FLASH Fiction Challenge 100 – Day 13
I rub the envelope between my fingers. Touching it, confirming its existence, making sure that I’m not dreaming. It’s real. I put it back in my pocket, take another nervous swig from my Corona.
The sun is just starting to set over the Hudson. The best views, I’ve always felt, ever since Isabella showed me the beauty of the sunset, were from the rooftop. The apartment building I live in isn’t fancy. The rooftop has a small sitting area, a tiny plot of dirt for a community garden, but mostly Mr. Idleman, from 5c, is the only one who uses it. He’s a wizard with the tomatoes and when summer comes around he shares the bountiful explosion with the entire building.
I loved her so much. I’d had other girlfriends before her, but she was the first one I ever felt like I truly loved. She was always upbeat, always smiling. She never gossipped about folks (which momma would’ve loved and I think they would’ve gotten on alright). Most of the few times I remember her not smiling were caused by me, but I guess I got no regrets for those as things turned out.
She had lived in 7a, I in 7c, which meant we shared a wall. We became quick friends. She was fun, funny, kind, and a friend right from the start, but it took me nearly a year of being her neighbor before I fell for her.
She had had a boyfriend when she’d first moved in next door. A long-distance thing, he was in Michigan, getting a Ph.D., in theoretical physics. But they fought. Over the phone. They seemed okay together the handful of times he visited her in Manhattan. But when he was back at U of M, I could hear her crying, sometimes shouting through the wall and it always took me by surprise. Was that Isabella? It always seemed so out of character to hear her cry and carry on like that.
I would hear her shout at him, then hang up. I wasn’t some creep with his ear pressed against the wall. The walls were thin, we shared a ventilation system, and she could be quite loud. Only 4’11” but she had lungs like an opry singer. That was daddy’s expression – ‘lungs like a Grand Ole Opry singer.’
She would cry for a bit and then I would hear her moving about over there, running water. Then I’d hear her open and close her refrigerator. Anytime, I heard that refrigerator open and close, after a fight, I would put on my shoes. Then she would walk out of her apartment and knock softly on my door. I’d open the door and there she was, holding two bottles of Corona with lime slices shoved in, asking me if I wanted to watch the sunset with her from the roof.
One time they had fought, and it had sounded like a big one. She hung up and cried for a while. But I never heard the fridge open. I guess by that point I was like Pavlov’s dog – Izzy was the one who taught me about that also – I have very little schooling if I’m honest. So I went to my refrigerator, but I had no Coronas. Only Fosters. So I grabbed two cans and wandered over to her place, thinking I should contribute something to our blossoming friendship.
She opened the door, her face still red, she took one look at me and threw herself in my arms, causing me to drop the beers. She hugged me tightly as she cried. That was the exact moment I realized that I had felt something for this woman. It was a pretty long hug. I am a gentleman and didn’t try to exploit the situation. That’s not the man my momma raised.
“Sunset?” I asked her when she ended the hug and I bent over to pick up the dropped beers.
“Umm, … sure! But mind if we drink some real beer? I have Coronas and limes. You do like Coronas, don’t you Mike? You’ve been drinking them for months now! Please tell me I’ve not been forcing you, a grown-ass man, to drink a beer you don’t like?”
I assure her that is not the case. In fact, with the limes, and especially when it’s still hot out, there is nothing better than a Corona with lime. I tell her that. She takes the Fosters from me, holding each between a thumb and index finger like she’s carrying dead mice to the trash can, smiles at me crookedly, and laughs. And that was the precise moment I realized the thing that I felt for Izzy was love. I was surprised by this because I hadn’t been attracted to her before. Then bam! One hug, one silly little bit of grimacing over some cans of Lager, and I fell into the well of loving Izzy.
She had only mentioned Gregg in passing. I asked her about him, but she didn’t seem comfortable discussing it. So, instead, we talked about our day, how work went, how my auditions went. Boring stuff. Daily stuff, real stuff.
I kept my feelings to myself. I loved Izzy as best I could as a friend. But I wouldn’t ever try to break up any couple. That just wasn’t proper.
A month later, Isabella and Gregg broke up on their own. I heard the fridge open and close. I put on my shoes, peak out my window, the weather looks perfect. My love for her had grown through our frequent rooftop happy hours. I felt like I never stopped smiling and sometimes I had to force myself to look away from her.
She knocked twice.
“Sunset?” I ask.
“I think it’s supposed to rain, I thought we might have our beers in here tonight,” she says as she looks around me into my minuscule apartment. She had never set foot in my place before. I have a couch and a bed and a box of clothes. It’s not exactly well-furnished.
We sit on my sagging couch with our beers.
She tells me she’d ended things with Gregg.
I tell her I’m sorry, ask her why.
“All we ever did was fight. Long-distance relationships are difficult.”
I tell her that that had been my experience with them as well.
She stands up. She seems nervous or excited. Her movements are quicker, crisper.
“Besides which, there’s someone else,” she says as she paces the narrow span of my ‘living area.’
“Oh no, I’m so sorry Izzy,” I say to her in as consoling a voice as I can manage.
She stops her leonine pacing and looks at me. Confused, for a second.
