The First Time He Sees Her
The first time he sees her is the evening before his sixteenth birthday.
He has been working for hours, and his conscious brain is switched off. He loads and unloads the dishwasher mechanically, like muscle memory. Plates come in. Plates go out. It’s almost ritualistic. He is staring into space and wondering how long there is until tea break when he hears her voice.
It is a wispy, silvery sound that calls to mind the tiny bells on cat collars. Polite. All words said with rhythmic cadence, as though she were reading poetry instead of just conversing normally. He turns, looks through the gap in the wall from which the waitresses collect food. She is talking to his boss, handing in a resumé. He notices a tiny birthmark on her left cheekbone, the colour of an almond shell. Briefly, he wonders what it would be like to cup her face with his hand and brush his thumb tentatively over it. He realises that he has been staring at her face for too long, and this realisation is confirmed when she reciprocates the staring. Their eyes meet. The corner of her small, pleasant mouth lifts upward in an amused smirk, as if to say take a picture, it would last longer. Although she is not classically beautiful, she is captivatingly elegant, and he cannot look away. He gets the feeling that this is a girl accustomed to being looked at.
Alex! The chef says, severing the concentrated eye contact between him and the girl. Alex returns to the dishes, and though his back is to her, he can energetically sense that the girl has left. He thinks of her until tea break, and then thinks of her some more. The girl refuses to vacate his brain long after home time.
She notices his gaze almost immediately, but chooses not to interrupt him. From what she can gather via her peripherals, he seems to be enjoying himself, and who is she to crash his little ogling party? She charms the restaurant owner with anecdotes and assuasive banter, talks of her experience in hospitality. She leaves out the part about not having any. A fast learner, she is accustomed to inventing white lies so suave and plausible that she almost believes them herself.
The owner takes her resumé – Iris May printed across the top in curly letters – and goes to put it behind the counter. She notices that the boy is still looking at her, but now his attention is focused less on her as a whole and more on her almond coloured birthmark. As a child, she used to hate it. Coat it with concealer, beg for laser surgery, wear her hair covering half of her face. But now, she bears it on her cheek like a gold medal, aware that it is something to distinguish her from the other girls. She is not just pretty. She is alluring.
Finally, Iris decides to meet the boy’s eyes. The first thing she notices is that they are an electric shade of blue, so bright that it is almost as though they have been lit from behind, like his retinas are lined with little LED lights instead of thin tissue. He holds her gaze cautiously, pupils dilating a fraction. The boy’s eyelashes are dark and curly, making his handsomeness almost girlish, but not quite.
She feels her cheeks growing pink, slightly taken aback by the striking boy and his striking gaze. Not wanting to lose the slight leverage she clearly has over him by appearing flustered, she adopts a nonchalant smirk. His eyes widen.
A voice from within the belly of the kitchen breaks the spell. She watches the muscles in his back play beneath his shirt as he retreats and notices herself missing his intense stare. Alex. His name dances around her mind as she walks about town. The dish boy with the blue eyes. She hands out resumés until her clear folder is weightless and untenanted.
The night of his birthday, his mother makes butter chicken. Your favourite, she says with a smile that looks vaguely like a grimace. He is sure that he remembers telling her that butter chicken was his favourite when he was 9 years old, that white meat makes his stomach churn like clothes in a washing machine. He keeps the thought to himself. Her propensity to live like she is in the past is nothing more than sad and slightly inconvenient at times – no point destroying her charade if it’s not absolutely necessary.
He tosses the chicken to and fro with his fork, bringing it up to his mouth only to blow on it and return it to his plate. He has been doing this for so long that it is now cold and rubbery. Despite the strained quietude that plagues the meal, he cannot stop thinking of the way the smile played on the girl’s lips. Tantalisingly smug. Like she understood everything about him just by looking, and he didn’t even know her name.
Eat your chicken, Alex. Sixteen today! You’re too old for this bullshit.
His mother is tired and her voice sounds brittle, like it might crumble as it leaves her lips, turn to dust that litters her dinner plate. Sometimes Alex wishes he could pull her into him, hug her small, birdlike frame until all the gloom has risen and exited through her pores, like reverse percolation. But the silence that hangs between them now is too thick, too awkward, solidified by teenage stubbornness and uncomfortable conversations about contraception and mental health, about fatherlessness and slight poverty. He wonders about the birthmark girl’s home life. He can hardly imagine her having parents; she appears so composed and self-reliant, with her chin raised and her spine straight. She looks like she came out of the womb drinking lattes and catching night trains. Like she was born unphased.
For his birthday, Alex receives a new pair of soccer boots. This depresses him slightly. He had been hoping for charcoal pens, sketching paper, maybe even a new lamp. It’s not that he is ungrateful – they are perfectly nice. Nikes, an eye-complimenting teal colour. He can see that his mother has tried hard, spent a considerable amount of money on him, and he makes an effort to act pleased. It’s more that the boots are an unintended incentive to keep playing a sport for which he has no real care. He doesn’t hate soccer, and he is actually relatively decent at the game. He is tall and well-muscled, fast and agile, but he plays mostly for something to do. Being a ‘soccer boy’ gives him a place in the social hierarchy, saves him from friendlessness within the school grounds. He often catches himself daydreaming while on field, or inwardly mocking his fellow players for caring so deeply about something as trivial as chasing a rubber ball about a pitch. When he is sent off, it is a relief. Some of his best sketches have been completed laying stomach-down on the grass just beside the white-chalked lines of a soccer field, bringing to life images in his head.
Ever since his last shift at the restaurant, he has been sketching the girl. Dainty, slender features, high cheekbones made soft and humanlike with the smudge of his thumb. He cannot seem to capture the graceful conviction with which she holds herself. There is a fine line, he has come to realise, between the appearance of a smirk that is cheeky, and a smirk that is mean. His pencil walks the line like it is a tightrope and his eyebrows knit together in concentration.
As he draws, his mind walks in lazy circles around the possibility of her return. He has imagined this for countless hours. How she would look. Almond birthmark, apron cinched tight at her waist, elegant fingers poised, ready to disperse menus and take orders.
If he is to see her again, maybe he can figure out how to sketch a smile that is magnetic and mocking at the same time.
Iris hates her new house. She hates the colour of the paint on the walls, a pallid off-white, like the underside of an egg shell. She hates the lights. They are bright and unforgiving, making every room look aseptic and hospital-bleak. She hates that her bedroom gets neither morning nor afternoon sun and is perpetually gloomy, that there is no dishwasher, that the tiles are the colour of rotten apricot. Her mother and father are rarely ever both home simultaneously, but when they are, there is either hostile silence or thundering disagreements. The air within their residence is sour and ascetic, smelling of dead grass and unopened bills. Fresh air makes her parents sneeze, and opening windows isn’t worth the risk.
Although she has lived within these walls for nearly two months, it does not feel like home. She misses her old music teacher – how she used to twiddle her feathery hair between her fingers while listening to Iris sing. She always said that Iris’s talking voice, the lustre in it, the delicate lilt of her words, was the reason she was such a beautiful vocalist. When she was home alone, Iris used to hum to the flowers that grew in her front yard; Disney songs under her breath, the soundtrack of her saccharine childhood. Thinking about the way evening sunlight hit her previous bathroom, how every one of her showers felt golden and ethereal, makes her feel sick with longing. And a powerful sort of bitter, directed at her parents. When she feels like this, she balls her hands into fists, letting her fingernails press crescent moons into her palms. The pain is grounding, almost consolatory, like a pinch to the arm in a bad dream.
The night that follows her job hunt, Iris lays in her new bed, uncomfortable. It is cheap and hard, second hand. So different to the cushioned memory foam mattress in her old bedroom, with its faint imprint of her sleeping body. Her mind keeps coming back to the boy in the restaurant – Alex – the previous day. How he made her feel that familiar sense of control, of grace, that she thought she had lost permanently upon moving cities.
Around the girls at her new school, Iris is vague, unfeeling. They are the sort of females who are pretty, but in a mousey way, with tiny upturned noses and dirty blonde eyelashes coated in lumpy mascara. She sits silently with them as they braid each other’s hair, tuning out their trivial conversation about French manicures and football boys. Iris cannot help but pity them – from their interactions, their words, it is abundantly clear that while they may be popular, they are empty. They are several teen identity crises; uninspired and passionless, pretending they have everything figured out while quietly searching for something to make them feel. She is stagnant in their company, wanting so desperately to speak in that measured, silvery voice she used to use to voice her thoughts. She feels certain that if she talked to Alex, he would listen earnestly. Hang on to her every word like she were a celebrity. The thought makes her feel an innate sense of power, and she wonders quietly if she is a bad person for feeling this sense of pre-eminence. She pushes the thought aside. Thinking about the matter of her own morality makes the air in her bedroom feel thin and unbreathable, makes spots appear in her vision.
Iris catches her breath and realises that the possibility of sleep has slipped away from her, the way the ocean slips away from the shore. Quiet and irretrievable; at least in a permanent sense. Returning only to torment, and then leaving again. She turns on her side towards her bedside table, beige painted and tired-looking. Checks her phone. 12:53am, blank screen, no call from Alex’s restaurant… yet. But she has a good feeling, warm and hopeful in the core of her chest.
Friday afternoon, Alex heads into work. When he arrives, no one greets him, which is normal. He isn’t overly friendly with any of the people who work there. They are adults, ranging from twenty to fifty years old, and seem to think of him as juvenile and inferior. He doesn’t blame them, really – most of the time, he thinks of himself as juvenile and inferior too.
It is 5pm, and the restaurant is dead, no customers in sight. When it’s like this, he often feels hollow and achy inside, like he is at a gig with no audience, or a birthday party no one turned up to. Empathetic to a fault. That’s what his father used to say, accompanied by words such as sissy and feelings, all uttered in a sardonic tone that made Alex flinch. His father never hung his sketches on the walls, thought art was impractical. He blinks the thought away and avoids his co-workers’ eyelines, busying himself with setting up his workspace – wiping it down, making sure he is stocked with clean tea towels to polish cutlery.
The sound of footsteps causes his head to snap up. They are fast and light, like a jogging fairy. It is the birthmark girl. It seems everything she does is feathery, delicate, even running while in a rush. She is wearing an orange cardigan and her black work shirt hugs her torso tightly, the V of the top’s neckline daring him to look. He refrains. He is too busy being elated – they have given her a trial as a waitress. A grin breaks out on his face, and he bites his lip, stifling it. She might take his hopefulness as weakness. In a way, it was. He had a habit of laying his dreams out on a table, only to have them shredded or debased.
She walks closer, heading towards the front counter. The details of her come into focus, everything around her blurring out of his vision the way it does through a camera lens. He notices that her cheeks are damp and blotchy. Mascara is smeared under her eyes like bruises and she is wringing her hands with intensity, like she is trying to get an answer out of them. She reminds him of a porcelain doll that has been dropped. Like the confidence she had possessed just the other day was just a shell, just an exterior of white paint that could chip and fade and be repainted. No one can be silver and angelic and dignified all the time, not even birthmark girl. It disarmed him, to see beneath her composed facade, like seeing your mother cry for the first time, realising that your parents are just people and not superheroes. Recognising and understanding her fragility is like an ice bath for Alex – breathtaking, and bizarrely refreshing.
After the initial shock wears off, he begins to worry. What happened to her before work? He hopes his boss ignores her look of general disarray. Maybe, if he does, if she sticks around, he will actually get to talk to her. But she is at the counter now, speaking to his boss. Flapping her hands and bouncing on the balls of her feet. Her back is to him but her body language suggests flustered and profusely apologetic; probably explaining her lateness.
It seems cruel to Alex that she hasn’t even looked at him, even though he has spent his entire week sketching the curve of her mouth. He tries not to take it personally, but the hours wear on and the restaurant fills. She regains composure and returns to walking with her chin angled upward, a proud porcelain doll with newly painted skin. But still, she doesn’t look at him. At first he manages to convince himself that she is simply busy and overwhelmed. Too preoccupied with waiting tables to spare a second for the dish boy. After a while, this pretence becomes hard to believe. When she collects food from the hole in the wall near Alex’s dishwasher, her face is blank. She keeps her eyes straight, like waitressing is a balancing act that requires her to pick a stationary focal point from which she cannot avert her gaze, lest she fall over. Alex is sure that not looking at him is a concentrated effort on her part. He can feel the energy between them. Magnetic. She seems determined to repel.
When she leaves, it is 8pm, an hour before his shift finishes. By this time, she has spent three entire hours resolutely ignoring his eyes. His fingers ache, pruned and grey from hours spent damp with dishwater. She grabs her orange cardigan, discarded in the heat of rush hour, from behind the counter. Thanks the boss for his time, heads out with swift steps, like she’s flying. Alex watches her go.