If, p.6

If, page 6

 

If
 



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  My gut rotated about 180 degrees looking at the basket, wondering what the total might be. But everything felt important and I didn’t want to put anything back.

  “What’s the return policy? Let’s say he doesn’t like something.” It was more along the lines of let’s say I never see him again.

  “30 days, unopened, with receipt.”

  I took a deep breath and followed him to the counter.

  “One hundred, seventy-three dollars, and thirty-one cents. You saved sixty-two dollars today with the sale.”

  Actually, no, I hadn’t saved anything. This was a one-hundred percent impulse buy. An impulse I could barely afford. But it felt like the right thing to do and so I handed over my debit card, and said a little prayer that the tip gods would bless me this week for my generosity.

  BIRD

  I wrestled several bags and an easel tucked under my armpit into the dance studio.

  And five, six, seven, eight. And one, two, three, four . . .

  I watched as a pale, lithe brunette was thrust into the air by a limber man. I wished I could be in the show, but the cast had long been chosen by the time Jordan got the gig. Jordan was the replacement for the initial choreographer who had left abruptly for another gig.

  I tried to be discreet, but my bags crumpled, and the wood handles of the brushes clapped inside of their bag. Jordan spun around and waved me over.

  “Okay, we’re going to break for forty-five minutes for dinner, and then everyone be ready, on time!”

  “Help,” I begged as Jordan slid some bags off my arms.

  “What in the lord’s name is all this shit?” he asked.

  “I got it for Ash.”

  “Ash? Have you even seen him since Thanksgiving?”

  “No, but he told me he liked to paint and I thought this would be a nice thank-you.”

  “And where is he going to put all of this? In his apartment?”

  I had thought about that. And I figured I could just hold the stuff for him and he could grab it when he needed it.

  “Oh whatever, he’ll find a way. And if not, I’ll return it.”

  Jordan looked at me suspiciously.

  “What?” I asked, defensively. I was a little ornery from carrying all the stuff.

  “I’m not gonna say what I think,” Jordan said, rolling his neck and pushing his fashionable thick-rimmed glasses up the bridge of his nose.

  “Oh don’t even go there,” I sneered.

  “Listen, he’s homeless and probably fucked up beyond measure, but I’m not blind and I know you aren’t either.”

  “Please don’t talk to me like I’m a child when I am only five years younger than you,” I said, passing him his bag-o-food.

  “Thank you,” he said, snatching it. “Well, he’s nice. Well-spoken. Don’t tell me you aren’t intrigued.”

  “I want to help him because he saved me from the worst thing that could happen to a woman. That’s all. He’s homeless for Christ sakes! I think my judgment is a little better than you are giving me credit for,” I whispered angrily.

  “Okay, okay, my bad. And I am not one to judge. I mean if you had seen the track record of guys I have hooked up with . . . but in all seriousness, be careful. If he is coming over, make sure I’m next door. Tell me so I can check in. I know you want to be his friend, and that generosity of spirit is what I love about you, but there is still so much we don’t know. The streets are fucked up. And if he’s out there, that means he’s fucked up too, no matter how put-together he may seem.”

  “I’m not naive. I understand, but I just want to help him. I feel like I owe him. And I will, of course, be cautious. Trust me, trying to help this guy has been like pulling teeth, so I doubt he’ll even come get the stuff.”

  “I think he wants your help, he’s just proud or something.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “He showed up on Thanksgiving, didn’t he?”

  Jordan was right. But it puzzled me more than anything. If I want someone to be a friend, I talk to the person. If I need help, I swallow my pride and lean on a friend. But why was Ash so standoffish if he really did want my help?

  “Anyway,” Jordan said, biting into a piece of chicken, “I am curious to see if he’s any good.”

  ASH

  TOO MUCH OF a good thing.

  That’s what she was. I exist in a world of extremes, and I have to stay even. I couldn’t allow myself to go where she takes me.

