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Do You Love Me Like This?
The gazelle had a dream. Sometimes in the afternoon when the sun was hottest, this dream became so real for her she stood quite still for hours, lost in imagination. She learned to pose a certain way, lifting her delicate face, extending her hind legs to show the graceful curve. Always mindful of dark eyes watching her, she pretended to be unaware.
The leopard watched the gazelle. Drawing his tongue over his lips, he imagined that he licked her tender flanks. He curled his claws into the earth and felt the gazelle beneath his paws. Drawing his claws across the ground, he saw the marks they made and wished he had carved them into her back. He lowered his head and licked, yearning to taste the gazelle’s sweet blood. Pressing his mouth to the ground, he sensed her fluttering heart.
The gazelle came every day. Always daring to come closer, her small body trembled in the presence of the beautiful beast. So close now, she felt his hot breath steaming toward her and she flared her nostrils to take it in. The leopard struggled to suppress his desire. The tip of his tail flicked against the ground. She stepped nearer. The leopard closed his eyes, a low moan vibrating in his throat.
The gazelle stood before the leopard. Lowering her fine head, she touched his furry ear with the tip of her tongue. She eased down into the grass between his paws and laid her vulnerable neck across his forearm. The leopard pressed his muzzle against her shoulder to learn the cadence of her dancing heart. He pressed his tongue flat against the pulse in her neck. Drawing up his lips, he exposed his fangs. The gazelle sighed as she gave herself to him, taking her final breath as the leopard bit down.
Tammy posed on her corner, long legs crisscrossed, one hip jutting out slightly. She rested one hand on that hip, sliding her hand towards the small of her back to ease a knot of tension there. Her body was tight like a dancer’s. Yoga in the morning and walking up and down the stroll each night kept her in shape.
She walked to get away from the others. To give herself privacy to think. She walked to give the impression she was unavailable—on her way to somewhere else. Sometimes men pulled up ahead of her and called her name “Hey sweetie!” they said. On the street, every woman was a ‘Sweetie’. Every woman was a ‘girl’.
When the men interrupted her walk, she laughed, and dismissed them with a lie, “I’ve got a date!” Flapping her hand in a teasing way. The men chuckled before powering up their windows and swerving back into traffic.
Tammy walked fast, on her way to nowhere, flirting with the shadows. Her stiletto footsteps echoed and spread through the city like ripples in a pool. She passed stores with window displays; mannequins standing obediently in their required positions, looking displaced with no one but her to take note of them. The mannequins mirrored the women for sale outside on the curb, but they were not advertisement for them. The mannequins promoted clothes while the women outside sold nudity. The women on the curb had lost their boundaries—the mannequins were impenetrable. Each knew their place, and what was required.
Tammy passed between them; a corridor with flesh on one side, plastic on the other. The other women did not turn to acknowledge her. They had long since stopped trying to know her. For them she was a strange shadow flitting through the empty space behind them; a phantom more alive than they. They could not afford to look directly into her eyes and learn the truth behind them. Theirs was a world of lies.
Turning the corner, she continued the short half block to the mouth of the alley... here she always hesitated a moment, then moved forward into danger. Tempting fate or trusting it, she only knew it was necessary that she walk through the alley to her corner at its far end. The alley was a long throat. Keeping to the center, she passed through as a morsel of food, her eyes on the meager lamplight illuminating her destination. She pressed her arms around herself, gripping her elbows in her hands. She did not look right or left. She knew he watched her, the alley belonged to him.
Standing on her corner, she sensed his eyes upon her. Even with the shadows’ velvet camouflage, his energy sparked across the gravel parking lot between them. He was there nearly every night. The other girls knew of him too and skittered away when they noticed him again, resuming their poses a little further down the street. Tammy always stayed. Sometimes she eased closer. Sometimes she crossed to the opposite side of the alley’s mouth, to stand directly beneath the street lamp, offering him a clearer view of her. Once, on a rainy night, she’d folded her umbrella and tossed it lightly on the sidewalk. Letting the rain soak her hair, she slipped her arm around the pole and danced slowly, gracefully around it.
He never approached her, though the heat of his desire licked against her back. For her, it was almost solid. If she would only let herself believe, she would fall back into his appetite and it would hold her up. Above her, the night sky was black as a raven’s wing, curving over the earth, the fat moon bobbing up against it. Tammy loved the moon. When she gazed up at it, the passage of time meant nothing. Traffic around her was a rushing river on its journey to the sea. She imagined that her feet grew roots into the unnatural ground beneath her. She was a slender sapling, nourished by the moon and stars.
Within the past hour, cars had come one by one to swallow up the other girls inside their dark interiors. No one chose Tammy, and she was glad of it. The other women had gloated, each in turn, when the finger in the car lately pulled up to the curb, had pointed to them. They went eagerly to the passenger door, bending seductively to see inside, though they didn’t really observe, so much as passing their gaze, as icing over a cake. An obligatory gesture to prove their concern for their own safety. Then they pulled open the door, slipped inside, and were taken away. Who knew which of them would return?
Tammy carried a notebook in her purse, for sketching. In her imagination, images flickered and danced, waiting to be reborn through her pencil moving swiftly over the pages of her book. Each night before stepping out into the dark, she emptied her purse of all but her keys, Identification, lipstick, and her pad and pencil. It was a mistake to carry anything of value out on the streets. Her sketches were priceless, but only to her. She could not bear to leave home without them.
Times like these, when she alone remained on the corner, she concentrated on the images. Peeling from the walls of her skull, shades of grey blended with charcoal and black, to create a whole. Then it was time for her to draw. To ease the wraiths from her mind and record them for no one but herself. For her own satisfaction. This is the reason she carried the pad and pencil with her; she must not be caught without a means of releasing what she saw behind her eyes, else it would disappear again. Melt back into the nothing that birthed it, disappointed.
