This story was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of CultureCult Magazine.
The woman who walked through the front door of the coffee shop looked just like her Facebook picture. It had been the only picture she had posted of herself. This fact alone had struck Jonas as strange enough that he thought he might have struck gold. Maybe she didn’t have any friends. Or maybe, like him, one night in a fit of lonely frustration she had deleted all her old pictures. You never know.
When she noticed him he waved at her with a sudden, nervous smile on his face, like he had just pasted it on. He was probably about thirty, had a dirty mop of unruly brown hair on his head and wide brown eyes. Marilyn thought he looked nice enough, which was too bad: it was easier when she didn’t like them.
Instead of going to his table she went to the counter and ordered a double cappuccino. The ruse wouldn’t work if she made it too easy. The barista took her name. Marilyn stood with her back turned towards Jonas while she waited at the counter.
Jonas watched her. Standing still, composed, there was a quiet to her, a mystery, with deep dark eyes and her long black hair. A dark, solitary lady. In the time it took for her drink to arrive, he found himself making her into the woman of his dreams. But he had been doing that since they’d messaged each other, when they’d spoken to each other on the phone, and on the long drive here. He had to stop himself sometimes and remember how he had been disappointed in the past, how high expectations were meant to be dashed, that his best chance to find romance or fulfillment was to take risks. But he had been doing that already. This was all quite uncharacteristic of him.
The barista brought Marilyn her cappuccino but did not meet her eyes. Marilyn had been coming to this Starbucks for years, yet no one recognized her by sight. In the light of day the eye simply slid over a woman like her. That was by design, part of her power to disappear.
Her thoughts shifted back to Jonas when she turned and saw him looking at her, not smiling any more, perhaps struck suddenly shy. But the conversation they’d had on the phone had been quite… invigorating. She’d sensed on the other end of the line a person who was enjoying the thought of taking a chance.
She walked towards him and told herself that she was not inherently evil, she just did what she must to survive.
He stood up when she reached his table and he extended his hand. His grip was soft and considerate.
“Are you Marilyn?” he asked.
“I sure am.”
“I’m Jonas. And you are even lovelier in person.”
Marilyn pulled a chair out and sat down. Jonas followed her lead. The nervous smile was back on his face when he asked her why she’d chosen to meet here.
“I don’t know, familiarity mostly. It’s close to my apartment and I’ve been coming here for a long time.”
“Do you know the employees by now?”
“Not a one.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Because you’re pretty. People notice the pretty ones.”
“They don’t notice me.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Because I don’t want them to, she thought.
“I don’t know,” she said instead. “They just don’t.”
Jonas took a sip of coffee. Marilyn noted that there was a newspaper on the table open to the front page. Most likely he hadn’t been here long.
“People tend to notice me,” he said.
“You’re a good looking man.”
“But they also tend to think I’m just another Bay Area yuppie.”
“And that’s not the truth?” she asked, as she found herself feeling him out.
“Well I guess I’ve never quite fit in with the typical bridge and tunnel crowd.”
“You’re quite up front about that.”
“Well who else would have started something like this, with a total stranger?”
“Don’t worry, I’m weird too,” she said. “And it’s true, you’ve strayed a little far from your nest today.”
“Fresno is a long drive,” he acknowledged.
“You must not see ladies much.”
“I thought we went over this in our telephone conversation,” he said. “I went to college out of state, and I didn’t have many friends in high school. Now I’m working nights. Therefore I don’t know many people any more.”
“So chatting up randomly friended women on Facebook is your best shot at meeting someone?”
“Well it was worth a try.”
“Even if they live three hours away?”
“Anything’s possible,” he managed, with a note of defensiveness.
Marilyn smiled. A lonesome soul. Perhaps she couldn’t have picked a better mark. The only people that would miss him would be his coworkers, and she would bet good money that none of them knew a thing about him either.
“So what’s the plan?” she asked.
He shrugged again and grinned. “I don’t know. Like you said, I’m on unfamiliar ground.”
