“It’s as if I’ve been sleepwalking my whole life . . .”
Your eyes flutter open, and at the back of your head, you can see the flickering of a gaslight somewhere, indecisive whether to blaze on or to fizzle out and drop dead. On and off, it blinks at you. On, off, on, off. You reflect about it for awhile until you realize that you're not half-asleep in a cab anymore, crammed in the traffic during the rush hour, choking under the dense smog of a warm muggy late-August night.
You’re losing track of time again. Somehow, you can’t remember the uneventful drive that has hauled you all the way to a desolate parking lot near the subway station. From the corner of your eye, you stare at a dying thread of smoke to your side, bidding a shallow goodbye after a snide gotcha. You twist on the half-stick cigarette tangled on your fingers.
The smoke's getting into your head, it seems. It spins when it does. Makes slow unamusing twirls. But you're in the most sedated you've ever been and it's all you can ask for in a grinding day like this.
Oh. You don’t see the busted gaslight anymore.
You chuckle a little. Everything's all tight-locked and smoking inside the compartment of your silver Corolla. If your supervisor, Detective Burke, ever finds out about your bad habits again, he'll be already knocking on the window, berating you for recklessly dozing inside a closed car. Jesus, Starling, you suicidal?
"Funny," you mumble under your breath, rolling your eyes at the faux-memory. You're never really a heavy sleeper on the job, though these days, you have to admit that it's a little hard to relax and sink in for a few fugitive minutes of shut-eye. That's Gotham for you. Crime rates are skyrocketing like crazy and nothing's ever going to get any better. Then there’s all these ashes dusting on your papers. “Goddamn.”
Positives, you remind yourself, brushing the ashes off the sightings of the clown murderer—or vigilante, as the rioting crowd like to call him; next is a full-page report of an alleged rapist and tailing along the back is an armed smuggler, photos, dog ears, and all. Yeah, think of the positives. Like a pack of premium smokes. AC. New shoes or whatever. And, and . . .
Oh, honey, ever considered moving in to Metropolis?
Clicking your tongue, you dial on the radio only to reach for the knob and settle for the oldies station in a quick second. Fucking super rats. Headlines are sharply swamped down by the uncalled-for soulful voice of James Brown, swimming through slow blue notes and the smooth swing of string and piano in It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.
You idly hum along the tune. Punching in the automated cigarette lighter, you roll down the window for a good two inches and rummage for a packet of American Spirits overlapped by folders and your new detective badge on the seat beside you. Shit, it’s empty. You sigh, attempting to ignite the only cigarette you have left with the car lighter that fails and eventually drags you out of your car, hunting for the nearest convenience store.
The air feels thick and greasy all over you. The kind that seeps into your pores and pollutes you inside and out. You don't fuss over it anymore, not like how you used to. There's always the ice-cold soak of a shower, but deep down, you know you're already polluted. No one ever lives in Gotham without getting tainted in its filth.
Walking along, you can’t help but feel that you can just drive to the store. No one really gives a damn where they are parked nowadays, but you do. You have to, in some clean orderly way as possible. You like to think that you're doing this piece of shit city a small favor. God knows it needs all the favors it can get.
There’s a brattle of bells inside Vera’s Store and the creak of a door welcomes you more warmly than the old store clerk, stone-serious and tediously listening on the radio newscast about the latest super rats’ breakout. You scoff. You order for two packets. “Benson and Hedger Golds,” you say and the clerk just nods it off. It’s pricey, you know. The original plan is to get a packet of Camels. Maybe even a Virginia Slim or a Kool, just for the menthol.
But today’s been a lot. Feels a lot. Benson and Hedger is a nice balm for a bad day. You’re just treating yourself.
You almost snort out a laugh at that. Treating yourself might be an understatement. You've been taking in smokes for a couple of weeks and more than you can count. Well, you've stopped counting at some point. Stopped caring in the teetering boundary between a harmless smoke break and a dive into addiction.
At the back of your mind, you can hear Burke call you out for it and maybe even go for the pep talk that you’re young and you should know better. High marks. Top of your class in Gotham Police Academy. You’re going to places, Starling, I’m telling you. Just not . . . you know, not in this dump, he has once told you, and you recollect about the past conversation, missing the chance to retort back once you’ve gotten all cold.
The next thing you know happens in a flash when you pay and step back with your cigarettes. That’s until a blip passes by your train of thought, brushing shoulders, a meek mutter of apology, and something brilliant red and shiny. Malboro Reds, you guess at first. Though it’s a little stronger than that, burns longer, smoother. Ah, Winston.
And then just when you’re about to leave, it rains.
“Great. Christ,” you take shelter under the awning of the store. Outside is a little better. Vera’s is a stuffy place to be in anyway and you’re keener in avoiding the radio if it’s still blasting out that bullshit with the rats when the sanitation strikes, the consistent house blackouts, and the clown riots are turning into a major issue.
You concentrate on the white noise, the speeding taillights of cars, the pedestrians, the piling trash bags at the side of the curb. Breath in a little deeper and the city’s sewer exhausts are going to catch up to your nostrils. No rain can spare anyone from it.
Shuffling for a lighter in your handbag, you hear the groan of the store’s door close next to you. You’re kidding. No light, no smoke, no goddamn peace of mind. It’s almost as if you’re seeing that blinking gaslight again in the distance. On, off, on, off.
Regardless, you tear out the cigarette packet and pull one stick out. “Hey, you,” you recognize him as the guy right behind you earlier. The one with the carton of milk and a Winston Classic. “Got a light?”
He blinks at you, at first. Like he can’t believe that you’re actually talking to him. For a second there, you’re almost tempted to snap him off his trance just before it breaks and he nods shyly. His hands roam over the pockets of his sand-colored jacket before settling on his pants, and to your relief, he manages to fish out a red lighter.
You take a step closer, muttering a terse thanks. Then flick, fire, inhale; rich tobacco fills in your lungs and you sigh at the taste of it. From the pouring smoke out of your lips and the flame of a lighter, you catch a glimpse of the stranger.
Tall, distracted, withdrawn; you've seen men like him before, lurking around the deep-ends of Gotham's bustling cesspool, slogging on about their lives in rotation as nameless faces and begrudging the thought for letting it step over them for the rest of their lives.
He's a little odd, though. Perhaps forgetful, perhaps thoughtless, perhaps not giving a shit anymore. There's a gash of dried-out paint from his jaw and he's picking on it like a scratch to a foul itch. Head's always bobbing down, eyes to his worn loafers, fingers fumbling on the unraveling strap of his bag, or the cuff of his sleeve, or the side of his elbow. It's hard to not notice. He's so skittish. Impatient and weathered down by the rain, just as you are.
Now, you're starting to mull over whether you're curious that you're somewhat sensing a nervous habit here or it's just the cheap paint blotted on his face.
“Hey—” shit, easy on the tone. It takes another resigned drag of tobacco from you to properly sift out the words: “uh, sorry, want some?” you cringe at the forced drone of your voice, but you’re already offering the packet up to him and you’re just wondering if he’ll ever take one.
It's not like you haven't offered cigarettes before, but it isn't the same if you've started to give one to a stranger. It's easier to ignore and wait it all out till the rain stops, though you're in the mood to be generous, and—fuck it, what the hell? It's not like he's out here to be a full-time snob just like you.
