Novelette of 'What Color on the Moon' (2/2)
[Needed to put a note again in here real quick! Another title of this novelette is "The Syntax of Kissing" from a line in one of e. e. cumming's poems, but that alternative title will give you an indication of some of the content, particular in this section, and so I wanted to repeat that this story is better suited for the older readers on apricotpie. There is a conversation in here about kissing and dating, and I couldn't really get around it or overly water it down because it is important to the emotional progression of the story. I just know it won't line up with everyone's beliefs on here and I want to be respectful and put that forward so you can make your choice about reading the piece or not. :) Sarah]
Jed wandered the perimeter untethered, circling slowly and listening to the farmer playing.
The waltz was beautiful: stretching and rounding to form a fiddling rose, each petal folding outward. Working its way, slowly and surely, pouring decadently like molasses: unfolding and unfolding to finally show the center nub. As the song then floated to its sleepy death, Jed found himself by the refreshment table and he moored his body, stretching out his long legs before him on the dance floor. From this seat, he looked about.
A slim girl in a pink dress with capped puffed sleeves was standing at the table by the iced tea. She was cutting a piece of lemon chiffon cake. As she slid into it with the silver knife, he noticed that every one of her nails was filed an almond shape, and painted a shell-pink.
“Jed!” she said, when she turned to face him, with her small white plate.
He blinked. He had not meant to talk to her; he was surprised she even knew his name: she was three years younger than he, and the kid sister of one of his friends.
“Hullo, Becky.” He pulled his legs in.
Her teeth were little eggshells. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
“It’s nine o'clock. What do you do - graduate and then become an old man?”
Jed shrugged. Her hair, or maybe her cologne, smelled like fruit.
“Well, say, I have no dance partner. That monstrous Fintan left me. Will you stand up with me?”
“Oh, I’d be honored to.” He gathered himself together.
“Just once. And then you can sit.”
“No, dancing will get my juices flowing.” He carried her to the center line. “I’m sorry you were jilted, Becky.”
“Two lines. Hands-four, from the top.”
“Oh, I’m not rarely. I mean I am rarely. Wait, I don’t know what I mean.”
He laughed. “I get it.” The back of her hand was buttery against his thumb.
The fiddle whined once, twice…and then began ribbing.
“Gents…ahh-lamande left. Sah-wing your neighbor. Face across, now circle…tooo the left…three-quarters… Swing - your - partner!”
Jed wobbled his way over to Aggie, who was sitting alone. The two men had gone.
She seemed to be nervously tapping another empty glass between her fingers, though she smiled up at him.
“You’re all a-glow.”
“Am I?” He flopped down in the empty seat beside her. “Whoosh. That’s what exercise will do to you.”
“Want to dance again?” she asked, with an edge in her voice he could not read.
“Oh, of course.” He pulled himself back to his feet. “Yeah, if you want to.” He held out his palm to her. When he closed his hand over her coarse reddened one, the skin seemed to flake under his fingers, and the flaking made him feel suddenly sad and protective.
He leaned in and asked quietly, “Did you have a good conversation with those men?”
“No. They were cads.”
“I’m not surprised. They didn’t seem very friendly at all. Well, we’re going to dance now and forget all about it. And when we drive back, you can tell me everything they said, and I’ll tell you exactly why men like that aren’t worth a second thought. Some people think very idiotic things.”
“So save your pearls for people who will understand you. And I’m half quoting the Bible right now, you know.”
“Slay me. No, that’s alright. It’s a poetic book. I remember you reading me that love stuff one night. Remember? When I was lying on the sofa.”
“And I was by the wood stove. Of course I remember. The Song of Songs.”
“It’s no good if just you listen to me in this world, Jed.”
“It won’t be like that always.”
“I know it won’t. But if you get there first, maybe you could write me into one of your books. As the dashing heroine.”
“And make you live forever.”
“Just try to show my gorgeous side.”
“You have only gorgeous sides. But weren’t you going to immortalize me, too? I think I asked you to a few years ago. Because I’m so self-effacing.”
