The first time I saw her she was in a window. Under her left breast was taped a cardboard sign: Love, For a Limited Time Only. That’s what caught my eye, the sign, not her breasts, though those were nice too. I stared at the sign a moment, reading it over like a poem to reveal its secret meaning. Her hands so still, I thought she was a mannequin. Took me a moment to see that she was breathing.
The artists in our quarter often play stunts like that. Highjack a shop for a pop-up event, bring crazy out into the streets and call it art, but this staging was just a little banal. She wasn’t calling attention to herself too loudly. She just looked like any other undressed mannequin you see in a window between dressings. A metal pole stuck to her back, a thin black thread tied around her wrist to make it seem disjointed and artificial.
She seemed like the very image of loneliness, and I didn’t know what the purpose was. Normally I’d call that kind of thing a juvenile, attention-getting stunt, but that wasn’t this. It’s her face, I think that stunned me. One of those weird creatures with a face almost like a doll. A woman definitely, but a doll-like one. Symmetrical with the eyes a little too wide apart and a mouth that color of cherry.
I often ate my lunches in the park where I could watch the ducks and eat my sandwich and orange soft drink. An apple in summer, a sweet cake in winters washed down with something warm, but when I saw Love: For a Limited Time Only I started eating my lunches on the bench near her window. Not the bench directly across from her, but at a side angle so I could observe but not be too close.
I like to eavesdrop and so it was interesting to listen to the reaction of the passersby who realized she was real. Usually laughter, some shock. Kids who passed would point. The rude ones stuck out their tongues and beat on the windows in an attempt to make her lose her composure. She was covered up down below by some kind of pastie. I didn’t really look down there. It seemed impolite. But I liked to watch her eyes. They were looking at some spot, at a tree maybe, just beyond my head.
They were so clear and light they were like mirrors of the winter sky. She must have been cold inside that window, or maybe there was a heater hidden somewhere behind. It was amazing how perfectly still she could be. I thought of the paintings I liked to look at in the free museum. I used to go there on my lunch hour until I’d seen every one of them that I felt they had given up all their secrets. I liked to imagine stories for the paintings, what the model or important person had been thinking while they were being painted, but there was something remote and not completely honest about this process because I knew that between me and the person I was looking at had come the intervening hand of the painter, and who knows what slant the artist had put on the truth of the picture.
This was a living painting and that’s why it was so interesting to look at her. A part of me didn’t want to know about the real her. I wanted to imagine her for myself and not have her mystery explained away. Another part of me was curious to know the real her, what she was like when she wasn’t playing a doll.
Two weeks passed and one morning on my way to work I passed by her window and noticed she was gone. The pop-up had closed down and her whole act had just rolled up and disappeared. I shouldn’t have felt this way, but I was sad.
It was maybe three months later I ran into her riding a bus back from the Invalides. I don’t often take the bus, the metro is easier for me, but there was a strike so I took an alternate journey.
I tortured myself with the thought of how I could strike up a conversation. Could I say–Are you that doll I saw in the window? And what if I was wrong?
But when I speak to her she goes right into conversation, as though we have known each other half our lives, she has that kind of familiarity or courtesy or just general pleasantness about her. I remind myself not to take it too seriously, the way she looks me in the eye and the fairly constant smile on her face, I have to remind myself that it’s not personal. She tells me she is an actress and I know this about actresses, they are very open, at times flirtatious; everything is an audition to them. My roommate told me this. He’d been romantically involved with an actress once, was quite seriously into her but she “turned out to be a real bitch” and…but that’s his story and this is mine and I am staring into the face of my own actress–and I don’t want to say she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen up close because if I looked for them I would be sure to find some flaws, but at the moment, how close we’re sitting, her face and the way it catches the light, this patch of pale winter sunshine feels warm with the heat of summer. It’s excruciating this, to be sitting so close and not be able to kiss her, not be able to just lean in and try my luck. The metro strike, the bus, the whole day seems to be conspiring in that direction. The night before I’d watched a Dirty Harry film, and so the line stuck in my head: “You have to ask yourself, do you feel lucky?” Yes! I felt lucky.
The bus driver is a little drunk or angry, but I’m not complaining. The reckless way he drives keeps jostling us together.
