He didn’t know how it was for her, but to him it seemed both revolting and absolutely unbearable. Looking at the asphalt, crudely but lavishly veined with millions of torpid and twitchy worms, Kyle kept blaming himself for his bad luck. Why of all days did it have to rain this particular Thursday? Thursday he had long singled out, cuddled and smothered like a frail, anemic baby? Though come to think of it, it wasn’t really about the rain, that laidback and fairly innocuous drizzle that had looked and sounded more like early autumn’s tax than a tragedy. No, damn the rain: this was about the worms.
And now it was even worse – because she noticed.
- That funny gait. You don’t normally walk like that, do you?
Kyle didn’t want to lie. Not because he wasn’t actually capable of lying or because it was their first real date (which it was) and he wanted to do good and be good – but more because he was way too confused and preoccupied with his feet to think of anything smart. Or witty. Or at the very least believable.
- These worms. I’m afraid I might, you know, step on them.
There. He said it. What he didn’t say, though, was that it was not mere disgust – this was actually fear. So many of those childish fears he had long shrugged off, abandoned or simply forgotten, yet this one kept catching up on him like a particularly nasty dream. It happened every time after this specific sort of rain that is neither too light nor too hard. It just dragged them out of their minute holes and cracks and made them look like a numerous but random group of tourists who had the nerve to listlessly usurp the whole beach.
Well, at least she didn’t laugh.
- Will it get better when it gets dark?.. Come on, just don’t look down. It’ll be all right.
He was slightly annoyed – people who had given him that sort of advice in the past were all quite indifferent to his predicament and had only said it out of dull, self-serving politeness. “Will it get better when it gets dark?” “Just don’t look down”. What difference could it make? Couldn’t his creepy mind paint pictures a lot more cruel than his very vision that was well-impeded by his boots and the bulging bump of his scarf? Couldn’t his imagination see the disgustingly silent squishing of the mawkish, soft brown flesh?
- No, Karen – he said, somehow finding it necessary to answer. – It won’t. Because in that case I will just imagine that I’m stepping on them all the time…
But by that time the grass had already begun to gnaw at the crumbly edges of the asphalt, which meant that the park was not far away. Kyle felt good about the grass. Grass was all right. Its dense, densely invisible textures effectively put Kyle out of his misery, for that way he knew that even if they were there – his hardened soles could do them no harm against the grassy, uneven surface of the ground. But, and here was the catch, they were not there. Not in the grass.
Karen halted, which also stopped Kyle and his unforgivable train of thought. While Karen was staring at the gate that looked as closed and unapproachable as it was supposed to at this time of day, Kyle kept piercing at the dim face of his watch (since was it really okay to look at the mobile phone too much during your first date with a girl?). Kyle felt slightly panicky about the gate, because if Martin had been bullshitting him about it being opened from 9:30 till 9:45, then all was lost. And it was still, he now managed to deduce, 9:32.
- Are you sure about that gate? – asked Karen. – Because, you know, it’s fine if…
She then interrupted herself by doing what only the rarest and the greatest of girls could: Karen turned to Kyle and looked at him in a way that was both abstract and inescapably intimate. It wasn’t his eyes she was looking for: it was the intention, the feeling, the act. And then Kyle sensed it coming, that breath. He knew that breath: it was not about experience, this was about intuition. Her breath was actually getting closer and closer to him without her approaching him or in any way changing the position of her head. Kyle got it: his next move…
And only through some distant clattering of the gate could he hear himself whisper:
- Well, I am sure. The park will be open. Just wait and see.
‘Brave’ was never the word Kyle could use when describing himself even to people who actually wanted to hear it from him. However, this time this was an all-or-nothing proposition, and the wall was too hard against his back, so he took her hand, for the first time ever, and gently led her to the gate. Feeling the increased pumping of his heart that was threatening to drop by their cautious feet, Kyle pushed the gate open...
Yes, it gave way, and they could now have the park to themselves. After all, who else knew about this 15-minute gap that could be the result of a careless gatekeeper as much as some obscure divine act? And for all his well-honed cynicism, Kyle was going for the latter.
