He first sees her from a second-floor window, when she's just a smudge of white against the asphalt. Chalk, he thinks. She doesn't look any more permanent than that-- he could raise a hand and sweep her into dust, white coat and all. She takes little clipped steps down the sidewalk. The last glimpse he gets of her is the corner of her jacket trailing behind, like an afterthought.
He works in an office, doing paperwork for a publishing company that outsources most of its grunt work to India. He often thinks about his counterpart, maybe some man in his forties who's going bald, with darker skin but the same coffee-colored eyes.
He goes into work every morning with his linen shirt pressed, the collar stiff, the cuffs neatly angled around the wristbones. But by the end of the day his sleeves are rolled to the elbow, exposing thin arms downed with gold hair. Like a girl's arms, his brother used to tease, but no one here knows him well enough to make fun of him. Under too much fabric, starchy and in wan colors, he starts to feel trapped.
When he gets home, he sometimes takes a crumpled cotton t-shirt out of the bottom of his closet and pulls it on in front of the mirror. These are college-era relics, with the logos of local bands and the board shops down by the ocean. He never surfed and none of his attempts at music lasted longer than a month, but these clothes used to make sense, in a way he can't grasp now. It's not that he's forgotten the language, but his new accent gives him away as a foreigner.
He looks at his reflection, where the slope of his shoulders has stayed intact but the fabric around his stomach has pulled a little tighter. It's unlikely that anyone else would notice, but the thought is always quiet in the back of his mind, the corner of his eye.
He looks at the reflection and sees his father instead, the way he sometimes pulls his guitar from its timeout in the corner and stumbles through chords. His father squints through the haze of forgetting and tries to loosen his arthritic fingers, but the music that emerges is always a tinny echo. When he was first learning to play, he practiced songs that were recorded twenty years before he was born. He thought, my father remembers when this first happened, and it fascinated him at the time. He felt proud, like he was the only kid whose father had memories and forty years to his name.
The same thought worries him now. It's the only thing that keeps his bass from gathering dust. It's a nice one, a Fender Precision, a graduation gift from his brother. The card involved some joke about it being the idiot's instrument, and he kept it taped to the back of the Fender, but in the middle of moving from one apartment to the next, he lost it. He plays every weekend, except now he remembers not with conscious thought but with a more primitive recollection, his fingers falling back into old habits, muscle memory.
Then it turns into a chore. He struggles through it because he's scared he wasted all that time. He's lost the calluses: sometimes he rests his head in his hands, and the soft skin shocks the hell out of him.
He watches himself getting old, and it occurs to him that everything's an introduction to something else. Haven't I seen this movie? he wonders. Didn't I read this play in freshman English? The theme is worn out, he thinks. It happens to everybody. Can't we move on? Do I have to watch it happen to my own body, my own hands and skin? There are enough films about it, more insightful and entertaining than my life will ever be. Leave it to the artists. Leave me alone.
Someone his age should have better fears. Should have aspirations, even, just to say he tried. Instead he stares at himself, petulant, a scene from one of the shitty movies. The kind that use close-ups on someone's tortured face to get a point across, that pan in on bulbous tears and pressed lips. As an audience member, he'd be rolling his eyes.
He draws his shoulders up and lets them fall. His strangest girlfriend, who he met at the only party he went to in high school, told him he had the finest shoulders she'd ever seen. They talked to each other because they both looked lost, like they'd wandered in off the street. She walked up to him where he sat shirtless by the poolside and got a funny smile.
"Not many people have symmetry in their bodies, but you have. The same bones on each side. Both folded in." She never stopped smiling, as long as he knew her. She didn't go to school and she would never tell him her age. "They look like baby birds."
He frowned. The water's half-moon reflections slid across her face and made her look as if she never stayed still. "Why?" he asked. "Because they're small?"
"They're helpless," she answered.
Even in daylight, he could never pin her down. When she was away, he found it hard to picture her face. It hung loose on its bones, restless. She was the first girl he liked to think of when she wasn't there, and the first one he slept with. It had felt like a lesson, her breathless giggle against neck every time he paused, unsure.
Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to marry her, only because he knew it would never happen. He didn't love her- not when he imagined living with her, not when she looked beautiful, not when she disappeared into another city later that summer and took her laugh with her. He's never loved anyone, but he knows what it feels like to be on the edge of it, the moment when the smell of her hair makes you dizzy.
Once had a dream that she danced in front of him, the lines of her body swallowed in a long dress. He reached for her, but she slipped away, her blonde curls in his hand turning to ash.
