Iona (7 of 29)

Holding the rail tightly, Claudette peered over the cliff. The lookout was famous, even though the story of the suicide couple was variable.

“You would think they’d have leapt to the ocean,” the woman beside Claudette said. “But they had no chance of reaching the water. Anyone could see they’d land there, on those rocks.”

“That would do the job, though,” Claudette said, looking at the jagged surfaces.

“Yes, but messy,” the woman said. “Inelegant.” She looked at Claudette. “You came alone?”

“I prefer it to the tours.”

“You’re so right.” She extended her hand. “I’m Iona. The restaurant here is supposed to be quite good. Join me?”

Claudette hesitated just long enough for it to be awkward, then shook Iona’s hand. “Sure.”

She followed Iona inside. She couldn’t have said what made her wary, what seemed off about the other woman. It wasn’t the invitation. People often invited her to join them for a drink or a meal, especially when she was traveling. But there was something.

She ordered lobster. Iona ordered a dish she described as sausage made of shrimp, coconut, and hot peppers. “You’ll taste it and be amazed,” she said, smiling.

“What made you come to visit this place?” she asked after the server retreated with their order.

Claudette shrugged. “I’ve been working my way through all the attractions,” she said. “And the view from here was noted.”

Iona cocked her head to one side. “Just the sea,” she said.

Claudette laughed. “Spoken like a person who gets to see the ocean all the time.”

“Every day.”

Claudette thought she sounded both angered and saddened by that fact, but Iona didn’t elaborate on her answer.

“Why did you come?” Claudette asked. She fidgeted with her napkin, nervous and uncomfortable and unable to shake either feeling.

Iona waved the question away. “It’s an attraction, right?” She looked around the room. “All of these people, here for the view, for the supposed romance of a couple plunging to their deaths.”

Claudette nodded. It had drawn her, after all, she couldn’t deny that. The story, it’s permutations.

Their food arrived, and Claudette wanted to sweep it off the table. Something heavy sat on her stomach, on her heart. It was crazy, but she had the feeling Iona was causing it.

Iona picked at her food, then pushed the plate toward Claudette. “Don’t you want to try some?”

“No. Thank you.” Claudette leaned away from the table. “I’m actually not feeling well. I’m going to ask them to wrap this for me to take away. I’m sorry, but I should go.”

“Yes,” Iona said. “Sick. But not sick at heart.” She gave another dismissive wave. “You’ll be fine once you leave here.”

Claudette signaled for the server, who came with the check and an apologetic smile. “Do you want me to put this up? You’ll be able to enjoy it later.”

She hurried away with the lobster, and Claudette picked up the check, only to find that it wasn’t the check, was a note instead: Your lunch is on us, it said. We do apologize for the inconvenience.

Claudette stared at the note, not a hand-written thing but a printed one, as if they were given out often. She looked up at Iona.

“I vex them. I do,” she said. “They don’t want me here, I can’t leave. No one of us is pleased.” She looked around the room again. “Thank you for joining me,” she said, standing and straightening her skirt.

The server returned with Claudette’s packed up lobster. “You’re ready to go,” she said.

“Yes, ready to go,” Iona said. Without looking at the server, she walked out to the lookout.

Claudette watched her go then looked at the server. “What’s going on?”

The young woman looked embarrassed. “You’re okay,” she said. “Some stomach upset, but it’s passing.”

“What happened?”

“She’s gone now. She’s just very sad. Very lonely.”

Claudette looked toward the door then back at the server. “It was Iona? Iona made me feel sick? How? And why me?”

The young woman shrugged. “She comes to the women who come here alone.” She shrugged again. “Maybe she thinks you come with the same idea she had all those years ago. Maybe that’s why she invites you to eat with her, so she can bring you back inside, away from the railing.”

“Are you saying she thought I came here to jump?” Claudette looked outside again, but Iona was nowhere to be seen. Then the rest of the server’s words registered. “The same reason she did? Are you saying,” she looked the young woman in the eyes, “that woman is the woman who jumped, half of the couple that make this place famous?”

