The sky was lightening outside, and the few birds in that part of the city had started to shriek at each other, but it was habit that opened Alena’s eyes. Her small apartment was devoid of a good heater, and now that summer drew to a close, it was chilly in the mornings. Nonetheless, she slipped out of bed and padded across the carpet to her closet, and wrapped a silk dressing gown around her unclothed body. Alena cast a look at the one night stand still sleeping on the other pillow, at the pale blonde hair. It would not do to wake them. She would stay out of sight and allow them to find their own way out.
A jug of iced coffee stood in the fridge, and Alena pulled it out, balancing it in the same hand as the black and white chipped mug. Her other hand held a small plate of biscuits, baked the day before and fresh enough, or at least, they were not stale. Careful to not make any noise, Alena slid open the door to the balcony with her foot, and put her spoils on the white cafe table before closing it again.
It was colder outside. Goosebumps appeared everywhere on Alena’s skin, and her dressing gown might’ve not even been there, but she welcomed it, appreciating the chill. It was hardly painful, but the discomfort woke a part of her that had become complacent. Alena took a swallow of her iced coffee, and the last of the warmth from the bed fled from her stomach as the cold of the drink poured itself down her throat.
The west horizon had become that curious eggshell color that signaled dawn, yet the sun had not yet risen. In the east, past the city lights and into the hills, the sky was still a dark blue with a few faint stars. It was her time of day, Alena’s, when there was light that wasn’t burning and people who were not awake. It hadn’t rained the night before, and while that left her table and chairs dry, it deprived her of the wonderful feeling of freshly washed streets. No matter, though, she thought, and broke a biscuit, the flower-boxes wouldn’t need watering for a few more days anyways.
A tennis ball flew past her and bounced against the wall, ricocheting back into her table, where it rolled to the ground and off of her balcony. Quickly dusting crumbs off her hands and chest, Alena looked over the railing and caught sight of wide green eyes staring back at her. She rolled her own in response, and pulled away from the edge. Sure enough, within a matter of minutes, the tennis ball tosser had climbed three flights of the fire escape and was now just a balcony away.
“Hector, you dumbass,” Alena muttered, and Hector grinned before stepping across the gap from railing to railing and landing on her balcony.
“If you didn’t want me to come calling, you could have ignored the tennis ball.”
Alena sighed. “It almost knocked over my coffee. Now shush. I have a guest.”
Hector obediently shushed himself by snatching her mug and drinking the better part of its contents, but his eyes narrowed at her.
“You entertaining again?”
“Hardly. I left that behind long ago.”
“But you didn’t leave everything behind.” He glanced at her barely concealed form. “Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m not going to stop anytime soon, Hector.”
“Maybe one day?”
“But you won’t wait that long.” Alena tipped back her chair to look inside her room. The blonde had left, and with a rumpled bed in their wake.
“I’ll wait as long as you want me to. How is the petition going?”
“How much do you actually care?” But he did, she knew. He cared more about her than she did for herself, and Hector knew that she knew that. He sighed and ran his fingers through his sandy hair, eyes finally leaving her. Alena took another biscuit and chewed it carefully, brushing crumbs off her bare legs.
The eastern horizon was ivory now.
Alena stood, and before Hector could react, straddled his lap and kissed him on his cheekbone. Her dressing gown swung open, and Hector’s hands came up automatically to rest on her hips. The metal of her café chair was cold and hard against her hands and knees, and goose bumps had formed on her arms and chest, but the ember of warmth that the coffee had taken away reformed.
Hector raised his head and kissed her on the mouth now, but pulled away before she could return it.
“Don’t tease, Alena.”
“I’m not. I promise.”
Across the street, Alena knew, the young girl finishing college was waking up with her face towards the window, and below them on the street a lamplighter was putting out the lights in full view of her balcony, but Alena shrugged off her dressing robe and let it fall, leaning into Hector’s form. She looked at her flowers.
There was an excess of unanswered questions in Alena’s life. Who was God, really? Did she actually like popcorn, or was it just convenient at the movie theatres? Would her parents ever stop trying to make her move out of Troy? Was her petition for a tax break on feminine hygiene products nothing more than a hopeless dream? Did the judges take her less seriously when she wore makeup to court or when she didn’t?
