Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Ring

I’ve stumbled through many relationships. There was Allie who told me that she was no good. I didn’t listen, so she stopped talking. There was Michelle. She and I never did get in sync. When I wanted to get something going, she was pining. When she got over her past, I’d moved on. There was Carolyn. We slept together on our first date. Most awkward mistake I ever made, probably for her too.

And there was Candy. There was something about her. It’s been almost 30 years since I last saw her and I’ve never freed her from my mind.

Our first date was a drive and a picnic at Snoqualmie Falls. It was one of those first dates with few awkward silences, my only such date first or otherwise, ever. We drove up and back deep in conversation.

“I love golden retrievers. They’re so beautiful,” she said.
“Me too… And huskies,” I said.
“Oh, I love those. Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” she said.
“Very,” I said. …

We spent the entire afternoon enjoying the view – her, the mist as the water tumbled toward the rocks below, and me, her curves beneath her long chaste wool dress as I caressed the small of her back.

When I dropped her off at her apartment that night, she turned to me to say “Thank you” and I said “You’re welcome” by giving her a sudden, awkward kiss. She looked confused. She didn’t pull away, but she didn’t say anything either, the one awkward silence.

I’ve never had a hard time getting lost. It’s a joke, sort of. I have a sign outside my bedroom door that reads “Bathroom” with an arrow pointing the way.

I had it all worked out. We would start the evening with dinner at 4:30 at Bartleby’s, a quaint Irish place, and then a movie at 6:15 – Raising Arizona. It all hinged on finding Bartleby’s, a family favorite from her childhood. She said, “I’ll show you how to get there.”

Traffic was a snarl. Look up “frustration” and you’ll find “trying to get anywhere at 4:30 on a Friday in Seattle.” Just a few blocks from our destination with its green sign glowing like a beacon through the drizzling rain, I was faced with a decision.

“Turn left up here,” she said.
I started to change lanes.
“No, I mean right.”
I switched my blinkers.
“No, go left!”

I swerved into the other lane, got honked at, and turned left. And it only took a moment to realize we were in trouble. We were heading out of town across a floating bridge with no way out until Clyde Hill.

It was bumper to bumper all the way across, the memory of Bartleby’s fading.
“I’m so sorry,” she said pulling her collar up and tucking it under her chin and pulling her sleeves down into her fists as if trying to disappear into her wool dress.

“It’s okay,” I said.
“You really must hate me … Don’t you?”
“Don’t be silly. I love you.”

We drove in silence until we reached Bartleby’s at 5:45. We ate and drank and drank some more until time to leave for the 8:30 Raising Arizona. As babies tumbled from a crib atop Nicholas Cage, I couldn’t stop laughing. I looked over at her and there was a single tear on her cheek. I watched it in the flickering light as it finished its journey and dripped from her chin. I squeezed her hand.

It was the only time I’ve ever cried as an adult.

I’d just spent a week away from Candy while her ex-boyfriend Phil was in town. She’d told me, “We spent so much time together. I can’t just tell him I can’t see him.” I was finally with her again after he’d gone back home to Chicago.

I suddenly felt my whole body shaking and I didn’t know what was happening until she started pleading, “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”

I rested my head in her lap. I could barely feel the warmth and softness of her flesh through the layers of wool. I looked up at her, for comfort. She was distractedly pulling her turtleneck as far up her neck as it would reach.

“Why do you keep doing that?” I demanded.
She kept tugging.
“Stop it!”

She got up and left the room. Not mad, not hurt, just confused. We ended up making out that evening. We always ended up making out. But I drove home feeling her confusion.

I type her name into Google. “Candy Morrison.” There are about 11,000,000 results including images of a nude model with very large breasts. After spending a moment eyeing those, I scroll down hoping for some sign of my Candy.

Google is amazing. I can usually find anything about everything. Why am I having such a hard time finding what’s become of her?

I was smitten. Only days after tears had overwhelmed me, I’d almost forgotten about Phil – and Candy was trying hard to please me as if still feeling my harsh words. She kept pulling her collar down and pushing her sleeves up past her elbows. There was something lighter about the fabric of her dress and her lips were the shiniest I’d ever seen them.

The excitement of seeing so much exposed skin on her was intoxicating. Was she finally opening herself up to me? Maybe she’d needed that time alone with Phil so she could forget him?

Such were my thoughts as we cuddled on her couch, the passion of our kisses growing with each pause for breath. My fumbling hands found the zipper at the base of her neck and began to glide the tab downward, slowly separating the teeth. The zipper offered no resistance and she didn’t either. I kept kissing her and she kept kissing me back.

The tab slid past her lower back and I paused to press my hand against her skin. It felt softer, smoother than I’d imagined. I slid the tab until it stopped at the top of her panties and then, unannounced, her dress tumbled from her shoulders revealing tiny bare breasts, perfect morsels. Instinctively I took one into my mouth.

I looked up into her eyes expecting an invitation to continue and saw instead the fear of a wounded, terrified, cornered doe. Guilt hit me. I suddenly felt a rapist.

I placed her dress back over her shoulders and slid the tab back up along her backbone, re-clenching the teeth along the way. I sat back against the throw pillows at the end of the couch catching my breath. She curled up against the pillows at the other end, the couch seeming twenty feet long.

I didn’t know what to say so I started, “Candy, I love…”
She interrupted, “If I ever get pregnant, I’ll die.”

As always with Candy, she was dramatic one day, calm the next. I saw her two days later and she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt for the first time since I met her. She always looked sexy to me, but that day she was making me dizzy.

We were having lunch at her apartment and I noticed an unopened letter on the counter. It was from him. She had it in plain sight just begging for me to notice it. When she saw I had, she said, “It’s over. I wanted you to see that so you could see this.” She picked it up and tore it in half, dramatically dropping the halves into the garbage.

Her gesture was a relief to me. But in bed that night I imagined her fishing it back out, reading it tearfully, and leaving the next day for Chicago, never to be seen again. It felt like a “do something now or it’s over” moment. The fear of losing her kept me awake.

The next day I called her best friend Marlene and asked her to meet me at the mall. We spent four hours going from one jewelry store to the next. I trusted she knew Candy’s taste better than anyone.

“What do you think?” I asked, pointing at a ½ carat Marquise.
“Have you dropped any hints?” she asked.
“Sure I have… Or do you think she’d prefer that one?” I pointed at a round cut.
“What has she said?” she asked.
“I think I like the round one best,” I said.
Quietly, she said, “No, I think she’s more of a Marquise girl.”

The whole time I knew her I only saw Candy drive once. She was terrified, but she wouldn’t tell me why. She just insisted that I always drive. This complicated my big evening.

I wanted to pop the question in my living room before a roaring fire after a nice meal over glasses of wine. It was just some romantic image I had floating through my head. This meant that I would have to drive across town to pick her up and drive her all the way back to my place, something sure to arouse suspicion. She’d never seen my house before.

“Where are we going?” she asked.
“It’s a surprise.” I said.
“Oh,” she said.

I pulled into my driveway and parked. “I thought it was about time you saw my place,” I said.

I hopped out and started toward the door and saw that she was still sitting in the car. Like a gentleman, I went back and opened her door for her. I allowed her to go ahead of me. “After you,” I said.

I unlocked the front door and pushed it inward. She hovered over the threshold for a moment before going inside. Dinner had been slow cooking all day. “It smells really good in here,” she finally said.

And it did. I had everything planned. I was setting the perfect mood. The table was set and candles were already flickering in the dimly lit dining room. I’d been waiting for years to finally share my house with someone. Hopefully my queen-sized bed too that I’d bought two years earlier at the urging of a lady friend. She’d told me, “Come on. Go for it. You won’t be a bachelor forever.”

I took her coat, folded it carefully, and draped it on my bed. I returned to find her fiddling with my stereo, my copy of Kind of Blue in her hands. I remember thinking, “Girl has taste.” I took the record from her and told her to make herself at home while I put it on. Soon, we were relaxing on the couch, her with her eyes closed and head back, and me enjoying the sight of her while the strains of Miles Davis drifted through the room.

