(Unpublished – please contact author if you wish to publish this story)
Something moved outside the window. In the apartment across the alley, through the glass something moved too quickly. He stopped, bent, standing in his living room, watching. When he stopped, it stopped. He held his breath to listen, his heartbeat dominated. All he ever saw from that apartment was light; blue light, green light, white light, even dark light. It slashed out through cracked open blinds, in horizontal bands, from what must have been a huge television. The motion that stopped him was too close for that.
With settling apprehension that pecked at the edges of his composure, he realized it was a reflection moving across his window glass. Jillie had been on his mind, and his first wild thought was that it was Jillie moving behind him, reflected in the glass. But of course it could not be her.
It was him. His reflection in the glass of his window, moving, stopping.
This was the third time today that a reflection had fooled him. It was the third time he had looked out a window and mistaken a reflection for something other than what it was. He turned off all the lights and went to bed.
“Are you with me Jillie?” he asked glancing at her and then walking down the beach away from his car. She started to follow. He stepped, stone to stone, through a tidal pool. He did not look back, but he listened. He hoped she was close behind, trusted. “Are you with me,” he repeated.
“I’m with you,” the sound was small coming from behind, but carried well over the sound of surf on sand. Her voice reflected up from the stones below his feet with the soothing quality of good news, and it buoyed him, his heart lifting in his chest.
Earlier in the day she had bumped into him on the sidewalk outside a diner, a coincidence. Now her bare feet brushed the stones like the whispered slap of a bird’s wing grazing water.
“I feel like I know you. Have you ever been to Maryland?” he asked hopefully, trying to put the pieces together, trying to understand how her voice could fit so perfectly in his ear.
“No, not in this life,” she said, “should I?” She paused beside him, feet on stone. He reached for her face, but pulled his hand back when he caught her eyes on his.
“Only if you’re interested in my personal history or crabs,” he said and then added quickly, “Maryland has the best blue crab.”
Her nostrils flared, grabbing extra air before she laughed. “Then I’d like to come.” Her ear was punctured with tiny holes from the swelling of the lobe up the side and around the top, but she wore no earrings. “Do you live there – when you’re not on vacation?”
“No, but I know the way,” he said, not yet sure he wanted her to know where he lived, and then he added, “I’d love to take you there.” She laughed again, and he wondered if he’d responded too quickly, too eagerly. She faced away from him and then cut her eyes at him. They were crystalline amber with deep pupils that seemed revealing and inviting, and when she closed them half way, they were also frightening.
He touched her first on her arm, almost by accident. He touched her near the elbow with the back of his hand. Walking along the water, their wet feet picking up sand, she got so close he had to look up. He brushed her arm with his knuckles. She stopped and looked at him, but instead of telling her her brown hair had a thousand colors, he blurted out, “There’s a bird,” and gestured to a sand piper running along the wet beach just ahead of the last wave.
She looked at the bird and said, “un hunh.” Her skin was warm and he could feel the hair on her arm. She held her arm out to prolong the contact; that’s what it seemed like. At the time he didn’t believe the world was that kind of place, where he would meet a girl like Jillie and touch her and have her respond as she might have in a dream he controlled. She was too perfect for that.
She kept her eye on the bird, following its sprint down the beach. It stayed just ahead of the wavelets, so adept it seemed the piper would never get his feet wet. And then he darted into a receding wave and pulled up a morsel and gobbled it down. He shook his head once, twice, three times, and then with a flap of his wings floated on the breeze back to dry sand. She took quick steps toward the bird, leaving his hand in mid air.
When he caught up with her Jillie took his arm, held it tight against her ribs, pointed and asked, “What’s that?”
He knew she didn’t care what the bird was eating, that she did it for the touch. His pulse raced. He felt like he was watching Jillie and himself from close by. He wanted to tell her something that would capture her attention, make her move closer, but when he opened his mouth he said only, “I’m sure it was a mole crab, the sand is full of them just under the water.”
Lying with her, well hidden in a hollow in the dunes, he said, “I want to see you again, in real life,” and she studied him without responding, the flush still deep in her cheeks. He had to look away from her gaze. “Where do you live?” he asked.
“This isn’t going any further,” she said.
“Why,” he asked feebly, feeling the day crashing from it’s climax, reeling, not knowing how long it would be before he would land, “don’t you want it to?”
Her skin was hot against him. With each breath the rise of her chest ground sand across his hip. Her foot scratched the top of his as she pushed against him. “You’ll go your way, I’ll go mine,” she said, her eyes different, flatter, but still frightening when he looked directly into them. “You’re beautiful, but you’ve got a life that’s not on this beach,” she said. “So do I,” She looked away and began to withdraw.
He started to say something, anything, to hold on to the moment, but there was nothing. She laid her cheek against his shoulder and the grains from the beach dug into his bare skin as she used that pressure to regain her balance.
The sky was gray. He thought he’d been aware of everything, the hollow sound of the breeze in the sea oats, the cries of the gulls, and the pound of the surf. He had closed his eyes in long blinks, like gasps for breath, where he shut out her face so he could see it better, study the after image of her open eyes reflecting blue sky, her wrinkled brow, her eyes finally squeezed closed. Even as he felt her quaking from inside out, launching him into temporary, pounding oblivion, he was seized by a painful ache that began as longing and ended as fear and a sickening compulsion to cling.
Now, lying on his side, breath coarse, face to the sky, skin cool where Jillie had been pressed against him, the blue had gone deep gray and he’d missed something. What happened to the sky they’d walked under? Lain under? It seemed a long time had passed. Like this was a different day, a different life. He didn’t realize the extent of the discontinuity until after he stopped the car to let her out. She leaned against the passenger door as far from him as possible and refused to give him her number. “Then let me give you mine,” he said, but he couldn’t find anything to write on, and when she said nothing, he wrote his home phone number on her knee. Her eyes coolly reflected the gray sky. “You want my address too?” he asked.
“The number is enough,” she said and touched his hand, still resting on her knee with the pen, and then moved his hand off. His life would now be divided – before Jillie and after Jillie, and he didn’t realize that once he left the beach he would not be able to find her again.
Back in his apartment he could not sleep. When he closed his eyes he saw bright light of all colors ripping through black darkness. It made him think about what would happen next, and he caught his breath.
He had grown to think of that day with Jillie on the beach as his best and his worst. Since then, time was simultaneously drawn out and contracted until he had no real sense of how long ago it had been. He squeezed his eyes tight closed and listened for her voice, trying to remember its timbre. “I’ll call you when I get back home,” it might have said, or “I’ll miss you.”
All he heard was the faint rush of water from the plumbing in the apartment wall. He couldn’t remember her using his name at all. He had forgotten to write his name on her knee. He turned over onto his stomach and pulled the pillow over his head and down tight until his heartbeat dominated, and his pulse in his ears was like distant surf.