She slides a smoothly manicured fingernail under the ring of her keys, picking them off her table as she makes her way out the door. The loose threads that have escaped her bun find the wind, tantalizing the nape of her neck as she shivers infinitesimally against the suddenly cool outside.
It’s surreal. The man she’s been in love with for the past six months has finally asked her out on a date. She remembers the tremor in her voice when he called her. It had taken all her strength to text him the three words she couldn’t bring herself to speak out loud. I Like You. He’d asked her what she meant, these words can so easily be misconstrued, and her heart was hammering in the vast cage of her ribs. She could barely hold the phone steady.
And here she is now, a week later, walking home with a gait unsteady, anticipation benumbing her body. By the time she enters her building, it’s a sprint up the stairs and a bolt into her bedroom. She stands under the shower, letting the water warm her to the core where butterflies wreak havoc. A luscious foam of shampoo later, she’s standing in her bathrobe, fanning the bath sweats off her face. Her friends have supplied brand new makeup. Instructions on how to use them have also been researched.
She sits in front of the mirror, taking her time to apply a layer of light base to her skin. The lips are coated in blood (“Always pout once before you move on from the lipstick” her friend had said). The eyes are lined with a razor sharp pencil. Eyelashes curled and mascara-ed. It’s all too alien to her. The hair is undone and falls in a soft waterfall of auburn waves, past her shoulders, down her back.
A year has passed since she last had the time to see her own reflection in the mirror. She was married to her job, and meeting Maximus never required primping of this magnitude. The woman who now stands in front of her is not Carmen. She’s wearing lacy underwear for the first time in her adult life. Heels that high are the only pair in her wardrobe. It’s only natural for her to stand there and gaze into the eyes of this surreal woman, her Amazonian twin. She steps into her dress and slides the black fabric smoothly up her body. There’s an infallible serenity that has taken over her. Climbing into the towering shoes, she walks over to the door, heels clicking the wooden floors hard. Her fingers skim the cold, smooth knob and she takes a deep breath before turning it.
When Carmen comes out, dressed for her date, there’s a sigh that reverberates through the room. All eyes are fixed on her, the perfect painting framed by the door. She smiles shyly and trots out the main door. Breezing down the stairs, pausing at the main hallway as the elderly couple compliments her. A blush and a wave later, she’s back on the street. Among the crowd of people walking home for the weekend. Carmen tries to fill her lungs with the fresh breeze but it just doesn’t seem enough. She walks, heels grabbing the attention of every other man as this mythical woman passes them by, and she can’t help but smile. Leo had left her a voicemail earlier in the day.
“Can’t wait for tonight.” Four words in his low, gruff voice laced with excitement.
She walks, giddy at the thought of what their future would be. Ignoring the honking of the cars, the speedy conversations on the street. They’d spend playing cards in bed, going out with friends, doing everything she has always only seen others do. The image of being in his arms invites a sprawling smile across her face.
She’s walking up the street where Leo was supposed to meet her. A group of people cross the road as the lights switch to emerald green and there he is. Hands wrapped around the back of Lulu Greer, the new receptionist. She flicks her bright red hair to the side and kisses him deeply. They kiss and it’s Carmen’s kiss. This red-haired woman has stolen her peachy romance.
Carmen can’t move. Her feet are firm on the ground. Eyes locked on them. He takes notice of this tall, dark haired woman across from them. She is not Carmen. The dress that skims her torso, opening into the full skirt just above her knees. Big heels. Big lips. Big eyes that stare right into his. Burning straight through him. This woman is not Carmen. But from within the depths of her impressive frame, he sees Carmen emerge. Her face looks more familiar now, and his stomach goes into free fall.
Carmen can feel her head shake in the slightest before she turns to leave. She walks. He walks behind her. She walks faster. He calls out her name. Everyone stares. With each step, she feels herself unraveling. She walks faster and further. He is almost running now, reaching out for her. His fingertips brush her hair but she doesn’t stop. He runs faster, stopping dead in front of her so she can’t go. The sun sets somewhere in the distance but it’s of no consequence. His seaweed eyes are wild. She looks past the corner of his stubble and right earlobe. He frantically explains himself.
“It’s not what you think!” His lips move, yes. There is panic in his voice, yes. But she can’t sense his words.
