Friday, November 05, 2010

This Day Forward

After the pre-arranged signal lets her know the wedding is ready to begin, the organist nods. Family and friends stand and turn toward the aisle. I smooth down the front of my dress shirt. Several pairs of eyes are focused on me and, for a moment, I consider leaving from the side door.

But, it's too late to run.

As the music begins, I look down the aisle and our eyes meet. She smiles and I can tell that, while undeniably happy, she understands how I feel today. I appreciate this acknowledgment. Her father looks at me and leans down to whisper into her ear, and she nods as they continue their measured steps toward the altar and away from me.

My friends laughed and called me a delusional romantic when first I told them I wanted to marry her after I returned from our third date. It did not take too long for her to know she did not feel the same. She became a good friend, though eventually it was a roommate who took my place in her wedding dreams.

The music fades and the organist folds her hands on her lap and watches along with us as the minister steps forward, ready to begin the ceremony. When he asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” I wait until I hear her father speak.

“Her mother and I do,” he says with firm voice.

“I do, too,” I whisper.

I promised I would stay, but I can't help it. I leave without looking back at her standing at the altar with her husband.

© 2010 Marisa Birns

Friday, October 29, 2010

Leg Man

He loved the feel of silk stockings. Seamed. Preferably black.

Whenever his fingers brushed the full length of long limbs, he shuddered when reaching that spot where the lace at the top of the stocking met the flesh of thigh. Moments later, after he watched them rolled gently downward and shaken off the tips of toes to the floor, he liked to draw a line up the back of calves with his tongue. 

The lovely young women were allowed only one night with him.

But this early evening duty summoned, and he had to leave for a little while. Before locking the door to the cool, dry, well-ventilated room he called his gallery, he stood before a vertical glass container titled Number Six. It showcased the glorious legs that had belonged to his most recent conquest, their length sheathed in silky sheer darkness with straightened seams and preserved in formaldehyde.

With a shaky hand he reached out and touched the glass, and traced a line up the calves with his fingers.

He could not introduce any of them to his family. They would not want to understand.

“Oh, there you are, dear.” His mother looked up from the table as he entered the dining room and greeted the waiting guests.

“Sorry.” He kissed her cheek and pulled out the chair at her right and sat.

“I was finishing my latest piece and . . .”

“Don't worry, dear,” his mother interrupted and patted his arm, “I've made sure no one took your favorite part.”

She held out the platter of roasted chicken and he speared a drumstick. He planned to eat quickly and return to his apartment. Though his mother would narrow her eyes and make those annoying tsk sounds to show her displeasure with such a short visit, he knew she would not keep him from his business. He was an artist, after all, and she always supported his need to follow when the Muse beckoned.

Later that evening, as he walked out of his home to patronize unfamiliar haunts and find fresh material for Number Seven, he left a new pair of stockings on the bed.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The unique aroma of mild-flavored coffee. He'd bring me some before leaving for work as I lay on his side of the bed. Awake but with eyes closed, I'd wait until he placed the porcelain cup of Blue Mountain regular roast - milk no sugar - on the nightstand before I sat up and gave him my best good morning and thank you smile.

On the mornings we were angry, the routine was the same, except there would be civil greetings but no smile.

The styrofoam cup of tepid coffee – sugar no milk – sat untouched in front of me as I listened to the neutral mediator work through all the issues my soon to be ex-husband and I needed to resolve.

“Because you share the same base of information, it will take less time to negotiate something that makes sense to both of you,” the mediator said after he invited us to sit down at the conference table in the center of his office.

It took one hour. We were married for a short time and there were no children to share.

Today, I sat in the coffee shop near my office and saw him walk by with her, his arm around her shoulder and throwing back his head as he laughed at her words.

I wondered if she waited on the bed for that first cup of coffee or if she sat with him at the table after serving him breakfast.

“Do you want a refill?” The waiter stood at my right and held the carafe over my cup.

I nodded and while he poured the hot water into my cup, I asked for a fresh teabag.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What the Doctor Ordered

When she arrived at the hospital, he was still in the intensive care unit.

Seven days since an ambulance brought him writhing with the pain of an intestinal blockage.

Five days since the operation that cut away the small section of knotted obstruction.

Two days since a nurse snapped an oxygen mask over his nose and parted lips. She explained he needed the assistance; he was a “mouth breather” and his shallow inhales did not feed his lungs.

One day since he looked at her with eyes narrowed in disapproval.

