Savior Complex

Me and the past never really saw eye to eye, so when I occasionally ran into someone I used to know, I immediately flipped through my mental Rolodex for an excuse to chuck at them before continuing on my merry way. It worked like a charm every single time, that is until I bumped into Tatum.

It had been at least seventeen years since I last laid eyes on her and the years had been very kind to this woman, in fact, she hadn’t appeared to age a day. She was still that slender mocha-skinned Honduran with a disarming smile but the updated version rocked a nose piercing and shoulder-length dreads in lieu of a bob cut. I couldn’t believe that I was actually pleased to see her, and during the moment of reciting the usual social pleasantries by rote, all the negative history between us had been replaced with heart-warming nostalgia.

Her smile never wavered when she mentioned her life hadn’t turned out quite the way she planned. When we were together, she was studying to be a lawyer. Now, she worked as a marketing senior manager for a cosmetics firm, was the mother of two, a girl and a boy, nine and thirteen years old respectively, who were fathered by a deadbeat boyfriend who ditched both the wedding and his kids in one fell swoop.

Time had no meaning as we stood there conversing on the sidewalk and for the first time in quite a while, I honestly enjoyed exchanging words with a person who wasn’t a character trapped within the confines of my overactive writer’s imagination. But all good things, as they say—so, we exchanged numbers, promised each other we would call, and went our separate ways.

And on my way home, the strangest nagging notion crept up from the back of my mind: had we been able to work things out all those many years ago, her life might have turned out differently. Better. Then came the guilt, as if my absence was somehow responsible for the direction her life had taken. And on the tail of the guilt came the shame for not being a better boyfriend to her and a better person in general.

I promptly deleted her number from my phone because neither she nor I needed to be reminded of what might have been.

Less than a week later, once I had time to regret deleting her phone number, she called with an invitation to have lunch and meet her children. I wasn’t keen on the latter, but against my better judgment I wanted to see her again, so I agreed.

We met at a faux Italian restaurant, a fast-food chain done up in dime-store décor to give the eatery a stereotypical taste of Italy, and I had to admit that I didn’t mind her kids all that much. They were a bit unruly but what children weren’t at those ages? Although I felt a little awkward being interrogated by her brood, it was nice being in Tatum’s company again. I experienced a level of comfort that oddly felt like home.

That was until her daughter, Stacie, asked, “Did you and Mommy have s-e-x?” as if spelling the word somehow made the question safe to ask.

Confirmed bachelor that I was, I wasn’t comfortable chatting with a nine-year-old about sex. Having no idea what the proper protocol was, I turned to Tatum and with a look, asked, Did we have s-e-x, Mommy?

Without batting an eye, Tatum answered, “Yes, we had sex.”

Was that how it was done nowadays? Was it the norm for ex-boyfriends to be brought to lunch with the kiddies to openly discuss their sexual history? I was still reeling from that exchange when her son, Lee, chimed in, “You could be our Dad!”

The old one-two punch. These kids worked me over like a speedbag. They laughed at my embarrassment and I tried to play it off, but it unnerved me on a deeper level. The rest of the conversation was downhill after that in terms of my personal comfort. We got on well enough, the four of us, better than expected, and when we said our goodbyes after lunch, I was hit with another weird sensation—jealousy. Because her children weren’t our children and at her family dinner table, there was no place setting for me. It only lasted an instant but long enough for it to have registered.

I tried to put things into perspective, tried to remember why our relationship ended in the first place. It wasn’t a build-up of all the minor things, the petty annoyances that masked the underlying truth that people sometimes simply grew apart. It was the Santeria. I told her I didn’t believe in magic, voodoo, and things of that nature and it was true, but the other truth was that it scared a part of me that I didn’t want to acknowledge.

If Tatum actually practiced rituals, she did a great job of keeping it to herself, her mother, on the other hand, was very open and vocal about the matter. That woman hated me the moment she clapped eyes on me, no rhyme, no reason, just pure unadulterated hatred. For some reason, I hadn’t measured up to her exacting standards of what constituted a proper boyfriend for her daughter and she never bothered hiding that fact. She visited our apartment constantly and when she left, I would find things hidden around the house, under the bed, in the refrigerator. Santeria objects everywhere.

Things finally came to a head the day I came home from work early and walked in on a Santeria ritual in progress. Our tiny studio apartment was packed with strangers clad in all white, eyes closed in a trance, and chanting in a language I didn’t understand while they danced to the beat of the drummers positioned in each corner of the room. Tatum must have given her mother a key because she was standing in the center of the room, smoking a cigar and glaring at me as if I was the intruder in my own apartment. Speaking in tongues, the old battleax walked up to me and blew a cloud of disgusting smelling smoke into my face.

