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  • Raundi Kai Moore-Kondo

The Revival: A Survivor’s Tale (excerpt)


By R.K Kondo

Copywrite January 2020

For the Love of Words

www.TheLoveofWords.com

949-939-6029

66 Wild Horse Loop

Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688

This is an original work of fiction by R.K. Kondo. No portion of this manuscript may be used, or reproduced, without the express written consent of the author and publisher.

The following contains adult content.

Trigger Warning: contains sexual violence, child abuse

“Don’t you get it? Every time an artist fails at suicide, they get to be someone new. The last thing I want to do is remember how I got here. Just leave me the fuck alone.” That is what Cassandra Martin told me at her last appointment, 3 weeks ago. I was afraid I’d never see her again, but then I received the following.

Grace Mc Adams, Psy.D

Chapter 1

Writing down what I can remember is supposed to keep me from losing everyone who matters to me. The day that changed everything, began with the nightmare I’d never escaped from.

When I screamed—no one heard me. Screams are no match for emptiness. My panicked cries bounced off the white walls, until they deteriorated into nothingness.

Jeremy’s small body hovered near the bottom of the deep end. His fine-brown curls caught my attention, wispy and floating—looking like the last strands of life were leaving him.

“We don’t have time for games. We have to get back!” My heart raced ahead, knowing how this would end.

But he didn’t listen.

“Jeremy! Quit messing around and get out of the pool. You know you shouldn’t be swimming, alone. Mom is gonna kill us if she finds out.”

No matter what I said, the only movement he made was the slow, subtle bobbing-up-and-down, which came from the water itself. There was no struggle on his part. He looked content with the gentle rise and fall of his surroundings.

Unprepared for the cold, every muscle in my body seized-up upon entering the water. During a moment of blindness, he vanished, and the pool grew miles wider and a thousand feet deep.

The blue sky seemed no more than a traitor, at first, tempting me to retreat—as a watery sun hung too low to ward off the numbing cold.

“Please, don’t hide from me. We have to get out of here. We have to go home.”

During the frantic search, came the searing pain…the unbearable pressure…ears…throat...lungs. My head was on the verge of imploding. Every part of me… aching and burning…. screaming for a breath. There was always the possibility we’d both drown this time.

When I reached him, his eyes were half-open, but I wasn’t brave enough to look into them. His hand was stiff and lifeless.

“Why won’t you hold my hand? Why won’t you come with me?”

No matter how hard I pulled, he didn’t budge. He was an expert at suddenly gaining a million pounds and refusing to help at all.

During the struggle, the pain died. Only the white walls were left…

The calmness would have been serene if not for the sickening stillness of being the only one left. The pool area was glaringly deserted... except for the falling stars. I never knew where they came from, but I wanted him to see them.

“Can you see the falling stars, Jeremy? Quick! Make a wish.”

Once the stars dissolved, darkness seeped in, from the edges of my vision, and bled into the white walls. It was then I’d remember to look up. It was always too late. The opening to the sky rapidly narrowed, and I knew we couldn’t pass through to the surface. The black always consumed it faster than we could rise.

“Do you see the blue sky, Jeremy? I have to go up, and you have to come with me. Please… you have to come with me!”

The smallest patch of blue remained above us…trying to wait for us, but Jeremy was already gone, and I was alone.

I woke gasping for air and choking on my own saliva. Dismal morning light streamed in. Warm, dry sheets and cool clean air became unmistakable signs of life. My lungs peeled themselves apart, as oxygen and reality forced their way in: I’d survived. He was dead. And no matter how many times I relived it—I would never find a way to save him.

Lightly licking my thumb and index finger, I groped behind the bed to find the cable and two metal-prongs which belonged to the clock radio. Easing them out of their holds in the outlet, just the right amount, took a certain amount of precision. I never touched them: I knew exactly how close to get. The sensation rang clear through to my heart but then ejected me before I could feel the pain as deeply as I wanted to. It didn’t take more than a few seconds to recover from the jolt. Sooner or later, I’d have to find something more potent.

It was three hours before I had to meet Karen and going back to sleep was not an option. Laying there with my own morbid thoughts would have been too torturous, even for the masochist I often chose to be. I plugged the radio back in, reset the time, and turned the volume up, so no other dangerous ideas could infiltrate my thoughts.

Coltrane talked me down and kept me from tormenting myself while I painted. The sudden changes in melody and tempo and dynamics barred my brain from drifting-off and making rash decisions without my consent. No romantic lyrics to make me feel worse. The melodies kept my mind occupied like a toddler with a new toy. When the distraction was taken away, say by an alert from the Emergency Broadcast System breaking in with a flash-flood warning for the following areas—my brain threw one hell of a tantrum and the painting came to a halt.

How fucking slowly can someone drown, anyway? Could it take years? It felt like guilt and isolation were eroding at my will to live. I fantasized about life slipping away. Last colors, last breath… alive one minute, dead the next. Was there anything in between? I’d talked to the dead, every day for years, but he never shed any light on the matter.

The rest of the morning was spent thinking caustic thoughts. I felt unfocused most days, but that morning, even more so. I couldn’t concentrate on any one thought long enough to compartmentalize it. Visions and voices came at me unordered, with remarkable speed, and without regard for my ability to handle them. I wanted to be able turn the volume down and tune into the thoughts, one at a time, but it never happened. Talking things over with Jeremy helped me to focus. But after that fucking nightmare…it was hard to find the words. One of the things I could never talk to Jeremy about was that nightmare. I didn’t want him to remember that day, even if I couldn’t forget it.

Have fun while I am out. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Oh, and I have something new to show you. It’s super creepy. Half tarantula-half scorpion. I was thinking of calling it either Taranpion or Scorpantula. Yeah, you’re right. Scorpantula is way better than Taranpion. I’ll be back, soon.

