From my couch next to the window on floor eleven, I could see a constant flux of birds on the traffic light wire. If I leaned out over the sofa back, I could see the string of hearts I had crocheted, one a day, since Jaime’s accident.
Weekly, I went to the market in the next block, and on the way, I tied my knitted offerings onto the stitched line binding the hearts to each other and to the tree beside the sidewalk in front of our building.
Six weeks after losing Jaime, on a day indistinguishable from any other immobile pajama day, I noticed the birds on the wire rise as one unit in a feat of indecipherable communication and fly away together.
So, I decided to go, too.
Leaving the couch for good, throwing away the ripped pajamas I’d lived in for more than a month, I opened the old folded paper map on the coffee table, the same one I’d last consulted when Jaime had been alive, and ran my finger down the east coast.
I chose Harbor on the Green, mostly because of the name, and packing nothing but an overnight bag–paying movers to sort and pack the rest–I closed the front door to apartment 1101 for good. Its deceptive sunny yellow door had been the selling point for the rental that Jaime and I secured with part of the money our parents had left. It had seemed like a good omen right after college when all the world lay ahead of us, including twin jobs in an advertising firm that was incessantly transfixed by the way my sister and I played off each other, taking ideas and raising them to energy levels that had proven intuitively sound every time: the dogs in the car ads, the perfect songs mixed behind messages for jewelry, perfume, shampoo.
It was magic until it wasn’t. Until she stepped in front of a car that seemed to turn from nowhere in this city’s incessant, unpredictable, haunting traffic, and my twin-mate, my muse, my only close living relative was gone. What you think could never happen to you happens; I know that now. I replay the detective’s detached voice on the line saying he’d found my number first on her cell phone.
That’s all I can say about that right now, but maybe there will be a day when my heart won’t be so numb and afraid to envision her face and her voice again.
When we were younger, Mother told us so frequently that we were to take care of one another that we began the eye rolls at “You’re twins. That’s a huge responsibility…” Closed eyes meant we were shutting her out until she could get past “You must always be there for one another.”
“You repeat yourself,” I told her. I can clearly hear my voice and my mother’s frustration, but I don’t remember Jaime’s part in this ritual. Did she hug my mom to reassure her, which would have been her way, or laugh with me or what?
So why didn’t I go with Jaime that night? Why wasn’t I there to pull her back onto the curb? I’ve scoured every sin I’ve committed since age 13 when my real rebellion began. I’ve scrubbed the skin off of memories nobody else had access to, except maybe Jaime; I’ve torn apart every failure and still get to the same place. People do the best they can. I do the best I can.
The admonition to be there for one another replays, replays. What does that mean for me now? Do I have to light candles to hurry her to some higher level? Do I have to make my life worth something since I’m the one not taken?
Driving south out of New York, Ira Glass plays on NPR, but mental intrusions into the radio’s tale of American life distress me so much that I almost miss the turn onto I-95. I set my phone to an Audible book, and eleven hours later after two coffee stops, three bathroom breaks and a heart-numbing marathon of driving, I recognize the spotlighted entrance sign to the village I’d visited once during a vacation in college. Only once. Now I will live there, having rented an apartment in Harbor Square without seeing it.
I remember finishing the book on tape and listening to the radio, to unwanted thoughts, and to Google Maps all the way into the South Carolina lowlands, though I recall very little of the content. At the last minute I navigate the final turn into the shingled grey townhouses lining the east bay.
Once, I’d been charmed by the seaport town because the entire village borders a mesmerizing bay that moves out to the ocean after offering homeplaces for fishing boats and sailboats, shapes that line a bluish-pink horizon like metal sculptures. It was all idyllic those years ago, though now the shakes and boards, exposed to the salt air, seem, in the dusk, weathered to a gray that matches my flat-lined depression.
Sometimes, thankfully, I remember being more respectful of my mother, incorporating advice and sometimes dispersing it to others. This time I dispense it to myself: “When you’re depressed, do something for someone else.” That will be a steep climb for me.
The little town itself, Harbor on the Green, is laid out as an open rectangle–the bay on the east and the ocean beyond that, the town center and municipal buildings on the north side, and shops and cafes along both the east and west sides of the rectangle. The main entrance into town comes from the south, so northerners are forced to loop around the sawgrass and enter from a direction that showcases the water.
I remember now that condos, shops, and apartments line the finger bays that seem to tilt in toward the rectangle from all sides. Harbor Square is the townhouse complex on the farthest inlet that spreads from the main bay. Crawling slowly past the lighted entrance, I wind my way back to my apartment.
