short story

Umbrella Love

Here is the second piece I wrote working with an amazing photographer Justin Leveque. I had the privilege of having Justin in a writing class where he wrote pieces that were acerbically witty and filled with heart. He's a cartoonist, artist in general, writer, and photographer and I was so glad he was willing to give me a couple of images to write a story around. Here are his images and the words I wrote around them:

UMBRELLA LOVE by Tanya Eby Images by Justin Leveque

 

Image by Justin Leveque

The umbrella waited for him in the rain-kissed street, as if a movie had been filming nearby and had wetted the pavement just to enhance the moment for him. When Brent saw the umbrella, he felt drawn to it. If he’d had an umbrella when he’d run out to order a burrito from Señor Loco, he’d have had one of those sturdy black umbrellas with the sharp point at the end. Actually, he’d have had one of those cheap umbrellas that they sell on the corner for five bucks. The blue kind. The kind that tatters and flips in the first strong breeze. If Brent had been an umbrella, that’s the kind of umbrella he’d have been: easily flipped and torn apart.

This umbrella was different. See-through, spotted, feminine, delicate. It rocked in the middle of Fulton by the corner of Fuller, the corner where bistros sat across from the Veteran’s park where they lined up for free tacos on Tuesday. This umbrella called to him and before he knew what he was doing, he was crossing the busy street to rescue her.

This was an umbrella that belonged to someone and Brent knew in his gut that something bigger than himself and Señor Loco was happening tonight. Something that could possibly be love.

He scooped up the umbrella, held it above his head even though it was no longer raining, and ran across the street as an angry driver in a Cadillac laid on the horn and flipped him the bird. Brent turned his back to it.

Now what? What did he do? His hunger was momentarily forgotten, as love and burritos did not mix, and he scanned the street. This was one of those moments that happened in the movies. Those cute-meet moments. He would find the quirky girl that this umbrella belonged to. She would be wearing a red rain coat and a beret. He would say “Hey, I think I have your umbrella,” and she would say, “Yeah, that’s mine. It doesn’t go with your outfit,” and they would laugh and there would be a close-up of her red lips, of his hand running through his messy hair, and this would be the start of love.

Men thought of love too. Not just in the movies. Just this morning, Brent had stood under the lukewarm stream of his apartment’s shower, imagining a woman with curly brown hair in the shower with him, her red lips parting, a smirk on her mouth as she wiped a bead of water from her chin and then said “I want to taste you,” and he closed his eyes and knew that was love. Real love. Love you could hold in your hand, or in your mouth. Love that fit in your palm like the weight of a handle.

But where was she?

That was the question.

He would look for her and find her on the corner of Fulton and Fuller. He would hand her the umbrella. “This must be yours,” he’d say, and they would laugh as it started to rain again.

But how do you find love on the corner of Fulton and Fuller when it is no longer raining? When the homeless across the street look to you and hold up signs asking for money and food? Do you run to the library and cry out your longing? Do you go into the dress shops in Monroe Plaza and scare half-dressed women trying on clothes that don’t suit them? “Is this yours?” do you call, knowing that you sound desperate, and sad, and hollow?

An umbrella in the road is not a mistake. An umbrella in the road has been abandoned.

After a few moments of searching, Brent closed the umbrella up, and crossed the street again to Señor Loco. He ordered the burrito that promised to be bigger than his head and was, in actuality, exactly the same size as his noggin. He sat in the cold booth, letting the air conditioning chill his skin. He cut into the burrito, sprinkled it with hot sauce, and clutched the closed umbrella between his closed thighs to keep it from falling.

What he wanted was more than a moment. He wanted words against his skin, and laughter, and those ridiculous inside jokes. He wanted beers with her on the porch, and hungry kisses at a party while the music pounded in their blood and in their hearts. He wanted her thighs wrapped around him. He wanted to look into her blue eyes or dark eyes or hazel eyes and he wanted her to see him and be okay with that. He wanted to say “You know what I mean,” and have her laugh a little and say “I know exactly what you’re talking about.”

The burrito sat in his stomach like a weight. He left it on the table, half-eaten, grabbed the umbrella and walked outside where the sun was shining.

He began to walk.

A man was not supposed to want love so much, but a man did. A man dreamed just like women did. A man noticed couples everywhere, happiness everywhere, balance, perfection, kindness. A man held an umbrella even though it wasn’t raining and waited for the moment when he would be needed.

He walked for a long time. And when the day blended into night and he walked down an abandoned alley, the umbrella nestled against his shoulder instead of using it like a cane, Brent thought that maybe it was time to do something with his life.

He didn’t know what that something was, but he was sure it had something to do with being a better person, a fuller person, a person who had some kind of purpose. He could’ve set the umbrella next to a dumpster and it would’ve blended in with the shadows and the detritus of the alley. Instead, he walked home, the see-through, polka-dotted umbrella still in his hand, waiting for the time when it would be needed. Maybe that time would come. Brent would be ready for it. It would rain again, someday.

Image by Justin Leveque

 

 

-END-

Follow Justin on Twitter @levequejustin

 

The Absence of Me

Some time ago, I asked a couple of friends to give me some of their photos and I would write a story around them. I tried to get them published in literary journals, but, alas, no luck there. I still feel like these are interesting stories, and the photos are beautiful. Here's the piece that I wrote around the beautiful work of Alana Morosky. Also...please note...she is not the woman in this story. Alana's one of the warmest and nicest people on the planet. 

