By the time I realized that she had entered the café, she had already left. Her hair was arranged in a chignon that she had let down during her furtive exit. She wore a long, black coat that the wind lifted when she opened the door, an enticing motion that would have sufficed as an invitation to her bed, if I had been looking for a lay. The only remnant of her in the café was a piece of paper in my hand.

I picked up my coat while swallowing the last of my cognac. The liquid burned my stomach, reviving in me a conflagration that had been long extinguished, since the time when women moved me to write poetry. I used to prefer them to alcohol before they became pawns to my inebriation. In a step I was at the door, and in opening it I seized the same knob that she had warmed with an impression of her ravaging charm.

Outside everything was a blur, distorting the red-light district into floating aureoles of color. As soon as my legs began carrying me forward, I was already near running, not comprehending the urgency of my movement. A rapid glance towards my guide allowed me to see her coat rising in the same manner as when she exited the café, except here she was turning onto a smaller street in the heart of the city, which was more like a village with its cobblestones and old, tipsy buildings. Although the lights deformed my vision, I was able to discern her walking swiftly, or gliding rather, like a swan.

While turning a corner, my fingers brushed against the bricks of a building where her hand had paused only a moment ago. Again, I felt her warmth from an inanimate part of the pulsating city. The pedestrian current pulled me through the vein-like streets. Something more than cognac warmed my blood. I slowed down a little to catch my breath, noticing a drop of sweat on my neck, before diving again into the flood. The cobblestones were smooth and glistening like the skin of her nape. As she turned down two more streets, I caught a glimpse of a red twist of hair and black coat gliding towards a park on the city outskirts. The gate to the park was closed, but I saw her go along the fence, and disappear into the greenery like a cat. Almost instinctively, I traced her passage.

Willows caressed the ground and the grass steamed with humidity. I spread apart the willow branches like a curtain, revealing a glassy lake. The water invited my skin, which was itchy from dried perspiration, to drink, before I noticed the young woman sitting on a rock near the edge of the lake. Her figure materializing in the moonlight allowed me to finally take in her beauty. She had a milk-white complexion and features like those of the women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. She seemed to radiate a soft glow, which enveloped her body in an aura of irresistible purity. At the height of my observation, I thought that the journey away from my insipid, accustomed setting was a sensual initiative to transformation. Could this nymph be an angel, I wondered, the physical bearer of my salvation?

I hesitated in a thicket to gaze at her. The midsummer heat burned like a cigarette lighter held too close to my face. A breeze carried the fragrance of lilies which I inhaled deeply. The sweat on my palms was no longer a nervous excretion, but drops of anticipation that propelled me out of the trees towards the water. I stopped at her side, but her eyes remained fixed ahead, concentrated on something in the middle of the lake. Ten seconds passed as such, her staring, and I wondering why she wrote "follow me" on a piece of paper that was now wet and crumpled in my hand. I was on the edge of forming the words "Who are you?" when she arose from her frozen position. Our eyes met then, but when I opened my mouth to speak, the words on the tip of my tongue dissipated in the heat.

With her eyes still upon me, she took off her coat and let it fall to the ground in a graceful heap. The rest of her clothes were removed just as deliberately and gracefully. Her blouse slid from her body in one swift movement like a bird shaking water from it's feathers. Her skirt revealed her legs like a mermaid exchanging fins for human limbs. Once free of her clothes, she pulled her knees to her chin and delicately unlaced her boots, then placed them neatly next to the rock, as if she was preparing for bed. Is this some kind of joke, I asked myself, a fantasy play starring one of the city's whores? No, this is too natural, too beautiful, I know the whores of this city, she is not one of them. My eyes concentrated upon her white figure as she rose to stand upon the rock. She stood there in perfect tranquility, like a statue. I was transfixed. Suddenly she turned her head, and sent me a smile touched with melancholy. She dove.

The water's surface rippled, then some bubbles escaped and disappeared into obscurity. The top of her head softly broke through the mirror surface of the lake. Her red hair lightly caressed her shoulders. As she turned her face slowly towards me, the moon's reflections illuminated a crystalline drop escaping down the length of her neck. When she faced me, a second drop rolled from the end of a wet strand onto her left breast, while a very different kind of drop rolled down my cheek. Her piercing eyes were like a boat's keel sending waves in my direction, waves that rushed through my body and filled me with a renewed desire to laugh, cry, embrace, rejoice, love, in essence, to reap the marrow of life.

The agitated currents were clear but obscure beneath the now opaque surface, like metal melting into silvery swirls. I peeled off the clothes that had not left my body for weeks. I dove. Fully engaged in this mysterious pursuit, my hands graced the obscurity that was frighteningly familiar, more than any other element in nature or in the urban hole where I buried my will to live. By this time, I had only one idea in mind: skimming my fingers over the roundness of her breasts.

But I only skimmed the surface of the lake. I was completely sober, yet I convinced myself that the woman was a figment of my imagination, a transient image of boyish hope molded from years of regret. Distrust extinguished my desire to touch her. A second attempt at conversation was plausible, but I had nothing to say. I don't know this woman. She could be dangerous. Damn, I could be killed. Without another thought I retreated to the shore. Like a stiff old man I dried myself with my sweat-stained shirt, then pulled on my putrid clothes and looked at the lake's center. The surface was glassy again. I felt like my soul had left my body, but I did not question her disappearance. "That woman was not real." I said aloud. And even so, what am I to her, and she, to me?

I walked slowly back to the café. The empty streets took on a gritty, gray aspect in the twilight. There was not a pedestrian in sight. I took my regular seat, and ordered a cognac. The drink had never tasted so bitter.

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Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
[email protected] | August 2000 | Volume 6