Little Spy

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark
Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

The haggard man of indiscriminate age slumped over, then lay on the wooden plank seating as he did every morning. He had had his pint already. On a green bench three women who acted as if they were glued together were a newer sight, had taken to coming here with a mangy little dog held tight one wide lap. The other two clutched shopping bags or purses, it was hard to tell which the voluminous objects were.

The girl was there, under the tree. She came and went from Angle Park, a good-sized slice of public space at Hammond and Right. She scrunched up her eyes at passersby; this gave her a mean look though she wasn’t always aware of it. It was part habit born of seeing less clearly than she ought. The other part was because she could be troublesome. And ruled by distrust. Why deny it? She stared at The Triplets, as she called them, and wished they would move on soon. They had dozens of things in those bags, pulled them out and spread them between themselves as if counting treasures. The girl had nothing but what fit into her pockets and a well-used backpack she’d found in a dumpster. The contents were hidden unless there was real need of anything, like the worn toothbrush or a second pair of socks.

Across the street Marlene puffed on a slim cigarette, her one luxury. Perched on the top step of stairs belonging to a crumbling brick apartment complex, the neighborhood’s work and recreation were noted with roving eyes. She worked, not as often as she’d prefer, as a cleaning lady. It was good money if she got four or five jobs in a row. Her ex-boss, her mother’s friend, recommended her for some that were too small for the company so she had gratitude. She put her name and number on bulletin boards and in the weekly rag. Things had slowed, though; rent was due. She had called Sal to see if he could loan her three hundred. He might stop by after nine that night. Or not.

He was a fickle one, that man, but he had a way. They had long ago been school chums. Now he had money and could make things happen. Marlene found him repulsive even as she was mesmerized, that teardrop tatoo on his cheekbone, hands calloused and powerful, words like spun honey spiked with vinegar. In a far better time and place he might have been the mayor, she thought, but he was “Boss” around the neighborhood. She loved to hate him, she smiled to herself, then wondered what he’d demand in return for the loan.

That girl, KZ, was sitting still as some yogi, Marlene thought, as she lit another cigarette from the burning tip of her first. Not even moving, eyes closed, head bowed like she was a saint. Caffeine withdrawal was setting in and if Marlene had five extra bucks she’d get the girl as she sometimes did, tell her to run to the coffee shop for a latte, then give her a few dollars for a tip. That could buy her a cheap burger or a pair of socks.

She lived somewhere around here, Marlene thought, but beneath that thought was a shiver. Where? The girl showed up off and on all day. She was a thug’s messenger, drug runner or thief–or what else? People knew about her but didn’t care to know more–live and let live. Whereas Marlene did think about things like the weather and her flimsy, grungy hoodie or that bad hair, as if she had hacked off the top in a fit of spite. Or that steady silence. She spoke as little as possible: “yeah, naw, dunno.” Didn’t she go to school at all?

“Hey, KZ! Wake up, come here!” she called out as she walked across the street, cigarette dangling from her thin, Solar Pink lips.

KZ didn’t open her eyes. She heard Marlene but didn’t want to be disturbed. She was trying to get somewhere else, to her grandfather’s, to the mountains where they used to visit him, or just to sleep. Could she sleep sitting like this? It had happened once. That would be handy.

Marlene stood over her, breathing as if she’d been running when she had just walked fast. Her lungs felt heavy and noisy; she had to stop smoking. She knew KZ felt her there so tapped hard on her shoulder, then wiped her fingers on navy capris. Looking down onto her spiky head, she thought she saw something move and took a step back.

“I need a coffee. If I get a small, you could get one, too. Or an oatmeal cookie. I only have seven bucks, so it’s a tiny tip or a treat. What say?”

“Can’t go, halfway to Mt. Ferron.”

“That’s a long way,  it’ll take you more than one little yogi sit.”

“Bother The Triplets.”

“Who?”

“The Triplets. Bags full of junk. Over there.” KZ, eyes still closed, pointed in their direction.

“Why would I ask them when I can always get you to go? I don’t know them; they’d take my coffee.”

“They just moved in.” KZ breathed all the way from her tailbone to her chest, then let it go, a slow hiss. “Go.”

“How long will it take you to get to the mountain and back?”

“Ten minutes.” KZ turned her whole body toward the tree and away from the woman.

Marlene sat down in the dappled shade. The alcoholic was sleeping already. The three women were boring, cards in their hands, playing a game where no one seemed to be winning.

“How come you’re always here and alone? Don’t you have nobody?”

KZ’s shoulders didn’t even rise or fall with her breathing. It was possible the kid was a yogi or something, she seemed to know things no one else did, and she could disappear without a trace. It had been four months since she’d arrived. Marlene had been taking groceries up the steps when she had heard a swift movement behind her and planted her feet, dropped her full bag and got ready for a fight. But it was just the girl, her grubby hand out.

“Got a dollar?”

Marlene blinked in the street light glow and tried to assess what else was coming, then dug into her pocket and pulled out a dollar. Then she grabbed a package of donuts and tossed them to the child.

The blazing grin that broke across her grim, pale face erased any ill will Marlene might have had. They had been half-friendly since, but from a distance, without exchange of personal information. Or at least, not much from KZ but a name and a few other less personal comments. Observations, Marlene had come to think of them. About the neighborhood, but also about life. Like the time she said something that shook her up.

Marlene had had a fight out back with Sal over how he treated her, nothing the kid would know about, and afterwards KZ had come up to the porch and stood in front of her.

“That man is a greedy dark dragon; you’re not for him. Let all death-seekers die hard, alone!”

“What are you talking about?” It scared her, such words delivered with the sound of authority, KZ’s voice a wild wind. “I’m no fantasy lover and don’t believe you half the time. I’m just… well, about him, stupid! Go away.”

“You do believe, just wrong things.”

And KZ ran off. The night enveloped her slim, short figure so that she seemed to dissolve into its depths.

The Triplets threw their cards down, then one stuffed them into a bag. They got up, hooked arms and walked to the corner where they waited for a bus. The little dog trotted along. Marlene stretched, fidgeted, ready to get her own coffee. She just hated to walk before she got that charge of energy to all systems.

“Alright.” KZ opened her palm and money was placed there. “And Sal won’t be around tonight.”

“Sal?”

The girl left on a fast, steady jog, dodging a couple of cars as she crossed the street, people honking at her, yelling. Marlene imagined she could run for hours if necessary. Days, even. KZ lived on air and the unreliable decency of others. But not for much longer, she thought. She had to be ten or eleven. She’d had a shaky diet and bad sleep a long time; she could be older or younger than she looked. But she would grow up; she’d be hunted out there. It was enough to ruin Marlene’s entire morning thinking about it.

She did need a good washing even if it wasn’t kind to think it.

It wasn’t the first time Marlene considered all these things but KZ had never entered her apartment. She didn’t think she would, even if she welcomed her with a hot meal in hand. Smart girl. The one time she had brought out a grape jam and peanut butter sandwich for her, everyone in the park was at her for one, too. That lasted a couple of days, then she quit. She didn’t have so much she could always give it away.

