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"Releasing a Star" by Melissa Martini

"Releasing a Star" by Melissa Martini

I liked her skin better lilac, but she always got mad at me when I told her that. Some bullshit about being “conventionally attractive,” but I guess I just wasn’t into what everyone else was. And then she’d hit me with the whole, Oh, so you don’t think I’m pretty when I have makeup on? But Gods forbid I ever told her that her makeup looked nice – then I’d get some smart remark about actually wanting her to look more human deep down inside, which we both knew was the furthest thing from the truth.

Sitting in the crowd, I knew I was supposed to be staring at the bride – the star of the show. It was her day, etcetera. But the only person I saw was Tess. She was shifting her weight from foot to foot, not used to being in front of so many people. I told her over and over again — You’re just a bridesmaid, no one will be looking at you — but it obviously didn’t work. If she’d just stay still for a minute or two, things would probably be okay, but her fingers fidgeting against the bouquet she held left a smudge of foundation on the stems.

This was OK though – we knew how to handle this one, because she had nailed a desk job a couple years ago and her primary duty was sending lots of emails. We quickly learned that no amount of setting powder could prevent eight hours of keyboard smashing from removing foundation from your fingertips. When her boss finally noticed and asked what was up with the, uh, vague gesture in the direction of her hands, Tess told her it was an autoimmune disease that she was being treated for but really, really didn’t want to talk about. I was proud of her for that one, for coming up with it on the fly like that.

So, in the case that anyone asked the bride what was up with Tess’s fingertips, she had us covered. This is because the bride was in fact Tess’s boss, who, for some reason, asked Tess to be in her wedding.

Are you two really that close?

I had asked the question quite honestly, because from the way Tess talked about her, it didn’t seem like they would be. But, apparently they were. So here we were, attending her wedding with Tess standing up there with makeup caked on and melting off under the summer sun. We knew how to handle this one, too: I had more foundation in my purse for her, and we would reapply it in the private bathroom that we sought out beforehand.

It always felt like being on a secret mission with Tess. One of our first missions was choosing a foundation shade for her, which was a pretty loaded decision. When it came down to it, she wanted to look as “normal” as possible. I let her interpret “normal” on her own because, at the end of the day, if I was able to choose my own appearance, I would want as much authority and control over that as possible. I showed her how to online shop and handed her my credit card – a week later, boxes loaded with beauty products were at my door.

The only thing I did buy her myself was yellow concealer because I knew her biggest concern was hiding the lilac: my favourite thing about her seemed to be the bane of her existence. I explained the colour wheel and colour correction, even pulling up makeup tutorials online. I’d only ever used yellow concealer to cover up hickeys and bruises, both from an old boyfriend, but Tess smeared it all over her face and arms. She was a quick learner and seemed to transform into a different person — physically, not mentally or emotionally, thank the stars — overnight. Her reliance on makeup wasn’t ideal, but I knew it wasn’t a self-centered thing. It wasn’t just for her, it was for the both of us. So that we could be happy, together.

*

After the ceremony, Tess made her way to the bar as soon as she could. She only drank gin and tonics, her hands shaking ever so slightly as she took the drink from the bartender. I ordered a rum and Coke.

Am I OK? She asked, taking a long sip of her drink. She let the liquid rest against her lips for a few seconds before swallowing.

Perfect.

I wasn’t lying — I did think she was perfect — but I did notice a peek of purple on her earlobe only because I was leaning in for a kiss. The first time I did that, she pulled away from me like a frightened child. She told me that ladies don’t kiss other ladies where she was from.

Even if they want to? I asked.

She nodded. Do they kiss here?

Sometimes, I said, but especially if they want to.

She kissed me, but she never told me where she was from. She only ever told me where she wanted to be, which was by my side. I could never think of a good reason to argue with that, and I didn’t want to, anyway.

*

After two drinks and being antisocial by the bar, Tess’s boss finally found her and dragged her onto the dancefloor. It was like releasing a star into the wild, something unpredictably bright and beautiful but dangerous and out of its element. I watched her from afar – I always seemed to be doing that – trying to pick up on the pieces of her that were actually hers rather than learned human behaviors. So many of her movements were recycled from old movies she binged, but every now and then I saw a glimmer of something galactic. I craved that side of her constantly, and the only thing that curbed my appetite was her bare skin, purple and perfect, right before bed and when we woke up in the morning.

