If, p.8

If, page 8



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  I laughed, remembering watching those shows as a kid and how his soft voice looked like cumulus clouds.

  “Then maybe I could teach you how to dance a bit.”

  “Not sure if you want to take on such a monumental task. Seriously, we could get severely injured.”

  “Doubt it.”

  Dammit, she was beautiful. Beautiful in ways I had never seen before. I hadn’t had the balls to ask, but I think she was mixed, black and white or some unusual mix. It was like some divine being took the best of both worlds and combined them to make Bird. But it wasn’t just her looks. She exuded an easiness that made me feel comfortable with her as soon as I met her.

  She pulled out an Al Green vinyl and dropped the needle. This album could be played front to back without a single bad song.

  Unlike Bird, who actually taught dance, I had never taught anyone else how to paint. I was selfish with my craft, but as soon as she asked, I wanted to share it with her.

  “So, teach me, Mister . . . what’s your last name?”

  “Thoreau,” I said.

  “Of course, your last name would be Thoreau.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Just that it’s synonymous with intelligence. Philosophical? An old soul. Do you think you’re related?”

  “No relation that I know of.”

  “So Ash Thoreau?”

  “Asher Thoreau, and you?”

  “Annalise Campbell.”

  “I like it.”

  “How are we just learning each other’s full names?” she asked through a laugh.

  “We knew the ones that counted. So, what do you want to paint?” I asked.

  “You tell me, Teach.”

  “Let’s start with something simple. How about a tree, in the fall, so you can play with color?”

  She smiled. “That sounds perfect.”

  “Okay, we’re going to use acrylic because if you make a mistake, you can paint over it as soon as it dries.”

  “Oh ye of little faith,” she said, coming over to stand in front of me at the easel. She was so close, I could feel her warmth even though we weren’t touching. The pale glow that surrounded her now grazed me.

  I squeezed out green and white and showed her how to mix for the right shade. Then I told her to lay down short, staccato thrusts, but her swipes were, frankly, juvenile and clunky.

  “No, see, you are trying to draw the tree. You just need to focus on the leaf, and then pull that back to how the light hits the leaf because a leaf, even a leaf that you just see as green, is many shades of green.”

  “And this is why I’m a dancer,” Bird said.

  “Here,” I said, grabbing some of the brush handle from behind, “let me guide you.” It was a mistake. Her lavender scent grew strong, and I could smell her fruity shampoo on top of it, and the curves of her behind pressed against my pelvis. The heat rolled down my neck, and to my fingertips, and even though I was holding wood, I felt the warmth of the coziest blanket rubbing against them.

  “Okay,” she said in barely a whisper. Her voice moved in transparent cerulean and seafoam wavelengths in my line of sight.

  I slid my hands up the edge of the brush, so my hand was over her delicate hand. And shit, I am only a man and I just wanted her so bad. But, I focused on the empty sheet on the easel.

  “So you start soft, tentative, until you find a rhythm.” My words were barely a breeze against her ear. “Just relax.” I gently guided her hand and she let me take over. I used the hand of my muse to fill the canvas with strokes of green. “This will be the foundation, but soon we’ll fill it with browns and oranges, even pinks.”

  “We? You’re doing all the work, but I like it that way,” she said, almost woozily, as if she were in the same trance as me. She leaned back, resting her head against the front of my shoulder. My heart thudded so hard, I was afraid she would feel it. I guided her hand to a cup of water and she dropped the brush. But I didn’t let go. I didn’t want to let go, and I don’t think she wanted me to either.

  “Let’s come back to this, we can work on it a little each day,” she said, turning her palm up so she could thread her fingers into mine. The heat was everywhere, like a warm rush of water, lulling me to do whatever the hell she wanted.

  “Now, I show you how to dance.” She turned, using my hand, and then she was facing me. Her skin radiated through tiny freckles on her cheeks and nose.

  The next song on the album played. “I love this song,” Bird said, pulling me to the open floor in front of the record player as “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” began to play.