The movers will not arrive until the next day, so I spend the first lonely night in a sleeping bag in apartment 3C, which is near, I will discover, the writer, the warrior, and the saint.
The saint was the first person I met the next day after the movers pulled in, unloaded, and left me standing in the middle my unattractive laminate flooring. I stared out the window at the flat, still water and wondered what I had done. Who can run away from grief or aloneness?
I understood immediately that I now knew no one, had no one, and I longed for the sound of my street in New York, the way the garbage trucks beeped before backing into the metal cans, the unloading of the produce, the slamming of the truck gates, the hefting of crates, the sound of wooden slats cracking onto the sidewalk, the horns, the shouts in Italian and Spanish and languages indistinguishable. Who would take care of my crocheted hearts? Would they unravel in the wind and fade in the sun? Of course they would. And someone would come and staple a flier over the best of them.
I began to cry and my vision blurred so that I imagined seeing a petite woman with white tendrils falling from upswept hair trimming my hedge, my garden border. I stepped closer to the window and wiped my eyes and nose with my sleeve. Yes, there she was.
Without thinking, I ran down the flight of stairs leading from my patio to the flower garden in front of apartment 3.
“Hello,” I shouted with the desperation of a marooned hermit. God, I sounded pitiful. “I’m DonneAnn Charles. I just moved here. Today.”
“Dunn, like Dunn?” she laughsed. That’s my name, too. “I’m Sera Dunn.” Her voice rose in delight, and she reached out the hand free of garden tools.
“No, Donne like John Donne. My mother was an English professor.” I could have gone into so much more, and I suddenly wanted to pour my lonely background out at her feet as if the garden were some kind of sunny confessional, but I didn’t want to scare her off.
“Ah, John Donne: ‘Angels affect us oft’,” she quoted, smiling.
“Sorry, I don’t recognize the lines, having resisted my mother’s profession by turning it into a debased version of writing. I’m in advertising.”
“Lovely,” she said simply, not changing the subject to herself, her interests, her occupation. Instead, she apologized for “trespassing,” saying the apartment had been vacant for over a month and the garden needed a little trim and she hoped I didn’t mind. “I’ll hand it back over to you now. So glad you’ve arrived. Please come for coffee when you get settled. I’m in 7C.”
And with that she waved herself away with her still-gloved hand, and I found my heart strangely lifted for the briefest moment by her presence.
When I did go round to meet her for coffee a few days later (I’d made myself wait to avoid appearing both too eager and hopeless), the feeling of wanting to confide in her persisted. I restrained myself and asked about her life (she was a retired therapist; I should have guessed that), and she volunteered at Harbor View High School as a counselor in the after-school detention center twice a week. “I love those kids,” she said. “They give me so much more than I give them.”
I doubted that. She was calm and comforting, and I found myself telling her about Jaime and the accident, about how my dad, a professor of French at the same university where my mother taught, had insisted on naming my beautiful sister in French, giving my mother the naming rights to me, the second-born twin.
“Jaime. I love,” Sera mused. “A beautiful name. But you know,” she said, “If you put the je prefix in front of your name, it becomes ‘I give’; that’s a beauty, too.” Of course, I had never considered that, nor had my dad offered up the possibility, which I would have treasured and held close then as I did now.
I would learn as time passed that Sera had a way of seeing deeply into most things, delivering her insights lightly, as if they were offhand and unimportant, but her wisdom, tossed out like little crumbs for a trembling bird, began to make me stronger.
And I did grow stronger, though only for intermittent days, and then the grief would roll back over me until I curled up in my bed, even on sunny afternoons, and wept. Sometimes I would dream, but rarely of Jaime. In my dreams I would be going back to college, looking for old classrooms, lost and bewildered.
When I felt strong, I ventured over to the green space in the center of the village and sat on the bench in front of the boulangerie, smelling croissants and rolls baking while I sketched. I drew outlines of children playing Frisbee, dads kicking soccer balls, women going from shop to shop on the outside of the green space, just beyond the slanted parking spaces. The sun was healing, and I’d take the sketches inside to my kitchen bar and paint them with watercolors like so:
I found it all quite healing, even the time alone on the bench in the square, until one day in May an older woman came and sat beside me, and though perhaps I should have been unnerved or irritated, I wasn’t.
By now the afternoons stretched into peaceful sunsets, ones I rarely noticed before my bench companion invited me to amble over to the dock behind the wine bar to view the sky and have a glass of wine.
