By Patricia Crisafulli
Evening fell like a blue velvet curtain, blocking off the last of mid-summer light and cloaking the house with elongated shadows that melded into darkness. Jan sat at her patio table, a place set just for one, and nursed the single glass of wine she allowed herself on a Saturday night, afraid of the implications of drinking alone, but wanting to treat herself to a chilled pinot grigio with the chicken salad she’d bought from Trader Joe’s. Watching the flame of the citronella candle that emitted a tangy scent but did only a feeble job of keeping the mosquitoes away, Jan hesitated to go back inside. She listened to the racket of the cicadas, undulating in a cacophonous wave.
The hours between nine and eleven were the longest, sometimes filled with a movie she rented or else spent noodling on the internet reading recipes, celebrity gossip, and reviews of restaurants she’d never go to alone. These same dreaded hours told the truth about her life, of missed opportunities and years that sped by unaccounted for in a career was really only a job, and a house she lived in alone after divorcing before she turned thirty-five. Now she was past sixty and her body had softened into an unfamiliar lump, round where she had been angular so many decades ago. The only thing that hadn’t changed was her hair, down to her shoulders and surprisingly thick, although the blond of her youth had dulled with the threads of gray she made no attempt to disguise or cover. She wore it up, pulled to the top of her head in a soft up-do that loosened and fell as the day wore on. At times, staring at her reflection in the mirror, she could see the laughing flower child she’d once been, the one who had hitchhiked halfway to Woodstock with her friend, Vivian, until they both lost their nerve and went home to face the consequences. All these years later, she regretted not making it all the way to the iconic gathering of her generation. Almost…the story of her life.
Tonight, something about the softness of the light reminded her of a time, forty years ago, when at 21 she had met a boy at a party--well, a man technically, but he had been all of 22--and had gone off with him by the end of the evening. The next day she had showed up at Vivian’s house and asked if she looked different. They’d squealed and laughed and talked about true love and soul mates. Johnny Richardson, with broad square shoulders from working for his father’s construction business and a tan line where his jeans rode around his hips.
They’d talked that summer about going away together, to California mostly. By fall, Johnny had gone to Florida for a construction job and promised to call or write, but had done little of either. Then he was gone for good.
Jan got up from the patio chair, feeling the bulk of her thighs peeling off the cushion like so much pizza dough stuck to the kitchen counter, and took a stiff step toward the back door. One glass of pinot was normally her limit, but tonight she just might make it two.
* * *
Sundays came with a flurry of morning activity. Over the past twenty years, she’d become a church lady, volunteering for anything and everything in a way that made her popular and appreciated. She passed out bulletins, welcomed newcomers, and served coffee after the service. She took every class they offered, from Bible study to yoga for seniors, which she had to do sitting in a chair because her knees were shot.
Standing in the vestibule, waiting for stragglers who slipped in during the entrance hymn and the opening prayers, she thought of the girl who’d been Woodstock-bound at 19; if she’d known what life had in store, she would have gone all the way there and stayed--maybe never come home.
“Did you hear about Lucille?” Donna, a fellow greeter whispered behind the bulletin in her hand. “Had another stroke.”
They grimaced in mutual sympathy. Jan made a mental note to send a card and to stop by when Lucille was out of ICU.
Coffee hour and cleanup took her nearly to noon and then she stopped at the grocery store, filling her cart with more than she needed. She paused at the meat counter and indulged in a little fantasy meal planning: a nice roast that would make good brown gravy, lamb chops to season with rosemary and thyme, a plump fryer to cut up for fried chicken the way her mother used to make.
Gary loved how she cooked, she’d give him that. Married at twenty-nine, more out of fear of missing out than love, she’d known it was a mistake. Children might have made a difference, but that wasn’t to be. Within a few years, they drifted apart and then Gary took up with someone else. Showing him the door had been a relief to them both. She never heard from him and didn’t miss him a bit, but when she imagined the big Sunday dinners she would have made, more often than not it was his face she pictured at the head of the table. Who else would it be, George Clooney?
Jan huffed a laugh and pushed her cart past the meat counter, aware that the woman in the long butcher’s coat looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. Maybe she had.
* * *
The salad she made for lunch left her unsatisfied, but not hungry. Slice for slice, she ate half a loaf of French bread smeared with a quarter inch of butter, because that was the only way to eat it, and then felt terrible for having broken her diet--the same one she’d been on since 1987, during which time she’d managed to gain another 25 pounds. Maybe 30. Sinking into her body, she felt the bulk of her legs and arms and the roundness of a stomach that sat in her lap like a basket of laundry. What happened to the tall, big-boned girl with the flaxen hair who almost went to Woodstock and spent one summer as Johnny Richardson’s girl?
“She got old, that’s what.” Speaking the words aloud in a croaking voice, Jan thought her heart might break, but it didn’t. Instead, she started to laugh, her belly rising and falling as she wrapped her arms around the firm abundance of her own flesh. Getting up from a table strewn with crumbs, Jan went to the back door and stepped outside. Too warm with a stickiness that coated the air, the first blast normally would have sent her back to the air-conditioning, but she pressed on into the small yard and an even tinier garden in the back: a few hastas, columbine gone to seed, and an azalea bush that looked amazing for exactly nine days every spring and then was only a lump of green leaves.
A rose bush, Jan suddenly decided, not knowing if such things were best planted in the spring or the fall, although surely the worst heat wave in decades was not the opportune time. Still, she could see it in a sunny spot near the garage with a trellis for support. Before she changed her mind, she fetched her purse and her car keys. Jan was halfway down the block before she wondered if she’d locked the back door.
