Rumpus Exclusive: “Lover to Lover”

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“Where did the cocaine come from?” I asked.

Cleo drove like a demon. The engine growled and leapt. She grinned, her hands easy on the wheel. “From Malcolm. Let’s go see him.”

“Can’t we go to your place?” I didn’t want to share Cleo with a man.

“His place. It’s better.”

I did not ask what that meant. Soon enough, I didn’t need to. It was a bar, his place, a swallowing cave of green and black that obtruded its darkness upon the street. THE LABYRINTH in silver letters.

“Come on, Amelia.” Cleo slung her arm around my neck.

No one knows I’m here. No one knows I’m anywhere.

The light shimmied and snaked about. The walls seemed to crawl with vines and serpents. The patrons were all children to my eyes, golden-haired youths and girls with mute faces, stranded in green leather booths in their sparkling clothes. I caught Cleo’s hand, certain I’d lose my way in this place. Jazz moaned from somewhere, a saxophone and a trumpet with many mouths lamenting the world’s sins, trading bar for bar and sin for sin.

Here she is.”

I thought the voice came from the figure behind the bar, but on this, surely, my senses were mistaken. Furred. Horned. Patches of brown and white covered his snout, his neck, tapering to his chest and shoulders. His impressive torso was bare. A silver ring gleamed under his wet black nose.

“Amelia, meet the Bull.” This was so entirely what I expected to hear that I glanced at Cleo in alarm. When I looked back over the bar again, the Bull was just a tall, broad, enthralling human male.

“They call me that cuz I’m stubborn,” said the Bull. His hand gripped mine like warm steel. The Directress’s hand on my shoulder. “And other reasons.”

“I knew you’d like him,” Cleo breathed into my ear. A hot, spicy fragrance drifted near and I raised my hand to my nose. Stopped short of licking the fingers the Bull had touched.

“Malcolm,” he said. “It’s really Malcolm, my name.”

“I don’t like men,” I said, quietly, to Cleo.

“You like this one. You’re sweating.”

A warm room. A warm night. Cleo’s hand rested on the back of my neck.

“Why don’t I meet you ladies in the back?” The Bull threw a bottle of bitters in the air and caught it behind his back.

“Let’s dance,” I said to Cleo.

“No.”

“C’mon, one dance.” I needed to get close to her. Remind my body of the shape of a woman, the heat of her. The ring in the Bull’s nose kept catching the light.

“Have a dance, Cleo,” said the Bull. “I’ll tell them to kick it up.”

She leaned toward me, toward him. “Yeah, okay,” she said. The band, wherever it was, swung uptime. The Bull hadn’t moved. Pairs of girls and boys emerged from the booths and tottered out to dance, overbalancing this way and that, sinking into the shadows off the floor and hauling their partners back again. Cleo’s hair brushed cool, her cheek warm. She jitterbugged and I kept up, barely. I kept following her instead of myself and getting lost. The dancers’ eyes rang hollow, and I never saw the band.

The back room, later, was odd: dark but golden. Mirrors with veins of fool’s gold marring, or gilding, what they reflected. Clean, but shadowed. Like the Bull himself, who sat in a velvet chair and ran his finger around the rim of a martini glass of viper-green liquid.

“What have you brought me, Cleo? Is she sour or sweet?”

I dug half-moons into the meat of my palms. Sour. “She didn’t bring me to you. I came here.” I blinked and smoke streamed from his black nostrils, his curved horns dipped in gold. The Bull grinned.

“She’s an amiable sort,” said Cleo. “Met her at Bettina’s. She asked about your candy.”

“Nothing sweeter than that.”

Sweat collected in the grooves of me.

“Try one of these.” He offered his martini glass.

“Isn’t this yours?”

“Now it’s yours.”

“The candy,” said Cleo.

“Yes, I remember.” He threw her a glass vial and she caught it near her face. The drink was based in absinthe, but it contained flavors and additions unknown to me. I’d never seen a man with a ring through his nose.

“It keeps a leash on me,” said the Bull. Had I spoken? Cleo opened the vial. I wanted to pet the Bull’s fur. His grin dripped. My body cooled and heated again, perspiration and ventilation and the cool sliver of licorice on my tongue. My dress suddenly too long.

“You sing, don’t you?” said Malcolm.

“How did you know that?”

“I can see music in a person’s eyes,” he replied. Cleo in the background tap-tap-tapping the vial out on the coffee table.

“That’s absurd,” I said.

He tilted his head down. “Is that really what you think?”

I looked away.

“Sing something for me,” he said.

I half-laughed. “What, now?”

“Is there any other time?” Cleo sniffs and gasps, behind, exhales victory.

“No accompaniment?”

“You can hear the band from here.” His ears twitched. “It’s ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.’ You know that one, don’t you?”

I did. Most of what I knew was minor-key, but I liked Irving Berlin enough to know his cheerful songs, too.

“I can hear you better in here, without the band. Sing.”

“No.”

He scraped one foot across the carpet and exhaled noisily. “I told you I was stubborn. Don’t tell me you’re stubborn, too.”

I could hardly decide which sandwich I wanted at the automat.

“Good,” he said. “Then don’t refuse me. Sing.”

“Sing for ‘im, Amy,” said Cleo, dancing her way over. “We’ll never get out of this room until you do.”

“Music has charms to soothe the savage beast,” he said.

“It’s breast,” I said. “Most people misquote it.”

The Bull did not reply. Did not move. Cleo motioned impatiently. By habit I did not use my voice for myself, and by preference I didn’t sing in front of strangers. But I wanted to be finished with this room and the clotted black eyes on me.

So I sang. My voice echoed upon the mirrors. Cleo clapped when I finished, and I felt rosy despite myself. I drank most of the green drink.

Malcolm clapped more slowly, still appraising me. “That hit the spot,” he said. He patted his knee. “Come over here, Amelia.”

Did I tell you my name?

“Come sit with me.”

I laughed. “I’m not a child. I don’t sit on laps anymore.” The gold in the room gleamed brighter. Cleo’s face stretched and dimmed, its makeup thickening along the sides. Her body lost focus, her form growing fuzzy.

“Never fear. You’re not a child to me.”

Was there something in my drink?

“No, no. I’m a gentleman.”

It’s the atmosphere. The temperature. What lies between thee and me.

“Come here. I won’t bite.”

Yes, you will.

Cleo hummed the band’s tune, fading to the edge of the room.

Yes, I think you will.

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Rumpus original art by Zach Swisher.

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Excerpted from Ceremonials by Katharine Coldiron. Copyright © 2020 by Katharine Coldiron. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of KERNPUNKT Press.


Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Hobart, the Normal School, the Southern California Review, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator. More from this author →