Returning to another of my collaborative efforts with the fabulous Eden Baylee, this is the third of our joint stories and, in my opinion, the most successful (not that I think any of the others has ‘failed’ in any way). Perhaps that’s helped by the fact that, as the title suggests, it’s told from two distinct points of view (a male and female character as well as a male and female author), but it’s still pleasantly surprising that it has an overall coherence in terms of plot without either of us discussing at any stage the direction it would take, whether it would be comic or tragic or anything in between. In a way, it confirms my long-held conviction that, whatever an author’s intentions, it’s his/her characters that determine what will happen.
As before, to hear Eden and myself reading the story, visit http://rbwood.com/dir/index.php/2017/07/02/the-word-count-podcast-episode-67/
The prompt was a shot of a concert at the Jones Beach Theater on the south shore of Long Island and our story’s title was:
In Two Minds
I hate crowds, but here I am at one of the busiest places in New York on a June afternoon. The Jones Beach Theatre kicks off the summer with a free concert featuring famous musicians, and some not so famous. Though it is never confirmed, rumours swirl that music agents dot the crowd in search of fresh talent. The concert attracts musicians from all across the country and goes on for the entire day. It’s believed that catching the attention of one influential agent amongst 15,000 concertgoers is still a better odd at success than uploading a viral Youtube video.
I would not be here if it were not for James. He and I have just started seeing each other; it’s our third date. His teenage son is in a band that will play here today. Given the chaotic start, I imagine their band won’t appear until the second half of the show.
It’s only noon, and it’s sweltering.
Greasy people in shorts and tank tops, smelling of coconut scented lotion, are in constant motion around me. We are seated in the middle of a row where twenty-somethings shuffle by us to get to the end of the aisle or to their seats. They carry trays of beer and snacks. I stand every time someone passes in front of me, not to give them room, but to avoid having them touch me.
My germaphobia is on high alert.
“You all right, Maggie?” James touches my arm lightly as I sit down again. “You must be hot in that long sleeve blouse.”
I shake my head. A bead of sweat pools at my hairline, but I dab it before it rolls down my face. “No, no … I’m fine.” It’s a lie of course, but I like James. I’m willing to tough it out for a few hours with him here.
He leans toward me and brushes a sticky strand of hair from my cheek. “You’re such a good sport for coming out here with me today, especially in this heat.” He smiles in a way that makes my stomach drop a little. “How about I go buy you a souvenir T-shirt?” he says. “I’m sure it will be a lot cooler than what you’re wearing.”
I am hot, and only getting hotter. I suddenly feel heat rush to my face. “Thank you, James, but I won’t be able to wear it anyway.”
“It’s … it’s the formaldehyde. They use it to treat new materials, so I never wear anything new unless I wash it first.”
James furrows his brow as he looks at me.
Have I offended him?
* * *
Bizarre creatures, women. Necessary, essential even, but so hard to fathom. There’s not much I like more than putting on a fresh, brand new shirt. Does that mean I’ve got a thing for formaldehyde? Poor Maggie. She’s sitting there, obviously uncomfortable from the heat, but it’s more than that. It’s the people. I sort of knew it from how I first met her. In a library of all places. Who the hell goes to libraries nowadays? Well, obviously Maggie does. I was there to look up something for Cal. He’s written a couple of new songs for the band which they think could be their breakthrough. I have to admit the lyrics are pretty impressive but he said there was something missing from the second one. He’d been a bit ambitious, tried threading different sets of references together and wanted to get Norse myths into it. He’d looked online but hadn’t found anything extreme enough – he wanted weird hybrid creatures, the things that popped out when Gods had sex with humans – so I said I’d check the stacks in the university library. And there she was – not in the main building, but at a single table tucked away in a corner of the stack. Little halo of sunlight around her hair, stunningly beautiful – so much so that you’d expect her to be gliding about where there were others to admire her. But no, she was in a near empty building, reading quietly amongst dust and volumes that were rarely opened.
She’s an enigma. OK, we’re still new to one another but at least she’s here. I really thought she’d say no when I invited her to come. I mean, The Jones Beach Theatre? First concert of the summer? Hardly the place for someone who’s agoraphobic. But she’s here. That’s a positive, right? But can anything come of it really? I can’t help feeling I’m invading her space. When I brushed back her hair then, she flinched. Only slightly, a conditioned reflex. She smiled to hide it, but it was there. And yet we’ve kissed, I’ve held her. Nothing much more yet and I’m trying not to rush things, but if she always needs to stay in that cocoon of hers, well…
God, the noise. That’s the trouble with these things – most of the stuff onstage is derivative. Tribute bands without admitting it. The present lot are probably copying Spinal Tap, with the amps set to 11. I’ll be glad when Cal’s set’s over. I won’t look for him. His mum’s here somewhere so she’ll probably find him and embarrass him in front of the band. Maggie and I will just find somewhere quiet. Yes, quiet would be good.