“What do you have in that mop,” said Aggie. “It’s stiff as glue.”
“I don’t know. But it’s awful stuff and I probably won’t be able to wash it out.”
They tumbled into the warm night air, firs riveting with katydids and the shaking bells of crickets, and Aggie halloo'ed, “That last song was for me. 'I’ll be seeing you, in every lovely summer’s day…’”
“Wasn’t it swell how he bolted out those two songs at the end? I didn’t know he was going to do that. I didn’t even know Abe Barner could sing.”
She raised her arms and cavorted, her knees cracking. “'I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places – that this heart of mine embraces!’”
“Watch out for the branch on your left!”
But she swerved to her right, into him. “And the second to last one was for you,” she said, stabbing a finger into his arm.
“I didn’t pay much attention to the words. What did that one say?”
“'Don’t Fence Me In’. It had Jed written all over it.”
“Jeez, yeah, I suppose so. At least with that title.”
“Oh, give me land, land, land!” Aggie opened her arms again and slid and spun under a chestnut. She turned around, sashayed, and knocked into a couple walking arm-in-arm, the man in army drabs and the girl in candy blue. “Sorry, so sorry.”
“Here’s the truck,” gagged Jed, jerking open the door, and trying not laugh. “Sorry, Burt. She can’t see well without her glasses. I didn’t warn her in time. Goodnight, Burt! Mary. Get in, Aggie.”
“I don’t wear glasses, Jed.”
“I don’t wear glasses, Burt. He’s lying to you.”
“Don’t let him lie to you, Burt!”
But she was calling after shadows: the couple had dissolved into the pines. So she gave a final spin, stopping herself with her hands against the bed. “I want to ride to the something, where the west commences.” She clambered up. “Something-something-something, till I lose my senses!’”
Jed snorted and they both slammed their doors shut. Then the cicadas and the crickets were cut off and the outdoor laughter was washed out. He loved the silence and the heat in the truck’s muffled embrace.
“That’s us. I’ll always let you go. Just run. Straddle your saddle. Gallop into the glory of a gory-red sun.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s singing to his father. I heard him say pop at the end.” He started the chuttering engine.
“Thought you said you didn’t hear the words.”
“Well, I heard the word pop.”
“You were too distracted to hear any words. Weren’t you, Jed?” She squirmed closer. “Weren’t you!”
“Distracted by what.”
“Ah, you’re turning rosy.”
“I’m olive. I can’t blush.”
“Did you dance with any nice girls tonight?”
“I danced with you.” He backed the truck up through the crunching gravel.
“What about that girl in pink?”
“There were so many girls in pink.”
“You know which girl in pink.”
“Becky was in pink, and I danced with her twice, if that’s what you mean. Only because she’s my friend’s kid sister. Because her partner disappeared on her. Isn’t it awful how men are these days.”
“Don’t distract with pontificating. You’re all lit up inside.”
“I’m not, but I wish I was. I’m really tired.” Jed edged out of the lane and onto the main road.
“No, you’re electric; I can see it.”
“It’s really just the dancing. It always makes me wired.”
“I think this Becky was keen on you.”
“Not in the slightest.” He rattled the truck over a bridge. It was dark, but the headlights swept the shadows to the peripheries. Firs scattered ahead like bats. “She’s a kid.”
“But she’s what, four years younger than you?”
“Viable for what!”
“Don’t bunch your knickers in a knot. Jed, I swear you’re an old lady sometimes. The kind that wears cat pins.”
“I only don’t get what you’re on about. Or I know, and I don’t like it.”
“Soothe your feathers.”
“I’m perfectly calm.”
“I think you and that girl would make a good match. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Good grief, Aggie,” he cut the wheel onto a back road. “Would you please?”
“Want me to say why?”
“Because I think there was a spark between you two.”
“She was very pretty, I think.”
“Sure, but I don’t care.”
“You don’t have to get defensive. I also think she was a good dancer.”
“Maybe. Yeah, she is. But so are you, and so were two dozen other girls.”
