[Originally published March 17, 2014 at Linguistic Erosion.]
He had ink on his hands. I remember the way it crept through the grooves of his skin. The roots of weeds. It was just small spots, but unmistakable. And a loose-wrinkled shirt. Yellow or faded or not. It was a long time ago.
The kettle screams on the stove. Tea leaves swirl in the chipped-china pot. An afternoon at home. Jenny asks if she can go play in the garden. Barely twelve. A tomboy. No interest in boys but that’ll come soon enough. Go and play. Ma won’t mind, Granny says it’s ok.
Just like her mother, Jenny. All sports and bare knees. Jarred frogs and adventures. Comes from somewhere, I guess, but not me. I was never. But maybe that would have been better.
He would ask me where things were. In my first real job as a library clerk I was full of poorly trained self-importance. Had I been a little wiser, I would have realized he wasn’t actually trying to find anything. He just enjoyed watching me bumble about, earnestly chasing wild geese. A game of obscure titles and fictional subjects. Or flirting.
Jeremy the cat jumps up on the table. Strutting about, poking his head into cups. He adopted himself into the family three years ago. As if we had any say in the matter. I just wish he wasn’t naked. Perhaps I’ll knit him a sweater. Perhaps I’ll learn to knit. For now I’ll just pet his bald little head. An elderly man-cat. Two old farts and tea.
He plucked a gray hair from my head once. I was nineteen. Came right up and pulled the strand straight out of my head. I must have blushed pools of blood. Wide eyed and incapable of saying anything. He just laughed and walked away. So damn clever. Sent me into a panic. I spent the evening glued to the mirror, looking for the first shoots of an old hag. Silly girl.
I let the tea sit too long, it’s gone all bitter. Never mind, milk and sugar. Jenny giggles in the yard. To be so young. And always in a hurry to grow up. Like her mother. Like me. Not my favorite legacy.
Coming from a town too small for maps, a graduate student seemed like a wildly exotic creature. Irrevocably tied to visions of bohemian genius. And my impressions were knowingly reinforced. He was wit and mischief hung on bones. I did everything I could to make myself appealing. I did everything I could to hide.
I didn’t learn his name until months after we met. Certainly not bold enough to ask, not in those days. I thought he must have an adventuring, romantic name. He didn’t. And he called me all sorts of things. Sweet things. Sugary nicknames and French things I couldn’t understand. I don’t think he ever called me by name. I don’t think he remembered. I don’t think I cared.
Jeremy sprawls out on the table, I rub his belly. Our innumerable wrinkles. He sounds like a motorbike. That went to a party. In someone else’s flat.
A nice cashmere sweater is not always suitable for a party. A calcified square caught in music made for shaking. He introduced me to his friends. Blue haze and bottles. Words I had only read, and mentally mispronounced. I just sipped my drink and smiled. Prayed to God no one would ask me a question. Thrilled just to be there. On the way home he –
Jenny calls from the garden. Touch the phone, talisman. No emergency, just a bird’s nest. That’s wonderful dear. Put it back.
Those days fall together. Fused. Stretched and condensed through time. I was blissfully thoughtless, a fanatic for attentions. And he paid them. Sometimes miserly, sometimes generous. I told all my girlfriends. What a wonderful hero-saint-genius I had. Hours spent listening to drivelsome coffee-jabber and tracing the weeds of ink.
The stains came from a pen. A hand-me-down from someone I pretended to have heard of. A beautiful fountain antique prone to leaking. He was going to change the world and write something brilliant. So I believed and believed. Through reams of paper. Sheets and sheets. And sheets.
My cup has gone cold. The phone rings and jitters. Here in half an hour to pick up Jenny. Lovely. Press twelve different buttons to hang up. My kingdom for a landline.
Three weeks of silence. Months too close, then three weeks. Young eternity. I drove my body to ache, willing the phone to ring. And nothing. And nothing. I call, and nothing. Sleepless, eatless, and bent. Rotten. Dead. Then all the sudden. Come again like nothing happened. I should have been furious, but was elated instead. Joyous mistakes.
When I told him we had a secret, he didn’t react. Just carried on. I repeated myself, thinking he hadn’t heard. He assured me he had. I started in on questions, but got nowhere. A row ignited, storms have less thunder. Terrible, brash things inflated with irrelevancies. Stomps. Strikes to walls and tables.
And the whole thing broke.
A crash. Jenny apologizes, almost sobbing. It’s alright dear, I never really cared for that anyway. She cut her hand, slight as an eyelash. Band-Aids and kisses. Dry your eyes. Granny can fix it. Ma will be here soon.
I gave her. For better chances. Three counties over, I met them once. Good people. I was wretched a long time after.
The door opens. Jeremy scoots to quieter places, Jenny wriggles away. Ma’s here! Looks just like her father. The gawky waiter in a lousy Italian restaurant when we were first introduced. My saving grace. I should bring him flowers tomorrow. Not really a man for flowers. But it’s not like he’ll see them through all that dirt.
Ma greets her girl, me. Jenny clings her waist. On my hand? Nothing. Just ink. I was writing a letter earlier. It creeps through the grooves. The roots of weeds.