FLASH FICTION: FIRST PLACE
I woke up one morning with “Maggie” sharp in my mind, not yet fully formed but coming through with a certain urgency: boots, breasts, sexuality; the forces to which we bend; the fleeting experiences around which a young identity is sometimes shaped. The story was honed and whittled and safeguarded by my incredible writing group. I am honored “Maggie” has been selected by Chestnut Review.
Maggie and I are in the tent. She’s complaining about her body in that way I already love. Her stomach is loose, she claims, but she’s touching her breasts as she says it, which are perfect.
“I like how my legs look, though. I look up at them when I’m having sex.” She dangles a naked leg in the space between us and gazes up at it. “Don’t you think?”
Her toes brush the netting shelf above our heads. It’s about to overflow, her things now piled on top of mine—headlamps, Dr. Bronner’s, 2nd Skin Blister Pads—all drooping precariously like a basket of fruit.
We met four days ago, both seated alone in the empty restaurant eating the same ‘vegetarian’ soup swimming with chicken claws. Reading the same guidebook. She didn’t bother to set up her own tent; we talked until 3am and fell asleep side by side. She told me, while we were searching for the hidden bookstore in the jungle, that she didn’t expect to meet anyone she liked as much as she likes me. My heart swelled nearly out of my ribs. She told me things I couldn’t imagine—that her father kept a corner of his wine cellar for bottles worth more than a Ferrari, that she turned down a Fulbright and came to Ecuador instead.
I turned 19 last week, and I’ve had sex three times with three different men. The last was a Colombian man somewhere beyond twice my age. I arranged my face into a smile and said, Sí, when he asked me afterward if I had liked it. He said, in Spanish, slowly, so I could understand, “your mouth says yes, but your eyes say no.”
Maggie wants my boots, for when she goes to the Galapagos tomorrow morning. She’s asked twice now. She has proper hiking boots in nondescript green. I have black leather Doc Martens that lace up my shins. Their tread is shot, and they hurt the hell out of my feet. They make everything else work though, or almost work: my lumpy sweater, my too-tight jeans. My cheap tank tops, poofing with space where curves should be. The boots are the best thing I have.
I wonder, suddenly, if I should touch her leg. The urge just appears. Her leg is flowing there beside me, like a river. There’s also the white line of her underwear circling her hip. It hasn’t, until this moment, occurred to me to touch her, though we’ve curled close in our sleeping bags these past four nights; though I can’t always breathe when I hear her unzipping the tent after her afternoon shower; though I’ve decided now to grow out my armpit hair after catching sight of hers, dark and sparse, slick from the cutback trail we climbed until our thighs nearly gave out—me panting, terrified I’d fall behind—until finally we disappeared into the mountaintop mist and found what we had come for: the hanging orchid garden.
There’s heat in my groin, and the minute I feel it shame floods my body so loudly it’s like a physical invasion. I slam my eyes to the shelf above and land on a half-used pack of AA batteries trapped at the very bottom, smashed under all our things. I keep my vision pinned there while Maggie snaps on her bra. The batteries are a mockery. I have something between a thought and a feeling about how it is for me, always waiting until dark to change out of my clothes. My AA bra.
The tent is unbearably humid. I heave up, push open the tent flaps.
“Can I wear these tonight?” She asks. Same smile. Same singsong. Finger on a Doc Marten.
We both know I’ll say yes, but what comes out is “No.”
My voice is crusted with frustration and another layer of heat descends around me. I feel as though I’m sinking in quicksand— any move will only bury me deeper. I can’t feel this much at once, or… maybe I’ve been feeling this much all along? I close my eyes.
Legs like rivers.
Orchids rooted overhead in a braided rooftop of living tree limbs. She grabs my hand in awe, then brings it to her chest. We tiptoe through the gulley, the petals of the orchids droop low, brushing our foreheads like blessing after blessing after blessing.
If I cry in front of Maggie right now, I will cease to exist. “Hey,” her eyes widen, “you okay?”
What can I say? Your leg is like a river? I think I love you? I’ve never said the words to anyone but my parents. I’ve only ever dreamed of hearing a man say them to me.
“I can’t give you my boots,” I don’t know why I say it, and I can’t help it—tears start to fall.
“Oh honey!” She leans right over, soothes my hair back from my forehead. She’s so close, I can’t bear her.
“Hush,” She says. “It’s okay. They’re yours.”
I feel like I’ve made the wrong choice. My boots, rock solid, holding me to the ground, making things almost work. But the thing I’ve traded—was that a trade?
I dry my face with my bare hands and scrub at my eyes until my vision clears.
“Let’s go eat,” she says. Tomorrow, she’ll walk five miles into town. She’ll find her bus in the riot of color and yelling at the depot. Then she’ll be on a boat. Then she’ll be gone.
“Maybe the cute Israelis will be back tonight,” she says, Cheshire grin returning. I force my spine to straighten a few inches, arrange my face into a smile, and say, “Sí.”
Leah Fairbank is a fiction writer, essayist, and editor. She lives in Northern California.