the last great act

painting of a woman walking on a highwire
“Auf dem Hochseil” (On the Highwire) by Wilhelm Simmler

Without a word, she dropped to the ground.

Those that had gathered below let out a unified gasp. Mothers drew young children into their bodies to shield their innocent eyes. Business men with slick hair and shiny shoes, already late for afternoon meetings, emails piling up  in their inboxes, remained frozen with shock. Some turned their faces in anguish; others buried their heads into their hands.

But Nathan refused to look away.

He had arrived at the corner of Bristoff and West 1st an hour earlier, just as he’d been directed in the letter. And there he waited, holding her words in his sweaty palms as the blue ink began to bleed into his skin.

When she appeared, stepping off the edge of the highest building with confidence and grace, he had to squint to make out her sleek silhouette. Even then, he could barely detect the slight line beneath her feet, the highwire splitting the sky.

In the letter, her words had been pleading and honest.

Nathan –

I write you requesting a specific favor. And in return, I offer you the perfect angle for a piece in your underground pub (I’m afraid it won’t be suitable for the mainstream edition). 

I’m sure you’ve heard of the most recent sanctions. They’ve moved beyond guns and liquor and cigarettes to recreational pursuits. Skydiving, long-distance running, skiing, rock climbing, hang gliding, bull riding – all sanctioned. And the list goes on; there are hundreds more.

They’re saying it’s to protect us, to keep us safe from these “high-risk” activities. Can you believe that? They’re hobbies, for Christ’s sake! But that’s the world we live in: a dictatorship under the guise of excessive mothering! 

As she began to make her way across the wire, a crowd formed on the sidewalks and street corners. For a moment, the busy world halted mid-sentence, mid-stride, mid-latte to wonder at this figure walking across the sky.

This isn’t about risk, Nathan. No, no, no. It’s never been about that. This is about stifling what drives us, what gives us purpose. This is about stomping out our embers of passion. This is about breaking us down. 

Soon, it’ll be painting and singing and writing. They’ll say they’ve linked creativity to brain cancer; they’ll offer data from their own studies to back the claims.

That’s why you started the underground paper, isn’t it, Nathan? Because they took away your editorials? No more opinions, just the facts, right?

Only minutes had passed before marshals from the Enforcement could be seen from the roofs of both buildings – the one she had stepped off of and the one she was destined for. They waited eagerly for her arrival, like predators who had chased their prey up a tree. But she seemed not to notice their presence, focused solely on her act and nothing more.

Of course, the skywalk was on the sanction list. Hell, the old-fashioned tightrope made the list! But I can’t give it up, Nathan. It’s all I’ve ever known. 

I’ve got a plan to prove them wrong. And I need you there. I need you to cover the story. 

Come to the meeting of Bristoff and West 1st – in front of the old stock exchange – the first Monday in April, 1:55 in the afternoon. You’ll know where to look for me.

Please bring your camera – and don’t be late.

Yours,

Aurelia 

Suspended halfway between the two high rises, her progress stopped. Motionless except the wind whipping her ponytail with violent ferocity, she raised her head first to the overcast sky. Then shifted her gaze to what waited below.

Nathan felt the sudden, overwhelming sensation of his lunch rising in his stomach. It had not occurred to him before that moment that she had no intention of making it across.

Unrolling the wrinkled letter once more, he saw something he had missed: a postscript scrawled across the back in faint pencil.

The most high-risk activity of them all is denying ourselves what we love. We simply cannot survive it.

We have to let them know. We have to let everyone know.

Nathan looked up only to see her fold her arms across her chest before letting herself fall backward, the triumphant finale to her last great act.

Grabbing the camera from around his neck, he waited for his shot as she fell from the sky.

 

vacancy

When she finally stirred, light poured through the cheap blinds, draping the scratchy comforter on the hotel bed in even stripes of sunshine. Her head throbbed as the room spun around her. The stench of cheap bourbon and cigarettes hung in the air and mingled with something sweeter – like day old perfume or the lingering scent of shampoo on a pillow. It might have been mid-afternoon, but the clock next to the bed blinked 12:00 and gave no clues to the time of day.

Rolling onto her back and covering her head with a pillow, she groaned as snapshots of the night flashed in her head. A speakeasy with a password. A bartender with a crooked smile. And the darkest eyes she’d ever seen.

Trying to free herself from the memory of it all, she sprung up from the bed. Dropping two unsteady legs onto the floor and leaning on the doorway to the adjacent bathroom for support. She stumbled in, not quite willing to let go of the wall.

A shower. A shower would make her feel better. She turned on the water and sat dazed on the cool toilet seat as steam began to rise toward the hum of the fluorescent lights.

The water stung, pounding her shoulders in uneven bursts, but she didn’t budge as her wet skin turned pink in the heat. She looked unconvinced at the frail bar of cheap hotel soap. Surely it was going to take something much more substantial to wash it all away.

A good intention. A bad idea. A hotel with a room. A heart with a vacancy. And do not disturb. Do not disturb. Do not disturb.

But it was far too late for all that. She was more disturbed than ever before.

She tried to remember that saying about forbidden fruit, as she was fairly certain it would apply, but her mind was clouded and slow. All she could think of were the shape of the lips that bit into hers last night. The feeling of the tongue that swam inside her mouth. That made her body throb and her mind race. That made her want to somehow surrender and escape at the same time.

Stepping out of the shower she wrapped herself in a thin towel and avoided her reflection in the foggy mirror. She began piecing together her outfit, discarded haphazardly around the room. A black pump. A lacy bra. A braided gold hoop earring.

She spotted her top, halfway draped over the nightstand. As she grabbed it, a small piece of paper fluttered to the floor. Hesitantly, she bent down to retrieve it.

A receipt from the bar. With a note on the back in rushed red cursive.

We all make mistakes, love.

But please believe me when I tell you,

this is not one of them.

Jessica

the letter

Chloe: What did it say?
Me: That he hasn’t stopped thinking about that day.
Chloe: Who even sends letters anymore? That’s so World War II.
Me: That he closes his eyes and it’s like he can almost get back to it. That he goes home each day and locks himself in his room. Draws in the curtains, turns off the lights. Puts “Hear You Me” on repeat on his iPod. Lays down and just dwells in the memory of it.
Chloe: He sent a letter just to tell you that?
Me: He pulls the covers around his chin and one by one, he considers every detail. The torn booth at Waffle House. A waitress with a spider tattoo behind her ear. The smell of burnt coffee and cigarettes and butter and syrup. The long drive. My feet hanging out the passenger seat window. Mustard ballet flats and Jimmy Eat World. Running out of gas around three in the morning. Sprinting hand in hand toward the nearest exit, laughing the whole way. The rain. The rain. The rain. The sting of the tall grass on our ankles. The heat rising off the wet asphalt. A red gas can and a six-pack. The long walk back to the truck. The sunrise over the ocean. The stillness of both of us in the sand. Side by side. Trying to figure out some way, any way, to keep the sun from rising. To keep the night from ending. To stay in that moment forever.
Chloe: I feel like he could have just called.
Me: He said he’s scarred from it. Marred by the flawlessness of it all. He’s terrified nothing will ever compare. That will always be the best there ever was. He doesn’t know how to move past it. He’s not sure he really wants to.
Chloe: Are you going to write back?
Me: Yeah, I guess I will.
Chloe: What are you going to say?
Me: I’ll ask which scares him more, ruining the most perfect thing that has ever happened to him or never knowing if something that great could be even better.
Chloe: That’s it?
Me: Yeah, that’s it.
Chloe: You should probably just send a text.