“Oh, o-okay,” he accepts one, mumbling out a quiet thanks and lighting it between his lips. It’s the timidness, you observe, that one can mistake for hesitance or uncertainty, despite how a little too willing he is to not refuse.
You wrap your second-hand tweed coat closer to you. “This sucks.”
Puffing out a cloud of smoke, he clears his throat. “Hm . . . uh, what was that?”
“The rain’s a downer. The weather forecast got it wrong again.”
“Oh,” he says, scratching the back of his head. “Um, want to hear a joke?”
Not giving it much thought, you shrug. “Sure.”
This time, he seems eager, like a child finally acknowledged by his peers. It lightens up his eyes—and for an interval, you do notice them about him. Bright, intense, vividly green. Phosphoric. Then and there, you realize that it’s a bit difficult not to look away.
He starts with a wisp of a laugh, smoke climbing up his grinning mouth. “What,” then something strains, throat bobbing, “ha, what would the weather forecast say if a, aha ha, killer’s on the loose? ‘T-there’ll be a rain of terror on the streets.’”
You settle for a smile, a chuckle working its way out of your throat. “Rain of terror, huh,” you muse aloud, knowing fully well that you’ve never been clever in cracking up jokes or having a decent sense of humor. “That’s a good one.”
With a small push of confidence, he comes at you with all that child-like enthusiasm. “I have a lot more in my, ah . . . I-I do stand-up comedy. I—” and then he whips out his hand, sucking a breath, fingers shaky, lips firmly pressed together, “I’m Arthur. Arthur Fleck.”
After introducing your name, you don’t comment that you’ve caught on the slight croak in his words, though you don’t mind teasing him for it. “It’s nice to meet you, Arthur, Arthur Fleck,” you shake his hand, rough and bony. There’s a smear of paint at the crook of his nail and a bruise on the side of his wrist.
Arthur is a little caught off guard by the tease, but once it registers, he curls up his mouth into an awkward smile and huffs out a short laugh. His hand gives yours a light congenial squeeze. “You, too.”
After withdrawing back your hand, you recall behind a pleasant veil of nicotine around you. “You do stand-up comedy, huh.”
“Y-yeah, yeah, it’s in this great place, Pogo’s. It’s a comedy bar from here,” he says, folding his arms over his chest. “You should come by sometime.”
Pogo’s. You aren’t sure about that. “I’ll try, Arthur,” you say, opting for a vague effort than a hopeful affirmative because there’s something about the way he looks at you and you can’t find it in yourself to crush his spirit down through a flat-out rejection. You’ve always been careful in these kinds of exchanges with a sense of delicacy.
Then he tries your name, mouthing it gently, testing it at the curve of his mouth. It’s such a simple name, and sometimes, it doesn’t stick at all with others. Perhaps, that’s why you don’t mind being called by another one—the farther from yourself, the better, you always like to think—though his lips flit up by the sound of it after breathing in his cigarette. “So where do you work?”
“The GCPD. I’m a detective,” not much, not there yet. You clear your throat abruptly, thinking what’s come over you to bring that up when you can simply fabricate a convincing lie.
Because no one ever respects that. Because no one believes it just because you’re—
“A detective,” he repeats, curiously tilting his head.
“Well, I’m just a trainee, actually,” you reason out, shrugging. “But I get to do some sleuthing around.”
“Oh,” Arthur mutters. “It’s just that you don’t . . .”
You suck a cold breath through your teeth.
You interrupt. “Look the part?”
It sounds too genuine.
“It’s all right. I get that a lot,” you smile a little, retreating back to your cigarette. You’ve always braced yourself for an unconvinced glare or a word of incredulity, but never really the buffer of a soft sincere apology. You smoke in deeper, longer, until your tongue’s gotten stale and all that’s left is the gradual sting down your throat.
“You know,” you tell him, deciding to change the subject. “You should be careful at this hour. It’s been buzzing around lately that there’s a killer clown in the city.”
A second of silence.
“Oh . . . I’ve heard about that in the news,” he admits, but then there’s this unspoken concentration in his gaze, a fine thread of curiosity and anxious reluctance, hanging about him when he opens his mouth and finally asks, “what do you think about it?”
You hum musingly. “Everything’s gone hectic. Crazier,” you ruminate over the crimes, the subway killings, the prevalent corruption, the pollution stinking the air, the blatant jaded apathy in every living thing, in every living person that’s wept and kissed and cursed this city to the ground. It never gets better, doesn’t it? You resign to a pensive sigh. “Hm, but to be honest, it’s not like it hasn’t always been like that here.”
“Yeah, it is,” Arthur agrees slowly, surely, in a contemplative spell, wherein for a moment, he’s somewhere else, somewhere distant and far and bleak. Cigarette forgotten, mind occupied, he whispers, as if it’s only for himself: “. . . it is.”
A chill creep up your spine as a passing wet breeze whistles at you. You gawk up. The nights in Gotham remain starless, leaving them with faded artificial ones. “Hm, looks like I can walk this one out,” You observe the rain slow down to a light drizzle, cocking your head out from the awning. “It was nice talking to you, Arthur.”
Seemingly snapping from another mild trance, he blinks at you and waves off the haze in his eyes. “O-okay, you too. And thanks again for the,” he gestures at the cigarette pinched between his fingers.
You smile. “Sure,” and then you begin to walk away.
Midway from your distance to the store and the pedestrian lane, you notice that there’s a washed-out color on the broken pavement, coming from the traffic light; a pale foggy green, its lightbulb glowing dim like it’s busting out. It’s blinking, fading, on, off, on, off. Look at me. Like an eye trailing after your every step, your every waking breath. Maybe, it’s intuition or some kind of paranoia for the unknown, but you go against your better judgement and dare to peer behind your shoulder.
And he is staring. There’s a brief upturn of lips from him, and you decidedly acknowledge him with a nod and not look back, still ill-at-ease at the lingering gaze burning holes at your back. Maybe, it’s unintentional but . . .
You can’t get the image out of your head. His green phosphoric eyes and all.
Your apartment is a small cramped place, fit snugly for one; modest and bare and lacking personality whatsoever, when there’s little to nothing here that belongs to you but the boxes haphazardly misplaced next to the television and the stale-smelling furniture that still appears stiff and untouched from underuse. It’s the same dismal routine for you after moving in for the last five months. Better than staying with Mama.
You shrug off your coat, alongside those snapshots of the life you’ve left behind.
All this, really? Just to prove some childish point? You’re such a—
“Sure, Ma,” you huff out a chuckle, lighting a random cigarette clenched between your teeth.
Alone. You’re alone again. There’s no point making a few calls with some old friends because you’ve never had any strong meaningful ones. You hate the thought of reaching out in muffled desperation only to find that the people you’ve known have moved on with their lives without you and have made better life choices than you ever can. Better than renting a shitty shut-in apartment in Gotham.
You try not to think about it. There’s no point dwelling too much in self-pity.
You breathe in, consoling yourself over menthol-laced smoke.
Keys, clocks, locks, laundry, shower, and sleep—if you can.
These past few days, you’ve been sleeping more on the front seat of your car than in your own bed.
