The Familiar Geographies of Wishful Thoughts

Map UnsplashBoone

Tina’s apartment is old and ill-kept. The wind blows in through cracks beneath doors and windows, and bits of plaster occasionally fall from the ceiling. She has hung an old grey parachute from her bedroom walls to catch the falling pieces, and once a week she gathers the bits and tosses them from her window into the concrete patio that is her back yard. I have told her before that she needs to find a new place to live, but the rent is low, and she says she appreciates the feeling of decay that drifts through the air of the apartment.

It’s early, just past seven, and it feels colder inside her living room than it did out in the city air. Tina isn’t dressed for the chill, wearing short sleeves and short skirt, but then again the cold never does seem to bother her like it does other people. She claims to have sherpa blood in her veins.

“I’m not packed yet,” she says. “I didn’t get in until late.”

“We have time,” I say. “It’s only about a four hour drive.”

We are spending the holiday away from the city, as we have the past two years now. I have reserved us a room for a few days in Fort Bragg, close enough to drive to, but far enough away from home that no one will expect us for any social events. Our plan is to wander the coastline during the days, and to eat bad food and drink alcohol during the nights. Tina is bringing her camera, and I am bringing mine.

We are not holiday people.

“I got you a bubble tub,” I say.

“Jacuzzi,” she says. “It’s called a jacuzzi.”

“Jacuzzis are on a deck. If it’s in the bathroom, it’s a bubble tub.”

“You were raised by wolves.”

The kettle starts whistling in the kitchen, and we go to have our tea. It is a ritual for us on these vacations from everything, to remember how we first met, in a crowded cafe, where she sat at my small table without asking, and promptly spilled her tea across my book and coat sleeve. Of course we had dinner that night, because that is what one does after such a thing, and every night after that for a week. The holiday escapes began that first Christmas, and are now our tradition. There is a joy to be found in these trips together that could never be found in the black holes of our respective families.

Tina pours the water into our cups, and she puts our tea infusers—never tea bags—into them to steep. We sit at the kitchen table, because there can be nothing else to do when we are in the middle of our ritual.

She is lovely in the light coming through the window, but I don’t say it out loud. Our relationship has strange borders, and neither of us likes to press upon them to see where they twist and bend.

“I know you’re going to tell me to bring a coat,” she says. “So I will, but only in case it rains.”

“It’s only fair. I’m bringing one, after all.”

“If it’s not raining, I’m not wearing it.”

“Don’t listen to anything I have to say. I was raised by wolves, remember?”

We say nothing for a while, waiting for the tea to finish. Outside the window, a bird lands on the sill. It’s a tiny thing, made of red and blue and black. It peers in at us for a moment, then flits away out of sight.

Tina takes the infusers out of the cups, and of course the tea is perfect. It always is when she makes it. She blows lightly across the surface of her tea, then takes a sip, looking out into the space the bird had been in. Without turning to me, she says, “I might kiss you on this trip. I just wanted to tell you, so it wouldn’t be weird later.”

I don’t know how to reply to this, so I just say, “Okay,” and raise my cup to my lips. I have held her close in my arms as a friend, and the other night we slept together in my bed, only sleeping, nothing more. I have wondered what it would be like to kiss her, and my mind now plays over the familiar geography of that wishful thought.

“I’m bringing lights,” she says, pulling me back into the moment. “Christmas lights. For the hotel room. I want you to take some photos of me while we’re there.”

“Obviously I’m taking photos of you. I’m bringing my camera, aren’t I?”

“Just making sure.”

“I’m going to take some of you, too,” she says. “Don’t argue.”

I hate having my photo taken, but I won’t complain. She knows what she’s doing.

“I think we shouldn’t come back this time,” she says. “We should just get back in the car on Monday and start driving.”

“Where would we go?”

“Someplace with mountains. Real mountains. With snow on them.”

“Can’t be California,” I say. “There’s a drought, you know.”

“We’ll find a place. Close our eyes and point at a map.”

“I’ll have to get the cat first. I only got her a babysitter through the weekend. Don’t want her starving to death.”

