Lying Upon a Bed of Nails

I tend not to dream and I awaken
long before the alarm does.
The music I don’t wish to hear
again plays and there
you stand smiling above me.
My subconscious pulls the covers
off me, leaving me awash
in thoughts into which I’d prefer
not to wade. They often
keep me awake on the other side
of each night’s ford across
the river to tomorrow.
They pull me out and wrap me
in a different kind of blanket,
one of your knitting and my
weak attempts at rending.
It’s not that I don’t wish
to surround myself with those
soft thoughts of impossibility.
I’d prefer their comfort as I stare
at the ceiling from this bed of nails
I built and continue to lie upon.
Just like I’m lying awake again.
Lying alone. Lying here. Lying now.
Lying to you. Lying to myself…
Supine upon every lie I drove.

Up in the Air

Her foot slipped and she started to fall.

Silhouetted against the late afternoon sun, I saw the figure of a girl drop to the pool from the high board.  She hit the water awkwardly with a terrific splash that made me wince.

I did not join the cluster of youngsters at poolside who laughed at her ugly spill.  In fact, I rose from my poolside lounge chair and took a step toward the pool to see if she was okay.  But then I sat back, not quite on the edge of my seat, but nervously nonetheless.  Even on such a hot July Fourth afternoon, I always shivered at the thought of climbing the fifteen rungs to the top of the high board.

The girl swam to the edge of the pool’s diving area and, with what looked like a move as natural as a dolphin’s, kicked up from the water, pulled on the deck edge and twisted into a seated position facing the water.  She sat there for a few seconds and then – not as smoothly as when she was waterborne – climbed to her feet and limped away from the pool directly toward me.  As she approached, I saw she was tall, fair, wearing a two-piece swimsuit and a red welt that spread from outside her right knee, up her torso to her shoulder.  I also noticed her eyes were staring vacantly right through me.

The girl – she was probably eighteen or nineteen – stopped at the lounge chair directly next to mine and reached down for her towel.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Startled, she looked up, straightened and wobbled a bit, her blue eyes wide and suddenly more focused.

“Oh, you scared me.  I didn’t see you sitting there,” she said.

“Sorry, I was just a bit concerned because you took such an awkward fall.”  I couldn’t help but stare at the ever more reddening stain against her skin.

“Eh, it happens,” she replied, shaking the water from her short strawberry blond hair.  At that, the woman teetered a bit and plopped down on her chair.

“Whoo, must’ve hit the water a little harder than I thought,” she grinned.

“Forgive me, but how the hell can you be so nonchalant about what just happened?” I said.  “That thing, that diving board, all high things, scare me to death.  And what just happened to you is one of the reasons they scare me.”

“Oh, I’ve been jumping off the high board since I was eight or nine.  Never really bothered me, but some little shit behind me jumped on his end of the board as was making my approach and my foot slipped.  Tell you what, though, that water stings like hell.”

“I’m sorry, I’m Bill, Bill Thompson,” I said, extending my sunblock-greased hand.

“Hi,” she replied, “I’m Paula.  The hand she extended was wet, sort of mushy, its fingers pruned from their time spent in the pool.

“Can I get you something?  For the dizziness, I mean.  A bottle of water maybe?”

“No, I think I’ll be okay if I just sit here for a few minutes.  Besides, I think I may have just swallowed about a pint of water.  I know I have at least that much in my ears.”  Paula tipped her head down to the left and gently shook it, attempting to drain that ear.

“Ow,” she said and leaned back in the lounge chair.  “Well, that’s one of ‘em.  But I think I’ll wait a few more minutes for everything to stop rocking in front of me before I try the right ear.”

Then she giggled, the lilting laugh of a teenager, maybe even a ‘tween, I thought.  I was surprised by the sound of her laugh, something like human wind chimes, I thought.

“You’re sure you’re gonna be alright then?” I said.

“Oh sure, soon as I feel a little sturdier on my feet, I’ll climb right back up there.  I’ve got no other reason to be here at the park than that pool.”

“You’re not here to see the fireworks tonight?”

“No, I don’t like fireworks.  They make me real nervous.  That’s made for some lonely July Fourths, but I still have a good time flying off the board.  Instead of flying up and exploding, I fly down and splash.  I’m my own sort of firework, I guess.”

“I really admire you in being able to climb back up there,” I said.  “When I was about five my Dad took up me up with him to the top of a diving board just like this.  Then he chucked me off when I wouldn’t jump like he told me to.”

