I reach over to the peeling wallpaper, and catch sight of my sleeve slowly exposing my bruised flesh. I quickly turn around and cover my wrists again, smiling to the real estate agent whom remains oblivious.
“Now, over here,” she says as she walks to the window, her tight pencil skirt barely making a crease, “Is the balcony. As you can see, this area is gated in, so you have privacy, but there’s a latch on the far right that will lead you to the fire escape.”
I nod my head as she continues to tell me about the studio’s features, but my eyes keep drifting back to the wallpaper, begging me to take it out of its misery. The print of tiny yellow and pink roses are torn in some areas, and I can’t help but to wonder why it hasn’t been removed yet. I guess previous owners were just too comfortable with it. Or perhaps they were just lazy.
“Considering that this is a decent part of town and that you’re in such a hurry to find a place, this may be your best option,” she says, pulling the paperwork out of her bag. She places the folder on the counter and lightly positions a shiny, black pen on top of it. “Now, no pressure, dear, but I’m going to step out and make a quick phone call. When I come back, you can tell me what you think.”
I watch her walk through the door, and I already know what I’m going to tell her. “May I have the night to think this through?” I’m planning to say. “Just a night to think it over?” I’ve always been a cautious person, and I need to weigh the pros and cons before making a drastic leap of faith like this. I can already hear my mother’s approving comments, reminding me that hasty decisions rarely ever turn out well. I grin to myself, feeling the overwhelming sense of longing to simply return to my hometown and my family. But this is the life I chose for myself when I followed him to the city. I can’t just go back home like a dog with her tail between her legs. No, I have to stay here.
I try to convince myself that I could make a place like this work. A little color on this far wall would make the room feel more like a home. Maybe I could put some fresh flowers on the table by the window, or perhaps that painting my best friend made for me above the couch? Yes, I could make this work. It’ll take some time and effort, but I could do this. I need to do this.
I walk over to the balcony window and try to imagine waking up to this scenery every day. While it’s not like the plush apartment that I used to stay in overlooking the city, this wasn’t quite bad, either. This studio is within walking distance of a community theatre, and there appears to be a quaint, little bakery or café right next to it. “This could do,” I whisper, impressing myself with the optimism.
Out of the corner of my eye, something moves, and I surprise myself by jumping back. I realize that it’s only a black cat, basking in the sun on the balcony. From the size and very-obvious pregnant belly, I could tell that this feline is expecting soon. Naturally, as if I’ve lived here for years, I go up to the cabinet and pull down a small bowl and fill it with water.
After a good push, the window begins to slightly raise, and I give it all of my strength to lift the glass enough so that I could crawl through the space. The black cat looks at me, un-phased by my efforts, and she closes her eyes. I sit down beside her and place the water bowl nearby.
I don’t know why I decide to sit, but I suppose maybe I felt like she was lonely – although she shows no sign of this at all. Something about her makes me feel calm, rested, as if we were the only two beings in the world. I look at her neck for any signs of a collar, but there is nothing. In fact, she is filthy, but her black coat hides this minor detail very well.
“What kind of mess have you gotten yourself into?” I ask her, as I begin to stroke her matted fur. She purrs softly and brushes her head into my hand, encouraging the loving care that I show. My heart feels heavy all of the sudden, wondering if she has ever felt a kind hand on her back or if she has ever felt a connection with another being. I hope that she has.
I look back out to the city and wonder what my next steps will be. I never thought that I would be this alone. I left everybody behind to come here. Well, almost everybody. A prickly, dry feeling eases my thoughts back down to my new friend, and I see that she has managed to raise my long sleeve to lick my dark marks of a past love. I allow myself to finally inspect the long bruises, of fingers that were once wrapped a little too tight on my wrist, and I shock myself by being slightly impressed that he was able to leave such a mark on me. The cat’s soft touch tickles my tender skin, and tears begin to well up in the corners of my eyes.
“Miss, are you okay?” the real estate agent asks, crouched down at the open window. I look back at the cat, and I swear she gives me a wink.