Driving across town to a restaurant, without any recollection of how I’d gotten there wasn’t an isolated incident. Had I hit any red lights? There had to have been at least one in the 2 miles from my apartment. And, when had it begun to rain? I should have been concentrating on my driving, and where I was going, and whom I was meeting, but I hadn’t wanted to think about those things. Instead, I’d let my imagination run the gauntlet, unchecked, which was never a good idea. On the drive over, I thought of four new ways to kill myself which wouldn’t involve anyone else, but none of them would look like accidents.

Staring at the small groups, waiting for tables in the overcrowded restaurant, made me ache with fatigue. Sitting in my car was an option, but I was already inside the door, and getting inside was the toughest part. Sometimes being in a crowd was better. It made disappearing easier. They don’t see you…they don’t see you… they can’t see you—was the mantra playing in my head.

The biggest mistake was agreeing to meet Karen there. She of course would be late, or just as likely, not show up at all. Either way, I was stuck in that miserable-fucking Deli, as if it were perfectly okay to be sitting in a crowded restaurant, on a Saturday morning, alone. The hostess caught my eye, and I was forced to tell her I needed a table for two, even though I was by myself.

This was where Karen always wanted to come. It was a place Paul would never set foot in. It was her place to escape. She’d never admit it, but it was obvious.

I could just picture her walking through the glass double-doors, long-black hair draped over a dark blazer and pearls, looking like she didn’t belong—too good for the place, is what most would assume. Karen always came late, so she wouldn’t have to sit alone. This was what Paul had done to her. He turned her into a scared child and someone I barely recognized. So now, I was always the one waiting until she decided to arrive. Her big black eyes would search the room, holding everyone in it under suspicion, until she reached the booth and the safety only numbers provided. Even having one friend in her midst gave her the courage she needed. My hope was, she would eventually forget herself, and the blazer would slip away. She’d giggle over some man’s severe comb-over and transform into the Karen I loved and desperately missed.

I hadn’t heard from her in months. The call was cut short, but it had been just long enough to detect the unmistakable whines of anxiety. I’d obsessively replayed the conversation in my head, a hundred times since the day before, but there wasn’t a single meaningful clue as to why she suddenly needed to see me. I’d been trying to get her to return my calls for months.

“Cassandra! Thank god! Meet me for breakfast, tomorrow, I need to talk to you. I have a nail appointment at nine…so…what about before… like 8ish? Let’s meet at The Deli, okay?” She reminded me of a kidnap victim, reporting her whereabouts before her captor returned. I wanted to suggest someplace else—anyplace else, but I couldn’t think of an alternative which would make me feel any more comfortable. The long pause was surely making her even more agitated, so I gave in.

“Yeah okay. The Deli. 8:00. Not 8-ish. 8:00 am.” I tried to sound firm, but it probably sounded sniveling.

“What’s wrong, Cassandra?” Her speech returned to its normal rate and tone of concerned-annoyance.

“Nothing… really…it’s just that place…it’s so…”

“Look, it’s close to my nail salon. And besides, you hate every restaurant in the city, so what difference does it make?” The rapid-fire responses returned and any concern, which may have been there, was gone.

“Yeah, well there’s another reason to leave.”

“Please, don’t start that, again. We’ve been through this before. Where would you go? Look, we’ll talk tomorrow. Okay?”

“You promise you’re gonna show this time?”

“Yes. Last time, was…well you know how it is—Oh no, I guess you wouldn’t…”

She would never have pointed that out before she met the prick.

“Paul was just under so much stress. I shouldn’t have made plans without checking with him first. He needed me.”

What could he possibly need you so much for? He’s a grown man.

I wanted to say the last part, but then I could hear him. The prick was back. His voice lashed out at her from somewhere within that monstrous place, they called home. It gave me a sick feeling in the center of my chest to know how she lived.

“Cass, I have to go. See you tomorrow,” and she hung up before I could say anything else.

She was right. I didn’t understand, and never hoped to. Their marriage was a perpetual criminal act which continued to go unreported. Karen was an accessory to the crimes committed against her. And in that respect, the perfect partner for Paul. He’d waited his whole life for a victim/accomplice like her.

So, at 8:05 am, when a hostess reluctantly led me to a booth for two— practically insisting on some sort of collateral for the prime real estate she was unsure I was entitled to, I knew there was a good chance Karen wouldn’t show up at all.

The Deli, as it was affectionately known by its regulars, was more like a diner than a restaurant, and more like a restaurant than a deli. The food was pretty good, but the service was horrible; unless you came by late at night, when the service turned hostile.

The self-absorbed patrons never really noticed the staff, until some pending emergency occurred. Which was usually their coffee cups nearing half-empty. And so, began the futile attempt to get an employee’s attention. The wait-staff seemed to enjoy lording over the coffee. Not every patron was deserving of a warm-up.

The staff went about more important duties—like complaining about customers, gossiping about each other, rolling their eyes, and refilling saltshakers. There was no chance of anyone getting fired over anything like that, so all around me impatient looks and fake smiles poured out as arbitrarily as the coffee.

The waitress in my section was particularly annoyed with us. We were collectively ruining her day by showing up expecting service. The look she gave, as I was seated alone at a table for two in her section, told me she wasn’t feeling forgiving. She was doing her job: my saltshaker was full, and my coffee cup was half-empty.

I knew I was easy enough to ignore, but I wondered how anyone could have ignored the tattooed man with the hacking cough. An enormous, eagle-emblazoned arm waved in a hopeless attempt to get her attention, while the other was fixed to his mouth suppressing another attack. Only an aisle separated them. She blew past us, with a full pot of coffee in one hand and her tip share dangling from the other, then disappeared into the kitchen. Once behind those doors, there was no telling when we’d see her, again. With a collective sigh of defeat, everyone in our section returned to poking at their egg-white omelets and rationing coffee.

