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Contemporary Fiction

“Let’s get married.” The statement rolled off his tongue like a marble. Miranda lay beside him, languid strands of hair trailing across one cheek, their tips pinned to the wet crease of her lips. Bed springs creaked as she sat upright to look into his eyes: lids lowered, pure as opals, resolute. 

A dark heaviness slithered into Miranda’s chest. She half-smiled and said, “Okay, but are you sure? You really mean it?”

“More than anything I’ve ever meant in my entire life,” he promised. He popped his eyebrows as though surprised, and his lips trembled like it was the first time he’d moved to kiss her. 

Miranda closed her eyes, brow crinkling as she focused her entire being on their lips clasping and pulling. As though flesh could hush the thought: Do I really want this?

That was Jake, the Man of Many Firsts. First man she slept with, first to love her, first to ask her to marry him, and the first she left. 

Four months to the day after Miranda agrees to marriage, it’s evening in her and Jake’s apartment. A fingerless engagement ring sits on the countertop. The kitchen floor is a mess of broken glass and stir-fry broccoli. A mahogany-apple candle flickers, casting shadows over it all. Ten feet away on the other side of a thin wall, Miranda is leaning against the tiles in a too-hot shower, red-skinned and bawling. Back in the kitchen Jake weeps, sweeping up the plate he’d dropped when his fiancé told him they were no longer engaged. It had all started over the noodles. 

Jake wanted broccoli, Miranda didn’t. 

She was so picky lately. 

He was such an asshole lately. 

What the hell was her problem anyways? 

What the fuck was his? 

She could get her own noodles then, how about that. 

Done with the bullshit, Miranda stood and slammed her engagement ring onto the counter. Everything paused then, except the plate. It kept walking until it met the floor and shattered. Jake and Miranda stared at the counter like she’d bashed someone’s head in with a hammer.

“I don’t think I can do this,” Miranda whispered.

“What the hell Miranda, why? Did I do something?” Jake’s voice cracked and his hands were all over his short blonde scalp.

Miranda’s eyes darted around like words were splattered across the ground, but it was just plate fragments and noodles. Her mouth opened and closed like her lungs had imploded. 

“I just don’t think I want to marry you.”

“Wha-what, is there someone else? What do you mean you don’t want to?”

“No, Jake, there’s no one else, it’s just…I don’t know, I just don’t see it!”

Jake fell to his knees, his face in his hands. Miranda didn’t know which was more cruel, to console him or to walk away. That was when she went to shower. 

Beneath the swirling, burning steam, water spiraled over the hair-clogged drain. Miranda began to think that maybe she got it all wrong, maybe she did want to get marriedbut as she peered down the drain, she saw the path all marriage took. Muddy and narrow, pressing out the light, suffocating, until it ended in divorce or death.

Things ended with Jake, and despite the initial trauma they found a way to separate amicably. She met Thomas a few months after him. They hit it off at work, cracking jokes over instant messenger about meetings that could’ve been emails. They discussed different species of snails because it was the most random thing they could Google while bored at work. For their first date, Thomas took her to a nice steakhouse where he arrived sporting slicked-back hair and a quilted vest beneath a blazer. He ordered the most expensive filet mignon and malbec he couldn’t pronounce the name of, and made feeble attempts at compliments through wide mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. It was endearing, how hard he tried to impress her.

Six months in he proposed. They had spoken of love and hinted at marriage. In those conversations his voice was always firmer, his gaze always broader than Miranda’s. Then one day he took her out to a local lake. His left hand worked itself around something in his jacket pocket while his right massaged the back of his neck. They talked about nothing in particular until they ambled to the edge of an aged wooden dock. Water lapped against wood, kicking up smells of rotted sedge and milkweed. Miranda noticed snails attached to one of the poles and tried to point them out. Thomas ignored her since he was already kneeling, left hand leaving his jacket. Miranda looked down at him and saw Jake. That heaviness snaked into her chest again, constricting her. 

“I can’t Thomas, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Thomas’ hand hadn’t even left his jacket pocket. It stayed there the entire time he walked away from her, stymying, squeezing. All in all, he handled things much less amicably than Jake. Before walking away, he told Miranda she was heartless. She walked the rest of the lake trail, pondering if that was true or not. When she arrived at the parking lot, fresh skid marks curved away from her beige purse, which was left sagging into itself against the asphalt. Thomas put his two-weeks in at work not long after, and within a month had exited Miranda’s life completely. But by then, she had already met Mariah at a local café.

Mariah hovered like a blue dragonfly over a poetry anthology. She was tidy despite being pierced and dyed. She took fastidious notes, pausing at irregular intervals to look up at a menagerie of hanging planters decorating the amber-lit café. Was she considering the meaning of the poetry? The technique involved? Or simply whether or not the plants were real? During one of her upward glances she noticed Miranda examining her. Miranda stuttered her eyes down then back up again, and Mariah grinned at the gaff. Miranda blushed as Mariah motioned to the empty seat next to her. 

