the raws (a short story)

the raws (a short story)

by camille pirtle

This story was written in the winter of 2024, for a creative writing class in which the prompt was to write about something that is "lost or found." It tells the story of a young woman and her stalker. It is previously unpublished.

We met in a theater. It was exactly dark, except for the single white light that issued from above. On the screen were shades of gray and white. It was a classic film, sixty years old at least. The men wore hats, and the women walked slowly and with purpose, their lips painted red yet rendered black from the color of the film. You were with a friend, and the two of you talked softly with your heads pressed together. Your lips made a staccato, the bs and ps little pops in the darkness, bullet sounds in the back of my mind. Your hair hung down in two waves by the side of your face, as dark as the negative space up ahead. 

You were three seats away, and I kept counting them—one, two, three, three, two one, over and over again in my head. The chairs were red velvet, an oddity of the past that had become a commodity. The ticket to the film was seven dollars, which struck me as unnecessary. I would rather pay less to sit in one of those modern theaters, with air conditioning and tight legroom. And yet even then I knew you wouldn’t, that those seven dollars had been intentional for you, even special. Maybe you'd saved for them; you had the kind of youth that reeked of poverty and ideals, the kind that made you wait in line for a concert, or get high and listen to Abbey Road on vinyl. I guessed you were in college, maybe a little older, and I was reminded of myself at that time, of the fragile, insecure girl I'd once been.

Your voice cut through the darkness again. I heard only the imprint of the words, their muffled sound. I tried to remind myself that it was silly to be irked by someone sitting three whole seats away, but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to lean over and say something to you—chastise, maybe—but I didn’t. That was not the day we met.

I came back a week later, on a whim. It was the same showtime, another classic film. As I had predicted, you were there, this time alone, waiting by the ticket booth. You had your credit card in your hand, and you tapped it against the counter, all the way until your fingers touched the cold marble surface, then twirling it around so you held it from the top again. The cashier was busying himself with the antique popcorn machine, and had yet to notice you, or maybe didn’t care to. You were impatient—even then I could tell—and all the weight of you, which was not very much, was balanced on one foot, the other hung an inch in the air. You were wearing brown clogs and a thin black dress, your hair done up over your head loosely and your lips a pale red. You felt my presence behind you and you turned. You assessed me for only a moment. I wondered if you were the type of person whom I attracted; they were often volatile and insecure, in need of assurance. I gave more than I received in any relationship, yet I was always blamed for what I took. You turned back towards the counter. I decided you were not.

The man finally noticed you, and he rang up your ticket quickly. You gazed at the popcorn for a moment, but decided against it. I frowned. You strode off into the theater, those clogs clicking on the tile floor. I bought my own ticket, and the largest container of popcorn they sold.

We were the only ones watching the film. It was dramatic, almost sensational, with dialogue that seemed to be written to be remembered. You sat near the front, with one foot propped up on the seat in front of you and your arms crossed. I wondered what you had to be so upset about. I sat two rows behind you, as close as I could get without revealing myself. I found myself thinking about ways to get your attention, spurts of conversation I could use to get to know you. I thought about commenting on the film, but instead I decided to laugh, with a clear, bright sound, at a scene where the woman on screen was crying. You turned back and looked at me, your head jerking and eyes wide. To your surprise, I met your gaze, raised my eyebrows, opened my face to you. What? I asked, and my word was just audible over the Mid-Atlantic accents coming from the speakers.

You thought for a second before saying, it’s not a funny part. You were so sure of it, the kind of certainty only the young have. 

I softened. I’m sorry, I said, I don’t think I really get it. I gestured vaguely at the screen, and you nodded sympathetically.

You haven’t seen it before?

I shook my head. That much was true. You looked back up at the screen and I thought I had lost you, but then you reached down and grabbed the leather bag you carried around with you and proceeded to walk up to my row. You sat down next to me, and we were parallel for a moment—unmoving, untouching. You were wearing a floral perfume, the kind that used to make me feel sick when I was pregnant. That was many years ago now, and the baby I had never had didn’t remind me of you, even though she would have been about your age. You crossed your legs, the fabric of your dress swishing with the movement, and gestured forward. You see, you whispered, that’s Rick. And he wants to be with her, but he can’t. It’s like a love triangle, I guess, but it’s made so much more dramatic by, well, by the Nazis.

I nodded, unsure of my luck. And why doesn’t she stay with him? I asked.

You waited before answering. Because of the other guy, I said finally, and you nodded your assent.