There wasn’t an available table left. Black and white photos, of supposed customers and celebrities smiling and holding full cups of coffee, adorned every wall. The slick, red-vinyl booths sat poised to eject anyone who might point out that “The Deli” was a farce. As it desperately tried to convince everyone it was the place to be, once inside, it made everyone feel like it was the last place they wanted to be.

It was 8:10 when I felt brave enough to look at my watch. There was no sign of Karen. Paul had done it, again. He rarely let her leave without some sort of hassle—especially if he knew she was meeting me. If she showed up, there wouldn’t be time to talk about anything but her perpetual husband-drama. The waitress passed by and glared at my lack of company. Taking up a table for two wasn’t going unnoticed, even though my empty cup had.

Five more minutes, then I would have to get out. My hands were secured under my legs, to keep them from fidgeting, as I searched for a distraction. At times, I felt lucky to have them. For painting, of course, but they also served as jittery barometers, warning me of looming danger. The only other things vying for my welfare were a sketchpad and pencil on the table in front of me. Risking the release of one hand, I began making a pro-con list.

I thought about doing it the day before, in preparation for this meeting with Karen, but grew too anxious staring at the blank columns refusing to fill up. To my knowledge, pro-con lists had never helped anyone in the history of television make a solid decision about anything. Today it served a purpose: namely to keep me from losing control of my hands and ultimately my mind.

Karen would accuse me of running away, but this time, if she showed up, there would be proof to the contrary.

“Look Karen, according to my list, I am running from a big-fat-fucking-nothing!” I could then hold up my list and proudly show-off the big, blank pro-column, like a spokesmodel on a gameshow.

Karen would of course say something patronizing like, That’s not true. You’re just being self-deprecating.”

“Tell me Karen…what else should I put down? What else? There is absolutely nothing keeping me in this fucking city! I hate it here! There is nothing to stay for. Well, nothing except a stupid fucking job…” which is when she would be appalled over my language, not to mention how loud I was being.

So, maybe Karen was right: the nothing, which made up the rest of the list, was enough to make me run. It never scared me before. Something changed. The air around me had grown too thin. So thin, I was in a constant panic, as if on the brink of taking my last-life-sustaining breath. I longed to slip out of my own skin and disappear. The smack of reality primed the path for panic, and I lost the battle in the booth. When panic wins, there is no keeping it from gloating.

Nothing but a job! Just a stupid-fucking job! I began to hit myself in the forehead with the the sketchpad like some kind of derelict. Calm down already…breathe…surely there had been some hope it would turn into something bigger. NO: not true either; there was never any real hope. Jesus though…jobs were things most people I knew only tolerated. Who am I trying to kid by putting it in the pro-column? What was I still doing in this horrible city? FUCK…what was my reason for liv…OH GOD! FUCKING BREATHE, CASSANDRA!

I had to stop. It was too dangerous to peer into that black hole. The question was like holding a needle to my vein.

Setting the pencil down, my free hand slipped back under my legs again. The underside of my thighs must have permanent indentations, the exact size and shape of my hands. I was rocking slightly, forward and back, as an anorexic woman at the next table was staring— obviously troubled by my behavior. I nodded to let her know I was only a danger to myself, but she wasn’t convinced and turned away, looking prepared to find a payphone and call the authorities in case I got out of hand.

The waitress hadn’t returned after I told her I was waiting for someone. She disappeared, and now, I only wanted the bill. As I scanned the restaurant it was apparent everyone else had already given up on her. I could have just left five bucks on the table, but panic attacks don’t come equipped with that kind of logic.

I had to calm down. Get back to the list! So, what else? Oh God, don’t fucking panic. Think! What’s missing?People! There were no people on my list. I had to put down some people: Karen…Melissa… quick write them down.Write them down before they disappear, too.

Seeing some space on the page filled with the living and breathing, allowed me to release the breath I’d been holding. I started to write down Karen’s parents and thought better of it. They had been like family, once, but they were lost to me, now. It was barely a memory I allowed myself to revisit. Things turned humiliating, and it became impossible to separate out the good memories from the shameful ones. In the years since, nothing changed. There was a vacancy no one ever tried to fill. The flashing-neon sign of desperation above my head—frightened everyone away, like I was a Hitchcock film playing out in real time.

Then the list came to a complete halt. A rowdy group of guys, seated at a booth across the aisle and slightly behind me, burst out laughing over something. I shifted, slightly in the booth, so I could see them better—half worried they were laughing at me.

Don’t stare; they’ll think you’re some kind of freak.

But all the mental reprimands did nothing to prevent my eyes from returning to them. To my great surprise though, the pointless game of trying to avert my eyes kept panic at bay while I waited for the waitress.

The three young men were odd. Why? God, what was it about them? Accents? Irish? It was hard to tell, at first. But yes, they had mild-Irish accents and were going on excitedly about something—which made them impossible to ignore. Even the anorexic woman, at the next table, couldn’t take her eyes off of them. An older man, with a severe comb-over, had been going on about a modeling job she was perfect for, but she was clearly not paying any attention to him. She recognized what a peculiarity the three Irishmen were. Which you might be surprised to know is rare in Los Angeles. The city’s reputation as colorful and teeming with glamour, sparkly and rich, steeped in talent and creativity, with its own cool vibe and whose zip-code can make you feel superior—is just another lie. Everyday felt like a deeper shade of dismal. Camouflage was one’s only real hope of survival.

