Faded Light

The setting sun gilded the city before them, from where they saw it tucked into the green hiding spot of the park. Pale golden light fell on everything – high rises, skyscrapers, rows of windows and columns of concrete. Under the rain of dying sun the city was briefly as beautiful as he remembered, the streets lined with light and the people dappled with the brightness of the day’s end.

Charlotte was in the path of the sun. She reflected it, refracted it, sparkled and shone against the horizon until she was brilliant and sparkling with sunlight. She couldn’t keep the grin off of her face, and her cheeks caught a rosy sheen. Her eyes glinted, the white light against their darkness. She was looking at him.

Martin was looking at her, absentminded. She was very lovely, especially now with the light playing against the shadow on all the contours of her face. He thought about her beauty, watching her stand smiling against the sunset. Charlotte didn’t let him think about it for long, though. She reached for him, grabbed him to pull him over to her, wrapped his arm around her.

They stood together, facing the pink-tinged sky. It seemed for almost an instant that they were alone there, though the murmurs and cries of everyone else in the park were all around them. The tourists and their cameras, the children chasing pigeons, the harried parents and the frisky dogs stopped existing.

He glanced around. A couple sat against the tree, apparently overcome by the setting sun and kissing enthusiastically. Their squirming made Martin’s shoulders tense, and he turned away. Charlotte nestled into his shoulder, and then moved. He looked down at her. She was holding her face up to him to be kissed. After a moment, he bent his head and complied. She made a disappointed noise that he’d left so soon, but then she leaned on his shoulder again.

The sun was almost gone now, the brightness dimmed and fading. Martin’s arm was stiff. He wanted to let go, but he thought Charlotte would be disappointed. The sky had flared a bit, showy as the light left. The pink mingled with orange and yellow, a watercolor palette washed over the horizon, staining the sky. He was sure it was very romantic. Charlotte sighed, watching the sunset against him. She loved this sort of thing. He remembered once, last year – well, he thought, that sunset was different. It was a different time. He had reached for her and kissed her, ignoring everything else. Things had changed since then.

He shivered a little, though the evening was still warm. He felt traitorous, thinking this next to her. She hadn’t changed at all. She was still the quiet girl who’d first smiled at him so sweetly, the fuzzy photograph of a person he remembered loving so fiercely then. Not that he didn’t love her now, of course. Of course. He didn’t think he’d changed so much, either. It was only that whatever had been there, the yank at his gut in the first months when she’d raised her face for him to kiss – the desperation, or the passion – was gone. Or faded, perhaps. Maybe it would come back to him.

Charlotte murmured against him now. He didn’t hear what she said, but he answered, “Let’s go, okay?” She looked up at him, and he felt a tired, familiar affection warm him. She nodded, slipping her hand into his, and they left the park together.

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Chocolate, Love, and Wishes

The houses piled on the hills, all perched among the trees in red-and-white blocks. They nestled among the furry cascade of trees until they lost themselves in the forest, and the mountain rose above them dark and green. Emma sipped her lemonade without tasting it, feeling the sting of the lemon on her tongue from far away. She stared at the colors of the mountain where they faded in a wash of fog.

“You’re tired? Coffee, very good.” Emma jerked to attention at the sound of the waiter’s voice. It was deep and warm, marked with an accent. He grinned at her, his teeth white against a short beard. She smiled faintly back before her mouth dragged down again.

“No,” she said. “Thanks. I’m just distracted.”

“Ah,” he said. “Then no coffee for you. We don’t give coffee to distracted Americans, is a very bad habit.” Emma glanced up at him, her mouth falling open, but he was still grinning at her. Reluctantly, she let her lips curve into another smile, more genuine this time.

“Too distracted for dessert?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t. Dinner was so good – ” She gestured helplessly at the pile of food left on her plate. “I’m stuffed. I can never eat a whole dessert by myself anyway.”

The waiter looked around the cafe, his eyes searching the people littered around tables and the half-empty bottles of wine. “I do not know this word stuffed. But I have plan for you. What kind of dessert you like?”

She craned her neck around to look at the chalkboard, tempted. There were desserts scribbled onto the bottom. She said, “I guess there’s chocolate mousse, I love chocolate. But it’s so rich, I really could never eat the whole thing.”

