CL Fiction Contest Top 10: "Lost in Ybor" by Samuel Warmack


What had I expected?

The red-brick streets of Ybor peeked through chinks in the armor of the asphalt, marring the sheet of tar. A cold morning had left the handsome streets of the little tourist suburb quiet, the odd rooster or dead leaf my only other friend as I parked farther than was necessary from where I wanted to be, figuring a long walk would clear my mind.

When I was a little boy, my Nano had told me over and over again that he really had lain those bricks down with his very own hands, what? 80, 85 years ago? Although the number had grown higher each time he told the tale, a certain pearl of truth seemed to lay somewhere behind. I knew the old man was an inveterate liar but I loved him in spite of it, and missed him, and so something about seeing those little red bricks peeking through sent a flash of warmth through my heart. Maybe it was a sign; his way of smiling down with beatific warmth upon what choice I was making. What I had already decided on. The crystalline blue of the sky seemed to agree. Our choices so often seem to take us further from home, farther away from our familial nests. Why is that? Rounding the corner onto La Septima Avenue, I had thought that the answer was clear, an existential clarion call shouting from within, " Love! Love! Love!" My heart beat in rhythm with my footsteps as I braced myself against the chill, burying my hands in my pockets as the breeze pushed burnt cigarette butts along the gutters. Just thinking of Her...


We had met a year before, two strangers forced to share the meager shelter of a rainsoaked bus stop, water streaming down the glass in rivulets. I had flashed a quick smile before busying myself with my phone, pressing any random icon I could in order to remain politely silent.She had simply stood still, Her hands buried in her pockets, the high collar and cinched waist of Her coat drawing my eye even as I tried not to look. There was something about her stillness, rabbit-like, that made the silence all the more uncomfortable, my height over her making me feel the need to shrink farther away. The patting of the rain filled the space between us in one long, awkward shrug.

An ancient Buick rumbled up to the stoplight next to our shelter, its exhaust pipe aimed squarely into the aquarium the two of us occupied. The driver, a globulous old man, melted into the seat as he puffed on a cigarette.

"Hmph."

I glanced toward her, unsure. Her eyes, a deep brown, were focused on the molted blue of the Buick. "If you're going to drive a piece of crap car you should at least try to drive the piece of crap politely." There was nothing snarky in her manner or tone, just a disappointed matter-offactness.

I smiled. "I think the old girl is a beauty. Just look at those lines."

"The car isn't too bad, either," she replied, beginning our friendship. We lingered long after the rain had finished, talking as the sun came out.

With every step I took toward that park, I felt tied to the sidewalk I walked on, knowing that just a few inches down lay bricks my family had placed; lay streets aunts and uncles had trudged along toward their jobs rolling cigars. It's funny how the older you get the more certain you begin to feel that time is both meaningless and cyclical. The thought that I would be leaving a place that had always been home was thrilling, but beneath that lay a sense of loss. What would it feel like to not be so connected to the place you called home? The thought cycled, nagged its way through my brain. The thought of being placeless... Was that how my grandparents had felt when they first became Americans? My Nano used to say, "To doubt is to be human, but to ere is Divine." Whatever that meant.

Of Her, though, there was no question. The last year had passed by like a gin-soaked reverie, each new truth, each giddy smile we shared stitching itself into a patchwork blur of two adults become kids again. The things that age does to us remains roundly unfunny, but I think that amongst its cruelest jokes is what time does to our sense of innocence: The longer you live, the trickier the ability to laugh gets as we become plagued by memory. Somehow, it took a rainy bus stop filled with exhaust fumes for me to understand that fact. The ability to regret, to remember, perhaps more than any other, is sometimes the strongest poison, tainting even our happiest moments. How often had I run my fingers through Her hair while contemplating that thought? Watching each follicle slip serpentine as regret, wondering how it was that I was expected to choose between my own happiness and a greater sense of betrayal. What an odd sensation, to feel so certain and to be so utterly conflicted.

My wife...

Just thinking of her stopped me in my tracks.

