My girlfriend keeps her halo on the nightstand. From my side of her bed I can just see a glowing arc of it, obscured by my wallet and a box of tissues. Her sheets are white and the lacy bed-skirt hangs down all the way to the floor, where it swishes about softly in the breeze that comes in through the open bay window. We’re not exactly on the beach, but we’re close enough that you can almost taste the salt in the air.
I always wake to see her stretching her thin arms, yawning and making soft sighs to herself. Sometimes she hugs her little shoulders. Sometimes she sits cat-like on her haunches, with her hands together in front of her. Sometimes she sways and coos as if receiving a gentle caress; her eyelids flutter, and she smiles, with her mouth closed, content.
For a little while I pretend to be asleep, watching her enjoy the breeze and the sunlight, the coolness of the bed, or whatever it is that seems to bring her so much happiness. She wriggles her shoulders and unfurls her wings; blowing the silk canopy outwards. The billowing sheet collapses in slow motion as she folds them in again. Her dove-white feathers are sweet and smooth; rich, earthy, but somehow immaculately pure. I hold my breath and drink in their beauty as they slide silently together and flutter across her naked body. Lailah, she looks how cream and strawberries taste.
She fits the halo above her head, its glow warming her golden hair. She rises from bed with her wings tucked curtly across her nude back. Her toes touch the floor and she glides across the room, her hips swaying as if she weighs nothing at all.
I’m trying to catch a glimpse of her ass wiggling as she walks, but her wing-tips are in the way. She arches her back and tosses her hair, and I’m watching the crisp morning light play across the little gap between her thighs. After all this time, I’m still consumed with lust for her. Kissing her lips is like drinking great draughts of cool milk and spiced honey. I wonder, not for the first time, if this is all wrong. I even asked her once, when she was still flush and sticky with sex, “Lailah,” I asked her, “Is this wrong?”
< 2 >
Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe I have to figure it out for myself. She kneels at the window. Birds are just starting to sing outside, and she runs her pearl-colored comb through her hair. A hundred strokes on one side, a hundred more on the other. Watching her, I fall back into the lazy sort of late-morning dreams that are so full of meaning at the time, but later I know will seem foolish. As the morning breaks, I can see her in little snips and vignettes, half mixed in with my wandering dreams. Now she’s singing gently. Now she’s eating half a grapefruit and licking the spoon. When I finally throw the sheets off and sit up, she’s leaning on the bed at my feet, resting her chin in her hands. She says, “Good morning, Simon.”
Cereal with little slices of fruit for breakfast. Clean clothes folded at the foot of the bed. I don’t know why I’ve got things so good; I don’t know why I deserve Lailah. Before she leaves for work I make love to her up against the breakfast bar. “Make love”, that’s always what I call it with her. Other girls I used to “fuck”, or “nail”, or “screw”. It doesn’t seem to fit for her though, doesn’t seem right. Even with her dress pulled up around her hips and her hair whipping around her shoulders, she seems so above this place and this act. Even biting her lip and arching her back, even spreading her wings in bliss and knocking a vase off the bar, she seems so perfect and innocent.
She preens and straightens herself while I clean up. She kisses me goodbye, and she blows out the door.
I should get out of the house. Maybe go apply for some jobs. I should at least put on some pants and get outside. Pants first though; once I’ve got that figured out, everything else should fall into place. Pants are in the laundry hamper. Doing the laundry, that’ll be a good chore to start the day. Lailah likes to fold the clothes though, I can never do it right. Maybe I’ll let it wait till this afternoon, get some more perspective before I decide whether to do it myself or let Lailah take care of it later. I’ve got to have pants though. Maybe I’ll just wear them dirty. Lailah hates that, kind of makes me look like a shlub. Don’t want people to think I’m the kind of guy who can’t find a clean pair of pants in the morning.
< 3 >
Sometimes I hate how good things are with Lailah. I should just go hang out with Rick and Sarah. Maybe kick back a few beers, maybe get smoked out. I grab some clothes out of the hamper and throw them on before I rush out the front door, almost tripping down the stairs in my flip flops, almost fleeing from the perfect antebellum porch.
