Hold On To the Ache If It’s All You’ve Got

 

He plays back the message on his voicemail for the fifth time just to hear the sound of her voice. And then deletes it, deletes all of them. This has to stop. He has to tell her, has to put an end to this. It’s tearing him up inside.

“No fool like an old fool,” he mutters. He tosses his phone onto the bed and pours another three fingers of scotch into his glass, drinks it down and winces at the burn. Tears well up in his eyes, but he fights them back, pretends it’s just the sharpness of the alcohol.

She can’t call him anymore. He’ll have to tell her. Naturally, she’ll be hurt, she’ll be angry at him. Because she has no idea how deep his feelings run. He’s kept them in a straightjacket  for months now. But he can’t anymore. Longing has grown like a tumor, threatening to break through his breastbone, spill out through his rib-cage. He’s not sure what kind of monster might be unleashed.

He stares at the phone on his bed and imagines her at home, on her own bed. Young, beautiful. Probably sleeping, since she likes to get up early and run before breakfast. And on the bed beside her, her husband. Also young, handsome, fit. An athlete. He unconsciously rubs a hand across his soft middle, pushes aside a mental image of the two of them making love.

He met the husband once, ran into them together at an ice cream place in town last summer, back when he only admired her loveliness from a distance. If only it had remained so. But she worked at the library, and he spent a lot of time there. When she found that he was a writer, she began talking to him on a regular basis. She had aspirations as a writer, and he agreed to look at her work. It was unpolished, but surprisingly good. It seemed they had plenty to talk about in spite of vast differences.

When was it he became aware that he was in love with her?

There were times when she sat across the table from him at the cafe in town, and she flirted. It was playful, not at all serious, but her eyes melted him.

She took him into her confidence. She would tell him about an argument she had with her husband, or about how her mother favored her older brother. She would sometimes cry and apologize for it after. But it cut him to his core. He wanted to surround her with love and protect her from even the smallest of sufferings. He did not let on how he felt, but took extra care in his appearance. He bought a small bottle of her perfume, kept it in his desk and would sometimes pull it out and breathe in her scent. And he looked forward to her calls.

She called him whenever she needed something. An opinion on her writing. Sympathy when her mother was cruel. A shoulder to cry on when she and her husband were not getting along. And he was glad to be there for her. It made him feel useful, made him happy to be needed by her.

But when things went well for her, she was absent. He’d go a week without hearing from her, and he couldn’t sleep, had no appetite, thought of her obsessively. He would come to a place where he could say to himself, ‘This is not healthy. She will never be yours. You are an old fool and you need to keep your perspective.” And then she would call him.

“I need to talk to you,” she’d say.

“Yes. I’m here.” Always there.

She would talk about the other people in her life, her other friends, her mother, her husband. And he would realize that he was just on the periphery of her life, not really a part of it.

He takes the glass into the kitchen, puts it in the sink, although he feels like hurling it at the wall. “Clean break,” he mutters, feeling the scotch. And he gazes into the refrigerator for the third or fourth time that evening, but still nothing looks worth eating. And eating alone seems unbearable right now anyway.

When he goes to his bathroom to shower, he almost picks up the phone and takes it with him, but turning away from her has to begin somewhere, he decides.  So he leaves it on the bed.

He prefers his showers hot, but this one is barely tepid. He undresses, steps into the spray. His skin tightens on contact with the water. It strikes like a shower of icy needle-pricks, like a penance, and he wants to cry, but the scotch has stolen his tears; wants to masturbate, thinking of her beautiful face, her trim, young body in the sundress he saw her in last week when they met in town, but the alcohol and agony make it impossible. So he washes, turns off the water and gets out, towels off.

In the mirror he sees a middle-aged man, and the sight is a shock. It has been ever since he fell in love with her. Years fall from him with every flirtation, with every loving comment, every time she rests her hand on his from across the table at the cafe. But only from his heart. His heart feels young, virile. But his face in the mirror is creased and worn, his hair graying. “Old fool,” he says to his reflection. “You fucking old fool.” And finally the tears do come, making him feel even more foolish. He turns his back on himself in disgust, pulls on boxers and a clean t-shirt, heads back to the empty glass and half-empty bottle to pour another drink.

