From the beginning their families thought they’d not ever end up friends. It might have been that way if they’d paid serious attention to differences. Lillian had dark hair with its own personality, was slight and wiry, easy with silence. Lana was all peaches and cream, spoke to adults with a polish that offered thoughts tinged with a supposition of authority. Lillian lived at the end of a dead-end road with her mother and father and larger family. Lana was in town, that corner blue and white Victorian; her uncle also housed his medical practice in an attached office. They’d known one another since childhood but from a distance. Then gradually they found each other. Both sang–rather, Lillian tried her best–in the Methodist youth choir. Before long they sat together in a back pew every Sunday.
On church bulletins they scribbled notes about everything–the new calf Lillian helped birth; Lana’s disagreement with her aunt about wearing her mother’s perfume; the fall school mixer neither could bear to attend; essays each would help the other finish; their first crushes. In the school hallways they often linked arms, headed to the restroom to catch up. At lunch time they’d sit together though other friends looked askance at first. The rest of the kids began to call them “The Two Ls”, or “L1” and “L2”–Lana being L1, never mind it was taken for granted she must be the first of the two. Lillian was used to that, even at home, where her older brothers and a sister overtook everything as if food, clothes, or attention were their birthrights, with Lillian apparently meant to fend for herself. Lana about made up for that, with her confidences, sparkling smile and good will. And Lana found her friend’s shyer yet stronger, trustworthy character terribly admirable in a friend.
They just got on well and that was that.
Before long they shared many week-end hours, too, except for times when Lillian couldn’t get away from farm chores or Lana had dance or art classes or other plans. It was as if they lived double lives sometimes, and they were a faint mystery. But Lana’s aunt and uncle had money and status; her father garnered prestige as a private pilot who was gone most of the time. Lillian’s family was respected and her parents were hard workers, fair in church and the marketplace.
“Why do you think my dad is always on the go?” Lana asked one day after school.
They’d gone to Red’s Restaurant for lime and vanilla Cokes. Hunched over the table, they slurped the sugary fizz and took turns eating one French fry at a time, swirling each in a mound of ketchup.
“Because he loves to fly?” Lillian licked a couple of salty fingers, thought better of it and wiped them on her napkin.
Lana shook her head, wide grey eyes peering through a fringe of bangs. “Well, he does, but not that.”
“Because he’s good at what he does and is making a living? And he’s saving money up to move out of your uncle’s?”
“No, for sure, not the last. Dad likes being closer to Uncle Carter since Mom died. He loves that house and Aunt Margo’s heavy fat-filled meals.” She made a bad face. “Me being safe and sound when he flies.” She shook her bangs back and sat up straight. “He just doesn’t like to be home since Mom isn’t around. And he doesn’t like looking at me because I look like her.”
Lillian crammed another fry in, then considered. “Not so, Lana.”
“Yes so. He’s determined to erase her from his mind. The less he has to spend time with me, the more he can forget.”
She closed her eyes. Lillian couldn’t help noting again how long her lashes were. Her own were dark but stubby. She chewed and swallowed the fry. Lillian never knew what to say when Lana made such pronouncements. She didn’t really know Mrs. Danforth, Lana’s mother, except from afar, long ago. It had been four years since her car had slid across the county road and smashed into a tree after the historic ice storm. She and Lana became actual friends after all that; Lana spoke very little of the accident. She had been in the back seat but emerged with a broken leg and whiplash and concussion; she apparently recalled nothing else. But it stayed deep within her, the smashing up and the losing a parent. Lillian felt it.
“He’s still sad. Maybe kinda lost?”
“Not a good excuse. I’m still here. I’m trying my best.”
“I know. I imagine it’s too hard, sometimes.”
Lana crossed her arms over her chest with a thump. A long fry dangled out of the side of her mouth. Every time she chewed a little more it bounced up and down. She took hold of it, put it between her fingers and blew out as if it was smoke, her nose in the air and eyes half-shut. A bit like her Aunt Margo.
