Andalin, Alive/Chapter 2: A Series of Reckonings Begin

Those of you who read Chapter 1 (that post here: Andalin, Alive ) of my new novel-in progress already have met the newly arrived protagonist, Andalin Chiara Luvstrom, and her privileged if deeply conflicted family. Also significant is Tillie, the midwife who delivered her into this world.

In the second chapter we meet Oren and Huff and also learn a little about Andalin’s life as a child from an experience or two they shared with her.

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Chapter 2

A Series of Reckonings Begin

 

It was the start of something, he felt it in his very sinew. If he was sure of what it was, Oren might have told someone right then, shaped the words that would spark interest in the listener, first of all Huff, his best friend and fellow sojourner. Who would not call him a fool though he deserved the moniker. Oren had a knack for finding the wrong women. It was going to be harder to discern this time, but not for the usual reasons. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know who she was. More or less.

His stepfather would fling words of warning if Oren alluded to the encounter earlier that week. He would point out that the Luvstroms were marked by haughtiness, an innate pride worn like a medal and for little reason, since they had lost much of what the generations had built. Not that this caused Dane Luvstrom much consternation; the family fared far better than most of the merchants and land owners, still. And Dane was not a man who had foregone all respect for others. They might have been friends, his father and Dane, not just tenuous allies, if things had gone differently for his own family. If his mother had stayed alive.

No, it was best to keep it to himself as he mulled things over. It had been eight years since he had been home with Kent, said stepfather–alright, his father, for all intents and purposes–not since his mother had passed over. Time and its weathering had inevitably altered the land and people he’d left behind since boarding the first ship to the “Blue Bridge of the Beautiful World”, with a vista of vast mystery and beauty. That is what he called it privately, for part of the time he longed to be a bard–even a very minor poet–not a travelling merchant. He could barely indulge that fantasy. It was a poor way to be a man in this country or most others, that of his stepfather’s domain and others’.

Huff only said: “We left for the farthest waters and lands, did our duties for Fine-Verdur and Company. Then we stayed once we found those lands better– at least for awhile. Now we are back!”

“Eight years is only a while?” their old neighbors argued. “Eight have passed bitter slow, the fields have gone barren and just been returned to their happier natures but your fathers wear beards that have grown each year with mourning for wayward sons! No thanks to you that they managed to survive…”

Oren sat cross-legged on the low stone wall, finishing  his lunch of sunflower nut bread and hard cheese. Their acreage and animals were flourishing despite his assist or lack of it; Kent could not blame Oren’s leaving or returning for much of anything. Land produced of its own accord given time and a basic care. He had known Oren was not to be a devoted grower. By the time the young man was fifteen Kent had begun preparing for inevitability of more loss, employing a steady hired hand. If Oren was still supposed to feel shame, Kent was sure to be disappointed. He was was relieved that things had gone better than expected in the end. Now he was free to either travel soon again or find work in another realm.

But first he had to deal with a new dilemma: Andalin Chiara Luvstrom.

His center rustled, mind darted, full of glittering things, like a high sun zigzagging across deep water or shooting stars streaking across a day sky. He tried to look away from such stark, bright feeling and thoughts but could not. This was different than anything. And he had known her, he had already known who she was.

Or had he? Or had she known him while he was the one who was slow to understand and a stranger to himself? But Andalin had seemed in full possession of herself. Despite the childhood ordeals. Despite her gradual drifting away, clinging to the edges of known and unknown worlds.

Oren let his eyes roam over the verge of greenery, then the expanse of brown and yellow and rust of Kent’s land. He remembered well. He could see her even now as a kid, spindly but strong legs carrying her toward the wall that divided their farms, her corn silk hair tangling with wind. How he fast forgave her for not seeing him as he waited there. How he knew without thinking that she didn’t see him because she was traversing another place, always moving past his reach.

******

“I think she’s too much, you know that, but I like her,” Huff said. “We both have liked her around. As if it really matters to Andalin, though, it’s the way of things. Besides, she’s only just ten, a baby still.” He shrugged and pushed away the book, drummed the desk until their teacher gave him a scowl.

Oren was about to say she only seemed like a little kid, at times, it was just a disguise of sorts but thought better of it as he agreed she was far behind them in obvious ways.

They’d settled at their desks for more learning  but Huff was restless, unaccustomed to much reading and writing, unlike Oren. At twelve, Huff was raw-featured and wiry, tall already and used to being in motion, either working the farms with his parents or toiling away at the family’s semi-permanent campsite. He was the opposite of Oren, broader and sturdily built, showing a hint of power in his limbs and good looks in wide jaw and warmly observant eyes.

Oren paused in his vocabulary test to glance out the open window. He worried little about his work; he did it well and then had time to daydream. He was pulled to the figure sitting near the building.

Andalin was sitting on an ancient oak stump with tablet and pencil as schoolmates played in the trees, swung on the rope swings, ran races. Oren knew for a fact that she could out-climb any of them and dangle from one leg on a high rope swing. Not, in truth, because she was stronger than they–she tended to quietness of body and mind, loathe to stir for long periods– but she was limber, persistent. And brave, he admitted. But the others thought of her as frail and treated her as if she was deaf and mute, leaving her to her own devices. The one time during the current school year Oren had seen her included was when they needed someone to be a minor wood nymph in a play and since there were almost no lines and she was small of frame, the director and kids decided she was perfect for the role. And she was. She gave off a lovely, mischievous aura if you let your judgment go easy on her and noted the sheerness of her skin, hair, eyes (her eyebrows nearly nonexistent, emphasizing the impact of those ice blues) as a positive, not a negative. A refreshing change for a community made up of swarthy-skinned, richly tanned and quite ordinary spectrum of white-shaded folks that populated the land.

Or put another way, she looked and seemed more a freak.

After the play was performed to delighted applause, the classmates reverted to their usual dismissal of her–despite the Luvstrom wealth and their parent’s cautioning them to be civil. It was rather a fallen-down wealth, but the crumbs could employ or feed much of the community if the family was so moved. And Dane Luvstrom had helped as much as he could during those long barren years. He was not a man to be trifled with, yet a man of some principle. Nevertheless, Dane was only one member,  head of the family; Renata was quite another ruling party, the sort to be tolerated. And Andalin Chiara was more than different. Some felt her as threatening in a distant, indecipherable sense; they didn’t try too hard to figure her out. They had each other and she had her family. Let her have the status and her own kind–though they weren’t certain what sort that was, in the end.

Oren crushed a piece of paper into a compact ball and threw it hard out the raised window. It landed on Andalin’s back. She slowly turned, unsurprised. She raised a hand and moved it to one side in minor greeting. In response, he lifted shoulders and hands in question so she smiled back at him, arms sweeping up air as if wings, then her body following as she rose to her feet, ran off to a large tree and started to climb. She passed over or under the other few kids, scrambling to the top in no time. They were almost used to this sudden flurry of movement when she’d been stock-still, of her ability to surpass them despite her frailties, so pulled back away from her, then watched.

“Jump, Andalin!” one called out, a girl with coppery pigtails.

“Yes, jump and fly this time, weird fairy girl!” a boy shouted in a rush of laughter.

The others shouted similar things, getting into a rougher spirit of it.

Oren and Huff got up and went to the window despite the teacher calling them back. This happened too often; Oren always worried. Huff was usually impatient.

“Climb down now, Andalin!” he pleaded under his breath, for he knew if he shouted she’d be taunted further and he would be stopped on the way home for a fight.

