The bookstore smells like dust and paper and ink. I remember you best in places like this, even if it’s not a place we shared together. You are still here. I pass by other books on the New Fiction shelf, but I can’t stop looking at yours. I’ve tried to avoid the physical presence of your novel for weeks because I didn’t want to see you plastered against its pages. But our old friends keep asking about you and this book and I suppose I have to read it, if only to know.
You were always a night writer, like the dark could hide you and your thoughts and your fears. Maybe that’s what writing was for you. I wonder if the nights you wrote in bed beside me are in these pages. Because on those nights, it was like you’d look through our apartment and the life we’d built there to something better.
Maybe this book is something better.
I was always in love with the idea of being in love with a writer. I wanted someone to ink me into their soul. I needed someone to immortalize me upon a page, leaving me for someone else to find someday. But we stopped sharing our words. You didn't touch my notebooks stacked on the desk. Maybe you knew the words inside them were too true. Maybe you knew the characters weren’t you, but for you. For me. For us.
When I pick up your real book, I close my eyes like the girl on the cover. But my eyelashes aren’t covered in a golden glow. My skin is just skin and not stardust. Your name rests just below her breast: Shaw Eason. The back is covered in more names and words and it becomes it’s own constellation dedicated to your greatness.
In the darkness you will only find the bitter truth about life, love, and the demise of it all. Rust and Ruin is an electrifying debut filled with stark prose and unsettling moments of truth. Shaw Eason’s words will remind you what it’s like to fall out of love, make you rethink who you share your morning coffee with. His work redefines the realistic terms of forever. —Porter Beale, Spine Magazine.
The blurb is done by one of your writer friends I never liked. And I hate him even more after reading these lines across the back cover of your book; the font white and small and powder thin. Tracing his words feels like standing in a moment as it becomes a before.
I never thought about the after. I didn't know after a year it would be us, sitting at opposite ends of our secondhand table in a small studio apartment; we swapped stories instead of kisses. Me and you in our own worlds. I didn’t know how we’d make love to the sound of that T.S. Eliot audiobook you bought me for Valentine’s Day.
Maybe we needed someone else’s words to satiate our hunger for better writing, something to help us escape the blank page.
Now, post-us, I remember the strangeness of finding myself in your short stories, sent out and rejected; Rust and Ruin wait-listed as an honorable mention. I knew the world would someday see how we’d tried so hard to be in love.
When that piece became the title story in your collection, you made me a promise. You swore if it was published you would be good again. We could be good again.
Reading the words now, I realize they were our unbinding.
I flip through your book twice before deciding to buy it for no reason other than to read it.
“You know, he’ll be here next week for a signing. Stop back in with your copy,” the bookseller says. She’s younger than us with waxen lips, too much admiration trapped in her voice; not yet broken by another.
* * *
Back home, I start to read, drinking coffee from the green mug you left behind. And I wonder if the girl wrapped in stardust on the cover of your book is me or someone new.
One story, “Dust,” kills your main female protagonist in a horrific fire. You go on for pages about the way she burns. She is stripped away on a pyre of promised love, and I imagine this must be an incarnation of me.
The idea of her haunts me.
Clock says 3AM. I remember how the green glow of the numbers washed over your face in the dark. It used to remind me of the stars still stuck to the ceiling of my childhood room.
When you kissed me did you taste the stars? Is that why your girl is covered in their dust and seeping with their light? Her eyes are closed, in sleep, or maybe just stuck in a story.
I wonder if sleep finds you tonight, or if you write.
Somewhere your phone rings, and maybe you’ll ignore my call. I imagine you swaying into the shape of some new girl as you drink and dance and trace words on her neck. Maybe you write stories for her instead of about her. Maybe you love her.
“Gray?” you ask.
It takes me a minute to respond because I hear the sleep in your voice and know you’re not out with someone else. “I read it. Is that girl me? Are all of them about us? Because she’s dust and—”
“It’s fine,” you say.
