Welcome to chapter one of Bump and Grind. If you’d like to listen, rather than read, CLICK HERE.
Dying felt like skinny-dipping in a deep August lake. Warm and wet, floating in a silence that was sweeter than a lover’s whisper.
In the moments before I crashed, I’d been listening to the oldies radio station, singing a campy calypso song to stay awake. The bright orange sparks flying over the hood of my car looked pretty—until I fully woke up and realized what they meant. I grabbed the wheel and veered away from the guardrail.
The car spun out of control, the speed too great and the rain-soaked road too slick for my maneuvering. The last thing I saw was the tree line on the other side of the deserted highway, a shadowy army of trunks exposed by the headlights. I heard a bang like a pistol shot and was blinded by the stark white of the airbag. That was it.
“I am here, but I’m going to take you back.”
A woman’s voice penetrated the delicious void. My body was weightless and free in the velvet calm of the weirdly intangible space that was death. The stars overhead, more than I’d ever seen, swirled slowly, pulsing with light as if they were breathing. Even though I knew I was dead, everything was perfect. There was no way in hell I was going anywhere.
“Karen, you are not alone.”
For the brief period in my teens when I’d believed in God, I was sure She was a woman. Now I had proof. She sounded an awful lot like Emma Watson.
“You have to go back. This isn’t your time.”
How disappointing. I’d have to face up to my stupid decisions. I’d probably traumatized my mom, my friends.
“Why?” I tried not to whine. Blessed are the meek and all that.
“Because we need you. I’m here to give you something special, and we need you to make use of this gift.”
My disembodied soul rolled its third eye.
“I’m too tired.”
“We know this is difficult, but you don’t have a choice. When it’s actually your time to die, you won’t have a choice about that either.”
I felt a heat rising from within, like searing metal on bare flesh. Pain was a memory, but I recoiled all the same.
“Let it in, Karen. This is our gift to you.”
The black velvet shroud of death was pulled away, and a cool radiance shimmered in its place. As the blue light grew in intensity, it swirled into a tunnel. I thought the light was supposed to be white.
More than anything, I wanted to stay in the uncomplicated safety of this nowhere place filled with stars. Here, I’d never have to tell anyone I shouldn’t have been driving.
“It’s time for you to go, Karen.”
Familiar sounds trickled into the tunnel from the other side. People talking. Medical jargon. Music. The soundtrack of my life before I died. I recognized “Stairway to Heaven” finding its way in from the land of the living. God had a sense of humor. She was also a Zeppelin fan. Maybe I could be religious after all.
I didn’t have a choice, so I embraced the cliché and went toward the light. I did my part, but it took a long-ass time for God to make good on Her promise.
Three Years Later
The sunlight blazed through my bedroom window, making it a struggle to open my eyes. My cat, Bojangles, meowed for my attention, and a Harry Belafonte tune inexplicably blared through my apartment. What little sleep I’d managed wasn’t enough. Time to get up and get moving because there was no way I could be late for work. Especially today.
It wasn’t my habit to get tanked on a Sunday evening, but this occasion called for self-medication. The tequila might have been enough, but I’d thrown in the added measure of a one-night-stand with my hot neighbor, Mark, the naked guy beside me. He stirred and murmured something that sounded a lot like “Mother, give me life.” Boys under thirty are so weird.
I struggled to sit up and squinted at the large black feline perched on my thighs. Too fast. The spins took me, and I wanted to close my eyes again, but Bojangles the cat had something in his mouth. Something that was moving.
The ass-end of a mouse, I realized, before the cat dropped it onto the bed. The tiny rodent leaped at my face, and I dove onto the floor in a naked tangle of sheets and limbs. Bojangles pounced after his prey.
Mark barely stirred. The cheerful Belafonte tune was the soundtrack to this hungover nightmare. Like Beetlejuice, but with naked people and rodents. This was not how the week was supposed to start.
I tossed a pillow at Mark so he could perform the man-job that was pest extermination. He mumbled and swiped at himself as the tiny mouse skittered across him. Bojangles nabbed the thing and paused on my neighbor’s chest, victorious. Mark’s eyes popped open.
“What the hell?”
He flailed his arms with a cry and sent both cat and prize flying. His face was ashen, and his eyes were filled with a horror unbecoming to a dude so tall and muscular.
