Work in progress

July 3, 2008
By Tara Ashraf, Rochester, NY


He flipped open the date book. It was a Friday, the last Friday of the month, and the longest day of the week. If he had not left his thick reading glasses behind today on the nightstand with his two diaries, he probably would not have had to squint to see his tiny lettering. Or maybe he could get ahead in the novel he had picked up for 50% off. But instead, he had nothing to do but look around the same setting he had seen for years.

Looking around at the people, it was impossible to discern the day of the week. Just like every other weekday, the visitors filed in, wearing all black, also as usual. He sighed, his bones rattling in his undernourished torso. Not that he was all that different from them, either, he realized, glancing down at his black turtleneck and starched black slacks. But it was a Friday, and in a few minutes according to his gold-plated watch, she would come in and crack a smile from everyone, down to the strictest guard. He felt himself leaning towards the glass doors, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

Every Friday, starting from 3 pm to closing, the museum opened for free. The same elaborate works that the black-clad paid $65 to critique in raspy voices were the same ones that the general public could see, too, including the annoying teenagers who felt so special because they had taken some sort of art course. Sometimes, the museum staff had to quickly hide away some pieces so that the regulars would not feel gypped that everyone else got to see the exact same pieces. He hated those Fridays because they sped up for five minutes and then fell back into the same slow pace. But only thirty seconds now, and she would run in, her dress catching the breeze and warm sunlight. Her blonde hair, down to her waist, would fan out behind her, and when she would scamper in, her little rainbow would cause whispers among the others.

Exactly on time, he first saw fine blonde hair as her thin wrist extended to get a thin, light purple visitors’ bracelet. He scratched his thick black hair self-consciously and it stood straight up again. Her dress hit her knees and he saw that she no longer had misshapen knobs for knees. She strode across to her position, the middle of the front hall, just past coat check and in between the item on display, a giant teacup, and the regular Hercules statue. She took position, smiling at all the same people who whispered loathsome lies under their breaths about her. She heaved, a little anticipation filling her body even though she had done that for years.

He caught her eyes, noticing for the first time the way her eyes rested on his delicately. She suddenly seemed older than he had ever realized she was, with crinkly eyes and a wide grin. He found himself noting the way her body filled out the dress and even pulled a bit at the stomach and breasts. Was she as old as him? Her cheeks flushed, a delicate rose color in the dimples of her cheeks. She held up three fingers in a mini-countdown. He held his breath.

When the three expired, she started her dance, and he forgot the way his tongue felt too big in his mouth. He forgot that he had forgone the third cup of black coffee in the maker this morning. He forgot how crowded his morning commute had been, between the overly-friendly couple and the going-deaf group of three. All he saw was her dance.

1, 2, 3, she mouth, and she twirled. She dipped and plied, she rose up on her toes, and he remembered the way her body first looked when she held the song.

The first time he saw her, she was seven years old. She had straight blonde hair and a sundress on. She walked in, the pride just building in her bosom. She twirled for about five minutes, when she suddenly stopped in her tracks and gazed around. The first time, she was met with complete, awe-struck silence. The people did not know how to reach to this little girl, with blonde hair and such an ostentatious dress. They had dark brown hair and black clothing that never reflected the light. None of them knew her name, so they surmised her whole story.

She was the daughter of a gypsy and a circus ringleader, both of whom encouraged liberality and complete autonomy. Together, they taught her the dance, which, though completely appropriate for a girl her age, had more of a place in a studio than here, among the works of art. “She seems to think she is art,” they rasped. Her blonde hair bleached easily in the sunlight, and was what drew her parents together, when her mother had the same color in her youth. She danced to attract attention, and to draw sympathy. She had no friends, and certainly no lover, though, watching her move now, he felt compelled to become one of either category. Her thin, pale arms could trace circles on his tense back, and he would relax in her presence, and while he would read the newspaper, she would finger-comb his hair and lightly kiss his lips. He could taste the strawberry lip gloss already and imagined how she would tumble out of the shower and into his arms. She had no name, either, because none of them could find one to completely catch her fish-out-of-water gaze and fluttery hands.

After she finished, she approached the desk. He had never talked to her or seen her up this close. He attempted a smile, but it slid off when she did not return it. She stuck out a hand, and pulled him into the spotlight.


