“Maybe I should break it off,” he tells her. Usually it’s after the last ripples have subsided, while she lies wrapped in one of his brown sheets and he’s sliding away, showing his well-muscled back as he goes for the bottle of Black Bush he keeps under the nightstand. They meet in the apartment above his restaurant, two rooms expensively furnished in hypothermic chrome.
He only started saying it because Leigh dropped the idea into his head first. She believes he challenges her as a kind of game. It springs from the same impulse that makes him friendly with men who know, ahead of time, which team will win the Super Bowl. His tone is subtly calculating. She could bet he makes internal wagers as to what her response might be. So far, her response is to keep pushing, diving for the perfect saturation of their first sexual encounters. The break-up remains stored in the back of her mind, implicit, a kind of biblical insurance. No matter how bad you’ve been, the option remains to duck and run.
Actually, the discussion with Mark was initiated by accident. Leigh’s doubts were supposed to remain private. Her deepest mind betrayed her when, recently, a bubble of doubt popped from her mouth. Mark and Leigh lay on his king-size bed, afterward, as he stroked a switch of her hair across his cheek:
“I’m married, Mark, married.”
Which was no news, of course, but they’d always left it, tacit, among things better unsaid.
Leigh thinks Mark shouldn’t press the issue. She’s the one with the spouse’s conscience. Now she feels pressure to take the moral high ground, to arms, men, damn the languor and sadness. If Mark has ever been married, he seems to have forgotten.
Mark insists that Leigh would agonize even if she didn’t have a husband and daughter. Claims she’s a closet Victorian. She’d feel guilty about sex for its own sake, crash and burn, even without Peter and Ellie.
What right does he have to say that? Leigh’s family is tangled up in a part of her where Mark has no access. It’s a separate compartment. Peter manages renovations in a large architectural office, sometimes oversees whole buildings, working beyond the point of fatigue. He gets home around one or two in the morning, then he sleeps for four hours and wakes up at seven to drop hints about a cooked breakfast. Still, Peter is good to talk to about painting and art, he is reliable in bed, and he sometimes plays poker with Ellie on weekends, racking up IOUs which they tear into pieces the size of moth wings and burn in the fireplace.
Occasionally, her husband travels to Baltimore to visit his aging, demented father, or he disappears for several days on job meetings. Once a month, Ellie, an eight-year-old with a tender and mocking mouth, visits her grandmother, Peter’s ex-stepmother, overnight in the country. In Center City, any grass you see is half-wilted by the urine of geese and dogs. In Wyomissing, Ellie rolls down hills and hangs out wash, and she comes home smelling like meadows. Until Leigh met Mark, Ellie’s visits were occasional. But then, everything had dovetailed; the little girl wanted to be with Nana more, Nana agreed to help Leigh get on with her painting. Those dawning Sundays, Mark and Leigh never went to sleep.
During ordinary days when Peter and Ellie are gone, Leigh works on her painting in their dining room, now a studio, and extrapolates the possibilities in her mind. Drunk drivers. Black ice. Engine malfunctions on a routine flight. Accidents so devastating, they will seem intentional. Loss of her daughter would be unspeakable. She never worries about Mark. Could life be easier without Peter?
When Leigh fetches Ellie, holding her, worried that the little girl already loves Peter’s ex-step-mother too much, that’s when Leigh tells herself that she must, she will break it off with Mark, it doesn’t need to continue, and Ellie wriggles away saying, “Mom, it’s not like I’ve been in Africa.”
Now it’s a rancid Sunday in March during Ellie’s spring vacation. Everybody’s away but Leigh, and Mark has been in Las Vegas. Before he called on Friday, she started wondering if she’d have the chance to break it off. What if he’s on indefinite vacation with some new woman? Leigh hopes to end it, clearly, like the stream of water from the bathtub faucet. Which part of NO didn’t you understand, baby, the N or the O? A line from Ellie.
So now they’re on again, only Mark might be up to something. Tonight they’ll meet for the first time as officially clandestine lovers inside his restaurant, Blue Aura. Normally they pass through the downstairs only in off hours to vanish into the apartment; otherwise they use his brother Len’s place. Mark wants Leigh to try the lobster ravioli. To enjoy what he does second best. Sex plus food: the combination notches things up to a new level. Next thing, they’ll be shopping for an exotic pet together. It has the weight of commitment; could Mark actually be falling in love with her?
