She was getting cold; the chill on her full lips, on her delicate fingers, making her even more beautiful as she blushed white and blue instead of pink. I offered her my coat, but she declined - ignored me, in fact. The distant, far-off look in her unfocused eyes seemed as though she were gazing back through endless fog to memories long since lost to time. I understood, having spent much time wandering those foggy trails of memory myself, and did not blame her. With a gloved hand, I reached out and stroked a damp strand of loose hair back behind her ear, my touch surprising me in how gentle and caring it was, perhaps even almost loving. It was true, then. I was capable of tenderness. A far cry from what had brought her out here, to where she lay now beside me in these woods, staring up at the moon as it washed us in cold, stark light.
Indeed, her soft skin, bearing on throat and half-bared arms the darkening tale of the trauma that had preceded our tryst, was as pale and cold as the moonlight that shadowed and highlighted every feminine nuance of her form. Even underneath the layers of clothing that concealed her lithe curves, her beauty was clearly noticeable.
No wonder she caught my eye back there in the tavern. It was a rural joint, small but oddly sprawling, its wooden hallways echoing as if to emphasise and bemoan its emptiness, floors and fixtures worn smooth over all its long years, clinging to its better days just like its gruff patrons. Usually these were just the time-worn figures of copy-pasted, palette-swapped farmers and truckers, faded by sheer personality almost into a greyness that was felt rather than seen. A greyness that hung over them and was exuded by them like a body odour, no matter how bright their identical shirts and identical mesh-backed caps may once have been, though now they were all stained with white-edged blotches and the sour stench of years of sweat. Alongside them were the aged hippies clinging nostalgically to long lost youths made unnaturally resplendent in alcohol-soaked hindsight; the retirees and ancient passers-by, waylaid wanderers whose mobile homes parked across the road were distinguished by their garish floral curtains and bright orange identical “Britz Australia” logos.
This one was different. She stood out, apart from the rest as clearly as if she had been back-lit in gold, a blonde beacon amidst the gloomy drabness of the regulars. It was obvious from the start. She was not one of them. She was not for them. She was for me. I knew it as soon as I walked in and saw her halfway across the room, but I did not make my move then, of course. I took my place on a wooden stool, polished to a shine by who knew how many aeons of denim-clad arses, sitting alone in a discreet corner with my elbows resting on the bar, trying to avoid touching the filthy towel-like mats that lay the whole way along the counter to soak up whatever the drinkers or careless staff spilled.
I noticed that this night there were a few other younger people there, seemingly all familiar or at least comfortable with each other, perhaps a group of students on their way to adventure, seeing strange lands and drinking strange things before the foreseen drudgery of learning tied them down and held them bound to one place for the years of hard study ahead. The raucous voices coming from the group were accented - I was right, these were travelers. You can always spot them. I couldn't explain what it is that singles them out, but if you know it on sight, it jumps out at you as blatantly as if they were wearing signs stating the fact. This lot, I suspected, were here to experience the quaint local atmosphere of this forgotten growth on the side of this forgotten city, stopping over on their way to more deserving places only because of the great distances between here and anywhere else. The very same reason I've been stuck here for so fucking long.
I could feel my teeth at the back of my jaw clenching, grinding against each other with a bone-shuddering low screech that ached through my skull and upper vertebrae with almost comforting pain, a manifestation of the bottled-up spite within me shaken up to sputter and boil and overflow its confinement in the hot dark recesses at the base of my brain, hatred for these carefree idiots that had no idea how good they had it and took their freedom and good health for granted, flinging it about with intoxicated abandon as if it were limitless and inconsequential. She was with this uncouth rabble. Laughing with the rest of them as if they were actually funny, and not at all in an ironic sense. Perhaps she was just really good at faking it, as am I, but the sparkle in those heart-wrenching blue eyes and the warm pink flush of her cheeks spoke otherwise.
