Pouring Out

“Black as the Devil’s favorite sin,” you’ll hear a regular distractedly rattle off while she’s waiting for the conception, but that’s not quite it. That hue is more closely related to melted rust, called Sepia by interior designers and gold by Texan rigging companies.

A moment later, when you cradle your prize gingerly in your shaking hands, you peer down into its heart–not for the first time–and although you’ve visited this headspace before, you’re still slightly surprised at the serenity you’re observing. How is it that this miniature bronze pond, quiet and stationary except for the occasional heat bubbles frothing along the sides, can gift its disciples with rejuvenation? That thought has always seemed incongruent, like bearing false witness.

So you gently tip the ceramic, watching the pond slosh and ebb, mindful that a few seconds from now, everything in this kingdom will be terraformed. Nothing retains warmth forever. You scoop the potion, peel back the plastic barrier, judge your height with the facial expression of an Olympic swimmer about to dive, and then pour.

Your gaze follows the thin milky stream as it plows into the pond’s center, plummeting into the eye and spreading chaos throughout the tiny world. The cold seeps into the heat bubbles, birthing strange hybrid shapes. Vaporitic ghosts rise to mark where the swirling white plunged into the calm. Organic, hypnotic motion. Your thoughts slip East, to Madrid, to that cafe with the name you continually mispronounced even after several months of patronage. She’d chortled about that more than once, saying she found it endearing. The pinches of melody are there if you listen intently enough. Snatches of conversation from the students, many of whom she’d taught. TV personalities covering sports you never realized existed. The smell of fresh grounds, chocolate, oranges. But like a distant voice perpetually insisting you’re dreaming while the dream is in progress, you hear another note, as you have before; are those details real? The core memory certainly is, but your brain could be replaying it with arthouse panache, contaminated by time and a yearning for–

Someone in a heathered topcoat apologizes as he brushes past, mashing the buttons on his phone and pleading for the Wi-Fi to grant him an audience. You watch the patterns in the small chipped mug change. It’s steady work, this constant transformative opus, and the tide swells angrily. Tendrils wisp out like sentinels, estuaries blooming and breaking.

Her backstory was smoke and shadow; she spent her childhood tearing all over Stevens Point, Wisconsin, she coveted Songs From The Big Chair over Appetite for Destruction, and once, when she was twenty-five, she met Prince in an airport. He’d gaped at her over velvet-hinged sunglasses, growled inaudibly, and offered her herbal tea with fresh honey. She’d accepted, because it was Prince, or the Artist, or whomever, and that was appropriate decorum. When she mentioned it to you one day, offhand, as if she was asking how you prefer your toast, you suspected that particular story was unfinished–if it ever happened at all–but she wouldn’t elaborate. She said she couldn’t afford those types of luxuries.

The rust-colored whirlpool is lighter now. You stare as the cream collides with the mug’s wall, scampering halfway up and then sliding back down, spilling further into itself. “That’s a metaphor for something,” you mutter, and scribble a mental Post-It note. It could be the foundation of that epic poem you’ve been planning to pen for years. You never remember what a caesura is or how iambic pentameter works, but you have a penchant for language. She read poetry on the weekends. You rarely recognized the authors, but you’d cajole her into sharing their creations, and they would never fail to stir you in unfamiliar ways.

You’re relatively sure that’s correct.

You twirl a coffee stirrer clockwise, galaxies expanding and contracting with the movement. You imagine you understand why astronomers and nephologists choose their careers, the exceedingly complex mathematics and scientific aspects notwithstanding. Their true pursuit must be to unlock aesthetic mysteries. With the smallest nudge of your stirrer, Pangaea separates. A virus clones itself to death. Clouds transition from one form to another so quickly that it flummoxes your perception.

You could lose yourself down these spirals.

