Monday, September 8, 2008

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Story 16: Where Water Leads Her

All alone on the porch, Natalie was rocking in the metal glider, trying to match the rhythm to the waves one of the last boats of the night had just sent into the cement retaining wall around Lake Tapawingo. The stairs squeaked, and when she looked over, Chris had cracked the door open and was squeezing through, as if he didn’t think he deserved very much space, and then he was sitting next to her on the white vinyl cushions, grinning.

“I want to talk to you,” he said very quietly.

He was tan for so early in the summer. They hadn’t seen each other for months, since Christmas of their senior year. They hadn’t spoken since their separate graduations two weeks ago, his in Missouri and hers in Boulder. She thought he might be nervous, but she couldn’t remember him ever seeming nervous before. “OK.”

“In a week I’m moving to Chicago permanently,” he said.

“I know,” Natalie said. “Congratulations on your new job.”

He waved his hands to quiet her. “You said you’d make a decision by now. Remember?”

In fact, Natalie had spent an entire semester thinking about their future, or lack of it, without coming to a decision.

“You have a week,” he told her. Then he got up and, she thought, sneaked off the porch, turning once to grin at her before disappearing down the stairs. She still couldn’t believe that he’d given her an ultimatum.

Her mother came out on the porch. “Was someone here?”

“Chris came by,” Natalie said.

“Are you going out tonight?”

Natalie shook her head. “No. He just wanted to tell me he’s moving to Chicago.”

Her mother stood there, an odd look on her face, and brushed a strand of red hair out of her eyes. “I’m sorry, Natalie.”

Natalie shrugged. “Don’t be. I’ve known he would for a long time.”

Her mother paused for a moment. “Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

“Your father is having a Winstead’s craving. Care to go down to the Plaza?”

“Sure,” Natalie answered, feeling that the world was racing by.

“I can’t find Debbie.”

“She went for a drive. Said she needed to be alone. We can bring her something back.”

“Let’s go then,” her mother said.


Once seated in a blue booth in the center of the restaurant, they immediately ordered a chocolate shake big enough for the three of them. No one said much, but conversations swirled around them while Natalie tried desperately to concentrate. What a greeting from someone she hadn’t seen in months! She sucked on her straw in time with the words “I’m moving, I’m moving, I’m moving.” Fragments of conversations with Becky, her mother, and Debbie came to mind: When are you going to see him? Why doesn’t he come to visit? Face it, he met someone else. You should too.

When he father asked her why she was smiling so much, she realized she must have had an idiotic look on her face. She felt herself blushing.

“Are you going to tell us why Chris came by?” he inquired finally.

“He wanted to tell me that he was moving to Chicago.”

Her father’s face stilled. “Did he ask you to move with him?” Her mother’s eyes widened.

“No,” Natalie said, but she could see he was still worried. A little chocolate shake seeped from the corner of his mouth. Natalie reached out with her napkin and wiped it.

“Do you want to?” he asked warily.

“I don’t know, Dad.” He kept staring at her until she looked away, tried to pay attention to nearby conversations, but the voices circled around her like flavor stirred into a drink and turned into something else entirely. The young woman in the booth to her left bent down to talk to her toddler. He looked up at Natalie and silently pleaded, Don’t leave me alone in a strange place! But that was nonsense, Natalie decided. Chris had already lived in Chicago the previous summer, while he did an internship at the Tribune. She turned to the family of girls across the aisle. I’m too sure! one of them thought. Barely a teenager and already she had lost her sense of romance. Natalie tried the group of boys at the table behind her parents, but they were useless. They gazed at her with eyes that wanted to play Pac-Man.

The waitress dropped off their plates of burgers and fries. Natalie outlined her French fries in ketchup. Then she looked up at her father and said, “I just don’t know!” His face settled into deeper lines as she spoke.


Debbie was hanging off the edge of her bed, trying to find something under it, when Natalie brought her a cold burger.

“I put the fries in the oven,” she said. “Want me to heat up this too?”

“No, I like them cold,” Debbie said.

“Here’s a shake.”

“Thanks. Hey—”


“I saw Chris on my walk back here.”

“Yeah,” Natalie said, “he came over and told me he was moving to Chicago.”

Debbie shrieked.

Natalie’s father stuck his head in the room. “Everything OK?”

“Yes, Mr. Fisher.”

Ever since Natalie had pointed out how daintily her mother ate fried food, Debbie had made a point of eating burgers and fried chicken in huge bites—but only when they were alone. Now she stuffed one-third of the burger into her mouth. Not that Winstead’s burgers were that big.

“You’re stalling,” Natalie informed her, but Debbie continued to gobble the burger. Then she went downstairs to fetch the fries, returning with a large plate containing the fries and one glob each of ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. The arrangement was so symmetrical that Natalie ate two fries and then began fry-painting with the condiments.

“Ever considered opening your own restaurant?” she asked, but Debbie was apparently determined to do nothing but eat.

When she had finished all the fries, she glared briefly at Natalie and said, “I am so jealous of you!”


“Because you get to go off with this guy!”

“I’m not going off with him!”

“You’ve got to!”

Carefully removing the plate to a nightstand, Natalie moved over and hugged Debbie, then shook her a little.

“I’m not going away, Debbie,” she said. “After you leave, I’ll stay here for the rest of the summer and then take that publishing course in Boulder.”

Debbie put her head on Natalie’s shoulder. “I’ve had a feeling ever since I drove here,” she told Natalie. “That senior year was it as far as our being together in the same place all the time. And Chris just proved me right!”

“You’re getting carried away,” Natalie informed her. Debbie glared back.

“I’m allowed! I don’t always have to be practical!”

They lay down next to each other on Natalie’s bed and were quiet for a while. Then Debbie said, “Nothing like this ever happens to me. I have everything planned out, and it all seems good. But then Chris comes along and tells you he’s moving, and you know he wants you to go, and my entire life seems pathetic.”

Natalie didn’t respond. Debbie turned to face her and demanded, “And why are you so calm?”