“But you’re supposed to have a plan. Don’t you know that?”
“I thought we’d finish our coffee first, get to know each other.”
“What do you want to know?” she asked, leaning in, arms crossed on the table.
Jonas noticed that she was wearing a dark shade of lipstick. It matched her hair and eyes, which, twin black moons, were fixed on his own. She was very attractive. She also seemed very interested.
“Where were you born?” he asked.
“Did you grow up there?”
“I grew up there, and around Europe, later America. My mother and father worked for an international consortium of sorts.”
“So you’re a world traveler?”
“I have traveled the world, yes.”
Jonas improvised a quick set of questions in his mind.
“When did you come to America?” he asked.
“When I was fourteen,” she lied.
“Funny, you don’t speak with an accent.”
“I learned the language earlier,” which was true.
“What was the first city you stayed in?”
“I love New York,” said Jonas.
“So do I.”
“I’ve been to Chicago.”
“Sounds like you’ve been just about everywhere.”
“Sounds like it.”
“So I have to ask, how did you end up in a crummy little town like Fresno?”
“That,” she said, turning her face slightly, mischievously, to the side, “is a story worth telling.”
“Well I’d love to hear it.”
“I don’t want to wear myself out. Besides, we’re getting uneven: you know far more about me now than I know about you.”
“Trust me, I’ve already told you everything worth knowing.”
He checked his watch.
“It’s five o’clock,” he said.
“Okay,” Marilyn answered.
“Is there a park of some kind nearby? I’d love to take a walk.”
“Sure there is. That sounds like a fine idea.”
“Here, let me help,” he said, rushing to his feet and circling the table to hold her chair for her while she stood up.
“Thank you,” she said, touched despite herself.
“Let me help you with your coat,” he said, and held it for her so she could put her arms in.
“What a gentleman,” she said.
It’s making me sorry, she thought. He seems like a really sweet guy. But she was so hungry. It had been far too long. It was again those familiar, hollow pangs of remorse that bothered her.
They walked to the front doors and exited into the cool Central Valley evening.
They were in the most fashionable part of Fresno, the Tower District. There were record stores and restaurants. Trees lined the median that divided the street in two. Light traffic cruised past them as Marilyn led the way down the sidewalk.
“I take it you’re the lonely type,” she said.
“I guess I am.”
“It’s easier to open up to strangers, isn’t it?”
“Strangers who live three hours away from me.”
“I bet you don’t even know why you’re here.”
“Of course I do.”
“Like any man would, I came for romance.”
“I don’t know why I came,” she lied, and badly, putting pitches to the words, surprising herself.
Jonas looked at her. He might have caught it.
“Maybe we’re something like each other,” he said. “Only I live somewhere more cosmopolitan than you do. There’s much more happening in Oakland. I don’t know why a person like you would live here.”
“I don’t either.”
“I bet you’re well read.”
“You’re right, I am.”
“Do they even have bookstores here?”
“We have a few. There’s a Barnes & Noble’s right over there.”
“You could do better.”
“I probably could.”
They reached an intersection and waited for the light to change. The sun was setting beyond a line of trees in front of them. There was a slight breeze.
“Is it dangerous here?” Jonas asked.
“No it’s not. Especially not with me around.”
Jonas laughed. Marilyn hadn’t been joking.
“It’s dangerous in Oakland,” he said.
“Its reputation precedes itself.”
“Maybe next time you can come visit me up there.”
“I’d show you a good time.”
“I’m sure you would.”
“Aren’t you having a good time with me?” he turned to her, grinning.
She looked at him and nodded.
“Then this shouldn’t be the only time we do this.”
“Come on, Jonas. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” But she had felt warmth at what he’d said.
The light changed and they crossed the street. Jonas’ steps had grown noticeably lighter.
“The park I’m thinking of is a cemetery,” Marilyn explained. “It’s past the zoo, which is closed. It’s nice, but unimpressive. It won’t take us long to walk through it.”
