A Woman of the Period
A Novel Excerpt
HE would have left long ago if it wasn’t for her—a striking girl-woman of eighteen or so. She had black hair that fell across thin shoulders and down her back. Her image belonged to the late, late night, suggesting someone who may have experienced life from a more reckless or interesting side. Her face was beauty itself, suggesting a lack of concern—maybe even casual drug use. Her pale blue eyes were large; heavily accentuated with liner and having such depth a mere glance demanded all his attention. Her lips held a punkish-pout and were without a trace of artificial color. She wore a long black evening dress with a red rocket designed on the back, and silver shoes with black bows—obliviously a remarkable woman of the period.
She was standing by an old doll house that rested on a piece of black velvet, covering an old teak game table. AJ wanted to go, to speak to her, to say something, but he thought he might frighten her by saying the wrong thing. Worse yet, he might end up standing next to her like a fool, not knowing what to say. Suddenly, as if compelled, he started towards her. Sensing his approach, she glanced, lifting her light blue eyes to meet his nervous smile. She grinned, lowering her gaze back to the doll house, perhaps a little uncertain of what to make of his presence: — The kids who played with that must have had a wonderful time, don’t you think?
— Of course, they must have, she answered.
The old doll house was a large three-storied mansion of cracking cardboard with a red chimney at either side, and all the rooms had the appearance of once having been painted a different pastel shade. The right side of the red roof was slightly caved in where someone had probably handled it too roughly—maybe even a bruise received from a child’s angry fist.
— Whenever I see something like this, he went on to say: — I can’t help wondering whatever happened to the kids who use to play with it? Whatever became of them?
— I wouldn’t dare to imagine. It does seem sad, I guess. There seems to be something sad or tragic about antique shops.
— I always thought they were mysterious, but, yes, sad, too.
Now that he stood close to her, she was much smaller; more fragile than from a distance, making his earlier nervous hesitation seem almost ridiculous. When she began moving away, he noticed a small, well-defined brass sculpture of a dancing ballerina next to the doll house: — Look at this; he called, hoping to regain her attention.
— It’s beautiful, she said, stepping back to where he stood. He handed it to her, watching as she took it carefully into her thin fingers to examine its articulate design—first at one angle then another: — Really beautiful, she said, putting it down next to his hand: — I like it because … well … she looks happy. You’ll notice if you look closely. The artist may have understood dancing.
Deciding to buy it for her, AJ picked up the sculpture and hurried over to the man behind the case, asking how much he wanted for it. The man, who was wearing a bright kimono, said he’d be giving it away for anything under twenty-five bucks, but since he was in an especially good mood, he’d let him have it for ten. Although it was more than AJ wanted to pay, he knew he could be making a costly mistake; AJ gave the man the cash and returned to give the young woman the gift.
— Here, now it’s yours.
— What? she said, looking at him as if he were out of his mind.
— You must have it. It’s yours.
— Why? Why should you?
— You understand the art.
— Awfully kind of you, but—
— Keep it. Think nothing of it.
— I … don’t know … what to think … I mean, people don’t just give—
— Does that prove it’s wrong?
— But I don’t even know you.
— Right. Surely you think I’m odd, but I’ve never done anything like this before. Never! As it is, I’m only a breath away from the unemployment line. All I’m trying to do is … meet … you. Don’t laugh. I know how this must seem.
— I’m not laughing, and if you want, I’ll keep it … steadily looking at him with those irresistible eyes.
It was true that AJ had never been so intrusive with a stranger. He didn’t completely understand what had brought him to such boldness. Usually he was the exact opposite, keeping to himself, minding his own business, never thinking of charging into another’s private universe. He imagined what she made of his obnoxious finesse and it was enough to make him want to apologize and walk away. Of course, he knew he wasn’t so sure or as suave as he might have appeared. She may have been aware of his nervousness and uncertainty—that he wasn’t so confident or as sure as he hoped he had appeared….
