Synopsis: Rand Marshall and Katrina Reese are women who think they have it all: dream jobs in places they love, friends to rely on, families to care for, and a sense of purpose in life. A chance meeting in a national park changes what each woman knows about herself. Now they will have to determine if they can walk away from each other without losing what they value most about themselves.
Part 2: Another PerspectivePart 1
Chapter 17: Like Theseus in the Maze
Rand was turning away from me, walking out my front door, after dropping her little expressive bombshell about having a crush on me. How did I feel about her crushing on me? My stomach flipped and my voice froze, but somehow I managed to take the few remaining steps forward and grab Rand 's shoulders before she could get back out into the rain.
I swallowed, and turned her to face me. Rand 's wet auburn hair curled into tendrils of dark umber and gleaming copper.
“Don't run.” I heard my voice sounding from the insides of a small tin cup a mile away.
Rand waited without blinking, a small shivering shell of herself. Two boreal forest green eyes intense and wide looked back at me.
I stepped nearer. From six inches apart, I could sense the panicked pulse beneath Rand 's pale cold skin. I was not sure what reassurances to really say, or how to explain myself. I was not sure of what I wanted or what I had to give, but I wanted to keep her for this moment. I wanted to know something.
I simply bent my head down and ever so gingerly kissed Rand . Electric would not really be a fair description—an unexpected earthquake, five on the Richter scale, would be closer to the mark. I pulled Rand in closer. The door was a distant memory and her eyes reeled.
She looked dangerously shocked and I wasn't sure if it was the kiss or the hypothermia.
“I corrupted a perfectly lovely and straight park ranger?” She muttered, but you could tell the thoughts wouldn't remain coherent for her.
Her wet and cold hands had a mind of their own for a minute though and reached up to gently touch my face. I pulled her in tighter to warm her, and kissed the nape of her neck, the edge of her cold ear lobe, the tip of her cute perky nose. My stomach fell ten thousand feet, while the rest of me pulled three Gs skyward at the recklessness of such behavior—and the strangeness of it.
I wanted to hold the beautiful, brilliant woman in front of me more than I ever expected to want to hold another woman. I wasn't sure what to do with all of that odd hunger or how to best protect either of us from whatever it meant, but I knew she needed some minor medical attention. I knew she was not running away from me now. So I took a deep breath, my passionate confusion rattling my exhale. She looked faint. Oblivious to any protests, I switched back into ranger mode.
She is a tiny woman really. Maybe 5'4” of slender desk muscles, and I felt superhuman with all that emotion and uncertainty raging around my insides. I half-picked her up and hustled her to the bathroom without much thought.
Warm water like clean green liquid glass pooled and spread into the porcelain tub, while I held her half in my lap on the toilet. I leaned her against me and bent down to untie and pull off each boot and two damp socks. Her small pale feet against the deep blue tiles reminded me of perfect roman sculptures. Every image mesmerized me, but my auto-pilot ranger skills are well rehearsed. I cannot abide the suffering of another decent human.
My hands did their job parting wet clothes from cold skin, and part of me watched from a cool clinical distance, but the other part of me suffered heaven and hell not to be distracted.
The paleness of her skin, the darkening of her eyes, scared me a little more than it should have.
I heard my ranger voice make small reassurances.
“It'll be ok. Just try to stay awake. Let me know if you feel faint.”
She followed every direction. The faint freckles on her back made a constellation of kissable places that I clinically ignored as she crawled into the warm water. Her dampening curls caught the surface of the water as she slid in down to her chin. The slight shivering subsided and I watched a faint rose bloom against her skin beneath the water. Those honey-clover eyes of hers followed me carefully as I picked up the clothes, fluffed out my terry cloth robe, and retrieved a towel.
As her eyelids grew heavy, I touched just a fingertip to her temple.
“Not just yet. Stay warm and awake. You'll be safe now.”
“You are welcome.”
I felt my whole face smiling back.
I pulled her out of the tub carefully as a child, wrapped her in my robe, and toweled her curls as dry and full as a meticulous hairdresser might.
She seemed so tiny and bright. I urged her toward my bed.
She started to balk.
“You can rest here until I'm certain your body temperature is perfectly normal. It's the warmest place in the house.”
I tolerated no argument. My certainty and ranger authority were as apparent on my face as I could make them. I bundled her under the down comforter, robe and all. I unlaced and kicked off my own boots, before curling around her.
“Don't worry. This is just to keep you warming up. I promise not to molest you.”
My stab at humor sounded hollow even to me. My body molded itself around her like a protective shell, irrespective of my commands.
“Not on my watch. I promise you are going be ok. Why? Do you feel sick?”
“I feel dizzy. Confused. Amazed. Suspiciously safe but scared shitless” she whispered. A small stubbornly hopeful smile touched the left edge of her face as I perched on one elbow to look at her.
I laid one full hand against her cheek just to check. It was a little tacky to the touch and not ruddy in its own heat yet, but nearing normal warmth.
“It will keep for now. We'll sort it out after a nap” I reassured both of us.
Her tired eyes fluttered closed and sunk into sleep with my permission.
I watched the last fading light leave the sky through the window, and listened for her breathing in the dark.
It could end here if I made it, both of us safe, and only a little confused, I mused in the dark.
I tried to wrap my head around that thought, but it was as foreign to me as Swahili to an Eskimo.
What I wanted was simple. I wanted to love this woman—not women, not any woman, but this woman. I wanted this woman to love me, but I wasn't sure of anything after that. How would love work for us? What I wanted was simple, but the consequences were complex. Could I chase the path of each consequence out in the dark like Theseus through the Minotaur's maze? Could I end up anywhere logical?
My head answered no and my body crushed closer to Rand 's even breathing beneath the comforter.
I made myself get up with enough patience not to jostle the bed or Rand and pad into the kitchen for some thinking space. I put on a kettle of water to make some herbal tea for myself and sleeping pain-in-the-ass beauty. I turned on a few lights in the house, and then waited by the kitchen sink staring out into the dark trees.
I must have spaced out, enough to miss the kettle whistle, because I was shocked backed inside when she touched my arm. The kettle was singing.
I turned to look at Rand barefoot in my robe as she moved the kettle off the stove.
“You should be wearing socks,” I said.
She said nothing, nodding at me.
I should have planned something. I should have done something. I should have commanded my attention anywhere, anywhere but on Rand .
She was like Botticelli's Venus come to life. She closed the gap between us this time. Her hand came to rest on my elbow, a slight, non-threatening, touch of reassurance.
She was saying something I could not hear for the blood rushing in my ears. She was mastering the emotion behind her eyes, her body language offering me some way out I did not want.
I pulled her to me by the shoulders, found her mouth, and drank her kiss until my own beaches of confusion were pounded smooth beneath the waves of my want. My hands found the smooth curves of her hips beneath my robe.
Her body leaned into mine, insistent about the attention it wanted and mine responded by insisting itself into a pressing hug that brought all of her as close to me as she could get.
There was no code, no manual, no plan for this.
I would not hold myself back from her. I had no resolve left to defend either us. Her hand slipped slowly up my side, the tip of her thumb brushing against the side of my breast beneath my shirt. No titan could hold out against an assault so slow and sweetly testing. I kissed the hollow at the base of her throat and traced the curve of her jaw until my fingers reached into her hair. I pulled lightly at her hair to bring her lips more firmly to mine. She tasted like sweet summer grass and something full and clean that I could not name. Her lips parted to my tongue pulling me into more soft shocking warmth. She kissed and held my lower lip and I felt myself grow a bit faint.
I grabbed her hand and pulled her from the kitchen back to my bedroom.
She helped me undress; my hands were clumsy and fumbled at the prospect of my naked body near hers. I could swallow her whole, she could swallow me whole, we could lose ourselves, I worried. We could find each other, some part of me answered, and that could be enough.
My clothes were a puddle. I drug my robe from her body and reveled at the sight of her in the faint light from kitchen. She looked back at me, eyes shining, mouth parted, and hands in command. She touched the nape of my neck, and traced her fingertips over my shoulder, down my arm, and into my hand. She pulled me to the bed.
The length of her body rested next to mine, she initiated nothing but waited on me. There was no part of me that was not alive with want and there was no time I was willing to spare to ask questions or second guess my body's reactions. I had never felt another human being dissolve my barriers so completely.
I kissed the hollow of her throat, glad to feel warm pulse beneath my lips. I felt like I had rescued her from hypothermia and now she was my responsibility to revere and protect for awhile. She nibbled my ear lobe and her breath against my ear sent goose bumps over my back. I kissed any part of her I could reach, my hands racing to trace every surface of her body as if seeking out those constellations of freckles I knew were there somewhere. Her lips, tongue, and teeth found my nipple and teased me to the edge of reason. I held on for dear life, and found the soft round weight of her breasts within my own hands. My thumb teased back and her breath caught.
I wanted to explore her body. I forced myself to remain calm and ran my hands over the length of her warm patient arms, over the flat smoothness of her belly, above one long curving hip, past the soft amber spring of curls ebbing against her inner thigh, down one toned arching leg and back up again.
Her hands tangled themselves in my hair urging my head to tilt up to her kiss again.
My wanting hands found her soft warm center. Just touching her sent my body over the edge and my muscles jumped into a wavering orgasm singing parallel to hers. A moan escaped us both as her body arched to mine.
