IV. A Ticking Clock’s Faithful Rhythm
“You’re staring,” she said, this girl of unparalleled beauty. There was a hint of a smile in her words. Her velvet eyes, green, had a glimmer of something that he found irresistible.
“Your eyes—I’m sorry. It’s your eyes.” Then he wanted to make her laugh full out, so he said: “My mother taught me to always look pretty girls in the eyes.”
And she did, she laughed uproariously. They both did. They laughed until tears came to their eyes. And the laughter finally faded to giggles, but never did it completely die away.
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After two years of avoiding looking the people he met square in the face, Zeb found a woman whose eyes demanded that he change his ways. He had to gawk; it was suddenly, overtly, a compulsion.
She rode the bus that he took to his morning classes during the spring of his second year at York, and for weeks he searched out a manner which would break ice with her. For the first time he could remember in a long while, since Vivian at least, he couldn’t think of a single thing to open with. There had been other girls, he told himself. Lots of other girls. Why was this one different? And why did everything he wanted to say sound so trivial?
But in the end, or was it the beginning, he decided ‘trivial’ was exactly the correct route to travel. For below her, under her bus seat one morning, when the sky was a sheet of bright, light cobalt, there lay a small mitten. It was white, fuzzy, and thick. The thumb sat bent and lolling with the motion of the bus. And it had only the smallest smudge of brown filth despite its obviously sordid past. Without thinking, he got up, crossed the distance between his chair and the girl’s, crouched, grabbed the mitten and, just as she caught view of his figure in her peripheral, held it out to her.
She looked sideways at him for a second, then turned her head. There was a petite smile, one of polite apprehension that he recognized could become one of mild amusement. Step one, that was. “Yes?” she said, looking from his face to the mitten he held in front of her. His silence, to him at least, seemed far too lengthy. Step one would soon be a dashed failure. Before long, in less than a few seconds, if he didn’t say anything, that smile of apprehension, the one that could become mild amusement, would turn to irritation. And there would be no step two.
“Did you lose your mitten?”
“No,” she said. “It’s nearly summertime. I’m not wearing mittens.” She held up her hands to him, then turned them once to show him both sides. Her eyebrows raised a little. Her smile had not become the amused one, not yet, but the possibility still lurked. He smiled, a bit of a crooked grin that said he knew that she knew. He felt like he stood on a thin sheet of ice while it cracked in long lines beneath his feet. She was beautiful, and she knew it. She would be obviously experienced in putting out fires in the hearts of men on buses, subway trains, clubs, her classes, everywhere she ever went. He just knew it. She would have been putting up with this kind of nonsense from every guy she ever had two words with. She was that beautiful. And those eyes! Step two needed to be a bit more powerful.
“Well, Madame. Just thought I’d ask. You never know who might need a pocket, a glove, maybe even, yes, a mitten this late in the season. I feel a bit concerned though...”
“And why’s that?” Was that playful smugness in her voice? He nearly became giddy.
“Well,” he said, still standing close. He braced himself with one hand on a support post as the bus bounced and tilted, and his other reached out in a silly, exaggerated motion towards an imagined horizon. He stared off to the distance and mock-squinted his eyes like the news would be difficult to deliver. “Somewhere...out there...is another beauty with...dare I say it?...one cold hand!” He looked back at her now, and the smile had indeed turned to amusement. But it stretched a little past that and he carried on, maybe a little too far. If she wasn’t the type to think him funny already, she definitely wouldn’t think this worthy of a laugh. “Yes, yes, I know: it’s difficult to imagine. But won’t you help me? Won’t you stand up for justice? Won’t you stand up to fight evil? For the sake of the little people everywhere. The ones with one... cold... hand...”
She didn’t stand up, only looked out the window with her smile still intact. Her tongue was rolled up in her check and she was shaking her head. She bit her lip then, against that smile of amusement and she looked back at him—right in the eyes. That shake said, you’re nuts and everyone on this bus is going to know that. But the smile under the bit lip, in a reluctant sort of way, an admitting sort of way, said, I kind of like that.
Step two. Objective achieved.
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He didn’t quite know how he did it, but he convinced the most beautiful girl he had ever seen to cut class with him and go on a quest to search out the owner of the white mitten. It was, of course, a ruse. She knew it. And he knew it. But he made nearly every offer to her that it was just that. Somehow, though, she seemed ready to accept it, ready to run off with him from the bus when it stopped, hand in hand even, and find a police officer immediately.
