“I like raw sugar sprinkled on my nipples,” Heather said, smiling, her lips glistening with maple syrup from her pancakes. Her voice matched her name, subtle flowers covering a hillside. Her last name was Honeysuckle and her perfume scented the air around her like the flowers in spring. She took another bite of pancakes and chewed. People at work, including Jonathon, who sat across from her in Weber’s Diner, wondered why she wasn’t morbidly obese. She ate whatever she wanted whenever she wanted it; chocolate maple bars, fresh baked cinnamon rolls, banana splits overflowing with whipped cream. Instead she was a tall waif who eschewed flaunting her looks.
Heather had a nighttime obsession. Once the sun dropped behind the coast range, she’d disappear into the darkness and run for miles, only to be seen by the occasional flash of passing headlights: thin legs, reflective shoes, skinny top showing off her pierced bellybutton. She wore a crystal in it the size of a marble that sparkled when the light hit it right.
Heather really liked Jonathon. He laughed at her jokes and made her laugh in kind, and he was cute in a pudgy sort of way. Everyone at the bakery where they both worked was pudgy. It came with the job, a nibble here, a nibble there. What’s another croissant with your coffee in the morning or during your afternoon break? Another pastry, or a donut, and your belly button sank deeper and deeper until it swallowed up whatever you had it pierced with. But not Heather, though Jonathon was pushing past pudgy. She was trying to think of a nice way to put it. She wanted one of those phrases that said fat but meant important, like his weight gave him gravitas, but Jonathon didn’t have gravitas. She would’ve thought he was gay if she didn’t know he wasn’t. He was the jolly fat man who loved to tease.
“What about your nipples? Are they sensitive, too?” she asked.
He was thinking about Heather’s nipples and how sensitive they might be. He didn’t care about his own. As far as he was concerned he didn’t have any. “Oh yes, very sensitive, the slightest breeze and they—” but he wasn’t talking about his own.
“Shut up! I can’t help it.” Her nipples always drew glances and comments in the bakery. The ovens kept the room warm, so when she’d step outside to cool off, she’d return with grapes in her shirt. “My mother used to make me wear Band Aids. Until even she gave up and stopped noticing. Well, are they?”
“Sensitive?” He sipped his coffee. “I don’t have nipples. I was abducted by aliens as a child and they stole them. I wonder what they needed them for. Maybe they collect them.”
“If I were you, I’d be running scared. You’re sporting the jewels of their collection.”
“People don’t sport nipples.”
“Ah yes, but not everyone is you. Believe me, you sport them.”
Their conversation paused as they ate, and then Heather asked, “Have you had any more of those weird dreams recently?” She tore open a packet of sugar, poured it over her moistened finger into her coffee and stuck her finger in her mouth with a wink at him. “Well?”
“Not since the silver Elvis.” He’d had a string of vivid dreams lately, all of them entailing small, two-legged creatures running about his bedroom. He’d wake up and in that state between being asleep and not yet fully awake, the little devils would scatter and try to hide, but then as he became fully awake they would fade into the dim light and were no longer there. He didn’t know what to make of these experiences so he used them to entertain his friends. Silver Elvis was a small guy wearing a shiny silver suit, like Elvis used to wear for his Las Vegas shows, that Jonathon had woken up to sitting on his bed. When Silver Elvis saw that he’d been spotted he jumped off the bed and hid at the foot of it. He wasn’t very good at hiding, but he was saved by Jonathon coming fully awake.
Another time he woke to see a small monkey in a Day-Glo pink spacesuit crawling across his ceiling. When it saw him move in his bed below, it zipped down the hall ceiling like a crab on speed and disappeared into the bathroom, never to be seen again. It wore gold goggles that went well with the suit. These dreams were strange, but they didn’t trouble him, even if they were a little too real. He’d had others that were disturbing that he didn’t use as fodder for his funny stories, true X-Files material that he pushed out of his mind as a result of too much pizza before going to bed.
