If, page 9
But I just wanted to shrink into the size of an atom and drift away. I felt the ugliest I had felt in a long time. I felt insignificant. I didn’t feel triumphant or defiant.
I wanted to forget this entire experience and never talk about it again.
So I waited for them to leave.
I slipped out of the stall, washed my hands and dotted my face with tissue, but my eyes were swollen. I exited the bathroom as discretely as I could. The girls were in a cluster down the hall, but one of them spotted me and her eyes widened. I ducked my head down and passed them. They started murmuring, but I got out of earshot as quickly as I could. I just wanted to make the last few hours of my life disappear.
I felt like shit about how I walked out of Bird’s place in a panic. I would understand if she didn’t want to see me again, but I wanted—needed—to see her.
Muse. I always mocked that word. Cliche. Weak. Sentimental. I was independently brilliant. Eccentric. Productive. I didn’t need a muse. But apparently you don’t get to choose. A muse didn’t just inspire, I learned. She rips the art out of you like a predator rips out guts. It’s messy, it’s brutal, but the artist has no choice in the matter. The muse decides.
Slowly, Bird was drawing out the artist I had buried away, the artist I was afraid of becoming again. The artist that died when my sister died.
Falling for Bird would be the final thrust to rip me out of my self-imposed exile. If just watching her made me pick up a paintbrush again, what would being with her do?
When we kissed, I was terrified that that rush of sexual energy might be enough to flick the switch. But I didn’t let myself get excited. Instead, I got agitated and then I worried my agitation might actually trigger something, too. I took extra doses of my meds, and I think it worked because I felt like shit, but I didn’t feel out of control.
But Bird had already reached inside of me so deeply, that I couldn’t stay away. Now that we had kissed, she was the embodiment of sexuality and art—my two favorite things rolled into one majestic, glowing human being.
So I found myself at her door. Staring at it for a good ten minutes before I knocked. I was prepared to be told to leave, or not find the cheerful Bird who was always game to create.
I knocked again.
I turned to leave, even though I knew she was in there. I could hear movement through the door. As I turned, I saw the sound of her deadbolt unlatching, the door being flung open. No greeting. Cautiously, I turned and walked back to the doorway. The door was wide open, a signal that I was permitted to come in, but I would not be greeted.
I deserved the cold shoulder.
I walked in tentatively, and dropped my bag in its usual spot. I wished my footsteps wouldn’t make any noise, but my boots hitting her wood floor brought more attention to the awkward silence.
She was cleaning her tiny kitchen ferociously, and it was clear she was making it a point not to look at me. The easel was where it always was, and the green leaves of our unfinished tree were still there.
“Hey,” I said, closing the door behind me.
She turned her face further away from me. “Hey.”
I definitely was not going to ask if she wanted to dance.
“Feel free to paint or whatever,” she said, dismissively.
Her lavender aura was dull and almost white, but that had more to do with what I was feeling than what she was.
Though no matter how much she tried to duck away, she couldn’t hide from me. I could see her voice. What was usually fluid, bright and fanciful like her dancing, was wobbly and thin. She wouldn’t look at me. She was crying.
I wondered if I should be there at all, but she let me in. She wanted me there. I should be there for her, the way she welcomed me into her house despite, I imagined, every rational thought telling her she shouldn’t. I made my way over to the easel, which was just beside the kitchen space, trying to get a better view of her, but she only dug in harder, scrubbing down on the already clean oven door.
I began to feel tense, and my mouth filled with the taste of licorice. I hate licorice.
She kept scrubbing. “Bird,” this time I put a hand on her shoulder.
She stopped cleaning, and then she dropped the sponge, ripped off her pink rubber gloves, slammed them down, and started crying.
Watching her hurt like that felt like someone had attacked me. It felt like that day I heard her screams in the alleyway. Needles on my fingertips. Angular shapes like shards of glass in my vision. My stomach grew tense with a sick feeling.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, kneeling down.
She stood up, circling away from me, like she didn’t want me to see her face.
“What do you want, Ash?” she asked, looking out the window with her arms crossed.
“I came to see you.” It was the first time I had been honest about why I came to visit.
“If you came to paint, your shit is right there.” She tilted her head towards the easel but, she wouldn’t show me her face.
“I said I came to see you.”
“Why, because I’m such a good friend? Because I give you a place to hang out?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I get it, okay? I know what everyone sees and they all pretend like it’s not there. Like it’s just too fucking awful to say out loud.”
I stood there, unsure how to respond to the hurt that was pouring out of her. She was always so effervescent, I never thought I would see her cry like this, ever.
