The clock struck seven. Natalie watched a lone white seagull curve towards the fountain top, scraping its feet against the alabaster, and instantly begin surveying, the curve of it’s head as sharp as a razor cut against the sky. Her hands were folded in her lap, warm inside a pair of red woolen mittens that seemed too bright for the listless day. The sun struggled behind slate blue clouds, murmuring warmth into the morning.
He was late. It would be one excuse or another and Natalie began to hear them as a blur. She now watched his eyes when he spoke; they darted like finches, like minnows. He lied. She knew that now.
She pulled up her hood as the rain began to fall harder, black splotches of moisture spreading over the pavement at her feet. A man went past, a newspaper held over his head as he ran across the park and climbed onto a waiting bus.
“Sorry I’m late,” came his voice from next to her. He was dressed only in a flannel shirt and jeans, seemingly indifferent to the now driving rain.
His eyes were dropped and she felt a warming in her heart, only for a second, before her sensibility crushed it. Her lips curled up.
“Do you have it?” she asked, and her hand was out and waiting before he could respond, the cold rain slipping through the mitten and onto her hand, where it slid down to her wrist, spreading goosebumps along her arm. His hands remained in his pockets.
“Natalie,” he began, his voice breaking, “I couldn’t find it. I looked all through the kitchen, even in the drawers, and outside in the bushes…” he trailed off and crossed his arms over his chest.
“It was my grandfathers.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I’ll keep looking.”
“Bring it here when you find it, put it right there and I’ll get it,” she said, pointing to the second tier of the fountain, dry for the season but dripping slow with rainwater, measuring seconds. As he walked away back towards the road the rain seemed to swallow him up. He was gone before she could muster up the hurtful words she had been longing for, threw them out into the gray for no one to hear.
She had sworn that first night that she had seen something in his eyes. They were black, black as coal, wandering and lustful in a dangerously forgivable way. She had peeked at them through the doorway, her friend Bridget at her shoulder, breathing hot onto her neck as she spoke in a hissing whisper,
“He has a girlfriend Natalie!”
The rest of the night was spent fidgeting around the room, smiling for the sake of someone watching, drinking too much vodka and sharing in brief heated discussions with friends, some too loud, too obvious.
She thought about him over her coffee the day after, when her hangover surfaced and slid through her brain like sharp rocks, felt the thoughts grow heavier, like a sickness. It was the weight of his eyes more than anything else.
There was a night nearly a month after that first night when the moon came hanging about in the sky and she could feel her sensibilities slipping like the clouds through the sky. When the knock came, she did not have to wonder whom it was; she could open the door slowly, see his back for a moment before he turned.
It didn’t feel like she had expected. His hands felt like any other man’s though she’d imagined them to be electric; her heart wasn’t lost it in, or seething with passion. Every move she made felt necessary.
Later that night, when she looked him over she could feel a burning in her chest as if there were grit running in her blood. The moon was straight up in the sky, somewhere lackluster between half full and full, spotting light here and there as clouds ran past, once on his shoulder blades, sharp in the shadows, once on her knee, as she leaned her forehead against it, once to her dresser, where a spot of light danced for a moment on the jade tiger that had been a gift from her grandfather. With it in her vision, she could feel human again, but with that came guilt.
“I don’t want you to leave your girlfriend,” Natalie had told him in the morning as he dressed in the dark. His face had been covered in shadows, and it suddenly seemed to her that he had always looked this way, that she had been tricked. Her hands felt numb as he spoke to her, his voice soft and cold. He paced in bare feet, hair falling in his face, eyes down to the ground, darting up viciously to meet hers. This was her fault, he told her. He would apologize for that later, but she knew the sincerity of his words. She could feel the anger surging up in his throat like a rebellion, could feel her teeth, lock together and keep the words in.
After that night they walked the crosswalks together, brushing thumbs. They asked each other questions, quickly, as if prisoners given a brief interaction. But they were not imprisoned. Natalie could see this now, and it stung to think how she’d deceived herself.
She asked him what he wanted, months later while they sat in the park together during coinciding lunch breaks. With her head on his shoulder she could smell his girlfriends perfume- a lingering jasmine that wrapped around him. He had been watching pigeons fight over sesame seeds on the bricks, floating their wings out, rushing in. He didn’t answer. He never wanted to answer her questions. Over time, his avoidance of questions left a tinge of dread in her veins.
“I never expected you to care about that,” he said to her, when she had asked him about confronting his girlfriend. To Natalie, it was obvious that he needed to confess, and when she looked his deep in the eyes, she imagined he agreed.
As she waited on a cool October afternoon for him, her fingers ran into a note tucked into the corner of their bench. Her eyes momentarily faltered over his handwriting, neater than she would have ever imagined. We need to talk, it read, come over on Monday after seven. That was it. It could have been for anyone, written by someone else, in another place, with the same feeling of fighting and giving in at the same time. She felt the blood vessels contract in her head and a heat come to her blood.
