The moon was bright, nearly full, and we had no trouble at all following the pale stones of the dry streambed. I knew where we were on the trail, as I had memorized the map, and the knowledge that in only two hours we would be back among friends made my chest feel as though it had a little woodstove heating me from within.
And no one was lost, body left behind to be peered at or left for scavengers. From time to time I would just focus on each one of my fourteen, just naming them, counting them, basking in their survival.
Some people say, my instructors among them, that distancing yourself from your charges is vital, that you cannot afford to get too involved with them emotionally, because they might be lost, and their job is to keep their leader alive to lead them or others yet to come. I used to nod seriously along with them, and pay them such lip service, and in my secret core, vow that I would never be such an ungrateful stoneheart as to expect people to protect me and give them nothing of myself in return. I love my people. They are each so distinct under their uniforms, that they are like completely different planets with completely different creatures on them. When I listen to them talk, I can hear what they have been taught to say by the same trainers, but also they will talk about experiences and opinions that are so utterly their own, that they make me think of discrete pieces of art in a museum. Some people will see something startling and say, "Oh, how unique!" But what they really mean is 'unusual.' Unique is what each one of my people are, molded and honed and illuminated just so, and never, ever to be duplicated in all the universe. How can I not love them even for that?
And I love them more because they are willing to follow me. Willing to put their lives in my hands. Willing to try to keep me alive. They are mine, my offspring, my adornment. I am theirs, their parent, their bridge, their own portrait, trying to reflect their goodness and worth.
Not much farther and we will be completely safe.
Our little campaign successfully concluded, we slowly picked our way single file among the stones to make as little noise as possible. Our boots were made of a suede-like material, strong but supple, and thankfully, waterproof. No clicks or thumps of heavy shoes. Our uniforms and equipment were all non-reflective black; we were like shadows slipping through the shadows under the trees.
I brought up the rear, halting to listen from time to time for any sound of pursuit. I expected none; our enemy was no longer capable of following anyone.
I brought them all home again, safe and sound and unique.
Over and over again as a young girl I tried to sketch that scene, but was never able to capture the phenomenal sense of responsibility and awe I'd felt in the lines of my pencil. I could draw the person that I had been in the dream, the person that wasn't me but whom I wanted to be with my whole heart. She had been very tall, red-haired, but not the sunny strawberry that I was; darker red, duller maybe. Her face was so serious and serene, with a straight nose (not upturned) and compassionate blue eyes, and she was good from the inside out without having to worry about how she would do it. Her best friend had been among the troops in the dream, too, named Conroy, and I could remember of Conroy a lazy smile, black hair, and eyes as green as mine. At ten years old, I wondered over and over again who they were, and wished they would come back again to visit me in other dreams.
The tall leader took up residence in my mind. I was still young, I might grow. My hair might darken as I aged. May I please have her courage, too?
Not too long afterwards, Frankie Farber the class bully (kids called him "Weiner" behind his back, maybe no wonder he was a bully) stabbed me with his freshly sharpened pencil one too many times, and I stood up in the middle of English class and punched him so hard on his shoulder that he was knocked off his chair onto the floor. I tucked my skirt back beneath me neatly and sat down at my desk. The teacher said, "Please remember not to fight in class, Solange."
Then I too was tall and bronze-haired and stood proudly in the wind. She was part of me forever.
And my God, did I ever need her now, at thirty-six, a fearful child again facing an uncertain future.
"Hello, I'm your neighbor, Mary LeMay. Welcome to the neighborhood. Are you from the Bay Area?"
"No, Modesto. Pleased to meet you. Sully Ambris."
"This is a nice neighborhood, you'll like it. Did your realtor tell you about Sundays?"
"Ummm, no, what about Sundays?" I will certainly kick my realtor right in the ass if this is bad.
"We have a neighborhood agreement not to use power equipment on Sundays," she explained. "We don't mow the yards or cut trees on Sunday. Just makes it nice for everyone."
"Actually, that is nice. Thank you for letting me know. I'm pretty quiet, myself."
"All alone, eh? Me, too. I like it that way. My son keeps wanting me to move back east and I tell him to stick it. I hated the weather there."
I laughed. "I lived in Pennsylvania until I was sixteen. Sometimes I miss the snow, but only for about ten minutes."
She cackled like a much older woman, ayee-hee-hee, a gleeful, unselfconscious sound that made me laugh again, too. "Wait till those almond trees across the street begin to bloom, you'll be glad you moved here. Do you need anything to help you settle in?"
"I think I've got everything, thank you! My sister and brother-in-law were here to help me move in, and what I forgot, they remembered."
"That would be the dark haired girl and the bald man?"