The park looked obliquely gorgeous. Like some sinister fairy-tale wonder, it was pitched into half-darkness, and was only illuminated by a bunch of drowsy, disinterested lamp-posts. The park being so close to the college, they did of course know all about it: its benches dedicated to the most loyal visitors that were now dead; the corners where you had to be careful to avoid knocking down a squirrel with rose petals in its quivering, ever-munching mouth; trees that could hide you from the storm, trees that couldn’t; exciting paths that led you nowhere; bushes that hid erratic piles of condoms and beer cans. Now, though, Karen and Kyle were ready to discover it anew. They both felt that the park opened an endless array of opportunities for seeing and experiencing things that were trampled or gobbled down by noisy children throwing frisbees or groups of schoolgirls hysterically driving around the lake in old-fashioned swan-shaped boats. This moment had none of that, and the atmosphere, freshly minted by the rain, made it all look even more electrifying.
Still, the park was not entirely empty, and at some point they could see a subtle figure in the distance. It looked like a chubby child – only what could he possibly do here at such a time? Kyle squeezed Karen’s hand, because he felt the unmistakable shiver injecting her fingers and her whole body. The thing was, Kyle himself was scared, and only the presence of someone so much more vulnerable than himself helped him disregard the fact that there was something perversely wrong about that child…
Besides, he got distracted. An irregular object got flashed out by the moon’s skeptical, slapdash blink, and Kyle cast a worried glance to the left of him. Something was sticking out from the grass, something that was not supposed to be there. A cigarette pack? A crumpled handkerchief? An abandoned toy?
Kyle delicately separated their hands and got closer to the place on the grass where the object was lying.
- Is everything all right? – asked Karen.
Kyle gazed in the distance: the mysterious silhouette was gone.
- Yeah, just stay where you are. Stay in the light, it won’t be a second...
He guessed right. This really was a bundled, dirty (formerly white) handkerchief that Kyle just couldn’t leave where it was. There are certain bundled handkerchiefs you would never touch, not in a million years – yet this one just had to be unwrapped. So Kyle turned his back to Karen and knelt down. He then slowly, carefully unwrapped the handkerchief. Somehow, what he saw inside didn’t shock him the way it had to: for it was a human nose. The real one, cut off from a human face and covered in mud. Nothing to do with clowns or wax. Kyle bundled it all again and slipped the handkerchief into the pocket of his coat.
- What was it? – asked Karen, trying to read it from his face.
Well, of course: she had to ask. And of course he was not supposed to turn to her and say: “Well, Karen, it’s nothing. Just a human nose”.
- Well, Karen, it’s nothing. Looks like somebody has lost his handkerchief…
His first lie to her, though was it really all that bad? Was it perhaps a half-lie, a white lie and maybe not a lie at all? For in all honesty – this really was a handkerchief that somebody had left in the grass. Dropped accidentally or placed intentionally (as a clue or as a bait) – that was a different matter altogether.
They carried on walking – silently, holding hands, enjoying every minute of it. Not even a cut-off human nose could waver the harmony or throw it all off balance.
Strangely enough, the nose made Kyle think about Martin. Was it because the nose looked a lot like Martin’s? Or did it have to do with a film that Martin made him watch the other day? Kyle couldn’t tell at that point. What he did know, though, was that Martin (who already saw himself as a real-life film director) was currently trying to find the right cast for his first movie project. Which would have been perfectly all right and could see him woo dozens of girls in a matter of hours, only Martin’s project wasn’t really all that straightforward. Couldn’t be. In his typically contrarian manner, Martin’s first script was for a porn movie. And somehow he saw Karen as his lead actress.
“Are you out of your fucking mind? – was Kyle’s initial reaction. – Fuck your fifteen minutes, I don’t care. I’m not saying anything. What am I, a pimp? Asking the one girl I like to play in a fucking porn movie?”
Martin was relentless. He said he would do that for a friend, that a porn movie was only a porn movie and not the end of the world and what the hell was wrong with him anyway?
“She is the girl, believe me. And it’s not hardcore, so don’t worry about that. It will all be simulated”.
At that moment there was nothing Kyle desired more than hit Martin as hard as he possibly could, but now the whole pornography thing was coming back, kicking against his skull like a rush of blood. Now Kyle was gradually getting himself in a playful, devil-may-care mood that could make him do and say asinine things he would later regret. Besides, wasn’t asinine drivel the only thing you were supposed to say to a girl on a first date? And what if she in fact agreed?..
- Karen, – said Kyle, wondering what he would say next. – I think I haven’t yet told you about Lynch’s hand?..
- Lynch’s hand? – he loved the genuine incredulity in her voice. Not that there could be a different reaction to that. – No, I don’t think you have.
And now that he gave himself away, it was absolutely imperative to cover it all up with some half-assed modesty.
- Well, it’s nothing really. I was just walking in the street a year or two ago... And, you know, David Lynch was getting out of his car. It was just the moment, really. The perfect moment. I approached him and stretched out my arm. Fearing the absolute worst… Well, imagine my surprise…
- He shook your hand? David Lynch? Eraserhead?
- Yeah, and Mulholland Drive, and Twin Peaks. He actually shook my hand. He was there for a film festival, I guess…
- My God, –said Karen. – Why didn’t you ask for an autograph?
“Girls!” – thought Kyle, and was in fact on the verge of asking her about acting in Martin’s film. In the end there was just no time to ask, because in a sickly, sloppy, slow-motion haze the mysterious figure reemerged at the far end of the alley and was now approaching them.
- Oh please, Kyle, let’s leave now. I’m so scared…
- It’s all right, Karen, don’t worry. I think I know who that is.
So this was not to be a shocking revelation on par with that ghastly ending of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now that Martin loved so much. Lushly painted in blood and that intense redness of the raincoat, this was the ending that freaked Kyle out more than any horror movie could ever hope to. But the harrowing experience helped him. As a matter of fact, the figure didn’t have anything to do with children. The figure was indeed that of a dwarf. So – no, Kyle could abandon his witty and comic but now absolutely inappropriate idea of asking the stranger was he not by any chance looking for his nose?.. Particularly since it was not a stranger at all. It was a man who lived in the town, appearing here and there and never failing to bring on a nervous shrug or a restless stare. He was harmless, though, and Kyle could feel how Karen’s hand grew calmer, more relaxed.
The dwarf went past them as if they didn’t exist, muttering something to himself, something indecipherable. Something that they both nevertheless strove to make out.
When he was gone, Karen said with confused, unsettled excitement:
- It was something about the gate. I heard the word ‘gate’.
At which point they both turned around and gazed into the strangely purplish distance they had just left. They could neither see nor hear anything. The mysterious man had vanished, as had his muttering and his muffled footsteps. And in thirty seconds or so Kyle and Karen heard the soft, stealthy clattering of the gate that did perhaps a little more than send a simultaneous, stirring shiver down their spines…
When the intention, the act, the move was fulfilled, Kyle could hardly take his aroused stare off Karen’s face and glowing, penetrating eyes that were in fact so blue and so pale. Kyle felt warm; calmer than he had ever been. And as they crossed the brief patch of grass that prefaced the park and saw that the gate was locked, in and out, they feigned no surprise or indignation. They knew it had to be – at this time of day.
- But of course it is, – said Karen. – Well, like I say: never mind.
Which made Kyle wonder whether he had really seen that nose, covered in muddy, dried up blood and belonging to God knows who. For the pocket of his coat was most certainly empty, containing only that nostalgic, embroidered white handkerchief he hadn’t used in years. Also, Kyle could hear himself talking to Martin on the phone, maybe tomorrow, and listening to Martin’s incredulous “Fifteen minutes? What fifteen minutes?” Perhaps even “What porn movie?” Perhaps even “Karen? You are dating Karen?..”
So did it really happen? And did it really matter? Had he really shaken Lynch’s hand? Presently, the only indication of it was that his arm, tight around her warm waist, was actually burning.
They stepped off the grass, and Kyle could swear that the worms had all mysteriously vanished into the miserable cracks that were their homes. Or maybe they hadn’t actually vanished, and were still there, numerous and random, waiting to be squashed into pulp? This time, though, darkness was all right. It worked, it hijacked Kyle’s imagination, and as he kissed Karen again, he tried to forget all about porn movies and cryptic bundles and unsettling dwarves. So as not to betray her by thinking of something so disgustingly, so impossibly wicked.