluck a white carnation from the vase by the door, an arrangement I bought myself the day before. I inserted the 5” stem through my hair, behind my ear and then let myself into the common hallway.
The world sat quiet, sleeping.
The stairs melted under my feet, quietly, gingerly down to the common door, the heavy door swinging toward me with a pull, the night-into-morning washing my face with cold, fresh air. Keys in hand, my purse secured over my shoulder, I stepped out into the world, my pumps tapping out a cadence on the concrete, calling back in echoes around the court. I adored the feeling of my pumps, my Achilles’ stretched and flexed with each step. I adored the feeling of cold air on my pantyhosed legs, the rustling caress of the denim against my thighs with my fluid motion.
Hyperaware of my environment and myself in that environment, as I crossed the seventy-five yards to the street, I got glimpses of watching myself, like an out-of-body experience, my reflection in the windows following me. I thought if I were to stop, turn around and look back, I’d see myself sitting at my window watching me.
My red Chevy Vega, being a distinctive car, rested three blocks away, not on the street in front of my apartment. Even after a year and a half, I did not know my neighbors in my four-apartment common stair or around the court. Me, with a social anxiety disorder borderlining on agoraphobia, I lived like a recluse, other people being as people generally are, kept to themselves. Over the years, I’d experienced ridicule and violence from the most unlikely sources. I kept my propensities to myself.
The vinyl seat drew a shiver from me, the car jumping to life, shattering the silence. The streets were dead, few cars passing. If I truly lived a cliché, a milk truck would drive past. I liked the roads on Christmas morning, most the houses lighted, pushing back the cold and darkness of winter.
The few cars on the road worried me, likely people getting in late from too much partying. Police. The police concerned me. Although I did nothing illegal, a cop acting out his own hate, fear, pain or drama could make a terrible day for me. Imagine, locked in a cell for hours, people parading by to gawk and laugh.
I do not belong to a church. I do not attend church. I certainly don’t call myself an atheist, but I am not a believer.
Yet, I wear the confirmation cross, entering the Trinity Church, a small affair in a tiny town called Belair, just as the 6AM service began. If we used an ironing board for a shoehorn, we could maybe squeeze one hundred people in, standing room only. This morning, pews held a quarter that, some faces turning to look, the minister nodding to me, the choir half-populated.
The patrons were mostly working people, coming from or going to work, an interesting melting pot of people all ages and races, a handful familiar from the past years. Mrs. Drummond, a woman in her late eighties, signaled with a bird-like hand beating at the air.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered, slipping down beside her.
“Yes, it is. Everything okay?” Her left hand rested in my hands, on my lap.
“Not a problem in the world. You?”
“My health, you know.”
Yes, I know. If the crutch is secured in its spot by the hearth. “Another year.”
“Another day above the ground.”
“Yes, another day.”
“My grandson’s picking me up. Come over the house?”
“You know I can’t.”
“I know you won’t.”
“Yeah, that, too.”
The flesh of her hand was soft, colder than it should have been. I helped her up for the songs, us sharing a hymnal, and down for the prayers, then back sitting in the pew.
“You go,” she said. “I’m –”
Too tired to walk the distance to receive communion. I knew I’d not see Mrs. Drummond the next year. “I’ll sit here with you, if that’s okay.”
We were the last to leave, Mrs. Drummond chasing her cane, her free hand around my elbow.
“Nice service, Father Brown,” I said at the door.
“Too long,” Mrs. Drummond said.
“But nice?” Father Brown raised an eyebrow.
“Yes, yes, nice.”
A spry man about my age, nicely dressed, bounded up the steps, taking Mrs. Drummond’s free side.
“Kasey, you remember George. He’s going to be a doctor, you know.”
“Hi, George. Of course, I remember George, and you told me, twice, during Father Brown’s sermon.”
“He does go on.”
“Yes, he does, Mrs. Drummond.”
“Kasey’s coming out the house this year.”
“Really?” George asked as we reached the car.
“No, not really.”
We hugged, George holding the door. “I think you two would really hit it off,” she whispered in my ear.
If I liked men that way, my life would make some kind of sense. “Oh, I’m sure we would.”
With Mrs. Drummond in the car, George took my shoulders and kissed my left cheek. “Thanks. She really looks forward to seeing you each year.”
I’m sure I blushed, his chocolate eyes anxious, somehow, he had my hand, inappropriately close. “It would really mean a lot to her.”
I was firm, but gentle. “George, it’s Christmas. I do have a life.”
He nodded toward the car. “She thinks you go home, sit alone and stare at the walls. I mean: you don’t have a boyfriend. Can I call you?”
I smiled warmly, putting my free palm to his face. “I mean this: if I were looking to date someone, I’d count myself a lucky girl to date you.”
His smile, reluctant. “Next year, then. Like in a corny romance novel.”
“Next year. And, Merry Christmas.”
