Splinters

splinter tree

He collapsed onto the bench beside me.

“You’re early.”

I nodded.

He sat for a moment soaking in the last of the September sunset; away to our left the sun ignited the sky, washing everything with a warm, pulsing glow. The traffic down the hill below us flowed along with its undercurrent of beeps and the throttled thrum of downshifting tractor trailers.

“How are you today?”

He laughed—or at least something that passed for a laugh.

“You know, you’re about the only person who asks that. Normally it’s you good . . . how are you . . . I’m so sorry.” He shook his head, “I never really know what to say, so I don’t say anything much more than I’m okay . . . I’m fine . . . thanks for asking. It’s like they’re embarrassed to talk about it.”

“It’s tough to know what to say.”

I pulled my flask out of my jacket and offered it to him. He took it without looking, unscrewed the cap scree scree and took a pull.

“You know the hardest one I get? When they say you’ll meet someone else, don’t you worry, such a great guy like you, just you wait, when you least expect it. What if I don’t want to meet anyone else?”

He twisted the cap back and forth scree scree scree.

“Is that wrong?”

I shook my head, “No.”

“I mean, the people who say that, maybe they just experience love on a different plane from me.” He took another swallow, coughed. “I can still remember the first time I saw her. Fifteen years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t love at first sight—I don’t believe in that—but it was something. I knew there was something about her—this blonde, green eyed creature who’d stepped out of some fairy tale and cracked the foundation of everything I thought I knew about life. She didn’t even notice me—there were hundreds of people around—but I couldn’t stop staring at her. I knew I had no chance. And then she actually said yes . . .”

scree scree scree

“I remember what she wore on our first date, that green sweater . . . her favorite color . . . man, the way it made her eyes crack . . . I don’t think I tasted one thing I ate that night. I couldn’t stop staring at her. I was afraid it was a joke, like the maître d’ was going to come up during the middle of our appetizer, tap me on the shoulder, and say I’m so sorry, sir, but there’s been a mistake. The lady’s real date just arrived. It’s time for you to go. And then some James Bond deal would walk up, take my glass of wine, and smile while the hostess showed me out the door.

Do you know what it’s like to be so out of your league you feel like you’re drowning? all the time? That’s the way I felt with her. Always. Like I was drowning. It hurt to breathe sometimes.”

scree scree

“Still does.”

A big rig hit its jake brakes and grumbled down the hill, the rumble reverberating around us. He turned to look at it then looked down at the flask like he’d forgotten he was holding it. Passed it back to me. The bourbon was good, the warm bite crawled down my throat.

“I know that look, you’ve got something rolling around in that brain. You can say it.”

I took another swallow, “Okay, I see it this way: I don’t think we look back at the past with rose-colored glasses simply because of how good the past was, but rather because we think about all the pain we’ve been through in the interim, and we realize that that past version of ourself hasn’t experienced that pain yet. We want to keep them always as happy and unscarred as they were back then.

I know that doesn’t make you feel any better. She’s gone—it was out of your control, is what I’m trying to say—and unfortunately, life’s instruction manual is pretty cut and dried: Pain Included. No Refunds. Thanks for Playing.” I shrugged, “Whether we like it or not.”

His voice climbed, a hard edge tinging it, “But just because she’s not in my life anymore doesn’t mean she’s gone from here.” He tapped his temple with two fingers. “Just last week I was at the mall, I was gonna buy a watch. I was at the counter, you know, just looking and all of a sudden I felt like she was behind me. I smelled her. That perfume she wore— I knew if I turned around she’d be standing behind me looking at me with those eyes. I froze. It was so real. I just stood there waiting for her to slip up behind me and rest her chin on my shoulder and whisper hey you watcha doing . . . I knew it was her, but I knew it wasn’t at the same time. This girl steps up beside me and it’s all I can do not to fold in on myself and go to pieces right there in the middle of the damn store. That girl had no idea when she put on that perfume that morning . . . she had no idea what she’d do to me . . .”

He grabbed his head with both hands, “There’s this splinter of her in here.”

Of course there is. And it might take years before it works itself out to a place where you can finally grab it, pull it free. Put it to rest.”

He closed his eyes, whispered, “Dammit it hurts.”

“I know it does. Splinters always do.”

He rubbed his eyes, leaned back and looked across to the dying horizon before pulling a package out of his jacket. With a quiet exhale he unrolled it on his lap, the paper shaking in his hands.

“Can I get one more hit of that?”

He took the flask, rubbing the worn leather with numb fingertips.

scree scree scree

“Daisies.”

He nodded.

scree scree

“She loved those,” I said.

He knelt and laid them alongside the marble headstone.

“Yeah. She did.”

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Let Go

sun earth

I maneuver to block the last rays of sunlight filtering through the coffee shop windows. The ocher flames ignite the wisps of cloud pillowing the horizon.

I sip on my second cup of coffee. The first hint of shakes start. Too much caffeine, too little food; 1,200 calories/day over the past 16 days in preparation for this weekend’s shoot has lowered my tolerance. Just act like it’s the coke.

Did I say that out loud?

I look around . . . no sideways glances. I think I’m good. I really am ready to let this character go.

93 million miles divided by 186,000 miles/sec . . . eight minutes and change. Sometimes my science brain randomly kicks on. I’m watching something happen that’s already happened. Almost like watching the future except I’m watching the past in real-time.

And it’s gone. Slipped below the surface . . . well not really, the surface slipped up, our little blue marble blistering along, spinning and screaming through the silence of space.

