by Irina Savin [Belgium]
edited by Robert Fenhagen
She always thought of train stations as the heart and soul of a town. For Layla, they were thorny, blameful and half-sinful places for people still hanging on the memory of mostly sad good-byes, a teasing and, sometimes, sinful places for the adventurous ones. And a refuge for her, during the last ten days. Ten days too many, she thought now, as the saccharine bitterness of all of the stations she had stopped in was becoming too much to bear, numbing her fingertips and distorting her senses. But an ‘unbearable’ that all runaways learn to live with, eventually; a consoling suggestion to her, thinking about the strange life she has just began. And an ‘unbearable’ they can’t live without once it’s in their blood.
Suddenly, she felt a chilly thrill through her heels and settled that this was her stop for the night. Not knowing the name of the town, she rushed to the train’s door with the innocence of a maiden and the curiosity of a little boy. Descending the train, her purple flowered dress got caught in the stairs, but she didn’t bother to smoothly release it from the gripe, tearing the vintage cloth without any remorse. She was about to stumble into an old lady’s bag, but she regained her balance in a split second and didn’t even look behind. She knew this is her stop. So she stopped into this John Doe town as she seemed to be doing lately. Eager to stretch her languid long legs she immediately started walking seemingly without direction, but was in fact pulled to the wretched, bohemian neighborhoods from her unconscious desire for the unwanted and uncrowded.
The glamorous and sophisticated city of the new lustrous rail station building started to fade away as she followed the strange mixture of cheap perfume with the savage but subtle scent of body fluids. She was entering a bizarre neighborhood, where the beauty was vulgar and hollow, but ravishingly hollow, and the air embedded with sultry temptation. Dashing feminine figures, theatrical poses and fans slashing the heat. Women with red full lips and black long lashes powdered with desire, luring men and luring her to cast at least a glimpse. This dreamy and languorous scenery, with something cheap in it to add some flavour and uniqueness. She wanted to be a part of it! And as she walked the streets, that one thought rolled back and forth in the sea of her mind: Tonight I can be Layla, who the hell gives a damn who I am anyway? She loves pretend games; she loves them ever since she was a child and used to dress up in her mother’s clothes and ‘pretend’ to seduce her father. And this is just another pretend game. So she immediately started searching for a lipstick in her handbag. She tossed her black hair back, so that it fell halfway down her back and curled over her shoulder like a snake, just so. She painted her lips with crimson red, becoming Layla. She wasn’t aware of what kind of world she had stepped into, but she couldn’t care less.
Caught in the excitement, Layla almost stumbled over the brown haired boy sitting in the middle of the sidewalk embracing his sax like a lover. An estranged and detested lover. Playing the instrument, he looked like he was trying to strangle his mistress with his sharp fingers moving forwards and backwards all over her bruised neck. “Oh, excuse me. I almost didn’t see you.” She said to the nice looking young man. He looked up at her and smiled the warmest, most loving smile that she had seen in ages. Or, that’s what it felt like. Ages. Even thought she was only in her 20’s, and he was probably 19, she could not remember seeing such a lovely smile on a man. He was not pretty, but not handsome in a handsome way, if she knew what she meant. And there was a certain candour shading his deep brown eyes, behind those long lashes of his. That candour made Layla say yes when he suddenly asked her to accompany him for a drink. And besides, it was getting dark and being the only Caucasian woman out here, she felt safer walking with a male.
Layla and the brown haired boy walked up the street to a shady hole in the wall saloon, where she had a Gin and tonic and he had a Budweiser. Pictures of Marlene Dietrich and Jayne Mansfield covered the free pink wall around the cracked mirror, which was yellow enough to mistake it for yellow glass. The barkeep kept to himself at one end. The young musician remained silent for a couple of minutes. He did not ask nor saying anything, let alone look her in the eyes. He seemed the type of man who only knew one kind of silence, the awkward sort, one kind of rain, the maudlin rain, and just one kind of music. The type of man who cared only about one kind of love, the peaceful one, and who could see just one kind of black. And even if his eyes were so warm that she felt as though she might be able to curl up and fall asleep in them, Layla couldn’t help but wonder: why is she there, with him, and not on the streets, the dirty rowdy streets swarming with excitement? I’m Layla. She thought to herself, amused and playful, willing to do anything and believe anything to avoid becoming blasé. So she broke the silence and began the first act of her performance. She started talking about the pin-ups on the wall, the wall of fame and wall of shame. He continued with greasy stories about Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Graziano, and truck drivers with Popeye the Sailor Man tattoos. And sooner than you know, he felt like confessing.
