Essence


Writing Contest home

Glen Erick Miller, Lowville, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner-up in Category: Short Story, age 21+

"You really have to go there sometime," she said. "You just take your shoes off and walk around" Desiree closed her eyes and paced the sparse, white kitchen, as if they were there, standing in the middle of the cemetery. Gil pictured her walking around him, shoes off and toes sinking into the grass, while he stared at the headstones, reading the names of the people she was dancing on.

"Yeah, maybe," Gil mumbled, turning to look at the snapshot taped to the fridge door. The picture showed him and Desiree, smiling at the stranger who had snapped the photo. They had driven seven hours to the Atlantic one day. It had been Desiree's idea. "Today, we get you to the ocean," she had said, pulling on her boots. "You're 24 and have never seen the ocean, and that's just not right. Get your coat, dear!" She had laughed and buzzed about him, prodding him into the car. As the miles passed, Gil grew more comfortable with the idea. They had each called in sick to work, and while he hated to lie, Desiree had convinced him that it was, in fact, a true sick day. "A mental health day," she'd said.

It had been mid-afternoon when they found a sandy road that led to the ocean, Desiree ran from the car, dragging Gil across the wet sand and they stood looking, out of breath, at the gray sky and the raging waves that seemed hungry to swallow them whole. Desiree had skipped over to an old man. Skipped like an eight-year old. Gil had smiled. The man took their picture without saying a word, then walked away. Desiree shouted after him, "Thanks, man!"

That was October. This was May.

Gil stared at the picture on the fridge in the white kitchen, at the bosom of Desiree's red blouse which poured out from within her leather jacket. It was her heart, and it had been oversized and pulsing madly that day at the Atlantic. And he remembered how difficult it had been for him to feel the immensity of it all - calling in sick, driving all day, finding the beach, shaking on the edge of the earth.

In the kitchen, he could feel Desiree's heart pounding while his own heart stumbled forward, weak and unsure. He wanted so badly to feel what she felt. He pictured himself walking in the cemetery. "Maybe," he mumbled.

"No," Desiree said, stopping her barefoot dance. "No, not 'maybe.' Yes. Yes, yes, yes! You have to do it, baby. You just have to. It's so amazing! Remember that day?" She tapped the photo on the fridge. "You were freaked out at first, then we got there, and you felt it? Remember? You could feel that way again." Desiree opened the fridge. "To be surrounded by all that death, and to be standing there...so alive! You'll feel the whole world. I know it's in you. You just have to let it out, baby." She took a slice of cheese from the fridge. "Want some?"

It was Jacob, the Irish transplant 'corporate mystic,' who had suggested Desiree walk through cemeteries barefoot. He had started this whole thing. Desiree mentioned him one night as she and Gil sat on their front porch enjoying the warmer weather.

"We've got this new guy at work - Jacob," Desiree had said as she stood and threw her arms wide. "Yeah, the bosses brought him in from Ireland - can you imagine? Ireland. Huh. Anyway, he's some sort of motivational guru who does these workshops on how to be more spiritual at work. Crazy, isn't it?"

Gil had laughed and watched his girlfriend reach her arms up toward the porch ceiling. She was on her tiptoes but was still too short to touch. She wobbled there for a long time.

"I mean, it just seems weird because a company doesn't seem like the type of place where spirituality should matter. Now, you know me - I'm all about spirit and emotion." Desiree turned toward back Gil, a strand of her hair curling around her now-soft eye. "And passion. Yeah, you know about that, huh?" She laughed and shook her behind. Gil let his gaze drop, unembarrassed, and watched as she shook, twirled, then shook again. They both smiled.

Desiree had sat next to him, throwing her leg over Gil's lap. He enjoyed the warmth of her thigh. "Jacob had us take our shoes off today. Can you believe it? Right there in the office - in the big conference room. I'm always kicking my shoes off under my desk anyway, so it was no big deal to me, but the others - you should have seen their faces!"

"What did he have you do then?"