“Be here when I get off?” Kat asked me. Her body was turned completely toward me, her hat in her hand as if she might be waiting to offer the collection plate to a row of parishioners, hopeful expectancy on her like a choir robe.
“Yes.” She grinned widely. “You don't have to lock the door here.” She gave a one handed wave, turned to go, then turned back and took four steps back to me.
“Yes?” I gave her my best rusty morning voice. It was naturally a little lower, breathier, but I'd been told it was bedside appealing and I wasn't against using whatever limited seductive assets I might possess.
She put her warm hands on my shoulders and leaned in to give me a brushing kiss good-bye, but that turned into a little longer kiss and the miniature audience of all the fragments of my personality gave a roaring New Year's eve style cheer in my head.
“Have a good day!” She whispered against my lips and I felt her hands tremble just a little on my shoulders before she let go and left.
I flumped myself back down on the warm clean expanse of tussled down comforter and nested back into Kat's bed. Holy Cow! I was too stunned and pleased to have intelligent thought.
The weak morning sun started to sneak its way in through the window, but mostly just lit up the green needles of the spruce and fir trees outside. Somewhere nearby a squirrel chattered good morning to something it didn't appreciate much and a woodpecker gave a tentative patter-pat at a breakfast tree. Even inside the air smelled faintly of cold not ready to give up to sun heat yet, pine resin, dry leaves, and rich lichen. The bedding smelled entirely of Kat, her pine soap with a sweet hint of something that was like cardamom and cinnamon. When the sunlight was strong enough to see several colors outside the window, I crawled out of bed and prowled Kat's cabin in her robe. Technically, I was just looking for my dried clothes, but I was also looking at Kat's things, getting to know her better know from the detritions of stuff that marks all of our lives.
The expected Ecology and Biology text books and essay collections filled unvarnished knobby pine bookshelves and were stacked along the corner of her large Quaker-style pine desk. Slips of notes, mail, coupons, rubber bands, interesting rocks, and little dried flowers filled in the spaces around a desktop PC and modem that looked a few years old but still functional. There was a PC cam that didn't look much used, to the right of her mouse sitting on top of a mouse pad depicting the Tetons on a summer afternoon. Dad, Mom, Whitman and I had road-tripped through that park the summer I was fifteen. Whitman was nineteen. It was the last park trip we made with all four of us. Whitman and I had back-packed one night without Mom and Dad and we'd woken up to an eagle perched in the tree above our sleeping bags. We'd stayed still and watched for at least a dozen minutes. When she spread her wings and swooped down and over Whitman had jumped in his bag as if surprised. He'd been worried she was big enough to pick me out of my bag for breakfast. We'd laughed and laughed at that thought. Kat reminded me a little of Whitman I realized: tall, dark haired, incredibly aware of everything all the time, and friendly but quietly living mostly inside their own heads unless you pried the thoughts out of them with patient companionship.
Tucked in amongst the textbooks of her trade was the entire collection of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau's writings, as well as Douglas Adams, a “Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy”, and some random Nevada Barr mysteries. She wasn't obviously the voracious reader of fiction I was (thanks to Mom's influence), but she definitely read at least some books that were good, old friends of mine. Scattered along the white stained wood plank floors were rough, thick, brightly colored throw rugs in patterns that looked Navajo to me, collected no doubt from her various park jobs in the Southwest before she came to Acadia. She didn't have loads of stuff. It was minimalist, and mostly collected or inherited second or third-hand but it all had a durable attractive appeal, like the old futon style couch tucked into the corner by the biggest window in the front of the little cabin. Its wooden arms were thick oak and so old that the varnish had darkened to the color of coffee and they gave off a warm smooth gleam at any hint of light. The padded stuffing of the futon sofa was the old blue and cream stripped canvas ticking of a Maine seaman's shirt around the turn of the last century. She'd tucked plain but plump navy and red throw pillows into the corners and a fluffy warehouse store red fleece waited draped over the back. Most of the knick knacks were just oddities collected from the outdoors and brought inside from a smattering of unknown places: a weathered and sanded cow skull that sat just inside the front door propped on a rounded chunk of obsidian, a framed cluster of pressed lilacs, a giant sugar pine cone, a hawk feather, a long knotted string of pinion pine nuts, a sharp dried husk of cotton blossom with a seed peeking out of the soft white innards, and a Y-shaped chunk of salt-n-pepper speckled granite. Things she'd found interesting or was given? The only expensive looking item was an ornately framed and mounted example of Zach's work: a grouping of four 8x10 inch pictures. One picture showed an impossibly pitched wall of red rock and deepening blue sky, one showed the rolling red mesas with snow tipped mountains in the vast distance, one showed Zach grinning wildly and hanging on to the rock with one hand and foot tip with his climbing ropes taut and his dark curls peeking hello beneath an orange climbing helmet, and the last one was of Kat's lean body working up the same stretch of rock. Only the side of her face was visible in the picture but you can see her looking up with a concentrated beautiful intensity, the corner of her full lips pulled tightly in. It was obvious that Zach was a good photographer, but he also appreciated his subject enough to capture her essence. I felt a jealous pang, but it receded a little as I noted that she hadn't even bothered to hang his expensive gift. The whole frame leaned against a wall beside the back chair of her plain two person rough-cut ash dining table. A clear vase with a dried sprig of rosemary sat on top the table looking ancient and alone.
I wandered back into the kitchen of her little square cedar clap-wood cabin. My clothes would no doubt be somewhere near the only place that could hold laundry in this small space, the little dry room around the back door beside the kitchen. A stackable apartment sized washer and dryer pair that looked like the height of 1970's appliance engineering stood tall to one side of the weathered dry room. A mud bench with a few pairs of shoes, galoshes, and one pair of bent flowered flip flops took up the only other serviceable wall of the room. A mop and broom hung beside the door and several rusted hooks hung empty above the bench, except for one hook occupied by a thick rain slicker with an NPS logo. I opened the dryer and there was my cluster of clothes. I wasn't so ready to leave a space that spoke entirely of Kat. I could linger there learning her all day, but that seemed a little imposing of me. Maybe she didn't want me poking around and wondering so much into her life. And really, I should go see Voss at the Red Maple. He knew I planned to camp some nights, but he was observant enough to know I'd not been back to get any of the gear stacked in my closet, and while he wouldn't ask any questions unless I offered answers first, he would look for me if I didn't turn up for tea or scotch reasonably soon.
I knew it wasn't a long walk to Northeast Harbor , I'd seen the town's shuttle stop as Kat had driven us by yesterday. I figured I could catch a shuttle back to near where I'd parked my truck at Eagle Lake before heading down the trail to the Bubbles yesterday, so I dressed and started my walk.
I'd left that morning with only the thought of seeing Rand again reining in my mind. I was glad to have a whole day ahead of checking and replacing trail log books.
My thoughts wandered backwards over my life as I stretched my stride along the shoreline trail between Blackwoods and Thunderhole, rambling along to every trailhead in between.
The dark Atlantic splashed between the rocks along the shore, clapping angry hands against the pesky winds. I thought of Thoreau on his walk in the Maine woods and I thought of Rand Marshall. The two were connected for me in some way that I could not articulate like peanut butter and bananas when you need some cheering up. I was haunted. I had dreamed of Rand at some point in the past, before we met. In some dream, I caught in my memory as it slipped along the dark walls of my subconscious looking for an easy exit. It was a dream of a woman with copper curls blinding out an easy afternoon. She wore a string of shells around her neck and smiled back at me from a tree-lined gravel scree ahead. I didn't remember much else about the dream. I remembered only that I had smiled back and I had felt unreasonably happy. It was a kind of dream you slip by as you are falling to sleep after days of not sleeping much. I wasn't really sure I dreamed it. Maybe I heard it in a song? Seen it in some movie, and my dream wove the scene into itself like it was my own imagery? But why did time with Rand feel like coming home? I walked on and watched the fog sneak over the swath of sand and waving grasses. An empty life guard chair stuck out like a bright white thumb on the beach as I slogged past it leaving a dogged set of booted foot prints in the whistling grit that blew over the hard packed sand like snow powder. This place was my life. Rand was a random perishing flower in this landscape, showing for a couple of weeks one time, then gone forever. That was all I needed. The boundaries were already defined, set in place. I wouldn't have to build any extra defenses to prevent myself from getting too emotionally invested in another person. The normal course of events would preserve my independence for me.
Would she even be there when I returned home after work? Maybe she had all she had wanted from me too? She had said this was a crush. Crush did not imply she wanted anything more than immediate relief of a fleeting desire. I pouted at the beach in front of me. I didn't want anything more from Rand . I did not want to be emotionally involved with anyone, or responsible for any relationship. I had my priorities and I wasn't willing to let anyone else into the list. But at the same time, I wanted Rand to continue to crush on me. I wanted her to be emotionally involved while I remained detached. It was unfair of me, but then maybe it was really Rand 's decision whether or not she wanted to put up with that unfairness until she left.
I hoped that she would still show up tonight as I trudged along in the sand, brittle grains dusting my shoes as they blew over and around my steps.
I was waiting on the front step when Kat got home from work. She bounded out of the Jeep like she was glad I was there, and surprised me with a quick tight hug in greeting.
“Hi” I offered and felt her hug tighten a split second with something that could have been physical desire.
“Hi!” She let go of me and smiled.
“I didn't think you would really be here,” she admitted as her smile hid.
