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flame + fortune (yet another unfinished short story)

Taylor P.Comment

     The etching on the glass read "Waypost." I muttered it to myself, a mixture of grimacing blind optimism and stale curiosity. I sat at the table, a delicate array of vintage pieces from time's past. The red and chartreuse tones seemed to resonate some minor understatement that I could not obey, although I maintained my simplistic notions about the world. I had just lost a job for the third time this year, due to a disagreement with a coworker. I have always told myself that everything happens for a reason and that even if it doesn't, there is probably some purpose I am only vaguely aware of. Sipping tea, I recalled my path up until this point, maintaining a fractured and somewhat biased reflection of my circumstances. I held my young but work-weathered hands to a candle's flame, recognizing the state of oneness that my new life represented. Much like this flame, I would flicker in and out of situations that were not a perfect fit for me; were not my cup of tea, so to speak. But over time, I would burn brighter, resonating some curtailment that sought attraction and attachment, yet ultimately dwindled into isolation and prospective ambiance. In truth, my life was very much symbolized by this flame: a flame (my life) given from a fire (my parents), a troubled lighting of the wick (a troubled and tedious childhood), the flame engulfing the wick (my puberty and rise to adulthood), the flickering of the flame as it burned brighter (the many rises and falls that situations in my life represented, and oddly the bettering of my circumstances and mentality over time), and the departure of the flame as it flickered for the last time on the wick that had all but ended (death). My girlfriend and I used to come here every Saturday morning, but that was back before she left. She ran off with Jeremiah, a 31-year-old, down-on-his-luck IT Tech who had a horrible garage band. They had been high school sweethearts, apparently, although I found it odd that she never mentioned him before up until the day prior to her departure. I am, of course, a bitter man, albeit the better man, in my opinion. She stuck me with the lease and the rest of our bills, saying she would pay me back as soon as she got on her feet. She never did. Six months later, I am sitting at our old hangout, holding her postcard in my hands.

The postcard had her stringent cursive on it; a difficult task for me as my penmanship is not the best. I thumbed the card around in my hand, flipping it over and over again. I had read it several times since that morning and still failed to grasp its message, although my intentions were good. It was amazing to me how bad news comes in threes and fours some days. I wanted to strangle her, not literally, of course, but in a verbal sense. Verbal chokehold.  Why was she telling me she was getting married? She stuck me with everything else, including our failed relationship of four years, so why then was she telling me something that she knew would hurt me? I flipped it over again and again, pondering what emotions I had left, if any, and if this would affect my balance in life right now. 

"Hey Carlisle, you don't want lettuce on this, right?" Mike interrupted my thought process, behind the counter, pointing to bizarre mix of sprouts, bread, black beans, and hummus that graced the countertop.

"Yeah, thanks, Mike." He had been asking me the same question for seven months now, ever since Kaley stopped coming in with me. She ate the lettuce; I didn't. He still gets the two confused, even now, no matter how many times I come in, and we repeat this process over and over again like a broken record.  It used to be somewhat painful to venture in here after we split, but now it is more amusing than anything else. Mike and I worked line together at a sub shop in Alberta a while back and became fairly good friends during that time, so that made it a little bit easier as time passed. He keeps trying to get me to date girls he knows, such as the sister of his ex-fiancé' or the girl that works stock at Safeway, but I can't bring myself to do it. Despite the fact that she made me a miserable wreck, Kaley contains every ounce of me that was good and pure. Even after six months, I have not been ready to accept that we wouldn't find each other again; That was the plan, anyway, until the mail showed up today.

Besides, I deserved this, or at least I thought I did. Mike brought me my sandwich and I sat, staring at it, getting my mind ready to dissect the specimen. Olive oil, a drop or two of tarragon vinegar, soft bean sprouts, roasted black beans, homemade hummus, a wry tomato, and a thin slice of roast beef, served in slabs of whole wheat bread from Kern's.  I found it ironic that I should have an appetite now at all, considering this was part of the last $100 I had to my name for a week. $100 for a week in Alberta simply was a drop in the bucket. I knew I would have to look for another job in greater Portland, maybe south to Hawthorne or further west to Hillsboro. The reality of this made me a bit nauseous. I was that guy, the one who completely sucked at job interviews. The one who bombed them to the point that it would be an absolute miracle if I had a callback. The idea of starting over was devastating to me, but there was very little I could do. My coworker had set me up, plain and simple. He had been making up things about me, behind my back, in order to get me fired because he wanted my position. Unfortunately for him, they fired both of us because they didn't want to show favoritism and wanted to secure a little extra money in their expense accounts. I call that divine justice; he thought it was an outright tragedy. 

My parents named me Decca. Decca Andrew Carlisle. My father was British, my mother East Indian, so it is no surprise that when they immigrated to the United States back in 1976, they would choose a name of a record company because they liked the sound of it and felt popular names of items in the US were very "American." Needless to say, I preferred to be called Andy. My mother was a musician, an avid fan of Elvis Costello, and she hoped I would become a famous rock star or equally artistic person. Instead, I became an accountant who masqueraded by night as a sandwich "artist" and barista at a local beanery. But, hey, it pays my student loans, so I have a good excuse.

"Much love, Kaley" it read, written in the same sprawling cursive that I had seen time and time again. The same positive phrase that she quickly penned as she left a note for me to let our dog outside for its rituals. The same phrase that she wrote on the little notes she left in my lunch box for work. The same phrase she wrote on the letter that announced she was moving out. I scrutinized the phrase, wondering if she really did love me still, or if it was simply something to say to pass the time; A force of habit, a creature of comfort, perhaps? Maybe, she surmised, by showing that she still cared, I would gladly send them a bottle of wine or a small token of my approval, to curtail the awkwardness that surrounded the subject of the postcard.  I nearly crushed the postcard at the notion of this, as it greatly infuriated me. Even now, she still couldn't seem to take anything seriously. Not even my feelings on the subject, although I'm sure she felt I was detached. I was, at the time, so why would she expect me to be any different now?

