Something that Didn't Happen

[This is a very tentative foray into fiction writing. Since this blog seems to be my testing ground and a place for experiments, I'm posting it here.]

First Meeting

She walked into the exhibition, headphones in her ears and steel plates behind her eyes; something about her face -- she didn't know what -- must seem so open to people, given how often she was approached by strangers wanting to talk, but most days -- today -- she wanted to be alone. So she turned to stone, a little. Made herself impenetrable. She wanted to look, that's all.

The gallery was dim, and she glanced around as she fumbled with her phone, and briefly caught someone's eye. He started, like he'd seen a ghost; she felt a shock and wondered if it was as obvious on her face as it was on his. She lowered her eyes quickly and stared intently on the wall text in front of her, not really seeing the words; she convinced herself it was just exhaustion that was making her befuddled, as she hadn't slept last night. She gave a frustrated huff, a private laugh: last night? let's try four years. Her ex seemed to have gotten her ability to sleep through the night in the divorce, along with half the books and one of the paintings she loved best. Yes, it must just be exhaustion.

She turned back around to confirm that sleeplessness was to blame for the odd, electric moment and saw the man gazing at her, and he blushed a bit when he realized he'd been seen. She was curious now that she'd actually bothered to look at him. Tall, strong -- broad shoulders, excellent posture -- with a mane of salt-and-pepper curls and skin not so much olive as golden. Age hard to peg -- in his fifties, maybe? This was all in a glance. She didn't want him to know she'd looked.

The art on the walls and in the cases was foreign to her -- Byzantine empire -- and all she could see in it was lines and patterns and colors without anything more than that to make it make sense. Maybe that was enough. Weathered stone mosaics, spare manuscript pages, bits of columns and architectural details, vessels, seals. She was looking without thinking, a strange experience for her; she willed herself to concentrate. Suddenly she realized that she was dancing -- moving around the room intensely aware of the man's movements around her. They didn't look at each other, they didn't acknowledge each other, they didn't come within arm's length of each other. They didn't look at the same object at the same time. And yet they were both blindly attuned to where each others' bodies were in space, and of their mutual trajectories in circles and trines past the artifacts that now only served as the pretext for their encounter.

In the next room, more curiosity. She stood behind a vitrine, pretending to study some small figurines, and looked at him through layers of glass as if its gleam could camouflage her intent gaze. Greek? Italian? Egyptian? Spanish? His skin was clear and unlined and perfectly smooth; his eyes had laugh lines at their edges. He moved with intention, stopping to read every wall label and look closely at every object. She was getting impatient with him; she was sure there was a story here, between them, and she wanted to find out what was going to happen. He, not knowing that he was a character in this theoretical fiction, refused to give in to her impatience. He continued with his deliberations.

Finally, as she stood looking at something -- what was it she was looking at? -- he approached her. "You have a very beautiful smile," he said, a line that would have normally elicited her most withering stare, she had heard it so often (and mostly thought it was insincere anyway), but there was something in the way he said it, a nervousness, maybe, that brought out something like kindness in her. Besides, she had now heard his voice, and the unplaceable accent would drive her nuts if she didn't find out its source. She realized to her horror that his compliment had caused her to flush and lower her eyes to the floor like a shy schoolgirl; she tried to raise them to meet his face, but found herself unable to. She was caught in an unfamiliar shyness, and she realized she must to him seem coy. She hated coy.

She finally looked at him, and smiled, and he smiled wider. They talked. The talking was easy, and comfortable, and calm. Slow, as if they were both measuring their words before speaking -- no rush of language. Wary, too -- the way you talk with strangers, she thought, comforted that she at least had this small remnant of her wits about her. "Where did you come here from?" she asked. "Denmark," he replied, and his eyes smiled at the confused look on her face as she struggled to figure out how to ask the question she actually wanted answered. "Ask me from where I came to Copenhagen," he suggested, and she did. "Iran. I am Persian." She looked at him again and his face made sense to her now.

They walked aimlessly around the museum for an hour, until, suddenly and acutely aware that he was a complete stranger, she thought that she should go. He was disappointed -- more than that, perhaps panicked at the thought of this being just a momentary encounter -- and gave her his phone number. Please call me, he said. She promised she would try. She hated talking on the phone, she said -- she was very shy, she said. "Why be shy?" he asked, sounding a bit fatherly in doing so. She smiled, and was surprised by his kiss on her cheek, by the courtliness of it, and the careful respectfulness of the gesture. She blushed again -- how many times today? -- and turned to walk away too quickly.

Second Meeting

She called him -- she was nervous, especially when she heard his gruff, deep voice on the other end of the line, and fumbled her invitation to meet for a coffee. It took her a while to figure out that his hesitance was not lack of interest but a way to wrangle more time from her, to make the encounter not as brief as the last time. They decided to meet at the park, first thing in the morning. They would get a coffee and walk.

