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bhag cover page         bhag literary art         Erika Purtell literary art


by Erika Purtell

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  Carolyn fumbled for her key as she climbed the stairs to her new apartment. A small box of belongings was tucked under one arm and a wet umbrella under the other. Despite the weather, she felt good. This was the first time she climbed these stairs since she moved in with her new friend Jasmine. The change of routine had been necessary at this point in her life. She felt like she was finally growing up.
  The door was old and the paint was chipped, but the locks were brand new. The key slipped in effortlessly and turned with a satisfying click. As she pushed to get in, the latch caught. A sweet aroma filled her nostrils and her mouth watered. Jazz music played quietly from the living room.
  “Just a minute!”
  Jasmine bounded to the door. Before Caroline could say a word, Jasmine took the box and whisked her inside. Her new roommate had an abundance of energy that never ceased to amaze her.
“How’s it going?” She asked as she placed the box on an empty bookshelf in the living room. Several boxes were scattered on the floor, waiting to be unpacked.
  “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
Carolyn hung her rain jacket in the closet and looked around the living room. The place had come fully furnished and all Carolyn had to bring over were her clothes. Carolyn loved how the couches were upholstered in mauve to match the curtains. It was old-fashioned and reminded her of her grandmother’s house.
She followed Jasmine into the kitchen.
  “Glass of wine?”
  “Not yet. What smells so fantastic?”
  “Didn’t know I could cook, did you?” Jasmine stirred sauce in a saucepan.
  “Guess I lucked out, didn’t I?” Carolyn dipped a piece of Italian bread into the sauce and nibbled it. “Mmm. This is fabulous.”
  “Mom’s recipe for vodka penne. You’re early or it’d be done.”
  A door closed from down the hall and Carolyn strained to look. “Who’s that?”
  “Oh, Logan’s here. He needed to use the shower.”
  As she spoke, Logan appeared in the doorway. His wet hair hung in his face.
He reminded Carolyn of Brandon Lee.
“Hi,” he murmured. Jasmine’s boyfriend had dark eyes that seemed to pierce into her when they made eye contact. He was quiet and introverted and Carolyn often found him smiling as if he didn’t want anyone to notice. He made her slightly nervous.
“Hey,” she said as he eased up to Jasmine from behind. Carolyn smiled. She thought they were a cute couple. Jasmine had pale skin and thick brown hair that reached her elbows. Logan kissed her as though Carolyn weren’t in the room.
Jasmine was wearing a fitting pink paisley dress and Carolyn felt upstaged in her old corduroys and plain tank top.
The music ended and there was an unusual silence. Carolyn craved a cigarette, but she’d quit cold turkey six weeks ago. She popped a piece of Wrigley’s gum in her mouth and chewed heartily.
The doorbell rang. Jasmine and Carolyn exchanged a glance.
“Our first visitor,” Jasmine whispered.
  “That must be George,” Carolyn said and crossed the living room to the door.
She peered out into the hallway. George moved forward as if he could see inside. When she opened the door, he scooped her into his arms for a big hug and kiss.
“I love it,” he said as he entered and looked around. He clapped his hands together and nodded. “I really love it.”
Carolyn watched him admire the space. He was average height and stocky. He had muscles from working out at the gym where he’d recently started working. His dirty blonde hair was outgrown, just the way Caroline liked it.
George had been Carolyn’s first boyfriend although they had broken up for two years. During that time, she had dated, but none of her relationships had come close to the intensity she felt with George during the past six months. It felt as though they had known each other their entire lives.
  He had been her grounding stone during the time of her younger sister Lydia’s suicide. He had given her a sense of strength which she gave to her mother, her father and her stepfather during an intense period of grieving. She wondered if that period would ever completely end.
  Jasmine came out of the kitchen and gave George a hearty handshake. “You must be George. I’ve heard so much.”
“Hi,” George replied. “What a great place.” His voice had a nervous edge that Carolyn was not familiar with.
“I’m Jasmine and that’s Logan.” Logan nodded from the kitchen doorway and Jasmine smiled brightly. “Looks like we’re going to be longtime friends,” she said.

