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Authors: Sarah Buhl

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BOOK: quintessence.
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That’s why Maggie had worn it the last week. She was looking for the comfort her grandmother provided.

“What does your name mean—Margaret?” I asked.

“Pearl,” she said with a quiet tone.

“Karl, my man. How the heck are you?” Jackson asked as he walked slowly toward us. “Who’s your friend?” he asked, as he nodded to Maggie.

“Jackson, this is Maggie.” I put my hand on her shoulder as I introduced her, and more stitches threaded as I understood what her sweater meant to her.

I imagined what that scene looked like of her as a little girl. She curled up on a couch and rested her head on her grandma’s lap. As a little girl, her grandmother wiped away her tears with this sweater and it said a lot about Maggie that this is the one thing she cherished.

My first impression of her was wrong
.

“Hi Jackson.” She smiled and put her hand out to him and he took it in his and kissed it. He winked at her as she let go of his hand and smiled back at me.

“I love this guy,” Jackson said, pointing at me.

I laughed. “I love you, too.”

“When are you going to invite me to your place again?” Jackson asked.

“I’m taking Maggie and her parents there tomorrow,” I said. “Maybe you can come next weekend?”

“That’d be awesome, man. So you’re taking the parents out there, huh?” he asked and smiled at Maggie.

“Oh, I wanted to talk to you about that,” Maggie said, turning toward me. “It will just be me tomorrow. They have some church thing they have to get back for. So it looks like it’s you and me buddy.” She gave a light punch to my arm.

She wore fingerless mittens that poked out under her sweater, leaving her fingers open to the air.

“You should wear those tomorrow,” I said, jumping to a random topic to not think about the magnitude of being alone with her at my place.

“These?” she asked as she pulled at the wool.

“Yes, those are perfect for out there,” I said.
She’s perfect for out there.

She shrugged her shoulders before turning to the kitchen.

“Maggie? Is that you?” Regina asked as we walked into the pantry that led to the kitchen.

“Regina!” Maggie squealed and jumped into the older woman’s arms. “I haven’t seen you in years. When did you move back?”

“Last summer—Stuart retired, and we wanted to come back. It’s so good to see you. How’s your dad?” Regina asked.

“He’s good. He’s in town through tomorrow. You should look him up. He’d love to see you.”

“Oh, and my little friend,” Regina smiled at me and pulled me in for a hug. “Are you two here together?” she asked.

“Yep,” Maggie said as she pulled my arm toward her. “What do you need us to do because I’m starved and I know we have to work to eat. Karl reminded me of that.”

“Peel some potatoes, kids,” she waved her hand toward a massive pile of potatoes and Maggie laughed.

“Let’s peel some potatoes,” she said as she began to remove her mittens and sweater. She pulled her hair back away from her face and I noticed the beautiful line of her neck. She laughed at something Regina whispered to her and more threading ensued.

We entered the kitchen and found Conall standing over the grill. He saw me and a smile formed on his face. “Karl, you finally came to help us.” He pulled me in for a hug.

“Thanks for reminding me how I’ve lacked in helping out here,” I laughed.

He looked down at me and smiled. “You’re here more than Auntie Brecken. She’s been too busy with Blake to come here the last few weeks.”

I looked back to Maggie. “Maggie, this is Conall. He’s Brecken’s nephew.”

“Oh, I met your aunt last week. She’s awesome,” she smiled up at him. “But, she is definitely lacking the gene that made you so tall.”

I laughed.

“Yeah, Conall takes after his dad and grandpa. I’ve missed you man, you’ll have to come out to my place again soon.”

“I agree. Jess and I were thinking about coming in a couple weeks to help you with things,” Conall said.

“That’d be great.”

“Potatoes!” Regina yelled from the other side of the serving line, to remind us what we needed to do.

__________

After we did our job in the kitchen, we took our places at the table to eat. Maggie took the time to say hello to everyone she passed. She took the seat across from me and gave me the same smile she had shared with each of those here.

“You know, being here reminds me of some of the things I dreamed of doing as a kid. I would talk to my grandma about helping people. I told her that’s what I wanted to do and I didn’t care how much I made, I wanted to just live and make other people happy. This is great to be back here. I wasn’t always so occupied with my personal space,” she said with a smile and pointed expression.

“I could tell you weren’t,” I said, taking a bite of potatoes.

“How could you tell?” she asked.

“Because it isn’t forced. You just do it. You love people.”

She nodded as she smiled at the girl who sat next to her. She was a younger woman, with buzzed black hair. They started a conversation as Jackson took a seat next to me.

“Karl, this is it, man. I can feel it,” Jackson said.

I gave him a questioning look, and he nodded at Maggie with a wink.

I shook my head and focused on my food. I couldn’t imagine this was it, but I also couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with him.

__________

“That was a fantastic time,” Maggie said as we walked to my car. “Now what?”

“Now, I have something cool to show you,” I said.

I opened the door for her and she climbed in, rubbing her hands together to keep warm. “I can’t believe how cold it is already. Is it going to be okay to camp tomorrow night?” she asked.