“No, she’s different, though. I watched her. Sweetly attractive. She uses her charms to wheedle and needle.”
“Alright, Aggie. You tell me about your conversation with those men and that woman now. I wanted to hear.”
“That can wait. This is more important.”
“To you or to me?”
“To you. I think you need to be aware – and maybe this is something I can tell you, as a woman – as a woman watching a woman…that she was trying to bait you. She was going hook, line, and sinker. And I wanted to tell you if I was a man, I would have bitten.”
Jed twisted his head and looked at the passing trees, shot through with headlights.
“Don’t turn up your nose, Jedediah. It’s the same with everyone else. Everyone uses something.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“Whether their mental prowess. Or their personality. Or their skill with turning a penny to a dollar. Or their ability to transform their corner into beauty. Or even their piety. – No, hear me out. If a man loves religion and modesty, a modest girl will play up that part of her. It’s normal. We’re all just trying to attract people to ourselves in this game of life. I once had some gorgeous days because the man could quote entire passages of Kierkegaard to me. Including page numbers.”
He wrung his hand around the wheel. “That’s fine, and that’s fun, but I really don’t believe that everyone is out to manipulate each other. We’re not animals.”
“What a sweet-spotted high horse.”
He ground his molars together.
“What breed is it, Jed?”
“Well,” lamely, releasing his teeth, “maybe an appaloosa.”
“Now, don’t get me wrong. You’re clear and upfront. I’m not making a personal remark on you. You’re one of the few human beings that is fundamental and transparent. But I can’t say the same about the rest of the race.”
“I’d say Becky’s a good human.”
“Then go for her!” chummily.
“I don’t want to go for her. I don’t actually know her at all.”
“You should at least see her again.”
“I won’t be going out of my way. I really don’t care enough.”
The firs disappeared suddenly and a meadow appeared like a clean open lung, with upswept stars in a bowl of black. Jed was remembering the yellow hair that smelled like strawberries. And the warmth that spread from her hand to his.
He took a breath in and out, and said, “I do actually appreciate your insight, though. I know you can see things, as a woman, that maybe I’d miss.”
“That’s all I wanted to tell you. That’s all I wanted to say.” She snuggled down into her seat. “– And that you have my blessing. Oh! Not that you need it. Let me stop you right there. Hah, Jed. I know you so well.”
"Aggie, dear. Go away.”
She nosedived for the door handle.
Jed swapped his hand at her – “Fudge, no, you don’t,” – but his fingers missed her arm, brushing a hollow scoop of air. It felt chronic to him, even in that moment.
“Back up,” said Mr. Spiram, wiping his mouth. “You said you want to go where?”
“To be a counselor at a ski camp. It’s a revolutionary program, Dad. There are week-long stints for juvenile delinquents, and then a regular program for kids after school.”
“Do you even know how to ski?” asked a sister.
“'Course I do, Minnie.”
“Good grief,” said Mr. Spiram.
“What? What else do you want me to do?”
“Well, I thought you were going to think about – a career – a snow-shoveling gig.”
“A snow-shoveling gig!”
“Yeah, start thinking about your future. Not this nannying business.”
“Camp counseling isn’t nannying business.”
“They’ll all be girls working with you.”
“There’ll be fellows, too. Kids also need a male influence.”
Mrs. Spiram set a bowl of baked beans on the table. “Is it very far away, Jed? – Georgie, please put your mouse away until after lunch.”
“It’s in northern Vermont.”
Mr. Spiram looked at him incredulously. “You want to go to Vermont for the winter?”
“What about your mother? What about the work here? Do you think your mother is going to chop the wood?”
“I can chop the wood,” said the oldest girl.
“Be quiet, Virginia.”
“Oh, I’m sure, Daddy,” said Mrs. Spiram, “it wouldn’t harm us girls to learn how to do a few tough things.”
"That’s not the point. He’s shirking responsibilities.”
Jed laughed shortly. “I don’t get it. You say get a job, then don’t like it when I do.”
“No, I don’t like it. There’s a rough world out there and you seem to want to surround yourself with short-term flimsy things. Petunias.”
