I check my watch again. After, I clench my hands nervously and lean forward on the park bench, so that I can see further down the path. She’s never late. I look left and right, even though she’s only ever come from the north. I search for her shape in the distance, but I can’t find her. The thin ribbon of pavement is empty. For the last time, I promise myself, I check my watch.
She’s never late.
The anxiety starts in my chest, quickening my heart beat and tightening my throat. I rub my hands together, quickly, in even numbers. One two three four one two three four one two three four. I take comfort in the movement, even as it does nothing to ease my crippling fear.
“Please,” I whisper, although no one is listening. “Please.” I stare at the point on the horizon where she always appears. I strain my eyes hard, and I will her to appear. She’s coming. As soon as that squirrel crosses the path, she’ll be there. When that couple with the baby is gone, she’ll come. As soon as those pigeons have finished eating. As soon as that leaf blows away. As soon as my heart starts beating again.
A moment later, she appears, blooming like a rose bud in the early morning sun. Her sneakered feet pound the concrete, and a knot unties in my stomach. A warmth spreads through my body. Finally, I can breathe. I watch her approach with the kind of wide-eyed reverence that is usually reserved for religious icons and miracles.
The hard muscles in her legs flex under her skin, rippling smoothly in the early sunshine. A single bead of sweat drips from her ribs, and I lick my lips as I watch it cross the inches between her shirt and her shorts. It curves delectably around the dark shadow of her navel. Inwardly, I groan. Her dark hair, swept up in a ponytail, trails out behind her. It flicks with every step.
Even as she passes so close that I can smell the soft, benign smell of her Ivory soap, her beautiful eyes never meet mine. She doesn’t even know that I’m here.
The breeze of her flying past rustles my shirt, just slightly. I breathe deep, gasping her scent. My eyes slip closed in ecstasy.
When I open them again, her form is faraway and indistinct. I check my watch again. Folding the newspaper that has lain forgotten across my lap, I stand and tuck it beneath my arm. Making sure that no one is close enough to take notice, I step into the centre of the path so that I can watch the last trace of her her slip away. I crane my neck as she turns a corner. And then, definitively, she is gone.
Sighing, I turn back in the direction she came. With heavy, morose steps, I head back to the parking lot.
She always parks in the same spot.
Her small blue car is waiting where it always does, in the corner of the lot in the shade of a stunted tree. From where I sit, behind the wheel of my own car, I can see it perfectly. The paper is spread across the steering wheel, although it remains unread. I couldn’t recall a single article; not even a photograph. I have been waiting for her for what feels like an age.
When she appears at the edge of the lot, she has slowed to a walk, and she is smiling. Her hair is tousled, stray curls clinging to the sweat that gleams on her cheeks. Her chest heaves as she trudges a path to her car, the muscles in her belly shivering. Making me shiver. She can’t be human.
Opening her passenger door, she drapes a towel across her shoulders. Yanking the elastic out of her hair, she shakes it loose around her face; she smiles, closing her eyes, sighing in release. My breath catches in my chest as I watch.
As she moves towards the driver’s side of her car, I fold my newspaper. A sad, cold regret settles into my belly; already, I am lonely. I start the engine and I pull out of the parking lot, leaving her behind. I can feel sharp, thin wires, embedded under my skin, trying to pull me back to her the further away I get.
I don’t like letting her out of my sight.
My drive is short. Soon, I’m pulling up to the curb across the street from a tall apartment building. A moment later, she drives slowly into a nearby parking lot.
Without leaving my car, I watch her reappear from the depths of hers, heading towards the building’s discreet side door. The towel is still across her shoulders, and she carries a big black purse against her hip. Without concern, she slips a key into the lock and disappears into the bowels of the one place that I can’t follow. The door bangs shut behind her.
I fold my paper again, tossing it into the passenger seat as I turn the key in the ignition.
At home, I wait for her.
