A short story in honor of Valentine’s Day. A sort of love story. Something so totally different from my usual work. Still interested? Read on:
“I love you is a lie.”
I whisper the final line of my poem into the microphone and slam my cloth-covered journal closed. A single tear slips down my cheek as I turn and rush off the stage. I hear applause and whistles of appreciation, but I don’t stop to listen. I feel like I can’t breathe, like my throat is closing up.
I have to get out of here.
Without stopping to warn the people I once called friends, I flee the small club and stumble outside. I take big gulps of chilly, February air and beg my wobbly legs to support me long enough to make it to my car. By the time I spot my rust-spotted sedan, I’m crying. My vision is blurred and my hands are shaking so badly that I can’t fit the key in the door properly. Giving up, I drop to my knees and pound my fists on the door, sobbing loudly. I barely register the chill of the moonless night even though I’m shivering in my thin, long-sleeved Bob Marley shirt.
I hear rapid footfalls draw near, and stop dangerously close to me. Great, I think to myself. Now I’ll end up getting shot and jacked, or maybe raped and strangled, and my body left in a ditch somewhere. What a perfect ending to my messed up life. I brace myself for the inevitable demand for my keys, my money, or my life. When nothing happens, I stop crying long enough to yell at this intruder on my private pity party.
“What the heck are you waiting for, an invitation? Knife me, shoot me, whatever. Here are the keys─” I jingle them in my hand, “─and my wallet’s in my back pocket. Have at it.” I laugh hysterically, and then choke on my own sobs.
Warm material envelopes me, and I realize that a coat ─my coat, which I left in the club at the coat check window─ has been draped over my shoulders. I pull the soft leather tight around me as I twist around to get a look at who would venture outside in the middle of the open mic show to bring me my coat. I’m rendered speechless, and become completely certain that my jaw has been dislocated from dropping open so fast. I lose my grip on my keys, my journal, and part of my sanity.
“I thought you might need this,” the gorgeous, chocolate, goddess-in-the-flesh from coat check says to me. I have never in my life seen a woman so beautiful. I struggle to compose myself. “I saw you run out, so I came after you. Oh, and here,” she says, extending a packet of tissues to me. The silver bangles on her arm clang together, bringing soft music to the silent night. “Your makeup is a little…smeary. Unless you were going for that look…?” She trails off uncertainly, the most adorable expression of chagrin crossing her face. Her long lashes flutter as she blinks, waiting for acknowledgement.
Despite the deep shame and overwhelming awe I feel, I smile and accept the tissues. Extracting a few, I blow my nose, swipe at my dark eye makeup, and take a few deep breaths. I stuff the soiled paper products in my jacket pocket, retrieve my journal and keys from the ground, and stand.
Embarrassed by my lack of emotional control, I nod in her direction. “Thank you.” I make a show of looking for my companions, and my heart sinks lower when I realize that they haven’t bothered to come search for me. I squeeze my keys tightly and shuffle my feet, wishing a giant hole in the ground would open up and swallow me. It’s not like anyone would care, apparently. Certainly not the people in the club sitting at the table I reserved.
The woman standing near me attempts to look into my eyes, searching, for what, I’m not very sure. She asks me, “Are you okay?” and I nod silently, avoiding her gaze. Sneaking a peek from the corner of my eye, I see that she is not convinced of my well-being, so I move to appease her.
“I’m fine!” I declare harshly. I even allow myself a small chuckle, which comes out wrong, making it sound as if I am choking.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” She studies me with a look of severe seriousness in her large brown eyes. She runs a hand through her short, tightly curled hair, and shakes her head slightly, making her large hoop earrings jingle. I glance at the name tag pinned to her baggy, oversized sweater: Zee. I catch myself wondering what that could be short for.
Her words sink in after a moment, and I blink rapidly. Stunned at the gesture of this stranger, my mouth opens and closes a few times, but nothing comes out. Zee sighs and grabs my wrist. “Come on,” she says. “There’s a coffee shop just down the block. I’m pretty sure it’s still open.” Not knowing what else to do, I stumble along the mostly deserted street after her.
We stop at one of those fancy, glass and chrome decorated chain places. The bright light is harsh, and I find myself squinting, wishing that I had pulled out of her grasp when I had the chance. Zee notices my discomfort, and I notice her noticing. She sends furtive glances in my direction, which I pretend to ignore as I study the menu.
A bored-looking barista waltzes over to the counter and stands pointedly in front of the computer. He is tall, tanned, and pierced multiple times through his face. I wince, thinking of the pain those holes must have caused, and hurriedly order the first thing that comes to mind.
