Vanilla Essence

I first saw her through the window of the coffee house from where I stood nervously smoking a cigarette on the opposite pavement.  The rain had been falling lightly, but it was still enough to blur her lines through the window pane. She was sunset red hair, and peaches and cream skin- I imagined she’d smell like sweet musk.

My breath fogged out over my hands in the chill, and I let the butt fall to the pavement, pursing my lips. It was a filthy habit. She was exactly as the agency had described. I thought then that she was like spun-glass, fragile. Other than how she looked I knew nothing about her. My reflection in the windows as I approached was a miserable contrast, the silvered bun catching in the faint light. A bell was cut short abruptly as I pushed my way into the warm interior. It was that slightly moist heat, and condensation was beading on the window she sat next to, her fingers tracking it down, gravity caught and falling slowly. The cafe itself was bohemian, the myriad canisters lining the walls letting little of the cracked red paint show through, and giving off a pungent muskiness to permeate the close interior. My heels clicked on the old floorboards as I approached her, and I realized I’d been avoiding looking too closely at the girl. Now I came up behind her, watching the delicate hands shift on the table, the shell of one perfect ear tensing, mutely waiting.

She didn’t speak of course, but a warm smile lit up her porcelain face, a pink infusion giving life to her thin cheeks. It said “I like you… I’m happy you came.” I tweaked my lips in response and sat across from her, my hands folded on my lap.

“My name is Ellen,” I said, and, “have you ordered?” The view of her face tilted as she shook the negative.

“I’ll order, then- you like coffee, don’t you?” It was a coffee shop after all, where she’d agreed to meet. Again she shook her head, titling an enigmatic smile at the far wall. I turned, seeing that a sign over that part read HERBAL INFUSIONS. Turning back, I let my eyes drift over her, her hands like cream silk, like kid gloves and soft, soft, so soft. I briefly gestured at the woman behind the counter.

The waitress took the order, her smile professionally stiff when she directed it at me. I’d call her pretty, I thought, if the girl across from me hadn’t been there, hadn’t shown up. I wondered if I’d have dared walk in, exposed myself to that kind of rejection. I wondered if i’d have had the tea she was gesturing at, as comfort. A strawberry with camomile blend, however- I knew it was not something I’d usually order.

“Two,” I muttered curtly, dismissively, and the encounter was over. We waited in silence as the tea was made, and although quick the time seemed to drag. The sun appeared from the street, glowing onto a foreign world, washed clean. I gazed at her, at the way it made her buzz-cut orange-red hair glow, the sheer apricot dress becoming x-ray transparent in the light, so much so that I could see clearly one pinked nipple.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my eyes darting up to hers. The apology seemed false so I continued, “I didn’t get your name.”

Her hands fluttered vaguely, a brief butterfly of meaning. I nodded as though i’d understood. A wry smile titled paint-bright blue eyes at me. She signed again, slowly.

“Anna?” A nod this time, a quick grin.

The drinks came, a petulant hand shoving mine beneath my face. The waitress truly was awful, but I nodded a thanks, shoved a crumbled bill out. Anna smiled at her warmly, eagerly. I tried to smother the brief, unexpected jealousy that stirred up.

Unthinking, I sipped the tea and had to fight a grimace of disgust. I hated herbal infusions, and had never liked camomile much at all. Anna took a long drink, smilingly pleased. For the first time I noticed we were the only people in the cafe. I sought for something to say.

“Do you live around here?” I asked. She glanced up from beneath her eyelashes, a timid, serious look through the steam from her tea. She had it white, I noticed, which seemed at odds with the flavour she chose. A hesitant nod answered me.

“By yourself?” Another nod. “I hope you have a good lock on your door.” Now she seemed startled, delighted. Another blush rose and I had to look away, the clenching of my guts sickening. The waitress was still glaring at us. I seemed to hear her thoughts, echoing mine.

