The phone’s ring sounded rude, even shocking and I answered. I didn’t want it to wake up anybody else. Kayla slept hard. Buster the Third did not, being a dog of indeterminate breeds but hard-wired to come alive at the slightest provocation. It was hard to sleep with my job being new and the neighborhood nothing like the one we had left. The rather unkempt duplex had been our place for two months while we looked for a better house. All noises were not accounted for. But that’s likely an excuse. I have never been a floppy, drooling, nicely unconscious sleeper. Kay’s mouth was half-open and half-muffled by the pillow. I had been listening to her gentle snore for an hour.
Buster lifted his golden head as I reached over him to the heavy, almost rooted black phone on the nightstand. It had come with the house. I liked it, along with the fifties metal kitchen table and chairs, the knotty pine flooring and a splintery miniature deck out back. It was possible the duplex would feel soon right for us all, but not likely.
I picked up the receiver, held it close to my ear and awaited the prankster’s heavy breathing or worse. I hoped none of my students had gotten my landline number yet. It was used for public calls or medical appointments, stores that needed our number, nothing personal. But there was no sound from the caller. I was about to quietly snarl into it when a voice slipped through, fell forward to me.
“Ben, is it you?”
A female voice. I looked out the window at the soft mercury flush of light on the street below. Stood up, unspooling the phone cord as I moved on stealthy feet. Buster stirred, thought better of it and settled his length by Kay.
“Yes, who’s this?” I whispered as I closed the bedroom door behind me. The springy cord let me get a yard farther down the hallway, to my surprise.
A pause, then a clearing of the throat. “You don’t know?…”
“No, I don’t! And it’s midnight.” I tried not to whisper-shout. If I kept that up Buster would be pawing at the door, then barking. “Who is it, what do you want, how did you get my number?”
“It’s… you said we were sort of like twins, only even better.” A tremulous release of air.
There was something there, the vowels a bit drawn out, tone light but smoky. I sank to the hallway floor, rubbed my eyes with calloused fingers, yawned. This was absurd. “Your name or I’m hanging up.”
My eyes sprang open in the dark. I pressed against the wall. “Jane. You mean Jane–from Taliesin?”
“Yes. Jane from Taliesin.”
Kay rearranged herself on the bed and Buster uttered a whine that turned into a yelp. I pressed the phone close to my ear. I felt anxiety’s tiny shocks in my diaphragm.
“What? Where are you calling from?”
“It doesn’t matter, I just needed to hear your voice again… I leave you to sleep’s sweet discord. Night, Woodcarver Benjamin.”
“Wait a minute, stop,” I hissed.
There was a sharp disconnect. I looked at the receiver. Pushed myself up, the wall cool through my t-shirt. I was fully awake. My skin tingled as if she had suddenly walked by, then vanished once more. Jane. Those last words would have been her words, that peculiar way of speaking to me. As if we were two poets caught in some time warp. It had to be Jane Kennelly. There was no one else who’d talk like that and know I’d know. No one in my everyday life who knew I knew wood.
Was my old-fashioned landline listed somewhere, just floating in online ether, waiting to be plucked by her? Did that really lead her to me? How did she know I was even in this town? Or maybe she didn’t yet know where I was. How did she think to call me after midnight on a Monday night as I lay relentlessly awake by my dog and my partner? It wasn’t reasonable she’d have an inkling about Kay. It was more likely she would think about my having a dog. Named after the ancient dog I’d had in high school, who died a day after my graduation. Every dog I’d had was called Buster–partly because of Jane.
I slipped back under the beige chenille bedspread and lay there looking at a glint of light gleaned from the street, now caught in a corner. Jane. I hadn’t seen her in fifteen years. It was just a crazy mishap. A strange sleepwalking dream. I stared at another lacy light patch.
My last world history class was over and I was gathering my the stack of assignments when Kay called on my cell.
“Pick up some more tea, will you? And red-leaf lettuce? And we’re about out of butter.”
“And radishes for the salad. They’re out now.”