The note she’d left was so brief it might’ve just been suggestion. She’d excused herself and sprinted towards the restroom, and far too many precious seconds passed before you’d noticed her swan song: Water glass. Napkin. Specialty ink. You’d absorbed the words as they dissolved in front of you. No permanent evidence. It was completely nonsensical–assumed names and INTERPOL and “a breakdown in diplomatic relations.” She had confidence that eventually, they’d conclude their hunt could not reach fruition. She solemnly vowed that she’d search you out one day and explain. A vow whispered with drowning letters.

You cautiously press your fingertip to the mug’s side and hold it for a few seconds. The scalding heat has been downgraded to merely tepid, as if the temperature decided it was bored with your company and moved on to more exciting appointments. How long have you been sitting here? Your frame of reference is corrupted. Two minutes, perhaps? Or twenty. Or six years.

You glance up at the staff. Overclocked, they buzz from station to station, hurryingly jotting shorthand, whirring mixers, pumping flavor into cups. Their eyes flicker ever so subtly whenever you’re in line, so you assume they recognize your face, if not your name. You wonder if anyone’s noticed that you never actually drink the coffee you order. The warmth is fleeting; a thorough interrogation requires time and reflection, and those, you tell yourself, you have.

The spirals and patterns will explain everything.

You need only be patient a little longer.

————————————

@GuyInYourMFA is a great Twitter account that parodies the mechanics of writing literary fiction, my usual genre. A few months ago, I saw this tweet:

guy

And particularly because I don’t drink coffee, it was a challenge I definitely wanted to try, joke or not. It’s not *quite* 1,000 words, but it’s awfully close.

Advertisements

Who We Are

I’m her. Yes.

That’s the question you’ve been silently asking yourself for the past three days, isn’t it? Maybe you Googled me before we were Matched, or it could have been afterwards; it doesn’t matter. How do I go about distilling myself to a pre-set, marketing-tested character limit? How did YOU? It’s not one of my strengths.

I could describe the deepest yearnings of my heart to you. You’ll ask me about the colours my mind dabbles in, the dreams I’ll breathe life into one day. I’ll smile, brushing the stray hair from my face and somehow managing to look wistful but not downcast when I talk about the songs that always elicit my tears and the paintings I can’t behold without something in my nucleus stirring. I’ll tell you about the person I wanted to be when adulthood finally arrived–a future mapped out before I could write my name–and the person I became after I’d immersed myself in the world. Late nights, conquests and defeats, travels and photographs and wishing on stars. So many stars.

We’ll cover all of that and more. We’ll genuinely enjoy the reciprocity and the discoveries we make. And someday, perhaps, both of us will glance back at how We began and grin awkwardly.

Or not. Because that comes later, if at all.

I am THAT Caroline.

You’re not saying anything.

*****

Oh, Diet Coke for me. No, we’re relatively familiar with the menu, but I think we need just a few moments. Thank you.

Look, you’ve got to understand–everything was substantially more complicated than how that ridiculous headline framed it. I wasn’t just Kate’s mentor; we were close. Not bridesmaid or send-eighteen-texts-about-nothing-before-noon close, but we’ve watched movies, drank a tad excessively, carpooled to concerts. We’d kibitz over lunch about the books we were reading. Even planned a roadtrip once. I was, on some level, a confidant. I’m certain of it.

In the police report, Kate claimed she wasn’t aware that Adam and I were involved. It’s possible that I neglected to mention it, but zoo policy forbids intra-park relationships, and Human Resources is perfunctory in its execution. It’s not that I didn’t trust her–although it’s overwhelmingly clear in hindsight that my instincts were completely amiss–but the relationship was only two weeks old then, albeit an intense fortnight for me. I would have confessed to her eventually.

Thank you. No, I believe we’re ready. I’ll have the Chicken & Shrimp Carbonara. Salad. I apologise; I know you must be asked a dozen times per shift, but–Balsamic Vinaigrette. Great.

*****

The truth is that even without specific information, I noticed the spreading cracks in our foundation, felt the seismic tremors of what was waiting for me. I’d had years of practice re-writing my own history, so I convinced myself that Adam’s incessant phone-glancing when he thought I’d left the room was coincidental. He became emotionally diluted, seemingly undisturbed by our lopsided trajectories. Our nights together slowly dwindled; he would often leave in mid-evening, swearing that his boss asked him to check on Ringo. Well, the meerkat habitat is within shouting distance of the llama pen. I walked past those llamas several times in any given day, and they always looked perfectly healthy.

