Standing on the platform, waiting for the train’s final call, shielding her rich blonde hair from the rain with a newspaper, she stares up at him with warm, beckoning eyes. Wrapped in the sleek contours of a blue dress, he fights back the urge to gather her in his arms, to kiss her.
“So, this is goodbye,” he says.
“You don’t know that.”
“Yet, here we are.”
“We’d never be safe,” she says. “Not as long as he’s alive.”
“He frightens you that much, does he?”
“You don’t understand how dangerous he is,” she says. “His reputation is everything. He’d never let me leave, and you… he’d most certainly have you killed.”
“Not if we kill him first.”
“No,” she says, her features growing stern. “I’m not going to trade one murderous husband for another.”
He shakes his head. “How did you ever wind up married to a guy like that?”
Lowering her eyes, he watches as a single tear escapes down her cheek.
“If I could take it back, I would,” she insists. “If I could take back my whole life before you, I would.”
More tears fall as her chest begins to heave in that hiccupy way that women’s do.
“So, this really is goodbye then?” he says.
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“You have a plan, do you?”
“I told you, he isn’t well. The doctors say he’s got less than ten years.”
“In ten years you won’t even remember my name.”
“Of course I will” she says, lifting a delicate hand to his face. “I could never forget you. Not if we had to wait twenty years, thirty. It’s always only going to be you.”
“Be careful,” he says, taking hold of her hand to lower it, “you don’t want to go making promises you don’t intend to keep. That’s just the sort of thing that got us into this whole mess in the first place, remember?”
By now, the train’s engine was starting to groan and a man in a funny hat was hollering for everyone with a ticket to come aboard.
“But I will keep it,” she says. “And I won’t forget. Do you remember that café, darling, where we first met, where you offered to let me share your booth?”
“Now, now…” he says, “this isn’t the time for getting all nostalgic. You’ve got a train to catch and I’ve got a heart to piece back together.”
“Stop it,” she says. “I need you to listen to me.”
“‘Listen to me,’ she says. ‘Read my lips. I’m all yours. All yours and do with me as you please. Take me with you, I’ll be your wife. Meanwhile, she’s already married.’”
“I know you’re hurting, but you mustn’t paint me like that. You mustn’t. I’ll come back for you. I promise, we’ll be together again. Just like it was.”
“It’ll never be just like it was.”
“No,” she spirits. “It’ll be better.”
“And how will you find me?”
“We’ll find each other,” she says. “In ten years, we’ll meet at that very same café. Ten years to the day. Here,” she says, reaching her small hand into his coat. When it returns, she’s holding the shiny, gold pocket watch she’d gifted him days earlier.
“Do you see that?” she says, unclasping the latch. “April 3rd.”
Glass and small metal gears crunch beneath the stabbing end of her high-heel shoe.
“So you’ll remember the day,” she says, picking up the broken watch and pressing it into his palm.
She was walking backward now, toward the train, toward the man with the funny hat, and a husband he didn’t know and she didn’t love.
“April 3rd,” she calls. “Ten years from today.”
“And how will you remember?”
She stops. From the newspaper under her arm, she tears off the front page, fists the torn piece of paper into the air.
“With this,” she smiles and tucks the scrap into her coat. Gripping firm to the handrail, she places one foot on the step, the other free, so that half of her body stands mounted on the train as the other half dangles in the air as though torn between two worlds. Standing there, all he can do is watch as she disappears from his into that other one and a cloud of white smoke. She says something else, a farewell, perhaps, a final tribute to what they thought would last forever, but her voice is swallowed by the holler of the train.
Frozen in time, like the dial on his watch, he’s not sure how long he stood there watching, waiting. All he knows is that a piece of him never quite made it off the platform that day. Ten years would pass and then twenty. She never did return to that little café where they’d first met and he’d offered to let her share his booth. Every April 3rd, he’d arrive early, ask to sit at the booth in the back, beside the window, so that he could monitor both the sidewalk and the front entrance. And each time, after she failed to show, his expectations would wane a little bit further, until the ritual became less about waiting for her as celebrating a love unspoiled by the passage of time. For that one day, it was as if the intervening years had been torn out of history and time sewn back together at the seams. In his memories, she never grew old, never grew tired of him or he of her, never lost that sparkle that hung so splendidly in the corners of her eyes, never reflected the weight of years in the growing creases around her mouth and eyes.
And while their love may have been in vain, in time, he came to realize, that sweeter than the act itself, was the memory you’re left to cherish.
Michael pounds out the last two words in all caps, then sits back with folded arms. Reading over the last paragraph, he nods his head, saves and closes the document before lowering the screen on his laptop. Removing his glasses, he places them on the desktop while rubbing his eyes.
Beside him sits a tidy stack of typed pages, and a series of loosely spread out, handwritten ones, including dialogue fragments, notes on character development, and a few unused scene descriptions. Outside, the sky wears a dark mask of shapeless black clouds. Splattering rain pelts his window as a rush of wind lifts the curtains. Pushing himself out of his chair, he walks to the window and lowers it.
In the distance, a series of towering skyscrapers stand silhouetted against a darkening purple backdrop. Their rising spires appear, like the tips of so many uncapped pens, to dip their ends in the inky skies.
Below, the darkened courtyard lies still.
As Michael’s vision withdraws, he notices his reflection in the window and stops to examine the swollen bags beneath his eyelids. Hoping to wrap up his latest romance novel before his self-imposed end of the month deadline, he’d been working nearly twelve hours a day for the past three weeks in complete submersion. Submersion is the word Michael uses to describe the state of withdrawal some writers and other artists enter when they become so fully absorbed in a project that it consumes virtually all their attention to the point of shutting themselves off from the rest of the world. This includes forgoing food and even sleep in order not to disrupt their concentration.
A quick glance over his shoulder and back across the room at the calendar on the wall, reveals he’s finished a week ahead of time.
To celebrate, Michael heads to the kitchen, removes a small bottle of champagne from the fridge and a champagne glass from the cupboard. In the living room, he collapses on the sofa. Facing the television, he lifts the universal remote off the end table and uses it to activate the multi-disc DVD player. After hitting play the screen comes alive with Humphrey Bogart standing in the rain at a busy Paris train station. In a trembling voice, Bogart asks Sam, “Where is she? Have you seen her?” Michael pauses the movie, freezing the screen just as Sam is handing Bogart’s character, Rick, a note in which Elsa informs him she won’t be going with him.
Michael hits another button and the machine makes a mechanized turning sound as the disc is rotated out of position. The screen goes black. When it comes back on, there’s a picture of James Stewart, seated, holding a pair of binoculars. Just over his shoulder, Grace Kelly stands, facing the fourth wall, her face colored with alarm. An outline of Alfred Hitchcock’s face enters from the left. Above them feature the words Rear Window. Michael lays a thumb over the play button and settles his head back against a pillow. The movie opens with the camera panning around a courtyard. The neighborhood does not appear to be a prosperous one. A series of weather-worn brick buildings comprised of modest square dwellings stacked one atop the other ascend a mere four stories, a conventional courtyard carved right through the center. Michael watches with piqued interest the story’s slow development, but it’s not long before the exhaustion of his weeks-long push to finish his novel comes crashing down upon him. As serotonin floods his brain, deadening the neurons that fire synapses, he struggles to keep his eyes open against the increasing weight of his eyelids. Forced to surrender, Michael pauses the movie about thirty minutes in, just as Jimmy Stewart starts to suspect his neighbor of having killed his girlfriend, and makes his way to the bedroom.
But sleep doesn’t come easy that night. Outside, it continues to rain. Not the refreshing sort of a rain that brings a breeze and a sense of cool, but rather the muggy sort of rain that thickens the humidity and chokes the air. Saturated in sweat, Michael wrestles against the stiffness of the bedsheets. Stretched out on the mattress, he stares bleary-eyed at the ceiling.
Somewhere on the wall, a bent hammer taps twice against a muffled gong. A loose wire sways back and forth in the wind, clanging against the window. The digital clock glares at him with its fiery red gaze. Wrinkled sheets stick to his skin.
There’s a small oscillating fan on the dresser. To get the air circulating, he walks to the window, undoes the latch. After lifting the pane, he’s about to turn around and head back to bed when, across the darkened courtyard, in the apartment just opposite his own, light fills the window. It’s coming from the front door where someone, presumably the tenant, can be seen entering from the outer hallway. As she pulls the door closed behind her, the light from the hallway evaporates. Michael continues watching, following as the woman’s shadow disturbs the darkness. A dark figure amidst an even darker backdrop, the night appears to come alive, moving within itself. Michael’s pupils explode across his irises, fighting for the faint vestiges of light provided by a cloud-blanketed moon.
