There were times where I’d never thought I’d see her again. Even though she sits across from me at this moment in our favorite booth. She rests the tip of her nose on the brim of her cup, not necessarily to sniff, but to let the warm, honey sweetened plumes of steam defrost her rosy face. Her fingertips, pink and brittle and shyly poking through slowly unraveling knitted, fingerless gloves. They want so much to keep a firm grasp to the outside of this flimsy, disposable vessel, but the boiling tea inside deny them their full embrace.
There were times where I’d never thought I’d see her again. Even though she sits across from me at this moment in our favorite booth. Her gaze is aiming for a target further than the window, further than the people walking by, further than the other side of the street. It was blocks away, on the other side of town, skimming across the ocean to the places only she knows.
I’m used to this, whenever she vanishes from right in front of me. She was never snobby. Not the Teddy Bear I remember. She prefered the company she kept. She was never been ungrateful or aloof. She cherishes every person in her life, and has gone out of her way to help every person in need more times then I can remember. And yet, I can’t help thinking the same thing now as I did then. I always thought that such generosity might have come at great cost to her.
At first, she would disappear for a day. A few people would notice her absence, and were curious as to how long she’d been gone, but she’d always come back. It wasn’t too much later where she would disappear for days at a time. Then a week. Two. Until one day, we suddenly realized that nobody had seen her for months. She returned at the end of summer; A touch of bronze to her skin, freckles occupying the bridge of her nose, and several colorful ribbons wrapped as tight as Maypoles through strands of her hair. This latest trip? Gone for a little over five years. Heavy, woollen scarfs wrap around her neck. A journal bloated with ink and memories lay sleeping beside her.
I’m used to this. We all are. She would take center stage for brief moments of our lives. She would swoop in and fill our days with art and literature and things we’ve never seen before, and people we’ve never heard of, and music we’ve never danced to, and wisdom we’ve never thought of. She would paint our worlds in a wonderful and jubilant shade of chaos, and then vanish. Carried away on a multi-colored vapor trail of her own imagination.
She is back again. For a while, at least. I should be lucky enough to have at least a few moments of stillness with her before her muse finds her again. But, even though she is sitting across from me in our favorite booth, she is still miles away.
“Tina and I finally found a new place,” I say trying to coax her down from whatever cloud she’s on. Tina and I are irrelevant. Our quest for a better place is never-ending, and as far as that goes, nothing much has changed. Nothing that is happening in my life at this moment has anything to do with what’s going on inside her head right now. I could tell her that Tina’s been plotting my murder for months and I’ve only found out after a conversation with the cat. I could tell her that the place we found was a cave deep in the White Mountains that was previously occupied by a Bridge Troll and his pet unicorn. I could have strung together any combinations of words and scenarios, and it would have received the same response.
First, it’s the acknowledgement that someone may have been talking to her, “Oh?”
Next, comes the feeling that she should have kept up with a conversation, “Oh.”
Last, would come the recognition that she was lost in the great beyond again, “Ohhhh.”
Her eyes brighten. The apple of her cheeks shine. She has come back, body and soul. “I miss Tina,” she says recalling the years of almost sisterly companionship between them in the steam of her steeping tea.
“She misses you too. She speaks about you often. You should drop by sometime.”
“Of course you should. I insist. We’ll put on a spread, invite some of the old crew back, we’ll have a few laughs. It’ll be great.”
I offer every single time. It’s what one does, now that one has achieved adulthood. Should the occasion arise, you invite long lost friends over for dinner. Miss Manners told me so. Actually, that’s not true. I have never cared long enough to do any extensive research, but I’m fairly certain that there isn’t a social etiquette book in print that states that it’s expected of you to extend an invitation for an impromptu soirée for an old friend, but it never hurts to err on the side of caution. Then again, I used to be a pack-a-day smoker who spent most of his days blasting punk music from a beat up tape deck, and most of his nights stumbling home. And now these many years of kicking and screaming later, I have become a responsible adult. I have always been reluctant to bare this title, and she knows it. She knows my heart. I’ve never been much for social graces. Neither has she, and that is where we found each other so long ago.
I offer every single time, thinking this time she’ll change her mind. Her smirk tells me that I should know better. There is something in her eyes that won’t let me forget who I was.
“Alright,” I chuckle, changing the subject. “How was Europe? Was it as life changing as you thought it would be?”