Only that doesn’t sound like him. It’s now or never, she’s decided. If someone is going to take the moral high ground, it had better be her. Mark assured Leigh that the upstairs dining room—furnished with white sofas around the perimeter—would be all theirs. Blue Aura will be dead anyway, on a Sunday night. Guaranteed.
It might help Leigh that the place is full of Peter. The renovations were his job; his zooty blonde-and-black bar, his white dining room and open kitchen. Very courant. Very Old City. To terminate the affair in that setting seems almost ceremonial.
Last November, Leigh and Peter went to Blue Aura at Mark’s invitation. Mark insisted that Leigh snap a picture: The owner and the architect. Mark slung a glance at Leigh, quickly, handed her the camera, and she swallowed what felt like a baby’s fist. They’d had sex exactly three times.
“Everything looks great,” Leigh told Mark. Peter smiled like an uncle.
“My pleasure,” Mark purred. She has never told him that she found the food at Blue Aura overly complicated, too heavy on the ingredients.
Not long afterward, the bubble of doubt popped out, and breaking it off became a point of philosophy between Leigh and Mark.
Wrapped in a robe and trickling wet down her legs, Leigh’s staring into the closet when the phone rings.
“Yes.” she looks out the window at rooftops below. Skylights.
“I can’t meet tonight. There’s this convention.”
“ What convention?”
“ Paranormal psychologists.”
Come on. “It’s Sunday night.”
“ These people drink like fish. We’re too busy."
“You should have named the restaurant something else.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Mark. It’s been weeks. I don’t have to eat. It’ll take fifteen minutes.”
He hesitates. Leigh sometimes teases him: The connoisseur of Hit and Run. “Thirty-five or an hour. That I don’t have.”
“I can wait. Maybe the crowd will lighten up.” She’s too ready. It has to be tonight, and not over the phone.
Leigh can feel him smile. “You really want this, don’t you?”
She dries her hair in the bathroom, blowing it out straight. Hair thick as thieves, Peter used to say. It falls from the brush like glossy wheat. One of Leigh’s atmospheric paintings hangs on the wall between the sink and whirlpool bath—a female body emerging from fields of colored mist, in which float shapes hinting of lipstick tubes and stiletto heels.
Leigh has chosen a soft green silk shirt and well-cut black pants. She unbuttons the third button in her shirt, then hesitates. Buttons up again.
Lipstick and her lambskin coat and the night spread open before her. She halts for a moment, touching the marble Buddha’s head that sits on a teak sideboard by the door. Its deep cold calms her. Going down in the elevator, Leigh closes her eyes.
When she steps outside the building, it’s raining. The macadam street shines like black leather under greenish city lamps. Peter’s got the car, but she needs to walk. Under the building canopy, she paws in her bag for an umbrella.
She walks to the corner, brisk and purposeful, but then fishes out her cell phone, reaches Mark’s neuter voice mail.
“Hey. I’ll wait for you at the bar. Call when you’re ready.” Turning east, wind funnels down the street, and Leigh sways into the steel light of a street lamp. Rain like needles on her face. She fights to keep the umbrella around her head.
The two lovers met during the Blue Aura renovation. Leigh was in a group show at an Old City gallery that favored semi-abstract painting, and Mark was looking for something to carry the ambience. He chose one of hers for the main dining room; an oil in which red and blue draped figures of ambiguous sexuality stand in fog, entwined like one new creature. Romance, she called it. It was a stupid title. Leigh went to the restaurant to hang the painting. Two days later she came back, reeled in, after Mark called her. There was a problem with the lighting, he explained, and she persuaded herself to take this at face value.
Leigh was attracted to his movements. His aggressive masculinity cut the air as if it, too, were muscular. It turned out the painting looked fine, but Mark confessed that lately his head wasn’t clear. He went behind the bar for a bottle of champagne, a thank-you, a celebration, he said. And Leigh was pissed at Peter for living at the office, and Ellie was far away in Wyomissing where she’d wake the next morning to the warmth of cinnamon buns if the house didn’t burn down first. He couldn’t sleep, Mark said, for thinking of her. Leigh had never done anything more risky in her life than to smoke weed at night with a girlfriend behind a strategically parked car in the lot of her old school. She turned slowly away from Mark’s patient, luminous gaze, which grazed her face like the clear heat of candle flames. She’d wasted so much time anticipating disasters of all kinds. Here, then, was a risk she could walk away from at any point. Or could she? There was only one way to find out.