Whenever you do, whenever you try to slip into those cold covers, cocooned under the false comfort of the mattress, it’s the only time you are honest with yourself, staring at the wall for hours, tiring yourself to sleep, because you are restless and juddering all over and drenched in cold sweat in the dead of the night, palms clammy and shirt sticky and soaked as a used dishrag.
You reach for your meds from the bed. One, two. You reconsider for a third pill, but give up at the last minute once you feel a lead-heavy languor oozing in your bloodstream, morphing itself into an anchor that steadies you down and sinks you deep into your dreams. Though the clinch of some foul fear lingers like long scraggly fingers on your throat. You struggle for a little while. After all, it’ll only take a minute until that final snap and then lights-out.
Lightning flashes from your barren window, and for a moment, you are afraid that the green gaslight blinks at you, watches you, sees you.
“Something . . . strong. I need something strong just for—"
“. . . what,” you mutter under your breath. There’s a coffee cup placed next to you, and by the stale smell, you can tell a lot, despite your daze; unwholesomely cheap, black, bitter, but it’s steaming hot. You welcome it down your throat until the caffeine is in your system and your mouth is finally stringing in the words, “oh thanks.”
“Thought you could need one,” says your supervisor, helping himself with a large gulp from his own. “Starling.”
Starling. Burke has only ever started to call you that because of a slight mix-up with your papers before you have had a proper introduction with him personally. Regardless, the nickname sticks and he has only called you Starling ever since, despite the slight breach in formality.
With a light stretch, you’re about to bring up your research about the subway killings case to him until something unanticipated grabs hold of you. You try to push it down. Go for futile attempts to tamp it all down with caffeine, get yourself together, but you’re falling piece by piece, like old chipping paint on a dry wall. Barely making it all stick to paint this stable portrait of fortitude.
Not now, not now.
You feel your pulse rising at first, beating heavily on your chest like your heart is threatening to climb out of your mouth. You’ve known the feeling for years and only got yourself into coping with it a couple months back; an assault to the senses, a rattle to the mind when it leaves you with stiff joints and that painful strain from your throat, squeezing tight, making it difficult to swallow down breaths. It’s enough to make you writhe for air when you’re not drowning in water.
Just like Dr. Martin’s breathing lessons, you recall. Breathe in, out. In, out. Your left hand is shaking. In, out, in, out. Attempting to appear composed, you rise from your seat, stuffing your meds in your pocket.
He asks, again. “Starling?”
“Restroom. It’ll be quick.”
You don’t wait for him to nod at you when you’re already determined to walk away from your desk, making a beeline to the restroom. Distractions help and they take in the shape of the apathetic sight of fluorescent lights, spiderweb cracks on the floor, messy tables, the still overwhelming coldness from the air-conditioning, and even the clamber of typewriters noisily echoing about. Gordon’s still in the same spot, busying himself over file charges in his late-night shift.
In, out. Calm down.
You also try not to overthink about other matters like your trembling fingers, the sweat gathering on your palms, the nausea settling in like a storm, the feeling that your head’s bleeding over, reeling, ripping apart, and those leering eyes from some of the officers lurking about their stations, smirking to themselves, stealing glances at you across the room. You should be used to this by now. You have to be to keep your position.
But even as you are alone, the mirror privy to your cracks, you still remember their wretched eyes all over you.
Sucking in another breath, you uncap your meds from an acrylic tub and slip one in your mouth through a dry swallow. Benzos. You take them for your nerves. Makes you less tense, less high-strung. Not as neurotic as you have been without them before. Drifting back to some past argument, you recall that your mother has never believed in modern medicine, railing on about how chemicals are bad for your body and that you lack faith. You lack fucking faith.
For awhile, the shaking slows, stops. Finally, finally. In, out. Breathe.
The door squeaks open.
Quiet footfalls. A hum from some stray lilting tune. From the broad mirror, you see a squat figure looming from the far corners of the room and what steps into the pale flickering light is a familiar face of a man. You stiffen.
“Lieutenant Strauss,” you utter out, voice not without an edge of warning. “You’re in the women’s restroom.”
Strauss doesn’t close in on you to prove a point. It’s the mental games that he likes the most. The intimate dread of helplessness that he can evoke to others. He’s not an arm’s breadth near you, but you despise how you can almost feel him breathe down your neck. Grope you up with his dead beady eyes.
Crossing his arms over his chest, he leans on the wall. “I’m not blind.”
I hope you damn are.
Still, He’s one of the GCPD’s respected Lieutenants. The title alone makes him untouchable. You can only wonder how many women in the police force has this bastard harassed in so many different occasions. The thought makes you sick to the stomach.
“Why?” A taunt.
You wish you have your gun. You wish you can threaten him with it.
Withholding yourself, you curl your hand into a fist, knuckles white, nails biting at your palm. “You’re making me uncomfortable.”
The swing of a door breaks apart the gravity in the room. Strauss slinks back into hiding when a clerk obliviously enters in one of the cubicles.
Steeling your nerves, you march out of the restroom, and while you’re bracing yourself over an attempt in blocking your way to the door, he does nothing but stare. Eyes like a broken gaslight. Blinking on and off. Then he places a finger to his mouth.
Your jaw clenches. You hate him.
Dismissing what has transpired earlier, you return back to your desk and continue on as if nothing happened. As if nothing will ever happen. You doubt and doubt, as you always have and the days count on, uncaringly.
Thankfully, Burke spares you from your grudge-filled thoughts gnawing at you inside. “So how’s the search coming?”
“Well, honestly, I’m not sure whether there’s a connection between the suspect and Wayne’s brokers, specifically. But I figured that the suspect might be a working-class man, enough to hold off three men, must be in a low paying job regarding the statement,” you recall the multiple lesions to the last broker; one on the leg, two to the back, a final shot to the head. Aggression. Signs of ill-rooted anger.
Folding his arms, he intervenes. “Our clown killer’s a good aim. He killed the first two in a single shot. Think he’s trained?”
You shrug. “Maybe. Not sure about him being a gunman, though. A lucky shot, perhaps. Anyway, I looked into some small-time businesses and agencies that catered in party clowns around Gotham Square to the south. There’s a total of twenty-seven. Here’s a list,” you fumble for papers, tugging one out under your folder and handing it over to him. “Four have already gone out of business. I’ve contacted at least six that are still running, the ones in the red line. Nothing coming up yet. But there’s still seventeen left so. . .”
“I’ll take it from here,” he says, scanning the paper with another once-over. “Rest this one out. You look terrible, Starling.”
You snort. “That bad? I can still make a few calls, you know.”
Burke is a little stubborn, though. “You can do that tomorrow. You’ve been working hard. I mean it, Starling. Get some proper sleep. I keep catching you dozing occasionally while on the job for taking a couple of overtimes. You’re as bad as the Lieutenant.” You flinch at the mention of Strauss. We’re nothing alike.
However, difficult as it is to admit, you don’t want to seclude yourself back in your apartment. In that cold empty place. Work is the only remedy that is keeping you grounded and plugged in this brooding world around you. It’s a little better than being cut-off to the rest of it. “Fine. Tomorrow then,” but you abide anyway, with little to no resistance. He is never really easy to convince and you aren’t one to stick around and protest about a minuscule thing for so long after all.