Tatum came home to find me lying face down on the floor. I told her what happened and not only had she taken it all in stride but she also took her mother’s side, stating that I had no business interrupting the ritual. I’ve never been an arguer, chiefly because I was no good at it but we had a knock-down-drag-out that day…which ended with me moving out of the apartment that night and never looking back. Depending on how you looked at it, if her mother did cast a spell on me, it actually worked because I was finally out of her daughter’s life.

I kept this firmly in mind when Tatum phoned and invited me around hers for dinner. I accepted the invitation with the intention of cutting ties with her altogether but being gentlemanly about it and doing it in person. And if I was being absolutely honest, it had been a month of Sundays since I had a proper home-cooked meal because no one in their right mind would have called what I did cooking.

Tatum greeted me at the door in an apron dusted with flour and seasonings, the picture-perfect happy homemaker. The kids were in the kitchen and to my astonishment were finishing up washing the dishes. They dried their hands before they ran up and hugged me. I looked into their faces and something seemed off. Their smiles were too wide, teeth too white and there was something unnatural about the intensity in their eyes. And their faces were different, still possessing features reminiscent of Tatum but the rest was somehow…incomplete, like faces in transition. I chalked it up to a writer’s overactive imagination and thought nothing more of it.

Dinner went well. Who knew Tatum could have been such a gracious hostess? The kids made the meal a pleasant experience, as well. They stopped bickering and playing with their food when I asked them to, laughed at my jokes, and listened with rapt attention as I told the story of how I met their mother. Cutting ties with them wasn’t going to be easy.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and Tatum pulled out a photo album and flipped through family pictures of vacations with the deadbeat boyfriend, of her during various stages of her pregnancies, of her and deadbeat holding a newborn Lee, and later with Tatum holding a newborn Stacie while deadbeat lurked somewhere in the background. A life well documented.

She described how difficult things had been. Deadbeat developed a drug habit and came around under the guise of seeing his kids only to beg off some money in order to score and if that hadn’t worked, he stole things to sell. One time when Tatum refused to give him any more money, he had Stacie and Lee removed from her custody by Child Protective Services because of alleged abuse charges. She was nearly in tears as she spoke about the hell she had to go through in order to get her family back together.

As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. It was deadbeat, whose Christian name was Oscar, most likely coming around again to score. She spoke with him in hushed tones through the space in the apartment door allowed by the security chain. When his shouts turned to raged kicking on the door, I stepped up behind Tatum so that he could see me.

“Everything all right, Tate?” I said, placing a hand on her shoulder.

It was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Oscar lost his mind to the point where there was no reasoning with him. I did the only thing I could think of doing, I made sure he saw me dialing 911 on my cell. This caused him to weigh his options, and he eventually left but not before making a threat to come back to get his kids and make Tatum pay.

She convinced me not to involve the police but only after Tatum agreed to let me stay the night in case Oscar decided to return. We tried to salvage the rest of the evening for the sake of Stacie and Lee but deadbeat’s presence lingered in the air.

The sofa was made up for me as comfortable as she could manage but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was afraid that Oscar would return and afraid that I wouldn’t be of much use since I wasn’t a violent man. All I could have done was to block his attack while Tatum grabbed the kids and made their way to safety. And if that was what it took, then so be it.

When I started drifting off, as the tension of the evening released its grip, Tatum came to me. Her nightgown slid off her perfect body. Why hadn’t I ever noticed just how perfect she was before? She stood there, naked and beautiful in the moonlight that poured in from the window, and I knew then and there that I would have done anything for her. Smiling, she climbed on top of me and it was paradise.

After we were done, after all the love I was capable of making had been made, after the pillow talk in which things were said that were sweet and emotional and ultimately meaningless, Tatum gathered her nightgown and went back to her bed. I understood her not wanting the children to find her in my arms in the morning, but a small piece of me was disappointed.

My head swam with a million thoughts, my heart filled with far too many emotions, and that combined with the feeling that something wasn’t right, meant there was no sleep for me tonight. I was so preoccupied that I hadn’t heard it at first. The sound. The jingling of keys.

I went silent, straining my ears—moments passed. It couldn’t have been him with a set of keys. Surely Tatum would have changed the locks. Then it happened again. The sound of a key sliding in a lock. I sat bolt upright on the sofa, eyes scanning the darkness for a weapon. Remote controls, game console controllers, DVDs—the candy dish! It was no gun, but glass and solid enough to damage a skull.

I stared into the dark hallway from the living room entranceway. The sound of the doorknob turning. The door opened a crack and light spilled in from the apartment building hallway. An arm slipped in through the crack. It held something wire-like. A hanger? The tip of the hooked wire scratched at the door until it found purchase. The handle for the security chain. It slid across the groove slowly until the chain fell away.

I should have acted then. I should have rushed the door, slammed his arm in it, put my full weight against the door, held him there and called the police for them to cart him away. But I was held in place by a tense moment that locked inside of me. Instinct had taken over. So had the fear.

