Freedom Comes for a Visit

“Been there and so done that and it’ll be a ‘ditto’ if you keep asking me things! Ask me in a few years…”

She said that with mock affront then a jolly smile and she usually turned away from me. But that answer never stopped me from trying to find out more about her life. How could I help myself? She was a source of endless speculation in the family and in my imagination.

“Aunt Cecily stepped right out of an interesting, questionable story when she was born and makes up the mad mess as she goes,” her oldest sister (my mother) stated with a wry look. “Of course, we all make up our lives, to be fair.”

I tried to trick Mom into giving me more information, but it didn’t work; she was oddly protective. Aunt C. was legendary in our family. That could be better than the truth, I conceded, but I thought there was more to it than we’d ever know.

Aunt Cecily had a way of gliding through the rooms of our rambling and in-need-of-a-good-shine house as if it was a mini-palace. My cousin Trish–my other maternal aunt’s kid–suggested that she acted like it, too. She had a flair for making ordinary occurrences and places seem better, more vivid just by being in the scene. Aunt Cecily wasn’t loud, necessarily, though she could be; she was dramatic. How she moved and expressed ideas, shared her feelings. She had done some acting on the stage. Dad suggested one time that she should have actually been in movies but she liked living a bigger-than-life kind of life even better. Mom didn’t disagree.

Trish and I were lazing in her back yard,  more like a field with a humongous garden where near the edges her father was planting or weeding something. Their house–the grandparents’ old place–was three miles out-of-town but it seemed like a hundred. I pulled the brim of my baseball cap down to create more shadow.

“Maybe that’s how she ended up rich. She acts like she’s all this and that even though they all grew up on a farm. Because she is no way what I’d call beautiful,” Trish said, chewing on a string bean. “She is fun.”

“I don’t know that she’s even rich. The people she knows seem to be, but she usually has everything in three fat, beat up suitcases. She moves a lot, you know, and travels. Mom tries to keep up with it but her address book has hers penciled in for another erasing. But I still think she’s a true exotic. I learn from watching her. She talks to me. She’s like an orchid…and her eyes are amazing.”

” ‘Exotic’ is a word people just use when someone’s not pretty, maybe odd. Her nose is too long, her mouth is big, her eyes are almost slanted, unlike anyone else’s in the family. Mom says she tells lurid stories….I got the message even if I didn’t know that word.”

I put my hand up  in protest. “No doubt she’d say that! Don’t you wonder what they are really all about? I adore her! She’s my favorite. And you’re being superficial.” I steal a glance to see if she’s irked that I don’t say her kindly mother is my fave but she just snatches another bean to chomp. “I do admire her.”

“Have it your way, Eve. She’s an funny duck, a wild thing. I’m thirsty. Going in for a soda, want one?”

“Sure, I’m sweltering out here in this overrated wilderness.”

All that manual labor her father was sweating over for vegetables impressed me, though. I couldn’t do all that. I swatted away a bee and ran in. But I thought my cousin had too little imagination to understand our aunt. It was it kind of sad but I didn’t say so; she wouldn’t get it, then would be pissed.

Trish and I wouldn’t be even that close later in life, it was how it was. She was all about finishing school and getting married to the same guy she’d known since second grade–no one and nothing had interfered with her predictable attachments. I found it interesting my mother got her Masters’ degree and taught at the nursing school nearby, encouraged two daughters and a son to pursue our dreams. But Trish’s mother, Aunt Marilyn, stayed at home and loved living in the country, all the canning, baking, cooking being the main events on her daily agenda.

Then there was Aunt Cecily, world traveler, an artists’ model, an actress, a feminist poet and who knew what else.

How could the three sisters be so different as to seem unrelated? The one thing they had in common were highly arched, expressive brows and graceful hands with pretty fingernails. Aunt Cecily wore a black-red polish, sometimes purple or coral. My mother, nude or clear and chip resistant; Aunt Marilyn, a pearly white, refreshed each week after having her hands in food, dirt or hot water all the time. Those manicures about summed things up.

Aunt C. had called me “Kiddo” since I was a child but this visit would be different. We hadn’t seen her in over two years. I’d done a lot of growing up, had turned seventeen. For one thing, I had gotten taller, more muscular and slim. I played tennis daily and had gotten good. While Trish was going to arts and crafts classes to make things out of beads and flowers, I was smacking a tennis ball as hard and fast as possible, and slammed it regularly beyond opponents’ racket reach and that brought me victories. Trish didn’t share my general passion for sports–I also liked softball and swam. I was at a loss when she handed me embroidery thread, a needle and fabric. We each had grave deficiencies in each other’s estimation. But we were cousins; we both adored our families. I just loved Aunt Cecily more; she got my growing athleticism, would be proud to hear about my improvement.

