Aspiration

Posted: April 14, 2014 in Stories

Carina’s train car was air-conditioned, but her cheek would warm when she rested it on the window, and she could feel her skin pulsing softly in the sun. Occasionally she wiped the sweat and oil from the glass and looked outside.

She liked focusing on a single piece of the ground, picking it out from the blur (a rock, a crag, the occasional small plant, furry little creature or snake) and following it as it passed the cabin. She never understood how people could call the desert “empty.” Every shade stuck out to her in high contrast. It was like a box of crayons – not just “yellow” and “brown,” but rose, ochre, auburn, burnt gold, and if you looked closely, cyan and emerald.

The desert shapes spun around her like the stars in a long-exposure photograph or those hung from a mobile.

She awoke lurching forward as the train came to a stop. The small station looked like it was from an older time and she, still bleary-eyed, almost expected a masked bandit to kick in her door, take her outside, and tie her to the tracks. She imagined the kind of dress she’d be wearing; a flower pattern that would still flow elegantly as she kicked and screamed. She tasted dusty cotton until she coughed and drank some water and fully escaped sleep.

A man was on the platform just outside her window leaning against a powered-down vending machine. She scanned across the windows until their eyes met. She quickly turned and pretended to focus on the handicap ramp to the man’s right, but she could tell that the man stood staring at her from the haze at the edge of her vision. He was muscular, probably. Faceless. Even through the glass she could hear him spit.

There was a hiss. She felt the engine pull her away like a possessive lover forcing her away from her friends and onto the dance floor. She braced her neck – could feel the muscles tense and the locket on a silver chain sink between her collarbones – until the platform began to fade behind her.

She didn’t know why she did it (or did and didn’t know why she couldn’t admit it) but she craned her head back to see if the man on the platform was still there, but now the vending machine was between them and it was like he never existed at all.

She had trouble falling back asleep after that; the sun had drawn farther up into the sky and when she closed her eyes all she saw was a bright crimson. That morning, in the black-and-blue pre-dawn light, she felt the cold air grip her throat as she walked to the station. Now the warmth smothered her. If only she could sleep again. She tried tucking into a ball in her seat, but the extra pressure from folding over onto her stomach made her self-conscious and the aches compounded.

Her feet were swollen and she didn’t know why. She had been drinking bottles of water almost non-stop the past few days, but couldn’t keep them down. She wasn’t used to motion sickness. She switched to the seat across from her so that now she was facing forward because that’s all that it was – motion sickness.

With the sun on the opposite side, she was feverish. She shivered and squinted as a drop of sweat slid into her eye and forced a tear out. Her brown skin darkened on her right, and on her left, chills ran up her body like the backs of long fingernails. That sick feeling again. Something inside her.

Her hand moved to wrap its fingers around her hair – twirl it around – but grabbed nothing. Vague memories of scooping out black tufts of hair from a porcelain sink. That morning she had snipped away the jagged edges. Maybe that was why her neck felt so vulnerable and cold now.

Tomorrow, she will see him again. He will look at her hair and ask her, “Is something different” and she will say “yes.”

***

 

She’s in love with this one pair of shoes. She doesn’t have many, not compared to people she knows, but she still keeps this pair aside for only special occasions. When the bartender asks her to take them off the bar, she says, “They’re my dancing shoes.” When she stands in a circle of her friends, arms above her head, she hangs them from her fingers as she twists and sways and closes her eyes. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds them beside her purse in the bathroom and carries them home. During the mornings, she thinks how alien the spikes and sequins and patterns are in the daylight. She rushes back to her room to throw them in the dark closet and she finally slows her breathing, washes off the rest of her smeared makeup, and falls asleep alone.

 

***

 

She wore a sundress that cut off at her knees, periwinkle blue and tiny golden stars. A slight wind kicked up as she disembarked the train and she shielded her eyes from the sun and the dust and walked into the small station. Her stomach grumbled and she got blasted by air conditioning, which she couldn’t stand because she was the only person she knew who liked the feeling of sweat dripping down her back. A man told her once that she always smelled good, and she liked to believe it.

