The Loneliness of Strangefire Dancers
From his bus seat vantage he watched the townhouses drift past. With window grime and scratches juxtaposed against their familiar facades. The way he’d been seeing them for years. From their periphery, no longer from within the comfort of their familiar curbs and catwalks, the narrow driveways where he and his old gang of friends once convened, and in the wild grass field behind the townhouses, where residents hurled junk over their backyard fences while the river trickled invisibly in the near distance.
Terrance saw her face as he was passing her house front and his breathing became pent-up. His usual routine of
pulse-pounding and difficult air intake. The inevitable physical reaction his body had perfected over the years. He saw her the way she once looked: Hair down and making her wild-looking the way she wasn’t at all. Bare feet tucked into grass-stained summer sneakers. Pale skin and supple wrists entwined with hair ties like decorative bracelets because she never wore them the way they were intended. Her eyes large and excited no matter her mood because her single real desire for easy adventure kept them that way. Maintained their untamed look, misleading all the boys who caught that stare and were caught up in it, too, thinking they’d found their ideal match in tomboy charm and supple calves. Samantha the rough and tumble, Samantha the soft. Like a summer-full of dusty boys doing dusty boy-things, couched in the language of a poem.
Then her house was gone and gravity was urging him into the window as the bus lurched around the sharp bend in the road. The exertion of its engine hammering a cacophony throughout the nearly empty bus, rattling the seats and shaking the few other riders visibly. He felt the sunlight on his skin, a burning touch he relished for the easy sensation it filled him with. Sleepy-buoyant, despite his anxious pulse and backwards-looking thoughts.
Her face stayed with him a while, though, long after the townhouse neighbourhood was behind him and the traffic grew as he sped en route to another place of nostalgia. Like a place of ghosts ready to devour him.
Bitter-sweet was the taste in his mouth as he drew within range of the mall doors.
His reflection walked towards him in the dark glass, looking frightened. Frail, as if he hadn’t grown up very much since the days of his youth, which maybe he hadn’t. His fingers gripped the smooth aerodynamic handle and pulled and a door opened. Terrance stepped through and the cool breath of air conditioned air touched him and relieved the light film of summer sweat glazing his skin. Always a relief to enter his old haven on a bright day after a cross-city trip on a summer bus. He ceased questioning his reasons for choosing that particular day to revisit the old halls and familiar store aisles: The tugging urge couldn’t have been ignored. It had pulled at him since the sleepless wee hours, from deep places, drawing him there, determining his purpose with each mile covered by the clattering-roaring bus which had brought him to another place and time.
The food court pleasantly un-busy. Sparse customer traffic perusing overhead menus while cashiers waited indifferently with blank faces. Occasional teenage loiterers beside the pay phones and among the cheerful red metal bubblegum machines and electric-chattering arcade games. Talking and laughing loudly, as if they owned this space. And they did, small groups of oblivious inheritors, as he wandered past them with the cold space growing steadily inside of him, vying for control of his emotions with the warmness this place always put there, too.
“Call her and say it’s Bobby,” a teenage boy’s voice told its friends, and he heard the smile the words slipped through. How appropriate, the words. How perfect the big laughter they urged from the boy’s friends gathered among the coin machines, nothing else to occupy themselves with on a mid-July afternoon but time-wasting where they could.
He left the boys behind him. The air cooled his moist brow and he felt adventurous. Like the days he remembered more and more often of late. When he’d been young and luckily bored and he’d had his cronies to perform funny words for, too. Maybe it had been those coin machine kids, he thought absently, knowing that of course it was them and also much, much more.
He took the old short cut. The Treasure Trail, where jewels glimmered unattainably from behind their glass display prisons. In places where children’s fingers never strayed. Terrance felt the jeweller’s eyes lift from the counter-straightening she’d been busying herself with and touch him as he passed. He cringed at the burning in his cheeks, as if things hadn’t changed very much for him. As if any adult might see through him, his body only a transparent casing displaying the little boy misplaced still among the adult geography of diamond rings and necklaces and their small, neat cardboard-labelled prices.
He felt the imminence of the cashier’s greeting, maybe a polite ready-made offering of her services in answering questions he might have about the merchandise on display. About the nature of the jewels she guarded, their prices and carats. But he knew something of trails leading to true treasure, and knew also that this cashier couldn’t help him find the winding path again, and the elusive thing at its end. And so he hurried past, before she could speak words to him that might hold him in place a brief moment, but long enough to feel the weight of heavy memories.