“I’m sorry. I don’t do mice.” Mark clicked off his alarm, finally ending the brain-melting Belafonte music. He ran a hand through his dark hair, eyes pleading with me to take control. The night before I’d enjoyed that look.
I picked up the dead mouse by the tail, and a jolt like an electrical shock sizzled up my arm. A flash of blue scorched my eyeballs. What kind of ungodly hangover was this? The dead mouse twitched, as though the static shock had restarted its tiny rodent heart. I dropped it and the thing took off again. My brain throbbed.
“Oh shit, get it!” Mark cried.
I dashed to the kitchen for a pot and a lid, and it took me two exuberant lunges to secure the mouse. Despite my nudity, I flung the terrorized creature off my terrace and into my landlords’ yard below, where it would no doubt become breakfast for their rheumy-eyed Persian.
Back to the impossible task of trying to look presentable.
While I rushed to get ready, Mark decided to get dressed, coat included. It was our first night trying each other on for size, and he clearly wasn’t a good fit. He didn’t even offer to make coffee. Occasionally, these one night stands turned into a certain kind of friendship. The best kind really, naked fun with no strings attached. I didn’t do relationships, but if I was going to have a second tumble with someone, they required some degree of courtesy outside of the bedroom. It wouldn’t have killed him to make coffee. At least with a warm body beside me, I’d grabbed a couple of hours of sleep, which didn’t happen much since the accident.
I raced from one end of the apartment to the other, piecing myself together. These were prime conditions for a panic attack; something important on the horizon coupled with bad decision-making outweighing responsibility. My breath was getting harder to catch.
Why on earth had I gone out last night? If I’d just headed home to bed, I’d be halfway to work already, looking like a million bucks. Now I’d have to spend my last twenty dollars on cab fare so I wouldn’t be late.
“I’ll call you?” Mark said, his hand on the doorknob.
Sure he would.
Mark paused on the steps and offered a little smile. He was cute enough, but not worth the hassle of being late. I could handle a mediocre lay, but a guy who had “Day-O” as his alarm was a write-off. Actually, maybe not a total write-off. Mark had a car.
“I need you to drive me to work.”
“Uh…okay. I’ve gotta hit the gym, but I can drop you off first. Where do you work? I can’t remember if we talked about that last night.”
I’d have been impressed if he could remember my name.
“At the library, downtown.” I swiped my keys off the hook by the closet and grabbed a jacket.
“You’re kidding, right?”
I took a glance around the apartment to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Like my dignity. It could come in handy later. Bojangles sat in the window, flicking his tail. He gave me one last look of disgust and then turned to watch the resurrected mouse dance through the overgrown lawn below.
We slipped through the shared hallway of the house quietly, out into the crisp morning air. My breath made steamy little clouds and the leather seat felt cold even through my jeans. Mark started his white Civic, and the radio came to life with the honey-smooth voice of Eureykah Johnson, who was waking up the nation to become better people.
The world’s most powerful woman. Media superstar and self-made mogul. Was this guy for real? I waited to see if he’d get embarrassed when he realized what we were listening to, but he didn’t. I would have preferred the Belafonte to this—Eureykah Johnson’s self-help syndicate was worse than the hangover.
“Listen, a cataclysmic break is when you know you’ve hit rock bottom. When your whole world comes crashing down on top of you.”
Was it possible that a person could have multiple cataclysmic breaks? Were they like quality orgasms?
“So, you really work at the library?” Mark asked.
“Yep.” What exactly made that so hard for him to believe? Was it because we’d barely spoken the night before? Maybe I had to start sleeping with older men. At least they’d make better conversation.
“What do you do there?” he asked, as if he were testing me.
“I’m an assistant.”
“I thought you said you’re an actor?”
He was close. I was an actor. Past tense. Last week, I’d fired my agent. One female incontinence commercial audition was one too many. It was no longer possible to ignore the reality that my career had tanked.
“I said I used to be an actor.”
Before the accident, that is. When I could still memorize lines or show up at auditions without having an anxious meltdown. If anything, it seemed like the accident had taken away whatever talent I’d had.
“Do you like your job at the library?”
My eyes started to sting, but I’d do a shoulder roll into rush hour traffic before I’d cry in front of this guy.
“Can you turn the radio up?” I asked. “I haven’t heard this episode.”
Listening to Eureykah Johnson explain what I was doing wrong with my life seemed like a better alternative to discussing my career. The pungent air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror had become one with my soul. I cracked the window, despite the near-freezing October temperatures. A steady stream of cyclists commuting to work zipped by.
