The Pashmina Shawl

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
She would always be wearing one. Thrown about her shoulders, tossed casually round her neck, knotted around her waist, or perhaps draped elegantly over her hair – the pashmina shawl was never absent from her daily wardrobe.

Submitted: October 14, 2008

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Submitted: October 14, 2008

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Part One :: White

She would always be wearing one. Thrown about her shoulders, tossed casually round her neck, knotted around her waist, or perhaps draped elegantly over her hair – the pashmina shawl was never absent from her daily wardrobe.

And the colors: there were the standards, of course, the reds and yellows and greens and blues, but every so often there would be an ochre, or an eggplant, or a sienna, or even a puce. He lived for those days when the shawl was something unusual; in his mind, it signified that her mind had drifted toward something complicated when she was getting dressed for the day, a feeling that couldn’t be brought across with a simple tangerine orange.

For of course, he judged her mood by the shawl, both its placement and color. One day, she had been picking out a watermelon from the local supermarket, and the shawl was wrapped closely around her head and neck. It had been midnight blue. She had been wearing sunglasses, huge things that encompassed her forehead and the tops of her cheeks, barely allowing the tip of her nose to peek out from the folds at a profile viewing. Even though the sundress that skirted the tops of her calves had been goldenrod yellow, he could feel a dark aura emanating off her. It wasn’t sadness, it wasn’t as if she was depressed. That would be a different color, he somehow knew, a different packaged wrap. The feeling that came off of her that day had been somber, but a somber that she had resigned herself to.

Sometimes, he imagined that she would have to have a separate wardrobe to house all the shawls. He could picture her opening it at the start of each day, flinging wide the doors and letting the shawls fly – their fringed edges surrounding her for a moment in all their brilliant, rich coloring like so many butterflies until they settled back down on their hangers.

*****

They lived in the same apartment building, on the same floor. He knew this because they had ridden in the elevator together, both facing the front, both silent. He had taken the opportunity to clandestinely study her features, as the hunter green shawl had been swung around her waist over her jeans and her white peasant shirt. She had been carrying three books: old ones, the bindings had been coming apart. He thought he would strike up a conversation by reading one of the books’ titles, perhaps commenting on how he, too, enjoyed Dickens, Poe, Hemingway, whatever author’s words she was carrying around in her slender hands. But they were truly old books, and there were no markings on the binding, and he cursed all publishers from two hundred years ago, all obviously married off, old and gray, and with no sense of romance, because they had not thought ahead for a poor guy who was just trying to get an introduction.

So he studied what he could. She was leaning almost imperceptibly on one hip, her feet were clad in cracked brown sandals, her toenails were painted siren red, but they were chipping, and her fingernails were bare and cut short, before her finger ended, fingers which were tapping on the edge of the books unconsciously. Her hair was light brown, cut two or three inches from her scalp. It was feathered and layered, and he could see strands of it trying to float away from her in the florescent glow of the elevator light. It gave her the image of some sort of fairy or pixie, it made her seem less solid, this crown of hair that barely brushed the nape of her neck. Most women he knew strove for that “just out of bed look,” as he had seen it described on women’s commercials touting volumizing products. Those women had long, curly hair that they tossed around carelessly, yet it always fell back into place. This woman had nothing but a frail, feathered, almost boyish style, but it suited her.

He didn’t know what to think about her presence in the elevator. Really, he had no time to think about why or how, just the fact that she was there seemed to be a sign from the gods of the pashmina shawls (especially the hunter green one) that somehow, their fates were destined to cross. Therefore, he could not have been more surprised when the elevator door opened at his floor – nine. He had just determined that her worn leather brown sandals were some kind of Birkenstock when they started moving, slapping the undersides of her feet as she walked on to the cream-beige carpeting of the apartment complex’s level. The metal ping of the elevator was what jolted him back into reality, and he realized, looking up suddenly, catching a glimpse of her going to a door off to the right, jingling some keys between her forefinger and middle finger, that he had missed his floor.

More importantly, he realized that she lived near him. And even more importantly than that – he had missed his chance to talk to her.

*****

James thought it would just be seeing her like that – in fluke accidents and rare sightings, until he came home late from work that night.

It had been hectic at the White House – aides were rushing everywhere, the regular staff members were walking quickly down the halls, talking urgently amongst themselves, and assistants seemed to be on one long coffee run. The urgent mood had even penetrated the brains of the interns, who usually stood around fingering their identification tags, occasionally making some remark about how good this would look on their resumes. James had no time for them today. As a speech-writer, he was working triply hard tonight, not that his version would ever be read by the President – it was just that the head of public relations and human resources insisted they all stay and write.

For something significant had happened. He glanced toward the ever-present television monitors, watching the collected news anchors calmly relating the news to the nation.

“We must remain collected,” one of the groomed women was saying. Her hair, James noticed wistfully, was around her shoulders in loose but professional curls. “… and have complete confidence in the leader of our country that small issue shall be resolved.” For emphasis, the woman brought the palm of her hand down firmly on her notes, and then began to speak again, but James had tuned her out at this point.

“Small issue…” James thought of using this phrase in his speech, then decided against it, for the simple reason that it was false. They – we – James supposed he had better think, had been attacked. The colonization over in the Middle East, that is. It had been a bomb. News channels were not showing any footage, no numbers were being revealed. James was supposed to be writing an encouraging, assuring, yet still diplomatic speech about moving forward cautiously. The public relations department had learned from the past departments’ mistakes, it seemed.

All in all, James was completely worn out when he pressed the “call” button for the elevator. He stepped in, finally loosening his tie and slipping off his suit jacket once the doors slid shut and he was safely ensconced on his trip to floor nine.

He rubbed his eyes blearily with his free hand, and noticed that his knuckles grasping his briefcase were turning white from his constant tight grip. He set the briefcase on the floor and flexed his hand a few times, hoping to rid himself of the cramp that immediately set it, and possibly ward off some future melding of said hand to his briefcase handle.

James stepped off the elevator automatically when the doors allowed him passage through, picking up his suitcase in his other hand, and fishing his keys out of his front pocket with the other.

He was totally unprepared for the sight of her on the couch that Management had placed directly across the hall from the elevator chute. It was mostly for decoration, one of those things which had arms that curled up and around on only one side. It wasn’t a couch really, more of an overstuffed divan that no one could possibly be comfortable sitting, let alone reclining, on.

But there she was. One hand brought up under her chin, she was looking off toward the end of the hallway, her eyes unfocused. The other hand was settled lightly in front of her. Her pose spoke of distinct boredom. She was wearing a white evening gown – it had wide straps, and an invisible seam below the bodice, from which the skirt spread. Two red high-heeled shoes were standing at attention under the divan next to a red clutch.

She had a red pashmina shawl draped around her shoulders.

Part 2 :: Scarlet

The red shawl had become an instrument in their lovemaking.

She would wrap it around herself like some sort of exotic blanket, the fringe dripping onto her slim legs as she went to the refrigerator to get out a bottle of water, or some fruit. He would capture her in it, flinging it over her back to draw her closer to him, or he would wind it up like boys in a locker room did with their sweaty towels, and playfully snap it at her, catching her bare back, just to hear her laugh.

It was a rare thing, her laughter, James noticed. She was a very solemn person. Her intensity shone out of her eyes, as if it could not be captured in words. In fact, she was a person of very little excess – in all things, but especially words.

“I’m Fae,” she had said without prologue after James had alerted her to his presence by coughing lightly that night. “You’ve been watching me.” It was the first time those intense eyes of hers met his, and James felt as if he might have to take a step back or two at the impact of her stare.

Then she had stood up gracefully from the divan, knelt to pick up her resting shoes and clutch bag. “And I’ve been watching you,” she added, seemingly off the top of her head. She didn’t seem to require a response, but he provided one anyway.

“James,” it came out as a whisper, and he turned a shade of red not far off from her shawl, cleared his throat, and introduced himself again. “I’m James.”

“I know,” she had replied. “You live a few doors down from me, and you work in government. At what, I’m not exactly sure,” a brief smile played across her lips. “You don’t seem to be the brute squad type, so I know you’re not any sort of bodyguard.” She held up the hand that was not clutching the shoes and purse, and lifted her forefinger, ticking off that possibility. “I’ve never seen you on television, so you can’t be that high up, you have that sort of look around you that reeks of having had to take orders from people you don’t necessarily like or respect.”

James wasn’t sure whether or not he should be offended at this emotionless analysis, but he decided not to be, because it was all truth, so he shrugged his affirmation. He felt as if he should say something, but already James had sensed that Fae wasn’t a person for small talk.