“I will be back. One moment!” the waiter announced. He disappeared with her plate, leaving her to wish she had eaten more of the carrots. She waited, leaning on the table. Her eyes wandered over the mountain, climbing up past the clusters of houses into the depths of forest above. Close up, she thought, it was probably all twigs and leaves brushing your face and funny smells. From far away, though, it looked like a deep mysterious forest. It looked like the trees would rise up around you and reach into the sky, and the shadows would stretch long and black. It was the kind of forest you could get lost in and stumble upon a witch’s cottage.

“Here.” The waiter’s low voice pushed into her thoughts, and she turned back to the table. He was pushing a goblet in front of her, full to the brim with chocolate mouse and topped with a tuft of whipped cream. She opened her mouth to protest, and he held up a hand. “No, wait. Here is my plans.” He stretched out a hand toward her, and the spoon between his fingers became two, splayed apart. He flipped one onto the table in front of her, and then sank into the empty chair.

Emma paused. She thought about germs, and strange men, and accepting food from people she didn’t know. Then she laughed at herself a little bit and took a scoop of mousse. It was smooth and intense, and melted into cream in her mouth. She closed her eyes to taste it better, and thought the waiter must be watching her. She wondered if he would think she was silly or cute. When she opened her eyes though, he was scooping his own spoonful of mousse out of the glass. She watched him close his eyes and let it melt in his mouth.

They finished the whole goblet between the two of them. The waiter stole the last bite, flashing his mischievous grin at Emma. She smiled back now. Then he got up and left, without a word. She wondered, suddenly upset, and then he returned. He laid a slip of white paper before her and walked away again. Emma leaned to see it, curious, and realized with a flush that it was the bill.

She dug out her wallet, tucked a few bills under her half-finished lemonade, and stood to leave. There over her shoulder was the waiter again, and he smiled at her as she gathered her things. She smiled back, and then she began to walk away. She heard his “goodbye” from behind her, and she wished she weren’t leaving. She wished she could stay where the whole world was beautiful, and learn the waiter’s name, and maybe have more desserts. She kept walking, back to her empty hotel room and her messy suitcase, with the taste of chocolate lingering on her tongue.

Moving Out/On

She was a leftover sort of beautiful that morning. Her makeup was in dark clouds about her eyes and her hair was straggling down in wisps from a hasty bun. When she rang the doorbell and I opened my door, she was standing still and the sight of her sent a cold shock to my skin. It had just occurred to me that she wasn’t coming back at all.

I stood back and let her pass, and she walked in, just the way she had last week. Everything was piled in the living room, and she stopped short to see the stacks. I stood, silent, trying to notice if there was a perceptible smell of must from the kitchen. She stooped to pick up the biggest box at the bottom, swaying a bit as she stood to keep the two on top of it balanced.

I opened the door again, letting it grind long and squeaky on the hinges as it swung. She hefted the boxes in her arms again, and didn’t look at me. Neither of us spoke, and the quiet crackled.

She struggled with the boxes as she fit herself through the door, clutching the cardboard as it wobbled and tipped, threatening to fall. I didn’t offer to help. I just watched her go.

Closed

Lee couldn’t open the box. It was small, the length of his index finger. The little strips of gleaming wood fit tightly together in neat stripes, and his hands looked round and awkward trying to pry open its smooth angles. Rachel was watching him, her pale eyes fixed on his face. They were icy blue in the sunlight, closed and blank. He never knew what she was thinking. The market around them was busy and loud, but his eyes were drawn to her amongst the chaos.

He handed the box to her. It fit into her small hands like it was the right size, as if they were made to go together. She put her fingers delicately on the corners and tugged, and the box slid right open. It was a little drawer with a dried flower inside, but Lee only got a glimpse of the sky-colored petals before she snapped it shut again.

When she handed the box back to him, her fingers brushed his palm. Rachel smiled into his face. He could feel the touch of her skin on his, even though her hand was no longer on his. Stop, he told himself. He was being very silly. This was the sort of thing that happened all the time. He was prone to closing his eyes when she nudged him, as if her movement shone on him like the sun on his face. He would let the warmth sink in, and then shake himself and keep on. And then tell himself he was being silly, probably, because when she touched him it didn’t look like she even noticed. Every graze or poke electrified him, but her face was always empty. Impassive.

