One Cigarette

The night air slipped into the room as she stepped out. Leaving the sliding door cracked, she leaned against the balcony railing overlooking the twinkling nightscape of the city far below.

He knocked a single cigarette from the pack in the nightstand, picked up the lighter, and stepped out beside her closing the door behind them. He handed her the cigarette and lifted the lighter to it. The end bloomed and the soft menthol smoke rolled around them.

She took a drag and handed it to him. He inhaled, holding the smoke and the moment within himself. She leaned against him, his shoulder hard against her cheek. He looked down at her, her hair falling loose across the open shirt she’d pulled around her. A familiar moment—one they had now shared several times: the same quiet; and the same single cigarette.

What had grown between them had surprised them both. Neither looking for what was subconsciously offered, but neither turning away when the moment came. And now, looking back, neither of them would have wanted it any differently. It was a surprise chapter they had stumbled upon simultaneously.

Both divorcees, they had embraced the intimacy with frankness; there was no attempt to impress, no guessing-games played out later over text. Just the open giving and taking; owning and being owned. A deep understanding and possibly . . . even gratefulness.

He had surprised her that night. Without a word, he’d simply turned and picked her up off the couch and carried her to her room where they had fallen down together into sheets and fire and rain.

Now, leaning together against the railing, in the smoldering moments of the afterwards, she asked why it was hard—so hard—for someone to take these moments freely-given and not to expect more.

“Why? Why does it always have to mean something more?”

He looked at her, “Because it usually does.”

“But what about when this is all you want? All you need?”

She shook her head and took the cigarette from him. The tip flared red. Smoke wreathed her dark hair.

He shrugged, “What you’re talking about is a unicorn—someone who can give and take, and honestly believe you when you look at them with those beautiful eyes and tell them this is what it is. period.”

He took the cigarette from her. “You’re the only unicorn I’ve ever met. People tend to fall, even when you warn them. . .”

Far below, the city’s nightlife hummed and jived, and they surfed the evening winds together—the two of them and their cigarette.

She looked up at the sky, to the black horizon, and finally to him, and from somewhere her voice, low and steady, broke the silence, “I promise you I’ll never fall in love with you.”

He took a long, final inhale and stubbed the dying cigarette into oblivion. And in this new dark he smiled.

It was the nicest thing anyone had said to him in a long, long time.

Quietly

There are places we go
That forever stay
There are feelings
That leave with no goodbye
And it’s in the midst of these
Indefinable points of
.     latitude and longitude
We grieve
.     quietly.

In the smallest smiles
And words unsaid
Lie the broken chords
That will never be tuned
And in the discordance
The sustained hum of harmonies
.     straining for resolution
We thrum
.     quietly.

So step beyond the pale
And drink to the moon
Toast the holy, silent night
With unsung screams of
.     fractured dreams
And listen
As the universe leans in
And sings with you
.     quietly.
-ijs

***
author’s note: Forgive the weird formatting with the floating periods. I couldn’t figure out how to indent single lines without indenting the entire paragraph, and when I tried to “space-bar in” a blank space instead, the lines just ended up going back to left-justified. So if anyone out there knows how to indent single lines, I’d love to learn some WordPress magic.
Thanks!

The Midnight Song

I wasn’t on the schedule that day, but there was an emotionally pivotal scene being shot, and I wanted to be there to watch Bryan and Claire work. It was one of those soul-crushing moments we actors salivate over. Claire had her work cut out, but I knew she was up for it; we’d worked together on another film a couple years earlier, and her presence and vulnerability had impressed me.

Action was called, and I sat back in video village watching the monitor. In rehearsal, the camera had begun in a two-shot, then moved in for an extreme close-up on Claire as she finished her monologue.

On both the first and second takes, she crushed it. But it wasn’t Claire that was grabbing my attention. It was Bryan. He was sitting there listening to her: no dialogue, just sitting there and listening. Listening like no one I’d ever seen before. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I saw the director motion over the DP and the camera op and whisper something to them.

The third take began the same way, but as the camera pushed in, it panned to Bryan. Hanging on him. The deep, hidden emotions leaking out on the monitor in front of me. A chill walked down my spine.

After he wrapped for the day, I caught up with him on his way back to his trailer.

Hey man, that was incredible.”

Thanks,” he said, “Claire is super easy to work off.”

