In the end, it may have come down to feet. It’s hard to know for sure if something that ordinary, even banal, can make a life changing difference but I can’t think of what else it was.
Jenna moved in right after Harvard left for Hawaii for a ten-day break, so that put her at a disadvantage from the start. He said so when he returned after they met the first time.
“Evie, this young woman was not who I imagined would join the cooperative. Our own floor. She is way more than I’d wish.”
He looked up at the ceiling and rolled his eyes. I wondered if he was ever tempted to do that when he was counseling someone; I sometimes fought off the urge in my classroom.
I liked Harvard. That was a nickname I gave him due to his attending there three years for Pre Med. But he hated it so he dropped out rather than fail. He became a psychologist. No surprise; he’d had to recover from the humiliation of quitting and figure out what his true path was so he’d developed insight. He objected to the silly name at first, but after we went through a minor flooding in the laundry room, a storm that knocked out power, and a grease fire in his kitchen, he counted me as a well-meaning, reliable friend.
But we were as different as a bonsai tree is from an apple tree. I say that because he owns one of the first. There were certain rules he lived by, useful to no one else. I suggested he had OCD, but he tried to deny it. He had “preferences” or made “efficiency a big priority” or “I like what I do and do exactly as I like.” And I liked to just grow and be who I am which isn’t that different– I just do it another way.
I didn’t care, anyway. I’d lived at 136 for four years when Harvard moved in and told me he “was temporarily residing” at 142. I privately questioned what temporary residing had to do with actual living–that’s how my mind works–but in time we became friendly. His stay turned into several years. We saw each other from a slight angle, tossed a greeting down the hall, bumped into each other on our way to work. We got our coffee at the same coffee shop but took different trains. He leased an office while I joined my fellow teachers at a public middle school. His real name: Harvey Sunderland III, a better professional moniker than Harvard. We came to enjoy complicated conversations–he saw things from a multi-layered view, whereas I was about what is essential and to the point. “Concrete,” he said. But we adapted and found each other acceptable, even enjoyable.
Jenna moving in without his prior knowledge was not under his mental file heading of “Expected Events”. I knew that they would study each other once, then have little to do with each other.
I decided to get to know her some. She answered the door right away when I knocked. She was shorter than most people I had met, had slippery hair that tended to escape its ponytail. Barefoot, despite the weather giving us more winter half the time.
“I could smell those chocolate chip cookies from my place,” I informed her cheerfully. “Welcome to our domain. I’m Evie.”
She reached through the doorway and shook my hand with an oven mitt on. “Jenna, and if you’ll excuse me, I have to get the next batch out. Come in if you like.”
The place was a colorful mess. There was a slew of paintings, prints, photographs and they were leaned against walls, tables, chairs. many looked like book illustrations, with captions underneath the pictures, and it turned out they were. Ceramic bowls, brass cats and a life-sized wood dog took up more spots.
“Yeah, it’s a wreck here, give me a few days. I illustrate stuff,” she said, munching on a warm cookie and offering me one. “I own a lot of art but much of it is mine. I free-lance for now. We’ll see how that goes.” She smiled, chocolate clinging to her upper lip. “You?”
“Teacher, eighth grade. Love it, occasionally hate it and it’s my chosen life. Kids are smart and funny. Heroic, in a way.” Why did I have to defend my profession? I looked around more. “Say, I like this picture.” I pointed to a watercolor of a grey dove standing on a bright blue ledge.
“Painted that in Italy. No one bought it so here it is.” She shrugged. “Baking, though, is a hobby and it calms me–but I’m happy to share with people. Anytime, come on down.”
“Okay, nice to meet you, Jenna. Dinner at my place sometime?”
“Sure, I don’t cook regular meals much!”
I ran into Harvard a couple weeks after she moved in. He seemed rested and looked good with a light golden tan.
“When are we going to do dinner so I can hear about your trip?” I asked.
“I will have to check my schedule but I think this Saturday will work. You cooking?”
“It always is, Evie. I’ll bring the wine.”
“The new tenant is coming. Jenna.”
