Romantic Shorts presents Dominique Collier‘s paranormal journey through the dark. When promising gymnast Naoko’s world comes to a screeching halt, Mark is there to help her find her way back to her life and the love it offers, until the line between light and dark becomes blurred beyond recognition.
Welcome. And enjoy!
by Dominique Collier
The lilting sounds of my father’s sanshin transported me back in time as my body moved fluidly through the yotsutake, a classical Okinawan dance. The grooves of the tatami mats that covered the floor spoke to my feet. They told the stories of Amawari so that I would not forget the steps.
Polite clapping accompanied my flourished bow. I looked to my mother for approval. Her grin told me that her friends were impressed. I had made her proud. Though the tea ceremony, along with traditional music and dance, had been a ritual in my father’s home since I was a child, I still took pleasure in the pretty smile of my mother and slow nod of my father, which said I had honored them.
My family moved from Okinawa to sunny California for my father’s work when I was seven. Life in America was a difficult adjustment for me. The language did not come easily. Other children made fun of my bento lunches. They gagged when I nibbled nervously on seaweed or fish cakes. Some pulled their eyes into slants and said “ping pong ding dong.” I didn’t understand what that was supposed to mean. It sounded nothing like my native language, but I was smart enough to know I was being teased.
School was challenging for other reasons. In Okinawa I had been an exemplary student. I followed the rules, shared my toys, and raised my hand at every opportunity. In America, I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t understand what was being asked, so I blurted out things that made no sense.
“Naoko, what is four plus four?”
“A-b-c-d-e-f-g . . . sensei.” I would answer. I was so proud that I had learned the English alphabet. Nobody in my class seemed impressed, including Mrs. Hamilton. She made me stay after class, only to stare helplessly at a page full of math problems. Tears that burned trails of shame down my chubby cheeks did not move her.
Despite my success in learning the alphabet, English continued to elude me, and I struggled in all my classes, save one. Gym class was a haven, an oasis in the desert. My lithe muscles obeyed me, unlike my tangled tongue. I was enamored with the way my limbs flexed and bent at my command. The instructor showed me how to do a cartwheel. In two attempts mine was better than hers. She laughed and told me the name of a gymnastics training facility nearby.
From the day I started gymnastics lessons, I spent every recess tumbling in the school yard or swinging on the bars, while the other kids played tag. My passion blurred the lines of obsession.
As I got older, my parents chided me daily to spend less time in the gym and more time studying, but my grades continued to hover mockingly below average. They would speak to me in broken English at home, hoping it might help. In defiance I would respond only in Japanese.
When I was sixteen the New Year came and with it a blessing. My first dream was that I would become an Olympic gymnast. I told this to my mother.
“Naoko,” she said, “this very significant. First dream of New Year always come true. You are very talented, destined for greatness.”
On my way to the gym that day I stopped in front of our Maneki Neko figurine by the door. My mother’s superstitions had found a place in my own heart. I touched the cat’s raised paw and whispered, “Let it come true.”
Since that day, nothing came before gymnastics. College was not a consideration for me. Life was all about the beauty of what my body could do. Through sprained ankles and torn ligaments, my love for the sport never wavered. I broke my arm, my leg, and my wrist twice. Even these painful obstacles could not diminish my determination to succeed. I had never even been in love. There was no time for such things. Gymnastics demanded my time, my body, and my soul.
Upon finishing the dance at my parents’ tea ceremony, I bowed to their guests and snuck out quietly. In the room that had once been mine, I tore off my stiff blue and purple kimono and threw on my leotard, covered by shorts and a U2 t-shirt I had permanently borrowed from an ex-boyfriend.
My stick-straight raven hair danced in the wind as I drove a little too fast down the highway toward the gym. Windows down, music blaring, I basked in the freedom of the moment. Speeding was a bad habit I’d developed. Another thing I’d borrowed from the ex. Tires squealed as I barrelled into my usual parking spot. Everyone greeted me as I entered the gym, from Candy at the front desk, to Carl, one of the instructors, to the little kids doing somersaults on the floor mats.
“Hi Naoko!” I was a fixture at this place.
Carl approached me after my warm up.
“So,” he started, hesitant. “Olympic team tryouts are around the corner. Do you think you’re ready?”
