Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Jill’s Gospel of Colors

The narrow street below was rife with movement and sounds that kept distracting her from her focus: finding the exact combination of pieces that added up to the whole of what she should wear. Her name was called out in a bellow–Tee, as he paused to stub out his cigarette against the facing wall of her brick townhouse. How many times had she asked him to stop the vandalizing but he was barely seventeen with miserable acne and a penchant for dabbling in electronic music nobody yet appreciated. Her neighbor Mariah’s son, in fact, and even she admitted, hand to head, that he got up to mischief more often than not. He complied with Jill slightly by smashing it near the sidewalk so it looked more like a smudge than a marred spot.

Jill pushed up the window sash to call back, “Hey, Tee, stop harassing my building, get on with your day!”

Two other people glanced up at her–including Mrs. Scallon who never acknowledged anyone– and then hurried on; the black lab, Scotch, barked before squatting as her hungover owner squinted at his phone; and the garbage truck honked loud and long so it could lumber on and squeeze through.

But Tee’s sharp laugh scuttled up the wall as he dashed off, backpack bouncing against his thick back. He kept his music low, but she could still hear it across from the street some week-end nights when he was braver about shoving it into the world. She didn’t think it was bad, maybe some of it was much better than bad, and she told him so. When first she said so, he’d looked down at his feet, just puffed away as she swatted the smoke away. Since then he’d been more civilized in general but his cigarette habits didn’t waver–her exterior wall was not the only one to bear the brunt of it.

“Tee and his own Teendom,” she murmured and tore off the gauzy fuchsia scarf she’d wrapped three times about her neckline. The mirror glared back at her.

It was all about color schemes. Jill thought in color, dreamed in color, solved work problems that held their own colors. Right now it was the dress, literally a color; it was all wrong. A navy chemise meant to be worn to a classical concert, perhaps or gallery opening or important work function–navy meant being orderly and restrained, meant business or even authority. Not a casual meeting with an old friend. She needed more light-infused color, maybe more jewel toned. But not blue, after all.

She glanced through the rest of the berry hue’s incarnations to see if another item jumped out at her. She looked good in this hue. And she needed help. Her hair was just a tad early grey at the temples–she refused to toy with that reality–but worse, her eyes were bloodshot and crinkly about the edges. The smiley eyes that had eased her through many of life’s tight spots looked worn out from the very act of ordinary seeing. It was, in truth, sleep deprivation wrecking havoc. She squirted eye drops in each, than started at the other end of her closet.

A fine panoply of greens and blues, then reds gradually going to rust toward sienna brown and beyond. Jill had them organized, cataloged–she saw them in her mind when drifting off to sleep, a lovely rebuttal to any disquiet that taunted her. Life was a parade of colors and they each had their place. They all meant something different, and found themselves adorning her slim–if hippy and a bit long-waisted–body as required each morning. According to feeling, instinct, her considered dictate. Each day was set by its tone, its matching color.

This morning had become more knitted with tension and that made it murky and in need of repair. Although the sun cast buttery tones across the bedroom floor and tried to soothe her, she felt chilly and tightly drawn, hands fumbling with each item, her neck developing the fuzzy ache that followed a restless night. Her hand went to the boat neck, raspberry sweater, yes, that was it. Today needed a softness that was lively. She needed that kindness, a vibrant warmth like a promise of good fortune. She lay her chemise on the bed to hang later and pulled on the cashmere sweater, light and airy but warding off the new autumn chill in the air. The pants were easy, charcoal grey, a fine wale corduroy that felt and looked like velvet. Her streaky auburn and greying hair was pulled back into a high ponytail and a slick of sugar maple lipstick dashed on. Black ankle boots were tried on; her summered feet settled, ready to stride into fall weather.

To finally take on–no, she didn’t dare let that image enter her kaleidoscopic brain cells–to finally see him face-to-face one last time.

******

“It wasn’t like that,” she had told Mariah a week earlier as they shared a mammoth pumpkin spice scone over coffee. “We weren’t equals and there was no question, he was an associate professor. Photography was his talent, and I was another student waltzing through an easy class. I knew how to point and shoot, I had a good brain, how hard could it be? Or so I thought. But Carter Tennington’s passion for it hooked me, and I registered for more the next year. Finally was allowed into his upper level filmaking series. I could do more than frame a simple shot. But not much more yet.”

Mariah smiled at that. Jill Manwell had pictures in galleries now. Mariah had a gorgeous view of the city and mountains hanging on her wall.

“He was–what, thirty, thirty-five?” she asked, pressing crumbs onto her fingers, then licking them off.

“I guess so, yes, to my twenty. And I found him too serious, shy, and though the adventurous girls tried to shake him up, he wasn’t having it from what I saw. Carter Tennington wasn’t apparently married or gay; he just was not available. Which was fine. By then I was so enthused about photography and film that I changed my degree program from mechanical engineering to fine arts. We worked on some things together, a documentary on student debt, a short feature that I wrote, projects with others. There was one exploring the cycle of seasons at a local nature preserve, how the seasons were impacted by human abuses–that one got an award at a national college film fest. Over that last year I got to know him a little more but could not cross any lines. He got me, he saw me, yet he was too decent or I was too young. I was scared of something like that. I went to grad school, got a decent job with a marketing company. A start if not my favorite.” I shrugged and grabbed the last bite of scone. “And that was that.”

