What strikes me today in the groupings of recent Seattle “captures” is the long walk by the bay, our destination being the popular Pike Place Market. I will let the pictures speak for me as we enter the heart of the city on a chilly evening. Marc and I walked at least dozen blocks to and from the area, into dusky night, into the streets’ liveliness. It all buoyed me as cold wet wind stung our faces. I found myself thinking once more: happy to live three decades in the Pacific Northwest–winter rain and all. (Perks: majestic beauty, green growing things all year, and a vibrant independent spirit.)
On the way back to the hotel (after an expensive stop at Elliott Bay Book Company) I snapped a few more. A tree waiting for the closet once more; a South American fare eatery, as I love tapas; an interesting pub with a name I love, Lost Lake– a Michigan lake of my childhood.
If there’s a hard rain after her swing shift, Macy sits by her living room window, a candle burning, with her quilt bunched around her shoulders and stares at nothing. If it’s agreeable outside, she sets a three-legged red stool on her minuscule balcony, sets a smaller candle on the the iron railing and stares at nothing. I can see her from across the alley as I slouch in bed beside my dark window. We watch each other now and then, wave a tired wave we can barely make out, but mostly I keep an eye out for her. I have extra time.
She is thinking as I used to think: how different–better–things might have been, how he chose the wrong fork in the road, but how can she make anything of her life until she moves past the so ordinary (she tells herself) heartbreak of it. But where is the necessary will to do so? It flags, it pauses, it stalls. He should have married her and he did not. What does one do with an excess of desire, as if he was still in the room, or that voice of hope inside her head, followed by a downward spiral of despair?
I sit propped up on three pillows, at least two books splayed face down beside me and shake my head as she sits by her own self and ponders. She’s lovesick, that’s what I conclude. After a year, this needs to be done and buried. Macy needs to join a spa, attend a positive single-hood seminar, take a leave and go to the Bahamas two weeks, perhaps trek Mt. Rainier since she is athletic. A breakthrough or at least a soothing mantra is required before she fades more.
I told her this too early, then only two months after her heart cracked apart. It was after she’d cried at the farmers market while examining strawberry plants (I meanwhile was taste testing a cherry tomato), explaining they were going to buy a house, they had spotted two they loved, and she was going to plant a bountiful garden but then he had to fall for that woman, the one they’d met on a cruise to Alaska, could I believe that? And she could barely face anything that grew despite yearning for all things green and beautiful.
I patted her arm and said, “I know. You have to work at moving on. It’s hard but he did get married and you can’t waste precious time and energy wallowing in self-pity. Pot some plants for your balcony, at least.”
“How can you just brush off my feelings? How would you know? You aren’t even with anybody at, say, 50 years old, right?”
I took a step back. I was just offering decent advice but tend toward frank and practical rather than fluffy or diplomatic. But I thought it was a bit overwrought when Macy burst into a tidal wave of weeping and turned away after her face constricted into a scowl of huge dislike of me, then wandered off to baked goods. We weren’t close, not even before he left her. But we often went to market together or took our dogs to the park when we both had one. (Macy gave hers away; the labra-doodle had been their dog. My scruffy mongrel got run over; he was not well, perhaps it was best.)
Since then, she avoids me at all cost. That is, avoids running into me, engaging in conversations with me if we accidentally come face-to-face. We make out our outlines across the alleyway and occasionally but barely acknowledge each other. I can’t say it hurts me, but it does disappoint me. We might have been better friends with more interaction, despite the ten years age difference and the fact that I no longer work full time but at home as needed as a nicely paid web designer. Macy and I like to read, for one thing; she has interesting tastes, we had good discussions. And then there were the dogs. I now have a cat, Razz. I don’t know if Macy has anything around to pet and chat with, but somehow I doubt it–so much effort involved. I feel for her, but don;t think of it until night falls again. I have my own life to shape and reshape until I get it more right than it is.
I’ve held a post by my window a lot longer than she has even lived in this neighborhood. I will continue to do so until insomnia abates. We’re older friends, the night and me, than anyone I know here excepting Travis on the tenth floor, who is now blind and nearly deaf. I take groceries and Razz to him and the cat sits on his lap, even purrs and nibbles his pale twisted fingers. We listen to too-loud big band selections on his stereo. The old man was there for me when I needed him and vice versa. We have a good habit going now, twelve years later. His wife, Selma, passed, heart attack right in their teak four poster bed, with him snoring away, he said, until he felt something, as if her ghost swept across his chest and arms before exiting. I liked her even more than I knew until she was gone. And I had my own issue, the strange matter of my partner, Ward, going on photo assignment in Mongolia and never returning. No good answers from the news agency, no acceptable reason for his silence. Everyone has presumed he is dead or imprisoned somewhere on that vast continent. I am not at first so sure but as time passes I am inclined to agree. There has been a holding place that will never be occupied in my life. Even Macy knows a few pieces of the puzzle. But she doesn’t know the sort of love he and I shared, the sort that I know beyond a doubt never comes around again.