The Absence of Me

Written by Tanya Eby

Photography by Alana Morosky

 

 

I didn’t really understand how Elena thought about me until I saw the pictures.

Bus and Sculpture Alana Morosky

Looking at it now, a tightening happens in my chest. There’s something hopeful about the piece, the way the sun bounces off the yellow sculpture, hits the van, and then blinds the viewer. There’s the coolness of the shadows at the bottom of the picture, and the bright blue sky. There’s something weightless in here, but there’s also an emptiness. It’s the emptiness I notice the most. The absence. I am not in this picture.

“Go stand over there,” she said. We were tooling around Portland. She said she wanted to take some pictures and I could help her. I’d be her mule. She’d laughed when I said I’d make a great mule and I picked up her bag of gear. It was heavy and I pretended it wasn’t. “Go stand over there,” she said, and I did. Awkwardly. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. My arms felt impossibly long. I crossed my legs, wondered if that would make me look like I had to pee. I uncrossed them. The wind ruffled my hair. I heard the camera’s shutter blink. “Move a little that way,” she said and pointed. I shifted. “A little more,” she said. I smiled into the sun and couldn’t see Elena fully. She was just a dark shadow in front of me, focused on the pictures she was taking. I stood tall. Brave. I spoke my feelings with my expression, with the tilt of my head.

I am not in this picture. She wasn’t taking a picture of me at all. She had wanted me out of the light.

Cue the sad love songs. Cue the heartache, the bottle of gin that later will make me throw up and wish I’d had more control. Cue the long hours of realizing I never mattered to her at all.

***

There are more pictures. Of course there are. She was an artist. I liked books. We dated for nearly a year. I thought it was turning into something real, but really, I was just filling space for her. I was a warm hand on her thigh my fingers inching slowly upward. I was a kiss on the back of her neck, when her hair was in a haphazard ponytail, exposing her gentle slope. I was someone who sometimes made her shiver, but maybe more from her own effort than mine.

We spent the day in my truck, me driving, following her instructions. “Take that exit,” she said and laughed.

“Do you even know where we’re going?”

“I know where we’ve been,” she said and I thought she was clever. We were going on gut instinct, she’d said. We’d find art and beauty in the most unlikely of places.

We stopped at an empty road. It was dirty and brown and dull. I was hungry—for lunch, and for Elena. I was tired of being a mule, but I couldn’t let her know I’d grown bored. It was a road. Just a road. What could she possibly see in a road? She had me pull off to the side. “Stop!” she’d cried, as if she’d just spotted a unicorn. I don’t know. Maybe she had. I pulled over. I saw dullness. She saw this:

Empty Road by Alana Morosky

I can’t stop staring at it. At the time, I saw this in sepia, but not the cool images you see on blogs and Facebook. I saw a road that was dirty. She saw history. She saw questions. She saw wind and a trail that leads somewhere and draws you to the top of the hill. Pulls you to want to see what’s around the bend, but you can’t see it, because you’re not part of this place. You’re just an observer. She saw contrast and possibility and hope and pain and the wistfulness of clouds. I saw a need for a sandwich and some sex. Her smooth thighs. Her laugh. Her kiss.

I don’t know why it took me so long to see the truth of things. You never know what you need to know until you’re ready.

***

All the pictures from that day break my heart. There is an absence of me in every one. I carried her gear, I drove her around, but in the end, I was just a vehicle. A week later, over Thai food, she would look at me and she would say “It just isn’t working”. She would hold her hands up in the air for a moment and I would see our relationship as smoke and watch it dissipate before me. I should have been more interesting. I should have had more to say. I should have been meaner, maybe.

She sent me the pictures. “Thanks for your help,” she said. There’d be a small show in the gallery. I could come, if I wanted. There’d be cheap wine and bad appetizers and she knew I was a sucker for both. “Mini-sandwiches,” she said in her email. “Bring a date.”

Maybe I’ll go. Maybe I’ll go and I’ll stand by the final photo. I’ll stand by the empty house at the end of the day, at the beginning of night, with the flowers dying around it. As passersby look at the picture, I’ll point to it with my hand holding a plastic glass filled with red wine. I’ll say, “Look. In that window? The bottom right? That person who looks like they’re trying to get out? That’s me. I’m there.” To everyone who passes I’ll say I’m in that picture, it’s me, until someone believes it’s true.

 

House and flowers by Alana Morosky

When Your Heart Went Boom

I was searching through my old documents for a novel I abandoned. The characters still talk to me, and I'm disappointed that I haven't been able to write the novel for them that I think they deserve. I'm trying to decide whether to commit to this YA Suspense title, or return to this little abandoned novel. So, that's what I was doing when I found an old file of stories and monologues I've written over the years and have never done anything with. Some are pretty bad, of course, but this one still makes me laugh. And there are some lines in it that I like. Mostly, I like this Julie character and I hope that she found a man to make her as happy as I am with Kealoha. Here, then is that old monologue, from my younger self:Romantic Dinner

When Your Heart Went Boom by Tanya Eby

My Dearest Victor,

As dates go, on a scale of one to five, you were definitely a three and well on your way to a four. I was telling some joke, something about a fireman and a priest and a hose, not a great joke, not hysterical, but you were laughing and while I was telling it and feeling charming…I thought…just for a moment…how life might be with you if we happened. If it happened. If love happened between you and I.