“She charms you,” she said. “The best I understand it is that, the moment she shakes your hand, she holds you until you start to feel sick, until you begin to understand that something isn’t right. Look at your table.”

Claudette frowned and turned to look at the table, only to find that none of Iona’s dishes were there.

“When you start to feel sick, and she has to go away, and whatever she’s made you see goes away, too. She wants to help, thinks she’s saving you from the cliff.”

Claudette shook her head. “What kind of publicity gimmick is this? Pretending the place is haunted.”

“She came to you,” the server said. “You see her. I don’t. I only know because I see the look on your face when I bring the food. The owner decided a long time ago that you women get your meal as a gift. He says it’s the least he can do.” She patted Claudette’s shoulder again. “You’re okay. Go back to your hotel, drink some water. You’re okay.”

Leap Flash 2016

Celestial Navigation (6 of 29)

Seth and Ella lay in the grass staring into the sky.

“I wish I’d ever paid attention when people tried to teach me constellations,” Seth said. “I’m not even sure which dipper that is, big or little.”

Ella laughed. “I’m no better. All those field trips to the planetarium and I’ve got nothing.”

Seth almost said something cringe-worthy like, “You’ve got me,” but managed to keep it inside. He wanted to touch her, to take her hand. But there was no not-awkward way to do that, and no guarantee she’d welcome the contact. Such a mistake would be horrific any time, but he didn’t want to imagine the blow-back of taking such a misstep at a leadership retreat, surrounded by upper management from every department.

“Do kids still go on planetarium field trips, I wonder,” Ella said. “Can’t imagine they learn anything more than we did. Good thing no one expects us to navigate by the stars.”

“Or tell time by the sun.”

“Oh no, that I can do.”

Seth looked over at her. “You can?”

She laughed again. “Just kidding. I might be able to give you noon. That’s it.”

Seth sat up and looked over to where others from their group were sitting around the bonfire. “I almost didn’t come on this retreat,” he said. “Usually these kinds of things drive me nuts, and especially when you’re trapped out of town in some retreat center, but this –” He looked at Ella and smiled.

“Oh, I’m with you,” she said. “Like when you get a motivational speaker and you have to act as if anything they’re saying has anything to do with your work. The worst!” She looked over at him. “But these three days have been great.”

He hoped she meant that the three days of getting to know him had been great. He still couldn’t believe they worked in partnering units and he’d never seen her before. But here she was, and he hated that the retreat was ending the next day. What if it hadn’t been enough time to make her want to keep knowing him?

He wanted to be the kind of man who had anything that could be described as “moves.” He wanted to be able to flirt with her, wanted to say something that would make her lean into him the way he’d seen women do with other men, lean in with anticipation and the flush of excitement.

“Which bus are you on to head back after lunch tomorrow,” she asked.

Her eyes were closed, and Seth took a deep breath. Here was an opportunity he hadn’t thought of. “Oh, I drove up,” he said, hoping it sounded off-hand, as casual as an answer to her question should have sounded. He took another breath. “I could drive you back if you like.” His voice cracked just a little over “like,” but maybe she wouldn’t notice.

She opened her eyes but focused on the sky, not him. “Thanks. I’d like that. Much better than the bus ride. Oh –” she pointed up quickly, and he squinted up to follow her direction. “It was a shooting star,” she said. “At least I think so. It went so fast.”

“Did you make a wish?” Why had he asked her that? Was he seven years old? He tried to think of a way to laugh it off, but suddenly had no words.

“I always make a wish,” she said. “I’ll let you know if it comes true.”

Seth smiled. Even if she didn’t mean anything by it, her words gave him hope. He stretched out beside her again and watched the sky.

