Acquaintance

I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.

 


 

I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

Failed Pass

I came to the party to see both the brothers.  Strangely it was not the one I was in love with who I hoped to hook up with before going home.  The one I loved was not an option, a guy a couple of years older than me who was strictly into girls.  But his brother, Dillon, was what we called open.  We had fooled around in the back of my car once, parked behind the high school, but it hadn’t ended great.  He’d been too drunk to concentrate and finally we straightened up the seats and I drove him back to his car across town.  I still thought about him a lot – the taste and feel and scent of him and perhaps most that things ended so incompletely.

 


 

The party thinned until there were only a few straggling in the foyer, but still I hung back, pretending to read the spines of the books on the shelves in the library. Earlier in the night their mother had shown me this room, waving a dismissive hand at the volumes that climbed to the ceiling.

“But who has time anymore?” she’d asked in a breezy, rhetorical manner.  She smiled at me, “I guess when you’re young…”

Linda seemed more human to me in that moment, thought I still didn’t care for her. Earlier that night I’d heard her use the word ‘fag’ about her oldest son.

“I mean honestly, I don’t know why Linus is so sensitive about everything,” she told one of his friends, a girl named Terin who had big red lips and iddy-biddy bangs. “He’s such a fag sometimes.”

Terin and I had exchanged a glance.

I had glanced over at Linus, watching him shrug off the jab, and thinking wryly, ‘I wish.’

 


 

He was slenderer than his brother, with a long bony nose and bright green eyes hidden under meticulously polished spectacles.  These weren’t eyeglasses as I knew them back then: the huge plastic frames that hid half the face.  These were small, clever, brass. They made him look bookish and vaguely historical, which was probably why he chose them. Maybe too why I romanticized him so much.

I used to study Linus like a painter does a muse, but when the muse doesn’t welcome the scrutiny, there are too many veils to peel away.  I wanted intimacy with him and when I was so young my hormones and naïveté conspired to convince me that was unattainable. Because the way I saw getting there was steeped in sex and sexuality.  I’d never had a solid friendship with a man and didn’t know how that was supposed to work.

Dillon spoke a language I understood more viscerally, a language not of words but of straight up sex.

 


 

Even as the summer of my eighteenth year grew sweatier and more still, all the mild breezes of spring spent, even as I fell more in love with Linus, there were more chances to spend time with his brother.  We met with mutual friends at the tea house, bantering about topical things now forgotten, smoking too many cigarettes.  He had a hunger about him.  Despite the fact that he was handsome and athletic, Dillon seemed to always search your glance for admiration.  I sensed it about him and I was put off by it.  Perhaps I preferred the enigma that was his older brother.

Still I enjoyed watching Dillon for months before our singular hook up.  He had golden skin and dark golden curls. His legs were covered in golden hair and rippled with muscles he’d built playing soccer. His hands were broad and square and capable, his lips each full and quick with a reckless grin.

Then a friend of mine who went to military academy with him told me how he used to sleep with a boy that was their classmate.  I hadn’t seen this coming.  Dillon seemed unattainable until that morsel of gossip. Shortly after, he and I were the last ones to close down the teahouse – me lingering later than was my wont – and with only a slight pass, I opened the door to the fleeting encounter behind the high school.

It was sexy and yet not sexy all at once.  In later years I wished I’d made more of the night. We should have gotten out of the car and wandered down over the hill into the grass. There ought to have been night sky and the summer cacophony of cricket and cicada and swiftly running brook.

 


 

When they invited me to the party, I was surprised to be asked.  I never really thought anyone liked me very much and was often taken aback to be included.  I didn’t know if it were Dillon or Linus who proposed my name.  I never found out, not that it came to matter.

It was odd to be there, wanting to be loved by one brother and to have sex with the other. Perhaps it wasn’t so much about want as realism and expediency. I knew I stood a chance with Dillon.  Linus thought of me as merely a new friend.

As the guests started to leave in groups, while I was hiding in the library, I heard Linus head out with his girlfriend.  Their mother even said good night, making a lot of noise about the clean up waiting until the morning.  There was one person left standing in the foyer with Dillon when I peered out from the library.  It was a girl he’d been talking to much of the night.  She had curves for days and hair like an angel in a Renaissance painting.

Dillon glanced my way and rather than be caught, I barreled out a little too quickly, pretending to only then discover how the house had emptied.  The girl with the beautiful hair said she needed to get home; she was going on a long road trip the next day.  Dillon gave her a kiss before closing the door. He peered through the sidelight until she drove away.