A sort of awkward silence descended over the hallway, at least for James. Fae seemed to be perfectly comfortable standing there in her bare feet that just barely peeked out from beneath the evening gown. James stuck his finger in his collar to loosen it, looking down to see a freshly applied coat of nail polish – again, the siren red. It matched her shawl this time. His mind raced - say something, anything, you idiot! You wanted to talk to her – here’s your chance, bud. He opened his mouth, but no words made the trip from his brain to his vocal cords for a few moments, until he was so frustrated with himself that he just blurted out the first thing that gave him a vague flicker of recognition that this, indeed, could be a conversation.

“You must have a lot of those,” he said, pointing to the shawl, which had settled on her upper arms, revealing pale shoulders.

She gave a half-smile, then made a sort of gesture that was like the memory of movement, as if she had forgotten she was wearing the red pashmina shawl. She didn’t speak, and so James bumbled along, “Do they mean something special to you? The shawls?”

Still with that bemused half-smile, Fae answered. “They mean what I am – what I feel, or think, or believe…” she took a step closer to James.

“For instance, red,” she was speaking in a low voice now, and James had to lean forward slightly to hear her. “… red means impulse, passion, fire, anger, heat…” One more step, and she was practically standing on the tops of James’s shiny black shoes. “Danger.” She whispered the last word, and James could feel the breath expelled from her mouth, still warm, on his.

Fae leant back slightly, her hands going to the shawl. Slowly, without letting her eyes leave James’s, she ripped one of the fringe pieces off the edge of the shawl. Then she gently took James’s hand, causing his briefcase to fall to the floor with a dull thump, and tied the fabric around his middle finger.

James felt lightheaded, and realized that he had not exhaled for about a minute. Quickly, he expelled the stagnant breath from is mouth in one burst, and blinked a couple of times. By the time his eyes focused again, he just caught the tail of her white gown being swept into the foyer of her apartment, shutting the door quietly behind her. James shook his head a couple of times, trying to clear his mind and sort out what had just happened, then began to walk toward his own apartment. Something caught his eye on the way – a red flash of color. He stopped before Fae’s door, and was left to puzzle over the piece of fringe that she had tied to her doorknob.

*****

It had progressed quickly from there. James would emerge from his room in the early morning, sometimes before the sun was fully in the sky. Each time he passed Fae’s apartment, he glanced toward the doorknob, searching for the red flash that meant she was free that night. When his eyes met solid gold, with no red hanging from it, he would frown slightly, but continue on his way to his work – his job.

For James was becoming frustrated with the daily strain of the White House. He had gone into this job knowing that a certain amount of twisting of words and spinning of situations would be required, but it seemed that the level of deception had risen ever since the bombing of “Little America,” as the settlement in the Middle East had been dubbed. He felt like a filter – the input of real news would reach his ears, and he would output “clean” news, news that was acceptable for the general public of the United States.

He was getting sick of it.

On those days that the red signal appeared, he would vent his frustration to Fae who would slowly extend her arms and legs and wrap him in a protective hold from behind, resting her head in the hollow between his neck and shoulder.

Their nights together were not always covered in frustration and helplessness. Once, Fae had surprised him by moving all her furniture to the edges of the room and setting up a picnic on a blanket in the middle of her living room, with the fireplace roaring and the lights dimmed. James had laughed when she brought out the food – deviled eggs, potato salad, fried chicken; all the staples of a Midwestern gathering.

The step from friends to lovers had been an easy one to make. James was drawn toward this woman – who, even as he spent more and more time with her, seemed to reveal next to nothing about herself. The only thing that was constant or permanent about her, James mused, were the pashmina shawls that she would modestly wrap around herself when she moved around the small apartment. Her very body was something that seemed to be frail, fragile; something that might blow away with the gentlest blow.

James would smile sometimes, remembering his first impression of her in the elevator – that of a pixie, or faerie. He would remark aloud how her name was appropriate for her person – “Fae.” A brief burst of a word that was soft in itself, and tasted of something other-worldy. Upon saying this she would kiss him lightly on the lips, only to draw back to say that his name was appropriate for him as well – “James,” traditional, solid, dependable.

“Dependable, eh?” He would respond, laughing, then would quickly swoop his arms under her knees and armpits, or fling her over his shoulder, and toss her playfully on the bed.

It became something James looked forward to: meeting Fae four to five times a week, loving each other, laughing together, expressing frustration or anger to a sympathetic ear…

James thought that they would go on like that indefinitely.

Part Three :: Blue Grey

The doorknob to Fae’s apartment had been unadorned for two weeks.

Two whole weeks of hope mixed with confusion. Two weeks of James questioning himself – had the past month actually happened, or had it all been a dream?

