There was one place I didn't expect anyone to go. And this week, Jes went there.
So CloseThe last time I saw her I was sixteen; she was twenty-six. I was a weird kid I think. Spent more time studying philosophy with my one friend in the whole world than jacking off in dimly lit bathrooms. She was a brainy type I guess. The type of woman I now realize no man can get. Back then, her hair was very long and very dark, and she dressed like every day was spring. She’d looked at me — it was early summer — and the things that flashed across her face in the green light of that one hurried moment as we all ran down the street, well, they were things I didn’t yet know how to name. Her face in my memory, always beautiful and bright and keen, was full of everything terrible. Anger, disgust, fear, frustration … things I’d never seen her face hold. Not once in all my studies with her had anything we discussed made her have that look.“Why aren’t you helping, damnit?” Her arms had been full of books. Other people in the street carried more practical things as they ran for the shelter; blankets, food, backpacks crammed full of spare socks and shoes.“I’m sorry,” I had screamed over the wind. It was all I could think of to say. I’d ran along behind her as she tore through one house after another, trying to save their books, their photographs and art. I’d only looked for canned goods and sharp knives. She’d been mad about that.
The tornado, I remember, finally got so loud, so close, I could hardly hear what she was demanding I grab. My ears had felt like they should be bleeding. When I could barely hear her screams, I’d torn at her summer dress with my free hand — it was a cherry color, like her lips — and dragged her out of there, into the shallow ditch behind some stranger’s house at the edge of town. She’d flung herself on those remnants of people’s lives, desperate to save what she’d been trying to teach me. And then I flung myself on her.When the tornado had passed and we were still alive, she’d shoved me off. In the silence after the tornado, I remember seeing the ditch mud on her jaws and scratches on her cheeks, clods of dirt in her pretty hair. I think I’d reached to brush some of it out when she slapped my hand away, staring hard at my face the way she did when we began a new and difficult book. Then she’d stood, and gathered the things she’d saved, climbed the ditch, and walked away from me.
Every day I stop at the Maple Street Coffee Shop on my way to work. The proprietor's Magda, a dumpy and kind older woman who gives me free slices of pie every now and then. It is fall; the dust from ground up leaves stir as I walk out the open side door of the coffee shop. I take a seat on one of the small patio tables and open the newspaper. I have about ten minutes for a quiet read and coffee before I'm off to serve martinis and scotch all afternoon and night.*“Coffee, black please.”That’s all she said, but I knew just from those three words who she was. I pressed my back flat to the iron of the chair and slowly looked over my left shoulder, trying to keep my head out of profile. She stood at the register, unchanged, except if before she’d looked like spring, now she looked like summer. Her hair was still dark and maybe long, but it was up, showing the slender line of her neck which disappeared in a gold sun dress. Over her shoulder a messenger bag was slung, no doubt filled with books. She paid and turned towards the side door, carefully guiding her bag and skirt through the tables as she came closer. I turned slowly back to my paper before she lifted her face.The headline on the newspaper, I finally saw, was something about either Libya or Japan. I read the article without really knowing what thoughts the words on the page matched. She took a seat across the patio facing me, her back to the shrubs. In the full sun her head gleamed darker than the wrought iron patio furniture. Bending, she began pulling things from her bag, sitting them on her table. Without looking up once, she became immersed.I watched her for maybe five minutes before she drew up her eyes, right at me. There were gentle lines around them from smiling and squinting in the sun as she read. Her lips — the cherry lips — parted slightly, and her eyes took on a darker expression. She did not smile. She did not not smile.No.I stood quickly, rolling up my paper. It was about time to leave anyway.“Wait.”I pushed in my chair.“Wait, please.”The silence that followed was as odd as the one following the tornado, all those years ago. There was the wind, and the sounds of city traffic, and mowers, but on the patio there was only silence.“Will you join me?”I walked towards her. She moved the books back from the edge of the table so that when I sat down, they were the only thing between us.“Hello.” It was all I could think of to say.“Hello.”I picked up my coffee and sipped.“Please,” she began, “tell me how you’ve been. What are you doing now? What do you study? What are you working on? It … it has been a long time,” she added.I tried to take my time sitting down my coffee so that I could think out what to say, but it didn’t really work. Everything between us was so loaded now, so full of confusion and subtext.“I’ve been … alive,” I said. It sounded harsh even to my ears. “I’ve been fine. I’m, uhm, I’m on my way to work, pretty soon. I, uh,” and knew I looked angry, as if any of my life was her fault, but it wasn’t, “I tend bar at a hotel downtown.”The pause showed blank on her face.“But you — I mean, what are your studies abou—”“It has been a long time.”“Oh,” she said, looking down at her papers and books. “Yes it has been. Yes,” she said again, “it has been a very long time, hasn’t it?”