  When we sat over Thanksgiving dinner, I tried to not to look at her, just like I always try not to look.

  She could light me up. She had her finger right on the switch.

  If I allowed myself to become consumed by those things that made me feel exhilarated, I would become fixated. That combination—fixation and passion—always led to the vicious cycle that I was trying to break.

  But I couldn’t allow myself to be switched on. So when it became too much, when Jordan and Trevor were no longer there to distract me, when I understood the true potential of her effect on me, I realized I had to leave right away. Because where this was heading was dangerous and uncharted.

  Art was always the center of my fixation, but she was living art, and I feared that, somehow, she could get caught up in my storm.

  So I found my way back to my brother’s house, returned the clothes I had borrowed, and made my way back out onto the solitude of the streets. He offered for me to stay in the guest house like he always did, but I could feel his wife’s dismay just as clearly as if she had begged me not stay. I considered caving since it was a holiday and that would be the good thing to do, but I didn’t even like facing my brother for long. He is the best brother in the world, but facing anyone in my family reminded me how much I had failed everyone.

  I did take the flip phone he got for me, though. Mill begged me. Said he just wanted a way to reach me. I didn’t think that was too crazy of a request.

  I was good for two weeks. I occupied my days wandering. Trying to distract myself from the visions that came to me, beckoning me to paint. Since meeting her, that had become harder and harder. But I couldn’t do both. I couldn’t paint with vigor and keep my sanity. Once the floodgates opened, nothing could stop the thunderous destructive waves.

  At night, I would go to a new spot, one where I knew she wouldn’t see me. I wanted to make sure she was safe. 5th was no place for a pretty girl like her to be walking alone a night. But she didn’t show as often, and when she did, she was always with Jordan. Good.

  This I could maintain—the way things were before she saved me. I was angry when she did that. She put herself at enormous risk, and I wasn’t worth it. But, at the same time, it proved to me that she was everything I thought she was: brave, kindhearted, even fiery. My senses never lied to me.

  Then one night, I spotted her coming home with Jordan, their hands full of bags. I recognized the logo, the familiar box under her arm. She was carrying art supplies. She might as well have held a vial of crack under a junkie’s nose. Was that for her? Was she taking up painting or drawing? There was so much I could teach her. I had so much inside of me that I had been burying.

  Because I was afraid to become that person again.

  BIRD

  It was Friday, and I was looking forward to having a rare weekend off. I just had a class in the morning, for the little ‘uns as I liked to call them, and then a short early afternoon shift at the restaurant. Jordan’s show was this weekend and I made sure that my schedule was completely clear for the festivities.

  The weather was beautiful. The sky was perfectly blue, with just a few clouds dotting it. There was a nice cool breeze, enough to allow for a light sweater. Yet, while the sky above looked pristine, I was soon inhaling the odors of Skid Row that were picked up by the lovely breeze: piss that never washed away (thanks to LA’s perfect weather), body odor, and garbage.

  The art supplies I had purchased for Ash were still in their bags on the floor of my apartment. I had resigned myself to the fact
I would be returning them next week as it was getting closer to the thirty-day mark.

  Apparently, Jordan was wrong. Ash didn’t want my help. He wasn’t giving me some secret signal, or playing mind games. He just didn’t want to be my charity case.

  But of course, just as he always had a knack for doing, when I least expected him, there he was, in his old spot. I stopped in my tracks. This time, instead of pretending not to see me, he pushed himself away from the wall where he leaned, and looked right at me.

  “Ash . . .” my voice drifted in disbelief. “Hey. I thought you had vanished on me.”

  “I was just taking a break from here.”

  “Why would you ever want to do that?” I asked sarcastically. I wondered if my joke was insensitive. This was his home, in a way. But he smiled, looking down and away. If you could strip away our surroundings, and drop us anywhere else in LA, we might look like two young people flirting.

  “Oh!” I said, as if it wasn’t the first thing I thought of as soon as I saw him. “I have something for you.”

