Edition 3: Woman With Red Hair by Lawrence Buentello
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and rain washed over the window before him. He knew it was Tuesday because his wristwatch told him so, but he had no sense of it. The rainstorm was actually quite beautiful, appearing before him like a sudden dream, but it wasn’t a dream. The faint pattering of the drops had wakened his senses to his presence in the room, the stale scent of closed spaces, the tingling in his hands as they gripped the arms of the chair. He didn’t remember–
Close your eyes and I’ll kiss them, she’d said—and now he sat in a chair before the large window in his apartment wondering how he’d spent the hours between that moment and this moment of perception. The rain obscured the reality of the city beyond the glass—his thoughts were no less convoluted. He realized he was hungry, as if he’d missed a meal. When he looked down at himself he saw that the soft silk shirt she’d caressed so sensually had transformed into a cotton polo. His pants and shoes were different, too, but he couldn’t recall changing his clothes.
Cassidy rose from the chair, found his cell phone and called her number. Then he closed the phone. What would he ask her?
You’re in love, he thought. Why the thought should come into his mind at that exact moment he didn’t know. He still felt senseless, groggy. He walked to the bathroom and splashed his cheeks with cold water. The unshaven face that looked back at him from the mirror seemed drawn and expressionless, and the blond hair lay uncombed on his head. Staring at his face, the unfocused blue eyes, he almost remembered something…
A face seen through a gauze, rippling air, or was it fog cascading over his body—a humming sound vibrating through his nerves, a faint voice singing—and then the image was gone.
I’ve been dreaming, he thought. But had he really been asleep?
He walked back to the chair, uncertain of what he should do, and then finally sat back down and studied the streaks of rain on the window glass. Something wasn’t right.
“I have to ask you something,” he said as he entered her apartment.
Elysia responded with a smile. Beautifully framed by waves of long, curly red hair, her face was a set-piece for a master sculptor, or the masterwork of an aged painter. Tall and thin, she moved away from the door like a ballet dancer moving through her exercises, the skin of her face, her arms glowing palely. She was barely thirty, if that, her body still full of youth and gracefulness. Watching her move away from him, he almost forgot the question he’d been waiting days to ask. She turned and stood like a statue on display.
“I have to ask you something,” he said again, purposefully looking away from her. “About the other day.”
“I enjoyed it, too,” she said, moving close enough to hold his hand.
Her touch captured his attention, and he looked into her eyes. She was a beautiful woman, but simply knowing this failed to explain the secret dimension of her sensuality. Her hair was the perfect resting place for a gentle hand; her slender white fingers possessed an absolution in their touch. This is why he felt he was in love with her—a woman was only a woman, just as a man was only a man, but she was something more, something rare, something to be treasured.
Cassidy wondered what they might have enjoyed together. He really wished he remembered. It might have been something he’d want to recall over and over again.
He took her hand and walked her to the divan. They sat, and he finally found the words to break through his embarrassment.
“I’m having difficulty with my memory,” he said.
Sunlight from the window shone through her hair, casting her face in crimson. Her red lashes set a soft fire to her eyes.
“In what way?” she said.
“In a very specific way,” he said. “The last two times I’ve been with you.”
“You’re not joking?”
“No.” He smiled at himself, suddenly self-conscious. “The last time I was here, you kissed my eyes after I closed them, and then—then I have no memory until the next day.”
“You don’t remember anything after that at all?” she asked. She seemed to be waiting for him to laugh, to dismiss it all as a poor joke.
“I have to ask you, what happened after you kissed my eyes?”
“Are you playing games with me?”
“No, I’m very serious.”
She sat back against the divan, her mouth open, a finger touching her bottom lip.
Then she said, “You really don’t remember?”
“Well, I kissed your eyes, and then your lips. We kissed for a while, and then we went into the bedroom. How could you forget?”
“I don’t know, I really don’t know.”
“You’re teasing me.” She smiled. “You like to play games.”
“It’s no game, I swear.” He shook his head. “I think it happened the first time I was in your apartment, too. But I thought I was mistaken. We were standing at the door, and we kissed good-bye—I remember that clearly—but then I was walking down the sidewalk toward my building. I told myself that I was just lost in thought. Thinking about you, about how I felt about you.”
She dropped her finger from her lips and seemed to think about his extraordinary confession.
“How do you feel about me?”
He reached over and moved his fingers through her hair. He leaned closer, pressing her cheek against his palm. Then he kissed her forehead, brushing the long, red strands from her eyes.
“I think I love you,” he said. “I think—”
It’s happened again, Cassidy thought as the bar came into focus: musical notes from glass touching glass, the haze of cigarette smoke drifting through the air, the sounds of hushed voices mixing their chatter like the splashing of river water. He blinked a few times, stared down at the glass in his hand, then absently looked at his wristwatch. Two days this time. Only his drowsiness and a pervasive feeling of indifference kept him from panicking. He made good use of the liquor at his hand, draining the glass in one swallow. Even the sensation of the alcohol burning his throat did little to fully waken his senses.
Why am I here? He thought as he sat back in his chair. His last memories were of her on the divan, telling her that he loved her—and now he was in a bar without the least recollection of how he got there, or where he was in the city, or if he was even in the same city. It was no use probing his memory; he felt as if he’d left at the beginning of a movie and returned at its end, and now he was trying to mentally recreate what he’d missed in the interim.
When he felt strong enough he left the bar and found a cab. He entered his apartment like a man entering sanctuary, then locked the door. He didn’t call her; he wouldn’t call her, lest she think he was going insane.
The next morning at the office he discovered that he’d called in sick the previous day. Of course, he didn’t remember making the call. He made an appointment with his doctor and decided he was suffering from some illness, some virus that was affecting his memory.
Cassidy still wouldn’t call her. He didn’t know what to say to her. If she mentioned something that happened between them in her apartment that day, what could he say? A lie would be obvious. He didn’t want her to think she was having a relationship with a psychotic.
Elysia began calling him the next day.
At first he didn’t take her calls. Then, after rehearsing several scenarios in his mind, he answered.
“Well, hello,” she said, her voice soft, sensual. “I’m glad I finally got you. I was getting tired of leaving messages.”
“I’m sorry, it’s been really busy at the office and I just haven’t been able to get away.”
“I was waiting for your call. You told me you would call.”
“Are you still coming over tonight?”
He couldn’t remember telling her he would visit that evening, but if he didn’t remember being with her, how could he be certain? It was too much for him to negotiate so soon.
“I’m sorry, tonight is a bad time. But I’ll make it up to you.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, of course.”
She laughed. “You’d better.”
After he hung up he sat in the living room of his apartment trying to understand his illness. Neurological problems were distasteful in themselves, but to be affecting him so soon after he’d found the woman of his dreams—it wasn’t fair. To have fantasized about a woman so beautiful, so perfect, and then to meet her in life…
Perhaps that was it, perhaps he just didn’t want to let himself enjoy something so perfect—the boy from rural Milwaukee with an inferiority complex earns his degree, moves east and becomes a successful professional—that much was hard enough for him to believe, but to have found the perfect woman—it would be just like him to destroy a good thing because some dark corner of his subconscious insisted he didn’t deserve any of it.
When she’d bumped into him at the restaurant he had no idea his life would change so dramatically. He turned to excuse himself, looked into her eyes and was immediately infatuated. All insecurity vanished in that moment when he introduced himself and asked her if he could have her telephone number. She actually seemed pleased at his insistence; though it was really only the fear he would never see her again that motivated his behavior.
Now he was losing the memory of her in her presence; it made no sense.
The next day his doctor examined him, drew blood, and scheduled more tests, but couldn’t diagnose an obvious problem.
“I visited my doctor,” he said that night at dinner. “He didn’t find anything, but he scheduled some additional tests for me.”
She sat back, her bare shoulders glowing in the dim lighting of the restaurant. Her dress, of light blue silk, clung to her body like spider web to a supple bough.
“Are you feeling ill?” she asked. Her eyes studied him carefully.
“No,” he said, looking down at his hands, then into her eyes again. “I’m feeling fine. It’s just that my memory—I’m still suffering lapses.”
“But you don’t feel sick?”
“No, not really. It’s just the blackouts that concern me.”
She nodded, then said, “Are they getting worse?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t had an episode since the last time I was in your apartment.”
“You mean you don’t remember that night?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.”
Her face set in an impenetrable expression.
“Are you saying you’re choosing not to remember the time we spend together? Is that what you’re really saying?”
“No, no, it’s not that,” he said, hurriedly reaching across the table to hold her hand in his own. “It’s not that at all. It’s just a coincidence. It must be. But I can’t explain it except as some neurological problem.”
He felt as if he should release her hand, but kept his hold of her. He knew what she was implying.
“No, of course not. It has to be physical.”
Her expression softened. “Is it serious?”
“I don’t really know.”
“You know I care about you, Ken,” she said. Her fingers tightened around his. “I’ll do everything I can for you.”
“Then you still want to see me?”
“Of course I do.”
“I’m glad to hear that. I was afraid you might not want to keep seeing a guy who can’t remember one day from the next.”
“I’ll remember for you,” she said. “Would you like to see a movie after dinner? Or go back to my apartment?”
“I haven’t been to the movies in—”
A slow progression of colors, blood seeping through a clear medium, swirling into rivulets and rusty loops. Beyond, as through a glass, a set of blue eyes peering through the liquid of the tank. Silence fills the void, or the absence of sound. The world is heard as if from under water, muffled, filled with a dull roar. The light above is not the sun—the light above moves like a star, from one end of the body to the other, warming the water, filling the field of vision with brilliant ghosts of light. Then the blood dissipates, and a slender hand moves through the water like a mother caressing her child’s hair—an intense, sensuous sensation rises through the body—
Cassidy came awake in bed. His arms at his side, he was afraid to move his head. The shadows told him it was night, but an instant before he’d been talking to her in the restaurant.
He turned his head, but he was alone. Through the gloom he studied the furnishings of the room and realized he was in his own bed. He laid his head down again, staring at the ceiling in disbelief.
This can’t be happening to me, he thought. And then: why is this happening to me?
When the shock of his amnesia faded, he recalled the dream.
Vivid, sensate, it seemed more a memory than an illusion. Would all his dreams become memories, and his memories nonexistent?
But the dream was no more than an unintelligible series of warped perceptions. A hand moving through the water, a light above, a deafened presence in situ…
He shivered involuntarily, turned on the lamp by the bed and looked at his wristwatch. Three days had passed. Three days? Impossible. His supervisor would have tried to find him—unless he had called in sick the last few days.
Cassidy’s last memories were of the restaurant, and talking to Elysia. He was still losing all his time with her. But how could she possibly be the trigger for his amnesia?
He rose from the bed and quickly found the phone.
“They threatened to fire me,” he said as she opened the door.
Her face held no expression. Behind her a faint music played, a discordant, foreign melody.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But why? I don’t understand.”
He entered her apartment, removed his coat and rubbed his face in his hands. He took a deep breath and sat.
“I missed three days,” he said, flexing his hands as if he didn’t know what to do with them. He finally placed them on his thighs, shaking his head. “Dantley said I called in and argued with him. He said I didn’t come in the next day, or the next. I didn’t call. He said he’d had enough.”
She sat beside him and touched his arm.
“Did you call?”
“I don’t remember.”
She sighed. “Ken, this is getting a little frightening. I don’t know what to think about it.”
“Please, don’t be frightened. It’s got to be some medical condition. I feel fine otherwise—”
“Except for the memory loss.”
“I know it sounds absurd. I still have some tests scheduled.” He patted her hand. “I may as well take advantage of my medical benefits while I still have a job.”
“They can’t fire you because of a medical condition.”
“They can fire me if I don’t show up to work without a reasonable explanation. And how can I tell them what’s happening to me without them thinking I’m psychotic?”
“I just don’t know what I can do for you.”
“Elysia, I don’t want to lose you. I love you.”
Her brilliant blue eyes betrayed her affection. “I love you, too,” she said. “And I don’t want to lose you, either. I’ve grown quite fond of you. But what are you going to do?”
He struggled with the question a moment before finally shaking his head.
“I just don’t know.”
She smiled her beautiful smile.
“I have a suggestion,” she said, moving closer. “Why don’t you move in with me for a while? Until we find out exactly what the problem is?”
Cassidy didn’t know how to respond. How could he tell her that she was the problem? That she was the trigger for his amnesia? Or she may have been—it had to be his own fault, it had to be some psychological disorder—but he still wanted to be with her. He still loved her.
“Listen,” she said, “I’m not blind to what’s happening. If your problem has something to do with being with me, then won’t being with me all the time force you to confront whatever issue is affecting your memory? And if it is a medical condition, then I would be with you to see exactly what’s happening to you. Doesn’t that make sense?”
He considered her argument for a moment, before conceding the wisdom of it to himself.
“Do you think you could live with me?” he said.
“We already have an intimate relationship,” she said, stroking his hair. “I’ll watch over you. I’ll make sure you’re all right.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “If you think it’s for—”
Pressure; a light above, shimmering, but only through a veil. The weight presses above, the breathing heavy, labored; a strange music plays, muffled by something over the ears. Lying still, waiting for the moment to pass, but the moment continues, a low electricity moving through the nerves. The floating sensation is confusing; the light flares, dies away as some dark object fills the field of vision. When the light returns, the strength floods into the muscles—and a familiar sensual pulsation—almost sexual…
And laid the picture in the cardboard box before reaching for the roll of tape.
Cassidy blinked. “For the best,” he said.
A soft sob caught in his throat as he sat on the floor of his apartment and ran his hands through his hair. This is impossible, he thought. I was just with her–
In that moment he realized that it wasn’t going to get any better. It was his fault, certainly; some disturbing psychological condition was breaking him down. Did he possess so potent an inferiority complex that he couldn’t even let himself enjoy a relationship with so caring a woman?
He couldn’t put her through it. He couldn’t ask her to live with his psychosis. It wouldn’t be fair to her.
But when he envisioned her in his mind, her pure, white skin, her flowing red hair, her beautiful eyes filled with such love for him, he couldn’t imagine life without her. He’d waited for her all his life. Now, when he tried to remember her, he couldn’t even recall where she was born, where she worked, her family history—she was from Philadelphia, she’d said. Was that right? Or was it Pittsburgh? She was a pharmaceutical representative, or perhaps she said she represented a medical instrument manufacturer—she was being so good to him—what had she said? And why couldn’t he remember?
Then, for a second, an image flashed through his mind, of staring up through water—and it was gone.
He sat for a long time without thinking of anything at all. Then, satisfied he’d burned away all the self-pity in his heart, he rose to his knees and finished filling the box.
She opened the door, and for a second her fiery red hair was lit by the brilliant sunlight pouring in from the window in the living room. He stood staring at her, and a brief, elusive image passed through his thoughts of a hand moving through water, of bright light, and a silhouette—
“I have some things in the car,” he said softly.
She smiled. “I’ll help you bring them up.”
For a brief moment he thought of calling it off—it was foolish to put her through such drama—but then she held him and kissed his cheek. His hand nestled in her curly hair, caressing the strands like tendrils.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “you can stay as long as you want.”
He pressed his cheek to her hair. From within the apartment a faint, lilting music played.
“Elysia,” he said, “do you think I’ll ever discover what’s causing my problem?”
“I promise you will,” she said, lovingly.
Lawrence Buentello is the author of over sixty published short stories. His fiction has appeared in Murky Depths, Hungur, Zahir, Escape Velocity, and many other publications. His latest novel is The Bridge of a Thousand Leagues. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.