When she woke up after midnight, alone on top of her covers, Natalie couldn’t remember if she’d answered. But the next morning, she noticed everyone looked at her differently over breakfast, as if she were—what? A kept woman? She got some coffee and went down to the dock, where Debbie joined her almost immediately.

“I’m sorry I was so weird last night,” she said. “I was startled. But I am still jealous.” Debbie blew on her coffee. “Because I’ve never connected with a guy. And Chris has always been so romantic, and you don’t even seem to care.”

“I haven’t reached the caring stage yet,” Natalie informed her. “I’m still trying to make a decision.” But she thought, I could go. But what would I do? When had she become so sensible? Perhaps all these years of friendship had caused her and Debbie to switch personalities.

“It’s your fault,” Debbie continued. “I expect relationships with men to be as good as our friendship.”

Another compliment from Debbie. That made at least five in the last two weeks from a woman who tended more toward assessment than support. Natalie asked, “What’s so good about it?” Then she was dumbfounded when Debbie had an instant response.

“Well, it’s lasted almost ten years. And we’ve never been mad enough at each other to stop being friends.”

Natalie smiled at the lake and agreed with Debbie, whose presence in her summer home, in her grandparents’ home, anchored it in her life. She didn’t know why. At times all her family had crowded into this house, almost burst out the walls with their exuberance. Yet Debbie had driven her red truck from Boulder to Kansas City and walked in the door one time, and the house had shifted from the dimension of childhood and dependence on family to the present, as real as the pink-beige sandstone buildings on the University of Colorado campus had been for the past four years. That’s why we’re still friends, she thought. Even though she knew the house would shift back when Debbie left in two weeks.

“You’ve never fallen in love because you never wanted to put in the effort,” Natalie theorized.

Debbie looked at her, exasperated. She had been growing out her blondish hair—“because you know short hair makes you look young, and I want to look old and experienced for my interviews”—and it reached to her shoulders now. “That is so rude. I make efforts.”

“Yes, but not with men. You expect it to happen all on its own, magically or something. As if love were going to drop down in front of you on the way to the UMC.”

“Thanks, O Delphic oracle,” Debbie said loftily. “I’ll become eminently practical like you and then maybe some man will ask me to move to—New Delhi!”


Natalie fetched more coffee and remained on the dock for a long time, content to simply sit. She noticed once that Debbie had been replaced by her mother, who was wrapped in a yellow towel and looking at her sadly.

“Don’t do it, Natalie,” she said abruptly.


“Don’t follow a man around the way I did.” Then she dumped the towel in a heap on the dock, climbed down into the water, and swam out to the buoy in her matching red suit and cap.

Now I’m going just to prove I’d never be as traditional as you. Was that how women ended up where they did—because they said yes to someone years ago and were still following him? Natalie shook her head. These were dangerous musings.

Chris had been a summer romance. If she said that to herself often enough, she knew she would believe it eventually. OK, two summers, or at least a summer and a half, until her uncle had died and created distances spanning heaven and earth in her life.

She thought of how they’d gone dancing on their first date, three years ago. She couldn't remember the day, but she saw the country-rock bar, heard peanut shells crunch under her feet, and tasted the Coors. For a moment, she couldn’t wait for him to put his hands on her waist and pull her into a crowd again. Then she saw the red cap dividing the water, now coming toward the dock, and the image vanished. She stomped into the house and found her father sitting on the couch, reading the paper’s special section about the upcoming party conventions.

He looked at her and put the paper down. “What is it?”

“You can’t imagine what Mom just said to me!”

“After a quarter-century of marriage, I just might be able to.” He patted the brown fabric next to him, and she sat down. She noticed the picture of Reagan in the paper had been torn a little.

“She said I shouldn’t follow a man around like she had.”

“Really?” He stiffened, then folded the paper and tossed it across her, onto the pile on the hearth. “Well, she did follow me here.”

“But I’m not her. Why does she think I’m just like her?”

“Of course you’re not!” he said. “You’re a mixture of both of us.”

They stared at each other for a moment, both dissatisfied. Then he asked, “Don’t you want to be like your mother and me?”

“Dad, I just graduated from college. I want to find a job and start my life on my own.”

“And would going to Chicago help?” he asked. She was startled.

“I don’t know!”

“Why don’t you know?” he asked sharply. “You’ve been with him for three years!”

“Because we’ve never been together long enough for me to be certain of him,” she said.

“You don’t have to be certain before you make a decision, Natalie.” He spoke patiently, as if she were still very young.

“I don’t?” After sitting for a few moments, unable to say anything more, Natalie went upstairs to take a shower but had to wait for Debbie to finish. Her father came up shortly afterward, went into his bedroom, and closed the door, but his telephone voice was too loud for a hollow brown door to hold it in. He was still talking when Natalie and Debbie left to go hang out on the Plaza.


When they returned, they were startled by the sound of too many voices in the living room. Natalie walked in to find Chris, his parents seated on either side of him on the couch, chatting with her parents and eating Chinese food.

“Great lo mein!” Chris greeted her. “Have some.”

“Sit down and fortify yourselves, girls,” his mother Beryl said. “Your parents invited us over for a discussion.”

“Uh, maybe I should eat upstairs,” Debbie offered.

“No, stay!” Natalie said, panicked. A discussion with a capital D. Her parents were occupying the only chairs, so she and Debbie sat on the hearth. Chris and his father Joe handed them plates of vegetable lo mein and wontons and kung pao chicken. Her mother handed her chopsticks and a napkin and a significant look.

I had nothing to do with this, Natalie thought back, but all she said was, “Can somebody get us some drinks?” She was determined not to contribute to this conversation more than was absolutely necessary.

Her father took the hint. “While you were gone today, Natalie, I talked to a colleague of mine who teaches at the University of Chicago. I told her that you might be going to Chicago and asked if you could stay with her.”

“Oh, I might be!” Natalie said, mustering all her sarcasm. She wished the fireplace would change into a vacuum and suck her up and out. Her mother raised her eyebrows, and Natalie returned the favor.