We were out on the street then. It was dark. We had spent long enough in the theater that the day had elapsed, and my body felt jittery, a low buzz humming over me from head to foot. I pretended I was going the same way as you so we could walk together a little longer. I wondered if you had a dorm awaiting you, or maybe an apartment, and if there was a roommate there, or a boyfriend, someone to laugh with you as you ate, to smile at you before you went to bed. I wondered about your exterior life, the one you had outside of the three or four minutes we'd been talking to each other. I wondered if you were safe.

Really, you said to me, you’ve never seen Casablanca?

Never.

You frowned and shook your head in dismay. Don’t you feel like you’re missing a cultural experience?

No.

You smiled at that, my blanket refusal. You know, you muttered, your parents probably saw it in the theater. Think about that—God, what a thing.

Jesus, you make me feel so old.

No, not old, you said, and then your face turned red. I didn’t know what to say to that. You walked up ahead of me and crossed the street. I stopped. On the far corner, you turned and extended your hand, waved briefly. Is this it? I wanted to ask, but instead I just returned your gesture. You disappeared into the night.

In the hall, I found myself in front of the mirror. It was long and empty, my shape small in front of it. I traced the outline of my body with my eyes, then focused in. I was still beautiful. My hair was thinner and the skin on my face looser than it used to be, but it was still clear, my lips still plump and pretty. I had evolved past style, past what was current and modern and necessary, to a kind of class; everything I was wearing was designer, even if I didn’t know what the labels meant. I had money, which was, in and of itself, a kind of power, a kind of seduction. It was dark and alluring, this force that allowed me to be simply better than anyone else. Yes, I concluded, I was still beautiful, and yet there was another part of me that wanted to reach through the mirror, to find the woman inside and ask her who she was, what she wanted.

My apartment was empty, as always. The counters were spacious and empty, all the appliances resting in carved alcoves, simple shades of stainless steel and glass. I went into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. Time passed—a few minutes, or maybe an hour—and then I undressed, made a small pile of my clothes on the floor. I went and got in the shower, and, for the first time, I allowed myself to think about you.

The shower head was a champagne flute, a reed in low water, a human neck. It bent on my whim, turned in my hand, coiled around me. Its bursts were hot and brief, the kind of pain that fed, the kind that grew. It existed only to serve me, to fill my desire, to bring my joy, its great arrival unstoppable, irreversible. I held it, then allowed it to embrace me, then made pressure on its surface. I imagined it was you, its texture that of your skin, the bumps of the metal the facets of your body. I squeezed it until it lost air, then kept going. I wouldn’t relent, not until you gasped, not until you screamed.

I woke up at some moment in the night, the room as dark as the theater. I was in one corner of the bed, my body at a strange angle. The rest of the sheet was undisturbed, untouched; I was alone in its vessel. Across from me, the door to the room was slightly ajar, and a thin light came in, hazy and yellow. It was like the projection on the movie screen, just less interesting. I thought about you again, or predicted you. I saw us together in a house, almost ready to go out for the evening, or maybe just back from dinner or a party. You were wearing a black dress that came down past your face, and I reached out to touch you, the long, thin shape of your back its own pool of light.

I started following you. It was not easy. The next week, I came to the same showtime, and you weren’t there. I sat alone in the theater, watched all two and a half hours by myself. On the way out, I caught sight of you, loitering by the entrance with your hands crossed in front you. You were smoking something, the white exhalation hovering above your head. You rolled your neck. I wondered if you were leaving or just arriving. I wanted to go talk to you, to engage in the same manner of conversation as we had before, but there was too much at stake. If you didn’t recognize me, or if you were waiting to meet someone, or if you left before I was finished with you—well, I didn’t know what I would do. I hovered behind the door, and when you pushed your body away from the curb, started walking off in one direction, I followed.

I had forgotten what it was like to be young. You didn’t wait at any of the stoplights, edging your body into the road, daring the cars to hit you. You moved quickly too, with gestures that belay your restlessness. I was always a block behind you on the other side of the street, always in fear that you would turn and notice me. I had never followed anyone before, at least not like this. But I had never felt how I felt about you, and I thought that if that didn’t justify it, nothing would. 

My questions about you were answered. You lived in a tiny studio apartment a few blocks north of the theater, and, from the look of it, you were alone there. I hung back when you went in the building, and I waited until I saw the lights come on upstairs as you busied yourself with making dinner. The window was a perfect frame, and it reminded me of the silent film we watched together the first time I ever saw you, the actions exercised in pantomime, soundless and infinite. You ate by yourself at a table by the window, then disappeared into your room. You came out an hour later, and you looked different. Your makeup was done, and you looked like one of those classical figures, older than celluloid, a beauty Hellenic in its proportions. A man came in the door and you embraced him. He was tall and handsome, the kind of person I pictured you with, the kind I myself had known love with when I was young. You went over and closed the curtains. He was smiling.