  They dined in the living room over the large burnt sienna coffee table. During dinner, George marveled at Jasmine’s culinary talents.
“Thanks,” she replied. “I thought about having my own catering service.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“My parents own a catering business. I’ve been around food my whole life. Guess I need a change,” Jasmine smiled demurely.
  “Well, this is spectacular,” George said as he soaked up the remainder of his sauce with bread.
  Carolyn felt Logan’s eyes probing into her. She finished her wine and felt slightly tipsy. She stared Logan in the eyes and he looked away. He seemed amused. “You’ll have to give me the recipe,” she said.
  “Sure thing,” Jasmine replied. The rain tapped steadily on the window. Jasmine turned to George. “So,” she asked, “what do you do?”
  “Well, right now I work part time at Bally’s Gym.”
  “He’s going to be a personal trainer,” Carolyn added.
“Really?” Jasmine said. “That’s really cool. Do what you love, I say.”
  George finished his wine. He poured another glass for himself and filled Carolyn’s. “Well, what I really love is boxing, so I might go into that sometime.”
  “That’s great, isn’t it, Logan?”
  Logan helped himself to another glass of wine. He smiled at Carolyn as he answered, “Absolutely. If nobody had dreams to follow, we’d all be completely fucking miserable. Here’s to making it happen.”
  He raised his glass and the others toasted along with him.
  “So,” Carolyn said to Logan, “What do you do again?”
  “I go to the Art Institute.” Logan replied. “Computer animation.”
  “Oh you guys have got to see some of the stuff he’s done. Do you have any of it with you?”
  Logan shook his head, “Nah, not tonight. Later.”
  “Oh, well.” Jasmine stood and disappeared into the kitchen.
  There was a moment of silence broken by the sound of Jasmine puttering around the kitchen. She hummed to herself.
  “So, this is really a great apartment,” George said, “wouldn’t you say, Logan?”
  “Hell yeah,” Logan replied. “It’s much nicer than my place. Do you like it?”
  Carolyn sipped her wine. “I’m just glad to be out of the dorms. I hated it there.”
  “Hey Logan,” Jasmine called from the other room. “Could you get the lights?”
  Logan leaned over and flicked the switch. A glow radiated from the kitchen and Jasmine emerged holding a colorful birthday cake piled high with candles.
  “Happy Birthday to you,” she sang. Carolyn covered her face, embarrassed. George joined in the song. “Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Carolyn, Happy birthday to you.”
  “And many more,” Logan added with a wry smile.
Carolyn stared at the three faces. “Wow,” she said, her face lit by the candles. “What a great surprise.”
Carolyn blew out twenty-one candles and her friends applauded heartily. “Ok, Ok,” she said. “No big deal.”
“Did you make wish?” Jasmine asked.
  “I don’t believe in wishes,” Carolyn replied. “Whatever will be, will be.”
  “So you’re twenty-one today?” Logan asked.
  “Tomorrow, actually. I’m spending the day with my folks.”
  “You’re not going to a bar? You’re not out drinking?”
  “There’s no rule that says you have to go to a bar on your twenty-first birthday. I’m not a heavy drinker.”
  “Yeah,” Jasmine replied. “Carolyn’s family’s been through a lot.”
  “What do you mean,” Logan asked.
  “It’s a long story,” Carolyn replied. Logan stared at her.
  As Jasmine cut the three-layer cake, Logan opened another bottle of wine.
  “I didn’t realize we’d finished a whole bottle,” Carolyn remarked as Logan filled the four glasses once again. She was feeling pretty drunk.
  “I don’t normally drink,” George replied. “But this is a great occasion. To Carolyn’s birthday.”
  “To a fine living arrangement,” Carolyn added and raised her glass.
  “Here, here,” Logan said. The four glasses clinked as lightning lit up the living room from outside the window.

  After the second bottle was finished, Logan and Jasmine disappeared into her bedroom. In the living room, Carolyn worked on her last glass, which was still almost full. She looked at George through the red liquid. He smiled.
  He advanced and tried to kiss her and she moved away from him on the couch. “What were those eyes you were giving Jasmine?” She asked.
  “Huh? When?” George’s voice was thick with intoxication.
  Carolyn swirled the wine in her glass coolly. “We are committed, aren’t we?”
  George’s face was flushed. “Jesus, Carolyn. You’re the only woman I want. You know that. That day you walked back into my life,” he paused as though words couldn’t describe his emotion. Sometimes he got so excitable Carolyn couldn’t tell if he was sincere. “That day changed my life,” he finally said. He moved closer. “I’m not saying this because I’m drunk, but I really love you. You have to know that by now.”
Although these seemed to be words every girl hoped to hear someday, Carolyn wasn’t sure how to react. He stroked her arm and they listened to the rain falling outside. George kissed her softly on the lips.
They could hear Logan and Jasmine making love in her bedroom.
  “I wish they could be less obvious about it,” she said.
  “Welcome to the wide world of close living quarters,” George smiled. “There’s a reason why I live alone.” He stroked Carolyn’s neck and ears and her skin felt warm. She stood, took his hand and led him into her bedroom.
  She sat on her bed and bounced on the mattress. “Strange I haven’t even slept here yet. Isn’t that strange?”
  George eased beside her and pulled her to him for another kiss. “You like strange things. That’s why you’re with me.”
  “Oh that’s why,” Carolyn teased. “I was beginning to wonder.”
  They wrestled and George pinned her. He kissed her neck and ears. His touch was gentle, but suddenly Carolyn felt tied up in knots inside. As George’s hands moved under her shirt and unhooked her bra, she noticed a painting of Jesus on the far wall. The eyes were full of compassion and his lips were pursed in a slight smile of knowing. He pointed to his sacred heart with one hand. His halo seemed to glow with a life of its own.
  George took off her tee shirt and kissed her neck and chest playfully. She closed her eyes, but the anxiety in her belly was too much. She stopped George and slipped out of bed. Clad only in her pants, she covered her small breasts with her arms. Jesus seemed to stare straight into her eyes, not her half naked body.
  “I love you,” she whispered as she took the picture off of its hinge, “but now is not the time.” She placed the painting in her closet. George giggled hysterically.
  She stood above him and unzipped her jeans. She stepped out of them and looked down at her blue cotton panties. “Sorry I didn’t think to wear something as pretty as Jasmine tonight,” she said.
  George took Carolyn’s hand and pulled her close. “If you wore a burlap sack, you would be the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
  Carolyn didn’t know what to say. For some reason, it seemed as though a wall was forming inside her. She made love with him even though she felt cold and distant and wanted to stay that way.

