THERESA – DANCING

Second dates. An atrocity. I despise second dates because that is when you have to reveal more. People read more of you. I don’t want to be found out. Be known. Be figured out. So what do I do on a second date? That’s right, I also have to plan because it’s a second date and it has significance. Basically, it means that the first date went well and you want to take it further. Get to know the person better, more. So I plan because it’s still at that stage where I need to impress them.

I hate it all.

The prep time. The dress time. I rather not care and throw on anything clean, some old jeans and a white tee. My go-to ensemble. But I’m consumed. All these decisions to make.

I walk out and close the door. I might have heard my mother shouting something like ‘have fun’ or ‘good luck’ before the door shuts.

“I love that scent. What is it?” Theresa’s bright eyes look up at me then shyly averted to look at the other people on the sidewalk.

I’m baffled because I remember not washing in anything in particular and answer, “Might be the shampoo.”

A sheet of paper flies by us and the faint music carries from the park. We stand among the fusion of clutter and singing nature waiting for the traffic light to turn green. Theresa grabs a hold of my hand and pulls me across the street rushing towards the music. “How did you know?” She asks, her voice bursting with joy and surprise.

I’m as baffled as she is and hesitant to take the credit as my simple plan was to take a walk through the park and chatter. But we move towards the live music and mosaic of people dancing without my answer. I don’t think it matters as the ecstasy in Theresa’s smile gains me a point or two.

The dancing garden moves unanimously; the dancers, the leaves, the wind, the musicians. All harmonious. A sight of wonder that you cannot escape but join. Theresa spins into my arms and we flow with the melody. For the klutz that I might be, I love to dance and the music takes me away from my insecurities and worries. The gentle pressure of Theresa’s hand on my shoulder feels wonderful but her hand keeps sliding to my bicep as even with heels she’s still minuscule to my tall stature. Although, she has beautiful eyes. Capturing. Capturing my every motion; my every grimace, my every silence. Because the black cloud is never too far away. Because tonight the cloud waits in between the trees in a short distance behind the musicians and I pray that it won’t cover this beautiful world with its dark blanket.

“Thank you,” Theresa’s whisper returns me to reality. “You’re so compliant. Other guys would think it’s silly but you stepped up.”

My goofy smile is the only thing I retrieve and that seems to satisfy as a reply and I submerge to the song, spinning with her trying to spin the black cloud of my head. We stop drunk with dizziness when the music stops and Theresa begins to laugh slightly embarrassed, slightly silly.

The imprint of her laughter casually washes over me and I drown in the present fantasy of a dancing garden. A prince with his princess in their forever-after.

‘Stay calm’, a warning echo to remain in the moment.

KIM – MALARKEY

I close my eyes and cover them with my fingers. It’s better not to see and I listen to Kim’s heels hitting the laminated floor. “I said, enough!” She shouts. It’s always the same routine between Mikko and Kim as they antagonize each other for the last half hour of the session. We all know that they have slept with each other. We all know the cause of the tension between them, the not-so-secret lovers. As other participants in the circle listen feverishly, I fly away from the turbulent spat and waiver from reality. I prefer it that way. Screaming is not my friend, not when the black cloud has been stalking me for days now. It’s not easy to shake your mind out of your mind.

I begin to negotiate with my mind but wake up startled by Kim’s palm on my shoulder. “Michael. Michael,” she gently shakes me. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” as if pleading. “You didn’t need to witness that.” Her apology is always genuine; although, every session she forgets her promise to me. The promise to keep her cool and not to blast Mikko for his past indiscretions.

My heart still shakes from the noise and like a child pulled with his knees to his chest, I cautiously allow Kim to take my hand and hold it for a moment as reassurance that her feistiness has subsided. Although, I don’t’ trust her outburst because they can erupt without much push.

“This day has been shitty so far. The boiling hot water slowly evaporating before the pot burns. Have you ever seen a pot burn? The bottom goes and that’s it, nothing’s left but a hole. Well, if the bottom is aluminum. Otherwise…” she stops and chuckles at her own not so amusing point. But the grimace of her black mind tends to seep out at various moments of our conversations and then she catches herself in the non-sequential and aimless anecdotes and simply chuckles. Her chuckles turn to a smile, she glares at me, “Come on,” and pulls me off the chair. I follow like I always do to our usual hang-out place underneath the tarp that someone hanged above the chicken coop. Although, I haven’t seen a chicken in there in months. “Someday,” Kim chuckles again. “That’s what Phillip says. Someday the chicken will return. He’s so funny… and…”

“And you like funny,” I finish her almost a ritual statement.

“And you’re not funny… So morose.”

“Thanks,” I joke.

But, Kim doesn’t take it as a joke and says, “Not a compliment.”

