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She sits at her typewriter, cracks her fingers. The little black keys are polished droplets of darkness. The paper is crisp, eight and a half by eleven. The machine is old, but personal. It has more feeling than a computer. She can smell the ink, slight and bitter. She taps at a key experimentally. Click. Its snap is precise, and satisfying. But she needs words, words to make it move. On a sea of white, the small black mark sits by itself: a simple “?”
Appropriate, she thinks. Her black and white cat sits like a ? by the door, waiting to go outside. She gets up and pads over to the door to let him out, more than a little relieved. He was starting to be annoying. Returning to her chair, she flops down as if exhausted. A glance at the clock tells her that it is a quarter past noon. Sighing, she stares at the paper. Her gaze wanders to the blinds pulled down over the windows. Thin beams of sunlight filter through. She goes to the window, raising the blinds to let the sun in completely. For good measure she opens the window.
Maybe a breeze will help. She drags her feet across the polished hardwood floor. There is a pile of papers on the desk next to the typewriter. She picks one up and studies the scrawled notes. Her eyes scan the paper, skimming over the words with precise skepticism. Throwing it down on the table with disgust, she scoops up another. This, too, she discards. The third paper she considers for a moment before tossing it in the wastepaper basket with the other two. She sits in the chair and puts her hands on the keys. Go. Go. Go! But still nothing.
The room is hot. She lifts a damp lock of hair off her neck. Beads of perspiration are gathering across her forehead. How could anyone think in this heat? She tugs an orange hairband off her wrist, and mashes her sweaty locks into a sloppy bun.
Better. Shifting her weight, she notices that her thighs are sticking to the plastic of the chair. She leaves the typewriter to travel to the kitchen. For a moment she lingers, savoring the cold of the refrigerator, not wanting to leave the fresh, sweet air for the stuffy living room. With one last longing glance at the refrigerator, she walks back to the typewriter. She sets the glass of iced tea on the desk.
Enough procrastinating; she will work now. The lone question mark mocks her. Every time the beginning of an idea emerges, her eyes drift toward the question mark, and all coherent thoughts end. She wastes a good few minutes before tearing the question-mark paper out of the typewriter and wadding it into a ball. She takes her time inserting a clean piece, her hands calm and steady.
Humming to relax herself, she glances up at the clock. The blue digital numbers glare down without any of the grace of a few minutes here or there that a clock with proper hands is willing to grant.
Stretching, she yawns and then notices the condensation on her iced tea glass. She takes a sip, reveling in the cool feel of the glass against her sticky palms. She lets some of the sweet amber liquid trickle down her throat before she sets the glass back on the desk, where it has left a water stain. Picking up a pencil, she turns a piece of paper over and begins to scribble words down. But no luck. Her words morph into aimless doodles, sprawling across the page. She shakes her head and then goes back to the kitchen, retrieving a pack of matches. In the living room, she lights several large hibiscus-scented candles. She pops a CD into the player and turns up the volume. For a while, she listens, waiting for inspiration to come. It doesn't. Moaning, she bangs her head on the keyboard. Looking up, she sees the page has a new mark on it: “y.”
Why me? Sighing, she goes to get a fresh piece of paper. As her eyes fall on an old poster on the wall, she stops. Immediately, she sits back down. Her hands fly to the keyboard. She rests her fingers lightly on the keys, the muscles poised in anticipation. She presses the first key, her relief at finding an idea immeasurable, when … Brrring! The phone. The phone ringing. For a moment she sits there listening in disbelief. Murder is in her eyes as she snatches up the handset. Stabbing the On button, she cuts a ring off short.
“Hi, this is Jenny, from Boeing and Brown Insurance Agency. Would you like to …”
She cuts Jenny off, screaming, and hurls the phone at the wall. She pushes the chair back and marches to the front door. Stopping to shove her feet into a pair of battered sandals, she walks out of the apartment and down the stairs. Once on the street, she feels like she can breathe again. She walks down the sidewalk, trying not to feel despair. People always say that if you leave something alone for a while, it will be easy to do when you return. This has never worked for her. She kicks at an acorn halfheartedly.
There is a café with outside seating down the street. As she approaches, she hears guitar music. He is leaning against the wall with a battered Gibson slung across his body. He looks up and smiles at her as he strums softly. She opens the door and walks in. The air conditioning feels amazing. She orders a passion-fruit smoothie. She walks back out into the oppressive heat, more than a little reluctant, and she sits on one of wooden chairs in the shade.
The guitarist reclines in the sun, oblivious to the heat. His dark hair falls across his face, and his brown skin is a sharp contrast to his white shorts. It takes her a second to notice his hands. They are slender and deft, covered in an intricate pattern of tattoos. The vines and flowers that adorn them seem to grow in time to the music as his fingers move over the guitar strings. He notices her stare and smiles.
“Mendhi,” he says. She nods, recognizing the Hindi word for henna. Looking more closely at his hands, she sees that the twisting vines spell out a word in flowing script. She smiles to herself, then watches people pass, absently fingering the heart pendant around her throat. The minutes roll by lazily. She checks her watch, wincing when she sees the time. Waving to the guitar player, she starts back to her apartment.
She doesn't hurry, even though she knows it is late. It's too hot. She still has no inspiration. No way to make her typewriter sing. She arrives at her apartment building, and goes through the door with the air of one condemned, almost stepping on the black and white cat sprawled near the entrance.
In the living room, she is pleased to find that there are still tiny slivers of ice left in her tea. Taking a sip, she sits at her desk. She has given up hope. There is no way she will be done by the deadline. She can feel bitter sorrow rising in her throat. Her one big chance. Gone.
She lets her gaze fall where the late afternoon sun casts lazy shadows on the floor. She studies the silhouette of the plant on the windowsill, and thinks of the man from the café, and the word imprinted on his hand: Epiphany.
She remembers something and digs through the wastepaper basket. She finds the notes she had thrown away. She sees sketches of a flower, a guitar, and a man, all surrounded by stars. She sends a silent prayer to the guitar player, thanking him for her own epiphany. Smiling, she curls her fingers over the typewriter and begins to type, the words bursting free from the dam. As they flow across the page, her stress and tension blow away with the breeze that has started at last.