Straying too far away from the pack makes you a target for ridicule and ultimately leads to a fall from grace. Those brave enough to risk true originality, will be smartly beaten down, driven to neurosis, and subsequently medicated until they fit neatly into a drab office-cubicle. Sooner or later, we all come to learn— demoralized and alone is better than having to endure deconstructive criticism, obvious disdain and constant cynicism.

So, it made no sense to me how these three non-descript, Irish-ish guys managed to stand out without any apparent effort or fear. Short hair. Clean cut. T-shirts, jeans and genuine laughter. Sounds benign right? The thing is, it wasn’t even vaguely familiar.

Unique in L.A. is fleeting; you might miss it if you are too busy making lists and looking for your waitress. Perhaps the most maddening part is you never know who anyone really is because they are surely copying someone else. Everyone bleeds together into a hue-less monotony.

All of my paintings, since moving to Los Angeles, seemed to be set in some alien-dimension; I was certain I never wanted to visit. Surrealism had never been my intention. It began, more or less, as an accident. Being surrounded by so many terrible actors, the forms I had grown dependent on to define emotion stopped making sense and needed to be redefined. With everyone vying for notoriety, the foreground quickly turned into a landfill of decaying narcissists: all choking each other out in the quest to feed their own bloated egos.

But these three Irish guys were different. They belonged in the foreground—a focal point nothing dared to compete with. Whether it was their accents or their sheer excitement, there was no way to explain them. I was hooked: eyes rapt, and ears tuned exclusively into them; all other sights and sounds faded away like a good background should. These three men had my complete attention. Captured on a canvas, and so caught up in their own cares, they had become a painting who could never stare back. Unless of course, I did something ridiculous to get their attention. Unfortunately, the painful awareness of the possibility was always lurking below the surface. I could well-imagine them catching me staring and being unable to look away. I would surely lose control and yell something across the restaurant at them like: What the fuck are you looking at? Haven’t you ever seen a social pariah before? If only muzzles were as fashionable as I needed them to be.

Yet, why would they notice me? Disappearing into the background had been my life’s work. It was only when provoked, that things like that happened. Or if I was drunk.

It was the perfect day to watch them. I was sober and virtually camouflaged. No mirrors were necessary. I knew what I looked like: bleak and unapproachable, blending in with the weather— pale, as if I hadn’t seen the sun in years. As a painter, I know, nothing sets off pale skin like bright-blue eyes, but mine were hue-less, like my father’s. A flat-grey used only as a primer. Not even the kind which sometimes betrays itself and turns blue when you’re wearing the right shade of green. Instead a constant, deep grey was all I’d ever seen staring back. Too opaque to be windows to a soul: more like two-way mirrors at a line-up. Fitting, since invisibility and lurking were my creepy little super-powers.

I once saw two mirrors facing each other at the perfect angle; they gave the impression of infinite space in both directions. If two mirrors facing each other could do it, I wondered if two sets of eyes could too? I’ll admit, it’s hard to imagine. It was only some stoned thought I’d conjured at some point and hoped it were true and tried to paint. It failed. Perhaps because it was a lie. If it were true, I wanted to paint it. But first I would have to see it for myself.

Though, looking into someone eyes is harder than literature had led me to believe. The difficulty was directly proportional to how much fear I felt in the moment, and I assume it’s the same for everyone. I’ve always hated those scenes in movies where the woman dares a guy to look into her eyes and tell her he doesn’t love her. In reality he would say “of course, I love you” and then never call her, again. Everyone knows, lying about love is second nature for most people. Besides, lies are just words, and we all use them to be as honest as we can. But there are some eyes, who can lie better than most mouths. I’d seen it done by some of the best. My eyes had an accomplice in long, mousy-brown hair, which I wish I’d remembered to brush before leaving the house. Even so, it could fall conspiratorially across my face, at will, making any truth or lie easier to tell, or accept. Even when lying to myself.

A faded-grey flannel shirt completed the look of isolation and despair, which was considered couture in my remote world: asylum-escapee chic, to those in the know. Like maybe I’d stolen the clothes from a ward-nurse of my approximate size. It was the perfect camouflage for eavesdropping.

Taking in the overwhelming cheeriness of the three men, across from me, became obsessive— almost like some kind of resuscitation. It had little to do with how they looked. Every breath they exhaled in sound, I ravenously sucked in. It was subtle, yet somehow still more potent than anything ever had been. Their voices were life-altering, yet they appeared completely oblivious of their power. Accidental deaths are reported every day, but I had never heard of an unconscious lifesaving. Yet here I was—seated in The Deli of all places, and suddenly the recipient of one. It would never make the Eyewitness News at 5, 6 or 11.

With my eyes closed, and a little concentration, it was easy to hear them over the madness surrounding me. The incessant smokers cough; the anorexic and her agent; the middle-aged women next to me discussing the best place to buy knock-off handbags—all the annoying utensil dropping, plate stacking, and table clearing…simply disappeared. The ordered tones of the Irish accents, defying all the rest, were carried over and above the din. I couldn’t determine what they were excited about. It was impossible to make out a meaningful string of words since they were constantly talking over each other.

The occasional “Oh bleedin’ ‘ell!” or “fecking brilliant!” stood out, but the rest really didn’t matter to me. It was like listening to Jazz: syncopated and chaotic, yet somehow melodic, harmonious, and stirring. An instrumental piece where the lack of words only enhanced the emotions they evoked. It was better not to have any context. Specific details would have only diminished their effect on me. Instead, I could just draw in their mood and pretend the happiness was my own, and I was somehow a part of it. The raw sounds had an addictive quality; it was startling how quickly the dependency formed.

“Are you sleeping?” The waitress’ voice jarred it all away. “You can’t sleep here. Other people are waiting on this table.”

“No…of course not…I…”

Thankfully she was called away by the red-faced, and still-coughing, tattooed man before I could respond in a more embarrassing manner.