Dude…” I paused, not sure how to ask, or even if I should, “where the hell were you during that scene? I mean, it was a heavy moment, yeah, but you just… I don’t know… you elevated somehow.”

I realized I might have overstepped, “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s cool—“

He laughed me off, “Nah man, it’s okay. Most of the time, I’m not all ‘super secretive’ about my process.”

So can you tell me what you were thinking about? Or whom? Or whatever? I just wanna try to wrap my head around it. I’ve never seen someone listen like that before.”

He opened the door to his trailer, “You wanna come in for a minute? I’ve got some whiskey. I’m gonna need it if I’m gonna talk about this.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when you’re offered a whiskey, you say yes. Always.

Bryan pulled a bottle from the cabinet, and poured a couple fingers into a pair of Solo cups.

Cheers. I like to drink classy.”

Cheers to classy drinking then,” I saluted him, and we clicked cups.

I’ve never told this story before,“ he took a sip and rolled the whiskey around in his mouth, “not for any reason in particular… just never have.” He shrugged, looking out the window.

Let me guess, it starts with a girl?” I asked.

How’d you know?”

Doesn’t it always?”

He smiled, “Yeah… yeah, I guess it does. This girl and I had known each other for like, I don’t know… two or three years. Same circle of friends, you know how it goes. Never dated or anything, but we got along really well whenever we happened to hang out. Well, one night I got this text from her… her sister had killed herself.”

Shit…”

Yeah. I didn’t know the whole dynamic, but apparently there had been some relational distance there… but I mean, family is family, you know? So I drove over to her house, and when I got there a few other friends were there too. I didn’t really know what to do other than just hang out and be there. I’ve been around death enough to know saying stuff never really helps.”

I know,” I said. “Way better to just sit there and be with them.”

Right,” he said, “so that’s what I did. The group of us just hung out, drank a few bottles of wine, played music. A few people ended up leaving, but a couple of us stayed. I don’t really remember how and when I fell asleep, but I woke up the next morning on the floor under this pile of blankets, and she was lying beside me, just kinda huddled up against me. I had a meeting I had to be at that afternoon, so I got her up and got her to bed, made sure she was okay, then I left.”

He looked in his cup, “You want some more?”

Sure.”

He got up and poured refills, then sank back into his seat.

So later that night, I get this text from her saying thanks for coming over, and I was just like of course, if you ever need anything, call me and then she texts that she’s out with a few girlfriends and asks me to come hang out with them. Well, it was late, so I asked you sure? and she says please, I’d like you to come. So I went. She was already a few tequilas deep by the time I got there, and when she was saw me, she ran over and hugged me. Hard.”

He took a sip, “It’s crazy how when you share a moment like that—the night before—it can change the way you relate to each other. It’s like it can jump a relationship way further down the line. Anyways, a few of us went back to her place again that night, but this time I was the only one who stayed. It was late, and we both passed dead out. But the next morning we wake up together and…” he trailed off.

You ever have one of those moments: you’re with someone you know, and you’re in a situation you never would have dreamed up in a million years, but it’s like everything came together in that moment for a reason, like you were supposed to end up there?”

I shrugged, “Can’t think of one personally, but I feel where you’re coming from, sure.”

And I promise this is all coming around to answer your question from earlier,” he said.

Hey man, no rush. Take your time.”

Okay, well we’re both lying there, and we look at each other, and we’re both like are we doing this? ’cause when you cross that bridge for the first time with someone you’ve been close to, it can go a million different ways after. And it was like we both took that split-second, and… you know, honestly, I think there had always been an attraction between us, but it was so subtle… it was almost subconscious.”

He paused, started to say something, stopped. “Anyways, that started off several months of us spending nights together, and it was always really natural, like if we didn’t hear from each other for several days, we didn’t think much of it, but if we had time then we’d meet up.

So, one night—and I’m finally getting to your question—we were up late. We were on the couch. I was holding her; we were sitting there in the dark drinking whiskey.” His voice got quieter. “And she tells me she wrote this song about her sister. And then she asked if I wanted to hear it.”

He looked out through the window, and I knew he was back there: back in that dark living room, sitting on a different couch, drinking a different glass of whiskey. I realized I was holding my breath.

