New Short Fiction Award
Three times a year, we award a writer who submits, in our opinion, the best original, previously unpublished work.
Gabriella Costa of Wood-Ridge, New Jersey is the winner of the 33rd Jerry Jazz Musician New Short Fiction Award, announced and published for the first time on July 3, 2013. This marks the second time Ms. Costa has won this contest.
Gabriella Costa is from Northern New Jersey but will be moving to New York City in the fall for college. Her work has appeared once before on the Jerry Jazz Musician website as the winner of their 29th Short Fiction Contest. In addition, she has published fiction and nonfiction in Susquehanna University’s Apprentice Writer and was awarded the Gold Medal in fiction from the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. This past May, she received a New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education for her writing. She will be attending Fordham University to study art history.
“Fine,” she says. “Give me your hand.”
Empty spaces, open and promising for my skin to slip into, lie between the pale fingers that wag impatiently in my direction. I want to either kiss those milky tips or break the digits one by one. But my hand has no conflict and longs for nothing more than to fill those gaps left by her fingers. It knows where it belongs, and I watch as it begins to reach out, a thin layer of cold sweat over the palm.
The impatience painted across her face, the utter tiredness behind her eyes and lines of judgment around her pursed lips, is almost enough for me to grab her hand immediately, quick and fervently like a child snatching a reward. Her mouth opens and no words come out, but her sighs are far worse than any clamor of irritated words. It’s just that for as long as I can remember people have been helping me up the stairs. Over mountains and across bridges. I know too well the touch of an obligatory palm against mine and the feel of nails from unwilling fingers as they grasp much too tightly. But if I don’t take her hand, I’ll let her down.
The stairs unfold in front of me, the metal twisting and contorting itself along the heavy, close white walls. A bitter taste fills my mouth, the flavor of orange peels with hints of strong coffee. It washes over my tongue like a lozenge melting, coating it and slipping down my throat where it burns. If she could taste this, she would understand. If she could taste this, she wouldn’t want me to climb.
The two of us stay poised in this position, like Michelangelo’s fresco reinterpreted, a goddess reaching out to a disoriented Eve. Embarrassment gets the better of me and I break our tableau to wipe my hands on my gray sweater. Bringing them to my face, I cover my eyes and am no longer an Eve, but simply an overanxious child.
There is the scent of the fabric softener I used yesterday on our laundry. Her soft camisoles, that T-shirt she wore when we first met, various socks of undetermined ownership, and her cardigans with the little frays at the ends of the sleeves. The navy one was minus a middle button. While she was at work, I sewed on a replacement. When she notices that I fixed it, she will be so happy to have me.
Sometimes it helps to imagine what it would look like, her missing me. As soon as she gets home, she rushes to check her messages. She toes the floor impatiently through the high-pitched beep as the machine queues up and gets to work, and then she listens for the only pitch and inflection that matters. The truth is that the opposite scenario is easier to accept: that she skips the messages filled with my voice. But inside my mind, a whole other us exists within our pauses when she wants me to take her hand, the moments when the right thing to say is on tongue-tip but too transient to keep and say.
Finally there is a cough produced from the machine and she knows whose cough it is and no sound has ever been as glorious as it. And then the words begin, telling her that that someone who is just checking in promises to be home for dinner, looks forward to seeing her face soon. She replays the message six times, jabbing the button on her phone as soon as the voice fades out until there is a continuous loop of words reverberating throughout the room. Her eyes are closed and the ends of her lips pick themselves up. It is a real smile, an unconscious and unforced one. Out from between those lips comes a laugh. She half-heartedly chides herself for her silliness, but it doesn’t matter: the damage has been done. My message made her day.
Maybe she misses me right now as she holds her hand out to me. Maybe she longs to know the feeling of my fingers in between hers, despite the fact that my fingers are cool and wet. Maybe she waits for the moment that we are palm to palm. Maybe that is a sigh of desire not frustration. Maybe she keeps her hand extended not because she pities me but because she needs me.
“Come on. Do we have time for this?”
I count as many steps as I can before they curve out of sight. It won’t make a difference if there are twenty or six thousand. My feet are in concrete and my mind isn’t free enough to release them. I’ve always been caught in my fear of heights. It is not a fear of falling. There is nothing to be scared of when it comes to falling. When I was younger I tripped down the steps of a stone chimes tower. I don’t remember fear; I remember an incredible lightness, the feeling of this life not being wholly in my control. A stranger’s hand reached out and caught me. From that moment on, I fear the heaviness of climbing alone. I fear that I’ll take a step or two up and she’ll leave me to climb on my own.
My hands are sweaty again: fear in liquid form seeping out of me despite how much I long to keep it inside. Falling down takes no effort, requires no responsibility, no choice, nor a split second rush of courage. You don’t need anyone’s help to fall down. I look to her for reassurance. Her narrowed eyes, dark with disappointment, urge me to just take her hand. Don’t I want to be rescued? Don’t we all?
A howling music has started to play around us, the wind pressing against the building. She closes her eyes and runs her hands through her recently-cut-short brown hair. As the sound surrounds us, I am far away from her. Moments like these, I’d do anything to read her mind, travel along the circuits inside and understand her the way she thinks she understands me. Maybe then I could make it inside and show her that I deserve to have her completely, that I can go beyond simply being her juvenile dependent. And then I could change the way that she smiles at me, change that disconcerting lifting of the lips that never overcomes the drooping pity of the rest of her face. But for now her head is tilted to listen, and she breaks out in the opposite, a real genuine smile. It is good to see, almost reassuring to know it still exists, and I dare the step forward to join in on that joy.
Catch her eyes.