I wondered what she meant by that. Maybe I shouldn't have been here? Maybe last night had been all that she had wanted?
“You look great at sunset.” I blurted unthinkingly, because I'm sometimes smooth with irrelevant truths like that when I don't know what else to say.
Kat was not comfortable thinking she was the focus of even adoring attention. If she'd been a cowboy she would've muttered an “aw, shucks” and shuffled away, but she just gave a small smile and ducked a little.
I nodded and let the hope creep into my smile back at her. Maybe she wanted my company at least?
“I'm going to change. You want a beer?” She looked back over her shoulder at me as she wandered toward her bedroom.
I nodded and detoured to the kitchen on my way to the sofa.
“Would you get me one out of the fridge too? I thought we could walk over to Manchester point and watch the sunset over Somes Sound. I heard it was rife with sea ducks today... Bufflehead, Mergansers, Scoters, Eiders...” her voice trailed off and warbled as she shed work clothes and put on jeans and a soft old cable sweater.
She stood in the living room looking back at me as if she was modeling for an LL Bean catalogue. I wanted to pull her close to me and just snuggle up, but I resisted and handed her one of the beers in my hand instead.
“Sounds great.” I affirmed.
“Beers first?” she folded herself into one corner of the sofa and strung an arm along the back, leaving a space for me.
I acted as if I'd been explicitly invited close, and gave her bottle a cheers with mine before tucking myself into the spot beside her and inside the circle of her perched arm. We drank and the cool bottle rim felt nice against my lips, lips that remembered the heat of hers and wanted something more than beer but would wait their turn. I thought that this was crazy. I thought that I should just ask her how she felt and what she wanted, but I was afraid of the answers.
Eventually, as our bottles emptied to the bare suds that lace micro-brewed New England Ales, her arm on the back of the sofa levitated itself around my shoulders into a quick snuggled squeeze, and she brushed my temple with a kiss. Affection was enough for now. Maybe she didn't know what she wanted yet. I sure didn't. Except I knew I wanted more of this. To bask in her companionship and steam in her affection like this itself could heat the dull hidden parts of my happiness.
“Walk?” she asked her forehead leaning against my temple.
“Ready when you are.” I managed even though I was a little tempted to turn this snuggle into a make-out.
We rambled down the road, passing the expansive yards of old colonial-styled and cedar manors. I was glad I'd added a Henley t-shirt underneath my own v-neck sweater for warmth. The air was a little chill. Kat looked at me sideways every now and then as we walked. I liked the implied compliment. She wanted to look at me, so maybe I was good to look at.
She pointed to a duck making a perfect water landing, his web feet walking water a second before his belly boated.
“That one used to be called an Indian Squaw, but I guess that wasn't PC enough, so now it is a Long-Billed.” She shared from the vast stores of wildlife facts she held as easily as a dealer passing out poker chips.
I could get used to collecting them from her. Her whole face filled with joy and interest that she couldn't help but share along with these random facts. The clouds above the hills outlining the sound caught fire with the sunset, luminescent above the smudge of blue grey shadows growing in the sound's waters. The sea ducks begin trudging onto shore tucking themselves neatly in with heads resting on round impervious backs. The old ones showed anxious juveniles the warmest tricks by example.
I pulled the blanket higher up over my arms and snuggled a bit closer to Kat's oblivious warmth. I would never manage to get enough heat with my backside resting on the chilling ground, but I wasn't about to move to stand up. I felt Kat shift a tiny bit and looked up to see where she was looking only to find her head tilted to look at me.
“You'll miss the best views squinting at me” I offered.
“Hmm-mm.” The crease above her nose indicated she was thoughtful. I wanted to reach up and smooth that crease with one fingertip before kissing it away, but I wasn't sure where we were supposed to go from here. I would be gone in a month. I loved my life too much to change it enough to allow for anything more than the month of freedom I had here now. If my impressions from our chat with Zach were right, Kat loved her life too much to pursue anything that didn't have definite and immediate boundaries.
It was really more of a walk away situation, as Joey had told me before I'd complicated things with this overwhelming crush. What did Kat want? Would she tell me? Did she know? All my questions must have been milling around on my face.
“ Rand , I want this, to be close to you like this while we can, while you are here. Is that ok?”
“Absolutely, Kat. It is a deal. We have the rest of this month and we'll make the most of it?”
“Yes.” She nodded too as if she'd just come to that decision. Had she meant something else? I didn't think so, but then why was my rebellious inner child pining for more than one ice cream scoop already? Damn it. One month of knowing Kat would be bittersweet, like driving your dream hot rod for a month, or eating your most favorite dessert in the world exactly one time (but having it prepared the best way it could possibly be prepared). I was distracted by these thoughts and by the incredible nearness of her face. I was watching pulse just barely perceptible at the top edge of her rose petal pink lips, and then we were kissing. Simple, slow, lingering kisses filled with the rose petal softness and sweetness of those lips that could break a heart even without the added poignancy of knowing time would soon rob me of their physical reality and render all of this a shadowed memory as blessedly bruised in dreamy blue as the dark Somes Sound had become around us.
We'd retreated back to the bright and cheery warmth of Kat's sparse cabin. The white floors and assorted Navajo rugs gleamed rosy in the autumn night. A bottle of red wine I'd brought from town tasted of cherry, fleshy acorn and pepper in my mouth. Kat's scent of pine soap, salt, cardamom, and cinnamon surrounded me, her laugh ringing like a bevy of alto bells rolling from scattered churches in pastoral fields. The dinged and scuffed buff finish of the white washed pine coffee table stared up at me like the mouth of a whale or the smile of Alice 's rabbit hole. An assorted pile of Kat's own photographic works were strewn over it. She'd carefully chronicled wildlife experiences at every opportunity with a poor old Pentax that still used film. A series of snapshots of a cicada birthing green and sensitive into a bright blue world from its dry grayed husk looked as if it were done by a National Geographic photographer.
“You should exhibit these.” I told her point blank.
She gave a laugh like bells again. “They're not good enough, and they're selfish. They're for me. They are things I experienced that fill my soul with appreciation,” she shrugged off my suggestion.
I understood that, but it seemed a shame to not give these to the world. I remembered a fortune cookie I'd gotten once, “A talent not shared is not a talent.” Maybe sharing it, making it a talent, would rob the joy of it for her... but if sharing it didn't diminish the joy, then it would be a crime not to let others see this and derive the same joy I was having with their beauty gaping up at me.
“Kiss me, Kat” I quipped in poor imitation of Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor in the film adaptation of Taming of the Shrew.
I don't know if she knew what I was alluding to for sure, but I didn't care at all because she laughed like joy was welling up and spilling out in chimes and pressed her jingle bell lips to mine in a kiss that was as purely hot as a fire in the snow.
She pulled away, just far enough for me to look cleanly into her eyes, her lips still close enough that I could feel each letter of what she said breathing across mine. “Here's lookin' at you, Kid” she said in a voice more husky Ingrid Bergman than Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, but a delicious chill still swerved down my spine to the back of my knees. And I was suddenly scared to realize no one, but no one, had ever so unintentionally had so much physical influence over me. My body was a reflex that wrapped itself around Kat's pinky before I'd had sense or time to object. I suspected she was going to shatter my heart, and maybe I'd be dumbfounded to discover that every other heartbreak had really only been a nasty scrape or scared up nick by comparison. If every other crush was usually appendicitis, then I was afraid this one could turn out to require a quadruple bypass.
“Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?” —Henry David Thoreau
We waited at the dock for the afternoon mail boat to the Cranberry Isles amid a small pile of gear: a bag full of those strange flat metal traps meant to catch small mammals off guard but unharmed for tagging, our packs for camping, a duffel bag of wading gear, and another daypack full of the things we would need to survey the marsh. Kat fiddled with the handheld GPS unit as we waited. I watched the water give little white-capped half-hearted karate chops to the sky like a toddler taunting her brother. The mail boat's little engine droned closer delivering itself from a distant clean white speck to a real, rolling salt and grease spattered warmly worn full size ferry in front of us. A blond guy with a scraggly sea whipped beard, thatch of hair, and wind red nose and ears waved like the Queen—tight lipped and expectant of something he shouldn't have to name. Kat waved back and stepped up to catch the line as he threw it at the dock. Kat wrapped the line around a cleat. The man tossed out two rubber bumpers and then drew the lines tight.
“Leaving in 10 minutes” the man offered as he jumped from the boat and strode bear sized speedy steps toward the dock house without a backward glance.
Kat started piling our stuff into a little corner on the back of the boat beside a wet bench. I helped and we were soon out of stuff.
“You ready?” She asked with a grin.
She stepped over the edge of the boat seemingly oblivious to its little wobble against the dock. I watched a minute, and timed my shorter step to coincide with the closest dip to the dock, and then had to rock up onto my toes as the boat pitched its wobble back away from the dock and the water slapped its sides like a lusty drunk.
“You sure I'm enough?” I asked suddenly worried that I wouldn't be enough help for the work she had to do on Baker Island .
“Yes. You are more volunteer help than I normally get for the fall survey,” she laughed. “It is going to be so much easier with another pair of hands. Although you know it will be far from glamorous waist deep in cold salt marsh water trudging around looking at random samples of eelgrass” she warned.
I looked her up and down. She was a treat to look at even on this poor pitchy little boat in the grey mid-afternoon.
“Will you be there?” I teased.