“You know, Simon, I can smell her on you,” Rick says. He’s leaning back into the patched old sofa we found out in front of the house down the street. I wish he would stop staring at me with those blood-red eyes. Sarah is pressed into him so closely it seems like you can only see her eyes and her purple lipstick-smile. Rick is running his fingers through her black hair, running them up and down her short little horns.
“You spend too much time with her,” she says, and she flicks her tail behind her, rhythmically. “What do you two even do together?”
“I don’t know,” I say. The room is dark, but it’s beach weather outside; there are birds chirping. All the blinds are closed and there’s a black bed sheet covering half the sliding glass door that opens up into the weed-ridden backyard. Why does it have to be so fucking dark in here? Their eyes are boring into me; these guys are my friends, but I always feel so weak under their stares. I feel like an open book, like they’re flipping through the pages, smirking and whispering to each other. “Nothing unusual; normal stuff, I guess.” I look around the room for help, or inspiration. There’s a deer’s head mounted above the fireplace, I think it came with the house. Matthias is lying like a heap of unwashed clothes on the bamboo rocking chair across from me, totally blazed up or strung out on something, he’s been like that since I got here, and that was before ten. No help there. “We go to the beach most evenings, especially if the moon is out.” I say, “We help out at the shelter on Wednesdays. Sometimes we visit my mom in Madison on the weekends.”
< 4 >
Sarah laughs, “Yeah, but I mean,” and she licks her lips, “what do you do?” I’ve got to get out; I just can’t take their razor sharp stares anymore.
“I need a drink,” I complain as I get up from the bleached-yellow lawn chair.
“We’ve got Equis in the fridge,” offers Rick.
“Hey man,” Matt says, his voice croaking and dry, “get me one of whatever you’re getting, huh?”
Rick and Sarah, they’re always so clean and neat, but their house is filthy. It looks like a bomb went off in a middle-class yard sale. Something stinks in this place, and it’s not the ragged B.O. stench of cheap weed, not the creeping sourness of all the unwashed dishes and bowls full of molding food stacked high in the kitchen. It smells like sulfur here, like rotten eggs and vinegar.
The fridge creaks when I open it; its contents always remind me of the chem labs back at Southern State. Weird bottles and dark plastic jars filled with thick yellow and green juices. Tupperwares with troublingly inadequate tinfoil lids; the odd open can of Coke. Just like the grad lab, there’s some chilled beer and liquor at the back. I can hear Rick and Sarah giggling and whispering in the living room and I just know they’re about to go at it. It should probably be a stiff drink, then.
I take my time searching for reagents; half a dried up lime, a plastic tray of ice cubes, and a bottle of what smells like bourbon. The label’s been peeled off, so I check the color. I stir the bottle and look for bubbles forming at the surface of the brown liquid. I was never a very good student, but I was one hell of a lab tech. I shovel dirty dishes into the sink to clear room for my workspace, and I can hear Sarah in the living room cooing and breathing heavy. I wonder what Matthias is doing, if he’s watching. I wonder if he’s got one hand down his greasy sweatpants; I think probably he has.
< 5 >
The first step is the ice cubes. I crack a tray of them and pick them out one by one. Too small and they’ll be wasted, watering down the drink. Too large and they’ll never get the drink cooled. Adding the bourbon is easy; just have to avoid too much splashing and churning.
I always preferred the lab to classes anyways. Glistening tubes impregnated with vividly colored admixtures; clear, bubbling solutions surging through coiled tubes and boiling up in frothy reactions. Simple things, common and ugly, but with so much hidden potential, and so simple to bring it out to full and magical life. This was beauty, this was creation. The endless diagrams of chemical cycles had no more appeal for me than the frank anatomical illustrations of a sex-ed class do for a horny teenager.
A lime isn’t just a lime; it’s the sweet bitterness in your mouth that drowns out the sharp tinge of alcohol. A lab tech isn’t just a grimy grad student, he gets to decide everything’s purpose and destiny; he gets to play God. I can hear Rick growling; the lights dim all across the house. There’s a thin pall of smoke creeping into the kitchen, and the tinge of brimstone curls my lip as I squeeze the lime into my drink. Now comes the big risk that makes an experiment truly great. The wet, slapping, moaning noise in the living room escalates as I stand for several long seconds staring into the fridge, contemplating the open can of coke. The metal feels cool to my fingers; I can see no greasy lip mark around the lid. Some things you can control, some you can’t. I pour the contents, whatever they might be, into my drink.
