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Before we met, a profile of Ashland made it into the sidebar of an article published to amend the list of traits that justified attention directed at me from the national media: the daughter of a billionaire, child genius and most recently, survivor of an accidental overdose.  The list stretched three pages and merited use of lavish terms, the most jarring of which was “phoenix-child”, which made me sound more like a creature from a fairy-tale than the seven-year-old girl I identified as. Ashland’s merits fit in a tidy rectangle, beneath me in make-up and borrowed clothes, the amounts he received for his paintings were listed.  To a twelve-year-old or any painter, it was a lot of money.

The sidebar detailed other prodigies in comparable length, but Ashland was the only one I met in person, eight years later. Things had changed by then and received no documentation.  The term “lush” replaced “phoenix-child” while Ashland’s occupation had changed from “artist” to “drug supplier”.  That was the reason he came to me.  Drug suppliers had more than a few enemies and constantly sought alternative addresses.  After my parents walked out, I offered bedrooms to him and others, to drown out the silence as I drowned myself in alcohol.

Rob took a picture of us motivated by the fear that we would both disappear.  As close as we were, Rob proved our names still meant something to him when he titled our portrait “Kara Ross and Ashland Beck”.  The title was ironic as it depicted two young adults who were anything but child prodigies.  I wore a black mini-skirt and a bra under a leather jacket, concealing almost nothing, not even my addiction as indicated by the arm reaching out for a whisky bottle in the center of the frame.  My back pressed against Ashland’s scrawny exposed chest over a pair of shredded jeans.  Four naked knees dominated the bottom of the shot, mine exposed to tease and Ashland’s exposed through a veil of shredded denim and negligence.  Two sets of blue eyes stared dimly at the lens, unashamed.  The world was disposing us to make way for less motivated individuals before we made any lasting impact.


“You know,” Ashland said, three years after we got sober and shared a hotel room in Paris.  “That’s just sugar. No booze.”

He was referring to the disable menthe I cradled in my hands, the only playful object in the room.

“I gave up booze,” I said.

“Does Terry know?  If you go back to him and say you drank vodka, he’d be more likely to take you back.”

I playfully slapped Ashland’s shoulder.

“Terry knows I cheat.”

Ashland jerked back, nonplussed.  Maybe he was faking a reaction.

“And you’ve been together how long?”

I shrugged.  “A few months, I guess.  He’s the one keeping track.  It only matters to him.”

“Does it all only matter to him?”

“Pretty much.”

I took a sip and rested my glass on the bedside table.

“I thought you quit infidelity when you got sober,” Ashland said.

“I was monogamous afterward but I didn’t give up on free love altogether.”

“How long did that relationship last?”

“Three years.”

“Three years?”


“You’re eighteen.”

“It all felt right.  My parents had an open marriage.  Sometimes it made them happy but sometimes it made them miserable.”

There was a pregnant pause while Ashland stuck one hand into the pocket of his jeans.  He’d gained some weight since our latest portrait.  He looked healthy.

“Well, my parents don’t speak no French and here I am,” Ashland said with an atrocious Southern accent.

“They’re from Ohio.  You don’t get to use that accent.  Not enough irony.”

“No one believes anything I say about my family.  They think wolves raised me.  Or something.”

I laughed.

“I guess if you grew up in a forest, you’d find some cave and paint on the walls.  But where would the tattoos come into play?”

Ashland put his hands on my left shoulder and fingered one of his creations, a white tiger with blue eyes, art I’d commissioned in the aftermath of my second rape.

“You see,” Ashland kissed my left shoulder.  “When wolves look at skin, they think of needles and bright colors to break up the monotony of human flesh.  To them, we’re a species of blank canvases.”

I laughed.

Then I rolled over to face Ashland.

I fingered the zipper of his jeans.


I looked at the empty glass on the table at the side of my bed.  It was late morning and Ashland was still sleeping. My previous existence as a rich girl didn’t include dirty dishes or boyfriends who slept in the morning after.  I wondered if I should wake Ashland up or deposit the glass somewhere as I got dressed.