I don’t want to go home.
The routine drags on, slowly. You clean your desk, swallow another pill, grab your tweed coat, and leave.
There’s another clown riot protesting in Wayne City Hall. All but with their fists and signs and masks. Riots are the language of the unheard, you’ve read once before from some past footnote. The underpaid and the overworked, the abused and the downtrodden, the penny-pinchers and the laborers, screaming together at the top of their lungs, sprawled on the road, causing the traffic jam.
The QRT is armored and equipped with firearm. Put down them down. Arrest those who fight back. Do whatever means necessary to complete the task.
An officer starts the rampage when he beats his baton against an unarmed man. The crowd responds in an uproar. Tear gas. Guns. Fire. Violence. Hostile screeching. Passing vehicles blasting their horns like a battle cry. There’s a limp body being stepped over by a thousand. A woman made blind from the fray. A college student being charged for assault. Everyone bleeds and no one wins. There’s a dark smoldering rash on Thomas Wayne’s nonchalant face from one of his thirty-foot campaign tarpaulins.
A small group of officers gang up on a bat-wielding construction worker, indulgently taking their time mauling his curled-up body. His ears are bleeding. His ribs must be broken and his ankle sprained. Face swollen and unrecognizable, he can’t walk properly when he’s being hauled up to be arrested to the station.
The last vestige that you see of that man is a clown mask streaked with a red bloody smile.
“It’s chaos out there,” comments Burke. You agree, wordlessly.
You take the pill. Keys, clocks, locks, laundry, and shower. You don’t sleep. You refuse to dream.
The newsprint’s portrait of the killer clown is taped on your wall.
It’s funny, almost. You have a companion in your empty-shell of an apartment for once.
Charges of theft and embezzlement. Trespassing. Drug smuggling. The list piles on and on. Gotham’s the heaping sump of crime.
One of the female clerks that you regularly see in the office has filed for sexual assault. The next day, she’s cleaned out her desk and disappeared for good. There’s only so few strong-willed bright-eyed women in the GCPD and hardly remain the same person after a week or so.
You still lucidly remember the green and purple bruises peering from her collar.
“. . . what,” you mutter under your breath. There’s a glass placed next to you, and by the scent, you can tell a lot, despite your daze; something bitter and acrid, something that’s going to scald your throat and stay down the bottom of your gut. Heavy and lethargic from a headache, you try to coherently string out your words, “uh, thanks?”
“Thought you said you needed something strong. Been giving you the strongest we got,” says a man—the bartender, you think, as he resumes back to listening in on the orchestrated drone of a laughing crowd. It doesn’t sound real and you wonder if it is in this near pitch-black darkness of the room. “That’s your second, by the way.”
“Second? W-what is it,” you might as well be getting swindled for buying expensive liquor, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the numbness you want, the temporal escape in a glass, glittering in an almost-luminescent maniacal green. Green like the broken gaslight and the eyes. On, off, on, off.
You don’t bother reading the bartender’s nametag. His face is a blur in the dim light. “Pogo’s finest. A one of a kind Bribón Verde.”
Pogo’s. That sounds familiar, somehow. “Doesn’t seem like some kind of strong whiskey.”
For a moment, you overestimate your tolerance in handling hard alcohol and the end result of attempting to swig down a glass is a world of turning tables and winking red-amber lights and the start of a vicious head-spin. There’s an unsolicited irony in your drunkenness when the laughter swells and the artificial crowd breaks into a jeering applause for your slip-up in sobriety.
“That’s ‘cause it’s not. That’s absinthe. The real good shit. Packs a mean punch,” he explains before asking in wry boredom, “you still awake?”
“Trying,” you grouch out. “I’ll have some water.”
“We only got tap.”
“Doesn’t matter,” you say, searching for your purse. “Do you accept cards?”
After handing you a glass of water, the bartender reaches for your card and fixes it in a flatbed terminal. The sharp sound of the swipe abruptly punches at your ears like a distant echo of a gunshot. For now, you’re awake. For now, your left hand is trembling, nails blood-red from old peeling polish.
With a shaky breath, you tuck it under the bar stand and rummage for your meds. Empty. Shit . . . dammit. The acrylic tub mocks you in your desperation. Drinking your water, you decidedly settle for cigarettes instead. “Hey, got a smoking area in here?”
“Nope,” he says, returning back your card with the charge slip. “Just outside.”
Without a second thought, you walk out. You’re staggering mess from the dark pathway, stumbling on chairs and slinking against the walls, until a voice calls out your name from the exit. You’re more surprised that someone actually knows you in this place.
It takes an abrupt turn and a slow minute of recognition from you to draw out a name for the man standing next you. It doesn’t register to you, really, not at first, but there is something about his gaunt face that you do remember; the lines that crease over his mouth—from smiling or frowning? You can’t determine between the two. Those green eyes. Phosphoric, even in this low hazy light.
You blink. “. . . Arthur?”
Arthur smiles. What a telling thing, when he does. You remembered.
When it hits you, it all comes back to you with those antsy mannerisms of his, the slouch of his shoulders, the fretful movements of his arms, itching and tugging over his unironed sleeves, and even that soft tone of his voice, muted and murmuring. “I was looking for you in your table. The one at the right, I think,” he recalls, scratching the back of his head. “You disappeared when I got there.”
You deeply muse over the assumption because you don’t remember sitting in one of the tables earlier. It’s a bar stand, you recall. However, you put into question a lot of things when your recollection fails you over what it actually looks like, how many liquor bottles can you count on display, what does it smell like, who is talking to you . . .
At a loss of words, you process it over again, though nothing ever comes up clear and what’s left for you are vapid half-guesses of this and that, and the afterthought that you have no inkling of a memory of what’s come before you’ve drowned in a dizzying trip from absinthe. You don’t even know how you’ve stumbled here in the first place.
“I didn’t really think you’d come and watch,” he says, smiling appreciatively.
“You did well,” you enthuse, telling him this as if you mean it, because you’re trying to make the pieces fit in those hollow gaps in your mind, and you ride along the idea that you’ve been watching him perform on that stage and have briefly passed out from a drink at some point. Even though, you still don’t remember his jokes, you still don’t remember being in that table, you still don’t remember laughing aloud.
Arthur offers you a wrinkled packet of Winstons, a stick poking out the end. You stare at it for a second too long, and he jumps to the conclusion that you’ve turned him down, doubting himself. “Oh, well, it’s just that,” he starts, as he lets his hand awkwardly roam over his limp curls, “I thought you’re going to smoke.”
“Oh, I actually want one,” you say.
Once you’ve pulled a stick out, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by lighting your cigarette first before his own. Winston has always been a bit too strong for you. The taste smolders on your tongue, thick and overwhelming, and you’ve realized that you never have asked him why he’s taken a liking to it. How it must’ve eaten him inside, scraping him thin and wan beneath all that layered clothing.
You breathe in and let the smoke consume you, whittling the creeping anxiety in singes. You know cigarettes can never cure the malady, but it sure as hell helps calm you down, even a little. You sigh.
How familiar. The streets are bleak and drenched from the aftermath of a passing rain, and from the pavement under you, you realize that the storm drain is bad and leaking over a thin dirty puddle that submerges a portion of the road, but you attempt to see the good in it when all that murk and rat piss in the water is overshadowed by the lamp lights reflecting on the surface, casting this illusion of cold dust-gold suns gleaming within the smog.
