Fiction from Simon Phillips
The Hero’s Return
Maybe you won’t believe me but it’s true—I had that thing happen to me we all fear. Sometimes we play the scenario out in our twisted minds to torture ourselves, like the sore on your tongue you scrape with your teeth because really you like the pain. A classic. So I’m walking along the path up there—I often come to Lands End when I want to be alone and still. I guess most people like to be alone to really think about things, but me, I get alone to be still, to be empty. Usually I feel so full of everything that isn’t even mine. Sometimes it helps, the walking. So I’m walking, and I swear here comes Heidi’s smell. It’s not a perfume, really, and it’s not exactly her sweat. It’s a mixture of all that and something else on top. She secretes this scent. And the scent, once emitted, stays out there. It must never dissipate because nearly everywhere I go in the city here comes that scent, so distinctly hers, smelling of flowery soap, armpit and musky body, the smell of strength and kindness—a graceful smell. Distinctly female, though not exactly feminine. She leaves it wherever she goes and it hovers there waiting to turn me into an animal.
So I come up the path through that clearing in the manzanitas and here I am overlooking the Pacific, hundreds of feet down, where the surf’s breaking on jagged rocks. And I’m following Heidi’s smell because I can’t help it one bit and I see her, or rather I see her hands peeking up from over the side of the cliff. Even from fifty or so feet I recognized those hands, so small and dainty, so fiercely strong, so gentle in the times she feels gentle. Plus her relentless scent. And of course she’s not saying a thing, the quiet one, even here in the most strenuous of circumstances. But there’s a storm rising in there you can be sure.
The real mindfuck comes when I see another set of hands I know, Neil’s hands, maybe ten feet to Heidi’s right. Neil’s hands are thick and strong—working man’s hands. They used to work on me. Neil is a magical body worker. Of course he would be, as intuitive as he is. It’s his curse, really, his persistent intuition. In real life it runs him, but when he’s at the table working on a body, it’s like alchemy. He goes in to you and finds the pain. He’s never been comfortable with this gift, always second-guessing his true intentions as a healer.
So imagine it, that sadistic game coming to life right there when I was really just trying to get some peace of mind: the two people you love most in life hanging from a cliff—and you can only save one.
“Why does it have to be one?” Neil asks. “Quit ruminating, asshole, and save us both. Less think, more save.”
I’ve never known how but sometimes Neil can read my mind. I mean he knows exactly what I’m thinking. Sometimes. Sometimes he’s completely off, but when he’s on it’s really creepy.
But it’s a good point. Neil was always good at motivating me through negative re-enforcement.
Then Heidi, dangling so patiently, asks, “But whom will you save first?”
This I haven’t yet considered. As I approach it’s clear I’m moving precisely down the center of them and have not yet made a decision. This kind of thing is too important to leave to intuition—it must be thought out a great deal. There are feelings to consider, so much history to take into account.
“Because,” Heidi continues, “that’s really what it comes down to. You might have time to save us both, you might not. You can’t know what the fates have planned. So without thinking you go for the one of us you most cherish.” She says it so patiently, as if she wasn’t dangling from a cliff hundreds of feet above some jagged rocks. She may as well be sitting at home on the couch listening to records, the way she says it.
Well, this really paralyzes me, and I think of what my mother said once when I posed a similar question to her: if my sister and I were dangling from a cliff and you could only save one of us, which one would you save?—My mother’s response was that she would jump herself.
Well, I’m not gonna jump. But I’m not sure which one to save. I’m not involved with Neil or Heidi anymore. I’m still hopelessly in love with each of them. I can’t compare my love for Neil to my love for Heidi. Why, for example, am I obsessed with Heidi’s hair, with her goddamn smell, with the battle inside her between stubborn tenacity and graceful acceptance, her soft and serious voice—but with Neil it’s his icy-blue gaze entering and gripping you, it’s the force of his thighs, the way he pushes through the shit of life with something like a sense of humor, the contagion of his laughter.
I’m still in love with both but beholden to neither.
“Can I ask how the hell you two got into this situation?” I say, remaining equidistant from the two, and Neil says, “Are you really gonna ask that while we’re dangling here? Step up, man!”
Then Heidi says, “We met here to discuss what to do about you, and the effects of your awful ways.”
“Why do you have to do anything about it?” I ask.
“Stay out of it, man,” Neil says. “You’re no longer part of the equation. Now save us. Make yourself useful for once.”
Well, this pisses me off, and it occurs to me to just walk away. Heidi is once more staying quiet, just dangling there. I turn and walk away, on down the path. I came here for peace and quiet. I can’t say either relationship had sufficient closure—do they ever? Ultimately I couldn’t decide whom to be with, so I broke it off with both. I guess I was a little messy about it. But neither person hanging there was any longer my responsibility. They got themselves into this mess, they can help each other out of it. Talk about a healing opportunity.
But I don’t get far. Of course I can’t leave them hanging there.
“Oh look,” Neil says when I peek my head back over the edge. “It’s the hero’s return.”
“How long have you two been dangling there?” I ask. Heidi says nothing but when I look to her she turns her face away. Through the back of her head I can see her eyes roll. She kicks a rock with her left sneaker as if out of boredom. Finally she turns her face to me and says, “Long enough. Are you going to help us?”
I think again of what my mother said, I think of jumping. But you know what I do instead? I sit on the edge, scoot my hips around, and lower myself down so that I’m dangling there with them.
“Oh, that’s genius,” Neil declares. “How typical.”
At this point I’m dangling for my life and so what Neil says doesn’t bother me much. I nod. I study Neil’s hands, feel the ice of his gaze on me. When I finally look him in the eye he’s glaring at me with a deep mix of devotional love and absolute hatred. He swings his legs wildly, still holding me with his eyes, and kicks at me, at which point his left hand slips, followed by his right, and he falls. As Neil falls I can see he’s managed to give me the finger, his eyes still locked on mine even as the rocks get closer. I close my eyes before he hits and when I open them the surf is washing over him.
I turn to Heidi, who’s looking solemnly down at Neil’s body. She lifts her eyes to meet mine, and such a look of love comes over her and she smiles. That smile. Her smooth face. I want to touch her face so badly that without thought I reach out for it and slip, and now I’m dangling from only my left hand. Heidi smiles wider. “You really love me,” she says. I smile and nod. The wind’s picked up a bit and it’s blowing her hair in golden ribbons. The wind blows her hair away from me but somehow her smell wafts over. I inhale deeply.
Heidi looks down at the rocks below, then up to me. Another smile, and her green eyes shining. Then she looks back down, releases a huge Heidi sigh, and lets go. All the way down as she falls she watches the rocks approach. I look away, and instead turn my attention back to my conundrum, manage to swing my right hand back to the ledge, and that’s when your face came peeking over the top. Now won’t you please help me up?
Simon Phillips is a writer, musician, and gardener living in San Francisco. He is part owner of Adobe Books and Arts Cooperative, a volunteer-run bookstore/art gallery/performance space in the Mission, where he curates the occasional reading. He volunteers as writing mentor for the Prison Education Network, and has been known to run writing workshops out of his living room. Simon earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2015. He is currently working on getting to work on a novel.