Fiction, Flash Fiction, Love, Marriage, Writing Prompt

Take Out

She’d overcooked the pasta. It was pitched in the trash. The empty kettle landed in the sink with an echoing clatter. She lifted herself with some difficulty onto the countertop, and sat. The burner on the stove still glowed red as fire. Of course she’d forgotten to turn it off. Of course.

“Andrea?”  Leo’s voice floated toward her from the hallway.

Typically, she turned on the light over the front steps before he came home so he could unlock the door without fumbling in the dark. Of course she’d forgotten that too.

“I’m here.”

Leo draped his suit jacket over a dining chair and came to stand before her. He rested his hands on her knees. She lightly bounced her heels off the cupboard below her. He smiled, leaned in for a kiss.

“I ruined dinner.”

She watched his nose wrinkle, then he covered the last two inches between them, claiming his kiss.

“I don’t care,” he whispered.

“I can’t focus today. The whole day,” she said emphatically.

“We’ll order take out.”

He went for a second kiss but she leaned past his face to lay her cheek on his shoulder. She inhaled his scent. Leo wrapped his arms around her waist, lifting her from the countertop. She draped her arms around his neck and pressed her knees against his hips. His muscles tightened to hold her steady while he walked to the sofa. When he laid her down there, she saw a wet circle on his shoulder. She hadn’t realized she was crying.

“I left the stove on.”

He returned to the kitchen, then back to the sofa a moment later. “You rest. I’ll order our food.”

Andrea closed her eyes. The resulting darkness was speckled with prismatic lights; beautiful lights she wished she could stop seeing. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she whispered. Opening one eye, she focused on the framed snapshot of her and Leo hiking Mount Moriah. “I have to do this.”

Leo was on the phone, muffled through the walls between here and their bedroom. He’d be changing into jeans and a t-shirt. She remembered the warmth of his chest against hers as he’d carried her from the kitchen; the steadfast beating of his heart. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. Ba-boom. She envied it. Her heart raced and stuttered more every week.

“It’s the medication,” the doctor always answered with a wave of his hand. The irregular heartbeat; the shaking hands; the pain in her legs; the lights in her vision; the inability to focus her mind; everything had one of two answers: “It’s the medication. It’s the tumor.”

“Are you resting?” Leo called from the bedroom.

“Mmmhmm,” she responded, far too quiet for him to hear.

She felt sleep approaching. Each night she welcomed it with a vague thought that it might be perfectly okay if she did not wake up. Come morning, when her eyes opened and she saw Leo on the pillow beside her, she felt overwhelming relief that it had not been her last day. Would that morning sentiment eventually dissipate? This was the question she pondered as she drifted out.

When Andrea woke, moonlight filled the gap in the curtains. It was a spotlight on Leo, slumbering in the leather easy chair beside the sofa. His neck would be sore from the angle of his surrender to sleep. His plate and fork were on the coffee table, empty but for a few bits of rice. A clean fork and knife
were on the table in front of Andrea. Their arrangement suggested a plate had resided between them, until it’d become obvious she wouldn’t be roused from her sleep. She knew she’d find it carefully wrapped and stowed in the refrigerator.

Propped against her fork stood a small rectangle of paper with red lettering: the slip from inside Leo’s fortune cookie. Andrea picked it up. She stood, slowly, and moved to the shaft of moonlight to see the words he’d wanted her to read.

“A true companion journeys to the same destination, and will carry you when your feet will not.”

Andrea clutched the paper in her fist. With a kiss to his forehead, she woke Leo. He stood, lifted her in his arms, and carried her to their bed. She rested her ear on his chest, seeking that reliable rhythm from inside of him. She rubbed her thumb against the soft stubble on his jaw, and prayed she’d wake up again tomorrow.

Family, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Photography, Writing

On the Pier

Photo by Carrie Sue Barnes, Location: Rabbit Bay, Lake Superior
The old man only visited the pier at sunrise, when the lake’s surface was smooth as a bed sheet and the sky was edged in tangerine. Later, the lake would be speckled with white caps. The din of the waves would crescendo with each tide. He used to love the noise, but now his tired ears treasured silence. So, he only came at sunrise.
Bare footed, he stood squinting at the ascending sun. Another day. The fibers of the wood were cool under the leathery soles of his feet. He wrapped his fingers around the rail, pressed his stomach against it, and inhaled the stillness. He willed it to stay stored in his chest. Peace.
“Do you come every morning?”
The bird-like voice startled. He did not, at first, turn to see its bearer.
“Mamma says you do.”
“Bit early for ya’, isn’t it?” Being his first words of the day, they rolled out full of gravel. He cleared his throat. “Why aren’t ya’ sleepin’?”
“Because I’m awake.” The girl’s answer was clipped with the childish annoyance at silly questions from adults who ought to know.
The old pier stood between his house and the girl’s. He gazed down at the crown of honey blonde hair, feathery and uncombed. The wisps carried him through decades to his tiny daughter hugging his leg here on the pier, midday waves licking their toes. Affection stole through his wiry limbs and he reached out to smooth her hair. He stopped himself; placed his hand back on the rail.
“It’s my birthday,” she whispered.
“Mine, too.”
Brown eyes widened. “Ooooh,” she breathed out the sound. Her pink lips remained in a tiny O, then, “How old are you?”
He stifled a chuckle at the reverent hush of her voice. “Old.”
“But how old?”
He rubbed at the whiskers in the crevices of his weathered face. “Eighty-four.”
“That’s old.” She bobbed her head at him. “I’m five today.”
The sky was losing its accessory colors. Blue prevailed above the still sleepy lake. Pelicans conducted an aerial parade inches above the water; six in a straight line headed north, then a turn and back south.
“Are you having a party?” he asked.
“I am!” Her feet danced a two-second jig. “Are you?”
“Oh, no party for me.”
The kids would call, of course, sometime before night fell. He did not begrudge them anything more. Yesterday, he’d picked up roast beef and fresh cheddar from the deli for his favorite sandwich. It was enough.
“You can share mine.”
“That’s kind of you, but I don’t need a party.”
“Every birthday deserves a party,” she said. She pushed her hair back from her cheeks. “That’s what my daddy says.”
He didn’t argue, hoping she’d believe it for all her years.
In the afternoon, he watched cars pull up to the neighboring house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends; all come to celebrate the girl. Through open windows, the party carried its sounds to his home. Laughter, shouts, rumbles of conversation from the men on the back porch, and finally the traditional singing while they huddled around a lit cake. Hours later, the people returned to their vehicles after hugs in the driveway.
He sat on the red bench on his front porch, reading last Sunday’s newspaper, when the last of the revelers departed. The sun he’d watched rise was leaving too, dipping below the tree line behind them. Ribbons of pink and yellow light wrapped around from there to the horizon over the water; another day.
The neighbor’s back door creaked open and out trotted the girl. Her purple party dress swung about her knees. He lifted his hand in a wave at her parents, who watched from their kitchen window. The father waved back; the mother smiled while she continued to wipe a plate dry in her hands.
“I made them save this one,” the girl called when she reached the steps of his porch. She waited there.
His hips stuck and knees creaked when he stood. He paused to let his joints settle into place, then walked. She’d brought him a piece of cake. It was two layers of chocolate with pink frosting. The scents of cocoa and sugar filled his nostrils. His mouth watered.
“Well, you’re a sweet girl, I must say.” There was a catch in his voice to go with the moisture in his eyes.
“Do you like chocolate?”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Mine, too.”
He accepted the plate.
“Momma says I have to get back. I have to help clean up.”
“You best go and do that.” The old man nodded. “Thank you for the birthday cake. I’m sure it’s delicious.”
“You’ll eat it?”
“Of course, I will.”
“Can I watch the sun come up with you again?”
“If you’re awake, you’re welcome to join me.”
She nodded, her features drawn together in thought. He waited while she formed her question. “And if I’m not awake tomorrow, can we watch the sun come up another day?”
“Yes,” he smiled, “another day.”
Her concern was gone. She skipped back to her house, already talking to her parents before she opened the door.
The old man walked to the pier. He leaned against the soft wood of the railing, listened to the song of low tide kissing the sand, ate his chocolate cake, and hoped for another day.
Fiction, Flash Fiction, Love, Marriage, Writing

Normal – a Flash Fiction Piece

“I won’t sleep in our bed.”

“What was that, ma’am?”

I glance at the cab driver. “Nothing.”

“It’s alright, ma’am. I talk to myself plenty.”

Do what’s normal. It’s what my aunt advised for after the funeral. After. Everything will be marked as before and after now.

Sliding the clasp of my necklace back behind my tired curls, I whisper at the empty seat beside me, “We’ll talk about this at home.”

Do what’s normal.

Pay the driver.

Nod at the doorman.

Press the elevator button.

It dings its arrival. Is it always that loud? Two others board the elevator with me. Strange since the lobby echoes like a canyon yet I didn’t hear them approach.

I grow impatient once the doors close. “I won’t sleep in our bed, Ian. I can’t.”

My fellow passengers turn, chins over shoulders, then lower their eyes to the floor.

