by Toti O'Brien


Love is a mystery.

How it happens – even more, how it doesn’t. How it vanishes, and sometimes it gets stuck. If it were a bird, you wonder who taught it to fly: clearly, it would need more lessons.

It: we refer to an entity of sorts – independent, self-standing. But no such thing exists: love is personal, like a body part. A tumor you develop on your own: that’s why idiosyncrasy reigns. That is why we never agree when we talk of love: each refers to his or her own. Tumor.

“I love you!” “You don’t.” “How can you be sure?” “You don’t know what love means in the first place.” Well, of course. We can only respond of our own. Tumor.

People would get mad, should I publicly utter the above. Associate the word tumor with love, I mean. It has happened. I had even left ‘tumor’ out, using the word ‘monster’, instead. Sorry! But, first of all, I love monsters: they are usually cute. Secondly, I was using the term in its original meaning – that is, wondrous, amazing and strange…a combo of mismatched elements, a collage.

Or a crystal with a million facets – but we see the one facing us. Shiny, sometimes blurry. I could use the word ‘crystal’, all right: no one would complain. I could use the word ‘jewel’, ‘diamond.’

     I won’t.


When you come to the conclusion love doesn’t exist – if not for selling chocolates, rings, wedding gowns, and the similar – you shall start calling your tumors scars. That takes the pressure off. It is easier to hide: scars do not bulge. Sometimes they are ugly, even awful. Sometimes they are discrete – they blend in, chameleon-like.

My first scar chisels my chest. Well, it isn’t my first, chronologically speaking. For that I should go back to the Stone Age. You should, too: the epidemic started early. We’ll let go of ancient wounds.

I meant first in anatomical order, starting at the top. Why? No reason.

     It is afternoon, and everything’s made of stone.

The villa, I mean. His family villa, in the country.

Well, the country is next door to the town: they are contiguous. We drive just a bit, and we arrive: at the same time, we’ve gone very far. We have dug into feudalism, reached a past drooling into the present – yet remote. His family villa: beware of those houses. They have too many secrets. As you pass the gate, you feel danger. But you’re already trapped in.

We don’t enter the house right away: it would be scandalous, indiscrete…as if it was a lady, let’s say, and disheveled, all day long. She needs to fix up – in the meanwhile, the maid will make tea, take out the rosolio.

We go touring the gardens. They are in state of abandonment, he apologizes. Oh, dear. The condition immediately infects me. Is he also attained? He looks and feels like. How I’d wish to assume a state of abandonment, fuller, deeper than I ever experienced. Its urgency exploded as I stepped in, infesting me like a Sahara wind, scattering all residues of childhood in a messy firework.

These gardens are vicious. It’s not only the abandonment that cuts through me, makes me want to kneel, lie down, melt into the ground, whisper, “Come, please.” There are other ingredients: the secrecy, intricacy, lacing. Vines covering crumbling walls. Violets hiding under ferns. Mushrooms peering out of the grass, smelling of strange fermentations. Roses crying petals onto the gravel. White. Red. Pink. Myriads. Roses like rosaries. Pungency of invisible jasmine. Treacherousness of honeysuckle.

The buzz of a bee makes me jump aside – bumping into him. He’s just grabbed a butterfly: he holds it between index and thumb. He laughs while he throws it under the collar of my blouse. I gasp, then I chase it downwards. The beast staggers out, drunkenly flying away. I’m dizzy as well, and these are only the gardens. Preliminary, introductive: they have lasted enough.

But we aren’t alone. There are sisters, cousins. They are behind: the two of us march with the fastened beat of anticipation. This thing, pushing us forward, separating us from the chaperoning cortege. Do we notice? We don’t.

There’s a brook leading to a pond. A willow is caressing it with green teary fingers. Can’t do softer than that, or more thrilling. In fact, the pond quivers and shivers.

Let’s go inside, have tea. The building looks solemn and cold. They all are, those turn of the century villas. That’s how they keep their secrets. Lots, yet all of the same kind: exquisite and sinful. Illicit, delightful. Cheap, in fact: that’s why they are hidden. Predictable, and they get wrapped in mystery because of pure vanity. Still, delightful.

Though marble, gilded surfaces and chill prevail, the villa is full of recesses. I mean fabric: thick curtains and velvet bedspreads, tulle-screened canopies and pillows on coaches, furry carpets and beaded lightshades. That’s what favors the sins to be committed: fabric pads them and muddles them, softens them and conceals them. The house gathers them all.

I am ready. I have reached the right age: a bit green, but then, it is more savory. When I sit in the living room for tea and scones, I am molten lava. I am Niagara Falls. “Milk or lemon?” his mother asks. She’s assessing me.

I’m too young, too short and too poor.

She won’t go to her room before seeing I’m given a proper ride home. By the driver.

No farther did we read therein.

The villa is called Moonstone. A rock, straight from the moon, fell upon my chest. Why? It was a leisurely walk, an afternoon visit. Innocent. Introductory. What’s the problem if teenage desire awoke right then, right there?