And then, suddenly, you clutched your heart and stopped laughing and I looked in your eyes that were remarkably blue and I thought you sensed it too. This kismet. This cosmic connection, and that’s when, very clearly, the date was turning from a three to a four, on a scale of one to five. I smiled and you looked like you were smiling, or maybe that was just the muscles in your face tensing because then you passed out and then, you know, you passed on.

There was a bit of commotion at first, but don’t be embarrassed. I helped them sit you up and I wiped the chive butter from your forehead and then loosened your tie. It would have been one of those sweet, tender moments that happen when two people just start dating and realize there’s something more going on beneath the surface. It would have been one of those moments, us staring into each other’s eyes, if it hadn’t been for your dying and all. I thought, for a moment, that there was still a chance. I thought about it especially when our waiter (his name was Pedro and did you know he was pre-med? How lucky!) ripped open your shirt and started pumping on your chest and breathing in your mouth. I thought there still might be a chance for us and how terrific a story it would make at our wedding.

Your best man, Bob, would raise his glass to us and tell our friends that when we met on our blind date, you fell instantly in love with me and it happened so fast and so hard that your heart exploded. And everyone would laugh then and tink their glasses with their forks so that we would kiss. And we would kiss. Long and slow and with real love, so much love I would feel it in my belly, in my toes, this love of wanting you. Then I would wipe the chive butter from your forehead because all good things in life come round full circle.

But that didn’t happen because somewhere in the middle of my joke, you stopped. You just, stopped. And sometimes, mostly at night, right before I fall asleep, I see Pedro shaking his head and I see you on that burgundy carpet with your shirt open, and I see the open napkin on the floor next to you, and the roll you dropped when your heart went boom. It’s the roll I think about mostly, though you did have a magnificent chest, with just the right amount of hair, but it’s the roll I think about. There was a bite out of it. The last thing to touch your lips was a hard sourdough roll and to tell you the truth, no life should have to end like that.

I was sad to see you go, and, well, a little embarrassed. I didn’t even know your last name. All those emails and photos we sent each other, the phone calls we made, all the planning of finally meeting and when and where and how soon, and I never did catch your last name.

I thought about writing a note to your parents, but how would I find them? You said they were in their seventies and lived in Florida and I thought of going to Florida with your picture but, to tell you the truth, most of the people in Florida are in their seventies so how could I ever find them? I wouldn’t really know what to tell your parents anyway. I could say it was quick and painless (though I think there was some pain), but what’s it matter? I would like to tell them that the last thing you did (besides eat that roll) was laugh, and when I think about life and fate and how everything happens for a reason…I think maybe the whole reason I met you was to tell you that dumb joke about the fireman and the priest and the hose.

I was there with you in your final moment and you were laughing at something I told you and you clutched your heart and we looked at each other and when we looked at each other, my soul reached out to yours and wrapped around your heart too so that you were also, by extension, holding onto the tender part of me.

The more I think about that date, before your dying and all, the more I think it was a four on its way to a five. I’m sure it would have ended as a five. Maybe that night was on its way to being the best night of my life because maybe, just maybe, you were the one and destiny finally brought us together.

Destiny was late, true, and it was the shortest relationship I’ve ever had (we didn’t even make it through the first course), but I want you to know that I’ll never forget that night. We shared something most couples never do. We shared a moment so deep your eyes sparked blue with life.

Thank you for that, at the very least.

All my love,

Julie

The Holiday Party (a festive story)

I posed a challenge to my writing group to write a story called The Holiday Party. This is my attempt. Enjoy, and may you find love and laughter this weekend.

The Holiday Party

by Tanya Eby

 

Turducken roasting. Check.

Holiday songs on Pandora playing. Check.

Bar set up in corner of kitchen. Check.

We were ready to go. Our first holiday party as a family, and soon my parents, Matthew’s parents, his uptight sister and equally uptight husband, their kids, and my younger brother would be showing up on our doorstep. “You ready for this, Jayne?” Matthew asked me in the kitchen. He pulled me close to him and I nestled in, careful not to stick my nose in his armpit. (He’s taller than I am by about a foot.)

“I’m totally ready,” I said. “Merry Christmas, husband.”

“Merry Christmas, wife.” He said. We laughed a bit at how the titles still felt a bit like oversized sweaters. We’d grow into them.

Matthew and I had been married for a little over a month, and already it was clearly different from our first marriages. We were both really young when we married the first time: me, to a man who became a vegan and gluten free control freak; Matthew to a woman who was very active online. Online dating that is. Together, Matthew and I had three kids: two of them mine, one of them his, but they really felt like ours. I even envisioned adding one more to our new family. I wasn’t quite 40, so I’d be an old mom, but still. I didn’t care so much.

“Mom! Mom! They’re here!” screamed TJ. He was eight and beyond excited. The kids were excited to see their new cousins, and eagerly waiting for presents to open.

“Let the chaos begin,” Matthew said and walked to the door.