A slow falling rain lets up, leaving the dense air motionless and heavy with humid heat. As the clouds draw back, the soft blue hue of a waning moon silhouettes her body as she passes through the unlit residence. In the bedroom, where she stops to kick off her heels, a beam of moonlight is cast over her lower body, revealing a pair of long, sturdy legs, thin at the hips. Michael feels the pump of blood in his neck. But like an arranged marriage, he’d have to wait to see her face as it remains veiled in shadows. There’s a long freestanding mirror beside the window. With a quarter turn she offers her front to the mirror, her profile to Michael. A single hairpin releases a weighty rush of wavy hair that waterfalls over her shoulders in a cascade of thick curls.
Hair down, she reaches with delicate fingers to unfasten the buttons of her silky blouse.
Michael leans forward, places a steadying hand against the window frame.
Undoing the first three buttons reveals a throat, lovely and naked. As the material of her shirt falls open, Michael sees the red straps of a bra and two large breasts bunched together. One shoulder escapes and then another.
As she reaches back to undo the clasp, Michael palms grow warm. Leaning forward, he watches as she undoes the clasp and the bra loosens.
Michael swallows hard.
To free her arm, she takes hold of the left strap with her right hand when suddenly she stops, turns to look out the window. Michael steps back. She seems to be staring straight into his apartment. Unsure what to do, he decides to do nothing, afraid any movement would risk drawing greater attention to his presence. As she steps to the window, he feels an uncomfortable tingling in his chest, the primal fight or flight response urging him to run, to hide, but there’s nowhere to go. Instead, he watches as she reaches out with both arms to take hold of the curtains and snap them closed.
Michael clears his diaphragm, feels his heart rate decelerate as he makes his way to the kitchen. Returning with a glass of water, he stops in the living room beside his writing desk. Caught between being too awake to sleep and too tired to stay awake, he feels the growing pain of a headache pressing against his temples. From the second drawer of the desk, he removes a bottle of Aspirin. Shaking two pills into his hand, he washes them down with the water, then stands unthinking, staring through the pouring rain at the courtyard, empty except for a rectangular beam of light projected against the adjacent building. Emanating from a window on the opposite side, Michael studies the broad frame of light, where a pair of dark shadows, male and female, moves. A soundless melodrama.
Reminded of the silent movie reels of an earlier generation, Michael offers his own narration:
She steps to the kitchen—unfamiliar territory for a woman like her. With her right hand she eases a slender stick of tobacco from a packet of Virginia Slims. With her left, she twists the knob on the stove, lighting the end of the cigarette against a curved flame. The way she moves is a language all its own.
A dimple rises from a taunting grin.
“What do you say we take this conversation into the other room?” he says.
“Which room?” she asks, taking her first long drag.
“They all have curtains,” he smiles, “you choose.”
Turning away, she says, “Aren’t you supposed to take me out, get to know me first?”
“You know what happens when you dissect a living thing, don’t you?” Saying this, he steps closer, crowding her in. “It dies.”
“So you want to live forever?” she says, tapping her cigarette over the sink.
“I want to live for the moment.”
“And the future?”
“The future depends on what we do right now.” A large, powerful arm is laid across the wall. He braces his weight against it.
“That’s your motivation?” she says, tilting back her head as she exhales a breath of smoke over her shoulder.
“Imagining what you look like underneath that dress is my motivation.”
“What about my needs, as a woman?”
“The last time I looked, your needs were the same as mine, biological.”
“And the last time I looked, you still had a wife.”
“Maybe the next time you look I won’t.” He’s looking down at her now.
A whirl of smoke rises from an exotic breath, tickling his nose. “Talking makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?” she asks.
“Humor me, then.”
“What do you want to talk about?” he asks, settling back on his heels.
“Tell me about my hands,” she says. “I hate my hands.”
“These hands?” his voice softens, cradling them in his. “These are my favorite little paws.”
“My eyes?” she beckons.
“I want to suck them out.”
“Tie me up with it.”
“Bury me between them.”
“I’m not going to meet your expectations,” she says, lowering her head.
He lifts her chin. “I don’t have any.”
“I won’t fulfill your dreams, either.”
“I wasn’t planning on sleeping, much.”