The screech in my skull grew louder, and I forced my teeth to unclench enough to order another Crown Lager in a low mutter that had to be repeated twice and punctuated by an impatient pointing finger jabbed toward the fridge before the halfwit behind the bar figured out how to do her job and brought me the damn drink. And the dumb bitch opened it herself even after I’d instructed her not to, but at least I watched her do it so I figured I’d let it slide this time. I had other things on my mind. My eyes strayed back to her over the earth-hued glass of the slim bottle as I turned slightly back toward the group, careful not to look as though I was watching them. No, of course not - I was simply leaning casually against the wall at my side and moving my legs to the left of the stool, where there was actually leg room and a place to rest my feet on the metal hoop at the base of the stool beside me. Unlike the side facing the bar which was inexplicably too close, forcing one to semi-straddle the seat with knees pointed anywhere but straight ahead as if trying to ride a very uncomfortable horse into a brick wall, while trying not to slide off the slightly-too-high stool due to the awkward positioning and distribution of weight that this ridiculous posture enforced.
It didn't take long to strike up a conversation with her, and without having to do anything but allow her to “catch” my eyes flitting over her a couple times as if I had in fact been looking elsewhere and was in the process of moving my gaze on to something else, and she had merely been in the path in between - as if I were in fact the one noting her looking, not the other way around. It’s a very effective trick, despite being so simple it’s still astounding to me that it even works at all. She swept up to stand beside me, propping her own elbows on that disgusting towel-mat thing that I had been avoiding with mine, a lipstick-smudged pint glass dangling in her left hand and her right angled daintily under her chin as she made a theatrical slumping motion and gave a theatrical sigh (still tinged with that delightful European accent - even her sighs gave away how far she was from home) and asked me in a lilting, almost singing tone, why I was sitting over here by myself looking so glum. Ah, an opening. Thank you, my lovely little Scandinavian sweetheart. You’re doing so well already.
She sat down beside me soon enough, shunning the company of her increasingly loud and obnoxious companions to instead be with me, and she opened her mind and heart to me, letting me in without resistance, and you can be assured I accepted this invitation at least as readily as she gave it. This was what I had been waiting for since I had first arrived, but I knew not to rush, not to push her, to let her reach for me rather than do the reaching myself, lest my eagerness be seen for what it was too early and scare her away or worse, be mistaken for something pathetic and pitiful and cause her to laugh at me, either way thus ruining the whole magnificent arc of this intricate play I was so carefully weaving before the second act could even begin. But she followed the script as if she already knew it by heart, and before long, I knew that this would be a show to remember forever, with a leading actress who would stay on my mind and bring a smile to my face for many years to come. She was perfect.
And now here she was, well into the third act, the second having gone so smoothly I had been tempted to question if it were not in fact a dream, something concocted by my own mind to fulfill the yearning need I already knew could drive me to distraction and eventual madness. Was this madness? Was this nothing but a fantasy woven from fitful dreams and agonizing wishes? But no, I had ways of discerning fact from fiction, ways I had been forced to learn well enough, and here she was. Here she really, truly was, lying so calmly beside me as if we’d known each other for years - the forest floor comfortable and smelling richly of cool earth and decaying leaves beneath us; the rocks, the sparse yet tangled undergrowth and the tall, ghost-like trees that hemmed us in releasing the day’s warmth into the night air with the scent of cooling granite and eucalyptus oil, and the ever-present little groans and cracks barely audible to the untrained ear; and most wonderful of all, the moonlight caressing her and making her pale flesh take on an even greater pallor of perfection, looking almost like the snow I had made her describe that cloaked her homeland in crystalline white every year.
It sounded so beautiful. And here, now, her mimicry of it was astoundingly beautiful too. The dark, soft folds of her outfit still enveloped too much of her for my liking, however, and I ran the dense fabric through my hands, feeling its thick texture even through my gloves as though my hands were more alive than ever this night, but it was with a gentle, even playful tug on some part of this material that I wordlessly beseeched her to allow me to pull away that last barrier between us. And, wordlessly, she acquiesced. What need had either of us for words now?
I made her close her eyes, perhaps partly to stop her staring off at nothing like that, to bring her back to here and now and to me, yet without needing to worry that I might look up and see her eyes on me - I've never been comfortable with that, and it throws me off anything I’m doing at the time as if by that contact some spell is broken - but to be honest I’m not really sure why I did it. Or if that was the whole reason. I don’t know. But she did it without resistance. I was telling her in a whisper so as not to shatter the silence and spoil the mood, to trust me, that she need not fear now, that not everything needed to be about the pain she had been through so recently, but somehow I don’t think she was listening by that point. I think I let out a nervous laugh, amused by the irony that it was she who had been through so much and been given so much cause for fear and yet here I was, the one who seemed to be slightly terrified by the situation we were in. Yet she remained so still, so quiet, so calm and relaxed that I figured the message either got through or was not needed, and she calmed my own nerves with nothing more than her presence and the way she never seemed to pressure me or expect anything. Such a rare thing to find in a person.