He knew where to find her because some things remained constant in the chaotic shiftings of everything else.
Her posture still not the best, a slight slouch in her shoulders which always made her look a little sad. Exhausted, listless, and looking forward to peace somewhere else, except her posture would remain and so he always wondered if she’d ever find true comfort.
But she looked good among her animals, at least this if not happiness in her eyes. Her back was to him as she straightened manuals in their wire sections of the rotating display case, she outlined starkly against the background of caged puppies and kittens yipping and mewling a muffled din through the thick glass display window. He admired the somehow cheerful pattern of her uniform, simple with its red collar shirt and beige dress pants. White sneakers looking as if newly purchased because this was the way her job required them to look, pristine like her words of old. He admired the simplicity of her straight blonde hair and wondered what her words were like these days. He wondered how she talked and what her conversations were about, and with whom she shared her thoughts.
A moment later he baffled her with their old joke, spoken close to her ear and making her spin about in her place before the manuals display: “I’m looking for a cute baby tarantula for my mother’s birthday.” Feeling foolish even as he spoke the words, hearing what might have been some kind of juvenile or tawdry quality which the passage of time had infused them with. Samantha turned and he was instantly familiar with her eyes: Their large look of eager surprise hadn’t left her stare. A flicker of something else in her gaze for a moment when recognition replaced the confusion marking a small furrow in her brow. Something like unease or trepidation, as time parted briefly, offering a glimpse of something that she’d been unprepared to meet in the folds of its tricky fabric on this everyday work day in the middle of another simple week. But then her old gentle look. A saving look, and he became relieved in that moment and gave her his warmest smile. It relaxed her and she was crushing his midsection in the tightest of hugs a moment later.
“So good to see you, Terrance, my god,” and she was beaming and absently toying with stray wisps of her hair where it hadn’t been snagged properly to one side with her barette. He did a quick check, tapped her wrist in confirmation and smiled again. She looked and realized, said, “My jewellery hasn’t changed much, has it?” Leaving the black hair tie around her thin wrist bone, stark and distinct against her pale skin like cream.
They talked among the chattering soundtrack of puppy and kitten noises, and the squawking of exotically-plumed parrots. She introduced him to the store’s newest arrival, a parakeet the staff had agreed to call Mr. Ruckus for his insistent peels of laughter-like screeches. “I’m sorry,” she added. “But we’re actually out of tarantulas. Some kid bought our only one last week, strangely enough. The cutest we’ve got is this old guy,” and she tapped a gentle melody on a glass aquarium wall, doing nothing in the way of disturbing the meditations of the wrinkled green iguana lamp-bathing within.
Terrance stared at her a moment until the silence between them became strange, then paid her his first compliment. “You look great with all the animals around. It’s a good version of the wild you’ve got yourself stuck in here.”
She only smiled at that, as if it made good sense to her.
He remembered visiting a special place with her once and pointed down the hall. The same cashier eyed them both, flashing a quick small smile. Just another mall couple milling the corridors with window-shopping eyes. He thought distantly that this woman likely saw him differently now. In a better light. In a way which made sense to her, and he hated his feeling of secret triumph in the realization, as though he was actually as content as others might guess he was now that he walked the mall un-alone.
Samantha followed his gesture and smiled. “We stood there and pretended we’d be married one day.” He watched her face closely, knowing she’d missed the hurtful quality in her words, in her too-cheerful tone. Devoid of the potency of the nostalgic terrain which they were recalling together. A sudden surge within him, a tide of red causing his breathing to become shallow and his jaw to work, grinding his molars together in agitation. He fought his fury down and marvelled at his success: from pleasantly nostalgic to seething and back down to some neutral happy-sad horizon between, and in such quick succession. And he knew that her strange powers hadn’t abated.
He added, “We picked rings out for each other. The biggest ones we could find, so we’d feel like tomb raiders. With big ancient jewels on our fingers.”
She only smiled at this and, miraculously, he couldn’t decipher the nature of the gesture. She could have been unaware of their conversations’ secret language and therefore vastly a different person from the girl she’d once been. Or maybe she was silently hurting like he was.
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Photo by Robert Kalman.
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Story Copyright © 2006 Alexander Zelenyj. All rights reserved.
Photo Copyright © 2006 Robert Kalman. All rights reserved.