Being late, Rhodes says, is just a symptom of bad luck. It doesn’t have anything to do with the person waiting.
He tells me this so I can imagine all the unlucky things that keep him from where he wants to be: misplaced keys, traffic jams, a stopped clock, bad directions. Sometimes, Rhodes leaves without thinking about how to get where he’s going. He wanders from his door, takes the circuitous route, and ends up somewhere else, having never paused to check the time. When he’s really late, he calls.
“I know,” he says before I mention it, “I’m late.”
I don’t ask anymore, but Rhodes always explains. If I decide to pick up the phone, he will tell me a story of unexpected coincidences to make me laugh; and I will hardly believe it, even though I know his stories always turn out to be true.
“I went to my parents’ house,” he might say. “And I locked myself in the basement. I called for them, wheedled, yelled, pounded on the door, but they didn’t hear because they were upstairs, trying to remember a song they used to know. I could hear them singing—something something, flowers and sun in your something hair, la la la la low—and then they started dancing. And, you know my dad, all the thumping shook the floor, shook the whole house, and something fell off a lamp and hit me, and you know what? They stopped singing and everything was quiet so all I could hear was the ringing of the key on top of my head.”
Rhodes will always be there soon. You can walk back and forth on the hot summer sidewalk, until your shirt clings and the houses turn on their lights when it starts to get dark, and you’re tearing pieces of grass into green confetti that sticks to fingers and under nails, and you’re shaving off the rubber of your sandals layer by layer; and Rhodes will be there in the end. He just has bad luck getting there.
I wanted to go dancing because it was too hot to stand still. I wanted to manufacture my own breeze and blow away the heavy air that wrapped my skin in thick, impenetrable wads of humidity. My head had a block of slow summer nothing wedged in its center, and I kept thinking that if only I moved fast enough, I could make it go away.
“Where should we go?” Rhodes asked. He had to move a cardboard box off the passenger seat before I could get into the car. It rattled and clinked against his chest when he lifted it onto the seat behind.
“Anywhere,” I said.
Rhodes has this way of looking at you when he’s trying to make up his mind. His eyelids go soft and his cheeks crumple to meet them so he looks like he’s trying to shrink the world down to something he can see.
“That’s helpful,” he said.
We could have gone someplace nice. We could have gone someplace cramped and dirty with neighbors shouting down the noise. It didn’t matter. The car was too warm for sitting, even with the night pouring in all the windows.
“We should go then,” Rhodes said, but instead of turning on the car, he reached behind us, untucked the flaps of cardboard, and sank his arm into the box. It was full of bottles, mostly empty from the noise, but he took one from the bottom, twisted off the lid, and gave it to me.
The mouth was crusted with tiny flakes that stuck to my lips. The liquid behind the green glass was a vicious yellow, and I would never have drunk it, except that it smelled like nasturtiums, peppery and wet.
It tasted like what wine tastes like when you’ve only imagined it, before you’ve ever had a sip. It was sweet, and slightly thick, and slippery enough to go down before my tongue could finish tasting it. My mouth felt like I had licked something sharp.
I asked Rhodes what it was, and he said it was something he made, an old family thing that wasn’t really a secret, but complicated and boring to explain, and it was too hot for that kind of conversation.
We shared the bottle, sipping it in turns until there was nothing left.
I rubbed my teeth to lose the alcohol sting, and my blood rushed up under my skin to throw away heat like a burst of fine powder in the dark. I was blushing, red all over, patched and blotchy. It made me shiver and my skin twitched tight at the illusion of being cold.
“I know a good place,” Rhodes said. He rolled up the windows. He huffed on his hands and scrubbed his fingers together.
“Where is it?” I asked.
“You haven’t been there before.”
“How do you know?”
Rhodes thinks he knows everything about me, but when I looked at him, his face pale and smeared with cold, I thought about how easy it is to sit on the surface of someone, to float along on your brittle scrap of boat and forget the ocean, with all its currents and whales and sunken treasure, that waits beneath your feet.
Rhodes drove to a street not far from where we used to live, back when we were small. The houses there have thin fences on three sides and trim lawns in between that they sit on, like polite gifts in half-opened boxes.
Rhodes walked and I followed. I hummed a little and bounced on my toes to escape the cold. The night was hot; I could feel the weight of it hovering just outside my skin, but I was still cold and had to wrap my arms around my chest, to keep my warmth from deserting me completely.
“Here it is,” Rhodes said. There was a gap between two fences, unclaimed by either side, and when we slipped into it, other people were already there. Their faces were flushed, like ours, and mottled around the edges with the same chilled, empty spots that grew on Rhodes’s forehead and across my wrists.
