Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

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.

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.

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.