Kay laughed. “Yes, get your radishes!”
In the tea and coffee aisle my eyes roamed over four shelves of tea boxes and iced tea mixes. What was it Kay liked so much? Cinnamon and spice, orange spice? Red rooibos? There were so many and I was distracted by the enlivening aroma of coffees shelved across from the tea. I wanted some of that. My vision settled on a box of organic spearmint; that was what she loved, a sweet minty tea. I picked it up and tossed it into the basket , grabbed a bag of Kona coffee beans and headed to the check out.
Kay unpacked the shopping bag, held up the tea box and frowned.
“Why mint tea? You know I drink orange spice primarily. Are you going to try out something new or did you suppose I’d just like it?”
I crooked my head at the tea, then her. “I thought you liked it, I guess. Don’t you?”
“I would say it’s right down there with coffee. No, no mint, please. Most others. Call next time if you’re unsure. ” She flashed a friendly smile and began to wash lettuce and radishes.
I took my briefcase into the living room, propped it against the small desk when it came to me: Jane had had a thing for spearmint tea. She had insisted it was good for all that ailed you, made me drink it when I had colds, brought it for lunch at the arts high school we attended. Taliesin School. A riffle of chills ran over my length. Why unthinkingly buy it now?
“I’m going for my run!” I called to Kay and took the steps to our bedroom in three long strides, Buster scampering after me, ready to go as ever.
On the run I tried not to think, my feet comfortably pounding sidewalks as trees conspiring to shade me from the bright heat. But she came along with us, Jane with her wide sea blue eyes, all that messy chestnut hair swinging at her shoulders, the way her hands talked whole tales. I pushed harder, urged Buster on faster and faster until he overtook me and I had to hail him down.
Kay left for three nights, three days. She had a nursing education conference in the next state over and had decided to fly. I took her to the airport, then stopped by the neighborhood Thai spot and got take out. I had decided it wasn’t so taxing for just Buster and me to have the run of the duplex. I had a movie to watch, a novel about nineteenth century China I had just started, and there was always Buster. We took our run and each settled into the couch, me with my Thai and his rawhide bone being worked between his teeth.
The movie wasn’t stellar but it was a comedic detective story from the thirties with a few good punch lines. Kay was more into foreign movies, the sort I could never follow as there seemed to be slim to no plots. She liked nonfiction more than I, so we rarely read aloud our favorite passages or shared the complex machinations of plot or ideology, philosophy. I stared at the television without seeing. We were often at opposite ends about things. She liked contemporary art; I liked Degas and Monet and Chagall. Kay was a swimmer and swam laps three times a week or used a rowing machine at the gym. I liked moving fast, getting a sweat going by running or cycling or playing tennis. But we’d come together over a love of being of service to others–she, her patients and I, high school students to whom I taught World History and Economics, as well as American Cultural and Subcultural Communities.
On week-ends I was often engaged in woodworking, making bowls, a piece of furniture, or odd objects d’art. Sometimes I sold them at crafts festivals. It was the sort of thing Kay found time consuming and at times admired.
Jane would have been very happy with my work; she’d often run her hands over silken innards of a bowl, smiling up at me. A budding jewelry designer during our school years, she knew the value and characteristics of materials, held them in high regard, loved the way they yielded to our labor, and we, to them.
I had to keep myself in the present much better than this. I pulled my attention sharply back to the screen and the story unfolding, finished the Thai meal then let Buster lick my plate clean. I gave him a good scratch around his floppy Lab-like ears and surprisingly, I went to bed before eleven, slowly fell off my wakeful high cliff into a swirl of sumptuous light sleep, my mind emptying itself of work spaces and student’s questions and my latest project. Then the big black phone fairly screamed and Buster sat up, panting lightly, ears pricked.
“Yes, it’s Ben.”
“It is Jane again. I decided to try once more. Are you coming out of a sleep fog or just diving into it?”
“I never quite got there, no problem,” I said, scrunching up two pillows, Kay’s and mine, and leaning back onto them. “So, just talk to me.”