She sat on a bench and pulled an apple wrapped in tissue paper from her purse. She closed her still-tired eyes and bit into it. It didn’t crunch as she expected it to. Rather, it dissolved into a juicy, flavorless mush with a bitter skin sticking between her teeth. It didn’t matter – she was hungry. In a few minutes, she wiped her mouth with the tissue paper before wrapping it around the browning core. A black seed stuck out. She got up and threw her breakfast in the trash.

It was a small station – a ticket counter, some benches, and a kiosk with some magazines, postcards, snacks, and a man with brown skin and a mustache who gave a muffled scream into a cell phone about alimony before saying something like, “I’ll see them next week, then,” and hanging up. He picked up his newspaper and uncapped a pen and tried doing the crossword puzzle until he got frustrated with it, then flipped to the comics for a minute or two before throwing the whole section aside and started sorting candy bars.

She craved something spicy, but she knew he didn’t have anything like that so she left him alone. A digital clock over the ticket booth clicked quietly. She had hours to kill and didn’t know what to do with herself and she stood in the center of the room staring at the clock.

“Excuse me.”

She jumped and turned to face the voice, clutching her chest. A man. He smiled and lightly touched her arm and her eyes followed his fingers and he said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He laughed.

She tried to put together the words but she shivered from the nape of her neck down instead. “No, I’m sorry, I… Wait, no. Sorry. Um, hi.”

He laughed again. “Hi.” He paused, almost to make sure she didn’t run away, but she was planted. “I was wondering if you knew when the next train to the city is?”

“I don’t, sorry.”

“Okay. It’s just that you looked like you would know.”

“Why would you think that?” She sounded more nervous than she wanted to.

“I don’t know.” He was handsome, in a way. His facial scruff defined his jawline, although that may have been unintentional. It definitely was. He was dressed sloppily – his old jeans made him look heavier than he probably was, but she liked his shoes. “You were staring at the clock. I thought you might be going the same direction.” She disliked his hair, but she imagined how it must have looked when he got it cut and figured that it was handsome enough. She wondered what her own hair looked like after snuggling up on the window in the train for so long and she went to play with it before remembering that most of it was now gone. “Besides, you look like you’re from the city.”

“I do? What does that mean?”

“You’re too pretty to be from here. I’d have made sure that I knew you if you were a fellow townie.”

She laughed, but she swore she didn’t mean to.

“I’m Dave,” he said. He touched her shoulder when they shook hands.

“Carina,” she said.

“Nice to meet you, Carina. What are you doing in town?”

“I have an appointment late in the afternoon.”

“What do you plan on doing between now and then?”

“I wish you hadn’t asked me that,” she said.

“Why not?”

“I’ve been trying to keep myself from thinking about it. Now I’m convinced that time will go by slower.”

“I owe it to you to speed it up, then. Have you had breakfast yet? There’s a good place a short drive from here.” He pulled car keys from his pocket.

“What about your train?” Carina asked.

“I’ll get a later one. It’s a boring trip through a boring desert, and not one I’m looking forward to, anyway.”

Carina was thirsty. She looked at the clock, looked at Dave, then looked at her empty stomach. She knew she shouldn’t, but what else was there to do? “Coffee,” she said. “With huevos rancheros. Can we keep the windows down?”

“Whatever you want.”

 

***

 

Painkillers from the doctor at the front desk.

“Did you drive here?”

“No. A friend dropped me off.”

“Is your friend picking you up?”

“No. Call me a cab?”

“Of course. And let me give you this card. If you have any questions or concerns, you can talk to someone twenty-four seven at this number.”

“Do people call?”

“I assume so.”

“Will I be okay?”

“Aspirations are very safe procedures.”

“But will I…”

“I encourage you to call the number. Now let me get you that cab.”

The card sank into her purse, beneath a package of tissues, mints, bandages, a bottle of pills, bobby pins, pads, a tube of mascara, two condoms, an energy bar, a cell phone, and, separately, its battery. She held the bag between her thighs and spoke to no one on the train ride home. Out the window, she watched the encroaching shadows of the faraway amethyst mountains try to keep pace with the dissolving train and her body as it rocked and swayed across the barren desert floor.

