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Lackluster

Patrycja Humienik

Her momma used to sing Robert Johnson and Billie Holiday around the apartment in layers of turquoise and black fabric, crocheted chiffon. Arms floating, serpentine and feathery, alongside a voice that warbled like a caged bird. This is what Elyse tells you after reshaping the foam leaf in her cappuccino into one of Dali’s melting clocks. Slow sips. You’re no longer picturing her mother standing in a 1950s style kitchen but a snakebird, the Anhinga, singing, making crepes, with an apron on, and fawn eyes.

Elyse’s eyes are so honeyed, so almond shaped, you think about dinner, breakfast; when was the last meal you had? It’s not that you aren’t interested. Rather, each word, the few, that her coral lips have shaped are plastered Polaroids on the walls of your brain, kaleidescoping into a thousand of the same snapshot. Seams that you have stitched into a makeshift understanding of her childhood.

Shit. You’re scatterbrained, stomach doing back-flips thanks to an impulse extra shot in your latte. If only that were a saving grace for verbal clumsiness. There’s no chance for an aesthetic appreciation of acrobatics when they are beneath the fibers of skin, not palpable. She blinks, twice, lips curving into a crescent. She thinks you’re spacing out. Goddamn it, perceptive people make you anxious. Hell, sultry women wearing low cut v-necks make you anxious. You clear your throat. You start saying something, anything, when she leans back in the creaky mahogany chair, bites her lip and winks.

The shock must have shown on your face before it registered in your brain because she’s laughing, an unexpectedly rich laugh that resonates in your chest, smoothes the space between your eyebrows. Fills your cheeks until your eyes wrinkle, stomach twitches, and you’re both laughing, trying to stifle it in the midst of hunched shoulders and the soundtrack of foam being tamed into elfin silver pitchers. Your eyes lock. The laughter stills. Eyes shift to the fingers wearing out keyboards around you and back to a moment’s exchange of raised eyebrows. This acknowledgment of absurdity coaxes the epiglottis, restricts your larynx to induce more laughter. Hers is gentle now, cheeks flushed, almonds for eyes holding your gaze as the moment settles. Gathers dust.

You see her as a time-lapsed photograph. Thirty, forty, fifty years old. There is a knowing in her eyes: a mix of the blues, of punk, of jazz. Her eyes relay ancestral doldrums and spleen with the wisdom of flow, of improvisation between contradictions. There’s funk in the way she moves, and classical. The way her collarbones and jaw rest reveals a simultaneous fervor and calm. The muscles beneath the languid heaviness of bone twitch slightly, like piano keys quivering with the build-up, the anticipation of staccato after a sumptuous, drawn-out legato. Expectant, like her half-moon smile.

“This place closes at 11,” Elyse says. Not the one delayed and hemmed in your mind’s eye but the Elyse who is nodding towards the wonderfully tacky pool ball clock. Tick. Tock.

“It’s 10:50 already?” you say, scrunching your brows. You had planned to pick her brain, to better understand the vixen who had approached you on the train just a week ago quoting, “Tell me how all this, and love too, will ruin us./ These, our bodies, possessed by light./ Tell me we’ll never get used to it” when she saw you reading Siken’s Crush. You’re pretty sure that you’ve, instead, spent most of this coffee date studying the angles of her face, the curvature of her collarbone, her restless hands.

“There’s a tavern down a few blocks that features local jazz groups around eleven on Saturday nights. A friend from work recommended it,” Elyse says, all honey-eyed and coral-lipped.

“I usually go to bed at too practical an hour,” you say, aware right after the words flop cumbersome off your tongue that this doesn’t qualify as a response to her proposal. Did you say that with a slight English accent? You note Elyse trying to contain the curve of her lips and add, trying to justify your hermit tendencies, “I have a sunrise fetish.”

“Ah. Is that so?” Elyse laughs, buttoning her turquoise trench coat. “Let’s get some margaritas then. The city has plenty to offer ‘til sunrise.”

You don’t even blink. You’re standing up, sliding your right hand into your pocket, deeper within which you feel the edge of your miniature Moleskin and a matchbox. You haven’t been to a bar in two years, since that clusterfuck of a night during your last semester at college with the red lace panties and the lost kitten. But you’re taken by her, falling hook, line, and sinker. So submerged you’re thinking in clichés. Shit. You blink, push your chair in, and follow Elyse’s serpentine figure out the café.

Outside of Café Genmai heels and mouths tick-tock along the concrete. The two of you weave through; elbows and upper arms holding gentle contact. The tick-tocks wane as you make out Elyse’s soft hum, an absent-minded rendition of “Come on in my Kitchen.” Your neck is tingly.

