Flowers in His Hair

“I bought a place here,” Dad said, sitting across from me in the lounge. He was tan, his face unlined, body strong and trim. He seemed younger than me, like Matthew McConahay from an early rom-com.

“That’s great. The boat seems really nice, a bit expensive even.”

“Yeah, well. It’s just a little place, but pretty comfortable. Have you seen the rooms? I can show you my condo later.”

“I’d like that,” I said, nodding. I did not want to admit that I’d already had a sneak peek of the condo-only cruise liner when I’d gotten lost in the bowels on my way to meet him. A door to one of the rooms had been propped open by a shriveled housecleaner. She’d shirked and turned her back to me as I peeked inside. It was small, no more that 500 square feet, but decorated in sand and linen with jaw-dropping views of the ocean from a picture window that stretched the length of the cabin. And yet, the whole thing was odd. I couldn’t imagine living on a ship.

“The only problem with it is that my folks are all the way on the other side,” Dad said, his mouth cocked in displeasure. “So, I have to go all the way across and up and down a bunch of stairs to see them. It’s really annoying.”

“Do you think Mom had something to do with that?” I said, assuming that my mother wouldn’t want to be living next door to the in-laws.

Dad shrugged, “Oh, who knows. I don’t even know where your mom is.”

The ship swayed with the buckling ocean. I felt a tinge of sea sickness, though it could have been the realization that Mom and Dad might not be together anymore, and neither of them had told me. If that was true, then what was Dad doing here? Just living near his parents? Sailing the Netherworld?

Dad took a sip of water and looked away, in the direction where my grandparents supposedly resided. I knew how dreams worked, and I expected I would not see them this time. But I felt them close.

“What did you do to your hair?” I asked, gesturing to his head. It had been shaved on one side, his brown curls spilling just above the razor’s line. He’d tucked a band of orange marigolds across the shaved section, giving him the look of a Roman emperor, or a character from a Midsummer’s Night Dream.

“Do you like it?”

“I do. You look good. Healthy. Young.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“I still can’t believe you died.” I kicked myself as the words escaped my mouth. I shouldn’t have said that. The rules were that I was not supposed to call him out on it. I did not make up these rules. I don’t know who did. It was just the way it was, and I was a visitor with a subconscious that wouldn’t shut up.

I knew what would happen next. I had been here before — not to this ship, but other places in this realm. I’d visited my mother once in her house after she died. Twice before that I’d met strangers — a man driving a rusted truck with his yellow dog, and a woman washing her hands in a green-tiled bathroom. I’d learned the rules then.

Dad smiled at me, his teeth bone white. I wanted to say something to stop him, but he disappeared before I could.

I was left sitting in the lounge of the cruise ship, alone. I did not know if I would ever see him again, and there was no point in waiting on the ship. So, I did the only logical thing.

I decided to wake up.

Libertine

I’m Libertine,” she said clutching a tumbler of Malbec.

“So what do they call you for short? Libby?”

She rolled her eyes and flicked her brown, curly hair over her shoulder. A long-sleeved shirt was tied around her waist, her tank top clinging to the curve of her breasts. “No, they call me Libertine.”

“Sorry. I was trying to be funny.”

“Is that funny in your country?” Her accent was soft, laced with seduction.

“Um. No, I guess not.” Daniel looked down into his cup. A fruit fly thrashed in the liquid. He was bombing. Fast. An awkward moment of silence slipped between them. Daniel did not know what else to say. His eyes scanned the walled garden draped with bougainvillea, tables peppered with empty wine glasses and white Christmas lights glimmering in the purple flowered trees.

He brought his wine to his lips. His hand trembled. He put the glass down without taking a sip.

“Whats wrong?” she asked.

His hand trembled again. This time, the wine sloshed over the lip of the cup. He watched it splash onto the stone terrace.

“Nothing. It’s nothing.” He tried to smile, but he knew it fell flat.

Libertine glanced at the spilled wine then back at his hand.

“I should go,” he said. His hand wouldn’t stop shaking. It always happened at the most inopportune times. Daniel tossed the cup onto the table and began to walk away, feeling stupid for even trying with a girl like her. No one would go for him. Not anymore. His life was pretty much ruined. No, actually it was destroyed. Decimated. Beyond repair.

“Hey, wait,” she said.

He turned.

“What’s your name?”

He cleared his throat. “Daniel.”

She moved closer to him. “That’s a good name. Strong.”

