Alright, so… Three loves. Three and only three, got it? Well, maybe four, if I count myself, but I suppose I wouldn’t be standing here, talking to you, about to do this, if that were true.
Three tragic, Shakespearean loves.
Fairy-tale loves. The Grimm originals, though, not the bowdlerized versions fed to us girls when we’re little.
Wait, scratch all that. Thinking about it now, with us four so far gone on bloom, these loves, they were Dionysian. Wild and hungry.
So, three heart-rending, loins-afire, down-on-your-knees, blood-under-your-fingernails loves.
An honest love. A brotherly love. A bewitching, illogical, life-affirming/destroying love.
The first, Shaun, I met while working at Starbucks. I was his manager. Working the night shift, we’d pop petals and fuck in the storage closet, blooming like hyacinths. We moved in together. We adopted a French bulldog. A boring, predictable, stable, and wonderful love. He introduced me to my second love, Derrick. An additional love, platonic, not a replacement.
For five years, we were three—Shaun, Derrick, and I. Derrick never showed interest in me sexually, and as much as I might have wanted him, Shaun wouldn’t have been down with that anyway. So I got over it.
Perhaps tiring of the triad, Shaun found Wendale—my third, and final, love.
“Robot,” Shaun said. (I’m not actually a robot. I’m just a weeping girl, bedraggled in a Chinatown gutter. Remember?) “I met a new guy at work. I like him. I think you will, too. I want to bring him over.”
“Interesting,” I said. “You propose to disrupt the triumvirate?”
“I do. And he claims to have a steady hook-up for bloom.”
“Ah, well okay then.”
Shaun invited him over. A bold proposition. At the time, we were three. Wendale did not know, but that night was an audition.
“Not sure I like him,” Derrick said.
Derrick, our very own little curmudgeon. A tricky, perhaps even unrequited, love.
“You haven’t even met him yet,” I said.
“Neither have you, but we’ve heard all about him. Seen his profile. It’s enough.”
“Shaun says he’s cool. Don’t you trust Shaun?”
“I don’t trust anyone, Robot. I don’t even trust myself.”
“Do you trust me?”
“No.” Oh, how right he was.
“He’ll be here any minute. You know I’m just as quick to judge as you, but out of respect for Shaun who, let me remind you, we both love, I plan to hold that judgment in reserve until it becomes necessary.”
Shaun came in with drinks, whiskey and ice.
A knock on the door—Wendale.
“I’ll get it,” Shaun said, bouncing up from the couch, a dumb smile cracking his heinous blond beard, excited to show us off to his new friend.
“Hello, thanks for having me over,” said Wendale, every word steeped in charm.
He had hair like a coal fire, spouting thick, midnight smoke in all directions, and smooth umber skin shining like polished chestnut. His lack of facial hair came as a relief, though he wore the standard group uniform of ugly plaid shirt and black denim, personalized with a pair of scuffed Danner boots, and a green, virgin wool jacket with a modern, form-fitting cut.
I loved him then. Before we even touched, three became four. I wonder now if the traps laid for my heart weren’t already set.
After introductions, he slapped down his big, bursting baggy of bloom on the coffee table.
We closed the blinds. Turned off our phones. Locked the door. Fed the dog.
We knelt in a circle. We each took a silken pink petal from the bag, and placed it under our tongues.
Fifteen minutes later, our heads were sparkling.
Shaun and Wendale put on a show, making out, rolling in heaps of silk spread out on my living-room floor. Lost in the bloom, jealousy was not possible. Derrick played the DJ.
In the blur of the bloom, Wendale and I ended up on the couch, under a big, baby-soft blanket. My hand on his thigh, him smelling of rose oil. He didn’t look surprised. Shaun sat with Derrick, cross-legged in the silk, lost in the guitar crescendo pouring puffs of spectral pollen from the speakers.