Sitting at my desk, I spread out the magazines that I bought myself last night. I flip through the pages with purpose, no interest in the articles or the content. I pause at each and every photo of a woman. I study them, and catalogue their features. When a nose or lip or cheek makes me think of her, I extract it with a small silver Exacto blade and tuck it into an envelope.
When my envelope is full, I toss away the harvested magazines and start to sort through the body parts. I lay them out on a sheet of paper, creating assemblages that begin to resemble her face.
These are the collages I use as reference when I recreate her beauty in charcoal and paint. I have laid her portrait down on paper more times than I can count, and the ones that look the most like her are the ones that adorn the walls of my apartment. Between them, I hang the relics that I have excavated from her trash and her yard sales and her kind-hearted clothing donations. Toothbrushes, and combs, and – oh my heart, be still – a tampon soaked in her precious blood.
My home is a shrine to her.
I tried to take photos of her once, to add to my collection. I had shivered in anticipation as I levelled the lens and began to focus on her windswept form. But the breeze turned at the worst possible moment, and she heard the snap of the shutter. She saw me, hiding with my camera, and she had been angry. Furious. She had screamed at me, her beautiful face turning red and ugly.
It was horrifying. I can’t stand to make her angry. I’ll never do that to her again.
Before I sleep each night, I stand before the first portrait I ever painted of her. It is almost as tall as the wall that it hangs on, and the brushstrokes are violent and erratic, a constant reminder of the storm that carried me away the day that we met. In it, her eyes are perfect; they stare back at me, carving through me like a blade. It was the only time I ever captured the power of her gaze. Those eyes can strip me bare, and most nights, I press myself against the canvas. I flatten my aching body against her face, breathing in the faint aroma of oil paint and turpentine, pretending it reminds me of her.
I know that I don’t love her, but from the very first moment, there was a throb of recognition. A primal, instinctual part of me remembered her. Somehow, I know her.
My body knows her.
I watch the clock in the evening, counting the seconds before I can leave to meet her. My heart seems to beat in time with the second hand, until finally I can’t stand it andI’m running to the car with my keys. And my newspaper.
It is a short drive to the parking garage where I wait for her each night. I cruise slowly until I find her car, and when I do I pull into an empty spot nearby. I make sure that I will see her when she comes. Check my watch; it won’t be much longer.
A moment later, there is an echoing clang as she lets the heavy door with the big letter ‘B’ slam shut behind her. The sharp click of her heels on the pavement seems to tap its way down my spine as I slowly set my paper aside. The lights down here are dim and yellow; she should seem jaundiced and hollow in her expensive grey suit, but she has never been less than perfect to me. Never.
She is halfway to her car before I realize that she is walking much faster than usual. As if my thoughts have set the act in motion, with her next step she stumbles, twisting her ankle so that she drops to her knees. My heart leaps out in fear.
Only then do I notice that she’s been crying.
My pain is choking. Who could have done this to her? I’ll kill him. My hands tighten on the steering wheel as she drags herself back to her feet, wiping her eyes. My own tears blink surprisingly to the surface, choking, blinding me before they crest my lashes. I am sick with sympathy.
Across the lot, she has reached her car; is digging in her purse for her keys. When she finds them, her hands are shaking so badly that they slip through her fingers. The sound of them hitting the pavement seems to split open my head, tightening a vice around my chest; my stomach.
It’s okay, I want to tell her. It’s going to be okay, don’t be sad. Please don’t ever be sad.
She cries out in frustration, smacking her palm against her windshield; the pain I feel for her is physical. I know I can’t leave her here alone. I can’t let her suffer by herself; she’s so sad. She finally needs me the way that I’ve always needed her.
Moving as though in a dream, I open the car door and unfold to my full height. Before I know I’ve made the decision, I start on the path towards her. One step at a time, as she stoops to retrieve her keys and moves to unlock her door, I close the distance between us.
