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art by Ron Sanders

Starcrossed

M. Bennardo is the writer of over 40 published short stories. He's also editor of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. The second volume of the series, This Is How You Die, was published in July 2013 by GCP. More information at mbennardo.com.
yAs she crossed the café for the thousandth time that shift, Juliet suddenly caught sight of the man at the corner table, and the plate of beignets in her hand almost dropped to the floor. Avalanches of precious war-rationed powdered sugar tumbled down the mounds of the fried dough as her heart beat heavily in her chest and a dizzy sick feeling passed through her temples.
As she set the plate down on the table, Juliet was only faintly aware of the half dozen boisterous Supply Corps stevedores sitting there--their dungarees already powdered by the last order of beignets, sweat beading in the V-necks of their open shirts, white caps floating above close-cropped hair. Usually she'd joke and laugh as loud as any of them, but now she could only squeak "More coffee, boys?" through a mouth that felt like it was filling up with cottonballs.
And all because somewhere, away and back over her shoulder, that man was watching her from behind a copy of the Times-Picayune, a smoldering cigarette balanced in one hand. A young man, about her own age--twenty-eight or twenty-nine. A white man.
The only white man in the whole café that afternoon, in fact, crowded jam full as it was of black Navy stevedores just off first shift.
But that wasn't what made Juliet's hand shake as she guided the heavy coffeepot among the chipped ceramic mugs that crowded the tabletop. And that wasn't what made her legs half-jellified by the time she had walked back to the counter. It was something else altogether.
"Who's that?" asked Rhonda from the soda fountain behind the counter.
Juliet shook her head and tried to quiet the racing of her heart. "I don't know him."
"Well," said Rhonda, "he knows you. He wants you to wait his table."
Juliet bit her lip. "Then tell him I'm busy."
"All afternoon?"
"And any other."
Rhonda chuckled as she wheeled away, a wicked smile on her face. "Sure, you don't know him."
It wasn't that Juliet knew him--not in the usual way of knowing people. She was dead sure she'd never seen him before in her life, and was ready to swear it on the Holy Bible.
And yet, no sooner had she spotted him lounging at that corner table, then she'd been zapped by that jolt of panicked knowing. The truth was, she'd recognized him--but not the way she had ever recognized anybody else before. And this wasn't like seeing Paul Robeson or Lena Horne walk in off a movie poster or an album cover either.
It was more like seeing somebody she knew only from a description. Or from a promise. But a promise from years and years ago, from all her lifetime ago. So long ago that she had forgotten who had made the promise and why and what would happen when the wait was over. So long ago that she had even forgotten that she had been promised anything at all.
Juliet had the feeling that this man was the answer to some half-joking question she'd asked as a girl--a question posed to a Ouija board at midnight, or in front of a mirror on All Hallows Eve, as she walked down the cellar steps backward.
Yes, this white man was deep familiar. Long familiar. Thousand-year-old familiar. And he brought with him a million vague and swirling memories--or not memories. Images and feelings that couldn't possibly be memories, but which felt just like they were anyway. All that day, they streamed through her mind.
A thousand years ago, he was the not-so-chaste knight who'd lost his righteous powers when she, the queen, had succumbed to his passion. Before that, he swam the Hellespont to sweet-talk her out of her virginity, melting the false modesty she wore as priestess to Aphrodite.
Elsewhere, in far Arabia, he'd gone crazy in his love for her, until her father thought him too mad and forbade their marriage. In old China, he'd failed to see through the manly disguise she wore until it was too late, and died heartbroken when she was promised to another instead.
And that was just for starters. She'd known him a hundred other places and a thousand other times. And always the story started and ended the same--one girl and one boy, and a doomed love story. Starcrossed, and all that junk.
But now, it seemed, Romeo was a white man. A northerner, Juliet guessed. Maybe rich, maybe with a profiteer daddy who'd made his millions in the last war. Why not? It would fit the rest of their almost-too-long-to-remember history. There was always some cute touch like that, and every time it just got cuter and cuter.