“How terrible,” Paula said, her eyes fully focused for the first time since she got out of the pool.

“Mom thought so, too.  But that’s how my Dad was, Mr. Throw-‘em-in-the-deep-end.  Sometimes it was for the better, said it would make a man out of me.  Other times…”

I shrugged.  “I still have a thing about heights.  You say that you have lonely July Fourths because of your thing with fireworks; I’m that way about skyscrapers, open elevators, airplanes.  That’s why the first spring break I ever went to was last year.  My junior year – that’s of college, Paula.  And I had to drive to Florida the whole way by myself.  Won’t fly.  Nope, can’t do it. Oh, I’ve tried to fight it, but I always get to the top and chicken out.”

“Well,” Paula said, “I can understand how you can be afraid of certain things.  With me and the fireworks, I guess it’s the noise.  I just can’t take the booming.  You should see me during thunderstorms.  I beat my dog to the spot under the bed every time.”

More chiming giggles.

“You’re very nice,” she said.  “Thanks.  Are you here by yourself, too?”

“Yeah, gonna try to work the tan, splash around, maybe meet some friends later for the fireworks show.”

“Oh, the boomers.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Well let’s see, it’s sixish now, so you’ve got awhile before dusk.  That means I’ve got that long to get back to the pool before I head for home.”

“Paula,” I said, simultaneous with her blurting, “So, Bill.”

“Go ahead,” she said.

“What if I could find a way for you not to be afraid of the noise?  Would you stay and watch the fireworks with me?”

Paula frowned for a second.  Then her faintly freckled face opened up into a grin.

“How are you going to manage that?” she said.

“Um, well, I have an idea.  C’mon, what do you say?”

Paula’s expression changed to something like that of a kid taking a test, leaning toward False, but nagged by the tiny possibility of True.  She looked down, right, left, right, like her mind was searching for an Exit sign.

“C’mon, the colors are so pretty in person. TV can’t do them justice.  Sometimes they actually make pictures against the sky.  They sparkle and then they sink down like somebody drew a picture in colored chalk on a blackboard and then threw some water on it.”

“And this is supposed to make me want to expose myself to explosions? Pretty pictures?”

“Well, maybe not, but keep an open mind, okay?”

“Ohh-kay. But you’ve got to do something for me first.”

I felt a chill on the windless pool deck, where the flags above the pool-house looked melted to their poles by the heat.

“Let me help you get up and off that board,” Paula said. I saw a determined look on her face, but heard a voice that was soft and inviting.

“Maybe you really should go home,” I replied.

Paula giggled again.

I began searching for words, as well as a means, of escape.

“Look,” Paula said, “I started diving when I was seven and ended up diving competitively in high school and now college. I even became a platform diver. Think about doing THAT for the first time. One thing I learned is we all have fears and we all have to start low and work our way up. I’ll have you going off that high board by sundown or my name’s not Paula McDonald.”

“Well, at least I’ve accomplished finding out your full name,” I grinned.

“Then it’s a deal,” Paula said, extending her hand as if to shake on it. I reached out and she pulled me up and off my seat. She led me to one of the low boards, the one on the far side of the pool away from the audience of lounge chairs and too-close observers. However, this low board sported a tail of pushing middle-schoolers and teens.

“So, Bill, here we go,” Paula said as we took the position at the end of the swiftly moving line. “This board is just four feet or so above the water. Here’s where we’ll get your feet, umm, dry…and then wet.”

“I’ve been off a board this high before, Paula, it’s just the tall one that scares me. There, I said it, it scares me.”

“You’re allowed to be scared of something, Bill. I had a coach that told me that there’s no disgrace in being knocked down – or landing on your back. If there’s any disgrace, it’s in not getting back up.”

“Thanks, Coach Lombardi.”

“Who?”

“Never mind. Let’s get this over with.”

“Okay, I’m glad you’ve gone off this board before. We’re going to make believe it’s the Big Kahuna this time, though. We’ll do everything here we need to do to get off the high board so you’ll be prepared for later. How’s that?”

“Sure,” I moaned.

“Right, now take your time, try to enjoy the experience,” Paula said. “Remember, for a second after you jump up from the board, you’ll be feeling nothing, just air. It’s this of feeling and hearing nothing that you’ll experience until you feel and hear your entry into the water. That’ll be your explosion, but instead of fireworks, it’ll be, um, well, waterworks. Then, underwater, it’s quiet again. It’s lovely.”