“Yes,” I say, picking up my loving companion, “and I will move in tomorrow.” I manage to crawl back through the window, with the cat still in my arms, and I place her down onto the grey carpet. The real estate agent, wide-eyed, gapes at my behavior.
I pick up the pen and turn to the lovely woman beside me. “But, that wallpaper has got to go.”
2015 Colton Review: Honorable Mention
The blue dress, still lying on the bed, makes it seem like Jenny is still around. She could easily be in the shower, on the filed, or at the movie theater, planning to put the dress away later in the evening. I trace my hands over the silk fabric, remembering how flawless my little sister looked that night, and a chill tickles my neck. I quickly take my hand away. Mom hasn’t stepped a foot in this room since the “incident,” and I know that that is the reason the room is in this state: it is exactly as Jenny left it. In a small fraction in the back of our minds, my family feels comfort in keeping the room the way it was left, as it makes us feel like she never disappeared.
I walk into her bathroom, with the dust beginning to line the shelves and her makeup still sprawled out across the counter, and I can’t help but to wonder what happened to her. All that she let us was a note, and it was a short one at that. “I’m leaving. I can’t stay. Take care of Max for me. I’m sorry. -J.” Jenny wasn’t an unhappy girl; she had plenty of friends and she was actively involved with school. She had a boyfriend and was even offered a scholarship to her dream school due to her soccer talent. She and I were close. I would have known if she wasn’t happy. At least, I thought I would have known.
I walk by the picture of her and Max that is hanging by the mirror; I know it all too well. It was one of the photos we used when we put out a missing person flyer. It was a simple candid of a girl hugging her dog at the beach, with her long, blonde hair dancing in the wind behind her and her eyes bright, full of laughter. I refuse to look at it now. She was a beautiful person. Is. Who knows. I don’t know where she is now. Tears begin to form in the corners of my eyes and my knees become weak. I shouldn’t have come in here. Why did I think I could handle it?
I sit down in her bathtub, remembering that this was where we had our last conversation. I was cross legged on the ground nearby as she took a bubble bath, only her head showing from behind the shower curtain. I close my eyes and tilt my head back, trying to understand what may have been going through her head that night. Jenny didn’t say a word to hint to the fact that she was planning on running away, nor did she act as if anything was bothering her. She didn’t take a single item with her. At the time, I thought this was bizarre and a bit sketchy, but her best friend did the same thing. Jenny and Madira went missing on the same night. It was planned.
Downstairs, I hear mom and James discussing what to make for dinner. My eyes widen: Mom would kill me if she knew I was in here. Quickly jumping up, my head scrapes the shelf that is hanging near the shower. I silently curse to myself as I begin to feel the blood trickle through my hair. Blinded by my throbbing headache, I hardly notice the little piece of paper that had fallen from behind the shelf – the little folded note with my name on it.
“The Boy with No Name”
Walking through the terminal towards Starbucks, I glance at the people around me. There is a couple embracing and crying, children playing on their Nintendo DSs, old people snoring in their seats, and college students buzzing around excitedly. A girl nearby reapplies her makeup. I try to contain my eye rolling, but puh-lease. We are in an airport, for crying out loud. What’s the point of looking all dolled up if you’re about to be stuffed up in a plane, anyways? I hear my best friend call out, “Don’t forget to get me a muffin!” and I wave my hand in the air, acknowledging that her voice did indeed travel the length of a football field, while she shops for magazines at a newsstand near our gate. After getting my normal Vanilla Bean Frappe and Jenna’s large blueberry muffin, I scan the small coffee shop for a place to sit down. Of course, this place is packed. I mean, I am in a New York Starbucks and in an airport, after all. I try to find a seat, though, for I know Jenna will be coming soon to meet up with me. A guy sitting nearby motions for me to come over, and he offers me a seat across from him. For a moment, I consider turning down his kind offer, but then I remind myself that I have been awake since three a.m. and sitting down is exactly what my body is aching for. Heck. Why not?
