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THE FINAL CHAPTERS
Although Jade ultimately thrived during her years in high school she’d had to surmount some pretty tough obstacles along the way. She set expectations for herself and others that were difficult to meet, but having set those expectations she felt honor-bound to succeed where others failed. She’d made some serious mistakes but wouldn’t turn back on a given decision for fear she’d be marked as wishy-washy or a failure of some sort. She knew other kids who’d lost a parent or experienced some other form of tragedy and, as a result, they became total screw-ups.
It didn’t take her long after moving in with Jolee’s family, at sixteen, to realize the move wasn’t the answer to all her loneliness, fear and confusion. Jade knew her mom didn’t understand what was driving her from home, and it wasn’t something Jade really understood clearly enough to explain it. What she did know was she was seeking something solid and safe. She called it “a normal life.”
Jade had known Jolee Page and been a regular visitor at her house since she was in the fourth grade. Jolee had always been a slow learner and Jade was asked to be her peer teacher to help her with science and math, areas in which Jade excelled. Jade soon discovered Jolee was an out of control, wild-woman of a kid who acted as if all of life was a joke.
The day the teacher paired them up for the frog dissection project Jolee said, “Hey, I get you for my partner? You’re ‘I.Q. girl!’ May I call you IQ? I mean, like, you know, I-Q-ick. Not I-C-K, ick. How’s this? IQY? Can I call you IQY?”
“’I.Q. girl?’ — ‘Icky’? What?”
“Oh, yeah, well it’s not an insult or anything. Oh, sorry — you probably thought — No, Jade. No. It’s a compliment!”
“A compliment? Hmm.”
“Yes, girl. Don’t you know? People know you’re the smartest kid in the class. ‘Bar none’.” Jolee laughed. It was clear she amused herself immensely. She repeated “bar none” because she thought it sounded so funny. She made her voice low and said the words forcefully. “High IQY Bar None. Get it?” She poked Jade in the ribs in a tickle of a gesture, then bent over laughing. Jade couldn’t help laughing at this silliness.
“Sure, okay. Call me Icky if you want. I’ve never had a nickname and, hey, if it makes you happy — and, it apparently, does.”
“Well then, that’s just swell! Icky it is! You can call me Dumas if you want. That’s French for “dumb ass.” She laughed, smacked her hand down on the lab table, took a seat on a stool, picked up the tweezers and posed herself in a fencing position.
Jade laughed and climbed up on the stool beside her. “Think I’ll just call you Jolee for the time being, if you don’t mind.”
“Suit yourself Ick.” She extended her hand and grasping Jade’s hand in hers said, “Good luck teachin’ the dumb kid.”
“Hey. Don’t.” Jade said.
“Don’t what? What did I do?” She crossed her eyes and put one end of a small white straw from the table up her left nostril.
Jade laughed and pulled the straw from her new friend’s nose. “Don’t put yourself down. That’s what. I’ll help you but you have to promise not to put yourself down. Deal?”
“Shake on it?”
They shook on it just as their science teacher delivered a very naked looking dead frog and said, “You two will be sharing this.”
The girls looked at each other and said in unison, “Yum, yum!” They giggled and slapped each other a high five.
By the end of class Jolee had her new friend IQY in stitches. Together they’d named the frog Dianna. Jolee made little naked Dianna cavort, sing and dance like a Las Vegas strip act, positioning her little limbs to cover what Jolee referred to as Dianna’s “naughty parts.”
Jolee sometimes teased Jade about how brilliant she was but there was more admiration in the teasing than anything else. Jolee was a refreshing counter to Jade’s perpetual vigilance and diligence. Jolee’s affection for Jade inspired her to try harder to be a person Jade could respect. And though she did try harder she never let Jade’s rules for proper behavior inhibit any fun she might want to have, however reckless.
Jolee’s parents were thrilled she’d taken up with the likes of Jade rather than surrounding herself with friends who shared her lack of concern for grades and her desire for non-stop partying. Mr. and Mrs. Page were a hard-working, blue-collar couple with conservative and practical ways. It was clear Jolee kept the upper hand in the household by joking her way around and through every dilemma.
Jolee’s friends and Jade’s friends were not the same people. Jolee’s friends when she and Jade first met were pretty much the kids she knew from the Lutheran church she and her family attended and the kids who lived on the streets surrounding her block. Her friends were not the kids who played T-ball and soccer and attended “brain-clubs” — Jolee’s words. Her friends were the ones who, many of them from age seven or eight, sneaked smokes from cigarettes around behind the neighborhood garages and raided their parents’ liquor cabinets for small sips that made their eyes water and took their breath away.
Jade’s friends, according to Jolee, were a bunch of nerds and goody two shoes. When Jolee particularly wanted Jade to go along with some less than proper behavior she’d taunt her with a rhyme she said was from the movie “Grease” but it might have been something she’d heard her mom and aunt using to tease each other.
Either way, she’d put her hands on her hips, bend forward at the waist and lean into Jade’s face and in a loud, singsong voice cry,
“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew. We don’t go with boys who do. Our class won a Bible!”
Nothing could persuade Jade, mature and responsible beyond her years — never mind it was the result of her supreme need for a sense of control — that smoking, drinking and sneaking out where your parents couldn’t find and rescue you, was fun.
Jade and Jolee were an odd twosome in some ways but they loved and trusted each other as they did no one else. Jolee’s mom and dad were pretty old fashioned and neither girl felt they could talk to Jolee’s parents about their changing bodies or the new feelings they had for boys.
They always went to Jade’s house to discuss such important matters. Mostly they went there when Phoebe wasn’t home. Jade’s bedroom was a favorite talking spot for both of them. After her dad died Jade decided she wanted a big change in her bedroom. She no longer liked the memories associated with the patterns and colors of her little girl style room. She decided she wanted daffodil yellow walls, red and blue curtains on the windows and an emerald green covered down comforter and a — and this was the best thing of all — a King Size water bed, big enough for sleep-overs with two or three girlfriends and the far from identical twin Cabbage Patch dolls she swore she’d never abandon.
The dolls reminded her of Jolee and herself. One had Jade’s dark hair and brown eyes and wore little horn-rimmed glasses, like Jade wore before she got contacts in the sixth grade, and the other had reddish brown hair and turquoise eyes like Jolee’s.
One day soon after the girls started seventh grade, and were sprawled on their stomachs facing each other across Jade’s bed, Jolee said,
“How come neither of us has ‘IT’ yet?”
“’IT?” You mean …” Jade took the glasses off the face of the bespectacled doll and put them on her own nose. Peering at Jolee over the tops of the tiny glasses she spelled out the proper scientific term, “How come we haven’t begun our m-e-n-s-e-s? How come we aren’t men-stru-a-ting?” She enunciated each syllable and suppressed a laugh trying to sound serious.
Jolee shoved a pillow in her friend’s face, rolled off the bed and lifted her blouse to examine herself in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. Jade rolled off the bed and joined Jolee in the mirror.
“Should we be able to tell by our breasts or anything? Or, hair on our you know where’s?”
“Well, Mom said I’m likely to start any day now. Moms and daughters are sometimes sort of alike, she said, about when they start their periods.”
“Oh yeah? When did she say? How old was she?” Now Jolee had unzipped the fly to her jeans and appeared to be absentmindedly counting her few sparse pubic hairs.
“Thirteen, she told me. Just like us. I mean, like we are now.”
“Yikes! What else did she say?”
“Oh, you know my mom! She’s been teaching me about ‘human sexuality’ since before I could say ‘human sexuality’ which must have been almost before I was two since, as you know, I was a precocious little item. Jolee! Stop doing that!” Jade slapped Jolee’s hands away from her pants, turned her around and zipped up her fly and snapped the waist on her jeans.
Jolee went over and fell backward on the bed and set the waves in motion. She looked up at the glow in the dark stars on the ceiling. It was late afternoon and though it was a gray fall day, the room was still too light for stars.
Jade came and sat down next to her, crossed her legs Indian style and put Joyce, her look alike doll in her lap. Both girls rocked back and forth on their hips to keep the bed in motion as they talked.
“My mother always says,” here Jade adopted a high nasal tone nothing like the sound of her mother’s voice but it was the way she always mimicked Phoebe.
“’Jade, the human body is a gift God gives. It is designed for beauty, utility and pleasure.’ She told me to be proud of my body and never to think of it as shameful or dirty, which, I always wondered, why would I? I mean, why would she think I would know either way if it was shameful or dirty or whatever?”
“Well, no duh, IQY, I mean all that pee and poop, then bleeding — I mean, yuck! Not to mention what I won’t mention — slimy, gooey…”
“Jolee!” Jade screamed and held a pillow over Jolee’s mouth to muffle her but she just talked louder with a mouth full of pillow. “Shut up!”
“…thhsex and thhsperm — wieners and hot dog bunsth, and…” Jolee pushed the pillow away and climbed on Jade knocking her over and putting the pillow on her face she climbed up and sat on Jade’s head. They were both laughing hard, holding their stomachs, rolling over and under each other and squealing. When they calmed down they just lay, winded, sprawled on their backs on the bed making incoherent noises like loud sighs that came through breathless laughs.
They turned their heads to look at each other and at the same moment said, “Hungry?”
“Yeah, Ick — race ya…” They tore off the bed and got stuck together for a moment in the door then pushed each other out of the way until, finally reaching the kitchen first, Jolee threw her weight against the refrigerator blocking Jade’s access.
Jade folded her arms across her chest saying, “All right then. If that’s the way you want it.” She opened the cupboard across from the refrigerator and set a bag of nacho Doritos, a box of Ritz crackers and a bright orange packet of Reese’s Pieces on the counter top.
“I give,” said Jolee as she opened the refrigerator door and retrieved two cans of Dr. Pepper setting them along side Jade’s snacks. She leaned back inside the refrigerator and came back out waving a limp asparagus stalk left over from last night.
“Hey IQY, got a question for ya.”
“Uh huh. What? Shoot!”
“Why do you suppose they call these things asparaguys?”
“Hmm. Why?” Jade said, holding Jolee’s hand away to keep the soggy stalk from her cheeks and chin where Jolee was determinedly trying to drag the slimy thing.
All of a sudden Jolee curled and folded the asparagus and stuffed the whole thing in her mouth at once, then answered, see-food style, “Causthh they look like dicksth! Dicksth — get it? Aspara – ‘guys? Dicks?” She laughed, spitting green in Jade’s direction.
Jade laughed and carried the chips, crackers and candy to the living room and turned on the TV. “Time for Oprah.” She said and tossed herself onto the couch.
* * *
It wasn’t two weeks later that both Jolee and Jade started their periods and on the exact same day. Jolee started hers during study hall when Jade was in Spanish, and had to go to the school nurse for a pad. On her way back from the nurses office she went by Jade’s class, knocked on the door and told Senora Cornejo there was an emergency and she needed to talk to Jade right away. Senora Cornejo said she’d give Jade a message because she was in the middle of a test.
“Okay, mucho gracias then…” Then Jolee said in a whisper so loud the whole class heard her and lifted their heads, “… just tell her I got ‘IT’”
“IT?” said Senora Cornejo.
Jolee leaned in closer, cupped her hand over Senora Cornejo’s ear and said, “Would ya, pour favore, tell my friend Icky I’m on the rag?” She turned and headed back in the direction of study hall.
When Jade and Jolee met up later in gym class it turned out Senora Cornejo hadn’t delivered her message about “the rag” but that the whole class had heard she got “IT” and Jolee, of course, knew what “IT” meant.
Jade discovered blood on her underpants when she used the bathroom after gym class.
They went to Jade’s house after school and Phoebe prepared a celebration dinner making one of Jade’s favorite dishes, Greek lemon chicken with spinach fettuccine alfredo. She served them Dr. Pepper in her best wine glasses. The three of them toasted to “Life and our wonderful, womanly bodies!”
Later Jade told Jolee, “Mom says it’s because we spend so much time together. She says we’re like sisters and that lots of times mothers and sisters and even women who work together all the time, have the same menstrual cycles.”
Even after Jade got her license and moved in with Jolee’s family and showed little enthusiasm for time at home with Phoebe, still, in matters relating to love and sex, Jade could be counted on to feel safe and secure in her mother’s care.
When Jade moved to the Page’s she told herself it was because Jolee’s home and family represented “a normal life.” Normal, as far as Jade was concerned was two parents, two children — Jolee had an older sister, Pammy — two cats in the yard and two cars in the garage. That she might be stepping into a situation where she would be required to ‘parent’ Jolee and would have no one near to ‘parent’ her, was not an idea that crossed her mind.
She was proud her teachers and the other kids’ parents regarded her as so very smart and responsible. She feared letting them down. She feared losing their admiration. These fears trapped her. If she confided to these admirers how small, afraid and lonely she sometimes felt, they might withdraw their faith in her. She didn’t know it, but she set a trap for herself that didn’t allow her anyone to look up to. She denied herself the right to be someone’s needful child. It was a pattern she would not easily recognize but its effects could be disastrous.
“I wish I could just skip this whole graduation mess and just have it all over with. I’m sick of being hassled, Mom!” Jade sat on the bed opposite Jolee’s, her face covered with mint scented facial mask the color of avocado and talked into a 1950’s style pink Princess phone. She held the phone to her shoulder with her right ear, keeping her hands free to examine her feet, which she considered to be her best physical feature. She clipped her toenails. Her hair was wrapped, turban style in a white towel.
Jade hadn’t talked to her mother for two weeks, though she knew Phoebe left numerous messages and even mailed her a little note on a card she’d drawn a pretty white tulip on. Though the message had been sweet and respectful enough, Jade supposed — It said, “Thinking about you lots, honey bunch. Know you’re busy but, shouldn’t we talk about graduation?” — Still, the very sweetness of it grated on her. She tore it up and threw it away.
She wouldn’t have been on the phone with Phoebe now if she’d been able to avoid it. Jolee’s mom answered the phone and practically sang Jade’s name as she approached her with the news that Phoebe was on the phone. Jade didn’t want to seem rude or let on to Mrs. Page that she was pointedly avoiding her mother. Plus, she didn’t have much of an excuse. She was just sitting there on the bed clipping her toenails. What was she going to say? It was pretty clear Mrs. Page thought she’d be happy to hear from her mom. “Shows how much she knows,” Jade thought as she picked up the phone.
“What’s up, Mom?” she said, her tone conveying some urgency as in, “I’m pretty busy here, so spit it out, okay?”
“Hi Pumpkin! Gosh. Can’t believe I reached you. You know how long it’s been since we’ve talked? And, when did I last see you? Feels like you already left for college.”
“Okay, Mom. I get your point. I’m getting this daughter thing wrong again, right? So what else is new?”
“What do you mean, Jade? I’m just …”
“Just what, Mom? Just what? Oh, let me think. Hmmm — Maybe… Oh, I got it! Just being overly critical and judging everything I do? Oh, yeah. Yeah, that’s it!”
“I guess I called at a bad time. I’ll let you go in just a second, but I feel I should be doing something, you know, about graduation. I’m getting stuff in the mail from school — about invitations, year-end party stuff. Jason Priestly’s mom called from the Senior’s parent committee…”
“Mom, Mom … Just stop, alright?” That’s when Jade said she just wished she could skip the whole mess.
Phoebe was quiet on the other end of the line.
“What’s the matter, Mom?” Jade sounded like a combination of contrite and indignant. “What did I say now? You’re mad aren’t you?”
“Oh, Jade. I don’t know what I am. But, no, I’m not mad. Confused, for sure. I just want you to know I’m here for you. I want to do for graduation whatever you want me to do. I’m having a heck of a time guessing what that might be.”
“Well, if you really want to help me, just stay out of it. I’ll handle it. Besides, Jolee just found out she can’t graduate this year. Ouch! Dammit!”
“I cut my toe, Mom! That’s what!,” Jade yelled into the phone and slamming the receiver in place, dissolved in tears. She unraveled her turban and covered her green face with the damp towel.
“Okay, Mom,” she said into the towel and of course, since she’d hung up on her mother, completely out of earshot of anyone who might hear her despair and be able to help, “Here’s what I want, if you want to know so bad! I want a normal life!” She rocked and sobbed alone on the bed in this room she tried to call her own, in a house that wasn’t her home at all.
“I want a normal life! I want my mom and dad, my grandparents, aunts and uncles to know just what to do without my having to say anything. I just want a normal life to happen! Like that!” She lowered the towel, snapped her fingers and said again, “Just — like — that!”
She rolled off the bed and shut herself in the bathroom. She scrubbed the green from her face and lifted her head to look in the mirror. She saw there the red and tear streaked face of a little girl who needed her mommy.
Jade finished up in the bathroom, got dressed and decided she’d call her mom back from the pay phone at Dean Parkway. She’d invite her to go for a walk.
After Jade hung up on her, Phoebe slid down the wall and sat for a long time on the kitchen floor under the phone. She put her head in her hands and wracked her brain for answers. Lately it was always the same question, “How can I be a mother to a child who won’t let me near?”
She decided the question was best pondered on a walk around Lake of the Isles. She went to the bathroom, ran a quick brush through her hair and took her Adidas off the closet floor to put them on. She didn’t hear the phone ring after she closed the back door behind her and headed for the car. She stopped at the McDonald’s drive through for an iced tea on her way to the lake.
* * *
The lake had only been clear of ice for a week or two but it was a day that carried a scent of coming spring despite the barren trees and brown, winter-trampled grass that lined the path Phoebe walked. She sniffed the spring scent deep and filled her lungs hoping something like renewal would inhabit her heart and mind.
She decided she would simply have to take the bull by the horns and do what she knew was right as the mother of a senior girl graduating from high school. She would order graduation invitations, write and submit a poetic blurb along with a favorite childhood picture of Jade to be published in the school yearbook and just go ahead and make sure none of the essentials of graduation fell through the cracks in case, at the last minute, Jade, as she so often could be counted on to do, did an about-face and wanted all the pomp and circumstance just the way all her friends were planning.
She finished her solitary walk around the lake and went home her spirits somewhat buoyed by her plan of action. Always, these pondering and planning sessions involved self-counsel about the importance of letting go all those matters over which she had no control. She remembered in church they always said, “Let go and let God.” She thought that was maybe one of the AA sayings too. It was, of course, another of those things so much easier said than done.
When she got home she found Jade’s message on the answering machine.
“Hi, Mom. It’s me. Just thought I’d give you a call and see if you wanted to walk the lake. Guess I missed you, though. Well. Too bad. Can’t say I didn’t try. Love you.”
Over the next few weeks Phoebe made sure everything was in order. She wrote to Jade to let her know she’d ordered announcements and plenty of stamps. She took care of inviting all the essential relatives and friends of family and offered to address the announcements to anyone Jade wanted to invite or inform. She asked Jade if she would like to have a party or, perhaps a special family luncheon at a favorite restaurant. She enclosed a check for $200 in case a new dress was required for the occasion.
When Jade got her mother’s letter she called to say thank you and told her mom the luncheon idea sounded good to her. All traces of the earlier animosity were absent from her voice. She said so many of her friends were having big parties and open houses and she thought it would be nice to be free to attend rather than having to host something of her own.
As it turned out, Jolee finagled a way to graduate with Jade after all. Jade wore a golden ribbon carrying an honors medal around her neck and her graduation cap had a special tassel indicating she was top in her class. The luncheon was sedate but pleasurable with Karen, Janet, Jolee, Phoebe and Jade in attendance.
That summer Jade worked at the park daycamp again during the day and, in the evenings she took training at the vocational school to prepare her as an Emergency Medical Technician. She wanted to work on the EMT crew at Cornell once she started school out east.
Phoebe didn’t see a lot of her daughter the summer before she left for college but most of the times they spent together were essentially tension free. Phoebe had learned to keep a very loose hold on Jade. She could only hope Jade would take it as a sign of trust, respect and love rather than laziness, lack of concern or, worse, abandonment.
She offered a weekend camping trip, a girl’s night out at a comedy club, a Sunday afternoon picnic and canoe ride at Lake Calhoun. Jade politely declined each invitation but often called later to offer a counter invitation of one sort or another.
It seemed to Phoebe none of the times spent together allowed the circumstances necessary for Jade to confide in her. More often than not Phoebe would be included along with other friends of Jade’s. Though not the kind of communion Phoebe longed for, these situations provided the opportunity for Phoebe to observe her daughter’s poise and grace in the company of others. It gave her great comfort to see her daughter surrounded by loving, admiring, appreciative friends. She told herself it wasn’t so important to be her daughter’s source of confidence and support. It was only important that Jade was happy and knew she was loved.
“This seat taken?” Jade dropped her red pack on the floor. She addressed her question to a girl/woman who was, it appeared, pretending to read through her college orientation materials.
“No, g’head.” The woman scooted a little closer to the wall and pulled her own pack closer but didn’t look up to acknowledge Jade.
Jade sat on her pack like she was sitting on a big rock. She leaned forward, elbows on thighs, hands clasped between her legs. She looked at the reading woman and said, “I’m Jade Thorpe, who are you?”
The woman talked as if to the sheaf of papers on the floor in front of her, and still not looking at Jade, said, “I, uh, I’m Jill Becker.”
“Oh. Hi Jill! Nice to meet you. Where you from?”
“Uh, listen Jade, I’m tryin’ to read here. Can you find somebody else to play ‘let’s get acquainted’ with?”
Jade’s face got hot and she feared she would burst into tears right then and there. Instead, she got up and moved her stuff as far away from anyone else as practical and took out her own sheaf of papers to bury her face in.
Everyone in the freshman class at Cornell was expected to spend a week in a survival camp type orientation. It was a week of adventure that included backpacking, canoeing and rock-climbing in the Adirondacks. Jade looked forward to meeting her classmates and anticipated the survivor week as a sort of summer’s end vacation. She assumed the experience would be well coordinated, carefully structured toward some laudable goal for entering college students and that the leadership would bring maturity and common sense along for the trip. As so often was the case, Jade’s expectations were disappointed.
Arriving students were ushered, mid-afternoon, into the commons area of the largest dormitory on campus. At tables marked with the letters of the alphabet, students were asked to produce proof they were, in fact, entering Cornell freshmen. Once past the table barricade they were simply pointed in the direction of a spacious room where the few chairs were filled with the first freshmen in. The only thing to assume was that the rest of them were expected to either sit directly on the floor or on the one and only, regulation size pack they’d been allowed to bring along on the excursion.
Jade, ever punctual and wanting to get off to a good start in her new life, arrived on campus just as the doors to Bailey Hall, the largest dorm on the Cornell Campus, were unlocked to allow her and her fellow freshmen to enter. She wasn’t the only punctual one, though and was nearly crushed by the students pushing ahead of her in their haste, presumably, to get started on the great orientation adventure.
Just inside the double entry doors and guarding the expanse of carpeted space beyond, a row of alternating men and women in red Lacoste-type shirts with a white Cornell insignia on the breast sat in folding chairs at metal tables. It was the kind of set up Jade remembered from the times she went with her mother or father to vote at the fire station. Taped to the front of each table were lettered signs written in magic marker on loose-leaf paper.
Extricating herself from the crush of freshmen around her Jade righted herself, tucked her hair behind one ear and approached letters Q-T.
“Name?” A woman with a head of dry, choppy-cut, salt and pepper gray hair and wearing glasses with lenses that looked to Jade to be at least four inches square and a half inch thick, examined the alphabetized contents of a cardboard box in front of her. Jade let her eyes scan the row of letter marked tables and saw that the men and women attending cardboard boxes all wore the same dour expressions on faces that looked like an assortment of her least favorite remembered Sunday school or grade school teachers.
“Name?” the woman repeated into her cardboard box.
Jade wasn’t sure the woman was addressing her at first and wondered, when she lifted her head and repeated the question “name?” a third time, if she could even see her. Her eyes looked tiny and far away through the thick glasses.
“Oh, oh. Me?” Jade, looked to either side of her and behind and realized it was certain the woman was talking to her. “Silly, sorry — um — Jade. I mean, Thorpe. My name is Jade Thorpe.” She leaned closer to the woman who now bent over the box and fingered glossy folders in section T.
Mrs. Q-T handed a thick red folder to Jade, pointed to the room beyond and said, “Just find a place to sit somewhere and look this over. It’ll answer all your questions. Next!” she looked around Jade and yelled this final word in the unnecessarily loud voice of a mean Sunday school teacher.
That’s when Jade approached the girl who’d been so rude to her, then determined to pull in her flanks and tend to herself as best she could. She pulled a sheet of paper from her folder and learned the students wouldn’t be put together with their small groups for travel until early the next morning. She couldn’t believe they were all expected to stay in some kind of a lock down from now until tomorrow.
Jade found directions in her orientation papers to a bathroom and a place to unroll her sleeping bag. She thanked her lucky stars she’d remembered to bring a book to read, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, and brought a journal to record her first impressions of college life.
At six o’clock a tower of pizzas was delivered and a kid came in with cases of soda and tossed cans in the direction of the students outstretched hands. She put two pieces of pizza on a paper plate, managed to catch a Dr. Pepper then found a corner and zipped herself into her bag. She amused herself for a time watching the apparent feeding frenzy of these new students, most who, she imagined, were accustomed to lives of privilege and plenty.
A few kids came in as late as nine-thirty that night and seemed to receive even colder reception than the students, like Jade, who arrived earlier in the day. Jade couldn’t believe no introductions were made or activities scheduled at all that first night. She longed for the familiarity of home. Usually quite gregarious in these situations, Jade surprised herself with how shy and small she felt. Other than the exchange of an occasional smile of shared misery with this or that other lonely, scared student, she kept to herself.
At ten o’clock one of the Sunday school teachers entered the room and told the students the next day would start early so she was going to turn out the light now.
“Get some sleep.” She said as she flicked the switch and left the room.
It had been a long day Jade was grateful for the dark. She cried quietly into the flannel shirt she’d rolled under her head for use as a pillow. Finally, in the dark, she found a pen and felt her way to writing these words in her journal.
“I want my Mommy!”
* * *
She slept hard. When morning came a crew of robust, intelligent looking young people dressed in red and white Cornell sweatshirts appeared. Jade guessed them to be in their mid to late twenties and pegged them for the angels of mercy they proved to be. Each identified the twenty students they’d been assigned to lead, gave them name badges, said “Good morning. May I offer you breakfast in bed?” and individually served each freshman a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage links and a croissant kept warm in Styrofoam carry out containers. Some of the students were Vegan’s so they were served tofu scramble with soy sausages. The crew also handed out little plastic cups of orange or apple juice and offered hot coffee and tea.
Jade’s group would have two leaders, one woman, and one man. Miranda and Jack. Once introductions were made and Jade learned the woman she’d greeted the day before was in a different group entirely, her spirits improved significantly. The students were even permitted a final shower before departing for the week of primitive conditions.
Camaraderie, non-existent the night before, appeared like magic along with the smiling faces of these servants in red and white and the food they delivered to the hands of the frightened and lonely men and women.
After breakfast and showers the students were escorted to the appropriate buses. Miranda and Jack led the twenty freshmen men and women in songs and activities designed to help them learn each others names and a little bit about their lives before they became Cornell students. The bus trip was four hours long. They stopped to set up camp on the banks of Cedar River just east of the southern peaks of the Adirondacks. By the time they unloaded and built a fire to prepare dinner Jade had forgotten her despair of the night before.
Her next journal entry was exactly one week later after returning to campus to meet her roommate, Becka Benson. Both Becka’s mother and father accompanied her to campus. Jade’s UPS boxes hadn’t arrived from home yet so she only had the few things she’d brought for the orientation trip to put away. That only took minutes and now it was nearing dinnertime. She’d spent the intervening hours listening to Becka whine to her parents who would whine and console back, referring to Becka as “Precious” while they tried to talk her into or out of whatever she did or didn’t ask for. Jade, listening to this endless, high-pitched banter concluded Becka’s parents were completely clueless that they’d overstayed their welcome by a long shot. Jade, sitting on her bunk attempting to read further in Angle of Repose, thought then flung ungracious thoughts and aimed them like hard pellets in the direction of Becka and her parents.
“Want to come with us to dinner, Jade?” Becka almost chirped the words and Jade silently prayed chirping and whining weren’t — “please God” — the only tones her voice came in.
“Ahhh, ahhh, no thanks, Becka, I, uh, I was just going to, uh…” Jade couldn’t think of any excuse to save her. She looked from Becka’s face to Mr. Benson’s face to Mrs. Benson’s face. It was clear they all wanted an answer and they wanted it to be “yes.” Apparently they were as nervous about Jade’s suitability to room with “Precious” as Jade was about Becka’s suitability.
“We’re going to Pizza John’s!” Mrs. Benson said it as if this were enough to convince any fool with a gourmet appetite to hop to and rush toward the prize.
Jade closed her book and set it beside her on the bed. She looked at her legs as they did the right thing in spite of her head and aimed her feet in the direction of the floor. She stood and said, “Thanks. That’s nice. I’ll come.” She was barefoot and wanted to pee and comb her hair before going out. She noticed they were all three of them frozen in position, watching her.
She lifted a shoe and one foot and hopping around on one leg said, “Oh, um, why don’t you go on ahead. I’ll catch up. Okay?” As soon as they were out the door Jade took the opportunity to pull her journal from under her bed pillow and make the second entry of her college life.
Again, she wrote, “I want my Mommy!”
The first day and night in the dorm with her new room mate proved to be just another tough, but in the larger scheme of things, momentary transition that contrasted sharply with the days to follow. Jade quickly got caught up in a demanding schedule of classes. She made friends easily, got the job she hoped for on the emergency squad for campus and joined a student action council where she was quickly voted chair of the campus events committee.
Phoebe called a few times once she knew Jade was settled in the dorm, and left messages on the answering machine. Jade returned the calls but Phoebe was out so Jade left brief and breathless messages about how busy she was and sorry she was “so hard to reach, but not to worry, everything’s fine and I’ll call you as soon as I get a chance. Love you, Mom.”
Jade came home over Christmas break and fell head over heels in love with Evan Mills, a young man she’d known since the eighth grade and who shared with Jade the distinction of being top in his high school class. So began a long distance relationship bitter sweet with promise and longing.
Each break from school Jade’s attention was essentially consumed with stockpiling romantic moments with Evan. The Spring semester of her Junior year Jade lived and studied in Seville, Spain, and though it was an experience not to be missed, it certainly stretched her tolerance for separation from Evan.
In her final semester at Cornell Jade convinced Evan, who graduated early from the pre-law program at Madison, to come to Ithaca to live with her in the house she shared with several housemates. Evan secured a clerk’s job in a small law office in nearby Cortland, and the two of them finally had the access to each other they thought they wanted more than almost anything.
More than a year had passed since Jade left for Spain provoking the epiphany that sent Phoebe into the world to realize her modest dream of singing and playing her sax to the accompaniment of karaoke equipment. In February 1996, Jade’s senior year at Cornell, Phoebe got a call from the Top Hat in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She’d sent out some feeler tapes to eighty or more places. She’d made tapes demonstrating a cross section of her repertoire, tapes specific to her intrigue with the Motown Sound, tapes that emphasized either her Linda Ronstadt or Stevie Nicks’ propensities.
She simply wrapped a cover letter around a cassette tape, not knowing enough about self-promotion or target marketing to include a color glossy of herself, and posted the thing in a brown paper envelope to this or that small town Karaoke equipped club or bar. She hadn’t had a lot of response in the sense of people calling her so would always double check to see which tape she’d sent where before placing a follow-up call to a particular club. Though she’d almost always been successful in booking a date to perform, and was feeling pretty much old hat in her routine at various small clubs and bars, the call from Jason Light took her by surprise. It was the first time a club owner had taken the initiative to seek her out.
“Hey there, yeah. This Phoebe Thorpe I’m talking to?” Jason said.
“Yes. This is Phoebe. Who’s calling please?” He sounded like Barry White and her knees got a little weak so she sat down.
“Yeah, well Phoebe, this is Jason Light calling from the Top Hat here in Kenosha.”
“Un huh?” Phoebe waited.
“Well yeah. Seems you sent us a tape here. Let’s see, I got it right here,” she could hear him sorting through some stuff. “Oh, yeah, yeah, I got it right here. “A Night from Motown,” he read. “That’s yours, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, I see. You mean you got one of the tapes I sent out to clubs?” She didn’t really remember off the top of her head what clubs in what locations she’d written to.
“Yeah. That’s what I mean.”
“Oh, well …” She couldn’t quite think what to say. Had kind of given up on someone else initiating the contact.
“Yes Ma’am, I get the gigs into the club here, you know …. Well, fact is, I own the place.”
“Oh. Yes. Well, great.” Phoebe tried to call to mind an image of the Top Hat. She often picked clubs to contact just because she saw a sign off the highway. She’d jot the name down, making a note to send a tape or make a phone call. She didn’t remember this one. “So then … do you like it? The tape? I mean, is that why you’re calling?” She didn’t want to presume.
“Yes I do, Miss Thorpe. I like the power of voice that comes through on the tape. I think our crowd here might enjoy a night of your music, Miss.”
“I’m not really a “Miss,” she used his name, “Jason. More of a, well, never mind … Call me Phoebe, okay?”
“Why sure Phoebe. Just didn’t wanna be too familiar you know. Some ladies don’t take well to that ‘too familiar too soon’ business.”
“Thanks, but Phoebe’s just fine for me. So, you were saying … you like the tape?”
“I do. Yes. So I’m calling to see if I can book you for a Motown night here in the Red Room sometime in April.”
“Sure. I mean, that sounds good to me. Just let me get my calendar here okay? Gosh. All Motown? Is that what you’re interested in?”
“Sure is. We got us some heavy Motown fans here in Kenosha. Hope you don’t mind, ma’am, the whole crowd’s probably gonna want to sing along.” Phoebe almost blurted out what was on her mind, “Hey, Jason, they sound anything like you they can sing and I’ll just sit back and listen,” but she didn’t want to sound flirtatious.
Instead she said, “That’s one of the main reasons I do what I do. I’ve got this need to be among people who love this stuff as much as I do. People who’ve carried these songs with them over the years and just want to share in a sort of midlife communion, if you know what I mean.”
“Uh, yeah, okay, sure. Well, how’s April look? Thursday — look at that. How are Thursdays for you? The home boys like to party Thursday.” Phoebe could tell he wanted to stop her, interrupt, before she went off into some sort of Karma trip. She didn’t blame him, but she just babbled on. She could sense him thinking something like, “Hey I just want to book some music here. I don’t need this ‘communion’ shit.”
“April looks good! Thursdays look good. Why don’t you just pick a date that works for you.” Phoebe said.
“Well okay. How’s Thursday, April 27 sound?”
“Sure. I’ve just marked it. Now can you give me a sense of your place? You know I kind of did my research from the phone book and just guessed at what places might be suitable. You know I work alone don’t you? No band.”
“Yeah. I got it. You need the tape, CD and amplifier, mikes and that, we usually use for Karaoke, if I understand your gig. That right?”
“That’s right. I use recorded music and add the vocals and a bit of alto sax where it fits. I like to get in there early afternoon and get familiar with the set up, rehearse a little. Will that work for you?”
“That works Phoebe. We have this little nightclub type room off the main club and restaurant, so you can be in there. We won’t open that up for the Motown crowd until you’re ready to rock. So then … what else you need?”
“Well, we better discuss money I suppose. I don’t usually ask a whole lot, I think I mentioned in the letter I sent with the tape. Most clubs collect a nominal fee at the door or pass a plate for contributions, tips, that sort of thing. I like to be sure my expenses are covered. Most clubs only have live acts Thursday, Friday or Saturday, so it’s not like I earn a daily income.”
“So, what are we sayin’ here? What’s your bottom line, Phoebe, because we’re not exactly 1st Avenue here, you know?”
Phoebe smiled at his reference to the club in Minneapolis that Prince made famous in the early 80’s. “No. No, I know that. I don’t mean … I just meant to say. Well, let’s work that out, okay? I’m excited to be asked to come to Kenosha. Let’s just play it by ear. Have to admit, though, I get a little testy if I don’t come away with a hundred dollars or so.”
“A hundred dollars, eh?” he sounded like he thought that was funny and Phoebe couldn’t tell if he thought it was too little or too much.
“Well … yes … is that a problem?”
“Nah. We can do a hundred dollars. No problem. We’ll set it up here so people give us, oh three bucks, maybe four, at the door. … You’re good and make ‘em dry up from singin’ along or shedding lots of tears, they’ll be buying drinks and we can give you a cut of the tips too. No, a hundred dollars is fine. You can probably count on at least $250. Sound good?”
“Sounds great! Well, let me get your address and phone number. We should probably be in touch a week or so before I come, don’t you think?”
“Okay Ma’am. Sounds like we’ve got us a deal. I’ll send you some stuff on the club, the town, places you can stay and eat … that sort of thing. We’ll talk again.”
“Thank you so much for calling Mr. Light. I really appreciate the opportunity. Means a lot to me.”
“Sure. You’re welcome. See you in April. Bye.”
“Bye bye … and, thanks again.” Phoebe hung up the phone before a bad case of nerves descended. It was February now and, over the winter, she’d mostly been driving from one Minnesota college town to another. Though, when she got started on her road career she expected to draw music fans her own age, it turned out the college kids were really into the seventies and eighties stuff she did. They liked Jackson Browne, Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty and Van Morrison and some of their parents — the ones she’d expected to attract — had overdosed on this music and had moved on to more of a taste for light jazz or classical.
It surprised her how accepting the young people seemed of a woman old enough to be their mother. Sometimes a particular song would make them homesick or would be a song they were used to singing with their parents, and a kid would get up on the stage with Phoebe and join her in song. She loved it when that happened and harbored a fantasy that someday it would be Jade up there with her.
It was interesting about these college kids — the change they seem to go through from the time they’re teenagers and mostly embarrassed by association with their parents. Then, once they’re sophomores or juniors in college and they’re out traveling the world — once they’ve established their separation from their parents — a kind of appreciation and nostalgia seems to hit them. That’s what was happening with Phoebe’s own daughter now but mostly Jade would call or write telling her how drawn she felt to someone else’s mother. Still, it was a compliment and Phoebe felt flattered. Always these connections with other mother’s seemed to reflect Jade’s nostalgia or longings toward her relationship with Phoebe. Jade hadn’t yet given her full blessing though, to Phoebe’s new career choice. She’d never seen her mom’s act but told Phoebe she had this persistent horrifying vision of her mother cavorting, Tina Turner like on some strobe lit stage right in front of one of her old friends who’d stayed closer to home to go to college.
Phoebe pulled into the parking lot of the Top Hat at two in the afternoon. The club wasn’t really in the town of Kenosha. It was on the outskirts out on Highway 41 along the run from Racine to Chicago not far from Lake Michigan’s shore. If you just stayed on that road it would take you right through Evanston and on into Chicago on Lake Shore Drive. Though she’d talked to Jason the week before she didn’t get much sense of what to expect. The Top Hat looked like the 1950’s style supper club her parents used to go to sometimes when they wanted a steak and a cocktail. There was a rust pitted sign on a white metal pole in the parking lot that showed a scantily clad black woman in high heals, a white dickey with a black bow tie and short-shorts, revealing the curve of her bare behind. The woman carried a tray with drinks on and waved a black top hat in the air over her head.
Phoebe wore her typical traveling costume of blue jeans, white Keds and a t-shirt. Today her t-shirt was light gray with a Cornell logo across the chest. She wore a flannel lined brown leather jacket to protect her from the April wind and chill. Her hair, which was still mostly it’s natural deep brown color, was pulled back and up and clipped at the top of her head in a loose knot, but a strand of it escaped and blew about her face in the wind. She wore no make-up.
“You must be Phoebe Thorpe.” Jason came toward the van.
Phoebe, who’d been digging around at the open back doors of her van, making sure she had all possible variations of adapter cables, didn’t see him approach. She heard his voice before she turned to see a rather shorter, leaner Black man who looked quite different from the imposing and hip thirty-something man she’d pictured when they talked on the phone. He was about her height with near black eyes and close cut gray hair with just a hint of a gray beard. His manner was kind, confidant, self-possessed. She guessed him to be about fifty. He reminded her a little of Ed Bradley on CBS.
She smiled at him and extended one hand for a handshake while brushing the loose hairs from her face and eyes with the other. She tried to hastily tuck her stray hairs up into her knot but didn’t have much success. She felt self-conscious with this poised, handsome man with the relentlessly sexy voice. She wished she’d dressed better for her arrival.
“Yes. Yes, I am. Yes, I’m Phoebe.” She collected herself a bit, “You’re Jason. I recognize your voice.” She could feel a slight blush climb her throat and looked away from his smiling eyes. “Smooth,” she thought. That’s the word. “This guy is smooth in a way I like so much it scares me.” She tried to compose herself, get down to business.
She reached into the back of the van for the black canvas bag she stored her tapes and CD’s in.
“Here, let me help you with that.” He took the bag from her. “Anything else you need right away?”
She walked around to the side door and slid it open. “Yeah. I’ll just grab this garment bag here. Oh, and my purse. I’ll get that out of the front seat.” She felt awkward, silly — describing each move she made. She locked the van and followed Jason into the club.
“Here’s your spot.” he led her through wood doors with stenciled glass panels that divided the Red Room from the dining room. The red room had a small stage, a parquet dance floor, round tables with red bubble glass candleholders in the center of each and it’s own bar at the back of the room. Jason vaulted up onto the stage and pulled a red satin curtain to reveal the familiar Karaoke equipment. Phoebe jumped on the stage and, together, she and Jason determined everything she needed to rehearse was all set to go.
“I’ll leave you to it.” He said. “Show time’s 8 o’clock, just like you asked for. We’ll start letting people in and serving drinks about seven. I’ll introduce you if you want.”
“Yes. I’d like that. Then I’ll just start out singing. Sometimes that’s easier than trying to get them to warm up talking to them. I know some people have some pretty snappy patter as a prelude, but I don’t come equipped that way. I always say, “Hey, must have me confused. Was my husband who was the preacher.” She laughed, feeling a bit foolish again for how she seemed to be running at the mouth.
“Was? Your husband was a preacher? What’s he now?”
“Oh … well …,” she looked at him like she assumed he knew and said, “you know. He’s dead.”
“Whoa, no, I didn’t know. That’s too bad. Sorry. Hope I didn’t stick my foot in my mouth there.”
“Oh no. It’s okay. He was a sweetie, but I lost him more than ten years ago. I guess that line about how people have me confused with him is getting pretty old, now that I think of it. But, the fact remains — he was the talker. I’m the singer. He did that. I do this.” She wanted to change the subject. This one was making her sweat. She wiped her damp palms on the hips of her blue jeans then rubbed her hands together and said, “Well now. You go ahead and do what you have to do. I’m fine here. And, thanks for the help. I’ll just be an hour or two then go over to the Ramada — that’s where I’m staying.” God, she thought. Geez. I practically invited him to come take a shower with me. “I mean …”
“I’ll get out of your way Phoebe.” He smiled as he left and she was sure he felt responsible for the mist of sweat that broke out on her face and hands.
Rehearsal went well and Phoebe enjoyed a quick swim and a soak in the Jacuzzi back at the Ramada before ordering a light supper in her room. She didn’t like to indulge in a heavy meal before a performance. She was too likely to feel sluggish and bloated. It was one of the hazards of middle age and she didn’t want to feel any older than was necessary. Already she felt she was pushing it a bit, attempting something like rock stardom at the advanced age or forty-seven.
She was back at the club where Jason let her in the back door at 6:45. Jason lifted one eyebrow and smiled a crooked and appreciative smile at the sight of her but didn’t comment on the metamorphosis. She wore a jewel neckline, sleeveless silver a-line dress that shimmered in the light and skimmed her still youthful figure. The dress fell to about four inches above her knees and she wore silver three-inch heels with straps that accentuated her slender ankles. She’d washed and styled her hair and let the loose curls frame her face but clipped the rest of it at the back of her head with a silver hair clip. She was pleased at the way Jason seemed to notice a significant change in her appearance from that afternoon.
He guided her backstage where there was a comfortable chair and a lamp. She reviewed her notes on song sequence and waited for Jason’s introduction. The music of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips and some early Jackson Five songs played accompaniment to arriving guests.
Eight o’clock came fast and she heard Jason’s voice reverberate in accentuated Barry White-ness, “And so, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “let’s give it up for Phoebe Thorpe and the Reclamation Project!”
The first strains of the programmed musical accompaniment to Whitney Houston’s “You Give Good Love” preceded Phoebe. Hands clapped in recognition before she ever arrived on stage but faltered in their enthusiasm when the all black Motown fans were surprised at the sight of Whitney’s white substitute. Phoebe didn’t hesitate for a second. She gripped the microphone in a gesture that expressed passion and inspiration. She locked her eyes on those of a hesitant Motown fan seated at the table closest to the stage and Phoebe gave those fans more than they ever dreamed could be bought for a three dollar cover charge at the Top Hat in Kenosha.
She was halfway into Aretha Franklin’s “You Send Me,” before she fully realized she was the only white person in the room. She experienced a moment of embarrassment at how presumptuous she must seem and how ignorant she’d been of the expectation she’d set. The embarrassment vanished quickly though in a rush of supreme gratitude for the foot stamping response of the crowd. If they really liked her or if they were just being polite Phoebe would never know. Real or imagined, Phoebe arrived that night at the experience of communion for which she longed.
She performed until ten-thirty, taking short breaks to freshen up, rest her voice and drink some water. With her last number she brought out her saxophone and wrapped it up with a smooth and mellow “Sleep Walk.” The couples on the dance floor held each other close, rested against each other. When she left the stage the music was gone for only a moment.
“May I have this dance?” The club stereo system took up where Phoebe left off and Jason took her in his arms and further confirmed his smoothness by leading her in a dance to the sounds of the Pointer Sister’s “Slow Hand.”
They closed the club at midnight and sat talking at a round table with a lone, red burning candle until two in the morning. She relaxed and confided in him as if he weren’t a stranger at all. He returned the favor, talking about the recent break up of a twelve-year marriage that left him more than wary about commitment.
Compelled by a desire that surprised her Phoebe determined to wrest from this night however fleeting relief from ten years of suppressed passion and yearning. She told herself she knew what she was doing.
“Will you take me home tonight?” she asked him.
“You’re sure?” he asked. He held both her hands in his and sat close to her at the candle lit table.
“I’m very sure,” she said. Jason kept his eyes on hers and lifted her hands and brought them to his lips. He would be Phoebe’s first and only one-night stand but leave her with a memory to last the rest of her life.
* * *
At the hotel, Jason pulled her into his arms and kissed her to the point of delirium. Always, for Phoebe, kissing was the absolute turn-on. She couldn’t believe the rightness of his every touch in spite of his knowing her for only the last few hours. After kissing the breath from her he turned her around and unzipped the back of her dress just enough to reveal her neck and collar bone, then bent his head to kiss from behind those places behind her ear and along her throat where she felt skinless. Her body reacted as if every nerve and fiber was exposed.
She could barely stand, but turned him to face her and opened the buttons of his shirt and discovered the rich, bronze gleam of the skin of his chest and stomach. She could almost taste him on sight and knew his delicious flavor almost before her lips met his skin. Now she stepped back from him and sat on the edge of the bed. He sat back and quickly removed his socks and shoes. He knelt before her and unbuckled first one silver strapped shoe, then the other, sliding them from her silk-stocking covered feet. He reached under her skirt and caressed her waist under her dress.
Phoebe slid from the bed to join him on the floor and pulled her dress off over her shoulders and head and let it drop on the bed behind her. She wore a silver silk bra and garter belt attached to subtly glittering silk stockings over tiny sheer white lace under pants.
Jason put his hands on Phoebe’s shoulders and turned his head from side to side as he admired her. She put her hands inside his shirt and caressed it from his body before kissing her way down his stomach where she unbuckled his belt and opened his pants with one hand. She could feel him hard against her forearm as she maneuvered to remove his trousers.
Jason allowed her to undress him down to his boxer shorts, then lifted her above him to sit again on the bed. He stood and leaned over her and kissed her lips again. Mid-kiss she put her arms around him and worked his shorts over his erection, down over his hips and legs. She could feel the heat of his erection warming the air between them. She lowered her lips to taste him but he knelt before her and opened her thighs with expert and gentle hands. He kissed her, working his way up her inner thigh from her knee to the moist lace that covered her clitoris. He darted his pointed tongue lightly, teasing her through the silk and lace.
He carefully inserted his finger under the lace and sent a thrill of electric ecstasy through her body. Now she needed him, needed the taste of him in her mouth. She used her tongue to trace a thin and teasing touch along the shallow valley where his thigh joined his abdomen. She ran her tongue along side and under the firm cushion of his scrotum and lifted each testicle gently to put it to her mouth.
“Phoebe, oh Phoebe …” He moaned and put his hand on her face lifting it so he could look into her eyes.
“Phoebe, wait, wait … I’ve got to…” he reached quickly to get a condom from the pocket of his slacks. Phoebe reached her hand to take the packet from him and pulled him to her on the bed. She continued tracing his skin with her tongue as she opened the condom.
Jason lifted her so she could lie fully on the bed and lay his body close to her. He removed her bra and took first one then the other breast into his mouth, alternately kissing and caressing her breasts, throat, and stomach. He moved both hands up into her hair, which had fallen free of its silver clasp, and held her face as he kissed her.
While their lips were occupied in the kiss she rolled the condom down over the lovely deep copper shaft of his penis then sat and leaned over him, her breasts brushing his skin as she took him into her mouth.
While she loved him this way, he used his fingers and lips to work her clitoris into a frenzy of rising spasms. Phoebe wondered vaguely if her heart was strong enough to sustain this passion without bursting through her skin but she wasn’t about to stop now.
He reached to pull her face to his and reached his hand to pull the white lace away from her skin. It took what little composure Phoebe had to keep from forcibly pulling him to her and riding him with a fury. But her made her wait. With one hand he held the lace aside and with the other held his penis and touched it to her, tapping it on the head of her clitoris then along her swollen labia. Now he eased it just the smallest distance into the folds of skins covering her vagina.
“Oh, oh. Please,” she could barely speak.
“Please?” still he didn’t enter her. “Please what, Phoebe?” He moved the head of his penis in the folds and teased her clitoris with its pressure.
“Jason. Jason. Come … please, come inside.”
“Like this?” He gave her just a little more. She tried to take it all but he kept his measured pace.
“A little more? Like this?” He entered further and she moaned moving against him.
“Hold still now, Phoebe.” She tried but her body had a mind of its own at this point. He entered her fully. “Hold still,” he said again. She stopped herself from her urge to thrust wildly against him. She held still and felt the fullness of him inside her. She didn’t move a muscle but her body released all around the closeness and hardness of him in an overpowering orgasm.
