East of the Sea (Short Story)

12/27/2020

I was in the process of becoming an island then.

A rocky outcrop, once a part of the mainland until a sliver of ocean began carving a channel between myself and it, and until almost entirely cut off. Except at the lowest of tides, of course, when it still remained possible to walk eastward across this new border, along sandbanks flanked on both sides by bodies of water, mirrors under the sun; but only then at the risk of being stranded once the tide came in, stuck for long hours waiting for the sea to recede.

An inevitable process of change, of erosion, of physical evolution.

Fading, I guess you could have called it. Like an artist rubbing out the sketch marks that lay on the paper between the shapes and the subjects, erasing the flow and process into hard, defined lines, complete but standalone. Black and white. When does an artist decide that enough has been included, that no more need be added? Everyone else seemed to be still sketching.

At least, that was what I recall I had been thinking about the first time I saw Bailey Mae.

She'd apparently slipped in unnoticed - and perhaps had in fact been sitting there before I'd even arrived - because I was struck when I realised that she was there, as if I'd stepped out of a door in early summer and fallen into icy water. And even when I finally did see her, she was still hard to see.

It'll sound strange, but it was like she was reflecting less of the low lighting than the other people dotted about, more a mist to their clouds. So much so that you could scan around the space without immediately noticing that she was there, your line of sight passing right through her; an impressive power to have if you could find a use for it. But, once seen, she became all there was to see; faint, yes, but the only thing truly in focus.

Perhaps it was that she never looked up from her book, not once. A presence without time, while all else about her aged; an illusion broken only by her sipping her coffee - black and strong, judging by the smell of it - and blinking in its steam. The only other sign of life she emitted was when she picked up a pencil and tapped the eraser on her lips while mulling, then jotted the thought down in a huge tome of a notebook - leather-bound in a style long gone out of fashion.

Of course, I hadn't exactly been paying all that much attention to the world around me that day, which likely added to the impact of suddenly seeing her there. As I did most nights while people were generally falling asleep all over the city, I'd been writing in my own notebook, living imagined lives, sketching the sun into the night, building fancy bridges in the only remaining way I knew how. And not very sturdy bridges at that, like those that a qualified engineer might design and which stood for a lifetime or more. No, more the bridges a child might fashion out of sand, that either collapsed of their own accord or were washed away. Certainly not structures that most people would dare to set foot on.

So, it came as something of shock to find her sitting opposite me when I did eventually look up. Either she or I - depending on who was there first - had selected a chair directly opposite the other. Quite a deliberate selection, as far as unconscious choices go, given that the table had four chairs on either side and was surrounded by plenty of other sparsely populated tables, not to mention countless other steps, nooks, and crannies lurking about the book displays about the shop. Her hair, a deep-stained mahogany to match the table, was tied up except for a stray strand that rested on the pages of whatever she was reading, pages which she turned with black-painted finger nails that levitated at the tips of almost translucent fingers and through which I imagined it would have been possible to read the words on the page had I been standing over her.

As soon as I'd seen her, it had become impossible to not see her, let alone continue with my writing. As hard as I tried, I'd get a few words down then find myself looking up and watching her again, staring at the top of her head, at her brow - furrowed, naturally - and at her nose, trying to imagine the rest of her face. In fact, I caught myself looking so hard that I became convinced that she would be able to feel me watching her, so forced myself not to look anymore and to focus at least on the words I'd already got down, even if I wasn't able to write any further.

As I'm sure you've probably guessed, when I did finally look up again, she was gone - if she'd in fact been there in the first place. She'd left without a sound, and no trace of her remained except a cloudy circle where her coffee had been. Still, at least that was a reassurance that she hadn't just been entwined wisps of imagination. I glanced over to the 24hour cashier in case she was buying the book she'd been reading, but there was no one there. Well, except the cashier of course.

I put her down in words as best I could, then left before sunrise.

"So, you say she didn't reflect light like everyone else?" said a sandbank friend of mine from school. He sipped the foam from his second beer.

I tried to explain what I meant again, doing a slightly better job second time around.

"I see. Well, in my line of work, we often talk about people having presence, you know? Someone who can command the attention of a room. Perhaps she had the opposite." He loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt.

Perhaps she had the opposite. No, that wasn't the right answer; close, but no cigar. I ran out of things to say soon after that, so he made an excuse and we said our goodbyes.

I left the bar and decided to walk, even though the trains still had several hours to run. The rain had dwindled to a drizzle, leaving the usually dull surfaces of the city glistening amber and neon back at me. On the limits of my view, the traffic blurred into lines of white and red, and streetlights became overlapping hexagons, ever expanding as I left them behind.

When I stepped into the warm and familiar musk of paper after an hour or so, I made sure to check that she wasn't already sitting at the table as I sat down. But she wasn't. In fact, the store was pretty much empty, except for a man sitting on a cushion in an alcove, head buried in a graphic - probably erotic - novel.