“Wanna eggroll?” he asks. I smile at him, but shake my head no. This guy is seriously eating Chinese food and drinking a Pumpkin Spice Latte here in Starbucks. Okay. For one, ew. That’s a nasty combination. And, two, he’s going to be feeling that when he gets on whatever plane he’s waiting for. I take out my phone and act like I’m texting somebody. I consider texting Jenna to hurry her up, but I’m afraid that creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude will realize that I am uncomfortable. He pulls out a pair of chopsticks and begins to eat (or devour, really) his lo mein. Chopsticks are an interesting skill, one that I’ve never been able to master, unfortunately. I can’t help but stare at the technique this guy uses when he picks up his food. It’s truly an art. Crap. He’s noticed that I’ve been watching him. “You sure you don’t want my eggroll?” he says, with a smile. “You look awfully hungry.” And then he winks at me. Uh. What? Is he hitting on me? Or does he think that I’m a total freak for staring at him? Where the hell is Jenna? My cheeks begin to burn. “No, I’m fine. I was just watching you use the chopsticks.” Oh, right, Brianna. He’s totally going to believe that. Creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude shrugs and goes back to his food. He must think that I’m an idiot! And for some reason, his opinion of me matters. I don’t want a complete stranger thinking that I’m a weirdo. “You see,” I begin, already knowing that I need to just shut up, “I’ve never been able to use chopsticks. My hand-eye coordination isn’t too good.” I immediately look down to my phone, acting like I am popular all of the sudden. Creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude reaches down to his book bag and pulls out two pencils. “Here,” he says, handing them to me, “I’ll teach you, then.”
He takes my right hand with his and places a pencil between my middle finger and my thumb. I look up to see if I am holding the pencil correctly, and he gives me an assuring nod. His green eyes smile at me, and I begin to feel warmth travel from my cheeks down to my neck. He tells me to adjust the second pencil between my index finger and my thumb, which causes me to fumble and drop the two pencils. He smiles at me with his straight pearly whites, and I smile right back at him, knowing that this stranger must think that I’m completely clumsy. He grabs my hand in his and places both pencils back into position, this time situating them perfectly himself. His warm hand is soft to the touch, and I almost consider dropping the pencils to see if he’d hold my hand again, if only for a minute. I look at him as he moves my fingers around the pencils and shows me how to pick up items for future references. His dark hair falls into his eyes as he looks down at my hand, still offering advice on techniques that I may use to remember how to hold chopsticks. Freckles trail his face, and I envy him. He is so flawlessly attractive, and he probably doesn’t even notice it.
But he is eating Chinese food with his Pumpkin Spice Latte. And that is a bit gross. Then again, who am I to judge? He does seem awfully nice. And cute….
“Bree! There you are! Girl, we’ve gotta to go! Our plane is about to start boarding!” Jenna exclaims, as she runs up to me, bumping the seat of an elderly lady in the process. I look at her like she’s lost her mind. We still have at least another fifteen minutes to go, and the poor old lady looks like she just had a heart attack. I get up, though, knowing that my best friend will continue to persist until I finally follow her orders. Jenna grabs her muffin off the table and power walks out of the coffee shop. Picking up my bag and my drink, I glance at cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food and smile at him, silently thanking the kind stranger that let me sit with him.
Italy is a place that I’ve always wanted to go to. There’s something almost magical about Italian culture and history. The food is pretty great, too. When I was offered a chance to study abroad, I knew that I had to take it. When else would I honestly have the chance? Italians are also known for their great fashion taste, and since I want to design wedding dresses one day, I figured that this would be an ideal investment for my future. What I’m not looking forward to, however, is the eight hour plane ride. And, judging from the excitement and loud conversations of college students all around me as I board the plane, I know that this will be a long trip. I look for my seat – B23 – and I am pleased to find that I am sitting directly in front of my friends.