“It’s not appropriate for you to live with Chris.”

Debbie’s eyes widened, and she almost swallowed a wonton whole. When she began to cough, Natalie hit her between the shoulder blades. Her mother asked, “Are you all right?”

“I always eat fried food in big bites,” Debbie explained, which made Natalie giggle.

“Why?” her mother asked, nibbling a wonton.

“No reason,” they said in unison.

Her father pressed his point. “Did you understand what I said, Natalie?”

“Dad! I haven’t seen Chris in six months and you think I’m going to live with him?” Did they have to discuss her nonexistent sex life in two family groupings?

“That would be a little hasty,” Chris said, smiling slyly.

Natalie glared at him. She was sure it was all a plot to get back at her for her refusal to make a decision. “I’m glad all of you have made up your minds that I should go. I haven’t.

“We’re not trying to pressure you, honey,” her father said. “We’re just making plans in case you do go.”

“You two are young,” Joe said. “If this doesn’t work out, you can always move back here.”

Clearly they were all against her. Even Beryl was nodding, the same woman who had only tolerated her the first year she had dated Chris.

“Don’t you think it’s a little odd that all of you are so much more intent on this than I am?” Natalie asked her father.

“Chris is the only one you’ve ever loved,” he pointed out. “I don’t think you should give up just yet.”

Natalie busied herself with her food.

He continued. “And also, I don’t think following a man around is always such a bad thing.” He stared at Ashley for a while.

“You needn’t repeat everything I say, Natalie,” her mother snapped.

Debbie leaned over and muttered, “They’ve got you surrounded. Throw up your hands and pretend to surrender.”

“Thank God you’re here,” Natalie replied. Then to her father, she said, “OK. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“When I talked to Julie—Professor McClintock—she said you could stay with her for a month or two. She also said she would look into jobs for you at local presses.”

“That was nice of her, considering she doesn’t know me,” Natalie said.

“She’s very nice. I think you would be safe with her.”

To her left, her mother was rolling her eyes. Her father handed her a piece of paper with Julie McClintock’s phone number. To her right, Chris and his parents watched her accept the paper as if it were the transfer of sacred objects. Natalie stood up, and Debbie followed.

“I’ll give her a call,” she told them. “And I’ll let you know when I decide what to do. I really don’t have anything else to say.” She grabbed Debbie’s arm and walked through the kitchen and out onto the road. They had passed only three houses when Chris caught up to them, panting. His brown hair was sticking out on one side.

“That’s all?”

“Look, Chris,” Natalie said, turning around, “I thought that I would come here this summer and see you and we would say goodbye. That was my plan.”

“I didn’t want to,” he said simply.

“You’re just going to have to wait until I make up my mind.” She turned around and linked arms with Debbie, ignoring him. Eventually they heard his footsteps retreating, or maybe it was just the distance they were creating between a summer romance and their friendship of almost a decade.

That night the two of them walked around the lake twice, with a pit stop at the house to get drinks and snacks. “I want to wash away the taste of that food,” Natalie said, and luckily her mother had baked cupcakes the day before. They took six with them, along with apple juice to quiet the dust that got in their throats every time a car drove by.

They didn’t say much, just commented on the scenery of the lake here and there. Then Debbie said, “You act like Chris has done something to you.”

“He has! He keeps asking me to make decisions, and I can never decide what to do about him. I love him, but I don’t know if we have a future—I keep going back and forth.”

“When did you start being so practical? You were so impulsive when I first met you.”

“When I saw how much easier your life was when you planned things.”

“Really?” Debbie looked pleased.

“Yes. The only decision I could manage to make was that I wanted to work in publishing. So I signed up for the publishing course and I researched what presses I’d like to work at and I even looked at apartments near some of these presses. I told Chris I was doing all this, and he never said anything. So now he’s trying to get me to change my plans without ever really asking!”

“Oh, Natalie,” Debbie said a little sadly. “I do make plans all the time—I can’t seem to help it—but half the time I end up changing them.”

“Well, so?”

“So change yours.”

They stopped in front of an endless expanse of yellow, red, and white zinnias. There was no turf—only zinnias and a flagstone walkway. “Now that’s a monoculture,” Debbie said.

“You’ve all turned into Stepford wives,” Natalie complained. “It’s like Chris put a spell on you or something. I’m the only one who seems to be able to think about it.”

“Here’s something for you to think about,” Debbie shot back. “Can you live with the ‘what if’ factor?”

“I don’t know,” Natalie answered. “I’ve been too busy wondering why everyone was acting so weird.”

“I think that’s the major question. If you don’t go, will you wonder what might have happened?”

“Of course I’ll wonder,” Natalie said. “I’ve been wondering about him for three years.”

“So go then, and stop wondering.”

“I guess you’re right,” Natalie said. “But all the same, sometimes I just hate how logical you can be.”


The next afternoon, hot and muggy like all June afternoons in Kansas City, they were in the center of the round, wet world, lying head-to-toe in an enormous inner tube. Exactly halfway between the dock and the buoy—or at least, that’s what Debbie said. Natalie wasn’t looking, except when Debbie wiggled her toes. Natalie wanted to tickle her, but the other day Debbie had kicked her in the head when she did that. A boat went by, and its waves spread out and rocked them for a few seconds. The choices here were pure: lie in the sun and brown or roll off into the water and cool the skin.

Natalie didn’t berate herself for waiting so long to make the decision. She had needed to make it here, where her relationship with Chris had begun, bloomed briefly, and then gone into a long dormancy. She had needed her parents and Debbie to encourage her to risk this—if they had been opposed, the grief would have kept her near them. This summer, she had thought to grasp the end of her relationship with Chris, knot it up to the beginning, and hide it somewhere in this house. Ever since her uncle had died two years ago (even since her great-uncle had died when she was fifteen), summers at the lake had been lived at the edge of grief. Her memories of Chris belonged in such a place. But their future, if they had one—that needed a new place to take root.