She laughed the tough feelings away and they ate the last few fries. Late afternoon light filtered through the slats that separated them from another booth, striping the table with skinny bars. Lana slid her fingers across the pattern. Lillian did the same and their hands made graceful dances, then silly shadow creatures, weaving in and out of the bright and dark. Lana thought how often it felt as if she lived behind invisible bars, a restless captive in a beautiful house where no one was allowed to fuss about things or smudge a centimeter of floor. Her aunt was determined to make her into someone she didn’t want to be, not anymore, too well-mannered and dull. Her uncle was looser. His intrinsic goodness spread like peace between her resistance and his wife’s insistence on her own way. So Lana gravitated to him and slid away from her meticulous ways. It was more miserable at times than she admitted to anyone but Lillian. She was supposed to be privileged, and that caused her to muffle scream now and then. No one whose mother died was remotely privileged.
They walked back to Lana’s house. Lillian’s oldest brother would pick up Lillian after his work at the garden center in a couple of hours.
“We’re here, Aunt Margo, going upstairs now!”
She could smell pork and potatoes roasting and her stomach lurched. She hated pork as much as she hated venison, which Lillian found baffling. Deer meat was needed in her family’s household many times and it tasted fine to her.
“Alright, please hang up your jackets,” her aunt called from somewhere, far enough.
In her pale yellow room, Lana was safe. That’s how she more and more felt. I was as if she’s been running all day long from one base to another with the ball being thrown hard and just missing her and she makes another dash for it and then waits, then another and then she takes her chances and she slides into home base, at last! She closes the door. Then nothing will happen to her that she doesn’t allow.
The girls bounced back on the big bed and sat with heads against the wall.
“When is your dad coming back this time?” Lillian asked. She grabbed a magazine from a pile on bedside table.
“Maybe before Thanksgiving, maybe not. He said he would…he has to fly back from Alaska to Washington to here. I picture him zigzagging over mountains and hope he stays up high.”
“All that snow. The clouds up there must look like fluffy, snowy mounds, too.” She looked at her friend, eyes round. “It sounds amazing.”
“It is, I guess. I hope you’ll fly with me sometime, get over your fear. But I don’t even know where he is right now. Are you just having the grandparents over for Thanksgiving?”
Lillian put down the magazine though her eye lingered on a picture. “I can’t see how they do that. I’m no good with make-up, I always look like I’m playing dress up.” Lillian grabbed her frothy hair and pulled it back in a misshapen ponytail.”Yeah, unless Mom isn’t talking to her mother, then it’ll be an empty table because Granddaddy isn’t about to come without Grandma.” She made a face of distaste.”I’d just as soon skip the whole thing.”
“Me, too. Let’s just go to Redmond’s that day instead.” She clucked at her. “Don’t put yourself down like that. You’ve got your own unique style.”
“So you say. Anyway, they’re closed and besides, I love our apple and pumpkin pies. You just should come to our place.”
“I wish! Please sneak me away!”
“You really don’t. Your dad, number one. My overwhelming family, number two.”
Lana sighed and put her arm through the crook of Lillian’s and they browsed the magazine, reacting with thumbs up or down or a choice criticism, depending on who and what it was.
Lillian knew what would happen at her house and Lana knew, too. Granddaddy would get into politics with her father and they’d first trade reasonable if rambling paragraphs. Then the beers would be brought out–Granddaddy kept them in a cooler in his truck despite her mother and Grandma forbidding it– and all their talk would get puffed up with their high and mighty principles and their tempers would threaten to burst. Her siblings would join in here and there with their smart-alecky ideas. Lillian and her mother would try to keep a lid on it. Grandma would shrink into herself, slink into the kitchen to make more coffee. And then her grandfather would make as if he’s going to throw a punch and her brothers would have to break it up and take him out for fresh air. Lillian and her mother and sister would clean up the table mess. Grandma would slice and plate the pies and when the men all returned, no one dared say a word except for how good dessert was. And that would be it. They’d watch the game and fall asleep.