She never let herself get too drunk even though I told her I’d watch her back if she did. That’s what you do in a relationship – you watch out for each other. We’d been together for a couple of years, but she still had a hard time wrapping her head around that concept, understanding why I would bother to carry around extra foundation in my purse for her. She did small things for me, too, though, without even realizing it: after the wedding, she unzipped my dress for me and I did the same for her. Even if the behaviours were learned, they were still genuine. I felt it in her touch, when her fingertips, purple peeking through, brushed against my back.

Her dress was yellow, bright even in our dimly lit room. Most women I knew would be appalled to hear they had to wear yellow in a wedding, but Tess was excited. She always told people that yellow was her favourite colour because it was the colour of the sun, the big ball of gas in the sky that kept us all warm, alive, and thriving here on Earth. I knew that wasn’t really the reason, but I never burst that bubble for her. I let her have it, let it protect her, invisible but always there.

My dress was lavender and, yes, I did it on purpose.

I wish I looked as good in purple as you do.

I let my dress fall to the floor, laying in a pool around my ankles and tangling with the yellow fabric she kicked off seconds before. She winced at my comment and pulled away when I thumbed a line of foundation off of her cheek.

Why do you do this?

Come on, I just want to see you.

See me? I’m standing right in front of you.

You know what I mean. The real you.      

You fetishize the real me.

I do not. That is not what this is about and you know it.

Why can’t we fuck when I feel good about myself for a change? Why do I always have to look the way you want me to look?

That’s not what this is about, at all. Fine, come on.

I grabbed her arm and tried to lead her to the bed, but she yanked away from me and backed off. She looked down at the handprint I left on her skin, then back at me. It was a scene from my memory, when I was standing in her shoes and the purple handprint was burst capillaries instead of melanin. I was suddenly the old boyfriend sitting on the bed full of regret and she was me, storming into the bathroom and getting in the shower to wash the pain away.

*

I was asleep by the time she came out, but I woke up when she got into bed. I rolled over to get a glimpse of her bare face, but she had her back to me, a T-shirt loosely covering her body. I didn’t deserve to see her, I knew that. But I still wanted to. I always wanted to.

In the morning, Tess woke up before I did. She was sitting at the small table in the corner of the hotel room, her tablet propped up in front of her. Her shoulders were hunched over, the same loose T-shirt still hanging over her body, now like a tent, her arms tent poles. Bad posture wasn’t something she landed with – it was something she developed after starting her desk job, but it strangely suited her. Her tendency to be uncomfortable in average situations. The insecurities that plagued her very existence here. Those things didn’t cause her to have bad posture, but they were such complementary accessories.

I tried not to make too much noise as I shifted under the blankets to get a better view. She didn’t notice that I’d woken up and sat silently, one elbow resting on the table with her chin in her palm. The other hand was switching between scrolling through her Twitter feed and lifting a mug of coffee to her lips. She always let her lips linger against the liquid for a few more seconds than us, one of the few bits of her that she let me see. It was how she tasted things, she told me, which was especially interesting when we made love. I paid attention to where she kissed the most often, where she spent the most time. When she kissed the sole of my foot, I let out a laugh – not only was I ticklish, but I also couldn’t imagine what the fuck she was tasting.

So what exactly is your tongue for? I had asked once.

I’ll show you.

And she did show me. She showed me a lot of things in bed, but they were all things she’d been shown by the internet and television. Things I could’ve learned from anyone, anywhere. The same way she sat with me while watching the morning news and asked questions, craving the knowledge of things worked on Earth, I wanted to know everything about her and where she was from, but all she ever gave me were her lips and a few copied and pasted sex positions.

Tess tapped a video on her feed and frantically turned the volume down, glancing over at me but not noticing that I was awake already. As it played, she tore open a single-serve pack of almonds and poured them out onto the table. She lifted one to her lips and dragged it across as if she was applying lip balm before popping it into her mouth and chewing it slowly. 