“Then it is glamorous enough for me,” I admitted and plopped down on a wet bench shrugging my waterproof jacket down to keep my bottom dry. She blushed a little. That was easy and so worth it I thought as I watched her go from confident woman at work to the flattered beauty I recognized from softer moments.
“Thanks. You're not so bad yourself,” she said and sat next to me on the bench crossing her long legs out in front of her.
The wind-whipped grave captain was back in the boat with a solid step and a nod. He'd unwound the line as he'd come on board.
“No others today. We're off. Where you headed Ranger?” He spat the words over his shoulder at us from the open little wheelhouse over the determined chugging of his engines.
“Baker” Kat must have confirmed his suspicions as the back of his head nodded.
We traveled out of Southwest Harbor across the mouth of Somes Sound. The sound gaped like an ancient fuzzy wound watered into the bald granite head of Mount Desert Island from this perspective. The wind clawed at my hair, snatching bits of it out of my tight French braid and sending them back at me like tiny medusa snake head whips. I knew I was going to look a complete red mess, the Autumn Atlantic winds chafing my skin to match the auburn tint of my unruly curls, reddening the whites of my eyes with its salty sting. So much for the romance of the sea, I thought. The boat gave off a twang of rust and gasoline and the smell made a metallic taste in my mouth like when I didn't swallow my iron supplement tablet quickly enough. The glamour had already started and we weren't even in the marshes yet.
Kat sat silently beside me, blue eyes scanning open water, alighting on the tiny masses of land scattered about as if taking a casual inventory. I watched the water. A cormorant tried desperately to sun dry black wings on top of a buoy's small steel scaffolding in the grey midday light.
“Why isn't he hypothermic?” I shouted into Kat's ear straining to make my puny voice heard over the wind, water, and engine cacophony playing crescendos. I pointed out the bird as she turned to me to be sure she knew who I was speaking of.
She grinned and shook her head, “He is built to withstand it. His feathers and the oil coating them are like a great wet suit.”
“You look like a little kid who's been playing outside in the cold too long!” she draped an arm over my shoulders and gave me a quick chaffing and squeeze. She looked like a kid too, but someone's older sister who was excited because she'd just gotten permission to go play at the big park with just a curfew and no adult supervision. The grey day darkened her eyes to a gun smoke blue.
We pulled into a dock on a good chunk of island. I moved to get up, but Kat put out a hand to halt me.
“Isleford, not Baker yet. Robert has to drop off and pick up the town's mail, but it will only take a moment.” She pointed to a hut at the end of the dock with some official post office markings, padlocked double doors, some benches, and a poster with sharps-a-lot writing explaining the price of shipping on a peculiar variety of goods.
Robert, as I took to be the captain/ mailman, set the motor idling and jumped to dock as the boat swung close, slipping the line over cleat as he walked by in one motion like water flowing over stones downstream. He waggled his stocky body down the dock. Wind rearranged his salt thick thatch of blond hair and beard like a mother tousling a child's curls. There wasn't much mail to deliver apparently as he had only a small canvas satchel in hand that he placed inside the padlocked double doors after opening the lock with an unseen key and swinging one open a few inches. He rummaged a bit and pulled out two slightly larger canvas satchels, locked the door back in place and gave it a test kick before pounding back up the boards. He tossed the bags over to Kat who caught them off hand without standing up and pushed them beneath the benches across from us. Robert grabbed the line and stepped large from dock to bobbing boat and had the boat out of idle and away before I'd blinked. I watched the settled rhythm of the way things worked with this mail ferry. There were no words wasted, but the efficiency didn't smack of hurry or a need for silent operations, it was politely quiet. Like something that had been done so often that the doing was a harmony all its own. I liked that. The thought of Zen New England sailors gave me an inner giggle. Maybe they could teach some of the noisy good ol' boys who had to boff and brag their way through some of the rig shifts I'd seen a thing or two.
We sailed on between two good blocks of islands I surmised were Cranberry and Little Cranberry Island and a third, smaller island with light house became visible in the reasonable distant haze of grey sky, grey water, and salt spray.
Kat nudged me and nodded her head toward it. “Baker.”
I nodded back, but didn't take my eyes away from hers. I was suddenly nervous at the prospect of being alone with Kat in the relative wild over night. Would I be enough help? What if I annoyed her with my incompetency? What if she was a tougher camper? I was sure she was. I wasn't a stranger to outdoor living, or roughing it, but this was her world and on this grey day it didn't seem like her world wanted to cut me much slack. And while I didn't feel I had to prove anything per se, I sure wanted to make a good impression on this beautiful woman.
“What are you thinking?” She asked me and it felt like we were suddenly, completely alone in a void.
“I hope I'm good at helping here and that I'm as easier to camp with than anyone you've ever been stuck with in your park.” I admitted. Her lips were roughened to a pomegranate red and I wanted to taste them, warm my own against them in a lingering kiss, but this was business.
“You will do fine, Rand . I am just glad to have your company. We get along great and we have fun together.”
She was right. That was all true and those truths would be enough to make this adventure pleasant even if I goofed up things she was more efficient at alone.
“Ok.” I acknowledged.
“Ok.” She mimicked me and gave me an elbow nudge to punctuate it.
I looked up to see Baker Island had indeed become a land mass big enough to host humans, complete with a whitewashed lighthouse and a clapboard homestead. The little dock got closer almost as if it were swimming toward us and not the other way around. I was glad to be getting off this bouncy boat soon.
We stacked the various bags of stuff on a pile of round stones squirming across the flattened grass. Kat rummaged through her day pack of marsh goods verifying some necessary tidbit was there. I watch the mail boat pull away, leaving us alone on the island with what looked to be a few tombstones, a light house, a homestead, and lots of ocean scoured beach and rock.
“Day light is wasting” Kat announced and grabbed the marsh pack and the duffle bag of wading gear. “There are two tiny marshes on this rock. One to the north and a smaller one to the southeast. We'll start with the smaller one this afternoon. Then we'll come back to the lighthouse before dark and see if we can find evidence of those rumored ferrets and set some traps before we camp the night. In the morning we can visit the larger marsh.” She gave me the abbreviated plan.
I nodded. “What about this stuff?” I inquired.
“It'll be ok here, and we can pick it up on the way back by as we need it.”
“We'll camp over there.” Kat pointed to a patch of flat rocks giving way to sand and then the slow rolling low waves of Atlantic . Tucked near the grassy end of these large flat rocks was a little white skiff, turned upside down. It looked old, but possibly serviceable as a floatation device if you didn't mind being tossed around with no form of control but maybe an inefficient oar equivalent to a gnat's leg in a swimming pool. The rocks spread out like a small imitation of the ocean, lengths of great flat even spaces that could have served as dance floors in small night clubs or for hundreds of lobsters. That would no doubt be a cold spot, but I guessed that the rocky flatness made it a good low impact place to sleep since it would be hard to leave any impression on that much flat flinted granite and the scouring winds and waves.
She stopped and I almost ran into the back of her.
She stood listening, and I heard it then too. The sound of snuffling and shuffling and some silken critter scurrying through parts of the homestead sounded a few hundred feet to our left.
“Guess the ferret rumors are true?” I asked.
“Sounds like it” Kat said and turned toward me. She gave me a slightly inquiring look that reminded me of the look my Irish Setter sometimes gave me when I came home from work with my grocery tote in hand, as if to see if there was something there I'd like to share. She glanced down and then back up again and quickly placed a kiss on my cold cheek before turning on heel and heading southeast across the island again.
I was going to like this adventure if it kept coming with random displays of affection I thought, even if I would be trying to coax my marsh frozen feet back to warmth overnight in a rock cold camp. At least I didn't have to prove I was as good, or as smart as any old male engineers out here, and well, if Kat wanted to paw me like a sexist narcissistic cowboy wanna-be that would be far preferable to some of the male project foremen who had tried before. Although I gleaned there was fat chance of that—Baker wasn't exactly Seduction Island .
Kat looked at me in the firelight. We could hear the sloshing of bay waves on the rocks in the near distance. They sounded surreal coming in again and again in the dark of night unseen. If you can hear a wave in the night, but not see it, did it still move? I kidded myself. If you could see a woman's soul in her eyes and it overwhelmed you, were you still yourself, alone? It was like that looking back at Kat. I could tell she was happy and sad in a complex simultaneous jumble. I waited to see if she would open up about her Mom now that the subject was out there. I wanted to ask, but I thought a more full reply might come in like the waves in the dark—more detailed because it couldn't be foreseen. A crackle of dry dead timber in the fire and a spark set adrift like a miniscule shooting star between us that slowly dimmed out in the salt wind.
“I haven't cried since my mother died.” Kat broke the silence. I thought about this. Had I cried since Dad died? I couldn't remember doing so. What was it about the death of a parent that exhausted all your tears? Did we just feel that we had given up our right to cry when we gave up a parent, one of the only people on the planet who love us unconditionally and had been there to indulge and cure the tears? Were we afraid that if we cried now we'd have less reason to stop, and so shouldn't chance a start of any waterworks?
Kat sighed. “I might as well tell you the whole story. You probably deserve to know.”
She sure liked to keep to herself on these deep emotional issues, turning them over in her head like her own personal worry stone, rounding them out. Is that what makes her seem so emotionally strong or what makes her seem so world weary I wondered.
