She looked surprisingly healthy, sitting at a table in back, salad and glass of iced tea. I assumed it was tea. She had said she drank her weight in bourbon each week; that once she had gone a whole month without bathing. She had said all kinds of things, wild things, and I never knew which parts were true, or if they were true for that hour, or only that moment. One thing I did know, her poetry was brilliant�rock-star brilliant�and my publishing company needed to up its cache in the market. Kindle or not, we needed another Pulitzer.
�Kisses in all your filthy places,� was how she had signed her first query letter.
The place we were meeting was one of those neighborhood joints, Italian, with red checkered tables and phony wax candles. She had on a bulky green sweater and faded blue jeans, boots with heels. There was the pale skin, the high cheekbones, her famous dark hair pulled back in a bun. It was famous because she had said it was. She said she washed it every so often but rarely bothered combing it out. Once I�d asked why and received the first of many silences, one of those secrets she guarded, some deeply personal fuck-you in her arsenal.
�I have borne three children and mothered none.�
She liked dropping lines like grenades. She did look good, though, the sweater helped set off her eyes, or was that the mania, what schizophrenia did to people? Over the years she�d been diagnosed bi-polar, then ASD, and recently, Asberger�s.
�Those fuck-wads haven�t got a clue,� she said one night on the phone, then laughed the laugh that gave me shivers. �It�s not like they give a shit.�
She wasn't an easy sell. �She has to be able to handle the circuit,� our poetry editor stressed at the meeting, the one where I�d pitched her to the committee. �We can�t have her flipping on Oprah.�
I walked passed the bar and the regulars watching their game through an archway into the dining room. I could see she�d started applying some makeup but clearly abandoned the idea. One eye was done bright with green shadow and liner, the other begun, the shadow there but softer, almost hidden when she smiled. Her teeth looked much too white.
�Hi,� she said, not getting up but extending her hand. The grip was neutral, grew softer, ending with a little squeeze. I looked at her hand, small and delicate inside my own lumber-jack grip, each of the nails painted a different color, one of them black, her left pinky.
�Hi,� I said. �You look nice.�
�Not as nice as I could. I wanted to look nice and then decided I shouldn�t, but now I can�t decide which is best.�
We were picking up from where we�d left off the night before. Fourteen hours earlier she�d been three thousand miles away, telling me not to come, fits over how she could never live up to her online persona, jabs here and there at things we�d both said, how she was nothing more than a street urchin who�d figured out how to get over, and then she threw that right hook.
�Don�t think I�m in love with you.�
�The thought never crossed my mind.�
�Yes it did.�
Trying to gauge her mood now was useless. No doubt, it would change soon enough. Her energy was even more overwhelming in person. It ebbed and flowed, building frenetic highs then gathering down, all cellos and soft French horns, the way she portrayed symphonic movement. I�d been an ordinance engineer during the war, a fancy term for someone who dug up land mines all day. Being with her reminded me of how it was walking down a trail in the jungle searching for trip wires, knowing I�d never see half of them. It was really a matter of luck, her smile or that sudden bang.
�Remember, this isn�t a date,� I said, sitting down.
�Yes it is.�
�All right, it is a date.�
She had that tone in her voice, the one I knew not to confront.
�Shall we shag now or shall we shag later?� she asked.
�I think we�d better start with coffee. I see you�re eating.�
�Been eating all week. I wanted to look healthy. Do I look healthy?�
�You look fine.�
�That won�t get you laid, bucko. You�ll need to compare me to a thousand stars, each one the soul of every girl in every town in every city you�ve ever...�
�I suppose that�s the wrong direction.�
�And what would be the right direction?� I asked.
�Are you flirting or editing?�
The jibes�it was one of our games�how long could we go without hurling an insult. Coming from her meant it was time to stop talking; coming from me actually helped her stay calm, especially when timed well. If I sensed the mania I�d hurl an insult, then wait, as I had each time my knife touched metal under the mud, that precious second rolling the dice. It was cute how she was now, trying to be on her best behavior.
�Don�t look at me that way,� she said.
�Like you care.�
Another mine, a toe popper, one wrong answer and BAM, I�d be there on my back staring up at the sky.
�So, are you ready to keep your promise?� I asked.
She nodded, like a little girl at her first party. I watched her eyes, green like a cat, a cat with nine lives; only here they were all living at once: one brilliant, complicated existence.
�Angie,� she said. �I think.�
�It�s the oldest one. The one I remember.�
�Doesn�t the State have records?�
�Of course they have records, but you never see them. By the time you�re eighteen you don�t care.�
�What does your license say?�
�I�m not allowed to drive. I told you that.�
�Angie,� I said, trying it on. Up till that moment she�d been shedemon666, or Shauna or Tiffany, any number of stripper monikers. It had taken some getting used to in the beginning; she signed her emails however she fancied that moment.
�Angie, I said. �You�re not saying that because you like the song?�
She stood up, fists suddenly clenched and jaw stretched tight. �I tell you the truth and you mock me?�
�No, I�m not mocking you. You know it�s okay to ask. Sit down.�
�It wasn�t okay,� she said, stomping off toward the front of the restaurant.
�And stop looking at my ass.�
Up front the guys had the ball game on loud with plenty of barstool coaching. The only waitress, an older woman wearing big, thick-soled shoes, stood in the door, smoking.
�I wasn�t looking,� I said.
She stopped; glanced back. �I have to go pee,� she said. On her way past she grabbed her bag.
