Ashtray for a Heart

The MMO analysis continues soon. But right now, it’s time for rock and makeouts. Let’s do this thing. Parental warning: Explicit Lyrics.

They were always together. They never spoke.

Oh, there was the occasional grunt. The occasional request for a passed wire, a spare cigarette. But they never really talked. She was always obsessed with her guitars, her equipment, her makeup, all the little things that radiated her sex and hurt on the stage. She was the odd one out. Didn’t party with the band. Always there to do her own setup, her own breakdown. Showed up quiet to practice with crumpled looseleaf sheets of lust and brilliance.

She didn’t trust anyone, and as many times as she wrote that, as she sang it, you’d never guess how far it went. Her makeup box had a lock. Nobody touched her guitars or tuned them but her. Such was Maia.

He had some vague idea, but he noticed the fading photograph of her on his work shirt more often than the ghost who moved around the stage. He did party with the band, sometimes. He liked them, good guys, not overly sleazy and they rarely needed a babysitter. You could hang with them, have a few beers. He’d liked the music when he started, but it was all white noise now, even Maia’s caramel voice and aching words. Such was Blake.

After the show, as the air conditioning started to work again and sweat condensed on whatever it could, as the beer fumes and strands of cigarette smoke tangled in their noses, they’d work. He knew her routine without thinking, how she’d take apart her stuff piece by piece before she went to whatever little hole had been designated her dressing room. He didn’t know how carefully she wiped and washed and deconstructed her face before the mirror, but he knew that the siren walked off stage and came back for her instruments looking like any face in the crowd.

Occasionally one of them would ask the other to move. Occasionally one of them would snicker at a text. But sooner or later one of them would walk out into the cooking smog and disappear for the night. Him to drive off the van. Her to go wherever ghosts go when the sun rises.

So those four words were quite an aberration.

“I want ice cream.”

They were the sort of words Blake’s fingers would twitter out to his legion of insomniac friends. But this time, he said them aloud, and Maia heard them. She blinked, looked, jerked her head to the right.

“You want to head up the street?”

He knew where she meant. It was next to the little Korean sandwich and coffee place. He’d usually get a bagel there before shows.

“Yeah, sure.”

She hauled her gear out to the van, and he followed her out with the last amp. The back door was pretty damn loud when he locked it, and reminded them both that they weren’t saying anything. He pattered off a text as they walked down the block, to cover for the silence. She just kept her long white fingers concealed in her jeans jacket, as if she were cold, as if she had ever in her life been cold.

The ice cream parlor was bright, white, front window haloed in the fog. The sign was faux-fifties pink neon. She held the door for him, remembering again that he was now a person. Inside it might have been a little cold, but her fingers came out of her pockets to sign the debit card slip. He blinked; she’d maneuvered him through the ordering and the paying so silently he hadn’t realized she was picking up the tab. He felt the need to say something. Stifled “I could get that,” “thank you,” “where do you get your ideas” and somehow blurted out “your fingers are long.”

They were. Her face was normal, her hair prism-blonde but plainly brushed, body slight and unassuming… but her fingers, they were long and alien-thin. The look she gave him was alien, too. At once wistful and the barest degree warm.

“That’s my secret,” Maia said, and curled her left hand as if on the strings of her Strat. “Manual dexerity.”

After months of white noise, he found himself trying to remember what she sounded like when she played. Failing that, he laughed. While they waited for her shake and his sundae, she took his hand and held it spread against hers. She giggled.

“Shorty,” she said, as each finger in turn fell short of hers.

“Maybe, but I’m thick,” he said, before he even realized he was flirting.

And then things were different, as she led him to a corner booth. They watched out the window, watched the lives of the parties staggering home and the street sweeper drive by. The silence got a little awkward for both of them. She pursed her lips and blew some air behind them. His turn to giggle. She smiled.

“You think this is funny?” she asked, and did it again. More giggles.

