Monday, April 5, 2021

New story: Mara, part 1


Hi PD folks, I'm back with a new short story. I've been poking at this one for a year and a half (!), so it's time to finally release it into the wild. :) Hope you enjoy...

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MARA


There’s a storm coming and inside the store, under the buzz of fluorescent lights, third in line for the register, Mara is restless. Her attention is fixed on the sensation of building pressure, the humidity that the air conditioning can’t manage to suck out. Beneath the no-brand pop music that the convenience store pipes in overhead, she thinks she can hear a roll of distant thunder; it presses in against the hum of the lights. Her bare arms prickle, up and down their lengths.

Listening to the outside, she half-watches as the white guy first in line steps forward. Average height, lean verging on slender, dark hair – her type. He’s wearing a black tank top and dark grey jeans.

There’s something strange about his silhouette, an unsettling spareness. Mara will always remember the exact moment when he stepped up to the register, her vision slid into alignment, and she realized that he had no arms: that his hands grew directly out of his shoulders.

Reflexively, immediately, she turns away as soon as she’s perceived it. She gasps. Did she gasp out loud? She catches her breath, notices the middle-aged black woman behind her eyeing her, and pretends to examine the boxed candies to her right. Tofifay, Andes, Mike and Ike. Her breath trembles, and in her mind’s eye is fixed the last thing she saw before she turned away: the fingers of his right hand – strangely normal, normally shaped – curling in slightly as he twisted to take off his small backpack on the countertop, no arms coming out of the straps, just his hands.

She forces herself to turn back. She won’t miss this. She can’t miss this. Hating herself, she watches every moment. She watches as he leans and pushes his wallet out of the backpack with his chin, flips it open the same way, and then indicates a card for the cashier—who, unbelievably, looks bored—to take. What is he buying? The cashier is now turning to the back shelving, where he grabs a pack of batteries. He scans it and drops it into the backpack, moves to swipe the credit card. He fumbles to replace the credit card, the wallet; their owner shifts impatiently.

Mara watches as he, the armless man, leans to hold down the bag with his right hand and uses his mouth to grab the zipper pull and zip it shut.
 
It’s over; he’s heading out the door. She watches his profile as he strides out. His walk is rangy, loping, and his face has a wary, sardonic look. She feels as if a dart has been fired into her breastbone. Heat and something like pain spread from there.

She hardly notices as and yet—later—is impossibly grateful when the businessman in line ahead of her suddenly swears, starts back into the store to get something else, spins back quickly to gesture her into his place at the register.
 
“Thanks,” she barely says, and she rushes through her transaction, rushes out of the shop.
 
Thank god, she thinks, thank god—and addresses herself—you pathetic worm. Because as she exits, he’s still out there, he’s dropped to a squat to one side of the door to rummage through his backpack, fighting with the foot-long receipt that the cashier stuffed in on top.
 
“I don’t know why they always insist on giving you receipts that are, like, the Dead Sea Scrolls,” she says as she steps over to stand beside him, before she can tell herself not to. Slowly she folds her own receipt, in half and in half again.
 
He looks up at her, squinting, gives her the briefest smile, then returns to his backpack. He has hazel eyes and thin, nicely shaped lips.
 
She pushes on. “Do you live around here?”
 
He looks up and straightens his back slightly. This time he looks her up and down, from her black platform boots to her heavy black hair to her fingers, armored with silver rings. “Do you need directions or something?”
 
“No,” she says, and she’s amazed at how cool she sounds, how light. “Just curious.”
 
“Feel like you would have noticed me before?” he says, with a slight edge, though not an angry one.
 
“Honestly, yes.”
 
He shrugs. She’s staring out toward traffic but she can see it in her peripheral vision, the way his hands rise and fall with his shoulders, directly. And she has the sense that in saying yes, she’s scored a point. “I live crosstown east, but I’m around here a lot I guess. Do you live here?” He says it slightly tauntingly, underscoring the banality of the question.
 
“No, uptown—Spanish Harlem.” She has the sense that she’s running out of time, although he hasn’t returned to sorting his bag, is looking her up and down again. “What’s your name?”
 
“Pete.”
 
She has to smile; it’s such a cute name, an innocent one. Pete’s Dragon. “Pete? I’m Mara.”
 
They’re making eye contact now, though he doesn’t bother getting up.
 
“Look,” she says, “can I get your number?” And she pulls out her phone.
 
His eyebrows go up, and then he shrugs again—this time she watches as his hands move up and down, like wings. He tells her his number.
 