Dinner went as planned. Everything tasted perfect and by the third glasses of wine we were both laughing and listening to records like two college roommates.

As we moved to the fireplace with a fire already blazing, I was just drunk enough, just relaxed enough, and just happy enough to ignore how fast my heart was racing. The moment was here. Now I just had to do it.

“Candy. I said I have a surprise for you,” I said.
“Yes. Thank you. The evening has been wonderful,” she said.
“Yes it has. And I’m hoping we can have many more wonderful evenings,” I said, pulling the ring out of my pants pocket and holding it before her. I’ll never forget how it sparkled by the light of the fire. “Candy, will you marry me?” I said.

I looked into her eyes. They were deep and green and beautiful. I couldn’t tell what they were seeing, though. They were looking somewhere, but they weren’t looking back into my eyes.

“Take me home,” she said.
“What’s wrong? Please try it on,” I said.

She took the ring from my outstretched hand and rolled it around in her fingers. She handed it back and started walking toward the door. I followed. I didn’t know what else to do. When she went out the door, it was my turn to pause, hovering over the threshold. Then I stepped out into the night, closing the door behind us.

We drove back to her apartment in silence. She let herself out and as she closed the door I spoke my last word to her, “Candy…”

I started to feel the wine as I slowly drove home. I was lucky the cops were somewhere else that evening. Getting pulled over would’ve really made my night. When I got home, I poked at the embers until they were no longer glowing, went to the bathroom and stood before the mirror wondering why that guy staring back was such a loser, and then went to bed.

I finally started sobbing when I turned on my bedroom light and saw Candy’s coat still draped carefully across my queen-sized bed.

I type “Candy Morrison Phil” into Google and sit staring at the screen. Damn, Phil. Phil what? Candy never said his last name. Adding just “Phil” to my search isn’t going to get me any closer to the truth. It’ll just take me to a nude model with very large breasts again.

I click the search button anyway.

About a week after the big evening, I got a call from Marlene.

“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but Candy packed up and left for Chicago yesterday. I’ve never seen her like this,” she said.

I was speechless. I wasn’t over Candy. How can you get over someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with in only six days? I was still hoping she’d change her mind and ask me for the ring. It took me another two weeks after she left before I finally returned it to the jeweler.

“Scott? Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yes. Sorry. I have to go,” I said and hung up.

For the next two months, I didn’t do much. I sat around the house. I’d lost my taste for Kind of Blue and started listening to The Rolling Stones while drinking Jack Daniels. I remember “Dead Flowers” being a favorite.

I would go out and take long drives, nowhere in particular. One day, I was at a stop light and a familiar car drove through the intersection, a VW bug, vintage ’64. It jumped right out at me. It was light blue and had these funny, homemade bumpers made of oak. It belonged to Candy’s dad. But what made my heart race was Candy was driving.

When the light changed, I followed. She was driving slowly, cautiously as if the car was as fearful as her. I kept a safe distance feeling like a private investigator in some film noir. I followed her to the edge of town and away toward the mountains. We headed up the pass. I remembered her saying “Isn’t this drive gorgeous?” And I looked about and thought “Yes. It is.”

I knew where she was going long before she got there. It was no surprise that she took the turnoff for Snoqualmie Falls. I wondered why she was going there. The only time she’d ever been there was with me on our first date. Was she re-living that day? She parked near the lookout point and I parked at the far end of the parking lot and watched her from my car.

She got out and walked over to the railing and started fiddling with the coin operated telescope. There was a mom with her little girl standing nearby. The girl was licking a huge, rainbow colored lollypop. Candy kept looking over at them and then pretending to peer through the telescope.

The mom and girl wandered away out of sight eventually and I decided it was my chance to go try to talk to her. But before I could open the car door, in the blink of an eye, Candy climbed up onto the railing and jumped. I ran to the edge as fast as I could and looked down. Through the mist, I could see her body on the rocks far below.

I think “George,” “George Morrison.” That was her dad’s name. I type “Candy George Morrison Seattle” into Google and click “I’m feeling lucky.” And suddenly I find myself reading an obituary. George died just a few weeks ago from a freak fall from a ladder. He was survived by Candy (Morrison) Oaks and two grandchildren Jason and Olivia Oaks ages nine and eleven.