I lingered, waving to Mrs. Drummond as the car pulled off, wondering whether George would come down the church the next year looking for me, even if his grandmother were dead. “Romance novel, indeed.”
Over the years, I’d thought of taking Mrs. Drummond by the hands, looking at her sternly and telling her I wasn’t a natural girl. I didn’t want to see hurt, fear, hate, drama or disappointment in her tan eyes. Mrs. Drummond’s daughter, who I never met, married a Catholic man, taking on her new husband’s religion, which is why Mrs. Drummond attended the Episcopal service alone. Her son-in-law was not a tolerant man, not tolerant of other religions or peoples.
I enjoyed Mrs. Drummond’s company. I knew I couldn’t, shouldn’t insert myself any farther in her life, even if only to stop by on a spring day once in a while and drink tea on her porch.
George, with his dark, strong features and oozing confidence – I could drown in his over attention – filled me up and made me dizzy the way his eyes drank me like eggnog on Christmas Eve. There, on the curb, in front of the church, next to his car, I thought to rest my forearms on his shoulders, giving him the Christmas kiss I knew he craved. It’s not like I’d never kissed a man before.
The kiss, I knew, would just be a kiss, meaning nothing beyond the brief moment, melting like spring snow. I didn’t want to give George the wrong impression, the wrong impression obvious in his eyes already.
I craved the moment as much as George. Experience had been a good teacher. I learned: to take the kiss would be greedy, unfair and dishonest. After all, I’ve stood on a sidewalk in George’s shoes many times. I’m not saying at the age of thirty I wasn’t foolish, but I was far less foolish than a decade before.
Saint Mark’s Memorial Park was an old cemetery with narrow, winding roads, small, I guess. My father’s parents were buried there. As things would go, in a handful of years, my parents, estranged from each other and me, would be buried there, too. I arrived with the sun making itself known behind the clouds, the bellowing, rolling clouds like gray cotton giving up large snowflakes, snowflakes dancing in the windless air like ash from a fire.
“Another year above the ground,” I repeated, fishing the carnation from my hair, stooping, placing, presenting the flower. “Merry Christmas, Helena.”
Helena was my first love, my personal archetype. A year ahead of me in school, I never met her, loving her, longing for her from afar. I dreamed my best dreams of her, plotting, knowing someday I’d meet her, we’d fall in love, grow up, get married and life would be normal, perfect. Her nine, me eight, she died without warning about six weeks before Christmas.
I never learned the details. Details didn’t matter. Withdrawn, having social anxiety disorder even then, in death, she became my best friend forever, a psychogeist. Over the years, I’d try to picture what kind of woman she’d grow into. Behind closed eyelids, I’d always see me.
After all, neither of us were real.
The roads were busier, people on their way to see family, friends. I’d get attention from my fellow motorist, glances, sometimes stares. Over the years, I learned the art of watching who was watching me without me looking in their direction. Returned glances generally got diverted eyes. I adored walks through the mall on a busy Saturday evening.
Parking around the corner, far from the same place, I enjoyed the leisurely walk back to the apartment, now the landscape washed with defused light, the sun behind the canopy of clouds, the clouds misting sleet, the dream and hope for snow melting away. I passed people in the court, some familiar, some not, heading out. As is the human custom, we didn’t make eye contact, minding our own business.
I liked that, and didn’t like that, about human beings.
Transparent tape held a simple note to the door about eye level: Where are you? I assumed Diane called, getting no answer, decided to come over and leave the note. I knew Diane was owed a conversation, which I’d been putting off. Maybe owed isn’t the right word. On one hand, my gender crossing didn’t affect our relationship, had nothing to do with Diane and was frankly none of her business.
I adored Diane to the point of worship. I loved how she was and who she was, which was why I owed a conversation.
Dropping my coat, scarf and purse on the sofa and lighting the tree, I touched up my makeup, made tea, minus the bourbon, and got comfortable on the floor opening each carefully wrapped package. I figured I must have been a good girl. I received: a pair of 2” gold hoop earrings, a white spaghetti strap sundress with exotic flowing red flower design, which I’ve wanted for years, an ornament, a 3” white unicorn with gold appointments and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in hard cover, signed on the inside leaf: To Kasey, Christmas 1984.
I relaxed into my chair by the window, watching the rain, enjoying my tea, reading Dickens well into the afternoon. The unicorn joined my other memories, like wraths dancing in the darkness, not of this world. My real present to myself was the gift of time. I’d pause, looking up from the book, watching out the window. There, on the sidewalk in the cold rain, I could see me walking away. She’d turn, finding me in the window, offering a little wave. The wave could be hello or a wave goodbye.
Which, didn’t matter.
She’d smile, saying: “I love you.”
I’d smile back. “I love you, too.”
She doesn’t exist in objective reality. I’m not sure I do. Looking carefully in the mirror that Christmas, I knew her days of walking abroad among her fellow people, traveling far and wide were coming to an end, time and flesh stealing her from me.