“Hey, Arthur,” you say, loosing yourself over nicotine. “Can you tell me a joke?”
His eyes brighten at that. Nodding, he eagerly takes out a notebook from his paper bag, skimming through the pages, reading aloud, “Ha, why do serial killers make for good comedians?” he pauses for a second and you wait for the punchline. “Because, aha ha, they always get their victims wheezing.”
The delivery could have been smoother and the joke couldn’t have been about murderers, though you’re never one to call yourself any better and something about that dark humor doesn’t fail to scrunch up a smile on your face. You don’t repress a small laugh. You remember him the first time, the cigarettes, the rain.
Small talk becomes a casual affair. You learn that he’s living with his mother, that he’s the only one providing for them, and that he always keeps his joke diary around whenever he feels the need to jot down his thoughts. A little embarrassed, he doesn’t show you what’s written inside. You respect that choice, even though you’ve caught glimpses of entry scrawls and questionable picture snippets pasted on the pages.
Arthur eases into admitting something in the middle of the conversation. I’ve been practicing, he says. Somehow, this is how I pictured it, he says. It eventually leads you into asking him why he has to read the murderer joke awhile ago if he’s already prepared for it. Chuckling, he curls up a lopsided smile. “I want to get it right.”
“I want to make you laugh.”
Why? Then you ask, and you ask, and you ask. It’s a repetition. An on-going circle of blatant diversion from not gearing the subject towards you. You don’t want his curiosity poring over you. The only time he manages to pick out an offhanded answer from you is when he mentions, “are you okay?”
You aren’t. You feel your head tearing in on itself, begging to swallow down the hazy lull of Xanax down your throat. “Too much to drink. Too much to think about, I guess,” you say, taking in a long drag of your cigarette. Light. Gaslight. There’s one in the distance, blinking furiously at you. Flickering on and off. “I-I can't really be seen like this,” you blurt out, hating the slight stutter in your words.
Arthur gives you a concerned look. “Like what?”
“Like a mess,” and now, you’re not making sense. Everything’s not making sense. Though some whit of control is still holding you from toppling over and retching out all your bitter, bitter regrets on the pavement, and you belatedly realize that he’s wrapping his ink-stained hand on your wrist. Maybe, he’s trying to be comforting. You ponder at that. “I—forget it. I’m just tired. It’s late. Maybe, we should call this a night?”
“Are you sure?” he kindly asks, and you feel the fleeting stroke of his thumb slip away from the inside of your wrist once his grasp loosens and finally lets you go. “You can stay at my place, if you’re still not feeling well.”
“Hm. You mean it?”
“You're too trusting, you know that? I'm just a stranger,” you chide, tapping the ash forming on your cigarette with a finger. “You don't know if I'm some crook that’s going to break into your home and steal your things.”
He winces from your sharp tone. “You're not. I know you're not. You said you're from the GCPD, right? I can trust you.”
Honey, do you have to be one of those silly detectives? You’re better than that.
Then you remember that dream that you’ve clung onto since your days in the academy and the small things breaking up that dream like tiny irreparable fissures that take the form of sneering officers, corrupt cops who’re paid by the mob, and the rampant police violence that gets tossed around. The domineering face of the Lieutenant placing a finger on his lips. This’ll be our little secret.
Your left hand shakes. Not caused by involuntary nerve spasms, but of an enduring pent-up fury. “That’s not always the case, Arthur. The GCPD, they're rotten,” you tell him, though at the back of your mind, your thoughts still wander back to Burke treating you fairly. There’s old Garrity, too, and even Gordon. But still. “A lot of them are.”
“I-I know. But you're not like them. You're nice,” he admits, pursing his lips together, before retreating back to his cigarette. “You don't treat me like . . .”
You're a little tempted to not refuse his kindness. It comes so rarely in a hellhole like this. Though your sanity is beginning to become a skewed worn-down thing from that damned absinthe and you're split and scattered over the thought whether you're fighting for an opportunity to hide or that you just don't want to wind up alone in the night, restlessly awake and stuck in the madness of a bleary recurring paranoia from something.
You force out a smile, brittle and breaking as it is. “I don't want to impose, but it's sweet of you to offer.”
Swallowing down his words, he only nods.
A minute or so passes by; discarding the burned-out cigarettes, the both of you walk from the side of the curb. He insists on following you there like a lost boy who can’t find his way back home. You don’t mind it. The truth is that you’re tipsy and a little lost yourself. You hail for a cab.
"Are we . . . can we still see each other?"
Then there's that adherent look in his eyes, pleading mutedly to you; it's grooved beneath them for such a time, as if he's been stepped on by too many rejections that leave him skinned raw and begrudgingly disappointed.
You don’t understand yourself for giving him a straight answer.
His spur of assertion surprises you. You've never really considered he has it in him. "Oh, uh, I'll write you my number," and then he fishes for a pen from his jacket and flips open his joke diary at the back, writing so sparingly from the corner in an otherwise blank page.
When Arthur tears down the whole page, you try not to grimace at the sound, or the way he folds the paper and tucks it on your hand like it's suggesting that it should be there, yours, only yours. You catch on for a beat that his fingers linger longer than it should on your palm after a momentary brush of skin.
There's a strange gleam in his green eyes. Invasive in the way that makes the hairs at the back of your neck stand.
He doesn't let go. You're real this time, aren't you?
". . . real," you murmur to nothing in particular before closing your mouth shut in bemusement. In a smooth lurch forward, a cab arrives next to the both of you, and you rush in the chance to step inside. You avoid his quizzical stare, his touch, everything. The note lays crumpled in your palm like a foul little secret that you attempt to bury deep down. "Arthur . . . I'll call you, if I can, all right?"
You make certain that there is this unspoken footnote in your tone that hints on a possibility but never really the swift assurance of a yes, though you contemplate if he ever reads between the lines of your purposeful ambiguity because while you are never the type of person to turn someone down for the sheer cruelty of it, you’ve always come across as politely indirect with your answers.
From the misty window of the cab, you wonder if he’s understood it because his gaze is telling a different story, seeing a different woman, making a different promise to another, because as he stares from that growing distance, his eyes wide like the moon beaming down at you, you doubt yourself more and rethink if what he’s reflecting back at you is real.
“You’ve cancelled two appointments recently.”
“I know. I—I’m sorry, Dr. Martin. Honestly, I came because I need another prescription slip. I’ve run out of meds. I-I can’t sleep . . . I can’t think straight these days, I just need—”
A stronger dose of benzodiazepine. You pop in three pills before the eventual fall.
In the darkness, there’s a gunshot. A crimson clown.
Keys, clocks, locks, laundry—
Another blackout. Another episode of heated complaints and cut-off power shortage. Again with the strikes, again with the tireless excuses booming on monotonous public announcements. Everyone’s suffering for it, like some sidelined joke. Someone must’ve gotten robbed on the second floor. Still, no one cares.
From the wall, the killer clown sneers at you.
“I don’t know.”
