Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fiction: Harlequin By Kaye Branch

I couldn’t say I wasn’t interested in any of the women who gave me the time of day. Just that once I let them into my house, they kept their distances.

Kira sipped the mug of chamomile I brewed for her seated on the floor with her back against the couch. Her feet wouldn’t leave the ground in my presence, like she was trying to save me from herself.

“So really,” Kira started. “What’s going on between you and Micah?”

She looked up at me with the same intelligent eyes that had once graced covers of magazines. The eyes that had rendered me immobile when I wanted to leave five years earlier. Eyes that showed no sympathy when she dumped me.

“Don’t make it sound sexual,” I said.

“You were raised by a hippie. What could those terms possibly mean to you?”


The hippie she referred to was my mother, who treated words like weapons. She always stayed alert, looking for innuendoes, lashing out whenever she found an excuse. Her stamina was impressive given that she was the daughter of a Native American, ex-wife of a Chinese immigrant and co-owner of a small business, one she shared with a man barely older than I was. She was a minority in every sense of the word. Language could undo her.

“And given that you’re mixed race, you really should be more sensitive.”

Mixed race. There weren’t stereotypes for us. We barely even made it onto forms to verify our existence. They treated us like something new, a product of the civil right’s movement. They never remembered the white middle-aged historical figures for taking up with nubile women of other races to let off steam. The children created from those unions were nameless and faceless while their fathers were recorded and revered.

“I know.”

“So- you and Micah.”

“It’s mostly about Holden. You remember. The three of us were a group back in prep school.”

A group that formed based on shared friendship with Micah. Beginnings were meaningless, a breaking-in period during which you had to take a role, create a character based on facets of your personality. Holden proved to be the better friend. He stayed until I left. They told me I should just understand. Micah was too damaged to be loyal. Holden was damaged in different ways. That was what made him so loyal.

Our few mutual acquaintances tended to defend Micah because he was damaged. They never mentioned that we were all damaged. “Guarded” was the word they used to describe me more than once, an innocent adjective that, in the context of that situation, morphed into a disorder, the force that was keeping me from something amazing. One of my symptoms was choosing Kira over Micah as a friend, they said. Guardedness had nothing to do with it. The thought alone of resuming my friendship with Micah while Holden was trapped in a mental hospital, a virtual prisoner in his own mind, made me cringe.

“You were the one who broke up the group by leaving.”

“Well, Micah should have defended him.”

“Micah barely even knew what a hex was. He had no insight into the situation and it would have been nearly impossible for him to get the details since he’s a koia.”

Koia. Someone who didn’t know magic, someone who couldn’t list the types. Kira was Eltrian, a human with an extra set of physical and mental abilities that functioned in battle and almost nowhere else.

I couldn’t do magic and I wasn’t koia. I was informed.

I had lived in the Eltrian district of Cidra, one of their hidden, magic cities, for a few months at a time. Knowledge put me into a different vaguely defined category.

“Back in prep school, we always backed each other up. I leave and Holden had to go into a fight alone.”

“A fight with a psycho. He would have gotten them both.”

“What kind of psycho?”

There was a pregnant pause. I heard Kira take another sip of tea. She drank it raw, no sugar, no honey. No taste, I imagined. Micah would have made her cocoa. I had none. It made me sick.

“The type that molest little girls and hexes anyone who tries to stop them. There’s a higher incidence of pervert within the mage community.”

I laughed and regretted it almost instantly. My father told me never to show a reaction. After his arrest, they advised me to discard his advice, assuring me it would only get me arrested, but I kept some of it. My father had survived two corrupt governments before he immigrated to the United States. His sanity might have been compromised, but his instincts were about as sharp as they could be.

“There’s no statistics in Cidra,” I said. “It’s bigger than any city I’ve ever been to, based on physical size, but no one even knows its population.”

“That’s because of the Eltriani. Mages like numbers.”

“Even the number of perverts?”

Kira shrugged. “There’s good magic and there’s bad magic. They’re not separated like my people. And there’s some mages who are so powerful they’re devoid of empathy.”

“So they molest?”

“Yep. There’s not really a legal system. No mage lives in Cidra full-time, they’ve all got residences in the koia world. There’s not much cultural blending or order.”

“So that district is total anarchy?”

“Not quite. We all have to follow certain rules to keep ourselves secret.”

I wondered what it was like for Kira, living most of her life as a secret minority. A minority that had power through invisibility. A minority that could gain more power with their abilities.

“How much are those rules really going to help?” I asked.

“Well, someone has to investigate Holden’s hex. They’ve narrowed it down to a few people.”

“Isn’t there a counter-hex?”

Kira swished her right index finger like I’d said something stupid. She never seemed account for how little information I had.

“That’s pure fiction,” she said. “A hex is like a murder. Body stays, mind goes. We can only get it back if we find out who took it and why. Then a psychologist puts the paperwork through. That’s why so many mages go into psychology.”

“Isn’t that a field that people who lack empathy should stay out of?”

“Men who get engaged in their work and not its benefits are hard to find.”

“I know. I have co-workers.”

“Go easy on them. There just aren’t a lot of guys like you, Eric.”

