Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Everything and More

Photo by Bunny Yeager 1959

There was that photo still kept in his Great-uncle Robert’s study, propped on his desk with everything else left untouched. She was outrageously attractive, you could see why he had kept it there, yet she was more wild-seeming than the foolishly attired chimpanzee–an impulsive gift from Robert but whom (which?) didn’t manage to make the wedding guest list; he was soon packed off to a chimp rehab sanctuary. She’d cried at that, but briefly, they said. And there was the MG, a beast of a sleeker sort which had long remained one of her joys. This was how people tended to think of her even still, he imagined. Even Andy, her great-nephew, thought of her like this despite physical evidence to the contrary. It was a fiery essence tamed by simple elegance, the kind of classiness that can’t be taught. The qualities stayed with her, reaching everyone, reflecting off everything. But the toil and trials of life had finally worn down the luster a bit.

Due to growing up around the world with nomadic parents, he’d only met her when she was well past generous middle age. It had been a happy meeting that became an inter-generational friendship. He’d grown up to work in business while she’d been a linguistics researcher. Built her life with Robert in Roxwood, more commonly referred to ( not quite with ill intent) as the “Devil’s Triangle”, a neighborhood fond of tall iron gates and streets jutting here, there and back on themselves amid copious trees and a palpable scarcity of activity. Only the well initiated could get in or out in under thirty minutes. Some had to summon help; even the GPS got confused. This had been the required design, of course. Andy had gotten the trip in and out down to fifteen minutes– less if he sped through annoying roundabouts.

The visits had gone on, soon a pleasant if obligatory act, a direct result of  cosmopolitan and mannerly upbringing: one did the right thing out of a primed social conscience, first of all. This included visits to an ancient great-aunt who lived a couple of hours and lifestyle away. But he liked her far more than anyone else in the family from the start. He also had appreciated right off  the hammocks she had hung here and there, shocking Robert at first. She had told all that it was the best way to nap, even deeply sleep; she’d had one in her bedroom until she fell out–one of many times–and broken an ankle last year. But she kept the others–in the front yard and back garden, in the study and screened sun room. Robert had grown to enjoy them on occasion, as well, though kept it secret.

And there were bright, artful flowers in most rooms, though often blossoms drooped and scents had begun to sour after they’d stood there, tired, in huge vases too long. He changed them out for new bouquets cut from her garden if Nora, her housekeeper, hadn’t gotten it done. Nora was quite good and affordable but just for two days a week. The house had slowly betrayed the wear of forty years’ life in Celeste’s (and one ought to add, Robert’s) hands and a good fifty of its own before that.

It had been some time since Andy had visited. About eight months. He made it twice a year since his  software business had taken over his life. So he tried to prepare for the worst as he pulled up to the fancy, heavy gate. He opened it with a remote’s click, and drove up a semi-circle drive, parked, got out and stretched. Yes, it was true what Mother had said, the painters had not been yet been contracted and the once creamy white with smart Wedgwood blue trim had finally given in to a dim blue and a brownish-green of creeping organisms showed on the white in spots, lots of peeling going on.

He was meant to persuade Aunt Celeste to allow them to help out if necessary. A delicate undertaking, to say the least. She could be so close with money, though maybe she had much less of it now, and cared less and less for appearances, it seemed. He tucked the lavender sport shirt into his grey shorts and combed back his dark hair; he would brook no comments on slovenly dress, even in such summer heat.

He rang the sonorous chime although he’d called her a week ago to remind of the visit. Before he could open it,  Nora answered, her graying topknot askew on her head, mouth betraying a remainder of ice cube that she liked to crunch, and quickly smiled at him. A dribble of water eked out and she blushed but he was sympathetic to her quirks. She was good to Celeste and the house was all shined up inside.

“Mr. Demart, so good to see you. She’s in the sun room, ready and waiting.”

He passed lively flowers on a half table under the foyer’s oval mirror, strode through shadowy lengths of hallway past a formal living and dining room–she seldom used these now–around brightening corners and past large kitchen and down another hall, finally coming to the sun room. The blue and green parakeets began to jabber, likely because Andy was there. He did not like them much  but they had always been there, one bird or another. Another eccentricity you took along with Celeste.

“Finally, there he is!”

