The sun shrugged toward the horizon and the courtyard was coming alive again. Young men were circled up playing cards at a picnic table under a sole showy palm tree. Two middle-aged women were sipping iced tea on a bench, mopping brows and necks with tea towels. A toddler ran laughing and screeching from his father, who was barbecuing on his patio. The pleasant odors of roasting chicken with piquant sauce wafted across the grass. They mingled with other meals; grills were busy all over. Traffic beyond the wrought iron gates of Mistral Manor Apartments had changed from the busy commuters’ stop-and-go to revved up engines punctuated with sudden starts, then slurry stops. It was glorious June. The evening would stay warm and dusty, shimmer with summertime living.
Simone propped head on hand as she sat at the tiny round table. She traced the bright blue and coral tile mosaic tabletop she’d recently completed as she observed from her balcony perch. Just high enough to see beyond stands of trees, she could spot the customers going in and out from Cole’s Coffee Hut on the opposite side of the street. Tina and Harry Miles had left ten minutes ago, to be replaced on the deck by Carter and Gloria, Simone’s neighbors across the hall. They were bringing back an iced mocha for her and a caramel bar.
They were good to her. Everyone was good to her, and at times it felt something hiding pity and it soured in her.
But it was a decent start to an otherwise slow summer. Simone hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. The optimistic plan had been to get up and moving by the end of June, sign up for a harpsichord class, re-start easy exercise. Get in touch with Higgins and Hughes, the law firm she had worked for until the end of April. Creep back into the industrious lifestyle, those long hours of labor that paid off with week-ends of recreation. Well, no one and nothing was cooperating with her wishes. April and May rained itself right into June and finally June was sauntering toward mid-summer with sunshine.
But here she still sat, immobilized by much. It wasn’t just a resistance of bone and sinew. How much time did it take to insert herself into a life worthy of living well?
Beneath her on a bench between the lavender, peonies and pots of red geraniums, Kari waved.
“Want me to come up there later?” she called. “I’m meeting Trey for dinner, then we’re off to salsa dancing.” Her hand flew to her mouth, eyes flicked to Simone’s legs. “I know you miss dancing… We’re just getting out of that oven of an apartment awhile. It’s been an age since we had a good meal, too.”
Simone smiled wanly at her old roommate, Kari, who had moved in with Trey last October. “Well, of course you want to get out. It’s a perfect night for it. And I’m not sure I miss the press of sweaty bodies in the clubs. If my light is on when you get home, give me a call if you want. And dance happy!”
Trey emerged from the doorway of the apartment building and took Kari’s hand. She pointed up at Simone; he waved and they left. They were good dancers, Simone recalled, and a pang struck her.
She shifted in her chair and opened the book she’d tried to read for a week. It was something light, Gloria had said when she loaned it. Something beachy to lessen disappointment that there was no nearby beach. It might keep her mind off things, give her a laugh. But the fact was she surprisingly still could laugh; she just kept thinking about things. About how it could have been different if she had made other choices. Just walked away that night of April instead of having continued a failing conversation that hooked her with a debate, then snared her in the argument and finally was trapped by the same old story: demands, pleadings, tears. Yes, that man could weep to beat all. And just as fast be transformed into someone unrecognizable, cold as steel, hot with rage.
Simone shook her head to clear it. The last thing she needed was Bart’s face looming at her all night. She flipped the page, read a paragraph, then read it again, a third time. No use. She pushed it aside on the table.
Four floors below there was a panoramic scene to sample, to absorb and wonder over. There was a small group circling up and she knew it would evolve into a long night of music. Two guitars, three hand drums, a rain stick, a flute or two, even a violin. It was Friday night. Whoever was around came down in hospitable weather and started up a song. Simone heard a penny whistle weave in and out and of a melody, light, clear and captivating. She caught her breath at the lilting sound.
“He’s back,” Simone said aloud and slid lower in her chair.
Sean McAllister had been touring the British Isles and Europe with his band for the last five months. He surely knew the whole sorry story by now unless he had just gotten in. Kari may have called him. He might be disgusted with the whole thing, with her, so was avoiding her. That’s what some people did, pass you by, treat you like a shadow if they were done knowing you. But then she also wasn’t partying, anymore. She had given up a great deal the past three months.
She fervently hoped he wouldn’t look up. Her face still looked less than what she’d been told to expect; progress seemed so slow. Bright pink scars zigzagged across left cheekbone and rebuilt chin, nose still was not what it ought to be, teeth still healing. But what she most wanted him to not see was her humiliation. The shame.