“And you?”“Me? Why…” she looked up again, at me. So beautiful, and bright. So smart. “I’ve, well, been working on a new dialectic.” Her voice began to sound stronger, determined, and she leaned, just a bit, closer to me. “And it’s odd, but it seems to be tying into cosmology now. I’m in town to give a lecture on it down at Pear Hall. I just … I’m just so close,” she said, stretching one arm across to a sheaf of papers near my own hand, grabbing the top page, then letting it slip out of her hand and onto the table again, “so close it’s maddening. I’ve just got to go back and re-examine everything. My theses…” she said, and now lifting her hand slightly off the table, pointing to something imaginary, her eyes turned wholly from me now, “and then from there…”I watched her stop speaking. Her hand dropped. She turned herself back to earth, back to me.“Odd, isn’t it? That I’m studying cosmology now, when so many fear the world is about to end? 2012 and so forth. As if whatever divine being is up there hasn’t already tried to end the world a thousand times over.”“We must read the same paper.”She laughed. It was the sound a bright sun should make. I wanted to bask in it. But no.“So then if you’re tying in cosmology, do you believe in god?”“I believe in us ... in humanity” she said. “We are all capable of incredible things.”No.I clenched my jaw. Looked at my watch.“Well, it’s time I get going.”“Yes, of course. Of course. Well," she said, standing at the same time as I did, “it was good to see you again.” And she extended her arm and hand, wrist pointed to the heavens, as if she knew I wanted to kiss any part of her, even the back of her hand. I didn’t. Instead I stared hard into her face and thought about what I really wanted to do, and let her see me think it. But I did not take her hand. I did not take any of her. Because she wasn't the kind of woman for taking.
I park about two blocks from where I work, and on nights like this the walk back to the car from the bar is nice. I’d made shit for money this evening and the soured musk of hops and liquor rises from my clothes. But the night itself is faultless. There's a good wind cold with the possibility of an early snow. I walk towards the car lot on Eleventh. Over head there are even a few stars visible — unusual for the downtown of any city. Almost makes me want to whistle.Then, a scream from an alley to the right. I know that scream. But … and the next thing I know I'm running.
*More screaming, and some low laughter. More than one voice. More than a few.
When I got to the alley I saw them, the six of them. I slowed to a nonchalant walk. She lay on the ground behind them, a heap in the shadows. God only knew what she was doing out by herself at night; probably hadn’t even noticed the time. One of them straightened and turned towards me. The gun was cocked in my face before I even saw him move.
“Come on,” I heard myself say, “aren’t you even gonna let me have a go before you get rid of her?”
They all laughed. Laughed like I was funny. I am not funny. The one with the gun in my face, who was very sturdy looking and probably somebody’s muscle, glared at me down the barrel, appraising me with jumpy eyes. I saw they were all armed. She was not moving; I needed to get close enough to see she was okay. The man kept pulling his lips back from his teeth, coked out of his mind … which meant they all probably were.
“Look,” I said, trying to make myself sound sleazy and unconcerned, “we can all take turns. We oughta at least get that much out of her before you finish.”“Yeah.” The gun clicked back from my face. Arms reached for my shoulders and flung me towards her. “Yeah, yeah — good idea. You have the first go at her and then keep watch.”“Fuck yeah,” I said. I stooped; she was beaten but alive. Helped her stand. For a moment our faces were inches from each other. Her eyes, so close to mine, were swelling closed with dark bruises, yet still bright and beautiful.“They’ll never let me live,” she breathed as I pretended to throw her against the bricks of the building near us. “But you, they might. If you…”I pressed against her so that her chest was against the bricks, the scratch of them cool against my palms as I leaned behind her. She let her head rest in the hollow of my throat, her dark hair warm below my chin. Behind us, the men laughed and gun shots clapped through the alley, up to the stars.“Get on with it,” one of them — not the leader — yelled. Then some more shots into the sky.I used the hand towards them to unbuckle my pants and draw up the hem of her dress, keeping pressed close to her. My other hand I placed gently on her shoulder. She almost nuzzled it, and shifted even closer to me. So close.“Please.”She knew what that meant to me. I knew what it meant to her. We both believed in us and what humanity could do. She was right, they’d never let her live. They probably wouldn’t let me live either, but I could at least save her from the worst of it.I tilted so that I could loop my arm from her shoulder to close my hand around her neck, then moved my other hand up to the other side of her neck, pushing the dark hair out of the way as I did. The men yelled, delighted with what they thought was happening.
She nodded, turned her face up to me just barely, and smiled with those beautiful lips shaped and colored like cherries. Smiled at me like she had so often and so long ago, when we'd discussed the nature of man and of thought. She smiled even when her hands flailed under our bodies, so close to one another, beating softly against the bricks, her body pulsing slightly as she tried not to fight me. So ... close. And finally, she went.We are all capable of incredible things.