Very well done.
| Leslie didn’t realize that she’d been straining to hear Melanie’s key in the lock until the abrupt knock nearly made her fall over. She jerked her gaze from the bowl she’d been painstakingly covering with tiny pieces of porcelain to the door and tried to stand. Belatedly, she realized that after sitting in the same place for so long, she couldn’t move without ruining her work. Halting stiffly midway, she pushed at the tiny fragments of the star pattern, settling them more firmly in the still mushy mortar. “Hang on—“
The lock clicked and the door swung open. Confused, it occurred to Leslie too late that her roommate wouldn’t knock before entering. “Mel?”
“Wrong Hawthorne,” grunted a male voice.
Leslie ignored the little shiver in her stomach and poked hastily at the edges of her star. They weren’t moving. She tried to push back the strands of wavy brown hair that had escaped from her clip without streaking mortar all over her forehead.
It was a doomed effort, and she knew it. “I didn’t know you still had a key, Anthony,” she said, reluctantly straightening up. She cast her eyes around for a clean rag to wipe her hands on. Another wasted effort. She settled for the seat of her jeans. “What are you doing here?”
A tall, square-shouldered young man stumped over to the wide wooden table in the dining room where she worked, lugging a heavy-looking cardboard box that clinked as he walked. Bracing it against his hip, he raised a sandy eyebrow at the jumble of porcelain shards, spatulas and beads, all coated with a fine layer of gray dust. “Do you want this on the floor?”
Leslie tugged at her grungy red plaid shirttails, pulling them lower over equally wrinkled jeans. “Um. Yeah, probably a good idea.” She watched curiously as he lowered the carton to the ground. “What is that?”
“It’s for you. Melanie’s been on my back about them for two weeks now, so I’m finally delivering.”
“Oh. You could have dropped them off while I was gone. Seeing as how you still have a key.” She couldn’t help slipping that dig in. True, Melanie had been the one to give her brother a spare key to the house, not Leslie. But it was still unsettling to realize that he could walk in any time, unannounced.
“I would have, if I’d had them while you were gone,” he said laconically. “I procrastinated. Today was the first day I’ve been able to get here.” Anthony exhaled deeply as he straightened, wincing. “I was sorry to hear about your parents, by the way. I didn’t realize what had happened until Mel told me. Funeral go okay?”
Leslie bit down hard on her lower lip. It was a bad habit she had acquired over the past year, but so far she hadn’t been able to make herself stop. “Thanks. It went well enough. So what’s in the box?”
“She didn’t tell you?” Anthony leaned against the back of the small rust-colored sofa that divided the one long, high-ceilinged space into a living and dining room. He cast a skeletal shadow across the floor behind him, illuminated from the front by the standing fluorescent lamp Leslie had set a few feet behind the table. Despite the glaring brightness of Leslie’s work area, the rest of the house seemed gloomy and stuffy, shrinking in on itself. No lights were on in the kitchen to the left, or the hallway to the right of where Anthony stood. He could sense the darkness outside even through the closed blinds of the two windows behind where Leslie had been sitting, and looked instead at Leslie, now crouched on her heels near his feet.
“Melanie? She may be my roommate, but I never see her,” Leslie murmured, tugging open the box flaps. “She comes in at night so late when she’s out with Jahir that I’m lucky if I see her in the morning on my way out. She called just a little bit ago but I couldn’t really hear her well. Her voice was all choppy.”
“She’s on her way home?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Most of Leslie’s hair had escaped the clip and hung about her face, muffling her words. After a moment she sat back with a chipped pistachio saucer in one hand and a delicately pink-and-white flowered teacup in another. “Hey, these are great!” She grabbed the edge of the box, trying to tip it toward her. “Are there more like these?”
“Should be. That’s the cream of the local junk sales.” Anthony watched skeptically as Leslie prized a violently bright purple and blue swirled plate from near the bottom. “What did you want a bunch of old dishes for, anyway?”
Her eyes widened as she looked at him. “I never told you?”
Anthony’s calm eyes stared back. “We only went out a couple of times, Les. If I didn’t even know your parents were in such bad shape, then we definitely never got around to discussing all of your hobbies.”
