Train

Short train rides change perception, rarely reality.

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Our coffee cups, still in the sink, a few crumbs on the counter, added to the house’s feel of empty and ignored as I enter in what was just a few hours ago, familiar.  You tried to clean up before we left but I wanted to get started.  I have no idea why I was so anxious.

Actually, I do know why, both of us tired, the train trip back into the city seemed excruciating to me.  The night before we had the train practically to ourselves.  Oh, a few people sat in jolting, distant, silence, here and there within the train car we were in – an older gentleman, who thought you were my wife, sat across from where we stood.  I didn’t try to dissuade him of his notion.  You had your back to him but I watched him watching us.  Though your hair was pinned, somehow, high upon your head soft curling strands fell down upon the curve and back of your neck — small glints of silver gray, unashamed, glistened upon your temples.  Your eye makeup, slightly smudged from blinking and rubbing fatigue, only seemed to make your appearance softer.  You insisted upon standing, claiming you preferred it but we both knew you were simply fighting sleep.  I looked away from you to hide a smile and caught the old man looking at us — his expression, a sort of longing look, perhaps envy.

So I turned back to you, looked down upon your face, pale, sleepy, beautiful.

I opened up my arms, grasping the cold metal bars above your hands.  You blinked and looked up at me.  A small frown between your eyes and I realized you were questioning me.  Was I really inviting you to step forward, place your head upon my shoulder, lean in?  Gently I inclined my head toward my shoulder.

No sarcasm just rest. Trust me a little.

You did.

You moved forward and I lost sight of you but for the first time, beyond the casual handshake or the quick friendship hug, I felt you.

Your body against mine, resting.

For the first time in years, I was slammed with continuous, slightly frenzied thought.  I was terrified I would have an erection and then terrified I wouldn’t, then terrified I was having those types of thoughts about a woman who was diametrically different from me in almost every way.  And then I caught sight of the old man again, he winked at me and smiled and quickly looked away.

Was he afraid I’d try to explain?  Hey, she isn’t my wife, she’s the most aggravating, mind-bending, hawkish woman I’ve ever met.  I became conscious of your weight against me and realized I was the only one on the train stressing.  Stressing like some overwrought prom date.  So I lowered my arms along the bars to encase you further against me and I felt a small shiver move between us.  You seemed to radiate heat within my protective circle; a heat I was aware of but not consumed by, a heat that was meant for me to know of, but not to know.  A heat that so few women are aware they possess, that permeates their body when approached like the opening of a leaf when finally in sunlight long enough.  A power really, that is self-contained, yet subconsciously utilized.

I thought about saying that aloud but I could hear your scoff, your “masculine conceit,” argument and so remained silent.

I continued to watch nothing out the window, the flash of lights as the train moved quickly from the old city to where I lived, alone in the new housing.  I thought of the many times I had made this trip by myself, exuberant from a time on the town, ready for solitude and rest.  Would I feel that way again?

The train began to slow, our stop tonight, mine alone later.  I felt your reluctance to move so I moved my chin against your forehead, felt your soft skin beneath me.  I could feel the old man watching and I most desperately did not want you to thank me.  I felt myself stiffen as if waiting for a tight-fisted blow but you didn’t even look up.  You placed your hand upon the center of my chest as if touching me was something you did often, and softly pushed yourself away.

The train stopped and the rattle of the doors opening and the cold air of late night, early morning, coursed into the car.  I glanced back.  The old man was watching, again his look of envy or remorse upon his face, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at you.  We stepped toward the door and your hand was in mine.  You never held my hand before and I did not feel incredulous but suddenly concerned for you.

The doors shut behind us and we began moving away from the platform, toward my house, my small world I had let you invade, on my invite, for a few days.

“Do you think he rides just to pass the time?”

I looked away from your face, your sad voice but re-gripped your small hand in mine and said nothing.  I did not realize you had even noticed the old man.  Rebukes flooded my mind.  What did you care, you who feel overtaxed, and burdened by the world, what could you care about one lonely old man.  I remained silent and we continued to walk because your rebuke would make sense too.  Why was he alone, when could society take the place of an individual’s touch?

The street was dark, my house darker.  My hand trembled as I inserted my key into the lock and opened the door.

I stepped aside and let you in first.