But then he would look on his bedside table, and spot the piece of red fringe that she had ripped of the pashmina, and he felt something akin to a kick in the stomach. It had happened. But it wasn’t happening anymore.

Fae had never given him a key to his apartment; their signal had always been the flash of red tied to her doorknob. James never questioned this – in fact, he loved it. He felt it was like some sort of clubhouse, or some hideaway required a special password. Once inside – only the two of them existed, the outside world was smoothed away by her caressing his eyebrows apart until the furrow between his eyes disappeared.

So James did what survivors must do – he moved on. He went to work; he came home; he warmed a microwave dinner for one, remembering the picnic Fae had set for them; he slept fitfully; then all of it would repeat again. Day after day, week after week…

“Little America” was getting less and less attention. There were other, more important things to write speeches of condolence or celebration for – a monument for Jacob Lewis, the man who had hunted out and captured Osama bin Ladin, was being erected in his hometown, and so of course the President had to fly out for that commemoration.

James was slowly working his way up the public relations writer. As time passed, he went from mere underling to one of the “Word Twisters,” as they called themselves – the top three speech writers, the ones that the President actually went to himself to be bombarded with ideas, words to avoid, phrases to include, for these speeches that were to be delivered to the nation.

He was getting better at his job, and as time passed, he stopped looking toward Fae’s doorknob for its red decoration.

Then one day, “Little America” was suddenly top news again. The Word Twisters went to see the chief of foreign intelligence, a paunchy man with oversized horn-rimmed glasses named Eugene. His tight, sweat-soaked shirt strained on his overweight body as he leant toward the three, sitting in metal armchairs in a dark and gloomy office.

“We’re finally getting some information,” he spoke, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Well, that’s news,” James snapped. “I was under the impression that we had ‘moved on’ from that particular bombing.”

Eugene gave James a look that clearly said, Shut up you insignificant twerp, but refrained from insulting one of the most respected people in the West Wing. He then went on as if James had not spoken, “These idiots actually thought they’d get away with something like this, but someone always breaks. Confession is a cop’s best friend. So you’re to write something that says we have caught the perpetrators of the ‘Little America’ bombing, and that they are, of course, being sent through due process, as is right and proper for any United States citizen.” Here, Eugene allowed himself a twisted smile.

“Right, because the public has no right to know that, while Guantanamo has been shut down, there still exist plenty of places for criminals to go through ‘due process,’ right Eugene?” James was about to explode.

Nancy, another of the Word Twisters, turned to him with concern. “James, maybe you should step outside and let us handle this one. We know how sensitive this issue is for you…”

But James had already stood and was slamming shut the tinted door to Eugene’s office.

Frustrated, he sat heavily on one of the armchairs in the side hallway of the West Wing, which at least kept up the appearance of something half-way luxurious. “No, no secret interrogations going on in this hallway’s country,” he muttered to himself. He began to dig in his briefcase for a pad of paper and a pen, already forming the beginnings of this horrible speech that he did not want to right.

His hand met something different, though. There was something soft, something that flowed through his digging hand like partially melted butter. James grabbed a corner of the thing-that-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-there, and pulled it out.

It was a bluish gray, the color of the sky right before a torrential downpour. He held it up, stretching it taut against his lap. Safety pinned in the middle of the pashmina shawl was a piece of fringe – and a note with two words.

I’m sorry.

Frantically, James searched the edges of the shawl to find the place where the fringe had been cut.

Two pieces were missing – not one.

James leapt from his chair, swinging the pashmina around his neck like some sort of strange scarf. He leant to pick up his briefcase. He was taking the rest of the day off.

But as he straightened, his eyes went to the partially closed blinds of Eugene’s office. From a half-crouched angle, he could see in. They were playing a tape on a fuzzy screen, and Eugene was turned away from James’s vision, pointing out something on it.

It was a supermarket – the produce section. Suddenly, the camera zoomed in on something.

A woman, wearing a midnight blue pashmina shawl that was enclosed her head and shoulders. She looked directly at the camera for a moment, and James could see huge sunglasses that encompassed more than half her face. Then she turned back to the produce before her – and picked up a watermelon.

James slammed his fist up against the window. “No!” he shouted, scaring the interns passing by and causing an assistant to spill her coffee.

No!” He shouted again, then picked up his briefcase and began to run, pushing people aside, and slamming into someone – he didn’t know who, all he knew was this urgent need to get back to his home. Then it wouldn’t be true – then he wouldn’t have come to work this morning and he wouldn’t have gotten in an argument with the chief of foreign intelligence, and he wouldn’t have found the pashmina, and he wouldn’t have…

A guttural cry left James’s lips, something wordless, but the emotions behind it were painfully clear.