Under the blanket, Wendale’s hand found mine. He was hard, cock fuelled by the bloom. A thrill popped through me like displaced air, fortified by the wicked thump-thump from the stereo. I glanced at Shaun and Derrick, off in their own garden. I looked back to Wendale. He bit his bottom lip. His eyes spun, expanding, exploding magnolias of condensed light. I shook my head. Not yet. Too soon. He nodded, and I slid my hand back into my own lap before the bloom took us deep.
Shaun loved Wendale too, but not like I did. They became best friends—we all became four. Wood for the fires of betrayals to come.
Months zipped by, clouded by bloom. For us, it was always Springtime.
Derrick had his doubts. Doubts that grew stranger as time went on. We chalked it up to his age. Mid-forties, a lifetime ahead of the rest of us. Failed artist. Successful scientist. Set in his ways.
“I think Wendale took my phone,” Derrick said. “Copied my numbers, then put it back.”
“Why would he do that?” Shaun asked.
“He’s been calling my colleagues at the lab. Telling them stories about me.”
“What?” Shaun looked confused.
“Are you sure? How do you know?” I asked.
“I don’t have proof. But I know. They all look at me different. I think,” Derrick lowered his voice, green eyes shifting between Shaun and me, “I think he’s a witch.”
Wendale showed up then, easing into his reserved spot with a Manhattan in hand.
The bar was just another living-room. We never talked to anyone else, just us four and our whiskey, as the world churned around us.
“Let’s go home,” Shaun said, after a time.
“I, for one, would prefer to stay for another drink,” I replied. The boys generally deferred to me in such situations.
“As would I,” Wendale said, taking my cue. His glance caught mine for a fraction of a blink.
“I’ll go with you.” Derrick stood up, perhaps eager to get away from Wendale.
Shaun wavered, unsure. “Ah, okay,” he said. Goddamn him.
They left Wendale and me at the bar. We had two more drinks. Then three. Four. I didn’t want to go, but eventually they closed the bar, casting us out into the warm summer night.
Walking home, Wendale and I stopped in an alley and fucked for the first time. By that point, we’d been stealing kisses for months. He flipped over a yellow recycling bin, sending beer bottles cracking and clattering. He sat on it. I straddled him, my skirt around my waist. I lost an earring. Six months of tension burst inside me. Six months of betrayal just waiting in the wings, ready to swoop down on the first moment of drunken weakness.
I’d held out as long as I could. I don’t even remember the last time Shaun and I had sex. I wish I had said, “Shaun, I know things aren’t always perfect between us. I love you—of course I love you—but I want to fuck your best friend. I love him like I love you.” Maybe, it would have been okay. Maybe not. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
Back at home, Shaun sat waiting on the couch.
“Derrick took off,” he said. Looking back, Wendale and I were so obvious. How many times had Shaun caught us stealing a kiss, just to look away, pretending it hadn’t happened? Shaun had to have known then. My earring missing, hair all a mess, cheeks cherry-blossom pink and glowing. Either he loved us too much to say anything, or he was too bewitched to catch on.
“I’m worried about him,” Shaun continued. “He’s becoming paranoid.”
Shaun looked at me—a question. I nodded.
“Wen. Sit down,” I said.
“What’s going on?”
“Robot,” Shaun said, “it’s not just the thing with his phone. After we left tonight he told me more. Crazy things. Illogical things. I’m worried.”
“The phone?” Wendale said.
“Derrick thinks you’re out to get him,” I said.
“He claims you stole his phone, that night you two went out for ramen. He went to the bathroom, left his phone sitting on the counter. He thinks you copied his numbers. Are calling his co-workers, telling them weird stuff about him.”
“Why would I do that? That’s insane.”
“That’s not all,” Shaun said. “It’s not just Wendale. He sees people in the shadows. Claims a crow is stalking him. He doesn’t sleep. Sometimes he knows it’s not real. Sometimes not. He says it’s difficult to deny what he feels to be intrinsic truth, irrational or not.”
“He needs help,” Wendale said.
“He says he’s already seeing a therapist.”
Derrick turned on Shaun next.
He would only talk to me. We met at bars, a different one each time, an endless parade of dives.
