Being Amalia

Photo by Henri Cartier Bresson
Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are doing what then?”

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

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

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

“Katrina! Come!” Hands clapping twice.

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

“I have to go,” I said.

“Yes, me, too. Later, Julian!”

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But she’s not well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Julian! Hey, over here, wait up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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