C C Canning
How long is three minutes when every second commands your attention and every one of them has to be re-lived over and over until it has become a pattern in your DNA? My first impression was that she was either coming from, or going to, a party. There was an element of theatricality about her which was down to the eccentricity of her clothes: a plain black dress in a knitted fabric that was too small for her even though she was slim; the contour of the dress obscured by a brightly coloured waistcoat that was, by contrast, too big for her. They could have been clothes grabbed spontaneously from a theatrical wardrobe, or else they were not her own.
Her hair was black and straight, chopped unevenly so that the longest parts traced her jaw line down to her chin and the shortest parts had the punk quality that only blunt kitchen scissors could impart. Her feet were bare.
All this I discovered in the first glance without any invasion of privacy on either side. Her face was expressionless. We were less than a metre apart and alone on the street under artificial lights that stripped the colour from her skin. In daylight that skin might have been milk white but under the sodium street lamps the milk had been skimmed, giving it a pale blue opacity like Ming porcelain. Structurally her face was strong, the bones of her forehead, cheeks and nose quite pronounced in a handsome rather than pretty way that bordered on androgynous; light on flesh, with eye sockets the size of dessert spoons framed with pencilled black eyebrows and the purple bruising of acute iron deficiency. Like mine, the eyes themselves were dull and withdrawn. One of us had to give.
‘What did you say?’ I asked pleasantly.
Her lips barely moved.
‘Give me fifty dollars.’
It wasn’t the voice of a Jersey girl or a stray from Brooklyn, it was the voice of a girl from New England where you would expect her to have been taught to say please, and so what she said was made all the more surprising by the way she said it.
If, like me, you come to believe that all behaviour is driven by biological imperatives then you will understand why my response was initially uncomplicated. In the years since I have had many reasons for re-examining my actions on that night but the starting point always remains the same. She was a girl in her early twenties, dressed for a party, and I was a thirty-something man. My instinct was to check her out. So I chuckled with fake amusement at the baldness of her question and looked away as if in search of a candid camera. I unconsciously presented myself. Of course, the persona conducting this charade was merely pimping on my behalf. I had not made any determination as to the girl’s desirability or otherwise, nor to the suitability of my behaviour; I was just being a man.
Why didn’t I, as many have said to me since, just reach into my pocket for whatever money was there, hand it to her without a word and walk quickly away? ‘Don’t even wait for her to count it’, was the advice Michael gave as soon as he heard about it. ‘And if my pockets were empty?’ I asked. ‘Fuck it, this is New York: just run!’
It is exactly the advice that I would now give to someone else in the same circumstances.
It was hardly a full second before I looked back to her. In that time the dull, flat disinterest in her eyes had been transformed into piercing lucidity.
‘Why would I do that?’ I asked, deliberately inflecting my voice with the English accent that I had found so useful in placing distance between myself and others since coming to New York.
She didn’t answer, but slowly lifted her left hand in which she had been holding a small clutch purse. Without taking her eyes from mine she appeared to proffer the purse towards me then draw it back to her chest. I leaned closer. It was a well-worn, cheap bag covered in silver sequins, now mostly missing, and it had a short wrist strap and a white plastic clasp. With her right hand she undid the plastic clasp and tilted the bag towards me. What I saw when I looked down was not what I expected to see and for that reason I was not sure that I had seen it. I lowered my head closer and then I stepped back sharply. The bag contained a small black gun.
I remember the moment as being completely silent. There are no street sounds in my memory, no scuffing of shoes or inhalation of air. My sole focus was on her right hand as she reached inside the bag and took hold of the gun and I realise in hindsight that I had clearly seen the lesions on her inner arm, and even the chewed and torn quick of her broken fingernails, but those impressions were suppressed in favour of the primary focus of my stress: the gun.
When I moved my tongue to speak it stuck to the roof of my mouth and the short expletive that was forced out of me collapsed into a dry croak. I want to believe that I was making an instinctive attempt to ‘tend and befriend’ and that is what caused me to try and speak. What I’ve learned since is that both fight and flight can be combined leading to momentary inaction.
I have never been certain what it was that I said but I know I froze.
Once the gun was in her hand we both looked up and I’m sure that what she saw in me was someone who had chosen to disappear, playing dead like a scared rabbit; for why else would she have decided to smile?
Lips that seemed to have been etched in ink spread outwards beneath a strongly moulded nose shaped by a sculptor with two heavy thumbs like those of Michelangelo whose lust for his young model had been unconsciously revealed in the luscious lips and Roman nose he’d given to the sculpture of Michael. That’s what I believed I saw. But these were aubergine coloured lips that parted wide to reveal the mouth of Medusa: Medusa, who made herself so ugly that all who saw her were turned to stone.
I reeled back at the sight of blackened stumps of teeth, smashed, jagged and suppurating; teeth snapped in half and barely visible in swollen gums yellowed by disease and pain. It was a smile that would haunt me. And though I can still feel and hear the explosion as if it has just happened, will I ever know what really happened next?
© c c canning