In Being Left Standing
I. Just an Invitation…
Her eyes were huge. Wide, silver, the colour of the sky above a rainy sea. It was pouring with abandon that seems no longer to exist. That rain was the colour of my nostalgia.
So were her eyes.
I had startled her by walking by.
She was standing out on the sidewalk, wobbling in high heels and staring at traffic. She had the haunted look of a victim. I brushed her elbow by accident, she turned to see me, looking lost.
She scrutinized silently. “Have I met you before?”
“No.” I shake my head.
“Have I seen you before?” Her eyes were narrowed with attempted recollection.
“Maybe.” I knew I’d seen her before. Every time I had I’d watched her.
“I’m Grace.” Her desolation was slipping away
I introduced myself
She extended her hand, I took it and held it tightly. Her skin was moist. Mine was too. The rain was claiming us.
Grace and her beauty, permanent memory in my mind.
II. In Which She Declares…
Grace is falling leaves. She is rose incense and she is Joni Mitchell albums in the morning and Romantic composers at night.
Grace lounges sideways in the armchair, eating Raisinettes. She tosses one into the air to catch in her mouth and it bounces off her forehead. She sighs dramatically.
She wears too much eye make-up on purpose because it makes her look waif-like. She’s describing to you the ups and downs of last night’s evening soap, which you had missed on purpose. But in her head Grace is chasing words.
She pauses mid-sentence. “Inarguable!” she declares.
“What?” you say. This is enough to have roused you from your editing. Your fingers are smudged with green highlighter. You slide your glasses off your face and drop them to the coffee table in a manner which declares, ‘I’m giving you my full attention now, this had better be good.’
Grace is looking at you like she’s had a revelation, or you are one, you’re not sure which.
“Inarguable,” she repeats, pointing at you. “Tuesday I was trying to describe you to Thom, and there was this one word I couldn’t find. It was inarguable.”
“Oh.” You are not sure if this should be a compliment. “If I’m inarguable, why is it that so frequently you find reason to argue with me?”
Grace knows you’re teasing. She smiles enigmatically. A Raisinette bounces off your chest and falls to your lap. You pick it up and toss it back.
III. Now My Charms are Overthrown…
“Michael,” Grace said, “I’ve been offered a job.”
“It’s in California,” she said as she watched his face with the diagnostic scrutiny of a doctor.
They never had been more than this, whatever this was. It was comfortable, but not quite an excuse. Grace never made excuses, anyhow. There was an opportunity to do good in San Francisco and a whole continent of space between there and here. A buffer zone.
A street tinted breeze lifted the curtains. If it weren’t for the city below, the room would have been silent.
She wondered if it was because she was only grace and not beauty that he was not going to make her stay. That she didn’t see the expression she’d been hoping for despite herself.
She knew he wasn’t going to try to keep her here. She didn’t have to tell him not to.
“It’s not that far, you know, you could come visit,” she said knowing it was a consolation prize.
“Yes, I could come visit,” he said, but neither of them knew what he meant by that and neither of them thought it meant he would.
He didn’t offer to drive her to the airport.
IV. …Sincerely, Your Friend
So then there were letters. And that was the real beginning of this thing, this thing that may yet turn out to be a catastrophe, or worse, only a mirage. Whatever it is, it’s nothing that you can seem to get your mind around. It’d best not to get your hopes up.
Maybe it’s because she’s tall, he thinks as he slides half a sheaf of legal size yellow paper covered in writing into a manila envelope. Maybe that’s why she absorbs you with her presence, why I can’t get her out of my head.
You receive the manila envelope. You receive postcards with too much written on them. You accept rumpled notes on paper with adhesive on the back. You half drown in a stream of letters torn out of spiral notebooks, and even a few on actual stationary (white, his initials at the top).
You return the favor wholeheartedly, but always have this nagging feeling that one of these days he’ll send your letter back, covered in green highlighter and red pen.
Once he sent you three pages torn out of books (two from a novel, one of poetry), his handwriting carpeting the margin. You write to him, admonishing him harshly for the defilement precious things.
You are secretly happy, more than you should be, because the first line is “the sun lay in her hair like golden candy floss,” and you know that means he misses you.
And then you receive a cocktail napkin in a greeting card envelope that reads “why aren’t you here?” with letters that teeter forward dangerously. You feel cold when you see it, and at the same time flushed with…something. You pretend it was lost in the mail, are relieved when he never mentions it.
V. Little Grace
Grace had one foot on the edge of everything in the world.
Grace also had one foot on the edge of the sidewalk. She could hear a game of Frisbee on the green over Jay’s tirade against philosophy professors, and his in particular. The day was so lush that she could almost pretend to hear the grass growing.
The four of them were headed off campus for lunch. Beside her walked Cassandra with the Red Hair, arm in arm with Sweet Ally. Jay walked backwards in front of them, give make sure they got the full affect. He never tripped or missed a beat.
“Jay, for the sake of our sanity, give it a rest!” sighed Cassandra the Red emphatically (flirtatiously).
Jay gave Cassandra The Smile, but fell in step beside Grace, so at least in this Grace felt satisfied.
Jay produced a cigarette out of nowhere, and then it was lit. Grace didn’t smoke, nor did she like it when people around her did. But she liked to watch Jay inhale. That was the only time he acted without pretension, his craving outweighing, for once, his need to put on a show.
“I shall never marry,” Jay proclaimed “I shall live the life of a traveling photojournalist. And I won’t let anyone give me failing grades on my philosophy of life.”
Grace, who had let Jay kiss her in many places because he was taller than she (even when she wore heels) now felt infinitely young and stupid. But not surprised.
Neither was she surprised when her foot slipped off the edge of the path and she crumpled to the grass. She still lived in a world here her name was a cruel irony.
The grass smelled sweet and honest. It was spongy and damp, the colour she remembered from backyard soccer. Grace had no real to desire to stand up.
VI. Just (Like) the First Time All Over Again
He stood so close to me. Close enough to see his face very clearly, to tell that he was a couple inches shorter than I am, though maybe not in stocking feet. I could have sworn I knew him from somewhere, I wouldn’t have been able to forget his eyes. Such dark eyes.
“Are you sure that we’ve never met?” I was rolling the dice for a new answer.
He shrugged and shook his head. He was smiling though, as though he had a secret, maybe the ultimate secret.
My hair was wet. The shadows that were spread across us were soft edged. My skin felt cold. It was raining fervently. I hadn’t noticed before.
In that waning end of evening, his eyes were so dark they absorbed light. He wasn’t particularly handsome, in any definition. I had no romantic inclinations toward him. But I wouldn’t mind if I were absorbed by his eyes.
“Why were you standing out here without,” gestured to indicate her hatless head, her coatless shoulders, “Anything”
“Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to enjoy the weather?”
“Well. Then.” I couldn’t seem to find my footing. I hadn’t been clumsy in years. At that moment I was afraid that I might fall over. A girl can only take so much in a day. “What about you? You’re out here, too.”
“I asked you first.”
“Yes, but you’re a gentleman. You won’t insist.” I ran a hand through my hair. There was water dripping from my bangs.
He was not a man who could turn away in the face of a compliment, but he sighed before answering. “I came to catch a cab. Also, I have a hat.”
“Oh. That you do.” I smiled, mostly because I didn’t feel about to fall anymore.
* * * * * * * * * * *
In Being Left Standing
VII. The Second Time They Met
The party was arranged and hosted by a mutual friend. Grace stood holding a plastic cup of non-alcoholic luke-warm punch, abandoned by the hostess for new arrivals. She was less surprised than she should have been to see a familiar pair of dark eyes. She approached him without hesitation.
“I figured it out,” Grace told him, wearing her own secret smile.
He turned to her, startled. She hadn’t exactly intended to sneak up on him, but she was glad she wasn’t the one off-balanced this time. And glad that she saw recognition in his face.
“Excuse me?” said Michael.
“I figured it out,” repeated Grace, “Why you looked familiar. I saw your picture in the paper, you did that series of columns.”