Today, when she swam to the dock, she would climb out into a new life, one stretching before her for decades. She couldn’t wait to get started.

The End

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Story 15: Deirdre, in Xeriscape: Hopes and Plans

We were gathered for the last party of college. The first one had been held at Josh’s house four years ago, so we insisted that he also host the last. I was sitting next to Josh on the soft brown couch, Natalie on his other side. Then came Debbie in the big red chair and Becky perched on its arm, planning her future as an award-winning journalist. Becky was leaving for her job at the Detroit Free Press in two weeks and hoped to cover the presidential contest between Reagan and Mondale. I had no job prospects; I was staying put at the University of Colorado, beginning a master’s degree in botany next year. Jodi was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, talking to Josh’s mom about her travel plans this summer; in August she would leave for California and a degree in physics. Every time I thought of it I got a huge lump in my throat. Jodi and I had lived in the same state for almost fifteen years, and although our friendship had suffered in the past few years, the thought of being a time zone away from her hurt me.

The reason for our suffering was sitting right next to me, his arms up on the sofa behind me and Natalie, looking like a man wonderfully content with his life. Josh also had a paying job, with the Colorado Environmental Coalition. He had already asked those of us who were staying in Colorado to volunteer. I had agreed, but neither Debbie nor Natalie had been willing to commit. They were leaving to spend two weeks with Natalie’s family at their lake house near Kansas City, and then Debbie would begin her job at a local marketing firm, and Natalie was taking a course in publishing. I, however, had nothing planned for the summer; I intended to play as much as possible before I devoted myself to memorizing the flora of the world in the fall.

Jodi came over to say goodbye. She was spending the evening with family. I got up and hugged her. She said she would see me at graduation, and then Josh walked her to the door, where he kissed her on the cheek. They said a few words, and then she left. I blinked back tears, but when Josh sat down again, he was smiling.

“What are you so happy about?” Natalie asked him.

He looked at each of us in turn. “I don’t love her anymore.”

Natalie widened her eyes at me. That made me want to cry even more. I wished I wasn’t mourning Jodi’s departure, but I couldn’t help it. I also wished that I believed she was going to miss me as much as I would miss her.

Josh continued. “I loved her for all of college. I pretended I didn’t, but I did.”

“But she didn’t love you,” I said, hoping to hurt him.

He turned to me, his blues eyes calm. “No, she never did. Last week, I realized that she never would. I don’t know what took me so long.”

“I do,” I said.

Josh put his hand on my shoulder, and I started to cry. “You two have been friends forever,” he said. “You’ll stay friends.”

“I hope so,” I told him.

“At least you’ve resolved it,” Natalie piped up from her side of the couch. “I don’t know if things will ever work with Chris.”

She was curled up into a ball and had a forlorn expression on her face. What a cheery group we were.

Partly to save myself from my own bad mood, I said, “You should try one more time. Even if it seems hopeless.”

She stared at me as if I had said the most wonderful thing in the world. “You think so?”

“I do,” I told her.

“I agree,” Josh said. “Otherwise you’ll always worry about what might have happened.”

In that moment, as she looked from Josh to me, her face hopeful, I had the same feeling I’d felt years ago, when she and I and Becky drove up to Rocky Mountain National Park. That feeling of belonging to a group that I’d had so seldom in my life. I hadn’t expected to feel that way again—at least, not around her.

Natalie got up to talk to Debbie, but Josh and I remained on the couch.

“I guess we’re all moving on,” he mused. “Even those of us who are staying in town.”

“Yes,” I said, keeping eye contact. Our faces were so close that I could easily have kissed him. I wanted to confess to him that all the while he’d loved Jodi, I’d loved him, but I didn’t, and keeping that secret didn’t bother me any more. For the first time, I felt that he might someday welcome such a declaration.

“Are you coming to the meeting this week?” he asked me. “The coalition plans to send out a mailing about Mondale’s and Reagan’s environmental records.”

“Yes,” I assured him. “I’ll be there.”
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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Story 14: Last Chance

It was the first time Natalie had been to the Country Club Plaza since the lights had been lit that Thanksgiving, and as she got out of the car, the effect of the more distant lights seeming to hang on air filled her with happiness. Surely good things could happen on such a magical night.

She had agreed to meet Chris at a French restaurant on a side street, a quiet place where they could have a conversation without shouting. He was sitting at a smallish booth when she walked in, and she settled in next to him. The waiter brought bread, and Natalie ordered a bottle of wine. When she reached for a piece of bread, he took her hand and held it. Her eyes began to well up.

“Jennifer and I are not together anymore,” he told her. “We broke up before we left Chicago in August. My problem is, I don’t know if we are either.”

“I think we’re hanging on for the sake of the past,” Natalie said.

“So over this Christmas vacation,” he said, “we need to make a future.”

The waiter came back, and Natalie ordered a lobster bisque. Chris ordered a salad.

“I’d agree to that,” Natalie said, “if there wasn’t so much from the past hanging over us.”

“Like the death of your uncle?” he asked.

“Like the death of my uncle,” she repeated. “And the fact that you met someone else.”

“That too,” he acknowledged.

“Let’s not worry about a future,” Natalie said. “Let’s concentrate on getting comfortable with each other again.”

This Christmas was the last they would celebrate as college students, which gave it a certain bittersweet quality, and the reminder of her uncle’s death only strengthened that feeling. Just after Tom had died, she had withdrawn from Chris to dwell on her grief, and now she could see how that had wounded him. But in the eighteen months since then, Chris had been the only comfort for the loss of her uncle. She moved closer to him, so that their shoulders touched when they reached for bread or picked up a fork. They sat there with their hands on each other’s thighs and kissed for the first time since last Christmas, during their junior year. When their food arrived, they ate mostly in silence, breaking it only to comment on the meal or offer each other a taste.