This is why I never graduated from Southern State, why I make my living giving blood plasma and sperm samples; titrating and nitrating shit for junkies on the side. All great discoveries were made by accident; Curie and radiation, Rutherford and the atomic nucleus. Take a chance, you only live once. The liquid is a promising brown color; there are a few bubbles forming in it, presumably, but not certainly, from carbonation. The noise from the other room quiets down as I stir the concoction; the lights in the house brighten slightly. I grab Matt a bottle of Equis and slouch back to the living room to find Rick and Sarah lying in a heap, loosely clothed, on the floor. Rick’s got purple smudges of lipstick arranged improbably all over his body, and sure enough, Matthias is passed out, with a hand down his sweatpants. I toss him the bottle.
< 6 >
“I hope all those moonlit walks on the beach are worth it, Simon”, says Rick, pulling his pants together, “because you have no idea what you’re missing.”
I tell everybody I want to go visit Lailah at work; Rick says they don’t have anything else to do, so what the hell? It’s a long walk down to the mall, but we’re used to walking everywhere; none of us owns a car since Matthias’ old Toyota rusted out. Matthias blinks in the daylight, and tries to get a glimpse at the sun through wincing eyes and fanned fingers. He seems surprised, like maybe he didn’t expect it to be there. Rick unfurls one vast, leathery wing to shade Sarah, who clutches him tightly, her claws digging playfully into his skin. There’s a sea breeze blowing in, whispering along the old salt-worn wooden fence that stretches down the street, whipping through the palms that reach up uneasily around the neighborhood; the air smells like salt and fish, and suntan oil on sweaty tourists. “I’m feeling like barbeque”, says Rick, “let’s get Mongolian for lunch.” Sarah says she just wants to hurry.
“Yeah man”, Matthias says, glancing, confused, at the cloudless blue sky, “I can’t take this like, sun.” He turns and pushes forward. The scarred stubs of his wings twitch painfully across his back as he leads the way, his sandals crunching on the little shells and pebbles that line the street.
We’re passing by the little shops and restaurants downtown when Rick stops us, “Hang on,” he says, “I need to buy some catnip.” We stand out front of the pet store with the little puppies pawing and lapping at us through the glass. You want to take one of the little slobbering things home, but you know it’d just ruin the furniture and crap all over the carpet.
Matthias is telling me how they raise these puppies in dark warehouses. I ask Sarah what Rick needs with half a dozen bags of catnip, but her blood-red eyes just stare indifferently at me over a big pink bubble of gum she’s blowing up. Matthias is saying some of the puppies, they get sold, and they probably lead long happy lives of fetching papers and getting scratched behind the ears, he’s saying it must be like some kind of dog heaven, just to have a family to belong to. Sarah is popping the bubble, and she draws the wet pink mess back in with a single skilled lick, and her eyes never leave mine through the whole motion, much as I try to look away. She reminds me of a snake, standing slack and curved, flicking that gum in and out of her mouth.
< 7 >
“Some of them aren’t that lucky, though,” Matthias is saying, “most of them, probably.” I ask him about the unlucky ones, and he says that when a puppy gets old enough, it isn’t worth selling anymore. He says they, you know, they usually get rid of them.
The sales girl is telling Rick that he must have a very happy cat, and he turns to her and gives her his pearly-white smile and replies cheerfully, “I hate cats.”
“What ever happened to your halo, Matt?” Rick and Sarah are switching the parking tickets between the cars as we walk along the tree-shaded storefronts; they stop sometimes to share deep, breathless kisses and shameless gropes. Someone’s going to pay a forty-dollar ticket they didn’t earn. Someone’s going to get a free ride, like they were just forgiven. Someone’s going to have Sarah’s ass print on the dusty hood of their mustang; wonder what they’ll make of the tail-marks she’s sweeping out.
“Oh, you know, it’s still around.” I knew Matthias all through college, but it wasn’t till I started dating Lailah that I found out he was an angel, or was anyways. Hard to imagine that the guy who has seven stitches from crashing through our glass-top coffee table in a drunken stupor is supposed to be some kind of celestial being.
“So you don’t know where it is?” Rick and Sarah are making out under a dogwood in front of a family diner; Sarah’s little bat wings are fluttering, and her pointed tail is whipping around behind her, lifting up her skirt.
