A short story I wrote for my junior-year creative writing class
Polished claws crushed the cigarette into the tray, a tail of smoke hissing in protest. Waiting was the worst pastime. Penelope hated waiting: there’s more time to think. Like a perverted incense, the cigarette corpse sat crippled among a graveyard of others, and Penelope waited.
Breathing suddenly became premeditated as the big hand inched toward two o’clock. Her nails would have been torn to shreds from anxious chewing if it weren’t for the acrylic job, a nice, shiny, baby blue. Without her nails at her disposal, she turned her anxieties to hair. Penelope had a lot of hair, a curly mane in a charming chestnut brown. She twisted the poor curls near her temple rigid, letting go to unravel a frizzy twister, only to twist it again. She held her breath as she twisted, and only breathed out when the curls were freed.
Penelope jerked her head up at the sound of knuckles on the thick door. Wiping her manicured hands on her Levi’s — not because they were clammy but because they were fidgeting to play with her hair — she walked to open the door. By the time she reached the threshold, she turned the knob with calm hands and a smile on her face; the waiting was over.
“Hello, Theresa! Please, take a seat, get comfortable,” she gestured to the plush, navy velvet couch.
A quiet “thanks” wafted over from the couch.
“I just wanted to begin with a simple ‘how are you today?’” Penelope felt her eyes soften with compassion as she gazed upon the bashful girl hiding on the couch. Penelope understood her. Every time she had a new client, and had a new first-session to undertake, she never got used to the nerves, the waiting. When she finally met eyes with whomever occupied the couch, she was able to find a rhythm, to reset into herself, and do her job.
Theresa was wonderful and painfully soft spoken. Penelope’s charming personality and affable face chipped away at Theresa’s guard. The session was almost over, and Theresa had discovered comfort in the velvet couch and Penelope’s warm hazel eyes, for she unexpectedly interjected,
“Why do you smoke if you’re a therapist?”
Penelope laughed, amused and shocked by Theresa’s voice rising above a whisper, and to be so forward. The cigarette corpses looked back at Penelope from the marble tray, posing the same question.
“Sometimes we help others before we help ourselves,” Penelope said, still eyeing the graveyard. “That is what I need to work on. Now, what homework would you like to assign yourself until we meet again? I would love it if you wrote down every major feeling you have during a day, and what directly caused it.”
Theresa eyed the tray, trying to see what Penelope was seeing, before she answered. The ladies talked until the hour was up, and as Theresa left with slightly prouder posture, she thanked “Miss Penelope.”
“Please, Theresa, call me Penny.”
Billy Joel blasted into Penny’s ears as she biked back home. Parking the bicycle and locking it to her railing, Penny dug her keys out of her comically large bag and let herself into home sweet home. Coco greeted her with licks and purrs, leaving a sprinkle of white fur on her pant leg. Penny untied her Chuck Taylors and threw them across the room, wiggling her purple-socked toes as she threw herself onto the easy chair.
She took out a cigarette without her mind telling her hand to, and lit the beautiful stick of tobacco. With her first drag, she felt her entire body decompress, and her eyes closed as she exhaled. The sun illuminated the smoky apartment, which looked more like a jungle than anything. Penny had plants and vines and flowers hanging from every wall and ceiling space. Ferns, cacti, and succulents fought for real estate among the furniture, and plush rugs hid the cement floor to try to lock out the city. The city pushed its way in from the large windows, though, with honks and screeches and hums.
Treading through the wilderness to the kitchen, Penny left a trail of vapor, like a smoke signal for Coco, who padded not far behind.
“Here sweetie! Here Coco!” She opened a can of tuna for the kitty to conquer.
Returning with a glass of wine in hand and cigarette in mouth, Penelope decided to finish her latest endeavor: painting the emotion of curiosity, intrigue. She had been working on this particular piece for a couple of months now. Her days at NYU had taught her that translating the ambiguity of emotion into art was within reach, and from then on she had set about to conquer visual emotion. The few crevices where plants did not claim, Penny’s art did; collages, portraits, sculptures, embroideries, crafts, all made her apartment like a museum. A jungle museum. She chuckled.
Cigarette dying away between her pretty lips, Penny went to the window to uncover her easel and master curiosity, tying her mane back in a braid, until she stopped dead in her purple socks, almost knocking over the fern. Her mouth gaped, and the cigarette jumped to its sizzling death, singing the rug.
The easel stood askew, the gorgeous silk coverlet lay in tatters at its feet, and the canvas gaped back in shreds, looking more traumatized than curious.
Screaming. That was all that filled Penelope’s ears until she realized it came from her. An endless spiral of dread drilled her stomach. Denial tried to creep in a comforting hand, but the gore of the canvas bled right before her eyes, a very real death. She fell to her knees, screaming in mourning, salty tears spoiling the oil paints that had survived the massacre. It was supposed to be her masterpiece. Over two hundred hours of mind, body, and soul had been poured into its painting and repainting, and here it laid. Dead.
Hunched over on her knees in a mess of tears and art, Penelope glared at Coco, who sensed she was in trouble and promptly slunk into the bedroom. Pure rage seared through her veins. The things closest to Penelope’s hands became projectiles, and when she picked up her beloved ashtray, her anger burned too hot to stop her from aiming at the window. The glass shattered with a shriek as the shards rained on the sidewalk below; Penelope screamed in response. The remaining glass in the window sent refracted reflections of sunlight onto the floor, making a dazzling mockery of her shredded canvas.
Tears of mascara tore down her beautiful, golden skin, and her sharp nose grew puffy with tears. Fiery fury burned hot in her cheeks, and the usually picturesque woman turned into a frightening clown. The rest of her Natural American Spirit pack was smoked, and with nowhere to place the crumpled cigarette butts, the gorgeous wood table received countless smolders.
Twist, unravel, twist, unravel. Penelope’s hair almost began falling out until she moved to gnawing at those invincible baby blue claws.
“Hello, Miss Viya.”
Penelope’s eyes shot up to meet cool gray ones. The eyes outstretched a welcoming hand. She stood and shook it. Her hands calmed as soon as she shook his big, steady one. She smiled.
“I’m Dr. Friedan, pleased to meet you! Please, come in,” he gestured with the same welcoming hand. Penelope walked into his office, her eyes immediately landing on the big, comfy couch.
“Please, make yourself at home.”