Let Strangers In
(This short story was originally published in The Prick Of The Spindle, October 2011)
Clarke waited for her on the bench. The bench faced the bay; Mount Diablo in the background, San Francisco in the fore, basking in dry white light. He wanted to appear to be reading when she arrived; he had pocketed his yellowing Nine Stories paperback. Otherwise, he could adopt the look of the selfless thinker, staring over the beautiful Victorian houses under the vast and humbling sky, chin resting on a white-knuckled fist, slowly but deliberately inhaling the city’s majesty. She would understand that a thinker needs nothing more than the bench he sits on.
He waited on the mildewed bench under the cypress trees, close to the new playground. His bench was well located for this kind of meeting, a meeting that could be remembered in the future, during the low point of divorce, when yearning for happier times in a moment of weakness, a regression into fondness…
-Remember when we met again, that one spring day, on the bench in Alamo Square?
-Yes, I remember, the sky was so wide that day, how could I forget?
His right hand shook, his left hand grabbed it. A faceless sleeping vagrant occupied the next bench. Pigeons scratched the concrete. Clarke watched the dreadful grey Transamerica Pyramid spear the remaining morning fog.
He had heard that she had moved nearby, close to the Panhandle, so she would almost certainly approach from behind him, from the west side of the park. She would first see the heart-wrenching postcard view of San Francisco through sun-drenched sepia eyes, putting her in a reflective, nostalgic, and emotional frame of mind. She would then walk to him from behind, on the right side, and he would be surprised to see her, and they would fall in love again. Clarke was confident that his right profile was his strongest. Sometimes his left eyelids drifted together when he was tired or drunk. However, this would also mean that she would see him before he would see her. He told himself to maintain posture. He crossed his legs over the knee like the intellectual European thinker he used to be. He curled his toes, stretching the thin kidskin leather atop his old shoes.
In the playground a young mother, in an inflated black body warmer, shepherded twin boys around the climbing frame. She repeatedly looked up to Clarke when not guiding her genetic sequels, through narrow, judging eyes, as though he could only have a rotten mind. At one point she even slowly shook her head in fake pity, the knock-out punch of non-verbal conflict, as if to say,
-I feel sorry for you, little pedophile man.
A small girl on a swing was being pushed by a young au pair, or older sister, in a translucent green floral dress. She glanced at him while softly bouncing the young girl into the air. She had a semi-repaired cleft palate and dark eyes, she somehow reminded Clarke of his mother. Her open stare lingered on him pensively and unashamed, as if trying to place him in her past, while also trying to draw him in her future. When Clarke looked back, raising the collar on his tattered moleskin coat, she turned away to a friend, lifted her shoulders to shrug, and smiled crookedly into the air. Clarke gladly took this to be a reenactment of a well-practiced move that says — See how light and attractive my soul is! Come to me.
The friend, with blotchy red arms in a yellow tee-shirt, didn’t notice Clarke at all.
The au pair left the child to swing with self-propulsion, and walked from the playground to Clarke with uncompromising confidence. She spoke, her voice nasal and reedy.
-You look worried.
-Do I? I’m waiting for someone.
-Are you unhappy?
-I’m not sure.
-You don’t know if you’re unhappy?
-I guess not. Do you happen to have a cigarette, Miss?
She shook her head slowly and stared into him with deep sympathy; he felt a lump in his throat and swallowed hard. The sky brightened; her green dress filtered the white light. She sharply inhaled and raised her shoulder blades, lowering them with slow pleasure, closing her eyes, like a cat in the sun. Clarke watched the small girl in her care attempt to climb the wire fence behind her.
-Your girl needs you.
She turned, saw the child, and returned to the playground. Clarke watched her pale legs as she walked; she took the child by the hand and left the park. She disappeared down Steiner Street. She was a sweet, free-spirited Californian, naïve, unafraid of anybody, happy to approach strangers on park benches and start conversations about happiness and sadness. She probably liked the cinemas that he liked, but she was nothing on her.
The last time he had seen her was many years ago, on an area of dry grass by a cathedral in England. He was young at the time. He’d had left high school, a place of terror, but hadn’t started life after school, that was the summer, the in-between, the time he met her. That afternoon had been pored over so many times by Clarke that it no longer felt real; he cherished it like a scene from a favorite film, when he used to watch films, and he analyzed it like a passage from a classic novel. He could describe the shapes of the clouds over the cathedral that day; the French students with matching yellow rucksacks; the old-aged-pensioners chewing discounted scones by the teahouse; her frayed white jeans. It was a time when his skin was soft and his blood ran warm, before the decline. But, however hard he tried, he couldn’t picture her face. He would stare at her photos but it seemed like he was watching her behind dark glass. His brain toyed with his heart and refused to let her face, her almond eyes, sit in the memory of the cathedral day. Today, at last, he would need the cathedral no more.
They had restarted communicating recently through hand-written letters, and now, here he was, on the bench, expecting her. He hoped that he looked like when he was eighteen, but he felt so old. He wanted her to look the same.