Andalin, in a crook of the topmost branches, looked about her and down below. She set her feet apart so each was higher up on the branches and first stood precariously, then held the just-balanced stance. She let go one sinuous branch, jutted chin up and out, her near-white hair alight in a gentle wind, her eyes closed.

Oren’s and Huff’s hands felt slippery with sweat as they glanced at each other. Surely she was not going to listen to the classmates, she was too smart, too self preserved and generally unmoved by it all–wasn’t she? They had seen her evade stinging words for years, as if they were mere bubbles. Deal with mean tricks as though they were flimsy darts aimed her way as if to tease. They had seldom seen her cry and only for a moment after which she sighed as if there was nothing to be done but tolerate it all. She seemed more than anything to shake off the actions and intent and focus on other views of living. Her own views. And she was kindly in her quiet way despite the harm attempted. Which made the worst of the bullies more possessed of ill will.

She was, Oren thought, so much better than they were that they didn’t even know it, they didn’t realize who they were dealing with and this spurred him to leave his school room and lope down the hallway, Huff following in a sprint, the teacher now scared and crying out and running to catch up.

Andalin stood in the treetop, pulled into herself a tender scent of apple blossoms, the promise of heady lilac. The sharp taste of wind, salt-tinged with far-off seas, cooled with a sweet foretelling of rain much needed. Heard swallows and falcons and bluebirds on the wing and their babies calling with tiny beaks. She was so utterly in love with this world that she shivered, her skin alive with joy. Her body felt the world and just welcomed what was in it. But beyond the earth’s glowing spring horizon she knew well there was more and she reached for it with one hand and then with another. Her eyes were shut tight against sunlight that draped all the trees and her. Against all that impeded her knowing of the environs and the beyond. She stood still and fully alone, leg muscles taut, bright hair riffled by breeze, face shining.

Below they all watched her standing tall between branches, hands lifted to sky as if praying and they held their breath inside a collective rupture of fear.

Oren closed his eyes and Huff gawked.

When they heard the swift crash through branches Oren was the first to dash to her, then several others came. Only to find her not squashed on the ground, not bleeding with scrapes or brokenness but resting on the lowest branch, hands holding on, eyes wide open. Everyone gathered in a circle and stared at her, aghast, amazed by the lack of injury.

“She just jumped from one branch to another!”

“No, she slipped one to the next, like she was made of air…like a…”

“I saw her, she was flying, flew right down to the last branch…!” a third said, her face drained by fear and wonder.

“Will you please, please come down now?” the teacher asked, advancing with a hand outreached to her, as if the child was an unpredictable beast or simply a crazy one, not to be trusted. Impressed enough to want to tell everyone else about it.

Oren and Huff strode past the kids and adults milling about. Oren caught her eye and folded his arms tight against his chest to stop his heart from galloping.

“Andalin, stop showing off and just come down.” He tried to make it sound like an insult and a tease in one but failed for his voice shook.

She slid off the branch and gently landed on the ground on all fours, then popped up and walked away, head lowered, looking small and delicate, not like one who did what she just had done. Huff and Oren followed, trying not to check every inch for sudden gushes of blood or protruding bone fragments, the usual result of falling through tree branches. Their teacher followed but sharply turned back, seeing she was, indeed, oddly alright. But something worse? But what?  It was too noteworthy to ever forget. The girl had grace, strength and oddness beyond understanding,

“Why?” Huff asked, angry. “How were we to save you if branches impaled you or you hit the ground too fast and hard?”

She steadied herself before them, those grey-to-blue-to-clear-as-water eyes simmering with energy. Took one of their hands in each of hers.

“They’re wasting their time trying to scare me. I am not afraid. Just alone and lonely. We live on the edges of it all, the deep of this world. All of us. But I daily live between them. I live in the endless wake of things.” She pushed her flyaway hair back and looked right at Oren. “You know that by now, don’t you? How can they really hurt me if this is true?”

Huff opened his mouth but went blank. What did she say?

Oren felt tears well up and frowned. He had no idea why he felt this. Why he halfway understood. Why they had to endure her strangeness and could not turn away from her. She was like a compass, magnetically charged without anyone consciously realizing it and he had kept coming back to her side despite oft-feigned disinterest. Everyone found themselves watching her, waiting for something else although they changed their intense interest into more disdain. More wariness. Like knowing she holds secrets–what sort? whose?– and nothing can be done about it.

But Huff turned away then. He gave her a hard look and shook his head. Shuddered as if to release a spell and from his throat arose a grunt of frustration. He hustled back to the school.

“Oren,” she said again, “don’t you know that?”

But he could not answer her. Did he? He put an arm about her, pulled her boniness close, then released her. He thought he heard her whisper, “Sorry for scaring you”, but when he asked her to repeat it and look at him, she was silent, studied the clover beneath their feet, stopped to pick one. Put it to her lips then ate the honey of it, her countenance wreathed with pleasure.

They entered the school building, Andalin to face officials (Oren to fail his first math quiz ever) she barely knew. Who, despite their initial disbelief, were aware they were dealing with a child unlike any other, there was no more disputing it. And they were unhappy and intrigued in equal measure as they sent a bike messenger to get Dane Luvstrom. He must do a far better job at teaching her to not act in such foolish ways. To follow the rules. To not take big chances. To fit in even a little better– somehow. They knew they couldn’t count on Renata, who was above such difficult duties. Such a family. Such a girl.

******

Oren heard Kent seeking him out with the huge reverberating bell, then his name yelled loud and clear. He gazed one last time toward the Luvstroms’ land and remembered her running, smirking as she got closer and slowed to a saunter. He saw those glimmering eyes, how they recognized him still. Saw how she had changed but not changed at all. He had thought at first it couldn’t be her, he had worked so hard to erase her from his thoughts that he was certain she’d left or simply vanished. Besides, she didn’t belong here, in this harsh, constricted life. Why had she remained? He should have taken her with him. But, of course, could not, she was in school, yet a young girl. She was going nowhere, anyway, not then. And he had been relieved, at last, of her presence.

So why were they familiars still, after his extensive journeying, such good adventures, all the other women?

His chest squeezed, felt crowded with anticipation of the next time they might meet. He, too, was weighted with a vague unease. He had only half-known what she’d meant after she fell those years ago. She had never said the same words again yet ever after Oren had spent years trying to both acknowledge and retreat from the truth she revealed. To accept and still back away from her. Perhaps this is what had led him back home, for reasons yet to be made clear. And perhaps to Andalin–may Universal Spirit aid them both.

(I have often enjoyed sharing pieces of much longer projects. But please do not print or share these recent chapters, as the work is © 2018 Cynthia Guenther Richardson and an ongoing writing endeavor, constantly being revised. Andalin, Alive, being a novel-in-progress, is ultimately separate from my usual WordPress posts. Thanks for taking time to read any chapters as well as respecting this request–but your comments are always welcome!)

Opera Hour

It was and perhaps is unusual for a sixteen year old to spend Saturday mornings deliberately listening to opera. Even in the context of a life already crowded with classical music and musicians and composers. I had heard opera in my family home, had been to a very few performances in our small city, in Detroit and Chicago on cultural/shopping trips with my parents. I had heard in person–and adored–Eileen Farrell, Beverly Sills and Leontyne Price. But I could not (and still cannot) pretend it was my first choice of musical composition and expression despite exquisite costumes and dramatic story arcs that usually involved grave dysfunction, passionate love with love triangles or worse, and shattering death scenes. The vocal prowess in these productions was overwhelming, in both a positive and a negative sense. And most of the time I could barely follow their vocalized lines–it was Italian or French or German, something other than English.