I walked into the pale yellow guest room to check on things before she arrived. I had put fresh reddish Gerber daisies in a squat glass vase on the dresser. Narrow, with a too-tight closet and a good twin bed, the room was upstairs and across from mine. You got a broad view of downtown, and in the distance the span of masterful mountains, breathtaking in sunsets. I had lived in the “baby room” for years, but had finally graduated to the next room size after my older sibs, Vanessa and Guy, left for college. Aunt Cecily had told Mom on the phone the same room was fine, don’t go to any bother, she liked the view, watching the old hometown morning until night as it revealed “its funny little life.”

She wasn’t usually in it much, anyway. Our place was more her bed and breakfast stop, but no one complained. We looked forward to seeing what she brought along with her this time–a weird house gift, a story to top all others, a new pet (like the pretty but obnoxious parrot she took everywhere for a year). One visit when I was ten, she brought a beautifully three-piece suited–with perfectly trimmed goatee and mustache–older man with her. He just stayed for a long brunch and flew right back to Chicago after a second home brewed iced tea, the best he’d ever tasted he told my mother, then touched his lips to her hand. Aunt Cecily had introduced him as a successful playwright, one of her best friends. It took Mom days to stop revisiting that experience. Dad got sick and tired of it and spoke up for a change. He said he was just some “Midwest dandy and luckily not all men were required to be so extremely gallant.” The “dandy” and “gallant” I’d had to look up. They were so old fashioned.

The room was perfect, down to new floral Laura Ashley pillow shams and the antique rocker in a corner. A sage green candle was next to the flowers. I’d also stacked a choice of books on the bedside table: one poetry, one mystery-thriller, one about outer space.

“Why outer space?” Mom had asked.

“She’ll like it. Aunt C.’s someone only interested in the future and is completely about travelling.”

Mom laughed, gave me a quick squeeze.

******

“I’m here, I’ve arrived, I can smell the potato salad and fresh rolls!”

Aunt C. swooped in after she set down her bags and threw her arms around Mom, then me, then Dad. I nearly got lost in the folds of her pink linen open cardigan, so voluminous and drapey. I admired her style: silver sandals, black linen pants, pink tank beneath the light cardigan. She vibrated with enthusiasm. And that fragrance, what is it? Light but warm. It’s her hair, I thought. Or her tawny skin–like sunlit wildflowers had hitched a ride with her.

“Well, look at you! I know, how uncouth of me to say it but you’ve sprouted like mad, Kiddo, and you look fabulous. And sister, your house, still a sight for sore eyes. I have barely slept the last three nights and all this–” she spun about, arms held out–“a sanctuary. I just know I’ll rest  here. And of course I’m starving, dear Amy and Trent–bring on the lunch.”

The sisters gabbed as Dad and I carried up the bags to her room.

“She knows her way around us, huh? Good to see her.” He grinned at me. “You wait for these visits with great anticipation, don’t you?”

“Of course. She’s like nobody else and she’s not ours that often.”

“She does add color, I agree! You mother is close to Cecily; I’m happy they get to catch up in person again.”

Dad was most happy when Mom’s happy, he is that sort of man, easy overall. A scientist, calm and quiet most of the time but when Aunt C. came he unwound more than he usually did, was more talkative and attentive, drank a couple of extra glasses of wine as the three of them–and sometimes Aunt Marilyn, Uncle Doug and maybe Trish–stayed up late. Sparring, swapping ideas and jokes in the back yard or living room until I wondered if they would ever pipe down and let Trish and me talk, too.

As we finished a meal of cold cuts and cheese, dill potato salad, tossed salad, sweet pickles and rolls, Aunt C. sat back and pulled her arms up behind her head. She stretched shoulders about and grabbed opposite wrists and tugged. She told me it helped with knotty kinks in the upper back. I adopted it and it helped, but restrained myself . I didn’t want it to seem I was mimicking her or took all her suggestions like a childish protégée.

“I won’t be here for as long as I’d planned, family. It’s off to Palm Springs, from whence I came this time. On the way I have a stop in San Francisco for a poetry reading–for my fifth chapbook, soon to part of a real collection. The venue is sold out. Life is about moving forward, right?”

“Fabulous,” Mom said. “Can’t wait to read the one you brought us.

“Can’t wait,” I echoed.

“Good for you,” Dad said.

