This time of year we tend to follow the example of the ancient Roman god, Janus, symbolized by a two-faced head looking forward and backward. And last year—and the year before and years prior to that one–there was my own habit of contemplation of change, admiring the force that it is. And how I could best welcome it as is, or steer it along a better course (in my view, anyway): a new beginning, an extension of the trail leading from the past. I’d have concluded, as usual, that positive change often boils down to both respecting the past and heeding it.
It is hard to do that today without unease. It’s 2021, and a large bit of hell has broken loose out there. We hear daily that Covid-19 dominates everyone in every corner. My country has been distressed by a whorl of agitation and dissent; it has been heartbreaking to witness. The world keeps spinning its story, every passing day another addition to history in a manner that surely can confound.
It’s a challenge to even harbor, much less scrutinize, the present and future in one continuous series of thoughts. It’s as if my brain is cramped with a passel of ideas and fragments of data demanding my attention and ravenous for more information. And close examination. So I have to take time more slowly and engage with care. If life is lived as it comes–not dwelling on past or present–it becomes somewhat manageable. Or at least less anxiety-provoking, and I’m someone who has felt fortunate to be much less familiar with anxiety than, say, an intense focus on details… If my feet are firmly planted on the ground, my head can tally facts as best I know them and make some sense of the parts of reality with which I must deal. Did that sound more wishy washy than a solid plan? Well, it is the best I have for this moment. If I stay sentient and lucid, I can think about matters, look into options.
One must make do in times of crisis, and there certainly is Crisis going on in the world–such as huge numbers of us have not seen before. It boggles me, so I have to clear my head again and again.
This state of semi-suspension we are in…. but not the frontline workers who by sheer will face the worst of things every hour of each day. Suspension might to them be an utter luxury. These are warriors of the spirit and flesh who are dedicated to saving the critically ill, to feeding the hungry, to rescuing those endangered, neglected and harmed. But the rest of us, the ones who are not perhaps angels of mercy on earth but want to do something helpful…we still can try offering food as many chefs and neighbors (and my son) do; giving money to helpful organizations as countless donors have; passing out baggies of socks and toiletries and snacks to the homeless, like my friend and others manage despite concern on those streets. But we can also do less visible things. We can speak up, for one. And we can do small acts and not contribute to troubles.
I have begun to see this time as an opportunity for sanctuary. A greater time and space set aside for meditation as well as other action. There is the possibility of finding scared space within my spirit. In this house. Outdoors. Outside pressures force me to delve deeper, look around innermost self. Despite weariness and stress I can act as a sort of prospector, searching for valuable characteristics like stamina, kindness, patience, courage, faith. Listening to my heart. When the spotlight of my brain wants to enumerate all the data on illness and unrest and failures at play, I can swivel about and aim the light on this and that shining piece. It gets dark for us all in varying degrees; the miracle to me is that any tiny light of the soul can illuminate so much to help.
If I don’t take care of myself I will pay later; my thoughts, words and actions will be diminished in quality. Can I afford to devolve into rage or rancor, add to any gathering of ill will? I cannot make the world any better a place–now or tomorrow– unless I am a better person, myself. So I keep trying. I burrow into the inner silence, find a seed of hope, tend it.
A practice of pushing on, caring about life while hanging on to any hope came about by age 13 due to abuse that occurred. The worst, perhaps was being left to my own devices to stay safe by my parents (two smart, caring persons who lacked insight enough or courage, perhaps) and emotionally abandoned as I fought to manage PTSD through my youth and years after. And this left me adrift, scared, alone. I got up each day smiling outwardly, accomplishing things, enjoying friends– all the while shuddering internally. So I designed a motto from which arose the acronym “CSTD”: courage, strength, tolerance and determination. It was a mantra, a special chant, a golden passkey that took me from fear to security, and discouragement to renewed energy. I brought this to the fore whenever I needed it–my secret magic weapon with which to make my way through perilous years. C-es-ti-dy...It was part of my construction of needed sanctuary.
I’m not sure how a few words for abstract concepts can engender self empowerment. It is mysterious, still, to me. But we each must find ways to get through bitter times. I prayed the Twenty-third Psalm (my favorite) and other prayers, made up or quoted other sayings; I sought wisdom and hope in poetry, stories, art, music. But thinking “CSTD” counselled me me to not despair; it put steel in my backbone, lifted my eyes. It asked me to avoid wrong assumptions, to well assess matters, as others had not been able to do for me. In the stormy expanse of my life, I could be my own protector, find comfort. Endure. And I already knew that practice of anything enabled progress leading to better results. Seeking ways to be strong yielded more strength; acting brave instilled enough bravery, most of the time. Of course I plummeted, as well–that is another story. But I found my way back to a place of restoration.
As I recall this it makes sense not only for myself but likely for all: dig in, hang on, seek aid, attend to this moment. Create renewal, and re-create as necessary.
I prefer understanding of anything not clear. I question a great deal, address situations and dilemmas as a reporter does: who/what/why/when/how. (This is not easy for my family, who sometimes wishes I did not.) Of course, I also interpret. We aren’t human without a propensity for finding meaning (right or wrong), pressing segments of things into a framework so the mind can better grasp intention, action and outcome. As for the random parts….they also make their way into the scheme, somehow fit in even if it seems they will not. We puzzle things out, place them in perspective, wait for more input. Then sort it out once more.
But there is also a strong need these days to step back psychologically and intellectually. To allow my spirit to refresh in subtle ways. Often that means simply being in repose. I rest and sleep more these days (despite being an insomniac for years, too.) Read, daydream of nothing much other than places I miss, passing pleasantries. Alright, yes–healing for all, world peace, nature in rebalanced harmony….those, as well. But lately I’ve had the urge to walk without pushing myself ’til panting for a change, and to empty my head of streaming impressions and thoughts. The air I take in is such a gift when so many gasp for it due to the pandemic’s cruelties. The legs that carry me are a bonus when some can barely or may never walk again.
I pull a blanket about my shoulders and watch the cold rainfall, hard beads of water splattering my balcony and majestic pines. Hear the robust music of it, watch birds fluff their feathers and squirrels crack nuts between their teeth. Not every day requires a trudge into gloom of winter, deluges pummeling me front and back. Not every day demands I make a momentous self–or other–discovery. Make a fine poem, bake terrific cookies, write a firebrand of an essay–these are pleasures and goals, not strict mandates. Or give away my clothes and food, even. I can also be at home, in repose. Sheltering body and soul. Allow for a bit of peace. Make room for gentle care.
I often seek sanctuary because I need to commune with God and my minute connection to the design of the universe. With the visceral reality of being alive and okay this moment. To find ways to transform perplexity, worry, dismay or loneliness into something healing, more round with wholeness. Being quieter brings me closer to not only God, but to personhood with its mysteries and conundrums. Looking into the face of who we are truly is not an easy thing. But I know myself while being open to instruction, and welcome it all even if one eye to the door peephole. The life inside and outside raises such questions, more so now.
But I didn’t come into this world without a spirit of adventure–when born a human being I was given the chance to avail myself of knowledge and experience. To surpass my fickle, often misplaced expectations: to be more of a good human, not less. And this asks of me deeper connections with Divine Love/Creator/Infinite Nature. We are what we attach ourselves to, are we not? I remind myself of this often. Even as I do something senseless and superficial like feast eyes on and mark items in a shiny catalog that I know I’ll not buy. I love caring for my spirit more than those blue velveteen pants–mostly.
Well, I am a person, that is all. I find humor and hope in that clear understanding.
Engaging with the world–how I miss it. I want to travel even in my own country and feel safe. And I want to smile unmasked and speak with people in line at the stores, chat with my neighbors at my leisure, gather family for a catch-up and big dinner, hold so close the ones I love or reach to those who may need to be touched kindly for one instant. To hike with a group, crowded as we navigate the winding, narrow trail without concerns. Yes, and laugh loudly with one another in open air–how remarkable a thing we had and didn’t realize it. These days we lift our hands in a mid-air greeting, trying to convey warmth with widened eyes. But it is what is necessary and so I am filled with gratitude for every welcome shared, two hands lifted– sometimes waving with a modicum of cheer.
One day greater spontaneity will return to our behaviors and good will shall be discharged more readily in simple ways. We must do what we must do until things are improved enough. In the meantime, I am more often taking to my desk or easy chair at home, though I am a restless person. Stubbornness, discipline: I shall do my best to stay healthy. To survive. To make personal progress however I might. To have good days while weathering horrid ones. Since it is a time to be pensive, too, I give myself over to it. I can be more patient because life requires this, too–not only the charging forth in unbridled delight and excitement.
If we each take time to meditate on the value of human life, and the sacrifices countless folks have made, it gives us plenty for meditation and prayer, however we do that. We can, too, honor our spirits by giving them respect and nurturing. In whatever homely or sacred space. How much better we might come to grasp the inestimable worth of compassion and civility in times such as these. And how profoundly we will need them going forward from here.
If it wasn’t for the drenching wind lashing windows and careening around corners, they both might have slept a little. Lydia changed position every time a rattling came. It was working itself up into a fury. She sprawled across the bed on her back, staring at the gaudy chandelier above her as it swayed ever so little, its glass pendeloques (her mother’s correct term or as she said, crystal drops) barely tinkling so her ears caught the sound. The train soon squealed by, unstoppable, and the drops shuddered with a more lively response. A kind of solace, that train. It was one reason she’d rented the place and why rent was low.
The twice daily train reminded her of the fall cross-country trip she’d taken with her father when she turned ten. It was his birthday present to them both; his birthday was four days later. They went from Virginia to the West coast and back in two weeks. She never missed her mother, who didn’t like trains and was busy selling houses, anyway. Lydia closed her eyes: wheels on the tracks through Southwest to California. Her father’s shoulder next to hers, faces beaming as they pointed at sights past the window.
Lydia thought of the homeless woman she called Feather. Sitting there on the stoop in the damp wind. Lying on it, hips and shoulders surely hurting. It made her ache. Which was ridiculous, but perhaps it was sympathetic…her bed was only two years old. It was an actual firm-with-pillowtop bed. Not concrete.
