By Gregory J. M. Kasunich
She was white. Not just Caucasian, but white.
Her skin was cream. It clung nicely over her subtle physique, molded neatly on her wire-frame of a skeleton. Her hair was made up of inky strands of black, flowing over her porcelain face. Long and seemingly luminous, it veiled her face and kissed the tops of her bare shoulders. Her eyes: nothing more than two light, blue, droplets in the tight pools of radiant skin that surrounded them. Her eyebrows and lashes were painted black, sharpening and defining her nearly transparent visage.
She was only twenty-two.
She called herself “albino”. I don’t know about “albino”.
I called her an angel. She said she didn’t know about angels.
That night her eyes were wreathed in dark eyeliner. A red dress hung lazily by spaghetti straps and slid seductively up and down her slender body when she moved.
“ I only wear red or black.” She whispered, almost afraid to be heard by the contemporaries that lounged among the overstuffed, angular sofas, spouting bits of Nietzsche, or commenting on the Jasper Johns prints on the walls in order to impresses each other.
I failed to be witty. Instead I wondered if the tobacco nimbus that hung ominously above the room would give me cancer or make my increasingly thinning hair smell. I didn’t mention this. Instead I told her again she was an angel.
Maybe it was the sincerity in my voice that colored her cheeks rose. I can’t be sure; I was focusing on that smile. One glimpse and I was infected with it and my face broke open in delight as I smiled back and in that moment I was fourteen, in high school again. I was dancing with the first girl I ever loved. And then, I was back.
It was the first vibrations sent flying by the upright bass player that reminded me of the present and I was embarrassed for forgetting myself in that instant. She looked up from her drink.
“Because of my skin, I can’t wear anything else.”
The end of her whisper was chopped off and drowned by the syncopated tapping emanating from the drum kit manned by a young Robert Redford. I know he looked like this because an intimate couple behind me had said so in a discussion I had overheard moments earlier. I don’t even know who Robert Redford is, but the words spilled out of my mouth anyway.
“I don’t know who that is. Is he a musician? I know I know the name…” She laughed waiting for me to answer. Her attention split equally between the decaf latte she rolled between her milky hands and our conversation.
I was boring myself. We looked away from each other. Her eyes darted to the trio in the corner.
I looked up and watched them flicker about the band.
I used to play.
The candle lamps licked her face with red and yellow.
Then. A spotlight.
The chatter faded with their sources and she was alone in light, the rest of the world swallowed in black. Blue smoke twisted its way in and out of the light and that’s when I knew.
I had said it twice and reiterating it might make me out to be a fool so I exercised the little tact I credit myself with and, in the dark, I slyly issued a food request to the grad student waiting on me.
The lights come on and we are back. She turns back and there is decadence defined in white chocolate and raspberries sitting in front of her.
My mind wandered away from the scene and I failed to notice that the favor had been returned. It was the sharp sting that bit my nostrils. And then I was back. Looking at myself reflected in pool of scotch surrounded by cut crystal, a half smile flashed across my face.
“ I’ve taken care of it. Besides, and don’t take this the wrong way, but you looked like you could use it.” She said, right after she slid the fork from between her lips and before she entered it again spilling over with white and red cheesecake.
I took it the wrong way and became instantly aware of the sweat making itself present on my forehead. Her face turned down toward her delicacy, I took the opportunity to empty the drink swiftly into my belly. The gasoline-like vapors seared my throat as they made their way back up my esophagus in a stifled belch. Her eyes turned back up and met mine, and after a moan of approval she leaned in and exhaled the words,
“What about pastels?” That was my response.
“What about what?”
“Pastels. You could wear pastels with your skin tone.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Like Easter colors. Light blues and yellows and pinks.”
“When I was younger that was all I had to wear, I think I’ll stick to the red and black for a while.”
And for a fraction of a moment she was gone. Perhaps she went to that time when she was colored with pastels. But now she was twenty-two and only wore red and black.
Without either of us noticing, our soiled dishes were removed and she asked me,
“Why are you here?”
The question stole the words from my mouth.
“I was about to ask you that…” I said this and realized that it was not an answer. “I like the music. I used to play, but got away from it. Piano. Never got good enough to learn jazz, but,”
I told myself not to make terrible jokes,
“I play a cutting version of heart and soul.”
I made a terrible joke and wished I could swallow the words back up.
Her giggle surprised me and I credited pity with its impetus.
“Music. That’s why I am here too, but I never played anything, I just love how organic it is.”
There! Gone. Back. Where did she go again? Was she lying?
“So what do you do when you’re not here?” Maybe the answer would present itself, I wouldn’t use the term gumshoe, but the word did come to mind.
“You can’t ask me that yet.” She said half serious, half….
“Have I given myself away?
“Yeah.” A smirk accompanied this swift response and was followed with, “Can I be honest? It’s the reason I sat here in the first place. I’ve seen you before, and I guess tonight was the first chance I had to, I don’t know, sit next to you. What I mean to say is, tonight was the first time I had the courage to approach you.”
Was that honest? I was compiling more questions than answers. I told myself not to take off my glasses and clean them with my shirt. Then, I took off my glasses and cleaned them with my shirt.
“I’m glad you did.”
Her eyes conducted a silent interview that I assumed I was failing. Our waitress swooped between the tables; a small cocktail tray with six or seven neon colored frozen drinks teetering precariously on each hand evoked the image of the blind justice statue working in a café. I coughed the word “check” at her and autographed the air above the table with my hand. She shot me a knowing nod and escaped into the kitchen.
“ Is it too soon to ask your name?’
It seems we both find anonymity to be a virtual comfort blanket and bulletproof vest.
“Is it too soon to tell you mine?”
“It’s not important” she cooed and melted away some of icy insecurities.
The set ended, and with the music gone, the pattering of rain on the façade of the café played like a gentle encore.
The check appeared and I shot my hand out to swipe it before it could even hit the table. Too eager? She caught the price from the corner of her eye.
I paid and she told me she knew it would rain, but ignored her intuition, which left us sans umbrella.
I glanced over my shoulder and my eyes followed a droplet as it traversed the glass, dodging and meeting other drops until its inevitable plummet out of sight.
She bit her bottom lip and her eyes drifted to one side and then like an ornery teenager whispered, “Let’s brave it.”
“Where are we going?”
We spilled into the streets, our hair and clothes absorbing the drops until the point of saturation. We dripped and shouted between the roar and splash of the frantic motorists.
“Where are we going?” As I say this I realize if I were a cat I would have died long ago.
“Stop asking me that. Enjoy the weather”
And for a few moments the air between us was nothing but comfortable and quiet. Her dress, now soaked, took the huge of fresh bled plasma. Shoulder to shoulder we walked among the towers of plaster and concrete, heads tucked in, we scanned the pavement dotted with tar and chewing gum. I still had no idea where the night was leading us, but for the first time in years I didn’t care.
I won’t lie. I was attracted to her. It felt good to feel again. As the water clung to my dusty glasses my eyes went out of focus and for a moment I was two years younger, walking home from signing the divorce papers, my chest once again an empty cavity, my dignity abandoned in a lost and found box at some nameless bar. And like the clouds above me, my eyes began a silent downpour. In that moment I felt the warmth of her hand slip into mine. And I was back.
Her fingers wove themselves between mine and my chest lost its rhythm for a moment.
“What are you thinking?” she asked innocuously
I didn’t know how to respond and my throat coughed up a few nervous consonants. Finally, “ I’m just wondering why you took me out. Why you sat next to me. It’s just, I’ve never seen you there before, and, well, I can’t imagine I looked any good tonight.” The honesty spilled out of my mouth and mingled with the rain, yet, I didn’t feel ashamed to ask, that is, considering my intentions.
She smiled to herself and look up from the ground, her black hair thick with water, clinging to her face. Pulling it away from her eyes she whispered, “I didn’t mean to. In fact, I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself.”
Her translucent eyes pierced mine and it took every ounce of restraint I could muster to keep my arm from slipping around her waist.
“I knew you would be there tonight, and I haven’t been completely honest with you, but I will be. Soon. We’re almost there.”
Quiet again we walked, her hand still entwined in mine. Perhaps her apartment? Doubtful. I dreaded the idea of awaked yet mandatory small talk. I never liked the grand tour, the “can I get you a drink? Would you like some music? No, no, no, you pick. Sorry for the mess…” Pointless. Besides, I never expected to be here. What I feared even more was the eventual end to this evening. Leaving the one thing that removed my heart and mind from their constant anesthesia.
When you lose the life you built, the foundation of your personal existence vanishes. Without that, people are capable of unthinkable things. I had a plan, and when those dreams where prematurely truncated, financially, emotionally, completely, I found myself making a new plan. An exit strategy.
We walk. I think.
