Verona in Spring
She hated when he was late—especially today. It's his pattern, Verona thought wearily; I can’t change it. But I expect him to come when he says he will, and I can't change that, either.
Impatiently twisting the curtain's white silk tassels around her forefinger, she stood at her bedroom window, watching the empty street below. A frustration made fierce by waiting flared up in her and she thought, I'm running out of time for this. After three sleepless nights, I need to talk to him—today.
Not completely sleepless, she reminded herself—no need to over-dramatize the urgency. But Tobias always came on Monday; he'd never missed even once, and now it's Wednesday. Did he somehow sense the ultimatum awaiting him?
Colling's letter—such a rarity, a hand-written note—had arrived Saturday, but she'd only picked up her mail Sunday morning. The short letter had immediately triggered a storm within her, for with admirable brevity he'd set the deadline she'd long dreaded. A job had opened at San Francisco International Airport, and his request for a transfer from Honolulu to SFO was guaranteed if he moved immediately. He'd been patient, but now it was time: either move back to Honolulu, or we'll get married in San Francisco. You're almost 30; what are we waiting for? Let's start making some babies.
As if we've been struggling not to, Verona thought wryly; I haven't been on birth control for years. It's Nature's way of saying we shouldn't have kids, Colling; your scanty immobile seeds, and whatever might be wrong with me.
With a deep, cat-like yawn, Verona thought, If Tobias doesn't come today, I may never sleep again. This is what comes of not making a clean break with Colling when I moved to San Francisco, she repeated to herself. This is what comes of stringing someone along just to avoid a decision.
Yet another log on the unsympathetic fire, Verona thought ruefully: feckless, indecisive, and selfish. Make that three logs, all perfect for the pyre.
She'd considered every permutation, turned every possible decision again and again in her mind for the past three days, and felt no closer to resolution. From the moment she awoke and readied herself for the shift at the day care center, all through the long afternoon and toss-and-turn night, and then through her duties at the housing office on Tuesday, she'd thought of little else but these same choices, turned and spun and sliced, all to no avail. Either leave Tobias and at long last marry Colling, or say goodbye to Colling and embrace Tobias—as either mistress or wife, whatever he chose. I've already tried cutting him off, she sighed, and that didn't work; so claiming the decision will be mine is a lie.
She could hear her Mother berating her again for not marrying Colling: such a nice guy who's waited so patiently; and who will you have when he gets tired of waiting for you? Who, indeed, Verona reflected; I can remain Tobias's mistress—but for how long? Until I get tired of it, she answered; and right now, I'm tired of it—at least the waiting part.
True, she fumed, but not true enough; if Colling never visited me again, I'd be relieved, but if Tobias never came again—what opens up then has no bottom.
Yes, breaking Colling's heart keeps me awake; but so does losing Tobias. There's no escaping one or the other, she told herself tiredly, except to lose both. And then what have I got? My freedom; yea for freedom, she thought sardonically. Freedom to be alone. Freedom to slink back to Hawaii with my tail between my legs, to listen to the same nagging lectures from Mom.
You think you're better than everyone else, don't you? What have you done with that college degree? You make less money than your sister. And San Francisco—Honolulu wasn't good enough for you, was it?
A familiar bitterness took her and she thought, All the crabs are so anxious to pull you back into the pot. If you're reserved, you're stuck up; if you're unhappy, you're ungrateful; if you're beyond their reach, then you're too big for your britches; and I'm all three.
The fresh breeze that usually wafted over San Francisco from the Pacific had died, and the hot afternoon sun glared brightly off the cars diagonally lining the curb beneath her apartment. The scent of the open sea had dissipated along with the breeze, and the shimmering air tasted of aluminum. Opening her wood-sash window had failed to relieve the heat, and the still air and cloudless sky raised a sheen of sweat on her smooth brown skin.
I'm tired of being unsympathetic, she fumed, and that only makes me more unsympathetic. I've always been the one who's easy to resent: the older sister, the stubborn child, the unhappy stepkid, and the pretty girl with boobs, good grades, and a deep dark desire to find somewhere she might fit in. No luck on that one, she sighed internally, but San Francisco is as close as I've come.
Recalling the snubs when she was the new girl in class, she thought, Is it my fault hapas are pretty? Mix up enough genes and you get my stepfather's description of me to his buddies : Hawaiian tits, Japanese ass, Chinese legs, haole face. I'm not showing off, it's just what I am; how come nobody resented my sister?
I am so tired of hiding myself, and yet here I am hiding myself again: from Mom, from Colling, and now, from Mimi—and maybe even from Tobias. I haven't told anyone about the letter, not even Mimi; maybe I should keep it a secret from Tobias, too.
He knows about Colling, of course, but I could end it with Colling and say nothing. Wouldn't that be hiding some part of myself? Yes, but would it be so bad? After all, my entire life is nothing but cover-ups. Because if there's one thing no one has a shred of sympathy for, it's a pretty young hapa girl who can't resist a rich good-looking haole who's already married.
I hate it, she sighed, but we don't choose who we fall in love with. If we did, I'd choose to be madly in love with Colling and be done with it. But falling in love isn't a decision; it's who to hurt afterward that's the choice.
I don't want to hurt anyone, not even myself; but I would gladly hurt myself if only that would free Colling and Tobias. But somebody has to be hurt, because one gets me and the other does not. Either way, I'm hurt, too.
I thought I had the solution, she mused wanly: the brick wall. All those feelings: shut them away. After all these years, I thought I was invulnerable; and yet here I am, trapped and broken by things beyond my control. And so Colling's deadline for me becomes mine for Tobias: will you leave your wife of 20 years to marry me?
And if he refuses, as I expect he will, she reflected, it doesn't end my feelings. At least God knows I've tried, but I couldn't stop my feelings. Everyone expects you to do the honorable thing, but no matter how hard I've tried to focus on something else, anything else, I think of Tobias. It's a curse I can't break; they don't tell you that in all those sappy love stories.
After months of agonizing, Verona had concluded adultery was like Prohibition: everyone righteously agrees it's a sin at the front door, as long as no one is watching the back door too closely. Would Tobias's wife be happier if he left her? Everyone sounds so upright and brave when pronouncing what's right and wrong, Verona mused, but most of the time they'd rather not know; it's not just easier, it's what they actually want. While they say they want honesty, they really don't, because the consequences upend everything.
Verona had been pondering how she'd feel in the shoes of Tobias's wife, and what deficiencies in their marriage had led Tobias to stray. The standard explanation was the deficiency lay in him. But if the worm grew only in him, why hadn't he strayed before? Or had he, and he's lying to me? Maybe, but I don't think so; he is such a poor liar, I'm surprised his wife hasn't squeezed a confession from him just by looking at his guilty expression.
Maybe his wife is like me, she reflected with a thin smile; maybe she really doesn't want all that intensity at home, and she's secretly happy he's found a relief valve in a mistress. Maybe that's why I'm afraid to give him the ultimatum; he'll say yes, and being married would ruin everything. Then I'd just be Wife Number Two, hoping he'll find a mistress to take the pressure off me.
I am the complete package, she thought with a bitter amusement, all the most unsympathetic traits a 29-year old can possibly have: not only am I in a secret triangle, I justify it by either blaming her for some imagined inadequacy, or imagining her happy acceptance of her husband wrestling down a young mistress. How fatuous can you get?
And if that isn't enough, I'm alienated from my family, a sure sign the girl's a mess. I'm quiet, which makes me distant; I don't have to worry about my weight, at least not too much; I'm unemployed, hopelessly so despite my stupid little internships; I like having two lovers, and tolerate the guilt because each one gives me something the other cannot; I have foolishly unrealistic dreams but keep them safely to myself; and I love flaunting my declining youth, for the one thing you can count on with men is their gratitude in bed.
Sweeping her long black hair over her shoulder, Verona glanced out her window at the torpid steel-blue waters of the Bay and then turned to the clock on her bedstand. He said one-thirty, so I left early, and now it's three o'clock; another stupid little poem of waiting, she thought disparagingly. But the waiting will soon be over: Colling's, mine, and whether he likes it or not, Tobias's.
God, how I wish I didn't have to decide, she thought yet again. Late at night, when magical thinking reached its most appealing apogee, she'd fantasize about Tobias's wife catching him, and ending it tout suite, or Colling meeting someone on the plane coming over and falling madly in love with her.
Here's another dumb little ditty for your journal, she told herself sourly:
I sit here quietlyFor as tempting as it was to keep the letter a secret, Verona admitted to herself, I want to know what Tobias will say to the ultimatum. It was frightening, this playing with matches; I dread it, but I can't resist seeing him squirm, even if it blows everything to pieces. It was a perverse gratification, Verona sighed, to risk losing him just to confirm my second-class citizenship in his life; I know it, and accept it, but it's the stupid little romantic girl in me, the one I've kept safely behind the wall all these years, crying her eyes out even as she dares both men to throw her away.
There's another thing everyone hates, she told herself: self-pity. I know, "poor me" doesn't fly; if Tobias refuses to marry me, then I should just marry Colling and be grateful somebody loves me and wants to have kids with me—even if we have to endure that whole artificial insemination mess.
It would have been so easy just a few months ago; after waiting years for "I've grown accustomed to his face" to ripen into marriage, I really wouldn't have minded having my hand called; it was inevitable that I would marry him, and I was just putting off the day as long as possible to dally in my fantasies. But now my hand is getting called on two tables, and all I've got is a pair of two's.
With great self-disgust, she thought, It would be just like me to recklessly throw away both lovers, just to spite myself. And nobody has any sympathy for the reckless, either; throw another log on the unsympathetic pyre.
Fixing her gaze on the short stretch of level asphalt where Montgomery and Vallejo streets abruptly met- , Verona willed Tobias’ Mercedes to labor up the hill into view. In her imagination, she saw him brake cautiously at the crest, wary of pedestrians on the Vallejo Steps' crosswalk, and then ease his green Mercedes into the parking stall beneath her window.