I thought he was joking. I never knew he could actually see into the future. Chaos was coming, stomping up the sidewalk, and it was carrying a Velveeta Dip and wearing the worst holiday sweater I’ve ever seen.

“Holy sh….” Matthew breathed. “That’s Grandma Hollis.” It became clear it wasn’t just Grandma Hollis, but pretty much Matthew’s entire extended family. Our intimate little Christmas Eve get together just turned into a full-fledged party. Or nightmare. Depending on your perspective.

***

Matthew opened the door. “Grandma Hollis!” he exclaimed. “I thought you were still in Germany. You weren’t able to come to the wedding.”

She shoved a yellow casserole dish into his arms. “I didn’t come to the wedding because I don’t like parties. I don’t even want to be here, frankly, but I’m probably going to die soon and I want to see who here is worthy enough to inherit my Collection.”

I looked at Matthew and he whispered in my ear: “She has a collection of decorative plates. She thinks they’re worth a fortune.” “What’s that?” she asked, then turned up her hearing aid so it caused a huge shriek.

“I said you have a great collection! Of plates!”

“That’s right. I have an entire set of M.A.S.H, complete with Klinger in a mumu. Worth a FORTUNE.”

She barreled her way in the door.

We shut the door.

***

Minutes later, the doorbell rang again. In spilled my mom and dad (wearing matching green v-neck sweaters), and Matthew’s parents (looking very dignified and overly dressed), and then his Christian sister and brother-in-law showed up with their two asthmatic looking girls.

Matthew’s five-year-old daughter Molly asked the two girls, “You wanna come up to my room and play?”

The girls shook their heads in unison. “Jesus doesn’t play. He’s the Son of God and this is His day.”

I bent down to talk to the twins. (At least I think they were twins.) “Technically, Jesus’s Day is tomorrow. Tomorrow is Christmas; today is just the night when the wise men saw the star. I’m pretty sure they thought it was a sign of a party!” I laughed nervously. The girls just blinked. Okay then. “Molly, why don’t you take the girls up to your room anyway. You can play and they can draw pictures of Jesus on the cross. In slight pain.”

The twins smiled. Apparently, this sounded like a great idea.

***

There were about twenty people in the house at this point. Matthew was starting to sweat. “Turn off the heat,” I said. “It’s like a sauna in here.”

“I think I’m having a hot flash!” my mom exclaimed and then, to my horror, she pulled off her v-neck sweater revealing a very thin, and entirely see through white t-shirt. And under that shirt it was very clear that my mom was wearing some kind of red flimsy bra with little bits of holly over the nipples.

“Cover your eyes!” I said to TJ, but he was already crying.

The doorbell thankfully interrupted my mother’s striptease. (She was now fanning herself and complaining of ‘vaginal discomfort’.)

“Who could that be?” Matthew asked. “It’s like all of Bethlehem is here already.”

I surveyed our living room where our family was all smooshed in eating Velveeta dip and drinking egg nog that my Uncle Rich had liberally doused with rum. I looked for the telltale head of red hair and knew immediately who was missing. My brother. Jack. Or as he liked to go by now that he was a published poet: Fido.

***

I knew he was bringing his current girlfriend; I just didn’t know that girlfriend would be a four-foot tall Asian woman who was about ten months pregnant. “Jack!” I said and then promptly “I mean, Fido!”

“I’m going by Philip now. It’s more distinguished. Philip Jackson the Third.” It was Matthew’s turn to look confused. I shook my head, sending him telepathic messages to just go along with it.

“And you must by Megan!” I said to the pregnant woman.

“I’m Julie. Who’s Megan? Who is this MEGAN?” She put her hands on her hips and for some reason I imagined an Oompah Loompah. Maybe she was going to give me some chocolate.

“That’s right,” I said. “I’m sorry. I was thinking of a friend of mine. Julie. So glad you could come. You must be tired, what with driving from Chicago and being, what, seven? Eight months pregnant?”

She looked at me, then at Jack/Fido/Phillip. “Who’s pregnant?” She asked him. “What is she talking about?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “That’s a little rude, sis.” I smiled and offered a short “Ha!” and then realized they weren’t kidding. She looked like she was about to pop out four or five enormous children and she was saying she wasn’t pregnant.

“Come on in,” I said and ushered them inside.

***

I’m not sure what I thought would happen on our first family Christmas together. I’d envisioned windows rimmed with ice and Frank Sinatra singing about walking in a winter wonderland. I imagined me and Matthew and the kids, and our parents and siblings, sitting around our expanded table and eating our new tradition of turducken. I imagined laughing when my family reminisced about past Christmases and how charming both Matthew and I were.

I did not imagine the reality: a house filled with too many people, the toilet backing up after Grandma Hollis spent forty-five minutes in there. I did not imagine my mom and Matthew’s mom bonding over stories of getting their stomachs stapled or the length of errant hairs they’d found sprouting from the nose/chin/vaginal-area. I did not imagine Matthew’s dad choking on a piece of tater tot casserole that one of the cousins had brought with them. Some of the tater tots were still partially frozen and lodged in his throat until Matthew’s sister prayed to Jesus and then gave her dad the Heimlich maneuver with such force that the tater tot threw across the room and stuck to the window.

And I did not imagine my brother’s non-pregnant girlfriend’s water breaking and then her insisting that she wasn’t in labor, but was just a little gassy.