When she arrived, the park was crowded -- a road race, or some other event. She worried for a moment that she wouldn't be able to pick him out from the scores of people crowded at their chosen meeting spot, until she saw his striking figure. He seemed to shine, his golden skin and his mane of hair. Broad smiles, and an unexpected kiss to say hello, then a search for coffee. A park bench, and life stories. "I forgot to ask if you are married?" she said, terrified that she had misjudged. "Noooo," he answered slowly, then told her about his wife who had died some years ago, of his daughter who had gone to live with her grandparents after her mother's death because he couldn't handle his grief, of a son who he hardly knew who he'd had to leave behind with his first wife when he was exiled by the political party during the revolution in Iran. "Do you regret?" she asked. "At every moment in my life, I've tried to make the best decision possible at that time. The best decision available to me. So how can I regret?" He looked at her, and made a guess: "You should not regret so much, you know."

They sat close, his arm around her, his fingers stroking her arm and the nape of her neck; the touch was tender, and he looked at her with twinkling eyes and a smile of wonder. "What?" she would ask, more than once. "You're so beautiful," he would say, or "Your skin is so soft," or "Your eyes are so tender." Or -- and this is where she would look up, with a measure of worry on her brow, but also agreement -- "This is all so surprising. I am so very surprised." What an understatement, they laughed. They talked about friends, about pasts, about presents, about ambitions, about finding peace with themselves. He traced the line of her eyebrows with his finger, then the bone around her eye, the bow on her lip, her hairline, the bridge of her nose. She didn't dare touch his face, his golden face -- was King Midas descended from Persians? would she turn lifeless if she touched him? It didn't seem to work in reverse, this golden touch -- on the contrary, she felt quite alive in his hands. Extraordinarily so.

She looked at him, smiling through hooded eyes, lips tilted up close to a kiss. "Don't do that," he protested. "What?" she asked, laughing. "Don't get so into me." She bristled -- the arrogance, she thought, of imagining that she was falling too hard for him even as everything about the way he was acting showed he was crazy about her. And then she looked again at his face and realized it was a problem of translation: don't get so under my skin, he was saying. Don't bewitch me. Don't infiltrate my mind. She saw the pleasure, and the fear.

She had never bewitched anyone before, not that she remembered.

Third Meeting

She arrived at the apartment slightly breathless; she didn't know what possessed her to call him and ask to come over right away. Something about wanting to make sure about him, that he was real, perhaps. She was always so much more able to understand people by their habitats, their things. Their fetish objects, their clutters, their detritus. She wanted to trace the contours of his life, his being in the world.

That's what she told herself, anyway.

He opened the door, embarrassed because he hadn't had time to tidy the apartment. Her face fell a little -- had she caught it in time? -- when she saw the shabbiness of the space behind his proud figure. In the sitting room, the carpet was stained from his paints, stretchers hung on a peg, a portrait (all in blue) was tacked on the wall next to the photo on which it was based. The couch was completely covered with papers and books and tossed off clothing and an expensive laptop; there were only two other chairs in the room. He directed her to the one that was relatively unoccupied. She moved towards it tentatively, noticing that despite the disarray of the place the bathroom was sparkling clean, as was the tiny corner that served as a kitchen.

They sat down, both unclear as to what would come next. He put his hands on her knees, and in a very firm and serious voice said "We won't make love today. It's too soon." She flushed and her eyes stung with tears, both at the thought that her behavior had seemed to him so forward and, at the same time, that he might not want that from her. "I didn't… That's not why," she stammered. He smiled, his long-lashed eyes full of tenderness. She felt his nervousness dissipate. She tried to swallow.

She looked around and then understood. The only photos of his daughter from when she was a young child, before his wife had died. The bed covered with tattered blankets and worn sheets. The closet, mostly empty except for his few clothes and, in a corner, some remnants of his wife's presence: an old handbag, a jean jacket that looked hardly worn. And against the wall, a large canvas. It was a portrait, angular and abstracted, but she couldn't see the face, which was, she assumed, covered by the white cloth draped over. Her heart broke a little at the reverence of this gesture. She guessed that whatever happened in this room, his wife must never see. Suddenly the apartment, all the things strewn aside, the indifference, transformed in front of her: it was a ruin, stones crumbling and fallen, ivy eating through mortar, neglected, lonely, silent.

He offered tea, he offered conversation. She insisted she had just come to say hello and had to go. She kissed him and he looked after her as she walked too quickly down the hallway. When she got out of the elevator, she ran to the door and squinted in the harsh sun, letting the blast of heat wash away the sadness that seemed to cling to her skin, her hair, her clothing. She jumped into a cab and when she got to her apartment she ran to the bed which was tangled with bedclothes and piled with laundry, undressed, and fell asleep in the afternoon heat. And, for the first time in four years, she slept until morning.