Safe Love

A short story by Francesca Lia Block

[ This story is from the October 1999 issue of Seventeen magazine ]

I couldn't bring myself to ask. I bought lasagna noodles, spinach, onions, olives, garlic, red leaf lettuce, tomato sauce, soy cheese, tofu, a phallic-looking sourdough baguette. When I was about to pay, I kind of mumbled.

"What?" the lady said.

"Do you have any condoms?"

She went over to another counter and came back with a pack.

"Are these okay?"

"Yes, fine." I didn't even look. I walked out into the steam. The day clung to my skin like a nylon turtleneck dress. The air smelled of rotting garbage. There were lakes of sweat on men's shirt backs. But it didn't matter.

When you're in love, things are different. You still see Willy shaking, crumpled in a heap, begging for change, wearing a T-shirt torn at the heart. You see the man with the eyeballs like swirly pale-blue marbles muttering how he's going to kill you. You see the girl asleep on the bench, trying to rest by day so at night she can keep her eyes wide open on the street. But it doesn't send you back across the river to your room in your father's house to cry for 24 hours. It doesn't make you consider the possibilities of Prozac.

I give Willy and the girl some money. I cross the street away from Devil Eyes. There are pastel patent leather Maryjanes in the shoe store window and carts selling frozen lemonades and French tourists sitting at outdoor cafes looking very tan and languid, supping (some people sup) ・and there is a Picasso show at the Metropolitan. Of course, when you are not in love you just see how Picasso took all those beautiful women ・too many to remember, those Doras and Francoises and Olgas ・and how he broke their perfection into hard fragments and shredded their lips so their mouths were just xylophones of teeth and knocked their eyes to the other side of their heads. But if you are in love you see the work of a man who never rested, whose fingers exploded with color, who drew his women in all their tenderness and winged eyelid beauty. Who even at his worst was a sort of god who knew that death lives inside everything and couldn't pretend anything else and fought it every second.

Unless you are Eloise Opiate who sees those things all the time. Eloise would say, It's not being in love that does it. Just love.

Eloise Opiate is a goddess. Her birth was mystical. After her father was told he was infertile her mother became pregnant with Eloise. This daughter whose skin smelled of gardenias and whose eyes were the color of cornflowers. This daughter who grew into a woman almost six feet tall, with curls to her waist and huge feet and hands covered with paint.

I run up the stairs to Eloise's apartment and let myself in. It's like a hothouse. It smells like wet petals. Eloise's paintings are on the walls. The paintings are of flowers and melons and tigers and birthday cakes and angels and girls in dresses but they might as well be paintings of lovers making love. One of the paintings is of a boy with long, flowing golden hair and glow-in-the-dark eyes. He looks just like Eloise and his name is Botticelli. When Eloise first met him she thought she had found her other half, the missing part of herself, but Botticelli said, "You are the most complete person I've ever met. You don't need anything." And then he moved away. On the mirror in coral lipstick Eloise has written LIFE IS THE BIG ROMANCE. I see my face underneath.

I take the condoms out of the bag to look at them. Black and gold box, very fancy. They say MAGNUM JUMBO EXTRA LARGE SIZE.

Oh, my God, Eeyore will freak! I think. Not that I know. I mean they might fit. I met Eeyore in Central Park at the beginning of the summer when it looked like someone was sifting golden light through a giant sieve in the sky, baking some kind of special cake. He was sitting by the angel fountain washing his feet. He had a strong, tan neck, like a horse, and sloping muscular arms in a white undershirt. He had a pierced eyebrow and a big nose and a narrow face and sad eyes that turned down at the corners. Beautiful girlish lips, crooked teeth.

"Hey, Tigger," he said.

I was practicing some dance moves with Eloise. I guess I reminded him of Tigger bouncing around or something.

"Hey, Eeyore," I said back.

I guess he liked this. I always called him Eeyore after that. I don't know his real name.

We hung out a lot. Eloise and I brought him pretzels and sodas and apples. We played music on the boom box and danced for him. He rode his skateboard around the fountain. His jeans were so big that sometimes it just looked like these giant pants tearing around. He taught me to ride, too.

I asked Eeyore about where he came from, but all he said was, "All over." And then he wanted to hear about me.

