La Guarida

October 18, 2012

As a diver, Leon thought he had a good understanding on depth. He was a very conscientious person; he was deliberate with his decisions, and thus felt as though there was little he did not expect. This is a story about something Leon did not expect.

There happened to be a good, solid year-long period where Leon lived on the northern coast of California, north of San Francisco. He was training naval recruits three days a week, off his boat. Leon preferred a government paycheck; they paid well and consistently. It was at the hotel that he had met her. The staff at the La Guarida hotel was impressed with his demeanor, especially since he had tipped every bus-boy and waiter he’d spoken to. They weren’t used to having someone stay for such a long time, but they were happy to oblige. It wasn’t long before Leon was sitting in the hotel lounge bar, sipping a nice cognac while catching up on the day’s events.

On a particularly quiet Thursday, Leon found himself at a loss. He had gone to visit the washroom, and as he stood at the urinal, the doors opened. A tall blonde, without hesitation, pushed through and began to use the sink.

“Erm,” he managed to get out as he zipped up. “This is the men’s room, ma’am.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me ma’am. I am not even thirty, pal.” He was stunned.

“Well, I just mean… What are you doing in here?”

“Using the sink, what’s it look like?” she answered with a chuckle.

He weighed his options. “All right, well, I guess I’ll just be going now.” He started for the door.

“Have a good one,” she replied with a dismissive gesture. “How strange,” Leon thought to himself.

The next morning, he ran into her again in the lobby, this time she was asking the concierge what time it was. He noticed that she was, again, seemingly in a hurry. Her shoulder-length wavy hair was pulled back haphazardly into a short pony tail, exposing tan lines along her neck and shoulder blades. Leon couldn’t help but cut in: “It’s half past eight, I believe.” She winked, and replied:

“Thanks, slick.” He raised an eyebrow.

“It’s Leon, actually. Nice to meet you… ?”

“Aggie. Well, Agnes, but only my shrink calls me that.” She snorted a little as she laughed and Leon couldn’t honestly tell if she was telling the truth or not. “You staying upstairs? I’ve seen you around.”

He nodded. “Right, I’m in 214.” Leon caught himself. Why had he told her his room number? “Uh, I better get going. Three-hour dive today, always feels like six.”

“You’re a diver? That’s cool, I guess.” She shrugged. “I never even learned how to swim, so kudos to you my friend.”

“Oh? You should come out sometime, I’d be happy to teach you.” He stopped himself again. It wouldn’t be very professional to bring some woman out there with him, much less teach her how to swim… Why on earth had he offered? What was going on?

“Hey, that sounds fun!” she said, this time with some genuine interest. “I’m in 118, just let me know.”

Leon sighed to himself as she strode away confidently. “Very strange…”

A full week had gone by before he had seen her again. The hotel clerk told Leon that Ms. Aggie Smythe had been in and out the past few days, but since his extended dives had him leaving early and coming back late he had apparently missed her. Leon sat in the lounge, wondering why it meant so much to him. He had had women pass through his life before, many expecting him to reciprocate their dramatic feelings but his quieter nature usually dissuaded any more serious relationships from coming forth. He could use the companionship, but he had no idea how to go about it.

After an hour and two more glasses of brandy, he decided he’d approach it like he was preparing for a dive. He’d gather his resources (and his courage), set a specific time, and put his plan into action. Seemed simple enough, but he began to work on a back-up plan just in case.

Aggie lay on the deck of the boat, tanning her legs as she read a tattered copy of Dickens’ “David Copperfield” in paperback. Leon could hardly believe that she really held him to his offer to teach her to swim. She already had two different swimsuits, so he wasn’t even sure if she was bluffing at this point. He moved the little rig towards a rocky outcropping that resembled a small island with a handful of trees on it… that would do nicely.

“The key to swimming is to let your muscles move instinctively at first,” he said as he stood on the shore. The Pacific lapped against his chest, the foam and waves were invigorating. Aggie stood on dry land, shaking her head.

“I’m a wader, that’s it,” she replied. Her sunglasses slipped off the top of her head, and plopped down into the surf. “Dammit!” she cried, “Those are expensive!”

