by daniel vantassel
I KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING when I see her talking with the man in the mall. I hear just sentence fragments, but a quick glance reveals the imbalance. She has this rigid voice and posture as he stands there with lowered head and eyes. He tries to argue, but he’s going down for the third time and she has no lifeline for him.
“I thought weâ€¦ Iâ€¦ I dunno. I just thought weâ€™d go along like this for a while, and then maybe we’d evenâ€¦.”
She shakes her head slowly in that way that puts a final stamp on things, and then she just walks away. He watches her curve down and around the tiled steps of the terraced food court area and make her way toward the crowd of shoppers. She has an angelic face, the kind of face my dreams used to be made of but certainly no longer are, no longer can be. Her clothes convey a sort of sophistication, not that I know much about women any more or about womenâ€™s styles, and she projects a kind ofâ€¦ I don’t knowâ€¦ dignity. Or class, maybe. Of course, all of those descriptors are relative, all in the eye of the beholder. At any rate, for me she seems out of place among the people here who look like a bunch of refugees by comparison. Many look up from their food and conversations as she passes. A song comes to mind: And when she passes, each one she passes goes a-a-ah. She seems to have a magnetic field around herâ€”an aura of classiness so strong that she holds everyone’s attention until she’s out of range. I watch as the crowd of shoppers opens up around her and takes her in. The drowning man stares at the spot where she has disappeared into the crowd. After a few minutes, during which time I watch him intently, he does an odd thing. He slowly raises his left arm and extends it out toward where he has last seen her, his hand reaching out toward her, and he holds it there for a moment. Then he drops it abruptly. He looks around and catches me staring at him, and I look away, embarrassed. He passes behind me and walks down the curved steps and I can watch him again. He’s a good-looking guy with the clothes and boots of a construction worker, and I notice a red Bobby J. carved into the back of his wide leather belt.
As if witnessing this event isn’t unsettling enough, I’m amazed to see and overhear the same young woman about forty-five minutes later as I’m looking at some clothes toward the back of Brooks Brothers.
“I needed to tell you that, Sam, before we both made a big mistake and things got more serious.” She is very firm, and a little colder than she had been with Bobby J., but many of her words are identical.
“No, I don’t see,” he says quietly. “I thought you and Iâ€¦ I thought weâ€¦.” He has the same look and sound as Bobby J.. “Maybe after a week or so, afterâ€¦.”
“Maybe when you realize whatâ€¦.”
He nods numbly. She turns and walks away, slipping adroitly through the display racks, and he continues to stare at the last place he saw her. They’re similar, Bobby J. and Sam, but Sam is obviously a businessman of some success, judging by his clothes. He looks about her age, as Bobby J. did. Maybe a little older. Thirty, I’m thinking now, about my age.
It’s about two weeks later and I’m on another trip to the mall. Iâ€™m returning to the scenes of the crimes. There’s no earthly reason for her to be at either place, of course. I stand where she had stood, and then I turn and stand in a sort of reverie where each of the departed had stood. Requiescant in pace, I offer, carefully making the verb plural, as I learned in seminary. I mentally light two candles, and picture the two men on their knees.
I return to the mall several more times during the week. I begin to imagine that I’m seeing herâ€”glimpses of someone through the crowdâ€”and I also see each man, I think. I often follow someone right out of the mall and into the vast parking lot, always discovering that it’s someone else. And now, on one last pilgrimage, I’m waiting in line at a fast food counter in the mall, and I feel a hand on my arm. I turn slowly, stunned to find that she’s been right behind me in line.
“Excuse me, do you have the time?”
It’s the most seductive way I’ve ever been asked that question, and I’m afraid I understand what she means. It’s a double blow, suddenly having her close enough to smell and having been hit with what I suspect is new information about her and about myself.
I stammer. “Uh, yeah. It’sâ€¦ it’s just about noon.”
She moves ever-so-slightly closer. My suspicions about her carom off the walls of denial in my head.
“I mean, do you have time to go some place andâ€¦ you knowâ€¦.” Her voice is like a warm, spicy wine. I feel my neck and ears burn. She smiles. “What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?”
It’s such a trite thing to say, and I’m so confused that I just walk off. I’m vaguely aware that I’m trembling, inside and out. I’m feeling a bit out-of-body. When I’m several yards away, I stop and look back. She’s already after the next guy in line, and heâ€™s looking at his watch. But waitâ€¦ now sheâ€™s suddenly taking a full step back. Sheâ€™s turning away from him and looking around for me and we lock eyes. I look at my own watch, and then back up at her, but she has disappeared into the crowd. Just like that, sheâ€™s gone.