I decided to leave things as they were.  Help came for me alone but wrapped in intercourse and Ashland would understand.  I found a pen and tried to write a good-bye letter on hotel paper when Ashland stirred.

“Going somewhere?” Ashland asked.

“Yep.  Budapest.”

“With Terry?”

“No.  It’s about time we took a break.”

I bent over and leveled my gaze with Ashland’s.  Ashland’s eyes were almost identical to mine, a pallid blue.  We looked so alike we could be mistaken for siblings.

I stood up and picked up one of my suitcases.

“Does he know?”

I nodded.

“Does he want you to stay?”

I nodded.

“Well, you’re here.  Are those suitcases all you’re bringing?”

I nodded.

Ashland laughed.  “No one would have guessed you grew up in a mansion.”

I shrugged.  “I’ve got two pairs, two shirts, two dresses, a journal, a book and some CDs.  I’m set.”

“Why Budapest?”

“Low cost of living.  I found a hostel willing to let me work for room and board and I could score some translation work through my cousin.”

It wouldn’t last for long, but I wasn’t going to tell Ashland.

“Is that all you’re leaving Terry for?”

I nodded.

Ashland moved his hand behind his neck pensively.  I thought of his skin, thought of my hands against his skin, his tattoo needles against my back.  The boundaries between us changed, but our relationship endured.

“Why were you with me last night?”

“You’re the guy I always come back to.”

“But not the only guy.  You’ve known Terry as long as you’ve known me.”

“I’m sure I’ll go back to him.”

“Usually break means break-up.”

“Not to Terry.  It’s just a break.”

“A break.”

Ashland turned to his side.

“It’s already ten o’clock,” I said.

“You’re leaving so there’s no reason to get out of bed.”

“You got enough sleep.”

I opened the window.  From our hotel room, I could faintly see the Eiffel Tower, an emblem of one of the three cities that might serve as Ashland’s spiritual home.

“The city’s waiting,” I said.

“It’s been there for a while and it’s not going away any time soon, Mom.”

“Well, good-bye.”

Ashland sat up, swung his legs over and the side of the bed and started lacing up his combat boots.  He was still wearing jeans and a T-shirt.  Ashland was the only person I’d seen sleep in denim.

“Wait,” Ashland said.  “I’ll see you off.  What time do you leave?”

“Tonight. Seven.”

“À dix-neuf heures.”

I laughed.  His useless translation was refreshing compared to the condescending advice I kept hearing from other men.

“Terrible accent.”

“Still from Ohio.”

Ashland led me to a café that looked like it came out of a postcard where we could pose as two American tourists.  I hated the association, but I wanted to save money to get away from the other men who kept me going down long, dark, foggy roads, holding my hand and clouding my vision.

Ashland smirked when I ordered hot chocolate along with my croissant.

“Do you want more sugar?”

“No.  I want the memory.  This is what I drank in Paris. With my father.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Getting back to childhood.  Who isn’t trying to do that?”

I nodded.  “It’s contradictory.  People talk about their childhoods in terms of the scars it left them, but then we all try to get back.”

“It’s only good because it’s safe.  Or you thought it was.”

“This doesn’t feel safe.”

“You’ll get settled and miss this.  The uncertainty is the best part.”

I smiled.

Ashland and I spent the end of our time together at a museum, where were stared at paintings.  Ashland kept his commentary to a minimum, yet others mistook him for a tour guide.  He told the truth as I smiled.

He rode the Metro with me to the train station where took one of my suitcases, kissed my hand and rested my suitcase on the floor.

“We’ve got Paris,” I said.

“Let’s see how much more we can get.”

“So you’ll chase me?”


We kissed, a French greeting and I mounted the escalator, reflecting on volumes of memories.


Kaye Branch lives in Massachusetts. Her work has been published in Troubadour 21; Children, Churches and Daddies; Fear of Monkey; The Legendary; Danse Macabre; Fear of Monkeys; Della Donna; All Things Girl; The Fringe; Pens on Fire and Conceit.


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