After all that happened, Travis and I sat side by side in his nicely ratty armchairs– mine was Selma’s for decades, the cushions deeply indented bottom and back– by his living room window day after day, drinking fragrant spicy chai and eating too many sweets. Sighing. He lay a hand on mine now and again, said, “This, too, shall pass” until I was sick of it but he was quite right. He could walk better then. I’d weave my arm though his and off we’d go to the park with the fountain and feed the birds. It was a good thing to do.
Now we just sit an hour once a week and it’s enough for him, he smiles and looks at me with cloudy once-blue eyes and nods. I get up and go, until the next week, next grocery list.
Tonight I haven’t seen Macy at her spot outdoors yet. My night doesn’t settle right without her there; it’s like being accustomed to seeing the moon, or at least its light–out of reach but in place. I admit to sometimes worrying about her. Younger, more sheltered, less independent in most ways-what does she do with her time now? I see her here and there with some woman, some man, but there is something in the way she holds her shoulders, sharp and hunched with underground tension, as if pushing against an adversary, but what? Inevitable losses? Her own bridled anger? The tenderness of vulnerability that comes with human contact? Her mouth smiles but her eyes look far away, as if searching for him, still.
I understand. But before it got out of hand, I began to see what was in front of me and it meant more. Vaporous presences mean so little when your blood runs warm in your body and your mind lights up with a need to embrace and discover. For this is real living right now, not so the past which is nebulous despite our wanting it otherwise.
There she is now, good, her stool set down. She raises her head to see Venus, I think–so unmistakable in its regal claim to space. I see the gleaming body, too, and swing my feet over to stand in the narrow place between my big bed and the wall with two tall windows. One is half-open. The traffic, though sparser, never comes to a full stop in city center and I like to hear its metallic shifting and trumpeting of busy work. The alley is empty except for a heavily attired woman rearranging blankets on the back steps of another building, and a young man–he walks very fast–cringing into himself as he passes. He stumbles and I wonder if it is a rat underfoot, if he is drunk or naturally clumsy. And he is on his phone now and then gone.
Macy looks down, too, as if I wondered aloud what that young man was up to, then she gazes toward me. I think–how can I be sure. I press my fingers against the glass, then bend down to peer through the screen to see better. She is looking at me, she is raising a bottle in my direction, and a glass. Then she beckons me over to her spot with a nod and sweep of her hand, the glass spilling its contents a little.
Do I get dressed and go over? I am about to turn back to my books when something catches my eye, and a tall, reed thin figure pauses in the shadows, leans against the brick of Macy’s building, and lights a cigarette, face flaring bright a second but not discernible, then all is mostly dark again except for lights that burst forth and vanish down the alley. It is 1 a.m. I wait five minutes. The glowing cigarette is snuffed out and nothing stirs. But Macy is still at the balcony railing, holding the bottle, drinking from her glass. It seems a white flag from Macy, so I pull on my shirt, shorts, slip on flip-flops, ride the elevator down and step into the darkness through the side door.
I take that convenient exit as it is faster but feeling the unseen presence I about regret it. It is as if the stranger is waiting, resting– or maybe sleeping–but I almost call out to warn him off me. Still, my gut says this is more benign than dangerous, I can breathe alright. I go the opposite way, not trying to run–I’d fail in flip-flops–but not dawdling, either. My ears are pricked but there is nothing but the usual suspects, skittish creatures and whizzes of vehicles and muffled talking above, a shout down the street. Entering Macy’s building when she buzzes me up seems a comfort. When she opens her door, I note sweat has accumulated between my breasts and down my back, and realize her building has no air conditioning. She is across the alley but our life circumstances are different. I think we both felt that yet she is now welcoming.
“Hi! Wine? Rose.”
She pours me a full glass; maybe she recalls that is a preference. We clink our glasses and settle on the tiny balcony–she offers the other, yellow, stool. The dark seems heavier than usual, heat rising to swaddle us.
“So I just wanted to tell you. They separated already.”
“It turns out she was already engaged to another guy and he found her and visited them… not a pretty scene, I guess, and Hank lost out. A mutual friend knows the story, he’s an old friend of Hank’s so called me.” She looks at me and I blink. “You remember Hank’s name, right?” She takes a good sip. “It has been awhile since we talked.”
“Right, Hank. And yeah, it has been that. Well, that is good news…?”
“Not sure. I might be finally over him.”
“Ah, good work.”
“You know, it wasn’t that much work, just a decision.” She lights up with a toothy smile. “I got a promotion and since then things have gotten better all around. I am moving soon, across the river.”
“Congratulations, that is great news.” We clinked again.
“Last week he called to say he missed me… but you know, it didn’t feel right. I think I’m done, as you suggested would happen.”
“I can imagine…it’s been so long.”
We talk another twenty minutes about our work and being single and she is considering a cat, too, for when she moves. I start toward the door, thanking her for having me over and wishing her well. It seems a well- intentioned ending to our acquaintanceship.
“Oh, I forgot–one more thing. You know how we both watch from our places? Have you seen some guy lurking about the last three nights?”
Something in me dives straight down into a chilly bottomless pool and I nearly gasp. “Not really, but I may have seen someone tonight.”
“He looks up at your building, I think. Just a heads up. I carry pepper spray and take a cab home each night so I’m good. But I wonder what he’s up to.”
