He had told me to meet him outside the drugstore at the corner of Lackan Park and Cuneas Street. I stood out in front, so he couldn’t miss me. It was cold. The glare of the gaudy white window shone upon me, the green neon cross, with its constant ‘hmmm’, expanding, contracting, expanding, contracting, forever, and ever. I looked out ahead; the park was dark. I heard the jostling buzz of traffic in the distance, faint sirens, receding horns, life going on - but not here. The street was quiet. I began to feel as though I were on a stage; on show, lit up so bright and the darkness all around – like there could be an audience out there, just beyond my eye’s reach. I always feel like I’m being watched when out in public. Always aware of how I would appear if someone were looking at me at that moment – ever the object. I tugged at my skirt absent-mindedly, and glanced at my reflection in the window. Fine, I’d had to rush, didn’t finish work until well past 8.30, then the Underground was late, and I’d gotten ready quickly to be here for 10. My lips were still ‘Vixen 521’ red. Red lips always made me think of sensual danger, as though blood stained, a devouring woman. Red lips telling a story of past sins; delicious.
I rubbed my gloved hands together to combat the cold. My breath made a billowing stream of condensation each time it left me, a ghost, losing a little of myself with every exhalation. What time is it now? I peered in at the clock behind the pharmacist’s counter at the back of the store – 10.42! I could’ve frozen to death at this stage! I let out a little groan, and started shuffling from one foot to the other to combat the freezing sensation covering my toes. I looked around, willing him to come into sight. A car crawled past filled with young, overweight Latino men. They were quiet, windows up, prowling the streets for something to do, something to ignite them – they stared at me, desiring me to offer them amusement, to give them a good time – I stared back in pointed disgust, then looked away, not wanting to give them an opening. The car trailed off into the blackness, the grumble of the engine fading to nothing, the tail-lights eyes in the back of its head, receding out of sight. It made me feel relieved, then oddly sad, abandoned, as I watched it go. I shook myself. If I had been waiting for anyone else, I’d be long gone by now; home, hot shower, bed, then on the phone to Nancy, talking about how I would give the guy hell next time I saw him. But for this particular man, I’d have waited an eternity. He was different. ‘Debonair’ Nancy had called him, when he’d stopped by the diner that night. He was a real gentleman, just like the ones you read about – dashing, tall, brown hair, blue eyes, brilliantly white teeth… His teeth were so noticeable – I’d never seen teeth before, the way I saw his, I’d just taken them for granted, but they were dazzling, hypnotically white. He was so beautiful. Beautiful. I sighed, and felt butterflies of expectation in my stomach, warding out the cold. I don’t know why he fell for me - it remains a mystery to this day, despite his reassurances and coaxing caresses. The first time we’d met was the night Nancy had called him debonair. He was in a booth, alone, a long camel coat folded beside him. He wore a grey suit, well-fitted, expensive looking, his face buried in the menu. I’d checked myself quickly in the mirror behind the counter before walking over to take his order – my blonde hair tied back in a regulation bun, my green eyes bright, my cheeks flushed from the hot kitchen. When he looked up, his eyes…his eyes! Everything else melted away, all I could see were those piercing blue eyes. I forgot myself, that I was a waitress, that I was 21 and had just come up from the South and lived in a flat on the outskirts of the city in a Greek neighbourhood. That my favourite food was P&J sandwiches, my favourite singer Van Morrison, the early years. At that moment I felt like whatever he told me about myself, or about anything for that matter, I would’ve believed. He could’ve told me the sky was red and I’d have argued it to my dying day. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before – it reminded me afterwards of those hypnotising snakes you see in the east coming out of baskets, the way their eyes envelop you, and seem to go in crazy circles - at least in cartoons. He told me afterwards that it was the two of us falling in love at first sight, but when I told Nancy she said it sounded like the two of us losing our minds at first sight. She hadn’t been a fan of us dating right from the start – she couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something about him she didn’t like, said he was almost too perfect, that you couldn’t get a firm grip on him, he was like sand slipping through your fingers. I didn’t know much about that, I’d always thought he was just the right amount of perfect.
As I stood reminiscing, forgetting myself, he appeared silently out of the darkness. The cat, which had been loitering around the bins near to me, jumped suddenly and scampered off, startling me out of my reverie. Before I knew it, he was all around me, embracing me entirely. His warmth reminded me of just how cold I was. Momentarily irritated, I tried to push him off. He grabbed my arms, and looked me in the eye without saying anything. I caught his stare, and he smiled. I couldn’t stay mad; I was just so happy to see him all of a sudden. I asked where he’d been, and he said sorry, someone he used to know had held him up, couldn’t get rid of them. I wanted to know more; who did he used to know? A woman? He smiled, and started walking, linking my arm. Yes, a woman – but she was gone now. I didn’t like it one bit. Through my mind went images of him and some beautiful, mysterious woman, foreign no doubt, and petite, in a wild passion, as I stood like an idiot outside a goddamn drugstore. As I brooded, and we walked in the opposite direction to that which the young men in their frustration had gone, away from the liveliness of the city in the distance, I felt him looking at me. But he wasn’t, he was looking straight ahead. It was more that I felt him looking in me. I felt ashamed of my thoughts, as though he could see them, and disapproved. He was a lot older than me. I pushed them out of my mind, and made myself think of the night ahead. Before I could ask, he said ‘we’re going to my place, I think it’s about time you saw it, don’t you?’ He smiled, and drew me near as we walked around the corner of Bauss Street. My stomach turned – his place. His home. It had become a sort of mythical place in my mind, as though it didn’t actually exist. I had waited so long to see it, had begged to see it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it now. I immediately wondered if it had anything to do with the woman he had just been with, and suddenly felt uncomfortable, although I didn’t know why. The street was yellowish and dim. As we progressed, a hum grew loud in my ears. The streetlamp at the far corner flickered and groaned, attempting to stay alive, to fight the fatigue overcoming it. There was something so desperate about it, so disconcerting about the erratic, jumpy light, I shivered. I felt a cold creeping over me. The isolation of the street, the quiet of the night, both slowly dawned on me. As he walked, I listened for his breathing, but somehow felt that I could only hear it when I actively tried. I grew uneasy, and I felt, as though in reaction, his grip tighten slightly around my shoulders. I had a sudden urge to turn back, but I couldn’t. What would I say? I looked up at his face, and saw he was smiling slightly to himself. God he was beautiful. I felt that familiar feeling of reassurance wash over me; but this time something of the uneasiness remained. This was a new sensation, to see him and remain unsure. I didn’t like it.
He led me down a maze of side streets for what seemed like an eternity. My nose stung with the cold, and I nestled into his warm body for protection. He wrapped his coat around both of us, never relenting his pace. I stumbled on, allowing myself to entertain the bulging dark notions that filled my mind. I was jerked back to reality by a sudden halt. I peeked out; we faced the enormous, ornate door of a building that stood cramped between other, similar buildings, on a residential street that was clearly in the higher-class end of the city limits. I’d certainly never been there before, and I knew the city pretty well. In fact, I was proud of my geographical knowledge of it. In the early days, before I’d landed my job in the diner, I’d filled my time by getting $1.25 trams all over the place and walking home from wherever I landed. Sometimes it took hours, but I was guaranteed never to make the same mistakes again. I had a mind for directions, and landmarks, just like my father; so I was told. I didn’t know, I could barely remember him.
He rooted a key out of his pocket, temporarily dismissing me from my warm coat-sanctuary, and fitted it into the gold-leaf lock. It clicked, the door groaned open. ‘You should get some oil for those hinges,’ I said in the hallway, shaking the cold out of my bones. ‘You could wake the whole neighbourhood with that big creaky thing.’ He smiled wryly, and said I was right, he should, but I could tell he had no intention to. I felt foolish. A realisation had been slowly expanding in my mind, like water in a balloon. As the door shut behind us, it burst, and flooded me entirely. I did not want to ascend the stairs to his apartment. Dread seeped through me. He walked directly behind me, so I couldn’t pause to get my bearings. I couldn’t let him see, even for a second. The fear was growing, fear of him knowing I was scared, fear of what lay ahead. My heart thundered, I prayed he wouldn’t hear it. All the while I kept my steady pace, and he kept his behind me. I felt his presence at the back of my neck, tingling. His foot fell on each step like the drum in a funeral march. The panic grew quickly, painfully in my chest. At that moment, all I wanted was to be at home, in my Mother’s house, in my own bed, looking out, through the mesh that stopped mosquitoes entering through the open window, at the stars, hearing only the hum of the insects, the rustle of the great oaks in the garden, feeling the light breeze wafting in, playing over my thin white sheets.
At the top of the stairs, there was a door. He whispered in my ear to open it. I hesitated. I didn’t want to, not yet, I wasn’t ready, I wanted to go home. He tipped me, ever so gently, on the shoulder. I entered, and he followed. The door shut with a heavy click behind us, and we were in darkness. I felt his breath on my neck, felt his presence swell behind me as though his whole form, his whole being, was growing, looming over, encircling me. He lingered just beyond the realms of touch, but I could feel him. It was then the clouds lifted from my foggy, grey mind, I knew. A surge of red. Perhaps I had always known, that it would be like this. I took a deep breath, and turned to face him. His eyes and teeth glimmered in the faint light filtering through the net curtains covering the musty windows. His mouth was open, and he was panting slightly. He saw my face slowly fall into one of defeated recognition, and he smiled.