“So where are you from?”
“Why the interest?”
“I want to get to know you.”
She looked at me with the raise of that right eyebrow. I could tell she took pleasure in my wanting to know. I still wasn’t sure if she cared to know more about me.
“Pittsburgh, actually. I grew up in a cookie cutter house, on a street that looked like all streets. My childhood was no different than anyone else’s.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that trouble you?”
“No, not particularly.”
“I grew up here. I’ve never left Florida.”
“And does that trouble you?”
“Since I was a kid I’ve told people that I travel all the time, in books.”
“Don’t you think that’s escapism?” she said.
Two runners passed by us in neon sneakers. Their labored breaths complemented each other: huff, huff, huff.
“Not escapism,” I said. “More like…visitation. I visit the places and worlds that I’ve never actually seen.”
“Well, I guess it is in a way. Books are sheets of magic bound together.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous.”
I could feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. What was I doing, trying to impress her?
“You can’t sound like, like Mr. Rogers,” she told him. “You have to be honest with the kids. That’s the only way you’ll connect with them, any of them.”
I didn’t like being lectured in this manner, but I thought that she probably had a point, a hint toward the truth.
“You know, I’ve never lost someone I loved before,” I told her. “I can only imagine how you feel about your father. I’m not too close with my parents, but I love them. And if they were to pass on I would feel their absence. I think I would have these two missing chunks in my brain.”
“The memories are still there,” she said. “Always. The times he’d bring me home a handful of mints and I’d stuff both my cheeks with them, like one of those squirrels.” She motioned with a vague wave of her hand. So she had noticed them after all. I underestimated her perceptivity. “Then the darker times,” she continued, “like when I ran across the road without looking. He brought me back into the house. His face was shaking with anger, and you could see the tiniest ripples in the skin below his eyes. He took a pencil from his desk, and in a flat voice, he said, ‘This could have been you,’ and he snapped the pencil inches from my face. I can still hear the cracking of the wood, the shattering of the led. I can see the individual splinters rising between his face and mine. But then it goes blank after that, or watery is more like it. I cried, naturally.”
“I take it that’s what you picture before crossing.”
“Exactly. That’s what I mean, the honesty, the sheer and brutal honesty. It’s necessary if you want to teach someone something. I’ve never forgotten my father’s lesson and even now I always look both ways. Twice, sometimes three glances each way.”
“You have a lot of memories like that?”
“Some dark like that, yes. But it’s light disguised as dark, really. Of course I didn’t know it then. But there are no holes. The absence isn’t like that. It’s just that the memories are different, they’re coated differently.”
“What do you mean?”
“How do I put this—”
“They feature someone who isn’t here anymore,” she said, incredulity in her tone. “I can’t get in my car and pay him a visit. That’s not an option. The memories hold him fully now.” She paused to consider. “Like when you see a really old movie and think to yourself, ‘Everyone in this is dead.’”
If she spoke like that, maybe she had been sarcastic in her response to my saying her father was with God. But I never had the audacity to ask. I also feared the answer. I needed her to believe so I could believe, too. There was also the possibility that she relied on me for the same reason. Beliefs, I now know, sustain their foundation on the beliefs of other people, family, friends. The bedrock is composed of belief upon belief, with no end until the black tar-covered core of disbelief is reached, if ever.
Ahead, I could see a white wall of light at the end of the tree-sheltered walkway. There was a murder of crows perched at different heights: one on an overarching branch, another walking on the ground and shifting its wings like the arthritic shoulders of an old man, two side by side on the back of a bench, and the largest specimen of them all swooping across the path as nothing more than a black blur.
“There they are,” I said.
We both stopped. I stood a few steps behind her. The way her curled hair shifted from side to side indicated that she was studying the crows. Intently, I imagined, with faint lines making themselves visible around her eyes. I took some steps forward, cautiously, lest I disturb the ceremonious quiet, for even the wind ceased, allowing the trees to rest their fidgeting, until I was at her side. Due to my closer proximity, the crow scrounging on the ground began to quicken its gait, bobbing its feathered head like an Egyptian cartoon. She put her arm around my waist, the first time she touched me. Then all five crows, and a sixth that had been hiding in the foliage, retreated through the trees and landed on a clearing, some of them hopping and spreading open their wings. They spoke to each other in alien warbles, cawing louder and louder. Then it occurred to me that they weren’t retreating, as the squirrels had, but, rather, making way for us, as death does for those who come after.
Lily must have been thinking something similar, because she whispered a Latin invocation, “Absit omen.”
We began walking in sync. I felt a tension in her body, not toward me, but in relation to the approaching light. Her movements conveyed a hesitance, a minute urge to go backward, from whence we came. But I had returned her arm’s grip with a gentle clutching of my own around her shoulders, and so we walked holding each other, a makeshift cradle, and after some further distance I could tell she felt safer. So did I. Before we crossed the threshold, into the brightness, my nose tingled. Then I felt the blanket-like warmth as the canopied path opened up. I looked at the sun to catalyze a sneeze. My involuntary reaction was to stretch open my collar and expel the wet air into my shirt.
“That’s disgusting,” she said.
When I recovered, I looked at her and saw her eyes as they were meant to be. Golden in the light of the sun. Not the drab, faux rays invented by Man. This was her element, what her formerly green eyes had been yearning for. Light from a real source. Nurturing and plentiful.
Through a smile she said, “What?”
“Nothing. I just thought of something. That boy from yesterday. In the three-piece suit. Is he yours?”
“I don’t have any children.”
Admitting that caused her eyes to flicker a shade darker.
“I suspect you’re childless, too,” she said.
Responding to her overt question and the one beneath, I said, “Yes….”
We realized where our invisible connection found itself, within the core of our yearning to love a child of our own, a mutual affinity for parenthood. I could read in her eyes another Latin phrase she would utter: “Deo volente.”