I was taking the usual weather-beaten bus to my disbanded borough of barred windows and chipped masonry. A comfortable familiar. At 5:30pm this bus was filled with the usual grim faces filed in, and perfectly assigned like a stifling classroom chastised for creative pursuits. Unmarked faces, wrinkle-less from a 9-5 of strained eyes and limited laughter from the soul sucking scheduled torture of life. I received my usual scale of insincere looks from the nameless crowd, although they seemed half-hearted this brisk, fall evening. I’ve just been accustomed to these reactions of my unsightly face for years, always asked the same mundane questions, I guess this evening I was imagining the artificial glances of their judgment. For fun. I’m surely convinced, though, that no one in this self-preserved world understands the idea of a past, a story, an explanation for the way people treat their existence. And all people really care about are assumptions, assumptions that fulfill their standard stereotypes because imagination is dwindling. They stray from the important, meaningful questions about a human life, rather they stick to the shallow, barely-scratch-the-surface type of questions. The weaves of humanity are slowly becoming a wasteland, entertained by superficial acts. It’s why I dismiss their questions.
As I made my way toward the back of the bus, the semi-open seat next to middle-aged man was cleared for all but one girl. She never bothered to look up. The awkward throat-clearings and nervous sighs didn’t distract her from current events. The atmosphere of my presence didn’t affect her. Seemingly she wasn’t repulsed by my face, a face of tattoos covering the landscape of my appearance, with ridges of scars tracing along my skull like an archaic map. The very presence being whispered about all around her seat. Not even a flinch. She was completely absorbed. I sat down in one of the cleared seats next to the original empty one right across from her. I couldn’t pry my eyes away from her beautiful concentration. A world I could strangely and suddenly adapt to.
I think she felt my lingering stare because she eventually began to ease her head up from her in-depth reading of The New York Times, an article concerning the shallow division of the current culture, probably concerning a cup and its lack of holiday decoration. And when she finally looked at me with the most beautiful green eyes I was liberated. She was every poem regarding the beauty of life I’d ever read. She was the season of autumn. Captivated. My eyes unmoving. And I tell you, without warning, life always creeps into the most beautiful love with the most tormented demons lurking behind it.
But despite all this history this girl didn’t know, and behind the tattoos no one understands, and everyone assumes to be associated with prison, or a corrupt past of delinquency… This girl didn’t move. Even when she looked at me, she smiled. She glanced away from her paper with her forest green eyes, and they were so soft when she smiled. Because that smile lifted a lifetime of outcast insecurities in a single second. All I could do was stare at the way her blonde ringlets fell upon her shoulders, and the way her index finger was tucked inside the folded newspaper. I had to say anything, anything to get those eyes looking my way again. Anything. So I glanced out the window for a moment as if the outside terror would give me any courage or solace to speak out. So I looked back and cleared my throat, “why didn’t you scoot away from me into another seat?” And I immediately regretted every syllable that had just escaped my stupid mouth. She looked up from her paper with a look that seemed concerned rather than scared and her mouth began to move, and I had to remember to actually listen rather than look blindly at the way her mouth dances when she speaks, and I heard her say the most wondrous string of words I’ve ever heard, “Why? Should I feel uncomfortable because of your face? You don’t even know my name, or where I come from. Give me a bit of credit or room to establish my position. No. I may look like a heartless bitch, but I promise my actual feelings are the complete opposite”
It was casual. Unguarded. Never a response I expected.
And she interrupted my stumbling response to the way she flicked that beautiful hair from her shoulder, and said, “Is it typical for people to scoot away from you?” By this time her paper rested upon her crossed legs, and all I could blurt out was “yes, god, of course. I mean, look at my face.” She smiled. She leaned in closer as if the world couldn’t hear this secret she was about to unleash and she said, “It’s the character and judgment of a man that makes them ugly, not this physical, outward appearance that our culture has constructed as the most important aspect of a person’s life. I don’t believe in the ugly or the beautiful as far as humans go, I save those words for the ugliness of the world’s reactions, and the beautiful for the way words dance on a page, or how the majestic mountains take my shallow breath away. Never for a living thing. Our egos, no matter how big or small, can never take that kind of pain, and they shouldn’t have to.”
“You speak in such a way that seems so atypical of someone like you.”
“Are you stereotyping? After I just accepted, without question, the presence of your face… Seems like a rather sharp interpretation and judgment imposed upon someone who just may be your only ally.”
“That’s not how I meant it…”
“Well, maybe you should preserve your words and sift them through a filter before you just allow them to drop out of your mouth so innocently.”
“I was stumbling on your beauty, it…”
Interrupting with a spark in her eye, “Did I not just explain to you that beauty is of little importance to me? Beauty doesn’t negate the presence of a shallow or bitter attitude. You have no idea who I am. I don’t withhold my tongue. I never found a good enough reason to hold myself back. So I will not back down in the presence of a stranger such as yourself. Interestingly enough, that may give more confidence and power to say what I please.”
“I absolutely admire it. I never meant to offend you. You may be the only face or stranger on this route or around this city that merely ignored my abnormalities as if it wasn’t abnormal or peculiar.”
The subway was continually stopping and jolting this conversation along the line. I was completely absorbed in this conversation that I hadn’t realized my stop had already come and past. All too soon she was getting up as the bus eased to a full stop.
“What’s your name? I should’ve asked already.”
And without asking my name in return she scrambled off the subway into the vastness of the grid. I caught a glimpse of her bag where a pin displayed the Sarah Lawrence Gryphons logo.
In the moment I watched her get lost in the mass…I was struck. Her words echoed in my mind until sleep finally came at 4am. I had to see her again. Sarah Lawrence. Iris. It buzzed around in my head. The way each crease seemed to float perfectly, blended into her subtle red lipstick, which in my brief moments with her articulated some of the most distinct lines that will resonate in my mind for some time. The constant and sudden way she began to nag my mind was sickening…but I couldn’t let that memory go. She was the beauty of rare starlight against the city glow, enamoring, striking, elapsing.
The next morning I was working at The Secondhand Fairytale, a used bookstore on fifth. The owner, Madeline, named the store after the connection you feel when reading a secondhand book. It’s magical, a fairytale of worlds, minds colliding without knowing it. She always says a thousand hands could have touched a single book, a million opinions, and yet the story is always the same, and that’s a fairytale within itself. Madeline had become like a second mom to me since my mother’s death. The books were my refuge.
It was stocking day, we got a donation from a family whose father had just passed, and he had over 300 books. None of his children wanted them. They brought them to us. In this case, these books were read by a teacher who shared the knowledge from these books with malleable minds. He created meaning out of meek details, and with these books got the students to do the same.
As I was mindlessly sorting through the books, lost in these thoughts. Fate stepped in when I spotted those same blonde ringlets bouncing around the corner of the bookshelf. My heart crawled into my throat and whispered of my past heartache and a blind future of her. All at once I was choking on excitement, knocking over the stack of books in front of me. As they went crashing to the floor, she was walking to the checkout counter, hands full of used, tattered books. It was like looking into a reflection. I resembled the broken, torn books. She was the imperfectly comfortable life I once knew with the family I once had.
I finally broke concentration and realized she had been speaking to me asking, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” repeating over and over.
“By the way, what’s your name, my little tattooed friend?” she giggled.
She knew I was stumbling because I saw her again. I stared at her. And suddenly a wave of unknown confidence came over me. “It’s Theo. Would you like to go to a poetry reading with me tonight?”
She looked at me inquisitively for a moment, and I felt my face flush. I felt ridiculous. How could she say yes to a guy with tattoos tracing his face, who works at a used bookstore, and she interrupted my thoughts, “Yes, Theo. I’d love to. I’ll meet you there. Just tell me where it’ll be.”
Without hesitation I choked out, “Café Papyrus at eight.”
“I know where that is.” She whispered. Before I could say anything else, she was backing up and out the entrance. She left her stack of books on the counter.
I jittered through my job of sorting the books and had constant, nagging thoughts of never seeing her again. The way she left and didn’t say another word worried me. She wouldn’t be there at eight. I’d be alone. I was so stupid.
The store closed at seven. I locked up the doors and headed to the flower stand right down the street. He usually began packing up around 7:15PM because he liked to stay open a bit later when everyone was getting off work in hopes they’d stop by because a flower reminded them of their wives, mothers, daughters, mistresses. It didn’t matter. I picked up a single rose. God I hoped she’d be there.
I began walking since it wasn’t too far. I got to the café at 7:45PM. I looked around and saw now sign of her. I sat down at a table set for two. The stage had a spotlight positioned on a single, brown bar stool with a mic sitting in front. It had a red backdrop and the folds of the curtain faded from maroon to black in a subtle wave that resembled romance. I was lost in the transitions, the movement of the stage when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I swerved around quickly frightening the waitress. It was Iris. I felt my heart begin to swell. She interrupted, “would you like a cappuccino or something? Espresso so you can stay up all night with me?”
“All night?” I hesitated.
“Yeah, I don’t get off until midnight. The café will close at 11 because of the poetry readings, and I’ll need to help clean, however it probably won’t take until midnight. Is that rose for me?” She smiled.
I began to pick it up, but by the time I had it in my hand and raising it to give it to her, she was off.
“I have other tables. I’ll bring you a double espresso.” She smiled.
A man came to the stage and introduced the night’s festivities. Iris came by the table every now and then to chat between orders and runs to other tables.
At closing time she asked me to wait outside the café. It was a particularly chilly night, and I sat on a bench with the rose clenched between my hands while I breathed hot air trying to warm them. The rose sat beside me in perfect silence, awaiting a beauty immeasurable to its own.
She walked out of the café with different clothes. She was no longer wearing the skirt and apron. She had on ripped jeans, combat boots, and a black sweater with an oversized jean jacket. She looked like a 90s dream. She started walking toward me, and she began saying something, but I was distracted by her ensemble, and thinking about everything she’d said to me within the past day. Life was a shifting dream. I was alone, displaced, without the people who made my life bearable, until now.
I was in love. Unexplainably, suddenly. I couldn’t stop it. She seemed to be ripping me from my nightmare.
“Are you ready to go?”
I shook, “go where?”
She began heading in the opposite direction.
We walked in silence for several blocks. She would look at me every so often and smile. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She knew it.
We came to Central Park. I could sit here for hours, and I usually did observing tourists stumbling around with cameras and tripods, getting that perfect shot of family vacation, or the locals taking form for whatever mood society is in that day. It kept me entertained.
I turned to her, “why did you decide to spend your evening with me?”
She turned to me with a certain seriousness in her eyes. “I couldn’t let you go.”
I was stunned, and my brain started working fiercely. I understood what she meant with a vague and ineffable certainty, but I also had no idea what she was talking about. I wanted to.
She sensed my wheels were moving, but the clock wasn’t quite striking the hour, so she began speaking again. “You were visually, on the surface, one of the most intriguing people I had ever seen. I took one look at you, and I realized I wanted, no needed to know your story. I had to get to a moment within this connection I think we have, and understand you because I feel like you’ve gone most of your life being misunderstood, and I want to be the one who understands, or tries to. You fascinate me, and not just because of these tattoos on your face. I mean, when I first met your eyes…I stopped breathing. I could sense the pain. The depth. That you seemed to be everything yet nothing all at once. You were beautiful because your eyes seemed to serve as a dam for the pain, the resilience. Um…this sounds crazy…”
I realized I wasn’t breathing. She took every breath from my lungs with every flicker of her soft lips, and breath creeping through her teeth. I was in love.
Because, you see, my past, it begins like any other. My mother’s death is the reason for my scars, for these tattoos. There was a fire when I was 16. By that time my father had already left. He couldn’t handle the stress of domestic, I assume. But the fire spread from a carelessly thrown cigarette. It was nighttime. My room was at the front of the house, next to the entrance. We had bars on our windows because when my father left, all my mother could afford were the overgrown neighborhoods of constant sirens and barred windows. It was me, my mother, and my baby sister. She was ten at the time. The house was set ablaze. I awoke inhaling blackened smoke and gasping for the once pure air of my past. I crashed through my door. Flames were engulfing front hall into the dining room. My mother’s room was toward the back of the house, so was Hatti’s. I ran toward the front door wishing, heartbreakingly hoping they were outside, waiting. When I stumbled out into the bitter cold of a northeastern winter, all I could see were onlookers who served no purpose. I could hear the sirens in the distance. I was dizzy. I couldn’t see through my tears. It was unsettled. By the time I could get back to my mother, the path was blocked. I could hear her screaming. My screams were drowned by the crashing ceiling upon me. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see. I was buried. I started screaming and ran back into the house determined to bring Hatti and my mother out alive. But when I got inside, I could hear her screaming. I could see her through the opening of the fallen ceiling in the entry hallway. She was holding Hatti. They were trying to claw their way through. I dived into the burning wood, but as soon as I hit the opening, I couldn’t remember a single thing after until I woke up in the hospital with burn scars tracing my body, my face. A new skin. A new layer that wasn’t me. I began screaming for my mother and Hatti. A nurse came running in.