Oaks! Phil Oaks! I type “Candy Phil Oaks Chicago” into Google and there she is, or rather there they are. The first suggested image is of little Olivia holding up a trophy and wearing a swimsuit. Little Jason is frowning and Phil has his hand on Olivia’s shoulder. He’s smiling proudly.

Off to one side, a distance away, is Candy – looking older, but still my Candy. My eyes go straight to her hands tightly clutching the sleeves of her long, chaste wool dress.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Finn and Sam

The fingers of his left hand nimbly dance up and down the fret board, his right hand motionlessly plucking the strings in fanciful patterns. What comes out is from some magical place between folk and classical.

Finn has been playing guitar for seventeen years, ever since he was a boy of eight, but he’s never played with such passion. He’s performing for Sam, trying to set the mood. There’s a diamond ring resting in the pocket of his jeans draped over the bedpost waiting for the right moment, a moment they’ve both been anticipating since Valentine’s Day when she gave him pink heart shaped candies with the words “Marry Me” printed in rose red.

She’s 23. Her full name is Samantha, but don’t get caught calling her that. She’s sturdy, stocky and a Tomboy with a capital T. She wears her blond hair clipped short – to keep it out of her way. Brushing hair away from one’s eyes may be flirtatious fun for her friends, but it has no place in her life. Finn loves her hair short. Better to see her dazzling green eyes, her most striking feature. He’s been smitten since their first date when he narrowly escaped drowning in them.

Finn is her soul mate. He’s wiry, quiet and quick of foot and a bit softly effeminate of voice. His shadow could pass for a boy or a girl and nobody would think twice if he walked out the door one day wearing eye-liner or a wig. But androgyny can be a curious thing. He’s slight, but that didn’t keep him off the football field each fall. He could outrun the entire conference and was impossible to bring down. He wasn’t strong. He simply avoided being caught.

Sam is reclining on the bed with Finn, her head lazy from pot, his music fluttering about and smoke drifting over and through the curves of their naked bodies. She smiles, her mind lingering over the passions of the past hour. She looks up and is startled to see him smiling back. She blushes, kisses him on the rear end, and hops off the bed.

“I’m going to make coffee,” she says. She leaves, still naked, while Finn stretches out and continues playing, louder so Sam can still hear.

She pauses before entering the kitchen. The windows are boarded up, there are cracked open cases of canned food in the corner, and bottles of water line the counter top. She hesitates, wishing this reality would go away. She still hears him playing, but other sounds now fill her head – horrible, clawing, incessantly scratching sounds. She carefully pulls a knot-hole from a board covering the window and peeks outside. Her thighs begin to tremble slightly and she slaps them to make them stop.

“You really shouldn’t look outside?” Finn says as he covers her shoulders with her robe.

She slides the knot back into place and picks up a bottle of water. She crosses herself and says, “Please dear Mary,” before turning the knob on the stove. Flames ignite and burn brightly. They both know the day is coming when her prayer will no longer be answered. She starts making coffee.

“Time for my chore,” he says.
“Screw domesticity,” she says.
“You’re still making coffee,” he says.
She shrugs.

“I’ll be quick. Latch the door behind me.” Still naked, he plucks up a bag of garbage. “I’ll be quick. Don’t want anyone to see my bare ass.”

He unlatches the kitchen door and dashes outside; she quickly latches it behind him. She plucks the knot back out of the board covering the window and watches, her thighs immediately trembling again. She doesn’t care now.

Finn reaches the middle of the yard and then does a skidding, sharp turn like a character in a Roadrunner cartoon. Then he angles toward the end of the driveway where a dumpster has been pushed as far from the house as possible until its wheels got stuck in a patch of grass and mud. You can see the smell. Garbage bags are spilling all about. Garbage men stopped coming long ago. He makes it to the dumpster, but it is always the trip back that’s tricky.