His other two girlfriends were within a few months of each other in college. When he looks back, the time of year is the only way he can tell them apart. It used to frustrate him. Now it makes him laugh.
He doesn't hate his job. He can't muster that much feeling for it. It's just some place he spends the day, a building made of corners and edges and a color that's close to, but never really, white. He files papers and thinks of India. He wonders if that man working in New Delhi had to fight for his desk job, if it's a blessing that he and his family celebrated.
When he was hired, the secretary beamed her managerial smile and said, "Congratulations. Not many people have the skill to work here." He'd laughed- a short, brutal sound devoid of humor. That secretary doesn't smile at him anymore.
It's not until he sees the girl in the white coat again that he realizes he was hoping she'd pass. She keeps her head tucked down and her shoulderblades folded in as she walks. Later, he wonders if he likes the sight of her because of some affinity in how they move, that they both know the desire to deflect the world as easily as a bend of the head. But it's not that complicated. His eyes are drawn to that flare of white, clean and stark as paper or snow. In that coat she's a blank slate, a possibility. A beginning.
It doesn't surprise him when he sees her in the lobby that evening. He's going to the revolving doors, briefcase in hand and shirtsleeves wilting at his elbows. Then he sees powdery white at the reception desk and thinks, funny, that it was this easy. Since the sight of her this morning, he's hoped to meet her so much that it's turned into knowledge. Like the introduction has occurred in some predictable future, and he's only waiting for the moment it becomes the present.
It could have been in a corner store, he knows, in a restaurant, or on the sidewalk. But she's appeared, closer than it made sense to imagine, and it makes him feel chosen. Later, though she laughs and denies his theory, he imagines her seeing him framed by his second-floor window. Amidst all that glass and its rippled reflection of the sky, maybe she saw him. Maybe it was chance, that a lone sunbeam broke through the overcast sky and happened to light on his windowpane.
He's resigned himself to it, the fact that his life is a bad movie, the kind that gets played on cable channels at four am. At the very least, he can inject some heavy-handed symbolism. He can speculate on fate and chance. When he imagines this scene, his mind's eyes becomes a camera, resplendent with close-ups and an elongated lens.
The white coat woman turns around. Her face is one shade sharper than beauty, a thin nose and pointed eyes and angled lips. Hers is a face that cartoonists draw, one feature so strong that the others go pale, a caricature. In this case it's the bones that jut beneath her eyes, not the high cheekbones of a model but ones that are too prominent. Her dark hair is cut in a straight line and the blue of her eyes is so dark that the pupils bleed into color. As she walks toward the door her body has an ease of motion, an energy made of trusting that the muscles and tendons will continue to carry her forward. The sight of her is a challenge he can rise to.
They reach the door at the same time, her hand cold where it brushes his, and he realizes that he can't go home and forget about her.
"Hello," he says, and he hasn't done this in a long time-- talked to some woman in a bar or a grocery aisle, already knowing the clutching they will do at each other's necks in her bedroom, on a cloudy afternoon, the way they will stay muffled as if there were something to fear. He wonders if the powder-white woman will later think of his eyes, the way they never look at someone but through them; and if she will grow sick of listening to the dial tone, and replace the phone on its cradle.
He owes it to himself to try, he decides, but really it's her he feels indebted to. She's given him her crooked smile and he owes her a response.
"I saw you yesterday," he says, "walking."
"I used to have a car," she says, "but now I don't. It's easier than I expected, walking everywhere. I'd nearly forgotten what my feet were there for." She looks down at her shoes. "Hello," she adds.
"Do you wear that coat every day?" She laughs like she's read his mind and nods.
She is in the lobby again the next day, having emerged from someone's office. She tells him she's a literary agent and she's been fighting to have a man's memoir published. She describes it to him, waving her hands. He looks at the flush of pink on her cheeks and notices her eyelashes, long and soft, dark as ash. They are the only gentle touch on her face and when he looks at her, they catch his attention, flicking with every blink of her eyelids.
They walk home together, through streets whose curbs are choked with leaves, breathing air that smells of smoke. They're walking side by side, closer than you'd expect from strangers, but he doesn't realize it until their arms brush. Compared to the pale chill of her hands he seems overheated, propelled by bursts of warmth and energy, like a star on the edge of imploding.
Her house is a few blocks from his, tiny and painted blue, set off from the road. They haven't spoken much and he wants to say something perfect, something that will make her come back tomorrow. She takes three brisk little steps onto the front porch, the old wood creaking, and turns around to face him. She doesn't speak, but raises her eyebrows and waits, as if admiring the view. He watches the hollow of her cheeks turn from shade to light as the sunlight shifts.
"I liked walking with you," he says.