Will I see you again?

She dreamt of an oasis in the desert; a place so low, so dark, that the water rests there and never evaporates, never rises, never falls, never lives beyond a fierce stillness, muffling the echoes of microscopic creatures – turquoise, devil’s horn – which spin and twist and twitch and dance around another, colliding, exploding, dying.

She dreamt about a life of little moments, sharing a cookie, blowing bubbles, the feeling of dust between her toes, a hand pulling a small leaf from her hair, and once, long ago, dancing in the corridors of a train.

 

***

 

He caught himself thousand-yard-staring at all the white prescription bags. It’s nice to know you’re not the only one. They were a part of his daily routine – hell, they were a part of his dog’s routine – but as he stood there waiting for the woman with pink eyeglasses and no sense of humor to count the pills, he couldn’t help but wonder how many pills he had left. He imagined going back and seeing himself as a child, saying, “They’ve got these tiny pills for getting old. You just have to take a lot of them.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m you, only many years from now.”

“You’re old.”

“I know.”

“What about the pills?”

“Go play.”

He thought of laughing about it with – whazzername? “Dot” on the nametag – Dot, but decided she might not find it as funny so he kept it to himself.

“Will that be all, sir?” Dot asked him as she placed his white paper bag on the counter.

Dot had curly hair that she had dyed red. Very red. “Do you have the pretzels with the cheese in ‘em?” he asked.

“Just around that aisle.”

He walked over to where Dot pointed and grabbed two bags. “I got my dog tied up outside and she loves these things,” he told her as he tossed one beside the meds. “Lucky for her, so do I,” and he dropped the other. He smiled and Dot smiled.

She asked, “What kind of dog do you have?”

“Beats me. She’s got some lab in her, maybe some beagle. Ears like a collie. Stubby tail like a schnauzer. Eats like a Rottweiler. Complete mess, this dog. A mutt if there ever was one. But I love her. We’re a good match.”

“The pretzels can’t be good for her.” Poor Dot.

“They’re not good for me either,” he said, “but she just quit cigarettes last month and she gets these cravings now. I just eat ‘em to show my support.” Dot shot him a brief look of horror and disgust. It was a good idea to have kept his mouth shut earlier. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll be dead soon enough anyway.” He was still smiling. Dot wasn’t.

“Paper or plastic?”

“Plastic, please. And can you make it two bags? These pretzels go right through her.”

Dot sighed louder than she probably wanted to, handed him his bags and his change, and told him to have a good night.

Livy was lying down next to the stop sign where he had tied her up, panting in the night’s heat. The streetlights had switched on in his absence and orange light pooled all the way up the road – pits of artificial, unending sunsets skipping across the pavement. She sat upright when he opened the bag of pretzels and her ears perked up when he crunched one in his mouth.

Last year, she would have snatched the bag out of his hands, but the tumors and the arthritis left her just sticking her pointed nose in his crotch. Sad. He dropped one in her gaping mouth and another two on the ground, and untied her as she gobbled them up.

“C’mon girl,” he said, and she hobbled beside him, trying to stay one step ahead so she would see if he dropped another salty, cheesy morsel. “Good dog,” he said as he scratched her head. When they reached the park, he sat at the bench facing the fountain and unleashed Olivia, but she stayed sitting next to him and so he fed her a few more pretzels.

None of this used to be here. The city stopped miles away and this was all dirt. He knew that because he had an uncle who lived out here on his own, just a block from where he was sitting right now, and they’d go out and shoot snakes and build fires and smile under the desert stars and all their colors, where a mother’s cry was substituted for a coyote’s.

The trees they planted here were nice, but he couldn’t see the stars anymore. He had forgotten all the constellations anyway. He closed his eyes and smelled the wind blowing through the Arabian jasmine. Liv sneezed.

Then they sat and did nothing except for listen to the fountain and the crickets and the cars they couldn’t see driving away. A sprinkler started somewhere. His breaths got deeper and his joints hurt less. But Liv let out a sharp bark that made him jump and his heart skip. He moaned loudly, “Jesus Christ, shut up! It was so nice.” The dog didn’t listen and barked again before shooting off around the fountain. Goddamn squirrels. He pushed himself off the bench and walked after her. See if she gets another pretzel bite after this.

“Liv!” he yelled out into the darkness. He saw her standing next to a bench. She turned to him and he heard a voice say, “Here.” The voice was tiny and he wasn’t exactly afraid, but it still surprised him and he said, “Who’s there?” sharper than he wanted to. He heard a sniff and a small laugh. He could see her now, sitting at the bench, petting his dog from pointed ears to stubby tail. “Carina,” she said.

He walked over to her slowly. She was hunched over and getting her face licked. His eyes were still adjusting and for moment he almost expected the dog to lap up all the shadows from the girl’s face.

“Livy,” he said. Calmer, this time.

The girl and the dog turned to him. “Hi,” she said. Liv stood and limped back to him with her head bowed. He fed her another pretzel and her tail wagged. Everything was okay.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to steal your dog from you.”

“It’s okay,” he said.

“Her name’s Livy?”

“Olivia. Only my wife called her that. Liv.”

“She’s very pretty,” she said. “Mutt?”

“Very.”

“So pretty. Purebreds get too much credit. I love your weird little ears!” She turned back to him, “I meant that in a good way.”

“No, you’re right. She’s weird. Nothing else like her,” he agreed. Liv turned back to lick Carina’s face again. “She likes the taste of your sweat, I guess. The salt.”

“I don’t mind.”

“Are you out here for a run?”

She smiled and ducked her head down and touched noses with the old dog. “Something like that,” she said. He noticed that she wore a dress and felt ashamed for asking a dumb question.

“May I sit with you?”

“Sure,” she said.

“I was asking my dog.”

Carina laughed. “You take orders from her?”

“Let me put it this way,” he said as he fell on the bench. She scooched right up against the far armrest for space. “If it was up to me, I’d be sitting on my couch at home right now. But I’m here. What does that tell you?”

Carina said nothing.

“Ah Jesus. It’s not that I don’t want to be here. I just… I dunno. I was trying to be funny. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m happy Livy’s here. And I’m happy you’re trying to be funny.”

He chuckled. “Let me know if I ever do it right.”

“I’ll do that,” she said. They watched the water pouring from the fountain and the streetlights illuminating the mist as a breeze kicked up and swirled it all around in the air. She shivered. “You promise to do the same for me?”

“Do what?”

“Let me know if I’m doing things right.”

He turned to look at her face, but she stayed staring at the fountain. “Yeah, sure,” he said.

She shivered again and sat closer to him so that their sides almost touched.

He noticed how small she was – sitting down, her head was below his shoulders. She uncrossed one of her arms to tuck her dark, uneven hair behind her ear and he saw how tiny and slender her fingers were. The ear was an almost perfect half-moon, with a hollow-sun gold hoop hanging underneath. He almost expected to look down and see her feet swinging above the ground.

She turned her head and caught him looking at her. Did she just tremble? What did she think he was going to do?

He opened the second bag. “Want a pretzel bite?” he asked.

“Can I give one to Liv?” She held out a cupped hand.

“Sure.”

She ate her bite before giving the other to the dog, who chomped it loudly before resting her weird, pretty head on the girl’s lap. Then the girl leaned her head against the old man’s arm and closed her eyes. “I’m tired,” she said.

“It’s okay,” he said. He was quiet, then he said, “Long day?” but she said nothing so he said, “That’s okay too.”

She picked up his arm and wrapped it around herself. He wanted to chuckle but was worried moving his chest too much would disturb her so he kept silent. He wanted to tell her about his uncle and living in the desert on the weekends before it was a city with fake sunsets and how the pills he takes for being old don’t stop him from being old and how nice it was to sit with someone again, but he wanted to talk about something that mattered. Finally he asked, “Do you want to hear a story?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“I had just come home from overseas. Pretty much everything I had was in this canvas duffel bag I had on my back. My parents weren’t dead, but we weren’t… well anyway. It’s hard to come back. I didn’t want to leave, if you can believe that. You don’t just stop smelling fire and rot and hot blood. I got angry smelling anything else. It felt fake – like it didn’t matter. I can still smell it, sometimes. It doesn’t leave you.”

He must have stopped talking because Carina spoke up and said, “Keep going. I’m listening. Your voice feels nice.”

“I went to an art museum. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. Thinking back on it, I just kinda woke up there. You know those memories you can’t explain? Sometimes your brain just stores away memories of things that don’t matter. Like my wife; I remember meeting her, I remember marrying her, I remember her dying. But I also remember dancing with her one night. Just the two of us in our living room. We were still young. No occasion for it. It was winter and it had gotten dark early. We were both reading, then I looked up and thought how much I loved her. So we danced. We were married for almost fifty years. But for some reason, I remember that night clearer than the rest. Not even the whole night. Just the dancing. The way she smiled when we lost the tempo. When I stepped on her toes. Not what came before or after. Just the dancing.”

Carina crossed her arms over her waist and shivered.

“Same with the museum. I don’t remember how I got there, what I did when I was done, or how long I was there for. I just remember this one fountain they had on display. White marble. There was this woman bathing, wringing her hair dry. I’d never seen anything like it. From the tip of her hair, water dripped out. Slow. You could see it well up until it couldn’t hang on anymore and then drip… drip. I just stared at it. And there was this little baby wrapped behind her back, holding out its hands from under her arm and it caught the water. It was like I missed the waterfall or fountain or whatever she was just under – like it was there right before I came in and then moved on. This moment that was perfect… that was it. I remember the whole thing.

“And that’s what I’m thinking about sitting here with you and this fountain and my dying dog.”

“I hate this place,” Carina said.

“The park?”

“Everything except the park. Maybe the park, too. It’s grey and tan everywhere in this town but when I’m here I can close my eyes and pretend that I’m someplace far away. I just wish that this place was real.”

He closed his eyes, too. “I was out here before the city sprawl,” he said. “It was all desert. At least now there’s some water. It wasn’t always here, but we have it now. I like the park.” He opened his eyes. “But I miss the desert, too.”

Carina sobbed and wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face in his chest. “I fucked up. I fucked up, I fucked up, I fucked up.”

“Shhh…”

“I don’t know what to do.” Her tears fell on his shirt. “I feel empty. I… I can’t be a mom, though. Jesus, I’m still a kid. I didn’t wanna… I had to do it. Oh God. I…” and she cried softly, repeating, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Liv whimpered. It wasn’t supposed to be like this with strangers. He wanted to help but didn’t know how. Why did he want to help?

“Carina. Carina, look at me.” She turned her head up. Her eyes glistened and he wiped her cheeks with his thumb. “It’s okay.”

“It hurts.”

“I know. That doesn’t go away. But the emptiness does. You did it right.” She got quieter. “I know that doesn’t help much, but it’s true. You did it right.” He held her close and it felt like she was getting smaller and smaller in his arms. “I’m here. I’m with you.”

Neither one said anything, but he felt her calm down and he straightened out her mangled hair. “You want another pretzel bite?”

She laughed. Loudly. It stretched out past the pavement and the planted trees and out to the faraway desert. “Yes.” He gave her two and she fed the other to the dog. The girl sat up. They both watched the fountain. An ambulance’s siren softly arose and died out in the distance. A plane overhead looked like a shooting star. “Take off your shoes.”

“What?”

“Take them off. Come on,” she said as she stood up and started pulling him by the hand. “Come on, come on!” He felt like an eight-year-old in love and her hand in his was everything. He followed and came with her to the edge of the fountain where he rolled up the legs of his pants, she hiked up her skirt and they waded together. Carina looked up at the full sky and she smiled.

Comments
  1. Jessica Philange says:

    Love all of your stories, especially the Breakfast one. Keep writing them please my cousin and I love to sit down and wallow in the complexity of Your words.

  2. Madison Philange says:

    I read you’re a red head and I couldn’t control myself. I got a thing for gingers with skillful fingers. A read head that can write is so hot. Write more please I can’t even wait any longer. My cousin Jessica and I are obsessed.

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