Aaron Rowley is a biomedical engineering senior and Mustang Daily fiction contributor.
He walks outside, lights a cigarette, combs a salty hand through salty hair and wonders if he’s a martyr. There’s a bench he sits on — tries to sit on, rather. His knees are especially weak today. He’s an engineer — says so on his diploma. It’s back at his place, hanging on his wall above a planter box with withered basil. He’s been working for the same engineering company for several years, one specializing in the treatment of lung cancer. He blows smoke over his back.
She makes her way down the hallway, past the HR rep who always smiles with the same false squints and pursed lips. She doesn’t ever grind her teeth, but she finds herself doing so as she pushes through the glass door of the research lab she works at. She trips slightly on the crack she always trips on and she begins to swear without restraint. A few papers slip from her arms and swirl around her in the wind.
He finds a bench to sit at. He sits all day, really. A doctor some time ago told him he had weak knees — “you should get up, walk around a bit more.” He loosens his tie, pulls it through his collar and dangles it in front of him. He keeps his arm straight and fist clenched, like he’s strangling it. He doesn’t even second guess himself — he slowly brings his lighter close enough to kiss his tie, and he lights it.
The papers spin around her, flashing documents and data and protocols and typos, always typos, always something to change. She bats furiously at one, and on cue, the rest fall. She stampedes across the papers as she curses her damn shoes for all the blisters and discomfort. She hikes up her dress out of habit, and upon realizing how silly she looked in that stupid charcoal thing she found on sale, she begins pulling it down, where it sits near her waist and in that moment, she is comfortable.
He watches as the ink on the tie burns purple, and red and green. He laughs, just once, just hard enough to blow the dams in his lids he’s been keeping for as long as he’s been working and he wonders how long before his boss asks where he is and god damnit, he thinks. Fuck the knees, he thinks, standing up. A breeze kicks up and blows his smoke into a thin line tracing the cars that race the expressway. His cigarette falls from his mouth, and upon inhaling, he finds a full and deep breath. He holds the tie out ahead of him and turns slowly toward the street. When he was a kid, he lit a napkin on fire and watched it burn into colors: He’s standing on his porch. It’s his birthday — still some frosting on his lip, too. His mother is laughing with a few neighbors, who hold their children by the collars as they reach for each other all giggly and goofy-eyed. She left the matches on the railing, the ones she’d lit his candles with. He doesn’t believe in miracles or magic outside of Toy Story but the box is still open and there’s a match dangling precariously above a spider web. Gotta save the spidey, he thinks, hoping that as long as he thought of a good enough excuse that on his birthday that is all that would matter. He grabs the match, strikes it against the box and lowers it to the napkin in his hand. It erupts into impossibly vivid colors, like the icing from his birthday cake. He holds the napkin steady, watches as the children in the yard stand still in awe — he is power. He is Prometheus. The others — Bob. He feels the heat from the fire tease his skin but he smiles, wondering if his teeth shine rainbows like the way the flames make the world dance and wiggle.
She runs her hand down her chest, feeling her breasts. They’re small — so she’d been told. And shown. So she’d been made to feel. Down over her abdomen, pale from the dresses and shirts and coats and days spent walking near the beach but never on it, never in the sun, never with the sand beneath her toes. She had this memory of being a teenager: She’s standing in the shower. Naked. Smiling. She’s watching the sand from the beach pool around her ankles, eyes following the tiny rivulets dancing across porcelain. She’s Mother Earth, she’s Gaia, she’s everything that’s right in the world. She takes her arms, skinny like streams, and reaches upwards. There’s too much steam to see the ceiling but in the twilight daring the cracked window there is purpose, there are stars. She watches tiny droplets light up and swears she can see her eyes looking back at her. She breathes heavy, letting the humidity fill her lungs. She coughs twice — she is thunder, she is storm. She wiggles her toes, feels the grains remind her through scratches that they are still there, and she feels this tremendous sensation rise through her spine. She feels her trunk strain and compress, lungs briefly pause to hold back the lightning before she yells into the water — she is life.
He takes another deep, full breath. He sticks out his chest. Raises his shoulders. The cars zoom by as he holds his torch out, still searing colors into sunlight. He is sure he can feel the eyes of his coworkers on his back. Hear, the tiny fragments of whispers and murmurs. But he licks his lips and tastes the crispness of his tears as he holds the flaming cloth toward the street and for once, he looks across the street. He sees something unexpected.
She yells towards the blue canopy of sky, her chest is heaving. She is subtly aware of a bus pulling away beside her but decides to pretend it was her shout that caused the diesel fumes to dissipate across the expressway. She is clutching her dress so hard that she feels her nails digging through the fabric and into her palms. Her back arches, and with the funneled fuel of all her frustrations she pulls and tears and yanks until her dress rips. Tearing along slim creases, drawn distinctly through her dress like the wrinkles on the grandfather she never knew because he died of lung cancer back when cigars were just jewelry for smiles. She grunts and strains and continues as the dress unravels about her knees. There’s a man on the corner, frowning as he watches her down the bridge of his nose. He tucks a newspaper under his arm, pulls out his phone and snaps a photo. He looks at it, shakes his head and turns back toward the crosswalk before him. She holds the torn fabric out in front of her, watches as it whips at the blur of cars speeding along to somewhere else. Something catches her eye.
There’s a lump in his throat — there go the deep breaths. Like Lady Liberty, this figure across the expressway holds her hand before her like a statement. It looks like a piece of her dress.
There’s a lump in her throat — there go the screams. Like some great god, this figure across the expressway holds his hand before him like a beacon. It looks like his tie is burning.
Ever so slowly,
He decides that
She decides that
I should relent
I should relax
The right thing to do
In this bizarre,
Moment is to raise their hands and wave towards each other. Neither of them is able to see through the cars, but they are both smiling. Sideways they take steps, letting their hands fall to their sides. They reach the crosswalk and stand there, staring into what they hope are each other’s eyes. They aren’t sure what the other is doing, holding these things in their hands, standing outside in this heat, but they are so accidentally ignorant of every other condition that surrounds them that, to each other, they are glowing.
We are glowing.
They are the childhood flames, the teenage screams. They are the burdens that blow away in the wind as they release their grip, fabric snaking on the currents driven by cars through what used to be a boulevard. They are hopeful — they are human.