“I was five when my mother died of cancer. Dad's bushy whiskers looked like a safe place to hide compared to the antiseptic hospital hall. Dad is the kind of guy who sprouts a nervous guffaw when he is upset. It pisses people off that he laughs when others are mad at him or when he senses a conflict is coming around the bend with headlights on. When Mom died, he wrapped his bear paws around his body, rocked back and forth on his heels looking at me like some unclaimed prize. In between crying chuckles he said to the wall above my head, ‘Kat, we are on our own. I'm not much good with kids, but I think I'll be good with a Kat.' The laughter shaking his cheeks made his tears bounce into his black beard. I put my hand in his and said the only thing I could think of at five to comfort him, ‘Yes, Daddy. We'll be good.' My dad is awkwardly sensitive, which is great if you want a guy to buy you ice cream for dinner and sit on the kitchen counter gossiping with you like a teenager, but he is heavy weight for a five year old.” She waited for me to respond and her face was an open book of apprehension.
I don't think she was used to talking so much or so personally. She sucked in her lower lip, the white edge of her teeth catching fire light a bit. It suddenly stood out like a monolith to me...she was telling me she hadn't cried since she was five! I didn't think I could show pity or concern as it might shut her down. I wanted to know everything she was thinking, and asking her much would just clam her up too. I felt it.
I looked her straight in the eyes, letting the silence roll out like a royal invitation, and waited with my face as open and simply expectant of more, as a movie-goer would look mid-film festival. She took me up on it.
“Dad advised me to never marry, not to believe in long-term commitment to a perishable person. Dad likes to tell me, ‘Marry life. Marry the world. Love nature. These things will stick to you your whole life and never let you down.' He doesn't want me to get hurt, to shake with the crying laugh on the outside of love. Most of all, Dad has always told me to never alter my life for someone's love and never to make a decision based on love. I learned to trust logic and reason more.”
I couldn't help it anymore, my eyes swallowed her up. I wanted to hold her and not let go, more for myself, as it hurt me to think of little Kat having to grow up so logical and reasonable and emotionally walled in by the fear and confusion left in the wake of her mother's death. It wasn't fair and while I know full well life is never fair, it really pissed me off that it hadn't played fair with Kat. It was strange how it matter more to me just because it was Kat. This time she wasn't sure what to do with my silence. A smile as sadly sweet as the last minute with your mother pulled at her mouth.
I reacted to her last statement. It was so full of “nevers” and it reminded me of an old folk quote those east Texas boys throw around at drilling sites around the Big Thicket, and I had to share it with Kat, “Never say never, because cause it's never really true.”
A laughed bubbled out of her from somewhere beneath her sudden sadness. She smiled at me and then fidgeted with her hands. Her right hand twisted and rung her left hand as she gazed down at the dirt between her feet.
“You know, Dad won't give a rat's ass if I'm a lesbian, but he'd be furious at me for falling in love. Really falling in love. I can't lose him. He's my only family.”
What could I say to that? It was something she had to answer for herself, and I had my own demons there. I could at least share what I thought. I focused on something 3000 miles away instead of her and explained, “I'm terrified of being a lesbian. I've been sure I need to love a woman for a dozen years, but I can barely stand it sometimes. Men are comfortable and easy-like flannel shirts-you always know what wearing one will feel like before you even try it on, and it's not fashionable, but there are times when you just want wear it anyway. I'm terrified that a woman will own me, will want so much more of my life than I'm willing to give. I live for making things happen, for taking action. I'm terrified that people I'm not really all that close to or even friends with will make fun of me behind my back for who I love instead of seeing me for what I do every day and all the things I make better. The irony is that all my close friends think such short-sighted people are just donkey dicks draining all the joy out of the world, and they don't understand why I care so much what such ignorant people think.”
A squeal, crash, and chatter back toward the farm house sounded out an unexpected call to battle and Kat was up and over the skiff on a run into the night while I was still waiting to see her reaction to all I'd said. Then it dawned on me that we'd probably trapped a Ferret. I sprang up, fiddled with my light like the rookie I am, and bolted after her. Dried grasses whipped at my pant legs and the stubbly ground caught at my toes leaving me to stutter step to keep from tripping over myself, but Kat moved like a panther. The farmhouse loomed white in the darkness of night like a squat bodied Buddha of the rocky islands, giving nothing away. I turned the corner of the house where Kat was already bowed down in front of the trap and thudded to a stop with the same flat tread I ungracefully made at the end of every kickboxing class at the gym.
“Those smart little beasties got away!” Kat shook her head and stood up like an exclamation mark of exasperation. She pulled another quail egg out of the breast pocket of her jacket and re-baited the trap.
“We should put it somewhere new” she explained and looked around for a likely attractive space. Coming around the corner I'd noticed a dark hollow and a bush near the base of the chimney. I waved her round the house and pointed to it. She nodded and spent several minutes jostling it into place and trying to make it look Chez Ferret. I stood behind her, hopefully, like a little kid with my hands in my pockets and expectancy waving all kinds of flags on my face. I so wanted to capture these little guys alive. We had to get them to protect the wildlife, I knew, but also because Kat might be the only one who would catch them and do something besides euthanize the poor things. I knew they didn't belong here, but it wasn't exactly their fault that some idiot had abandoned them or let them loose here over the summer. She finished re-adjusting things and turned to face me.
She hesitated in the dark, probably realizing her light blinded me from where it perched on her taller head pointing down. She turned it off and stepped really close.
“ Rand ?”
I followed example and turned my own light off so as not to blind her looking up into her face.
“I'm sorry I cut you off.”
“Ha! No worries Kat. You know I want us to catch these critters.”
“I know” she nodded gravely, her blue eyes perceivable only as dark grey and black wells in the night, “but I've never told anyone about Mom, not like that, and you...” she struggled to continue.
“I will always want to listen to you, Kat. And I'll always want to share with you. We were meant to be friends like that, even if our boundaries and circumstances keep us from loving each other. Don't you think?” I asked.
“Yes. I think,” she smirked a bit.
Duh, I walked into that one. I shook my head and smacked her on the bicep, “Smartass.”
“Yes” she admitted and I knew we wouldn't get those moments back tonight. I shivered a little at the wet wind whipping around the house and huddled deeper into my fleece hoody. She stepped closer and put her arms around me, drawing my hood up over my head for me, and whispered, “Seriously, you're special to me so quickly that it is scary. Now Tex , let's get you back to the fire before it goes out.”
We wandered back to the skiff and rocks and firelight glow by our night vision alone. The stars sparkled like diamond dust above the swift sailing blankets of little quilted clouds. A fog was slipping onto the bay like a wet lobster glove as the night gave way to pre-dawn darkness, and I fell asleep with my head tilted back on Kat's shoulder, our backs to the skiff and the fire at our feet as we watched the world move on.
In the wee hours of the cold morning, the waves still slapping rocks like a bored abusive parent disciplining dejected children, I woke up stiff from having slept so still through cold hours. I'd curled myself tightly around Kat, probably for warmth, and she'd wrapped both sleeping bags around us. The fire was all smoke and ash. She felt me moving, aching to stretch but not daring to do more than fidget yet, and her stiff arms gave a reflexive involuntary clench tighter around me. She stirred but didn't awaken.
I listened to the wind and also heard a very distant, faint scrabbling of claw on metal and anxious bumps of metal trap on dull ground.
“Kat! Kat, wake up! I think we caught the ferrets!” My hoarse campfire smoke dusted voice produced meek squelches.
I didn't let go of Kat, even in my excitement. I kissed her cheekbone, the inner edge of her earlobe, relishing the chance to wake her up slowly and warm her up in our close little cocoon—I just wanted to make sure the little critters weren't too distraught in those steel box contraptions she relied on.
“Kat?” I brushed the edge of her jaw with another kiss, rubbed my right hand over the back of her shoulder and back where it was already nested.
She shifted her head a bit, and her sleep darkened eyes fluttered like butterflies struggling to try newly born wings as she woke to the morning.
“Hmm?” She gave a sleep fuzzed hum of inquiry.
“I think we caught the ferrets. Can you hear that?” I asked again now that I had her conscious attention.
“Huh. It does sound like it.” She gave me a sleepy smile, and with one soft warm hand tilted my face up to hers. She kissed me very slowly and the warmth of her lips brought warmth to the rest of my cold, ground weary body.
I thought of all the other times I'd woken up in less than accommodating locales for work or fun, and how much better it was to wake up even in harsh conditions to a tender snuggle. Better than the best coffee, or free breakfast. She'd captured more than the ferrets, she'd captured me in a sort of easy rapture. Was it just the joy of having someone interesting and interested to share all this natural beauty and wonder with? It felt so simply complete to be on this sea scoured rock in the remote reaches of Eastern North America with only Kat for solace and company. This was more her home, did she feel the same strange completeness, or was it only due to my displacement from home that made being with Kat feel both excitingly different and satisfyingly comforting at the same time?
“So you want to go see?” She whispered to me after awhile like an eager child on Christmas morning, but she didn't loosen her hold on me.
I squeezed her tightly and took a deep breath of her warmth and the good smell that always followed Kat (even when she hadn't showered), wondering at the miracle of body chemistry.
“Ok” I answered a little excited. I wanted those poor ferrets to be safely in our clutches, where they could be delivered to a life of attention and warmth as class pets at Bar Harbor Elementary—rather than whatever fate might be left them over the harsh island winter or the hands of other captors/ exterminators that might follow us if we didn't succeed. I hoped those feisty mites with their over eager active personalities sensed what was good for them...falling into our hands.
