Fusion can happen when two objects reach an extreme heat. When the blood boils, the same can be said of hearts. The connection can excite and ache and torment, yet the demise of will goes unnoticed when the thrill renders an addictive high. Monica Waters once loved getting high, both literally and figuratively, but outgrew the juvenile practice of artistic inspiration. She had responsibilities now, like a mortgage and an admirable career… and a husband.
Antidepressants helped too.
When Los Angeles soared past eighty-five degrees in April the unsettling promise of perpetual summer ignited tension across freeways. Monica shielded anxiety with music and a fun car. Bob Marley had eased an hour-long commute, also known as Thursday, delivering her to the sanctuary of home until she slammed the brakes.
A yellow Nissan blocked the driveway with no owner in sight. Her best friend owned the same vehicle but not with New York plates so she glared next door. Sharing a driveway with Rebecca’s bohemian flophouse had reached its limit.
Monica wedged her BMW into an ivy-covered carport at an awkward angle and pried herself out, trying not to scratch her paint against the fence. She mumbled a few obscenities when she couldn’t get leverage to slam the door but squeezed past the filthy SUV, smoothing her long chestnut hair. The tall Japanese-style gate that led to her bonsai garden greeted with Zen and wafts of jasmine.
That’s when she saw him.
On the wooden staircase that wound up to Rebecca’s converted attic was a man that shifted everything into slow motion. A man, that for a second at least, she would follow anywhere. Her reaction defied rational explanation. The guy wearing jeans and t-shirt carried a box but even his muscular build was common in this town. Still, he had a gentle force of gravity tugging like a current.
The back of his shaved head lacked noticeable character, but his climb was hypnotic. She stopped breathing while her heart pounded at an alarming speed. A beautiful tattoo engulfed his entire right arm with gnarled branches and scattered leaves of an old tree. It rooted around the box and swayed like a breeze as he moved.
When the gate slipped from her fingers, the slam jolted her from the daze and he turned. She inspected her purse and fumbled with her keys even when he paused near the top of the stairs, waiting for attention. She rushed to her back door but couldn’t resist the draw of his stare.
His eyes were crystal blue and pensive under a low-slung heavy brow. He stood confident like carved hardwood left unpolished with ample lips, a strong jaw, and a rugged nose, but didn’t come off as arrogant or boring. Her stomach twisted at his asymmetrical smile.
He was beautiful.
Flushed, she returned a tight grin and nod before barreling into her laundry room. “Who’s the guy next door?” she asked, dropping her stuff on the counter next to the deep sink.
Alex, still sweaty from work, gave her a quick kiss, which was followed by the smacks of a powerful dog tail to her thigh. Her husband’s own shaved head and brawny build still resembled an action hero but his gray eyes lacked the dangerous edge that once made him magnetic.
“You mean the Kelly Slater look-alike?” He laughed. “Rebecca’s renting out the upstairs to some artist. She says he’s bi-coastal… whatever that means. Pretty sure he’s gay.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Did you see what he drives?”
She cocked her head. “So.”
“So? That’s what Robin drives.” He flashed his hands.
“That might be the dumbest thing ever said. Did he look at you too long or something?”
“Hey, I’ve got no problem if he’s gay. He can look all he wants. I’m just saying.” Alex flexed his arms and inspected himself.
“Just because Rebecca’s a lesbian doesn’t mean everyone she’s around is gay.” Monica reached to pet their rambunctious Lab Pointer mix, Lacey. “I just hate that she and Julie split. I miss her.”
“Me too. I wish she won the house but Rebecca could afford it.”
“Then why’s she renting out rooms?” Her words had that petulant tone she hated with an unwarranted volume.
“I don’t know,” he said, flicking the counter. “It’s not like we have control over our neighbors.” He shuffled towards the bathroom, stripping for his shower along the way. She watched, remembering when that used to send her running after him, but now he hopped around in his socks and underwear looking more child-like than sexy.
In her ballerina flats, Monica was two inches shy of six feet and two years shy of forty. The curvy size fourteen worked in Hollywood, the land of size zeros. Sometimes she resented being a giant next to tiny, beautiful people because it equated invisibility, but she faked smiles in the back of every crew photo despite the obscurity of an editing career.
She bent to give Lacey attention and propped the back door open while Mr. Bi-coastal moved from his vehicle to the yard. The redwood fence obscured his face but a childhood crush on Yul Brynner embedded an allure to a nice shaved head. Staring like a lech though erased dignity, so she mustered the nerve to make an introduction.
She stepped outside but an eruption of vicious barking made her yelp. Two enormous Rottweilers flanked the middle landing on the staircase, flinging drool over the fence. Lacey ducked behind Monica in fear.
“No. No barking!” Mr. Bi-coastal bounded up the stairs. “I’m so sorry,” he said, setting another box down. “I promise I’ll keep them quiet. They’re friendly, I swear.” He drew an X over his heart like a seven-year-old but his intense expression was all grown-ass-man.
“It’s alright.” She swallowed hard. “My husband had lovable Rotts growing up.” Spitting out her marital status made her fidget but his shoulders relaxed. “My name’s Monica.”
“I’m Quinn.” He leaned against the railing that hovered above as if to shake her hand.
“Did you guys just drive across the country?”
“Yeah.” He squatted to pet them and she noticed his left arm didn’t have visible tattoos. “This is Sadie and Max. Once they know you, they’ll stop barking.”
She moved closer, pretending to care about this new pet relationship despite growls with each step. “They’re just protective of you.”
She tried not to stare at the unicorn but artists wore gangly and pale with pride, escaping food and sun for months. This man nurtured his body.