“You lecherous old woman,” those eyes said, “she’s not even twenty.” Anna was still looking at me, still smiling, and a listless finger was drawing in a pool of spilt tea on the table. She seemed to enjoy the tea, so I took another sip of my own. Perhaps it isn’t so bad, I told myself. I might even order it again. The silence dragged. I had nothing to say here, and tea was not what I wanted.

“Come on,” I said, my voice turning harsh in my ears. I stood, my cup tipping and sloshing the contents out, “this place is stifling.” I tried to pass her, lead her out, but she slipped a hand into mine, unexpectedly strong and oddly caught in my heavy wool coat. I paused, feeling my veins freeze. I wanted to scream, tremble, and had to physically still myself. I dared not look at her, afraid she’d see the naked desire, the hunger in my eyes. I turned my head ever so slightly, my white lips parted.

“My room is upstairs, around the corner. It’s small, but quiet,” I managed. She continued to look at me, expectant. “Your money is there. I’ll pay you after.” A frown turned her lips, considering, but finally she stood, allowing me to lead her out.

The street was like a blow, the sound sudden and complicated. I frowned, annoyed that what should be a roar in the traffic had dulled to a hum in my failing hearing. I hadn’t heard it at all inside the decrepit cafe. I looked back to see the waitress hurrying to close the doors, the CLOSED sign gripped tightly. Still holding her hand, I took Anna to the back stairs, wanting to be out of the sun quickly. The rain might start again, I told myself, carefully not examining the unlined face, the clear skin and wide eyes, hoping no one else would see and know the purpose I had for her.

Fumbling my keys from my pocket, I hurried, and as soon as the door cracked I pushed her through. The stairs were a narrow set, worn wood and creaking. The image of her ascended in front of me and my breath caught. Unthinking, I let the door stand as it was, and hurried after her. Her feet flashed, in flimsy sandals, despite being late autumn. I caught up to her on the landing and I wrapped her up, catching her waist.

“Here,” I murmured, pushing her up against the wall. Bricks, abrasive, cut into the fine cloth of her dress. “I want you here.”

The money I’d lied about crinkled in my pocket, a malevolent eagerness. Her smile dimly drifted through the nonexistent light. She wrapped a thin, white leg around my hips. A sandal thudded to the floor and I flashed a true smile, showing too-white teeth.

I leant in to kiss her, to hide the pretty child’s face in my shadow, my wrinkled fingers tracing a line above her hem, lifting her thigh even higher. I sought to grasp the underwear, I was sure it would be white, lacy and easily broken, but with a shock found there was nothing there. She seemed to hesitate, then wink at me.

My lips sought the salt at the hollow of her throat, my hands delving deeper. “Oh!” I thought I heard, a breath of a whisper, and “please!” Her hands moved searchingly on my shoulders as her head was thrown back, mouth open. I felt her toes curl into my back.

We stayed suspended in time, movements repeated broken record style in the musty staircase, the tracks of mice feet in the dust ensuring our privacy. Eventually, her face dropped back forward, and I withdrew quickly, retracting moist hands. Her eyes were wet, with tears of shame and a stark vulnerability. For once I knew- I knew, I knew, I knew- that here was something truly precious.

* * *

The street was dismal, sodden from a late shower and running with the tears of the city. I moved in the crowd like it was a river, the flow slow and ponderous, and me a fast current forcing its way through beneath the surface, pausing and eddying in gaps to dive, a waterfall pouring between two old men. The park wasn’t far now, a few buildings away and then the world opens up and I can breathe again.

I stumbled past the stone borders, panting, nearly crying, and collapsed against the first support I could find. My hands were still warm, the wetness of her, of inside of her, it lingered accusingly beneath my groomed fingernails. I ripped off my coat, using the wool to scrub at them, trying to forbear the repulsion of the empty pockets, avoiding the thought of – oh, God- blue, blue eyes.

