I’m Still Here, Amazonia

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Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

In the night, something misses me. I sit up and peer into the blur of darkness, check to see if Bodhi is at my feet but know he isn’t. He likes Kara’s bed more, it has a hollow where he buries his cat pink nose and white paws, his furred tail more like a slinky snake about her feet. There he is, babied in blankets. If she would go back to her room, he might come visit me.

But it isn’t Bodhi that awakens me; it never is. It isn’t Kara, either. Nothing wakes her. It’s just the sounds of our house, clunks and groans so soft I might have dreamed them. I used to get up and tiptoe out into the hall, call Mom and Dad to their door but that was many months ago, way before I was ten. Now I know everyone else sleeps or pretends to sleep and I’m the only one rubbing my eyes, pushing back the curtains to check the yard. The house must only catnap like Bodhi. Only humans worry about things like the right amount of sleep, I guess.

It’s only me here at three in the morning. I wave a childish wave at the apple trees down below, then the tire swing that hangs from one naked maple, its arms reaching around in search of birds or me. That’s what misses me tonight, I think. Last night it was the forsythia bush doing nothing but waiting to bloom. Tomorrow it might be the iron bench with my gathered  sticks left on the seat. I lie down, pull the soft blankets to my forehead and drift off, plunge in deeper, am gone.

“Roxie? Roxie!”

Kara’s dagger-nailed fingers are yanking the bedding off me.

“It’s seven-fifteen, get up or you’ll be late. Tim and I aren’t driving you again this week.”

The air feels cold so I jump up, grab clean undies I laid out last night then head into the bathroom. In the shower, I go to Amazonia, as usual; steam swirls around me, rising heat is thick with something good. Flowers, big and brilliant. My soap is a floral, lilies-of-the-valley scent. I don’t know if Amazonia has any sort of lilies but one day I’ll find out. I also need to look up how many kinds of butterflies there are. I plan on being a ecologist and expect to be an adventuress.

There is heavy thudding on the door.

“Open up! You don’t need to lock our bathroom door, you’re just a kid, I need the hair dryer right now!”

Sometimes Kara’s voice sounds like a train, the old kind like at the train museum, one that makes all the racket as the wheels grind and turn. I don’t have to hear her words to know what she means. When she yells I’m supposed to do something different. If she’s late, she for sure won’t take me to my school on her way to high school so I rinse off, grab the towel, unlock the door. It’s thrown open, proof that she was leaning on it, getting ready to apply her weight–all one hundred and five pounds of it, bones and boobs. She thinks she’s fantastic.

I toss the hair dryer at her.

“Hey!”

“Hey nothing, I’ll still beat you. I don’t have to paint on a face to leave the house. I already have one.”

She swats me with the hand towel, her laugh more like a sigh.

Downstairs, Mom is stacking toast on a plate beside a sickening mound of scrambled eggs. I take two slices and three bacons and make a sandwich. Dad is trying to kiss  her on the cheek but she bats him off with irritation as she turns the last bacon, and he disappears out the side door into the garage, hand making a backward wave at me.

I’m not sure how anyone can even cook in the kitchen. It’s in various stages of being undone. Upgraded. Renovation, they call it, but so far it’s just torn apart more each day, right down to the studs. I learned that word by harassing a carpenter on Saturday until Dad made me go to the store with Kara. We’re often sent on errands, useless missions or our friends’ when the noise gets feverish or sawdust falls about us like some lethal downpour. I pretended I was choking to death on it once and Mom got so upset and mad, she about cried.

I hear big trucks pull up, doors slam, grumbled greetings, heavy footsteps: the reno people are here already. I wonder what Mom will do today? Maybe leave like the rest of us. She used to teach yoga in our passable basement but that’s been suspended, she says with a frown.

Everything feels upside down since the parents decided to fix up the house. I don’t get it. It was good before, though Kara insists we’ll finally not be the almost-worst house on the block but closer to best. Still, even on a cruddy day our rambling house has been the sort of place you’d want to hang out. Our friends loved coming over, especially to be in the back yard, a half acre with fruit trees and overgrown hedges, the usual flowers and random, pretty weeds gone crazy.

We have a deck that seats thousands. Mom proudly stated this once as she carried out more food-laden platters for a summer party. But Dad is about have it taken out. He wants a big screened in porch to keep out hungry mosquitoes, what he says are mean-looking moths and so on. He is not too bug friendly despite often playing golf.