Leap Flash 2016

Dream Catcher (5 of 29)

I’m waking up, and the first thing I hear is shouting from upstairs, my ever-angry neighbors arguing over whose turn it is to make the morning coffee. I look at Asa and am pleased that he’s still asleep, although I don’t understand how he can be. I sit up and grab my journal from the night table.

Asa curls into himself as the fight rages on, and I try to sift through my thoughts. The coffee forgotten, my neighbors now offer opinions on the previous night’s sex.

“You could do more than lie there. It’s like fucking a log!”

Maybe if you made me feel something, I’d do more than lie there!”

“Oh, you felt it … came like a freight train!”

I close my eyes and lean against the headboard. They’ll stop in a second. The moment anyone mentions climax, they get inspired to go have another. It’s a ritual — for them and for me. They remind me how many changes I’ve made in my life and then give me a lovely silent interlude between their angry shouting and sex shouting.

I go back to my journal, but whatever my dream was, I’ve forgotten it. I’ve been trying to keep track, but most mornings are like this one, and by the time I’m fully awake, the memory of my dream world is gone.

In the silence, Asa unfurls. His waking always pleases me. It’s a slow unwinding, a lazy spiral back to consciousness that spreads down his legs, out across his chest and arms, reaching his eyes last of all.

“You and that notebook,” he says, his voice thick. “Just like the movie.”

I have to smile, even though I’ve heard this every time he’s woken up beside me. He is seeing me in Henry and June, one of his favorite movies, seeing me as Anaïs Nin, who sat up in bed next to Henry Miller, writing and writing. From our first night together, he’s awakened to see me writing or daydreaming, my notebook open on my knees.

“You’re like Anis,” he’d said, pronouncing her name the way Fred Ward as Henry did on screen.

He sits up and kisses my shoulder then turns away to busy himself at the nightstand, rolling a joint. The shouting starts anew as the neighbors begin to build toward their finale.

“I always wake up just in time, don’t I?” Asa asks, looking over his shoulder to wink at me. “I give them five minutes.”

I smile. “No. At least ten.” Another part of the ritual, guessing how long after sex before they fight again. “Five minutes is just not nice.”

“How’s your chest?” I ask as he settles beside me and lights up. The asthma for which he has the marijuana prescription has been trouble these last few days. I want him to go to the doctor, but he refuses.

“A little better,” he says.

He holds out his hand, and I put mine in it. And the angry shouting picks up above us. The sex, after all, has made them late for work.

“I win,” Asa says. “What would we do if he ever hit her?”

“Call the police.”

He looks at me. “You sure didn’t have to think twice about that.”

“No.” Because all I ever wanted was for someone to call the police when I was the one getting hit.

The first time we listened, Asa got excited, wanted us to put on our own floor show. But it was too shocking for me, hearing the same insults that had been thrown at me, things I hadn’t heard in years. There was no way I could go from that to use their lovemaking as some dysfunctional turn-on. But I listen. In case they escalate, in case I need to make that 911 call.

Asa doesn’t know any of that, and I don’t want him to. I should. I should share everything. Of course. But who does that, really? He thinks I’m too strong to ever be that woman, and I don’t want to kill that image he holds of me. I want him to keep seeing me as Anis.

He leans back, closes his eyes. I keep listening, just in case.

There are any number of people I might be like. Anaïs Nin isn’t one of them. But I like it because of the explosive, pounding blood of the passion she and Miller shared. I’m no Anaïs, and Asa’s not Henry, but I want him to love me like that, want to believe someone ever could. The woman who said, “I fell,” every time she wound up in the ER didn’t inspire that kind of love. Maybe the strong one who captures her dreams in a composition book will.


Leap Flash 2016

Black Excellence (4 of 29)

“Today in Black Excellence –”

Olympia shut down her computer. She loved Kid Fury, but if she started listening to The Read, she’d miss AJ at the train and be late for work.

