Off Season & Real Image, Lens, Virtual Image by Jenya Doudareva

Off Season

Sticky heat, sounds of electrical lines, traffic, commotion – all gone. The blue of the sky is crispier, the trees are fiery red and orange, and it’s quieter somehow even in the middle of the city. I come to the same cafe almost every day and sit outside, looking at the park, and only now that it’s unmistakably fall, it’s also finally in peace. If I were to select a moment out of the ones to date, it would be this one. I would stretch it like rubber, make it into a loop that repeats over and over and you can’t find the edges that join it together. I’d allow it to be the only one that I can have, the last one maybe.

People come and go around me and I idly watch them. The heaters above me are on, and the warmth of them on the back of my neck is quarreling with the chill of the air around me, as if competing for my attention.

But neither of them win – my attention has now zeroed in on him. The newly arrived patron. He is beautiful in that slowly disintegrating kind of way. His body is still firm and good. His posture is that of a dancer. His skin bears evidence of what exactly he has always indulged in, and yet it still drapes his skull elegantly, wrinkles arranged methodically. He looks like his tongue would taste like cigarettes, and perhaps as a rare exception – I’d look forward to detesting the taste.

The patron is wearing a cream suit – is that out of season? I don’t know. It looks good. I can’t help but think that maybe I know him from before, although that’s not quite right. It would be more accurate to say this: he looks like I’d made him up in my head before, put together out of images I didn’t know I stored, made him the way I wanted to.

He’s flirting with the waitress now, and I can’t help but smile at that. After all, it makes sense – so had I just minutes before, and she flirts back, efficiently and practiced, not a smile or a joke out of place. Pleasant and professional. There are few things I like more than precision, after all.

I don’t bother pretending that I’m not observing him, so when he inevitably notices, he turns and slowly smiles at me. And I get the privilege of a nondescript smoothly accented voice.

“You are sitting under the heaters. They are bad for your lovely skin”, he says.

“Smoking is bad for your lovely skin”, I reply with a smile of my own.

“Ah, so we both should do better”, he says, eyes crinkling teasingly now.

I raise my eyebrow and nod towards a chair across from me for him to sit. He does.

“You come here often?”, I ask.

“A little too forward for a young lady, don’t you think?”, he doesn’t look offended at all.

“I’m not that young”, I reply. “I never thought you’d be opposed to others making the first move. You don’t look that old-fashioned…also, you haven’t answered my question.”

He smiles some more. It’s disarming, just like it should be.

“I’m here sometimes. It’s a bit too long of a walk for me from where I live. But that crooked tree in the park is lovely, and it’s worth every journey”, he says. “I’ve seen you here before.”

“So you have. And yet, you’ve never chatted me up”, I reply.

“Never”, he says after a pause. He looks amused.

“And why is that?”, I ask.

“I’m too old for you”, he says quickly. I glare at him in response. “You’re too young for me”, he offers now.

“Mmm, you’ve flirted with the waitress”, I insist. I don’t like the imprecision.

“It’s not an exact science”, he replies. He’s too amused by me.

“So why not me?”, I ask. I don’t really care about the answer per se, but now I must know where the logic is in his thinking.

“I don’t know what to tell you kid, you’re just not on my schedule”, he says. He is perhaps a little annoyed now.

“At all?”, I ask, matching the level of annoyed.

“I don’t always schedule far in advance”, he replies.

“But sometimes you do”, I clarify.

“Sometimes I do”, he nods.

“But not for me”, I say, unsatisfied.

“I didn’t say that”, he shakes his head.

“So you’ve scheduled far out with me in mind, and yet I am not on your schedule”.

“Something like that”, he says. “Like I said, you’re just not on my list”.

“So not only am I not on your schedule, I’m also not on your list at all?”, I ask. I am not a quitter. “You should have a tighter grasp on your story.”

“I don’t like being cornered very much”, he warns. “And you should be less eager.”

“Ah, then we both should do better”, I echo him from before. He gets up to leave.

“Be careful, little girl, I could accidentally forget to add you to the list forever, and that would be a shame. You’d never get to meet the manager, and I think you’d like him. You remind me so much of him.”, he says rather fondly. I pout.

“I’m much more charming than the Devil, old man”, I knit my eyebrows in mock offense and put my index fingers against my head in imitation, but perhaps I look more like a baby bull. He laughs genuinely now.

“I don’t doubt it. Now if you excuse me, dear, I have a masseuse coming over at midnight”. At that he nods and leaves without waiting for me to respond.

Sticky heat, sounds of electrical lines, traffic, commotion – all gone. The blue of the sky is beginning to bleed pink and purple, making the trees look more black than orange, and it’s even quieter now somehow, like it shouldn’t even be possible. If I were to select a moment out of the ones to date, it would be this one. I would stretch it like rubber, make it into a loop that repeats over and over and you can’t find the edges that join it together. And then I’d snap that rubber band and watch where it falls.

Real Image, Lens, Virtual Image

There was a sizeable commotion.

People were gathered around the beached whale, looking concerned and confused and desperate, arguing amongst themselves. For some it was the most exciting thing to have happened all week. They were much too eager. Every single person in the crowd was competing to be the most heroic one, but it was mostly just for show. It would be shocking if anyone proved to be useful in the matter at all. Some scratched their heads, some had their arms crossed against their chests, brows knitted, others paced around, and some touched the animal’s thick clammy skin – were they checking for fever?. Several of them attempted to push the beast back into the water to no avail.

Eventually the crowd thinned out until every single person was gone. All but one. She was still seated further away in the distance, on a damp cool rock, leaning on her right arm lightly, feet folded underneath her, unmoving for hours. A perfect replica of the statue of the little mermaid. Her legs were now vaguely numb and weight-bearing her arm was starting to get sore. And now – the light drizzle. Yet, she still wouldn’t move, her skin glistening and seeming almost metallic in the stingy amount of scattered light rays.

Back at the shoreline, the whale’s chest cavity kept rising and falling ever so slightly. It didn’t look to be struggling, if anything, it looked calm and a little weary.

She briefly wondered whether the rain brought the beast any relief.

The whale’s eyes caught hers and locked together for a long moment, unblinking, heavy. The moment stretched and folded in on itself until it was enough. She released her gaze from the animal’s intrusive eyes absentmindedly and let it trail somewhere far beyond the line of horizon. She didn’t look at the whale a single time after that. She rose to her feet, slowly shaking off the numbness, and started toward the water.

Gradually, testing the temperature, she let her ankles get embraced by the piercing coldness of the ocean. It felt not unlike a swarm of tiny knives.

She kept moving forward, however, until her chest got punctured by the cold just as well. Her eyes were still fixed on that spot far away that had asked her to get closer minutes earlier.

Behind her, the whale sloppily dragged itself back into the water.

That’s it. A hint of a smile almost tugged at her mouth as she started to swim toward that spot.


Jenya is an engineer who likes to tinker with technology and with words. This is her thirteenth Vending Machine Press appearance. Her poems are available on Amazon and have also been featured in Clementine Poetry Journal, and her paper on algorithms for safe irradiation of brain tumours is available in an operations research journal somewhere.