Heavy-lidded and muddled, you glance around and everything’s still dark and private and real. More real than your mind has behaved. You feel a bit flighty, lightheaded. Your nose pinches. It smells dank, a lot like discount alcohol, dead cigarettes, and something old and rotting under the bed.
When the back of your hand slides down from your lap and comes into contact with something cold, you freeze. Then you notice the empty cheap liquor bottles next to you. A sigh pushes out of from your mouth, but the tension never does. You drink a little more and wonder if it ever ends. The blackout or the turmoil? It doesn’t matter.
Sometimes, alcohol is the companion that you like to keep with you when there’s no one. You hate to think that it’s true.
Then there’s that critical low point where you’ve reached a kind of disassociation, just careening towards the borders of stagnancy and raging insomnia. You can’t work like this when the case—the senseless chase—is all that matters now, and a well-kept part of you is rampaging deep-inside, revving up your bones, throbbing in your veins an age-old indignance. It’s ceaseless, too. Defiant against your sound judgment. Though you’re getting used to it; the city and your mind in shambles.
You can’t remember a simpler time in your life, after all. It’s as if a strip of grainy film has been dashed over by psychotic controlling mothers and drunken bouts and busted gaslight leers; perhaps burned with acid, perhaps soaked in cynical dreams.
However, there’s a dream that you do remember, crawling at the back of your mind through a carmine storm, made from a scream and a cloud of calloused hands seeking to molest and mold and mar you into a shallow echo of a woman. The lightning strikes. It ends with laughing smoke.
There’s a knock on your window.
With two cups of coffee, Burke sends you a reproachful glare. “God, Starling, you suicidal?”
You roll your eyes. After rolling down the window, you groggily reach for the cup that he offers you and help yourself with a gulp. You don’t mind the coffee scalding on your tongue. Your throat’s been so dry recently and your lips are chapped, almost a crack away to breaking skin.
Playing at the background, the GCR broadcast that you’ve been listening to moments ago is replaced by some kind of third-rate soap. On cue, there's a tired comedic scene with Missus, her voice like a bell, smiling sugary-sweet probably, after a pouty 'Hmph, I'm going to stick my head on the oven!' and in that old-time nondescript sequence, Mister goes for a flippant 'Oh, honey!'
That's supposed to be funny? You scoff and turn the knob for another station; the sad sultry blues whizzing in the white noise. Patsy Cline. Reminiscing over some uncharted part of your mind, you recall that your mother is an avid fan of the late singer. She used to play her best hits in vinyl every late afternoon—of course, when she’s not drunk.
“An angel’s voice that speaks to the soul,” you recite her words, humming absentmindedly to the slow tune. Patsy’s still singing at the forefront.
I've got your memory
Or, has it got me . . .
“It smells like smoke in here, Starling,” comments Burke, welcoming himself inside the front seat.
Garrity follows after swinging the car door open at the back.
“I was so sure I had something with menthol awhile ago. Thought it’ll help,” you take one last sip of your coffee, catching Burke snort irately at your reply and the unlit scattered cigarettes crammed in the storage pockets. “So where next?”
“Ha-ha’s. At Gotham Square, Prince Street,” Burke says, tugging at his seatbelt.
“Ha-ha’s, huh,” you put the Corolla back into motion, pulling out from the trash-littered curb and driving onto the boulevard. You take a precursory glance to your watch. Eleven-eleven. The day has barely scratched the rush hour yet the road is already packed with light traffic, boiling under a thick murk of smoke exhaust and hot damp asphalt. You crank up the AC. “Got a lead?”
“Not me, Starling,” Burke sticks a thumb at his partner. “Ol’ Garrity here has a hunch.”
“Honest to God, I hope it’s right,” Garrity speaks up from the back. “The sooner we catch the bastard, the sooner we’d move on.”
Steering the wheel for a swerve, there are clown-masked protestors from the other side of the street, armed with their radical signs and convictions. Kill the Rich. We are Clowns. It resonates louder than any passing tempest. “You think the riots will stop if he’s caught?”
“Will it matter if it is?” Burke says, scrutinizing the people gathering outside. “Caught or not, the people got their inspiration. They’re not going back down now. Not when they’re heard.”
“Yeah, I could see that,” you agree before a wry smirk curls up your mouth. “Lieutenant’s going to have a hard time on that one.”
“He’s been busting his ass about it for a week. Lieutenant Gordon is—"
“Gordon?” you repeat, confused. “Burke, what do you mean . . . Gordon's the Lieutenant?”
It’s Burke’s turn to send you a look of disbelief. “He is, Starling. Just promoted. Christ, have you slept over the rest of the week?”
Your fingers twitch at the thought, restive and taut hard against the wheel, synapses in disarray. Clammy palms. There’s a greenlight on the road. Vehicles herd your Corolla like rabid blaring beasts, aggressively rushing towards the smoke storm. You give in to the chase, trying to live up to an expectation in this uproarious road that you can’t keep up with.
“Gordon's replaced Strauss just four days ago after he died,” Burke continues on with the conversation.
The bastard died. Adrenaline. How. You must be on a high right now. You’re tragically ecstatic.
“You know . . . the killer clown’s handiwork all over again.”
But how can I not remember the rest of it? Your jaws lock together, as you rove through all the clutter and moldy benzos floating in your head. Your left hand trembles. You make for another swift turn. Break. Gas pedal. The lights are going off. On, off, on, off. A glistering red.
“Tentative on that, Burke. It could’ve been easily one of those followers of his,” Garrity intervenes, muttering something about his disapproval on the matter to himself.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the actual killer or one of those punks,” Burke argues. “Strauss got shot five times. That’s another statement right there, plain and simple.”
The killer clown. It just doesn’t add up. Something builds up, wracking violently at the nerve-endings of your spine, corroding your insides until all that’s left rising up, up, up your throat is vitriolic bile. Oh, God. What day is it? How many days have gone? The last time you’ve seen Strauss, it’s about less than a week ago. You question yourself. You doubt.
Your skeptic memory spirals like a reel-tape, re-wired, jammed. It’s an impending image branded in your mind.
A finger pressed between his lips. A red smile. This’ll be our little secret.
What’s real anymore?
“Here.” You stomp on the break. Everything stops at a stand-still. You suck in a drawn breath through your teeth. “I mean, we’re here. Ha-ha’s. Uh . . . I-I think I’ll park somewhere and maybe sit this one out. I think I got a little lightheaded.”
Garrity opens the door at the back. “You heard Starling, Burke.”
Burke is still on a mental debate, whether it’s safe to leave you by yourself or to send you home for your recent behavior. Likely filling in out for you with excuses of sleep-deprived, overworked, neurotic, and the unimpressive list must’ve gone on. “All right,” he abides, untying his seatbelt. “Easy on those cigs, Starling. I mean it.”
“Sure, sure,” you wave your hand at him, maintaining an image of insouciance. Your left hand is still shaking. “I’ll offer you one if you caught me red-handed.”
“Right,” Burke deadpans. “Hm, you need an aspirin or something? You look like shit.”
I feel like shit too, thanks. You snort out a creaky laugh. “No. I’ll get over it. Ah, Garrity’s calling.”
“Just rest this one out,” is the last thing Burke says before closing the car.
Alone. Finally. But Patsy’s still haunting you at the front, belting out in her angel voice.
