He tried to understand what he was doing.
It didn’t take long – anyone watching would have seen it play out in a fraction of a second. Someone really perceptive would have noticed the brief flickers of excavated memory on his face, twinges as he cycled through a progression of impulses. Here he was, unexpectedly, standing on a street he’d stood on fifteen years previous. And now all the gaps were closing. And now he could feel down to his cellular framework, inexplicably brought back to a previous iteration.
It wasn’t the street sign that had tipped him off (Lilac Street) nor was there any full blown cinematic reel playing upstairs in his brain. But there was something in the shape and sequence of the surrounding houses, something in the way the sharp pitch of Italianate architecture cut the sun down to hard wedges. There was something in the intersection of the two streets, the low slung traffic light, which seemed to all come together.
She knelt in the street, the afternoon light all over her.
The sky was crisp and blue, and there was just enough of a breeze to keep it from being too hot. He saw her get in her car, a shapeless block of a machine, deep metallic green, and then back out just as quickly, leaving the door open in the street. She walked to the front of the hood where he could see a cat, sprawling and playful by the tire, trying to block her from going off to work…or of leaving at all. He looked away from the cat and at her for the first time, instead of her actions or everything surrounding her, the fact that she crouched down, was rubbing the cat’s belly vigorously suddenly beside the point. Her hair was all pink, bright, not as an undertone or highlight but everywhere, but piled on top of her head in a neat professional manner – not a strand out of place. Her lips stood out sharply on her face, dark cherry, but maybe also because she was smiling at the stray – collarless and scraggly but too comfortable, obviously a cat the neighborhood had adopted. She looked up a bit, noticed him slowing as he walked by, staring, and she pumped the cat’s belly some more, her fingers roughing up the mixed golds and browns of the cat’s coat. “I can’t stay today, not today!” she said in an overly affectionate tone, and loud enough so she could be sure he would hear it on the other side of the street.
He wanted to say something interesting but only managed to say, “That cat seems persistent,” and then added “Doesn’t want you to go.”
“It’s our daily drama,” she said, standing up. She turned away from the cat and looked openly over at him. Her hip was slightly cocked, as if one heel was shorter than the other, and she took a kind of half step toward crossing the street. “That cat lays in front of the tire to keep me from leaving.” She pantomimed exasperation with her dark eyes, “But I love it! He’s the only one who’d rather die than let me leave him.” She smiled because it was a nice line to end on, but she stood there, challenging him to say something else, to continue the banter. So he let his eyes lock with hers while he forced his mind through many hundreds of rejoinder possibilities, a forest of sentences, words he could add and add together to come up with something.
Let’s spend the whole day together, arm in arm like we mean it, and then who cares – you’ll be lodged in my heart forever, conjured up every day, magical and immaterial and fundamental all at once, he didn’t say.
“That cat’s a true poet,” was what he came up with and she laughed at that, took a step toward him, and he knew he could introduce himself, could finally say hi.
He found himself walking down the street.
After making the block, he started heading west again into full sun. He knew he had to think about getting home, and the list in his pocket reminded him of all the things he had left undone. Still, here he was, and he was hungry. He turned another corner and saw a take-out restaurant he remembered but not as he remembered it. It looked cleaner now, not as rough as before. Last time he had been here it was washed out, cluttered and worn out inside, but now the whole place seemed bright. Bought, then remodeled. Instead of slipping away into nothing at all, or skimming along the same as ever, it had been updated, made colorful, turned into the kind of place someone might want to stop.
The two girls watch him get up and walk out.
The one girl whispers to the other that he looks kind of shaky, kind of drunky? as he presses one hand into the hard orange surface of the table top, as he wills his whole body up. The other girl says shhh! just watch and, like, be ready. But don’t stare.
And now he’s making his way to the door without looking back. And now his whole outline blurs a bit as the girls keep their eyes on him, it kind of loses focus, and he puts his hand on the door, pushes and sighs, and walks out into the summer. And one girl makes a face at the other girl who kind of rolls her eyes and makes like a great weight has been lifted. Then suddenly he’s back, still jittery and out of synch, much softer now, the colors worn down and degraded.
He makes his way back to the table and sits down and one girl says to the other What? Should I go over? Ask him if he wants anything?