The neighboring vagrant shuffled and rolled over, turning into the morning sun, warming her face and her bench. She had striking cheek bones, but her face was wrecked and addled by something apparently unstoppable.
Clarke remembered how his father’s face was weathered by the cold English winds that struck the steep hillsides year-round, so long ago. The Somerset hills were green through the wet air, blue in the distance, and grey, far off on the moors.
The homeless woman’s black skin was cracked by more than the wind, her defeated face choked in the sunlight. She looked to him like they were old friends, before gathering her meager possessions and tip-toeing out of the park, as if attempting not wake anyone, into the streets. She gently pulled a small yellowing dog from inside her jacket to run on the warming asphalt, close to her bare feet. Clarke remembered his father’s terrier, and how it inevitably died under a tractor tire like the others, so long ago. Clarke watched the homeless woman as she stretched her arm through an iron railing protecting one of the Victorian mansions. She carefully plucked a bougainvillea petal, briefly held it under her nose, and placed it in her pocket, before heading passed the other mansions toward the projects of the Western Addition. Maybe she would get something for him.
A van drove slowly up Steiner Street, bearing the wording…
-Help yourself, help the rest, give blood away, give blood TODAY
Clarke tried to visualize the blood streaming through his veins and arteries as he sat in stillness and silence. He touched the scabs on his arms. He thought of her hands. The van braked hard as a fire-truck blazed down Hayes St, crossing its path. A disjointed feeling crept over him.
Clarke had never gotten used to that noise, so common here, so alien on the farm. The sound of sirens between the hills in San Francisco is inescapable. The three-fold emergency response to a rape in the Tenderloin cuts through the night and into the marrow of twenty other neighborhoods, interrupting the chatter of a wine tasting on a roof deck in Laurel Heights; drowning out the referee’s whistle at a flood-lit soccer game in the Mission; clashing with the squawking parrots of Telegraph Hill. The city screams and ignores itself, gargling and humming as one, like a steam engine spitting and chuffing into the bay.
Clarke’s shoes felt wet and heavy despite the sun, he felt like he was being sucked into the sinkhole center of San Francisco. His heart refused to beat in time. He held his breath as he imagined she was standing behind him, waiting for him to turn around. He turned, she wasn’t. He thought of the grass by the cathedral but, as always, her face was a fog he couldn’t bring into focus. In this moment of imbalance and frustration, his mind let strangers in. Thoughts of her clashed angrily with nasty and unstoppable memories of childhood humiliation and violence. Being forced to empty his pockets of mashed boiled carrots in front of the class, in streaming tears; trying to defend his older brother from his tormentors with sharp stones by the river; digging his long fingernails into his palms until red, while waiting for a hit. He grinded his teeth until the memories faded and his head ached.
Clarke now remembered the small town square near the farm, sitting in the back seat of the car as a child, while his mother went to the bakery. The musty smell of the car upholstery. He felt so safe in the back seat, smiling to himself as the rain fell onto the glass. The cars sped through puddles outside, and people walked passed, with driving eyes through the driving rain, but they couldn’t see him through the cold wet windows. So safely drifting to sleep.
Clarke didn’t need to check a watch; he could tell by the sun that she was over an hour late. He imagined that she had come across a fascinating stranger and was unable to end the conversation. He couldn’t leave now; there was nothing to be done, he needed her more than ever. The sun rose into the sky, pale and luminous, and Clarke slept. He dreamt of a pack of wolves in an old European elevator, and awoke to a small black dog sniffing at his feet, the owner tugged the dog away, avoiding eye contact with Clarke. He rearranged his limbs, removed his shoes, and lay on the bench to regain sleep. As he closed his eyes he hoped he would wake to her voice, her, leaning over the bench, under the sun, waking him again.
In his dream he watched the rusty iron doors slowly open, she stood amongst the wolves inside the elevator, they bowed their heads and rubbed their soft ears on her white jeans. He tried to join them but couldn’t. She spoke to him.
-You are going to die.
-I can’t die; I haven’t figured anything out yet.
The doors closed, he turned and ran through a hay barn into a meadow, his father was burning black tires in the field, the smell and smoke engulfed them. The small terrier jumped from his father’s coat and ran straight into the fire, like he had no choice.
He awoke; she was there, standing over him blocking the sun. She hadn’t changed at all, her gentle smile lit up as he opened his eyes. He pulled himself up onto the bench, pulled his shoes on and straightened himself, unsure of the time. She had come, awoken him. He tried to stand but couldn’t, a sharp cold ache ran through his bones. He reached out to touch her white jeans as she stood before him. He could feel the warmth of the blood and muscle of her thighs through the thin white denim, the energy sent his heart into space. He looked up but couldn’t focus on her her face through the flare of the sun behind her, bleaching her silhouette and burning his eyes. He focused on the horizon behind her form, he saw the vagrant with her dog, now safely coddled in her jacket again, returning over the grass towards their benches. Maybe she had something for him. He put his hand to his jaw and felt days of wiry growth on his cheeks. His kidskin leather felt like it was melting in the heat. He rolled over on the bench to avoid the white light, and slept again.