He ran the three block distance to his apartment building and stabbed the call button with his thumb. The elevator ride to floor nine was eternal; he ran out of the elevator before the doors had fully opened.

A flash of blue-grey came from her door.

He jiggled the doorknob furiously, but it was locked. “I know you’re in there, Fae. Let me in! Let me in! You stupid… Alright, I’m going to knock down the door, Fae, I’m going to fucking knock down the door!!” He banged on it a few more times, then backed up, then ran at it, but his body weight wasn’t enough to knock it down. He tried two more times, then, his adrenaline suddenly gone, slid his back down the doorway and lay his head in his hands.

“This isn’t fair…” He found himself crying, and roughly wiped away the tear from his cheek.

He listened intently for some kind of response from inside the apartment, leaning his ear against the door. There was something there – he could hear something shifting around, the “flump” of a person sitting heavily down on a couch. Then he heard someone softly weeping.

“Fae,” James said in a softer voice, “please, please let me in. Please, Fae.”

Then another sound met his ears – the sound of thundering footsteps coming up the staircase. “Fae, come on – you’ll hide in my apartment, they won’t find you. Fae… Fae…”

The footsteps were getting closer, and James slowly stood up.

“I love you,” he whispered through the door, and then retreated toward his own apartment.

*****

James quit his job at the White House. Now, he could be top in any PR firm. It was only a question of where he wanted to go, because he sure as hell wasn’t staying in D.C.

Not when every television showed the “capture of one of the major plotters of the bombing of ‘Little America.’” He stood outside of a television store once, watching. Watching the soldiers pound on the door, watching Fae answer graciously, watching her face go to the camera, and mouth, “I love you too,” as the soldiers secured her hands and walked with her toward the staircase. She went complacently enough; she didn’t try to fight or scratch or make excuses. It was the calmest arrest of a terrorist in history. No one was expecting it.

The clip of the apartment hallway was always followed by another : Fae on her way to the nearest containment facility, reporters shooting questions at her.

“…working against all that we did over there!”

“How could you cause so much suffering?

“Can’t you even say something; do you have no feelings?”

And she would always repeat the same things, no matter how often the questions were asked.

“America was not so kind to them, either.”

“There is suffering everywhere.”

“I accept the consequences of my actions.”

It was so… Fae-like. She didn’t react to a woman who threw red paint at her. She didn’t shout back to a passerby who yelled over to her that she was a cold-hearted bitch and deserved whatever she got.

The segment would end with a close-up of Fae’s face – happy, smiling, laughing. It was a picture that James had taken of her, to immortalize those few times when she laughed. They had found it in her apartment, under her pillow.

*****

So James moved away. He felt somewhat like a Vietnam draft-dodger, heading northward till he hit Canada. He passed through the borders easily – his American passport and White House idea was worth more than his weight in gold at customs.

The first thing he did after he entered Canada was chuck the two items into the first body of water he came to.

*****

It had been two years, and James had turned his writing talents into passionate essays about the government – not just the American government, but governments of all nations, not only pointing out their faults, but suggesting practical ways to try and start to fix everything. He refused to write under his own name, and so all his essays were published under his pseudonym – Fae.

It was a much simpler life; James had chosen a smaller city, more of a town really, just on the verge of being a village. He shopped in the outdoors market everyday for his groceries early in the morning, only buying what he needed for that day, not wanting to waste anything.

In the first week after his two-year anniversary of coming to Canada, he was in the market, discussing the merits of the “fresh” fish with one of the stall keepers, when he spotted something out of the corner of his eye – a woman, with a red pashmina draped around her shoulders. To the stall keepers surprise, “la personne aux Etats-Unis” had escaped, dropping the fish back to the table, and began to run after the woman.

He caught her by the arm, covered in red pashmina, and twirled her around to face him – his heart beating against his ribs as if it was going to crash through, sweat beginning to form at the back of his neck.

“Quest-ce que tu veux?” the woman snapped at him. Her olive skin and long black hair reproached him.

James immediately let go of her arm. With his rudimentary French, he began to stammer out, “J’ai desole, Madame, tres desolee. Je peux,” Here, his French failed him, “I thought… you were someone else.”

The woman’s eyes softened. “Ah, oui. Eet ees understandable. S’il vous plait, forget about eet.” She half smiled, then turned back round to finish her shopping.

FIN


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