My mind refused to create much that night, and I found that I could barely write more than a few words. After a while, I left my notepad on the wood and started wandering the aisles looking for some inspiration to take back. I took down a hardback filled with photographic portraits and sat on the steps leading up to the children's section with it open on my knees while I flicked through the faces. I settled on an image of woman sitting in the light from a window, kept my finger on the page as I closed the book, and made my way back.

I sat back down and began putting words in the woman's mouth in my notepad, pulling back her scalp, peering inside and using letters to sketch what I thought I might see there. While imagining her voice, I happened to look up and made eye contact with Bailey Mae.

She was sitting opposite me again and held my gaze. Her eyes rendered me immobile, severing the nerves that connected my mind to my spine to my muscles, and leaving me with little option other than to wonder at how I seemed to be able to still see the text on the books lined up on the shelves behind her even though she was sat directly between them and myself. Even her clothing seemed to refract rather than reflect, and her eyes were apparently the only part of her that blocked the light. A piece of time had been torn off, stranding us.

Then, leaving me unsure whether on not it had happened, she released me and returned her reading, her notebook, and her coffee, - all of which had found their way onto the table somehow - leaving me wondering if she had actually been looking at me at all.

Suddenly cast off, it was all I could do to tread water over my notes and the portrait, looking up at her now and again, bobbing on the current. She didn't raise her eyes anymore. Then I looked up one more time and she was gone. Chair, table, air, cloudy circle.

For several nights after, I sat in the same seat, trying to write and waiting for her to appear, but she never did. On one night, I even tried falling asleep with my head on my arms on the table. But even though I managed to drift off, the seat opposite was still empty when I eventually opened my eyes.

I did my best to push all thoughts of her from my mind after that, but my imagination felt as if it had been unmoored, floating without an anchor or a sail, and taking on water until it slipped under the surface.

Not long after, I enrolled on a night course as a distraction.

There were ten or eleven of us sitting in the room, each a comfortable distance from anyone else, waiting for the class to start. My notebook was open and pencil ready, but I left them both alone and instead watched the others as they either scribbled down ideas or read the quotes on the walls.

Then she walked in. Her hair was down, and she was as solid and as real as anyone I'd ever seen, but it was her. She perched on the desk at the front, clapped her hands, and introduced herself as Bailey Mae, and all eyes were drawn to her as if she were under a spotlight on a stage. She had us introduce ourselves and, when it was my turn, her eyes locked with mine, but I couldn't sense any recognition there. It felt as if she was seeing me for the first time, so I accepted that she probably was.

The class was a whirlwind of laughter and discussion. She connected with us and connected us to each other, drawing us out, mixing a cocktail of poisons from multiple wounds. And, when the class drew to a close, we each sat reveling in an exhilarating exhaustion of the kind that marathon runners must feel as they collapse after crossing the line.

I waited as the others filtered out, one by one, then gathered up my notebook and went over to her. She was tidying up some notes at the front and smiled as she looked up. I asked if she had time to look at my writing and she said that she would be happy to, so I opened my notebook to the pages I had written after I'd seen her that first night.

She was expressionless as she read, and, if she saw anything of herself there, she did not show it, although she flicked back through the pages to reread everything before she looked up again.

"Hmm," she said, looking me in the eye for a second before her gaze drifted off and she tapped her lips with a pencil. "Let's walk."

She took my hand and I was relieved to feel that hers was solid and warm and real; and as we walked, I wondered how mine felt to her. She led us out of the building and onto the street. We walked in silence, her always half a shadow ahead, and a part of me noticed neither of us seemed to be feeling the cold despite the sleet that was falling about us from an opaque blackness above. Soon our clothes and our hair were soaked through and sticking to our bodies, but I saw this more than I felt it, like I was sitting in a cinema caught up in someone else's story. Her face was a mask, fixed in an emotion I either couldn't place or hadn't yet known, I couldn't be sure which.

Without a word, she stopped at a gate, beyond which the night thickened into a single body, absent of light. Her fingers left mine and she started walking, moving further away from the streetlights with each step, going deeper into the black until I lost sight of her.

It was only then that I thought to follow. I retraced her steps but could not find any sign of her. I began running forward, the lights of the city vanishing to a single point behind, but she was not there.

I didn't bother going to the next class.

"How did you know she wouldn't be there?"

I just knew, I told him. Somehow. It was hard to put into words, but I had no doubt.

Back in the bookstore, long after midnight, I'd fallen asleep on my arms, the scent of the varnish escaping up from the wood lulling me into to a dreamlessness that lasted almost until sunrise. Opening my eyes, I looked up and saw her leather-bound notebook on the table in front of me, but no coffee stain. I slid it over and opened it, flicking through the pages, each of which were empty.

No, not empty. There were traces, pencil marks, relics of thoughts, sketched lines since erased. I couldn't make out any of the words, but words had been there once, filling every page, faint impressions abandoned.

I flicked back through and left it open on the first page. I tore off another piece of time while I thought.

Picking up my pencil, I wrote:

A piece of a continent, a part of the mainland.

Then I put the book under my arm and took it out with me, just as the first sliver of sun was red of the horizon.