As I settle into my stiff plane seat, I hear a familiar voice, “Hey, chopstick girl!” I glance up to see cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude put his book bag next to mine in the carrier above my head. He plops down beside me. “Looks like we’re seat buddies!” A small part of me panics, thinking that this guy is obviously stalking me. He is probably going to follow me to Italy, lure me away from my friends somehow, and kill me. Nah. That’s too extreme. This is just a coincidence, I’m sure. Before I can reply back, he takes out his headphones, puts them in his ears, adjusts his iPod, and closes his eyes. Oh. Well. Okay, then.
The plane ride proves to be the most boring eight hours I have ever experienced in my whole life. I read the plethora of magazines that Jenna bought for us, talk to some friends around me, attempt to memorize some Italian key phrases from my guidebook, and even start on some letters to home that I promised my younger sister I would write. After a while, I give up on trying to stay awake. This is ridiculous. Plus, the sooner I go to sleep, the sooner we’ll be there… right?
I feel myself shaking, bouncing up and down, and I hear a woman over the intercom tell us that the plane is experiencing some turbulence and that we must put our seatbelts back on. I open my eyes and wait for my vision to clear before reaching for my seatbelt. How long had I been asleep? What time is it? Are we in Italy now? I look over to cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude and realize to my horror that he had a spit stain on his left shoulder. Oh, no! It’s bad enough that I slept on his shoulder, but to drool on him, as well? Kill me now. I nudge him and motion for him to put on his seatbelt. He notices the stain, a wave of confusion washing over his eyes. “I am so sorry!” I mouth to him, giving an apologetic smile. He pulls out his left headphone and looks at me for a moment. “It’s cool,” he says eventually. “It matches my scarf.” He then proceeds to pull out a black scarf from his back pocket. I’m glad that scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese dude doesn’t mind my drool, but, at the same time, I start to get the feeling that he is gay. There is only one way to find out. “Hey,” I ask him, before he can put his headphones back on, “Which education track are you on for this trip? Fashion, Engineering, or Education?” He holds up one finger, puts his headphone back in his ear, and closes his eyes. Fashion. Yep. He is so gay. What a shame. What a real shame.
Italy is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. We can’t see too much from the shuttle bus as it drives through the night to our campus, but what we do see is enough to mesmerize us: I see couples holding hands as they walk along the cobble-stone streets, a small club playing soft music, and many old buildings lit up by ground lights. As we keep driving, the city becomes distant as we emerge into a vineyard. The buildings that we do see appear much older and more rustic than those in the city. I curse the fact that we are seeing this beautiful sight in the dark, but I soon remember that I’ll have plenty of time to explore in broad daylight. The rest of the college students speak amongst each other with excitement. I stay to myself, taking in this new world. Italy is beautiful, and knowing that I will be living here for the next couple months allows a smile to form on my lips. This is perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Our rooming accommodations are two to a room, and there is a community bathroom at the end of the hall. Since we arrive at two in the morning, I know that most – if not all – of the students will go straight to sleep. Figuring that we won’t be able to fall asleep any time soon anyways, Jenna and I decided to go ahead and take a shower.
If the giggling isn’t enough to tell me that I am idiot for trusting my own best friend, then I don’t know what is. I turn off my water and slowly reach out for my towel, already knowing what to expect. Crap. And I left my phone in my room. Of course she removed my clothes and towel. What a typical prank from none other than Jenna Smith. And everyone is probably asleep, so there is no one to hear my plea. I’m going to get her for this. I slowly walk across the bathroom floor, wearing nothing but my dignity, and peak outside into the hallway. The chill bumps trail along my body, which is still dripping with the warm Italian water. It is clear what I’ll have to do. Coast is clear. I dash to my room, hoping that this story will stay between Jenna and me. As I turn the doorknob to my room, a voice cuts through the quiet air like nails on a chalkboard. “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” I turn my head, keeping my front facing the door. Nosy-eyes-scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude laughs, pointing to my buttocks. “You have a very cute tushie, you know.” Tushie? Yep. Gay. I begin to relax, knowing that his opinion of me doesn’t really matter now that I know his sexual orientation. “Goodnight, dear,” I say, giving him a sarcastic smile, sliding into my room. I’ve never had a gay friend before. This will be a fun semester.