She smiles as she finishes tapping it in, and says, lightly again, “Thanks, I’ll text you later. Bye then. Stay dry.” She leaves with one last glance, a half-smile back at him. She can feel him watching her go. There’s real thunder now, deep booms rolling up from the south. The first drops of rain are coming, scattered. She wonders if he has a jacket.
 
Being a Goth is a form of theater—among other things—and she knows she’s good at it, expert at translating nervousness into a playful detachment. It’s easy to play mysterious when one is fundamentally uncomfortable actually engaging with other people. Wearing all black, every day, helps.
 
Mara walks into the rain and hopes he likes the same kind of theater that she does.
 
 

***
 
 

By 11 A.M. the next morning, they’re on for a date that Friday. There’s some kind of street festival downtown; they’ll meet in Washington Square Park.

They write each other funny texts, lightly barbed ones. Mara reads his over and over and tries not to spend too much time fantasizing about what he would look like texting. Maybe he uses voice to text, anyway.

 

***
 
 

Mara looks at herself in her oval mirror with its heavy gold frame ornamented with leaves and serpents, her Morgan le Fay mirror, as she thinks of it. Don’t fuck it up, she mouths to herself silently. You know what you need to do. Sorceress on a mission. She smooths her dress, smooths down her bangs, pushes the rest of her hair over her shoulders. She blows out the two candles on either side of the mirror.
 
She inhales the smell of smoke. She touches the small pile of ashes, still warm, on the brass dish resting before the mirror, where she burned something just now: a slip of paper, inscribed with certain drawings. After she touched one of the candles to it, it went up with a little ripple of flame, then withered away into grey fragments.
 
Maybe he’ll be boring, anyway. She rubs a pinch of the warm ashes between finger and thumb, smearing them with black, then turns to leave.
 
 

***
 
 

At the street fair, people stare at Pete. Old, young, it doesn’t matter; even though it’s Manhattan, they still stare. But Pete stares back, until they look away. When it’s happened enough times, Mara starts staring back, too. She takes all the jangling nervous energy inside her and imagines flashing it out in little spikes at the people who stare. Never mind that she had been the one staring, before.
 
The day is blazingly hot and blurred with humidity. Families tow red-faced toddlers, a reggae band blares from a small stage two blocks away, and the smells of grilling meat and burnt sugar hang in the air. Their conversation so far has been limited to color commentary on the crowds and vendors; they have to lean close to each other to be heard over the noise, and Mara pretends not to notice when one of his hands brushes against her bare shoulder, even though her stomach clenches every time.
 
“Is that for decorative purposes only?” he says this time.
 
“What?” She looks at him, startled, and then says, “Oh,” when she sees him nodding his chin toward the skewer of grilled beef and peppers that she picked up a few blocks ago, and hasn’t touched since. “I always feel weird being the only person eating. But if you really don’t want anything…”
 
He shrugs and looks away again. She waits another few moments and then takes a bite, even though she’s too nervous to be hungry. She tells herself that she has to trust that he’ll say something if there’s something he actually wants help with. She watches him out of the corner of her eye: he’s scanning the crowd slowly, the corner of his mouth lifted slightly. She wonders what he’s thinking.

Eventually she taps on his back and offers him the last bite of the kebab. He slows to a stop and looks at it consideringly. As the crowd parts around them, jostling, he leans forward to bite it off the skewer carefully. Chewing, he makes a “not bad” face. She can’t help noticing that the fingers of his hands, always slightly curled, close further as he eats.
 
His hands are startlingly normal in shape, just slightly undersized. Their normalcy makes them stranger. They seem misplaced, appropriated from another source: a statue’s hands, or the fronds of some undersea creature, sprouting out of his shoulders.
 
By now, she’s seen that he can’t turn them at all. (Covertly moving her own hands at her sides, earlier, she realized that turning all comes from the arm bones.) He can move the fingers slightly, but seemingly not the thumb; once she was fascinated to watch him press the index and middle fingers of one hand together to grasp something briefly between them. All this she’s taken in in glimpses since, today, she’s determined not to stare. For his part, he has yet to say anything direct about any of it.
 
He’s finished eating, and licks his lips. “Thanks,” he says, and they press on through the crowd.
 
“What are you smirking about?” she asks him finally, a few blocks later.
 
“Right now,” he says, “the idea of getting one of those.” She follows his gaze to a tent emblazoned with gold letters spelling out: PALM READINGS.
 