***

Total chaos. I mean, the kind of chaos you see in disaster films where people run screaming and waving their hands in the air and then getting sucked in by a blob or stepped on by a giant lizard, or swallowed whole by the earth itself.

We laid Julie in the middle of the living room where she panted and insisted that she was not sprouting a child at all. “Push!” Matthew cried. “Push!” I echoed. And then we caught that slippery little child with a towel while my mom called 911.

And then Julie looked into her child’s eyes and said “Weird” and I nearly wept with the pure beauty of it.

Molly came down with the twins and the girls held up their hand-drawn pictures of Jesus suffering. “And the baby was born unto them and would later rise up to be the King of Kings,” they said.

“King of Kings,” my brother breathed, and kissed the baby’s head. “Exactly. We’ll call him Elvis.”

***

After the ambulance came and took the new mom and dad to the hospital, and after we’d cleared everyone out (no one was really all that hungry after watching Julie give birth), tucked the kids in for sleep and promised them that Santa would come when they were asleep and dreaming.

Matthew and I returned to the kitchen. He pulled me close to him again and I just stood there and breathed. “Tell me it’s not always going to be like this, husband.”

“I’m pretty certain that this Christmas will go down in the history books.”

I laughed a little then and then I heard…I couldn’t believe it…a soft tinkling of a bell ringing. “Every time a bell rings,” I began and Matthew said “An angel gets its wings!” It was a sort of miracle, really. Our own Christmas mir…Wait a minute, I thought. That’s a whole lot of angels getting wings.

The bell kept ringing and ringing getting louder and louder until we found the source of the sound: Grandma Hollis was in the bathroom again and had slipped and fallen when the toilet started overflowing. She wore a bell around her neck for just such an occasion.

We helped her up and I gave her some dry clothes to wear home.

Matthew dropped her off at the retirement community.

In the morning, against all odds, Christmas came, the kids loved their presents and then passed out in post-presents-coma. Matthew handed me a present stuffed into a plastic bag. It was a special commemorative plate of Archie Bunker. Apparently, we weren’t worthy enough for Klinger, but we had earned at least one of the plates.

It was my favorite present that year because I think it sort of captured how the rest of life for Matthew, me, and our kids together would be: a life of chaos, laughter, and a family crazy enough for bad television.

Somehow, I’d gotten everything I’d ever wished for. I didn’t know who to thank really. Santa, Jesus, or maybe the King of Kings—Elvis. You don’t have to know where blessings come from, you just accept them into your life. And then you hang those blessings on the wall, surround yourself with them. Which is exactly what we did with Archie Bunker. He’s right in the middle of the wall, surrounded by pictures of our crazy, lovely family. Matthew and I still look at him and laugh, even now, all these years later.

 

THE END

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Cheers!

-Tanya-

 

 

Halloween Spooky Story "The Perfect Neighbor"

I've been playing around with short stories lately. To celebrate Halloween, I thought I'd attempt to write a scary one. That's right. Comedic writer goes spooky. I hope you enjoy it...and...Happy Halloween everyone. :)

The Perfect Neighbor

by Tanya Eby

 

I bought the house on Whippoorwill all on my own. I fought for it; I worked for it; I prayed about it, and I’m not even a religious person. I don’t know. I wanted to prove something to my ex and to myself. Maybe that I was actually capable of doing something on my own. The house was small but cozy. A perfect house for one. I didn’t think of it as a Forever House, just an in-between house. A house in which to heal my heart and spirit in.

Movers moved in what few boxes I had. I unpacked on my own and felt the weight of loneliness like a brick inside my stomach. So when my next-door neighbor stopped by with a batch of  brownies still warm from the oven, I was touched. It seemed like the sort of thing housewives did in the fifties. It was quaint and cute. She even wore an apron. “I see you’re making quite a nest for yourself here,” she said, nodding to my house. I had spent all morning painting my bedroom, changing it from an ugly bright yellow to a comforting deep brown. I wore paint spattered clothes and my frizzy hair puffed out at the corners of an old baseball cap.

“I’m making it more of…oh, I don’t know. More me.”

She nodded and I could tell she understood. “Well, I just wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I’ve made you these brownies. They’re shamefully gourmet. I’m a bit of an overachiever that way.”

She handed me the brownies, and I could feel the slight heat from them. In my mind I was already topping one with ice cream. “They smell perfect,” I said.

“They are,” she said with a slight smile and we both laughed. “I like things to be a certain way. What do psychiatrists call it? OCD? But they don’t call Martha Stewart that.”

“Are you a Martha Stewart?” I thought she might be. Her lawn was a deep green next to my slightly browned one. She had planters that were hand painted in deep swirls of green and yellow and flowers that looked so perfectly in bloom that they could’ve been fake.

“Me? A Martha Stewart? No!” she laughed again and I think it was then that I realized something was a little off, but I ignored it. “I’m a Marilyn,” she said as if that explained everything.

 

***

Marilyn and I became…friends. Yes. I guess that is the word for it. When I worked outside on the lawn, mowing or raking as the months passed, she would come out with freshly squeezed lemonade on a platter with a side of homemade cookies. In the summer the cookies were lightly scented with lavender from her garden; in the autumn she made apple cookies with apples from a tree in her backyard. She always wore a dress and looked attractive. Her hair was long and brushed til it shined. Her makeup could’ve been applied by a beautician. Her nails were manicured: perfectly arced, the perfect shade of red.

As time passed and I sweated and struggled outside to maintain the lawn, it occurred to me that I never saw Marilyn leave her house. Nor did I ever see anyone enter it. Did she work? Did she date? Was she alone? If she was alone then why didn’t she have the same frazzled look that I seemed to wear? I could barely manage to pull myself out of bed and get ready to go to the office where I researched and wrote grants. I did pull myself out of bed and work, but I somehow seemed to look ruffled…or at least like I needed an antidepressant.

Marilyn was so perfect she seemed to glow.

October rolled around and the large tree in my front yard seemed to burst into flames, it was such a deep orange. When Halloween approached, my tree shed the last of its leaves. One still clung to a low branch, and for some reason it was still green. As I bagged the last of the leaves (while in yoga pants, a stained t-shirt and my hair in a haphazard pony tail) I sensed rather than heard Marilyn approach.

“No, no, no!” she cried and then flung herself up towards the leaves. Perhaps it was just my imagination of a play of the light, but for a moment her brightly painted nails seemed to look like talons as she swiped at the lone green leaf. She tore it from the tree and crumpled it in her hand. I noticed that a strand of her perfect hair fell over one eye, hiding it. She carefully smoothed it back into place, took a deep breath and said: “That leaf was just out of place. It looks so much better now.” She wiped her forehead with her hand and there was a thin line of dirt. Certainly it was dirt and not, as my mind had tricked me into thinking, blood.

 

***

 

On Halloween night, Marilyn’s house transformed into a cover of a magazine. She somehow had decorated the house overnight because when I awoke the next morning, there were perfectly carved pumpkins lining the steps. A witch’s pot boiled with dry ice. Piped in scary music echoed from her porch. The spider webs glistened and looked so real…the spiders crouched within them appeared as if they were about to give birth to a thousand babies. It made my skin itch, how perfect everything was.

I worked all day and did not have the time or energy to carve pumpkins. I turned on my porch light, put out an un-carved pumpkin, and waited for the kids to come. I envisioned handing out chocolates and being the Cool House. I’d actually purchased about twenty full-size candy bars. One of the reasons my ex and I had divorced was that after ten years together, I decided I wanted children. He decided he wanted to buy a boat. I thought the children in their costumes would cheer me somehow.

I waited.

And waited.

But no children came. At least not to my house, and not to any of the other houses on the street—except for Marilyn’s. A steady stream of families drove up. Lovely, thin, perfectly coiffed women walked their children up to the door. They kissed their cheeks, and left quickly. It seemed strange to me that the children were older, probably twelve or thirteen, without costumes, and without siblings or friends. Each mother dropped off one child. The moms were so beautiful yet seemed sad. Perhaps, I thought, Marilyn was hosting a party for busy working moms. What a strange Halloween party it must be. There seemed to be no joy from any of the children.

At nine o’clock, when the steady stream of cars to Marilyn’s had stopped and the street slipped completely into night, she came to my door. She was dressed as a witch, wearing full makeup. Her face was gnarled and twisted, her back humped, and her hands looked arthritic…no doubt bent from so many potions. She’d even disguised her voice. “Come into my house,” she offered. “We’ll have a pot of tea. I want to show you my Halloween collection.”

Because I was lonely, because I waited so long, because Marilyn was so perfect at everything, because I was so inadequate, I did the only thing I could think of. I went over to her house.

 

***

 

The inside of her house was as beautiful as the outside. In fact, it was like stepping into the pages of a magazine. Her lush living room featured a leather sofa, a perfectly roaring fireplace, and silk pillows in shade of crimson and burgundy. She walked me through the kitchen with gleaming countertops and a silver fridge. There was an island made of some kind of expensive looking wood with a set of knives spread out as if she was ready to carve a Thanksgiving turkey.

“Did you have a nice party?” I asked her.

“Party?” her voice crackled. I wished she’d drop the old hag act. I was beginning to get annoyed by her Halloween, and for a moment I dreaded Christmas. Would she don a Mrs. Claus outfit? Would there be elves?

“You know,” I said, “all the children?”

She cackled then. Yes. A real cackle. Her laughter sent shivers up my spine and somehow I knew. It was as if the spell of perfection over her house shimmered and popped, the way a bubble shimmers and pops as soon as you’ve launched it into the air. I saw the perfection of her kitchen, and then I saw the kitchen as it really was. The dozens of Mason jars stacked on shelves. The piles of children’s clothes in the corner. The blood smeared cutting board. The shadows. Oh, god. The shadows, everywhere.

I looked at Marilyn. I stared at her…and I saw. She wasn’t wearing makeup. The slight green of her skin was its natural hue. Her pointed nose was her actual nose. And her fingers were, indeed, sharpened into talons.

“You see me now, don’t you dear?” she asked. I broke out into a sweat. I could not speak, so I nodded instead. “And do you know what I keep in those jars?” She pointed to a row of jars above the stove. I did not need to look at them because I knew. I knew. She kept children in those jars. Bits and pieces of them. Everywhere. An entire collection replenished every Halloween.

