There was a girl with a tattoo, and a fire. The tattoo was of a wisteria in bloom. It covered her back, the blossoms cascading down her ribs, the branches arching onto her shoulders, the roots disappearing just under her panty line. The fire was red and orange and white like hot coals at its center and made me sweat even in the cool night.
We’d set the fire at the edge of town, where the water met the earth, the sand soft beneath our bare feet. She’d leaned in close, and whispered something in my ear, and I didn’t hear over the sounds of wood cracking and fire snapping and the smell of her, which was like smoke and vanilla and sweat. She wrapped an arm around me and laid her head on my shoulder and the stars burned in their sockets above.
We didn’t make love. You ask how – with the sand and the sea and the stars and the fire, and I can only answer this way – you don’t piss in a baptismal font when you visit a church, do you?
The night wore on, the fire burned down, and the tide rose, until the waves lapped at the blackened timbers. Embers hissed and smoldered in the brackish wake, but not us. We burned bright.
She came to me one night, red hair and plump lips and pale skin shining in the moonlight. She asked to come in and stood on the stoop looking hopeful and frail, and I stared too long before I moved to the side and invited her. She stepped inside and kicked off her shoes and we poured wine and sat on the couch. We talked and I watched the way the light would play on her green eyes or the slightly stained white of her smile. We lied to each other, and I believed it anyway. In the small hours, I traced her tattoo with my fingertips.
We lay in bed, the moon full and beaming through a window, and she asked me if I loved her. I thought about it. Love is a heavy word. It has its own weight, its own taste, and its own texture. Love is a four-letter word that smolders on the tongue after you say it. The silence stretched between us, and in the end, she got up and pulled me from the bed.
We dressed, and she led me into the city. We walked down streets and alleys, past empty parks and cold bright neon. We saw men pressed in close around bright fires burning in barrels and women huddled with their children under sheets of newspaper, shivering in the night. We passed other men, and other women, clean and fresh and shiny and standing outside clubs, or dining in safe restaurants, oblivious. We passed tall buildings of glass and steel and short buildings of stone.
We came to the beach, where they sat around a fire dug in the sand, young and strong and beautiful. They smiled easy and laughed loud, and when she came into their midst, welcomed her with drink and laughter. She smiled back, and we sat on the edge of the fire while they talked and something played on a stereo in the background. She laid her head on my shoulder and took my hand, and I could feel the cold in her skin.
The moon sank over the horizon, lighting the water in white waves, and as the conversation quieted, she leaned in and kissed a young man – tan skin, white teeth, bright eyes. I thought about whether I loved her, and watched him sink into her kiss, watched him struggle with her strength. When it was over, she turned to the next, and the next, and I watched them, as though in thrall to her, fall to her embrace.
Young pale bodies in repose lay on the sand. They were cold and still, and the fire was burning down to ash and ember. I added wood, stoked the fire, and held her hand as the bodies burned. She was warm.
Her mouth was poison; her mouth was wine. I felt the stones of her love weighing me down, and still I sifted through the gravel to find the gold. It was there, the glint of green in her eyes, or the plush red of her lips. It was there in the smile she flashed like royalty throwing a penny to the poor, or the soft touch of her hand on my arm.
Her cold, dead touch.
And still, I loved her.