They continued browsing around the shop, looking at things, casually pointing odd pieces of bric-a-brac out, and while they did, AJ allowed himself to think that she was becoming friendly—in fact, he didn’t think she was defensive at all. The more he observed her discreet gestures—the careful way she touched small objects and glanced at him—the more certain he became that since he had gone this far; and had been so fascinated by her, there was no point in stopping before he had, no matter how impossible it seemed, asked her to leave with him.
— Since it’s warm today, I was wondering if you’d like to go with me. Have a drink … an iced tea … something! We could talk about ballet or … art. Anything you like.
She blinked her eyes; a smile parted her lips: — Sure, I’ll go.
Her answer was a surprise to him. It wasn’t what he expected, though it was what he wanted. Her acknowledgment seemed to have subtracted him from reality, casting him into a moment of absolute silence; unable to respond, locked in the store’s presence—like a scream looking for a voice—where he could only stand, looking at her in utter disbelief. She must have understood the awkward expression that decorated his face, but she held her discretion, merely smiling, as he opened the door, following her, very much in a daze.
He suggested a mom and pop coffee shop off East Fifty-Third around the corner. She agreed with a nod. They walked fast. He thought it was like walking with an old friend, someone accustomed to his steps—it was almost like they weren’t strangers at all.
They entered small coffee shop. AJ had never been there before, neither had she, or, if she had, she didn’t mention it—he only knew of it because he’d passed it before going into the antique shop, stopping to admire its ageless quaintness.
They sat down and AJ asked where she lived. She said she currently lived in the Village. Since she didn’t say where, east or west, he decided not to press for additional personal details, fearing she might think it sounded suspicious. Fortunately, the shop wasn’t busy. They chose a high-backed wooden booth in front of the picture window, facing the street. She said she wanted to spy on the people … that she loved to watch people perform.
— Really? he answered: — me too … quickly adding: — By the way, my name’s AJ.
— Oh? she laughed: — I’m China.
The both ordered iced teas.
— China? Is that your real name?
— AJ? What’s that stand for?
— It’s stands for nothing, really.
They both laughed.
— China’s a name I’ve given myself, she said: — it’s a beautiful word, you know?
— Yeah, I agree.
— I like the way you say, yeah…. Are you working, a student, perhaps both?
— No … I have a job. I do work.
— Must be a good one if it allows you to walk around the streets, visiting antique shops, picking up women.
— I took the afternoon off, kinda. You know I don’t make a habit of this sorta thing.
— Sure, she said and grinned.
— First time, seriously.
—You could be a fucking murderer. — Me? Do I look like a murderer? — Does anyone? — Interesting point. You must trust people sometime, though. You can’t be afraid all the time. Suppose, just suppose I met you at a club or something, then after a few drinks … dances … whatever, asked you to leave … have a nightcap? It happens all the time. — Clubs? Dances? Do I give you that impression? — Okay, okay in an artclass or something. You know, struck up a conversation, any conversation, then asked you out. What I’m saying is you really don’t know those people. Everybody’s a stranger till you meet them. Didn’t Will Rogers, Mark Twain or somebody say that? Maybe an antique store is a little out of the ordinary and everything, but, hey, if you didn’t trust me, you didn’t have to come here. Look, China, I found you … beautiful. I wanted to meet you. I took what I’d call a terrible chance. Christ, I don’t think I need to tell you all this. It seems too, too … I don’t know …antique, I guess—
—So, then, what do you do?
— Not much, really … I’m a customer service representative at Avant-Garde Publishers, you know, I’m sure, America’s most progressive publisher? Unfortunately, as it goes, I expect to be fired any day. I’m always being fired, it’s like a habit. A bad attitude or something like that….
— You hate it … the job, I mean? — All day long. They, my employers, hate me because I don’t run around pretending that everything’s a big publishing deal, that’s the main reason they’re going to dump me…. What about you?
— I don’t work. If that’s what you’re asking me? I’m not qualified for that much. I’ve been a waitress. Does that count? she asked, looking at the moisture melting around the bottom of her glass, then lifting it, she began unconsciously smearing the moisture absently from the circle in protruding lines: — And before that I was a drama student, but quit. I did like the school but didn’t like a lot of the students. If you know anything about aspiring young actors, you know what I mean, she said, her voice trailing off into almost a whisper.
