Zelda wakes to the sound of faraway footsteps. And a hand on her shoulder. It’s Edward.
“Hate to bug you, but the joggers have made their appearance.”
She blinks her eyes. The sky resembles a beige bedsheet. This would be the inside of Edward’s tent.
“Hope you’re feeling okay.”
Zelda pulls to her knees and conducts a cat-stretch. “Sure. Why?”
Edward scratches his temple. “I figured you must have gotten pretty drunk last night.”
Zelda looks him in the eyes. “Not at all.”
Her answer seems to make Edward uncomfortable. “Well… if you wouldn’t mind, um, I need to stash the tent.”
She settles on a flat rock as Edward conducts his morning ritual, rolling up the tent and sliding it into one of the buried cans. Zelda feels fuzzy from the lack of sleep, but the unfamiliar setting is enchanting. Fingers of fog climb the canyon, teasing the top of a eucalyptus. She peers upriver and sees the pillars of a long-ago bridge, like a mirage in the gray light.
Edward kicks leaves over the lids, then walks over to Zelda. “I don’t even know if I should ask this, but… why did you come here?”
Zelda forces her brain into a cold idle. “Okay, I… I went on a date last night. It wasn’t just that it was such a comically bad evening. It was that he was so utterly focused on his own life and his own problems that… Have you ever seen one of those plastic balls that they use for hamsters so they can walk around the room?”
“Um, okay. Yeah.”
She unfurls a hand, palm to the sky. “Like that.”
“Ferdy’s a hamster.”
“Ferdy’s a… Hey! How did you…”
“Got my sources.” Edward cups his chin, the wise-man pose. “Well. Keep in mind we’re all self-centered. That is our prime reality.”
“Yes,” says Zelda. “But most of us have feelers that reach beyond the surface of our skin to make an attempt, at least, to understand other people.”
“Okay. Yes. But empathy is a conscious intention. A discipline. You have to practice it.”
“And when you spend all your time practicing a wicked slider, not so much time for empathy.”
Edward chuckles. “I think you’re on to something.”
Zelda sighs theatrically. “Yes! And so, after I escaped the owner of the wicked slider, I wanted desperately to be with a practitioner of the art of empathy. And I remembered standing in the courtyard, talking like a vicious, crazy bitch about a man who did not in any way deserve my insults. And this man’s response was to buy the vicious, crazy bitch some licorice, because he thought she might be upset.”
“Not entirely true,” says Edward. “For the first three minutes I was actually pissed off at the vicious, crazy bitch…”
“Yeah. You caught me. But then the rational mind takes over, you jettison the ego, you tell yourself, Self, you are a fucking freak, and Zelda, who is most times very kind to you, is clearly upset over this Zarita/Jackson thing. She is the businessman who’s been yelled at by the boss, and you are the unfortunate cocker spaniel who has greeted him at the door.”
Zelda smiles. “That’s the discipline.”
Edward bows. “I am the sensei of empathy.” He takes a circular stroll in the grass, like a lawyer summing up. “Listen. Empathy can be overdone. I spent three years watching my wife’s body consume itself. If I could have hacked off my arm and gotten her body to eat that instead…” He wipes an eye and laughs. “There’s your evidence. Even now…” He turns to the eastern hillside, taking breaths, slapping a hand against his side. “So god… damn tired of this. Maybe that’s why I got so disconnected. It’s hard to be around people who are suffering, and when you’ve turned yourself into a near-psychic empath, a fucking sponge of pain… it’s… impossible.
“But then one day there’s your friend Jackson. A lot of friends would have taken a look at the raggy clothes and the hollowed-out eyes and said, Don’t want anything to do with that. Might be contagious. Might drag me down with him. Not Jackson. The man refused to let me sink. And he gave me a secret identity. He gave me a big gorilla who loves everybody excepting Dodger fans. And then this beautiful barista comes to the stadium, and Gigante does things that Edward couldn’t possibly do. And it’s weird, but I am so thankful that you got hurt.”
Zelda laughs. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
Even twenty feet away, she can see Edward shaking, fuzzy at the edges, like a time traveler about to flash into a different century.
“Because… you got… better.”
The word is consumed by whisper, and Edward begins to crumble. Zelda closes the distance and wraps him up, sending feelers into his body. A discipline. A conscious intention.
Zelda is aware that she has done a dangerous thing, that she has exposed Edward’s long-cauterized nerve endings. They walk their bikes in silence through the gray morning, under the low-hanging branches, around Lake Vasona, behind the backyards of Campbell. As the trail is about to duck under Campbell Avenue, Edward takes a rightward ramp toward the sidewalk.
“Where are you going?” asks Zelda.
“Oh. I was going to wait for you at the coffeehouse.”
“No. I want you to come to my apartment.”
They follow the trail past the Campbell Inn and up a footpath to Zelda’s stairwell. She lifts her bike and carries it up; Edward follows suit.
“Out here,” she says. “You can leave it on the balcony.”
When he re-enters, she hands him a towel featuring the Disney character Goofy.
“Sorry. It’s the only clean one I’ve got. I’m not working till one today, so take your time, scrub yourself silly. I’m going to take a little nap.”
Zelda curls up on the couch. She tries to sleep, but she hears the water gaining power in the bathroom. She has this thought: the other thing you can do for exposed nerve endings is to give them something to feel. She stands up and removes her jacket. She takes a step and removes her blouse. She runs out at the bathroom door. She reaches for the knob. It’s unlocked.
Photo by MJV