It was a bright, cloudy day in the middle of October. Soft rain drizzled from the sky. Each fell like a whisper onto the ears of the streets. Silent and surreptitious. A heavy smog hung in the air, smothering those below, while the metallic monuments gracing the clouds vanished into the dull gray of the sky.
A symphony played at this time, precisely 7:25 in the morning. The screech of tires, blaring horns and endless echoes of conversation created a paradigm of harmonies to be envied even by the connoisseurs of music. It spiraled into a dull moan that faded into the dingy, colorless background.
Splashes of color dotted the plain grays of this canvas--lover’s fervent embrace, the ecstasy of a company owner after closing a business deal, the jubilant arabesques of a prima ballerina, and the smile of a writer, spectating the world from a crack in his curtains barely wide enough for a hand to slip through. He sees all, he hears all. He is the voice of knowledge, civilization's treasure. Through his pen he sings the gospels of every Lord, and on his pages, he paints murals of all he has witnessed. He, like all artists, is immortal; to be preserved through the wear of time in his immutable works.
Crumpled papers polluted the carpet and swallowed the tables like a swarm of termites. Nothing was ever good enough. Not for him, not for the publishers. He could never write anything worthy. Action scene after action scene. Romance after romance. They all fell lifeless to the floor. The remains of worn classics and Shakespearean works, encased in dust, were trapped behind a near-indestructible barrage of the most recent best-sellers on the rickety, black bookshelf.
His eyes bore into the scene below. His hand twitched, veins pulsing, shaking off a few droplets of ink from the pointed nib of his fountain pen.
Something caught his eye. A red umbrella.
It rose high into the air as if it was reaching for the nonexistent sun. Holding it was a young woman. A glossy sheen of mahogany hair spiraled down her back. She gripped an ebony briefcase as large as the Domino’s Pizzas he orders so frequently. Her back was as straight as a board, and she stood with the rigidity of a toy-soldier.
The woman’s black pumps scuffed the sidewalk. She turned around and almost magically, her brown eyes settled onto his. A spark ignited. The world came alive. A trash can tumbled with a crash. A door slammed, followed by the angry hisses of a cat.
He clutched at his heart as a riveting ache spread across his chest. His heart pounded erratically in his ears and rivulets of sweat dripped down his back.
Then, she was gone.
Just like that, with a snap of his fingers, those prepossessing brown eyes that gripped his soul were carried away by the wind.
His breath caught in his throat as he uttered a single, strangled cry. The pen fell to the ground, landing with a thump on the snow-white carpet. It left a blotch of black ink that would forever memorialize this moment. He snatched up his worn derby hat and red saddle shoes so trite they were more gray than their previous red. In seconds, he was out the door.
The world was a blur as his feet took flight. His rapid breaths turned into ice in the chilly autumn air. He ran in search of that red umbrella and those black pumps. He ran until his breath came in ragged gasps and the beating in his chest was dulled only by the spinning of his head.
Deprived of the energy to continue, he ambled to a nearby, familiar cafe. His feet tripped over themselves, scuffling along the grime-littered cement. His chin dipped to his chest as he hung his head in dejection. Along the way, he saw flashes of color like an aurora borealis:
Neon green nikes attached to the strong calves of a runner, ivory clogs accompanied by professional white slacks, black, leather business shoes polished to a shine, and streaks of burgundy heels like accents on a cake.
The red shoes were those of artists, the ones that release themselves through expression. They speak to the world in hidden undertones and a secret code only understood by those who know it or have been given the key. Those red shoes were just like his, yet so very different.
Unbeknownst to him, he saw more of humanity in that moment than in all his social studies classes put together. The colors of mankind were finally laid bare.
Alas, he reached the cafe. THE GREAT ESCAPE. The letters were a swirly print laid on a cracking wooden board. Red bricks and a moldy roof gave it an authentic and quaint feel. The entire cafe was sandwiched between a large, metal bank office and glass shopping center. A speck of dust on an immaculate private jet. The distinction only added to it’s antiquity.
The door creaked as he stepped inside. This time the bell was silent, probably because the manager had been out again and was too intoxicated to notice.
He took his regular spot next to the wall-there were no windows-and reclined onto the rickety metal chair.
“Green tea please,” he mentioned to the waitress as she scurried past. This time, it was a pale girl with at least five piercings, dark bags under her eyes covered sloppily by smears of mascara, and greasy hair hanging about her face like the branches of a rampant willow tree. He almost choked on the stench of smoke as she sauntered by. He was sure there would be a new one next time. They never stayed for long.
There was a whoosh as the door flung open. He didn’t bother looking up, engrossed by his failure to pursue the woman.
The seat behind him screeched. Clickety, click. Manicured nails tapped the table agitatedly.
He was usually ignorant of distracting noises, but today, the sound drove him nuts. He whirled around.
“Sto--” The word died on his lips. There she sat. Mere inches away. So close that he could smell her perfume and feel her breath on his lips.
Then, he tore away like he was slapped. A flush creeped up his neck and his heart began pounding in his chest again. He was sure she could hear. He was sure the waitress could hear. He was sure the whole world could hear him in that moment, flustered and--.
“You. You were watching me.”
Her voice broke through his thoughts. It was the first time he’d heard it. However, it was different than he imagined. It was rough and gravily. Not at all like the shrill whistles of a woman who did business. He nodded mutely.
“That would be correct.”
“Why?” Her eyes narrowed at him and her tone lost all its previously civility. It sounded like chipping ice.
“Because, you’re just like me,” he croaked. “You have the eyes of someone who doesn’t belong. Someone who can’t find her place in this world. Someone whose life is meaningless.”
The color drained from her face. Her bottom lip quivered violently. The coldness in her eyes died away to melancholy. A wave of recognition washed over her. Like Jesus rising, a new light shone through.
“Who are you?”
He shrugged. “Writer.”
She straightened in her chair and leaned closer. “An artist. What do you write?”
“Action, romance. What the crowds enjoy, what the publisher wants.”
She frowned and leaned back. A petulant pout played on her plump lips. “Sounds like my job. Do what the manager says, do as the customer commands. Say whatever to sell the goods.”
She reached down to adjust her heels. “Curse these wrecks,” she muttered.
He looked down. Her black pumps, albeit being freshly shined, were gray. Although it was unnoticable from a distance, up close, the difference in color was unmistakable. She stretched her legs and he caught a flash of crimson. A smile crept onto his face. Her heels were rose-red on the bottom, the only thing giving them the least bit of distinction.
He snorted. “Ye ain't much ’o a business gal are ya.” His small-town southern accent slipped through unconsciously. He mentally rebuked himself. He had been doing such a great job of acting like a native from New York.
Her eyes widen. “What do you mean.”
“When you were a little girl, what did you want to be.”
“Business,” came the curt response.
“Fine, a dancer.”
He smiled. “I had guessed, you’re an artist too.”
Her eyes clouded. “Not anymore. Life got in the way. Parents, society, expectations.”
He gave her a bitter and understanding smile. Simply remembering his family was a painful ordeal. He hadn’t spoken to any of them after leaving Yale with a degree in literature instead of law. “Have you ever considered going back?”
There was a pause. Abruptly, she stood, almost knocking over her untouched coffee in the process. She lazily slapped a few dollars on the table, not bothering to count for change.
“I should go.” She grabbed her briefcase.
“Wait. Aren’t you even going to consider becoming a dancer?”
“And end up like you? I don’t think so.” Her eyes flicked to his stained, tousled jacket and back to her preened, Gucci coat. The implication was obvious. “Besides, you’ve hardly done the same.”
“I regret it now and you’ve given me the courage to change my ways.”
“Well,” she snapped, “I hope that goes splendidly for you.” A polite and reserved smile twitched on her lips. She turned towards the door.
He opened his mouth. He had to ask it. “Are you happy?”
That stopped her in her tracks. “What?”
“Are you happy? The point of life is to be happy. When all of humanity is laid bare, we exist only to be happy. It’s the only thing that distinguishes our existence from that of machines. What’s the meaning of living if you can’t enjoy it?” He said it simply, as if stating one plus one equals two.
Her eyes grew moist and her lower lip began quivering again. “What about you,” she whispered. “What’s the meaning of your life?”
He was shocked at this comment. He had never given any time to consider himself before. He had always been observing others, analyzing multifarious characters from classical works, and studying the actions of humans as a whole; all for the purpose of developing a story. He laid back in his chair and pondered for a long, drawn-out moment. That’s when an epiphany hit him.
“Ah-ha!” he cried aloud, startling the waitress. He fled through the cafe doors and back to his apartment. He began typing frantically. His fingers flew across the typewriter. For two whole months he thought of nothing else. He barely slept or ate, and didn’t dare leave his desk. Not until finally, finally, he was done.
Heaven had delivered something to him more precious than his soul. He finally had it, a story.
He sighed triumphantly and treated himself to a night of T.V and Baskin Robbins. He flipped through the channels, scanning each scene as they flashed by. A laughing man with a potbelly, the sizzling pan of a chef, a dancer with mahogany hair. He froze and backtracked to the channel with the dancer. She was spiraling on one foot, her tutu swirling round and round. She lifted her arms and took flight, a bird soaring through all limitations and embracing itself.
His face cracked into a brilliant smile. It was her. He knew it must be her. The dancer turned to face the camera. He leaned forward in anticipation. The carton of red-velvet ice cream fell to the ground.
She had blue eyes.
A pit grew in his stomach. It wasn’t her.
Later that week, he was jubilantly returning from a shopping spree. Brilliant maroon boat shoes graced his feet. He whistled a bright tune, Summer by Vivaldi. The incident with the woman was nearly forgotten. Suddenly, a shrill scream split the air.
He turned towards the noise. A large crowd had gathered on Freedom Avenue. He ran over and pushed through the mass of people. A taxi was parked in the middle of the road, holding up the long line of city traffic. From the taxi protruded two pale legs. The legs were attached to grey, shiny pumps. The pumps had a red heel.
He felt as if he was encased in a dream. The world began spinning once more, the ground was seconds from caving in.
When he arrived home, he pulled out his pen and a slip of paper. Immediately, he began scribbling, forming words from the bevy of thoughts swirling through his brain. Rereading his scrawled letters for the tenth time, he decided to make an addition to the final scene before shipping the book off to a myriad of publishing companies.
The happiest people find the shoe that fits perfectly, and they find the matching one. While the others, we get left behind. Tossed the shoes that are too big, the wrong color, or pinch us in the toes. The world is an endless walkway of shoes created by some greater power. The only thing we can do is try to find the one that fits.
At least she was free, he thought. Free from the pain of the world and the burdens of life. A cry of maniacal laughter escaped his body.
He didn’t even know her name.