Night of Cake & Puppets
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‘Okay?’ I hold it up, the partial ice ball with this little tube sticking out of it.
‘Okay,’ she repeats, and her eyes are very still and clear, very dark and watchful. This is something important.
I already can’t feel my fingers, and freeing the tube the rest of the way from the ice deadens them to the point that they feel like wooden finger prosthetics, and if you’ve ever tried to open a plastic tube and unroll a very small scroll using wooden finger prosthetics (and really, who hasn’t?), you know it’s not easy. And the whole time I’m fumbling around with it, the silence between us gets thicker and deeper, like the snow.
At last, I manage it. I unroll the message, and read it.
Seize. Seize the something. Damn. I don’t know what puella means. I know what I hope it means, but it’s not like I speak Latin. Noctem and diabolus were easy, but now I’m the one biting my lip. ‘Um,’ I say.
And Zuzana is still watching me with the intensity of a mind reader. Her jaw is clenched. I am messing this up.
‘I don’t…I don’t speak Latin?’ I hear myself ask it like a question, and as soon as the words are out, as if by magic, the tension leaves Zuzana’s face.
‘Oh. Me, either. I had to Google that. I was afraid it might be too obscure. Here.’ She reaches for the scroll and I hand it over, and then she gets a pen out of her bag and hunches over the note, screening it from my sight as she writes something more on it. Then she rolls it back up and solemnly hands it over.
Now it reads:
Carpe puella Zuzana.
I swallow, and it’s cartoonishly audible. ‘That was what I hoped it meant,’ I say. ‘But if puella meant, like, sandwich, or bicycle, it could have been pretty embarrassing.’
There’s a heavy pause from Zuzana, just long enough for me to realize how wrong of a response this is to a girl’s request – or, rather, command – to seize her, and then she asks, calmly, ‘Are there even Latin words for sandwich and bicycle? I mean, did the Romans even have sandwiches and bicycles?’
‘Well, sandwiches. There have always been sandwiches. The same aliens who brought dinosaurs to Earth brought sandwiches, too.’ What am I saying? Am I supposed to just lean across right now and reach for her? ‘I don’t know about bicycles, though.’
‘I don’t think they had bicycles,’ Zuzana says. ‘Just unicycles.’
‘Unicycles.’ I want to reach for her, but it seems so abrupt, I don’t know, like there’s a lunar logic to things like this, a pull of the moon, and the timing isn’t right. ‘I did not know that. Did their togas get caught in the spokes?’
‘All the time. There’s even a mosaic of it in Pompeii.’
‘It happened to my sister,’ I say. ‘Not a unicycle, though. She was on the back of some guy’s moped in Milan and her skirt got caught in the spokes, and it was this flimsy gypsy skirt and the whole thing just tore away from the waistband, so there she was, in just her underwear and waistband, on this chic, busy street in Milan while like a dozen bystanders tried to free her skirt from the moped tire.’
‘She also got hit in the head by a pigeon. Same day.’
‘A pigeon…pooped on her head?’
‘No. No, it collided with her head. Actually knocked her off her feet and drew blood. She had to get shots, because of the risk of infection.’
‘Sounds like Italy was trying to get rid of her.’
‘Well, it worked. She left the next day and vows never to return.’
So here we are, talking about Roman unicycles and alien sandwiches and my sister’s Italian misfortunes, while hanging in between us is:
MY EPIC FAILURE TO CARPE.
What’s wrong with me? Maybe I locked guy nature away too tightly. No, it’s not that. Guy nature is not what’s called for here. Zuzana deserves better than guy nature.
‘Can I borrow your pen?’ I ask her.
She hands it to me, and I bend over the little scrap of paper and write: I want very much to carpe you, it says. I may try to surprise you, though, if that’s okay. Also, I can’t feel my face and hands.
The writing is really messy, on account of not being able to feel my hands. I give the paper to Zuzana, and when she reads it, she laughs. ‘Maybe it’s time to go.’
It is definitely time to go. So we get out of the boat, wrangling the tea tray. I help Zuzana up the ladder first and then follow, and it’s when I’m stooping on the dock for my violin case that I see…something completely crazy.
All evening, ever since Carpe diabolus, my rational self has been lying on its back making lazy snow angels while hopeful self sits on its chest humming and I let myself play this game of magic. But it was still a game. I mean, I didn’t really believe it, I guess, because all of a sudden…I do. This is no longer suspension of disbelief. It’s belief, and the two things are water and wine.
In front of me, forming one by one on the smooth pelt of the snow and leading fleetly away even as I watch, are footprints. For all my poetry quoting, I couldn’t actually tell you what a peacock’s tracks look like, but they probably look like this: like large-ish bird tracks. Like hieroglyphs.
I’m speechless. I turn to Zuzana, but she hasn’t noticed. She’s looking up at the sky, the snow swirling around her like feathers in a movie pillow fight, and I look back at the dock and already the tracks are vanishing beneath the new flurries – a secret sight no one will ever believe, maybe not even me tomorrow – and when I turn back to her, Zuzana is looking at me. Lacquer-dark eyes, choppy hair licked into spikes by the weather. Black coat, black boots, hands shoved in pockets. And that doll quality to her face that comes of being fine – fine as in museum-quality – every plane and curve like an artist’s harmonious choice – this fullness offsetting that austerity, this angle enhancing that arch – and the heart shape, and the wide-set eyes, and the elegant dark brows with their extraordinary mobility, and the smoothness.
And the lips.
The lips. Who can ever say how these things happen? I think the moon is in charge of more than just tides. Either I’ve moved or Zuzana has moved, I’m not sure which. I only know that she’s much closer all of a sudden, and whatever was hindering me from seizing her before has let me go. The space between us has vanished and I’m looking from her lips to her eyes and back again and she’s doing the same with mine, and there’s this instant as I’m leaning toward her that we both look from lips to eyes at the same moment and lock and it’s so far beyond zing and tingle, this eye contact. It’s like losing gravity and falling into space – the moment of pitching headlong when the endlessness of space asserts itself and there is no more down, only an eternity of up, and you realize you can fall forever and never run out of stars.
Her face, my hands. Zuzana’s face is in my hands. My numb fingertips trace down her jawline and back into her hair – just far enough to curve around the column of her neck and – lightly, gently…
And kiss her.
And there’s no better way to thaw a face, as it turns out, than with another face.