She ran her fingers through her thick red curls and pushed her hair back and turned to face me. “I know what I look like. I know I’ll never dance in this city professionally or anywhere because this is all that matters,” she said through tears. “And I know no guy will ever want me, because there will always be someone out there who doesn’t have this on her face.” She jabbed a finger at the side of her face with the damage.
I felt like the biggest piece of scum on earth at that moment. I thought she was beautiful, so the thought never occurred to me that she might think I left because of her scars. I wasn’t blind, I saw them all along, but they were just as much a part of her as her hazel eyes, her cute nose, her freckles, her elegant gait, her smile. While I saw the scars like everyone else, I could see things other people couldn’t see. I could see the secret beauty Bird possessed, only visible to someone like me, who lived beyond the mere five senses most others possessed.
She was a literal star, beaming with light, walking on the earth, gracing it with her presence. She was the thing we stared up at in the night sky, making us wonder about endless possibilities. She was the light we reached out to grasp, but were never able to touch. That’s what Bird was: A fallen star. A dancing star.
I thought she knew that. I thought that’s why she radiated. I never thought she might for a second think she was anything less than perfection. In that moment, I only wanted to make her feel better. I didn’t care about keeping my feelings under lockdown, I didn’t care about losing control.
I walked up to her and placed my hand on her arm, gripping it. “You think that’s why I left?”
“I don’t need you to lie to me. I’ve heard everything you could possibly think of. And I don’t want your pity.”
“Good, because you’re not going to get it,” I said.
She started a bit, not expecting for me to be harsh.
“Because what I am about to tell you is the truth. I want you to understand that.” And now I found myself a little angry, at the world for making her feel this way, at her for believing them, and at myself for never telling her how I saw her. I dug my fingers even deeper into her thin arm. “I watched you for months thinking any guy would be the luckiest guy in the world to have you. I watched you glow and laugh. I watched your smile and your bright hair that burns red like a wildfire. You are rare, you are beautif
I was ranting, and I didn’t give a fuck.
“And that’s the truth, Bird. No pity. Not an ounce.”
I looked down and realized I was squeezing her in my hands, not threateningly, but passionately. We were close, and I was feeling the heat. Neon dashes of green, yellow, and indigo shot across my vision like lasers. I slid my hands down her arms to let her go, but she caught my hands in hers.
“Then why did you leave?” she demanded.
“It had nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me.”
“That answer is not good enough. You don’t just kiss a girl the way you kissed me and just walk out like that. You didn’t even call.”
“I came back.”
“It still hurts. It’s still messed up.”
“Can’t you see my life is fucked up? I’m broken. Faulty. I am not the guy a girl like you should even consider.” I couldn’t tell her that I was afraid she might make me climb to the highest peak and then collapse into a black hole. Because, though I didn’t want her to have to deal with me, I did want her. If I told her too much too soon, I was sure she would be scared away. I wanted to feel that high again, I knew feeling it with her would be unlike anything I had ever known.
“You don’t want me Bird. You want the idea of me. The quiet artist. The guy who saved you . . . painted you. But I am a mystery you don’t want to solve. I am a question you don’t want to answer. It was simpler when it was just you dancing and me painting.”
“Nothing was ever simple between us.”
Her tears had dried, but her eyes were pink from devastation. I was right on the edge, fighting the urge to jump into the warm, bright, colorful pool that is kissing Bird.
“You know how you see me? How you say the scars don’t matter, that you see me differently than other people do? It’s the same for me, Ash. I don’t see where you live. I don’t see how much you make. I see someone who is in pain, who is afraid to be cared for, or maybe he thinks he doesn’t deserve it. But I also see someone who is honest, and tender, and funny, and sensitive. I feel you. I felt you so many times I walked past you before I ever knew you.” She squeezed my hands. “You’re different. You know when you just know?”
“I knew. It’s why I couldn’t let you disappear on me. It’s why I practically begged you to come for Thanksgiving. I just knew. I wanted to know you.”
She took my hands and wrapped them around her waist. Her hands slid up my chest, my neck, and she ran her fingers under my hat and through my hair so that it fell to the floor. The sensation of static electricity trailed the path of her touch.
“Let me make the choice,” she said.
ASH’S TONGUE WAS the paintbrush, my lips the canvas. My fingers danced along the subtle slopes of his abdomen over his shirt. We were still dancing and painting, but this time our bodies were the tools and the surfaces where we created our art.
Ash slid his fingers underneath my shirt, his warm hands touching my bare skin. As Ash’s fingers ran up my torso, I felt a tingle like electricity and I wondered if maybe we all have just a little bit of synesthesia in us. Then, I yanked his shirt over his head, finally seeing what was underneath his paint-streaked tee. My eyes immediately drifted to the newly developed scar on his side: the remnant of his act of heroism. I glided my index finger over it and I slid down to my knees and kissed it. It was why, despite his circumstances, I had always felt safe around him. He could never know how grateful I was for what he did.