“Yes, bring the cat. She can be our good luck charm.” She drains her teacup and stands to rinse it out in the sink. “I need to pack. Did you make a playlist for the drive?”

“Of course I did. We can’t rely on the radio. We aren’t barbarians.”

“We will be once we start drinking,” she says. “That’s my goal, anyway. A holiday to remember.” She puts her teacup on the counter beside the sink and then walks out of the kitchen.

I stay at the table, drink finished, but not wanting to stand just yet. I think again on the possibility of kissing Tina, of the redrawing of our borders that would come from it. Would we gain territory from the act, or would there be miles lost to it instead?

I carefully refold the map of us in my mind, and go to help Tina load her things into the car.

Rum + Molasses

Tube UnsplashOlivia Script

There are four things inside the envelope: a small iron key, old-fashioned with pronounced teeth and a loop at the end, like it could be worn on a necklace; a Japanese coin, round with a square hole cut into its center, and kanji inscribed at compass points around the hole; a black plastic ballpoint pen, cheap and with a cap on its end; and a sheet of thick white paper, folded into thirds. The key, coin and pen I put onto the passenger’s seat, along with the envelope. The paper I unfold, and I begin to read the letter, written in my own handwriting, addressed to myself, and which I have no idea of ever having written.

Olivia:

There’s no time to write this. Things are getting wobbly, and it’s almost time for a shift. If I can finish it in time, I’ll give it to Arthur, and hopefully he can get it to you.
Use the pen in the envelope. Write down what I’m going to tell you, because this letter is going to change when you look at it again. It can’t be stopped. It’s a spillover.

I glance at the pen on the seat next to me, but don’t pick it up. There is something unsettling about it, and I don’t want to touch it. I turn back to the letter and reread from the beginning.

Olivia:

I can’t write this now, but I have to anyway. It’s almost shift time. You have to use the pen in the envelope and write down what I’m telling you. This letter is going to change as soon as you look away. Nothing stays solid. Everything is moving.
Write it down. Everything changes when you come back to it again.

This makes no sense. It’s a trick, of course, something Arthur is playing on me. I turn the paper over and look at the back, as if to find the words I originally read on the reverse side, but it is of course blank. I flip the letter around again and look at the handwriting once more.

Olivia:

I have to hurry. It’s coming again, and I can’t stop it. Use the pen and write this down.
Things are beginning to slip.

Without looking away from the page, I reach over and fumble in the passenger seat for the envelope, which I set on my thigh, and then the pen, which I uncap with my thumb, letting the cap fall where it may.  I press my hand against the envelope, and sneak a quick glance at it to see where my pen falls on the paper. When I look back up at the letter, I see that it has changed again.

Olivia:

I’m almost not here anymore. We’re almost not here. You and I? Can you see me?
I’m slipping.
You have to go to Penelope. Penelope can help you.

I don’t know anyone named Penelope. I scribble the name on the envelope, not looking at what I’m writing, adding a question mark after it. I’m sure my writing is sloppy and childlike, but I am afraid to look away from the letter again.

Rum and molasses.
Write it down, Oli.
Penelope. Rum and molasses.

Then, at the bottom of the page, scrawled in my handwriting, but jagged like it was written in a moving car on a potholed crumbling road:

Believe Arthur, but don’t trust him.
He doesn’t slip like the rest.
He isn’t

The sentence ends there. I reread the letter again, and even though I haven’t looked away from the sheet, I can see how the words are straining to change again, fading at the loops and whorls of the writing, the ghost of another letter pushing up from within the paper itself, wanting to rise up like an answer inside a magic 8-ball.

I already don’t trust Arthur, and what is it I’m supposed to believe that he tells me? That we were in New Zealand together? It’s nonsense. I’ve never been to New Zealand. All of this is a game he’s playing, this paper some kind of trick. I’m in the tech capital of the world. He must have some kind of digital paper, something not out in the world yet. It’s a stupid idea, but it makes more sense than… than what? I don’t know what any of this means.

I don’t trust him, and I don’t believe him either.