“Yes, we’ll be fine.” I laughed to myself because I knew what she was imagining my place to look like. A rugged tent made from tarps. Cans hanging across the way as a warning. I couldn’t wait until she saw it.

I turned down the last street to get to Blake’s parent’s business. They owned the entire building and Blake lived above it. There was a dance studio and I had cleared it for use for the evening. Andrew, Blake’s dad told me it wasn’t a problem and the woman who rented it wanted it used as much as possible.

I parked on the street outside the building and Maggie looked at the sign, then back at me. “A dance studio?”

I nodded as I turned my car off. We both climbed from the car and I used Andrew’s key to get into the building.

She walked into the center of the room. I turned the lights on and a smile formed on her face as she looked in the large mirror covering the wall. She glowed in here. Her demeanor changed and she had a freedom in her step as she turned back to walk to me.

“You know, you’re the one person I’d try this in front of,” she said. “But it will take me a few minutes to get up the nerve. You get to pick the song though.”

“Yes, I do know.” I did, and I understood why.

“Okay, to distract me as I build up the nerve to do this—tell me a wound and healing,” she said, pulling at her sweater and then running her hand through her hair to pull it back into a pony tail with the band around her wrist.

“It’s a long one. You ready?” I asked.

“Yep.” She removed her sweater and sat on the floor of the studio, removing her boots and adjusting the leg warmers she had on under them.

She stretched as I began my story.

“Last year, I was standing in the checkout at a dollar store. It was around Veteran’s Day. I stood for a good five minutes at least, staring at this giant
Thank Your Soldiers
sign as I watched people walk around me. The words, every letter of them struck me as empty. They were just a design printed on paper that some advertising agency came up with to spark or trigger a need inside consumers.

“Soldiers, freedom, I should be thankful for my ability to shop.”
So, I began to think

what is our freedom? I’m here, shopping in a store and buying crap built by child labor in other countries. We had the unions and labor revolutions in the early 1900s to gain more freedom and rights in our labor—only to exploit it half way around the world one hundred years later. But damn it, we better thank a soldier for that right.”

“I’m sorry,” she said as she crossed her legs and rested her chin on her hand.

“There is no need to be sorry,” I said.

“Yes, there is. I was part of that. I sold crap like that to people,” she said, while she pulled her elbow to stretch her arm muscles. “What is your healing of that?” she asked with a saddened expression.

“That was the healing. The cloud lifted in that moment. Before then, I didn’t know how wounded I was. I didn’t know I was still there. I was physically here, but my mind was still there. That surreal sign was the catalyst to remind me I was home. That’s when I thought more about present tense. I needed to be active in my life now.

“I didn’t know what reality was anymore. Over there was so far removed from reality. Nothing was normal there. Nothing felt like real life. The fighting, the bullets, the fear, became my reality. Coming back home didn’t feel real anymore and I realized it was never real here. How I lived even before joining wasn’t real. I lived in this dream of what I wanted my life to be like. I wanted to be the hero. I wanted to be like the soldiers in all the movies.

“I couldn’t imagine going into battle like that,” she said pulling her knees up and hugging them. I sat on the floor across from her, with my back to the mirror.

“I tried to find my way. I never tried to find it in getting drunk or drugs like some have. I was desperate to find it. But I wanted to find it on my own terms. I’ve always kind of been a control freak that way. Maybe that’s one thing I took with me from before,” I laughed.

She gave me a soft smile and a nod. “I think we are all trying to find our way, no matter what we’ve seen or where we’ve been. Isn’t that what life is? Finding our way?” she asked.

“Yes, but remember, there is a difference with us. We understand what it means to go to war—to battle something. I used to see mine through a scope on a rifle, but now they’re inside me. Sometimes they hide and linger on the outskirts of memory. Then, sometimes the
y
are
me. You understand that. Your battle is as hard as mine if not harder. It was easier when they told me who my enemy was. Now, it’s just me. So, I sort my thoughts and focus on the present tense.”

“How do we win? How do we know when we’ve won this battle?” she asked me.

“This isn’t something you can win against. There is no final count that declares a winner, like in sports. A war doesn’t have a winner, both sides lose. But that war ends. I came home. But it’s still in here,” I said, tapping my temple. “But your battle, your battle Margaret, is one you can’t see an end to either. You just keep fighting. Each day is a battle, but you never give up. You can’t and I can’t let you.” I clapped my hands together and pointed at her with my palms together. “Now it’s time for you to show me how creative you can get with your dancing.”

“You called me Margaret.”

“Yes, I did,” I said as I stood to turn on the sound system.

11
Maggie
Fall

The smile on my face hurt.

It wasn’t just the constant stretching of my muscles across my face. It was also a pain deep in my heart. I didn’t think it was possible to feel that intensely connected with another human being.

“Are you ready?” Karl asked.

“Give me a minute,” I said, sitting onto my knees. I rolled forward into child’s pose toward him. I laughed as I sat like that.

“What’s so funny?” Karl asked.

I kept my face toward the floor and my arms stretched out in front of me. “Well, I look like I’m bowing to you,” I said with a muffled tone.

“Yes, yes you do. But that’s not a bad thing,” he said with a laugh.

