- You called your dad to tell him you had a new girlfriend. He sighed and said, “Oh, another one?” You felt a flare of self-righteous defiant falling-in-love, just to spite him. You filled yourself with a determination for the new romance that lasted at least a month.
- When you met her, she smiled at you. Across a crowded room, no kidding. She’d made you feel like you were special, and that you mattered to her. She could hold your gaze and you were weightless. When you met a year ago you felt like you were floating when you looked in her eyes. You were mesmerized by the gleam, the shine in the way she looked at you. Now in a crowded room you can’t read her glance, if she’s looking at you at all.
- Sometimes she’ll say something. Call you “honey” out of habit, or laugh too loud at a joke you’ve already told. Those times you feel a rush of warmth, a love that suffuses your tired heart and rushes up to flush your face. After a while it goes away again.
- It took you months to put any of this unease into words. Now they’re words you’ve hidden away, folded and tucked into a crack between thoughts, because you don’t want to have to look at them.
- Your best friend got a sweater when you were at some department store together. It was cashmere or something fancy, warm and soft. You’d loved it, been jealous, because it was your favorite color. A sort of gray-green, a soft pretty color. She bought you a sweater for your birthday. It was red, and when you opened the present the smile you showed her felt familiar.
- You spent two hours talking to someone about how you felt. A new friend, maybe, and you felt like you were saying something important even when you were quiet, just looking at her. It was probably just that it was different, would have been forbidden if it had been anything. Even so she’d fallen asleep with her head on your shoulder and her hand on your leg, and you’d lain awake feeling wistful for something that never existed.
- Sometimes you have whole conversations with your girlfriend and you get by just guessing when to say “uh huh” and “you’re kidding.” You don’t feel bad. Sometimes you can tell she does the same thing when you talk. Often.
- Last week you saw that new friend. When she smiled at you – it might have just been your imagination – she looked wistful too.
- Yesterday you and your girlfriend argued. It was about something stupid. It’s always about something stupid. You apologized. She said, “I know. It’s okay. I love you.” You didn’t believe her and you said, “Okay. I love you too.” You don’t think she believed you either.
The fairground had been bustling, teeming, crawling with people. Now they trickled, bouncing from stand to tent like pinballs. There were barely any of them left, and they were outnumbered by the bottles and cups and straws and plates and napkins and balloon animals littering the ground, tossed and crumpled on the withered grass. Penelope was walking, staring at nothing in particular, down a path trodden between games and tents. She was walking toward the tent at the end.
Her day had been a long crowd of bewildering events with strange faces. She’d only just gotten to the fair after missing two trains and losing her phone. Now she walked with purpose toward the gray tent, the plain one with scarves for a door and a solemn sign outside. It read, “MadamE Clara’s TEa REadings” in a blue scrawl. She kicked aside paper cups and empty bottles as she walked.
Once Penelope reached the tent, she hesitated. One hand paused at the scarves. Even barely touching, they whispered against her skin. She took in a breath, pushed them aside, and stepped in.
Inside the tent, she blinked with surprise. She had been expecting MadamE Clara to be something else. The picture in her head of a tea leaf reader was that of an old woman, perhaps with a turban. Knowing this, she’d expected MadamE Clara to be very young, or a man maybe. The inside of the tent was dim, a lantern scattering yellow light onto the dark colorful walls of cloth. In this sparse light she could see a wrinkled face, lines etched around blue eyes, and indeed there was a turban threatening to fall off the wispy white hair. She opened her mouth to speak, and MadamE Clara handed her a mug without a word.
It was a mug, not a proper teacup at all, and she sipped without thinking. The tea was sweet, lemony and strong. It must have been made a minute ago, for in the chill night air it had already cooled to the solid warmth that didn’t burn her tongue at all. She drank, looking over the rim of the mug at MadamE Clara, who nodded at her. Penelope drained the mug, feeling the leaves float over to tickle her lips, and then she handed it to the old woman.
MadamE Clara took it, folded her hands around it, and looked inside. She stayed like that for a while, making a moue with her mouth and squinting this way and that. Then she spoke, in a startling gravelly voice.
“Try to avoid strong brews, my dear. You’re probably more of a mint sort of person, perhaps chai? Certainly not assam, I’m sorry to say.” She said this in a kind way, her eyebrows stretching up as if trying to soften the blow.