I look at what I’ve written on the envelope: Penelope? Rum + molasses. Believe Arthur don’t trust him. When I look back at the letter in my hand, the paper is completely blank. I fold it back into thirds and slip it into the envelope, then put the coin, key and pen back as well.

My name is still on the envelope’s front, and the handwriting is still my own.

I don’t know any Penelope, and I don’t want to know Arthur either.

I try to pretend my hands aren’t shaking as I turn the key already in the ignition, and I pull out onto the street.

I try to pretend I’m not wanting to find Arthur and ask him who Penelope is.

I’m trying to pretend a lot of things.

Aching Waves of the Lonely Tides

Underwater UnsplashSebastian Script

We are wedged into the purple chaise in the dark room, me on the bottom, Rivi more or less sitting nearly on my lap. The chaise is further being shared by a bottle of Chivas Regal, which takes turns being in either her hand or mine. We have no need of glasses tonight. Swigging from the bottle is good enough for this fine evening of low cheer.

“My plan was to stop believing in love when I turned twenty-one,” Rivi says. She lifts the bottle and takes a drink. “That plan obviously turned out to be shit.”

“You’re a romantic,” I say. “You’re doomed from the start with that one.”

She snorts and pushes the bottle between my leg and the arm of the chaise. “Romantic my ass. I’m an idiot.” She undoes the top button of her dress and scratches the skin beneath it with her fingernail. “I’m also drunk.”

“Just a little drunk,” I say.

“And I feel a little sick.”

“If you throw up on my chaise, I’m going to disown you.”

She scoots down lower in the chaise and turns sidewise, putting one leg over me and resting her head against my shoulder. “I’m not going to throw up. I’m a lady who can handle her booze, thank you very much.” She closes her eyes and blows a heavy breath out between her lips. “Am I underwater? I feel like I’m underwater.”

“You’re in my living room,” I say. “You’re not going to drown in here.” A car drives by outside the window, and the headlights race from the far wall across the room, weightlessly touching first Rivi’s hip, then my own, then extinguishing themselves against the other side of the window’s curtains.

“Do you know who I am?” she asks me.

“I’ve known you for ten years,” I say. “I’m pretty sure I know who you are by now.”

She undoes a second button on her dress. In the dim light, the shadow of her skin is only sightly lighter than the dark of the fabric around it. “I’m not coming on to you, so don’t get any ideas. I’m just hot.”

“I’ve known you for ten years,” I say again. “I’d never get any ideas.”

“Good,” she says. “You’re not an earthquake. You’re solid ground.” She puts her palm against my chest, and I can feel her fingers tapping me softly through my shirt as I breathe.

“I have no idea what you mean,” I say, although that’s not exactly true. “You’re drunk,” I add needlessly.

“Not drunk enough,” she replies, although she leaves the bottle where she’d put it a minute ago. When I decide she’s not going to change her mind, I take the bottle and set it on the windowsill, then with one hand, screw the cap back on. “I’m going to get you some plants,” she says. “You need plants in your window.”

“Bad idea,” I say. “I kill everything I try to keep alive.”

She stops tapping my chest and presses her hand against me. “Not everything,” she says. “Not at all.”

“Stop coming on to me, Rivi,” I say.

“Shut up, numbskull.”

The wind picks up and rattles against the window, and one minute becomes two, and then five and more. Finally, for a few seconds the moon manages to slip through the clouds, and the blue light which seeps into the room now does make it seem as though we are underwater, floating beneath a calm night sea. The air is cold like the Pacific, and the quiet ambient hum of the silence in the apartment whispers like waves dancing a fathom above. Rivi puts her hand into mine, and in the moments before the clouds swallow the moon again, before we are covered once more in darkness, she looks up at me, and I can see the ocean’s depths in her eyes, bottomless and full of promises and secrets and currents that I’ve never explored, and for the space of a heartbeat or two, I wonder where those waters would take me if I would just let the air out of my lungs, and let myself sink into the heart of her sea.