That however makes me smile and keeps the black cloud at bay: the cheery non-flirtatious teasing between Kim and me.

“Sorry about your date,” that she says wholeheartedly and with some degree of seriousness.

“Yeah. My fucked up mind,” my words ring with pain and acceptance.

“Yeah.”

Well, pardon my insecurities but once in a while, I believe I have the right to grieve over them. Group therapy helps but I tend to come for Kim’s drama and flares, cigarette-induced sweaty bodies, and of course, cookies and the under-brewed tea.

Copy the same wisdom and then ignore and forget it so you can claim it as new. Our pain has been laid out before, but it’s the trepidation that keeps us coming back.

“How is the pit?” She asks.

“Don’t joke about that?” I reply, “I fell into it twice this week, and then it’s blank. Time erased.”

“I’m sorry,” and Kim leaves it at that.

TERK – ROOMS

Short for Terkoz. Yes. Like in the Disney movie Tarzan. But this Terk is nice. Kind and I try to visit him as often as I can.

“Which room you’re in now?” I ask.

“They moved me to the second floor,” he replies, “204,” and I hear the receiver drop. Click.

The guards stare at me, well it’s the cameras before I’m buzzed in. The sign-in sheet filled with names almost to the last line and it’s only eight in the morning. The black fog, my friend, follows me to the desk and down the corridor. I stop in front of 204 as the fog like a rain cloud hovers over me. The memories are in the pit of my stomach and I know I will be consumed. I fight through the dread and knock on the door.

“Come, come,” Terk’s voice comes through like shatter. “What did you bring me?” He asks with excitement.

“Your favourite. BBQ chips but you know you can get them from the vending machine.” I feel like I have snuck in some contrabands.

“Yeah. Yeah. But why waste my money?” His smile is meager mischief and pestering.

“How you’re doing?” I ask.

“You know. Bad days. Good days. I don’t know the difference anymore… You?”

“Same.”

“Remember how we used to run havoc? Those were the days. I miss it. Visits don’t hold the same adrenalin. Pure bliss before getting caught,” he laughs as if only to himself and with a faint injury. The sorrow in his eyes gets me and I have to look away. “I miss you.”

“Yeah, but, I don’t miss this place.”

“You got the taste of freedom… I got to get well to get that taste of freedom,” Terk’s words of mourning, and my heart breaks and aches. All is left to do is embrace him and hold him as the fog drapes over us, enclosing us within its embrace. “Now, now,” Terk whispers. “Let’s see if we can flirt with some nurses and get a pass to roam the premises. You know. The usual. Promises of good behaviour and some compliments about their eyes or smile.”

“You’re still a big flirt,” I tease.

Terk smiles.

The rooms aline along with the windows as the corridors buzz with equipment and screens. Dull and dark with fluorescent lights and dim minds. I sincerely do not miss this place. But, it’s not like my life has changed that much. It’s still bleak.

LEE – SIMPLE

Lights. Lights. Lights. And mirrors.

“So, what do you think?” Lee’s face is covered in makeup and glitter. The feathers are an extra touch. But, it’s his smile that makes the whole outfit bloom. That excitement in his eyes. The joy. Like football players huddling before the first pass. Cheers and ecstasy. But this is a burlesque show. All the guys and gals glammed up and squeezed into tight shimmering gowns, with a minuscule ability to breathe. The music like drums etching through every cell of my body that makes my voice vibrate as I speak.

“This is bedlam, but I love it,” love might be a strong word to use, but it’s out there now and I uttered it without hesitation. That it does stump me for a moment.

“And me?” I don’t know how Lee’s smile could get any wider.

I smirk quite shyly, “Interesting.”

“Good,” and he adds a bounce to his step, leans to the mirror, puckers his lips, and applies a ruby red lipstick. Damn, he makes a good-looking woman. However, Lee’s free expression and confidence are what I find the most attractive. No camouflage. No pretend. All honest and real.

I cling to my seat and watch the performers enter the stage orderly with musical sway. The electricity from the audience radiances to the stage as the performers begin to dance in unison, then disperse to perform their individual acts. Some leave the stage altogether. I watch in awe and amusement. The intense and blinding lights illuminate the glitz and make the whole experience bewitching and mind-altering.

My dark fog has stayed put all evening like a well-behaved dog. Not a barbaric wolf for once. Maybe it is Lee’s exuberant vibe. Raw and holistic.

After the entertainment phase of the evening, Lee changes to a wholesome young man in his casual jeans and tee. Make-up and glitter-free. His smile hasn’t extinguished though and we walk dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk, parting ever often to let a person pass between us that it becomes a game. Every other person would separate us then we would close the gap and meet again near each other, hands in pockets out of fear to touch. Or at least my fear to touch.