“I’m good,” KZ had said and shrugged. “There’s food, just have to know where and when.”

So what did she mean about Sal, anyway? KZ got around; she paid close attention. Her observations had been right, often.

A medium latte came back to her with two cookies.

“Counter guy, Rod? Gave you extra coffee, us another cookie.”

KZ kept one cookie and the dollar, then tucked both into the passed out drunk’s hand.

“Hey, that was for you. And hey, what about Sal?”

“You’ve got a life, right? Ole guy T-Man has a life, too. I got work to do,” she said and took off.

******

It was nine o’clock, it was nine-thirty and then ten, then later than she wanted it to be. Marlene was watching a show on iguanas and desert flowers, things so exotic she almost enjoyed it. Smoking her cigarette after long-delayed noodles with a tuna sandwich made her stomach clench. She checked her cell. No messages. For the tenth time she peered between faded floral curtains into the lonely street, then Angle Park with its amber-lit lanterns. She could see forms moving through the walkways, and when she raised the window a few inches for a wash of night air, she heard strangers talking, rumblings on a cool draft. Maybe they were secret lovers or buddies loose from crummy jobs and on the prowl. More likely they were customers of some kind. It didn’t matter to her as long as they stayed out there.

The park had once been good, a lush green spot among grey, pitted blocks of buildings. That was before rents went up though places decayed. Some were replaced and people moved out. Somehow the park–that whole block–became a stop for foragers and drug users and petty criminals. Marlene was accustomed to it though her mother called once a week to inform her what was for rent in the suburbs. What a joke! She could no more live out there on her earnings! More to the point, she could no more move there after being wedged into this corner than if she was a princess encouraged to move into a tent. You couldn’t change things up like that. Her mother had married better a second time so moved, that was alright for her. Marlene was in a holding pattern with everything, that was all. Right now she needed rent money, not wishes or advice.

A gust carried in a light, high whistle. A pause then another louder one. Marlene put her ear close to the window sash and doused the pole lamp. She moved out of the frame and sneaked a peek outdoors. Nothing looked different; foot traffic was swift, quiet. Another whistle, this time shrill, rising from beneath her window.

“Marlene!”

A spiky top of a head appeared, then KZ’s frowning dark brown eyes.

“Lemme in!”

“Why? You never come in!”

“Gotta talk!”

“Coulda rung the doorbell.” Marlene got up to open the front door.

“Couldn’t. Back door!”

“Alright already!”

Heartbeat upticking, Marlene ran to the back door that opened onto an alley and let KZ in her tiny galley kitchen.

The girl was sweating, face seemed more ruined than usual. Her breath fell out in jagged gasps until Marlene got her a glass of water, then made her sit in the blue painted wooden chair and sip it. Then she saw the line of blood coming from her hand, trickling down her wrist and dripping onto the floor. She examined the long but likely not emergency-type gash, got a damp tea towel, dabbed at it and wrapped it.

KZ breathed more slowly. “Chain link fence. Got caught going over but someone was chasing me and listen–Sal, he’s not coming.”

“So you said. Why are you a mess of nerves and sweat?” She tried to not breathe deeply; KZ had been unwashed a long time and the kitchen was stuffy. She didn’t want to think too hard about Sal but something was bad.

“Sit down, okay?” The girl shook but was firm in tone.

Marlene took the other blue chair and sat. She felt dizzy, as if she had about missed a seat on a moving train, and her shoulder hit the wall.

“He’s gone. G-O-N-E.”

“What? Not true! KZ, stop with the stories!”

KZ’s eyes were open for once. Marlene almost shrank in alarm though they were nice enough, just shy of pretty eyes. Maybe it was the darkness, her being able to see without being readily seen, or maybe she called on her other senses to direct her more. But now those distrustful orbs were round and golden brown in the 60 watt light fixture above Marlene’s kitchen sink.

“They got him.”

“Who got him, what d’ya mean?” She grabbed the tea-toweled hand, released it when KZ winced, then flattened her own hands on the table.

“I dunno, maybe it was cops, undercover. Somebody said so, it was so fast, guns, shouting like when dad was taken, mom shot four times, so much noise everywhere and blood, you can’t believe it’s happening so when Sal was down on the porch like that, face mashed on the floor and then they handcuffed him and guns out, it had to be cops, right, or gangsters, right? And he’ll die or worse—”

“KZ! KZ, KZ, shhh. Breathe, breathe like a yogi, breathe now.”

“–then there were two more guys shooting and I took off because they saw me I was flying you know there was fence back the house and I climbed it hand caught or they’d catch me and then it would it would it wouldn’t it, right? Or if–”

Marlene got up and kneeled before the girl. She grasped her shoulders and shook her gently in slow motion, KZ tumbling forward and backward in her grip, those terrible words ebbing until they were a dribble and all the fear let go and she got quieter so that the room of silence stopped them at one still point, breathless.

The were like that awhile, Marlene and KZ hunched now on the floor, moths beating their perfect wings against her screen door, the alley empty of all but the rats and a few angry fierce cats and a barking dog that cried out in pain eventually just once, and Sal going down for life or forever. It was more than Marlene could bear but she bore it. She held on and KZ held on back until they finally got up and sat on the tattered love seat in the shadow-shrouded living room.

After awhile Marlene reached over and touched KZ’s toweled hand. “Want a hot bath?”

KZ blinked at her as if she now realized who she was, where they were. She looked around. Nodded so imperceptibly that Marlene had to look her in the eye for the okay.

KZ sat on the toilet lid, knees to chin, waited as Marlene turned on steaming water and poured in a cupful of bubbly soap. Then a few clean things were gathered for the girl.

“Soak it all off. I’ll be waiting. We’ll drink sodas and eat cheese and saltines and watch tv. My couch can be yours for now.”

When the door closed, KZ peeled off filthy clothing, then stepped in with each tentative foot. She lowered herself beneath wavelets of sweet frothy water, face turned up to twinkling white Christmas lights that ringed the walls. She wept and wept without a sound and her mind turned sheer blue as mountain skies, her dad and mom and grandfather stepping forward to gather her and hold her, hold her fast.

 

These Feet, Made for Freedom

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My loose plan was to write something light, bordering on witty or–more often my writerly bent, something laced with references to spiritual experiences, the nearness of God everywhere. About maximum appreciation of life, which tends to claim first priority. That was before I got the foot news.

I am sitting here with the podiatrist’s prescribed plastic and padded boot encasing my sweating, lame left foot. It has two secured straps, a sort of front piece that clamps on the foot and ankle to keep it rigidly stabilized. It feels claustrophobic in there though it has only been two hours. Already those toes nearly have a voice, and it says “Let me out!”

Alas, I am to wear it all the time I am walking in my home or at the grocery–anytime I put weight on my left foot. That means in bed and in the shower I can have a free, naked foot. Otherwise, this goes on for five weeks and then another x-ray and review.

I am a barefoot person. My feet have never liked their toes and high arches, skinny heels and ankles swaddled or bound in leather much less fake leather or cloth. I don’t even like flip-flops. Nothing fits so well as your own skin. Though I do have quite a few shoes stored in the closet, I’ll admit, but they’re leftover from working days and do need to be passed on. And alright, I love my ankle- and knee-high boots. They fit very well and are useful since I have to wear something outdoors to shun the damp chilliness during wintry Oregon deluges. A good leather boot can come close to conforming to one’s lower extremities after a good break-in period. It has flexibility and strength, characteristics I admire. I hope to be wearing such a pair of boots well into my old age when I cannot tromp around barefoot. I want to be wearing them as autumn arrives–if I manage to enable excellent self-repair.

Even socks in chilly weather tend to annoy me. They’re a barrier between skin and fascinating environments the foot examines and treads. Who came up with this accoutrement of footwear? Why don’t they fit snugly as fine gloves fit on hands and digits? Of course, I’m not so foolish as to ignore that protection is at times required in the natural and human made worlds. Especially in unpredictable city life. So I purchase those, too, after much inspection, finding the best cotton warmth, cushion and comfort for the least money, a challenge.

Oh, did I forget to mention I broke some small bone beneath the ball joint of my left big toe? That’s what all my fuss is about. A slightly broken foot.

It started about five or six weeks ago. I was vacuuming around my bed. The vacuum isn’t one of those light and easy machines and I am not a happy vacuumer but I swear I did nothing different that day as I maneuvered about. I did not jam my toe into furniture. I did not fall and nothing slipped onto the bare foot as I worked. I just felt a sharp pain under the big toe. I checked it out. I thought it might be a spider (bare skin and spiders…) as we have many of those lurking in our geography and bites are not so uncommon. It could have been an experience I infrequently have due to taking aspirin for coronary artery disease–tiny burst capillaries that hurt and bruise a couple of days. But I saw nothing. The next day, however, there was selling and pain, a small spot of bruising. I expected it to go away but it lingered.

A trip to my primary care doc resulted in a diagnosis of tendonitis. In the toe area. How that occurred, she didn’t clarify. Apparently this can happen for any number of reasons to active people. What was not great to hear: stop my vigorous walks and no hiking for me for a few weeks. Doctor made a referral to a podiatrist, just in case. There was an X-ray for good measure. It came back negative per my email from the health care system. So I continued to live my busy life, iced twice daily, rested the offended foot a times and believed it got better. There continued to be some swelling and soreness so I tried to behave and not walk much the first 2-3 weeks. I walked a bit more the last couple of weeks, perhaps 20 minutes with slow strides every other day, rather than the 4-5 miles a day as I usually do. No hiking in the summery, fragrant forest. I felt proud of myself for mostly following directions and not whining about it.

The podiatrist appointment wasn’t for another month. When the date rolled around, I nearly cancelled it as the hurt area looked and felt much better. I’d walked lightly (no power walks) recently without much of an after effect. I figured I would get a good bill of health and pay 60 dollars for the privilege of hearing it.

Instead, she pulled up the X-ray after telling me she didn’t think it was tendonitis, at all.

“Right. You have had a fracture. This little bone by the ball of your foot is broken almost in two. Can you see it?”

“What? How can that be? Didn’t the radiologist know how to interpret things correctly? I mean, I have been walking on it all these weeks!”

“Well, this area of the foot structure is unfortunately often misread as some people can be born with…”

I didn’t hear the rest. I had stopped looking at the screen and that narrow, incredibly frail-looking skeleton of my left foot. That terrible line across a small bone under or within my toe–who knew there were so many?

Really, vacuuming the carpet? There had to be a mistake. She kept talking and I tried to focus.

“…it will either heal–you’re saying it is much better so that is a good sign and the swelling is minimal now–or you might need surgery to take out a piece of the bone…”

“What? No.”

I gazed at her face and saw her lips moving but all I could think about was that I would not be walking anywhere, anytime soon. I would not be taking off to enjoy arduous and meditative hikes in the Columbia Gorge or scouting out numerous trails around Oregon and Washington. I would not even be exploring our own semi-famous Forest Park flourishing right in the heart of Portland–all its hidden delights would be unexperienced for the rest of the summer… and maybe beyond?

I would be sitting on my posterior for the rest of August and September doing…what?

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I am not a sitter nor a lolligagging type. I am, for good or ill, charged from the time I get up even if a cranky sleep has failed to be regenerative enough. My husband, more sedentary than I,  urges me to stop: “Take a load off, sit down a few.” I try but tend to pop back up. Only when I write can I make myself sit for a long while without moving a great deal. I find myslef reading when standing, sometimes sitting, my concentration accompanied by twisting, stretching, getting up and down. By midnight I give it all up and hit the bed, finally tired. Then I read or write without much other motion as I drift off.

It’s not that I’m hyper; I don’t feel nervous/anxious/unfocused. I simply love to be in motion. There are plenty of things to do, places to go. Even if it is from the dining room to a back bedroom to gather something. There is such a joy to it, the lifting of limbs, bending and reaching and turning in space. I spontaneously dance, walk for miles, jog a vlock or two, climb hills and embankments. Ice skate. Tai Chi or  a bit of yoga. Flamenco classes. Gym machines and Zumba. I used to get a thrill from water skiing and swimming and look forward to swimming again at a new pool. Sailing was a treat. It’s about working up a small sweat, giving the muscles and all a chance to get up and go, shine some. The body loves to do. When we still lived in houses with big yards, I was the first to grab a rake or spade. I was fine shovelling snow. I tried skateboarding when my son was learning decades ago, then tried it once again not long ago (he has been a pro skater for 20 years). Not with astounding success but still, it was fun. And dirt biking? Let me hop on as I did in my twenties, please.

Gosh, even sitting with pencil and watercolors and sketch pad gets various parts ready to move. What do we do that does not elicit some sort of motion, subtle or pronounced? Our bodies love us back when we give them free rein–or give them orders to do thus and so and it does it well and right. These beautifully designed vehicles to carry around soul and mind become more relaxed, strong and flexible with systems engaged, optimally humming along. We have what we need to thrive, most of us, and malfunctioning parts most often repair and adapt well. We can endure much before the body has the wisdom to quit.

All this activity obviously requires–at least prefers–feet. How we rely upon these jointed, muscled, tendoned appendages every single day!

So I left feeling a bit sad even though it could be much worse. I may have said a bad word and smacked the steering wheel before I revved up the engine and took off. I can and will soon walk and hike in our temperate, rainy winter as always. That is three months away. I surely can do this and be gracious about it, yes? There are so many other things I might have to contend with. It is just another brief pause in life.

The whole summer has been in an elaborate pause, to be honest. Except, my mind and emotions have been whirring away. We  had a scare with a depressed family member that is resolving day by day. Prayers for courage and hope have paid off; prayers for her resilience have gathered steam. I have had the honor of being here daily as she has regained hold of her strengthening center.

Then, of all things, I had a simple dental extraction that became a nightmare. After a month I am finally recovered from a dry socket and an infection that required antibiotics with the attendant negative reactions. I haven’t eaten much for a month–the yogurt and rice, applesauce and bananas are looking less wholesome and more repugnant. Still! I lived through brain-scrambling jaw and face pain and complications. I can manage to take care of a gimpy foot.

And so it has been a time steeped in a haze of needs, some trials, my own self struggling a little. Oddly, I recall telling someone back in the spring that this summer I would need stamina for the coming months.

“Why stamina?” she asked.

“I just have a feeling. My oldest sister just passed, I have had some heart issues again and…well, more stamina would be valuable.”

Yes, and patience, more than I imagined. Yet it has been supplied like life-giving water from a well wide and deep. I have found it between times of tension and worry, within a grateful embrace of each day. And compassion for myself and others. Living within the moment, as they say, works wonders–we do not need to resurrect troubles of the past or try to forecast what is unknown. The one thing that never changes for me is my faith in God, the surety that we are not alone in the wilderness of life, that we are a part of Divine Love no matter what. We can be pushed and pulled, stretched to the limits. And we can manage so much more than we think possible. We just have to trust that we can, then step forward.

Or in my case, sit back, take a deep breath and be still. Surrender.

I have taken that hard, suffocating boot off as I’ve typed. My foot needs fresh air and sunlight; it’s 85 degrees and blue skies! But I will put it back on when I walk. Yes, that is my best intention; God and my angels will help me along as ever. Once again both these feet will be sturdy and happy, may even fly in the right conditions. In the meantime, perhaps more contemplation is in order, and a bit of a gentle rest.

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Being Amalia

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Those words of hers–and they did seem exclusive to her. At times daily, certainly each moment something crossed Amalia’s mind or entered her experience to trigger the familiar proclamation. She would flash her enveloping smile and state “Everything is beautiful! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!”

It got so the gang could utter in unison the phrases as soon as we heard her start with “everything”. Not one to ever take offense–“Whoever is the one truly offended?” she’d say, “They’ve been poisoned by vitriol themselves, poor things, to behave so rudely”–she’d just laugh at how we teased her. But how could anyone avoid noting the extent of vivacity ruling this person’s life? It seemed to naturally circulate in her mind and body, a secret ingredient that woke up with her, infusing her being. At night, after she crawled under the covers and turned out the lights, I couldn’t say. She was alone when I first met her. Later, I was not the one who stayed with her. Sam had those moments. But I assumed her sleep at least was just as empty of rancor and carelessness.

The four of us–Yvette, Amalia, Sam and me, Julian–had made a friendship pact at the international school that last year, a sort of “one for all and all for one”, then afterward taken jobs nearby, vowing to never part. It wasn’t so hard to stick together at first. Amalia saw to that with regular phone calls if more than five days had passed with no contact. She penned brief, expressive letters on creamy paper in rich blue script if it had been longer than that, then copied it for all. No one was going to refuse an opportunity to hang out, even when tired or errands and chores had to be put on pause. Not even if there was an appealing something else on the horizon. If at times the other two found her naive and a bit tiresome with her effervescent manner, she remained the pulsating center, the axis of the wheel in our connected lives then. I did not find it hard to be with her but, rather, a relief somehow.

We knew what to expect when we got together at the swan fountain in the center of the city, our meeting place. Amalia was always waiting, as if she didn’t have anything else to do although she probably had the most daunting schedule, helping care for a grandmother who seemed sturdy but losing cognitive skills. Or so the doctor and her parents had said. In any case, we took turns choosing where we’d go and what we’d do. Democratic yet flexible.

“Your Grandmother Poppy may really be going senile,” Sam said.

“I think she’s only choosing her memories with care,” Amalia considered as we walked along the river, “sorting and tossing things out. Who wouldn’t at ninety-one? It’s absurd that society finds old people less appealing as they streamline their thinking and doing. Everyone else is running around gathering information that is thoroughly useless and storing things on vast computers and dying to say everything on their busy minds. Where’s the mystery, my Poppy says? Right here, don’t fool with it! Poppy is not interested in keeping everything, every moment is new. She has thought and said enough, probably. She is entitled to make her own nest without interference. So she must stay home with us.”

“Oh, Amalia, you’re always advocating for her–how she must adore you!” Yvette swung her bulky purse over a shoulder and gave her friend a side hug. “As well she might. You parents would send her away, otherwise. I couldn’t do what you do for them all. I mean, I have my own life.”

“No, father would only keep her in the tiny corner room where she couldn’t say or do anything to complicate their own important matters. But she’s far too wonderful to set aside.”

“I know she’s terrific at word games. She trounced me at Scrabble last month. She’s a good soul, you are correct.” I admitted long ago that Poppy was one of my favorites over the age of sixty. I’d often wished she had met my grandfather before he’d passed and made him smile more.

“Well, she still can speak French better than any of us,” Sam conceded, “and she has a gorgeous granddaughter named Amalia so all else is overlooked!”

Amalia laughed and slipped her arm through his, then mine. Yvette attached herself to my remaining arm. We kept on toward the zoo. Once there, it was as if Amalia had never seen such creatures before though it had been only a few months since the last visit. For me, it was both distressing and fascinating to view them. But for Amalia?

“Those sharks look like sleek race cars, but they’re equally elegant. Dazzling and fast!” she’d say. Or “Can you imagine how tiny yet vast the world is in the eyes of a giraffe? Like a giant playground if only it could take off. I’d like to jump on and see what it is all about.”

We stood in some awe before the leopard cages, most of which hid behind rocks or had gone inside tunneled caves. I found the pretty big cats less intriguing than the elephants.

Amalia crouched to peer into a fake ravine at one languishing. “If I was a leopard I should consider changing coats now and then. Such a marvelous pattern, isn’t it, but it must inspire envy in the lions and wishful women. It might fade to black or white occasionally.”

“What?” Sam asked in mock exasperation, pulling her into an affectionate clinch. “I hope that doesn’t reflect a secret desire for animal skins to cover your body!”

“Gosh, no, I would set it free so no one could gawk or comment on its attire before I’d let it be slaughtered! It’s too marvelous to behold.”

She thereupon hatched a plan to sneak into the zoo and let it out, all the while we noted this would come to no good in the end for the leopard or domestic prey. I slumped on the ground beside her as Sam and Yvette got cold drinks.

“But how beautiful it is! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!” she announced and turned to blow a kiss to the leopard, which raised it head to consider.

She and Same had been friends before I came along, but it was clear they were leaning toward more, a look here, a whisper there. By nineteen or so they had become intimate. When she implicated this, we were walking after meeting by chance. I had gotten out of my junior bank teller job and she was going in for a late afternoon shift at a messenger business and had waved at me from a corner. She walked her bike as we cut through a small greenway.

“Sam and I…we crossed the line, did you know? We might be in love…Surprising, yes?”

I did but winced, then affectionately bumped her shoulder with mine.

