FICTION: You Always Do This
Winner, 6th Annual Volume One Fiction Contest
In the quivering candlelight Malcolm looked across the table at Ana, whose black curls were piled in a mass on top of her head. Malcolm had always wondered what she keeps hidden in there. Sometimes she would reveal a spare pencil or a collection of clips shaped like butterflies, decorations that became lost, as Malcolm did, in her up-do’s jungled beauty. Tonight the tower swayed with her every gesture, almost spilling out onto the tablecloth as she bent her neck closer to read the day’s specials. The air was warm with the smell of fresh bread and garlic, and Malcolm thought Ana, and her tower, looked more beautiful than ever.
“What looks good?” Malcolm asked, puffing out his chest and leaning back in his chair. He balanced on the chair’s back two legs, a habit from childhood he had never outgrown. His shoulders swayed gently, and his hum evolved into a jovial whistle following the skip of Muzak’s tarantella.
“Maybe the manicotti.” Ana was shielding her face with the menu. Malcolm could only see the arcs of her eyebrows.
“Your sister coming next weekend?” Malcolm asked. He fiddled with the salt-shaker, entertaining the idea of slinging a quick dash over his left shoulder. Or was it the right? Either way, it wasn’t worth the risk. There would be a scene like last week at Juanita’s when he had salted his chips only to lick each one dry before re-salting them, a guilty pleasure he usually only allowed himself at family potlucks and super bowl parties. Before she hadn’t minded; in the past he had even persuaded her to join him. But last week she had stormed from the meal mid-course, and later, she had used the words “disgusted” and “embarrassment” to describe the evening to her sister on the phone.
“Yes. She is,” Ana hissed. The curly black tower was steadied only by her dancer’s perfect posture.
The server arrived, delivering a small loaf of bread. Finally Malcolm could match the welcoming smell with its source. The night was busy for the restaurant, and the server’s cheeks showed growing spots of pink. Ana and Malcolm both chose salad over soup, and the server sprinted off back to the kitchen.
“Is that a problem? My sister?” Ana steepled her hands and leaned into the candlelight. Her eyebrows twitched. Malcolm thought she looked magnificent, her body straight, as if her spine were held upright by a string that dangled from the ceiling. But she was frowning, and her eyes were cinched. He could tell she meant to pick a fight.
“No, oh no. I didn’t mean that at all.” Malcolm continued to fiddle with the salt shaker. He was sure Clarissa’s visit would only perpetuate Ana’s sour mood. He didn’t have a problem with the older sister, a tragic, pixie-like thing from the city with a remarkably deep voice for a woman weighing less than one hundred pounds. But Clarissa believed her sister needed someone more artsy and conflicted than Malcolm, whom she saw as only a bumbling twenty-something journalist with big white tennis shoes and a wardrobe of zip-up sweatshirts.
“Sure.” Ana tore a corner off the loaf. “You know, you always do this.” She peered down at him through her small, beady eyes.
“Do what?” Malcolm asked. Ana’s hair seemed to move on its own, as if something were burrowing. She twitched and scratched at the nape of her neck.
“This. Treat me like this. All the time. I can’t stand it.”
Before Malcolm could respond the server returned, out of breath and balancing the salads. Extra cheese for him. Extra oil and vinegar for her. As the server grated the cheese, Malcolm continued his humming.
Anna plunged into the frilly greens. Malcolm watched her spear bits of carrot as if she were hunting prey, her eyes squinting into slits with each chomping grind. She had always been an emotional eater. Once, she had baked and devoured an entire batch of raspberry-pineapple muffins in one sitting after a failed audition. Her bingeing marked, like a barometer reading, the potential for a storm. Malcolm braced himself for a tantrum. He picked up his fork, pricked at a pepper, and waited. He watched her pan the room with her furrowed gaze, her eyes crawling over a party of cuff-linked businessmen at a booth across from them.