Happy

The company Clinique offers the following two scents: Happy and Happy to Be.

My pointed elbows swinging around in my haste to get ready one morning, I bump Happy off the counter and watch as he topples off, onto my square-tiled ceramic bathroom floor. In the few seconds before impact, I secretly pray that Happy might make it.  Maybe, the bottle won’t break. Catastrophe averted, I will smile and think: yeah, how lucky am I?

The glass smacks to the floor and I watch as the bottle splinters into a jigsaw puzzle of bits of smaller and larger pieces.     

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Sadly, Happy to Be suffered a similar fate months earlier.  

The overwhelming scent of too much Happy burns my olfactory senses, smothering me.

I see my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Lines cross my forehead, laugh lines flatten, nostrils burn, eyes run cold with this thought:  I’m not even allowed to own a bottle of perfume called Happy!  I am pissed with the irony of it all.

This reckoning causes the image in the mirror to begin another transformation. A new set of lines map a different network on my face. I break into pieces like Happy, scattered at my feet. I can’t watch it happen and for my own protection; my head falls forward avoiding my reflection.

I sob, wishing for happiness instead.     

***

First published in The Commonline Journal. 

http://www.commonlinejournal.com/2016/03/happy-by-penelope-s-hawtrey.html

Light

In the darkness below her winged bird there are flickers of white dots here and there.  They may be a street light, the eyes of a car, or perhaps the larger patches to the west are an illuminated soccer or baseball field. If it’s one of the larger baseball games – those who attend might be able to get a mustard drenched hot dog and some fizzy beer that tickles their noses.

A drink would be good right about now. 

Through the window she glances at red lights pulsing back and forth signalling a sister plane is close by, although, not that close. It only seems like it is. In truth, she knows the plane is quite a distance apart. Or so, that’s what someone once told her.

She wonders if there’s another person who looks through their small round window and sees her, and if they wonder the same thing she does. The question: where are all those people going?

Are they going to tropical destinations, where they can get pineapple drinks adorned with little umbrellas that signal the commencement of a vacation?  Or is there a sombre individual who is wedged in his cramped seat wearing a starched white-sleeved shirt, black pants, and jacket hunched forward with his laptop perched on his fold-out tray table? It would be a last attempt by a businessman to complete some final work before he lands and attends his next big meeting.

Then again, she wonders why there’s an assumption by her that other people are travelling for enjoyment or money. There might be another reason: a loved one who is newly diagnosed with some disease and family and friends, in a show of support, flock to them to lift their spirits. But for some passengers on those flights, they may already travel with red-rimmed eyes and dark clothes so they may say their final farewells to someone special they have lost. You miss the little things: the tilt of their head when they talked; their hand clapping when they spoke with excitement about something; or perhaps an annoyance you never thought you would miss, such as the way they never let you get a word into a conversation.

The small things. Dots. Flickers. Ended. Before we even realize it.

But not everyone is lost when faced with a grim prognosis. She knows this to be true. Sometimes surprisingly, and to the delight of family and friends, a loved one will rally back from sickness that forced them into hospitals with white scratchy linen sheets, and ammonia-scented rooms, where clipboard-carrying doctors  dispense medication in the hopes of saving a person’s life.

And it works.

Sunshine returns.

Light carries us home. With lights on cars, boats, and planes it helps the pilot avoid disaster. Then there are beacons of light from lighthouses and red dots from airport runways that helps Captains navigate and bring passengers and crew back to land safely. It’s as if those signals of  light are waving an exuberant hand saying, “Come, this way!”

Among the red blinking lights in the darkness around her, there are smaller dots of white.

Stars, fixed and steady, illuminate the darkness and were the first navigational system that ships used as their compass to bring them to a selected destination. But a miss calculation on the part of the crew would bring them somewhere completely different.

Suddenly – there’s a shuddering, followed swiftly by a red flash! She jolts from her seat. There’s a faintly heard sound of twisting metal as air rushes and howls around her. Foolishly, she always believed in the last few moments of her life there would be a serene darkness that would descend. It would be as if death’s hands would wrap themselves tightly around her throat squeezing out her last breath.

The greeting of the explosion of brightness reminds her of the energy found in parades with thumping marching bands, comical clowns, and bedazzled floats draped heavily with white, orange, purple, and red flowers.  It’s an intense last spark, a final hurrah! It’s as if the spark were attempting to ignite one more time, with only the last embers of a tired flame. In that final burst of energy, of light, it ends.

What She Says To Me

“What are you doing?” She asks in a derisive tone. Standing above me, she hangs over my shoulder, staring at my computer screen.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” After a brief pause I add, “working.”

“Why? You know you’ll never get anywhere.  I can see you now – a pathetic, decrepit woman, with scraggly white hair in her 80’s, hunched over her computer saying, oh, if I just keep working, maybe I’ll become a successful writer.” And then if you still haven’t convinced yourself, you’ll say with a last hurrah, “It’s never too late!”  

“You don’t understand. It’s a part of who I am now. Even if I wanted to stop, I can’t.”

“That’s your obsessive-compulsive disorder kicking in. That’s all.” She says it in her VERY familiar authoritative voice. A few seconds later, she adds, “you’re unsuccessful at everything you do. Capital L-O-S-E-R, loser!” She screeches the last word at me as if she were stabbing me in the heart.

“I can spell,” I answer.

“I should hope so. How do you even get up in the mornings? Or,” she tilts her head back, claps her hands together, and says, “Why do you get up in the mornings?”

I sigh, and ask, “Are you done, yet?”

“Not yet. Shall I list our failures?”

“No, thanks,” I answer sticking my hand up in front of her. “I have that list too.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to be so negative…”

“Really? You don’t?” I say swinging my head in her direction with a mix of frustration and sadness in my voice.

I must get my emotions in check. I can’t let her know she’s winning.

She shrugs her shoulders, and says, “One of us needs to be the realist, the sensible one.” She paces around my office, touches my stuff, and continues saying, “listen, if you keep working at just your real job, you’ll probably make it to retirement, and won’t end up broke and homeless. Maybe you’ll even make it to old age.  You can’t keep working and writing at the same time. Your body is showing the signs it can’t handle much more. Give up, and you’ll be buried an old woman.”

“You’re so much fun. You should stop by more often.” I say sarcastically.

“Well,” she says, “if you keep up with this nonsense, no one will come to your funeral because you were too busy…” There’s a short pause, and then her fingers rise up in the air, and she makes the quote signs, and continues saying, “working all the time.” She huffs, stomps around a little, swings her head in my direction and with her nose in the air adds, “no one will care that you’re dead because when you were alive, you never made time for them.”

“Can you stop talking?” I say as I face the white glow from my screen.

“No,” she says inching her way closer to me until she’s standing to my left side. And of course – she’s still standing above me.

“Accept your fate.”

“Stop it.” My voice wobbles with weariness. She’s crushing me. We both know it.

“Why do you think you’re so special?”

