brown haired girl (a short story)
Memory is incomplete experience.
— J. Krishnamurti
A pleasurable warmth coursed through me from chest to belly and all the way down my legs to my toes. I’d been dreaming something good. The details had all vanished leaving behind this vapor trail of contentment. I’d read that if you keep your body in the same position after waking up your dream might come back to you. I tried feigning sleep, but Delilah batted at my nose with the tips of her claws to let me know she meant business. I took her paw in my hand and stroked her soft fur with my thumb. “Good kitty,” I whispered. Not about to settle for sweet talk, she yanked her paw from my grasp and let out a piercing meow. No question who was in charge here.
I opened my eyes to confront her steely green orbs less than three inches from my face. “All right, baby. Time to rise and shine. Or rise, anyway.” As soon as I pushed the quilted purple coverlet aside, Delilah jumped down from the bed and pranced out of the room, her black and white tail pointed skyward. I pushed my feet into slippers, wincing at the sight of my varicose veins. I used to have great legs, a hiker’s legs, strong and smooth and muscular; they had carried me up the sides of more than a few mountains back when. Now they looked and felt like they belonged to someone else, less like legs than sticks of wood.
Delilah called impatiently from the kitchen, so I stood up and ordered my feet to get moving. As I passed through the doorway, the memory flooded me so abruptly and with such Technicolor clarity I reached for the wall to steady myself.
Sam and I are in his green VW bug, heading out of town on the last weekend of October. We have food: yellow Delicious apples, cheese, and bread brought by me; wine, dark chocolate truffles—my favorite—and the ever-present red plaid thermos of black coffee brought by him. The sky is amazingly, brilliantly blue, with fairytale puffs of pure white clouds scudding across. The air feels crisp and clean, as if rain-washed.
We pass the bait shop with its signs hand-lettered on the windows in blue and white paint offering live bait, boat repair, fishing licenses, and cold drinks. Half a dozen teenaged boys in ripped jeans and Rolling Stones T-shirts are hanging around the entrance to the Mom and Pop store next door, smoking and shoving each other around, trying to kill some of the time they might someday wish they could get back. On the other side of the road, sandwiched between a couple of shabby used car dealerships, there’s the no-name café with its rectangular sign atop a tall pole towering over everything in the area and sporting a single word: “Eat.” A battered gray pick-up, probably belonging to the owner, is the only vehicle parked in the gravel lot. Sam and I keep threatening to go inside and order something to find out whether the food is edible and if the place has an actual name.
Sam says, “Hey, Annie,” in that fake casual tone of his, “could you root out one of those truffles for me?”
I stare at the round glasses resting on the bridge of his freckled nose, at his sculpted cheekbones and thatch of auburn hair. He looks sort of like an Irish John Lennon. “Ha, ha,” I say, not giving him the satisfaction of a smile. “How long were you saving that one up? Did you bring those truffles just so you could get off a one-liner?”
Sam grins. He runs his fingers through my hair, which falls around my shoulders in heavy brown waves. My chest constricts.
“I brought them because I love watching you eat them. You look like you’re about to have an orgasm.”
I hate having him see how embarrassed this makes me. I’m 19, but Sam is 21, and he seems much older and more experienced. I tell him to pay attention to the road, but he laughs and starts singing can’t take my eyes off of you…you’re just too good to be true…
As Delilah’s meows approached the level of caterwauling, I proceeded toward the kitchen humming the song since I couldn’t remember the rest of the words. Delilah made small circles in front of the door, the feline equivalent of pacing.
“OK, OK. You know I’m not as fast as I used to be. Someday you’ll be old and stiff, too. See how you like it when it happens to you.” I reached down to scratch the top of her head, but she gave me a dirty look and leaned away. I held open the door to the backyard, and she stepped out primly onto the top concrete step, surveying her territory before scampering into the yard. She was damn nimble for a 13-year-old cat. If you converted her age to human years, she was older than me, and frankly I was jealous of her agility.
I followed her down the steps and felt the sun on my bare arms. It was warm, but not yet hot, and the sky was cloudless. We needed rain, but I—and my bones—loved these dry, sunny days best. Delilah sniffed around the fence skirting the flowerbed, checking for traces of nighttime visitors. The lawn was green, thanks to the sprinkler system my son-in-law had installed, and all my flowers were blooming: the marigolds and zinnias, as well as the pink Queen Elizabeth roses and the sunflowers. I’d have to come out later with a bowl to pick some raspberries; the bushes bordering the fence were lush with fat red jewels.
Back in the kitchen, I heated water in the kettle, tossed some ground coffee into a brown paper cone, and bent close to inhale the scent. I’m still a coffee addict; it’s an old habit, one I picked up from Sam, actually.
He turns onto a dirt road taking us deep into the Michigan woods. We’re both quiet now, partly because of the quiet outside, but more, I think, because the trees have stunned us into silence. The leaves are so intensely gaudy with their red/gold and burnt orange colors that when the breeze ruffles them and sends handfuls whirling through the air, the countryside looks like it’s going up in flames. But you can tell fall is coming to an end. By next weekend, or the one after, most of the leaves will be gone, leaving the branches winter-bare.
Sam pulls off the road near a picnic table. We’ve never encountered anyone else here, so we think of it as our private retreat. I relax against the seat and breathe everything in. The air smells of decaying leaves and distant smoke. I know I will never forget this smell. Sam puts his arm around me, pulling me against him. His jacket brushes my cheek and my hair falls in front of my face. I brush it away and he kisses me long and hard, with his eyes open, staring into mine.
“Want a truffle?” he says, and we both crack up.