The phone rings and his heart thumps against his ribs like that of an adolescent. From where he stands by the bed he can see it’s her. It rings twice…three times. His hand is shaking as he picks it up, thumbs the talk button. “Hey, what’s up?” he asks, hoping his voice sounds steadier than he feels.

She sounds like she’s been crying.

He sits down on the bed. “No…no, I’m not busy. What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

 

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Encounters

I was supposed to quit you. Before you kill me, they said. But it’s a cold world and you’re a warm blanket. You’re a beehive in an old, dead tree. If there’s anything buzzing in me, anything sweet, it’s you.

I want you.

Colorless days I spent dreaming of dozing in your velvet embrace. And now my heart pounds against my ribs, a caged bird begging release.

I know you’re dangerous, but I can’t seem to get by without you. And so here we are again, you and I, another secret rendezvous, another encounter. The world’s grown small–just the two of us.

An alley beside a church, the familiar sour reek of garbage and wet-pavement must. I kneel behind a dumpster and, oh sweet Jesus, I draw you from my pocket, little white packet full of promises.

My need is a hunger, a bone-deep pain.

My hands tremble, drawing Love into a shiny new sharp. Bound vein stands proud, waiting. Sweet stabbing sensation, push the plunger and pull off the cord, tied tight around my arm. And waiting, breath held back, for the magic moment, the rush, the nod, the slip into sweet nirvana.

I’ve missed you.

Little wet kisses bless my face. I struggle to open my eyes and oh God everything is beautiful. Raindrops shoot past the streetlight like falling stars and dark oil rainbows swirl on the webbed asphalt. I am wrapped in a warm Universe, and the Universe loves me.

Jesus loves you.

Rain soaks my clothing, and the damp fabric feels like a hug. I drift weightless from alley to sidewalk and look up at the plum-colored city sky. I turn, see a row of angels and saints gazing down at me, and love emanates from their concrete chests, acceptance from their blank eyes. They whisper the gates of Paradise are open, and I have wings to ascend. Warm welcome glows from kaleidoscope windows.

From the vestibule, I peer through glass to the shimmering nave. The priest and pair of matching altar boys–like plump black-and-white pigeons–offer Mass for a handful of faithful, heads bent, gray as ash beneath the gilt of Heaven. Above the towering altar, the Spirit of God spreads its wings and dives straight down to earth to kiss it, penetrate it, make it fertile, fill it with Life.

I can feel it; you are buzzing inside of me and I feel alive.

I go in, take care to be silent, slip into the nearest pew. Across the aisle slumps an old woman in clothing layered like leaves of old newspaper, kerchief knotted beneath her jaw, a jumble of bags around her legs. She looks at me and nods, smiling. In this place we are kin, we are God’s fruitfulness. I smile back.

Sweet scent of incense and candle wax hang in the air. As a child I thought Heaven smelled like this. Here is Heaven’s embassy on earth, here He waits, stealth and silent God, to be consumed, body, blood, soul and divinity.

I watch the motions of the priest, and the soft edges of things sharpen and come into focus. I become aware of my limbs again, aware that my wet clothing is cold and my eyes are burning.

Bells ring alerting angels and men that God is with us, and the priest holds Him aloft.

***

I remember a time in my childhood, before I had ever tasted the dry, crisp, blandness of God, when I knelt in a pew and watched bread become flesh.

“Look,” I said to my mother, wide-eyed, my breath stolen from me. “It’s Jesus.”
“Hush, child,” she whispered back. “This is the holiest part of the Mass.”
I nodded, stared at God-Made-Man suspended between Heaven and earth.
“Hello, Jesus,” I greeted Him. And He smiled back at me.

***

Tears course down my cheeks and my nose runs. The old woman makes noise, rifling through her bags. She pulls out a crocheted afghan, garish colors in cheap acrylic, and limps across the aisle in black galoshes.

The small congregation, dutifully queued, makes it’s way to the priest, who doles out God to open hands and open mouths.

The old woman drapes the afghan around my shoulders and smiles, pats my back. But I don’t know her anymore, and God’s fruit rots on the vine.