“Thanks, Macy; I’ll watch out.”
On impulse I give her a light hug and she returns it. I think, though, how she never asked about Ward. Just as well.
On the way back–a mere two minutes with a rapid walk–I go around her building, then around mine and look down the alley from the opposite end from which I left. I will enter the complex from the front door but first I squint to try to delve into the shadows.
He steps out, about one hundred feet away. And then I run, flip flops torn from my feet by the length and speed of my stride, lungs pushing air in and out then I must pause one second to slide my electronic apartment key to unlock the main door. And just like that he is there, grabs my arm.
I try to scream but sound curdles in my throat.
“Gina? Oh my god, it’s really you, Gina!”
I freeze into stone. And then I am turned to face him.
It is him. It is Ward, I think, I want to think, but he looks much older, his beard so long and his once-wide eyes half sunken in deeply tanned, lined skin. His wavy salt and pepper hair is pulled into an unruly ponytail. I check his throat. Around his neck, circling a long scar left from war story, is a silver infinity symbol on a darkened leather cord that I gave him over twenty years ago.
My knees weaken and a hand braces against the opening door and we fall into the foyer.
“Yes, it’s really me, it’s Ward… don’t run off, please! Listen. My motorcycle broke down. I got lost. I was captured–yes, true– by a nomadic man after I stole a prized horse and had to work to pay off my debt–and I had to adapt and I–“
“What? What did you say?” I cover my eyes with both hands, then my buzzing ears. This cannot be Ward, this cannot be reality. What is he saying, captured after a horse theft? My head swims and I will faint if I don’t sit down, so sink to the ceramic tiled floor, its hardness a relief.
“Please, hang on with me, Gina, wait! I’ve lived in Mongolia all this time. It has been amazing and hard. With nomadic tribes. I tell you the truth.”
“Wait–you smoke now?”
“Yeah, rotten habit, I’ll quit now I’m back to some quasi-normalcy. Or, I think it is, hard to say after adapting to a whole other life.”
My chest is heaving, my eyes sting. Of course he’s telling me the truth, he has lived the craziest things, he has always brought back such stories. “And now you’re just…are you really in the flesh? And you felt I’d still be here.”
His arms wrap around me, pull me tight. We rock side to side, back and forth, entwined arms clinging.
“Yes, I have waited but barely let myself believe…Ward. Alive, here, now.”
“It’s a story unlike any other I’ve chased or lived, my love. I can’t believe my good fortune to find you– still here in our old home,” he says into my long graying hair, into my being.
“Yes, you’re finally home, thank the powers that be,” I whisper as we stand shakily. “Come with me.”
I breathe him in, smokiness with all the rest that I recall, and we get in the elevator. His eyes never leave mine, I fall into his, what else can be done? And in our bed we hold each other past dawn, our eyes searching one another’s for all the missing pieces, our hands welcoming each other as if anew, and though Razz raises his head once, he stays curled on the couch, the only one that cares to sleep.
Despite my sudden absence lately, I have not foregone my usual posts without regret. I have had a dental problem to encourage to better heal just as we became mad-busy with preparations for vacating of our decades-long home for a new one tomorrow. So significant lingering pain (plus inability to eat well) has underlain the constant energy output of sorting/tossing/packing, conducting household and other business, and developing a clear strategy for our near future. We will remain in the Portland metro area but in a quite different setting. And finally I have resolved to make it as welcoming as this old place, and to discover all the possibilities that await us in a new area. It is not easy to let go of all the good we have welcomed and shared while here.
The benefits of moving, of course, include taking a leap of faith and learning about people not yet met; natural environments not explored and enjoyed; and putting in place routines and activities that accommodate fresh obligations, choices and surprises awaiting us.
I feel fortunate we’ve enjoyed a congenial, stable lifestyle for 25 years in a close-in city center neighborhood. And it is also designated as a historical one that is both lovely and inspiring architecturally. And the gardens–divine, lush. But there i a rush of new building going on; our five-plex will be sold sooner than later and the who know what.
Any neighborhood has its history, its stories, and we will slowly root out those threads that connect one thing to another. It is people who make a place what it is, after all–that, and the land that it grows into and with.
This move is largely due to our youngest daughter expecting twins in April. She is a medically high risk mother– and a successful career woman who is fiercely independent. My son-in-law is a fine husband for her, smart, kind and dependable. But this time I will answer the call as I have not since her youth. And I will be caring for twins a few days a week when she returns to work for quite a while. If that is not an adventure, I don’t know what is. Two new human beings come to earth…what an honor to be up so close and personal. And what a lot of work, of course, that we will all tackle together!
We have another daughter living near the new place who will undergo major surgery next week; this may mean a few weeks of recuperation. We have invited her to stay with us until she is feeling stronger once more. We are taking this a day at a time with her. And it will be such a pleasure to have two daughters closer to us again.