  “There’s only one way to dance to a song like this,” she said, stepping in close, guiding my hands to her waist, as she wrapped hers around my neck.

  There was too much. A kaleidoscope of lilting colors, the strong scent of lavender, a sweet taste like nectar, the blooming warmth rushing through my body.

  I am only a man.

  We gently rocked from side to side, our bodies lapping like gentle waves. She was tall, and so it took almost no effort for me to drop my nose down to hers, I didn’t even feel it happening. Our foreheads met, her small nose pressed against mine. Everything intensified. Plums, magentas, limes, and cobalts turned into stars going through their entire life cycles. They birthed, lived, and died right before my eyes, so that I felt that if I didn’t do something I would suffocate from all the colors, tastes, and sensations.

  Then my lips were touching hers: plump, firm, soft. Her kiss was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. It wasn’t the synesthesia, it was her true taste, and the feeling of her full lips pressing against mine endlessly. I waited for the slap, but it never came. Her gentle hands pulled me in closer until we were one. She tugged on my lower lip so gently, I could almost miss the feeling if I didn’t focus on the moment. Even with my eyes closed I could see in my mind’s eye the swirls of rapidly moving colors that coiled around us. A warmth rushed over me like a waterfall; her touch was like a breeze.

  I knew I had done something terrible. I had crossed a line I was never supposed to even near.

  But I am only a man.

  I ran my fingers down the cotton of her tank, over the slope of her backside, and we were intertwined. I felt myself melting into her, our colors swirling in dazzling circles, like paint flowing onto a spinning turntable. I needed to stop this, but the waves of heat that were gentle before overtook me like a raging river, pulling me closer to her. She was so soft, everything about her was velvety and smooth, and it made my kisses harsher. I traveled down the curve of her delicate neck to the space just behind her ear and took her scent, a hint of soap with a kiss of the flower that only I could smell. I pressed my lips against the secret nook, and she let out a moan, a sound I had never heard from her, and so I saw something new in her voice: a little burst of gold and violet that exploded and disappeared like a firework.

  You have to stop, Ash.

  God I didn’t want to. I wanted more than anything to take this all the way, to experience every inch of her smooth skin, see all the different shades and shapes of her moans, and taste the rest of her body, but I had rules. I made these rules for myself years ago, and there was a reason for these rules. Memories of death flashed before me, and the heat that was running through me turned so cold, my teeth almost chattered.

  The taste of her kisses was overtaken by that of sour milk. Lavender was overtaken by gasoline. I had to make myself remember. I had to find a way to fight this rushing tide.

  Fucking stop, Ash!

  Finally my rational thoughts screamed loud enough to be listened to, and I pulled away. She looked at me for a few seconds, her stare blank, her lips slightly parted. I understood her confusion. Just seconds ago I could have devoured her, but I couldn’t let the switch flip. Now I was afraid it was too late. I had to leave.

  “Is everything okay?” she asked, placing her hand on my cheek. I stepped away. I backed away from her touch like she repulsed me, when truly all I wanted t
o do was carry her to her futon and discover every single part of her.

  “Yeah. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that.” I was trying to make it seem like it was my fault, give her a way out of this.

  “There’s nothing to be sorry about,” she said. “I wanted it, too.”

  Ahhhhh. She was making it so hard for me, I had to quit her like someone would quit a drug. Quickly, and without ceremony.

  It literally hurt. It hurt to reject her. It hurt that my dick was throbbing. This whole fucking thing sucked, but I needed to get some air. The walls started to close in on me. I hadn’t broken my rules, I sledgehammered them. I had to get away from these walls. They were getting tighter, her small apartment was caving in on me.

  “I—I gotta go.”

  “Did I do something?” she asked.

  “No, it’s not you. I just have to go,” I said. I just needed space. I needed to be outside and away from her. My desire for her was suffocating me.

  She stood there helplessly as I grabbed my bag. “I’m sorry,” I said as I opened the door.