Whatever the problem was, it is durable. I’ll never be capable of removing the stone: it has crushed, crumbled something, scarred a star on my breast. Can’t a star be beautiful? There are some you don’t want to wear. This is ugly. I should call it an octopus, or a spider. A tarantula.


Years have  passed : I’m about to get another one. Vertical, on the thigh. Going down the entire length. Going up: from the knee to where I stopped it. Inner side, obviously.

We are in bed, in another stoned-villa. This one belongs to my family. That makes it, how to put it: familiar? More familiar. I mean, I can’t be driven away. Beside the fact I have grown: now I drive.

We have kept in touch. We have remained friends: we have sent postcards, called, sometimes met. Recently, we have drawn nearer: we have taken long walks, sat on benches in front of the ocean, at sunset, when it was getting chilly and we should have sought each other’s arms. That we haven’t. We have played cool. He has only caressed my wrist – surrounded by a thin silver chain.

Is it gold? Is it my ankle? It is gold and it is my neck. Is he touching my neck? He must be. The Sahara wind blows in our face. Our eyes become teary. Here we can always count on wind, should we need it.

He’s caressing my neck, embroidered by a thin golden chain. “Small things suit you,” he says. They do. Suit me. Reach me. Choke me. Forever stick with me.

I don’t answer. In spite of his touch, nothing happens, for  I have this scar on my chest (a tarantula niched between my breasts). There’s a dam: his hand can’t go further. Dommage.

We have boyfriends and girlfriends. Lovers: I mean other ones. We enjoy reporting about it. It is called spite, though it’s kindly performed in our case. I tell him I’ve hooked up with a friend of his. He tells me he likes women with mannequins’ bodies. I am one. But he’s just found another.

Still, we manage to end up in bed after a long-lasting party, thanks to a shortage of rides (though the villas, over here, are contiguous to town. Though, virtually, you could walk anywhere. But the villas, remember, fall back in time: extricating yourself becomes harder). We all camp in my family’s dilapidated abode, sharing rooms, sheets, beds, bathrooms. Three of us occupy the main bedroom, solemn like a cathedral. The bed’s huge: a plaza. A wide mirror faces it: a bit offset – enticing. A golden candelabra is atop. Obsolete toiletries – abalone, turtle shell, egret and peacock feathers, dead flowers – are all over.

Three of us collapse over the mattress. A girl is on my right, he on my left. We are joking and talking, at various degrees of inebriation. Sleep is not on the menu. Some fun could be, or not.

We are past teenage. We have done things, even too many things. We feel jaded. Sex is easy. Whenever we like it. Occasions aren’t missing, so they can be missed, in case. We have tried things. We could try more, with no urgency. We have already partied in bed. We have watched and been watched. Tonight all is possible, or nothing – and it won’t make a difference. So I think.

Exhaustion finally wins, and the talk subsides. On my right side, where the girl lies, there’s stillness and silence. On my left side, the same thing. On my back, eyes wide open, I stare at the golden luster and I am at peace.

At least so I think. Then his hand starts up from the cavity of my knee, climbing slowly the tenderness of my thigh. I didn’t see it come. Didn’t hear, didn’t feel. I can’t even feel him breathe. But I sense his calm.

And a zillion of other things. Willow leaves over the surface of water. Shiver and quiver. Molten lava. Niagara Falls.

None of it ever awoke during these years of exuberant, unleashed sex. Nothing will again. I am perfectly sure. I know it. It is scarred in me. It is choking me.

On the right of me the girl coughs, turns and tosses. She’s my best friend. I don’t think I can ignore her. Though, of course, I should. Thinking is not the appropriate action to take. But I’m taking it. We should pause. I should pause. What does my girlfriend want? Should I ask? Should she participate? Should we share? Should the guy be in the middle? Of course.

Would she prefer watching? I am stopping his hand that has climbed all the way, by now, like a pilgrim who walked on his knees to the sanctuary, to win eternal pardon. Almost there: but I grab his wrist. Firmly. Larger than mine. So much stronger.

“Wait,” I say, the best spell-breaker I know, the word that dispels all enchantments. “Wait, not now, not yet” – the entire arsenal of counter-magic. We whisper a few quick replies. He does not want to share, I understand. Not at all. He  has got a shirt on, grabbed a pillow, moved to another room. I’ll see him in the morning.

Thus, I have killed the wolf: grandpa’s gun was in the drawer, loaded with silver bullets. Grandmother’s pie was poisoned. I’ve killed lightheartedly, as the tale instructed me to do. I came back in bed to mom, well-behaved girl that I am. Well-behaved depraved girl.

Did I think killing wolves is good policy? Something you should do, now and then, just to keep in shape? Why did I pull the trigger? Out of fear? Revenge?

Did I know wolves are an endangered species, about to go extinct?

Did I know I’d never find one again?

I would just be emblazoned with a scar on my thigh. A strip of skin, clawed away. A piece of bark, peeled, showing a live texture of lymph. Ugly and obscene.


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