Even then, Leigh intended to set down her glass, firmly, on the bar. But she let him pour one more glass—his smiling, onyx eyes—and he filled it again, and she swallowed desire like a vapor, until she wanted to dance; but instead, with a spasm of resolve, she looked for her coat. Mark produced it, laid it gently around her shoulders. Put two fingers beneath her chin. They kissed. And he was powerful, he moved like a boxer, but touched her that first time with the tenderness of worship. Leigh felt like a shadow-figure in one of her oil paintings, something you can wipe away with a rag.
The rain is heavier now; it shatters on the pavement. Leigh’s hair is beginning to frizz. Mark, I can’t keep this up. I have my family to consider. Blah. What is it about the language of fidelity? Why can’t the voice of goodness be more saturated with color than the dreams of seduction?
A red light at Broad Street. A taxi, yellow and black, shoots puddles across the sidewalk. What emerges as the night splits open? Leigh follows a knot of people crossing the street. Rain-clotted lights and reflections make their paths shimmer and shift. An ancient woman steps in front of her, covered only by a thin coat, a triangular scarf around her head. The old lady reaches out uncertainly, as if tugging herself across the street. Leigh sidesteps her and the wrinkled face tilts up, peering, showing a fuchsia blur, a smile almost of recognition. What does she know, Leigh thinks. The lit clock on City Hall Tower leans upward into iron clouds.
By the time she reaches Blue Aura, nine blocks further down, she is chilled to the marrow. The polished aluminum door bounces Leigh’s reflection as she steps back. People flow in ahead of her; they must be the rear guard of parapsychologists. A man’s deep voice insists: The visionary IS a region of measurement. Leigh slips behind them into the bar area. Matte black padded walls, the brushed-metal cocktail tables crowded with glasses; a bullet-proof window refracts light from the street. The bar seats only six on contoured aluminum stools; behind them, people stand three and four deep.
Conversation runs like bathwater. Mark’s younger brother, Len, spins behind the bar, dressed in black, pulling drafts and shaking tumblers. He doesn’t acknowledge Leigh; he rarely does. Len is there sometimes when she and Mark pass through to go upstairs. They could fornicate on the bar and Len would merely turn his shaved head away, impassively polishing glasses.
Now Mark stands in an alcove at the desk across from the open kitchen. Leigh pushes toward him, her coat over her arm, ready for him to take it for safekeeping. He seems to have expanded with the night; everything about him looks wide, even the pen behind his ear. She could count the comb-strokes in his slicked hair. He looks up and his far-set eyes open farther, the irises black as his pupils. He has a child’s winsome lashes.
“Don’t call when I’m busy,” he says. “Got it?”
Stung, she gapes at him. He’s always taken her calls.
“We’re crowded. Excuse me.” Mark looks through her with eyebrows raised ingratiatingly as he beckons to the group behind her. Mark’s jaw muscle twitches as he strides past Leigh toward the white dining room.
She stands near the bar, her coat dragging on the floor. No one has a watchful look. Eyes flick past her, disinterested, professional. Laughter. Some of the psychic people look ostentatiously shabby, the others defensively professional. Leigh is a landscape of hills in her green silk. Behind the bar, Len is a pinball, firing drinks at the customers. He draws them in, palming their tips.
“I had an out of body experience once,” he tells two women with serious, heavy jaws. Leigh edges between them to stand at the bar. They clutch their wine glasses to their chests, retreating as from a force field. What do they see?she thinks. She slides into Len’s range, placing her foot on the aluminum railing.
Len cocks an eye. “Tonic and ectoplasm,” she says, looking around. Leigh checks her watch. Eight thirty, the place shows no signs of slowing down. The inside edge of the bar is inset with a row of votive candles. The flames tremble when Len reaches over them. Overhead, incandescent light bulbs, each wearing a pair of white wings, hang on varying lengths of wire. It’s a good place to wait. Len offers her matte-finish absolution; no questions asked. A boy in black. The bottles glitter on the wall.
Len slides a martini over the ebony bar.
“Green Chartreuse,” he says. “No ectoplasm.” His hand stays for a moment on the thin stem of the glass. She lays down fifteen. But Len is watching her. Questioning? Behind his head is a mirror. Leigh opens her mouth and no words come. She feels like a reptile, gaping at the sun. She smiles apologetically, but Len is already two customers ahead, bills in one hand, a beer glass in another. Nodding his long head, laughing, sleek.