In fact, my exact words to her when she told me about her and Jeremiah were simply: "Our lease is up in 8 months, Kaley. Are you planning on paying or what?"

No emotion. No begging her to change her mind. Just the plain facts of life.

It was about a week after she moved out, when some old photos fell out of a book I was re-shelving, that I recognized everything that had gone wrong and how much I did miss her. I saw her in the Polaroids, the girl of my dreams, smiling frantically and superficially, clearly surprised, as I had ambushed her four summers ago. I always liked the way her hair fell over her eyes, her awkward wry smile, the way she would put her left foot in her shoe first, then the right one in the other shoe, even though she was right-handed. She was a horrible cook, an amateur kite-flyer, mildly tone deaf when she sang, and she would leave little shards of hair in the sink after she trimmed her bangs. She had a blood-curdling growl when she was angry, she would throw things at times, and she rarely ever wiped the soap residue off of the dishes. But I loved to watch her sleep, that huge grin on her face when her sleepy eyes would open slowly, as if from a dream, and she would whisper with a tired but comfortable tone, "Hey you."

She used to knit me scarves and socks every year. I, being craft-illiterate, would buy her a box of wine, a CD or book she had been coveting, and send her flowers (her favorites: ranunculus and poppies). Every year I was fairly predictable, but so was she. We worked this all out when we started this venture; this relationship. We told each other everything- I still have no secrets left to tell. I told her all about the ones before her, the one-night stands, the things which I benefited very little from telling. She had a way of getting the secrets out of me, so it was useless to argue with her or hide any information. I thought I knew her quite well, too, so it was quite a shock when it occurred to me those many months ago that who she truly was and who I perceived her to be was a different story entirely.

She works at Saint Cupcake part-time, so I've heard, although in my harried ventures down to Belmont I have never seen her in there. I would briefly glance in the window and her friend Marnie would stare out, unsurprised, and usually would give me a ridiculous grimace. She never liked me, complaining that I was too boring for Kaley. "You could do better," she said. It was she, the vile creature, that reintroduced her to Jeremiah and thus ended a relationship I considered impenetrable. Kaley and I had talked about getting married and were going to wait another year, until she finished her degree. Married.......how could I forget? I stirred my second cup of tea in wonder, amazed that such a simple admission could dredge up such nostalgia.

And she was admitting it to me in this card, it seemed, in some strange way. Not only was she getting married, but Jeremiah had a new job in Billings, Montana. They were moving away. She wanted me to have the dog, our dog, the one we bought together a year after she moved in to the apartment. The one she begged and pleaded with me to have, even though I wasn't even remotely ready to pay $600 for the puppy. And now, to start her new life, she was giving it back to me, as if to say, "Here. I am done with you entirely, now. No hard feelings, right?"

I remember a few months ago when she called me one drunken night, pronouncing me still her friend. I hung up on her. I am not usually the type of person to impulsively do something like that, but I was very angry at the time. Now I had to wonder if we could ever be friends again, or if it would always be such a bitter affair. Once you have had sex with someone and lived with them, it can be pretty hard to go back to a normal friendship. There is always that fear that it will happen again and the jealousy issue is always present. It especially didn't help that Jeremiah was pretty much a loser, in my eyes. Why she left me for a schmuck like him, I will never know.

Mike waltzed over and planted himself casually in the seat across from me. He glowered at me dully, speechless. Without warning, he spun a can of PBR across the table to me. Reflexively, I grabbed it and popped the top, a light sizzle escaping as the particles diffused into the environment. Mike brought out another and opened his as well. This was our usual ritual since we became friends. I remember sitting out with him in my old Volvo in the parking lot of Burgerville, drinking PBR, the King of Cheap Beer, and talking about alternative bands that were coming out of Seattle.

I grew up in Tacoma. We moved to Portland when I was about eight or so, I guess, although sometimes I would like to tell people I have always been here. Stumptown has primarily always been home to me. I’ve lived in Richmond, Los Angeles, and Baltimore a few years in my life, but Portland is where I hang my hat. I always come back, regardless of my destination.  I, like many of my friends, am a transient. There are very few “locals” here- most of us come from all over the world. It is the resting place for invalid artists, fledgling performers, renegade indie superstars, new age hippies, and…accountants. And people like Mike, who defies all logical explanation. We all have these really abstract titles, like “Laurie: mechanical engineer, cyclist, and burlesque performer, “ or “David: writer for Willamette Week, circus performer, and singer-songwriter.” I don’t know too many people in town that don’t have at least two jobs, and I know many people that have four or five. Honest.

Mike grabbed the post card from my hand before I could complain otherwise, and reading it, he smirked, giving a chortled laugh. I glared menacingly at him, “What?”

“Man,” Oh great. When he starts with a “Man” or a “You know….?” I know I am in for a lecture of sorts. He sighed, “You need to forget about Kaley. She is just….I don’t know. Not worth it. “

This is the world, according to Mike. He always has such eloquent euphemisms. I smiled, “Wow, that was quick and painless. “

“You know, it’s girls like her and Marnie that give women a bad name.” He turned the can up and chugged the rest of his beer as potential customers stood in the doorway. They knew each other, apparently, for the couple hugged him and I heard the girl say,”Hey brother, how ya been?”
He greeted them and proceeded back behind the counter. I wondered if that was actually his sister, if he had one at all, or just someone he knew. People spend so much time calling people by family-related nicknames that it is hard for me to tell sometimes. She sort of looked like him, so maybe. She reminded me more of Marnie than anyone else, actually. That seemed to be his type, anyway.