Get out of my head, science brain.

The room tilts with that stand-up-too-quick-rush and I slug more coffee. The phantom vertigo clears. What started this? Oh yeah, sitting here thinking about how not in control I am. See, I just came from a callback–a callback for something that would be a game changer. Something I’d love to do. Something I’ve learned to let go the minute I do my nod-thanks-so-much-great-to-meet-you-grab-my-stuff-and-walk-out-the-door. Well, actually it’s not really me in the room. It’s only once I’m in the parking lot that my brain catches up. The other character shows up, auditions, then hands me back my coffee (“Hey, here’s your brain, feel free to check out the replay”). And that’s how the past-future-space-time-continuum-merry-go-round started. Thanks, science brain.

So, I sit here replaying the callback. Filtering what I coulda/shoulda done and knowing it doesn’t matter. It’s already minutes miles behind. Better off forgotten.

I shut my laptop, grab my bag, and go spinning into the night.

Just Coffee – a short story

coffee

It was that time of the afternoon when it’s still okay to wear sunglasses inside. No one looks at you like who’s that dude think he is.

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about and why the hell did I pick this table—

She walks in. Walks in like she owns the place. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not pretentious. It’s just who she is. You know those people who walk in a room and everything stops for like this millisecond? There’s an infinitesimal shudder in the air, and you convince yourself it’s nothing because how do you explain that? It doesn’t make sense. And you’re right—it doesn’t make sense. It’s just the way things are.

I watch her for that moment before she sees me—that fraction of a moment before her guard goes up, before she becomes the person she is now.

The moment—that fraction—is gone almost before I recognize it.

She waves.

My legs move beneath me. I’m walking toward her.

Unplanned. Unplanned. Sit back down.

We watch each other from behind mirrored lenses.

I lean in. Kiss her on the cheek. It’s normal. She’s wearing the same perfume. It’s five years ago . . . .

Get it together.

“Just let me grab a coffee?”

“Sure.”

I sit. Why the hell did I pick this table? Pull out my phone. Put it back in my pocket. Adjust my glasses. I unconsciously rub my eyebrow STOP IT.

She sits. Smiles.

I want to say you look amazing. Tell me everything that’s happened. Tell me about the last three years. Tell me where you’ve been and do you remember? Do you remember everything? And a razor sharp memory: lying on the hood of the Jeep watching the fireworks, wrapped in a blanket because it was a cold July, and how she’d had the hood of her sweatshirt pulled way up over her head so only the tip of her nose was sticking out, and how I leaned over and kissed her under the sonic explosions, and it was like kissing ice, and how she started laughing and couldn’t stop, and how we both almost fell off but I caught her at the last second, and how her bag left a lightning bolt-shaped scratch on the Jeep—

Be smooth.

“So how are you?”

Smooth.

She smiles—that easy, relaxed smile. The room shudders again.

She’s good. We talk. She tells me about the last three years, and I sit and watch her, and it’s easy—easier than I’d hoped. The sun reflects off her glasses and it’s hard to imagine that her eyes haven’t gone gold. And then I’m tipping back my cup, standing for a refill, reaching to take hers habit and catch myself at the last second, she laughs, pushes it toward me, smiles.

The walk to the counter is somehow easier. I can’t tell exactly what’s changed. Hand the cups over, wait, wait, realize I still have my glasses on, take them off, grab the coffees, turn, and see her sliding her glasses into her purse.

I set the cups down.

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

I push her coffee across. She looks out at the sunset. The light hits her just the way I remembered, her eyes glimmering sunset on the beach, the salt taste —

“I don’t know . . . for inviting me. I wasn’t sure—“ She takes a drink, looks directly at me. “I didn’t know what you wanted.”

Careful.

“This.”

“This?”

“Yes.”

“That’s all?”

I nod.

She squints. I squint back the same way we used to do when one of us would be keeping a secret—the famous staring contest. Surprises rarely worked with us.

“I wanted to see if you were good.”

She tucks her hair behind her left ear the way she always does when she’s buying herself a second.

“I am.” She nods, “I really am.”

“Then my work here is done.”

She reaches across and touches my hand. Another shudder.

“You know I have infinite tenderness for you.”

The sun is gone. Nothing but clarity in those eyes.

“And I always will.”

I want my glasses. But I sit. I sit and look at her and see what truth looks like, and in the moment she releases my hand she releases something else in me—something no number of sleepless nights, benders, tortured miles, and crumpled diary pages could ever give—myself.

Free.

I am free.

***

I sip my coffee. Look at my watch. Look at the door for the twentieth time in five minutes. Tell myself I’m not nervous, why should I be nervous, there’s nothing to be nervous about.

-ijs

Sunset – a poem

[because I love driving]

 

Grey, sullen, infinite skies

Brooding, falling

As I navigate the channel

Mountain peaks rubbing

Shoulders

I squeeze between

The road an ebony slice

Gashing their flanks

Virgin wool blankets millions of willowy arms

Dull, muted soldiers

Plodding slowly

Into the distance

Silence invades, pervades

All

I round the ridge

An explosion

Of light

A crimson deluge

Fire, fracturing, canting

Rubies splash along the crystalline contours

Of the smoldering cliffs

Sunlight igniting

Millions of prisms

Blistering, a cacophony of scarlet blood

I can’t breathe, think

Only stare, absorb

Try to hold onto this moment

Before I can inhale it’s

Gone

Darkness falls

Night extinguishes and

Caresses the mountains

Silently

Leaving only a memory of smoke.