The next day, I walk into my fashion class ready to start learning. Nosy-eyes-scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese dude glances at me and narrows his eyes at me across the room. I proceed to sit next to him. “I didn’t expect to see you last night,” he says, giving me a sly look. “Yeah. That goes for the both of us,” I respond coolly, staring ahead to the teacher. I don’t know what it is about this guy, but I can’t help but to flirt with him. I know it’s all innocent, though, for obvious reasons, but I do wish he was straight. Because he is quite attractive. And funny. Our teacher gives us the assignment to create a blouse that illustrates the theme of travelling, and I cringe. I don’t want to make stupid shirts. I want to create wedding dresses. “This is so dumb,” I mutter to Nosy-eyes-scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude, and he laughs. “I’m going into women’s fashion, so this is my cup of tea,” he explains to me. Of course you are. I smile to myself.
We both talk about our lives back in the states to make the time pass. I tell him of my mom and my sister in North Carolina and how my father left us when I was only a toddler. He then tells me that he, too, lives with a single mother and three younger siblings. We actually have a lot in common. Although he went to high school in Atlanta, we were both employed by the Family Y as youth counselors and we both did a water sport when we were in high school. I did diving, and he was a competitive swimmer, so there isn’t too much of a difference between me and my new friend. I can’t help but to wish that he was straight. This guy is perfect for me: he has a good head on his shoulders, his family and future are his main priorities, and he is so easy to get along with. I sigh silently, knowing that I need to get these dumb thoughts out of my head.
“… I figured you may want to know that since we will be partners in this class,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand. He looks at me expectantly. I shake his hand, confused as to what he is talking about. I should really learn to focus more often, rather than drifting off into my own thoughts. He continues to stare at me, his left eyebrow arching slightly. How cute. “And your name is?” He asks slowly. Oh! He wants to know my name. “Breanna. Bree. Whatever you prefer,” I say a little too quickly, already wishing that I could act cool around a guy (even a gay one) for a single day in my life. Good going, Bree. He thinks you’re an idiot. And you still don’t know his name.
A week of classes pass and I still can’t figure out what his name is. I think it starts with a J. Jayson? Jerry? Jericho? I don’t know. I consider asking blouse-loving-nosy-eyes-scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food, but I don’t want to seem like I’m not interested in him. If I don’t know is name after a week of classes, then I surely can care less about him, right? I don’t want to offend him. Or look stupid.
A couple weeks into school, I notice that I haven’t been spending time with Jenna as much as I did back at home. It isn’t personal: I have just made new friends here in Italy and school was keeping me busy. On a whim, I decide to skip my last class and bring her some gelato from across the street. She should be in the room napping, so a little bit of girl time shouldn’t interrupt her schedule too much. I miss my best friend.
“Jenna! Wake up, sunshine!” I say, as I burst into our room and turn on the lights. I see, to my embarrassment, Jenna lying in bed with a guy, looking shocked and puzzled and entertained all at the same time. I can’t make out the guy’s face due to him facing Jenna, but I quickly apologize and turn the lights back off. I open the door to leave. “Wait! Come meet Joey. We’re just laying here, girl.” I shut the door slowly and gradually turn the lights back on. This is so humiliating. What a wonderful way to meet Jenna’s new boyfriend. Walking over to the couple, the guy turns over and I see my very own blouse-lover-nosy-eyes-scarf-drool-stain-cute-creepy-pumpkin-spice-Chinese-food dude looking right back at me. “Oh! Hey, Bree!” he says, getting up to give me a hug. “Hey, Joey,” I mumble, finally realizing his name…. And that he’s not really gay.
Good going, Bree. Good going.