Mike and Marnie used to date. In fact, they not only dated; they were engaged to be married. But Marnie was a bit crazy, in my opinion. She could never figure out what she wanted or who she wanted to be, so living around Mike was a constant state of ups and downs for a while. Mike is a good guy- a really good guy. I don’t think in all the time I have known him that he has ever cheated on a girl, stolen anything, or said anything bad about anyone that wasn’t completely accurate. Where I overdramaticize everything, Mike tends to keep everything on an even keel. Except for drinking. When it comes to drinking, he tends to go overboard. The situation with Marnie was different from my relationship with Kaley. Marnie is very self-centered, so it is no surprise to me that she really didn’t love Mike. It was just something to pass the time. I hated her influence, although without her I probably would never have met Kaley. Sometimes I wish we had never met, but I know it had to happen. Everything happens for a reason.

Kaley and Marnie were in Jackpot Records one day, searching through albums for something new, something different. I met Mike there, for we were planning on spending the day at Powell’s hunting for books on bicycle maintenance (Mike had recently converted a fixed gear bike) but he had wanted to stop in to see if they had a G.G. Allin documentary that had recently been released. Marnie and Mike were visibly smitten with one another, judging by the fact that they couldn’t stop staring. Marnie would smile at him and then turn away, still smiling. Mike would be stone-faced and wide-eyed yet he would steal little glances at her whenever possible. Kaley and I would exchange looks of bewilderment, but I was equally dazzled by her. But, being the idiot I was, I had a pretense of ultimate disinterest. She didn’t seem very phased by this; in fact, she was pretty much indifferent. I took this as an immediate challenge, and proceeded to take my Polaroid camera out of my bag and snap her photo. She was certainly surprised, but she flashed me a tenacious smile, her eyes narrowed mischievously, and that sealed the deal for me. She chased me around Jackpot for the photo but I refused to return it. I still have it, even after everything that happened.

Marnie introduced us, I introduced Mike, and that is how Kaley and I met. It was because of Marnie and Mike that Kaley and I went to double dates with them. It was because of Marnie and Mike that Kaley needed a place to live and ended up moving in with me and thus began our lives together.

I stared into the mirror at the far end of the room, my features clearly exposed. I looked like a mad scientist or something, hair disheveled, beard slightly unkempt. My mustache was curling at the ends. I looked every bit a bum, I guessed, with my checkered turquoise western shirt and dirty jeans. My eyes were darker than usual today, less vibrant, as if they had lost some of their copper luster. They do that when I am depressed, I’ve noticed. It was nice, though, to dress down today and not have to wear the tie and slacks that governed my appearance at my accounting job. Job. I didn’t even want to think about it again. My job at a Stumptown Roasters only managed to pay the rent, not all of my other bills that my primary occupation took care of. And my third job wasn’t even worth mentioning, as I only worked it one miserable night a week. Hydan told me that I could come in for a shift tonight if I needed it, but part of me felt like just going to sleep. While I didn’t mind playing coffee champion for the night, I had other obligations to attend to; Mainly, that I needed to get this situation with Kaley out of my head for good. She was getting married now; that much was true.

“Hey Carlisle, have you met Lainey and Chris? Guys, this is my friend Andy.” I was so glad he introduced me as Andy and not Decca, I always worry about that when meeting people. I nodded a casual greeting and proceeded to scribble drawings on my napkin, mostly of Godzilla attacking buildings and dirigibles and old rail yards. Although, to be honest, they really didn’t look like much of anything but it helped to pass the time.

After a while, I decided to take a walk to clear my head. It was in the upper 40’s outside, so I put on my thick jacket and wrapped my scarf around my face like some desert-dwelling goat herder. Then I added my cap, an old military issue, for good measure. The air was dry and crisp, which is not a rare occurrence this time of year. We get a lot of flack for having a lot of rain and cloudy days, but it really isn’t as bad as one might think. Regardless, I wished it had been a tad warmer today and that I wasn’t near as tired. I had wanted to ride my bike out to Skidmore Fountain and walk around the Saturday market, but even though I am used to the weather most of the year, my heart wasn’t in it today and I knew that. I clutched the post card in my hand, walking up past S.C.R.A.P. to my apartment. I waved at Sarah, who was working today, although I don’t think she saw me.

The apartment I lived in was part of a triplex, a shabby affair: an old 1960’s building with perforated wall sculptures and those old metal rocking chairs, rusted from age. I parked my bike outside, careful to lock it up with the rest of the bikes, as the theft in the area had skyrocketed over the past year or so. I already had my bike stolen once and had to walk all the way back home. The best thing about my apartment was the floors: rich mahogany. It wasn’t a bad apartment, even for being a 1 bedroom. At $600 a month, I wasn’t about to complain. It was off of Williams and my landlord let me generally do whatever I wanted. I, of course, took this as an opportunity to paint the walls and spend reckless amounts of money furnishing it from IKEA and some of the local thrift stores and yard sales. Kaley was really into living “green” so most of our stuff tended to be recycled, thrifted, or environmentally friendly. When she left, she nearly left everything. I am still sorting through everything, even now. Some things hold so many memories for me that they are hard to get rid of. I still find myself separating papers and plastics into the little bins we bought together; a constant reminder of our time together.

I was never very emotional or sentimental until I met Kaley. Perhaps I had always been a little bit but fell into that stigma of being a guy. Guys aren’t supposed to have emotions or be sentimental about things, or so I have been told. If anything, I have usually been underemotional. For instance, when my great-grandmother passed away, I didn’t have any shred of emotion at all, even though I knew her very well and we were quite close when I was growing up. I justified it by the fact that she was old; we all have to die sometime. Most of my life has been like that. When Kaley left, I didn’t shed a tear. I justified it by the fact that she had betrayed me. It was only months later that I realized that she didn’t love me as much as I loved her and I shouldn’t ask someone to stay who doesn’t want to and the realization of this brought tears to my eyes. I was pretty torn up for a while there.

