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Today's Story by St. John Campbell

Here’s what happened, in the moment when they decided if they would kiss:

Momentary symbolism

They stood on the second floor patio looking down at the dancers and the DJ’s, nodding their heads to the beat but not moving their legs.  “I don’t really dance,” she’d told him a few hours ago, and he hadn’t thought it was strange.

Their friends … his friends, she didn’t know anybody here, had been so grateful when she’d spotted him and had somebody to say “hi!” to, and walk around with … his friends had inhaled or tweaked or swallowed, and were all so very happy.  It was a good night.  They looked at each other, knowing they would probably end up sharing a cab ride home.  She was legitimately on his way.  The evening had just worked out like this, piling means, motive, and opportunity on top of each other.  She was cute.  He was impressive.

Here’s what happened, in the moment when they decided if they would kiss:

His eyes took in the sight of her, her tiny body hardened by two tours in the army, her long hair pulled back in a pony tail, smiling because for the first time since she’d moved here she felt comfortable around people she liked, felt accepted … not a sexy smile, a happy one.  That image, that smile, her hair, her head bobbing to the music, ran through his eyes and leaped down where there was no bridge.

Her image fell through the window of his last relationship, three years spent with a dark woman who could never make up her mind, and rolled down a grassy hill where his former girlfriends stood shuffled like playing cards, knocking over the first woman ever to invite him to meet her parents, sending the paper thin image of the yoga instructor he’d lived with for just a week gliding on the breeze to land in a river of mud.  Her image rolled over a sand dune and then down into a crypt where the memories with many legs from his childhood feasted on false hope.  They skittered and crept and surrounded her pony tail and her smile, and whispered that she looked like a character on a children’s TV show, hissed that her conversation wouldn’t hold his interest for more than an hour.  A falcon from a forest of matches was attracted by the movement, and landed on the crypt, its claws digging into the stone image of the Goddess Athena, who he’d never seen, and the Goddess Artemis, who he had.  The falcon looked at the tiny girl and the skittering memories and watched how they moved, deciding who was prey.  In a distant monastery, a band of hooded brothers began to chant.  By the end of their prayer, something would be dead.

Words came to his lips.  “If I kiss you, you’ll never be my friend;  if I love you, I will get bored quickly;  Eventually, you’ll realize that the best things I have to offer women I give away for free:  the only thing left for the people who love me is the scrap heap where my personality lays down at night.”  He didn’t know this, but these were the words of the monks’ prayer, chanted to the rhythm of his breath.  He almost spoke it, words sacred to Artemis that were forbidden here by Athena, the goddess he’d never met.  His breath caught in his throat.

She looked at his face, wonderfully expressive, capable of moving from a profound thought to an infectious laugh in a smooth arc the way a gymnast twirls around the parallel bars.  She didn’t like his cheeks, or his nose, but his lips, and his eyes, were hypnotic … she realized he wasn’t trying to hypnotize her, but would let her be so, if she moved just a little bit closer.  She was conscious now of her body’s latitude and longitude, of her center of balance, as though the world were a map and she were reading it on a wall … the image of the map, with a continent shaped like his eyes, pressed itself on her memory, pressed behind her eyes, pressed into the soft wax dripping on to a clerk’s letter, on a tall ship rolling in an ocean storm.  The shape of his eyes was pressed into the wax, sealing an envelope with the name of all the boys she’d given too much to inside.  Lightning flashes, tearing through the night sky, revealing the shape of Ares in the clouds, the ship racing across an endless ocean to catch the god of war.  Sharks flee as the vessel approaches, but narwhals gather, horned whales that scratch the ship’s hull to see if the giants who built it were amateurs.  No one on the ship knows.  The clerk picks another envelope up and drips wax from the king’s candle on it, sealing forever the smell of a college professor she would have followed home and scratched on his door if she’d had the courage:  sealing it with the shape of the boy’s eyes.  Catalogues of secrets are being collated, sealed behind his eyes, his eyes watching, blinking in the wax seal, looking out from her secrets at the rest of her world.  The captain screams at this chartered vessel to turn around, but the crew has higher orders, chasing war, always chasing war, in the hope that he will have a door to scratch on.

Words came to her lips.  “If I kiss you, I’ll decide why afterwards.  I’ll hit you to see if you bleed, I’ll run to see if you chase, and there’s no winner in these winter games;   just an empty trophy case that I’m putting lock after lock on, looking at longingly, trying to size you up to see if you’d fit before I put seal it shut again in iron and wax … I’m trying to win a prize that will pull me under the waves, and I’ll only love you if I think I’ll drown.”  She didn’t know that these were the words the scribe had scratched onto the hull of the ship, the warning that the captain sent to lighthouses in sailor’s code.  She almost said it, words sacred to Ares, whose priests denied her pleas.  Her breath caught in her throat.

The moment passed, and he told himself that he didn’t kiss her because he wasn’t looking right now, because he needed to take a break from something imprecise.  She told herself that she didn’t feel that way about him, for reasons to be determined.

Neither of them could bring themselves to speak the words that would awaken their Gods.  Most of us can’t.


St. John Campbell is a pseudonym


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