May 12, 2000
The girl stopped at the crossing road and turned back:
"Which way? Left or right?"
"If you want to take a longer walk, we can go left and make a big loop. If you want to go home, then right . . . " the woman said, approaching down the trail.
"I don't think we have enough time. The sun is already going down."
The woman nodded and the two resumed their striding walk down the forest road. The shadows of fast winter evening crept from under the trees, filled the ravines; far to the right over the treetops the girl could still see a brightly lit peak. In a minute she lost the sight of it as she descended the trail. She amused herself with trying to make as little noise as possible, listening to the heavier steps of her companion. With each step her foot sank under her weight into unyielding, stiff snow and left a vague outline of the outside of the boot. The Labrador in front of the girl left no marks at all.
Although the dog at times would leap around with cheerfully half-opened mouth, she never made any sound and the company of three proceeded in silent union. Down in the valley, in town, and at the inhabited outskirts of the hills, there was no snow, and in the forest only the shortness of late December days and the brevity of sunshine prevented it from melting. Snow lay clumsily on the copper buckets tied to the ancient maple trees and on the rows of cut trunks marking abandoned apple-orchard on the sides of silent road. Alicia knew there must be people coming and here, because the road was well-trod, but the silence wrapped the girl in the fancy that there was nobody left in the forest, in the valley and in the town- except her, the Labrador and her friend, walking behind. When Alicia caught the glance of Sue's car between the trees, it intruded on the flow of her thoughts with its alien and lost appearance.
They dropped the dog at Sue's cousins', stopped to take the mail out of wrong-sided mailbox, and pulled up to the house. Alicia busied herself in the kitchen, while Sue went upstairs to sort the mail. The place used to be a schoolhouse and the sun filled the living room through the big windows all day long. Alicia knew her friend enjoyed living there, up the hill and away from the town. The girl herself could just sit there by the metal stove and look for what seemed hours at the rolling mountains, their outlines fading a shadow with each ridge as if painted with Chinese brush on rice paper. She started singing in the kitchen. By this time she knew the soda was in the closet over the sink, the flour in the big can on the shelf over the refrigerator and the egg packs go to the box under the sink to be recycled. For dinner, Sue would lay the table and lit the golden candles she put out for the holiday season. Their smooth light would go down the purple, blue and golden bands, make them moving, active- going from nowhere to nowhere on the green wooden surface.
"Alicia?," the woman called with interrogative intonation.
"Yes?" the girl's hands didn't stop there skillful movement squeezing and forming little piece of dough.
"Jeffrey is coming for dinner tonight."
"Sweet," Alicia's speech resumed the rhythmic pattern of the song she was still murmuring, her sounds a little longer than usual. "I'm making some varenyki, it'll be exotic for him..." she heard Sue mumble something positive and smiled to herself. Alicia didn't pay much attention to Jeffrey, after all he was Sue's high school boyfriend, and now, fifteen years later she said there was no man in her life. Just, you can't get rid of them altogether, can you?
Curled in deep armchair , with a cup of tea steaming at her left and the old cat purring on her knees, Alicia got down to writing the letter back home. She placed the sheet of paper on the thick volume of Wild Plants by Henry David Thoreau, the book Sue received for a Christmas present. It had become a rule to add comments almost everyday and the letter was growing into its sixth page already. The girl reviewed the pictures she was going to enclose. They were taken during Christmas at Sue's brother and sister-in-law's place with three kids around and wrapping paper thrown all over the living room. The youngest child was hardly two months old; Alicia frowned at the picture of herself holding the baby. She didn't really fear that she would do something wrong, but the idea of the infant itself disgusted all of her being. Little kids are dump and you can't get them do a single reasonable thing. She thought of how any kind of baby, any animal is so much fit for life, but not humans. And then, it's such a trap! Pregnancy and motherhood - just look what they do to a woman. She ends up giving up her career, hardly making it up in such a fast paced industry, getting wide in the thighs and floppy about the breast, and receiving a green doormat for Christmas present.
Alicia thought, maybe her mom would never understand that, but didn't stop writing. Her y's and b's acquired sharp endings, letters flew in tense rows, pressed deep into the paper. The cat stopped purring, fell asleep. Sue came down the stairs, glanced briefly at the girls side-bent head, concentrated tight-up lips and went to her room. Alicia paused to take a sip of tea.