When I received that post card today, my first instinct was to move back east, back to Baltimore or maybe somewhere else entirely. I had gone to school in Baltimore. Ana, my first live-in girlfriend, and I used to make spontaneous trips to Philly and sometimes even ventured into Canadian territories. Ana was my first “love” (or “lust”, depending on which way you look at it) and we were very much incompatible. Ana was short for “Anatolia.” She was Turkish and Irish with thick, heavy lashes and an amazing body. She was going to school to become a botanist and we met at a local library while researching for a Molecular Biology class (which I had taken as an elective-- stupid, I know). She was from Brooklyn, with a thick accent, and we would spend hours making light of our differences. I have a very American, Pacific Northwestern, laid-back tone, where she had a wild, crazy, loud New York dialect. She was athletic, always wanting me to practice ashatanga yoga with her; I hate exercising, although at times I desperately needed it with all the beer I drank during the frat days. She had two cats, both of which I was allergic to. Her hair always smelled like rose water and lavender although I could never figure out when she applied this; I began to imagine she naturally smelled like the Ottoman empire without ever using perfume. She had a toothy grin, her canine teeth pointed like a vampiress would have, or something. She was very catlike, lithe and fair, often traipsing around the apartment with an air of utter amusement. I often imagined I could see her playing with a ball of yarn, for she was so easily amused with life. At night, we would often sit and play board games until well after midnight. In fact, I am pretty sure she is the primary originator of “Strip Scrabble.” Most nights we would spend on the couch, watching movies, drinking our lattes, and occasionally drinking beer until one of us fell asleep on the other. Life was very much perfect and perfectly boring.

Her parents adored me and often showered me with Turkish foods and stout beer. I thought I had met my soul mate. My parents did not share my enthusiasm, but they graciously accepted her into their home when we visited that year. She found so many complaints to address, primarily concerning our finances. She came from a well-off family in Brooklyn (they had owned a bank for over 80 years), so she expected my family to be as financially supportive; they weren’t. My family tried to keep things as simple as possible; Although we had stable income, we wanted to really be just like everyone else. “That is the American way, son,” My father would often say to me. My mother found Ana to be selfish, conceited, and intolerable. And, truthfully, the girl did behave like a spoiled brat, throwing tantrums and cussing like a sailor. But I was so much in love and love was blind.

The night we split up was a blessed event. I came home from my classes to find her drunk, passed out in the floor, and half of our furniture was broken or missing. As I went into the bathroom to get some cleaning supplies, a guy walked out, half-naked and clearly shitfaced. I recognized him from some of the soirees I had attended with her. He was the guy that had shares in a pharmaceutical company and drove a Jaguar.  That guy I kept running into in the hallway some nights but couldn’t quite remember who he was. I threw all of her things out into the hall, the guy included, and as soon as my semester ended, I packed up and headed back to Stumptown.

I guess moving doesn’t really solve anything anyway. At least Kaley was moving away for the while. That would probably help heal me some, seeing as how we run into each other quite regularly. Sometimes it is very awkward, especially when I see her with Jeremiah. Every once in a while, I see him walking past Stumptown Roasters toward Saint Cupcake and I cringe. I really don’t like that guy, not that I even know him all that well. I just know his type. He probably won’t amount to much of anything, Kaley will end up pregnant, and he won’t want to pay for raising the kid. 

Sarah is supposed to come over later, although I am never quite sure what we might get into. She is a wild card, of sorts. She is constantly doing something, obsessing over the little things, yet always amiable enough for an adventure. She is kind of a loner and doesn’t hang out with the usual people I associate with. She is very plain, in a cute sort of way, kind of like a kid sister, but I have to admit she can be very beautiful at times. We have a very strange friendship. She will often call me up, out of the blue after weeks of no contact, wanting me to drive out to Astoria with her, even though it is 20 degrees on the coast and the roads are slick with ice. She is the one who I am driving out to Crater Lake with, when and if the lake ices over, just because she wants to take pictures on the frozen slabs. I would do anything in my power to make her happy. There are times I make her so angry she won’t talk to me for weeks, even though I can never recall what spurred her into action in the first place.  It is a weird mix of polarities. When things are going good, they are really good. When things are going bad, they can be really bad.  I always get the feeling I could love her, if I can ever get over Kaley and get out of the rut I am in.

I sat, surfing on my Mac, looking at job ads and filling out applications. It is always a really tedious concept, the searching and contacting of potential employers. I feel very hungry, but I haven’t been to Whole Foods in about two weeks now. What I wouldn’t give for a doughnut from Voodoo Doughnut, though!  I would order my favorite, in that tiny place, a cake-like doughnut with icing and Oreos sprinkled on it-- some obnoxiously clever name attached to it. Although there are so many listings, finding a job in town is nearly impossible but it can be done. Part of it is that half the time, you can be overqualified for a job. Otherwise, there is simply too much competition for a good job.  I stared blankly at the screen, recalling that I would have to find a job that is close enough so that I can let our/my dog, Abigail, out, since she is coming back to be a permanent resident in my apartment ……again.

I could never understand what made Kaley so irresponsible. She had all the trappings of a modern girl who had her life under complete control, yet she behaved so irrationally at times that I had to question if she was the same person or not. She would forget to pay bills, sweep things under the rug- stuff like that. Sometimes she would forget her age, which was amusing but also annoying at times. I remember many times she would sing (or scream, rather) in the shower to old Motown classics to the point that our neighbors would knock on the wall and yell in protest. She never locked her motorcycle up, which drove me crazy because I was always afraid it would get stolen. She was a free spirit in many ways, although when it came to me she was specifically a hardliner.

After about an hour of limited results, I turned on my Ipod and immersed myself in the Pixies. They were a band I always went back to, in times of trouble. “Velouria” was always a favorite of mine. I flipped through the list, finding some of Kaley’s old Riot Grrrl music on the playlist. I really should have deleted the songs by now, but in some weird way I liked these little reminders of her. They made the apartment seem a little less empty and dreary. To this day, I can’t hear Sleater-Kinney or the Slits without thinking of Kaley. In fact, much of the music I listen to now I can attribute to Kaley’s good taste.“There is more to life than the Melvins,” she said to me one day.
She was right.