Again, I found myself looking at the dark smudges on her white skin - encircling her throat, gripping her arms, the hint of a deepening shadow on her left jaw and cheekbone showing up more clearly now - the stark contrast between them and where they stood so marked, especially with all deep shadows and brilliant highlights picked out by the wan glow of the moon… It could have even been said that they looked strangely artistic, having a beauty of their own that told of her strength as well as her suffering, and both suffering and strength have their own kinds of beauty… but of course I did not say this to her. She had seemed so happy and light-hearted in the tavern, but all things are temporary, and relative… and for her, as it turned out, that carefree demeanour was one of those temporary things and another one of the bright-and-dark contrasts that seemed to be the theme of the night. She lolled her head slightly to the side, and I could have sworn that I caught a glimpse of a smile, the barest hint of one, resting on those plush lips in the darkness.
An unusual smile she had, if smile it was - she did so without pulling her lips taut like so many people do, it was soft and sweet just like her and astonishingly subtle - so much so that it could put the enigmatic Mona Lisa’s comparatively whorish smirk to shame. It was as if she almost didn't want to show that she was indeed smiling, hesitant and shy, and it only made me love her all the more as much as I may have disagreed with her choice to hide such a beautiful thing. It looked a little like she knew something that she couldn't say, a joke she couldn't share. Though she had shared this one with me now, if no-one else, so why shouldn't she smile? I smiled back, though she couldn't see.
Her lips, apparently pale like the rest of her under the now-incomplete and slightly off-kilter crimson paint, were parted slightly to reveal small, perfect teeth whiter even than her skin. A thought came unbidden to me that those teeth must likely have cost her more than I would ever see in a year, and for the briefest of moments a horrible resentment flitted across my vision in red and black slashes, causing my grip on her slender wrist to tighten cruelly… but suddenly I stopped, realising what I was doing, and was sorry. Mercifully she didn't cry out or berate me for my actions. It was no more my fault that I was born to this life than it was hers to be born to privilege, after all.
Perhaps she understood this, as I had understood earlier about her silent, distant stare and the way she had ignored my offered coat, and perhaps as such she was not judging me as I had expected she would. As everyone else always seemed to do whenever they saw anything of the “real” me (whatever that is) - from the shabby second- or third- or seventh-hand thrift store clothes I wore most days (when I wasn't deliberately dressing out of my league in order to get certain things done and certain impressions made that I would never have managed in my usual attire - such shallow creatures humans are), and the haircuts I had to give myself (at least I’m getting better at that), and the borrowed trailers and disused train cars I have often lived in for months at a time… all the way down to far deeper and less obvious things that marked me out as one of the lower species of human beast.
Those who say they are not ones to judge or assume according to class, wealth or status are only liars, fooling no-one but themselves and fellow idiots. Not me. And not the rest of the people who have to deal with the scathing glares and pitying glances and the humiliation of sometimes living off the charity of others. And certainly not the ones who cannot debase themselves to take said charity, and would rather get what they can by their own wills and wiles alone. We see those looks the luckier ones give us, and you know what? It doesn't make us feel any better to know how you pity us. It makes us angry. It makes us fucking hate you.
But I couldn't hate her. This was no look of pity or contempt she gave, no words of false sympathy or sneering jokes. No comment on anything, whether good or bad - either would have made me self-conscious; this was merely acceptance and company, closeness without the need to push for more or less. I nearly felt tears prickle behind my eyes then, perhaps at her unjudgemental presence, her kindness, her understanding, even her silence, as it said more than words ever could, and words indeed would have been cheap and tawdry at this point. They might have ruined everything. And even as I held back the wave of unexpected emotion I tried to express my gratitude to her with the gentlest of touches on her cool, smooth skin, trailing my fingers down her newly-exposed waist.
I knew it was probably stupid of me, but I had to touch her with my own hands, and I pulled the gloves off with my teeth, suddenly unwilling to take both hands off her at once to remove the fine black leather that kept us apart. I was startled and made suddenly paranoid by the sound of breathing, heavy and close enough to hear over my racing heartbeat, and was even more surprised to find it was my own. I laughed, then. What an effect she had on me. Still with her eyes closed, she let one hand that had been resting on her toned stomach drop limply to her side, seemingly reaching for me in blindness, and I grasped it in one of my own. Pushing her top up a little further with my remaining free hand, I noticed another shadow over the left side of her ribs, along the bottom curve, just like the shadows elsewhere on her body. Knowing that she could not see me now I couldn't help but lean closer for a better look.
