“Yes, but why does it need to hurt?”
They stopped swaying to the music, loosened their grasp and separated their bodies. For almost an hour they had been slow dancing in his living room. The only light shining was across the room, above the stove. There was a maroon candle next to the record player, though its light had gradually decreased. What started as a tall flame, burned to a pool of wax with the smallest flicker. While she had her back to the windows she caught the candle’s eye and couldn’t help but see it as emblematic of their relationship. She was quite literally standing in this room, witness to the end of their own flame, and all that lay around them was a pool of what once was. A puddle of what used to be, that could no longer give light or warmth. It no longer had purpose, it was no longer beautiful or interesting. Sure she could walk over and play with the wax, but all that would leave is a mess on her hand. The flame was gone, no longer bright on their face, or in the room, why let it dry on her fingers? It was best to walk away from the candle, it was in every sense: over.
Her question had stopped their movement, and she was overtly aware of his silence, and the strings of a bluesy guitar percolating from the speakers. Each string cut into every moment he didn’t answer. Turning the euphony into a dark hole. It had been three years, and she was still waiting for some kind of response from him. Anything. Ferociously denied conversation. Sometimes she would hide her words in actions, or ideas, desperate to find out what was going on inside his head, behind the brown beard, and the hazel eyes.
“Is there anyone in there?” she asked as she softly widened her eyes in an attempt to look deeper into his. He didn’t look away, but gave no signal of recognition. He moved his right hand from the grip of her’s and placed it on the small of her back, pushing her against him. He raised his left hand and eased her into a sway yet again.
“Dance with me” he whispered into her left neck, as his hair tickled her ear she could feel the heat of his voice on her clavicle. She wanted to push away and demand he respond. She wanted words, answers. She wanted to know why he was like this, why had he brought her here, why did he love her yet push her away. Why were these two people who had nothing in common slow dancing in this room overlooking the city. The city that was more like a graveyard of past loves, future heart break, first kisses, and even fewer concluding ones.
She also wanted to never stop moving with him. Like every moment together, she was screaming on the inside. Which voice to listen to? The one that screams run? Or the girl who whispers “hide,” say nothing, make slow movements, if he hardly knows you are here, he will never make you go. It was a game she was no longer willing to play, even as a child it was one she loathed. Her sisters continually made it the game of choice. And whichever role she was put in, she despised. When she was crouched down in a laundry basket, she desperately wanted to be the one out looking, running around. And when alone on the hunt, she yearned to be snuggled under the bed or under the covers with her sisters. She often thought of escaping. From what she didn’t know, but a bag was always packed and ready.
At five it was a Barbie bag, a terrifying backpack really: it was plastic and the entire bag was Barbie’s face. One summer, when their father had taken them fishing, she forgot it in the car face up. And upon return she discovered Barbie had undergone plastic surgery––the sun had done a real job of her nose. It had almost collapsed and oozed its away across her entire face. She was terrifying to look at. Her sisters cried and begged their father to throw the bag away. She soon realized she loved the deformed Barbie more, and wished that the sun would melt her nose too. Like many childhood tales, it took on a life of its own, and she grew into an adult with a constant burnt nose, thanks to the habit of purposely leaving that part out when lathering on the sunscreen. A childhood dream transformed into an adult nightmare. He thought it was adorable and had often laid over the edge of his bed, while she sat crossed legged on the floor, counting the freckles. Freckles that only found home on her nose, for all else had been screened.
At ten the bag was a dark blue Jansport. The solitary front pocket held a Swiss army knife, four Quaker oatmeal-chocolate-chip bars, and one tropical punch Capri Sun. The larger compartment contained one pair of jeans, a long sleeve brown shirt, four undies, a warm hat, and a tie die blanket. This backpack was never emptied nor ever used for school. It was hidden under her bed, always at the ready. It was a backpack she had come by on her own, and thus felt no one need be made aware of its existence. The bag she used for school had been her oldest sister’s, and though she hated hand-me-downs, one day a past note in the smallest pocket was found––it was between her sister and a boy in her class named Jake. It made the backpack a treasure, a gateway to a part of her sister she never got. For in the note she could tell Ash had been timid, unsure, small.
Her getaway bag was discovered at a garage sale two blocks down. It was summertime, and her sisters and her spent the morning riding their bikes back and forth between their home and the closest park. On a return trip for lunch, she noticed the sale and called for her sisters to stop. Ash looked back, “it’s just trash! Let’s go!” She felt otherwise, came to a stop, and jumped off the bike. She slowly let it fall to its side on the grass (the kick stand hadn’t worked in months), and ambled through the folding tables. By all means Ash had been right, all she saw were knickknacks and decrepit appliances. And then she saw it. Leaning against a table with a checkered cloth hanging over it, a back pack. But not just any bag. This one had pins and patches. It was like the bags she saw when they rode by the high school. The kids with bright hair and piercings had bags like these. She ran her small fingers over each patch, and though she had no idea what they represented, she loved them. There were skulls, an enlarged brain, a dancing teddy bear, and pins with words she recognized but had never before seen placed together.