“Should I be flattered that you remembered them?” he was smiling now too.
They were standing by a very large potted avocado plant. Bland jazz played in the background, along with jumbled conversations. Grace felt comfortable despite new high heels that might actually have been too small.
“So, Grace, you never did say why you were out in the rain that night.”
She blushed, hoping he didn’t remember how wet her hair had been, or how clingy her blouse had been either. “I’d just… Received some bad news,” she said vaguely.
They studied each other silently.
“Michael, there you are, I didn’t see you around that plant.” It was a woman, pretty, short, dark haired, dark eyed, all things that Grace was not. “Sorry I took so long getting the drinks, I ran into Jessica Stein and her new boyfriend,” she handed a drink to Michael and stood next to him, regarding Grace with a friendly smile.
“Winifred, this is Grace, Grace, Winifred.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Winifred, putting out her hand.
Grace shook hands automatically, feeling at least a little like she’d been tricked, unsure what part Winifred played, and unsure what part that left her.
“Listen, uh, Win and I were planing on heading out soon and going to dinner. Why don’t you, um, why don’t you join us, Grace,” said Michael, a little awkwardly, but earnestly.
By the end of dinner, Grace was as glad of meeting Winifred as she’d been of meeting Michael. Almost.
VIII. Minute Waltz
Grace lay on her back on the worn Turkish rug in the front room. Her outstretched arm rubbed against the hardwood floor beyond the rug. Her mother played Chopin on the old upright piano. Turning her head she could see her mother’s feet working the pedals. She could feel her hair against her cheek, it was still very blond then, baby blond, six year old blond.
Craning her neck farther she could see out the screen door to the green lawn, the street, the blue house across the street. She could hear the sprinkler in the yard, could hear her brothers, Leland, Kevin, playing. Grace remembered the cold spray, the ends of her hair were still damp. She wore her favorite yellow bathing suit.
She rubbed her legs against the rug, fascinated by the sensation. The air was warm, slow, the floor cool and solid.
Chopin came to an end. Her mother played everything beautifully, but Grace like the songs with words.
“Mamma, play Someone to Watch Over Me, play Bye Bye Black Bird.” Grace asked, pretending to make snow angels in the rug.
Her mother began to play, humming softly, then singing.
Grace always remembered this moment.
My mother’s number one piece of wisdom is, don’t expect miracles of men. I, of course, have never really understood what she means. Don’t expect miracles of men. And of course I don’t think to ask her about it until it was too late.
“The doctors said she’s getting stronger. Her white count’s down. A little. You know your mother, she’s stubborn.” Dad twirled fettuccini, fork in spoon, but made no move to actually eat.
I nodded, but the feeling of dread hadn’t stopped winding itself inside me. Growing ball of iron yarn. I picked over romaine leaves. They were a little wilted. It was never supposed to be like this. This is not how my life goes. It’s not, really. I had to speak to the writer, because I knew for sure, this is not how my life goes.
“Why haven’t you been at the hospital? Your mother asks for you.”
“I’m going over later.” I chased a crouton with my fork until it disintegrated
My father was playing optimistic through his teeth and my mother kept telling us not expect miracles. I can hardly stand remembering the days back in sophomore year when my mother was being treated for the lump in her breast. This time it’s in her bones. I don’t think it’s going away this time.
X. The Sunlight Transforms It.
You stand outside Michael’s door with hands that shake. After you rang the bell you realized you couldn’t remember how you used to act with him, what tone of voice you used, how close you stood, whether or not you touched each other. You can’t stop thinking about those letters, those terrible marvelous letters, where you said so many things you never would have said in person. You start to think you can’t do thins, you’ve forgotten where you stand, who you are with him. Or perhaps it’s just that you’ve forgotten who you are.
He opens the door. As you enter you feel him studying you. He thinks that you dress better now, he notices how much your appearance has changed. He thinks, ‘you look like a different person.’ As he shows you to his couch and offers you a drink he realizes that you’ve grown up, lost your innocence. He is somewhat saddened by this even though he knew it was inevitable.