“Okay, I got your number online. I know you teach high school there, for starters.”
“You’ve been following me online or something? Not appreciated and I might hang up now.”
The sound of her laughter burst into my consciousness like a firework. I want her to talk and talk; she feels as friendly and interesting as ever.
“No, no, your sister told me you moved and are teaching history or something, high school, right?”
“Lilly? How could or would she do that?”
“We met at a bookstore, a reading actually. In Berkeley. Amazed me but I knew her at once. She wasn’t so sure about me. I’m not as skinny…my hair is very short…I guess I’ve really changed but anyway, we got drinks and caught up a little. She lives quite the life.”
“Lilly never told me about this but then, we don’t often talk.”
“I know. You never did. But she’s still so smart; I gather she’s become a superior physicist.”
“Yes.” I smooth Buster’s head, who has lain his head across my thigh. “I can’t believe we’re talking like this. It’s…ridiculous.” My voice lowered as if afraid to speak of my situation. “Do you know about Kay?”
“Who lives with me? Two years now.”
“Well, no, did I wake her up then? That’s stupid of me, isn’t it?”
I rested my hand on Buster’s back, patted him a few times. “I am talking on a very old phone, it’s from the nineteen sixties or earlier, I think. It’s a landline number, weird, huh?”
“I figured it might be. Perfect.”
We both laughed for no reason.
“No, she isn’t here; she’s a nurse and is at a conference. But the first time, she was right here next to me. Well, next to Buster.”
“Oh, crud. Wait, Buster? Ah, good…that’s good. ” She did something, moved a book or something that made a sliding sound and thud. “Sorry, I’m closing doors on my studio cabinets with my free hand, thinking of leaving for the night. I might stay and watch the sky deepen through my skylight, wonder about this world and all its strangeness…you, too.”
“Studio with skylight? So, you’re making jewelry.”
“Sure. What did you think?”
I didn’t think, I had nearly forgotten you, tried like crazy to forget, I no longer follow women who have your quick steps, who wear their hair the same way, who may have worn your scent, that iris-with-sweet grass oil combo. I stopped thinking of you every single day when you got married. I try to not dream about you, but still you can barge right in.
“Makes the most sense, of course. I do some woodworking but make my money teaching. But aren’t you married, Jane?” Buster got up and jumped off the bed, nosed the door open and looked out. I watched him and fell silent again.
“Two years, that was it. After Italy I wandered a little then ended up in San Francisco. I’ve been here for over ten years now. Alone more or less, depending on how you look at it. I’m making a go of things. I could not have lived without my hands creating. You know that.”
Buster nuzzled the hand by his head. I patted him and he put this head down and closed his eyes. But something had loosened and opened inside of me and I felt afraid of it.
I took a deep breath. “How are you, Jane, really?”
“Long over drugs if that’s on your mind: woman calls up man in a stoned and drunken fit to tyrannize him, steal away his sanity! No. Not me. I’m a tamed woman now, more or less.”
I hear her say woman, and it jarred me. Tamed, impossible. We were barely nineteen but feeling thirty when we said goodbye. “Well. I’m truly relieved for you.”
“It’s lovely to hear your voice, Ben.”
“Yes, yours, too, but I’m thinking maybe you shouldn’t call again.”
“Alright, of course. I see that. So much time has passed.” Quietly, as if she is shrinking into an ever more invisible being.
“I’m glad you did just to say ‘hello’ at least.”
“Yes, me, too, my friend. Be glad of your life and fare thee well, Ben–and farewell, new Buster.”
And she hung up.
It was the inclusion of Buster that stopped time and re-started it and me again. “Jane? Wait.”
But she was gone.
I used to creep out of my bedroom window at the parents’ house and sit on my windowsill, my shoes pressed against the shingles. It might be early morning before all the traffic started toward downtown and I had to catch the city bus for Taliesin. Or before dinner, when I needed to just rest, take in all the oxygen the clusters of maples and oaks gave us, listen to the birds that hid deep within their green crowns. But my favorite time was at night. I was not a sleeper even then. And if I was angry–I could get so angry at life then–I could sit and stew for hours. Until the stars freed me.