“You are the only one who’s not out to get me,” Derrick said.
“Nobody is out to get you.”
“I know that, but I don’t feel it. Sometimes I just drive all night. City to city, the forest, the beach—running from that crow. I think I know why now.”
“What does your therapist say?” The bar was a waiting room.
“He says to stay away from people who trigger it, but—”
“Derrick. We are four. We love each other. We need to fix this. Come over tonight. I’ve got some bloom. We will fix this.” The bar was just a new place to sit.
“I don’t know.” Tonight, I finally understand the pain that burned across his face.
“Please? You know I want what’s best for you. You know that I love you. You are my best friend.” It’s true, he was.
“Okay. I will come.”
Wendale showed up first, already flying on bloom, his pupils pixels.
Derrick came in right behind him, uncertainty plain on his face. All was awkward until the bloom popped our borders.
Wendale and Shaun paired off, still trying to be friends even with the elephant of betrayal standing proudly in the room.
Derrick and I sat on the couch. The music danced around us, perforating the air in snapping bursts of violent colour, pulling at the threads of our conversation.
I told him that I wasn’t sure if I loved Shaun anymore. About how Wendale and I had started sneaking around. He didn’t blame me.
“It’s the witchcraft,” Derrick said, “I’ve seen him working his spells, twisting black-eyed dolls, pencilling runes in his stupid black Moleskine, whispering his cantrips. Bubble bubble, little Robot. He’s here to destroy us. That’s what chaos witches do.”
“Derrick, I love you, but I’m not so sure about all that,” I said.
Shaun and Wendale got up to dance, grooving chest-to-chest, looking into one another’s eyes like they didn’t secretly hate each other. The music wrapped around them, a velvet cloak billowing polychromatic rose petals as they dipped and spun.
“I am. My doctor says it’s schizophrenia, but I know it’s not. Wendale, he did this to me. To us. The bloom, I think he put a spell on it. I know it now. This was a bad—” A floral wave washed over him then, his face serene. The anguish of the prior moment dissolved. His eyelids fluttered like butterflies on fire.
At the peak of our high, we unlocked the door. Outside was an alien planet, everything new and frightening. Wendale had brought some toys, a hot pink Wiffle ball and a fuzzy, neon-blue bat. We played in the street. Yelling “game on, game off” like children.
During our game, all the betrayals and paranoia and accusations faded, and we were four for keeps.
The next day, we all woke up wilted. Shaun took my car out to pick up more bloom from Wendale’s connect, and he wrecked it.
I got a phone call. His mother. His emergency contact. Tears spilled out of the phone. Not pistils, stamens, or petals, but hot mothertears, wetting my ear, cheek, and shoulder, staining my new leather jacket.
Wendale, Derrick, and I rushed to the hospital. We told the nurses we were family because, despite all this mess, we were, and after several hours, they let us in to see him.
I like to think that it’s this supposed witchcraft that made me feel nothing when I saw Shaun lying there comatose, looking all might-as-well-be dead. Because honestly, what kind of bitch would I be if that wasn’t the case? What if it was all me?
Derrick sat at Shaun’s bedside, visibly struggling, holding back tears from his grumpy, green eyes.
I waved Wendale into the hall. I pulled him close, held him tight, my head on his chest, inhaling his botanic musk.
“Come over,” I whispered. “Tonight. I need you.”
Maybe I didn’t really love Wendale the first time I saw him, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve never loved anyone in the way I loved him on the night of Shaun’s accident.
In candlelight, we popped bloom. Enveloped in lavender starbursts I drew a hot bath and slipped in. Wen knelt by the tub, elbows resting on the rim. He produced a leather pouch, and from it he poured a crystalline powder into the bathwater. Turning bright blue, the water thickened like hot neon mud.
Was it witchcraft? Or just some bullshit he’d picked up at Bed Bath and Beyond?
I didn’t care. The transformed water gripped every curve of my body, causing me to moan and thump my heel against the enamelled iron before he even touched me.
