“Rag Doll”

I was sitting in this chair when we first met. “We” meaning she and I. She used to be you though, the “you” to whom I addressed all of my thoughts. She was my confidante, my companion. My captor.

The beautiful thing about muses is that they can take any form. Most of the time mine like to cling to curves hidden beneath flowing dresses, long skirts, baggy clothing. My muses are subtle; they like a challenge. They refuse to do all the work, instead calling upon my imagination.

It started out with the jingle of the door. Though I love this coffeehouse like a second home, I resent the bells they place on the inside handle at the beginning of December. If anyone sees me in here during that month, perhaps not the coldest outside but certainly the chilliest in my heart, they must think of me so poorly.

For your benefit, for you are not her, I will attempt to sketch myself from an outside perspective since I was so hollow that only my exterior counted at the time anyway. When she first entered the shop on that bleak day, she did not find the solace of smiling faces. At just shy of eight in the morning, the crowd clustered in the far corner, though they did not do so to browse the strange, overpriced kits that let you brew your own espresso at home. No, they just wanted to avoid the cold blast of air that barreled in behind every entering customer. I always sat by the door. I don’t mean to brag, but I think they admired me for it.

You could register their jealousy in their body language alone. As an artist, I consider myself more acutely attuned to reading people. It’s important to master the skill of translating life. After all, people can deceive in hundreds of tongues, they can conceal, they can omit, they can manipulate. But while they’re concentrating on their words, their tone, maybe even their facial expressions, there are countless other outlets across the skin. The mind has an inclination toward duplicity, but the body wants nothing to do with games.

She was unassuming when she passed through the door, so meek that I might not’ve noticed that she anyone other than one of the regulars simply hunched over from the cold. I deduced that she was different because she hesitated as soon as she walked through the door, not even noticing me as she looked around the room. She was trying to figure out where the menu was—hanging over the barista’s head and printed in letters so large you could read them from our vantage point. I watched her unwind a scarf from around her neck—blue and green, fluffy, something you wouldn’t really expect on a woman who was in her twenties, which I suspected she was. She didn’t have on a hat, and her long, wavy brown hair had been tossed into tangles that started around her shoulders and continued down past her breasts. It would probably take ages to brush out. Her coat was long, burgundy, and it kept me from being able to tell if she was wearing a skirt or a dress. Either way, the bottom skimmed the edge of her tall leather boots. She was wrinkled, frazzled, alone…yet somehow serene.

I wanted a complete description to satisfy my creative impulses. I could tell from the way she slouched and still looked sleek that she must’ve been a healthy weight, thin but with curves, and my fingers told my eyes they had to know dimensions, shapes. Immediately I knew I wanted to draw her. I needed details: eye color, her preferred nail polish, where she dipped in and where she curved out. I’d settle for knowing her name.

After staring at the various ways the barista could clean out her wallet in exchange for a combination of water, milk, and beans, she looked around the shop. I think the ambiance warmed her, and she wanted to figure out where she would sit or what there was to read or if her cup might be made of paper, Styrofoam, or some coveted, familiar porcelain. She turned right first, toward the other regulars who had stolen all the chairs as far away from the door or windows so they might preserve their warmth. I waited patiently to receive her gaze, passing my time by blowing steam away from my black coffee. I never ordered anything else there. I am a slave to caffeine, not sugar.

Her eyes were brown, and I noticed spots of gold that couldn’t be mere reflections. Hazel then. Her cheekbones were high, but her cheeks were round and soft, connoting the tender warmth of youth. She wore no make-up, but she needed nothing to enhance her full lips that were curled into the shadow of a smile. I appreciated that the most. Too many lips frown instinctively.

I don’t think she saw me looking at her because she gave no indication, and she was obviously the sort of girl who wore her expressions upon her face. I imagined that if I watched her long enough, I would witness a thousand separate lifetimes, heartbreaks, reunions, elations, all in the subtle shift of muscles around her eyes and mouth. It would take a trained eye to truly understand.