The walls sing echoes and my tentative pace reverberates throughout the building. I jump back down, realizing my foolishness in believing that whatever she was feeling could be directed at me. The right to share in her happiness has yet to be earned, the ability to make her happy has yet to be discovered. Her disappointment washes over me like an ocean wave. Like I said, I’d do anything to read her mind. To know why when I tell her I love her she asks if it is the good kind of love.
“You have nothing to prove.”
Focus on the wrist.
Thin with a small silver bracelet draped across it.
I waited twenty minutes for a free machine at the Laundromat yesterday. I stared blankly ahead, running through the motions of laundry and planning every move I would make once I had the opportunity to complete my mission. Finally, a gaunt, loosely-robed woman nodded at me, clanged her bangles as she lifted her brittle arm and wrist, and released her machine. I rushed forward, as though there were a pack of other contenders in the race towards the metal box, and I shoved all our collective things through its mouth. I smelled the scent of her body as I placed her clothes inside, a light and comforting perfume of sweat and linen, and I could taste the kiss I hoped she’d give me when I returned triumphant with clean clothes.
On my way home, I reapplied my makeup in the mirror of a parked car. Foundation caked on to cover the redness of my face and mascara to replace the black that had trickled down my cheeks. Sometimes she says that it’s a good thing we can’t have kids because she has me.
Keep focusing on the wrist
The skin light and kissed with a few freckles.
If only she could pick up the sound of my heart beating right now, fast and frightened, something like the pounding of feet as they run on pavement. If only humans produced music from their chests the way that cats purr in the company of those they love. Then there would be no questions of whether or not someone was happy. People would know if their lovers at night were true by sleeping up against them, skin to skin, to hear the sounds they made.
I swallow deeply, swallow in the way that people do to keep themselves from telling secrets. I almost cover my lips to stop myself from saying anything childish. Her hand is still in front of me and I pretend that it is a pair of open arms. Her green blouse of silky material covers her torso and accentuates the curves I have memorized and lay against when we aren’t fighting. The memory of her warmth, which is the same as the memory of being safe, blankets me despite the chill of the building.
“Come on baby.”
My hand isn’t too sweaty. A little cold perhaps. I rub my hands together and enjoy the friction of the skin to skin contact. There is a light at the top of the building; it used to guide the ships. Now tourists like us pay a pittance to climb the stairs and convince ourselves that that something we have been missing is at the top. She told me once that standing at there was the most freeing experience of her life. I asked her if the rest of it has been jailing.
Count to thirty if it helps.
She bought a frame last week. To put her parents on display. It had one of those demo photographs in it, a man and woman, the clichéd black and white “candid” kind. I noticed it as I left with the laundry yesterday. She hadn’t thrown it out; it was lying on our dresser, across her open tubs of rouge and lip balm. I wonder if she left it there on purpose as if she knew it would hurt me the way it did.
I don’t know what breaks my heart more: imagining a future without her, where I’m not in love with her, or realizing that I no longer should be. Most people would be scared to allow one person to factor that much in their lives. But it is as if I never existed as this self before she came into my life, not creation but reincarnation. All I want to do is paint myself over her surface, coating her cracks and curves, in the most permanent of colors.
By now her mouth is pursed in a look of frustration and little lines draw themselves out across her forehead. I open my eyes and see her watch announcing the long five minutes she has wasted on me. I pull on the fringe of my sweater and play with the belt loops of my pants. This can’t last much longer, me not taking her hand. The air is thick between us, her wanting to calmly ask me my age, remind me that I am too old for this. I want her to come down the steps and get me. The taste in my mouth won’t be washed down.
I wait for her to say something, as I lean onto the cool wall. I press my ear against the white to hear the music better. She just sighs.
The truth of it is that picture just about killed me.
The truth of it is that that day in the Laundromat was one of the few in my life that I have cried in public. Everything had been set up before I realized that I had forgotten money. Frantically I had felt around in my pockets for quarters to feed into the machine, but my fingers hit only fabric. My hands then pulled the side pockets out as if they couldn’t be trusted, but there was nothing hiding in them. The back pockets were empty too.
And then it happened. The room became blurry, the neon signs across the windows started to flicker, filling my sight with a wash of red and orange. My eyes dampened and I kept blinking as if that could stop what I knew was coming. Looking down, I watched as a few wet spots appeared on the still unwashed clothes.
Try to smile.
Our breathing syncs, deep and slow, the sound amplified up the white cylinder. A reminder of how grounded we are, how far away the top of the stairs is. How scared I am to climb. How I can’t move.
Gazing at the blank wall, I watch our shadows become the frame’s black and white couple. As if I were privy to a private movie projection, I can clearly see the two stare at each other, their expressions making plain the raw, novelty of the relationship. They are untarnished by the heaviness and by the pain of desire, and they still revel in the unfamiliarity of the mind and body offered unguarded to them. Their eyes are connected, unfaltering. They don’t look at me, their audience, just at each other. They are equals, facing a world without challenges. He can give her whatever she deserves.
I scooped my clothes out of the machine and shoved them back into my bags. Hugging them close, I slumped up against the wall and then slid down all the way to the floor, mimicking the motion of the tears across my face. I just stayed there until someone asked me to move so they could use a machine I was blocking. I don’t know why I expected anyone to ask what was wrong.
Like a horse with blinders on, I then ran home to get money. I don’t understand why she stays with me. I can’t even give her clean laundry.
“Was that that hard?”
The wind picks up outside. I wipe off my hands again, making sure not to smell them. As she notices me start to falter, she makes motions to walk up the stairs alone. I just want to give her a reason to stay. If that feeling isn’t love, I don’t know what is.
I take her hand and follow her up the stairs.