In Passing
A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Death"
Originally featured on 11-20-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

Sometimes she wondered what she really looked like. When she was twenty-one she’d had a seizure and in the days following the incident could recall a dream like vision she’d had of herself in the ambulance. This vision, a sort of aerial one-eyed view, came back unexpectedly and often inconveniently over the years, taking different forms and wrecking her attention to normal affairs like a child in response to a flash of lightening. It lingered untouchable in her subconscious, and like a photograph she had of her mother taken years before her own birth, within this image was a person she could only begin to understand.

Once, when buying earrings at a booth on Church Street, earrings that looked like the tilted axis of the earth, the proprietor had asked her if she ever considered metaphysics. Was she buying earrings there by coincidence? he’d asked. Her head had been cocked inwards towards the small window of the booth to avoid the suns trumpeting glare. As a daydreamer, she had to careful inside such conversations. She often created links between events and situations by twisting her own logic, editing her own recollections.

Each morning there was coffee. On the weekends, cigarettes. Walking in between rooms she disappeared and only for a moment he found himself wondering if she would reappear.

It began innocently enough when he found that his bathroom window provided a clear view of the top of her head while she was in her shower. At first he tried to resist the draw of voyeurism and only allowed himself the truly inevitable glances. Gradually the glances became longer and his insights into her life deeper. He would find himself admonishing her for careless habits, such as forgetting burning cigarettes in the ashtray or leaving the door ajar while running as errand in lieu of finding the keys. More often he found comedy, as when he watched the cat jump onto the kitchen table while she was gone and chew the daisies, later throwing up curry colored slop next to a pile of shoes by the front door. He did not see whether or not she stepped in it.

On a Wednesday he watched her climb atop the kitchen counter to catch a spider in a glass and throw it out the window, knocking three of the marbles lined up along her windowsill to the pavement with the thrust of her arm. Weeks later while walking to the grocery store, the sun hit the edge of the gutter just right so as to reveal the glare of a little blue marble against the leaves like a pilot flame.

She was clumsy. She ran into things while on the telephone, would drop all the silverware on the floor while transferring it from the dishwasher to the drawer. Once she had cut her finger while peeling carrots; she had wrapped it in gauze and stared at it while absentmindedly petting the cat.

She painted, always at night, taking great care when mixing colors. One night she stopped mid stroke, took the canvas in her hands as if to flip it, and broke it over her knee. She left it on the floor while she hopped on one foot into the bathroom, coming out with cotton balls and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. Her face pulled into a light grimace when she let the peroxide dribble over the wound, and he could imagine the sound her breath would make pulling in sharply around her teeth.

He liked the character she presented within what was to him a long and endlessly decadent silent movie. Sometimes he would watch her intently and think, ‘turn quickly, like a ballet dancer would,’ and he would think it so many times with such intensity that it would happen, she would turn. It never seemed to bother her when she did such things unexpectedly.

The #15 bus came to a groaning, exhaust spewing halt across the street. She broke into a run, looking down to see her shoelaces hitting the ground wildly, having a brief vision of catching her feet up in them so badly as to crash to the ground, knocking out her teeth. A man’s voice called out to her from behind, and he grabbed her elbow as she got onto the platform. Through her thinly soled shoes she could feel the shudder of the bus’ engine as it struggled to comprehend the heat, the hum of it tickling her shinbones.

“You dropped these,” he said, pushing a ring of keys into her hand. Meeting his eyes, she mouthed the most sincere ‘thank-you’ she could with little breath. His eyes were blue and wide, unblinking. For a moment she was possessed by an urge to pull him onto the bus with her, to sit next to him and endure the awkwardness of shoulders touching accidentally, to study the curvature of his fingers while resting on the knee, to see the cut of the jaw, line of the neck.

Aboard the bus, she closed her eyes and listened to her heart as it slowed. In the darkness of her vision were his eyes, irises round as marbles and seething with electric current. She imagined what he would smell like next to her, pulling in the imaginary scents of coffee and musky towels. She puts her hand out the window, the particles in the air running along the lines of her knuckles.

That night she dreamed that he was suctioned to the bedroom ceiling, the shadows of his limbs weaving as he drew closer and closer to her while she sat watching, waiting for him to drop.

 

He sat on the cool linoleum floor of the kitchen, legs long and toes touching the refrigerator, feeling the slight hum of machinery up his skin. The apartment is virtually noiseless. He concentrates on his breathing, listening for the sounds of his neighbors: closing of windows, a tip of laughter, the long monotonous strands of television programs cut by the shrill barks of commercials. All he could hear was air and the slight hush of the drapes swaying against the carpet, which were drawn so as to avoid even a glance in her direction.