She had the doctor come in a minute later. I found out they were two floors down in the basement mortuary.
I snapped back to reality. That was my past. I couldn’t tell the face of innocence before me just what I’ve been burdened with every damn day of my life. I still go to therapy and wake up nightly from the nightmares of my mother and sisters face being engulfed by flames. I became a recluse. I was even admitted into a mental institution because I stopped feeding myself, and my grandmother couldn’t take care of me. She was broken too.
I finally found my way back after a year. I got the tattoos and began pursuing a life that helped me both remember and forget the past. Some days were easier than others. But she. She came out of nowhere, and just when I think I needed her the most.
“Theo? Are you okay?” she broke my attention.
“Yeah, sorry. I was just remembering this time, um, I was with my little sister, Hatti. Uh, we were at the zoo, and the meerkats were her favorite animal, I mean, she was obsessed. Well, we got to the meerkats enclosure, and she started freaking out. She started crying, and even went as far as running up to the other visitors yelling, “do you like meerkats?! Aren’t they funny? I just love them. They’re my favorites.” And this went on for a solid minute. Finally, she looked at me and said “why can’t you be a meerkat? I’d rather have a meerkat than a brother.” And all I could do was start laughing. She just rolled her eyes and kept staring at the animals. She started giving them names, one by one.” I laughed remembering one of the meerkat’s names ended up being Bubbles because she loved the Powerpuff Girls. “But after she had finally had her fill of meerkats, we went home, but a couple of days later, after extensive research and calling around, I found a meerkat costume and surprised her when she got home, so I could be her meerkat brother” I started to choke. It was one of my favorite memories with Hatti.
Iris was laughing a bit, and then she realized I was crying. “What’s wrong?”
“I just get choked up by that memory, sorry. It was so hot in that damn costume.” I started laughing through my tears. I couldn’t tell her yet that I had lost everything I had ever loved.
“I understand.” She laughed slightly, warmly. She grabbed my hand.
I looked at her like everything I had ever lost came back to me. I could see home in her eyes. I began leaning in. I couldn’t stop myself. I was getting closer, and she wasn’t moving. I placed my lips gently on her lips, almost indecipherable until I felt the pressure of her lips on mine, and the fire shot through my heart. It was on fire, yet filling with peaceful waters. I could never let this go. I had to make it mean something. I never thought I would find this. It was here. On my lips. The warmth of that love, that home I had been missing since I lost everything.
She pulled away. I pulled back, scared I had hurt her or gone too far, but she looked at me and said, “this is the beginning of us. Remember this moment.”
And everything went dark.
Then the blinding fluorescent light was imprisoning my eyes. I was gaining consciousness, but trying to get back to the moment I found the rest of my life. I was tossing, screaming. Where did it go? Where did she go?
I finally woke up. Blinded. Constricted. I didn’t have free use of my arms. I looked down, the haze in my eyes finally focusing on the materialization of this room confining me. One arm was attached to the headboard by handcuffs. I looked around. There were no windows. The walls were a stark white that reflected the fluorescent lights and caused me to forget again what I was trying to remember.
I started screaming. Where was I? Why was I handcuffed? I couldn’t unlock myself. I began flailing.
Then I stopped suddenly. I was in the mental institution. No one had come to check, even though I had been screaming and shaking the bed violently to find release.
I remembered. I remembered.
There was nothing left out there. I was alone.
I remembered I had snuck a small razor into my room. I had gotten it from one of the crazy guys next door who was sane enough to check himself in and out of the institution, and would also bring means of killing ourselves into the prison. I remembered I had asked him for it. He delivered.
I fumbled around inside my pillowcase where I had stashed it. I found it with a nick in my finger, and blood began bubbling on my ring finger.
I worked the magic of devastation and tragedy. I had nothing left to live for. Everything I thought was real was just an elusive dream. I never had anything.
I sat there, waiting. I began to lose consciousness. The room was losing its color. A gray hue.
My eyes were fluttering. I could feel it overcoming me.
I heard the door creak. I was almost there. My heart beating slower and slower with every lingering breath.
I heard a voice say, “An Iris is here…Oh, my god! Doctor! Doctor! Come here quick…he’s bleedi…”