At quarter of seven that Monday she was on the porch, the jade tiger in her pocket, the only thing she could think that comforter her. She remembered her grandfather rubbing it in between her fingers and she did the same. Her feet began walking and she took deep breaths, pausing after each inhale, like roller coaster before the drop. She told herself to calm down, wrapped her arms around herself, felt her own skin. Watching the sidewalk passing under her feet, she tried to stay on the most level ground, avoiding the spots where tree roots had pushed through.
When her hand knocked on his door, she could imagine the way he looked up from whatever he was doing, perhaps waiting a moment before getting up.
“Thanks for coming, Natalie,” was the first thing he said, backing away from the door as if he expected her to throw something at him.
She sensed her demeanor changing as she saw his standing there in the dim light of a kitchen kept clean by someone else, saw the scented candles on the windowsill, the matching towels and rugs, the smell of perfume hanging lithely in the air. She reminded herself that she had come here to be rational and to act appropriately.
He had been talking, picking up various objects in his hands as he did so, turning them over, putting them back down, he was clearing his throat every few seconds, seeming to choke a little on his words as they came out.
“What are you saying?” Natalie asked, feeling her face turn red, grabbing the garlic press from his hand and throwing it onto the table. He winced.
“I told Jen,” he said, again moving away from her, “she said she would forgive me, if I told you I wanted nothing to do with you…I just wanted us to be alone when…I told you,”
“Did you tell her you were the one who came to my house?” her finger was at his chest, bending up slightly with the pressure.
“No. I spared her the details,” he said, the tone of his voice shifting into malice.
“What did you tell her exactly?”
“In your eyes, of course,” Natalie, blinking furiously as tears built up, she cursed herself for producing them. This was not the end she wanted.
“I never meant for this to be a relationship, Natalie, it just…”
“You lied to me,” she interrupted, and he shook his head. For a moment, she thought she saw red, but realized she was holding her breath. She ran for the door, tripping over the rainbow colored rug on the way out, and now, as she ran, the sidewalk slid under her feet, the rough patches blending with the smooth. When she was finally home, in her own bed, she reached in her pocket for the tiger and found it missing.
In the days following she searched the sidewalks she had taken there, around in the grass, the tree roots, in the street by the gutter. When she happened to see him on the street, she grabbed his arm, feeling as if she were doing something illegal, told him to look for it. He said he would, and she had to believe him. She tried to forget it, but she couldn’t lose anything to him.
Each day she passed the park she stopped and looked in the fountain, her eyes running along the water stained sink for a shimmer of green. Each time there was nothing, and he avoided her even more now, as though his failure to find the tiger was his crime against her.
One morning in early December as she pushed up on her toes to look, the action becoming routine, she felt someone behind her, heard the clearing of a throat. She turned and saw a woman, likely her age, wearing a long navy blue wool jacket and matching hat, blond hair curling up underneath. Her nose was red with cold, her lips pale. She remained where she was.
“I think this is yours,” she said, and held out her hand, opening up her fingers to reveal the jade tiger on its side. Natalie took it and looked up into the blue eyes of a woman she would never really meet.
“Thank you,” she said, and the woman nodded, took one more look at Natalie, and walked away. Natalie looked at the tiger.
“I’m going to be more careful next time,” she said, and pushed it into her pocket.
The things she told him, the memories, were so old and worn that they seemed fictitious, that the truth of them had been worn down.
“I went to Catholic school was I was younger,” she told him, pressing her hands onto her thighs, “in the village, close to my grandfather’s house, where my father grew up. On the first Friday of every month, we would go over to the church, which was right next door,” she looked at him, saw that his eyes were open and watching her as she spoke, “and we would get to go home afterwards, so it was like a reward for going to church, I guess. My grandfather would come and meet me on those afternoons, and we would walk do to his house, past the antique stores—as that was all there was to sell, everyone in the town was old—and he would make me lunch. Lunch was always the same,” she laughed, “Price Chopper brand ravioli and milk. It wasn’t that he had cabinets full of cans either, he went to the store every week an picked one up, that’s just the kind of person he was. He cooked in the old pots he had, and stirred it so much that all the ravioli broke open, and it had this taste to it…I don’t know how he did it, it was the taste of the old pot and even the silverware, it had its own taste.”
He was looking away from her now, his legs stretched out over the bench so it seemed he might fall off.
“Is he alive now?” he had asked, moving closer to her, reaching for her hand.
“No, he died last year. He left me his collection of stone animals,” and she laughed again, the force of it surprising her. It was the things she did not mean to say that often sounded absurd.
“He always said I was tough, like a tiger,” she said, “so that’s my favorite.”
“The tiger?” he said, letting go of her hand, pushing himself upright.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED