Chance by Jake Wideman

I’m standing in the city bus, holding onto an overhead bar to keep my balance (too tall, really, for the straps), my stop just half a block away. The bus is idling at a red light, and I glance through the front windshield toward my apartment complex, on the opposite side of the street. I see a figure—hard to make out on this winter’s six-in-the-evening, almost dark, the nearest streetlight a good way up the block. Definitely a person, though, and most likely a woman judging by her height and those indefinable leave-no-doubt-I’m-a-woman traits that even a shadow exudes. And standing unnaturally still.

The bus is moving again. I tighten the straps of my backpack, tuck my helmet under one arm, and make my way through the restless bodies crowding the aisle tonight, toward the front doors just as the air brakes emit their startling hiss and the bus lurches to a stop. And I’m out, walking briskly around the back of the bus, jogging across the street at the first break in traffic, grateful for my liberation and the crisp late-evening air. A thrill of joy shimmers through me, a break-out exhilarating sense of freedom, when my hour on the bus, crammed body-to-body in a friggin’ moving spam can is done (too many memories…). I’m out, baby, ready to run. I hit the sidewalk and turn right for the short jaunt up to my complex…and there she is.

Motionless, again. Facing the street I just crossed. The first thing I make out when I get close enough for detail is her bare feet. On the edge of the concrete on an evening quickly edging from chilly to downright cold. Bare feet, and a loose, shapeless summer dress, slow dancing with the soughs of breeze gracing the avenue tonight.

The sidewalk is broad enough for me to slip past her with plenty of space between us, but I can’t. Those bare feet. So when I’m still a few feet away: “Hi.”

She’s been so perfectly still that I really don’t expect an answer; I imagine she’s lost in her own thoughts, memories, dreamscapes, entranced by something I cannot and have no right to know. The part of me that dreams protests the intrusion of even my simple greeting. But—what if she needs me?

She turns her eyes on me, wide-open, translucent eyes of an indescribable jade that make my heart tremble at the depths revealed there.

“Hi yourself.” Her voice gentle but full, bold, somehow, as well.

Those eyes, that voice—it takes me a moment to get anywhere near center again.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

“No.” A pause. “But can I borrow your phone?”

My truculent phone, as it is wont to do, lost all of its charge at the construction site.

“Of course. But I need to plug it in. My apartment’s right up here.”

Her silence is pregnant with the ancient suspicions and trepidations such a proposal tends to evoke in women, no matter how innocently made. Something more intimately personal, too, casts a brief shadow over her gaze. I see it, and my face begins to grow warm, my stomach shrinks and goes rigid. How could I not have known better? And then she merely nods and gestures with an open palm toward my home, and I let go of a breath I hardly knew I was holding.

I lead her into the maze of apartments, careful to avoid any shortcuts that would take us off the sidewalk and on to harsher ground. A few times I glance over my shoulder to make sure she’s still here, for she moves in utter silence. No audible padding of feet or exhalations, no words or wordless exclamations, no scent carried to me on the wisps of wind circulating here. Each time I look back her pearlescent eyes meet mine in unreadable configurations.

It makes me uneasy.

Up a long flight of crushed stone steps that must pain her bare feet, and we are there. I hold my door open for her and then feel moved to close it only part way. I know the feeling of being locked into unfamiliar rooms. She looks back and sees the space there, and breathes a quiet “thank you.” I flip on all the lights, turn up the thermostat, take my backpack to my bedroom, and re-emerge with an extra pair of slippers (which she refuses) and my phone and cord in hand. Perched on a stool at my kitchen counter, she watches me plug my phone in next to her. I ask if she’d like anything to drink or eat. She seems about to say something, stops herself, and asks only for a glass of water. And then she’s on the phone.

As I get busy pulling out my usual microwave dinner and bottle of vitamin water, plus one for her, I hear her leave a message and then slap my phone down on the counter with a little more force than necessary. When I look, her eyes have gone hard, glittering. She must sense one of my questions as I hand her her drink. “Son of a bitch. Never does what he says—worst kind of man,” she growls.

Surprising, and not. When she lifts her eyes to mine, they are unapologetic. Waiting. Intense. Is this the same person I met in the street deep in reverie, who followed me home without a sound?

While she waits and stares, I try to see. And I’m drawn back to those bare feet, that dress so far away from what’s familiar, what’s here, when (so out of time…). Again, she knows. “Stop it.” Rigidly.

I turn away and, despite her refusals, grab some crackers and mixed nuts from a cupboard—the only snacks on hand—and some cheese from the refrigerator, and put a plateful in front of her. Despite herself, it is clear, and after keen hesitation, she offers a fleeting smile and surrenders to a handful of nuts.

As I’m waiting for the timer to go off on my oven, not looking now, retreating from a vulnerability I’ve fought to forget, she suddenly asks, “Mind if I try again? Girlfriend this time.” With a short, meaningful bark of laughter.

“Do your thing,” I reply.

This time she connects. Says somebody’s name I can’t make out, and without further prologue asks her friend to pick her up. Covers my phone with long, graceful fingers and immaculately polished, flesh-colored nails. “What’s your address here?”

I give it to her, she relays it, asks how long it will be, and then says perkily, “See you in ten!” And puts the phone back down, easier this time.

She looks at me with those beguiling, ravishing eyes. And waits. I suspect a challenge, and don’t begin to know how to respond. Very quickly it is too much, and I turn back to the microwave and its steady hum, the plate inside turning in small, inimitable arcs. Behind me, after a moment, she whispers, “I’m sorry.”

I can’t turn around. For time unknown, I feel her gaze on my back, softer now, cooler, maybe even caressing. But I can’t look, don’t want to see; and somewhere deep down, wordlessly, I sense that neither does she.

The microwave dings and I pull out my dinner. How I want to offer her some, and so much more. But I wait, wait, pretending to stir what doesn’t need stirring, fighting myself; and when I turn back toward the counter, all that’s left of her is that partially open door…

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