Mariah studied her, that sharp gaze cutting though historical narrative. “But you had a thing for him.”

“I might have if encouraged but it faded. I didn’t date the last year or so, anyway–it was all about meeting my goals.”

“Then you got married, though, to Nelson, the big shot.”

“Well.” I opened my mouth, closed it. She didn’t know the whole story about that. I tried to forget. “And divorced five years later, and have stayed single, as you know, mostly.”

“So–now?”

“The ‘now’ is a simple catch up of old student and teacher, Mariah. Now he is a pretty big producer of independent films. I’m flattered that he remembered me, at all. If it wasn’t for Lucy at work, we’d never have connected.”

“Right, the husband’s acquaintance. Then why is he meeting you at the market, not at a more businesslike dinner?”

“He does his shopping there? Who knows, anonymity?”

“When he’s at a hotel, on a business trip?”

“He said bring along my camera.”

“Well,” she said, laughing, “that’s a weird thing…vegetables, fruits!”

Tee poked his head in the dining nook. “Hey, got some new music, Jilly, wanna hear it before I blast it out there?”

“Theodore, don’t use that name–“

“It’s okay, pretty harmless after five years. Let’s hear it, if I must.


I followed him into his chaotic room–coats, socks and sneakers piled on the bed, vinyl records on the floor, books in piles that teetered, prints and posters of various, vivid sorts on the walls. It wasn’t the first time she’d entered his den to hear his creations, but she stepped lightly, the last time there were grapes under foot.

When he first played the three minute recording she found it too dissonant, no cohesive center. Then he played it two more times, and she discovered lead lines, then unusual harmonies, got caught up by the beat more. She had grown up with music–her parents owned two jazz clubs and another small venue–and she knew a little. This was not bad, at all. She had confidence in his abilities.

“It’s good raw sound, it could use refinement of melody but it has a nice groove. I like the middle part and last few seconds best, they stir things up, then tie it up. Grab us more with the start, make me need to listen from the start. Play with the harmonies more.”

“Yeah, okay, we’ll see about that.” Tee nodded sagely, put on his ear phones. Jill edged her way out the door and waved at Mariah as she exited the apartment.

Tee stared after her, shook his head. She was alright, Jilly, she was smart, had respect. He thought her sweater and all looked good. But she was kinda old for his music genre and way too conservative for his personal interest. Not to say, again, way too old.

******

She grabbed her Nikon from its shelf and left, a few minutes behind schedule after changing her boots to lace-up burgundy ones. The colorful ones were energetic, bold; her feet felt happier, so she felt better. No jacket–the late morning had heated up even though the breeze had an edge, nipping gently at cheeks and hands as she rushed to the plaza.

Jill knew what Cater Tennington looked like because he was in social media, in magazines now that he was getting known. She had followed his progress and noted he got fuller bodied, developed a bronzey-ruddy look that reflected world travels, she’d imagined. He had the same full head of unruly hair, a small smile.

As she walked rapidly toward the fountain, she wondered for the hundredth time what this was about. All the text had said was he had a morning free, could they meet after fifteen years, have a chat. There was nothing to get anxious about though her stomach had refused breakfast. And, after all, Jill had done fine, too, was Creative Director of VIP Marketing. And had published or shown several of her photographs. Maybe he was just pleased she’d done well; when she graduated, he’d wished her the best.

Her eyes scanned heads and faces as she neared the market and central fountain. Shoppers hoisted cloth bags of fresh produce, gathered and parted, then crowded about yellow tables with lunches from food stalls. They tied up their salivating dogs, offering them tidbits. Everything was about eating. She hoped Carter wouldn’t suggest lunch; she was not relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Nowhere did she see anyone who resembled the man she only knew from media. She stopped by boxes of early apples and tasted a sample slice and found it went down fine so took another.

At the fountain, she put camera to eye and snapped away. It was a happy scene with families and friends enjoying each other, and the moving, impressionistic swaths of colors buoyed her further. If he didn’t show, the visit there was always worth it.

“Jill?”

He had spotted her first. She swung around as Carter hesitated a few feet away, then took steps forward, as did she. She noted his jeans, a comfortable tweedy, camel-colored sweater, and a worn straw fedora. It all gave off a mellowness: slightly rumpled, old fashioned but classic. The prof.

“How’d you recognize me? Your face is much more familiar these days!”

They reached out a hand and shook each other’s, then he motioned to a low wall they could sit on under a shade tree.

“Well, not so hard to manage. Tim Spalding, Lucy’s husband, mentioned your company and job, so I looked you up a few weeks ago.”

My eyebrows rose in surprise as I tried to still feign poise. “That was easy, then…I know you from the media, of course.”

“And here we are, Jill. It’s fifteen years, right? When I heard you were living here, I had to see how you’d fared. Congratulations on a stellar career.”

“I can sure say the same for you, Carter, though I can’t find the best admiring words to encompass what you’ve accomplished. Wow! I guess that says it.”

“Yeah, well.” He looked at his open palms, rubbed them together, then folded them in his lap. “It happened faster than I imagined and yet it was all the right timing. I taught two more years after you left, after I showed my film, ‘Erasing Melancholia’.”

“Ah.” Jill hadn’t heard of it; she hadn’t heard of anything until “Zero at the Start” over ten years ago.