She rose in one practiced movement then put a steadying hand on the armchair beside her. Then stood taller, held arms open to him. What an amazing sight, he thought as always and moved toward her–the silvered wavy hair cropped close, her signature cut; three glinting necklaces roped about her long, wrinkly neck; rose-colored, silver-trimmed caftan drifting about her smallness in a waltz of silken beauty. He inhaled her soft amber fragrance. The same as ever– how long? Did Robert buy it long ago because he loved it on her? Did she splurge on it herself and found it so alluring she forsook all other elixirs on her dressing table? It warmed up any atmosphere. She was seventy-nine and all the etchings in her loosening skin proved it, yet she seemed to most above and beyond a set age.

“Aren’t you smart today with your purple shirt. And flip-flops? Well, suitable for taking to the hammock,” she said gesturing to stretched yellow fabric on the spare frame waiting in a corner. “I can hear from here if you want to avail yourself of the fun now.”

“They’re leather, I’ll have you know, quite good ones. It’s summer!  But I have to stay awake part of the visit, don’t I? First a good catching up, later a hammock, Auntie.”

Celeste smirked at him, hand fluttering at her throat as vivid memories came forth. He liked to try every hammock when he first came to visit her, acting a child despite being eighteen, lanky and a it whiskery. She’d had one in nearly every room until Robert had finally confessed to being embarrassed by them when guests came. She was not entirely persuaded; they were made of gorgeous fabrics and such a practical thing. He’d indulged her whims most of the time, and now he wasn’t there to offer exasperated opinions or sweet compliments. Though she could still hear him at odd moments.

“I thought you’d forgotten me. What do you do all the time you’re not around besides run a business? Not that this doesn’t count but aren’t there a few days off? You’re looking a bit peaked about the gills, strained around the eyes. Premature aging, watch out. A sure sign of money madness and sleep aversion. Don’t forget to water your spirit. perhaps yy need a pet to slow you down.”

He nodded at her in vague agreement, picked out almonds from the nut mix nestled in a coral ceramic bowl, popped one, two into his mouth. He’d often considered a dog but they required serious attention. “Not that you would know anything about these topics, Auntie. And I do take a day off occasionally–I’m here now, for instance. Just got back from Venezuela but that was more business than footloose fun.”

He shrugged and snapped up more smokey almonds, ten in a palm that he bounced before tossing them back. This was what he’d hoped, relaxing in the airy sun room eating almonds and chatting easily with Aunt Celeste. Working up to that paint job. She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, and one with the large blue stone caught light. He’d always liked that one, hung on a long silver chain. He wondered briefly if it was a blue topaz or an aquamarine or what. Andy liked jewels but knew very little; later he’d ask. She always had interesting information.

“Well, Andrew, I assume no good, steady woman in your life yet?” she asked.

“Right to the point!”

The dating update couldn’t wait today. He stretched out long, muscled legs, leaned back. Nora brought a carafe of iced water and glasses on a tray, settled it on a coffee table and left again. How did Aunt Celeste always get to his business before he got to hers? He abruptly sat forward, forearms resting on knees.

“Tell me what you have been up to, how you’re feeling lately. I’m here to keep an eye on you, of course.”

“That’s an easy report. My annual check-up documented me as still ticking, with moderate to good energy levels. My steady vitals bored the doctor nearly to tears. It seems I shall live a very long time if I keep this up–a life of perhaps ill-gotten leisure punctuated by occasional bursts of industry, a few worthwhile efforts. I had my annual garden party about two months ago with forty well meaning, tiresome, well-combed ladies who came to donate money to our orphanage in Thailand. And the sprinkler system was finally repaired, not so bad as expected but rougher on the pocketbook than wished. And I have my usual book club meeting once a month though it gets harder to read fast and find the wit and will to offer intelligent comments. I may graduate to audible books and forego the group. Do something else. Ride a bike, for instance, there’s a thing I always planned to do more often.”

Her eyes were a clear bluish-grey and she winked at him. She could be disarming; that was her intention more often than not. But he didn’t anticipate her next words.

“Why are you here this time, Andrew? Beyond the usual great fondness bit, I mean.” He started to protest but she waved it away. “Is it that the house has gotten too big for me with Robert gone three years now? That the peeling paint is a debacle for my neighborhood? That I should get out more via the ole senior shuttle– or get home bound meals brought in, for heaven’s sake? Or that I need a keeper other than Nora since I am fast making the approach to eighty? And you are coming to my birthday celebration, aren’t you? It’s November in case you forgot. I must have you here, dear, you are the only relief in our crowd!”

