It was the turn of her head full of dark curls that stole his breath. He wanted to come closer and place his hand on her neck, trace the curve of her ear lobs, bury his face in the unruly hair falling in a wave over her right shoulder. He watched her run her fingers over the cheap jewelry in the gift shop, her lips pursed, and decided to buy it all, the amber necklace, the blue-glass beaded bracelets, the fake emerald brooch, the silver ring with a large round crystal, if only she’d let him place them around her neck, over her breasts, on her fingers and wrists. He approached her from behind, and stood there, eyes closed, inhaling her scent of strawberries, with a touch of cinnamon.
She turned sharply and he felt pain on the right, where his liver was, as her pointy elbow settled below his diaphragm. He groaned and bent over, placing a hand on her shoulder, a gesture unintentional yet fitting.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said taking a step back and leaning away from him, her eyes two enormous question marks. “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
He cracked his face into a smile and managed, “It’s my fault. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
He felt so short of breath that he lowered himself to the floor, his back against the counter, and she slid down next to him. They sat there for a few moments, in silence, looking at the opposite wall with displays of masks and trophies, like two visitors in a museum staring at a painting they couldn’t understand.
“You seemed really taken by those,” he said pointing to the jewelry counter above and behind them.
“I designed them,” she said. “I come here every once in a while to see if anything got sold. Not much since last week. This is the first store in the city to take on my jewelry.” She sighed. “It’s exciting. But they don’t really sell anything.”
He chuckled, and offered her a hand to get up.
“Which one is your favorite?” he asked her. “You must have a favorite, right?”
She leaned over the counter and he took in the curve of her lower back draped in a black tunic, her pointy bare knees, and tiny feet dressed in red leather shoes with silver buckles. He noticed braided leather bracelets on her wrists, and touched his own.
“I love the emerald brooch,” she said. “It’s a replica of my grandmother’s. Was a family heirloom until my mother lost it. I recreated it from memory.”
“I’d love to get it for you…,” he paused. “I don’t even know your name.”
“I’d love to get it for you, Erica. If you let me,” he said.
“That would be so sweet…” She stumbled.
“Jake,” he mouthed.
“Jake,” she repeated.
She lifted her eyes, and he saw the dark green dotted with yellow, circled in black; the curling eyelashes; the thin waves of her eyebrows; the dimples on her freckled cheeks, the chapped pink of her lips, and fell in love.
“Nobody ever bought me jewelry. Perhaps they thought I don’t need any since I design it.”
He paid the fifty dollars, the sum that would ordinarily last him for a week of lunches, and fiddled with the lock, trying to pin the brooch to her jacket, the needle escaping the round head, prickling his fingers. She placed her hand on his.
“Let me,” she said. When she finished, he kept his hand on hers.
Her eyes looked a deeper shade of green with the brooch sparkling below her chin, reflecting the ceiling lights, just above her left breast,.
Jake offered her his hand, and Erica entwined her arm in the nook of his elbow. They walked over to the boardwalk. The wind has picked up, the waves now crashing on the shore in a steady crescendo, the purple clouds weaving a pattern of giant leaves and flowers over the horizon. The Coney Tower silhouetted against the orange sun like a faithful guard of the boardwalk.
“Do you live around here?” she asked.
“No, I’m on the Lower East Side.”
“What brings you to Coney then?”
“Friends at the Sideshow. I’m a free-lance clown, mostly in Manhattan.”
She took a step back and gave him a onceover, a look of disbelief in her green eyes. Jake wrinkled his forehead and nodded, reassuring her. Her laughter rolled like pebbles on the beach. Erica threw her head back, then bent over, hands on knees, charcoal hair falling forward, almost touching the ground.
“Oh my God,” she said breathless. “I’m sorry. I’ve never met a real clown before. That is so funny.”
He laughed with her, and their duet sounded to him better than any music. His eyes teared up, and he had to hold on to the railing. Jake wanted to laugh with her when they were old, when their teeth had fallen out, and gums made smacking noises, and when they could no longer make love, just hold hands.
He straightened out, and placed his hand on Erica’s shoulder, then fixed the single hair stuck on her lip. They haven’t even kissed and he already thought of spending his last days with her.
Erica moved in two weeks later, with her overweight cat, three old leather suitcases full of skirts and semi-precious gems and tools, and a jewelry worktable. He pushed aside the costumes in the closet, and sat on the bed watching her place skirt after skirt on hangers that looked like torture contraptions with multiple metal latches to hold several pieces. Erica hummed “Let it be, let it be,” as she struggled to fit in the last of her wardrobe. Jake got up and took the hanger from her, placed it on the closet door, and walked her to the bed. They stayed there until the stars filled the frame of a darkened window.
