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Ash and Bea

by A. T. J. Cember

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4


Bea tossed the book down into the taupe, powder-like river bank. Ash saw the tears streaming down her face at the side of his vision and noticed that his heart was pounding again, as if he were afraid. He didn’t actually know what he was.

“Is there more?” he suggested haltingly, knowing there wasn’t.

“No more,” answered Bea, in a grave, quiet voice.

There was approximately one hundred heart beats worth of silence. Then Ash said, “I’ve changed my mind. About some things. Even since this summer.”

Bea felt the heat of his gaze blaze into that part of her head where her eyes were just barely hiding around the corner from her temple. She felt paralyzed, and hoped he would continue to speak.

“You’re really pretty.” Ash used a childish voice that Bea was fairly certain she’d never heard before. Then it dropped back the octave as he continued.

“Yeah, you’re not one of those girls who walks by and I’m like ‘damn, she’s hot’, but you’re beautiful to stare at, to watch, to think about. It’s like you have an inner beauty that’s somehow still physical.”

Bea looked at her hands, opening and closing her palms slowly, rhythmically, the only possible human action in the world. Ash got up and walked across the boulder a few feet in front of her and leaned on it, so that he was facing her. His head hung down near his chest, but was tilted up to watch her.

She lifted her chin just enough to feel the rush of danger that the flame in his eyes gave her, and lowered it again. “I think the same thing of you, just to set the record straight,” she said softly.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him turn about ninety degrees, start playing with a crevice on the rock with his lean hands, the veins shifting under the tan skin as his face went from slightly enchanted to slightly distraught.

Bea swallowed and sat more upright, gaining courage. “What are you feeling?” she asked.

Ash shook his head slightly. “I just really want to give you a hug right now.”

Bea stood up and took the few paces over to him and gently opened her arms. He walked into them. She buried her hand in the hair on the back of his head, realizing it was every bit as thick and magnificent as she’d always imagined, as if she could feel its darkness.

“You’re such a good person,” she whispered, as his grip strengthened unexpectedly around her rib cage.

There was something unnerving about suddenly being able to feel the motion of another person’s ribs, the strength of another person’s back, when, before then, you had thought of them as so cerebral, you were always surprised to see that person eat or drink.

She pulled away after a few seconds but felt that he held on to her, both hands across her biceps, not letting go. The veins she had been watching were there still, only inches away from hers. She raised her gaze above her glasses and felt a quiver down her spine, turned her cheek towards his glowering gaze. She realized he wasn’t going to let go, he was being aggressive with her! She let her arms go completely slack.

“Ash,” she pleaded, “this can’t happen, it’s too late, I have a boyfriend I’m in love with...”

No response! It was as if he was totally gone, aside from the unfamiliar force. He took one hand off her arm and brought it to her jaw, turning it towards his own...

* * *

Bea awoke with a start. Her heart was pounding. Madame Lozenge’s voice was crooning away peacefully. There was no more Garden of Eden, just a classroom in Borges Hall. She hadn’t cheated on Victor, it had been a dream. She felt a flood of relief.

She imagined her beautiful, devoted boyfriend, his angelic blond hair and ice-blue eyes. He was brilliant, compassionate, insightful, and playful; perfect, the epitome of creation! And hers, and had never been anything else from only hours after they had met!

And then, she looked to the opposite side of the room, to the row of desks on the other wall, against which dark curls were pressed between the white paint and the head of her best friend on campus, Ash.

He routinely fell asleep during French 439, this sleepy afternoon class with a grandma-like professor. As usual, she waited for him after class; as usual, she filled him in on the rather unsubstantial lecture which he had bypassed in slumber.

“I had a weird dream,” he said afterwards. “There were these perfectly shaped fruits hanging from the trees, mathematically perfect. You know what I mean?”

And he looked at her with a particularly inquisitive glance. Bea said nothing but kept his gaze.

“I think we need to talk more about this dream,” she said, “but not now, because I have to meet Victor.”

