Fiction: “The Dragon and the Princess”

So here we are. It’s dusk, and over the ledge, down the hill, a train calls out like a dog missing its pack. He peels back the cellophane, taps out a cigarette, offers me one, but I shake my head. I’m not trying to quit anymore, but sometimes I pretend. The way we still tell our Others I love you after all these nights.

I am sitting on the low brick wall where he rests his elbows and takes a long drag. He pinches his lips and exhales the smoke like a cherub fountain.

“I’m a dragon,” he says.

It was spring when we met. The ground smelled wet—earth thawing, bulbs splitting open and thrusting free—and I left my car behind when I headed downtown so I could show my body that the cold was gone and it was safe to leave the house with bare skin and everything would be okay.

“I’m sorry,” he said when he opened the apartment door. “You’re Lauren’s friend, right? I forgot your name.”

“Emily,” I said. “And you’re …?” Mark, I remembered, but I didn’t want him to feel bad for having forgotten.

“Marcus,” he said. “Lauren should be back soon. Come in.”

Lauren: my best friend from high school, back from New York with an art history degree, a jackpot of student debt, and a fiancé.

He’s an anthropology major, she’d written in an email. He likes authentic Cantonese food and tolerates Fuzzy Wuzzy.

Something’s wrong with him, I replied. Nobody should tolerate Fuzzy Wuzzy.

Fuzzy Wuzzy: a Mexican red leg tarantula with a lifespan up to three and a half times that of the average marriage.

The terrarium sat on a shelf by the couch, one of the few things not still boxed up from the move.

“I missed Lauren,” I said, “but I didn’t miss that thing.” The truth of it was, although every email closed with, I miss you!, I stopped missing her after a while. It’s how going away works.

Marcus shrugged. “Wuzzy’s not so bad, once you get used to her.”

“And then you realize one day that you’re used to a giant spider, which is just as bad.”

Lauren arrived, pleased we were getting along. “Emily can be kind of prickly sometimes,” she told Marcus, “but she can play nice too.”

We all did. Lauren, Marcus, Rick, and I would meet for dinner sometimes, maybe watch a game or movie we could all find some investment in. This, I remember thinking as Rick asserted his masculinity by picking up the check, must be what it’s like to have couple friends: awkward, a little forced, because none of us is certain why we’re there. Are we good company, or are we just tagging along? If not for me, would Lauren and Rick ever talk? What does it mean that they wouldn’t?

Rick: a vet tech who specializes in the pets his coworkers don’t want to deal with, the ones with CAUTION: BITES and HANDLE WITH CARE warnings in their files. It would be a nice story if that’s how we’d met—if he’d been patient while my foul-tempered cat got her rabies booster. But I don’t have a cat, just a cat allergy, and we met in the waiting room of the walk-in clinic, preparing for flu season. I was fumbling for my insurance card, head gone foggy because I’ve never been good with needles; he was stuck in line behind me, and when I spilled my wallet, he helped me gather the bills and receipts and frequency cards.

“You’re at Central,” he said when he returned my student ID. “I graduated two years ago. What are you studying?”

“I don’t know,” I said, because I was between majors, having abandoned biology for philosophy but not yet found sociology.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You’re really pale.”

“Fine,” I said. “Yeah. Just don’t like shots.”

“Flu shot, eh?” When I nodded, he said, “Yeah, me too. There’s a Wendy’s down the block. Maybe you should eat something.”

It was just self-induced wooziness from the needle, but when I told Lauren—this when I was still telling Lauren things—she said, “Yeah, right. You were swooning, weren’t you?”

Even now, I don’t know if Rick lived up to whatever expectations she had in her mind. The only reaction she gave came in a whispered aside when he and Marcus had fallen into conversation about Fuzzy Wuzzy: “I always imagined he’d have glasses.”

Her sister was the maid of honor at their end-of-summer wedding. The next month, Rick invited me to join him for a round of flu shots, except when we got to the clinic he said, “Hold on,” and went to one knee. Women talk about a surprise proposal like it isn’t terrifying. It is magic, but not the good type. It is dark, dangerous magic, the sort that makes your marrow go rancid.