“Oh, Evie, I was looking forward to just chatting with you.” His perfect moustache wriggled as he bit his lower lip. “Have you talked to her? Who is she?”
“Let’s find out. Come about seven.”
Jenna arrived about the same time Harvard did and wore wonderful shoes. I noticed because they were red, had designs on them in gold and black, with small heels. They fit her like a glove. I assumed they were from Italy. Harvard noticed, too.
She took them off and left them at the door. She had no socks on despite the chilled tile floor. He looked at me as if to say, Well, she has no sense.
“Evie, I brought fresh-baked shortbread cookies as they go with everything. Can I help?”
The dinner went fine. We ate, talked about our work, what we thought of the late spring. The pasta and marinara were quite good; even Harvard praised it. We adjourned to the living room. They sat on the sofa, Jenna curled up with feet tucked under her, Harvard with left hand resting on his pressed khaki thigh, wine glass in other. We watched Jenna talk; her hands dramatised each thought.
“Italy has the best summers, hot but full of sea breezes. I usually stayed with a family friend, last time for two months. My mom is Italian. Dad was born in Sweden and died some years ago. I often go to Praiano with my mother. Last year she didn’t, so off I went.”
“Where is that?” I helped myself to the first shortbread and found it tastier than any I had eaten.
“On the Almalfi Coast, halfway between Positano and Amalfi. An old fishing village but a resort as well. The villa the friend owns is romantic, old, views like magic, all you would want. The beaches, scents of the air, the old structures, all so good. I walk everywhere there and feel incredibly strong.” Her feet eased from the cover of her long dress and she rubbed an instep. “I wear shoes as little as possible so I get used to being barefoot–of course, I wore sandals as needed. I can’t bear shoes much…” She stretched her feet in front of her and wriggled slender toes. Sighed. “It’s a great place to make and think about art.”
Harvard asked a question as he sat up and placed his wine on the coffee table. I tried not to smirk at him. I knew he had issues with propriety, that he likely felt she should have kept her shoes on. Jenna continued describing her adventures in Italy, how she had grown close to the villagers as well as her family. How she might live there year-round at some point. But it was about money, wasn’t it? Still, she had some squirrled away.
She smiled at Harvard and me, small white teeth flashing in the low light. The word that came to me: ravenous. I was finding her annoying if mildly charming but I wasn’t so sure what he felt. I shared my favorite vacation spots and he talked about his recent trip to Hawaii. Later, I cleaned up as they carried on with their conversation. I heard a couple of laughs, his and hers. I thought he was managing well for someone who tended to get a nervous eyelid tick when he didn’t have firm control over new or unusual influences.
The spring unfolded. I saw them both very little between my work and my outside commitments like jogging and cooking class and walking my mother’s Afghan three times a week while she recuperated from knee surgery. My students were getting spring fever, forgetting assignments, staring out the window and passing notes more. I felt my patience wearing thin and came home early one day with a mean headache.
There were muffled voices in the hallway as I unlocked my door, so I walked down the passage a few steps. I could see a skirt moving through the doorway of number 142–Harvard’s place. No matter, his life was his own. He had a girlfriend when he moved in, but none the last two years.
The next day Harvard and I ordered coffee and hung out a few minutes before catching our trains.
“I think I adore that girl. Maybe.” For a minute I was confused. The one in the doorway? Was she so young as to be called a girl? We were in our late-thirties. “I never thought it would happen but I think this could be very good!”
I was afraid he’d jump up and down. So unlike him, it spooked me.
“Harvard, what got into your breakfast? I haven’t seen you this way since you lined up hundreds of your found rocks and recorded them in your little book.” He gave me a bad look. “But this time it is a female person? Who is this ravishing dame?”
He laughed. “Come one, Evie, don’t act dumb now. She’s been around for several weeks already.”
I gulped. “Jenna…? You have it going on with Jenna? Hippie artist Italy woman?”
“Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that but yes, we have been spending time together and she seems as interested as am I.”
My train came up. “Excellent, Harvard! Catch up with you more later!”