You walked down the long hall toward that narrow entry room that separated the dining room from the drawing room.  I watched you.  You placed your hand deep within your hair and pulled out the magic that held it aloft upon your head all evening.  I watched your hair cascade down and brush your shoulders.  You placed the magic absent-mindedly upon the small narrow table that belonged to my Mother and seemed destined for this narrow tall house, deep within this bohemian, suburban, sprawl.

Your back still to me, your hands went up and rubbed your temples and I could imagine your face, eyes closed and worried about the old man on the train.

I wanted to man up, wrap my arms around you, fight your hair ‘til I found your neck and place wet kisses there, feel the tension drain away and hear you sigh.  I wanted to work every inch and curve of your body against mine.  Maybe you were right, there might be a God, and He had a hand in making things fit.

The moment passed, I allowed it.

I let it pass and I let you walk to your room, close the door without saying goodnight and I sat up the rest of the night with very expensive wine and as far away from God as the day I decided He didn’t exist.

You told me not to stay with you at the airport, that you’d be fine and I honestly felt that you meant it.  You seemed relieved to be there, to be boarding a plane back to your beloved Chicago.  Dark circles under your eyes and your hair disheveled and sexy, the waiting area for your flight suddenly seemed to lift your spirits.

I thought seriously for a moment about leaving.  We were adults, behaved like adults, and didn’t have a thing to worry about or remember tonight.  But to your annoyance, I stayed and I wanted you to take my hand and I wanted to put my arm around you while we waited but you read your book and I paced the floor.

A call to board.

Why had I waited for this moment?  What did I face now?  A quick, friendly hug, a joke, a laugh –next year in Chicago.  But you had caught on, hadn’t you?  You straightened your back, shrugged your bag higher up on your shoulder, and waited for me.  For one moment, one glorious moment, I thought, yes, I surrender.  I surrender and there is no way in hell that you can stay but I don’t care the enormity of pain watching you board that plane will be worth one honest square moment.

I asked you what the weather was like in Chicago.

The weather.

You didn’t say anything, smiled a small smile, gave me a quick kiss and was gone.

And now I’m standing in this house.  Sunlight streaming into the windows, dust motes floating in the air and the sound of a distant city on a Sunday afternoon.

I waited for the telephone to ring, had visions of you at my front door but the house remained quiet.  I told myself, as I settled in and cooked my evening meal peace and tranquility had settled back into my house.

I preferred to be alone, admired from a distance, known for my austerity and non-hypocritical friendship, I was a haven for my friends.

Darkness and I still waited for the telephone to ring.

I broke down, washed your coffee cup from the morning, and placed it away with the others.  I went upstairs and entered the guest room.  I could smell your perfume, knew that I would.  I told you to leave the bed that I’d wash the sheets for the next guest.  I pictured myself naked chest down upon your sheets, shook my head and roughly pulled the bedding up ignoring your sent and stumbled out the bedroom door.

I washed everything.  My small machine and I worked.  I sweated hanging your sheets in the basement to dry, smelling now like laundry detergent.

No one at the door, no telephone ringing, I grabbed my keys, locked the front door and started walking.  An all-night coffee house down the street.  I took you there a couple of days ago.

The coffee house was expensive but good.  I took no book, no electronic gadget, I just watched the quiet Sunday evening world move by.

And oddly enough I didn’t look for you.

You are gone.

I looked for the old man.

I saw my partial reflection in the depth of the coffee cup.  I saw my reflection, dimly, in the darkened windows of the shop.  I tried to look beyond myself, out to the suburb and city I know, but my reflection was in the way.  My hair, silver, my expression somber, my shoulders still broad, not stooped, not yet.  What would we look like sitting there together?

What did we look like sitting there?

My hand didn’t tremble at all when I pushed the key into the lock and shoved open my front door.  The door did not creak and the floorboards beneath me did not moan.  The house was dark; I switched on the light and stood in the long hall.  There where you left them, were the magic hairpins upon my Mother’s table.  I picked them up and held them in my hand.  Smooth, warm, small; how could something so compact help defy gravity?  I placed them back down on the table, arranging them how you had left them.  I walked up the stairs, into the barren guest room, laid down on the bare mattress, smelling faintly of your perfume.

Caves

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations? 

The cave was deep and little was known about it.  That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds.  I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone.  What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations?

I hate the summer heat and to this day I lay low when summer is at its zenith.  I suspected that the small cave near the river was not just a small cave.  John Wilkie would take foolish girls there and so it began to have a reputation.  I suspect that John Wilkie, tall and good-looking as he was, really didn’t know what to do with a girl, so he took the doe-eyed ones to the small cave by the river just to get the girl to sit close to him and shudder.  There were a few fathers and elder brothers that didn’t weep at his memorial service but still, he has his name in bronze over at the courthouse square on the World War I memorial.