She had gotten on the bus and he had stood on the corner, the blue marble nestled into the linted triangle of his pocket. While his mind raced, struggling to comprehend the limitless possibilities of her actions, one thought propelled through—he was obsessed. A vulgar word, he thought, and one he did not want for himself.

 

The morning light was vague through the curtains and her temperament responded in tone. Her eyes ached to open, her mouth felt stuffed with communion wafers; she sang in the shower to relieve the tightness in her throat. The sketchbook beside her bed was dotted with question marks and crude drawings. For his eyes she had gone for her cray-pas and found cerulean blue, pressed it onto the paper with such force that bits of it caved off like a miniature landslide. Her memory held true, she decided, and stopped drawing. Anything else would have been inaccurate.

Barefoot in the kitchen, the small of her back presses against the metal edge of the countertop, sending a cool shock snaking up her spine. Her fingers find their way along the rim of her coffee cup, sharp in some places, smooth and pressed in others. Closing her eyes, she remembers being on the beach, the balls of her feet pressing into the broiling sand as she runs full tilt into the endless stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, the water pulling her and rushing around her as if hurriedly struggling to memorize her form. She runs and runs until no longer touching ground but pushing and pulling like through wet concrete, head beginning to buzz with adrenaline and lips hot against salt water, her frantic motions making top indistinguishable from bottom, brain indistinguishable from body. She sees red.

Opening her eyes she searches the room, her vision blotched and scoured from the pressure of closing them tightly. Suddenly it is wide open, her brain shoves head to the side, up, up to the window across the street, and she is looking into his eyes, large and complex, as if housing a plot line, a cast of characters, a scene which is disturbingly human, ending credits as her blinks. Along her windowsill the marbles reflect the sun, shimmering inconsolably, she fumbles at the open window pushing out the screen, pulling it into the room, letting it clamor against the linoleum tiles as she shouts to him,

“I dreamt about you last night!” her head is fully out the window, elbows buckling from the strange angle.

His movements, more deliberate, bring him to the same awkward position at his windowsill. His fear burns in a straight line between them like the wick on a stick of dynamite.

“What?” he shouts, blinking wildly in the sun. A jay looks on from the neighboring sill, head cocked.

She repeats herself.

“A long time ago,” he begins, preparing himself for a long shout, “I had a dream that I was pulling a girl from the ocean.” He breaks and shifts his hands, knocking bits of concrete to the ground, “she was covered in seaweed and her lips were blue, her hair was all tangled and shells were falling out as I brought her up on the sand,” pause, a breath, “I don’t know how but I knew in the dream how to save her, even though I wouldn’t have known in real life, you know?” she nods, understanding the strangeness of dream knowledge, “and water started coming from her mouth, like it would, and then from her skin, or her pores, like she is all water and I’m holding the girl but she is disappearing, she’s water and it’s just going through my hands…” he is looking down, not knowing if he had explained correctly, if he could ever do justice to know he felt upon waking from that dream.

She doesn’t respond. She is waiting for more.

“When I saw you through that window,” he points to her bathroom, can see the blush creep along her cheeks, “I started watching you. I think…”

“Can I come over?” she interrupts.

“Yes,” he says, with a hitch. “I’ll come down.”

Pulling her head back through the window, the room seems dark, the air very cool. She slides shoes onto her feet, brushes her hair form her eyes; with the opening of the door, the cat runs out, body happy and light with the sense of escape. She runs down the stairs, feet tripping on the cracked marble, wheels turning in her mind, drawing lines, creating formulas from past and present. Out into the day she runs, her feet breaking the silence of the sidewalk, she runs, hearing a man’s voice yelling, a loud horn that pulses through her brain like a bullet. She sees black.

She doesn’t remember being in the ambulance, but she recalls the hand on her forehead, the index finger along her hairline flinching slightly. He tells the details as her remembers and she makes them her own—the blood (there was quite a bit), the chaotic conversations between the driver, himself, the EMT’s and the neighbor who had been watering her zucchini plants and witnessed the accident. A high-pitched meow rose periodically from the shrub where the cat hid while she was strapped to the stretcher, put into the ambulance. He said he was holding her hand when she opened her eyes and said hello in a pitch similar to that of the cat, but she maintains that the hand was on her forehead, and he concedes, finally.

He brings her home a week later, opening the door to the apartment where the air hangs strangely, smelling of stale cigarettes and burnt coffee. They hold each other for minutes at a time, later making love, carefully, so as not to disrupt the stitches in her head. In the evening she wakes and finds herself looking across to his apartment, into the empty space, the colors and shapes seeming suspended by strings. For a moment she thinks she sees his shadow passing between rooms. She pulls him tighter and feels his pulse against her belly, heavy as proof.

Read More By Liz Varley

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

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