“What about getting a drink afterwards?”
“You keep pushing me, Jonas!” she piped, an unfortunately musical trill to her voice. Even a creature such as herself was not immune to flattery.
There was neither foot nor motor traffic on the block before the cemetery. The zoo’s greens were to the north and an empty school building lay to the south. Marilyn realized that if she wanted to she could probably do it now.
Her stomach growled. She shivered.
“What do you do for fun?” Jonas asked.
“I wander the streets.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“I’m not a very fun person.”
“I’m having fun with you.”
They reached the cemetery, a short, blocks-long plot of land bristling with graves and dotted with trees. Twilight had fully descended, the sky a deep aquamarine. Stray wisps of dirty gray clouds passed overhead. Marilyn looked up at the moon and was not surprised to see that it was full. Her meals usually coincided with a full moon.
Jonas was talking about himself, about the things he did in his spare time. He was an amateur writer, had a couple short stories published and hoped one day to write a full book.
“Writers are loners by nature, aren’t they?” Marilyn asked.
“A lot of them are.”
“I used to be a writer,” she said.
“Oh yeah? What made you stop?”
“I was never published.”
“That’s no reason to stop. If anything that’s a reason to keep going.”
“You don’t understand. I wrote about some messed up things.”
“I’d love to read some of it.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Yes I would.”
“Did you like it? I can help you get back to it if you want.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
They were on a walking path traversing the cemetery. From where they were you couldn’t see the cars parked on the streets. There were no lights here. It was almost perfectly silent. She couldn’t have picked a better place.
Jonas, perhaps appreciating Marilyn’s pensiveness, had stopped talking. She looked at him. He walked with a slight stoop, as if he were checking the path for cracks to step over. There was a self-consciousness about him, but also a kind of boyish determination. If she didn’t kill him tonight he might go on to lead a full and worthwhile life. Then again she had never been too astute an observer of the human scene, they being, for her, more a source of nutrition than of comfort or inspiration.
“I like you,” she said. “I get a good feeling from you.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You’re not going to hurt me. Why do you think I’ll get hurt?”
“I just do.”
“Women have thought that about me in the past. It must be my boyish nature.”
Marilyn smiled, but beyond his words she could hear blood pumping in his arteries.
“It’s not just that,” she said.
“What do you mean then?”
“You never should have come here.”
Jonas stopped walking, and she turned fully to face him, looking up at him. They looked into each other’s eyes and Marilyn felt her breath pick up.
“I’m glad I met you,” Jonas said.
“You’re too nice.”
“I’m not being fake.”
“I don’t care.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I might ask you the same thing. Drive three hours to meet a strange woman in a strange town. That’s how bad things happen. How do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”
“I didn’t have anything else to do.”
“Walking through a cemetery at night.”
“That was your idea.”
“But you came along.”
Jonas cocked his head to the side. He couldn’t tell if she was pushing him away or drawing him in. Maybe she was doing both.
“I know we just met,” he said, “but I have to ask. What’s wrong?”
Marilyn clenched her fists, hanging by her sides. She didn’t want to do it.
“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, a small part of her, perhaps, wishing that he would.
Catching her unawares, Jonas stepped forward, and took her left hand in both of his. He looked into her eyes earnestly, and Marilyn saw a twinkling in his.
“I should cheer you up, shouldn’t I?” he said.
“Yeah. You need to be cheered up.”
“I do not.”
“You need a good luck charm is what you need.”
He let go of her hand and took a quick survey of the cemetery. Then, like a dog chasing a squirrel, he bounded off in the direction of a towering pine tree. He picked up speed along the way, and with surprising athleticism, ran up the trunk far enough to catch hold of the lowest hanging branch. He pulled himself up and swung a leg over the top, then hoisted himself onto it. He looked at her and grinned.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she yelled.
He picked something off the branch above, then dropped down onto the lawn. He trotted back towards her, and, without missing a beat, stopped in front of her and clasped that something into her hand.