And it still looks the same
As when you gave it, dear
Without a moment of hesitation, you forage for your bag, your purse, your cards, anything because you do remember something important, something that might clue you in on what’s make-believe and what’s not.
I’ve got these little things . . . she’s . . .
The note is still with you. That embarrassingly crumpled secret that holds some evidence to your sanity. You can see his chicken-feet handwriting, just at the shiest farthest corner of the page. Then an awkward scribble under it like a bad signature, a pat to your memory. Arthur.
You're real this time, aren't you?
Once you’re out of the car, you walk as if your feet have a will of their own. Lost in the maze of the city square, you hound for the nearest telephone booth in Gotham Square. That's until a gust hits at you like a slap to the face and steals the note from your grasp.
Overhead, fluttering about to and fro, the note grows little wings and the crowd must’ve mistaken it for a mocking jay. It croons to you, beckons for you, come for me, come for me. And you do like a fool, blind to the abysmally gray world of monotony and weary faces, deaf to the song of sirens, the incessant chatter, the cars honking on the road.
The note flies and flies, and you reach and reach.
Grazing it by the finger nail, you hold your breath. There, almost there.
Green light. A truck hurtles towards your direction, tires screeching for a halt, blaring aloud like a high wicked laugh. In that instant, the last thing you see is the driver dressed as a clown.
The unbidden lingering desperation remains, and the last sensible battle you deal with is a struggle between lacking a strong dose of benzos and going with it through the distraction of a self-imposed orgasm. An attempt, that is. Your world view turns into a one-eighty and you're lying down your back on your bed, naked legs already spread open for no one.
Sucking in a sharp breath, you palm over your breast, thinking of another hand hovering over you; groping, molding to the softness, pinching at the tip. You don't mind the tease. You sigh when your hand—or perhaps, his hand dips the plane of your stomach, trenching over the lips between your thighs. Everything else becomes a tacky effort for friction and you're struggling at the thought because despite your reluctant willingness, you can't even get yourself wet.
Then something in the shadows settles. Quiet and intriguing and mysterious. Somewhere along the lines, the fine thread of reality and delusion blurs. The hideous image that colors itself in bold crimson and green and white comes to life once your eyes flit open.
There’s a smile in the dark. Your heart’s hammering loud from your chest. You wrench for a rough shape of a shoulder. Tug, twist, twine, he doesn’t relent. He’s smothering you. There’s no slow-burn to cling onto, no name to curse through his mouth. You gasp out from slick fingers that lap along your clit like a tongue, knee jerking back, legs trembling over that edge. You’re falling towards a nosedive. A crash collision close to . . . to . . .
A cry bleeds through the paper-thin walls.
Find me. A beckon, a promise made for you, before you’re washed in his colors and the fever dream fades.
There’s a knock on your window.
With a cup of coffee, Garrity sends you a reproachful glare. “God, Starling, are you suicidal?”
What the hell. The radio is still playing Patsy’s melancholia from the oldies station.
I really don't know
But I know, it won't let me be . . .
You check your watch. Eleven-fucking-eleven. Frantically fingering the note on your coat pocket, you breathe in a little deeper upon knowing it’s still there, like a memory refusing to be buried alive. Moved by some inexplicable adrenaline, you kick your car into gear, and before Garrity’s having half a mind to question you for pulling out that moment, you leave without even shouting out a good excuse.
Somehow, time passes you in an interval of bleeping neon and crazy highspeed taillights. The Corolla’s faster than you’ve ever driven it, rip-roaring in a tide of sweeping vehicles that go for the mad dash away from the busy traffic and the stoplight that’s about to blink red. You park haphazardly at the curb of a random sidewalk and bolt out the door to run towards the nearby telephone booth.
Then the rain arrives.
Like a struck-down bird, the note slips from your palm and falls. It nearly drowns in a puddle, but you save it from the brink of shriveling away. You save yourself from shriveling to pieces. Just because it carries a special piece of you. Something no one knows. A jigsaw to the puzzle. A missing rhyme to the riddle.
But the scribble is smearing in the drenched paper, growing tiny red-black roots at the numbers as if reaching for you in a final desperate attempt to touch you, to mark you, ink like blood, blood on skin, curving along the fine rings of your fingertips. Pushing away the old woman going in the telephone booth, you squeeze in the compartment in a lunge, ignoring the curse and the enraged slam on the glass door echoing behind you.
You punched in the dials, remembering the numbers, branding them in your head because their bleeding in wet paper. A smudge of a memory. Then the wait, the excruciatingly long wait. You count the seconds. One, two, three . . . seven, eight . . . fourteen.
C’mon, answer. Answer me . . .
Someone decidedly picks up. You hold a breath.
On the other line, there’s a soft hesitant voice. Familiar, too familiar. “Who is this?”
You tightly grip on the telephone. “Arthur?”
It’s his turn to murmur your name. Then a sputter of a surprised laugh. “I-it’s you! It’s really you!”
Thank God, you’re real. You smile, chuckling out a sob of relief, as your head leans against the glass wall.
“Arthur,” you say his name again, and he sighs. “Can I see you?”
A tick of a ballpoint pen.
“So what’ll you have?”
“. . . sorry?” you mumble under your breath.
Everything no longer pans out of focus; but your eyes are still indecisive, cloudy and dust-ridden, tracing over the tearing edges of the laminated menu card wedged between your hands.
When, you’re supposed to ask, mouth parted, breaths even, splitting open for a clearer when did I get here, but then the silvery notes come pouring in your ears like a train of silk; a purple tune thrumming, piano like dewdrops, like a drizzle that soothes a shattered mind, ‘if sometimes you see that I’m mad, don’t you know no one alive can be an angel?’
“Take your time, angel,” says a woman—the waitress, you think, as she resumes back to humming along the song, tapping her pen on her notepad. You don’t bother reading her nametag. Her face is oversaturated in amber-green and cyan blue from the neon lights outside.
“Uh, who’s,” you start abruptly, following the lonesome flow of the music to an old jukebox from the corner of the room. “You know the song?”
“That? Not really, just the singer. Know of Nina Simone?”
Nina Simone. That sounds familiar, somehow. “Thought I heard her somewhere before, I think . . . umm, can I just order later? I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Oh. Sure, sure, angel. Later then.” A click, a flip of a notepad, an offbeat hum echoing; and she’s gone, blending in the faded walls of the diner. There aren’t a lot of people, you note, and the what few customers that stay here are no more but shadows skulking about, flickering on and off from an outline of dripping yellow light.
Your left hand is trembling. Your breaths are stifled, stuck on your throat. Not again, not again.
You shove a cigarette on your lips, teeth clenching at the filter, as you fumble on your lighter that can’t even spit out a lick of flame at the butt. Fucking useless. You’ve gotta be—
Someone clears his throat next to you. “You need a light?”
Craning your neck to the side, you feel a sigh of relief give way to your mouth, as if you’ve been shooting a lit cigarette in the first place, when your eyes do the talking, greeting him with a welcome glance. “Yeah, sure,” you accept the flick of a lighter and another shuddering sigh, swirling up at him like a thin gauzy veil. Arthur waits for an interval and drinks on second-hand smoke.
