China Doll

Columns | Vienna Review | May 2011

Satellites posing as falling stars linger in the night sky as headlights, rushing to fade into oblivion, illuminate the open spaces with a yellowish glow for tiny brief moments before leaving them with an even lamppost tan. Droplets from a first autumn rain tumble from rooftops to the ground, and the air is damp. Fresh leaves on the trees neatly planted all down the line by human hands, begin to display little signs of life, making it evident that winter has moved on.

A door slams shut behind me with a loud thud, and I find myself on the street, feeling the planet shifting.

I offer her a cigarette, she accepts, I light hers first. We stop at an old 19th-century house, its beauty made more poignant by the peeling paint and rusty drainpipes, columns rising high where cherubs, crusted with grime of the decades, loom over us, noses broken off, marble curls the color of ash.

Suddenly she says "to hell with it" and, leaning on a wall with the hand that has the cigarette between its plum little fingers, pulls the shoes off with the other, leaving her standing barefoot in front of me. An older couple passes us. They try not to look but can’t help themselves. The man puts his arm around the woman’s shoulder and she fits there perfectly, like a plug in a socket. They disappear around the corner leaving two tall shadows lurching away into darkness.

Heels dangling from her index finger, she takes careful tiny steps, putting one foot in front of the other, as children often do, arms spread wide apart, the soles of her feet glistening. She slowly glides down the street towards the alley, every move calculated, executed with perfect precision and grace. She turns around and freezes in a pose.

And maybe it’s the way the street is illuminated or maybe it’s just my eyes playing tricks on me, but she seems to be made of porcelain, like a doll that has been neatly placed under a streetlight. Shiny and fixed in place, a china dancer stands facing me.

My initial reaction is to look for the strings but I can’t bring myself to even try. I should follow, but my legs are paralyzed. The doll’s head slightly tilts to the side, and her jaw begins falling and retracting at its own accord.

"Aren’t you going to make sure I get home safe?" she utters.

And that’s my cue.

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