“What the hell?” she laughed.
She found herself holding a smooth green pinecone.
“It’s a pinecone,” he said.
“It sure is.”
“It’s good luck.”
“What planet do you come from?”
“Think about it,” he said, breathing hard. “That tree I took it from is huge, it had to have been there for decades, maybe longer. All it took was one seed off one pinecone. Now its roots are so deep you’d need a backhoe to get it out of there.”
“You have quite an imagination.”
“You hold in your hand thousands of years of pine trees, if you are so inclined to travel the country planting them.”
She laughed again and the smile stuck to her face. Jonas’ own smile, the slightly nervous one she’d seen at the coffee shop, was back.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get a drink.”
He tried to pull her down the path. He was still holding her hand.
“You have no idea,” she said.
“I like you too,” he answered. “Maybe I want to learn.”
He kept pulling her. His hand was warm. When she finally let him guide her away she didn’t know whether it was because she wanted to eat him or she wanted to fuck him.
“It’s a crapshoot, meeting people,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”
Both fell silent while they left the cemetery. Jonas led them back the way they came, to a seedy looking Mexican bar they had passed.
Marilyn put the pinecone in her purse. She resolved that, whatever happened, she wasn’t going to kill him.
The bar was dimly lit, illuminated by a pair of dusky yellow lights. There were two men who looked like construction workers playing pool in the back. There was a line of two men and a woman seated at the bar. Other than them and the bartender the place was empty. She and Jonas would have privacy. Jonas found himself confident and optimistic, while Marilyn wondered why she had let him bring her here. She should know better. Being alone was the cross she had to bare. She saw people with families, people with friends, and she envied them. She even envied Jonas, and the moral life he could choose to live. She didn’t want to be the reason his was cut short.
Jonas ordered two martinis at the bar, leaning forward with his wallet out. He was quite skinny.
When the drinks came Jonas led her to a table by the grimy street-side window. Marilyn rushed around in front of him and pulled out a chair.
“My turn,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at him. “Have a seat.”
“Ah, a role reversal,” he answered and sat down.
“Chivalry isn’t dead,” she joked.
Marilyn sat across from him. It was like back at the coffee shop, only darker.
She smiled again. She set her purse down beside her chair and thought about the pinecone. She drew from it a kind of energy that to her was wholly unfamiliar.
“Are you happy?” she asked him.
Jonas had been taking a drink from his martini. He coughed slightly, looking at her eyes, whose expression she was afraid she couldn’t control.
“Right now or in general?” he replied.
“No I guess not.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“How about you?”
“Not at all.”
“So we have that in common too.”
“It’s hard to be lonely and happy at the same time.”
“It certainly is.”
They both took a sip from their martinis. There was a loud clack of a pool break starting a new game.
“Why do you ask?” said Jonas.
“I don’t know. I was curious.”
“I think you like me.”
“I do like you, I just don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“You should be.”
Jonas shook his head. She’d said this several times now. Why should he be afraid? It must be a part of her defenses. He wouldn’t let it deter him. She was beautiful, and he liked her.
“You came here to treat yourself, didn’t you?” Marilyn pushed.
Jonas nodded. “To do something out of character.”
“But I could have been anyone.”
“I think we’re getting along. Don’t you like your pine cone?”
“Are you being coy?” he asked.
She was. She was even flirting, in her way, obviously interested, obviously craving companionship. She remembered vividly the last time she had allowed herself to indulge in such. It had ended in blood and tragedy, just as it always had before. But look at him. He was enthralled!
“You know,” Jonas was saying, “I can tell you’re strange.”
“It always surprises me, the things you don’t expect about people.”
“That’s a pretty vague way to put it.”
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here.”
“I still don’t.”
“I know that too.”
“Can you read my mind?”
“So how do you know that?”
“Because you’d be a fool to think you know what to expect, and I don’t think you’re that.”