“If you came earlier, I could have gone home with you,” he said and pointed a tremulous index finger at her. “You missed the window of opportunity. I know it was on purpose.” He turned his head away from her.

Though she tried many times during each visit, no amount of cajoling or explanation could disabuse him of the notion that nurses hated him and waited for family to leave before a daily ritual of torture. Doctors told her confusion and paranoia were normal in patients his age – after all, he was still under the influence of disorienting painkillers.

After several hours of sitting and watching him sleep, while listening to the whirls and pings of machinery taking care of his bodily business, she stood.

“Leaving?” he said after pulling the mask from his face. So he was feigning sleep, she thought.

“I'll be back tonight,” she said.

“Don't bother if you're not prepared to take me away from here.”

She kissed his forehead and helped him put the mask back on his face. He closed his eyes and did not say goodbye.

As she left the unit, she nodded to the hospital staff who looked her way. Torturers? She smiled at the thought. Tonight she would return and listen to his complaints and know they were fueled by irrational fears that he was never going home.

Always was a bit of a diva – for a man, she thought and laughed.

She walked the maze of halls that were very familiar to her now and stepped out into the sunshine.

Upstairs, the torture continued.

Friday, September 10, 2010


If you encounter a grizzly, do not run.

That's what Andy had told Sylvia and the others a year ago as they sat around a campfire on their first weekend together in the woods. They were drinking, laughing, and telling ghost stories when Andy interrupted with this unexpected proclamation.

Sylvia looked around quickly, worried she would see a 400-pound mama bear waiting for dinner. Andy smiled and patted her back.

“The most sensitive part of the bear's anatomy is the nose,” Andy continued, and took Sylvia's hand and molded it into a fist. He told them that throwing the hardest punch one could manage right in the center of its nose would send a bear running away in pain. Sylvia laughed at the image, but Andy shook his head and looked somber. The others stared at their hands.

“I remember reading about this guy who saved his life that way,” Andy said while he stroked Sylvia's  arm and stared at the fire.

“He described it like hitting a bag of thawed hamburger.”

No one said anything.

Andy looked up. “Okay, fine, let's talk about something else,” he said, and laughed as he lifted his hands in mock surrender.

“This round's on me.” He went to the cooler for more beer.

Now, after a year of many weekends spent in tents in the woods with Andy and their friends, Sylvia felt comfortable with the inconveniences - and joys - of camping.  As usual, while Andy left for a last visit to the latrine, she spread out the double sleeping bag after packing for the drive home the next day. She was thinking about the appointments she needed to make back in the city when she became aware that the other campers were shouting. What she heard dried up her saliva and made her legs wobble.

“A bear! There's a bear!”

Don't scream or yell. You'll only aggravate the grizzly, Andy had said that first night, ignoring teasing questions about what to do if a ghost attacked.

Not breathing properly, Sylvia pressed both hands across her mouth when she heard Andy's high-decibel cries of fear and pain, cries that ceased after a few moments. Pale and queasy, she could not stop her horrified shout of “No!” as her head turned toward the sounds of snorting and huffing outside their tent.

She regretted packing the cast iron skillet.

As she waited for what might come, Sylvia raised a trembling hand and made a firm fist, thinking of chopped meat.

© 2010 Marisa Birns 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Bearing Gifts

I'm as ready as I'll ever be, Molly thought as she looked in the hall mirror and brushed back a strand of hair from her forehead. Although she had to beg, Charlie agreed to share a drink with her and was coming over.

“For the last time,” he warned her when they spoke on the phone that morning.

Molly decanted the wine in the kitchen and poured a glass to drink while she waited. When the doorbell buzzed, she shivered and went to let Charlie inside.

Each was on their best behavior after the initial awkwardness of their hellos. When Molly offered wine after a few minutes of small talk, Charlie smiled and nodded. “Be right back,” she said as she placed her glass on the coffee table and went to the kitchen.

“I know I can't change your mind about us, and I'm sorry about that,” she called out as she poured the wine and opened the drawer to her small desk. “I just hope we can be friends at some point?” She sighed as she took out the vial of Everlasting Love Trap potion. Two drops.

“Um. Yeah. If you would want to be just friends, why not.” Charlie answered as he took a miniature cellophane envelope from his pocket and leaned forward. Two shakes of the odorless, colorless, flavorless granules dissolved quickly in Molly's glass.

Earlier, an aged man at a rundown shopfront took his money and promised Charlie that in only a few days, the Repel Thee Forever powder would dissipate Molly's inconvenient attraction to him, never to be stoked again. A goodbye gift from Charlie. No sense in having her suffer needlessly, he thought.