It was then I realized the Irishmen were leaving and a new wave of panic came over me. Too stunned to know what to do, at first. Then, too chicken to do anything at all. Two of the men stood up and walked past my table. I sat holding my breath waiting for the third to follow. Feeling dizzy, I gasped for a breath as I noticed the third man wasn’t leaving. He was looking over some paperwork, spread out on the table, while sipping a cup of coffee.

Drifting out the door with the sounds of the other two was compelling, at first. I mentally kicked myself for not walking out with them. Following their voices should have been like floating to the surface, but for some unknown reason, I clung to the booth. Besides, I needed to wait for my bill. The waitress hadn’t given me the chance to ask for it. So, my attention did what seemed to be the next best thing. It returned to the man still seated at the table.

Even though their voices were gone, I immediately realized the sights were compelling. Going unnoticed and watching him was the best I could hope for. It wasn’t like sitting down at his table and striking up a conversation was an option. Talking with strangers had one of two effects on me: I either became painfully mute or every thought in my head uncontrollably poured out. It was disturbing for everyone involved.

At first, I hadn’t noticed he was handsome. The three were a collective, like a painting or a song, but now he was alone, and I could focus on him, exclusively. He was about my age, mid-twenties. Brown hair— probably a dark blonde if he ever let it grow. The short haircut appeared to be a decision of convenience rather than fashion. It reminded me of my brother’s haircut when we were kids. At the beginning of every summer, his hair would be shaved almost to the scalp. Even as it grew out, there was no need to comb it for months. Jeremy always looked innocent when the grown-out cut gave birth to soft-brown curls. But in this guy’s case, the short hair and fair complexion made his high cheekbones, dark eyebrows and deep-set eyes, even more prominent than they might otherwise have been. All of this combined, made him appear too serious for his young age, and certainly in direct contrast to the happy sounds emanating from his table earlier. I quickly became lost in him—a sculpture I wanted to study from every angle.

One eyebrow, his left, was raised as he scrutinized the papers laid before him. This single prominent feature gave his face a slight asymmetry. Then it all changed: his face took on a smile, as his attention turned to a new page. Even the hint of a smile softened his strong, angular features, drawing out his cheekbones which were smooth and full of color—like a kid who spends little of every day playing in the sun.

His eyes closed slightly, as if he were imagining something pleasant. He picked up a pen and wrote a note on the paperwork. Then the left brow rose even higher, projecting a brand-new set of emotions. It was obviously a habit of his: that eyebrow responding to every thought. The muscles in his face were unequally formed because of it. The imbalance wasn’t the least bit unattractive. Perhaps this one feature was a physical manifestation of some paradox within him. A psychological wound he’d never sorted out. Maybe he had a twin, and they’d been separated at birth. Maybe he’d been injured as a child and had gone temporarily blind in his right eye. There was no way to know what was even remotely true. Yet already, every expression was endearing to me, and I felt a fondness for him I couldn’t explain. He reminded me of something. The Irish Spring commercial was my first thought. No, the Irish Spring guy was blonde. But that commercial had been my only Irish frame of reference. So instead, maybe he was just someone I wouldn’t want to forget rather than someone I remembered.

Another part of my brain took over and continued the careful study of him. Knowing I would be able to conjure his features, months or even years later, and put them to paper was comforting. I’d never been more grateful for my unexplainable, and mostly useless, gift. He became simple lines, and angles, and gradients—colors, and shades of colors coming together, which would later form a complete persona. It was an inspirational process. There was such relief in being able to focus and give something my undivided attention. He was a project I could be passionate about.

The unfortunate part was that the persona I attributed to lines, angles, and colors was a product of pure imagination and never amounted to any sort of useful information. In the past, this sort of self-deception actually led to risky behavior. Clearly this was a case which called for extreme restraint. There would be no fraternizing with the object of study this time. I could safely make him whoever I wanted him to be, once alone with my embedded memories and a blank canvas. There was nothing dangerous about that. Even so, he was going to be a challenge. He felt too foreign. Yet it was thrilling to wonder who he could become. I wanted to paint him as a sculptor—broken over a woman. I wanted to paint him naked in a garden. I wanted to paint him naked, everywhere. He was destined to become my most beloved trophy.

At some point, the waitress came by unnoticed and left my check—probably still angry at me for wasting the booth and only having a cup of coffee. It was 8:30. Karen wasn’t going to show. I would give her a call from the payphone outside to be sure she was okay. I knew Paul was probably to blame. I could already imagine how the conversation would go.

“So, what did the prick do this time?”

“Oh…don’t say that. Why do you always have to be so crude, Cassandra? I’m sorry I didn’t make it…Paul and I had a disagreement over the… housekeeper, gardener, the visa bill…whatever other bullshit she could come up with… and you know how much stress he is under at work…”

It would be an infuriating and futile conversation, yet I would have to endure it. Somehow it all seemed worth it. Not Paul, of course, but being stood up by Karen. If she had shown up, then I may have never noticed the Irish men.

I’m not sure when the precarious plan to try and strike up a conversation with him started sounding like a good idea, but at some point, in the space of about 30 seconds, talking to him became an obsession. I suppose it began with me convincing myself it would be a purely, artistic encounter. The idea of having a few more details to add to my images is what compelled me to act.

Okay, so how many times a day does a normal person lie to themselves? The truth was, deep down, the thought of having his accent directed at me was too much to pass up, and I hoped it would lead to some sort of random hook-up. After knowing what the passive voices had done, I needed to know what else he was capable of.

I reminded myself to say as little as possible… let him do all the talking. The point was to get him to say something. If it became a horror show, there was only the risk of not being able to recreate him later due to my own mortification. I wondered if it was worth the risk this time. I hated to lose all I had of him, so soon.

