True Fictions

David wished that he could change things. He thought he could, sometimes. That’s what being creative is; writing is making a world happen with the imprint of ink on paper. In the little spidery lines where the black bleeds and snakes through the white, you can lean in close and see the beginning, the seeds of what is happening with each word.

There was a city, he wrote. He wrote and built its skyscrapers and its glistening towers, the windows that shimmered in the sun and the sunset that paled behind the neon glow of the stores and restaurants, cafes and tattoo parlors. With each letter he typed, it took shape, and the people began to stroll down the sidewalks. A couple, interlaced arms and somber clothes, ambled past him. A harried businesswoman skittered down the steps to the subway station on the corner. A tall man with a green mohawk and a glinting artillery laced through his face and ears slumped against a wall with a cigarette. At the end of the block, a sandwich board advertised “Free Booze!” in teetering chalk handwriting.

David looked down the street, and saw Mark saunting along on the sidewalk toward him. Mark was his main character; his fingers flashed across the paper, pen scratching, and Mark paused. He stood hesitating amongst the swarm of people and checked his watch, frowned, and then kept walking. David stayed still now, watching him, pen hanging in the air. So many things could happen now. Mark hadn’t heard from Trudy in a long time. Maybe he would do something with that.

Mark stopped again outside an alley as the pen scrawled. There was a mugger advancing on a teenaged girl, whose eyes fixed on Mark as he peered in.

David scribbled, then pressed his pen to the paper. A spot of black grew and widened under the point as he pondered. It could go in that direction, too. He looked at the girl, frozen with eyes round and frightened, and at Mark, leaning forward as if he were going to tip over. He wasn’t going to hear from Trudy again, David decided. That was in keeping with how he wrote, anyway. Early on, he had tried to write her into his stories. He had tried to write love as it was, as he experienced it, and he had tried to make her come alive with words. That was a long time ago. He never tried to write romance any longer. Everything else, he could paint and detail with words, but not love. It was just never very convincing.

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The Danger of Angels

Have you ever seen an angel? They aren’t impossible to see, but they are difficult to spot if you aren’t looking carefully. This is mostly because they are so light blue in color, nearly transparent against a sunny sky, floaty and phosphorescent as they hover. They tend to flutter near you when you don’t notice, and they are reluctant to talk to you. If you can get one to speak, the first thing it will tell you is that it is an angel.

These beings made of air call themselves angels. Once they speak, their tones ring out clear and loud. It is not bell-like, as you would expect, but rather a bit like a gong, rich and reverberating, issuing from a mouth you can barely see. This big noise blooms from what seems nearly to be air.

Once the angels begin to talk, they hurry and their words fall and fill the space around them. They speak to you of truth and beauty, and right and wrong. They tell wonderful stories, these angels. They will tell you about the loveliness of the clouds as the sun sets and floods them with color, and the grace of the wheeling birds celebrating each morning. They will tell you about the scent of pine rising off a forest, and the rushing crash of a waterfall farther away than you’ve ever been. They will tell you of the things they have heard and smelled and seen – not of the things they have felt, though, for entities of air cannot feel as we do. But you will forget the sensation of warmth on your skin when you hear them speak of the reflections of sunlight on a glittering ocean.

As they tell these stories, their high light voices will rise and swell. They will gesture with their near-invisible arms in the air, as if a mirage were swooning before you. Their beautiful tones with weave and spin through the stories, and you will sit transfixed. You will cross your legs and hug your knees, right there on the sidewalk where you first saw them. You will sit there as the pavement grows cold beneath you, and the light dims around you, and a few faint drops begin to chill your shoulders. All of this escapes your notice, as you are too absorbed in the stories, listening intently to the rise and fall of the angel’s voice. Everything else ceases to exist.

This is why you have never seen an angel. They aren’t impossible to see, but if you do ever spot one – and it’s not difficult enough, unfortunately – you must know not to trust it. Ignore the swoop of shifting color in the air beside you, and if that lovely light voice speaks into your ear, keep walking. Shut your eyes to the sight of it, and do not listen to its stories. Instead. concentrate on the embrace of the cool evening air on your back, of the ache in your muscles as you walk down the sidewalk, on the softness of the breath you draw in. Listen to yourself breathe, and for God’s sake ignore the angels.