They talked a little bit, about nothing in particular. Places where there were signs left over from filming movies. The price of photocopies. Conversation was new between them, and had the feel of being something entirely innovative. There were more smiles. Some of them awkward. Some of them warm. The smiling went on after the last of Blake’s ice cream was a pool in the bottom of his cup, and Maia had scrupulously licked up every drop of hers.

As they walked out, he realized her arm was in his. How long had it been there? How had he gotten so used to her being in the background that he didn’t even notice that she was touching him?

That, more than anything, prompted him to squeeze. Yes, she was there, she was solid. She pressed her lips unconsciously into a tight line. She had been here before, knew that the steps were counting down to where one of them would have to decide how the night ended. She enjoyed the comfort of walking with a cute boy even as she felt the dread of that decision.

Blake was counting steps, too. He was counting the steps until he would make an advance, be rejected, and go home to not-sleep. It was unthinkable to him that, given the social opening, he wouldn’t try to get in Maia’s pants. He’d always seen his sex life more in terms of obligations than desire or consent. If a girl gave him the time of day, he had to take the chance she was interested. If she was interested, he had to sleep with her. He didn’t know this on a conscious level, but it was why gloom gathered in him even as he enjoyed Maia leaning on his arm.

Past the rusting chain links, next to the van, Maia threw her dice. She leaned in to kiss him, missed, got his chest. He looked at her, flummoxed. She laughed, gripped two clumps of his t-shirt just below the shoulders and pulled him down. The kiss started odd, fumbling, neither of them quite understanding the shape or movement of the other’s mouth. Then it got better. Her tongue reached the corner of his lip and then their lips slid slantwise across. Her long fingers bunched tighter in his shirt. His thick palm curled around the back of her neck.

It started to come apart when he realized, for all the smog and the pavement-heat, that she really was cold, and that sensation reminded him who she was, how they knew each other, and what would happen if he followed this course and flowed into bed with her. What she said when her grip slackened and she pulled back didn’t help.

“No?”

He wasn’t used to that word as a question. He was used to it as a rejection, as a crushing of some briefly-held but dysfunctionally cherished dream. So he heard it that way.

“Okay,” he said.

Maia weighed taking that as rejection. It appealed to her inner drama, and walking away in misery would certainly drown the performance anxiety that was welling in her stomach. And anything was easier than asking straight out. But she pushed the fear down and she asked.

“Do you want to come back to my place and make out?”

Blake wasn’t used to being asked. He was used to first times made out of fumbling assumptions, to questions waiting for months into the relationship and not really being questions at all. He took his hand from her neck and put it gently to his brow, rubbing his eyes with his thumb and knuckle. He paused, then almost laughed at himself.

“Yes,” he said. “Actually, that sounds really good.”

She had a nagging suspicion his grammar was wrong, but her hands were still bunched in his t-shirt, the left coincidentally right over the image of her own face. She loosened her grip, flattened her palms, and laid her head between her hands.

“Well, then,” she whispered. “I’m going to get in my car, and you can follow me home.”

Maia pulled back and gave him directions. The conversation was stilted, absurdly basic, but necessarily so. Both of them were walking on eggshells they didn’t want to break.

Her car was messy, lived in. The van was just cluttered. He followed her through headlights and highways to a jagged high-rise where she pulled to a stop. The gate was the only feature that looked halfway modern. She was waiting by the van when he climbed out, and took his hand. She fobbed them through the side gate, walked him to the elevator, and they stood there awkwardly, waiting.

He had the strange, brief impulse to run… which faded when he realized he could. She’d put no pressure on him, hadn’t assumed he’d spend the night with her — though, he thought, she must know, must be used to guys begging to get into her pants — he was here by his choice, invited, not dragged.