“Yeah, lovely.”

“Remember, Bill, this was sort of your idea, right? Do what I do. I’ll swim to the side and watch. Okay, we’re up in a couple more kids. What I want you to do is walk to the end of the board and feel it sink and bounce a bit. Go with it. Use the bounce to get your butt in the air, out and over the water. Wherever your center of gravity goes, you’re going, too. When you bounce up, jump forward and upwards, stretching your arms out in front of you. Oh, and you don’t really have to look if you don’t want to.”

Paula stepped up to the board and slowly strode to its end, her body matched the sink and rise of the board, just as easily as she was striding across the pool deck. On her last step, the board went down and rose. She coiled her body and then exploded up, out and down into the water, carving a languorous arc above the water to a near-splashless entry into the pool.

She swam to the near side of the pool and looked back at me, a smile of accomplishment, joy, support, something, on her face. I was holding onto the rails on each side of the board. Shoulders tucked tight to my ears, I marched to the end of the board, mistimed the bounce and flipped ass-over-teakettle, splat, onto the water’s surface. For a second, I considered not coming up from underwater, but I broke the surface and swam to the ladder at poolside, where Paula was waiting.

“I think this will take awhile,” she said. “But remember coach’s mantra.”

“Yeah, I tried staying down, but it didn’t work.”

She giggled that giggle again and said, “Let’s go, Bill. It’s still just six thirty.”

For the next hour and a half Paula and I worked on the side and jumped off the low board. After a few mechanically solid dives, she told me that I was ready to fly.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“C’mon, Bill. What more do I have to do to get you up there?”

I had to admit, she had gone way beyond her part of the deal. While I stood in line about a half-hour before, I thought of a way for Paula to deal with the fireworks. I was as sure in my plan as she was in hers to help me fly. Except I was sure my plan would work. Her plan, I decided, was painfully flawed. I was the flawed part of the plan.

Stall, William.

“Okay, okay, but tell me one thing,” I said, digging my bare feet into the concrete pool deck as she pulled me toward the ladder to the high board. “Why are you so afraid of the loud sounds. You don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

She stopped, let go of my arm and stared at me. Hard. Then she took a step back.

“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Paula said and took another couple of steps toward her towel on the lounge chair.

“Paula,” I called after her. “I’m sorry. If I’m going to do this – IF – I just can’t do this without you. I promise I’ll get up there. Just don’t be upset with me. Please?”

Paula spun and coldly looked at me. “If you must know, I was in a traffic accident, okay? Late night. After a meet. Okay? Need to know more, Bill? How about this? It was icy. Tractor-trailer jack-knifed on the highway ahead of a line of traffic. My coach tried to stop, just like all the other cars. We spun, and then all the other cars started hitting one another, bang, bang, bang, bang, BANG. Three teammates and the coach were killed, four others severely injured. Me, not a scratch. That enough to get you going, Bill?”

I felt a chill that was immediately melted by a blast of heated embarrassment from my chest to my forehead.

“God, Paula, I’m so sorry,” I said, reaching for her arm.

She twisted from my grasp.

“Look, I like you. You’re cute, you’ve got kind eyes, and you helped me when everyone else thought I was some kind of klutz. You didn’t know me – obviously. But you wanted to make sure I was okay. And I don’t think you were doing it just to hit on me. Not that I wouldn’t have let you, you little jerk. But right now I feel like I just wasted a day, in more ways than one, and if you don’t climb that damn ladder and jump off that freaking board, I’m out of here, deal or not.”

What could I do? I mean really? I turned around, walked to the bottom of the ladder, where there were only three divers still diving in the five minutes left before the pool was going to close.

I took one step up, felt the water dripping off the guy above me on the ladder. I looked over at Paula. She was wrapping herself in her towel and putting on her flip-flops.

More steps up. The guy in front of me had reached the top and was standing on the near end of the board while another diver bounced and flew out and down into the water. Paula was stuffing things into her tote bag. She hadn’t looked one time at me.

I pulled myself to the rear edge of the board and stood there, looking out at the whole pool deck, the roof of the pool house, and the orangey-blond top of Paula’s head, which was turned toward the women’s entrance to the locker-room.

The guy ahead of me bounced on the end of the board twice, sending it deeply below where I was standing, so all I could see was his body from the shoulders up. And then, when the board came back up, he would bounce maybe two feet above it and land back on the sandpaper-like end again. He was getting his timing right or just showing off, I guess.

Then he just took off. Beautiful. Yeah, I’ll say it. Like a bird.

And there I was, just as the lifeguard sounded his claxon horn and yelled into his bullhorn that the pool was closing.

“C’mon, pal, last dive,” he said to me.

I looked behind me and there was no one on the ladder. I could easily just climb down. Nobody would have to skinny to the side of the ladder or climb off to let me pass. It wouldn’t be like that time in high school. The last time I tried to dive off the high board. The laughs and remarks were about as big an embarrassment as any I ever felt. Until five minutes before I arrived at the top of the ladder.

I walked toward the end of the board and it really felt just like the low board. Only thing different was that the drop-off on either side was about three times as high. It looked like thirty times to me.

I looked over at Paula and she was about five steps from the locker room door. And then she turned around and looked at me. She took off her sunglasses and looked at me. And her face had a sadness about it. I took a breath, bounced once and lost my balance for a second, but recovered. My heart was beating so hard I knew everyone could hear it above the silence on the pool deck.

“Tonight, buddy, while we’re still young,” the lifeguard boomed. “Now or never.”

I chose never. I turned around and took a step toward the ladder. I saw Paula’s shoulders slump and she turned back to the locker room.

And then I slipped and fell.

She was right. There is this feeling of silence, of nothing, not even the wind. And then there’s the noise of hitting the water, followed by the quiet again. She was so right.

She was also right about it stinging like hell.

I came to the surface just as the lifeguard was climbing off his tower and trotting down to see if I was okay. I’m sure he would have a tough time explaining how the only person in the pool ended up drowned at closing time.

I put my head down and swam for the wall behind me, under the board. That’s when I saw Paula.

“Bill, are you all right?” she asked, her face showing what looked like genuine concern.

I walked right by her, grabbed the handle on the ladder and started climbing.

“Hey, buddy, c’mon, let’s go. Haven’t you suffered enough?”

The disgrace is in not getting back up, I heard in my head. Yeah, I’d suffered enough. I was determined to suffer no more –- no more disgrace, at least –- today.

“Bill, it’s okay,” I heard Paula say below me.

I got to the top and just jumped off, head-first. I didn’t hesitate and I’m sure I looked like a complete spazz, but I did it — on my terms — just to prove that I could.

But never again.

Later that night, on a blanket over the hood of my car, I looked at Paula’s face glowing red, then green, then yellow in the reflected glare of each aerial bomb. Mostly, though, her face just glowed.

“Bill,” she yelled above the sound of the third movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony blasting in the headphones on her ears, “it really is very beautiful.”

I had to admit she was right, as I laid back and looked up, almost forgetting my near-failure. I couldn’t shake the idea of the sky as the water’s surface, splashing in a splatter of fire.

A big aerial bomb exploded in a garish flare of pyrotechnic elation. Even I was a little startled this time. It wasn’t the boom of the fireworks, though. It was the touch of Paula’s hand suddenly holding mine.

Yet another flash of colored light split the sky, the biggest yet, as before, it was followed by a second of silence, and then the boom reached me. It was the sound that hit me and it was the concussion of the explosion that washed over Paula. It startled her a bit and she squeezed my hand.

This shocked me. But just for a second.

Then I squeezed back.

So, I thought. Flying.

I found that first sentence somewhere and it intrigued me. The rest of the story just spread like the rings of ripples growing from someone hitting the water from sixteen feet above the surface.  

Hopeless

He said it may not always
have been so hopeless,
though hopeless is what
it always became.
The timing wasn’t right,
or maybe it was the light
he never saw shining from
her standing before him.
He went his way, or
she went hers, and
they ended up estranged
in their own strange ways.
When I asked why, he shook
his head and sighed,
their ships having sailed,
even passing in the night,
when he often thinks of her
and she, once, of him.
He tosses his way saying “It’s…”
She turns hers, with, “He’s…”
Each punctuating their
exclamations with
“Hopeless.”

Never Forget Your First

Remember your first kiss?

“So what was it like? Your first kiss, I mean,” Liz said, figuring she might even know who first pressed her lips against mine and I reciprocated.

Where do women come up with these questions? Why she was so inquisitive about such a ancient history was lost on me. I sure as hell didn’t wish to know who she locked retainers with back in her training bra days.