Leon chuckled to himself. “Okay, fine, you can wade out to me.”

She slowly complied, cringing as each cold wave brushed against her legs. He could see the hair standing up on her arms and legs, prickling along her limbs as she clumsily walked out to meet him. She grabbed one of his hands as she approached, much to his surprise.

“Oh, uh, okay. Now, we shall get out into a bit deeper water… Stay with me here, I won’t let you go.”

“If I see a shark fin, I’m going to murder you.”

“People always think it’s the sharks that’ll get you. I’ll never understand that.” Leon trudged out until his feet left the sandy floor. “Okay, just a little further now.”

“Oh god. Oh god. Dammit Leon, why’d you make me do this!?”

“Breathe, please. Just kick your legs downward, feel your muscles want to help. Let your arms float out, and push yourself up above the water line. See? You’re already doing it.” Aggie floundered for a while, but never really started to slip under the waves. He was proud of her, though he hardly knew her yet. She smiled between exasperated breaths, and he could tell she was proud of herself, too.

By evening, they had returned to shore and had a lively dinner. He was less surprised by her vegetarian habits than she was of his. A few glasses of wine later and they were enjoying the sun’s nightly dive into the ocean, spraying reds and oranges across the sky’s darkened palette. She sighed, and looked over at him. He looked away as soon as she caught his eyes looking at her, and he smiled.

“What, do I have some kale stuck in my teeth or something?” she asked.

“No, no, you look wonderful. I just, well… I never noticed that you had freckles until just now. They’re quite lovely.”

“Glad someone thinks so,” she replied with a roll of her eyes. She exhaled a puff of air upwards, blowing a few loose strands of her hair out of her face. “They come and go during these summer months, but I’ve been tired of them since grade school.”

“Well I like them,” Leon countered, still smiling. Their eyes met with a tinge of electricity.

A few hours later and they were against a wall in his hotel room, searching for the light switch as their worlds collided. They both needed the comfort of a dark room for what would follow, though Leon would later regret not searching for a few more freckles.

Two more weeks went by, the pair spending as much time as possible with each other. Leon felt happy for the first time in years, and said so. She would just smile, unable to meet his eyes after a comment like that. Even if it was never meant to last, a part of him thought that maybe, just maybe, it would.

It seemed, sadly, that neither time nor fate was on their side. One morning, Aggie woke up to see Leon standing on the deck, in just his maroon flannel pajamas, surveying the surf remaking the dark sands. A large grey cloud loomed in the distance, threatening them with a chance of afternoon rain. He sighed, quietly. She rolled over, her hair a bird’s nest against the pillow, and asked him:

“What do you think will happen between us?” He paused.

“That’s an odd question. What do you mean?”

“Leon. Sweetie. You barely even know me.”

“That’s not true at all. I know you’re a Libra. I know that you like to sit in the rain, and that you despise anything besides honey in your yogurt. Oh, and I know you have a birthmark right above…”

“Okay, okay,” she laughed. “But I feel like I don’t know you as well.”

“Fine, I’ll ask you a question and then you can ask me one.” He could tell she didn’t like that idea from the way she cringed and rolled over again. “What? Was it something I said?”

“Never mind,” she said from underneath the blankets. He had to ask.

“What’s wrong? What haven’t you told me?” He moved over to the bed and sat cautiously next to her. While it was only a minute or so, it felt like an hour before she said something or even moved.

“I… I used to be homeless,” she managed to get out. “A while ago, but it still haunts me.”

“Oh,” was all he could think to say. “So… you aren’t homeless now, right? Was there some kind of accident, like a fire or something? Why are you in this hotel now?”

“I knew this was a mistake. You ask too many questions!” she cried, and got up to use the bathroom. Leon simply scratched his head. “I thought you wanted to talk,” he said to himself.

It was a Saturday, the two of them had decided to take Leon’s day off to walk down to the neighborhood open market and go shopping. There was fresh fish and produce, and Leon figured they could manage to cook something in the tiny floor kitchenette that the hotel had to offer. Aggie had pretended that their conversation about her past never happened, but it was a breaking point for Leon. He realized how little she talked about her past, or even anything about herself, around him. At first it was a breath of fresh air but a seed of doubt had been planted.