And then the moon is gone, and so is the sea, and her soft and even breathing tells me that Rivi has fallen asleep against me in the chaise. I keep her hand in mine while she dreams, so that if she wakes during the night, she will know that there is someone there to keep her from drifting away over the curve of the earth, swept along in the aching waves of the lonely tides.

Refugee

Cat UnsplashBoone

The camera, the one Tina got on our trip to Concord the other day, is sitting on my kitchen table. She walked in the door with it ten minutes ago, and now she is drinking coffee, her bare feet propped on a chair, her hair mussed from the wind that was gusting outside my apartment before she came inside. It is barely dawn, and we haven’t turned on any lights. The dim glow from outside the kitchen windows tints us both blue, and I feel chilled by the air.

“I want to go to the park today,” she says. “I need to break in my camera.”

“Do you want breakfast first?” I ask. I am not yet properly dressed, in sweatpants and T-shirt, hair mussed, unshaven. I knew she had been coming early this morning, but somehow I had been expecting her to wait until the sun had come up.

“We can get something on the way,” she says. “I want to get there early.”

“Obviously,” I say. Once upon a time, Tina had been a photographer for hire—weddings, portraiture, that sort of thing. I’d done some jobs with her in the past, mostly being her second gun at large events, catching the shots on the periphery while she did all the real work. It was never my passion, and when she started shooting for herself instead of for other people, I didn’t feel the need to try and make a go of it for myself. Tina is the true artist between us. I just drift on through.

“I want to go to the tea garden,” Tina says. “It’s supposed to be overcast today.”

“Okay,” I say, and sip my coffee. Cloudy days make for the best lighting, all soft light and shadows. Tina used to shoot a lot of her engagement photos there, with the pagoda or arching moon bridge as backdrops. I know it’s her favorite place to shoot in the park.

There is a sound from outside my back door, a soft but insistent mewing. “Hang on,” I tell Tina, standing up. “I forgot to feed the cat.”

“You don’t have a cat,” she says.

“It’s not mine.” I take one of the small cans of cat food that I bought at the market two days ago down from the cupboard near the sink. “I don’t know who it belongs to.”

“It belongs to you if you’re feeding it.”

I empty the wet food onto a small plate and take it to the back door. The cat—a small black and white kitten with slightly gummy eyes—is waiting on the other side. Its meowing becomes louder as I open the door, although it doesn’t try to enter the apartment. It moves off down to the foot of the stairs and waits while I set the food down, then close the door behind me.

Tina comes to the window over the sink and peers out. “I give it a week before it moves in. You’re a softy.”

“I don’t want a cat,” I say. I put the empty can into the recycling. “I don’t even like cats.”

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “You’re a pushover. Always have been.”

She’s right about that, of course, and there’s no point in denying it. “Do I have time for a shower? I didn’t take one last night.”

“If I told you no, you’d just go without,” she says. She pours the last bit of her coffee down the sink and rinses out the cup. “Go ahead. Make it quick though. I want to catch the light before it changes.”

“Alright. Give me five minutes.” Instead of responding, she looks out the window again at the kitten, and I leave the kitchen and head to my room to get clothes for after my shower. I grab a clean shirt, but take the jeans I wore yesterday off the chair I’d draped them on before going to bed last night. Photography with Tina is always a messy business, and there is no point in dirtying up clean pants with a morning and afternoon of crawling through bushes, kneeling in mud and splashing through the edges of ponds. She isn’t afraid of getting dirty while she works, and after all this time, I’m not either. I’ve learned over the years that shooting with her isn’t for the delicate.

I wash quickly, not bothering with a shave, and dress in the bathroom. When I return to my room to put my sweatpants and dirty shirt into the hamper, I find Tina sitting on my bed, shoes still off. The kitten is on her lap, purring as she scratches it beneath the chin. “You knew you were going to let it in,” she says. “I just thought I’d cut to the chase.”

“I don’t like cats,” I says again. “It wasn’t going to come inside.”

“She’s a girl. I’m going to name her Jessie.”

“If you’re going to name it,” I say, “then you can take it home with you.”

She rolled the cat onto its back and started to scratch its belly. The cat did not protest, only increased the volume of its purrs. “I’m not taking her. She’s your cat.”