“So take your hat off, Boy, when you're talkin' to me, and be there when I feed the tree.” — Belly
The outing to Baker Island went so well, and I got so much done thanks to Rand's help, that I thought she really did deserve a truly insider tourist outing. I knew Zach would be willing to bring out the kayaks, especially for Rand , so I called in the favor for a mid-week boat trip.
The mercurial water of Somes Sound sustained a soup of fog in front of us that swallowed noises almost before they could be made. Our paddles made only the most tentative sounding pats despite the wide push of our strokes. No one spoke - speaking would have been like yelling during mass at Notre Dame de Paris as if it were a University of Notre Dame football game. Our kayaks hydroplaned past the bright ghostly hulls of anchored boats in the morning's stillness.
I felt no time, or place. I felt ten thousand feet above myself and simultaneously ensnared in the whole world. A plover sat on a channel marker preening his feathers. He stopped as we glided by to contemplate what we could mean. I gave him a wink as we passed without word. The yellow tip of Zach's kayak headed north up the Sound ahead of me and made a pretty silver trail in water's mercurial surface. I back-paddled a bit until Rand caught up and floated ahead of me. I wanted to keep her between us. She looked like a teenager, tiny and big-eyed at everything in Zach's spare long sea kayak that looked like it belonged to someone much older and bigger. I was a little worried that she wouldn't be able to Eskimo Roll or get herself back right side up in few enough minutes to stave off another threat of hypothermia if the kayak tipped.
As we drifted up the Sound several miles, toward a beach where we would lunch, the day cleared and the sun brought bluer clarity to the water. My jacket became unbearably hot in all the unexpected direct light. Rand 's jumble of auburn curls blazed like a red maple leaf, imitating some of the trees on the cliffs and hills surrounding the lower Sound waters. I watched her unzip the underarms of her own jacket and dip one curious hand into the waters as she glided forward on a long paddle stroke. I dipped my own hand and the coldness of the water now felt good in the stuffy heat of my jacket. By the time we reached the gravel sandbar and sandy beach on the western edge of the sound that was our midpoint I was happy to pop out of the boats, and secretly pleased that the day had been such a good contrast as if showing itself off for Rand —the way I wanted to show my home for her.
After lunch, Rand was wandering up and down the beach poking at water logged dead-wood and puzzling over rocks and shells. I couldn't take my eyes off of her and Zach noticed.
“Kat, you are attracted to Rand !” He declared as much to himself as to me I think.
I couldn't deny it, but I wasn't about to give him any details. That was my business. “She is an attractive woman” I defended myself by changing it into a factual statement.
Zach gave me a long assessing look, knew what I was not going to say to him anyway, and elbowed me in the ribs.
“What do you mean? Of course she is attractive. I would be curious if I were you. What better way to test the waters?” Zach implored with a carnivorous grin showing beneath his sheepish smile.
He liked Rand . He liked the idea of Rand as an adventure ride. The advice to go for a thrill once, maybe twice, or maybe even bi-annually with particular friend along was calculating itself out in his look back at me.
Rand was walking back up the beach with the carcass of a neon tagged lobster trap buoy in hand like a token offering.
“Look what I found, a recycled souvenir of our float,” she beamed out at us.
Zach wiggled his eyebrows at her the way he wiggled them with meaning at me on our first date. Rand smiled back and shook her head at him, and gave me a quick telepathic glance that intended to say she would never steal his attention from me. I wanted to smack Zach on the back of the head and tell him to keep his eyes off my prize, but my stomach was lurching around like a Monday morning drunk so I looked at my shoes instead. Rand 's feet appeared in front of mine. Her fingertips brushed the top of my head and gave a tug at my ponytail for attention.
“Counting rocks?” She inquired.
“No, Smartass, I am multiplying them and dividing their square roots.”
Could she tell I was jealous of Zach, or did she think I was jealous of her? I wanted her to touch me again, smile at me longer, prove I had more of her attention than Zach could capture with his wonder-boy thrill appeal.
How did this happen?
Two months ago I was all over Zach like lichen on rock. I wanted to be the center of Zach's attentions. He was like legal base-jumping without the crew expenses. How did that get old and when did I start resenting him for smiling at someone? In the sane world I had previously inhabited, shouldn't I resent Rand for charming Zach?
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” –Walt Whitman
By the time we were back to Kat's jeep, she looked like she was in a caveman's jealous rage. Her lips were so tightly thinned that they were edged only in white.
I sounded her out, “Kat, are you ok? You look dark enough to put Gotham City to rights again.”
She nodded yes, but looked like she just didn't trust herself to make sense with the human language.
Whitman always claimed I had the face of an imp - the mischievous variety of imp you can find dancing over wrought iron trellises in Victorian garden conservatories. He claimed I could sooth any wounded Othello to unburden in speech whenever I put on my “expression of Midsummer-Night's-Dream innocence.” So I gave it a try. I couldn't stand Kat's hurt silence, especially not understanding what it was about. It made me feel a bit like a wounded animal prodded by some looming careless human. I tried to anticipate what had so upset her.
“I'm sorry, Kat. I didn't mean for Zach to know about us. I didn't mean for anyone in your life to know me at all. I want you to be able to deny or easily refute any and all of the social stigmas that come along with being seen as a lesbian - just because you had some fling with a woman one time. I know it is a vexing experience.”
“ Rand , that is not it. I brought it up. I told Zach. You have nothing to be sorry about. Actually, I am surprised by how easy it really is to let anyone see my attraction to you. I pretty much want to write my name on you, or fit you with a luggage tag that lets everyone know to return you to me if lost. I don't care what others think so much, especially if others have a problem with some natural occurrence. The social part of being a ‘lesbian' seems pretty easy to me. The emotional side, though, is beyond me.”
I thought about that and looked back at her for more clues. She cracked her knuckles one handed by pulling against the side of each finger with her thumb one at a time, letting her words settle in for me.
“I don't follow” I admitted, risking annoyance in hopes of getting a better understanding of why she looked so fiercely frustrated.
“Why is this supposedly socially embarrassing, transient crush so easy to admit, so attractive to own up to?” She asked.
She twisted roughly away to look at the distance like her anger at her confusion was pushing its ugly alien head against the wall of her stomach demanding birth of its host.
“You are so easy to fall for. There are dozens of people who would do the job, and probably do it better. Why should I fall for you too?” She demanded.
The words gusted around between us and slapped me pale.
“You shouldn't.” I shrugged helplessly, feeling like to do when you know it is going to rain just because you didn't bring your coat.
She wasn't going to let up.
“Well, it's too late, damn it. It is impossible to follow through with you, and probably socially unacceptable to half the universe, and completely ironic, and totally natural. I don't like to watch you and my ex-boyfriend exchange meaningless flirtations because I am jealous of him! What am I supposed to do with that? I need something more recyclable.” She flung her fears out at me like a mechanic trying to smudge some scratch or dent into the charm of some hot rod classic that would undoubtedly prove to labor intensive and pocket draining to restore.
I stood my ground unblinking.
She stared at the ground as if trying to diagram some meaning, trying to discern the function of her own words. In the end I didn't answer her at all.
I shrugged again, and said, “Some answers take time to find themselves,” and squeezed her hand the way friends do at your grandparent's funeral. I wanted to fold her into my arms and hold her until whatever this confused hurt was born from got bored waiting to get in and went away, but I wasn't sure she wanted that. She started the Jeep and shoved it into gear like it was a disobedient old bull. I would be going home to Houston , and we would be closing our deal to go back to our own lives, the day after next.
“Your movements echo that I have seen the real thing.” --Incubus
Kat followed me to return the truck to a rental office in Bangor . We went several hours early to have some time together in the city before she would have to drop me at the airport. We stopped in a park on the edge of Bangor . Everyone was out taking advantage of the Indian summer. We passed a young couple of college students with an East Coast Rastafarian vibe to them. Their tie-die blanket was unfurled out over the ground to display hand crafted bead necklaces and bracelets. I almost walked by but there was one necklace with a weave of shells held together by brown leather cord with polished granite beads that reminded me of the jewelry the Native Americans in Acadia's dioramas had worn. I had to have something I could wear that remind me of the stolid history of the park and the ephemeral but ancient feeling I had for Kat there. Kat stood silently by while I bartered with the kids.
Successful with the barter, I put on the necklace and bounded down the gravel scree toward the lower park edges were Kat and I could walk without people. I wanted to soak up all her attentions while I still could, before the crowds of the airport.
Kat trailed a few steps behind me.
I smiled back at her.
“Hey slow poke, come over here in all this sunlight and let me look at you until I can't possibly see anything else. You're beautiful and I'm going to miss you.”
“ Rand !”
“What? I just violated your boundaries? I'm still not entirely sure where those are.” I admitted.
“Funny. They don't seem to apply to you.”
She stepped closer to me.
I went with the impulse and pulled her into a full body bear hug. She was warmed by the sun, and smelled of salt, pine, cinnamon, and cardamom. Her natural smell and maybe some faint hint of a lotion. She held onto me too, as if she meant it more than she could say, as if she would rather not let go despite our implicit understanding that neither one of us was good at holding on even in person, let alone with a thousand or so miles in between.
Finally, she pulled away. A dog barked in the distance and ravens poked around the bushes uphill from us. I wanted to freeze time. Kat looked wistful and defeated as she chewed her lower lip a bit, a frown making a delicate little crease between her brows, blue eyes darkening. I smiled and tried to think of a funny story.