The rain pelted all outdoor surfaces, rat-a-tatted every window. She was not, then, to sleep much, harassed by stormy weather in every way. Lydia turned on the bedside light and grabbed a book to fend off her usual sad holiday memories– and new issues.
As winds sharpened, Feather crunched her long body against the abandoned shop’s brick façade. If she got any closer she might be holding the damned building up. Her knuckles got scraped when she turned over. She’d tried to pick the old watch repair shop door lock twice, but she had no talent for it and didn’t need criminals helping. She gave up; it was probably full of happy rodents. They got a dry home; she got the wintry street.
She had earlier stood at the entrance to the charity lady’s apartment building. Looked up at the rows of darkly glinting windows. It made her feel better for a second, knowing someone was up there. Even if it was a naïve woman who likely did good deeds to make her feel nicely superior. Feather then went back to the stoop to think. The shelters were claustrophobic, over-full. There was an alley a half- block down. It might offer cover from the wind. She bundled the now-grimy Native American blanket that lady left her–she knew what it was, she wasn’t stupid–into her arms and left. She had some Hopi in her, she heard, a great grandmother. She wasn’t enrolled so good did it do her? But the blanket, it gave her warmth. Maybe a sense of protection. Foolish girl, she scolded herself; protection was a dream.
The alley had a metal gate; it was ajar. The narrow area was pitch dark, quieter save for wind echoing. There was a short roof overhang; it was the part of town where business and residential mixed from way back. Garbage smells permeated the air but she was finally used to that. The big dumpster she stopped by wasn’t bad; the lid was down and it was shoved close to alley’s end–she could still see out to the sidewalk, in case she heard or saw something. She arranged her blanket and the fancy embroidered–was that that style called?–pillow she’d found in the bag with blanket on that stoop. Feather slumped against the wall as rain spattered down to her boots; she pulled them close to her chest. This spot would do until sunrise, even had potential for a few nights.
Tiny feet with a thick body and long tail charged past her and under the dumpster; she covered her face with both hands, squelched a cry. Disgusting rats. Monstrous night.
When Lydia got to work, the Head and Body Salon was hopping. Tony was so strapped for time that his usual patter was vastly shortened; he was listening to his clients talk for once. Alma was consulting with a younger woman whose beautiful long hair went prematurely grey hair. She wanted to chop it all off; Alma politely dissented but she’d cave soon. Whatever clients wanted, they got. She’d shave their heads if it suited. Changing times. She glanced at Lydia, and sighed. That girl was worn out today.
It was nearly a relief to be at work, for Lydia. Last night had been rough, unusually so. It was the holidays coming up, she guessed. Memories of past Christmases, missing a few people. He dad, gone nineteen years. She turned from her thoughts and noted the next walk-in customer whose tufts of dark blonde hair mimicked shards of butter brickle. Another came behind her, looking desperate for aid. Almost all appointment slots were booked up for days. Hair! Skin! Lydia had such simple needs that she daily strained to understand the urgency. She smoothed her own dark brown, chin-length hair, a small reassurance, and stayed on task.
Alma took a break and sauntered up to the reception desk.
“What you got going? You look tired today.”
“Sleep issues? Holiday blues? Sometimes I just sleep less? You and your ten second breaks. You manage to pack a lot into those.”
“I surely do! Well, you tell me, kiddo. I think you’ve got more going on than that, but I’m not one to pry. And breaks are what save me…all of us.”
Lydia looked at her ringing phone, then at Alma with wide eyes. But you are still prying, she mouthed. “Hello, Head and Body Salon, how can I help you?”
Tony sidled up close to Alma as she went back to her station; he threw a look over his shoulder at Lydia. “Maybe it is an actual man, after all. Love can steamroller you…”
“Says the man with a kid already and another on the way…She won’t say a peep. Our potluck’s not more than a week away. Maybe a few drinks to loosen her up…”
“Dubious. She seems to prefer Perrier with lime, barely drank a beer that time we went out. But we’ll get the truth out of her, girl.”
They high-fived and got back to work.
Three women lounged in tawny vintage leather chairs around a coffee table. They mused aloud about gifting issues, dinner plans, family squabbles. How they wished new hairdos could solve it all–if only! But Lydia mused about Feather. She wondered about her jet setting mother and Grant, the latest adoring male, one more too many. Counted minutes until she was off work.
At seven o’clock she waved to her co-workers and rushed down the few blocks to her building. She didn’t see Feather anywhere. How could she give her food again if the woman wasn’t there? Last time this happened, it had disappeared, to who knew where.
An hour later: delivery of a covered storage bowl with still-warm chili with plastic spoon, a thick piece of sourdough bread with butter, and a bottle of water. She wanted to leave coffee again, but her thermos had been left with Feather and was gone for good, maybe. A take-out coffee, next time.
Lydia turned in a circle to look better as the rain got more oomph. Blasted December rain. She wished it was still sunnier fall. How could anyone live outdoors in the cold Northwest damp? She stuck her hands deep into her raincoat pockets, hunched a bit.
“Hello Feather!–I don’t know your real name…you out here?” She scanned areas across the street, squinted at deeply shadowed sidewalks. A girl on a bicycle whizzed by, its headlight jumping as she went over bumps. A man hurried on the other side, briefcase clutched to chest. “It’s Lydia here! Helloooo? I left food here!”
Nothing. She scurried to her apartment building entrance, punched in her code, looked back a last time, shut the door behind her.
Feather whimpered softly where she leaned in a doorway across the street. Her ankle hurt–it had turned as she stepped off a curb downtown too fast without looking in the early morning dark. She had wrapped a scarf she had worn too long around it. Not that it made any difference. She stood, wobbled, took a few steps and winced. But she’d heard her, the lady. There was decent food over there. There was someone named Lydia.
“I told you, Lydia, I will do my best to get back but it’s not looking good. Heaven knows, Lydia, I try to cram as much into each work day as possible. This week’s executive management training, however, is absolutely not what I thought it was. Rather rudimentary, but still, I make contacts. I find new contacts, leads. Connect with old ones–that’s worth the trip. More properties to move as soon as I get back…but it’s New York in all its gritty, glamorous glory.” There was a languorous pause as she sipped her brandy. “How are you doing, my dear?”
“I’m perfect. I do what I do–you know, scheduling impatient clients to get hair done is a terribly difficult job.”
Her mother sighed as Grant rearranged pillows behind her back. “Beyond that, of course. Any new men moving into your building? Any leads on other job opportunities?”
Lydia laughed. “Not looking before Christmas, mother–I really like it there for now. Men? Wouldn’t know, I’m busier than you think.”
“I’m studying train travel packages for next summer. Working on a montage to frame for my very beige bedroom. Reading three books off and on. And we have a work potluck soon.” She shook her wet hair out, combed tangles with fingers. “I’m well over thirty, Mother–just living my life.” There was a long silence. “And how is it with Grant?”
“Oh, well enough.”
“If he’s moving in, don’t tell me now. Wait till…the New Year.”
Her mother cleared her throat. “I’m glad you’re having a dinner gathering…. You aren’t by any chance still doing things for that street person, are you…not safe!”
“All is well.”
“Alright, then–see you on Christmas Eve, at least. Ciao.”
Lydia tossed her cell phone on the sofa and paced a little. No reason to be upset. They never had much of a Christmas together–there was always an urgent someone or something else. They didn’t buy each other much. They didn’t get trees. Well, Lydia put a small ceramic tree on the non-working fireplace mantel. The tree looked lovely all lit up. She went to look at it– a secondhand store treasure. She’d have someone over, she wasn’t sure who, maybe Diane from her last job, recently divorced. A good meal and large goblet of wine.
Saturday evening and it was getting late. She took leftover spaghetti and plopped it with its sauce into another disposable storage container, added now-cold peas, taped a fork on the lid. Got a bottle of pear juice.
On the way down the elevator, Lydia thought: why am I still doing this after over two weeks? Feather may not like pear juice or marinara sauce. She might hate that she was giving her food and throw it away. Maybe her mother was right–she should contribute in another way. Donation of money was so easy.
Feather sat cross-legged on the shop’s stoop. Her purple hat–the owl feather was missing– and coat were stained and damp. She looked up at Lydia. Their eyes met long enough that Lydia felt the force of her–strong, suspicious, intelligent, hurting. It was as if some weird electricity set on low hum connected the looks. Feather’s eyes flashed wide then looked away but not before Lydia saw their golden brown irises, the narrow pupils. Red-rimmed, dark circled, alert. She held out the food offering. Feather came closer, took it into both tanned, thin hands.
“Why all this? Again?” Feather asked as she eyed the contents and the woman who stood below the steps.
“Because you’re hungry, that’s all.”
“Okay. ” And she pried the fork off the lid, opened it, began to eat ravenously. “Thank you, then,” she said with mouth full.
Lydia went home. She stayed up late watching old movies, trying to guess Feather’s real name, munching a couple of rice cakes with strawberry cream cheese.
She heard it from the swirling center of her dream, a crying out as she awakened in a sweat. She waited for it to vanish, heart pounding. Looked at her phone: 2:34. It was still there, yelling, then the buzzer punched over and over for her apartment. She got out of bed, answered the intercom. But first she looked out the window, down three stories.
Feather on the sidewalk below.
Lydia pushed up the window sash a couple inches. “Feather? What’s going on?” Lydia asked, the cold air catching in her throat.
“I got beat up, can I come up a little?”
Lydia hesitated. Then pushed the button to unlock the front entry. Got a robe and padded to the elevator. The young woman came up with Lydia, shaking for the short ride. Her face was smeared with dirt and tears and blood. All she could do was mumble something about the alley, woman with a bad eye; then a dog scared her. Lydia put her arm around her, unwashed body odor nearly overpowering, Feather shaking hard.
They entered the apartment and Lydia turned on lights. Feather barely looked about but sank into the sofa, rubbing her hands together, swiping her face carefully.
“Shall I call the police? Take you to emergency?” She had never had to deal with a situation like this. What was best?
Feather shook her head “no”.
“You’re bleeding, you can wash your face in the bathroom…”
Feather didn’t move, just sat rigidly looking at her hands then the floor, then Lydia. Her eyes were dark in the dim living room. Blood trickled from her nose, a red lump rose under one eye, a split lower lip bled.
“Would you like some tea after you check your face? And I–I maybe could help you with a soft washcloth.”
Feather nodded, stood a little off-kilter. “Okay.”
Lydia pointed to the bathroom and followed with her hand on her elbow, took a fresh wash cloth from a shelf.
Standing so close felt rude, presumptuous–two strangers– as she wet the washcloth with a mild olive soap and gingerly dabbed wounded areas. Feather grabbed the cloth and ran it under hot water, then pressed it onto her face, breathing in the steamy heat. This she did several times, then added soap and moved the cloth in small circles about her face. Lydia stepped toward the door. Let her have space alone.
“Since I’m here now, can I ask….I’m sorry…but can I take a shower? It’s been over…it’s been so long. My body hurts so much tonight. If not it’s okay, I’ll go in a few minutes. Just wanted to see what she did to me.”
The punches she must have gotten. The painful swellings and cuts. Lydia wanted to ask who, where they went, get the police. But got a thick yellow bath towel, a matching hand towel and new wash cloth. Set them on the toilet seat.
“As long a long shower as you like.”
When she closed the door, she leaned against it and let tears run hot down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around her body. She put on the tea kettle and laid out clean clothing for sleeping.
Feather woke up with sunrise, as usual. She could not for the life of her figure out where she was. She wore a clean t-shirt and sweat pants, and lay on a vine-patterned sofa. She stood up too fast; every facet of her muscles and skin hurt.
Ah, Lydia’s…a heavenly shower for so long, cup of tea and sleep. Oh, blessed sleep in a warm place on a long sofa with snug, sweet-smelling blankets. She had an odd sense of unreality, as if she was not really there at all, but breathed slowly, evenly, and felt stronger. She had been so desperate last night. Now, more sore yet still better.
She didn’t know if she should bolt the smartest action, or wait. She waited, thinking of tea, of fresh toast despite her feeling this was all stupid, even sketchy, an unknown woman helping her for what? But Lydia was likely more worried than she was. She got up on tiptoe to use the bathroom. Her face looked like hell; her chest displayed a few raw lines from scratches. On the way back, she passed a closed door. Lydia’s room, she thought. She ought to explain more…but then Feather sank down on the sofa, pulled the blanket over her head, slept four hours more.
When she awakened once more there were fragrances long forgotten. The small dining table was set with mugs, real plates and silverware, and an aloe plant was at center, and a burning candle, cinnamon and orange. Like the old life, an ordinary table set in a simple way. Or the life before the last life…She felt a sweep of dizziness as longing threaten to grab hold and take her down the rabbit hole to the time and place she had vacated.
“Good morning, time for breakfast. Coffee?” Lydia stood in the kitchen, hand on coffeepot.
“Real breakfast? For free– or…? I can find food somewhere else!”
“Of course. Eggs? Toast with jam and peanut butter? Cereal, hot or cold?”
“You’re kidding–I can choose?”
“Feather…just a nice Sunday morning breakfast that I already ate as you slept.” She poured a mug of pungent coffee as the startled young woman sat down. “What is your name, anyway?”
Feather was at the table, the paper napkin put in her lap. Biting her lip and looking at the candle flame she shrugged. “Okay, I’m Genevieve. Called Gen. But being Feather has been nice in a weird way.”
“Gen… now order, please?”
She ate in silence, and though her split lip and cheeks hurt with each bite, she kept chewing fried eggs and toast and sipping fresh coffee. She didn’t want to be rude but there had been so many times of hunger. Days of it, even with Lydia’s food the grinding gnawed at her as a day fell toward night or night slid into day.
Lydia left her to it, got to work cleaning up.
After the food came the talking. Lydia glimpsed Gen’s face and demeanor as often as she could without being rude. The young woman had utterly changed with a shower, rest, decent food. Hair was shoulder length and auburn brown. Even with bruising along high cheekbones and swollen lip and abrasions and cuts–an open face touched with inquisitiveness and a latent softness. Her eyes were large, brighter. Yet striking features betrayed less feeling than she expected. She supposed it was the toll of the street. Having to be on guard, be tough. But Gen spoke carefully. Thoughtfully.
“Lydia, I’m homeless now for over three months but not for reasons you think.”
“What do I think?”
Gen put down her mug, breathed in heavily, let air out slowly. “What every one decides is true. Drugs, alcohol, can’t work because of mental illness and not being on meds. Well, I did lose my job and I guess I was struggling. ” She reached for the mug of coffee, tracing the cardinal on it, then took a drink. “I was working at a corner store across the river and had no place to live. I couldn’t find a spot to stay for long. Or always make it to work on time. On and on.”
“But you had a home, once?”
“Sure. An apartment.” She studied the folds of her napkin, shredded it to bits. “He was mean, you see, he drank, too, but he was just…too harsh. I reached my limit.”
Lydia felt herself lurch. “Domestic violence?”
“Why do they call it that? Like some neat label on a file?” Gen stood up, pushed back her chair, walked to the kitchen and back. “Why not get to the point: monstrous days or nights of cruelty, things you can’t figure out how to stop– emotionally or bodily, they just keep happening…?” She stopped. Sat. “I’m sorry, sorry…yes, he hit me, worse. Anyway, I had to go, so I did, and thought I’d be alright since I had a job, friends. Friends! No. They dried up when he came calling. Besides, no one really wants to get involved, they have their own lives to deal with. So I did what was necessary to survive. But then, you–why you?”
Lydia was riveted. This woman, ten years younger than she was–she had lived all that yet taken a great risk. Left but maybe ended up worse off, who could say this worked out at all? Violence and loneliness on the street or at home. Death, maybe. And she shared her life without embellishment as she rested with coffee and Lydia.
“I…I don’t know. I kept thinking about you every day I passed you. I thought it might help to feed you, that’s all. A small thing, when you consider the scope of your trouble.”
“No.” Gen placed her hands palms down on the table between them. “You saw me. Cared to stop.”
“I’m so sorry you’ve endured all this, Gen.”
Gen looked at her ragged fingernails, then at Lydia and gave a small smile, her eyes brimming. They stayed quiet then, drinking coffee, looking out the window at people rushing or sauntering by. Much had been said and left unsaid.
It was a Sunday. Laundry day in the basement laundry room. Lydia got up. “I can wash your clothes and give you some of mine to wear. The jeans might be short on you, but we’re both sort of tall and slim.”
“You’d do that?”
“You can stay all day if you like–talk things over tonight. Just rest. But if you have to go, then go.”
Gen got up and stretched. “It’s like I woke up in heaven.”
“It’s not all that much, really. I’m glad you took a chance to reach out.”
“I guess I am, too, but it’s pretty bizarre, too.”
Lydia had to agree. But why not trust her instincts, take a chance? Let life leave its telltale trails on hers; let herself be willing to accept this stranger named Gen.
They talked that night, the day and night after, and the next. More than either had talked in a long while. Nothing seemed too crazy to state as time rolled by. Lydia grasped Gen’s situation as well as she could. They defined boundaries each day. In the final agreement, Gen could stay until she got another job. Lydia would point her in the right direction for further help regarding housing. And counseling. They would take it a day at a time–that was the best way to approach the situation: practically. Carefully. Kindly. Gen was traumatized, Lydia saw that, but she wanted to be better and was persistent.
When the potluck rolled around a few days later, Lydia was ready, She was to host it at her apartment–she had leaves for the round table, it could seat all of them fine. When Gen suggested she just disappear, Lydia would not hear of it.
“No, you should know my co-workers and they ought to know you since you live here, for now.”
“But I don’t think I can do it. I don’t want to answer questions, have them look me over.”
“You face looks good now.”
“I don’t mean that, Lydia…I don’t want top be paraded out…”
Lydia was about to argue but only nodded.
So she left for the night and Lydia, Alma and Tony all got a bit tipsy, ate very well, played silly Charades and had fun getting a bit closer. But Alma and Tony didn’t know Lydia’s secret, still. As the three guests left the building, they passed Gen in the foyer and greeted her cheerfully as they would anyone after a pleasant evening. Gen waved at them, smiled back, her lips no longer hurting.
When her mother came back to town earlier than expected, there was no plan at all.
“Yes, well, here I am, flowers and food in hand! Why didn’t you answer you buzzer at first? I know I’m back four days early, but I wanted to see you, dear. Is this a good time?”
Lydia embraced her mother and her heady perfume, took the pink and red roses, sniffing them closely to get the fine rose fragrance in her nose, then arranged them in a vase. “Why the roses?”
“Oh, you know, Christmas.”
“That’s poinsettias, Mother, or red amaryllis.”
“I just felt like it, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” She looked around. “It looks good in here, what I’d call…homier. What did you do?” She took the Chinese take-out and plated it to heat in the microwave. “I meant to get you a great new scatter rug ordered for Christmas but ran out of time. There’s always something, I know, but it might slack off a couple weeks now.”
“Mother, it’s fine, but–“
“I’ll do it tomorrow, alright? Yes, and I have the reservation for Bartles, not to worry. A few days to go, then we’re done with it for another year. What did you get me this year, Lydia? ” She laughed her cascading laugh. “You know you’ll get money.”
“Mother, hold on. What’s up?” She took in her mother, a long, hard appraisal. Pale skin, sad droopy eyelids, tense mouth, a clenching and unclenching left hand. “He left… Grant is gone.”
“Well, so what if he is? They come, they go, nothing so terrible, he had a weak ego, anyway, and he makes less than I do as VP and, too, he has the most annoying–“
Lydia put her an arm around her mother’s silk-clad shoulder and led her to an armchair. “You sit down. I’m getting tea started. Then I have something to tell you, too. Let’s eat right here.”
The older woman sat, took off her black high heels and rubbed both insteps. She was full of curiosity but she was tired. A long, bad argument with Grant echoed in her ears. Done with that!
After the meal Lydia sat across from her mother.
“Mother, I have a roommate now.”
“Oh!” She lit up. “What’s he like? Is he hiding out in your room?”
“No, Mother, not that sort of roommate. I mean, a young woman who–“
“Lydia, you’re now leaning that way…?”
“Oh, stop for a minute! Let me explain. She’s–well, she’s the homeless woman. She got badly hurt out there, so I took her in, and it’s a long story but she needs a place to stay, she’s nice and respectable as you might say, just fell on hard times and–“
Her mother put up a hand. “Oh, Lydia. Whatever will become of you?”
Lydia had no answer for that. It was what her mother said when she ran out of words about her daughter, an old refrain.
“Where is she? How long will she be here? How do you know she isn’t dangerous?”
“She went to an interview awhile ago. She’ll be back shortly. It’s a good time to talk about that duplex you bought recently…”
“Can’t we keep this simpler? And focus on us now? I lost my guy and the training was awful. I actullay booked an earlier flight because it all went to hell. I realized how much I miss you, Lydia…”
Lydia felt the impact of those words, and leaned into the sofa. “Missing me? I’m always here.”
“I have been, really. It was dreary sitting alone on the plane for hours, thinking of all the years we had more time together. Work and men always dominate my life.”
True, but now all this talk was getting to be too much; it wasn’t like her mother. It almost worried her. “Well, I think of all that, too. And now you’re home. So we’ll have our dinner, we can gather round a real tree, if you like. I, for one, would like that.”
“Done. A good change. I’ll see where I can find a lovely tree for my living room–they cost so much, but– yes.” She tilted her head, narrowed her eyes. “What about the duplex?”
“Maybe she can rent one when she gets a job? Or before. I’ll help with rent awhile, if needed.”
“What, your own money? You must have a lot of faith in this person! Take a minute to evaluate, Lydia.” She clasped her hands, then relaxed a bit. “We will see… she needs a decent job. I’d need to get references, not just from you.”
“Mother, she’s a domestic violence victim, just give her a break!”
“True. Men can be such beasts. Except for your too soon-departed father.”
“Yes, Mother, I know. Oh, please don’t cry–I have enough tears around here.”
The door swung open and in walked Gen who went straight to Lydia, clapping her hands like an excited school girl.
“I got the job–I think! She liked me–and may soon hire me if my work references pan out.”
That Genevieve was changing was clear, Lydia thought. For one, she looked amazing all clean and hair shining and dressed nicely. But even more she was standing taller, looked at her in the eye but not too hard; shoulders back, chin up a tad. She smiled enough as she shook Lydia’s mother, then sat and chatted, nothing too personal, just job hunting, her bookkeeping skills. And Lydia helping her out. She was not much intimidated by Lydia’s finely mannered, impeccably dressed mother, Leslie Settlefield, or did not reveal it. Gen knew how to cope, it seemed, to face life as required. She could figure out solutions–how to survive, start over.
Leslie thought, she had a spark, that girl, spunk. She’d manage alright. Past trials wouldn’t stop her if she could help it.
But it was Lydia who Leslie Settlefield wondered over. Her daughter had people skills, and an ability to believe in them when many did not. She had seen that when she was very young, how she defended the taunted kids in school, and sold friendship bracelets as a fund raiser for a little friend’s cancer treatment; how she stubbornly refused to stop being friends with a boy whose father had been to alcohol rehabilitation many times. She had faith in humans, unlike Leslie, who far more often had faith in property and the currency it generated.
Leslie, though, knew the man whose home goods store Gen applied at; she knew without asking that Lydia had called him ahead of time. It occurred to her than she should talk to her daughter again about a job opening in the real estate company. She’d be great at finding and welcoming new clients, connecting people with one another.
As Leslie prepared to leave, she held out a bejeweled hand to Gen.
“I have a property that may suit you– if you get and keep that job for a couple months. I’m renovating it but it will be ready by then.” She gave her a business card and looked back at her daughter. “See you for tree trimming–I’ll call you.” Turning back to Gen, she added, “You’re welcome to come, too, of course.”
Lydia and Gen made popcorn and watched surprising, fine snow drift past the window. Lydia was thinking that she might bring in Gen to work tomorrow. Introduce her, if she was okay with that. And they both could use a haircut for Christmas.
“It’s been a month since I first saw you out there,” Lydia mused.
“Too much to take in…I feel like I’ve lived three lifetimes already,” Gen said, “and have more to go. I was never lucky before…thank you, did I say it enough?” She popped a handful of buttery goodness in her mouth. “Gads, isn’t it just something beautiful out there?”
“You did. And I know only a little of what it feels to live more than you expect. Still learning.” Lydia peered into the glimmering snowfall. “Yes, beautiful.”
She knew that Venus–her planet that shone like a star–was up there under dark layers, beaming its light about, still listening in on their hopes.
Lydia was a homebody; she liked the everydayness of things there. How, when she returned to her small one bedroom apartment after work, everything looked the same. Unremarkable, perhaps, but undisturbed. The tea kettle on the right back burner where it whistled and sighed as it ran out of steam each morning. The bronze, burgundy and green paisley tablecloth, smooth and clean, slipped over a round table by a main window. Her bed refreshingly unmussed, three pillows plumped for bedtime. Her books lining the wall stacked by size. Such simplicity and order gave her a ping of happiness as her eyes swept over all a last time, then closed the front door firmly behind her. And when she opened it later in the day, she released a pleasant sigh before the door even shut.
At least she told herself this was all true. At the Head and Body Salon an older co-worker, Alma (who said they were the same age though Lydia saw the crow’s feet and loose skin about her neck–she didn’t care, anyway) challenged her sharing of such a peaceful tableau.
“But to have it so quiet every single day? I can’t imagine not having my husband griping about something. Or the canaries not singing–they keep me company when he doesn’t.” She smiled; such thoughts gave her a grudging pleasure.
“I have car and foot traffic, don’t forget–or the train lumbering by at night, its whistle almost a comforting shriek. There is a big dog, a Lab, above me–I hear Riley romping, big barking at times. I know my neighbors, sort of, Riley’s owner, his name–” She picked up the phone to answer a customer call. “Hello? Just a refresh? Hmm, yes, maybe next Monday? Let me check and we’ll get you taken care of, not to worry.”
Alma rolled her eyes at Lydia, then waved at a regular who just came in–the gal insisted on a rinse that made her mostly white hair more bluish. Alma longed to just dye it all royal blue and be done with it. But that wasn’t her way. Tony had more fun with clients. He started to chatter at her and the young one in his chair; she could barely follow his staccato speech so often just nodded. She and Tony worked long hours since Ginny, the owner had her baby and took leave. Anyway, Tony got the younger ones, and gloriously experimented. But a job was a job, thank God for it, Alma thought, as she aimed the hair drier onto a champagne blonde’s thick fluffy mop. She worried about Lydia sometimes, though. She had worked there over a year, and never seemed to go out afterwards–she was maybe thirty-five. Still half a kid, really. She harrumphed.
Lydia tapped her teeth with a pencil as she watched the two stylists plying their trade. Alma could do what she did with eyes covered after all her years experience. Tony got excited, took risks–sometimes too great a risk. But the salon made decent money. She should be happier in the mini-beehive of activity so awash in pleasantries. Who came and left a hair and skin treatment salon feeling miserable? No one that she heard about. She worked efficiently and nicely, took satisfaction in her multi-tasking. Yet Lydia’s mother always had said, “You have the mindset of a dizzy moth–you stare at the light, take in little and do even less, get burned. I can’t understand daydreamers–it does nothing for you but slow you down.”
Or a variation on those sentences. Moths were far better than that; she needed to read the facts. But, no. .. she was the space cadet, poor Lydia the laggard, Lydia the forgetful. In fact, she recalled a great deal; she just didn’t pay much attention to her mother. Her mother was so busy, too ambitious in her opinion. She was a hyper overachiever by any stretch and Lydia–she was just herself. So what if she got dreamy-eyed? She still knew how to live fine. Didn’t she?
“How can I have birthed a slacker daughter?” asked the mother who had become VP at a small real estate agency last year. “Have you looked into a civil servant exam yet? Even the legal assistant program? It isn’t too late to forge ahead. I will still pay for a four year degree!”
Lydia no longer quite answered; she mostly slid about those words like a cat slipping between legs, there and not there, not even rude. She found something to do with her hands when confronted– like rearrange the flower bouquet her mother dropped off after work with take-out twice a month. They had dinner, if you could call it that, and in 35 minutes maximum her mother was gone and not a word until the next time.
Like her mother, now Alma seemed to be saying she wasn’t making much of a mark on life. Or life wasn’t leaving any interesting marks upon her days and nights. That’s how it sounded to her, at least.
In bed at night Lydia stared at the ceiling light fixture before drifting off. It was a very old, fake chandelier. She watched various lights bounce from street and windows, then off the teardrop crystals. When the train rumbled by, the crystals shook the smallest bit. She loved that, a little sassiness of light and form. But she’d feel a sadness well up from time to time. Her bed was terrifically big some nights, the room seeming emptier for all the lovely dances of crystal and light and shadow.
It wasn’t easy to meet people that she really wanted to meet, or who cared to understand her. Deep inside, Lydia feared that she’d never really know anyone, and that she would live and die without being truly known. It haunted her when she least wanted to think on it.
That the lady was there at all startled her. Lydia had to step back fast to avoid falling over an outstretched leg. She was slumped onto her side over on the landing above three short steps, not far from a doorway. The watch repair shop had closed month ago when the owner passed away. No one seemed to desire it’s worn homeliness. But random people didn’t just hang out on unused steps. Four blocks down, maybe. Not there.
Lydia checked her grandmother’s delicate watch, then looked closely at the form. She knew it was a woman because of the shoes and hat. The former were brown lace up, calf-high boots with a narrow, worn heel; the hat was purple, crumpled, wide-brimmed and with a kind of dirty feather stuck in the hatband. Her form was large but likely tall, not overweight. Her coat was a stained Mackintosh. It seemed too cold to be wearing such a coat. Was it lined for warmth?
“You alright? Should I call someone for you?” She reached out to touch a shoulder, then drew back. Maybe no one ever had come for her or she didn’t want anyone around. She guessed the person had been living pretty rough for some time. She might be angry that anyone bothered her.
Lydia felt jittery– yet curious. What was wrong, anyway? What could she do? Her watch showed she was running late. The woman stirred, pulled her knees up close to her chest. Her pale face turned enough that it was partly revealed in the weak morning winter light. Her eyelids fluttered, then squeezed tightly against the light. She lifted a gloved hand–finger poking out the ends–and rubbed her lips gently. There was what looked like dried blood on the upper lip. Then she buried her head into folded arms, relaxed again.
Her heart beating fast, Lydia stood there a long moment, then looked up at the sky. It was getting bluer and brighter. Perhaps no rain, then. She glanced at the woman and frowned, then went on her way. She kept turning back, but nothing seemed different there. Just her entire morning.
When work wound down at seven o’clock, she tidied her desk, waved to her co-workers, and left. Alma and Tony exchanged a look–where was she off to so fast?
As she walked down her street, Lydia strained to see the shopfront where the strange woman had been. In her mind, her name was Feather, nothing else had come to her. It appeared dark, empty; the sun had long gone down. But as she slowed and peered into the area, she saw her sitting with back against the doorway, head bowed, arms crossed over her chest. She had on frayed jeans and they now covered her boots.
“Are you okay?” Lyida said softly.
But the woman didn’t speak, only held herself closer in with her arms, lowered her head deeper, and seemed to be asleep shortly after.
After a quick dinner, she paced a bit, thinking of what to do. In her bedroom at the foot of her bed there was a cedar chest with wool blankets and extra throw pillows and some other items she rarely used. She pulled out a wool Pendleton blanket ivory with yellow, red and green stripes at each end, one she’d gotten used. And a crewel floral-covered pillow. She found a large cotton bag she’d well used for market trips, so folded the blanket and pillow and stuffed them into it.
She threw on her jacket and shoes, then ran down one flight of steps and out the door, walked briskly down the street. But when she got to the steps where the feather hat woman had been, the spot was full of nothing. Hesitating a moment, she put down the bag and retreated, standing with hands on hips looking about. A bicyclist wheezed by and glanced over his shoulder at her; two cars passed, one slowing as a passenger eyed the bag. What was the point if someone stole it or tossed it in a dumpster? She ran up the steps and grabbed the bag, turning slowly to check one last time for the now-named Feather. The street got busier as people headed home after a dinner out or a late day at work. A gust of wind lifted her dark hair and strands covered her eyes. Pushing them out of the way, she walked back home, shoulders crunched in the growling wind. Well, it was presumptuous of her, she thought. Her dumb ideas!
Across the street another woman watched as she thought, It’s her, that one who stopped. Why would she stop for her, what did she want? She wasn’t begging. She’d have none of that. This was temporary, a kink in the road, that’s all. But, Lordy, that blanket would feel sweet and toasty against her cool prickled skin. She pulled the thin coat close at her neck and rambled down the street to look for discarded restaurant food. Dumpsters were never an easy thing. But she was strong enough.
In the morning, Lydia saw that just the purple hat lay on the top step of Feather’s spot, so she went back upstairs, got the bag, then carried it back into sprinkling rain. She looked about–no one paying any attention, the homeless woman was not about–so set it by the hat.
She made it to work on time but all morning considered: surely she wouldn’t leave that worn but pretty hat?
“Lydia, calling Lydia, you there?”
Tony called out, waving a brush–other hand deep in red-streaked black hair– at the ringing phone.
“Head and Body Salon, good morning!” she chirped.
“What is that girl about the past couple days?” Alma whispered as she washed her client’s hair in the shampooing sink. “You’d wager she met a man…oh, not that, right?” She smirked as he raised his eyebrows.
“Okay,” Alma said, hunched over the counter clients leaned on above the desk, “give.”
Lydia sometimes didn’t understand Alma or Tony; they too often talked in shorthand. “Huh?”
“Whatdya mean, ‘huh’. You’re more drifty than usual, my dear–and look like you’re planning a secret trip somewhere far away and it’s all you can do to keep it quiet.”
Lydia rearranged her pens and pencils before her, lined each one up. “Well, that’s not true. I have no plans. Just a few things on my mind. You know, the holidays are coming up…”
“Well, that should be easy. Your mom always takes you to Bartles for a swanky dinner and gives you a gift card for thousands. Or is she taking you to Tahiti this year like you said she did three years ago?” Alma laughed; Lydia always worried about what to give her mother in return. She got that but really, it was not such a problem. “Did you make the idea list for her yet? You should come to my house–the hubby wants everything but he’s getting far less than that.”
“Alma, take it easy on our coworker!” Tony called out and smiled sweetly at the receptionist. He’d been pondering his own ideas of what he could swap with her and the other two at their annual holiday potluck. “She’s doing her job, which is more than I can say for you.” He pointed emphatically with his rattail comb at the mess Alma had left at her station. It was a slower day.
“Yeah, yeah,” Alma said. “Chin up, Sweetie, your mom will be fine, she gets nice stuff. Make her a poppy seed cake… I’d like that.”
“I’m not sure what this Christmas has going for it. Mother will be in New York for some conference-slash-social getaway–likely time with Grant, her newest–until the last minute. And it’s not thousands, by the way…only a few hundred!” She snickered and batted at Alma’s arm with a pen topped with plastic daisy, then was answered the phone.
On the way back home, Lydia walked rapidly to try to avoid the sudden downpour which only made her wetter as the wind rushed her faster. It was darker than usual with the curtain of rain, the heavy clouds above. But as she passed the steps where Feather had been before she slowed, anyway, pushing wet bangs off her forehead to get a good look. There she was, crouched under the metal awning of the doorway. Wrapped in the wool blanket, the pillow behind her head while leaned against the long glass pane in the door frame. The cloth bag was stuffed with something Lydia couldn’t discern.
“Hello,” she said, nodding at the blanketed figure. “Glad you found it.”
Feather looked away as the train clackety-clacked on tracks from a block away. Lydia hurried on. It was late. She needed hot soup, a grilled cheese and steaming tea, then a warm bubble bath and a book as she grew dozy on the couch.
It was only when she slipped her tired lean body into the inviting frothy water that she thought: did Feather get to eat tonight? When did she last have a basic hot bath? She sank deeper into the gentle warmth. Such comfort and relief in her ordinary, secure world…and she felt shame, and wondered what else she– a fumbling human who understood so little– might do. Tears sprang up as sandalwood perfume wafted into her nose, clung to her rosy skin. She wept, grew sleepy, then got out.
That night the rain stopped a handful of drops at a time. In bed, looking up at the shimmery chandelier and listening for the ten o’clock train whistle, she thought how things might be different for Feather, if only…. or for herself… who knew? The whistle blew and she closed her eyes, imagined that she who lived on those steps might have blinked hers open wide to check for the blanket and pillow–to make sure the world in all its violence was not coming upon her in the rain skidded dark.
The next morning Lydia found the blanket folded carefully on top the pillow, all pressed against the door. But Feather and the bag were gone. She looked up and down the street, found it as usual, busy but calm, and left a plastic storage container of macaroni and cheese and green beans piled at the side. It had a plastic fork; she added bottled seltzer. She looked about a last time and, satisfied no one saw her at it, she hid all under the blanket.
As she pushed open the salon door, she was surprised so many were waiting. Was she late?
Alma sidled up to her. “You know that holiday special we ran? This is the start of an avalanche, get ready girl.”
The whole day was hectic, full of talk and extra chores that when they were finishing up, Lydia wasn’t prepared to chat. She wanted to get home. The book she had started was excellent and the bath awaited.
“Wait a second, Lydia. We wanted to talk to you, “Alma said, grabbing her bag. “How about coming down to Shorty’s with us and having a beer and fries?”
“Oh, I can’t– not tonight, have things at home to tie up and–“
Tony shook her loosely by the arm. “You can’t spare us an hour?”
Lydia frowned. Could she? Not really, not now. “How about Saturday night unless my mother comes by as supposedly planned? Or next week? I really have stuff to address…”
“Don’t say we haven’t offered… again…you’re a dodger!”
Lydia winked at them and was out the door.
She took her time. The wind was up but the sky was a radiant darkness from which stars beamed like heaven’s eyes. She recalled as a child, when wishing on one, how she felt certain her wish had been heard. But her mother, sitting on her bed beside her.
“If you wished on that bright one”–she pointed it out–“well, sorry, that’s a planet. Venus. Try another one.”
But that year her wish–wasn’t it the science kit?– came true at Christmas, so she kept wishing on Venus, or what she thought was Venus–even after learning it rained sulfuric acid and would flatten you dead if you went there. Now she didn’t wish, of course. But she still believed the sky with its remarkable planets and beautiful stars might hear her pleas, if distantly. She gave up a few secrets when they shone as they did tonight; they were perhaps God’s guardians at the gateway to the great beyond. Possibilities reigned in Lydia’s thinking, even if that’s where they simply stayed.
From the steps Feather watched Lydia walk closer. On the bottom step was the container and plastic fork, cleaned. She had the heavy Pendleton blanket around her shoulders and over her lap. Her hat was on.
Lydia bent and picked up the container and fork, smiled. But Feather was looking up at the sky with its stars saved up after days of rain.
Lydia finished her cup of coffee at ten o-clock in the morning, grabbed the bagel made of almond butter and raspberry jam, and a sausage and cheddar-filled whole wheat sandwich, a cold seltzer and put them in a large paper bag.
Feather was sleeping. Or she was pretending well. Her rumpled hat covered her face; the feather looked like a wet owl feather. It occurred to Lydia that this was a better name, then thought she ought to know her real name; Feather was just silly to call her. Like an owl, though, she was still most of the time, then looking everywhere but at her. Likely awake at night, standing guard of her stoop, few possessions, her safety. And then she’d fly off.
At work it was a regular day–that is, it was hectic again, as it would be until the New Year. She thought about little, working the phone, greeting customers, who for some reason were talking her ear off with their excitement for parties coming up. It was an infectious thing, their trilling away. They looked at her closer, and she responded with eyes warm and bright. Lydia was feeling pleased with things, it seemed.
Her friends knew nothing of Feather. It would stay that way. It was her personal life, her own experience.
That night, the stoop was empty. The items were gone. Lydia studied the street, waited a bit, then went to her home. Anxiety snagged her as she fixed a meal. Had she done too much, was that possible? The woman hadn’t asked for one thing; maybe she didn’t want anything. No, she ate the food, used the blanket and pillow. Maybe it was too hard, any “charity” taken. It confused her, and though she did not rest as well that night, she awakened feeling hopeful, anyway. She packed a few protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, and filled a thermos with coffee. She tossed together a small baggie of sugar and one of powdered creamer plus a plastic spoon and fork. Added a can of tuna fish with a lid that could be pulled open with a tab. Lydia stopped. Did the woman drink? She didn’t think so. She never looked drunk or smelled of alcohol. She looked lost and very tired, but almost proud when she sat up
She was there, on her feet, and the blanket had slipped into a bunched tower of brightly striped wool. She was talking to someone, a man. He was listening, stood so close to her that Lydia knew they were familiar with one another, or she hoped. Then he slapped her across the face and charged off.
“What’s going on? Can I help?” Lydia’s heart crashed against her chest as she took in every feature of the woman. loveliness bloomed beneath grime and pain, and a youthfulness that was wearing thin.
Feather’s hands went to her cheek, but shook her head. She looked down the street and saw he was gone.
“I’m okay, wanted money, haha,” she said, her voice surprisingly low and a bit hoarse. Back to the stoop. She climbed and sat with elbows on knees, chin propped in her hands. Her hair, tangled by a long time unwashed, stuck close by her ears and face. She put the hat back on; the feather wobbled. She stuck it in better, looked away after she spotted the bag of food.
“Can I leave this with you? Will you be alright?”
She nodded, looked at her hands a long moment, rubbing them as if trying to warm them up. Or remove the street. “Who are you?” she asked as if to herself, but mostly to the odd woman.
But Lydia was on her way. She was trying to calm down. That man had hurt Feather. It made her feel ill, but she didn’t want to be late, either.
“Why is there a woman camping out on the watch repair stoop? And she had a blanket that looked much like your old one.” She took a bite of food, then shook her head. “Don’t get involved! I should buy that place… well, maybe not.”
Her mother was rushed more than usual, and she was barely finishing some Thai takeout; she had a meeting at Bartles. Had to leave room for great drinks.
Lydia said, “She’s homeless, Mother. But she’s okay.
“Is that your blanket, Lydia? I’ll get you a new one, but only if you don’t give it away.”
“It’s fine, I have enough. When do you leave for New York? Are you going to be back in time for our annual night out?”
Her mother shrugged luxuriously, her hands palms up. “Who knows for certain, my dear. I will try my best. Grant and I–“
“I know. It’s okay.”
Her mother got up. “So sorry to rush. I’m glad to see you looking well. Now, don’t give anything more away, you hear? Hard earned money and all that. Donate to a reputable charity if so moved. And if I can’t be here on the date we chose, I’ll make it up to you, of course! And I will call or text you.”
With that, her mother laid a slim hand against her cheek, gave her a peck where coolness was left by her touch. After she was gone, her signature perfume lingered on her skin and in the air. Lydia waited a few minutes, then washed it off.
She took the rest of her Thai dinner downstairs, left it beside the softly snoring body and returned to her refuge.
The next morning was Sunday and no work to take up time and energy.
The stoop was empty. The blanket was gone, the pillow was gone, there was no bag full of anything. The woman who lived there, the owl feather, had drifted elsewhere. Lydia left a bag with two croissants and two little tubs of butter and a plastic knife; also, a fat wedge of cheese and a giant sized water, plain. Then she yawned, put head on arms crossed on her knees. She welcomed thin sunshine on her shoulders and head. She had slept fitfully. There was rain in the air but it was holding back. The sharpening breeze was moving about buildings, pushing down the streets with its wintry intent. She decided to walk to the park a block and a half away, where there were skeletal oaks and green laden pine trees lining the walks and a small fountain burbling–if it was on in December, she could not recall. A walk before the downpour and very little to do at home.
At the park she circled twice, and thought she saw her. The brown coat hanging crookedly, the cloth bag stuffed overly full–the blanket, pillow?– hair tangled and lifting in a mass as the wind blew hard. She was talking with another woman and a man, people who might also be homeless if one determined such a thing based on clothing and heavy slump of shoulders, the way they huddled together like co-conspirators. Trying figuring out the next place to shelter. But they were far ay and it was not her business who they were or what they did.
Lydia sat on a bench, stared at the fountain a moment–no water–and opened her book. It would likely soon fall, the rain, but she had a few minutes to read, to be taken away; to watch and listen for the cranky train that would pass. Then she’d be home and listen to music, putter about her apartment, plan what to give her mother for a gift and also Feather the next time they met up. If they did. She hoped they might, unless it meant she’d instead found a safe harbor that was clean and warm–where folks were nice to her. No one slapping her, either.
Later, when the rain took a long needed break for the night, after Lydia had been knitting a scarf just like some old person with nothing better to do–Alma would tell her that; Tony would offer to take it off her hands but it was for someone else–much later, as the sun parted skittish clouds and daubs of blue were offering visitation, Feather opened the sack left for her. She had walked a long time. She had talked with others, found them hard to be around. The shelters were filling up already. A cold wet night again, soon, too soon. She found the croissants mostly dry–the bag had been left way under the awning, where little rain had splashed. She held the opened butter tub close to her nose and inhaled deeply its richness. Then the sweet and toasty croissants. She could imagine how tasty they’d be if they were warm and moist and…. she shook her head.
Of course they were cold as she pressed the butter on them. She took a big bite and then another, another, another, and she hummed with delight, then started on the second and Lordy, so good to me, she thought. So tasty, it nearly hurt but she licked her fingers clean one by one. Feather pulled the yellow and green striped blanket closer, its rough heat like a tent of power, her eyes shut against the confounding world. She prayed for the shy, skinny woman He’d sent her way, that she would sleep just fine inside the fresh starlight. Like she felt she might, too, with her belly fuller. The train whistle cried out to her one last time for the night and she let herself be at rest awhile.
(Readers, Part 2 is coming up next week. Stay tuned.)
The rain drums, a powerful watery background chorus. It is snowing in nearby Cascade Mountains, and this makes me as happy as the rain music. I am warm and dry. At my feet, a tumbling stack of magazines and catalogs. Mug of tea at hand, I sort them into save/toss piles. The magazines once read must go. I hold back on catalogs. They are an invitation to good cheer and I will sit down with a few later.
They’ve been daily stuffed into the mailbox for weeks, then made the rounds from hands to a spot along a living room wall for leisurely browsing, in good company with a select group of nonfiction books on healing and travel, brushes with death and our wilder (nature-freed) selves. By now, just over a month before Christmas, companies have launched an all-out appeal to our vulnerable selves and skimpy wallets, hoping against hope that businesses will yet profit. Online, too, they try casting the spell. We’re held captive indoors again by threat of illness–and perhaps inclement weather– so we nestle into greater security of home. We wish for something that may comfort and reassure, I’d guess. So it is alright by me that I have one more vividly colored vehicle of wishfulness in my hands. (Except for paper waste, but I recycle them all).
The fact is, I’ve a long habit of delving into catalogs and for more time than sensible. It began in childhood, as it does with many. I took them aside– usually it was J.C. Penny or Sears–kept them unmarred for the moment when I’d thumb through each page, check off items I liked best with pencil or pen, turn down each requisite corner a tidy triangle to note their placement. And then a repeat until all my hopes were noted–despite knowing that Santa Claus or family would not be indulging me much. My parent’s were thrifty to the point of penny pinching, reflecting their generation’s trauma from the Depression again.
In any case, the looking gave rise to pleasure. (I liked all the details about colors, sizes, materials, usages–it appealed to my dream of becoming a reporter, I think, like Brenda Starr in the comics; it satisfied my need for specificity.) I felt something different from greed, though as a kid I wanted that blue Schwinn bike more than anything, new white leather figure skates–such extravagances– or more Nancy Drew books plus a clean new notebook and pencil. It was a simpler thing than desire that I felt. Magic. It was being transported into a realm other than the usual, a free jaunt through a quasi-fantasy land where everyone was smiling, all seemed unbreakable and guaranteed fun. I was a kid so I could afford time away from banality of chores and pressures of life. Catalogs, then, could be gateways to possibilities.
I kept getting them in the mail as I grew up, different ones reflecting my age added to the usual family types. I’d suspected after the internet there’d cease to be “wish books” printed for customers, but no, they kept coming. And decades later I look and wonder: would those narrow-wale, pewter-colored corduroy jeans hold up several years? The teal sweater be good from fall to spring? What about that unusual woven wild grass wreath with a straw bow? And the front outdoor mat is wearing out…perhaps an abstract design in warm hues? The things that are for sale out there astonish me. How can we want or need so much? Most of it appears irrelevant to me. I glance, move on to items that hold my attention well. T-shirts. Jewelry. Art. Good cotton socks. Books.
Still, catalogs have provided a practical means to an ends. I’ve tended to shop online part of the time for Christmas in addition to perusing tons of glossy pages, and shopping in-store the other part, often at small businesses. With five children and seven grandchildren to carefully consider, I need all the help I can get. Despite being a creative person and taking pleasure in giving, I’m not the most original gift chooser. I fuss over each, hoping it’s worth the money and will give the receiver enough satisfaction. We all hope for that…nothing worse than opening a gift one doesn’t need or like. I value unique ideas from shopkeepers as well as sources like Etsy, for example, or art galleries and independent booksellers– and occasionally big box stores with dependable varieties.
But then came 2020.
As the temperature lowers, I realize more each day it’s different this year, and not only because shopping in person will be tough at best, nonexistent at worst as the virus spirals out of control. Everything has begun to feel upside down this pre-holiday season. Things have also altered since my husband’s position was scrubbed from the company hierarchy in spring; a brutal streamlining due to decrease in business. Gift shopping, then, is not a high priority. Or maybe not even on the list.
Still, I gather catalogs at the dining table or easy chair or at bedtime bed—turn pages slowly, pen in hand to mark away. This lifetime habit is not going away easily. It doesn’t seem to bother me that I can’t enjoy a little extravagance. I still study interesting options, ruffle the paper and inhale its distinctive scent, hear the light, dry whisper of pages turning, feel its cool slickness–all part of an easy congeniality that’s become harder to find. It may even be more pleasant than other years. I don’t need to worry about appropriate gifts yet still enjoy the displays, and think of each family member fondly. Okay, I do love to buy things for people. Just…Not. Right. Now.
One yearly obsession is the Harry & David catalog. I usually order with some glee. An Oregon-based business, they offer healthier if traditional snack options (good cheeses, crackers, nut mixes) and sweet indulgences. But mainly it’s their beautiful, luscious fruit. Oh, those H & D pears– unlike any other I’ve tasted, sweet and juicy, velvety to tongue. It’s been a tradition to buy a pear box for everyone–and they’re always delighted.
But the next magnetic pull is to the toddler gifts. We have a Portland store called Finnegan’s, a very good toy store. My, our girl power twins are getting big and smart. I can nearly ditch common sense trying to not buy them goodies. Especially this year. I must use my restraint; they are not even two yet.
However, it’s not just holiday shopping that lures me. It’s the weather and how it turns. From six months of bright warm days to six of darkened, chilled, sodden ones, one starts to bundle up some. Farewell, capris and sandals and filmy tops. I love my jeans and black ankle boots, the worn waterproof trail shoes (I think the soles carry a little dirt from last year).
My Michigan childhood pointed the way to the lifelong plan: the temp goes down and the hunt was on for itchy woolen school attire. Multiple layers. And boots, mittens/gloves, hats, scarves: snow gear. A new toboggan would have made me more happy. I eagerly anticipated building snow forts in high drifts, and trudging through uninhabited Stark’s Nursery behind our house with my trusty sled in tow, setting out on an Arctic exploration…how far to the ice floe? Anyway, I’d begin perusing the pages, narrowing down the best options, then (as I got bigger) my mother and I often embarked on shopping trips to bigger cities,. Another pleasant diversion from the usual daily regimen, and studying, practicing my cello and working on figures for my skating class, and doing chores. Like shoveling heavy snow.
Preparation for changes of seasonal clothing happened four times a year, more or less into my twenties. Thus, this past September when I spotted an L.L.Bean hooded Primaloft jacket slashed from $189 to $29.99, I jumped on it. (Maybe it was last year’s color or there was a slight alteration in design.) Our winters are mild compared to those in my Michigan youth–almost no snow at 800 feet–but that doesn’t mean it’s ever balmy. It hit 39 degrees once already. So I pictured myself wearing the jacket instead at the wind-howling coast or on forest hikes half the year…and gifted myself. I was so excited to wear it at the beach, I basically advertised it on social media–despite it being a basic, warm jacket…well, simple things excite me.
That’s how it happened growing up. I’ve had to alter the habit. This year, only fabulous wool felt slippers to defend my feet against this west-facing place in the trees (by Glerups)–last year my toes fought against potential frostbite by nightfall– and then that jacket. I have other jackets. But this one was better. (I am not being paid to promote anything despite how it may look….that cheesy smile and all) I was trying to say in the pictures: Enjoy what’s good for you–nature, exercise!Get outdoors and love life now! while showing off my new jacket. Not as stylish as they come, but snuggly. Since I can get cold fast, this is a primo review.
Alas, I’ve long had a small addiction to certain outdoor or sports wear brands–so, too, catalogs. L.L.Bean, Land’s End, REI, Cabela’s, Columbia Sportswear. Thank goodness for sales. And pages to study, finding anticipation for more adventures. Some day. Any pleasant image can help these days.
It may seem superficial but it’s relaxing to browse catalogs. Kids’ educational games and toys; tools; electronics of many sorts; books/book lovers’ curios; home goods (ah, good linens and towels); food goodies; flowers in bunches; spring seed packets (dreams begin with small seeds); music and movies; Vermont old country store stuff (random); varieties of flours for baking; arts and crafts supplies; sports equipment; papers and pens; art prints; clothing–so on and so forth.
And it can fuel my curiosity, especially those from, say, the Museum of Modern Art or National Geographic Society. I may discover new things such as how a rechargeable tool is multiple-use, or a newly-spotted squid moving among enchanting undersea forms and colors. Or, too, that some youth-touting facial serum made from seaweed and other “organics” can lower my precious cash reserves by $250–give me splashes of cold spring water. I admit to an interest, however, in perfumes. The unusual olfactory-awakening combinations; scents created with all natural ingredients, and how they’re described so poetically: who wouldn’t want to wear “Dance of the Moonlit Sea”? Only, in Italian. Smells that much better in my mind. (And how can I get a job making up those names?)
By far the best are book catalogs which have me riveted for several sittings. A new book by an unknown but intriguing author. Look–a whole new genre! Dare I order this or that? I dare not. I have access to a free library; we can put things on hold now and pick them up… But I can look and consider. I make a wish list, file it in a notebook for safekeeping for the day when I can wander for hours in the intoxicating maze of Powell’s Bookstore downtown again.
I admit holiday catalogs impact me in a less festive manner now. I know I won’t be ordering much. I get excited for one person or another, then remember this year is a lean one. An isolated one. But I am not that crafts-y, so what next? Local nurseries for…something pretty…I was considering a lovely birch/pine centerpiece for a daughter (or us) when it hit me harder: no one will see it in person but Marc and me this year. Well, it’s still attractive. It still would smell woodsy-delicious.
I may get it for daughter, Aimee, anyway. Family love comes to us at no price; we still can share it one way or another. But, too, the new jacket will be donned in chilly dampness for years. My new slippers will do the job. I maintain that it’s good to have catalogs for occasional supplemental semi-reading. These are neutral or amusing moments we can spend that offer us choices. They bring back a wistfulness for what we want to believe were kinder days, perhaps. It’s healthy to daydream some. And it’s a bonus to find a great sale, no matter the time of year.
It happened that she was walking through Cutter’s Field close to her parents’ home place, one she had enjoyed as a child when a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed and she ran barefoot through swaths of swaying grasses. Her name was called out of nowhere, not the one that carried her steadfastly into adulthood, but the one a chosen few had used to remind her she was loved. Or at times by others to torture her–but it had long been hers, whichever cause to use it was at hand.
It was born on the October wind, a remnant of the past. She sensed it a ghost name even as she slowed but spun around, anyway. No one in her current life knew she had been Bunny, and she’d have denied it, so absurd a nickname she’d had to bear so long. If also worn with some appreciation for the mantle of affection it brought. But she was in her old hometown and may not have managed to stay invisible.
The calling out tingled from ears to heart in a race to her mind. It felt much as the reason she’d been named it: a soft rabbit is a quiet creature, then suddenly can leap away so spritely, gone, invisible again in thicket of grass or bush. And, well, her sister had said, you have such a small, velvety face, Bree, then laughing though what she’d meant to say but never quite did was, Your skin is soft and beautiful on your cute bunny face, more lovely than mine. Bree knew what she meant, usually, but it was a fact that Esther was born beautiful and Bree was born…with a most pleasant, perhaps elfin face. And born quite a bit smarter.
Esther often put bunny ears on Bree from behind, two fingers sticking up above her head. Many a picture had captured it to Bree’s dismay. She was a circumspect child, and was on the way to becoming a poised albeit restrained young woman whose feelings ran far deeper than seen. The name stuck until Bunny nee Bree reached age 16, at which time she had put her foot down and ordered it to stop at Sunday dinner. There had been were hard times that weekend; she’d suddenly had enough. But it was not done with entirely in school. At home, her family reserved it for times like birthdays. She suffered it kindly with them until she left home for good. That was fourteen years ago, at age twenty-two.
So as she was walking across the untidy and welcoming field that fall day, she was not expecting it. The air pulsed with intoxicating warmth saved for tail end of fall, and earth’s scent and all it held rose to greet her. It certainly hadn’t been uttered by Esther, who also had left long ago for beaches of California. A deeper voice, she mused, but it was hard to say when the shimmying wind rustled and stole away sounds. She saw no one save their much older neighbor, Joe Harter, on his tractor farther afield. He had waved, she thought, as he turned a corner to start down another row.
It was only by chance she was there, visiting her father before moving 700 miles away from him– as he battled worsening health–to Chicago for her work as an interpreter. She had wondered when she might see him again if they didn’t have a good visit right then so she’d been there a week. He didn’t want to move with her, no; she was not to worry. This, after seeing him infrequently for years while working in Europe. It was difficult for them both. But soon the trip back home would be much shorter than from Milan.
She would leave him tomorrow, and the walk was a last consoling act in which she indulged, as she had also so loved the fields and woods. A roundup of memories during a bittersweet and soothing walk, with birds discoursing, wind dancing, open sky winking at her through the trees’ glimmering hues of autumn. She kept on, contented to look and listen and smell it all.
“Bunny!” The call was not loud but distinct and closer.
By then she’d reached the edge of the field and dashed to Bender’s Creek in Little Woods. She squatted in the leaves beside it, a hand trailing in a tiny waterfall as it rushed over rocks. But the faint voice rendered her immobile. She didn’t want to stand and verify who it was. She wanted to camouflage herself in shadowed greenery and dipping branches. Bree fell forward on her knees, bent close to the water, waited until that name disappeared with name caller.
Footsteps shuffled through the woods’ detritus. Each step quickened Bree’s pulse, and her features froze, her round cheeks stained bright as raspberries. Her dripping hand dampened her forehead, smoothed hair back, then she rose and turned.
He stood a hundred yards away among the birches, and in an instant it was that afternoon when many decisions were altered. A shock zigzagged through neural pathways but she stood taller, chin raised a notch.
“Rollie, is it you.” A small statement. She knew.
Saying the whisper of his name made it real; she wished to pull it back or bury it deep in ground. His step forward breached an internal wall and so she turned down her senses, stilled her mind. And looked at him with a steady gaze, readying for what was to come.
He came closer with a limp although he crossed earth between them without hesitation, a hand reaching. She remained in place, words like vapor in her mouth, flooding her tongue so all she could do was part her lips to exhale muteness into burnished air. He stopped, uncertain, took off and clutched his baseball cap. The once severe lines of his face were softened by a bristly half-shadow of reddish beard, and his head cocked at a half-deferential tilt.
It seemed impossible they’d both materialize at that way, in that place; it was a fearsome and strange alchemy of time and space. But he was present in much the same way as he’d ever been: solid, unimpeachably good looking in a craggy way–which she and Esther had first called feral, repeating the odd word, giggling–and potentially dangerous or simply alert but still charged by a wildness that lurked, rarely visible. But he was smaller, even caved in at chest as if pulled inward. And the limp an old injury, perhaps; he has been a person in perpetual motion, anything might happen to such a man. She felt his loss in a dim way. But Rollie still was present with the power of himself.
She spoke to break the tension or the spell, to make things easier. “Well, then. How is it you’re here?”
“My house–” he gestured toward town as if he thought she’d forgotten–“that is, my grandparents’. I inherited it, with Kevin.” He looked long at her. “Visiting–uh, we were looking it over. My cousin said he saw you walking down Ames Road. Thought he was joking but then….thought you might be coming here.” He put his baseball cap back on, adjusted the bill neatly, regaining lost composure enough. Taller again.
She watched as if from a distance, nodded agreeably, a nice girl who had become a well mannered woman.
“Can we talk, Bunny…”
It was said with such familiarity, still. But: he wanted to talk. She had no time for echoes of that past, Bunny’s past; it had been resoundingly empty of sound, far beyond her hearing range for what seemed a lifetime. She hadn’t even lived in the States for many years.
And then he leaned toward her the barest amount, as if to not seem too urgent. “Will you speak with me, Bree?”
“I can listen,” she offered and strode along the creek bank toward sunniness of meadow beyond.
Rollie followed, startling a bevy of wings above, the crows objecting, but his lame leg caused a tennis shoe to catch on a rock. She slowed. Bree wanted to escape the inviting shade of woods with its gurgle of creek, leave the place they’d last been when still young. Too naïve but in love. She shook her head to empty it of a gathering of mages.
Breaking through to open land was a relief. There were logs piled to one side, a few stumps. When they found two close–but not too close–they rested.
He pulled shoulders back, and was impressive as long ago, all pride and grace, maybe more so. But his face was softer, with added weight and age. With trails and labors. “You’ve been in Italy, I heard. A nice embassy job?”
She shrugged. “I’m an interpreter.”
“You were a genius with languages–what’s it called?”
“You speak and understand how many?”
“Eight, almost nine, and a few dialects most have not heard about. It is what I do, what I was born to do, I guess.”
“That’s so much more than in high school!” Eyebrows raised and lowered, and he studied lines in his palms before giving them a rub. “Study and travel, I guess you’ve had a lot of both. Amazing how things change.”
“You meant to design things.”
“I’m an architect, residential, some commercial. I only come here on week-ends. I…we… live in St. Louis.”
“Ah, that all sounds good.”
Bustling bees were alighting on bendable stems, buzzing about the ground and nestling into things. She wanted to watch them instead of him and did so. The sweetness of grasses was so pure it made her heady. She willed Rollie to depart, then focused on the length of horizon, a simmering blue along treetops and fields. That openness, a great depth and width of things that always touched her. It meant home.
Bree swiveled her head back to him. “Rollie, what is it you want to say?”
With a smooth movement reflective of his nature, Rollie leaned forward, lifted his eyes, took her in, then sat back. “It has been a long time, Bunny, but still I think of how things were. How they ended. About you.”
Bree held herself in place. She’d not welcome that name any more from him but she gave him a promise of a smile, lips turning up ever so slightly.
“I knew I had to talk to you someday, once more. Make amends… tie up all the loose ends we left. I was going to send you an email or call one day but this is much better, to say these things to you, just do the right thing. Is that okay…I mean, now that a long time has passed?”
Was it alright? Was it better to speak truth? She wondered. He stared again at his hands, perhaps divining the outcome.
Did flesh and blood forming syllables add so much heft and meaning to words? Did they become greater instruments when spoken aloud to a person? His words had cut her away once; hers had left him with a complicated life. So, then, was one’s conscience assuaged when careful words, well practiced and well offered, found a place inside the listener? They might land with a thud or be met with open arms.
Or did the unpredictable power of language obscure the deepest meanings at times like this? And this tying up loose ends, just so… They had severed the past from one kind of future. And she now felt she’d awakened in a netherworld and wanted to exit.
But she knew more than many about language. She knew about interpreting other’s needs and desires. And about how defining and translating thought and feeling was a graver, more difficult task than people believed. So much could go wrong. So much was missed in the passing of one person’s words to another who was waiting. Nuances meant more than one realized. And the first interpreting of a language for herself was risky, demanding. Exhilarating, too. But such important matters were corroborated or shaded or entirely destroyed when she interpreted. It was that crucial a thing to get right–a true communication.
So it was with them, face-to-face at last, she thought: Could they even understand one another now? Might it be better to say nothing, just scurry through the fields? Or embrace a final time then walk on, waving to all that was behind them?
Words, words. She wondered what his would mean. Bree nodded and waited to hear his own truth.
“I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to revise what I did to you, and then had to tell you. It’s haunted me, has kept me restless and sleepless too often and too long. Why did I take such a chance when I knew it was really only you I ever wanted? Why did I give in to an insane moment when you were there, blameless, and I was the transgressor?” He held his head. “I know, I know, I said all that before, or tried to our last meeting. Sorry, sorry, I am so beyond sorry–how many times could I still say that and it not be enough? Sorry I betrayed you, even after I gave you the promise ring….And then…Denise getting pregnant, such a blow to all, you know? And it changed everything, you cannot imagine– for her, too.”
He gazed at her pale fingers; none was bedecked with rings. They were long and thin yet blunt at the ends, practical hands even while lovely. Hands he had held to his lips. He studied her face–pointed chin, satin smooth skin, eyes so clear and quietly emotive. They made him think of the creek water in early spring when it runs cool, fresh, reflecting the light. Yet they told him little at the moment except that she heard and understood. That she was patient, which she’d always been except for that last time.
“Even though I came to love Denise and more easily, our son, Dane. Even though I have built a good life, a life I’m proud of now, one that allows me to do more for our community than I ever imagined. Things got much better after I had a bad car accident eight years ago…then I had to look deeper and find a better path. I did and followed it. I design housing for the underprivileged, underserved. That’s my passion now. Oh Bunny, I could tell you so many things! As a youth I was arrogant, impetuous, maybe cruel. I am still burdened with this regret.”
His countenance, earlier lit with an infectious spirit of enthusiasm, suddenly darkened. Bree’s eyes traced the contours of Rollie so gently he felt there might be a chance to correct things. To find forgiveness.
Still, she didn’t talk.
He took in full breaths of the late fall air that settled over Cutter’s Field. Around his sorrow and hope. He squatted, then, before her, willing to do almost anything to make things good. It had to happen now or never.
It was almost alarming, his knees at hers, but she found such nearness did not move her in ways feared. It embarrassed her, and she felt the slow burn of that for them both. Enough had been released from him; she had to speak up.
She took his forearms in her hands. “Stand up, Rollie. Please.”
She rose with him, he wobbling more from her touch than impaired balance. Her light grip fell away and he righted himself. A gust of wind blew over them, lifted her long hair so that it covered her face. He started to brush it away, then thought better of it as she grabbed it, pulled a hair tie from her jeans pocket, made a ponytail. That small act: so like her, someone who knew how to restrain wilder impulses, how to make orderly what was chaotic. He found it so familiar. Yes, how to make sense of senselessness and find truth in details. And yet she was so fully alive as she stood in the caramel light, more vibrant than recalled. He loathed letting go of his longing–even as he did so, even as he knew it would fall away.
For there was, too, the fateful day when she’d screamed at him, struck him hard across the face, pummeled his chest and ran off, never to speak to him again. He knew it was the least she could have done, for nothing was told–she spread no awful tales, did not insult his name, did not let herself be called a victim of any sort. Did not speak ill of the girl he’d seen behind her back. His wife, Denise, who waited now in the city. Yet it had torn them from one another, his careless deceit and her outrage.
After that, she became Bree, she was not to be called Bunny. And though a hidden part of him longed for Bunny now, he saw it was not who she was. And that was right; the missing pieces fell in place as she began to respond.
Yet he took her hands in his and her grace and deeper strength flowed into him as his warmth and a wiser, subtler energy moved to her.
“It was not meant to be, staying here, Rollie, surely you see that. Getting married, having a family with you. Though you knew I loved you fiercely, I soon found my other dreams coming true. I am at home with it all, happy with my life. And you discovered what was best for you.” She touched his rough chin with a forefinger then fell away. “I healed well. Nothing can be done about what we leave behind but to respect it and say our farewells. We live within the gift of this moment. Rollie, you were so long ago and truly forgiven. And I’m sorry I was hard on you that day. But I have no pain left keeping me caged, and I hope this unlocks the creaky door for you, at last. Because, my fine old friend, all is well.”
Bree didn’t wait for his words. Didn’t need his arms about her again. She ran down the path taken all those years, the path that people still took across Cutter’s Field–the old and young, ecstatic and heartbroken–to Little Woods and Bender’s Creek, to that which bore all hopes and losses without complaint, and watched over them with benevolence until they were no more.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson