– Fiction by Kimberly B. Richardson –
“One vanilla latte for Miriam!”
A young woman dressed in Goth hipster attire cocked her head up when the smiling barista called her name. Approaching the counter, she took her cup and offered thanks.
“Girl, I hope you enjoy it!” the barista said. Miriam smiled then returned to her small table in the corner. She watched the Saturday morning crowd make their way to the counter to relate their ritual orders. When she returned her gaze to the steam rising from the hole in the cup’s lid she wanted to cry. All gone, she thought as she lifted the cup with trembling hands and took a small sip. She wanted to feel the liquid scald her lips, yet knew that nothing could erase the pain she felt in her chest. He was gone, she thought, lowering her cup again as she stared out of the window. The city gleaned bright on the sunny Spring Saturday. They have lives to enjoy, she thought of the people strolling the sidewalks outside.
There was nothing she could do to get Peter back. He used to tell her what a burden she was. If it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t last one day in the world. Miriam felt her shoulders shake and felt a tear streak off her cheek and land on her hand. She quickly brushed the drop on her skirt then glanced around to make sure no one had seen her crying. When she picked up her drink and took another sip she found the coffee had cooled.
Miriam had met Peter a year ago at a party at David’s place. David was an artist, and an old friend from when the two used to haunt the Goth club when they were both in their 20s. He had recently completed a showing for his latest artwork of imaginary creatures and was basking in considerable praise from critics. He decided to end the show with a party at his place for his closest friends and supporters. Wanting to break Miriam out of her shell and to prevent her from spending another weekend silently reading novels or watching depressing foreign films, he had made his invitation especially persuasive.
“This is going to be THE party of the month,” David said, “and, for the record, any excuse you give me is already shot down. This is your chance to not spend another weekend at home. Besides, you owe me for that time you dragged me to that boring ass lecture of that pretentious author you drooled over.” He waggled his finger in her face while he grinned. “What is it with you and boring and elitist authors?”
She went to the party with a half-hearted attitude and a jumble of prepared excuses to leave early. Ten minutes later, however, she had forgotten her desire to leave. Immediately, David introduced her to his friends who welcomed her warmly into their tipsy conversation circles. She met Peter Finkler, a published author who was now teaching English Literature at the University of Memphis. Their connection was instant. Soon, they continued their conversation in a corner of David’s apartment while oblivious to the rest of the party.
“I know this might sound cliché, but I enjoyed reading Black Wing,” said Miriam after taking another sip of her red wine. “The way you described Richard’s downfall was so…intense. Definitely made me wonder if you had experienced such a moment in your life.”
“Nice to know that people out there have read my work,” Peter said. “Are you an author as well?”
“Hardly,” Miriam replied. “Just an avid reader who writes in her journal every so often. I can’t do what you do.”
“Have you ever tried?”
Miriam shrugged her shoulders. “Never thought about it. Besides, there are many people out there who do it well enough. I’ll just enjoy their labors of love.”
Peter grinned at her response. “What do you like to read?”
“Anything that catches my eye,” Miriam replied. “Vague, I know, but it’s the truth.”
“I enjoy finding things that catch my attention,” Peter replied as he moved closer toward Miriam as his piercing blue eyes never wavered from hers, causing her to blush and take a larger sip of wine. Some time later, they exchanged telephone numbers. On their first date, they saw an art film at the local theatre followed by dinner and lengthy conversation at a small Chinese restaurant. He soon invited her to his apartment and they had sex. He enjoyed the way she listened to him and offered non-biased opinions. Miriam loved the way he played with her hair while they watched movies at his place. Peter’s insights into film were enthralling. He viewed Miriam as clay, ready to be molded and shaped. He felt he was just the right man to shape her into something with more form and direction. She agreed to his thoughts and views without ever saying a contradicting word. A month later, she moved into his apartment and began her life with him.
Miriam noticed several colorful posters hanging in the coffee shop and thought of when she and Peter tried to put up a poster of Picasso’s The Blue Guitarist in their bedroom. The print kept falling down. She blinked and the memory dissolved into her latte. She looked outside again and noticed a young couple walking up to the coffee shop with their little girl between them. She smiled and wondered what Peter and her children would have looked like. Initially they had discussed getting married and starting a family with much enthusiasm yet later in their relationship, Peter grew evasive and took refuge from their quarrels by grading papers. When did that happen? When did he become so cold to her? She removed the lid from her cup and slowly swirled the contents around, noticing the thin strands of milk that refused to blend in. An older man dressed in a nice grey suit walked slowly along the sidewalk.
Two months after she began seeing Peter, Miriam told David of her growing feelings for the author she had met at his party. David suddenly grew quiet. He dodged her eyes and focused on his latest painting of a mermaid sitting on a rock in the sea. She was so blinded by Peter and his world that everything else was a blur. She wanted David to know about her feelings because he was her closest friend.
“Your mermaids look so lifelike,” she said. “Right down to the scales.”
“Thanks.” He fell silent as he continued to paint as Miriam sighed. David set his brush in a glass and wiped his fingers on his paint splattered jeans. He turned to face Miriam and knew that what he had to say next could not be said in any other way. He had to tell her his thoughts.
“I have known Peter as long as I have known you. I can’t see the two of you together,” David said.
Stunned by his blunt skepticism, “Is it because I’m black and he’s white?”
“Damn you for even saying that,” David fired back. Miriam hung her head low and felt the warm blood rising to her cheeks. What made her say such a thing, she wondered. David reached over and lifted her chin up with his fingers.
“What is it, then?”
“You’re too nice for an asshole like him.”
“You’re the one who introduced us.”
“Trust me when I tell you that he’s no good for you. You need to be around accomplished people, people whose creativity is not dried up like some forgotten raisin in the corner.”
“Such a typical David answer.”
“I mean it. You need to be with someone who is passionate about what they do and not just going through the motions.”
“But he is passionate!”
“About what? All he does is whine about the complexity of life. You deserve someone as smart as you and with a sense of humour.”
She leaned back into the couch. “You know, right now this feels like I’m asking my father if I can go to the prom. This was not how I imagined this conversation would go.” She crossed her arms over her chest and watched her friend struggle choosing safe words.
“David — ” she murmured to herself and took another sip of latte. She thought about how she had left David’s apartment when he had nothing more to say. She couldn’t stand the way he looked at her with watery green eyes that wanted to cry with no shame. She walked away from her best friend because she thought she loved Peter, but David’s words were dormant seeds bound to sprout sooner or later. At first, it had seemed harmless enough; Peter would tell her what to do and she would happily comply, knowing that his “instructions” were pearls of wisdom. He told her things for her own good and it pleased him whenever she followed his advice. From where to shop for groceries to which author to read, she listened to his words because they were a direction toward a better life.
“His direction, his life,” she murmured to herself again after draining the cold dregs of her latte in one long gulp. He didn’t like the way she dressed; he used to call her style a throwback to the Addams Family. Peter told her on more than one occasion that she needed to stop looking like a mortician and actually look like a woman. So, little by little, she gave up her quirky look that David adored on her and began wearing what Peter suggested.
“You need to accentuate your skin tone more,” Peter told her as he took Miriam out shopping for clothes at a high end store one day. “Your skin is a rich burnt caramel and it needs to be seen, not hidden under all those layers of clothes you wear.” Miriam looked around at the shoppers wearing designer clothes that were skin tight and left nothing to the imagination while the sales people wore suits or cocktail style dresses. The pop music playing overhead started to give Miriam a headache.
“I like the way I look,” Miriam said. Peter smirked then handed her several dresses for her to try on. She held the dresses up in front of her; they were barely see through and waif-like in appearance.
“You’ll please me more if you wear these,” Peter said as she slowly made her way to the dressing room to try them on. She slipped out of her clothes then put on one of the dresses. It fell right at her knees and seemed to float around her body in an expensive blend of silk and soft and ultra feminine pastel colors. She turned around to get the full effect of the dress then sighed. Whatever Peter wanted she would do, she thought as she took off the dress then tried on the next one. Of course, they did not feel like clothing but rather very thin toilet paper that one finds at a cheap hotel.
“Are you sure about these . . . dresses?” Miriam asked
“I’m more than sure,” Peter said. “Hurry up so I can pay for them. You’re wearing one of them tonight at the party.” Miriam slowly turned around in front of the mirror one last time before changing into her clothes and walking out of the dressing room. She handed the dresses to Peter and stood back as he carried them to one of the counters to checkout. She cringed inwardly when he took her hand and led her out of the store.
Miriam walked over to the counter just as the barista made her way towards the register. When she saw Miriam’s face, her grin exploded.
“Hey what’dya think of my latte? Can I make ‘em or what?” Miriam smiled and ordered another one, to which the barista gave her fifty percent off and another one of her one-thousand watt smiles. Miriam couldn’t help but smile back, even while trying to sort through her memories of Peter. She leaned against the bar and watched the barista foam the milk. Peter used to bark at whomever was “lucky” that day to make his espresso drink that he wanted his milk to be precisely 160 degrees, as if his mouth could really tell if it was under or over that temperature. When the barista handed the latte to Miriam, she took a small sip again, burning her lips.
“Girl, blow on it first!”
“I know,” was all she said. As she returned to her table, the buzz from her first drink finally kicked in. She pulled out her journal and a pen from her messenger bag with slightly trembling fingers and began to write a a sentence, only to stop and set the pen down. She chuckled as she remembered how Peter used to scoff at people who wrote in their journals while in a coffee shop. He was convinced they were being pretentious. Miriam, on the other hand, thought they were merely writing in a damn journal. She never understood why it irked him so to see people, ordinary and unknown people, writing in their journals. Was it because he hadn’t written anything new in such a long time? Was it because it annoyed him that everyday people had something to write about every damn day of their lives while all he could do was sit idly on his so-called prolific hands?
Miriam watched the steam rise from her second latte and wondered how David was doing. She hadn’t spoken with him in some time and wondered if perhaps he had heard the news. Of course he had, she thought as she took a sip then set her cup down a little harder than normal. Some coffee drops splashed on her wrist yet she ignored the temperature.. She glanced at her phone. Would David call? Should she call him? Would it even matter?
Now she recalled the party where David revealed his feelings for her. Peter and her were barely holding on. They hadn’t slept together in weeks. They barely spoke when they were in the same room. He seemed absorbed with something yet Miriam knew better than to ask him. Whenever they watched films at home, he barely talked afterwards and instead went into his study and closed the door. He woke up before her and returned home much later with barely a word of acknowledgement.
As they walked up the driveway to the party, Peter warned her that they were not going to stay long; he had to get up early the next day and refused to leave her there all alone.
Before he rang the doorbell, Peter grabbed Miriam’s arm in a light grip and pulled her toward him. “Stay with me and don’t wander off,” he said.
“Peter, why on earth would I-”
He tightened his grip on her arm, causing her to yelp. “We aren’t staying long.” He rang the doorbell and released her arm just as the door opened, revealing David holding a glass filled with beer. He stared at both of them with a blank look, then remembered to break into a smile as he welcomed them in and closed the door behind them.
“I had no idea you guys were invited,” David said. Miriam, still feeling the sting of him not speaking to her since their last talk, merely shrugged. She asked Peter if he wanted anything to drink. He replied that he would get his own vodka tonic then sauntered off toward some people he recognized, leaving her standing there with David. David said nothing yet swirled his beer in his glass and took a sip.
“Good to see you,” he finally said. “How’ve you been?”
“Why even ask? You’ve been avoiding me.” She made as if to leave then he grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She winced as his hand touched the same spot where Peter had grabbed her earlier. She shook her arm free of his grasp.
“I can’t stand seeing you with him,” David said. He’s no good for you. Why are you still with him?”
“Let’s not go through that again,” Miriam said. David stared at her. “What?”
“You mean, after all this time, you don’t know?”
“Know what?” David then led her to one of the bathrooms and closed the door. Miriam, not knowing what to expect, sat on the sink counter. David sat on the side of the tub and sipped from the glass of beer in his hand.
“From the first moment I met you, I knew that you were a special person. You needed someone special in your life, someone who would see you as how I see you. You seemed to choose the wrong kind of men. Men who would always break your heart because they had none to give you. Men who abused your generosity. You always seemed so happy when you introduced them to me. I smiled for you but never for the fact that you were involved with them. When you told me that you were in a relationship with Peter, I just couldn’t stand it.” He finished off his beer then set the glass in the tub. “I am in love with you. Leave Peter and be with me.” Suddenly, Miriam felt lightheaded from his confession. She closed her eyes as a sour taste coated her tongue. In their ten years of friendship, Miriam never even considered that David would have feelings for her. Was she that aloof to what stood right in front of her? She opened her eyes as David took her hands in his. He kissed her hands. “I can’t believe you didn’t know how I felt about you. I thought I was being too obvious with it.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I was punishing myself for not realizing you were right there in front of me.” David grinned. “You know,” Miriam said with a tight laugh, “he’s not what I had expected.”
“A bit of an ass?”
“More like the whole thing, crack and all.” They shared a laugh. “I’ve never known anyone like him, David. He makes me feel less than human.”
Someone banged on the door.
“Who’s in there?” Peter called. Miriam and David looked at each other. Miriam slid off the counter and unlocked the door.