“Don’t be embarrassed, no one knew of it but the right person saw it, a small door swung open. Off I went.” His shoulder touched hers briefly and he pulled right back. “The thing is, we worked together off and on for two, three years, right? And I thought you had such talent. I’d hoped you would do something with it. I hear you have sold photos; that’s good. But marketing, though it is a good career, no doubt–is that what you wanted?”

“Well.” She leaned into the big maple’s shadows, pushed her bangs out of her eyes. Should she be offended or flattered? What did it matter? Here she was sitting by Carter Tennington! Her stomach fluttered. She took a deep breath. “Lots happened after I got my Masters. I got married to a guy who knew all about that world, I had some bad jobs, then I got divorced, I got better jobs–I had to take care of myself and I was not shy about my ambition. And I like much of what I do.”

“He fired you because you were so good at the work and he couldn’t abide it, he was not a good guy,” he said quietly. “Not that anyone could prove he did so because of that.”

She stood up and crossed her arms. “Well, you’re sure not shy like you were before. I don’t know how you’re getting my personal info but it’s off-putting, this is just a casual meet-up, right? I didn’t comb the news for your flops or mishaps.”

He stood, too, reached for her forearm, withdrew his hand. “Quite right, forgive me. It was Tim– Lucy told him your story. He and I had drinks last night…I apologize, Jill. He was only preparing me for today, I suppose.” He took off his hat then, ran a hand over his perspiring forehead and through the thicket of hair. “Let’s move on. Can we start over with a cold drink and a stroll?”

She took my camera in hand and positioned it so she caught images of the cheery crowd milling about, the fountain erupting and cascading, then shot Carter starting to walk with one hand outstretched toward me, his hat being secured with the other. Without sunglasses, people would know his face. If she ever edited it, printed and matted, then showed it. Which she would not.

“Fair enough,” he said, hands held up. And suddenly he laughed.

She snapped another of his congenial smile, then we got raspberry iced teas and kept on. They were surrounded by vibrantly beautiful produce. He bought two peaches and she, a bag of plums.

By the time they reached the end of the market, they chatted away like old friends. And perhaps more now than before. The years had not deleted a basic comraderie they’d shared, if only in passing. They stood silent at last, and looked out over the sunlit lagoon, the water almost turquoise, then deep blue green as fat clouds passed overhead.

“The point of my seeing you today is twofold.” His vice was lowered and he looked at her steadily with clear eyes. “One is to admit that I hadn’t stopped thinking of you after fifteen years. You were special, as a budding photographer. As a person. I’d hoped to know you better sometime. It was just…it was a hard time back then. I had cancer then, you see. I was having chemo all that time. It was a very rough patch.” He shook his head to stay my words. “And then I went into remission and you were gone, my film work was put out there. Things changed faster than expected. I’ve stayed well, surprisingly. My whole life was turned around. But I fell for you once,you see, and never quite fell away–at least from the possibility.” He loked away. “And I heard you’re single…”

When he looked back at her, he lay his hands lightly on her shoulders and she shivered. “What do you think of all that?”

“Okay, then…not too sure right now.” That was all she say. It was too much to take in. If she’d known he was ill, would that have changed one thing? Maybe not; she was young, unsure of herself, far more than he was. Her mind swirled with colorful memories and newer feelings.

“The other reason I’m here is that I’d like you to consider being an associate producer for my next film. I know you have the vision, and now you have formidable organizational skills, no doubt, and confidence. And likely the needed creative insight. But it’s Chicago, not here. Maybe you can think about it, at least? We can talk money, details– if you even want to go the next–“

“Yes. I do want to work alongside you. And what on earth took you so long, Carter?”

We held each other so long I thought we’d meld into one out there in public, where anyone could see us, even recognize Carter Tennington and break the spell. But no one did–or dared to come closer.

“By the way, I love you in raspberry and charcoal–and what are those boots, pomegranate?” he whispered into my hair.

“Burgundy, is all. And I do love you in an old straw hat and camel sweater,” and then I hugged him closer as he slipped an amethyst dahlia blossom into my hair.

******

Much later, after a boat trip on the lagoon, after dinner, after a long walk and more talk, then their first truthful kiss, she returned to her townhouse. He had to fly out early. Jill had to catch her breath, then figure out how to quit her job and join his team. Commence to fashion a new life.

As she turned out the bedside lamp and crawled into bed to contemplate it all, she heard a familiar swell, crackle, then a drone and meander; it slipped and rippled through the air. The little song that could, the tune that traveled well beyond its simplistic origins and merged with something finer, richer. Tee’s tune.

He turned it up louder, shoving higher the glass window.

“Hey Jilly! Listen!”

“Tee, no, quiet down!” She pressed her face against the screen. “It’s past midnight, no one wants to hear shouting– or your music, for that matter!”

“If not now, when? It sounds good, right? I messed with it!”

She listened after she gestured to him to lower the volume.

“Yeah, alright–it has energy, interwoven melodies and harmonies, great rhythms. Spark.”

“Spark?”

“You know, mojo.” He shook his head. “Well, it has….some magic in there.”

He did it–he whistled his train whistle, he was so excited by the progress. She never did know why her opinion mattered. Tee just said and did odd things, being a rather brilliant young man. But even though it was Saturday night and the neighbors knew Tee, a piercing noise like that was not tolerated. Right then dogs started to bark; two doors opened wide for people to check things out; one guy yelled from his balcony, “shut up, you nutcase!”; a woman yanked her companion into a dark corner and did not emerge.