“I needed company tonight. I don’t usually come here. Actually, I do but … I’m not like the others. I’m just looking for inspiration. And the dirt, the hardness and the desperation inspire me.” He swiftly added. “It’s been just me and my sax for a long time. And I … I miss Harlem and this place resembles Harlem so much.” He continued at a slower pace, but with the same need to justify himself. “So, you’re not like the others. That’s a phrase I’ve never heard before”. Layla answered smiling, as a desperate attempt to make a joke and release the tension that was suddenly forcing itself on them. In fact the smile was just a smirk. She couldn’t bear to see another vulnerable man in front of her. She was running away from one. And she wanted him to stop that heart rending confession. Go back to Popeye, you dickhead! She thought to herself, in a tongue-in-cheek redemptive attempt to escape her own deeper thoughts.
But her unspoken thoughts would not redeem her, as he continued his thread of disclosure. “I’m a runaway, you see. It’s been three years now since I’ve been on the road, this place felt so familiar to me, right from the beginning. So I’ve been walking on these streets, only me and my sax, for a couple of months. I lost track a few weeks ago. That happens, you know, when you’re a runaway.” He added fleetly. “No, I don’t know! I can’t possibly know how losing track of time feels. I’m not a runaway! I never was and I’ll never be!” She burst with a strange miffed temper. It’s been exactly fifteen days and a couple of hours since I left my Harlem for good. Each moment keeps on digging furrows on my hands, so no! I don’t lose track! She was thinking.
Her strong reaction made him feel awkward about his revealed identity so she felt the need to soothe his unease. “What about your music? You have your sax everywhere you go. Why feel lonely and estranged even in strange places when you can always rely on your faithful travel partner?” She wanted to cheer him up, hoping that his answer will finally exonerate her. “Touch it!” He said, reaching for her hand so she could sense the frigidity of a still, inert metal object. “My sax is cold and I am a forsaken wondering the world. I wander up and down these streets, ransacking for something bright and meaningful in this spectacle of counterfeit enchantments. Like this neighborhood! Like these whores! Like you! Come home with me tonight!”
Layla looked on the window and within a blink of an eye she saw the world for what it was – the lewd neighborhood of the prostitutes. Who was she then? Was she a fake illusion, as he said? Was she a runaway, hiding in disguise? Or was she just a prostitute herself? Should she play her role till the end and go home with him? Could she? His phony mask of a pitiful outcast will have no power on her, but what about HER phony mask? Is she Layla? Does she want to be Layla? Her resentment was lost in the turmoil of her thoughts, but his, on the other side, was not. “How can you fucking whores open you legs with so much ease, but then disgustedly frown upon the simple thought of just sleeping side by side to a man? That’s what I wanted from you tonight, not your promiscuous services!” He added on a slower pace, but with the same anger mashed in between.
Lifting his coffee-coloured sax from the floor, he disappeared. She was left all one, with teary eyes, surrounded by Marlenes Dietrich and Jaynes Mansfield and no Olive Oil when you wanted one. Embracing herself, she stepped outside the bar, feeling like a trespasser in the harlots’ neighborhood. The women on the streets were no longer plainly seductive. They were real pros, wearing wigs that were blonde, or brunette, or red-headed. They were fakes. They were pathetic night creatures oozing poison from every orifice. Microbes, hotels … And the Johns check in, but they never check out, she was imagining, holding tight to her thoughts as she walked the streets, fearful they will spot SHE is fake. She wasn’t walking like a hooker anymore. Her crimson lips were pale and her nostrils invaded by that awful odour – flesh, body fluids, dirty bed sheets. The thought almost made her puke. “Get your fucking white ass outta here, bitch, before I open you like a can of fish!” A voluptuous woman was yelling at her. I am not Layla! I am not Layla! “I am not Layla”. She kept thinking and screaming, rushing her pace. Thinking or screaming. The line between her thoughts and reality was so blurry right now. I am not Layla! I am not a runaway! “It’s time to go home…”
Forty minutes later, a girl with a ripped purple flowered dress was waiting for the train. Must have been the first train in the last ten days with a nonrandom destination. Later that evening, a brown haired boy was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, two miles away, cradling his sax like a baby. A silhouette stopped and stood over him as he was playing a blue ballad in the red light district of the town. “What’re you playing there, baby?” She asked him smiling. “A song to you. I was waiting for that asshole to leave the hotel! The cheap motherfucker took his time and had his way with you slowly, and I was playing on his rhythm. This is my song to you. And his song to you. And all men’s song to you. Let’s go home, baby! Let’s go home, Layla!”
She looked at the yellow eyes, with the spider-web of red running through, took his sturdy arm and went home together. And suddenly, two former strangers became estranged again. And two fated lovers were finding one another once more.