One day I built a platform. I’d acquired four sturdy plastic crates, the kind that carry milk cartons, and a five-by-five piece of plywood. I arranged the crates into corners of a square before my window, lay the plywood atop them and my patio chair atop the plywood. Nestled my soundbar beneath; Ocean, calm day cued.

Carefully mounting lest I flip the works I took my seat facing the window. From this vantage I could look out at the hills as well as below to the asphalt. Captain of my room, high on the bridge of my mystery ship, I inertly set sail, eyes on the horizon, unsinkable. Until the sun went down and I had to drop anchor, start dinner.

All I really ask of life is to be kept safe from bodily harm. Reasonably safe. Before you get on your high horse I fully accept that bad things happen and chances are sooner or later one or two of them will happen to me, including, for example, getting my head smacked, maybe some teeth knocked out. But do I have to wake up every morning waiting for it? May I please walk down the street without suspecting that the guy on the corner, the truck passing by, some flying object within range is liable to strike me down?

Thoughts while one day sorting laundry, three piles—whites, colors, and those that might be added to the smaller of the other two. As I bent and rose, picking and placing my towels and socks and boxers, I tasted blood. No, hadn’t been smacked. A weeks-old cold sore centered low on my philtrum had burst and begun running. A nasty place for it as every time I’d open my mouth to eat, drink, yawn, or speak, the scab would crack and bleed again. I’d kept it salved but that would only last until the next time I blew my nose or used a napkin, often enough. After a couple of days I gave up. It was ugly and in the middle of my face, a crusty little beacon that shone wherever I turned my head. But it wouldn’t last forever. Meantime, it would catch people’s eye, and I accepted that. No mystery.

No, but what I’d like to avoid is getting beat up, run over, or, variously, lacerated, charred, compacted or impaled. And since I will never consciously do anything to occasion much less provoke such event, I would hope that my risk for suffering the same be reduced as close as feasible to zero, accounting for the purely random. It’s pain, disability, long hospital stays, recurring interviews with jaded, cynical police detectives, one’s life and household falling apart, mold growing, vermin proliferating, unpaid bills piling, the whole ball of wax that follows being struck down that I’m asking to go without. I don’t want it, and while I’m not arrogant enough to say, “I won’t have it,” I do make the simple request that day to day, year to year, I not have to expect it. Please.

After blotting the scab, I yoked my bike with my twin bags and pedaled to the laundromat. About twenty minutes into the wash cycle I was sitting at the end of a row of molded chairs reading Tender Is the Night, when something distracted me. I raised my head and there she was.

Now here’s a question: Why, when there is no cold sore, rash, or other eruption, do people look at me? With any agitation carefully suppressed, as though I might be the babysitter who fondled them when they were five, or, less plausibly, the cousin who in a fit of mania disappeared long ago into the Yukon? Granted, this doesn’t happen every day—and sometimes it’s just a glance in the street, albeit lingering a half-second too long to be incidental. If it did happen every day, then fine, I would simply have to conclude that my appearance was somehow remarkable. But here’s what’s interesting: most people don’t look at me at all. No, it’s only a very few—maybe two a week on average—who do. Still, that’s over a hundred a year. So I have to wonder, who are these people, and what are they trying to tell me? Is it alienation or recognition they’re conveying? Do they see some obscure mark on my brow, some unmistakable signifier? Will one of them finally oblige me by alluding to it obliquely, suggesting its meaning? Or is it rather something repellent they see, something so disturbing they risk being rude in expressing their consternation? Or do they simply see who I’ve become?

A girl—first term that comes to mind, she was at least 40—buttocks to washer maybe twelve feet away, was watching me. She had big brown eyebrows and wide hair, sported flip-flops and dust-colored sacking, and when I looked back at her she didn’t look away. I lifted a brow as if to say, “Aren’t you just a little ashamed to be caught staring at my herpes?” when clearly she wasn’t. She took my look, evidently, as an invitation.

Maybe this has happened to you. You look in the mirror and you don’t know what you’re looking at. There’s a head, some hair, ears flared, nose foreshortened, eyes narrowed: a face no doubt, and one that forced to identify you’d readily attribute your name, if only because it corresponds to pictures boxed up in your closet—but how it corresponds to who you are as you stand there seems remote. Look a moment longer, of course, and it all comes softly crashing back: that’s you alright, having never been anyone else.

She sat down right beside me, even though the next seat was unoccupied, violating the rule of leaving an empty seat between self and stranger, if only to buffer for inadvertent spittle. “Hi there,” she said, showing most of her teeth.

“Hello,” I said, finger in my book, stupidly thinking I’d soon return to it.