He looked into her brown eyes. They were cavernous, unreadable. She blinked. Her eyelashes were long, her brows delicately arched. Her lips were small, but pouty and naturally pink. Or maybe the red wine had stained them so. He decided she was way too good looking for him. He wished now she would just go away.

“What’s wrong with you? You seemed into me for a moment, and now you’re not.”

Daniel was struck by the bluntness of her question. Maybe Argentinians were just like that. “I don’t know. I guess I just changed my mind.” He knew that was mean.

“I don’t think so.” She tilted her head and studied him. “Why does your hand shake like that?”

He looked down. It was still trembling. He hadn’t even noticed this time. He shoved it in his pocket. “I doesn’t matter.”

“It does.”

“I have this problem with my nervous system. I tremble.” He hoped that was enough.

“What causes it?”

Daniel didn’t want to talk about it. ”Genes. The environment. Fucked up shit in my brain. I don’t know.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, well. Whatever.” He looked back at the party. Everyone was drunk. A few people were sat at the table. He watched as they poured more wine into their cups. Some were laughing loudly in the yard near the bocce ball court. The party had peaked and was on its way down.

“So what are you doing in Buenos Aires?” Libertine’s words a little slurred too.

“I’m visiting my cousins. They live here.”

“You’re cousins?”

“Yeah, Marie and Fritz. Over there.” He gestured to his relatives.

“I don’t know them.”

He shrugged. He’d only actually met Marie and Fritz once before. He was thirteen. They stayed at his family’s Carnegie Hill apartment on 90th Street and spent most of their time in Central Park, throwing stones into the lake and smoking cigarettes on the bridle path near the reservoir. They’d invited him to Argentina after Daniel’s mom had announced to the family he was sick. Marie had been the first to email him. Come stay with us. We have a nice house right in Palermo. You will like it. XOXOXO Marie. 

He remembered thinking he could use time away. No more of “the best” doctors, no sympathetic looks from his mom as the doctor explained the side effects of amantadine. He wouldn’t have to see the rings around his dad’s eyes, which he knew were from staying up late reading forums on his iPad.

He took a leave of absence from NYU and got on a plane to Argentina. And now he was here, with Libertine, at a party of a friend of a friend in some bourgeoisie villa that must have once been owned by a rich family, but was now a little run down.

He didn’t mind it. The place had charm. It was sort of magical. The best part was that he was not taking his meds, and there was no one here to chide him about it.

Libertine wove her arm around his waist and guided him away from the party, to a small pool littered with leaves and flowers, aglow with a white, underwater light. They sat down at the edge of the pool. She rolled her pants up and swirled her calves in the water. He did the same. It was still warm with the hot South American sunshine. She smiled, sort of demure, but not totally. He wanted to hang in the moment for just a bit. He was here at a party, a little drunk, with a girl. Anything could happen. He had to go with it.

She leaned over and kissed his neck, then his cheek, finally his lips. The girl wasn’t just hot, she was sexy. Daniel brought his free arm, the one that did not yet tremble, around Libertine’s waist. She pressed her body against his, her heart beating, her warmth filling the empty spaces in his heart. He lowered his head into her hair and closed his eyes.

“What are you doing?” a voice said.

Daniel looked up. A young guy, about his same age, was striding across the lawn, towards the pool. Uh-oh.

Libertine rolled her eyes and stood up. Daniel followed her, the water now cold, dripping down his legs. He straightened out the cuffs of his pants. The guy was handsome in the same way that Libertine was beautiful. Brown eyes, brown hair lightened by the sun, skin smooth and olive colored. They could have been related.

“Daniel, this is my brother, Guillermo,” Libertine said.

“You’re brother? Jesus. I’m not your brother.” Guillermo turned to Daniel. “She does this all the time. Tells people I’m her dumb brother.”

Libertine’s hand moved to her forehead. She squeezed. The softness that he’d seen in her was now gone. Her muscles were a river of tension.

“So, what are you then if you’re not her brother?” Daniel asked. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know, but the conversation was taking a strange turn anyway.

“Tell him, Libertine,” Guillermo said. “Tell him what I am to you.”

“Can we please do this later?” Libertine said. ” Another time. Not tonight.”

“Always tomorrow, my dear. Why don’t you explain to your pale skinned North American here what we are?”

“You’re drunk, Guillermo. Leave us.”