The minutes are ticking away like the valves of my heart. I’m a nervous person by nature with no sense of time, but when she told me hers was the last stop I am counting every minute. On the metro, they say it’s roughly one minute between stops, but on a bus at rush hour, maybe it’s more. I am hoping it’s more so we’ll have more chance to talk. I like talking to her.
The bus is taking me far away from where I’m supposed to go, but I don’t tell her that. I don’t mind that at the end of the line I will be stranded in an unknown neighborhood and I’ll have to make my way back. I wouldn’t mind having to walk all the way back to my apartment where I’ll share my news of the strange encounter with the doll-like girl with my roommate Serge–or maybe I won’t–he is still so depressed over his actress girlfriend leaving him that hearing about anyone’s happiness might put him in a downward spiral.
I like her perfume. It smells like apples and cinnamon. I tell her this and she says she does not wear perfume, but she just finished eating a cinnamon covered apple and then bows her head and smells her wrist again.
She is sitting so close to me I can’t help it. I rub her arm. This is not a usual move for me. My fingers don’t really know how to do it, they hover over her skin a moment, hesitating, but the moment they get close enough they stick to her like a magnet and just move lightly without my having to look at them, like a jazzman dancing his fingers over the piano keys.
She doesn’t say anything. She looks down. It may be a blush on her skin or it may be she always has roses in her cheeks. She talks over the moment, quickly and a little flustered.
She says that she is getting married the following month. I am surprised at this and at the permissiveness of her boyfriend, but she tells me he is a musician and often on the road and she is sure he gets up to much worse. He doesn’t mind nudity in the name of art. She didn’t do it for admiration of that kind, it was a kind of rebellion against something she’d been told all her life, that she looks like a doll.
“You do look like a doll, I hate to break the news to you. It’s kind of true.”
“I know,” she says, lowering her chin in that way of hers, like a broken doll, looking lonely like a doll set down in a corner when a child has stopped playing with it. “It’s not really something I try to do, it’s just. That’s my face, I didn’t design it.” It’s not something I think often about, how beautiful women did not choose the faces that they wear. “Because if I had to choose, maybe I would pick a face that looked more steely and determined. I might like to look more like a man: serious and tough and not to have the round face which looks younger than it is. I might choose to look like you, or her–” she points to an old woman carrying her shopping in her lap, “or her.” A black girl, tall and with one of those don’t-mess-with-me pouts which seemed to spell out I-could-kick-your-ass. “That’s how I feel inside, but instead I have a face that looks too innocent all the time, and so people don’t respect me.”
I thought if respect was what she was after, removing all her clothes and standing in a window all day wasn’t the best way to go about it, but after listening to her strange actress reasoning, it seemed to make a certain skewed kind of sense.
If I closed my eyes and listened–but I cannot close my eyes because it is very hard to stop looking at her–I would hear how upset this is making her and how she has to go through life being underestimated with men coming at her like mosquitoes, so much so that she gets tired swatting them away. But as she says this her face goes through a series of adorably frustrated expressions, so I am tempted to say something that might upset her because it’s such a joy to watch her babyface bite her lip or knit her brow. And this is a sexist impulse I know, but I find my fingers wandering back to her bare arm. How long it is and how white and what a lovely little freckle at the join. Or is it a mole? I wonder if it is raised or flat and as I’m thinking this my fingers fuse to her forearm and I am stroking it again. Lightly, politely, to study her reaction and make sure she’s real and to see if she would allow me to touch more.
She just smiles into my face, as though I’ve not done anything and so I let it go. And then just before her stop, our stop I suppose, like she can anticipate my fingers wandering towards her again, she says, “Maybe if you rub it a third time it will grant you a wish.”
And this is such a strange thing to say it shocks me and so I can’t resist, but there I go again, stroking her arm and she asks me what I wished for.
“You know what I wished for.”
And so she smiles and gives me a very long kiss on the mouth.
And I am about to follow her off the bus, but she says her fiancé wouldn’t like that and “besides,” she touches my hand, the one that rests in my lap, still holding the bus ticket like it were the winning numbers to the lottery, “if you stay on the bus, in a few minutes it will start up again and you can loop back to wherever it is you were meant to go.”