Three Damsels in the Neon Bath

By Joshua Walker

The three damsels are just sitting there, and I知 trying not to think about them. I知 trying not to think about what it means that I知 looking at them. Really, I知 not. I知 just finishing my espresso.


I知 a normal man, I think. I feel a normal amount of loneliness and have a normal amount of fears. I do have the sense that I could try to build some kind of stability around me, all those things that make a secure life mortgages, portfolios, advancements but that would never really convince me that I was anything but alone. I listened to my father a little, I went to college and met the people you meet, I did the internships and had the beers after work on Friday, and I got the jobs you池e supposed to get. It痴 strange how quickly it all goes from the predictability of home to the shuffle of college to the big, dark empty apartment after work where you sit in your clean ironed shirt with a beer watching TV and ordering pizza. And suddenly you realize that this is you, and this is you in your life. And there was nothing you were building up in the first place.


No girl has ever been fascinated with me from a distance I致e tried to make it happen in millions of cafes with millions of variations of that deep, burning look of intensity that is rumored to bring the women to you. But I have acted, as of yet, without any success whatsoever. I once thought that the problem might lie in what psychologists refer to as a 都elf-selecting sample. That is, maybe the girls I do charm while sitting alone at cafes are the particularly quiet type to pound the idea home, that there痴 something about me that is particularly interesting to the kind of girl who would never approach me, while particularly uninteresting to the kind of girl who would. My answer to that was, at least to humor myself, a nice retort that took into account all types of disciplines from psychology to statistics. Namely, that eventually one of these relatively quiet girls would at some point have to approach me, the sheer weight of the odds would demand it.


I致e studied films, too, I look up and some gorgeous brunette with straight hair parted down the middle with a low-cut tank top against which are pressed two supple, fleshy breasts no doubt held up with lace and silk and cotton and everything that feels nice looks over, and I give her the look back, the one I致e seen thousands of times, that slightly embarrassing smile, that overwhelming sense of self-possession, but nothing comes of it. She looks away, and is careful not to look back.


How is it that sometimes it痴 so easy and sometimes it痴 so hard? I致e had the weirdest days where, by no action or intervention or plot or anything of the kind on my part I致e suddenly had a girlfriend. You wake up, you wonder if it痴 already time to resupply your porn collection, and then when you go to sleep that night, wham! and you have a girlfriend. And she痴 waiting for you to call the next day. And she wants to memorize your siblings names. And you池e sitting at your computer as usual and you suddenly have to remember when she gets off work. But these 堵irlfriends have always arisen through connections of connections after some kind of benefit of the doubt. That is, I have had outside help.


It痴 never worked with any of these cafe girls. I致e never been able to do it from myself, and that really disturbs me somehow. Not one of the cafe girls. The sensitive ones with the beautiful breasts and tank tops and everything I said before about the materials in the bras. They are uninterested in me, and that somehow leaves me feeling meaningless and reminds me of all of the terrifying existential stuff I was mentioning earlier.


Why can稚 I come in here, sit down with a book and my boredom and my animal urges, and walk out with a girlfriend? It should have happened by now statistically.


I see people talk in cafes. It happens. And they didn稚 always know each other when they came in. People meet each other in places like this. They say things like, 徹h, mind if I sit down, and it sounds so wooden and false and yet it works, I致e seen it happen time after time.


Take today for example. Right now. This very instant in this very cafe. I知 sitting at a low, shiny-metallic cafe table in a sickly-red one-piece soft-plastic chair with a half-full bottle of fizzy water, an empty paper espresso cup, a coffee-dabbled crumpled napkin and my diary on the table in front of me. Directly over these objects, down a space of about eight feet, near the window looking out onto the walking street and its teens in shorts and businessmen just leaving work are seated three beautiful girls. Beautiful.


Directly in front of me. Eight feet. And to further the sensation that this is all a cosmic jest, one of them is blonde (cappuccino), one brunette (also cappuccino), and one a redhead (latte). It痴 amazing. Like the pilot for a low-budget cable action series.


The way they池e seated I have the blonde痴 back, but a side-view of the other two. And they池e all, to one degree or another, wearing the tank-top with the breasts achingly pressed up; it hits me in the stomach, it stays in the stomach and spreads up and down and hurts every muscle, and I look down to the sugary dregs in the bottom of my hollow completely unremarkable paper espresso cup.