She slipped on her jacket and walked to the subway, still thinking about Black Excellence. That adorable little girl accepted into Mensa at four years old after scoring 145 on an IQ test. That savvy 11-year-old who started #1000BlackGirlBooks because she sick of reading about white boys and dogs. The woman who bought an old bus and turned it into a mobile tech lab for the computer-less kids in her community.

“Oh, God,” AJ said when Olympia met him on the platform. “What too-special, feel-good nonsense has you looking all dopey and full of love for mankind this morning?”

Olympia smiled. “Black Excellence,” she said, taking his hand.

“Of course. Black fucking excellence.” He shook his head. “How am I supposed to maintain my snark, my scowl when you’re all beaming and high on your people?”

Your people, too, Alexander James.”

“Do not start with the names,” he said, holding up a hand to silence her. “Yes, my people. Fine.”

“Will it cheer you up if I tell you who all I’ve been thinking about?”

They boarded the train and sat across from the conductor’s booth.

“Don’t tell me a thing,” AJ said, stretching out his legs and draping his arm across Olympia’s shoulders. “You marching tonight?”

She sighed, leaned against him. “Of course.”

He nodded. “I get it, you know,” he said, looking over at her. “You need those reminders. We all do.” He sat up and turned toward her. “But it hurts too much to get excited and happy about some bright light of a child. Because they get gunned down and left in the street, their Black Excellence impugned on the news, their killers protected.”

He turned and leaned back, eyes closed.

Olympia took his hand, squeezed it. Imagining the Mensa baby dead in the street drove a ripping pain through her chest.

How many marches had they been to? How many rallies, die-ins, say-the-names events? It was in the midst of all that grief and death-marking that she’d begun cataloging everyday Black Excellence, calling out regular folks whose lives shone a light in hers.

Years earlier, she’d started a morning ritual of mentally listing things that made her happy — the colors of the Caribbean Sea, her close relationship with her sister, the sound of Italian, waking up in sunshine. And she noticed that, the longer she made the list, the stronger its impact. Three things were nice, seven made her smile, a dozen and she felt content.

“This must be why people say to count your blessings!” she’d said to AJ at the time.

“You and my Nana, singing the same song,” he’d said, laughing. “I never saw that coming.”

But he’d frustrated her by refusing to try it himself. He noted her good mood but did nothing to alter his own.

The Black Excellence catalog didn’t have the same effect. She felt grounded when she called out those people.

“Go on,” AJ said then, returning the pressure on her hand. “Go on. Tell me who you’ve been thinking about. Anoint me with some shiny excellence.”

She would cry later — the marches always brought tears. Too much anger and grief, too much choking impotence. AJ would hold her hand then, too. And she’d keep marching, keep chanting, despite her tears.

But that was hours away. She raised their joined hands and kissed AJ’s wrist. “So, it’s called Estella’s Brilliant Bus,” she said. “And it’s just the best thing.”¹

Leap Flash 2016

¹ – Check out all of the Black Excellence referenced above: the too-adorable, super-brilliant Mensa baby, the girl who started #1000BlackGirlBooks, and the lovely and generous Estella Pyfrom who owns and operates Estella’s Brilliant Bus!

Artist’s Rendering (3 of 29)

Paulette spread the architect’s sketches over the dining table then stepped back to give Helena room to study them. Helena, arms crossed tightly, eyes pinched at the corners, stared past Paulette toward the window.

“Come on, Helena. At least glance at them.”

“We agreed,” Helena said. “No renovation planning. We have a significantly bigger issue to resolve first.”

Paulette sighed. “It’s not as if I went out and hunted this guy up,” she said. “Karel introduced us at that networking event last week and –”

“And because your boss put this man in your face, you forgot all about what I wanted, what we decided? You forgot that you knew exactly what your boss was doing? Or did you forget to be offended by Karel and choose to go along with his plan?”

“I made small talk. I didn’t offer to hire this guy, or invite him to come break down walls tomorrow. I didn’t ask him on a date, or offer to have his children. All I knew about him was his profession. What was I going to talk to him about, French absurdist theater?

“Do you care at all that I’m angry?”

Paulette gathered up the drawings. “I care, but I don’t understand why you’re this angry. I made small talk at a cocktail party. I go through this at least twice a month because of Karel. You know that. Yes, I talked about the apartment. He’s an architect. Talking about the apartment was safe ground for conversation. It’s hardly my fault that he took it on himself to do some sketches and drop them by the office.”

She slipped the drawings back into their portfolio. If Helena would only look at them, she’d be amazed. Paulette had mentioned some of their design ideas casually — she’d been making small talk, after all, not trying to give the guy any real ideas — and Saleh had fleshed out two, three, five variations of each one.

Saleh. He was the problem. Not really him, but the reason she’d been introduced to him. Her boss made no secret of wanting to find her a man. “My clients like my teams coupled up and settled down,” he’d told her. He took every opportunity to introduce her to single men, and was growing increasingly frustrated at her failure to fall in love with one of them.

At the networking event, Karel had homed in on Saleh like a heat-seeking missile. Saleh was young and beautiful in a bookish jock way. He had dark wavy hair and impossibly-long eye lashes. Karel had nudged her as they’d approached, whispering, “I’ve outdone myself this time.”

And, while Saleh was certainly the most attractive of the men Karel had thrown at her, his attractiveness had no impact on her lack of attraction to men, or her being in love with Helena. But she wasn’t out at work, and for a moment she’d wondered if a few coffee and lunch dates with Saleh would put a stop to Karel’s inappropriate and insultingly random match-making.

It was the wrong answer, of course, but an easy one. One right answer would be threatening Karel with a harassment law suit. Another would be the answer Helena wanted, the resolution to the ‘big issue’ expanding between her and any enthusiasm about Paulette’s home-making plans.

“My boss,” Helena would say every time Karel made one of his introductions, “my coworkers. Building security and the maintenance crew. They all know who you are. They don’t think I have a room mate, don’t think you’re my old friend from college.”

But Paulette wasn’t ready, didn’t think she was ready to be ready.

She tossed the drawings onto the couch. “Forget the sketches for now,” she said. “Let’s have dinner.”

Helena turned and left the room.

* * *

Paulette left work early the next day so she could get started on one of Helena’s favorite dishes, coconut cream curry with roast chicken. The plan: have the apartment full of the seductive aroma when Helena walked in and be ready with an apology. She made a quick pass through the market and was poking through options at the flower stall when Helena texted to say she’d accepted a dinner invitation and would be home late. Somehow, Helena sensed that the situation with Saleh was different, and a home-cooked meal wouldn’t fix that. Paulette shrugged, bought the flowers anyway, and went home.

The problem was that she hadn’t actually dismissed her idea about using Saleh to get Karel off her back. She’d been so pleased to find him waiting for her after her lunch meeting, so touched by the time he’d taken to render her ideas.

And it didn’t hurt that Karel had seen them talking, had seen that Saleh had brought her a gift.

“I told you I’d outdone myself,” Karel had said as soon as Saleh left. “What did he bring you?”

“Just some drawings.”

Just some drawings, she says. The man created something for you! Tell me you haven’t put your foot in it, that you’ll be seeing him for lunch or dinner.”

“Karel, I am not discussing this with you.”

“That sounds like a ‘yes’ to me!” he’d crowed, laughing as he walked back to his office.

It was a yes. She’d agreed to meet Saleh for drinks, telling herself she just wanted to talk about the sketches. It had been so easy. Except that she’d only barely set the thing in motion, and already it was hurting Helena.

Back at the apartment, she poured herself a glass of wine. She’d call Saleh in the morning and cancel. That was the question with the real easy answer. For the harder ones, she needed Helena. She thought about Saleh’s sketches — their clarity, their variations — and wished she had a rendering of what everything looked like once she’d cleaned up the mess she’d made and found her way through.

Leap Flash 2016