Miranda had never been with another woman, but thought perhaps if men weren’t working out, there was a reason for it. They kissed and made love with intense and equal passion, and Miranda found the intimacy of another woman’s touch refreshing. There was none of the possessiveness, the proving, the doggedness present in a man’s. 

Ten months later, they were blowing kisses aboard a sailboat in the Caribbean. Mariah had surprised Miranda with a private sunset cruise. Sitting together over the bow, watching the waves split, Mariah took a sip of her rum and coke. Six bracelets glistened and jingled from her wrist like lures.

“M,” Mariah started,

“And M,” Miranda added, alluding to their pet nickname for their relationship. 

Miranda laughed and let that sink into the livid waves for a moment. “We could do this forever, you know,” she said. 

That old weight coiled into Miranda’s chest once again. “I—” Miranda faltered. 

It told Mariah all she needed to know. The two stared into the wavering cobalt sunset as ice shifted to the bottom of Mariah’s long glass. 

After Mariah there were a few more: Tony, Lavonte, and lastly Miguel. None of them lasted more than a few months, nor left any more of an impression than that Tony was sweaty; a sous-chef at a high-end restaurant who always smelled faintly of garlic. Lavonte was clean-cut; a doctor-in-residence who grew flowers in his living room. Miguel was oily; a manager at a local boutique movie theater and bonafide cinephile. Driving home from Miguel’s, Miranda watched painted white lines skim beneath her on the empty highway. None lasted longer than a half a second.

One Sunday morning, Miranda dreamt of Seattle. She was on the Space Needle’s observation deck. It was where Jake had picked her out from amidst a throng of tourists and elbowed himself over to ask if she’d been to this coffeeshop down the road. But in the dream, the observation deck was empty save for herself. Every building in the city was a white, featureless cube of the exact same height and width, iterating on and on, eventually folding into the horizon like a quilt. The horizon itself was crimson, a burgeoning sunrise or waning sunset, Miranda couldn’t tell which. Before her was an elevator. It dinged open, and she stepped back, a sudden fear gripping her. Against that fear, some courageous part of herself spoke out, said she needed to take that elevator. So she lurched in, stomach in throat, hands grasping for purchase at the shiny chrome rails lining the interior. The elevator descended, and that’s when she noticed the viewport. It was crystalline, protuberant, and faceted. Miranda was encased in a hollow jewel. From it, her own eyes stared back at her in innumerable shifting fractals. The elevator landed and Miranda awoke in her bed, alone. 

Above her a ceiling fan labored, beating back the summer humidity. Her dream faded quickly, and in its place that familiar invisible weight slithered into her chest. It squeezed out memories. Still thinking of her dream, Miranda fanned through the rolodex of romantic partners she’d experienced in her life. She trod the well-worn path of Things-They-Were-Missing, and foraged fruitlessly for Things-I-Could’ve-Done-Better. The fan blades continued to fight, but the air simply shifted around. She got up, showered, and looked in the foggy mirror. Crows' feet had pitter-pattered their way out from the corner of her eyes, and faint worry lines marked her forehead. A familiar thought passed, so familiar that she found it strange it didn’t stick out more.

What do I want

She wanted to be certain of things, to be sure. Careers end. Friends come and go. Love fails — people die, people cheat, people get bored, people get annoyed, people get hateful. What was the point of any of it? The only certitude anything offered was that it would someday end.

Miranda wrapped her wet hair up into a loose bun and drove to a nearby nature preserve. The parking lot was empty, swimming with heat. She blasted her AC on high and leaned her seat back, staring through a dirty windshield at the bleary blue sky. No clouds. Just a flat, monotonous blue. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a body emerge from a forest trail. It was a man, shirtless and fit with a wet splay of blonde hair across his scalp. Even with the sporty gray sunglasses and lengthened hair, she could tell who it was: Jake. 

Miranda jumped out of her still-running car and waved at him. He looked over, hesitated, then waved back. He trotted to her and dropped his shades, leaving them hanging from a nylon cord between the shadowed dip of his sternum. 

“Wow, I can’t believe, what’s it been, five years, no—”

“How crazy, what have you—”

They both paused and smiled, then eased into a rhythmic, conversational stroll around the humid parking lot. Jake was doing well. He’d taken on a new job as a sales manager at his firm, and out-performed everyone on his team. Soon after that, he had accepted a promotion to sales director. He was focused on his health and his family. Dad was good, mom was good, sister was still trouble but doing well for herself overall.

What was Miranda up to these days? Oh, same old same old. Family was fine. She kept in touch with a couple friends from high school. She’d moved companies twice, but was still in her same role as a business analyst. Boring stuff, but it paid the bills and gave her room to think. 

“And I’ve been thinking a lot,” she said after a long pause, “about everything that’s happened these last few years. About us. Not in a weird way or anything, but you know, just trying to make sense of it all.” 

Jake nodded. Realizing Miranda was waiting for a response, he asked, “Have you found an answer to it all?” 