“God, Jason. She clutched at him completely lost in the feelings this stranger who was her lover — this lover who was a stranger — awakened in her.
“Just for a minute,” he breathed. “Oh yes. That’s, that’s … right … oh … so right. God.” Then he moved. Slow and deep. Deep and slow. He rocked Phoebe.
He held her, kissed her, stroked her in a relentless dance until she lost all sense of time and space and came over and over again. She was weak, slick with sweat, still he rocked her and filled her more deeply with every stroke. She held his face in her hands and watched his face as the tension built and she knew — could feel his release coming as if it were her own. His neck and shoulders tightened revealing every muscle and his skin became the deepest possible bronze as his climax surged through him and a cry of ecstasy and fierce independence disrupted the silence of the early morning.
Phoebe surprised herself, once she returned home from Kenosha, with the way she felt all of a piece. Surprised herself with the way she treasured the experience of the night spent with Jason, but wanted nothing from him beyond what he’d already given. She’d meant to take some time to reflect, figure out what had made her do what she did and, did it mean some fundamental change had taken place in her? She arrived home on Sunday evening determined to use the hours ahead of her and before her morning meetings at the Center to simply process.
She let herself in through the back door that entered onto the kitchen. She set the few things she’d carried into the house on the table and floor and slipped off her sneakers. The signal on the phone answering machine flashed red indicating eight or nine messages.
She walked past it into the dining room where she noticed the tulips she bought at the grocery store a couple days before she left, had opened in full. The blooms reminded her of intoxicated, sated, partially dressed and lavishly scented lovers languishing unashamed after a spontaneous cavort. The gloss black stamens leaked tiny seeds onto a yellow center. When she’d first arranged the tulips they stood stately in the tall vase, their red blooms firm and shaped the way one expected a tulip to be shaped. She’d had no idea these innocent flowers were capable of such decadence and utter abandon of propriety. Now, as she leaned closer she observed how the red of the outer petals merged with the yellow center creating a blending and blur like rich paint poured on raw linen.
She grinned and shook a sympathetic finger in the direction of the splayed blossoms. “Naughty, naughty,” she said then proceeded through the house to the front door where she retrieved the mail and daily papers delivered during her absence.
The mail was mostly junk, a bill or two. She clutched the mail in one hand and bent to pick up the three newspapers in plastic wrappings. A postcard she hadn’t noticed at first, slipped from her hand and landed upright wedged between the two largest toes of her left foot. Rather than pick it up she twisted her head to see that it was a gallery announcement. She picked it up and looked closer to see a ceramic relief piece portraying the nude crouched figure of a crying man surrounded by images of faces that practically danced despair.
Phoebe set the mail and newspapers on the arm of the sofa and carried the postcard out to the front steps where she sat down and let the image absorb her. She turned the card over and discovered the piece was by a clay artist from North Dakota and his exhibit was opening at Karen’s gallery a week from that coming Wednesday.
She got up and rang Karen’s number.
“Hi, Phoeb. How’d it go in Kenosha?” Karen said when she answered the phone.
“Good. Good. Actually, Karen. It went great! Amazing, to tell you the truth. But…”
“Oooh. ‘Great and amazing?’ Should I come right over and you can tell me everything in deep and colorful detail?”
“No, no. That won’t be necessary. But, hey, thanks for asking. I need to process, as they say. You understand.”
“Process, eh? Hmm. Sounds ominous. Well, I’m curious, but I guess I’ll just have to wait for your summons, huh buddy? So. Glad you’re home safe. Guess you got my message, huh?”
Phoebe looked at the flashing lights on the answering machine. “Oh, no. You know I just got in and went to the mailbox. I mean, I haven’t even checked my messages yet.”
“Oh, well, I’ll save you the trouble on this one then. I called ‘cause we’re having this ceramic exhibit at the gallery. The opening’s next week. It’s Wednesday night and, well, I was wondering, since Wednesday isn’t usually an out of town gig night for you — I wondered, Phoeb, if I could get you to sing at the opening?”
“This is just so weird Karen. I called you because I found the postcard, must be for the exhibit you’re talking about, in my mailbox and I’ve just spent probably a whole five minutes just staring at this image. I can’t get over it. Can’t take my eyes off it.”
“You’re kidding! I don’t remember you reacting that strongly to other stuff I’ve sent you.”
“I know. But … I don’t know … Just something about this image. I really want to see this show. Is all the work like this? It’s captivating, but … God … somber. So somber. Like, the sorrow of this image… It just knocked me over!”
“So. Will you sing?”
“Sing? Hmmm. Boy oh boy. I’m having to do a sudden gearshift here. I just came back from major torch-song-trilogy-type unbelievable with surprise and thrills experience, get knocked on my butt by this picture…” Phoebe turned the postcard over in her hand and read the title of the piece, “’Sorrow in Cerulean,’ Sorrow in Cerulean? Cerulean? Where’s that Karen? Where’s this guy from anyway? What in the world can I possibly sing appropriate to some guy from a country I never heard of who makes pieces that outright drip despair? Huh? Answer me. You really think this is the show that calls for a Phoebe Thorpe medley of top forty favs?”
“Now listen, Paly — I know you, right?”
“Yeah, at least, I thought so before…”
“Trust me, babe. I have some ideas. I mean, I can think of several songs I’ve heard you sing that will be perfect. Absolutely perfect. So. Will you do it? I’ve already ordered the set up and the backup music. You can’t say no.”
“I mean, no, you’re right. I can’t say no. Yes. Sure. I’d love to.”
“You won’t be sorry Phoebe. So, now can I come over and get the dirt on your ‘amazing and great’ experience and talk about our collaboration?”
“Tomorrow, Karen. Let’s wait until tomorrow. I really have a ton to do and early meetings in the morning I don’t even want to think about. Oh, my god! Warren! I have to go get Warren! I almost forgot. He’s next door. Bye.” She started to hang up the phone then put it back to her ear to say. “I’ll call you tomorrow, Karen. Sleep tight!”
* * *
When Phoebe knocked on the back door of her neighbor’s house she expected to hear Warren yipping and squealing and maybe even the sound of him hurling his small body against the door preventing his caretaker from opening it. No such sound greeted her and when Maggy unlatched the door and opened it her face told Phoebe something was wrong.
“What is it Maggy? Where’s … Did Jimmy take Warren for a walk or something? Is Warren alright?”
Maggy stood away from the door and urged Phoebe to come further into the house. “Oh, Phoebe. I have terrible news. Warren’s in the hospital. Honey, he broke his back. His little skinny back!”
“His back? Oh no. Don’t tell me. Oh, Maggy.” Phoebe sat on the nearest chair she could find and looked up at Maggy. “Does Jade know? Did you call Jolee or Jade?”
“No. I thought I’d better wait and let you do that. I wouldn’t really know how to reach Jade out East, and…”
“That’s right. Yes. This is best. I, well… Where is he? How is he? Is he going to be alright?”
Maggy gave Phoebe the name and phone number of the vet and the clinic.
“I was over there with him most the day today. They’ve got him all drugged up and he’s resting okay. They told me he’s not in any pain.”
Phoebe nodded as Maggy talked, trying to take some comfort in her words. It was hard to imagine wiry little Warren strapped to some board unable to move. She didn’t quite buy it that he wasn’t in pain but it’s certainly what she wanted to believe.
“The doctor said to have you call in the morning, set up a time to come in and ‘talk things over,’ she said.” Maggy reached a hand and set in on Phoebe’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry, hon. That Warren’s just the cutest little thing. I guess we all feared his rambunctiousness might get him in trouble one of these days.”
Phoebe stared into her own lap trying to juggle the news and the idea of telling Jade. It struck her that she might not even be able to reach Jade with the news. That Jade wasn’t real quick to return her mother’s phone calls. She stood to leave.
“I’ll have to figure out just what to say. How to say it, I mean. I mean, to get her to answer the phone — to get her to call me back…” Phoebe realized she was mumbling, probably incoherent to Maggy, and simply wandered back through the alley to her silent house, thinking about the emotional roller coaster she seemed destined to ride into eternity.
It was clear to Phoebe when she went to see Warren the next day that he was in tremendous pain. Though he wore a splint to keep his back stationary, still he winced and whimpered each time he made an effort to move. The Vet told Phoebe Warren could live a nearly normal life if he had back surgery but he would never walk again and would have to get around by being strapped to a tiny skateboard with wheels. Phoebe held Warren’s sweet, tiny face in her hand and tilted his chin up to look into his big brown eyes. She knelt to kiss his forehead then told the Vet she would call Jade and together they would decide if life on a skateboard was the life they wanted for their Puppy Doo.
Jade and Phoebe shared a good cry over the phone and reminisced about their ‘man of the house,’ Warren, but, they both agreed the only fair thing was to say goodbye. They would ask the Vet to put Warren to sleep. Jade asked her mom to be there and hold her puppy’s hand in his final moments and Phoebe honored her daughter’s wishes.
She took the day off work and came home to her quiet house where Warren’s toys still littered the floor, to spend the afternoon leafing through photo albums and remembering all the joy the miniature Collie brought in the wake of Marc’s death.
The first pictures of Warren were toward the back of a picture album that held photos of the final days of Marc’s life as well. Nearly a dozen years had passed since Phoebe said goodbye.
As she flipped the pages recording Warren’s life her eye fell on a picture of Jade, nearly thirteen, and still such a little girl, Phoebe thought. In the picture she wore a black hat like the one Boy George wore in the Karma Chameleon video. Jades hair flowed about her shoulders, she held Warren’s tiny cheek next to hers and smiled at the camera through the rather large lenses of tortoise shell glasses. Phoebe smiled at the sweet face of her daughter and the photo became a window through which Phoebe found herself looking back in time like a film running backward. She remembered first that day in November when she and Jade fell in love with the puppy dog. Remembered how furious Jade had been about the night Phoebe was snowbound with Steve. As the photo became memory and reeled backward, losing its color, Phoebe sensed a silver tone ribbon of unreality capture her in a black and white image. She believed, if someone were to photograph her now, the picture would reveal her, a statue of cold gray stone surrounded by a color filled room in 1996.
She was drawn to the photo albums from the early years of Jade’s life. There was a picture of Jade and Marc, hair frizzled and bodies sweaty. Phoebe recalled the way the air felt heavy and smelled of July dog days. She sat on a grassy incline above the running path at Lake Calhoun. She held her Nikon at the ready, and when Jade and Marc approached her, around the lake, she called to them. The picture caught them, short of breath, laughing, leaning against each other, Marc’s arm on Jade’s shoulder, her arm around the back of his waist. They wore running shorts, tank tops and Adidas with short socks that stopped at their ankles. Jade must have been eight or nine. She and Marc had been inspired by the movie Chariots of Fire with its message of faith and fitness. The memory of the heat of that day, the longing for the salty taste and even the damp fetid scent of Marc’s skin on a long ago day in July reduced Phoebe to a fit of guilt and tears.
An unwelcome memory visited, of the argument she and Marc had later that night, when the heavy sky turned green with tornado danger and she, tired and irritable, had lit into him with condemnation. Now, these many years later, she couldn’t remember the specifics of her accusation, but realized it must have been the same thing they often argued about, her perception he was far too isolated, too distant from the real needs, the real people of the world, living and working in suburban Hopkins and only venturing to urban Minneapolis or St. Paul to enjoy its safer amenities.
In all the years since Marc’s death and even during the counseling sessions with her therapist, Phoebe had refused, not consciously, but never the less, completely — to see or say any flaw in her marriage. Other times, over the past many years, when memories of unhappy moments, the missing pieces, even the loneliness she sometimes felt in that marriage threatened to visit, she ran from them. Rushed toward an activity, an involvement that would divert her attention. She never realized all the activity she ran toward was characterized by a quest for freedom she never felt all the years of her marriage to Marc.
She turned again to the photo of Jade in her Boy George hat and remembered Marc’s resistance to Jade listening to music or watching a video of this obvious homosexual, cross-dresser. Another muffled voice, late night argument visited her memory. Phoebe and Jade, for the most part, kept their indulgence in pop music a secret from Marc. Rather than pressing her point Phoebe always backed down from insisting she deserved her own point of view in these matters but she would find some passive way to defy Marc’s wishes. Phoebe and Jade had shopped in secret and outfitted Jade in a Boy George outfit. After supper one night Phoebe set the needle on the Karma Chameleon record and Jade, dressed and made up for the part and embracing a toy microphone, lip synced and danced her way into the living room where Marc sat, charmed and horrified simultaneously.
Now, with each turn of the page of the photo album, Phoebe felt besieged by the story behind the picture. She found herself appalled by her own blindness but wanting nothing so much, at that very moment, as to return to its blissful darkness.
The ringing phone saved her from further reflection, though. It was Karen, calling to admonish Phoebe for not getting back to her about plans for the Michael Dakota opening. When Phoebe told Karen about Warren, she and Karen decided the plans for the opening could wait until tomorrow. They scheduled an early dinner at Karen’s place the next day.
* * *
Phoebe let herself in the front door Karen had told her she’d leave open, made her way through the house yelling toward the kitchen, “What we having? I brought White. Hope it’s okay.”
Karen came toward Phoebe drying her hands on a white towel she had tucked into the waistband of her black jeans. She put two damp, freezing cold hands on Phoebe’s cheeks. Phoebe jumped and slapped Karen’s hands away but Karen grabbed her again, gave her a big smack on the lips and said, “Mussels! I got mussels! Couldn’t you just die?”
“Oooh! You know I could! Shall I make the French Fries?” Phoebe followed Karen back into the kitchen.
“Yes, yes. I’ve got all the stuff out.” Karen signaled washed potatoes, a deep, heavy pan and the bottle of canola oil. “Hey, but pour us each a glass of that Pinot Grigio stuff first, eh?”
Mussels with stove top French Fries; a dry white wine with a crisp salad was an all time favorite meal to both Karen and Phoebe. Karen had a friend, an art collector and a marvelous cook, who lived in Amsterdam and he taught her just the right technique for cooking and serving “Mussels in the French Manor,” — as he referred to it. This art collector was a long-time, on-again, off-again love affair Karen sandwiched in between her other, stateside bouts of serial monogamy.
Phoebe could always tell when Karen was getting another yen to visit Jan Van Dimitre because she made a point of ordering fresh mussels from Coastal Sea Foods and inviting Phoebe to come to her house for dinner for a change.
Phoebe poured the wine and handed Karen a glass. Karen lifted her glass in honor of Warren, saying, “Bon Voyage, little Lassie! Say ‘hi’ to Timmy when you cross over to the other side.” They clinked glasses then fell into each other’s arms for a serious hug that Karen interrupted abruptly to drain her glass of wine and throw her empty glass smashing it on the wall at the far end of the room.
She turned to see a stunned Phoebe, took her glass from her, raised it in the air and said in exceedingly somber tones, “The Dog is dead. Long live the Dog!” Then she drained Phoebe’s glass and sent it smashing against the wall. The shattered remains of the glasses reflected the brilliance of the dying sun angling its way through the window that overlooked Karen’s flower garden.
Phoebe had to dress and undress three times while she got ready for her performance the night of the opening at Kline Fine Arts. Her face, as she applied her make-up kept beading up with a fine mist of sweat, her shoulders, neck and under arms prickled an advance warning that signaled Phoebe to remove her blouse, mop off with cotton swabs soaked in cooling astringent and begin again. Finally she positioned a twenty-inch fan on a chair, turned it on ‘high’ and aimed it at the spot where she stood trying to get this job done.
Now, on her third try, she worked with quick and deliberate strokes to apply her make up. Her paint job was complete except for the mascara on her right eye. Just as she lifted the tiny brush and was all ready to say “Voila!” the phone rang and startled her. Her hand made a jerky motion that sent a black streak of mascara from her eyelid all the way up to her eyebrow. “Gol darnit!” she said as she threw the offending brush in the sink and ran from the bathroom to pick up the phone in her bedroom.
“Phoebe!” Karen sounded shrill. “Where are you, girl? It’s only forty-five minutes ‘till show time.”
“I’m coming. I’m coming. I just — I’ve run into some problems here.”
“Problems? Phoebe, no. Not tonight. You can’t. Everything has to be perfect! Rumor has it this guy, this gorgeous Michael Dakota, is now free and ripe for the pickin’, and, as you know, them is slim pickins out there in what I like to call ‘man-land’ right now.”
“Well then Karen, let me get off the phone this instant! Something’s making me all jitters. I’m a complete sweat bomb. And, oh by the way, you just made me stripe my entire face reverse skunk style by calling as I was putting the finishing touches on my makeup. I just have to get dressed and I’m on my way. Be there quick as I can.”
“Okay, I guess. Everything is all ready. Just wanted the comfort of your presence here when he arrives. I’ll just have to hope he comes a little late too. What you wearing, anyway? I’m in my red number, high heels … I mean, you know me, girl, I look good! But, hey, do you think the red is too flashy? Think I might come on a little too, oh, I don’t know, Siren-like?”
“You? Never! That dress shows off your natural copper tone tan and your cleavage, oh, and those fine-turned ankles … He’ll be blinded!”
“That’s it. I’m changing. I brought that simple short black number with the low neck too. More sedate. Somber, like his work. Okay. You get your ass over here and I’ll run and change quick. What did you say you’re wearing?”
“I didn’t. But I’ve decided on a white chiffon blouse, man-style but tapered at the waist and my black silk dress slacks with not too high-heeled black pumps… Oh, and my black blazer with the silk collar. Sound okay?”
“Yeah. Fine. Simple but elegant. I just asked ‘cause I don’t want you upstaging me. Plus, like we said the other night, the performance and performer need to fit the occasion to a certain extent and, well, you’ve seen the guy’s work.”
“Got ya. Now, let me off this phone. See ya. Bye.”
* * *
Karen was still alone at the gallery except for her assistant, Brian, when Phoebe came in. The work was arranged and lit in such a way that, to Phoebe anyway, it inspired a sense of near worship. A long table, covered in white linen displayed a tasteful and colorful array of hors d’oeuvres on ceramic plates and trays Phoebe knew were made by artists whose work Karen carried. Huge, glossy ceramic bowls filled with ice displayed multiple bottles of champagne. A small platform, draped with steel blue velour was situated against a sidewall in the center of the gallery. It held speakers, a microphone and a wooden stool. Phoebe unpacked her saxophone and leaned it against the back wall of the ‘stage’ thinking how nicely it’s brass was set off by the blue drapery.
“Okay, good, here you are. Nick of time.” Karen approached Phoebe proffering a glass of champagne and sipping from her own glass.
“Down the hatch with this, and then, get up there and start the music.” Karen looked beyond Phoebe to see cars pulling up outside the gallery windows. People were starting to arrive.
Phoebe was glad she could get situated and even ease into her first numbers without a crowd of onlookers to make her anxious. Though she’d been performing regularly in public for some time now, this setting was much more sedate and involved a local audience. She just wasn’t sure how well she’d be received, and, of course, she didn’t want to let her best friend down.
The other night over mussels, Karen and Phoebe had selected a set of music that combined several, mellow, solo sax pieces that would be alternated with gentle vocals about sorrow, lost chances and forgiveness.
Phoebe put in a tape she often liked to hear before she rehearsed because it touched her and she always felt it brought her soul up into her voice. While it played she sat, collecting herself on the stool before the microphone. It was a Celtic number with the haunting timbre of a wooden flute, distant bass drumming sounds and the strings of a violin-playing lament. It was a marvelous piece with or without vocal accompaniment so she let it play through once before beginning to sing along.
By the time she finished this first song ten or twelve people had arrived and were visiting with Karen, Brian and each other. They helped themselves to food and stopped before the various relief pieces and three-dimensional sculptures of Michael Dakota.
When Michael entered the gallery Karen was occupied with guests at the champagne table and had her back to the door. Other guests were milling around, talking softly or just looking at the work and listening to the music.
Phoebe had just finished the first strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Me,” and was the first to see the artist enter. He wore what appeared to be a cashmere chocolate brown turtle neck sweater with taupe dress slacks and carried a flecked tweed wool blazer over his arms that were casually crossed in front of him. He entered the gallery, stopped just inside the door and looked directly at Phoebe, not averting his gaze from her face once until the song was done.
Toward the end of the song Phoebe saw Karen notice he’d arrived and walk toward him but she stopped halfway across the room, apparently recognizing by his posture and the look on his face, that now was not the moment to disturb him.
When the music stopped, Karen went to him and received a warm and gracious smile. Phoebe couldn’t help but notice that Karen was at least two inches taller than Michael.
She started to sing again, this time the words were:
…and she feeds you tea and oranges
that come all the way from China.
Just when you want to tell her
That you have no love to give her
She gets you on her wavelength
And you let the river answer that
She’s always been your lover…Judy Collins, 1967
Phoebe got into work at the Center a little bit late on Thursday morning after the gallery opening. She’d discreetly left the gallery at ten-thirty when it appeared half the guests were in their cups and wouldn’t notice if it was her singing or just a tape accompanying their reveling. Karen, Phoebe noticed, had secured one of the few chairs in the gallery and was sitting next to Michael who was standing up apparently answering questions posed by a surrounding circle of admirers. Phoebe took the opportunity to scoot home and get some sleep.
The emotional roller coaster hadn’t let up. She’d missed a couple of days of work and badly needed to catch up on Thursday since she was scheduled to perform in Webster and Spooner, Wisconsin, Friday and Saturday nights. The clubs in Webster and Spooner were tiny and she’d performed in each of them several times now. She enjoyed the people she knew would attend. Both these gigs had become mostly sing-alongs among a faithful few who loved the same music as Phoebe. No one hesitated to yell out a request and get started on the first few bars before Phoebe could catch up with the appropriate tape.
She worked late Thursday night, went into the Center again Friday until three then left directly for Spooner where she was expected between seven and eight.
Sunday morning she awakened to feel warm spring sunshine on her face. She had a room in a lakeside lodge and the whole day ahead of her. Finally, a day to herself with no expectations, no commitments. She dressed warmly, snatched a worn blanket from the shelf in her room, took a cup of coffee from the lodge kitchen and carried her journal to the lakeside. She lay on her stomach, face propped in her hands until her coffee was cold, and her legs started to go numb. She rolled over on her back and let the sun warm her face. Ultimately she sat up, hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth to the tune of the water lapping at the rocks on shore. It was after noon before she realized she was hungry and should probably start back.
She fixed herself a salad from the buffet in the lodge and ate it in fits and starts as she gathered her gear and packed up the van. On the drive home she allowed herself the luxury, finally, of processing all the events of the weeks past.
Arriving home she went through her standard ritual of bypassing the flashing lights on the answering machine and went directly to collect the newspapers and the mail.
She sat on the chair nearest the door and opened the Sunday paper to the Arts & Entertainment section and was greeted by the image of Michael Dakota, surrounded by his ceramic sculptures and wearing a brilliant smile on his face. Mary Abbey’s article on his show at Karen’s gallery took the form of an interview rather than a review, but certainly showed him in a positive light. Phoebe found his answers rather vague and thought he seemed understated in his enthusiasm. His images in clay spoke volumes of deep emotional truth, yet his words, at least in this interview belied that depth. She wondered if this artist who she certainly found attractive was merely another version of Mr. Unavailable. She put the paper down and shuffled through the mail.
Jade had sent a card full of loving sentiment and longing toward her mother and the little dog they both loved and lost. Phoebe knew Jade had sorority meetings on Sunday night and that she’d just get Evan on the phone if she tried to call right away so she decided to wait and call her daughter on Monday. She gave the card a little kiss, whispered a prayer for Jade into the air above her head and opened an envelope addressed in unfamiliar handwriting.
Inside was a note from Michael Dakota dated Wednesday, the night of the opening.
Phoebe (hope I can call you Phoebe…),
Where did you go? I waited all night for you to finish your performance (which, by the way, was lovely) so I might have a chance to meet you and talk to you! All the sudden I looked around, and you were gone. I know I’m being tremendously forward here, you don’t even know me, I don’t even know you — but, finding you gone — well, my heart just fell. Kerplunk!! I’m not kidding. That’s just how it sounded.
Please say I can call you. Or, better yet, here’s my number (701) 845-3266. Please call me. Please?
With Great Fondness, I await your response,
He included his address under his name. Phoebe didn’t know what to think, say or do? Yes, she thought his work was intriguing, and yes, he was certainly a good looking man — “eye candy,” Karen called him — but, this really was awfully sudden not to mention unexpected. She set the note aside and opened her bills and junk mail. She poured herself a glass of wine from the refrigerator then went to run a bath. She hit the bed at eight-thirty and instantly fell asleep. She hadn’t checked her phone messages or returned a single call.
* * *
The night of Michael Dakota’s opening in her gallery Karen had been disappointed to discover he was shorter than he looked in his photographs. Though she still thought he was one heck of a good looking man and a good artist, neither his demeanor nor the type of work he did really turned her on.
“It was nothing I could really put my finger on,” she told Phoebe when they talked the week after the exhibit opened. “Just no chemistry, I guess.”
Phoebe and Karen wandered through the Home and Garden show at River Centre in St. Paul. It was the first chance they’d had to talk in days.
“And,” Karen said, “Did you notice this, or was it just me? Every time I opened my mouth with some clever, amusing or astute and wise comment he flinched. Like — well, I don’t suppose it was obvious. Very subtle. But I swear. Honest to God, I swear the little fellow winced! Now, tell me please what the hell that’s about.”
“Oh no, Karen. You have to be imagining that.” Phoebe laughed at the image. She hadn’t thought of it before but, now thinking of the understated Michael, she could see how Karen’s personality might be just a bit overwhelming for him, but she didn’t say anything. She hadn’t had a chance yet, either, to say anything to Karen about the note she got from Michael. She hadn’t called him or written to him knowing that Karen had been awfully eager to capture him for herself when they last talked. Now it was pretty clear Karen had lost interest and, clear too, that Michael never had any inkling of Karen’s intention toward romance.
Phoebe didn’t want to talk about men, though. She wanted nothing more than to wander with her best friend, aimless through the showy fields of flowers that covered the miles of concrete floor on the glass walled banks of the Mississippi River.
She was in no hurry of any kind. All the practical matters of her life were fairly well settled. She had engaging and meaningful work, the companionship of a dear friend, a hobby that fulfilled her life-long fantasy and a daughter somewhere out there in the great big world just about to graduate from college and waiting for the time she dared to call her mother “friend.”
Jade dated and loved Evan Parker, a boy from home, since her freshman year at Cornell. He graduated from college early and followed her to Cornell for the last half of her senior year. Though Jade really thought she wanted him with her and had suffered his absence all the time their relationship was conducted long distance, once he was a constant presence in her life she felt trapped and burdened.
She left Evan for ten days in March to go on Spring Break.
“Thanks for being so understanding, my love, I just have to take advantage of this last chance to be young.” They were sitting on the futon in the tiny room they shared in a house less than a block off campus. She’d been trying to read from her animal behavior text while Evan, trying not to disturb her, leafed through the pages of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a book Jade recommended in one of her many attempts to create a mature and cultured man of him.
“I do understand, Jade. You know that. I don’t want to stand in your way at all. I’ll be fine here. After all, I’ve got a full time job, haven’t I? I’m already stuck with being a grown up, so, believe me, I understand why you want some play time.” He drained his second bottle of Heineken and reached his arm to retrieve a third from the mini-refrigerator that served as kitchen and bedside table.
“Want one, Hon?” he asked.
Jade raised her eyebrows, shot him a disapproving glance and flipping another page in her text, said, “Yeah, right! Like you think I would.” She nodded her head slowly back and forth and thought about all the drinking Evan did. How for all his talk of being “grown up” and “self-supporting” he still seemed such a child to her.
While he was still at Madison, notorious as a party school, she’d just thought it was the atmosphere that prompted his insatiable appetite for alcohol. The school was academically demanding, too, and Jade understood the need to be one of the crowd and Evan’s obvious need to use drinking as a coping device. She told herself he was just a typical college guy and drinking is what typical college guys do.
But now, since he starting living with her and had a full time job she didn’t have an explanation for his every night drinking and his every night getting quietly drunk. She tried to chalk it up to his being away from home and not having time, yet, to develop new friendships or interests to occupy him while Jade studied, went to class, participated in campus and sorority activities. She’d never said anything directly to him about how much it was starting to scare her.
When she wrote to her mom or talked with her by phone she never let on her feelings of fear or disappointment. She did tell her mom Evan wouldn’t be coming with her for her “last ever” spring break.
Jade, Laurel, Katie and Emily went to the Florida Keys where Laurel’s grandmother had a condominium on the beach near Marathon. The first night there the friends went to a Mexican restaurant and bar where a live band played until near dawn. Determined to cut loose and have some unimpeded, unfettered fun Jade ordered a tequila on ice with lime before dinner, one with dinner and held a third to her lips, in lieu of dessert, when, looking across the room, she spotted a familiar face in the mirror above the bar.
“Laurel, Laurel, psst …” she poked Laurel to get her attention. “Isn’t that Dr. Lampert over there?”
“Dr. Lampert? You mean from Org Chem? Where? No, I don’t see him.”
“Shhhh. Oh, he’s looking at us, put your head down.”
Jade ducked her head and sipped her drink lifting her eyes over the rim of the glass to see if Dr. Lampert was still looking her way.
“He’s gone!” she whispered loud to Laurel but now Laurel was laughing and talking with Emily and Katie and not paying attention to what Jade was saying.
Jade leaned sideways resting her seated weight on Laurel’s shoulder. “Oooooh. He’s gone …” she half whined. “I was sure I saw him. He is just about the most gorgeous, not to mention brilliant beyond all belief, man I have ever, ever….” Now she practically squealed, “EVER seen!”
Something tickled her bare shoulder from behind and she reached to brush it away. She threw her head back and tossed down the remainder of the tequila but when she did her head bumped something behind her that felt, oddly, like someone’s stomach. She cringed and turned around, saying, “Ooh, Sorry!” and found she was looking at the silk shirt clad abdomen of someone dressed just like the guy she’d thought was Dr. Lampert at the bar.
“Jade Thorpe, I presume!” He bent close to be heard beyond the music and laughter and loud talk that surrounded them.
Jade jumped. “Oh my God!” she said. “Dr. Lampert! What are you doing here?”
“Hey, don’t professors get to take Spring break too?” Now he reached behind him. Said to someone at another table, “Can I take this chair?” and pulled the chair up right behind Jade’s.
Jade turned on her chair to face him but still looked at him in disbelief. She didn’t know what to say. Had he heard her swooning over him? Oh, please God, no, she prayed.
“What you drinking?” he asked.
“Why?” she defended herself, “I’m twenty two, you know!”
He smiled and scratched his forehead, “No, no. I just meant. What are you drinking? You know, as in, would you like another?”
“Well, would you?” He smiled at Jade’s embarrassment.
“I was wondering if you would give me the pleasure of buying you a drink?”
“Me?” Jade was baffled, hot in the face, feeling her mouth stretch in an unstoppable, and she feared, really stupid looking, smile. She tried to pull herself together. What, she wondered, would be an acceptable drink to let him buy me?
“Well, sure,” she said, “since you asked, Dr. Lampert.”
“Jeff,” he said. “Spring Break. Call me Jeff, please.”
“I don’t know if I can! Well, all right, I’ll try. I could enjoy a nice glass of white wine, Jeff.” She thought for a second, trying to remember that wine her mom liked so much, and then blurted, “Pinot Grigio!” and smiled a self-satisfied grin thinking her mom would be proud. Then repeated, “Jeff.” And kicked Emily, who she sensed was staring at her with her mouth hanging open, under the table.
Jeff put his hand up and attracted the attention of a waiter.
“Sir,” he said, “would you please bring this lady and me a bottle of well-chilled Pinot Grigio?” The waiter jotted the request on his pad and nodded, turning to walk away.
“Oh, and sir, is there an open table? I mean, could you bring the wine to us at a different table?”
“Certainly, sir. There’s one over there, just a small one, there on the terrace.” He pointed to a small table overlooking the beach.
“Oh, that’s perfect.” Jeff turned to Jade. “Is that okay? I thought we could talk with more ease somewhere beyond the din…”
Jade looked at her friends to see what they thought of her leaving the group. Ran his words “somewhere beyond the din” through her mind and thought how distinctly college-kid Jeff was not. All three of Jade’s friends smiled and nodded their enthusiastic permission.
“Well,” she said to Jeff, “I guess so! Why not?” She stood and allowed him to guide her, his warm hand at her back, across the bar and out onto the terrace.
* * *
Michael Dakota’s spring break coincided with Jade’s and he was in the Twin Cities promoting his work. He’d called Phoebe the first night he was in town and invited her to meet him at the Black Forest Restaurant, over by the Art Institute, for a cup of coffee.
He attempted to entice her with, “Hot, smooth, creamy cappuccino — Maybe the best in the Cities …”
He needn’t have tried so hard and Phoebe felt a little guilty for stalling her response to the extent he seemed to think he had to beg. She had, ultimately called him in Valley City and they’d started a kind of correspondence that made Phoebe feel she knew him well and hardly at all, at the same time. She remembered him looking leading-man handsome the way Michael Douglas or Michael Landon are handsome. His brown hair was frosted with silver gray and she remembered thinking what great hair he had. His hair and his body type called to mind Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Though he was shorter than Karen by a bit, he was taller than Phoebe by about that same amount. Truth told Phoebe felt safe, since he lived some three hundred miles away, allowing herself a rich fantasy life that included Michael. It had been close to a year, though, since she’d seen him at Karen’s gallery and that had been an across-the-room experience. She wasn’t certain she’d recognize him if she saw him in the bohemian atmosphere of the bar at the Black Forest.
“Of course, I’ll come.” She said. “I’d love to. What time?”
“Well … actually …you see…”
“What is it, Michael?”
“Phoebe,” he said, “I’m calling you from the bar. Is that too insane and desperate of me? No, don’t answer that. I tried to stop myself, meant to wait until tomorrow at some reasonable hour, but …”
“I’ll be there in half an hour. Sound all right?”
“I hope that’s a smile I’m hearing in your voice, Phoebe. You’re sure this isn’t any trouble?”
“You know what, Michael? I think I was secretly hoping you would call right away. I knew you’d be arriving in town this week but didn’t know if you’d have time to get together. I didn’t want to presume…”
“Oh, presume away! Presume away! Can’t wait to see you. Or, how rude of me, asking you to drive into town, would you like me to come fetch you?”
Phoebe laughed, “Fetch me?! Hmmm. Fetch me, eh? That gives me a picture of you carrying me like a big dog bone between your teeth…”
He laughed. “No. I just mean … I don’t want this to be an imposition. Should I come for you?”
“No, no, no. I’m sorry. Sometimes you use words in a way that, well, where are you from, anyway? I mean where did you grow up, go to school? Sometimes when we talk you seem so, I don’t know, British proper or something.”
“Listen, Phoebe. I’ll tell you everything you want to know but I want to see you. I’ve never been any closer than across the room from you and I feel strongly we’re meant to be closer than that. I’m finding myself quite impatient to find out.”
“Okay. Bye. Be right there! Order me a two shot cappuccino, hold the whipping cream.” She hung up.
Phoebe threw a blazer on over the khaki green thermal underwear shirt she wore with gray leggings and pulled her black leather boots on over white crew socks one of which exposed her baby toe through a newly developing hole. She ran her fingers through her hair, a toothbrush around her teeth and over her tongue, brushed on a little blush and mascara and slithered lipstick from a Clinique sample on her lips.
“That will have to do. Take me as I am.” she said as she strapped her purse over her shoulder, left the house and locked the door behind her. Hasty as she’d been in her preparations she still wasn’t able to make it all the way from Hopkins to the Black Forest in half an hour and she arrived closer to eight o’clock than the agreed-upon seven thirty, to find Michael worried she wouldn’t come at all.
Michael left his seat in the bar and came toward her. Recognition was instant though, later, each confessed to a worry they wouldn’t know each other. Michael gave Phoebe a friendly kiss on the cheek, not a common Minnesota greeting, and again, she wondered where he came from. She found she felt at ease in his company and was eager to learn more about him.
Though they’d talked several times by phone and written a few notes neither had shared intimate details of their lives. He knew she was widowed with a grown daughter and she knew he’d been married twice, had two grown children and was just coming off an ill-fated relationship of one sort or another. In their phone conversations and by letter and then by email, they’d talked about their administrative work — he was Chair of the Art Department at Valley City State and, of course, she directed the Certain Success Center.
The two of them used computer technology and it’s application to the every day conduct of business as an excuse to be in regular communication by email. The similar political stresses of non-profit and higher education gave them one area of common ground. That each had an interest in the creative process, he in visual arts and she, in music, connected them as well.
Over the months they’d corresponded they shared book titles and talked about films they’d seen. Sometimes he’d send her a newspaper clipping of a review of a book he knew she’d read. She now paid increasing attention to the visual arts and particularly loved novels where the protagonist was an artist of some sort. Phoebe, used to Marc’s reading list of strictly Biblical and/or historical works and having decided it was only right for men to be exposed to the real stuff of women’s lives, read and urged Michael to read Erica Jong’s Serrenisima and Any Woman’s Blues.
But now, here they were, face to face. Michael lead Phoebe to the two available seats he’d managed to retain at the crowded bar. It was a Friday night, after all, and the popular Black Forest was standing room only. The room was warm, smoky and the sounds of glasses being rattled and filled and the voices of students, artists, intellectuals and near-bums mingled in the air surrounding the new friends who, having been served, lifted their cups, and each searching the other’s face, smiled, saluted and took a first drink.
It was after midnight, much coffee and a brandy when Phoebe and Michael said good night. He walked her to her car and sat in the passenger seat next to her while she let the car get warm.
“What about tomorrow?” he said, his face lit by the light of the dashboard.
“Tomorrow? What’s going on tomorrow?”
“Can I see you?”
“I’d really like to, Michael, but I’ve promised this mom and her kids, from the Center, you know, to help them move. They’ve just finished up a Habitat for Humanities house off West 7th in St. Paul. It’s moving day! Oh you should see how excited they are.”
“Okay, then, I will.”
“Well, I mean, why don’t you let me help. Then I will see how excited they are. What about that? I’m great with a hammer and nail — You should see me hang pictures! Plus, I’ve got these arms and legs designed to lift boxes. I use to play football, you know.”
“You did? You do? Well, oh, I don’t know, Michael. I’m not sure they’d feel comfortable — they’re really proud people who’ve been through hell and back. I don’t know if I can…” A slight thought of too much, too soon, crossed Phoebe’s mind and he spoke almost as if he’d read her mind.
“No, that’s right. I see what you mean. Well. Dinner then. How about dinner?”
“I don’t know when I can get free is the thing. Can we just wait and see? I mean, can I give you a call tomorrow to let you know how things are going?”
“Sure. You know I’m staying with a friend out by Cedar Lake. He’s got an answering machine. I’ll be out and about, I’m sure, but I’ll check back periodically throughout the day, to get your call. Can we just say we’ll plan to grab a bite when you finish up with your family?”
“Yeah. Let’s do that. I promise to call as soon as I know something. I don’t want to keep you dangling. That doesn’t seem fair.”
“Phoebe. Don’t worry about ‘fair.’ I’ve loved being with you tonight.” He leaned across the distance between their seats and took her face in his hands. She closed her eyes very briefly and breathed in his nearness.
“Oh, it’s been so nice, Michael. If I seem reluctant, it’s just that there’s so much … well, I don’t know … At risk? Is risk the right word?”
“Phoebe, look at me.” Still he held her face. Now he held her eyes as well. “I don’t want to push you. I do feel there’s something here worth exploring, though.”
“No, Phoebe, I mean it. I just want you to give us a chance.” Still holding her face, he closed his eyes and placed his lips directly on hers, then dropping his hands and sitting back in his seat as if shyness had overcome him in this intimate gesture, he looked straight ahead and said, “Okay?”
Phoebe, afraid to make promises about what kind of chance she was willing to take, just said, “I’ll call you tomorrow, Michael.”
Michael opened the door. Said, “Until tomorrow then. Good night, Phoebe. Drive safe.”
As soon as she arrived home, she cart wheeled down the hallway then climbed the stairs to undress for bed. She’d no sooner pulled the quilt up to her chin than the phone rang.
“I just want to hear your voice before I nod off.” Michael said.
“You’re making me nervous, Michael.” She said. “I don’t know what I want right now. I’m not in much of a position to…”
“I know. I probably shouldn’t have called. I’m acting like a schoolboy. I’m not like this, you know.”
“Honestly, Phoebe. I’ve never done this, this, high-pressure thing before. Really, you have to believe me!”
“I’m flattered, Michael, really I am.”
“Well, I’ll ring off now and let you get some sleep. I haven’t spoiled my chances with this call, have I?”
“I’ll see you tomorrow Michael. You sleep well, okay?”
* * *
By mid day on Saturday it was clear to Phoebe that she and Carla Lindsey, Carla’s two ten-year-old twin daughters, and her eight-year-old son could use some help with the move. She told Carla about Michael’s offer and her response was an immediate, “Get that bad boy over here now!”
Michael came right away and after a day of packing, scrubbing, lifting, hauling, hammering and hanging he and the rest of the crew lay sprawled on Carla’s new living room floor, their fingers and faces stained with tomato sauce from the Domino’s pizza a kid delivered around six.
Michael and Phoebe departed to shower at their separate residences and agreed Michael would come to “fetch” Phoebe at eight thirty.
Once home, Phoebe stood under the shower, letting the water massage her tired muscles and steam her back to her senses. She thought of Michael and how strong, handsome and charming he was. He’d been an absolute Godsend today. He had those kids pitching in and loving every minute of it.
They were kids whose father left when the girls were just four and they’d heard nothing from him since. They relished the attention Michael paid. She smiled, thinking of Michael lifting Trevor and the box of toys the small boy tugged by one cardboard ear toward the house, onto his shoulder. He set Trevor and the box bouncing on the bed they’d built together in Trevor’s new bedroom.
She remembered too turning the corner and finding Michael on his knees between Shelly and Sharla, helping them arrange a line-up of dolls and stuffed animals on their twin beds. She realized he’d helped them make up the beds with the new “Little Mermaid” motif comforters and thought what a marvelous combination of strength and gentleness seemed to reside in this man.
Eight-thirty arrived and so did Michael carrying a fist full of daffodils in one hand and a chilled bottle of Frascati in the other. While waiting for him Phoebe had decided against going out if she could talk him into staying. He was more than willing. He made himself quite at home, much as he had earlier with the Lindseys. He built a fire. Phoebe quickly made a salad and cooked spaghetti noodles with a light dousing of virgin olive oil, crushed garlic and red pepper flakes and brought them to the low table in front of the fire.
Tonight, they would talk.
Phoebe admitted to Michael that she laughed when Karen first told her his last name was the same as the name of his state. She wondered if Michael Dakota wasn’t a pseudonym but Karen assured her it really was his name.
North Dakota, as it turned out, though, was not really his state. Just one of the places he’d landed on his way through life. He had chaired the Art Department at the University campus there for the last ten years and had grown to love the wide-open spaces of the Dakota plains.
For the first time, he’d felt maybe there was a real reason for his name. All his years in Valley City his social life revolved around his family, his studio, trips to Grand Forks or Minneapolis — places where the art scene was a bit livelier than the small, sweet town where he lived. He participated on the State Arts Board and was invited to curate shows in Sioux Falls, Wahpeton, Bismark and Pierre.
He was married to Sheila up until a few years ago, and had both a son and a daughter, grown and gone now. He’d thought life was reasonably good. His marriage maybe wasn’t the best. He had tried to leave her twice in the past, once before each pregnancy, but she’d managed to woo him back and then he felt like a cad and stayed, trying to make the best of the marriage. Sheila had her own circle of friends that revolved around her neighbors, the PTA and various conservation and crafts organizations. She was a seamstress of the kind who made the Pooh applique’s for shirts like Jade’s college room mate wore and that were a mainstay of six year old children’s and first grade teacher’s wardrobes. She was a big, jolly woman, with a booming voice and carrot red hair she couldn’t do a thing with. She was famous for her laugh that could be heard across the park on nights she was out walking with friends.
When Michael met Sheila, he’d seen her as a Debbie Reynolds, cheerleader type. She was not so heavy then, short and shapely with big breasts and her red hair cut in an attractive pixy style. She made him laugh — had a good sense of humor combined with a bawdiness that made her eager for the kind of playful and vigorous sex that made him think of the phrase “rode hard and put away wet.” Always after sex with Sheila he felt like Bugs Bunny after a knock out, sitting on the ground next to the carrot patch, a circle of stars swirling around his head — on his face a confused grin.
It would be fair to say they each found a way to lead a satisfactory life within the confines of the marriage until both Peter and Molly graduated high school and left for college. After that, there seemed no sense to the two of them sharing a bed, a room, a home for that matter. Sheila confessed to a level of loneliness and misery he’d never realized and Michael moved into the studio out back of the house until he could find a place of his own.
He focused the bulk of his energy on remodeling a two-story brick storefront into a home, studio and gallery for himself; stayed in touch with Molly and Peter and tried to stay on top of the demands of the Art Department. All this keeping his head above water served to dull any threat of overwhelming loneliness for a time. He and his friends who were artists made frequent stops at each other’s studios where they’d sit far into the night refilling whisky glasses, talking about the “trade” and sometimes drifting into everyman’s vocabulary, national sports.
On rare occasions and as time went on, Michael or Joe or David or Jim would confess to a need for real connection with someone, somehow, sometime soon. Gradually these nights with “the guys” started to depress Michael. He felt isolated in the little prairie town and hungered for travel he’d denied himself when his kids were more in the picture. Denied himself, too, because Sheila was a very rooted woman who didn’t like the idea of leaving American soil. He applied for and was granted a sabbatical.
He went to England and divided his time between the commercial potters around Staffordshire and the independent potters and artist community near Cornwall. He stayed with a friend from the art department at St. Cloud State who was resident director of a program in Alnwick for several weeks and, using his rooms there as a base, traveled all over England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Italy. Though all this travel and the conversations where interests were shared at a level deeper than he shared with his colleagues in Valley City was fulfilling at a certain level, he longed for the company of a woman. He had a deep need for physical and emotional connection that seemed to grow exponentially since his kids left home and no longer needed his constant care.
One night after the vast communal dinner the faculty and students shared at Alnwick he retreated to the fireside in the library, carrying a wee dram of whisky in a coffee cup. Though much alcohol was consumed in this palace cum residence hall there was a University regulation at St. Cloud that prohibited alcohol on campus, so faculty and students alike made half-hearted efforts to make their drinks look like the beverages that weren’t on the outlaw list. He set his cup on a chair next to him and opened the small sketchbook he had the habit of carrying always. He was skilled at pen and ink drawings and found he was welcome nearly everywhere to sit for minutes or hours alone and drawing.
He hadn’t noticed anyone else there when he came into the library, but now he turned at the sound of “Hello, Michael,” and saw Leah, a tall, slender young woman who was living at Alnwick for the year. She was an attractive young woman, probably twenty-six years old. Michael had noticed her among the other students. She possessed an aura of maturity mostly lacking in the others.
“Oh, hello, Leah. I didn’t see you. When did you come in?”
She smiled, almost blushed and pointed to an overstuffed chair in a corner by a window toward the back of the room. “I was sitting over there. Had my head in a book.” She waved the book, saying, “You know this one?”
Michael shifted, set his sketchbook next to his whisky cup and stood, taking the book from her hand. “The Pugh Collection” he read aloud. He looked at her trying to place what little he knew about her, her reasons for being here, with an interest in what he considered to be his subject matter. He knew she wasn’t an artist; let alone a ceramic artist or potter.
“Well, yes. Yes I do, Leah. You surprise me. I don’t run into many people who know about the Pugh collection of Staffordshire figurines. Is this an interest of yours?”
Leah took the book from him and pulled a chair of her own close to the fire and sat down. “Well, to be honest, I guess I’ve been doing a little spy work.”
“Spy work, eh? What do you mean?” The young woman — really no more than a girl to Michael — was flustered. Her cheeks were flushed and she kept looking away from his eyes as if she was embarrassed for some reason.
“Well, what I mean is, Michael — may I call you Michael? I know we haven’t been formally introduced and you’re a professor and I’m a student, but…”
“Oh yes, yes, of course … yes. I’m just Michael. Michael to students and everybody else. Now, what were you saying about ‘spying’?”
She looked at her lap, rubbed her fingers on the shiny cover of the book, picked at a flower on her long, patterned skirt. “Well, frankly Michael,” now she looked at him and grinned a shy smile as she emphasized his name, “frankly, to tell you the truth … there’s probably no other way to say this — I’ve been watching you.”
“Watching me? Watching me? But, why?” Michael was sitting now. He felt awkward and leaned away from Leah, straightening his back against his chair. Now he was beginning to understand he was engaged in a flirtation with this girl. He felt a rising discomfort along with a slight sense of flattery.
“I can’t help thinking it must be lonely for you — all the traveling you do alone. I see you eating alone, you come to the library alone and sit drawing. Occasionally I’ve seen you say a polite hello in response.” Now, feeling she’d been far too bold, she looked away again.
“I shouldn’t have said all that should I?” She stood to leave. “I’m imposing. I can see it.” She left before Michael could even think what to say. He supposed some level of reassurance was in order, but, if this woman was flirting with him, he certainly didn’t want to encourage her.
After she left Michael returned to his drawing. When he looked at the page half an hour later he found there the image of a face that very much resembled Leah. Surprised and upset with himself, he drained his whisky and went to his room and an early bed.
* * *
Two weeks later Michael agreed to lead an Edinburgh tour at the request of Dan Hines, his St. Cloud colleague. This arrangement left him in charge of ten students who signed up first come; first serve for this museum and gallery excursion. He’d been feeling a little guilty about partaking of Dan’s hospitality in letting him use Alnwick Castle as a base without offering anything in return. Besides, there was almost no city in the world he loved more than Edinburgh and the collections at the Chambers Street Museum, the Royal Scot Academy, the Scottish National Gallery of Scotland, the National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art were unerringly delicious as were the tea rooms in the Portrait Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art in particular. He loved the pubs, the traditional music, Princes Street Gardens, and the harbor at Leith. He planned to take his exercise climbing the Salisbury Craigs and Arthur’s Seat. He wasn’t much for the usual tourist gigs like Holyrood or Edinburgh Castle that tended toward vast military displays in their attractions.
His only thought in volunteering his services was satisfaction of his desire to surround himself with the joys of Edinburgh. Dan made all the arrangements with and for the students and booked them in a charming bed and breakfast off the old Dalkeith Road within walking distance of the seventeenth century Sheeps Heid Pub. Thursday morning Dan bid Michael farewell at the train shuttle that would take the group to Newcastle upon Tyne where they would catch the train to Waverly Station in Edinburgh. He handed him a list of names of the ten students that Michael promptly folded and put in the pocket of his blazer planning to view it when they drew closer to their destination.
Taking a seat alone at the rear of the shuttle, Michael gave no thought to the students who would join him. He pulled a small sketch book/journal from his shoulder bag, donned his reading glasses and attempted to settle into his private thoughts. The shuttle was a rather small train car, though, and Michael was quickly distracted by the excited and youthful voices of American students who, he quickly deduced, must be his traveling companions. He surveyed the crowd, looking over the rims of his horn-rimmed, half glasses.
“Oh Jesus, Mary, Joseph and God,” he thought, “What have I gotten myself into here?” He tried to sink a bit lower in his seat — wished he’d brought a newspaper with him rather than the tiny sketch book which would never serve to hide his face satisfactorily. He found himself, in his foreign travels, trying his best to appear any nationality but American, because he disdained the spoiled, entitled, “we’re the only real country in the world” attitude of so many of his countrymen, women, boys and girls. These students proudly flaunted their Midwest American accents. Dressed in baseball caps, oversized Champion sweatshirts, blue jeans and running shoes — the American national uniform it seemed — they’d obviously been left uninfluenced by the customs of British habit and dress.
Michael thought of Edinburgh as a fairly sophisticated city, that sophistication marred only by the constant presence of American tourists. From the back of the train he noticed one well-dressed (appropriately so, he would have said) young woman whose wavy golden brown hair fell over the shoulders of her tasteful and feminine navy blue sweater. Her legs were crossed in front of her and he could see she wore a long, softly patterned skirt, navy stockings and soft tan leather flats suitable for walking in the city. He could only see the back of her but shortly realized he was looking at Leah.
“Hello, Leah. I wasn’t aware you’d be joining the group to Edinburgh.” Michael approached her outside the gate at Newbattle Abbey.
“Oh yes. I thought it sounded like a lovely tour.”
“Yes. Well good. I think you’ll like it. It’s good you’re here.” He looked around him at the gathering circle of students, then back to Leah. “Um, Leah? Would you mind very much doing me a favor? I mean, since you’re here. I really could use a bit of help.”
“Certainly. What? What can I do?”
“I hate to admit this, but I really haven’t managed to get to know many of the students in the House yet. Do you know these” — he almost said “kids,” but thought better of it — “these students we’re traveling with?” Michael hoped she would make introductions and help ease any initial awkwardness.
“Oh sure, I’m happy to. I know all of them. It’s a fun group. Come on, I’ll get them all together. We can start to ‘cement,’ you know, as a group, so to speak, right here and now.” Leah put her hand under Michael’s tweeded elbow and directed him while waving her other hand toward the baseball caps descending the steps to the gate.
Michael couldn’t help but think how proprietary and almost motherly this young woman seemed. She was only a few years the senior of these other students and more than twenty years his junior, but she had a gift for organizing people and events that spanned all ages and types. He had noticed a bit of this at the House, where she acted more as assistant director than student. He found himself exceedingly pleased to have her along on the tour, since she possessed all the social graces he lacked. It’s not that he was anti-social. He loved meeting the odd and interesting person on his travels and discussing the local politics and culture of the day, or better yet historical events that had influenced current politics, culture and art.
He hadn’t seen the possibility of having much in common with the Alnwick student group so hadn’t made much effort in the direction of making their acquaintance during his stay there. As a teacher he thoroughly enjoyed his interactions with students around the topic of making art, but thought appropriate protocol dictated a distance between students and faculty where casual socializing was concerned. Now, he felt set at ease by the presence of the charming, mature and attractive Leah who it became increasingly difficult to view as just another student.
Quickly Leah took on the role of co-tour leader managing all the practical concerns of students, leaving Michael free to focus on what he knew about Edinburgh and conveying the excitement and energy he felt in this place. When first they arrived in the city Michael took them to Hanover Street to the Leigh Coffee House for tea and pastries. There they made plans for the coming evening and Friday.
His love of everything about Edinburgh was infectious and almost immediately he’d spawned ten Scotland groupies. They planned to take a little time to get settled in their rooms and get cleaned up after which they’d have dinner at the Khushi Tandoori House. After dinner they’d go to the Tron Ceileidh House for an introduction to Scottish Traditional Music and maybe even a bit of Scottish Country Dancing. Leah instructed the students in the proper dinner and after-dinner attire. The men appeared in khakis and sweaters, the women in long skirts and sweaters, all of them still wearing their running shoes.
Michael lined them all up outside the B&B and took a picture. His spirits were high now.
It was a great evening during which the group definitely became ‘cement.’ He turned to Leah as they watched the students cavorting in attempts at Scottish dance and said over the lip of his Guinness, “This ‘cement’ enough for ya?” She laughed and bent her head to sip from her pint of dry cider.
It was after two in the morning when they arrived back at the B & B. They’d walked as far as they could, in their mostly inebriated state, the last bus ending service sometime around midnight, then divided into two groups and secured rides in black taxi cabs.
“Shall we have a wee dram in the lounge before we say goodnight?” Leah suggested to Michael as they watched the last of the students retreat to their rooms.
Michael wanted to say yes, but was uncomfortable with how much of a couple they’d started to appear. She was, after all, a student and he knew he shouldn’t get any notions otherwise.
“Thanks Leah. That’s a nice offer. You go ahead though. I’m beat — a little old for these late nights I suspect. I’ll see you at breakfast. Good night.”
“Goodnight. If you’re sure …”
“I’m sure. Thanks, though.” He turned, questioning his sanity in avoiding this lovely young woman so obviously taken with him, and walked to his room, closing the door behind him.
By Saturday night Michael and Leah were lovers.
When they returned to Alnwick Castle they maneuvered to spend each night in a shared room. When the semester ended, they spent the summer months traveling together. Leah openly declared her love for Michael and came to resent the discretion he insisted on in public places or places he would be recognized. He couldn’t escape the reminders, subtle and otherwise, of the difference in their ages, but, too, the nagging sense he was breaking the taboo that prevented faculty from intimacy with a student. If he were in love with Leah, he wouldn’t admit it to himself or to her.
Her company soothed him, flattered him and certainly took away his loneliness. In his heart, he increasingly felt something of a cad for having let her close enough to fall in love with him. He knew he was taking advantage but couldn’t think of a solution that wouldn’t break her heart. He told himself he’d let it run its course. That, certainly, when his sabbatical ended, they would have to say good bye and return to their separate lives.
Leah was convinced Michael was her destiny and insisted on returning with him to Valley City before the start of fall semester.
Once home, everything about Leah and Michael together was wrong. There was no way to be discreet in this tiny community, about a young woman (rumored to be a student — horrors!) sharing his renovated storefront home. His ex-wife ranted loud and long to him and about him. What began as a tender infatuation ended in painful scandal. Leah moved back to Milwaukee to live with her parents. There had been no avoidance of heartbreak.
When Phoebe saw Michael to the door, that night that passed so quickly with so many confidences being shared, she was unaware of the time. She smiled to notice a hint of orange striping the horizon with daylight. All night long they’d talked while only the flames from the fire in the hearth lit their faces and eyes. At points during the night they sat, backs against sofa cushions pulled to the floor, sometimes, arms hugging knees to chest or cross-legged Yoga style. By the time all words were spoken they lay stretched full length on their stomachs facing each other. They’d even engaged in a friendly cartwheel competition taking turns exhibiting their prowess in the hallway of Phoebe’s little house. A sense of ease, of knowing Michael as true company, inhabited Phoebe as she waved goodbye and closed the door behind him.
Phoebe was surprised awake later that Sunday morning by Jade’s call and thinking it much earlier in the morning than it actually was, couldn’t help fearing something was wrong.
“Mom, Mom, oh God, I can’t tell you how glad I am you picked up the phone!”
“What’s, what’s wrong, honey? What’s the matter?” Phoebe knew Jade would read panic in her voice but couldn’t help herself.
“Chill, Mom. Chill! It’s not an emergency. Just real important that we talk. Real, real — important.” She paused, then said, “That’s all.”
Phoebe reached for the clock on her bedside table and learned she’d slept until nearly noon after saying good-bye to Michael. Spring break was coming to an end and both Jade and Michael had to return to school the following week. This was the first Phoebe had heard from Jade over break. She’d spent nearly every available waking hour and far into the night, last night, getting to know Michael
“Jade, honey. Oomph… I …” Phoebe ran her tongue across her teeth in attempt to wake up her mouth.
“Mom. Why do you sound so funny?”
“Oh, well… I, um, can you believe it? The phone waked me up! I never sleep this late!” Now Phoebe hauled herself up and pushed a pillow behind her back against the headboard.
She scratched her head and yawned, then said, “Sorry honey. Just need a second to come to here. Between being asleep and actually hearing your voice! Well — I think I’m in shock.”
“Don’t start with me, Mom. Wake up though. I need your opinion.”
Kind of a first, thought Phoebe, but she knew better than to say anything. The last thing she wanted was to miss a chance at Jade’s confiding in her.
“Oh?” she said.
“Yes, oh Mom, I have no idea what to do!”
“I’m listening, honey.”
“Well, I’m in Key West, you know.”
“Oh, uh huh. Didn’t know if you were back at school yet or not. Still on break, eh?”
“Yeah. We fly back tomorrow — I changed my ticket so I can stay an extra day, since I don’t have class until Tuesday. I couldn’t stand to go back a minute sooner than absolutely necessary. Plus,” there was a pregnant pause, then, “And — It’s just so awful, Mom. I feel like it will positively kill me to go back and face Evan!”
Face Evan? Whatever does she mean —face Evan? Last time we talked he was so wonderful to live with, cooked and cleaned for her, was so incredibly thoughtful and, Jade had said, they talked about getting married at 23 so they could have their babies when they were young. Trying to convey she could be counted on to listen, not talk, Phoebe simply said, “Oh, is there a problem?”
“I didn’t mean to Mom, but, I came down here and met, well, didn’t meet, I already knew him … sort of …. But, anyway, I met the most wonderful man, and, well, Mom, I just have to be with him!”
“Hmmm. My! Well, what can I say, honey? Tell me more.” Said Phoebe, trying to behave like a therapist, conveying calm and drawing Jade out.
Jade sounded head over heels. Phoebe noticed she hadn’t called him a “guy” or a “boy” which is the way she most often described Evan and her other friends.
“It’s hard to explain. First, and don’t get all wigged-out about this, he’s a little older than I am. Actually, you might think he’s a lot older, but, Mom, I have to say this and you have to believe me — I know he’s just what I need!
“You know how I’ve been saying Evan has a lot of growing up to do? Well, I kind of thought he would show some maturity after he graduated. After getting away from his college buddies — ‘the boys.’ Well, I didn’t tell you this, but I’ve really felt trapped by him since he moved out here. He hasn’t made the slightest effort to make friends and he wants me around him all the time to keep him from being lonely. And, what’s so sad and scary, Mom, he drinks. I mean, a lot! And what’s even worse and, really, I simply can’t believe this is Evan I’m talking about, but he’s actually been really mean and insulting to me a few times when he’s drunk! He’s just so different, Mom.
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry or come flying out here and beat him up or anything, and, I really do love him so much. I just keep hoping this is temporary. But, I feel like I’m taking care of a six foot three baby boy a lot of the time. It feels like such a waste of my last semester of college!”
“Honey, I didn’t know…”
“Well, yeah, and I keep thinking this is my last chance to be young and free without having my choices affect my whole life! But I feel so guilty, because, you know, I asked (really begged, I mean) Evan to come out here and get this job of his. And now that I’ve met Jeff …”
“Oh. Un huh. I see. Jeff is the man you’ve met?”
“Yes. Jeff Lampert. Actually, you’ve heard me talk about him before I think. He was my Organic Chemistry Prof last year. Dr. Lampert?”
Oh boy!, Phoebe thought, but, of course didn’t say out loud. She couldn’t think what to say. Couldn’t help but think of the story Michael had told her about the heartbreak he’d caused Leah. Was Jade setting herself up for a similar fall?
“Mom? You still there?”
“Yes. Yes. Go on, Jade. Now wait a minute. I thought you met … Jeff … in Key West. I didn’t realize this new ‘man’ was from Cornell.”
“I know. It’s weird. A coincidence I guess. Actually, nothing like this could ever have happened on campus I don’t think. I just about jumped out of my skin the night I saw him here because it didn’t occur to me that the faculty is on break too. But, he has family down here. His folks come every winter and stay until May. Actually, they know Laurel’s parents and grandmother as it turns out.”
“I see.” At least I’m trying to see, she thought as she concentrated on listening rather than talking so Jade would tell her everything.
“Well, Mom, I just can’t tell you how absolutely brilliant, kind, wise, mature, gorgeous….”
“All that, huh?” Phoebe couldn’t help but hope this was a momentary dalliance destined to fade upon return to campus, but, still, she held her tongue. She wanted to be understanding. Didn’t want her daughter to close her out.
Jade told Phoebe that Jeff was forty years old, a medical doctor as well as a holding a PhD in Chemistry. He’d been married for fifteen years to a law professor at Boston University, had no children — at this particular piece of news about the children Phoebe breathed a silent sigh of relief remembering her reception from the accounting cowboy’s daughters — and hadn’t dated anyone since his wife divorced him the previous fall.
“And, Mom, we just have so much in common! You know what I said about his folks being down here, well, his ‘father’ is his step-dad. He lost his real dad when he was twelve years old! And, listen to this, Mom … that’s what inspired him to study and teach medicine. Sort of like me you see?”
“I think I do, yes.”
“Mom, he’s just so understanding and respectful. I really think he’s exactly what I need right now. You know how you’ve been telling me it seems like I’m always the one my friends and roommates turn to for advice and counsel, but, you wondered who I have — I mean, since the fiasco with Lila Bruce — who do I look up to and confide in?”
“I know that’s been a concern of mine and I know you haven’t felt I could fill that role. I think it’s more of the fallout of losing Dad, don’t you? I mean, that maybe you’ve felt you have to be so strong on your own since the person you always depended on for strength was Daddy.”
“Well, whatever, Mom. I don’t really want to get into you psychoanalyzing me over the phone. I don’t think there’s any other explanation than it makes sense I would fall in love with a wise, kind, gentle, mature man. Maybe you’re right that it’s because of Dad. That’s the kind of man he was.”
“Honey, you have a point there. If Jeff is all that you say he is…”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Mom? ‘If?’ I was afraid you would be this way!”
“Now wait, Jade. I’m not being any ‘way.’ I love you and I respect you. Let me put this another way. The situation with Evan sounds uncomfortable to say the least. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I truly, truly only want your happiness and safety. If you have such strong feelings for Jeff and you don’t want to walk away from the possibilities there, then, of course, you need to figure out what you want to say to Evan.”
“Yeah. I know. I know. God, I feel so guilty. Part of it is I’m starting to feel like I love Evan more like a brother. He can be so sweet. Plus he’s very smart, too. And responsible. I could easily see us sharing a home and family someday. And at moments this semester, while he’s been here, I’ve felt like I might be ready for that. I know now I was wrong. I really need some time to just be me, by myself.”
“I can understand very well you feeling that way. What are you thinking you want with Jeff?”
“Oh, that’s another thing. I don’t know. I never expected to feel this way. And, of course, we’ll have to be very discreet back on campus. I mean, neither of us thinks we’re doing anything wrong. I already finished his course and will be graduating, so it’s not a question of the power differential thing. But, I don’t know! I’m supposed to head right off to four years of medical school at Mayo in August and it feels like that just sets the pattern of never having a break from intense responsibility for the rest of my natural life!”
“What are you saying? Have you thought of an alternative? Have you and Jeff discussed this?”
“Well, yes, we have a little. He doesn’t really know what his future holds right now. He’s on sabbatical next year and taking some of the time to travel, some to do clinical research and site visits around the country. This summer he’ll be up in his place in Maine.”
“That all sounds quite wonderful, doesn’t it?”
“He’s asked me to come to Maine, Mom. I confess I want to say yes more than anything but, oh, I so hate to hurt Evan.”
“Well, do you mean just for the summer? Are you thinking of putting off medical school for awhile?”
“We did talk about that a little bit. But, something tells me I might be letting you and even Dad, maybe even myself down, if I did something so frivolous. Besides, I have no idea what Mayo would think of that, do you? Jeff said lots of medical schools actually encourage entering students to take a break between college and the intense pressure of medical school. But, of course, this has all happened so fast.”
“Yes. Your head is spinning, I imagine. Well, look at it this way, honey. In one short week you’ve gained an entirely revised perspective. Perhaps you and Jeff can talk before you return to campus and figure out a reasonable pace for exploring what it makes sense to do next. Also, you really don’t know what it’s going to feel like to go home to Evan. I think your response to that situation will help you determine what you want to do next too.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think that makes sense. Well, I’m really glad I reached you, Mom. I’m spending the day on the beach with the “girls” then meeting Jeff for a picnic tonight. We know we have some serious stuff to discuss. And, I want you to know, it hasn’t gone so far that I can’t turn back, if you know what I mean. I mean, if that’s the right thing.”
“You mean ‘sex’, don’t you? You mean you haven’t slept with Jeff?”
“Actually, we did sleep together one night after we couldn’t stop talking. We just pulled a blanket over us on the beach and before we knew it, the sun was coming up. But, no, we haven’t made love. Another thing it seems we have in common. For all the sudden, blinding infatuation — and it seems he really feels it as much as me, Mom — we’re both consummately sensible people.”
Phoebe smiled realizing she and Michael had shared a similar experience of intimacy the night before. “I take great comfort in that, Pumpkin. And you know what else, I take great comfort in you calling me this way. I know you pretty much fell out of faith after Lila but I trust you still know the solace and comfort of prayer.”
“I do. Yes. You pray for me too, okay, Mom? I really don’t want to be doing some insane and dangerous thing here, you know.”
“I believe you, Honey. I’ll pray super hard. But, the other thing is, I have a lot of faith in you too. You have some tough decisions to face here and I don’t want to pretend I know what your answers should be. You’ve got to realize though, that I am still a mom and that means I’m tempted to snatch you back to your adorable bedroom in Hopkins, tuck you in with your Cabbage Patch dolls and Teddy Bears for, oh, what do you say? … The next forty years? After that I think I’d be prepared to let you face the world and make all these adult choices.”
Jade laughed and said, “Guess I’ll pass on the forty years in Hopkins but I could sure use the company of the dolls and bears. Could you Fed Ex ‘em?”
“You got it, Honey. They’ll be there to meet you at the door!”
“I better go, Mom. Don’t want to miss my last day on the beach. Thanks for being there.”
“My pleasure, Sweet Pea. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom. Bye.”
“Bye bye, Baby.”
* * *
Jade walked a fine line between the craving Jeff Lampert awakened in her the first night of spring break and her sense of allegiance to the friends who traveled to the Keys with her. She convinced herself any and all concerns about Evan had to be put on hold until she fully lived this one week doing only what felt good, exciting and yes, free. It was a taste of freedom she’d never before allowed herself, and when she actually could put the thought of Evan out of her mind, she loved the feeling.
Each morning of spring break, early, long before her friends crawled from under the covers, she’d carried her sandals and a light sweater and left the condominium to meet Jeff for a walk on the beach. She hadn’t lied to her mother about how far the affair with Jeff had gone. They hadn’t made love when she called home. She’d found though, that she couldn’t let the chance to love him pass her by. There was one more night, one more chance to ride this lovely dream wave as far as it would take her.
This morning, the day she and Jeff would return to the real world, she awakened with the dawning sun as on every morning since she and Jeff found each other. Propping her head on one elbow she faced the open patio door and observed the wash of morning light that drifted through the room. A slight, salty breeze stirred the open chiffon curtain. This morning there was no need to collect herself and seek Jeff on the beach. She reached a hand to touch his face as he slept quiet beside her. Her touch wakened him and he turned to taker her in his arms. He made love to her and she found herself tearful and clutching him to her afraid for the moment she would have to say goodbye.
Her friends had left on Sunday but she and Jeff had this final morning together before catching a flight out of Miami that would bring them home at the latest possible moment on Monday night. Not wanting to waste a single moment of the new world they inhabited, neither Jeff nor Jade talked about ‘home’ or the future. She knew Evan would be there to pick her up at the airport. The only decision she and Jeff made was that, once they landed, they would pretend they’d never met. This was their only decision about the future.
Pulling the sheet close to cover herself and her lover from the world’s inevitable intrusion, Jade lay her head against Jeff’s chest and begged for sleep to guard her, just a little longer, from any heartbreak that might lie ahead.
“God damned Toyota, anyway.” Karen had only bought the damn money-pit because it was a Toyota. Her ’84 Black Package Tercel, first car she ever owned and bought new in 1984 had held up beautifully — that is it was still running, had a functional motor and all — up until she traded it in on the current “god damned car” in 1996. She thought, prior to the debacle with this lemon, that though there are few things in life a person can trust, she could trust a Toyota. And the way this whole thing came about, her having this new Camry wagon, seemed fated really. That is, at the time.
She needed a new car. Saw a taupe Camry — one of those classy gold insignia’s on the front — sort of, well, just short of the class issuing from the Lexus or maybe even Mercedes insignia. She passed this car on I-94 driving into Minneapolis one day after she’d been to St. Paul to visit Phoebe at the Certain Success Center. She decided that was the car she wanted, exactly. Oh, except, she wanted it in a wagon. She drove to the nearest Rudy Luther’s and as she turned into the lot, there it was. Right there at the entrance to the lot was a gleaming, taupe, brand new Camry wagon.
Rodney, the sales guy saw her coming and came outside to ask if he could be of assistance. That’s what he said, “Good afternoon. May I be of assistance in any way?”
Karen hated dealing with car sales people. Though she’d liked her Tercel plenty she still winced with pain in memory of the shit Wayne had put her through out at Brooklyn Center. She’d name her absolute, drop dead bottom-line she was willing to pay. He’d shake his head in mock despair, say a few tsk, tsk, tsk’s and look up at her as if she was the first and last hopeless case he ever hoped to see.
“I’ll take your offer back to our finance guy Ma’am, but I can tell you right now, he ain’ta gonna like it.” Wayne was skinny, gray and bald. His white dress shirt looked like he’d worn it everyday for twenty years the ring around the collar was so bad. He wore a beige and navy tie Karen thought really set off the gray hairs growing out his nose. His fingers and teeth had nicotine stains all over them. He must have gone back to visit his finance guy twelve times before he came back with a sheet of paper that appeared to display numbers Karen could agree too. By that time she was ready to agree to almost anything just to be able to get the hell out of there. Turned out he gave her the same deal she refused twelve bids earlier, just shunted some pieces of it down to the super fine print and wrote a nice monthly payment figure in that looked good to Karen.
So, arriving on the lot and seeing the very car she wanted, made her hopeful all this wheeler/dealer stuff would go a little smoother with “Rodney.” Plus, Rodney’s shirt was crisp and white, he was a well-groomed, probably twenty-seven/twenty-eight year old African American kid. Looked well fed and friendly. Karen’s hopes were spurred a bit by their shared racial background
“Rodney?” Karen extended her right hand to shake his. “I want that brand new car right over there.” She pointed.
“The wagon? S’not new, Ma’am. Have to order new — f’you want new. Here, come on in here, I’ll show you new…”
“Rodney, no. I guess you don’t quite understand me do you? I want that car. It looks plenty new to me.”
“Well Miss …”
“My name is Karen Kline, Rodney. That will be Ms. Kline to you.” She thought it important this young man show the proper respect “Now what were you about to say?”
“Well, Miss Kline …” Rodney had to look up to make contact with Karen who was several inches taller than he was.
“Mzzz, Rodney, Mzzz Kline,” she emphasized the phonetics of the situation.
“Oh, yeah, well, like I was saying, that car is used. It’s a 94. Just looks like new is all. I only handle the new deals, so if you want a new car I can help you.”
“Well Rodney, what could you do for me in that exact same car but brand new? I mean this year’s model. A 96?” Now she wanted Rodney to help her. Knew that with the world still so god damned bigoted, even here in liberal Minnesota, he’ d have to put up with a fair amount of shit to make good in this business. And, Karen was prepared to go first class here. Her gallery was prospering and her father’s death in 1993 from a sudden heart attack had resulted in a nice chunk of inheritance for her.
“Don’t make ‘em like that any more Miss Kline. Toyota’ s quit makin’ wagons ‘cause everybody wants one of the new SUV’s.”
“What the hell is the world coming to? Station wagons are an American heritage — well, in the case of Toyota — more like a Japanese-American heritage.” Karen thought but didn’t say. Just stood there glaring at Rodney like he was nuts.
Then, “Rodney,” she said, “Can we, I mean, you and I, can we just go over there and take a good close look at that car that looks like exactly, and I mean exactly, what I had in mind when I came in here? Can we just do that?”
He had his hands in his pockets and looked around to be sure nobody important was looking then said, “Yeah. Sure. After you.” He extended his arm in the direction of the car and they went over and took a look at it.
Karen climbed behind the wheel while Rodney educated himself with the information on the sticker on the window.
