She liked to stand by the balcony at night, her velvet fingers resting on a shrivelled cigarette, a forlorn figure cut against the darkened sky. She liked to suck on the memory and feel its wraith-like ribbons curling on her tongue. This was a magical moment that had eyes only for her, or the night, even as the frost crept into her hair. As well, she liked to dress up in the dark. She would pull a gown of black sequin past her shoulders and watch the fabric unfurl, in a shady mermaid's tail, over the tiled floor. She would pull her hair so tight it snapped, and paint red on her lips. It did not matter if they saw, if the wind was cold. The balcony was her stage and she only had eyes for one.
Sometimes, she caught her reflection on some of several shifting mirrors that faced her on the balcony. Like nocturnal companions, they made no noise as they slid over the blank walls, these automatons, echoing beauty to beauty with hard glassy eyes. She would slide her fingers down her spine and toss her midnight hair. She knew she was beautiful, even as she haunted the house that was much too big for her like a coffin too large for its corpse.
Far away, deep within the smoky jazz-and-haze of a decrepit city bar, one young man smoked alone in the twilit corner. A cigarette between fingers, a leg lazily propped up, there was something languid yet rakish about his manner of slouching against the wooden chair. A black fedora creased over his eyes. To the casual observer, he was one with the scene, one of the many souls that frequented the bar in search of smoke or jazz. Yet, where most men steeped within the smoke, hiding from loveless marriage or numbing work, he shaded himself only with languor and indifference to the surrounding night. His eyes remained hidden.
If asked his profession, he would have come with a brilliantly different description each time. And they would each be true, almost. He could be a jazz pianist, a circus trainer, or the son-of-a-rich-entrepreneur within a single night. Once, he was a retired detective. But the ladies knew better. They would extrapolate from his spindly hands, calling him Past, Present, Lover, but he always felt as though that a better name would have been Wanderer. It would have been more honest to say that this was his real profession. There was nothing he liked to do more than to wander down the alleyways of the sleeping slums, lit by dirty light-bulb stars, searching for himself.
Otherwise, he steeped behind the fog to daydream and fantasize the times that had once been. The bar would become a backdrop, its scratchy turntables crooning into the night.
It was cold tonight but she needed no cover, only memories to warm against the chill. This was a simple task of collecting the pieces, just as she liked to absentmindedly pick stray jewellery and hold them, shining things, against her breast. She liked the weeping sapphires best. These jewels were like mirrors as they both shone in the darkness and made the world a stage, her multi-faceted stage, in which she was queen of the silent night. She said to the mirror in the frosted night: This is my hair. This is the hair that he loves, that he calls beautiful, because they light the couches, like midnight fire. These are the lips, they whisper stories and trace constellations. She touched the pane and trailed her finger down the cold glass: This is the heart, a secret altogether. She repeated these words over and over, wrapping them with nicotine-stained fingers, squeezing them so hard it hurt. Because the world was her stage, she feared that it could all disappear eventually into some unfathomable void, never to return. Sometimes she asked the mirrors, where are you, love?
The cigarette being used, she lit another one and faced the sky. How she waited for her love, for the man in the black fedora to take her in his arms and tell her she was beautiful. There were times when the waiting seemed like a splintered chasm in her, screaming in all its agony. But there had been this one night, and it was all that mattered. She had waited for him ever since.
She stood against the glinting mirrors, her gown like black honey, as she turned and smiled at him, a smile that could only have been meant for him and him alone. He was speechless for a moment.
"You're so beautiful tonight." he finally said.
She looked into his eyes. "Do you know how much I love you?"
"Yes," he said. "Like a mirror."
In the past, he had been smooth and liquid and daring as the dark, so that darkness itself seemed more afraid of him. He had not been untouchable. He had been simply good at his job, as he handled the strange shining guns or briefcases stuffed full of secrets. But just as he had moulded seamlessly into each new job or profession, he had spent each day conjunct to the next, oblivious to any attachment or emotion that might otherwise have resulted from his adventures. There had been men after him, men with hard faces and desperate lust for money, but they no longer worried him. He only did love once. And the love had burned a skyscraper in him, bright as seven suns, because it was unlike anything or anyone he knew. Yet there were many things he had not said to her. That he was not an innocent man, or that he kept with him an ancient bible with gold-painted pages as well as a worn copy of "The Stranger" by Albert Camus. He wondered if he would even tell her that he had drunk her tears in every glass of wine since then, or that he counted her stars at night and swept them into his black fedora. But it was hard to know, seeing as there was so much he had not said. She was the only thing that truly mattered. It was all so long ago.
