“Why do white men always write stories about themselves?” the customer said as she browsed through scrubs. “There’s so much pressure to tell the man’s side of the story, and then we get the same story over and over again. It’s like there’s someone out there, subtly pulling strings to keep the rest of us from telling our stories, you know?”
“Sure,” Fiona Skye said from her position behind the register. “It’s definitely prevalent. Find everything you’re looking for?”
“Yeah,” the customer muttered, holding two different scrub tops up to herself, looking in the mirror. “I’m trying to decide if I want to have sort of a fun and fresh look or a ‘zesty-but-professional.”
“Which hospital do you work at?” Fiona said. “Is there a specific kind they ask you to get?”
“Oh, hon, I don’t work at a hospital,” the customer said, giggling. “I work at the weed clinic on Colfax. They let you wear whatever, so long as you’re scrubbed while handling the product. Gives us more credibility.”
“How much do they pay you?” Fiona said.
“I volunteer, but they cover expenses like this.”
“Somebody must get paid there.”
“Sure, the guy who runs the place. He’s young enough to be my son, get this. He talks about what he’s doing like it’s some sort of charity. A world where people can get the right bud for an affordable price. Betcha he’s just some rich kid trying to get paid to blaze.”
“Still,” Fiona said, “he’s doing what he loves.”
The customer snorted. She reminded Fiona of Octavia Spencer, but Fiona worried she was just making that comparison because she’d done a double feature night with her friend of Hidden Figures and The Help.
“Tell me one thing that makes him different than a manager at Five Guys.”
The customer snapped her finger and nodded.
“Exactly. ‘He does what he loves’ might as well be keyword for ‘he doesn’t have to do something someone else didn’t want to. I mean–and hey, no offense–do you really love being a clerk at a uniform shop?”
“I love seeing people in uniform,” Fiona said wryly, and they both laughed.
“What’s your job, then, if I may ask,” Fiona said.
“Me? I run a yoga studio. Also on Colfax. I love it. But I used to be a manager at Five Guys.”
Fiona took her card, and saw her name was Sharon Levinson.
“Have a good day, Sharon,” Fiona said.
“Hey, you too,” Sharon said. “And come visit me at the studio sometime. I’ll give you a ‘Sharon likes you’ discount.”
“Sounds good,” Fiona said with a smile. “Got any plans for Valentine’s Day?”
“Do I?” Sharon said. “No, but hopefully my man has something planned. His name is Bristol, like that Palin girl who got pregnant. I gave him such a hard time about it that I think I gaslighted him into loving me. Gaslighted…gas–lit? Neither sounds right. What about you, got a gentleman caller?”
“Something like that,” Fiona said. “How’s this? His name is Alister, he wears an opera coat, and in a previous life we were husband and wife, and we fought hate together. But then I got infected with it, and he kissed it, and now his face is all deformed from it, so he only visits me at night when it’s dark. And we talk about all kinds of things.”
Sharon gave her a slightly peeved look.
“So you’re one of those people who calls it ‘Singles Awareness Day.’ Well, you have made me very aware of your singleness. That is probably the most elaborate ‘no’ I’ve ever heard. And one time a guy who stood me up claimed his mother had died. She had. But still.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Fiona said. “I mean, yeah, I will be spending Valentine’s Day alone. But I like to write stories. I know it sounds crazy, but you feel a lot less alone when you have so many images of so many different people in your head. It feels like you have this whole…coterie of friends you once knew, and might know again. And you’re so happy you know them.”
Sharon looked like she had a quip ready, but conceded: “That’s a cool way to look at it. It’s like role play, but with yourself.” Her lips twitched into a smile. “And that is something I have said aloud in my life.”
Fiona laughed. “I have some friends who get together for a Galentine’s Day. Sometimes we play games, other times we watch movies. There was one time we marathoned the whole Sleepaway Camp series. It’s good fun. It’s not like we’re disinterested in having a date for Valentines, it’s just that we’re often busy for one reason or another. And when you get around to February, you just want to be with people you care about.”
“I get that,” Sharon said. “Hey, sorry if I’m keeping you from doing other things, I don’t know what your duties are here, but you’ve got me curious about your writing. Do you keep a blog or something?”
“Nah,” Fiona said. “I write it for me. Feels more real. Like this secret adventure I only know about.”
“You’re telling me, is it still secret?”
“Sure, because there’s no proof I wrote any of it down.”
“True. Well, I better go. Weed waits for no one, but it makes waiting a hell of a lot easier.”
With Sharon gone, the shop was completely empty. A Muzak version of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was playing for what had been the seventh time that day, which meant Fiona had one hour left in her shift.
She walked up to one uniform in particular that always fascinated her. It was a mail delivery uniform, but it looked military in its dark green color, oddly familiar. She liked to imagine her character and Alister had worn this while on the deck of some spaceship, bound for Jupiter’s moon of Io–or maybe Europa.
She confessed to herself that she felt a little funny about the whole fictional gentleman caller thing. She hoped Sharon had seen it as a joke; she was trying to make it sound like that.
