Romance Short Story: “Ladybug” by Gail Bartley

“Ladybug” by Gail Bartley is the First Place-winning story in the romance category of the 12th Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the 13th Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Bartley’s winning entry.

“Ladybug” by Gail Bartley

Ladybug isn’t really an insect, despite what her four-year fans believe. She earns her modest living starring in The Bug Parade, a one-woman extravaganza of fantastical creatures she creates herself in a cavernous loft, far out in Willamsburg, Brooklyn. It is not yet the trendy neighborhood it will one day become. She has an erratic frizz of brunette curls, a ballerina’s body, and is given to random acts of hugging. It’s rumored that she sleeps around, in a wholesome, Kundalini and carrot juice sort of way. No one really knows if this is true, for in spite of all the hugging, Ladybug isn’t an easy read.

Self-contained as an actual ladybug, standing alone on the corner of 73rd and Madison, she loads her heavy case of costumes into a Yellow Cab which speeds off into the milky grey light of another winter Saturday. On the private pre-school, Upper Eastside birthday-party- circuit, The Bug Parade is in great demand. Ladybug often works these parties back-to-back, sometimes three in a day, until it’s all one sugary, Baby Gap blur.

Sliding into the cab, she tucks her purse neatly on her lap, exactly the way her mother does; the way all her sisters do, another vestige of her formerly-small-town-Ohio self which she cannot shake, no matter how far she runs. Inside the purse is an untouched chocolate truffle cake baked inside a red clay flower pot, the whimsy of which was lost on the three-year old guests at the last party.

That night, after a long hot shower, Ladybug crawls into bed with the flower pot cake and a fork, thinking of the Balloon Guy, who’d slipped her this treat on the guest floor of the Feinman’s townhouse where the two of them were taking a break from the toddlers. The Balloon Guy (whose real name is Max) is the Michelangelo of balloon animals. He’s been flown to Paris at least twice to entertain at fancy parties and recently spent a whole month in Tokyo, wowing customers at an exclusive children’s toy store.

While Max glows with confidence when creating balloon animals, he is otherwise shy, most especially around Ladybug, for whom he feels a heart-thumping attraction. Offering her pilfered cakes is the safest way he can think of to signal his affection.

A few days later, Ladybug steps out of H & H Plastics on Canal Street with a waggling armful of the foam rubber she uses to build her costumes and sees Max at one of the outdoor stands which line the street, selling everything from socks to sunglasses. She barely recognizes him at first, having never seen his naked head minus the silk top hat he wears when making balloon-animal magic. Max’s hair (as uncontrollable as her own) sticks up in five or six different directions, clearly not a style but a more of situation best resolved by hats.

Caught off guard by this unexpected Max-sighting, Ladybug is torn between making a quick getaway before he spots her or just walking up like a normal person and saying hello, but before she can make up her mind, Max sees her and waves.

Watching Ladybug approach, Max (who’s been picking through a pile of tin wind-up toys) nervously tosses a miniature robot from hand to hand while the vendor glares at him from behind a mountain of folding umbrellas.

“I thought that was you,” says Ladybug. She stands a few feet away since she’s a walking hazard with all the foam rubber. She waits while Max searches for his wallet to buy the toy from the vendor, who charges him ten dollars out of spite. Right then, it starts to pour.

Max reaches for Ladybug’s arm and pulls her gently under the store’s awning. The vendor shakes his head, amazed at someone who will spend ten bucks on a fifty-cent toy when what he clearly needs is a three-dollar umbrella. But Max simply isn’t an umbrella-person, and neither, it happens, is Ladybug. In spite of a nagging sense of missing something when caught in the rain, they have never been prone to solve the problem with the purchase of an actual umbrella, especially when standing next to a stack of them so large it shelters two people quite nicely from a downpour.

Besides, Max and Ladybug are consumed with something more important than precipitation. Fate has thrust them together at this particular umbrella-and-toy stand, of all the countless umbrella-and-toy stands from Hoboken to Harlem, a fact they both know must be acknowledged. Thus, when a short while later, Ladybug finds herself riding the subway home to Brooklyn with Max at her side, her bug-parts balanced gallantly on his lap, she is nervous, happy, and alarmed. For it is Ladybug’s tendency to fall into bed with men following innocently chance encounters like this one, and generally, to regret it.

The sweet promise of a glance across a library shelf or a shared ride up a long escalator seemed to fall apart once the breathing slowed, the strange bathroom was peed in and I’ll-call- you was said, if rarely meant. What could have been, mostly never was. The last one, she’d thought, might be different. They’d shared every single Wednesday for an entire year, but only Wednesdays, never more. So when Mr. Wednesday suddenly stopped calling, thirteen months ago, Ladybug took the hole in her week that was shaped like him and filled it instead with the gun metal sky outside her window and the hum of her sewing machine. New creatures sprang forth – a saucy lavender cockroach, a ten-foot tall praying mantis worn on stilts, fat velvet bumblebees, and just because, one pale pink rose she wore as a kind of voluptuous hat, her freckled nose peeking out from between the petals.

