by James Callan
/ Fiction /
I saw her in a crowd.
She? Maybe not. The sex sat right upon the edge, indeterminate. One angle revealed a man. A slight shift, a delicate tilt, then he became a she. A shapeshifter. An image reflected on moving water. Fluid.
Whatever they are, that person, they had my attention.
I was enjoying a smoke, so I was far on the peripherals. No one likes a smoker anymore. Besides, from where I stood, it wasn’t even legal. Just a little drag. A wee puff. What’s the harm in that?
Plenty, it would seem; all the little head shakes and side-long glances, the furrowed brows of disgust. I turned away from the crowd and blew my smoke into the wall I was backed up against. When the smoke cleared I saw that I had blown it into a no smoking sign.
‘Asshole,’ someone muttered as they coughed through the waft of secondhand smoke. They probably thought I was making a statement. A deliberate slight to the societal rule.
‘Jesus Christ.’ I did some muttering of my own. I killed the cigarette beneath my heel. It wasn’t even worth it.
That’s when I saw her. Or him. When I stomped on that butt.
She was smoking, just like me. Except she did it brazenly. Bold as brass. She took long, healthy drags and blew them into the crowd around her like it was no big thing. And there’s a thought, on the subject of drags, maybe he’s in it? Or maybe he is just a shining model of androgyny. The best of both worlds. A perfect blend that keeps you guessing. I always loved a good guessing game.
And then it became a game of tag. It was hard not to lose her in the crowd. It was hard to keep my targeting system locked in on him. But it was that puff of smoke that gave her away. That and his bright yellow jacket. Leather, maybe? I’m vegan, but I could forgive the jacket. Hell, I’d eat a cow whole if I could hold this girl’s hand. I’d give my soul if I could kiss him.
I followed that garish jacket. I followed the little puffs of smoke. Like smoke signals communicating from across the urban herd. I followed the signs. Magical, heady haze vaporizing into the ether. I kept my eyes locked on that golden fleece. I waded through a sea of humanity. Eyes on the lighthouse torch. I followed the beacon.
The smoke had vanished. She must have finished her cigarette. And for a moment I lost him. The crowd grew thicker, more compressed. My heart sank. But then he rose from the depths ahead of me. She ascended the steps of the city square fountain to playfully dip her hand into the water. His smile flashed and late afternoon light caught his eye. I witnessed a gorgeous profile more statuesque than the statue that jutted out from the fountain. More regal than Poseidon, Lord of the sea. And I was rewarded when her head turned and by chance her eyes met mine.
Even from here, dozens of paces, hundreds of tightly packed people between us... even from here, across the gap between that multitudinous throng... even from here, I could see with clarity as he looked at someone or something not far from where I squirmed through the madness of an urban sardine shoal... even from here, the image was sharp and defined, utterly beautiful, those ice blue eyes like shards of arctic glacier.
She took out some lipstick and applied an electric pink. Somehow it made him look more like a man. He took out a fine-toothed comb and gave that little bleached blonde quiff a readjustment and at once she was girl as before. She put on some shades and I swear I was looking at James Dean. She took out another cigarette and puffed for all the world to witness. A rebel without a cause. She hiked up her white denim jeans and hopped down back into the crowd. The way she moved, he must be a woman. The way he walked, she must be man.
All that lipstick, comb, and sunglasses business had me gaining on him quick. I was narrowing the gap between us but not at all narrowing the gap of my assumptions of her sex. The pronouns were everywhere. And I didn’t care which. But curiosity has always been my weakness and whatever the answer, I wanted it bad. I wanted it now.
‘Hey watch it, pal!’ Someone gave me a little shove as I stepped over their sandalled foot.
‘Sorry,’ what else I could I say? I was being a bit sloppy. Being a bit rude as a byproduct to my haste to breach the crowd and cover some ground. The guy with the sandalled feet shook his head and went the other way. I turned back to pursue my lovely enigma. My man that was a woman. My girl that was a boy.
But she was gone.
I scanned the crowd for that loud, canary jacket. I did my best to make my short stature tall; I stood on my toes and craned my neck to see what I could see. So many tops of human heads and hats. So many shoulders, side by side. Bald heads and baseball caps. Long and short. Light and dark. All hairstyles conceivable, yet none that particular bleached blonde dollop of whipped cream.
Straining upward, balanced on the balls of my feet, I fell back onto my heels. I stared at the back of a tall man’s brown jacket, blinded by the broad obstruction. I moaned in agony. I envied giraffes and ostriches, Big Foot and basketball players. If only I had brought along my periscope…
I came to the curbside edge of a street. The artery of roadway offered a crowd-free zone where I could actually observe my surroundings without staring point blank at necks and shoulders and heads. I scanned the urban wilds for that pretty bird of paradise. Left, right, center. Then I saw her. Across the street and far, far away. His leather jacket like a single sunflower in a field of poppies. She stood out from the crowd, one of kind. Which kind, I couldn’t say.
A red ‘DON’T WALK’ sign told me to halt my pursuit. So I didn’t walk. I ran.
A taxi nearly killed me, but I didn’t lose my life. I didn’t even lose my stride. The blaring car horns and curses shouted from rolled down windows faded behind me as I barreled onward into the swarm of city goers. I ran and tripped and ran some more. I ran to collide with a cardboard carrier tray transporting three or four hot coffees. I tasted the chocolaty milk as the mocha splashed across my lips. Dairy, for sure. Am I still a vegan if it’s an accident? I got up and ran some more. I didn’t even pause to apologize.
I ran and dipped and dodged and weaved. I sped at breakneck speed. I hurled myself through and around the heavy flock of urbanites. I bumped shoulders and stepped on toes. I heard many a bad name targeted at me in angered, affronted voices.
But onward I ran, unimpeded, with my eyes on the prize. The dandelion jacket, gold pollen and all, and I a busy bee, looking for my fix. I ran and I ran and I ran some more. I ran until I had a mean stitch in my side. A real rip in my guts that begged me to stop. But something stronger demanded that I go on. And I did just that. I ran on.
And all that running did do some good. Sure, my shirt was damp with mocha and latte… sure, I’d nearly died under the wheel of a yellow cab… sure, I just pissed off half the city to get to where I was standing... but here I was, right behind the girl of my dreams. I could reach out and touch him. I could smell her hair if I just leaned in a little. I could say hello to him. And I would.
But first, I’d catch my breath. I bent over and gasped hefty breaths. My hands propping all of my weight on my knees as I keeled over, bent inward. Drops of sweat fell from the tip of my nose to wet the pavement like rain. I started to catch my breath. I started to feel okay. I got up to finally say hello. I stood up straight and dusted myself off, prepared to unravel the mystery of this terrific enigma.
I opened my mouth to speak as the cab pulled up to the curb. She had hailed the taxi and in an instant it was there. Produced from thin air. Or so it seemed.
‘Excuse me,’ I tried to stop him as she got into the vehicle. The door closed and now a glass barrier stood between us. I knocked on the glass. ‘Sorry to bother you, but…’
The cab took off. The taxi blended in with the traffic. All those other cabs. All yellow. Like her yellow jacket. Like his quiff of bleached blonde hair. I kept my eyes on that cab for a minute or more and felt like I just dropped a winning lottery ticket down a sewer drain. My hopes, dashed to oblivion.
It was in that moment that I was catching my breath. That’s when I had lost her. That’s when he got away from me. But that’s just it… I had caught my breath.
My eyes were still zeroed in on that one cab as it hit a red light. Its momentum static, far off but immobile. The traffic was heavy. It wasn’t moving much at all. I didn’t wait for that red light to turn green.
I had caught my breath. So I ran some more.