I was sixteen and in high school when I first noticed Natalie. We didn’t meet. I noticed her. Noticed her like you’d notice a scratch or mark on your skin. A graze that you would swear had not been there before. A small wound on your flesh that you couldn’t stop picking at until it ripped open and bled thick and warm. Blood like all things, waiting below the surface to breathe.
I was walking with a small group of kids to English Literature class. The first lesson of that day. The only class I still went to. I can’t remember what exactly we were talking about. The bullshit conversation of adolescents. All those memories are hazy now. Hazy except for Natalie.
Natalie and the blood.
I heard it. Her. A painful cry that ripped through the small talk of whatever it was we were laughing about. I glanced over towards the noise and I saw her kneeling there wailing, holding her bloody face in her bloody hands. Praying before an alter. She had tripped on the cracked cement paving of the courtyard, fallen and smashed her cheek on the corner of the concrete steps that lead into the English block.
The world went silent.
I walked over to her. I did not run. I just walked over. Cautiously, like someone would approach an injured and snarling but beautiful animal. A wolf in a bear trap in woodland.
I held out the handkerchief my mother had stuffed into the pocket of my jeans the day she’d left home for good.
“Just in case”, she’d said.
Just in case. What the fuck that had meant I’d never known.
A cheap, brown and white, cheque handkerchief. It was the only thing my mother left me with, when she walked out. Walked out and walked away. But that is a different story and a different scar altogether.
I held out the handkerchief to Natalie. I remember it hung from my hand, gently moving and swaying slightly in the breeze for what seemed like an empty minute. Without even glancing at me she snatched it away and pushed it, crumpled to her face. Maybe she was embarrassed or maybe she was just proud, I never found out, because I never asked. Even though I always wanted to.
Natalie held the handkerchief to the gaping gash underneath her Irish coloured eye, trying to stop the bleeding, stem the flow. We both just stood there and stared down at the droplets of red on the grey concrete. I remember thinking that the blood on the steps looked like little rivers and pools of crimson. The handkerchief balled to the wound was like the head of a rose. It was like something from a biblical story.
We were late for class; neither of us said anything to each other. Standing there in the shade of the empty courtyard not looking at each other. She handed me back the blood-soaked handkerchief and I stuffed it back into my jacket pocket.
To this day that brown stained hanky has always been with me. I keep it on my body at all times. Close to my chest, close to my heart like it’s a crucifix or memento mori of our beginning and our end.
Neither of us went to our classes that day. Natalie went to the school nurse and I went outside of school to have a cigarette. I sat down on an overturned garbage bin by some garages, the place where all the kids went to do the things that were forbidden for high school kids to do. I sat and watched the blue and grey smoke wash in front of my eyes like the incense my mother used to light around our apartment and thought about Natalie. I couldn’t exorcise the image of her blood and tear-stained face from my mind. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. A blood-soaked face of some kind of mortally injured angel.
After that day I can’t recollect how we became close, but we did. Maybe I walked her home after school one day or maybe I asked to copy her homework, I can’t remember. It was long ago. Too long ago now. The smaller details of it all are now just smoky murmurs at the back of my mind. Memories and hangovers. Whispers of the good times within the shadows of the comedowns. But we became close and we became close quickly.
Natalie came from a broken home. Like me. Perhaps that is why we got close. We were both unwanted products of dysfunctional families. We understood each other. Her father was a drinker and an animal, and her mother left when she was twelve years old as well. When my father was home, I made sure I wasn’t. I was with Natalie. Natalie was with me. That’s how we began. That’s how we ended.
Natalie was beautiful. She didn’t know it, but she was. Beautiful like something else. It was a broken and used-up kind of grace. A bouquet of rain-soaked flowers and silk ribbons laid to rest at the side of an empty lane where someone had died in a car wreck. The pink fleshy scar that ripped along the side of her face only highlighted that beauty and it was a constant reminder of how we’d met. How we collided into each other. Like my handkerchief, Natalie had her own memento mori and she wore the stigmata proudly like it was a tattoo of my name carved into the soft flesh of her features. She had eyes that didn’t see you; they cut and sliced deep inside you like serrated blades. If you saw her walking, you would really think she was dancing, gliding. Walking on water. And she was. She was.
