Ana is listening. For the moment. She leans forward across the café table, one elbow planted upon its glassy surface, chin cupped in her hand. Her eyes anchored and blue, settling upon me, negating the existence of the surrounding world.
I am trying to tell her something. Explain it in my usual circuitous strands. Throwing out a number of threads at once, almost randomly, then attempting to weave them together into a delicate, yet resilient, fabric. More often than not, I simply watch the cloth unravel before my eyes.
I am trying to find a way to say something outside the range of words. Something which refuses to condense into syllables. I continue to speak, hoping perhaps that a music might bear my meaning. She is accustomed to these extemporaneous performances, comfortable with the tempo of my stutters and bumps.
“Does everything with you have to be some sort of declaration?” she asks finally, her lip curling to one side in the suggestion of a sneer. As if she doesn’t know the answer.
“Not always,” I attempt to take offense, “I can talk about groceries and plumbing without feeling the need to uncover the hidden.”
“I don’t know…” she replies, the sneer shifting to a knowing smile, ‘there’s always a mystery or a secret.’
“You’re right,” I sigh, pushing back into the corner of my chair, dropping my hands into my lap in surrender, “there are things I know and things I don’t know and I get the two confused. The only way I can make things real sometimes is to proclaim.”
“It’s the passion that gets you…” she unfolds one slender hand upon the table, studying her fingertips, angling a glance in my direction, “I remember in high school, you were always railing about some issue, some injustice. There goes Sarah, marching toward the Great Objective Truth,” Ana chuckles, closing her hand gently. “I liked it. You always seemed so sure.”
“I’m not sure of much any more,” I admit, lacing my fingers around my coffee cup, “must have something to do with having children…”
We laugh, Ana sliding down in her seat, extending her tanned legs to the side of the table, resting her palms at its edge. We had finished lunch twenty minutes earlier, argued over dessert, dramatically convincing each other not to indulge. The dishes and napkins had been cleared. Now, we waste time over coffee. It is late afternoon and the waiters are either dozing behind the bar or smoking a joint in the alley.
I shift in my chair, trying to find a place for my feet beneath the table, my hands above, spinning loose in my own words. Ana has tilted her head toward the window and a band of sunlight frames her profile. Her peach colored blouse is open at the throat, a silver chain falling to her breasts.
“I wasn’t sure of anything then,” she remembers. She chuckles again, her voice low along the table, “I’m not sure of anything now. Come to think of it, I’ve never been sure of anything.”
“It’s just an act. A place you get yourself into. It doesn’t mean anything. On the other hand…”
Ana’s eyes spark, flickering blue light. “That’s not quite true, you know. I say it but it’s not quite true.” Her hand churns the air between us, apologizing for the interruption while encouraging herself. “This memory just bloomed in my head, you know how memories can do that? All at once. One time in high school. I was at home with all this tissue paper spread out on the floor of my room and a big piece of poster board.”
She leans far across the table toward me, her fingers tented beneath her chin; I edge forward to meet her. She is whispering, not in complicity, but tenderness.
“I was going to make something girly, you know, puffy paper flowers glued to the board. But I had a brush and somehow the paper got wet and dripped this big red splotch on my clean board. I thought I would cry. This drip had messed everything up, this blood-red drop. But I laid the red paper over it, just a strip, and then I wet it with the brush and the color bled out and then…”
Her voice is barely audible now, even though I am only an inch from her lips. The room has collapsed around us, the table beneath us; the light has formed a pool. It reminds me of the moments in old movies when they turn off the lights on the set one by one until someone stands alone in a single spot. Or, lying on the floor with three other girls during a sleepover, 2 a.m. and the entire world is asleep, only us awake and in those moments we can offer any secret, reveal the most delicate thoughts. Lying atop our Little Mermaid sleeping bags, head to head, in a teenage pinwheel, staring at the ceiling as each of us speaks. Sometimes we hold hands.
“…I wasn’t sure I’d ever been that happy before. The deep red flag on the white paper was beautiful. The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen,” Ana grabs my hand, a minute tremble underlying her skin, “and I suddenly realized that I had done that. Put the red on the paper. That before me it had not existed, that without me it would not exist.”
Ana releases me, tracing the flank of my forearm with the fingers of her right hand, reluctant to sever contact. She draws a deep breath, allowing her gaze to settle on the table, as if studying now the colors upon the paper then. “I spent the rest of the afternoon pasting bits of tissue on the poster board, allowing the colors to run and mix with each other, laying one shade over another. As if I had never seen color before. Had just discovered it.”
Her eyes rise from the table to meet mine, cobalt hot upon my face. “I believed in something then…don’t know what it was,” she draws herself erect in the chair, her low, sensuous laugh deep within her chest, raising her arms in a semblance of prayer, “…but I believed in it.”
I don’t want to speak, to break the spell of her memory, to lighten the rest of the room. I don’t want her to stand up or move away. I want to spin around this common axis; to protect the warm enclosed space we have created through her speaking and my listening.