He bent over, took my hands and pulled me back up to my feet. He didn’t want my gratitude, I know he didn’t do what he did to be a hero. It was part of his character.
I didn’t want to tell Ash I was a virgin, but I was afraid he would sense my inexperience if things got that far. I understood that a twenty-one year-old virgin is something of a unicorn these days, but my run with the fellas had been shaky at best. I may have been screwed over, but I wasn’t dumb enough to give myself completely to any of them.
“A beautiful Bird,” he breathed into my ear as he slid the strap of my tank top down and kissed my shoulder.
I laughed a little and wriggled under the sensation.
We traveled to the futon, and I lay under him. We became a tangle of each other, his warmth cocooning mine. Ash’s touch was passionate, but patient. It was a lot like the way he instructed me to paint—to aim for the big picture, but first, pay attention to the small details along the way—soft kisses, tender strokes, sweet bites, gentle swipes of his tongue.
Then we were naked, and he was more than ready. I writhed my hips against him to tell him I was, too.
“Do you have a condom?” he breathed into my ear.
I nodded as I reached into the small side table just beside the futon for one of the four I stored in there, plunder from my last visit to the gyno. I watched intently as he ripped open the foil and rolled it on, my stomach clenching from nervous anticipation.
He kissed my collarbone, leaving soft tingles as he worked his way up.
He raised his head from my neck, his wild hair falling over this eyes.
“I’m—this is embarrassing,” I said, tucking my chin down.
He tilted his head to the side, softly pulled up my chin and ran his thumb along my lip. “Tell me.”
“I’m a virgin.”
He pulled away. “Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push things so fast.”
“No, I just wanted to let you know, but I want to.”
He sighed and buried his face into the subtle valley between my breasts. “Oh so do I, you have no idea, but are you—”
I pressed my index finger against his pout. “I said let me make my choice.” I brushed his hair away from his eyes. “I choose you.”
Ash looked into my eyes, the unblemished green staring back at me, and nodded. He leaned in and placed a kiss so soft, it took my breath away. “We’ll do whatever you want,” he whispered against my lips.
Our naked limbs peeked out from under the afghan I had wrapped around us. Ash lay his head on my stomach as I twirled one of his wild tendrils with my fingers. I was in a daze from the type of drunken giddiness that surrounds you like a gentle cloud. You don’t think about the future, or consequences. You just live in that moment, soaking up the heady high of falling in love.
Ash turned his eyes upward, resting his chin on the flesh of my belly. His barely-there stubble chafed at the sensitive skin, but I didn’t want him to move from the spot. “How are you feeling?” he asked, running the tip of his middle finger along my thigh.
“Good.” Oh, but it was so much better than good. “Tell me something,” I said lazily.
“Like what?” he asked.
“I researched you, ya know.”
“Huh?” Ash asked, suspiciously.
“I know,” he said.
“You left your laptop open the last time I was here and it was right on the screen.”
I slapped my hand against my forehead. “Do yourself a favor and never a
He sighed. “It’s not as strong anymore, except with you.” His admission made me feel different, but not in the way I was used to. It was a happy different. “It’s always there, but not as vivid. Everything is more muted now.”
“So is your life like one big Lisa Frank folder? Because I used to love those things.”
“Oh never mind, you were never a ten year old girl . . .” I ran my fingers through his silky waves. “Do you miss it?”
“Uh huh.” It was as if it hurt too much to say yes.
“Did it go away with age?”
“A bunch of reasons.” It was one of Ash’s answers that didn’t really answer anything, but I let it slide.
“So tell me some of most vivid things you see. Tell me your favorites.”
He paused for a second to think and then he pulled himself up so that he was next to me on his side, propping up his head on his hand.
He squinted, straining to draw every detail of a memory. “Your laughter. It’s that perfect buttery gold, like when you bake something to perfection. Warm . . . soft . . . my fingertips go warm and they tingle. And your speaking voice . . . it’s different. Say something for me so I can describe it for you.”
“Umm . . .” I laughed nervously.
“Ah, there it is,” his fingers trailed across the air in his line of sight above us. “Your laughter. Sprinkles of it.” I watched his eyes see something I could not. “Okay, tell me something. Anything,” he commanded.
“My name is Birdie.” I said, completely failing at originality.
“Birdie, what’s your given name?” he asked faintly. He already knew the answer. The words didn’t matter right now, just the melody of our voices. He was listening but his eyes were straight ahead, observing the phantom fantasia of colors in front of him.
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