I received my copy of Vine Leaves Literary Journal: a collection of vignettes from across the globe. It’s such a beautiful book, perfect as a Christmas gift (hint, hint). There are so many inspiring, gorgeous pieces of writing in there and the art and photos are stunning. I’m proud to be part of it.
It also reminded me of my first story that was published in an anthology. It was back in 2009, when my story To Love or Be Haunted (the story is not as awful as the title, I swear) was a runner-up in a literary competition by Cinnamon Press. It was later published in the Storm at Galesburg and Other Stories and Poems anthology. Here’s a short excerpt from the story.
I’m finishing the basting on a red blouse when the door opens and closes. I don’t turn right away; I know it’s her. At the chiming sound of the bell above the door I feel the crawling sensation in my lower back creep up my spine. I’m surprised at my reaction and prefer to ascribe it to the soft breeze that entered the shop with her rather than to the real reason.
Her hair is wildly curly, her face with her upturned nose is nearly tame in comparison to that bush that is pulled into a wide elastic band today.
My light tunic snags in the pins and needles as I try to get up. When I try to pry it free, I overturn the whole sewing kit off my desk.
I hear her chuckle behind my back, but I ignore her.
“Want me to help?”
“No, I’m fine,” I wave my hand and nearly topple the half-empty coffee mug.
When I finally look at her, her face is still amused and she stands patiently in the middle of the sunlit room like a black hole that’s drawing all the light towards it with its daunting cosmic strength.
“Sorry, I’m awful.”
She shakes her head. “I came for the fitting,” she says. Her skin looks like it’s glazed with the warm sunshine, the freckles on her nose stand out even more than last time.
“I have it back here,” I say and point through a curtain that separates the main shop from the back room.
She follows me so close behind I can feel the air move against my back.
When she takes her clothes off I see her champagne-colored underwear, then I notice it’s actually a bikini. She unties her bikini top. When she pulls the dress carefully over her head, it slides down her body like a splash of water, and I can see the ghosts of her full breasts under the silk. I think of the last time I had sex with Ian. Five weeks ago. Or is it six already? One would think we’re an old married couple, not newly engaged. Sometimes I wonder how the two of us ended up together. Is it just God’s silly bureaucratic mistake? A typo in the great plan?
It surprises me how she can look equally comfortable and chic in her beige shorts and tank top as in the nearly finished silk cocktail dress. Her green eyes light up against the olive fabric.
I step to her and smooth out the back of the dress. I see the goosebumps that the cold fabric teased to life on her arms.
“It feels refreshing after the heat outside,” she grins and shows her uneven teeth that make her look wholesome. Her voice is husky like a chain smoker’s, but she’s not. Her teeth aren’t yellow and neither are her fingertips.
“So, what do you think?” I ask timidly.
Rose turns and stares in the mirror for a long, quiet moment. I feel my stomach knotting up. When she doesn’t say anything, dread begins to fill my insides. Finally, she turns to look at me and says with wonderment in her voice, “It looks amazing. I look amazing, I never expected it to look so…refined.”
“Of course you look amazing,” I say softly. “You don’t need the dress for that.”
She looks curiously at me and then smiles.
When I stand this close, I can smell the bitter smell of salty sea and the thick sweetness of sunscreen on her. The translucent tiny hairs on her back are peppered with white salt crystals as if her skin were set with tiny diamonds.
“Visited the beach?” I murmur when I concentrate on the neckline of the dress, pinning the fabric so that it forms a smooth hem.
“Mhm. A quick surf after work.” I can sense her lips curl into a smile just inches from my face, but I don’t actually see it as I try to focus on the dress.
“The scowling doesn’t suit you,” she comments, amused.
I lift my face to hers and see her grin. I will my features to relax. “A bad habit whenever I work,” I chuckle. “What’s it like?” I ask.
“What, scowling or surfing?”
“No, I meant being a pastry chef. What’s it like working with food? I’d get fat as a pig.”
“You’re right. Thank God I surf or I wouldn’t be able to tie my shoes anymore,” she says, then pauses for a few moments.
“You should come to my place, I’d make you something.”
I don’t know whether she means her apartment or her restaurant. I don’t say anything.
“I’d make you a crème brûlée with a twist. Say with Grand Marnier. You’d love it because I’m really good.” She grins.
I raise my face from the pins. She’s staring wickedly at me, I can see her amusement and teasing. I’m not an expert in recognizing the signs when a man, or a woman for that matter, is making a pass at me, but I’m almost certain she’s hitting on me. I feel flattered. “I don’t doubt it.”
She inhales through her teeth when I prick her with a needle. “Sorry.” My cheeks flare.
“No worries,” she shrugs and I nearly prick her again.
“Your friends…the ones that are getting hitched, how long have they been together?” I’m curious. I’ve been with Ian for two years now. We will marry, we just haven’t set the date yet. But there’s a half-heartedness about that notion. I will marry because Ian asked me to, but I don’t think I’d care if we didn’t. I don’t need a marriage license to mend his socks, have a beer in the evening in front of the TV from identical beer coolers, or let him spread my thighs in the morning on an occasional Saturday when his hand reaches across the middle of the bed, none too amorously. A fancy party and wedding bands don’t make his belching suave and my annoyed complaining melodious.
“Four years. And now that they can get married, they’re thrilled.”
I feel she’s staring at me.
“How about you?”
“Would you want to get married?” I say and blush slightly. I don’t even know why I asked her that. What do I tell her if she asks why I want to know?
“Ah, I’m not into formalities. I’d just like to find someone…you know, the one. True love, if it doesn’t sound too corny,” she says.
“Not corny at all,” I mumble when I think of what Ian and I have. True love?
I smooth the material, gather it where it should be sewn tighter, mark the hem around her ankles. She has round, firm hips; the silk pulls almost too tightly across them. I suggest I widen the dress, but she doesn’t want me to. I work with her standing in the dim room like a statue but radiating far too much warmth and softness for me to be able to ignore just how alive she is. Just how beautiful and at ease. I blush when I clumsily touch her breast smoothing the fabric across her shoulders. I don’t dare look at her face.
I know what I’m doing, I shouldn’t feel nervous, yet it’s there, that tightness in my belly. My fingers are trembling like butterflies.
I peek at her face and she’s watching me with quiet attention.
“Are you single?” she asks in a low voice. I know her voice shouldn’t resonate in a room filled with soft absorbent fabrics, but it does. I hear my blood rushing in my ears.