She flashed one of her mega watt smiles. Shook back the mass of dark waves and studied our ancient chandelier as if suddenly loathe to look right at us. I gripped the edge of my chair as I studied her profile. How did she look enticing and fresh all the time? I pulled tighter my bedraggled ponytail, wondering what she was avoiding.

“Has that always been there? I like that fixture a lot. Which brings me to this: I’ve bought a house in Palm Springs! Really! I can’t even believe it.”

“A house, my gosh! Why now? What style, how big, how much?”  Mom clapped her hands like an excited child.

Dad murmured, “How wonderful for you, how did this come to fruition?”–as if he thought she was stretching the truth, at the least. He’d ask for proof later, no doubt.

I thought, That isn’t so far away from us, only a short plane ride, we’ll see her more often now. But I felt nervous about this new development. Aunt Cecily had lived out of hotels and even hostels; a condo one year; beach houses; villas and estates, friends’ or boyfriends’ houses and never once had a place of her own, or not for long. She’d said more than once that didn’t like the idea of “settling. Settle for what? Why? It’s only interesting when you know you’re moving on soon, finding a new geography, figuratively and literally, new people.”

“You’re the first to know in the family, of course. I didn’t want to create a terrible at the family barbecue, knock everyone over without some warning. Can you imagine what Marilyn will say? She’ll say I’ve had a transformation of epic impact and have given up my so-called hedonistic life and now am ready to succumb to stodginess. No offense to anyone. This will be a base camp, that’s all. I love the climate there, over three hundred days of sunshine, hot desert country and I got a good deal. It’s Spanish style and has four bedrooms…”

A sinking feeling spread out from my diaphragm. I heard her talking but I was already trying to imagine her living among leathery tan people who should just hole up indoors due to the ever-blazing sun. Most probably they did just that in summer. What sort of life was that for someone who enjoyed the outdoors, liked to freely roam? Was she going to join a golf club? An all female weekly book group? She might have picked a better spot, closer to us. And one thing we enjoyed together for years was swimming–she had a much more powerful side stroke than I. I’d have to visit her in winter to enjoy tamer temperatures, not easy with school. Or maybe she’d still come here. No, she had a real house now, she’d be tied down. My bohemian aunt! Why did things have to change?

“…I have a few friends in Southern California and those who’d like to visit already. What a lovely place to throw a party. I’ll still travel, just far less for now.” She leveled a piercing look at me. “What do you think, Kiddo? Aren’t you pleased for me?”

I was caught off guard so took a long sip of water.

“Well. I mean, an actual house! That’s a big thing to buy, right? It means something to do that. I’m glad you found a place you like and now will have one spot to call home, I think…I’d like to see it. And it’s not so far away which is great. ”

She appraised me with her slightly slanted, summer’s eve-lake-blue eyes, as if guessing my unease. “You’ll come visit me, won’t we have good times? You’re staying out west for college, too, right?”

“Sure, it’ll be good.” I spooned more potato salad on my plate. “Maybe UC Berkeley, or University of Washington or MIlls College–oh, I don’t really know yet where I should go. I eventually want a degree in anthropology or maybe linguistics.”

“Of course–perfect for you. But travel first, it will teach you more than you can fully absorb.”

The grownups went back to their chatter. I wanted to leave the table so finished the second helping and asked to be excused. Mom nodded, turned back to her sister. Things didn’t feel right but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I said I’d be back for dessert, I was going out back a bit. Dad nodded at me blankly as I left.

I settled in a chaise lounge and called Trish.

“She went and did what? That’s amazing! Mom and Dad will be so happy. Don’t you agree? You sound like irritated.”

I wound a few locks of hair around my fingers and tugged, stared into dense maple leaves a dazzling green against a cloud-streaked blue sky. Two squirrels were racing up and down the tree, frantic for no good reason. My mind felt just like that.

“No.  Not yet, probably not ever.”

“Why not? She’s getting a little old to be some rootless person. It’s a good sign.”

“Wait a minute, she’s only thirty-five!”

“Your mom is forty-two, mine is forty. Aunt Cecily is getting older, she’s slowing down.”

I felt like gagging. “My gosh, Trish! Old is more like sixty, seventy and up. Our mothers are seeming older because they live the lives they do, in my opinion.”

“Because they had families, work hard and keep house? They’re too settled down? You’re being dumb.”

“Well, maybe they didn’t have the free, brave spirit Aunt Cecily has. They had their own paths, I admit. But I could always count on Aunt C. to be the wayfarer, an adventurer, the footloose woman of our family! The one who was never been trapped by the trappings of all this… in our little hothouse of a town. Is she really giving up already, giving in?”