“I’m not going. I’m staying here. I want to hear you say it.”

Libertine stared at Guillermo, her face a mask of exasperation and hurt. Daniel should have excused himself, but the thought of her lips kept him rooted in place. “Daniel, Guillermo is my  … partner.”

Guillermo laughed. “Partner? I guess that’s better than boyfriend. I hate that word.”

Libertine tugged on Daniel’s arm. “Come, let’s go.”
Daniel hesitated. He didn’t want to be in the middle of — whatever this was. He looked at her, and knew then he couldn’t resist. She was so beautiful. He allowed himself to be pulled along.

“That’s right. Go,” Guillermo called after them. “Just remember, my sweet, I know what you’re up to!”

“Sorry about that,” Libertine said as she pushed the door open into the house. “He’s jealous.”

“I would be to.” Daniel paused. “Listen, you seem really nice, but I don’t want to cause any problems.”

“Don’t be bothered by Guillermo. Pretend you never saw him.”

“I don’t think I can do that.”

“Pretend you never heard his voice.” Her hand moved to his chest. He realized that the house was dark. Were they in a hallway?

“Like you never knew his name,” she said as she moved closer. Her breath was warm. It smelled like his grandma’s hose. There’d been this bush just outside of her screened in porch with tiny pink and white heart-shaped buds. It had a sweet smell, almost like roses mixed with blackberries and honeydew melon.

His heart beat faster as she pressed her body against his. Her lips were close. He wanted to push her away; it seemed wrong to be involved with this girl — Libertine — who already had a boyfriend, and clearly was cheating on him.

But he didn’t. It kind of turned him on.

The next moment they were kissing. His skin was on fire. He remembered grasping the railing of stairs as they half stumbled, have rolled up towards the second level of the house, into her bedroom and onto her mattress.

He couldn’t be bothered with words after that. He didn’t want to. He didn’t even deserve her. She was just a fling, and he was no one important. An American kid with a twitch, visiting friends in Buenos Aires for the summer.

As for Libertine, she was a moment — the kind that sends ripples across a pond under the soft splash of mayflies. The sort that reminded him of the moon on a hot evening as a fan clicks overhead with knotted pink yarn used as a makeshift cord. In her bedroom with its plaster walls washed teal green was a poster of dappled horses galloping across a field of dandelions, corners bulging with crumpled balls of masking tape. He recalled a small, stuffed bear poised in the windowsill, eyes the size of quarters, fur glinting from the white Christmas lights in the backyard. Its ears perked forward at the mumble of the party’s late night conversation, which had long turned honest under the influence of red wine.

In vino veritas.

Morning sunlight splashed through the diaphanous curtains that gathered in a young breeze. She had rolled over onto her side, facing him, her chest rising and falling. Her eyes moved beneath her lids, and her long hair sprayed the pillow. He blinked, hardly believing himself. She was more beautiful that he remembered. A wildflower of the Southern Hemisphere. How had he gotten so lucky? The curtains billowed, and the sunlight glinted off a silver necklace around her neck. A locket.

It was polished, or maybe just worn shiny, and rectangular in shape with script engraved across the surface in English. My life closed twice before its close; It yet remains to see. If Immortality unveil. A third event to me so huge, so hopeless to conceive, as these that twice befell. Parting is all we know of heaven, And all we need of hell.

Curious, Daniel reached out to touch it. Libertine’s eyes snapped open. Her hand, with lightening speed, flew over the locket, clutching the pendant. “It’s not for you.”

“I’m sorry,” Daniel said quickly. “I — I did not mean. It’s just interesting. Who wrote it?”

“Emily Dickinson.”

Her breath was like spoiled milk. He didn’t mind though. He wanted to kiss her again. “It looks old,” he said instead. “An antique. I’ve never seen one in that shape. Not that I’m that into lockets or anything.”

She blinked. Her lashes were a web of sunlight. She rubbed the locket between her fingers. “What illness do you have? You never said.”

“Parkinsons.” Daniel moved his hands under his head as he rolled onto his back. The ceiling had hairline cracks. It needed to be re-plastered. “Early onset.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like shit. Like I’ll never live a normal life. Like it’s been stolen from me.”

“If you could make it go away, would you?”

Daniel laughed. “Of course.”

“What would you do then? With this second chance?”

He hesitated and looked back at her. Her eyes were huge brown saucers. It was as if she could see around him, into his soul. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve never thought about it.”

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