Had I moved into the middle of a fishbowl? "Yes, as a matter of fact. I hope to have their children visit me often." There, take that!
"Oh, good. Nowadays you just don't see enough children in these neighborhoods." Mary pressed her thin lips together in disapproval, or at least, suspicion. "Your neighbors on the other side are Bodie and Andersol Talles."
"I think I saw them earlier today, a short blonde woman and a tall dark-haired man?"
"That's them. They work at the same place up in Stockton. Evening shift, so they're not around much." She shook her head and looked at the ground.
"What's wrong with them?" I asked. Drug dealers? Porn sellers? Dog fighters? Foreigners? "They seemed like a cheerful enough couple."
Mary LeMay put her hand up toward her mouth, as if the ground squirrels across the street might be offended by our chat. "They're not a couple. They're brother and sister. They live together, just the two of them." Mary obviously thought that this was a perverted plan. "They say that they don't want to be separated, ever. I say that's not right, but then, they're quiet enough and keep their place nice, so I suppose it could be worse. That's the only thing about California: people out here can be strange." She laughed again, "There, I'm showing just how old-fashioned 'Back East' I still am. Deep down, I didn't fit back there. That's why I'm here, too, so why should I grump about them!"
I chuckled, liking the older woman very much. "Mary, I'm glad you're my neighbor."
"Anything you need, you just let me know," she said, furrowing her brow. "You look like a girl who has been hurt bad."
Did I have a neon sign over me or what? Or were my perpetually red eyes and nose a giveaway? God, that caused an instant squirt of tears and a wrench of the heart.
Mary shook my arm in her thin fingers. "Now, tell me that you'll come over if you need anything, even just a cup of tea and to talk!"
New way of living. New contacts. New ideas? Any ideas? Just say 'yes', and see what the day will bring. I can do that. "Mary, I will. I promise."
Finishing my tour of the ugly little shrubs that feebly adorned the front of the house, I turned my gaze to the almond trees across the street, a few little puffs of pinkish-white already exposed here and there. Now that could very well turn out to be the best part of living here, I thought, and tried to imagine the full bloom that was to come, something beautiful to see when looking out my front door.
Should I talk about my last neighborhood? And how my husband serviced the woman next door while her husband was at work, and so was I? Talk about how Vallie (short for Valerie, she introduced herself) was delighted to have us for neighbors, and made friends right away, wanting to share recipes and let's have dinner together and let's be buddies ... awfully quickly. While Adam and I fixed up our crummy shack into a solid home, ripping out rotten plaster and putting up new drywall, re-wiring and re-plumbing, I was glad for a new lady friend and welcomed all her invitations. Adam glowed, and said that he had always wanted this kind of community. No doubt, damn him.
One Saturday morning Adam was still sleeping , looking like an angel, and I padded out to the driveway to scoop up my morning paper. Vallie-next-door was weeding her planters by her front porch, and asked me to come over and look at her vegetable garden to see what was wrong with her tomato plants. We walked through her house and as we passed through her tiny living room, I saw a chain that looked familiar curled up beside the leg of her couch. A silver chain, with a peculiar link pattern that looked exactly like the one that I'd bought for Adam for his birthday. Hmmpf. Odd. I went with Vallie to diagnose the tomatoes as not having enough chelated minerals, and to prescribe a commercial fertilizer for them, and went home. I looked at Adam, still sleeping, half-covered by the light blankets, and noticed the lack of a necklace around his neck. He loved expensive jewelry, and hadn't removed the necklace except to shower since I bought it.
What do you do with that kind of thought? Accuse? Ignore? Try to put the sharp pang of dismay back into its storage box until a real dilemma occurs? I washed dishes, thinking. I could scream at Adam, "Where the hell is the necklace I bought for you?" And slap his freshly shaven face with such a crack that his lips would be pushed around to his ear. I visualized the scene, trying it on to see if it fit. Too ridiculous, the distortion of my face if I screamed, the idea of someone my size picking a slapping match with a man as big as Adam.
What if I just let it go? Forget it, drop it, pretend the necklace never existed and that the chain I saw at Vallie's was just a piece of tinfoil, ha ha, I must be blind as well as foolish, silly me, imagining things.
Only I couldn't do that, since I had never seen a link pattern like that before or after I purchased the present.
Rehearsals of how to proceed were held continuously until Adam, stretching, prowled out into the kitchen for his coffee. He plunked down in a chair, I brought him a mug, and then I kissed his cheek and his neck, caressing him. "Oh, Honey, your necklace?" As though I had just noticed.