“Oh, come on,” I huff in frustration. “I don’t think I’m special! I just feel like I need to try, to make an attempt!” A cliché spins to the top of my mind and before I can stop myself I use it saying, “I would prefer to try and fail, than never to try at all.”

“Cliché,” she announces to me in that dismissive, superior tone.

“I knew you were going to say that. Sometimes clichés last because they’re true.”

“Or, maybe they’re lies that continue to linger because people want to believe them.”

“Fine. Maybe. Are you done?” If I give her a victory, make her believe she’s won, she might go away, and I can get back to work.

“What’s that line that we laugh about? It’s the opposite of an inspirational quote. Was it, failure, when you’re best just isn’t good enough? Was that it? She says scrunching her eyes at me like a cat does when their plotting to trip you at the top of the staircase so the feline can  get their inheritance.

I snort with laughter. Okay, sometimes she’s pretty funny.  “Yes, that was it.”

I remember the quote so well, by a company called Despair Inc. I get their sense of humour. They have multiple posters with similarly sarcastic quotes. But that one stuck with me, with us, for a long time. I remember the photo they used: a runner sitting on a bench, hands on top of his bowed head. It was an image of utter defeat.  The whole thing was perfectly packaged encompassing a huge range of emotions; sadness, humor, and accented with a heavy dose of honesty.

“That’s you,” she says gleefully.

I pause.

I know how to get rid of her.

I stand up from my desk, and I’m finally at eye level with her. It’s just the two of us.

“Are you ready to accept defeat?” She asks with one eyebrow raised, jaw is locked, eyes are fixed on me.

“No,” I say stubbornly. “Did you know that some people say that failing is necessary? That so long as you learn something from the experience, it might make you better? I’ve heard of people who were fired from their jobs that went on to start their own successful businesses.”

“You’re not them,” she says as her eyes shift from side to side with uncertainty.

“I’m going for a run,” I announce.

“You’re running away from your problems.”

“Nope, that’s not it. You’ve used everything from name-calling, to my concern that I’m being neglectful to my family and friends by pursuing my passion to try bully me to stop me from writing. Then when that didn’t work, you started to discuss what my funeral might look like. Who does that? I need to get away from you.”

“You can’t get away from me. Not permanently,” she whispers in my ear as I change as quickly as I can into my sports bra, running pants, and sweatshirt. “I’ll be back,” she says finally.

I yank my sports watch on, run down the stairs clasping my MP3 player, and pull my running shoes on.

“DO YOU HEAR ME? I’ll be back!” She screams at me as a last effort to be heard.

“I have no doubt,” I answer just before I slip my headphones over my ears. “But when I get back, you’ll most likely be gone, and I can finally get some work done.”

She leans over the railing staring down at me. “Fine. Go then. I still think you’ll never amount to anything.”

My eyes flutter as I look up to the woman at the railing. I smile. I say nothing else, and won’t even acknowledge her existence with a good-bye wave. I turn the door knob, set my running watch, and my legs slowly begin to move from a walk, to a trot, until I’m clipping along at my fastest speed – which in truth, is terribly slow. It’s a race pace that translates to a 6 hour marathon.

But, I don’t care about how fast I go. Because right now, I can’t hear her scolding, hateful, bullying words, anymore.

Ode To My Dog

img_20180101_204019.png

You wiggled, grunted, and waddled into our lives,

With four big brown bear paws, and silky fur.

You, the newest addition, bounced along our floor.

We greeted you with enthusiastic delight,

With cheers, and hurrah!

We welcomed the baby, in our sight.

 

With your floppy ears,

You stole, and stole, and stole.

Socks, spoons, and a garbage bag or two.

And other things,

That shall not be named in this blog post.

For fear Momma, will blush the most.

 

There were expensive things; those eyeglasses placed on the ledge,

With one wagging finger at Daddy, he did pledge.

Enthusiastically, he said he would protect his stuff.

Because I warned him: puppies do not know the difference between diamonds, or fluff.

But did he heed my words?

Please, draw your own conclusions: teeth marks are in the lenses that resemble roads.

 

As the years passed we aged together,

Between us, more grey hairs than I care to count.

Then there were bumps here, and there,

And some of those lumps were removed.

A sigh of relief, spread across the room,

When we were told fear not, they are not a sign, of impending doom.

 

Long walks together were moments to bond,

Together, in wooded trails, just me and you.

Then we gathered with friends,

There was a buddy for me, and one for you too.

And we all walked together,

Two by two.

 

Winds brought change I did not ask for,

And when the phone rang it brought a message:

Time was up for a person I loved.

I sobbed, and wailed, threw my hands in the air!

There you stood between me and Daddy.

Gazing up, you snuggled close, but were not quite sure what else to do.

 

You were there for me,

With your twirling tail, and tightly tucked in ears,

Snuggling close, and forcing me to tend to you.

Your early wake-up calls never ceased,

And when I opened the door,

You seemed to smile, and say, “feed me!”

 

But you are not perfect, our manipulative beast.

As if you could snap your fingers, you command:

Open the door! Let me in! Let me out!

Feed me! Walk me!

I wish to go to Pet Value NOW!

“And please, pass the cheese,” you always demand.

 

You wake me early,

To my dismay.

Even on weekends,

You do not care.

For I am the servant,

To the dog, we love the most.

 

I complain as if I do not like your demanding ways.

Truth be told, I would not change a thing,

For you are the one, that brightens our days.

And without you in our life, we would have little left to say.

For you are funny, smart, cute, and cuddly.

And you will always be: Mommy and Daddy’s little buddy.

***

I know.

I’m no Poet.

Hey, we all have limitations. But for my fury friend, it felt like he deserved something special.

The Hand of Retaliation

He was chosen because he listened empathetically to what people said before giving advice. Too many people, too often, give advice to others based on their own personal beliefs and personal experiences, disregarding the feelings of the people they are trying to help. But in sympathizing with someone’s position before offering advice, you validate their emotions and they know you understand them. This leads the person to be more receptive to listening to what you have to say. Michael always did that with friends and family. That’s what Vega said.

Michael huffs, out of breath again as he takes a few steps backwards. Then, he takes off in a sprint, gains momentum, and leaps across the stars. When he reaches the surface of the closest moon, his boots skid across the dirt.

“I’m certain there is an easier way,” Michael mumbles as he heaves in air and feels his lungs expand with the sensation. He is thankful that he no longer feels as light-headed as he did a few seconds ago.

The darkness of the universe is dotted with white, pink, blue stars and as Michael exhales his breath turns into ice crystals that mix in with thousands of celestial dots.  For a second, it is difficult to tell the difference between the two; that is, until the crystals dissipate.

Michael scans the infinite universe. It is annoying to be left here alone with no idea what direction to go. But at the same time – this experience is exhilarating! The protective shield that Vega mentioned remained despite Vega’s disappearance; Michael is still able to breathe, is somewhat protected from the cold, and is not drifting about in space as Vega told him he would without it. Michael smiles, and to no one says, “I’m the first man in space.”