On the evening Wendale moved in, he gifted me a worn, wooden chest full of tanned pelts: pure white Arctic fox, mahogany mink, chinchilla.
Every day, we visited Shaun.
Every night, we blossomed like the garden of Eden. We slept in more silk than a sultan, tangled in furs and each other like unchecked kudzu.
Derrick flew off to Mexico by himself. He always had more money than anyone else did, being a grown-up with a real job doing science and all. After a few days, I got this text from him: Whole roasted red snapper, lime, chilies. Mango salad with tamarind and fresh, white cheese. A perfect last meal.
I thought it was a joke. Haha. That sort of dark humour wasn’t strange among us four. He didn’t text back, but a couple weeks later, I drove to the airport to pick him up as scheduled. I sat in my rental car in the Cell Phone Waiting Area, wondering if my phone would ever buzz, or if he’d just stay in the Yucatan for eternity.
Derrick arrived suntanned but sullen.
He refused to be in the same room as Wendale, and he wouldn’t even go back to the ICU to visit Shaun. I had thought the bloom would help, draw us all closer. It didn’t. It just made things worse.
We were on the verge of becoming three again. Hell, with Shaun in a coma, I guess we were on the verge of becoming two.
There is a parking garage at 4th and Hemlock. Downtown. Six levels high. A long, long, long, long way down.
One night I, like you, received a strange call.
“I have a gallery,” Derrick said.
“Derrick? Where are you?” I could hear sirens in the background. A brisk wind.
“They are gathering below, on the sidewalk, waiting for me.”
A whip of air. The line went dead.
Derrick won’t get a funeral. His family shipped his mangled body to Texas. They had not seen or even spoken with him in years. What he did, they consider a sin of the worst kind. Their son is in hell, no way around it. No use rubbing it in with a headstone. They’ll probably just burn him up and stick the ashes in a cellar somewhere. My family will probably do the same.
I held a memorial at Derrick’s favourite Chinatown hard drinker’s haunt. With Shaun betrayed and comatose in the ICU, it was just Wendale and me. But we were not two. No, we were pathetic, incomplete.
We honoured Derrick with warm whiskey, in silence.
“He thought you were a witch,” I finally said. The bar was an ER waiting room, sickly green light from the sign creeping through the windows.
“Derrick was sick.” Was he? I’m honestly not sure anymore.
“Only after we met you. So, I want to know. I want you to tell me: are my infidelities my own?”
“Everything you do is your own.”
“Our love, was it real?”
“I cannot compel you.”
And yet, here I am, compelled by something.
“Me? Then what about Derrick? Did you compel him to jump? Did you compel Shaun to drift into oncoming traffic?”
“Robot. (My real name? As if my story isn’t privilege enough, now you want to know my name? Sorry, but no.) I am just a man.”
“We can be together now,” he said, not getting it. “We can be two.” Was he even human, or some ancient, unfeeling beast?
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Witchcraft or not, you manipulated us. Wen, you and I could never be two.”
His face tightened. The pale green light cast his rugged features with a sickly pallor. And now I wonder: if he truly held power over me, why did I stand up? If he wanted me so badly, why was I allowed to leave, just to climb up here?
I left the bar stumbling, crying in the gutter. That’s when you found me. Helped me up, and how fucking presumptuous you were, asking if I was okay, shoving your neat, little business card at me in case I needed anything.
Your card, I’m dropping it. It’s a maple key now. It’s spiralling down, down, down, down.
But, the thing is, I didn’t have anyone else to call. Because tonight, as I stand here, alone above the city with the wind chilling my tears, watching as my own gallery begins to gather, I am only one.
Story copyright © 2015 by Mathew Scaletta
Artwork copyright © 2015 by P. Emerson Williams
Mathew Scaletta is a fishmonger and chef who divides his time between Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago and Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When not elbow deep in fish guts, he writes fiction and tweets about the black bears that stalk the periphery of his salmon cannery. Find him online @thehambelt.
P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio, Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.