First, I’d like to jot a quick note about some of the language/word choice and general writing style in My Beautiful Obsession.
As part of creating a fictional world and characters that echo some of the most common tropes seen in recent years with the Alpha Dom, the love-can-save-the-abuser plot, the innocent ingenue & the jaded cynic TLA stuff, and so on with the whole Fifty Shades Cocky Handbook of Twilight After Ever for Mortals “romances” that have garnered so much attention and informed this project of mine, I’ve written a number of things here that I never would elsewhere. This means that I am deliberately engaging with some of the troubling tropes and factors that occur in the aforementioned texts, including: racist generalizations, sexist language, toxic masculinity and internalized misogyny, misrepresentation backed by flimsy “research,” and historical inaccuracies. Yes, it’s on purpose. No, this does not reflect my true feelings or beliefs. You can bet your last bag of salt ‘n vinegar crisps during PMS week that when I write something here like “exotically mixed-race” or “irrational femininity,” or misrepresent a sexual activity, I’m doing so with full awareness of how shitty and gross it is, and to create a certain effect in this specific work of fiction.
Thus, with that clarified, let us return to….
Sighing, I pick up Gypsy, my slightly manky but precious acoustic guitar. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, I try to summon up notes, chords.
It’s something I’ve done three dozen times in the last two days, but my fingers won’t work on the strings. My mind, and my heart, are empty.
Ever since Lark Ellery Blackwood disappeared from my life.
It’s only been 48 hours, and it feels like an eternity. Like my insides have been stretched out on a torture rack or something. Like a eagle is pecking out my insides by day, growing back at night so the torment can begin anew the next morning.
I’d let myself have hopes… vague, but desperate hopes. I’m not even sure of what, exactly. That she’d like me? Want me?
It doesn’t matter.
I’ve been shattered, and I’ve spent the last two days drowning in humiliation and pain.
After Lark Blackwood left me at the bar, I managed to go back to the Plaza, find Aiden at the dining room where everyone was already gathering for the luncheon, and mumble an excuse to leave.
I came home, crawled into my bed, and stayed here for almost two full days, much to Aiden’s dismay. “Stomach flu,” I claimed. “Or food poisoning. Something like that.” I called in sick to work, called off rehearsals with Chloe, and nursed my copious wounds.
Hiding under my bed covers, balled up small against the raw and bleeding anguish, I just try to disappear.
It’s a lifetime of rejection and insecurity piling up, I know. I’ve never, as Aiden puts it, “gotten into the game.” I already know I’m not anything that girls like. I’ve known this since high school, maybe even earlier. So whenever a potential for a significant other or a suitor, whatever you want to call it, has become a possibility in the past, I am the one who hits the breaks. That girl from high school who sat behind me in History class. Or the one from downstairs at Shipton Hall when we were at Portland U. Even girls like Megan, or Chloe just haven’t piqued my fancy, although Aiden might be right about me settling for something realistic, giving one of them a chance, even though-
Even though no other girl, woman, has made you feel the things that Lark Blackwood did, my Id taunts me, grinning maniacally, waving his hands around. A dozen Megans or Chloes can’t match up to Lark Blackwood, my Superego adds, scribbling complicated equations on a chalkboard to prove it to me. Hormones + Vasopressin + Dopamine + Seratonin + Oxytocin + sparkling wine + dazzling sunlight = Lark Ellery Blackwood.
Everything I ever wanted, before I knew I wanted it.
I can still hear Lark Blackwood’s low-pitched, utterly hypnotic voice. “I’m not who you think I am.” “You’re too naive. You shouldn’t.”
She rejected me. Bash Stone, the eternal loner, the misfit.
Besides, girls like Chloe or Megan probably don’t know what it’s like to never fit in anywhere, to never feel like you’re special enough to matter to someone so clearly superior-
“Bash?” Aiden calls through my closed door. “You up?”
“Yeah,” I call back, making my voice sound normal, resting Gypsy on my knees.
He cracks open the door. “You feeling better?” he asks me. “You want some breakfast? Even just some dry toast? I’m working from home this morning, so I can make sure you don’t need to go to the doctor. Food poisoning is no joke.”
I shake my head no. Aiden Anderson Overdrive is in effect yet again. He spent all afternoon and evening the day before, and all day yesterday checking up on me. Texting when he was at work. Sending me links to medical websites about how to know if what you had was stomach flu or a dangerous parasite. Offering to call his own family doctor to come check me out. Reminding me that I need to call some acquaintance of his dad’s back about a music studio job I applied for. Bringing me flat ginger ale.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take.
“I’m good,” I lie. “I’ll probably go in to work at the bookstore this morning,” I add, only because I know that if Aiden’s at home today, the barrage of nattering will be relentless.