I was still several blocks from the museum park We had agreed to meet in. As the sun rose in the sky it began to dry the dew-damp morning, its warmth cutting the chill. At that moment, the feeling of being a liar and telling a lie felt too much like missing a step while going down the stairs: Either way, I was going down. No one deserved to be as happy as I wanted to be when that happiness was entered into through a lie. Much like every story my Nano ever told me, I accepted my wife's love, her truth at face value. Somewhere inside, I'm sure there was a kernel of truth to the lie of love, but the architecture, the bricks and mortar of our relationship had started to wear and crumble years ago and neither of us had ever seemed too willing to sweep up the pieces. I was already close to running late for the park but the sudden weight of my choices were anchoring me to the sidewalk, three blocks from changing my life. For a moment, I wondered what a bird passing overhead would see: Her, a single point of light, standing alone in that postage stamp of a park, waiting; Me, standing like a bronzed statue a few hundred feet away, wondering what kind of person I was willing to become.

"Amorcito... Why don't you run away with me?"

The request had come out of nowhere nearly a week before as She and I sat with our Cuban coffee, watching as the Amtrak train rumbled by, filled with passengers. I thought of my wife, a passenger all her adult life in the form of a medical sales rep as she travelled from coast to coast to warm up one group of surgeons after another for the newest hip implant; the best bone cement; the newest wrench set. My wife never called me her little love. Come to think of it, she never called me her big love, either. Such little courtesies, the small ways we show love for  each other often seem to matter more than the grandest gestures, and in the moment She asked me to run with her, I wanted that grande gesture of small love. To run, to be freed, to love someone unselfishly.

The unusual calm filling the early morning was temporarily broken by a woman passingby on her Tricycle, the motorbike rumbling dully as a dark mutt barked furiously from where he was strapped at the back of her seat. The little dogs' tail wagged furiously as he asserted his dominance, his bark hanging around long after the motorcycle had turned the next corner. As I watched, a hen and her chicks scattered from the street the woman had turned onto, their flight shepherded by a massive rooster cock-strutting. Whatever it was I felt about leaving Tampa, in that moment, I fell a little bit in love all over again: in love with a city street; an anonymous dog; a woman who was not my wife. A life I knew could never be my own. Love, as ever, could never be said to be anything other than wrong-headed. How is it that we're always so willing to throw ourselves headlong into things that we know could ruin us? Remembering the day She had laid out Her ultimatum for me, that We leave everything and run to newly opened Cuba, I still don't have an exact answer for why I agreed. If my wife had been standing next to me, asking why why why, I would've only been able to mutter a lame-footed, "Because this feels right".

And that was why the whole affair had to end.

The idea of willfully tearing apart my family due to a momentary lapse in happiness made me feel like a bigger monster than I had ever thought possible, a poisonous feeling. No matter how hard I tried to justify my own desires no amount of self-pity could absolve me of my countless betrayals. That fact wasn't lost on me. No, I was being driven by little more than masculine hubris, some obsessive need to dominate a situation even as I was the one sinking. But to feel wanted... ah, the sting. The fantasy was a form of escape, some internal need to rationalize an imagined "out" to a life I had felt myself sinking into: An American ideal, a mass-marketed appeal to a dream I had never really wanted. Here we are in the 21st century, standing side by side with an iPhone and religious genocide, and we're expected to be the ones to bridge the gap with our every tweet, our every 'Like', our every social interaction. Buy a car, buy a house, extend your credit: Wash. Rinse. Repeat. All of it felt like too much, and that's how a stranger standing at a bus stop can change your life with a simple joke and a shared smile. In this cold and uncaring universe, sometimes, all a heart needs in order to be corrupted is a few moments of real attention. I wanted too much to fly away with Her and her chocolate-colored eyes; Her and her furious optimism. That want, the need, was the at the root of everything wrong in my life. With one commonplace term of endearment, Amorcito, I was ready to throw away more than ten years of marriage. If I have learned nothing else from love, it is that personal happiness stands little competition. Somehow, caring for another person seems to demand a willingness to throw things you care about into the fire.

By this point of my internal monologue I had begun to draw judgey glances from the few other people sharing the morning streets with me, each person shrinking away from where I stood nearto the street, muttering to myself, staring into the gutter. Try as I might I couldn't have blended in better with the local homeless population. From where I stood, the outer brick wall of the park we had agreed to meet in could just be seen from several blocks away: A tanned brick, mortar and wrought-iron affair which enclosed the tiny Ybor museums' even tinier park, sandwiched in between the preserved white matchbox homes of long-dead immigrants. Although it had long ago been bulldozed, the home my great-grandparents, the one Nano and his siblings had shared, had been a near carbon copy of the preserved houses, mere yards from where I stood. I had never shared that factoid with Her, and there was something very near to serendipity about Her choosing for us to met in that spot. Taking a deep breath and fixating my gaze on wrought fence, I once again forced my feet to start moving, each step bringing me closer to the end of a love I had never thought to find; a love I knew had to say goodbye to. Confident as I  tried to walk, my stomach began twisting itself into hard knots. As certain I was that I wanted to flee with Her, as I drew nearer to our final rendezvous, the reality of actualizing that escape cemented
its' way into my heart, weighing it down like a dragnet, scooping up all the unwanted detritus of old betrayals, past failed love and that losing sensation of trading your hearts desire for the realities of reality. It had to end.