The Filling of Empty Spaces

Sean stood in the scalding spray, wishing the hot water could wash away the crap inside of him as well as the reek of sweat and sex. No, he thought. For that I’ll need vodka. Maybe check the medicine cabinet, see if she’s got anything good. The buzz he’d had going when she’d picked him up at the club was ancient history.

He turned off the water and stepped out of the shower. A thick, pink, Turkish towel had been left on the vanity for him. He tossed it over his head to dry his hair, toweled off his body and let it fall to the floor. He leaned into the mirror, finger-combed his dark hair.

There was a tentative knock at the door and it opened. Sean’s skin tightened at the air-conditioned draft, his junk retreating like a turtle into its shell. The old lady, in a silky, flowered dressing gown, held his clothes in a tidy pile. Raccoon smudges of mascara encircled her dewy eyes. She smiled a shy-schoolgirl kind of smile in spite of the fact that she was twice his age and then some. “Your things,” she said, holding out the pile.

“Thanks.” He took it and dropped it on the vanity, grabbed his boxers off the top and climbed into them without looking at her.

She made no move to leave, and it wasn’t his place to ask her to, but he wished she would.

“You really are a very handsome young man.”

Please…please go away. “Thanks.”

“Would you like something to eat? Are you hungry?”

He pulled up his jeans, shook his head. He tried to smile, but couldn’t make it work. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

“Oh dear, I’m a mess,” she said. Sean looked up. She was gazing at herself in the bathroom mirror. She reached for a tissue, wet it on the tip of her tongue and wiped beneath her eyes. She saw Sean looking at her and it seemed she might tear up again. She fought it with another forced smile. “I was very pretty once. Not beautiful, but nice enough to catch a wealthy husband. A good husband.”

Sean pulled on his t-shirt and tried to even his breathing. “Um…I gotta go.” He sat on the closed toilet and stuck his feet into the deck shoes, then stood.

“Of course. Let me call a cab for you.”

She sat on the barely rumpled bed and picked up the phone. As she gave the dispatcher her address, phone tucked between ear and shoulder, she replaced her wedding band on her ring finger. When she’d taken it off, before she’d even undressed, Sean had thought it hysterically funny. Husband’s been worm food for five fuckin’ years…Now it made his chest hurt to think about it.

She pulled open the nightstand drawer, took out an envelope. From it, she counted out five hundred-dollar bills. She replaced the envelope, stood and held out the money to him. “Here you are, Sean. Thank you.”

Despite the air-conditioner blowing hard enough to move the heavy drapes, Sean was sweating. “Um, you know, two would be fine.”

“No, you said five hundred, and I agreed. Take it. I’m sure you could use it.”

Sure. More booze. More dope. “I dunno, I–”

She took his hand, pressed the folded bills into his palm. “Hush.”

Minutes later, a cab pulled into the driveway beside her parked Jaguar. She walked Sean to the door. “Forgive me for not seeing you out.” She smoothed her penny-red salon job. “I don’t look fit to go outside.”

He thought it would have been a nice gesture if he bent to kiss her forehead, told her she looked just fine, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

 

“Five hundred dollars!” Raul exclaimed. “Five. Hundred. Fucking. Dollars. Drinks are on my man Sean tonight!”

Gregory laughed. “What did she want you to do for it? She was old, right? You have to eat her? Was she all shriveled up?”

Sean felt his blood rise. “Fuck you both.” Straight sex. That’s all he’d done. Missionary position. And she’d wanted him to hold her. “She was just lonely, man.” The laughter died to a few chuckles. She’d wept when he slipped into her, and he thought maybe he hurt her, but she said no. She cried quietly the whole time, and then clung to him long afterward.

Fuck the money. It wasn’t worth it. He’d rather have two dozen casual meet-ups for a Jackson apiece than have to do this again. “Tell you what,” Sean said. “I ain’t doing it again.”

Jacob, stretched out on the sofa with a spliff, craned his neck to look at Sean and smiled. “Ah…so you do have a soul, Sean. Afraid you might find your humanity and lose your living, huh?”

Sean’s face warmed. “I didn’t get into this to be somebody’s therapist. I just want to make a buck, y’know?