She pushed me gently forward. Led me into a small room that looked like a fortune teller’s lair complete with swaths of fabric, sparkling light, and a fortune teller’s ball in the center of a round table. “Sit,” she ordered and I did. “Payment first.”

As if in a trance I held out my palm but there was no money there. She dragged her nail across the palm, and a thin line of blood sprung to the surface. She brought my palm to her lips and I felt the leathery tickle of her tongue.

“I know what you want. You want what all the women who come to this neighborhood want. And you can have it. You can have it all, for a price.”

I couldn’t breathe. My heart hammered. I wanted to cry out, to run, but I was frozen there. “Tell me what it is your heart desires,” she hissed, drawing out the last syllable.

I could not stop myself. I spoke the words. “I want children,” I said. “I want love. I want a nice house. I want to be beautiful. I want things to be easy.” It was as if all my secret wishes simply floated from the surface, like bubbles of air rise when you are swimming underwater.

“Yessss,” she said. “And you will have it all.”

 

***

 

I would like to say that I called the police and turned her in. I would like to say I ran screaming and asked for help. But I did not. We shared some pumpkin bars, and then a special cup of tea. It was thick like cocoa and bitter and she told me to drink every drop. Payment, she said, would not be due for fourteen years. Fourteen years seemed so very far away.

I noticed the changes almost overnight. I began to lose weight. My hair grew long and shiny. Things came easier at work. In fact, I started to excel at almost everything. And then I met the man of my dreams. Franklin and I wed almost three months after meeting, and I conceived almost immediately.

I have long since moved from the house on Whippoorwill. We live in a seven bedroom, three-bathroom home in East Grand Rapids, Michigan. We have, I must admit, a picture perfect life. And with four beautiful children now, it seems the price will be almost worth it.

There is a price for this perfection. Would I change anything? If I hadn’t met Marilyn, if I hadn’t agreed to her terms, would I have the beautiful and easy life I have now? No.

I have tried not to love my firstborn, but it has been difficult. She was such an easy baby and now, at thirteen, I can see the woman she could become if the contract weren’t due. My husband and I have not explained to her the price of perfection. We do not speak of it. It is something we know and accept. It is the way things are here.

Tomorrow is Halloween eve and I will travel once more back to Whippoorwill where Marilyn is waiting. She only shows her true face on Halloween so that she can perform the incantations she needs to make the magic happen. I will drop my daughter off to her front porch, and my daughter will go inside willingly, and I will drive home to my perfect family, and we will say a word of thanks for all our blessings.

Short Story (as mentioned in Tumbling)

Here's the first story I wrote when I arrived in New York. It's a fictional version of my last night in Michigan. To read the post it was mentioned in, click here.   

Red Trunks and Blue Water

by Tanya Eby

When you see him on the beach, just the back of him, you see only the brightness of his red trunks, the slight dawning on his shoulders of sunburn. When you see him, when you watch him watching the water, you wonder what he would feel like lying beneath you. You can almost trace the sharp curves of him; how his shoulder blades rise like the curve of a Frisbee, how his hipbones, like bottle caps, would dig into the softness of you. Then you remember the softness of you. You are mounds of sand, folding. You are dunes and white hills. You would swallow him. There would be nothing left.

 

"You want some chicken? Have some chicken." It is sunset. You are on the back porch of a cottage overlooking Lake Michigan. Everything is washed in a warm, red light and you finally understand the term rose-colored glasses. Your friends, who own the cottage, bustle about. They want your last days in Michigan to be memorable. In New York, looking at the cool brick walls of your apartment, they want you to be able to close your eyes and hear water on the sand…and you will.

"Chicken is good for you. It's grilled." This is Brian. He is tall and blond and gay. He stands looking down at you, smiling. "You'll waste away to nothing in New York. You won't be able to afford anything. You'll have to eat Ramen Noodles."

"Ramen Noodles." His partner, Greg, echoes from the kitchen where he stands, doing dishes, listening.

You eat your chicken.

Later, the sun slips away in a burst of magentas and deep purple. You all applaud, you and Brian and Greg, as if the sun could come out and take a bow, as if the sunset would perform an encore if you shouted loud enough.

Brian sits next to you. "What are you thinking?" he asks. He squeezes your knee. You know you should tell him you're thinking of the flight tomorrow, of being scared, but you're not. You're thinking of the heat in the air, the lake rolling against the sand. You're thinking, briefly, in flashes of red, of someone you've only just met. You wonder what he's eating at the cottage next door with his sister and her family.

It's that slight time of bluing…daylight blending into the dark denim of memory. The bugs are out. You slap your thighs, your legs, your ankles. But none of you wants to go in.

"I'm thinking I'd like to go for a swim," you say. Brian nods slowly.

"Not too far," Brian says, ever the big brother, ever watchful.

 

In the water, you are a buoy. Your breasts bob, your stomach lifts, your legs drift apart. You can lie like this forever, suspended in the gentle rocking of the lake. It is a good time for this; the water is calm. Tomorrow there will be waves; great waves and heavy rain and you will have no regrets. You bob. You feel as if you are water breathing-your hair fluid around you; no sound, save the beating of your heart, the surge of sand beneath you. You stretch. You are beautiful. Here, the moon shining on you, you being water, you are a round pearl smoothed. You are reflective. You are light.