“Depends on what year you are in,” a voice echoes from behind him. “If it’s your time, then you’re the first man.  But if it’s after April 12th, 1961, it’s a Russian, named Yuri Gagarin.”

Michael turns around, smiling at the familiar face and voice saying, “Those are the first words from your lips? You left me alone out here for almost an hour.”

“Yes,” Vega answers. A sparkling crystal bridge forms under his feet as he swiftly strides towards Michael.

“What?” Michael asks bewildered. “All I had to do was take a few steps forward?”

“Yes, Michael.” Vega gives him a stern sideways glance. The “look” is the same that Michael’s father gives him when he has forgotten something that he should have already known.

Michael looks down for a moment and then suddenly remembers what Vega said before he disappeared: it’s a leap of faith. When his eyes meet Vega’s, Vega gives him a crooked smile.

Michael asks, “Russia is the first to make it to our moon?”

“No, the Russians are the first to go to space. The moon is different.”

“Are you going to tell me who gets there first?”

“Not tonight.” Vega answers seriously as he turns to face him. Vega’s clothing and demeanor are casual: leather jacket, dress pants, and boots with hands casually draped and folded together in front of him. But his words are earnest, “Michael, you remember your task this night? Millions of lives are depending on you. General Usia’s course must be corrected.”

“That’s right. Give me the most arduous task to start.” Michael answers louder than intended and with a crackle in his voice.

A few hours earlier, Vega explained to Michael that he was born from the stars. His role was to travel across time in search of a person who was empathetic to other people’s problems and who would offer neutral advice. Vega’s role would be to help the chosen person get to where they needed to be in time, explain the situation, how they must correct it, retrieve them, and guide them on their next mission.

Michael asked Vega why he couldn’t help General Usia to change her course. Vega simply answered: it’s not one of my strengths.  Vega, with god-like qualities, admitted he had limitations. Most humans are unable to admit their shortcomings. But Vega could. That’s the reason why Michael came.

“Michael, this will not be your most difficult task. There will be others, with much larger consequences.” Vega states this casually as if they were discussing how best to harvest apples.

Harvesting apples is what Michael should be doing tomorrow in Vernon, BC, with his father. He prays that he can complete his task in the next few hours, and return home in time to help.  His father needs him: his mother just passed, and while his father still works as hard as he does on the farm they own together, there are times Michael has had to hold his father up when he nearly collapsed on the fields. Grief has taken his father’s appetite, and in these early days, he will barely finish a meal. In combination with this, and the occasional spastic fit of weeping in losing his wife of over 30 years it has left what was a very strong man in a frail state.  The work is also terribly difficult and Michael is the only son.

Michael’s breathing becomes shallow as he thinks about the two problems he faces. He loves his father, but the one that weighs heavily on him is that he might not be able to help General Usia. If he had a second longer to consider his decision when Vega asked, he may have chosen differently.

Michael looks around wondering if the shield Vega provided to protect him is starting to fail; his skin is cold and clammy and small beads of sweat gather on his brow. The galaxy begins to spin around him causing the potatoes he had for dinner several hours earlier to be tasted again in his throat.

Vega watches Michael closely.

“I’m ready.” Michael says.

Vega nods and walks a few feet away from Michael. Then, he snaps his fingers.

Immediately, Michael is thrust forward into a vortex of stars and blackness. The uneasy feeling that he felt is amplified in intensity as he spins around in circles. It’s as if he is caught in a riptide. It stops only when Michael finally crashes to the ground on his knees.

***

Michael takes in a big breath of air as he assesses his surroundings.

Within the confines of the space, the room is cold and stale. The floor is steel and there is a grey, circular structure in front of him. On the circular structure, Michael notices thousands of buttons like what might have been on the bridge of the Titanic before it sank off the coast of Newfoundland last year. As his eyes drift across the knobs, he catches sight of something else: a woman with hair cut short like a man’s, wearing a black shirt, pants, and boots to match. On the woman’s jacket, Michael notices several stripes on her upper right arm etched into the fabric.

Her hands are steady as she points a silver, smooth object at Michael that looks like a weapon of some sort. It looks menacing. But the menacing part is really this: she’s pointed it directly at Michael’s head.

Michael shifts one leg from behind him as he slowly tries to move to a standing position while asking, “Do you know where I can find General Usia?”

“You’re looking at her!” She snaps. Before Michael can say anything else, she says, “Stay where you are!”

“Sorry,” Michael says with hands raised in the air. He hopes this is still the universally acknowledged surrender position. He abides with the order given as he slowly places his foot back behind him and resumes a kneeling position.

Michael looks closer at Usia: her eyes are reddened and slightly moist from perhaps rain, but possibly, also tears.

Michael steadies himself. With arms in the air he makes an assumption softly saying, “General Usia, I’m so sorry about your children.”

General Usia’s eyes narrow at the stranger. Hands tremble. A sharp pain is felt in her stomach as if someone punched a knuckled-fist into it. She says, “How do you know about them?” As her mind quickly pulls random facts together she barks, “DID YOU KILL THEM?”

“I had nothing to do with it, General.” Michael says his voice gentle, like the sound of fall leaves that swish together.

“Who the hell are you then?” General Usia asks with a growl.

“I am a friend, General.” Michael answers as he tries to formulate a plan.

“No friend of mine would wear those clothes,” she hisses. “You look like you just stepped off some 20th century farm. Fuck! Do I smell horse?” She asks as she swipes at her nose. A tickling nasal drip has commenced with the smell of horse and hay that lingers on Michael’s clothes.

“I’m an old-fashioned man,” Michael answers wryly. “General,” Michael says more boldly. Vega warned him the window to change the General’s mind was ephemeral. “I know your children were killed a short time ago.”

“Killed today,” she answers. Her voice is suddenly void of all emotion.

Michael pauses as he mentally questions Vega’s decision to deliver him so soon after the event. The General’s children: executed in the fields of their home by the other side were just seven and nine years old. Michael feels the blood drain from his face, stomach swirls again with nausea as he thinks, they were children? How could they? Their whole lives were in front of them and now they are turned to dust, carried away by wind, leaving behind a void of nothingness.   

Michael regroups, pushing onwards. “General Usia, I am truly sorry. But, I beg of you – as a General you must exercise restraint and keep your heart calm. You must not let hatred rule your troops and gunfire.”

“Have you ever been to war, Sir?”

Michael shakes his head from side to side while answering, “No.”

“Then, don’t tell me how to feel, or how to command my troops!”

Michael’s head throbs. Panic overwhelms him. The sound of a ticking clock pounds in his mind as he feels the window of time closing in on him.

Desperate, he takes a bold approach.