As soon as she turned her body entirely toward me, my gaze was down upon my mug of coffee. I wanted her to see the color of my eyes or perhaps just a hint of it so she could ask herself if she’d ever seen a man who really had gray eyes or if the morning light was too dim, muting blue into a simpler shade. She saw a man with pale, faintly freckled skin, a week’s worth of scruffy facial hair, and light brown hair that was long enough to need a brush but too short to worry about tangles. I believe I had on my tan corduroy jacket; it gives me a bit of a distinguished look, which I like when I’m out for coffee so the assholes there know that I can be as professional as they are. Coupled with jeans and a t-shirt, I looked quite dapper in that quickly, carefully-yet-effortlessly put together sort of way.

She stepped up to the barista and pulled her wallet out of her coat pocket, no purse. Her order was a small mocha, and she laughed shyly when the barista told her about all the different ways that her mocha could be augmented for a few trivial coins extra. She declined, and the room became filled with the roar and squeak specific to coffee houses. It was a racket that nobody else seemed to notice. The inconveniences we endure for the supposed sake of convenience.

Fridays became her day. I notice that most of the regulars come in every day of the week, but if they pick a specific day to be their coffee day, it tends to be Monday. After the weekend, they need a little personal bribery to summon up the courage to face the blank walls of the cubical once more. I cannot blame them for their habitual reticence since I fear the futility of that existence more than most. That is one of the many reasons why I am an artist.

If she is not one of my kind, then she must have creative inclinations since I see quite little motivation to have one’s weekly coffee pilgrimage early on a Friday morning. Perhaps it’s the reward for all her hard work during the week, but if so, it would make more sense for her to come in at the end of the day, once her labor is completed and another weekend asks for only a bit of caffeine to brush off the dreary dust placed upon her crown by a likewise dreary job. No, she must play by her own rules. Her clothing is too old-fashioned—almost hippie in a way, with her long hair and her long skirts and dresses—for her to trapped behind a desk greeting people all day. I think auras are a load of bullshit to tell the truth, but you can definitely sense a shy sort of ambition just by looking at her. She must be brilliant. Who am I to speculate about her ways?

Ah, yes, of course, an artist. That term gives me license to say as I wish and imagine as I must because I know too little and want to know too much, the opposite of the malady that plagues many people.

It’s a warm spring now, but her skirts have not grown shorter. Instead, she’s discarded her long, heavy coat for cardigans of black, gray, burgundy: never a light shade. Others seem to be dismissive of her dull tones, letting her blend into the furniture as she passes from the entrance to counter, counter to exit. They miss out on so much. But I refuse to count myself as one of them.

Why? Because today will be the day that she and I meet in the proper sense. I’ve gathered my thoughts, sketches, and observations, and I am certain now more than ever before that I must speak with her. I’ve been attempting to draw her all week from memory, but my memory casts shadows across her feature and suddenly I can’t recall if I really would classify her eyes as almond-shaped. The trick with reminiscence is that it isn’t stable. I’ve seen her from so many different angles and distances, but the images don’t melt together to place a mold of her in my mind. Instead they overlap, conceding differences and making alterations as they see fit. They are dishonest for the sake of consistency. In order to faithfully reproduce her, I need her. I must have her sit and pose for me, if only in the confines of the coffeehouse, our mutual public domain.

This proposition should have me nervous, but my heart pounds in a lively, practically chipper fashion as I dress: green khakis, a black t-shirt, my corduroy jacket. I wear nothing special because I do not aim to impress her. After all, she is the one who has initiated the attraction. All that’s required of me is to show up with my paper and pencils. I prefer the finished product to be in paint or at least ink, but these are not necessities and would only be a nuisance, staining my hands as I tried to juggle a brush or pen in one hand and my cup of coffee in the other. Besides, if I inform her of my preferences, it is entirely possible that she shall acquiesce to any humble suggestions that she stop by sometime. Perhaps then I can see her a day that isn’t a Friday. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, aren’t I?