It was in the sixties and beyond playing my cello and singing art songs, I was becoming deeply engaged with folk music, musical theater and was discovering jazz and blues. I did not spend my slight free time studying opera, even if I did learn to sing art songs and an aria or two.

And yet there I was, sitting in a straight backed chair in a music room, operatic goings-on filling my ears via a fantastic stereo system. The room seemed in shadow; it was hushed despite an enveloping aria, the crescendo of the orchestration. There wasn’t lack of light or quiet in the usual way. It was the setting, the occupants. There were good sized windows with patterned curtains pulled back; sunlight threw luminescent stripes on plush carpet. I sat very still, as did the other two, though their eyes were closed or nearly so.

One of the others was a grown up, the kindly Mrs. B., mother of the second teenager present, whose name was W. He was also a cellist and I imagined I had been invited to the house because of that fact. Why, I didn’t really know. He was older than I by two years and about to graduate and attend a prestigious university music program. He played much better than did I, with fine skill and surprisingly rich and refined emotions for a boy, I mused whenever I heard him (sexist as it may have been, that was my thought). He was far, far quieter. He was very well off and his family was held in high regard. He was at least as academically capable if not more so. He was tall, possessed a gentlemanly air and very good looking and he was not looking at me, never had and likely never would. His honey colored hair was just long enough to fall forward and wave upon his forehead. W. looked wonderful with cello in hand. And when he walked and just sat there.

He was not far from me in the music room with a grand piano in the corner and morning light flowing into the tasteful room, with perfectly coiffed and dressed mother calm and composed as she sat back on the sofa. They were focused on the singers’ vocal gymnastics, the score unfolding with pomp and complexity. I tried with all my might to be still, too, and fully enjoy it. Each of us had a libretto, the words of the opera. They were Italian with English translation. It may have been Verdi’s or Puccini’s work, but I do not recall. I registered the beauty. And I kept wondering why I was there. had not invited me. He was always courteous in school hallways and during orchestra class, but he wasn’t looking at me as any potential love interest when he greeted or briefly chatted with me. There was something rarefied about his presence. Some perhaps found him remote or “snooty.” I saw him as intensely focused inward–on music, on studies. I recognized an introvert when I saw one, someone who pondered all kinds of matters naturally. He had an air of detached melancholia about him; I sometimes wanted to shake him up, wake him from his somnambulance. But he was far beyond my reach, older and so well behaved, at a distinct socioeconomic advantage, having an old world aristocratic air. He would soon leave our little berg, move onto greater realms.

It was Mrs. B. who had sent me handwritten correspondence on a creamy monogrammed note card, inviting me to join her son and herself (possibly her husband as well) on Saturday mornings to listen to operas. I looked at it again, turned the envelope over to study the address. Yes, it really was from that Mrs. B. of the city’s upper echelons (though my parents knew them due to their cultural support and talented children, they had economic status we did not) with her scientist husband. I had met her many times at concerts, at church and I liked being a tad intimidated. But more importantly, the note card came from none other than W.’s mother.

I showed it to my mother; casually, she looked it over.”Yes, I saw her the other day at a luncheon and she wondered if you might enjoy some opera. She mentioned then that she’d invite you to join W. and herself.” She caught my look of disbelief and smiled uncertainly. “Wouldn’t you like to go?”

“Well, she is a nice lady. And it’s a hand written invitation…how can I refuse that? I’ll call. There’s actually an RSVP on the bottom with her number. But I still wonder why she would think to ask.”

“I think she’s just being friendly, extending hospitality and music to you. And both of you kids play cello; you aren’t that far apart in age. I guess you’ll have to go see for yourself.”

I wasn’t sure about the whole thing. It seemed overly formal of her but what did I know about such things? There was W. There was their house–I so wanted to see the inside of their beautiful house, for even then I was strongly drawn to good architecture. My hometown offered many outstanding examples of wood/glass/stone contemporary homes as well as fine historical houses. The house was contemporary and eye catching viewed through a tree filled large lot. The shell of that situation was starting to fill up with possibilities. It was hard not to fantasize a meeting of eyes, then minds, perhaps hearts across the room from romantic-appearing but out of reach W. Hard to restrain my excitement at the prospect of being inside an arresting home.

I called to confirm. I tried to imagine myself there. At sixteen I was not exactly who my parents wanted me to be. It was a small town, and I was pretty sure most people knew I was swerving off the upstanding, preferred course, the path disciplined, well bred offspring held to without blinking. I had been dabbling with street drugs, already struggled with prescription drugs (Valium was a popular cure for any ailment and very addictive). I had been in a psychiatric ward. I knew anti-war protesters, had a fledgling interest in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In a family that was well trained and high achieving, I was the one running hot and wild, running a muck. From my viewpoint, I was sincerely trying to manage a life that was imbued with fear and grief but also a profound desire to live a creative life, to become spiritually true and brave. So it was surprising this family would welcome me in their midst, at that time.

Maybe, I thought, Mrs. B. and W. somehow understood. Maybe they were extending a kindness that might help me feel better. But probably they were only offering an opportunity to learn something about opera–which was neither here nor there for me as much as getting to see the house. I attended the next Saturday morning opera hour.

So there I was. The house was comprised of wood in and out with great rectangles of glass. Clean lines curved and cut through the interior with elegant simplicity. There was a surfeit of space, open stairways and a two-way fireplace. Sculptures, paintings perked up odd areas. Cathedral ceilings soared in a caramel brightness. Up an amazing set of cantilevered stairs Mrs. B. and I went, then along a hallway until we came to the music room. But it was a library, as well, three walls lined with books. Art enlivened the pale wall behind the grand piano. Mrs. B. served iced tea with delicate shortbread cookies. They sat on a china plate set upon an inlaid wood serving tray. I reached for one immediately and paired it with the tea.

W. came in a few minutes later.

“Hi, welcome to our famous opera hour. Nice that you came.” He smiled and took a chair.

I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or slightly mocking of this apparent Saturday tradition. I decided it was in between the two, being good-natured and tolerant of his mother’s passion even if he wasn’t always so thrilled. Or was he also? W. was, after all, a very good musician, so he was likely amenable enough.

The music was layered in colorful notes, a theatrical performance sung, not only acted. The voices were beyond perfect–incandescent, magnificent, full of despondency and rejoicing, alarm and longings and betrayals and desire. But there was a grand formality to it, a ponderous nature–aspects I liked less the more I listened, which I found amusing since I had my own penchant for drama. I already knew some of the form from experiencing opera before. It helped more to see it in its regal and bellicose antics on stage. But what did I specifically know about it? I gave in and closed my eyes as had they. When I again opened my eyes at a musical pause, I became riveted by W.’s distinctive profile, the curve of his shoulders as he leaned forward.

I knew there was no reason to believe he was interested, but I couldn’t entirely give up the idea. I needed someone who understood my yearnings, imaginings, ideas that seemed to thrive mainly among dreamy romantics, spiritual sojourners and debating philosophers in the making. Maybe we were simpatico! Surely he saw that I was not just sixteen and he was older–that I was someone who could keep up with him in rigorous discussion. Or did I look like a kid who was utterly lost in this world? This environment.