“Of course I know where it is! What do I, hey, what do I look like to you?” I eye him doubtfully, he’s a mess. His hair’s long and unkempt. He’s still wearing those grimy sweatpants; the wife beater he’s got on is full of holes.
“So you know where it is, but you don’t actually have it.” Rick and Sarah, they have to kiss around two pairs of fangs. It sounds like a quiet little knife fight. “Matthias,” I say slowly, “did you pawn off your halo?” A pudgy guy with an apron and a little paper clerk’s hat is coming out of the diner to ask Rick and Sarah would they please stop that. He must mean the furious dentistry they’re performing on each other.
< 8 >
I think I can hear Sarah laughing, and Rick saying smoothly, no. “I ask only because you also pawned Rick’s microwave and my old stereo. It would seem to fit the pattern.”
“It’s not… no, Simon, look. It’s not exactly like a pawn shop. I know this guy, I can trust him, and he knows I’ll buy it back. Anyways, I don’t know why somebody would even want it. I mean, what would they do with it?”
“Well, whatever you used it for, I suppose.” Sarah is hissing at a middle-aged woman through the diner’s big street-facing window, she’s licking her lips and staring down the husband. “Someone would want a halo, right? I mean, God’s sign of His presence; that’s gotta be worth something. Someone’s gonna want that, I’m sure.”
“Not me man,” he says. He stares squinting up into the sky, “I’m not sure at all.”
Lailah works at the Victoria’s Secret at the mall. Supposedly she and the others have got a little network going, all across the country. She says they’ve got forty store managers. She’s working a register, nodding curtly and listening to the customers with an easy look of concern and attention. She’s wearing a little white sundress, the kind that would light up if we were out on the beach, drinking in the rays and glowing gold, the perfect color to frame her clear white skin. I want to tell her how much she means to me, how beautiful she is. All I can manage is, “Hey Lailah, you look great.”
I drift towards her helplessly. Once she waves and greets me with that voice that somehow always sounds clear and pure like a song, or like fresh water, when her golden eyes soften as they lay on me, I’m hers. She asks me about my morning. She wants to know have I eaten and am I still feeling okay after that cold I caught last week. With most people, small talk is just small talk, but I can’t listen to her voice long enough, I can’t get enough of her giggles and sighs and her curt glances. I’m a glutton for her.
< 9 >
I tell her about Matthias and his halo. I tell her I don’t think it’s right, for him to just get rid of it like that. I ask her, “Don’t you like, need it for something?”
“Yeah, sure you need it. You can get by without it for a while, though, just like anything else you own, and if it comes right down to it, it’s just a thing, just an object.”
“It seems kind of important to me, like maybe you shouldn’t just leave it at a pawn shop.” I try to lean in close to her over the check-out counter. Why can’t she understand how serious this is? “Shouldn’t you like, tell him to go get it back? Maybe we can go buy it.”
Lailah sighs and lazily rolls her eyes in frustration. I could just reach across and kiss her right now. “Matthias… it’s too late to bother with him, Simon. He’s lost his wings, anyways. It’s never going to be the same.”
“Why not? Doesn’t he deserve another chance?”
“He’s had a second chance Simon, more than one.”
I ask her about the other girls, if they’re giving her any trouble. She’s shift manager now. “Lailah,” I ask her, “why this place? With everything you can do, isn’t this place just, you know, kind of beneath you? What are you, I mean, you and the girls like you doing here?”
She shrugs her shoulders, her wings whispering behind her, she says, “I think we’re doing great work here.”
“Really? Can’t you like, save people’s lives right before they get into a car crash? Can’t you tell people not to get onto a plane that’s going to fall out of the sky? I’ve heard you can heal people, can’t you heal the lame and the sick or something?”
“You’re thinking about guardian angels; that’s not my thing. And healing… I’ve done a lot of healing, Simon, but it just gets tedious, and afterwards, they’re not thankful for very long anyways; it’s the speeding ticket of miracles.”
< 10 >
“Well, just what are you guys doing? I mean why are you here, what’s so special about this place?”