“Coffee,” I blurt out. “Black. Er, tiny size?” He taps something on the screen, then turns his heavy-lidded gaze to the woman at my side. “Separate bills! Please,” I add meekly when they both turn to stare uncomprehendingly at me. Metal-faced man shrugs and taps a few more buttons. I dig for my wallet, feeling myself shrink under the brutal scrutiny of my companion.
I slap the correct amount of money on the counter, and point to a table in the darkest corner I can see. “I’m sitting over there.” I tuck my wallet back into my back pocket, make sure the chain is still attached to my belt loop, and shove my hands in my pockets. My journal is tucked tightly in my armpit, and my jacket, still draped over my shoulders, flutters around me with every step. I can feel the interested gazes of the shop’s few patrons burning into me, and I fight to ignore them.
I don’t belong here.
I feel trapped, but running away now would be incredibly rude and cowardly of me. I press my lips together tightly, and force my feet to carry me to the table I picked out. I’m breathing hard now, and I can feel beads of sweat forming across my brow. I am glad of the fact that I pulled my dreadlocs back into a thick bun at the nape of my neck; there is less around me to contribute to my imminent overheating. I stride a little faster, and blow out a breath in relief when I make it.
Just as I’m dropping my posterior into the padded chair, Zee suddenly appears in front of me, holding two steaming paper cups. I can’t believe that she was able to move so stealthily, and I have no idea how she got our drinks so quickly. I start, sending my coat slipping onto the floor. I make a grab for it over my shoulder, somehow sending my journal flying across the table, narrowly missing Zee and those cups. I mutter an apology, and feel a blush of embarrassment burn my cheeks. I always manage to screw up, don’t I? My education, my family, my work…my relationship. Hot tears spring up in my eyes, and I return to the sobbing mess I was when Zee found me. I drop my head to the table, weeping. I can tell that she is confused and at a loss; I expect her to run away screaming at any moment. Imagine my surprise when she, once again, comes to my rescue.
She places the cups gently on the table, retrieves my journal, walks around to my chair, lifts my coat, and drapes it over my shaking back. A firm hand caresses my shoulder.
“Hey,” Zee says. “It’s going to be okay. I mean, I don’t actually know that it’ll be okay, but I figured it might help to hear that.” I cry harder in response. I hear her sigh, and the pressure of her hand ceases. I instantly miss her touch, but I don’t have time to complain. The sound of a chair being dragged across the tile slices through the murmurs and harsh whispers. I turn my head as Zee sits down next to me, and flings an arm around me. “It’s going to be okay,” she repeats, and presses a wad of paper napkins into my hand. She strokes my arm through my coat with her thumb; the contact helps to even out my breathing.
“I’m sorry,” I blubber in her general direction. My vision is too blurry to see her clearly. “I’m really sorry. You’re a very nice person, so beautiful and so nice. I’m so sorry!” I blow my nose noisily on a brown, 100% recycled material napkin and hiccup twice. I swipe at my eyes again, further smearing whatever is left of my eyeliner. Zee reaches across the table, snags my thimble of cooling coffee, and presses it into my trembling hands.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks me again.
“Why do you care?” I blurt out, shocking us both. The caring expression in her eyes cools a bit, and she draws back, as if burned. “Um, I mean…”
She holds up her hands. “Whoa, okay? I just..I heard your poem, okay? And I saw you run out. I thought you might have needed a friend, since the group you came with didn’t seem too interested in following you. If I’m wasting my time, or overstepping some invisible line, just tell me to go.” Her earrings jingle loudly with every roll of her neck, and the sound is almost enough to make tears leak from my eyes for a third time.
“No! Don’t, uh, don’t go. Please. I’m-I’m sorry,” I say to her, all in a rush. “I do need a friend, and I do want to talk about it. It’s just.. difficult.” Taking a deep breath and a slurp of coffee, I continue, slowly. “Ten minutes before I walked on stage, my relationship ended. My partner, who I live with, has been screwing one of my closest friends behind my back. And everybody knew about it but me.” I watch Zee’s lovely features contort and shuffle through shock, anger, grief, and pity. I look away, and slurp more bitter bean juice. “It wasn’t as big of a surprise as it should have been. We’d been on the outs for a while. Still, you know, first love and all that.” I sigh bitterly. “I changed the piece I read at the last minute. And now, I have to tell my parents, who threw me out when I said I was in love, that they were right about my ‘immoral choices’ and beg to be allowed to return to their house until I find a new apartment or whatever.”