Once you gesture him in the booth with a bob of your head, he slides in the blue faux-leather couch across you, and mirroring your habit, he lights a cigarette for himself. You observe.
Appearances can be telling. His hair is noticeably damp and slicked back after several attempts on flattening them down by a nervous hand; however, his curls are sticking out at the ends, waving back after a tousle, blotting wet patches on his collar. While it’s easier to assume that it’s from the rain, it immediately gives you the impression that he’s just come out of a quick shower.
That’s only because what sticks out to you is that he’s always smelled like cigarettes, though there’s that whiff of cheap cologne hanging off him like woodsmoke.
Then there’s those green eyes. You can appreciate their vividness, but you can’t find it in yourself to like the way they stare at you; imploring, intense, brightly invasive, glistening at you as if he’s known you for years.
Still, you smile because he’s here. Because he’s real.
“We can’t keep meeting up like this,” you say.
For a beat, Arthur is startled by your words.
“Like what?” his voice tapers off into an insecure drop, suspecting that he must’ve done something wrong.
You only wonder how can he give this impression of a little boy that’s about to be scolded right now. You only have yourself to blame when your inflections always sound razor-sharp to the ear. “Like how one of us has a useless lighter,” you attempt to bring the levity back in your exchanges. “Gets a little redundant, don’t you think?”
He’s relieved, throttling over a strangled laugh. He’s dampening it down to a distorted sound at the base of his throat. “Ha—oh, I-I don’t mind,” he confesses, curling up a small smile. “I get to bring the useful one whenever I see you.”
There it is. That child-like quality radiating off him in strange ways that no one will ever think come from a man who looks so slumped down from the day-to-day pressures lumping on his shoulders. You won’t call it endearing. It’s more eerie and quietly unsettling than you put it, like delicate china at the edge, that in another time, perhaps in a bad day, might collapse onto itself and break. Cut.
It’s one of those things that you prefer to remind yourself because that’s how the city gets under your skin and eats you inside.
Before you can throw back a reply, the waitress interrupts the two of you. “Your order.”
Sliding the menu card to him, you ask, “What do you want?”
Arthur blinks at you, then at the menu card. “Oh—ah, I’m not hungry.”
As he waves his hand in trepid dismissal, you see his wrist bent; bony-thin and bruised and gnarled with veins, billowed over by the shallow cuff of his sleeves. You prompt. “Arthur, I insist. It’s my treat.”
His mouth gapes open for a second more. He sends you a considering look before stealing one back at the menu. “Just a cup of coffee,” he says, still so meek with his order. His head dips low, nestled between his shoulders, but his eyes peer back at you under those mess of curls, not even sparing an interested glance at the waitress.
You nod, leaning idly against the palm of your hand. “I’ll have what he’s having and some biscuits.”
After a final scribble, the waitress recites back the order and leaves.
“Were you expecting someone else?”
“No, I wasn’t. Just,” he says, coming at you a little strongly. “Just you.”
“I didn’t think you’d answer,” you admit, shrugging.
“I was always waiting for you.”
Then the waitress intervenes with two clean cups and a plate of biscuits. There’s a fleeting glimpse of distaste from her at the sight of Arthur when she pours him coffee, and when she stares at you, sizing you up that moment with a slight frown, you think it must be pity.
You don’t dwell too deep into it. It’s a slippery-slope, and you’re not in the mood to be upset over a half-baked assumption. “Help yourself,” you nudge the plate of biscuits to him after taking one and dipping it on the steaming black brew.
He almost chokes on his coffee. “Oh, I really don’t . . .”
You chew thoughtfully. “You’re really going to deny this now? Go on, take one.”
Nodding, he complies abashedly. He looks like he hasn’t eaten properly for days. Hasn't had a wink of repreive in a span of years. He's fidgeting again; jaw taut back, a hand picking on a loose thread of his cuff, his leg shuddering under the table like a ticking time bomb that's about to implode.
Will he, though? Into a million tiny sutures. The idea isn't as lonely as you surmise it is.
You almost laugh. The both of you complement each other’s brood and wasted fatigue.
“We make quite a pair, don’t we? We both look terrible.”
He only takes a halfhearted bite of his biscuit and swallows. “But you don’t look—”
“No need for that,” you snort, smoking. “You had a rough day?”
Arthur crosses his arms, hands wringing over his sleeves as he closes in on himself. “Yeah . . . my mother kept some things about me,” he admits with a dry chuckle, almost forgetting the cigarette balanced precariously on the edge of his mouth. “It’s just a lot to take in,” and then breathes on it, biting on the filter, dropping hot ashes on his calloused fingers.
His face is a map of troubled creases and sleepless deep-set contemplation. Maybe in bitterness, maybe in loathing. He doesn’t tell a thing. He seems to resent it so much to ever disclose a word of it.
You don’t trouble him any further by asking more questions. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” he assures you, trying and failing to ease back into a smile. “What about you?”
You take a long sip of your coffee. “What about me?”
“You,” he gouges for your reaction; lips pursed in thought, eyes blindly hopeful, “why do you want see me?”
You grope for words. “I only wanted to know . . .” and then at the corner of your eye, a red silhouette waltzes by outside in a streamline of green whirling fog. Your head slowly turns. “That’s,” a goddamn clown, you realize, struggling to take in a breath, as your cigarette falls and the grip on your coffee loosens, spilling fat splotches on the table, on your trousers. Snapping you back to the diner. “Shit, shit.”
There’s nothing staring back at you from the window but your crazed reflection.
Bunching up a few wads of tissue paper on your palm, you wipe out your mess; it’s such a hideous color, scalding, staining the table brown, like dried blood against the cold pavement. Get a damn grip.
“Hey,” then Arthur mumbles your name, wrapping a handkerchief over your burned fingers. “Hey, are you okay?” calmer this time, concerned and unsure and a bit anxious himself over seeing you agitated.
However, damned as you are to admit it, that soft tone cracks you a little inside. Too sincere, you think. Why. “No, Arthur. I’m not,” you whisper; your left hand lost to unwound nerves. In, out, on, off. “Christ, I’m not.”
He tries, again. Reaches for you, again. “Is there something I could do?”
You’re scatterbrained. Easy steps. Breath in, out. In, out.
Meds . . . where are my meds . . .
“Please,” he tells you. “Talk to me.”
“I don’t know,” you say, shakily plucking out your cigarette from the table. You inhale deeper, letting the sharp taste of tobacco cut at your tongue. Let it bleed there a bit more. “I . . . I must be going out of my mind. Nothing makes sense anymore, I think, and this might sound crazy and I don't blame you, I really don't, but I'm glad. I'm glad you exist. That you're here.”
"I . . . I'm glad, too," he holds your hand, gently lacing your fingers with his. "To be with you."
And God, he means it. But you don't feel that way. You know you don't and you know it'll break him if you admit what you feel.
He leans down to your face, thinking it's an invitation. It isn't.
You dare to ponder if this is another lapse in reality because you don’t want this to happen. This misunderstanding, this tension unravelling from the seams. He’s closer now, so unbearably close.
Placing a hand to his chest, you stay very, very still. ". . . is any of this still real?"
His fingers reach to touch the side of your jaw, as if he's wondering himself if you’re just hoax and gossamer.
Your name leaves his lips, like a prayer. "I want to believe it is."