The intruder’s silhouette appeared in the doorway before the door clicked shut behind him, plunging the hall back into darkness. Footsteps, slow and deliberate. The floorboards creaked as if they were screaming a warning.

Then I heard a rustling come from the kids’ room. Had they heard the noise? Were they coming to investigate? Something snapped inside me. This bastard wasn’t going to harm the kids!

I charged into the darkness until I collided with the intruder. But as angry and determined as I was, it was no match for his explosive violence. He heaved me into the air and threw me on the floor. The ashtray slipped through my fingers and clattered away out of reach. The intruder proceeded to punch and kick me and I had absolutely no defense, I threw up my arms but they blocked none of his attacks. He wrapped his hands around my throat and I flailed spastically to get him off me as I gasped for the air that had been cut off from me.

I was overcome with fear but my body was overcome with instinct. My limbs simply tried anything they could to free my throat so I could breathe. But the intruder was having none of it. He slammed my head against the floor in a violent demonstration of his control over me as I gasped my last remaining breaths.

Then light flooded the room. Tatum and the children stood at the end of the hall, staring at me. My emotions were mixed. I wanted them to go away, I didn’t want them to see me like this. I wanted them to get to safety, but on the other hand, I wanted them to help me. I didn’t want to die.

But there was something in the way they looked at me, something that told me things weren’t right. And I looked up at the intruder—

Who was no longer there.

And now I understood why they were staring at me. Here I was lying on the floor with my own hands wrapped around my neck. It took some effort for me to loosen my grip. I staggered to my feet and tried to explain how Oscar had come back, how he had a key and he broke in and was going to do something terrible to them, but they didn’t understand.

Who was Oscar? they kept asking and, What’s wrong with Daddy?

When I told them to stop it, that it wasn’t funny anymore, that I wasn’t their father, looks of genuine hurt danced across their faces. I ran into the living room and grabbed the photo album for proof and flipped through the pages of—

Tatum and I on vacation. Me posing with her during various stages of her pregnancy. She and I holding a newborn Lee. Of us holding a newborn Stacie while Lee lurked somewhere in the background.

I had no recollection of having taken these photos, yet they existed.

And I looked at Stacie and Lee and they were different again, now a mixture of Tatum…and I thought I actually saw bits of myself in their faces. The kids asked Tatum what was wrong.

“Daddy just had a nightmare, that’s all,” she explained. “Everything will be all right in the morning, everything back to normal.”

And as Tatum ushered me to the bedroom, she grabbed the pillow off the sofa and something fell onto the floor. It looked like a figure made of folded palm leaves but I couldn’t see it properly because she quickly brushed it under the sofa with her foot.

“What was that?” I asked, my head still swimming in confusion.

“Just one of the kids’ toys,” she replied in a tone so soothing it was almost hypnotic.

Tatum said she would talk to Lee and Stacie about picking up their things, or she asked if perhaps I could do it because she wouldn’t have time since she was staring at a monster of a day at the law firm tomorrow, sitting first chair on a high-profile case.

That’s right, she’s a lawyer, I thought as the fog slowly lifted from my brain. Why did I think she worked in cosmetics? Perhaps she was right, everything would be all right in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Everything would be back to normal.

Of Breadcrumbs Lost (a Thanksgiving tale, of sorts)

What caused me to speak to the man, I cannot rightly say, for I do not make it my business to chat with homeless people. They are a dime a dozen in the city in which I live and work and if I regularly engaged with them, I would never make any of my appointments on time. But there was something about this man with the sun-faded, barely legible cardboard sign, something in the deep well of his eyes that beckoned me.

He told me his name was Horace as I patted my pockets to add validation to my claim that I had no money to drop into his dingy paper coffee cup, a statement I made before he even asked. In truth, he never asked. I simply went into automatic defensive mode, not wanting to seem heartless, but not offering any charity, either.

“We all drop breadcrumbs in life,” Horace said.

“Do we?” I asked, struggling to mark his intention.

Horace nodded. “Even the most carefree among us, and we do this because normalcy comes well-equipped with comfort zones. You may take exception to the word normalcy but it has nothing to do with the definition society places on the word normal. Here it applies to the recurrent patterns in your life, the things you’ve grown accustomed to.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“The breadcrumbs are used to lead us back to the path of familiarity when the detours we take spiral beyond our ability to control and/or accept.  I stray from the path constantly chiefly because my path is an uneventful one, which many people would kill for, but I find boring. I ought to be a baker with the number of breadcrumbs I’ve dropped over the years.”

“Um, I’d love to chat, but it’s Thanksgiving and I really must be on my way.”