She says, "We'll do it again."
When she meets him the next day, her white coat has been left open; it is a warm afternoon, the beginning of an Indian summer. Heat pools above her collarbones and leaves a sheen of sweat along the neck of her dress. "Your boss turned down the publishing deal," she says. "Yesterday," she adds, before he can apologize. "So you know why I'm really here."
He's not sure what to make of this honesty. He imagines telling some girl in a bar what he wants from her, no frills, not even bothering with hello. He smiles at the woman and her white coat, and she stands up from the foot of an ugly statue, where she might have been waiting for hours or only moments. He won't ask which.
When they reach her house he looks out over the field, where the rustling grass sounds like the sea. She looks back over her shoulder at him. He stumbles, his heart beating so hard- just once- that it hurts. He's nervous, clumsy. She's a glass in his hands and at any moment, he'll drop her.
She puts her hands on his shoulders before she's even shut the door. He thinks of swimming pools and baby birds, and it startles him when her hair stays soft and real in his hands. There's so much light, falling through windows and skylights- the mottled shadow of trees, the unflinching blue of her eyes. She kisses him and he closes his, thinking, she's the kind of girl who can't stand missing a moment. She won't let her eyelids shut. All this light and he feels like he's on a stage, that it can't be that easy, as her fingers undo the buttons of his shirt. She unrolls his shirtsleeves and his fabric is crumpled. He brings his mouth to her throat and tastes her heart beating now, now, now.
It's what he expected, her breath steady even as her white coat falls to the floor. But he doesn't know what comes after this. There has to be something-- she doesn't feel like an ending.
She calls him that weekend, and they go into the city together. They take the train and watch rain trickle down the windows. She points to buildings with funny shapes and says the scientific names of clouds. "Cumulus," she intones. "Cirrus. Cumulonimbus." The syllables step neatly from her tongue and she sounds like a flight attendant, he thinks, a girl with all the answers. She laughs a lot and it's a harsh sound, sudden and startling like dishes breaking.
They walk down Main Street and make up stories about the people they pass. "That woman," she says under her breath, "didn't like her husband, so when he had a heart attack, she got sick of pretending to be sad." She says this about a middle-aged woman in an ugly hat; she sounds not condemning but sympathetic, like the woman were an old friend.
"That man loves his cat more than he loves any person," she continues. It is mostly her inventing these histories, because his ideas are so common in comparison-- lackluster. They speak quietly, but there is a chance of being overheard, that one of their victims might hear his low laughter and figure out their game.
They like the risk. That's what makes it fun.
The first time she sees his apartment, he realizes how lifeless the rooms look, how empty and stale, choking with dust. He watches her standing at the kitchen window, hands curled at the edge of the sink. She looks at the little yard, with its kept corners and flowers along the walk. The late afternoon light softens her features, but the effect is unnerving- it makes her look small and lost. He's never taken anyone here before, let them see his cereal bowl sitting on the table or his toothbrush on the bathroom corner, but with her it required no second thought. He watches her watching the flowers, and he worries.
He learns to read the lines of her body. The parentheses of her hips, the ellipsis of her knuckles, two freckles at the base of her neck like periods at the end of a sentence. What that sentence says, he's not yet sure. She is a foreign language beginning to unravel, becoming something as warm and small as home. But there are still words he doesn't know- the hard flash of her eyes when she catches him staring, the small sound- almost like a sigh- that she makes when she's sleeping.
She never tells him her phone number or her middle name. He never thinks to ask for them. More important is the sight of her white coat on the back of his couch, the way she says his name like it's an old joke. With his arm around her shoulders he thinks of baby birds and snow, and he feels young.
She smiles a lot, but mostly at things that aren't jokes. One day she comes to visit, and every time she looks at him her lips have a thin upward curl. In the moments she doesn't realize he's watching, the languid smile settles into a hard line that's not quite a frown. It's the first deception he's caught her in, but now he flips through his memories like a card catalog, nauseous knowing that there could have been more. At first she keeps her distance, because it should be easier to lie from far away. But later she sits next to him, hair in a dusty sweep down his face, mouth at the crook of his neck. She keeps her eyes closed, and from this close, it's impossible to see her.
After that, some of the wonder goes out of having her here, letting her share everything and pretending it doesn't scare him. He makes up excuses for why they should avoid his apartment and spend the afternoon at her house instead. Her brother is there one day, a few years older than her with worried eyes and premature wrinkles at their corners.
They don't speak until she leaves the room. Her brother smiles at him and asks, "Do you know what you're doing here?" Here, not in this house but in this life, a short distance away from not being able to let go of her, a girl with forgettable eyes made extraordinary by how clearly they reflect his own.