“But you have to sleep sometime.”
“Sure. So, what?”
“So, what if I’m not there when you wake up?”
“All I ever wake up to is tomorrow anyway.”
Pulled away from the window by a sound, Michael looks up to see a late-night sanitation truck making its way along the sidewalk, whipping up scattered debris and old discarded newspapers threatening to dam up the gutters.
When his eyes return to the wall, he watches as the man’s shadow raises his palms in a gesture of innocence as the woman stabs a dagger-like finger at his chest. Tempers appear to have flared. An argument ensues, escalating quickly. The woman tries to step around the man, but a wide stance and outstretched arms block her way. Boxed in, she pounds at his chest with tiny fists. The man appears to laugh but stops as she peels back to unleash a violent open-palmed smack across his cheek.
Stunned, the man backs up.
Permitted an opening, the woman tries again to get around him. But, before she can escape his reach, he grabs ahold of her arm, spins her around. From across the courtyard, Michael watches the man deliver a brutal slap that sends the woman sprawling backwards against the counter. Michael’s phone is back on the nightstand. He rushes to grab it, dialing the police as he returns to the window. The line picks up immediately.
“9-1-1 Operator, what’s your emergency?”
When Michael looks out again, the man has the woman by the throat, choking her. Arms free, she scratches and claws, tearing at his forearm.
“I need to report a—”
Michael’s words are cut short as the woman, having tipped over the knife block on the counter, reaches out to wrap her hand around the hilt of a large chopping knife. Hoisting the weapon into the air, Michael’s grip tightens around the phone. In a single, slashing motion, the blade slices downward, but stops as the man catches hold of her wrist.
“I’m sorry, sir, would you mind repeating that?” the operator’s voice sounds in his ear.
“Sweet, Jesus!” Michael screams as the man prizes the knife from her hand.
“Sir!” the voice demands. “State your emergency!”
On the wall, the knife’s shadow falls.
Horrified, Michael sputters. “Murder… I need to report a murder!”
“This is happening right now?”
“Yes!” he screams. “Right now! In an apartment, adjacent to mine.”
“And where are you, sir?”
“I’m in my apartment,” Michael says.
“You’re watching them through the window?” the voice clarifies. “Can you describe what you see?”
“There’s a man and a woman.”
“What does the man look like, sir?”
Michael falters. “I can’t really—he’s big, he has a knife—a large one—and he’s stabbing—”
“Sir,” the voice cuts in, “I need you to calm down. Now, do you know the address of the apartment where the altercation is happening?”
“No, but it must be somewhere in the upper floor of the neighboring building.”
“So, you’re not able to see the apartment where this altercation is happening?”
“Are you listening to me?!” Michael shouts. “A woman has just been stabbed, repeatedly! She may be dying!”
“Sir, I need you to lower your voice and tell me exactly what’s going on.”
The cords in his neck flare as Michael rushes through an abbreviated version of what he’s just witnessed. “I got up to open my window. That’s when I noticed a pair of shadows on the wall adjacent to my building. They began arguing. There was a struggle. He slapped her. That’s when she grabbed for a knife, but he got it away from her and then… and then he began stabbing her, over and over again.”
“And what’s happening now?” the operator asks.
Michael looks up to find the shadows have disappeared, only the light remains.
“All right, sir, we’ve dispatched a unit to your address. When they arrive, you can explain everything that happened to them. Meanwhile, would you like me to remain on the line?”
Michael doesn’t hear her. Compelled by a surge of adrenaline he hurtles through the front door and into the outer hallway. Racing past the elevator, he heads for the stairwell slamming, shoulder first, against the door as he launches himself down the concrete steps. On the second-floor landing, he comes down on the side of his foot, rolling his ankle slightly. Body twisted sideways, he crashes against the wall.
A streak of pain slices up his foreleg. Continuing, he reaches the bottom of the stairs limping but not slowed. Met by a heavy battery of rain, he stumbles through the door and into the mud-soaked courtyard. Overhead, a jagged cable of lightening tears through the veil of night as the sky erupts in a vicious roar of thunder. Beneath the crushing boom of thunder, he slips, sprawling face first in the mud. With his sleeve, Michael wipes the mud from his eyes, squinting up at a wall of darkened windows. Not a single lamp in a single window is lit. On the opposite wall, the large rectangle of light has vanished.