ss abt. a strange connection forged by a chance meeting and strengthened by a death
Charlie's fingers traced the blurred outline of a serpent tattoo that circled the cold, stiff wrist. She had never seen a dead body before, and the peculiarities of the funeral perplexed her more than they saddened her-- the dramatic rumblings of the beloved corpse’s hysterical mother, the syrupy overripe smell of too many roses and a sea of stranger’s faces which mirrored one another’s in expressionless grief.
"You’re gone. Celia James is dead." she thought out loud.
"Is that what she is?" Lucas said approaching her from behind.
He wrapped his arms tightly around her delicate frame and rested his head gently on her boney shoulder. They stood together and stared blankly at the listless body. It was foreign to them both. The body, though it wore Celia’s scars and possessed her form hardly resembled the woman they loved. Without her piercing laugh or her darting eyes; without any of the idiosyncratic gestures or curious mannerisms, it was hard to imagine that this long slender corpse was, for 34 years, home to Celia’s electric life.
At the onset of another of Celia’s mother’s exaggerated cries, Charlie pulled from her pocket a pack of Camel filters and began toward the exit. Lucas, pulling her back briefly, gripped her tightly and kissed her neck, taking in a deep breath before letting her go.
Walking past the gaudy, cross-shaped floral arrangements, and through the funeral parlor’s French doors, Charlie remembered her 23 birthday…
That night, now years ago, was half-full of some new-found self- reliance, and a sense of adventure which finally possessed the means to an end. She decided to treat herself to an evening out. A new town afforded her the canvas for a new persona. She dressed herself and headed for the door.
Charlie shyly emerged in the threshold of La Carafe and took a seat at the far edge of the polished maple bar. The atmosphere was everything she’d hoped for: candlelit, gently bustling with smiling 30-somethings, couples on dates, and men sitting alone with novels folded at the spine. She awkwardly thumbed a stray thread on the sleeve of her blouse as she waited for the bartender. Just to her left, he was engaged with a woman. She was tall, almost too thin; something about her mouth reminded Charlie of a Botticelli goddess. She leaned forward whispering sweetly into the man’s ear, then whipped back into her seat filling the room with her laughter. The interaction suggested she was more than just a patron.
Breaking away from his enamored guest, he turned to Charlie and began to speak.
“Evening... What can I get for you?”
“I… I think… I’m not really… A glass of the house Cab would be fine.”
She could feel her cheeks begin to redden and she shifted inelegantly on her stool. Charlie cringed at the thought of sounding like her mother.
“Oh Darling, that’s no good. Lucas, bring her a glass of the Tritono- and one for me too.”
The slender woman took the seat beside Charlie, greeting her with a bright, toothy grin and a lesson in how to order.
“It’s a Malbec; Mendoza actually... It’s big, you’ll love it, I promise.”
“Would you like to try the Malbec, sweetheart?” he asked with a tender smile in the direction of his presumptuous guest. His voice was masculine, though he seemed to braid his words; curving them into one long sound.
“Sure, that would be great. Thank you for the recommendation.” She said turning to the woman.
“My pleasure; I’m Celia by the way.” She replied, extending her hand to Charlie.
Lucas leaned in, hesitant to interrupt and politely asked, “Would you mind letting me peek at your I.D… just a formality.”
"Oh shut up Lucas.” Celia said, smiling.
“No… I mean, its fine. Here you go…” she stuttered, handing him her license, then turned to Celia.
He thanked her and reached overhead for two of the bigger, bulbous glasses and placed them in front of the women now leaning into one another on the edge of conversation.
“Lucas and I first tried this one two years ago,” Celia explained as he poured, “when we did a tour of Argentina’s wine country. The whole experience was completely incredible but this wine was like, the climax, you know?”
Charlie just nodded in agreement while grinning widely and reaching for her glass. Before she could speak, Lucas said softly, “This one’s on us. Happy Birthday.”
“Birthday! No shit. Well happy birthday, little girl!” Celia gushed, raising her glass in a toast.
“Wow, thank you. Really…” Charlie was almost blushing as she lifted her glass.