You admit to yourself that you’re a little disappointed that he looks the same as when you left, not taller, not more handsome, not magically transformed into the image that had grown in your head. You’re relieved too because you haven’t been transformed either.
Except that maybe you have. You’ve been to countries where the women are chasing toddlers around at the age when you had been picking your major in college and widows still might be thrown in with her husband’s funeral pyre. You and your colleagues had done as much as you could for them, but it wasn’t nearly enough. You’d worked on a governor’s campaign and stuffed envelopes for NOW and League of Women Voters. You’ve had friends who saw you as a totally independent figure. You lived with a man who never once corrected your grammar. You had a telephone that you didn’t use even once to call Michael.
It’s late afternoon, mid-autumn. They didn’t have fall in California, the leaves didn’t turn. When your cab from the airport went by the trees in the sidewalk with their leaves going gold and red you just about started crying. There is sunlight pouring into the apartment through the open mini-blinds, just like the last time you saw Michael. It’s dissolving your illusions, your forgetfulness, the awkward silences.
“So, have you left California for good?” Michael asks you after a lull in the small talk.
You know what answer he’s hoping for but you only say, “I make no promises,” knowing you sound cold. “But for now, at lest, I want to stay here, find my bearings again.”
Michael nods, satisfied for now. He wonders what you meant by here. Did you mean his apartment, this city, this coast? You don’t clarify.
It’s a different apartment than the one he lived in before. He’s got nicer things now, but it’s just as cluttered. You like the clutter, the papers on the tables, too many books and nick-knacks in the bookcases, it makes the place feel lived in. The last place you lived, after Danny’s but before you came back east, you never even bothered to unpack.
You look more closely at Michael, not his edges and not your image of him. You see in him that same person who became so familiar and in those dark poet eyes, an edge like cynicism and disillusionment. The disillusionment was new. For a second you’re scared that you were strangers in the same room mistaking each other for people you used to know. But then you see it’s only that you’ve got new battle scars now, you both do.
“Greg Carson keeps asking about you. Apparently you made quite an impression on him.”
“You’re not trying to set me up are you?” you say, playfully accusatory, “Because, no kidding? I’ve had terrible luck with guys named Greg.”
“I’m not trying to set you up.”
“I mean really bad luck. There was this one Greg in high school who I made a fool of myself over only to have him dump me the day of the senior prom. And then in college there was a Greg who-“
“Grace!” Michael cut in, “I’m not trying to se you up with Greg Carson. I would never do that to anyone who I actually, you know, liked. I’m just saying that I see him at work and he asks about you, a lot.”
“Good to know I’m so memorable,” You say with a smirk.
“You’re not going to tell me why he remembers you so well after three years?” He’s trying to hide a smile.
“Nope.” You’re grinning now. It’s all coming back to you now, who you are with each other. It feels… good, different than it was, but energizing.
You stay and you and Michael talk and talk. Michael orders in Chinese food, which you eat out of the cardboard containers with disposable chopsticks while sitting next to each other on his couch and this warm feeling of companionship grows between you. It’s after midnight when you call a taxi to go back to your hotel. Michael walks you down to the curb and hands you into the cab like a real gentleman.
“I missed you, Grace,” he says right before he lets go of your hand.
You swallow hard because it hits you then, in that moment between the chilly sidewalk and the joss stick scented taxi, how far away you’ve been, for how long and how you missed Michael more than you can articulate. You’re also startled. You expected that you’d be the one to say it first. “Michael,” you begin, “Michael…” but you can’t find words for everything you want to say. “I missed you too,” you say with aching sincerity.
Michael’s got his hands stuffed in his pants pockets and he’s shifting from foot to foot, trying to stave off the cold. He forgot his jacket upstairs in his haste to accompany you out. He’s leaning towards the cab but he’s not meeting your eyes. There’s not quite enough ambient light on the street to read his expression.
“Call me tomorrow, Grace,” Michael says, but it’s almost a question.
“I will,” you promise firmly.
“Good,” he says and takes a step back.
You close the door and give the driver your destination. You watch Michael watching you drive away.
*To be continued. Please review. thank you