A flame haunted by his shadow.
Strange, wasn’t it? How a single touch could burn one to the core, until nothing was left but a deep imprint on one’s skin- the wisping, lingering ghost of what once was.
I returned to New York under unfortunate circumstances- initially, I had planned to shun the city forever, to stow away the memories of those darned alleys and subways out of my mind, but the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and I was halfway into Brooklyn before I could catch myself. For months, I counted the homeless and the begging as my brethren, and I shared scraps of food and water and cloth with whomever was willing- the old house, Ma’s house, had been utterly destroyed to mere brick and mortar, and there was not dwelling, no shelter that I could seek refuge in.
Perhaps the Lord had wished for me to start afresh as a butterfly emerging out of a chrysalis might, and I did try to forget for the first few days when I was there, giving myself a new name amongst my newfound companions, but returning to New York meant reopening a can of worms that I had not intend. They twisted, coiled and attached themselves to the most intimate corners of my mind, and called to the fore memories that I thought I had long since suppressed. They bubbled and over-spilled into my dreams as unfathomable shapes and figures that jolted me awake to beads of cold sweat on my forehead.
I started seeing things- or at least, I believed I was seeing things. You standing in the corner store with a cigarette in your hand, waiting for an afternoon shower to pass. You disappearing into the suffocating crowd of commuters during the peak hour. You sitting on the bench in Central Park with a newspaper in your lap. The edges of your coat disappearing around the corner before I could do a double take. The shape of your hair imposed on another person’s head, bobbing elegantly into a distant building. Your eyes on a young woman’s face. Your cupid’s bow on another man’s lips. The dark musk of your cologne greeting me when I entered a store, only to dissolve into a wisp when I tried to locate its owner.
Everywhere I went, everywhere I did not go, I could see you, feel you, breathe you, but all it took was for me to turn around, for me to want to catch a second glance, for me to chase after an elusive scent, and you would slip out from between my grasp like a curtain of fog.
A gentleman of two faces.
You returned on a Saturday evening, as the heavens wept and cried in choruses of thunder. I was seeking shelter under the slanted rooftops of a shuttered bookstore, blinking away the rain that had gotten into my eyes. At first glance, I had mistook your silhouette for a stranger’s, one of them Wall Street lotharios with their fantastic, swinging coats and perky umbrellas, but then you appeared suddenly before me like a mirage to a lost man. I was skeptical at your reappearance at first, thinking it was perhaps one of those fever dreams I had been afflicted of late. Or perhaps it was fate, a thread tying us together by our fingers.
But I knew that not even Clotho could have spun from her spindle a face so fair, a touch so warm, and a gaze so fond. It was so familiar, that it reignited the flame that burned within me- but instead of warming up the cold, dead muscle that nestled between my ribs, it had stung, licking at the gaping, bleeding wound right across it. Your face- the last time I had gazed upon it, you took with you everything I had to give you. My heart. My affections. My soul. My self. Much as I thrilled to see you again, to study once more the angles of your jaw, the curves of your lips, I could only see him and him only in the shadows and lines of your face. Taunting me. Mocking me. So I did the one thing I did best: I fled.
You followed me into the alley- funny, it could have been the same alley where you gave me that accursed necklace- and immediately tried to console me, to explain No, it wasn’t me, it was a curse, a spell. Your hands were reaching out to touch me, to find its homely place on my neck and shoulders, but I shunned your every attempt at contact. With every step you took towards me, I retreated two steps back, like some bizarre waltz that we were both entangled with. Your eyes searched for mine, but I planted them firmly onto the ground, where I knew I would be safe from falling into their dark, enthralling depths.
We stood there in silence for a very long time before you spoke up again- this time, your voice wasn’t insistent. It was calm and steady, and you told me only one thing: I’m sorry.
The third time’s a…?
You were a Byzantine maze that I could not escaped from. No matter where I turned, where I hid, you always had a way to find me. Perhaps it was that gift that you had, or perhaps I was just that predictable. Or perhaps despite my retreating footsteps, I’d secretly hope for you to find me, so I could know that you still cared. And even when I did try to run away from you, I would be haunted by your face that was seared into my mind, residing in my peripheral vision unless I faced you fully.
A part of me yearned to touch you, to hold you as you once held me, but I was too ashamed, too frightened, of what had happened in the past. I can’t-
Look at me, you said softly.
I looked up and into your eyes, and found that you had been studying my hands. I had scratched them a few weeks ago rummaging through the metal heap at the outskirts of the city, and you held them up tenderly. This time, I did not shrink back into my shell, and you healed them with a soft murmur before placing your lips on them. You did this before, on that very fateful day, when you were not you but were him instead. But there had been nothing sincere behind those actions, for he had done so to cajole me into compliance. This time, however, was real. No lies. No motives. No pretense. It was you.
My own lips took the place of my hands.