Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story
To See The Way That Light Attaches To A Girl
by Kim Schisler
You check the
number on the dashboard and pay Adam, the taxi driver, thirty-
seven fifty-two with a ten-dollar tip because it is four in the
afternoon and his eyes are looking tired. He doesn't notice at
first, but he will once you're out of the cab, and then maybe he'll
light up his sign to let the world know that he is busy and he'll
drive twice around the block alone, just because he can. Maybe
Adam will take his chipped yellow taxi and motor it around San
Francisco like a flying carpet.
You asked him to drop you off four blocks away so that you'd
have a chance to catch your breath before it gets knocked out of
you. You know exactly where you're headed even though you just
flew in from Chicago an hour and a half ago, to Sara's studio.
Your toes are cold; you're only wearing Birkenstocks. You aren't sure why since
it is cold where you live and it was cold on the plane and as soon as you saw
that you had a layover in San Francisco you had to have known that you would
miss your flight in order to go see her. And you knew it would be cold here too.
You are looking for the familiarity of her concrete walls, the warmth of the drafty, painted space. You haven't been there since February; it's October now. Nothing monumental happens in eight months. You catch your dazed reflection in a window and realize that you're hoping Sara will prove that last thought right.
As you side step over the sidewalk laced with Mica and dirt, you epitomize the Fall: striped scarf, green sweater, faded jeans, glasses. Messy hair and fists jammed into your pockets. You're clutching your keys even though you're miles away from home. You pass a diner that is identical to the one you work at in Chicago. You're a writer, of course, no one's actually a waiter, but now you are heading down to Los Angeles and an editor and things are starting to happen with that screenplay.
You try again to think of Adam. You liked him; he was a good
taxi driver. He let you pick the radio station and his face matched
his I.D., but you really emptied your pockets out for him in order
to keep yourself from buying her flowers or a cup of coffee on
the way. The longest four blocks in the bay area, as you pass another
gray house with a red door.
Adam would like Sara, you bet. Her hair is long and wavy and she hennas it
in the fall to match the leaves. She's always making something, cross-legged
in brown corduroys, bent over a birdhouse or a pair of earrings. She is painting,
or gluing empty CDs together, or cutting up bandanas to make a blanket for
the homeless woman she has befriended on the corner of Powell and Market. Adam
would smile at her and ask what kind of music she likes, because that's what
you ask when you meet young people in San Francisco.
You're starting to sweat, just a little bit. This block is uphill. You should have brought your headphones; you shouldn't have shaved. If Adam were here he would probably ask you why you left at all, you're practically running to get to her place. Speed walking with the ferocity of writer's block.
You don't know what she's feeling and you don't know who she's
painting. And you don't know what you are expecting to find, and
more importantly, you aren't sure what you want to. But maybe you'll
walk in and she'll turn around and smile, you just need to tell
her how scared you were nine months ago, her inspiration had been
all consuming. Every story had had her buried in it somewhere;
every crevice of subtext was filled with her. All of these things
you thought should be contenting, proof of your warm wad of relationship.
You'd seen the movies, you knew the progression, and yet, all of
the things that you thought shouldn't have bothered you did. Everyone
only knew you as a part of her and the association was choking
So you left, writing words you weren't sure were even meant to be a benediction,
with an indiscernible subtext implying either that you were in love with her
or that you needed to get away, maybe both. The lines were only scattered further
through the wind of distance.
You said that you were going to Chicago to write, that you had to leave for
awhile, although then, neither of you thought that you were actually coming
back. Now, here you are, pushing past her unlocked door.
There are piles of newspapers and canvases everywhere but the floor is clean,
things are put away. She can't hear you because the CD player is playing Counting
Crows at full blast, the melodic music loud enough to sound like noise. You
can see her back; she's painting. Her hair is twisted up into a weird knot
thing and you inhale as you try to discern what the painting is of.
A song you like starts coming out of the speakers, it's about winter and crowded rooms. You look at Sara. She is dipping her brush in a can of paint, brown. The canvas is smeared with greens and browns, colors warm like dirt and bark and earth. These are the colors that Sara uses when she's feeling fertile and eating enough. You look beyond her at the autumn leaves drying on the kitchen table, you look up at the sequined dresses on coat hangers hooked on to the hand rail so that they curve up with the staircase, twisting away from you.
At any minute she could spin around -- if she needs to go to
the bathroom or get a drink of water or just feels a breeze, and
she would see you standing there. You could shrug your presence
off and tell her that you think of her when the seasons change
and that her inspiration is strong and hollow now that you are
far apart. That now you watch Tarantino movies with other boys,
who don't like coffee. That maybe you miss her.
You could get a job here doing exactly what you do back home, you could keep
writing. Staying with her could make for a good ending, could make for a really
And you know that if you leave now you might not come back. Probably the movie
won't get made and you'll find something else to do in Chicago, you don't want
to move down to L.A. anyway. But if you walk out again you aren't getting another
chance like this, you would have to come out all on your own. And if you leave
now, you know, you're always going to wonder what she was painting, if she
was dating anyone. If you leave you'll always wonder what would have happened
if she had turned around at exactly the right moment, catching you before you
lost your resolve. You'll always wonder if she had turned around just in time
to see you leaving, again. You'll start to wonder if maybe she did hear you
come in, that she was just waiting for you to rush at her or grab her or tap
her on the shoulder.
You wonder what the right thing is, you wonder if you should have called first.
Maybe, you think, you really should have gotten her flowers and some coffee.
You could just rush at her right now; you could just say her name.
She's wearing overalls just like you thought she would be. She is painting furiously, her tenacity implying that the world around her doesn't meet her standards and she needs to create a new one before she loses her nerve.
With a slow exhale you lose yours. You realize how wrong this
is, you should have called, you should have knocked, you should
February floods back to you and you know that nothing's changed. You're still afraid. You head for the door with your fear of obligation and of cliches. You leave Sara, and because she can't see you, or hear you or feel you, this time there is no protest.