“You know my first word was ‘go'.” I announced.
Caught off guard she was startled out of her pensive frown.
“Yep. Mom said that my brother, Whitman, and I both spoke verbs for first words, and that we never used a passive voice like other toddlers usually did when they were anxious about having done something wrong.”
“It is hard to imagine you as a typical child. I mean I can picture you smaller, maybe a little more naive, but I can't really see you throwing a fit over anything” Kat grinned.
At least, I had gotten her mind off my leaving for a minute. If only I could get my mind off of leaving her.
“ Rand ?”
“Can we make a deal?”
“Name your terms.” I gave her a lopsided grin. It sounded funny hearing Kat say anything about deals. She wasn't the kind of person who negotiated much as far as I knew.
“I'm not strong enough to just say ‘so long and thanks for all the fish'” she quoted Douglas Adams at me.
“So can we just say we'll try a strange long distance relationship where we, uh, say arrange to hang out at least once a year and we're both free to, uh..”
“See other people?”
“Hm. I don't want to see other people, and I really don't like the idea of you seeing other people. Ha, you see, I want everything exactly my way. But yes, we'd both be free to see other people. Would that be ok? A friendship that is more than a friendship in some wacked-out way?”
“We can try it, but the first sign that this friendship is holding you back from anything...”
“I understand,” she cut me off.
“Ok, then it's a deal.” I couldn't resist stepping closer and recruiting another crushing hug from her. She was significantly taller with wonderful shoulders and I could easily snuggle under her arms and tuck my face into the hollow between her neck and shoulder that most smelled like her. I could feel her pulse against my lips if I just brushed her neck there with a kiss. This had to be part of the deal. I could hold onto this moment in her arms in the warm sunshine and chill-edged breeze for years and years. The moment would always be mine, no matter how the deal got spent.
“Can I have a picture of you tonight? I'll keep it with me always in my mind.” --Snow Patrol
I felt oddly empty sitting on the plane waiting for the take off that would take me home, that would take me so far away from Kat and from Acadia. I would trade the old world of New England and seasons with colors for the relative whelp of bayou city where seasons only came with minor temperature deviations. I felt like a falling leaf, knowing the all too steady ground was waiting, and I'd be mulched under soon.
We cleared the ground, the sun was gone and the night opened itself up outside the small ovular rectangle of the plane window. Altitude frosting the outer edges of my view out, I watched the black eternity of sky above and the billowing gray of clouds below making shapes like a friend mouthing words of encouragement you just can't make out behind a warden's back. It was Halloween and a Saturday night, so the plane was also relatively empty, just me and a couple dozen other ghostly reluctant travelers passing secretly, detached, above the carnival mischief and revelry below us.
We flew over a thunderstorm. Lightening put on a show that couldn't sound over the jet's engines. Flashes lit off amid patches of blackness like angels sharing epiphanies or bedtime tales. Beyond those clouds, Kat and the dream I'd lived in Acadia , a moment apart from my day to day life, were receding from me. Winter was coming soon.
“I keep calling you to see if you're sleeping, are you dreaming? And if you're dreaming, are you dreaming of me?” –Blue October
The week before Thanksgiving I decided to invite Kat to visit me. I trembled in my Italian leather high-heels and perfectly tailored suit like a sniveling Kindergartener on a blood sugar low searching for snack cheese and sent an email before work on Monday morning. It had been over two weeks since I'd last seen Kat waving at me from the other side of Bangor airport security as I walked out of sight to my departure gate. We had been apart almost as long as we'd known each other.
At the end of the day, I plowed through the door with a perfunctory nod at Chivas and Cuervo, tossed my work satchel, purse, and coat at the coat rack and switched on my laptop like it was emergency life support. I mused as the screen warmed up and the log-on dances ran their cotillion courses. Did I care what she would reply as long as she replied? We talked by email everyday without fail. I opened Kat's email, eager to feel like I was speaking to Kat in any way. I knew she probably had some place to be for the holidays, but inviting her to share mine was both another way to see her more and show her my world the way I had seen hers. And if not possible for her, then it was also a way to let her know I was open to her and that I'd like to learn more about her life as she told me what she was doing for Thanksgiving instead of working. Either way I would win, but I still opened the email with a bit more of me hopeful she would appear here.
“Hi Rand ,
I would like to visit you in Houston for Thanksgiving, but I promised to meet Dad and Zelda in Death Valley . Zelda made the plans six months ago for us all to stay at the Furnace Creek Ranch for the week. Dad has a thing for the desert and Mona has a thing for the “hot yoga” classes. I haven't seen them since their visit to Acadia in August before Dad's fall semester started. I wish you could meet them.
Dad grew up in Wales , and even after forty plus years in the states, he still has a Welsh tinge to his accent. He met my mother at Cambridge . He had just finished reading for his degree and was applying to different fellowships in Africa , but Mom showed up as this “bloody lovely hippie” for a summer artist in residence exchange program. He fell in love and changed everything to follow her back to San Francisco . It would make for a good romance story I guess, if Mom had lived long enough for them to see their tenth wedding anniversary. Dad got a position teaching at UC Berkeley. Mom opened an art gallery and they had just bought a house when Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Then everything changed again and Dad was left with me, without Mom, doing a job that wasn't exactly his dream job in a country that wasn't nearly as anthropologically interesting as the one he had intended to work in. I don't think he has gotten over it yet. He and Zelda have been seeing each other for years, maybe longer than he and Mom were together…
Well, anyway, you would like Zelda too. She teaches biology, nutrition, and yoga classes at Berkeley City College ; and she is a Buddhist Zen Master. Her students call her “Zen Zelda,” and she is probably the least pretentious person on the planet. You two are both so down to earth, but in different ways.
I don't think I will have email or phone access much while I am there, but I will contact you as soon as I get back and tell you about the whole trip. I want to hear details about how you spend the holiday too.
I had to admit I was disappointed I wouldn't be seeing her, and I was disappointed by something else. The tone of that email was personal, but personal as you would be with a friend, not a lover. Well, what the hell did I expect? We were friends, maybe friends with confused benefits, but ultimately friends living a thousand or so miles apart.
A few days after emailing Rand, I joined Dad and Zelda in Death Valley for the week. Of course Dad wanted to know everything, and of course I told him about Rand . Zelda listened in, her dark shiny hair with its touches of gray hanging straight in her face as she sat cross-legged on the hotel room's couch next to Dad. Dad smiled wanly and looked at the ground like an insecure teenager. I must have said too many things about Rand .
“You're in love?” he asked with a bit of a Welsh pout puffing his lips. I could read disapproval and I knew it wasn't because Rand was a woman.
“No, I won't let myself be in love, Dad. Rand is miles away from me, in a different life, and I am smarter than that.” I smiled at him but my lips felt too tight.
“Oh, good.” He sighed as he shrugged off his heavy coat of worry.
“Walder Reese, don't be such an asshole!” Zelda emphatically, practically boomed (except that Zen Zelda never raised her voice).
Dad and I both stood stock still like a couple of surprised show hens in shock. Zelda was no doubt an energetic personality, but never assertive. Zelda is tiny and tranquil and submissive. She is half Thai and half Puerto Rican by heritage, so I'm not really sure if her smallness and tranquility has any genetic basis or if it all stems from her decades long practice of Buddhism. Either way, Zelda is the last one you would expect to raise her voice over anything. In fact, if you compared Zelda's normal behavior to someone else on Valium you would have difficulty spotting much difference between the two.
She stood looking from him to me for a second, probably deciding who to let into. Dad must have won that lottery.
“Wald, I know Kathryn was a fantastic woman and that the life and love you two created was impossibly perfect and tragically short, but for crying out loud... You've let the end of that one good love affair dictate the rest of your life and now you're using it to dominate Katrina's.”
Dad started a scholarly protest but it never got past his lips.
“No, hear me all the way through. I will only say all of this once and the choices are up to you. You know I love you and that doesn't change, but we have been locked in this dating pattern for over a decade. Longer than you and Kathryn were married! You have let this hurt and fear change your life for you rather than risk changing your life for anything positive—just because the positive things, like love, might be ephemeral. Do you have any idea how much you are giving up? How much you are cheating other people of with this selfish concession to fear?” Dad looked blank, like a slate slapped with a wet eraser. “And Katrina! You've indoctrinated the poor woman to think that she would be betraying herself and you by loving anyone else enough to compromise with them.”
Dad did protest then, “I've never told Kat what to do or who to love or how much to love!”
Zelda nodded, “No you haven't, but as surely as a capitalist market society works to oppress the masses into believing that we need stuff and we are weird if we don't work to buy it, you have subliminally convinced Katrina that no other person is good enough to risk any of herself on. You've never met a human being you approved of if you thought that he, or now she, might want to love Katrina. And you constantly praise Katrina for preserving her solitude, her career, and her dreams of preserving wilderness while belittling every idea she has of forming a deep social relationship with another human. There is more to life, Walder! Both of you need other people. In fact you even need to need other people, and that is something an anthropologist must really already know. Isn't it?”
Zelda had finished and I could literally see the perplexed stress of asserting her opinions fall off her face. She took a few deep breathes and smiled placidly at us.
Dad sputtered a minute, stood up, looked at me, looked away again, and flopped himself into the swing back chair in the corner with a look that said he was going to think now and the world be damned if it needed to interrupt him.