I took it all in, those fabulous books, that gleaming mammoth Steinway piano (unlike our old scarred baby grand, used for fun and  good music alike). Their house was like an art museum with daring lines and beautiful objects. When the music was done, we talked awhile but mostly Mrs. B. explained a few things. I cannot for the life of me recall what they were, but it was arcane information about opera, the composer.

Then she asked if I was going to pursue music as a career, like W. was.

“I would like to be a singer, not a cellist. But I also love theater, art, dance and writing…

W. suddenly looked at me more closely.

I continued. I’m fascinated by architecture but also psychology, archaeology and linguistics, nature-I have way too many interests, I guess. Music will always matter, but sometimes I feel more like a writer.”

“One can never love the arts or learning too much,” she said.

I worried my words were like loose coins rolling about in a tin can but Mrs. B. was relaxed and smiling. W. appeared to be staring in my direction but I suspected he was looking right through me. I felt embarrassed. They didn’t know me, I didn’t know them, and I had to babble away. But  maybe they got it, maybe they were the sort of people who understood what my peers did not–what excited me, what held meaning to me. Adults often understood such things better–and yes, W. did seem more like an adult, I realized.

“And did you enjoy the opera today?” she asked as we stood to go.

“I did, yes,” I said, half truthfully. But it was the stronger half of my feeling.

“Then we’ll see you next Saturday morning?”

I didn’t see W. often at school. He had classes in different corridors, different friends. I didn’t see the purpose in still nurturing a desire to know him better. I knew it was not meant to be.

But I showed up again. W. was there for part of it, then wordlessly left with a small nod in my direction. Mrs. B. and I talked afterwards. She was knowledgeable not only about opera but many things. They had traveled widely, had lived interesting places. She treated me with respect and acted so interested in my thoughts, told me she loved my singing and would like to read my poems sometime. Her demeanor seemed more reasonable, good-hearted. It was like being in a cocoon of gentility lined with decency and warmth. Dr. B. stuck his head in and waved, said hello, then was gone.

On the way out, I glimpsed W. sitting at a long table, ankles crossed, a book open in his hands. He was staring again at something, through a window or at a wall, or was daydreaming–who could tell? But his face, already gaunt, seemed drawn, muscles lax, expression unreadable. I felt a stab of worry for him and it struck me that he might be depressed, perhaps lonely, too. And wondering what was coming after graduation, what was possible out there for him and in life. He may have sensed me, as he turned. Our eyes met. Nothing was said. It was enough, that sharp recognition that he knew I more than saw him and I knew he was also seeing me. The real me. I felt a shiver. I lifted my hand to him. He nodded as usual but I felt him watching as I left.

I did not return. I found an excuse the next time, then called Mrs. B. and told her I appreciated her generosity but I had much to do every week-end, And perhaps I wasn’t such an opera aficionado.

“I thought not,” she said, “but worth a try. I think so much of your family and enjoyed getting to know you a little. I felt W. might appreciate opera company, too.” She let go a very small sigh then was her upbeat self again. “I wish you the very best, my dear, and send me a poem if you like. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.”

I don’t recall if I sent her a poem. I’m sure we saw each other at concerts. W. and I passed each other at school, were in performances together. We chatted a small amount, shyly, as if we’d revealed much in two visits and an unmasked glance. Then he graduated, was gone. I read decades later that he became a professional cellist; his photo showed a man contented, which gave me a smile. But I recall equally and with pleasure Mrs. B.’s gesture, her warmth and gracious home, the brief mornings rich music and challenges of opera. It was a world apart but worth visiting.

And I haven’t forgotten how a sudden look into a person’s eyes rendered instantly a humanity that felt profound, powerful. Vulnerable. As if the innermost door opened and truth stepped into light to allow me to witness it. It was not the last time for that to happen, but it was the last strangely lovely time with opera, W. and Mrs. B.

More than Passing Attachments

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The heavy pounding was like a rubber mallet banging the wooden door. Bea dropped the small sack onto the kitchen table and tore off her coat and gloves, each finger tingling from unusual cold that permeated the town. She had just closed and bolted the door and was hesitant to check the peep-hole. It might be Mick, that audacious man down the hall with split lower lip healing after his last reported boxing match.

Mick made her skittish sometimes with his wary sullenness, the abrupt greetings tossed her way as they passed one another, the way his black hair fell over his forehead barely covering a scar that trailed between his eyebrows. He wasn’t, she thought, so mean as tough. He had a wife who was loud and friendly in that way that overwhelmed her but they always greeted each other, chatted a bit. Bea had thought the two of them suited one another fine. Then they had a baby over four years ago, a lovely boy. She’d tried to not wonder about his life with such a pair. It was none of her business, was it? They appeared to love him, were happy whenever she saw the three of them together. What did she know about kids?

The banging erupted again. She strode to the door to take a look. It was Mick alright and he glanced at his watch then right at her, his amber eye enlarged by the round concave glass.

“Bea, I know you’re there, please open up. Mo needs you.”

Bea opened the door a little. “Yes?”

His demeanor transformed as he smiled. His pulpy face was oddly handsome with those golden eyes and a square jaw accentuated by a couple days’ whiskery growth. She didn’t smile back.

“Mo, well, she got a job at the convenience store, she hasn’t found a sitter yet and starts tonight. I have my own shift work and I’m running way late. Can you help us out this once? Just until she gets somebody steady?”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t have experience with children–and I work all day long. I do have to sleep at night, of course. Sorry…”

His strong eyebrows came together and he said nothing, then crunched his baseball cap in his hands. “Well, maybe Carter would help, he’s home by ten, usually.”

Carter was a professor at the community college. He taught English literature and creative writing, some grant writing for professionals. They’d gone out a few months but he could be verbose and she was quiet. Things hadn’t gotten far. He was divorced, had two sunny-natured daughters in middle school, and liked to travel so was often gone on week-ends. She saw him in the courtyard and corridors occasionally but barely acknowledged him now. She thought he might still talk to her if given the chance so she gave him little to none. Why complicate life more?

“Yes, that’s a good idea, he might do it awhile. I can vouch for his respectable character. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

She slowly shut the door but it struck Mick’s booted foot.

“Oh, wait Bea, maybe you could at least watch Toby until ten? I’ll make sure Marty or someone will pick him up by then, okay?”

Bea was ornery after a hard day; an ache spread through her lower back. She was hungry for the chicken soup she’d bought. She wanted his boot out of her doorway, his pleading, beat up face with cat eyes to retreat. But she shrugged, then gave him a look of defeat. Everything inside her rebelled against the image of her trying to entertain or soothe a little boy. Hopefully she’d just get him to sleep before the hours were up.

“If there’s absolutely no alternative I’ll do it this once–one time only, okay? Bring him in pajamas with a book or two.”

Mick shook his head as if disappointed in her attitude but thanked her and raced down the hall.

Bea’s nerves jumped about in her center. How did she get suckered into this? It was only a few hours; it couldn’t be so hard. Their lively four year old might turn out to be a pain, but anything was manageable for a short time. She’d seen him chatting with tenants and shared her own brief conversations with him–and had wondered over his strong verbal skills at so young an age.

She got the “to-go” container of soup with its fat penne noodles, chicken chunks, carrots and celery poured it into a deep bowl and reheated it. She took out chilled apple juice, poured some in a tall glass, cut a slice of bakery bread and slathered it with butter. At her small drop leaf table she arranged it all, smoothing a sage green and yellow-flowered cloth napkin. Then she sighed and dipped her spoon into the steaming brothy mix.