Honestly, I’ve become increasingly convinced that he was intimidated by my expertise. Adam told me he trained for five years under rather labourious circumstances to become a llama-keeper, but that was probably bullshit, like everything else he said. A monkey-handler like Kate wouldn’t challenge him. Me, though, I’m a bona fide meerkat expert. Please don’t think me hipsteresque, but most people haven’t even HEARD of meerkats. I was highly respected in my field, and devoted years to research and theory application. It’s about commitment.

Sorry. That was much louder than I’d intended.

Anyway, when we’d drifted far enough that I could no longer rationalise his behaviour, I followed him, the night before the zoo’s Christmas party. I’m not proud of it, yeah? And as we turned onto Foxborough, I’m thinking “This is Kate’s street,” and assumed one of his mates needed help lifting a couch or whatnot, because that’s a reasonable assumption for 11:30 PM on a Wednesday, right? But even with my doubts hollowing out a home, I was so determined that the facts were going to be something else that I pleaded for my brain to invent whatever rationale it wanted. And OF COURSE it was Kate’s house, that vicious–

Oh, thank you. Looks delicious. No, we’re set for the moment. Thank you.

It’s awkward to keep repeating “Thank You” every time she appears, but it’s sort of disrespectful to not say anything, you know?

*****

So the Christmas party was the next morning and although I was a swirling calamitous mess–understandably so, I would argue–I was also absolutely determined to not cause a scene. I’d decided during breakfast that I would throw Adam out that night. Let him sleep in the llama cages. But Kate immediately flounced over and shrieked at me for breaking up her relationship. HER relationship!

How’s your pasta? No, I’m good. Would you like a shrimp? They’re a bit spicy.

I remember her fist crashing into my face like a gale-force wind smiting a household plant. The police and the newspapers insisted that I’d retaliated by hitting her with a wine glass, but I have no memory of it and frankly, it sounds like something she made up. No one seemed to care that she’d attacked me first. When I regained consciousness, I was draped over my couch as starlight filtered through the windows. My hand drunkenly connected with my cell, and that’s when I heard the voicemail from my boss telling me I’d been sacked.

I hunted job leads relentlessly, but there’s not much work for a publicly-shamed meerkat expert these days. A few weeks later, a judge smacked me with a 800-pound fine for assaulting Kate.

In retrospect, I should’ve called my family so they didn’t need to find out from the papers. I should’ve done a lot of things. I spend entirely too much time ruminating on what I’ve lost. And maybe I gained a certain degree of notoriety, but anyone who remembers my name and Googles me is wondering afterwards if I’m feral. What I’ll do. If I’ll throw a wine glass at them.

Wherever this goes tonight, I’m asking you: see who I am.

I’m more than the wine glass.

——————

Inspired by this article.

We’re All In Your Debt Now

Jean Grey School For Higher Learning
1407 Graymalkin Lane
Salem Center, NY 10560

September 27, 2015

Ms. Aimee Mann and Mr. Ted Leo
The Both
c/o 2015 High Road Touring
751 Bridgeway
Sausalito, CA 94965

Dear Ms. Mann and Mr. Leo,

First, permit me to express how much I am enjoying your band’s eponymous debut. I have followed your respective solo careers for many years, and your collaborative efforts thus far are exemplary. The songs are intimate, but exude a mature intensity that I find most satisfying. Relaxation is a luxury in my line of work, and I maintain that one must celebrate leisure. A listening party with old friends, a bottle of Stolichnaya, perhaps a hand-picked selection of organic cronuts…there is a nary a greater feast of finery to be had, and listening to your album invariably kindles that sentiment in me. I am quite accustomed to multiverse travel–usually involuntarily–and it is my fervent hope that just once, I shall be flung into an alternate reality where my principal responsibility is to kibitz with David Grohl about The Colour and the Shape over eggs Benedict and mojitos. I remain optimistic.