Leslie’s smile faltered, then retreated. She stood abruptly, trying to tuck her hair behind her ears using only her palms. Her fingers were still crusted with mortar, which had begun to dry in dusty, cracked patches. “I wasn’t expecting my parents to die. It wouldn’t have come up.” She rubbed at a crusted-over knuckle, beginning a snowfall of dust. “I make mosaics. You know, like tabletops, dishes, mirrors, stuff like that.”
“You sell them?” Anthony glanced at the drying bowl in front of him, its center winking at him amid swirls and ridges of dull gray. It was a five pointed star, set in the center of the bowl, its edges sharp and thinly defined. Leslie had begun edging around it with tiny bits of bluish-green glass. He leaned over and peered at them, interested in spite of himself. “What is that stuff from? Coke bottles?”
Leslie laughed. It sounded, Anthony thought, what pouring all those tiny bits of glass into a crystal bowl would sound like – tinkling, bright and soft at the same time. “It is, actually. I use all sorts of things but mainly old dishes because they break up well and usually I can control the shapes of the pieces I break them into. And the patterns are interesting. You never know what you’ll find. But yes, I do sell them occasionally. The university doesn’t pay excessively well, as you see.” She swung an open hand around her, gesturing at her sparse surroundings. “This is so great. Melanie said she’d seen some old dishes somewhere but I had completely forgotten about them. She asked you…” She trailed off.
“She asked me to round them up for you. Got them Saturday.” He picked up a shard of Dutch blue porcelain and ran his fingers over the edges as he talked. “And people actually buy stuff like that? Not that it’s not pretty,” he added hastily, seeing a look of hurt beginning in Leslie’s eyes. “I just can’t believe people would pay for something that’s all busted up when they could buy something that’s brand new and all in one piece.” Resuming his post against the couch, he glanced at the shard in his hand. “But then, I can’t believe anybody would break things into pieces just to put the pieces back together and try to make it look good. Sounds like a great waste of time.”
“It’s not a waste.” Leslie frowned. “I like making beautiful things out of broken ones. Besides, it’s not supposed to be perfectly put back together when I’m done. That’s the point. I put it back together the way I want to look.”
“Well, you should have enough broken junk to play with for a while, then. There’s a ton of dishes in there.”
“All from the same place?” Leslie grinned. “You hit the jackpot.”
Anthony shook his head. “No, I went to a bunch of different places. I told you, Mel’s been on my back about it for awhile now.”
“Oh. Right.” Leslie stuffed her hands in her pockets. “I didn’t realize you went to all that trouble. Thank you.”
They stared at each other for a few quiet seconds. Anthony leaned back, taking in the image of Leslie with her muddy face and hands, rumpled clothes, and disheveled hair. Everything about her seemed thin, from her slanted gray eyes and sloping brows to her thin red mouth set above a long, slender throat. Leslie could feel him examining her, his face expressionless and calm as ever.
With a tiny jerk she realized that he was straightening up to go. “Well, if you see Melanie, tell her I’ve been trying to get ahold of her, would you?” he asked.
Leslie watched him walk to the door, a straight figure in too-big jeans and a too-small t-shirt stretched over his shoulder blades. She felt the shiver in her stomach again as he reached for the door. Something about the angle of his head as he reached the door made her unable to stop herself. “Anthony, I’m sorry,” she blurted.
He stopped and turned halfway toward her. “Sorry for?”
Now that she’d spoken Leslie wished she hadn’t. She nipped at the inside of her lower lip, feeling a tiny bit of tissue tear away. “I’m sorry for…well, I’m sorry you’re still angry with me. Which, it seems pretty clear that you are.”
Anthony’s mouth twitched as he drummed his fingers on the doorknob. “You know, Les, being sorry that I’m still mad at you isn’t the same thing as being sorry.”
Leslie felt her cheeks flush with warmth. “I’m just sorry that I made you mad. If that’s what I did.”
“But you’re not sorry that you dropped me.”
“I never picked you up.”
The taller man’s eyebrows went up. “Well, I don’t know what you call that night, but I’d classify it as an attempt.”