* * *
I’m relieved when James takes my hand and brushes his lips over the fingertips. Despite the heat, a shiver runs down my spine.
He is unlike the others. James is gentle and considerate, and when I’m with him, I feel like what I imagine a normal woman would feel like. I can only owe this to him being a father. He cares about more than just himself. I sensed that when he approached me at the library where we first met. He immediately apologized for disturbing me and sat in a poorly lit area so he would not infringe on my space. I felt bad for him, trying to read in the dark like that. When I gestured for him to sit closer to the window and the light, closer to me, he almost seemed reluctant to do so, but he did.
I always fall for the shy, quiet types.
It’s been two years since Mike, even if I’m reminded of him every time I walk by the overgrown flowerbed in my backyard. The patch of wild flowers is hidden behind my wood shed, a dilapidated structure used to store garden equipment, along with leftover cans of paints and cleaners. I repainted that garage with three coats of oil paint. The smell was awful, but for a time, it masked the odour of the body.
It was with Mike that I learned everything I needed to know about formaldehyde. Mike turned out to be an abusive drunk after our initial honeymoon phase. My biggest mistake was inviting him to live with me after only a few months. He must have been on his best behaviour before then because he changed immediately after moving in. From the moment he came home after work, he drank beer and hardly moved from the couch in front of the TV. Next came the hard liquor, soon followed by his violent fits of rage.
Ten drops of methanol added to his scotch over three nights was all it took. The chemical metabolized into formaldehyde inside his body and led to respiratory failure. Mike’s asthma sped up his demise. The hardest part was keeping his body in the shed while I dug up the flowerbed.
But James is not Mike. He’s different from the rest. He’s not a loner. He has people who depend on him. That will make it difficult for me to fall back into old patterns.
The others are gone now, in the past. James is my future.
I palm his face and offer a sweet smile. “I’m just being silly,” I say, “Of course, you can buy me a T-shirt. I’d love to have one as a reminder of our day.”
“Excellent!” he says. A grin lifts the corners of James’ big, brown eyes. He appears genuinely pleased.
* * *
You know, maybe I’m seeing problems where none exist. As I’ve said, we’ve kissed, touched, and she’s here beside me. Even in this heat, she’s still looking great. I couldn’t resist kissing her hand. And she let me, even smiled. It was magical – her and me, a little oasis of quiet in the din. And she touched my cheek, trailed her fingers over my lips. No recoils, no flinching. Maybe it’s my imagination again. It’s just that she seems so fragile, vulnerable. That’s so bloody attractive nowadays, when women’s sexuality has become so … well, aggressive. She’s probably just shy. I’m going to get her that T-shirt but I don’t want to leave her alone here with all these strangers around her. We’ll get it after Cal’s set.
I can’t help feeling sort of special that she’s let me get this close. It seems like a real date, the first. The other two we’ve had so far were fine but there was a distance. We were feeling our way – both of us. You know, I even think she may be a virgin. I know it’s unlikely. I mean she’s well into her thirties, but there’s that mystery about her, that otherness. Makes me want to protect her. I know, I know – typical male fantasy, macho crap, but I can’t help it. It’s that fragility. When I was at her place for dinner, it was almost a parody of the single female. The place was immaculate, the kitchen spotless. She’s a wonderful cook. The meal wasn’t at all fussy and yet the flavours were superb, but she blushed when I said so, waved away the compliment and said something about adding chorizo oil at the last minute.
But she’s no handyman – the garden, the shed, they’re just embarrassing really. It’s a nice place, lots of potential, but it needs a bit of TLC. The shed ought to come down. Apart from the state it’s in, it’s right at the front, hiding the bit of garden that’s got the most potential. The central flowerbed’s a disaster. All around the edge she’s got delphiniums, lavatera, hollyhocks, foxgloves – that sort of thing. It’s like a wall of flowers and, in the middle, where you can hardly see them, there are phlox, Californian poppies and peonies. It needs a man’s touch. I’m toying with the idea of surprising her. She has a graphics conference in Massachusetts next month. I’m thinking of giving the garden a make-over while she’s away. Put up a new shed, fix the trellis at the side of the house. Most of all dig over and replant that bed.
That’s for later, though. For now, I’ll just sit with the beautiful Maggie and watch my own kid, whose nappies I used to change, excite these thousands of people with his music. Life doesn’t get much better.