When Leigh steps away from the bar, her cell phone rings. Leigh holds her glass with gossamer delicacy, juggling the coat, digging in her open bag.
“Mark?” She speaks without thinking.
“Mark? What the hell are you up to?” Oh Jesus Oh Mother Oh Christ. It’s Peter calling from Baltimore. His laugh is percussive and humorless. Leigh gulps down her entire drink.
“Listen,” Peter says. “Dad just had a fall in the restaurant. He’s quiet, the ambulance is coming.”
“Is he okay?”
“He was telling me before about his war experiences. Leigh,” Peter keeps his voice steady. “He doesn’t know me. He says I pushed him. Tried to rob him.”
“I wish we could talk. I’m sorry. Can you hear me?”
Leigh looks around the crowded bar, and suddenly, all sound is amputated, snatched from the atmosphere. She hears a rushing sound in her head, the static of an empty universe. People’s faces move and no sound comes out. They tip back their heads like empty cups and laugh silently. Maybe they’re mind-reading one another. She totters on the border of good faith: Peter, Ellie, family on one side; and on the other, the lure of danger that slings toward you like a fist.
“I know he’ll remember you. Peter, I love you.”
“I can’t…” Peter’s call breaks up. But Leigh does love him. She knows it, and it hurts. Peter’s strong, slim body, his easy laugh, and now, his father is accusing him of assault and theft. She closes her eyes and her lips move again.
When Leigh looks up, the wave of voices rolls around her again, and she stares at the glittering bottles above the bar. She is hard and clear inside, and her cheeks burn. The crowd at the bar has thinned. She takes the open seat. The row of candles before her glitter as she lays her hands palm-down on the shiny wood.
Perhaps she will change her painting style. Hard-edged, she considers, iconic. She’ll do figure studies: Madonna and child in modern dress, massive, filling the picture plane. Inseparable forms, vivid with eternal presence.
“I’ll have another.” Leigh catches Len’s eye. “I like this extrasensory alcohol.”
“I read your mind.” He gives her a dark, ambiguous glance.
Leigh digs out a twenty and is about to put it down, when a hand grabs her forearm. A small-fingered hand with tidy, pink nail polish.
“It’s on me,” a girl’s falsetto voice says. Leigh turns and stares. It’s a woman. No more than five feet tall, she presses close to the bar. She has a thin Southern accent. The walrus-faced man who has been trying to catch Leigh’s eye yanks his stool away, making room. The girl offers bills like flowers, held between thumb and forefinger.
“Make that two,” she tells Len. She has blue eyes, chin-length yellow hair, and is dressed in a sort of impossible black coverall. Her eyelids are coated with pale lavender eye shadow. She looks like the girl on the Little Debbie Snack Cakes box wearing a too-large bodysuit from the Matrix.
“I’m Alison.” She looks up at Leigh, standing too close, and her mouth shapes each word separately.
Oh, God. Where’s Mark? Len sets down the green martinis, but he’s gone before Leigh can think how to ask for help.
“Cheers,” Alison says, with a concentrated frown. Leigh’s almond-stuffed olive rolls like an eyeball. Alison clinks rims, intently, as if she’s willing the drinks to burst into flame. The tiny woman sips, her eyes impassive. “I think you’ve been stood up,” she says with authority.
Leigh’s mouth drops.
“Might could you’ll need that drink.” Alison nods at the glass in Leigh’s hand.
Is Mark behind this somehow?
“I don’t bite,” Alison offers. “I’m with the conference. You know?” She indicates the crowd with her chin. “I study the astral body. I’ve been watching you.” The tight focus of her blueberry eyes makes Leigh move her stool back, reflexively; back into the warm, squishy intimacy of the walrus man’s belly. She smells mint on his breath. People have increased on every side. There’s nowhere to go, and she turns back to Alison, feigning a laugh.
“That was a hell of a pickup line,” Leigh says. She’s gained maybe three inches distance from the crazy woman. Twisting around, she looks for Mark through the crowd. Against the black padded wall of the bar, through the shift of bodies, his hand flashes out. She sits up. No. He was calling a customer. His wide shoulders move away, toward the main dining room.
“I want to ask you something,” Alison says, her voice now shy, breathy. Leigh swivels back to her. The woman has a faint vertical scar through one eyebrow. She breathes fast; Leigh can see her thin chest rise and fall. Great. She’s about to be hit on by a dyke who resembles Rainbow Brite.