“I’m quite harmless,” she smiled. “It’s just that I see you sitting here in the afternoons alone, and it’s a shame not to share a sunset. I’m Madeleine Rhodes.”
“The author?” I smiled for perhaps the second time that month. “The Mystery of June Abbott? The Twist in the Creek?“
She laughed. “Well, those are very old titles. You’re awfully young to know old 60s mystery titles.”
“I know all of your books,” I said. “I love those books. I never figured out one ending.”
She laughed again. “Neither did I, until the end. Wine?”
“Yes,” I sighed. And I was grateful.
So now I had two “friends,” and while Sera’s apartment was much like my own with three narrow levels, simple windows, and laminate floors, perfect for tracked-in sand, Madeleine’s, in building B, was a spacious loft that looked out over the water, complete with a big multi-paned window and an oval desk with, not a computer, but an electric typewriter. Her floors were tiled in a beautiful terrazzo and her windows shuttered with white plantation shutters.
Ours had blinds.
Madeleine explained that buildings A and B were older, and condominiums, while C, D, and E had been built later, apartments farther from the water, a successful effort to shift the complex into a more fluid financial position. I often thought of the coveted space Jaime and I had shared in New York and marveled at my lack of understanding that glamour might not–no, would not–last forever.
I visited Madeleine’s bright loft every Sunday afternoon, by invitation, and I learned that she rarely wrote anymore, felt herself creatively quite diminished, and often drank wine. I found she had no children, but did have a beloved niece, whom I somehow reminded her of, but who was currently in China. (The tangled history of that would come later.) I found she had an author’s ear for names–discarding those that sounded contrived or implausible–and that she could not bring herself to call me Donne. I became Charlie to her, a diminutive of my last name, and I liked the sound of it.
On the fifth Sunday evening after my move, returning early from Madeleine’s, climbing into new pajamas and sheets, preparing to reread a Madeleine Rhodes mystery, I met my third Harbor Square friend.
I might not have met Ben Williamson except for one loud thump that toppled my lampshade to the floor, followed by three successive knocks on my wall. I untangled myself from just-purchased ivory sheets and picked the lampshade from the floor. The screw on the top of the lamp was missing, so I balanced the shade on its brass frame and settled back into Below the Slatted Bridge.
Three more knocks. The lampshade trembled. Annoyed, I knocked three times from my side of the wall.
Three bangs in response and a yell. “Help me! Come in the back door. Apartment 4C.”
“No kidding. I got the apartment number; we share a wall,” I yelled back. “Are you a serial killer?”
“I’m a paraplegic with a dead phone battery. Trust me.” A moment’s pause. “Please.”
Caution has never been a strength of mine, so I pulled on my ratty bathrobe, lamenting the fact that it was contaminating my new pajamas, ran down to level one, took a kitchen knife, stuffing it into my terrycloth pocket, exited through my carport into the carport of apartment 4C. The backdoor was unlocked, the kitchen was spotless, but the other rooms on level one were in a complete remodeling disarray. This apartment only had two levels, and at the bottom of the stairs, right below a chairlift, was wheelchair. I followed the track of the lift, finding the upstairs bedroom door partially open.
There on the floor of level two lay an attractive man with the shadow of a dark beard, very blue eyes, and tangled legs.
“I fell out of bed,” he said. “That pushed the wheelchair out of my reach, and my phone is dead.”
All I could think of to say was, “Why do you live in an apartment with levels?”
That was tactless, I realized immediately. Who said that? Did I say that? To my surprise he laughed. “I usually live on the first floor,” he said. I had a roommate who lived up here, but…hey, could you just help me?”
I lifted him to the side of his bed, rolled the wheelchair closer to him, and he slid himself into the seat.
“Afghanistan,” he said, as if that explained everything.
I picked up his phone from the floor under the bedside table and plugged it into the charger. “How else can I help?”
“No way. Nothing. I got it from here.” He smiled and extended his hand. “Ben,” he said. “And I know you’re Charlie because Madeleine Rhodes is my aunt.”
“Madeleine! So you have a sister in China!” I exclaimed. I was shocked to have any connection in this place where I felt like an invisible stranger.
“A cousin in China. Anyway. Thank you for helping me.”
I laid my old New York business card with my real name and cell phone number next to the phone. “Next time, call, if your phone is charged. The banging is hard on my lamp.”
I was about to make a very cool exit when the knife in the ratty robe pocket sliced through the bottom seam. The heavy handle landed on my exposed foot above the pink fluff of my new bedroom shoe, and the blade sliced my leg just above the ankle.
