Peeking around the corner, there he is, the world’s scariest owl. His glasses magnify his big eyes. I knew he would try to find me. He must have looked all over the building. I am sweating. This is so embarrassing. I rapid-fire a missive of awkward questions. He assures me this is okay. It is O.K. It is okay for me to meet with him. He has no nefarious intent. He is in town for a project and doing research. I want to believe him, but I am white-knuckling a thick stack of napkins when he asks for my number. I give him my email instead. He scribbles his number on a napkin with a pen. I will never call. I shouldn’t call. I call the next day.
"Why don’t we sit outside?” he asks.
As agreed, we are at the café, sitting by the front door next to a busy street. It's one of those shapeshifting evenings in the spring when the scales could tip at any moment from sunny to severe. This meeting is about his work, which is the work I used to love until I abandoned it for the safety of rental deposits and car insurance.
If we had met at any moment before now, I would've cut off his sentences at every turn by interjecting internalized, misogynistic opinions, unbidden souvenirs collected from idealized—but actually traumatic—one night stands. Or worse, I would've sat in silence, submitting to his mythology of me, contorting my psyche to fit his fantasy, only to spend the next day demonizing him for not immediately calling back.
Apologies be damned. I was more than myself. I was a girl approaching infinity. Every minute was full of ME. ME—with my voice shrieking and my body shaking. ME—a vessel of inspiration. ME—a performance for no spectators. I counted the minutes in flame, burning away the day until another pack of cigarettes was gone. I sat in empty stairwells, filling up tear-stained journals until no page was left unmarked. I was ME—always—ME—unfiltered and unafraid.
In the stairwell a friend found me puffy-faced and red-eyed. He took my pen and wrote down an address. He was having a party.
The girl who I never saw without a real flower tucked behind her ear was there, singing to herself in the mirror. Her voice throttled and rose in timbres, spinning lyrics in another language. In her mouth, the notes ran together like water over stones. In her eyes was the flood. Shrouded in darkness, Central Park held new secrets. The forest turned miniature was now a fairytale, a myth in plain sight. Looking down from this strange apartment at the treetops far below, I believed for a moment that the whole world might reveal itself to me, if only I asked first.
It was near dawn when the boy who invited me to the party started raving about virgins and Botticelli’s Venus.
“When I first saw her, I couldn't believe it. I was just a boy, and I was like, this is a woman. This is a real woman standing here, with her breasts and her hips, in this shell, with her hair flowing. Like, perfection. And I was like—wow—she's so fucking hot, and I couldn't help it. I started touching myself and I couldn't stop. I just kept on, and on, and on. She was so fucking hot. Fucking Venus... And that was the first time I ever masturbated.”
His bloodshot eyes lolled about in their sockets. He said his mother was a model, and I believed him. His parents’ bedroom was covered in mirrors, floor-to-ceiling. Everywhere you looked, there you were. Under mirrored ceilings, facing mirrored walls, I tried to figure out which wall might be a door.
Back then, everything was a mirage, an entrance, or an exit, but now all is fixed. My memories are heavy, leaden, and dulled from years spent apart from ME. Every sentence is a thesis that must carry the weight of my nostalgia.
He sips soda through a straw and listens. Do I know this man? How does this man know ME? While the passing cars rush to destinations, we crawl.
“Oh, yes...life in New York—it's like every day is a party,” he says.
“But then it can chew you up and spit you out.”
I nod again, but I don’t believe him.
In his mouth, the word is an incantation. Party. On utterance, the pitch of his voice rises, and his head tilts up as if to receive communion. I bet every day in New York is a party for a guy like him. I bet everybody listens to him when he talks. I bet they hang on every word that rolls out from behind those pearly gates. His teeth are incandescent. In a row, they march right alongside one another. The tyranny in his smile is blinding.
“Sorry, I keep looking over there…I'm so rude.”
The window of the storefront across the street glows. Charm, it says. CHARM. I try to look back at him, but when I do, I start to lean. Can he tell? Around my neck hangs a snake swallowing its tail in perpetuity.
“Then why do you wear a serpent around your neck?” he asks.
I answer all of his questions with my eyebrows furling and unfurling, squiggling like caterpillars on parade. In the gutter of my teenage felicitations, I feel my face flush and my lashes flutter. I am all googly-eyes when he mulls over the word I teach him. It murmurs within him, over and again. I correct his spelling. He scribbles the letters so light in his notebook that I know he will erase this later.
The meeting ends with a firm handshake and one final question. I know the answer, but after he leaves, I can’t stop wondering how he knew that I would. Do I know this man? How does this man know ME?
The very moment I leave the house the next morning, I get a text. It's from him. I am delighted, but I wait to respond because today I am playing lab rat. A research team is scanning my body as part of a paid medical study. I lie on a slab while a roving machine hums and whirrs over my flesh.