Besides, my Superego tells me sternly from behind an oversized desk, glaring at me from over heavy horn-rimmed glasses, you need to pick up the pieces and get back to everyday life. You and Lark Blackwood are from two different worlds. Two different universes! My Superego has taken over the chalk and blackboard, and is making lists with a heavy hand. She’s rich, stunning, powerful, successful, sophisticated, urbane. And you’re not. You’re on opposite ends of the spectrum. There’s no common ground, no coming together for two people as disparate as you! he lectures me, chalk dust flying as he scribbles and underlines.
I remember how Lark Blackwood said, coldly, “I don’t do the whole relationship thing,” and then, later, the damning observation, “You’re too naive.”
I should have paid attention to that. She was telling me that she found me wanting. That I was all wrong for her.
She didn’t want me, and she told me so from the beginning, didn’t she?
Yes, but then she touched your face! squawks my Id, stamping his feet in big, loud, clompy boots. Maybe she just hasn’t found the right relationship yet!
Bash is hardly the right relationship for L.E. Blackwood, my Superego barks back, lip curled, sneering.
“Bash, you’re kind of freaking me out, dude,” Aiden says, leaning against my door jamb as I get up and put Gypsy back on her stand by the wall. “You haven’t left your room in almost forty-eight hours. Chloe’s texted me a bunch of times looking for you, too.”
Chloe. Yesterday, after I called off our rehearsal, she stopped by with saenggangcha tea and some ginsing-chicken soup, and a CD of some K-Pop group she just discovered, totally not my style, but she thought I’d be amused by it.
Aiden continues to fuss and fret, frowning at me. “This isn’t like you.”
“I’m fine,” I manage to say again. “Just ate something the other day that didn’t sit well.”
Aiden peers at me like I’m under a microscope. “You sure? I mean, it’s awfully weird that an hour after you go out with Blackwood, you’re struck down by some mysterious ailment.”
“We didn’t go out,” I stress.
“Well, whatever you did-”
“Which was nothing. We had drinks, a bite to eat, and then she got called away on business,” I repeat her fib. I can’t bear to tell Aiden the truth: that somehow, in ways I can’t fathom, I drove her off.
“You sure she didn’t roofie you or something,” he says, only half joking.
“Aiden, stop being ridiculous over a stupid case of food poisoning,” I can’t help snapping. “Now I’m going to go shower and go to the bookstore, okay?”
I’m going to go to work, go back to my normal life, and not think about Lark Blackwood ever again.
No matter what it takes.
I’ve been working at Powell’s Bookstore, the famous, huge bookstore downtown, for over a year now. It’s a great place. The people are friendly, and it’s usually busy and bustling enough to keep me occupied, something I especially welcome today.
I’m putting out feelers about an entry-level job at a local music studio; someone Aiden’s dad heard about. I sent in a letter of introduction last week, and Aiden said I got a call yesterday that I need to return, pronto. It’s my dream job, working in a real music studio, but I know I’ll miss Powell’s when I finally move on.
I shower for the first time in two days, and jump into my well-worn jeans, a classic Journey concert t-shirt that I dug out of my dad’s garage years ago, and a comfortable army-green shirt over it. I arrange my messy hair as best as I can, then give up. Converse sneakers complete my usual look. It’s boring enough anyway, but even moreso compared to the other guys at Powell’s, with their cool, hipster haircuts and beards, their tats and piercings. Then I hop on my Honda Super Hawk, strap on my helmet, and, in a few minutes, I’m clocking in for the day.
The store is packed, even on a Friday morning, but I’m glad for the distractions. I spend hours rushing around to help customers find this or that book, ringing up things, bagging, shelving. I even cut short my lunch break to get back to work, not wanting unoccupied minutes to remember… her.
I scarcely have time to think about a smooth, cool hand on my face, or brushing over my fingers, of a smile playing over perfect lips, of sculpted cheekbones and chin, sparkling blue eyes, tumbling golden-red hair, throaty laughter-
“Hey, Bash, there’s a customer who says she needs your help,” says Sierra, an exotic-looking mixed-race girl with cornrows that swing around her shoulders.
“Sure,” I say, and head over to where she’s gestured.
I round the corner, and skid to a complete halt, unable to believe what I’m seeing, unable to believe that this might be happening.
Lark Ellery Blackwood. She’s here, actually here, at my work!
She’s standing just feet away from me, her eyes snagging mine and not letting go. There is a bit of that wry smile on her face again, as if she’s enjoying a private joke of some kind, or has made an interesting discovery.
My heart goes into total myocardial infarction, and I know my mouth is hanging open like a window with a broken hinge.