“We’re here because it’s something definite; we know we can do it, and we’ll have something to show for it. We’ve tried other things, believe me, but this is something that we know can work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, look around you,” and she gestures to the crowd of young women and couples sifting through the tote bags and pull-out drawers of colorful panties, “Ten years ago this store stood for nothing but sex and lust. Now mothers bring their daughters here. We sell as many tank tops as thongs.” Sure enough, there are two little teenyboppers trying to get past me to look at some sweaters. At the back of the store, Sarah’s trying to tell some girl and her mom how thongs are considered classy and sophisticated these days. She’s trying to get them to look at a pair of crotchless panties. They don’t even sell those here.
I lean into the counter and I ask her, “Don’t you think you should be doing something more worthy? Isn’t there supposed to be some higher plan?” Under the smooth glass counter display there are ten shades of Pink-brand sunglasses, a little sign says ten percent of their purchase proceeds are going to fight breast cancer.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if there’s a plan?”
“Maybe there used to be. I don’t know. Someone knows.”
“So there is a plan. Are halter-tops and half price Bermudas part of the grand design? Am I?”
“Simon, please,” she gives me her sad, distant look, her lips pouting just a little and her brow creasing, “it’s not that simple. Do you remember the parable about the master who left his land and his money in the care of his servants? Some of them were very careful with his wealth, but some of them risked everything on a big gamble.”
< 11 >
“Well, what where they supposed to do?”
“That’s the point, Simon. He never told them. They all did what they thought best according to what he’d taught them, but they didn’t all agree on what that was.” She’s sorting a bunch of change into her till and telling someone that Capri’s are still the regular price. “That’s what it’s like for us,” she says. Rick is trying to sell his catnip to a pair of lanky teenagers outside. He’s got it in little Ziploc bags, and he’s telling them it’s fancy weed from Brazil. “We try our best, we do what we think is right.”
Matthias is lounging against the storefront, blocking everyone’s view of the mannequins in the window. The teenagers are asking him if Rick’s stuff is really as good as he says it is. “It’s not for you guys,” he says, “you shouldn’t be smoking that shit.” They buy three bags. Lailah’s saying people like her, people like Rick and Sara, and even Matthias, they’re supposed to have a mission, but sometimes they forget, or they just get tired of it. She says thanks for coming to visit her. She says she always likes to see me, and to know that I’m thinking of her.
“Lailah,” I ask her, “you want to meet me at the skating rink tonight at eight?” She says sure. I tell her, “Don’t forget.”
“I can’t stand that place anymore,” Sarah complains, flicking a black curl of hair from her face, “the angels have had it under their thumbs for too long, it’s no fun.”
“No fun at all, my little imp,” Rick agrees. I can’t believe that the hundreds of other people in the food court don’t notice his horns, or at least the huge bat wings he’s got folded awkwardly behind him in the little booth seat. Maybe they just don’t care.
“And they’ve been meddling at Hot Topic, too, you know,” Sarah continues, glaring at no one in particular, “I saw this middle-aged woman wearing Crocs in there last week. No one even sneered at her, I swear, not one sneer.” She takes a slow, rueful draw from her near-empty soda cup; her cranky stare daring anyone to get pissed off with the gurgling noise it makes. “Come on, Matthias,” she says, taking his limp hand, “We’re gonna go see what people are reading at the Barnes and Noble and sneer down our noses at them.”
< 12 >
I ask Rick if the demons have got any set-ups like the angels have at Victoria’s. “Not many,” he says, “see the guy over there, near the sunglass hut?” He points one clawed finger over my shoulder, and I twist in my seat to look, “That guy trying to get girls to try on skin lotion?” I tell him that I see the guy, a bald Hispanic guy in a Hawaiian T-shirt. “He’s one of us.” The guy’s talking up some couple, trying to take the girl’s hand and rub something on her arm. He’s got a forked tongue that flicks in and out and licks his lips. I can see there’s a scaly black tail running out from the back of his shirt.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who only want to be cops,” he says, “they just want to rough people up and stuff like that. It used to be popular to be a lobbyist; we’ve still got a few politicians.”
“Well, what are you guys doing, you and Sarah, I mean? Aren’t you supposed to be corrupting someone, or like, driving somebody insane?”
“How do you know we’re not?”