And here she was, waitress in a slophouse in Holy Cross in the Lower Ninth Ward, where mosquitos bred in the Industrial Canal and barge chains clanked all night. Yes, here she was, poor enough and black enough to cross every necessary star in Louisiana in the spring of 1943.
Not to mention her baby girl, and Gustave in the Navy. How cute a story was that?
He was back the very next day. This time he came at ten in the morning, after breakfast but before the lunch rush, and not a stevedore in sight. Just a couple old men from the neighborhood playing checkers for nickels and slurping coffee fortified with furtive pours from pocket flasks.
That was the scene that Romeo sauntered into. White man in a white seersucker suit, only half deflated by sun and sweat. He strolled slowly through the empty café, poking a cut carnation into his buttonhole, then hitching up his pants and easing down onto one of the stools at the counter.
Juliet stood there, frozen in place, a half-dry tumbler in her hand and pricks of sweat starting out along the line where her skin met her hair. She forgot about the old men playing checkers. She forgot about Rhonda standing next to her at the counter. She even forgot about the tumbler in her hand.
Somehow, just then, Romeo was all there was. And somehow he made her want to run. Juliet suddenly wondered if these starcrossed things always started out feeling that way. Did Iseult feel that way about Tristan? Did Hero want to jump out a window when she saw Leander?
But of course they would. Or they should. Starcrossed lovers bring nothing but destruction, and meeting one is worse than meeting your doppelganger.
Then suddenly, this one grinned at Rhonda. "Morning, sugar."
"Uh uh," said Rhonda, setting down the saucer she'd been drying and brushing her hands on her apron. All her joking was gone now, and she looked like somebody was sitting on her grave. "Whatever you two got to talk about don't involve me." With that she pitched through the swinging doors to the kitchen and left Juliet alone out front.
Romeo chuckled and turned his gaze to Juliet. "You do know me then?" His eyes lingered on her face, as if trying to solve some puzzle he wasn't quite sure about. "I recognized you..." He paused and half-smiled, as if acknowledging some badly told joke. "Underneath it all."
Juliet felt the dizzy start behind her eyes again, but she couldn't tell just what it was she was feeling. He meant something to her--but it wasn't as simple as it seemed. She suddenly wished for a pull at one of the flasks those checker players had. Instead she turned and sprayed a jet of soda water into the tumbler in her hand and downed a gulp of the fizzy bitter stuff.
"You sure you know me?" Juliet asked at last, the fizz jolting some life back into her. "Or are you just guessing?"
He wasn't the first white man to leer at her--or the first man of any color. She spent half her day batting away the advances of men like him. And one thing she did know for sure was that she didn't like his hollow yellow-hazel eyes. She didn't like the tentative, puzzled way they looked at her--like they were measuring her for a part in a play.
"I was going to say we don't have many blacks in Philadelphia," said Romeo blandly. "But then I realized how stupid a thing that was to say."
"They don't go to the same parties you do, I guess." Juliet gave the line all the acid she could.
Romeo rubbed his jawline. "No, I guess not." Then he reached his hand up and knocked his hat askew. Flushing suddenly, he snatched it off and laid it down on the counter next to his elbow. "Sorry."
"Not much of a start, is this?" Juliet rubbed her towel along the counter top, scooping crumbs out of the crack where the Formica met the steel bumper. Romeo threw up his hands as she passed under him.
"I suppose not."
"We used to be good at starts," said Juliet, rubbing a sticky spot on the counter in front of him, looking down at her work and not up at him. "All those glances across ballrooms and blushes behind dominoes and carefully dropped handkerchiefs."
"You're right," said Romeo, smiling broadly. "We used to be very good at starts indeed."
Juliet suddenly spat on the counter, rubbing it hard one last time. Then wadding up her towel, she headed for the same swinging door that Rhonda had gone through. She half-turned and looked back at Romeo. "And that's all we used to be good at."
He didn't push it that day. He had the sense to leave it there at least. But he didn't stop coming, and he didn't seem to care who saw him there.