The bruise was dark, indigo and purple and tinged with a sort of virulent magenta, speckled with tiny but intense red spots here and there that marked broken capillaries. It was a rather brutal-looking injury, but she didn't seem to feel it now. And in the silver light, I had to admit that it was strangely beautiful - it made her ribs and muscles seem to stand out with even more perfect precision, as if the darkness emphasised and outlined the shimmering whiteness of her supple skin.
Again, there were the heady contrasts that brought out the clarity of the light and the purity of the dark. It seemed sick that I should find such things so intriguing, so alluring, but who is to say what is sick when those whom society deems healthy are so far apart from life and truth that they can’t even see it when it’s right in front of them? So far apart from reality that they shut it out and claim it does not exist, that their own false, constructed, narrow and confining world is the only one that has a right to be, even though it could never exist on its own without the less palatable but much bigger world outside, supporting and nourishing it and allowing it to stay secluded and safe behind its walls. Who, really, are the sick?
Who is the one lost, he who finds reality and knows it, embraces it, loves it for what it is… or he who shuts it out, tries to change it, and strives to forget its existence when he realises he has no hope of effecting the unrealistic changes he so craves? Such rationalisation has dwelt, writhing, seething, in my mind many years already, not only in the darkest corners, and will for as long as I live. And yes, I live right here in my darker, harsher, larger and far more vibrant world. But there was little going through my head this night but the pounding of my heart and the rush of my blood as I took her hand and carefully laid it upon my thigh, my fingers wrapped around hers on the one side and on the other tracing every line of those exquisitely sculpted ribs and every detail of the cruel shadow below them. I didn't put my hand any further up her shirt, for some reason that felt crude… even though what I did next should have registered as far worse. But at the time, I suppose I could say that nothing much was registering at all but the moment, the sensation, the pure ecstasy of the encounter.
I unclasped her hand at last when the trembling subsided and the world rushed back into place around me, and I was suddenly aware once more and wondering how much time had flown by unnoticed, as her grip had started to become noticeably stiff and the only thing warming her now was the sticky mess on her palm and fingers, and what little heat she was absorbing from me where I touched her. I came back to my senses.
Time had passed, too much of it, and it was well and truly past the moment I should have been gone. I couldn't afford to stay with her, even if she could have lasted forever, but I was not so delusional yet as to think that she would get any more appealing with age. This was the most beautiful she could ever be, here, now, and I would keep her only in my mind, not in… person. Even if there had been some way to take her home with me that wouldn't involve unacceptable risk, I knew I wouldn't do it. She would not stay lovely for long, but as it was she was preserved forever in my mind as one of my most treasured memories, which was surely a more profound and loving end than she might have had otherwise.
Who remembers a traveler who simply falls off a cliff or gets hit by a car or meets some other vague, mundane tragedy on the long road? Who recalls an old, withered husk with such reverence as I held for this creature who helped me bring my most closely-guarded dreams into tangible reality? Her final days - if they were anything like those so many faceless, sheltered, unremarkable people, or even the remarkable ones, are given these days - may have been dragged out in pointless weeks, months, years spent in a hospital bed, alone and sick and weary of a life she could no longer even remember. Would that be any more right than what I had given her?
Now she would be remembered, and not just by me - though of course, I would be the only one who had these particular visions of her. Which made them intimate in a way that so few ever got to experience from either side. “Victims” of people like me are always held with such high regard and given elevated status amongst our society. In a way, I had made her immortal. She would be beautiful forever, not just in my mind but in the minds of all who ever thought of her, as now she would never outgrow her glory. But she could not be found, of course. At least, not yet. Not for a long time. A shame, but necessary. I turned back to the bag I had brought, which had so incited her curiosity earlier - a thought that brought a smile back to my lips in spite of myself and the urgent hurry I was now faced with - and pulled out the last of my “tricks”. Double-strength plastic garbage bags, a hacksaw, and a small folding shovel with a sharply pointed tip. The ground can be kind of rocky out here.
Thank you, my Scandinavian sweetheart. You did so very well.