Lately, she drew only one image—the shadow man behind her, the watcher. Somehow each time, the sketch came out wrong, it lacked some vital thing. Now she wished to try again. She fumbled with her purse, hanging on a long strap from her shoulder. Bringing the purse forward, she pulled open the zipper and reached inside for her drawing pad. She flipped through the pages, glancing at her earlier attempts to depict the watcher man. She couldn’t see, it was too dark, she must cross to stand under the lamp.
The lamp offered a solid place to lean her shoulder. She held the notepad out before her and looked again at the images. They were unfinished somehow. So far she had failed to capture anything more than a sense of him. She understood that she must move closer to him, open herself up to him even just a little, to allow the image to be born. There was a bench between her and the watcher. She might sit there a while if she dared to place herself so near him.
She did not turn to look over her shoulder. Her hand reached of its own accord, inside her purse for her pencil. As she did this, her feet were already stepping away from the curb and taking her back. She walked into the heat behind her. As smoke curls back inside a smoker’s mouth, she sensed him breathing her in.
Easing down onto the bench, Tammy lifted her feet, one after the other to pull off her shoes and massage her tired soles. Placing her shoes beside her on the bench, she lifted her legs straight before her and flexed her toes. She was close to him now, she had never ventured so near. His tension coiled around her like a hungry cat. Pressing against her, forcing her to sit up straight, to keep her face turned forward even while her ears strained for the subtle sounds he might make, but did not.
The city after midnight is not completely black, but shades of grey, melting into the other to form velvet pools that swallow predator and prey alike. Skyscrapers rear up into the liquid sky, holding secrets told to them by the alleys that skirt their foundations. Small deaths and even smaller lives are carried out in the dark. Street lamps cast false promises of safety in the amber light they throw down onto the sidewalk. A golden stage to illuminate Tammy, and all the others who walk in her shoes.
Tonight, the corner was crowded with impatient women for sale; a smorgasbord of styles and types. Tall beside petite, hourglass figures, slender, angular, trashy women, and others with a hesitant taste for fashion. All of them were blonde, none came by their hair color naturally. There were shades from platinum to brassy orange. Only Tammy stood out among them. Tammy was brunette.
Tammy was not among them tonight, instead, she had remained in her apartment on the sixth floor of a tall building overlooking the sea. If one stood on the opposite side of the street, her silhouette could be seen as she stood in the window, looking out at the moon.
The watcher was not at the corner either, though he had been, earlier. The women for sale hadn’t noticed him there. He’d stayed only long enough to note that Tammy was not among them, then slipped away. The others mentioned him only in passing, then conversation turned to other, mundane subjects. As gazelles resume their grazing while the lions sleep, so they carried on their affairs. Perhaps they were grateful for a respite, however fleeting, from that danger that never quite presented itself, but had hovered for weeks, just beyond their field of vision.
Such a tight cluster of women competing to attract men naturally breeds resentment. Intimidated by the older women, the youngest and smallest were first to drift away from the alley corner. They formed groups of two and three and left to stand further down the stroll in the middle of the block where tricks had nowhere to pull in. Prospective Johns were obliged to park along the curb, at the risk of attracting the vice police. The girls directed them further up the street, to pull into the alley, and attempted to meet them there. The older women were in a prime position to intercept, stealing the tricks from their inexperienced coworkers with such ease, several of the younger girls threw up their hands and left for the night.
No one had noticed the watcher peel away from his usual place at the wall, and take a seat on the bench where Tammy had sat the night before. For the first time, he had ventured out from the protective concealment that the wall offered. The shadows near the bench were faded. His fingers plucked at them as he tried to pull them over his shoulders, but they disintegrated at his touch. Somehow, in the open, he appeared smaller, less threatening. Clutching his dark coat tighter around him, he gave the impression of a drowning victim plucked lately from the sea and wrapped in clothing by his benevolent rescuers. Had the women on the curb noticed him sitting there, they surely would have confronted him en mass. Taking advantage of his vulnerability, they would have driven him away. But they were otherwise occupied. Bickering among themselves, asserting dominance over their lessers, as those at the bottom of the pecking order struggled to hold their grip on their precarious positions so they would not lose altogether, their right to stand among the others and compete.
When at last, one of the women glanced behind her to check if he was there, the watcher had already slipped away. Now he stood on the narrow strip of grass that grew around Tammy’s apartment building, his head thrown back to see her sixth-floor window. Straightening, he turned right and left, in search of something... a place to hide. A place where he might enjoy a bit of privacy. There across the street, grew a row of handsome maple trees, planted fifty years before. He jogged across and took his place beside the tree directly opposite the building. Pressing himself against the rough bark, his shape melted with surrounding shadow.
Tammy stood like a princess in her high tower, sketching the moon’s distant face. She suspected the watcher’s face might resemble the features of the moon. She hoped, in learning the contours of that distant star’s face, she might understand what was needed to complete her sketch. Had she glanced down to the street below, she might have seen the object of her quest. Their eyes might have met, across all that space between them.
The watcher believed she was a kind of angel, framed in her window. The window was large and showed all of her. She wore a white nightgown, the floor lamp behind her cast its pale light, not unlike the moon’s light. Her dark hair flowed over her small shoulders. He reached inside the opening of his coat and lowered his pants zipper, fumbling inside for an embarrassed moment before freeing his penis. His eyelids lowered just enough to keep her in view while blocking out all the rest around him. The patient stroking went on and on, as Tammy’s pencil moved swiftly over the page, and the moon watched without comment as the watcher groaned and fell to the hungry grass.