Juliet didn't like the teasing she got from Rhonda and the other girls. Neither did she like the looks she got from some of the customers. Those old men with the checkers weren't so sweet-looking once they got a dirty idea in their minds, and some of the stevedores seemed to think she ought to care what they thought.
Romeo still irritated her more often than not, but she grew to like the deep familiar feeling. She liked the thousand-year-old naturalness that seemed to settle in her when she talked to him, like they'd grown up together and knew things nobody else could know. No need for small talk or getting-to-know-yous. Maybe he bugged her, but she never thought twice about bugging him back. And once the shock of meeting him in the flesh had worn off, she never got afraid or lost or confused.
Then there was something else. There was something better and warmer in the edges of her heart, too. Something like the quiet echoes of a passion long extinguished, like the dust disturbed at long last in a disused room, a room left cold and cobwebby for decades, a room that she never thought she'd enter again.
It made her feel warm, but old. Whatever flame should have sparked between their souls had been cooled by twenty-nine years of human living. All that fire of first love replaced by the disappointment and frustration and wisdom of life. Whatever they had been in the past, they weren't kids this time for sure.
But still Juliet never said anything about Gustave, who was on a destroyer somewhere in the Pacific the last she'd heard--a mess attendant training up to be a gunner. They weren't married yet, but they planned to be--sooner or later, after the war, when Gustave was home and working again, when they had saved a little money. When the stars lined up just right and one day and someday finally came.
And neither did she ever tell him about their daughter, over a year old now and growing fast. Growing into her own person already, with some of Gustave's humor and temper. The little girl could even fetch the framed picture of Gustave off the dresser when Juliet asked, "Where's Papa?"
Juliet didn't know or ask about Romeo either--if he was married or engaged. Maybe he had a whole family back in Philadelphia, maybe a business he was neglecting, maybe a hundred possible things. It was perverse how they didn't talk about those things, but it just wasn't important either. As much as they might care for their homes or their families or their future plans, none of that meant anything at all when Juliet and Romeo came together.
"I still don't see how you know this dude," said Rhonda one night, about two weeks into it. They were hauling trashcans out into the alley behind the café, sweating already in the warm spring night.
Juliet shook her head. "Just from a long way back, that's all."
Rhonda pursed her lips. "A long way back where? He ain't ever been here before, and you ain't ever been anywhere else."
"How do you know where I've been?"
"Hmph," said Rhonda, hauling the trashcan out to the curb and slamming the lid down. From down the alley, a cat yowled. "I don't see why it all has to be such a big mystery. It's not like you're the first girl to talk to a white man."
"It doesn't have to be a mystery," said Juliet. "But what if I like it that way?"
For some reason, Romeo never insisted on walking her home. It made things easier that way--easier to keep up the line between their real lives and whatever it was they were supposed to have together. Juliet still hadn't forgotten the puzzled look that had crossed his face when he first got a good look at her in the café, and she wasn't eager to see what look would cross his face if he ever saw her neighborhood, or the apartment she shared with her Mama, or the little girl waiting for her in the window.
There was one hot night when she laughed bitterly to herself as she sat out on the fire escape in her shift, holding the baby and trying to keep her cool. Mama's snore sounded faint and irregular from inside the old brick-faced apartment, and a couple of cats mewed amorously at each other from the dark of the alley.
It was a close, dark night--cloudy and hot, without a star in the sky. Juliet wiped the sweat off her forehead and neck, checking her watch every five minutes to see how much of her precious night's sleep was draining away.
The baby stirred and murmured in her arms, and Juliet wasn't sure if it was fever or just the hot night. She thought about stopping down at the saloon for ice, but she couldn't stand the thought of putting heavier clothes than her shift against her skin. All she wanted was a breeze--a breath of cool air.
And that was when she laughed, thinking what a sorry excuse for a balcony this all made. Laughing at the thought of Romeo watching her from the shadows in the alley below, laughing at the thought of her caring whether he laughed or not.
"I'm leaving tomorrow," said Romeo.
It was only a week later, only such a short while. Juliet felt her heart skip a beat and then plunge down into her stomach. All told, it had been less than a month since she'd first seen him.
She just smiled coolly. "I'm sure you got something important to get back to."
Romeo sucked down a slug of coffee and shrugged. "I'm supposed to be in the Army, you know. I got out of it because my uncle's in Congress--requested me as his personal aide. Except I'm already a week late. If I shirk it much longer, I'm afraid he'll tell the Draft Board they can have me after all."
Juliet nodded. She hated to hear him talk like that--about rich and connected relatives, and his carefree spendthrift life. It was then that she knew he wasn't like anybody she knew, and he wasn't anybody she'd ever want to know under any other circumstance.
"The times when I remembered about you," she said at last, "I thought you were just a stupid fairy tale I'd made up for myself." She looked up at Romeo. "I suppose long ago I used to believe you were out here, somewhere. And I used to believe that I would know you instantly, as soon as I saw you. But then--I grew older--"
"Hush," said Romeo, his hand resting on top of hers. It was thrilling to feel him touch her--but strange too. His hands were the hands of a man, hot and fat. Not the cool, nervous fingers of a boy. "Hush, Juliet. I know."
She pulled away, surprised at herself. Surprised that she felt anything at all--let alone this outpouring of actual pain, of loss. "I'm glad you came anyway," she said. "It was nice knowing you're real. Nice knowing that I really did once have something like a real storybook love--those other times, those other lives." She smiled a half smile, suddenly aware he was just a rich white man from the north. "Just bad timing this time, I guess. Or bad everything."
"Starcrossed," he whispered. He seemed to be deciding whether he ought to say any more. Like there was a fistfight in his soul, and he was waiting to see who might win.
"Sure," said Juliet at last. "I guess it's always like this. I guess this is how it always goes--only maybe we can see that the starcrossed stuff is bigger than us this time. Being older, I mean. Not being kids."
"Juliet," said Romeo again. He voice had a new, determined ring to it. "It doesn't have to be like that. I don't have to go to my uncle. We can go somewhere else--together. To Canada maybe. Or somewhere even farther--somewhere with no war and none of the rest of it." He reached out and took her hands in his. "We could--uncross our stars. We could be bigger than it all again."
Juliet shook her head. "No, Romeo," she said. "No."
"Why not? I have money. We can go anywhere, someplace where none of this matters and no one will care--"
"No," said Juliet again. "It's not that."
"Then what?" asked Romeo. His eyes glowed, and Juliet knew that he was seeing a world of obstacles cleared, of walls torn down, of doors opened by money and connections and golden light streaming out. He was seeing a world where he could always, always, always get what he wanted.
Juliet sighed. She stared hard at the buttonhole in Romeo's coat. The carnation was bright red today--a deep dyed unnatural red. Then she flicked her eyes up to his face, up to those yellow eyes she had never grown to like. "We'd have to take my daughter."
"Your--"
"She's fourteen months."
"But you're not--"
Juliet shook her head sadly. Numbly. "No, not married. Not yet." She paused, and her heart suddenly swelled at the thought of Gustave. She couldn't help herself. At the same time, the glow was fading slowly out of Romeo's eyes. "He's in the Navy, on a destroyer somewhere. Gustave. And that--that's the other thing." Romeo had gone very quiet and very dim. "I love him."
Romeo nodded and pulled his hands away from hers. He put his hat back on his head and fumbled in his pocket for change. "I see," he said. "It was my fault. I took too long. I was too slow. And you--"
But he left the rest of his sentence unfinished, suddenly closing his mouth as though he thought better of it. Instead, he turned silently and walked slowly out of the café. Standing alone, Juliet watched him go, and picked up the carnation from where Romeo had laid it on the counter among nickels and dimes.
That night, something called her out to the fire escape alone. And that night, something called to her from the shadows below. He called her. Romeo. He'd followed her home, perhaps, or had asked around for her address. And there, from amid the stifling hot air and the blank brick walls, he called.
She went down. Of course she did. Not to hop a train or a riverboat, but just to be out in the night under the heavy stars in his company.
They didn't talk. They didn't kiss. They didn't even hold hands. Any of those things would just remind them how off-kilter it had all become, how weak and unreal their starcrossed love felt now, just a few years too late, just a little bit further along in their lives.
No, they hadn't come to work things or to figure out solutions. They'd come only for a last bite of the forbidden apple, one last chance to feel the dying flames of thousand-year-old passion that warmed their hearts when they were together.
Or that's what Juliet thought, anyway. That's what she thought until she looked around and found where she had followed him. Until she saw that he had led on through the night to the midpoint of the St Claude Avenue Bridge, a cavernous lock leading to the Industrial Canal off to one side and the dark expanse of the Mississippi River on the other side.
And Romeo, with two lengths of strong hemp rope and two cinder blocks, standing next to her on the wrong side of the railing, black water pouring underneath them, the sweep of the current heading down and away, bound for the Gulf.
It was then that Juliet remembered how Hero threw herself from the tower in anguish, how Iseult was crushed in Tristan's dying embrace, and how a hundred other times their starcrossed love had ended in violence and death and self-destruction. Cold steel on her breast, bitter wine on her tongue, heavy iron in her trembling hand. It seemed, somehow, the only way for it to end.
Certainly Romeo couldn't board a train for Washington, D.C. Certainly Juliet couldn't go on working at a café.
"I took too long," said Romeo again, almost the last words that Juliet remembered him ever speaking. The dizzy was back, fuzzing her head as she swayed on the ledge above the river.
"There was too much in our way," Romeo continued. "But next time I'll find you faster. I'll find you first. No lover, no daughter, no twenty-nine years of living to stand between us and our love. Next time, we'll have only love."
And Juliet looked down into the waters below, spun into eddies where it was buffeted by the mighty Mississippi pouring past. She knew it was true that another life awaited her there. A better life? A life more like the one she might have planned for herself? A life, perhaps, where the answers to the questions she had asked as a girl were not just dim shadows in the mirror, not just lies spelled out by a cheating planchette.
But before Juliet's body could lean forward and before her legs could make the fatal leap, she first watched Romeo plunge--the cinder block grasped tight in his hands as he fell through space, the rope looped round his wrists.
Then he was gone, swallowed up.
And in the eddies that swirled after he disappeared beneath the surface of the water, Juliet saw nothing of the future and nothing of any other life. Instead, she saw the present. Instead, she saw her lover and her daughter and her twenty-nine years of living. Starcrossed lovers don't usually make it to twenty-nine. They don't have children or families or lives beyond their love. They flash once like a rocket and light up the sky--then they go cold and black and dead as a cinder.
With aching arms, Juliet hefted the cinder block over the railing away from the river, and climbed back onto the solid bridge once more. With trembling legs, she walked home.
And somewhere out in the wide world, she believed, a baby opened his mouth and roared with life for the first time. And somewhere else, another baby didn't.
Would it be fifteen years, Juliet wondered, until she saw Romeo again? Would it be eighteen years or twenty-one years? Would it be twenty-nine years, or would it be longer yet?
A face, one day, in the café--a stranger's face as familiar as her own. Rich or poor, black or white, man or woman. The face might look like anything. The face might belong to anybody. All she knew was that she would immediately know it.
"I've come from so far," the stranger would say. "I've traveled so long. And I think I've finally found the answer to my long-ago promise."
But she would be decades older yet by then, decades stronger, decades more anchored. She would have that much more living behind her.
"Sounds like you've had a good life so far," Juliet would answer. Kindly, motherly--not loverly. "But you've got miles yet to go. Eat and drink, and keep up your strength."
Over a coffee and a plate of beignets, she'd make that familiar stranger tell the story of their life, and about all the things they loved, and all the dreams they had.
And slowly, together, they'd finally uncross their stars, once and for all for the rest of time.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 28th, 2014

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