Karen looked at the odometer. Only 24,000 miles and two years old. Hmm. It occurred to her she might save some money by buying this car and it was probably still under warranty. What could she possibly lose? It was a Toyota. Too bad about Rodney, she thought.
“You sure you can’t sell me this car Rodney?” she asked as she climbed from behind the wheel and joined him in reviewing the window sticker. Its price of $22,000 alarmed her. She’d only paid $8500 for the Tercel and was prepared for prices to have gone up, but, Holy Shit — $22,000 for a used car!
“Rodney, did you see that price tag? Can’t you do something about that for me? I didn’t come in here expecting to pay that much for a new car! Hey, Rodney, I got it, tell your ‘Finance Guy,” — that’s who you’ve got to ask isn’t it? — tell him I’m your sister. He’ll let you sell me a used car then, won’t he?”
“Geez, Miss Kline, I don’t know. I could get in trouble just for askin’. . .” He seemed to think about it. Then, “Oh, all right. I’ll go ask. You come inside and have a cup of coffee if you want and I’ll go ask.”
“Thanks Rodney! You’re the best little brother …”
He smiled. Seemed rather pleased to participate in something like a conspiracy.
When he came back he had a handful of pink, yellow and white duplicate legal- type documents in his fist.
“Let me show you the deal we can give you.” Now he sat across the desk from her and leaned toward her flashing the triplicate, carbon-less, eight and a half by fourteens in her face.
She moved her face closer to his, took the papers from his hand and without looking at them, said, “I won’t go more than $20,000, so, if this fist full of papers says one cent more, you’d best go have another chat with your finance guy.”
Rodney looked at her. Shook his head slowly. Rolled his eyes. He stood, supporting himself with the top of the desk, then took the papers and walked back down the hallway, saying over his shoulder, “You couldn’t make this easy, could you? Not even for your little brother?”
Karen pulled an emery board from her purse, crossed one leg over the other pointing the toe of her beige pumps in the air and went at the nail on her left index finger in an act of mock patience. “Yeah, well, I been at this scene before, Rodney my man, and I can sit here and watch you walk back and forth to your ‘finance guy’ practically for fuckin’ ever, to save $2,000.” She talked to herself under her breath in the empty show room. “Hell, some days it takes me all day to earn $2,000!” She laughed. Thought she was pretty funny. Couldn’t remember a recent day her sales at the gallery had been anywhere near that much. And all she had to do was sit here and if he didn’t come down a lousy two thousand, well, then, she’d deal with that when and if it happened.
Karen had barely finished smoothing out that nail and laughing at her own humor when Rodney was back with the papers. He’d crossed out the second number two in the series, underlined it, then written in bold black “TOTAL = $20,000”.
“Good job, Rodney! That looks like a sign-able document you got there. Now, that’s my total, there, right? Like it says, ‘TOTAL’ here in black ink. I mean, that’s what I have to finance, right?”
“Well there’ll be certain finance costs,” he looked at her and added, “and such.”
Karen hated it when people said “and such” even when they weren’t trying to jerk her around on a car deal. “…and such?” She raised her eyebrows. “And such? Rodney, I told you what I’d pay for that car. Now. Why are you putting us through this? What, specifically are the finance costs? And, what specifically do you mean by ‘and such’? Because whatever it’s going to take to get me a total, and I mean total, of $20,000 on this deal, that’s the deal I want.”
“There’s taxes and license, that’s, let me see,” He tap-tapped on the ten key on the desk, pushed the total key, and wrote another $1800 plus on the form.
Karen shook her head and said, “Rodney, you and Mr. Finance got to figure out how you’re going to get that car down to eighteen-two now, don’t you? ‘Cause if you don’t, and you tell him this, you’re not going to be able to sell your big sister the car of her dreams and she might just never forgive you. Now what’s that going to do to the future of family happiness?”
“Miss Kline …” he started.
“Oh hell, Rodney, call me Karen. I’m your sister, remember?”
“Karen, then. Karen, let me show you some figures here so you’ll understand that if I sell this car to you for $18,200 neither me, Toyota or Rudy Luther either’s going to make a red cent.”
“Oh Rodney, Rodney, Rodney.” Now it was her turn to tsk, tsk. “What kind of fool you think your big sister is, eh? Listen, you think I came in here without first looking at the Blue Book? Huh? Is that the kind of fool you take me for?” She hadn’t, of course, looked at the Blue Book, but she was pretty sure a two-year-old car in 1996 had a considerable margin for maneuver, price wise. “Now, can you get me the deal I want or no?”
“I’ll try. I’ll try. No guarantees, though.” He walked back down the hall.
This time Karen waited a good, long half-hour, and after walking to the window and looking out at that shiny taupe Camry wagon she started to feel ready for a compromise. After all, she had the money. It wasn’t that. She just didn’t like to be jerked around any more than was absolutely necessary.
“Karen, I think maybe we can work this out.” Rodney returned. “Tell you what. Me and my finance guy’ll split the difference with you. Here look at this.”
Rodney showed her a split in the $1800 that left the car price at just under $21,000.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll take it. Here, let me sign that thing and take my car home.”
By the time Karen got out of there she’d bought a 100,000 mile warranty for the $900 they’d saved her and written out a check for $2000 to secure the car until she could work out the financing with the credit union. She figured the 100,000-mile warranty pretty much guaranteed nothing covered by it would go wrong with the car. She and Phoebe shared this logic about insurance in common, but if Karen had thought about that, and how things had turned out in Phoebe and Marc’s case, she probably would have skipped the extra coverage. Nope, she thought. If anything went wrong it would be something not covered. So, “Sure,” she’d said, “Give me that 100,000 mile, complete power train coverage.” Whatever the hell a power train is …
Rodney called to do a preliminary credit check on Karen and for her $2,000 down payment, Rodney let her drive the car away with Karen’s promise to come back with a $19,000 check the next day.
She drove straight to the credit union. It was 4:30 PM when she got there and closing time was 5:30 PM so she was sure she wouldn’t have another long wait for service. She loved the smooth ride of her new car. Played with the power windows, the automatic antenna, tried out the horn. Rudy Luther’s was open ‘til 9PM so she just drove right back there and left off her check. Rodney left work at six so Karen didn’t have to eat crow or anything for the fact he’d managed to get out of her pretty much what the sticker on the window said she’d have to pay.
Days later, after the first blush of pleasure at the smooth hum of the V-6 engine and the power drive automatic transmission, Karen noticed the car pulled just slightly to the right and seemed to go bumpity-bump even on smooth pavement.
“God damn,” she thought, realizing she was saying and thinking that excessively in the last several days. She felt justified, though. “I mean, shit,” she said to herself, “I’m practically paying more for car payments than I pay on my monthly mortgage!”
She pulled into the Amoco service station near her house and had Sven, her favorite mechanic; take a look at the car. She described how it felt to drive it, the noise it made.
“Could be a bad bearing.” He said. “Could be your tires. You’re sure this thing wasn’t in a wreck or anything?”
“A wreck? A wreck? Is it possible they could sell me a car that was in a wreck?”
“Now, don’t get worried. It’s probably just fine. But, if I was you, I’d take her right back and have ‘em make it right.”
Armed with Sven’s wisdom and her 100,000 warranty she made an appointment with Rudy Luther’s service department. She sat in the waiting room for two hours, catching up on “People” magazine, drinking stale decaf and trying to block out the sound of Sally Jessie Raphael’s guests brawling on the TV screen in perpetual motion on the wall above her head. Finally, her name was announced over the paging system and she went to talk to the service guy.
He greeted her in the garage, wiping his grease-blackened hands on a frayed white rag. “It’s your tire, Ma’am. Car needs new tires.”
“Tires? You sure? My mechanic said he thought it was a bad bearing.” Goddamned jalopy, she thought.
“Nope. It’s your tires. Needs new ones.”
“Tires, eh … well, okay. What can I say? I’ll take ‘em. If you say so, put ‘em on. Hey, what’s that gonna cost me, anyway? Under 30,000 miles, they’re covered right?”
“No Ma’am, they’re not. And, anyway, we don’t do tires. Have to go to a tire place for that.”
“You? — Don’t? — Do? — Tires here?” Her mouth hung open in disbelief. “Uh huh. Uh huh … and what you’re telling me … See if I’ve got this straight, okay? Bear with me just a minute here. Tires on this thing aren’t even covered up to 30,000 miles?” Incredulous. Livid, too.
“S’right ma’am. Sorry couldn’t help ya.” He handed her the service bill.
“Shelly up there at the cashiers’ll take car of you now. Like I said, sorry.” He stuffed his gritty hands in his navy service suit with the little white embroidered badge that said “Wyatt” in red letters like somebody’s sewing machine’s hand-writing.
Karen grabbed the crumpled yellow paper from his hand and under her breath, said “Earp” to the back of Wyatt as he shouldered his way through the swinging doors into the next room.
She couldn’t believe it when she looked at the bill. Twenty-five dollars! Assessment fee! Now she switched cuss words. “Jesus Christ!”
She paid up and left but took good notes. Next day she made her first visit to Fred’s Tires. Since then she’d been back there twice. After they sold her a new set of tires, one of which got promptly wrecked by the bad right bearing that Toyota finally had to replace, Fred’s had to put on another new tire and re-align the cursed taupe beast she’d named Daphne (thought it sounded sophisticated) but took to calling “God damned money pit” in short order.
After the bearing was repaired she had to have all four tires replaced so they’d wear evenly. That was only 3500 miles ago. “Holy fuckin’ crap!” She’d said in a whisper, when the thing started to pull again to the right after an oil change and Sven said, “Radial Drift. It’s in your tires. “
So, there she was, back at Fred’s Tires. They’d re-arranged the waiting room but kept the green peanut M&M from 3500 miles before under the table on the dirty pink beige tile floor. They must have thought this dirty color wouldn’t show the mud and footprints. “Wrong as rain,” Karen thought as she watched the toes of her right clog bounce up and down with impatience. She was supposed to meet Phoebe at the coffee shop in less than a half hour, and Phoebe had made it sound like her need for Karen was urgent.
Phoebe was waiting for Karen at Caribou Coffee on Grand Avenue just a couple of miles from Fred’s Tires over on University. Phoebe’s immigration in employment from Hopkins to St. Paul had done nothing to diminish the frequency of her contacts with Karen.
As a matter of fact, St. Paul was emerging as the true art scene of the Twin Cities post Target Center taking pretty much all the “art-heart”, as Karen called it, out of the warehouse district in Minneapolis. She was seriously considering moving her gallery to a storefront by the St. Paul Hotel, Landmark Center and Rice Park.
“Phoebe, sorry I kept you waiting. What a morning, what a morning, what a morning. How are you, though, enough about me.” Karen removed her coat and bent simultaneously to kiss Phoebe’s cheek.
“You don’t want to know, Karen. Believe me. I have had it, had it and had it again with that kid…”
“Hold that thought sweetie. Let me get a cup of coffee and join you.” She joined the line at the counter and watched her seething friend from the short distance between them. She was barely seated across the table before Phoebe began.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back.” She said it three times before raising her eyes to meet Karen’s.
“A cliché I know, Karen, but…” Phoebe gripped a white coffee cup in both hands. A very green Grinch wearing a Santa hat flashed a large-toothed malicious yellow smile through the V shape made by Phoebe’s white-knuckled fingers.
Karen, already only inches away, leaned closer to Phoebe. She noticed the cracked winter scarred skin on her friend’s hands and heard the distress in her voice and knew some decorum and probably sympathy were the appropriate response but found herself distracted by the lurid green of the Grinch on the coffee cup.
“Go on, Phoeb. I’m listening.” She felt a grin threaten and lowered her head, leaving Phoebe with a view of her nappy blond curls.
Phoebe removed one hand from the Grinch cup and lifted Karen’s head by the curls. Karen tried to control her mirth but now was treated to a full view of the Grinch on Phoebe’s cup and completely lost it.
She threw back her head, hand to stomach, mouth wide open and laughed one loud bark right in Phoebe’s distraught face.
Phoebe reached across the table and grabbed the lapels of Karen’s camel hair blazer. She pulled her face close to hers and said, “What!? What…I’d like to know! What is so … so … funny?”
Karen attempted calm. She looked in Phoebe’s eyes, couldn’t help her laugh but pinched her lips together and did her best to stifle the snort that threatened to explode through her nose.
“Oh, Phoebe,” There was apology in her voice but she was still pretty much out of control. “I’m so, so sorry.” She put her hand on Phoebe’s at her throat.
“God, Phoebe. That was terrible of me. I know… It’s just … Oh, God. That Grinch. I mean, after the M&M at Fred’s, and, oh, I don’t know — I think it’s the triage-comedy thing again.”
“Karen! Gol darn you!” Phoebe still had little ease in cussing outright, especially when it came to using god’s name in vain. She put her fingers around her cup again, leaned back in her chair and looked down at her hands.
“Phoebe, you just have to forgive me. I mean — put yourself in my place for a second…”
“Your place! Your place … Give me a break!”
“I couldn’t help it Phoebe. Try to understand. It’s one of those ironic things.” Here she covered her mouth and tried to suppress another laugh then straightened her gaze and aimed her eyes straight at her friend.
“Here you are, another Christmas, another Baby Jade bait and switch story to tell, I’m guessing here — am I right? — There’s snow falling past the windows, the fire here inside, your face the picture under ‘serious-sad’ in the dictionary — and, honest to God, Phoebe — and I mean, honest to Jesus H. Christ, honey — I was, really I was, listening to you .. But, then…” here she smiled, suppressed a laugh.
Phoebe stood and pulled her coat from the chair back. She wanted Karen to think she was leaving.
“I can see you aren’t the kind of company I need right now, Karen.”
“Wait, wait, wait…” Karen stood, came around the table and rearranged Phoebe’s coat on the chair back and pushed her shoulders down so she would sit again. She took Phoebe’s face in both her hands, kissed her forehead and pulled her face against her stomach. She patted the black disarray of her friend’s hair.
Now it was Phoebe’s turn to laugh. She pulled away from Karen and feigned a punch at her midsection. Karen returned to her chair, routed around in her Coach briefcase and produced a headband with elf ears, jingle bells attached to the points and arranged it on her head.
“There,” she said. “A level playing field.” She folded her hand on the table in front of her, entreating her friend to proceed with her sad tale.
“Oh Karen. What am I going to do with you? I do love you so, you know.”
“Honey, I love you too. Now, I promise, I’m all ears. Just what did that tyrannical ivy-league bitch of a daughter pull this time?”
“Karen! Don’t say that! She’s my child. I can’t just denounce her as a bitch, can I? Isn’t it my obligation to try to understand?”
“Listen, Phoebe. I love Jade almost as much as you do, I suspect, but, frankly, I feel my greatest degree of loyalty to you and I’m getting sick and tired of watching you suffer through these inevitable scenes of holiday heartbreak.”
Now Karen let Phoebe talk, though this was hardly the first time she’d heard this cataloguing of Jade’s offenses. Always, Phoebe inserted what she seemed to consider redemptive clauses that meant Jade should be spared retribution. Always Phoebe tried to look at the world through Jade’s eyes in an effort to understand and forgive.
But, despite occasional signs of emerging emotional maturity in her daughter Phoebe was justified in trusting her only so far as her repeat experiences taught her. Some how, someway, no matter what the circumstances, Jade would find an angle. A way to lure her mother into false hope, a sense of security in her daughter’s love. Then, sure as Christmas, she’d lower the boom. Smack! “Who needs you!” “You don’t matter” “Why would I want to waste my time and energy on you, Mom?” This was the message Phoebe could trust her daughter to send.
The note Jade might send while away, a pretty flower drawn in her own hand — the words a sweet, beguiling message: “Mombie, I miss you. I’m sitting by the waterfall drinking a hot cup of Chai and there’s so much I want to tell you. Do you think you could come for a visit soon?”
And Phoebe, aglow with love, would pick up the phone to call, get the answering machine and leave a message responding in kind. But then, no return call for more than a week. Finally, she ‘d call Jade and get abruptly dismissed for interrupting on the day her organic chemistry paper is due. Phoebe, deflated, apologizes. This is no time, she’d think, to insist on Jade’s attention. It would only send her further away.
Or, there was the “Yeah Mom, let’s drive out to New York together in the fall. That could be fun!” Then a building resentment and seething silence at the unbearable test of her endurance this nearness to Phoebe will impose on her. And, the proposed trip became a reality but arriving on campus, Jade couldn’t shed Phoebe fast enough. Phoebe gave Jade a reluctantly received goodbye kiss, waved and descended the hill that would lead her home again.
Seldom, in all these years, did Phoebe acknowledge an affront. Always, bitter tears and a sleepless night resulted in a cleansing that allowed Phoebe to re-approach, hope renewed and give her daughter the relentless, unconditional love she believed Jade deserved.
For Jade, every holiday, every celebration at life’s turning points inspired a sentimental and anticipatory outpouring of wishing and hoping. And, as she expressed her hopes she lured Phoebe in, made her think she was included in her daughter’s wishes. Just as inevitable as the build up was the let down and finally, this time Phoebe had had enough.
There never was a right time and place, it seemed. Jade was a hit and run perpetrator of passive aggressive abuse. Not giving her Mom the time of day in the events surrounding her graduation but leaving Phoebe to think they’d have a solitary day between them before goodbye, Jade took Phoebe aside and told her she was sorry, but she just didn’t feel up to the “heavy scene” of a day alone with “Mom” and would she mind, too much, if she asked for a rain check?
“After all,” she’d said, “I’m coming home in a few weeks. We’ll have lots of time then.”
“Sure, honey.” Phoebe had said. “I understand. These goodbyes you have to say after Cornell being your home for four years… A bit overwhelming I’m sure.”
Jade had hugged her. Said, “I love you Mom. Thanks for understanding.”
When Jade did come home Phoebe took her to lunch and Jade asked to be dropped at Jolee’s house. Jeff was coming in a week and she planned to leave for a cross-country trip with him soon after. Phoebe saw Jade one more time when she and Jeff arrived two hours late for a farewell dinner the night before their departure.
Soon, Jade was calling or writing her longing for her mother’s company from the sea coast where the beauty of the fall colors surrounded her on her daily walks. When Phoebe said she’d love to come, Jade made it clear the mood had passed and her mother would be welcome for not more than two days if that.
Phoebe understood. She would reserve her hopes for Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving brought sudden, alternate plans that left Phoebe pinning guarded hopes on Christmas. She’d wised up to a certain extent so made plans compatible with Jade’s presence or absence. Jade arrived home talking parties, snowmen, sledding, hot chocolate … The next day she made plans to leave town to spend Christmas with Jeff whose family she’d told Phoebe she couldn’t stand.
Phoebe asked her why she’d even come home at all.
“I wanted some time to re-assess. Wanted time to myself, is all.” Jade said.
Finally, Phoebe got it together and spoke her mind, the one time she had Jade all to herself for a single meal before giving her a ride back to Jolee’s.
“Jade,” she said. “Here’s what I think. You want your independence, right?”
“Yes. Yes, Mom. I’m tired of always feeling trapped by other people’s expectations of me.”
“Okay. I get that. But, you must know, Jade, you set those expectations and you can escape.”
“What do you mean ‘I can escape’? I never get to do what I want.”
“Honey, what you want to do changes on a dime. I’m sorry. I’m sure this offends you horribly, but it’s time you heard the truth as I see it.” Phoebe could hardly believe Jade was sitting still for this. She actually appeared to be listening. Maybe even a little saddened and moved by her mother’s comments.
Jade, honey, here’s the thing. You make promises, commitments — then change your mind and resent the people who love you — the one’s you’ve promised — for still wanting what you said you want! Can’t you see how that makes us feel jerked around?”
“Well,” Jade sounded both thoughtful and sad. “Right now I don’t want anyone to expect anything of me, okay?”
“Okay. But you have to take responsibility for yourself then.” Phoebe put her hand on Jade’s and locked her eyes on those of her grown up little girl. At this moment, however brief, she held her child’s love and respect. It was a moment to seize.
“Here’s what I think.” She said.
“Okay. What Mom.”
“Get a car. Get a job, and, get a place to live.”
“But, Mom … I don’t want to live here.”
“Alright, then. Don’t live here. But, you have the money and the freedom to set up your own life. Invite people in and out. You don’t have to depend on anyone then feel you have to make it up to them and then feel trapped by that.”
Jade pulled her hand away from her Mom and wiped a half-moon under her eye where her teardrops pooled.
“I’m scared Mom.”
“Oh, honey. I know. I can imagine. But, listen — in order to grow up you have to walk right into that fear. You have to weigh the pain of feeling trapped against the pain of facing your fear of being alone.”
It was a good talk and Phoebe felt comfort that she and Jade had connected.
Jade changed her mind about leaving for Christmas. She wanted to go sledding and to the Black Forest for Bailey’s and coffee. She would call her Mom and they would make plans.
Then, Phoebe didn’t hear from her for three days and when she called she was so booked with other plans she only had two and a half hours to squeeze Phoebe in.
Phoebe said, “No, thanks.”
That was it. The breaking point.
Phoebe poured it all out to her elf-eared friend by the fire at Caribou while she, herself, squeezed the life out of her Grinch cup.
“This is it. See what you think.” Phoebe had her friend’s full attention now. Karen could hardly believe her elf ears when Phoebe confessed to saying “No thanks” to Jade.
“I won’t be unkind.” Phoebe told Karen. “I won’t be critical. I will be straight with her, though…”
“Yes, yes. I hope you will, Phoeb…” Karen couldn’t help her skepticism. She’d watched Phoebe sacrifice her feelings to Jade’s too many times to think this tie would be any different.
Phoebe continued. “I want to say, “It’s time for you to grow up. I want to say “You are twenty two but stuck on eleven when it comes to the way you behave towards me. I want to say ‘You need help from someone you can look up to and whose advice you respect.’ So, three things, I figured I’d say — How’s this sounding so far?”
Karen’s ear bells tingled as she nodded her approval. She waved Phoebe to go on.
“Okay. ‘Three things : Get help. Get a car. Get a job.’ Oh, and ‘find a place to live.’ That’s four, I guess. Okay. ‘Four things.” Now she counted on her fingers and repeated, “One: Get help. Two: Get a car. Three: Get a job, and, four: get a place to live!” She smiled up at Karen. “Not necessarily in that order, though.”
“Ooh — sounds good, Phoeb! Good for you.”
“Just… one thing, though. That ‘get help’ part? Might want to come right out and say ‘find a therapist’”.
“Oh, okay. You think that sounds better? You know she’ll take offense either way…”
“That’s probably true. But, I think you’re right —you can’t come across as mean or critical. Just crystal clear. The jig is fuckin’ up!” Karen lifted her Grinchless cup in the air.
Phoebe reciprocated and as they clinked in a toast she read the insignia on Karen’s mug out loud.
“Life is short. Stay awake for it!” She read.
Jade hurried down the icy front steps of the Page’s, grinning and waving at Phoebe who’d arrived to collect her. Phoebe watched her daughter from behind the steering wheel and, as always with Jade, felt slammed with the turbulence of this girl’s presence. She cringed to see Jade skip down the treacherous steps without apparent care.
She shrugged away her worry and said a silent prayer of thanks when Jade did not slip and crack her head or break her back. Once Jade successfully navigated the steps Phoebe was struck by the beauty and look of maturity of the woman coming toward her. Struck by the truth always so hard for a mother to absorb as a child matures that this fully-grown human being, this woman no less, had her origin in one miniscule egg and a father’s seed. She had only seconds for a nostalgic drift back to the years with Marc, her pregnancy with Jade, all the good times since… She had to snap back into herself. Had to focus on what seemed today, to be a mission of great importance. She did take a half second to notice how lovely Jade looked in her navy pea coat over a scarlet turtleneck, her hair just-washed bouncing; her bright smile rivaled the gleam of the ice that covered the pre-Christmas terrain.
Damn, the thought interrupted Phoebe’s exuberant reverie. That turtleneck sweater is new! She bought it at Banana Republic. Phoebe knew this because it was the very same sweater she bought Jade and had wrapped earlier in the day and put under the tree in case Jade came home for a Christmas celebration.
“Hey, Mom. What’s crackin’?” Jade bounded from curb to car seat and leaned to give her mother a quick kiss on the cheek, simultaneously shutting the car door. Phoebe was pleased to see Jade in such an apparently sunny mood. Jeff, who’d spent the past couple of weeks here with Jade, had left just the day before to fly to Florida to spend the holidays with his folks.
During her summer in Maine with Jeff, Jade learned Mayo was happy to allow her to delay entry to medical school for a year. She’d spent the months of hiatus traveling with Jeff and quite dependent on his financial support. She had a job in a restaurant in Bar Harbor during the tourist season and before Jeff started his research site visits. Their plans for the months between now and next August were still up in the air and Jade confessed to Phoebe confused desires and mixed feelings.
She hadn’t decided she was really in love with Jeff and she hadn’t decided she wasn’t really in love with Evan. She felt trapped in a tug of war she seemed to think she would simply live out and escape from once she started medical school. To Phoebe Jade’s hiatus appeared a great deal less than refreshing.
Phoebe had spent these few days since she confessed to Karen that the straw had broken the camel’s back, in a whirling dervish between hot-headed anger she wanted to vent on Jade and her recognition that Jade was well-meaning and her brutality toward her mom was simply a sign she needed understanding, sensitivity and tender loving care.