“Reading?” she asked needlessly but avidly, face bright.

“I am,” I said. “You?”

“Nope,” she said. I watched her eyes—they didn’t once drop to my chancrous lip. She obviously wanted something from me. “What’s you name?” she asked and I told her. “I’m Cremora,” she said.

“Could you spell that for me?” She did, and I imagined her christening herself before a big jar of it one wretched morning. The right cup of coffee can lead to decisions like that. “I believe that name is trademarked.”

“Fair use,” she said. “Haven’t made a dime.”

Sure, I could be delusional, but assume for now I’m not. Assume it’s happening to you. What do you make of it? Really, I’d like to know. Or—and maybe this is what I fear most—does it happen to you, does it in fact happen to everyone, obliviously endured as part of the human condition, and I’m the only one who cares?

But then, if so, so what? Either there’s something remarkable about my face to a small but significant segment of humanity—say 4%—or I am myself among a small segment—comprising roughly one?—who finds remarkable, baffling, discomfiting, an utterly ordinary behavior of the species? In either event, what am I supposed to do about it? If the former, do I expect the 4% to cordially respond to my What are you looking at? And if the latter, how can my discomfiture be met with anything but eye-rolling or alarm? What choice have I but to accommodate the mystery, live as though there were none? If I want to stay safe.

She actually asked if I’d noticed the sky that morning. I started to shrug but she interrupted. “Always up there,” she said, “a new painted canopy to admire. A ceiling, yet infinite; try to reach it, fly up to touch it, and you’d go on forever . . . ” or something like that. Her hands, which flitted when she talked, were stained and chewed up around the fingers.

Maybe that’s why I stay home so much. Yes, mystery penetrates the walls of my room, but it floats here within a manageable frame. I can sit on my platform and contemplate it, cocktail in one hand, memo pad in the other, music—say Gordon Lightfoot or Debussy—wafting up around me, and the mystery becomes something I encompass, enfold within the circle of my sensibility, instead of the other way around.

But as fully as life is contained in this place called home, I do need to leave, nearly every day. Enter the world, source of food, furnishings, books, landscapes, encounters. The uncanny thing is, after I’ve left, the very moment I’ve gotten as far away as I’m going to get, I start thinking about coming home again. First, compulsively checking the time in relation to train, bus, or ferry schedules, gauging the latest I should start back, accompanied by a mild anxiety that gradually turns to near abject longing. But whatever the type or intensity, these feelings filter the experience of where I am. It’s seeing everything through the hard lens of home, including analogs of daily life. For example, if I’m walking through a different neighborhood—say, Eagle Rock—one afternoon and pass a laundromat, I might step inside and imagine myself putting my dirty clothes in the washers, which washers are in the wrong place—even though their placement may objectively seem reasonable, even typical—vis-à-vis the laundromat I frequent near home. We may argue about lighting, layout, traffic flow, etc., but right and wrong shouldn’t enter into it. Besides, instinct seldom yields to argument.

Lingering just inside the door of an unfamiliar laundromat, arms crossed, head tilted dog-style, eyes slowly scanning the scene, might in fact be an invitation to open stares—but no, that’s not what I’m talking about.

I didn’t comment; she solicited none. Through the hiss of machines she rattled on about the tension between eternity and now, and the essential necessity of all that is. “Everything is all right,” she said, “and so are you.” Well, that sounded promising so I started thinking. It would be at least another week before the cold sore was gone. Meantime, how could I stay on her radar? I was liking her face. But she seemed restless, and my wash cycle was nearly complete. “We should stay in touch,” I said out loud, startling myself. “What’s your number?”

Oh,” she said, “I don’t have one.” Of course.

“Email?” I said, but she had gotten up and was striding down an aisle of washers, spanking the lids on either side. I followed, stopped at my pair, yanked them open, grabbed armfuls of wet wash and hustled them to a dryer, fumbled in six quarters, and turned to find her. She was looking at the bulletin board, hands on hips, going up and down on her toes. She was short.

I tapped on her shoulder, pulled out my memo pad and pen, bent over a counter and scribbled, then tore the little page from its spiral teeth and presented it. “Where I live,” I said. “Not easy to find so I drew a map.”

Hesitantly, she took it from me, and with eyes moistening—which made my eyes moisten—said, “Oh my God.” Then she took a push pin from the bulletin board and stuck my map up there. “This way I won’t lose it,” she said.

Suddenly I was nauseous. She must’ve noticed because, not bothering to pull the pin, she tore the paper off the board and said, “Psych!“ She put a hand on my shoulder, then dragged it down my chest like I was a horse, which felt amazing. She said, “I like your little map.”