So writing may become more sparse beginning the next month or so; that could be difficult for me. But it is just as likely that writing will remain just what I desire and need to do, so I’ll manage it even in small bits despite tiring times. Well, I may have to start a new blog about “Twin Grandmothering” escapades…
I have been musing over how rich and fascinating a life I’ve had raising five children–then being frequently involved with some of their own children. And all this for a young woman who had nary a thought of becoming a mother at 23. I was a bit of a spitfire then, drawn to the arts with soulful devotion as well as enjoying various intellectual and political pursuits, and quite in love with my new husband the sculptor. I, then, found it perplexing that I was gaining weight as we crisscrossed the western states one summer in our old El Camino. Many months later–just 6 and a 1/2, actually–I was unprepared when our first child was born. Outside a blizzard covered the hometown as the tiny one struggled to gain a greater foothold on the earth at a mere 2 and 1/2 pounds. That she survived in the early seventies when limited technology could offer so little to save preemies…it was a miraculous event to behold. And the start of a rather strange, wonder-filled life, woven of worry, mundane labor and supreme delight. A life of great humbling “otherness”–it was about adoration, and welfare of children. No longer just my spouse, my own self. It was revelatory, as it is for every new parent.
So at sixty-eight, another door is opening as another swings shut: a new home, new babies, new chores and joys. Finding my way once more, learning as I go.
I will write and photograph as often as possible–and share with you appreciated readers as I can. I hope you are creating somehow daily–what is a life but incremental creations? I will look forward to your inspiring offerings often.
Be well and open to sharing of good love; be ready to experience the small, curious, stunning moments that help shape our lives along with lessons of loss or the odd detour or unsettling bewilderment. We are in it for the whole messy, colorful story, are we not?
He was at long last good and tired of waiting for her. Not just the past 22 minutes, but all the times he had sat in restaurants even if mediocre, on benches at parks in a spectrum of weather, at charming cafes tucked away in a district like Little Paris where he was waiting, or even at home with take-out cooling on the wobbly table they’d spotted in a thrift shop. It was his habit to wait, he’d been good at it ever since being a contemplative child in the country, where all around him things took their own time, quite apart from what his battered pocket watch stated. It was her habit to keep people waiting as she did one last thing, booked two appointments at once or was compelled to stop on the street to save the rabbit that got loose from somewhere and was about to mowed down by a skateboarder. So it wasn’t just Timothy who paid for her lateness; each person had stories to add. But it felt like it when it happened again. She knew this was unacceptable, surely.
Madeline was flat-out in a rush, energetic about everything but over-engaged with life, that was the problem. It had been one of the issues when he’d interviewed her for the vacant spot as apartment mate. The first being she was female which, when she proffered full cash for the first month, he promptly forgot. It was a large vintage-style apartment close to city center; Timothy had lived there two years and did not want to give it up after his original roommate exited for the paradise of New Zealand. Most people he’d talked to couldn’t part with the hefty sum despite their excitement over wonderful views of the river from the front windows and from a small balcony at back, colorful storefronts and ongoing activities.
“I like to quiet things down by eleven at the latest.”
“Even on week-ends?” Madeline had asked, shocked.
“I sometimes work on week-ends.”
“Yes, but I hold on all week long for Friday and Saturday nights, like most people.”
“I’m a web designer on the side, if you recall. I work on week-ends often, just as when I’m at the office being a cog in the techie world during the week.”
She half-frowned, more a vague, acquiescent look of knitting together her eyebrows and tightening her lips, which were brilliantly glossed. He couldn’t quite stop looking at her lips. They were like two bright flags waving under the pier of her nose, rather too long for her face. He found her a bit funny but kept his face empty of telltale ripples.
He considered the bathroom sharing, how much space she might take up. His vanishing friend, Evan, had used half of one drawer for all his essentials. They had never tripped over each other’s stuff unless there had been a big sports night with friends, beer and crunchy snacks.
“Are you saying you have restrictions on when I can be up or make any sort of noise? Do you snore?”
He looked away, narrowed his eyes at the wood floor. Who was she, questioning him? But yes, he did snore, that had irked Evan until he’d found good ear plugs. And also, he was a periodic insomniac so could get up a few times.
“I see how this is, my friend, so good luck with finding someone who fits all your needs.” She started to rise form her chair.
“No, wait, we’ve just begun. I really need an apartment mate. Tell me more. Basic info about your own lifestyle, is that okay?”
“I work as noted in the county building handling building permit requests and such, go out with friends often enough but am not a raging drunk or pitiful drug abuser and have no pets at the moment; I do have one stuffed dog from years ago–don’t ask–named Goldie who will stay put on my bed. I like classic movies and cook some but prefer take out. I am tolerant of most tunes and love world music. I run each morning around six–well, I used to have access to a stinky gym in my other building but now I’ll run again, along the river, that should be fun! I’m a hiker and a dragon boat team racer. I have no boyfriend now and won’t be looking. I’m neat enough.”
“Dragon boat teammate, nice,” he murmured.
She studied him as he jotted notes and laughed. “You’re writing this all down?”
Timothy put aside the note pad and pen. “I took info on the other three, too. I’m sharing a home with a stranger, right?” He tried to make himself look at ease, took a breath, let it seep out. “Look, I’ll check your references and get back to you in a few days.”