The first to appear, blocking his path is Mr. Christianson from two houses down the street. He used to be a plumber and always wore the same green overalls and red cap. He always had a lively skip to his step, clearly a happy plumber. Today though, like every other day lately, he’s changed. He’s still wearing the cap and the overalls, but the skip has left his step. Instead, he staggers a bit sideways and then lunges forward, gradually moving about. His face is tight like a mask, frozen in a final grimace from the day he died. There’s tattered flesh on the side of his neck, rotten, dangling, and gray. His eyes stare ahead, determined.

Then, out of the corners of her eye, more appear, two from the left, three from the right, all of them blocking Finn’s path back to safety. Her thighs tremble faster.

Finn has been here before though. He gets a kick out of it. He gets down into a three-point stance, looks to the left, then to the right, and is off and running. He runs straight up to Mr. Christianson, stopping just short of his groping grasp, tweaks his red cap playfully and is around him with a quick sidestep and a twirl. He makes similarly easy work with the others as well, but he always cuts it too close for Sam. Her whole body is trembling as she unlatches the door, lets him in, and pushes it shut behind him. He notices her trembling and takes her in his arms and holds her.

She returns to the stove. He returns to the bedroom. She can hear the notes from his guitar again drifting out the bedroom door, down the hall, and through the living room as she pours two cups of coffee. She turns around and... One of the cups crashes to the floor.

Outside, Mr. Christianson slowly turns to see Finn prance back into the house. The other zombies gathering in the yard – nine by the time Finn escaped – all look confused and dejected, if such feelings can be attributed to the walking dead. But Mr. Christianson presses on, side-stepping and lunging after Finn as he has so many times previously. It’s a routine. Everything in the life of the dead is routine. Finn’s adventures outside are what he – uh – lives for.

He reaches the door. He stumbles against it and turns to stumble away, but is surprised to see the door swing inward. He wavers side to side with uncertainty and then shuffles inside. And there she is just a few feet away. He lets out a groan that emanates from his bowels as she turns toward him holding coffee cups, startled. Fear glazes her eyes. Her mouth opens but is silent. She drops one of the cups with a crash.

He lunges toward her. She’s trapped. She tries to run past him, but he reaches out and grabs hold. Zombies are dead, but they’re remarkably strong. She is in his grasp, helpless. She screams “Inside!” as rotting teeth sink into her shoulder.

Finn is relaxing on the bed, wiggling into his jeans with one hand while strumming his guitar with the other when he hears the cup shatter across the floor and hears her scream.

And he is instantly in motion, no movement wasted. He’s rehearsed this moment in his mind many times while hoping the tables would be turned and it would be Sam rushing to his aid. He’s off the bed in a flash, the guitar bouncing on the sheets, the box still ringing with his final notes. He runs from the room.

He grabs a Ruger Blackhawk from a holster on the wall in the hall without looking. No need to check if it’s loaded. It always is. He dashes through the living room and skids into the kitchen taking in the situation at a glance. Two more zombies are halfway in through the open door. Point blank he puts a bullet through the head of the first one and he crumples to the kitchen floor. He kicks the other in the chest and she tumbles backwards outside. He slams the door and latches it.

He turns, places the barrel against Mr. Christianson’s head and pulls the trigger. Brains and skull spray the kitchen wall. Sam breaks free and collapses into Finn’s arms. He holds her. They’re both sobbing now. A tear runs down his cheek as he watches blood from her bite wound pulse out, flow down her arm, and drip into a puddle on the floor.

Sam is breathing quickly and shallowly. Her shoulder is bandaged and she’s propped up against pillows on the bed. He takes the ring from his pocket and slips it onto her left ring finger. This, ever so briefly, coaxes out Sam’s last little smile.

Finn sits facing her, serenading her. The revolver rests on the bed beside him. He sings:

“Childhood living is easy to do/The things you wanted, I bought them for you/Graceless lady, you know who I am/You know I can't let you slide through my hands…”

The passion in his playing is laced with melancholy, the sadness a musician feels during a final performance. While he plays, he watches Sam’s final performance.

Every time she takes a breath, there is a terrible rattling sound in her chest like she’s drowning and her eyes become frightened. When she exhales, her arms stiffen and then she finds a bit of peace for a moment. And then the whole thing happens all over again, each time the peace lasting just a bit longer. Finally, the peace goes on and on. She doesn’t inhale again. Her head rolls slightly against the pillows and her eyes close.