For thirty minutes we would walk in this rhythmic matter in silence and stolen glances. Such distinction from our first meeting when Lee’s stories were endless and his inquiries were near non-existent. Now, it seems he’s waiting for me to speak. For me to make the first move and that expectation tremors my brain. I mean I have established already that I hate to talk about myself. That conversations paralyze me unless I am the one not speaking. But then again, the silence doesn’t seem to bother Lee as much as it bothers me and he begins to sway to the street music spilling softly from the outside speakers, skipping two or three steps, following the base. Then he begins to hum the melody and inaudibly lip-sync the lyrics. Melding with the music.

To be carefree as such. To be ambivalent to the passers stares and amused sighs. I wish I had the gut to be that real. To be that honest. Who defines eccentricity, but Lee’s not eccentric. He’s simply easy-going and lively. I almost join him in his humming and whimsically harmonic walk.

The red light hand forces us to stop but it doesn’t discourage Lee to be him and he removes his hand from his pocket and reaches for my hand. I let him hold it although I’m frightened as to what may come next. Most likely nothing, but my fears are always in an alert. The buzzer that seems to go off without warning by any tiny action.

“Did you like the show?” Lee breaks the silence.

“Yeah. It was fun,” I nod. “The lights. The glamour.”

“Are you mocking me?”

Am I? Maybe a sweet banter, but definitely not mocking. “No… I honestly liked it,” I reply.

“Well, we can sample talking about planetary exploration. A dabble. A sinch,” and Lee brings his thumb and index together almost to a pinch, then winks. That awfully mesmerizing smile of his as if permanently stitched on his face keeps on melting my walls.

To escape the course of the planetary discussion, I debut my questioning, “How long you’ve been an entertainer?”

“Six years or so. Some extra cash plus whole a lot of fun.”

“Well, it requires confidence and passion. I applaud that.”

“Thank you,” he’s being kind but I can tell he’s up for more mischief. Still holding my hand, he starts to swings our conjoined hands back and forth lightly. I think he might be a guy who likes constant movement and I am a guy who likes to remain as still and cautious as possible. But then his smile fades and his sunny disposition subdues, “I didn’t think you’ll answer.”

As much as Lee’s happiness made my black fog retreat, his last statement retrieved my cloud extensively quickly. “I had few things on my mind.”

“Was the kiss too much?”

“No,” I shake my head and nudge at the recollection of the kiss and my weakened knees that followed the kiss. “The kiss was nice.”

“Good because I would like to kiss you again.”

“Now?” I ask in shock and petrified. Although, not sure why I am feeling petrified. We had already kissed once and it was the most pleasant. But Lee’s declaration made the whole ordeal frightening. Maybe because the first kiss was unexpected and this one is proclaimed and anticipated.

“If you’d like.”

I’m not much for PDA but for Lee I might make an exception.

After a moment of waiting, Lee’s expression brightens once again. “Nah. Later,” he says most nonchalantly.

NICK – SINKHOLE

“Hi,” and Nick leans towards me, reaching my lips for a kiss. When did this become okay and natural? Did I miss a memo on the conduct? Feels very accelerated. After all, I’ve only met him in person once and now it’s just casual kissing? Yes, I do make a bit deal about it for the fact that I didn’t think we hit it off during the first meeting. But then, I’m horrible at reading people. After the pleasantries, we take a walk towards the lake. The drizzle dissipated by noon and the sun came to bless us for the rest of the afternoon. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you,” Nick says between his sips of an iced coffee. “The enigma and your talk about the pit beneath your feet. I was thinking about that and I realized that maybe you weren’t talking as in a literal pit. Rather, it might have been some metaphor as to what’s going on with you.”

I have to give it to him. Pretty perceptive, although it has taken him ten days to come to that conclusion. To some extent he is correct, but otherwise, I did mean it literally. I might be the only one seeing the pit, nonetheless, it is real to me.

I move ahead of him and race to the closest bench by the waterfront. No. I am not avoiding the discussion. Truth. Yes. We are back to that. I already started the truth game with Nick, might as well end it. I curl my fingers around the base of the bench and squeeze tight, looking down at the tiny stones and wet sand.

“What if I told you that there is a shadow of a person looming over me? Would you take it seriously or would you think it’s a joke?”

As he stands before, he takes a glance behind me and asks, “Is it a joke?”

“No.”

“Is there a shadow of a person looming over you?” His tone turns from concern to puzzlement.

“Yes,” my faint answer almost inaudible as my eyes stay fixated on my boots.

“What about the pit?”

“It’s not a metaphor. It’s as real to me as you are right now in front of me,” and with that, I finally dare to look up at Nick.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Am I even curious because my monotone and flat words don’t seem to indicate that? That has been my inflection the whole afternoon. Lack of interest or at least a display of lack of interest. My inner voices, however, are bumping into each other with much exuberance yet lack of direction.