“Oh my god,” she says, and gives a bark of involuntary laughter.
 
“Well? Should I?”
 
“Jesus, I don’t know.” But he’s already pushing toward the tent, and she hurries after him, this time ignoring the people who turn to stare at him, at his shoulders.
 
Fortunes Told. Futures Revealed, more gold letters promise. Under the tent sits a petite white woman in her 60s, with long grey-streaked black hair, an elaborate red shawl over a gauzy white dress, and enough rings to rival Mara’s. “My friend wants her fortune told,” Pete is yelling to her, looking back over his shoulder at Mara.
 
“You set me up,” she tells him as she arrives, flushed.
 
“What, honey?” the palm-reader says, blinking up at them benignly.
 
“Nothing.”
 
Pete uses one of his feet to position the waiting camp chair at a more welcoming angle for Mara. “I thought this would be your kind of thing, anyway.”
 
She rolls her eyes and folds into the chair, reluctantly offering her hand to the woman. “Ten dollars,” the woman says happily, while beginning to stroke her fingertips over Mara’s palm. “Now I want you to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and feel centered in yourself. Forget about all this hubbub.”
 
Mara closes her eyes, but all she feels is the heat hanging around her, and Pete’s presence at her shoulder. She pictures his stance: the way he always seems to lean forward, knees slightly bent, with an odd mixture of ease and impatient energy; it already seems deeply characteristic even after only an hour together. She thinks about his one-sided smile, and his hands. She imagines tracing her fingers over them the way the palm-reader is doing to her now. She lets out a trembling breath, and the desire she’s been carrying within her all day rises up, overwhelming. The desire and the guilt.
 
She opens her eyes again. The palm-reader is saying something about embracing uncertainty. “That’s very helpful,” she says under her breath.
 
“Oh, really?” The woman beams. “Tell me, does the archetype of the Fool resonate with you?”
 
“Sure. Though maybe I feel more like the dog today.”
 
The palm-reader crows with delighted laughter. “Your girlfriend knows a thing or two,” she says to Pete, who raises his eyebrows. “I knew you were a kindred spirit,” she continues, patting Mara’s hand.
 
She resists the urge to say, Does that mean I get a discount?, even though she thinks it might make Pete laugh. The woman is just too nice.
 
In the end, Pete asks Mara to fish out his wallet and find the ten dollars; the woman thanks them and says “Bless you both” with unnerving sincerity, looking with special meaning at Pete’s hands.
 
Mara makes a face at Pete as they leave, but all he says is, “What was that about dogs?”

“It’s a tarot card thing,” Mara says.
 
“So you do do witchy shit.”
 
“I do do witchy shit.”
 
“So was that all beneath you?”
 
“Oh, I don’t know, she was sweet. I just don’t like being put on the spot.”
 
He ignores her look. “Is magic real?”
 
Again she gives a single laugh of surprise. “It depends what you think magic is.”
 
“Okay, not the Penn and Teller kind.”
 
“I don’t think I can scream a satisfactory explanation in the middle of a carnival.”
 
“Okay, another time. Does your family think you’re a Satanist?” It’s easy for that kind of thing to really get her hackles up, but he says it with a lazy playfulness that softens any sting; it feels more like an invitation to talk, however cock-eyed.
 
“You’re going straight for the kill, huh. They don’t love how I dress, but I don’t think my parents know what Satanists are.”
 
“Are they Buddhist or something?”
 
“Sort of. A little. It’s like a cultural thing more than a religious thing—family traditions, superstitions at home… But if you’re talking about formal religion, they’re pretty oblivious.”
 
“Hmm. Okay. Sorry, that was maybe a reverse generalization. A bunch of the other Asian girls I know, their families were super evangelical, so I assumed…”
 
“Well, it worked. Is your family religious?” It’s the first personal question she’s asked him so far.
 
He pauses. “Yeah.”
 
“Should we put that one in the ‘save for when we’re not screaming in a street fair’ bank?”
 
“Sure.” He looks at her and gives a smile. Even though it’s brief, it’s unexpectedly warm, enough to dissolve the edginess that had been building up inside her.
 
They stop to look at a glassblower’s tent, at rows of curving vessels streaked with bright colors and veins of silver leaf. Pete crouches down to look more closely at an elaborate, alchemical-looking bottle: its spout enters its own side, curving down into its innards, forming an improbable, silvery tunnel through its own center.
 
