The following short story was first published in the March issue of TOZ, available from outwrites.org.
It was one of those dark, wet November nights that manage to purge those long, hot August evenings from our memories, perhaps to steel us for the even darker, colder nights yet to come. The brilliant sparkle of the streetlights reflected in the puddles lent little cheer to the passersby. People stubbornly still dressed for milder weather walked by at a brisk pace to keep warm; they were pretending indifference to the cold in that stoic, frozen-stiff-upper-lip Canadian manner.
Richard and I walked north towards the gallery at a measured, deliberate pace. An awkward silence had wedged itself between us. It was our first date. A common Facebook friend had set us up in what had become a wildly successful online friendship. Even though we lived only a few streets apart, we’d never met, and had been texting almost daily for a few weeks now, progressing from banter and musings to slutty sex talk.
But the problem was that Richard looked nothing like his Facebook profile pic. Well, I exaggerate. He was in fact an older, pudgier, glummer version of the sexy guy with the jaunty beret and the half-drunken grin in the vacation snapshot. That trip to Paris had clearly not been last year as he’d claimed. The real-world Richard lacked the sparkle of the Richard in the photo. As we proceeded, I tried to hide my disappointment. I wanted the Richard in the photo.
I’d walked up and down Church Street more times than I’d care to admit, but I’d never seen Isadora’s Gallery. In fact, I’d never even heard of it until I received the email invitation to the exhibition of portrait photography. Walking on in awkward silence, we reached the address and, sure enough, there was the door, poorly lit with an obscure sign in tiny letters. At the time I thought maybe the owner was trying to be arty and discreet. But now I know better.
After an awkward “you first, no I insist” moment that highlighted our lack of rapport, Richard and I stood hesitantly just beyond the threshold. The gallery was very narrow and so dimly lit that we couldn’t see any farther than a few feet beyond the door. I had the sense of mellow jazz piano music coming from somewhere far back in the shadows. There was no one else in sight. And there were no photographs.
The music drew us into the gallery, just a few feet. It seemed to me as if we were early, or as if it were the wrong night. Richard and I exchanged a confused glance.
I was about to suggest we head back out to the bar across the street for a beer when a tiny old crone, a vision in billowy layers of black and burgundy, fluttered silently towards us out of the gloom. Her get-up reminded me of a flapper from the 1920s, but those cheerful young party girls wore big smiles and bright colours. This bony-framed flapper had a furrowed brow and a world-weary disapproving frown. She eyed us up and down as she advanced towards us. The only spot of colour was a long blood-red cigarette holder perfectly perched in her right hand. The tobacco smelled unexpectedly sweet and strangely appealing, like none I’d ever come across before.
She sidled up beside me and spat out her words in a staccato accent that seemed vaguely eastern European. “I am Isadora. I suppose you are here for the photographs.”
I was unsure how to respond. “Well, it is an art gallery, a photography exhibit, isn’t it? The email said so. The invitation.”
Isadora screwed her face up into the sourest expression I’d seen in quite some time. “I despise email.” She gave the silent Richard the once-over and then glared at him rather uncharitably. “I despise invitations.” She waved her left arm in a wild gesture while the cigarette holder continued to dangle expertly from the fingers of her right hand. “I despise all of this, actually. Who are you? Should I know you?”
Another question I was unsure how to answer. “No, you don’t know me, Miss, umm…”
“No Miss. Just Isadora.”
“Isadora, may we just come in?” Richard elbowed me in protest. Isadora looked at us without responding, so I continued. “It’s such a wet night, and the music sounds so nice.” I heard Richard sigh rather melodramatically.
Isadora hissed out her reply. “I despise nice.” She looked from me to Richard and back again. She pointed at me with a pale, bony finger. “But I like you.”
Then she shrugged and walked away. As she disappeared into the gloom, she cackled, “You may come in, but your friend may not. He did not greet me.”
Time seemed frozen for a moment as I considered this. Real-life Richard had indeed been rather quiet. My Richard would have been charming and effusive.
The smooth jazz piano sounds wafted hauntingly out of the shadows. I imagined a crowd of beautiful, well-dressed people enjoying the exhibit just beyond the gloom. I glanced over at the dour imposter of the Richard in the photograph, and I made the decision. I took a step forward, drawn in by the music and the scent of the strange tobacco.
I glanced back at Richard fuming behind me as I stepped into the gloom. Neither of us spoke a word. As I slowly walked on, I could just make out a cluster of figures ahead of me. I seemed to have been walking impossibly slowly. As I plodded on, I noticed for the first time black and white photographs on the walls. Captured images of people who seemed familiar but whom I knew I had never met. The front door of the gallery slammed behind me as Richard made his exit and I made my way forward. I knew I would never see him again.
© 2012 Alan T Orr