It was only after they left that he had his suspicions confirmed: something was wrong. They had gone down to the water, and he kept her clutch in his small tattered backpack so that she wouldn’t lose anything. When they stopped for ice cream at a vendor, she offered to go Dutch (something he usually never refused a woman), and asked him to grab her card. As he opened the silvery clasp on her clutch, he caught glimpses of three different credit cards, two identical ID cards- names the same, pictures different- and three different social security cards. Instantly, he knew.

“What the… What is all this?” he asked her, holding up the myriad of cards.

“Oh. It’s nothing, those are my sister’s. Give me my stuff back, come here,” she moved towards him. Leon’s eyes narrowed. It couldn’t be as it seemed, could it?

“Aggie. I need you to tell me the truth. What are these?”

“Give me my stuff. Now.” She seemed more angry than irritated now.

“Here, take it,” he replied as he flipped her the clutch. Numerous cards, all identical looking, spilled out onto the pier. She scrambled to pick them up like they were her escaping young. Leon felt a bitter tinge of disdain color the feelings he had for her. He couldn’t bring himself to think it until now, but it was all too clear now: Aggie was a fraud.

He took his leave that afternoon, and walked back to the La Guarida hotel by himself that evening. She had broken his trust, and now he wasn’t sure where she even was. By the time he got back to the concierge, she had checked out and taken her things… from both of their rooms. One little thing and she vanished like a ghost. He couldn’t believe how much he had invested in her, how much he wanted this to work out. More than anything, Leon couldn’t believe she was gone.

He submerged himself in his work. There were extra hours he could make, so he picked them up when he could. He used the murky blue of the sea to hide his own vulnerability, to drown it in the salty Pacific so that no one could hurt him like that again. Whole weeks would go by when he wouldn’t speak a word aloud to anyone. He closed himself off from the rest of humanity so effectively, that the people at the front desk were worried he might simply leave. They were right to worry; Leon had considered just moving away, but he was on contract, and he had never broken one yet. He had no intention of changing that now.

Leon read more, used his free time to delve into the world of classic literature. At first it was whatever the clerk or doorman recommended he read, and then it was just simply anything he could get his hands on. He became more and more isolated until he could barely recognize himself in the mirror. Three months passed, and he was a changed man. And then, as suddenly as she disappeared, Aggie returned. Leon sat in his easy chair, near the open sliding door, when he heard a knock on his door. There she was, wearing a wool sweater, back into his life again.

Like putting a mask on, Leon knew that he could feel that same love blossoming again. He could feel the effect of her presence in his chest, his heart racing as he stood there with his mouth open. She smiled that smile that he remembered every night for months, and took a step closer to him.

“Well, aren’t you going to invite me in?” she grinned. He was frozen, it seemed, but he just looked at her. “I guess I can…” she started, but never finished. His lips closed on hers, and it was as if nothing ever happened at all.

MSBQ

Amara

May 14, 2012

He woke up coughing. Smoke was billowing through the door to his room and he was already starting to sweat. Adrenaline pushed him out of bed and into the hall. The smoke was coming from downstairs. As he pulled his t-shirt collar up to cover his nose and mouth, he crouched his way down the staircase. Without hesitation, he bolted outside and breathed deep in the night air. “Where is everyone?” he said to himself.

In a panicked state, barefoot in the yard, he began to realize that no one else was with him. His father’s absence was nothing new, but it was the fact that his mother wasn’t already outside that worried him.

The searing heat and the second floor groaning under its own weight told him to stay put and call for help. He could hear the sirens coming from across town. Suddenly, his father pulled up into the driveway and stepped out, mouth open in disbelief. “DAD!” the boy cried out, and ran towards him. The passenger door swung open and a tall blonde woman stepped out. She was gorgeous, and looked like she had just hastily put her blouse back on. Wide-eyed with terror, the boy shouted, “Where’s Mom?” His father, still just standing there, shrugged. The roof had caught now, and flames licked the inside of the upstairs bedroom window.