I’m so close; so close that I can smell her, heady and full of summer. I can’t help but smile. It’s been so long since I’ve really, really smelled her. I could reach out and touch her. My hands roll on my wrists as I imagine the twist of her silky hair through my fingers. She sniffles, still trying to find the fit of her key in the lock. I want to pull her in, press her against me. I want to hold her tight to my chest.
Of course, I know better. I speak, instead. “Hey. Are you okay?”
She starts at the sound, oblivious to my approach and shocked by my voice, but the surprise lasts only a moment before it hardens to distrust. She’ll only look at me from the corner of her eye. Immediately, she unlocks the car door and holds her keys as tight as a weapon; her sobs are gone.
My stomach twists, and burns.
“Yup,” she says shortly. “Fine.” She opens the door, tossing her purse in ahead of her and turning her back on me. When she twists like that, her hair lifts. As it settles back on her shoulders, I can smell its breath. How did she become this? Why isn’t she human?
I take another step closer, until I can almost feel her warmth hovering in the air around her. “You seem really upset.”
“Nope.” When did her voice get so hard and stiff? “Fine.” She gets in the driver’s seat, but when she reaches for the handle to pull it shut, she finds me in her way. I can see the first tendril of fear weaving its way through her brain, and it leaves a poisonous taste on my tongue.
I implore her. She must know what I feel for her; it’s in the air all around us. “I had to make sure you were okay,” I tell her.
“Fine,” she says again, stretching her arm towards me. She’s reaching out for me; in disbelieving ecstasy, I reach out and caress the arm of her jacket. One finger finds her flesh, so hot that it could burn me.
To my horror, she jerks away.
“Don’t touch me,” she spits. “Get away from me!”
But I can’t leave her. Not like this. God, I hate it when she’s mad at me. I reach out for her again, for her angel face and virgin skin. I’m captivated. She owns me. I whisper, “Please. I can’t stand to see you so sad.”
She tangles one arm in the seatbelt and traps one leg under the steering wheel as she tries to twist away from me, but there’s nowhere for her to go. “What are you doing!” She cries out, but I don’t listen. She’ll see; the first time we touch, really touch, she’ll know. She’ll know me. I wrap my arms around her shoulders and pull her close. I hold her squirming little body against my chest.
“Stop it!” She cries out again, but I just hold her tighter. I press my face against the top of her head and I breathe in her nectar. She’ll see. I know she will.
But then she starts to scream.
The sound pierces my ears, but I don’t let her go. She just needs me here with her. I don’t know how she got so sad, but I’ll never let it happen again. I’m here for her now. I hold her tighter, tighter, pressing her face closer to my heartbeat.
“Don’t be sad,” I tell her. “Please.” She starts to swing her arms, but I pin those violent limbs, rocking her back and forth, soothing her. “Please,” I whisper. “It’s okay. Don’t scream.”
But she won’t listen. I close my hand over her mouth, so that she can hear me. “It’s okay. Please. Please don’t scream.”
Slowly, she gives over to my adoration. Her screams fall silent as she melts against me. All her fight fades away as I rock her, back and forth, back and forth. I hold her in the cradle of my arms like a sleeping child. I glow quietly with my pride; she isn’t sad anymore. I did that for her. Now that I’m here, she’ll never be sad again.
When I’m sure that she is placated, that her tears are far away, I let the inches creep in between us. She falls limp against my encircling arms, her head lolling on her neck. I brush her tangled hair from her face, adoringly peel the strands from her slack lips. My fingers trail across her precious cheeks as I press a chaste kiss to her forehead.
I know I don’t love her, but there is recognition. I know her pale face and her wide, unseeing eyes. Holding her there, in the parking lot, I know every single inch of her.
She fits in my arms like I’ve held her before.
Alyssa Cooper is a born wordweaver, swallowing stanzas like sustenance and leaving thumbnails of poetry everywhere she goes. She was born in Belleville, Ontario, where she lives with her vintage typewriters and her personal library. Her first novel, Salvation, was released in 2012, and she is eagerly anticipating the release of her first poetry collection, Cold Breath of Life.