“Since I’ve always been able to find my way home I never had a problem tearing my life apart,” Horace continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “Going on concrete jungle pilgrimages, and returning to my path at some later date to rebuild things from scratch. But this time is different. This time the demolition wasn’t of my choosing and there’s something about the way events have been playing out over the past six months that have clued me in on the fact I am near the end of the race.”

“You’re dying?”

“Homeless yet again, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I have this sinking feeling deep in my marrow that this will be the final time. There’s no way out and no way back. All the breadcrumbs I dropped to lead me back to the main road of rebuilding my life are gone. Most likely eaten by the crows of a fate long overdue. I guess you can only hit the reset button so many times in life.

“And I can’t honestly say I didn’t see it coming. Life stopped making sense about three years ago, though not all at once. Little by little, all the rules I had ever learned, all the tricks I added to my arsenal, no longer applied. Now, life, the daily routine that the majority of the population manages to perform without a second thought or breaking a sweat, is a game I no longer know how to play. Existence no longer makes sense to me.

“Needless to say, it doesn’t help matters that I have always possessed a nihilistic bug in the back of my brain that constantly questions the logic of struggling to achieve anything when all roads lead to death.

“As you can probably work out, I do not believe in the afterlife. So that we’re clear, this is not an invitation for proselytizers to dust off their soapboxes. I am an aspiritual entity and I’ve made my peace with the fact that I shall not receive salvation. If religion works for you, good on you, I wish you nothing but the best.”

I stood there in silence, wanting to walk away, but also wanting to make sense of this interaction. As if reading my mind, Horace said,

“The purpose of my stopping you from your events of the day and rambling on about things which bear no significance to you is to pass on as many of my thoughts and impressions before I lose my sanity to the streets and become one of the wandering bagmen screaming at invisible antagonists.”

And it finally dawned on me. “You want to be remembered,” I said.

“Who among us doesn’t want to be remembered?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?” I asked.

“It was not my intention to solicit charity from you, sir, at least not of the monetary kind.”

“I didn’t say anything about giving you money. I need to put something in my stomach before I go on the search and I don’t like eating alone.”

“What are you searching for?”

“Breadcrumbs,” I answered. “You said you’ve been dropping them all your life. I’m sure there are enough lingering around somewhere to get you safely back on your path.”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Wishing all who celebrate the holiday (and even those who don’t) good food that fills your belly, good health as you strive for your unique brand of success, and good times with family and friends. May you have all the best delights in a life filled with moments that are as sweet as pumpkin pie!

Tiny Stories: Susa’s Playground

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

Everyone who ever met Susa knew there was something not quite right with the soft-spoken alabaster-skinned little girl but not one single solitary soul could have told you what it was that set her at odds with the rest of humanity.

She appeared to love her parents dearly, was respectful to adults, kind to animals and everyone she met, and never spoke a bad word against anyone or anything, never threw a tantrum, and was never angry or upset with anyone over any matter, not even when people were unkind to her.

But each time Susa’s head touched the pillow, the young girl would spend her sleeping hours traipsing through the dreams of the unkind others, pulling them into a phantasmagorical landscape which showcased the death of everything, their loved ones, hopes, ideas, memories, and every other type of death both real and imagined.

Not as revenge or punishment, mind you, but as an example of the rewards that awaited those determined to remain on the wrong side of her good temperament.

Stars Go Blue by Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys (posted on MasticadoresIndia)

We cannot help who we are attracted to and even the most hard-hearted among us have fallen victim to one or more of the five main determinants of attraction: physical attractiveness, proximity, similarity, reciprocity, and familiarity in their lifetime. But there are behaviors that we find charming in romantic comedies and romance novels that would unnerve us in real life.

Submitted for your approval is a love story of sorts:

It was a secret place, a quarter acre of Eden abandoned and erased from the mind of mankind the instant the original sin was committed, and I had stumbled upon it quite by accident. No, that was a lie and I promised myself I would not defile the sanctity of the garden if it could be helped. I was not proud of the actual reason of how I came to be in this place, simply because I was a stalker [Continued here…]

Stars Go Blue by Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys — MasticadoresIndia // Editora: Terveen Gill

No Future In Arguing

Because of the argument with her mother, Lakshmi wasn’t able to sleep. It happened ten days ago to this very minute and her hatred for her mother hadn’t abated one iota. Truth to tell, she wasn’t able to remember who started the argument or what the initial disagreement was about but, as with most feuds, it opened a doorway for all the other things, the niggling bits of minutia to spill out, and words were exchanged and feelings were hurt on both sides.

Ten days of freezing her mother out. Ten days of refusing to eat or talk or even be in the same room with that woman. Ten nights of lying awake in bed, staring at the headlights of passing cars that trailed rectangles across her ceiling. Lakshmi knew every inch of the ceiling and walls of her room like the back of her hand…which was why she was shocked when her eyes fell upon the crack.

It was beside the mirror that sat atop her chest of drawers, a horizontal crack no longer than a foot in length that resembled a demonic smile. Lakshmi stared at the crack long and hard, wondering how she had missed something so obvious before…when it blinked. All right, so perhaps blinked wasn’t the proper word, but she could have sworn she saw a light flicker from within the crack.

Probably just the wiring, she thought as she pushed a chair against the wall beneath the crack. At night, Lakshmi regularly heard mice scurrying between the walls. One of them must have nibbled on a wire and exposed it. She’d have to remember to tell her father in the morning as it had to be a fire hazard.

Standing on the chair to inspect the crack, she ran her index finger along its jagged yet smooth edge which was surprisingly cold to the touch and she thought she felt a slight suction…then the flicker again!

I didn’t imagine it, Lakshmi thought as she leaned forward and stared into the crack. There was something moving within and she was surprised to see that it was…

Herself.

It was like watching a movie. She watched herself being herself, doing the things she normally did, but not on any day she ever remembered. The images began at a normal pace, then sped up to such a degree where, to anyone else, they would have appeared to be nothing more than a blur but Lakshmi was able to follow along because she was somehow connected to them. They were her personal images, of her life and she was living them, retaining the information contained within them as the events unfolded.

Eyes glued to the craggy slit in the wall, Lakshmi watched the rest of her life, the entirety of her existence, unfold before her in a series of flashes. Her life was quite literally flashing before her eyes.

Flash: Her relationship with her mother falls apart after a series of little spats over the next few years, which leads to the fight to end all fights when she turns seventeen which causes irreparable damage. That will be the final time the two will ever speak to one another.

Flash: Her father grows miserable with all the constant fighting, which wears on his soul until he can’t take it anymore. Lakshmi cries uncontrollably the day he finally leaves their home for another woman. She begins smoking to handle the stress.

Flash: Her dream career of becoming a geophysicist vanishes that day she quits college for a job that allows her to move out of the family home and away from her mother for good.

Flash: She works so many menial jobs, none of which manages to hold her attention for very long, and slowly saps all the dreams and creativity she holds in reserve. With each successive job, the sheen in her eyes dulls a bit more.

Flash: As with the job situation, so too her love life. Her many attempts at love fail for the same reasons time and time again. Somehow, she becomes relationship poison and seeks the same.

Flash: Eventually, her worries and frustrations in finding a mate cause her to settle for a man beneath her worth, a man who adds nothing to her life, a man who also works dead-end jobs with no hope of career advancement.

Flash: Then comes the struggle to save money for secondhand furniture and a used car, and as rents increase, their apartments over the years become smaller and rattier.

Flash: She cries alone in the bathroom with a pregnancy test showing a positive result.

Flash: The birth of her daughter, Rani, is agonizing and when it’s done and the baby is placed in her arms, she knows she should feel something, tries to feel love, but the emotions just will not come.

Flash: Not long after, she’s pregnant again with a premature boy this time, Samesh, and makes the effort to spread the already nonexistent love even thinner.

Flash: Samesh is born sickly and remains that way. Medical bills mount that they’re unable to pay, and her husband comes home later and later, complaining of overtime that is never reflected in his paycheck.

Flash: Fed up, her husband leaves in much the same way as her father did, for another woman, and she now is forced to get a second job to make ends meet.

Flash: Her already distant relationship with her daughter grows volatile when Rani turns to drugs after running with a group of delinquents.

Flash: Samesh’s condition worsens and neither her husband nor Rani are present at the hospital when he dies.

Flash: She develops a cough that turns into a hacking fit that turns into lung cancer that kills her a day before her sixty-sixth birthday. And like her son, she too dies alone.

Lakshmi thought the images would stop there, but she was mistaken. Somehow she was actually able to see beyond her own death, where Rani, holding a one-year Narcotics Anonymous recovery coin, arrives at her hospital room moments too late. Too late to apologize, too late to make amends, too late to say “I love you.” And the pain of this sends her running back to a drug den to score, where a fatal hot dose takes her life.

***

A noise, the sound of wood and plaster breaking in reverse, pulled Lakshmi away from the visions of her future and back into the room with such a quickness that she staggered back, falling off the chair, and hit the hardwood floor with a heavy thud.

A concerned woman’s voice called from outside the room. Her mother. The woman she hated mere moments ago and wished all the nastiness a seven-year-old girl’s mind could muster…but now, there was something else. Something she couldn’t quite remember. The images of her future started jumbling inside her head to the point they no longer made sense and began evaporating like so much mental vapor.

Something about her father and her husband leaving? Something about a baby…a girl, or maybe a boy, sick and dying? And a fight, a big fight…

Scrambling to her feet, Lakshmi raced out of her bedroom and down the hall as memories greyed out and faded from her mind. There was something she had to do, something before these feelings vanished and she went back to being angry.

She burst into her parents’ room, where her father, just about to fall into a deep slumber, leapt out of his skin at the girl’s sudden arrival.

Her mother, on the other hand, was fastening her dressing gown, about to investigate the sound from her daughter’s room, when Lakshmi rushed up, arms flung wide, and embraced her.

“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!” Lakshmi sobbed as the recollections of her future life disappeared completely.

Her father watched in confusion, while her mother shrugged at him, smiled, and stroked her daughter’s hair, cooing, “Everything will be all right. Everything will be just fine now.”

***

In Lakshmi’s room, the crack in the wall, once the length of a wooden school ruler, began to shrink, as the wall knitted itself whole again.

Personal Space

The hawk was most definitely out tonight as I stood at the bow of the Staten Island ferry, coat collar popped and gloved hands thrust into pockets. This particular hawk bore a vicious set of teeth and wasn’t afraid to bite, which was fine by me. The colder weather combined with the icy wind that whipped off the bay afforded me some much-appreciated elbow room, a concept that was foreign to most New Yorkers.

Being all alone out here wasn’t a problem. I had been alone most of my adult life. Alone in a crowded room. Alone in committed relationships. The people closest to me, those tenacious few who loved a challenge, were kept at an equidistant arm’s length.

Alone was my appetite.

Alone was my mantra.

Alone was my destiny.

“Not too cold out tonight, is it?” a female voice said, almost sending me out of my skin. There, suddenly beside me, was a woman bundled against the chill air, lips curled slightly in sarcasm. Right next to me. Within the boundaries of my personal space.

“Not as cold as it could be,” I replied more out of reflex than want. What I wanted was a little privacy, to tend to my own affairs as other people on the ferry tended to theirs. It was part of the unspoken rule when you agreed to live in this city. You avoided eye contact and kept yourself to yourself.

I looked at this stealthy woman who took me totally unawares. A full foot shorter than me, pretty, petite, and of an ethnicity I could not readily identify, not that I was a whiz at determining a person’s country of origin on sight alone but her features suggested an exotic mélange that was almost otherworldly and anachronistic.

The immediate thing that came to mind wasn’t how stunningly attractive this woman was. My first thought was actually, Why are you talking to me? As a point of clarification, that was one of the things I admired most about myself, whether it was my face or the vibe I gave off, people generally never felt the need to walk up and talk to me. Unless of course, they were stark raving mad, or out to start a fight with a stranger they mistakenly assumed was harmless. She was clearly neither of those.

But the thought evaporated as suddenly as it appeared. She blurted out a simple statement of fact and I happened to be within earshot. Conversation over. Turn the page.

But it wasn’t over.

“Do you know who you are?” she asked in an accent that wasn’t exactly foreign but didn’t slot into any of the thirty-some-odd American English dialects, either.

“What?” I was taken aback by the suddenness of the question. “Of course I do. What kind of question is that?”

“I am not speaking of trivialities such as your name or occupation, your nationality or sexual preference, those are merely the tinsel people decorate themselves with to appear grander than they actually are. I want to know if you had to describe yourself to an absolute stranger you had no interest in impressing, what would you honestly say?”

“Most likely? Nothing.” I admitted. “I’ve never been fond of delivering self-summaries.”

Cavitation filled the long silence between us and I believed the conversation to be over.

I was mistaken.

“How old would you say I am?” the woman asked.

“I’ve never been good at guessing ages,” I replied, again out of pure reflex, something I’d have to learn to control better in the future.

“I am fairly certain that if I gave you one hundred guesses, you would not come close,” she said and for the briefest instant, her expression took on a sadness that could only have belonged to reminiscence. “You may not believe me but I am so old that there is no map in existence that can pinpoint my birthplace, a location lost within a faded memory that I have traveled the entire globe in search of, visiting places you probably do not even realize exist.”

“You’re probably right about that. Geography really isn’t my strong suit and I haven’t really traveled outside of the five boroughs.” I was instantly embarrassed by my lack of worldliness. “So, what brings you to New York?”

She remained quiet for a moment before answering. “I work for an organization, currently in a state of transition. It suffered drastic downsizing due to image problems and public opinion. My employer is in the midst of rebranding and taking on new staff to suit the company’s new direction. You can say that I am one of many headhunters.”

“Bravo. That was an artful dodge. You just said a mouthful and told me absolutely nothing about what your organization does to make a profit.”

“I can tell you, but only if you really want to know because that information comes at a price.”

“Which is?” I asked.

“Your undying loyalty.”

I chuckled. “Of course.”

“Of course, you agree to my terms, or of course, as in mockery?” she cocked an eyebrow my way. “We must be clear about this.”

“The latter, no offense.”

“I see,” she ran a hand through her hair to remove it from her face. I noticed she wasn’t wearing gloves and hadn’t actually appeared to be cold, the more I thought about it. “You asked me what brings me to New York. Would you believe me if I said it was you?”