She barely managed three spoonfuls when the doorbell rang out. She went to the door and found Mo beaming at her with restrained excitement. Toby harbored a resigned, somewhat suspicious look. They stepped in.

“You’re a real lifesaver, Beatrice, thank you, I can call my cousin for tomorrow and if that doesn’t work out I’ve got a friend needing extra cash. This new job is saving our necks, we need more inflow and less outgo. Mick lost last week-end–he boxes at times, you know, he was almost pro once–that didn’t go as planned.”

Bea plastered a smile on, then held out a hand to Toby who shuffled in with brown furry bear slippers and matching bear (doing cartwheels) pajamas. He ignored her and surveyed the premises.

“Remember Beatrice, Toby? She’s come to our potlucks, even gave you a nice picture book for your birthday, right?”

He looked at her from under a fringe of dark disheveled bangs and nodded. Bea saw he had grey-blue eyes like his mom, not the eyes of a scruffy wolf like his dad.

“Come on in, Toby. I’ll for sure see Carter in a while, right? I work tomorrow, leave at seven. I’d prefer he came by for Toby by 10 at the very latest.”

“Right, he said he’ll come after the last class, after nine-thirty or so. You two are too nice! Off to my new job–thanks a million!” Mo hugged her son who hugged back dutifully and was gone.

Toby looked at the shut door then padded beside her, into the kitchen. After Bea retrieved and placed a fat pillow on a kitchen chair, he sat down opposite her sniffing the air a little, his upturned nose almost quivering. He looked hungry. Bea took another spoonful of soup, blew on it then held spoon midway to her waiting lips.

“You hungry, too?” she asked. “Any dinner at home?” Surely they’d fed him earlier. Or were children always hungry?

He nodded, tried to place chin in both hands despite being too low to the table. He openly coveted her bowl.

“I can share some if you like. There’s good bread. And juice.”

He nodded again, watched her get a smaller bowl from an open shelf plus a juice glass. Soon she’d arranged all before him and gave him a smaller spoon which he turned over in his hand once as if it was a foreign, fascinating thing. But she didn’t stare at him. They ate in silence except for his rhythmical slurping. She got a fat slice of bread and buttered it thickly. He held out his small hand for it, nearly smiling, and held it carefully as if weighing its density, feeling its softness.

Bea took her time, pretending this was any ordinary night after a day of work as a legal assistant. The boy was just a surprise. She loved coming home to the orderly apartment, basked in its familiar homeliness.

She had gradually personalized the place with colorful framed prints, a vase of fresh flowers weekly and her grouping of LLadro fox figurines set on the mantle. On a lamp table were two tall jewel-toned candles and a thick book. There was a blanket or throw on every living room seat. She loved to sit before a fire and contemplate little or much, read or watch a movie after dinner and chores were completed. She’d lived a mostly solitary life a long while; it suited her better than in her twenties and thirties. She’d made it to age forty last October. There was simple contentment in that. And also a restlessness, as if the milestone had left her with a new emptiness despite a rich fullness.

Her mother had always assured her the forties were the best years, a time she would expand her vision more, make healthier choices, find her life met by lovely surprises. A new psychic freedom would abound. And so she still had hope, even though her mother had also believed Bea would get her Masters’ degree, meet “a good, solid man” and have two kids by now. They talked even less than they used to; Bea was not able to think of much to say that wouldn’t cause veering into deeper waters. Not necessary. She admired and loved her mother. She was just not of her ilk, one of domestic yet overachieving women.

Toby and Bea finished at the same time. She took the dishes to the sink as Toby wriggled off the chair, headed to the living room where Bea had lit a fire after her arrival. When she entered the room, he was sitting cross-legged before the flaming wood, mesmerized.

“Real wood?” he asked and pointed at the flaming logs.

“Yes, just old pine. It works well enough, don’t you think?”

Toby inhaled deeply. “Better than ours. We use big crayons stuffed with wood, sawdust it’s called. They don’t make the room warm up like this.”

Puzzled and struck by his intelligent comment–was he really four?–she realized he meant the kind of fire logs at the grocery, ones mixed with petroleum wax and sawdust.

She offered her thoughts as if they were having a complete conversation. “Well, I like real wood. It has a good voice, for one thing.”

Toby crooked his head at her, ready with a question, then leaned closer to listen. The snap and crackle of dry wood as it combusted seemed to bring greater ease to his alert, compact body. She found it remarkable that this boy whom she had met perhaps a half-dozen times could sit in her home without fear or no emitting of whiny longing for parents. Mo and Mick had done something very right so far.

“Yes. It does talk! And smells yummy,” he said and smiled widely.

Encouraged, Bea got up to put on her glasses and took out knitting, thinking this would be a breeze. Toby turned to see what she was up to next.

“Knitting, huh? No books?” he asked. “We have lots of time.” He glanced at the wooden mantel clock and furrowed his brow. “Seven o’clock. Two or three hours? Enough time to read and maybe play a game.”

“You read? Tell time?” she asked him, surprised he could read Roman numerals on the clock face as if it was nothing. How did he do that?

“I like all sorts of numbers, what they do. And clocks. Funny old time.” He scratched his head. “Sure, I read pretty okay. I like stories about real things.”

Bea held his clear eyes for a moment and then slid off the couch to join him.

“Tell me more.”

He pursed his lips. “Like, tell you a story?”

She beamed down at him, liking that idea immensely, but he gave a firm shake of his head as if in disbelief that she would dare ask him rather than do her duty as babysitter.

“I bet you have some good ones, maybe about time,” she said.

Toby looked into the fire, went silent. She thought he had forgotten and now he wouldn’t expect her to entertain him. Relieved, she started to get up and then work on her afghan when he put a hand on her forearm.

“Do you, Bea? Know some stories?” he asked.

“Well, I was hoping you’d bring a book. I just know grown up stories.”

“I have some, then.” He stretched out his legs, flexed his furry bear feet a few times.

“Okay, then. I’m all ears.” She sat beside him.

He giggled, the small sound bubbling up. “All ears, funny thing to think about. Well. There was a boy. He wanted to go to a great school. But his daddy and  mommy said no, he was too little. He ate a lot more and tried to grow bigger. He did all they said, was good. They still said no. The boy wandered into woods as he slept. There he met something with wings, frosty and bright. A winter story fairy. And he went along with that fairy. They had school in the forest and he learned so much. He went home but they didn’t believe those things about numbers and light. They said he’d just been dreaming.”

Bea waited for more, almost breathless, a dab of air trapped in her chest then released in a rush. “What then?”

Toby looked at her as if he had really awakened from a dream, blinking at her. “Nothing. He just was at home. He missed the forest fairy. The numbers games. Like one hundred seventy-two plus one hundred twenty making two hundred ninety-two. It’s something great but not really a thing. It’s like light. Numbers get bigger, smaller, change everything. But are the same… it’s all perfect. I love it.” He shrugged.

Bea shivered, pulled back a bit to better see him. He was lost in the fire again, wiggling his toes so that the two bear heads danced about. There was an intensity that moved her, its stillness and clarity unbroken, pure. She wanted to wrap her arms about him but he didn’t seem to want or expect anything. She wanted to set him apart, prepare him for a wonderful future; he was just being himself.

Who was she, anyway? Just Bea. Who was he? He was a genius blooming within a small body, a gift giver for the world. And she got to hear one of his stories before he knew what he was offering.

“I believe you.”

He turned his whole body very slowly toward her, lay on his stomach and studied her. “You do?”