Some years ago, I enjoyed considerable success as a commercial artist, and while my preferred medium differs from your own, I trust that we share an affection for depth and subtlety. Those attributes shine through most brightly in “The Inevitable Shove,” which is, for me, the pinnacle of your remarkable album. The first time I heard that chorus:

No, you can’t blame
the ones that you love
But you’re still gonna blame
the ones that you love
So now I’m steeling myself
for the inevitable shove

Oh, how my heart sung then, as it has every time thereafter! I do not wish to appear boastful, but steeling myself to avoid shoving is my area of expertise. It is a difficult and often unacknowledged practice, and the burdens I bear feel significantly lighter because after several decades of doubt and frustration, I know now that someone understands. I have attempted to discuss the matter with my co-workers after substantial field engagements, but they always seem distracted. One of them walked through me mid-sentence. Another simply shrugged and said “Sorry. It’s a tough world, bub.” I cannot avoid steeling–it is a job requirement–but I can alter my perspective on its application. When my skin hardens and the Earth is threatened with complete annihilation, I hum your lyrics to myself and they reassure me that the metallic barrier is only skin deep and not a reflection of my character.

And truth be told, I do frequently blame the ones I love;  coping with family members can be hellish. Especially sisters. But I remain a work in progress, as are we all, yes?

I appreciate your time and wait with anticipation for your follow-up album.

With gratitude,

Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin

Conservus

 

Amanda hadn’t noticed exactly when the children arrived, which was unusual because she was accustomed to juggling multiple observations like plates balanced by a uniformed circus seal. As the assistant senior concierge for the Sofitel Hotel on 44th Street—located within walking distance of the world-famous Times Square, scenic Central Park, and the renowned shopping district on 5th Avenue—she was required to practice omniscience and omnipresence at all times, or at least have the professional courtesy to fake it convincingly.

So far that week, in between dispensing advice about five-star restaurants and Broadway show tickets, she’d procured a bathtub full of Amedei Porcelana chocolate, arranged for signed photos of Nicolas Cage to preside over a guest’s bathroom (Con Air specifically, Honeymoon In Vegas optionally), rented a llama and dressed it as Boba Fett, and ensured that the strawberries waiting in a hip-hop star’s suite were all the same dimensions. She asked as few questions as possible.

But it was mid-day now, the late afternoon hullabaloo still a few hours away, and she could afford to relax just a little. Foot traffic bustled through the hallways. Guests swam in from the street, craning their necks to take in the spiral staircase, the artistically-tiled flooring, all the minute, expert-approved details of the pageantry that the entire staff worked diligently to maintain.

Her eyes swept the lobby. The children—a wiry boy of perhaps six or seven, and a girl, presumably his sister, a year younger—were fidgeting in the Business Area’s pristine leather seats, no accompanying adults in sight. The girl, whose T-shirt featured dinosaurs conducting lab experiments in space, murmured something intently to her companion while rummaging through a messenger bag the size of Wyoming. He rebuked her with the indisputable authority of an elder sibling engraved on his face: The Divine Right of the Older Brother. He pointed towards Amanda and slid off his seat, on a Holy Mission.

Amanda adjusted her heels. Please let this not be a thing. Maybe they just needed directions to the restroom. Or to take an emergency afternoon helicopter jaunt with Katy Perry. They were kids and wouldn’t have been able to book a room, but if the concierge desk had taught her anything, it was that predictable expectations were for other people.

He materialized at her elbow. “Excuse me. Good afternoon. I know you’re busy, but we need help, my sister and I. Would you come over for a moment?”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be right there.”

“Excellent. I appreciate your assistance.”  The boy tucked his shirt in and strode back to his seat, probably to review his stock portfolio while he waited.

*****

A fervent exchange erupted between the siblings, and Amanda crossed over. She stood directly in front of the girl, who seemed to barely notice. The five-year-old scanned the room, her head oscillating like facial-recognition mode had been activated. She was waiting.