I’d left her there, with her sunset hair and hurt mouth. I shuddered, fearing the hunger and the helplessness in the kissing of swollen strawberry lips with so little care.  That was never me, could never been me- I was always such a gentle lover. What had happened here? A monster had stolen my hands and thrown the notes at feet beneath weakened knees

The call centre, I thought, was to blame.

I’d seen the advert on the wall of my studio building, haphazardly glued with little care, as though street kids had been paid to do it. Sapphire Affairs, it read, adding a bit of Sappho to light your fire. Women for women, at reasonable rates. It was the kind of gimmick lingo that I despised, but even I couldn’t deny that little bit of morbid romanticism. Sapphire Affairs. It said cigarettes and perfume and negligees. It said, “I dare you.”

But that hair…
And those eyes…
I slid weakly into the leaves at my feet, like yellow coins piled about me, and clutched the heavy fabric to my face. It was a terrible thing to realise, that you had done a thing very close to being wrong.
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the stupidest woman of them all?”
I was, I was, I was.
And yet.

* * *
The canvas was orange. Every one of them, blue, orange, apricot… The room was filled to the cracks in the wood board, it was dripping in sunset scenes across the great Australian outback, the desert Anna. I was seeing it everywhere, close ups of tiny details sketched painstakingly, next to huge sample colours and dripping brushes. This one was her hair, her eyes, her lips, her skin. This one was her silly tea, and this one her flashing, quick little hands. I needed to capture her, preserve her. I needed to see those pink little nipples again, and in furious effort I denied myself even a phone to tempt me.

This was how I studied a subject. Colours running riot on canvases stacked about the room, and sheets of sketches pinned to them to show what they represent. My favourite was her nipples beneath her dress, glowing in the little corner by the arched window.

I’d painted the last three with music blaring throughout my studio. It gave me an excuse to not hear the others, their workshops across the hall and next door, when they thought to interrupt me. I wanted to hide the deafness for as long as possible, hoping that no one would notice that I was falling further and further behind in conversation.

When I’d gone to see the GP it was with a sense of inevitability. From this moment the visits would increase ever more as my body fell like a limp rag-doll in out-of-control gravity down the hill of old age. Now, avoiding the daunting costs of hearing aids, I took his prescription to heart- “find a tutor. To teach you to read lips, or sign language.”

Anna, my Anna. Muse of muses- how could I fail to learn when I want to study this creature every moment of every day? I’d hired her for a completely different service, but they were simple requirements- “mute, only to sign, you understand?” To the agency, as a customer, the means of communication was irrelevant.

My brush dripped in a fluttering spray across the floorboards as I threw it onto my pallet. I stared at the mess blankly, where it overlay a week of obsession run riot in unchecked paint flecks, and felt the trembling, the monster, push at me from behind my numb eyes. I touched trembling fingers to dry lips.

Yes, I thought, it might be time for a second dose, a second look. I pursed my lips, decided, and turned abruptly to the door. Across-The-Hall had a phone I could borrow and the coins in the desk draws were enough for a payphone otherwise. Sapphire Affairs, the advertisement I’d first seen, was now stuck permanently to the fridge in my flat, but I knew the number by heart now.

“Woman, this is Ellen. Munroe, from last week. I need to see her again.”

* * *

The flowers embroidered on her thin blue cheesecloth shirt were green. It wasn’t until I’d been with her for a few minutes that I even noticed, too busy staring at almond shaped eyes and thin, bird-like limbs. She wasn’t even aware of how she fascinated me. The lights of the night flared, fluorescent reds and golds that lit her features. I’d asked to meet her inside the park this time, near where the city edged onto it, and lit up the trees like bonfires.

The night was already deep by the time i’d slid into the pool of light inside the gazebo i’d chosen. She’d already been there, of course, her liquid eyes watching warily from the shadows. A deer’s eyes, or some other forest creature’s. I’d gestured her forward quickly, flashing the reassuring smile of a practiced liar, and for once the wrinkles on my lady’s face worked to my advantage. She was still shy, but I noted the relieved smile hidden quickly as she tried to push back a lock of hair- she mustn’t have cut it very long ago if she still forgets, I thought.