It made me more than a little anxious to envision her out of circulation, in an ordinary house. Why did she betray her principles? I was being dramatic but I felt all this to be true.

I heard Trish breathe more laboriously. That was not a good sign; it meant she was frustrated, had lost the thread of the conversation, was mad or all three. And she had asthma, too.

“You mean, you think she has surrendered to real life? Or she has somehow let you down by finding a home of her own?” Her voice quietly shrieked at me. She coughed.

“Oh, I don’t know but calm down, I shouldn’t have called you. You don’t understand. And don’t tell your parents, either. Just sit on this, we’re getting together tomorrow, then she can share it with us all.”

She coughed again. “Yeah, we’ll be there. We can ask her about the details. I’ll bet she’s excited but you are thinking of yourself!” She took a hit off her inhaler. “I don’t get you sometimes, Eve. It’s like you have a phobia about others’ happiness. Or maybe like you think regular life an infectious disease and just try your hardest to avoid it. You should get over yourself and get with the program!”

“That is pretty creative thinking for you, cousin, I’ll just have to ponder all that in another lifetime!”

I hung up. But I had to laugh at the “infectious disease” comparison. Not quite true, but close. But “get with the program”? Ugh, never.

As Mom served strawberry pie, Dad winked at me–a cue when he wants me to lighten up. Mom slightly raised one arched eyebrow, gave me the look that goes with it. Aunt Cecily patted my hand then dug into her pie. I generally beamed at them like a good participant. She stopped to ask for “more whipped topping to celebrate.” I found it a little hard to swallow but managed to stay there another twenty minutes.

******

“Now that I have all of you here and we’ve stuffed ourselves with barbecued chicken and garden fresh veggies, shall we each have a glass of wine? Yes, even the girls, they’re not babes in arms, anymore!”

Dad poured for us all, then we took our webbed lawn chairs. Mom liked to put them into a loose circle. I wanted to only slip away. I had heard the news once; that was enough. It would take weeks, months, maybe years to figure out why my aunt was “settling down and settling.” We had chatted off and on about other things. She’d come to my tennis practice and applauded my progress. We’d talked about books and her poetry performances and perhaps swimming before she took off in one short day. Mostly she hung out with Mom since she had taken two days off. I hadn’t yet told my friends about Aunt Cecily’s purchase. I had to think it over, put my feelings aside until she left.

Aunt Cecily took her place in an opening of the circle. Her raven hair was softly pulled back at the sides. She wore a long sleeveless, low necked dress with full skirt. It was printed with slinky, almost neon vines on a sapphire background. It would have looked silly on most women but on her it was sexy-chic. She wore jangly bracelets on both arms and long chandelier earrings. Her feet were bare in the cool grass. It was like watching an outdoor stage set come to life.

“I’m going to jump right into it, family. I have gone and bought a house in Palm Springs. It’s a good-sized house and it has a wonderful pool and view. I got a good deal as the owner wants to soon exit the country for more tropical environs. I’ve long admired it there and visited a few times over the years. It will be my base of operations for several years. Then, who knows?” She looked at Marilyn and Doug, Mom and Dad. “So, what do you think about that?”

“Fabulous news! I am so relieved to hear this! I thought it might be bad news, the way you were acting as we circled up,” Marilyn said.

She jumped up, gave her little sister a gigantic hug, and Doug followed. My parents joined in the well-wishing as if they didn’t know already. Trish moved from the edge of things but didn’t look at me as I cheered from my spot on the grass by the azaleas. I thought: A few years, was that all? What was Aunt C. up to? The others bombarded her with questions until she asked them to back off a bit, more would be revealed in time but they should toast the good news with her. We all raised our glasses.

Dad spoke up. “Here’s to a whole new chapter in Cecily’s enchanting life, may she find her own hearth and home a happy adventure!”

And we gulped it down. It was red, delicious and I went for more. No one but Trish saw me, who sauntered over.

“So, you think there’s more to it, huh?”

“Of course. We know what she’s like and I have never even heard her say she loved the desert, by the way.”

“She loves the Mediterranean…”

“That’s entirely different, Trish. I think…” I took another deep drink. “You don’t think she’s getting married, do you? I mean, who are all those friends she has in Palm Springs, anyway? She’s usually in Europe or South America or somewhere else we lose track of her….anything might have happened. Is she pregnant?”

Trish laughed. “Seriously? No. And who doesn’t want a house of their own? Plus, she’s always been so independent and liked men too much to pick just one. But she’s smart. She’s making an investment?”

“That might be part of it. What do we know about her, really? And not everyone want roots. I figure there’s a bigger reason.” I drank the rest and poured a bit more.

“Eve, easy does it.”

“Sure.” I poured her some more. “The other thing is, maybe she’s–she’s—not well?”

Trish frowned at me. “Gosh, look at her!”

An ear ringing whistle reached our ears. “Hey, girls, back to the circle, I’m not done!”

Aunt C. waved us over, both arms wide open as if corralling us, bracelets jangling, a shepherdess calling her stray sheep. I scurried over, heart pounding, feet stumbling as Trish grabbed my arm. We were asked to sit again.

This time, Aunt Cecily did, too.

“Well, that was the best and easy part. Now comes the hard part. For me.”

She sat up, chin up, cascading hair all about her still-glowing face. Then her head tilted as she looked at us one by one. She spoke more at last.

“I met someone on my travels. His name is Stellan, Stellan Starngarten. He’s a wonderful artist, a sculptor, and has shown his work in Europe. I fell in love, is what happened. We have been seriously paired for a couple of years. We’ve traveled, of course; I’ve stayed at his place in Croatia at times. Recently, though, he decided to sell his home due to unforeseen circumstances–a need for more money for an upcoming event.”

As she hesitated, I could hear a few intakes of breath. I held my own. Here it was. Whatever it was.

“We’ve been thinking long term. Imagine, I’ve been free so long! Free enough to be able to look for and find a superior love, and also to be chosen. So we then made a plan of sorts. But life–it’s often unexpected in its ways. And that can be good even if it seems bad.”

“What is it, Cece?” Mom asked in a hushed voice.

What was my aunt saying? What was she doing? I could hardly bear it. I had an impulse to stand and yell at her: “Don’t leave, don’t hurt us, don’t change things!” But she just ran hands through all that hair, all those sparkly things she wore jingling and  glinting, and then pressed her palms against the back of her head and looked into the dusky sky, as if seeking the right words. Or an answer. I looked up, too, saw Venus and the North star, and wished more than anything her next sentence was a beautiful one. Concluding, redeeming words so we could all could go to bed relieved. My pulse raced a long.

“It turns out Stellan has a serious, inherited heart defect so he needs surgery, more than one procedure. Then long-term recovery time yet even so, we won’t know the end result for some time even if all goes well. So, I bought us a house. We will live in it while he gets the medical treatment he needs now that he has more money. I hope to God he stays with me a long while. But if not, we’ll have this time together. I’m the one who needed to be closer to my family. His is mostly dead and gone… He always wanted to live in the American West, the desert.” She closed her eyes a moment and they re-opened. “I’m afraid, family. But I’ll be with Stellan all the way in our house in the desert.”

She looked around our circle and her oddly restrained sadness and fears were just a pale sheen on her cheeks. Yet she was smiling. This was my aunt but she was not the same. Her face tender, words hesitant to leave her. She seemed still as a creature listening for the next snap of a branch beneath her. The fiery essence was there, just altered, revealed in new ways.

“Our house will be a house full of a–a most unreasonable, undaunted joy… as long as it can be,” she said and stood again.

She slunk away from us to get more wine and gather herself together as we absorbed this news.

Though we were silenced in the wake of it, I felt as if she had scooped me up in her arms the way she probably had Stellan. That vibrancy, strength, her belief in a good life ahead no matter what came: it filled our darkening summery yard with its own power. How could we feel sad for her? But we couldn’t ignore that she had found and perhaps would lose so much, so fast.

“Maybe it will end alright,” I whispered to Trish and she nodded solemnly.

After the food, after more talk and the wine got to me, when my other aunt and my uncle and Trish left, Aunt Cecily crossed the hallway and knocked on my bedroom door.

“You knew there was something more,” she whispered as she held me close. “Thank you for being my Eve. I know I’ll be able to count on you as the dragons are slayed and we carry on. You’re my rising star, Kiddo, I love you.”

And time was suspended and the sorrows and worries. My aunt was being my exotic, beloved aunt and she saw me as who I was and even hoped to be. I was already planning a visit as soon as she and Stellan could have me. He had to be amazing like her. And if not Croatia or Crete or Buenos Aires, then off to Aunt C.’s surprising Palm Springs I would gladly go.

The Loft

Image form The Fugitive
Image from The Fugitive

After the taxi dropped him off, he’d washed up and unpacked, then tossed his gym attire into a bag and shut the front door behind him. Cal Rutgers should instantly recognize this neighborhood like the back of his capable hands, but it never failed to throw him off kilter the first day. Hence the walk to the gym, taking in every window and lamppost and sign, his feet hurrying along the trash-free sidewalks on Holman Street.

