Unexpected Beasts

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

She did not desire to visit the country much less live there, with its hidden creatures and ominpresent dirt. Nor anywhere other than their condo with a glass walled view of colorful, heaving throngs on streets below and a daily, even hourly variance of traffic patterns that created soothing and lively background for her work. And the ships leaving with horns blowing and trains trundling down more distant tracks.

Vera drew and painted just a few feet from that view so she wouldn’t be unduly distracted. Though her work was mostly cityscapes, this framed scene was hers and somehow intimate. Thus, not for sharing with strangers. Possessiveness was part of her; she held on to what she needed, was loathe to part with certain things and certainly persons.

The condo was one of them. They had lived there for over ten years, Vera and Putnam (“Put”) Rawlings, and it was the haven they had hoped it would be. He wrote and she made art and they were happier than imagined when meeting twelve years ago at an artists’ residency. Faster than expected–they worked taxing hours, doing even more than they had to but then they made their way into galleries and two museums and onto bookshelves and in libraries and into a fine spot on the tenth floor.

So why did Put want to move now? Unless to another floor above them, a bigger place, perhaps. But her erudite husband could be capricious. And single-minded when he had a wish to fulfill.

“Not entirely move, just acquire a little week-end place, a summer place.”

“How bourgeois of you, a quaint summer cottage,” she laughed, and dabbed a wash of purple and smidge of black then pearly grey onto the damp watercolor paper. “We’d miss so much in the city, week-ends are teeming with things to encounter and do.”

“It’s Chicago, there’ll not be a lack of cultural events if we go away for week-ends now and again. And summer is not the peak performance season in some areas, anyway. Come on…”

“You can’t be serious.” Vera looked him full face to discern the intent of these statements and felt a frisson of anxiety. “I won’t do it. I can barely stand dirt, the way it clings to everything. Me. You know I don’t like bugs up close and personal. I don’t even like to put my feet underneath a picnic table in the park, you never know.” She swished her brushes about in a big plastic cup of water and turned around. “Why are you even thinking of it?”

“I need inspiration. More quiet. I need to step outside and put my feet on ground, not pavement.”

“Your new book drafts are not going as well hoped, I know…but really, the countryside will not further your creative flow, believe me, it will only disturb your focus–all those mice and snakes, wasps and bees.”

She sidled up to him, put arms about his neck and drew him close, put her forehead to his and closed her eyes, beaming her will at him. But Put lifted her arms, let them drop.

“I’ve looked awhile now, sorry to inform you and I found one online that seems perfect. Not so much money and a companionable size. I’m going up this week-end to have a look around. I hope you’ll come along.”

With that he turned and retreated to his study. Vera padded after him, long coral dress billowing in an air conditioned draft. She leaned against the door jamb. She didn’t enter his study unless invited, generally. One thing she wanted was her own good studio space, not just the high-ceilinged living room by windows. It meant she had to put her art supplies in boxes at bottom of their closet each time they entertained. She felt second class with the arrangement but his study had poor light and was too small for her liking, anyway. And he didn’t like to look at any views when writing–“too many odds and ends of stories played out there,” he’d said.

“What on earth are you doing? Making unilateral decisions about something you know I am against…”

Put remained facing the desk. “I had to take charge of this situation and do what makes sense to me for once. I need a change. This may be it. Besides, I love the country, you already knew that. It’s near a lake, you do like water.”

“I do not, there are blood suckers there. Snakes that wrap around your legs and fish that bite your toes and lake muck.”

And with that he started to type again, murmuring, “I’m leaving Friday around three. Takes two hours, I’m told.”

“But…!”

He kept plunking one word after another onto the glimmering screen. She felt like slapping the doorjamb in a fit but left him to his work, pulling the door closed.

Put knew she expected they live in the city. As an urban artist that made the most sense–he could write anywhere–and he’d also concluded she was a little OCD about dirt and wildness. He hadn’t questioned it much. Should he?

Vera put her face close to the window pane, palms pressed alongside and making warm, damp outlines on the glass. Her heart was charging past her thoughts; she was dizzy when she glanced down ten stories. All those decent people and cars and trucks and shops. They were tiny as miniatures, she could scoop them up if she was only a giantess but she felt she, too, was shrinking by the second. Her world was being altered by Put’s whims masked as serious needs, and she had that sinking feeling: powerlessness.

She squeezed eyes tightly to block it all out, but the past took its place. Running, galloping into the present.

The country. She deeply and irrevocably did not want to go to that country.

******

All the way there she slept or was on the verge of sleep. Vera had not slumbered much the night before so drank a large glass of wine after breakfast. Put frowned at that b ut didn’t chastise her. He knew this was hard for her. His main objective was to get to the lakeside village of Callaway before dark. Hers was to stop him from making a foolish decision and she felt wine might fortify her.

A burgeoning community of trees enveloped them. Put whistled tunelessly. Vera opened one eye to see them encroach upon the state highway, their sedan. The sun got brighter, air became clearer and her breathing, faster. She rolled her window up, then down, then up, twisted in her seat.

“I think you’re going to like the house if it is anything what it appears to be. Alright, a cottage, a very old one but it has character, I can tell.” His spritely mood grated on her.

“‘Character’  means rundown, Put, not attractive and desirable. Likely nobody else will have it.”

Why was she being so resistant, verging on insensitive, even mean? he wondered. Was it because he’d gotten a hefty advance for his third book while she’d had trouble with her last series of paintings? Well, another reason he’d wanted to look at the place was to provide both with new environs, a set of unknowns to engage them in different ways.

Or was it simply because she hadn’t lived in the country since she was ten? After her father left her mother and she, with him. It had not been a good time of her life, he knew that but divorces happen,  and she’d grown up happier with him in Chicago. The man wremained a fine florist and she by all accounts was a developing artist and a happy helper. Yet, she did not now favor a spectrum of plants, seldom added flowers to their minimalist decor. He thought she even suffered from a paucity of nature’s delights, and he was not the most outdoorsy man. A thinker, a better spectator than doer– well, a writer of philosophical matters, darker than light-filled, subtly ironic literature. But he was a nature nut when he was a kid. It was their city attitude he hoped to challenge, to loosen with a part time stay in the country. He did like to sit on their balcony, watch the seasons play out their dramas.

He might even cut some wood if they wintered there. He accelerated, dodged in and out of swift shadows.

Vera was sound asleep by the time they arrived at a tiny real estate office at village edge. He left her in her seat and met with Darlene Howe.

“It just came on the market; you’re only the second person to view it,” Darlene informed him with a gregarious smile and handshake. “Follow me.”

“Are we at the end of the road yet? The dead end, I might note,” she murmured. “Can I just view it from the comfort of our Volvo?”

“No, Vera, time to get out and face the future with me.” He touched her nose and lips with index fingertip, then kissed her on a pale cheek. “Be brave, we’re only taking a look at it.”

She felt welded to the seat, so unwilling was she to join in, but Darlene was waiting for her, Put was staring at rustling treetops with a show of childlike pleasure. What did he know about trees and other green matter with roots that grew like tentacles into dense earth and took hold with wretched tenacity? Yes, it was magical. But whether good or not, well, she was of two minds–the florist’s and the wood nymph’s.

Her mother had floated around with butterflies, light as air and as erratic, too, though Mother would have said that butterflies did have a path they followed, we just couldn’t map it. Vera had wondered why her mother had acted like she was an interpreter of such things but now knew why.

The single story, dingy white cottage with blue trim had a blue door that was opening. If she went through it she might be swallowed up, but Vera yanked herself back from twenty years ago, she was not a child, this was now. Put was dear to her and would not leave her alone to bear the vicious pounce of an unknown fate. She was watchful, nonetheless. The trees and birds and scrabbling squirrels possibly watched back.

There were hydrangeas restrained by a peeling white picket fence and though it was almost too quaint in effect, they were encouraging. She had put together many an extravagant bouquet with the showy blue-to-purple flowers. As Put and Darlene entered the cottage, she lingered until a group of squirrels started to harangue each other. She gazed down the road; there were a handful of places, all undisturbed, most in need of some upkeep. She longed to see an older, smiling woman pop out, a regular cottage dweller who might share some gravity, tell her how wonderful it was and safe, full of community cohesion. Because Vera knew Put would buy this cottage if he liked it well enough. He’d had that look the moment he’d mentioned it: as if his life would was paused at a crossroads, ready to charge into happy fullness of a country gentleman’s life. So it was necessary. He needed her to be happy with him, too.

But Vera’s mother had told her father that, as well, and they’d moved to Escanaba. And then she’d meandered away, submerged herself in a dream world since she had a husband who was rock solid, a gardener and florist.  But it was for her a darker kingdom of shadows and hard river rocks and many challenging times obscured by her need for escape. They waited for her return. Her conspiring friends said she was only coming into her own, her own gifts, but what they were, Vera had no clue.  The woman knew wild plants and animal ways. She had a sense of unusual things. Her father said nothing of his grief but they both felt the sharpness of abandonment, he like the call to a strange battle, and he lost. They lost.

