Veins of Ink
The first time I saw her, I knew I had to make her mine.
It wasn’t the way her eyelashes blinked, like the wings of a hummingbird seen in slow motion. It wasn’t her smile, wide like an ocean wave, making the waiter bringing her the coffee walk with a lighter step. It wasn’t even the shape of her body, which looked as if I could almost surround her waist with my calloused hands and lift her up in the air. It was the way she held that pen, poised atop the sheet of paper with a playful seriousness. I felt such anticipation, as if the moment the pen kissed the paper a dream would float out of its tip and settle down with a sigh.
I’d been washing dishes and lifting crates of beer and soda in and out of restaurants for three years now. My arms had been weak when I began. They were thick and hard now like two logs, the veins running down them like rivers of green ink, where I knew words were floating, dragged along the current like dead fish. When I started working, I told myself that I would write poems every night after work. I wrote one or two per day to start with, but as the days progressed, I became more tired, having only enough energy to get myself home and plop down on the mattress. I had kept the poems tacked on the wall, as a reminder of the promise I made myself, but I took them down eventually. I couldn’t throw them away for some reason, so I put them in a box, and kept them in a corner of the room. A corner I always made my eyes avoid.
If you work in a restaurant, you start to hate eating out. You learn most places aren’t as clean as you’d like them to be. You know everyone is in such a rush they don’t have time to wash the glass bottles they serve water in. You understand the smiles are just part of the uniform, and the heart is far away, trying not to think too much about what’s happening. So I hadn’t eaten out in a long time, but that day was my birthday, the day I saw her.
It’s a special day, I said to myself. Get your favorite book, get an outside table and order a coffee. Don’t forget to be nice; waiters can hold your life in their hands.
After only one glance at her, I wasn’t afraid anymore. She exists, she is real. I let my eyes glance over the words of my book, but I wasn’t paying attention, not really. For the first time I wasn’t working, and I wasn’t not working, and I didn’t feel guilty about it. She must have noticed I was staring because she looked up at me with a knowing face. She threw a fast one, a smile at me, and it hit me hard. It lasted one second. Then she bent over her paper once again and the pen flew over it so fast smoke seemed to rise out of it. She stopped, glanced at me, then scribbled madly again. Whenever the pen halted, she would look up, make note of something new: my hand holding the cup, the difference between the pages I’d read and the ones to be read, and off went the pen again.
All right, I said, it’s your birthday. Perhaps you’ll have some luck. I picked up my cup and my book and I approached her. I have never done this so my heart starts to do jumping-jacks inside of me. My brain makes the emergency siren go off. Ignore them, says a voice.
Hi, I say. Mind if I join you?
The pen stops. Her eyes look up, and another bright one hits me straight in the chest. “No,” she says. “I don’t mind.” She rummages inside her bag for something, and brings out another pen and another sheet of paper. “Join me,” she says and gives them to me. This was her first present.
I tell her I don’t write. She doesn’t listen, she just scribbles away, taking a break only to look around her, her pen resting on her lips before resuming its skating journey across the paper. I shrug my shoulders and sit down next to her. I glaze the paper with the pen she gave me. I write a couple of words, stop, write a couple more. The ink poured from her hand like a long waterfall, like a furious rainstorm. The ink spluttered and dripped from mine like a leak in an old ceiling. Still, a drop is a drop. Without water there’s no life.
We sat there the whole morning. She, making the pen bleed and I, making mine spit. When it was time to eat lunch, she stood up, put pen and paper inside her bag, and started off.
Wait, I told her. Can I see you again? Do you want to meet again?
She thought for a second then nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Next weekend. But you provide the place and supplies next. I like pens with green ink. Remember.” She turned around and walked off.
I asked her to wait once again. She didn’t know where I lived.
“I know,” her voice said. I could hear the laughter hidden inside it. “And I know that you’re boiling over to get those words out of your veins. They are rotting in there.” The sunlit street swallowed her and I was left standing alone. Who was this woman?
That’s how our friendship began. She began to come every Saturday morning. I made coffee for both of us, and we sat at the old wooden table in my apartment, where I had eaten a breakfast of toast and milk for three years. The paper and pens were always on me, but the words, and the sighs and the inspiration were all thanks to her. That was her second present.
Perhaps I was falling in love, but it didn’t feel like it. You know when you are a kid and you go to the circus or the movies or a play for the first time? When everything and everyone around you but the show fades away? That’s what it felt like. Strange, but fun. There were no dishes anymore, no crates, no angry voices yelling at me to hurry up. There was just her and me and our words.
I never read anything that she wrote, and she never glanced at my paper, but our words were the same. As the weeks went past she would take longer breaks, and I would write more and more. She would fall asleep with her head on her arm, the wind rustling her pages and her hair, which swam above the table like dark ink in water. When it was time to leave, she would gather her things and ask me to lead her downstairs.
I only fell asleep one time, when my shift the night before had gone on longer than usual. She had walked to the corner of my room, opened the box, and taken out my old poems. She tacked them around my room once again. Any other person, and I would have been embarrassed, enraged even. With her, I did not mind at all. She had become part of me.
One Saturday afternoon, sixth months later, I led her down the steps as usual. She walked ahead of me, and I could gaze at her long, black hair, draping her back like silk. She waited for me to open the door and stepped outside.
Wait, I said for the last time before she had the chance to leave. Please wait. I want to kiss you.
She did not speak or smile. She reached for my hand and grasped it in hers. She stepped closer to me and her lips landed on mine like a butterfly lands on a daisy. She tasted like salt, she tasted like the ocean, she tasted like the stars.
“We must say good-bye,” she said when her mouth flew away from mine. “I loved the time we spent, but I must go now. Promise you won’t forget me.”
I promised. It was the only thing I could give her back. Only words, as usual.
She looked inside her bag and brought out a small box. She pushed the box towards my chest, I took it. A kiss and a box. These were her third and last present.
I stood there, holding the box and grasping at the memory of the kiss as my muse stepped farther and farther away from me, diving into the street.
When her figure became undistinguishable, I glanced towards my hands, and opened the box. Inside there was a small dragon made out of rock. A note rested next to it.
“You are the dragon,” she had written. “I am your fire.”
I ran upstairs and let myself bleed words on the paper.
I could never make her mine. But she had made me hers.