Illusion

Photo by Tiffany Melanson : Story by Kayla King

We smoke for the first time together in her attic apartment, the ceiling unfinished, hidden by tapestries that meet at a point in the center. One is pale purple and patterned with flowers. Another holds colors of a sunset.

She packs the glass bowl, and hands it to me. When she says the word, “Greens,” I watch her mouth open to reveal her teeth, and it looks more genuine than the smile I saw back at the bar.

“I never — ” I say, and she adjusts my hands, and lowers the flame in front of me. I take a deep breath and cough and she laughs as the small amount of smoke I’d taken in fills the space between us.

I can’t stop myself from kissing her again, this time with tongues and teeth, which clink together like our wine glasses just an hour or so before.

I met Prue at a place called Gypsy’s.

She pointed to women dressed in thick petticoats, brocade blooms patterning the fabric. She told me they called themselves sisters of the sun, homemade henna tattoos on their arms to prove it.

“You have to meet the fortune teller,” she said, pulling me to a table near the back of the bar.

I waited in line while she drank more wine, staining her lips a deep red. I wanted to kiss her an infinite amount of times, but I didn’t tell her this. Instead I kissed her once, and proceeded to the table.

“You are faithful, a loyal man, true. But you see the colors, too,” the fortune teller said, tracing the lines of my palm. I wondered how they were visible beneath my callouses; if she knew I was a painter. I said nothing, just nodded and tipped her and walked back to Prue, who gave me her hand. I traced it the same way the fortune teller did without seeing anything but her in front of me.

She said, “Follow me.” And I did.

Prue kissed me from one street corner to the next until we reached her place.

Now, when she smokes, she seems to fall back against the world, and as I take another hit, I wait to feel the same thing. But I find myself distracted by the way the bowl gleams beneath the lights on the ceiling, so purple and pure and pulsing when I squint just right.

“The lights,” I say, because I can’t say anything else. I don’t know how to explain that the lights look more alive than I feel because maybe they are alive and I’m just here; an illusion.

“I strung them myself,” she says. And I kiss her for the lights, and the moment. I can’t remember ever feeling the world in such a monumental way.

She offers me another hit, holding the bowl in front of me, letting me go slow.

“You see the fortune teller,” I say.

“Where?” Prue asks. I trace the outline of the purple flowers on the tapestry above.

We find other shapes on the tapestry, too, like we’re cloud gazing, but the ceiling is the sky, and after a while, my eyes feel heavy, and I sink into the floor, falling back against the world.

***

The first few weeks together exist in a black hole; time tentative and unreal. At my place, Prue runs her hands over the half-finished people who live within my sketchbook.

She dips her finger in a bit of blue, same as the spring sky. She paints points on blank pages. “The mountains,” she says. “They’re calling me.”

“I’ve never been,” I say, my brush in the blue, letting it puddle just so beneath her eyes.

She explains time in the mountains changes people. “But I know I’ll never go,” she says. The words are clipped, as if she’s cut her hopes before they feel too real. Her eyes wander, reveal her gypsy soul within that bathetic body; an unmoving juxtaposition between want and need.

I paint Prue with perfect lips, covering the canvas with her arms and covering those in small swirls, which remind me of the sun and our first date and the beginning of everything.

“What’s your favorite season?” I ask. “For the background, you know?” I try to imagine the color scheme she’ll choose before she says it, but I can’t.

“The In-Between. That’s what I love,” she says. “One sprout through frozen ground, not quite thawed. Dandelion snow. The just-there-crisp as the first leaves fall; days disappearing,” she says.

When I finish, Prue looks at my work, stares at herself, and the faint hint of mountains beyond. I wonder if she recognizes this version, almost sad. She kisses my hands despite the paint, and I think she understands; I know her.

***

Most nights we sleep and smoke beneath my painting of Prue, her acrylic eyes protecting us from the world. I kiss my Prue and see her in shades of yellow: butter and daisies and faded henna and honey. I don’t remember when I start to see her this way, until one day, her jaundiced skin is all I see.

***

Prue sleeps and sleeps and never wakes. I’m not sure where she goes, but when I look at her, I feel trapped in the sun’s rays, eyes blinded. Sometimes it hurts too much to look at her, so instead I kiss her, and ask if she believes in the future. When she doesn’t answer, I roll a joint with thin sketch paper from the book she bought me for my birthday. While she sleeps, I smoke, and I wait for everything else to disappear.

***

One month later, Prue disappears.

They take her body and leave me with her painting. And for days after, I paint her. I surround her with pale purple flowers, eyes clouded with something I could never see.

I pack her few belongings from the attic apartment, and bring them back to my place. I take each of the tapestries, and the purple lights, which burn out.

***

I’m arrested outside her building.

The officer waits until I finish the henna lines on Prue’s arms, which I’ve painted on the side of the building.

She exists for everyone now, the brick bleeding through her skin. Her lips are dark red and everything else is pale and pure and if I squint just right, she starts to fade at the edges; only a ghost.

***

I’m released the next day, and I return to her building because I need to see her.

From the alley, I smell fresh paint.

Prue isn’t here.

Painted over.

Disappeared.


Originally published at www.oneforonethousand.com on June 21, 2016.