The storefronts were pleasing in a reserved way on the deserted Sunday afternoon. An unexpected wistfulness visited him as he passed rooms that had kept him company over the years. Marionville was unlike most other places he visited, suitable, staid, conducive to passing time while preserving the best of a number of old-fashioned ideals. Best of all, it helped order his mind and body as he readjusted between trips. It decreased toxicity of endless travel, made less vivid the dangers of his work. More manageable. The familiarity beckoned him with its soothing commoness. It cheered him even as the threat of exhaustion hovered like a low-flying helicopter.

Cal pushed aside the sense of displacement, feeling lost. Odd for a man who was a rover, used to adapting moment-to-moment, adept at charting a course in unknown environments. This was the immutable spot on which he hung his hat–not in actual fact, he didn’t have one he’d hang on any hook–a town he had called home for over eight years. He’d figured it was as good as any, centrally located in the country, with friendly folks who’d mind their own business if that was better appreciated. Oh, they thought of him as their own local celebrity, sure–a published photographer!  a world traveller!– and it tickled him when they hesitated on the edges of The Clock restaurant, say, glancing his way with curiosity. Such easily impressed citizens.

“Cal! Hi!”

He’d look up from his plate of eggs and hash, nod with a lift of his chin and fork if it was someone he cared to talk with. Then he’d share a few tales and listen to theirs, and it would be a good visit for both. Something more to tuck away for another time. Perhaps a storyline when he ran dry.

Cal pushed open a metal-clad door. Mike’s Gym, homely hole in the wall, was the only one (of two) open on Sunday but even then it closed early at eight p.m. The space held no more than a handful now. Cal was greeted with a high-five by Mike and a few grunts from other men.

“What’s going on, Rutgers?”

Cal surveyed the warm, sweaty rooms, noted everything as it was before he left. “Just the usual, interesting craziness out there. What about here?”

Mike shifted from one foot to another like a fighter getting ready to lock into position, his forehead limned with perspiration, breathing a little hard. He’d been working out long before Cal had flagged a taxi at the airport an hour away.

“Same ole, same ole. Well, Greta’s pregnant again. A better profit this month, the coupons bring ’em in.”

“Good work. Tell Greta I said congrats–again.”

“Now where you been?”

“Just out of Columbia. Jungle assignment.”

Mike shook his head. “Yeah, that’s right. Catch any monster snakes or get caught?”

Cal laughed as he entered the dim locker room. He stretched, did twenty quick sit-ups that tired him after the “red-eye” and a couple of more flights home. He found his spot by the free weights, prepared to empty his brain of images formed, filed and dissected. An hour or so here and he’d free up life once more, settle into his loft apartment with a new point of reference.

As he lifted the dumbbells he saw his housekeeper Emma run past the smudged picture window, hair flying. He made a note to talk to Mike and Greta about her, then set to it with mighty effort.

********

He got annoyed with hotels and other drop-in places so the loft was a gift to himself, situated on a gentle incline above town center. He’d found it one week-end after visiting an old college friend, a lawyer–since moved on to bigger places and cases–and took possession of it after he’d returned from India. The fourth floor of a converted, mixed use warehouse, its spartan expanses appealed more than the Technicolor view of the valley. He liked moving about open spaces; it was the best he could do here. But, too, the loft was so unlike many places he had bunked, whether a tiny, dark bedstead or a one-man tent or makeshift accommodations involving thickets of bushes and his backpack. As a travel photographer, emphasis on wild, hidden or unusual places, he was used to curling up and falling asleep without much fuss.

This purchase was a welcome respite from that, as well as far-flung locales. Countless inconvenient, dangerous, stunning moments. Boredom or sore limbs that invaded the hours of patient waiting, the odd contortions it might take to witness, then capture shots.

But it confused him, still, at times–where he was, what he was really doing, why he was immersed in another culture or landscape that did not always welcome his enthusiasm and precise documentation.

When Cal got out of the shower at the loft after the work out, his fingers paused. The towel was a luxe, thirsty blue item that had been perfectly folded over the heated rack. Not the ivory towels he always used to keep it simple.

Wait, did he order these at a front desk? Did someone else on the team he travelled with bring them in? Was he in the right room? In an actual three-piece bathroom?

His eyelids fluttered. He was back in Amazonia with its pressing growth of greenery, the air dripping onto his skin, the most rudimentary facilities shared with insects, reptiles and any others in the area.

He opened his eyes and then the fluffy towel, tossed it over him. No, he was home.

It had to be the housekeeper, the gal Greta had suggested. She thought he needed someone to thoroughly clean up when he was away. Cal didn’t require much, he’d told her the day before he left six weeks ago. He maintained a habit of tidiness out of necessity, didn’t need much for his work there other than basics and his camera equipment and computer and other technological aids. Seldom left behind a mess. He had a habit of minimalism.

The loft was larger than required. There was a part of him that worried he’d start filling it with possessions not needed like large furniture or wrought iron candelabras or matched cookware. Or useless objects that attracted him on trips (he had a few but mostly gave them away), more irrelevant books he’d have to stack on the floor like teettering sculptures.

As far as housekeeping, yes, there were socks cast off and forgotten, stray hairs in the sink after he finally shaved a few times, wrappers of frozen ice cream treats that sometimes didn’t make it to the trash. He suspected dust accumulated like microscopic confetti without his help. It was an old building and he liked it that way.

********

He’d invited the young woman in, then told her housekeeping was not truly what he needed.

“The less I have to deal with, the better. I love my peace as well as a comfortable austerity. I’m a loner when at home, lean towards feral, nearly, fallout from my work.” He’d raised his eyebrowns at her placidity. “So, just how much would you have to do with all this, anyway?”

She’d looked at him as if he was speaking a peculiar language but she knew how to translate.

“I can take care of it all.” She looked over at the kitchen, which appeared untouched, then around the cavernous living areas. “I don’t think it will take me more than an hour or two after you leave if this is any indication. I’m efficient.” She pushed long hair away from her eyes, and pulled it back to make a quick bun of dark honey-colored strands.

Her eyes were orbs of green with dabs of amber in a face fashioned of fine bones. They sat above a prominent but classic nose. Expressive mouth. Androgynous at a certain angle. Captivating. Greta had confided that Emma had been a model once, then had suffered a tragedy, never mind what but she was a great housekeeper. She’d be around for a few months. Needed some easy cash is all.

“You’ve done this work before, I guess. I’ll pay seventy-five an hour. I’ll trust you to clock in and out on a schedule I’ll leave on the kitchen island. Get the keys from Greta and return them each time.”

He was anxious to catch his plane. Greta had reassured him but still, it was his home, his refuge. Here he wasn’t much keen on sharing it in general.

“I’m developing a creative arts website, well, fashion to start but yes, I clean and organize well. It doesn’t take brilliance to accomplish. I know who you are, and I know you’d like things done right.” She showed her teeth in a brief smile, then pressed her lips together.

“Yes, good.  I have my own cleaners in the laundry area. I’m afraid I have to rush, thanks for coming. Just don’t change up anything.”

But she’d had other ideas.

******

When he’d returned after a shorter trip there had been a clear rectangular vase filled with black-eyed Susans on the metal and teak dining table. They were an unwanted anomaly and he felt irritated initially. As he crossed the room they did look lively against white walls, the wide window and the scene it framed. He left them a few days, then tossed them; rinsed and put her vase atop the refrigerator.

The second time he came back there had been an unscented, sage-hued candle in a small filgreed golden holder by his bed. He almost lit it, then hid it in a drawer. He thought that he didn’t want Emma in his bedroom, then reasoned that she had to do her chores. She was feeling creative about a very routine job, he guessed. Maybe she had lingered here imagining the ways it might be refreshed and chosen this candle as the least invasive.

But, still, he had told her to not change things. It prickled him then was soon forgotten. The night before he left he happened to look in the bedside drawer for something and there it was. He finally lit it, watched its flame evoke shadow dances on every surface. Remembered sweet hours of circling ’round fires in wilderness, so sat awhile with it in his hands.

Next time Emma had left on a living room lamp, as if she had just been there, wanted enough light to allow them both to better make their way. Which he did not need; the light of the moon was enough. His vision was excellent. He noted the bulb cast a dimmer light; perhaps a lower wattage. Maybe the other had burned out and she was eco-conscientious.

But it struck Cal that she left something of herself, a feeling both quiet and definite. It was nearly two in the morning and his every bone was aching from an arduous journey across mountains, then deserts, then a fourteen hour flight. But he slipped through each room cautiously, called out her name once. He stood in the middle of the loft and looked out over the slumbring town, hillttops ridges meeting starlit sky. Did she come here more often than she was expected? Why did she leave things differently?

Cal fell across smooth, crisp, foreign sheets of his downturned bed and slept thirteen hours.

He was home just eight days that time and never got around to calling Emma. He had first been concerned that she found it impossible to help herself, changing his perfectly good loft. It mattered less as time went on. When he ran into Mike and Greta, he didn’t even bring her up. Neither did Greta, he mused.