  JORDAN CAME BARGING in my bathroom to reenact my living version of the Psycho shower scene.

  “We’re going out tonight,” he proclaimed triumphantly.

  “And this couldn’t wait because?” I asked, as I rinsed my hair.

  “Because you have been acting really fucking funky this week. And I can’t take it. This is an emergency.”

  Ugh. Sometimes I wish he wasn’t such a good friend. I just wanted to be left alone after my humiliating exchange with Ash.

  “I really don’t want to go out.”

  “I don’t recall framing it as a question,” he said.

  I turned off the water, and Jordan handed me my towel, like we had done this a hundred times, because we had.

  I sighed without even realizing it. Jordan picked up on it.

  “Talk to me.”

  “I’m just tired.”

  “Do I just look like a complete idiot? I must,” he said, following me out of the bathroom.

  “I’m fine. I’m just down this week is all.”

  “I noticed Ash hasn’t been around,” he said.

  My eyes darted over to him, and he was looking down at his nails, like he was trying to figure out if he was due for a mani or not.

  I hadn’t told Jordan about the kiss. I hadn’t told Jordan about how my feelings about Ash were morphing from gratitude and fascination to something more. Part of me was embarrassed. In this great big city, I would end up developing feelings for the vagrant artist. But the embarrassment wasn’t just about that. It was the rejection. I had become used to being led on by guys who were afraid about what others might think. That’s what I felt was so different about Ash. He was an old soul. He looked inside me. He saw and experienced the world differently. He never painted my scar, and I always wondered if it was because he saw me, or because he didn’t. Well, I guess I had the answer. Foolishly, I thought my face wouldn’t matter. That the physical deformity was something he could look past. But I saw how he recoiled when I tried to reach out and touch him.

  It was like he tried to convince himself that he didn’t care, but realized he did once he kissed me. I always thought bad or good chemistry went both ways, but I felt that kiss all over my body: shivers that went down my arms and back, tiny electric sparks just under my skin, like static. And yet, Ash went running.

  So that’s mainly why I didn’t want to tell Jordan: I didn’t want his pity. I rarely discussed how my scars made me feel. I pretended they didn’t bother me. I never once said out loud that I didn’t get picked at an audition because of my face. I knew it. And I am sure Jordan did, too, but I always put on a smile and showed the world that none of it bothered me.

  But it was a lie.

  “That’s no surprise. He’s probably wandering around Wilshire as we speak,” I sniped.

  “What going on with you two?” he asked.

  It was easy to lie when Jordan wasn’t asking, but I hate flat-out lying, so I redirected.

  “Why do you ask?”

  “Because it’s obvious he likes you, you beautiful bitch.”

  I rolled my eyes at him. If only he knew.

  “Trust me, you’ve got it all wrong.”

  “So am I also wrong when I say that I think you like him, too?”

  I glared at Jordan’s onyx-colored eyes, as if to say, bitch, please. Then, I went back to the business of setting out my clothes.

  “Sweetie. I am going to say what I am about to say because I love you.”

  “Oh, god . . .” I chanted. Jordan would sometimes take on this fatherly role even though he wasn’t that much older than me, and it elicited the exact same reaction I would have to my dad when he would lecture me.

  “He’s cute. Hell, he’s hot. He seems nice. And I know you feel a connection. This thing you do, where he paints and you dance. I get it, it’s beautiful. But—”

  “I know, I know. He’s homeless, he’s probably fucked in the head, or a former junkie, or god knows what else!” I said, throwing my hands in the air. I was scolding myself more than lashing out at Jordan.

  Jordan pursed his lips and snaked his neck. “Oh that’s right. I forgot Bird knows all.”

  “I’m not the one handing out lectures,” I said.

  “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

  “Too late,” I blurted out, immediately wishing I hadn’t.

  “Did something happen?” he asked.

  “Nope. Nothing happened. I can’t even get homeless guys to like me, apparently,” I said.