I held up my hands in surrender. “All right, this is where I officially check out of this conversation.”

She took a step closer. “Your loneliness, your isolation is like a beacon to me. I am drawn to you. I know your kind. I have seen your future and you will most assuredly die alone. No mate, no children to carry on your legacy.”

“I hate to break it to you, lady, but I’m happily married with three kids who adore me.”

“Not true in the slightest. You have lived alone ever since your cat died of leukemia two years ago.”

“How—how could you know that?”

“The same way I know the first girl to break your heart was Shirley Hartsdale in the sixth grade when she began dating your best friend behind your back and made you the laughing-stock of the school. To this day you hold a distrust of people because of that incident, even friends and family.”

I hadn’t caught the last part of her sentence. My brain was flooded with thoughts of Shirley Hartsdale, someone I hadn’t thought of in years and even now, she left a bad taste in my mouth.

“The organization I work for has that sort of information available to them, not solely on you but everyone on the planet.”

Oh God, I started to panic. She’s a terrorist. Part of some ferry-riding Sleeper Cell that uses attractive women to pry information out of dumb single Americans. My photo was going to land in some Homeland Security dossier marked Terrorist Sympathizers. At that moment I just wanted this woman to be away from me. Far, far away.

“I am not a terrorist,” she smiled. “Nor am I a member of a cult. What I am is an adherent of a peacekeeping task force that seeks to restore balance to the world with the help of people like you, the overlooked, the forgotten, the unloved. More than an organization, the company that employs me is my family and is directly descended from the first family ever to touch foot on the Earth. It can become your family, as well.”

“What I can offer you is a love unparalleled,” the woman continued. She touched a finger to my temple and the wind died away. The air barely moved for several moments and I listened as she spoke. My world began spinning savagely. I winced and swallowed hard to prevent nausea from triumphing as her words poured images into my mind, saturated with so much sensory information and emotion that I thought I might have burst at the seams.

“You will want for nothing. I will bear you many children and you will have a family the size of a small nation. A family who will worship and adore you. All this and more if you will simply pledge yourself to me forever and always.”

She moved her finger away and the stillness of the air vanished, and the wind rose once more. I staggered a moment, my mind reeling with the imagery that pressed a palpable weight on me. When I regained my balance and sight, I stood there stunned and in comparative silence after being shown a world that only existed as the flimsiest of pipedreams. The reality finally hit that I was dealing with something way beyond my limited comprehension, something that threatened to swallow me whole if I wasn’t careful.

“And you will be free to follow your secret dreams. Let loose the novelist that resides in your heart and millions will read your words. You will be well received all around the world. Spend your days lecturing, even teaching and sculpting young minds, if that is your wish.”

She went on to say, “Or write and direct films that interest you, and your following will be massive. Fellini, Scorcese, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Tarantino, would not be able to hold a candle to you. Release a film each year, all guaranteed award winners, featuring stars of your choosing, all eager to play even a minor role.”

“And all this will happen because of you?”

Her tone became sharp as a knife. “No, because of your pledge to be with me and only me.”

“Like signing my soul over to you?” I knew the answer but had to ask anyway.

“What an archaic notion. All I need from you is your promise, sealed with a kiss. The question is: Do you want to live the life you have always dreamed of living or not? After years of struggling and going unnoticed by women and society at large, you learned to wear your isolation like a protective shell but this is not who you truly are, who you were meant to be. If anyone deserves a shot at the brass ring it most certainly is you, is it not?”

The weight of her stare made it difficult to maintain eye contact. “That’s tempting, it really is…but I can’t.”

“You would turn down everything?”

“I’m too old to believe I can have everything, and while I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, I’m smart enough to know I won’t be happy. Maybe at first, on the surface, I will, but as time goes by I’ll know deep down that I didn’t earn any of those things.”

“Your struggle is a matter of record, my offer is simply payment overdue.”

“And you’re an unbelievably beautiful woman…”

“Thank you.”

“But I’m a man, cursed with all the frailties of the male ego.”

“I do not understand.”

“If I did this thing, if I let you alter the course of my destiny, I would need you to love me in order for it to matter.”

“I do love you,” the woman said and her bewitching eyes were filled with so much pure love that it made my heart ache to see.

“No, I need you to love me even if I had nothing of value to offer you. Don’t ask how, but I know all you’ve said so far is true, you’ve been careful not to lie, it’s an expertly constructed contract. But even with you offering the perfect life I wouldn’t be satisfied because you wouldn’t be with me because you loved me. You’d be with me because you needed something from me. Something I’m not clever enough to figure out at the moment.” I felt foolish because I truly couldn’t work out the angle. My soul wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on so I had to be in possession of some undiscovered value that was worth her organization’s while.

