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It’s been awhile, I think, lighting a cigarette,

And the smoke feels foreign to me—an unnatural, dense cloud travelling down my throat and into my lungs, but I won’t put it down. My hands might shake. I look out from my balcony to the billboard down the street:

Keep the merry, dump the myth! American Atheists, Atheists.org.

I wonder what is merry about a Christmas without Jesus.

Maybe I’ll ask Sal, I think. Maybe I won’t, I decide.

***

Sal and I sit quietly as we eat breakfast. I watch as steam rises from his mug that reads, Attention: you are being monitored, and I wonder if he understands the irony of it all. I shift uncomfortably in my chair, unsure of what to say. He continues reading the paper. It has been years since Sal began staying for breakfast, and I have never understood his infatuation with bacon or the obituaries column, but I never ask.

An older woman slipped on a banana peel. Must’ve broken her neck, he says.

Or maybe a head injury, I reply.

He laughs. I will never understand.

***

I pick up the porcelain plates draped in emerald flowers and turn to the kitchen sink to wash them dry of syrup. The soap bubbles up over my wrists and onto both sleeves of my shirt. I don’t bother to roll them up. I know they will fall back down anyway. I look out of the window at Sal. He waves goodbye and climbs into a cab and I wonder if he’s going to work or if he’s visiting Cindy again. She’s atheist, too. Something they have in common. I think of how he must touch her, his calloused hands slowly bringing her dress above her waist. I’m sure he covers her neck with soft kisses—the way he used to cover mine. I look down at my hands, fingers pruned from running water. The things I see in my head are uglier than what is before me.

***

What Sal doesn’t know is that I, too, have betrayed him. I read quietly to myself the emails between him and his lover. That was nine weeks ago. I wonder, should I place his hand against the firm of my belly, will he smile and say I love him, too? I read once in a magazine that an expectant mother can feel the sex of her unborn child before it is determined by medicine and I am sure that it is a boy. If I tell him this maybe he will love me, too.

***

I think of how I met Sal. It was a cold December day eight years ago in New York. I was nineteen and running late for my interview at the hard rock café over on 7th avenue. Mom rang and reminded me to keep in touch.

Don’t talk to strangers, Caliope. I love you, she said.

Mom knew I was running from a bad breakup even though I said it was the vastness I couldn’t stand.

She was scared, I know, of being alone. I was, too.

Sal was my interviewer and although noticeably older than me—twenty-two years to be exact, he made me feel lovely when he mentioned the warmth of my auburn hair and how it reminded him of Springtime and carriage rides through Central park. I think now that I should have never presumed business with pleasure.

***

I place the silverware and plates in their drawers and walk slowly to the bedroom. I stop in front of my floor length mirror and tighten the fabric of my shirt around my growing stomach. It hurts today, I notice. I grab my cellphone and dial Sal.

         Hello, Caliope. Work is very busy, could we make this quick?

        I’d like to shower with you tonight. That’s all, I say.

I look towards the bathroom, pale pink shower curtains hanging above the porcelain tub. We once held each other there; soap and water warm between our lusting bodies.

       I will be home around 8:30. We can shower together, he says.

      Okay. I place my cellphone back on the table, sigh and crawl into bed.

I think of Mom and how she warned me.

      He could be your father with the amount of years he has on you, she fumed.

      Do not forget, I told her, you promised you’d never bring him up. Sal is a wonderful man, nothing like father.

     You’ll see, Caliope. One day you will wish you had listened to me, and she hung up the phone.

I wish I had listened.

***

Sal climbs beside me in bed and kisses my forehead gently, pulling away though as my hands travel up his ribcage to his chest.

      Well, I say, you’re a little late.

      Only by thirty minutes. We can still shower, Caliope.

I think about turning to him, eyes ablaze with anger and hot tears. Should I discover the courage, I’ll say, I know where you’ve been, heart and body alike taken by a woman who has no faith to offer for she, too, turns a cold cheek to the Man upstairs.

I will not, however, find the courage tonight.

***

The brass shower handle feels cold in my palm as I pull forth and watch the water spill out of the faucet and onto my swollen breasts.

Will he notice the weight I’ve gained, I wonder, and will he kiss me on the forehead, laugh, and tell me to stop ordering Grand Sichuan take-out instead of realizing that there is a life inside of me that he, too, is expected to love?

Sal pulls back the curtain and steps behind me so that I cannot kiss him, I am sure. We stand there, quiet, and I turn to face his chest peppered silver and white as I pull to myself his washcloth and Aloe Vera body wash. As I place the cloth to his skin I think of the first time we showered together and how he leaned into the groove of my collar, whispered, you are extraordinary, and kissed lightly my blushing cheek.

     Please, I say, don’t be mad.

He looks at me, licks delicately the raw of his winter-worn lips and proceeds to ask,

     What is it, Caliope?

I replace the washcloth with my hands and dig firm into his chest the sharp of my nails. He tenses but says nothing, eyes steady on my closed mouth.

     Remember the first Christmas we shared together? I say, it was a year after we met and I

    You made me a book of love. I remember, he says quietly.

I release the grip on his chest and bring my hands down to the underside of my belly. I think about apologizing for the little red dents my nails left in the thick of his flesh but instead I continue,

It took me hours to put it together, you know. I rummaged through the attic looking for photographs, concert tickets, anything that I could find to show you just how much I love you.

I look up at his face and see that his eyes, aged pools of deep green, are now brimmed with tears and bloodshot.

I never meant to hurt you, Caliope, I swear to you.

You bought me a bottle of brandy, I choke, because you knew I loved to drink but Christmas wasn’t a time of love for you. I always wondered why that was so but I kept to myself and—

     I pause, afraid he might get angry.

     Caliope, he says, you have a good heart but you’re still young and naïve. You like to dance in the morning but I’d rather sleep in. You also enjoy the holidays but I’ve read one too many tragedies.

     So you give me brandy for Christmas, although there are accidents? Ironic, I say.

***

He looks at me, regret pulls at his heartstrings and I know that it is there because his eyes are red with shame as hot tears spill down his face.

I have never seen him cry before, I think,

So I hug him the way Mom used to hug me. His head rests on my shoulder as I comb his hair with my fingers and whisper,

It’s okay. Everything will be okay.

He says nothing, and I wonder if he can hear me over the pitter patter of water against the porcelain floor. A few moments pass like this and I wonder what he’s thinking.

Caliope, he asks, what is wrong? Are you okay?

I look toward the drain. Blood pools itself down my legs and between my toes like smashed raspberries. I think of last night’s cigarette and all of the sleepless, cold nights on my balcony with not enough nutrients or love on my side. I look up at Sal who is confused and wide-eyed and unable to speak or move.

Sometimes it’s heavy, I lie. Sorry you have to see this. I’m going to get pads. I’ll be back soon.

He looks at me but says nothing, and I realize there is a God who is on my side and knows that I have stood here for too long staring at a man who lacks heart and good intention. I climb over the tub but Sal does not move. If Mom were still alive I’d call and tell her she were right; that I should have never trusted a man who read the paper only for the obituaries, thought brandy as a suitable Christmas present and exceeded me by not one, but two whole decades. My heart aches for my sweet boy and I wonder if the pain will ever go away but I pick up my keys and I feel comfort with God that I will never have to revisit the thought of him again.

At least not with Sal.

One Response to “The Scarlet Hour (REVISED)”

  1. Lauren says:

    The formatting changed when I published this so the structure of my story is not what I intended. All beginning sentences should be indented as well as quotations. I’m sorry!!