Finn lays the guitar on the bed and picks up the revolver. He studies her face; waiting for the moment he knows is coming. Death always follows the same script nowadays.

It starts with her legs cramping up, toes turning inward. Then there is a gurgle from her belly and a flatulent smell. Her arms curl into an awkward position with her palms facing upward, her hands twisting into claws. Then her neck stretches to its full length and the skin on her face draws tight, her mouth assuming a wild animal snarl. And then her eyes pop open, staring straight ahead.

He tries not to meet her gaze. He just lifts the revolver and points it at her head. He closes his eyes and silently prays and then opens them again. She is sitting upright and one hand is groping toward him. And then his eyes meet hers and he can’t help it. He’s smitten all over again. Everything about her has become grotesque from head to toe, except her eyes, those dazzling green eyes as deep as the deepest pond. There’s nothing to save him this time. He drowns in them, willingly.

Finn forms a box with his hands, blocks everything else out, and looks into Sam’s eyes. And he suddenly has his love back on the bed with him. There is no horror in those eyes, no hunger to devour, just desperate pleading.

The gun drops from his hand. He blows her a kiss and walks from the room. He opens the kitchen door and goes outside. The zombies have dispersed and he heads toward the woods behind the house. He’s in no hurry. As long as he keeps walking, he knows they won’t be able to catch him.

He walks deep into the woods, darker and still deeper, until he abruptly emerges into a clearing. He stands before an almost perfectly round pool with a stream trickling in on one side and another trickling the water away again on the other. There is a bit of sand and a bench. He sits facing the water.

He and Sam used to come here to relax before the zombies. He has so many memories here with her. Now, they flood is mind.

He used to be so nervous when he performed on amateur nights at the Sand Dollar. He’d spend his minutes of preparation in the men’s room trying to throw up, but failing. Not even that relief was going to help get him through the evening. He’d take the stage and sheepishly gaze into the darkness, lights glaring in his eyes. He’d start playing, fearing that his fingers had forgotten what to do, but the music always found its way out. He was never sure what the crowd thought. All he’d hear was shuffling of chairs and clinking of bottles.

One night when he wrapped up and started putting his guitar back into its case, he heard polite applause and was pleased that it lasted long enough to seem sincere. Then he heard a single voice coming from far away, booing.

He got up to leave and turned as the house lights came up. He could see a young woman seated at a table in the far corner booing; or rather it was a parody of booing. She kept cupping her hands over her smiling mouth to help her voice carry and then she’d resume clapping. When she realized she’d been spotted, she waved. A waitress arrived at the same moment and sat two beers on the table.

They wasted no time. The evening’s conversation covered all the bases. Same religion: check. Both wanted kids: check. Both wanted about three kids: check. (She preferred boys, he girls.) Who is better, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles? Why, the Kinks of course: check. They were between the sheets together that night. Within a week, they didn’t bother with sheets, they just ran out into the woods, stripped, and jumped into the pond together.

One night, they pitched a tent just a few feet from the water’s edge. They spent the night making love to a symphony of crickets and frogs. He awoke in the morning while she was still sleeping. While walking back to the house to shower for work he noticed something in his pockets, pebbles maybe? He started pulling out little Valentine’s Day candies, every one bearing the words “Marry Me.” He turned around and spent the entire day with her in that tent.

Finn hears the crunching of leaves and turns his head, expecting to see zombies, perhaps with Mr. Christianson leading the way. Instead, he sees Sam slowly moving toward him. She’s gripping his guitar in one hand, its body dragging the ground emanating curious vibrations like music.

She staggers up to the bench and stands wavering above him. She slumps down beside him and sinks her teeth into his throat. He reacts as if they’re making out. He doesn’t pull away. She growls hungrily. He wraps his arms around her and closes his eyes.

He falls, taking her to the grass with him. He opens his eyes to see her face and cringes. Then he regains his courage, forming a square with his hands so he can only see her green eyes. He begins to shiver calmly and closes his eyes again.

The next time he opens them, they will be together, forever.