She finished the bag before the video and stood up to toss it in the garbage can, finally catching a glimpse of my open eyes as she walked past the bed. Her expression was softer than the night before, dark purple bags under her eyes and a slight burgundy tinge across her cheeks. Late nights and alcohol did that to her. 

I’m sorry about last night.

I’m still mad at you, but I have to show you this video.

She grabbed her tablet from the table and hopped into bed next to me, resting it against her knees and dragging the playhead back to the beginning of the scrub bar. A kitten played with a chick for four minutes straight, a second chick joining the party halfway through. We exchanged soft sounds of bliss as we watched before Tess locked her tablet, tossed it aside, and kissed me until we both felt okay again. 

*

Breakfast at the hotel was free.She followed me to the buffet so I could grab a bite. The dining area was decently sized, with a long table against the far wall, silver trays lined up for us to peruse. Tess peeked into the trays, intrigued, only ever having been to our local shitty buffets that always had spoiled sushi for some reason. She’d never seen a buffet quite so “fancy.” She didn’t make a plate despite being very obviously drawn to the create-your-own waffle station, but instead sat across from me at the table and watched as I shoveled scrambled eggs and diced potatoes into my mouth. I didn’t waste any time touching my food to my lips like she did, so the meal didn’t take long for me to finish. 

As I cleaned up my dish, though, Tess’s boss entered the room, pajamas still on. She was a tall and slender woman with broad shoulders and long red hair, all of which had looked impressively better in her wedding dress than in the pajamas. Disheveled and exhausted, her now-husband nowhere to be found, she appeared to be nothing more than one of us,  yet I felt a pang of worry well up in my belly at the sight of her, or maybe it was just the excessive amount of eggs I’d inhaled. 

Tess offered a shy wave before pulling out a chair at our small table. Her boss noticed and headed over, lightly pressing her fingers against her temples as she sat down. I uncomfortably held my empty dish in my hand, unsure if I should bring it to one of the waiters or wait for it to be taken away. Tess’s eyes lit up, pink like cups of hibiscus. The colour was dark enough that not many people noticed until she was standing in the sun and the flecks of pink popped out. The sunlight may have melted off her makeup, but it did make her eyes glow.

I wondered what colour her planet was. Were her eyes just tinier versions of it, pink and glistening? Or was it purple, like her skin? It wasn’t so far-fetched — our skin on Earth matched the terrain, shades of beige and brown, with eyes matching the ground, grass, and water, too. I wanted to ask Tess right then and there if her planet had purple dirt and pink water, but her boss let out a long, harsh yawn that interrupted me.

Long night? Tess asked, leaning in toward her boss.

You know it, Tess.

They shared eye contact for a moment before they both giggled. I, not in on the apparent joke, ached for a waiter to come and intervene. 

Long night for you two, as well?

Her boss glanced at me and I froze. I felt as if her laugh lines were crawling off of her face and reaching across the table to strangle me. What exactly was she asking? I looked to Tess to help with an answer, stuttering unintelligible sounds. Something about the conversation left me feeling like an outsider, unwelcome and unallowed to respond. I’d met her boss countless times before at holiday parties and work functions, even spoken to her the night before at the wedding to say congratulations, but at the breakfast table, gripping my dirty dish, I was a stranger. Tess took the reins and I took to searching for a waiter.

I walked back up to the buffet, holding my dish like I’d held my clutch the night before, handing it to a busboy refreshing one of the trays. I reached into my pocket to pull out a couple singles, dropped one into the tray, pulled it back out, dried it on my jeans, and then handed it to him as a tip. He only nodded before walking away from me and I didn’t blame him.

When I got back to the table, the now-husband was sitting in my seat. He was even taller than his now-wife, which I figured was the case but still didn’t think was possible. He was lanky like an unsharpened pencil with tufts of dark brown hair atop his head like a bird’s nest. I imagined that the chicken who laid the eggs he was eating plopped itself on top of him and cawed angrily at him for eating her unfertilized children. This made me laugh out loud, which wasn’t received well by Tess:

What are you laughing at?