“I’d call that night me having too much to drink.”
“You had two drinks, Les.”
“Which for me is too much! I don’t ever drink.”
“Yeah, I know.” She could hear a tiny touch of mocking in his voice. “You don’t drink, you don’t dance, you don’t go out – there’s a lot of things you don’t do. Like having the decency to stick around and explain to a guy why you bolt like a rat trying to get off of the Titanic the one time he kisses you.”
Leslie folded her arms across her waist. “Anthony, going out with you wasn’t my idea.”
“I know. It was Melanie’s.” His hand still on the doorknob, he leaned back, contemplating her. The door wavered back and forth as he rested his weight on it. “Can you try not to remind me – again – that the only reason you went out with me was because my sister asked you to?”
“That wasn’t the only—“ Leslie racked her brain for the right words. “Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. That was most of the reason. Melanie is perpetually trying to set me up with people, and at least you I knew. I liked you, you’re a nice guy. I had fun with you, those times.”
“You mean you had fun up until the part where I kissed you, which was apparently so horrible you bolted.”
“I didn’t bolt! I mean, I didn’t mean to.”
“No, at least not before you kissed me back some.” Anthony’s gaze shifted up to a corner of the ceiling somewhere above her head in an exaggerated thinking pose. “As a matter of fact, you didn’t seem to mind very much until your phone rang and then I guess you snapped out of your temporary insanity, or however you explain that night.”
“Look, I’m sorry.” Leslie rubbed the patch of mortar on her thumb with the side of her forefinger, keeping her eyes half-lowered. “I didn’t mean to offend you. But I couldn’t stay. It wasn’t working for me.” She allowed herself to glance up briefly.
Anthony’s pale eyes were fixed on her. In the half-light of the living room they glinted like tiny sparks against the shadowy curves of his face. “Really? Up until your phone rang, I would have said it was working pretty well. Or did I just imagine that? I know, I know.” He held up a hand. “You had too much to drink, you keep saying. Who knows, maybe you believe it. Me, I’ve liked you for a long time. I’m not afraid to tell you that. I didn’t know you very well but I liked what I saw, and Melanie told me to go for it. So I did. Maybe I was a little too…”
“Enthusiastic?” Leslie offered.
“Hasty,” he corrected her. “If you want to talk about enthusiasm, then I’d say that arrow points both ways Or it did, until your phone rang.” He paused. “But it didn’t work. End of story.”
Leslie’s stomach clenched as she tasted a faint trace of blood. She pushed her lip away with her tongue, shielding it from more biting. “I’m sorry.”
Anthony nodded. “Me too. But what can you do?” His mouth curved in a polite smile, and he turned back to the door. “I’ll see you around, Les. Say hi to Mel for me. Sorry again about your parents.” He shut the door gently behind him.
Leslie stood still a moment, looking at the closed door. Then she went into the kitchen, flipped the light on and twisted the hot water tap on the sink. The white light in the kitchen only made the darkness, visible from the uncovered windows by the stove and back kitchen door, pulse darker. The pouring water clattered loudly in the empty stainless steel sink. Leslie looked blankly around at the narrow art deco cabinets framing the sink, with small triangular shelves wedged above the faucet, all caked in layers of white paint that had no doubt been accumulating since the thirties. It was pretty bad when her parents had lived in a more modern house than she did. Their modest house in the country hadn’t been anything fancy, as her mother had always warned visitors. But the mattress in the guest room had been comfortable, and the clean lines of the warm pine walls had given it all a calm, welcoming feel. Sighing, she padded across the faded linoleum and took a diet soda from the battered yellow refrigerator. Despite her aunt and uncle’s protestations, she had no intention of selling her parents’ place. I’m not an only child for nothing, she thought grimly as she twisted the top. Dad was stubborn, and next to me he looks positively docile.
