I was nearly to Castle Green when the wind found its way beneath my collar. Off guard because there is never much winter here even in winter, I’d left the apartment without a scarf. No, not off guard. Daydreaming. Be honest. I flipped up the hood on my thin coat.
When I’d first spotted her that hot, bright day last summer, the light intense, rendering shadows sharp, I’d been heading for the bus, as I am now, on my way to the library to shelve books for another eight hours, to waste another day. I could have been painting in good light. No! Honesty, remember? I haven’t had the oils out in more than three years. And today is winter, it’s overcast—light is needed to paint. Head cleared now?
Rushing past Castle Green that day, I’d happened to glance up at an uncurtained window on the fourth floor of the old apartment building and was stopped cold. Castle Green must have been a hotel then, I remember thinking, because the woman standing behind the glass, a woman much younger than myself, had the look of one out of time, the edges of her smoky and vague. I knew at once that something had bent in the stark contrast of light and shade on that summer afternoon, and I was looking at a girl in a hotel room where time had been dust for more than ninety years. She wore a gold, fringed flapper dress, and the slender cerise silk scarf around her neck draped light as web down her narrow back. I knew at once who she was, though. No question of that. No, I was not daydreaming.
The same jaw line; the same dark cap of hair, not long and straggly and graying like that beneath my coat, but deep chestnut and cut with precision, shingled in the latest fashion; the same slender arms bent at the elbows; the familiar hands tilted slightly as if to ward off what might come too close. She was looking intensely just beyond the frame, her eyes wide, and I knew a man was there. But I didn’t know if she welcomed his approach or not.
It was me, I have no doubt: up in that room, dressed in satin lame and cherry silk, a Gatsby ready to step into my arms. I stopped and stared at my young self, desperate to know the right thing to do. To repel or embrace? To turn or surrender? If I had been daydreaming, I would have dreamed myself around that man, flooded myself into him. It would have been impossible to tell if I consumed him, or him me.
But I wrenched away and ran to the bus, left myself and ran to work and books and plans for my next painting. I promised I wouldn’t think of what I’d seen, that I would forget I might have lived another life, might have bourne it out with a lover, perhaps even children, drawn on through the years and lain down one night an old, old woman with no regrets.
But I couldn’t forget her. My better self. My luckier self. And I resisted every day, and instead gripped veracity by its ragged throat, and swore to keep my face pointed toward reality. The woman I’d seen was surely one of my daydreams, though even as I repeated my mantra day after day—truth, truth—even as I walked to the bus for weeks and months in a plodding, tunneled line, I glimpsed my sly and lying face grinning with a long-nosed nasty snicker, happy I was so deluded.
I could only hold out so long, though. Truth is how you see, I know that now. I have claimed my fox-face; it has traded places with restraint, and I don’t care. I want to see her again, in a life where possibility waits.
But will I? Will I see her? Has she ( I ) been there ever since that summer day? If I had walked by Castle Green any time since, would time have parted at its cleft, and would I have been there, framed in that window and in time?
Because it was the light, wasn’t it? The bright summer light and its sharp partner shadow that brought me to myself, brought the vision forward to the level of my eyes? But today is winter, overcast, drab, everything the same. There are no shadows. Do I exist without light?
I turn the corner and train my gaze up to the fourth floor window, dark and barren. She is not there. I am struck, hollowed, by how predictable this moment was; the other side has won again. How palpably I feel disappointment, burnt and grainy, like soot carried in the wind. It goes down my neck despite my hood and buffets me as I turn away.
But the corner of my eye catches something up there, deep in the glass, and I turn back. She moves forward, and there I am. For a moment we switch places, and I am looking down from the window into my own webbed and watery eyes.
From the sidewalk I see I am not smiling up there in that window frame. My uncertain hands are deep in the pockets of a plush dark coat, and a tall black collar arches about my head, a corona of fur. I am cold. I do not smile. I am not angry, not sad. It is clear, even to me, that I understand reality, that’s all, that I see truth after all, and we both know that nothing would change.
I long for my easel. A monochrome portrait, winter bereft of color. Perfect. I can feel the dusty box open beneath my fingers as they wrap around the slim handles of sable brushes. I dip in black and trace the window frame, the high fur collar, and sweep a lash above her dark and fluid and despairing eye.
Then I turn and run. I will miss the bus, and I can’t be late for work.
I am not daydreaming. I am sure of it. Honest.
© Copyright 2016 Jackie Pugh Kogan. All rights reserved.
Jackie Pugh Kogan holds and MFA from Chico State University and is a Los Angeles based writer working primarily in fiction of the American West.
Publications include short stories in ROAR, Dream International Quarterly, The Northridge Review, and poetry in Crazy Woman Creek: Women Rewrite the American West (Houghton Mifflin, 2004).