I said yes. And so she picks up her guitar, and she’s sitting there in her underwear wearing my t-shirt, and she’s just so open, so… vulnerable. And she plays this song, and her voice… singing those words… it was so raw, there was just so much hurt. And, I felt like something inside me came undone. Like I had just gotten to see inside another human in a way I had never, ever experienced. I sat there, and I cried, because it was real—one of those moments that two people share at the deepest level.

So every once in a while, I get a moment as a character where I’ve got to listen to someone tell me something hard. And sometimes—not always—I’ll find myself back there. And that feeling just washes over me again.”

I sat there looking at him, waiting for something more. But he was quiet. I didn’t know what to say.

What happened to her?” I finally asked.

Uh, I’m not real sure,” he sighed, then took a long drink. “The nights we spent together just gradually got farther and farther apart. But last I checked, she was doing good.”

He shrugged, and I saw a touch of sadness—but it was a peaceful sadness—move across his face. “I haven’t seen her in years… you know, I think that once in a while, when you’re in a broken time, you cross paths with certain people. And in that moment, you fit together perfectly. But as you heal, you just don’t fit together in the same way anymore. Sometimes you might get months with someone. Sometimes maybe only days. But for that time that we had…” he smiled, “it was right.”

***

Flame”

Maybe we weren’t meant for each other
But o
nly for those nights.
You scarred my heart
With your guitar
And covered me in light.
-ijs

Rage, Dear Brave One

In the spirit of International Women’s Day, I want to salute all the women who’ve survived/escaped/rejected abusive relationships.
Know that you are strong.
Know that you are worth more.

“Rage, Dear Brave One”

Ripped through
Reeling from the
Refuse of a
Relationship gone toxic and
Repressive.

Read my eyes and
Realize I’m not that. I’m
Real. I’m here to
Reject the idea that being handled can be
Read as being held.

Rain and tears aren’t ‘sposed to mix.
Remember when you wore flowers in your hair?
Realms of daring princesses and
Reigns of dragons?
Raging wars that were never ‘sposed to touch
Reality? Take back the dream and
Rage against the animal that’s
Ruling you
Rendering you lifeless, breathless
Ravaged.

Rage, my dear brave one.
Rage.

It doesn’t have to be this way.
-ijs

Echoes – an essay

Three notes. Three notes pulsating through the darkness. Something within me rises to meet them. I’ve never heard them before, but I could swear a buried memory wants to claim them. Around me, the dimmed theatre sits hushed as the opening chords of “The Mighty Rio Grande” whisper in. For a moment, the movie takes a back seat to its own score; the story somehow overshadowed by the melody.

The moment passes. But somehow the music touched somewhere. Stirred something.

You know the feeling: a chord, an arpeggio, a riff . . . you hear it, and a memory explodes across your mind. A memory so clear, so present, you can taste, smell it. You’re there. Somehow.

“Jessica’s Theme” . . . It’s dusk; I’m on a ridge looking down across the North Carolina mountains. Fog slowly fills the fields, puddling like some lazy stream. A breath of mountain air ruffles my hair and whispers on through the trees. Absolute solitude. Reverence. Stars fight their way through the last light of the bleeding sun, their icy brilliance adding another dimension to the deepening void. That song somehow takes me there every time.

Through the years a group of songs has become so entwined through my being all I need to hear is one whisper–notes through the open window of a passing car, a barely-caught bar while scanning the radio, background mall music–and my senses jump on edge. Ears straining to catch it. Imagination somehow already replaying the scenes. “Taps,” “Bolero,” bagpipes wailing “Amazing Grace,” “Freedom,” others . . .

What is it? I hear it. Eyes widen. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. I feel myself turning to the nearest person. Wanting to explain. To share. The half-smile freezes. The words die before they’re born. I’ve learned–it’s not their memory. It’s mine. I sit back.

In the theatre. Not alone, but alone, I take in the music. Acknowledging the rare moment–the moment when another song adds itself to your life’s playlist. You don’t pick the songs. They pick you.

I sit back and listen.

*author’s note: I wrote this on September 27, 2011, but over the last week a couple of songs crossed my path again. They took me back. Way back. So I decided to dig in my files and dust this off. Hope you enjoy it.

Silence Falls

Rain whispers
And the cars they pass
And I watch
Faceless drivers inside going and going.

And I realize I am one of them
But where am I going
And once I get there
Must I go further?

I don’t know
And thinking about it frightens me
I am so deeply tired
I find that I want to stop.