I couldn’t remember when my job at the airport became my career at the airport. That’s all I would ever say to people, “ I work at the airport”, and they assumed the best. Pilot, air traffic controller, flight attendant, never luggage claim specialist. At least I got to wear a tie. I must have some sort of masochistic personality in order to have worked there as long as I did. Everyday hanging for the blunders of the tarmac workers. The luggage handlers, in between pot breaks, and by this I mean both the lavatory and the marijuana, they exchange lurid stories, cigarettes either clenched in their dry, yellowed teeth, or pinched between cracked, chapped, folds of skin that twenty years ago resembled lips, and mindlessly toss the travelers belongings wherever.
Yet, I am the one everyday on the cross, a smile pinned to my face, explaining how to claim a bag and the easiest way to attain a fresh pair of underwear. No one smiles at you. Nobody thanks you.
Despised and forgotten. My wife followed suit.
Somebody always has a bigger bank account, more time, better looks, a fatter stock portfolio, a faster car, and more lucrative investments. If you ever attempt to beat them out, you’ll be disappointed by the inevitability that someone else has more. I settled. She didn’t.
Mid-life crisis isn’t the right word, but it comes to mind.
Soon we are shielded from the downpour. Angels and demons stand frozen in perpetual combat over our heads. I know were we are. I know this place. It’s where my parents brought me as an infant, an adolescent, an adult. Where my wife swore to love and never leave me. We stood on the stoop outside St. Christopher’s and my angel of only twenty-two years kissed me.
I remember my first kiss, most men don’t, but then, I was always told about my over sensitive nature. It was nothing significant, sixth grade and too young to know love, but old enough to want it. I sat silent and scared not hearing the explosions of the Fourth of July celebration due to my focused concentration on my fingers as they inched closer and closer to the girl that first kiss me. Our fingers crawled toward each other for what seemed an eternity when finally they tangled themselves together and we slid so soft and awkward into each other’s arms. In that moment the world was gone and there was nothing but that kiss. The kiss that would become the measuring stick for every kiss there after. The kiss that lasted longer than eternity yet was all too short, and then I was back.
This kiss was better. This kiss, now, here, under the arches and raindrops, was ever more significant. This kiss saved my life. My senses where heightened and diminished, I was completely aware and lost. She stepped away. I wiped the fog from my lenses.
I looked into her cool blue eyes and followed the black droplets of mascara that slipped from her eyes like dark tears and she stared into mine, brimming with bewilderment and calm. We looked at each other for what was forever and all too short, and an entire wordless conversation took place. One where she told me that it was ok. That this life goes on and brings us to unexpected places. To exhaust filled garages and emergency room tables.
To empty apartments and endless frozen dinners.
To clinics and clubs. To bleak bars and no way home.
To coffee shops and jazz cafes.
To rain soaked streets.
To St. Christopher’s Cathedral.
She didn’t say everything happens for a reason, just that everything happens, and when it’s over it’s over, but when it’s not, it’s not, and while we still have it, we have the chance to make it good.
All with no words. I wanted to cry and fall into her and melt into a puddle with the rest of the water and flow into the oceans with her. But I knew I couldn’t, not yet. I had to say something. I had to say…
“ Thank you.” Slow and deliberate it came out.
“Thank you.” She echoed carefully.
“Was for us… is for us.”
“Why did you take me here, I, don’t really even know you and…”
“Shhhhh” she playfully cooed, “because maybe I needed you more than you needed me. Maybe this entire night was set-up by someone or something, I don’t know, I can’t know, but what I do know is that some time ago I ruined a piece of my life, and when I saw you there I felt like I had a chance to get back what I lost. I may be only twenty-two, but I assure you, that is more than enough time to make a lot of mistakes.”
More than she had spoken all night, and with a faint click and buzz the street lamps clicked on overhead and surrounded her head in an electric halo. I didn’t care what she had done, my angel, she had saved me, and I her. And as she smiled and stepped back and trickled away into the night I stood standing alone on the steps my parents walked with me as a child and realized everything at once.
We all fall for a reason.
That night I fell asleep on the stoop of the church and dreamt that I died. At first I went to hell and the fire kissed my hands as I walked though the Black Door that opened to the caverns of the damned. The devil greeted me and asked me if I had expected such a fate, and I told him I couldn’t care less. Then powerless, the devil laughed a defeated laugh and sent me away on the back of a lion who took me to heaven and complained the whole way about back pain. When I arrived in heaven she was there and I said “I told you so” and she laughed. She took my hand in her hand, which felt like mint, and we walk for a thousand miles. At the end of our walk she lay down to sleep and said to me, “never remember the reason to go, just the reasons to stay”. I nodded and she was gone.
I woke up to find myself hung over and without my wallet. I walked home in the new morning sun and was filled, for the first time in a long time, with warmth.