“I don’t know. It’s the first thing that popped into my head,” and as if defeated, he sits to my side reflecting on my words, taking my truths in all of their impacts. “You’re not joking?” He asks again maybe to make sure he heard me correctly. Maybe for me to correct myself.

“No.” My eyes retreat to my boots.

“I feel this need to keep on apologizing to you for some reason. I don’t know. I already felt bad for the last time thinking that I might have said something wrong and I wasn’t considering what you were saying. You know these stupid games with dating. People are not honest and you seemed honest. It felt like you were honest and trying to tell me something.” After speaking his heart out, Nick pauses and now silent. “I did not expect that something to be this.”

“Are you mad?”

“No,” he answers without hesitation but with pity. That’s even worse. Now all I am is a sad sap.

The sudden onset of regret. If I could only rewind time. Maybe it’s best not to be honest and in the desperate need to correct my actions, I fling my stare to Nick and attack him with my lips. Startled, he pulls back.

“Forget I said anything,” I whisper pealing my fingers from his hair. The stupid things we do in desperate times but my vulnerability flails. I spiral. The day darkens and the shadow expands.

MICHAEL, I – HOME

Kissing Lee was like candy. The second time was even better than the first. He snatched my thoughts and implanted himself in my mind. I hate myself for feeling this foolish sort of joy, so I brush thoughts of Lee to the side. At least the black fog hid for a moment.

My room is a mess but that’s nothing new. I clean it feverishly then I pile clothes on my bed and drop all other nonsense to the floor. The sick cycle of my descent. My mother always sneaks in for a peak as if to make sure I’m still alive or breathing. I can hear her coming by the creaks of the floor. And she vanishes from the door and makes her way downstairs.

Not sure if it’s wise for me to be left alone to analyze. The school of Michael to understand Michael. To understand me. The song is always on repeat. Ducks line up for their execution. How do I allow myself to reach and touch something that I know is invisible, is not real? The jury is off from my injury. The hungry whispers fill my gut with promises. The nutrition that replenishes my lunacy. The room dims and fills with ghosts murmuring, ‘this is the end.’ How can a happy moment so abruptly strike to lonely void, and I make myself believe that nothing matters.

But I know to do better. To get out before the room floods and I begin to drown.

“How was work?” I ask as I enter the living room addressing my mother on the couch.

“The usual… blah, blah, blah,” she waves as if shushing a fly away but it’s only to shush her misspend day away. “What do you think of Paris?”

“Paris, Ontario? Or, Paris, France?”

She knows my mocking questions are only for the compensation of a smile. She sighs tired, “Paris, France,” and messes my hair as repayment for my taunt.

“Sounds nice.”

“Well, then, it’s settled. Summer vacation… How about it? You and me? Taking on the world? Well, at most the French language,” bemused by her rationalizing, she pinches my arm lightly and with mischief to wake my smile up.

It’s been my mother and me for as long as can remember. My faint memories of my father keep on fading from year to year. He’s barely a name. How much can I truly remember from about age two, three? Other than that, from what my mother has said, that my father was a stubborn man to a point that he was refusing to accept the fact that I was his son. He said that I looked nothing like him. Then he vanished. No even a postcard and my mother didn’t try to find him for financial support, adding ‘why bother,’ defeated. But she promised herself to move from the abuse and take care of us no matter what. No matter if her fingers bled, if her mind swirled from lack of sleep. She kept on going, even through my breakdown. The hospital visits and stays. The tussle of the unknown, whether things would better, would I get better. But, she always made it fun. The tears shed and shared of pain and laughter. We would play the beach ball, tossing and passing the ball between us. The floor was the lava and we floated from the chairs to the table to the couch. Then I grew up and sadness took over my mind and the mirage became a reality. The whispers were more than an echo of distant radio, but a voice of harm and turbulence. The black cloud leaped from the imagination of my mind into a reality swallowing me one day and nothing would stop my screaming. “I’m falling!” I shouted. I kept on shouting, petrified and scaring everyone in the near distance. A complete meltdown in a grocery store, in the bakery and cereal aisle. When I hit the ground that was it; I fell through the abyss to the black hole and disappeared.

“Any prospects?” My mom asks as she lays her plate on the table.

“Maybe.” Maybe. My leap on taking on the world of dating.

She smiles, “Well, it’s better than a ‘no’. A mother cannot ask for more,” a faint grimace and she passes me a plate. “Supper is served,” she untucks the folded top of the paper bag and begins to take out the takeout containers. “Lasagna,” she utters before I ask.

“Thank you,” I simply utter without elaborating on what I am thanking her for. It’s not a mere thank you for the supply of food. It’s also a thank you for her existence. The life she lived. The life she gave. The love she gave. The love she gives.

© Jacob Greb — 2021

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