She crossed her legs angrily. She brushed her hair back from her face, leaned in towards him, tense, holding his eyes with her own, finding him to be just as transfixed as he’d seemed all night.
Her voice quavered when she said: “I’m a monster.”
“I eat people to stay alive.”
“I don’t even know how to interpret that.”
She started to grin, and Jonas watched her lips part to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. She did look kind of frightening, taut and unpredictable. There was certainly danger about her.
“You’re not taking me seriously,” she said.
“That you’re a monster?”
“Oh my God, I’m so disappointed.”
“If there’s one thing I’m not,” Marilyn said, “it’s disappointing.”
“See? You’re flirting with me.”
“For you all it takes is a pretty face.”
“Not for me. You’ve charmed me out of my shell.”
Marilyn believed him, and found herself flattered anew. Maybe she wasn’t hopeless. Maybe she could be with a man without eating him.
“Do you want to go?” she asked.
“Back to my place.”
Jonas’ heart started pounding.
“As long as you promise not to eat me,” he joked.
She shook her head.
“I can’t make that promise.
Their eyes still locked, hers so hungry and searching, Jonas found himself of a sudden wondering if there was any truth to what she was saying. It was such a strange thing to say, inexplicable really. At the same time that she liked him she was trying to push him away. Was it for his own good?
“Don’t try to get inside my head,” Marilyn said.
“Yes you were.”
Jonas picked up his martini and took a healthy swallow. Marilyn watched him. Maybe she could last a little while longer.
“Okay let’s go,” he said.
“Really?” she answered. His response was a burst of sunshine. It made her feel happy. Happy.
He put a hand out on the table, palm upwards like he was asking her to give him her own. She looked at it, at the prominent vein on his wrist.
“It’s your funeral,” she murmured, keeping her hands to herself.
Jonas felt a tingling in his chest, the pleasure of the unknown, the break with routine, maybe even the chance for conquest. Her voice had been low and seductive on the telephone. Now it was soft and inviting, and their conversation had been animated. She’d let him touch her, even if now she was sitting rigid.
“I think I’ll take my chances,” he said.
“There you go, just like any man, thinking with your dick.”
“That’s not true.”
“Are you hard right now?” she asked, shocking him. And he was. He had barely noticed.
“I plead the fifth,” he answered.
He leaned in and put his other hand on the table. He thought again about her strange defenses, but the lure of adventure was proving more potent than his fears.
“Go ahead and finish your drink, and don’t say another word,” Marilyn said, watching him watch her lips. “There could have been another way this night went but this way might be better. Maybe we’ll really like each other, you never know, but let me tell you that it’s been many years since I’ve let anyone get close to me, and I’m famished for attention.”
Jonas raised his martini and took another drink. Marilyn mirrored his action with her own, and found herself contemplating, with horror, how juicy tender his neck would be when she tore out his vocal chords so he couldn’t scream; how he would try to fight, but would find her stronger than he; the look of mortal fear and knowing that would become fixed to his eyes as he died.
She tried to shake the thoughts away but they wouldn’t go. Not him. Not tonight.
The two finished their drinks, staring at each other.
She thought she could see, in real time, a resolve building in him. He was not to come away tonight empty handed, no matter what she threw at him. He was telling himself that.
This man had come here in the spirit of hopeless adventure, and he thought his actions might be vindicated by success. But he had no idea how real the threat was for her. She was the ultimate hopeless romantic.
The night was silent on the way to Marilyn’s apartment, which was situated in a two-story complex a few blocks away.
On the darkened street Jonas tried to kiss her, and she let him for a little while, then pushed him away with a hand that betrayed her strength. They looked at each other and Marilyn licked her lips, tasting what he’d left behind. Jonas saw in her eyes what was different about her. She looked at him, indeed, how an animal might sight its prey. He felt his desire, his will to get what he’d come here for, to be at war with what might have been a genuine instinct for self-preservation. There was something wrong with this girl.
He took her hand. It was cold.