I watched you for a week. It started when you got home, always between seven and seven-fifteen, and lasted for an hour or maybe more, until you shut the curtains. I found a place to lurk, in the alcove next to a convenience store, where I was almost invisible, my body crushed tight together to hide itself. No one ever saw me, or if they did they didn’t mention it. I was always careful specifically to stay out of your sight, for I knew that would mean certain ruin. 

The man came most days. Unlike the first, you seemed less happy to see him, and you fought, in that same silent exaggeration, your face contorted as you screamed at each other. One night, he left before you closed the curtains, and I saw the aftermath, how you sat on the edge of your couch and cried softly into your hands, the tears slipping down your face. I went home that night feeling different, as if all of the weight had been lifted off my shoulders, and some new weight added to it.

I never held a gun before, never shot or stabbed anyone. I hadn’t drugged anyone’s drink, or held a head under water until their body stopped moving. I never even got in a fight, which was not the rite of passage for women that it was for men. I never held a hand full of blood, never really feared for my life. But I wanted to. I wanted to for you. I wanted to kill him. 

One night, in my kitchen, I went into my drawer and took out a knife, the long one with the thin, silver blade. I could stab him with this, couldn’t I?—wait until all the blood seeped out of his body, covering my hands, my clothes. I knew his routines, saw him as he walked away from your apartment every night. I could run up, kill him, and flee. No one would suspect me. The perfect crime. 

I walked around in a daze. He had made you cry. Every time I closed my eyes, I pictured the way you had cried, the slow movements of your shoulders up and down as you sobbed. He had made you feel that way, and yet for him there would be no punishment, probably not even any remorse. He would go on to hurt you again, or, if not you, than someone else. And yet I was the fucked-up one. I was the villain.

In my dream, you were mine. You ran ahead of me, the field catching the edges of your legs, your hair blowing towards me. I reached forward and, for a moment, I had you in my grasp, my arms around your waist. I tasted the scent of your neck on my lips, felt you bend and melt to me. We twisted, and all that existed was the infinite cosmic blue that came together when my body touched yours. I moved closer, and your head tilted towards the sky.

And so I found you again. I noticed that you came down to the convenience store most nights around nine, and so I positioned myself there, perusing one of the aisles at the front—the perfect place for a random encounter; and encounter me you did, stopping at the front, the bell ringing over the door, and calling my name. I turned and smiled. I remember you, you said, and paused for a moment before telling me that I was that woman, the one from the theater. I nodded. I noticed then the red rings around your eyes, from lack of sleep and lack of peace, and the dysfunction that seemed to follow you. Your bag was in a slouch by your side, one of its straps having fallen from your shoulders, and your hair’s loose waves were separated from each other by a vague frizz. I was the opposite, my entire body manicured and perfect, the product of hours of continual preparation that seemed to consume my life. In your disarray, you were still beautiful.

I haven’t seen you at the movies, I said. 

I stopped going.

I nodded, as if I understood much more than you conveyed. Are you okay? I asked.

You laughed suddenly, a raw sound. Do I look that bad? you asked.

On the contrary, I replied. You smiled at me, and I lost the ability to keep talking. You came up next to me in the aisle, and I could feel the reality of your presence. I had spent so long watching you in the window that to me you were two-dimensional, static, yet now I could reach out and touch you if I wanted, grip the permanence of your body. You caught me staring at your waist and I looked up. There was a smile playing on your lips.

What are you looking for? you asked, and gestured to the shelf. I glanced at what I had been standing in front of for the past twenty minutes, and realized it was a selection of pregnancy tests, their small containers pink and white, the angles of their apparatus jutting out in the illustrations. I frowned. Are you okay? you asked, and laughed again.

Those days are far behind me, I said.

I thought for a daughter or something, you offered.

I shook my head. No, I mumbled. It’s just me.

This seemed to make you sad, and you tilted your head at me. What are you doing now? you asked. I think there’s a showing—

I cut you off. Yes, I replied, and we left the shop together.

I followed your dark shape ahead of me. It was cold and the sky was a murky blue, almost black. We turned the block towards the theater and you let out a little sigh. All the lights on the marquee were off, and the street operated in stillness. You turned back to me. They’re closed, you said, as if this was something you had never encountered before. It was later than I anticipated, close to midnight. You circled the pavement frowning, and I came up behind you. It’s okay, I said. We’ve seen enough movies. You nodded. There were tears in your eyes like bright rain, and you ran a hand through your rumpled hair. Your face had turned a brilliant shade of red. I’m guessing it’s not about the movie, I ventured. You shook your head.

No.