The heated gasp of a struggling engine announced a car climbing Montgomery, and her hopes rose with the approaching vehicle. An auto topped the rise with a fatigued cough; an ancient orange Volkswagen wheezed to a stop at the crosswalk, and then turned slowly down Vallejo Street.
Suppressing her disappointment, Verona turned to the glinting peak of the Transamerica Pyramid—rising from the narrow gap cut by Prescott Lane, it was her visible proxy for Tobias's redbrick office—and imagined Tobias hurrying to the padded freight elevator down the hall. Closing her eyes, she conjured an image of Tobias waiting for the doors to open: smoothing the boyish cowlick in his short brown hair, his lifeforce coiled tautly beneath his Italian suit, the inner concentration in his hazel eyes at odds with his self-deprecating smile; as if, she thought, he's remembering a joke a child once played on him.
Her slim brown shoulders tensed beneath the yellow sleeves of her sundress, and with redoubled effort she willed him to join her.
A squeal of complaint rose from an auto's brakes, and she opened her eyes to find the orange Volkswagen easing into the open parking slot beneath her window.
Just once, she thought bitterly, I'd like my will to work. Not just on Tobias, but on anything.
The tired engine stopped with a backfire pop of dirty exhaust, and a lanky young man with rudely trimmed blond hair emerged with an armful of brilliant white irises. Someone else's lover is on time, she noted resignedly, or maybe even early. Meanwhile I rush home to sit here agonizing on whether he's coming or not—not just today, but ever again.
The youth paused to tease his iris bouquet into fullness, and Verona's somber expression lightened at the comic contrariness of his arrival. The perfect opposite of what I wished for, she thought, shaking her head bemusedly; a battered Volkswagen and a young man in blue jeans. Maybe I if wished Tobias wouldn't come, he'd show up right away. . . but I'd have to be sincere for that to work, wouldn't I?
A hazy gray puff of oily smoke rose through the still air to her third-floor aerie, and she shoved the window down. In a screech of recalcitrant wood and leaden rumble of sash weights it descended six inches and then came to an abrupt stop. In the sixteen months she’d lived in the flat, she’d only managed to open the windows by rubbing beeswax on the paint-gummed jambs and laboriously working each stubborn sash.
Colling had suggested the wax on one of his first weekend visits from Honolulu; in her last note to Mimi, she'd made an ironic aside that his handiness was the chief benefit of keeping him as a boyfriend. Oh, for the simple charms of that ignorance; of course I'd told Mimi about Tobias, and before that, about Zack; but Mimi was hardly in a position to lecture me about sin.
Her exasperation mounting, Verona thought, This is still stuck; twisting her long hair into a thick braid, she knelt by the windowsill to raise the jammed sash.
Alerted by the sound of her window squeaking, the young man gazed up. Shielding the sun from his eyes, he asked loudly, "Excuse me, do you have the time?"
Verona considered him with a faint smile and replied, "Yes. You're late."
The young man hesitated and then chuckled. I can see why you've been invited up, Verona thought appraisingly; you have that casual look of someone who doesn't take himself too seriously.
Playing along, he asked, "Well, can you tell me how late I am?"
Toying with her dark braid of hair, she said, "Late enough to get in trouble."
"No doubt about that," he remarked laconically. "But can you tell me if it's three yet?"
"It will be," Verona answered. "In about five minutes."
He continued to eye her from beneath his shielding palm, as if hoping to conjure up another reason to engage her. I certainly wouldn't mind you coming to visit me, Verona mused as she returned his smile; you're early, and you brought flowers. You even remind me of my sophomore surfer crush.
"Do the meter maids make it up here?" he asked.
"Not too often," Verona replied.
Too bad we don't choose who we fall in love with, she thought as he looked at her quizzically; maybe I'd pick you. No, she thought with a twinge of regret, I'm not young enough anymore.
"Can you keep an eye out for me?" he asked.
"Sure," she said half-seriously, and thought, too bad we can't pick our crushes, either; it's so easy to hope, and so painful to lose.
The blond youth gave her a parting wave and walked to the turquoise-tiled steps of the Moorish building across the street.
The young man awakened long-dormant memories of Russell, and her mind returned to their small Manoa Valley room and the sweet tropic scent of ginger wafting in as she sat on her bed, her freshman textbooks open in half-hearted study, listening through the drip and drizzle of rain for the high-pitched whine of Russell's Volkswagen.
And ten years later I'm still waiting, she thought with a rising anger at herself. Now it's even worse; at least I knew Russell was coming, and I never had to worry about his moods. No, that's not fair, she added; Tobias has to worry about my moods, too. That's what happens when you love each other and hate the rest of your lives.
It had been a long time since Russell entered her thoughts, and the parallels of the young man's old car and her waiting aroused a peculiar presentiment in her. Recalling their freshman semester, her expression softened and she recalled, After living at home, just waking up in the same bed had seemed the height of romance.
And here I am again, still dreaming of having him for an entire night, she thought in acid self-mockery; not the one who does sleep over once a month, but the one who can't. And now all of that is going to change, one way or another.
Irises in hand, the young man waited in the Moorish-style tiled entry, and Verona imagined a woman hearing the security bell in the nervous excitement of a newly budding romance. Or maybe she’s like me, Verona thought dourly, waiting despite herself and all her admonitions, with a furious astonishment at her own craziness.
“A Furious Astonishment,” she mused; that sounds like another schoolgirl poem about being surprised to find Cupid's arrow in my crumbly Christmas-cake okole. This summer is my last chance; if I still haven't married Colling before I hit 30, my Mom will make Hell look like the South Pole.
Opening her spiral-bound journal, she jotted down lines as they came to her:
My Mom's fondest dream
Closing the notebook, Verona pensively scanned the Moorish building's windows and thought, maybe the girl is dreading his visit because she has to end his hopes; maybe she's been sleepless for days, agonizing about how to tell him the obvious: I don't love you anymore.
To distract herself, Verona retrieved the letters from her mother and sister which had arrived the previous week. It wasn't unusual to receive an occasional letter from either, but the joint arrival of the large manila envelopes had unsettled her. Fearing the emotions which might be released by the contents, Verona had left them safely unopened.
But now, reckoning that anger could substitute for strength, Verona suppressed her dread and tore open the envelope from her Mom.
To her relief, the handwritten letter on half-sheets of paper was no more upsetting than usual: an appeal to return home and marry Colling leavened by barbs stealthily faced as compliments.
You've always been such a good girl--and I mean that. But I worry about you falling for big-city life. You and Colling were so happy in Honolulu, and I do worry about you spending your life alone in San Francisco.Exhaling a huge sigh, Verona turned to the next page of hasty scrawl:
I'm relieved that you're still going to Mass--I've never had to worry about you in that way--and I hope you'll take me to the same midnight Mass some time. I'm sure I'd love the big white cathedral near your apartment.I have only myself to blame for that, Verona reflected. The candles and sleepy mystery of midnight Mass had always been her favorite part of worship, and she'd dutifully described her visit to the confection-white church in North Beach. But I shouldn't have intimated it was a regular event, she chastised herself; that was shamelessly playing to the audience.
But, she sighed, I've never found any other way to keep Mom off my back: yes, I'm still the same good straight-laced girl, going to Mass, working hard; the only truth in my letter was admitting that I liked San Francisco too much to think about coming home.
The real truth—that you'd have to lace me up in a straight-jacket to get me home again—there was no point in even saying it.
Skipping the mundane gossip about her Mom's coterie of friends—"Had lunch with Colleen last week, her husband had another heart attack but is recovering"—Verona turned to the concluding paragraph.
Colling calls to check on me every week--he's such a dear, that boy--and I hope you'll change your mind soon about coming home to settle down.Setting the letter aside, Verona withdrew the reason for the large envelope: an 8-by-10 black-and-white glossy print of her 6th grade class. It's just like Mom to stumble across this in a pile of junk, she thought; she wouldn't have all my class photos together, or even all three of her kids' photos from that year. No, she'd just happened upon this one, creased in half and buried somewhere in a closet.
Gazing at the school photo for the first time in 17 years, her mind crackling with memories of the year she'd turned twelve, Verona examined the faces of each of the 29 children with great curiosity. Squinting in the bright sunlight, she retrieved the photographic lupe from her dresser top and set it above the face of the haole boy at the end of the second row.
Peering at him through the enlarging lens, Verona remembered the huge crush she'd had on Marty Gibson, the new kid in school that fall. To her 29-year old eyes, his features—the high forehead, thatchy hair and slim build of a sunburned boy captured at twelve—did not immediately recall her crush; but his shaded grin and his eyes, keen beyond his years, swept her directly back to that 6th grade infatuation.
She'd been bold enough to partner with him for the class games which concluded the year. Being more athletic than he, she'd hoped it would be construed as an act of generosity; but her girlfriends' sly snickers revealed her ploy fooled no one. Despite her self-consciousness, it had been a glorious end to the semester; she'd had him all to herself, for the first and only time.
She'd forgotten the powerful feelings stirred in her by this shy boy; self-contained through necessity, she'd readily identified with him in a way that seemed prescient. For it now seemed obvious that her attraction to him had foreshadowed both her current infatuation with another quiet haole—Tobias—and the disruption of her life the following year: the hasty move into a dilapidated plantation shack, the parade of her Mom's repugnant boyfriends passing through the household in an irksome cycle of infatuation, combat and departure; her own miserable experience as the new kid in another school, and eventually, her withdrawal into a sanctuary of solitary hideaways and clandestine imagination.
Turning the photo over, she discovered that she'd printed the name of each classmate and carefully rated each in three categories: by personality—simply good or bad—by intelligence—A, B, C, or D—by attractiveness—cute, in between, or NC for not cute—and lastly, whether she liked them or not.