She settled back as Mariah entered her son’s room, blond hair a flash in the overhead light. She came to the window, looked toward Jill, then added her voice to the mix.

“What’re you two thinking? Turn it all down! Where do you think you live, the desolate prairie? Some cheap-o street?”

Mariah said something else, maybe she asked if Jill was doing okay after Carter. But Jill wasn’t telling anyone anything a few days. She sank back into her pillows and pulled up the sky blue and rich cream floral quilt. The perfect colors and pattern for tranquility. For comfort. For a new-old love to bloom along the horizon. But she’d miss this familiar kind of fireworks night, too. She’d miss Tee’s music emerging and expanding, the notes each a different color, gliding and diving through space.

The Fine Art of Brady O’Connell

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

What more could she say? It was how things were, wasn’t that right? Some had opportunity and with it, money, and some did not. Some had love and others had less than what they’d dreamed and hoped for, schemed over. Nicola was not the sort who nattered on and on about what she didn’t get. It was tiresome, even to her own ears. But this was harder to take that she’d expected. After  a couple of weeks it still reared up and kicked at her.

Brady hunched over the table. He leaned on his elbows, arms crossed against a massive chest. His shoulders about blotted out the window behind him. Nicola mused that he was beginning to look like one of those aging television wrestlers, still big on top, paunchy form there down. He was, in fact, a middle-aged academician who taught art history and drawing at the community college.  He was good at what he did; she ought to be more proud of him. But he had, it turned out, so little ambition that he hadn’t bothered after a certain point to ferret out a more prestigious position. Say, overseas. Or on one of the finer coastal campuses where you could escape it all, dawdling along an infinite beach. Brady said it himself: “I teach first for love of it, then for a small studio space, then for money.”

“They’ve earned it, this is a reward,” he offered once more.

Nicola stuck out her neck so she could better peer at his guileless eyes. She tried to keep the acid from her words. “We’ve earned it, too, in notable sweat and blood, but it doesn’t add up the same as persistent career ladder climbing. With resultant promotions.”

“We need to be happy for them,” he gently protested, arms opened in an expansive gesture.

“Right, I’m pleased for them. They’re our second best friends–well, maybe third–and they have always wanted to go to the Mediterranean. On a cruise. Not that I would go on a cruise. All those people adrift on a gigantic boat with nothing to see but endless water. Then docking and unloading, touristing about, eating your fill of who knows what, sun rays welcomed as if immune to damage, then just loading up again Ha.”

His considerable brow creased and smoothed as he stretched. “I thought you loved the idea or a boat trip.”

“I did until I heard the itinerary. And Trina is taking a huge basically empty suitcase she can cram full of trinkets and finds. Seems an excessive approach, how much can you buy that you need?” She glanced out the window: sheets of rain, granite sky, forlorn trees. “Still.”

Relived to hear her dismissal of a big trip, Brady’s mind calmed, then began to fill with images of Trina and his good friend Hans luxuriating on a tawny bluff overlooking a sapphire sea. He pictured how he’d pull out his sketchbook as if it was him not Hans going, and then opening his case of colored pencils. How wonderful to go somewhere mind boggling, experience fresh horizons. He could nearly feel Greek island warmth spread over his balding pate, onto his face and neck. Who knew what masterpiece he might be inspired to create there?

Nicola knew that dreamy, self referential look so got up. She carefully placed their cups in the sink. On the way to the laundry room, she muttered an uncivilized word. What was he thinking– that she would forever hold on for some small reward? All the years she had scrimped and made do and gone along with his plans and they were still barely ahead of the rising costs of living. Life too often felt like a ravenous bear that had to be kept well-fed, then tricked to avert its charging down a short trail to her door.

She’d worked, too, as a dental office manager. Until the highway car smash-up, leg breaking in two places, her right two middle fingers numb after hand injury and so-called reparative surgery. She was no longer fast or accurate on a keyboard, worked only two days a week answering the phone. It was almost humiliating to be there at all.

Nicola dropped things most of the time unless she immediately recalled her left hand was now meant to be dominant. More useful or prized items had been lost to that lapse of memory in two years than were lost in the previous twenty. Now she did lost of crossword puzzles–they didn’t require a fully legible scrawl–or played solitaire or read book after book or puttered in the yard. She took care of Brady. She waited until her fully employed friends were home from work to chat but they always rushed about –could they call her later?

There was a tomato-y spot on Brady’s newer, blue oxford button-down. She saturated it with stain remover, scrubbed until knuckles complained but it remained, a brown blot on an otherwise amenable expanse of blue. The tidy stacks of folded underwear, khakis, tops and towels on a bench gave her some relief. Such a dependable result of her effort was lovely. But as soon as she gazed on them, touching their smooth coolness, her lower lip trembled. The thought of clean laundry making her day right while Trina prepared for exotic shores and bliss–it was too much.