Tell me, I said, my voice soft. Tell me.

It’s, well, it’s this man. It’s my boyfriend. He’s supposed to be this person, you know, who loves me, and then he acts like he doesn’t care. And it’s so difficult, you know? Because I want this man to love me, and I keep waiting for him to start, and do I really want to be in a relationship—Jesus, in a marriage—with this man? 

You looked at me, and, for an instant, I thought you expected me to answer. I had never met him, but I knew more about your boyfriend than you thought. I knew that he liked to wear green sweaters, and was left handed, and scratched his neck after he buzzed her on the apartment call box, while he waited for her to come down. I knew much more about you, of course, but now that didn’t seem relevant. I understand, I said, and I’m sure you’re doing everything just right. Your face lit up, and you smiled at me, and you allowed yourself to cry as I moved forward to embrace you.

We were in my kitchen, the long shape of the house dark. The windows were slightly open, and the city reflected back at us, in the shape of orange and red lights. You walked around the space, laying a light hand on a few of the objects. It was a bigger place than you were used to, and you marveled to me several times that I lived here by myself. I pretended to cook, moving around in my cabinets and drawers, putting things out on the counter. I had the kitchen knife, with its long, wicked blade, laid out under a dishtowel, in case he came to interrupt us. Looking over at you, I knew that I would never let anyone else take you from me again. They would only hurt you, while I would keep you safe. You came and sat at the bar, your elbows on the counter and your face in your hands. Hey, hey, it’s okay, I whispered, and I came around and held you from behind, my arms wrapped around your shoulders as you sobbed in front of me. 

I just don’t know what to do, you told me.

That’s okay, I responded, really, it is. Trust me, I’ve seen my fair share of this kind of thing.

Really? you asked, turning to look up at me.

Really.

I feel bad, you said, I don’t really know you. And here I am, in your house

The reality of the situation seemed to have sunk in for you, the fact that you were in the apartment of what amounted to a stranger. You were wearing a cardigan, and you pulled it tightly over your shoulders.

It’s okay, I offered again. It will look better in the morning, I promise.

You stood up and went over to the window. You looked down at the street. Would you wait with me for a cab? you asked, and a jolt of pain went through me because I knew you were leaving.

I forced myself to nod. Sure, of course. You can stay here tonight if you need too. I have plenty of space.

You smiled at me again. Really? you asked. You would let me stay here?

Of course.

You’re sure?

Of course.

You came back over to me.

I told you that you could find something in my closet to wear for the night. I took you there, let the door swing open over the rows and rows of clothes, mostly black, then I left you alone. In the kitchen, I breathed heavily as I put the food away I had taken out. You were in my house. I took the knife with me as I came back to the room, put it on the nightstand, then shook the towel out over it. I thought about defending the apartment if he were to come find you. Would I stand by the door with the knife in both hands? or would I call the cops and stay with you, my body curled in front of yours in protection?– it was difficult to say. I sat down on the edge of the bed, then glanced behind me to see you once more, your small figure framed in the vastness of my closet. You were wearing a pair of old pajama pants; you had kept your cardigan. It was the most modest thing you could find, surely, and the least expensive. You walked over to me, and I met you halfway, in the middle of the room. I don’t know how I’m going to repay you for this, you murmured. For the advice, and for letting me stay here—

I shushed you lightly, to signify that it meant nothing. We stared at each other for a few moments, and then you went up on your toes and kissed me. Your face was briefly against mine and I caught the scent of you once more, the floral, beautiful thing that you were made up of. Your mouth opened slightly, and I wished to go forward, to consume you. You leaned back. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it? you asked, and I understood then that it was just as you said: a repayment. You did what you were obligated to do, and not what you wanted. And tomorrow, when you woke up, you would go back to where you lived, and you would be with him again, and even if you weren’t it would be someone else. And we might remain friends, or even something more, but I would never have the assurance I wanted, the knowledge that you would never leave. 

Go sit on my bed, I said as an answer, and I turned my back on you, went over to my side table. The dish towel was next to the smooth ceramic plate I stacked my jewelry on, and I examined its texture as I took my rings off, my bracelets, unhooked my necklace from behind my head. It was a simple gold chain, unadorned. I looked over my shoulder, and you were sitting on the edge, waiting for me. Get under the sheets, I said, and you obeyed without hesitation, submerging yourself in the bed. I picked up the dishtowel. 

I came closer to you. Everything was dark and quiet. I lay next to you, and pushed you gently so we were parallel, your back to me as I moved behind you. That was how we would stay, lying side by side. Your breathing would slow and eventually stop, and you would be mine for as long as I wanted you, which was forever. I felt the dull weight next to me. I reached out my hand.