When she saw him, she of course had no intention of anything escalating. He was a stranger to her, but apparently not she to him. As they walked in the same path toward one another, he started to come closer into her eyeline than was appropriate for someone you didn’t know. She had an uncontrollable flash of him pulling a knife out of his navy blue suit jacket and stabbing her right in the stomach. Instead, he stopped directly in front of her, produced from his pocket a single lilac as an offering (all crushed and mangled in the palm of his hand), and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” It sounded like a line if she ever heard one. A ploy. A reason to talk to her under false pretenses. Rather than saying all these things outright, she simply refuted, “No. I don’t think we’ve met.”
She tried to start walking away again, but he grabbed her by the arm. “And I think you’re mistaken.” He looked her searingly in the eyes and, in that instant, it was either as though she really did remember him from somewhere or he had managed to hypnotize her into believing so. Whatever the case, she was suddenly all too willing to be led. It didn’t matter where. Possibly only because it was convenient, he saw fit to take her to the diner around the corner, one of the last of its kind in town where you could go inside and feel as though you’d stepped right back into the 1950s. A simpler time (for white people).
That’s what Benjamin opened with when they sat down. “Don’t these kinds of places remind you of a simpler time?”
Cassandra returned, “If you count rampant repression, being force-fed red meat and the constant threat of nuclear war as ‘simpler.’”
He sneered. “It was always like you to see the bad in things. You can never see the good.”
She didn’t know what to say to him. She still wasn’t sure who he was, or why she was lulled here to spend time with him. The waitress, a middle-aged woman with gray roots and crow’s feet, came by the table with a pot of coffee and said, in a way you could tell she was tired of delivering the same words after so many years, “Know what you want?”
For such a crude question, it was highly philosophical. Benjamin answered for both of them, “We’re not sure just yet.” Looking at her name tag, he added, “Just give us a minute, Debbie.” Debbie rolled her eyes. She probably hated it when men assumed familiarity with her just because they could see a name on a tag. It probably wasn’t even her real name. Cassandra got the sense that employees in these sorts of work environments were putting everyone on. Getting what joy they could by fucking with customers subliminally. Benjamin took the bait, as far as Cassandra was concerned, and, if she wasn’t mistaken, Debbie seemed to flash her a conspiratorial glance as she walked away. Benjamin didn’t take notice. In fact, he seemed to take little notice of anything else except her. His indefatigable stare was making her quite uncomfortable. The kind of uncomfortable where you shift in your seat. Where you become so aware of yourself that you start to wish you could astral project out of your body to shed that awareness.
“Aren’t you wondering what it is I want to talk to you about?” he asked, almost with a hint of brightness in his voice. She clutched to the handle of her coffee cup, feeling paralyzed in every other way–not knowing what to do or why she was still here.
Benjamin continued, “It’s time that you and I–well, it’s time we consummated this relationship.”
Her tongue felt like wet cement in a bucket. Heavy, intractable. What was he talking about?
“You’re probably wondering what I’m talking about,” he grinned. “Thing is, it doesn’t matter. It will never make sense to you anyway.”
She couldn’t respond. Even if she knew how to, it was as though the art of speech had been taken from her, like the Sea Witch stole it from Ariel. He kept talking, building up to something but never saying it. When Debbie returned, he ordered each of them a short stack of pancakes. Cassandra hated pancakes. Despite the same ingredients in both, she was a firm proponent of waffles. As she watched him eat the contents of his plate with grotesque gusto, she finally found the words to say, “What the hell are you playing at here?”
He dropped his fork in anger. “Did someone tell you to speak, dear?”
And then she couldn’t again. Benjamin picked up his fork and tried go on relishing what was left of the decimated pancake stack, but evidently Cassandra had taken away his appetite with her “outburst.”
“Goddammit!” he screamed, pushing his plate aside forcefully so that the deluge of syrup sloshed off the side of it and onto the table. Debbie was going to be vexed by that. The few fellow patrons in the diner didn’t even look up to indicate they had been disturbed by Benjamin’s sudden tantrum. “You’ve ruined my breakfast. Lunch, whatever the fuck you wanna call this.” He sighed in exasperation and slammed his right fist down on the table. “Let’s just get this over with. You’re clearly not one for enjoying the ‘process.’”
At a house nearby, he locked the door behind them and pulled the curtains closed. They were patterned with lilacs against beige fabric. Or maybe the color would be something closer to white if the curtains were washed. On a table next to the window was a vase filled with dying lilacs. She found the tableau repetitive, rather than “thematic.” Either way, it was the decor of a grandmother, and Cassandra wasn’t altogether convinced this was really Benjamin’s house. He opened the pull-out couch and took his pants off, an incongruous non sequitur–but then, that’s what this entire episode had been. She looked at him blankly, prompting him to snap, “What are you waiting for? Strip.”
She obeyed, not questioning the order. There was nothing “salacious” about the sex they proceeded to have. It was all very rote, clinical even. As though they were doing it solely to conceive. When it was over, they were outside again… almost as quickly as they had gone in. They walked silently together for a few blocks before Benjamin said, “I’d like to see you again.” Cassandra was stunned. How could he possibly act so chivalrous now? At the same time, every feminist knows chivalry is a trap designed to keep women down at heel, subordinate.
Cassandra stopped in her tracks, as though finally able to control her body and her mind. Yet it took too long for her to form the words before what she was trying to say manifested in the form of her boyfriend, Liam, exiting from one of the storefronts with a can of paint in hand. She wasn’t sure, but she thought the color was lilac. Liam put his arm around her waist and kissed her–a kiss of the variety that made it unmistakable for Benjamin to understand that she was “spoken for.” He cannot “see” her again. Liam’s passions were interrupted by this looming figure out of the corner of his vision. From his vantage point, Benjamin was some leering voyeur, getting off on their physical exchange. He pulled Cassandra away from Benjamin’s vicinity somewhat forcefully and explained, “Sorry, but that guy was giving me the fucking creeps. You ready to go home?”
You know what you want? she could also hear Debbie asking, an echoing query that felt like it was reverberating on a loudspeaker throughout the area. When she looked back behind her, Benjamin was gone. She didn’t know why, but she was certain he would never approach her again. And all she could feel was shame, guilt. She had cheated on Liam, innocent and adorable. Undeserving of such treatment. And it wasn’t even a cuckolding that she had much agency in.
As they waited for the bus, Liam kept chattering about some existential quandary in the hardware store as he tried to make a decision about the paint hue they would be using for their bedroom. She nodded along, all at once seeing that the tone she thought was lilac now looked black. A bucket of black paint. She placed her hand in her pocket, fingering the wilted flower Benjamin had thrust at her from the outset of their encounter. Although she was terrified to take it out, she did. The petals had turned black. Liam noticed her bizarre expression and what was causing it. He touched her gently on the shoulder and inquired, “What’s wrong?”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she was impure. A strumpet with no control over herself. So in lieu of the truth, she replied, “I guess I just realized I hate the color lilac.”
He glanced down at the paint bucket (which still appeared, to Cassandra, to have a black square on top of it indicating the pigment tone). “Now you tell me.”