Without a word, she dropped her coat and bolted towards the front door. You could just make out the father’s plea, “Amara, wait” before she disappeared inside. Ten. Fifteen. Thirty seconds passed and all you could hear was the sound of the fire churning the inside of the home into ashes. Thirty more seconds and they heard a wailing inside: it was the mother!

Tears streaked lines down the boy’s soot-caked face as he saw her come out. The blonde emerged from the smoky doorway carrying his mother in her arms. The EMTs had arrived and they took the unconscious woman into an ambulance. That was when the boy noticed the flames still dancing on the blonde’s shoulders and arms. She patted them out with her bare hands without as much as a flinch and he looked at her in wonder as she stood there, her flesh as flawless as when she first got out of the car. Their eyes met and she put a finger to her lips to quiet him. With a wink, she walked off behind the ambulances and they never saw her again.

The Blind Cartographer

October 25, 2010

Today had been the first time in weeks that he hadn’t woken up thinking about her. It’d been nearly three months since the night she had announced that she was leaving him. At first he thought she wasn’t serious, that this would be like all the other times they had come crashing down and two days later things would be fine. It was when he came back the next morning to his entire wardrobe on the front lawn that really tipped him off to how serious she was this time.

He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and blindly groped the top of his nightstand in search of his glasses, but to no avail. “Must have left them in the bathroom,” he thought to himself. The bed creaked as his weight shifted from the stained mattress to his worn down soles. The worst part of living in a motel wasn’t the service or the trashy living conditions, it was having the only room on the property with an east facing window; every sunrise was another reminder of a day he’d spend alone. His hands rummaged through the jeans hanging haphazardly on the back of a chair and pulled out a dusty looking pair of glasses. He squinted slightly as he put them on, trying to adjust to the morning glare. Shuffling into the cramped bathroom, he glanced sidelong into a nearby mirror as he relieved himself.

“Jesus,” he said aloud to himself. His salt and pepper hair was growing thinner by the day, and his jaw line was now completely hidden behind a hedge of scraggly facial hair. If there was a day he ought to shave, it was today. Six weeks ago, a man in a four-hundred dollar suit had driven his sixty-thousand dollar car to deliver the divorce papers. As far as he was concerned, Anna didn’t even know a lawyer. Now here he was, on his way to defend himself at a divorce trial. Little fuckers worked fast.

As he slung his reliable old blue tie around his neck, he noticed the six-inch stack of papers atop the wobbly TV stand. His students had been waiting two weeks to get those back, but every time he finally mustered the initiative to grade them he wound up reading one or two and then quitting. To be fair, it was his own fault; the class had been reading Salinger back when the proverbial shit hit the fan. Now he felt a little like poor Holden Caulfield, completely at a lack for cultural sensitivity. He never looked at the paper in the hotel office, but today as he waited to pay his daily rent his eyes rested on a strange headline: CAN THINGS GET ANY WORSE? He couldn’t help but laugh.

“Bastards uptown think they can just run the city and go without any consequences,” the owner said, motioning with his eyebrows to the news rack.

“I don’t really pay attention to that stuff anymore,” the man replied with a shrug.

“Looks like you don’t pay attention to a lot of things lately, pal,” the owner added with a chuckle. It was too damn early to listen to a blowhard like that guy. Now he just had to hope that his bus was running on time.

Unfortunately, the 108 was notorious for being late on the route heading into downtown from Broadway. “At least it’s a nice morning,” he thought, with a glance at the sky. There was a cloud clover leftover from the night before, but the sun was desperately trying to break through again.   After fifteen minutes, the white and green caterpillar hissed to a stop in front of him. The familiar smell of recycled air and someone’s morning coffee did little to invigorate his senses. As he cleared a space in the aisle to stand in, the man exhaled hot air into his hands. The bus was overfilled, and the driver soon began to simply skip stops with more than one or two people waiting. He’d need some kind of miracle in order to make it to the trial on time now.

After blitzing up the stairs to the city courthouse and getting through the layers of security and paperwork to get into his assigned courtroom, he wasn’t surprised to see that Anna and her two lawyers were already there and looking very impatient. He made a gesture that resembled a wave to the judge and sat down, alone, at his respective table.