Her breath ballooned out from her, dragon mist fine, in the chill air. As she approached, I moved- slowly, remember, don’t startle her- and held out a hand. I could smell her perfume, a thick cloud of vanilla spiraling about her body.

We’d moved quickly from there, and at first it seemed strange to take my little Muse, my prostitute, on something swiftly approaching a date. The lights of the Showground, a part of the park entirely devoted to carnival rides and entertainment, threw Anna into luminescence, her age very apparent as I led her to side show after side show.

I bought her fairy floss to see the sugary delight dissolve on fragile skin, her teasing pink tongue darting out to taste the confection. I bought her cola with a straw, curling and neon bright, just to memorize the puckering moue her lips made, and how she would look at me beneath her lashes as she did so. She knew, oh how she knew. How could she not? Every hour I spent with her was another part to an expensive foreplay, another few dollars to an already hefty pay.

Every time I was reminded of her role, her only apparent use, I’d tense and feel that monster growl from the cage I’d fashioned in the pit of my belly. She’d frown as I suddenly gripped her hand in mine, or dragged her to my side, and dart away again like the elusive creature I knew her to be. I’d want to, and oh how i’d try, but she was not someone so easily tied down with possessive overtures.

Really, though I knew so little about her, I could see the middle class snob in her phrases (strange that a voice can come across even in the hands) or how she purposefully smoothed her jean legs as though still a little surprised not to find plain wool skirts. She’d been to school, and a good Catholic one too, but now there were shadows by her eyes. I saw the tension in the shoulders of a girl driven to a role not meant for her.

“Anna,” I murmured, “would you like another go at the china doll?” How silly of me, I’d think later, to suppose a doll of a girl might want a matching miniature. She was besotted with the giant dragon plush we ended up winning, and signed ecstatically over the huge cloth jaws and metallic scales.

This dragon is like you, said her lighting quick hands, but not a lady. I tried not to be hurt that I couldn’t see a compliment in her comparison.

A couple were fighting by the gates as we left the grounds, my arm wrapped around her and the plush both, and I at once felt smug that the raised voices were not ours. I saw the internal delight on her upturned eyes. I tried not to feel the hungry glee rising through me, poisoning my veins and sharpening my senses, with every step that I took her closer to my

The streets were jammed, in a haze of blurred voices behind the muffling of broken ears. She was bound tightly to my side, lest in a puff of cigarette and winter haze she disappear off into the night. We were hobbling beetles, clinging together, as we rushed on into the stream of the night. Faceless little people pushed and pulled at us, laughter falling through door jams to compete enviously with the traffic roar and I could smell vanilla on my hands and in my clothes, when for brief intersections she pulled away. The thunder of my heart was paramount in that strangely bright nighttime, and it stuttered oddly as she flirtatiously brushed my breasts, my nipples, to point, to gesture, to ride the midnight moments with gusto.

I wanted her, with a fire that lit up my soul. I wanted her on my bureau, on my carpet, against my kitchen cabinets. I wanted to steal the cream from my fridge and paint her with it, the colour of milk on her fair skin barely different.

I pulled her into the foyer of my apartment block, the front door this time. I will not be shamed, I thought, i’ll display her proudly to the world. This is my whore.

The wait in the elevator was painful. It was a mirror maze, jeweled facets throwing her back at me over and over. This was how she should be seen always, I thought, a rose blooming grandiosely in the gold and diamond glass of another world. She was beautifully frail. The pinpoints of nipples arched the cloth of her top, the swell of her buttocks pertly raised in four walls and a ceiling. The only blot on my suddenly overflowing vision was the black mass hunched over her, claw hands painted bright, chipped red, wrinkled face too serious, feline, predatory.

