It was the second day that I had come. The first day had not been for you. I had not known you were there. How could I have known as I rushed in to get out of the rain, arms up clutching a newspaper which I used to shelter my head? It only resulted in the drips trickling down my sleeves and forming uncomfortable puddles in the cups of my armpits. But there you were as I wiped the steam from my glasses and looked up. Milk skinned and flustered with eyes so huge and green I could see my entire face replicated in them like an alien twin, I was fascinated and pulled different expressions in the reflections until I remembered I did not know you and ordered a cherry coke and turned away.
I sat at the table in the corner and watched you, you looked tired. I wanted to soak your hands in warm water and ask how your day was and wrap you in rugs from my floor.
I stayed until my coke was flat, until closing time, until I realised I was the only one left and you had not come out from the kitchen in 15 minutes. Then suddenly I saw you, with that denim jacket with badges on it, hair undone, looking stern as you crossed the road, and I felt cheated and the curves of my heart became heavy as I watched you go.
The second day I came prepared. I had dressed up for the occasion, carefully stepping between the crepe paper lanterns that litter the floor of my flat. I thought about you as I weaved in between them listening as they flickered and whispered in the breeze I created with my passing.
I went to the bathroom and dressed, slowly, carefully. I felt the cotton of my vest brush loosely against my skin. I took comfort in the gentle pressure, like a tiny hug as I tightened my laces and tied them into neat bows. I shaved. Firm upward strokes paving their way between the whiteness of foam that made me think of the snowploughs in winter in the country where we used to live. My dad yelling as we got stuck behind them and my mother staring out of the window without moving. I thought it was a game we played so I stayed like her, as still as a statue, trying not to breathe, until I spilt my juice on my lap and both my parents turned round and scolded me together.
So I was prepared when I came to see you that second day, but when I entered with the tinkle of the bell, I turned inside out, I felt as though my skin was tracing paper and my flesh and my heart were on the outside, dripping carelessly on the polished oak as you looked up and closed your book and smiled.
I ordered a cherry coke and sat by the window, not daring to look with my nerves so exposed, so I turned my back to you and stared out to the ocean where a sail boat drifted loosely on its surface. I imagined us there the wind making our cheeks pink and thieving tears from our eyes and carrying them away -tiny balls of salt and water, to mix with the sea.
The table cloth was paper. You gave come crayons to the kids with the weary mum two tables down from me. She looked so grateful when you did this that she touched your wrist. And when she looked up at you and said ‘thank you’ she really meant it, and you did not look away when you said ‘no problem,’ and you did not pull your wrist away from her touch.
I watched the children bent in right angles scribbling mercilessly onto the paper, they were drawing animals. There was a pig that was grinning and kicking his legs –with the white of the table as the backdrop it was as though it was floating through the clouds. A snake slithered between two glasses toward a ketchup stain; it looked like it was chasing blood.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ your hand rested on my shoulder and I flinched. You removed it immediately and I loathed myself in that moment more than ever before. My tongue was a dandelion and the words came out in feathers, stuttery and slow ‘Another coke please’ was all I could manage.
When your back was turned I stole a crayon from the table with the kids. ‘Shamrock green’ was the shade so it told me, the label was torn at the edges and the tip was blunt. I drew myself as an alien reflected in your eyes and wrote my number next to it with such careful precision so there was no way you could make a mistake and get it wrong.
You placed the coke beside me clumsily. I watched in slow motion as the liquid flopped in a perfect drop onto my crayon alien head which did its best to resist the fizz with waxy fortitude. You looked at me mortified. I jumped up, and tried to hastily rip the part of the table cloth with my number on it away from your gaze, in doing so the rest of the drink tumbled over, and my alien self faded and drowned in the sea of bubbles and sweetness. I ripped the damp paper from the table uncovering the stained plastic beneath and quickly stuffed it into the pocket of my jeans.
‘ I’m sorry’ was the murmur that came from both of our lips and the bell tinkled and mocked my departure.
And when I got home I made a lantern just for you in greens of lime and grass and sea. I hung it from my ceiling and I lay on my back on the floor watching as it swayed back and forth in a cruel and terrible dance.