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Image by Conrad Ziebland
She was beautiful, and cold. White hair, though she wasn’t yet forty; cropped close to reveal the elegant skull, the small, neat ears. Blue eyes, of course—I have my weaknesses—but she was fond of colored lenses. Green. Violet. Amber. Thinking, perhaps, to warm her face on those occasions when a touch of warmth seemed called for. Of course she was tall, of course she was slim (weaknesses!), with a pianist’s long slim fingers—she was in fact a jazz musician.
“You need to take it easy, girl,” she’d said, early on.
I’m not afraid of cold. I spent a long month on an ice shelf once, studying meltwater lakes. I was never afraid. No, not quite true—that moment when the supply chopper lifted off and disappeared, red lights winking and then gone, into the early dark. That was a frigid night, but I waited out my fear, and I survived.
It was late now, after midnight, not long after I first saw her playing at the bar in town. Enough years had passed that my ice shelf had long since calved and floated away. I’d been denied tenure at the university. A grant had fallen through, as had an almost-engagement. I was at loose ends: a seminar here, a lecture series there. Some days I wondered … not who I was, exactly. More like why.
We were in her car that night, a Porsche convertible (of course). Top down, salty sharp wind blowing. We’d parked on a bluff somewhere north of Mendocino overlooking the heaving black ocean. I could hear it booming, feel it eating into the base of the cliff below. “Really,” she said. “You don’t want to get involved with me.”
She was right, I didn’t. And she was wrong. I did. More than I didn’t, I did.
“I’ll hurt you,” she said. I knew that was the truth. Ghosts and warnings swarmed around her. Even her close friends shook their heads. I knew the signs. And I knew that sometimes, not often but sometimes, it was possible to outrun the fissuring ice to safety. The semblance of safety. The semblance of solid ground.
“I’m a big girl,” I said.
She gave me a long look. “We’ll see,” and she started the engine. The headlights came on, long yellow cones reaching into darkness. She had satellite radio; we listened to jazz oldies: Dave Brubeck, Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk. Nice stuff, and it meant we didn’t have to talk.
I couldn’t find words anyway. But a wordless voice in my mind was making warning sounds, ominous low buzzes—my limbic self always having better judgment than the rest of me. At one point I looked down and saw my right hand gripping the door handle, the left drifting in the direction of the emergency brake. Now that was funny.
She saw it too, smiled, lifted her foot off the gas. “Want me to open the door?”
That was my chance, and maybe I should have grabbed it, gone on with my life only a little the worse for wear. Instead, I unbuttoned my shirt, shrugged out of it, held it over my head, where it filled like a sail. The wind was cold on my bare breasts. I opened my hands, and the shirt was gone.
Sara McAulay is the author of two novels (Knopf), a novel for young readers, and numerous works of short fiction (Black Warrior Review, California Quarterly, New American Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, among others). She received an NEA Fellowship and a New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellowship in prose. After many years away from writing, she has turned to poetry and flash fiction while completing another novel. She lives in Oakland, California.