“Well? Can’t you even remember, Erik?” she said, incredulous that I may have forgotten such a major milestone in my emotional, psychological and sexual education like another lost bit of high school I absent-mindedly tossed on that pile of Pythagorean theories, amo-amas-amat’s, and names of all the noble gases.

“Really, I don’t remember much about it other than it being another dance to hang out at…just softer and smelling better,” I said with a chuckle. Which I soon regretted.

“You’re either closer to a forgetful Alzheimer’s diagnosis than even I thought, or one cold son of a bitch,” Liz said like she was a helium-filled balloon shrinking and sinking to the floor right there in front of icy old me.

“Give me a minute and I promise I’ll let you know all about it,” I said, trying to buy some time to actually remember or at least come up with a plausible story.

So she went to the kitchen, busying herself with fetching me another beer. After all, I was rummaging back into my cluttered closet of a memory to bring forth the mother lode of her need to connect on some level she could tap and understand.

She came back into the room and quietly set a glass of beer on a coaster on the side table. She then curled herself up next to me on the sofa in that way girls do—legs and feet beneath their bottoms like nesting cranes—wrapped the Mexican striped throw around her shoulders and smiled a softly expectant smile at me. Its message was plain: “I’m waiting!”

“I regret that my porous old memory cannot recall every aspect, facet and emotion of that night. I’m not even sure who she was. Rosemary? Barbara? Definitely not Mary Grace. Though, boy, do I wish.”

“Ahem, stick to the knitting, Erik.”

“Okay, I see brown eyes shining up at me, sparkling like polished mahogany in the moonlight, or street light or maybe porch light.”

“That’s a good pull after that clumsy start, Romeo.”

“Yeah, well…I can still feel that cold stab of fear, tempered by hot blasts of potential embarrassment at the very real possibility of  screwing this up and setting my life on a path of remaining forever the untouched one. Obviously, I’ve gotten over that hurdle.”

“The night is young, Erik. Touching will be optional. Go on,” she said, her eyes softening a bit from their clinical observation of my amoebic squirming in the upholstered Petri dish next to her.

“Girls, yourself included, I’m sure, think about this moment, dream about it, worry about it, from an early age. Am I right?” I said, trying to absorb something of what she was feeling. You know, like I was a girl.

“Did you practice, perhaps pressing your lips to a mouth made of your thumb and index finger, there in your pink and sky blue-appointed, single-bed sanctum sanctorum?” I asked.

“Of course not,” Liz said. But the red rising from beneath the throw, up her neck and glowing like hot coals on her cheeks told me otherwise.

“A guy can’t think that far ahead, would never give that first kiss a dry-run. It isn’t like rehearsing his expression of insouciant cool in the steamed-up mirror behind that locked bathroom door. You figure one night it just happens.”

I could see her lean in now, her warm interest overcoming her cool displeasure.

“ Ya know, it’s uncharted, virgin, that first feeling of neo-carnal warmth a guy feels glowing off that girl, that woman, Her. The smell of her recharged perfume in the dark is heady stuff, sweaty, intoxicating, inviting.”

Liz pulled her legs from beneath her and hugged them to her chest, resting her chin on her knees.

“Then that feeling of her mouth drawing closer, warmer, tropical, her breath sharing mine, mine with hers. My shaking hand on the small of her back, hers rising to slide within my black hair bristling like a porcupine’s quills at the back of my neck.

“Then you simply fall into that wet, warm pool of flesh, that doorway to the pounding trip-hammer heart, the unknown, the soon-enough revealed. After that, the fall becomes a climb and dive from the high board. Then another. Then…”

“You’re not playing me, are you, Erik?” Liz said. “I mean, is this really how you felt?”

“Oh, yeah. I can still feel it. Walking away, whistling my quiet, night-time whistle through the ivied posh, the ever-freshly painted not-so and my own not-very neighborhoods home, my left hand touching my flushed cheek, my lips that tasted of strawberry lip gloss, the smell of her perfume still on my fingers, Charlie I think it was,” I said, looking deeply into Liz’s brown eyes.

“Wow, Erik, that’s more than I ever expected,” she said, cuddling up close to me, putting her sandy-haired head on my shoulder.

“But that’s all I remember,” I said.

“You jerk,” she said. “I’ll bet it wasn’t this memorable.”

And then she gave me a warm, wet kiss full of promise, momentous and unforgettable. And I felt that spin and drop like I hadn’t felt since that first time.

Only rated NC-17.