After dinner, they walked the Plaza until they came to the fountain outside Woolf Brothers. The store was dark inside and the fountain dry, but they sat down by it nevertheless, listening to the voices of holiday shoppers and the rush of cars down Ward Parkway. For Natalie, it recalled the sound of voices that she could hear sitting at night on the dock at Lake Tapawingo. In winter, of course, those voices moved inside, or perhaps, she thought, moved here. Kansas City had become a place of voices caught on the wind, heard for only a moment before she could decipher what they were saying. It was a place of words without context. She and Chris huddled there for almost an hour, comparing notes on school and talking about family and mutual friends. When they could stand it no longer, they walked down to Houlihan’s and warmed up at the bar by drinking Irish coffees.

The next day, Natalie found a poem in her mailbox, hand-written on thick paper. She walked down to the dock to read it and sat at the top of the ladder, cracking the lake’s semi-frozen surface with her heel.

by Amy Lowell

A face seen passing in a crowded street,
A voice heard singing music, large and free;
And from that moment life is changed, and we
Become of more heroic temper, meet
To freely ask and give, a man complete.
Radiant because of faith, we dare to be
What Nature meant us. Brave idolatry
Which can conceive a hero! No deceit,
No knowledge taught by unrelenting years,
Can quench this fierce, untamable desire.
We know that what we long for once achieved
Will cease to satisfy. Be still our fears;
If what we worship fail us, still the fire
Burns on, and it is much to have believed.

There was no name on it, but she recognized Chris’s handwriting. He had never given her a poem before. She read the poem again, noting how it fit their relationship: they had met more than two years ago, when he had seen her walking down the street around the lake and had stopped her. That he had found a poem so appropriate for them delighted her. Was he saying that she had made him a man complete? That he still believed in the two of them? And if he didn’t, how could she criticize him? She didn’t believe in a future for them, but she still dreamed of one every night before she fell asleep.

Natalie eye fell on these lines:

We know that what we long for once achieved
Will cease to satisfy.

She shivered and ran back to the house, where she rummaged through her father’s desk. Using his best pen, she calligraphed that line on the nicest piece of paper she could scrounge up. Underneath, she added, “But first we must achieve it.” And below that, she added these lines from “Sappho” by James Wright:

Love is a cliff,
a clear, cold curve of stone, mottled by stars,
smirched by the morning, carved by the dark sea
till stars and dawn and waves can slash no more,
till the rock’s heart is found and shaped again.

It was an austere view of love, but one that had always seemed true to her. She wanted a love that would reshape her, but instead she had one that was always receding from her. She feared that their future might never arrive. If she wasn’t careful, Natalie thought, she might wait forever.

She punched holes in both pieces of paper and tied them with a scrap of ribbon, pulling the sides of the green bow out until they were exactly the same length. Then she replaced them in the original envelope. Late that night, when she was certain Chris’s entire family would be in bed, she left her room to deliver the original and the response back to him. As she tripped going down the dark stairs, she heard murmurs in her parents’ bedroom. Her father called after her, “Natalie?”


“Is something the matter?”

“No, I’m just going for a walk.”

“At this time of night?”

“Just a short one, Dad. I’ll be right back.”

Chris’s house was completely dark. Natalie knew no one around the lake locked their doors much. She amused herself with the idea of sneaking in, creeping up the stairs to Chris’s room, and sliding into bed with him. She still wanted him, but it was hard to find privacy at Christmastime. Their sex life had always been freer in the summers. But she didn’t feel courageous enough to actually try to get that close to him that night, in the dark, without permission. She left the poems in his mailbox.

Chris stopped by the next day to thank her for the poems and invited her to take a walk around the lake. As they walked, she told him about her fantasy of the night before and how she’d lost her nerve.

“I want to show you something,” he said as they rounded the other side of the lake. Two streets up from the houses on the lake proper, a new house was being built on an oversized lot. It had all its walls, but past the holes where windows would go, construction workers moved, carrying tools and pieces of wood.

“See that path?” he asked her, indicating a driveway that dwindled to a single track. “The people in the houses on either side can’t see anyone walking there because of the garage and fence in the way. And the house itself is far away from all the other houses.”

Natalie thought her entire body might be blushing. “It is isolated,” she said softly.

“Let’s pretend to go out for a movie Christmas night.”

“And we’ll come here,” she responded.

“Yes,” he said, and kissed her.


At least they had this brief season of being together, Natalie thought on Christmas Day, when Chris and his parents walked in the door. All of them remarked on how long it had been since they had gathered in one room, and then they sat down to the serious business of opening presents, eating dessert (Christmas dinner would come later), and drinking holiday punch.

Natalie and Chris sat on the floor, between their two sets of parents, and smiled at each other underneath all that scrutiny. Their presents for each other were singular and simple: books. Natalie gave Chris the autobiography of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who had exposed the economics of lynching, and he gave her clothbound copies of all four of Toni Morrison’s books.

“Thank you,” Natalie said. “I always need more books.”

“Always,” Chris said, laughing.

Natalie discovered that all four copies were signed. “Where did you get these?” she asked, impressed.

“In a used bookstore in Chicago,” he said. The comment hung in the air, pleasing Natalie because he had thought of her last summer, but reminding them of what had come between them.

Chris began reading the first paragraph of Tar Baby to her: “He believed he was safe…” His parents exchanged glances and sighed about the high school classes they would resume teaching in the new year. Natalie’s father mentioned how he was looking forward to his spring semester class at CU on American politics. “I’m going to recruit every last one of them to work on defeating Reagan in the 1984 election,” he declared, laughing. And her mother kept passing boxes of chocolates and plates of cookies to her left and her right.

After dinner, Natalie and Chris left, ostensibly to get his car and go to a movie, but instead they circled stealthily around her house, listening to the voices of their parents inside, and then walked around the lake to the house under construction. Once they started up the driveway, Natalie’s fears stopped her. The two of them stood furtively where the track began.

“Let’s make sure the coast is clear,” Chris whispered. They looked around and saw no one. The lit rooms of houses around them held little but Christmas trees and the remains of dinners. They crept across the lot and took off their shoes before entering the house. They had nothing with them except their coats, which they made into their bed, their hats and gloves for pillows, and their desire to forget they’d been apart or ever would be separated again. Once inside the inner rooms of the house, there was no light; all they could see was their eyes and the occasional flash of teeth.

“I want to make up for all the time we’ve spent apart this last year,” Chris told her, pulling her down onto her coat. “I loved every minute of the internship at the Chicago Tribune last summer, but I missed you. I wanted to be there, and I wanted to be here with you.” But Natalie wasn’t quite convinced yet.

“I need to ask you something.”


“Are you going to wear a condom?”

But he shook his head. “I don’t need to,” he said. “I never slept with Jen. Just you for the past two years.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her.

For the first time this Christmas season, Natalie felt happy. “Why not?” she asked.

“I thought one long-distance relationship was enough. I didn’t want two,” he answered. “And I couldn’t imagine how I would tell you.”

He slid his hands under her clothes. “I’ll keep you warm,” he said, and covered them with his coat. It was so silent where they were, except for the occasional slam of a door and a burst of Christmas music into the night. They said very little to each other, and that only in whispers. The first time they had ever admitted loving each other had been over Christmas break of their sophomore year, two years ago. On Natalie’s last night of vacation, she had rushed the words out. Tonight, she was glad she’d said them, glad she hadn’t waited to be sure, because here they were two years later, and she felt that she would never be certain of him.

Afterward they lay together, shivering a little, for as long as they could stand the cold. Natalie felt oddly light. Then it came to her: she hadn’t thought about Tom all evening. In fact, she hadn’t thought about her uncle much since Chris had taken her out to dinner several nights ago. Maybe, she told herself, Tom’s loss had blended with Chris’s absence, so that when she was away from Chris, she thought she was mourning her uncle. Natalie wondered what she had been grieving these last few months.

As she tiptoed up the stairs that night, she saw that her parents had left their door ajar. They lay entwined, her father’s head on her mother’s shoulder, and Natalie felt desperately tender toward them but also jealous. She’d loved this entire day, spent with Chris and their families, but she wanted the two of them to be able to go about openly. She was tired of sneaking around. She and Chris had not been able to spend a night together since their sophomore year of college.

The next morning, Natalie stayed in bed and daydreamed. Chris had always been a good lover, but the night before she had felt closer to him than she ever had. For the two hours they had lain together on the plywood subfloor of that halfway-constructed house, she had felt like he was the only person in the world. One thing seemed clear: she had at least the possibility of a future with Chris.

She was wondering how soon they could find their way to that house again when the phone rang, and she picked it up. It was her best friend Debbie.

“Merry Christmas a day late!” Debbie said. “I was so busy yesterday, I forgot to call.”

“Merry Christmas to you too,” Natalie said.

“How’s it going?” Debbie asked, too casually. Natalie knew what she meant.

“We spent two hours last night in a new house that’s being built on the other side of the lake,” Natalie told her, laughing. “It was great.”

“I guess you’re getting along then,” Debbie said. “That’s good.”

Something in her tone resurrected a feeling in Natalie that she’d been pressing down all week, ever since their dinner. A feeling of doubt that what was happening with Chris was any more permanent that anything that had ever happened between them. A fear that her heart might be broken for a second time—her uncle’s death being the first. Natalie curled up under the covers and listened to Debbie.

Debbie was saying, “Is he still going out with the woman he met in Chicago?”

“No, he isn’t. And he said they never slept together.”

“Did you think he was telling the truth?”

“Yes,” Natalie said, realizing that she had never even questioned him. That made her feel happy again, briefly. She still had some faith in him left.

“Be careful, Natalie,” Debbie said. “Don’t rush into thinking everything’s OK. You have time to figure things out.”

“Do I?” Natalie challenged her. “How am I ever going to figure this out when he and I are apart so much?”

Debbie didn’t have an answer for that.


It was the last night of Christmas vacation. Natalie’s parents were out with friends, and she found herself waiting for Chris. What would they say to each other tonight? He came in with a cold breeze and a bag of cheese, fruit, and chocolate. “Leftovers,” he explained. He sat down and fed her some strawberries and Russell Stover chocolates. Then he turned serious.

“We need to make a plan,” he told her.

“A plan for what?”

“Us,” he said.

“How can I plan anything with you?” Natalie said. “I have no say in your decisions. You proved that by going to Chicago last summer.”

“You could,” he said. “If we planned our future together.”

Natalie thought of her conversation with Debbie. “Don’t rush,” Debbie had said. Now more than ever, it sounded like good advice.

“You think now is the right time?” she asked him.

“I do,” he said.

“I haven’t even started looking for a job, though I always assumed I’d stay in Boulder.”

He was silent for a minute. “I’ll apply for a job at the Denver Post, but obviously, the place where I have the best connection is at the Tribune.”

“I know,” she said, thinking she should just break up with him then. It would make things so much easier.

“Why am I always the one doing this, Natalie?” he asked.

“Doing what?” she asked.

“Keeping us together. You’re were reluctant to get involved when we met, and it seems like that’s never really changed.”

She stared at him. He was curled up in a corner of the couch, eating one chocolate after another.

“Because there’s so much against us,” she said.

“Yes, there is,” he agreed with her. “I’m asking you to disregard all that and try one more time. We’ll give it six months from graduation. If it doesn’t work, then we’ll break up.”

“I’m happy when I’m with you, but my doubts keep returning,” Natalie said. “I need time to think.”

“Will you promise to make a decision by this summer?” he asked her.

She nodded.

“All right, Natalie,” Chris said, very quietly. “Think all you want. Just be careful you don’t think yourself out of a relationship that might work if you gave it a chance.” He moved closer to her and kissed her. “I’ll call you this week,” he said, and left.