“General Usia, I’m not from your time. But I met a man that said if your military decisions are fueled by grief, a young woman will die that would bring an end to the war in a few short years. But with the young woman’s death, this war will linger on for more than one hundred years. Millions more will die that never should! As a mother you can be angry; but as a leader, you must exercise restraint.”

Usia looks at Michael saying, “as a mother and a General, I can do whatever I want!”

From behind Usia, the door swishes open interrupting their conversation. The General swivels around to face her second intruder.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Captain McKay says. He glances at the gun General Usia holds tightly in her grasp. “We just need the final order to release the 630TZ bomb.”

General Usia turns to face Michael.

But Michael has vanished.

“Where did he go?” She snaps at Captain McKay.

“Who?” Captain McKay asks perplexed.

“The man! The man! He was just here!” She barks as she circles the bridge.

“I didn’t see anyone.” Captain McKay’s face is lined like a geological map in confusion.

General Usia’s eyes dart around and with thundering words that are so loud they are heard several hundred meters down the hallway of the ship she asks, “Computer, how many people are in this room?”

“Two.” Computer answers. “Captain McKay, and yourself.”

“Computer, check again!” She roars.

“The result is the same, General Usia.”

“Computer,” General Usia says, “Has there been any unknown personnel on this ship?”

The Computer takes a few moments to review the data history of the ship, and then it responds, “None.”

“General Usia,” Captain McKay presses onwards unwilling to be diverted from his task. He never wanted to carry out this order but she insisted, and honestly, he can’t imagine how she feels. Both of her children – executed. The cruelty.

General Usia’s duty, like all of them, required her to leave her family behind – even if her husband had been killed in battle a few months earlier.  She left the children with her parents because the war had not extended that far. The General thought they would be safe with them. But then in a few short days, the war was on the city’s doorstep. General Usia wanted to move her family to another city but had to make arrangements on her own. And honestly, the General would never ask for help. She knew that many soldiers in the military have families that are under threat of being killed in the crossfire.

The only kindness given to the General was that her parents were left alive. But this is a doubtful kindness. One can only assume that her parents were left alive for the sole purpose to tell the General the details of her children’s deaths.

But even with everything that’s happened to General Usia, he knows obliterating a whole city in revenge to pay for the sins of a few is tantamount to murder. He’s conflicted as to whether he should follow this order. But, General Usia has always been a good, fair General. She must have other reasons for attacking the city that she has not shared. General Usia would not use her position for revenge, he’s certain. Captain McKay prods General Usia, “The bomb is prepped. We just need the final order.”

General Usia looks up at him. Then, she turns away from Captain McKay.  Was the man a creation of her mind? A guilty conscience? She knows killing millions of people, civilians, is considered a war crime.

But they were her children.

Her hands shake. Her mind fumbles. There is something that the man said. Something important. That as a mother she could be angry, but as a leader she must exercise restraint.

Choking on tears she hesitates. He was real, or he was a creation of her mind.  The computer found no trace of him. It seems more probable he was a ghost she fabricated, probably from all her historical reading of the early 1900’s.

She understands the implied meaning behind the words the spirit said: that she should lead as a leader would in battle, and minimize innocent casualties. Do only what needs to be done. General Usia’s face crumbles as she thinks of the deaths of her two children, but also because she nearly made the wrong decision.

She answers, “No, let’s wait.”

“Are you sure General?” Captain McKay asks with small droplets of relief peppered throughout his voice.

“Yes,” she answers. “Find witnesses. Get descriptions of the perpetrators. We’ll focus on the individuals responsible for killing the people in my city.”

“Very good General,” Captain McKay says as he feels his lower lip tremble gently. He bucks up though, before he loses control of his emotions. Then, he salutes her as a woman who lost so much, but also as a General who refuses to allow the savagery of war to change the leader she is.

***Originally published in the Scarlet Leaf Review***

https://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories7/category/penelope-s-hawtrey

 

Part II: If You Asked Me To…

“Hello, Beth,” a familiar voice says from behind me. After the last few days of many encounters, I know who it is, before I turn around.

“Hello,” I answer swiveling around confirming my suspicions.

“Did you have breakfast there?” He asks as his nose crinkles. His eyes squint together from either the sun or the sub-zero temperatures. I’m surprised he’s not wearing a hat and notice his ears are glowing red most likely stinging from the brisk wind.  Despite the arctic temperatures his arms are crossed in front of him, and his hands are clasped together in a relaxed manner as if he could stand there all day.

“Yes,” I answer facing Evan.  “It’s a nice place. The breakfast was wonderful. But I wasn’t adventurous enough to try anything really different, just the regular eggs benedict. A friend of mine suggested the place.” I can’t help myself as my lips curl upwards. I glance up to Evan who stands a good foot above me.

Briefly, his gaze shifts and he watches the rush of cars criss-cross the streets.  When he faces me again, there’s a gentle nod of his head and a knowing grin.

Evan’s wearing a long wool winter coat, leather gloves, and a plaid brown scarf that’s bundled around his neck to protect him from the unusual cold weather this time of year.  White wisps of air swirl around in front of him as he says in a gentle river of a voice, “I’m headed to the hotel.  Starting my shift.”

“Oh, I’m headed in that direction too,” I say dropping my eyes to the pavement.

Is that me leading him on? I don’t know. Should I have drawn a line by now?

I push the thought aside. Nice guy like him, I’m sure he has a girlfriend. I didn’t notice a ring. He’s probably being extra kind to me, pities me really, because I’m alone in this big beautiful city. I shouldn’t read too much into his words, mannerisms, and gestures. He probably acts the same way when he meets anyone.

“If you asked me to…”

My mouth opens and then closes. Lines shape my mouth to form the well-known friendly greeting of a smile.  This is our dance. Mine and Evan’s. I’ve been in this spinning, whirl of a city that holds a flood of shops, markets, and tickets for all the big Broadway shows, and through it all Evan disappears and reappears when I need him; and whenever we see each other he will find an opportunity to say at the beginning of the encounter, or at some point later, if you asked me to….

Evan said it when I stood blankly at the front entrance to the hotel swinging my head from right to left, while simultaneously spinning my phone in all directions, trying to figure out what street to take to get to Times Square. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – look for the brightly lit neon sign! But oh, tall buildings are everywhere and conceal that which should be obvious! And the shadows from the skyscrapers hide everything else.

It was only when Evan appeared, glimpsed over my shoulder at my phone, and then pointed and said, over, yonder! – I had a clue in which direction I might find that amazing place I’d seen only on TV. Then he said with a wink, Dorothy, just follow the blue dotted trail….

Playing along I nodded, and while holding my phone in front of me, stepped one foot in front of the other and began skipping down the pavement as if I were Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Then a couple of days ago, I was returning to my hotel with feet and calves that burned.  I had spent the day exploring some of the boroughs of NY, and my body punished me for it. Prior to my trip, I spent most nights binge-watching Netflex while eating ice cream; and then asked the same body to run a marathon (of sorts) in Miu Miu boots with no training. That’s the reason I didn’t notice the man who lunged at me and reached for my handbag a few meters from the hotel. As I had the strap of the purse looped through my shoulder it escalated into a tug of war between me and the thief, with me refusing to let go of my Coach baby as if it were something precious and irreplaceable like a child. The man out of frustration raised his hand to me, and I was certain his intention was to hit me. But before he made contact, Evan appeared in front of me and with a left hook punched the thug to the ground. The assaulted thief quickly recovered, and sprang to his feet. Evan chased him until I yelled, Evan don’t! Leave it!

Once we were inside the hotel we called the police. Evan said, we have to tell them because the man may try it again. I used the opportunity to give Evan a scolding for risking his life for a handbag. Facing me he said, it wasn’t the handbag, it was the person. Then he said, if you asked me to, I wouldn’t mind getting you a coffee while we wait for the police to come. 

“I wouldn’t mind walking with you to the hotel. You can protect me, in case someone tries to steal my scarf.” He says with a thin smile while clapping his hands together again.

I nod and say, “I would like that.” I can’t face Evan. I enjoy this man’s quietness, his calmness, and his energy all rolled into one.  My eyes are fixed on the pavement as my hands grip the small wallet I carry tighter.  The wind clips my cheeks and forehead. It causes tears to gather in my eyes because of the brisk slap from Mother Earth.

Is it the cold that causes me to tear up? Or is it emotional pain? My lower lip begins to pull towards the pavement. If it is emotional pain, is it because of what happened over a month ago? Or is it guilt that’s sweeping across my body like a virus making me feel a little worse each day; I ignore the signs and push aside the dizziness, nausea, and headaches  and explain to others I’m sure it’s just because I’m tired. Until in a final moment of outrage by my body for not noticing the subtle signals, it burns up from the inside. A fever takes hold of me signalling a virus was plaguing me. It leaves me so weak I can’t even get out of bed to get a glass of water.

As we begin walking Evan says, “how many days do you have left here?”

“I leave tomorrow,” I announce while shrugging my shoulders. It shouldn’t matter to either of us. I’m an insignificant tourist who booked a room at the hotel that Evan just happens to work at in the heart of this bustling city. Millions of people travel here every year.

“Oh well…” his voice disappears and is carried off by the wind.

I tug at my red hat and pull it down a little further to block out the cold. Once that’s done, I place my hand over my scarf to protect my chest. The frigid air is punching me in the throat.  For a moment, I can’t breathe.

Gone is Evan’s smile. “If you asked me to, I wouldn’t mind taking you out for dinner?” He says with hurried words.

My husband loves to watch boxing. I think of the man who tried to steal my purse and wanted to strike me. With the question Evan asked me, I see myself hit. Blindsided and surprised, my arms and legs stretch out in all directions as I am tossed to the ground.

Small convulsions begin to erupt throughout me. My hands shake, eyes twitch, knees rattle together as I realize my mistake.  The only words I begin to mumble are, “shit, shit, shit…”

“It’s ok,” Evan says somewhat defensively. “I just thought we had a connection.”

“I’m married!” I blurt out as I begin to whimper.

“Oh!” Evan says. “Oh Christ! You must think I’m the worst kind of man? Asking out a married woman? Geez, I didn’t know.” He says touching my arm gently and at the same time backing away.

So many emotions. “I didn’t know you thought of me like that. It’s been so long. Even when I was younger, I never saw myself as attractive. And now, even less so.”

“What?” He asks as his mouth opens in awe. “You’re lovely.” He quickly releases my arm and says, “Oh no, sorry. Should I say that? Can I say that? What are the rules?”

I’m still crying, but then I begin giggling at the incredible level of awkwardness. Throwing my hands up in the air I say, “Don’t ask me, I don’t know!”

“Well,” Evan says, “if your husband doesn’t say it to you, someone else should. Just this once.”

“My husband’s a good guy. He tells me all the time, but I never believe him – ” I pause and add, “he paid for this trip for me. Spencer thought I needed a break from everything.”

“Oh,” is Evan’s first response. Then he asks, “did something bad happen?” As if to give me some space, he takes a step backwards.

My tummy tightens. It’s the barren spot, where no fetus will ever grow. “I can’t have children. We just found out.” I say adding, “after we found out, I wanted to go away and he wanted to come too, but Spencer couldn’t get the time off.  I opted to come by myself. Give me a chance to clear my head. He thought it was a good idea too. ”

“Well, that’s shitty.” Evan says.

I laugh so hard at his bluntness. And I can’t stop myself.  Tears flow from my eyes and I quickly brush them away. I stutter, “yu-up” while blowing bubbles of mucus at him.

Evan pulls out a handkerchief, hands it to me, and says, “I don’t expect anything from you. But would you have dinner with me? Just as friends. I don’t think there’s anything taboo about me buying you a Big Mac in Times Square on your last night here.”

“That would be nice. Or maybe a hot dog in Central Park,” I offer as a second option. “And maybe I could pay, for all your kindness.”

“Okay,” he says. “It’s a meal together at one of them high end places,” he says pulling his scarf tighter. He shivers and adds, “we should keep walking. I’m going to lose my ears soon.”

We turn and walk down the street together. I blow my nose one more time into the handkerchief. I glance up to him and say, “I’m sorry for leading you on.”

“You never lead me on,” he says. Then a few seconds later he adds, “you know what I just realized – I never saw you without your gloves.”

“Oh no!” I say throwing my hands up. I pull the gloves off revealing my diamond engagement ring and wedding band.

Evan laughs, gently touches my ungloved hand, and gives it one quick kiss and says, “Don’t be sorry. I never minded.”

Part I: If You Asked Me To

There’s something about him – his quietness, some insecurity, or maybe it’s not insecurity at all but the sign of a confident man.  Perhaps it was the way he placed his hands together, not in an arrogant way, but one of quiet reflection. I instantly liked him.

“If you asked me to…” his voice is rhythmic as if he’s humming a song. A few moments later, after I turn and face the man who spoke the words he continues, “… I wouldn’t mind helping you with your bags?”

Bashfully smiling, I glance down at my three bags and answer, “I would love that. Thank you.”

He effortlessly hoists the duffle bag over his shoulder, and wheels the two other bags forward. We take long strides towards what looks like a golden cart.

Casually, I add to the conversation we already had about my bags and say, “I’m not a light packer.” Throwing my black gloved-hands over my face with embarrassment, I provide more explanation saying, “I’m only here for the weekend.”

He chuckles at me, and nods his head as he places my bags on the yellow gleaming luggage trolley. In a quiet voice he whispers, “I’ll tell you a little secret.”

“Okay,” I answer matching his tone as if we were spies on a mission to save the world.

“Most people aren’t.”

My face flushes as I giggle.

“If you want to check-in, I can take these to your room,” he instructs me as blonde wispy hair bounces on the top of his head.