I digress.

John Wilkie, Salem Schultz, and Nathanial Barrow were the river rats of the town and on hot summer afternoons, they would take a raft up and down the river and spear carp and catfish.  Every once in awhile they would put a line in and pull up bluegill.  Salem’s father was a whiz at smoking fish and I even had the honor once or twice to try the delicacy as my father and Salem’s father were fairly good friends.  One such night, my hands greasy from smoked fish, my senses were deadened by the drowsy conversation between my father and his friend.  They spoke of their own fathers and their memories of the civil war, which to me, in 1914 seemed eons ago.  I was fourteen, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had grown at least two inches that year.  I stuck close to home, the library and anyplace relatively cool.

“Let’s go to the cave.”

“No, I don’t want to go to that stupid cave.”

“Why not?  It will be great at night.”

I spoke up, amongst the whispered conversation of the boys who never took any interest in a bookworm like me.  “You know, I think that cave is probably connected to a much larger cavern or cave system.”

There was a dead silence and I felt myself grow red.  The heat along my neck and face positively burned.  What had made me open my mouth?

“Who asked you worm?”  I couldn’t tell which one whispered that in my ear but all three chuckled as if the words were unique in the annals of slights and rudeness.  Perhaps that was what prompted my boldness, they were such dullards.

“Actually, I’m sure that cave is part of a larger cave.   There is even a possibility that an underground river is involved.”

I was practically drug to that cave with the words, “prove it, know-it-all, and smarty pants,” filling the air as we walked down the dirt road, and down the narrow path to the river.  The darkness was complete as the town’s lights disappeared behind the steep bank of the river.  We felt our way along the bank with the swift water just at our feet and the gleam of fast running river expanding out before us.  I was relieved when we all managed to crowd into the narrow cave opening.  To actually get into the cave we had to belly crawl.  I didn’t like it as I wasn’t fond of small places but the natural stone walls quickly gave way to a fairly large cavern.  Nathanial lit the lantern and the cave walls lit up with the spark of tiny quartz and dripping wet stone.

I had been in the cavern before and seen the impressive glitter.  There had even been some geologist down from Chicago to examine the cave.  It was from over hearing those men talk in my father’s store that they suspected the cave was part of a larger cave system.  The bought supplies from my father intent on exploring the cave in greater detail but were at the last minute called back to Chicago.

They never came back.

“It’s cold in here.”

“Hush, did you hear that?”

“Stop it, Salem, nobody wants to hear your ghost stories.”

“No, Nate, really, I think we should go.”

The cave did seem unusually cold.  I was delighted.  Perhaps this was where I could escape to occasionally from the heat.

“Hey, I think I heard it too.”

“What?”

“Like voices.”

I moved to the outer line of the light.  Nate had held up the lantern but his hand was shaking and the light shook with him.  Suddenly we were in complete darkness and what shattered me was that I heard nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  There was no sound from the boys, no teasing or angry words and I heard nothing hit the stony ground.

I am pretty good at keeping my bearings and I felt that if I followed my left hand straight ahead I could reach the small opening that led to the river.  I knew that I had been duped but still it was terrifying to be left alone in that cave.  I moved ahead swiftly and bumped into something soft and warm.  It bounced off of me and then seemed to swing back and forth a darker shadow than the blackness about me.

I fell to the ground.  The ground was wet and smelled of urine.  I scrambled forward and bumped into a soft lump that shuddered and cried softly.

“John?”

“Worm?”

I crawled over him and he grasped my foot following me forward.  I heard a soft scratching and some whispering overhead.  I moved faster and John Wilkie nearly crawled over me.  I felt the fresh air and so did John because he pushed me aside and pulled himself out.  As I crawled out I felt a stabbing pain in my right foot and I shouted out in agony.  I made it to the small cave at the river and found John standing at the edge weeping.

My foot and leg were never the same.  I wasn’t fit for active duty when the war came.  My parents spoke in whispers near my sick bed and to me, they were always a little distant from that time on.  I was ill for a very long time.  I even had to complete my first few weeks of school at home.

I was never a popular boy so I can’t say I was bothered by the solitude.  The whispers were what bothered me the most.

“He’s poisoned.  What got Salem and Nate got a piece of him too.  He can see in the dark and his eyes flash red.”

