Three MinutesBy Justine Joseph
They say it takes three minutes to decide if you like someone or not. Physically, romantically, you know. It takes your body three brief minutes to tell you if your senses and cells like what they perceive through heat sensors and scent receptors and tiny hairs that rise in unison on the surface of skin. Three minutes. As long as it takes to boil an egg.
Soft boiled. At sea level. Too soft maybe. I don't like my eggs all runny and sticky. Runny, sticky honey. Yellow paint spilt on the floor.
Three minutes can feel like a long time when you're waiting for eggs to boil or for paint to dry. But it's nothing when you've met someone you know you want to see again, and then they're gone.
Like water into sand. Smoke into breeze. Coins into drain coves. Lost things. Were they ever there?
Like one time, late at night, I was on this bus. I don't really like buses. They always smell like bread crumbs squashed into upholstery and shiny metal poles with fingerprints all over them. Buses are strange spaces. Blank pauses between the place you just came from and the one you're trying to reach. There's always some place you're trying to reach.
Dog park. Friend's house. Nice bar with a girl in it. Work. Home. Gym. Home.
And there's always a guy on the bus who edges over with his unwashed hair and spindly limbs and briefcase. He points at the seat directly opposite you, "Excuse me, is someone sitting here?" To which you say no, so he sits down and folds in his long mantis legs, and stares straight ahead with his knees butting sharply into yours. He holds the briefcase on his lap with tight fingers and nails bitten down into thin ragged lines. Maybe he's a mad genius, so busy building supercomputers that he forgets to wash his hair or go for a walk in the sun now and then. Or maybe he's just a man with dandruff, mantis legs, an accounting job and nothing much else in the world to lose, except whatever's in the briefcase.
Stolen jewels? Porn collection? Ham sandwich? Telescopic sniper gun?
I don't know. I look at my watch.
Three minutes gone and I know for sure I don't like Mantis Man. Romantically, physically, whatever. That's when the girl appears, sidling down the aisle with a shoulder bag of books and magazines. The front of her T-shirt says, I JUST WANT TO DRINK WINE, SAVE ANIMALS, TAKE NAPS.
Nice T-shirt. Nice chest.
I can see she doesn't like buses much either. I can see she's shy – the kind of girl who knows that men look at her and doesn't want to be looked at in a bus full of people at 10 o'clock on a Friday night.
"Excuse me... oops, sorry... can I just...excuse me... may I please squeeze by?"
She looks like she's trying to melt down into something small and less visible. Something that can roll away unnoticed under one of the seats. I see her as a green glass marble rolling out of a puddle of blue jeans, book bag and trainers on the floor. It stops next to Mantis Man and me.
"Is this seat taken?"
Mantis Man shakes his head and she sits down next to him. She takes out a magazine and pages through, not reading, she's paging too fast. Her eyes keep looking sideways at the briefcase through which Mantis Man now loudly rummages, pulling out a rumpled, magazine of his own, FARMER'S WEEKLY: FOCUS ON SHEEP. No sooner has he opened it, he closes it and takes out a bunch of green bananas that he holds quietly in both hands. The girl looks at me and smiles.
Pretty. Nice smile when she's trying not to. I could look at that smile some more. Over a coffee cup. Dinner table. Monopoly board. Over time.
I don't know. You often hear of strangers brought together by a shared crisis, like a plane crash, or the supermarket doors sliding shut as they both arrive, breathless and desperate for toilet paper or milk. But the truth is, there's nothing that binds two people together more than the shared fascination with someone strange. Mantis Man tears off a green banana and gives it to the girl. She has long fingers. Talented hands.
Hands playing a violin. Her hands. Sketching with charcoal. Black dust on long fingers. Long fingers on a man's back.
She looks over at me again. Her skin glows like green glass. Her earrings are big, her ears are small. One of her buttons is undone, as if by mistake.
Green marble rolling. Small ear listening. Man's lips whispering. My lips. My hands unbuttoning a button. Undone. Underneath.
I don't know. But the best kind of flirting happens when you're not sure if you're flirting at all. It's the silent kind that occurs almost by mistake. Like the connections that also occur by mistake, appearing suddenly, unexpectedly, like rolled-up newspapers on front doorsteps before dawn.
She opens the front door. Hair tangled. Pink pyjamas. Bends to get the paper. I'm in the kitchen. Making eggs. Yellow walls.
The bus stops. She stands quickly and puts the magazine in her bag. She smiles again, not trying not to. There's a flash of teeth, then the back of her T-shirt, then a swinging ponytail, then she's gone. I smile back, I think. I don't know. I look at my watch.
They say it takes three minutes to decide if you like someone or not. But, sometimes, it takes much longer to figure out whether they like you. If you can ever figure it out, that is. Sometimes, you can be together for five years and you still never really know. And then one day they're gone.
Pink pyjamas. Packed neat in a suitcase. Front door closing. Sticky runny. Soft boiled eggs.
Then all you can do is remember that time on the bus when you saw her and none of it had happened yet. You knew nothing then. But you did know that you liked her T-shirt and her smile. Heat sensors and little hairs rose in unison. Which is why you got off at the next stop and ran back down the street to find her.
Justine Joseph, writer
Based in Cape Town, Justine is a scientist by training and a word person by profession. She has an Honours degree in Cell Biology and 12 years experience as a magazine features writer and investigative journalist. She is now the editor of social innovation newspaper, Inside|Out and co-author of the book The Story of the Fly and How it Could Save the World – currently completing a second book in this series. In a parallel universe Justine is working on a collection of strange poems and fiction (thepoemthings.blogspot.com). Two of her works are being published in Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss and longing (African Sun Press) to be released December 2014, and three of her latest experimental flash fictions have been accepted for the next international literary journal MadHat Lit print annual #16. She’s also working on a collaborative exhibition of poetry and photographic art scheduled for November 2014 in Cape Town.