I was still a bit in shock.
“I'm going to the afternoon yoga session.” Zelda nodded as she had decided we were hopeless, grabbed her mat from beside the dresser, and floated out the door.
We sat in the white room looking out into the blinding winter sunlight of Death Valley 's flat bottom. I wasn't sure what to say, but Dad can't wait out a silence without a nervous laugh or academic pontification.
He stared at the wall as if it were a classroom full of anybody but me, and started talking to me, “White employers in Australia belittled the wandering journeys that Aboriginal boys and young men went on. The called them “walkabouts” and sometimes laws were made or employment policies to try to prevent Aborigines from walking away from real work at a White-man's ranch to the harsh emptiness of the outback where they could only hear their souls speaking. Kat, in so many cultures there are instances of humans walking into the wild. We walk away from our lives, if only for a little while, to see more broadly or more deeply. Love is a human creation. No doubt it defines humanity, but it also confines us.”
I said nothing, waiting for Dad to sort through the science of it and boil it down to the meaningful art, meat and bones. Silence expanded and contracted in the nervous space for a few minutes like Dad's chuckle did when he was afraid there might be a confrontation impending. I wouldn't confront him. I remembered waiting on the front steps of the house one Friday afternoon my freshman year of high school, willing him to come walking down the sidewalk home to talk to me. I had a notebook paper note in my lap from Ross. I had been best friends with Ross and Amanda for years, since kindergarten. We were the fearsome threesome of science nerds and cross-country runners. And suddenly, Ross had disowned us, science, and running all in one week with nothing more than a note to say he was changing schools on Monday. I wanted to be told what to do. I wanted my Cambridge doctorate wielding father to pronounce adult wisdom for me. He'd come home and sat on the steps next to me and asked me about my day. I explained everything. He sat in muted silence. No oracle. I'd wondered if my mother had ever felt like pulling his big black bushy whiskers until he shouted. I looked at him now, twenty odd years later, perched on the edge of the bed as he sat in the swing backed chair staring not at me in another muted silence. I didn't expect an oracle anymore, but I did expect something. He couldn't play dead listener forever.
"I want to marry Zelda."
It wasn't the voice or the statement I'd expected.
"Kat, I want to marry Zelda. I want you to have all of life. I want Zelda to have all of life. I want to keep you both and be included in your lives."
"I want that too, Dad." It was all I could say. It was the truth. I wanted my Dad to be happy. I wanted to be happy. Did he know how?
"I am afraid of loving you or Zelda too much. Or really of letting it show too much, letting it influence any of our decisions, change any of our lives. I thought it safest for us each to make our own plans, keep our lives like different cultures in the same country. But is Zelda right? Have I just cheated us each from having any control or informed choice about how we live our lives?" He looked up at me with his dark brown eyes like a deep forest at late afternoon--all shadows and hopes.
"Maybe, Dad. I think I need to know you think I'm worth loving, even if something horrible could happen." I had always wanted to know he wasn't just settling into caring for me because I was what was left over after my mother was gone, like his job, like his life in Berkeley .
His head jerked up like I'd twitched him on the nose or something.
"Kat, of course you are worth loving. You are the love of my life, little girl. I have always wanted everything for you. I wanted to do everything right for you. Without your mother, I was at a loss. I didn't know how to give you everything without her. Do you understand?"
I nodded. There was a lump like soapstone in my throat. He had always said that I looked like my mother, that my mother's blue eyes were always watching him and seeing that it wasn't enough. I didn't know what he meant. I had spent most of my life thinking it meant I reminded him of my mother and how he wasn't left with enough love after she died.
"Da, I think we've been real fools." I used his name for his Dad to call him now. We were family and that had to be enough.
I stood in the dunes watching the sand whisper low to itself as the sun bloomed in the hard clear sky. I had not been completely honest with Dad. Deep down I knew that it wasn't just my inherited fears and missing mom that made me value my solitude and treat my independence as an unassailably sacred relic. I had fallen in love, really in love once. I had thought of changing my life then, and almost had to follow Chris Leigh. Chris was a mid-Missouri river rat with shaggy blond locks too beautiful for a guy, and hazel eyes. Eyes like Rand 's I realized. You could look in them for entire days and just be fascinated by the way light shifted like sun on green forests and brown earthen hills as you fly over. We were young. He had come from Missoula , and I had just graduated from UC Berkeley. We were seasonal employees for the park service. The two of us had been assigned to manage a historic buffalo ranch and prairie project south of the Tetons. The ranch house was visitor center, office, and home. Maybe you can't help falling in love when you're set up to play house like that in the middle of nowhere with a good person, but by the end of the season we were serious. We were serious until the day before we were to leave. Chris panicked. He paced the floor in his jeans, bare-chested with the sun on his smooth shoulders, a brown bottled ale in his hand, and his hair covering his eyes. He wanted to be honest with me. He didn't think he was ready to settle down or be that committed to anyone, but he loved me. He just couldn't follow me or let me follow him, because we weren't ready yet. Hours later, I sat on the floor with my back to the door that I had just closed behind him as he walked out.
A sense of finality squeezed me like the hand of God until I couldn't find any air. The expanse of empty wood floor rolled out like an ocean in front of me devoid of the stuff he had taken when he left. Reflected in the old steel mirror on the wall across the expanse I saw myself like a distant abandoned shipwreck. I could hear the infinite quilt of the secluded ranch swelling darker outside the door behind me, cottoning me in dense isolation. From somewhere in the depths of the night's folds, I could smell sweet slow decay and the fresh paint we had used to rust-proof the gates. I rocked myself to a breathless lullaby of “how?” and “why?,” but the pain was a rapid infection at my core. If pain was a virus then, it would have been the Ebola virus. Love only ends like that once, because you can only love like that once. Every love after you wear surgical gloves to open and you dispose of the used needles and scalpels in a labeled sharps container so they can be safely discarded altogether—without injuring the unsuspecting trash collectors.
I was careful not to take my gloves off anymore, to pick love that wasn't likely to turn out too sharp, and to warn my lovers that I only wanted what was disposable.
But a woman, I had not expected to fall in love with a woman. Rand had caught me with my guard down. I wanted to know more about her life. I wanted to know more about her. I wanted to be near her, instead of here. I was at the lowest point in the continental United States , blasted by a dry salt leached cold and heat, like some turkey in an oven (or tofurkey in my family's case). An impulsive idea started to form in my head and swallowed my confused inner debate. It was Saturday morning. I could be in Las Vegas and on a plane headed for Houston by the afternoon. Maybe I could figure this out better, dislodge my discontent if I could see Rand . Was that crazy? I ran back to the lodge, stopping only to take deep breathes and swig water before running off again, recovering the miles I had wandered down the trail away from the lodge. The burning of ropes of air pulling through my lungs felt good, liberating, in that they needed no explanation to work. I was relieved to have a physical reason for my heart to pound and my head to sweat.
I barged into the room hoping to babble at Dad and Zelda until things made sense, but then I remembered they were getting a massage and hot stone treatment together. I stared at the phone a minute and decided to call Donnie. I wasn't ready to admit to anyone that I might be in love with any one, let alone a woman, or Rand in particular; but I knew I could tell Donnie about my urge to fly home via Houston and he would give the same calm disinterested advice an older brother might without asking too many extra questions or looking to deeply into anything.
The phone rang twice before Donnie answered it.
“Donnie, it's Kat. I was thinking of flying home through Houston to visit Rand .” I went straight to the heart of the matter for him, because that was our style.
“You want to take Monday off too, then?” He asked, obviously surprised since I hoarded my days off and banked extra most years.
I thought about that for a minute. “No, I'll still be at work Monday. I just wanted to know if that plan sounded crazy before I called Rand or the airline to see if it would work out.” I had already been gone a week, and I wanted to be back in my familiar surroundings without spending too much time with Rand . I was afraid of having a hard time getting my bearings back if I let myself see Rand in her home element for too long.
“Well, you could spend more time there without hurting anything here and get more out of the money the flight diversion will cost you, but other than that, I think it is a great idea. You should see Rand . You should put the pint-sized Texan in your luggage and bring her back with you, so we will all be a little merrier for the Holidays.” He teased because he liked Rand too. He understood the draw at least. She was charming.
“You're sure that doesn't sound like a weird thing to do?” I asked.
“Well, stuffing her in your luggage might be considered weird and illegal...” Donnie pulled my chain a little, “but flying by on the way home sounds like a worthy and sane investment.” He knew how careful I was with my travel funds too.
“Bet the boat?” I asked Donnie.
This was our short hand speak for asking how seriously the answer should be taken. Donnie's grand plan was to retire to sailboat that summered in Maine and wintered in the Bahamas . If he was willing to bet the boat on something, then he was sure enough about it to call it fact.
“Bet the boat” he said with his voice an unblinking punctuation to his proclamation.
“Ok, thanks for the sanity check.” I answered.
“You bet. See you Monday.”
“See you Monday, Donnie.”
I hung up the phone with a decisive energy that made the plastic clack as it hit the cradle, like a quick chuckle. Dad and Zelda walked through the door looking too relaxed to stand but as soon as I mentioned my intentions Zelda gave several enthusiastic nods and poked Dad in the ribs a few times. Dad looked surprised and curious, but said nothing except, “Come along then, we'll drive you to the airport.”
To be continued in Part 3 …
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