Perspiration slicked her forehead and ran down between her breasts leaving a v-shaped stain on the front of her top, and twice Jan stopped by the mister that kept the hanging plants moist to feel the cool dampness. Assured by a young woman wearing a green t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the nursery in white letters that the rosebush could be planted mid-summer, Jan went to the checkout station to pay while a loader brought her purchases to her car. Making her way across the parking lot, Jan studied the two of them, the 20-something who’d sold her the rosebush and the loader who seemed about the same age. The way their heads curved toward each other and they touched hands briefly, a workplace romance had clearly taken root. Or maybe they’d been a couple and got jobs together. Looking at them, she couldn’t help but think of herself and Johnny Richardson, remembering his golden tan from working outside and the way her shoulders reddened and freckled when she sunned herself with lemon juice on her hair to lighten in, back before such things meant a high risk of melanoma and other unpleasantness she’d rather not think about.
Don’t waste your youth, Jan wanted to tell them when they spotted her and quickly pulled apart, as if she had caught them in the midst of something more risqué than a whisper and a giggle. “I’m sure your rosebush will do fine,” the young woman told her, stepping away from the car.
Jan pushed the button on her car remote to unlock it; the young man opened the hatchback and began loading everything inside. “Wait,” she said, stopping the young woman from leaving. Pulling a twenty out of her wallet, she handed it to the young man as a tip.
“No, that’s too much.” He stepped back with this hands chest high, palms outward and facing her. “I mean some people give us a couple of bucks, but not that much.”
“How are you going to take her out?” Jan flicked her head toward the young woman. “Movies are ten bucks a ticket nowadays, or so I hear.” She pressed the twenty in the young man’s hand. “You two remind me of some people.”
The young woman touched her lightly on the arm and smiled. “Was he cute?”
Jan pursed her lips. “We all were--back then.”
Feeling old and a little foolish, she backed out of the parking space and went home with the rosebush, wondering how on earth she was going to dig a hole to plant it.
* * *
The pinot grigio tasted good ice cold after a shower to remove the mud. Thankfully, her neighbor had been home and graciously dug the hole for her and planted the rosebush. Putting up the trellis, which hinged like a room divider screen, required only pushing long posts on each of the legs into the ground softened by a good soak from the hose.
Real hunger panged her, not just the desire to eat out boredom or to fill some insatiable hole inside, but because she’d ventured outside both her house and her comfort zone. As she microwaved a pasta dinner, Jan dialed Vivian’s number, made small talk with her husband Stan, and then waited for her friend of 50 years to come on the line. “I was just writing you an email,” Vivian announced.
“Shall I hang up and read it?” Jan chuckled.
“I’d rather talk than type,” Vivian replied. “So what’s up?”
“I’ve been thinking about Johnny Richardson.” She waited through a long moment of silence while the name registered and took a bite of her dinner.
“Talk about blast from the past! What brought him up? You didn’t see him, did you?”
“Now where would I see him? It’s been forty years and a lot of miles since then.”
In between bites of Jan’s dinner and whatever Vivian snacked on, they talked about old times, moving quickly from Johnny to others they hadn’t seen or heard from in decades. After an hour of reminiscing and a good deal of laughing, they had talked themselves out. “When are you coming to see us? You know we have room,” Vivian coaxed as she did at the end of every conversation.
Jan made noncommittal noises. “I hate to fly. Those plane seats get smaller every time.”
“You always say that.” Vivian sounded genuinely disappointed.
“Planes fly both ways.”
“Yeah, but Stan won’t go and I can’t travel by myself.”
“So there you have it.” Jan glanced at the clock, surprised by the lateness of the hour. “So go finish your email so I’ll have something besides spam to read. G’night, Viv.”
In the silence of the house, the smallest of noises emerged: the hum of the refrigerator, voices from the sidewalk, a car driving by with its windows rolled down and the radio blasting.
Jan got up from her chair and took a stiff legged step toward the back door and the night that fell beyond her well-lit kitchen. She stepped onto the patio and breathed in the evening air full of the day’s humidity and the smell of charcoal from someone’s grill. A spark of yellow-green light caught her eye as she moved from the bricks to the grass, feeling the prickle on her bare feet. Another pinpoint illuminated and then another, rising from the damp grass around the place where she’d planted the rosebush.
Watching the fireflies flash and fade, she sensed a rhythm and pattern to it, as if synchronized to music too soft or high-pitched to hear. Clutching the edges of the printed housecoat she wore, the one with the snaps down the front, Jan pirouetted slowly. Closing her eyes, she felt the knee-length cotton and polyester become gauzy and long: a peasant skirt worn with a thin strapped top and a bandana to tie back her hair. She used to dance barefoot on the lawn behind Johnny’s parents’ house to the radio that played the top ten hits on Saturday nights. Lying back in the grass, Johnny used to call her “my Rosalita,” a nonsense name he gave her because it sounded exotic to him.
That long-ago girl hadn’t really left; she’d only retreated to the deep places where the music still played, a muted beat that Jan could no longer hear, but could feel below the layers and beyond the aches. Alone in her yard, not caring who might see her if they bothered to look, Jan let that girl dance, moving across the lawn as the fireflies flitted along fluorescent trails.
FaithHopeandFiction is my creative home and my labor of love. I have written stories all my life. As a child, I told myself stories for entertainment, to pass the time, and for comfort. Stories were my way of interpreting and understanding the world around me and to discover the deeper meaning and lessons hidden in even the most ordinary circumstances and relationships.
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