— How do you spend your time? — As if I had a lot of it, it’s free, isn’t it?
An intimate silence followed; a moment or two that burns into a lasting, life-long memory. They also absently watched the hectic street, those rushing past—a fat man waved; they laughed, and at intervals exchanged, where is this afternoon leading glances? And this resulted in accepting, if not shy, grins.
AJ noticed China had finished her drink and asked if she wanted another. She said, no, but told him to go right ahead if he wanted another, that she wasn’t in any hurry. He signaled the waitress for another ice-tea, not because he was thirsty, but because he wanted to stay with his new acquaintance for as long as he could…. However, every time AJ began talking, or attempting to explain something to China, he found himself becoming distracted by the changing emotion in her lovely face. Her expressions were constantly changing, as though she were reflecting his feelings; the emotions of those she watched passing along the street, and her own. At one point, her face became so sad; AJ asked if there was something wrong. She answered that everything was wrong. When he asked if there was any point in discussing it, she said point blank: —Talking about it is a joke.
— Doesn’t it depend on who you’re talking to? — It usually ends superficial no matter with whom I speak. — Any suggestions to rise above the superficial?
— Sometimes. — Like what? — I’d rather not get involved with existential matters at this time. Have you read Camus? — No. Camus? — He’s an exceptionally good French novelist and philosopher. Truth be told, I rather enjoy philosophy. By the way, may I ask what’s that book in your jacket pocket? — This? Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you know? — I can’t believe you’re reading that! How is it? — It’s incredibly good.
— You know, I know a man who owns a bookstore, he told me he’s read Ulysses twelve times! He also sells classical recordings, records. You know rare and hard-to-find things. His store’s tiny, like real tiny. He even looks like Joyce. Bow ties, cream suits, round glasses. Perhaps he thinks he is Joyce.
— Ever ask him? — No. He’s too much of a friend. Should it matter who he thinks he is? Another silence followed.
China took a cigarette from AJ, lit it with her artistic fingers, inhaling an enormous amount of smoke, which she exhaled in a thin blue cloud over the table’s scratched surface; gazing absently, her head supported by the palm of her right hand, onto the busy street, where a group of furniture movers were unloading a truck. The sound of AJ’s voice drew her far-away attention; she responded with an inquisitive nod. They had no trouble in finding topics to discuss—each subject lead to another in a very casually way. They spoke of current events and other absurd things. They found it amusing when they discovered a mutual dislike for war, politics, sports, Sundays, and Hollywood. It was even funnier when they agreed on admiring foreign films, jazz, antique shops, and, as a means of transportation, ferries. AJ found China more than interesting, and even more intriguing as the time passed. She completely entranced him by opening and closing her eyes—those light, seeming almost transparent blue eyes—of which a mere flicker sent him spinning into an unusual musical world. Unfortunately, he knew she’d soon be telling him she had to go, and that—at this time—was the last thing he wanted. They had talked for a long time, and it had gone quickly—it wasn’t until the lights in the shop were turned on, that AJ realized how late it was. He considered asking her to go somewhere else, but since he was nearly broke, he was limited to the number of places he could take her. He remembered what she’d said about ferry rides—that she loved them. Not knowing what the possibility he had she’d go: — Look, China, he said, hesitantly: — strangers though we are, wouldn’t you like to take a ferry to Staten Island with me? I mean, think of it…. It could be the beginning of a life-long memory, in not more. Her eyes opened wide. A crooked smile crossed her lips, and leaning further back in the booth, till her back arched itself parallel to it, and her arms crossed along the table edge, she said looking directly at him: — Strangers in the sense that we don’t know anything about the other’s past, but couldn’t we know everythingabout each other and still be strangers? In other words, yes, I’ll go…
Timothy Resau is an American writer of fiction and poetry, originally from Baltimore, Maryland. He currently resides in coastal North Carolina, and he’s just completed a novel, Three Gates East. His career has been in the international wine industry. His writings have appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, Eskimo Pie, Scarlet Leaf Review, Down in the Dirt, Covid-19 Univ of Plymouth & Nottimgham Trent University, and in The Poet.