He, along with so many others, had warned her. He had come to her after the first weeks she’d been with Bart and he agreed that yes, Bart was charming, high-octane-ambitious, a raconteur. And also impossible, a man who couldn’t have it any way but his own–a man who could flip some hidden switch if you looked at him wrong. Sean had told her: “I know him, he was with a band I was in a few years ago, remember? As your old friend, as someone who cares about you for who you truly are–not only your outstanding good looks and intellect–tell him to shove off!”
At which point she had given him a swat across the head with her sweater and sent him back home with leftover spaghetti and salad from their long dinner. Before he left on tour he’d run down from his place to again lecture her at her door.
“Simone, please break it off or you’ll regret it. I want to come back to find you happy again.”
Simone had saluted him. Sean enveloped her with a hug that threw her off it was so intense and she’d batted at him playfully. But she had finally, when he was in France somewhere, broken it off with Bart. Or tried to. And paid the price.
The Irish jig morphed into something eastern in flavor, became a melancholic tune. It dove into the rich, warm air, wafted through tree branches and it seemed to hold an undertow of longing. Simone shut her eyes. Let her mind wander to better times when all was less complicated. When she was not yet even twenty-five and a whole fine future awaited her. Peace came out from its hidey-hole and she was lost in daydreams.
Until she laid her hands upon both thighs and then felt the right leg cast clenching her flesh all the way to her hip while the left leg remained bandaged from half-raw wounds. It had been an accident. She had heard it and said it over and over. Had wanted to believe it even after she’d left the hospital. But it hadn’t been, not really.
No, not at all.
Bart had roughly ushered her into the car after they left the elegant restaurant, after he’d embarrassed her at the table when he’d argued with her and the waiter over the “incompetent service”. He had driven out to the Pointe like a madman and she’d protested so he slapped her as he drove, yelling things she had never heard before. She’d yelled back to let her out, she was done for good this time. And when they had reached the Pointe, the place where only last summer she had climbed the small jagged bluffs with friends, he had yanked her out and shaken her until her mind went to jelly. And then the tumbling, her helpless body bouncing off rocks and the rushing earth, the pain explosive and endless. Simone was filled with profound blackness punctuated with garish bursts of light. Then there was nothing and she entered nowhere.
Until a week later, when she awakened immobilized and ruined, astonished at what her ordinary life had come to. Everyone else was amazed she wasn’t paralyzed or dead. For Simone, it was nearly the same as that, a horror that she would end up there at all. She could not believe she had felt love for such a person. He would be end up incarcerated a long while, they told her. Another vehicle had arrived as she had tumbled over the ledge of rock, Bart like a statue as he watched her fall.
May he suffer dearly, they said at her hospital bed when they came to check on her, but in far more brutal words than that. She couldn’t know about his suffering. She hoped he was facing himself and feeling at least regret but expected otherwise. He was probably still angry at her, blaming her for his misery. If nothing else, he’d find it all a severe inconvenience. For Simone, there were court dates ahead and she dreaded them. Just laying eyes on him. But she had to speak up for herself even though it was too little, too late. Then she might begin to move on, forgive.
Simone’s eyes snapped open and focused on the scene. She stopped chewing on her lower lip and sat up taller. This was a peaceable place, this simple home. Her musician friends and neighbors played a lively song, improvising well. The two women who had rested and chatted were now gone and a group of children jumped rope, chanting rhymes she recognized from her own childhood as well as new ones. The sunlight was silkier as heat retreated, the sky a more tender blue. Everywhere she looked were people just living life on an early summer evening. They were spread out beneath her like a colorful safety net. She pulled balmy air deep inside and felt the knotty diaphragm release. She was grateful to be home at all the last two weeks, resting on her balcony, washed in a sheer golden light, courtyard noise a familiar welcome.
A broad hand, then long arm suddenly crossed her peripheral vision and also in it was her tall iced mocha in a clear plastic glass. Simone turned to see her sneaky server, then looked away, covered her face. How hideous she must look but Sean knelt and took her hands into his, placed his lips on the smooth center of the back of each. He lay his head in her lap a moment, arms loosely about her legs. She knew it killed him, that his warning had been insufficient, that all had unfolded even worse than expected. She felt a threat of tears, blinked them away. She would not cave to her own self-pity that could rain down like arrows, leaving points of entry more hurtful than flesh wounds. She would somehow be more than who she was before. Not less. She would not keep turning back and become frozen in time, in fear.
Sean’s head lifted and his eyes skimmed her face, then held her eyes. With the certainty of caring and an uncommon grace. Not one shred of blame. Not one word to bring her to more grief. He sat in the chair beside her as they watched the tableau brighten in deepening rose and tangerine of the enfolding sunset. As he put penny whistle to his lips and piped out a new tune, Simone felt her summer shift and turn and lift. Begin again.