It’s here — the shortest night of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere), a good a reason as any to join in the International Short Story Day celebrations across the globe and (re)post a short piece of fiction that first appeared in The Potomac.
“I have a surprise for you,” he whispers, his finger tracing her brow. Pushing back the hair falling into her eyes. She looks up, he looks down. He likes her smile, the moist lips pink and hesitant. She loves his eyes, fierce and blue until his gaze shifts. At which point the blue dissolves to gray, the fierceness diminishes. He grabs her arm, plants a kiss on her neck. The lights dim. Let’s get closer to the stage, he says.
Standing in front of them are two girls, one with long black hair, the other a spiked blonde. The girl with long black hair, the older of the two, has her arm around the spiked blonde. When they turn to kiss one another Caroline notices the butterflies, one red, one blue, on each of their shoulders. She turns to look at Tom, his full beard bobbing like a bottled message in this sea of goth and scruff. Wonders if too much weed has dulled, rather than enhanced, his senses. She feels silly, out of place, almost glad that she’s been spared the anxieties she believes inherent in being the mother of a teenager (not to mention the steady dose of ear-splitting music she’d be forced to tolerate). Right behind her a whirlpool is forming, threatens to suck her in. She feels a shoulder bump against hers, sees one butterfly, then another, lifted above the crowd. One of the boys hoisting the blonde loses his grip. Tom comes to the rescue, keeps her up in the air.
“Happy anniversary,” he says, when they are back home. He is teasing her, slowly unbuttoning his shirt, filling her with anticipation for what he believes she’ll love. His surprise. She sits back, propped against the pillows on the bed; he remains standing, oblivious to the cat looping her way between his legs. Catherine’s eyes follow his fingers, moving down his shirt, button by button. She inches closer to him, reaches for his belt, his bulging zipper. He stops her, makes her wait. She thinks she knows what he wants, slips her hand into her jeans. An anniversary peep show. He smiles, so sure that his present has had the desired effect. He removes her hand, replaces it with his lips, his tongue. It is only then that she sees it, the surprise. A tattoo on his right forearm, a red rose cutting through two words. Catherine, always.
“Go ahead, touch it.” He takes her hand, coaxes her fingers, tense and resistant, up his arm. She feels bumps, his gooseflesh, imagines a thorn pricking her finger. Tears roll down her cheek. “I thought you’d be pleased.” He knew she loved flowers, a single red rose her favorite. She looks up, into his eyes, shadowed with age. Wants to tell him there are certain things that cannot be fixed. But something (a thorn, she thinks) has lodged in her throat. He believes she is overwhelmed, crying from joy. He continues kissing her, she continues crying. Through her tears she sees rose petals unfolding. On his arms. On his legs. Catherine, always. Always Catherine.Until his body is completely covered in tattoos.
As soon as she says it – stop trying to be twenty-five – she is filled with regret.
Twenty-five was the one and only time she had gotten pregnant. Tom was standing outside the abortion clinic. His smile was sympathetic, welcoming. Across the street were people passing out flyers with words that torture language and pictures that should never have been taken. Don’t let them scare you, he’d said. He would not let her lose her right to choose. She was alone that day, he helped her into a taxi. Choose me, he’d said the next day when he called, offered to bring her some chicken soup. Over what? she asked. Over whom? She thought he was arrogant, presumptuous, a predator with an appetite for vulnerable women. Despite the presumptuousness (or because of it), she opted for the soup. “Aren’t you glad you chose me?” he asked months later, the night he proposed. He held up two tickets, floor seats, to the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. On their first anniversary he took her to see Springsteen. For their fifth he rented a room at the Plaza, surprised her with tickets to the Clapton concert. Pretend it’s him, he said to her in their hotel room after the show. Pretend he’s the one here with you. Nothing was as pure to him as the language of music, a primal fixative to the hardness of words, the broken compass that led down roads of twisted perception. The doctors had her believing she would never conceive, not without the help of science with its needles and pills and search for big answers. She was already thirty-five, they reminded her. The longer she waited the harder it would get. Their words—infertility, in vitro—were like ice to her ears. She pleaded with Tom to stop smoking pot, it reduced his sperm count. He laughed, whispered a word (invasive), his one concession to the big fucking mind game being played at her expense. All it took was a little imagination, a rich fantasy, a rock-n-roll heart to alter the synapse, make the writing disappear and the wall crumble. She had never made love to him the way she did that night.
She stares at his back as he buttons up his shirt, holds her breath as he heads into the living room, does his own form of sulking with loud, angry music. Her fingers, nervous for something to hold on to, reach for the charm around her neck, the turtle dangling from a cluster of moonstone and quartz. The turtle was a replacement for the silver cricket, which replaced the gold ankh with the tiny diamond. The cat (the latest in his series of good luck charms) leaps onto the bed, purrs her affectionate demand. Catherine sinks her fingers into Genie’s soft fur, rubs her back, asks for something sweet, simple, maybe a Clapton song telling her how wonderful she looks. Tonight.
“You’re sure about this,” says Tom. Catherine nods, certain of nothing but the gestures that have come to take the place of words. The man with the eagle on his arms (he calls himself a shaman) directs her to a table where she lies down, her face turned to a wall, not crumbling, filled with tattoos. He places his hand over her sacrum, begins humming (an incantation?), tells her, in a voice that is like warm honey, about the powerful energy of a circle (the moon) inscribed within a triangle (her sacrum). She lets out a gentle sigh, closes her eyes. Imagines Tom’s mouth sweeping an arc across her back. Eclipsing the inky moon whose reflection is all she’ll ever see.