“Right!” I answer in agreement.  I don’t know why I didn’t head straight to the lobby desk of the hotel.  This isn’t my first trip travelling alone and for sure, I know what the standard protocol is. But it’s my first trip in some time, going solo.

I’ll blame the flight. A gusty north wind blowing up the Atlantic Ocean made for an erratic, bumpy, and all around turbulent flight.  In the last few seconds before we touched down, my table dropped in front of me as if our plane were asking me, one last meal?

At various times while airborne, all I saw were the backs of people’s heads that ricocheted right to left, and up and down.  Sudden surprised gasps punctured the cabin air as we were jostled. Finally our landing gear skidded along the runway. As a tribute to the dramatic flight we already had the pleasure to experience, we lurched forward in a final crescendo as if it were a last attempt by the pilot to stop the plane before we ran out of pavement!

Thinking about the whole ordeal again, my hands shake. I walk towards the counter in my Miu Miu suede boots, Calvin Klein winter jacket, and hang onto my Coach handbag. I leave my gloves on as they were a gift from someone I love immensely, were expensive, and given at a difficult time in my life last month. Also, I have a tendency to lose things. The joke between us was this: we should have strings attached to your jacket, so you don’t lose them.    

I laughed, nodded in agreement and said, I’m sure you’re right.

***

I’ve checked in, received my room key, and spin around to see the bellhop with the nametag that said “Evan” on it speaking to another guest.  As I approach him I notice his robust frame, and guess him to be a man in his 30’s. His head is slightly tilted as he speaks calmly to an elderly woman in a black fur coat and carrying a white miniature poodle. Her eyes twinkle at him and with a wave of her hand she says, “thank you,” as I arrive.

Evan turns around to me and says, “All set?”

“Yes,” I announce proudly holding my swipe card to my room. Flipping the envelope open as if I’m about to announce the winner of a prize I say, “I’m in 1104.”

“Ok,” he says. He glances down at my bags and scoops the duffle bag from the cart, and proceeds to wheel the other two bags behind him. Glancing back at me he says, “The elevators are this way.”

Once inside the elevator he asks, “What brings you to New York?”

“Oh,” I stall.

The whole story? Part of the story? No story?

I decide to keep it to the basics.  “A little escape, from the dreariness of life,” I answer.

“Ah,” he says. “I understand that. Do you have plans while in New York?”

“Not really. Maybe do some shopping.” I laugh throwing my head back. “Assuming I can get anything else in my suitcase.”

Evan smiles at me. I may have even heard a gurgle of laughter. It’s hard to tell though. He’s probably afraid to laugh. Friends told me that when they first met me, I made them feel uncomfortable. It was the way I dressed, and the way I carried myself. They believed I lacked a sense of humor because I seemed sooooo proper. After they got to know me though, they learned quickly, I wasn’t a serious person.

Ding! The elevator breaks into our conversation.

As we walk down the long corridor together Evan says, “You should see a show. I’ve head New York has a couple,” he says as his forehead scrunches together in mock amusement at his own joke, and with a small trace of a smile.

When we arrive at my front door, I tap the swipe card to the lock and watch as the light switches from red to green with a click. I glimpse up at him and say, “Perhaps I will.”

When I push the door open, we’re greeted with heat that is stifling!

From behind me I hear, “Holy Sh–! That’s hot!”

I lose control at the almost unfiltered comment and near-oops on his part-; and also the blatant honesty.

He catches my eye and says, “I said holy shoot, that’s hot.”

“Yup, that’s what I heard.” I bend forward in laughter.

He quickly heads towards the thermostat and says, “If you asked me to, I’d turn the thermostat down, and open a window so you can breathe in here?” I know it’s a rhetorical question, because he’s already taken care of the thermostat and is now pulling a window open.

My eyebrows are  squashed together. I can’t stop laughing. I wave at him and say, “Yes, please!”

With the window open a cool breeze rushes through the room. It calms my laughing.

I tilt my head at his lingering grin. My smile remains too.

In a burst of electronic energy my phone splashes through the moment and breaks the quietness between us.

Evan walks towards the door and waves a hand at me. I begin rummaging through my bag searching for my cell. My eyes flicker at my wallet.

TIP!!! TIP!!!

Shit!

I turn around and frantically wave at Evan trying to get him to stop while saying, “Hello?”

As I approach the door, my face is flush. I pull my wallet open. Evan touches my arm gently and whispers, “Next time.”

“Sorry, can you hold on?” I say to the familiar voice at the other end of the line.

“You were so helpful.” I stare at Evan’s green eyes.

With a calm smile, Evan shifts and says, “I never minded.”

“You made me laugh.” I stagger over my words.

He doesn’t know. Evan doesn’t know there’s only one other person who’s been able to make me laugh in the last month, and I have him on hold.

“Good.” He says as he disappears through the door.

With nothing left to say, and Evan gone, I close the door and say into my phone, “Hi, honey.”

The Building Blocks of Her Dystopian World

Red flames burst out of the trash can in front of me. My fingertips are stretched out towards the orange-red heat and it licks them with warmth. Penniless and homeless, you can understand the dilemma I now face.  I can’t write a single word with no home, and no computer or laptop. Or for that matter, anything remotely technologically advanced. Even if I did have a computer device of some sort, no home, means no electrical outlet.

Even paper is hard to come by.

And pens.

And food.

Six sizes too big, the men’s full length black jacket hangs down and drags along the ground through the snow. The wool mitts I wear are peppered with small holes as if moths have taken special delight in chewing each part of the tattered cloth as if they were picking at a scab. There’s a pungent odor that drifts around me of rotting food, sweat, and alcohol.

Sixty-five years of age and this is my life. I had a husband at one time. Until he trotted off down the rainbow road with a blond bombshell, double-D, named Misty with bosoms the size of Texas.  On occasion a few years ago, before I lost everything, I would bump into them at the grocery store or coffee shop, and every time I saw them a part of Misty’s silky white breast popped out of whatever shirt she was wearing. (Even, if it was a sweater.)

But I can’t blame Misty. It was inevitable. I was a leech. I was barely able to financially support myself most of the time we were married. Combined with this, my struggles with depression where it became a situation of I-can’t-raise-one-foot-to-get-out-of-the-bed made me the worst sort of wife. When I was able to hold a job for some time, I would inevitably change them at whiplash speed in pursuit of some other opportunity that I felt may offer more challenges. Later in life, I hoped for a career as a freelance writer.

Let’s put it this way – that didn’t end well.

Writing, I believed, was my thing.

“Who saz u can be h’re, Cyndie?” He says with shoulders rolled forward and a bowed head as he staggers towards me.

All I need is one strong gust of wind, and he’ll be knocked off his feet and I can run away.

Dear God,

Did you hear me? One strong gust of wind?

“It’s Cynthia,” I say with my chin raised. Dwight’s the zip code bully to GRBG CAN. It seems only courteous that if Dwight’s going to force me to move somewhere else, he can at least have the decency to remember my name.