She sometimes happened by when I did that, she seemed to just know although she lived some blocks away. I ignored her as long as I could. Until she informed me she had just moved to the area just to attend the arts school and couldn’t I kindly bestir myself long enough to make her acquaintance or was I going to be stuck up like everyone else?
“And by the way, I could just steal your dog, he’s so friendly, intelligent. Well turned out.”
“You leave Buster where he is, I’m coming down, and then you’ll move along, right?”
But she’d stayed. We took Buster the First on a long, slow walk because he was not in great shape even then and limped a bit. She was patient with us both. Buster fell in love before I did.
I looked out Kay’s and my bedroom window. There were no screens on the windows–part of the cheap rent unless I pressed the issue–so I could climb out and manage to find a spot on a flatter part of the roof where there was less of a pitch. If I was careful. I threw the sash up and put one foot and then another outside, crept a few inches toward the spot. Sweat sprang up around my neck and I wondered if I’d lost my mind. I was no teenager but thirty-four. The grassy patch of yard was far down there and hard. I sat and braced myself with my tennis shoes. Looked out at night’s patchy illuminations across the loose spread of town, a blanket of darkness imbued with sprinklings of sequins. Something inside welled up with more than I had room for–despite a good job, my reasonable lifestyle with Kay, it was there, a knot I couldn’t swallow. Buster barked at me once as if to warn me to be careful, then sat by the window waiting.
Where was she? Not Kay but Jane, heaven help us all. She was likely somewhere near San Francisco since she had seen Lilly in Berkeley, a long way away from my southern Oregon town. I felt her here, but she hadn’t called, she heard the “no more” and rightly so. Kay and I were to be married in another year, after we’d saved up more than enough money for all the festivities. She has always been practical, I, the more impulsive, given to extravagant feelings and spending at times. She laughed when she called me “The True Hopeless Romantic” and I’ve wondered how much she can really stand the truth of that. How I would feel the lack of acceptance years later.
But Jane would empathize. At least, she did. Absolutely, we were soulmates, we thought. Then two years after high school she met and married a fledgling businessman, one on the rise, older, much savvier. I was well on my way to an earnest academic life; she was soon on her way to Italy and beyond. That was all I knew. I couldn’t bear her name or face. a long while.
But time will take from us what we relinquish out of a greater need. I had to go forward, not languish. And now this.
The lights failed to obscure the swatch of sky that brought me to feeling some better. A reestablished steadiness saved me as I realized clearly my precarious position on the roof. It felt exhilarating, as well. I have been at home on a few rooftops, less so on the ground. I can see so much better from there. Even if rain fell hard on my face or wind whipped about me, any city or town with its secrets and a distant purplish horizon would hold me still for magical moments longer. It’s the possibilities that hold me to the high spot.
The phone rang. I listened to another sharp, nagging ring, then another. Buster sat up on haunches, put paws on sill as if to help me. I began to move in the window’s direction, bit by bit, finally got my head in and my trunk and then my legs crashed onto the floor as I heaved myself forward, crawled to the phone. And answered it, panting.
“Ben? Where were you, already? I tried your cell first but you must’ve already turned it off. I figured you’d turned in and were attempting sleep, stage one. Sorry if I woke you, ha.”
“Kay. I was just on my way to the room. How’re things going?” But I didn’t much care.
The following night I finally gave up and went to bed, and hoped the drugstore sleep aid might help as I’d slept little to none the night before. Teaching was a struggle the day after Kay called. She’d talked a long time about little but she’d had at least three cocktails in the hotel bar. She was to be home the following night before eleven, would take a cab from the city airport forty minutes away. I wanted to tell her I’d get her, that it was nothing and I was happy to do it. But I didn’t and she was fine with the cab shared three ways, said the per diem would cover it.
Buster the Third started snoring right away. I nudged him twice but it made no difference. He warmed my feet; the breeze rushed under the raised window with a touch of frost. I took my blue pill, I read awhile, music was playing on my vintage clock-radio for an hour. I waited although I knew–and believed–I shouldn’t.
Just as I was floating down a blue flower-lined pathway the bedside phone rang. Once, twice, three times. I sat up. Buster barely raised his furry head to blink at it. He knows the sound now.
“Yes, ’tis me.”
“I’ve tried to not think about it, I’ve told myself to not answer.”
“I know, I nearly taped my hands to the table here in the studio. I’ve been working on a sterling necklace that has three different sized leaves–well, sort of leaves, they curve, are veined and aren’t feathers–and I told myself, Do not call Ben again. He told you, you need to be agreeable about it if he means that much. But then I waited a day–that’s my rule, wait at least one day before doing anything vitally important–”
“Where are you? I mean, just where is your studio located?”
“Berkley, of course.”
“I’m coming to see you. I’m getting a plane ticket, coming to visit face-to-face, isn’t that perfectly nuts? But just for lunch or dinner. A walk in a park.”
“Wait, I see. Okay, okay, that’s not why you called—it’s not like that for you, anymore. I’m kidding myself, being played for a fool again?”
“Ben, things are not the same. I am not the same. I will admit I called you partly because I was feeling sorry for myself, a little, just a tiny bit. And of course, you have never vacated my vast and buzzing brain because…Well.”
I found Buster’s paw and grabbed it as he looked up expectantly, inched his way toward me.
“What? Tell me what you’ve meant to say.”
“I’m not the same. I’m not well, Ben, I’m sorry to have phoned you in the first place now, I just thought we’d catch up, I have missed you, its true but–”
“What is it, cancer? A fatal illness so terrible that you can’t tell me?”
“No! I mean, not cancer. It’s MS. I have MS. I already have real trouble sometimes, other times not. But it’s not too good, the long view.”
It sank in. No, it wasn’t good. My heart felt like it was dislodged and was hovering somewhere near my knees.
“That’s really, really tough, Jane. Terrible.”
“Yes, sort of is. Some days. Weeks or more. Not this week. But next perhaps. I just keep making my jewelry. I do well. I have to create as much as I can, while I can.”
“Okay.” I felt the first rabid nick of sorrow, perhaps destined to become grief. “I feel turned inside out. But I’m going to book a flight.”
“You can’t and will not be a rescuer, not any hero, please don’t try it!” She was about yelling and then put her hand over her mouth, I heard it, then took it off. “I command you.”
Her bright warmth was replaced with a different vigor, that tough-skinned rush of energy that used to jump out at me in fits and jabs as we worked together on our projects, mulling over problems. Or when we sat side by side on a tight windowsill, debating techniques for this or that, the best time of day to create, philosophies of art and life. One and the same, we had agreed: Art. Life.
“I’m just not fit for heroism. I’m too much an artist, too little the warrior. Please let me visit. We’ll have spearmint tea and cinnamon cookies. Sit and talk.”
“You remembered the tea! And I still like cinnamon and ginger cookies…”
“I remember most everything.”
“Ben, you are a prince of a fool, a gentleman and a dreamer. Impulsive perhaps but I cannot imagine what I would like one mite better.”
So then, of course, I had to tell Kay things had changed. Biting my lip and keeping Buster close by as his tail thumped loudly on the floor, abut keeping time with my tapping foot. After I was done with my saga, she sat opposite me and said she had already felt her path was diverging from mine. The conference had cinched it somehow. She had ambitions and they were not like mine.
“You love your dog better than most humans. You’ve always wanted to be an artist or poet,” she chuckled as if it was a joke, “and I used to find both kind of attractive.”
But that would never change and she had known it and so had I. I was a good teacher of history and so on. But I’d always found aerial views from rooftops breathtaking, and also instructive. I liked to let my head take a look around the clouds. Soon I could be looking through a skylight with Jane Kennelly if things moved along as I hoped. And with Buster the Third. He had to meet her. I suspected he might even turn the tide; I was, in truth, counting on Buster’s help. Again.