Brady checked his watch, got up and grabbed his jacket from the hall coat tree. He had two classes; time for reveries later. Maybe when he got out his paper, pastels and pencils before turning in. If Nicola didn’t require a lot of care. She had been rather moody of late. Well, since the accident she had, in truth, become more dauntlessly pessimistic. Before then she had allowed room for a gleam of hope here and there at least. That he could live with far better. Now she slipped away into a funk where he, groping, had trouble locating her. It wasn’t a die hard depression, exactly (she had gone through that right after the accident and surgery), just a lukewarm response. Recently it had begun to grow into a predatory resignation, tearing at any peace left.

Since Trina and Hans had informed them of their holiday cruise plans, he thought. All her envy, hurt and regret had come trickling back into their lives, weakening tenuous good will. Brady took his baseball cap from a hook and opened the door. He got half-way out and then stepped  back in.

“Bye Nic, love, see you tonight. It’s Tuesday so I’ll bring Chinese for late dinner.”

He waited as long as he could for her reply, a few beats, but nothing came.

 

******

Brady O’Connell enjoyed seeing the wavering line of colorful, often disheveled students file into his classroom. He loved the lively chatter, anticipating their very occupation of his time and that space. He admired their studied resistance to the banal for fifty minutes while with him. They weren’t entirely thrilled with drawing techniques or an assignment, perhaps, of filling a blank space with a collage of feeling they couldn’t verbalize, nor the history of porcelain or the rise and fall of impressionism. But they did come more than half-ready to attend to his words, ask a number of considered questions. On a good day, that is. The rest of the time, he got to elucidate his knowledge, then demonstrate his skills and wait from them to behave more adult, just catch on. He’d share stories of intrigue, trial and error and creative triumph throughout the centuries. It seemed to help some to utilize this enlarged context for their own aspirations and failures. Brady felt useful, happy when their eyes lit up and they leaned in to him, then got to work.

They asked him occasionally about his own work. He’d refer them to a handful of art journals and an upcoming exhibition. He excelled in detailed colored pencil drawings of nature and also rigorous, elegant architecture, the two intimately related in his mind regarding form and function. Yet it was never done, the demanding work of striving for further excellence. His job depended on it and he knew it was the basis of a vital sense of self-worth. Nicola felt he aimed too low; he felt he was stretching –and was stretched–rather far and high. He wondered how she’d feel if her well being depended on something as nebulous and fickle as creative input and output. How could you measure that? It wasn’t like billing for gold crowns or ordering drill bits. Or like tallying an amount coupons saved on a shopping trip. Or how many hands of solitaire were won out of fifteen. Fifteen in one day she’d confessed, for crying out loud! And that was random, not part of any daily, responsible agenda. That made it more terrible.

There now, this had to stop, he was becoming unkind. But she was becoming more unreachable.

It was the last week of classes until the new term. The students were lazier, missing, inattentive except for one or two motivated artists. Brady gave in their inertia as the afternoon went by. Let his mind go as they worked on a last assignment. They talked in low, chirpy tones of vacation plans. He found himself wandering down nostalgia’s byways, times he had gone skiing with his family over high school week-ends, college breaks. The northern peaks, the place he had perfected slalom skiing. Where he had broken his ankle. Where his parents had announced their separation after twenty years. And where he had met Nicola.

She’d been nineteen, a waitress at Broken Top Ski Resort where his family stayed.

“You going to stare at that menu all afternoon or what?” she’d asked sweetly, with an edge.

Brady had looked up, startled out of a bleary haze. He’d been on the slopes since early morning.

She gave him a grin that flashed teeth, a front tooth just overlapping another. It gave her an approachable look, for she was tall, fit and radiant in the empty dining room.

“You got any cheddar and spinach Quiche left? And more coffee. Please.”

“For you, we might,” she said and poured coffee in his cup, then hummed all the way to the kitchen. He was the most promising thing that had happened in many a day.

When he had finished she asked if he was going to the slopes again that night. He was wiped out, wanted to languish by the massive stone fireplace but curiosity prevailed. And that was the start of young love that became deeper than they expected. He closed his eyes and felt again the razor cold wind on his cheeks, a roaring fire enliven body and soul, her shoulder against his as they talked. Of what did they speak? It was so long ago.

“Mr. O’Connell? My drawing?”

He looked into the smooth brown face of his student and smiled. The work looked wonderful, as usual. She was good. “You’re going to be a fine artist one day, Aarati.”

“Thanks, so you keep telling me.” She smiled back. “Hey, you going anywhere fun for the holidays?”

“Not that I know of, just the usual. You?”

“Snowboarding on the mountain.”

“Mt. Hood?”

She nodded, her whole body emanating excitement. “The snowfall has been amazing. Well, I gotta catch Suzanne and Joe. Have a good one, Mr. O’Connell!”

He beamed at her the best he could but she had already left. As the final student slipped away, Brady stuffed papers, notebooks, pens and pencils into his aging leather briefcase and turned out the lights. Trudged to his office.

“Have a good one.” What does that mean? Have a nice time not a crummy time? Have a decent moment or two with my increasingly morose wife? Root out good stuff from the morass? Is it really all up to me?

The warmth and ease of his day evaporated from his mind. He straightened his aching fullback shoulders that never had done the game enough justice–he was not the player his father had expected. Seemed at times he replayed the same ole game everywhere. Brady put on his hat, tidied up his desk, took off for Ying’s to get dinner.

******

Nicola was sick of Chinese on Tuesdays but she finished every last bite because she was hungry and she hadn’t wanted to dissuade him. She was a decent cook but often disinterested; but she had come to lean on their routines as had he. Brady finished, then cleaned the containers to recycle.