He felt his neck, his forehead wrinkled for a second, and he took a long sip of coffee. "Oh, that's good," he said, shutting his eyes and inhaling the scent rising from the mug. "I took my chain off in the truck. I was sweating, and it felt like it was giving me a pimple or something on the back of my neck. I must have left it in in the glovebox." He yawned. "Don't worry, I didn't lose it."
Had I seen him with it on the morning before? I honestly couldn't remember seeing the glint of silver peeking out from under the collar of his t-shirt. When I got back from Mass on Sunday, he was wearing the necklace again, and pointed out to me that he'd gone down to the company yard and retrieved it from his truck. Shame for my suspicion and jealousy lasted only until I went into our family room to open the windows and found a perm-curly long, dark hair on the beige accent pillows on our leather couch. The color of Vallie's hair.
Two emotions began to wage war. On one side was Anger, with his aunt, Fury, and his son, Revenge. Burning down Vallie's house seemed like a good idea to me some days. Taking a martial arts class and then beating her senseless. Quitting my job, visiting a lawyer, and making Adam pay alimony plus damages forever. I get the house, he gets the payments. And I never re-marry, so that he has to pay me for his infidelity forever. Pay forever! Forever! Forever! Forever. Never to see him again, or wrestle, giggling, with him again, or pinch him for stealing bacon off the serving plate before we sat down to breakfast ... forever ... Now tears will start, and after a few panicky sobs, the other warring faction of emotion takes over the barrage: skinny, stork-like Outrage, flapping and hopping, mouth open with gasps, making her seconds, stupid Disbelief and Embarrassment scutter in and out of her way. How could he? How could he? With Vallie? She had to be ten years older than we were! How could she?
A hair is not a trial and conviction. Yet as I watched over time, increasingly obvious was the melting look in her eyes when she talked to Adam, or the way she managed to bump her arm or hand or hip into him. He, for his part, spoke less practically to her about -- whatever -- and instead opted for silly chatter about nothing important, the way he used to with me before we were married and the way he spoke to me so rarely now. He and I were important. Talking to her was fun.
She'd been my friend, for a while. Now I hated the sight of her. Her affection for Adam became more transparent, her infatuation making her foolish and careless. I watched her slobbering over him as he mowed the front yard, shirtless, and I felt a drift of ash cover my heart. She looked like a woman in love. As I once had been. Ardor made her radiant. Jealousy made me drawn and tense.
Her watch was on the end table beside the big leather sofa in the family room when I came home from work. A stupid gold-toned watch with a pink face. Adam had returned from his run last night, and had made love to me until three in the morning. But Vallie had been over here already today, encouraged to take bits of her accoutrements off and leave them strewn about my house? I picked up the watch by the end of the strap and dangled it. "Adam," I said, "Vallie was here again today?" Well, yes, there was most likely some irritation and disgust tinging my tone of voice.
"Yeah, she brought it over for me to change the battery. You sound tired, how was work?" He was good at this game, his voice and demeanor never would give him away. What's wrong, baby, I'm just so innocent and concerned about you. I was learning the pretend-there's-nothing-wrong rules, too.
"Work was good enough, I just wish that O'Keefe would keep his files in order. He meets with clients and then forgets to list the appointments in his books so that they can be billed. Honey, I'm going to take a cool shower, okay?"
He was already deep into some HBO movie. "Okay," he said absently.
Instead of going into the bedroom, I went out the garage door, out the gate, and over to Vallie's. She answered the doorbell, her husband not getting home from his commute until six or so. "Oh, you're still all dressed up from work," she exclaimed.
"Yeah," I said, watching her eyes become furtive. "Vallie, did you get to see the new bookcases Adam put up for me in the bedroom?"
Her eyes looked puzzled; no doubt she hadn't seen any, there weren't any. "No, I haven't been over to your house for days," she lied.
"Right," I said, and pulled her watch out of my blazer pocket. I held it in front of her face, and watched her expression change from confusion to panic to -- amazingly -- a kind of defiance.
"Vallie, don't enter my house again while I'm not present. That property is in my name, not Adam's. Now, no trespassing on my property, okay? I can get a restraining order if necessary." Putting my fists in my pockets, I pushed, "Gonna be necessary?"
She slammed the door in my face.
After that, Adam stopped boinking her, at least in my house; the neighborhood was treated to some ugly screaming and roaring fights emanating from Vallie's house; Vallie moved out; her husband sold the house to a gay couple from San Leandro; and though Adam and I never spoke of the incident again, and though her hang-up calls when I answered the phone were utterly identifiable and for a while persistent, as far as I know, he completely lost interest in Vallie once she was, shall we say, available. And that, as meager as it appears, was my consolation.
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