She always had a way of working a room. Even now, their marriage ended for good, she looked like something from a film noir. Those green eyes he used to love so much now just stared at him complacently, begging him to give her more reasons to hate him. Bitch. At least she hadn’t brought their daughter to the trial.

“Mister Rowan, am I to believe you are defending yourself today?” the judge asked.

“Yes ma’am,” was all he could manage to say in response.

“Well all right. The court will now oversee the trial of Rowan v. Griffin. Both counsels may approach the bench for a short word with me.” The judge raised an eyebrow as she added, “Just need to clarify some numbers here.”

One of her lawyers turned and walked briskly up to the judge’s bench, and the two of them looked expectantly at the man. With a sigh he moved to the bench as well, his hands clasped behind his head.

“Don’t you think asking for full custody and $100,000 is a bit much to ask for a teacher’s salary, Mr. Donohue?” the judge whispered. “It sounds like someone was very, very unhappy in this marriage.”

The man smiled weakly. “Oh, only a hundred grand? That’s half of what you first asked for, isn’t it?”

“Let it be known to the court,” the lawyer replied quickly, “that the aforementioned damages were agreed upon in written form by both parties when the first round of paperwork was drawn up. You knew what you were up against, Mr. Rowan. I’m rather surprised you even showed up.”

“Both of you had better stop before I close the trial for misconduct,” the judge retorted with an icy look at both men. “You may return to your posts.”

The trial itself had gone by much faster than he had anticipated. He answered questions when they were asked of him and said little whenever given the chance to make a statement. By now he had simply given up. Now, on the steps outside the courthouse he loosened his tie and sat down. A plaque nearby decorated the wall beneath an empty place for a statuette; etched into the bronze plate were the words “AD MELIORA.” The man removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. The morning seemed days long, and he already felt tired again. A voice from behind shook him from his momentary peace.

“I would say I’m sorry but we both knew it was the right decision to make,” she said, her heels clicking softly on the marble steps.

“If you’ve come for my wallet, it’s already empty, Anna,” he said without looking at her.

“Oh come off it. We were married for eight years and I felt like you had already stopped caring whether or not I was even living in the same house. All you cared about was thinking about your stupid college days and working endlessly at that dump of a school you work at.”

“Listen, I said all I needed to say in the courtroom. You could at least have the decency to walk away now. You already took everything I have,” he replied. His cheeks were beginning to turn red as the anger finally started to simmer into visible form.

“I want you to know that it wasn’t my idea for full custody. The lawyers had said that with the difference of income I would be the clear choice were the custody issue raised as debatable. I know you were a good father, but you were never there for me. Isn’t that what matters in the end?”

“Hell if I know anymore, Anna. I’m just going to go live in the country somewhere. I’ve done what I was supposed to do in this place. Now I’m going to wash my hands of you and everything you meant to me.”

“Peter, please. At least say goodbye to your daughter.”

“I already did. It was in the letter you decided not to give her.”

“How did you…”

“You’ve been doing that kind of shit to me for years. I figured that if she hadn’t written me back that you’d decided to play god again. It’s fine, I knew how things would turn out.”

With that, he rose and walked down to the corner. It was nearly noon, and the sun was reaching its peak in the blue-grey sky. The cloud cover had finally burned off, and now the afternoon weather looked promising. A flock of geese swept across the lake, flying south in formation. Black wings fluttered in the sunlight but the city was too loud to hear their faint cries across the murky green water.

MSBQ

Aftermath

May 4, 2010

“You are such a fucking liar. You know I never wanted to do it in the first place,” she said. Her figure appears in the mist escaping the bathroom door, enshrouded like a goddess from some distant Indonesian temple. His eyes instinctively move to the freckled curve of her backbone as she walks past. Wearing nothing but a bright orange towel, wrapped around her hair like a turban, he often wondered what was more important to her: her hair or her modesty.

“For Christ sake, I told you how I felt about it beforehand. You’re the one who walked down there and did it, not me,” the man replied, his finger pointed up at her face. “Don’t put this one on me.”