Crossing over the last street, I took the deepest of breaths, determined to exhale every iota of the doubt and anger I had felt building inside of me. She knew the state of my life. Perversely, I think She knew the power she had over me. What had once been innocent flirtation had very quickly escalated into an abiding obsession. With every witty aside, I wanted more and more to possess Her; to live completely within the shadow of Her personality. Rounding the last corner, I found myself face to face with a museum security guard asking what the nature of my visit was. I sincerely doubt he realized no one had ever asked me a more important question my entire life.

Avoiding his gimlet-gaze, I stumbled out with the lame excuse of, "My wife and I got married here a few years ago. I just wanted to see the place."

And with that the guard never said another word, and merely handed me a brochure of the museum and its adjoining park before disappearing into a back room of the building. Gazing about awkwardly, I moved toward the double doors which lead to the park; to where She would be. The roiling in my belly had built to a fevered pitch. Taking another steadying breath, neatening the part in my hair, I pushed my way through the heavy pine doors.

Before me stood a simple black iron fountain, lazily shooting arcs of water from pinnacle to base in murmuring splashes; a wooden stage opposite me; ferns and tall, black five-globe streetlamps. The wind blowing and the shaking of tree leaves was the only other sound left to greet me.

She wasn't there.

I scanned the park, foolishly thinking she could be hiding just out of sight, but turning where I stood, my aloneness was certain. A part of me clung to the thought that maybe She was running late, but knowing Her disdain for a lack of punctuality I knew that was a fallacy. Somewhere, I heard a door closing.

What had I expected? Feeling like a fool, I walked the parks' short perimeter, waiting to see if She would show, but a half hour later the truth had become apparent. The red bricks that lined the park were relatively new, their brightness not yet dulled with a romantic patina. As I walked toward the exit, I scanned the park one final time, feeling terribly lost. Feeling free.

At the last moment, I fixed my gaze on the unsmiling bust of Vicente Martinez-Ybor, the unused scene of our crime. Even at the distance of a century, my intangible ties to the man still ran deep: He had paid for the city, but my family had been the ones to build it. Even stretched across the years, I felt a pang of intimidation. Was he one to be so distracted by love? By lying? That marble gaze atop its plinth shouted a disapproval that I read loud and clear. Feeling as though I were the biggest fool on the face of the planet, I pulled my coat tighter around me as a sudden chill wind began to blow. Deciding it was time I leave, I turned away from the bust and began to walk away, but glancing back one last time as another breeze began to kick, I saw a flash of color from behind the statue. Red as a cardinal, there was a small flap of paper taped onto the back of Mr. Ybors head. Written on the notes' back in a firm, confident hand: Amorcito.

For some reason I looked around me suspiciously, but the park was all mine. Plucking the paper down, I tore my way through the tape. Inside, there were only two lines, written in the same assured hand: I love you, but I have no right to ask you to be the bad guy. Please be well, please be happy, and for Christs' sake, please learn to smile every once in a while.

She signed her name with a lowercase x and an uppercase O.

At that moment, a bright yellow streetcar tooted its way by. Watching its progression in stunned silence, my attention was once again drawn to the crumbling asphalt street beyond the newer enclosure. Those red bricks, like truths we try to ignore, shone through all the more in the quiet outside of the park. Looking through the wrought iron fence, all I could think of in that moment was my Nano, wondering if those bricks had been touched by his hands. Maybe he was a liar, but right then, I chose to believe his stories as truth. Perhaps we do create our own realities, us fragile creatures forced to cope with the pain of existence. Yet in that moment, a lie was more comforting than anything true. Maybe She did really love me, and maybe those streets were built by my family. Try as I might, I couldn't have told you then what was true and what was a lie. The difference, like time, didn't really seem to matter.

I was free, and through that freedom, entirely lost. If that's not living, then I don't know what else is.

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