It’s twilight and I am not where I want to be, but I am where I am, barefoot in the bathroom with the flickering light wearing an oversized t-shirt, the faded grad school acronym sloped across my chest. I brush my teeth with one hand and scroll the social feed with the chipped, painted thumb of another. There’s a photo of you—your hand, anyway—raising a toast to a sunset. I start a text to you, aching, but quickly delete it, thumb pounding the backspace. My toothbrush slips and a snake tongue of blood slivers out from my incisor. It tastes the way rust smells.
And then, she is there. She steps out of me like a duchess sloughing off a winter coat at a ball. She stands between me and the mirror, turns to face me. She isn’t see-through, exactly—more like a person-shaped cutout of clouds inflated to 3D. Orange and lilac blue settle on the clouds like stockings thrown over a loveseat. The clouds drift slightly, tugged along by wind, catching purple and cobalt on their bellies. Despite this, I can make out her shape: my height, my size, but with hair to her waist. Her face is vague—just a sketch, really—most defined when it moves. Right now, her brow is furrowed. She takes the end of my sleeve between her forefinger and thumb.
“What are you wearing?” she asks.
I blink. “Pajamas.” I nudge her to the side, spit, and rinse. A ribbon of red trickles down the drain. “Why?”
“That won’t do.” She throws open the medicine cabinet, pulls out eyeshadow. The purple one with sparkles. The one I hadn’t worn since that ‘80s night with you where I dropped the hard cider on the balcony. A thousand pieces skittered in the dark, fizzing with apple foam.
“Put this on,” she says, waving it at me while she riffles through crowded shelves. She pulls out my Candied Rhubarb lipstick. I thought I’d thrown it away.
“And this,” she says. She is in the bedroom now, flinging clothes out of the closet, arms pinwheeling. My sequined silver pants scritch the wood as they slide toward me, a crunched-up disco ball.
“We’re going out,” she announces. “Do you have change for the bus?”
“Sure,” I grunt, hoisting on the silver pants. I couldn’t just leave them like that. Crumpled.
I quickly put on makeup and a jacket as she shoves me out the door, urging, “Go! We don’t want to miss it!”
We jog three blocks to the bus stop. My gum throbs with every step.
The bus’s headlights glow orange like jack-o-lanterns. I pay our fares and sit, but she strides to the handrail in the center of the aisle and grabs it. She flings her weight around it, a gold sky in orbit, a protractor dancing its circle.
We ride the bus downtown, disembark in the heart of the city. Music pulses out of various doors. Fried onion fumes waft from food carts.
“Where’s that place you like to go?” she asks, linking her arm with mine.
“I don’t. Go out much anymore, I mean.”
She crinkles her nose. “I’ll pick, then.” She peruses the glimmering storefronts as if they are precious gems.
“That one,” she nods, pointing to a sign. Oculus. 15th Floor.
We ride the elevator with its glassy façade, watching the sidewalk recede beneath our feet.
The doors open. We step into a parlor with a scarlet carpet and cherrywood bar. True to its name, the room features a circular hole in its arched ceiling. Moonlight pours through.
“Rum and Coke,” I say, pulling up a stool.
Cloud Girl grabs my wallet, tugs out a few more bills. “Make it a double,” she says.
While the bartender fixes our drinks, Cloud Girl sits and rests her chin in her hands. Glancing down, I see the outlines of her feet look like high heels. They had been tennis shoes when we were jogging.
She is quiet, so I take out my phone and scroll the feed. When our drinks come, she swivels on her stool and studies me.
“So, why did you cut it?” she asks, reaching out and stroking a strand of my hair. It stops abruptly at my jawbone.
I shrug. “It was high-maintenance. With school and work…you know.”
She is silent. Clouds shift across her mouth. I cannot read her expression.
We have a few drinks, me anxiously scrolling my phone each time she orders. Finally, she snatches it. “For God’s sake,” she says. “Give me that.” She taps a few keys, then shoves it deep inside my purse.
We settle the tab and wander up the street. She convinces me to dance to a corny cover band in a dimly-lit dive bar. Shouting above the music, my voice feels dusty. Like dust is being shaken off.
Hours later, on the bus ride home, I lean my flushed cheek against her shoulder.
We stumble into the apartment, laughing, and flop down on my unmade bed. I stare at the ceiling, remembering how I used to see creatures in its slender cracks, how I used to give them names like constellations.
Cloud Girl sits up. “Come here,” she says. She is holding a brush. I sit up too. She starts brushing my hair.
She speaks as she works, telling me things, some that are true, some not. She says when I was young, I wanted to be the first painter in space so I could grind pigment from moonrock. She says the shards of the cider I dropped burrowed deep into the earth and sprouted new species of flowers. In the darkness, these stories feel the same, and with each brushstroke, I feel my hair growing longer.
She brushes until I fall asleep, faintly aware that my limbs are coiled in yards of polished hair. When I wake up, the sky is glowing rose and vivid amber. When I wake up, there’s a text from you.
In our dream band, on lyre:
Catherine Kyle is the author of Fulgurite (Cornerstone Press, forthcoming), Shelter in Place (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), which received an honorable mention for the Idaho Book of the Year Award, and other collections. Her writing has appeared in Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, and other journals, and has been honored by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, the Alexa Rose Foundation, and other organizations. She was the winner of the 2019-2020 COG Poetry Award, a finalist for the 2021 Mississippi Review Prize in poetry, and a finalist for the 2021 Pinch Literary Awards. She is an assistant professor at DigiPen Institute of Technology, where she teaches creative writing and literature.