“I can’t imagine that lug being more than, say, like carry on luggage, someone useful to have around as needed, to toss about and store later. But you already figured that out and went forward, anyway!”

She cocked her head and looked up at me, eyes mischievous, then giggled. “Yes, well, useful is one word. He’s a pretty good one and you know it. Now we’re like you and Yvette. You two are a team so…we might as well remain a frolicking foursome!”

I was irritated with the words, thought it sounded foolish, how she said it–she sounded like a nineteenth century book at times–but it was also something I liked about her. She didn’t care how she sounded to others. She was only herself.

“Yvette… but you must know she’s off to the States, to Boston University next year. We’re comfortable together. But she’s pretty ambitious and not about to wait for me to catch up.” I shuddered dramatically as if this was a frightening insight though it was nothing much to me.

“And you are doing what then?”

I opened my mouth to answer but she was examing a pigeon hopping about. It flew up to drink from a water fountain as a small girl of perhaps five awaited a turn. The summer afternoon found Amalia’s face in an outpouring of sunlight, her hazel eyes lit so amber glowed at green-brown iris edges, her full pink lips embellished with gold. I could hear her breathing in a gentle way, see her chest slowly rise and fall. I followed her eyes and we watched the child reach up to the bird to touch its tail feathers. They ruffled, it turned its eye on her and resumed drinking. The girl was dressed up in frilly white, a dress for a special day. Her light curly hair was tied back in a purple ribbon. That child’s face was cream and roses, and–if you think me absurd I am sorry for you–heaven dwelt there. The whole scene glimmered with it. Sound vanished. Amalia and I reached for each other and when we did nothing was vivified but the bird, the child, the light. And us.

“Everything’s beautiful…outrageously, inexplicably beautiful…” she whispered and I mouthed the words with her.

Amalia turned to me. We stood one step apart. Her eyes reflected feelings I already knew but that she now recognized in me and in herself. I thought I might stop breathing, my  smart leather bag now heavy in hand, my tie unknotted but still too tight, my body leaning toward hers like a ship to a harbor.

“Katrina! Come!” Hands clapping twice.

The child ran back to her mother and the pigeon was long gone, though the fountain flowed with a sweet tinkling sound. More children and adults and birds came and went as we stepped back. Sunlight slanted trhough branches and left wavy stripes across our feet. I shifted my weight and started to walk again, Amalia getting back up on her bike.

“I have to go,” I said.

“Yes, me, too. Later, Julian!”

As her powder blue bike gained speed she glanced over her shoulder a last time, face creased with consternation that chaged to happiness and she thrust her hand in the air as she turned away. I waved back and stood still until she crossed another street and was gone.

I didn’t see her again for few weeks, to my surprise; a good lunch at a favorite outdoor cafe. By then, Yvette and I were not the same together. Neither of us was sure why, but we remained friendly if less aligned–as well as less anxious to meet up with Sam and Amalia. We all forgot to make a date for next time.

******

A year and a half later I was at the small airport where my father and I kept our Cessna 140. I loved the two-seat, single-engine aircraft, and how it shone like polished silver with its flashy red stripes and lifted into the limitless blue. Every spare hour I perfected my flying skills. Though I was finally in university studying zoology, my whole being had become enamored of flight. I hadn’t shared it much with the old gang but, then, we had spent increasingly less time together. Yvette had left for the States, Amalia had been working at a bookstore and taking nursing courses while still watching over her Poppy. I missed them, yes. I felt the lack of a regular dose of Amalia’s spritely ways. The stilted, dramatic speech. The half-ridiculous optimism. Her gratitude for life and devotion to family. I missed her but she was going one way, and I, another. We were twenty, twenty-one. We had real lives to develop and were full of more hard-driven intentions.

So it never occurred to me that I would see anyone at the airport other than hard-core devotees of aeronautics. When I saw Sam’s head near the gleaming wing of a Piper PA 16 I was taken aback.

“What are you doing skulking around here?” I sauntered up to him as if I had a real interest in talking. I was ready to fly.

He gave me his thin-lipped smile and heartily punched my shoulder. “Thinking about lessons, my friend! You always look lovestruck when you talk about flying, it has to be incredible.”

“Seriously?” I couldn’t imagine it. He had not once agreed to go up with  me. Sam walked with his eyes glued to the ground. Or on sports events or women.

“Aw, I’m just looking around. I’m with Conrad Novak over there, he’s the guy with the interest and the cash to fund it.”

I knew the name, a newcomer. I stuck my hands in my pockets. “Haven’t seen you and Amalia for a few weeks again. Things okay?”

He shrugged. “You know. We fight, make up. She’s too good for me and I think she’s finding it out.”

“I know,” I said and tried to not let it sound like what it was, the truth with much more under it. I punched him back.

“But she’s not well.”

“What do you mean? She got a bug?” I felt a wash of coldness rush over my back.

“Something more, I’d guess, but she won’t say. We don’t see each other as much but she’s here today.”

“Is it–is Poppy okay? Maybe things at home? I haven’t seen the ole gal in a while.”

“Not many have. She’s in an old age home now, been two months now.”

Sam turned to answer Conrad’s call and I moved on after we agreed to meet up soon. He said go ahead and call Amalia and see if I could find more than he had. I scanned the hangar and the field, thinking maybe she was out there. No women anywhere. But she had to be waiting in Sam’s car, if so. Not feeling well, she wouldn’t be standing long, waiting for him.

I gave my head a shake to clear it of thoughts, got into the Cessna, settled in and prepared to take off, then eased onto the taxiway.

“Julian! Hey, over here, wait up!”

I slowed a little and craned my neck out the window. Amalia was peddling for all she was worth, trying to catch up with me.

“Get off, Amalia!” I called out, gesturing with my hand. “You can’t be out here! You have to leave–I’ll call you!”

She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, as she kept peddling faster and harder until we were almost parallel to each other.

“I’ll call! I’ll see you soon!” I yelled as loud as I could.

But Amalia put her feet up on the handlebars of a bike I had never seen before, something she’d probably found by the hangars and stole for a sly ride out to my plane. What a foolish girl and what a deep relief to see her gliding along, her hair blonder and longer, her smile as generous as ever, her tweedy coat flapping in the cool wind.

“Julian!” she nearly screamed. “Everything is beautiful, outrageously and inexplicably beautiful, yes?”

At least, I was fairly sure that was what she said. I was trying to pilot a plane but kept looking over as I gathered speed. Her eyes were crackling with the usual verve so she had to be okay. I increased my velocity, headed on down the runway and before long I was in the air, heart pinging and mind clear as the brilliant dome of sky above opened and let me enter  bit by bit. I looked down at Amalia. She grew smaller and started to disappear. I gleefully waved, despite her not seeing my hand. Then I was all clockwork precision. Then engulfed in wonder. The powerful magic of leaving earth behind. Ah, flight! I dreamed of flying over mountains and oceans and herds of wild animals as I skillfully guided my shining plane heavenward.