When they found one in the Eglinton subway station she dared him to actually approach the cop and tell him the story of the mitten. And he did. She couldn’t believe it, never in a million years did she think he would go that far, ludicrous boy with wild eyes, but he did.
The cop smiled, even listened to the whole tale Zeb had imagined on the spot, the one about injustice, fighting evil and righting the wrongs of cold-handed damsels everywhere. Then the officer got a little grumpy over it and finally told Zeb to carry on.
Zeb was just going to press it a little further, when he felt the girl lean against him and grab his arm, “Come ON!”
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She was a beauty in features and in voice. But also in heart. Her face was like none other, true. But what she had to tell him was a similar kind of magic.
They struck a cord together that afternoon, got mochaccinos from a Starbucks, and walked along Yonge, checking second-hand record stores and seeing how many copies of The White Album they could find. It was a game he had made up then and there, and they were both pleased when they only found six: three on CD, two on vinyl, and a lonely double-length cassette in a store called Darling Ears. That was a gem that few people let go of, Zeb thought. Most people realize the record as a good set of songs, but do they actually like it? Or have they just been told it’s good?
But she was good. He knew that immediately and there would be no one who could tell him better than that. Her name was Caeli. Unprecedented, he thought. He had never met a ‘Caeli’. She had never met a Sebastion. Certainly not one with an o instead of an a near the end. They sat cross-legged on squat cement posts across from a pub where she worked part time and Zeb finally had the nerve to tell Caeli that her eyes were the most stunning things he had ever seen in a face. Somehow, he still doesn’t quite know how it happened, they found themselves in an upheaval of raucous laughter after that and it made him feel like he could tell her anything.
But he didn’t. Not on that day. She was studying at York as well, languages, second year. They both loved music, he liked to paint, she liked to sing baroque in her landlady’s overgrown garden. And that first day, that’s as far as they got into either side. They talked about bigger things mostly, things beyond themselves but instead within the scope of the world at large. And amongst those monstrous topics, they talked about the little things, like the skin on the tops of their coffees, and the sound the soles of their shoes made on gravel as they walked. The hours were consumed.
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They made plans to meet the next afternoon at three at a funky coffee house on the corner of Bloor—one which they both knew, though neither could remember its name. Far earlier than three, Zeb went to the Ground’s Edge and pulled up a chair in the corner, facing the mass of the room. The house stereo was playing a Hawksley Workman record and he read a book of poems, glancing up between each and scanning the room for her.
He had told her he would be reading “The Complete Works of E.E. Cummings,” a well-worn edition with a black cover. And, he added, he would be reading it intently. In his mind he imagined the excitement in her face when she came through the front door, the little cowbell ringing above her head. She would discover him there with that tattered book in his hands and her smile would fill the room as she ran over to him... It was a romantic thought and it replayed in his mind like images caught on a loop of film stock.
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“What does the poem mean?” she asked. She leaned forward and the wooden chair she sat in was made to squeak a little.
“I don’t understand the question,” he responded. He was standing at the front of the class with his copy of the current text in his hand. There were hastily scratched words across the back cover. White words on black.
He was wearing his school uniform, as was everyone else in the classroom. He stood partially turned away from the rows of desks. They were filled with silent faces and curious eyes—and some of those faces were getting ready to snicker. He looked at the teacher’s assistant, Miss Rimbauer, who sat at his teacher’s desk off to one side of the classroom.
“Well, Sebastion, what do the words invoke in you? Do they give you a sense of anything?” She looked a little nervous, to be honest. To Sebastion she seemed wary of what he might say. Miss Rimbauer was young, pretty, and dreadfully inexperienced. She was an intern and this was her first time leading the class. Left alone in the room while Mrs. Woods was off making photocopies, Miss Rimbauer was on her own for the entire afternoon. And she had almost certainly been told by Mrs. Woods of Zeb’s ‘circumstances’.
“Well, they make me see colors.”
“Oh. Okay. What kinds of colors?”
“Orange. Yellow mostly.”
“And does that help you with the meaning of it?”
“M-Hmmm.” He looked down at his feet and the sniggers finally came. They started in the back.
Miss Rimbauer glanced in the direction of the noise, but quickly looked back at Sebastion. “So, does the poem have a meaning then?”
“It means...” He trailed for a moment, then looked back up at her, “It means we’re all dying in the sun.”