For Day 22 of my Story-a-Day challenge, I was encouraged to make my prose as purple as I liked, in a quest to find out how much description I really need. We’ll, as a poet in the other side of my other literary life, I tend to throw the schmaltz around pretty liberally.  If you don’t think so, just take a look at the previous to poems I posted. I’m not sure I took a deep dive into it in my story, but I hope there’s enough gooey description in here to satisfy.

And All the Light Within

Night keeps all your heart …” ~ Claus Terhoeven

I surrendered myself to the darkness
when you turned out the lights,
a willing body and benighted soul
wishing to follow your luminescent lead.
But the heart doesn’t need light,
is a blind thing stumbling over the shadows
of other hearts that hide in still others’ shadows.
In the darkened room you offered your body
but not your heart. While mine, tenuously tethered,
I offered to you. But it shattered, its pieces
falling away, chasing echoes of all
my dreams that fell before it.
Now the darkness fills where once a heart
beat for you, lost to your honest duplicity.
You were the daylight of my life and turned
to a thief in darkest night who stole
my heart and never gave it back, for night
hates penumbral half-measures. Night rolls over
and keeps all your heart and all its light within.

A quick “welcome back” write for Annie Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines challenge. I wanted to write a story, and probably will later, but I’m tapped out. You’ll have to put up with this fifteen-minute first draft poem until then.

What the River Says, That Is What I Say

A deer walks across the Hudson River north of the 112th Street Bridge near Cohoes

On that Sunday afternoon, Ashley and Sam strolled along the riverside walkway. It was he first day above freezing in a week and the Hudson stretched like a white highway of ice from Cohoes to Poughkeepsie.

“I bet you could skate all the way downriver for maybe a hundred miles on this stuff. It’s gotta be at least a foot or more thick,” Ashley said.

“Yeah, that’d be pretty cool. If you knew how to skate. You’d either punk out by Rensselaer or break your ankle in the first hundred yards,” Sam said.

“I was just thinking out loud, Sam. That’s all.”

“Why do you do that?” Sam asked.

“What?”

“Think out loud. Do you believe people really want to hear what another person thinks?”

“I…I don’t know. I was just talking to myself, I guess. Sorry if it disturbs you so much,” Ashley said, as looked out toward the river and saw nothing, but heard the voices again.

“It doesn’t disturb me, it’s just annoying sometimes. ‘Oh, Sam, wouldn’t it be great if we could skate downriver? Oh, Sam, it’d be wonderful to go back in time and see what it was like here three hundred years ago. Oh, Sam, I hope our grandchildren will have a safer world to live in then we do now.’ You’re always dreaming, Ashley. Time to wake up and see the world for what it is, cold and heartless and only too willing to stomp you into dust. Can’t you see that no one cares what anybody else thinks in this world? That’s real life, Ashley. Not your little dream world,” Sam said.

“You believe that? That the world is such a dark place? That we’re all our own little islands, all alone against everything else conspiring against us?”

“I’d say that’s pretty damn close to how it is. At least they one I see every day,” Sam said.

“Not everyone is a cop and sees people at their most vulnerable, most desperate, most…”

“Violent? Animalistic? Evil? I’m out there every day protecting the sheep from the wolves and the wolves from the sheep, Ash. That’s the real world. Not the bubbles and seashells and angels you think it is.”

“Why do you do that?” Ashley said.

“Do what? Clue you in to the truth of the way of the world? How it really is survival of the fittest and we should keep our own counsel or have it thrown back in our faces?”

“That and always put down anything I have to say as being naive or stupid. I have a right to speak my mind same as you do. And you always do,” Ashley said, her voicing rising and beginning to quiver.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam said.

“I guess it means that you think you always know more than anyone else and that their opinions, their feelings, don’t matter to you.”

“Are you gonna start this again? Look Ashley, all I mean to say is that you’ve lived a sheltered life, girls’ school, private college, teacher working in your old grammar school. You’ve practically never left the womb. I can respect your decisions. That’s just who you are, a quiet, gentle, kinda naive angel who I love and want to protect from this jungle. But you’ve gotta open your eyes and poke your head out the cloister sometimes. It’s mean out here and you need to get a thicker skin, like that river ice,” Sam said as he put his ands on her shoulders.

“Cold and hard, eh? You don’t think I’ve got a tough shell?” Ashley said, pulling away.

“Now don’t be getting all emotional. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,”

Ashley turned and started walking back upriver toward the parking lot of the river walk.