Leslie turned back to the sink. The water was steaming by now, and she hastily turned the cold on before plunging in her hands. It was probably best that she didn’t have any siblings, at least in this situation. No one had fought her on the funeral arrangements: double cremation, no public service. Her aunt and uncle had come to the interment, and hadn’t complained about the unmarked graves atop the hill at the east end of her parent’s property. Considering how often her mother had wandered there to watch the horses playing in the paddock two fences over, Leslie had felt it was as fitting as anywhere else. She remembered how her dad had, after a while, started checking there first when her mother wandered off in another of her Alzheimer’s pea-soup fogs. It strung him out, when she went missing like that, but he’d said that she was sometimes the happiest he’d seen her that week, sitting cheerfully in the grass looking around at him over her shoulder as if to say, ‘What kept you?’ as he panted up to her.
With the noise from the running water, Leslie didn’t hear Melanie until she walked back into the dining room, drying her hands on a dish towel. Turning the kitchen light off, she turned to see her roommate sitting on the living room’s other overstuffed couch set directly opposite the front door against a wall, both of which, Leslie supposed, had been white in a former life. She started forward, then stopped again behind the rust red sofa back, staring blankly at Melanie’s face. The shorter girl was violently jabbing buttons on her phone. Her honey-colored hair was pulled messily over her right shoulder. Her face was dull in some patches, shiny in others, and her eyes were a swollen, painful-looking red. Leslie watched as she punched a final button on her phone and then tossed it into the bag at her feet, where it landed with a loud thunk. “Melanie?”
Melanie didn’t answer, just pinched the bridge of her nose between her forefingers and inhaled a long breath. Leslie came around and gingerly sat next to her. She wasn’t always sure whether Melanie wanted company. She had a temper that could explode in unlikely situations, and more than once Leslie had opted just to give her personal space to avoid being snapped at. This time Leslie wasn’t sure if her encounter with Anthony was coloring her judgment, but something felt wrong. It clicked, just as Melanie took her hands away from her face, that that was why she hadn’t been able to understand her on the phone earlier. She must have been sobbing. “Melanie, what’s wrong?” she asked more urgently.
Melanie raised her eyebrows as high as Leslie guessed they could go, and folded her lips together in a tight line. “Jahir and I broke up,” she said in a bitterly manner-of-fact voice. She leaned over and began rooting around in her bag.
Leslie blinked, not sure she’d heard correctly. “You broke up,” she repeated. She stopped herself saying the words on the tip of her tongue: That’s impossible. “Did you have a fight?”
Melanie sat back, having found the hair band she was looking for. She started combing her fingers through her hair, pulling it back roughly from her hairline. “You bet we did.”
“Oh, God, I don't know. It doesn't matter.” Melanie’s voice was still throaty from crying. “It was like something just broke. Maybe it's been broken the whole time, I don't know. I thought everything was okay. But tonight it snapped. He told me to get the hell out. So I did.”
Leslie shook her head mutely. “Mel, you've got to be kidding me. You and Jahir hardly ever even disagree for longer than two minutes.”
Melanie split her ponytail into two sections and pulled them out at horizontal angles from her head, tightening the hair against her scalp. “Well, we fight now!” She stood up and tugged off her jacket. “I – Les, I didn't know what to do. He was so mad at me. His voice just kept getting louder and louder. I almost wished he would have hit me or something, anything but the yelling. I’ve never…I mean, he’s always so quiet. But it doesn’t matter. It’s over.”
Leslie watched her friend’s automatic movements, feeling curiously as if she were watching herself in a movie that was realistic, but still fictional. “Melanie. You and Jahir have been together for a year. People like that don’t just break up.”
Melanie’s laugh was shrill. “Oh, no, we didn’t just break up.” She walked into the kitchen and returned with the soda Leslie had left on the counter. She lifted the bottle to her lips and took a deep swallow. “Do you remember,” she began, pausing to wipe her mouth, “that girl Jahir dated for a little while before we met?”
“Yeah, Giselle,” Leslie said. “Short, skinny, black hair. Lots of tattoos. She worked at the bar where I introduced you to Jahir.” She watched Melanie begin to pace up and down in front of her. “What about her? Jahir hasn’t seen her in months.”
“Well, apparently she’s been calling him for a month and he didn't tell me anything about it until now. He said he's had other things on his mind.” She snorted rudely. “Ex-girlfriends calling to hook up again don’t just slip your memory.”