And suddenly I was aware of the nearness of the woman and no longer thought she was in my personal space but that I was in hers and I worried about what being within her sphere of influence might do to me. I was afraid that her essence, the power she projected would have tainted me, marked and cursed me forever.

“It appears I misjudged you,” the woman said, her expression as icy as the wind. “Your ego-driven need for unconditional love is just a mask. Your problem is not being too old to possess everything you have ever wanted, it is being too afraid.”

“What?” my voice cracked as I felt a sudden pang of terror.

“You are a dichotomy of fear. You are afraid of dying home alone, yet you fear leaving your house to meet a woman you can form a relationship with, you fear being friendless yet fear making friends, fear being childless yet fear the responsibility of having children, you fear being loved, fear being hated, you fear life and just about everything else and you are content to let it rot your soul as you waste away out of existence.”

The wind rose in unison with the pitch of her voice and I was hit with a blast so icy it made my eyes water. When I wiped the tears away and cleared my vision, the woman was gone.

I went inside the ferry because I felt the sudden and dire need to be around other people, to be close to them, to feel their warmth. I settled down in a seat between two strangers, neither of them pleased that I had invaded their personal space, but I was past the point of caring at the moment.

Looking down at the opposite end of the ferry, I saw the woman talking to a man, most likely another lonely bastard like me. I wanted to go over and warn him but he probably wouldn’t have believed me, and wasn’t it up to him to face his own temptations? Who’s to say that he wouldn’t have been within his rights to accept? And was I a fool for letting the opportunity to end my loneliness pass me by?

Then and there I made a promise to change my life, to put Shirley Hartsdale in perspective as I got on with living, and reconnect with old friends if it wasn’t too late, and I pledged to make new friends as I sought out the love I deserved and stopped waiting for it to come to me. If there was indeed some undiscovered value within me, I was determined to find it.

At least that was the lie I told myself as the ferry pulled into the harbor.

Tiny Stories: Our First Time

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

I almost passed on the blind date. I mean, when had that sort of thing ever really worked out? A friend who claimed they knew you, your tastes, and your interests, matching you up with your soulmate? In reality, all it really amounted to was pushing two single strays together to avoid being the couple saddled with a fifth-wheel friend.

But the moment I saw her, Orelline, my blind date, I knew two fundamental things at the exact same time (1) that I was punching above my weight class because she was phenomenally out of my league, and (2) I would be so nervous and foul things up so badly that this would be our one and only date.

And I was nervous, embarrassingly so, and clumsy, and tongue-tied, and trying way too hard to seem more interesting than I actually was. I replayed that night over in my head at least a thousand times, cringing at every fumble and misstep, and for the life of me, I could not understand why this stunningly gorgeous woman agreed to a second date.

I wish I could say that the second date went better than the first, but whatever small measure of confidence I had amassed over the years abandoned me completely. I floundered like an insect drowning in yogurt. And when the date ended and I saw her to her door, I was prepared to apologize for, well, for being me, for not being good enough for her, and I probably would have stammered my way through that speech, that I had been mentally preparing on the way to her house, had she not shut my thought processes down…with a kiss.

By date eight, we had forgone the need for meeting in a restaurant or catching a movie, or going to the theater. Instead, Orelline insisted that I come to her place and bring a change of clothes. I would not allow myself to presume what that meant but I secretly prayed that what I thought might happen would indeed happen.

Her text notified me of the key under the mat and when I let myself in, I discovered a trail of rose petals, lit by a row of candles that led to her bathroom. I had brought with me a bottle of champagne to help ease the pressure of our possible first time together and made a detour to the kitchen in search of glasses.

The bathroom door was slightly ajar so I entered but upon seeing me, Orelline hid her body beneath the suds of her bubble bath.

“I’m sorry,” I said, immediately regretting my intrusion and turning to leave. “I shouldn’t have come in unannounced. I just thought this would be sort of, I don’t know, romantic? It was stupid of me.”

“No, don’t go, it’s sweet, really,” she beamed a smile that seemed forced. “You just startled me, that’s all.

“Look, if you’re not ready for this, if we’re moving too fast, just say so. I can wait until the time is right.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Then what is it? And please don’t hand me the it’s not you it’s me line. I’d prefer it if you were just honest with me.”

“But it is me,” Orelline confessed. “I’m afraid.”

“You’re afraid? Of what?”

She couldn’t meet my eyes. “I’m afraid that if we make love, your opinion of my supposed beauty will change drastically.”

I studied her face and the peaches and cream flesh of her exposed arms and answered, “I can’t imagine a scenario in which that would be even remotely possible.”

She exhaled slowly and stood up in the bathtub. The soap suds slid down her glistening body, revealing the fact that every inch of her skin that her clothing normally covered was a labyrinthine knotwork of scars.

“I’m into a particular kind of sex,” she said, as the champagne flutes slipped through my fingers.