Eureykah was signing off. “Join us tomorrow as we return with a brand new episode! We can’t wait to introduce you to the next winner of our ‘Dare to Live Your Dream’ contest.”
“Real people never win those things,” I grumbled.
“Oh come on, can you even imagine? If you won something like that, what would your dream be?” Mark asked.
“A cup of coffee,” I said.
“Eureykah is coming to town soon for some big gala event,” Mark said.
That gala was the reason my morning was about to be hell.
“Why are you such a big Eureykah fan?”
Mark flushed and gave a shrug. “I like that she cares about people.”
He had a point. At least she used her wealth to try to change the world. The gala, for example. A black tie kick off to her latest humanitarian project, something called the Inanna Summit. I only knew this because they were looking for singer-dancers for the gala, and I’d asked my agent about an audition. She snorted before saying, “I don’t think that will be possible. It’s a gala to honour some of the world’s most prominent women. They’re looking for top-notch talent.”
The sight of the old library gave me a surge of dread, instead of the comfort I usually gleaned from the place. Even so, I had the car door open before Mark had come to a full stop in front of the stone steps.
“Can I call you?” he asked.
“I’ll text if I need anything,” I said, slamming the door. At least he waited until I’d climbed the library steps before he disappeared into traffic.
“My goodness Karen, what happened to you?”
Mrs. Henderson, one of our elderly volunteers, was waiting outside by the wooden doors, clutching her coat around her tiny frame and shivering against the punishing autumn bluster. Her eyes were full of something that looked a lot like pity. I quickly unlocked the building and held the door open so she could step inside and stop staring at me.
“I overslept.” Really, what more could I tell this darling old lady?
“Oh dear,” she clucked. “Why don’t we get some coffee started?”
It felt so nice to have someone take care of me that I had to fight against those tears again. I’m really not one of those emotional people, and it wasn’t the hangover that was making me so weepy.
Sunlight poured through the tall library windows set in the wood-paneled walls. Oak boards creaked beneath my feet as I began flicking on the lights. Not even the musty smell of old books could make me feel better.
“Karen dear, you don’t want the camera crews to see you looking like that. Come with me.”
I followed Mrs. Henderson into the staff room, where she hung up her coat and turned on the coffee machine. She rummaged through the cupboards, pulling out the first aid kit.
“I was a Girl Ranger, sweetie. I’m always prepared,” she said.
Inside the kit was a tiny cosmetics bag, a brush, a packet of moist towelettes and a baggie of hair pins and elastics. She unpacked all of these items, piling them in my hands. To my utter amazement, a second layer of “first aid” items was revealed; a toothbrush, a tiny bottle of eye drops, a flask, and a pack of condoms. Mrs. Henderson quickly closed the case.
“Run along. You don’t have much time.”
I tucked myself away in the ladies’ room and unzipped the makeup pouch. There was a trio of various shades of ice blue eyeshadow, circa 1983, a navy blue mascara that smelled like fish, some hot-pink blush greasy enough to lube a bike chain, and a cherry red lipstick. Lipstick would have to suffice.
I dabbed some stain on my lips with my pinkie and piled my hair on top of my head. It was an improvement. The splash of color made me look like a consumptive prostitute; kind of a sickly-meets-sexy pallor, but still with a bit of fight left.
I took a deep breath, closing my eyes. Just twenty seconds. I could do this. My heart started thumping. Was this my next cataclysmic break?
Another flicker of blue, like earlier with the mouse, made me snap my eyes open again. Maybe I was getting migraines now. Mrs. Henderson would have something that would nip this before it got worse. Like whatever was in that flask.
One last look in the mirror. The red in my eyes had eased up and the color was returning to my cheeks.
Where was Malcolm? It was quarter past nine, and my boss was never late. He was supposed to take the lead on the morning event so I could vanish into the stacks. I wanted nothing to do with news cameras and celebrity guests.
If I was lucky, I had exactly five minutes for that coffee I needed more than air. I fled the bathroom, hoping Mrs. Henderson had come through. Then I froze.
A man stood at the info desk, fifteen minutes before he should have been there. He took a short puff from an inhaler and shoved it back into his coat pocket. Then he turned to look at me with an apologetic smile. A panty-searing smile that I hadn’t seen in three years.
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Bump and Grind is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.