I heard a huge crashing noise and woke up on the couch. I could not be sure if it was truly some sort of crash or simply my half-sleep/half-aware super-hearing getting the best of me. Staring at the ceiling, I had no concept of time and space. My little heater was making popping noises, the coils restless after prolonged hours of usage. I sat up, looking around the room, the stale odor of old garbage and incense smoke lingering in the blues and grays of twilight. I adjusted my pillows and sat back on the couch, staring at the faint blue light that leaked through the curtains. It was when I noticed the red flashing lights that I became alarmed. I decided to glance out the window, so I stood up and raised the blinds just barely. A car crash, I presumed, judging by the crunched car near the entrance to my apartment complex. Black ice causes this all the time. I don’t know if the natives ever get used to the winters here. Last year we had an ice storm so bad that cars were practically sliding into one another and it looked as if they were ice skating gracefully into one another. It was mildly amusing, actually. I stood there, gawking in fascination at all the lights and fleeting events that were playing out before me, wondering why human beings are so curious that they watch things like this with such morbid fascination. I glanced out at my bike, frozen solid in the sheets of mixed precipitation that fell darkly to the black basalt driveway, and heard a strange, muffled electronic noise. It took me a few moments to realize that my cell phone was blaring under the blanket on my couch, so I then ran, awkwardly, tripping over my birch LACK side table and knocking over a cup of coffee from earlier that morning.

“Fucking shit!” I growled as the phone became quiet. When I finally made my way to it, the missed call icon was flashing. Sarah had called.

“Hey,” I put my fingers around my neck apprehensively, even though I had no reason to be so nervous, as it wasn’t like she was there.

“Hey Stranger…didn’t I see you walking by my place of employment earlier?” She was sly, this one. She had see me, after all.
“Nope, it must have been some other mustachioed man in a parka.”
“Ah, I see. I am stuck in traffic. Apparently there was an accident or something? Do you still want me to come over or what?” She sounded a bit perturbed, so I slackened on my banter for the moment.
“Yeah, yeah, there was an accident in front of my place. The ice, I guess? I don’t know if you can get over here, actually. It looks like they are blocking off to road. Want me to meet you at your place or do you have something else in mind?”
“I’m just kidding. I went the back way. I am in your driveway, Dork. Didn’t you see me waving at you earlier?” She laughed, and as I walked gingerly to the window to peer out, I saw her laughing at me as she laughed into the phone. I grimaced, hung up the phone,  and met her at the door.

She was a whirl of color against the dreary night sky. Dark auburn hair, a red jacket, and polka-dot galoshes met me in a flurry of movement as she loaded two thick fabric grocery bags into my hands.

“Oh, no…what is this?” I peered at them skeptically, fearing the worst. She laughed, her blue eyes smiling, and proceeded to dump the contents out on my coffee table.

“Okay…first up, we have a bottle of Hogue Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, some blueberry brie (imported, of course), vegan sesame crackers, and……..Blue Velvet!” She grinned widely, looking to me for approval, Good, yes?”

“Yes, you have done well, grasshopper.”

She bowed, praising the very nature of her conquest, and proceeded to my kitchen to search for the corkscrew. I always envied her ability to enter someone else’s home and know exactly where everything was located.

I remember the first time she came over, awkward and fumbling with her keys. There were several lapses in our conversation, we couldn’t look at each other for more than a millisecond. She stood, pigeon-toed, gazing at her feet with confusion, as if she was desperately pleading with me to do something to right the situation.

Then, out of nowhere, she asked meekly, “Can I use your bathroom?”
I nodded and she walked directly to it. The girl has intuitive superpowers or something. When she walked out, she danced into my kitchen and brought out two beers and sat down on the couch. After that, my world was never the same again. After one beer, we both felt more at ease and began to bond, a bond that would probably last a lifetime. She and I are so horribly alike mentally it is uncanny. I once asked if she was related to me, jokingly, of course, but she moved here from Kansas or Missouri or something, I think.

She was your typical All-American girl; she grew up watching Jem and She-Ra, parents were hippies, went to school in Eugene, and went through a multitude of phases before finding her niche (as a scrap-hoarding, cello-playing, music-obsessed veterinary tech). She told me she really wanted to be a graphic design artist, but that was before…the accident. Actually, there was no accident. It just sounded more dramatic that way. I apologize for misleading you in my narration. She actually just decided she liked animals more, instead. Boring, I know.

She came back and took off her jacket to reveal her figure, which was ultimately a fine one. She has wire frame cat’s eye glasses, the kind your grandmother probably wore in the 1950’s. She lived in a unique state of dress, although to see her at work she seemed more librarian-like. She reminds me of a little bird, like a sparrow, perhaps. She is always taking everything in, always questioning the state of the world, always watching. We sat on the couch, drinking our wine, eating our cheese and crackers, and watching the movie. I hadn’t seen it in a while, but it was just as good as I remembered it. When it was finished, I glanced over and noticed she had fallen asleep on my arm. I gently moved her under the blanket and turned the DVD player off. In the process, I knocked over my glass of wine and it went tumbling to the floor in a sea of red. Her eyes opened and she grabbed me, before I could react, and kissed me. We collapsed to the couch, the wine all but forgotten, and I reminded myself to thank God that I had hardwood floors.

I woke up in the middle of the night, her sleeping form lying next to me. We had somehow made it into bed during the night, although due to the wine the events were a bit hazy. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, but definitely just as memorable and wonderful. I had yet to show her Kaley’s post card.  I tried to push it out of my mind, to remind myself that this life is better. That this one might have a future someday with a little time and patience. Sarah and I like each other, but I don’t know if either of us will ever be ready to take the plunge into a relationship, at least not with one another. I ran my fingers through her soft hair, wishing so desperately that I could fall in love with her. She was perfect in so many ways and a delightful person, yet I couldn’t get my prior goals out of my head.  “Andy….” She sighed. “..I’m sorry that happened again. Well, not sorry necessarily- you know what I mean.”
“It’s okay, Sarah. It’s perfectly okay.” I kissed her forehead and we fell back asleep, wrapped up in each other’s arms. I felt like I could sleep there for a thousand years, if given the chance.