“I guess you can say that,” she says as her fingertips have finally made peace with the scalding water swirling inside her paper cup. “I’d get reminded of just how far I’ve gone with every border crossing I had to make. It made me more homesick every time I was asked for my passport. But the people I met were pleasant, for the most part. A lot of people were quite helpful, even after they realized I was American. I met this circus troupe in Nice. We were all heading the same direction. For a while, it almost felt like they kinda adopted me as one of their own. Which would have been cool, I think. We barely spoke the same language, but we all got along. We all had the same spirit. Since my French was horrible, I had to act out my conversations in mime, and I made them laugh!” she exclaimed with genuine giddiness. “Can you believe it? I made professional clowns from Europe laugh! I taught them how to cuss like an American, they taught me how to juggle. It was a fair trade.
Oh! And there was also,” she paused. “…Jean…” Her eyes rolled back, her chest heaved. The universal symbol for, this boy was damn fine. I always thought it was charming how she regarded me as another one of her girlfriends, or often times, her brother, and not just another one of the guys. “This kid,” she continues delicately placing her fingertips to her chest. The universal symbol for, I do declare spoken with a swooning, aristocratic, Southern accent as if Rhett Butler walked into the room.”I could have eaten him all up with a spoon. He had these eyes that…when…I…”
Uh-oh…Houston, we have a problem.
The muse had her by the tail, and then it flew away. Somewhere across the ocean. Somewhere nestled in the lean, sinewy arms, and disarmingly hazel eyes of Jean. Her smile that she managed to drag out of storage for few minutes was quickly packed up again on account of looming storm clouds forming in her frontal lobe. She has vanished again.
One of the greatest lessons she has ever taught me, was that sometimes it’s not what people say, it’s what people don’t say that speaks volumes. There is nothing I can do when she disappears like this. Nothing. There is nothing I could say to bring her back into the world. Nothing I could do to bring her comfort. The best thing I could do is sit patiently, quietly. Hoping that she’d come back with her spirit intact, and if I’m very lucky, maybe she won’t rabbit so quickly.
“Yeah,” she mutters, packing the rest of the thought into a nutshell. “Europe was a good experience.” And that was the cue to drop it. Europe is thousands of miles away, but she’s home now. Back on familiar soil. Talking with familiar people, about familiar things.
Clouds churn and darken to pencil gray outside the coffee shop. It will snow again soon. Her fingers tell her that the tea has calmed down to just the right drinking temperature, and she takes a cautious sip. She scrunches her brow as she swallows. “Mmng. I need more honey, I’ll be right back.” She plops her bag on the table, thereby anchoring her to this place in time. This time, she means it.
I acknowledge the storm that’s coming, and sip my already tepid coffee. I get tired of looking at gray things, and turn my attention to her Andean patchwork satchel which has spilled out in front of me.
For a moment, the faint memory of her tutelage in the sport of people watching returned. I remember she once told me that you can “tell a lot about a person by the way they stir their coffee”, and through this, gain a wealth of knowledge.
Random hair ties and brightly colored scrunchies. Scores of cheap, ballpoint pens with various levels of ink, all with chewed pen caps. A fountain pen. Probably stolen. Probably a trophy. Two disposable lighters, both empty. She has never smoked, so… probably more trophies. A package of convenience store cupcakes. The kind that come two to a pack. This one was missing its twin. An impressive collection of hard candy, chewing gum, and cough drop wrappers. The companion issue of her other journal, equally as loved up. Her essential “desert island” books that she never goes anywhere without; Khalil Gibran’s, The Prophet, Selected Poems and Letters of Arthur Rimbaud, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, and one completely dog-eared, busted spine, water stained copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I didn’t have to look at the whole cover to know what it was.
I know what it was, because I was the one who gave it to her.
It was Christmastime. Everyone else on my list was easily taken care of that year. A six-pack of local brew for Eddy. An abalone bracelet for Tina. But for our dear Maddie Bear, finding the perfect gift for our introverted, bookish friend who has a flare for madness and wanderlust, was proving near impossible. There was nothing that seemed to fit the bill at the mall. Then again, nothing ever did. It’s where inspiration goes to die (another lesson taught). Nothing hurling themselves at me in the Hallmark Store. There was no other option. I was fighting the urge to be completely obvious, but there was no way I could win that battle. I should have went to the bookstore to begin with. It was on the way home anyway.
I had no idea what I was looking for. The most exotic thing I’ve read up to that point was a few Kerouac poems, and that was for an elective class that I barely passed. How was I going to compete with a woman who once disappeared for five days because she heard about someone halfway across the country who had a first edition, signed copy of a Lawrence Ferlinghetti book that she just had to have? I punted. The guy that worked there was helpful, and I didn’t want to think about it too long this close to closing time on Christmas Eve. He rang me up, and I was on my way.
This copy was in it’s 12th reprint or so. The pristine, glossy cover reflected every haphazardly strung Christmas light in my living room as she unwrapped it. The look on her face was priceless. I was half expecting a, “Oh, I already have this, dear. But thank you,” or at the very least for her to crinkle up her brow, look at me and proclaim, “what the hell is this?” Neither of which happened.