Coffee table books, miniature model airplanes, plastic fairy wings are all he saw when they walked in. She has difficulty with the lock and Owen ended up prying the keys from her tiny fingers and opening the door himself. Her door has 15 locks, 15 locks for one little girl? But he figures Mathilde is not really all that little if she can afford her own apartment and clothes. Although there are heiresses, he cannot imagine that she would dress or act like the girl in front of him. They would flounce around in dresses as light as fairies, and smile with Invisaligned teeth. The girl in front of him could not possibly have stood for the shuttle from private school to private school, only emerging for mere glances. No, this girl was born to stand alone, and she must have done so her whole life.

She walks in effortlessly, smoothly, gliding, as if there was no trouble, but he stumbles over the cartons in the corner. He wonders if she just moved in. Maybe all those years at the museum she lived with her parents and she has just now been able to afford her own place. She coos to a dark corner of an end table, and Owen is about to say something when a cat unravels himself and cautiously approaches them, avoiding all the memorabilia of her life. Her grin spreads wide and all her teeth show, bottom and top, top and bottom, and she gives her kitten three kisses on his head. She picks him up and nestles his head against her neck as she makes the two of them tea with hot milk and sugar cubes. Mathilde takes out a tiny dish with a small little silver teaspoon that has Paris etched onto its handle, and she spoons out some pink yogurt. She puts it on the ground and sets the kitten down next to it. He laps it up, eagerly, his tiny tongue darting all around to get the maximum amount. Owen notices the way the cat’s eyes follow Mathilde, much like his own, admiring her care and concern for such a tiny creature.

She walks over to Owen, and her yellow-orange skirt with the uneven hem holds his attention. She hands him one cup of tea with the matching saucer, her small hand shaking. She sits down next to him, and he catches a whiff of the baby powder and lavender perfume she sprinkled on her neck that morning. The gap between her skirt and white shirt yawns for a tiny second revealing a protruding belly button with a small silver flower in the center, and then it is down again, as she taps her knee in some internal rhythm that he cannot hear or even imagine. The tea lulls him into solitude.

He finds himself telling her stories of his childhood. While she listens, her sugar cubes swirl with the milk, and he watches, almost entranced as she dips in a biscuit and gently bites it. Her knee continues to shake. Her face shines, attentive, as he re-traces his past, of the time when he broke his arm and he was so angry with his parents because they still threw a party for his older brother, and the time he smiled at his first crush and she looked away, and the time he first wrote a poem for a girlfriend of his, actually his middle school girlfriend who smiled and kept it and wrote about it in his yearbook senior year of high school. She had moved on, and so had he, but she still remembered it, and sometimes, she came into the library with her little children, all named after storybook characters from their childhood. She tells him how the definition of her name (Battle Might), and asks his (Desire born). She laughs over his, and then clasps her hands over her mouth and apologizes, “It’s just that I can’t see you ever acting out your desires in a quickie or between the library stacks or even in those pristine bathrooms at the museum with the little silver dishes and rose-scented soap.” Though slightly stung, he nods and tells her the truth. “I have never done any of those things, I guess I never wanted to chance the girls I dated with something quick or rushed like that. But I bet you have.” She nodded slowly, “You’d be surprised at how fun a fast rush like that can get you through a day.”

He feels himself tensing again, and she lightly puts her hand on his knee. She brushes the hair out of his eyes with the other and leans forward and smiles deeply into them. He feels the creases deepen around his eyes, and remembers the white hair he found in his brush this morning, and prays she does not notice his pants pull just a tiny bit on his hips. “You know what I thought when we saw each other at the coffee shop? I thought maybe all your inhibitions had gone out, at least a little bit, I mean, you approached me, right? I thought you knew my feelings for you, Owen.”

“Feelings? What feelings could a beautiful girl like you have for a guy with stuck-up hair and skinny legs?”

“You seem like your life was hard, but beautiful, and I wanted to hear about it all. I wanted to know that I could bring a baby girl into this world, and she would be alright.”

“You’re pregnant?” He pulled back.

She lifted her shirt, and he could see the slight bump. “Yes, I decided to have a baby, because I want someone to share my life with, and as you can see, nobody wants much to do with all this.”

“I guess I do.”

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