Fresh rainwater polishes the waterside boulevard in town. The fat droplets reflect the colours of cartoonish lanterns that smile down from pushcarts. On either side of the walkway, couples march forward, pastel-pink umbrellas belying a pace almost mournful in its slowness. Some are attached by the hip, others by the shins or ankles or arms. Some look more comfortable than others. Nevertheless, the thick red sutures keep them all together. It’s Valentine’s Day.
Only two soulmates among them have not planned a date. Later, he’d said last night, but then breakfast had come and gone, the drivers had picked them up and left and the boulevard had filled. Even now he is barking into his phone, pulling them into one ambling lurch after another. An untied shoelace flails like a tortured worm from his sleek shiny Oxford.
The street cleaner swipes one hand over her wrinkled forehead, where sweat and rainwater intermingle into a sour acidic wash. Tired eyes roll upwards, stretched taut by crow’s feet, to where he’s been brandishing the velvety black umbrella with both their hands but only his fist. She wants to tell him to loosen his grip, just slightly, so she can shield herself from the freezing drops, and that his shoelace is untied, and that she wants her hand back now, can she have her hand back, for good? Instead, she tugs at the red string connecting their elbows, as if picking at an old scar and drives her mop left-handed.
People never want to know there’s something wrong with their outfit. She imagines the humiliation of bending double in public, buttocks in the air like some kind of cartoon ostrich, fingers fumbling to right the wrong in their traitorous footwear. It’s not hard to understand; even she can get it. Still, he shouldn’t have to make this so difficult.
A frenzied reporter comes dashing from around the curb, yellow raincoat fluttering behind her. Dew drops of blue gleam hungrily in bottomless eye-sockets, questions gushing in streams from her lush lips. Suddenly, her soulmate breaks away from his phone to gawk and gape. She expects jealousy, but her shriveled heart oozes only desperation. Could this girl help tell him that his shoelace is untied? Just as a favour, pretty please?
The worry lines in his brow have only deepened since his new job, yet he beams so brightly elucidating it into the microphone. It’s hard for him, she knows, having to polish his profile all the time. If only he could polish his shoes, himself, if only – No. The street cleaner picks up a stray leaf and chucks it into the water. She mustn’t think that way.
Every so often her hip bumps against his – it takes the whole body to clean, after all, especially at her age – and every so often he tenses and tries to edge away. Old memories resurface of their bonding ceremony as children. You are what each other needs, they’d told her, as if he would always understand that, as if he would always cherish his vegetables and plain water.
As her soulmate entertains the reporter, a pair of kindergartners runs past, shouting and squabbling, the strained line connecting one bruised pinkie to the other dripping red from their exertions. Flushed cheeks puff over some garbled argument and they pull at the sutures, back and forth, until the trail of blood spots behind them resembles cherry blossoms at the end of spring. One footfall lands particularly hard into a puddle, spraying the street cleaner’s pant leg with mud and detritus.
Puddles. They are as shallow as the warmth of a first kiss. Every morning they stretch for yards and reflect the receding stars. Every evening the blotchy remains shrink away between the fibres of her mop.
“It’s not that we don’t like each other,” her soulmate laughs, gaze locked onto the reporter’s plastic-packaged chest. “We just feel . . . stuck.”
Yes. That’s it. The old mop clatters to the floor as she finally stoops down and plucks the shoelace from the mud. They are stuck.