Serendipity - Five and a Half Feet of Julie by Stefan White
Five and a Half Feet of Julie
by Stefan White
Morning. Weak blue light. Reassuring warmness emanating from her half of the bed. Tangled sheets. One endless smooth leg overlapping his. A length of lush lime blanket pooling on thick blue carpet. Home.
Radio dimly playing. Some old hit received by these ears too many times. Maybe eventually a lesson'll be learned—not this morning. The song sounding tinny and far away. Already possessing the distant tinge of memory.
The stars not out anymore. Shut down for the day—the sun come instead. Its pale offerings warm on his skin. The intention what counts.
Her fingers twitch. Move down in slow-motion across his chest. Skittering over his puckered surgical scar. Nails brushing the folded skin near his stomach—where paunch gingerly peeks out from its cave. Her fingers treadmill. It tickles. She's tickling him.
He squirms. Grabs her arm—smooth feminine flesh dotted with birthmarks he knows by name but touch alone cannot find. He pulls. Her face flops into the crook of his neck, she laughs silently. Entire body quaking with suppressed sound. Her hands move more forcefully down, he kicks. Connects without force. No harm done.
She wiggles. Hand as it moves brushing against him. He tenses. Props himself up, rolls her over. The sheet ripples. Creases spreading outwards from below her. She smiles. He throws one leg over her upper thighs. His coarse hair sudden contrast to waxed paleness. Her stomach—humid warmth penetrating his bones, he hoists himself up. Pushes his nose down into tender throat skin.
The perfect morning. All colour a mixture of whites, blues, vivid green of blanket. Pastel sunlight spilling across her neck. His cells worshipping life. He thinks he'll think of this at work today. Their secret, safe, warm time. She moves delicious under. The white of her teeth.
He kisses the bottom of her chin—she lifts her neck, head pushed down into the mattress. Small moans escaping from between her lips. Hair waterfalling past her ears. Her eyes thin lines. He wants their brown.
His wife of fourteen years—he loves her as much as the day they met. In the years between he'd loved her more.
She brings her hand up. Cups his chin. Regards him gently with anger.
-Who is Monique?
He rolls off Julie. Sweaty torsos disengage. Sweat not yet formed into drops. Sun itself cooling—cold dampness of squandered sweat goosebumping leg skin. He lies on his back. Forehead aching. The radio still mumbling. A feeling of claustrophobia. From here the ceiling almost touchable.
Riding the elevator down he rubbed his bristly cheeks and wished he had shaved. Julie tapped her feet impatiently and wished this world of two would end already. The doors slid open and the elevator flooded with light.
Kneels. The ocean bottom from her vantage point a ghostly impression several thousand feet below. She scoops up a handful of cold clean water. Drops that don't make the journey from hand to mouth spraying down and dying with little ripples. Freshness floods her bones. She is restored.
Thin skirt cotton shields her skin from rough granite. Julie feels as if she were floating at the top of some immense cathedral. Light streaming down through its vast watery halls. Diffuse circles of sunbeam imprinted on sandy floor.
No fish today. Means a storm somewhere.
Clouds shift. Rearrange themselves apathetically. Abrupt brilliance pours down—bi-polar Mother Nature swinging into euphoria of cloud and rippling water and long arms of light. All pedestrians slow—unexpecting unexpected sightseers. Sudden reflected light now hiding fathomable depths. Stepping stone sidewalks made immutable cobblestones set on sparkling white road.
Light blue unchanging water. The three buildings arranged in their triangle—rising tall and aqua and disparate. Birds serenely skeining in between with elaborate figure-eights. Clear morning. Horizons too far to ever reach.
Two thousand vertical feet of water. Five feet of Julie. Fifteen hundred feet of condo. Infinite sky.
She jumps to the next stone. Big steps are possible—but she likes jumping. It makes her feel like a little girl. She craves this—when she was a little girl she hadn't felt like one.
Limpid azure water splashed up against the sides of the grayish-green stepping stones, somehow without dying them vivid blue. Instead they lay there unchangeably, all discoloured by lichen and incredibly ancient, probably more ancient even than the excitable ocean.
Each isolated condominium was thoroughly trellised with vines green and darker green below, dotted with the modest pink of their flowers. Overripe fruit hung heavy at thick-trunked junctions, pulling the vines slightly away from the structure and down towards the waiting water. From the top of the Entertainment Tower came the sound of bells ringing out nine o'clock. She was late, but as she skipped her way to work from one stone to the next with the fresh water so deep and full underneath somehow still Julie felt so big inside, like her chest would burst. It wasn't meant to contain all this. Her heart was not a cage. She laughed with delight and it sounded like the water.
Work she spent staring at a vibrant green bud which had sprouted mysteriously from between the joints of an overhead hydraulic pipe. It watched her and she watched it and they both wondered at each other's significance. When she returned from a brief, austere business lunch it had burst into a vivid pink show of petals the size in diameter of a dinner plate. A pool of nectar lay gleaming on her desk. She dipped her finger into it and brought it up to her mouth without hesitation. It tasted like something she couldn't quite place.
The bells eventually rang five o'clock and everyone started to file towards the door. She realized that she couldn't remember anything she'd done this day since the morning. Since "Monique."
She lived on the seventeenth floor, the same floor her office was located on in the Work Tower: things were arranged this way to simplify life, setting up an unbreakable strata. The executives who filed papers and drank espresso in the spacious offices on the top floor of the Work Tower also surfed satellite television and mixed expensive liqueurs in roomy sunlit penthouse apartments crowning the Accommodations Tower.
Julie arrived home to a note telling her that tonight he would work late. This happened sometimes during the summer season and her routine was always the same: she'd go to bed early and the next morning take a silent bath at four AM. Afterward she would steal out in shorts and t-shirt to sit on the last stepping stone, the one that led out onto a flat vantage point of the forever ocean. It was clean and perfectly circular and far bigger than the others, nearly triple in size. She would lie on it with her legs dangling in the freezing water and imagine herself as a hand on a clock or a piece of a plan. Without her maybe the sun wouldn't rise so she during these mornings intently watched the world sluggishly but steadily escape from night. It was silly, she always thought. Night would probably just let the day go. If only it asked.
The same note with a different date lay on the kitchen table. He will be late again. This was fine with her.
Curls up on his side of the bed. His side the inside. She takes pleasure from depriving him. It is not a pleasure born from hate.
For some reason it doesn't smell like him. She doesn't know why. Though she checks the drawers his clothes are still there.
She stretches out against the wall. Toes brushing innermost bedpost. Too quiet. She wants soothing waves. Like on sleep-aid tapes.
Puts her ear to the cold plaster. Seventeen stories down to sea-level.
The laughter of children. Birdsong. Rustling of wind in trees. Reminding her of a mountain though she'd only ever seen them in textbooks.
All of it somehow removed. Incredibly far-away. Like a long-distance phone-call.
Takes her ear away. The sound of breathing. Anxious in the dead air. Silence. Nothing. Nothing.
Puts her ear back.
Far-off trilling. Children giggling. A stream bubbling—waterfall further away. Maybe. Or that roaring is the blood in her ears. Rapid footsteps. All of it together a mountain, a mountain. Definitely a mountain. She imagines flowers. Grass. Grassy slopes. Sheep.
Her being cleaving to. Desperately leaping forward to meet this unknown place. Stopped short by white blank hideously empty wall.
Eventually she drifts. Still eavesdropping. Otherworldly noises blurring into a colorful haze. She has never seen a tree. In her mind they are wavy green triangles propped up by rectangular brown posts. This is the last image in her head before sleep. The last sound is small feet stepping on dry leaves.
She dreams about sex.
When she woke he was beside her.
She dressed quickly, foregoing the bath in favour of a thorough shower. She shampooed and conditioned her hair twice, working her fingers through her hair until her scalp stung. She shivered when her feet frosted on the cold bathroom tile but set about cleaning herself resolutely. Shaving she cut herself several times. She clipped her nails, straightened her hair, and picked out several blackheads. She applied every type of make-up she had at her disposal but she could not erase the black crescents stamped under her eyes.
Julie spent ten minutes choosing her cleanest, freshest looking blouse and shirt, and while her eggs sizzled quietly in the frying pan she tidied up the kitchen and put away the dishes that had been air-drying for days. At the door she decided to put on her new shoes, the ones that looked the nicest but which she had been avoiding for fear of those few days before they were broken in enough to be comfortable.
On the way down in the elevator she watched herself closely. But nothing had changed.
She hurried to work.
Glass woman is crying again. Her shuddering gasps penetrating skinny cubicle foamboard. Office workers ignoring it studiously—her sobs relegated to ambiance. The same status as air-conditioning's hum. Or the whir of electric pencil sharpeners.
Julie stirs. Undecided. Uncomfortable. If she talks to the woman they might end up awkward friends. She envisions small talk lunch dates. Christmas cards. Late-night oh-my-gosh-are-you-okay phone-calls. Stilted cinema outings to the Entertainment Tower. Glass woman crying even during happy parts. Romance movies: "I can't be that close to another human being. You have any idea what it's like to be this fragile?" Still Julie feels sorry. She calls out.
-Are you okay?
Glass woman sniffles. Inhalations whistling in B-Flat sonorous melodies.
Action movies: "Look at them, I can't even run. You have any idea what it's like to be this fragile?"
Stands resignedly. Walks over. Seats herself on the corner of a desk—safely distanced from the glass woman. The woman wiping and wiping under one eye. Only managing to smear. Velvet blue handkerchief damp and drooping.
-Hey, what's wrong?
-That blouse is gorgeous, Monique.
-I don't really like it. Are you okay?
Dramas: "My walk to work is more dramatic than that. You have any idea what it's like to be this fragile?"
-It's impossible for you to understand.
Glass woman glaring. Crystalline eyes glittering—
A shadow comes. A line of darkness moving across the room. Like an eclipse. Leaving behind it only black. All is erased. The entire office surprised by midnight. Though all know the cause: an albatross floating past. Swimming aerially with slow beats of seven-story wings. Individual feathers invisible. Only dim texture behind four-inch glass and three inches of vines. In the end the albatross only ten inches from the glass. This precise giant calmer than Julie even in her sleep.
Keyboards stop chattering. Like teeth suddenly clenched. Photocopiers left blinking redundantly. Conversation falls below audibility instantly—everyone whispering for some reason no one knows. Workers freeze mid-step. Teeth suddenly clenched. Waiting for it to end.
Eventually the sun makes its way back in. Momentarily filtered through a fringe of albatross feathers. Intricate patterns appearing for a savoured brief instant. Every surface decorated with infinite arabesques. These flashings then gone. Leaving the walls cleaner than before.
A feeling of some ceremony ending.
The glass woman's eyes dull. Fingerprints on her facial features newly visible in returned light.
-I . . . guess I'll just sit back down again. Are you sure you're okay?
-No, that's all right.
-I mean, I'm sorry you can't help me.
Julie pauses at her desk. Overhead the pink flower bulges. Plangent with bursting life. She sits down. A familiar smell flooding her nostrils. Her husband. The flower smells like her husband.
Glass woman's sobs once more echoing through the office.
Fantasy movies: "I wish my life were like that."
"You have any idea what it's like to be this fragile?"
That morning in the niche her husband once occupied Monique heard one child call out her name and another child answer.
She rose at three o'clock and skipped her bath for the second day in a row. She rode the elevator to the roof, eyes tightly shut. She sat on the edge, facing away from the other two towers, and stared off into the interminable span of ocean. Her legs dangled and slowly went numb, the cold in them the same cold that frosts windowpanes. Behind her in the swivel-mounted telescope chair a man was revolving in circles ceaselessly. She imagined that from his eyes the starred morning resembled a dark-blue and white-streaked circus top.
In the queue for the coffee stand at her office building, she met the glass woman's eyes. The back wall was visible through her. Julie shivered.
Fishtanks floor-to-ceiling. Windows similarly tall. An office walled with glass. Aquatic ripples shadowing every surface. Projected silhouettes of fish drifting aimlessly. All meaning to their movements robbed by their confines. Evanescent blue underwater light. The diffuse gold of his lamp shining weakly—like a diver's headlight.
Her boss motionless. Watching her. Worried. Fingers steepling. Face creased. White dress shirt creased. Features rounded in dim light. She steps forward timidly.
-Please, sit down.
-There are two reasons I called you here, Julie. Please, don't be nervous, I can see that you are nervous and really, it's the last thing that I want. You can be assured that you aren't in trouble. I just have a question for you, a confidential one that I couldn't trust just anybody with. Top secret and all that, you understand. You most definitely are not in trouble, and there might even be a little bonus in here for you. Here, have a mint.
Pushes forward a bowl of heart-shaped mints. She shifts. Takes one, places it on her tongue. It fizzes.
Uncomfortably awaiting. Stomach irritatingly tight against her blouse. Hands clammy. This morning from another world. Last night from a third.
-How are you and your husband, by the way? And your sweet little son?
-I don't have a child, sir.
-Oh, I apologize. Please, accept my apology. Another mint?
Shakes her head—more confused now. Glances out the window. From here her apartment is visible. An anonymous glass rectangle all scribbled with vines slightly steaming in the midday sun. Wait. Was that her apartment, or that one?
-Well, I suppose I shouldn't delay any longer. Only makes it harder on both of us and it's best to be businesslike in any case, don't you think? I certainly think so.
He pops a mint into his mouth.
-What I'm about to ask you is confidential, understand? It's a personal matter and I'm asking you because frankly, you seem a bit more on the ball than the rest. Please, keep it between the two of us that I said that, though. It might damage team morale if they know I favour you. I don't even have to ask you to keep that quiet, do I? You seem like the type who knows how to keep a little secret, yes? Especially if it shows up on their October bonus, am I right?
A sense of being in a glass drawer—though an especially nice one. Fishtanks and mood lighting. But only one of many nevertheless. Hundreds of drawers stacked making three giant glass cabinets. Layer upon layer of person, chair, computer. Stepping stone. Water. Albatross. Over and over and over.
Julie so small. Still her heart strains—too big for her chest. Someday she'd get it all in proportion.
-You know pregnant women?
-I . . . know one or two? Sir?
-Don't mock me.
-Just don't, okay?
Office almost certainly soundproofed. No evidence bustling companies exist adjacent. No evidence anything else exists. Nothing else exists. Just him, her, the timid blue and gold light.
-Well, the thing is, whenever I look at a pregnant woman, she uh, she glows.
She smiles, relieved.
-A lot of guys like pregnant women, sir.
-No, no, that's not what I mean at all. See . . .
-For me, uh, you see, pregnant women light up the room, Monique, I mean, I mean they're uh, luminescent, yes? They give off light. I uh, I can't look at them directly, I mean. They blind me.
-If it was dark . . .?
-I would be able to see.
The mint crunching. His teeth flashing.
Fishtank filters bubble. Small clinking sounds disappearing without echo. Fish forever exploring nowhere. Conquering yesterday's land. Their clocks running in circles. The fish—were they lost? What are they. Where are they going. Why. Why.
-No, I'm sorry, sir.
-I don't think it's normal.
Clear blue horizon curving away without sound.
He leans back. Chair creaking. Expression unreadable. The type of look no sculptor has caught. Could catch. Some expressions require warm moving flesh. Half of all emotions too kinetic for stone.
-I see. I suppose I'll trust your opinion. I should after all, yes? That's the exact reason I called you in here. I'm sorry, but I have to think about this. Please, understand that you have given me much to mull over. Are you sure it's really not normal? Wait, don't answer that. I suppose you are. You wouldn't have told me otherwise. That's why I called you in here. You may leave.
-I'm sorry, I have work to do. Can you leave?
-What was the second reason?
-You said you called me in here for two reasons?
-Oh, yes, yes. I was talking to Jacqueline—
-The glass woman?
-Please, call her by her name, Monique. We were talking, as we do every day—she goes to the same coffee shop as me and you, see, we're actually pretty close friends, and she mentioned that you keep bothering her. She's really quite fragile you know, she cries all through movies because they remind her of how terribly limited her life is. Now, you bothering her would ordinarily have been dealt with using only a reprimand, but Jacqueline is a valued part of the team, and you know we have to all function together if we're going to get ahead in the marketplace. She recommended that you be suspended for three days, and I told her, that's not necessary, Julie is one of the smartest people in the office, but to be honest, you've been looking a bit peaked lately anyway, so I think it's best ľand Jacqueline thinks it's best too—if you took a few days off. Is that okay with you?
-You can come back...Wednesday, yes? Please, have a nice rest and no hard feelings, right? Would you like another mint?
-Enjoy your time off.
It was two thirty in the afternoon and she wasn't aware that at this time of year two-thirty was when all the flowers bloomed on their vines. None of them were as big as the one that hung above her desk until today, but all the formerly small secluded points had exploded into startling pink petals which overlapped and nearly covered the buildings at the lower levels. On the way home as she slowly picked her way from stone to stone all was efflorescence and light. The ancient granite stepping stones beneath her feet were a bright sun-warmed gray, the tides at bay in the windless day. Between each stone was a foot-and-a-half entrance to the old familiar halls of her imaginary cathedral. Today no sunlight reached the bottom, shoals of fish darting turbulently back and forth, multitudes of them so thick that she cannot see more than fifty feet down. She remembered a weekend long ago when she had first married her husband. They had gone diving with skintight suits and the fish had moved around them like a thousand friendly hands. They walked along the sandy bottom without leaving any footprints and explored the eroded remains of a sunken palace. When they became tired they had sat on the shoulders of a colossal lichen-choked statue and tried to picture what it looked like while it was all still proud.
Pushes aside the furniture. Craving a closer connection. A place her own and not borrowed. Bedframe scrapes across the floor, shrieking. It takes all her remaining strength. She must hurry. The stubby legs of her nightstand bump over hidden flaws. This is the type of behavior neighbours report if it continues.
The big blank wall. Standing bare without window. Rectangular, obtuse. Its secrets indivisible. Invisible. The bed standing askew bisecting the room. Strips it. Lays out blankets next to the wall. Crowns them with pillows.
Lies down. Smiles tremulously. Nervously. Gathers blankets close. Warmer now. No piece of flesh uncovered. Since when did it become so goddamn cold in this apartment. Soon it fades. Coldness of limbs remembered only in their core—her bones still touched with arctic freeze.
Smell of her husband still missing. She clutches about. Finds her bag. Pulls out the flower. Still so vividly pink after hours in the satchel. She clutches it to her. It floods her with warmth. The lingering odor of cologne. It's strange. She's been pretending love for years—yet she treasures this.
Sighs. Comfortable now. Secure. Ready. She puts her ear to the wall. A heartbeat.