Across the food court, I can see Sarah and Matthias in the bookstore being snooty to this guy who’s reading something from the self-help aisle. They’re trying to catch his attention and then shake their heads disapprovingly. The poor guy kind of deflates and shuffles away, holding the book like something unpleasant someone else gave him to hang on to for a moment. Rick is explaining all the really big jobs they used to do, how he’d seduce nuns and make them leap from bell towers in shame. I can see Matthias catch up with the self-help-reading guy and try to console him; maybe he’s telling him it was just a stupid joke.
“You ever hear about those nasty Papal elections in the middle ages that would end with blood in the streets and armed gangs walking around clubbing everyone who backed the wrong guy?” I tell him maybe I do, yeah. “We used to pull that kind of thing.” He nods to himself, maybe remembering the good days, reminiscing about choking some bishop in the alleys of Rome. In the bookstore, Sarah is pulling Matthias aside and scolding him, maybe telling him not to ruin her fun, maybe trying to tell him that he should take this more seriously.
< 13 >
“I guess it does get a little boring after a while,” Rick says. “And it’s not as easy to corrupt people anymore, not as easy as you might think, and not half as rewarding.”
Matthias is skulking out of the bookstore with his head down, and I can see Sarah watching him go, tapping her toe and folding her arms and vaguely fuming. The guy who had the self-help book taps her on the shoulder, and he looks like he’s trying to talk to her politely. She covers up her surprise by just glaring at him, working her jaw like she’s chewing on some gum, and idly twisting a strand of her hair. The guy, maybe he’s telling her it’s no big deal if a guy needs a little help every now and then, maybe he’s saying that he’s not ashamed to want to try and get his life back on track. She bites back at him with some quick retort and he gives her the finger as he scuttles away, glancing resentfully over his shoulder.
“People just aren’t that good anymore,” Rick says. “Maybe we’ve done our job too well.”
From the steps of our old apartment building you can just about see the ocean if the trees are blowing the right way, and that’s where me and Matthias are sitting, sharing a couple of beers and waiting for eight-o-clock to roll around. Lailah and I used to live here, till she asked me to move in with her. Where she got the big plantation house that we’re in now, I never asked. She’d probably just say, “God provides”. Maybe that’s true. I keep asking myself why she’s with me, why she’s here at all. Maybe that’s the answer, I’m not sure.
“You can almost see the ocean from here,” Matthias says, craning his head to see past the swaying line of trees. “I forgot about that.”
“This place wasn’t too great, but yeah, you almost can see it from here, sure.”
“I’m sorry about the table, Simon.”
“I’m sorry about the stitches.”
< 14 >
Matthias stares down into his bottle, “I guess I had it coming, way I was acting.”
“You sure you remember all that? You were pretty messed up.”
“Yeah, sure I do.”
Somewhere just beyond those trees people are coming in and out of the water and realizing that they’ve got big bright burns all across their backs. Probably a few guys are finishing off their beers and putting away their tackle. Maybe some kid doesn’t want to leave his sand castle because the tide’s coming in and it’ll just get washed away.
“I’m sorry about the stereo too.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ll pay it back sometime.”
“Alright, man. Don’t worry about it, though.”
Lailah and I used to go out to the beach around this time of day. The tourists would all be packing it in and we’d be the only ones schlepping out with two fold-out chairs and a couple of drinks. We’d hunt for shells along the shore, even though it’d already been combed over a hundred times. Sometimes you never know, you just might find something beautiful.
“What do you think about Lailah, Matt? I mean, you must go way back with her, right?”
The sun’s going down now; it must be getting close to eight. “Lailah?” Matthias says, “She’s a good girl, Simon. You need to hang on to her.”
Lailah and me, we’d sit out on the beach watching the sun set and the darkness creep in over the water, until it washed over us and we were alone except for a few lights behind us, and a few distant ones in the water and in the sky.
“Yeah, I know.”
“No, man, listen to me, I mean it. She’s good, like, completely good. You can’t let her go man. You don’t know what it would be like for someone like her to be hurt that much. It’d probably destroy her. She’d probably never be the same.”
< 15 >
“I’m not saying I’m gonna, but I think she’s a little stronger than that, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, Simon.”
“Hey!” Rick shouts at us from below. “We ought to go, huh?” He and Sarah are looking up at us from the yellowed grass in front of the building, littered with broken bottles and liquor labels. Somewhere police sirens are howling.