Though I had dated a few of the men that practiced or taught at my gym, Carl was not one of them. He was more like a cousin to me. I playfully ribbed him.
“If anyone’s getting on that damn team, it had better be me,” I said, grinning. “What do you think?” I added, more seriously.
“Hmmm.” He frowned. I panicked. He burst out laughing. “You should see your face right now. Of course I think you’re ready. As long as you land that Arabian double layout without a step, and get control over that beam dismount, you’ll be a shoo-in.”
I smiled, then punched him in the arm for good measure.
I practiced that day until every muscle in my body ached, including some I never knew I had. I ran the Arabian double layout pass about a thousand times, until I could do it with my eyes closed. Darkness had consumed the daylight by the time I left. Candy waited for me to finish so she could lock up behind me. She patted my shoulder.
“You looked great out there Naoko. You’re our shining hope. I know you’ll make the Olympic team.”
Feeling great, I got in my car and began the seventeen minute drive to my apartment.
I sensed nothing awry as I careened around a bend in the far left lane of the Marina Freeway. Too late a colossal mass appeared in front of me, barely visible in the shadows of night. The front of my cherry red coupe hit the pile of cars at eighty miles an hour. There was no time to even scream.
I awoke to blackness. In terror I wracked my memory for any clue to where I could be. Fighting to control my panic, I sucked air into my lungs and slowly let it out. Scents of latex and bleach rode on the waves of oxygen that passed through my nose and lungs like the smell of fish on the ocean. A hospital. Why am I in a hospital? With this thought, memories flooded into my mind of a looming mountain of tangled metal, getting closer by the millisecond. The memory ended there, the impact lost to a void; some abyss in my mind that swallowed moments like a giant maw, erasing history.
The panic returned. I swung my legs over the side of the hospital bed and tried to stand. They felt as weak as cooked noodles. I went down like a sack of flour.
“Help! Someone please turn on the lights!”
Someone rushed into the room, with movements sure and unimpeded despite the darkness. Footsteps approached, then hands grasped me under my arms and hoisted me up.
“Everything’s okay, Naoko. Please sit down on the bed and I’ll explain.” The same gentle hands guided me until I felt the edge of the hospital bed and sat.
“Please turn on the lights,” I pleaded. “I can’t see.”
“Naoko, I’m Doctor Nguyen. You’re in a hospital. The lights are on. The reason you can’t see is that you sustained severe damage to both optic nerves, leading to blindness.”
A cry of shock burst from my lips, carried by a tsunami of every bit of breath in my lungs. My hands, no longer under my own command, reached toward my face; felt it gingerly. My fingers traced the paths of stitches crisscrossing my skin like railroad ties. I touched my closed eyelids. They felt normal, except for the superficial scratch on the outer corner of my left lid. I held my fingers in front of my eyes and opened them again. Still blackness.
“This is temporary, right?” I asked, facing the direction from which I thought Dr. Nguyen’s voice had originated.
“I’m afraid not.”
He continued to speak, to explain the medical reason that my injuries could not be repaired, either naturally or by surgery, but I had tuned out, lost in my fear.
Before long my parents arrived. My mother cried the tears that I was yet unable to shed. My father put his arm around me and told me how everything would be ok. In my heart I knew he was wrong. My life was over.
I found that the loneliness of a world sheathed in utter darkness was total desolation.
My family and friends came to support me. They stayed at arm’s length to show me that they did not doubt my abilities and independence, despite my new impairment. What I needed was human touch. I craved physical stimulus like an abandoned infant aches for motherly love.
Shouts leapt at me from across the room.
“Follow my voice,” they challenged. My attempts, like a newborn colt, were unsteady and rarely successful. Eventually, in despair, I drowned them out, seeking a cocoon of darkness, silence, and numbness.
My cocoon days weaved in and out of my routines. Other days I was willing to try, again and again, no matter the bruises on my shins, no matter the paralyzing fear. When I made my first journey from my bedroom, through my apartment, and out the front door, without bumping into anything, Carl was there to cheer for me.
“Way to go Ace! You are now back up to the level of a toddler,” he jested. I sensed his smile in his tone, but wished I could see it, just to be sure it was genuine.
Carl had been coming over a lot. Besides my parents, he’d been my biggest support. The other girls from the gym sent me an orchid that I was told was beautiful and a card I could not read. I knew their intentions were good. Most of them came to see me at least once, some more than that, but as the months passed I got fewer and fewer visits. I was no longer a gymnast; no more one of their peers.