“Come on, Timothy, I have the money right now and if you need a security deposit, that’s fine, too. I have to get into a place ASAP–they’re tearing the three-story down to put up one hundred-sixty condo units that will rent for some crazy price.” She looked about. ” I can afford this, it’s a wonderful place–even near my work. And I think you’re a nice enough guy, a far better sort than the third roommate we had a short time who was a bona fide slob and kept a few scary reptiles caged in his room. You’re just a little rigid…we’re workable, right? Or do you have some nutty habits I’ll run from, screaming in fright? Because I don’t need all that.”
He cleared his throat to cover his surprise over the money as well as her dwelling circumstances and the snake handler. “Well, I’ve got my ways, but I’m not an intolerant person, just organized. Quiet by nature. I’m a kind of studious sort of guy except for some sports on TV. I don’t get too wild, no–that’s a serious understatement…so, guess that’s it, then. When will you move in?”
It took her over two weeks to haul in possessions–not so many, just one piece at a time, it seemed to him– despite her emphatic statement that it’d be five days, max. This was his first clue about her lateness.
But she ended up being a fine roommate, paid her rent ahead of time, kept her things picked up, was cordial and lively without being intrusive. They’d found they had a few things in common, despite her opinionated frankness and his more neutral philosophizing. Despite her terribly long hot baths and his fast cool showers. Despite the contrast between her chatty friends–one of whom slept on the couch after concerts or films or drinking a few and dancing at a monthly ceili, of all things–and his two very good friends who he met out somewhere else excepting baseball and basketball season on television and playing golf a couple times a month in good weather.
And Madeline liked baseball a lot, it turned out. And thrift store shopping, going to see travelogues, volunteering for park clean ups, sitting by the river with a book and music. They had, day by day and activity by activity, just become friends. Timothy suspected this meant more to him. She had an interesting and busy life compared to his and the more she went out, the more he stayed in it seemed. He worked hard on his side jobs and saved up–he wanted to buy his own place one day. It was a relief, his solitary immersion in silence so the high ceilings echoed only with the click-click of his computer keyboard, the bright clink of ice against the sides of a tall glass of minty green tea. He nearly forgot she lived there when she was gone a couple of days, then he realized he waited for her to show up when she said she’d be home.
But she kept him waiting no matter the plans. It had irritated him so long that he felt he might blow up the minute she walked in this time. Timothy had to tell her in no uncertain terms that such lack of consideration was unacceptable. Either they should not plan things together often or she had to promise to be on time.
He settled in with an espresso and a notebook for recording ideas for his next projects. But he did love Little Paris district and the Jolie Cafe. They’d discovered it when thirsting for a great cup of coffee. That day they’d bought an antique gilded mirror for the foyer. And they’d taken home delicate apricot croissants for late night snacks and two bear claws for breakfast the next morning–though she’d been late for work so rushed off without hers. But it was that day when there was a switching of tracks in his brain, when something appeared at the edges of his sight, even though they’d said and done nothing different. She’d turned to laugh her belly laugh at something he’d quipped, long hair whipping about the planes of noteworthy cheekbones, and he saw all that light welling up inside her and haphazardly spilling over, and he felt a rush of warmth, even in the lines of his palms and fingertips, along the back of his neck, and then it paused and bloomed in the center of his chest.
He didn’t think she noticed. He was so unsure of himself with women. Even of their friendship after that.
He looked at his pocket watch given to him by his grandfather, a dairy man who also bred fine horses. The old man would be happy to know it stayed with him all these years, that he’d taken care to keep it running. What would he think of his work, he often wondered, of the way he’d turned his back on the family legacy and toward this city life? He’d have been pleased after he thought it over awhile, just like his dad, Timothy imagined. He checked the time once more, sighed in a rush of caffeinated breath.
Both of them would have appreciated Madeline–her respect for nature, exuberance, how she handled herself with confidence and humor. Grandpa wouldn’t worry so much about her penchant for forgetting time and he’d take Timothy aside to say, Have to go with the natural rhythm and order of things, no matter who or what, be patient with women, too.
Thirty-five minutes now, no, forty. He checked his phone–no messages–then slammed back the rest of the espresso and gathered up his things. He wasn’t waiting any longer.
At the cafe’s heavy front door was an explosion of motion as it was shoved open. In rushed Madeline and a waitress looked up in surprise, reached out to slow her down then stepped back, hand to mouth. Timothy’s back was turned but when Madeline uttered his name in a strange voice and grabbed his shoulders, he pivoted. He took her by the arms, lead her to his table, sat her down. He leaned forward as he took her all in, trembling knees touching hers, her jeans dirtied, torn. Words were useless but customers had begun to whisper. The waitress had run off and fast returned with wet towel in hand, the manager right behind her, both white-faced.
Madeline’s own face was a ghastly study in pain, of raw gashes and swollen pink areas that were already darkening to bruises. Blood seeped and flowed, the worst from a large cut two inches beneath her right eye. Her neck was splotchy and her hands dangling at her sides were marred by scrapes, broken fingernails that bled, too. Her rain jacket was torn and stained. Her whole body, her expression held the feel and look of horror but no tears fell. She tried to slow down her breathing and making little headway despite encouragement from the waitress, Carol, and Timothy. The manager hovered, asking repeatedly if he should call 911, then he just dialed.