Heather stirred her coffee, took a sip, and then added more cream. If she was going to drink it, it had to be just right. She sensed Jonathon wanted something from her. He’d been more attentive recently, a little too focused on her. She hoped he hadn’t gotten a crush on her. She didn’t want to lose him as a friend because he thought he was falling in love with her when it was really just because he was horny and she was the kind of woman who gave men wood. She stared at him without saying anything.
“What?” he asked.
Not one to leave it be, she said, “Do you have a crush on me?”
He was hesitant. “If I do, is that bad?”
“I knew it. Damn it.”
“Heather, I’ve had a crush on you since I first saw you. I’m a guy and you’re gorgeous. Every guy at work has a crush on you and at one point or another has said how much they’d love to slip it to you. Something would be wrong with me if I didn’t have a crush on you.” He stopped and smiled at her. “Why? Do you have a crush on me? Because that would complicate things. I don’t like to shit where I eat. You’ve probably confused love for lust.” He put his palms on his belly and gave it a lift. “If I’d known you were a chubby chaser.”
“Slip it to me?”
* * *
The night passed under her feet like a fast-flowing creek in spring. She moved through the fog, an apparition of the night, her footfalls landing almost without sound. The loop at the top of the hill was a different world. She went around it in a meditative state, a feather in the wind. She ran by the houses with their people buttoned up inside, tucked into their beds under their electric blankets, sleeping or dreaming or struggling to do one but not the other. Heather dreamed, but she dreamed when she was awake and rarely when she was asleep. She once dreamed of being a country music singer in the 1950s. In the dream she was in her car listening to herself sing on the radio. She was singing about a guy she exchanged glances with at a bus station whom she thought was the one but who got on a different bus so she never found out if he had been.
Heather didn’t listen to music when she ran. She followed the sound of her feet, her breaths, the wind through her thoughts. She didn’t want lyrics to direct where they went. Her thoughts were her own and she rarely felt like piggy-backing on someone else’s. People’s minds were filled with other people’s thoughts enough as it was; what was popular, what wasn’t, or who. There were miniskirt fads, black nail polish fixations, mullets, metrosexuals. She wondered how much of people’s thoughts were their own and not absorbed opinions of others. Top one hundred lists like “America’s Most Powerful Opinion Makers,” made her wince. That was her gripe with television. Its main purpose seemed to be to shape people’s opinions, and in some cases not only to shape them but to create the thoughts that led to the opinions. When she quit watching television she lost a lot of common ground with people. She no longer kept up with the imaginary people’s lives and couldn’t discuss them while kneading bread dough with the others. When she listened to the others talk about them she had to remind herself that they were talking about people who weren’t real. If people were talking about something that never happened, did their conversation ever happen? She’d tease herself with thoughts like that, which only made her more estranged from the conversation. When she brought up real things in conversation it only proved to be uncomfortable, so she learned to keep her thoughts to herself and talk about sugar on her nipples instead.
* * *
It was true. Jonathon had fallen in love with her and he knew it was bad for their friendship. It was becoming difficult to be around her, and it wasn’t just lust, though he did lust after her. The jolly fat man and the hot chick wasn’t going to happen. People said looks weren’t important but everyone knew that was bullshit. He’d have to be rich and she’d have to sell her soul for his riches. The state of his body revealed a lot about how he felt about his life, about himself and where he wanted to go.
He was at an impasse. He knew he could take out his frustration and his unrequited love in his usual way by eating another donut and packing on a few more pounds—he’d gained thirty-five since meeting her—but he couldn’t con himself with that any longer. That feeling of being satiated on calories wasn’t cutting it anymore. It was time to make a break and he felt it inside, so he put the donut back in the box with the rest of the dozen and closed the lid. He was going to have to find an activity other than eating to take the edge off his frustration and loneliness.
* * *
She ran through the night fog, eddies swirling in the light under the street lamps behind her. She was rapidly overtaking another runner ahead of her, a big man trudging along at a methodical, determined pace. She smiled at the sight of someone else nutty enough to run at night in terrible conditions. As she passed the man a sideway glimpse reminded her of Jonathon, but that couldn’t be, and she was soon far ahead and her thoughts were elsewhere.