******

It was not to happen again, her sneaking up on me, stunning me with her capacity for joy, challenging me with her funny, odd comments. No more sunlight vibrating within random parks. No more meet-ups in cafes, even without Sam who had left her not too long after I saw him at the hangar. No more us making stupid faces when we ran out of intelligent things to say. No more shouted or whispered words about this mad and beautiful life we are given.

For Amalia was not well. She had cancer, and left when I was flying six months later.

It looked like it might be a stormy morning and I almost didn’t go out. I had spent the day before with her, only a half hour since her breathing was nearing nothing and her family was hunched over her bed. There was no room for me there, anymore. There was no room for an “us”, only her dying. Her eyelids didn’t flutter when I leaned close to brush her slack cheek with my lips. To thank her for being Amalia. Leaving that room was like stepping off a cliff.

I one hundred percent needed to fly. To not think about her shrinking in that hospital bed, her hands emptied, eyes darkened, pale mouth silenced by a surrender to dying. As I ascended, I saw lightning in the far distance, a pewter sky of rain like a screen between earth and heaven. I flew the other way toward a remnant of light where, out of nowhere, emerged a partial rainbow, faint, transparent colors that then arched across a strangely lit and towering cloud. I felt I could fly right through it and be saved from any terrible, selfish sadness. I knew it was absurd. I had to descend fast, before the storm snared me. It was then I heard her. I heard her as if she was sitting beside me at last.

“How beautiful everything is, isn’t it? Outrageously, inexplicably beautiful, my dear Jules!”

Reserve Me a Seat for a Tragicomedy

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons attribution A1Aardvark
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons/ Attribution: A1Aardvark

Murder and mayhem rule inside a famed, palatial hotel. Our beloved, good-hearted heiress is stowed away in an underground pirate tunnel; her husband is the treacherous stower. Her brother is married to a woman who talks to dolls. Her half-brother’s existence finally came to light, plucked as he was from the obscurity of servility. He was, sadly, delivered from life for an unjust charge of murder (his wife?) yet wait–was he truly good and dead on the funeral day? And her one sister, well, she is more than confessing to the local priest. Behold their mother, the widow who runs her business with an iron hand and a heart to match. Yet she has lost control of her small empire and her wicked son-in-law is to blame, is he not? But, then, he was always a man with blood money on his mind.

I don’t know the statistics regarding numbers of people worldwide who enjoy soap operas. I haven’t been counted among them. Oh, I’ve glanced at a few here and there–in hospital waiting rooms or visiting a homebound client in the past. Excuse me while I snooze. There are other, more interesting things to do, even when I haven’t worked. Daytime television in general has not tempted me unless I am ill enough to require being still and supine. The simple characterizations and repetitive storylines, the way weekly crises pile up to guarantee more barriers to normalcy–what a bore. I do watch a few other shows off and on–some silly, some more weighty. But soap operas? Not likely.

Or so I thought. Then I discovered a series I could not get enough of whether feeling unfit or well. I needed something to entertain me while my spouse watched his cooking or outdoor survival shows. We have one centrally located TV but there is my computer–and Netflix. I was browsing series, looking for something to capture my restless mind, hold me in its thrall. Foreign film fascinates me and I also enjoy series. Up popped “Gran Hotel”, a story of hotel life in Spain, 1905.

I am currently enjoying the ghastly and heartwarming third season.

Well, obsessively viewing it, is more the truth. Particularly when M. is on a business trip–that tells me it has nothing, really, to do with any monopoly of the living room set. I haven’t felt a desire to see it before evening but I wouldn’t put it past me one of these days.

This isn’t a critical report, a review of the series; I am certain there are a few out there. I haven’t read them. I don’t care what the critics think. I can’t wait to find out how Alicia gets out of the subterranean prison, if Julio manages to separate her safely from Diego, the current majority owner of the hotel, and how Teresa, mother of Alicia and two others (as well as rightful hotel owner) deals with an elegant maitre d’. But that one is another sort of professional altogether. The old maitre d’ was a worse shapeshifter so perhaps he is the better pick.

So, here I am, all caught up in the spell. I knew I was in trouble the day I awakened with sinuous Spanish words in my head. I can’t spell them so won’t try but they have clear meaning to me now and they mean things so beautifully: brother, mother, son and darling. Hate and love, hope and heartache. Wine and tea and babies and God. The dance-like rhythms of speech, the beauty of the characters’ expressiveness–their mellifluous, grating or commanding voices carrying through the rooms. Ah, I have come to know them all.

The men openly weep and hug; they rage and lie. The women are smart and subtler in their trickery. They are stalwart survivors and queenly, too. Everyone wants something they cannot have but will not stop trying to gain. Or they want to be rid of what they ended up with. And are seldom content for more than a short while. Are there several stereotypes? Who cares? Are they and we just people looking for something to value and fight for? Yes.

In part, “Gran Hotel” intrigues because it is about a familial dynasty, displaying well how multi-generational dysfunction operates. Yet there is more. The story covers as much as may be possible in such a format of 45 minutes per segment: struggles with morality; loyalty and enduring love and its loss; the critical importance of friendship; the bonds or lack thereof between parents and children; the dangerous ways resentments and regrets poison a person, becoming hate and revenge. Faith, particularly Catholic faith in the early twentieth century is highlighted and prayer (as well as confession and penance) is a part of everyday life. Yet superstitions are not far off.

There are things to be gleaned from the ways of a woman whose only living son is the secret love child of her old, now dead, employer. She is penitent but full of pride in her son; she is humble but carries herself with implacable dignity; she will do whatever is required to insure his happiness and success in this life and beyond. Angela moves like a dancer and wears her age without rancour. Courageous and ethical, she would make a fine friend.

I do get to laugh out loud. There are intrigues that hinge on foolishness and naiveté, some whose impulsive behaviors lead them to ridiculous ends. Javier is the clown, a drunken son who must marry up to increase the family fortune. The smart and indomitable detective Ayala and his less-savvy sidekick Hernando are a comic duo as they try to navigate crime after crime. I would love to join their investigations. I can each episodeas they tirelessly round up a motley group of criminals.

And the clothes! Both men and women in this series dress very well. I rest my eyes upon the aristocrats’ costumes, am amused by their regal bearing, their sumptuous fabrics swishing on the floor as they go, heads held high. The peasants dress in weighty, textured fabrics and more modest but interesting hats. The servants have their own attractiveness, crisp uniforms not the least bit lessening their own needs and wants, their perceptions and unspoken thoughts.

Just seing how people may have lived in this time and place was enough to draw me in and provoke questions about Spain’s history. I admit; this is secondary at the moment. There are better ways to gather that information. Until then, I want to sit back in a chair in their sumptuous dining room and just watch.

M. wonders why on earth I like this series. I don’t speak or read Spanish (he can, a little). I am supposedly “too well-informed by good literature” for this sort of thing. So he goes his way and I go mine as we tolerate our disparate tastes.