"Oh, man, it was wild! He had us stand there with our shoes off, and then he says, 'Close your eyes now' with that Irish accent, you know?" Gil did not know, hadn't met Jacob, but Desiree's attempt at an Irish accent was cute. Awful, but cute.

"'Relax your eyes. Let your breathing slow down. Pay attention to your body. Your brow. Relax it. Let it fall. Now your fingers. Relax them. Now your feet. Pay attention to the here and now. Pay attention to what your feet are telling you. They are your most direct connection to the world.'"

Gil turned toward Desiree. She had closed her eyes. Her Irish accent was already getting better. "And, damn, if I didn't feel it," she whispered.

Gil passed St. Joseph's Cemetery every day on the way to work, and again on the way home. The cemetery settled onto the rolling hills beside Canal Street. Gil imagined the expansive plot of headstones as a quilt thrown atop the landscape, its gray bumps like nubs of fabric pulled from the ground.

A few days after Desiree had mentioned Jacob, Gil drove through the cemetery, staying on the outermost dirt road. Where would he walk when it came time? Where exactly had Desiree walked? Had she met Jacob there? Had they walked together? Had they snuck behind a storage building to feel the earth on their backs?

Gil shook the thought away. Where would he walk? He could stick to this path on the edge of the cemetery, slowly working his way toward the center, covering every inch even if it took all night.

Desiree would be proud, wouldn't she? Would she look at him with soft eyes and caress his hips when he returned to her?

But what would everyone else think? Would old women weeding flower beds see his bare feet and think Gil disrespectful for walking among the dead? Would they glare at him? Would they call to the groundskeepers to chase him off?

If he walked close to Canal Street, what would drivers think? Would they say, "Look at the hippy-freak with no shoes on"? Or would they say "Now there's a spiritual young man. There's a young man who feels the world and is unafraid of it"? Would anyone even notice?

He wanted not to care about all that. He told himself not to. But it wasn't as easy as flipping off some switch in his brain. He wanted not to care, but he did care.

Desiree had once said it was probably because of something in his childhood - some embarrassing moment. He told her about the time he had sweat against the chalkboard during a 3rd grade spelling bee, leaving behind a damp oval when he misspelled "enough." And the time when he wore green khakis in 7th grade and was called "Goon" from then on. "There are so many times," he told Desiree, and they laughed and drank. She smiled at him when he spilled wine on his shirt. "To hell with them, baby. Who cares what anyone else thinks? Just live."

On his way home from work the next afternoon, he slowed down behind a funeral procession. The cars inched toward the entrance of St. Joseph's, then turned and crawled beneath its heavy black arch - compact cars and limos breaking from the line, like a Morse code of dots and dashes.

He arrived at the post office at 4:45, fifteen minutes before the lobby window closed. An electric bill, a credit card bill, and a yellow package notice sat inside box #512. Gil pocketed the bills, then slid the softened paper of the notice under his fingernails as he waited in line.

The post office smelled sweet, as if someone had just received flowers. Gil then realized it was the woman in front of him. She was about his age, mid-20s. He looked at her brown hair, impressed by the uniform color. No streaks of blonde like Desiree's hair. It hung straight but full. He pictured Desiree, at work for another ten minutes, her hair busy with carefully placed highlights and pushed around just so as to seem carefree.

The line moved forward. Gil stepped ahead in turn, enjoying the subtle burst of smell from the young woman with plain brown hair. A thin gray scarf draped over her shoulders. It was nothing that Desiree would ever wear. Desiree's favorite scarf was so long that she needed to wrap it around her neck several times. Bright yellow mixed with sky blue in a pattern that reminded Gil of Native Americans. "Southwestern," Desiree had explained.

He tried to imagine the young woman drinking Merlot and making love on a mattress set on the floor. Was she the type of girl who would peer up and out of the window and talk about stars and galaxies, comfortable letting the moonlight fall upon her naked breasts? Was she the girl who would press her mouth toward the window and make it steam up, then write "True" inside the cloudy circle?

Gil couldn't imagine it. Not this girl. Not this girl with plain brown hair and a light, muted scarf. She would drink milk before bedtime and cover herself up after making quiet love, maybe not even taking off her flannel pajama top.