“And?” Leigh grips her handbag. Is her phone set on silent? Is it possible Mark called and she missed it? Peter, maybe?
“A few minutes ago, you projected your astral body.” Alison lifts her eyes toward the exposed, black–painted ducts on the high ceiling, as if she expects angels are squatting there, their thick wings stuffed between roof struts.
“Did it bounce off the ceiling?” Leigh smirks, trawling her bag for the cell phone. No calls. Crap.
“It went beyond.” Alison is earnest, impressed. “I was afraid for you. Then you drew it back. It’s important. What were you thinking just then?”
“You looked down, then you looked up. After that you sat here.” Alison nods at Leigh in her seat.
Around them, voices diminish. Leigh considers, taking fast sips of her ectoplasmic martini. It had, she realizes now, been her moment of decision. She is Mark’s meaty bone. She is his latest meal. She wanted a conflagration, devouring, hot, and magnetic. Something dangerous to yank her hand away from. Something she could control. Against that, there is uncertainty; Peter spending himself on his own mistress, architecture, and tonight, caught up with his father and grief. Tomorrow, there will be Ellie’s disparagement of the lumpy scarf Gran is teaching her to knit. Peter, who walks away from Leigh into the vaulted spaces of his mind; Ellie, who needs Leigh to push against.
Leigh needs to get home; there is work to do. For starters, figuring out what she’s going to tell Peter about her adventures with Mark.
“Why,” she asks the small woman, “do you want to know what I was thinking just then?”
Alison presses her lips together. “I have this theory,” she says in her squeaky voice, “that when someone is rejected, their connection to the astral body becomes elastic. If they pay attention to where it goes, they know what to do.”
“So mine went through the roof.” But Leigh’s smiling.
“Yeah! Like fireworks. It must be something—big.” Alison looks wistful; she’s sagged a little in her black combat suit.
“It is big.” Leigh thinks of Ellie and Peter, stacking up their poker chips. Alison’s eyes have drained of light. She might be a person, Leigh imagines, for whom big things rarely happen.
Blue Aura is quieter now, and Leigh looks around. Craning, she sees Mark leave the dining room. This time, he hones in on her, offering his coin-slot grin.
She turns back and whispers in Alison’s ear. “Are you hungry? Because I know the owner, and he promised me a free dinner. He said I should bring a friend.”
Alison sticks a finger in her martini and licks it. “Nah,” she says. “I get nervous when I eat around other people. It’s this quirk I have.” There are spots of color on her Little Debbie cheeks. She gives Leigh a wry smile.
Mark draws up beside them, formal and solid as a wall. His silk jacket is faintly iridescent. “Your table is ready,” he tells Leigh, with a barely perceptible bow.
She jumps up, facing him. “Do you believe in astral projection?”
“What?” His cool expression contracts like a fist.
“I didn’t believe in it,” Leigh rattles on. “Maybe I still don’t. But it feels like part of me has been untethered from my body. Half of me’s already gone. I’ve been evaporating under your hands.”
She grabs his shoulders. Beneath Mark’s eyes are shadowed crescents of fatigue. His cheekbones reveal tiny veins that, with time, will become the calligraphy of alcohol. Leigh gives him a shake, as if to make him understand. He pulls back, palm flying up; he will hit her. She darts away. Far enough that Mark can’t reach her without overt, public aggression. Across the bar, Len watches; he’s holding an iridescent cocktail in each hand. The walrus man, his chivalry aroused by the scene, bustles toward Leigh. Along the bar, staring faces hover on the edge of her vision.
Leigh turns on light feet, unafraid. Alison has appeared beside her somehow, though Leigh had not seen Alison move after she stood up to confront Mark. Leigh takes her little hand, and they lace fingers for a moment.
“Thank you,” Leigh whispers, and then she slips on her coat and is gone, ready to risk her family, into the night.
About The Author
Helen W. Mallon comes from a Philadelphia Quaker Family. Her poetry chapbook, Bone China, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems and/or essays have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Drexel Online Journal, Mars Hill Review, Gumball Poetry, One Trick Pony and Schyulkill Valley Journal. Poems are forthcoming in Commonwealth: An Anthology of Pennsylvania Poets and Phoebe: A Feminist Journal. Barring calamity, she will graduate in June with an MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College.