Penelope stared at her. “Pardon. What? What are you talking about?”
MadamE Clara shook her head, seeming impatient. Her turban swung back and forth, but clung on despite all odds. “Tea, dear. You ought always to add milk, but you could probably really do without lemon, and I get the sense you don’t like too much sugar. Just do, for the love of all that is holy, do avoid awful bagged tea and make it the proper way with a strainer.
Penelope nodded, her mind tumbling. She must have looked as bewildered as she felt, for MadamE Clara patted her shoulder with a gentle wrinkled hand before pulling the scarves aside to let her out of the tent. Penelope walked through, somewhat numb and very confused.
She half-turned when the old woman called out after her, “And you should really put the milk in first, then pour the tea. It’s not how it’s meant to be done but it’s more sensible. Otherwise you scald the milk.”
Penelope managed a smile and walked with her head down until she reached the edge of the fairground. It had been a very long day. Perhaps she just needed a drink. Not a hot one.
I see a girl on the bus every day, on my way to work. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not saying this to introduce some romantic fantasy. It’s not some wild pretense that I know her, know deep into her soul. That’s ridiculous, I don’t know anything about her beyond what I can see from a few seats away on the bus. What I can see is this: She sits, always, in the same seat. It’s the third seat back from the front, on the right side. She sits with her spine straight but her neck bent over, head looking down at whatever’s in her hands. It’s almost always some simple object, and she turns it and turns it in her hands, looking at it so intently. Her hands are small, and the nails are barely chewed – nibbled, really – and there’s a round scar on her right wrist, at the top bone where her watch sits. Her eyes are wide when she watches what she’s holding, and they are very round, and blue. They are not so round when she is not staring in fascination, I think, at a penknife or whatnot. They go up a bit on the outside tip, and the blue is grayish but in the brightness, when the bus passes someplace bright and the sun washes over her through the window, her eyes are light and clear. Her hair is brown, and in that light it has hints of red, but otherwise it’s dark and plain, and barely curls at the ends brushing her shoulders. She has a short straight nose and full lips, and her face is round like her eyes. She never wears anything fancy; just sweatshirts, jeans. Sneakers, usually. Sometimes she pulls her feet up onto the seat, her knees touching her chin or pushed to the side. Once in a while she brings a book and reads instead of playing with some trinket, and sometimes she forgets what’s in her hands to stare out the window, face reflecting the play of light as the city rushes by. She has a habit of pulling up one hand, absentmindedly, and rubbing her nose, pulling her index finger over the top of the tip of her nose as if there were a fly sitting on it that she was trying to banish. She does this at least once every time she’s on the bus, and I see her with her hand moving, scrunching up her face, eyes distant. I take the bus almost every day. I’ve memorized the way this girl looks, even though I don’t know her at all. I just see her nearly every day, from 8:13 to 8:29 every morning. I’m often tired, because I’ve had a long day before and not enough sleep, despite everything, and some mornings I have to drag myself to the bus stop even without coffee. I do, though, I wait at that bus stop every morning even when the cold drizzle is stinging my face. Not because I’m responsible and have to go to work – obviously, that too. But each morning, it is oddly and quietly comforting to see that girl, the stranger, rub her nose like she always does.
The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next. Lisa looked up expectantly at Kat, who said, “Those are the ones you just bought today?” Lisa nodded and Kat smiled. “They’re really cute. Definitely have a personality to them.”
“They do, don’t they?” said Lisa. She pried them off her feet and tossed them at the foot of the stairs. Her feet in their polka-dotted socks made no sound as she led Kat into the kitchen. They were there for quite a while. They talked about shopping, and what to do for dinner, and other sundry bits and pieces. From where the boots lay, splayed on the floor, their voices rose and fell like strange low music.
Eventually the two women returned to go back up the stairs. Lisa frowned. “Huh,” she said. “Weren’t those tipped over or something?” Kat looked too at the boots, tidily lined up against the wall, and shrugged. They went upstairs, their toes slipping with little whispers on the wood of the steps. Several minutes passed, and then the music of their voices drifted downstairs. They stayed hidden upstairs until nearly seven, and then they slipped and slid down the stairs again, talking.
Kat arrayed herself on one of the kitchen stools, her skirt tucked neatly under her. Lisa opened the refrigerator. Her eyes grew wide, and she stopped speaking mid-sentence.