Natalie sat by herself for a long time, finishing off the fruit and chocolates. Then she went upstairs to pack.
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What's Coming

I've got three stories left to post. I've been debating whether to post the next two, and I've decided to go ahead. They're relationship stories that wrap things up between various characters in the book, and therein lies my problem with them. The Natalie-Chris story, especially, seems too methodical, even repetitive of the other stories. It's my least favorite story in this collection. But I've referenced it in the last story, so I'm going to include it.

Disregard the "Read More"--that's all of this post. Read more

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Meme from sex

Sort of fits, doesn't it?

I'll try to keep this Tag! You're It! post relevant. Here are six random facts about me.

1. I have two born-again sisters who are, obviously, pro-life.

2. My mother and grandmother both had hysterectomies, my mother sometime shortly after I was born (never gotten quite clear on that one). How's that for Catholic birth control?

3. I was in the Legion of Mary when I was about 12.

4. My sister is the only one of six children who has children--and she has six.

5. I've been in love six times.

6. I had my tubes tied in November 2003. Before that, I was on the pill for 20 years, give or take. Something like 90 percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives. (There. I snuck in a statistic, even if it is undocumented.)

Not sure this is really about me...hmm. On the plus side, the six entries contain a lot of even numbers.

Whatever. Here are the rules:

I was tagged by SexScenesatStarbucks.

1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
5. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment at their blog.
6. Let your tagger know when your entry is up.

And I tag:


I know it's only three...but I had to break the even-number thing that was going on. Plus, I felt shy.

(Disregard the "Read More" on this post--there is no more.) Read more

Story 13: What About the Way You Look

They sat across from each other at Tom’s Tavern in Boulder, both eating burgers. Becky wiped some mayonnaise from the corner of her mouth, and Natalie wondered how such a common gesture could seem so graceful. But Becky was always turned out. Whenever they met, Natalie came away inspired to do more with her appearance. Too bad she didn’t hang around Becky often enough for her example to have a permanent effect.

Becky said she had just come from her hairdresser in Denver. Her hair was combed back behind her ears and turned up at the ends. It smelled a little of chemicals. Natalie wished her fine hair could hold a curl that way. Some days she still wanted a head full of auburn curls, like Anne of Green Gables after she dyed her hair with “fast dye” and then had to cut it off.

“Your hair looks nice,” Natalie said.

“She’s trying to get me to go natural, but I don’t want to cut all my hair off.”

“What if you cut it at chin length and let it grow out?”

“I could do that,” Becky said. “I have some pretty headbands. But at some point I’ll have a head of hair that’s half relaxed and half frizzy. I don’t know.”

Even though it was 80 degrees outside, Becky was wearing baggy jeans. Natalie had put on shorts that morning. As she shifted, her thighs peeled reluctantly, painfully away from the vinyl seats. Tom’s was full; all the students were getting their last hamburgers before leaving for the summer. In a week, Natalie would be at Lake Tapawingo, without Chris. Becky noticed her faraway expression.

“Dreaming of your boyfriend?”

“That’s all it’s gonna be this summer. He’s doing an internship in Chicago.”

“So you didn’t break up?”

“I don’t know what happened.”

“Do you still talk to him?”

“Yeah, we talk at least once a month,” Natalie said. “We’re very close. I just don’t know if we’re still together.”

“Well, he seemed like a really nice guy. But I talked to him for only an hour.”

“That’s the way it’s beginning to feel to me too.”

“Mike and I had some problems around the two-year point,” Becky said, dipping three French fries at a time in ketchup and then mayonnaise. She’d gotten Natalie hooked on having a little mayo with her fries. She said it was a Dutch thing that her parents had picked up on one of their volunteer work trips. “Maybe there’s a two-year itch.”

Mayo was not the only thing that Becky passed on. Natalie liked to spend time with her—even if she always had to fit into Becky’s schedule—because she learned something new every time. And Becky seemed to like teaching her things. In fact, if Becky hadn’t always told her she was going to be a journalist, Natalie would have expected her to go for teaching. She never missed an opportunity.

But Natalie wanted to resolve something today, not simply play the eager student. She said to Becky, “You must not be too mad at me, or you wouldn’t have come to lunch, right?”

Becky made a small face and kept on eating her French fries. Finally she said, “It comes and goes.”

“You were right about Susan B. Anthony,” Natalie said. “She did let southern feminists segregate …”

“Stop!” Becky said, annoyed. “Can’t we ever talk about anything besides black history?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Natalie answered, remembering how they had become friends one Saturday night at a freshman year party. Scanning the living room of a frat house for Debbie, from whom she had become mysteriously separated, she recognized Becky from government class. The only student in class who had the courage to argue with their sexist, usually drunk teacher. Right now she appeared to be having another argument, this time with a fraternity brother named Jason whom Natalie knew slightly. Natalie abandoned the search for Debbie.

“So you’re just turning me down flat?” Jason was saying in amazement as Natalie walked up to them. He glanced at her as if he hoped she would go away.

“I’m seeing someone else right now,” Becky answered, also looking at Natalie quizzically.

“Do you not date white guys?” Jason asked, in a desperate search for logic in the midst of rejection.

“I have …” Becky began.

Natalie interrupted. “You know, Jason, you’re a really cute guy, but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to go out with you.”

“Well, thanks for letting me know,” he said, now truly offended. He looked at Becky and said, “You can call off the troops. I’m leaving.” He crossed the living room and went downstairs.

Natalie felt very pleased with herself. She introduced herself to Becky and said, “I like the way you take on our government teacher. He needs somebody to snap him out of his fog.”

“Like Jason,” Becky said, smiling in a resigned way.

“Yeah. He didn’t have any right to ask that.”

“Maybe not, but this is Boulder. It happens all the time.”

“Well, not any more tonight. You want a beer?”

Walking onto the porch with Becky, Natalie felt like the escort for a VIP. Becky’s outfit was all elegance, from the Benetton sweater down to her Papagallo shoes. They stood on the back lawn and chatted about classes until Debbie found them. Natalie introduced them, pleased that her circle was expanding. Diversifying.

