March 1, 2015

Begin The Begin

This is a short fiction piece that I read on February 27th at The Story Slam by Studio B:

Begin the Begin

"As he glanced downward, she caught a glimpse of the dull flecks of loneliness he'd been hiding. He had such sad eyes."

The mysterious "she" was a woman that Cole had noticed a few months ago.  He had stopped by the fountain at Lincoln Center. It was just before 7 PM.  Lincoln Center at dusk was a favorite people-watching spot of his. Cole sat with his back pressed against the outer lip of the fountain and his arms around his knees.  He was wearing a grey windbreaker and a pair of jeans.  Couples bubbled and buzzed all around him.

Except for this one woman he had noticed. She was standing alone on the opposite side of the fountain. She was pretty in a pixie-kind of way, with short blond hair, wearing jeans and a white tee. She had Canon SLR camera on a strap around her neck, and her eyes slowly tracked the scene before her. He noticed that her eyes were different colors, one green and one brown. Cole was looking right at her as she snapped a picture of him sitting against the fountain, checked it in the viewfinder, and then looked back up at him with an amused half-smile.

Cole reached his hands to the ground and rolled forward and popped to his feet. He hadn't thought about it, but he realized he was walking over to the pixie photographer. He would later learn her name was Ella.

The summer sun began its descent and the edges of the sky were a soft burnt orange.  The crowd retreated to the air conditioning and classical music.  She was still looking at him, directly at him.  And she was standing, watching, waiting.  Her right hip was slightly shifted to the side.

Her confidence, real or imagined, was off-putting, and as Cole approached her, he realized he had no idea what he was going to say.

* * *

It was a chilly Sunday in September, and Ella was sipping on a hot tea.

They had slipped easily and comfortably into this . . . togetherness.  It felt good.

Back at her apartment that afternoon, he rubbed her naked back.

He drew small circles on her skin with his finger, and she closed her eyes. He was gentle. He kissed her neck. He rested his head in the curve of her back.

* * * 

It's 4:30 AM. Winter. He is standing on the sidewalk, looking at her building. Three months, he thinks. It has been over three months since he had last been here.

He hesitates at the base of the stairs.  Like the first time he saw her, he thinks, at Lincoln Center. He doesn't know what he is going to say. He walks up the stairs and rings the bell.

The door opens, and she's there. Ella cocks her head to the side and opens her mouth to speak but doesn't. She had woken up a few minutes ago, like she knew he was coming. This - and not his arrival - made her feel uneasy, confused. Getting over her surprise, she looks up at him and into his eyes, trying to get a read on him.

 Cole looks away. Then back at her. "Sorry to come by so early," he says. "I mean - I know – it’s been a while." He shoves his hands in his pockets and looks down, now unsure of himself.

She smiles sweetly and - in a familiar gesture - sweeps her hair from her eyes, "No. I - ... Just come in. It's good to see you.  Really. It's good."

She puts up water for tea. They sit on the floor next to each other, with their backs against the couch and the other three sides surrounded by hundreds of  black-and-white photos she had taken last evening.

"These are really good," he says quietly.

"Thank you. Nice of you to say."

They are tentative. Slow.  It feels like they are wrapped in gauze; the space between them where there should be nothing is stuffed with a barrier layer of cotton. It's uncomfortable, but it also has a calming effect. They feel their way through.

Two cups of cold tea sit next to them on the floor.

"I miss you, Ella."

"I miss you too. But." Her last word hung out there . . .


"But it wasn't working. Remember? You weren't happy. We weren't happy."

It was hard for Cole to remember. But he did. It was true. He hadn't been happy.

"I know," he said, "But..."  He reached his hand over her shoulder and rested it on the nape of her neck. Reflexively, his thumb moved up and down the length of her neck. It soothed him.

"Cole, I'm really confused. It's nice to see you, but I'm not sure why you're here."

They sit quietly. They move next to each other, so their legs touch. It’s easy and familiar. She reaches over and drapes a knit afghan over both of them.  His fingers graze against the back of her neck and against the back of her head.

They sleep.

* * *

Moving from night to morning (or in this case from early morning to the waking-up part of morning) often bends time. It compresses and elongates like an accordion. You wake up mere seconds after falling asleep only to glance at the clock and find out that seven hours have passed.  Or, like today, you fall asleep at 3:45 AM, and rise at 5:50 AM, feeling restored, like you've been asleep for days.  Ella's eyes open, green and brown.  The memory of his hand on her feels like his touch.

A small smile.  A big stretch.  And she sits up.

She knows that Cole must have been watching her sleep, but she doesn't see him.

As she presses her hands against the floor to get up, she brushes against a photo.  One of hers, but one she hasn't seen before.

It's black and white, like the rest of them.  But this one is of Cole.  He is sitting on her floor, surrounded by her photos, watching her sleep.  His eyes are calm, but sad.  Because he is with her, but he is also alone.

Ella begins to cry.

She knows that she is alone.

He's not there.

And he never was.