“You do anything fun today? I thought you were going to meet Jude for coffee.”

Nicola pushed back from the table. “She changed plans, said she had to meet with a co-worker for drinks to discuss a new strategy. You know our daughter. Her work is never done, her star is not yet risen high enough.”

He laughed despite himself. It was true, the kid had tenacity and ambition, put them both to shame. Give her time, he thought ruefully.

“Well, I have some things to do. I’ll see you upstairs later.”

Nicola shrugged and opened her crossword puzzle book. What was another word for antelope, nine letters, with the letter “h”?

The wind picked up and sang through a window crack. She moved to the living room, added wood to the low fire and settled into the couch. The flare of flames swirled and danced, released of entrapment. Nicola puzzled over the blanks in her book. What did antelopes look like up close? Why were they fabled for gracefulness? How did they live and die? They had lovely horns.

She faded and dozed, head full of springing creatures in a dazzling desert.

Brady stood behind her, touching the silky ends of her light hair shining in firelight, wondering whether to wake her or wait until morning to talk. About how they had let things get away from them. How they were becoming old prematurely. How he had been neglectful and felt badly about it and knew she deserved much more than he had given her. How he was terribly sorry she still couldn’t well use her hand, that it would have been the end of him if the same occurred. It couldn’t be much easier for her, as much as she enjoyed writing letters and cards to family and friends, doing her crosswords, playing cards.

He sat beside her and her eyelids fluttered.

“It’s pretty late, Nic.”

“Hmm.” She let her head flop against his shoulder. “Pronghorn…is the word…”

“What’s that? I’d hoped we could talk a little.”

“Now? Why?” Her eyes flew open.

Brady took her hands in his. Her long face with crinkles about the eyes; lips under which was etched a tiny scar where she’d fallen as a child; the changing color of her eyes, two oceans that reflected every feeling. He wanted to make things right. He could at least start.

“I found us a cabin.”

“A cabin? Whatever for?”

“Time away.”

Nicola eyed him suspiciously. “For what? Where?”

“Just to be together. Do things we haven’t done in a long time. Have some fun, damn it. It looks a bit run down on the website, don’t get too thrilled. But it has a wood stove, a nice big bed, homey living space. In the Cascades, near a smaller, out of the way ski resort. For five days following Christmas.”

Nicola’s anxious eyes grew large with disbelief. Deep longing and remnants of sadness showing themselves as the chill, too long  a wedge, began to ease. It was love that graced her heart. She half-wanted to be cynical but fell into him, face buried in chest, arms wrapped around his bulk. He held on as if she might yet take her leave. Kissed her hair and neck, breathed her in. Envisioned their life together rampant with possibilities, a hope made of reclaimed kindness.

My Hunger and a Surfeit of Life

from La Piscina
from La Piscina

Back then I was always hungry but never could eat quite enough. My life felt this way, over-full of richness yet still ravenous. You might say I was piloted through days and nights by hunger, by the insistence of it, and the baffling measures needed to find the right amount of satiation. Some people know how to navigate all sorts of hungers without worry. They find their destination via set rules and plot a trajectory along stalwart lines and through a captivating geography of internal and external mapping. How reassuring that must be.

I have found my way by a fumbling instinct. I do at times wish for maps of all sorts.

My older brother, Stefan, and I traveled with our parents more than we had expected. We stayed in tiny or enchanting rooms, got confused in multiple countries and alleys, ate at places guidebooks wouldn’t note. But what did I know? I had trust still, at the first. My parents had the nerve to forge ahead and why wouldn’t an adolescent daughter expect things to go well enough? We had become globe trotters by default–we did it and we kept doing it.

Stefan thought he was an authority long before he actually understood much and boasted of his insights: our parents were rootless due to too much money; the kind of work that had left disgruntlement; the right DNA (which mystified me–was there DNA of rootlessness? of an intelligence peppered with rebellion?) but I knew better. It was simple: they had opted out of ordinary life. If one was deeply hungry for more, there was always something else to be discovered and absorbed. Travel was a good way to do that and they could teach us a few things we wouldn’t get in a regular school.

One of the nights when we sat under piercing white stars in Tuscany, during my seventeenth birthday, I told Mom, “Whatever room is left in me–and it’s a lot–needs occupying. I can’t think by just what, though. It’s like I am always needing the last bit of space taken up, like blank spots aren’t bearable. But there is also so much that I feel like I’m going to burst…”

She nodded, a goblet of wine cupped with her birdlike hands. “You really can find all good fruits along the road. Sample, move on, sample more, the right urge will guide you. Trust the road before you, Celia, my dear.”

My father chortled as if she had told an old joke, then smiled benignly at us, his tiny kingdom gathered about. I felt affection rise up. He wrote and published more now and he was happier than when he taught world history at the community college. He got to live his interests every day.

Mom’s eyes sparked when she talked like that, as if she was a poet with the fire of a mystic. There had been a shift from a literal to more figurative view. She was a very good chemist who had fled a dull lab job after a startling inheritance from a great-aunt. That was three years ago. No one had believed she would up and leave with family in tow.