“She’s not my cat, she’s a stray. I can’t take care of myself, let alone an animal. She’d starve inside of a week.”

“You’re already feeding her.”

“Obviously that was a mistake,” I say.

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “Jessie lives here now, so you’re just going to have to get used to the idea. Do you have any litter?”

“What? Of course I don’t have any litter. Why would I have any litter?”

She gets off the bed and hands the kitten to me. “Then I’ll go get you some.”

“No. I don’t want to keep the cat. Besides, we’re going to go to the park. You need to catch the light, right?”

“The light will wait,” she says. “We can go after. This is more important.”

The cat is licking the tips of my fingers and making itself at home against my chest. “Tina…”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” she says. She scratches the kitten on the head. “You should have gotten a cat years ago. She looks good on you.”

“I don’t like cats,” I say once more.

“Well she likes you.” She walks toward the living room where her shoes are, but pauses in the doorway to say, “Ten minutes. You two get to know one another. I’ll be right back.” She continues into the other room, leaving me alone with the cat.

“I don’t like you,” I say to the kitten, holding it up face-to-face with me. “Just so you know.”

The cat mews, closes its eyes and continues contentedly licking my fingertips.

Coffee, Toast and Ill Omens

Coffee UnsplashOlivia Script

I find parking along the houses on 45th Avenue, around the block from the coffee shop. The rain is still falling, pattering like pebbles against the roof of my car. I have Arthur’s umbrella in the seat next to me, but I am not rushing to go out into the storm. Are these second thoughts that I am having about meeting him inside the shop? Possibly. Also likely is that I am having regrets about everything that’s happened which led up to me being on the beach where Arthur saw me this afternoon. Regrets about Christopher. Regrets about coming to this city in the first place.

No take-backs around here.

My dress is wet from the rain, and there is nothing to be done about that, but I remember that there is a black hoodie in the backseat of the car that Rivi left the last time we were out. I reach around the rear of my seat and blindly drag my hand through the things lost back there until I feel the fabric of the hoodie between my fingers. I pull it up front with me and put it on. At least I won’t freeze to death, which may or may not be a good thing.

There is a flash from the sky, and an enormous peal of thunder shakes my car. It’s hard not to take it as an ill omen.

I get out of my car and hurry down the sidewalk, the umbrella held high over my head. Trouble Coffee is in the middle of the block, and Arthur is standing out front beneath their awning, near a driftwood log which has been placed on the sidewalk as a sort of bench for the store, though because of the rain, there is no one sitting on it. Arthur is waiting for me, his umbrella closed and held low by his side. He raises a hand to me as he sees me, and now it is too late for me to not make an appearance.

“I’m glad you came,” he says as I step beneath the awning. “I wasn’t sure if you were going to.”

I close the umbrella I’m using, the one he has loaned me, and shake it off. “I had to. I had to return your umbrella.”

He lifts his and says, “I’ve got one. You keep it.” Another flash of lightning brightens the sky, and Arthur reaches to touch me on the arm. “Let’s go inside.”

“Before it’s time to board the Ark,” I say.

He smiles and opens the door for me. The shop is small and crowded with people, sitting on the few stools lined around the counter and in front of the window, standing closely together along the walls. A child’s hobby horse hangs from the ceiling, a peculiar bit of decor, and the atmosphere is pleasantly social and low-key. In spite of myself, I feel my mood threatening to lighten just a bit. I snuff that out quickly, not wanting to get too comfortable. This situation is still weird, and I don’t want to take that edge off.

“Afternoon,” the woman behind the counter says to us as we squeeze up to the register. A green tattoo of ivy climbs up from beneath the collar of her shirt and disappears into the line of her

blonde hair. “What can I get you?”

There is a menu on a clipboard hanging from a nail on the counter, but I find that I don’t really have a preference. “I’ll have what he’s having,” I say, nodding at Arthur.

