5
min

Care

Image of Winter Bel

Winter Bel

65 readings

12

FINALIST
Jury Selection

Dalton met Lucy on the median of a Chicago boulevard, with an aggressive winter thawing around them. Both were in their late teens, but feeling older. Dalton had his hood up for warmth and his pockets bulging with tangerines, his standard gift for the kids who hung out in the projects stairway. Lucy was under-dressed and looking to her cigarette to solve the cold, the train she was about to miss, everything.

Both had jaywalked to the median without risk. Now three lanes of traffic slashed between them and the other sidewalk, with no gaps opening up for very long. It took Dalton a little while to realize it was not alone that he was absurdly stranded on the median like this. As he looked across and cautiously took in the girl alongside him, he got an impression of everything he would come to know well. Beauty, such beauty, that she seemed to want to throw away. The eyes she kept tauntingly hollow of feeling. The hands that touched nothing with reverence. The overcomplicated hair, and clothes that looked mismatched and borrowed although they were hers. Overall she seemed to be poised for destruction; not seeking it exactly, but if it found her, she would not resist.

Dalton had no business sparking to such a soul.

All the same, he nodded hello. Lucy smiled knowingly, her default smile, and swore at cars. She had to catch her train, she yelled, she had to. Dalton wouldn't understand her strange intensity until weeks later, when she'd tell him her heart had just been broken, and the horizon felt like it was folding in, and the only anesthetic that worked for her was motion, furious, blind motion; that had been true her whole life. At the time, Dalton understood only that Lucy’s eyes were narrowing at a gap between cars. He realized she was going to chance it. It was a suicide move. Dalton told her so.

Lucy smiled. If Dalton could do better, she said, he should take the lead. Otherwise, he should butt out. Their eyes met, and he saw that she was serious. She ran this roulette herself, or he did it with her.

Dalton stared at traffic harder than ever before in his life. Sometimes you feel life fizzing on the tip of your tongue, and you realize you are not your plans and habits, you are your instincts in moments like this.

When something like a gap appeared between vehicles, Dalton touched Lucy's elbow and barely heard himself over his own heartbeat.

He said, “Go.”

And so, their friendship began.

*

Dalton was determined to be the first in his family to go to college. Lucy had recently decided the life of an artist was for her instead. Dalton kept his cash neatly clipped in his closest pocket. Lucy would find clenched-up twenties in her purse and realize she'd accidentally used them to dispose of her gum. Dalton had one parent on disability, the other in multiple law-enforcement databases. Lucy’s family were professionals as stiff and glossy as the tennis racquets they donated to inner-city community programs.

And yet, and yet. If you can explain something, it becomes unbeautiful. Lucy said that once, and Dalton never forgot it. There was no science to their survival on the boulevard that day. There was no science to the two of them ever since.

Lucy came regularly to the West Side, where she rented a warehouse unit from a live-work art collective whose 'live' part she skipped. As an artist she was still exploring identities, with her favorite view of herself being: a curator of urban found objects. She toured the city's curb alerts, yard sales, aggressive sidewalks and industrial dumpsters for philosophically convenient artifacts such as dented mannequins, charred couches, bullet casings and wildly unspooling video tapes whose content she would 'reimagine' in Super 8 then project onto a wall behind a piled-up snarl of the tape.

Her painstaking arrangements of these objects were commentaries on modern life, she said, but without really looking at him. She had exhibited in both a mall and a synagogue, a combination that was apparently enough to qualify her as an "upcoming Chicago artist" in local TV news. Lucy reported that status to Dalton with a thin smile, when he would nod carefully, and that was that. An artist, very well. Even if they both knew she missed the veneration she had once felt for that word before she had made it too easy.

Whenever Lucy was West Side, she and Dalton would meet at a blowhard Turkish diner a few blocks from the public library where he studied. The diner was popular with Canadian truckers and raggedy, fatherless families waiting for the Greyhound. Lucy would celebrate it as a "real kinda place", while Dalton sat silently cursing the gusty swing-door.

Picking at the fraying tablecloth in the casual way she destroyed things, and endlessly realigning her cocked sunglasses, Lucy did most of the talking. (Dalton was an eyebrows guy -- said it up there best -- and she got to know his full repertoire well.) Dalton quickly realized that Lucy confiding in you meant nothing -- the facts of her own life were as worthless to her as loose change. The one-night stands she’d verbally scratch out of herself the next morning. The drugs that "reopened possibilities” for a few hours, then left her numb for days, eyes thick with misgivings and stale mascara. The way she realized she was in love with a guy only after she'd moved on to the next one.

Dalton listened to Lucy speak of her love for other men with a soft, panging horror he had no name or plan for. Whatever it was, as one day became another, and the happiness he otherwise felt with Lucy laid down stronger roots around and through that feeling, he found he could live with it.

And so, as Lucy sat in nostalgic, tortured recognition that she loved someone lost, Dalton would pour Sweet'n Lo onto her hand -- a dumb, ticklish thing they did now and then. He'd smile gently and say: "There you go again. Letting the rear-view upset you."

"Hmmm, I know." Lucy chewed the ice from her soda, tipping the sweetener from one hand to the other, back and forth, until it was all spilled. "That's the only time shit makes sense to me. When it's not around anymore."

Dalton nodded, and said he expected that was true of most people. What he didn't say was that he wanted so much more for her. He wished he could give it to her, in fact. A right now that made sense to her, whose joy was in itself, not in contemplating the back then or the someone else she might be tomorrow.

Dalton went to Illinois State for pre-med, and met a girl there who took as natural the soft edges he’d so carefully learned. Until one day, with that girl on his arm, they truly felt like his. Lucy meanwhile went on with the same-old new, throwing her heart out in one creative direction after another, remaining an "upcoming Chicago artist" year upon year. Her experiments in wood burning unexpectedly took off, with the historical maps of Chicago she burned onto oak becoming must-have wall art in business centers around the city.

She and Dalton continued to meet whenever they could, in all the old places to which Dalton pretended he’d never belonged and Lucy that she always had. With others, their childhood dreams felt like fading laundry, but together they strung them up in full colors. It was easier to believe in the unlikely when your friend and you are exactly that.

Once, Dalton had written CARE with his fingertip on Lucy’s shoulder, when she was absently lounging against him on the L train. That word had felt like the best symbol of the longer sentence he'd have written if he could. Lucy had smiled knowingly, and returned to listing the childhood rivals she now recognized as deep influences on her development.

Waving her off into the milky dusk of the Riverwalk one night, Dalton knew if this was love, it was too fundamental to him to be tested. So he’d do nothing but feel it. The most he hoped for was that, for a few years yet, Lucy would look to him sooner than cross the traffic alone.

CONTEST

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Image of GITA
GITA · ago
An excellent portrait of misfit lovers, carefully detailed. I like the metaphor of their meeting on the one safe island in the middle of danger. You get my vote.
I hope you will take a moment to look at my story, "The Curve." https://short-edition.com/en/story/1-min/the-curve

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Image of Ann Sutherland
Ann Sutherland · ago
What a lovely, nuanced story. Thanks for sharing it. Some really nice lines and images. All the best to you! If you have time, feel free to read my submission, "Goody-bye Donny Osmond." https://short-edition.com/en/story/1-min/good-bye-donny-osmond
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Image of Winter Bel
Winter Bel · ago
Ann, I appreciate your thoughtful comments so much. Thank you. I will check out your story now. With best.
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