He could still feel her hands holding onto his arms, still hear her sobbing quietly into his shoulder. It was what made him resolve to never love anyone, to never grow old.

Going Up

A little thing inspired by a prompt on J. A. Allen’s blog.


The elevator door opened. Matt surveyed the space inside. A metal box with walls painted to look like wood grain, a stainless steel hand rail wrapped around three sides at hip height, dirty red linoleum on the floor. He contemplated taking the stairs. What’s eight flights anyway?

“Hold that, please.”

He put out a hand and held the door. A woman strode past him into the elevator, turned and smiled. She looked like a young Rosario Dawson, but with a pixie cut. She was dressed like she might have been coming from a job waiting tables, black cotton pants and white collared shirt.

“Thanks. You comin’?” she asked, cocked her head to the side.

Matt blinked and stepped into the elevator without giving it another thought. That was a mistake. The moment he turned and the door bumped closed, he felt a vice tighten around his rib cage and a wave of panic rose into his throat, thick and suffocating. Sweat broke out under his arms, all down his back.

“Where to?” the woman asked.

Matt opened his mouth, but no sound came out. “Eight,” he finally managed, barely above a whisper.

She pressed it, and then hit the button for the tenth floor.

“Oh God,” escaped his lips, and he closed his eyes as the the elevator started with jolt, like a racehorse bursting out of the gate.

“Hey, you okay?”

Matt nodded. Breathe. Breathe, dammit. He wanted to grip the flat, metal handrail, but couldn’t make his hand leave his pocket, where his fingers were curled around his prescription. His other hand clutched his jeans at the hip, white-knuckled. He opened his eyes, saw the woman in his peripheral vision. He thought maybe she was looking at him. He loosened the grip on his jeans, wiped the sweat from his palm.

“Don’t like elevators much, huh?”

Inside he laughed at the understatement. Outwardly, he could only shake his head a little, mouth “No.”

“My daddy was like that. In the end, he had a heart attack climbing the stairs to the second floor. Not here,” she added. “Not in this building.”

The elevator felt like a sauna. Sweat trickled down his side from his armpit, broke out at his hairline and above his upper lip. His eyes darted to the numbers above the door.

“Halfway there,” she said. “We’re gonna make it.”

He tried to push his mind from his own panic, tried to think about what the woman thought of him. Wuss. Crazy person. Something to talk about to her co-workers later.

He felt something prying his stiff fingers from his side. Her fingers. She slipped her small, warm hand into his large, damp one and squeezed it. He squeezed back.

“It’s gonna be okay. Almost there,” she said.

Matt moved his head slightly, shifted his eyes to the side to look at her. She was smiling, but not in an amused way. She was pouring strength and courage out of her brown eyes and into his. His jaw unclenched and his lungs emptied in a long sigh.

He tightened his grip—too tight, he thought—as the elevator made its nauseating little rise and fall before halting. The doors opened. He had to put all his effort into retrieving his hand, locked to hers as it was. He did, and looking at her he blushed crimson.

She reached to hold the door open for him, and he stepped out, cleared his throat. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

“It ain’t nothin’” she said, and beamed at him, like a warrior-goddess. “But I’d take the stairs down if I were you.”

G Wagon So Fly

“Hang on, Gramma. My shoe.” She holds up, I put a bare knee down on dirty concrete to tie my worn-out Keds, passed down from my brother. I’m tyin’ it and this slick ride pulls up. Mercedes Benz, G-wagon so fly, I stop what I’m doing just to look. I see my mouth hangin’ open in the shiny, black paint and snap it shut.

Dude gets out, he’s money. He’s wearing shades and a fade with razor lines cut in. He got on black Adidas track pants and a t-shirt so white it almost hurts my eyes. His kicks, man, they Air Jordans, but not like any I ever laid eyes on.

I squat there bug-eyed and he comes up on the sidewalk, sees me lookin’. He flashes me a gold-grill grin and goes into a building. I watch them flash Jordans as he goes past.

Gramma swats me upside the head with the paperback book in her hand. I scowl to match hers.

“Tie your shoe, fool,” she says.