When he turned to study me, I dropped my gaze.  It occurred to me that we hadn’t really spoken much since the night in the car.  We’d never been alone together since then.  I wished I’d never come tonight, but a part of me longed for a chance to be with him again. There was a lonely craving in me that supplanted all better judgment.

“You not tired?” he asked.

“I thought we could hang out.”

He shrugged and I followed him into his bedroom down the hall. We sat on the bed and looked at an album cover together while he talked about things that happened at the party.  The scent of him made a kaleidoscope of butterflies circle in my stomach.  When I put a hand on his thigh, he stiffened.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

The butterflies dropped as if turned to stone by his tone.

“I thought we might…”

I faltered as he turned his brown eyes on me. Dillon always seemed to have laughing eyes, but tonight they were impenetrable, dense and cold like a pond in winter.  I felt myself grow smaller.

“We’re in my mother’s house,” he said.  “That was my girlfriend who just left.”

The funny thing is that I can’t remember how I responded. I didn’t say anything to him to change his mind.  Yet how he looked as I left or whether I stumbled out or was walked to the door are facts lost to time.  What I do remember is the light in his room.  There was only one lamp in a corner, casting long shadows over our suddenly sordid tableau.  Shadows trailed from his lashes and from his bed and from the soles of my feet to the top of my head.  Maybe he softened his rebuke with a smile. I honestly couldn’t say.

The drive back from their remote home on the river seemed interminable.  It was hard to believe I’d only passed these landmarks a few hours earlier.  The night had left me hanging open, exposed and restless.  With the windows down, I could feel the coldness of March on my skin and moving through my hair.  I should have turned on the radio and filled my bandwidth with raucous sound, but I made the trip home in silence, wondering what Dillon would tell his brother about my failed pass.

 

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

The May Day Knot

Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease.  The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller.  In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses.  He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement.  He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too.  He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.

Image

It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way.  If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that.  She was the boss.  As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.

“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said.  “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say.  First of May don’t mean jack.”

“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.

She shook her head at him, but smiling.  “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”

“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”

“Right. Cause other kids come from trash.  They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”

He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center.  She’d been right about the rain and the chill.  The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze.  He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper.  He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time.  He wondered if Grangie put it there for him.  She might have done.

Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself.  He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door.  There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts.  It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather.  It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.

The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked.  They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store.  Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice?  Made the place look kind of summery.  Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand.  Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language.  It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently.  Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room.  Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look.  Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes.  The others would press their lips together and nod.

“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say.  Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”

Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”

He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes.  They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room.  Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences.  Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh.  The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too.  He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening.  She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.

If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.

“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”

“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”

“Look at them lips.  Ruby red.”

“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”

“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what.  Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls.  They’re out on the porch.  But play nice or I’ll get you.”

Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise.  He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids.  He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up.  Kids at school said he was a snob.  Or else a sissy.  Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.

“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.

They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most.  If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them.  Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library.  Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.

One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day.  The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger.  He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand.  When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come.  Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach.  He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him.  He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.

Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach.  He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose.  His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face.  “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy.  She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.

Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee.  She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again.  “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The Reese cups were good.  He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first.  It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last.  “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself.  The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.

In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.  The summer would begin for kids.  Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.

“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.

Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any.  She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry.  Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed.  Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.

It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind.  He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine.  When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.

 

Shooting Stars

They’ve packed up almost everything that’ll fit in the the van.  They’re leaving a rocker in the front hall they promised to Sonya and there’s a small pile of odds and ends to be run down to the parish thrift on their way out.  The place smells like pine and lemons and bleach, a sharp perfume that could almost cause a headache if the windows weren’t open.

He finds Jean standing in the middle of their bedroom, staring at a pattern of light and shadow on the wall where the bed was set up only hours ago.  She glances at him.

“When we moved in, I used to look at that all the time and think how lucky we were.  Then somehow I stopped seeing it.”

“It’s pretty,” he says.

She turns from him, a frown pulling her face. Walking to the lone window, she reaches up to take down a glass sphere they hung there years ago.  It was almost forgotten.  Her body breaks the pattern on the wall, the slanting gold light mirroring her shape down to the small flyaway curls around her face.

He digs his hands in his pockets.  “I was remembering that disgusting mayonnaise jar we found when Kath moved out.  Remember? The beer swill and cigarettes.”

She is having trouble getting the sphere down.  They hooped the string over an old curtain bracket twice.

He says, “You called it something funny, like troll puke or something.”

The string breaks and the ornament hits the floor with a crash that is madly loud in the empty space.  Shards of glass scatter all over.