Nothing.

People don’t just laugh for no reason.

How would you know that?

Her boss and the now-husband looked up at me, confused, and Tess wrinkled her brows at me. I didn’t know what possessed me to say that, but the question was already out of my mouth and floating in the air between us all like an unwanted ghost haunting a family’s new house. The now-husband lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth. There was no room at the table for me, so I stood there in silence, all three of them staring back at me. 

I honed in on the now-husband, taking all of him in and understanding the situation within seconds. The same familiar smugness, a smugness I’d seen in his kind many times before. As we locked eyes, he began to smirk as if he knew the turmoil I was suffering and was getting off on it right there in front of me. It was the same expression my old boyfriend wore after raising his voice just enough to scare me but not enough to get the neighbours to knock. Sure, Tess’s boss was tall, but like I said before: not quite as tall as this guy.

Satisfied with something, himself, maybe, he patted his mouth with a cloth napkin, let out a soft chuckle, and stood up from the table.

You can take my seat.

Your seat?

Yes? My seat? The seat I was just sitting on?

Don’t you mean my seat? The seat that you took from me?

Calm down, babe. It’s just a seat.

The now-husband roared out a laugh and “excused” himself, polishing off a glass of a muted-red bloody Mary, violently biting off the leafy end of a celery stick before shoving it back into the empty glass. It rattled against the remaining ice cubes as he placed the glass on the table and walked off, leaving my seat vacant. When Tess’s boss began to laugh, too, Tess let out a giggle.

I pushed my seat in and headed back to our hotel room.

*

The drive home was an hour and a half of radio silence. Dull pop music quietly played, Tess’s fading finger tapping against the steering wheel every now and then. She had her sleeves rolled up past where she applied her foundation, so her lilac began at her wrists. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for me. I  glimpsed over at her as much as I could as she drove. She had only just got her licence and insisted on being the one to drive to and from the wedding, still wanting to practice as much as possible.

It’s a big part of being human, you know? Driving.

Her outfit for the ride home was basic: blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt.  She chose it so she wouldn’t have to apply foundation on her entire body, despite rolling up her sleeves, anyway, but I impulsively threw on a pair of shorts. My thighs stuck to the seat of the car and I felt as if I was tearing my skin off as I fidgeted.

My thighs are sticking to the seat. I said.

You’re having a lot of issues with seats today, huh?

*

When we got home, Tess parked the car in front of our house and we sat in silence for a couple minutes before getting out. I grabbed our bags and she readied her keys, but she stopped abruptly midway to the door. I gently collided with her back before stepping away and asking what was wrong. She was looking down, her foot still mid-step, hovering just above a small, dead bird. 

She slowly placed her foot next to it and knelt down. I more than half-expected her to lift her hand to it and use some mysterious powers to bring it back to life, but instead she just examined it. It lay on its stomach, most of its wings and body still covered in matted feathers, but its skull completely visible, white like an eggshell. 

Let’s have a funeral.

A funeral? For a bird?

Don’t you have funerals here when things die?

I nodded. I put our bags on the ground and helped Tess gather some wild flowers, creating a tiny bouquet of dandelions, oxalis, and smartweed. I didn’t have the heart to tell Tess that these were weeds, not flowers, because she smiled so softly as she placed the bouquet on the bird’s body.

It was just a bird, such a small creature, but Tess sat next to it and asked me to say a few words. Neither of us knew the bird personally, but as the sun began to set and oranges and pinks bounced off the bird’s naked skull, I felt as if I had known it my entire life, or at least like it had known me.


Melissa Martini graduated from Seton Hall University with a Master’s degree in English with a focus in Creative Writing. Her fiction has previously appeared in Pretty Owl Poetry. A true Capricorn at heart, she works full-time as a Project Coordinator at an executive search firm in her home state of New Jersey, but still writes short fiction in her free time. When she isn’t writing, she’s looking up astrology or running her dogs’ Instagram account. A bisexual woman who has struggled with body image and sexuality her entire life, Melissa’s fiction often explores what it means to have a body, especially when it collides with other aspects of one’s life.

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