I sat there, a bit relieved. I thought she�d say no to our meeting, probably never show up. I needed to stay professional, needed to stay detached, but reading her helped me sleep. My nightmares decreased when we emailed. I�d learned her personality shifts, when to press and when to back off. I could only imagine the nut jobs and perverts she met at work. Just before bed I would check my mail and there she�d be, two in the morning back east, waiting to say hello.
�You�re falling in love with me,� she�d written that night.
�With your poetry,� I answered.
Not what she wanted to hear.
�You�re just another fucked up vet who wants to kill again.�
I had to be careful what I admitted; she could turn any confession into a dagger. I�d been warned how manipulative bi-polars could be, though I did have to laugh at her accuracy. Did the five of them get together each morning and discuss me over coffee? Another one of our games, me and shedemon666�the end game�where either one might disappear without a trace, the memory of someone never really known. The Net was such a strange place to make friends.
�I guess I�m enchanted,� I�d written one night.
�Then why don�t you ride out here and save me? Is your horse lame or something? Maybe you can just kill me and make us both happy.�
The only time I scolded her, then three weeks of silence�my nightmares increased.
�I�m only writing back because I know you�re as fucked up as me. I�m sorry you had to kill all those people. You made me cry.�
That was the first night I called on the phone, impulsive, maybe regrettable. Her voice melted the knot in my chest, even though that first conversation focused entirely upon the mating rituals of cockroaches; it seemed the exterminator had done her apartment that day. Now I watched her walking back to the table. Who would she be? How many lives had she lived in the last five minutes?
�I�m back,� she said, plopping down on the chair.
�Yes, Angie. I�ll have you know I�ve been taking my meds every day since we talked. They kill the personalities but not the moods. Does take the edge off my sessions, though, some of my clients aren�t happy.�
�That�s not an excuse to stop.�
�It doesn�t help the tips. They like the danger, wondering if Camille might show up and slit their throats.�
I tried to imagine her tiny frame all pushed and pinched and gathered up in black leather, the whip and the chains. She�d mentioned one night how she owned eleven wigs, iridescent green to jet black. Her hair, at that moment, was deep, dark auburn. Had I mentioned it was my favorite color? Her face was different. She�d finished the other eye. Some mischief entered her smile.
�So?� she asked.
�It�s your turn.�
�How do you mean?�
�Is it really you?� she asked.
�Yes, it�s always been me.�
�Richard isn�t some pen name?�
�Come on, then, let�s go upstairs.�
�Upstairs?� I said.
�To my apartment.�
She had told me she�d choose some neutral spot for our meeting, far from where she lived.
�This was far away?�
�You haven�t touched your salad,� I said.
�That was just for show.�
We stood and walked past the stools with the men watching their game.
�We okay?� the bartender asked.
�Yes, we�re fine,� she answered.
�No, I�m not working tonight.�
�Does Kevin know?�
The waitress looked over, disgusted, then crushed out her butt and moved to one side. Out on the street Angie took my arm, pulling up close. We strolled along the front of the building. It was a decent enough neighborhood, much as I�d pictured, a mix of five story walk-ups and little shops with a deli on the corner. Not exactly dirty, but not exactly clean.
�This feels nice,� she said.
She lived on the third floor, the stairs hemmed in by a heavy old banister covered in layers of brown paint, green linoleum landings, EXIT signs hanging. The halls were well kept, she�d lied about that, and the entrance to her apartment had only three locks, not six. When we stepped inside she immediately closed the heavy door, placing a black metal bar in a yoke bolted to the jamb, turning all three of the locks, twice.
�I�m not a very good homemaker.�
She had described it once, the tiny kitchen, a small living room; two windows facing the street. A pantry-like bedroom was off to the right, bare mattress in the corner, a simple wood dresser. There was no mirror. The living room had an old metal desk pulled out from the wall, her laptop open, an internet line running crooked across the floor. The old brown sofa lined the far wall, a squared off thing with chrome legs, like you�d find in a dentist�s office. Nothing else. No pictures, no table, no lamps or plants, bare wood floor and the afternoon sun. There weren�t any curtains or blinds.
�Remember, Angie, we said no sex.�
�I remember,� she said, leading me to the sofa. �Could we cuddle? Could I fall asleep in your arms?�
I remembered the line from one of her poems, �An Hour�s Layover in Paris�.
�Yes, we can cuddle,� I said.
She turned and curled against me, resting her cheek up close to my chest. Now I could feel how frail she was, light as a feather beneath the wool and it hit me, the green sweater, the faded blue jeans, dark hair pulled tight in a bun.
�You�re safe now,� I said, a line from one of my own stories, the one about the girl who puts her hair in a bun to look older.
I leaned down and kissed the top of her head. She snuggled in and fell asleep; it must have taken five seconds. I listened to her breathing; touched her difficult hair. She had cleaned the apartment, a few telltale streaks showed on the windows. A brand new mop with a yellow handle stood by the stove, its barcode sticker still stuck. It felt good to hold her. It felt like it did after digging a hole and crawling inside for the night, earth all around and sandbags soft as pillows.
I kissed her again, letting my cheek rest beside her, the scent of shampoo mixed in with the lingering smoke and the booze. She could sleep for now�we both could�and instead of cradling an imaginary weapon, what I did each night when I closed my eyes, I gathered her up in my arms, letting the sounds of battle fold into the sounds of the street, the sound of our breathing, the strength of together destroying the times of alone.
BIO: Derek Osborne lives in eastern Pennsylvania. His work has appeared in Ruthless Peoples, Boston Literary and Folded Word among others. He is currently revising his first novel, Gadabout and submitting short stories and poems. He can be reached at http://gertrudesflat.blogspot.com.