I can remember the very first time that I kissed her. I remember she tasted like a cocktail of soda, cigarettes and cherry chewing gum and her tongue slid over mine so delicately it felt as though something died and then was reborn. The first time I fucked her is sewn into the fabric of my consciousness. She was my first and my last. She ripped my virginity from my body like it was a dead skin. I wasn’t her first. Not by any measure but it didn’t matter. We had something and I was her last.
We shared many summers doing nothing. Spent hours drinking cheap wine in the greenery of the park until we vomited, sniffing glue until we saw red and blue flash in our eyes, smoking weed until it felt as though we had sunk into the freshly cut grass. Unmarked graves. Mostly we talked about nothing and said nothing, like, I suppose, only lovers can. We would fuck in a field behind our high school underneath a large oak tree with our initials carved into the bark. Sun and blood-soaked nostalgia.
Summers rinsed away and decayed into years.
We grew up.
We got jobs.
We caught different subways to work.
The world surprised us with its brittle seriousness, and we surprised ourselves.
We changed and were changed.
I remember the day, we were drinking wine in her apartment and smoking a little weed. Both a bit drunk. Both a bit high. Natalie had her head on my shoulder and her long blonde hair was tangling down my chest. I was tracing the edges of her scar with my fingertips. The television was on and the volume was turned all the way down. We were listening to the sounds of the rain underneath the wheels of the cars passing by on the street below.
She asked me to marry her, through the sounds of rain, she asked me. There was a heavy silence that crept into the room stalking after her words like an animal with claws that suffocated the atmosphere. I didn’t answer. I didn’t say anything, and she never asked again. I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t. I thought of my mother and said nothing.
I was twenty-two when Natalie told me about the pregnancy. She didn’t tell me until one evening when we were eating dinner together at an Italian restaurant, downtown. Celebrating a new job, she’d gotten doing the photography for an online fashion magazine. She started weeping just after the main course had arrived. Thick clear tears slid from her eyes and made grey stains on the white tablecloth. I scraped my chair next to hers and kissed the scar on her cheek. Feeling the smoothness of it underneath my lips fleetingly and tasting the tears, hot and wet and tasting of her. I put my arm around her neck and held her close, breathing her into my lungs.
A fucking Italian restaurant, downtown. That is where she chose to tell me. When she had to tell me. She had gotten pregnant. She wasn’t sure if the child was mine. It could’ve been someone else’s. An ex coworker’s. She claimed they’d gotten drunk at a company party, they’d only fucked once, it was a terrible mistake, but she’d gotten pregnant and she’d had the kid aborted.
I am not a good enough wordsmith to write the words for the feelings that I felt then. Looking down at the soggy pasta on the plate in front of me. I suppose I don’t need to. I’m sure most people have experienced the feeling. That feeling of your world rotting and falling apart around you. The drop of the gallows as you realize the reality that you witnessed, that you lived was nothing more tangible than a commercial on a cracked television screen. An all-encompassing sensation of a suicide bomber walking into the very centre of your world and blowing the whole fucking thing to a bloody paste.
When she told me through the ugly, crocodile tears, I remember I picked up the spoon from my plate as though it was a dagger and then placed it back down. I moved my water glass a few inches to the left and then back to the right. I scratched at my face. Bit down on my lip and put my hands underneath the table and squeezed them into fists. And then I walked out of the restaurant into a night that was darker and colder than night had ever been before. She never came after me. I never expected her to.
I was thirty-five years old and back in the city of my upbringing when I saw her again. She was on the subway holding hands with two little children who shared their mothers shocking blonde hair and green eyes. She looked so much older. The scar on her face had almost completely faded away. A sign that she’d buried me in her past as though I was just another guy who’d fucked her and disposed of her. I pulled the collar of my jacket up, put my face in my hands and then got off at the stop after hers. I sat down on a bench, wheezing and waiting for the next train. The handkerchief choked in my clammy hand waiting to catch tears that couldn’t come.
I remember all this. Natalie. As I sit here at my dining table reading a newspaper. When I look away from the eyes in the grainy photograph underneath the headline, I’m squeezing the handkerchief in my fingers. I can’t even recall taking it from my breast pocket. The body they’d found last week in woodland had finally been identified, as I knew it would.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen J. Golds was born in London, U.K, but has lived in Japan for most of his adult life. He enjoys spending time with his daughters, reading books, travelling, boxing and listening to old Soul LPs. Glamour Girl Gone his debut novel will be released by Close to The Bone Press January 29th, 2021.