He looks at her and feels his heart break. Her eyebrows knotted, eyes scrunched in pain. He holds her close to him, panicked at the thought of losing someone who could put him together again. He’s a broken man and she is the cure. Her shoulders push up as she backs away from him. He tightens his hold on her. She places a pained hand on his chest and peels him off. Shakes her head with more resolve. To look into his eyes would be more than she can bear. His Hugo Boss fills her lungs and that is the last thing she can breathe in. Careful not to brush his body, she twists her torso and walks past him. He reaches for her one last time, a pained gasp the only thing he has left to give. All she leaves behind is her wrap. The thin fabric peels off her and she walks on. He stares at it. But this is not Carmen.
She’s held herself together till the street curved, but now her bare back is pressed against the wall for support. Her chest heaves with the strain of catching a breath, just a sliver of air that could clear her lungs. It doesn’t come. She caves in to herself as the first tears rock through her. Shoulders hunched forward, she slides down the length of the wall. The tears never cease. They choke her. She wants to sob, run away, but she’s paralyzed. The street noises seem magnified to a roar. And in that moment she can see herself crouched in that alley, head buried in her arms. The tears stop on their own. The muscles tighten in her face as she pulls her head up, chin raised high. She picks herself up and walks out into the sharp wind.
She’d left her wrap in his hands when she pushed him away, but she didn’t need it now. He’d taken a lot more. She didn’t need that either. Her face feels as if a craftsman had stretched the skin tight over the façade of bones. And with a prophetic clarity she makes her way across the road to buy cigarettes. Leo hates smokers. Incidentally she’d quit six months back. Her voice is quiet and composed as she asks for a pack of Marlboros without any eye contact. Spindly eyebrows raised in contemptuous disengagement. The young man stares at her, fumbling in his search while she stands there, pouting.
The wind blows her hair to the side and she has the vague sensation of being cold but her barely beating heart keeps her warm.
Her librarian-esque subconscious had given up her consolatory pursuits.
“I’ll show you chaos.” She says to herself.
The guy hands her the cigarettes. She snatches it with impatience, coolly placing the cash in front of him. She ignores the man staring at her, mouth half open in disbelief. He’s dressed in a sharp navy blue suit. He’s never seen a woman who looks like her. She knows it. This is Carmen. She walks. She walks and she smokes her cigarette, hand running through her thick hair on occasion. She cannot be bothered that the filtered end of the white stick is robbing her lips of that blood red. She doesn’t look twice at the men who gawk at her. She walks. She walks and her heels give a resounding click on the sidewalk. The sun vanishes into a darkening expanse of grey and blue.
With a mind of their own, her feet guide her to the next block. She turns left and heads into the building with the faded blue door. She steps into the elevator and presses five. That damned red five. She slides down the gate and the elevator begins its rackety climb.
Familiarity has led her here. And now she’s heading down that same corridor, walking right up to apartment number 505.
She knocks twice and stands there, waiting. Baring her soul at his doorstep. When Maximus opens, the last reserve of oxygen whooshes out. He stands there, fresh out of a shower, wearing dark jeans… just the dark jeans. They look into each other’s eyes and he knows why she’s here. She’d told him she couldn’t see him again. He was in love with her and that was an inconvenience to their arrangement. But now she’s here.
Before Carmen knows what’s happening he grabs her hand and pulls her into his chest, kissing her in a way that makes her forget. If only she could. She runs out of breath as his lips crush against hers. He’s holding her in his arms. Painting the picture she’d envisioned.
Their clothes come off and the night descends. Carmen lies naked under the sheets. The open window allows a cool breeze in, a blue patch on the bed. Maximus is draped across her body. His hand next to hers. She looks at the blue veins that run between his knuckles like the map of a plumbing system. She caresses his fingers. His warmth lulls her into a dream.
She gets off the bed while Maximus pours out coffee into two mismatched mugs, humming out loud. He promises to buy a new set before her next visit. She silently walks into his arms and breathes his scent with a freedom she has only heard about. He sighs into her hair, running his fingers through the soft waves. They are two imperfect halves of a perfect whole. In the distance, the first fireworks go off.
They part. She walks out the door, heels in hand, bare feet caressing the harsh street cement. The wind no longer bothers her and she welcomes the goosebumps on her frigid skin. Running a hand through her long hair, she walks down the street. A lighter is popped, a cigarette lit and she breathes in the homely smoke. She walks, smiling after what feels like ages. She has settled for less, maybe. But Maximus is not so different from her. They are the kind of people who have all this love to give, but no one to give it to. And when things fall into place, is it really that bad to settle for someone who loves you more than you love them? You can always learn to love someone. This is Carmen. And Carmen is walking towards something good.
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