Maybe she could have been absolutely happy with a life like Sue's, except for the tea. It was not the deep-brown, clear yet impenetrable drink, you could clasp your hands around and feel magnetic warmness going to the tiniest finger-bones. Sue had all kinds of teas - mandarin tea, lemon tea, strawberry tea, cinnamon tea, but they all lacked something. The ritual of making it, the importance, the sitting at the opposite sides of the table late at night talking about crucial questions to be forgotten next morning. If she could find the right tea, Alicia thought, she would be able to live in this country. She would enjoy a house just like this, far in the hills, without a TV, with metal stove and an Internet connection. She would be able to live on her own, study, write, even own a horse - be the woman she dreamed of being and never let her femininity and intellect be erased by dissolving in pregnancy.
After half a year of showering, a bath was something to look forward to. Alicia regulated the water, went upstairs to get her towel, and washing cloth, regulated the water once again. She left the bathroom, although she believed if she had stayed there and stared at the flow of water it would have been faster and hotter. She busied herself in the kitchen, then went upstairs again and stayed there until Sue called the bath was ready.
The girl ran down the stairs, into the bathroom and closed the door. Only then she realized the ceiling lamp was turned off and the light dispersed from two high candleholders crowned with thick red candles. They were placed at the head and the feet of the bathtub, dropping wax occasionally, glowing unhurriedly in the humid air. Alicia made two steps and peered into the water. Sue must have put something inside, because it was becoming milky, and a slight scent rose with the steam.
The girl dropped her clothes and slid into the bathtub. As her body submerged into the water she closed her eyes and drew a deep breath of delight. She kept still for some time, allowing her sensations to incarnate in images so she could perceive them fully. It felt as if her skin was sunk into the moonlight if the moonlight was oily and at the same time able to penetrate her every pore and then rub lightly from inside of the body, coming in tides with her heartbeat. If her body suddenly rose into the air together with the water surrounding it, or if the fires of the candles went underwater and warned it from beneath, Alicia would not at all be surprised. She felt loved and caressed.
The feeling lasting, she got out of the water and looked at her image in a full length fogged mirror. She could not see distinctly; her figure washed across the surface of the glass. For the first time in last five or six months Alicia thought herself beautiful. There definitely was some charm in her feminine forms, wide thighs and softly rounded belly that suggested ripeness and fertility and yet she was determined to abstain from it.
With a half smile and a floating feeling about her body still there, Alicia put on her night gown, robe, and blew off the candles. She completely forgot about Jeffrey, but when she saw him with Sue in the living room she didn't startle. Sue turned to her:
"Here comes Alicia in her sexy nightgown," she said as if the man wasn't there. "How was the bath?"
"Heavenly," the girl answered looking her host in the eye and smiling to her. Then she turned to Jeffrey, letting her smile change into the polite one, "How are you Jeffrey?"
"Good, how are you?" he didn't rise from his seat.
"I'm fine. I guess, I'll say goodnight now. Enjoy your dinner," and she went upstairs into her small room, aware of the silk of the nightgown gliding against the wet scented skin.
Alicia was reading in bed, with the cat by her side, when she realized the only thing her contentment lacked for the perfection was an apple from the big bowl in the kitchen. She read on for some time, reluctant to get out of the bed and go downstairs. It was too late - the idea of the apple didn't let her concentrate; she had to go and get the fruit. The girl climbed out of bed, threw on her robe and barefoot slid down the stairs and into the kitchen. There was nobody in the living room and she wondered how she didn't hear when Sue and Jeffrey had left the house. Alicia grabbed the apple in the dark and instantly became aware of the flick of light from under Sue's room and the sound of passionate mumbling. She rushed upstairs as if startled by a whip.
The low, woman's voice murmuring indistinct words, the image of her self sufficient, smart, strong friend yielding, asking for more caresses from some man of his hands reaching from behind her back to embrace her breasts the empty dark living room, the plates with the rest of dinner in the sink, the smell of candles and the purring of cat - it all had to be washed, erased, made untrue. Alicia lay in her bed, face down, tears streaming into the pillow, shaking with sobs, holding her breath so that no one would hear her.