Well, it did sound funny, didn’t it?
She shrugged, dismissing her worry, and closed up the shop.
Fiona arrived at her apartment in Valley Village around 6 pm, and microwaved a frozen Mediterranean wrap she had found at Ralph’s that she knew couldn’t possibly taste as good as she was fantasizing it would. She sat at her couch, which she’d had since college and had made the trek with her all the way from Indiana to California, and watched reruns of The Wonder Years on Netflix for a while.
After a couple episodes, she stood, stretched, then shut the blinds and practiced twerking. She didn’t have much to shake, but the odd sensation of having any part of your body move that fast and rhythmically was endlessly entertaining to her. She knew twerking was kind of going out, but at the same time, she wasn’t really doing it for anyone. For good measure she played some dubstep as she gave it a try. She didn’t worry about bothering her upstairs neighbors, they were currently yelling loudly at each other and, from the sound of it, tossing things about. In this manner, she was relatively quiet as a mouse.
After she twerked to exhaustion, she boiled some water and made hot cocoa, then did a crossword as she listened to a podcast. It was a night like most other nights, and the familiarity and liberty of it made her feel glad.
Then she went to sleep.
The dream always began with a gentle beat, like the plucking of distant piano strings, the singing of distant violins. She would see darkness, and then drops of blood hitting the ground, roses growing with each drop.
Alister Rhodes was nearby.
She was awoken into the dream gently by hand on her shoulder.
She could never quite make out the owner’s face; he seemed to be hiding in the shadows.
Slowly, blood dripped from his sleeves, red flowers growing out of the puddles it left. It was all at once grotesque and romantic.
“Hello, Alister,” she said quietly.
“Good evening, Fiona,” Alister said. “I’ve missed you.”
“How long has it been?” she said.
“Thirty years,” he said quietly.
She widened her eyes. “It’s been a single day for me.”
“One day can change everything,” he said meekly.
“What have you been doing? Those thirty years?” she said.
“Wandering,” he said. “Looking for a cure. A cure for this horrible affliction, that makes me too ashamed to even show my face.”
“That’s a long time to want to hide from me,” she said, quietly. She sighed. “Alister…I know you’ve been visiting me ever since I’ve moved out here…and for you, it’s been so much longer. But I don’t think you should come anymore.”
“If that is your wish,” he said quietly.
“I need to live my life,” Fiona said. “Meeting you has brought me great joy, but I’ve found this conviction to truly embrace my identity as one who loves who they are, and is fine living alone. And, if I do ever meet someone that I wish to spend my life with, I don’t want them to have to share me.”
“Of course,” Alister said, hurriedly. “If that is the case, then, could I stay with you until night’s end?”
“Only if I can see your face,” Fiona said.
“Yes, at night’s end,” Alister said. “You will see it.”
“Won’t you tell me any more of why you have the deformity?”
“I’m afraid that if I tell you too much, it will spread to your reality. And here, you are safe,” he said. “I think it’s safest to say it is an infection of pure hate, and it spread to my face.”
“You don’t seem hateful,” she said.
“I have learned to fight it for many years,” he said. “To live with it. And I thought if I lived with it, maybe I could find a way that others wouldn’t have to. That is–as they say–the long and the short of my life.”
“I still work at the uniform store,” she said. “There’s an outfit there that reminds me of yours. I made a friend today. She runs a yoga studio. I think I might visit.”
“How go your own dreams?” Alister said, sitting at the foot of her bed.
“Owning a bookstore?” she said, laughing. “I can’t think of anything more fanciful. I don’t even mention it to people anymore. It seems a bit frivolous. I mean, if you look at the world all around us, there’s these two extremes: one is this icky, almost hypermodernist push to be ‘extraordinary’ in ways that are actually just greed by another name. Then there’s this other push to be extraordinary as a woman or as a minority, because the hypermodernist greed mongers are going to do everything they can to take all of your personal liberties away. But the thing is, if you fight them, will you miss out on the joy of just being you? I don’t know. I have dreams, passions, and aspirations. But I’m so damned comfortable the way things are. Why does everything have to be a fight?”
Alister listened in silence, and she imagined he was smiling.
“You make me happy,” he said finally.
“Well, I’m glad. I hope I make me happy too,” she said with a laugh.
“Living well is difficult,” Alister said. “In my search for a cure, I met a boy once who wanted to be a great real estate executive. But he was so obsessed with making things hard for himself, and overcoming obstacles, that he didn’t go very far. And he was even aspiring to be one of those greedmongers you speak of.”
“Maybe I’ll get to be a greedmonger then,” she said with a laugh. “Did you know that one percent of Fionas hold ninety-nine percent of all the wealth?”
Alister laughed. “I will miss talking to you,” he said.
“Is there…is there anything I can do for you, before you go?” Fiona said.
“You could dance with me,” he said.
“I’m not very good at dancing,” she said. “I’m pretty good at twerking, though. Wanna see?”
He laughed. “Sure.”