The bluntness of her appraisals amused her in a bittersweet way, for that breezy confidence had been one of the first casualties of the move. The memories of her birthday that August, just days after moving into the dingy old plantation camp, resurfaced after a long absence: the stubbly slack-jawed sheen of her Mom's first boyfriend, smirking as her siblings lit the candles, his eyes fixed brazenly on Verona's tight smock.
Gazing at her own image in the school photo, Verona recalled that the unhappiness at home had not yet swamped her school life; her mother had yet to return to an adolescent whirl of dating, and her father had not yet abdicated fatherhood for the overgrown boys' games of gambling and drinking.
As one of the tallest girls in class she'd stood in the third row, on the opposite end from Marty. Her hair was blunt-cut above her shoulders—easy for her Mom to maintain—and she was wearing the simple black dress with pleated skirt which her sister had refused to wear as a hopeless hand-me-down two years later. Glancing at the sun-browned face of her 12-year old self, Verona thought her expression overly serious for the occasion; there was an almost adult sensibility in the child's eyes and she mused, Even though my mouth was too wide, I was cute back then; too bad no one ever told me.
Mom's re-marriage had restored some semblance of stability to the family, Verona reflected, but the veneer of normalcy was always paper thin; no wonder I latched onto Russell that summer at sixteen. I'd finally found someone you couldn't pass your hand through like a ghost.
After they'd moved, her mother had replayed the Beatles album "Revolver" from her own childhood so ceaselessly that it had become the soundtrack of Verona's 6th grade year; staring at the class photo, Verona remembered sitting at their cluttered dining table doing her geography homework on Scandinavia, listening to the baroque guitar lines of "And Your Bird Can Sing" and waiting for Lennon to sing her favorite line: You may be awoken, I'll be 'round, I'll be 'round.
It was Mom's way of going back in time while her marriage dissolved around her, Verona reflected; too bad she had to act like a teenager again, too.
Focusing on her own image in the 6th grade photo, Verona was struck by a simple revelation: I was happy then. In all the turmoil of the divorce and the moving, I'd forgotten that. No, that's not quite true, either, she corrected herself; maybe I absorbed Mom's misery as if it were my own.
Smiling slightly, Verona recalled the terrible joy of watching Marty Gibson playing basketball from the safety of the baseball diamond, wishing so badly to join him but fearing everything that gamble might bring.
She'd developed other crushes, of course, but this boy had awakened sympathies she'd never known before, and triggered an embarrassed flush in her which later infatuations never surpassed.
Even though we were only twelve, she mused, maybe that was true love, and it's all the later ones which have been pretenders.
Once her Mom had moved them away, Verona lost contact with Martin; she'd heard several years later that his family had moved back to Honolulu for financial reasons. With bittersweet curiosity, Verona thought, I wonder where he ended up, and if he'd even remember me.
Why did Mom have to move us right then? She'd already kicked Dad out years before. With a new heaviness, Verona reflected on how an abrupt move prunes so many branches; even though I wasn't the brightest kid in the 6th grade, I was still bubbling with interests. Recalling her enthusiasms of that year—astronomy, geodes, baking, Japan—she thought, If your family is whole, you don't even notice having confidence; it's like air.
She recalled the empty expressions of her brother and sister at the news, and of her own fear—never articulated, lest thinking it might make it true— that some fault in her had caused this abandonment of place.
Mom was probably expecting this to make me nostalgic, Verona thought glumly as she took one last look at the class photo; instead I'm dwelling on how I've sunk to this, pestered to marry someone I don't love anymore and waiting for someone who can't even call.
The photo's revelation had unexpectedly deflated both her anger and her optimism, and returning the photo to its envelope left her in a strange, hovering state of detachment. Verona retrieved the thick packet from her sister and turned to the open window.
Across the street, the young man and his bouquet of irises had vanished through the leaded-glass entry door and she scanned the rows of tall Moorish-style windows—each arch separated by a diamond-shaped purple tile set deep into the white plaster—looking for signs of a waiting lover. All the windows were closed or curtained, and her gaze returned to the corner.
Maybe he isn't coming today—the one day I really need him to come. Her melancholy fading into apprehension, she searched her memory for a reason he might be upset with her.
Twisting the soft silk tassel around her, Verona thought back over his short phone call to her that morning. In a harried voice he'd explained that the stock market was performing badly; he had to handhold a few worried clients after the market closed at one. Then he'd rung off, sounding distracted and unhappy.
She knew that Tobias disliked having to reassure worried investors—what he derisively termed "handholding." He rarely spoke of his work, not so much out of secrecy, she reckoned, as from a fear of boring her; when answering her questions, he seemed almost ashamed of his trade.
I like the market, he'd once explained, but not the people who make it; and she'd observed this in his responses. If she wanted to understand the analytics of a trade, his answers were invariably cogent and assured. But when she asked about his sour mood, he'd reply with a complaint about clients: They're like children, they only like the up and whine about the down.
His weariness with work seemed so obvious that she wondered why he stayed on; although he never spoke directly of it—out of modesty, she assumed—she'd surmised his trading income far exceeded his financial needs. Given his assets and his wife's salary, his own job seemed expendable.
Some days he would bring an extravagant gift for her—fresh crab with sourdough bread, still warm, or shimmering silk Italian underthings, so light they were close to wearing nothing—and disclose that he'd just made a successful trade. If questioned, he'd reluctantly admit to a profit equivalent to an entire month's salary for someone in her place. Imagine making money so easily, she thought grudgingly; and now I can't even find a real job.
It's wrong to be envious, she told herself; Tobias had lost a lot of money learning to trade. I shouldn't hold his success against him; he's earned his wealth, and its rewards. Like keeping me waiting.
Her brown eyes narrowed and the embers of her frustration glowed anew. If only I could make him wait for one whole day, she thought coolly; that would be enough to show him what it felt like.
As if anyone else would even tolerate this, she thought; I tried to follow Mimi's advice and end it, but couldn't. To be in love with love, what a joke; I hate it.
The afternoon sun shown brightly through her window, and the air hung in irresolute stillness. If it was just handholding skittish clients, she concluded, then his unhappiness was understandable; maybe I'm just overreacting.
But then that might not be it at all, she thought with rekindled apprehension; maybe he senses this ultimatum, and is cutting me off. He'd do it just like this, wouldn't he; come one a week, and then stop coming at all.
Her cascade of black hair absorbed the direct sun too well, and with the sundress clinging damply to her back, Verona retrieved a bamboo clasp from the clutter of trinkets on her dresser. Twisting her glossy length of hair into a thick braid, she coiled it atop her head and pinned the braid firmly with the clasp.
I could always call him, she thought, and then rejected the idea for the usual reason: no matter how frustrating his irregular communication might be, she refused to look like a pining waif with nothing better to do.
With her frustration simmering anew, Verona left the window, thinking, Since I don't know whether he's coming or not, I might as well get something done—like my laundry. It was a long overdue chore, but Mrs. Li had thwarted her twice last week, and Colling's letter had distracted her since. Now desperation was setting in, as she was fast running out of underwear and work outfits. Nestling her box of laundry soap into her overflowing laundry basket, Verona lifted the plastic bin to her hip and started for the basement laundry room.
Since it's afternoon, she reckoned, Mrs. Li must be done with the washer by now. The elderly tenant did several loads of laundry every day, not for herself but for her daughters and grandchildren. The trick was to use the machine before her, or late in the day; the worst was to meet her in the cramped basement laundry room, where she made every tenant feel like an interloper. Perhaps it was because Mrs. Li was the landlady's sister, or perhaps it was just her daily need for the washer and dryer; whatever the reason, it was unpleasant to compete with her for laundry time.
Verona was met at the ground-floor doorway by a child's squeal and a machine thrum rising from the dank basement entrance. Feeling another frustration rise within her, Verona descended the steps to the basement, entered the small laundry room and set her basket on the dirty concrete floor. Alerted to Verona's presence by her granddaughter's sudden silence, Mrs. Li scuttled over from the folding table and lifted one of her own baskets protectively atop the vibrating washer.
Despite the elderly woman's defensive glare, Verona smiled and thought, Funny how you're the opposite of Tobias; he's never here when I want him, and you're always here when I don't want you.
"Hi," Verona ventured. "Do you know when you'll be done with the washer?"
The diminutive gray-haired woman shook her head irritably, and Verona nodded politely, thinking, Just what I hoped to avoid. Suppressing her annoyance, Verona envisioned Mrs. Li astride a broom and thought, what a perfect witch you'd make; you have a crone's burning glare down pat.
Verona brightened when she saw the little girl, and she went over to kneel in front of her. The girl was about the same age as her four-year-old pre-school wards; dressed in diminutive overalls, with her short black hair pinned by pink barrettes, Verona found in her the antidote to her low spirits.
"Hi, I'm Verona," she said. "What's your name?"
The girl's dark eyes clouded, and Verona hesitated at the memory of her failure that morning at the preschool with Woi-Ahn. The little girl had inadvertently been struck by an errant rubber ball; though the blow was slight, Verona had been unable to comfort her. Her assurance wilting under the girl's wailing cries, Verona had moved from soothing voice of solace to pointing out distractions. When even that failed, Verona had jettisoned words and hugged the girl. With a keen sense of her own inadequacy, Verona had shielded Woi-Ahn from the boisterous ball game, thinking, I can't even comfort myself; no wonder I'm such a lousy caregiver.
Hiding her own self-doubt, Verona continued smiling. "Are you helping Grandma today with laundry?"
The girl paused and nodded once.
"Such a good helper you are," Verona enthused. "Do you help her every day?"
The girl wavered uncertainly, and Verona thought, how boring to just sit in this dismal concrete room. Saying, "I have something for good helpers like you," she dashed up the stairs to her apartment and gathered a small box of Tomoe Ame rice candy, a blank notepad, red and green pens and a plastic cup. Returning to the basement in a rustle of gold sundress and clap of rubber slippers, she ignored the suspicious gaze of Mrs. Li and knelt down to the girl's eye level. "Would you like some rice candy?" she asked, holding out the Tomoe Ame, and the girl nodded with wary enthusiasm.
Verona watched the girl open the box and push one of the candies in her mouth, and then asked, "Would you like to pick some flowers?"
The girl's face lit up, and Verona took her hand. The girl did not resist and Verona led her to the stairs, telling Mrs. Li, "I'm just taking her to the top of the steps."
A straggly bush with daisy-like yellow flowers had established itself in the hillside's rocky soil, and Verona pressed the plastic cup into the girl's free hand. "Here, this is to hold our flowers."
After a moment of furrowed-brow hesitation on where to place the precious rice candy—the walkway turned out to be satisfactory—the girl industriously picked yellow blossoms and placed them carefully in the plastic cup. A few moments later she turned to Verona and offered her the cup with a beaming smile.
"How wonderful, thank you," Verona said, and then added, "Now pick up your candy and let's do some drawing."
Re-entering the dank laundry room with the girl in hand, Verona placed the notepad and two pens on the concrete lip of the foundation, saying, "Here, why don't you draw me some flowers?"
As the girl set to work, Verona patted her affectionately and then went over to her forlorn load of dirty clothes. Picking up the heavy basket, she set it on her hip and turned to the stairs.
"Two hours," Mrs. Li said abruptly, and a hint of friendliness softened her wizened features.
Verona acknowledged this cryptic statement and ascended the steps. Pausing to catch her breath, Verona set her heavy basket down with a thump; a moment later the door opposite hers opened and her young Filipina neighbor Vicki emerged to greet her. "Just finished your laundry?"
Verona shook her head in a mordant "no" and whispered "Mrs. Li."
Vicki scrunched her face in the universal expression of disdain. "Isn't she awful?" she said softly. "We don't even try to use the washer here anymore."
Verona nodded knowingly and said, "I don't blame you, but I'm too lazy for that."
"Carson has a car," Vicki replied. "Why don't you come to the laundromat with us next time?"
"Thanks, I probably will. Everything I own is dirty."
Pulling a stray length of black hair from her face, Vicki gave Verona a chagrined smile and said, "Do you think I could borrow some coffee? Normally we go shopping on Sunday, but—"
Verona knew their story—fulltime students, both working part-time jobs to survive—and brushed aside the explanation. "Sure, come on in."
"I love your apartment," Vicki exclaimed as she followed Verona into the living room. "It's so artistic and tidy. Ours is such a mess."
Dropping her laundry basket with a mighty thud, Verona swept into the kitchen and took down a glass jar from her top shelf. Her initial irritation fading—Vicki's larder seemed limited to frozen waffles, ramen and bulk teabags—she scooped coffee into the jar and asked, "Aren't you guys done with finals?"
"Uh-huh," Vicki answered. "Now we're looking for fulltime jobs."
Softening at the memory of her own hectic undergraduate years juggling classes and work, Verona closed the jar and went to the fruit basket on her table. "Here, take some of these," she said, placing several apples and oranges into a paper bag.
Taking the bag and the jar of coffee from her, Vicki tilted her head and sighed, "You're the nicest neighbor I've ever had."
Waving aside her gratitude, Verona followed her to the entry and said, "I know how it is when you're busy."
Vicki thanked her again and Verona closed the door, thinking, I'd like to be busy again; two piddling internships isn't enough. During her first months of unemployment, she'd carefully tracked each job application and the results. After fifty applications and only one interview, she'd given up the accounting. Nowadays, companies didn't even bother with a rejection letter; you simply inferred rejection from their silence.
Overheated by all her stair-climbing on such a warm day, Verona went to her bedroom window and tried again to free the stuck sash. With a hollow clank of weights and screech of constricted wood, the window rose and Verona plopped down cross-legged in front of the low sill. Lifting the hem of her sundress, she held the short skirt above her waist, hoping a puff of air might cool her legs. The fabric's yellow and gold print had always reminded her of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, and as she lightly fanned herself with the skirt edge, her mind drifted to her dilemma, and to Colling advising her to stop dwelling on the past. People from unbroken families always think reporting what happened and feeling sorry for yourself are the same thing, she thought; but they're not.
That's one good thing about Tobias; he's always happy to listen to my stories of childhood. But there's limits on his understanding, too.
For Verona recognized in Tobias the natural confidence which she too had possessed at twelve, before the watershed of divorce; and recognizing it, she envied him his secure childhood. Even as she tried to suppress her envy, she knew that those with an enduring families could never truly understand those without one.
Her open window failed to attract even the slightest wisp of movement; a scattering of slack-sailed yachts lay motionless on the undisturbed waters by Treasure Island, and an endless caravan of sun-speckled vehicles crossing the silver span of the Bay Bridge. Accustomed to the limitless expanse of blue stretching from Honolulu to the horizon, Verona glanced at the burnt-green hills rimming the Bay and thought, this looks like an inland sea.
Not the usual day, she mused, even for an inland sea; a rose-tinted haze of smog discolored the thermal layer above the Bay, and the languid air over the city seemed overbright. A scent of wood smoke drifted in through the open window, and Verona wondered who would light a fire on such a warm day.
A movement on the sidewalk below drew her attention, and she watched a middle-aged man trudging up the concrete steps fan himself with a floppy safari hat while he gasped a ragged song between breaths. Despite his off-key rendition and gulping pauses, she soon recognized the tune as one from H.M.S. Pinafore. In a soft amused voice she sang, "I thought so little they rewarded me, and now I am the leader of the Queen's Navy."
How San Francisco, she thought as the man reached the foot of the Vallejo Steps and bent over to catch his breath; light opera and weird weather.
At least I don't complain to Mimi about being bored anymore, she thought wryly. No, I complain about my conundrum. No one's ever been crazy about me like Tobias, but he's married; and I can't change that.
A line from Mimi's last letter came to her—"how did such a smart girl like you get in such a pickle?"—and she thought, you don't know the half of it.
The Genet quote which she'd buried in her journal came to her, and its sweet-sour taste of exalted imprisonment struck her anew: "Anyone who hasn't experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all."
If only we could turn off our feelings like a spigot, she thought, then of course I'd pick someone single.
Gently flapping the hem of her sunflower-gold dress, she told herself, even though it's annoying to always be waiting for him, Tobias really doesn't ask for much; I don't have to prop up his ego or fake being cheery. Sure, he likes me in frills, but I like the ones he brings. The tarty red lace underwear Colling had given her for Valentines Day—a poignantly doomed attempt, she reckoned, to rekindle their relationship—remained folded in the box. In a flash of sadness she thought, Maybe I'm saving them for our last goodbye.
It was unfair, of course, to compare the two; while Colling was clever in the ordinary sense, Tobias had an aptitude for striking to the heart of things. Though well-made, Colling was already thickening, while Tobias, 15 years his senior, maintained a wiry strength. To her unjaundiced eye, Colling was the more Sunday-supplement handsome of the two; broad-shouldered and tall, his tanned face creased with an easy good-natured charm, he was blessed with all the rugged features of his own mixed-race heritage.
But Tobias reminded her of a boy, somehow, even at 46; beneath his fancy suit and tie, there was something wayward and shy in him, more like Marty Gibson at twelve, she thought, than Colling at thirty-one.
In a balance of irritation and melancholy, Verona decided Colling's choice of underwear—costly but tasteless—perfectly captured his stunted view of her. If Colling had his way, that's all I'd wear, she thought caustically; I would happily prance around in red lace panties every day if only he'd mothball the wedding gown.
A shadow of movement through half-open curtains drew her attention to the Moorish building's corner window. From a serendipitous late-night observation, she knew the window, like her own, opened onto a bedroom; she’d once seen the occupant, a young Asian woman, sitting on her bed combing her long hair, unaware that her thin curtains allowed Verona a hazy peek into her private domain.
The curtains were suddenly swept aside and the young woman swung the tall casement windows open. She was wearing a form-fitting white blouse and a high-waisted dark skirt similar to Verona's own batik-print wraparound. The jet-black cascade of the girl's hair nearly reached her waist, and Verona reckoned that, from a distance at least, they could be mistaken for sisters.
Or at least cousins, Verona concluded wryly; us and the other ten thousand brown-skinned girls in San Francisco with long hair and white blouses. No, Verona concluded, she's too waifish to be my sister; she looks more like Mimi.
The woman slipped from view, and the young man came to the window, setting his palms on the low sill as he surveyed the street below. A moment later, the woman—in the bright sunlight, Verona observed, more a girl than a woman— returned with an elegant black vase of the white irises and set it on the nightstand between the bed and the window.
The young sandy-haired man joined the girl, and she gestured with pleasure at the flowers. Seemingly unaware of the open curtains, the two figures united in a kiss, and Verona felt the guilty curiosity of an accidental voyeur.
Since chancing at the tender age of fifteen on her stepfather in the illicit luxury of Mrs. Tolentino's bed, Verona had reconciled herself to a seeming knack for stumbling upon amorous couples.
As a result of this odd knack—those minutes of furtive witness had irrevocably altered not just her view of her stepfather and Mrs. Tolentino, but much else besides—Verona had understood that no one should see the bedroom side of people's lives; and yet she'd also found that, given the opportunity, we were all drawn to watch.
More of a burden than a knack, Verona reflected, at least when it comes to your parents. Revenge and reconciliation; and then a brief peace soon dissolved by an argument about which way the toilet paper should be mounted on the roller. That was Mom's marriages, all of them.
From her third-floor aerie, she could see the girl's neatly smoothed white bedspread; cognizant that she was trespassing, Verona considered leaving the window. But her desire to watch for Tobias was stronger than the taboo on witness, and she remained discreetly behind the silk curtain.
The young woman eased out of her Prince's embrace to gaze up at him. Even from across the street, Verona recognized the glow in the girl's eyes. The young man brushed a wisp of the girl's hair and Verona thought dryly, Maybe she feels the same way about him as I do about Tobias: that when he is sweet, he is so sweet; and then we forgive them everything.
The young woman turned to the white irises in the crystal vase, and Verona couldn't tell if she was praising his gift or interrupting their embrace for another reason—perhaps to avoid too hasty a path to the bed a few feet away.
Smiling broadly, the girl again faced the young man. His lank hair, blunt-cut like Prince Valiant's, fell forward as he met her gaze, and she playfully mussed the streaked blond locks. After a moment of courtship's playful tugs, his hand crept up from her waist to caress her.
In a show of resistance, the girl pulled his hand back to her waist; in response he drew her close for a second kiss. It was difficult to tell how youthful their romance might be, but the girl's caution suggested a half-made courting. Although he might have pursued the girl, her melted-chocolate expression made Verona suspect that it was she who had fallen for him.
I know the feeling, Verona thought sympathetically; he even reminds me of my own little blond-haired surfer fling. Verona recalled standing in front of her own blond surfer's door in Manoa, talking herself in and out of the visit even at the last minute. An excuse for knocking always supplied itself—I came all the way here, I might as well say hi—and his rumpled sheets had welcomed her a few moments later.
There's a poem right there, she mused; desire and hope, what a wellworn script. But we fall for it anyway, at least we do when we have that sparkle in our eye.
As for you, Kiddo, she thought in sharp appraisal of the young man, I hope you're crazy about her; but if she's as woozy as she looks, even a half-hearted try will win you the prize.
The young man's embrace crept around the girl's waist and a moment later her skirt slipped to the floor, revealing slim brown legs and black briefs. While the young woman's hands hesitated on his hips, he pulled her white blouse up and interrupted their kiss to ease it over her head.
Now's your last chance, Verona thought apprehensively; but the young woman raised her arms to allow the blouse to slip away, and Verona noted how carefully she'd assembled her outfit; the casual slit skirt and clingy pullover top had given way to a low-cut black bra and matching panties.
Perhaps it wasn't the crumbling of her resistance, Verona realized, but the fulfillment of her hopes. As if in confirmation, the girl unbuttoned the young man's jeans and let them fall from his hips. Nice touch, Verona noted sardonically at the sight of the young man's purple briefs; you had your hopes up, too. Who knows, maybe it's true love.
But there was still something tentative in the girl's pose which suggested doubt, and Verona feared the girl was vulnerable to false affection.
Although still locked in an embrace, the girl seemed to notice the open window for the first time. As the young man eased her toward the bed, she reached out and pulled the thin curtains closed with a quick tug on the sash cord.
By some quirk—perhaps the fabric had caught on a window lock or some other protuberance—one side of the curtain remained draped up, leaving the other half hanging limply in the open window, unmoved in the hot still air; beneath the snagged half, Verona saw the young man pull the girl onto the bed.
Like her own, the girl's bedroom occupied a corner; large windows facing west and north illuminated the lovers' bed. Beneath the raised curtain, the girl's legs were creamy tan against the white bedspread, and her black briefs pressed in stark contrast against the young man's pale hips.
It was an odd thing, Verona mused, how the indignities of mating arose not from being watched, but from realizing you were watched. The memory of her own humiliating discovery of this small truth came to her—those guffaws still rung in her ears—and she retrieved her dog-eared red spiral journal from the floor beside her. Turning past her short ode to Cupid she wrote in flowing blue-ink script:
To be watched, oh horrors
Closing the notebook, she returned her attention to the girl's half-revealed interior. Two beautiful bodies touching may look great, she mused, unless she's just a faceless warm friction—I know how that feels. But if she's been hungering for him all day—then what can any observer know?
The young couple sparked a memory of her first year in Manoa with Russell, and a small smile lightened her grim expression. She'd had to lie about living with him at the tender age of eighteen, of course, telling her Mom she was rooming with two other girls, even going so far as to have her mail sent to a friend's address. But it was only due to Russell paying all the rent and buying all the food that she was there at all; on her bitter eighteenth birthday in August, she’d lost all hope of going to university in Honolulu.
Her expression softening further, she recalled that first semester's Monday-Wednesday-Friday early morning tug-of-war. No matter how early she'd set the alarm's bumblebee buzz, she'd still be late for her early morning class. For Russell would awaken, too; and so her mornings consisted of a mad rush from the warm sheets to pulling on jeans and a shirt and leaping on her rusty ten-speed bicycle for the bracing ride down the valley to campus.
Racing round the defunct fountain, she'd lock her bike and sneak into the lecture hall; distracted, her secret self still under the comforter with Russell, she would shift in the hard chair, wishing the memory of his touch would diminish.
One morning Russell had again overcome the clock and she'd resigned herself to being late. Arising hastily, she'd pulled on her underwear, jeans and a short-sleeved pink blouse and grabbed her backpack from the door. Slinging it to her shoulder, she'd eyed him reproachfully from the door.
You made me miss Descartes, she'd said in a mock pout.
Russell had sat up and raked his shaggy hair with his fingers. With his high cheekbones, smooth skin and inquisitive eyes, she'd always joked that he looked like a Mongolian boy prince; in that moment, he'd looked the part: slim and muscular, he was slouching against their pillows, gazing at her.
I make love, therefore I am, he'd teased.
I know, she’d replied with an exaggerated crossness. I live with it all day.
I know, it feels like you peed in your pants, he'd replied derisively.
Let’s switch, she'd challenged him, and see how you like it. Peeling off her jeans, she'd tossed her underwear to Russell. Rising to her bait, he'd unwadded the white lace, and with a dismayed expression he'd pulled on the diaphanous briefs. Bucking up, he’d grimly announced that if he got in an accident that day, he hoped death was instant. She'd burst in a tittering giggle, and suggested, just tell the doctors that in our house, it's share and share alike.
Taking his baggy boxers and pulling them up to her hips, Verona had cooed, Ooh, how comfy; let’s switch every day.
That afternoon, Russell had dragged her to bed with comic alacrity, whispering, I don't know what you're complaining about; wearing your panties just made me hot. You’re lying, she’d replied tartly, but her protest was cut short by his ardent proof.
Maybe I should have married Russell when I had the chance, she thought, and then reproached herself. What a false regret; he wanted kids, I didn’t—and probably couldn’t get pregnant even if I'd wanted to. He’s reliable, I’m not, he’s a teacher, and I’m nothing. To think it would have worked is just a fantasy, she reminded herself, one you dredge up when you get tired of waiting.
Watching the young couple across the street, a wave of nostalgia came over her and she recalled the Saturday when she and Russell had stowed their old Schwinn bicycles in the trunk of his aging Accord and driven to a Puna road long closed by one of Kilauea’s lava flows. Was it sentimentality, she wondered, or just being thrifty, that I still have those gold shorts and white tanktop?
Stopping amidst the jet-black frozen roils of lava to picnic in splendid isolation on musubi and guava juice, a cursory conversation about how long it had been since they’d ridden bikes—years, for them both—had led Russell to inquire if it was true that a girl could reach fulfillment from merely riding a bicycle on a bumpy road.
To his mortification, Verona had snorted derisively. After enjoying his embarrassment, she’d replied, I guess it depends on the girl.
He’d absorbed this with a nod, and then suggested with mock seriousness, How about you trying it—as an experiment?
You and your experiments, she’d said dismissively, but he’d persisted in a half-serious fashion, saying, maybe we can adjust your seat.
Even if it worked, I wouldn’t tell you, she’d replied archly.
For in point of fact, she’d been rediscovering the small pleasures of riding her ten-speed on that very road; she’d even wondered if her arousal had somehow subliminally triggered his curiosity.
By the time they’d exited the barren lava flows and passed a few scattered homes, both were looking for sanctuary. No private spot had offered itself, and in youthful desperation they’d snuck into the overgrown back yard of what appeared to be a vacation bungalow. After listening at the back door to confirm no one was home, they’d crept round the home’s age-darkened redwood water tank and embraced; pressed against the wood, she’d realized the tank must be nearly empty to be so warm.
She'd happily acquiesced to a kiss, but when Russell had unlatched her bra, she’d broken off their kiss to protest, Someone might see us.
Don't worry, he's whispered reassuringly; nobody's home. Besides, no one can tell whether you're wearing a bra or not.
Emboldened by her first surrender, Russell had slipped her shorts to her ankles, assuring her that her panties looked just like a bikini bottom.
Lacey lavender panties could hardly be mistaken for a bathing suit, and Verona had whispered, Stop that, but neither his shorts nor her line of lace posed much impediment to his enthusiasm.
Her resistance might have succeeded had he not already found that her secret self, far from supporting her objection, was offering him a very contagious encouragement. With youthful glee he'd whispered, that bike ride really worked.
Not only had her stern tone failed to deter him from slipping her tanktop down to her waist, it hadn't even worked on herself; swept up, she'd succumbed to everything.
For whatever reason—the bike ride, the trespass, the way lavender lace pressed against her, or perhaps the zest of being overcome—Verona had reached the point of no return without the preparation usually required. Out of breath and too dazed to complain, she'd rested against the redwood while Russell had cooed solicitous half-apologies, blowing cool air on her damp skin; reassured by their isolation, she'd stripped off her underwear and bent down to retrieve her shorts. At that instant a rustle of leaves had announced an animal presence; as Verona had instinctively covered herself—it was so unfair that men needed only one hand to cover themselves but women needed three—a youthful cackle came from somewhere deep in the underbrush, and Verona's ears had glowed with horrified indignity.
Dear Russell, she thought with a puckered smile; what a rascal he could be. I wonder if he's happy with his wife and two kids.
The shouts of children became audible in the lull of Broadway traffic, and a glance at the clock confirmed that John Yehall Chin Elementary School after-school program was in full swing. Although she could not see the children, Verona could distinguish individual voices; wondering about the ones too quiet to be heard, she thought of her own two special cases: Woi-Ahn, the painfully shy Vietnamese girl, and Robert, a Chinese boy with a propensity for disrupting others' games. Of the many immigrant children in the Chinatown preschool where she worked three days a week, these two had drawn her special concern. Even though she'd paid each extra attention, neither had fully allowed her to befriend them.
The sun fell with hot abandon on Verona's limbs, and her skin tingled with the same prickly heat that was making her underarms damp. The sundress had short sleeves and a high waist that ended on her ribs; unfastening all four buttons at the top, she opened the dress and blew a puff of breath down her front.
In a see-saw between frustration and hope, she thought, I always hated sappy romance, and as punishment, now I'm in the grip of the sappiest romance of all: the love triangle, exactly the trap I was absolutely sure would never get me. Well, Verona, here you are, trapped and wrapped, wishing you could forget Tobias but thinking of him every minute, even when you know he isn't coming.
Since he never came by on weekends, his visit the previous Saturday had taken her completely by surprise. Lacking a car, she kept a wish-list of weekend destinations; one was the "U-Pick" orchards of Contra Costa. Tobias had consented, and a phone call confirmed that the cherry crop was ripening under the Central Valley's late May sun.
Verona had awarded him a spontaneous embrace, then hurried to pack a picnic lunch and select an outfit. Following her to the closet, he'd warned her that it would be warm; when she'd held up the yellow cotton sundress, he’d nodded approvingly. Plucked off the bargain rack back when she’d had a fulltime position and enough money for an occasional splurge, it dated from the good old days, before her life was on loan.
She’d liked its sunflower-gold pattern and high waist from the first, but had worried that chilly San Francisco might never offer her the chance to wear such a light sundress. I was still thinking like an island girl, she mused, as if I still needed something to pull over my bikini before heading down to Kuhio Beach.
Verona glanced up at the photographs and poems pinned to her bulletin board, searching for the snapshot of her orchard picnic with Tobias. Every month, she removed all the photos before Colling's visit; after he left on Sunday afternoon, she would re-arrange the photos to her liking. The poems, of course, she could leave; Colling had never expressed interest in any of her creations.
As a recent addition, the picnic snapshot partially covered a small faded photo of three young children on a bare-wood porch step—she and her brother and sister in their old plantation-camp bungalow, the family's tumult implicit in their tentative smiles—and the postcard of "The Laughing Christ" which Mimi had given her when she'd shared their rooms in Manoa.
In the print from last week’s outing, Verona was smiling at the camera, holding the front of her sundress out to support handfuls of dark-red cherries. A floppy straw hat adorned her head, and her hair fell in two long pigtails down her front. In the heat, her bare arms glistened, and her golden sundress clung damply to her.
The image faithfully revealed her love-drunk state: her cute Japanese straw hat had been tipped askew, and her bust pressed in sharp-shadowed taboo against the thin cotton sundress.
Chagrined by the limpid softness of her eyes, her lips pursed in derisive appraisal; I don't think I ever looked this dopey even when I was a teenager.
No wonder I'm in such a fix, she mused; once you look like this, you're beyond willpower or advice or reason. That's why my decision to cut Tobias off last month lasted one whole weekend.
Peering through the hot afternoon glare at the lover's lair across the way, Verona caught a glimpse of the woman’s face turning to the window. Moving quickly from the curtain, Verona flushed and thought, This is my bachi for spying.
Her attention piqued by a sudden movement, Verona peeked just in time to see the girl clutch her blouse and leave the bed.
With sympathetic anxiety, Verona wondered if she was looking after birth control or if some turn of events had upset her. Judging by the young man's torpor, a winter of discontent had suddenly swept over the couple. Maybe she realized his interest in her was exactly what she'd feared, Verona thought pensively. A moment later the young man also abandoned the bed, and Verona concluded, well, it's over; hopefully it's for the best.
Verona scanned the street—still no Tobias, she observed—and then glanced back at her bulletin board with renewed apprehension. Maybe this is it; he's cutting me off before I can cut him off.
During a rare evening visit, Tobias had snapped a black-and-white photo of her dancing in the living room. She was slightly off-center in the image; on the wall behind her, her poster of the sculpture "The King Playing with the Queen" was in partial focus. Her eyes were half-closed, and she was looking over her shoulder, away from the camera, as if glancing at the poster.
Despite the dynamism of her upraised arm and the lively bounce of her hair, there was something languid about her pose. Her short-sleeved ribbed blouse was unbuttoned, exposing her from midriff to throat, and she clutched a striped towel low on her waist as a makeshift sarong. She'd been laughing—the towel-sarong had just come undone—and the shutter had captured her in mid-flounce. Of all the photos Tobias had taken of her—and there were already quite a few—this was one of her favorites; it seemed to catch her in a rare moment of ease.
Below the photo was a poem she'd hastily composed on a scrap of paper following a visit to the San Francisco zoo. It was titled simply enough, "After the Zoo:"
Birds do it
The grammar was suspect, but she'd liked the rhythm. After reading it, Tobias had exclaimed, I could never think of something like that.
It's just a dumb little thing, she'd said, but naturally his compliment had pleased her; no one since Russell had seen her as anything more than an attentive, nicely shaped body, and so Tobias's delight in her poems had dumbfound her.
She'd written one after an evocative dream about Tobias; it was titled "Two-four-six:"
The day starts with such promise
Tobias had studied the lines and then turned to her with a solemn smile. You know me so well, he'd commented.
Verona had hesitated to show the third sheet to Tobias; written shortly after she'd moved to San Francisco, it now seemed a bit too earnest. She'd also feared it might bring an unsettling attention to their age difference.
A POET'S SUGGESTION
As Tobias had read it, she'd voiced a dismissive comment about scribbling something down after a dream.
Turning to her with a faint smile, he'd said, I've never known anyone with such poetic dreams.
You should see my nightmares, she'd teased. Or my daymares.
Returning to the poem, he'd murmured, I like the line about trees being restless as if on fire.
That's because it's like us, she'd joked. Tobias had smiled and said, You're right, but I would never have thought that of myself before I met you.
That's us, she sighed, lifting her skirt again to fan her legs. I wonder if he'll be angry at the ultimatum, or resigned like me.
A figure came trudging up the long block of steps from Battery Street, and Verona recognized Nathan, the high school boy who lived next door. During her first months in the City, each had arrived home at almost the same time; on many occasions, they'd walked up the long concrete staircase just a few steps ahead or behind one another. Prototypically shy, he'd never spoken a word to her; on the pretext of asking for directions, she'd finally introduced herself one afternoon. At least, Verona thought with a smile, he has a name to go with the body he studies through half-closed blinds.
Separated by only a narrow walkway, the adjacent apartment partially blocked her view of the Bay. Vallejo Street's steep slope insured that the flats of each building were on different elevations; Verona's east window faced a wall of narrow shiplap siding broken only by a sill delineating the second and third floor. A recent effort at repainting the shambling wooden structure had inexplicably stopped at this line; the top floor flat occupied by Nathan's family remained unpainted, the chalky white rows of siding randomly stained by rusting nail heads.
Despite this in situ privacy, an oblique line of sight ran from the top-floor window to her bedroom's sunny triangle of hardwood floor; but Verona thought it foolish to obscure her eastern light and Bay view to block this minor incursion.
Since losing her fulltime job she'd gravitated to this sunlit southeast corner as her favored place to read or write in her journal. Even on fog-chilled days, it was more inviting than her sofa. And once Tobias had seized on the notion that it was a shame that the pale outlines of her bikini were still visible, the corner had also hosted her sunbathing as well.
It was during such an au naturel session that she'd chanced to observe a subtle shift in the blinds of the top flat's window. Laying on a towel, sun-drowsed, she'd lazily kept an eye on the half-open blinds. A shadow seemed to cross behind the slats, and she'd turned over onto her stomach. If you want to look at my bare butt, be my guest, she'd thought with an amused sense of bequeathal. She knew both parents worked long hours, and of their two children, it was unlikely to be the young daughter at the blinds, staring at her sunbathing.
With his mop of black hair, reedy build and studious shyness, Nathan had naturally reminded her of Russell. But in contrast to Russell's athletic abilities, Nathan had the slumped posture of an intellectual wallflower—he even wore the cliched black frames of a scholar—more reminiscent of Mimi than Russell.
Watching the youthful figure trudge up the concrete steps alone, carrying a backpack heavy with books, Verona felt a resurgent sympathy. He seemed burdened by more than his backpack, and Verona wondered if he was alone at school. If his parents were like most immigrants—Verona didn't know, for their long workdays kept them invisible—they probably couldn't understand all that was unsaid inside him.
Some afternoons she would hear the hollow pattering echo of a basketball being bounced in his small fenced backyard. Once, curiosity had led her to confirm it was him; peeking through the warped redwood slats of the fence, she'd spied Nathan on the yard's patched concrete, dribbling a basketball between three green plastic trash cans which served as imaginary opponents. Having successfully threaded his way through the court's defenses, he'd loosed a clumsy jumpshot at an imaginary hoop. As the ball thudded off the old wood siding, Verona had wondered if he ever allowed himself to miss in his imaginary game, or if, like her, he always emerged victorious no matter how fierce the resistance.
Poor thing, she thought as Nathan clambered up to the front steps of his building; he could use some cheering up. On an impulse Verona reached up to her dresser top, grabbed a thin gold chain necklace and dropped it on the sidewalk below. Leaning out the window, she gave Nathan the same sharp tomboy whistle she'd once used to attract her brother's attention.
Nathan glanced up and she gestured for him to come beneath her window. After a brief pause, of indecision or astonishment she couldn't tell, he dutifully climbed the additional steps to her building.
"Could you help me?" she asked plaintively. "My necklace dropped on the sidewalk."
Nathan wordlessly acknowledged her request by crouching down and examining the weathered concrete. A moment later he arose and held up the glittering strand of gold. "Shall I toss it up to you?" he asked in an uncertain voice.
Leaning out the window, she gamely extended her hand and then shook of her head. "I'll probably miss," she called down to him. "Could you bring it up?"
The afternoon reflection of the sun filled the lenses of his glasses with a bright light, and he finally replied. "Is the door open?"
She nodded affirmatively and then darted to her kitchen. Opening the refrigerator, she considered the plate of crackers and goat cheese she'd assembled for Tobias with a critical eye.
Sometimes he'd just finished a late lunch with a client, but sometimes he'd eaten nothing all day; hungry or not, he always ate what she prepared and invariably expressed gratitude. A home-cooked meal appeared to be a rarity in his household; though he claimed to eat sparingly, his appetite was always robust at her table. After rushing home from her shift at the daycare center she'd opted for simple fare: goat cheese and crackers with Greek olives and Torani passion-fruit syrup mixed with sparkling water.
Since Tobias is a no show, she thought with fresh exasperation, I might as well put this to some use. Pulling the platter and juice from the shelf, she hastily placed it on the table and took down two tall glasses.
At Nathan's tentative knock she dashed to the living room and said, "Come in."
Nathan entered, gold chain in hand, and Verona said, "Come into the kitchen."
Gripped by the horror of facing a 29-year old woman alone, he dropped his heavy book pack and said, "Here's the necklace."
"I know what it's like to climb that hill," she said, smiling. "Come on, it's already made."
Reluctantly following her, Nathan watched her drop ice cubes into the glass and then fill it with the flavored sparkling water. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he lifted the glass and gulped the cold liquid and then held out the chain.
Enjoying the pleasant charms of harmless flirting, she asked, "Do you mind putting it on? The clasp is so small I can't open it."
Verona sat down in one of her dinette chairs and Nathan set his drink on the table beside her. Gingerly positioning the slender gold chain around her neck as she stared straight ahead, he said in a nervous voice, "I'm not very good at this kind of thing."
With her hair pinned up and her dress unbuttoned, Verona reckoned the white lace of her frilly Italian bra wash visible to her young helper. Might as well give him some excitement this afternoon, she mused; we could both use some distraction from our worries.
Perhaps as a result of such distractions, one end of the chain slipped from Nathan's tentative grip and dangled between her breasts. At the unexpected touch of cold chain on her sensitive flesh, Verona jerked, and the chain slithered from his anxious fingers.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. Noting the extreme embarrassment in his voice, Verona continued looking calmly at the wall. Assuming he still held one end of the chain, she said, "Just lift the necklace out and we'll start over."
But the gold strand had lost itself somewhere in her bra; manfully following her instructions, Nathan reached down the front of her open sundress and gingerly groped her in search of the chain.
With a hot blush Verona realised the chain was lost and quickly said, "That's okay, I'll find it."
At that instant Nathan located the chain deep inside her bra, and with tense relief reported, "I got it."
His careful extraction was halted midway, however, for one end had snagged on the bra clasp. Anxious to free the chain, he yanked the loose end hard; but this served only to lock the tangle even tighter. After several increasingly desperate attempts, his relief slid back into misery and he murmured what had become obvious to them both: "It's caught."
Aghast at how a playful idea had blossomed into a comedy of errors, Verona said, "Just let go of it, and I'll take care of it later."
She felt the chain twitch and then heard Nathan swallow hard. "I can't," he announced solemnly. "It's tangled." Nathan extended his hand forlornly in front of her, Verona saw that the other end of the thin gold chain had somehow knotted around his index finger.
"I guess when I tugged it. . . " he explained miserably.
Alive to the absurdity of the situation, Verona gave a sharp laugh and said, "Let me see if I can free you."
Nathan dutifully obeyed, and Verona tried loosening the golden tangle. Unable to see the knot clearly without her glasses, she attempted to slide it off his finger; but the thin chain had tightened in some kind of slip knot, and she could not work it over his finger joint.
"I don't want to tear your finger off," she announced. After a bemused pause she said, "Close your eyes."
Nathan dutifully shut his eyes and Verona lowered her sundress over her shoulders, exposing her bra. She tried to undo the clip, but the fine chain had managed to ensnare both sides of the clasp; without her reading glasses the knotted chain was simply a glittering yellow blur.
After a moment of fruitless effort, she gave up and sighed, "Well, it's a real tangle. I'm going to stand up, okay?"
Arising from the chair, she turned like a dancer beneath his arm to face him; Nathan opened his eyes, and Verona gave him a disapproving glower as he gaped at her lowered dress and lacey demi-bra. Taking on a businesslike tone of voice, she said, "Now close your eyes again, and I'm going to slip out of my bra. Then we'll get the chain off your finger. Okay?"
Blushing madly, Nathan nodded and closed his eyes. Verona dropped her dress to her waist and then began wriggling free of the entangled bra. Watching Nathan's eyes for any flicker of cheating, she worked the bra over her bust and thought, Not exactly what I had in mind when I invited him up.
Freeing herself was slower than she'd imagined, for the frilly white lace formed a surprisingly inelastic constraint. Bound by the golden tether between her bra and his finger, Nathan's hand lifted in tandem with the bra's upward progress. She'd just managed to extricate one arm when the entry bell in her living room buzzed.
Verona froze, wondering if it was Tobias. Did he forget his key? But why ring downstairs, when the broken lock left the entry door accessible? He would show up right now, she thought in a flush of panic, when I'm half-naked with the kid next door.
Realizing that Nathan was admiring her bare flesh with wide-eyed abandon, she blushed a deep crimson and ordered, "Close your eyes." Apparently too awe-struck to obey, Nathan could only blink in nervous confusion at her exposed charms.
The bell buzzed insistently again, and she hastily resumed her Houdini-like struggle to escape the white lace and gold entanglement. One hot-shame moment later she squirmed the bra over her head and tossed it to him, stage whispering, "You work on that and I'll see who's downstairs."
Lifting her sundress to her bust, Verona restored some of her shattered dignity and then tip-toed into her bedroom to peek out the open window. A rotund man in a suit and two women in their Sunday-best dresses were standing expectantly on the sidewalk. As she watched, the man leaned forward and pressed another button, sounding the buzzer in her neighbor's apartment.
Tip-toeing back to the kitchen, she whispered, "Jehovah's Witnesses."
Nathan had successfully freed the necklace from one half of the bra clasp, and was working on loosening it from the other half.
Bending down to examine the tangle herself, she impulsively kissed him, a good, soft, rounded kiss that left him speechless. Sitting down across from him, she adjusted the bamboo clip in her hair and said lightly, "I usually kiss the boy before he sees me naked."
Blushing hotly, Nathan lowered his gaze and concentrated anew on the knotted bra clasp and chain. Smiling puckishly at his evident confusion, Verona slid the passion-fruit drink to him said, "It's amazing how tangled something can get in just a few seconds."
Nathan murmured a noncommittal assent and moment later pulled the necklace free. Carefully folding the diaphanous white-lace bra into a neat triangle, he set to work on the golden knot around his finger. Reckoning that her impulsive kiss had thrown Nathan into anxious territory, Verona sought a safely conversational tone. "You'll be a senior next year, right?"
He nodded, and Verona could not help thinking of Russell at the same age, and their passionate senior-year romance. "Looking forward to school being out?"
Nathan's brows knitted in a frown and he sighed, "Either I have to help my parents at the restaurant or I have to stay with my sister."
"Both my parents worked, too," she commented sympathetically. "How about basketball?"
Interpreting his shrug to mean he wasn't skilled enough to join a team, she asked, "What else do you like to do in your free time?"
"Reading," he answered.
"Me, too," Verona said with measured enthusiasm. "What do you like?"
"Mostly sci-fi and mysteries," he said.
"Have you ever read Dashiell Hammett?" she asked.
Shaking his head in the negative, Nathan peered through his glasses and cautiously pulled one end of the chain through the tiny knot.
"You live in San Francisco, and you don't know Sam Spade?" Verona asked. Arising, she went to her living room bookshelves and pulled a paperback from her collection. Returning to the kitchen, she set the book down by Nathan and watched him free his finger of the chain.
"Do we dare try again?" she asked. He shrugged embarrassedly, and she answered her own query by sitting down and lowering her head to expose her neck.
As she folded her arms protectively over her bust, Nathan again strung the thin gold strand around her neck, this time successfully attaching the clasp on the third try. At her urging, he stayed long enough to finish his passion fruit drink and try a goat cheese cracker and Greek olive; as she maintained a conversational tone, his gaze strayed from her eyes to her brown skin as if drawn by an irresistible force. Mumbling polite responses, his embarrassment growing with each betraying glance, he finally arose and thanked her for the refreshment.
Handing the novel to him at the front door, Verona said with an ironic smile, "It's nice we got to know each other a little better today."
As he eyed her wonderingly she added, "Maybe we could share our favorite books. That would be fun, wouldn't it?"
He nodded, his shaggy hair bobbing politely, and a keen grin broke across his face. Then with an energy she'd never witnessed in him before, he grabbed his pack and bounded youthfully down the stairs.
Closing the door, Verona shook her head bemusedly and thought, That was fun; and now, back to our regularly scheduled despair.
Sucking on a half-melted ice cube, she thought, Between Mrs. Li and Tobias I've squandered enough of the afternoon waiting; I've got other things to do: buy a card for my brother's birthday, grocery shopping, and stop by the post office for stamps. But then I'll need to change into something with sleeves.
For though she'd dutifully shaved since high school, Verona had recently returned to an au naturel state. Grateful that her legs were nearly hairless, she'd enjoyed not having to wield a razor. Was it laziness or rebellion, she wasn't sure, but she'd enjoyed the mildly scandalous state of being an au naturel pan-Asian woman. How shocking not to look like a doll, she'd marveled caustically at the looks she'd garnered in a tanktop; nobody makes a fuss over a European woman.
