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.

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Windows

Dan sucked in his breath. Across the little courtyard – well, that’s sort of what it was if you leaned out and peered down to squint your eyes at the lonely potted plant in the corner and the broken shopping cart full of old clothes, almost a courtyard – through the window there on the other wall, the light was glowing through the curtains. She came over to pull them open, as she did nearly every afternoon. He imagined that she tried to catch the last dying light before the sun slipped away and evening crept chilly up to her door.

She was busying herself around the kitchen now, flashing into his sight and then away again behind the door. It looked like she was making cereal or something. It reminded Dan that it was nearly five and he needed to eat if he was going to get to Gloria’s by seven. It took an awfully long time to get there on the subway. He grabbed the macaroni out of the fridge and tossed it into the microwave, leaning against the windowsill to wait out the grating hum of it.

English: A wooden frame glass window in the wa...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

The woman was sitting now – he called her Daisy in his head, but that probably wasn’t close to her name. He’d seen it on an envelope stuffed into his mailbox by accident, and hers was just above his. She’d been closing it as he got there once, and she’d smeared a smile onto her face and backed out of the room as he stood still and looked at her. He’d never seen her so close before that, and her hair was coming loose around her face in wisps.

Anyway, Daisy was sitting at her kitchen table and scooping the cereal into her mouth, reading something. He plucked the bowl from the microwave – the heat stung his fingers – and ate pressed against the window again. He only had an indistinct view of her, crammed between the bricks across the way, but that imperfect glimpse was so beautiful.

When he got too carried away, he scoffed at himself. Of course he was being unrealistic, and silly, and more than a bit odd. He warred between being severe with himself and relenting, as if scolding the bashful child that was really himself. He would sigh and tell himself that it wasn’t as if he’d done anything wrong, after all. He was only nursing an infatuation with a woman in his apartment building. He’d barely ever spoken to her. But she was very pretty, he would admit to himself. And the bits he could see of her apartment were messy and colorful, and he longed with a deep dark ache to see the designs of the posters on her wall.

Eventually he finished and left the bowl and fork sitting in cloudy water in his sink. One last look out the window told him she was still there, bent over the newspaper – magazine? book? – on the table before her. He blew a kiss out the window and rolled his eyes at his own theatricality, and the door slammed shut behind him. He would be early to Gloria’s.

***

Daisy let her eyes turn outside, and sighed to see the light vanish from the window. The darkness pressed against the glass, and she couldn’t see anything. Probably that man had gone. He’d been leaning against his window again, eyes fixed. She always wondered what he was looking at. He was nice looking, she thought – not that he was so handsome, though he was okay – but there was a kindness in the lines of his face. Daisy fancied she saw it, anyway. She was always too nervous to actually talk to him, never mind follow a daydream and knock at his door. She wished she knew his name. Anyway, it was really just silly. The sky was beginning to darken outside. She turned from the dimming window, shrugged against the ache in her shoulders, and bent forward again over her book. She was just getting to the best part.

Rehearsal

The stage was a well of light that glared and froze in the blackness of the theater. The three of them were sitting nearly against the tall canvas of the set, pushed into a line on one side of the stage as though they were scrambling back from the dark, as far as possible. Richard’s script was getting wavery spots of paper where it softened and stretched around his fingers, clutching it too tight. April sat composed, serene, stiff. She was still talking.

“I never said that.” Was that line supposed to be funny? She was biting a smile as she waited for him.

“No,” he said, “I suppose you didn’t. I guess I just did, then.” The words thudded in time with his heartbeat.

“Alright, then. I do too.” April really smiled now, looking right at him. He gazed back, entranced.

Matt – the director – coughed, and Richard snapped straight and peered at his script. “That’s settled then. End scene.”

Matt read the stage directions, his words jamming together. He’d been ready to head home a half hour ago. April said, “You know, I think you’re the most interesting person I know. Funny, isn’t it?”

Richard summoned irritation. “What’s funny about that? What, you mean you’re surprised I’m interesting?”

April flashed him a smile, eyes narrowed. “I’m not surprised you’re so interesting, William darling. I’m surprised I’m so lucky as to be with you.”

“Oh, good,” he bluffed, aiming for humor. Funny was called for here, right? “I’m the most interesting person I know, too.” No, damn, that was wrong. Definitely wrong. Her eyes flickered down now, breaking from his.

“Yes, sweetheart.” That was weariness, he thought, that he detected in her voice. Exasperation, maybe. Or her character’s exasperation.

He assumed a contrite expression, pulling his eyebrows up and his lips down. Matt’s sigh whispered through the air, but Richard ignored it. “Oh, my love, I’m sorry. You know I do love you terribly.” He forgot for a moment that he was telling the muscles of his face how to act, and he stared at April with wide eyes. Surely she must see the emotion bare in them, the desperation clutching at him and the sorrow barely hidden.

The light gleamed in April’s eye, rinsing pale the blue of her eyes and glinting sharp white. Her eyelashes flicked down, and she said, “I do know, I do. I love you so dearly, I love you too. I do.”

Richard smiled and sat back, satisfied for a fleeting second. Then he remembered his line, “Well then, everything’s all fine, isn’t it?”

April smiled weakly at him and that scene ended too. This was their third run-through that evening and the whole rehearsal had been turmoil. He was nearly counting down the pages until they could be done and go home, but he was already dreading the moment when she would turn and walk with such nonchalance back to her car. Every time they got through this next scene, he felt as though he’d been crushed and twisted. He started it with the same heartiness – “My dear, I wish you’d done that sooner. Hadn’t we better go right away? Go on, get in the car, I’ll finish up here. You look so lovely.”

He would listen to her snap at him, halfhearted, and it twinged in his chest. The conversation would rise and fall, and when April’s voice rose she clutched at her skirt as though holding herself down. Otherwise, perhaps, the anger she conjured would propel her out of her chair and right out the room – off the stage. Finally he would say, defeated, “Yes, well, that’s all. That’s all I can do now. I know it’s not enough, I’m so sorry. I just don’t know what else.”

April smiled brightly at him and said, “Just don’t. Just don’t do anything. Please just stop.”

“I can’t. You know I can’t.”

The fight escalated here again. Her voice sounded shrill to his ears, grating, and he pretended he couldn’t hear her. His own voice was odd to his ears. It swooped and flew. “God, I can’t handle you anymore! I wish I were anywhere else right now.”

Her words were quiet then. She murmured them, her lips barely moving and her eyes fixed on his face. “Go then. Go be anywhere else. My god, can’t you tell by now? I can’t possibly love you. I’ve finally figured it out. Go on, leave.

The scene ended as he stalked out, and his baleful glares back at her were loosened and weakened by the pleading expression he couldn’t help. When he settled back into his chair, every time his body slumped as if suddenly let go. Thankfully that was close to the end, and when the play finished they could all go home.

Richard followed April outside, mesmerized by the tap of her heels on the linoleum before him. When they reached the parking lot, April turned to him. Her face was flat. “Night then, Richard. I’ll see you Sunday.” He nodded at her, numb, and opened his mouth to answer to her back as she swayed away. The words were still stuttering in his throat as the car chirped and she swung into the driver’s seat.

Her headlights flared bright into Richard’s dazed eyes, and as he fumbled with his keys he turned away. The sudden overwhelming darkness blinded him for a long moment.