How am I ever going to get used to them for my Amazonia trip if I am protected from them? He makes me put on repellent any time I go out for long. He plans on a new patio with a “discreet water feature.” What is that? Lame. I will so miss the deck. Underneath it Bodhi can scamper and catch things and I can make myself narrow as a noodle, too, slip into an opening in the ancient lattice. Can hide awhile as needed, along with Bodhi.

There’s nowhere to hide now. Kara has taken over my quarters too much. Her own room is wrecked, being made bigger and soon will have a bathroom just for her. I call that extravagant, totally unnecessary; she leaves in three years for college if she studies harder. I have to fly across the hallway to use the one public bathroom. Mildew creeps onto loose caulking edging the tub. There’s a hole in the one high screened window. Will they fix these things? I don’t care. I like my house, broken things and all; why can’t they?

I stuff the last of the bacon sandwich into my mouth and leave before Mom can insist I need eggs. I hate eggs; they make me think of dead yellow, fluffy little chicks though I know they aren’t. It just doesn’t seem right whereas eating pork seems reasonable. I’m not fond of pigs when alive. Bodhi agrees. I toss him a small piece and his purr machine starts up.

“Wait up!” I call out to a threesome huddled in a bulky knot across the sidewalk, their puffer jackets too warm for the temperature today. I have on my sweatshirt hoodie, as usual. Lately, they–two girls and a guy, more or less friends since age six–seem like all that’s left for me. It’s the house’s fault, that’s why. The house changes, so everything else does–even they hardly ever come by now.

This all hits me like a bunch of cherries falling from our tree right between my eyes: a demonstration of gravity, a truth maybe a little too obvious. But that’s how things occur to me sometimes.

******

Kara is at the library tonight studying with the newest guy, Yuri, which is a lie. They’re hanging out at the Ridge with the rest of the fools. I will never go there; it’s dumb what they do, drink beers and smoke cigs and suck face, plan escapades they won’t carry out. But it’s some relief she’s gone awhile.

Bodhi sits at the end of my bed, wetting his paws, grooming his head and face. I’m reading things, a fashion magazine of hers that I tear pictures from–she’ll never miss those, it’s old and I like to make collages. Then I do homework, read a geography book. This part is about Mongolia, how they live and work outside like I want to. It’s a huge land and they have no neighbors nearby, only their family which might be trying. I’ll bet they don’t worry about remodeling their ready-to-go houses. They’re nomads, a word with a meaning I like. Everything in the picture looks like it has its place. Not so much is needed. I wish we had less stuff cluttering floors, corners, closets. And now even more with remodeling. Sometimes I still put up the tent in the back and sleep there–until Mom or Dad insist it’s time to come in, it’s not safe out there. It’s been fine for years–okay, usually Kara or my friends slept out with me–but not so much now. Anyway, now the parents want to spoil my fun; what used to be easy, good, is suddenly off-limits or irritating to them. The girl in my book looks like she could go miles away on her own, hunt, round up goats, sleep through a cold and lonely midnight and never get worried.

But that’s what I feel lately. A little worried. I don’t know what about exactly. I shake my head, open my notebook to answer questions about Mongolia. Bodhi snuggles in a bit more, warms up my feet. I feel more content than when Kara is nearby, when my parents are hovering and slinking around between words. Cats seem to know certain things, I think. I might be let in on the secret if I just have patience. I rub his ears and he half-blinks then closes bright eyes, shutting me out.

******

I hear the door creak open and shut as Kara creeps in way late and climbs in bed. I stay still, hoping Bodhi will remain happy where he is. He’s still awhile and then, as if awake the whole time, springs up and bounds off, goes to her. She blows her nose, shudders, turns and twists, little sobs eking out here and there, then muffled into nothing. I think I can smell the beers from an opening in covers where my nose pokes out. Bodhi jumps back onto my bed, startling me. I stare into darkness long after they both are dead still then give in, myself.

Sleep is a genie. It turns off the world, lets me enter a magic kingdom where I live in a tree house. All passing creatures tell me things, like how to blend in and make my way in the dark, where the best food is, and who will be enemies and trusted allies. They tell me how to never be lost. But this will mostly disappear when I awaken. Turning, there comes a wave of sadness.

Then there it is, something missing me again. It tugs like a boat trying to get me off a dock and jump into it. It’s like something I know but don’t quite understand even as I sense it more each night. My eyes adjust to see a barely lit outline of my bedside window so I sit up, listen. There is nothing except the strange but deeply familiar forms of sleeping cat and sister, a soft snore from their own dream surfing. There’s a bird, one of the first robins. I know it by its insistent song as morning light rises and tilts into our deep, wide yard. I push off covers, hold my arms close against the cold, then nudge back the curtain to look out.

There’s heavy white mist hovering about trees. It’s chilly but gentle; I’ve been into it many times. But as my eyes wander, someone else stands in it. It is no stranger, I know that form. I get up, slip into a flannel shirt with sweatpants. Press my face against the cool pane of glass to get a better look.

It’s Mom. She’s wearing her robe, the heavy blue velveteen robe Kara and I got her for Christmas. Her hair, thickly woven with white, spreads over her shoulders. Her arms are holding onto herself good and tight; her back looks small, bent. Her feet are bare. Out of nowhere comes the thought that maybe she is praying. I realize it’s an odd thought, my mother out in a cold March fog talking to God, as if God wasn’t available in a cozy room. But it seems the thing she has to do this early spring morning, the hard-to-hold fog dressing her like a tired goddess. Her head bows deeper and I feel afraid.

The house seems lighter, as if it could float away. It feels as if it needs something to hold it down this instant, but I don’t know what. My sister slumbers on; I have no desire to wake her. I must know what Mom is saying and leave my room, down the stairs on whispering feet, out the back door and into the grass. I step through ghostly fringes of mist, let it encase me like a mysterious cape of dawn. It might hold me and my mother in one piece.

When I reach her she glances over her shoulder as if waiting for me then lets me in, under the warmth of her enveloping wing. We watch as golden light spreads through the fogginess, then begins to pull apart. It’s like gold as it touches tree limbs and bushes, daffodils that are blooming early, lights up the deep pink daphne that fills my nose with sweetness.

I lean into her, one living thing into another, and she knows I know.

“Dad left…” I whisper.

“Yes,” she says and her free hand covers her mouth.

“It didn’t help, fixing our house.”

“No,” she says and crumples a second before standing tall again for me. For us.

“I never wanted things to change,” I say loudly now and scare the robin from its perch.

“We found we were wrong about…. well, some things have to first change inside no matter what we want to believe.”

I think of the creaky old deck, how it will remain standing now. How the mosquitoes will try to feast on us all and how I can bear their bites, have and will. But part of me wants terribly to have the porch screen between me and the world, and my skin slathered with that repellent every time I step out. I hug my mother closer and she reaches down, her lips planting a kiss on my forehead but before she smooths back my mess of tangled hair, I lurch away, follow the mist as it leaves the outer reaches. I look into a baby blue sky that melts away the night.

I am being missed somewhere. By Amazonia, by Mongolia, or our tent and my scared-of-the-dark-friends, or Bodhi, our warm, watchful cat. My father, even as he turned the corner at the end of our terribly quiet street, drove around the block and down the main street and who knows where next. He might be humming for all I know. His chest might have a hole in it, too, where we have always been.

I want to make him weak with my mightiest hug so he’ll have to come back and stay. I want to find Kara, scream at her until she screams with me, then collapse into her arms. I want to tell my mother how her sadness fills me with terror, with love.

None of this will happen, at least not now.

Because mostly there’s just me standing here. Mostly there is an awful longing for how it was before now. Before the house began to change and fall down around us. And now I know that all those weird nights as I woke up wondering it was only me who was being missed– the little kid Roxie who was happy before the past year, who carried on as if all was just fine. Me, before I knew I had to grow up. And having Amazon dreams means I had better be as brave as I imagined.

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!”

If We Make It to the Other Side

Victoria Trip 7-12 079

There were various shapes of black, grey and brown lining rows and rows of seats. Clothing made for rain, the uniform, perhaps, for travelling in this manner. They were packed shoulder to shoulder, purses and backpacks hugged to chests or corralled by feet. Along the outdoor railing heartier–or new–passengers leaned as far as they dared, gawked at the waves and daydreamed. It was a long trip, nearly an hour, from mainland to island. The savvy ones, those who commuted daily for work or were frequent visitors to either shore, perused easy-to-read books or magazines, played on their phones, took out scones and apples. Many lifted tall cups of coffee as if in a symbolic gesture that united them all.

It was easy to be lulled by the engine noise, a steady drumming in the background. Those who well knew this route dozed without self-consciousness, chins falling forward or back, snores gaining volume until someone jostled the sleeper by accident or otherwise. But more were pleasantly dazed while kept awake by the movement forward, the sometimes boisterous waves. Being so close to each other might have been a boon; they had this in common, this journey from one place to another, each with private plans and needs, separate while thrown together on the four-thirty ferry. A gathering of humanity on pause.

She had climbed the steps from a claustrophobic belly of the boat–no, ferry, not boat! she chided herself– that was stuffed with autos and felt spit out onto the main deck. Tried to orient herself. It was as if she had chosen the wrong door and was forced to join aliens that milled about. It didn’t make sense, of course–she hadn’t lost her mind entirely–but she was as ill at ease as a rabbit among foxes. They knew what they were doing there and dispersed, a certain goal in mind. She was like prey who didn’t know where to hide, afraid to move one way or the other, certain her demise was at hand. They had been there before (or if it was their first time, as well, were not alone or riddled with fear), had crossed the waters that flowed, really, from the entire Northwest portion of the Pacific Ocean–“think of it as a gigantic lake”, a friend had suggested. No, not a lake of any sort. All the water that lay between here and there was unending ocean. This floating beast–the current, if secondary, leviathan in her waylaid life–was headed to the San Juan Islands and she was captive until she once more stepped onto dirt and cement.

She closed her eyes and tried to quell the shakiness that made each exhalation almost staccato. The seat she perched on felt too small for her bags and emotions. No one noticed except perhaps the old man who was watching her beneath bushy white eyebrows as he blew across the top of his thermos’ handy cup. She thought he was smiling–foolish girl, he likely thought, worried about a ferry crossing. His yellow teeth flashed beneath a ragged moustache, then he took a sip and looked away.

A vocal baby wriggled and reached in a mother’s arms right next to her. The curly-headed, honey-skinned infant–who ought to have brought a smile to anyone’s face– reeked of old milk and banana and other things. It was too much. She thought she’d lose her lunch so stood up, inch by inch, finding the slight but strange motion beneath her feet an enemy, then as something she must adapt to, could do if she was painstaking, careful. Inner ear and stomach each hesitated, gulped, then complied, kindly. She kept her feet planted apart a moment longer. She glanced at the old man. He winked at her.

When she noted a lanky teen-ager exit the enclosed shelter she followed, pushed through the door to see if she could possibly manage her insecurity better by facing it. That was what she often did, confronted the overwhelming thing she felt she could not otherwise combat. Or accept. Sometimes it worked. It was so windy and cold her eyes and nose ran immediately. The ferocious unseen god of winds was snatching her from safety and pushing her forward towards snaking ropes soon to be under foot. What had she been thinking to come out there? Much worse. She stumbled but kept an upright position, then managed to half-slide then speed walk to the railing. Her breath was taken from her, as if someone had punched her hard enough to get her attention, then left her alone to deny discomfort.

She was unshakably, divinely spellbound by her absurd fear. She loved to fly, had gone kayaking a few times, was a skier of mountain slopes. But there was more happening. Something else. Her long hair whipped about her and she fought to stick it back into her drawn up collar. And she settled her eyes to the place she didn’t want to acknowledge even though it was obvious she could not ignore it: that magisterial body of water, blue and black, a glowing pewter beneath whitecaps that flung their spittle up and out to crazed, chilled wind. There was no land. Well, far, far off, there in the distance a speck, a bump on the horizon. More likely a ship, a freighter or another ferry, yes, something that should not be able to bounce along the ocean’s permeable surface yet did, she now conceded. So supremely confident, whatever it was. Seaworthy, readied. Unlike herself.

Yet, the water shone. Above were clouds heavily weighted that now parted enough to spare a shard of sunlight; the water found it and wore it like a living thing. This ocean beyond her reach was dancing, moving back and forth. Trading caresses and slaps in an ancient ritual set to motion by above-and-below-surface topographical and temperature variations with currents and winds directing. What did she not know about this peculiar place? Everything, that was a fact, even though she had strolled many beaches. But the sea spoke to her now as if she had long known and adored it, then abandoned it only to plead for a forgiving reunion. Its voice roiled and laughed, echoed things. Soothed. She moved albeit impereptibly with the water and recognized there, in the sea, something in herself both resonant and dissonant.

The thought shook her. This was a theme she had longed to eradicate when she bought her ticket but here it was, a wearisome dog following her footsteps. This taking away and coming back to, this abandonment and loss and the endless attempts at retrieval of something good. Yes, something better. Something that more than just masqueraded as love. She spoke to the wind that word she had tried to not utter even in private. Love love love, she said, and they each floated away.

Not that anyone could have convinced her it would end like that. With her bitterness and sorrow. His lack of conscience. His offering her the world–his, yes, not much of hers–and then taking it from her when he tired of the offerings and her refusals then finally, against her better judgment, gave her ecstatic acceptance. Why was it that some people had to make the adventurous pursuit of another so meaningful–and the denouement so trite and unseemly? Ugly, even.

But he badly paid for it, didn’t he?

The water engulfed her thoughts, took from her his face, his hands, those words, that desire and hope, anger, longing and pain. Thrown against the ferry as that sea-changing wind pressed about her, she recalibrated a center of gravity and held on. The pale sunlight fringed clouds with softness, made them yielding until sky let loose a remnant of blue. She felt warmer though the her dark hair tangled and her jacket riffled. Tears slid from her eyes as gusts sheared her face. It was a near-violent thing, this crossing. It was a magnificent body of water, inviolate somehow, immense in its moods. Gracious to its cohabitating creatures. Tolerant of boats, only to a point. Generous with those who respected its bounty. But deadly, too. She felt its magnitude, drawn even to its fickleness. Like life, its unpredictability was either to be accepted or rejected and what good could come of rejection? It rolled on. It created, welcomed and nurtured. Finally destroyed. Every time a person set sail or even stepped onto a ferry such as this he or she took a chance and the thrill of it–of not yet jaded–was whether or not something wonderful might result from the risk.

Had he thought of any of this on that perfect and dangerous day? He had driven too fast in his well-tuned machine. He was so proud of it, had sunk such time and money into its well-being. He always did go too fast, attacked everything with the force of someone who thought they would lose out if they did otherwise. But that day, after he told her it was never fully in sync for him, both of them, he had to go–did he drive faster than even he knew was acceptable? Did he think to himself it might be an extreme risk that could make or break the heart of that moment? The sort he felt compelled to ever seek and find? But it finally undid him. He had left so fast it was like he hadn’t even been there that morning. A kiss on her cheek and the words, all of which were too heated.

Then, it was finished in entirety. She heard hours later. They came to her with halting steps and phrases and all she recalled was the warmth and then the cooling of his breath on her face as he left her. And could not get warm for days.

She lost her bearings, grasped the rail. The sunlight was erased first by a fine mist that dropped over all. Then came a blinding fog. It fell upon the ferry and those who persisted in standing there, damp and cold. Mesmerized like her. The wind slacked. There seemed nothing but greyness aorund the barest pearlescence where light persisted as light does. A soft darkness swallowed all. A beautiful darkness. She would have climbed up the flag pole if she had strength and madness enough left in her. She wanted to feel the veil of fog wrap her up and then unfurl again. She would have liked to be the one to see through to the other side, to site the first small ledge of land. If they yet made it to the island. Courage rose up and with it, a fledgling sense of safety. It was a clue: readiness for more to happen. She breathed in ocean breath, felt bathed in calmness that defied winds or cold or incessant waves. Onward the ferry moved, fast enough, casting off its shield of greyness.

When the light cleared a pathway over the water it was an explosion of jewels. She held hand to eyes and looked hard: there it was. The island. The place where she was going. The spot she had feared to land. To have to start again. The real worry had been who she would become, just what she could bear to discover. She understood so little, just odd snippets of things. Her own self seemed a haphazard   thing at times. Everyone else seemed bigger. Fiercer. Maybe it was an illusion that she had to interpret. In time, she told  herself, in time there would be a whole picture and her place in it.

The ferry slowed and idled, maneuvered this way and that until it came to rest. She searched for the dock in the shortening distance. Waiting for her was her aunt, that large, ofttimes overbearing woman who had lost a son to war and a husband to the trickster sea, the same one she yet floated upon. But still this woman carried on as if every day was something to design anew with pleasure and passion. She was the definition of indefatigable. And kindness.

“Come, learn the ways of sea and island, find good work to be done, eat and rest and sweat with the rest of us“, she had said over the phone as if it was the only answer. Despite her niece’s stubborness and that self-pity like a black flag hoisted high for months and months.

Her fear of these waters and this ferry had been the last barricade. And it had been so small, hadn’t it, just a simple thing for a woman who worried she could never make peace with her own self, just as that old man had divined. She wondered if he might get off here.

She let go of the railing. Her hands were reddened and tender. She flexed fingers, turning her face to welcoming sunshine. Her hair was smoothed back. Feet were moved forward. She faced the crowd assembling to disembark, then went back inside to find her way among them.

 

Victoria Trip 7-12 777

Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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