Jed laughed again. “Did you just say petunias.”
“I wish –”
“What do you wish?”
“I wish you had more life experience.”
“You mean you wish the war hadn’t ended before I turned eighteen.”
“Don’t say that. How can you even say that to me?”
“Well.” Jed thumped the table leg dully with his foot. “It just feels like you wish I was there.”
“I wish my son had more experience: that’s all. And not to be so content with fruiting around. Is that such a strange thing for a father to want?”
“Then I don’t know what you think those four years were. Being totally by myself – raising them, with full responsibility, taking care of your girls –”
“Let’s talk about this all later,” said his mother.
“Sure, I know you helped your mama a lot when she was working and I was gone. But what’s it left you. A housewife, a nursemaid.”
“I finished school.”
“And an academic. It hasn’t been good for you. I want you to not be content with camps and childwork.”
“It’s all I have. It’s all I’ve got right now. It’s what I know.”
“And what you love,” supplemented Sunny. “Jed is good with kids.”
“Sunny, stay out of this,” said Mr. Spiram.
“Don’t talk to her like that,” flared Jed. “What makes you think you can come in and talk to her like that? Without you at the table, we had equal conversations every night.”
“Alright, Jed,” said Mrs. Spiram warningly.
“I want you to know I already sent in my application.”
“Oh, that’s fine, then.”
“Let him go, Tom.”
“When I was younger I didn’t go to even the next town without asking my father.”
“He’s been good to us here. He’s right about that.”
“Good at making fairy crowns.” He twitched up pieces of broccoli from the table into his napkin. He then folded it. “Alright, you can go.”
“Sir, I wasn’t asking your permission. But thank you for the support.”
“So long as you’re under my roof –”
“So long as, what?”
“I expect you to contribute.”
“Yes, I’ll chop the wood from the hickory thicket. I’ll fix the west paddock fence. I’ll put in the winter greens and the winter wheat. And then I’m gone. By the end of November, I’m leaving. And I would say a lot more to you but there are children here and that is not a consideration you or Mother ever gave us.”
They plodded along down the lane, steepled with elms and oak, under chevron dents of shade and yellow.
“I’m wondering what sort of counselor I’ll be.”
“You’ll be a good one.”
“I hope so.”
“It’s easy. Just treat them like you treat me,” Sunny said, her arms hanging down around his neck.
“Just nicely. You’re always patient and nice.”
"Oof.” Jed bounced her up. “Can you hold on tighter? I’m dropping you.”
She tightened her grip.
“And now you’re choking me.”
She loosened her arms and slid down, so he shifted under her downy thighs and hitched her up. A squirrel skittered across their path, and disappeared with a swallow into a hole in a stone wall.
She patted the top of his head. “My horse.”
“Give me more advice,” Jed asked gamely.
“Well…if a kid does something you don’t like, don’t yell at ’em in front of everybody. That will just make them feel embarrassed.”
“I won’t yell at all.”
“Just talk to them normally.”
“Like you talk to me.”
“Sunny, I really believe all kids are equal to adults. It’s one of my strongest opinions on this earth.”
“I’m glad you think that.” She put her head against the back of his neck. Her silky hair was almost unbearably ticklish, like the skein of a milkweed pod.
“Here’s your stop.” Jed ducked down and swung her to the ground.
“Oh, Jed,” Sunny howled, scuttling off past a red mailbox, “you don’t need to pick me up later, because Mrs. Buckmeier is walking me home.”
“That’s fine, honey.”
He watched her spindly legs running until she disappeared in a cove of shagbark hickories, and then he turned around and kicked a little stone. He paused. He looked left and right, and then began to trudge up the road in the direction of home.
But Jed stopped and plunged suddenly into the lane-side, between the brambles. He clambered over a clematis-studded stone wall, and brushed his way through grasses, flushed with bittersweet and violet asters. He passed a scarecrow in a pumpkin patch and shook its hand.
Then the mouth of the field opened to the main road, still dirt, and he sat down at the crossroads.