The dirty analog clock in the corner began to strike. One, two, three. It was twelve o'clock, and time seemed a little more strange tonight, because he found himself staring at things that he did not understand. Beyond the wispy curl of smoke, shadows flurried and flitted along the fungus-clothed walls. They were strange, almost comical, like a disjointed procession of half-ragged demons. He asked himself where he had seen these shadows before and realized there was no answer. That was when the truth struck him with forcible clarity: he had seen them before, sometime long ago.
The door opened with a clang. Bodies emerged from the fog. He did not look at them even as they circled around his table, flexing their dark and unforgiving hands. The bartender shot him a surly look, but the rest of the customers remained silent in their own drunken stupor. It no longer mattered; the only thing she could see now was the wine in his glass, twinkling like dead stars, and her face. And he knew that he would likely never, ever, see her again, even as she loomed at the back of his memory like a wasted record never to be played again.
The first man moved in like lightning, but he was quicker. He caught the attacker off-guard with a swipe of his fist, and then toppled him onto the others. Still they came closer, their faces blank and insignificant as scratched mirrors. He vaguely realized that they could be fathers, sons, lovers, but each of them carried the same nameless face. They had no connection to each other, no common knowledge of ultimate reality. For them, it was only a job. But he fought them with a raw animal instinct that frightened him because it was not very real, like staring at one's reflection in a glassy pond only to find it was not oneself at all.
Yet it was at that instant that he felt her,as though she was there with him, her essence obscured only by the haze of his mind. In that fleeting second the world folded and became a giant mirror, an eye: her mouth, her lips, her hair, unfolding like an abyss over the grey mist. She saw him too, on the other side of the mirror, the barrier that seemed so real yet unreal. And her eyes carried an unmistakable look of sorrow that pierced deep through his consciousness. She mouthed gentle words that stirred the hard surface, but he could not hear them. She touched the glass but to no avail; it was a cold and leaden thing. She wanted to tell him that there was so much she had not known, that there was so much she could have said. That she had a secret fear of mirrors because they sometimes showed skeletons or endless gaping voids. That she refused to believe in fairytales and tragedies, but sought to live in one. That she was helpless and sorry for this helplessness. Yet he presently could not hear her. Something rammed into his side and threw him against the table, and the shadows came closer till they formed a full circle around his bowed head. He tried to get up but could not. One of them had a gun. He stared at the gun, into the abyss of her eyes. And when she could bear it no longer she smashed her fingers through the glassy wall; his world exploded in a thousand cosmic pieces and was gone.
She stood by the balcony, her velvet fingers resting on a shrivelled cigarette, a forlorn figure cut against the darkened sky, silent even as the footsteps rang closer and closer to the chilly room. And in a snapshot, the memory faded; she was back to the present reality with its cruel logic and unrelenting fate, though the vision continued to choke her with sharp blinding pieces. However, it was not until she sensed their presence that she realized how much she detested these footsteps, particularly one above them all. The shadows of the hulking men loomed like jagged teeth. They smelled of blood.
In a moment, the leader of the men – the one that she hated most – was there, crumbling his bristly cheek against hers. Because she could barely stand, she allowed herself to fold into his massive shoulders like a flower, while her heart heaved in a hundred different ways. There was nothing she could have done. She allowed him to take her into the adjoining room and tear the dress from her shoulders, casting it on the floor like a broken mermaid's tail. She allowed him to push her onto the strange bed with its starry starched sheets while the mirrors stared like open graves. She did not look at his face and did not cry even when he told her that they had killed, that night, a man in a black fedora. They were just obeying her orders, after all.
She murmured, eyes like lead, "Just as things should be."
There was nothing she could have done.
"But I don't know anything about mirrors," she said mournfully. Candles flickered in the corner, casting shadows over the frozen panes.
"You don't. You just have to promise me one thing."
"Yes, very simple." He reached out his hand.
She took it.
He said, "Will you wait for my return?"
He woke with a start. It was silent, and his limbs ached in a hundred different splits that barely stirred the fog in his head. Up above, the stars shone like dirty light bulbs, while the drooping alleyways wept into long shadows. Below, the pavement was a pool of blood. He did not know whether or not he was alive. But he could reason that the attackers, those shadows with unforgiving hands, had left and likely thought him dead. It was possible they had taken his wallet and his fedora too. At that moment, he realized what he had found all along in his nightly journeys through these blank and twisting streets. In finding himself he had only lost himself to an endless night with no north star.
But there had been this one time, this other starless night, when the sky had hung like a black lullaby over the sleeping slums and his footsteps had crinkled on pavement, crunching over a graveyard of autumn leaves. He had been a song unsung, a handkerchief unfound, an ocean thirsting for the sky. Almost like this one. That night, he had climbed a fleeing flight of stairs and flung open long doors, only to find her standing before the leaden mirrors. She had been like a story from a distant land. That night, she had smiled at him, a smile that could only have been meant for him and him alone.
"Yes. I will always wait for you."