My mother was someone I loved from a distance. I was busy trying to not to be like her. She was brainy, even inventive. Quick to note the wrongs of the world. She could be fun at times. I never thought she was impulsive. That was more like Dad, a born romantic despite his denial. A lover of antiquity and serendipity. Anyway, they made a quick decision, off we went, and our house became a rental property. No one looked back but me.

They had never liked life in Indiana and the memory of pretending to spurred them to travel longer and longer. Stefan thought he was the luckiest eighteen year old alive. I thought how home was supposed to be where your heart was, yet mine was a kite bouncing about in various parts of the sky. I reeled it in each stop we made for more than a couple of weeks. Then let it go, followed the tugs. I liked our weird bohemian life despite being confused by no clear directions for living it.

Today I looked at a picture from the summer of my seventeenth year. The occasion required it, a lecture I was going to attend. I held the picture close, studied Stefan in the print, snoring in the middle. Antonio at the end. Me huddled at the other side, trying to vanish. Mom took it. It was the summer of much less eating, more sun and water, more lingering. We had remained in Praiano on the Amalfi coast for three months.

That sunbathing day Stefan said out of the blue, “If we put down roots again we’d be boring. No one would know what to say to us and we’d lose our minds.”

I rolled over, stealing a look at Antonio. “Then why do you talk about returning to the States? Like you wish it would happen?”

His eyelids flickered and he scratched his chest. “I miss playing basketball and baseball at the park. Remember it? Hamburgers with white buns, dill pickles, onions and sloppy stuff. But not too badly.”

Antonio pushed himself up on an elbow. “Celia, what about you?”

“Sometimes I do miss having a real house of our own. And Lexie, our dog…she was given to our neighbor. And my blue and cream room.”

He smiled at me in a way that said he was glad I was at a house in Indiana. He, however, was going to my country. He was to enter Boston University the following year. His only uncle lived there, he owned some leather goods stores. Antonio would stay with him and study music and anthropology or international finance.

Antonio  liked to sing, his voice melodious and loud. I could listen longer than Stefan. My eyes memorized the contours of his face and length and felt he would be important one day. He had a hunger he would find out how to fill and it would lodge his name in people’s minds. Antonio Marcello. Like it was in mine already.

I ached, head to stomach to feet all summer. I felt his presence like the balm of coastal light one day, the sting of a bee the next. Being near him made me lazy and empty while my skin gave off a fragrance of sea water and wildflowers. He told me that once as we sat on a stone fence above the town, watching the horizon. His shoulder contacted mine. Vertigo threatened but nothing else happened.

I nibbled on bread, olives, cheese when the three of us–sometimes others–gathered at a cafe and talked of nothing but happiness, how to capture it, keep it, live inside it. How to stay forever young. He laughed easily as breathing, fed me pieces of chocolate amaretti cake, his fingers grazing my lips. Antonio’s eyes were two moon shadows, the light glowing inside the deep brown, obscuring my own vision with wild images of love. It didn’t seem as though he knew, or if he did, it meant little that I was charmed. I began to avoid him, walking and swimming long and reading alone. Stefan left me to my ways. They played day and night, roamed like unfettered creatures along the shore and rocky headlands. I crept high along ancient rocks, dove deep, deeper into the wily sea. The chronic emptiness had been filled with Antonio’s smooth, tanned skin though I had not come too close to it; by his voice, resonant and lilting as he joked around or sang; by his eyes, which stayed the rocking of my anxious self with one warmly teasing glance.

I felt ruled by appetites both sensual and intellectual. How is hunger defined? A lack of satisfaction, the hollowness of want, a dull pain that is tamped down by something good or at least filling. A driving need of sustenance. Perhaps the real remedy is in the seeking of nourishment. The work of it settles matters. I slept sporadically at odd hours, ate but felt bottomless, wore myself out learning the land and sea, sought talk with townspeople to improve my understanding of many things. My senses were on high alert in wind, sun and moon, water and earth. The salt clung to me as if I was meant to be there. It was a dream life, one any girl my age would love to live. How could I leave a place so exceptional? But I was pulled by other needs.

Had we found the place to stop or were we heading out soon? My family had tramped across continents as if in search of the last outpost, the one true home. I finally asked my parents when we would return to the States. To Indiana.

“Why? Why now?” My father had just gotten news of a short essay published in a good newspaper.

My mother was darning a hole in her pale blue sweater but looked at me sideways.

I breathed in the scents of oranges and deep ruby wine. Through the living area windows the enormous ocean winked at all. Fishing boats were specks on its undulating surface.

I came back to her eyes. “I am starting to wonder what it is to see only dry land. To watch oak and maple trees turn color, lose their leaves and grow new greenery. To sit in a classroom again, learn with friends rather than being home schooled.”

“We can go inland; we were just talking about moving on. Maybe Germany for awhile again…” Dad sought me with his laser look.

Mother put the sweater down. “It’s something more. You’re restless for something. Ah…is it that boy?”

I turned away from them both. Would they never want to go back, then? Would I stay caught between stupid love and other longings? Here and there? Up and down like a yo-yo?

“Of course, that Antonio, he’s darling, Celia. He’ll do well at Boston University, he’ll be there in two months, not here…does he like you?”

Dad shook his head as if this was territory he could not reckon with and took up his book.

“Dad, don’t you ever miss teaching?”

He put the book down, surprised, forehead wrinkling. There were so many lines there, a graph of life lived with pondering as a main activity, and the beating sun setting darkened furrows.

“Of course I do. Just…not in Indianapolis, Indiana.” But he looked almost doubtful. “Do you really want to go back? Everything would be… too different. We are now so different, don’t you agree?”

“Thank goodness,” Mother murmured and continued with her darning. “Celia, give the boy a reason to pay more attention. Talk to him; I know you’re being shy. And you could eat better, they all love to eat here.”

I left the villa and climbed a long, grueling half hour, up the winding path to the top of a hill. Stretching my arms out I felt as well as saw the panorama. It held an alien gorgeousness. The vastness might look conquerable from that rocky perch but I was only passing through. It was too much, the world at large, a smorgasbord where you never knew how much to take of what, your plate towering with things, your mouth watering but your eyes bigger than your stomach. I was tired of all the options, the endless wonders. I wanted to feel more ordinary, think less of the riddles of life.

Before long my father started to speak of leaving for the States. My mother blamed me for rousing his memory of only the good points, as if I was conspiring against her with my homesickness. She got moody, cried some as they debated the merits of being wayfarers versus being homebodies. Dad won out; it was time for us kids to settle again, and for them to stop. Regroup.

Stefan was amenable either way, it turned out. He had thought some of college since meeting Antonio but he had come to feel at home with few constraints. He had become stronger, muscled; he turned heads all the time. He was nearly fluent in Italian and German.  But I was still the same, I told him the week before we were to leave. It seemed as if I was the one less improved by all that we had experienced.

“Are you kidding? I’d agree just to bug you but in fact you are quite different,” he said. “Oh, I don’t mean obvious things.” He looked down. “Though Antonio says you are soon to be ‘ravishing’… No, I mean you’re a lot smarter than I imagined. Aw now, wait–it’s like your mind has ripened and everything you feel or say is more interesting, your ideas more complicated. I see how much you take in, wonder over like Dad, but you have Mom’s way of making your way with new people no matter where we are. People are drawn to you. I’d say you’re better than before, too.”

He stopped to throw a rock into the vibrant blue water. We watched it sink a little, then disappear.

“I didn’t know you had such thoughts about me,” I said. “I can say you’re more confident, You can learn languages so easily! You always enjoy forging a new path, finding adventure. You seem fearless to me, Stefan, like nothing can deter you. You don’t feel lost in the world, it seems.”

“Nice. Not all necessarily true but very nice.”

We moved closer to the water so our feet found the water’s edge. Each wave greeted toes, then receded. It was good to sit with my brother at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, thinking over the times we had spent in breathtaking or simple or unusual places. I was saturated with the time away from Indiana. It felt as if I could be wrung out and then people might see patterns, colors and textures come to the fore as I dried out. Things that had never been there before, transforming moments that might not be understood for years to come.

Stefan pushed me into the sea but I rose right up and got him back. We swam a long way, our bodies lithe and shining like vessels captured by the water’s mysterious pull, its beauty a power we accepted, felt in our veins.

Antonio was waiting when we returned to the shore. He put his arms around me, hugged me, told me he hoped one day we would meet again. So I kissed him and he responded and everything I had hoped felt true, even if only a moment’s worth of truth. It was just enough to last me a long while.

The three of us joined my parents for a meal and I ate. I ate as if I had not tasted such marvelous food in years. Every bite was a revelation. My eyes rested on Antonio and my heart felt fed, too.

Now, tonight, I am sitting in a large auditorium in Chicago. It has been fifteen years. I am the well known editor of an arts magazine. Two years divorced; one child, a young daughter. Prone to working too late not far from this place. I am riveted by the person on stage. Antonio is taller and darker than I expected and he is leaning into the lectern, enthusiasm for his topic spilling over into an attentive crowd. He is telling the audience how he ended up becoming a ethnomusicologist. That he believes music tells the truth, the critical stories, and he wants no one’s music to be lost or kept silent or to be misrepresented. He travels a lot, the kid from Praiano, Italy who got lucky. Antonio is animated with an ardor for his field and his mission to share what he’s learned. I give in to his words and vision and time floats by. Music plays and I am carried by each idiosyncratic note, how they create a wholeness of song.

Afterwards when he signs copies of his book, my body doesn’t want to move along in the noisy line, to take itself to where he sits, a smile readied as his pen is set upon a blank page. I force my feet to take small shuffling steps until I am third in line. It is too much, the past colliding with the present, his life, my life. I step away and glance at him and he looks up, just catches my eye. Frowns. I pause to smile, then rush through the front doors, onto the sidewalk where glaring lights and honking cars and congested sidewalks conspire to steal my breath and rattle my mind. I am starving, my stomach clutching my ribs. There is a coffee shop nearby, I will find it, drink a strong cup and gather my wits before I pick up dinner to take home. Antonio, in Chicago! It is too crazy and wonderful to grasp.

But the chilled wind is pushing against me, enough that getting my footing isn’t so easy as people rush by. Someone grabs my shoulder and I pull away.

“Scusami, is it really you Celia?”

When I turn around, Antonio is there. Praino is there. That time of wonders unfolds in his beautiful, craggy features, in his vibrant voice, in my spoken name.

“Yes,” I answer. “Want to share a decent Italian dinner with my daughter and me?” and his laughter is a relief, a cascade of delights as we enfold each other inside no small joy. At last.