We awoke to a knock at the door. I had no idea what time it was, but the sun was out, so I took an educated guess and assumed it was past ten, as the sun doesn’t reach this side of the apartment until then. Sleepy-eyed and scowling, Sarah glanced over at me, curious and a bit hung-over.  I paused, stepped out of bed, and nearly leapt back in. The floor was freezing and I was in my skivvies. I grabbed a pair of socks and threw on some lounge pants and a thermal shirt before bounding to the door. I yelled at the intruder, “Just a minute!” and proceeded to unlock the 3 deadbolts on my door (not my idea). As soon as the door opened, Abigail bounded into room, nearly knocking me off of my feet. She was a Great Dane and not small by any means. Kayley stood at the edge of the walkway, a picture of perfection.

She walked up to me and gave me an awkward hug from the side, which made me grimace.

“I hope you got the card I sent you. Otherwise, this must be quite a shock, huh?” She smiled warmly, although her eyes were not smiling.

“Yes, I did. Congratulations.” I turned to walk back in to the apartment. She grabbed my arm.

“Andy, listen. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. This is for the best- you’ll see. Some day you will laugh about these past few years, especially when you find someone special to share the next ones with.”

“Andy, dear, who is at the door?” Sarah bounded over to stand near me, the pajamas she borrowed from me nearly engulfing her slender frame. “Oh. It’s you.” She glowered at Kayley, a mixture of disgust and triumph.

“O-hohh!” Kayley seemed a bit surprised and she took a step back. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you guys.”

Sarah spoke before I could gather my words properly,” Oh! That’s fine. Thanks for bringing Abby by (Kayley hated when people called her by her nickname)! See ya,” She spoke this very dryly before slamming the door in her face with a dull thud. Then she locked the deadbolts and lumbered back to bed, leaving me nearly speechless in the hall. “Uhm….Thanks…?“

After Sarah left for work, Mike came over and we sat outside, working on our bikes. He was trying to convert his with new gears and cable brakes so I told him I would help him. I knew he was going to ask, eventually, and after a solid 30 minutes of reminiscing about stupid inside jokes we had and headlines he read in The Onion, he finally became somewhat serious, “Sooo… Sarah, huh?”

“What about her?” I nonchalantly took a wrench out of its container, adjusting a bracket that had loosened.

Mike cleared his throat and continued, “Well, was that or was that not her leaving when I showed up?”

“Yup.” I pretended to be very intent on what I was doing, and of course slightly unconcerned.

Mike dropped his front tire to the ground, “Does Kayley know?”

This made me grin a bit wryly, although I kept a pretty good poker face, “Yeah, well, I assume she does by now. I mean, what’s the big deal? She’s getting married and moving to Montana anyway.”

Mike laughed, “Yeah, but you know how girls are. I bet it will piss her off pretty bad.”

“Oh well. Did you get those brake cables yesterday or what?”

It was all I could do to go to work that night, although a big part of me would have rather been home drinking, sitting on the couch, and relaxing. Abby was playing with a chew toy when I skimmed the door and headed out to my bike. I knew that it was foolish to ride my bike with it being so cold outside, but I figured that the less money I spend on gas, the more I will have to eat on. I rode down Williams, the wind shooting an icy mist against my face. My hair was frozen in place and I knew by the time I arrived at Three Rivers, my hair would be a solitary, tangled mass unsuitable for viewing or consumption.  I would speed around curves, so fast at times that I feared my hat could fly off into the intersection. This was my freedom. Regardless of what anyone has ever told you, there is nothing more comforting than being able to move at your own pace. I had a good hour to get to the hole-in-the-wall place I worked at (Three Rivers Bakery 1 night a week and Stumptown Roasters 3 nights a week), so I took my time and took in the sights. I stopped at Laurelhurst Park to catch a break and saw Jimmy and Alana heading out for their usual evening ride. I rode down through some of the neighborhoods, remembering apartments where my friends used to live and crazy photos we used to take of random street objects.

Most of my old friends are gone now, their nomadic genes launching them into the far West and Midwest states. I remember one time Jill and I got so drunk that we would run out in front of cars on Anderson, screaming at the top of our lungs that we had seen aliens in her backyard. The ironic thing is that some of the people got out of their cars and joined us in our quest to stop the aliens. Portland is funny like that; you never know what to expect. I remember fond things now. Like when Paul and I joined in a big pillow fight in Pioneer Square. When Aaron and I parked outside the Turkish grocery store and used to drink sodas from there.  And when Lucy and I camped out on the corner of her street in Milwaukee, drank Red Stripe, and watched the stars. Jill got married and moved to Alaska. She has two kids now, I believe. Paul joined the Air Force and I think he is based in Hawaii now. Aaron ended up getting hit by a car and is still rehabilitating in his hometown of Laramie, Wyoming. I have no idea what happened to Lucy. She was there one day and then she was gone, but she was rumored to have headed down to Phoenix where her aunt and uncle lived.

I couldn’t help but feel saddened by my inability to cope with so many losses, so I was glad that these happened vaguely over time. When I met Kayley, everything came at a standstill. Her world consumed me. Her friends were my friends. Her life was my life and I felt like I would spend years to get mine back. I was determined not to let that happen again, no matter who I end up with or what I end up doing with my life.