“What is it, hon?” Kat asked.
Lisa shook her head, and pointed. “How did they get there?” Kat leaned to look, and her eyes widened too. Crowded on the middle shelf were the boots. One had a carrot sticking out its top. Kat jumped to her feet and went to stand next to Lisa, who said, “Do you think someone’s in the house?” Her voice quavered, but then steadied. “I mean, though, why would someone put my boots in the fridge?” She maneuvered them off the shelf and put them down, letting them drop gently onto the floor.
“You know what?” said Kat. “I think I’m going to run upstairs, bathroom. Be right back.” Lisa nodded and sank into a chair, her head propped on a hand. After a minute, there was a faint thud. She started, but she didn’t see anything.
Kat walked out of the bathroom, smoothing her hair, and almost tripped. There on the floor, entirely innocently, sat the boots. She backed away from them and called downstairs, “Hey, Lisa, want to just go out for dinner?”
Lisa nodded, her gaze fixed at the spot on the kitchen floor where the boots weren’t. Then she coughed and yelled back, “Yeah, sure. I’ll just grab my coat and heels.” Behind Kat, the boots stood taller, relieved, but she was already starting for the stairs and didn’t see anything. Another minute later, the slam of the door echoed through the house and reverberated in the empty rooms.
The boots clattered down the stairs with a brisk knocking noise and, when they reached the bottom, paused as if deciding where to go next.
The setting sun gilded the city before them, from where they saw it tucked into the green hiding spot of the park. Pale golden light fell on everything – high rises, skyscrapers, rows of windows and columns of concrete. Under the rain of dying sun the city was briefly as beautiful as he remembered, the streets lined with light and the people dappled with the brightness of the day’s end.
Charlotte was in the path of the sun. She reflected it, refracted it, sparkled and shone against the horizon until she was brilliant and sparkling with sunlight. She couldn’t keep the grin off of her face, and her cheeks caught a rosy sheen. Her eyes glinted, the white light against their darkness. She was looking at him.
Martin was looking at her, absentminded. She was very lovely, especially now with the light playing against the shadow on all the contours of her face. He thought about her beauty, watching her stand smiling against the sunset. Charlotte didn’t let him think about it for long, though. She reached for him, grabbed him to pull him over to her, wrapped his arm around her.
They stood together, facing the pink-tinged sky. It seemed for almost an instant that they were alone there, though the murmurs and cries of everyone else in the park were all around them. The tourists and their cameras, the children chasing pigeons, the harried parents and the frisky dogs stopped existing.
He glanced around. A couple sat against the tree, apparently overcome by the setting sun and kissing enthusiastically. Their squirming made Martin’s shoulders tense, and he turned away. Charlotte nestled into his shoulder, and then moved. He looked down at her. She was holding her face up to him to be kissed. After a moment, he bent his head and complied. She made a disappointed noise that he’d left so soon, but then she leaned on his shoulder again.
The sun was almost gone now, the brightness dimmed and fading. Martin’s arm was stiff. He wanted to let go, but he thought Charlotte would be disappointed. The sky had flared a bit, showy as the light left. The pink mingled with orange and yellow, a watercolor palette washed over the horizon, staining the sky. He was sure it was very romantic. Charlotte sighed, watching the sunset against him. She loved this sort of thing. He remembered once, last year – well, he thought, that sunset was different. It was a different time. He had reached for her and kissed her, ignoring everything else. Things had changed since then.
He shivered a little, though the evening was still warm. He felt traitorous, thinking this next to her. She hadn’t changed at all. She was still the quiet girl who’d first smiled at him so sweetly, the fuzzy photograph of a person he remembered loving so fiercely then. Not that he didn’t love her now, of course. Of course. He didn’t think he’d changed so much, either. It was only that whatever had been there, the yank at his gut in the first months when she’d raised her face for him to kiss – the desperation, or the passion – was gone. Or faded, perhaps. Maybe it would come back to him.
Charlotte murmured against him now. He didn’t hear what she said, but he answered, “Let’s go, okay?” She looked up at him, and he felt a tired, familiar affection warm him. She nodded, slipping her hand into his, and they left the park together.