Molly returned with his glass. Charlie stood and stretched his hand to her. She gave him the goblet and let her fingers linger on his for a moment before she let him go. He smiled and lifted the glass slightly above his head and waited for her to pick up her own from the table. They faced each other.

“What should we toast?” Molly asked. “To friendship?”

“Well, let's see.” Charlie said. He thought about the luscious Anita waiting for him at the bar. “May all our wishes come true. How about that one?”

Molly nodded. “Perfect,” she said and raised her arm.

They clinked their glasses and laughed for a moment before they each drank deeply.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Yin and The Yang of It

Kathleen is my opposite in looks and temperament. I have dark hair and mahogany eyes. Kathleen’s Irish eyes are cerulean and she was born a redhead.

“A true redhead,” she would tell new friends, “all you have to do is look at my…”

We usually interrupted here because we understood that Kathleen did not censor herself, did not feel the need, did not get embarrassed about using such words as hoo-haw in front of a stranger.

Reserved and hating to be the center of attention, that's me. But Kathleen knew how to break the draconian rules the nuns imposed without ever getting caught. The girl who could say things the rest of us could not because we thought the world -  as we knew it - would end.

Everything is described larger, better, longer in her world. She told me when she met her future husband at a party, it took just "one look" before they kissed for three hours.

“It was only fifteen minutes,” her husband said.

My shyness troubled her. Once, while on a shopping trip with us, her husband modeled a pair of trousers too small for him. We tried not to laugh.

"I just need exercise, dammit," he said and people turned their heads to us.

I walked across the aisles to allow Kathleen time to tell him that thinking is not the same as doing. But, really, I was pretending not to be here with those two.

A saleswoman came to help and he complained he did not need "two wives telling me what to do.”

From across the room,  Kathleen winked at me. I worried.

"You need to listen to us or there won't be any sex tonight," she told him.

Handing him a larger size, the nonplussed saleswoman looked over to me. She called out that “the second wife should come and have a look.”

Shoppers stared as I tried to hide in an empty dressing room.

Through the years, Kathleen’s dinner parties were never oh-I-just-will-throw-something-together affairs, and her telephone invitations held breathy promise of something themed.

“Sister,” she said during one of those calls, “Please come to my loggia party!”

So on a balmy August evening, we sat beside a mural of an ancient Tuscan scene she painted that morning. A group of male friends walked up the driveway dressed in white toga-like outfits. They carried a pallet where Ferret Bob, called that not because he resembled one but because he owned thirteen of the mammals, perched regally, with silver-plated leaves festooning his head and silver makeup highlighting his face in the twilight.

I looked over at some friends and knew we shared this thought: How on earth can we invite Kathleen over to just…dinner?

Kathleen dyed her hair to a golden blonde sheen that day. It suited her. While chatting new guests brought by friends, Kathleen told them she wanted to travel to Ireland to meet relatives, when the talk inexplicably turned to beauty products.

“Oh, no,” I heard her say. “This is not my natural hair color. No. I am a redhead. A true redhead.”

She stopped, and turned to me, and waited. I stood a few feet away talking to the toga boys. I cleared my throat and said, “She can prove it. All you have to do is look at her hoo-haw.”

Kathleen smiled. The world did not end.

© 2010 Marisa Birns

Note: A year ago today,  I wrote my first fiction piece for #fridayflash. This is it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

It's All In The Cards

She stopped reading and rubbed her eyes.

“Is that it?” she said, and sighed and shook her head when her assistant pushed five more envelopes across the desk. Part of the job, she thought. The hard part.

As Director of Admissions at an elite college, she spent many long days sharing coffee and discussions with her team. There were too many qualified teenagers with similar credentials vying for the limited available spots still unfilled. Now, she needed to make final decisions on this last batch of applications left in the Yes or No pile.

Opening the next envelope, she read the name on the cover letter. “Ah, a male applicant,” she said. “We need more males to balance the freshman class.” Her assistant nodded and wrote in a notepad.

The letter consisted of eight sentences: My transcript shows I am an excellent student and more than capable to continue my studies in a stringent college environment. All awards, civic activities, inclusion in sports teams, summer employments, and teacher recommendations are attached as well.

As for my personal essay, when I was in first grade, my teacher had us write on note cards as part of an assignment. We had to say something we admired about our fellow students. Enclosed are the cards written about me. They were true then. They still are. Thank you for your consideration.