I grab my sketch pad and pencils, which I throw into a green canvas messenger bag. That’s all I really need in order to head out for my morning coffee. I don’t bother to look at myself in the mirror on my way out the door. That will only make me more self-conscious, and I don’t need to judge myself by others’ standards. I fling my bag over my shoulder, lock the door behind me, and make my way down the stairs and out the front door of my apartment building. My bike is locked up outside, somehow never stolen or vandalized no matter how long I’ve left it to its isolation. It looks a bit sad with its worn paint and small metal basket over the rear tire, but it has treated me well in retrieving supplies over the years. I toss the lock into the basket and push the bike for a few steps before I throw my leg over the side and get my feet on the pedals. It’s still a bit chilly, though I’m not sure if it’s the time of year or the time of day. Either way, bicycling doesn’t help much, but it encourages my blood’s circulation. My heart could use the incentive.

By the time I make it to the coffee shop, I’m breathless. It can’t be from the exertion of the ride, though I tell myself I’m simply out of shape. The winter’s transformed muscle to insecurity and buried it all inside a scrawny shell. I circle the parking lot a couple of times before I find the bike rack, masked by an evergreen bush that looks like it might damage my ancient bike tires. I take my chances and scratch up both my hands while applying the lock. Life can be so impractical at times.

My body refuses to listen to my commands. I ask it to kindly catch its breath and stop feeling so nervous, but there’s a discomfort in my stomach that asks me to suspend my plan until next week. Where is my usual confidence, the faith in my artistic vision? If I were more insecure, I would make my fingers bleed trying to unlock my bicycle as quickly as possible to retreat back to my apartment. Thankfully, I am part of a bigger picture. Art is not always an expression but a duty. If I do not exorcise the ideas from my mind, they linger there to haunt and to taunt. I don’t regret having such drive. It makes this a little easier.

My blood is pooling in my cheeks and fingertips when I touch the front door. The air is stale and polluted by invisible clouds of coffee grounds. Breathing is like ordering an espresso. Becky, the barista who always looks like she’s going to fall over from a caffeine overdose, smiles at me and asks me what I want. She knows my usual, but she asks every time, trying to con another couple of dollars out of me. I laugh. Shake my head. “For an artsy guy, you’re not very open-minded,” she criticizes as she fills a ceramic mug. I dig out two dollars and exchange this currency for a warm cup. Liquid courage. I turn to retreat to my chair to regroup my thoughts and hopefully form a plan that requires more than placing confidence in fate.

There she is.

It’s a sensory overload, and for a second I think I’m having a heart attack because my face is warm and my limbs are numb. Then the flash subsides, and I see exactly what it was I thought I saw: her elegantly casual body leaning against one of my chair’s armrests. My chair.

Maybe I underestimated fate after all.

Well, that’s decided it then. I have to do this. The place is by no means crowded, with the typical clique crowded into the far corner, but I walk right up to her and stand before the couch that juxtaposes my chair. “Excuseme,” I mumble, the words flowing into one and making my voice sound terribly small. I clear my throat, and she looks up at me with raised eyebrows. This is an easy bodily indicator of interest. “I know it’s not particularly busy, but may I…?” I trail off, waving my left hand toward the sofa behind me.

“No, go ahead,” she says. I’ve never heard her voice this clearly, but it still sounds as soft as I remember it being from a distance. She gives me a tight-lipped smile, trying to make the both of us comfortable.

“Thanks.” I shrug off my bag and set it down on the middle cushion, an excuse for me to sit on the end nearest her. Forcing a laugh, I add, “Usually I’m a creature of habit, like how everyone usually sits on the other side. But me, I usually sit in that chair there.”

For a second, she sips at her coffee, eyes downcast. Then my message becomes clear, and she leans over to set down her coffee on the table between us with such haste that I fear she’s going to bash her shins off the furniture. “I’m sorry!” she says, her eyes large with apology. “I didn’t realize…”

Her verbal ellipsis is the perfect time for me to interject. “Oh no, it’s fine, really. It’s not like we have assigned seating around these parts. Besides, it gives me the opportunity to see the room from a new angle, indulge in a new perspective.” I flash her a winning smile, and she relaxes back into her seat with a tentative quirk of an eyebrow.