“Be still,” says the woman behind the computer.
My legs twitch.
“Thirty-four? I would've guessed you were a baby.”
I smile. I can't stop smiling. I want to tell her. I am a baby. I am brand new.
When I am done, I call my most sensible friend. After a half-whispered conversation in an empty student lounge, I have come to a decision. There is only one reasonable course of action. My body burns with disappointment (or radiation) when I finally respond to his text.
No. No, we cannot meet again. Stay Inspired, ME.
The conversation echoes, with aftershocks in technicolor. I’m so confused. How did this stranger from another continent find adventure in my backyard? In a city full of shadows, all he saw was the bright, and, best of all, he saw ME. No more lumbering into obscurity, getting soft and mushy in the abyss of mediocrity. No, now I had a new mission.
Last week, the city was a monolith. Straight lines and asphalt grids, concrete and artisanal coffee. But yesterday, I spied a flickering. I saw a quiver of light refracted from an unknown source, and now I know that tomorrow will bear a new form of reckoning, for I am on the verge—I am on the verge of ME. I will pierce the penumbra of this banal reality. Together, we will find the source of the fire's flickering. I am convinced. I must see the world as he sees it. I must see all of the colors and all of the lights. I must see what he sees through that stained-glass window.
I drive past the church he visited for his project, stalling after the light turns green, but I don’t feel anything at all. He is gone, and he took his magic with him. Desperate, I send an email.
Three weeks pass. My face boils in embarrassment. I knew it. He’s laughing at me. Choosing to forget what I already know, I toss my mourning into the wind. Unafraid, I refresh my inbox daily, with abandon, and it is in this unfettered state that I see it.
His reply is effusive and endearing. It opens with an apology for the delay and ends with a promise.
You don't have to worry about us never speaking again.
That evening I stand in front of the mirror, watching my heart jump under my skin. I cannot wait longer than a week to reply. I must confess—yes. Yes, yes, of course, I want to see you again. It would be such a pleasure. Warmly, ME.
In the weeks that follow, I cannot bear to check my email. If there is a letter from him, I will sigh. If there is not a letter from him, I will sigh. Under the perfume of his digital gaze, I linger, and I forget things. Warmly? I am not a warm person, yet here I am, perspiring every day, three miles, and counting. Off-trail, I forge new desire paths, running, running, running until my footfalls flatten the brush. Is someone chasing me? I don't know, but I know who I wish it could be. I discover that cramps can seize the arch of one foot but not the other. At the gym, I wonder if the scale is broken. I lose ten pounds in two weeks. My memories ebb and flow like waves in the sea. Am I drowning? Can I be resuscitated? A flood threatens, welling up from within. I am gasping for air when he replies.
It’s another apology, a good one. He’s been in Spain, taking a pilgrimage along a beach. I see him walking a narrow path that twists through hills, bordering a halcyon beach, and I see myself, on hands and knees, crawling after him.
In fits and starts all summer, we exchange letters. He is a man of many ellipses, each one a button that ignites my curiosity. He misspells words, but I cannot bear to send him a sloppy sentence. I try to write well. I edit for fun. Word choice is paramount, and the phrasing must be malleable. The surviving sentences win because they would also work well as captions for pictures of me naked.
No surprises, unless there’s cake.
He responds quickly. This time with no ellipses, but my mind is full of little dots. Like rainbow candy confetti on frosting, I pause…
My lips are burning bright red velvet.
“Now that's a matte finish,” says the saleswoman, “What were you looking for?”
“I don't know, something bright that makes you look young, you know, something colorful.”
She cleans my lips and pulls out another tube, “Try this.”
The color is a bright berry, almost purple, pink.
“Cosmic Raspberry,” she says.
This is the one, the cosmic fruit.
My hands are shaking when, in a pause at the register, I confess to her what I have told no one. She nods and tilts her head. Her eyes narrow. “Be careful,” she says. Rushing out of the store, I almost run into the big glass doors. Who is this red-lipped woman? Is this ME?
The seasons change, and his absence looms. He said this would be the time, and it's the time, and it's the place, but he is not here. I want to tell him, please hurry back. If you don't, I will be gone, but it's not true.
I don't mean I will be gone, as in I will not be here. I mean, I won't be here—no, I mean, I will be here, but I’ll be gone. When he returns, some other girl will have taken my place. She will look like me, and she will sound like me, but she will not be ME—she will be an imposter. I will no longer exist, and no one will know about the things I have seen because she will not be able to see them. Soon, I will be a moment in time that she has forgotten. But he remembers me, and when he returns, he will see ME, and he will know at first sight that she is the imposter.