“What happened, how did you get hurt–who did this?” Timothy said as he gently dabbed at blood and grime and soon giving up. He had to get her to help.
“From the bus stop I took a shortcut–I was so late!–ran through an alley I’ve taken before oh my god Timothy, two guys, a woman they grabbed and tripped me– I was–tried to fight, got up, was hit again, dragged me back down, took my purse, everything, oh no this really hurts–”
Tears then, great heaves, her hurt cheeks streaming as people gathered about or quietly exited the cafe. A siren wailed in the distance and Carol knelt down, put an arm around her but Madeline reached for Timothy so he pulled her slowly onto his lap and held her there. She buried her damaged face into his sweater-soft shoulder, wept hard. All he wanted was to carry her out of there, pick her up and take her to medical care and then home, far away from police reports and gawkers. Far from her burgeoning fear as adrenaline subsided so that the nightmare and pain came forward to assault mind and body again and again.
They lay in her bed as the long white curtains with tiny green ferns billowed at a half-open window. Late morning sunlight spilled over exposed skin, illuminated their eyes as he stared beyond the window into an unreal new day and she, at the most ordinary comfort of a textured ceiling. A robin sang its loud, repetitive song; cars and buses and trucks honked and made their way to the next stop.
Madeline rolled awkwardly toward him, trying not to emit a moan but finally letting go a whimper. Her neck, head and face; arms and hands; hips and knees had been x-rayed, prodded, disinfected, stitched, butterfly band-aid patched, swathed in gauze as needed. Antibiotics had been administered since she’d been taken down in the alley. Nearly beaten. Nothing was broken; she’d sport such big bruises. Scars that might be fixed later. She’d had a mild concussion; doctors had kept her in hospital for twelve hours. The police had followed, taken her complete report, then seemed to have an idea who the attacking thieves might be. No comfort, that, not then and not in the morning. It had happened to her, it was an event no one could have foreseen, and the damage had been sustained and would remain for some time. Long after flesh and sinew healed.
“Timothy?” she whispered, one bandaged hand lain crumpled on his chest.
His face turned to hers and he held her loosely so as not to jostle or squeeze one wounded spot. He ached for her aching but had found few words.
“Can we stay right here… a long, long, long time?”
He blinked back sudden dampness at the corner of his eyes, raised his head to barely brush her quivering lips with his own.
“Forever if you like.” He put a hand lightly atop her arm, felt her warmth and his mingle. “But maybe we could work on time issues, and then there’s safety…”
“Mmm, um, good,” she mumbled then slowly draped a leg over his. “Glad that’s at least settled.”
Madeline drifted off again. Timothy knew she might mean the matter of time or safety as well as staying there forever but all the same, he had to clench his teeth to keep from shouting out in sorrow and in joy.
I visit a suburban coffee shop right after I get work done at the dentist. And if I feel restless, unfocused or a bit lonely I can head to my area “close-in” (interesting word for inner city near the river, gradually gentrified and booming) city streets to mix with others who are sipping a latte or macchiato or double espresso. Coffee shops abound in my city and they are always busy. Within a few blocks I have my choice of a half dozen, and a 5-10 minute drive will take me to another twelve (or more). I found conflicting numbers regarding how many Portland metro area offers, but it is may lie somewhere between 750-850 shops (one source stated at least 1200, not too shocking). And then there are the cafes which offer lighter food offerings with their impressive array of coffee as well as fine teas. I have favorite stops in my neighborhood but I won’t deign to rate them as I’m no coffee snob. I go where it’s friendly, the drinks go down easy and don’t agitate my stomach while the decor doesn’t startle or bore me too much. Though I can order a fresh cup at a tiny hangdog roadside stand and be fulfilled as I drive away.
I have always loved tea and have become more a tea person over the years (this stomach is fussy). Still, I enjoy a good cup now and then, especially an expert Aztec mocha made with almond milk, no whip. Add a tasty scone or banana or zucchini bread. That specific drink is found at Insomnia Coffee in the suburbs, and I look forward to visiting following each dentist appointment. Since I’m a frequent patient–they treat me like family–this is a grand motivator for me to endure with acceptance any indignities that are forthcoming. Last Monday I stopped as usual at Insomnia but to my dismay it was being remodeled. What a let down, I thought the interior is great. I’m hoping this is a good sign, they’ll be back with bigger or better changes. But there are other choices, of course, though I went home to nurse my own cold brew mocha before the numbness wore off.
It got me thinking, though, how big a role coffee shops and/or cafes play in my life and apparently most people’s– at least in the Northwest, place of chilled rainy winters (but long clear summers). There are so many bars and eateries here where scores of people drop loads of money but I don’t drink alcohol and am not a big foodie. Thus, coffee and tea with lighter fare are mainstays. I go in search fairly often, as Portlanders do, for these. (We are reputedly just third in the country for most coffee drinkers–Seattle and San Francisco beat us a bit.)