I was no longer an anything. How could I define myself? A blind, out of shape has-been who could barely walk or accomplish the simplest task, and who had once had a chance to be great.
Even Carl began to tire of my despondency. The romantic feelings he’d once harbored for me eroded like a sand castle when the tide comes in, until all that remained was pity. When he reached out to steady me, or guided my hands toward an object, his hands did not linger. His touch chilled me with its neutrality. I did not love Carl. I did not wish for romance from him, but I was so alone.
To my surprise, it was a golden retriever named Bo who brought a spark of hope back to me. A gift from my father, Bo was a seeing-eye dog raised by the best trainers in L.A. Tears dripped from my useless eyes as he licked and pawed at me for the first time. At last I felt unrestrained, unconditional love. Bo saw nothing of fault in me. To him, I was not a wreck of a once talented being, broken at the bottom of a cliff with no way back up. Instead I was a loving parent who needed him, who gave him purpose.
As my mother described him, I imagined tawny fur, glinting in the sun and ruffling in a salty breeze as he romped on the beach. With this vision in mind, I determined to venture outside of my apartment, which I had insisted on keeping, and make it to the seaside.
By summer, Bo and I operated as a cohesive unit. We spent days eating ripe berries (me) and gnawing bones (him) under the shade of eucalyptus trees. As the sun dipped and the air cooled, we made our way to the beach and walked for miles with our toes and paws in the lapping water.
Despite my progress, I was still the epitome of clumsiness. One night at the beach, I heard no one around. My heart ached for the days when my limbs leapt and twisted at my will. I attempted to run and do a split leap, but landed painfully on a piece of glass and tumbled to the wet sand. Bo rushed to my side and nosed my foot.
“Hey, are you okay?”
The voice was male, confident but laced with concern. It shocked me. I had heard no footsteps, no signs of another’s presence.
“Um, yeah, I’m okay. I could use some help though. Can you look at my foot and see if there’s glass in it? I’m blind.”
I expected surprise, and that tone of pity that always succeeded this announcement. But he said nothing. Instead I felt strong, calloused fingers examining my foot. He smelled like a combination of musky cologne, sawdust, and the sweat of honest labor.
“There’s no glass in the cut, but it’s pretty deep. You’re bleeding. C’mon.” He lifted me as easily as if I were a doll and pulled my arm around his shoulders. I hobbled along, favoring my right foot, trying to ignore the taut muscles that rippled under my arm.
“Thank you.” I tried to say more, but my tongue tripped over itself. He smelled so good.
“You’re welcome.” Did I sense a smile? “I’m Mark, by the way.”
“I’m Naoko.” Still tongue-tied.
“And who’s your shadow?” At first I didn’t understand. Maybe he’s a crazy person. Then I realized what he meant.
“That’s Bo.” A moment of silence passed, my attention absorbed by his masculinity. Finally my senses returned. “Where are we going?”
“I’ve got a house about a mile from here. I want to get this cut cleaned up or it could get infected.”
“You live on the beach?” I asked, jealous. “Do you love it more than anything in the world? I would.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s not that close to where we are now, and we aren’t making very good time.”
“I’m sorry, it’s my fault,” I said.
Without another word he swung his left arm under my legs and lifted me into the air. He carried me princess style the rest of the way. His breathing stayed as even as the tide, as if I weighed nothing at all. I became sleepy from the exertions of the day; the sun and the long walk, and now the lulling of Mark’s long strides and the roar of the ocean. I leaned my face into his thick chest and slept.
The sensation of being laid gently on a couch woke me. Immediately I chastised myself for being so vulnerable with a complete stranger. But something about Mark put me at ease. Besides, by this point I’d become inured to vulnerability.
“Tell me more about yourself,” Mark said.
I launched into my tale of how I had become blind. As I was finished I noticed that my wound was being tended. His hands administered care so soothingly I felt no pain.
“Where are you from?” he prompted. A wet cloth dabbed at the underside of my foot. It stung only a little.
I tried to speak, to tell him about Japan and my transition to American life and culture, but my focus was dominated by his touch. Mark slowly rolled the leg of my jeans up, just a few inches. His thumb brushed my skin. It ran a trail from my calf down to my ankle. His other fingers followed. I imagined his lips finding my leg; making their way downward with delicate kisses.
Instead, he pressed sterile pads against my cut and wrapped an Ace bandage around my foot and ankle to hold them in place, still with as much tenderness as though my foot were a newborn baby.
My voice found its way back as Mark walked me home. He continued to ask me questions about myself. Eventually I had to put the argument to him that I’d told him everything about me, and I knew nothing about him.
“Well, you know my name, and you can probably sense that I’m extremely handsome,” he said with a laugh. “What else do you want to know?”
“What’s your last name? What do you do for a living? Where are you from? Are you single?” I rushed through all the questions that spun in my mind. I hadn’t meant to utter the last one. It seemed so desperate. As I said it, though, I realized it was the question I most wanted answered.
“Whoa, slow down,” he said. “Let’s see if I can remember any of that. My last name is Hill. I’m a project manager for a construction company called Randolph Contractors and Development. I’m from Portland, Oregon. And yes, I’m single.” As he said this he took hold of my hand, lacing his fingers with mine.
“How’d I do?” he asked.
“Not bad,” I answered, secretly elated.
As Mark deposited Bo and me at my apartment door, he put his hand on my shoulder and said “I’ll be here tomorrow at seven to change those bandages.” Soft lips touched my cheek, and he was gone.
The next day I awoke with the idea that I would cook dinner. I had not done this on my own since the accident. The thought excited and scared me. It would be a romantic, candlelit dinner, ready right at seven o’clock. I felt a surge of confidence, like the sense of empowerment I used to get from gymnastics.
Bo had to be shooed out of the kitchen at least a dozen times while I prepared the meal. I told myself he just wanted to be on hand should any scraps make their way to the floor, but I think he was worried about me.
I decided to go Italian. The menu would include mushroom risotto, lobster pasta with a delicate cream sauce, and strawberry vanilla trifles. I gave myself several hours to prepare, knowing that simple tasks such as filling a pot with the right amount of water and measuring the seasonings for the pasta sauce took twice as long for me as for the average person.
Promptly at seven o’clock a knock sounded from the door. I ran my fingers through my hair a few times and smoothed the front of my dress before answering.
“Wow. I mean . . . wow,” he said when I opened the door. A smile took over my face, and I rose off the ground a few feet on a cloud of euphoria.
I poured two glasses of wine and cautiously lit the candles. I dimmed the lights. I had to ask Mark if the amount of light provided by the candles was enough. He assured me that it was perfect. To my pleasure, he paid loving attention to Bo, who seemed to approve of Mark, based on all the licking I could hear.
“I can’t believe you did all this,” Mark said as we sat down to eat. “It’s incredible.”
After dinner he found my music collection and put on some classics. He took my hand and kissed the top of it, like I was royalty. We slow-danced, cheek to cheek. At first I was awkward, but the clumsiness melted away as the ecstasy of movement and the control of my body came back to me.
His fingers traced my collarbone, then ran down my spine. He brushed a loose wisp of hair behind my ear. His thumb swept slowly across my lips. His own lips found mine. He kissed me softly, hesitantly at first. As I responded in kind his kisses became more passionate. His hands caressed my back and pressed me to him.
My own hands, no longer under my authority, found their way to his chest. They searched further down, touching taut abdominals. I pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it aside. He unhurriedly slid my dress straps over my shoulders, until the dress fell to my feet.
We made love that night. My body, which had felt like an empty shell for so long, responded to his every touch. I was intoxicated by pleasure, delirious with passion.
Our relationship grew rapidly over the next months. Each time we met, his smile electrified the finger tips with which I saw it. We went to the beach during the hours it was most empty, so that I could swim freely in the ocean. Long walks under a blanket of caressing sun were followed by dinners on Mark’s deck, where a salty breeze awakened our senses. We talked over the phone on the days we couldn’t be together. I had never known anyone that could make me laugh the way Mark did. It all had to be a dream.
Strangely, though, Mark never seemed to be available to meet my friends or family. I understood the importance of his job and the fact that emergencies come up, but I wished that my parents could see what a great guy I had found.
“Naoko,” my mother chided as she stroked Bo’s fur. “Is this man even real? I think you make him up. Why you never bring him here?”