  “So is that what this funk you’re in is about?” Jordan asked, standing up from the futon.

  “I don’t know. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. You don’t have to worry about Ash, okay? He’s not interested, and who knows when he’ll show up again. You know he likes to disappear. We’re just friends.”

  Jordan’s stare lingered for a bit, as if he was deciding whether or not he should call me out on my bullshit. But he chose to sit the battle out.

  He kissed me on the top of my head. “Even though you are being a grumpy bitch this week, I still love you.”

  “I love you, too,” I said flatly. I meant it, but I was just tired of being rejected, and it made me even too tired to put any energy into a genuine declaration of love.

  Oh, and Jordan’s reaction was the other reason I didn’t want to tell him. I knew no one, not even Jordan could understand what Ash and I had going on. People only saw us on the outside. My scars, his situation. We saw each other inside out.


  I SAT ON the floor of the dance studio in disbelief. I had never gotten this far through the audition process. This time it was for a TV segment at an awards show. I could be on TV!

  “All right ladies, here we go!” The choreographer who was auditioning us called out. She instructed us through a three-minute routine and I felt on-point. I flowed seamlessly from one movement to the next, every step ingrained in my muscle memory as if I had learned it before.

  When we finally danced for the final round, I knew I had nailed it. If they had let me through this far, my scars must not have been an issue. Me and the other girls watched the choreographer and the two other people move head shots around as they chatted. Their eyes dashed up as they discussed us. I could have sworn I saw them look at me a few times.

  After what seemed like an torturously long selection process, they said they had chosen the dancers.

  “Miller. Stockton. Putanescu. Lynn. Munn . . .” The list went on until we were all thanked. “Campbell” was never announced.

  This one stung more than the others. Sure, I could have been encouraged by it. It was the closest I had gotten to a legitimate gig, but if I had gotten this far, that meant they were open-minded. I knew I fucking nailed it. I knew I did. Sometimes you know. But it wasn’t enough, and I wondered if I ever could be enough.

  As usual, I denied the doubts a permanent home in my thoughts.
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  I would be fine. The pain might last a little longer, but that’s just part of show business. And I signed up for it.

  I swallowed back the heavy lump in my throat and made my way to the bathroom as quickly as I could. My bladder was ready to explode while I waited on the results and the only good news about getting them was that I would finally be able to break the seal.

  I ran into a stall, slammed the door closed, slid the lock in and almost audibly sighed as I peed. Not long after, a parade of girls came through all chatter and giggles.

  A few more stalls slammed and then they commenced their conversation.

  “Did you see that girl run out of here? I think she was really devastated. I thought she was gonna cry.”

  “You mean the one with the face?”

  “Yeah. I feel so sorry for her. I wonder what happened?”

  “Probably a car accident or something. Unless Freddy Krueger paid her a visit.”

  A few of them burst into laughter.

  “That’s mean,” another said.

  “Oh come on. She put herself up there to be judged.”

  “For her dancing.”

  “No, her whole image. They wouldn’t pick a three hundred pound dancer no matter how good she is. They aren’t going to pick someone with a face like that. This is LA, the most superficial place on earth.”

  “It doesn’t have to be,” said the one who called them mean before.

  “Listen, I am sure she’s a wonderful person. And she’s actually really pretty on her good side. But unrealistic expectations aren’t doing anyone any favors.”

  “I guess,” the girl replied.

  At that point, I was sobbing into the sleeve of my arm warmer so that I wouldn’t make a sound. With just a few words, I was immediately transported to freshman year of high school when some cheerleaders told me not to bother auditioning because I wasn’t up to their “physical standards.” I was small. I was defeated. There was a heavy pit the size of a bowling ball inside of me full of despair. Maybe she was right. Maybe I was delusional.

  I always had visions of something like this happening, and me triumphantly strutting out, saying something like “My face may be covered in scars, but I will never be as ugly a human being as you are.”

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