At the opposite corner of the tent, a pair of middle-aged white women—sisters, maybe—stare at him, whispering to each other, until one of them catches Mara glaring. She starts back and tugs at her sister. As they hurry away, the woman turns back briefly to give Mara a nasty look, of course. Mara gives her one in return that says, What are you gonna do about it.
 
Pete isn’t paying attention. Mara looks back in time to see him leaning forward. He’s reaching to rest the side of his index finger against the bottle; he flexes that shoulder downward so that he can drag the finger down the side of the bottle a little, feeling it.
 
Mara feels like her insides have liquefied; a flush instantly heats her cheeks.
 
You’re no better than those women. You’re the goddamn worst.
 
Pete stands up with an abstracted look on his face. “Want anything?” he says to Mara when his attention comes to rest on her again.
 
She breathes out. “No thanks. Just looking. What about you?”
 
He shrugs, fluidly, and just gives her a lingering little look, a faint smile on his lips. Then he turns back and sets off into the crowd again, with his loping walk.
 
Mara has to stand there for another few seconds before she can join him. She runs her mind over all the little shades of meaning in his look and his smile. There was still that wariness, but amusement, too. And, unmistakably, there was attraction: as if someone had briefly lifted a cover on a lamp and let a little heat and light shine out.
 
The image of him shrugging comes back to her, then: the way the gesture seems to run through his whole, lanky body, the way that his hands are simply there at his shoulders, unnatural and natural, a kind of wordless statement about his body.
 
With an effort, she pushes all of it into the background and hurries after him.
 
“Was that a Klein bottle?” she says when she’s caught up. “The one you were looking at.”
 
“That’s it!” he says, giving her a pleased look. “I was trying to remember.”
 
“It’s like a Möbius strip?  
 
“Yeah, but even bendier.” He takes a playfully bounding step forward to emphasize the point.
 
“Someone give this man a degree in math.”
 
“What’s the point of topology, anyway?”
 
“I’m afraid I exhausted my mathy trivia when we got to Möbius strips. I don’t even remember if the point is that it’s an infinite surface or an infinite edge or what.”
 
“New memoir title,” Pete proposes. “Infinite Edge.”
 
Mara gives a disapproving “Ooooh,” narrowing her eyes at him, as if she’s just watched someone take a bad fall, before giving in and laughing.
 
But Pete is already distracted, squinting upward at the sky. “Hey, do you wanna get out of this noise finally? We have company.”
 
“Huh?” Mara follows his gaze and sees the leading edge of an anvil-shaped cloud, deep blue-grey, sweeping out from beyond the buildings to their west. “Oh, damn, good catch.” She hadn’t noticed the light changing while they were in the glassblower’s tent, but now she registers that the wind has picked up speed, snapping by with a hint of coolness.
 
“This way?” He says it as a question, but he’s already moving toward the nearest eastward cross-street. Mara turns to follow him, but for a moment all she can do is watch his strange, slender shape moving off through the crowd. Watching, she feels as if she’s been taken out of herself: Am I really here? Is he really there? She finds herself thinking again of the alien shape of the Klein bottle in the glassblower’s tent.
 
After they’ve broken through a cordon of harried parents with double strollers and overstuffed tote bags, the first peal of thunder rolls through the air, and a few giddy shrieks go up from the crowd behind them. Pete walks fast, leaning even further forward than usual, and again she lets herself look at the wing-like shapes of his hands, emerging with stark paleness from the black of his shirt.
 
The babble of the street fair recedes behind them. They’ve emerged into a disarmingly cute courtyard, with vine-draped red brick buildings surrounding a wide stretch of grey cobblestones, as if they’ve traded Manhattan for Belgium. Mara pauses and smiles. “NYU, right?” she calls ahead to Pete.
 
“Yeah, it’s the French department, or something.”
 
Mara stands and looks to the sky, fanning her face slowly with both hands. There’s another peal of thunder, sharper this time, and the breeze is distinctly cooler, pushing her long dress against her sweaty legs. Come on in, she silently eggs the thunderclouds sweeping closer and closer into view. For a dizzying moment she feels her attention vault up among them, feels vividly that the electricity of her thoughts is crawling across those masses of potential energy. I am with you and you are with me. Then she’s back down in the courtyard, feeling small, breathless.
 
Pete has stopped in front of one of the doors and shed his backpack on the step. When he sees her looking, he gestures her over with his chin. She sets off towards him, watching curiously as he sits down by the backpack, kicks off his left shoe, a simple canvas slip-on; his foot is bare. With his toes, he unzips the backpack. Then he plucks out his wallet, flips it open, and slides out a thick white plastic card, grasping it between his first and second toes.
 