There had been one time that he treasured, one moment of uncertainty. Lee folded his fingers around the edges of the box again and pulled, but nothing moved. Rachel was shifting now, impatient, and Lee glanced up at her and remembered that moment. They had been watching a movie, he thought, and he had looked over at her as she sat transfixed. The music onscreen was jumping and rising, and she’d turned to see him, the longing written on his face. For only a second, her expression had come undone and her eyes had opened wide, before she turned back to the screen and closed herself off to him again. For a breath, though, they had been looking clearly at one another.

Lee yanked on the box, frustrated. It wasn’t budging, and his enthusiasm was wavering. He passed the box over to Rachel again, hoping to watch how she opened it. She didn’t, though. She just placed it on the table again, between the Rubik’s cubes and the spinning tops. It looked small and innocuous there in the clutter of toys, but the light gleam of the wood still caught his eye. Rachel’s movement flashed in the corner of his vision, and he turned to follow her as she ducked back into the crowd.

He sighed at his own folly as he wove through the market, keeping his gaze on the blue of her sweater and started after her.

Audience

Nina was watching the play. Tim was watching her.

The voices from the stage were blaring now, crashing and sweeping. Her eyes were wide, the lashes standing out and the tears glistening, ready to tumble and spill over. She was always quick to cry. Now her lips parted, and she nearly gasped. Tim sat back, and folded his arms over his chest. The action must have caught her eye, and she sank too against the cushion of her seat. Her mouth clenched closed.

Onstage, the actors had quieted, and their far-off voices were earnest now. Nina seemed unable to stop herself – she leaned forward, and her mouth dropped open. Her hands rose to curl beneath her chin, and she pulled her shoulders up around her ears. He could almost feel her shaking, she was listening so intently. He bent to her, and put a hand on her sleeve. She flicked an impatient hand at him, brushing against his arm, and he retreated.

Her eyebrows jumped and lowered with the rise and fall of the voices. Her eyes danced, bobbed and dipped over the stage, and she curled into half a smile. Tim settled back again in his seat, his jaw tight.

Her face moved and her eyes flared wide and then the applause burst over them like a clattering cascade and she was caught up in it, standing and clapping so hard he thought her hands might have blurred. He stayed sitting, watching her, and the spotlights caught and glared into his eyes until tears flooded into his eyes.

They left and he tucked her hand into his arm, pulled her close. He said, “I liked that.” She nodded. Her eyes were still fixed, faraway and dreamy, and she stared into the distance in the darkness all the way home.

Romance

In her head, they’d met cute. They took the train together every day without realizing it, letting the occasional glance bob to the surface but mostly keeping their gaze sunk in their laps or books. It built a slow and lovely sense of anticipation, hovering in their throats, tasting of honey. After they’d been spinning smiles at one another across the aisle for a month, he’d slid into the seat next to her. They’d been inseparable ever since.

In real life, they’d met online. They’d exchanged a couple of messages over the dating site, and then they’d met for coffee at a shop neither had been to, nearly exactly equidistant between their places. They’d liked each other well enough, so they’d gone on another date a week later, and then another. Eventually they’d become part of each other without even realizing it, melting together until they looked up in surprise to see that they couldn’t part without tearing.

In her head, their relationship was dramatic. He brought her a dozen roses, and she took him to her favorite restaurant and wrote a note on his napkin while he wasn’t looking. When he turned and saw it, he swept her onto her feet and bent her back into a kiss, right there in the restaurant. They only stopped clinging to one another when they noticed a waitress, patiently tapping her foot and waiting to get past.

In real life, their relationship was comfortable. They watched football games on weekends, her head on his shoulder and the bowl of popcorn balanced between them, precarious and teetering but never quite falling. They went to a movie maybe once a month, sharing a large soda and a box of candy. They always slept touching, his arm splayed over her, facing the same direction.

In her head, their breakup was tragic. They’d been fighting for a month, maybe more. Their voices rose and plunged and sometimes they threw things. Plates shattered against the wall with a crash. Then he’d gotten a promotion, one in another city. He was going to take it, he told her. She was shocked. He knew she wouldn’t come with him. She felt as though they were torn apart, the twists of fate keeping them separated. They could have made it work, she knew it. If only he hadn’t been transferred, they could have had something perfect. When he was gone, she ached for him.

In real life – she glanced over at him, on the couch with the crossword, smiling to himself. In real life everything was just fine.