The ring had a dot of emerald surrounded by specks of diamonds, the gold band thin as a hair. He had spent the last of his money on the vet for her fat cat. “Now you know why I’m always broke,” she had said as they picked up the cat. “He’s my best friend, and I’d do anything for a friend.” And he would do anything for her.
Jake made penne with cherry tomatoes in olive oil, sprinkled with oregano, set the round table with tea candles and greeted her at the door with a glass of red.
“Has it really been two months?” Erica kissed him on the lips and sat down stretching her legs. He traced the outline of her smooth calves, unfastened the silver buckles, slid off the shoes and kissed her toes, one by one, then placed the small box between her feet. Erica lowered herself on her knees, next to him. Jake thought he noticed a hint of hesitation cloud her face, but the next moment she opened the box, smiled, and said, “Yes.”
He felt as proud as he had back in high school, when he won a national archery contest and all the girls discovered him for the first time. The trophy still graced one of the shelves in his apartment – their apartment – next to his cactuses and masks. He felt that he had finally won the main prize: his bride, the most beautiful girl in the world. What better present could he wish for his thirtieth birthday? He had proved his father wrong.
Erica came to see his performance a week later. Jake felt proud to have her in the audience, emerald eyes locked on his hands, as he made tangerines disappear between his fingers. She came backstage after and invited him for a drink, just the two of them.
“Sweetheart, wouldn’t you like to go out with the cast? They’re great people, and I’d love to show off my future wife,” he said, running his hand through her smooth black hair, kissing her forehead.
“I’d like to be alone with you tonight, if you don’t mind.”
Jake marveled at how much this woman loved him, and cherished every moment alone with him. He would do anything for her, anything at all.
“Of course,” he said squeezing her small hand.
Erica rolled and unrolled the napkin on her plate until the fork fell to the floor, its clinking interrupting the white noise of the restaurant. Heads turned and he saw a flicker of annoyance on her face.
“Is everything all right, sweetheart?” He asked and put his hand over hers. “Is something the matter?”
Erica removed his hand from his, and straightened in her chair.
“Everything is great. There is just one thing,” she said and took a sip of water.
Jake felt the muscles in his jaw tighten. “I’m listening.” He bit his tongue and flinched but she didn’t notice.
“I didn’t know how to tell you. I wasn’t sure about it, actually, but now I am.”
He felt warm inside, not worried at all. He knew what she was about to say, and smiled inwardly.
“I’m pregnant. It’s too late for an abortion. And I wanted to keep it anyway.”
Jake cocked his head to the side, marveling at her beauty and determination. He always wanted a daughter, a little copy of him, who’d run around and laugh at his magic tricks.
“Of course, my love! We shall have this baby.” He covered her hand with his, the engagement ring settling under his palm, stroking her perfectly shaped fingernails.
Erica wiggled out her hand and he watched her drink a full glass of water, gulp after gulp, her eyes set on him without blinking. She put the glass down and dried her mouth with a sleeve of her shirt.
“I was pregnant when we met.”
The ice cubes from his glass hit the floor and slid under the table. Jake felt his shins prickled by the cold bites. He looked at Erica, who kept saying something to him, and couldn’t decipher the words, as if she was encased in a balloon and speaking in a slow motion, “boowaoo, boowaoo” coming out of her mouth. He felt pain in his chest and thought of all the arrows that have flown out of his bow.
“I understand if you want to break off the engagement.” He watched her take the ring off. “That man meant nothing to me. I just wanted a baby. I don’t expect you to understand. I’m really sorry.”
She got up from the table and headed towards the exit. Jake now felt as if he was in a movie, and couldn’t wait for it to end, for the titles to appear, so that his Erica could come back to him, without another man’s child growing inside her.
“Wait!” he shouted.
Erica stopped and turned half way, craning her neck, the gesture that stole his breath two months earlier. Jake watched her loosen her hair from a bun with one hand, the black waves settling on her shoulders. She completed the turn, like a gymnast straining not to lose balance at the end of the performance, looking small but determined, waiting to be judged, a smear of red lipstick on her right cheek.
“Wait!” his father had screamed at him, the eight year-old balancing on the edge of a cliff. Thirty feet below, the dark ocean water roared like an animal. Jake turned back, then pushed away with both feet.
He was flying.
(c) Vica Miller 2012