“You’re sure?” She feels she owes me something now. She’s apologetic without understanding the cause of the emotion, which only confuses her further.

As she struggles to keep afloat in her puzzlement, I easily guide the conversation. “My name’s Lucien,” I tell her. It’s a statement, not a goodbye. She knows she ought to stay.

Her legs slowly cross away from me, but she smoothly corrects this. Her foot points directly at me; this means I interest her. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a Lucien before.”

Shakespeare vastly underestimated the power of a name. “I suppose it’s not very common, is it? It means ‘light.’ It was my grandfather’s name. He was French. Everyone loved him very much. Died before I was born though. I guess they were aiming for reincarnation. I must’ve been quite the disappointment.”

Her eyebrows get a little closer together at my self-deprecation. She’s concerned. “I don’t think you could disappoint people just by being your own person.”

“I’m sure.” I smile. She smiles. Relief. “And your name is…?”

“Hardly as interesting as yours, I’m afraid.” She laughs. I don’t. I hope she can’t tell just how badly I need to know. “Anna.”

It’s so simple a name that it must be underestimated. It’s absolutely suited to a gem disguised as a simple stone. She has to catch the light at just the right angle for you to even realize you could be missing something about her. “I know I’ve met Annas before, but none has done something so awful to me that I bear a grudge against all Annas.”

She chuckles and tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. It’s a cute, impish look, but then she reconsiders and tugs the hair back out. Preening, as you may or may not know, is a dead giveaway as far as body language goes. Why would she fix her hair if not to grab my attention? “I always thought it was very plain. I was never the blonde Anna or the thin Anna. It’s hard to stand out in a crowd of Annas.”

But not if you’re this Anna. She must know this about herself by now. “I bet you’re many things people don’t expect though.”

“Oh? And how do you know I’m not the opposite of everything you expect?”

What a wistful little challenge! It’s only unfortunate she doesn’t realize that such independence is what I’ve always anticipated. “I’m fairly skilled in reading people,” I explain simply.

“Then what am I thinking right now?”

“That I’m full of shit and won’t guess right.”

By the way she laughs, I know I’m at least partially right. “What are you, a therapist or something?”

“An artist, actually.”

“An artist?” What, she’s surprised she’s not speaking to Lucien the stockbroker? I don’t hold this against her because she seems secretly delighted. The term alone impresses her. She has to know more. “An artist in the sense that you’re creative, or an artist as in you paint?”

“Well, I prefer paint, but sometimes I settle on ink. I have my sketchbook if you want…” I trail off because this requires that she answer.

“Yes. Sure.” She slides forward in her chair—I surrender it to her, at least for now—as I pull over my bag. The pad of paper covered in splotches of paint from all the times I haven’t had the patience to find a more appropriate palette.

“Nothing’s going to rub off on your hands, I swear,” I joke as I hand it over. I don’t open it for her. “There are copies of my card on the inside of the cover, in the little folder pocket. You should look at those first. To prove I actually make my living this way rather than going up to strangers and bragging that I can paint, you see.”

She obliges and fans out five or six in one hand. “They’re all different,” she marvels. I’d never understood the artist’s need to surrender creativity in order to promote his or her talent in Times New Roman font and embossed text. In my own miniature act of defiance, I produced them all up myself, as one can do with the marvel of the personal computer. I’d left adequate room on each for an original sketch. “Do you draw on all of them, or do you print sets and repeat patterns?”

“I thought it was a nice, personal touch to doodle on them all. Take the one you like most.”

“God, it must’ve taken you ages.” She leans over the business cards as though she’s never known the power and extent of beauty. I want to tell her my theories on aesthetics and how we could all do to follow our eyes and hearts a little more, but she’s made her decision. On the card where a logo might go, I’d sketched a rag doll lying down except for its head propped at an odd angle against a pillow, as though the doll’s neck were broken. I’d expected her to go for the hummingbird. I ask her why that one, and she smiles more with her eyes than her lips. “Because it’s not what you think it is.”

“But I made it. Wouldn’t I know?”

“I don’t think Van Gogh knew.” I take this as a compliment, and she sets her card aside so she can browse the pages of graphite and ink. Each piece of paper has its own potential for imagination, realism, or a combination. “You’re very talented,” she says when she sees the drawing I’d done of my mother. I don’t have the heart to say I’d finished it just before her death.

The pages give way to angry scribbles over the eyes of a young woman, blindfolded because of my inability to complete this specific drawing. On the next page, her face has no features at all. “Were you having problems with a model?”

“Sort of.” I watch her so carefully that I don’t even notice what piece she’s on anymore. “Does she look familiar?”

“Somewhat?” Her answer has a question mark, her voice rising at the end of the word. She doesn’t know how or why we would have a mutual acquaintance yet never meet one another out in the real world.

“She should.” I pause so she can lift her eyes to mine, but she keeps staring at my amateur squiggles. “She’s you.”

She’s speechless, flattered. I know she is. “Lucien…” She’s prompting me to explain. Now or never. “I can’t draw just anything, you know. Something has to catch my attention, and once it does, I can’t get it out of my head. It has to go through my hand, basically. And I can’t get you out. I need you to pose for me, or let me photograph you. It’ll only take one night. Day. Whenever’s convenient for you.”

“I don’t know.” She’s already commended my skill, so now she’s just being modest. Then she flinches and stands. Her boots take her from average to tall. Her eyes rain regret down upon me. “I just realized I’m running late.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean to keep you,” I apologize, though I do get a flush of satisfaction for being so engrossing that she lost her orientation in time. “Well, you’ve got my card, so call me later. We can work something out.”

“I will. It was nice to meet you, Lucien.”

I’m a bit disappointed she doesn’t offer her hand for a shake, but with the way she’s moving toward the door, it’s obvious she is in a hurry. “See you soon, Anna.” It’s a blessing to say her name and to know I’ve learned it directly from her. The air is momentarily mourning her departure by clinging to her perfume, a floral scent that is a welcome change from the smell of coffee grounds. My drink’s gone cold, but I sip it as though it may burn me yet. As I gather up my sketches, I spot something next to her cup. My card.

I snatch it up and race out the door. She’s not even half a block away. “Anna!” I cry, holding up the card to show her she’s forgotten.

Suddenly she’s running, and I am too.

 

I was in a car wreck once. My boyfriend at the time drove us straight into the back of a red Dodge Neon that had stopped inexplicably on the only bend in the road for fourteen miles. I closed my eyes as he screamed, but time expanded in my mind as I was powerless to act. As I cried later, I wondered why it had taken so long to actually collide and whether I might have been able to grab the steering wheel after all. I’d had no control over my own life.

This man makes me think of the wreck, how powerless I’d felt and how time seemed like a measurement people made up in a moment of masochism. His fingers bite into my bare arm, dirty nails making me wonder how long he’s been drawing me or leering at me. He won’t blink. Those gray eyes are wide and focused on me. I don’t know what’s worse, this guy—Lucien—saying that he knows me better than anyone else could, or that those muted eyes make me believe it.

His lips twitch faintly. I think he’s going to speak, but that little mouth of his curves into a smirk. It looks forced, like his muscles don’t remember what his eyes do. I shiver and pull my arm hard enough to free myself.

The scratches are pink on my skin, but at least they don’t bleed. I won’t give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry. He would just fold his arms around me and tell me I need him, his comfort. That’s how stalkers act. Jesus, I have a stalker. I can’t believe it. He’s already stunned—his mouth hangs open slightly. I know now is my only chance. I run.

The wind steals the tears from my eyes to spite me as I sprint down the sidewalk. My hair lashes my face, my neck, but I ignore the sting that only makes me cry harder. He’s behind me. I hear his heavy breathing and, between pants, my name.