The doors open and I exit before speaking again. “The guest bed is comfortable. Don’t worry about me.” I stop, key in my fist. “Can you worry where you are?”

The breakdown starts in my knees. It will spread to my back and my arms, then my whole body will collapse to the floor. I picture myself curled on the green straw welcome mat in front of the Lancasters’ door. “No.” Digging the key into my palm, I walk.

“Fine. I’ll sleep in the damn bed. Are you happy?”

The question does me in. I shove our door – my door – open and fall down in privacy. When the shaking and the tears pass, I roll to my back; knees up, feet planted. There’s a tiny run in my tights that I pull at with my fingernail until it tears over my thigh. I stand and remove my black heels, ruined black tights, and black dress. When I drop the tights in the trash, I linger two seconds before adding the shoes and the dress.

Do what’s normal.

“That’s why I have to talk to you.” Normal is talking to Ian about the day, the news, the basketball game he’s watching that I don’t care about and the book I’m reading that he doesn’t care about.

In our bedroom – my bedroom – I pick up our wedding photo from the desk. “This won’t do.”

From the bookshelves, I dump a box of photographs on the carpet. With the pictures spread in a half moon, I survey them without seeing details. I can’t endure the details. “Where is it?” I shout a second before my eyes land on it. “Oh, Ian.”

My favorite one. I trace my fingertip over his cheek, his mouth. I ache for a kiss. I haven’t ached like this since our first years together when we still made love more nights than not.

“We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

My black bra and panties go in the trash too. The photo goes on his pillow beside me. I fall asleep flat on my back, hands resting one over the other on my stomach, like him.

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Intentionality, Writing Prompt

In the Rain

I was rushing across the puddled street, cussing under my breath at my ruined shoes. She was strolling at a pace that suggested a walk in the June sunshine rather than a downpour. With my head tucked down as if there was any way to shield my face from the deluge, I didn’t see her until her bare toes came into view and my shoulder struck hers. I lifted my eyes and mumbled an apology with no intention of pausing. I did stop though, so abruptly that I nearly slipped on the wet pavement. She stopped too. She stopped and she smiled.

White sundress, soaked and clinging to her tan skin; brown hair disheveled and stuck to her cheeks and neck; she was a mess. She was beautiful. For a moment I couldn’t speak.

“You’re in a hurry.” Her smile held steady as she raised an eyebrow at me.

“Well,” I glanced at the black clouds emptying above us.

“Well?”

I stated the obvious, “It’s raining pretty hard.”

She laughed aloud, tossing her head back and laying a hand on her stomach. The sound warmed me. “It is,” she agreed, “and you’re as soaked as you can be so what’s the point in hurrying?”

I had no answer to this. My eyes fell on the peach, open toed heels she held in one hand. “You aren’t exactly dressed for this weather. Where are you coming from?” The question felt rude in this city of strangers who fill the sidewalks and trains together without so much as an effort at eye contact. My curiosity overwhelmed me.

“Maybe it’s about where I’m going to,” she answered with a wink and another mesmerizing laugh.

For a split second I wondered if she was sober but there was a clarity in her eyes that dismissed the thought.

“I just finished a job interview,” I volunteered.

“Did it go well?”

“Terrible.”

She shrugged. Raindrops bounced off her bare shoulders. I had to stop myself from begging for information – any bit she was willing to offer would do. I’d never had much courage with women. There was too much mystery about them, and this one had more than her fair share. Thus there was no explanation for my continued questions.

“Is it really about where you’re going to? Do you need to be somewhere.”

“I already am somewhere.”

“Will you stop with me for a coffee?”

She cocked her head. “I could. We could have a coffee, maybe a meal. Then a drink at a pub with a band. We could dance.”

“Yes,” I whispered, wanting all of it.

“Or you could dance with me right now.”

“Excuse me?”

“The time we’d spend doing those things, it’d only leave us with a good story. Memorable, but nothing more. I don’t know about you but for me the highlight of that story would be the dance before we parted. I’ve learned to only care about the highlights. Couldn’t we just have that dance?”

I reached my hand out, watching it with the sensation of seeing another and not myself. Her slender fingers tucked into mine.

“You should take off your shoes.”

I obeyed. The sidewalk was warm under the soles of my feet. I rolled up the cuffs of my pants then pulled my already loosened tie off of my neck and tossed it down with my socks and shoes. I untucked my sopping shirt. All this I did with one hand so I would not have to let go of her fingers with the other.

She took a step closer and her scent reached me with my next breath. Coconut and vanilla were my best guess. Her arm slid around my waist and I rested my hand on the small of her back. We danced as if accompanied by our own private string quartet. When I surprised us both by spinning her out from me then bringing her back, I held in my laughter so I could hear only hers once more.