I knew the other residents were staring at us. They were wary of me, the older wretched woman somehow tarnishing the younger lady by my side. Look at the flaking gilt on the walls, I wanted to scream, you aren’t so high and mighty, dearie, you’re just as pathetic as I am.

My apartment was darkened and chill as I stepped through the door. The corridor’s light tumbled out from the doorway, a shaft of her golden world silhouetting her.

“Ellen,” she signed, very still. “Ellen, be gentle now. You mustn’t be so rough.”

There was a red nimbus above her head, and the inky light on her eyes made them peer at me. She was so serious. The monster looked up from the pit deep inside me, ready. It was smiling and I realized I was too.

“Don’t worry little girl,” It said. “I won’t hurt you.” It sprang, swamping my body, filling my limbs and joints with sticky tar, a viciousness, and all at once I was on her and we were on the bed and the door slammed shut to her yelp of surprise. Shut off from them, cut off from help, this was a lair and a den and my bed.

“Anna. Anna- don’t say a word.”

* * *

I painted her again that week. It was an epic image, my memories caressing the canvas through the brush that rendered veins in a slim, weak little wrist, and the crinkle caught in shy, cheeky blue eyes.

I painted her as i’d last seen her, draped in thin sheets, sleeping.

I coloured her lips like I remember kissing them, a violent assault, but with an aim to memorise every crease.

There was a freckle on the border, very slight, by the left arch on the top lip. There was a crooked grin hidden by her practiced even smile. There had been sunflowers in the vase by my bed, in a ray of sun, and her hand was stretched out towards them, as though in benediction or pleading, so now the fingers were warmed by morning light, and just about to curl as she woke.

It was a slow torture, a pleasing ache that suffused my limbs in yearning, in desire. If only to possess this piece of her, I would suffer a million minutes and more. The fine grain of her cuticles, the down across her arms, her every individual hair stump frothing out of her scalp, I painted it all and more. My heart seized when I realised her eyes were open, that I’d painted them looking at me beneath lowered lashes. Yes, i’d been staring too long, caught up in her body, and she’d woken up beneath my paintbrush without my being aware.

As soon as I’d completed the final stroke I’d wanted to call again, order another dose, but I froze, nervous, giddy, and I hung up. Wait a little bit longer, savour her completely. Don’t ruin the palette by flooding it.

I’d painted her in the carnival the next week, one hand dragging the dragon in the dirt. She’d left it in my apartment when she’d woken. Now it sat, accusing, on a nearby stool and I glanced at it every couple of minutes in apprehension. It was a fine equal to the monster I had in me.

I waited, painted, but eventually I had to call.

“I’m sorry, Anna isn’t available ma’am.”

Not available. It was a rejection if ever i’d heard one.

“Would you like me to send you another?”

I hung up quickly, offended and riled. This was too important for second best. I shivered, clutched my shirt to my body, felt my nipples harden in desire. I wanted to scream and rage and, trembling, I fished out a cigarette from my coat pocket. I drank down the smoke and let it fog up my lungs. I fed one addiction with another, and tried to ignore it.

The canvases became crazed, random and chaotic. The rings under my eyes turned into bruises, deep purple storm paint with the red of fire on a dark horizon. My lips were pressed into a permanent white crease, and I panted lowly as I paced. I called them three times, and I knew only by the exasperation in the voice of the operator that the answer wasn’t going to change. Each time- would you like another girl? Can I help you in some way? They thought me a silly old fool lesbian. They thought it was just a game, a way to satisfy my pathetic desires. No one could ever know the clenching in my stomach, or the urge to steal drifts of red fuzz to treasure and study, to powder it into pigment and mix it, slowly, like tempera.

I fell into a depression, curled up husk-like on my studio’s dusty sofa. The night-time Anna stared at me, silent, frozen, from her deep blue canvas. I wept and drank coffee black, and I refused to look away. The ash tray filled, little stump-like fungi growing over each other.