It’s the first time she’s seen him using his feet to do something like this, and it’s so fascinating that this time, she feels justified in staring. His gestures are amazingly assured, and his foot is so flexible that it looks eerily hand-like as he grasps the card. He pivots and pushes himself to a standing position facing the door, then swiftly lifts his foot high to swipe the white card past the small black sensor set to one side of the doorframe. It beeps and flashes green, and Mara can hear the muffled click of the door unlocking. Pete brings his heel down on the handle, pulls, and then hops to slide his opposite shoulder in between the door and the frame.

“C’mon in,” he says from the doorway, a little breathlessly. “Can you get my bag?” As she nods, he stretches his left foot down to reclaim his shoe. He stuffs both the card and then his foot into the shoe. She stoops to grab the handle of his backpack, then pauses to take one last look over her shoulder into the courtyard behind them. A few other people are hurrying by, glancing anxiously at the sky; nobody takes notice of her. She takes a breath, feeling as if she’s about to take a dive, and follows Pete into the building.



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To be concluded next week.


If you enjoy my stories, my devvy M/M romance novel, Shadowboxing, is now revised and available as both an ebook & paperback. Thank you so much to everyone who has been reading it!

22 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Thank you.
    SA

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  2. Thank you, I'll definitely be back next week! :)

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    1. Thank you for reading, and see you next week!

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  3. I would read pretty much anything you write! Loving this so far for its change of pace and unique characters unlike what I usually read about. Thanks for sharing and I’m looking forward to reading the conclusion next week!

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    1. Thank you so much, EJ! Even if it's still the usual boy-meets-girl set-up, I did have fun writing quirkier characters.

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  4. It was different and refreshing. I had never read anything by you before. So I’m going to Amazon right now to look for your book.

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    1. Glad you found it a fun change of pace, Alex! Thank you for reading & commenting. BTW, I'm not 100% up-to-date with Some Things Never Change, but the parts that I read were quite touching.

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    2. Oh thanks, that’s great! I hope you like the rest. I read Shadowboxing in one day. I don’t usually read gay novels, but I liked it a lot. The big guy is super sweet, and I love how he carries him. I liked that you kept the relationship real and how the title refers to both of them having to fight themselves and their insecurities to make their relationship work despite their differences.

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  5. Thank you for your new treat. I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to next week. Not the usual type of disability, very refreshing and devy!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Anon. I was slightly worried that this might be a bit left-field even for Paradevo, so I'm so glad that folks are finding it fun & devvy!

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  6. Once again I’m in awe of your writing! So vivid and beautiful <3 This may not be number one on my list of preferred disabilities, but it definitely pushes some buttons! Curious to see more of Pete and absolutely in love with Mara. Btw did I miss something? What is it about the dogs?

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    2. Yay, always glad to push some Lovis buttons! ;D And I'm so glad you like Mara so much; I'm fond of both of these weirdos, haha.

      Dogs - Blargh, there was a pasting error there! Thank you for pointing it out. Mara was referring to the first card in the tarot, the Fool, which portrays a happy fool wandering along the edge of a cliff, while his little dog tries to warn him away. i.e., Mara is worried that she should be being more cautious. Even with the missing line pasted back in, it's pretty obscure, but I figured Mara would be self-conscious about rambling about tarot cards at Pete.

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  7. Great start - looking forward to more.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Anon!

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  8. I love this story so much!! Aaaah, so happy you are posting again. I love how she's a cool Goth and ESPECIALLY love that she's a dev. We need more stories with dev characters! Although I want to help her get over her self-loathing.

    And I love that the guy has an unusual disability. Every description of him is super, super hot <3

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    1. Oh, it would be fun to write a more confident dev character... I'll have to keep that in mind.

      And, so glad you're enjoying the descriptions so much! Part 2 should be fun for you. ;)

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  9. Love these quirky different characters. This is definitely going to be a fun ride. The Tarot, the glass blowing. Love all these details. And of course the super devy descriptions

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    1. So happy you're having so much fun with them, blueskye!

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  10. Love these quirky different characters. This is definitely going to be a fun ride. The Tarot, the glass blowing. Love all these details. And of course the super devy descriptions

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  11. Love these quirky different characters. This is definitely going to be a fun ride. The Tarot, the glass blowing. Love all these details. And of course the super devy descriptions

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