He watched his brown hands for a long time, and played with a scar on his right thumb.
Jed heard an obnoxious squeak and looked up. His friend had set the break on her bike, down the western way, and she flailed her arm in salute. He waved back, and she mounted again. The open sun spun across her hair in rivulets, like silver combing through dulse.
Jed stood with his hands in his pockets. “What did you get in your Wheaties this time?”
Her bicycle was a rusty black.
“A booklet to bowl better.” She wobbled to a stop. “What are you doing?”
“Just going back to the house. Want to go partway with me?”
“Tell me how is that even a question.”
The rocks gritted underfoot and she wove her bike alongside him, her handlebars shimmering. Then she kicked off and scraped her bike in open gyres.
“We are alive, Jed! It is such a mellow afternoon. Doesn’t it make you want to crow? Bang your chest and run around. I had to keep myself in check in town all morning. It was such a challenge for me.”
“I hate today.”
“You broke the news about camp, huh.” Next to him, she put her shoe down on the dust and balanced. “Listen, you don’t owe -”
“Oh, I know I don’t.” He kicked another rock. “But it could have been such a normal conversation, and it wasn’t. He dug deep. It was like he was asking for a bigger brawl. Like he would have enjoyed it, but I didn’t take him up on it. At least not verbally in the way he wanted. You know how you can tell when someone wants it?”
“I know exactly how.” She reached into her basket. “Look; I was bringing you something.”
“Where did you get that!”
She unwrapped a tea towel. “My cousin had a supply in the back room and gave me it. I ate half of it on the way here. Can you believe me?” She took out a banana. “But I wasn’t sure if I was going to see you, either.” It was spotting brown at the slits.
He took the banana and looked at the braided fibers of cream. Slick carvings where her teeth had nibbled the flesh.
“It’s not like an apple and blackberry crumble where you can pick the toppings off and then mold it back together again to make it look like you didn’t snitch anything at all.”
“Oh, Aggie. How did you know I needed something like this?”
“I am a Useful Engine.”
“You are a Really Useful Engine.”
A flight of wrens sprouted above her head, and she followed them with eyes like kite-tails. “You really should be eating it with cream and sugar,” she said, her pupils tight and bouncing.
Jed chewed the banana, looking after the house in the distance, with its appalling candy-red door.
“I really don’t want to go back in there,” swallowing.
Aggie tugged her gaze down.“I think I can actually hear your mother calling you.”
“I just don’t want to go back in.”
Aggie dismounted and leaned her bike against a crab apple tree. Jed sailed the peel into the woods and shoved his hands into his pockets. His shoulders felt pinned together. A sheet on the line that has crunched in the wind.
“Sorry; I didn’t hear what you said.” Aggie pointed her toes and exhaled her arms.
“I said I don’t want to go back in.”
“Airplanes!” shouted Aggie, and erupted into spins.
Without hesitation, Jed took his hands out of his pockets.
“Airplanes,” he hollered, shooting his arms out like blades.
They bolted past the house, gouging up dirt and dust. Aggie charged down the road, making chuttering and rumping noises, and Jed narrowed in on her.
“Ah! Friendly fire! Don’t hit me!”
“I’m knocking down my street sign.”
“No, it’s my perch for –” Aggie grabbed onto the metal pole and pulled herself up, wrapping her legs around – “for parachuting.” Jed saw her bean-sized muscles push out against her cotton sleeves. She reached the top, banged the green sign with the flat of her hand, and jumped back down. The performance was not Jed’s, but he felt out of breath. He gasped for air, laughing, an impossible smile knocking all the way up to his forehead.
“Airplanes,” he said, his lungs whole. Red and green and blue and yellow balloons were coming up off his shoulders. He suggested, “Let’s both get our bikes and ride them to your house.”
Jed rotated his marshmallow on a stick. “But he’s right, you know.”
“About which part in particular?”
“That I don’t know much about life.”
Aggie was lying on the hearthrug, away from him. “Balderdash. Hooey.”