“Oh! Not him. It’s me.”
Now I’m the one confused.
“Yep! Isabella is a bad, bad woman who fell in love with another man and that’s not fair to Gregg. So I had to be honest.”
Another man? It made no sense. I never heard her with anyone else over there. And she rarely went out, besides, wouldn’t she have told me about him. I mean we were friends, weren’t we?
“But I don’t understand Izzy … “
She sets her beer down on the sad little wobbly coffee table, slowly approaches me, and sits down sideways, on my lap.
“You don’t understand?” she says as she leisurely places her arms on my shoulders, encircling my head, interlacing her fingers together. Her long red hair brushes against my face. “I should tell you all about him then I guess. Well, where do I start? I guess I start by telling you he’s an absolute gentleman. He’s been in love with me for about a month, but he knows about Gregg, and so he’s never said a single word to me. But he smiles as only a fool in love can.”
She looks into my eyes and if I could die and just live in this single moment, I would be fine. My mouth has gone dry, I only nod at her.
“You want to hear something funny?” She doesn’t wait for an answer. “I can tell you the precise instant he fell in love with me. It was … “
“When you held two cans of Foster’s lager up like you were holding two dead bugs?” I say.
She smiles, blinks back a tear.
“Exactly. I mean who drinks Fosters? I should call him! You think he’s home from his auditions yet?” she teases.
We never made it to the rooftop that night. It didn’t rain either.
We didn’t make it to the rooftop the night after that either.
Or the night after that.
On the fourth night, we made it up the three flights of creaky, ancient wooden steps with our customary two bottles of Coronas.
That was the night she told me about dancing and the inevitable heartache and struggle short people have when they try to break into the world of dance. She danced ballet for me. On the rooftop, our rooftop that night as no one else from the building made it up there that night.
Daddy used to laugh at ballet. Called it frou-frou silliness. Daddy also laughed at abstract art. He was a good man, but he laughed at things he didn’t understand. I don’t pretend to understand those things either, but I don’t laugh at them either.
We carried on like that for another year. Each night we were able to make it to the roof, I learned to love ballet and dance more. Because I saw HER doing it. My love for her transferred to dance in general.
I told her I loved her a month after she sat on my lap. It was in passing, as I was on my way to an audition.
“Break a leg today big boy,” she said to me on the narrow landing outside our apartments.
I turned to descend the stairs, stop myself.
“Oh, one more thing Izzy.” I climb back up the two steps to the landing.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Oh, what was it? Dang my memory! There was something I had to tell you … well I guess it must not have been important … Oh, wait! Now I remember!” I say and look at her.
“What is it, Mike?!”
“I love you,” I say. I lean forward, brush her hair aside, and kiss her forehead.
That was the first either one of us said it. It’s always an awkward moment when it’s said first. Will the other person say it back? Will they feel pressured to say it back even if it’s not true? So, instead, I simply turn and descend the stairs. “I’ll see you tonight,” I shout over my shoulder as I hurry down the stairs.
It was a night exactly eleven months after I confessed my love for her when she told me what I had inadvertently done. Long before we started seeing each other romantically, she had let her dream of dance die. She could see how much I loved watching her dance, and so she continued dancing for me on the rooftop. Gradually she fell back in love with dance as much as me. Isabella had decided to try again, despite her lack of height. She’d found a university with a shorter than average teacher. She had made plans to study there.
“That’s great, Izzy!” There were lots of dance studios in the city, of course, I wondered which one it was.
When I looked at her face, she looked in pain.
Then I knew.
“Ohhh …,” I say.
“It’s in Russia, Mike.”
There we were here again.
I wasn’t about to stand in the way of her dreams, but we both knew what would happen next. We would discuss moving our status to ‘long-distance,’ next.
I swallowed every desire I had for her to stay. Every instinct told me to ask her to find someplace closer, someplace in the city.
“That’s wonderful, baby! You should do it! You are a wonderful dancer. And you love it so much! What may I do to help?”
“I think you just did it,” she says, wiping her eyes.
I turn away and wipe my own.
“Come here,” I say. She moves from her patio chair, to mine, curls up on my lap. She is so tiny, but when she dances she is a goddess without height and possessed only by the joy of the dance. That was something she had said to me once, describing a dancer she admired.
The breakup was amicable, cordial, and the most painful thing I’ve ever endured. We spoke often, for a while, and then, little by little, we grew distant. After a while, even the emails stopped.
The pain of losing her never went away.
Mr. Idleman’s tomatoes are really coming in full this year I think. They look black in the light from the full moon tonight. Isabella left to pursue her dreams, but I never stopped going up to the rooftop, our rooftop, to watch the sunset. I always have a Corona with lime when I do.
I pull the envelope out again. Study the mixture of foreign stamps and the return address. Isabella Duncan in Minsk.
It had taken me an hour to work up the nerve to open it. Then another to read the letter.
She told me she had learned a lot in Russia. And would I like a private show? I look down at my phone, check the time again. I look up at the night sky; the clouds, slide away from the moon. By my feet is a bucket of coronas, the ice already melting. I hear the rooftop door open and close behind me. I put the letter back in my pocket and wait.