Weeks passed. The days turned dismal, the night frozen, and still I obsessed over her. The reds of her, lips, hair, nipples, tongue, they blurred and fused. I was losing her to the past. I cried as my palette dried up, the vibrancy of her diminished. The rain became heavier, vibrating the windows and making my workshop shiver. I began to notice my hearing drip away with the runoff from the waterspouts of the building. I didn’t leave that paint flecked rooms for days, avoided the places i’d seen her. The dragon became limp and staring with disuse.

Night fell, again, and I refused to light the candles by my side. I slept, finally.

* * *

In the morning the sun was shining on me, and I felt warm for the first time in a long while. I longed to shower, and could smell the dried crust of sweat, sour, on my clothes. I returned to the apartment, and for once was able to look at the bed. I changed the sheets, pulled my curtains back, and filled the vase with bought apricot roses. They reminded me of her sheer dress.

I chose a pale yellow blouse to warm my features, and I let my graying bun down into a plait, draped over a shoulder politely. The dark blue coat was still somber, but I liked to think I had a summer riot beneath it, somewhere deep inside of me. I used the back stairs to leave the building, and let my fingers caress the bricks I’d had her against an age ago.

I walked, for the comfort of it, through my city and my streets, and through my park too. I visited the Showground, and, although morose to see it still there, won the little porcelain doll I’d imagined giving her. Instead I gave it to a girl whose eyes went wide with delight. It was such a simple thing.

A half smile lingered, though tears welled up, and a bittersweet solace filled me.

At last I stopped by the cafe and ordered the tea she adored. Camomile and strawberries, though I did not know why it was so appealing, defined her. And at last, here, I saw her again.

Like a breeze, she wafted in from the jumbled street. From the corner of my eye I saw her, swirling in sunny, chill air, and I stiffened. She floated past me, her red hair slightly longer, no longer downy, and soft looking. I was caught, though this time something fundamental was changed. I hunched over, avoided the scent of her as she swept past. She was so very happy, bouncing towards the waitress, who I recognized. That one, too, seemed happier. The sun must do strange things, I thought, to unhappy people. She rapidly spoke to the girl, at great length.

I felt like the world had changed.

Without ordering, Anna twirled around and made her way back towards the street. I made a decision, straightened from my hunch, and caught bright blue eyes with my own.

“Anna- you can talk,” I greeted her. She was frozen, a guilty shock wavering through her system.

“Oh- Yes.”

I nodded and looked away from her, trying to avoid being sucked back into her wake.

“And so very quickly! They said you were mute, you know.” She was suddenly fierce, stiffening perceptively, leaning in with sharp, narrowed eyes. I still wanted to kiss her.

“No, Ellen, you just never let me say a thing. I’m not a pearl to keep in velvet boxes and only ever looked at.” The accusation rang true.

“I thought you were gone, or dead.”

“No. No, I’m fine.”

“Where have you been, I tried calling. They said you weren’t available. Or is it just me, then?”

“No, I- You see… I gave that up. I found- well.” She gestured futilely, miserable. I looked in confusion towards where her small, limp fingers wavered. The waitress glared back. That raven, that crow, that harlot. “My girlfriend.”

I would leave her there, the silly little girl, and burn every canvas that detailed her. I would rip the sketches to shreds and paint whole series in chipped nail-polish red, the feeling of an old woman whose heart had been broken, and I’ll call them Musings on a Muse.

“I’ll- i’ll just finish my tea, shall I?” I tried not to, but my voice trembled. She nodded, smiled like a friend to someone she’d already forgotten. I watched her leave, walk out and down the street as I huddled there, in the seat she’d once occupied. The light of morning set her on fire, and I thought- here is just a girl, whose life has just begun. I found I was smiling.

“She was never yours, old woman” The waitress said as I paid the bill.

“Yes,” I crumpled the notes into my pocket, lifted my chin and gave her the feline stare of the monster in return. “But you’ll never own her either.”

By Danielle Day


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