The waitress came to an actual, complete and total stop at his table: not the usual rolling-stop, which was her trend. He chatted easily with her, and she was obviously flirting with him. A twinge of jealousy flared-up inside of me and remained until she left and went on to the next table. Then he carefully slipped the paperwork he had been reading into a manila folder. He swallowed down the last of his coffee, picked up the check, along with a pile of cash and a handful of coins left by his friends, then stood up to leave. He was wearing faded jeans and a well-worn, red t-shirt. No jacket or sweater. It being unusually cold for February, I wondered if he were too poor to buy a coat and almost offered him my flannel.

He turned toward me as he left the table, and that was when it happened. He must have felt my stare because he glanced down at me and smiled. I managed a quick look away, but just a bit too late. Being caught staring was something I never handled gracefully, but at least I stayed silent this time. Non-responsive was certainly better than ranting obscenities. All the same, it must have appeared completely anti-social, and there wasn’t much chance I would be composed enough to undo that impression. Then it occurred to me: if he’d spent any time at all in this frigid city, he was used to that reaction, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, yet. The upside was he had smiled and given me another detail to be tucked away for later use. If only I could have smiled back. There was just no telling what kind of regret this would become.

I gathered my purse and sketchbook and managed to reach the line for the cash register, behind him. He was still looking down at the paperwork, partially sticking out of a folder, smiling at it as if pleased with what he was seeing. I wondered how often he smiled without meaning to.

God, Cassandra, say something…if you don’t say something, he will leave, and it will be too late. The weather! Ask him about the weather! No! Could I be any lamer? Maybe the scar above his left eyebrow? No—too personal. But then it was too late; it was his turn to pay.

Maybe it was impolite to stare but standing so close, made my eyes unwilling to leave him. I took in every drop: savoring him like the last-sip of coffee at the bottom of a cup which would never be refilled. His arms were long and well-defined—not like a bodybuilder, but of a craftsman. Maybe sculptor wasn’t too far off. I clutched my purse and sketch pad to keep from reaching out and running my fingers along the muscles which stretched from his elbow to his wrist. In an instant, this particular area became my favorite part of the male body. Perhaps it was because his forearms were decidedly exceptional and now only mere inches away from my hand. The list of subjects to paint was growing fast. This too would turn into some kind of panic when I tried to get it all right.

It was then I realized what was making the muscles in his forearms come alive. He was fishing around in his pockets, trying to find something. The other two men left some cash behind, but he didn’t have enough money. He was three dollars short. His repeated apologies were lost on the annoyed woman behind the counter, who had already begun to make a visual scene by rolling her eyes and shaking her head in exasperation. She wasn’t moved by his rueful plea, or his Irish charm, and planned to make him feel humiliated for as long as she could. The line behind us was growing longer, and upon hearing the irritated groans, I acted without thinking and handed the cashier the five-dollar bill I’d been gripping.

“Here—” I interjected, shoving the bill toward the cashier.

Neither of them looked as if they understood my actions. Both sets of eyes were drawn to my outstretched arm, looking for an additional clue to its purpose.

Then my wish came true. He spoke to me.

His voice was deep, but his accent made him sound kind, and …I don’t know…lyrical. The words were strung together with a slight vibrato, in such a way, it sounded like a song—which nearly brought me to my knees. On top of which he smelled so clean and fresh, all I could think of was Irish Spring and immediately wanted to shower with him. I was going to buy a bar of that soap as soon as possible.

“No! Please…No… Miss… please, you mustn’t do tha’…”

It was too late. The woman behind the counter was already handing me back my change. I snuck a quick look at him. If his voice hadn’t already sent chills through me, then his eyes would certainly have made me feel too warm. They were a pure blue I had seen somewhere before. Sky or water? Oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it. I had been mixing blue watercolors, acrylics, and oils for years, but somehow hadn’t ever produced this particular shade. I had to look away before I could decide how to reproduce them…before I said or did something I’d regret, but he spoke, again.

“That was grand of you, Miss, but you really shouldn’t have.” He sounded embarrassed yet appreciative.

The woman behind the counter looked neither relieved nor grateful. She had taken my bill next and began to poke irritably at the cash register, as if I’d ruined a game she’d been enjoying.

He was staring at me— waiting for me to say something.

“Uh… it’s no problem.” I was somehow even more embarrassed than he was. My nerves got the best of me and wouldn’t allow me to look up again, or even move, at first. I handed the woman all my cash without bothering to count it.

“Did you draw that?” His index finger was pointing down at my sketchbook, and there it was: a sketch of a smile, jawline, eyes and a raised eyebrow which I thought were only stored in my head. Not the usual demon-child or absentminded man-eating-flower that often appeared without my consent.

When the fuck had I drawn that? How could things possibly go so horribly wrong in such a short space of time?

A pudgy, impatient hand was holding out change to me, but all I could think about was getting to the exit. It was only a few feet away, but there was no way to reach it fast enough.

Noticing my attempt at an escape, he leapt ahead to hold the door open for me. It should have been a seamless process to get out the door, but in a frantic attempt to close my sketchbook, and balance my purse, they both slipped out of my arms. The mass of brown leather landed in a heap, outside the doorway, and the sketchbook lay open, revealing way more about myself than I wanted anyone to see. He tried to pick them up for me, but in the panic to get them myself, I nearly knocked him over.

“Oh, God—sorry. I’m …so, so … sorry!” My apology came out in erratic bursts.

He didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t look up to see what his reaction was.

Why can’t I ever be cool? It’s no wonder I don’t have a boyfriend. This is why I’d never had a real boyfriend. God, forget cool… why am I such a fucking freak?