Alex stood behind her, wet from the shower in just basketball shorts, but the lack of a Q-tip or something equally inappropriate was boggling.
Quinn straightened. “I was just telling your wife they’re friendly.”
Alex climbed the fence to engage their slobbery faces up-close and flaunt an arm tattoo of a Rott named Bosco. Monica was new to living with dogs but presumed they couldn’t recognize the image of devotion in permanent ink. This king-of-the-castle act was for Quinn.
“Nice tat,” he said, squatting for a closer look.
An immediate tit-for-tat and subtle competition developed between them but Monica found herself comparing odd qualities while they bonded over dogs. The pitch of their voices aligned and laughter became punctuation. Their attributes mimicked one another but Alex’s head was larger while Quinn ate leaner and worked out. They could pass as brothers but something about Quinn upset her.
He was too close.
The two historical homes sat less than seven feet apart, thanks to the lack of building restrictions in the 1920s. That proximity, which had sparked numerous noise complaints, didn’t seem to bother Alex now, tickling those beefy dog faces.
“Rebecca said you’re only here part-time.” Alex stepped off the fence and crossed his arms.
“I’m just starting to show my work here.” He hesitated as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to share more. “My agent thought it was wise, so I’ll be back and forth a lot.”
She hated the two adorable little creases that formed next to his eyes when he smiled. They were marks of experience. Marks of a life lived.
“We should let you get settled,” Alex said, motioning towards the box still sitting on the landing.
Quinn nodded. “It was nice meeting you guys.”
“Absolutely.” She cringed at her valley-girl tone and bizarre wave given to dogs with inherently sad eyes. She beelined for their bedroom hoping to erase that weird encounter from memory.
“Those dogs are gorgeous, right?” Alex followed with Lacey’s paws tapping close behind. “I told you he looked like Kelly Slater.”
“Oh, please. There’s no comparison. Slater doesn’t have tattoos all over.” She unbuttoned her dress-shirt, imagining that tree tattoo spread across Quinn’s body.
“His eyes are crazy bright though, right? Almost creepy…like uh, what’s that actor’s name? The one in that movie I did last summer…” Alex snapped his fingers a few times as if that would spark a memory. Monica slipped on a black t-shirt before he blurted, “Chris Pine. Yeah. That’s the guy."
“They’re just blue,” she said. “We all have blue eyes. So what?” She tossed her jeans in the hamper, wishing this topic would end.
Alex got distracted from his rant by her bare legs. “Your eyes are the best blue,” he said, staring like he wanted to touch her.
She jumped into some shorts and waved him off. “Whatever. Why are we talking about this?” Her dash for the kitchen avoided pointless longing. “What do you want for dinner?”
“Are you still limping?”
“A little. I’m cutting back Saturday.”
“To what… eight miles instead of ten?”
“Sure. I’m surprised you didn’t ask him about his art.”
She sighed into the fridge. “He just got here.” If she didn’t end her husband’s fascination with the guy, he might invite the interloper to dinner. “Plus,” she added, “full-time artist? Really? Come on. Do those really exist these days?”
“You’d know if you’d go draw something.”
She chopped a bell pepper understanding his slant had nothing to do with Quinn. This was about her being a quitter. “When I graduated, only eleven percent of artists made a living at it, and I’m sure it’s worse now. People don’t have extra money to buy art.”
“We buy art.”
“We value it but as an investment… it’s a risky market most people don’t want to sink cash into.”
“Market? Did you just say market?” He started tickling her side. “You sound so stuffy.”
“Stop it.” She giggled. “Never tickle a woman with a knife.”
“There’s a new motto to live by.” His arm stayed around her until she relaxed and kissed him. Then he backed up and sat in the built-in nook. “You were so passionate about it when we met.”
“We were fifteen. Passion inspired everything and I didn’t have bills.”
“Ha.” He lingered a minute, but when she avoided conversation, he got up. “I’m gonna go water. Rack up some more bills.” He smacked her butt and headed out the back door.
Through the spring, Monica made up reasons to be in the yard. Anything to get a glimpse of Quinn. She pulled weeds, trimmed trees, and even refinished the deck, which was an undertaking she vastly underestimated. Alex found her enthusiasm for their property exhausting, but staying active was a coping method like sleep and exercise.
Plus, Quinn gave a high that redirected her pulse points.
She didn’t understand why but his habitual shirtlessness sprang urges the blue pills zapped long ago. She wanted to hear him speak and laugh and know his opinions. His vibrant modern paintings aroused envy for that creative drive. Quinn reminded her of every practicality she built into her life and the paralysis that came with it.
And that damn tattoo.
They never did much before, but she wanted to touch his. The first time she witnessed him in the park, she almost wrecked her car. He did push-ups in the grass, clapping between reps. That tattoo stretched and tangled down his right side like he was a tree.
Her strained marriage and marathon training suffered from the obsession. Focusing on goals achieved results before but the increase in miles brought more ankle pain, and by the end of spring, a bone scan confirmed multiple stress fractures.
No more running.
No more walking.
Complete immobility for eight weeks, and if it didn’t heal, a surgery would mean never running again.
Quinn disappeared to New York long before her house arrest, and the memories of his hot workouts faded with an elevated cast in the summer heat. Even her adjusted dose of meds stopped countering the loss of routine and purpose. The slumbered existence her mother wallowed in pulled Monica down, making her feel weaker each day. Taking nothing had to be better than this. At least crying tapped into an emotion. But she continued her regimen, for now, and focused on a better plan for healing.