by Ali Fahmy
The motel parking lot hasn't been plowed yet. Room 215 is lit by candles. Ani is waiting patiently, not looking out the window, though she wants to. Az is late. He's always late but it's okay tonight because of the snow. He's coming all the way from east of St. Paul, to the motel in the suburbs west of Minneapolis, practically a different state.
She lit the candles right after his phone call. It was her ritual, one he never asked about. He only saw the lighted candles, never inquired into their history or her methods.
Az is younger than Ani by three years. Ani's in town to do theater. She asked for this motel, far enough from the city and the people she used to know there. She wanted a motel that allows candles and dogs and though the Golden Valley Super 8's official policy allows neither, its unofficial policy allows everything. So, the candles, lit an hour ago, illuminate Ani and her bloodhound Belinda.
Ani has come from Dallas, where her apartment, unlit and cool in a brisk Texas March, sits unoccupied. She's here to act in the local production of "Tartuffe." An old friend from the college theater department lured her back and though she hates the Minnesota winter, she needs the work. And there is the matter of Az, late as usual and not because of the snow. Az is in his car, in the unplowed parking lot, listening to the radio. He sings along: "Late December, back in sixty-three, what a very special time for me."
If Ani would look outside, she'd see Az's car. If Az opened his eyes, he'd see the candles flicker. He would see that the snow has stopped. He would see the irregular headlights of the snowplow truck arriving on the opposite side of the too-large-for-a-winter-Sunday-night motel parking lot. Az doesn't want to open his eyes and he doesn't want to go inside the motel, but he made a promise to Ani before she left for Dallas.
She chose Dallas because it looked pretty on the TV series. And Texas would be warmer. And Edie Brickell, in a magazine interview, seemed happy there. But she really doesn't know why she makes any of her choices. None of this matters tonight, one of her two nights off from "Tartuffe," with Az on his way. So she looks out the window. She sees his car and his figure inside it. She doesn't know his eyes are closed. Or that he's now listening to "Radar Love" but not singing along. Or that he's been here for 30 minutes, terrified of voices in his head. Or that he opened his eyes a second ago and now sees her watching him, the orange candle light breaking her face into vertical fragments, each of them a line on a map of his small imagined world. The map, part of an atlas of invented places, brings him peace but forces his hand because, it's true, everything is in front of him.
Now they both know that they both know. Az watches as the shades are drawn and the orange light fades from service, into a dot. Ani lays on the bed and then under the bed. Az shuts off his engine and puts on his boots. He walks outside and opens his trunk and grabs Ani's birthday gift, a bag of seven new candles. His head almost numb and his heart, he believes, about to be broken, he trudges to the front entrance of the motel, away from Ani's room, because this is the only entrance they leave unlocked at night.
In front of the door for room 213, on the dirty cardboard-brown carpet of the motel's interior hallway, lies the card key for room 215. Az picks it up, turns around, and opens the door.
He joins Ani under the bed, where she promised to be all along. First though he blows out all the candles and pats Belinda's head and nape.
They tell each other stories. She tells him about the cancer bicycle, abandoned in her apartment courtyard by a former tenant who, in the throes of invasive chemo, left the bike, a blue Electra, chained to an ugly scrawny tree. The bicycle has been there for a year. Ani asked the landlord about it, if maybe she could have it. But, the landlord countered, the cancer patient, a quiet woman who lived alone and often practiced piano, just might come back for her bicycle. "I'd give it back then" said Ani, imagining blissful urban bike rides in Deep Bellum, with Belinda on a leash, running alongside the Electra, brisk but steady like "Tartuffe."
"Still," the landlord said, "chemo sometimes works and we should wait another year." When Ani gets back to Dallas in two weeks, the year will be up and she's got a wire cutter.
Az tells Ani about the new blueprints he's working on for his parents' summer cabin up north. "Dad's already picked out the logs. Two stories, a catwalk, state-of-the-art cabin architecture. I've got the prints tacked up to the bathroom wall, so I'm always thinking about it. This could be my first finished product." If finished, the cabin would be Az's revenge on his college's architecture department, the bastards responsible for his switch to the theater arts, a culture with a crowd Az had no use for, with their talents and their hugs and their presence. Az prefers movies on a screen and music in a car, personal and walled. They fall asleep under the bed.
Belinda barks at four in the morning because Ani forgot to take her outside. Ani wakes up, puts on her robe, and takes Belinda out the proprietary back door, toward the trees at the edge of the plowed parking lot. Later, as she walks back to the motel, she writes a note in the snow on the hood of Az's car: "Sleep when you're dead."
Cold from being outside, Ani crawls on the bed and under the covers. For extra warmth, Belinda sleeps on Ani's feet. It takes Ani a few minutes to realize that Az is no longer under the bed, that he's left the room. She hears him in the parking lot, scraping the ice off his windshield. She assumes he saw the note.
Three hours later, the sun up but gone now, a fresh coat of loose snow covers the chunky frozen snow of the night before, but not enough to cover Az's response to Ani, on the hood of her car: "It ended much too soon." With Belinda in the backseat excited to go for a drive, Ani rides Highway 394 into Minneapolis for a read-through, laughing out loud -- cackling -- for the first time in years.
About the author:
Ali Fahmy's fiction has appeared online in Identity Theory and Hobart and is forthcoming in Exquisite Corpse. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife Laurel.