Of all of her endearing qualities, the one I hold most dear, is the fact that she is a terrible card player. Insincerity was never her strong suit, she could never hide what she was thinking. Except for this time. She held the unwrapped book in her hand. Her expression wasn’t joy, or surprise. It wasn’t even the gross, apathetic facsimile of it; The expression you’re forced to wear around the holidays like an ugly sweater that was knitted by your estranged aunt that always smells like cat pee. Nowhere near it. It was the look of lightning striking you when a famous person waves in your direction. The look you make when your best friend admits that he’s been in love with you for years, and you’re just now knowing about it. It wasn’t shock. It was more like shock’s cousin.
The wrapping paper fell to the floor. Her eyes darted around the cover art, studying every stroke and nuance. “Thank you, Peanut,” was all she said, followed by a customary hug.
The rest of the evening was food, drink and laughter by the rest of us. For the better part of the evening, I was convinced that she hated her gift, until I was proven wrong. I stole a glance when I could. Me in full host mode, her holding court on an ottoman. Her Peruvian satchel at her feet, Dollar Store Santa hat on her head, brand new book in her lap, hands gripping it as if it were the last ticket for the greatest merry-go-round on Earth. She threw me her full-cheeked smile. It appeared that she was caught in that wonderful dilemma of deciding whether to crack the spine now, or wait for a more cozier environment that involved down comforters, warm wool socks, hot chocolate, and a couch. She liked it. Christmas was saved. Hallelujah.
The grayish light from outside that has been washing the coffee shop in a shade of meh, seems to have enhanced how sun-bleached and worn her once vibrant bag was, making every flaw obvious. Every repair jumped out; a newer stitch with different thread here, a patch of cloth with a rubber duck pattern placed in the middle of what was once blue and violet there. A book that was given as a gift many years ago that barely had a fingerprint on the cover, now creased and mangled from years of being stuffed into a bag. The dog eared corners of every page bent into a permanent curve and stained in a subtle tone of Chamomile. Much time has past. And while I bemoan the loss of my own glory days, seeing this ragged book in her ragged bag, this last minute gift for a friend who would go out of her way to paint our worlds in a different color, seeing it loved and appreciated and lived in, warms my heart against the coming snowfall.
The midday crowd shuffles through while the notes from some long, forgotten pop song weave themselves through the pressurized steam of a fully functional espresso machine. She returns and throws a fistful of sugar packets and a stack of napkins into her bag. Old habits die hard. The wooden stick slowly comes to a rest after dancing in the mini tornado in her cup. “Ah,” she says sipping her sweeter tea. “Much better.”
“It’s so good to see you again,” I smile. “Are there any more treks into the unknown for you?”
“To where, the condiment stand?” she winks. “Kidding. No, I don’t think I have anything left in me. It was fun while it lasted. I wrote down a bunch of names so I can keep in touch with the people that I met, and I have more snapshots and trinkets and memories than I know what to do with. But,” she pauses to take a look around her. “I miss the states. I miss home.”
“Well, I for one am happy that you can still call this town home,” I say. “Most people we knew left in the middle of the night and didn’t come back. I lost track of how many times Tina and I thought about packing up a U-Haul and heading south.”
Well traveled eyes find mine. “Don’t go south,” she whispered. “I’ve known too many snowbirds who melt too easily in June, and curse the day they moved anywhere south of Boston when they do. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you couldn’t make at least one snowball a year. I believe someone told me that a long time ago.”
“It was that winter where it didn’t snow until February. I remember.” Small talk and fond memories over warm drinks. Creature comforts that hold a person still long enough to sprout the tiniest promises of roots. But her distant, hunter’s gaze through the window tells me all I’ve already known about her.
“So, this really is the end of the road for you?”
“Yep. I’m officially retiring from globetrotting. I’ve been looking for a place for a few days now. You wouldn’t happen to know if your old place is rented yet, would you?”
“I’m not sure. I think the landlord was going condo, last time I checked.”
“I could look, if you’d like.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Yeah, I never liked where it was anyway. Too far away from everything.”
“It’d be nice to have you back.”
“It’s nice to be back.”
“And you’re headed to Central America…when?”
“Next year. As soon as I get enough…” I wrangled her mind from roaming too far. We have found each other again. “I could never get anything past you huh, Peanut.”
“Not today, Teddy Bear.” I laugh.
The kid behind the counter replaces stale, old coffee urns for fresh ones. Two schoolgirls squeal at the text one of them received a few tables over. An old man shakes his newspaper to shoo away the world. At this moment, all is well.
©2016 AA Payson