  “You do?

  “Yes. You told me you like to paint.”

  “I did.”

  “And, you said it was expensive. So I got you some stuff. I thought, you know, when you need a break from all this, you could come to my place and paint.”

  “You really shouldn’t have done that,” he said, shaking his head. His beard had started to come in thicker again, and I wished I could see his face more. He had on his old uniform: beanie hat, white-T, torn up jeans, and a canvas jacket.

  “I wanted to. Merry Christmas.”

  “I don’t know what you got me, but that stuff can add up, and I know you’re trying to get by on your own.”

  “Let me thank you,” I said. It was becoming a way for us to shut the other up.

  He held in a smile. “Okay.”

  “So do you want to see the stuff? If you don’t use or like something we can exchange it, but there’s not much time left. I bought it a while ago.”

  “How about today?”

  I didn’t expect such a turnaround.

  “Well, I’m on my way to work, but I get off early. How about three? I have a show to go to later. Jordan did the choreography.”

  “Alright. Three.”

  I scanned his face, and I couldn’t resist the comment: “You’re going full beard again.”

  “You don’t like it?” I realized it was likely not a fashion choice and maybe insensitive to say.

  “I mean, you look good, I just liked how it looked on Thanksgiving, being able to see your face.”

  He ran his fingers through the reddish-brown coarse hair and nodded.

  “Alright, well I need to get to class. Three?”

  “Three.”

  BIRD

  I GOT HOME at around two-thirty. I thought I might catch Ash on the way back home, but he was nowhere to be found. I called Jordan to let him know about the impromptu visit, but he would be gone all day prepping for the show that night, and he wasn’t thrilled. He asked me to try and reschedule, but how does one reschedule with someone you can’t get in touch with? Ash would be at my doorstep and that would be that.

  As soon as I stepped through the door, I pulled everything out of the plastic bags that had been noncommittally lying right by the front door. I set up the easel and arranged all the paints, pastels, and brushes on one of my wooden TV trays, the closest things I had to a dinner table.

  I sat on my futon with a cup of hot tea at three, expecting a knock at any minute. Three came and went. So did three-fifteen, and three-twenty-five. I knew I had been stood up, and I was pissed. But I was also tired from my early wake-up and dozed off, snuggled into my afghan.

  A knock jarred me out of my sleep. I glanced over at my phone. Three-forty-five. I shot up, trying to get out of my post-nap daze, and walked over to the door. I observed Ash fidgeting through the peephole.

  “You’re late,” I said, opening the door.

  “Sorry, my ride was running behind.” These little hints about his life only intrigued me more. “Whenever you need to me to leave, just say the word.”

  “The show’s not until seven.” I gestured to the area I had set up for him by the window. “Here’s all the stuff.”

  He let his bag slide to the floor and he walked over to the easel, flipping the pages of the pad that I had leaned against it. He ran his fingers along the paints and brushes resting on the TV tray.

  “This is too much, Bird.”

  “Thank you would suffice.”

  He stared down at the implements, almost in a daze, looking tense and unsure. He said he had lost his vision and I wondered if unease had something to do with that.

  “Why don’t you mess around with it? Draw or paint something.”

  “You keep a clean home and art is messy.”

  “I don’t mind. I wouldn’t have invited you here and got you that stuff if I did.”

  “I told you, I don’t paint anymore.” He was going to fight me tooth and nail, and I was up for the challenge.

  “Well, that’s not true. I’ve seen the paint on your fingers.”

  “That doesn’t count.”

  “Because it’s spray paint?

  “Because it doesn’t.”

  “Messing up is part of the process. Don’t you think I stumble, or forget to perfectly point my toes? Shying away doesn’t make you better. You only get better by failing.”

  He sighed, picked up a brush, and ran his fingers over the bristles. “Would you play some music?”

  “Sure.”

  “Something on the softer side. Loud music is distracting.”

  “Hmmm,” I said, thinking of what to play as I reached for my phone.

  “No. That,” he said, pointing the brush in the direction of my record player.

  “Oh, I didn’t think a young ‘un like you would appreciate that.”

  He raised his eyebrows at me disapprovingly.

  “Why don’t you pick?” I suggested.

  “Would you dance?”

  “Huh?”

  “If I am going to paint on command, that’s like showing you my soul. I want you to show me yours. It’s only fair.”

  “So that’s what this has resorted to? You show me yours and I’ll show you mine?”

  “I’d say the most classy version of it.”

  That exchange made my heart flutter. It was oddly intimate and the low tone of his voice was almost seductive. Ash was right. To me, he was just slapping paint on a canvas, but when he equated it to dancing, I understood the vulnerability in what I was asking him to do. “Deal. You can still pick the music though.”

  He placed the brush back down and squatted to look through my shelf of records.

  “This is quite the collection you have here.”

  “Yeah. It was my dad’s.”

  “Are you close?”

  “We used to be. Are you close to yours?”

  “Used to be. Is he . . . ?” Of course he thought that, who would part with a record collection like this unless they were dead?

  “Oh, no . . . my parents were really strict, we weren’t allowed to listen to most music. But on some nights, my dad would come home from work and go into his den, and play these old records. I would come in and sit on his lap or we would dance. He was terrible,” I said, laughing to myself. “On my sixteenth birthday, he had the record player refurbished and gave me his entire collection.”

  “Wow.”

  “Yeah, it’s the best gift I’ve ever received.”

  He slid out a sleeve. “Close your eyes. I don’t want you to see what it is until I play it.”

  I huffed. “Fine.”

  I clenched my hands at my sides as I listened intently to Ash’s footsteps, the record sliding out of the sleeve, him loading the record on the player, and the pop of the needle dropping.

  The familiar chords of the piano played and I instantly recognized the Beatles song, “Golden Slumbers.”

  I opened my eyes
and Ash was already opening up the charcoals. We had a deal, so I started moving, and I couldn’t care about what he was doing if I had to dance. I had to be focused on the music and my body. At first I was nervous, self-conscious even, but whenever I glanced at Ash, he was biting his bottom lip and his hands were flying as his eyes jumped up at me and down back onto the easel in front of him.

  There was no reason to feel self-conscious, because we were both in our element. We were even. Of course, the way Abbey Road is designed is to flow from one song to the next. So, the heartfelt melody of “Golden Slumbers” seamlessly flowed into the chanting of “Carry That Weight,” which ends with heavy, almost erotic guitar playing. So I went right up to the back of the easel and played the air guitar and mouthed the lyrics right at him. He smiled, but he was elsewhere, his hat almost off his head, revealing soft silky curls and waves. His tongue hung half out of his mouth as he squinted at the canvas. The iconic last lines of the song played as I softly leapt back to my original dancing area. Then I ran back to the record player and moved the needle up to “Oh Darling,” since I knew this record by heart and I didn’t feel like “Her Majesty” was going to make for a great dance song. When I picked up the needle, he noticed, stopping to look up as though it broke his concentration.

  “Don’t worry, I’ve got it,” I said.

  This song, I felt in my soul, swaying my hips from side to side, letting my limbs extend and reach. I clenched the fabric of my shirt and tugged it as if it were on fire. As the hook hit, I forgot that the strange and mysterious boy might be watching. It had been so long since I danced for pure pleasure. It was always practicing, or auditioning, or demonstrating. There was no judgment, no fear of rejection, just space to move and expand.

  The room was flowing with creative energy. It’s like nothing else in this word—a high, a drug. Metaphysical, even. Just like Ash had tuned me out, I had done the same, but we were linked—my body, his paintbrush. The song came to an end. I reached over and lifted the needle and noticed the silence. Ash wasn’t moving. He had been watching me the whole time. I looked up and our eyes locked.

 
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