Arthur doesn’t look at the menu. “Two Depth Charges, please. And toast.” He pays for us both, and while we wait for the woman to finish preparing our order, I see a small group of people beginning to leave their stools at the front of the store. I touch Arthur on the arm and indicate that I’m going to go get us seats. A few minutes later he comes to meet me, two paper cups of coffee in his hands, a strip of sandwich paper holding two thick slices of cinnamon toast balanced on top. I take the toast and one of the coffees and put them on the counter, and he sits next to me.

“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten toast at a coffee shop,” I say. The bread is easily two inches thick, coated with a generous layer of butter and cinnamon, and smells like my grandmother’s kitchen.

“It’s a thing now,” he says. “All the kids are doing it. Besides, it tastes good.”

I don’t want to talk about toast. “Show me the picture again,” I say. He takes it from his bag and hands it to me, and there we are still: Arthur standing on a cobbled street at dusk, me standing next to him, a row of houses on either side of us, stretching off into the dark. When Arthur had shown me the photo earlier on the beach, I had no idea where or when it was taken, and I still have no idea now. I have no memory of the street, and no memory of ever meeting Arthur other than this afternoon.

“It’s New Zealand,” he says. “A month ago.”

I turn the picture over and look at the back, looking for what, I don’t know. “Photoshop?” I ask, looking at the front again.

He raises his coffee to his lips and takes a sip, then puts the cup down again. “Nope.”

“Well, I don’t know what the game is here, but I’ve never been to New Zealand.”

“It’s no game,” he says. “And you were in New Zealand last month, with me.”

I was here last month,” I say. I hold the picture up and turn it toward him. “I’ve never been here, and I don’t remember ever meeting you before today.” I drop the picture on the counter in front of him and stand up. “It was a mistake to come here with you. I should have just gone home.”

“Wait,” he says. He puts his hand on my arm, but I shake it off. “Just listen to what I have to say, Oli.”

“Don’t call me that,” I say, unsettled by the tone of familiarity I hear in his voice. “You don’t get to call me that.”

“I’ve been calling you that for the last three years.”

“I’ve never met you before. I don’t know who you are or what you want from me.”

“I want to talk to you,” he says. “Explain this all to you.”

I shake my head. People in the coffee shop are staring at us, but I don’t care. “There’s nothing to explain. Whatever you’re doing, stop. If I see you again, I’ll call the cops.”

“Wait,” Arthur says, but I don’t. I push my way through the crowded shop and out into the rain, leaving the umbrella behind. I don’t care about getting wet. I don’t want to touch anything of his anymore. Of course he follows me. Of course he does.

“I’m calling the police!” I shout, but I remember I didn’t even bring my phone with me, that it’s on the kitchen counter at home, where I left it after running away from Christopher this morning.

Arthur is tall and his stride is long, and even almost running as I am, he catches up to me in seconds. He  puts his hand on my shoulder and I spin around. My hands are in fists, and I swing at him without thinking, catching him against his shoulder. “Get away from me!” I yell.

“Just take this,” he says quietly. He has something in his hand, and I am terrified that it is a knife or a gun, but I see that it’s nothing like that. It’s an envelope, held clenched in his fist.

“Take it and I’ll go.”

“You’re a psycho,” I say.

“Take it,” he repeats. He holds it out for me.

I snatch it from him. “Don’t follow me,” I say. I turn and walk quickly away, glancing at him as I turn the corner of the street my car is parked on. He stands where he stopped, neither following me nor walking away, watching me go.

My head is aching as I get into my car. I lock the doors and let the shakes I’ve been holding in come, not trying to put the key into the ignition yet, nowhere near ready to think about driving away. I look into the mirror, expecting to see Arthur coming up the sidewalk, but the sidewalk is empty. I watch for a full minute, but he doesn’t appear, and I begin to get myself slowly back under control. The pressure in my head eases.

I realize I am still holding the envelope I took from Arthur. I don’t want it. It feels like snakeskin in my hand. I unlock my door and open it, intending to throw the envelope out into the street, but I stop myself when I see something written on the front of it.

Olivia.

My name.

My handwriting.

Olivia.

I shut the car door, slide my finger under the envelope’s flap, and tear it open.