“That was my highlight,” I declared as her laugh quieted.

She kissed my cheek and we parted. I didn’t pick up my shoes until I saw her turn the corner and disappear. Then I finished my walk home, my pace slow, my feet bare, and my face lifted, welcoming the rain.

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Marriage, Motherhood, Writing Prompt

Blue

Writing Prompt: She had a cocktail in her hand and confetti in her hair.
Writing Time: 30 minutes

 


Over the bobbing heads of the dance floor crowd, I stare at the woman in the blue dress. She has a cocktail in her hand and confetti in her hair. Her lips are parted in laughter, the sound lost in the noise of the music. My fingers curl into fists against my stomach, mimicking the tightness of the air in my lungs.

Jealousy. It is nested in my chest.

It is not that I wish her to be otherwise. The night is better for the glow in her eyes. I do not wish it gone. I only wish to know it; to know the release of that laughter and the pleasure of my limbs swaying to the song.

“What are you thinking about?” my husband asks, his face close to my ear so I can hear him.

“Do you see her?” I point my chin in the direction of the woman. “In the blue dress.”

He cranes his neck to see. The silver hairs at his temple catch the light of the dimmed sconces behind our table on the perimeter of the dance floor. For a moment I’m transfixed by his profile, then he turns and catches my gaze. He is confused.

“Was I ever like her?” The question is spoken before I can filter it. I expect more confusion. Instead his face is transformed by a broad smile.

He leans in close again. “Even better.”

I rest my forehead against his cheek. His stubble is soft; a comforting texture on my skin.

“You still are,” I hear him add at the pause between songs.

When I close my eyes, a memory plays like a film projection. My roommate and I walking past the fountain at the center of the university campus. A small congregation of other students, strangers, with a radio blasting and an impromptu dance party coming to life. One of the guys pulling me into the group. Dancing with them until the song ends; laughing through every second.

My husband speaks now and I am startled to realize he is reliving the same memory.

“I’ll never forget watching you dance the night before we met. Sitting on the edge of that fountain, seeing you approach. You started singing along to the music. I hoped you’d stop and you did. I hoped you’d dance and you did. I hoped you’d keep laughing and you did.”

I finish the familiar commentary. “You hoped I’d sit down to rest on the edge of the fountain and I didn’t.” I require a deep breath to keep the tears behind the border of my eyelashes.

“You were transcendent.”

A sigh falls from my lips. “That girl is a stranger now.”

“Not to me.” He lifts my chin with his fingertips. “I still see her every day.”

Baby blues. Such a trite, pretty name for the darkness I dwell in presently.

“You’re still her. You are her and more.”

I tuck his words into the deepest corners of my mind, where they are needed. Then I watch the confetti scatter from the hair of the woman in the blue dress.

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Love, Marriage, Writing Prompt

The Rhythm of His Heart

Writing Prompt: I fell asleep to the rhythm of his heart.
Writing Time: 15 minutes

She laid her head on his chest, letting her nerves be soothed by his heartbeat. She felt her own heart steady itself. They’d been fighting all week. They’d been fighting for months, in truth. With each burst of regrettable words and cold glares, her heart raced. It pounded against her rib cage in a combination of threat and reassurance: a threat that it could become more than she could handle – more than they could come back from; a reassurance that she had not reached, and could not imagine reaching, a point of no longer caring if they could recover.

Every couple went through times like this. That’s what she believed. Turmoil was found in every coupling. Sometimes she was tempted to think their particular brand of turmoil could be worse than others but mostly she was confident it was not. It was what their bond, forged in passion and affection and joy, prepared them for.

Here with her ear over his heart, she hoped he still believed likewise. Despite her share in the mistakes and the pain they caused him, she hoped he still believed.

As his breathing slowed into sleep, she wracked her brain for how she could convince him that she was still glad she chose him. He needed to know she was still choosing him. That was the way she’d fallen short so often in these months. Her grandmother’s words at her bridal shower all those years ago came back to her.

“Choose each other every day. Above everybody else, choose each other. Even when you’re busy or you can’t physically be near each other, make sure your hearts are still choosing each other. There are so many things and so many people to choose from. You’ll be tempted to let it slide because you already have each other, but you’ll only have each other for as long as you keep choosing each other.”

In her naive, bridal bliss, the advice seemed quaint. Here, multiple kids, jobs, houses, and sufferings later, she understood.

“I choose you,” she whispered into his chest and fell asleep to the rhythm of his heart.

Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Prompt

Wine and Ice Cream

Writing Prompt: Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream
Writing Time: 30 minutes
I’m wearing my favorite dress. A sleeveless, kelly green sundress with a V neckline. It’s been one of those weeks: long hours, overbooked obligations, a headache that never fully goes away. I know I’ll survive and be no worse for wear (assuming a good night’s sleep or two). Still, it’s Thursday now and I feel I haven’t taken a proper breath since Sunday. It is undoubtedly a green dress, comfortable flats, braided hair, glass of wine with no one around kind of night. I need to slow down. I need to think a few rambling thoughts. 
I walk five blocks to the best wine bar in town. It’s the best not because of its wine selection – which is only a bit above average – but its atmosphere. I order a bruschetta appetizer and a glass of chardonnay then seat myself in a wicker chair on the patio. It’s dusk and the automatic lamps around the seating area come on one at a time, a pause between each as if they are politely taking turns. Through the yellow glow, I watch a classical guitarist play. His eyes are closed as his upper body sways with the rhythm of his fingers on the strings. The background vocal is the low tide waves of the lake licking the beach across the boardwalk. There are only three other patrons dispersed around the patio.
The ice cream shop next door is crowded though, as it should be on an idyllic summer night like this. I keep one ear tuned to the guitarist and one ear to the giddy hum of the families indulging in homemade, hand dipped ice cream. The combination is unexpectedly rejuvenating.
I hear the scrape of a chair on the sidewalk somewhere behind me. I don’t think much of it until I sense someone close to me. The loss of the solitude of my spot causes me to stiffen a little in my chair. I sip my wine, ignoring whomever is outside the short fence surrounding the patio.
“I’ll pass you an ice cream cone if you’ll sneak me a glass of pinot noir.”
The nearness of the voice is startling. I continue to ignore.
“What could be better than wine and ice cream?”
I move finally, ready to dismiss this stranger, but as I turn my head and lean my shoulder toward the fence, he leans forward. In his hand is a chocolate peanut butter, double scoop waffle cone. It meets my bare shoulder and I feel the top scoop instantaneously melt into liquid on my skin. The contact with my shoulder pushes the cone down into the man’s fist. It cracks, ice cream dripping over his fingers. His expression is so stunned, so regretful, I laugh aloud despite myself.
“Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry.” He pulls a stack of tiny napkins out of the pocket of his jeans and tries to mop up the chocolate mess on my arm. Meanwhile his other hand is covered in ice cream that runs off the curve of his wrist to fall to a small puddle on the sidewalk. “I did not think this through. I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
I’m still quietly laughing, dumbfounded, trying not to panic over the ice cream that has reached my favorite dress. I hold my arm straight out, unsure of the best move to make. The man dashes into the ice cream shop for more napkins. He has long legs and a lean build. He’s back by my side in no time. When our eyes meet, his face turns red.
“What was that about?” I ask.
“Honestly?” He raises an eyebrow, scratches at his temple. “I had this whole scenario play out in my head. That’s not how it was supposed to go.”
I can’t help wanting to know more but I need to clean up. Excusing myself, I do what I can in the wine bar’s small restroom. My shoulder is still a tad sticky and I have counted five spots on my dress I’ll need to take care of at home. I expect to be alone again when I return to the patio and my glass of wine, but the man is still there. He has sat down in the chair he’d dragged over, only the diminutive fence and a couple feet of summer air between us.
He smiles tentatively when I sit down. “I’m Eli.”
“I’m Harper.”
We shake hands over the fence. The whole encounter is surreal and I am more and more surprised at my ease with each passing second.
I swallow the last of my chardonnay. There are two pieces of bruschetta toast left. I pass one to Eli and keep the other. “Are you going to tell me how it was supposed to go?”
He clears his throat, amusement lightening his expression. The lamps gleam in his brown eyes. “I was supposed to ask you to bring me a glass of wine. I was supposed to find out your favorite ice cream flavor and bring a dish of it for you. We were supposed to laugh over our clandestine exchange. We’d talk. We’d take a walk. I’d get your number and give you mine. Tomorrow we’d go out.”
I respond with a laugh straight from my belly. Eli has lost his embarrassment and grins at me. “Instead you smacked my shoulder with your ice cream and stained my favorite dress.”
“It’s still a great dress.”
“Are you a hopeless romantic or just a flirt?”
“I prefer romantic optimist.”
“Well, you’re something. I’ll give you that.”
He frowns when I stand up, my bill in my hand to pay at the bar inside, then he stands up as well.
“Eli, my favorite ice cream is cookies and cream. Maybe I’ll have to treat myself to some tomorrow evening.”
“You should definitely do that, Harper. Tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow night.”