Kissing the frog, she tasted insect.
Love. It’s everywhere. Some would even venture to say that if you haven’t found it, you’re not looking.We don’t know if that’s true. We do know that sometimes fictional love is better than no love at all.
Excerpted from “Jesus, Mary, Buddha”
Over warm olives and crusty sourdough, Helen learns that Nick’s third wife parked her Range Rover at the edge of town on the banks of the Snohomish River and washed down a handful of pentobarbital with a bottle of flinty Oregon pinot gris.
It was his first year of mourning and he still hated her and loved her in ways he hadn’t yet explored. “I don’t know how I can do better than that,” he told Helen one night. “I mean fucking look at her.” He gestured toward a framed photo of them on his living room mantle. “She’s gorgeous.”
On Earth Day they up-cycle a pair of antique windows and build a table out of them. Later, they eat salmon with their fingers, straight out of his backyard smoker. After dark, they sit in deck chairs in the garden and watch shooting stars. Eight weeks into their affair, she drives home through the city streets late at night with the windows down, with air warm as a lover’s breath sliding up her arms, through her hair. The rhododendrons are in bloom. The azalea, lavender, chives, strawberries, raspberries, pear, five kinds of apple, chestnuts. Even at 11 pm, there are couples walking, cyclists peddling down the quiet evening streets in thin cotton dresses, short sleeves. It is evident that even in the dark, they are sucking the juice out of the first days of summer, taking shy steps toward the grilling season.Through the car windows, Helen Okabe breathes in the perfume of lilac.
For his birthday she gives Nick an anatomically correct chocolate heart spiced with habanero pepper. He makes his signature clams and beer. Afterward, he builds a fire in the backyard firepit and they recline on deck chairs, watching the sky. He talks about his men’s group, about getting in touch with his feelings.
“I’ve been wondering,” he begins. “What if I’ve been sabotaging relationships my whole life?” Unlike so many middle aged men, Nick is messed up on love and he knows it. To his credit, he is actually trying to unpack that baggage.
Helen sucks an ice cube and lets the water slide down her throat. “I was just wondering that myself,” she says. She has. She has been doing her spiritual inventory and counting up the number of times that, when the going got tough, she got gone. She was up to four. It wasn’t pretty.
“I think I have intimacy issues,” he says.
“Wait,” she replies. “You said you and Reina were simpatico. You were married ten years. You renewed your vows every spring for God sake. That sounds awfully intimate to me.”
“Nah,” Nick waves the idea away. “That was only appearances. I checked out after two years, if I’m honest about it.”
Appearances, her Zen master said, not only fool, you they aren’t even real. Helen still hasn’t wrapped her head around that one.
She offers the only solace she has, something from a piece of research she is working on. “The top five fears of most people are public speaking, followed by flying, heights, fear of the dark, and intimacy.” She counts them off on the fingers of her hand and refrains from adding that following this list, the fears continue with death, failure, rejection, spiders, commitment.
“That can’t be right,” Nick says.
“It’s from a university study,” she replies.
“I would say fear of intimacy is number one,” he continues.
“People are scared to death of intimacy. Just think what it means if you are right.”
“I am right.”
“If you are right, and I’m not saying you are, it means people would rather sleep with strangers than speak in front of a crowd of them.”
“It doesn’t mean that at all.”
“People are more afraid of emotional honesty than talking,” he says. “Look,” he says, pointing to a light moving across the night sky, “a satellite.”
It is a clear spring night and the sky is shy of clouds and the moon is new so they have space to shine. “Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.”
It is not as you believe, my Angel. I am not a bad man. You may think it odd that we have never spoken. I stand within ten feet of you, my Love, and the words falter, trapped in my throat. I wait for you on the platform this morning and when I don’t see you I begin my search.
You are in the last car, walking to your seat. You prefer the solitude here in the “quiet car” over the chattering up front.
I juggle my briefcase and my coffee, taking up more than my allotted half of the aisle, but I see that you are nimble, my Love Light. I stop, and wait, and hope, but you have contorted yourself into a time-space continuum where anything is possible. You glide past me without so much as our arm hairs touching.
Now the interminable ticking of my watch is all that separates us. The train slows; the doors open. I walk from the platform to the street, jostled by the nameless, the faceless, carrying backpacks and briefcases. Their eyes do not shine like my Love’s.
And then you are there, barely yards from me, my Aphrodite, your white dress resplendent in the morning sun, your lush hair tousled by the gentle wind, surrounding a face that would make Venus jealous. Your long, sinewy legs stride with an athlete’s grace. I must hurry!
You sense me, but do not turn as I close the gap and we cross the street in tandem. What bliss! The sidewalk is deserted; just you, my Madonna, and me, our destinies intertwined, inevitable.
My footstep behind you, adoration at a glance. Did you notice? I run a hand through my thinning hair and smile. But what is this? What’s that look in your eye? Are you upset this morning, my Goddess? Perhaps tired? I walk on, exactly one half-step behind you, but your pace quickens. You are determined. The heat rises to my cheeks; the odd bead of sweat now joined by half a dozen others. I take several shallow breaths and plunge in; we walk side by side.
My ecstasy knows no bounds. How many times have you looked away? A hundred? A thousand? My Love, my Captive; now you cannot ignore me. We walk, not an arm’s length apart. I would encircle you with my own two, would you give me the slightest signal.
My eyes implore: LOOK AT ME; but your eyes look only ahead, my Angel, as you float along on winged feet. We cross the bridge in tandem. Your proximity is intoxicating. You smell like a breeze off the ocean. I open my mouth to speak, but you are looking away, to the river below, some distant prize on the horizon. Your feet belie their wings, my Love. Are you flying? My heart pounds the narrow walls of my chest seeking an audience. Another bead of sweat careens along my cheekbone before dive-bombing to the ground. I think I hear it plop. More stand ready. I steal a glance, but you do not notice.
Another breath, this one more shallow. Your pace is unwavering and I struggle to keep up. My lungs scream for a rest, a cigarette. Your pace is maddening. You pull away. Don’t leave me! Not now. Now that we are so close.
I glance at your face, a goddess carved by Michelangelo himself. Are you not tiring, my Love? My arms and legs pump wildly, valiantly, trying to match your stride. My love swells and my heart wrenches, threatening to burst its walls. You show no signs of slowing. Soon we will be at a cross street, the moment lost forever.
“It’s a lot easier walking than I thought it would be this morning. I thought it would be hotter.” Was that my voice? I do not recognize it.
You turn your head to face me, the Goddess in you saluting the God in me. But what is in your eyes? Hostility? Rebuke? Or maybe just the heat. Eternity passes. Did you hear me, my Queen?
“Just wait until midday.”
Your first words! But…now? Sarcasm? Vowels and consonants hang, suspended like greenhouse gasses. Your eyes lance my skin.
Beads of sweat form armies on my brow. Some disband, trekking out on reconnaissance missions. A millennium passes much too slowly. You walk faster still, if that is at all possible. Our thirty year age difference wears on me. I pray for rain that I might offer you my umbrella, but the cloudless sky just laughs. I am at a loss. We stop at a light and I squeeze all the words clawing their way up back down into my heart. I am reeling, all six acupuncture pulses echoing in my forehead. I suck in ambient air like a vacuum; it pummels my lungs like shrapnel.
The light turns green and I charge ahead, taking the first step, knowing you will match my pace. Half a block by I cast a cautious glance over my shoulder. But you are not there? I whirl around to see you buying fruit from a vendor. I retreat into the shelter of a doorway and from there watch you unnoticed. Your pace has slowed considerably. Are you tired, my Beguiling One?
You arrive and I am standing before you. You recoil, drop the fruit. Fruit salad sprays the sidewalk. Pineapple and orange and strawberry splatter your shoes. You mouth goes slack. The world tips on its axis. I stand there, silent, pleading. Your stare melts the glaciers.
I swallow, but my throat burns like wildfire. I stoop, gather the fruit. Remnants of melon and cantaloupe and mango trip through my fingers. I offer them to you, my outstretched hands my reply. We could lie on the beach, my Sweet One, eat fruit until our bellies were full….
What’s this, my Beauty? Are you annoyed with me?
Juice slips through my fingers as a thousand needles pierce my arm. My vision diffuses, my chest seizes. I want to press my heart, but it’s my balls I grab. I leave a sweet, sticky hand print on my khaki trousers.
“I thought so,” you say, and turn to leave.
I open my mouth to speak, to cry, to confess, but the words splinter as my heart explodes. Oh, please, PLEASE, wait. Not this way, my Delicious One. I drop to one knee, then to the ground as my cheek buries itself in a slice of golden pineapple. The sharp, sweet aroma drifts into my sinuses. I watch your fruit-splattered shoes recede. I hear the distant wail of a siren. They come for me, I know. Will you ride with me, my Love?
excerpted from “ALMOST CANADA”
She moves up the aisle toward the dining car to pass the time until the train resumes its forward motion. At the narrow counter, she takes a stool beside to a dark haired man, orders a glass of ginger ale. The man is working on a burger. He shifts his eyes toward her, measuring. His hair is glossy, black as a raven feather and close-cropped above his collar. One long border of bristled hairs makes a ledge over his eyes, his nose hooking sharply over a pretty mouth.
“Gotta love ther rail, right?” he said. He hitches a smile in Antonia’s direction.
“One goddam delay en anerther,” he explains. There is a mole on his neck, just behind his left ear that moves as he chews and talks. It is the size of a grain of rice.
The man tilts over the counter toward his food, hooks his arm around his plate forming a border between his fried potatoes and Antonia. He is not a small man, or bird-like, but his movements suggest the motions of the ravens that inhabit the tree outside of her office window. Antonia watches the bubbles rise in her glass of pop, thinks about what she knows about ravens, which begin to court at an early age, and then mate for life. In part of the mating process, a male raven will demonstrate intelligence and a willingness to procure food or shiny objects. Egg laying begins in February so courting must take place in early to mid-January.
Antonia is a vegetarian more by disposition than philosophy. This is to say, she will eat meat to avoid hurting her neighbor’s feelings if invited for dinner. In a restaurant, she will select venison if the side dishes or greens are inferior. The man makes the hamburger vanish, chunks at a time, washing it down with pale beer. When he finishes, he wipes the corner of his mouth with a large, square thumb. His eyes rake her face, drop to her sweater. “Wheer ya headed? Goina Canada?”
Antonia stares at the chip bisecting his incisor, wonders what it would feel like to run her tongue over that rough surface. Her mouth forms a watery smile. Common ravens are highly opportunistic. “Almost,” she says, leaving money for the pop and spinning away. “I’m going to Almost Canada.”
She is mutable, an object of desire. She is a screen upon which projections are made: a bold maiden, a volatile spinster, the girl with the long grey skirt and the blouse with pearl buttons.
The man swipes twin circles of pickle from his plate and drops them on this tongue like holy wafers. He watches the twin moons of her rump as she moves away.
Antonia returns to her seat to find that in her absence, the pair of facing seats across the aisle has been occupied by three girls, sisters, traveling on their own. The oldest, a teenager with sleek black hair, presses out text messages on her phone, while the two younger girls share a laptop computer and review the Facebook posts of friends. They are fundamentally beautiful in the way of youth and by heritage; their ancestors inhabited these coastal meadows centuries before Europeans arrived with their fur trades and their thirst for whale oil. Antonia peers beneath her own lashes at the contrast between their dark hair and their alabaster skin, the curve of their lips above the slow arcs of their chins.
She feels a rush of gratitude for such vigorous charm, such tender virtue. As the train begins to slow for the next station, the oldest, the managing sister, switches from texting to making a call to determine at which city the trio will depart the train. The girl says It’s me. We’re coming to the station. Do we get off here or the next one? Antonia wonders how there can be confusion about the care of beautiful dark-haired girls. Mom, the girl says. Mom, please don’t yell at me. I just need to know, which station? And like that, a picture develops; the first one, the responsible child, the good girl. Antonia’s heart breaks a little for these sylph.
All relationships begin with the Self. Given that the quest to find The One is a powerful lure, it’s also great incentive to get on with homework!