“I DUN’T CAREZ WH’ATZ YOUR NAMEZ!” He screeches at me.

Joe, Fred, Nancy, and Sandra who were warming their hands around the fire bend their heads forward and quickly glimpse up at me. But no one says a word to him. I can’t blame them.

Dwight is unpredictable at the best of times. He’s killed people before and he’s never been caught by the police. Poor Greta writhed around on the concrete as a knife protruded from her gut. She hopelessly placed a hand over the wound as sticky redness oozed from it. Anguished moans poured from her mouth. Tears streamed down the sides of her cheeks. She pleaded with me to help her, but I did nothing.   If I did anything, Dwight would end my life too. He said so.

I have a snappy line that spins in my mind that I want to say, but decide for the rest of the residents in the area it might be best to leave it unsaid.

I nod in the direction of Dwight and say, “I’m going.”

With that I slowly turn around and begin walking away.

“You’re nuttin!” He trudges behind me. The sound of his slow-moving words, shuffling feet, and his drunken words that are still somehow true – forces me to quicken my pace, and I hurry along putting some distance between us. Not because I’m afraid, but more out of annoyance.

After some time, I pass under a concrete bridge and something glistens on the sidewalk. I bend forward to pick it up, and let out a whoop of, “My lucky day! I found a toonie! I can go for a coffee.”

“Nah, that’z  mine!” He shouts from behind me.

I stare at Dwight frozen, wondering how the heck he managed to catch up to me, and why I didn’t hear him. Good god, even his breathing is loud.

I glance hastily at the two dollar coin and then back to Dwight. Surely, I can out run him. But then I begin to wonder what my life will be like if I decide NOT to hand him the coin. I could leave this city but I would need to walk. As well, there’s a good chance my situation would be the same and possibly worse, because some of those people around the garbage can are my friends, and they’ve helped me before.

Dwight continues a slow trot, odd lumbering motion towards me. When he arrives I have the coin in the palm of my hand and say, “Here you go, Dwight.”

I pull my coat tighter around me to block out the frigid December wind that drifts up my coat, and rips through my thin clothing stinging my skin. Protected a little more from the chill, I quietly ask, “Any chance I can stay at your garbage can tonight as I gave you the coin I found?” I glance away from him for only a second to do a sweep of the ebony streets to make sure nothing worse lives in the shadows than the man who already stands before me.

“No!” He screams spitting the word at me as his face reddens.

Jolted by his cry, I leap back from him! Surprised my eyes widen, and I quietly wonder, oh Christ! I’m going to be killed over a two dollar coin!

Red and blue lights suddenly begin a quick blink around us. Two muscular young police officers exit the cruiser and they assuredly march towards us. Dwight’s head bounces up instantly when he sees the lights and the men. He shouts, “Nah problem, offic’r.” Not even a second later, he wobbles down the street at a sad slow run.

“Ma’am, are you alright?” They ask me when they arrive. Four eyes skim across me as they do a quick assessment of where I belong, and what my story is. I tug at the collar of my coat. I don’t understand it. When I don’t want to be invisible, I am. And when I do want to be invisible, I’m not.

“Ye-yes officers, than-thank you.” I stutter at the two men. There’s a rush of an intensifying sense of doom. My eyes get misty.

MISTY!

I can’t escape that woman!

One of the officer’s face scrunches at me. “Mrs. Sandringham?” He murmurs.

My thoughts are broken and I’m back on 59th Street in front of the policemen. Squinting at the whisperer of the old name I used before, I answer uneasily, “Yes. But I don’t go by that name now.”

“Cynthia? You were married to Bert Sandringham?” He says. “It’s Jack. I shoveled your driveway, when I was a kid.”

This has never happened to me before. I’ve lived on the streets for a couple of years now, and I’ve never run into anyone I knew. After my divorce, I moved to another city a couple of hours away to start again. Things didn’t quite work out for me. This is where I had my final chance – and where I became homeless. I’d cut ties with family and friends mostly because I was delinquent in fostering relationships. My fault. When things got bad, I couldn’t reach out to anyone. Too embarrassed.

This kid, Jack…He’s a good boy. Sweet boy. He was nice to me, and my husband. And his parents, they were great.

I smile at the man before me. “Of course, Jack! Yes, I remember. How are your parents? David and Sue, was it?”

“Yeah! They’re doing great.” He says smiling. A moment later, his eyes scan my clothing again and his mouth drops open. He pulls his hat off, runs his fingers through his hair, and quietly asks as if he’s embarrassed, “Do you have somewhere to go tonight?”

I throw my head back. Laughing I say, “Well, I had a garbage can! But Dwight owns it, and he doesn’t like me much!”

Stunned Jack stares at me. The other officer, his partner, says, “There’s a shelter a few blocks from here. It’s a good one, run by a church. We can take you there.”

Jack’s mouth gapes at me. Then his words come out earnestly, “Yeah, really nice. Give you a hot meal, and somewhere to sleep tonight. Father Patrick – he’s a really good guy.”

I’m kind of hurt young man Jack didn’t laugh at my joke. I think I’m funny most of the time. His serious tone and desperate pleas causes puddles to form in my eyes. For the first time in a long time, someone cares about me.

The young man in front of me is a good kid. With no other options in front of me, and afraid of Dwight returning after the officers leave, I whisper, “Sure.”

“Great!” Jack beams. As we walk back to the cruiser Jack asks, “Do you still write?”

“Not these days.” I reluctantly answer.

“Oh right!” Jack answers as he nods his head, and his cheeks turn pink.

There it is again, that awkward silence.

Jack says, “I really liked your stuff when I was a kid. That you read to me. That fairytale you wrote, about the little girl, who only wanted to be smart.”

“Oh my, you remember that story?” I ask in a hushed tone of disbelief. “That was what, twenty years ago?”

“Something like that.” Jack says. “After you read that story to me, I buckled down and got my grades up. I was an honor roll student from grade ten onwards.”

I’m flabbergasted. I can’t speak. I mumble to myself only, “Maybe I should.”

Jack pulls the door open for me. Then he leans in and says, “I can bring you some paper and pens tomorrow.”

“That would be great.” I answer. Before I get into the car, I stare in the direction of the road Dwight wobbled down.

“Get me the paper, and I’ll tell you a story about a man named Dwight, and the murder of a homeless woman named Greta.” I say as my lips smack together in renewed anger at the death of my friend at the hands of the garbage can bully.

Jack’s jaw clenches. He gives me a tight smile and nods.  “If you do this Mrs. Sandringham, you can’t live on the streets.”

“Oh, I know. Maybe it’s time to find a home again.” I answer. “See if I can get my pension now that I’m 65. Clean stuff.” I give the kid a wink.

Jack roars with laughter.

“And after I write, The Murder of Greta Stonewall, I’ll write another story about a hero cop who saves an old woman from the streets.”

Jacks grins at me and says, “I can’t wait to read it.”