I slap at him lightly and push him away. “Maybe later.” I raise my eyebrows and attempt a suggestive look before digging into my pocket for a rubber band so I can pull my hair back into a ponytail. We get out of the car and head for the lake about a quarter of a mile away.
The sound of a train whistle made me shiver, but it was only the tea kettle. I turned off the heat and poured boiling water over the grounds. While the coffee brewed, I went to my bedroom to get dressed. These days I avoided looking at myself if I didn’t have to, but now I stood in front of the mirror as I slipped out of my nightgown, let it fall on the floor, and stepped into a worn pair of size eight jeans. Although I hate bras I usually succumbed to convention, but this morning I said the heck with it and pulled a T-shirt over my bare breasts. My nipples poked against the thin yellow cotton. I combed my fingers through my hair, which is thinner and gray now, but still comes down past my shoulders and still has some wave in it. I reached into my pocket for one of those coated hair bands that go on and off so much easier than plain rubber bands do.
Sam and I hike to the lake and take the trail up into the hills. As we climb, we talk about all the places we’re going to hike next year in different parts of Michigan, maybe the Upper Peninsula, and in other states later on, when we’re both finished with school. He wants to try Colorado; I’m dreaming of New England. We intend to travel a lot once we can afford it, so we spend a lot of time pouring over guidebooks for India and Greece and Spain, planning elaborate fantasy hikes.
When we get back to the car, we transfer everything from the back seat over to the picnic table and spread it out on top of a brown and white checked cloth. I grab an apple, sit down, and swing my legs over the seat of the picnic table. When I bite into the apple I spray juice everywhere.
Sam laughs and sticks his hand out. “Hey, be careful with that thing. It appears to be loaded.”
I make a face at him and laugh, too, trying not to choke or spit out apple bits. Sam cuts hunks of bread and slices of Swiss cheese and arranges them on paper plates while I unwrap the box of truffles, trying not to drool all over them. He opens the wine bottle with his Swiss Army knife. It’s inexpensive Cabernet, but at least it isn’t screw-top. He fills two paper cups halfway and hands one to me. I switch the apple to my other hand, wipe my palm on my jeans, and take the cup from him
“To us,” he says, winking and giving me a crooked, sexy smile.
My heart is so full I can hardly stand it. “To us,” I whisper back. Our toast feels ceremonial, like we’re making a do-or-die promise to each other, a vow, serious and holy. The forest, too, seems alert to the subtle change in atmosphere. And me, I’m wide open and ready, on the brink of the rest of my life, my beautiful life with Sam, who is strong and smart and funny and everything I will ever want or need.
Three sharp raps at the back door preceded the sound of Sandra’s voice. “Mom? You in here?”
“Coming!” I headed back to the kitchen where I found Delilah winding herself around Sandra’s legs. “You,” I said to the cat. “Back so soon?”
Sandra glanced at my chest before looking me in the eye. “I was on my way home from swimming and thought I’d stop by.”
“How nice. Would you like some coffee?” I lifted the plastic cone and offered her the mug of brewed coffee, but she shook her head.
“Not yours. I’ll fix my own.” She set her purse on the counter and carried the tea kettle to the sink to refill it. “Have you eaten breakfast?”
Sandra had recently taken to stopping by unannounced either to nag me or to see if I’m showing signs of losing my marbles, I’m not sure which.
“Nope.” I took a sip of black coffee, sighing as the caffeine kicked in. “Not hungry yet.”
“Mom, you should eat something in the morning. Even if it’s just toast.”
“You’re right. I’ll pick some raspberries in a minute. You can take some home with you for the kids.” I pulled out a chair and sat down at the oak table, watching my dark-haired older daughter carefully measure coffee into a fresh paper cone. She took after Philip, her father; practical people, both were neat, cautious, and meticulous, always busy-busy-busy, darting about, weaving their webs of safety and security around themselves and everyone close to them. Time and repetition had worn down my resistance to their ministrations.
Resting my elbows on the table, I gazed out the kitchen window past the cloud of peonies blooming against the fence on this side of the yard, toward the pastel haze of the eastern mountains. Sam. I hadn’t let myself think of him in years, allowing those memories to fade as the color of my hair has faded, to grow as brittle as my old bones. But what harm was there in indulging myself now, after all this time?
“You know what would go great with this coffee?” I said. “One of those dark chocolate truffles. With an Amaretto center. No, not Amaretto. Gran Marnier.” I could almost taste it. “Doesn’t that sound absolutely…um, really good?” I’d almost said “orgasmic.”
My daughter whirled around to face me. “What are you talking about? Mom, you’re not eating candy for breakfast, are you?”
I could just hear Sandra’s outraged report to her sister, Christine: “She’s eating chocolates for breakfast. Chocolates filled with liquor!” Chris would correct her: “It’s not liquor; it’s liqueur”—completely missing Sandra’s point and making a distinction that would be lost on her sister.
I stared into the dark steaming mug on the table and felt my lips twist into the smile of my younger self, slim-hipped and strong-legged; a little shy, but game, and impatient for the adventure to unfold. I had been so confident in Sam’s and my love, so certain of what the future held. There was so much I hadn’t known, so many things I couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
The cat curled up next to my bare feet purring, reminding me of who I was here and now—and where. But when I closed my eyes, the spirit of that eager young girl slipped into me, transporting me back to Michigan on a late-fall day amid flaming leaves and hushed, crystal-clear air, where I was poised—or maybe not exactly poised, but there—on the brink, with my whole life, for better and worse, still all out in front of me.
Maybe that girl would have been as scandalized as Sandra was at the idea of eating chocolate truffles for breakfast. But she would have been willing to do it. At least once.