I like the fact that these shops are meeting places and they support our artisan culture. I like the civilized air that presides in such businesses no matter how humble, how varieties of people come together and don’t find anything to fight about despite a good caffeine buzz. And most of our coffee shops are independently owned, despite Starbucks’ ubiquity (only 295 here owned by them…) and they do thrive. Beyond that it’s the atmosphere, usually cozy, sometimes sophisticated, and wall to wall packed with humans. (And sometimes dogs; Portland is dog heaven, one wonders if they are the actual ruling class here.) I muse over how we can be shoulder to shoulder yet claim our bit of privacy, too, and everyone goes about their own business–or not, if given to spontaneous conversations. Often computers dominate the tables, though, another pro for coffee shop hounds.
Just last Saturday morning my friend Brenda and I met to catch up. We live thirty minutes or more away depending on traffic so we usually talk on the phone, then meet up as we can. We were in the atmospheric Costello’s Travel Cafe, started after a young man traveled the world, then returned with a vision for a family business. (Other good spots for us include Grand Central Bakery, Jim and Patty’s, Townshend Teas, Stumptown, Caffe D’Arte, Petite Provence, Fleur de Lis, Peet’s, Cadillac Cafe–yes, it showcases a real, very pink vintage Cadillac inside). We thought we might be out of luck getting a table but spotted a narrow one pressed against a front window. She snagged it as I got in line to order at the counter, then she took a spot in the longer line as I sipped my mug of coffee and tasted a mixed berry scone. One comes armed with patience at coffee shops or you might even stand outside to snag a table or even a bench as someone leaves. Or up and find another nearby spot.
We had a good view of full tables outdoors–it was chilly but no rain. There was sheer blue sky above houses turned into businesses, a few older offices. Pedestrians attired in various fashions or lack thereof, hard to say, sauntered by. There also stood a medium sized, buff colored, luxuriously furred mutt tied up at a bike rack. He’d accompanied a couple of guys who sat across from him. That dog attracted everyone who passed, like honey for bees, though he did nothing but sit, then stand assuredly, a model of a dog. Perhaps that was it–he didn’t set off alarms and was just being gorgeous.
“Watch this,” Brenda said, “his parents should check that dog and talk to the owner first but there some nutty kid goes!” She sloshed about the tea bag in a bowl-shaped cup, started on a generous slice of cinnamon coffee cake while fascinated by the child’s seemingly reckless actions. “Too late!”
This from a woman whose own dog, Gypsy, growls at me most of the time I get into her car despite having known him all his life. I bare my own teeth in a smile that may be a half-grimace. It’s the protective nature of the beast. Only Brenda has the magic touch. But the owner of the cafe dog had no concerns plus he’d been trained to be nicer…perhaps. Gypsy hasn’t worried me, even lets me pat his head with his mistress’ assurances.
The perhaps four year old boy plunged his hands into all the lovely fur, ruffed it up good as a series of squeals rushed forth. The dog looked at him from the corner of his eye but was pleased to offer enjoyment. The child was loathe to leave–only his parents tugging hard at him pried him off. The next child, an older girl, put her head on the dog’s back and hugged him. Several others paused to pet and speak to the animal who was the most popular being on the block.
I was about to dash out to get my admiring moments in but asked Brenda just how she was doing. Brenda offered a health update which has not been very good for a long while, and then came scenarios involving her six year old niece (for whom she provides care every week-end), and her work with women prisoners (also in treatment for addiction) at a correctional facility. The stories get longer the farther she moves from her health.
All this when a small round table to the right was not three feet away. A young man with laptop had been joined by two female strangers who chatted away, voices medium quiet so he was not disturbed. Brenda’s voice doesn’t lend itself to sotto voce even when it might be applicable. We just mostly talk as if we’re alone. Anyway, the room resounded with conversations; we joke that we’ll next need hearing aids that also block out others. But it’s another coffee shop/cafe with a reputation for talkative gatherings, soccer game gatherings and other events, with worldwide travel footage on two screens. One might be in Europe for all the languages ping-ponging around.
“My niece is a lovable terror, she knows too much and says it all and she always needs attention! I’m very happy to give it. I love that kid.” She laughs from the belly. “Rug rats, that’s what I called children, aye? Not ever my fate! Now I’m a doting aunt. Huh, karma, maybe!”
Her grey–blue eyes squinted in warm light brightening everything. She shook out long, still-damp, reddish-brown hair so it was artlessly arrayed. Her Native American genes show up in rising cheekbones and how they sit next to other features, her circuitous storytelling, and becoming still, taciturn when emotion runs deep.
She sat half-sideways; we were that close to the wall, but not uncomfortable. She is ten years younger than I but walks in pain every step. Never complaining unless it is so bad she can’t contain it. Her wild life story is evident in her face but so is a quirky good humor. Brenda finds life generally funny despite the horrors humans live through (or do not). She maybe should retire from her work as the battle her body fights takes its toll but she loves her clients, is committed to being of service to others. This is all she knows to do.
She’s been talking about life span lately, how fast it all goes, how it is best to seize every day and find it good before it seeps away. I know she means both of us–my heart problems, her multiple issues. But more often I sense in her some clouded if infinite horizon as she talks, see the wisp of a most uncertain future in her gaze. I look away for the sharp hurt it brings. And then she is back in the present with a joke and I talk about my adult kids and writing–she has never read it and I have never asked, it’s not needed for she knows me at heart–and the ways of my marriage and our recent trips. She cares for her elderly and similarly feisty mother, travels occasionally but only to hear music, Las Vegas or San Francisco. Once long ago she she took a cruise ship. She listens to my life as I do hers. She want to have lunch with a daughter and me.
We talk about the concert we’re attending in late spring. She has bought tickets (she buys online the first minute) for every Bonnie Raitt concert we could go to–is it five or six or even more, now?– and then I always ask what my portion is. Demand it.
“So just how much is my ticket to this concert? I know it costs a lot, this is Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor, come on! We’re in the ninth row, the middle!”
She waves my words away, shakes her head. “You can get me dinner before and a t-shirt! We’re all set to go.”
“You’re impossible, you always say this when you know I can pay my way and am glad to do it. How can I possibly repay you?”
“I like to do this, you’re my friend, go with the flow.” She grinned, closed the topic.
I think over where we might eat before the concert. Think how I can never do enough for her, she won’t often accept it. But I am her friend.
It has been over twenty-five years since we met, working at a facility for gang-affiliated, addicted, abused and homeless youth. We did not trust each other, only grew to like each other when we took smoke breaks together. We stood near the locked doors at night and under eaves if it rained or sat on the curb if it was daytime, clear skies. Made coffee runs together to breath a bit. She initially noted I was “too Miss Junior League and sorta snooty” and I found her dominating, quickly abrasive. I felt tempted to smack her some moments but of course, professional hopes and good sense corralled irritation. We discovered we were far more than what the eye could decipher: she was interested in both God and politics as well as the arts, especially music-. Not just her beloved blues but opera (though she didn’t and doesn’t like jazz, to my consternation). Treating people with respect despite the sharp edges she had. And I was no delicate cream puff, not by a long shot, having lived life on and off many edges if not right in the street. She later said she suspected that, she just had to test me to see, but she was surprised I could handle such tough kids. I soon appreciated her frankness and gave it right back. We laughed hard, something I had forgotten I could do. I liked that we laughed at ourselves, too.
The cafe was buzzing. She picked at her cake as I finished my scone, her voice trailing off as she finished responding to my sharing. She was tired. I glanced at my phone to check the time. I had a commitment with another friend later, a wealth of good times for one day.
“Ready for the music hunt?” I asked.
“Sounds good, sis-tah.”
We exited for Part 2 of visiting. This was how it went when we got together–coffee or tea with food, then music, then maybe something else. (She rarely comes to my upper floor apartment as the stairs are too much to tackle.) After checking on a congenial Labradoodle dog–the Royal Furry One had left– we took off for the independent music store we love. It has an intimate, cavernous semi-darkness and the various music played, loud. After twenty minutes Brenda was empty-handed while I’d found a jazz trio. She was coughing, that cough that would not let go, and her steps had been more halting after we’d parked. Despite all, she laughed it off, as ever: “I get premium parking in handicapped spots since hips and foot went bad!” The surgeries helped but not enough.
A broad-shouldered woman, taller than I am, she commands a room even when feeling compromised. It’s her air of authority right or wrong, the laser-like vision and instinct that scans a scene, her way of asserting that she’s able to hold off any threat as necessary with her will or a few choice, well-paced words that ring in heads for long moments after. She stands as she lives, with courage and clarity, exudes a passionate interest in life. Even when she, herself, may be vulnerable. Of course, she is just a person felled by what most are felled by even while asserting it’s all good, she’s got this. And I stand by her.
A narrow window revealed the sun sliding behind thickening clouds. We both had other things to do, not like some days when our agendas are clear so we can waste time and do things like shop at Target for nothing special or visit a dog park so Gypsy is freed from the back of her car.
In the car, she stated, “Don’t put that CD in, I don’t want to hear “your crazy-ass jazz.” I retorted, “I don’t want to hear all those moaning blues, either.” That’s how we are sometimes, smart-mouthed, quick to point out differences that are really just a few steps apart, like the span between chartreuse and pine green.
Next time. There has always been a “next time” year after year, and we have each changed. She’s gotten more careful with language and more pensive. I have found more joy and peace, shed my reserved amour some. Perhaps we’ll meet at a pretty place that has fifty fine teas in big glass jars or at a spartan setting with bagels and cheaper coffee or a brunch spot where we’ll wait for fifteen minutes and the superior coffee costs a fortune. It may be a hideaway coffee shop with a spacious patio and vines snaking up a fence; there’ll be flowers blooming soon. She’ll fuss about pesky, noisy birds and I’ll offer a few nature stories gathered during hikes. We’ll sip and snack and talk about things, the hardest and the easier, the idiocy of this world and the beauty we still find.
Next year she may feel better, maybe not. Likely not. But we have this stellar friendship, and Bonnie Raitt again in June, that much I will count on despite life being fickle and this flesh wears out bit by bit, mostly without our permission.
I cannot begin to imagine all those fine coffee shops without Brenda.