Her last contact with Jade had been brutal and left Phoebe feeling swollen as from the body blow of an all over wasp attack. After the tears — the sleepless night, came the usual reflection. Always the reflection resulted in Phoebe wanting to make every allowance for Jade’s bad behavior and this time had been no different.
After the Grinch, Caribou and Elf scene and the letting-Jade-go plan Phoebe shared with Karen, she’d been able to think straight, applying a sense of balance rather than strict vindictiveness to her feelings. The bruises healed, the swelling abated.
Phoebe called Jade from work and set a lunch date then went about planning the specifics of what she would say and do with the opportunity to set Jade free. She left the Center and drove up the hill to the shops on Grand Avenue. She wandered through the Bibelot seeking a small gift that would say to Jade what words might not entirely convey. She found a pewter travel alarm clock that absolutely oozed class. It practically jumped off the shelf and into Phoebe’s hand saying, I’m about moving ahead. I’m about change. I’m about growth. Phoebe whispered, “Yes. You are a gift for Jade.”
She chose subtle and lovely wrapping tissue and wire edged ribbon. The clerk packaged the clock in an obsidian black, cube-shaped box.
When Phoebe returned home with her purchases her eyes fell on the cover of the book she’d just finished reading. It was Elizabeth Berg’s What We Keep. For the second time that day an inanimate object spoke Jade’s name to her. She realized how much the book’s message spoke to her own sense of loss and grief in relation to Jade. It was about a woman on a flight to visit her mother who she’d shunned for the last thirty-five years of her life.
It was about holding onto childhood anguish and perspective and how much, in the end one loses and/or keeps in surviving misunderstanding. Though Jade had often asked her mother for book recommendations, Phoebe came to the conclusion Jade used this information to avoid certain titles more often than she chose to read the books Phoebe suggested. Still, Jade, mostly from afar, as in letters and phone calls, recently confessed to a belief she and Phoebe had much in common in the kind of literature they liked. Phoebe picked up the slightly used book and put it in the Bibelot bag.
This year she’d saved herself the possible heartache of a Christmas Tree confrontation with Jade by buying a live Norwegian Pine and decorating it specific to her own taste. She stayed out of the attic and away from the memories. She baked tiny gingerbread angels and strung their teensy heads with ivory ribbon that she tied in bows and hung from the branches. She set the tree on a low table and wrapped its pot and the table surface in a large Battenberg tablecloth that reached all the way to the floor. She draped white mini-lights throughout the branches and connected the cord to an automatic switch so the lights would greet her in the morning and as soon as the light dimmed in the late afternoon.
Today was a gray day so she felt the need for the glow even now though it was only one o’clock in the afternoon. Phoebe set her package on the cloth draped table under the tree and went to collect the makings of a fire, put the tea kettle on and find scissors and tape for wrapping. She put the Stevie Wonder Christmas CD on the stereo and sang along to “One Little Christmas Tree.”
Heart filled with wishing and hoping and not at all able to avoid remembrance, Phoebe held her head to one side as she wrapped the gifts careful to avoid marring the gilded paper with her tears.
* * *
“I have two gifts for you.” Phoebe reached her hand under the table she and Jade shared at Figlio’s where she’d invited Jade to join her for what she’d explained as “a ceremony of sorts.” She set the packages on the table in front of Jade. One was obviously a book, the other a cube shaped box. Both were wrapped in gold satin tissue paper with wide silver chiffon ribbons.
“Mom. What’s this? Aren’t we going to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve?”
“These aren’t Christmas gifts.” Phoebe hadn’t heard from Jade that she planned to be home for Christmas Eve and she resisted the temptation to make a sarcastic remark. Besides, Jade had outdone herself in getting dressed and fixing her hair and make up for this lunch with her mother and Phoebe felt touched by the gesture. Still, now was not the time to divert attention from the purpose that brought them to this table.
Phoebe had gone to some pains herself in preparation for this lunch. She was almost late picking Jade up because her haircut and eyebrow shaping had taken longer than planned.
Jade was sweetness itself saying how stylish Phoebe looked; how much she liked the look of her black sweater with her camel hair blazer.
“You look very pretty yourself.” Phoebe had said. “I like that color on you.”
Phoebe asked Jade if she’d like a glass of wine and felt the pleasure of being two women together at lunch buoy her for the hard words she had to say. The woman across the table, she knew, was strong enough to hear her mother’s words. She arranged the pretty packages in front of her daughter, lifted her glass and said,
“Today, we celebrate the coming of age of a marvelous young woman.” She smiled across the table at her daughter who held her glass aloft and searched her mother’s eyes for motive.
“To Jade Thorpe! May you become fully your own person!” Phoebe drank from her glass and looked down at the table surface as the heat behind her eyes warned of a coming emotional storm. She set her glass on the table, tried to deepen her noticeably shallow breaths and saw that her hand against the white tablecloth shook and appeared ancient.
“Thanks, Mom!” Jade’s voice was slightly clipped but held an edge of appreciation and softness, as she unwrapped her gifts. Phoebe sensed Jade was exercising careful control over her own emotions. Sensed they both wanted to avoid this moment together becoming another painful memory.
Jade expressed delight with the gifts and Phoebe’s explanation for each.
Phoebe asked the waiter to give them a little more time before bringing them their meal. She wanted some moments without interruption to begin to say all that had to be said.
She reached her hands across the table and took Jade’s hands in hers. She looked at their hands together and stroked Jade’s baby fingers that bore the same inward bend as Phoebe’s. Jade giggled and stroked her mom’s baby finger in response. They looked at each other in recognition of their flesh and blood connection.
Phoebe saw deep behind Jade’s woman eyes the little girl who was afraid of being alone. She braced herself and began.
“Jade,” she wanted to call her Pumpkin, Honey, Sweetheart, but felt significance in using the woman-name Jade used in the world beyond being her mother’s little girl. “I needed this ceremony today as a way to release you.”
“I — Release me? I don’t understand…”
“I want you to understand that I make a very clear distinction between release and abandon. The last thing I want is for you to feel abandoned. What I really mean is, I want to set you free.”
Jade gently retrieved her hands from her mother’s grasp and sipped her wine, turning her face to look out the window. Her eyes were full but she suppressed the tears that threatened to flow.
“Honey,” now Phoebe needed this name for her girl, “Look at me, please.”
Jade turned a brave face to her mother’s eyes.
“For a long time now I’ve felt buffeted, sometimes even battered, by a sense of extreme unwelcome in your presence.” She looked at Jade who was silent but nodded permission for her mother to go on.
“I don’t know how much you intend to send this message. I don’t know how conscious you are … Well, it’s just been so much ‘come here, come here … no, get away, get away’ and, frankly, that’s the kind of message coming at me, that, I can’t and don’t allow myself to accept when it comes from anyone but you.”
Still Jade was silent. She sipped her wine and looked sometimes at her mother, at other moments toward the window, unaware of the activities beyond the glass.
Now Phoebe reached the really hard part. She hesitated but knew it was essential to take this opportunity, now. Who knew when or if another chance would come.
“I’m going to be brutally honest here because I really feel there’s a great deal at stake. All the time since Daddy died, when I’ve felt your anger and rejection, I’ve told myself I had to be the grown up. My feelings had to be secondary. I think that was the right thing to do. I’ve had friends and counselors I could go to for affirmation, advice, comfort. And, always I’ve come away from a situation where I’ve felt rejected or misunderstood or, frankly, mistreated, telling myself ‘next time — there’s always next time.’ You were still young. There was still time and your pain, your need to separate from me and the painful memories I represent, well … all that made sense in my rational moments. Though, I have to admit, I was in a great deal of pain sometimes.”
“Mom … “ Jade looked at her mom then away again. “Oh, never mind.” Now her eyes filled with tears and one escaped sending a narrow stream down her cheek.
Phoebe reached her hand to wipe the tear and said, “Tell me, Jade. I need you to talk to me.”
“It’s just that… do you have a Kleenex?” She took the tissue Phoebe offered then continued. “It’s, well, Mom … I don’t mean to, you know. I mean, really, sometimes I think you think stuff is about you and it’s really not. It’s about me and, well, I think one of the things is I resent you making it about you. About how hurt or rejected you are. Like, I’m all you’ve got and now, look what I’ve done! I see you and, even though I think it will be so good — well, as soon as I see you I just feel like ‘what am I going to do to make her cry this time?’ and I just don’t know how to get it right! I feel so guilty!”
“Yes. Yes. I do get that Jade. I can see exactly what you’re saying and it makes a lot of sense. It’s really very much the reason I decided I need to formally release you. Does that make any sense at all to you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
They each ordered Ziti with Marinara sauce then Phoebe went on.
“I don’t want to hurt you with what I say or do today, Jade. I want you to see, not a broken, frightened woman before you. I want you to see a strong, independent and capable adult.”
“That’s what I want you to see too, Mom.”
“Okay. And that’s what I’m saying. I want to acknowledge that today.”
“Hmm.” Jade chewed on her mother’s words as she broke a piece of bread from the loaf in front of them.
“So I need to go through this ritual I guess. Maybe it would work for me to merely acknowledge this ‘letting go’ to myself but, somehow that seems covert, dishonest. I guess one of the things I want to accomplish is establishing a new set of expectations between us. I think each of us is still acting on assumptions and patterns set years and years ago but we’ve never really taken the time to examine those assumptions. And, really, I think it’s having those assumptions disappointed — I mean, for both of us — that causes a lot of the hurt!”
“Oh, uh huh. Yeah, well, I think I see what you mean. Like there’s this cycle we’re caught in or something?”
“Yeah. I think so. Like … let me think of an example. Oh, I guess Christmas, most holidays — I think each of us expects the other to simply read our minds, somehow telepathically know what’s wanted, then do it. But you’re trying to do what feels right for you as you grow away from home and your attention is, appropriately placed on pretty much everything but home and Mom.
“Still, though, I think you expect nothing about me will change and, it seems like you believe nothing should change in what I offer as ‘home and Mom’ and that you think you should be able to forever expect that little girl delight like you once felt about home and holidays. See what I mean? That’s what has to be set aside. Just as you are realizing, as an adult, how different things are than you imagined they would be, I’m constantly evolving too, and my attention has to go to things other than being only and always a mother to you.
“I think if we start to see each other as adults who are striving for rich, full, rewarding lives on our own, we will act toward each other out of a desire for the other’s company, and not so much out of a desperate need for the love and of approval of a mother or a child.”
“You mean, sort of treat each other the way we treat other people in our lives? Are you sure you really want that, Mom?”
“Jade, I swear to God,” Phoebe raised her right hand and set her left on the table as if swearing on a Bible. “Yes. That is it. That’s what I really want. I want to set you free from the sense of obligation that makes you able to only feel guilt and resentment in my presence. I want you to know you can come to me for advice, counsel and comfort, or, hey, maybe even because sometimes I’m just fun to be with! — But, not because you feel I need taking care of or coddling or, not ever, because you would feel so guilty otherwise.”
“Well, it sure sounds good, but like you‘ve always told me,’ be careful what you wish for
“Good point. Good point. I have to admit, if you go away and never talk to me or see me again, because it’s always only been about guilt and obligation and you find you simply do not like me or want to have anything to do with me, I will feel tremendous loss of a dream. It will break my heart! But, Honey, I have to admit too, that there’s already been lots of heartbreak between us and lately it has reached a level that is entirely unacceptable to me as a self-respecting woman.
“And, getting back to this thing about how we treat other people and want to be treated… I have to say, if it was a man or a friend of mine, who treated me with the disdain I’ve felt from you … Why — That line from Bette Midler’s “Rose” monologue comes to mind, and you’ll have to excuse my French here, it goes something like this. “Fuck this shit!”
A look of shock accompanied by a small grin crossed Jade’s face and she nodded her understanding.
“I’m telling you, Jade, I’ve honestly thought that very line in my head at times when I’ve felt bludgeoned in relation to you!”
Jade looked out the window and didn’t say anything. Phoebe thought Jade’s silence meant she felt overwhelmed by her accusations.
“So, here’s what I’ve decided I have to do for me, Jade. I hope you don’t judge me selfish. I hope, too, I’m setting an example for you in how you deserve to be treated by those who say they love you.”
“So, there’s more?” Jade pushed her Ziti aside, crossed her arms across her chest and looked at her mom.
“Just a bit more. Then I’ll have said what I have to say.
“Four things,” Phoebe said. “I have four things I want to say in acknowledgement of your coming of age and your independent womanhood. One, two and three are: it’s time you got a car of your own, a place to live and a job to support the car and home in the time remaining until medical school. Four is this: I want you to find someone to look up to whose advice you can seek and respect.”
“Mom, I have Jeff, don’t I? And I’ve got that money you put in stocks for the years I’m in medical school. I just need to get by for six or seven months is all!”
“Yes, you have Jeff, Jade. But think of what you’ve told me about what’s happening for you in that relationship. You still have feelings for Evan and haven’t entirely let him go — and, he’s waiting, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“And, you seem to have real concerns about Jeff’s mother’s alcoholism and his denial of that fact. Even though, at first, you felt so drawn to his maturity and wisdom, I think, from what you’ve said, he needs a lot from you that he didn’t get from his mother and father, and you haven’t wanted to burden him with your concerns. You’ve also said you’re afraid you’ll scare him away if you aren’t able to always be strong and capable — that he’ll come to believe the age difference is a problem and will decide to leave.”
“I guess I have said all that, haven’t I?”
“I don’t know what else to say, honey. I just think it’s time to get some help with a whole bunch of issues I think you’ve been ignoring. I know you’ve been embarrassed that I see a therapist, but, you’ve met a lot of people you respect who you’ve thought could benefit from a therapist’s help. You’ve had several friends during college who showed signs of clinical depression or eating disorders. I mean, these aren’t things that people choose for themselves out of weakness. You know that. Well, you didn’t choose to have a life visited by tragedy and all the on-going confusion that follows in its wake.”
“But I don’t have anything wrong with me, Mom! These other people do!”
“I’ll be blunt with you, Jade. I believe with all my heart you are trying to shoulder huge burdens that no one should have to carry alone. I believe you are afraid that asking for help and support is a sign you are weak and might fail. Well, honey, you won’t fail. I don’t think you have it in you to fail. You do, however, have it in you to be deeply lonely. You have it in you, too, and this sounds harsh, but it’s a fear I have for you — you have it in you to enact a subconscious sabotage on relationships that leave you vulnerable to loss.”
Jade grimaced, nodded her head as in, “Just as I suspected,” then said, “Well Mom, clearly you do think something’s wrong with me. But … Well … I do respect a lot of what you’re saying. How about I agree to think about it, okay?”
“That sounds more than fair.” Phoebe was genuinely relieved at Jade’s thoughtful response. In times past this could have been a painful breaking point between them.
“Now, I need to pick up a few Christmas gifts. You got time for some shopping?”
As they left Jade threw an arm over her mom’s shoulder and steered her into the mall beyond where the Christmas lights flashed bright colors. Jade picked up on the tune the Muzak sent over the speakers and leaned to sing in her mother’s ear, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas …” Phoebe joined her and together they laughed and sang, “Everywhere we go!”
It was a day that ended well. A day that fulfilled some of those long time, ‘some day’ wishes Phoebe carried in her mother-heart. Jade came home for Christmas and complimented Phoebe on her great taste in the selection of the scarlet sweater from Banana Republic. Together they popped the cork on a bottle of champagne, danced as they cooked a dinner of roast duck with Minnesota Wild Rice to the sounds of their Christmas favorites on the stereo. The festivities reached a zenith in the Jade and Phoebe rendition of “Oh Holy Night,” and pitched to an all time low when they did the Chipmunks’ “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”
For the first time in years, Jade spent the night in her childhood home. She asked to be tucked in and fell asleep, her head in her mother’s lap with Phoebe singing, not a Christmas song at all, but these words to a Stevie Nicks song that seemed written for the woman, Jade:
Step into the velvet of the morning.
Let yourself lay back, live your dreams.
Take on the situation, not the torment.
Now, you know it’s not as bad as it seems.
Oh, I know you’d like to run away, but baby you can’t go.
Fortune is your life’s blood.
Oh, and any time you think about leaving, think about what you know.
Well, think about it, think about it before you go.
And the heart says ‘danger,’ and the heart says ‘whatever — it is that you want from me, I am just one small part, of forever…
Falling…. Star… Captured!
So, even when you feel like your life’s in danger,
I know that you’ll go on forever, you’re that good.
Oh, and any time you think about leaving think about what you know. Well, think about it. Think about it before you go.
Phoebe pulled the covers tight under her sleeping daughter’s chin, kissed her forehead and tiptoed from the room.
She carried the portable phone to the bathroom where she filled the tub with Chamomile scented bubbles. Sinking into the fragrant suds she dialed the phone number that had become so familiar to her in the months since last spring.
“Merry Christmas.” She whispered when Michael answered her call.
In February 1997, six weeks after she released Jade through the makeshift coming of age ceremony at Figlio, Phoebe went to Valley City, North Dakota where she’d been invited to perform at the Starlighter Saloon. At closing time, after a bring-the-house-down rendition of U-2’s “One,” followed by Van Morrison’s “Precious Time is Slippin’ Away,” Michael Dakota and Phoebe took Van Morrison’s words to heart and left the saloon on their way to a rendezvous with destiny.
It had been nearly a year since the night Phoebe discovered her ease in the company of this man Michael. Time spent together was sandwiched between the demands of their separate careers, their shared desire to be the parents their children — scattered here and there throughout the States but returning home or calling in need at random — deserved, and the growing sense they shared that they were meant to be together.
Michael left his position at Valley City State at the end of May and moved to St. Paul where he hoped to realize his dream of working as a full-time studio artist and begin to make a life with Phoebe.
Jade met Dr. Melanie Janus, Phoebe’s long-time therapist, for the first time at Phoebe and Michael’s wedding in January 1998. Jade was the loneliest she’d ever been. Her affair with Jeff had ended badly the summer before when he confessed he still loved his wife and, though, in many ways, he would always treasure the pleasure he’d felt in Jade’s company, they had no future together as far as he was concerned. Jade had put her life on hold from the day Jeff approached her in Key West.
Jade returned home in August to find Phoebe and Michael making plans to marry, sell the house and move into Michael’s Lowertown loft in St. Paul. If Jade had any thought to return to her own room in her parents’ home it immediately became clear that that was not an option.
Evan had moved on — was now living in Ann Arbor working toward his Juris Doctor at the University of Michigan. Jolee now shared an efficiency apartment near Lake Calhoun with a young Frenchman she fell in love with when she’d gone to nanny for a family who lived just outside Paris. The chaotic state Jade found her life in left her at loose ends and she didn’t think she could possibly face her first year of medical school given the shape she was in.
She found a job teaching Biology at Blake, a private school just west of Minneapolis. She worked a few evening shifts a week at Dunn Brothers Coffee to supplement her meager teaching paycheck and accepted, gratefully, Karen’s offer of a place to crash at her house on Dean Parkway until she felt more certain of the future.
The frantic pace of Karen’s life, coupled with Jade’s working two jobs meant the two of them didn’t cross paths very often. The few chances they’d had to really talk resulted in a confession from each that they felt somewhat kindred spirits in their current sense of displacement from Phoebe’s life.
* * *
“How did it come to this? How? I just don’t get it.” Jade sat, head in hands and unable to lift her eyes to face Dr. Janus. “What happened to bring me here — the last place I even wanted to be? Do you have any idea? Any idea the lengths I’ve gone to — to prove I didn’t need this? Didn’t need anybody?
“I mean, my dad never had any use for therapists or support groups or any of that stuff. He never really came right out and said it, but I think he made it pretty clear he thought Mom’s interest in psychological stuff was just kind of a fluffy girl thing. You know, her so called feminist support group, her volunteer work with women and children abandoned or abused …” Now she straightened herself, lifted her head and pushed her hair back from her face. “You know, I hate to say this, but I think, as much as I adored my dad and believed he and Mom had a perfect marriage — I think my dad left me thinking it was really okay to just think Mom was silly. Not somebody to take seriously.” She looked at Melanie to determine if these words, these thoughts so new to her, made any sense at all.
“Go on, Jade. This is interesting. Insightful. What do you think all this means about you? About the place you find yourself in now?”
“Oh, you mean, like, how humiliated I feel? All these years, ever since Dad died, I’ve mocked Mom for coming to you, for needing anyone. It scared me, you know? Like… how can I put this? Maybe it was just too frightening to think I’d been abandoned to this silly woman who couldn’t handle stuff on her own after Dad died.” She shrugged her shoulders and turned her head from side to side not knowing what to think, then, when Melanie just nodded and waited, went on.
“God, but it’s a long story, isn’t it? Twelve years I’ve been trying to live as if my dad wasn’t really gone at all. Trying to just pretend it didn’t make any difference if you had a dad or not — you still couldn’t act as if your silly old mom had any valuable wisdom or advice to offer. And, even this, my coming to you? I haven’t told her, you know. It’s like I don’t want to give her that. She never has been one to say ‘I told you so,’ but still … It’s like it would make her so incredibly happy — she’d be so relieved to know her sick and deluded little daughter has finally recognized she needs help!”
“Jade, is that how you think your mother sees you? Sick, deluded and little? Because that certainly is not the impression she’s given me. And I know you haven’t told her about me, Jade. But, here’s something … Maybe this will help. You did choose to come to me. For some reason, when you decided you needed to talk — think about this — you came to your mother’s therapist. To me, that choice says something about your view of your mother — your respect for her.”
“I don’t know, Dr. Janus. I know I’m supposed to be a grown-up now, but, since I realized I needed someone to confide in I just keep going back and forth between what I believe my dad wanted for me — you know his expectations, the message I picked up on about his just being kind of bemused by Mom, but hoping his daughter would be more like him. Tough, independent, Stoic — ‘a man among men’ for Heaven’s sake!”
“Oooh, ‘a man among men’! That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? I wonder if maybe you’ve felt that to honor his memory you have to find a way to somehow be him?”
“Be him? Be him? I don’t think so …” Jade didn’t like the freaky turn this session was taking. Her nervous energy made her thirsty so she reached into her pack and pulled out a plastic bottle of water, uncapped it and took a swig while she eyed Melanie with suspicion.
“No, now, just think about it, okay? I’m not saying you’re not yourself. I’m not saying that at all. Just that, sometimes, in situations like this, the child feels she has to fill the lost parents shoes somehow. See what I mean?”
“Maybe … but, I’m not sure what that explains really.”
“Let me ask you a question here, Jade, okay?”
“Sure. I guess so.” She recapped the bottle and slid it back into her pack.
“How do you think your dad felt about women? I mean in general. The gender as a whole.”
Jade didn’t answer right away. She focused her attention on a spot of something on the knee of her jeans and scratched at it with an obviously gnawed fingernail. “Not sure I want to think to far into that one, doctor.”
“Well, turns out I’m a woman! What if I think real hard about how Dad felt about women and decide he didn’t like them much? See? Where does that leave me?”
“Yes. I see. Where, do you think?”
“I’ve just been saying how I’ve tried so hard to guess how he wanted me to be. I’ve avoided all those girly-type things he thought were silly. When I think about it now, and look at the life my Mom’s been living since he died — well, I think I hate it that she seemed so set free, so liberated — though, of course she would never admit she felt that way… I mean, don’t get me wrong or anything — Mom really loved Dad. That’s why she was so careful to hide from him her wish to be who she is now that he’s dead… Or … I don’t know what I’m talking about I guess.”
“You’re really making quite a lot of sense to me, Jade. I think what you’re saying is that it’s pretty confusing to look back over the years past and see that nothing is as you imagined. That’s pretty scary too, isn’t it?”
“Scary? Scary, hmmm. I don’t like that word, you know. I don’t like to think of myself as scared. I guess it’s another one of those things I think would make my dad ashamed of me. He always poked fun at Mom about being a worrywart. You know she worried about domestic violence, poverty, racism, sexism, lack of opportunity for women and girls. He just laughed that stuff off when she talked about it. Said she should just stick to being a good preacher’s wife and mother — that that was enough worry for her to take on.”
“What do you think about fear, Jade? Do you think it’s silly? I mean, in your heart. Do you think these concerns you’ve said your mom gives her attention to are silly? Signs of weakness? What?”
“Well, you know it’s kind of weird, because when I was in college and just this last couple of years since I’ve been out in the world, I see it as essential for people to address those issues. I’ve really felt incredible respect for women and men, who just dive right into the dirt and try to clean it up, try to make some little difference for some one. But, until … well, until almost right this very minute, that’s not how I’ve viewed my mom. I’ve just seen her as a weak, silly, frivolous woman who doesn’t have much to offer to a person like me.”
“Let’s explore that a little then, Jade. Who is that person like you? Can you describe her for me?”
“Well, Dr. Janus, I really thought that was your job. I thought that’s why people came to see you. You know, I’ve reached this place where I’m all confused, lonely and unhappy. I don’t think I really know who I am. That’s why I’m here?”
“Maybe the best way I can do my job is to urge you to look more closely at yourself. See, I don’t think being afraid is a weakness. I think fear is the ultimate human challenge. I believe, as I think your mother believes, it’s a willingness to admit to fear and then face it, you know, walk right toward it, that allows us each to make a unique contribution.” Melanie looked at the clock on the wall.
“Our time is just about up for today, Jade, and I feel we’re really just beginning to get to know each other. Will you come again?”
Jade’s face colored and her eyes darkened with what could only be read as shame. She looked like a lost little girl when she finally said, “I’m afraid.”
Melanie placed her hand on Jade’s cheek and said, “Me too, Jade. There is no one alive who isn’t afraid. Just those who either do or don’t admit to fear. You know what I want us to do here?”
“What?” Jade reached for a Kleenex.
“I want us to hang onto each other and walk right into that volcano you’ve kept the cap on for so long. Will you think about it? I’d really like to talk with you again.”
Jade squeezed her lips together and squinted. She stood and walked toward the door, then turned to Melanie and said, “I don’t like being afraid. I’ve always pretended fear didn’t exist. Plus, how do I approach the edge of a volcano that’s absolutely consuming me? I’m already in it… or, it’s in me… the way you put it.”
“Jade, I promise you, everything will be all right. I promise.”
“Okay, then. I’ll think. Goodbye. Oh, and thanks.”
“Take care, Jade. Until next time.”
Jade closed the door behind her. She left the building and walked across the street to Loring Park. She found a secluded spot on the grass where she could watch the black glass surface of the water. She sat cross-legged scratching again at the spot on her jeans. As she scratched away the crusty surface of the stain on her pant leg a memory visited her of a day, long ago, when she and her father had shared a picnic right here by this lake. They’d packed a picnic and biked all the way from Hopkins. She’d been nine years old and so certain she never could have made it to the picnic spot without her father to guide her, to cheer her on. Now here she sat, having come full-circle. Her father was gone but she was beginning to find the way without him.
The day of the picnic Jade and her dad lay side by side in the grass. Faces to the sky, they took turns naming the shapes that floated past in the form of clouds. Her dad told her the clouds were messages and that messages came to us in many forms and it was important always to pay attention, to watch for the next message that might visit. He told her something she had forgotten until this very moment — that we are not meant to know what the future holds. We are meant, he said, to embrace the present and to honor the past.
Jade looked at the water and saw reflected there a cloud that, depending how she looked at it, from this angle or another, seemed to contain any number of images she believed were meant for her eyes alone. She looked from the reflection in the water to the sky above. There she saw the billowing white shape of her smiling and waving father astride a small puppy dog on a two-wheeled cart. She smiled in recognition and looked again at the stain on her jeans. This time she saw the very image of her mother’s face. That image had been there all along. Why, Jade wondered, hadn’t she seen it earlier — paid more attention, like her dad had said. Something told her — maybe it was that silly look on her mother’s face in the stain — that it wasn’t too late. Maybe the message in the dog-riding dad was that it never is too late. Right now Jade’s heart held such a mixture of emotions. Life was a riddle she ached to solve. Earlier she’d asked Melanie the question she’d finally formulated as central to her survival. “How” she asked, “can I manage to avoid loneliness, loss and sorrow?” Melanie, true to therapy-speak form, had told her it was a question each person had to answer for herself. But, she said, sometimes the answer lies in rephrasing the question.
“What do you mean?” Jade asked.
“Well, what is it you think you’ll find if you manage to avoid loneliness, loss and sorrow?”
It didn’t take Jade long to answer. She said, “I think I would be happy, loved and fulfilled — at least that’s what I want to feel — what I’m afraid I can’t have.”
“Well, Jade, I sure don’t want to preach to a preacher’s daughter but remember those words from the Bible — ‘seek and you will find?’”
Jade rolled her eyes and said, “Of course, but…”
“All I’m saying is, rephrase your question and see if it helps. I mean, it’s not what you want to hide from, as in ‘avoid’ — as you’ve phrased it, is it? Isn’t it more ‘what do I want to find?’ It’s a slight shift of focus, that’s all.”
Jade raised her eyebrows and looked at Melanie as if to say, “You charge $100 an hour for this stuff?” But later, by the lake with the messages coming at her from every direction and the memory of her father’s words visiting her, she realized it wouldn’t hurt to pay at least as much attention to Melanie’s expensive message as to those drifting by in the shape of clouds. Maybe Melanie didn’t have the answer to how Jade was to solve lonely, but she did offer a slightly new question to the mix.
“I need to … you know …” Phoebe had been reading in bed, careful not to wake Michael, but turned at the sound of his voice to see his clear gray eyes searching hers. Not taking his eyes from hers he reached to gather the hem of her nightgown and bring it just high enough on her stomach to allow the warmth of his breath to thrill her. Michael had been Phoebe’s husband for more than two years now, but still it nearly took her breath away to see him this way — so early morning warm, sincere, pleading. He lifted his face and looked into her eyes. “I need to, I mean, I just really need to kiss you right now — you know — just a little bit?” She set her book on the bedside table and slid her body along the length of his. His lips were warm silk and first she held his face as they kissed, then buried her hands in his hair.
This morning, waking early this first full day of longed-for vacation, she’d tiptoed from their bed and set a flame under the tin coffee pot on the stove in the tiny cabin they shared on Minnesota’s north shore.
In the bathroom she quickly ran a brush through her hair; another in and around her teeth.
“Fifty years old now.” She said it aloud to the mirror. “Where have the years gone?” Days before she’d started a new beauty routine. It involved that quest for retained inner beauty now far more than the outward beauty she craved preserving at 40 and 45. There was a certain satisfaction to these years beyond the wondering what and who she might become in the future. Now she knew the answer to so many questions that haunted her when she was young. And life had blessed her so in recent years.
In the years since Michael moved to St. Paul the two of them, together, arranged all the circumstances of their lives around their love for each other. They traveled together for Phoebe’s performances, Michael involving himself in agent-like activities on her behalf. They joined the YWCA and went together to Yoga and aerobic dance classes. Their home was in one of the doublewide studio lofts in St. Paul so Michael had room for a well-equipped ceramics studio and Phoebe had plenty of space for sax and voice rehearsal. Often Michael would make special requests for music to accompany his activities in his studio.
The furniture in the living room was arranged in such a way as to allow a cartwheel track right down the middle and both Michael and Phoebe started and ended each day twirling through the air. It pretty much guaranteed the day would begin and end with shared smiles and sometimes even a great laugh at the slapstick-like quality of their lives.
They traveled together too when Michael was asked to teach a workshop, act as juror to an art exhibit or when there was a show of his work. The trips were great fun, invariably adding to their collection of Laurel and Hardy type experiences to share with their children.
They had a great story to tell this past Christmas after a road trip they took in November. Phoebe had suggested the excursion after reading an article in Minnesota Monthly. The article told about an eighty-mile circle of small river towns that outdid themselves with decorations and lights over the holiday season each year. The traveler who’d written the article waxed eloquent over the sugarplum fairy type Christmas spirit this holiday journey would ensure. The eighty-mile circle could be accessed from either the Minnesota or Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River. “The writer said you can cross the river at Wabasha and return home along the opposite side where towns all compete in this light-festival competition.” Phoebe told Michael. Neither of them had a gig or anything that dictated this trip but it did sound just the thing to get them in a holiday spirit.
When they married Michael brought a 1994 Corolla station wagon he’d named “Fiona” to their union. Phoebe had traded in her Escort and bought a used Honda Civic. She thought about buying a Toyota but Karen’s disastrous experience with the Camry convinced her her best bet might be a little Honda.. She still had the conversion van for the occasional performance that required her to bring along her own equipment. Her life with Michael, though — where she felt fully free to be her true self — meant she felt less and less compelled to seek her fulfillment through musical performance. Increasingly time spent together in the easy company of the other provided a solution to lonely that far exceeded anything she’d experienced on the road before Michael entered her life.
"Should have read the fine print,” Phoebe said to Michael as their silver Civic swept them effortlessly down Wisconsin 35 and through another in a series of quaint little Mississippi river towns on their long awaited winter weekend getaway.
"What do you mean?" Michael looked out the window at the seventy-five-car train that had them stopped in Marion, one of the "lighted" towns encompassed by the eighty-mile holiday extravaganza Phoebe had read about.
"Well, how many miles have we gone?" Phoebe asked him.
"Oh, I’d guess about 45. Why?" He let up on the clutch and looked both ways down the tracks as he pressed the gas peddle.
"Oh, oh. Stop here. Stop right here. Pull over, Michael." Phoebe had spotted what was supposed to pass for this particular small town’s display of lights. What she pointed out to Michael was a white plastic goose, it’s narrow neck sporting a red bow tie with a sprig of holly tied in it. The goose sat queenly on a faded and marred golden plastic egg. The goose swung and dangled in the November wind from a visibly rusted wire, suspended from the pole of the only streetlight in town. It was a windy gray mid-afternoon in late November. Dark had yet to descend but Phoebe was sure, come nightfall, the Christmas goose would be lit by a bulb inside its plastic shell.
"Okay. Now how many does that make? There was the . . . wasn’t that . . . oh, yeah, now I get it ... that first one, that bird thing. That was supposed to be a partridge ‘in a pear tree.’ She sang these last four words. "I get it now. These towns have this light theme of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’."
Michael nodded, sort of interested, sort of confused. "Hmmm. Hmh-hmh," he said. He was looking around for more light poles and more lights. So was she.
"The fine print, though," Phoebe said, "probably if I’d read that article closer I wouldn’t have assumed there’d be more than one light per mile on this eighty miles of lights that travel writer described in Minnesota Monthly. I thought the whole way would be all glowy with holiday lights, didn’t you?"
"Yeah. Well, maybe. If I’d thought about it. But no. Actually. What ‘Eighty-Miles of Lights’? I thought we were just doing our usual trip down to Wabasha for a romantic weekend away. Thought we’d scout some eagles in the tall trees along the river banks."
Phoebe couldn’t believe it. Hadn’t he listened to her? Wasn’t he there in the bedroom last Thursday night when she showed him that article? Wasn’t that him? She had the page all turned back and everything...
"Michael. I can’t believe this. You are kidding aren’t you? Don’t you remember? I was getting all nostalgic about Christmas and what could we maybe do to make it festive and special just for the two of us? And then I said ‘look what I found Michael. This would be perfect. We could do this ‘Eighty Miles of Lights’ circle drive and stay in another one of the each unique and different rooms at the Anderson House. The article says its all decorated for Christmas? Don’t you remember?"
"Well, yes ..."
She cut him off. "Oh, never mind."
"No but, Phoebe, I do remember we decided to have one of our weekend getaways and we said the view would be like a winter wonderland and the little art shops along the way might have special ornaments for Molly and Jade... Plus, you know how excited I get about the eagles down along the river." Michael tried to vindicate himself. There was really no need. These little misunderstandings between them were always pretty good-natured and short-lived. Phoebe was distracted now by something else.
"Hey. That looks like fun." She said. She pointed out a wood front saloon with the orange neon sign "Miller Lite" with reindeer, Santa Claus and angel ornaments dangling from its wires. Next to that was a green neon sign that said "Espresso" in these ornate curlicue letters. Michael had pulled over right in front of it when she’d yelled at him to stop for the goose.
"Serendipity!" Phoebe said as she unlocked her car door and removed her seat belt.
"What Phoebe? You want a drink? It’s three o’clock in the afternoon for cripes sake."
"Well, no Michael. It’s not that I have an overwhelming urge to drink ‘before the sun goes over the yard arm,’ so to speak. I simply have an overwhelming urge to take advantage of whatever quaint, ambiance-type holiday thrills this particular river town on the Circle of Lights has to offer. Besides, that sign there says ‘tap beer, 25c a glass and we haven’t had a deal like that since our car broke down in Wall, South Dakota."
"And you, Phoebe, have apparently forgotten what a nightmare that was."
"So I overdid it a little. Shoot me! I’m a sucker for a bargain with quaint attached to it. Now, come on. There’s some kind of customer appreciation days going on in there, the sign says." She locked her car door behind her, watched Michael shake his head in what she chose to think was amusement, made like she was straightening her holsters and her ten gallon hat and, in her best John Wayne, said, "C’mon pardner. Last one to belly up to the bar is...a..." she couldn’t think of anything appropriate, "Last one to belly up to the bar is, the last one to belly up to the bar."
By this time Michael had come around to her side of the car. She threw her arm over his shoulder and ushered him into the saloon. Once inside they were offered a chance to sign up for the Marion Saloon and Espresso Grill’s sweatshirt sweepstakes. Phoebe said she’d have to think about that but one of those $.25 tap beers sounded good. She excused herself and went to the women’s restroom. Michael was already in the men’s.
"Oh, this is the greatest," Phoebe said to herself when she spotted the condom machine with its advertisement of temporary tattoos and wild and wacky sex toys. She and Michael started this practice of collecting crazy condoms — chocolate and strawberry flavored, great, pink, ribbed French ticklers, glow in the dark colors — back when they first fell in love. He’d had a vasectomy years before they met and she had her tubes cauterized, and was rapidly approaching menopause. Of course they were devotedly monogamous, so they never bought these gooney things with the intention of putting them to any practical use. From time to time, though, a spicy little addition to their married lovemaking certainly didn’t hurt anything.
Phoebe popped two quarters into the machine slot and stood reading the graffiti while she waited for her purchase to slide down the shoot. It said, "Don’t by this gum. It tastes like rubber." She loved that. Her wild and wacky sex toy turned out to be temporary tattoos with pictures of Hannah-Barber cartoon characters in compromising, but less than pornographic, postures.
She came grinning out of the bathroom and sidled up to Michael who, by that time had his own golden glass of twenty-five cent tap beer sitting on the bar in front of him and his hand dipped in the bowl of bar snacks æ honey roasted something or other.
"Wait’ll you see what I got," she said. He turned to look at her. His grin was just as big as hers.
"Yeah, well wait’ll you see what I got." He pulled a little plaid condom package from his jacket pocket. "Scotch Whisky Flavor," the package read. Phoebe laughed and asked if his condom machine had warned him not to buy "this gum, it tastes like rubber?" He laughed and put the condoms back in his pocket.
"What did you get?" She showed him the temporary tattoos. "Festive, eh?" she said. They clinked their beer glasses together and got back to discussing the sweatshirt sweepstakes with the bartender. Turned out they would have had to stick around until after 5 PM and their scheduled journey didn’t allow time for that. They each ordered another of the four ounce, 3/2 glasses of beer, finished off the bowl of honey-roasteds, said their good byes and, filled with anticipation, headed for the next town in the light circle.
They weren’t disappointed. There, as predicted, was a lighted display of — yup, you guessed it, five pine cones. This was a great town though. There was a woodworking shop with a terrific display of hand-made, hand-painted Christmas ornaments. The sounds of James Galway’s flute playing Christmas music floated through the stereo speakers, hot apple cider and its apple-cinnamon-ey smell were on offer along with an assortment of Christmas cookies. In keeping with Phoebe’s annual tradition of getting Jade a special ornament, Phoebe and Michael picked out an old world looking St. Nicholas ornament for Jade and a lovely gold and cream angel for Michael’s daughter, Molly.
They crossed the street and found a great espresso shop, art gallery and music store. All the shops in the town smelled of Christmas and home baking and filled Phoebe’s and Michael’s head with sounds of Celtic seasonal music. By the time they’d fully experienced this river town it was getting on toward sunset so they made there way further down river, by passing Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthplace (more of a summer-time treat anyway). By-passing, too, one of their favorite restaurants in the whole world, The Harbor View where, on summer evenings they would sit among book-lined walls sharing a bottle of excellent wine, absolutely divine food and have a long talk about the more heady and intellectual interests they shared. The Harbor View was another summer-time treat and it was time to cross the river to their romantic destination. All the way down the river they fruitlessly scanned the treetops for signs of the majestic eagle. Near the turn-off onto the Wabasha Bridge, Michael finally reached the disappointed conclusion the Eagles had all gone to Mexico for the winter.
It was twilight when Phoebe and Michael pulled into Wabasha with its Christmas lit streets and buildings. They loved this town. It was quaint in the way of small towns in England, Scotland and France. They especially liked the Anderson House Hotel with its variety of turn of the century rooms reminiscent of European bed and breakfast establishments. They liked the nostalgic feel of the bathroom down the hall and remembered the claw-footed tub they’d shared on their last visit here.
When they checked into the Anderson House they picked out Tabatha from the real-live cat selection offered to all guests. Phoebe carried the smoky gray with white throat and paws, her name was Tabatha, from the lobby and into the dining room. There old fashioned home cooking smells, a magical Christmas tree and garlands strung with lights nearly tempted Phoebe away from the romantic in-room picnic dinner she and Michael had packed for the occasion. She remembered, though, the candles, champagne and the thick, sexy novel she’d packed for them to read aloud to each other in bed, and decided it was best to stick with their original plan.
Michael came in from getting the cooler out of the car and they climbed the steps to room 35. The room didn’t look as nice as they’d remembered other rooms to be. The radiator didn’t appear to be working but a portable electric heater sat, unplugged on the floor next to the dresser.
Michael plugged in the heater and took off his shoes. He’d barely managed to get both legs in front of each other as he attempted to sit on the bed before it came crashing to the floor. He lay head flush with the floor and his feet up along the diagonal created by the suspended mattress. The crash sent Tabatha shrilly mewing down the hall and back to the cat closet. Phoebe, who’d fetched her journal from her purse and was’ planning to join Michael on the bed, said, "Geez. No mention of this in "Minnesota Monthly.’ It’s like I said about the necessity to read the fine print I guess. This sure wrecks havoc with my plans for wild, lusty, bed-banging you know what after dinner, baby-cakes."
Michael, who had been looking at Phoebe with some level of baffled paralysis, like he still hadn’t quite taken in what had happened, developed serious practical concerns at her mention of lusty, bed-banging, you know what. He rolled himself off the bed and onto the floor. He lifted the fallen mattress and bedsprings and instructed Phoebe to get on the other side and reposition the slats while he held the bed up. Bed repairs made, they stood, straightened their clothes and hair as if in choreographed unison. Each rubbed their hands together, Stan and Ollie style. With their eyes on each other, and still rubbing their hands together, they said, consistent with Stan and Ollie practice, "What shall we tackle next?"
"I know," they said simultaneously, "A nice bath!" Instantly and through increasing giggles, and shivers (not much action yet from the electric heater) they began to disrobe. Phoebe extracted their bathrobes and slippers from the nylon duffel bag. They each carry a towel and begin the trek down the hall toward the footed tub they just know will warm their bones and muscles and soften their hearts into pure, romantic mush.
Once settled together in the tub, her back to his front, his hands smoothing her hair from her face, they breathed a deep sigh.
"Ahh. This is good." They agreed. But, wait, something wasn’t quite right. There was a sound coming from the front end of the tub that sounded distinctly like nearly rushing rather than dripping water. Phoebe leaped up to find water spilling from a faulty overflow drainpipe. Michael climbed from the tub to observe and to assess the severity of the leak.
The next several less than romantic minutes were spent, Michael and Phoebe, dripping wet, cold and naked mopping up water with their only two towels. They stood over the leaky tub ringing out, tug ‘o war style, two red rubber backed rugs that bear in green letters, the comforting message "Season’s Greetings!"
"Bah humbug," they said in unison, feeling this as a moment of true marital connection.
They wrapped their bathrobes around bumpy, wet flesh and returned to their room hoping the heater had kicked in. And, yes, the portable heater had warmed up in their absence but, presumably as a precaution against fires, was on a thermostat that shut it down as soon as it reached lukewarm. Removing their robes, they dived onto the bed and under the covers, bringing the mattress crashing, again onto the floor. They climbed out, did their head under the bed thing again, then, by cuddling and staying under the covers were quite comfortable between bed collapses.
Somewhere along the way, Michael got up to light the candles and open the bottle of champagne. Phoebe unpacked their picnic dinner onto the bedspread and set their juicy novel on the nightstand next to the lamp. Phoebe fed Michael strawberries and dark chocolate between bites of chewy, crusty French bread. Michael held the champagne glass to Phoebe’s lips and then to his own. They kissed between mouthfuls, sometimes not swallowing the champagne until they’d shared its taste in the others mouth. They talked, kissed and looked into the other’s eyes, taking the time to love each other exceedingly well.
Afterwards, the radiator came on they talked about the pleasure each takes in the other’s company. How nice not to be hurried or fear interruption. They looked out the window at the winter streets and the well-decorated houses across the way.
In the morning they wakened starving and ready for a hearty, Anderson House breakfast. The coffee was good, hot and fragrant. The Dutch apple pancakes smelled and tasted of Christmas and the dining room was filled with the warm chatter of the locals. They overheard talk of two hundred eagles just up the river on the Minnesota side.
Michael leaned across the table, shielding his mouth from the view of the next table over, with his hand, and told Phoebe this was a great stroke of luck. The eagles had obviously returned from Mexico during the night.
"Yup," Phoebe laughed. "Just another in a long line of lucky strokes we’ve shared. We’ll have to write a follow up article for the "Minnesota Monthly," won’t we?"
After breakfast they packed up the car with little concern about the absence of lights on the eighty-mile circle. They drove north on Highway 61 until they reached the spot along the river where the eagles were. They got out of the car and stood, arms around the other’s waist. It was a crisp, cold, but sun-touched winter day and they could hear the ice cracking on the frozen water. They lifted their heads to watch the eagles sit majestic in the tree tops, soar over the river bluffs and dive expertly for fish in the open water between sheets of ice on the great Mississippi where it begins to call itself Lake Pepin. They stood in the white of winter and watched one miraculous, white-headed bird soar to the sound of a far off train whistle.
Spirits incredibly high, Phoebe and Michael headed up river where they browsed a couple of antique shops and have a cappuccino in an old pottery shop. They picked up a Sunday paper at the Amoco station and learned the Minnesota Boy’s Choir would be in concert at 1 PM in the Landmark Center of their own river town, St. Paul.
Their timing was perfect and they arrived to find a holiday spirit filled atrium where they were treated to apple cider and Christmas cookies. The singing boys were lovely to watch and gave a delightful performance.
Returning home they indulged in a shared bubble bath in a tub that didn’t leak. Michael wrapped Phoebe in an oversize bath towel and positioned her on the couch in the living room. He lit a candle to light the scene then turned one exquisite cartwheel in all his stark-naked glory before joining Phoebe on the couch and taking her in his arms.
Bedtime came and before they doused the lights, Phoebe and Michael, each held the face of the other in warm hands. Before they went to sleep they agreed they’d be hard pressed to give a number to all the marvelous lights that had illuminated the Eighty-Mile Circle they’d traveled.
Then there was the time they went together to Urbana, Illinois, to an opening of a show where Michael’s work was on exhibit. As a result of that experience Phoebe nicknamed Michael, the Champagne Man. It made her laugh every time she thought about him holding the spewing champagne bottle by the neck with both of his enormous hands. He was naked and hopped from foot to foot, causing his penis to bounce and dance in its surrounding bed of pubic hair. “Make it stop! Make it stop!” he cried. He held the bottle out in front of him as far as it would reach. Already he’d had a face full of the well-chilled, foamy stuff and it dripped and drained down his vulnerable front from his chin. He hopped around yelling for help and searching the motel room for something, anything, that could serve as a glass. Phoebe came to the rescue with one of those plastic covered disposable cups common to tacky motels like the one they were in. She tried to make Michael more comfortable though she was in fits of laughter at the sight before her. She stripped off her clothes, took a good swig from the bottle and let it drip down her chin and over her breasts then set the bottle down and pulled Michael onto the bed with her, where he too, collapsed in laughter.
So this morning on the North Shore, waking before Michael, Phoebe used her solitary moments to reflect on this so-right love that had come to her so many years after she’d accepted that Marc would be the one and only true love she would ever experience. When she left the bathroom she returned to bed, a cup of fresh brewed coffee in her hand, the cold fresh morning air coming off the lake and through the unguarded openings that left the rustic cabin drafty. She climbed in beside Michael, careful not to wake him. He needed his rest and for once his internal alarm clock had spared him his usual 6 AM wake up. She touched the gray waves of his hair, thought how lovely to have him sleeping here beside her and picked up the lucky library book, Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet, that had come in from interlibrary loan just in time for her to bring it along.
Now Michael was touching her so right. Saying quiet words to make her anticipate the next touch. Where it would be. How he would do it. Suggesting the way he hoped he would make her feel.
He kissed her mouth then cupped her breasts and lingered there with more kisses. Taking her face in his hands he asked her again, “Just a little more? Can I love you just a little more? Like this?” He asked. “Right here?”
Michael’s was the kind of loving that inspired the word “swoon ”. It was Phoebe’s own private romance novel coming alive here in the years beyond those a young girl imagines will hold passion.
Having set Jade free those few years before, Phoebe found that to a large extent, she too had come of age. Jade would always hold Phoebe’s heart on a string. Phoebe came to believe that was just the way of daughters and their mothers. And too, Phoebe was perhaps, forever doomed to wish she could relieve Jade the inevitability of loneliness and heartbreak.
But Phoebe had come to embrace a new truth that seemed to only come to her with the wisdom of age — that we come closest to true happiness when we are engaged in the work our dreams dictate. Jade would have to make her own journey — her own mistakes and her own discoveries. Phoebe would wish nothing less for her daughter.
Phoebe lived her dreams. Her dream of aiding the homeless, job-less, the unclothed and hungry in her own small corner of this world of plenty, engaged her unrelenting. Her love of song engaged her soul and her creative mind. Her need for play sent her, still, on a daily spin, legs in the air, through the girlish pace of a cartwheel. Oh, and she’d learned to cuss, but, even better, learned to hold her tongue — to listen.
Arriving now at the second half of her life she’d learned, at least for now, to notice how life teaches us, each in a certain, sometimes peculiar way, to solve the problem named lonely.