"I hope so," he answers, and ignores the warning.
Her brother takes another drag from his cigarette. He wonders if she's the reason her brother looks so ragged, the edges of his T-shirt unraveling, two glossy dark half-circles beneath his eyes. This is not what she does to him- he's seen his reflection, though he no longer studies it. He looks healthy. There's color in his cheeks.
"What could I do with her?" her brother asks, his eyes helpless. "She was always one step past me. I couldn't keep hold of her for long. I don't know why she's like that." He doesn't say what that is. He doesn't pin it down with extra words, extra weight. He lets the thing free and it speaks for itself, talking about the way he stumbles toward her even when he knows that a thin smile, the opposite of an answer, is all she will give him.
He wants to think that her brother understands it, but he sees the worried slant of his eyes when she waves goodbye and realizes that, for him, the danger is set in stone. Her catastrophe could be around any corner, it's just chosen to wait. She is the end of a fuse, an imploding supernova. Whether he's around to watch her fall is inconsequential.
What did it feel like, that reversal? One morning she's his sister, someone who never had to fight for their mother's love because she knew it was already hers. The next day he's all she has left, but she still seems not to need him. She's smoke through his fingers. The only comfort comes from knowing he's not the last one she'll leave behind.
"Your brother's kind of strange," he says later, when they're in the car. His voice sounds apologetic as he watches fenceposts flicker past the window, saying sorry even as he offends.
But she's not offended. She's surprised. "Strange?" she laughs. "But he's so normal!"
He doesn't see her for four days. He excepts to start itching for the feel of her cheek against his, to thirst for the peculiar taste of peppermint she sometimes has. Instead there's just a constant sense of something missing that never surfaces-- like a painting's been taken down from the wall, but all he feels is that now there's too much blank space.
There's a knock on the door, and he knows it's her-- one sharp hit followed by its meeker echo. When he opens it, there's no quickened heartbeat, no impulse to cover her smile with his own.
They go to the park and sit next to a fountain where grubby children play. The Indian summer is fading, but it's left everything dry. Tree branches no longer sound hushed in the breeze, whispering green secrets, but crackle and rasp. The clouds look dirtied and thin against the chrome sun. She doesn't lean toward him, but forward, her eyes hungry for something just out of sight.
"Do you know what it feels like," she asks, "to be in love?"
"Yes," he answers. It feels like a bird untied in your stomach, tilting its head with want. A baby bird. One who hasn't learned.
It's a long time before he admits to himself that she's not coming back. He tries to miss her, but he doesn't, not quite. She'd dropped into his path with so little prelude that her exit was bound to be just as abrupt. He can't convince himself that she's not going to walk past his window or sit waiting for him somewhere. "You're crazy," she'd say, "I was only gone for a while."
He finds her white coat on his bedroom floor, a crumpled pile of fabric that he doesn't recognize at first. He takes it to her house, hoping he can leave it on her porch: he doesn't want to see her.
In a movie, this is where the happy ending starts-- he knocks on her door and she realizes her mistake, she runs to his arms, cue the back-bending kiss. The music swells, the surroundings blur. A close-up shot of their faces: she's crying happy tears, but her eyes aren't red. These tears don't leave stains.
When he walks up on the porch, the door opens, but her brother is the only one home. Her brother asks what happened, but he doesn't know how to answer. He gives him the coat and says, "Maybe I'll see her around at work. That's where I met her." Her brother asks where he works, and when he explains, her brother laughs and looks past him at the street.
"She's not a publishing agent," he says, "she never has been. Look, I'm sorry. I don't know what's wrong with her. She's done this a million times, thinks it's a good game. She doesn't even think it counts as lying."
He wants to laugh. He'd felt chosen, and he had been. Just for different reasons than he'd wanted.
"So, what," he says, "she was stringing me along?"
"She loved you," her brother says. "She never told me so, but she loves all of them. That's the problem. If she didn't care about you, it'd be easier."
At work, he leaves his sleeves down. His brother takes him to lunch one day and applauds him for it. "Congratulations," he says. "You're finally passing for a grown-up."
He sits at his computer and gets sick of wondering where she went. She's ended up ash, like everything else. She's chalk dust.
In the movie version of his life, he'd feel a tap at his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts of India and the hems of white coats. She'd be standing there with a benevolent smile. There'd be no arguments or unanswered questions.
He'd settle for even a glimpse of her. He looks out of his second-floor window and waits for a smudge of white against the asphalt, but she doesn't walk past, not that day. Or the next day. Or the next.