In my head, I said, Oh fuck. Please let some car crash into that fire hydrant and save me. Oh fuck.

Out loud, I said, “Yes.”

And that’s how it started. I asked Lauren why she chose the Hilton banquet hall for the reception. She said, “Ask Mark.” So I did, and then asked him more.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I think everyone’s supposed to be scared.”

“Lauren wasn’t,” I said.

He lifted his shoulders, flagged down the waitress for another round. “Lauren’s not scared of a lot. I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.”

I’ve always been a scared person. I used to envy Lauren for her fearlessness; sometimes I still do, although for different reasons. I once wanted to be like her, ready to bite into the Big Bad Apple. Now I wish I had her courage to leave our hometown.

Maybe the difference between the two is in my head. Maybe bravery is a mythic tapestry I’ve constructed for myself and we’re all cowards, just sometimes better at hiding it, weaving in a few gold threads to distract from the faded beiges that all blur together into a monochromatic depiction of knights who stay in playing checkers and steeds put out to pasture and an evil queen who minds her own business. Everything is pleasant; everything makes a plain sort of sense.

“I’m scared of a lot. More than I should be.”

“Fear”—Marcus nodded thanks when the waitress replaced our drinks—“seems important. Like pain. We do everything we can to avoid paper cuts and bruised shins, but then you look at the people who are born without the ability to feel pain, biting off their own tongues without even realizing it. Pain’s a survival mechanism. So is fear. It’s the thing that tells you not to jump off a cliff just to see what happens.”

I got too drunk that night, didn’t realize it until I stood to look for the restroom and the world went liquid around me. I laughed and rested a hand faux-casually on the high table, and Marcus tilted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow, and I laughed harder and said, “Sorry. I’ll be back in a sec.”

The ladies’ room in Sly Dog Brewery has a mirror that’s angled a few degrees forward, just enough to rekindle the flare of vertigo I’d had as I plotted a course through the clotted tables and stools and patrons cackling and chittering like the inmates of an aviary. I turned on the faucet, got distracted staring myself down, trying to decide if blinking would make me the contest’s winner or loser, realized only after I cheated by winking each eye independently that the water was too hot.

“I think I’m drunk,” I told Marcus when I returned to the table.

“Me too,” he said. “Feel like a walk to work through some of this beer?”

And so it went, like when Jack fell down and Jill went tumbling after.

I kissed him first, two weeks later. Rick was visiting his brother a day’s drive away. Lauren and Marcus were coming at seven for pizza and a movie of their choosing, but she sent me a message at six: Ugh migraine. Im spending the night with my face buried in ice sorry. Marks still good for the pizza though.

He took the opportunity to replace the standard half-cheese-half-mushroom with a Meat Lover’s Special and after I stashed the uneaten wedges in the fridge and returned to the couch, I said, “Hey,” and he looked at me and I touched his forearm and said, “I kind of want to kiss you,” even though kind of didn’t belong.

He said, “Okay.”

And if Rick’s “Will you marry me?” felt like being too drunk to walk straight, Marcus’s mouth against mine felt like a running jump off a cliff to see what would happen.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Really?” he asked, and I stared.

“I don’t know. No. Not really, I guess.”

On TV, Godzilla reared his scaly head, and Marcus said, “Me neither.”

“Okay.”

Okay seemed like a stupid thing to end with, but I couldn’t find anything wiser, so instead I kissed him more deeply, and when he brushed my hair back from my face, his fingertips traced over my cheekbone and around the crest of my ear, back along my jaw, down my throat, settling over my heart as it beat like a crazed woman on the padded walls surrounding her.

Which should have been a sign—which was a sign, and in my fantasies of the Big Day, he didn’t hold his peace even though I was too scared to let go of mine. Fantasy is fantasy, though, and at man and wife, Rick kissed me and I cried and tried to believe it was for the right reasons.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, and Rick smiled, and his eyes were so soft at that moment that I thought about going to sleep forever.

