THE ROAD AHEAD | Katie Nickas’s short story documents the sweet thrills of something new and uncomplicated.
by Katie Nickas
We sprawl beneath the canopy of colourful scarves tied to my bedposts as Belinda Carlisle sings in French on her Voila! record. The notes carry across the room and mix with the scent of Nag Champa burning on my incense stand.
He lies beside me, head indenting the duvet’s mandalas, rough haircut grazing my belly as I peer through the window at the waxing gibbous moon, feeling ancient and eternal – a woman acquiring rings of wisdom.
Undoing my bra is a struggle. I reach up to assist, but he brushes away my hand.
‘Let me do it,’ he says. ‘Keep looking outside. You’re beautiful in the light.’
We’ve been through this before. As the seconds pass, I consider offering oral, think of the ensuing sense of power, the stubborn persistence and grit and transcendence of a tired neck. Or maybe I’ll let him fish in my mermaid’s net for a while.
I reach for my shirt.
‘Let’s try again later,’ I suggest, pulling it back on. He tilts his chin upward, wearing a look of wild gratitude, eyes dancing like a child’s.
To celebrate my thirty-fifth, we walk to the market where we first met. He fills a reusable shopping bag with cabbage, sweet potatoes, and other veggies. We return to his apartment and he cooks me stir-fry, followed by a dessert of tapioca pudding and coconut cake with arrowroot. We eat off one plate with two forks, then fall into the sofa and laugh through sitcoms. Our bodies are fluid, morphing into animal, vegetable and mineral. Once, I was human, but now I am a carnivorous plant, a Venus flytrap that devours all ten thousand of his stares. Over the course of the next couple hours, we explore the landscape of each other’s mouths, writing a new language with our tongues.
On weekends, we visit the park to be amidst couples pushing strollers and children with balloons. I study him in his crewneck sweater as he ignores the signs saying not to feed the birds, tossing them pieces of bread and casting me sidelong glances. Like a baby bird, I’m hungry and want him to feed me. But all along, I’ve reminded myself not to do that. I once liked a guy who always drank iced tea, so I ordered it whenever we went out, thinking it would make him like me back, but it didn’t. Instead, I ended up drinking a lot of tea when I wanted soda.
‘I guess this makes me like St. Francis,’ he says with a strut that draws looks from strangers. He tosses more scraps.
‘I guess it makes you someone who doesn’t follow park rules,’ I answer. It’s odd how he behaves in certain instances and not others – but then again, so do I.
On our way home, we see a bra lying on the sidewalk next to the bus stop. Black. Lace. Flung. He points as he steps over it, spelling out the letters, B-R-A-S-S-I-E-R-E, as if I’ve never seen and wouldn’t recognise one.
When I get home, I take off the one I’m wearing and leave it on the living room floor in a pile of dirty laundry. I set up scenes that look like coincidences to give meaning to our encounters when I know there is none and that they’ll lead no further.
But whether they do doesn’t matter. Ever since we met and started hanging out, I’ve felt like a kid, free to roam without facing the consequences of sex. The scenery around us has come alive like time-lapse photography that captures flowers blooming and bees making honey and the sun crossing the sky. The world zips by at hyper-speed while we amble along sidewalks, enjoying the crunch of leaves beneath our feet.
My heart leaps in my chest when I hear my phone chime each day at 4:56 and see the letters of his name appear on the incoming message. I leave the office in a jiffy and skip down the stairs and out to the street. We find our stride easily. The road unfurls before us like a ribbon, an unchained silver necklace. Beneath the shaded elms, his eyes shine like mood rings, like flipped coins that have yet to land on heads or tails. Always, there is a feeling that I wish would decide on an emotion.
“We find our stride easily. The road unfurls before us like a ribbon, an unchained silver necklace.”
I consult my co-worker, Paula, who’s sworn off most of the men we’ve discussed. Her ex was an alcoholic who kept a scabbard by their bed, she’s told me multiple times.
‘He might be your Man of La Mancha,’ she suggests. We’re eating lunch al fresco, and she squints through the sunlight.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Don Quixote, remember?’ She takes a bite of kale and chicken salad. ‘We read it in high school Spanish class. He goes after Dulcinea, the prostitute. They meet in public. He recognises her virtue and tries to take her home and reform her.’
‘That’s not how I remember the story,’ I tell her. ‘Dulcinea was imagined. He thought he needed a woman to be chivalrous. Why does what I told you about me and this guy remind you of Man of La Mancha?‘
She shrugs. ‘All I’m saying is be careful. A lot of guys, from my experience, turn out to be like Quixote.’
She continues to munch on her salad while making strange giggling sounds. I focus on a vase of gladiolas placed in the corner to distract myself.
There are more dates, more strolls, and more sightseeing. We sprawl across the mattress, my body a desert canyon and he a starry-eyed lynx peering up from the peaks and valleys of my new paisley comforter. He lies in my ravine like a river, sculpting new terrain.
When we ride bikes around town, he veers purposely off course, cutting a path through adjacent parking lots.
‘Let’s go this way,’ he says, hearing my voice trail behind as we loop around a corner and slide down a hill past a theatre and a string of art galleries, stopping to hear a group of street musicians play accordions and bagpipes. It’s what I’d hoped for – the serendipity that would seal the night and lend it a sense of completeness.
‘I went to a funeral with bagpipes once,’ he says.
‘It was nice until the drone pipe started playing in the background. That instrument’s all noise. Shall we continue?’
He pedals forth and our ride wends to the market, where we sit on the patio eating coconut almond and cara cara orange gelato and discuss all the places we want to visit: Arches National Park. Big Bend. The Davis Mountains. Palo Duro Canyon. Telluride. The Cosmos at Marfa. Out west to stay in a teepee, an airstream, or a flying saucer. Out west in a ’50s Plymouth to view outsider art. The Alps to hunt for mushrooms. Glacier National Park to spot elk. The list goes on, and I marvel at our ability to keep updating it with new destinations.
Still, I wonder how long we can prolong this adventure – this build-up of moments not leading to sex – the thrill of leaving it open-ended and not knowing what lies ahead. Part of me suspects it’s a matter of time before it runs its course and peters out with a whimper. Then, I remember the fun is in possibly never finding out.
Katie Nickas | @katienickas | katienickas.wordpress.com | Instagram: @katienickas
Katie Nickas writes literary fiction centered on themes of existentialism and transcendence. Her work is published or forthcoming in journals including Asymmetry, The Furious Gazelle, formercactus, Milk + Beans, Reflex Fiction, Sidereal Magazine, Soft Cartel, and STORGY.