“Except babies and nappies and bedtime stories. Toilet training. While he was over there, I was singing Humpty Dumpty. What kind of fellow raises his kid sister?”
“A good fellow.”
The fire popped. The room smelled of stale cigarettes.
“He wouldn’t have wanted you there.”
“I think in a sense he did, though. Maybe not consciously, but on a subterranean level. He wanted someone of his blood to share the experience with. He maybe resented my life here.”
“It wasn’t soft. You were a kid. You started playing dad at fourteen. You took on a burden that wasn’t yours.”
“But my romances are stupid. They’re admittedly green.”
“So? Everyone starts somewhere. All people have their pebble dreams. Save 'em for stone soup.”
“But I want to write reality. Gritty reality. Gentle reality.”
“You already do that. You write about your family life and your sisters.”
“So keep doing it. Light your cooker and keep that pot a-boiling.”
“But I want to write more. And better. And for that, I have to know life on every level. From every angle. I don’t want to be scared anymore. I want to taste everything, like other people do. I want to know life. To touch it on a physical level. It drives me mad if people know things I don’t. I feel so on the outside.”
“I’m not comprehending your chagrin. You see beauty. You’re a well-rounded fellow. You have your finger on the pulse of life. So what are you so driven to know?”
She raised her stick up and down. “Then know it.”
“I am. I’m trying. I’m diving in for the first time.”
“You went to the dance with Becky last night, yes.”
“Well, we didn't exactly make it to the dance.”
“We didn't actually get out of the truck.”
He set his stick on fire. “We kissed.” It sparked like fireflies.
“Well. Then I take back my advice because I didn’t mean to know it blindly.”
“I’m not blind.”
“I’m only warning you to be careful.”
“Of my feelings or hers? I promise you, she’s aware of where I stand, what I’ve been through. She knows and she’s helping me.”
“Of course you’re too moral to gyp a girl consciously. I mean, I’m worried about you.”
“I’m not worried about myself.”
“Then you’re being too cavalier.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Ag, but you’re the last person that should be telling me to be careful.” He tried to laugh. “What about the man quoting Kierkegaard with page numbers?”
“Physicality creates a bond. There’s no doubt about that. And if there is no emotional basis to back up the –-”
He cut her off with a scoff. “That’s church talk.”
A thin strip of fire lashed across her face and trembled through her jaw. “How dare you? Did you really just say that to me? Are you even remembering who you’re talking to?”
“I’m sorry; it only sounded like something I would have read or heard. And it triggered that response.”
“I don’t care. That still hurts. To be looked at through the lens of your past hell-mongering associates. And then to have my opinion dismissed – sorry, no, interrupted – without hearing what I have to say.”
“Alright. I’m listening. I spoke too fast. I just have a chip on my shoulder – you know this. Keep going.”
“Now I’m not so sure I want to.”
“Oh, come on, Aggie.”
“You’re not going to listen anyway.”
“I will. You have more experience on this topic.”
“Not all experience is good. Some of my experience hurt me.”
“Well, I’ve had no experience at all. I’m not overly worried about being hurt now. When I look at my life like a pendulum, I’m at the extreme end. Empty of experiences. I’m at the exhausted end of nothingness.”
“So you want to swing in the opposite direction. As fast and as far as you can. That’s real smart, Jed. So smart.”
“To land somewhere back in the middle, yes. You know what I’m trying to get over. Aggie, what have I done to you tonight? You’re explosive.”
“I don’t know.” She strung her hands over her eyes. “Maybe I’m tired. Maybe the church comment made me implode inside. Maybe I’m feeling touchy for reasons I can’t label.”
“Yes, well,” warily, “it’s late, too. It’s almost three in the morning. Maybe I should go. Or we can stop talking.”
“No!” She lifted her hands. “That’s exactly what I don’t want. For you to stop talking. For you to ever stop talking to me. Mainly for you stop thinking you can talk to me about something. Anything. Everything. That’s the last thing I want. That would be a final fission.”
“Well, we’re not; I’m not. So give me advice, Aggie. You’ve forged ahead. What can you turn back and throw me?”