“I’d like to hear you sing,” you say, goose bumps spilling along your arms as the melody spreads between your vertebrae.

Elyse stops humming. The two of you reach the intersection. “I haven’t sang for anyone in years. I don’t sing much anymore,” she says, looking at the yellow light as it turns red. Then she turns to you. You can’t make out what her eyes are saying.

“Any particular reason?” you ask as the light turns to green. The great unwashed press themselves around the two of you, some deceivingly costumed and tidied, but all crossing the street in tick-tocks, stiff-lipped with comatose pupils, nevertheless.            

“I had wanted, had planned, to be a singer. A songwriter. To learn to play more instruments. I was enrolled at Manhattan School of Music like my momma had been, but she died that winter, three years ago. I dropped out,” Elyse says.

You are standing near the crosswalk yet you cannot bring yourself to cross, even as the little pallid man transforms into a blinking hand. Elyse, too, stands, masseter muscle twitching. You think of the beginning of Yann Tiersen’s Comptine D’un Autre Ete, during which fingers wind the melody up taut. You want to ask her if she used to play the piano. You want to kiss her until music seeps out. Instead you look at her deadpan face and nod.

You’re still nodding when the two of you slide onto art-deco style seats and the bartender with the goatee and Chuck Norris shirt says, “Can I get you anything.” He looks pointedly at Elyse before, after, and during the making of the margaritas. Your eyes flicker as they adjust to the neon lighting. Elyse’s eyes are lustrous again as she proposes a cheers to “new adventures,” and slowly licks the salt off the rim of her glass. You take too large a swallow out of yours and try to stifle your coughing fit. You notice that Elyse has a dimple on her right side.

She is still smiling at you when she orders the next set of drinks. The dark blue lighting has a hazy feel to it now and the bartender seems like a goateed version of your goofy friend Anji who holds a handshake far too long. You realize that you’re saying this aloud, that Elyse is cracking up, and that her sapphire-swathed hands are holding yours as you sit facing each other. Your left ear takes in the unscrewing of tops, the cataract of liquor and ice, as your right devours jazz. Delicious jazz. It has the Mingus free jazz flavor with the electro buzz of Herbie Hancock. Elyse grins. Are you saying everything you’re thinking? That would be terrifying.

“It’s not terrifying,” Elyse says with a subtle slur, laughing again. The clock ticks 2:00.     

“It’s two am?” You look at Elyse, feeling momentarily sober as you count eight empty glasses on the counter.

Elyse grabs your hand and you’re up, following her wiggling hips to the small, scuffed dance floor through a few throngs of wobbling bodies and closer to the stage. It’s a different band, with a heavier backbeat and a dose of Motown. You’re busting dance moves that you haven’t tried since Prince’s “1999” came out. You are spinning Elyse around. You are definitely not sober.

You stumble over an empty pack of cigarettes on the walk to Elyse’s apartment. The walk sounded a lot shorter when she was murmuring a description of her satin sheets and their muted hues into your ear on the dance floor. She frowns a little, looks surprised, when you interrupt a slurred anecdote about her phlegmatic roommate who is “entirely too rational” to stop at a 24-hour gas station. You smoke your first cigarette in too many hours with fervor as you continue walking. You smoke a second, then a third. Elyse is quiet, but continues to hold your left hand, squeezing it every now and then.

You have a flashback to Damia’s zaftig lips shaping smoke rings and quoting Emerson, “Every new relationship is a new word.” Damia. Every piece of her is wrapped up in her Gemini; ready to pounce, ready to change positions. In bed, in conversation, in the kitchen. You’d sit in her dimly lit kitchen and bounce ridiculous ideas off of each other every Tuesday for three months; you shared an ever-expanding lexicon of absurdities. At night your tongue searched for the place near her hipbone that fast-tracked the rhythm of goose bumps and sweat. You never mastered the cherry stem trick or Emerson’s self-reliance bit. Damia got bored lickety-split.

Elyse’s laugh and bijou hands sifting and twisting keys until the door opens to a dark, narrow hallway. Lips tug, tongues slip. Tongue hollows out the Stygian space. Keys, jackets, matches fall to the ground. You are hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh. Cocooned in each other’s contours.

Elyse falls asleep in comfort’s constriction, atop your numb right arm. “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake/ and dress them in warm clothes again.” Siken’s Crush always makes wiggle room. Bandages and gauzes your stories. The clock’s accusing hands read 4:30am. With your free hand, you pinch the place where the bones of your nose collide with your forehead. That furrow between the brows that howls now, with a thick, spiraling tempest. Elyse snores as you count the swarming moths.

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