Mind Maze

“It’s not you.” He announces with the sound of annoyance in his voice mixed in with concern for my well-being.

I don’t say anything. I’m pretending I can’t hear him. The hairdryer buzzes in my ear with a high-pitched rumbling sound as heat burns my scalp. The hot air tosses long strands of brown bits in all directions.

When I’m done, I stare at myself in the mirror. My hair is windswept. Of course, windswept summons a romanticized vision of some breathtaking brunette beauty with silky hair. The beauty’s strands of tresses would be swirling around in all directions as if some fairy godmother placed each piece perfectly in the air; it would be the godmother’s final attempt to win over a passerby who may be doubtful of how utterly gorgeous the woman is.

I glance at myself through the mirror. Perhaps hurricane-swept hair is a better combination of words.  Frizzy, dry, and poufy hair tops my head. It stands tall, but also wide, making it nearly impossible to see my ears. I attempt to push some hair back behind my right ear and the rebellious brown strands instantly bounce out as if they are shouting, YOU WILL NOT CONTROL ME!

No kidding.

I huff at myself. Dark circles form underneath my eyes. It’s quite nice. Now I look like a raccoon that’s having a bad hair day.

I mumble, “I miss the days when I could wash my hair and go. No blow drying. No straightening required.  Just wash my hair, tie back with an elastic, and go!”

“Then don’t do it.” He says.

My eyebrows pull together in confusion.

Well – maybe it’s more annoyance.

I don’t want to go down that road – that road we’ve travelled down on so many mornings. Then again, I need to provide some explanation. Otherwise, I’m just a crazy woman with a scent-phobia.

I stumble on my words. As I begin to say them, I know it’s not going to be enough. But I say the words anyways. “I have to blow dry my hair. It gets the smell of shampoo and conditioner out.”

My eyes shift to the large assortment of products that stand at attention on my counter: the Aloe Vera moisturizer is next to the unscented moisturizer; strawberry perfumed deodorant sits beside the odorless one.  I stare down at the Moroccan oil that I slather through my hair on weekends. The hair product makes my locks a little softer, and smooths out the overwhelming waves that I adorn on my head that’s reminiscent of a 1960 bouffant hairstyle that I wear Monday through Friday.

But the Moroccan oil – it’s scented. So, it rests on the counter. Waiting for the weekend, when I can tip the bottle back, drizzle some on my fingertips, and run it through my hair.

Ahhhh….My brain purrs.

Oh my god. I’m a scent addict!   

My husband rolls his eyes at me and says, “There’s no smell of shampoo in your hair.”

Stubbornly, I counter his argument with an intelligent and well thought through statement of: “Yes, there is.” With my well-articulated response that a five-year-old could have said behind me, I reach below my cabinet and pull out my hair straightener, and set it to 440.

He edges over to me and sticks his nose towards my head and announces, “I can’t smell anything.”

I shift. Then I say, “Well, the hair dryer got rid of most of the scent. But the Flat Iron will get the rest out.”

My husband throws his hands up in the air, grabs his shirt, and begins tugging it over his head.

I do believe I won that argument.

Beep, beep, my Flat Iron chants to me. On its command, I reach down with my right hand and wrap my fingers around the hairstyling instrument, and use my left hand to grab big chunks of hair that I quickly run through the plates of the device. Within seconds, my nose twitches at the familiar whiff of singed hair.

Tired of the routine, tired of worrying about everything, I stare down at the woman I see in the mirror. I wish I could shut up the voice in my head. And it’s just in my head. No one has ever said anything to me at work. But I exaggerate everything. One sneeze, over yonder, four floors down from where I sit, and perspiration will gather around the back of my neck instantly as my breathing becomes more shallow and I wonder, oh no…. Is someone having an allergic attack because of some scent I’m wearing?

I worry about smells: fruit scented deodorant, orange perfumed hand cream, or lavender-laced cosmetics.

But it’s not only scented products. Oh no, my mind has had some fun in taking things to a whole new level. Because once you’ve removed all scents from your life, you only have what’s left. And sometimes what remains is that “wet dog” smell because Fido wanted to be affectionate just before I left to go to work, and brushed up against me and it leaves a lingering reminder that yes, I do own a dog!; or a chemical smell will sometimes ooze from new clothes I purchased when they heat up because of the sun. Then there’s also the worry that my fragrance-free deodorant will fail at work, and then my perfume for the day will be Eau de B.O.

I blink at myself.

Hair is slightly flattened. (Still frizzy, but I found my ears!) No makeup. (Oh lord, I can’t even think about it.) Black pants. Grey shirt. Blue circles under my eyes.

I’m ready for work!

I stare down at the Flat Iron. I flip the power button off, and yank the cord out of the wall. Before I walk away, I bounce my head back into the bathroom where my Flat Iron sits on the counter. I pull it away from everything so that it’s not touching my makeup bag, hairbrush…well, anything.

Because you know, I don’t want to burn the house down.

As I start to walk away, there’s a twitching that begins in my fingertips, and before I know it, I’m spinning around again to check the Flat Iron one more time.

I don’t have a problem.

I’m being careful. This is one of those times you can’t make a mistake. My Flat Iron can touch something like the plastic on my hairbrush causing it to heat up, and it could ignite, and because no one’s upstairs right now, no one will know there’s a fire until it’s too late, and our whole house will be engulfed in fiery red flames.

Yeah.

I’m just being careful.

My fingertips begin to twitch. I spin on my heel. I’m standing at the top of the stairs in my home. I have two choices:

 Option 1: I can go and check the Flat Iron again. But I’m certain I turned the power button off, I remember I pulled the cord out of the wall, and I know it had already started to cool down because I placed my hand on the straightener for several seconds and it was warm – but not hot.

Option 2: I can go downstairs, get my bags, walk out the front door, and get on with my day.

I take a deep breath, and turn around as a voice quietly says, Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..

Then, I begin my descent.

Ruins

There’s no wall where one should be and the roof is missing.

White clouds of breath dance in front of me. It proves my existence – even if no one else sees me. Wind lifts my hair stretching it out in all directions as dampness envelopes me. It causes a tingling sensation to creep slowly down my back. My shoulders roll forward and I tuck my tummy. It’s as if my body believes if it recoils, it may escape the cold and dampness.

My eyes search for something.  Against a tumbling wall, I see a place where I might take shelter for the night; the dilapidated remnants of a fireplace.

I step lightly over a broken wooden chair moving in the direction of the square enclosure. For a moment, I imagine parents and children gathered around a yellow-orange fire in that spot where they would talk, laugh, eat and sing songs. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. I’ve only seen it in movies.

The warmness of the imagined family heats me from within, and fends off the dampness and cold. It even works a little to stomp out the pain in my belly from not eating for a few days.

I tuck myself into the fireplace, peel off my jacket, and stretch it out across my body. Above me the man in the moon winks at me, and he, my only friend tonight, watches over me as my eyes slowly close to the world around me.