“I know what you mean…” I tell her, aware that my words are only a delay, a way of waiting, “watching Brittany paint, it’s pure joy for her. There’s nothing between her and the paint, the paper. She doesn’t know, she’s just playing, of course…”
Ana doesn’t lean back in her chair, she doesn’t pull away. She watches me, the smile curling at the edge of her mouth, revealing a top molar which had cracked when she was 21, requiring an emergency root canal. We had been on vacation together, our first alone. I had waited for her in the reception area, shivering in my bathing suit. Later, she had fallen, satiated with Darvocet, into a lawn chair at the edge of the surf, intent upon salvaging each remaining moment of the day. When darkness fell, I led her back to our room, arm in arm, her legs rubbery in the black sand.
I latch onto my coffee cup again, the contents cooling, the cream collecting in a suspicious ring around the inside edge. I take a sip, the coffee smoky and thick even with the cream and sugar, hours old.
Her hands come to rest upon the table, one over the other, yet her eyes never shift from mine. She wants something more than I have given her. She doesn’t demand it; she isn’t expecting a transaction of some sort. A level of mystery has been made real; not apparent, yet solid and tangible. She has given me a permission I haven’t noticed. I resist the urge to glance around, to break the spell, to acknowledge a world larger than the two of us.
“I’m thirteen,” I begin, fully committed from the start, “first period, three months before. Marinating in hormones. Molly James is over at my house and, I don’t know, we’re getting ready to go to the Mall, or the movies or something. And we’re trying on each other’s clothes, the way we always did. The room looks like a bomb blast at The Gap. Nearly everything she owns and everything I own spread on the floor, the bed, everywhere.
I turn around from the closet—I was grabbing another dress—and Molly’s standing in the center of the room completely naked. She’s not provocative in any way, she’s just deciding what to put on next.”
Ana brushes a strand of hair from her face and leans forward. I realize I am the one whispering now, a ragged heat trapped in my throat, leaving me hoarse and breathless.
“I had seen naked girls before. Of course. Gym class, sleepovers. It wasn’t that. And Molly, she was like the rest of us at thirteen, she didn’t have much of a shape. But she was in that place, you know, where she wasn’t a kid anymore but she wasn’t a grown-up either. I was just speechless. Creamy skin, red hair falling at her shoulders, the field of freckles above her breasts, the bend of her knee. She was incredible.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing,” I shrug, “I tossed her the dress. She put it on.”
It is my turn to stare. I don’t want to stare into the distance, to create the space beyond us and allow it to take physical form. So, I do what Ana had done; I stare at my hands, palms down upon the black lacquered table. Midnight Surrender nail polish. Wedding ring. The scar from the broken glass. The bracelet Brittany had assembled from small shells.
Ana’s hands are close to mine. I’ve always thought hers prettier, more delicate. Elegant, tapering fingers, skin the color of ivory. Her hands rest, palms up in anticipation of a gift which has not yet arrived.
I sigh, not knowing exactly why.
“Things like that don’t have a reason,” Ana whispers, “I mean, they’re just beautiful, they exist for themselves. Joy doesn’t leave anything behind but us.”
Our hands upon the table; they lie at oblique angles to each other; hers open, mine palms down. A humming still life set against a black background, the narrow parallel of our fingers offset by the white porcelain circles of our cups. Two women who had suffered college together, married within two years of each other, birthed children and shared playgroups. Some Wednesdays our conversation splashed in the shallow surf, all giggles and noise; but every now and then, we plunged together so far and so deep that we had difficulty orienting to shore.
She studies me, her head slightly bowed, hair falling from the sides in a fine, dark curtain. She peers up toward me over the rims of her round glasses, waiting patiently to catch my eye. I avoid her, folding my vision into my hands. I know this gaze; it’s the one she used when I cried after failing Physics freshman year, when Rob Simons dumped me just before Spring Break, when my Mom went back home after Brittany’s birth.
I feel her eyes calling me, though I refuse to meet them, resolutely training mine upon the table. She is patient. She is always patient. There is a stillness conspiring within her, fostering the conviction that she might pause before me forever, an endearing Sphinx. The bubble around us has the hushed quiet of new snow. We can’t hold joy, only allow it.
I want to give Ana something; to place something delicate and precious within her open palm. I want to compile a catalogue of joy. It will be an index of sunlight, its texture and shape, its spectrum of warmth. Its infinite differing faces.
I’ll assemble a book, as awkward as a teenager’s tender diary, and present it to Ana. There will be snapshots and mementos. A worn blanket spread in the sun for a spring picnic with the children. Swarms of oily bubbles blown from plastic wands lifting to the trees. Ana filling my wine glass, our eyes following the lazy ripples on the lake. A ticket stub. A pink bow.
A silken story unfolding in unbroken swathes of color. I will catalogue my joy and make it my faith.
I look up into the archive of Ana’s eyes. I see the single, gentle thread of my life. It whips like a wide banner in the breeze, a slash of deep color against a cloudless blue sky. I gasp. I gasp as the banner unfurls. I gasp and tell her something which is a mystery until it is spoken.
“I’m leaving my husband.”
The world behind her flickers. A waiter shuffles in the shadows of the bar. I see chairs, booths, a large window opening to the street. Tables for other diners who have not yet arrived. Ana’s eyes do not leave me; she wills the world to silence. I promise myself I will not cry.
“You need a place to stay?” she asks.
“Maybe,” I reply.
Steve Mitchell has published fiction and poetry in the Adirondack Review, Kakalak 2008, edificeWRECKED, The Taj Mahal Review, millers pond and No Straight Roads, among others. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. Steve is open twenty four hours a day at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com