“Aren’t we a cute couple?” Peter sneered as he pushed past her and lifted the lid of the toilet. “Don’t let me interrupt you from whatever the fuck you were doing.” Miriam smelled the vodka emanating from his mouth and grimaced while David calmly got up and moved behind Peter, hoping like hell Peter wouldn’t turn around and piss all over him. David glanced at Miriam then let himself out of the bathroom, leaving the door cracked open. Miriam made as if to leave as well until Peter slurred, “And just where d’you think you’re going?”
“You are peeing. I need to leave.”
“Like hell you don’t.” He shook himself a couple of times then zipped himself up and flushed the toilet. “So,” he said in a now clear tone, “why were you in here with . . . him?”
“He needed to ask me something and led me here.”
“You’re lying.” He moved a step closer to her, forcing her to lean against the door. He lifted a finger and pointed it several inches from her face. His eyes, once loving and concerned now angry and drunk, stared through hers. She was not about to back down from him tonight. Something in her posture was enough to deter his violence. Without a word, he moved her to the side and let himself out, leaving Miriam in a state of confusion. Where was the lecture, the yelling like before? She silently counted to ten then let herself out. Thankfully, no one noticed anything; Miriam sighed in relief when David walked up to her and whispered in her ear that Peter had left the party. At first, Miriam felt that she needed to leave the party as well and have a talk with Peter. David offered to get her a drink and asked her to stay for a while. One drink led to two and soon, Miriam began to enjoy herself with David. The thought of Peter confronting her, however, loomed in the back of her mind. When she finally arrived home hours later, she found a note and a quiet apartment. It was over between them.
Miriam felt a lump in her throat and shook her head, dismissing that memory from her mind. Even then, she was afraid of him. Even then. She looked down at her latte then emptied it in one long gulp, relishing in the cold coffee taste, then got up to throw away her cup. The memories did not disappear just by a mere shaking of the head. They would disappear only when she was finally ready to let them go.
In his goodbye letter, Peter told her that she could never be on his level and good luck if she tried. He was tired of her and needed breathing space from her always hovering over him. She stifled his creativity. Miriam read the letter three times then threw it away. Of course Peter would take such a tone with her, she thought. Even Don Quixote had more sense than that and that was not saying much. She grabbed her bag then left. Peter stopped by the next day to collect his clothes while informing her that she could have everything else. He no longer had a need for such things.
Just as she reached the door, the barista waved and told her to have a good day. Miriam turned around and waved back. Ten minutes of a lovely walk later, Miriam arrived at her building. When she reached her apartment on the sixth floor, she closed the door behind her and sat on the couch. Her eyes focused on the blank walls surrounding her. She refused to step forward and make this apartment truly hers after Peter left. She felt paralyzed because she still felt his eyes on her. A smile crept on her lips; new apartment, new start. No more asshole.
Miriam stood up and grabbed the thick roll of posters that lay next to the couch and began to unroll them one by one. The first one was The Blue Guitarist, the one that failed to stay up before. She stared at it carefully then reached for her poster tape. Five minutes later, the Picasso hung over her bed with no signs of coming down. Miriam returned to her living room to put on one of her jazz records. As Charlie Parker played throughout her apartment, she slowly took back what she had lost and freely given up for Peter. With each new piece of art placed on a wall, a memory dissolved into powder and fell on her table. When she finished with an Art Nouveau theater poster in the kitchen, she prepared a cup of tea then relaxed. One day at a time, she thought as the kettle began to boil. One day at a time. Miriam returned to her couch and set her cup on the spot on the imaginary pile of memory dust then grabbed her phone. Time for step two, she thought as Charlie Parker’s music changed from a dirge to sounds of hope. Just as she began to dial, the phone rang. She clicked over then smiled as David said hello.
Kimberly B. Richardson is the author of Tales From a Goth Librarian, The Decembrists, Tales From a Goth Librarian II, Mabon/Pomegranate, Open A, and The Path of a Tea Traveler. She is the creator of the Agnes Viridian series, the Maven Chronicles, and the Order of the Black Silk trilogy. She is also the editor of Realms of Imagination: An Urban Fantasy Anthology and the Steampunk anthology series Dreams of Steam, and has stories in multiple anthologies. Ms. Richardson was the 2015 David McCrosky Volunteer Photographer in Residence for Elmwood Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. She is also the founder of the literary journal violet windows. Ms. Richardson is the founder and owner of Viridian Tea Company and a certified thanatologist.