“He’s busy, Okaasan,” was all I could say. I knew from memory the look of suspicion that she wore when she suspected me of not being fully honest.
“You ashamed of us? Our English accent not good enough? What?”
When I told Mark about this he laughed it off.
“I’ll meet them soon, I promise.”
Before long I began to confide in Mark the things I had kept hidden for so long, even from myself. I told him of my deepest desires and most paralyzing fears while he stroked my hair and back. He kissed my eyelids.
“You’re still the same person you always were Naoko. Strength oozes out of every pore in your body. You radiate warmth and love like the sun. And you’re easily the bravest person I know.”
Tears slipped from the outer corners of my eyes. For the first time in a year, they were tears of joy.
“Do you think I’ll ever dance again?” I asked. “I know my days as a gymnast are over, but if I could at least dance . . . maybe I could make my parents proud again.”
The next day Mark called off from work. He fake coughed into his phone while he tickled my elbow and nudged me.
“I’m taking you someplace special,” he said, “and no, I’m not telling you where.”
I listened to the sounds around us as we drove, trying to recognize our location. Nothing clicked. After an eternity Mark eased the car to a stop and got out. He opened my door and took my hand. As we began to walk, my feet found a familiar path. It was one I had walked thousands of times. I knew every dip and every bump in that parking lot. I turned to him.
“Really?” I squealed. Then fear took over. “I don’t know if I can do this, Mark. I haven’t set foot in there since . . .”
An overwhelming longing came upon me to enter the gym where I had trained for so many years, where my dreams had been planted and nurtured. My heart ached for this place, and for what it had once been to me.
“Okay,” I told him. “I’m ready.”
It took a long time for me to greet everyone who knew me there. They were so shocked at my appearance that they didn’t even think to ask who Mark was. They crowded around me, touching my arm and cooing how much they had missed me. After catching up with everyone, I was pulled onto the floor.
“Do something easy, just try,” they urged.
I stretched my neglected limbs and jogged in place for a warm up. I paced the edge of the tumbling floor, counting my steps, not trusting my memory. My first attempts were hesitant, unsure, but my passion was reignited and I pushed myself. I worked at it for hours. Eventually the dimensions and layout of that floor returned as an innate part of me. Hadn’t I done these routines over and over with my eyes closed? The muscle memory that I thought was long gone crept back to the surface and seeped into my bones and sinew. I danced and leapt and flipped with transcendent joy.
When I had finished, I paced to the corner of the floor and called for Mark. Guilt beset me for disregarding him all this time, but I hoped he had watched me and seen the bliss his gesture had brought me. No response. I called again.
“Who are you looking for Naoko?” Candy asked.
“The man I came in with. Did he leave?”
“I’m sorry hon, I was so excited to see you I didn’t even notice anyone with you,” she answered. Everyone else there said the same thing. Nobody had seen Mark come in. He was surely not around now.
I felt abandoned. How could he leave without telling me? Maybe he had a work emergency. Still, why wouldn’t he let me know?
I tried calling him. His phone went straight to voice mail, over and over. Candy gave me a ride home. I sat in silence the duration of the drive as poison permeated my mind. Fear and doubt gnawed at me. What did this mean?
Over the next several days I must have called Mark’s phone over a dozen times.
“Hi, you’ve reached Mark Hill. You know what to do.” Beep.
I left messages pleading with him to call me back, to tell me what I had done wrong. Bo and I even ventured to Mark’s home. No one came to the door.
When two weeks had elapsed with no word from Mark, I became really worried. Maybe he’s not breaking up with me. Maybe something terrible happened to him.
It took three hours for Bo and me to walk to Randolph Contractors and Development. I could have gotten a ride, but I felt the need to do this on my own. I didn’t want anyone to witness him telling me to leave, to get lost and stop calling him.
Mr. Randolph himself greeted me as I stepped shyly into the office, where a chime connected to the door announced my presence.
“Mr. Randolph, I’m sorry to bother you. I’m looking for Mark. Mark Hill. I haven’t heard from him in two weeks, and I’m really worried.”
Silence. I waited.
“Miss,” he said and stopped. He cleared his throat and started again. “Miss, I’m sorry to tell you, but you must be confused. Mark Hill died in that eight car pile-up on the Marina Freeway a year ago.”
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