He liked to hear it over and over again. The yellow and white wood frame house by the creek. Sitting on the porch watching the heron on the lake. The bulbs in the garden; the way if you held them up close you could almost hear the flowers stirring around, whispering about popping out. The wood-burning stove toasting your toes on cold nights. My dad counseling kids in his office, letting them arrange dragons and ballerinas and robots in sand trays to make them feel better. My mom baking her breads. The way they let me smoke a little pot if I wanted. The dense green woods by our house with the squirrels and the deer and the one owl. How Eloise and I would run there in pools of moonlight, howling. During deer hunting season we'd put on our orange capes and run after the deer hunters, screaming that they better not touch any deer while we were around. We campaigned and saved the woods when people were going to chop down the trees and build a shopping center. Eloise swore she saw nature spirits glinting in the leaves and glowering in the roots.

"It's like a fairy tale." Eeyore said. "I can't believe it."

I was embarrassed. I said, "It's not perfect. My parents can be a little clutchy sometimes. They always feel the need to participate."

"They love you. I think it sounds like just the right place."

"Come over."

"Maybe some other time."

But I had gotten Eeyore to agree to letting me make him dinner at Eloise's. Eeyore comes over at five after eight. I buzz him in and flap around the room while he comes up. I feel like I have to touch everything ・my hair, my lips, the candles, the extra-large condoms ・like a blessing.

Eeyore is there in a bouquet of flowers. He holds them out in front of himself. They are frilly-looking pink, white and china blue flowers, dripping with rain. I don't know their name.

"I found them in the Dumpster behind the flower store," Eeyore says. "I wish I could have brought you fresh ones. You're probably used to way nicer in your garden."

"They're awesome."

He grins. His hair, wet from the rain, is falling into his face.

He says, "You look pretty."

I'm wearing a little dress with sunflowers on it and platform sandals. I got the dress at this tiny boutique of cute, tiny dresses run by a boy and a girl who had a slight resemblance to Hello Kitty. I walked in one day, but when I went back the store was gone. Maybe I just forgot where it was or it disappeared like magic. At least I have the sunflower dress. I've painted my fingernails and toenails silver.

"I hope you're hungry," I say.

"It smells amazing," says Eeyore.

I've made vegan lasagna. I also made garlic bread and a big green salad with olive oil and basalmic vinegar dressing and steamed broccoli and carrots. It's kind of a wintry meal, but I wanted to make something hearty and good because Eeyore doesn't really eat enough.

We eat a lot and drink the red wine I'd sort of borrowed from my parents' wine cellar. I feel all loopy and happy. We lie on the floor by the fan, looking up at Eloise's collection of vintage dresses hanging from the ceiling, billowing like ghosts. I am staring at the shredded cream lace wedding dress with the satin rosettes at the shoulders.

"That was so wonderful. Thank you so much," Eeyore says. "Where'd you learn to cook like that?"

"My mom is an amazing vegetarian cook," I say. "You should come over for dinner sometime. I could show you the woods we saved."

Eeyore says, "You really believe you can change things, don't you?"

"Of course," I say. "Magic is entirely possible. But it takes work to know it. Magic is in everything. Our culture just doesn't value it."

This is something Eloise has taught me. She told me that once, when she was in Bali, there were ants crawling on her toothbrush. She asked some people what to do about it and they told her to pray to the ants, to make an altar with a little leaf and ask the ants to leave. She did and the ants left in a little parade.

I tell this to Eeyore.

"Cool," he says. "Ants are cool. I never kill ants. When I was a kid I'd always take them outside in a paper cup."

"See," I say. "You believe in the magic of things, too. You just don't always admit it."

"But we're different. It's like you're not afraid of anything," he says.

"What are you afraid of?" I whisper.

He lies very still, almost like he's not breathing. "Lots of things."

"Like what?" I want to touch his large shadow-puppet hands.

"Like shoes lying in the middle of highways ・you know like when you drive by and see a shoe lying there all by itself? I mean, what is that? It's creepy. I'm afraid of rubber gloves in the gutter."

"Those are pretty scary," I say.

"I'm afraid of getting locked in bathrooms," says Eeyore. "Right before I go out of the bathroom sometimes I just panic, thinking, What if I can't get out of here. I always have to check for an escape route whenever I go into a bathroom. I'm kind of a lunatic, huh?"

"I don't think so," I say. "You probably have a very good reason for being afraid of that. Even though there's no reason anymore."

"You're a rather wise Tigger," he says.

I take off my sandals and wiggle my toes at him. He laughs and grabs my foot. When he touches me I feel my cells light up like strings of Christmas lights. Then he notices the tiny seam-scars on my ankles.

"What's this from, Tigg?" he asks.

"When I was a baby I got this weird fever all of a sudden and my dad rushed me to the hospital. I had spinal meningitis. But they caught it in time. They had to feed me intravenously, but the veins in my arms were too tiny, so they had to feed me through my ankles."