Perfect and Falling

Everyone told them that they had such a good marriage. Emma was thinking about this as she stirred, her hand drawing empty circles in the air, dragging the wooden spoon through the bowl. Her thoughts were wandering as Jared talked, though her eyes were fixed. She was staring at the picture of the two of them that sat on the table near the door. In it, they were clasping one another close and beaming at the camera, bright against the dappled grey background. That felt like so long ago, even though it was only a year. It was a lovely picture, though.

“Are you even listening to me?” Jared’s voice snapped her back to him.

She shook her head as if to loosen it. “Sorry, honey, what was that?”

His mouth tightened. “Nothing. I was just telling you about my day, was all. Nothing important.”

“No,” Emma protested. “I’m sorry, I was drifting. Tell me, darling.”

He folded his arms across his chest, dark eyes smoldering. “I went to work. I came home.”

She bit back a sigh, holding the breath locked in her chest so she wouldn’t puff into his irritation and blow it bigger. He hated when she did that. “Sweetheart, please. I really want to know, I didn’t mean to get distracted.”

Jared crooked his eyebrows at her, almost appeased. “You got distracted from me by a cake?”

Berry soufflé.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

She frowned at him. “It’s a soufflé.” His shoulders sagged and she cursed at herself. Now he was annoyed again.

“Whatever. Soufflé.”

Emma stirred in silence, listening to the sound of her breath rustle in and out. She mixed, poured, and moved while Jared leaned against the wall, watching wordlessly.

They ate quietly. Jared told her about his day again, and she heard most of it. They would just have time – she had calculated the baking time so that it would be done ten minutes before they had to leave. They were going to Janet’s, and she’d promised to bring dessert. It was going to be a wonderful evening, she was sure. Their conversation meandered around the party, loitering at the subject of the guest list and skipping over Janet’s mother’s new illness.

Emma got up twice to check on the soufflé. It looked gorgeous, she thought. It was puffing up ever so gently, just peeking over the rim of the pan. The smell of it, delicate and sweet, spread through the kitchen. When she and Jared were more or less finished eating she swept the plates up and into the sink, sliding the food into the trash and leaving all the dishes in a neat stack. Jared came up behind her.

“I wasn’t done with dinner.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry, dear, I thought you were. It looked like you were just picking at what was left – ”

“Emma, you always do that.” His voice rose and bellowed at her, and she flinched. “You always just decide what you want to be true and then pretend it is. I wasn’t done eating!”

She shrank away. “Sweetie, it’s just dinner. There’s some left in the pot, I’ll get you more. It’s not such a big deal.”

“Of course not.” His voice was flat now, controlled. “It’s never a big deal when it’s something I’m upset about.”

“Really,” she persisted. “It’s just food. It actually doesn’t matter much.”

“No,” he said. “But if it were the other way around you’d glare at me like I’d betrayed you.”

She pounced on that. “I wouldn’t yell and make a fuss though.”

“You wouldn’t,” he agreed. “You wouldn’t make a scene, but you’d make me feel awful. As though I’d done something unforgivable. It’s always like that, like you have to have things exactly as you think they ought to be and if they’re not it’s my fault either way. You have this picture in your head of what I am and what you are and what this goddamn marriage is and you can’t stand anything that smudges the picture.”

She stared at him. “Jared. It’s just dinner. I just threw out your leftovers that I wasn’t supposed to. Goodness.”

“Stop it!” He was shouting again. “Stop acting like nothing is wrong. The dinner isn’t the problem. The problem is that you always do this and it’s driving me nuts. We have to eat dinner over polite conversation and be done when you say and arrive all stylish at Janet’s with a beautiful goddamn cake. You don’t even pay attention to me.”

She shook her head against his words, clinging to her, but they wouldn’t shake off. “No.” She looked at him, fuming, his face close to hers. She said, “soufflé.”

“What?”

“Soufflé. Not cake.” Her voice was level, sensible.

Jared’s hands sprung up and quivered in the air in front of him, and then he spun. He snatched his coat from the hook and turned to the oven, where the screen was counting down seconds; 39, 38, 37. He shot a vindictive look at the fuzzy shape inside and stamped his foot down, hard. Emma felt it send a quake through the whole house, a soft dull crash, but she stood frozen and still. As the door slammed behind Jared, she buried her face in her hands and cried.