Miranda stopped and looked at the woods. Tears and laughter burst out of her, hand-in-hand. “No,” she said between a laughing-sob, “honestly no, I haven’t made a single piece of goddamn sense out of the whole thing, you know?”

Jake turned, his chiseled head blocking the sun as he looked down at her. He was a  Greek statue, all marble and verve, eyes resolutely fixed orbs. But the opal eyes she remembered, they had worn away, became weathered stone. Seeing him burned. Miranda’s own eyes were melting. Tears purged like lava through her nostrils too. Breathing seared her, like steam in the lungs.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m so sorry. You were so good to me and I shouldn’t have ended things like I did. And I’ve done it again, Jake, again and again and I…I…” Jake took her in his arms and held her against his chest. He was sticky and smelled of salt and sweat, and something else — the candle from their old place together, he still smelled like that too. Mahogany apple. After a few minutes when her crying had slowed, Jake pressed himself back at arms-length, his hands framing her shoulders. 

“It’s okay,” he said, “really. I learned so much from us. And I’m happier because of it.” Silver gleamed on his marriage finger. It stung Miranda’s eyes. “Honestly, I don’t think we would’ve worked. I don’t want to sound harsh, but you didn’t know what you wanted. I did.” He paused, examining her face as though looking for something he used to recognize. “So it makes sense it didn’t work. It couldn’t have.” 

“You’re right,” Miranda said. “It couldn’t have.” 

Jake dropped one arm from her shoulder, used the other one to guide her around so they were both facing Miranda’s car. She cradled herself with her arms across her bosom. She was shivering despite the heat. When they returned to her car, he bent and gave her one last hug. The heaviness that resided in Miranda’s chest since that morning, since those last few one-note relationships, since Mariah, since Thomas, since Jake had asked to marry her; it uncoiled and shed away as they let each other go.

Jake looked somewhere up and over her shoulder, his adam’s apple working up and down. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, yeah? Just…just keep moving forward. I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.” His voice was all gravel now, so he put his sunglasses on. “You’re a good woman.” He turned and took a few elongated steps, then broke into an even stride back into the woods. Miranda watched him disappear into the shimmering leaves like a sculpture fallen overboard, lost to an emerald sea. 

She looked up at the sky. Skirting across it now was a single puffy white cloud.

What do I want? 

The thought terrified her. She watched the cloud as it began to pull itself in two separate directions. What if what she chose, what she became, simply fell apart? She flipped through her relationship rolodex again, visualizing life paths while a flock of sparrows traced loops across the sky. 

She and Jake never divorced, but one always died in a car crash, or from cancer, or a random mugging, leaving the other destitute, heartbroken. 

She and Thomas had two kids, but their marriage was rocky and ended in an ugly divorce where she ended up with the things and he ended up with the kids. 

She and Mariah lasted for years, but in time they just grew bored of each other. One of them cheated, maybe both, and they agreed to a bitter but fair divorce. 

And the path she was on now — where did it lead? Miranda reached down to get into her still running car, the handle hot to the touch. She yanked and pulled, but it had locked itself. She chuckled bitterly; the handle had burned her. She looked down at her hand, at all the creases and crosshatches leading up to the fresh, red burnmark. 

The lines drew out glimpses of her lives with Jake, Thomas, and Mariah she’d never imagined before. Little moments that glowed like pockets of pristine water, iridescent along the muddy, stifling paths she’d always envisioned for her relationships. 

In one, she was holding her hands over Jake’s eyes as she walked him into the kitchen toward a cake celebrating his promotion. His face was ruddy with candlelight and expectation, the kitchen itself beaming with ruddier faces of friends and family.

Another showed her and Thomas holding hands in rocking chairs on a hand-built wooden deck, looking out at swaying branches and milky stars. The air was fresh, smelled of threshed wheat and dirt. A child — Jacob, was his name — giggled as he ran past, chasing fireflies. Thomas smiled and placed a hand on Miranda's pregnant belly. 

In another she was wiping sweat from her brow as she fastened a shelf to the wall in the café she and Mariah started together. Mariah hugged her from behind, bracelets jingling. She bit her ear and licked her sweat, said she loved that it tasted like her.

Miranda couldn’t help herself; she smiled, she wept. Those paths were gone, washed away and their puddles along with them. Above her, the flock of sparrows scattered. There were so many. She focused on one as it flew toward the cloud that had failed to split entirely.

July 23, 2022 01:26

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2 comments

Peter Naughton
11:43 Jul 28, 2022

An interesting story describing Miranda's search for a path to happiness. There are some memorable sentences here, my favorite one is '"The two stared into the wavering cobalt sunset as ice shifted to the bottom of Mariah’s long glass". I would like the end of the story which emerges as Miranda looks at the lines of her hand as it gets burned on the door handle of her car to be more emphatic so that we can appreciate her insights into life more.

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Kris Hawkins
21:34 Jul 28, 2022

Thanks so much for reading, and for the feedback! It's much appreciated :)

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