After that, he began to expect something different. The months passed and he sought out a small surprise, to his chagrin, as if he was a small child, even made a game of trying to guess what it would be, where it might turn up. He couldn’t bring himself to call her. And he mentioned it to no one. Candied orange slices in a dish. A butterfly wing set into a piece of glass on the desk. A tiny red bird hanging from a piece of string from the bright globe in the bathroom. A fanciful alphabet on silvery paper–made by her own hand?–left in one of his books as a marker.

He kept them all.

Then after a trip to Patagonia he arrived home mid-day to find a photograph housed in an ordinary black frame. Of Emma.

She was striding along a bank of stony beach shot through with wild grass, the lake beside it calm and silvery-blue. Her long tweedy skirt was lifting a little from boot-shod legs, the wind evident in her wild hair, face turned to him. She wasn’t quite smiling. Eyes were lit up beneath hooded lids. Emma had on an ivory Aran cardigan, one hand in a pocket. But the other held a lantern aloft, orange light casting a small halo before her and over the grasses. The sky above dark, backlit trees was imbued with deepening twilight.

It was beautifully wrought, incandescent with her presence. He searched for the photographer but none was noted. She seemed so real in that frame that Cal for an instant believed she was stepping into the room, would speak to him. It caused his mind to whirl and his fingers to itch for his own cameras. And his heart started to thrum more deeply.

Why herself presented but not a word to go with it? A gift of sorts, perhaps because he was a photographer. And she was the photographed. Likely it was from an old modelling shoot. But was there more going on here? He placed his fingers on her face.

Cal stepped away from it, turned off the lights, entered his room and collapsed on the bed where he dreamed of savannahs and zebras with Emma sitting tall upon one, his camera put aside, his tent then blown away by a stormy wind. She lifted her hand to him and rode off.

When he awakened, he had a need to meet with her, take her to lunch, ask her what was  going on. Who she was. Sit with her, listen to her story. Get his own pictures. Learn her ways.

He called the number Greta had left him in the beginning. Months ago.

“You have reached Emmaline Hathaway. Please leave a clear message.”

He hung up, then slammed down the cell, picked it up, dialed Mike.

“Oh, yeah, sorry but she’s left town.”

“What? Left for where?”

“Yeah, she got some modelling gig. I don’t know much about it, you’d have to ask Greta. I guess they offered her really good money so off she went. But she was just here for her grandma, you knew that, right?”

“Grandmother? I thought she had a house here, shared it with a roommate.”

“Right, with her grandma at the house, not Emma’s, well, it’s hers now. The old lady had pancreatic cancer. Gone now, too, sad to say. Nice woman, too. Greta will find you another housekeeper.”

Cal thanked him and rang off.

He sat before the photograph. The lighting in the picture was lustrous even as it was shaped by shadows. He resisted the impulse to critique it and studied her, instead. Her face was a country of peaks and valleys and vulunerable points, her eyes wide. Glimmering. Watchful, attentive. Amusement, or was that joy wrapped up inside? Her mouth was still but he felt something was about to fall forward, a telltale sound, another clue that indicated more of who she was and what she meant by her fearless, open look. What was on the path she walked? What could she see as she surveyed the scene ahead of her?

And now–what did she see and do now?

Leaning back, he kneaded the grooves that lodged between his eyes. She had been telling him something, hadn’t she? She had maybe even been staying here from time to time. She had wanted to give it something more, a certain touch, a bit of whimsy, objects to bolster or amuse him. But she had left him mementos of herself when he did not object.

“Did you find refuge here, then?” Cal moved through the sunny, high-ceilinged volumes of space. “Did it help any? As much as it did me?”

Away from sadness, hours she spent with a dying grandmother. Maybe she had come here and let her eyes sting with tears, let them caress the slumbering town. And like he often did, wondering how long, how long did he have there. When would she have to move on. When her grandmother would pass on, yes, and then Emma’s very aliveness would be indelibly wounded. How long before she was squeezed back into the haphazard milieu of the world.

He understood the need to be here and also to go. It was a closing and opening of passageways, the realignment of points from which one departed one life and then resumed the other. It was his way, too. They had crossed paths but only just barely, and she had given to him almost imperceptibly yet so willingly. Cal felt her like a surreptious warmth spreading across his skin, then his soul. He knew any time he could reach inside to hold that seedling of generosity close.

But he’d find her. Or she’d find him.

Cal grabbed his gym bag and headed to Mike’s, his feet running along the aging sidewalks, the blue and sunny afternoon trumpeting possibilities, Marionville a salve upon his soreness. For now, he was back home.