She shuddered as Put disappeared inside, and then ran up the few creaky wooden steps, into the cottage and with relief found both feet more firmly planted indoors.

“Vera, come into the living room, it faces the water.”

She left the modest foyer’s faded and cracked linoleum, moved past dining nook and small kitchen to find Put in a nearly spacious living room with fireplace as he’d required. He was nosing about and when seeing her broke into his lopsided smile and pointed out the picture window. There was another house across another dirt road. It, however, was sited on a large plot so it afforded an almost unobstructed view of the lake. The barest waves carried a golden glow from the receding sun.

Vera felt her diaphragm relax as Darlene showed them three bedrooms, “cozy” was the word she used, and the outdated bathroom with claw-foot tub and no shower, “vintage, of course, just like the cute kitchen.” Then she took them to the newer deck outside the back of the house which oversaw the very close water.

Put walked the deck, noted the railing as sturdy, stepped down into uneven yard, examined trees and bushes, the Gerber daisies, leggy zinnias, more hydrangeas and many weeds not vanquished. Vera almost wanted to get on hands and knees and start pulling when she recalled she hated the dirt, how it stuck to her skin, how it would not come out of her pores after playing in the forest making hapless camps. Digging a trench around her for protection and then–

“Vera? Sweetheart? What do you really think?”

“It’s an old place, true country lake cottage style, and not even dressed up to be enticing. I appreciate its long history–built in the nineteen thirties, maybe? But it is not for us.”

Darlene put a hand to chest, took in a long breath.

“Sorry, Darlene, she’s a city gal, it might take time for her to adapt but I like it, all of it. I so loved those summers in the Berkshires when I was a boy.”

Darlene offered him a cheery look but raised an eyebrow at the woman she found odd at best, disconcerting at worst.

“I know about country life, Darlene. I grew up in the forests of the Upper Peninsula, a few miles outside Escanaba, Michigan. On the wild shores of Lake Michigan…”

“Lovely up there,” Darlene felt encouraged again. She needed this commission and he was a nice man, maybe he’d be famous one day.

“It’s been years and she’s adapted to the city so well, this seems almost new to her, not easy to consider again.”

Darlene looked sympathetically at Vera. She’d had all the country taken out of her, clearly.

Vera knew better than to contradict him in front of Darlene. This was his adventure, she was also in it so just went along a bit. But she recoiled at the possibility that he was serious about this foray into unfathomable, unassailable forest.

“Your husband says you’re a painter and he’s a writer from Chicago. That’s exciting! I imagine there’d be so much to inspire you. We have a good potter down the road, sells things online mostly.”

Vera smiled obediently as Put held her in his gaze, but she could see the tumbling of his reasonable mind. She was no match for his new thrill. She walked around the cottage, left the other two sliding into business talk.

She wanted to be fair. It was his book advance; he could do whatever he wanted, within limits. Was this reasonable or reckless? He romanticized his family’s summer house but did regale her with funny and good-hearted stories. Put had thought they’d had that in common, experiences in deep, cold lakes and fast, fish-laden rivers., woods. Bonfires late into night and everyone singing, joking and telling ghost stories. Like it was camp night every night and no one wanted to go home.

But for Vera, it was not like that, certainly not after just one afternoon and night. She had shivered among looming trees as darkness dropped like a heavy cloak about her and she had waited for the sound of her name called out. She was nine years old. She knew a great deal about the woods. It had been her playground, her school, her home. But not then. And not after.

Vera shook her head, roused herself at the sound of footsteps and voices.

“Well, you and your wife should think it over and get a good night’s rest. Give me a call tomorrow, I’ll be around.”

Vera stood up from the rickety front steps where she’d waited. They shook hands all around and she made effort to show the woman she was a person who was civilized and could be amenable.

“Let’s get dinner and talk,” Put said, arm slung about her shoulders.

“No,” she said, shrugging him off. “Let’s first go by the water. I have my input for you.”

******

They sat on a bench made of rough-hewn oak. Vera pulled her knees up to her chin to avoid the bugs that certainly crawled about. For a time they watched motor boats head for the docks jutting from steely blue water, commenting on lingering hues of a soft sunset. It was a big lake, bigger than she’d thought but nothing like the inimitable Lake Michigan. Put leaned back, chatted about getting a sailboat if they bought the place. He’d been taught at an early age the happy ways of boating but he’d had very little opportunity to enjoy it with Chicago friends.

“It’s a smallish place but so is the price.”

Vera hugged her knees closer. “Put, hold that thought. There is a whole part of my life you do not know about. It’s time.”

He looked at her but didn’t change his easy stance. Her quieter voice stirred him yet this was not the time to let anything ruffle him. He wanted to be clear and steady about any real estate decisions. He would be steady about any new confessions, too.

“Okay, shoot.”

Vera kept her eyes on the water; she felt safe there with the water’s rhythmic motion, its song. That much was still good.

“You never met my mother because she died when I was twenty, but she was, as I’ve said, very quirky. Too smart, dreamy, rebellious, according to my dad, for that town in that time. He loved her, I loved her, that’s a fact. Did she love him, me? I don’t know. She was fascinated by the idea of having a child. She thought children were closer to the heavens, to earth’s mysteries, too. She was likely right but I was more like a human charm to her, a secret transport to other worlds … like the land of pixies or something nuttier, I never was clear. She may have been emotionally ill, I know, but I am not entirely convince. Just an unusual person and mother, a bit wild, beautiful in deed and appearance. She could be such fun, though. Impractical. Eventually she seemed too in the beyond, not truly connected to us. My father took care of me mostly even when I was younger. I’m grateful for it.”

“I know all this, Vera. But I still don’t know why you’re so repelled by the country you also admit you adored.”

“So I am telling you, if you’ll listen well.”

Would she really just tell him everything? She stood up with back to him, vision still of the water as darkness gathered, as moon’s light began to skim all surfaces and lend a silver sheen to easy waves. He was now alert and stood closer, not touching her.

“I had been playing in the woods that afternoon, as I did every day. Mother was nearby picking berries, plopping them into the metal bucket with a pleasing sound and also singing her made up songs, voice bright and pretty. I had picked my bucketful so kept moving on with a stick in hand, batting at tree branches and brambles and mosquitoes, leaping like a deer, going deeper into the trees and shadows where there was less sunlight illuminating all. I lost the phrases of mother’s songs but heard all the birds and scurrying animals and buzzing bees, saw an owl sleeping upright, of course, and a snake slithering through brush. This was all as usual. I was running, jumping about, stoking the air with my stick, becoming a ninja girl, something I believed might be possible. I remember looking back a few times. Noting sunlight through treetops, deciding the house was still in a certain direction. I had never gotten lost. I was never afraid out there. But then the light began to fade and I was tired of wandering, getting hungry. It would soon be full sunset, then twilight, then dark.”

Put saw her enrapt face, tried to take her hand but she shook him off as if he were a fly or a bee.

“I had half a homemade granola bar in my pocket so sat at the base of a big old white pine and ate, looking around, trying to figure it out. The way back. I’d always been told to not panic if I wasn’t sure of directions, find sun’s direction, listen and locate the lake shore then follow along it. Soon I would find something or someone or be found–we had not been deep into the wilderness. I listened to the blueish evening, and the bird song was less familiar. Twigs snapping, underbrush rustling. Wings overhead that sliced the air, bats careening. I rummaged in my jeans pockets and found a rubber band, a favorite Petoskey stone and one of my father’s lighters, borrowed for no good reason. I liked to see the flame flick on and off, that’s all, I knew to not light anything and supposed I’d get in trouble. But now I reconsidered the fire part. I was no longer sure of my way nor so secure in the gathering closeness of night.”

Put reached for her but she stepped close to water’s edge as evening sky began to scatter it’s jewels above. He ached for her but was restless with questions.

“I recalled my mother once taking me into the woods and digging a deep circular trench around her as she stood in the middle of it. She was talking in that special away as if reciting a poem though I was never sure what she meant. Years later I’d recognize it as chanting, in perhaps Romanian as her grandmother was from there. When she was done with the trench she put pieces of brush into it and cleared away all other areas. And then she lit the torn dry stuff and various twigs and they caught fire. I jumped back, warned her to get out but she was swaying a little, smiling at me as she spoke on and on. Afterwards, she seemed calm. She told me that would protect me if I needed help–to make a trench and light a fire in it, go to the center area but clear the spot of all else. And sing a song for courage.”

Vera closed her eyes, opened them again.

