Arlene sees God in everything, and I am thankful because I don’t. She is dying and there is nothing to say. It’s in her throat. In every picture I have of her, a cigarette in her hand. Premature grief strikes me in my car, a hot cup of coffee between my thighs, A/C in my face, blowing it dry. Twenty years ago we kissed and did more on a foldout bed in a studio apartment. I had not gone that far with a boy. Arlene got there first. We didn’t talk about it the next day, nothing to do but walk to the store for more cigarettes. Counting out change from a Mason jar, picking out the bobby pins. We were old enough to run away and forget a free education. She was blonde, me brunette, both tall with fake eyelashes that we applied using rusty tweezers and white glue. We’d lie on the carpet listening to records, changing our minds about boys. Take me with you, I always thought, but they drove away from our apartment the next day. Stay, she’d say, and they would. She had tiny hands that could disappear under a belt buckle. She loved none of them. When I asked her about this, she’d just empty the ashtray.
Take me with you, I always thought, but they drove away from our apartment the next day. Stay, she’d say, and they would.
Arlene was only a year older and thought everything was out of date. She cut up pillowcases and sewed them into dresses. She said, Hurry up, and I followed. Sixteen and seventeen: We knew the bartender’s favorite song on the jukebox: “World on a String.” Home was a block away from the bar. She worked at Erotic Cabaret, where pretty girls sold lingerie. We talked on curbs while taking sips of joints. We played pool wearing garters under our jeans.
She called a day ago. I stood in my office hallway and listened to a voice I hadn’t heard in twenty years. At nearly forty she still sounded like she was teetering on adolescence. She turned up the ends of her sentences, like a Valley girl, although she’d never left El Paso’s city limits. She apologized for all the evictions, for the drinking, and likened herself to the devil. She had found faith and a husband and now she was asking for some redemption from me. I watched a rocking palm tree out the window as she explained she was sick. It was seventy-three degrees in Los Angeles—a day full of perfect breezes. There was a pause; I bit the inside of my cheek. She told me how she met her husband (a blind date) and what a good man he was. “But he’s not arty, you know?” She laughed at the word once she said it. “He doesn’t get it when I make things.” I sat down on the hallway stairs. “It’s like being a stranger in your own home,” she said. She wanted me to relate, to throw a lasso around it, and say something wise. I did not know this woman anymore. I left El Paso as soon as I got a driver's license. I gave her credit for the inspiration, all that running away we did. I was never quite cured of the expression best friend; it seemed young, silly, and bound to break.
She wanted me to relate, to throw a lasso around it, and say something wise. I did not know this woman anymore.
Then she said, “I can’t swallow the pills, so I’m not going to the doctor anymore. I’m not telling anyone. I go to the museum instead. I just saw the new Picasso exhibit last week. All those colors, don’t worry for me.” She kept saying, “I just want to bless you. I pray for you all the time.” And there she was again, giving me a secret I didn’t ask for.
After we hung up I left work, drove home, abandoning my desk and ringing phone―skipping school once more.
I married an artist, someone who would never laugh at anything I created. I came home to a pair of half-full coffee mugs still on the kitchen counter. My musician was sitting in his office with headphones on, leaning back in his chair, his brown eyes closed. I kissed him on the forehead—his hands went for me. He didn’t ask why I was home so early. I walked away from him and his arms released, but his eyes were open now and they followed my back pockets. I grabbed a beer and went to bed. It was mid-October and a day when you’d pass kids running through hay-stacked pumpkin patches, teenage girls standing in the aisles of costume shops trying on bunny ears and cat tails.
I married an artist, someone who would never laugh at anything I created.
The windows were open in our bedroom, and once all my clothes were piled on the floor, a clean breeze hit my body. My naked back on the bed, I held my cold beer upright. With my free hand I grazed my skin until I was back there, carving pumpkins and smelling her margarita breath. She took her hand wet and slick from the seeds and grabbed my face, then slipped her fingers under my cotton bra to find my breasts. I was lying back, crinkling the newspapers we had strewn on our carpeted living room floor. Those tiny hands slipped on the button fly of my jeans twice, and once they were open my stomach went steep and concaved. I rested the beer on the floor beside the bed. Arlene saw God, everywhere, and I saw Arlene.
Libby Flores is a 2008 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road Magazine, Tin House The Open Bar, The Rattling Wall, CODA Quarterly, FLASH: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, and Bridge Eight. She lives in Los Angeles, but will always be a Texan. She can be found at libbyflores.com.
Illustrated by Meghan Murphy.