How did I even get into this situation? How can a stranger just come up to me, start talking, and then reveal that he’s been watching me longer than I’ve realized he’s been in my life? How can he just assume I need him as much as he wants me? How can he think he needs me?

My boots hurt my feet each time the heel becomes violently wedged between my foot and the cement below. He’s close. If I keep going straight, the row of tiny shops just keeps going. I could ask someone to help me. Or he might catch me.

I wish I could understand why he frightens me so much, but I can’t. There’s just something desperate about him that I can’t comprehend. He looks at me like he has no other hope. I know he can’t possibly understand the meaning of no. He wouldn’t have grabbed me like that if he did. There’s something wrong with him. I almost feel sorry for him, but I don’t want to feel anything for him at all. All I can do is keep going.

Eventually, inevitably, I run out of sidewalk. I have three options, none of which is particularly appealing. I could stop, but then he would catch me, and then what? I’m too scared to consider it. I could turn, but that would make this go on. I saw a determination in those gray eyes that shook me more than his words. That leaves me only one choice.

The traffic’s not heavy, so I can probably make it across the two lanes unharmed. I’m going to have to. Now isn’t the time to think about it. My only concern is my own safety. I throw a glance to the left, think about it, and then stop thinking.

The squealing tires mean nothing to me at first because they’re coming from my left, and I’ve already passed the first lane. I should keep running. I’m almost free. But instead I turn.

Everything happens so quickly that I can’t even think about it. The world’s gone staccato. I see it before I hear it. His body crumbles against the car’s hood. He collapses beneath the bottom. I can’t see him anymore. The tires shriek again, but this time to get away as quickly as possible. He doesn’t even scream. I do, but I don’t hear it.

People start to gather on the sidewalk. He’s dead. He’s dead, and it’s my fault. I can’t believe it. I shake as I step toward him, and then I see him moving. I can’t believe that either. God. Why me? Why him?

I’m whispering over and over again, but I can’t hear the sound to know what it is. I think that I’m muttering, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” Then I realize it’s his name. Lucien, Lucien, Lucien.

I kneel down in the street. Nobody’s going to hit me, not now. I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, Lucien.

He has a hand up in the air, helpless to stop the car that’s already hit him. I see something poking between his fingers, something white, and I feel faint because I think it might be bone. But it’s too thin. I wrap both my hands around this one of his, taking it from him. It’s his card, the one I’d left behind.

He opens his mouth, but there are no words for him to speak. He breathes in heavily, and it sounds like he’s drowning. His lips move, but instead of words escaping, blood leaks out like he’s bitten down too hard on his tongue. He looks as surprised as I am. “Don’t,” I plead, but I don’t know if I’m asking him to stop for his sake or my own.

I try not to look at his body, but I can’t help it. It’s too much to stare at his eyes and see how sharp the pain is for him. His legs are at strange angles, his chest impossible to make out in the loose fabric of his shirt. His skin is so white. Was it like that before? I hadn’t paid enough attention to him before. I tried to ignore him. I’d hoped he’d go away. If only I’d humored him. If only I’d stopped. If only I’d told him to go away. Why did he have to talk to me? We both would’ve been so much better off if we’d never met.

We’re still for a while. Our hands are joined, but I’m still too scared to see his tension or, worse yet, his release. Hands close around my shoulders, but the touch is strange, foreign, wrong. I shrug over and over, but they won’t let go. When they start to pull on me, I scream.

I’m on my feet, my wrists pinched by someone’s grip. He pulls me to the sidewalk. The crowd parts and then closes behind us. I can’t see Lucien anymore. The stranger’s grasp becomes looser, and I realize it’s because I’m shaking so hard. He lets me go, and I slip down to the ground. It doesn’t hurt.

“Did you know him?”

I turn my eyes up to him, but I can’t see him. The sun’s behind him. He’s the faceless embodiment of concern. Did I know him? No. And now I never will. The sky hurts my eyes, but I find a numb sort of comfort in the broken rag doll on the stained card in my hands. “Yes, I do.”

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