 

This happens earlier.

"Why New York? Why do you want to go there?" Your mom asks. She is not angry; she only wants to understand. You try to be honest with her, to not hold back.

"I don't know," you say. " It just feels right."

"But what are you going to do with your things?"

"I'm going to sell them."

"Everything? What about your furniture?"

"I'm giving it away."

"But why?"

You can't explain.

"I'll keep some things," you say. Your mother smiles weakly. "I'll keep my clothes. Some books."

"What about your movies? I could keep your movies for you. And your Christmas ornaments. You can't give up everything. It's not healthy."

"Would you mind keeping some of my things?" Your mother's eyes beam.

"No! Not at all!" Then she shows you the Martha Stewart labeler she ordered straight from the magazine, and the huge Tupperware tubs she bought at a garage sale for an event such as this. She's always like this. She plunges forward. She focuses. Later she will cry heavy tears and try to understand. You don't want to think of her crying.

"Promise me," she says. She holds you at arms length and stares you in the eyes. This is her old trick. She's done this for years to see if you ate the cookies, if you hit your brother, if you changed your grades with a pencil and eraser. "Promise me whatever you do, you won't use the elevators." She pauses. Waits for you to blink. "They have those rolling blackouts and I don't want you to get stuck in an elevator with someone crazy."

This is the only thing she asks of you. This is her one great worry about New York.

And then you laugh.

Both of you.

 

On the sand, he watches you, but you are not aware. In your mind, he is just a speck, a grain of bright red.

There isn't a reason for your moving…just a sense that something in you has shifted, as the shore shifts, as your body floating on the surface of the water shifts. You could give a hundred reasons if pressed. You draw your fingers through the water as if able to create an angel that will linger behind you, wings spread. There's only one reason that matters: because you want to. Because you want to become someone new. You want to emerge as an orange.

Peeled.

 

Brian and Greg ring the dinner bell. They're telling you to come in; it's too dark; they can't separate your shape anymore from the water. You swim to shore trying to memorize each motion of your body. Crawling out of the water is like surfacing from a dream. It still clings to you, still wants to pull you in. You wrap in a towel. You can hear laughter between the two cottages and the crackle of a bonfire.

You imagine the rest of the evening before it happens. This is not to say you're psychic; they haven't created a word yet to describe how far from psychic you are. You imagine because you are bored. You are trying to keep your mind from thinking other things…of things like leaving everyone you know and love, of moving to a place where everything, even the rain, will be terrifyingly, wonderfully new. It's the ripple effect. You toss in a stone and follow each ripple as it grows. Sometimes you get lucky: sometimes you see where the ripples go.

You imagine there will be laughter and stories passed and marshmallows too burnt laid over half-melting chocolate. Your friends will sing your praises of having the balls to move. You will glance between your legs and the circle will laugh because, clearly, you have no balls. You will catch his eye and your face will redden and you will blame it on the heat of the fire. "This is a great fire," you will say and their faces, illuminated and shadowed, will nod, heavy of sleep.

It isn't that you want love. It isn't that you need it necessarily. You just want someone to notice you. To do a look-again. To imagine kissing you, touching the soft of your arm, brushing the bangs from your face. It is always about this: hoping for someone to pause because you exist.

This, too, is a memory being made. Later, in the heart of Manhattan, you will have trouble recalling the exact shade of blue of the night sky, the exact words spoken. You will remember only this:

You sat on the beach, you and the man whose name you won't quite remember who looked at you from the beach and wore red swimming trunks. You sat on the beach while the rest of the world was weighted with sleep, shoulders just touching as if by coincidence, as if you weren't aware of the closeness of your skin, as if electricity were normal. You were talking and then he reached over and touched your cheek. "You're touching my cheek," you said, though maybe that's not what you should have said. And then you were kissing. And then, later, you will remember that you imagined you were outside yourself, observing. You watched from above; your two bodies like bleached wood entwined, rolled smooth from years of wind and sand.

You will remember kissing him and looking at the night sky and feeling vastly empty. You will remember that your tongue moved and your body moaned and you tried to count the stars one by one by one by one. I am not this, you thought. Just that.

This is not who I am.

In the morning the sky is smoke gray. It's an old stretched canvass empty of paint. In the car, your cheek against the glass, the rain heavy on the window, you have no regrets. Not really. It was a good swim. You felt so alive then, buoyed by water, floating in the own expanse of your skin.

You leave quickly. A hug and a kiss to Brian and Greg. Chin up. Feet moving forward. No looking back. Ghosts of you, of the turns you could have taken, spiraling around you and then evaporating as mist.

Barreling through the clouds, the plane hits a great lake of blue. It is so blue and so bright, you shade your eyes. You are now soaring from the bottom of the deepest lake, reaching bravely for he surface that somewhere stretches just before you, blinking white.

A Short Story--What I Want to Know about my Mother

This is a story that was published a year or so ago in "Kalliope" a journal for and by women. I think they're defunct now. At any rate, this is one of my favorites. I'd entirely forgotten about it until a friend of mine was digging on the site and re-earthed it. I like the poetic feel. Most of my stuff lately is comedic, but sometimes, I like the lyrical quality of words. I wanted, here, to write a story about understanding, and loss, and longing...and this is the result. Hope you enjoy it.