Except that he was dragged into the elevator. Maia could tell he was anxious, couldn’t guess why but felt the feeling too deeply herself not to recognize it in him. So she got bold, took him by the wrist and then pushed him back against the doors as they closed. She kissed what parts of his chin she could reach until he leaned down and opened his mouth. For all that they’d been flirting, teasing, trying each other out, here was where the tension burst and the kissing became wild, the hands went groping. Lost in a mess of lips and limbs, he practically fell out when the elevator doors opened. She walked past him, briskly, put her key in the door, apologized to her cat, and looked at him.

“Please come in,” she said. “I’d like to kiss again, and now.”

He looked at her silhouetted in the doorway and obliged, wanting her enough to feel comfortable with her aggression. He would have grabbed her and kissed her right there, except that she bent down at the last minute to prevent the cat from leaving. She slammed the door behind them and practically raced him to the couch.

The couch makeouts were fierce. Maia’s fear came back briefly. She knew how good a game she sang, how well she could play the heartbroken sex goddess and how much of an act that was. In her heart, she didn’t believe she lived up to the hype. But at this particular moment she wanted to kiss and be kissed and the want overwhelmed the fear.

Blake’s shirt came off first. He was a little shy to touch her breasts, and she kept playing with the smooth fabric, eventually rolling it up his chest just to feel it contrast with warm skin. And then it was inevitable that it would come off the rest of the way. Chest kisses followed, and she let her impatient hands curl around his wrists and draw his hands to her boobs. There were boundaries and pacing and propriety and Maia wasn’t in a mood for any of them. Once she was sure she didn’t need to keep encouraging him, she threw her arms around his neck and crawled on top of him.

After a few minutes Blake’s hip felt kind of crushed and he slid and turned a little. Maia mistook the movement and flattened herself on the sofa, looking up at him breathlessly from beneath. They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment, and then she broke into a grin that made his heart stop.

“I like you on top,” she said thoughtfully, “but I’d like my shirt off, too.”

They wriggled about awkwardly trying to accommodate both, Maia’s blue t-shirt eventually coming off with a burst of laughter and a mock cheer. Once her chest and bra were exposed, he inevitably descended to kiss her cleavage. It was a maneuver familiar from every ex-boyfriend, but welcome, maybe even a little more for its familiarity. He was appreciating her body in a way she knew intuitively. And it felt good, too. She didn’t like that she had to remind herself that that was important.

Maia pulled her legs up and bent her knees, surrounding Blake’s torso with her thighs. He wasn’t sure whether she was opening up or closing him in, but either way he wanted nothing more than to be lost between her breasts. Eventually he moved his hands around beneath her, unclasping her bra to an anticipatory sigh. She enjoyed the attention of his tongue on her left nipple before forcibly moving him to her right one. He cupped his hand over her left breast, shielding her from the rapid cooling of his saliva.

He crawled up her body, deliciously covering and warm, and his tongue penetrated her lips at the moment her hand slipped down the front of his waistband. He jumped slightly, pulled his face back from hers.

“Not okay?” she asked, her forehead wrinkling in concern.

“What?” he asked confusedly.

“You don’t want me to touch you there?”

“No, I do… just… not yet.” He was surprised he said it. He was even more surprised when her hand withdrew.

“Okay,” she said. “But when you’re ready, I’m willing.” And she smiled again.

He was getting to like her smiles.

5 Responses to “Ashtray for a Heart”

  1. EliodeGM

    Holy crap, that reads so well.

    I love this. I wish I could write this well.

    I love most that they make mistakes, their encounter is filled with misunderstood moments and goofiness.

    5 stars *****

  2. mandrill

    Poetry.

    But I can’t help feeling that its going somewhere dark and dangerous, and possibly daemonic. Or is that just me?

  3. Joel

    I was getting that vibe too, Mandrill. Couldn’t tell if it was supernatural or just metaphorical.

    Anyway, it’s gorgeous. I’m definitely sharing this story with my wife.

  4. Russell Bailey

    Thanks, folks.

    And no, nothing supernatural. But relationships are always magical and dangerous.

    This is the kind of story I write because I can’t write music.

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