* * *
Alicia woke up late, cast a hateful glance at the bare trees behind the window, and made herself get up. She felt exhausted; last night she had to trick her body into the quietness and sleep and then dreamed about coming into Sue's bedroom after he had left, letting her nightgown slip down her shoulders and saying in suppressed whisper, "Touch me. . . please."
For an instant Alicia wasn't even sure if she hadn't done it anyway.
The house was still. In the kitchen, the girl found a note saying when Sue would be back and what to take for breakfast. "As if I couldn't help myself," Alicia thought, getting milk out of refrigerator and shaking cornflakes into the plate. While the meal stood warming in the microwave, Alicia wiped the sink stand and put away the plates and cups from the dryer. When Sue returned, she greeted her from upstairs where she nestled with a book. The girl came running down to tell Sue about the phone calls she took for her and suggest a cup of tea before they went cruising downtown. Alicia made the tea, listening to Sue chat about the woman who owned the gallery they were going to visit. When they seated themselves in their usual places - Sue on the sofa, Alicia across the carpet from her in the armchair, her cup on the lamp table, the woman took a sip and said:
"You know, while you are here, you could take the train and go see New York City."
"Really? I haven't thought about that. Sounds great."
"Yes, but can you go on your own?" Sue glanced at the girl doubtfully.
"Well," she smiled, "I've traveled Greyhound to Detroit," they both laughed and agreed she would be fine. Sue resolved to call the station and find out the schedule. Alicia rinsed the cups, made sure the tiny wet specks of leaves went down the sink and said she was ready to go.
Even without snow, dusty under transparent winter sunshine, the town looked like a picture from children's book. Alicia again found herself feeling like Alice in Wonderland, staring through a keyhole of a Lilliputian door at the fairy garden. She would never fit into a door of any of these toy railroad houses with metalwork signs and still tinier jeweler-made gingerbread houses on display in the windows.
She visited the gallery, was introduced to the owner, listened to the Karelian band perform folk songs, translated for Sue to see her smile and clapped hands in agreed praise. They went to Country Inn and from behind the kids' backs marveled at the gingerbread houses made for contest, almost as big as the real ones in the town. When they drove along some street, Jeffrey waved from a yard and Sue said that was where he lived. Alicia smiled to him.
Suddenly Sue felt sick and the girl suggested they go home. By the time they got up the hill, parked the car and said hello to old Mr. Wilson and his barking dog, Sue could think about nothing but warm bed. She turned pale, with bluish lines around the eyes; her mouth twisted in disgust from what was going on inside her stomach. Alicia helped the woman to her bed, put down the color-spotted curtains, had her press an electric warmer against her abdomen. The girl acted almost instinctively, knowing without questions her friend had been poisoned by something, irritating the woman as little as possible, walking on the outside of her feet, looking anxious, kind.
When Jeffrey knocked at the door smiling in expectation of another pleasant evening and thinking to ask Sue about the Karelian performance she went to, Alicia met him. The man noticed the dropped corners of the girl's lips, and paused when she raised the finger signaling him to be quiet.
"I'm really sorry, Jeffrey, but Sue is sick. She's just fallen asleep and I won't wake her for all treasures of the world."
He asked what happened.
"It's some kind of food poisoning, a mild one I can take care of her, there's no need for hospitalization."
The man looked at Alicia intently. He examined her eyes' acquired reddish outline, as if she had cried not long ago. She kept her hands clasped in front of her, but she wasn't squeezing fingers nervously. The light in the house was restricted to a single lamp next to the armchair and a little table. There was a Christmas wreath made of dry oak leaves with a cream colored candle in the center.
Jeffrey said, "I guess I'd better go, and not disturb her." He asked Alicia to pass to Sue the bottle of red wine he brought with him.
"Thank you, Jeffrey. I appreciate your understanding. And please, don't worry," the girl added and smiled encouragingly.
The man left, feeling misplaced as the door shut behind his back. From where he stood he could see through the window how Alicia went to the table with the lamp and turned the pages of book, she'd obviously been reading. He noticed the book before - "The wild plants" by Henry David Thoreau. The girl read the page with a picture of oak leaves; the fingers of her left hand absently rubbed a dry leaf from a wreath, grinding it into tiny pieces. As if aware of being watched, the girl rose her head, closed the book and got up from the armchair hurriedly.
Jeffrey turned away and walked to his car. He felt re-assured. Sue was being taken good care of.