Guys who spent Friday nights working out with ex-girlfriends, then chatting about grudges over herbal tea. Guys who were silently appreciated, but not rewarded.


Marcus Gaffe nodded when I opened the door, as if we could read each other’s minds. He was better off not hearing my thoughts. Put mildly, I wasn’t impressed by the guy at my doorstep an hour late to pick up his girlfriend and dressed like he’d gotten jumped on his way over.

I could have lied to Gaffe, told him Faye had left without him with someone else, someone whose name and gender I wouldn’t disclose. I could have then lied to Faye and told her she’d been stood up. Faye would understand. Gaffe wouldn’t. Gaffe would dump her. Faye wouldn’t protest. Why should she? Men trapped in childhood were easy to find. She’d take at most a weekend to find another boyfriend and while she never seemed to take a step up, she had taken at least a step down.

“I’ll tell Faye you’re here,” I said.

Gaffe nodded. “Cool.” Then he nodded again. I wondered if he was high. No one agreed with me that frequently.

I closed the door part of the way.

“Faye!” I yelled up the stairs.

Faye bolted down immediately, overdressed in black patent leather heels and a dress that showed a generous amount of cleavage, an ensemble to ease her challenged boyfriend’s pain.

“How long has he been here?” Faye asked.

“Not long. Guys are supposed to wait.”

“Yeah, but it’s already late.”

“His fault. Not yours.”

“You know, some guys just have trouble with these things.”

“Have fun.”

Faye left. I hoped she’d have fun. Whether she did or not, I wouldn’t see her until the following afternoon.


It was Sunday morning. The diner was filled with families chatting over after church Sunday brunch, cashing in on the reward for attending church whether they had actually attended or not. I was alone, in for coffee and little else.

Surveying the chaos, I considered leaving until I noticed an empty stool at the counter.

The hostess ignored me as I stood surveying the diner until I asked her for a seat the bar. Barely looking up, she handed me a menu and attended to the other families. The hostess hadn’t smiled at me once since she’d received her engagement ring.

“Welcome to the Red Rock Café,” Kira said, standing in front of me with her notepad in position, setting up for an order that she knew wasn’t coming. “Coffee?”

The question was rhetorical. Kira set up a mug and poured coffee into it with a subtle dexterity.

“You’re lucky I like this coffee,” I said. “Otherwise, I’d send it back and refuse to pay.”

“You don’t like it. You hate everything so you can pose as an enigma.”

“You mean misanthrope.”

“I agreed with misanthrope.”

I looked up and sighed mutely. Micah was sitting two stools down, alone. When I knew him, Micah always had a girlfriend. His longest relationship was with Kira, one that had started four months after she dumped me and lasting for three years. He proposed and after she turned him down, she was upgraded from high school sweetheart to the one who got away from him, not me.

“No, Enigma. Because it’s impossible- we all slip, show things we shouldn’t, destroy the mystery- and it’s what you aim for.”

“’Morning Eric,” Micah said, shooting me the smile he’d inherited from his father, the CEO. He couldn’t have rejected as much of his father’s world as he thought when he assessed me before he greeted me.

“It’s Kira’s job to fake happy,” I said. “Stop trying to do it for her.”

“Maybe I’m happy to run into an old classmate.”

“If you really wanted to run into me, you would have called.”

“You didn’t give me the number.”

“Call my mother. Where did you think I was? Some Manhattan boardroom? Us working class kids, we don’t get lucky breaks. We live at home, help out with the rent and leave when we can afford it. We don’t just drop everyone when we’re bored and pick up a working class job so people will like us.”

“There’s so much wrong with what you just said. For starters, most people just get confused by the decisions I made.”

I turned to my coffee and pictured Micah back in the boardroom, telling stories about acrid coffee that cost less than three dollars. They’d be impressed, they’d reassess him for at a higher value for his ability to emphasize with their middle-class target market.

Even looking in front of me, I caught the glimmer of Micah’s class ring on a blade of the ceiling fan. Anyone who got close enough would read the word “Stanford” engraved in the center, his medal from college. His degree in business placed him in a greed-fueled, highly competitive, male-dominated society. One that burned most men out before they were thirty, and turned them into miserable harlequins, men who would never find love. It was hell, my former classmates warned me, but I still wanted in.


The next Saturday, I found Faye sitting at the kitchen table at eight in the morning. She was drinking coffee.

“Shouldn’t you be with Gaffe?” I asked.

“We broke up.”

“His loss. You could do so much better.”

“Maybe. But I’m taking a break. I can’t seem to do better.”

Faye shouldn’t know. She should have faith in her Ability to tame every delinquent she dated, should use it to justify the harlequin men who never left her side.

“You could.”

I grabbed a mug from the counter.

“There’s still hot coffee if you want,” Faye said. “I thought you’d be up soon enough to drink it hot.”

“Thanks. Did you sleep at all?”

“Nope. I got in at three. Couldn’t wind down enough to sleep. And I have work later.”

Faye put her mug in the sink and hugged me.

“What was the for?” I asked.

“You’re the only guy who’s there when I need him.”
And Faye, like Kira before her, left.

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