She shook the envelope, and a confetti of brightly colored laminated cards fell onto her desk. She glanced at her assistant, who held out her hands palm side up and shrugged her shoulders. Spreading them as if playing a game of solitaire, she looked at each one.

-Brian is smart and reads lots of books.

-He is fun and loves to sing.

-Brian knows lots of big words.

-He is kind and knows how to fix things.

-Brian helps anyone. Even if he doesn't like you.

-He brings good snacks. He shares his lunch if you forgot to bring one.

-He is good at sports. And wins!

And this one from his teacher: Brian is a leader.

She read all the rest, and put them and the supporting documents back in the envelope. Placing it on the small pile on the right side of her desk, she looked at her assistant, who smiled and handed her another one.

© 2010 Marisa Birns

Friday, August 13, 2010

Full Circle

He sat on the bed rubbing her back.

She moaned, then cried softly as she usually did when he touched her now.

When she was pregnant with their first child all those years ago, he would move his young hands and firmly press down and circle that spot in the small of her back.

Yes, right there, she would say, exactly there - but more slowly, please.

So he would slow his stroke and circle and caress until she fell asleep. In the morning, she would kiss him awake.

It was the same when the passing years brought two more children.

When she once told him not to bother waking up for her, he said he did not mind, that they married for better or for worse, and his rubbing her back was meant to make it better.

It does, she said.

Tonight, the oncologists came up to him as he paced in the family waiting room and told him again that all they could do now was to make her comfortable until the inevitable. They urged him to go home to rest for a while, but he shook his head. He turned to his daughter and sons and asked them to go home to their spouses and children until tomorrow.

After they left, he went to her private hospital room to sit with her for another night.

I can't do this anymore, he said now as he listened to her tears while he moved his age-speckled hands and gently pressed down with fingers that slowly circled and lightly caressed that spot.

She stopped crying.

No, don't say that.

But it hurts you, he said.

It does.

I only want to make it better, he told her, and lifted his hands to wipe his eyes.

I know, she said.

Later, she watched him sleep beside her. At least for another night, she fought her body's command that it was time to go.

In the morning, she kissed him awake.

© 2010 Marisa Birns

Friday, July 23, 2010

Memento Mori

The doctor read aloud: The RNA extracted from the formalin-fixed brain tissue identified a viral variant in the nucleotide sequence-

“Please,” Ann interrupted. “What is it?”

He looked at the mother of his eight-year-old patient with compassion evident in his heavy-lidded young eyes and shook his head. “It's rabies,” he said after a exhalation of breath, and watched as she hunched forward and brought one hand to her mouth while gripping the metal arm of the chair with the other.


Several weeks after her daughter returned from a happy vacation at her best friend's summer  house in the mountains, she complained of pain in the knuckles on her left hand. Ann had not wanted to let Janie go, but the other girl's family promised to take very good care of the children. Since Ann's childhood summers had meant working on the family farm and her adult summers as a single parent now meant working long hours in a hot city, she pushed aside her worries and agreed to let her daughter spend the two weeks with them. Janie had shouted “Yessss!” and hugged her before running to phone her friend with the good news. Ann smiled as she heard Janie laughing and discussing possible activities. Apparently swimming and telling ghost stories were part of “Plan Fun.”


The throb in Janie's hand progressed to acute pain and infection throughout her body and later, violent movements, uncontrolled excitement, and depression. Alone at home, Ann lay awake night after night while Janie's doctors treated one possible diagnosis after another. Hopeful one moment, despairing in the next when the day's remedies proved false.

“You will need post exposure prophylaxis immediately,” the doctor said, and walked over to help her get up from the chair.  “But...there is nothing we can do to stop the disease for her. I am so very sorry.”

Ann stood and brushed her hands against her silk skirt, smoothing down the pleats. She looked at the doctor's hand stretching to touch her shoulder and turned away. “I know it's not a diagnosis anyone wants to hear,” he said as he lowered his hand and tapped the file on his desk.

“Never.” Ann walked out into the hall and left the door open behind her.

“Goodbye, Mommy!” Janie said all those weeks ago as she ran to the car and climbed in the backseat where her friend waited. She looked out the window and waved. “Don't be sad. I'll bring you back a present. I'm not going away forever, you know,” and blew a kiss to her mother, who put out her right hand in a pantomime of catching and rubbing it against her cheek. 


Ann now leaned her forehead against the door to Janie's hospital room, where she lay in a coma, and did not wipe her eyes before she went to the nurse's station to receive the first in a series of injections.