She’d grab her jacket, slip out the back door and head to the pond. Lie down in the musky damp of brown and green grasses. The sky would wink at her. The sun would sink, paint the sky with watercolors that felt like life at peace, then longing. Tears would come as she thought of all she wished for–to go to college, to write for a newspaper or magazine– and all she believed she might be if only she could get out of there. At least she’d have the sky and birds and frogs to herself a few moments.
Lillian closed the magazine and faced her friend. “You know what? I’m going to ask everyone what they’re grateful for right from the start. Maybe that’ll help keep things right.”
“And what will you say when it’s your turn?”
“Easy. That we’re best friends. I don’t think I’d manage being fourteen if you weren’t here.”
Lana leaned her head on her shoulder. “Me, either, Lil.” She wriggled a bit to get more comfortable, then jumped up. “I just got an inspiration. Let’s find my mom’s Shalimar. It has to be in Aunt Margo’s room or in their bathroom.”
“Is that safe? I mean, will she come up to check on you–and then what?”
“Either she’s making her corny Christmas cards or she’s in the kitchen cooking–that’s all she’s been doing lately when I get home.”
“I’ve never been in your parents’ room. It’s an invasion of privacy, you know?”
“What do you think she did when she took my mother’s perfume from here? That’s a violation for sure!”
“Okay, Lana, pipe down, lead the way.”
The hallway felt like it went on forever, the red and gold Persian runner flowing down its length. On tiptoe they followed it to the end. The last door on the left was closed. Lana hesitated, then turned the glass doorknob and pushed it half-open, then pulled it to behind them.
It was the loftiest, loveliest room Lillian had ever seen. A canopy bed was against the pale blue wall to the right, so high off the hardwood floor she didn’t know how they got into or out of it. Two sets of luxe drapes were a soft blue with white sheer ones between them. The room was full of elegant old furniture that glowed in swaths of sunlight.. A big ivory chair with a needlework footstool sat between the tall double windows. It seemed all wrapped up in silky softness.
“I could sleep all day and night here, imagine the dreams you’d have,” Lillian breathed. The room smelled floral, fresh. Unlike the rooms in her house, which gave off a tired scent, one of old earthy air and faint sweat which, even with the windows open, never quite left.
“Think about the perfume now–where she’d hide it!” she commanded.
Lana was already into the chest of drawers carefully lifting items.
“I never knew she liked lacy stuff, drawers stink like lavender.” She wrinkled her nose, then pulled open three more and moved about more things, held up a pair of navy and green plaid socks. “His favorites!”
They snickered and went on, looking into a trunk at the end of the bed where blankets were stored, then to a desk; it had a neat fold-down writing surface like Lillian had only seen in an antique shop. Each drawer was wrenched open with some effort, then found wanting. Lana looked around and eyed the vanity with the huge round mirror. They walked toward it, their reflections showing their stealthy advance. Lillian was enchanted by its graceful lines, the vast mirror. They had one bathroom plus a full-length mirror attached to the front closet door in their house.
It suddenly felt as if this was one place they must not disturb with more pawing about. Lillian suggested a woman’s private things were in her vanity, meant for her special daily or nightly preparations.
“I feel like we’re trespassing.”
But Lana had no qualms and searched among fancy bottles, half-used unguents and lotions and containers of unknowns. In the last bottom drawer there it sat, a circular bottle with a pointed stopper. With its label of red and white, it shone in her hands.
Aunt Margo’s high voice rang out like a muffled bell, a warning. The reality of what they were doing was enough an alarm. They hurried out, into the hallway and to Lana’s refuge.
“Be there soon!” she called out as they skidded into her room.
“What are we going to do now?”
“Smell it! It’s heavenly, you must know.”
She held up the glass bottle. The golden liquid glimmered in the fading light. Once the bottle was unstopped, scent escaped and filled the room with a richness that suffused their nostrils and heads with happiness.
Lana placed a finger over the opening and turned the bottle upside down, dabbed her neck and then Lillian’s as Lillian, too late, shrank back.
“What are you doing? She’ll know now!”
“I don’t care! It’s mine. It was my mom’s and it’s meant for me, she can’t have it, not now or ever.” Her eyes glistened as she pressed the bottle between clasped hands, a possession of such value that one would have to pry it from her with a fierce grip to get it. Then she secured the stopper and put it under her mattress.
Lillian inhaled the delicious perfume. “Okay, then. Let’s go down.”
They descended the stairs together, acting brave the way they usually did, then seated themselves at the table.
Uncle Carter was there, done for the day. He looked up and lifted an eyebrow, his nose catching a whiff of a something odd but familiar.
“Lana, did you…?”
She looked at her uncle, then glanced at Lillian who just squeezed her hand tight under the table.
“Ah,” he said, his head to one side, then unfolded his napkin.
When Aunt Margo entered the room with the pork roast she froze and narrowed her eyes at her niece, then started again, and stumbled on the heavy rug. The steaming roast slid off its fine white platter and hit the rug, bounced once and came to a rest against the table legs. Aunt Margo shrieked. Lana bit her lip and held her breath to keep from laughing; Lillian squeezed her hand tighter. Uncle Carter’s eyebrows shot up and stayed put.
Aunt Margo turned on them. “You girls have gotten up to no good! Now look!”
Uncle Carter rose and then bent down to pick up the roast. “Now, Margo, we’ll just wash it off. Good as new.”
“Carter, that’s absurd, it will taste awful!”
He disappeared through the kitchen doors, holding it in his hands like a baby.
Aunt Margo put her fists to hips. Her eyes blazed but her voice was a near-whisper that hurtled each word. “You had no right to enter and go through our bedroom, that is private and off-limits and you know it, Miss Lana Danforth. And I was only trying to protect you.”
Lana rose, holding onto Lillian’s hand so that she had to go along with it.
“That is my mother’s bottle of perfume. You have no right to take it from me. It is my choice to wear it, I’m not a little kid and she left it for me.” She swallowed the words that wanted to come out hard and loud. “It’s all I have left of her except for a few bits and pieces. It…just…” She covered her face with her hands.
“Shalimar smells like her mom, Mrs. Danforth, that’s what she means…” Lillian said. “She just has to have it.”
“I…you…oh…!” Aunt Margo clutched her throat, then left the room.
The girls grabbed a roll each, pushed away from the table and went out to the porch. Huddled in the chilly early evening. They drew in sharp November air with hints of rain on it again, smelled leaves that were fallen and soon crumbling into the dirt, sniffed the heavenly Shalimar as it settled and made itself at home on their skin. They crafted a necessary apology for Lana to say to her aunt and Lillian to add to when she came by. They counted the days until Christmas Eve and listed wishes. Talked of Lana’s mother death, yet somehow let out of that bottle and her father flying in soon. They mused over where they might be in five years. The way science fascinated Lana and how she imagined being a doctor, too. The ancient English teacher who predicted Lana would make a decent journalist one day.
If they would still call on one another, trust each other, stay in sync.
“That’s one thing we know for sure,” Lillian said as her oldest brother pulled up in his rattling truck.
Lana hugged her until it almost hurt, but it was a good thing. “Tomorrow, Shalimar Girl.”
They waved until each disappeared. Being called that, a Shalimar Girl–divinely lovely, smart, grown up, even–reminded Lillian to keep her head up no matter what, even feeling a bit different, adrift from her family. It also told her she had been given access to something vitally important to her closest friend. She went home content.
But Lana lay down in her bed, arms clutching her pillow, face hidden under covers, and mourned her mother as the night opened its velvet infinity. Lost herself there until she succumbed to slumber in a deeper realm of love.