I reached down to save my new pajama leg from the blood, and with a barely audible grateful whimper, I saw that the flow started below the hem. But there was a flow, puddling on the tile, staining my hopeless bathrobe, and ruining one of my furry new bedroom slippers.
Ben Williamson reached into his bedside drawer and threw me a roll of gauze, telling me how to wrap my ankle to stop the blood. He wheeled into the bathroom and grabbed a spray bottle of peroxide and told me to sit on the edge of the bathtub while he took a look.
“Nothing serious,” he pronounced, coating the slice of flesh with Neosporin and then re-wrapping. “I was a medic in the service,” he said, not addressing the obvious weirdness of my carrying a sharp kitchen knife in a disintegrating bathrobe. Then he smiled that very nice smile again, a smile that was like a bandage, too.
And the funny thing was, I wasn’t smitten like a romantic schoolgirl; I was warmed like a broken girl who needs an inner wound dressed by a safe and loyal friend.
My relationship with Ben was perfectly foreshadowed in that first evening meeting: It would be reciprocal. For everything I was able to do for him–wheeling his chair through the sidewalks that edged the water and the greenway on early summer evenings or picking up groceries for him when I was at the store–he repaid me, though never directly. He introduced me to a client who needed my marketing help, earning extra money for me. He did my taxes and became my movie buddy on Saturday evenings.
I considered the possibility that he could be gay, but we didn’t talk about that. We talked about our mental and emotional scars, his from, in his words, “being a party to murder and a victim of violence in an ill-conceived war” and mine from losing Jaime. As May moved into June and his downstairs was finally completed, I helped him move into the first floor of the apartment that he was buying on a rent-to-own basis. I hadn’t realized that was an option, but several apartments in building C were under contract to convert to condominiums.
On Sunday evenings Ben sometimes went with me to his aunt Madeleine’s for dinner, and on the last Sunday in May, with the South Carolina sun dangling over the marsh like a flame about to be extinguished in water, I learned the story of their beloved Rose.
It seems that Rose had been adopted from China when Madeleine’s sister Jan had almost given up on children, and the beautiful girl had come to be the only child, except for Ben, in the family of three sisters: Madeleine, Jan, and Ben’s mom, Kate.
“I adored the little girl,” Ben said, but I was ten years older, and I am sorry now to say, I didn’t give her the time she craved. She’d follow me around, and I’d take her shopping and send her gifts, but what she wanted was my love and attention. She had the first, but not always the second.”
“Well, she had my attention from day one,” Madeleine offered. “In fact,” after the last book I wrote, when I could no longer summon ideas, I began to rely on Rose for everything good in my life: laughter, pride, accomplishment. She’s a smart little cookie. But then Jan told her after college graduation that if she wanted to go to China and try to discover her ‘roots,’ she had money saved for Rose. That’s when Rosie left, almost a year ago. At first the emails came almost daily, but now they’ve trickled to maybe one every two weeks. We may never get her back.”
“Aunt Maddie, we’ll get her back. She’s just exploring. She’ll be home.”
I found myself drawn into this story, this family, and I wanted Rose back, too. There was something about Ben and Madeleine’s loss that tapped into my own.
When I went round to Sera’s, I found myself retelling Rose’s story, which, I said, “is really not my story at all.”
“Oh, but it is,” said my wise friend with the whirling tendrils of icy white hair, blown out by a blast from her oven as she checked sugar cookies. “Once again I point to your John Donne: ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea’…”
“Now I do remember that one,” I said. “We are all a part of a whole. If the whole is diminished, the parts are, too.”
“Is there anything we can do to help get Rose home?”
Sera laughed. “She doesn’t want to come home yet. I talked with her last week by phone.”
“Does Madeleine know?”
“Does Maddie need to know? I don’t think so yet. You just stick around. Goodness will unfold.”
“Are you saying it will be all right in the end?”
“I believe everything will be all right in the end.”
That made me furious. Losing Jaime would never be all right. “Sometimes there are ends that are not all right.” I sounded much more abrupt than intended.
Sera was calm. “Then its like the little saying says, “If it’s not all right, it’s not the end. Just think about that for a while.”
“You are too holy for earth,” I pouted. “Don’t give me that stuff.”
But in fact, later that day, after leaving Sera to her cookies, not even waiting around to taste them, I took my New Yorker and went out to the bench in the town square, and I did think about it. And that’s when the swishes came.
...to be continued