Folly greeted me at the door like a long-lost friend. Her eyes, divots in her boulder-like pitbull head, took me in as if from centuries past. Her welcome told me I was in the right place.
It was my second date with Callie. Fourth of July. An unbearably humid Chicago summer night. Callie’s block was a war zone of fireworks. A haze hung over the whole street. But upstairs, after I closed the door, I barely noticed the explosions. Or, rather, they seemed to be muffled, as if miles away rather than directly under the window. I don’t know if it was Callie’s willful magic or a side effect of attraction.
I met Callie at a party I meant to avoid. A fundraiser for a film magazine I used to write for. I felt an obligation. My plan was to poke my head in, wave hello if I saw a familiar face, throw a few bucks in the hat, and get out of there. Then I saw her.
I’d biked past the building a million times but never been inside. A lonesome structure along an overpass, surrounded by multiple railroad tracks; the Amtrak yard sat to the north, giving on to the Chicago skyline. The building had housed some industrial concern at one time; now it was a rabbit warren of art studios, small businesses, and marginally-kosher live/work spaces. My destination was a film post-production facility.
There was a bottleneck by the door. A woman at a table was soliciting donations in exchange for raffle tickets. A group bunched up by the narrow entryway agonizing which prize to donate towards. Beyond them, I could see the room filled with people. Anxiety spiked. I knew I’d only last minutes. Maybe just drop a few bucks in the jar and turn around and leave? Then I saw her.
She stood just beyond the donation table, next to a couch that was likely a family castoff. An old man was chivalrously offering to refresh her glass of wine. She glowed. Or, perhaps, everyone around her looked half-lit by comparison. A light-color floral summer dress and cork-heeled sandals showed off toenails painted seafoam green. Dark auburn hair, likely a dye-job, took nothing away from her beauty. Her face, once she turned my way, was stunningly asymmetrical. Almost cubist. A Modigliani come to life.
The old gent returned with a plastic glass of white wine, bowed, and turned to greet someone he knew. I sat down on the couch and she sat down next to me. She asked what brought me here. She said she didn’t know why she was here, then remembered a friend had invited her. Her job was picking music for movies. She’d been in this space before for work. I told her I’d just written a book about music and pulled out a copy from my bag. A smile spread across her mouth as she flipped the pages. She insisted on buying it. We kept talking when she wasn’t looking through the book. Her praise was effusive, outsized. Almost like she was putting me on.
Callie’s friend arrived. She wrote down her number, said she wanted to see me again, then turned away. I walked over to where the raffle prizes were. DVDs, posters, and gift certificates for classic movies, I couldn’t focus on any of it. I looked out the window at the Chicago skyline, in a daze. I snuck a few looks her way but didn’t try to meet her eye. I didn’t want the spell to break. I left without talking to anyone else.
We made a date for Saturday. She wanted to try a bar in my neighborhood. I agreed without saying I hated the place.
“This isn’t what I imagined,” she said, looking around. The bar had a reputation as a place for cool kids but was in fact a haven for tattooed douchebags training for yuppiedom. I suggested we walk down to the Albatross. She didn’t realize it was so close. She’d taken an Uber to meet me. I’d soon learn she had absolutely no sense of direction.
Our conversation was easy, like we knew one another a long time. Because I work at the Albatross, Callie asked whether bringing her there would be awkward, like inviting someone to meet family. There could be judgment, the stakes raised. I told her Of Course. I wanted to show her off.
She told me about the abusive ex now in jail for attempting kill the woman he was with after Callie, about fetishes, about her engulfing love of music. Every now and then she’d pause, embarrassed at all she’d revealed. I asked her to go on. I wanted to know everything. She’d come to Chicago a few years earlier, hired as a backup singer for a local hip-hop producer. When it became clear the job offer was just a chance to get in her pants, she quit and struck out on her own, eventually landing a gig scoring an indie film. Now she spends her days searching cyberspace for sounds to match images.
Walking her home from the bar was when I learned her inner compass was out of whack. Though she lived a few blocks away, she insisted her place was in the opposite direction from where I knew it to be. After convincing her to trust me, we were at her door in minutes. We kissed goodnight. I don’t remember how I got home.
We worried how Folly would handle the violent bursts. She’d cower from time to time, but seemed to be holding it together.
I watched Callie finish cooking our dinner. We talked, drank wine, it felt like a fairytale. The decor was just so, a physical manifestation of her extreme care and taste. I could tell Callie spent most of her time the last years creating these enchanted rooms. She turned from the stove now and then and smiled at me, then quickly looked away. I never wanted to leave.
After dinner we moved to the living room. She played records and told me about her family. The history of mental illness. Her grandfather in Paris who changed his last name from his Russian Jewish given one to the French word for remember. Or was it recall?
I took out the pad of paper I’d brought and asked her to sit still. She’d never posed for a painter before and said she hated every photograph ever taken of her. Called herself unphotogenic. As I worked I kept trying to catch her eye. They met mine, then flitted away like birds momentarily alighting on a branch only to fly away at the slightest gust. She looked at the charcoal when I was done and acted flattered. Said it was what she felt she looked like.
I asked if she’d been uncomfortable posing. What would make her more at ease. She suggested taking off her clothes. But only if I did the same. She went into her bedroom. I’d shed all I had on before she had a chance to shut the door. She returned minutes later, lay down on the floor near my chair, took a deep breath and opened her robe.
We locked eyes whenever I wasn’t looking at the drawing. It felt like these glances lasted hours. I wanted to disappear into the point where our eyes met. After I couldn’t work anymore I lay down next to her.
Callie was out of town for work the following week. We went to the movies when she got back, then to the Albatross for drinks. I talked her into the photobooth despite her insistence she never took a good picture. I’m looking at the photostrip now. In the ones where one of us isn’t blinking we look so happy.
She wanted to see my place. It had been years since a woman had slept in my bed. I got new sheets, cleaned the bathroom, tried to make my hovel habitable. I warned her I had nothing on her where homemaking was concerned. She was excited anyway.
She took it in with the same wonder I’d taken in hers. We drank and listened to records. Then she changed and sat in my armchair to pose for a painting. It went wrong from the start. While we locked eyes as before, the picture was stillborn and ugly. She snuck a look before I was done and couldn’t hide her disappointment. I wrestled with it for another hour, then we went to bed.
She called herself my girlfriend. We went to sleep in each other’s arms.
In the morning we went to the coffeeshop for breakfast. She was distant but not unhappy. She kissed me goodbye, promising to see me soon.
I never saw or heard from her again.
I knew she didn’t care for texts or email. After hearing nothing from her for two weeks, I decided to appeal to metaphysical forces. On a clear night, I climbed onto my roof and set the cursed portrait from our last night on fire—a sacrifice to return me to Callie’s good graces. It felt good to be rid of the horrible thing. It had taunted me, reminding me of failure and heartbreak. To watch it turn to dust and be blown away by a lazy breeze was a relief. But if Callie was affected by my little ritual I never knew about it.
My last text to her asked if she was alive. Crickets.
As weeks turned to months I convinced myself Callie was a figment of my imagination. A fantasy conjured by a lonely man. But then the Albatross calendar came out. The bar makes a collage of photobooth pictures to mark each passing year. There we are, mid-smile, close together, in love for all the world to see.
I rolled a calendar into a tube, slipped a note wishing her a happy new year, and left it on Callie’s doorstep.