Happy Valentine's Day.


"Come on, man. When was the last time?"

The question came from my best friend, Kyle, a cigarette dangling from his lips. A soft wisp of smoke curled from the burning end and stung my nose, but I didn't feel like asking him to stub it out.

I shrugged. To my surprise, he didn't press. We just kept walking down the dimly lit road.

I'd been asked that question about twenty times in half as many days. All my friends have been pressuring me time and time again to join them on their outings to brothels and strip clubs. I always refused, and they never seemed to understand my desire to get to know someone before I … You know. I suppose I've been hanging with the wrong kind of people if that's my worldview, but that's the only thing we disagree on.

This time, I had a legitimate excuse to flake on Kyle. While we'd been walking to El Paradiso, perhaps the cheapest and dirtiest of all the shadowy venues in this place, I'd been nursing one hell of a migraine, and my head was pounding so hard it felt like my skull was going to shatter soon. I was surprised it hadn't already. "Kyle," I said, appealing for the thousandth time, "I'm in no mood to get it from a complete stranger."

He said something in response, but I didn't hear it. The words made only a mild disturbance in the field of white noise in my head, and my eyes were focused elsewhere.

Across the street, the only lamp for miles was casting a weak glow into an alley cleaved out of a row of nondescript brick apartments. It wasn't the alley that had so stolen my attention. Rather, it was the woman leaning against the wall who took my breath away. Motionless, I stared at her as an overwhelming sense of déjà vu took root in my mind. And I knew perfectly well why.

I'd dreamed of this woman.

White vapor was expelled from her lips with every breath, forming an undulating cloud before getting absorbed by the low-hanging fog enveloping the street. Her face was obscured by the nicotine-infused vapor, but I knew it was her. Waves of ebony tumbled over her shoulders, obscuring the straps of the black camisole she wore. Short denim shorts left little to the imagination despite the red and black flannel shirt tied around her waist.

God, was she beautiful. She gave Jourdan Dunn a run for her money and then some. Ignoring Kyle completely now, I walked as nonchalantly as I could across the street as my heart pounded in my ears. I think Kyle might've shouted after me, but if he did, I didn't hear it.

The first thing she said to me was simple, yet it stopped me in my tracks. "Skipping El Paradiso tonight?"

I hadn't realized Kyle and I had been talking loudly enough for her to hear us. Our (admittedly intoxicated) voices must have traveled all the way across the street. Trying to look like I hadn't just been given a shock, I nodded. "I've never been there and I don't plan on going," I replied. "The idea of fucking someone I don't know ..." At a loss for further words, I trailed off.

Exhaling one last cloud of vapor, she slipped her e-cigarette into her pocket and smiled, her lips parting just enough to expose the edges of a few brilliant white teeth. "We know each other, Theo."

Never had my name sounded so smooth, so sweet. Against my will, I imagined it in an impassioned scream. I glanced back over my shoulder in a distantly related afterthought, looking for Kyle, but he seemed to have moved on in his search for a paradise he would never find.

"We've met." I nodded when I said it, a sluggish motion impeded by the effects of alcohol. "I still don't know your name."

She laughed. "Do you really need to know?" she inquired coquettishly.

I said I'd rather, eliciting yet more wonderful laughter.

"It's Charlize," she answered, her own name rolling even more gracefully off her tongue than mine had. I reveled in the sound, and the sparkle of eyes black as onyx let me know that she knew how I was feeling. Je sais que tu sais que je sais.

An expression I couldn't quite decipher - I couldn't tell whether it was sadness or pain or pity or something else altogether - flitted across her features and she reached out, cupping my cheek in a soft palm. "Why didn't you say anything?" she asked.

I didn't know what she meant until a fresh wave of pain washed over me. I staggered under its weight, my vision going blurry, and I felt her take me by the arm. "Come inside," she whispered, reaching around behind me and opening the door to what I presumed was her apartment. The lights were off, thankfully, but by that point, I could barely see at all. She led me to a sofa and eased me onto it. As soon as she'd let go, my eyes had closed.

My dreams were strange. Mostly, they were questioning. I wondered who Charlize was, and why she was even there. I puzzled over her caring manner. I didn't know what to think.

Some time during the night, I woke up feeling like a new man. Charlize was by my side, her brow furrowed with worry. She relaxed when I opened my eyes and kissed my cheek. "Theo, am I real?" she asked when she pulled away.

Still reeling from the sudden kiss, I wasn't sure how to respond for a few moments. Eventually, I said, "I can see you. I can feel you. I can hear you. You're real. Why wouldn't you be?"

She shrugged, and if somebody can lie just by moving, she did. I left the matter alone despite the warning bells chiming in my head as she suddenly climbed up on top of me, resting her head on my chest. Her hands stroked me everywhere, and I felt all the tension seep out of my body like a depressant had just squirreled its way into my bloodstream. I - we - fell asleep again.

When I woke up again, I was alone. I was in my own apartment. The blinds were closed, but they did nothing to stop dirty yellow sunlight from hitting my eyelids. The vestiges of that migraine were still pulsing in the back of my head.

My phone rang then, startling me fully awake. I fumbled for it, knocked it off the dresser, and grabbed it just before whoever was calling was sent to voicemail.

It was Kyle, and he sounded worried. "Theo, man, where'd you go? I waited half the night for you, man!"

"I … I came," I said, confused. "I met you. And I ditched you, remember?"

"You never left your apartment, dude. You flaked."

"What?"

"The hell you on, mate?"

I was about to say that was rich coming from a guy like Kyle, but he hung up, leaving me lost and confused. Shaking my head, I placed my phone back on the table, and my hand brushed a piece of paper. I picked it up, curious. Nothing on paper save receipts and bills was ever in my apartment, but this was a folded note. Written on it were words that made me doubt my sanity.

Happy Valentine's Day, Theo. Thank you. Feel better.

Charlize

P.S. Let me be the girl of your dreams.

For some unfathomable reason, I ripped the note to shreds and threw the fragments onto the floor, grinding them into the dingy carpet with my heel. Out of some kind of curious compassion, I bent down to collect them.

They were gone.