“Yeah sure, Rick,” I shout back, “let’s go.”
The skating rink behind our old apartment has been about to go out of business for as long as I can remember. No one will let it, though; maybe there are just too many memories of first kisses and hand-holdings there. Too many first dates and educated-guess gropings beneath the cheap strips of neon glow-in-the-dark tape and green plastic stars. Maybe a place like that can’t really die until all those memories are gone.
Every Friday night the rink is packed with twenty-somethings like me who should be giving serious thought to becoming adults. We should all be at home preparing our taxes, or sampling wines. Me and Lailah’s crowd, we should move on and forget how we made friends here or got shorted by the soda machine. Some of us maybe should be ashamed of the things we’ve done; one too many people stood up or left out of the couple’s skate. Something keeps us coming back to the hypnotizing darkness and the bright lights. Maybe it’s the flowing mass of strangers and old friends, the endless curve that you can climb out of at any spot and find a bench to rest on, maybe try to cop a little feel on. At the rink, the aim is to be aimless. It’s enough just to keep pace and move with the crowd.
Matthias likes it here, he just watches from the sides. “Everyone’s happy,” he told me once, “Or at least, they look like it, or if they’re unhappy, at least they have something else to think about.”
Lailah and I are skating easily, hand-in-hand. She’s light, like her skates are barely touching the rink. Her hand is cool to the touch, not clammy. I ask her, “Can you ever go back?” She shakes her head, her hair rolling in long, breezy waves beneath the pseudo-strobe light of the disco ball, “No,” she says. It’s peaceful here with her; I can’t imagine why I’ve got life so good. Sometimes I tug her around the turns so she speeds up and almost slips, and she giggles and I can see her cheeks blush, even in this fake twilight. Sometimes we move around younger couples, just kids who maybe are making the same mistakes that we did. I want to say that they should know better, but then again, so should we.
< 16 >
Rick and Sara are sharing a root beer float, off by the dining area. They’re not bad people. They love each other, I’m sure. Maybe people like them have a bad rap, or maybe they were just born into a bad situation. It isn’t their fault, and at least those two have someone to love.
The old, recycled music is loud enough that there’s no need to talk. The hissing sound of a hundred skate wheels always reminds me of a long ocean wave, ebbing and flowing as the music changes. You could almost think the maze of green plastic stars above us is the real night sky. When you go back outside, it’s almost a shock that the stars are so coldly lit and distant. It seems sad. People shuffle to their cars in little clinging groups; it seems so lonely. I ask Lailah, “What happens if you lose your wings?” She says, for one thing, you can’t fly.
The music changes. The loud, rolling breakers of skating noise change to a low hiss and bubble, the sound of the couple’s skate. Some people leave the rink, others pull each other close. Lailah wraps her wings around us, the canopy of her feathers warming the glaring light. The shifting colors seem to change more slowly, and then not to change at all, but simply to flow across her face, now lighting her rosy cheeks, now brushing through her hair. Lailah watches me with her golden eyes, and we’re alone. I take her hands in mine and lean away. She follows and we spin together beneath the cover of her wings.
I want to ask her why I deserve to have her love. I want to know what she sees about our world that makes it worth being here. It must seem so simple and dark to her. It must be lonely. Our world must be like a cheap knock-off to her. Any love I can give her must just be a shadow of what she knew before, but staring into her eyes, I know that she’s truly, totally contented. I ask her, “What is it like to be here?”
< 17 >
She looks into my eyes for a long moment, her own golden eyes starting to glisten over. “What if,” she says, “what if your parents sent you away when you were very young? What if all you ever wanted was to make them happy, to do the right thing in their eyes?” She looks away, “Imagine yourself young and helpless. All you ever wanted was to study at your father’s feet, to know your mother’s loving touch. Imagine being lost, without enough of either knowledge or love. What if you never knew if they were watching? What if you never even knew if they were still alive? What if you started to imagine that you’d just imagined everything?”
“It must be lonely.”
Her milk-white arms embrace me, pulling me into her soft breast with a weakness that could break your heart. Flashing green and blue beams light the canopy of her wings as I kiss her little lips, glowing red in the flashing halo around us.
“It’s not so lonely,” she whispers, “It’s not so lonely anymore.”