“C’mon, Ash, its been a tough week for me. I had to go into too many dark places full of dark beasts. Eddie Barnes got shot and I got my ass chewed by my watch commander because I was doing my job two blocks away when it happened. Like I’m supposed to be everywhere, maybe even to take a bullet for someone else. I should’ve kept my mouth shut,” Sam said.

“You mean be hard like that river ice?”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“Not tell me that you’re hurting so I can understand and not just think you’re angry at me because I become the target of your anger?”

“Aw, c’mon, you know I’d never…”

“I think we need some time off, Sam. Maybe it’s time you sat back and thought about what’s going on inside of you and how it affects everyone else you come in contact with, especially me,” Ashley said over her shoulder.

“Have I hurt you? No. I just…I don’t know maybe blow off steam and you’re close to me when I do it.”

“Then I won’t be so close maybe,” she said, picking up her pace.

Sam rushed to her side and took her shoulder, spinning her to face him.

“Are you breaking up with me?” he said.

“Break up? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting harder, like that ice, a thicker skin. Isn’t that what you said I needed?”

“I was just…”

“Just because I’m quiet doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on. Doesn’t mean you haven’t hurt me, that I don’t feel or I’m not moved to anger or tears, or the joy I feel when you’re merely nice to me. If I’m quiet on the outside it doesn’t mean I can’t be a tiger or a landslide or a bomb on the inside. Some things are best kept on the inside, just so they don’t hurt others, even if they might hurt me. And sometimes, just like your angry pronouncements, they find their way out of me.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean, Ashley?” Sam said.

“It means, just like that river out there, underneath this gentle shell that you’ve calloused and scarred, I’m moving, thinking, loving, hating, understanding, confused, but always moving. Not standing there like some frozen little statue for you to curse or cuddle at your whim. Underneath, I’m moving. All the time.”

She pulled away and dialed her girlfriend, Jen.

“I’m ready now,” she said, as Sue’s car pulled from a parking slot in the lot ahead and pulled up by the beginning of the river walk.

“Ashley, c’mon. Don’t be like this. I’m sorry. I just didn’t understand. Not if you don’t tell me,” Sam half-shouted at her back as she reached for Jen’s car door.

“I did, Sam. But all you ever think to see of me and everyone else is the outside shell and never think that there’s a river running all the time just beneath it,” Ashley said to the cold wind blowing off the ice. The ice she would always dream of skating on for a hundred miles as the river ran with her.

For Day 12 of my May Story-a-Day challenge I responded to a prompt from writer and editor Elise Howard, who asked me to select a poem that resonates with me, and let it inspire me as you write my next short story! If you’ve read my work for any length of time, you’ll remember how my favorite poet is William Stafford and how among my favorites of his is “Ask Me.” With little time and no energy, I sat down and rapped out this piece with that subtle yet more-beneath-the-surface poem in mind. Here’s, that poem:

Ask Me by William Stafford
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

The Lie Behind the Secret, The Secret Behind the Lie

She waited a week before revealing the secret.

Liz sat me down in the living room to tell me. I could see she had something going on, though. Distracted, quiet, even moody. I’d asked several times before she finally told me.

“Oh, I’m just tired’s all,” she’d say. Or, “Nothing. Everything’s fine. Do you want there to be something wrong?” Eventually, after a week of this, I just stopped noticing, at least with any intent.

That’s when she dropped the bomb.

“I’m leaving here,” she said.

Not, “I’m leaving you,” but, “I’m leaving here.”

“Liz, what’s going on? I’ve noticed something’s wrong for over a week, and now, ‘I’m leaving here’?” I said, not sure if I should lean in or rock back like I would if punched in the face, which is what this felt like.

“I, I can’t do this anymore. It’s all too much,” she said. She couldn’t look me in the eye, but I could see hers darting about the room as if looking for some means of escape other than through me.

“Can’t do what? What’s too much?”

“This, here, everything.”

“Us?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it’s…”

Her phone rang with a ringtone I’d not heard before. She took a quick glance, rolled her eyes to the ceiling and took a deep breath.

“I’ve got to take this. I’ll be right back,” she said. She got up from the chair and moved one room away into the kitchen.

My mind raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. But even through all the questions ringing in my mind, I could hear her whisper from the kitchen.

“No, not yet… No. I’m trying, but it’s hard… You don’t understand… I told you not to call… I’ll call you when I’m done… No.” Then a muffled something that sounded to me like, “Love you.”