“I wanted to have it. After six years, I would think you knew how I felt on the subject,” he said as he rolled over in bed. He sighed, and felt her eyes trying to gouge him from the other side of the room. They had had this argument so many times, but now the evidence was there- or rather, wasn’t anymore.

No further words were spoken that night. He slept, untroubled, as the dawn approached. She, on the other hand, lay on her side, eyes wide open, until the first rays of light peeked through the blinds. Her left arm coiled itself around under her head and her right lay down her side, so that her hand could rest upon her empty belly. The doctor at the clinic had told her that she was making the right decision; her child had signs of a severe birth condition that made it impossible to carry full term. She had kept the decision to herself, because she knew what he would say had he known the circumstances.

She didn’t regret the choice she had made; she regretted not bringing him with her.

Without a word, she rose out of bed, leaving him to continue his rest undisturbed. She felt scarred. Soft footsteps move through the kitchen, and the screen to the backyard slowly opens and closes. There, sitting on a wooden chair with one leg too short, she contemplated leaving. It wasn’t the first time she had thought about it, but it was the first time she thought about it seriously. She could do it. Gather her things, call a taxi, and escape his grasp for the final time. But where would she go?

It didn’t matter, she thought, as long as it wasn’t here anymore.

Hours later, he turned over to apologize to an empty pillow. Sitting up halfway in bed, he rubbed his eyes and noticed the note she had left in coral pink lipstick on the vanity mirror: “GOODBYE FOREVER, PRICK.”

MSBQ

Tabula Rasa

December 11, 2009

The double-paned glass of the door frosts over slowly as he walks in. He exhales audibly; a grey cloud of life evaporates in front of his face. It was a café he knew well enough; the walls were covered with smudged paintings and people with smudged faces. It had been a long walk. A man in the corner assessed the newcomer’s entrance, shrugged, and went back to his game of solitaire. A pair of loud, bubbly young girls discusses their days by the windowsill. The barista, a tall and long-faced man, asks him what he wants. “Just a glass of water, thank you,” he says. He takes off his backpack and his ragged outer coat to sit down gratefully at the table nearest the door. Vein striped fingers search his pockets until they find their prize: a half-eaten golden delicious apple. He sits, his back to the wall, holding his meal like a weathered dog holds its favorite bone. A small-framed lady with a small chocolate lab in tow comes in the door, and the latter stretches the limit of its leash in order to investigate the stranger at the nearest table. “No, no, Gracie,” the woman’s voice said in a hushed tone. No one, not even the dog, gives the man more than a moment’s notice. As he carefully places his empty glass in the bus tray, the pale yellow light illuminates a tattoo on the man’s left wrist. Gothic letters spell out two words: tabula rasa. The barista nods as the man replaces his outer shell, complete with a tattered orange beanie. “Have a good night man,” calls the man behind the counter. “No promises,” was all he would get back.

Police reports said that he was found cold in the “rich” part of town. He had hidden inside the remains of a large plastic barrel, in the backyard of a house with blue trim. A neighbor had noticed an unusual lump in the blanket of snow that had fallen that evening, and after sending his son to go check it out they had called 911. Paramedics didn’t even try to revive him; the color had drained from the man’s face long before his heart had stopped his weary cadence. Three sets of blue and red lights rotate silently in the cul-de-sac, piercing the picturesque little neighborhood with a reminder of their urban presence. It takes two men to lift the body onto a stretcher, white flakes still gently adding to the man’s frosted features. One lonely arm hangs down and sways with every bump the stretcher hits, barely visible in the pale moonlight are two words: tabula rasa. Neighbors watching from across the way hold their children tighter as the medics pack up and leave, they feel sad but they cannot articulate why. A young girl stops catching snowflakes on her tongue long enough to ask her mother, “Who was that man, mommy?” Her mother just shrugs. “A very sick old man, honey. No one important,” she answers. Consoled by her mother’s words, the girl goes back to twirling around in the snowfall. She will never again think about the man she saw that night; the thought of him erased as swiftly as the tiny snowflakes hitting her mouth, instantly liquid and then, gone.

MSBQ