“So that’s what I did. I lit the smallest fire and it ran around the ring, then I remained in the center hoping and praying someone would see the firelight or a waft of smoke before it got much later.”

She walked a few paces from him, then turned back. But she was looking into that flame. Not at him.

“I must have gotten drowsy, as I jerked awake. There came a very soft, low growl, more a quiet guttural sound, right behind me. I turned my body, saw nothing. My heart was galloping, legs hurting from being cross-legged and I carefully straightened them but did not get up. A shiny beetle crawled over my ankle, and I saw a large spider following. The ring of fire burned low but steady. What did my mother chant? Why did she not give me words that would help, wasn’t she supposed to share such things? My senses sharpened; eyes penetrated deep into darkness, ears opened to small animal mutterings, whirs of wings, hoots of owls. Then silence. I was afraid I’d cry out and startle the unknown.”

Vera knelt by the lake and smoothed the cold lapping water with flattened fingers. Put watched her squat on her haunches and saw her anew, strangely like a creature deeply at home within woods and waters yet tethered by a terror of it. Somehow she remained aligned with the good even in that  very moment. He sat beside her.

“Then from the corner of my eye there was a movement, hot flash of amber eyes, a huge sleek body leaping toward me over fallen limbs and I screamed but no sound came out, I couldn’t move  so sat paralyzed in the center of a tiny circle of failing fire. I could do nothing to save myself. And no one coming… The beast’s great head came closer, mammoth paws trod earth carefully, those glowing eyes locked with mine. I stopped breathing. Everything in the whole world stopped. I blacked out.”

She was trembling from sudden chill of night, and memory’s loosed burden. He wrapped his arms around her and she wept. He bit his lip to keep from crying with her. Then she calmed some.

“I came to as soon as there were shouting voices, my father’s and his friends who searched for me. Discovered me, at last. It was a cougar!– that was what I met up with, that’s what the men said the next morning after examining the area. A cougar found me but somehow left me unharmed, alive… ”

Putnam Rawlings was dumbfounded. He held his wife so tightly she could not have have left his arms but he was right there with her that night and now this night, and he also was bursting with outrage. And her anguish. Where had that madwoman gone? Why ever had Vera been left to her own devices?

“My mother, she was gone most of the night, Dad said. Didn’t come home from our outing. She sometimes disappeared but never had left me alone like that. Oh, she threw her arms around me when we got home, made a fuss but I couldn’t bear to look at her. I’d lost basic trust in her. I soon despised her as much as loved her. But worse…” Vera took Put’s face into her hands and sputtered out words. “Worse, yes, even worse…a part of me wondered if maybe she had come to me as that cougar. I know it sounds absurd, but I was nine years old, left to roam deep into forest and she didn’t even call my name out, and something in that cougar’s manner–its wildness and yet curious gentleness…It’s how I felt. So awed. So scared. Of her, the forested land, then all country with its shadowy places and its roaming, unexpected beasts…but she did teach me of the fire ring.”

She began to shake violently so he rocked her, rocked her until she grew limp. So long to hold in such misery. So long to keep from him this story he found amazing and treacherous. How it had damaged her. And them, he imagined, in certain secret ways.

They stood and he held her upright; they left behind lake and cottage, the stars and moon, which winked and glowed benignly.

******

Vera holds her painting into a broadening stream of light. A picture is truly forming, beguiling her with uncharted territory, water and sky and richness of light with its twin, shadow, that show her each design as it comes alive from her fingers, her mind. She follows its calls. No more city sights, people mashed together on the buses, trucks and bicycles vying for space on endless streets, skyscrapers creating all manner of blinding light, graffiti scrawled across every blank spot. The noise and gritty smog and sudden sirens and its garish beauty: all gone. Her success, more than a little uncertain now.

“Vera” Put calls from across the hall, “I could use a break from this tiresome second draft. Ready for a stroll by the lake?”

Vera sets her rinsed brushes down. The painting will be very good in time. She glances out her studio window, through the thicket of trees and across a road to the shining expanse of water, now warmed by late summer sun. Inclines her head at the vivid scenes.

“More than ready.”

She still often shivers inwardly as she leaves the cottage and glances about to discern what may be there, if yet unseen. Then Vera moves forward, doesn’t look back. But keeps a lighter in her pocket just in case.

Balancing Act

Sari was a good, if dizzy, mother. Distracted by another brief swell of disorientation, she realigned her position on the rattan love seat. The breeze that swept through the screened porch lifted her hair from her forehead and neck as she eyed the length of emerald yard. She felt like she could capture butterflies today, for her trajectory across the grass would likely be as zigzagged as theirs. Still, being outside–she was not fully inside, at least–helped. She thought of the maxim that if seasick the remedy was stepping onto the deck and fixing on the distant but immutable horizon. She could see a glowing line of deep blue sky meet the tips of wild grasses that edged the yard and boundary. She did not move her head now that her inner ear had re-calibrated.

The roar and squeals of Andy and his best friend careened toward her as they zapped each other with streams propelled from their water pistols. A big squirt splashed onto her feet and she turned to see the boys takeoff. They were like uncaged and semi-ferocious animals frolicking in the summer heat, oblivious to cares of the world. She would never voice that. Andy had just turned eleven and was about over being a child, he informed everyone at his birthday dinner. Kelly, seventeen and ready to leave “Teendom”, had snickered then laughed until he punched her–without rancor. It had been a good celebration, replete with both sets of grandparents and his favorite Key Lime pies for desert.

Sari had teetered upstairs as soon as they’d all left and the kids had become engaged in other activities. Raff had clamored down to his basement workshop to work on another project, a miniature ship, a walking stick, or repairing the two-seater bench for the front porch. She had stood at the vanity mirror, her head listing inside though her body still. Lines wriggled out from edges of her eyes and along indentations that had once passed for dimples. Her hair, still dark, was sleeked back tightly in a short ponytail.  Eyes were bleary despite sleeping well enough. She was always weary, give or take a little. Vertigo should be renamed “dizzy-and-tired-to-the-bone disorder”.

The window was open. The infernal crows were at it with their nattering. When she looked out at the branch the three sat upon, they ceased. Behind darkening trees the sun was edging its way to another place and leaving a wash of crimson and tangerine. Sari wanted to follow that sun, hopefully to a tropical paradise. Lie in a hammock and swing, swing, swing until she dreamed of something good.

******

Up and ready again to schmooze or tackle the drones of industry, the gears of progress, the pinnacles of success, Sari kissed Andy good-bye and she and Raff exited, got into their separate vehicles and started up the engines. Ready, set, race!

Few knew how exhausting low-level vertigo was but Sari was nothing if not a gracious, attentive, tolerant wife and mother, a creative brain-powered employee. Or that’s what everyone saw, even her mother-in-law who praised her cooking as well, parenting and work advancements in Railing & Sundstrom Architecture. Sari usually got a kiss on both cheeks from their parents for such competency, help with the children as needed. Raff beamed at her, arm about her waist as if he was attentive by nature and was sharing his deep appreciation of her. She smiled widely.

The greater truth was starting to leak out at work. She found herself staring at her computer screen and new blueprints, slouching and slow to answer when spoken to.

“Are you depressed?” Martine asked her at lunch.

“Why would you say that?”

“You’re a few beats behind the rest of us when usually you’re even a few ahead. You do not seem yourself.”

“That noticeable? Dreadful. I must perk up and act smarter.”

“I’m serious, Sari, what’s going on besides being a little dizzy at times?”

Sari sucked the last of the icy lemon seltzer water through her straw. Being a little dizzy, why did no one understand how hard this was?

“I don’t know. It seems to be hanging on longer. Damned virus. I lost nearly a month at work from the virus and resultant vertigo and still feel like the room is swishing about me half the time. Hard to explain. Maybe a little like being inebriated, if that helps but all the time.”

“Well, I can relate to that. Miserable. But I thought medicine helped.”

“It does but not enough.”

Tony sauntered up, arms flung out as if shocked to find them there. “Hey there, you ladies have a spare chair for me?”

They looked at him blankly, then Martine waved him away.

“Oh, sorry if I’m interrupting. Just thought we might informally run over the Thompson project.” He smiled at Sari a beat too long and she looked away. Too fast. The familiar swish inside her head. She closed her eyes a split second then focused vision on her coffee.

“Sure, Tony, have a seat,” Sari said and Martine kicked her shoe under the table.”Martine and I were talking but we can get together later.”

But they wouldn’t. There was dinner and the kids; Martine had her miniature greyhound and her partner.

“Good,” Tony said leaning into the table, sizing her up, then nodding as if everything was settled. “We have to nail this one, Sari, sooner than later. What’s your take on it?”

Must they really, at lunch? But she knew her work wasn’t as good as it should be. She only desperately wanted to lay her head down on the table and take a long, happy nap.