Carla greeted me when I arrived. She is very motherly, despite her 35 years of age. She reminds me very much of my own mother, although Carla is half-Arabic and a quarter Lakota. She is the manager at Three Rivers, although her husband Sam Cho, begs to differ. They both grew up here, like me, children of parents who immigrated to the US during the 60’s-70’s.  Carla is short, mildly plump, and wears very simple clothing, which is not surprising considering that she co-owns an organic bakery. Sam is the more flamboyant of the two, surprisingly, although I rarely ever see him anymore. He opened up a bakery/café’ on Burnside and it is taking up most of his time.

My co-worker, Jeff, saluted me. Jeff was the tall, gangly type of guy; a pioneer in the art of being lazy and getting drunk at work. I can guarantee you that any time Carla turns around, Jeff is drinking a shot of tequila or a bottle of Michelob. He can practically engulf a six-pack in 2 minutes if given the chance. His hair reached down to his shoulders, so he had to wear it pulled to the back of his head in a ponytail. Carla’s insidious bitching at him is unparalleled. I am surprised he still has a job there, all things considered. He was heavy into southern rock bands of the 80’s so he is constantly singing lyrics to them, despite our protests. All in all, though, Jeff isn’t a bad guy, truthfully, so working with him isn’t too traumatic. I am just glad I only have to deal with him one night a week.

I was rolling dough out on the wooden slab, 100% organic semolina. Carla was mixing another batch, her skilled hands stirring with the spoon in a practiced motion. She smiled at me momentarily, her thick accent softened by her years on the west coast:  “So, how’s your momma?”

She asks me this every week. She and my mother met when we moved here, so despite the fact that they don’t keep in touch as well as they would like to, she still never fails to care about what my mother is into. I tell her usually the same thing every week.

“Oh, she’s really good. Her and dad have just been busy camping, enjoying their time off. “

Carla always smiles, thoughtfully, and then the second question is evident, “And how are things for you?”

She witnessed the downfall of my relationship with Kayley, how much I suffered even though I didn’t want anyone to know. It was she who first guessed that we had split up and why. A mother of three, she had almost a sixth sense about people and immediately had known what exactly had transpired.

“Oh, things are good.”

“You’re seeing a girl?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

I hadn’t really told her about Sarah yet. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her to know, so much as I didn’t know how to convey that it was nothing serious.

“Sort of, huh? Anyone I know, Andy?”

“It’s not Kayley, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Well, does this girl have a name?” She spun the dough in a circular fashion, causing it to fall out of the bowl with a light thump.

“Sarah.  Her name is Sarah.”

“Ah, that is a pretty name. So what does this Sarah do? Would she meet my approval?” She eyed me warily, a smug smirk causing her dimples to stand out.

I filled her in on the most basic of details (for fear she might use them against me at a later date, otherwise) and the night went by monotonously and without any more pressing questions. Carla seemed satisfied with my answers and moved the conversation to political and social dilemmas and mentioned different rock stars and artists she would like to see run for presidency.

When my shift was over, I was throwing my apron in the laundry hamper when Jeff walked over to me. He looked at me incredulously before speaking plainly, “Were you talking about Sarah Madison?”

“Yeah?” I wasn’t too sure where this was leading, but considering it was one of the longest sentences he had ever spoken since I started working here, I listened intently.

“Oh, well, cause….you know she’s got a boyfriend, right?”

Boyfriend. I was blind-sided entirely. Sarah who stayed at my house. Sarah who seemed so independent and easy-going. She had a boyfriend. I squeezed my eyes shut and grimaced, “Are you positive?”

“Yeah, she is dating my brother, dude. I knew she wasn’t that great of a girl, but shit.”

“Man, wow, I’m sorry. I had no idea. She never mentioned a boyfriend or anything so I just assumed.”

“It’s cool, man. Listen, let’s just keep this between us, alright? The last thing I need is to cause Kyle any more problems. He’s had enough bad shit happen to him this year.”

“Yeah, sure, “ He nodded, waved, and walked out the door, leaving me motionless and brooding.

Son of a bitch. I kicked the sanitizing bucket, causing the liquid to slosh inside. It wasn’t like we were in a relationship, I guess, but it was fairly aggravating that she never mentioned this illusive boyfriend.  I would just assume that if you were going to be intimate with someone, you would disclose that information. She didn’t seem like the type of girl at all to behave in that fashion. It was really very hard for me to believe that such an innocent girl would be capable of such behavior. Who did she think she was anyway? Knowing what had happened with Kayley, what right did she have to treat me in such a way? It was humiliating, even if Jeff and I were the only ones who knew about it. I wanted to punch a wall or something. I dreaded the next time we spoke, for I would have to break everything off with her. It was so frustrating, because I had actually been growing attached to her. For the first time since Kayley, I’d found someone I felt at ease with; that I could have considered a large part of my wonderfully destructive life. But I was blind yet again.

As I rode home, I began to dissect our very relationship, or lack thereof. I began to think about all the times she wouldn’t answer her phone, how it would take days sometimes for her to return e-mails or text messages, how certain days I couldn’t find her at all if I needed her. Jeff must be telling the truth- why would he lie to me? But why would Sarah lie to me? If she had a boyfriend already, what would she want with me? There wasn’t anything special about me. I was your typical, boring guy. But there wasn’t anything particularly special about Sarah either, so why would she feel the need to have two boyfriends? To overcompensate for her own awkwardness? I cringed at the thought of what we had done, for it was at someone else’s expense. As a guy, I knew I shouldn’t have a conscience. I should laugh it off as a good time that wasn’t meant to last, for that was all it was to me, right? And it wasn’t like I was jealous. I don’t even know the guy. He might be even more of a loser than I am, especially considering he has such an obscene amount of drama, according to Jeff.  But maybe I’m reading too much into this…

But why did Sarah do it? What was the point in getting me involved in all this, if she cared as much as she said she did? I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I thought about what happened just before Mike came over. She had warmed to Abby immediately and was playing with her on the carpet in the living room, rolling around on the floor like a child and giving her loving and motherly attention. It was as if Sarah had always been there, in my life. It disturbed me now to think that she would never again grace my presence because of her atrocious lies. And maybe it was partly my fault. I had yet to make any effort to make any claim on her, as if to say: “Me? Man. You? Woman.  My Girlfriend.” Had I, would she have told me then? Would she have sat me down, sullenly, and said, “I’m sorry, Andy. I can’t see you anymore. I have a boyfriend.”?