They went on walking. Marilyn’s heart was beating fast. Which did she want more? Which urge could she control?
They reached her building and ascended the stairs, walked down the second story landing to the corner unit and Marilyn fished her keys out of her purse, underneath the pinecone. Her mind was in a fog, but her body was alive as if with electric fire. When she looked at him he was staring at her with an alert expression.
She opened her door.
“Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” she joked.
Jonas was silent. He saw every detail of the night with startling clarity. The little mole at the corner of her lips, her hair blowing slightly in the wind, and the closest corner of her apartment, where he could see the edge of a flat-screen television. Nothing unusual there. But the sense of conflict surrounding this woman was palpable.
Marilyn’s breath caught in her throat. Was he trying to convince himself of?
Jonas looked at her a little while longer. Her ferocity.
What if it was true? No. It couldn’t be.
“Come on,” she said. “Come on in.”
Now that he was here, at the precipice of something, he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have driven all this way after all. Disregarding his usual caution, perhaps he’d acted foolishly. People don’t meet other people this way, not normally.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
Jonas slowly nodded.
But she was afraid herself. She didn’t want him to leave her.
“I’m ready for you,” she said, and took a step towards him, eyes turned down now, suddenly shy, fearful that she had gone too far, been too successful in insisting on his fear.
“What if you were telling the truth?” he said quietly.
She shook her head.
“It’s just too ridiculous,” Jonas continued, but his words fell flat.
Marilyn said nothing, stood there as if guiltily, and that didn’t help her case either.
“How could you survive? Getting away with it.”
“I’m very good.”
“Can you even do it?”
“You know what I mean.”
She nodded. “Yes I can.”
“Are you good at it?”
She nodded. “Yes I am.”
He enjoyed the subservience in her manner.
“Look at me,” he said.
Marilyn raised her head. The fire was still in her eyes, but it was held in check by something else, and it took a moment for Jonas to pinpoint what it was: desperation.
“You really like me,” he said.
“But we’ve only just met.”
Marilyn shrugged. There was a light sheen of sweat on her brow.
“You can tell it’s not a good idea,” she said.
Jonas didn’t say anything. He could neither nod nor shake his head.
“I told you. You shouldn’t have come.”
Jonas didn’t say anything.
After a few moments Marilyn turned and walked into her apartment. She closed and locked the door.
Jonas leaned back against the railing and let out a long breath he found that he’d been holding. He put a hand to his heart.
Should he knock on her door? She would be most glad if he did.
He didn’t know what to do. He stood there for perhaps ten full minutes in indecision. He had never felt anything like what he was feeling now. In her absence his fear had turned to exhilaration.
Is this what it feels like to have a near death experience, or was it something more imponderable than that?
With some effort he got himself moving. He walked back to his car parked in front of the Starbucks, and drove back to Oakland thinking about an encounter that had made him feel alive and important, like something big could have been accomplished.
During the drive he kept turning the night over in his mind. What had happened in the end? Had he really met someone who could complete him?
But what if she were to get bored with him? Would she eat him then? Maybe he should just make sure that she never got bored with him.
Over the course of the next week he couldn’t get her out of his mind. The taste of her lips. The wildness in her eyes as her reserve broke down.
He analyzed every moment.
He believed that she was a monster, that she had had experiences that his paltry existence couldn’t begin to quantify. But what was he? Nothing?
Jonas hated his life, being alone, being at work, the alienation that sucked him in more fully with each passing day as his relationships with old friends receded further and further into memory.
Time passed. Days and nights came and went. At home in his apartment and at work in his cubicle, Jonas was alone. Just, he assumed, like Marilyn.
Had she eaten yet? He wondered. Could he help her if she hadn’t? Dark fantasies began to circulate in his mind.
The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the woman had been perfect for him, just like he’d hoped in the beginning. He couldn’t let a thing like fear get in the way. If you allowed yourself to live in fear then you didn’t allow yourself to live at all.
When he called her at the end of the week, she was overjoyed to hear his voice.