If I can look from a safe place
Maybe I’ll see where I am going
But I have lost my way
The black is around and under me.

I think I will pull others down with me
So I run deeper into myself
Where questions won’t reach
And silence finally falls.
-ijs

Distraction

She wanted my heart
but all I could give
was my body
and so we drank a bottle
then played that song

and I held her
while she rode me
into the morning
threw the alarm clock on the floor
and we followed it
while our heat went up in shadows
on the walls

She asked me to stay
unable to see
she was talking to a ghost
and in the morning blue
I closed the door
and walked out of her life
and left her alone
wearing nothing but her makeup.
-ijs

Maybe I Waited

I suppose (maybe) I liked the way
You haunted the halls of my heart
Whispering your cold, dark pain
But maybe there are better places (now)
To find my inspiration.

I think (maybe) I’ve drawn that well dry
Coming back once too often
And it’s possible I kept searching those depths
Because I thought to leave it
Would kill a part of me.

It’s time for you to go
(let me be)
Because you’re already gone
A tortured ghost
Snatched by yesterday’s breeze.
-ijs

Familiar

ghost

I lean into the warm water, feeling it fill my ears with a soft whoompf, the tip of my nose and lips just breaking the surface. Slow, measured breaths. Quiet breaths. The ceiling shimmers and flexes as I open my eyes, the water stings for a second. I like the pain. I’ve always liked it. Razors with their warm shiny edges, beautiful wet blades. It connects me to a body I don’t quite own.

The light flickers, buzzes, blacks out, wavers back to life. The cold fluorescent echoing in shadows.

Warm waves flood my scalp as Mama’s fingers ripple through my hair. Hands move mechanically, massaging my head. I go limp.

Shall I braid it?

I slide up, nuzzling my neck into the edge of the porcelain tub. I nod. I’ve missed my braid. Wiggling my fingers, I check the mobility in my left hand. A little better.

Good girl.

She leans over me. The light pops zzzaaap, black splatters her face.

“Sing?” I mumble.

Her hands disappear for a second. I feel her shift behind me and then lean closer.

Rock-a-bye, baby

fingers trace the red welted scars on my wrist. My blood burns. An itch only a razor can scratch.

on a treetop

fingers press into the flesh, digging, searching.

when the wind blows

Zzzzaaaaazzzaaaap a cough of darkness.

the cradle will rock

Something is shifting, changing. Her arms elongate, thinning, a yellow foot hooks over the edge of the tub.

The door handle rattles. “Ava? You in there?”

Patrick? What’s he doing here? His flight gets back tomorrow.

Zzzzzaaaazzzzzz a chaotic symphony of shadows dance gleefully along the walls.

Mama perches on the edge of the tub, all elbows, knees, and bony edges, like she swallowed a bag of hammers. Emaciated skin sucked around jagged ribs.

I wonder why he doesn’t come in. I don’t remember locking the door.

when the bough breaks

Her eyes are gone. Just a white sloping emptiness distending from straggling ropes of hair down to a pocked nose. The cheeks pull into something resembling a grin. Part of her bottom jaw is gone.

“Ava, who are you talking to? Who’s in there?!” The rugged mahogany groans as he throws a shoulder into it. “OPEN THE DOOR! AVA!”

Mama turns and scuttles up the wall, her wet, hacking voice splattering around me.

the cradle will fall

I can’t pull my eyes away, fascinated by the ripples of her distended spine protruding through her back. Bony shoulder blades squirm and jerk.

ZZZZZZZZAAAAAAAAAAAA POP the light goes out leaving me with one last glimpse of her body splayed across the ceiling above me, small but impossibly large, her head rotating, black hair falling around a sightless face.

and down will come baby

BOOM!

“AVA!”

BOOOM!

“BABY! PLEASE! AVAAAAAA!!”

I reach up in the darkness, “MAMA! DON’T LEAVE ME AGAIN! DON’T LEAVE ME!”

cradle and all.

CRAAAAACKKK! The door splinters open, a beam of light catching Mama’s form as she launches herself toward me, all disjointed arms, knobby legs, hooked fingers.

“AVAAAA! NOOOO!”

And then I am awash in fire and blackness and rushing water. Patrick diving, reaching, but he’s late. He’s too late.

Mama takes me.

Down, down into wet, shiny nothingness.