Kindling

 
 

“The new guy I’m seeing reminds me of you. He has the same nose and facial structure and also insists on paying for things I don’t want,” Mary yawned and fanned herself with a rinky-dink paper fan she’d plucked off the sidewalk in Chinatown. The red semicircle matched her red nail polish, which smashed into her cuticles like some grotesque accident. An undulating pattern of gold-foiled cherry blossom branches sprouted and stretched from her small hand. Impossibly small, Tori thought, blinking and digesting what she’d said. He slurped his drink, buying himself a few seconds before looking at her. She did not return his gaze so he traced her profile with his eyes. Dark brown eyeliner crowded the corner of her right eye. The rest of her molasses-colored hair piled in a bee-hive on top of her head. It didn’t look like she’d been in the sun much.

Tori summoned in low tones, “Are you eating?” His eyes rose weepy like a Bassett hound’s.

Mary shot a look so fearful Tori immediately regretted asking. Big predatory eyes severe and penetrating tore through him. What was worse, he couldn’t see her mouth. He wasn’t sure he wanted to see it, imagining it sour and twisting behind the fan. “I eat,” she responded coolly before turning away again. 

“I want you to be okay. If you’re hungry, you need to eat,” Tori found himself sweating now, the mid-summer humidity trapping heat in his button-down shirt. He pulled at it from the chest a couple of times to let some air in. 

“What did I just say? I said I eat,” her eyes followed a passing server. She liked his jeans.

“Alright, I’m just, I’m just…” Tori shook his head, “I’m just asking, okay? I worry about you. I care about you.” His pitch raised a little, catching her off guard. She forgot he got this way and realized how much her answer must have upset him. Her gaze softened a little, and she contracted the fan while putting it down so it transformed into a red slit on the white linen table-cloth. Tori measured Mary’s hand with outspread fingers against the ring of the bottom of her glass. Her arm bent at the elbow reminded him of a crane’s neck, snapped.

“You look like you’re disappearing,” he whispered. No one else on the patio heard. It broke Mary’s heart.

“What did you expect to happen?” She matched him in register and the conversation that unfolded next sounded like a mourning song. “When you’re so full…” she trailed off, searching. She drummed against her collar bone with the index and thumb of her left hand, mimicking the beat from a song playing inside. It made a hollow sound that Tori heard from across the table. 

Inside, there were mint and white balloons, a tall cake and people dancing. When Mary found the words, they were clear and distilled. When she opened her mouth again it felt like all the sound drowned out of the party and there were only her words slicing Tori with each syllable.

“When you’re so full,” she repeated, then exhaled, “and then you just lose it. You lose the will to eat. Look at all the people gathered here for you. You were born to expand and grow and I was born to shrivel. You were born to take from me and I was born to give it. This is just one of our lives together.” Seeing Mary like this reminded Tori of kindling charring and coiling in a fire. Collecting embers, becoming ash. Mary leaned forward, her pointy chin hovering over his beer now. “In this life, it doesn’t end the good way, the way we wanted and planned for. In this life, we cross paths and you get better and I fade away. You grow and I become a story. I become the girl you tell your wife about when you talk about your blunders. And when you forget me, I die forever.”

She made him feel like a boy. He wanted to cry out “It doesn’t have to be this way,” but they both knew this was the deal they had made some lives before. In this life, their twelfth life together, Mary would suffer most. In the thirteenth, Tori would, and so on and so forth. Bells rung, the Brazilian dancers arrived and a woman called Tori inside. Tori glanced at the woman, who was fleshy and radiant, and said some words. He hovered with Mary for a little longer thinking in the past lives, they had more time. In the first, they were childhood friends, next high school sweethearts. In one, they broke up for four years in college but got back together and raised two plump boys. Their identities changed from one life to the next but they always found each other like the devil promised.

“How much longer will you be around?” He asked.

Mary shook her head. “Don’t pretend you’ll make time for me.” The woman emerged to drag Tori inside by the arm now. Mary was so thin she didn’t even see her.