Mornings, she woke early, did yoga stretches beside her bed, then fixed a pot of tea (plain old Lipton) and sat at her worktable, contemplating whatever bug-in-progress waited there. Eventually, she would punch the button on her answering machine and listen to the confident mothers who intended to book her for very special parties celebrating their most extraordinary children. These calls Ladybug returned promptly, with a practiced brightness reserved for all things bug-show related.

Rarely, there would be another message, from her sister in Akron, or her mother. Weeks later, she might phone back and leave an answer on their machines, thus avoiding much actual conversation, which worked for everyone. Theirs was not a close family, and time and distance had pushed them increasingly apart. Mostly, she was alone.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, Ladybug rode the subway to Manhattan to take ballet lessons in a dusty studio on 14th Street, followed by a meandering walk to the fabric stores in the 30’s. She knew all the grumbly old men who worked behind the counters there, and could lose herself for hours amid the satins and brocades, the buttons, sequins and beads. Her last stop would be a Korean market for a few groceries; just enough to fit in her backpack, then the long ride home, a forty-minute daydream.

Now Max’s shoulder pressed against hers while the train swayed, picking up speed as it rattled across the bridge above the East River, reminding her that she wasn’t alone and had slept with no one but her cat in over a year. Abruptly, she was aware of how much she wanted to. But then what? If she disappointed him, if he disappointed her, to run into each other at work would be agonizing, whereas now, it was always a happy surprise.

Ladybug stole a look at Max, who gazed out the window at the dejected towers of the housing projects ahead. She’d never been close enough to him to notice the scattering of gray hairs above his ear which didn’t match his pink-cheeked-boy face. A face so much like those of the children he entertained that it was either scary, or perfect, or perfectly scary. He turned to her, catching the measurement in her eyes. She smiled a smile she hoped would say, don’t worry, I like your contrasts. I like the way you sit there in charge of my crazy foam rubber, ferrying it like precious cargo clear to Brooklyn because it’s raining and we both hoped you might. I like it that you’re nice and I don’t like it that you’re nice. Am I nice? I don’t know. Max smiled back, at her, a little sadly, as if he could hear her babbling, uncertain heart.

The walk from the train to Ladybug’s loft smoothed things over some. Max had never visited Williamsburg and a close call involving a beat-up station wagon jammed with Hasidic Jews, their ringlets dangling, gave them plenty to talk about. Max, it turns out, was Jewish himself (non-practicing) and was curious about Ladybug’s religious roots (Lutheran, also non- practicing). Theology covered six blocks and three flights of stairs, but abandoned them once they stepped inside Ladybug’s loft. Alone at last, an anxious silence settled around them like a low-lying fog.

Max spotted Ladybug’s worktable and placed his load there, admiring an intricate set of wings which she explained were for her new housefly costume. She struggled through the fog to her kitchen area, trying to remember what you did when someone visited, since in the three whole years she’d lived there, no one ever had. Then her Ohio upbringing came to the rescue and she began making tea, laying out honey, lemon slices, graham crackers, her grandmother’s cups and saucers. Max sat at the kitchen table, petting her cat who lay curled in his lap, blissfully shedding.

There they were, then, sipping tea while rain pinged softly on the roof and the cat purred, when Max reached over and took Ladybug’s hand in his own. They sat just like that for a long time. It might have been days until they fell onto her bed, where days slid into weeks as they swirled and spun till somehow, night arrived and though they should have been hungry, they weren’t. Finally, they slept. When Ladybug opened her eyes, it was really morning and the bed beside her was empty.

At first she though he might be in the shower, but the loft was silent and when she checked, there was no trace of Max. Not a damp towel, not a note. Only an indent on his pillow; the chalk outline of a good idea gone bad. Ladybug lay still, regret jagging through her. Then came tears, the worst betrayal of all, for Ladybug was not a crier. Pulling the blankets around her, she rolled onto her side, searching for comfort in the reliable gray sky outside her window, but the gray was gone and floating there instead was a rainbow bouquet of balloon birds, balloon butterflies, and one magnificent red balloon rose. She rushed to the window and looked down.

Three stories below, Max leaned against the building, patiently clutching his gift as it bounced and drifted on the morning breeze. As he had done at regular intervals for the entire two hours he’d waited there, Max looked up towards her window, but this time, he saw Ladybug. Beaming up at her, he waved both hands, in his excitement forgetting the balloons, which saw their chance and sailed up and out, across the rooftops, headed for the lonesome streets of Manhattan, where another heart surely needed winning.

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