I got up from my chair and walked toward the kitchen, where Liz quickly whispered, “I’ll call you later,” and cut off her call.

“Okay, Liz, what the hell’s going on? The detached behavior for the past two weeks, telling me you’re leaving, the secret phone calls? If you’ve got a beef with me, at least have the decency, the balls, to tell me straight up. There’s nothing you can’t tell me, okay? We’ve been through too much to keep secrets from one another, especially something as obviously disturbing as whatever’s on your mind,” I said.

She wandered over to the coffee maker and poured herself a second cup. Black. And if Miss Sweetness and Light was going to drink her coffee straight, I knew I’d better brace myself.

“Please sit down, JJ,” she said, pointing to the kitchen table. With the shuffle of chair legs on the tile floor, we each settled into seats on the opposite side of the old wooden table we bought at a flea market when Liz and I moved in together.

She looked at her refection amid the steam on the ebony surface of her coffee and took a deep breath, which caught in her throat.

“There’s this man, I met,” she said.

Finally, I knew what was coming.

“I found him online and we’ve been talking to each other for a month at night while you’re sleeping or engrossed in some TV show,” she said, which felt like a backhand to my reddening cheeks.

“A man? You’re leaving me for some man you met only a month ago?” I said a little too loudly. Now I felt like throwing a backhand.

She stared into her mug some more and looked like the steam had condensed in her eyes and was dripping down her cheeks. If she ever left me, I felt sure it would be for another woman. After all, she’d left her boyfriend two years ago to be with me and I was anything but a man.

I got up from my chair, it’s legs squealing in protest to my sudden explosion of energy I’d been tamping down since Liz began her harried silent treatment.

“Fine,” I said. “Go. I guess I never expected a pretty girl lie you could stay with troll like me forever anyway. But never for a man, even if you are bi.”

“Stop it, JJ,” she shouted. “I’m not leaving you for another man. I’m not leaving YOU. I’m leaving here to finally meet my father, you idiot. But if that’s the way you really feel about me, then maybe I should.”

Her anger had brought the color back to her soft white cheeks. The skin I’d come to adore. I was hurt, but once again, I’d hurt her worse.

“I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure. I’ve been living without a father my whole life. It left me feeling rejected. You know how my analyst says that’s why I always ended up with what she thought were father figures. She even included you in that group,” she said.

“Well how about that?” I said. I’d never been the most feminine woman, but I was far from anybody’s even desperate surrogate for a runaway father. My turn to roll my eyes.

“JJ, I love you. But I have to see what it’s like to have a father, see what Kevin’s all about. He says he never wanted to leave me, but Mother, the domineering bitch, chased him off with her lawyer brother and threats from her family. I’ve been searching all my life for the truth. Now I may have found it. I’m sure I’ve found my father,” she said.

“You couldn’t tell me this?” I said, rather more weakly than I thought I could.

“I thought you’d ridicule me, a 30-year-old woman searching for her Daddy like I got lost in the mall.”

“No, honey, I wouldn’t. I’m sorry to hear you felt that way.”

“Well, I’m leaving Tuesday for Vancouver. That’s where he lives, Vancouver,” she gave a kind of ironic chuckle and said. “But I’ll be back, I promise. I only took a two-week leave of absence from work.”

“You couldn’t even tell me that?”

“No, I really was afraid of how you’d react. And I’m glad you seem to be taking it so well. That you understand why I have to do this.”

“Not really. Not with my history of being tossed out at sixteen by my old man when I came out. But I won’t stand in your way, even if this dude is some fraud serial killer who’ll take you away from me permanently,” I said, surprised at the catch in my voice. “But let me help you pack and take you to the airport.”

Which I did, with the teary bon voyages and long hugs and kisses you might see in the movies when Johnnie marches off to war.

A week later, I got her email saying she indeed was leaving me for another man. The father thing had been true. She had found her father in Vancouver. But the Internet affair and three-day business trips to the Pacific Northwest had been to see some guy name Bret she met out there. I shipped her things to her and that was that. She’d already packed most of her secrets and took them with her a week before.

Like I said, she waited a week before revealing her secret. It just wasn’t the week or the one I expected.

For Day 8 of my May story-a-day challenge, I had to write a story based on the first sentence of this piece, as offered by artist and writer Marta Pelrine-Bacon. Tis one came quickly, between 6:00 and 7:30 this morning.  Hope it hits the mark for some of you.