“Yes.”

“Oh good. Now your turn.”

He turned over and back to the fire. She sat close and he leaned against her. Bea put an arm about him and just like that she remembered her own favorite children’s story. Not real but then was his entirely? She told him about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail and adventurous Peter Rabbit and how Peter had to elude crabby Mr. McGregor as he explored the delicious garden. He was happy with the telling, quite taken with Peter’s brave maneuvering. She then admitted she had made Peter more hero than disobedient child.

“He was just a kid, he was curious!” Toby said.

“True. But he ended p with a belly ache from too much snacking. This story is over one hundred years old, Toby, so it’s still a good one to share.”

“Huh! But my own story is a secret,” he said seriously, then yawned. “And Peter Rabbit’s long ears are two more ears tonight.”

Bea patted his hand and wondered if she could keep his story to herself,  his geometry of life and school of dreaming, the light that he understood.

******

When Carter came, Toby had been asleep on the couch for an hour.

“Did you know about him?” she asked.

“You mean, do I know he’s very bright? Yes.”

“No, he’s more than bright, he’s…maybe even extraordinary.”

“I suspected it after a talk we had in the courtyard last summer. His vocabulary is impressive, his  ideas something else. He’s very confident around adults but sort of shy around kids. You find him interesting, too?”

They’d settled at the kitchen table. She scanned Carter and found him the same, very tall and a bit spindly, reading glasses hanging around the neck of his worn navy sweater, longish wavy hair still out of control.

“I find him quite wonderful. A sweet child with an amazing mind.”

“Not entirely perfect, I doubt.”

“I’m amazed by what Mo and Mick have done–he’s a great kid.”

He chuckled. “They don’t do much. But they love him, take good care of him and that counts most. He baffles them. They talked to me about him once. I told them he was likely gifted, he could be tested. They seemed surprised. Didn’t much like the thought of it. Don’t blame them. He’ll always be noticeably different.”

“Maybe we could encourage the boy, be good grown up friends to him. We might take him to museums and plays and concerts, go on different hikes and more– if they’d allow us. Don’t you think that would be good? To give him more to explore with that fine mind?”

Carter smoothed his forehead with both hands and groaned softly.”You mean, like mentors? He’s only four and a half. He’ll have school soon. He might enjoy all that, sure, but we both work, his parents are up to their ears in more shift work. And he’s their child, not mine or yours. We can just be kind to him, you know. Listen to him, encourage him.”

“Well, I’m going to try something more. He needs more.” She thought how Toby mused over her own use of “all ears” and wondered what he’d say to his parents being “up to their ears.”

“He’s got you hooked already, Bea, just like that?”

“Yes, like that.” She lifted her head, jutted her chin out.

Carter leaned back and tilted his chair on two legs. “And what if this is just another passing attachment? Like you got hooked by us, had a passing attachment to me and my kids? Because I don’t think that would be fair to Toby.”

Bea wanted to bark at him to set those chair legs on the floor and get Toby and just go. She was enthralled with Toby but tired out; he was being too touchy feely. They didn’t need to rehash things. But he was perhaps right. It had been three months since they had spoken much. She had backed away when it got complicated: his life and hers, his children’s comings and goings. Her intrinsic introspection, minimalist ways. His extravagant poetic responses to all. People were trying; people required so much. She liked her legal briefs and research, duties and schedules, more predictable results. But Carter and his kids had fast become important to her.

She had been afraid: how much had awakened in her after being comfortable alone. She’d freed herself, fast.

“Maybe not…” She pushed the chair back, wooden legs squeaking as they scraped the worn tile floor. “Maybe you should gather the boy and go.”

His eyes met hers and it was all so familiar, that soft liveliness with slightly mocking humor, a more often kind regard. Revelations of the poetry in human living that propelled him and finally moved her.

“Or we could wait for Mick to come by here. We could wait on the sofa by Toby. We understand him a little, after all, don’t we? And I could use a steaming hot peppermint tea.”

It took her a moment to decide but when she did it felt good, even right. She fired up a burner and put the kettle on, oddly energized. Carter left her to it. When she brought the mugs of tea to her living small room blanketed in warmth, Carter and Toby were both asleep.  She sat on the floor by Carter’s long legs, rested her head on folded arms and imagined her life happier. Slept, too.

Toby’s eyelids lifted to unshutter his eyes. He smiled into the hazy burnished beauty of a firelit night. At his two new grown up friends. Then his eyelids closed as he drifted to his tantalizing forest in search of more numbers, more light, more frosty tales.

His River Nights and Days

Image from Breathless
Image from Breathless

There are times when she knows why they’re together and it’s alright, even excellent, and times when she wished she didn’t. This morning is one of the times it all makes sense.

The room is foggy with cigarette smoke. She has opened the windows in the main room so actual oxygen can better circulate. He complains that he can smell the buses, wishes for flowers in their room. Lisa’s shoulders roll up and back; she is not offering sympathy although he thinks he needs it.

“It’s only eight o’clock. Do you have to storm the bedroom? Any coffee?”

“I know, I know, you didn’t sleep much. Neither did I. Yes, the lamp table with the clear space on it. Other side.”

“Right, the tidy side, good.” He reaches for the mug and exhales a thin stream of grey smoke before taking a long drink.

“I left some oatmeal in the double boiler on low heat. Juice is in the frig.”

“I kept living the same old haunt. All night, over and over. Or that’s what it felt like.” He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, cigarette dangling between two fingers. “Can’t it morph into something else?”

“I’m sure it has, some …” She rests a hand on his shoulder, then gives it a squeeze. She wants to kiss the spot, but restrains herself. She’s already going to be late to the law office.”I’ll be home around six. You could call Marty and see if he needs you to come in.”

She feels July heat creep along her neck, down her spine. Another day of drought. The air is too dry. The land almost sizzles. Her skin has new wrinkles, hair crackles under a brush, but the past month she’s been sweating like a stuck pig.

This cubicle of a room and the conversation make her sweat, too.

He leans back onto a firm, fat pillow, one she just bought him. “That’s what you think about, another paycheck. Well, so do I, that’s part of the problem. Maybe we could ease up a little?” A crooked, limpid smile moves across his lips. “Okay, listen, Marty called last week but I said I was busy. His little hideaway gallery can run itself. He just likes to humor me, play the good Samaritan. But don’t worry, I’ll be working. My River #5 painting has to be finished for the Plaza Gallery show in a month, you know that. Then I’ll sell the whole shebang.”

Lisa smooths her skirt. That painting has taken four months so far. The other six in his water series are done. When he still worked at the county building, he left at five and walked right to his studio to paint. At first she waited until midnight for his return but he has a cot there; he can stay overnight, come home to shower if he needs to. Now he might retreat a couple days and she knows he’s okay or he’d come back home. Sleep is often better when he’s gone, a whole bed just for her to stretch and breathe. She does miss him in the morning, when she turns over, smoths the empty, cool sheet beside her.

He lights another cigarette using a match torn out of the cheap booklet he took from the steak house. Indulging himself was a reward for getting good painting done last night. The matchbook cover is white, grey and red. He likes the tiny face with cheerful chef in white hat; he has begun to collect matchbooks, a pleasant distraction. A pinch of guilt makes him squint–for not bringing home good leftovers, at least, for Lisa. He’ll grill fish tonight, surprise her.

“It’s the Black River one, us kids, Jason and I are following it downstream, swimming and floating and being stupid and he disappears and I have to drag him out gagging and choking…and then he goes blue, then grey… the rest I don’t want to remember.”