“Dinner soon?” he yelled at my back.
I didn’t respond as I walked away. I had had enough of people for the week. My students were turning me into a hermit. I sat down with my book and opened it where the marker was but couldn’t see the words. Jenna and Harvard. What could possibly be more quirky? She was younger, actually, ten years maybe, and not at all his type as he noted at start. She was a free spirit who spontaneously created her way through life; he was a tightly wound intellectual. She was very short, under five feet; he was six feet tall or more (hard to know since I hadn’t stood nose to nose with him). She was Italian and Swedish; he was English, period, and romanticized it.
All day I kept imagining them cozying up and it got me like a pesky bee. By the time I arrived home, I had to know more. Harvard didn’t answer the door. It was Friday night; maybe the two of them had made plans to go out.
I hadn’t much thought about Harvard’s plans before. I knew he enjoyed playing handball. We saw each other at our apartment complex pool occasionally; both of us endured laps and liked to dive. Sometimes he had a couple of friends over for drinks and a movie. We had gone antique and flea market shopping a few times over the years, more in tune with his wallet than mine but it was something we had fun doing. And I had expected to get to know Jenna sooner, I just hadn’t made the time. I had thought she would stop by, maybe. It struck me like indigestion in the pit of my stomach as I turned out the light: I felt left out, as if I was the kid on the playground who wasn’t being picked to play, anymore.
I didn’t call him that week-end nor did he, me. We greeted each other hurriedly on week days because I was almost late four days in a row. On Friday he wasn’t at the coffee shop. I stopped by his place before my own. I felt I owed him better attention. No, to be honest, I wanted to know what the heck was going on with him.
He answered with a yawn. His face was drawn and his considerable hair, usually combed and held just so with some hair product, looked like a rat’s nest. He motioned me in.
“What’s up, Harvard? You sick?”
He shook his head. “Just recovering from a bad night. I played hooky today. There was a…bad mishap.”
“The Jenna sort?”
“I got her flowers–not just any flowers. I had the floral shop design a unique bouquet and they were arranged in a large cut glass vase. I took them to her and when she opened the door, she was standing there in a nice black dress, something you would wear to a formal affair. She had on pearls–I didn’t know women still wore pearls, gosh. And no shoes! And behind her I saw a man. She said it was her uncle visiting from Italy. But the way she said it sounded so… false to my ears so I thrust the flowers at her before she knew what was happening. She didn’t even reach for them. The water in the heavy vase sloshed everywhere into the hall as I tried to hold on. It spilled into her place. I was so embarrassed, unnerved, so I set them down on the hallway floor. And I looked at her feet close-up, you know, my nose was a few inches from them–and her toes curled up as if they couldn’t bear to touch a little water!”
I waited, perplexed. He was almost hyperventilating. “Breathe. You saw her toes and thought…?”
“I thought: she has to be lying about being barefoot in Italy all that time or why would she not want her toes wet? She says she lived by the sea, was barefoot there every day if possible, loved being natural! She is still often barefoot. But her toes actually recoiled from the water. You ncanot fake that. She may have even lied about visiting Italy, for all I know she is lying about everything, Evie.”
“Harvard, really. She was just surprised by the flowers and spilled water.”
“No. She reacted as if I had caught her. In a compromised position. Or something.” He rubbed his face. “I don’t know, damn. At least I know you’re frank, always truthful. You even tell me things I would rather you didn’t.” He let out a sad moan. “I think I’m done for.”
I made him eggs, then bacon, each on its own plate. We ate on his balcony because the weather really had been perfect. Technicolor. I just hadn’t seen it lately. We were quiet, at ease. I went home after he promised to get up in the morning for a swim with me.
If Jenna lied, I’m let down for us all. But I think it was just her feet that did it to him. He likes things to be and stay a certain way. Like, for him, bacon and turkey must not join vegetables for a club sandwich. History doesn’t belong next to fiction on his bookshelf. And pearls and a little black dress just do not accentuate naked feet. I know these things. Harvard is a very complicated man. He’s someone I care about. More than I knew.