“Karl, are you flirting?” I asked, still stretching.

“I’m not sure if I am; it’s been awhile,” he said and I heard apprehension in his voice.

I pulled my arms back and sat up. I rested my hands in my lap and met his eyes.

“I wouldn’t expect that,” I said with sarcasm and a wink. “You are quite the ladies’ man.”

A different feeling filled my gut now and I knew it was wrong, but the thought of him giving attention to another woman made me feel like the world would combust on itself. Everything would cease to exist and I’d be the one left to think about it all. That’s how horrible that would feel.

“I used to be,” he said, picking at the hole in the knee of his jeans. He wore long underwear underneath his jeans.

“Tell me about it. Then after you’re done, I will dance.”

“Are you prolonging this?” he asked with a sweet smile.

“Yes, I am, but it’s beside the point. I want to hear this story of pimp daddy Karl.”

He laughed. He laughed very loud and long at that.

“Pimp Daddy. That’s a good one. I will let you decide when I’ve finished the story if you think it’s a good label for me.”

I nodded and tried to focus on him and his words and not on the fear building in me about trying to dance again. Not just play dancing, but dancing in my current reality.

“My first girlfriend was when I was a sophomore in high school. Before then, the only time I was near a girl was shy dancing at junior high dances. That was the closest I ever was to them. And, that closeness meant my hands on their waist as I stared past their shoulder, because the wall was more interesting than looking at them. Then I met my girlfriend. We were in art class together. We sat at the same table for the first semester and never spoke a word to each other. We found out later that both of us sat with the other because we saw that the other was quiet and we didn’t want to talk while we worked on different projects.”

I laughed. “How did you end up talking then?”

“She made this painting one time and I had to talk to her about it. I couldn’t be silent when I saw it. It was beautiful and it was creepy as hell. It was truth, so I told her it was.” He flicked a piece of fuzz from his finger and watched it fall to the ground. “Then she cried because I got it. I think that was my first moment understanding another human being. We dated for a few months. She was older than me. She went off to college. I wanted to follow her, but we didn’t have the money. So I decided—you know I always wanted to do something important, so I joined the military. My mom signed off on my enlistment and I went in when I was seventeen.

“I joined the military for a girl and with the idea that what I saw in the movies was real. I should’ve been smarter than that. I was smarter than that. But I let myself get carried away by what I thought was love. She kept in touch with me. After my first deployment, I visited her. We had drifted apart; she was figuring herself out in college and I wasn’t what one would call faithful. But that’s what ends up happening when your life and time is measured by every one of the days you spend trying to keep your sanity,” he said.

“I was a charmer then.” He continued. “Looking back on it, Blake reminds me of the me from then. Not that he’s a bad guy. It’s just who he is. But it wasn’t me. I played the part and I lost myself. I lost a lot of myself and I hid behind a veil because I was out of my mind. After though, I learned that it wasn’t worth it—hiding like that.”

I couldn’t stay the five feet away from him after that story. I scooted on my knees across the floor to him and picked the piece of fuzz up he had flicked. “I’m glad you came out of hiding.” I put the fuzz back in his outstretched hand. “Now, I think I’m ready.”

“Okay,” he said with a smile, and stood from the floor. He put his hand out and as I took it, he pulled me to my feet.

He let go of my hand and walked to the back of the room to mess with the sound system again. I stood in front of the mirror and studied my face. I lifted my left leg onto the bar and grabbed my toe. As I stretched down, I pressed the toes of my right foot into the ground and tried to lift.
Lift
.

It didn’t happen, but I was okay with that. This wasn’t about lifting on my toes or technique. This was about me feeling a song and just dancing. I had to do it from this place—for me.

I needed to remember why I loved dancing as a little girl. I needed the freedom of it. All fear would cease as the dance took me away from the overwhelming emptiness the uncertainty of my future held.

I stood tall and breathed deep as I focused on my reflection.

“You can do this, Maggie—Margaret.”
I smiled, speaking softly to myself.

A song began. It was a slower one. There were several hums and claps that began in quiet, subdued tones. I
felt
the music first, letting it consume me. I let my hands go limp at my sides and closed my eyes. I bowed forward and let my hands move around my legs in a smooth motion and turned with hesitation on my left foot.

I didn’t attempt to push onto my toes again. I stayed on my flat feet and let my body tell me what it was capable of now. I listened to it. We were together again. I didn’t fight with it or hate it, but I thanked it for still moving this much with me. I thanked every movement and cheered to myself when I spun. It wasn’t the most graceful move, turning on my flat feet. I imagined I looked like a child, pretending to be a ballerina or dancer on stage. But just as a child dances for the joy of it, I did as well.

I didn’t think about the stress of my now former job. I didn’t have that to worry about anymore. I didn’t have to put on the exterior facade that sought approval from the world. I didn’t need society’s approval, because I was free.
I was me.

The song intensified and tears formed in my eyes. I let go to the song and to the movement. I had longed for this over the last few months. It didn’t matter how I looked, because inside, I felt it. I felt every beat of the song and every beat of my heart. I was alive. I cherished that thought. Whatever lay on the horizon, I would live right now.

BOOK: quintessence.
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