“Why don’t you put these thoughts in writing?” Ash suggested. “You’ve always been quite skillful at that.”

“Yeah, I will. See you later.”

They smiled deep, wise smiles into the sunset and walked separate ways.

Bea went home to have dinner with her parents and her brother that night. In her native little room, looking out the same window she’d looked out of during eventful and eventless evenings alike for the past fifteen years, she sat down to write.

My dear Ash,

I was shaken, frazzled. And I guess it was because before then, I had never really conceived of the possibility of physical desire. Not for you, or you for me. I had found you beautiful, yes, but like a picture one never wants to turn away from, and looks at it even while backing out of the room. It never occurs to them to touch the picture, to be captured by the picture, controlled by it, to surrender to it.

It had never occurred to me either, not until I saw your eyes glow with a particular flavor of fire and felt you still holding my arm a millisecond after I thought it was already over and how that made my heart pound and how amazed I was that I’d never really thought of this before.

Thought of in a disembodied way, yes, I’d imagined your house having a piano room like that years before I ever saw it, and I saw myself being carried out of it in your arms to some unknown and sacred dungeon of a destination while a thunderstorm raged outside the sleek glass panes much like the one that rages now outside my window.

I saw myself, as if in a movie. But never really thought about it, never saw your eyes or felt your touch. I remember wondering, “Is it even possible to touch him? Or would he slip through my fingers leaving nothing but a sense of warmth, untouchable dark matter that seethes with the secrets of the universe?”

And those touches I imagined? They were always signs of tenderness, but never of desire. Holding your hand, running my fingers through your hair, telling you that you weren’t alone and letting you feel my touch in case words weren’t enough to make you believe it. That still has never happened, and something else happened in its stead. Perhaps the most unexpected feeling in my whole life and, yes, that’s saying something.

I also want to say that perhaps at that very shallow, much uncontrolled moment, I in fact “wanted you not to be OK.” But in general, that’s not the case at all. I mean specifically with respect to this. That you could take me and ravish me or leave me is the height of dominance.

I understand what you mean about beauty being inner and still being physical. I think of it like this: only exceptionally beautiful and ugly people have “opaque” exteriors. When it comes to these people, it is difficult to find them the opposite of what they so clearly are, no matter their content.

But for many people (and I would consider both you and myself to be in this category), exteriors are present but largely transparent, so filled is their presence with evidence of the interior: the looks in eyes, the smiles on lips, the gentle strength of every movement of their hands.

When these things betray the rare glimmer of a truly alive person, all other things inexplicably assume a grave and addicting beauty: the curl of hair, the tone of muscles. And who might be a truly alive person? More importantly, who might be a truly alive person who understands, and least to the most modest of degrees, what it means to be me? Who is alive enough that I am drawn to dedicate myself to learning what it means to be them?

He who lives internally, he whose own experiences and sensations require too much attention to spare any to the suffocating froth of trivialities and yet who seems to yearn for another to save themselves as well, so he won’t be alone.

I had only my eyes above the water by the time I saw you, only waist deep, and I felt certain “He will understand it!” This feeling I learned only later is called in Russian “toska.” Not a sadness but a striving, a compassion to replace complacence, even at the price of tears.

But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. This is only secondarily about companionship and understanding. Primarily it is about joy. The essence of which can be found in a swirling tapestry of images that I’ve hoarded over the years, mostly from photographs: you picking raspberries, you at the Turkish market, you dripping wet straight from the river, your absurd sixteen-year old hair sloshing about your face in a violent interpretation of Beethoven.

I hear you reciting “The Walrus and The Oyster” with unexpected vigor in front of our middle-school English class and, much later, you reading from an old volume of Lermontov with a Brodsky-like timbre. How lucky I’ve been!

Suppose we were cursed to be the only two people in the world, sitting on separate rocks in an ocean that was too dangerous to swim even the short distance. But suppose it was quiet, and always pitch-black. And from there, never touching, never seeing, I could still hear you read poetry. I think that wouldn’t be so bad.

Copyright © 2014 by A. T. J. Cember

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