My cup is empty, so I crush it in my fist, regretting coming here with Zee, wishing I could take back my sordid tale. I know what usually follows people hearing about my parents throwing me out, and it’s─
“So how old are you?”
I blink, confusion clouding my thoughts. “I’m sorry?”
“How old are you? If that’s not too personal,” she says to me, daintily sipping at her beverage. “Or am I being rude? I just realized that we haven’t formally introduced ourselves yet.” She held out a hand, bracelets clanking together at her wrist. “I’m Zambia, but everyone calls me Zee. And you, of course, are the great wordsmith and poet better known as G-Love.” Zee seizes my hand in a soft grip and chuckles at my surprise.
“How did you-”
“I work at there, remember? I hear you read every Thursday.”
“Oh.” It is my turn to be at a loss.
“I’ve been following your blog, and I bought your ebook, too,” she says. “I told all of my friends to get it.”
As she speaks, I receive a ping in my brain, a sudden remembrance of a jump in my web traffic, and a larger than usual commission payment from the self-publishing site I sell my book through. To think that this woman before me was the sole reason why.
‘Thank you,” I tell her, and I mean it. The sales and ad revenue paid for the car I own, but I don’t think it would be appropriate to tell her this. “I’m 22, by the way. And my real name is Gillian, but nobody actually calls me that.”
Zee cocks her head to the side and studies me for a long, nerve-wracking moment. “You don’t look like a Gillian.”
“I know. I think my parents were expecting someone a little different.” We share a laugh as the shop empties out. The barista comes over then, and tells us that we have about thirty minutes before he locks the doors. I get the impression that he would like for us to leave right this very moment, leaving him to whatever raucous cleaning event he has planned. Zee delivers a promise to him that we’ll leave without complaint, dumps the rest of her drink down her throat, and stands.
“Let’s get back,” she says. “My break has long since been over.”
“Oh!” I exclaim. “I didn’t realize you were on the clock. Will you get in trouble? I’d hate to think that you’d face problems because of me.”
Zee says nothing until we exit the building, me holding the door open for her to walk through first. She waits for me to join her in the street before changing the subject.
“So you’re gay, right?”
I trip over air, stumble trying to right myself, and smash my shoulder, painfully, into the brick facade of the boutique I was passing by. I whip around to stare at her, mouth moving, but words fail to appear, neither in my brain nor between my lips. My back is pressed against the wall I so recently met. Zee looks amused, as evidenced by the sly smile that slides across her sensuous mouth. She flicks her tongue to the corner of her lips, and my eyes follow, helplessly.
“So I was right,” she says, mostly to herself. To me, she says, “You’ve been hurt, deeply, but it’ll be okay. Give it some time.”
My brain remembers how form thoughts, and sends the signals to my mouth to spit them out. “How did you… Why…” I slump against the wall, defeat souring my gut. “Am I that obvious?”
“Would it be a bad thing if you are?” Zee tips her head to the side, and folds her arms across her chest. “Ah,” she breathes. “That’s why your parents put you out, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’m not here to judge you, alright? Just making an observation.” She unfolds her arms slowly, and reaches for me, then stops, clenching a fist instead. She falls silent as she looks up and studies the night sky. A frown flits across her face. “We should go. It’s going to snow soon.”
I look up, trying to see what she sees. “It’s not cold enough to snow,” I contradict her.
“Mm” is her only response. She begins walking, and I follow her, falling into place at her side. I cast wondering glances in her direction, appraising her ethereal beauty and confident personality.
I like it here.
I want to stay at her side.
The walk back to my car is uneventful. I jingle my keys in my hand, searching my brain for an appropriate farewell. Zee saves me by speaking first.
“I love you is not a lie, if it’s said by the right person.”
She smiles shyly. “Nothing. Hey, where’s your phone? Let me see it.” I slip it out of the holster on my hip and hand it to her, my fingertips grazing hers. I watch as she taps the screen on it, then removes her own phone from her pocket and peers at it. “There,” she says, handing the device back to me. “Now you have my number. Text me or something, ‘kay?”
She winks as she leaves me standing there, mouth slightly open. As she disappears into the club, snowflakes drift down from the sky. I get in car, insert the key, and bring the ignition roaring to life. Heat blasts from the vents, but I don’t drive away just yet. I open my journal and shift through the junk in the glove box, searching for a pen. I have a new poem to compose. Something, perhaps, about finding love in the snow.