The judge this time was a past-forty man, harsh in the face and with a loud, carrying voice. Her defendant, a woman charged with child neglect by her spurned boyfriend, wore makeup at all times. Alena herself, barely out of law school and uncomfortably young, walked into every courtroom in glossy black heels; would the judge think her blood-red lipstick presumptuous, improper for the occasion? Would a bare face be held in contempt, her arguments dismissed as the bitterness of an unattractive, unwanted woman if she was found ugly without makeup? How thin was the line she walked on?
Alena narrowed her eyes at the mirror and raised her lipstick wand. As she smeared the dark pink over her mouth, she remembered the young mother’s reddened lips pleading with her to keep her from imprisonment. The woman was beautiful. It was a difficult case. The jury would see her as a shallow, vain woman who didn’t care for her child, and unfaithfully ran off with another man.
“I didn’t love my boyfriend,” the woman had told her. “He controlled me, forced me to stay with him. It wasn’t my choice to have a child either, in the beginning.”
Alena had encouraged her not to repeat that. Women who didn’t want their children weren’t usually smiled upon.
“I saw my chance to escape and took it. He never treated our daughter badly, but I knew he wouldn’t have let me leave with her.”
“He didn’t exactly just let you leave,” Alena pointed out.
“No,” the woman replied. She sucked on her bottom lip. “And now he wants revenge.”
Alena capped the lipstick again, and grabbed her keys. Whatever the woman’s boyfriend wanted, she’d be dammed if the woman or her daughter had to suffer from pettiness. Evidence suggested that the man was abusive, and no matter her own judgements about the woman’s problem-solving skills, she knew the kid shouldn’t be left with her father.
Heels clicking, Alena left her apartment with painted lips set in a straight, tight line.
Uriah hated her, Alena though often. It was entirely true. Uriah hated her for the same reason that Andrea did, and Hector’s parents, but it was Uriah who scared her the most. No matter how much the golden-haired man loved Hector, it wasn’t enough to extend any concern to Alena. She was sure that if a cliff crumbled beneath her, Uriah would watch with cold amber eyes. No smile would even cross his face, because he would barely acknowledge her fall.
He stood with another man now, someone tall and lean, and pale compared to Uriah. Alena knew she had seen the man before, there was something familiar the way his hair curled over his temples, or how his grey eyes flashed around like he was watching a hummingbird. Long fingers tapped the wall with unmistakably pent up energy as he spoke with Uriah in low voices. For all that Alena was only ten feet away, she could make out nothing.
It was odd seeing him here. Uriah, with his gold highlighted hair and glowing eyes, skin a semblance to black coral jewelry, was entirely too beautiful for a place like this. He valued beauty, the girl knew. He drove a sleek car, had a golden iPod filled with dazzling music, wore clothes of the highest class, spent hours sketching anything he had time for and photographing everything he could not. He was an exquisite person, so Alena couldn’t fathom why he had appeared in the Nightmare, the bar she slummed on Thursday evenings.
Alena looked at the other man again, recalling something. She had gone home with him one night. He was a fast talker, and still somehow a smooth one, his flirtatious nature mixing with a dimpled smile to form a dangerous combination.
She scoffed at herself, and signaled the bartender to bring her another drink. Looking back at the pair, she noticed Uriah had disappeared, walking to the bathroom. Before she could glance away, the other man turned and caught her eye. He smiled at her, and she returned it, a sly smirk. He slid off his stool and sauntered over to her.
“Good to see you again,” he remarked.
“Good to see you at all,” she returned. “Your name’s slipped my mind.”
“Jamie. And yours?”
“Alena. Do you want to sit?”
“I’d love to.” He took the stool next to her. “You have a plan for this evening?”
“Just getting something nice to drink, looking for some company.”
“I’m not surprised,” sneered a voice behind her. She turned to see that Uriah had returned.
“Alena,” he nodded, eyebrow arching.
“Uriah,” she replied.
“You two know each other,” Jamie observed.
Alena nodded. “We have a mutual friend. Hector.”
“Hector sees fit to associate with Alena,” Uriah corrected. “How do you know her, Jamie?”
“Well, uh, we met briefly a month ago or so. Here, in fact.”
Uriah sighed, before grabbing another stool from the side of Alena to sit on. “Sounds like something Alena would be doing, establishing residence at a bar to pick up men. Hector still isn’t good enough for you, I suppose?”
“Hector is a wonderful person,” Alena said pointedly. “My relationship with Hector is where I want it to be, and has nothing to do with you.”
“I could not care less about your relationship with Hector, except that I wish it didn’t exist. I haven’t the slightest idea why he still permits himself to hang around you especially considering his mother’s feelings on the matter, but I suppose he always has been more fond of useless trinkets than I’ve ever understood.” Uriah took a slow sip of his beer.
“Careful, you sound jealous. Besides, Hector’s managed to like you, so I’m probably not too much of a struggle.”
“I’m a far cry from the little rich girl that ran away to preach feminism,” drawled Uriah. “By the way, how is that going for you? Come to your senses yet?”
“Gotten laid yet?” Alena returned. “Or do you keep making the mistake of speaking?”
“Alright,” Jamie interjected. “Nice talking to you, Alena, we’ll leave you alone now. Good luck with your plans tonight.”
“Slut,” hissed Uriah as he glided away.
Alena rolled her eyes, and the bartender put down her drink in front of her.
The courtroom was a little bit blurry, lines doubling in her sight as she tried to stare across the room. After the previous night, she had been disgusted by Uriah enough to go straight home and work at her petition until she was falling asleep at four in the morning. As a result, her vision swam from time to time, and her fingers were warm from the monstrous cup of coffee she had bought on her way here.
Even with her client next to her, afraid, and the prosecution barely feet away, Alena’s mind kept running over Uriah’s anger. She knew it had started when she first arrived in Troy and had won Hector’s friendship. She knew he scorned her championing of women’s rights, and had been furious when Hector’s girlfriend Andrea had broken up with him and he and Alena had grown closer. His bitterness towards her had not lessened in all the time she and Hector had been friends, and even more upsetting, his friendship with Hector had never weakened. Alena feared it, because even though she knew Hector loved her, she saw parts of Uriah peeking through him, some in contempt of her work, in some moments where Hector laughed at her opinions or dismissed her as being a silly woman. So Uriah hated Alena, but Alena feared him.
“You’d burn the city for your own selfishness,” he told her once. “You do nothing but make good men miserable, and shout for violence and chaos.”
“I’d give my life for what you’re calling selfishness,” she replied. “Good men and women are already miserable. There’s already chaos and violence. I’m just talking about it.”
Her client next to her tapped manicured fingers rapidly on the table, nervous beyond Alena’s ability to comfort her. The trial hadn’t gone well; the prosecuting lawyer had been able to explain away all suspicions of abuse, and the boyfriend had told a heart-wrenching account of explaining to his daughter why her mother hadn’t come home.
The jury filed back into the room, and Alena felt her hand grabbed by the woman’s. She squeezed back, holding firmly. It was all she could do offer support at this point.
“Guilty,” came the declaration, and Alena almost felt the bones of her hand crack from the force of the other woman’s grip.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking at her. She wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Alena nearly broke a nail on CVS’s door, shoving it open with all the anger and frustration she hadn’t dared to use to slam closed the door of her ancient car. The cashier looked at her like he might call the police. Alena headed straight to the last aisle, grabbed a gallon of ice cream, a bottle of wine, and a tin of Pirouettes, and stomped back to the register.
“How is your night?” Asked the cashier, fumbling the scanner.
“Shitty. Don’t ask,” Alena replied. She handed her credit card to him and tapped her unbroken nails impatiently until she could snatch the plastic bag of goods, exiting as dramatically as she entered.
Reaching her car, she barely sat in her seat before cracking open the Pirouettes. In the dark, exactly between two streetlamps, she ate three of the cookies before contemplating what a sad picture she must paint. Rejection and defeat! A lone woman masking her sadness with chocolate.
Before she could drive home, the door to her car opened and a hand, heavy and punishing, pulled her out into the street.
“What the fu-“
A slap cut her words off and she tasted blood in her mouth.
“Let me go!” she cried.
“Shut up, bitch,” his dark voiced growled. The hard hood of her car, and hands again, bruising against her wrists. She saw his face and spat in it, and started to scream. Her gift for her efforts was another strike, this time against the side of her head, and stunned, she fell limp onto the cold metal. All she could do was feel the hands, over her mouth, on her chest, ripping at her skirt, the hands, the hands, hands, hands.
Do you want to know what it’s like to be introverted? Imagine you are at a pool; music playing, people laughing. You splash your way around, treading on the tips of your toes. Floating. Each separate noise calls your attention, bright and bold in color. Everything you hear is outside of you.
Now put your head underwater. The water surrounds you, your ears are blanketed and sealed. If you can hear anything, it’s the rush of bubbles and current. Back and forth across the pool. Back and forth, back and forth. Swimming, you’ll move fast enough to never break the surface, but long enough to start thinking. Underwater, the loudest thing is your mind. The bubbles and current fade into white noise. The only distraction from laps are your thoughts, and the only thing you listen to is yourself. No matter what you say, good, bad, truth, lies, you listen to yourself the most.
This is also, incidentally, how Alena spent her last moments.
Not underwater, exactly, but alone. Listening to herself. Quiet. Above her the skies had opened up and allowed sheets of rain to rush to the pavement, soaking through her dress and washing the blood off her face. The roar of drops hitting the ground and the tin roof had drowned out the noise of the nearby bar, and Alena was reminded of mornings in bed during her childhood, listening to the same thrumming rhythm. Her eyes narrowed, lashes shielding her blurred vision from the rain as she gazed at the neon red horse above The Nightmare’s door. Unable to move her head any longer, she stared at it until everything went black.
Hector was used to Alena disappearing after parties and public appearances, recessing back into her doom and gloom away from the voices of the world, but after she texted him about the previous day’s depressing defeat, he thought he should make sure she hadn’t drunk herself to death. She had never told him about her habit of going to bars and stumbling home too inebriated to take her socks off before going to sleep, but he knew, and he could guess at where she had been last night. So, he intended to finish his bagel, walk to her apartment, and bang on her door until she let him in to make soup for her, but the daily newspaper’s headline threw a wrench in his plans.
There is something odd about learning about the death of someone you love from a newspaper. From another person, you believe it sooner. It hits you harder, it gives you another soul to hang on to. From words on paper, it feels wrong. A mistake. Like a dream. Like there was another women’s rights activist and lawyer, Miss Alena Perez, age twenty-seven, who was found dead behind The Nightmare yesterday evening. Hector knew there wasn’t, but it took him a call to the paper, the police, even a number from a year ago that Alena’s father had given him when they had visited the city. Alena’s mother had answered, composed and yet dulled, and Hector wondered if they had finally forgiven Alena for moving to the city or if now they were more embittered than ever. He repeated his home phone number for her and she promised to call when the funeral had been organized.
Eventually Hector did go to Alena’s apartment. He threw a small rock at the glass door. It clattered back down to him through the metal railings, and no questioning head followed it. He climbed the fire escape anyways, stepping onto an empty balcony next to a dark room. The white chairs and table were wet from the rain the night before. He sat down in one and looked at the flower boxes, full of damp, wilted leaves. After a dry spell, the showers had come too late.
Here is Apollo in my garden
Here each flower bends to the sight of him
The chorus clamors for his touch
The golden sun-warming of our petals
How cold the night feels when he slips from our sheets
Here is careful Hermes
Watch as his words dance around me
I know the quirk of his lips all too well
I know the fickle speed of his fingers
Yet such marvelous gifts he bestows
Here is Hera, so jealous
The black ropes of her hair
Trailed across her shoulders
The poisoned webs she lays
The cunning cruelty under fine jewels
They still do not hold her king
Here is sweet, saccharine Aphrodite
The gentle tease of her fingers down my throat
Her promising, valiant smile
I break my heart onto rocks for her
She clutches the pieces at her bosom
Here is Poseidon the Earthshaker
My arms turn his ocean’s color at his touch
His cold is as vast as the seven seas
His mercy that of a hurricane’s
I am adrift and he cares not, waits for my fall
Here is the son of Priam
Born with a silver sword on his tongue
He pleased the gods and the people
The streets heralded his coming
My sheets hastened his coming
Dead with a golden sword on his skin
Here is the bane of Priam
Born with a curse on his head, truth on his lips
He pleased the gods and himself
The fires heralded his coming
My veil hastened his coming
Dead by his own reaper
Here is the face that launched a thousand ships
Whose touch savaged the city walls
Whose tears rained plagues of bitter deities
Whose thighs crushed a kingdom
Whose bosom cradled a dying throne
Here is the Lady of Troy