I swallowed. “Come in a week, week-and-a-half, and I’ll be good again, okay?”

“You’re good now,” she said. “Good as can be.”

“Sure, but you know what I’m saying,” tongue fumbling over my lip.

“Do you know what I’m saying?” she said.

Probably not, I thought but tossed off another “Sure.”

“I really was teasing but you know what would be smart?” she asked, holding up her fist, my map squeezed into it, an edge sticking out. “Pinning this up on the board, so when anyone wants you, they’ll know where to go.”

“That’s not funny,” I said.

“No it’s not,” she said. “I’m not funny. But I’m right. And right now what’s right is for me to walk— right— out of here,” and with a genuine smile she turned to go.

“What about your laundry?”

“No such thing,” she said and was gone. Through the glass I watched her squinting in the glare before disappearing around the corner. That’s the image I held, a face squeezed like that, less pretty, even more likely to kiss me.

Walking home my body felt like a big stick bobbing along the street—actually four sticks, two moving me along the ground and two above for balance, all swinging in a rhythm so square I couldn’t have fallen over if I tried. I knew she’d come see me. The map was in her hand when she left. Ten days I’d told her. Long enough for me to heal but soon enough for her to remember. After nine days, without obsessing about it, I’d make it a point to be home from mid-afternoon through the night. I didn’t think she’d come earlier, and if she did and I was out, she’d come back later. Though if I wasn’t home later she might assume I’d forgotten. And the way she manhandled that map, it wouldn’t last forever. Meantime I’d make sure there were olives, gin, flatbread, a soft cheese, peaches maybe. It was peach season. I’d even put aside a little dish for pits, olive and peach, so I wouldn’t get flustered the day of.

The minute I got home I had to laugh. I’d left behind not only my bike but my laundry! My bike was chained but my clean wash up for grabs. I galloped back, the happy idiot. Some kind soul had taken it out of the dryer and piled it on the counter. In my mind I saw Cremora’s small hands, though that hardly made sense. She may have seen what dryer I used but—no. Not yet. I loaded my bike and rode home.

That week I felt an urge toward physically engaging with immovable objects, the idea being health, healing, breathing in. There was a playground in a park nearby, usually deserted in the early morning. In the dark I dressed in sweats, jogged over making fists, and swung from the monkey bars, rung to rung. I could only do three before dropping, straining my arm pits, but I did three sets. Did them every morning thereafter unless someone else was in the park, in which case I jogged home again, then ran up and down my stairs, feeling my toes push off the metal treads. I was soft but quick, with sharp reflexes and plenty of wind. She wasn’t going to wear me out.

In ten days time I was ready. A little scar on my lip but dry. I walked a mile out, a mile back, and was home well before three. Left my door open so through my steel mesh security gate I would see her coming. Of course that left me vulnerable to faces pressing against the mesh, hands shading brows: Mormons, meter readers, Girl Scouts, pollsters, trick-or-treaters, encyclopedia salesman—wait a minute, were they still out there? What year was this? How old was I?

The tenth day she didn’t come. I went about my business. Swept, mopped, read. The eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth days she didn’t come. I ate some of the olives, but kept the cheese intact. She didn’t come the fourteenth day. The peaches had ripened to brown so I ate them in a sitting. Made for a morning on the toilet. The fifteenth day she didn’t come. For the next week I bought three peaches a day, so there’d always be some at the peak of ripeness on the day she came. Worst came to worst I’d make a pie.

On the twenty-second day she didn’t come. By that time I’d done laundry again, twice, sitting in the same molded chair reading, watching the door, checking the bulletin board. Finished Tender Is the Night but it was a slog. I was beginning to wonder if I’d been fooled by her volubility. She could talk to me and I could listen, but what did she hear from me, what could she hang her desire on? Like floodwaters had she simply washed over me, and finding nothing to divert her on she went? I thought the map would be enough. But she’d taken a look, had her say, and was on her way.

The thirtieth day I did laundry for the third time and was home by three. She didn’t come, and I was sad. I was sad the next night and several nights after that. Soon I was sad long enough to forget why.

Then late one afternoon I was up on my platform having a martini, using up the olives, and I conjured her face one last time. But now she was a pop star, in leather skirt and studs instead of peasant sack. She held a microphone in her bitten fingers and sang a long, low, lonely note. Nothing could be lower or lonelier. “I loved you, you know,” I whispered but had I? Had she rather loved me? Briefly.

I chewed around an olive and having no dish spit the pit on the floor, well off the platform but in a trafficked area, where I knew I’d find it. It got dark. I drank up. Spit the other two pits in more or less the same place. Still had my teeth. I’d make a pie.  

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