Perhaps I thought I was a bit above it, too, once upon a time. Does it reflect my getting older somehow, my tiring of the real terribleness of the world? Putting off cleaning up after dinner or as a reward for same? Enjoying a break from my own life’s duress, from intellectual and spiritual pondering or creative setbacks? Certainly the series is not (nor are other soapy stories) free of stress and pain. Grief. Longing. But it is manufactured and though we know this, we willingly join in for the duration with a suspension of disbelief.

We find facets of ourselves in each character and empathize. We can feel compassion for the plight of victims and outrage at the acts of monsters. We vicariously enter into someone else’s life for a short time, then get to return to our own selves. And we can count our blessings: our lives are easier, after all, or less complex and more loving than these. Or at least more “boring”, which is not always a bad thing, perhaps.

There is hope each new episode, at the very least, of resolution of life’s problems, little by little. I yearn for the righting of so many wrongs. I cheer for our heroines and heroes as they carry on despite being foiled again. The relentless villains eventually do pay the price for their misdeeds. At least, I hope. The show isn’t over yet. And I think I finally understand why folks like this sort of thing. No, it isn’t the classics but it easily speaks to human enterprise and our debacles. That commoness is just as valid as reportedly finer fare.

The beauty of make-believe, afterall, is that it dramatically, sometimes profoundly reflects life but it is not my life, exactly, and not yours. It is just…another rousing good story. So let me pour an iced tea and gather a few cookies. Julio and Andres, Alicia and Maite are up to something once again.

 

Escape into the Beauty Bar

mirror-lady-Image-Graphics-Fairy

She enters this corner kingdom of marvels with a little push from the woman behind, someone who thinks nothing of it, the place or the push. But Merilew is sweating. Her throat is closed over a hot pebble of fear. Her hands are knitted together, as if praying. A tidy handbag swings from her forearm. It still aches from last night. She steps forward, out of the way of those who pass by, and nary a glance tossed her way.

What makes it easier is the anonymity. No person here is anyone Merilew might know. All are nose-deep into the array of colors and lovely packages, gossiping with friends or enjoying a solitary visit, eyeing a lipstick or powder as if there are secrets to be discerned with scrutiny. Patience. Maybe there are.

There isn’t much time. He, the one she has been married to thirteen years and two months, is at a meeting four blocks down, a restaurant that serves men best, he says, with its room for cigars, made intimate, exclusive, with lustrous dark wood and burgundy leather-clad banquettes. She looked into the windows once and felt annoyed.

Today he is trusting her, for a change, to enjoy her time downtown; two hundred dollars is only part of a thank you for being a good partner. They’ll eat at Jake’s Grill later.

“Buy yourself lacy lingerie, a good new dress,” he suggested as he dropped her off at the department store. “I’ll be back in an hour and fifteen minutes to meet you.” He pressed his cool lips to hers, then patted her back.

She had watched him proceed along the sidewalk, his mammoth shoulders squared, arms barely swinging, each foot set down heavily as if to leave his mark even there. In a charcoal pinstripe suit he looked like a CEO. In shorts and a white T-shirt he looked like a well-turned-out but serious wrestler, not someone taking a small break from racing up the corporate ladder. He looked like a man who would bend your needs to meet his. Or could bend you into a knot. He had a certain knack, he admitted.

He fit well down here, geometric, tall, hard as the ponderous, arrogant skyscrapers. Merilew waited until he disappeared around a corner and thought, Go!

Inside the store, there are more displays than she imagined, glittering, sleek and topped with pretty words or models’ faces. It is a room of curvaceous shapes and lucious color, of silver and light–though she feels she has stepped into a cave, a special scooped out refuge where only the savviest females are allowed. Their own special club. But she has not worn make up for thirteen years and six months. He would never suspect this is where she has gotten to behind his back. He wants her “fresh-faced and simple, it’s one of your better virtues”, he has said many times. After a surreptitious swipe of a leftover coral lipstick resurrected from her bottom drawer, he impressed upon her that he meant it. Hence the sore arm, soon to show a bruise. But she has been captivated by this store for months. She can’t ascertain its magnetism except that she has seen herself grow pallid and listless when she studies her mirror at home. Not really herself, not even who he thinks he sees, either.

Her hand flutters at her throat. She is ridiculous standing here, mad to think she can get away with experimentation he won’t deduct.

“May I help find something for you?” Jade, a sales associate  with pink hair and cat eyes speaks up.

Her eyes are, in fact, barely discernible beneath emerald green smudges of eyeshadow and black liner added like two wings, two thick lashes that look furry. But her smile is inviting as she tries not to telegraph the truth: What is this woman doing in here? Old fashioned ruffled blouse and too-long black skirt. Fancy leather jacket from, what, 1990? Maybe vintage? Then: Face like porcelain. Long nose. Bordering on exotic. Eyes…so blue and scared.

“No, thanks, I’ll look around if that’s okay.” Merilew licks her lower lip, then forms her mouth into a crescent moon smile.

“No problem. Just find me when you need assistance.”

The first stop is rouge, or blush as she remembers to call it. But there isn’t just one section, there are many. She sees it now, how the store takes you from brand to brand, from one island of wishfulness to another. A maze of enticements. A hall of mirrors. She ambles toward an elegant display as if this is the brand she is seeking. But as she touches everything, she thinks, the wonder of eye shadow names, ancient amber, blue note frost, midnight disguise. The last appears shimmery black but purple bleeds through as she rubs a fingertip across it. What a terrible name for what could look like violence. Merilew shivers, turns toward the next aisle.

Razzle dazzle me, set me free for an hour, she thinks as she finds blushes aplenty and so many pretty ones: I’d forgotten how it is: roses of morning and sunset petals; baby pink, almond latte, barely blushed, midway mauve. She takes the creamy “midway mauve” and dabs her fingers with it, then tries to pat it onto a cheekbone while searching for a mirror.

“Over here is what you’ll need,” Jade offers generously.

It’s like a movie dressing table, a cozy vanity with puffs of cotton in a clear jar, brushes and wands  of all sizes and shapes for adding more colors, Q-tips for smoothing, sponges and wedges for something else, she can’t imagine what. The mirror is illumined by large globe bulbs. She sits in a tall swivelling stool and sees her light blue eyes flash, the lightning of anxiety. Faded auburn hair straggles over pinched shoulders as she leans close. She steadies her hand, then spreads the color, her tender skin marred by a streak of mauve.

She jerks back. It is alarming to see her face changed by something not meant to be there. It seems akin to lavender, rich as the scent of the flower, not her color or floral choice at all. The curve of the bones of her face jump out at her. She takes a tissues and rubs it off, skin reddening, stinging. Tears pop up to aggravate her. She feels ignorant, foolish. This won’t work, none of it. She needs to leave, go find a dress that he will appreciate, look for lace things he will love. What is she doing? Here, of all places? She’s lost her mind, maybe, so steps down, beige leather purse with its documents that identify her as his his his clutched to her waist.

“How about this to clean things up?” Jade asks.

She brandishes a small bottle of make up remover and fat cotton balls. Jade dabs and daubs with cautiousness, washes away remnants of mauve and soothes her skin. Merilew leans back, feels the touch of a fresh cotton ball like the kiss of a dandelion.

