At my place after the show — three hours into date number four — as I finished scooping bacon and green bean risotto onto two plates beside the stuffed pork loin, the power snapped off, leaving Emory and me groping in the dark for candles. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is why I don’t invite anyone over.’
As my eyes adjusted — blobs of black turning to the dark outlines of my apartment’s little kitchen counter, faux-marble laminate flooring, the silent fridge looming beside my small stove — I found a tiny jar-candle that reeked of sugary vanilla, two stubby white pillars, and a box of Color-Drip Candles — the kind that weep a rainbow from white wax. Emory found eleven gold candles tied together by a red ribbon — something I had forgotten Seth purposefully left last Christmas — and a half-used box of tea lights. We lit them quickly with dwindling, aged matches and a grill lighter I fished out of the junk drawer, setting all the short ones on the tiled table between our plates and all the larger ones in the apartment around us.
The effect of the candles without neon and streetlights streaming in from outside was ethereal: a fierce glow between us on the table, soft flickers floating nearby in the darkness. The light being cast from all around made everything cut several shadows as movement refracted geometry across the table, the curve of our plates, the walls.
“You’re a really good cook,” Emory said, his light brown eyes reflecting the flickering yellow light. “Did you like the performance tonight?”
I swallowed a bite of risotto too soon and tried to smile as I cleared my throat with a sip of water. “Yeah, yes,” I said, coughing lightly. “I really did. I’d never seen the Dance of a Thousand Hands before — I really liked that one.” The cultural center’s program notes had explained that particular dance was for “Guanshiyin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, because she reaches out with a thousand hands to aid those crying out in pain.” Everything in that one was gold — the exotic costumes, the ornate and yet also minimalist set, the cones on the dancers’ fingertips — and the dancers stood in a perfect single-file line, all their arms extending from one girl, all the movements precise, unique, and done with their bodies totally still. The whole thing was so mesmerizing and dazzling it left me feeling like I had clouds lining my vision, like I had just woken up from a dream. The dancer in front, a deaf girl from Dunhuang — according to her bio — who was aflame with gold and center stage for half the show, had looked at times like a statue with living arms, her porcelain face still but relaxed.
“My grandmother was a Chinese Buddhist, an immigrant,” Emory said, setting down his fork and pushing his dark hair over his ear, “so I’ve known all the stories since I was a kid. Nana had a pendant of Guanshiyin sitting in a lotus blossom that I always loved looking at: she seemed so beautiful and happy with her heart full of love, her hands reaching out to the suffering. I always liked stories about her best.” He looked down at his plate as he cut a bite of pork.
I leaned back in my chair, sipping wine. Through the glass balcony doors, I could see the dim monoliths of the city laid out behind Emory, the dull stars — so unfamiliar here that I almost didn’t recognize them — as pinpricks in the sky. I looked out as far as I could, trying to remember the last time someone other than my mother had been in my apartment, how it must have been Seth when he drunkenly invited himself over, kissed me and said he still loved me — that time I threw a glass at his head and then another at the door as it slammed. A thick burning taste crept up my throat and my stomach curled into knots — I felt a sudden desperate need for more wine. Emory looked up then, his rust-colored eyes illuminated, hair pushed off to the side just so, that soft smile that already comforted me.
“What?” he said, tilting his head as I blinked and looked down at my half-eaten risotto, then back up at him.
“I don’t know,” I said, leaning forward and reaching my hand out to take his. Emory murmured a little laugh and looked directly into my eyes, his hands moving forward as I set down my wineglass, his fingers sliding through the light of the candles and casting hazy shadows — cutting gentle shapes along the table, up my wrist, across my face — the walls around us suddenly crowded, looking in my periphery like the layered arms of a golden goddess reaching out to pull me close.
Austin Eichelberger is happily still teaching English and writing in New Mexico. His fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Gone Lawn, Extract(s), Eclectic Flash, First Stop Fiction, and others. More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.wordpress.com.