What is she doing here, in an ordinary bookstore like this, looking like a model from Forbes Magazine, all immaculately tailored skirt and blazer, Italian leather shoes, perfect hair?
My Id starts doing cartwheels and backflips all over the place. She’s here to see you! She’s come here to see you again!
But almost immediately, my Superego points out the truth. How could she be here to see you? You never told her you worked here!
This is obviously just a weird coincidence.
“Miss- Miss Blackwood.”
“Well, Sebastian Stone,” she says in that husky, musical voice. “This is a surprise.”
“It is?” I stutter. “I mean, uh, yes, it is.” An unpleasant one? I can’t tell.
I’ve been thinking about her constantly, and yet my thoughts didn’t begin to do justice to just how beautiful, how perfect, how flawless this specimen of female beauty is. My heart is thumping like a bass drum, my ears have gone hot and my hands have gone cold, and I have no idea what to say.
Actually, I do. Because she’s here in a bookstore. As a customer.
“Um, can I… help you find something?” I manage, even though my tongue feels like it’s been braided and my brain has short-circuited entirely at this point.
“Please,” she says, composed and in total control, despite hints of a grin on her lips. “I find myself in need of several particular items for my home library.”
“What do you need?”
Me! Say you need me! My idiot Id ululates, and I know I am probably staring at her with an expression like I am staring into the sun.
“Shall we start with some poetry?”
“Yes, ma’am. Certainly.” I’m pleasantly captivated to see that the cosmopolitan Miss Blackwood has a sensitive, literary leaning, too. She is so complicated, so intriguing!
“After you, Mr. Stone.” She sweeps one hand gently, indicating for me to walk in front of her. It seems I can feel her gaze on me, burning me, as I do.
“You didn’t mention the other day that you worked here,” she says casually. Too casually?
“I guess I didn’t,” I mutter, flooded with guilt. My Superego just shakes his head and tuts at me, with white eyebrows bristling.
I lead the way to the store’s poetry section. “Do you, um, have anything in particular in mind?” My blushing is out of control, and I look down and pretend to straighten a few books out to hide my face.
“Yes, indeed, of course I do.” The devilish sparkle in her blue, blue eyes is almost too much to bear. “But I’d like to know if you have any recommendations. Especially considering your literary background,” she adds, and I can’t tell if she’s making fun of me or not.
“Sure, um- yeah. There’s-” My brain is momentarily as scrambled as the eggs we shared just two mornings ago. Then my experience here takes over. “This is a wonderful collection,” I say, picking up Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey. I like the poems’ simple, plaintive musings, like the poet understands the darkest parts of my own soul. I think, based on everything I’ve seen of Lark Blackwood, she might like their profundity.
“Hm,” she says, flipping pages. “Do you have a hardcover version? I prefer hardbound books.”
“Yes, ma’am, here.”
As she peruses the shelves at leisure, Lark Blackwood’s graceful fingers move over books’ spines, sending a rash of goosebumps up my own arms, as if it’s me she’s touching. “Quite a selection here,” she murmurs.
“Have- have you been in here before?” I can’t help asking. It is one of the most popular spots in Portland. But my question, intending to sound cool and casual, sounds like a desperate bleat.
“I found myself in the area this afternoon,” she says blandly, not quite answering my question, but her lips are twitching.
Again, my Id is tugging on my shirttails. See, I knew it, she’s here to see you!
I push down that thought.
“Any Anais Nin?” she asks me.
Oh. Miss Blackwood’s tastes are sophisticated indeed! “Yes, right here. We should have everything in print here.”
“Mmm. So I see,” she says. “Delta of Venus?”
I take down a copy.
“No hard version?” she asks me, and my mouth drops again, my mind almost exploding with untoward thoughts.
“No,” I finally stutter, “just trade paperback. Is that… okay?”
“Yes, Mr. Stone, that is fine,” she says. “I’ll take it. And this, too,” she says, picking up a copy of Henry and June.
Our fingers brush when she hands me the heavy book, and I hear my own breath hitch. I almost drop the books I’m already holding for her.
She selects another book. “What about this? Is this an interesting collection?”
I look, and find myself blushing a fiery crimson. Erotic Poetry, by e. e. cummings.
“I haven’t read it,” I murmur my confession, feeling like a gawky, maladroit teenaged kid.
She hands it to me to add to her purchases.
Lark Blackwood strolls slowly down the section of shelves, bending or stretching to select other things. I can hardly look at her as she does. She’s too beautiful, too perfect, and I can’t believe she’s here. I can’t believe the effect she has on me.