I practically ran toward my car, gripping the leather strap of my purse, knowing all the while how deranged I must have seemed, yet I was completely unaware of how to make myself appear sane. My hands had always had a mind of their own, and I’d never learned to negotiate with them.

He broke into a run to catch up to me, since two elderly ladies were entering the restaurant as we exited. He stopped to hold the door for them which caused him to fall behind. He managed to catch up to me, at my car.

“Excuse me. It was kind of you to help me out, back there.” He tilted his head back toward the restaurant, and once again, he smiled at me. And, damn, he was good at it.

I managed to return the gesture. This caused a broader smile to form on his face, producing adorable dimples on top of everything else. His was a face I could paint a thousand ways—a life’s work. He was much taller than I had realized. Tall enough, I had to look up to face him. His accent… his voice… the combination was debilitating. I couldn’t decide if should pull him into my car and rip off his clothes or run away as fast as I could.

I was ready to run when he spoke again.

“If you don’t mind my asking…why did you do tha’?”

“I don’t know. It was only a few dollars, and…look…please excuse me, but I have to go.” I tried to appear serious, looking at my watch, as if late or on some sort of important mission. There was no telling if my facade was the least bit believable.

“But I must pay you back. My mates have taken off with the car, and so I am walking back to my hotel, you see? I can get you the money there. It isn’t far.”

Feeling his eyes on me was somehow as incapacitating as looking into them. There was an almost imperceptible embrace coming from them— like they were actively working to draw me out of myself and closer to him. I knew he hadn’t taken them off of me. He had to have noted all the anxious fidgeting. The hold his gaze achieved was paradoxically calming and disturbing. The calming effect was more unsettling than anything else. My emotional reactions were rarely appropriate. I knew better than to trust my own judgement.

I set the sketchbook on the roof of the car and began rummaging through my purse to find car keys, amidst the mass of meaningless belongings I felt compelled to carry around. If nothing else, the search kept my hands from thrashing about without any purpose and possibly striking him or some other hapless victim. It gave me time to gather enough composure to look up at him.

“That won’t be necess…,” The way he was looking down at me was too intense.

That was it: the end. I looked up, and now I couldn’t take my eyes off of his. Next, nausea set in. Oh God, please don’t let me throw up. It was exactly like being seasick but unwilling to step off the boat. Don’t do this. He’s a total stranger. He could be dangerous. You know better than to talk to strangers. Preschoolers know better than to talk to strangers. Don’t be stupid.

Setting all the reprimands aside, I couldn’t help wondering exactly how stupid it would be to have further contact with this man. Turns out, there was no choice: He was impossible to break away from.

“Brian,” he said, smiling, as held out his hand to shake mine and bowing his head respectfully, “Brian O’Rourke, in your eternal debt, Miss…?” Smiling, he was still holding out his hand to shake mine, yet there was no way I could bring myself to take it.

My hands were still out of my control: instead I clutched my purse with a death grip and tried to avoid wringing the leather strap between my hands.

Sparse stubble traced the line of his upper lip and framed his lower jaw. His face looked young, almost too young to be able to grow a beard, but there was no denying the soft beginning of one was there. There was also no denying, no matter how boyish and innocent he seemed, he was quite obviously all grown-up. His left brow was raised, waiting intently for a reply from me. Long lashes created a shadow over the blue skies…I mean eyes. Their focus on me made coherent answers impossible.

I felt terrible for not shaking his hand. So, out of guilt I answered honestly, “Cassandra Martin…Oh, fuck!”

“Why that is an unusual name, you have, Cassandra. Martin, was it? The “oh, fuck” is a wee bit harsh. Must have been tough on you in school.” He smiled, as if we shared some kind of inside joke.

I hesitated, to be sure he was actually joking with me, and wasn’t actually already familiar with my sordid history. The way he said my name gave me a shiver, which began somewhere around my chest, spread through my limbs, and painfully erupted out of every pore on my body. I was certain he had seen that, too. Hives: I was going to break out in a rash of them, right there, in front of him. As a diversionary tactic, I plunged into a reply without considering what might come out of my mouth.

“No. I meant …my last name. God, I am so stupid.” I was unraveling, as he stared back at me looking completely baffled by what I was saying. “You see, I’m listed. Which is so stupid. I have to admit it. God, why I am so fucking stupid? I’ve never been told a single woman shouldn’t list her full name and address in the phone book. Why doesn’t anyone ever tell you stuff like that?”

He shrugged in response, and I continued to rant.

“They act as if it’s a known fact or something. Well it’s not. I’m telling you it’s not a known fact, because I didn’t know. Well maybe I should’ve known. But they should have told me. It is fucking irresponsible on the part of the phone company, don’t you think?” Fucking bastards… now it’s too late. The whole damn city knows.”

He looked concerned, brow furrowed, the whole bit…but then a smile slowly returned to his face. He was nodding his head, in what appeared to be complete agreement with me, as if he knew exactly what I was talking about. So stupidly, I took this as permission to continue.

“It’s printed out there in every home, and every fucking phonebook in the city, for every psycho to find me. I am supposed to call the phone company to have them change and unlist my number, but I haven’t. Want to know why?” I didn’t even wait for an answer from him. “Because I am a fucking idiot. At work they had to take my last name off of my name tag because I got some weird calls at my house. My boss…Jesus, what an asshole he is. He had a fucking fit about having to change it, like it was some huge thing. It wasn’t like he had to make the name tag himself. Asshole.”

Brian was still nodding at me, but not really smiling anymore. Now, he appeared worried. How long had I gone on for? God, it was embarrassing.

“I’m Sorry… that was weird. I…,” I couldn’t finish.

“As I started to say, it is grand to make your acquaintance, Cassandra Martin.”