“Shit,” she says.  For only a second, in her mind, it seems like his fault the thing broke.  He’s always trying to talk when she is concentrating on something else.  It never fails.  She takes a breath and smiles over her shoulder at him.

“It was shit, actually.  I called it troll shit.”

He bends down to push the glass into a pile; they already put the broom and dustpan in the moving van.  She kneels down beside him to help.

“Your mom gave you that,” she says.

“I know.”

“Sorry it got broke.”

He shrugs, gives her a smile.  In all the years, that smile has never lost its grave, handsome beauty.  It has not faded one bit, though his eyes are webbed all around with lines.  His long face, his carefully trimmed beard and gentle, intelligent gaze used to make her think of men from other times.  He has a manner to him like the way men look in paintings of American forefathers, as if even when he’s laughing, he bears a weight for many others.  It makes her feel bad for wanting to blame him for every little thing that feels like a crisis for a half minute.

She leans in and drops a kiss on the tip of his nose.  “Well, when we get to Kansas, we’ll find one like it maybe.”

Their fingers touch now and again as they push all the bits of glass into a pile.

____________

He drives the first shift, five hours mostly westward.  She sits Indian fashion in her seat, now and again helping him shift lanes by poking her head out to check their blind spot.  Her hair is blown all around, the curls gone to frizz in the wind.  They listen to the Shins mostly, because it’s one of the bands they can agree on.  It’s good road music.

Jean opens her notebook on her lap and tries to work on her speech for next week.  She was asked to talk to the students of a high school where there was a shooting two months ago.  Three students were killed and a teacher.  It wasn’t in the news for long because another one happened the next week, somewhere else, with more deaths.  It is only used now and again as list filler in the overall argument over gun laws.

She didn’t imagine a couple of years ago that she’d be a spokesperson for the issue of random violence.  When that kind of thing came on the news, she flipped the channel.  Just the kind of thing the media loved.  Despite their grave manner as they read off lists of murdered children, she was wise enough to know a school shooting gave the average reporter a raging boner.  No one ever got an Emmy for reporting a break out at city zoo.

Shaking the tension out of her shoulders, she begins her speech where she left off last night.  In the usual way, her fingers seem to speak to the keys before her mind knows what words to use.

____________

Since that August morning when my mother was killed, I have seen the world differently. Violence changes everyone it touches.  It changes the victims, their loved ones and even the person who commits it.  In one terrible hour, Shane Holtzman went from being a troubled boy who thought about killing to becoming a mass murderer who can never escape his actions.  I’ve thought a lot about that particularly.  Every day when he looks in the mirror, Shane Holtzman is seeing a man who took lives.  He lost his way, becoming someone his own mother says she has trouble recognizing, and he was so alone in his rage and his madness, that he couldn’t turn back once he’d decided to do what he ultimately did.

No one can turn back the clock, although I still have dreams where we somehow have.  My mother is alive again, calling me to ask me about work.  It’s a random dream and it feels real.  I guess if she is alive in my dreams sometimes, the others are, too.  I bet many of you have gone to sleep and found Chloe Michaels again and Ali Farook and Carrie Swartz and Mr. Timbrell. They are here again at school, moving through the days we all wish could come again.  The days when we could be thoughtless about violence, deaf to the unspoken rage in a classmate we hardly noticed.  Then we wake up and this is our world now.

I know all too well how you feel because I still feel it now and I’ve had longer to get used to it and to move on.  I was asked to speak to you, as I’ve been asked to before, and I can’t help but always ask myself why.  I can’t change what happened and I can’t stop you from hurting, from fearing.

____________

They stop for gas around seven-thirty.  In the distance, a huge orange sun sinks behind tall signs for restaurants and hotels.  The noise of the highway is one hiss, occasionally broken by a guttering groan as a semi speeds up to pass, then cuts back to slip again into the outside lane.  It seems to take a long time to fill the tank.  Jean buys them each a bottle of juice and grabs herself a candy bar, glancing out at him standing at the pump.  He glances back and throws up a hand in a quick wave.

She climbs into the driver seat and they ease onto the highway a minute later.  He scrolls through his phone to find another playlist.  The sun has vanished now, leaving a violet smear near the horizon that will darken in the coming moments.

“How’s the speech coming?”

She sighs. “I don’t know why I agreed again.”

“Can’t you use the last one?”

“I don’t like any of them,” she says. “They’re all shit.”

He plays the Rosebuds because he knows she likes them, but she gives him a sidewise glance that leaves him looking for another option.  “Sorry.”

She shrugs. “Don’t be. I think I just want something mellow.”

A few miles down the road, she turns down the music.

“You know why I hate writing these speeches?”

“Why?”

“Because it feels like I have to live with this terrible thing all my life.  To be honest, I’m ready to not be the daughter of a woman who was killed.  I wasn’t that person for thirty-six years.  Each time I sit down and write about it, I have to become her all over again.  And I’m sick to death of it.”

“Why don’t you write about that?” he asks.

She frowns.  “Are you kidding?”

“No, I’m not.  Maybe those kids would like someone to give them permission to stop grieving.”

“You can’t just stop.”

“No, but eventually you do.”

She presses her lips together, feeling like she should argue against him.  Yet she knows what he’s saying is only the truth.  And maybe he’s right.  She turns up the music again.

They drive without speaking for about a half hour.  They come to an area where the highway runs beside a small prairie city.  Traffic slows to a crawl as people get off and on the highway.  She turns down the music again.

“But how do you talk about that with the right tone?” she asks.

He glances over at her.  “I think you just say it as honest as you can.  No need to sugar coat it, no need to make it harder than it is.  You could say to those kids the exact thing you said to me.”

“What? That I’m sick of being the daughter of a murdered woman?”

“Yes.”

She laughs shortly, again feeling something like anger.  It isn’t at him, she knows, but still it feels almost like the moments before a fight.  She reaches to turn the music up again, but then she changes her mind.

“There is something to that.”

“I just think the thing I hated most about being a teenager was being coddled. I felt like I was ready to hear things honest.  And think of how being young feels.  I bet some of those kids wanted to go to the movies and laugh the very next day, because being young is wanting to live and have fun, but everyone expects them to grieve.”

She nods. “I remember the first time I laughed out loud, it felt wrong.”

“Then say that, too.”

His hand finds hers in the dark cab and she grips his fingers gratefully.  Smiling at him in the glow of the dash, she says, “You’re pretty smart.”

The traffic clears and they pick up speed.  In the large side mirror, when she glances back, the little city is a galaxy of light.  The shapes of the buildings and the knotty mess of exit ramps have vanished.  Only the lights shine out in the night, with the lights of the cars behind them bursting outward like shooting stars.

London and Other Old Loves

When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into.  They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks.  That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss.  He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant.  Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?

Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night.  He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows.  In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window.  He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity.  They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious.  Yet he was sure it only complicated everything.  The weeks to come would prove him right.

He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge.  He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little.  If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt.  Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?

His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch.  The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own.  He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration.  Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.

If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room.  In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away.  For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them.  Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten.  He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.

Car Pool

She beat that road every day to work, the years flying by like the blurred scenery.  The White House changed hands three times, her sisters got married and her best friend moved away.  In all that time, her job got easier to bear or else she just got numb. One thing she knew: it only ever paid enough to get by and not a dime more.  When the fridge broke or the car started to overheat, her guts twisted like she was passing gravels.  A long time ago – it seemed – she’d thought this life would be temporary.  She’d move on, move up.

Yet time made the route into the routine while her ass got bigger and her eyes dulled from blue to a quiet grey.   Most nights she pulled into the drive and couldn’t remember anything about the drive home.  She was so anxious to get there, she’d put off stopping to fill up the car.  The red light on the dash would stare her down all the way to the gas station the next morning and she’d just about go crazy worrying about making it there.  She told her mother this once and she said, “Why the rush to get home, Carmen? You ain’t got no one waiting for you unless you count that dumb cat.”

ImageJust after New Year’s a new girl started at the plant.  Her name was Emily.  There was a soft, sexy quality about her, like the bombshells out of old black and white movies.  She talked a lot and because she was so young it was mostly about guys.  She changed her nail polish every Wednesday night.  It was always something colorful and a little weird.  Still, Carmen found her eyes seeking out the new look each Thursday at lunch.  At least once a week something looked different in that ugly ass break room.  One day they discovered they lived on the same road.  Emily suggested they should ride together sometimes.  Carmen told her she’d think about it.

Emily’s suggestion came up when she had supper with her folks one night.  Her mother said, “Carpooling would be a good idea.  Just make sure she’s not a meth head or something first.  Once they know where you live, they’ll steal your TV to get a fix.”

That was her mother’s talent: finding the thing to be concerned about.  Carmen kept mulling it over.  Something had changed since the girl brought it up.  No one from work had ever lived near her and so it had never been an option.  But now that she could imagine having someone to talk to on the ride, it made her notice the silence of her drive all the more acutely.  She wasn’t really sure she wanted to talk to someone every day, but then again, it hadn’t seemed so lonely until now.  Maybe it was the drab winter countryside.

One February afternoon, she unwrapped her tuna fish sandwich, stared down at the soggy bread for a long while and somehow came to a decision.  She glanced over at the girl.  Today her nails were black with red hearts, five a hand, exactly fitting each square oval.

“How about we ride together every other day at first?” Carmen said.  “See how it goes?”

“Okay,” Emily agreed without pause.  “I can drive tomorrow.”

“I’ll drive.  Just give me your address before we go home.”

“I’ll text it to you.”

Carmen nodded and gave the girl her number.  The black tipped thumbs moved like lightning as Emily plugged it into her contacts.  The young ones handle their phones like part of their body, Carmen thought, feeling old not for the first time.

Emily lived in a plain brick rancher with beige trim, bearded with shaggy evergreen shrubs all around.  On the carport, someone had started to take apart an old Mustang and had never got around to putting it back together.  Spider webs draped the yawning hood.  She had barely stopped when the side door flew open and Emily barreled across the yard, bent against the cold, looking younger than ever under her fluffy hood and baggy coat.

She slid into the car with red cheeks.  “Good morning.”

“This your place?” Carmen asked, backing carefully out of the drive.

“No.  It’s my grandma’s house.  I live with her right now.”

“You’re lucky.  I never knew my grandmother.”

“Oh,” the girl said.  “Grandma’s sweet.”

As they drove along the highway, she was surprised that Emily didn’t talk her ears off as she had thought might happen.  Instead, she found herself doing the talking.  She heard herself asking if Emily was allergic to cats; she had vacuumed out her car just in case.

“He’s hardly ever in here – just to go to the vet – but I thought maybe there might be some from my coat or something. He likes to sleep on my coat if I throw it over his chair.”

Emily blinked at her and smiled. “I’m not allergic to pets.”

She asked the girl if she minded the radio and the girl said she liked anything but talk radio. She didn’t like all that political stuff.  Carmen told her the only talk radio she liked was an AM program about conspiracy theories.

“But just for laughs,” she said.  “You know the type I’m talking about?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Well, maybe I’ll subject you to it sometime.  You’ll either love it or hate it.”

Then Carmen remembered that this was just an experiment, them driving together.  Her own idea to treat it like a trial of sorts.  Why was she doing so much of the talking? This was not her way, usually.  She tuned in a pop music station and it seemed like in no time they were pulling into the parking lot at the plant.

“That seemed quick,” Emily said.

“It did, didn’t it?”

On the way home, Emily was just as Carmen had first imagined.  She chatted about everything under the sun and Carmen realized she was probably not a morning person.  It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would.  When she stopped for gas, she glanced now and again through the window, watching the girl texting friends on her phone.

She asked herself if she’d ever been that young and decided at least not at heart.  Maybe there was something a little psychic in the air, because when they got back on the interstate, Emily asked, “How old are you, Carmen?”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“That’s young,” the girl said.

Carmen snorted. “Do I look a lot older than that?”

To her surprise, Emily turned to study her, taking the question to heart.  What was it with these young people?  The way she was raised, you always lied and said people looked younger than they were.  It was a courtesy.  A no brainer.

Emily said, “I don’t think you look thirty-seven, but I’m not sure what that’s supposed to look like anyway.  I think you’d look younger if we changed your hair a little bit.”

She considered being offended.  She picked it up and put it back down again.  Instead she heard herself let out a sigh.  “I’ve been thinking about doing something different with it.”

“You’d look good with bangs,” the girl said. “The kind that sweep off to one side.”

“You think?” She shrugged. “Maybe you can show me something on your phone tomorrow. I’m open to suggestions.”

Emily smiled at her, but just as quickly her smile faded as they turned onto their road.  She pointed to an old farm house on the corner, one that had been abandoned and falling apart as long as Carmen could remember.

“Doesn’t that place just make you sad?” Emily said.  “I always wonder why it’s so alone like that.”

Her voice was so sweet and wistful, it made Carmen study the place closer.  She hadn’t noticed it in years.  Vaguely she recalled that she used to feel the same way Emily did about it.  It was good to have someone to make you notice things.  She felt relieved that the carpooling wasn’t terrible after all.  At least, not so far.

When she let Emily out at her house, she watched her dash across the yellow lawn before backing out onto the street.  She was smiling a little bit, thinking about bangs that sweep off to one side.  Then she remembered that tomorrow would also be a new nail polish day and she found herself chuckling.

“Carmen, you old ass,” she said into the car.  “You’re gonna paint your nails tonight.”