He runs his finger along the ridge of one of the scars. "It looks like you had wings there," he says.

"I feel like that sometimes. I felt like that today, running around the city."

"Blue wings. Like the painting we saw in the Met. The Garden of Eden one."

I know which one he means. It is called The Creation of the World and Expulsion From Paradise. An angel is pushing Adam and Eve out from a cluster of golden, fruited trees. God has all these angels with blue wings surrounding him. You don't notice the angels' faces at first, so it looks like all the wings are God's. God is pointing to the earth, which is a big blue circle with lots of colored circles around it. It looks like some kind of target. Like God is targeting the world as much as creating it.

Eeyore and Eloise and I had a long talk about that painting. I didn't think God should have sent Adam and Eve out of the garden for just one apple.

Eeyore said, "But what could he do? He told them not to do this one thing and they didn't listen."

Eloise said, "I think I'll paint a new version, where they get to stay. Paradise is a possibility."

I loved all the blue wings, but the painting made me sad, and a little afraid.

"I'm afraid, too," I say to Eeyore now. "Sometimes I have these weird thoughts. I think that maybe I was supposed to die when I was a baby. And because I didn't, all this time, it's like bonus time or something. Like I'd better be good to deserve this...reprieve."

"Wrong," Eeyore says, almost like he's mad. "It means you're blessed and strong and that you were supposed to live."

"When I met you I thought maybe that was true," I say. "Like it was meant. And that's why I didn't die then."

Eeyore lets go of my ankles and scoots up to me along Eloise's rose-and-vine covered braid rug and flings his arms around my head. My heart feels like the nest Eloise and I found in the woods once. It was filled with tiny blue eggs.

"Are you going to come live with me?" I ask.

Eeyore opens one sad brown eye. It's like looking at a reflection of my own eye up close in the mirror. I wonder if he is my other half, the one I lost.

"You can come live with me and my mom and dad. Everyone says they're the coolest parents. You could stay in the guesthouse."

"You are a wild thing," Eeyore says.

"Well, what do you say?"

"I can't Tigg.."

"Why not?"

"I just can't. I'm leaving."

I push the hair back from his long, sad face. My heart feels like the bird someone shot down in the wood by my house, this pile of falling bloody feathers.

"I wish you could come with me," he says.

It has started to rain outside, a green steam forest falling from the sky. The wet, dirty smell comes in through the windows. The streetlights shine blurry and gold like they look when I cry.

"I could."

But we both know this isn't true. I'm going to study psychology and dance at NYU next year. I'm not ready to leave my family yet. Or the woods or Eloise.

Eeyore says, "You are going to do important things with your life. You are going to save people and forests and stuff."

He kisses my forehead. His hair smells like rain.

Then I say, "Are we going to make love?"

"Your first time shouldn't be with someone like me," says Eeyore.

"My first time?"

"Well, isn't it?"

"Technically, I guess," I say. "But why not?"

"I've been around a lot," Eeyore says.

He looks up at Eloise's grandfather clock with the big bright eyes and goofy smile. "I better go," he says.

I get up and walk into Eloise's bedroom. It's really just a closet with a bed covered in tapestry and damask pillows and vintage dresses hanging from the ceiling. I pull the black and gold condoms out from under the pillow and come back in and hold them out to Eeyore.

He squints at me.

"I got them just in case," I say. "I didn't really notice about the size thing. You can keep them."

Eeyore laughs. "Thanks, Tigg. Thank you for everything."

"Be safe," I tell him.

He bows and kisses my fingertips. "I know about safe sex. Safe love is the hard thing. I wish they made that kind of protection."

When he is gone I think I may cry. But I don't. There is the strangest feeling of calm. I know Eloise will be home in the morning with vegan blueberry muffins and a cantaloupe. She will say, "Sabrina, your love must not depend on sad-eyed boys. You can be in love with sunflower dresses and vegan lasagna and Rice Krispie Treats and rain and skateboarding and Martha Graham and angel fountains. Then the sad-eyed boys will come. Eventually their fear will fade and they will come." Eloise is in love with Botticelli, but she is also in love with everything. Her mother left her and her father and now he lives alone. Smoking and smoking, writing stories about what happened to him in the concentration camps. He weeps every night, Eloise tells me. But his daughter was born laughing with her hands open, outstretched to the world. Eloise just falls in love with everything again and again.

LIFE IS THE BIG ROMANCE, it says on Eloise Opiate's mirror.