As I carry her books for her, I’m struck with the out-of-date image of me, carrying her books at school for her, walking her home, or across a college campus. Like something out of the 1950s. I could already see her in my mind’s eye, beautiful in a soft, form-fitting sweater, skirt swishing around her shapely calves, a scarf tying back her golden-russet hair. We would be on our way to a malt shop, or I could help her with her homework-
I shake my head to rid it of the corny, antiquated, mawkish image, and feel my cheeks turn to sheets of molten crimson again.
Miss Blackwood looks at me, one eyebrow slightly raised, as if she can feel the heat from my face. I have the uncanny feeling she knows everything I’m thinking, and it’s disquieting, disorienting.
“I’d like a few more collections,” she says. “What can you show me?”
“This new slam poetry anthology is getting great reviews,” I suggest, my voice bright and helpful to hide my agitation.
“Hm. No. Slam poetry is not really my thing.”
My Id sinks to the floor, pouting at her dismissal of my recommendation. Of course it’s not her thing. Not someone as cultured as her. I should have known better. I hang my head.
“I’d like something a little more… lush,” she continues, giving me her enigmatic smile. “Something a little more, hm, decadent, even.” The expression on her face makes my body temperature shoot up another ten degrees.
I can think of no response; my mind is literally a blank at that. Lush? Decadent?
Finally, she contemplates the shelves, and then she selects volumes: Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, a collection of Lord Byron, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, finally, Catullus and Lesbia. “You don’t have this untranslated, do you? In Latin,” she clarifies.
“No, I’m sorry. I could see if we could order it?”
“No, the English translation will have to do.” Her silky hair sweeps around her shoulders, red-gold and captivating. Like I’m bewitched, I follow her down one aisle, and around to the next.
“I’d like to see your literature selection.”
“How long have you been working here?”
Oh. Another personal question. “A little over a year.”
“Isn’t it rather a distraction for a musician like you?”
Is she mocking me? It’s so hard to tell! “I’m actually arranging an interview at a local recording agency this week,” I tell her, hoping she will be impressed.
“Ah, indeed?” Her eyebrows have gone up in surprise, and she touches her thumb to her lip. Oh, god, the thoughts that gives me! “Which one?”
“Portland Productions and Recording Engineers.” I’m nervous telling her this. PPRE is one of the biggest indie recording companies on the West Coast, studios and record label in one awesome old converted factory. Will she think it’s ridiculous that I’m trying to get a job at someplace so prestigious?
“And that is why you didn’t tell me you worked here? Because you hope to have a job in recording and production soon?”
I shrug. It’s hard to explain.
Her lips thin. “Are you ashamed of working here, Mr. Stone?”
“No! Why would you ask that?” I can’t help feeling defensive.
Her eyes widen slightly, and she leans against one of the shelves. “You never brought it up,” she says softly. “I told you where I worked,” she adds in that voice that reminds me of rich cream drenching chocolate mousse, all piled on top of a chocolate-hazelnut truffle layer-cake.
Again, I feel guilt wash over me like a tidal wave. “I’m sorry,” I murmur. “I guess I… just didn’t think it was important.” I didn’t think I was important.
“I should be the one to decide that, Sebastian,” she says, her voice as husky as mine.
She gives me an almost artless smile, and then turns to the bookshelves. “Hmmm,” she murmurs as she contemplates titles.
Yet again, I’m mesmerized as her hand skims over the books on the shelves, picking out heavy hardcovers, pointing to titles, even making little jokes.
She drifts over the R section, stopping at Pauline Reage. “The Story of O,” she reads the title out loud. “Have you read this, what with your literary background?”
I shake my head stupidly.
“Perhaps I’ll write The Story of L, and you could read that,” she teases me, and I’m mortified as my face blazes up anew.
She’s just bored and passing time by trying to provoke me, playing. She probably had a few minutes between meetings, and thought she’d amuse herself this way.
My Superego nods in agreement from behind his oversized desk piled with file folders.
But my Id whispers from his own hiding spot, How could she decide that if she didn’t know you worked here?
Coincidence, I remind myself, and focus on concentrating.
She selects Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in French, of course, and then something called Laura Middleton, something Victorian, with elegant binding. “What about the Sleeping Beauty books?” she asks me, singling out an author named Roquelaure. More French literature?
“I don’t know,” I admit. “I don’t read a lot of fairy tales.”
She laughs, amused, her eyes bright. What did I say that was so funny?
“I think this is enough literature for now,” she tells me. “I would also like to look at your rare books selection.”
Rare books. Expensive, exclusive. Of course Lark Ellery Blackwood wants to look at them.
“That’s upstairs, in the Arts and Music section.”
“Good. I’d like to see the art books as well.”
I hand off the things she’s selected thus far to be held at the register for her, and take her up to the top floor the store, with the annex for rare books, and the shelves of heavy, oversized, glossy art tomes.
To be continued….
MBO Playlist, track six: