Lila was a woman on the edge of a disaster
Not necessarily a grave disaster -- possibly a series of very small disasters
, a gradual coming apart at the seams. You knew that her hair was about to come loose, that the soles of her shoes were a millimeter from splitting, that a careless jerk of her elbow would send the china flying
in the next few seconds. And it wasn't because of any noticeable flaws in her black ballet flats
, or any particular clumsiness in the way she moved. It was just that gravity seemed to eddy differently
around her, the air humming with potential catastrophe. In her presence, the world seemed poised to tumble down
I met her in the university cafeteria -- in retrospect, a terrifying place for a woman like her to be, surrounded by glasses and flatware and the sturdy institutional plates that seemed suddenly fragile as hoarfrost. She was working at the checkout, weighing plates and swiping cards that always seemed about to fly out of her tiny, almost translucent hands. It wasn't until I reached the register that I realized I'd been staring at her moon-white face all through the line. I forced my eyes somewhere else, but was immediately certain that in that instant of inattention she'd slipped from her high stool, cracked her head on the counter, brushed a stack of plates to the ground with one flailing heel. In a panic I snapped my eyes back to survey the damage, but she was intact, waiting for my meal card with a placid and slightly puzzled face. When I held it out, my hands seeming unnaturally pink in the harsh flourescent light, she gave me a smile that was laced with the sounds of breaking glass.
There was nothing about Lila herself that indicated danger, I realized later, sitting across from her in the coffee shop. Everything about her was small and silken -- no rough edges, no big clumsy limbs, no sweeping melodramatic movements. She didn't wear tall shoes she could tumble from, or tight pants she could split. Even her fingernails seemed as thin and harmless as tissue paper. But I never got over the feeling that she would fall apart every time I looked away.
On the walk back to our dorms, I held her hand -- loose enough that I wouldn't hurt her, tight enough that I could grab her back if she was somehow whisked into traffic or dashed on the ground. But it was me who stumbled, catching my toe on a heaved-up chunk of asphalt, loosing my carefully constructed grip at the shock of it. I struck my hand sharply on the ground as I caught myself, and Lila's laughter was like the moon catching the blood on my torn-up palm. Living with one foot in disaster, she had no fear of wounds.
We never slept together, though I tried to spin our friendship into a warm, tight cocoon that would protect her from the tragic life she led when my back was turned. She was even-featured and luminous, which is almost the same as beautiful, and the chances were there, and I was young and hormone-fevered and not usually the type to let such opportunities slip by. But I think I was afraid of what might happen if we were intertwined, if I were so focused on her that she couldn't slip away to the edges of my vision to disintegrate. Would she dissolve, or flicker in and out of being, shuttling between tranquil reality and the torturous alternate world I could never quite glimpse? Would she shapeshift, Proteus-like, under my body, forcing me to hold tight to her secret and grotesque forms? Would the hidden disasters pile on her like leaves on a stopped-up drain, leaving welts across her delicate skin? I wasn't sure I wanted to find out what happened when I tried to pin her down.
I never caught her crumbling, though I fancied I felt it in the pit of my stomach, the way I imagine you feel an iceberg breaking apart. And I knew, because I could not find and hold the part of her that was always in disarray, that I'd never really love her, no matter how much I thought I did. I would fix my eyes on her, that laughing moon face, the shine in her eyes like the sparkle of broken glass, and in my peripheral vision her spectral self would bide its time. If only she'd fallen, I could have gathered her up.