“I have, if not the ultimate answer, then a runner-up–but let me unveil it for you at the office. Right now I have to finish this seltzer and a salad of weedy goodness. You brainstorm, Tony, while I eat.”

Martine gave her a cautionary look, shouldered her purse, got up to go. “Call me sometime, Sari.”

******

It was a quiet house.

The children had learned to make it so. To mute their energies, to speak in whispers, to take their rowdy impulses into the basement rec room, down the block, to the far corner of the yard where a swing hanging from the towering sycamore tree and a trampoline were set up for summer.

Raff made his way to one of the porches or garage, to the basement or the den. He carried a book or magazine with him, as usual, but now he was gone a couple of hours not a half hour or hour. But he also labored over more woodwork. Watched classic movies or something with the kids while Sari moved from kitchen to couch, from porch to bedroom seating. She wanted to stop moving. She wanted everyone to stop moving so much and some days they seemed to slow down like she did. Life was now reconfigured in slow motion–or was it all in her head?

She hadn’t asked for such quietness. She hadn’t been aware of needing more pf it–only her physical balance reinstated, please–but she did realize she acted half-ill at home where she could let down. They were waiting for her to return to robust form.

Raff was barely waiting.

“It’s become a malaise, what you’ve got, not just garden variety dizziness. It’s like you’ve settled into this half awake state and gotten comfortable with it, have sunk into it like a fat floor pillow and don’t want to get up.”

Sari looked up from her architecture magazine. Right to the point, that was Raff. What was he saying? That she wanted to be sick, that she had given over to it?

“Wait. I’m taking care of the household and children plus working again and you’re accusing me of being lazy? Or feigning sickness?”

“No, listless, not lazy. You aren’t faking it exactly, no,” He put his hands in his pants pockets and looked over his glasses. “Maybe you’ve given in to it, that’s all. Are you doing your eye exercises? Are you making sure you keep stretch and shake out knots during breaks at work, take your anti-vertigo medicine at night at least? Are you…” he paused, hand going to his short steel-gray beard and the stroking that betrayed nervousness. “Are you doing okay, that is,  mentally… or losing it, hon?”

She frowned from beneath cover of her long bangs.  “Hon” grated on her with that accusatory tone. “Why do people think I want to be compromised by a chronic, negative state of health? The doctor said it would take time, a few weeks to months. Is it because you can’t see it like a rash and I don’t have a temperature anymore? I missed work for four weeks, that’s all, I had the time coming. I’ve been back for several, yes, but I’m not perfect yet. I know it seems like I do fine what I’m supposed to do, but it’s a struggle every single day, some much worse than others!”

“Mom? Can I go to Lena’s?” Kelly stood in the doorway, eyes darting from one parent to another. This was not their usual intense conversation, it sounded like the start of a fight. She stepped back and waited.

Her mother’s illness had been hard to get used to but it would be over soon, any day now. She did not want to hear them arguing about something that was just a body glitch, something only medium important. No one was dying. It was an inconvenience. Her mom couldn’t drive some days, for example, so Kelly or her dad had to take Andy places. She helped make a very basic dinner a couple of times a week, which was okay since she needed to learn how to cook better to be on her own one day. She and Andy were doing their own laundry. Andy whined but she told him to zip it, give their mom a break. He took his loud mouth outdoors more, that was nice of him. But they both forgot sometimes. And Kelly got sick of being on duty so much more. Her mother overall seemed so normal, good at everything as ever. It was often hard to think of her as short of fantastic. Even if she did get on Kelly’s nerves, as usual. Sometimes a lot.

Sari glanced at her daughter. Continued. “It’s not something I can just take control of, not something that can be entirely remedied with a pill or a few exercises, Raff. I don’t wield power like that. I have to wait until my body recovers its healthy state of homeostasis. And furthermore, working is not a breeze even on the best days, it’s a terrific battle to get to top of the heap and then not slip and slide my way back down to middle ground– unlike your job where you inherited a vintage jewelry business, so no one is expecting you to prove yourself! Because you’re the boss! And you never get sick so how could you possibly understand?”

“Mom! Can I spend the night at Lena’s? It’s Friday, it’s almost eight o’clock, I want to leave soon!”

Enough already, Kelly wasn’t going to listen to the ole silver spoon in her father’s mouth rant, she wanted out. Andy was at Jamal’s already, shooting hoops, and was staying overnight. Let their so-called grown-ups sort things out, give Kelly and Andy a decent break. Honestly, parents could be so blind to real life. They should just finish up, make up and move on to something more interesting.

Sari slowly turned her head and ran fingers through her dark mane, exposing a face more wan than it usually was.

“What, Kelly?”

“She said she wants to go to Lena’s for the night. Yes, Kelly, you have permission to go to Lena’s. Back by 11 or 12 to help with the lawn. Your brother has weed duty with your mom, you mow.”

Kelly moaned. She wanted to ask him what he was going to do, wash his car, trim his beard? Love him as she did, he could be too much the King of their tiny kingdom. She held her tongue and her shadow melted from the doorway.

Raff’s impatience made him stormy. He hated feeling powerless, he just wanted her to get well. He also wanted to tell her about his plans.

He turned back to Sari. “I am trying to get it.” He sat down opposite her, watched her face go empty, slack as if shuttered. His plans; this was not the best time but it was the only time. “Let’s drop it, we both know I get impatient.”

“You’re a person who wants things down right, right this minute, but it isn’t happening here.”

“I know.” He took her hand, kissed it, let it drop back into her lap. “I wanted to talk to you about something else.” He waited for her to look up but she was studying her pale nail polish.”Ted and Harrison asked me to go fishing tomorrow. Well, for the week-end, stay at Ted’s place. I know it’s last-minute, but another guy cancelled. I haven’t fished in so long, this would be a chance to get back to it with excellent fishermen–”

“I think that’s a fine idea.”

“You really do?”

“I do.”

“They have extra gear but I need to find some old stuff in the garage or basement. I have to get up at five to drive up north with them.”

Sari studied her husband a moment, the shrewd questioning eyes, a full lower lip hidden by the well-groomed beard, chin a little weak but overshadowed by his sturdy build and bearing. He was authoritative. And he was asking her with a plaintive air for a rare week-end off. They both needed this.

“Go on, Raff, have fun.”

******

The night felt made of glass at first, clear and brilliant and empty as she sat within it on the screened back porch. Her ears were ringing loudly and she wondered if that was a part of the vertigo. The week-end splitwide open in her thinking, a sudden tear in her life’s whole fabric that she had to make do with, somehow, and it was not the worst thing, but a foreign thing. It felt as if the time was solitary with no Raff, even with the kids in and out.

She relaxed into the darkness. Wondered what the stars meant by blinking high up in succh timeless designs? They had been there longer than men and women. An evolving but ever present universe. That certainty, that was what she wanted, that was missing. Ever since the morning she’d awakened unable to stand and walk across the floor–she had just been able to crawl across to her phone on the trunk at the end of their bed…since then, nothing had been certain.

Had it ever really been, even with all their plans, their security? Why did she feel such doubt? Is this what chronic illness did, then, take  a person’s existence and make it into a stranger’s life?

She let her head fall back against the love seat , her legs sprawl before her and savored the stillness. The absence of answers. The possibility of renewal, coming to her as loss.

******

He had left without disturbing her. As she awakened, she felt fair to moderately good, and then felt better about that. And then she thought this malady begged to be outwitted and she might be up for that if she could stay alert and get up some steam.

But she remained in bed, donning reading glasses, book propped up. She did not smell any coffee drifting up the stairs. Did not have a hunger for bacon and eggs or pancakes and sausage. There were no thudding feet on steps, no shouts over who got the comics in the paper first or the television remote. No heads popping into the room and asking what was up, it was nine o’clock. No Raff pestering her with his list of things to do or relentless kisses, depending on his mood. Cushy quiet filled the space except for the neighbors working on their fence for the second week-end and the birds chirping and dogs barking at the cats evading them all down the street.

She read a next page and smiled, her mind a fresh page, too, if she wanted for at lest a day or so, and the July sunlight fell across the coverlet like nectar on a field of flowers.

******

By afternoon things were busier, then curiously tranquil again. She and Andy had weeded and Kelly had mowed the grass and then the two of them were off to the subdivision pool. Sari considered giving Martine a call for a chat but the impulse passed.

She wandered about the house, picking up things here and there, getting a laundry load started, even sweeping the front porch. There was a twinge or two in her head that unsteadied her but briefly. She needed music as she worked so put on a jazz singer she liked and hummed along. Her indoor pants needed attention; she took the blue watering can, dancing while moving to and from the kitchen to get water. Just as she was about to try a gentle spin across the wooden floor, she stopped– best not to encourage the vertigo. But what was the worst that could happen, falling down? Deciding being a bit off kilter was worth the pleasure of an empty house, music and a dance, she  determined to let loose.

Sari set down the watering can, twirled around the rooms carefully in slow motion, hair flung off shoulders, bare feet turning deftly on the floor. And stopped. Arms falling to her sides, breathing easy.

Where was the delayed whirling in her head that gathered power as she tried at first in vain to recover balance? Surely it would come now; it lived inside her, it had been absorbed into the core of her body’s daily existence.

She waited. It was the barest dash of dizziness, not enough to regret a thing. She felt cogent, engaged in the moment. Satisfied with the simplicity of it all. She warbled along with the music. Retrieved her watering can for the remaining plants, walking past the rich wood of an upright piano in a living room corner near the porch. Stopped moving, singing.

It was as if she hadn’t seen it before or not in eons though of course she had, it had been there ten years, since Kelly was 7 and wanted to take lessons. Or they had wanted her to take lessons. She did well enough for six years and then was done, busier playing with her school volleyball team, hanging out with friends. Andy had given it a try for a almost a year but quit out of boredom and a sorry lack of talent.

Sari liked the musical instrument kept right there, despite Raff wanting to sell it, and it had become part of the decor, attractive but impotent among the groupings of furniture. When the children had practiced early on she’d sat on the piano bench close to them, helping place their hands and fingers, interpret foreign script that was the notation and musical language. She had told them she had played as a young girl and that was all. Raff wondered abut her knowing so much but had little interest in music and so could not see more. Sometimes she had played the piece all the way through for them first so they could hear it to recall it. It made them happy to have their mother play sop easily, be involved in their learning at the stat. Then they found her involvement off putting, as if her presence was a harsh correction, a reminder of what they did not know.

Now Sari was pulled to that piano as if someone tugged a cord tied to her middle. She sat down, opened keyboard cover, placed her fingers over the keys for a C major chord but did not depress the keys and so made no sound. She formed another ghost chord and another, fingers flying above ebony and ivory and she began to hum a piano concerto that was resurrected from memory’s depths.

She had not told her children nor even Raff the rest of the story, and had asked her family to not refer to that part of the past; it was meant to be past. The piano came so naturally to her, the music so easily that she had been promised help with tuition to a private fine arts high school. But her father had fallen ill with cancer. Soon the bills piled up, they spoke of selling the house. The family’s focal point was him, as was needed. Her wonderful piano and many other good things were sold. Lessons ended at fourteen, her teacher aghast.

Sari simply had to put away music. That was that. It was necessary for the good of the family, she understood, though every day she felt bereft, lost, confused. Who would she be without her piano? How had it come to mean everything so that now she had nothing? Sari started to have headaches, felt enervated, wouldn’t get up for school. This was not tolerated by her mother or father (who fortunately survived and was able to work two years later) and so her grief came to an untimely end. She was an only child, was going to get top grades, enter college on scholarship and graduate with honors. And she did.

But the spirit of the piano, its storied music never left her. She fell asleep playing it in her head,  daily yearned for its return. Then she grew up, she became an architect, and found renewed passion to create. Married well.

What was not good about her life? It all held together so well.

Until she had become ill with a virulent illness, then ended up with severe vertigo which had unmoored things bit by bit even as she slowly improved. Feeling that helpless had been a nightmare that somehow echoed her father’s demise though she was not critically ill. She felt resistant to tackling each day’s needs for fear of not being able to perform well. She faltered more. Even her marriage became suspect; and she had mounting anxiety about losing Raff. He did not like sick people, she’d discovered. She was less and less trusting her work. Even her mothering skills.

She had nothing to lose from this secret experience. Sari’s hands fell upon the piano keys. She played gently at first then forcefully but stumbling, pausing, starting measures over, finding the theme again, false starts on chords. Then they arrived richly; the notes ran pure and lucid and free. She played another piece and another in parts, then began making phrases up, hands embracing keys as if they were loved ones given to her care and her mind was afire. No hint of vertigo crept up on her as she bent over the piano and let the music enter her blood like powerful medicine.

That house swelled with music it had never before heard, flung to the yard, the street, the sky. When she was worn out, she sat with back erect, body still. Nothing was spinning inside that skull now, only music and a resounding adoration of it. Nothing was off-balance within her but herself. Her life was her very own, not her family’s, not her profession’s. What would she do or give to make it more whole once more? Joy and surprise and peace filled marrow and sinew, every cell.

She was not alone; she could feel it so turned around. There stood a handful of neighbors and her children assembled in her living room, silent, stunned. Her face grew hot. She was afraid the room would spin and leave her defeated once more.

But they began to clap, one after the other, louder and louder.

“Wonderful! We didn’t even know you played! Encore!” they shouted as they came up to her.

“Mom, why didn’t you play before? Why was this a secret?” Kelly asked.

“Make more music!” Andy demanded.

Sari rose to give a little bow and even if she did wobble some, her children were there at each elbow. Her neighbors surrounded her. All she needed was Raff. She hoped he understood. She hoped he appreciated what music she had to offer but there was no turning back.

 

Life in Lizbeth’s Garden

Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

It wasn’t that she couldn’t stop, she just wouldn’t, and if she did everyone would be much happier. That’s what Michael told her about once a day, more if he could manage it. But the words had begun to morph into a string of syllables that were almost lulling, waves revisiting a shoreline along the back of her brain.

Maybe what he said was true, she wasn’t yet certain.

Lizbeth was dead-heading a group of violently orange marigolds even though she knew she didn’t need to, such was her sudden desire to scatter seeds to far lands. She watched them drift in an sweep of breeze, satisfied and a little wistful. Sweat bathed her forehead to neck and a number of  bees kept close quarters. Her floppy straw hat was a comfort, shielding her from fiery sun rays. She liked the hat most of all her gardening accouterments; it had served her best, right after the dirt-stained cloth gloves. Lizbeth sat on her haunches and gazed about the back yard. Most of the flowers bloomed as if they would never get to bloom again; other parts were struggling. Rapacious weeds thrived in that hot weather.

She, however, needed a drink. It was after noon judging by sun’s angle. This was a record wait for her the past few months. Mostly she managed until eleven–an early pre-lunchtime snack of cheese and wine, a picker upper. Or  more like late morning tonic to move her right along the slowly following hours. A glass or two of pinot noir, that was all, it wasn’t like she lugged a bottle around with her, room to room. Alright, she may have thought of it but she had never actually done it. Or not often.

Lizbeth struggled to her feet, removed the hat and wiped her forehead with back of her wrist. Her knees had been more crunchy; she’d found even with a cushy mat it wasn’t easy to kneel and garden as long as last year. Well, one more thing. Add that to the list, along with Daisy their loyal and lovely Dalmatian getting sick and dying; their Martha’s oldest son Gene smoking pot like it was a full time job; her husband going in earlier and staying later at his office; and her good friend and neighbor Jill moving to Rhode Island of all places. Who moved from a good Oregonian home to the Northeast when you were almost sixty? Jill did. She’d found a coastal village with a very small cottage she liked better. Found it online, no less.

The past six months had been one surprise after another. Lizbeth wasn’t so good with surprises. Her youth had been punctuated with a few doozies but things weren’t necessarily easier due to experience. She found she needed a tranquility boost to manage and re-balance things.

Lizbeth entered the kitchen, took out the chilled bottle of wine and poured a glass full. Michael enjoyed his wine in a good goblet but a plain water glass did her just fine. A first sip was savored and then a good gulp followed, then another. She was done with gardening for the day. She must at last plan their usual family Fourth of July gathering since it was tomorrow.

She waited for a moving van to pull up any time now next door and dreaded it. She had seen a caramel skinned, younger–maybe under forty– woman in jeans and tank top disembark her SUV yesterday, enter the house and leave a few hours later. Jill had told her about the new owner, Myra somebody, a new Executive Director at Biller -Koin Gallery. That was enough to know. Lizbeth didn’t put much on her walls–she liked all those blank spaces–and hired someone to help minimally decorate their home long ago. Not much had been changed and that was how she liked it. The last thing she needed was a snooty neighbor critiquing her home and offering advice. Lizbeth did not want advice of any sort.

She wanted a second drink. The first glass had barely whetted her appetite. She had promised Michael to go easy this week. Last week they’d had a fight before dinner; she had left a chicken casserole burning on the stove and tottered off with drink to the garden. As she saw it, she could never time her meals according to his arrival, he’d gotten so sporadic–he said he was seeking perhaps a last advancement so was much busier. She didn’t care, she was done with making full meals, they’d have to get by on sandwiches and soup or she’d order out. Finally, drinks had kicked in, gotten hold of her and she’d lost her temper and he lost his, too. They were quite the loud duo and she was glad Jill had already moved so she didn’t pester her with later phone calls. But then she had cried herself to sleep in a spare bedroom. The next day they were civil, but there was the variation of his usual remark.

“See if you can’t wait until after I get home to have a glass. Then we might sit in the garden and enjoy ourselves for once.  Even talk.”

“I’ll do that, sure,” she’d nodded blearily and he’d given her a peck on the cheek.

But of course she hadn’t. They’d eaten Thai take out and went their separate ways, he to the study and she to the sun room, as usual.

Lizbeth poured the second drink up to the top, took a slurp then padded to the sun room, put her feet up. Jotting down a list of needed groceries on her memo pad and sipping her wine, the low growl of the moving van almost escaped her attention until she saw the furniture being hauled out and then into the house. She moved to the front windows. A long, curved, orange sofa; two vine patterned–green, brown and white– chairs; matching brass lamps that were in the shape of some kind of bird; well wrapped paintings that Lizbeth didn’t want to imagine; a vanity that looked like it had could have been used by Marilyn Monroe. Or a flea market aficionado.

Hardly bearable, having a new person move in.

She sat back down and finished her list. Most of the food was coming from the deli this year. She had not returned to cooking since the smoking chicken. She thought of a third glass, decided to wait awhile, do a load of laundry instead, then tidy up the patio. Then she could have a third if she sipped it slowly, ate a little something. She wanted to be able to sit in the garden with Michael when he got home. They could share thoughts about the family BBQ as they enjoyed a cool, gentling breeze and beautiful flowers. The Family, there was a rich topic! That thought gave her pep as she trotted upstairs to get the laundry sorted–they were bound first and last by family, that was right and good.

******

“This is more like it.”

Michael leaned back in the rattan patio chair, arms up, hands interlocked behind his head. He gave a quick smile. “I am so glad to have a day off. Well, there’s our usual family thing. But, still.” He looked at her closely. “You doing alright today?”

Lizbeth yawned; she was a little sleepy and wanted to pour a glass but he hadn’t seemed interested in getting his goblet yet.

“I’m good. I do have the potato salad made and am getting the rest from the store. You just have meat duty. I’ll go shopping in the morning.”

“I’ll go tonight. Is their turkey for sandwiches for our dinner?”

“Yeah… I’ll resume cooking sometime, I suppose.”

Michael unlocked his hands and leaned forward to study the crow that had flown in. Michael was fond of crows unless they hung around too long or were too loud, kind of how he felt about extended family at times. “Right, that’s fine. But I do want to figure out what to do about Gene.”

“Nothing is to be done, he’ll be high when he comes, eat everything and leave and Tess won’t make a scene, either. They’re well behaved young adults, overall.”

“She’s not bringing that so-called male friend, is she?”

“I think there’s a new one.”

“At fourteen? Is she dating?”

Lizbeth rolled her eyes. Michael could be oblivious of the times. “Anyway, I think Leslie is bringing that Barry Geniston–she was truly trying to think of him as her fiancé but there was white hair creeping in there–and his son, what’s his name? Neal. He’s six feet tall at fifteen, she says, of course he plays basketball.  Maybe the three or four kids can team up for fun.”

“Another teen-ager, gads, careful what you wish for! You know I won’t abide Gene smoking pot in or around my home, legal or not. And Tess could leave her friends to their own families not always drag them here. Can’t we have a regular cozy family barbeque? With nothing obnoxious going on, no one to keep an eye on. Nothing too long, 5-7 right? I mean, a whole extra day off…I have waited so long for one day.”

“You need a real vacation, not a national holiday. Like we are planning.”

Michael observed a crow pecking hard at something on the patio flagstones, then looked at her sideways. “How are you doing, anyway? You seem good, no glass in hand.”

“Are you waiting for me to quit drinking before we go on a vacation, is that it?” Her voice was quiet but irritation charged her words. “That week-end we had at the coast was different. We’d lost Daisy, had just found out about Gene’s school performance. And oh right, Leslie getting engaged to someone who owns membership-only billiards clubs with cigar smoking rooms! Who ever heard of such a thing? Not small things. And then Jill leaving! Michael, it’s been a real challenge, that’s all.”

The crow started to caw and Michael shooed it away.

“Yes, you said all this many times, far too many. But you about got swept out to sea, you were so drunk you didn’t pay attention–that’s what you fail to include. To deal with. If I hadn’t been nearby, watching…” He turned to her. “There’s always something, Lizbeth, life does as it does and we adapt or gain more skills. Yes! I’m waiting for you to stop drinking before we for sure embark on that trip to the Caribbean. That is exactly right.”

“Well, go alone. I can guarantee nothing, certainly not if I will have a couple glasses of wine or not while we languish in a resort spa in a tropical paradise.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it. She studied his profile, that proud nose, a jaw to be envied, eyes a flinty grey that lit up blue when light was right. A man women admired and men seemed to enjoy. What was wrong with her after thirty-six years? To Michael, it was the alcohol. To her, it was life’s gritty little losses and cumulative failures, lack of excitement, decreasing purpose. A surfeit of loneliness. Life cracking around the edges when it had seemed whole and strong.

She hoped they’d get back to the larger family issues, much safer to talk about, even when it was tough issues. This was what any good marriage was for–or did they just turned this way and the other after kids came and that was that?

A whistled tune rose over their fence, abated then came again. They turned to look for its source. There Myra stood with voluminous black hair caught up messily with a clip, soft blue tank top soaked with sweat, big grin on her unadorned yet lovely face. Lizbeth noted dangly earrings with brown and white feathers and wondered if they got stuck to her damp shoulders as she worked on the house. Jill rarely wore jewelry, something they had in common.

“Hi there, I’m Myra Minthorn. Would you happen to have any extra coffee? I neglected to pack some. And maybe a little milk I could borrow until I shop tomorrow? I’m sorry to bother…it’d be wonderful if you had at least coffee! I need it iced, though, dying of heat, would sure like central air in there.”

Michael stood and walked to the fence, held out a hand and introduced them both. Lizbeth smiled wide, put up one finger and ran into the kitchen. Put coffee into a baggie and filled a small pitcher with milk and returned. Michael and Myra chatted away with animation. Michael’s father was an amateur but fine potter and his family liked art a great deal.

“Oh, thanks so much!” Myra said, hands forming a bowl shape to accept the goods.

“Any time,” Lizbeth said. “I hope your move has been a good one.”

“It is so far, I know it’s the right job.”

“She’ll oversee Bixler-Koin,” Michael said excitedly. “New directions to take, no doubt!”

“I plan on it. Well, see you two later–have a good Fourth!” Myra flashed blinding teeth, then bounded into Jill’s old house, now her house. Only who would ever recognize it after all those colors and designer impulses got a hold of it?

“See you later,” Lizbeth called out and wandered back into the kitchen. New directions, he’d said, as if he had something at stake in the gallery. No doubt there would be with this Myra Minthorn. Michael did patronize all the openings and did go to fundraisers for it. Maybe Lizbeth would start attending again to follow its future trajectory in the city scene. And how Myra worked the arty masses. Wasn’t she Native American? Lizbeth wondered.

Time for her homely glass to be filled with rosy red pinot noir. Michael could get his own. No, Michael was going to the store. She could drink alone for an hour or more. He’d leave her to herself, she guessed, if he was bothered. No need to argue the night before Fourth of July.

******

The barbecue was in full swing, everyone was tucking into sizzling burgers or impatient for steak. There was Lizbeth’s famous potato salad, thank goodness. Michael pulled her aside. She had noticed their daughters were already looking her over for signs of impending sloppiness but they would be disappointed. She resisted his tug on her elbow at first.

“We should ask Myra over, don’t you think?”

“You mean, as goodwill gesture? What happened to keeping things simpler?”

She honestly was eyeing the beer but she disliked beer when all was said and done. She would hold off on her third drink a bit longer.

“Sure, she’s alone over there and her first holiday in Portland…”

“Where’s she from?”

Tess ran up and hugged her before she set off for the corner coffee shop to get an iced latte with friend Kyle. Plus the new almost-family addition, Neal. They’d just gotten there but right off they had to go. And those coffee treats for kids, that was another thing but it  was true, they tasted so sweet and good.

Turning back to Michael she said, “Why do the grandkids come if it’s so hard to stay?”

“Oh, she’s fine, just has to have time with her, uh, buddy. And now there’s Neal to fit in somehow. And Myra last hailed from Cincinnati. I gather her career has kept her moving a bit.”

He felt more expansive today for some reason. He turned over fragrant sizzling steaks. Then studied her more closely. Lizbeth had had two glasses of her pinot noir, that was all. Not even quite full ones and it was going on five o’clock, a holiday. What was she up to?

“Sure, I’ll go knock on her door.”

“She’s in the back yard, I can see her from here.”

Martha stole up behind her mother, then Leslie joined up and they met at the fence. Martha put her arms around them both and squeezed.

“Dad seems pretty okay, more rested than before, but when are you two going on that lavish vacation? Isn’t it end of August?” She checked to see how much wine had taken hold of their mother. Not too bad so far, a relief, but then she was on her third beer, was that too much? She had to drive home. With kids. Better stop there, she thought.

“Supposedly. Right now I’m checking in on the new owner of Jill’s place.” She waved cheerily. “Hey there, Myra, how’s it going? Want to come over for some steak and salads? Light some sparklers or firecrackers?”

Myra was swinging in a hammock with eyes closed, Lizbeth saw too late.

“Oh, hello–no thanks.” Myra sat up, blinked in the harsh sunlight. “I think I’m good. I’m not much of a steak eater. Pretty tired after moving.”

“I have my daughters here, Leslie and Martha, and this is Myra, our new neighbor.”

Myra waved and lay back down, a forearm shielding her eyes.

Leslie and Martha whispered something to each other, Lizbeth thought it was “better looking than Jill” and was about to say something sharp but dropped it.

“She says no thanks, she’s fine,” Lizbeth told her husband as she slipped past, got a beer,  joined the group at the picnic table.

“Where are the grandkids?”

“Gene is likely off in bushes smoking funny stuff, ” Leslie said. “No, wait, here come they come.” She took Barry’s arm and they wandered toward the fragrant Peace roses.

“You can keep criticism to yourself,” Martha warned too loudly.

“Hey, are those steaks done?” Gene rounded the corner on cue. “I’m starving.”

“Everything looks delicious, and the yard is superb, ” Barry the billiards man offered.

Lizbeth popped a beer can open and sipped a little.

“Not a beer,” Michael moaned as he arrived with the meat platter.

“Can’t have a Fourth of July without a few cold ones with our steaks!” Leslie stated and they all agreed, beers in hand. Even the grandkids cheered and gave a sly look at each other, their coffee drinks raised but barely drunk. Neal eyed his father who ever so slightly frowned at Leslie’s mother, then raised eyebrows at him. Neal would not risk another few swigs of beer that night.

******

“I know it’s after eight but I thought well, we have so much extra and I wondered if you’d unpacked kitchen wares or eaten a thing.” Lizbeth thought she had never seen so much lustrous hair. Once her hair had been long. Twenty years ago.

Myra chuckled, took the plastic wrapped plate from Lizbeth and opened the door to her. “Come on in, how nice.”

It was confusing to look around. First thing that caught her eye was something intricately beaded hanging from the one lit bird-like lamp. There was bright sleek furniture in place of a pale leather sofa and a Bentwood rocker, large vivid paintings leaning against the wall where there had been a pleasant medium-sized photograph of Tuscany. Jill had bought that while on a trip. Lizbeth had secretly wanted it but of course never asked. Instead, Jill gave her a goodbye memento of treasured gold rimmed with red roses tea cups. Lizbeth had wondered how well they’d known each other, after all.

Myra sat, then patted an orange couch cushion as invitation to sit down.

“I don’t want to bother you. Moving is so taxing.”

“It’s good you came. I was just reading and trying to drink lukewarm so-called iced tea I made from a mix. I’d offer you some but it’s no good.”

Lizbeth nearly asked if she had unpacked any wine but held  back. “I just wanted to drop off some food. Can I help in any other way?”

Myra sucked in her generous lower lip, narrowed her eyes in thought. “I might need a suggestion for a good primary care doctor and dentist at some point. You’ve lived here awhile, right?”

“Over two decades. I can right off recommend Dr. Lilian Ruh for a doctor and I like Dr. Gupta for our dentist, he’s so kind and experienced.”

Myra took a memo pad and pen from a free form teak and glass coffee table and wrote them down.

“Excellent, I knew you’d be a help. I’ve lived in apartments for a long time. Everyone said I needed a real house for this job and I agreed. But in my old communities I was in close quarters with others, never entirely alone. My family and friends worried I’d have a hard time fitting in here, you know, in this single family neighborhood, big yards, wide streets. A different kind of neighborhood.”

Lizbeth sensed much more under the words. Was she afraid to be alone? Had she had a house but it hadn’t worked out, maybe a divorce? Or did she feel she might stick out here in West coast culture somehow? Or perhaps she didn’t like kids running about? Or was it that she wasn’t, well, white? If only she knew how little Lizbeth cared. Maybe she should, more.

“You’ll find your way, I can tell already. You have that natural flair, a creative way of doing things–look at all this. I might not always get art but I can recognize others have talent.” She swept the room with her hand. “And people are friendly here.”

“I will? Can you tell all this?” She tilted her head playfully. “Do I seem confident, raring to go?”

Confused, Lizbeth struggled to find words to respond correctly. “I just meant, you’re a smart young woman and you clearly have a deep love of art…”

“It’s okay, Lizbeth. I’m sorry, I’ve been hard at work all day, I’m overwhelmed with a major sense of dislocation and frankly I’m just fiending for one long drink…”

Lizbeth laughed. “Oh well, I have pinot noir and beer if you like!”

Myra clenched her hands together. “But I don’t drink, anymore, that’s the thing. Which is why I didn’t come over earlier, all the beer.” She looked at Lizbeth with intense, lively eyes. “And I had a stroke three years ago which makes it even more imperative I take care of my health from now on. Just so you know a couple of basics up front. You stopped by and here I am.”

“Oh, I see….I won’t offer you any drinks, for sure. But an actual stroke? You’re young!”

“Yeah, that’s right, while riding my bike. Went blurry in one eye, weak in my arm then leg, fell right over roadside. Age 37. It happens. I won’t burden you with gruesome things. But I’d been drinking that day, too much, and I thought it was alcohol that did it. No, just a common small stroke. It felt big. But alcohol wasn’t good to me, either, before or after. So no more of it in my life. I want to stay fit and well, work at what I love, enjoy the rest of my Creator-given life.” She barely touched Lizbeth’s hand. “I’m pleased you brought me food, it’s thoughtful. I’m looking forward to knowing you and Michael better.”

Lizbeth looked down. “I drink a bit too much, myself, just so you know. But I aim to change things. I’m glad you told me.” She wanted to give the woman a sound hug but refrained, best to not scare her off. “I’ll let you rest. Call anytime, even for a cup of sugar.” She wrote down her number on the pad of paper.

Myra put it in her pocket. “Say, I’m going to develop new art classes, programming for older adults. Good stuff, I promise. Might you be interested?”

“Well…Michael is nuts about art.”

“I somehow feel you would be, too, if you just explored more things, played with your creativity. I’ll keep you in the loop.”

“Thanks, Myra. And welcome to our neighborhood.”

“Glad to have found this place. And my dream job!”

******

Michael called to her from the second floor landing.

“Changing my clothes already. I’m wiped out. You coming up?”

“Soon. I want to sit in the garden awhile.”

He stood there, then crept down several steps to catch her at the kitchen sink. Lizbeth stood before the bottle of wine on the counter as she cradled her empty glass in her hand. Gazed out the window at her garden glowing under the power of an ordinary, breathtaking sunset. She set her glass in the sink, turned the bottle upside down –he could hear it empty into the drain. She went outside, quiet as can be. Michael covered his face with both hands for one intense moment, then joined her.

 

Simone’s Summer of Unknown Wonders

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The sun shrugged toward the horizon and the courtyard was coming alive again. Young men were circled up playing cards at a picnic table under a sole showy palm tree. Two middle-aged women were sipping iced tea on a bench, mopping brows and necks with tea towels. A toddler ran laughing and screeching from his father, who was barbecuing on his patio. The pleasant odors of roasting chicken with piquant sauce wafted across the grass. They mingled with other meals; grills were busy all over. Traffic beyond the wrought iron gates of Mistral Manor Apartments had changed from the busy commuters’ stop-and-go to revved up engines punctuated with sudden starts, then slurry stops. It was glorious June. The evening would stay warm and dusty, shimmer with summertime living.

Simone propped head on hand as she sat at the tiny round table. She traced the bright blue and coral tile mosaic tabletop she’d recently completed as she observed from her balcony perch. Just high enough to see beyond stands of trees, she could spot the customers going in and out from Cole’s Coffee Hut on the opposite side of the street. Tina and Harry Miles had left ten minutes ago, to be replaced on the deck by Carter and Gloria, Simone’s neighbors across the hall. They were bringing back an iced mocha for her and a caramel bar.

They were good to her. Everyone was good to her, and at times it felt something hiding pity and it soured in her.

But it was a decent start to an otherwise slow summer. Simone hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. The optimistic plan had been to get up and moving by the end of June, sign up for a harpsichord class, re-start easy exercise. Get in touch with Higgins and Hughes, the law firm she had worked for until the end of April. Creep back into the industrious lifestyle, those long hours of labor that paid off with week-ends of recreation. Well, no one and nothing was cooperating  with her wishes. April and May rained itself right into June and finally June was sauntering toward mid-summer with sunshine.

But here she still sat, immobilized by much. It wasn’t just a resistance of bone and sinew. How much time did it take to insert herself into a life worthy of living well?

Beneath her on a bench between the lavender, peonies and pots of red geraniums, Kari waved.

“Want me to come up there later?” she called. “I’m meeting Trey for dinner, then we’re off to salsa dancing.” Her hand flew to her mouth, eyes flicked to Simone’s legs. “I know you miss dancing… We’re just getting out of that oven of an apartment awhile. It’s been an age since we had a good meal, too.”

Simone smiled wanly at her old roommate, Kari, who had moved in with Trey last October. “Well, of course you want to get out. It’s a perfect night for it. And I’m not sure I miss the press of sweaty bodies in the clubs.  If my light is on when you get home, give me a call if you want. And dance happy!”

Trey emerged from the doorway of the apartment building and took Kari’s hand. She pointed up at Simone; he waved and they left. They were good dancers, Simone recalled, and a pang struck her.

She shifted in her chair and opened the book she’d tried to read for a week. It was something light, Gloria had said when she loaned it. Something beachy to lessen disappointment that there was no nearby beach. It might keep her mind off things, give her a laugh. But the fact was she  surprisingly still could laugh; she just kept thinking about things. About how it could have been different if she had made other choices. Just walked away that night of April instead of having continued a failing conversation that hooked her with a debate, then snared her in the argument and finally was trapped by the same old story: demands, pleadings, tears. Yes, that man could weep to beat all. And just as fast be transformed into someone unrecognizable, cold as steel, hot with rage.

Simone shook her head to clear it. The last thing she needed was Bart’s face looming at her all night. She flipped the page, read a paragraph, then read it again, a third time. No use. She pushed it aside on the table.

Four floors below there was a panoramic scene to sample, to absorb and wonder over. There was a small group circling up and she knew it would evolve into a long night of music. Two guitars, three hand drums, a rain stick, a flute or two, even a violin. It was Friday night. Whoever was around came down in hospitable weather and started up a song. Simone heard a penny whistle weave in and out and of a melody, light, clear and captivating. She caught her breath at the lilting sound.

“He’s back,” Simone said aloud and slid lower in her chair.

Sean McAllister had been touring the British Isles and Europe with his band for the last five months. He surely knew the whole sorry story by now unless he had just gotten in. Kari may have called him. He might be disgusted with the whole thing, with her, so was avoiding her. That’s what some people did, pass you by, treat you like a shadow if they were done knowing you. But then she also wasn’t partying, anymore. She had given up a great deal the past three months.

She fervently hoped he wouldn’t look up. Her face still looked less than what she’d been told to expect; progress seemed so slow. Bright pink scars zigzagged across left cheekbone and rebuilt chin, nose still was not what it ought to be, teeth still healing. But what she most wanted him to not see was her humiliation. The shame.

He, along with so many others, had warned her. He had come to her after the first weeks she’d been with Bart and he agreed that yes, Bart was charming, high-octane-ambitious, a raconteur. And also impossible, a man who couldn’t have it any way but his own–a man who could flip some hidden switch if you looked at him wrong. Sean had told her: “I know him, he was with a band I was in a few years ago, remember? As your old friend, as someone who cares about you for who you truly are–not only your outstanding good looks and intellect–tell him to shove off!”

At which point she had given him a swat across the head with her sweater and sent him back home with leftover spaghetti and salad from their long dinner.  Before he left on tour he’d run down from his place to again lecture her at her door.

“Simone, please break it off or you’ll regret it. I want to come back to find you happy again.”

Simone had saluted him. Sean enveloped her with a hug that threw her off it was so intense and she’d batted at him playfully. But she had finally, when he was in France somewhere, broken it off with Bart. Or tried to. And paid the price.

The Irish jig morphed into something eastern in flavor, became a melancholic tune. It dove into the rich, warm air, wafted through tree branches and it seemed to hold an undertow of longing. Simone shut her eyes. Let her mind wander to better times when all was less complicated. When she was not yet even twenty-five and a whole fine future awaited her. Peace came out from its hidey-hole and she was lost in daydreams.

Until she laid her hands upon both thighs and then felt the right leg cast clenching her flesh all the way to her hip while the left leg remained bandaged from half-raw wounds. It had been an accident. She had heard it and said it over and over. Had wanted to believe it even after she’d left the hospital. But it hadn’t been, not really.

No, not at all.

Bart had roughly ushered her into the car after they left the elegant restaurant, after he’d embarrassed her at the table when he’d argued with her and the waiter over the “incompetent service”. He had driven out to the Pointe like a madman and she’d protested so he slapped her as he drove, yelling things she had never heard before. She’d yelled back to let her out, she was done for good this time. And when they had reached the Pointe, the place where only last summer she had climbed the small jagged bluffs with friends, he had yanked her out and shaken her until her mind went to jelly. And then the tumbling, her helpless body bouncing off rocks and the rushing earth, the pain explosive and endless. Simone was filled with profound blackness punctuated with garish bursts of light. Then there was nothing and she entered nowhere.

Until a week later, when she awakened immobilized and ruined, astonished at what her ordinary life had come to. Everyone else was amazed she wasn’t paralyzed or dead. For Simone, it was nearly the same as that, a horror that she would end up there at all. She could not believe she had felt love for such a person. He would be end up incarcerated a long while, they told her. Another vehicle had arrived as she had tumbled over the ledge of rock, Bart like a statue as he watched her fall.

May he suffer dearly, they said at her hospital bed when they came to check on her, but in far more brutal words than that. She couldn’t know about his suffering. She hoped he was facing himself and feeling at least regret but expected otherwise. He was probably still angry at her, blaming her for his misery. If nothing else, he’d find it all a severe inconvenience. For Simone, there were court dates ahead and she dreaded them. Just laying eyes on him. But she had to speak up for herself even though it was too little, too late. Then she might begin to move on, forgive.

Simone’s eyes snapped open and focused on the scene. She stopped chewing on her lower lip and sat up taller. This was a peaceable place, this simple home. Her musician friends and neighbors played a lively song, improvising well. The two women who had rested and chatted were now gone and a group of children jumped rope, chanting rhymes she recognized from her own childhood as well as new ones. The sunlight was silkier as heat retreated, the sky a more tender blue. Everywhere she looked were people just living life on an early summer evening. They were spread out beneath her like a colorful safety net. She pulled balmy air deep inside and felt the knotty diaphragm release. She was grateful to be home at all the last two weeks, resting on her balcony, washed in a sheer golden light, courtyard noise a familiar welcome.

A broad hand, then long arm suddenly crossed her peripheral vision and also in it was her tall iced mocha in a clear plastic glass. Simone turned to see her sneaky server, then looked away, covered her face. How hideous she must look but Sean knelt and took her hands into his, placed his lips on the smooth center of the back of each. He lay his head in her lap a moment, arms loosely about her legs. She knew it killed him, that his warning had been insufficient, that all had unfolded even worse than expected. She felt a threat of tears, blinked them away. She would not cave to her own self-pity that could rain down like arrows, leaving points of entry more hurtful than flesh wounds. She would somehow be more than who she was before. Not less. She would not keep turning back and become frozen in time, in fear.

Sean’s head lifted and his eyes skimmed her face, then held her eyes. With the certainty of caring and an uncommon grace. Not one shred of blame. Not one word to bring her to more grief. He sat in the chair beside her as they watched the tableau brighten in deepening rose and tangerine of the enfolding sunset. As he put penny whistle to his lips and piped out a new tune, Simone felt her summer shift and turn and lift. Begin again.

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, my cousin, 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 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 use when someone is not pretty, maybe overpowering. Her nose is too long, her mouth is big, her eyes are almost slanted, for some reason, unlike anyone else’s in the family, and Mom says she tells too lurid stories….”

I put my hand up to stop her. “No doubt she’d say that! But 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 but she just snatches another bean to chomp. “I just admire her a lot.”

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

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

All that manual labor her father was sweating over for vegetables impressed me. 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. I found it sad but didn’t say so; she wouldn’t get it, then would be miffed.

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 and dated for four years–no one and nothing had interfered with her predictable attachment. I found it strange that my mother got her Masters’ degree and taught at the nursing school nearby and encouraged two daughters and a son to pursue our dreams. While Trish’s mother, Aunt Marilyn, stayed at home and loved living in the country, canning, baking, cooking being the main events on her 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 manicured fingernails. Aunt Cecily wore a black-red polish or sometimes lilac or a rich coral, at least that I saw. My mother, clear and chip resistant; Aunt Marilyn, pearly white, refreshed each night despite having her hands in food, dirt or hot water all day. It 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.