You tell me it’s about a story you saw on the news or heard in a coffee shop or read in a book about Viking rituals. You say it’s not about us. That it was never about us. It was always about the writing.
* * *
You knock outside my door an hour later. When you see me, you sigh bonfire breaths against my neck, into my mouth; you taste like ash.
I pull you to the bed, and we have sex. We don’t make love, because I don’t think there is any left. We search each other for the things we used to feel. I kiss the mole beneath your eye, and you trace your hand over my collarbone.
“Can you hit play?” I ask, pointing to the dock. Eliot’s love song squeaks from the speakers, and you stop before it all feels too good. Before it feels too right.
“You know what? I hate this, hate that it hurts so much. So yes, I still write about you. Yes, it’s you burning on that pyre. Yes, it was you the whole fucking time, Gray!”
You knock the iPod from the dock.
“Just stop listening to this. They’re my words. Not yours. They can’t be ours. Not anymore,” you say.
You pull a cigarette from your jeans on the floor, light it, and let it burn up into nothing. I stay on my side of the bed and you stay on yours and the green light finds your face. For a moment, that last little bit from The Great Gatsby flashes through my head, but I don’t repeat it.
Maybe those are your words, too.
“You’re the one who asked me to leave and—” Your words fall somewhere else as you pull me to your chest, smelling like sweat and smoke.
I wake to find you writing on the back of a takeout menu from a Chinese restaurant downtown, somewhere that doesn’t spill with tangled memories of us and Thai noodles from our old Thursday place two blocks away. When you finish, you fold the paper, and slide it into the pocket of your jeans. You smoke a cigarette. You leave.
I wait in the kitchen for the coffee to brew. Once it’s done, I pour myself a cup. Your book sits here with those coke line blurbs. I don’t ever want to read them again. I tip the cup and the sound of the coffee swelling into your pages soothes like a rainstorm.
I shred the dust cover, rip the other pages from the spine. They come apart like animal bones. Coffee drips on my toes and smears those fucking words until I can’t read them anymore.
Your green coffee cup leaves a ring on the table and makes me think of that one story in your book and that cup is yours and so goddamned green that it reminds me of Gatsby’s light and his words and your words and your words. I smash the cup in the sink, then the coffee pot because it used to be ours.
All of this used to belong to us, and I don’t want it anymore.
* * *
In the next few months, I move to a new apartment. Sometimes I stalk your blog from the same computer, sitting at the desk you once built; rereading drafts of your stories you left behind. I write a collection of my own called This Is How You Lose Him, and then hide it because it sounds too much like your favorite book. I revise it because it shows too much of you.
Maybe, someday, there will be a new title. I’ll change the characters, make them better than us. They might still end up alone. They might die to be reborn so they can find each other again beneath the stars. They’ll write each other letters from one universe to the next, and they’ll be in love always.
They will just be characters.
They won’t be us.
And I’ll finish it. I will really finish it. When it’s published, I’ll send you a copy. I’ll sign it. I will say I’m sorry.
Kayla King is a graduate of Buffalo State College’s B.A. in Writing (2013), and the Mountainview MFA (2016). She is an editor and contributing writer for One For One Thousand, an online magazine dedicated to the profundity of flash fiction. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming from One For One Thousand, Germ Magazine, Five 2 One Magazine, Plath Poetry Project, Cat on a Leash Review, MockingHeart Review, Figroot Press, Dear Damsels, and Twelve Winters Press. You can find more about Kayla King at her website and blog: http://kaylamaeking.wixsite.com/kayla-king-books.
I am a collector of old books and antique tea cups. Throughout my travels, I started gathering my smaller collections in glass jars. If I had to pick a favorite souvenir it would be a stone with the names Sylvia and Irene written on its surface. Often I think of these women. I try to imagine what they're doing now, and still wonder why they left their names behind in Dorset, at Chesil Beach, where I found this stone amidst all of the other rocks and pebbles.