“Well, how old are you now, my dear?” Celia asked with a radiant smile that dripped genuine warmth with every word that rolled off of her tongue. Lucas looked on, eyes mostly fixed on Celia. She was magnetic when she spoke. The air in the room seemed thickest beside her.
“Twenty-three; just like a grown-up.” Charlie laughed.
As the night progressed, the grip of Charlie’s self-conscious demeanor loosened in the presence of these strangers who gave the impression of a pair of old friends. They laughed loudly, from the gut; perhaps a few times from the heart. The wine did its work on both women and their conversation tangled around bigger and bigger subjects. Lucas watched them both, ringing in every now and again, it was obvious to him that the girls had a delicate chemistry. The fiercely opposite nature of their personas complimented the conversation which worked in cycles of question and answer, overlapping sentiments and sweet laughter. The bar closed down around them. Charlie leaned back from their big introduction and noticed the time.
“God, it’s late. This has been… really wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday. This is one of those nights that you don’t want to end.”
“Well then I have a solution birthday girl... It doesn’t end, and you join us for a nightcap at our place- It’s cozy, you’ll like it I think. Lucas, what do you say?”
“By all means,” he answered grabbing a bottle from behind the bar and shoving it into Celia’s leather pocket book.
Charlie reverted to her usual disposition, panicking a little at the invite
“Are you sure? I mean…”
“Shall we?” Celia quipped, interrupting her bashful new cohort.“Come on sweetheart, let’s go.”
Lucas and Celia were by no means rich, but they did have an authentic taste and a relentless desire for things of quality. Each room was the perfect amalgam of old and new, like the antique mahogany card table draped with a Hermés scarf. On their rust colored walls hung tapestries, which they mentioned were from Bath and Prague. Charlie wondered whether or not the artifacts were genuine, until pouring through their volumes of photographs, some which they had chronicled by country, and some by mood. The mood was always warm and relaxed, she would soon learn, but never lacking depth.
“Well go ahead, make yourself comfortable,” Celia said.
She floated through the rooms tidying this or that, moving a pile of books from the seat of a chair to a dark end table which housed brass trinkets. Charlie’s eyes scoured the cluttered walls and fell upon a picture of Celia and Lucas dancing against a back drop of white lights strung across a make-shift dance floor, and the burnt faces of locals smiling as they looked on.
“You guys look so happy,” Charlie said as she continued to survey the loft.
“Well…That’s because we are,” answered Celia turning in to Lucas’s chest. Then, breaking from his embrace, she smiled as she spoke, “I’m going to slip out of this dress.”
On the far side of the open floor, Celia began disrobing. Hidden only by the darkness, Charlie could see the seemingly perfect silhouette of Celia’s body. That image would remain etched onto the landscape of her psyche for years to come.
“Come here birthday girl,” Celia shouted while wrapping herself in a short kimono-style robe.
Charlie joined her in their bedroom, and stood beside Celia who was leaning against her antique vanity, thumbing through a collection of perfume bottles.
“Pick one… for your birthday; any one you’d like.”
“Oh I… I couldn’t… I mean, you don’t have to…”
“Shhh, pick one.”
Charlie scanned them all, and finally settled on a cobalt blue vial with a stained ivory aspirator.
“Is this one okay?”
She replied softly with her thick, kind voice,
“That one is very okay… Good choice, little girl.”
…Lucas, finally breaking from the role of distraught lover- his post of courageous consolation, joined Charlie on the funeral parlor’s wrought iron bench. His somber mood lacked the hysterical nature of the crowd, but was not without the dimensions of grief. Casually, he took the cigarette from her mouth and took in a deep drag, and after a very slow exhale, they watched the smoke encircling them disappear.
“She loved you Charlie,” he whispered, resisting the volume that would give away how his voice was about to break and the tears that would fall with the gravity of his loss; a weight creeping in like the cherry glow hitting the filter.
"Nice Perfume," he said with a forced smile, “It was her favorite you know?”
Charlie met his downward glance with a look of surprise.
“No… I didn’t.”