She looks out the window. The heat is already making things wavy. Or it’s the mid-twentieth century glass or her eyes are tricking her. She recalls she has lunch today with Mona and wishes she didn’t. Lisa has been reading on her lunch hour. Eating her perky little salad alone. Happily. Mona gets too personal with questions. She doesn’t need to know about her husband, how he still struggles after all this time. How once he was taller and stronger and unafraid of anything.

“Except he doesn’t. You saved him. You were there, as usual, for him.” She glances at him. The “as usual” could have been foregone.

“I know–then…”

She knows he knows. She has heard this story and more so many years she doesn’t have to listen well or ask about his feelings. But then Jason, his favorite brother, died fourteen years after that on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. This man she cares for so much wasn’t there, then. He was with her.

He stares to her left out the window, at the building next door. He finds the building alluring, he once told her, a view that’s dense with possibilities, all unseen. He prefers to guess who lives where and why and ow he or she or they make sense of life. When darkness falls he closes the curtains. “I don’t want to know what they’re really up to, it would only ruin things,” he said defensively after she laughed at his simultaneous attraction and repulsion. She knows his imagination does better for them than they can do for themselves.

Lisa swipes at the dampness along her upper lip. “I’m off. The boss wants me to do more on that Halprin account so that’s why I’ll be later, unless I work through lunch.”

“Don’t do that. Read your book. I love that you read when you eat, taking care of two appetites at once.”

She laughs as he squashes the noxious cigarette in his glass souvenir ashtray, the one that was stashed in Jason’s suitcase before he drowned. His dad thought he should have it. There is a touristy picture of azure waters with yellow and red sailboats on it, now blurred by ashes and filters, but they glide into the horizon forever.

With effort, he gets to his feet. He rights himself with the immediate help of her hand on his arm, then he pulls her to him. It’s not easy for him to stand there holding her. She does more of the holding. Because he stands crooked, one shoulder lower than the other, his back weakened, his painful, pieced-together hip jutting further left, ever since he charged his car into a V-shaped ditch the month after Jason died. His breath is tender on her neck, a petal-softness. He knows how that alone can make her relent after eight years of marriage. Four years following the ditch–what that has brought them–moves her, too, and sometimes he is ashamed that he needs that.

Lisa steps away and he pulls himself upright a moment, then sags. She refrains from reaching this time. He unhooks his cane from the bedpost.

“Oatmeal. Couldn’t it have been eggs Benedict with tabasco?” He playfully taps her on the ankle with his cane and she spins around, teases him with a mock glare, then moves aside.

“I have to go.” Lisa picks up her lunch bag, her purse, the car keys. “I want you to do what’s best, but I also worry about the bills.”

“I’ll sell the series, Marty says. Kenneth at Plaza agrees! I can’t fail, Lisa, not this time.”

Anxiety rises, hovers in her chest like hummingbird wings, gives her pause despite needing to leave. “No, that’s right, you can’t.”

“I will not fail. Because you’re there. At the river, standing on a distant raft, in a blue sundress, waiting for me. I painted you there. Not many will know it, but I will.”

Her breath catches. Oh, not this throb of tears. A rush of relief changes her fear into that unassailable love again. She drops everything at their feet.

“Jacob, you’re always getting me into trouble or something…”

She slips her arms around his neck; he cradles her. They are silenced by the lustrous morning light, by the oatmeal steaming and coffee simmering. Skin and hearts make contact. Lisa kisses Jacob as if it’s a new adventure, then pulls away, shimmies out the door singing “River Deep, Mountain High” like she’s Tina Turner’s back up girl.

White Room, Black Shoe

Photo by Guy Bourdin
Photo by Guy Bourdin

It is a searing October, one that you wait for, yet are still surprised by when it flares in the quiet of morning. From the bed, we can see in the distance a few orange and ruby leaves fall against a blue sky. Here the buildings are densely packed and light struggles to wend its way through shadow. I roll out of bed, disturbing Ian in the process. Padding across the hallway, I half-expect her to be there, packing the last few things that had been strewn around her sleeping bag. The furniture was taken the night before. She only stayed overnight because another friend nearby was picking her up. Later she had a plane to catch.

The bedroom holds a cloying dampness that escaped her foggy bathroom. She might have raised the window sash and dried things out. Encouraged the outdoors to inhabit the new emptiness. But she isn’t one to adore nature’s wiles. A difference between the two of us. She only tolerates city offerings, whereas I am a glutton for both.

Pale. A silent, pale room. Not like her overreaching life. That is what I think as the room stares back. Whiteness overwhelms me, its sheer blankness, how it pulses nothing in my direction, a clean slate for someone else’s urgent imagination. Not mine. I only see her still, as she was a week ago, narrow bed pressed against a corner farthest from the window, her powerful, long legs draped across the sheets as she leaned against a large pillow. She said the color white soothed her, kept things simpler and the mind freer. There was one picture on the wall: she was wearing an ivory dress, playing in the expanse of green grass behind her childhood home. He mother reclined in a chaise lounge by the pool; her father sits beside her in a wooden chair that seems to have been moved from the house. It was all the vivid colors she needed there, she said: green and blue-green. Her parents actually wore greys and taupes. Blended in with the greyish background. It was a family preference, a quietness of color, of style. Sotto voce. Even the impressive stone house was pallid. She loved that picture; it was the last taken with them, she told me, before she left home. Before her growing renown distanced them.

On second thought, her sateen pillow had tiny rosebuds on it. She liked the idea of roses. When once we got a bouquet and placed it on the dining room table she caressed them, then pinched her nose with thumb and forefinger. They were reminiscent of her mother’s failed garden.

“They were dreary, their heads drooping, petals ruined. Mother cut them off without a thought, planted things that required little care. Yes, she was thoughtless–I so loved them once.”

Her recalled words jar me. I know she spoke of roses as if she was speaking of her youth. Speaking of her parents. They wanted her to be a lawyer or surgeon, like her aunt or father. She was their only child but she danced, anyway. Could not do otherwise.

I hear Ian as he rouses in bed, then pads up behind me.

“Well done.”

I can feel his smile. He means she has left just a small trace of herself. He means she has done what was promised: all but disappeared. I think he worried last night that she might change her mind, hang on to the door frame as he pushed her out.

How little he knows her, her strength. So unlike him.

Ian’s eyes meet mine, revealing tentative relief. He places his hand on my cheek, kisses me though I can barely feel his lips. My eyes are open. He is trying to not make any ripples, to keep the morning calm. And also trying to ferret out my love for him without my noticing. This, despite the words that rattled the walls a week before.

I stare at her shoe and turn to him. He shrugs, hands held up, then moves toward the kitchen. He will make omelets with potato and onion and bell pepper. The coffee will be freshly pressed and poured into small china cups resting on saucers. It was how I liked it once, before last week. Now the china we found at the antique store begs to be chipped, even thrown.

The shoe looks dangerous on the floor of the white room. I know it well. Today it assumes the presence of a weapon, a benign object that really is an explosive. It is strange it fell from her bag and she didn’t pick it up. It’s one of a pair I admired; she wore them with black slacks and velvet jacket lined with Chartreuse silk, a favorite color to wear recently, a color I chose for her. Monochromes are becoming less prominent. I wonder how she, a dancer, could neglect it, even in a terrible hurry to get to another city, another ballet company audition. The far-flung stages. A virtuosic life.