“You won’t call me a preacher again?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die. – Listen, remember when we first met and you said if we lived five hundred years ago you probably would have been burned at the stake for being a witch. And I said I would have been the boy running through the crowd and pushing past the soldiers to try to stop them. And end up getting burned, too, right alongside you. I still feel that way. With all my soul. Besides, we would both be heretics at this point.”
“Then don’t call me religious when I talk.”
“No, I won’t. I won’t. I don’t promise to agree with what you say, but I won’t call you anything you’re not.”
“Because I won’t be boxed and limited that way. Fettering my mind from having honest opinions because they seem even remotely akin.”
“Sure, I know. But now I’m forgetting what we’re even talking about.” He leaned down suddenly and started rolling the bottoms of his jeans up. “I guess I should tell you why I came over here tonight. Or yesterday, at this point.”
“Because you didn’t want to go back inside your house. You never seem to want to go back into your house.”
“No. Because I’m scared of losing you. I came over here tonight genuinely because I am afraid I am going to lose you.”
“You’re not losing me.”
“I’m scared it’s possible. I’m scared if I go steady with Becky, or if I move away, or if someone else comes into your life,” he gestured to the half-eaten pizza on the plate, with the burning-down candle, “we won’t be able to do this anymore.”
“Maybe.” She strung her hands over her face again.
“Don’t say maybe.”
“I’m just saying anything’s possible. No one can predict the twistings and turnings of the future.”
“But friendship is an iron thing, unbendable.”
She was quiet.
“Yes, Jed. Ours is.”
“I really think it is.”
“It is. I don’t know why I’m so tired.”
“Because it’s three a.m. How long have I been here now? Twelve, thirteen hours?”
“Fourteen and a half.”
“I suppose my relationship -- or not even relationship; I can't call it that at this point: it's an attraction. I suppose the main thing I feel for Becky is a physical bubbly thing. We have a potential for an emotional connection. I think. Maybe not. No, yes, she is warm and sweet. And transparent, almost to a ridiculous point. But there is definitely no intellectual spark there.”
“You feel she’s inferior to you.”
He shrugged. “I’ve never met your equal.”
Agnes rolled over on her side, away from him.
“Aggie! What is it?”
A muffled, “Nothing.”
So he looked at the line of her back, at her worsted brown sweater bulking at her waist, and at her bunched skirt. She tucked her knees up into her stomach. Jed said nothing.
The clock ticked.
“You know what… she even asked about you. And you know what I told her? I said you were like pine air in my lungs. I can’t really explain. She probably thought I was crazy. But you know how pine smells? – you know what I mean? Clear and crisp. Big mountain feeling. Clean like new clothes on a line. The lake… and all.”
“And he makes me feel,” she murmured into her elbow, “as if my soul were strung to birds, with paper moons and paper boats.”
“What is that from?”
She turned over onto her back with a flop. He was surprised to see a smile on her face. Strain had dissolved, and her cheek was soft and creamy. The light flickered in the hollow under her purple eye.
“I think you picked a sixteen-year old to kiss because that’s the age when we first met.”
She was looking up at the ceiling. “And perhaps – I’m not saying it should have been – but perhaps our relationship could have been romantic as well, but it was a stunted blossom, because of your conservatism, and because of my ineffectiveness and insecurities, and so we never evolved past the emotional and mental bond.”
“Aggie, I –”
“That’s why I think,” she settled back, turning her head to him, “I think you should go ahead with her.”
He rolled off the couch and scooted on his knees over to the wood stove, away from her. “You think.”
“Go wherever you want, do whatever you like, get whatever you need to out of your system first. Heal, fix, whatever it is you need to. Get over the barriers. It is good for you to explore this side of yourself. Then maybe …”
She did not finish her sentence, but Jed knew what she was thinking. She had that visionary look on her face – her eyes all black and starry.
He threw his marshmallow stick into the fire and closed the lid with a crack. He resented that look. And it pulled him towards Aggie like an unstoppable magnet.