The Price of Love

Ella showed up early to go to the flea market. I was still half-asleep, so it was much too early for me to think about shopping, much less true love and miracles. She was there loaded down with chunky gleaming jewelry and an irresistible smile when I opened the door, all bleary eyes and pajamas twisted into ropes around me. I waved her in, still rubbing my eyes, and motioned her to the grimy couch while I shuffled off to get clothes.

She’s always like that. Happy, bouncy, cheerful, unstoppable. I’m usually lagging behind, hanging my head and complaining that my feet hurt. It took me all of half an hour to drag on some clothes, swipe a toothbrush through my mouth, and cram a granola bar into my pocket. She practically pulled me out the door once I presented myself, an eager little cocker spaniel to my world-weary animal lover.

Sometimes – every once in a very great while – I wish that I could just stop hanging out with Ella. Quit, cold turkey. My life would be a lot quieter. A lot more boring, too, monotonous. Dull. A lot less painful, a sudden absence of the twisting feeling that made my lungs hurt when I took in a breath. Realistically I knew it wasn’t like that. Ella loved everybody the same, including me, and losing her would probably just be a new hurt. A knife pulled out doesn’t stop the bleeding; instead it gushes forth, rich and red and deadly with every second it spurts. Ella might be the knife twisting in a wound, but at least that’s stopping my insides from falling out.

It was lucky that the market was only a couple blocks from my place. I was half breathless by the time we got there even so. Ella dove right into the crowd of people exclaiming and reaching, among the old picture frames and smeary mirrors, between the cookie tins and gaudy jewelry. With a sigh, I started after her. It took me about two booths to get lost – I got distracted for one second by an old model airplane, and when I looked up again she was gone.

After another moment, I heard her voice. “Louie, where’d you go? You’ve got to see this, darling!”

I plunged in toward her calling, and found her huddled over a booth right in the middle of a row, a big sign inked in Sharpie that read, “Get your heart’s desire here!” It had a rough drawing of a blue glinting bottle with a label that read, “Heart’s DeSire!”

I raised my eyebrows and stepped closer. Ella was holding up a bottle, a purplish glass one that fit in her hand. She turned it toward me so that I could read the label: “Desire.”

“Not your heart’s, though,” I remarked. She rolled her eyes at me and shoved another at my face. “Revenge.” There was a whole clump of bottles scattered over the table. Most of them were clear crystal or glass. In the corner was a stack of boxes, folded cardboard things with masking tape labels. They read, “hatred,” “truth,” “fear.” Ella held up another bottle that had a label on it spelling out “True Love.”

I laughed. “I don’t need that one.” Ella looked at me curiously, and picked up another one without a word. It said, “forever.” I shrugged. “What do these even mean?” She shrugged back at me. We stood, side by side, reading the words on the bottles. There was Lust, FaVOr, honesty, Memory, stupidity, HUnger, Caffeine, Forgetfulnesss, adventure, quiet, Luck, Prosperity. The words were lettered in a quick, clumsy hand like a child’s. Some of them seemed a bit arbitrary, and all of them seemed very odd.

After a minute, Ella said, “What if they work?” Her voice was quiet, careful.

I scoffed. “Bottles at a flea market that can grant everlasting life? Come on.”

“I don’t see everlasting life.” She was scanning the labels again, eyes searching.

“Ella, I was kidding. Of course not. This is silly. If somebody were selling happiness at a flea market it would cost more than – ” I picked up the bottle with the amber inside like honey “twelve dollars. Happiness isn’t that sweet.”

She shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess. Even so – whatever. I guess we should leave, grab some lunch, yeah?” I nodded and she turned to leave, but not before I saw her palm a bottle and slip it into her pocket. I couldn’t see which bottle it was – I caught a flash of the sticker on the bottom, $17, and the milky green color of the liquid inside.

It settled to the bottom of the pocke t, denting the fuzzy wool of her coat just a little, and she ducked her head, hiding her face. I looked sidelong at the cluster of bottles and boxes as they grew farther away, contemplating – but only for a moment. I wouldn’t have taken one, and I didn’t even know which one I’d want. I couldn’t remember what had been there. The bottles all stood innocently, giving no hint toward the identity of the missing one. I turned, sucked in a breath, and followed Ella out.

Computer Confession

The screen stared back at him, stark and bright. The words stood out, in black careful shapes, and glared at him. Just the curve and dip of each letter looked like betrayal.

He knew he loved her. He was sure. He typed it with slow, deliberate strokes: “I know I love her.”

The screen agreed with him, letters scrolling onto the page. It was two lines down from the paragraph he’d finished five minutes before, of which the last line read, “it’s just that when I leave and she stays I don’t think I’ll be sad.”

The cursor blinked at him, accusing. On and off, the thin black line disappeared and flashed on again, daring him to write more. To say something he knew he’d regret. That was ridiculous, he told himself. He wasn’t going to regret typing something on a screen where she would never see it.

When he highlighted the whole thing with a couple taps on the keyboard, the letters lit white on the black background. He stared, rereading what he’d written. His eyes traced over the word again, catching on a few. “Tired,” “love,” “pointless,” “sandwich.”

He hit the arrows and watched the cursor flare on and off again at the start of a new line, dark against the white and then gone. Leaning forward, he wrote, “Maybe we weren’t meant to be. Except of course I don’t believe in that crap. I just want to know if what I can have with someone I haven’t even met yet might be better. Maybe.”

It looked silly to him. Now that he’d typed it out, the words seemed shallow and empty. They unfolded in his head again, though, and he sighed. The thoughts that had been prickling at his restless mind were now spelled out on his computer screen, in a jumble of awkward sentences, but that didn’t banish them from his head. They were still itching, thoughts that he wanted to crush and paint over until he couldn’t see anything but the bumps where they used to be. Instead, the color melted off and they still stood there, as if bold and black pressed against the gritty white of his skull. Try as he might, they wouldn’t go away.

“Maybe it’ll get better. Maybe this is just a phase, sort of like a I don’t know this is stupid. Maybe I’m just being stupid and then later when we’re together even longer then maybe I’ll love her again like I did before and maybe it will stay that time.”

Every time his finger fell on a letter he wanted to wince, and he looked at the sentences he’d just typed like children who were promising they wouldn’t take an extra cookie. He bit his lip, and heaved a breath. Then with another rapid poke at the keyboard he highlighted all the text again and looked at it shining from the darkness that contained it. His hand hovered over the delete button – he just wanted it all to go away. He let his finger drop and watched the words vanish, leaving a clean bright page in its place, pure and beautiful. It was perfect.

Together

Every time a fork clinks on the edge of a plate, Evelyn tenses to keep from shivering. She can tell that Michael’s keeping an eye on her, and she can almost feel the weight of his disapproving stare when she hunches forward. His parents are oblivious, chattering away about the last time they were at this restaurant, and hasn’t Joan just gotten so tacky with all that big jewelry. She smiles as politely as she can, feeling her lips stretch all strained and aching over clenched teeth.

Michael’s mother is a heavy, overbearing sort of woman. They’ve never really liked one another, though they get on well enough. At least, Evelyn doesn’t think they like each other. It’s too warm in this restaurant, and the buzz of conversation keeps building to a suffocating pitch. Michael’s looking away from her now, he’s talking about Joan’s recent illness. Evelyn relaxes a bit, easing her shoulders down and laying her hands on the tablecloth. She’s done with her salad.

By the time dessert comes, she’s biting her lip so hard that she’s surprised it’s not bloody. His parents are at the end of a twenty-minute tirade about the state of things in this country, and Evelyn’s lungs seemed filed with a syrupy dread. When she met Michael’s parents, back when they were first dating, she had been struck with an uneasy sort of premonition. He was so unlike his mother and father, she’d thought, but Jesus save her from a marriage like that. It had made her glad for the easy, graceful relationship they had. After leaving she’d reconsidered, and thought that perhaps she’d been too harsh. His parents seemed nice enough, all told.

Every time they saw his parents, though, the feeling came back. Being around them made her heart pound in a ragged staccato beat and her lips curl in, skin catching on her teeth. She looks at Michael and he’s watching her, his eyes wells of gleaming dark in the dim lighting. He mouths, “Are you okay?” and she shrugs.

When they get home, she slips her coat and dress off at once. He smiles and pulls her toward him, but she ducks away. She sees the hurt on his face and thinks how ridiculous it is that he looks wounded over something so small, and she says, “That was an odd meal, sweetie. You know I don’t have the best time with your parents.”

He frowns and reaches for the remote where he tossed it on the bed earlier. The television flickers on, and his voice jumps to be heard over the end of a crime show, where the body’s being wrapped up and the detectives pat each others’ shoulders. Her eyes are drawn to it as she half-listens to him tell her about being disrespectful and understanding, which she apparently does in the wrong order. She nods, tries to smile at him, and says, “Okay, yes, I’m sorry. Could we avoid a fight right now? I’m just really tired.”

The frown eases, and he nods. The television is spewing noise into the air, someone advertising the next show over the music of the credits. They both slide onto the mattress from opposite sides and sit to watch for a while, slumped against the headboard, barely touching.

There’s silence except for the noise of the next show and the occasional shout from the street below the window. After a few more minutes they go to bed pressed up against one another, as usual. It feels like something they’ve done forever, except that she’s restless under the pressing covers. She shrinks from him ever so slightly, curls forward around the empty air in front of her, and he lays a wrist lightly over her waist, where it grates against the bone of her hip.

An ad for an online matchmaking service bounces onto the television, hearts wafting about the smiling faces of the spokescouple. They lean into one another and look boldly into the camera. “I’m so glad,” says the woman sitting on the left, “because without it I never would have found the love of my life. We’ve been married two years now, and I’m looking forward to spending the rest of our lives together.” They both flash bright grins and the screen fades to text. The words repeat in Evelyn’s head, taking on a queer bumping rhythm.

“For the rest of our lives together,” she repeats softly, her fingers over her mouth, feeling the words escape warm and soft on her skin. “The rest of our lives, then.”

 

A Passover Seder (according to a nine-year-old)

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIX...

English: Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. Русский: Празднование Песаха. Лубок XIX века. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

It seemed to stretch on forever. They were all moving now, leaning forward and swinging a little finger from glass to plate in a hypnotic, swaying motion. Hannah dabbed her finger on her plate and then put it in her mouth, sucking off the grape juice and holding the tart sweet flavor on her tongue. She was sweeping her pinky back across the surface of her juice when she caught a sharp look from her mother, and hastily poked the purple drops onto the plate instead.

It wasn’t even her turn to read for another few paragraphs, so she read on. Uncle Teddy was still droning about the babies in the reeds and all the dead little Jewish boys and the Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ sneaky sister. Hannah was bored. She knew the story already, so she skimmed the whole rest of the page, and then the next. Moses grew up, he killed someone, he herded sheep and saved the slaves, God made Pharaoh mean and then killed a whole bunch of kids, they all end up even. She knew it already, and she (quietly, so nobody would notice) flipped over another page so that she could read more.

The words of “Dayenu” were lovely and familiar. If God had brought them out of Egypt, but nothing more, it would have been enough. If he had done the plagues, but nothing more, it would have been enough. If he had killed the Egyptian firstborn, but nothing more, it would have been enough – Hannah thought that she actually might have preferred the rescue without the deaths of so many children, but God wasn’t as nice as she was.

Her mother was looking at her again – the whole table was looking at her. “Joey’s younger!” she said. He was only six, and she hadn’t been supposed to sing the Four Questions for years now.

“No,” her mom said patiently. “Your turn, sweetie. To read, it’s page eighteen and the third paragraph down.”

“Oh.” She flushed and shuffled pages, and read. Her paragraph was short, and then Joey read. His piping voice was so annoying, thought Hannah, and he definitely didn’t really lisp anymore. He only did because he knew it was cute. She never did stupid stuff like that when she was little, and she was almost ten now so she was too old to be cute anyway.

She turned pages again, giving the rows of text a bitter stare. They hadn’t even gotten to the wise and wicked children, which was her favorite part. It was going to be forever before they got to eat.

 

Mourning

Everyone was leaving. She could hear the footsteps behind her, clacking and slapping against the cold marble floor, the rustle and shuffle of clothes brushing and the whisper of voices just meeting the cold autumn air. If she turned, someone would come over and clasp her hands, mutter sorry, tell her again how Neil was a good friend, coworker, brother. She didn’t want to hear any more of it. She didn’t want to see the eyes welling with tears or the wrinkles that shuddered in curves around frowns.

Instead, she bent forward and laid her head in her hands, elbows digging into her knees. That way, everything was out of her view – the smooth wood and bursting flowers before her, the clusters of murmuring mourners behind. Only the floor spread before her, through the gaps between her fingers, flat and unremarkable. She stared at it until her eyes burned, waiting for everybody to be gone.