“It’s okay,” he said, and he touched the unnatural curls in my hair, and I wanted to say, No, you don’t understand, but I closed my eyes and nodded and held my peace.

Two and a half years later, when he said divorce, I was the one who wanted to start counseling. I wanted to clear my conscience by pretending I tried. I hate that he agreed. I hate that we found a good therapist. I hate that she saved our marriage, to whatever extent it can be called saved. Saved in the manner of a woman with a tumor and three months to live whose airbag works exactly as intended when she’s T-boned by a drunk at a four-way stop.

Well-meaning people on internet forums will tell you that this sort of situation—Lauren and Marcus and Rick and me with our signals crossed and our roles confused as if we’re Shakespearean actors who’ve accidentally shown up for Cats—is unsustainable, unfair, unwise, unethical, and perhaps—if you ask the more cynical—unavoidable.

User K80GR80 says, Communication! Talk to your spouse about your needs. They won’t know what you’re missing if you don’t tell them.

I thought about this, decided to make a list in the small but expensive notebook Rick’s mother had sent me for Christmas. I delayed the writing by searching for an instrument worthy of the leather-bound book, finally plucking a black pen with a bold tip out of the cup on the desk. Then I sat, opened to the first page, stared, flipped to one in the middle. I’m never sure what goes on the first page of a new notebook, but this seemed inappropriate, something that ought to be tucked away.

NEEDS, I wrote at the top of the page.

I drew a bullet point.

Made it bigger.

And bigger.

Turned it into a black hole doodle that consumed the title, then kept going until the page was filled and scored with concentric circles.

The question—what needs aren’t being met?—felt as answerable as What does ultraviolet light look like? or How has the capital of the Maldives changed since 1972? A question that hinged on information I didn’t have, a sensation I had never experienced. The nightmarish test for which one is not prepared.

“What do you need from me?” I asked Marcus two nights later when we were walking along the tracks downtown.

He glanced at me, hands tucked in his pockets against the leeching chill. “What do I need?”

“That you don’t get from Lauren, I mean.”

Angling his gaze toward the point where the steel lines fused into oblivion, he exhaled, breath hanging in the air. I mirrored him, more to watch the condensation like smoke than out of exasperation, but he said, “Sorry. It’s a tough question, that’s all. I’m not sure.”

“There must be something,” I said. “Otherwise why would you be doing this? Why would we?”

“Why do you think?” Actual curiosity, not sarcasm.

This was the rebound I had hoped to dodge. I said again, “There must be something.”

“There must be something.” He let out another puff of pseudo-smoke. “Yeah.”

Now here we are. It’s dusk. Marcus tells me he’s the dragon, and I don’t know what this means for me. How many roles can I really play? The prince who finds the right angle to plunge his sword through the dragon’s layered scales, I think not; the queen who loses her daughter to the creature, no; the peasants or the jesters or the magician. I am none of these things.

“I’m the princess,” I say.

He frowns a little, sighs cigarette smoke, and stares at the distant lights of the train.

He says, “I don’t know what to do sometimes.”

I lift my shoulders a little and let them drop like sandbags. “I changed my mind,” I say. “I want one,” and for a beat, Marcus is confused, but then he hands me the cigarette he’s been working on.

“I’m supposed to be quitting anyway.”

I draw a bit of smoke in, let it out again. “Me too.”

I read once that the moon drifts 1.6 inches farther from us every year. Eventually I guess it will fly away entirely; all the Earth’s gravity won’t be able to pull it back. Sometimes I am like that, inching away without meaning to. Sometimes gravity fails. Sometimes, though, everything in the sky feels aligned, and I can see the moon, rising behind me, light reflected in his pupils so that there is something just a little eerie in his gaze.

The billboards say, Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray, only I am realizing now that it’s not true—or else maybe it is, and I just don’t notice because his mouth tastes like mine, because we breathe the same smoke, because we’re supposed to be quitting but there’s no patch for this, no gum to make the tremors go away. So we steal evenings like shoplifting teenagers. Snag moments where we can. Grope in the dark for those wispy, elusive needs. Search desperately, as fast as we can, because you just never know when someone will come looking to save you.

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