The blonde has a sharp, angular face with wheeling, gleeful eyes that seem to take in half the cafe whenever she looks up from her companions. She痴 wearing a sea-green top with tight checkered pants and high black heels. The Brunette has curly hair and never stops smiling with her red lips that have that weird characteristic where they look a little like they池e frowning through her smile; her eyes look tired and she痴 wearing an especially low-cut top. The redhead is wearing funky, rectangular glasses and lipstick almost as red as the brunette痴, she looks somehow very young, even with the glasses, has a clear, open face and loves to make little ironic scowls.


And I could almost swear that the blonde and the brunette just looked over here. But I知 looking into the paper espresso cup so I can稚 tell for sure, and by the time I look up they池e just laughing to each other.


Then, as I知 staring over in their general direction, the red-head looks at me and for a second our eyes meet and I think I see a touch of a curious and responsive gaze before I look away. My hand flies to my phone and starts pressing buttons at random. Was there something in the redhead痴 look? Was she making an inspecting look for herself, or was she making the inspecting look for a friend after another says she thinks a guy in the cafe is cute? That is, was the redhead looking at me for her own benefit or was the blonde or the brunette putting her up to it?


Or was it just more accidental cafe eye contact? And because I知 thinking about it all it makes it seem so much more probable.


Just then a young man joins them, he kisses them each on the cheek, he痴 all cool smiles and assured movements, sits at the corner of the table between the brunette and the blonde. He is about five years older than the girls, wearing a slick black suit and a funky purple and yellow tie that痴 tied in one of those cool, big knots.


So cool and big and he can pull it off.


And I知 watching these girls still from the corner of my eye as I fiddle with the things at the table. It痴 all a trick though, you know. I値l explain. If I知 telling a story and introduce a certain number of characters and give them a lot of attention, then they must figure in the story, right? Movies never pan for a long time on a girl walking down a street and then just have her disappear. So, while I知 telling the story of this day, this ordinary day when I知 in an ordinary cafe and focus in on these girls, who are gorgeous mind you, they must play a part later on, is that not correct? It痴 a trick, but I知 not sure who I知 trying to fool.


God, I知 full of mischievous ideas on what to do with the bodies of all three of those girls. So here goes. I値l note all three of these girls in my diary, I値l keep writing and then they値l have to play a part in this story.


Leaning back and exactly on command, the redhead looks back at me and she痴 smiling, and then she looks back at her friends and they all lean in together, even the guy in the slick black suit and the long, parted dark hair makes a move. Parts of my stomach clench up and I take a hard breath that reminds me of just how small I am compared to the infinity of the universe.


The guy leans back with his hands in his pant pockets, feet relaxed and flat on the ground. He痴 together with one of them, I can tell it. Or, at the very least he痴 dating one of their close friends. But that is unlikely. He must be plugging one of these beautiful girls in tights pants and tank tops, he must.


I can tell he痴 not just a friend a few different ways. First, he痴 not the kind of guy who just goes out for a drink of coffee with three female friends. He goes places on purpose. He doesn稚 like leaving things up in the air. He would never be sitting at a table and watching them out of the corner of their eye like me. Second, if he were just a friend, he would either:


1) be back on his heels, reacting, being pulled along with the group. They池e an intimate circle, after all, and he壇 be playing around with their ways rather than imposing his own will on them.




2) be way out in front, commanding all of the attention, trying to impress the entire group because he壇 have interests at stake.


But he痴 neither of these, he痴 commanding attention in a kind of taken for granted way, and he痴 all relaxed. They have to react to him, and he痴 not trying too hard nor is he not trying at all. Yeah, he痴 definitely with one of these girls the question now is, which one?


I get up and go to the bathroom, and I知 briefly entertained by the fantasy that they池e watching me go. But I don稚 feel anyone watching. This, in all honesty, is a bad sign.


And now things have taken such a turn that I could never approach them, even if I were suddenly fitted with the kind of balls it would take to approach three girls at a table. But now with him there it痴 out of the question. I値l go to the bathroom, I値l come out, get some more coffee, sit for another fifteen minutes and then go home as usual. To the open, dark spaces and usual choices.


And as I知 walking back, I catch this look the young man makes at the brunette and it痴 then that I realize he痴 with her, and maybe that痴 why her eyes look so tired. She痴 much quieter when he痴 around, which made me think at first he was with the blonde, but he痴 given brunette the kind of bemused, fake-exasperated look a guy like that would only give his girlfriend.


And just as I sit down, the four of them start shifting like they池e going to get up and leave. Already. And, sure enough, after a few seconds of leaning-back silence they start picking purses off the floor, jackets of the back of seats, cell phones from the table. And it could all end, just like that. One moment they池e at the table and I知 filling up with possibilities, and the next they池e up and gone and the next their table is cleaned and new people are sitting there and it痴 as if the three girls and their man never were. And we値l never meet again.


But this is a story, and so we have to meet again, there can be no 疎nd we値l never meet again because nothing痴 happened yet to make that at all a meaningful kind of not meeting again. So maybe a strange string of events will bring about our unexpected reunion, like I値l be in an elevator two months from now and the redhead will get on and:


的知 sorry I think we致e met before.


哲o, I don稚 think.... Oh, yes, the little three star cafe downtown!


添es, of course. Look, my name is Will, and...


Ah, but this is a big city, and my faith in coincidences is too shaky for me to leave this to fate. And I知 up on my feet just as the door closes after them, up on my feet working into my jacket, pulling on my backpack, and picking up the lidless coffee I just ordered.


And I walk out onto the street not twenty seconds behind them.


The sky is crisp in that distant way that can happen in lukewarm spring evenings. Pedestrians walk lazily about, stopping and reading cafe signs, hand in hand, the air a little dusty and moist, and I follow the four figures down the street, past an old blind man playing 鄭utumn Leaves on a tenor sax while leaning against a bus stop shelter, his face is gritty and his lips look purplish, and I turn down the street.


The group holds up suddenly, and the man and the brunette start exchanging kisses with the other two. I stop up and mingle with the people waiting for the bus. Like I致e seen a thousand times in spy movies. Then the brunette and the man walk down the street to our left and the blonde and redhead continue going straight. I follow the two girls.


The blonde is telling some long story and she gets really into it, gesturing and exclaiming and tossing her head back. She even slows up every once in a while and bends a little over, shaking her hands palm-up in front of her in an exaggerated pleading gesture. Whenever she does this the redhead takes a few more steps, stops, and with one hand holding her handbag to her hip in a very composed manner, cocks her head slightly and encourages her friend on by means of ironic grimaces.


When the story is over they walk faster because they池e just laughing instead of gesturing, and you can tell they池e about to part because neither starts into any very involved topic, they池e just making that telling little chatter, something like:


鼎ool, so you work all day tomorrow? or,


鄭ll right, so we池e still on for the club on Friday? or


添eah, still really pissed at my boss but what are you going to do?


And finally they do stop. The blonde throws her arms up in the air like she痴 celebrating a touchdown and almost loses her right heel and this, she thinks, is hilarious. The redhead leans back with a stern look on her face, but then also laughs and hugs her friend and they set off in different directions, walking briskly.


And I知 about 40 yards back on the other side of a newsstand, browsing all of the fascinating information on Travolta痴 support of Holmes silent birth. Fucking amazing, that stuff.


And then... I start following the blonde.


And you thought I was going to follow the redhead! That痴 right, after all the attention I paid to her it really seemed like I would, didn稚 it? Well, that痴 the first of my surprises. I知 following the blonde. The redhead disappears down an empty street and the dark is far enough gone for the neon to fill up and splash the dirty dusk slanting space and the backs of beautiful damsel legs.


It痴 then when I realize the cool blues and frosty reds glancing off the dissipating figure of the redhead on the warm autumn pavement that everything in the universe is a copy of a copy of a copy, and there is no such thing as a beginning.


I知 following the blonde and the yellow patterns down her tank top.


And this is really the moment when things get a little anxious for us all, isn稚 it? After all, following after a group is a little strange but it can still be an experiment, a kind of observational game, it痴 not... whatever word you壇 to use to describe what this is right now.


I could stop right now and buy one of those papers and wander down the street and find some other cafe, or go watch a movie and that would be the end of it. But you know I知 not going to. In addition to the sheer dissatisfaction you would feel at such an abrupt and boring ending, there are other ways to tell that the story can稚 end here. No, there痴 clearly more time to go. You couldn稚 have Jessica Fletcher find the killer with twenty minutes left, could you? Then you壇 know she had the wrong person. Just like you know I have to follow the blonde with the angular face and the tight jeans and the playful demeanor and see where this goes.


And so I follow the blonde. And the yellow neon gives way to purple and then to peach.


It痴 amazing how her walk has changed since she痴 left her friend. One moment she is totally animated, flying all over the place, inscribing dizzying circles with her hands and arms, smiling and bobbing her head, and now she痴 just some lone woman walking down the street, gestures closed, arms close to her body, not in a hurry but going quickly.


The shadows start growing longer as we turn down a side street. I知 hanging back a little further than I was before, imagining that since she痴 alone now she must have sharper instincts to sense if someone is following her. That痴 what I imagine at least. In fact, I知 expecting her to turn around at any second and shout something out at me. Or to take off running.


Instead, she answers her phone, casual, relaxed, in a universe that always plays out how she expects and that could never be shaken by anything. There will be no wars, no hunger, and no absolutely no doubt about living to see tomorrow.


I知 walking quietly, so quietly I can稚 even hear my own footfalls even though I have my ears as pricked as far as they値l go.


The phone call lasts a few minutes, in which time we walk down a few more streets and the dusk starts smearing the angles that were so sharp just a few minutes ago and you almost ruin your eyes reading the signs in the distance.


This area of town has shorter buildings, older than by the cafe, over which you can see hazing brick and steel sprawling up to the sky and the mess of clouds and the views of people who have no idea what痴 happening right beneath them; here it痴 low and residential; there are trees, and the light smoothes out all the tops of the buildings and the suddenly surreal green of the leaves.


And I知 only 20 yards from her when she stops in front of a building. Her building, I can tell.


And now is the time for choices. I知 speeding up, it痴 getting darker and darker and the shadows start playing tricks on you and she won稚 notice me until I知 almost on top of her. Treading quietly. Then what will she do? Unless she has already recognized me she won稚 make the cafe connection immediately and she値l only have some vague, inexplicable feeling of terror.


She痴 shuffling around for her keys. There痴 no one out on the streets, the building across from us is just being finished and so is completely unoccupied. There痴 a little blind alley about twenty yards from where she痴 standing, also filling up with shade.


I知 walking faster and she still hasn稚 noticed me. My shoes are quiet on the pavement. My breathing just a little hurried. And every part of her, from her calm eyes to her relaxed posture, her breasts rising and falling gently, her beautiful figure in the tight jeans, is calm and composed.


I walk up to her, too close, and suddenly she realizes that a figure is walking at her rather than past her. It痴 an abrupt realization, it痴 a moment when there痴 nothing to do but freeze. It痴 a script, but not a script for her. And she looks up at me, hoping, I know, that I知 not looking straight at her. But I am.


And there痴 total silence on the street. Not a single sound, not even a TV or mp3 coming from one of the windows. I bet she痴 never noticed how quiet it can be right here until now. Only in the far reaches of space can you imagine there to be traffic.


I知 almost close enough to smell her. It痴 like raspberries and mornings on the beach. Cool winds on sunny balconies, sitting on towels. She looks like if I went for her neck she wouldn稚 even react until my mouth and lips and tongue were all over her beautiful, tanned skin, the kind of throat only natural blondes have, the kind of neck I could give so much adoration and pleasure to. I would do anything she wanted me to do.


滴ow was the cappuccino?


That痴 me saying that, in a tone so confident it surprises even me.


She stiffens up, her hands ready for something, though who knows what that something is, and her eyes are huge. It痴 amazing, she痴 totally stuck between behaviors, between 途andom guy on the street talking to me, 殿ttacking me, and 都hould I know this person? but they池e all jumbled up and haywire in her brain and she痴 just trying to bring me into focus, but she can稚. So her eyes are all horror and continue to expand.


So much that they might burst.


And she smells of mornings on the beach and raspberries and the water after you cut the stems of flowers.


As she knows she痴 stuck it makes her all the more incapable of anything. There will be no focus. There will be no thing to do. And there are now eight inches between my mouth and her neck.


I walk on, not stopping for even a beat, not for once moving my hands from my side. And I don稚 even look back; in fact, I知 not even tempted to. I take the turn down the little alley 20 yards from where, I知 sure, she痴 still standing, watching me walk. I imagine what it must look like, my blue jacket in the shadow, as I disappear into that gloom.


Watch me walk she has to. I walk down the alley, down another street, and then over to a little park with a few open benches. And people are passing by me, and now I知 just some guy sitting on a bench, one of a million. I could be a backdrop. I could be a prop. The people here would be surprised to know I have a name.


But she値l think about this all night long, she値l want to tell it to friends but won稚 know how to phrase it. The sheer unaccountability of it all, the lack of focus. She痴 unnerved and I have my story and my place burned in her brain. Who knows, on nights when she gets afraid of the dark she might think she hears me in her kitchen.


Like I said, damsels are never fascinated with me from afar.

© Joshua Walker

Joshua Walker is a Dublin-based writer originally from Boulder. In addition to short fiction, he writes poetry as well as the odd play. He has published online in Contrary and Ygdrasil, was a weekly humor columnist for Element Moscow and also translates and teaches literature. He received his MA from Stanford University in 2005 in Slavic Languages and Literature, and has just started a PhD program at Trinity College, Dublin. A collection of his short stories, "Anna Marie and Other Tales," will be published next year by the AHSGR historical society.