She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, then her hands fell to her lap and she sat still, eyes coolly ablaze. The parakeets had begun to hop about again, all four of them enjoying a elaborate white penthouse of a cage, chittering at each other and then at the humans. She watched them and relaxed a tad. Such a mood she was in lately.

“Sorry, I just seem to be noticing I am getting older lately.

Andy was startled by that outpouring since this was mostly not even what had crossed his mind. The paint, yes, the shrubbery trimmed again, perhaps. The roof–had he checked the roof in a while?

“Why all this? Who has been bothering you with such ideas? My adamant but unreachable mother? Oh–Clarence?” He knew her neighbor wanted to buy the house, probably to demolish it and annex the land for his own expansion. A lot of that was going on in the area. She’d get a mint, even as things were. “You cook okay still, right? No one is worried much. Nora says nothing, she’s a trusty one but maybe you’ve threatened her with more dusting in dark corners or polishing each floor on hands and knees…” Andy wanted her to smile, damn it, he didn’t want her to feel such anger or fear. And he still had to address the need for an expensive paint job. And he longed for a stiff drink already. Though he adored her, life was complicated and it wasn’t easy to get away to see her here. And he hadn’t even told her about Eva.

“Well.” She touched the faceted blue stone, index fingertip alighting on it as if she sought reassurance from its heft and beauty. Her shoulders loosened,  eyes softened. “Alright then. I have too much spare time to worry, I suppose. Or not about the right things. Well, I never was one for fretting the day and night away– until I hit 77. And then I woke up and thought: life is moving too fast and here I am after Robert has died and yet nothing can be remotely the same, either. Your partner is gone and you are the sparest one, not a hearty two. Not the pair who faces the world together and then each other, one a mirror of sorts for the other. I didn’t like to speak of it back then; life and death are inevitable hurdles, at times. More so as you dig your heels in and stick it out, I’ll tell you what, Andrew Alger Demart, and you have to stay in good form. Top form, I do say. But it is a strange feeling all the same to feel such singularity. And life’s tempo, so fast and yet slow. It is enough to make my head spin some days.” She ran a hand through her waves. “And it’s good of you to be here and withstand my words each time.”

Andy thought about it, this ton of things. So much she kept to herself and yet barely a moment of doubt ever shown to others. “Yes, but Auntie Celeste you are certainly a marathon runner of sorts. I’d hate to get in your way, would not think of it… I only want to be of help.”

Celeste’s sparse, arched eyebrow’s lifted high as she took in a deep breath. “There really is no helping at this stage, darling, other than being a dear and seeing me from time to time. I can pay for other things to get done, but not the acquisition of kindness, laughter and love. My, doesn’t the rest seem so much nonsense in the end.”

She looked wistfully at her birds, two of which looked back obligingly, perhaps with good will. He wondered if she or they ever wished they could be freed; he certainly would but knew the consequence would be perilous. Like the chimp, they were not meant to be kept indebted to human company.

His throat tightened as he reached for the carafe and a glass, offering her the first one, which she took, drank quickly as she sputtered a bit, then asked for more. She smoothed back her cap of gleaming hair–mostly white but not thinning much, she thought, thank goodness. A touch of vanity was good for the soul on those days when nothing seemed to stay in the right places, anymore. But she did agree that she wasted too much time on vanity as a younger woman. It got her Robert, perhaps, but it wasn’t what kept him. Only patience, appreciation and her natural fire managed to do that. He did take good care of so much. He did have such a fine way with conversation when all was well and she loved his jaunty walk, even when that hip had trouble, the way he tossed his tweedy hats onto the back door coat tree and….

“Andrew, when are you going to find a wife? Or a partner, whatever you might call her?”

“Well, I– I’ve dated quite a few. I might know someone, we will see. But first, we must discuss–”

“Oh yes, I know, the house, this relic of a house, Andrew! Let’s sniff out a prime company or two, it’s been a decade or more, and we’ll entertain the best bids and get on with it. I still have money enough. Well, not perhaps ever enough, but enough, overall. One needs to protect one’s material goods, we are told, whatever they may be. One needs to be smart about getting old–is that even possible? Does it not arrive unexalted as well as uninvited yet demand you give its way? So I must have the painting done, too.”

