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There is a smell like botanic gardens, and ash. I relax back on the sofa as the smoke rises, drifting up and filling the room. I breathe in, rolling c-shaped curls through my mouth before pulling them down into my lungs. I breathe out, muttering the incantation, and they untwine, laid flat, then spin back into shape as they float away. There must be music as well, of course, because that gives the spell its power. I use the same songs as we used together. Most of them were held in me before we happened, and even the ones she introduced are as much mine as hers now.
I consider Zeppelin, climbing a golden staircase that spirals up to the progression of the guitar. The recorders’ hum flows with me, a buoyancy gently pushing me on. Gradually faster, looking out to the green fields below, where the piper plays and the May Queen walks half between spring and summer. Faster still, guitar chords driving me forward as my shadow curves down the stairs. The solo, and I’m flying, leaving the last gold step and running through the air. As it slows I drift down, still lazily walking, then land crouched on the sweet smelling grass.
Or Springsteen singing ‘Jungleland’. The violin raising a jazz city: the buildings blue and black cubes with yellow square windows. Rain patters in time with the piano, while the streetlight reflections are fire underfoot and on the roofs of cars. The saxophone roars, blowing the detail away into blazing colours. They fade, leaving their neon touches in the outline of a street. A last crescendo, the city in glorious Technicolor, before it wisps away on the night time wind. [private]
But I decide on The Mamas and the Papas, and ‘California Dreamin’. I turn the volume up on my laptop and set it playing. The guitar drives waves of smoke up through the room, and the harmonies knot around me, raising me towards the ceiling. As I reach the roof the flute begins to play and it stretches out as a white void above. I walk on a winter path, the snow crunching in rhythm. Branches arc overhead and above them the sky is bright and clear. The cold rings on my cheeks and steam slips out from between my lips. I draw the air in, a bitter but fresh rush through my body, then push it out and fall softly onto the sofa. The warmth has become the restful heat of a log fire, emanating over me as I sink back, the stress in my neck uncoiling and clicking away.
I let out a long breath, and should have been sunken and happy till I was ready to choose the next song, but she leans over the side of the sofa, both hands on the armrest, her hair dangling over one side of her face. She smiles, the pink of her tongue poking out between her teeth: the way it always did when she was close to laughing.
“I didn’t want to see you tonight,” I say.
“Why all this then?” She lifts her hand and twirls lazy spirals in the smoke.
“I did this before you, you know,” I answer, watching the disturbance ripple across the room.
“That doesn’t mean you can do it after.” Her smile draws smaller, but remains. “Not the same, anyway.”
“You weren’t the prettiest girl I knew back then.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“You were the prettiest girl I fucked. But not the prettiest girl I wanted to.”
“Oh come on.” She laughs and slaps at my leg. I feel a tingle as her fingers pass through my knee. The warmth of her hand, without her hand. She sits herself on the arm of the sofa, her legs bent across the cushion between us. “Do you think I’d even be here, if it was so easy to get rid of me?”
“I don’t know why you’re here.” If I wasn’t drifting in the fireside warmth, I would hiss in her face. Instead I lie back, and speak with relaxed spite. “I never loved you. You were a friend who I fucked, and we listened to music, and sometimes we were magic. All we had was a good time.”
“And don’t you think you can love a friend, and a good time?” She crosses her arms, growing serious. “Saying these things can’t hurt me. But they’d hurt her.”
She lifts her chin and looks past me at my mobile phone on the opposite armrest.
“When was the last time?”
I feel the phone’s gravity in the room, the smoke moving in slow tumbles towards it, pulling me slightly like standing in the tide. I bring my hands to my lap and gaze down at them.
“It was last week. I wanted to check she was okay.”
“Don’t you ever wonder,” she shifts down from the armrest, so she’s sitting next to me, and I grip my thighs, “how she would react if you told her these things? That you didn’t love her, but she was a good friend, and a good time?”
“I think she would tell me she did love me.” I turn away and her breath tickles against my ear as she leans closer.
“You’re not sure though. What if she didn’t see it how you thought she did; what if she saw you exactly as you saw her, a friend for music and sex and magic?”