“Wake up, Natalie,” Becky said, startling her. Across the aisle, a couple got up and left the restaurant, holding hands. “Daydreaming about Chris again?”

“I was remembering how we became friends.”

“That’s the thing, Natalie,” Becky said. Now she was picking up the small, extremely crisp fries one by one and eating them, ignoring the half of her burger that was left. “I want us to be friends. I don’t want you to try to save me anymore, and I don’t want to be teaching and preaching all the time.”

“You’re right, Becky. It’s just that you know something about everything, and asking you is easier than looking things up,” Natalie babbled, feeling that she had unwittingly stepped to the edge of a cliff and was about to measure the drop.

“You know why I know so much?”

“Uh, books? College?”

“Because that’s how I protect myself. I can always shut up some redneck with the right fact.”

“Really?” Natalie asked, thinking of rednecks—from Boulder and Lake Tapawingo both—that she couldn’t imagine stopping for facts. But surely Becky had more experience in that area.

“But with my friends,” Becky said, “I don’t always want to be the professor.”

“Then just stop,” Natalie said. “You’re always teaching. I’m not the only one bringing it on.”

“You know, you’re not the only person who’s said that to me,” Becky said, soaking her last French fry in ketchup and chewing slowly. “My mother has told me that once or twice.”

“Maybe it’s easier to talk about race in terms of facts,” Natalie speculated. “Because that way I won’t say something that might make you angry or hurt you.”

“Like what?” Becky asked, giving her an even look that seemed like a dare.

Natalie picked up her burger, which she’d been neglecting, and took a big bite. She didn’t want to lose Becky as a friend. But then again, she didn’t want to be in a tug of war with her every time they met or tiptoe around her for fear of giving offense.

“You have to promise me something.”


“You have to promise that if you don’t like what I say to you, you won’t just leave. Promise that you’ll … say something like it back.”

“Say something like what?”

“Oh come on, Becky,” Natalie snapped. “You must say things about white people sometimes.”

“Fine,” Becky agreed, holding her hands up as if she were facing a gun. “Talk away.”

“When I was in ninth grade,” Natalie began, “there was a black guy in my English class. It was the first time I’d ever had a black student in one of my classes. He started dating a girl in the class.”

“And this bothered you?” Becky asked.

“I remember wondering why he couldn’t date someone black. It was years later before it occurred to me that there weren’t any black girls for him to date. At least not at school.”

“Not to mention that it was none of your business.”

“That too,” Natalie said, feeling that she had got her comeuppance. But Becky wasn’t finished.

“I know just how you feel,” she said very softly. “A guy I know brought his new white girlfriend to church one day. It was Palm Sunday, and every other woman in that church wore a dress and a hat, but she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. And she was there to meet his family!”

“Does everyone at your church dress up?” Natalie asked feebly, trying to remember if she had ever worn jeans to Mass. Her family hadn’t attended all that often since they had moved to Boulder.

“Yes, women at my church always look good. This girlfriend looked like a big mess. That must be why she didn’t last long.”

The waitress came by to take their plates and leave the check. Natalie ate at Tom’s every so often because the food was so basic and correct. It was simply what it was. Her friendship with Becky had always held an element of the unknown. The two had seemed like a good fit two days ago, when they had made plans. Now Natalie peeled her thighs from the vinyl again and sighed, remembering that the only shorts she had ever seen Becky wearing were linen shorts, long and pressed. Conversations were beginning to come into her head that she didn’t want to hear.

“Are we OK now?” she asked Becky.

“You made your confession.”

“Yeah,” Natalie said, thinking how the wooden confessionals at Catholic churches always resembled coffins stood on one end.

“But I’m not a priest. I can’t absolve you.”

“No,” Natalie agreed.

“That’s why I don’t have these conversations too often. They never turn out.”

“You just have arguments or silence.”

“I argue to protect myself,” Becky said, “but I don’t like arguing with my friends.” She put ten dollars down on the table.

Glancing at the check, Natalie pulled her wallet out of her backpack and began counting ones. She put seven down on top of Becky’s ten. “Like I said, silence.”

Becky nodded thoughtfully. “With white friends, about certain subjects, yes.”

“Doesn’t that limit those friendships?”

“Yes, it does. You’re beginning to get it now.”

It was the end of another school year, Natalie told herself. Time to close certain doors and try to open others.

“Maybe this friendship does more for me than it does for you,” she said to Becky, hoping she wouldn’t rush to agree. “But I like it.”

“I do too, most of the time,” Becky said quietly. “Sometimes I think I should invite you to dinner with my family or to a party with some of my other friends, but then I never do.”

“We can see what happens next year,” Natalie said. Becky took two of her ones, and they left. Tom’s had been so well air-conditioned that at first they didn’t feel the dry heat as they walked down the Pearl Street Mall together. When they got to Broadway, Natalie said she wanted to sit down and look at the tulips for a while. Becky had to go to class. Natalie watched her disappear down Broadway. As usual, people turned to look at her.

Natalie hoped that they smiled. A year ago, she had read a magazine article about black men. They said they felt invisible at times, too visible at others. When she finished reading the article, she had made a resolution to smile at any black man she walked past on the street. Becky had noticed when they were in downtown Denver for dinner one night.

“You certainly are smiley tonight,” she said to Natalie. They walked on for another block or two. Then she asked, “Are you smiling at black men because you’re with me?” Natalie mentioned the article. Becky laughed a little and gave her a look she used to convey how strange white people could be. Natalie had the impression, however, that she wasn’t really angry. Just a little bemused.

As usual, Natalie ended her visit to the Pearl Street Mall by visiting the Boulder Bookstore. She found herself in the ethnic studies section, looking at a copy of Go Tell It on the Mountain. She decided to buy it and read it. It would be a good way to bridge the school year, when she worked and studied, with the lazy rhythms of summer, without Chris, without Becky or Debbie or her other Boulder friends, but with sun, wind, warmth, and water. She didn’t know where any of them would be next summer, after they graduated. This summer might be her last at the lake, her last summer to read, listen, and learn.
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