“And I thought this was my great mission today! What a relief. You are full of surprises.”

He got up and looked out the windows to the garden. The light was shifting, burnishing petals, greenery, all blunt and soft edges. He felt his own smallish garden could use such warm and tender light but he had no time to address those sorts of things. He feared he would fail at it, too. He was better with numbers than sentient things, he believed.

Celeste joined him, hand on his shoulder. “Aren’t I? Of course, you were charged with that duty, your mother thought I would never cave and spend the cash.” She flashed a grin, the tiny overbite lovely in her once-again friendly face.”I might even sell it sometime, who knows? But not yet, not yet.”

Nora rapped on the French door, then stuck her head around. “Done with me for now? I made lemon bars if you’d like them before I go.”

“Yes, please,” Celeste said. “They’re to die for, Andrew!”

“Please don’t say that, Auntie…I can be superstitious.”

She rested her head against his upper arm, then patted his back, moved to the bird-cage to check on the parakeets’ antics. She poked her finger in a cage and a bird nibbled at it.

“Tell me what it is, darling. What it is you mean to say to me.”

For a minute, he thought she was talking to her absurdly adored birds. But no, she could feel it, all that he was carrying.

******

They took the plate Nora brought, thanked her and said farewell, then went outdoors. The garden was cooler and quiet, the humming of insects and chatter from the treetop aviaries softer as the sun slipped down, so they took to the heavy white iron chairs with fluffy green cushions at the koi pond. A miniature waterfall emitted slippery sounds that eased the chronic ache in his mind, that lodged in his shoulders. Everything smelled abundant, sweet in this oasis. He could not imagine Celeste no longer right here; she was the central part, the axis of the wheel he valued deeply.

And so he told her.

“I met a woman in South America almost two years ago.” He stared at the fish, orange-gold and white with black markings. “She works for a company I’ve done much business with and we got to know one another over each week we had together,  here and there.”

He fell silent. How did you tell an elderly aunt who married very well and did most of the right things in life this sort of thing? And yet it was his Auntie Celeste. She had lived through decades, learned much. She was right then looking at him, maybe past him, ready to wait all night. She had that flaring fire, yes, but it also was a flame that burned long and steady.

“Her name is Magdalena. I thought maybe I was falling in love, just a little. Enough to tell her so. But she…had other plans, not including a long-term anything with me.”

The fountain had begun to sound louder, the koi swam under the darkening surface of the pond quite fast now. Andy wanted to take it all back. Celeste stretched out her legs and the kaftan rustled a little.

“She has had a meteoric career, she is VP of…well, anyway, the point is.” He stopped and looked above. Venus was there, sparkling like brand new. Always Venus could be counted on. “The point is, she is not in my life, anymore, not really. It was impossible, the the worst when she left. I had to avoid you awhile. But that isn’t all of it.”

He took in a breath and it was a slow sharp knife that lodged in his heart, all he wanted to say and feared to tell and how it made life harder. How could any sort of love be like this?

A fish tail flipped above surface; the koi ran to the bottom. Light fell across the dark emerald lawn, its veil of dimmer gold changing into slower silvery light resting inside summered air.

“What is the child’s name, Andrew? When do we meet?”

His head fell forward, his hands covered his face. “Oh…!” he said between splayed fingers.

She hummed tunelessly, a new thing she liked. “I’ve been waiting for something. Don’t be afraid. We’ll set things in good motion, it will be alright.”

“How do I set things right when a child is here because of irresponsibility?”

She blew out air between her teeth, making a dismissive sound. “Don’t you think that’s often the case? Or it was when I was of age. No one knew what was smart or best though they thought they knew–life often just happens in ways one never expects.” She shooed away a moth that liked her necklaces. “I had a child once.”

He turned in his chair. “What?”

“I was, after all, the young woman in that photo, Andrew.  Not restrained about living an adventurous life. And I got pregnant. And I didn’t keep it. Her. My mother said the cruel reality of a motherhood would not bring comfort, good fortune or lasting security. That I was too smart and pretty to be a mother yet if at all. So the baby was taken. And a couple of years later I met Robert. But we couldn’t beget children. By then, that child was long gone if not forgotten. This was before birth control was legal, Andrew, don’t look so shocked, girls got pregnant often. Adoption was the solution then. I was not ungrateful. But, too, confounded and fearful, ashamed. But I was very sad later…”

“I never would have guessed. I’m sorry. You never spoke of wanting children. But, then, I never have, either.”

“Sometimes you don’t even know what you need or want until it is there before you. Or gone.”

Her voice had become a whisper and he ached for her as much as for himself. And lately for all the children who had no one or who had someone, then suddenly no one. It was new and too much sometimes, he had no noble words to encompass all such as these.

“Her name is Eva. She is one year old. And I want her with me but I don’t know how to do this, yet.”

“Okay. Me, either.” She turned to him, eyes clear, radiant with energy. “When can Eva come here?”

“Magdalena moved to LA. I might be able to get partial custody. I’m working on it, Auntie Celeste. Will you… can you help me?”

She sighed but it became tremulous laughter. “Look at us, Andrew. We thought we had everything, can you even imagine? But that was not the most of it, not even close. Now comes a miracle. Bring little Eva to me. Of course I will help you and love her!” She smiled at Andy, and touched the large blue jewel at her chest like a brilliant, voluptuous star fallen to earth. “And I have part of an inheritance for her already, right here, saved for this little one.” She crinkled her brow. “Oh, I need a new hammock, a lovely small one!”

He wanted to weep or perhaps giggle but remained in barest control. “You’re the first to know, Auntie. I had so hoped I could count on your generosity of spirit. To be there for me. Thank you… so much.”

Andy rose then bent to hug her but she stood up, too, and they held on as the air grew tender with night greenness. He had to hurry things up. Eva must have time to enjoy this wonderful great-great-auntie and Celeste needed time to properly adore her. But he felt better armed for any fight ahead, quite ready now. For fatherhood, yes, but for all the life that would come next. Still, he pulled away from Celeste to locate the garden hammock. He wanted to lie back, swing at will, take in the grand evening sky.

 

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: This I Can Tell You

 

I found the past today, your zest and stillness,
the sturdy early years and in-betweeness.
Now you’re three quarters grown, still present
more or less, despite a bit of steel in lip,
a drape of walnut colored hair, a flutter
of eyelids, your face a study in pallor and shadow.

These obscure a teen-aged life, its secrets, until
a smile creases the standard blase position.
Words can appear like dewdrops or lightning:
ideas, feelings, a pronouncement, a kind of poem.
I pay heed, branch to bright leaf, age to youth.

Remember how easily you played and sweated?
Danced and pretended with my necklaces, scarves?
And memorized the properties of plants, liked insects,
revered high desert creatures, shared your drawings
or whatever made you mad–it all mattered.

I saved up those times when you still
found my hand, offered wildflowers, songs.
Your heart has ached, become strong in life’s vagaries;
kept company with humans, wildness, imaginings.
A thrum of mystery has gentled sadness, fed hope.

I have been glad to act a fool, to hurt for and hold you.
Still invoke angels to do great work with you.
I am nearer than you know as you sit with
daybreak and midnight and mine the depths
for wisdom that reveals greater truth.

Like water and salt, granddaughter,
the element bravery resides in you.
Like seed and starlight, love and faith,
your life will reach far, forge its way.
I will be here if you somehow forget.
Speak my name. I will remind you again, again.

Being Amalia

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Those words of hers–and they did seem exclusive to her. At times daily, certainly each moment something crossed Amalia’s mind or entered her experience to trigger the familiar proclamation. She would flash her enveloping smile and state “Everything is beautiful! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!”

It got so the gang could utter in unison the phrases as soon as we heard her start with “everything”. Not one to ever take offense–“Whoever is the one truly offended?” she’d say, “They’ve been poisoned by vitriol themselves, poor things, to behave so rudely”–she’d just laugh at how we teased her. But how could anyone avoid noting the extent of vivacity ruling this person’s life? It seemed to naturally circulate in her mind and body, a secret ingredient that woke up with her, infusing her being. At night, after she crawled under the covers and turned out the lights, I couldn’t say. She was alone when I first met her. Later, I was not the one who stayed with her. Sam had those moments. But I assumed her sleep at least was just as empty of rancor and carelessness.

The four of us–Yvette, Amalia, Sam and me, Julian–had made a friendship pact at the international school that last year, a sort of “one for all and all for one”, then afterward taken jobs nearby, vowing to never part. It wasn’t so hard to stick together at first. Amalia saw to that with regular phone calls if more than five days had passed with no contact. She penned brief, expressive letters on creamy paper in rich blue script if it had been longer than that, then copied it for all. No one was going to refuse an opportunity to hang out, even when tired or errands and chores had to be put on pause. Not even if there was an appealing something else on the horizon. If at times the other two found her naive and a bit tiresome with her effervescent manner, she remained the pulsating center, the axis of the wheel in our connected lives then. I did not find it hard to be with her but, rather, a relief somehow.

We knew what to expect when we got together at the swan fountain in the center of the city, our meeting place. Amalia was always waiting, as if she didn’t have anything else to do although she probably had the most daunting schedule, helping care for a grandmother who seemed sturdy but losing cognitive skills. Or so the doctor and her parents had said. In any case, we took turns choosing where we’d go and what we’d do. Democratic yet flexible.

“Your Grandmother Poppy may really be going senile,” Sam said.

“I think she’s only choosing her memories with care,” Amalia considered as we walked along the river, “sorting and tossing things out. Who wouldn’t at ninety-one? It’s absurd that society finds old people less appealing as they streamline their thinking and doing. Everyone else is running around gathering information that is thoroughly useless and storing things on vast computers and dying to say everything on their busy minds. Where’s the mystery, my Poppy says? Right here, don’t fool with it! Poppy is not interested in keeping everything, every moment is new. She has thought and said enough, probably. She is entitled to make her own nest without interference. So she must stay home with us.”

“Oh, Amalia, you’re always advocating for her–how she must adore you!” Yvette swung her bulky purse over a shoulder and gave her friend a side hug. “As well she might. You parents would send her away, otherwise. I couldn’t do what you do for them all. I mean, I have my own life.”

“No, father would only keep her in the tiny corner room where she couldn’t say or do anything to complicate their own important matters. But she’s far too wonderful to set aside.”

“I know she’s terrific at word games. She trounced me at Scrabble last month. She’s a good soul, you are correct.” I admitted long ago that Poppy was one of my favorites over the age of sixty. I’d often wished she had met my grandfather before he’d passed and made him smile more.

“Well, she still can speak French better than any of us,” Sam conceded, “and she has a gorgeous granddaughter named Amalia so all else is overlooked!”

Amalia laughed and slipped her arm through his, then mine. Yvette attached herself to my remaining arm. We kept on toward the zoo. Once there, it was as if Amalia had never seen such creatures before though it had been only a few months since the last visit. For me, it was both distressing and fascinating to view them. But for Amalia?

“Those sharks look like sleek race cars, but they’re equally elegant. Dazzling and fast!” she’d say. Or “Can you imagine how tiny yet vast the world is in the eyes of a giraffe? Like a giant playground if only it could take off. I’d like to jump on and see what it is all about.”

We stood in some awe before the leopard cages, most of which hid behind rocks or had gone inside tunneled caves. I found the pretty big cats less intriguing than the elephants.

Amalia crouched to peer into a fake ravine at one languishing. “If I was a leopard I should consider changing coats now and then. Such a marvelous pattern, isn’t it, but it must inspire envy in the lions and wishful women. It might fade to black or white occasionally.”

“What?” Sam asked in mock exasperation, pulling her into an affectionate clinch. “I hope that doesn’t reflect a secret desire for animal skins to cover your body!”

“Gosh, no, I would set it free so no one could gawk or comment on its attire before I’d let it be slaughtered! It’s too marvelous to behold.”

She thereupon hatched a plan to sneak into the zoo and let it out, all the while we noted this would come to no good in the end for the leopard or domestic prey. I slumped on the ground beside her as Sam and Yvette got cold drinks.

“But how beautiful it is! Everything is outrageously, inexplicably beautiful!” she announced and turned to blow a kiss to the leopard, which raised it head to consider.

She and Same had been friends before I came along, but it was clear they were leaning toward more, a look here, a whisper there. By nineteen or so they had become intimate. When she implicated this, we were walking after meeting by chance. I had gotten out of my junior bank teller job and she was going in for a late afternoon shift at a messenger business and had waved at me from a corner. She walked her bike as we cut through a small greenway.

“Sam and I…we crossed the line, did you know? We might be in love…Surprising, yes?”

I did but winced, then affectionately bumped her shoulder with mine.

“I can’t imagine that lug being more than, say, like carry on luggage, someone useful to have around as needed, to toss about and store later. But you already figured that out and went forward, anyway!”

She cocked her head and looked up at me, eyes mischievous, then giggled. “Yes, well, useful is one word. He’s a pretty good one and you know it. Now we’re like you and Yvette. You two are a team so…we might as well remain a frolicking foursome!”

I was irritated with the words, thought it sounded foolish, how she said it–she sounded like a nineteenth century book at times–but it was also something I liked about her. She didn’t care how she sounded to others. She was only herself.

“Yvette… but you must know she’s off to the States, to Boston University next year. We’re comfortable together. But she’s pretty ambitious and not about to wait for me to catch up.” I shuddered dramatically as if this was a frightening insight though it was nothing much to me.

“And you are doing what then?”

I opened my mouth to answer but she was examing a pigeon hopping about. It flew up to drink from a water fountain as a small girl of perhaps five awaited a turn. The summer afternoon found Amalia’s face in an outpouring of sunlight, her hazel eyes lit so amber glowed at green-brown iris edges, her full pink lips embellished with gold. I could hear her breathing in a gentle way, see her chest slowly rise and fall. I followed her eyes and we watched the child reach up to the bird to touch its tail feathers. They ruffled, it turned its eye on her and resumed drinking. The girl was dressed up in frilly white, a dress for a special day. Her light curly hair was tied back in a purple ribbon. That child’s face was cream and roses, and–if you think me absurd I am sorry for you–heaven dwelt there. The whole scene glimmered with it. Sound vanished. Amalia and I reached for each other and when we did nothing was vivified but the bird, the child, the light. And us.

“Everything’s beautiful…outrageously, inexplicably beautiful…” she whispered and I mouthed the words with her.

Amalia turned to me. We stood one step apart. Her eyes reflected feelings I already knew but that she now recognized in me and in herself. I thought I might stop breathing, my  smart leather bag now heavy in hand, my tie unknotted but still too tight, my body leaning toward hers like a ship to a harbor.

“Katrina! Come!” Hands clapping twice.

The child ran back to her mother and the pigeon was long gone, though the fountain flowed with a sweet tinkling sound. More children and adults and birds came and went as we stepped back. Sunlight slanted trhough branches and left wavy stripes across our feet. I shifted my weight and started to walk again, Amalia getting back up on her bike.

“I have to go,” I said.

“Yes, me, too. Later, Julian!”

As her powder blue bike gained speed she glanced over her shoulder a last time, face creased with consternation that chaged to happiness and she thrust her hand in the air as she turned away. I waved back and stood still until she crossed another street and was gone.

I didn’t see her again for few weeks, to my surprise; a good lunch at a favorite outdoor cafe. By then, Yvette and I were not the same together. Neither of us was sure why, but we remained friendly if less aligned–as well as less anxious to meet up with Sam and Amalia. We all forgot to make a date for next time.

******

A year and a half later I was at the small airport where my father and I kept our Cessna 140. I loved the two-seat, single-engine aircraft, and how it shone like polished silver with its flashy red stripes and lifted into the limitless blue. Every spare hour I perfected my flying skills. Though I was finally in university studying zoology, my whole being had become enamored of flight. I hadn’t shared it much with the old gang but, then, we had spent increasingly less time together. Yvette had left for the States, Amalia had been working at a bookstore and taking nursing courses while still watching over her Poppy. I missed them, yes. I felt the lack of a regular dose of Amalia’s spritely ways. The stilted, dramatic speech. The half-ridiculous optimism. Her gratitude for life and devotion to family. I missed her but she was going one way, and I, another. We were twenty, twenty-one. We had real lives to develop and were full of more hard-driven intentions.

So it never occurred to me that I would see anyone at the airport other than hard-core devotees of aeronautics. When I saw Sam’s head near the gleaming wing of a Piper PA 16 I was taken aback.

“What are you doing skulking around here?” I sauntered up to him as if I had a real interest in talking. I was ready to fly.

He gave me his thin-lipped smile and heartily punched my shoulder. “Thinking about lessons, my friend! You always look lovestruck when you talk about flying, it has to be incredible.”

“Seriously?” I couldn’t imagine it. He had not once agreed to go up with  me. Sam walked with his eyes glued to the ground. Or on sports events or women.

“Aw, I’m just looking around. I’m with Conrad Novak over there, he’s the guy with the interest and the cash to fund it.”

I knew the name, a newcomer. I stuck my hands in my pockets. “Haven’t seen you and Amalia for a few weeks again. Things okay?”

He shrugged. “You know. We fight, make up. She’s too good for me and I think she’s finding it out.”

“I know,” I said and tried to not let it sound like what it was, the truth with much more under it. I punched him back.

“But she’s not well.”

“What do you mean? She got a bug?” I felt a wash of coldness rush over my back.

“Something more, I’d guess, but she won’t say. We don’t see each other as much but she’s here today.”

“Is it–is Poppy okay? Maybe things at home? I haven’t seen the ole gal in a while.”

“Not many have. She’s in an old age home now, been two months now.”

Sam turned to answer Conrad’s call and I moved on after we agreed to meet up soon. He said go ahead and call Amalia and see if I could find more than he had. I scanned the hangar and the field, thinking maybe she was out there. No women anywhere. But she had to be waiting in Sam’s car, if so. Not feeling well, she wouldn’t be standing long, waiting for him.

I gave my head a shake to clear it of thoughts, got into the Cessna, settled in and prepared to take off, then eased onto the taxiway.

“Julian! Hey, over here, wait up!”

I slowed a little and craned my neck out the window. Amalia was peddling for all she was worth, trying to catch up with me.

“Get off, Amalia!” I called out, gesturing with my hand. “You can’t be out here! You have to leave–I’ll call you!”

She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care, as she kept peddling faster and harder until we were almost parallel to each other.

“I’ll call! I’ll see you soon!” I yelled as loud as I could.

But Amalia put her feet up on the handlebars of a bike I had never seen before, something she’d probably found by the hangars and stole for a sly ride out to my plane. What a foolish girl and what a deep relief to see her gliding along, her hair blonder and longer, her smile as generous as ever, her tweedy coat flapping in the cool wind.

“Julian!” she nearly screamed. “Everything is beautiful, outrageously and inexplicably beautiful, yes?”

At least, I was fairly sure that was what she said. I was trying to pilot a plane but kept looking over as I gathered speed. Her eyes were crackling with the usual verve so she had to be okay. I increased my velocity, headed on down the runway and before long I was in the air, heart pinging and mind clear as the brilliant dome of sky above opened and let me enter  bit by bit. I looked down at Amalia. She grew smaller and started to disappear. I gleefully waved, despite her not seeing my hand. Then I was all clockwork precision. Then engulfed in wonder. The powerful magic of leaving earth behind. Ah, flight! I dreamed of flying over mountains and oceans and herds of wild animals as I skillfully guided my shining plane heavenward.

******

It was not to happen again, her sneaking up on me, stunning me with her capacity for joy, challenging me with her funny, odd comments. No more sunlight vibrating within random parks. No more meet-ups in cafes, even without Sam who had left her not too long after I saw him at the hangar. No more us making stupid faces when we ran out of intelligent things to say. No more shouted or whispered words about this mad and beautiful life we are given.

For Amalia was not well. She had cancer, and left when I was flying six months later.

It looked like it might be a stormy morning and I almost didn’t go out. I had spent the day before with her, only a half hour since her breathing was nearing nothing and her family was hunched over her bed. There was no room for me there, anymore. There was no room for an “us”, only her dying. Her eyelids didn’t flutter when I leaned close to brush her slack cheek with my lips. To thank her for being Amalia. Leaving that room was like stepping off a cliff.

I one hundred percent needed to fly. To not think about her shrinking in that hospital bed, her hands emptied, eyes darkened, pale mouth silenced by a surrender to dying. As I ascended, I saw lightning in the far distance, a pewter sky of rain like a screen between earth and heaven. I flew the other way toward a remnant of light where, out of nowhere, emerged a partial rainbow, faint, transparent colors that then arched across a strangely lit and towering cloud. I felt I could fly right through it and be saved from any terrible, selfish sadness. I knew it was absurd. I had to descend fast, before the storm snared me. It was then I heard her. I heard her as if she was sitting beside me at last.

“How beautiful everything is, isn’t it? Outrageously, inexplicably beautiful, my dear Jules!”