You see, it’s important now that I stay incognito, I’m not so changed I need a cave to hunt in.

When She Thought of Him

There were days on end when she didn’t have to think of him at all.  Long summer days when she hid away in the shade where stillness invited the white tail and the fiery red fox.  The twilight evenings when she heard the greeting of her father as the hired hands drove off toward their supper. 

After the shove or taunt, she imagined herself with the older man who came at night.  He was the one who would cause envy in all those who sneered at her during the day.  He was the one who spoke to her gently, read poetry and didn’t like to dance.   She remembered events that made her happy but never happened.

There were days on end when she didn’t have to think of him at all.  Long summer days when she hid away in the shade where stillness invited the white tail and the fiery red fox.  The twilight evenings when she heard the greeting of her father as the hired hands drove off toward their supper.  When the cool started to settle in she dreaded the call to be sociable outside the need for church.

The whispered jeers and snarling looks of disdain from her peers would not have been so painful if they had not, in turn, been so hypocritically kind to her father.  Their kindness lightened his face with hope when invitations were sent but she refused to go.

“Mrs. Harper will think you rude; you didn’t accept her last invitation.”  She would go and in the prettiest dress but feel awkward and uncomfortable none the less.  She would sit as still as possible allowing her tea to cool or lemonade to grow warm.  She wouldn’t eat a thing for fear of looking more uncouth and gangly then feel the tears burn into her eyes knowing her father was disappointed.  So she thought of the older man who came at night.  He would walk by Mrs. Harper’s window and she would think that he was so handsome and some day she would be the envy of all the lovely girls when she walked by his side.

After such times away from home and books, and bubbling brooks, away from tracks in the snow and blankets of fallen leaves she would think of him.  She saw him in the fields right after harvest, standing alone among the stubbled stalks of corn.  She saw him late at night while the new moon hid in angles; he stood between the broad, tall barn and her lofty old farm house.  He stood and gazed up at her window and when she crept up to the glass to see if indeed he was there, he would not flinch or change expression but continue to stare.

When William only tipped his hat at her not seeing her, she would think of him, tall, angular and looking off into the distance.  When Tom’s smile turned into a laugh as she walked by she thought of him, standing just below her window.

Then one day her father sent her away to Chicago.  The move was sudden and unexpected.  He one day fired all of his hired hands and sent her to Chicago to learn.  Her grief was an agony and only once did she try to plead.  In the city, there was no time to think of him.  She had only time to learn how to set the table, order her meals in French and dance in shoes that pinched.

She had no time to remember and then one spring a gentle touch caused her amnesia regarding the white tail, the fiery red fox, the tracks in the snow and the blanket of multi-colored leaves at her feet.  She may have remained if not for a night at home again.  Smiling at her father, speaking to him in excited tones of what goes on in Chicago.  Asleep in an instant so glad to be home and suddenly awake, the old sadness about her.

He sat on the edge of her bed, broad-shouldered, angular and silent.  If she closed her eyes and willed herself asleep, she would return to the world of whirling seasons, high towers and smiling people.  Or she could open her arms up to him.

He had stayed with her when she was alone, so opening her arms to him she felt the alarm of bitter cold for only a moment and the soft contentment of returning home again.

Photo by m wrona on Unsplash

 

Old Things

or perhaps she was thinking of a long term lover who knew her moods and who knew she didn’t do well on rainy days.

She stood there without a coat and really, she needed one.  It was cold outside – not bitter mind you, but a wet cold.  The mist was chilling and when the bleak sun rays intermediately slipped from behind the heavy clouds, the light reflected coldly in the dripping moisture that clung to the bare tree limbs.  The sluggish, he’d almost say lazy rain semi-solidified upon the winter brittle tree limbs and bushes, pulling the branches down toward the ground. So he stood there and watched her and pondered; why would she be without a coat in the middle of the semi-freeze?

So he continued to watch, intrigued, despite his concern regarding her lack of forethought. He enjoyed watching women. She looked down at her feet and studied her brown, nondescript shoes with more solemn attention than they deserved.  She glanced up and he realized that oddly enough she smiled, in a sort of tired accepting fashion, at the long and bleak trail of the empty railroad tracks. He frowned in returned and glanced about for the person who must be teasing her — certainly someone must be — or perhaps she was thinking of someone.  A young child that acted out to perhaps cheer her on dreary afternoons or perhaps she was thinking of a long term lover who knew her moods and who knew she didn’t do well on rainy days. He peered about certain someone must have caused that Mona Lisa smile but the train depot was empty outside of her and him.

He kept his distance, tactically checked his chin for any roughness; a sign that he wasn’t careful enough this morning while shaving but found his chin faultless.  He didn’t understand the rage today to allow so much stubble on a man’s chin.  It was nothing new, chin stubble.  He remembered his grandfather, from the old country, German to the core, going a day or two without shaving, especially during harvest time.  However, no matter how tired the man was he wouldn’t go out socially without a good shave. Why young men thought that going about in public with what he reasoned was a harvester’s beard made them sexier or more intriguing to women, was beyond him.

He glanced over at the young woman again who was now just inside the depot, standing alone by the door. She was staring right at him. She ducked her head, embarrassed to be caught in the act of obvious assessment. Though she looked away, he tried to give the woman a half smile and a nod. Wasn’t he doing the same? Looking her over? He just didn’t get caught – he wasn’t embarrassed.

What was there to be embarrassed about? A sixty-something, thick glasses, his tie too wide for present style dictates, his sports coat was a good fifteen years old, not quite navy blue and his khaki pants were ironed – taboo. He knew when he reached his destination he would be the only man there, young, old or otherwise with a plaid shirt. He knew he looked neat in appearance which of course would make him appear fastidious and unattractive.

He took out his well ironed, white, cotton, ’kerchief and wiped lightly at his nose to hide a smile. He had no idea why he thought it was funny to appear as a fussy old man but suddenly it was funny.

“Excuse me?” Her voice was soft and he could tell it took a lot for her to approach him.

“Yes?”

“No one is at the ticket counter.” She turned to look at the vacant counter to confirm the obvious. He knew Mr. Mullins would be in the back making tea and spreading too much mayonnaise on his hard salami sandwich; a fact that he had to push out of his mind quickly for fear his disgust for Mr. Mullins and all things sandwich would show upon his face – and she would certainly misinterpret that. “I was wondering – do the trains run on time?”

“No, I’m afraid not. I do hope you are not trying to make a connection in the city.”

She smiled, almost it seemed in relief. “No, actually I’m not. I was just here to get away for awhile. I’m in no hurry to get back.”

“Ahh, you live there then.”

Her face became suddenly still, void of animation, and almost pasty. “Well, I work there.”

He could only nod, not knowing really how to take her odd reply. He wondered suddenly, with dread, if she was going to start telling him her life story. How she was alone in the world, working for next to nothing for a man who had everything and existing in a small garret apartment in a rather run down part of town.

But he felt his shoulders relax for she simply turned away and walked back to stare out of the window, watching the mist gather into pools of muddy water upon the sidewalk and along the tired tracks that never varied in direction since the day they were laid to accommodate the so few who used public transportation.

He looked about at the depot, not changed since sometime in the 1970s – and at that the only change was disconcerting. The railway had thought it best to do away with the long time wooden benches and replace them with spoon-like fiberglass seats that not even the most agile of hoodlums could slouch into a workable, relaxing sit-down. Most in the small town were outraged at the change and so the renovations stopped – the wood and glass of the depot were saved for prosperity. The benches? Most were saved and had places of honor in homes around the small town; his own front entrance sported a sanded down renovated bench – it glowed in shining glory there under soft lamps and amid walking sticks and umbrellas. Of course, no one sat on it any longer. Good company just wiped their feet and kept on toward his large living room – forgetting about the bench altogether.

Of course, there were the Smiths. They wanted two of the benches and insisted that the carvings and the overall wear and tear of the benches made them pieces of art. He snorted aloud at the memory. Checking himself, he glanced over at the young woman to see if he had offended her at all with his noise of disdain, obviously not, she didn’t even look in his direction.

Works of art indeed. He knew they had no intention of cleaning up the wooden benches while their copious amount of children and now grandchildren still charged about their house as if they were aboard Vice Admiral Halsey’s Enterprise, during the battle of Midway…

“I’m sorry to bother you again…”

He stood abruptly and she took a step back. He tried to smile but he knew that his attempt at trying to look friendly only made him come off as condescending so he tried to frown just a little as if the next words out of her mouth would tilt the world.

To his delight, she fought a genuine smile. “I was wondering, just how late does the train arrive? I thought of going over to the café for some coffee…”

He interrupted her. “OH, I’m afraid it maybe a little late for that. I think the train is nearly here. ”He was swelled with his own good luck. Mr. Mullins had come around the depot and was standing on the sodden wooden planks outside. He must have been notified that at last the errant train into town was coming ‘round the bend.

She turned following his glance past her. She flushed slightly and said “Oh. Well, I guess that’s what I get.”

He wasn’t quite sure how to respond to her – what sort of retribution had she received? He had only stated a fact and it certainly wasn’t an inconvenience to let her know the train was imminent; as a matter of fact the timing of the situation was wonderful, it reminded him of a Sherlock Holmes story but for the life of him he couldn’t remember the title.

She turned and seemed to wander away from him, rather than walk in any one direction. He cocked his head slightly; a habit his last lover found particularly annoying. He smiled to himself and wondered what that eminent and profound woman was doing with herself lately.

He heard the clatter of the slowing train and the low warning whistle. He filled his lungs, suddenly exuberant with the thought of the two-hour train ride, and a day and night in the city.  He had some shopping to do, then a late supper with one of his long time sorority friends. They planned to meet at their club, and though the dress code was a nuisance, he was looking forward to the all-male company the club offered. He liked women but only in small doses.

He turned and she was standing in the rain, huddled was more like it. He was instantly annoyed. Why on earth didn’t she stay in the station until the train had stopped and was ready for passengers? He shook his head but determined, he grabbed his umbrella and headed in her direction. He walked up to her and extended his deep, black umbrella over her.

“You could have stayed in the station…” she was obviously crying. “What on earth is wrong?”

“I don’t want to go.” Her voice was strained and hiccuped out her words. He wanted to run. Hand her the damned umbrella and run. She was young, probably sentimental and had heartbreaking thoughts of never seeing this tiny, little, quiet, peaceful, peering, scrutinizing, gossiping, town again.

“My dear young lady, I’ve lived here all of my life, you’re better off in the city and facing the heartbreak of leaving this antique encrusted little tourist town once a year on vacation rather than being tethered to it and all its gossiping politics for the rest of your life.” He heard Mr. Mullins clucking in the background and it was all he could do to keep from turning on the old man and glaring him into his grave. He turned back to the young woman, “What’s your name?”

“Sarah.”

“Mine’s Abraham, how do you do?”

And for the first time in his life, he saw a romantic glimmer of hope for she smiled through her tears, “I’ve always wanted someone to say that to me,” she said softly “but I don’t think your name is really Abraham.”

He looked hard at the simple, almost gray woman before him, young, her eyes red from crying and she needed a tissue for her nose. Her hair curled under the misting rain and the little bit of makeup she wore was blotted on her face. “My name is Nathaniel Barrett and I am the proverbial “Philadelphia Lawyer,” which has allowed me to retire early and work on only what interests me in the world of high finance. I hate romantic books, antique dealers, and the crushing academic weight of “women’s studies.”

“I’m Sarah Lewis, I’m a poet and essayist. I majored in women’s studies and I love anything old.”

He stood staring at her as the train spewed exhaust and clanked contently to a stop He smiled at the young woman without thinking how he must appear; “Pleased to meet you,” he said.

 

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Into Safety

Maybe some see already that her calm life was sailing blissfully into an evil maelstrom. 

Since being alone, she has been extremely busy.

She knew a woman, friends of hers, who were the same.  Extremely busy.  They sat down after work and read historical romances or went to movies by themselves.  They lived in the city, in small apartments that didn’t cost a fortune and rode the bus to the L and the L into the city proper and didn’t complain about the early rise because they didn’t have to drive in “all that traffic.”

She was like them, just like them an introvert with a busy schedule.  She joined a knit club with other introverts, men and women alike who told her where the best coffee shops were and the best nookish bookstores.  They would go out together and drink sherry once in a while just to compare notes.

After a long while of learning how to be alone; she liked it.  She liked her satellite friends who would be coming running if there was some sort of catastrophe, like a lost cat, or a pregnant sister.  They came because the catastrophes were few and far between and usually always brief.

Like all contentment however it slips past without any sounding alarm.  One evening rather than a predictable romance, she read “Jane Eyre.” Harmless enough and her friends encouraged her in the classics.  But the classic are dangerous books.  Why?  Because of the questions they pose.  The questions weren’t harmful by themselves:

“Who was president when Jane Eyre loved Edward Fairfax Rochester?”

“How old was the United States when Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth?”

“What did Freud have to say about Wuthering Heights?”

Well okay, the last one wasn’t so much a question that has much bearing on her journey but if one has some time on their hands it could make quite a dissertation.

Maybe some see already that her calm life was sailing blissfully into an evil maelstrom.  Could she have made an effort to stop?  Sure, and she did but questions beget questions.  If it was the best of times how could it be the worst?   That made no sense, on the quiet bus ride into work.    Besides if any sort of enlightenment ushers in the guillotine then perhaps we should take a closer look at the crusades.

If that makes no sense just know, the more she dug into her questions the deeper into history she sank.

Until she found him blinking up at her from the dark tunnel of conflicting sources and original sources.  The wind was howling a city of Chicago winter storm when their eyes met over thick tombs that the librarians twittered and fussed about whenever they were requested.

Her heart sank.  She had been trapped, for there he was running his fingers through his hair and with a perplexed look on his face.  She understood, the Enlightenment was sinking into anything but and that was a hard lesson.

She imagined him several times during her work day.  What if he appreciated German opera more than Italian?  What if he liked to travel to see the very place where Antoinette died and she simply wanted to take a visual tour.  What if he preferred French to Portuguese?  What happens to a man who thinks that Dickens actually wrote anything worth reading besides the “Pickwick Papers”? What if he preferred Adams over Jefferson, what then?

Her heart pound in her ears, when she realized that he would speak to her, talk to her and the quiet smiles and bumping into each other in the history sections, were done.

What happened to those nice quiet nights knitting and reading alone in snow driven Chicago?

Before he opened his mouth or give her the warm smile she had shared with him for many weeks her heart felt suddenly leaden.  She couldn’t do it again.  She couldn’t.  It wasn’t the quiet, it was the burden.  Life was too good to complicate it with true love.

She ducked quickly into the medieval histories of the Spanish.  She heard his footsteps slow and imagined his surprised face.  He walked slowly passed her and into Ancient Greece.

Read It Twice

Yes, he was going to reread a novel, that was a start.

He woke up one morning with the idea that premarital sex was indeed wrong.  What would his life have been if getting a woman into his bed also included signing an oath in front of clergy and family that he was committed to just one woman?

The idea was outrageous, but he did feel guilt, on this particular morning, when he realized that premarital sex was the only type of sex he had ever had.  So, the startling conclusion awoke with him that morning which prompted obvious questions.  If premarital sex had not been so easy if condemns and birth control had not been so readily available what would committed sex have been like?

He wasn’t a moralist but if a sane man couldn’t think of another reality what was the world coming to?

So, he stretched deep and felt his muscles tense and then release.  He concentrated on the thick, cool sheet that draped neatly about him and encased his king-sized bed then thought of the different lovers he had known.  There was one who would want to curl up next to him and talk until they both fell asleep.  Another who insisted on watching him fall asleep and yet another who curled up by herself and didn’t want to be touched which made his heart hurt even to think of it all these years after.  There were those who were loud and those who even cried and one or two who had the sexiest moan he had ever heard.  Each had their own diabolic quality.

Each had their own diabolical fault as well.   A clinging lover was simply too much.  By the very nature of the act, you had to put some distance between yourself and your lover for at least a few minutes.  Wanting to fall asleep in a quasi-pool of love wasn’t something he was willing to face night after night.  He also didn’t want someone watching him sleep.  He felt that she was gloating over him, that she somehow felt smug after another strong climax.  It was creepy.  Then there was the one who curled up by herself.  She looked so small and helpless over there on the other side of his large bed.  He couldn’t remember falling asleep that night, and with a pang, he remembered that she wasn’t there the next morning.  His one and only one-night stand.

All the rest hung around for a month or two.  There was one who lasted a year.  They had met at a New Year’s Eve party and parted at the very next New Year’s Eve party.

He sat up suddenly with an idea.  Committed sex would be like reading the same good book over and over.  He had read a few novels but had never read one over and over.    It would be like reading one of the great novels of Sir Walter Scott.  Think of the discoveries; the lines he’d read over, the nuance of sound and cadence that escaped him with the first reading.  It would be like knowing what to expect and discovering he had read over or misread something for years.

Yes, he was going to reread a novel, that was a start.

“What are you thinking about?”

She walked in with nothing but his shirt on and a copy of East of Eden in her hand.  He realized that his idea had come from his latest partner in “this is getting too easy.”  She was a lit student and had the strongest thighs he could remember on a woman.

“Is that novel any good, would you read it twice?”

“I never do anything twice.”  Her smile was diabolical.

Hollow

She knew that going wasn’t necessarily allowed.

She could not stand another moment in her small apartment – not with the carnival going on.  The carnival had been in town for three days – tonight would be its last.  She thought, with regret, of the workers waking up on a Sunday as she walked to church, silently unhinging their mechanical rides and sweeping up the small pieces of litter that escaped the trash receptacles.  She did not want to hear the squeak and rub of peopleless rides before she had a chance to enjoy a Saturday night at the carnival.

The town welcomed the carnival every year but she could never attend – the carnival was too worldly for her family – still was, but her family need not know she found the lights, the noise, the smells so fascinating. Besides she was on her own – she needed to make decisions on her own. She would be up early in the morning and get to church early, but tonight she had to know what the carnival was all about

She hesitated at the gate, five dollars was a lot of money to walk around a carnival.

“Half price, half price now until we close down.”

A sign she felt and so put her money down.

She would simply be careful with her milk and eggs – they could last the entire week.

She ducked her head shyly as a gust of wind pulled and fluttered the canopy at the entrance and the ticket taker gave her, what she thought was a wicked grin.

She hurried along the carnival grounds and listened to the sounds of young children shouting with delight as the mechanical rides twirled black against the red-orange sunset sky.  A small family of four walked ahead of her laughing and sharing pink cotton candy. She smiled at their compact and secret ways of knowing each other; the dip and sway of the candy making its way to sticky fingers all, in turn, the smiles upon each face.

She was careful to stay away from the rides but watched the Ferris-Wheel glided several times around against the then darkened sky.  The last of the summer warmth curled about her in a soft breeze that lifted her hair in a gently swaying lift that seemed to keep rhythm with the music being played.

“Do you want to ride?”

His voice was deep and directly behind her. She jumped and turned, then stepped back.  He was tall and slender and she was sure he had some sort of makeup on his face. His eyes were startling brown, golden flecked and when he smiled at her and tilted his head she thought for a moment that they turned red.

“You’ve been watching that wheel for some time. I own this little place – I’ll make sure you have a ride.”

“No thank-you.”

“Why not? This is our last night.  We’ve done very well – I don’t think we will miss the price of one Ferris-Wheel ticket.”

He glided her past smiling and paying customers and walked her up the back stairs, where weary workers, not much older than she, dressed in black and white shirts, stepped aside as they walked by. “She’s next,” and she went inside a small cage seat that swung precariously back and forth and she was lifted up into the summer night sky.

She came back down and he was still there and laughing at her frightened face. “Look straight out, not down, child.”

So she did and gasped at the sight.  Her small town was all alight. She saw the church steeple, the town square and felt she was level with the flag on the courthouse tundra. She twisted around carefully not wanting the seat on which she sat to swing too precariously – yes, just there but barely, the small farm where she was sure her family sat upon the screened in porch.

She swung down and felt her heart lift, she was sure that she could fly forward to whatever direction she chose.

He was standing there again, now smiling and she was lifted away gazing at his countenance.  This time she stopped at the very top.  She tried not to think of the small summer breeze slowly pushing the wheel backward and forward.  She closed her eyes the rest of the ride until she felt herself arrive within the well-lit exit.  A tired young man opened the gate and allowed her to step away unaided.

He was at the bottom of the steps. “Are you glad you went?”

“Yes,” she gasped and felt herself turn red to the tips of her ears and down her neck.

“Come I’ll buy you some cotton candy, looks like you could use some.”

“No, no please, I don’t really care for it. We had a cotton candy machine at church and I thought the stuff too sweet.”

He laughed aloud and she jumped, then smiled not comfortable but liking his laugh all the while.

“What’s your name,” he asked.

“Laurel,” she whispered feeling ashamed – this was no proper introduction.

“Well, Laurel, would you like to see the two-headed chickens or the trapeze act in the big top?”

She looked down and whispered no thank you and hoped he would believe her.

“Well then,” he said soft and low, “why don’t you let me make sure no one follows you home.”

She looked up into his face, somehow kind, somehow not.  He seemed without age and her heart pounded in her ears and her hands clenched around her waist.  She liked his stare and was very afraid.

“But you would be following me home.”

His face softened in the green, then yellow, then red glowing lights.  Touching his fingertip to her soft cheek, she felt a shiver deep down. He had found a hollow place within her brief existence.  She knew he would take and keep it.