It suddenly felt like there was nothing to lose; which was pretty much true.

“Cassandra Martin.” He repeated, “I would very much like to repay you for your kindness.” His affected mock seriousness made me want to willingly give up all my personal information, but then I panicked.

“No…No. No. No. No. NO. I can’t. I can’t do this…No.” Shaking my head emphatically, and regretting my complete lack of poise, I tried to turn away, but somehow he held me there without physically touching me.

“Why not?”

“Look, I have an idea. Have you ever heard of paying it forward?”

“No, can’t say I have. What is paying it forward, exactly?” He had his arms crossed in front of him. One hand went to his chin as if he were prepared to give this idea serious consideration: his eyes boring through me the whole time.

“Go out and do something nice for someone else. You know… a random act of kindness. Give the next homeless guy you see three bucks.”

This should have ended it, but in an attempt to unlock my car door, I fumbled and dropped the keys. I bent down to get them, but he beat me to them.

We rose together, and he looked directly into my eyes as he separated out my car key from the mass of keys on the ring and handed it to me. “But what if I would like to do something nice for you, Cassandra?” His eyes were locked on mine. Blue skies—definitely.

Multiple major fires broke out simultaneously, in several strategic locations, on my body. I wanted him to do something nice for me, too, but it would hardly be considered prudent by anyone’s standards. Not even my own.

“Listen, I am going to walk over to my hotel, just over there.” He pointed to a group of large buildings a few blocks away. “If you just wait here, I’ll be right back with yer three dollars.”

“Really, it’s no big deal. I have to get going.”

“Please, it won’t take me long. I’ll run. It will take me less than five minutes. You can time me.” His hand reached out and indicated I could use my watch. His fingertips inadvertently brushed the back of my hand, and all at once, every ounce of my being was focused on that single square inch of skin. How long had it been since a man actually touched me? By mistake or on purpose.

“Please, would you wait? If I’m not back in five minutes, then you can leave. I wouldn’t want to hold you up from whatever it is you need to be getting to on this fine day, Cassandra.” He looked up at the sky, which brought my attention to the patch of blue sky, rapidly disappearing behind dark clouds.

He was being ironic which turned me on in a way I can’t explain. He monopolized all of my senses. His hands moved onto my shoulders, as his raised eyebrow worked to elicit an affirmative response from me.

While under his spell, the mere thought of moving was inconceivable. I nodded.

His hands felt like anchors keeping me earthbound, while the rest of him made me feel as if I would float off.

“Very good, then.” He looked directly into my eyes… mirrors…for an instant two-fucking mirrors...no fucking way… then the angle changed, and infinity was gone. Had he seen it, too? He smiled curiously at me, and then gave my arms a slight squeeze before he turned and jogged-off across the parking lot.

I watched his long, thin frame move effortlessly away from me. At first, he reminded me of an athlete warming up, but then he turned around, and was running backward, to see if I was still waiting. He mouthed the words “please, wait,” and clasped his hands pleadingly toward me, as if in prayer. He looked playful… and mortally dangerous.

This was frightening. I was feeling way too much for a complete stranger. This was unusual for me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I had never been seriously attracted to anyone close my age. Of course, none of those had turned out well. Mature didn’t equal fuckworthy or trustworthy.

This man, Brian, was far from harmless, yet there was something about him which made him seem worth the risk.

The other reason it was strange was because I usually scared people away long before now. I was mulling all of this over when paranoia took hold.

Damn it! Never Cassandra. Never judge someone for how they look…or for God sakes, how they make you feel. Don’t be such a fool.

I had to leave. Adorable and charming were definitely not worth getting involved with a total stranger. He seemed sweet enough, but that was hardly worth the risk. I was alone in the city. No family and only a couple of friends: one of which stood me up on a regular basis. If I disappeared, no one would know until I didn’t show up for work on Tuesday, and who knew if they would even care enough to report me missing. It was unbelievably stupid to talk to him at all. I knew better.

So, I hastily got into my car and left. I’d made strict rules for myself: waiting for him was clearly breaking them all. So even though it severely limited my already sparsely-populated social life, I had to at least follow my most important rule: no strangers.



2

Twenty minutes later, I arrived back at my apartment and opened the door to find everything exactly as I’d left it.

See, I told you I wouldn’t be gone long. You won’t believe it, but Karen stood me up, again. I know, it’s so hard for you to believe, right? Pathetic. Remind me to never agree to meet her anywhere, ever again.

My compulsion, to check all three rooms, was hard to break. Nothing in the living room had been moved. One sofa, one chair, two throw pillows. The bookshelf still held the hundred or so books I had acquired. But after all, who’d steal a book? Paints, brushes…supplies. Three-legged coffee table. All present and accounted for. There was nothing left worth taking.

Oh, and I met this weird Irish guy… I gave him three bucks, and I thought he was gonna have a cow or something. No, I didn’t give him my number. But…

The phone began to ring. The word “Restricted” flashed on the caller ID and interrupted the obsessive-compulsive inventory and my conversation with the dead. It has to be Karen. Everything about her these days is restricted.

“Okay, so what did the prick do this time?”

“He ran back to the parking lot with me, but you, Miss Martin, broke your promise and stood us up.”

Oh fuck. The sound of his voice stopped me in my tracks, ripped me from my living room and set me back in the parking lot under the last patch of blue sky.

“By the way, isn’t it a bit early in our relationship to be inquiring about each other so intimately? And while we’re at it… I’m not all that fond of the tone you used. You have never even met.”

His voice. Jesus. It had been bouncing around in my skull the whole ride home. I had been longing to hear it, again, but certainly never expected to.

“Parking lot guy?”

“Well, okay. I prefer Brian, but I guess parking lot guy will have to do, if you insist, Cassandra.



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