It was not unexpected, what happened. Only a matter of time, I thought from the start. Ian: beautiful, strong, lean and graceful despite an embarrassing virility. And terribly well-mannered. People love or hate him easily. And he feels he can pick and choose.

Ian knew her weeks before I did. He dances–danced–in the  same company. She needed a room after her last boyfriend grew tired of her long hours rehearsing and performing and a few eccentricities, she said. We had an extra for six months before our long-term roommate returned from Italy. She moved in and made it hers immediately until last week, when she unmade it, left us, then returned to pack two days ago. The bedroom was occupied by her presence for five months and one day.

“She had to leave, anyway, because Lee soon comes back,” he reminded me yesterday. “She’ll bounce right back in Germany. We’ll be better than ever.”

I was brushing my hair with hard strokes, dislodging every snag. He kissed my neck as I swallowed tears.

She: Marisa. Marisa Tellis-Delgado. My finest of friends. Extraordinary principal ballet dancer.

Ian is not as gifted but his charisma makes up for it. For now. I don’t dance, did once. Yes, for eight years. I do not miss it. But Marissa and Ian are two who cannot live without it. I, on the other hand, can live without almost anything. I see what such obsession does to people whose undying passion is their very lifeblood as well as their work. It insinuates itself into their innards, becomes their breath of life. The past, present and future. There are more options than that, and I need choices to make my living whatever I want it to be one day to the next. I love pastry-making and jewelry design, apple trees on the half-acre we maintain outside the city and riding horses in the woods. I need less activities, perhaps. More friends.

But even when he fails me, I stay with only Ian.

Yet what would you do if you connected to someone and that someone cared in return and it was all you ever hoped for in true friendship–until your husband decides otherwise? It was a revelation, becoming friends with this woman. But he said it was too much. I needed to spend more time with him but what he meant was less time and energy with her. His insatiable hunger for attention and appreciation! His relationships must support his needs, first and last.

Ian dances his life. He is selfish with it. I have to live mine. And I give it away. Maybe too often.

So he drove a wedge between us. It didn’t take long. He placed himself where he should not have been.

“Marisa and I had lunch together,” he said when it started. “We suddenly realized how much we have in common.”

“Suddenly? Hasn’t she been living in our flat for months? She’s quiet but not that quiet. Why the lunch talks now?”

He yawned as if bored with the topic yet it was necessary to report. “I don’t talk about much, just interests like dance and music. You. We work together. I don’t want to interfere. She likes me, not just you. I can have friends as well.”

“I hope so. What do you mean by ‘interfere’?”

“Your … devotion to her.”

I was polishing a silver ring I had just finished. It shone in my hands.

“You mean, our friendship? You mean, that I have found someone I enjoy talking with and sharing my time with while you devote yourself primarily to dance?” I shook my head in disgust. “Ian, I have made a close woman friend at last. Don’t ruin this.”

“Marissa is important out there in the dance world. Charismatic, smart, incredibly talented. Everyone adores her, not just you.”

I saw him make a moue with his mouth, like a little child.

“Oh, stop. Marissa makes time for me for reasons you don’t understand. It’s like we’re sisters at heart…sympatico. You have time for you.”

He mentioned the next day he met her for lunch again. Marisa said nothing of it to me. Sometimes she and I walked together early in the morning or met after rehearsal for tea. We might stay up after dinner once or twice a week, talking for hours in her room or the living room if Ian could stand it. Two weeks passed, then a month, but I didn’t realize what was happening until Marisa finally mentioned it.

“I keep running into Ian at the dance studio but also Beauford’s Restaurant. He practically waylays me even when I’m with someone else. I suggested we see enough of one another at work and here. But he is either pursuing me or he thinks we’re such good friends.” She put her hand on my wrist, shook it a little, gave it a squeeze. “Like you and I are. Imagine! I don’t even connect to him unless we are dancing. You know how that goes. And he talks about you, little gripes. I’m sorry, but can you suggest he be less relentless?”

I told him I knew he was bothering her and to back off. Marisa was not only important to me. She was, after all, a tenant.

“Don’t run her off as you have others.”

“I just meant to be friendly. And don’t rehash what’s done and over,” he hissed and turned on the television.

He has issues with people sharing our space but he must have this expensive flat. Must have his way. Must have me to himself. I trust him despite his beauty because I know his secret, that he is afraid he is no one valuable. Jealousy lurks in his blood, a sickness waiting.

The last night we three were together he spoke up as he served coffee.

“So, Marisa, I think we should address things.”

She placed her willowy arm along the back of the sofa. “What things?’

Ian sat between us on the easy chair. I was in the rocker, rocking, the green cashmere throw draped over my legs, thinking about lighting a fire in the fireplace. I stopped moving and braced myself.

“You know…whatever you want to call it, how you’ve gathered up both of us, how you seem to require us each to share more with you than we’d like. To follow you around like lovelorn puppies, like groupies.”

“Speak only for yourself, Ian,” I said, trying to control myself. “You are being ridiculous and rude.”

“I’ll say what I observe to be true.”

He shot me his offended look and turned back to her. She seemed bemused, as if she couldn’t interpret his language. He continued.

“Marisa, you’re greedy. Isn’t it enough that you’re a star? You can’t have my wife, too!”

Marisa’s jaw dropped. Her amber eyes glimmered in lamp light, her dark wavy hair swayed.

“Ian, that’s absurd. You think I’m in love with her, or both of you? Or just you because you’re so dashing, wonderful? What an ignorant idea. I cannot get rid of you, my friend. I dance with you and see you here and you try to get me to spend more time with you…you seek me. I do not seek you.”

She gazed at me, eyelids heavy with misery, then back at him. A deep breath was inhaled and released.

“You are utterly mistaken. I care so much for Helena. She’s honest, frank even, yet so kind. She’s smart and savvy and likes to laugh. At silly things! How often do we find that in our mad, competitive world? It is a relief to have Helena in my life–someone who understands dance but is not swallowed by it. Who is good to me for my own sake! Not for what I accomplish. Not how much money I can bring in. Not how I can make someone look better on stage. She just knows me, like that! ” She snapped her fingers sharply. “I would choose her over ten of you. And I suggest you examine your motives.”

Marisa stood up, every muscle moving in perfect alignment. A queen unafraid. She put hands on her hips. “You haven’t a clue to your unhappiness. You can’t bear to share her? Well, of course not. She’s a treasure! While you, Ian, are a fool. And, I might add, a bore.”

Marisa left. After a few seconds I followed. Ian was immobilized by her steady rush of words, each aimed with precision at his ego. But he called out, anyway.

“You don’t belong here! Get. Out. Helena, please stay here!”

I wanted to yell back at him, but nothing left my lips.

So now, this morning, the room is cleared out, stripped of Marissa’s quietly burning presence, left like a bone to bake in the last flame of October. I go back and pick up the shoe from the polished wood floor. I take off one of mine and put hers on. It fits as it first fit. I walk out her room, past Ian in the kitchen where he is whistling and cooking. I keep walking, out the front door. I want things to go on as before but I don’t think they can. Love of a partner may be less crucial than that of a friend. It depends on who loves best.

Still, right now it’s just Marisa’s shoe on one foot and my old one on another. She is sitting at the Headliner Cafe with scones and coffee. We’ll talk about something good before she heads to Germany and is dogged by fame. We will plan visits, promise “for always”. I may be gifted her other shoe. But the opulent glow of that room has already begun to dim.