I growled. My pride and fear had stood in my way. I could have easily swept her off her feet, if given the chance. Had she just been seeing the guy on occasion, it wouldn’t make me so angry. But the fact that she has an actual boyfriend is a deterrent for me now. It had to be true, too, as there was no other explanation for it. How disappointing it was to realize that I had been duped by another girl. Only now, I got to be on the other end of the spectrum. I was the Jeremiah in this situation. I was the lousy son of a bitch who was banging this guy’s girlfriend.

I rounded the corner to the apartment, dejectedly, and noticed there was a small box on my doorstep. It was always a shock to get packages, especially since the postman just leaves it on the stoop for all to see (and steal). I slumped over next to it and read the sender’s address.

There wasn’t one, which I deemed as bizarre. It appeared to have been torn off during its voyage. There was a customs form but it was written in what looked like Sanskrit. The box was small, maybe about 6” x 9”, made of pale perforated cardboard with several cuts and bruises. My address was visible in barely legible handwriting, with the name Decca written clearly on the top.

My first instinct was to chuck it into the nearest dumpster, mostly because I feared it might be a bomb or something. Instead, I brought it inside and sat it on the desk next to my laptop. I stared at it not as an innocent, inanimate cardboard box but as a life-threatening, dreaded succubus. I stared at it for a good half hour before finally taking it, chucking it in the container on the back of my bike, and riding slowly away from town.

There is a place near the Willamette River that I used to go to when I was younger. There, the fir trees stand tall; their silvery, drooping  branches reaching upwards to the sky like sleeping giants. The abundant moss is green, almost fluorescent, billowing this way and that through the dense foliage. In the summer, thousands of tiny wildflowers sustain themselves on the rich soil, their little heads gracefully rising to the dim sunlight. Tiny, glossy mushrooms pop up on old fallen trees from times past, the loggers long since retired. It is more barren in this season, but I can still see remnants of the warmer seasons languidly filtering through the trodden earth. For some reason, this is the place I chose to open the box in. At worst, I figured it was a bomb or anthrax or something and in the last moments of my life, I would be in a peaceful place. At best, I felt perhaps it was best to open it in a place where I felt most at home, for I knew not what it contained.

I took my pocketknife and gently, carefully, removed the first layer of tape, then the second. There was a light puff of dust as the air escaped from the box and I coughed. Ricin?!
But I persevered and soldiered on, removing the remaining pieces of tape. What I found was shocking, at best.

In sepia, my grandmother’s haunting eyes stared at me, fierce and intelligent. Kaja was a beautiful woman in her youth, a vibrant girl from New Delhi. Her hair fell in soft tresses, arranged for her first and only wedding day. She sat next to my grandfather, who my mother took after more physically than mentally. Kaja’s face was very still, soft, for her 17 years of age. She was nervous, probably, as this was only the second time she had met my grandfather. It was an arranged marriage. I studied the lines of her body, the way the fabrics and beads draped over her arms and legs. Something about the way she sat reminded me of a portrait my parents took of me as a little boy. In that portrait, I looked nervous and frightened, yet my eyes carried a sense of animalistic mischief.

I set my jacket down, placing the photo on top of it for safe-keeping. As I placed my hands in the box, more photos surfaced, some tintype and very old. My mother as a child, her brothers, and my grandparents as children. My great-grandparents. I struggled to make sense of this. Below the photos, there was a shawl- my grandmother’s. Below this, an old, battered leatherbound book with yellowed pages. I pulled this out, studying the fine penmanship. It was in English, amazingly, but I could not tell what it was at first.

It appeared to be some sort of journal, although I couldn’t say for sure. It was dated sometime in the 1940’s, a decade before the time my grandparents were wed. After careful searching through the print, I realized that this was my grandfather’s journal. Hibi, as my grandmother playfully called him, was a mystery to me. I looked back at the wedding photo, marveling at how much older he had been than she. My mother had told me that he died 13 years later, of a heart attack, although I found out later from a cousin that he actually died of alcohol poisoning.

The yellowed pages cracked, some of the edges falling away as I turned them delicately; Each in exotic penmanship, somehow characterized in indentations and afflictions similar to my own in some strange way. The dates were haphazardly disjointed, as if he would randomly pick a page and start writing. The first entry was a simple reflection on his childhood and his first day in college.

“June 12th.  Father gave me this journal, so I suppose I better put it to good use. Ashora and I are to be married in a week and I am nervous. I know so very little of the world and I fear a great deal. My parents told me it is simply my fears that will disable me and that I must overcome them. I began courses today at the Bengali Institute of Human Science to study medicine. I was an artist when I was a youth, so it strikes me as an oddity that I am to be doing such mundane tasks. My sisters are all married now, one to a rich doctor in the city, and I like the idea of having a bigger house for my family. My first class was a biology course in which we discussed the innards of a dog. It disgusted most of my classmates but I honestly found it fascinating. I am not really sure what I should be writing in here, so I will write as things surface into my mind, I suppose. I am meeting Ashora for the first time tomorrow. I hope she is as nervous as I am…”

Ashora? I had always assumed Kaja was his first wife. Of course, I was losing interest overall, despite the visual of dissecting the “innards” of a dog. This guy’s journal made him sound like a total tool. What was the point in sending me this? It was cool, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t grasp the meaning behind it. I was still in sell-out mode, anyway; still stuck in this maelstrom of confusion about a stupid girl that I didn’t even think I cared about until she was out of my reach. Typical behavior for me as of late, I’ve noticed.  I’ve been accused of being overly emotional at times, but this jealousy crap has never been my strong point either.