Leslie sat forward, debating whether to forcibly restrain Melanie from pacing. It was hard enough to be the only one doing rational thinking. “But even if she had been calling him, he wouldn’t have told you about it if he was cheating on you. She could have just called once or twice.”
“Which he could have mentioned at any point in the last month and a half,” Melanie snapped. “But no, he just tells me tonight, and only after he freaks out over me picking up his phone for him.”
Somewhere behind her temples, a percussion-happy synapse was having a killer jam session. Leslie closed her eyes, trying to focus. “What?”
“All I did was go to get his phone out of his jacket, because it was ringing.”
“Why didn't he answer it himself?”
“We'd just gotten up to his place, and he remembered something in the car, so he ran down to get it. I heard him coming back up the stairs when his phone went off, so I went to grab it to hand it to him, and he went ballistic on me before I could even get it out of his coat pocket, asked me not to touch his private things when he's gone. He got all defensive, and over what? I knew he just didn't want me to see who was calling him. So I made him tell me. And of course it was her.”
Leslie stood up slowly. “Mel, you don’t actually think—“
“What else am I supposed to think? Why else would he get so angry? I couldn't believe it. I don't know, I just saw red and called him a bunch of names.”
“That’s crazy,” Leslie said flatly. “I’ve never seen him so much as check out another girl when you’re around. There’s no way he’d have some girl on the side. Melanie. Listen.” Leslie bent her head to peer into her friend’s face. “You know he loves you. He wouldn’t cheat on you. I’ve never seen anybody as crazy about anyone as Jahir is about you, unless maybe if it’s how crazy you are about Jahir.”
Melanie pulled away from Leslie and rubbed her eyes. “Maybe. I don’t know anymore. I can never get him to talk to me. I have to drag everything out of him. He’s so quiet and keeps everything all inside, and maybe…maybe it wasn’t going to work anyway.”
“Mel!” Leslie wanted to reach for her, but couldn’t. There wasn’t anything she could say that would convince her. Her brain whirred as she watched her friend totter slowly toward her room. Her temples felt about to collapse. Mechanically she went to clean up the table. There was no way she’d get anything more done tonight, and she had to work in the morning.
As she scraped the extra mortar from the bowl into a trash bag, Melanie’s voice floated down the hall to her. “Hey, Leslie, why are you home? Wasn’t that guy we met last week supposed to take you out again? What was his name?”
Leslie didn’t answer immediately. Opening a small door in the back corner of the dining room, she took the broom and dustpan out and began to sweep. “Matt.” She pulled the chair out to get the glass fragments from under it. “I was, but he called and cancelled. I guess he was busy.”
Leslie heard the bathroom cabinet open and shut. “That’s terrible. I’m sorry. I thought he was a really cool guy. Are you going to go out later?”
Reaching down with the dustpan, she knocked her elbow against the box Anthony had brought. Carefully, she slid it away from the table against the wall. “I don’t think so.”
Leslie stacked her tools into a worn shoebox, listening to Melanie brush her teeth. Krshh, krsshh, krssh. Spit. Rinse. “Wow. What a loser.”
Leslie turned off the lights and stood for a moment in the darkness. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault!” Melanie’s voice rose defensively. “It’s just these guys. The last three I introduced you to – well, they were just jerks. All men are jerks.” Her voice cracked.
“Not all,” Leslie replied absently.
“No, not all.” Melanie’s words seemed distant and tinny with all the lights off. “I’m going to make sure you end up with a good one. He’ll never cheat on you, or lie to you, because he’ll know how great you are. He’ll worship the ground you walk on. You deserve that, at least.” Leslie heard Melanie click on her bedroom light, and the creak of the bed as she dropped on it. “It’s just that right now you have the worst luck with men of anybody I know.”
Leslie smiled humorlessly. She could hear the false cheer in Melanie’s voice. Not for the first time, she felt how tired she was. It felt like she hadn’t slept since she’d gotten her uncle’s call the week before. The pounding in her head intensified, accompanied by the image of a pair of steady blue eyes. She pushed it away. “I know. But what can you do?”
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