If We Were Really There
Words By Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams, Art By Mclelun Lee
The dress was white with big red blooms all over it. “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future,” I said to the girl in the mirror, and waved goodbye. I floated to Van’s house, actually floated. When I tied my hair up in front of him, he said, “Beautiful armpits, Hannah,” and I winked recklessly. Just then, Helms appeared at the door, a bottle of wine under each arm. The boys played some songs, and I poured, and I tapped my feet. We lit a joint and the plumes coiled up blue in the lamplight. Helms scratched the strings and his beard at the same time until his beard sounded metal, and we told him very seriously that he was a genius. Van rubbed some lemon verbena on my wrist—he was always up to these things—and I repeated the Chanel line, which really, if I’m honest, I’d socked away just for him.
We left the bottles on the counter and dashed down to Phoenix on the river. Van always could make a car go. They put us up in the mezzanine and my dress swished the whole way. We ordered wine. We demanded a chiller. We pointed at the art. We said we’d write romance novels. Helms said, “You two could be on the cover,” and Van and I leaned close together and posed and waved our glasses in the air.
In my memory, we spotted the wire sculpture all at the same time and became very interested in it all together. I said, “What an astonishing structure of a phoenix,” and we all sat there and let ourselves be astonished. I drifted downstairs for a bit, and perfect strangers said, “What a pretty dress.”
We were in that restaurant for years and years. Helms declared once we were on the road again that he was going home, and he almost did too. He almost did. It was one of those moments when the world slows and splits right in two and all there is to do is watch the parallel yous go ghosting around the bend.
But, that quickly, the whole business sped back up again as if nothing had happened. We flew down to the beach in that darling little black car of Van’s, and he threw the keys to a valet at Boca Bay. We felt very floaty and fine. I was doing a little twirl when a wind went whispering down my spine. I laughed as they inspected my back in the dark of a shrugging palm.
“Your dress,” Van announced, “has popped.”
Well, the pop was so big the whole long night popped with it. The boys held my seams together until the car came back around.
I laughed all the way back to Van’s, and laughing still, I tilted side to side. They tugged at me for a while but, in the end, I tilted towards Van. The dress was hopeless. A pair of baggy pants and a men’s shirt were trotted out for me to wear. We drank and drank. We wrote some thoughts and put them in a birdcage for later. We wrote poems, passing the lines one to another. I could smell the verbena’s bright tang on the pulse of my wrist.
We were so in love with each other that night—our last night. Because poof! After that, everything got weird. Helms never stopped drinking; he never went home. He imagined Van and I were kissing that night, secretly. He said to us when we went looking for him, “You were. I saw you. And you, Hannah, you gave him head under that phoenix.”
Truly then, the night was over. But after he said it, what do you think? Van and I ran away and kissed secretly and only stopped kissing when we heard Helms had been locked up in a place where people clipped your toenails for you and he stayed there, dying of thirst, for what seemed like a century.
Stumbling away from me, Van fell fast asleep in a life with a woman who was too reasonable, finally, to have dresses that blossomed and blushed and popped at the slightest provocation. I hear he swims in the middle of winter to wake up. I hear it doesn’t work.
And can you blame me for walking back. All that long, bruising way back. Can you blame me for charting the flashing flight of that endless night.
As if ash were anything more than an exhausted breath, an elegy for heat.