“We’ll start over. Are you going some place special?”

Merilew’s giggle sneaks through discomfort. “I might.”

“Then I’d be glad to help it happen for you. Let me look at your face, your overall coloring. You’re ivory pale; we’ll be careful with color.”

“Yes, please,” and she wonders if she means that. Now that she’s here. Now she has elected to put what is forbidden upon her face. Her light eyes stare back at her, wide open, blue as a spring sky. They startle her.

Jade gathers various products from different places with the speed of a pro. Merilew feels more relaxed, knows she is in the hands of someone who understands things she doesn’t, who may even discern an inner potential she has misplaced, a spark of someone better, smarter. Freer. More whole.

Powerful.

“Can I close my eyes? Is that too odd?”

“Shut them only if you trust me!”

“I’m Merilew, by the way. I have to trust you. I don’t have a clue what to do with all this stuff. It has been….over a decade.”

“Wow, that right? Well, then, let my magic begin.”

As she sits there feeling the lotion, the fluffy brushes and deft pencils, each one she feels as an offering to her–of who knows what except they feel so kind, so sweet to her skin. Like little fishes dancing past her in turquoise water, a relief of rain on parched lips, like a million tiny valves being opened to her heart and soul slip through. She rests and imagines that she will emerge transformed beyond recognition and that she will be able to do something with her life as she has never done before.

Of course, that is a daydream. This is so risky she cannot believe she did it though she is still glad to to lean back into this oasis of time.

“Are you out shopping alone for fun?” Jade asks.

“Not exactly. My husband is at a business meeting.” Her eyelids flutter as eye shadow is smoothed over delicate hillocks. “I have been charged with purchasing only things he likes.” What is she saying? “You know, got to keep them happy, got to play the game.”

The words fall like burning matches into the happy din around her.

“Will this make him happy?”

“You know, Jade”–she feels a hot flush, how open she is being–“nothing actually, deeply makes him happy for long. My hair isn’t right or my dinner is overdone or I look at him the wrong way when he needs another way….”

“Been there, done that, never again. Sorry, but hold still so I can figure out what to do with your sparse but nicely arched eyebrows.”

“Make them bold. Like…Joan Crawford.”

“Joan who? Oh, like in those old classic movies?”

Merilew shrugs. “Yes, I like that. Her. She was sassy. Maybe a little bossy.”

“Don’t move.”

She feels her eyebrows grow from timid to perhaps inquisitive and wonders if they will act more expressive. She tries to not show too much of what she feels since he prefers her quiet, calm, to be capable enough but not overtly so. Good natured and grateful. Helpful. If she isn’t, she pays.

“Is that where you’re stuck? Back then, nineteen forties? Just asking… but so you know, we’re living in the twenty-first century. And you can be gorgeous in 2015, believe me. You don’t need make up, anyway, to be honest. Lucky you!” She guffaws as if she made a joke. “But you should buy something from me, anyway!”

Merilew wriggles; the eyebrow pencil pauses, then begins again. She has said too much, as if she thinks this is the sort of place women can say what they won’t elsewhere. Like a hair salon, somehow therapeutic though not that she has been recently. She places her palms flat on her purse, stays stock still. Her breathing keeps her company as Jade’s hands draw a line here, blends the hues there, presses a gloss stick to each lip, then removes the stain to start again.

The rumble of a man’s voice as he speaks to someone, perhaps his girlfriend, finds Merilew so she startles, murmurs “Sorry”. Has he chosen her a perfume? Is he guiding her with hand at the nape of her neck, right out the doorway? Or if he is just saying farewell so he can get a cup of coffee across the street, let her have her own time. Maybe he’s saying, “Have fun!” She imagines it’s her husband and his hands are in his pockets as he lopes past her and whistles on his way out, then holds the door open w ith his shoudler for a smiling woman coming in. And when Merilew is done, she will meet him and buy an iced coffee. They’ll sit and talk as sun kisses her face and dust swirls brightly, the cafe all brilliance and warmth. Contentment.

Of course not.

But...what if he forgot to meet me? If he decided not to come home tonight? If he came home and said he was leaving me, we aren’t right together, after all? Her breath catches in her chest and her fingers go to her mouth whereupon they make contact with a luxurious lipstick. She licks a fingertip, finds it sweet.

Her eyes open as her pulse leaps.

“What do you think, Merilew?”

In the mirror she searches arctic blue eyes that seem deeper set with swaths of summered bronze on eyelids, a dash of peach on each bony rise above. They dominate even new eyebrows that exclaim, then reach for points unknown, arches like graceful bridges linking her wide, smooth forehead to luminous center of nose and mouth. She has a widows peak that at last looks right as it draws attention to the auburn waves framing her face. Her prominent pointed nose is complementary to two glistening coral lips. The warm tones make her think of shells and sea and palm trees, running barefoot. Sculpted cheekbones are a landscape configured of tender peach and honey. This Jade is an artist, that is truth.

“I look like someone else.”

Jade frowns. “Are you a good or not-good someone else?”

She turns her head to one side, then the other, leans close to her image. “I look like I’m about to have a grand afternoon. I think I wouldn’t recognise me on the street. It’s a tad frightening, exciting to see how all this can change a woman. But it’s more surprising to me that I am even sitting here. I walked in that door. I was looking for a change. Maybe it’s been a little rebellion. It might be something else. I’ll leave. I might find nothing will be the same.” Merilew leans over and bestows on the sales woman a smile that would illuminate the dark. “You’re wonderful, Jade.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s all that, it’s just make-up! Your face was a great canvass. Glad you’re satisfied with my ideas.”

Merilew slides off the chair, takes off her jacket and tosses it in a heap on the stool. Then she pulls out the tail of her blouse. She sleeks her hair back into a long ponytail, securing it with a common rubber band dug from her ladylike purse.

Getting out two big bills, she says, “I’ll buy it all.”

“Fantastic! Follow me.” Jade hesitates, then turns. “Before you pay, I have to say you’re far more, much better than he thinks.” She reaches out and touches her customer’s hand lightly like a nod, an agreement, a quiet understanding.

Jade calls after her. “Your leather coat!”

Merilew leaves the beauty bar. She spots him leaning against the building where they parted. He is checking his watch, running his hand through the blond thatch of hair, then stands up tall and brushes off  lint or something displeasing from his suit coat. He swivels his lion’s head all around. Merilew shudders, thinking he glances right at her but she crosses the street, moves faster toward him as he searches groups of pedestrians.

Her stride lengthens, she is coming close, she is looking at him and sees his eyes flicker over her. And then he turns away to find his wife. She keeps on walking, sees the corner and the green lights and the people rushing across a wide, congested thoroughfare and she slides in among them and her feet are flying, her heart a drum calling for bravery, for a life to be truly lived and she is panting as she flees like a creature leaving a place that must be left and she steps up and finally Merilew, eyes and mind blazing, is safe, she is safe on the other side.