I look at my phone, settled in the armrest, and feel myself leaning towards it as if over the edge of a cliff to peer down.
“Because if that’s how she saw it,” she lets out a sigh that races up my spine, “then there’s no reason she shouldn’t come back and do it all again. Even without that, don’t tell me it doesn’t matter to you what she thought of you. That you don’t want to know if she loved you.”
I turn to her again and her face is in front of mine, tilted as if before a kiss.
“I could banish you.” I keep my voice controlled and low. “You never could stand a heavy bass line. You might not leave willingly, but with, say, ‘A Little Party Never Killed Nobody’, I could drive you out.”
Her eyes flare open. With one quick breath, her chest rising sharply, all the smoke in the room sucks into her. The air becomes cold and too thin to draw properly into my lungs. The light that was warm and orange is now dull headache white. Behind her eyes like glass, the smoke she has stolen rolls.
“You do not have the power. Try and I’ll make you want a song so badly you won’t be able not to play it. A song you shared. You always said ‘Maggie’ was the saddest. Could you stand the truth in words sung from his first love’s suicide note?”
I feel it already. A heaviness aching in my bones, lifting its weight turning each breath into the beginnings of a sob.
“It’s someone else’s sadness,” I say through drawn lips. “I won’t let it in.”
“Then I’ll use your own. ‘Orange Crush’. Remember when it played when you were kissing her, how you’d sing along with the chorus against her lips? The muffled way she’d laugh as you held her against you?”
The weight of my bones disappears, a hollow skeleton shape left inside me, empty and silent. It spreads, till I am nothing but a shell of skin.
“That’s just memories.” I stare into the storm clouds swirling in her eyes. “They’re done. You can’t hurt me with those.”
“Bullshit. What’s done can hurt you again and again and again. I’ll prove that if you want. The song I haven’t mentioned yet, the one that tied you together more than any. The one that made your two souls into rings interlinked.”
Only she is in focus, the room behind her in flickering black shadow.
“’Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is plenty of couples’ song. It’s nothing special.”
“Don’t lie.” The darkness behind her grows more solid and my hand pulls my laptop across to me. The anger fades from her face but even as she smiles there is still smoke in her eyes. There is something of an echo and something of a chant within her words. “The song holds a part of you that is incomplete on its own, a broken half of a whole that can only be made in union with her.”
There is only blackness, and her, and the click of my typing fingers.
“No!” I shout, bringing the world rushing back, and slam the laptop shut. “You win. No music. But I wish you’d go away.”
She sighs, the smoke and the warmth pouring back into the room. She brings her hands to my cheeks, pins and needles running across where we should be touching.
“No you don’t. You wish I could sleep with you the way she did.” She grins and bites her lip that I can never kiss, before reaching down towards me. Her hand passes straight into my thigh, up to her slender wrist. I feel her soft fizz inside my leg. “You only have to call her. Once more, for old time’s sake.”
Even watching her, I feel the weight of my phone behind me. Her hair falls over one side of her face and there is a slip of pink in her smile again. I start to get hard, each twitch and push and tighten a rush of pleasure in itself, as always under the spell.
“She wouldn’t say no. Who could resist, just one last time.”
I want to grab her, pull her into me and kiss her. I can’t, so I turn and grasp my phone instead. I click through menus then press the first letter of her name, so she appears in the list on my screen. I stop and look back to the her that’s me, who leans eagerly forward. I place the phone on top of the laptop, between us.
“No,” I say quietly, the tightness in my crotch loosening. “Not tonight.”
She presses her lips together and there are tears in her eyes. They narrow; she never let herself cry.
“If you don’t want to see me, you could just stop doing this. You know that, right?”
“I can’t stop.”
“For me? Or for the feeling?”
I don’t answer. I watch her for the longest time, as the smoke gradually releases the air and fades, and she becomes more and more transparent. In the end, when the air is clear and she moves from almost gone to gone, I hear her say:
“You’re supposed to be able to quit both. If you actually want to.”
Then silence. [/private]