When it was the young woman's turn at the lobby window, the clerk handed her a small package. When she turned, Gil realized he hadn't yet seen her face. She was beautiful, in a simple and honest way. Gil imagined her far into the future, still lovely, wearing flannel pajamas around the house on a Sunday morning.

She turned the package over in her hands and smiled as she passed Gil. The package was white, decorated with crayons and magic markers. Gil felt the colors, pure and bright and wild. The girl left one last whiff of flowers in her wake.

"Can I help you?" the clerk asked with a sigh. Gil slid his yellow notice toward the man and glanced at the clock on the lobby wall: 4:58.

His head began to feel heavy, a thick, slippery mixture of motor oil and doubt. When the clerk returned with the package, Gil turned toward the exit, glancing down at the brown box in his hand. It was addressed to Desiree. Printed along the edge of the box was the name of a cosmetics company: Essence. It was her monthly supply of eyeliner and blush and cover-up. Something small broke inside him - just one tiny mirror on an infinite beach, but large enough to get his attention.

He hurried through the post office door and scanned the sidewalk and parking lot for a plain, brown girl carrying a brilliant white box. But he did not see her.

She had disappeared among the traffic which had grown dense as people rushed home, or to the market, or toward the post office lobby - a place that was now dark and that held the smell of flowers behind a locked door.

When Gil walked barefoot among the graves the next day, he felt nothing coming up through his feet. He stamped the ground. Nothing. He could feel the afternoon wind on his forehead. He fumbled with the items in his pocket: keys, two five dollar bills, a tube of lip balm. He could feel all these things clearly.

But he felt nothing in his feet. Why am I here? he thought. This is so stupid. I bet she never felt a thing out here - she just says that. She just wants to feel so...superior. She just wants to impress Jacob. He stopped walking when his toes touched fresh earth. Standing atop the new grave, he thought, Here I am. Only six feet from a corpse, and I feel nothing.

Moments later, as he leaned against a tree to wipe his soles clean, he laughed at how ridiculous he must look. He was afraid to look up. What would people think? He could tell himself over and over again that it didn't matter, but it did. It always would, and for the first time, he did not want to take a sharpened spade to his insides when he thought about it.

He drove home slowly and imagined Desiree and Jacob sitting on the porch. He imagined Jacob's arm touching Desiree's. They would be fixed there, as if they had always belonged together. As if they were meant to be. He imagined parking the car on the street, then noticing the small pile of boxes on the sidewalk. His clothes, his sneakers, his magazines. So few things, he imagined himself thinking. There should be more. I should have more.

Inside, Gil stared at the plate of raw vegetables. Desiree was in the bedroom.

"Jacob's coming over!" she called to him. "For dinner. Cool, huh? But he only eats raw food. You don't mind, do you? Oh, of course you don't, baby. You understand, right?" Gil poked at the row of baby carrots, upsetting what seemed to be the careful balance it had had with the stalks of celery.

He walked to the porch and sat on the top step. He could not picture Jacob. How does someone who eats only raw food and speaks with a real Irish accent look? What kind of car would he drive? Or would he walk to their place, barefoot and wearing a gaudy scarf against the darkening sky?

He held out his hand as Desiree stepped onto the porch and walked past, but she did not touch him. A bitter perfume trailed behind her. When she reached the sidewalk, she turned. She had applied the new makeup. Essence, Gil thought. Desiree had smeared the makeup on so thick that there was a clear line on her neck where the mask ended. Even in the dwindling light, Gil could see this. He imagined slipping a fingernail underneath the line, loosening it just a bit and allowing the new edge to make a slight shadow on her uncovered skin.

He looked down the street toward the cemetery. A figure appeared there, rising up from the road. Then he turned back toward Desiree. She took a step backward, craning her painted neck toward the figure.

There, now just outside the cone of light from the porch's yellow bulb, Desiree looked as if she was falling from some great height, growing smaller and smaller.

Gil watched her move away from him, and he felt nothing.