Amanda warmed her most charming smile and shone it on the girl’s face, crouching down to meet her at eye level. “Hi! My name is Amanda. I’m here to help. Are you lost?  Are your parents staying at this hotel?”

“No.”

Damn it. She could hear the future paperwork collating.

She wasn’t afraid of challenges. It was just that sometimes, the weight of her student loans, four years breathing typography and molding pixels, the shadow that passed over her when she glimpsed brilliant designs and remembered they might’ve been hers if her trajectory had veered a few degrees in a different direction at exactly the right time—all of it coalesced into a pressure point that drummed steadily on. Somehow, the exciting two-year opportunity to gopher the bizarre and the impractical had slowly metamorphosed into a five-year stint that left both her bank account and her chi resentful. Pampering was only what she did, not who she was. The frozen life her brain had cultivated still existed; she was going to get back there someday.

*****

Amanda brushed her internal diatribe aside and faced the boy. “OK. Your sister’s a bit shy, so you can tell me—what’s going on?”

“She steals. She’s been at it for days.”

“I don’t understand.”

He helped his sister to her feet, and Amanda’s face formed a question. The girl had been sitting on at least two dozen Sofitel customer satisfaction comment cards.

Amanda chortled, relieved. “Well, listen, I know it was difficult to come tell me, but you’re not in any trouble. I’ll put these back for you, and no harm done, OK?”

It was the girl who answered. “It’s not just the cards. It’s everything.” Her face was ashen, terrified. “They need everything. They won’t tell me why. I don’t know what it’s for.”  She plowed through her cavernous bag, pausing to present Amanda with each item: a pair of iPod earbuds still in the packaging, a Snickers, shopper loyalty cards, Chapstick, a weathered Best Buy receipt, a coupon for $.50 off the leading brand of dishwashing detergent, a feather, a five-dollar bill, two postcards, an unopened zen garden mini-kit, a fridge magnet commemorating Duran Duran’s 1999 “Let It Flow” tour, and God only knew what else.

The concierge blinked at the mediocre smorgasbord. “Where did you get—“

“People’s cars. Offices. Garbage cans. The floor. They say every piece is a monument to their greatness and will be important when it starts.”

“When what starts?  Who’s telling you to steal this…junk?  Except for the earbuds, most of these things look like they came from the bottom of someone’s purse.”

“It’s only junk because it’s what I could find. If there were something better around, I’d steal that too.”

“Do you know the person who’s asking you to steal?”

The girl gawped. “I never see their faces. I don’t think they’re people.”

Her brother demonstrably glared, making sure Amanda knew he didn’t hold with any of this tomfoolery. “Would you please communicate to my sister that this type of behavior is grossly unacceptable, and that her imagination is causing her to act inappropriately?  You’re an adult; she’ll listen to you.”  Then, to her sister: “This has persisted long enough. You have to stop stealing.”

“I can’t,” she whispered, her eyes massive and pleading. “They won’t like it. They already said I couldn’t tell anyone.”

Amanda smiled reassuringly and dove into her purse for her cell, having no concept whatsoever who she was going to call.

*****

And then, one by one, the lights went out until the lobby was shrouded in darkness. The children shivered. Amanda whipped backwards like a paper chain garland in a gale force wind, but her vision was blurred. Paresthesia set in, her feet rooting to the Italian marble tile, and puzzlement swept her, enveloping from every corner.

Outside, no one glanced at the hotel. West 44th Street hummed with the dynamic, perpetual, non-descript sounds of the Center of the Universe.

—————-

How May We Hate You? is a blog run by two concierges in Times Square. I was going through older posts recently and this one jumped out at me

howmay

I made it into a fiction prompt.

Both in terms of plot and style, this story is a departure for me.

—————-

Eventually, the time came when he wanted to talk of *other* things

When I walked in, the walrus was polishing his spectacles. His office was impeccably decorated: Victorian, Old World. Pages from The Complete Chaucer yawned softly on his maple desk, the language fluttering silently. “You know,” said the walrus confidently, “Bumbles….bounce.”