She tried to give him a demonstration, but it was dark and she tripped when her foot slipped on one of her shirts, that she had left on the vinyl floor of her bedroom. He knelt to catch her, and the moonlight caught his face.
She gasped in astonishment at his physiognomy; his head was swollen and black, forming a swirl that blocked his eyes, and twisted his lips. She was amazed that he was so softly and gently spoken, for gentle movements of the lips must have been impossible. His face was almost like a spiral, two tiny eyes peaking between the upper folds.
A gasp came from within him, though his mouth did not move.
“It’s okay,” she said quietly. “I wish I could have seen you sooner. You are beautiful, Alister.”
“Hate is not beautiful.”
“Maybe what you are is something different…” she touched his face, feeling the hardened skin, which reminded her of obsidian lava floes. “Maybe love and hate, when living together….twist each other…until they are something new. Like a work of art.”
She pulled him close, and kissed him, and he was unable to kiss her back.
“No, don’t…” he whispered. “You’ll catch it.”
“You’re just a dream,” she said quietly. “If I were to catch this disease, then the flowers that grow from your blood would be littered about my room, more and more each morning. You would not have to wander for decades between our meetings. And I could tell people, without disguising it as a joke, that I was in love with a man named Alister Rhodes.”
“You do love me?” he said quietly.
“I loved you ever since I drew a picture of you as a little girl,” Fiona said. “Ever since I knew there were no men in Muncie like Alister Rhodes, my fictional hero. That I would have to travel very far to meet someone like him.”
“Why must I leave, then?” he said quietly. “Why not try to fight the illusion, make dream and reality one?”
Her eyes grew wet, and he became out of focus, but still she stared at him, this hideous, beautiful monster.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Alister. If you are not real, then we are both free. And maybe you will find a cure. It would be more selfish for me to hold onto you, in this half reality. It’s not sustainable for either of us. But if I let you go, maybe one day I will write of you, or maybe I’ll own that book store, or maybe I’ll do any little thing my heart desires. And I can think of you with a fondness; your memory can be like kindling for the flame of my own self-fulfillment, and so too will I kindle yours.”
“It feels like I’ve been doing that very thing, though…” Alister said. “The time between our visits is long for me.”
“What if you were unable to find a cure for fear that it would keep you from seeing me again?” Fiona said, quietly.
Alister was quiet.
“I’ve seen so many people,” Fiona said. “They were so afraid of being alone that they quietly abused the fact that their friends would take them in. And it made them less of a person, despite being very wealthy in friendship. Or love, or what have you. And I’ve been thinking about it, I think my own sense of inertia in my life is a way of rebelling against the static nature of our relationship. All these rules–you can’t be real, I can’t see your face. I don’t want to be harsh. But I need to start making my own rules, so I can figure out which ones I truly believe in.”
“I’ll always love you, Fiona,” Alister said. “But I don’t worry that you’ll be terrific out there.”
“I like that you’ve always said ‘terrific,’” Fiona said. “It’s so much less apocalyptic than ‘great’ and less ironic than ‘wonderful.’”
“At the end of the day, terrific is the best anyone can hope to be,” Alister said. “And I’ve realized I think just about everyone is terrific.”
“Dance with me,” Fiona said.
Few enjoy the sensation that Fiona had, as she and Alister danced to “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, which Fiona purchased from iTunes the night she had realized the man visiting her in her sleep was the same man she had imagined as a child. It was this sensation of knowing you were living in the present a memory that you would never want to forget the rest of your life. She wondered if this was what ancient religions were really trying to talk about when they said heaven was forever. She found the spiral of Alister’s face dizzying, and the way his blood dripped in circles as they moved in circles, and flowers in turn sprung up in circles, dozens upon dozens of roses that she knew would be missing upon waking, but smelled sweeter than the finest florist.
And she knew she would see Alister Rhodes again, but it would be many many years for both of them, and it would be after they had forgotten the names Alister and Fiona, but before they had forgotten the sense of wistfulness and nostalgia they felt whenever their souls were near each other.
“Good bye, Fiona,” Alister whispered as the sun began to peak through the blinds. “Good bye, my friend, my love, my inspiration.”
“Until we meet again, Alister,” she said, “a friend the likes of which I had never dreamt.”
They stood still as the sun stormed the window, filling the room with a blinding golden light. She wanted that moment to last forever, and stare at him a little while longer, and in a way her longing for this made it so.
Even still, she awoke, alone, in her bed, refreshed.
She looked at her clock.
9 AM. Saturday. She could do anything.
She dug through the pile of clothes on her floor for some yoga pants, and this one T-shirt she liked with a hand on it and an eye.
She applied sunscreen; she didn’t want to take her chances with the blinding rays today, even if she’d be spending it in a yoga studio and on a bus.
And she found she was excited for who she would meet there, and she found she hoped that Sharon might become a friend, and she laughed as she imagined sharing a joint after yoga.
It was a new morning in so many ways.
“What a full life I have lived,” Fiona said. “What a full life I am living. What a full life I have yet to live.”
14 February 2017
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