  The dream came to her again that night.
  In the dream she walked into the cold gray morgue with shiny metallic walls. Directly ahead, her sister’s coffin glowed under a crisp, white sheet. As the sheet was lifted, she saw Lydia dressed in her best black party dress. A faded red doll was clutched in her arms and her eyes were wide open.
  Lydia sat up and beckoned her to join. Carolyn took her hand and stepped into the casket. They sat face to face as they did when they bathed together as young children.
  “What’s it like being dead?”
  There was no answer. Instead, her younger sister placed a hand over Carolyn’s eyes. She felt her entire being flooded with warmth, love and comfort.
  Carolyn woke and slowly looked around the room. As unfamiliar as it was, the sweetness of her dream remained with her.
She tossed and turned. She tried to remember how the dream had felt. Lydia had given her a message, but Carolyn couldn’t remember what it was. The closest conclusion she had was that there was no heaven or hell, just our relationships with ourselves and other people. She had the feeling that death was simply a door that opened and led to countless possibilities.
  George was sound asleep with his head buried in the pillow next to her. His eyes moved quickly under the lids and his mouth opened and closed silently. She touched his cheek and he mumbled something that sounded like, “more bread and butter please,” and rolled over. Carolyn contained a laugh and slipped out of bed.
  Her closet was only half filled with clothes. She planned to pick up the rest when she visited her parents tomorrow afternoon. After selecting a terry cloth robe and fuzzy purple slippers, she left George snoozing in her bed.
  Maybe she really was in love. Maybe she shouldn’t think so much about it.
  The slippers made a quiet flopping sound as she crossed the living room toward the kitchen. She opened the fridge and admired the half eaten birthday cake. She felt lucky to have such sweet friends in her life.
  After pouring a cup of milk and putting a sliver of cake onto a napkin, she went into the living room and sat on the floor by the empty bookshelf. She opened her box and took out a candle.
By candlelight, she took items from the box and placed them on the shelf. She gingerly took out her younger sister’s kewpie doll and a folder of Lydia’s poems. With a deep breath, Carolyn took out a small frame. She slid the backing from the glass and took out Lydia’s suicide letter.
  The words were written in large, childlike letters. The ink was faded here and there and Carolyn often imagined these were places where Lydia’s tears had dried.
  She placed the letter back inside the envelope then slid it behind the glass. It was ill fitting, but Carolyn liked it that way. She placed it on the bookshelf and planned to hang it on the wall later.
  After taking a bite of the cake, she turned and almost choked. Logan stood in the middle of the living room, watching her curiously. He wore only his boxer shorts.
  “Midnight snack?” He asked.
  “Uh, yeah. Want some?”
  “No,” Logan said and sat on the couch. He motioned for her to join and she did. She closed her robe tighter and nibbled the cake.
  “Couldn’t sleep?”
  “Too many dreams. You?”
  “I don’t sleep unless I really have too. It’s a waste of time.”
  “Oh.” Carolyn finished her cake and started on the milk.
  “Something troubles you, but you don’t talk about it. Why?”
  “I don’t like to burden people. Life should be enjoyed.”
  “True, but something is eating you alive. I can see it in your eyes. I tend to migrate toward people who are sad.”
  “I don’t know. I guess there’s reality in sadness. It’s honest. You’re honest.”
  “Well then, honestly, I’m happier than I’ve been in the past six months.”
  “You suppress it very well.”
  “Like you, I suppose?” Carolyn finished the milk.
  “I like you,” Logan said. “You’re not putting on an act like most people. I can see why you and Jasmine are friends.”
  Carolyn stared at him closely. He moved close to her and their legs touched. She never thought he was attractive before. Still, right at that moment, she felt a connection to him. She shook it off. “There’s something different with you though. I sensed it when we first met.”
  Before she could object, he kissed her lips. Her body went into shock and melted simultaneously. A moment passed and she relaxed into the kiss.
  Suddenly she felt as though the wall came down inside of her. She had the urge to open up completely to him. There was electricity in his hands as he pulled her toward him. He kissed her neck and as she leaned back, her robe fell open.
  Logan kissed her breasts and she looked down at him. When she realized what she was doing, she pulled the robe shut.
  For a long moment, neither of them said a word. Logan touched the corner of her eye. “There is perfection to sadness, don’t forget that,” he whispered. “Don’t be afraid to use it. That’s what it’s there for.”
A lump formed in her throat as she watched him return to Jasmine’s room. He didn’t look back. The sun was starting to rise before she returned to her room for a few hours of restless sleep.

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© 2003 Erika Purtell