She grabbed the bag, held it to her stomach and walked to another table. “Excuse me? How much for the bag?” she asked an older gentleman who had been counting money.
“Hmmm,” he hummed as he looked down at her. “I am not sure that is for sale. My son may have dropped it there by accident, let me go ask.” But before he came back, she dumped the contents out, hopped back on the red bike and was on her way. Good thing too, because she had no money.
And at seventeen the bag had become sandwich size, and instead of holding her belongings, it manipulated them. And though the bag changed often its contents were always the same, though occasionally at a higher or lower price. At seventeen weed found her, and it was the escape she had long prayed for. It didn’t mean being at the ready to run from home, it meant lying in bed, headphones on, not having to move. Though she was still under her fathers roof, she had escaped from everything inside it. Here she could pretend she was anywhere, it was the best escape, for it was infinite. A ritual was created, and upon arrival from school she would light three candles, pick four records, lock her door, smoke a joint, put her comforter on the floor, and seep into it. For hours she would lay on the floor, dreaming of far off places, a future outside of this room, and stories not yet written.
Ironically, this escape kept her in the house she loathed. And even more ironic yet, it was this bag that finally forced her out. For when her father learned of the ritual, he demanded she leave. And with the Jansport bag now packed to the brim with records, and four boxes full of clothes, it was finally time to go. The Barbie backpack hadn’t been seen in years, though it was the last thing she thought of as she shut off the light and closed the door of her childhood room for the last time.
The flicker from the candle waned further, it was almost out. She tightened her grip on the hand that was being held by his, that was dipping up and down as they swayed through the room. She closed her eyes, leaned in, and rested her right cheek on his shoulder. She could smell a newly washed shirt, day old hair gel, and his musk she had grown to equally desire and recoil from. She took in a deep breath, and moved her other arm from his hip to push him away.
“When that candle goes, I’m going with it,” she said as she stopped her feet from moving and stood her ground. She arched her back, in an attempt to make herself bigger. She would walk out of here with the only dignity she had left: posture.
“Stay the night” he said. Though it wasn’t clear if it was a request or a demand.
“Because I don’t know what record to put on next.”
She scoffed but quickly pulled the almost-laughter back in. As much as she wanted to laugh, it felt like a surrender. His music taste was, well, abysmal. He wouldn’t know how to fall into the night with the perfect album. The perfect track to sink into. The harmony that would reflect the heart’s own wave length.
She let go of him entirely and walked over to the record collection, the one she had been responsible for. When she first met him it was atrocious, at the time she joked with him: “you know I won’t come over unless we do something about this.” And from that day forward he would meet her at the record store weekly, and give her reign to choose new additions.
The weekly record trip had solidified their union. It gave them ground to tread on, something they could enjoy together that simultaneously built something, concocted an air of connection, commonality. What brought them together, also demonstrated what left them vastly apart. On sunny days she wanted mo-town, he longed for metal. When it was cold and cloudy she preferred sultry female voices, and he demanded chaotic jazz. They would walk out of the shop with two or three records, and take turns throughout the night playing each other’s pick. At first she thought this showed compromise, that they could mesh their constant differences. But over time she realized it showed the exact opposite: it proved neither of them was willing to give fully into the other’s desires, needs. There was always a voice, a song, an album that asked, “what about me?”
She looked through the collection she had helped build, the only evidence she had been let inside––the apartment that is, for to penetrate him took more than music. She spent two years convincing herself it was her destination of choice, and then spent a year working up the courage to convince herself otherwise. Why do we tell ourselves it’s better to be alone with someone, than alone with no one?
In her peripheral she saw him go to the couch, pick through her jacket, and pull out a pack of cigarettes. She rolled her eyes, and when she heard the click of the lighter said, “just when I thought there wasn’t anything left for you to take.”
He looked up, cigarette between his lips, took a drag, “sorry, what?”
“We both know you aren’t.” She let her hand drop from resting on the records, and walked towards him. He put his hand out to grab her’s, and she went for the coat instead. One arm in, and then the other. Again she arched her back to stand tall and put her hands in the leather pockets.
“It’s a night for blues” she said as she looked into his eyes and then turned back towards the record player. She opened the cover, took what was out, and placed it back in its snug sleeve. She pulled a new record off the shelf, out of its home, and placed it on the turntable. She moved the headshell over the record, and lightly urged the stylus down. She stepped back while zipping up her jacket, looked at him over her shoulder and took a deep breath in. With her exhale she blew out the candle.
White noise crinkled as she made her way across the apartment, and when she opened the door strings began seeping from the speakers. As she stepped across the threshold Billie’s voice rang out, and as the door clicked close behind her so began the last words she would ever hear from the other side, I’m a fool to want you.