A short man walked so close to the fence that his arm rubbed splinters from it. He paused when we passed and held up a green bottle. Fragments of wood and spider webs stuck to his sleeves, and his face was consumed by a badly kept beard.
“Good stuff,” he said. The yellow wine sloshed.
“Thanks,” Rhodes said.
“Always worth it too, even when you charge me more than I should spend. Every summer.” The man kept blinking, as if his eyes were full of dust. “You’ll see.”
We left him behind, but his voice lumbered along with us.
“Good stuff. Yes, good stuff, even with it never lasting long and still, but good stuff.”
The gap between the fences went on much longer than I expected. We never came to the other side of the road, or ran into someone’s backyard. We only stopped when we reached a door, which was closed. An old woman sat next to it in a white folding chair. She had a lamp under a pleated canvas shade, and she pressed the tips of her fingers together, one after another, in the light.
“Where’s your face?” she said. “Put it down here where I can reach it.” She lifted her hands and the silk of her sleeves, a tacky orange stripe, drooped to show a stretch of skin, wrinkled and ancient to the elbow. She caught my face and pressed the insides of my cheeks together, and when she let go, her hands left oily smears that smelled like jasmine.
“Cold as bone,” she told me. “Not one scrap of warmth left, lucky you. Otherwise, I’d have to take it away. Go on.” She took a key from her lap, bent forward, and unlocked the door. From the other side, voices came out, and laughter, and the sound of glasses clinking together.
She put the back of her hand on Rhodes’s forehead.
“Cold as bone,” she said again. Then she tapped a knuckle against her teeth. “You look familiar.”
“I wish I were,” Rhodes said. He smiled, but the woman frowned.
“Like someone I used to know, but then it’s been a long time and I’ve been known to make mistakes. Go on.”
We went through the door together, elbow to elbow and so close that Rhodes’s foot caught on my ankle and I should have tripped, but I hopped into the air instead and glided down, landing on the tips of my toes. Rhodes laughed.
“How does it feel?” he asked.
I thought about this as we went to join the party. It was a swirling, glittering party full of people that we didn’t know, so elegant and serene that I should have been embarrassed to intrude. But we were wearing costumes now, pleats and buttons that I didn’t remember putting on. Rhodes had a suit and a tie of such crisp silk that it could have been cut from frozen butter. I had heeled slippers of velveteen with flowers that swallowed my feet. Collars pricked our throats, and the jewels were so heavy that it took a moment to figure out how to breathe.
These things distracted me more than they should have. If I had been paying attention, I might have noticed the door when it closed behind us and the click when someone turned the key to lock the other side.
How does it feel?
That’s what Rhodes’s mother asked me later, when I went to her to get advice.
It feels like putting a mask in front of your face, tying it behind your head, and pressing it flat around your eyes so you can’t see the edges anymore.
It feels like arriving at a party and knowing every word before it lands in your mouth, and each one tastes just the way it should.
It feels, after a while, like you are being closed into a new skin, all that is warm and sweaty and plain tucked beneath a thing that pinches the tender spots under your arm and over your hip. It gets tighter, and then too tight, and then it’s time to take it off before you don’t have the strength.
That’s what the dancing is for.
At least, that’s how Rhodes’s mother explained it. She gave me a glass of water from the refrigerator and a towel to wipe up the sweat that dripped off my hair and onto the kitchen table.
Rhodes’s father sat in a chair at the other end, close enough that we could have reached over and fixed his shoe, which was half off, but he was asleep, so we didn’t. He slept while I caught my breath and while Rhodes’s mother explained magic to me. He wore reading glasses and his hands slowly crushed an open newspaper into his lap, but he didn’t wake up.
The room on the other side of the door is large. It would be as big as a museum, if you knocked down all the walls and dumped the exhibits in the street.
The room shimmered in silver and grey. When Rhodes and I stopped to look, we saw that the walls were covered in paper trees. Sheets of paper, trimmed and layered so, from a distance, they looked like a crowded forest on a moon-swamped night. Close up, they looked like exquisite wallpaper. Shiny hard lacquer smoothed down the edges, and none of them peeled up when I slid my fingernail across the top. It must have been a lot of work.
“You look different,” Rhodes said.
He looked different too. The gauzy light made hollows in his cheeks and under his ears, brushed his forehead smooth and took away the dark spots in his eyes. He looked like a piece of ice with its edges melted.
“I wonder if we look like them,” Rhodes said. He pointed at the people clustered around the room. They stood in comfort and some of them held small glasses of yellow wine. They nodded their gleaming heads and looked pleased with the quality of their conversation. He said, “It’s funny, I always thought it happened all at once, you’re there and then you’re here, like that.” He pinched his fingers together and drew a line in the air. I wondered when he got so graceful.
The girl spoke from next to us. She was one of those small, fragile girls that people can’t stop looking at. The weight of the stares should snap them into pieces, but it doesn’t. “Are you new?” she asked.
“We just got here,” Rhodes said.
“I thought so.” She waved her hands as she spoke and her long hair spilled and poured across her shoulders. “But don’t worry. You’re already starting to blend in. You know, at home, no one remembers to look at me.”
We didn’t believe her, of course. We watched her rub her hands over her arms, and we watched her hair flick and shine like a stream of dark ink.
“It’s nice while it lasts though,” she said. “You’ll see.” She picked up our wrists and pulled us close so we could walk to the waiting crowd together. I think her hands were cold, much colder than mine, or Rhodes’s, but it was hard to tell.
I don’t remember what we talked about when we got there. If I did, I would write everything down and save it for later.
The short man from the passageway had lost the green bottle and his beard was combed flat on his chest. He smiled while he spoke and I was surprised by how white his teeth had managed to get and how he stood up straight and didn’t need to lean on anything. The girl interrupted him and asked if it was time to dance. She was rubbing her arms again, digging her fingers under her hair and pulling on her chin.
“No. Don’t ask me that.” The short man backed away. He stuck out his beard and his arm rolled into a ball that shook. He muttered several things very fast to himself: “Not enough, not ever, but someday, if only I could wait, if only I could stay, and you know not ask me these sorts of things, you know that, not if we want to stay.”
I held my breath.
The man’s arm unwound and hit the girl in the face. It listed at the end and went sideways, and at first I thought he missed because the girl didn’t sway or stagger, didn’t do anything except look at him without surprise or anger—or even redness—marring her face.
“How could he do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” Rhodes turned away from the conversation. It had picked up where the girl and the short man left off, and swallowed the hole they made, as if they were no more interesting than a soap opera playing softly in another room. Rhodes’s mouth was still closing on the end of a laugh when he swiveled his head to look.
The girl danced alone. At first she only swayed, tilting between her feet. Then she lifted them and smacked them on the floor, so the noise beat the turned backs and decorous shoulders that hunched against her. The girl didn’t care. She flew away from us and flailed her arms. She got sweaty and her hair stuck out in dull and frizzing brown. Her face blotched; it lost its cold smoothness and revealed a split across one puffy cheek that had just begun to turn red.
She had become someone I wouldn’t notice if I passed her on the street, except that she was dancing like a crazy person, and we were the only people who bothered to watch.
She slid between the silver trees, into a gap hidden somewhere in the wall, and was gone.
“Oh,” Rhodes said.
I asked him what happened.
Rhodes said he couldn’t explain.
The short man was telling a story about someone who found an enchanted kingdom inside a hill of bone—or was it a forest?—and challenged its queen to a game of wits—as if that would help—with the prize being a stay lasting exactly as long as the winner desired—something you can’t know until you get there, can you?
There was never enough time, Rhodes said, and he wanted to hear the end.
“Don’t you?” he said.
Once, Rhodes told me he was afraid of the dark. We were young and hiding in a closet for a game. It was a birthday party, and we were both still small enough to fit in the closet together.
Rhodes took a little flashlight out of his pocket and turned it on so the fine beam bounced off the shelves of board games and picture albums, and drowned itself in the folds of a spare blanket. I asked him why he had a flashlight in his pocket. It’s not something that people usually carry. Because his mom had given it to him, he told me. Nobody gives flashlights, I said. You buy them in stores and keep them in cupboards in case of emergencies, or when the lights go out and you can’t find what you’re looking for.
Rhodes asked me if I had ever looked at the dark. Not in the dark, but at it.
I lied and said I hadn’t.
The flashlight was shockingly bright for being so small. I was sure that it showed, white and glimmering, at the crack beneath the door, and I got so mad that I would have left, if I hadn’t been afraid of giving myself away.
When the skin begins to fit too tight, and the mask starts to stick, then it’s time to dance. You shouldn’t do anything else.
“Stop fidgeting,” Rhodes said.
I couldn’t. The cold had attached itself to my bones. I wanted to take deep breaths. I wanted to swing my arms and stomp my feet until the top of my skull shook and I could be sure that I was still alive. Everyone’s faces were pale and flat. They seemed to have put on layers of makeup while I wasn’t looking and now their faces couldn’t move. I twisted my hands and scrubbed them down my front because I was sure that my clothes had grown into my skin, but nobody noticed except for Rhodes.
“Oh well,” he said. “It’s probably better this way.” He didn’t say goodbye to our new friends. He took my hand and walked with me to the center of the room. Our feet moved together. They touched the ground at the same time, through his fine leather shoes, through my terrible, hungry, feet-eating slippers of velveteen. We put them down and I remembered they were only summer sandals made out of rubber and flat plastic string that slapped the back of our heels.
Have you ever tried to walk with someone, really tried to walk with them? You might as well be dancing. You don’t need to whirl them or leap them; you don’t need to wrap your arms around, or fold their hand on the inside of yours; you don’t need to rest your cheek against their cheek and measure the space between your mouth and their ear. You don’t need to do any of these things, although you could, and they might be nice.
All you have to do is keep their bones next to yours, your hearts in close proximity. And then you need to listen.
There was an accordion, a pipe, a calliope, and someone far away, an old lady in a striped silk gown, clapping her hands.
“Do you know the way?” Rhodes asked. “It’s not that hard.”
The silver trees flickered around us. Curls of silver paper drifted through a long dark space where there wasn’t enough light to see. We danced between them and my side began to pinch. The bottoms of my lungs were scraped raw from too much breathing and sweat soaked my clothes. It slid down my arms to make our hands slippery.
Rhodes was next to me. I could hear him breathing.
Then we weren’t dancing anymore. The music tipped us over and made us step on different sides of it. I tried to catch up, and then to slow down, but it was too hard in the dark. Our fingers bumped each other, fumbled, let go.
“I’ll only be a little while,” Rhodes might have said.
It was too dark, he might have said. He just needed to go back for something. He would be fast, he might have said, he would be late. He would run there and run back, and I would barely even notice.
I think that’s what he said.
I walked by myself in the dark, wishing for a flashlight, cramped between two fences in a space that smelled like jasmine. The streetlamps were still on when I got to the end, but their light was obscured by the start of morning.
I waited. Other people came out from between the fences, ordinary people with sweat on their faces and wilted clothes. They went slowly, as if their feet hurt and they could only keep moving if they sent themselves straight to their beds.
I waited a long time.
“What happens,” I asked, “if you come back late?”
Rhodes’s mother opened a cupboard and took things out. She put them on the counter one at a time: a can of soup, a box of crackers, a crackling cellophane package half-filled with pistachios.
“You might lose the way,” she said. She didn’t turn around, just kept reaching up into the cupboard and back down again. “You might forget where the doors are, and then you might forget how to open them, and then you might forget that things like doors even exist.”
“Are they hard to find again?” I asked.
She took down a bundle of dried leaves, blackened and frail; a neatly folded square of something covered with tiny, glittering scales; and a jar of brown powder that hummed.
“It depends,” Rhodes’s mother said. “But that’s the wrong thing to ask.” She dug her fingers between the wood panels that made up the cupboard’s inner wall. She slid one to the side and reached into the space while I waited for her to explain what she meant.
“What matters is how much finding them is worth.” She took one dusty bottle from the hidden shelf and put it on the table in front of me. Her fingers left clean oblongs behind and I could see the yellow wine inside.
Then she gave me instructions on how to get there. She didn’t seem to expect me to follow them, and even though that made her look sad, I could tell she wouldn’t follow them herself. Maybe she couldn’t, and all she could do was wait.
Rhodes’s father slept through the whole thing. He was waiting for her to whisper something in his ear to wake him up, and I wondered if she would.
The first time that Rhodes and I kissed, I thought he was funny looking, even though he was waiting with me for my mom, who hadn’t shown up when she said she would. It was the day that she was unavoidably late. We were sitting on the curb and I made sure we arranged ourselves so I could watch both Rhodes and the street at the same time.
When we kissed, our noses pressed against each other, sideways, and I felt them rub together like cats walking around a stranger’s legs. It made me sleepy and it made me want to curl up on the sidewalk and close my eyes, but I left them open so I was sure to see the way Rhodes’s ears stuck out against the sky, and the empty street behind them.
I’m almost certain I didn’t know then how to find him if he ever went away. I’ve been trying to remember while I stand here in front of a space between two fences. The bottle I’ve been holding feels like I just pulled it out of a bucket of ice, and I can still smell the jasmine, though it’s fainter now in the daylight.
I can almost hear Rhodes’s footsteps, even though the passageway is empty and I can see it’s very short and that it ends in a plain fence grown over with vines and tiny white flowers that gleam in the sun.
We’ll walk back together of course. We’ll go carefully this time and we won’t lose the steps.
I’m not sure why I’m saying all this. There’s too much wine in here for one, but you won’t want it now when everyone else has gone home. Maybe I just thought I should, in case something happens and we don’t make it back until late.
Megan Kurashige is a professional dancer and a writer. She and her sister, Shannon Kurashige, collaborate on wild and quixotic dance projects under the name Sharp & Fine in San Francisco. She attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD in 2008 where she learned that telling stories rocks her soul. Her fiction and poetry have previously appeared in Sybil’s Garage and Strange Horizons. She has a blog (http://immobileexplorations.blogspot.com) and is on Twitter (@mkazoo).