When Arthur first saw her, she was distracted. Harried, confused, and more than a little stressed. Her face was shiny with sweat and her eyes darted from one side of the subway platform to another. She wasn’t beautiful. She was reasonable-looking, mostly. Her cheeks were a little too flat and her chin a little too weak, and her lips pressed together in a disapproving way, biting back some curse or another. Despite that, he knew something at once. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was something deep and powerful that propelled him to her. He stepped forward from where he’d been standing, his hand twined with Leah’s.
The girl was Rachel, and she was unhappy. She hated to be lost. She was almost relieved when a strange man tapped her shoulder. It was crowded, people pressing up all beside her, but her eyes fixed easily on his face. It was a light, thin face that smiled easily, and her lips curved in answer. Her eyes flickered down, though, to the hand he held clasped in his. “Hey,” he said. “Can I help you?”
They lived in the same town. They had, anyway, before he moved to another city (San Francisco) and she went somewhere else (Boston) for school. Now they were in his place, and she was visiting just for a few days. They explained this to each other as they started up the subway steps to go the opposite direction. They were going to the same place. Of course, she thought.
He lived in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Leah. Rachel smiled vaguely at Leah, and then turned her face back up to Arthur’s. He was telling her about his favorite place in San Francisco, but she only caught the last few words. She smiled at him anyway. When he talked excitedly like that, he had a sort of glow to him. He was lovely like that, caught up in his own words. She thought of this and looked at him, and tripped a bit on the concrete steps.
On the subway train they hardly talked at all. When they got out of the station, Rachel recognized the street. She could do that much, at least. It was only her second day there. She hastily typed her name into Arthur’s phone, and waved goodbye at the couple as they walked off, hand in hand, in the other direction. She got to her friend’s place and into bed without having to say another word. Once the covers were warm on her skin and she was sinking into sleep, she let herself be sad. She wouldn’t remember in the morning anyway.
The next day she didn’t hear from him until 10:38 that night, when she checked her email. She thought of him all day – of the light clear blue of his eyes, of the way he smiled at her as if he knew her. She was sure it wasn’t just her. He had noticed it too.
She emailed him back, and they made plans. The next morning they met up, Rachel and Arthur, and Leah as well of course. They wandered around the city all day. Rachel was grateful to have found someone willing to show her around. The friend hosting her worked all day, and was kind enough already. She was glad, too, to have found someone so friendly. Two someones so friendly, that is.
Arthur watched all the same television that she did. They talked happily about that for a while. They talked about their favorite foods. When she asked him his, he said, “I love fries that are just cooked, all warm and crispy with mayonnaise – the real kind, not in jars or anything. “
She grinned at him, her eyes bright, and said, “Mine is spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and grated cheese on top.” Nobody else was ever so specific – most people just said “pizza.” He patted her knee, in a casual friendly sort of way. Leah smiled tightly.
The rest of her time there passed like this. She left only two days later, anyway, early in the morning. The night before she left the three of them went to a bar together, an awkward triangle huddled around a corner with their feet curled around the legs of the bar stools and their eyes catching on each other’s gazes.
On the way back they found seats. Arthur sat pressed up against Rachel, the sides of their hips and legs meeting warm and solid against one another. On the other side his hand curled around Leah’s fingers. As they left, he put his foot squarely on a seam in the subway stairs, connecting the two halves with a faint dark line. He climbed the stairs putting a foot on one side and then stepping on the other side, leaning from one half to another until he reached the top and was covered in new night. He could see Rachel’s face as she turned to say goodbye. She hugged him, holding onto him for a moment too long, and then let go. He looked at her for a moment, her face smoky in the city lights and darkness, and then she turned to leave. He turned too, holding Leah’s hand and starting to walk in the direction of home.
There seemed to be a dragon flying overhead. Theresa couldn’t believe it. Barely anybody else was glancing up, and after rubbing her eyes and looking back she assured herself it was nothing but an odd-shaped bird.
When she got to the office, she could have sworn that the man sitting at the front desk today had pointed ears. He nodded at her cordially enough, and when she stood in the elevator she shut her eyes tight and told herself to get a grip.
The work day passed mostly without event; that thing that looked like a tail flicking from a co-worker’s skirt was probably a scarf. Or something. She decided to get a lot of sleep that night, she was clearly seeing things.
She walked home, feet tapping the sidewalk as always, chiding herself for being silly – she didn’t believe in that stuff. She needed a good night’s sleep and an aspirin, that was all.
A moment later, she stopped short. That was definitely a goblin walking by.