Smoothing the front of her yellow dress, she noted the stains from the cherries she'd gathered in her lap last Saturday were still faintly visible on the yellow-gold fabric. That afternoon, Tobias had asked her the sort of aimlessly affectionate questions everyone loves to answer: favorite keepsakes and outfits, and the inspiration for her poem, "I Am Small." Unwilling to repay his generosity with boredom, she'd hesitated.
But he'd persisted, asking, What was your favorite dress in high school?
My favorite dress in high school, she'd exclaimed dubiously; I'm sure you're interested in that.
I am, he'd said; why shouldn't I be?
After a calculated pause, she'd replied, Actually, I had two; one I could wear and one I couldn't.
Why would you like something you couldn't wear?
Enjoying the mystification, Verona had said, My favorite was a white peasant-girl dress with black embroidery. I usually didn't wear dresses, especially ones with sleeves, but I liked that one.
And the one you couldn't wear? he'd prompted her.
Laughing dismissively, she'd replied, Oh, that. It was a little rust-colored Indian-print dress, backless, with a piece of yarn around the neck to hold up the halter.
Pouring him a teacup of cranberry juice, she'd unwrapped an egg-salad sandwich and added, It would have been good for today.
If you couldn't wear it, why was it your favorite?
Oh, I'd wear it, Verona replied mischievously, but only on the sly. Nice girls always wore a bra, but it was backless, so I had to be un-nice.
Tobias had chuckled, saying, And all this time you've told me what a good Catholic girl you were.
Even good girls sneak out without a bra sometimes, she'd answered. I'd change at my girlfriend's or in the trees behind the camp.
His brows had arched in comic dismay and he'd murmured, So that's it; you like breaking taboos.
Of course, she'd said. How could a girl from the sticks resist?
Playfully nudging her arm, Tobias had said,I wish I could see you in that dress; I'm sorry you don't have it.
Maybe I do, she'd responded; it could still be in my closet at home, unless my Mom threw it out.
He'd had to press her about the poem. She knew her writing was amateurish; it wouldn't stand up to any critique, and so she'd kept it hidden from everyone but Russell and Mimi—and now, Tobias. But Tobias had neither the inclination nor the desire to criticize what he did not understand; rather, he expressed amazement at her creative powers.
She'd tried something different with this poem, blocking the lines out on a watercolor of cranes which she'd started as a practice sheet; after the irregular flock of white birds in flight had taken shape, she'd been inspired to print the lines of "I Am Small" in a pattern across the page's wispy dashes of color. The effect was pleasing, perhaps because it was new to her, or perhaps because the imagery of the poem fit cranes in flight.
Gazing at the poem-painting, Tobias had said, you're the only person I know who does this without seeking recognition. Are you ashamed of being talented?
I'm not, she'd answered. Talented, I mean.
You can't judge your own work, he'd replied evenly, and she'd cringed at the thought of strangers frowning critically at her work.
Over her protest, he'd folded her draft of the poem into the picnic basket that morning; lounging against her after lunch, he'd read it aloud in a quiet, confident tone. Although her words had sounded terribly foolish at first, Tobias had recited the lines with such pleasure that her discomfort had ebbed. Enjoying the vibration of his voice as he lay against her, Verona realized that this was the first time she'd ever heard a poem of her own in someone else's voice.
I AM SMALL
Playing with the soft hair curling over her temple, he'd said, I wished I'd written that.
It's nothing special, she'd murmured; a million poems get written every day. You're the successful one, she'd teased. Shall we trade places, and you be the one dabbling in useless creativity?
Yes, let's, he'd replied lightly. I'll teach you how to make lots of money for doing absolutely nothing, and you can teach me to be artistic.
It's a deal, she'd replied.
If only it were that simple to trade talents or places, she thought; I'm lucky to have these internships. Without Tobias's help, I wouldn't even have those.
He'd prefaced the arrangements by stating, you deserve better, but this is a start. She'd dutifully reported to the housing coalition and the Chinatown preschool, and hadn't regretted it; compared to her last temp jobs—feckless retail clerk, quickly fired, and shapely receptionist for a fat lecher—they each had their rewards. Though part-time, each had the potential to lead to a paid position; and in a recession, that was important. The housing coalition staff was polite but cold, especially for people devoted to a good cause; the preschool teachers were much warmer, and despite her initial misgivings, she'd found working with children far more satisfying than assisting a non-profit organization.
But they're no substitute for a real fulltime job, she reminded herself; I need a paying job.
Having had her dread of cold calls convincingly confirmed by repeated failure, Verona had focused on researching potential employers and sending old-fashioned letters of inquiry. On days she felt hopeful, she reminded herself that sometimes a small business owner wouldn't even think of hiring an assistant until that person presented themselves. On other days, however, the long odds disheartened her: two hundred resumes and letters sent with no interviews or job offers.
Unable to shake the apprehension Tobias' absence triggered in her, or tamp down the need to unburden herself, she retrieved a bronze incense burner in the form of a sitting Buddha and a box of pine-scented incense from the clutter on her dresser. Positioning the burnished ornament on her nightstand, she lit the dark-green stick and hoped the woodsy aroma would work some small enchantment; Tobias had once remarked that the scent of pines recalled the happier days of his youth.
Returning to her bedroom window with her job search folder, she couldn't resist gazing up at the intersection by the Vallejo Steps. Heat waves rose from the concrete street, silencing, it seemed, the songbirds nesting in the Steps' canopy; in traffic lulls, only the occasional burst of a child's shout from the invisible school playground below broke the bright heaviness of the afternoon air.
Come on, Tobias, she thought, I need to talk to you. Why can't you at least call? It would only take a minute, and the market closed hours ago.
The possibility that he could have called but didn't re-ignited her most salient doubts, and she twisted the silk tassel tightly around her index finger. Worn by the fretful hours of waiting, the last of her self-assurance gave way and she succumbed to the vulnerability which always hovered in his absence.
It wasn't fear of being alone that gripped her so tenaciously; she'd been a self-reliant child, and content with solitude after moving to San Francisco. It was a wider, more painful loss she feared, one beyond even abandonment: the loss of the world she'd discovered with him, the high clean place where the hope for a better self no longer seemed forlorn; but it was a world made frangible by their betrayals and the precariousness of her situation.
I never felt any lack before I met Tobias, she reflected, but now when we're not together, there's a hole in me reaching to the center of the Earth; I'd been free, but life was so much less then.
It was not something which lent itself to query or explanation, but Verona reckoned that in his own way Tobias felt much the same: that their secret world was rending him apart.
Seeking distraction from this unhappy train of thought, Verona set her job-search folder aside and retrieved the thick envelope from her sister.
Verona had speculated on the contents when the packet had arrived but was afraid to hazard a guess. Her sister wasn't much for writing, and while she always remembered birthdays, Verona's was still months in the future. The envelope's thickness exceeded any letter, but its irregularity precluded a book. With Clarissa, surprises are always bad, she sighed, and with a frown she opened the envelope.
Pulling the contents from the manila envelope, Verona was surprised to find a short note from her sister and a stack of yellowed letters loosely bound with red felt ribbon. Written in her girlish hand on perky pink stationery bordered with prancing unicorns, the note read:
Dear V:Reckoning that her desire to attend her brother Gabe's party for Clarissa was as lukewarm as her sister's invitation, Verona sensed her role as the family's black sheep with disheartening keenness. They have their kids and jobs in common, she thought as she untied the ribbon and examined the postmarks on the old letters; glancing at the top one, she mused, look how cheap stamps used to be.
To her surprise, the first few were addressed in her mother's hand to her father when he still lived at his parents; opening the first brittle envelope, Verona wondered how her Mom ended up with the letters, why she'd saved them, and where Clarissa had found them.
After reading the first letter, Verona had to re-read it immediately as the shock waves reverberated through her. It was a love letter from her mother to her father, written at the tender age of nineteen, shortly before Verona's conception. Funny how people's handwriting doesn't change, Verona noted as she re-read the lined notepaper; Mom still writes with these same narrow little slantless loops.
She could not find the right word to describe her feelings; revelation seemed too pallid, for it failed to describe the distance between the ardent urgency of this lovelorn prose and her Mother's corrosive account of an unwanted pregnancy leading to an unwanted marriage.
But this was not the letter of an unformed heart or someone bitterly pregnant from a brief fling. It was a love letter in the full sense of the word, direct, heartfelt, yearning; I know I seem confused at times, her Mother had written, but I know my own heart, and you're the one I want. I hope you can believe me.
Too bad it's only a one-sided correspondence, Verona mused as she folded the letter back into its age-yellowed envelope; I wonder what my father wrote back, if anything. Verona could recall only one letter from her father, a brief congratulatory note on her graduation from high school. I would give a lot to know if he answered any of these, she thought as she scanned her mother's other misty-eyed missives; I wonder if he remembers her being this crazy about him. Was he as crazy about her, or did he marry her out of duty? Maybe he has his own self-serving fantasy, she thought caustically; after all, he's the one with all the get-rich-quick schemes.
Funny how Mom's story of a shotgun marriage justified her affair and divorce, Verona thought sardonically. But how can someone show so little fidelity to the truth, to the facts of their own feelings? Her dark brows knitting in puzzlement, she thought, Everything Mom has said all these years about her marriage is pure fiction; how can you lie to yourself so well?
Recalling her Mom's endless tales of neglect and verbal abuse at the hands of her father, Verona carefully returned the letters to their brittle envelopes. By her mother's account, she was unplanned and unwanted, a mistake which had cost her mother dearly. It was queerly unpleasant to imagine the circumstances of one's conception, but the possibility that she was conceived in passion rather than indiscretion was a new one; and the thought lit a glowing sense of injustice in her. What kind of woman sleeps with the guy she's crazy about, Verona thought bitterly, and then blames her marriage on her daughter?
Her mother's endless scorn for her father as a cruel oppressor was similarly suspect, and Verona questioned if her father deserved the three decades of denunciation her mother had heaped on him. Perhaps; what little she'd seen of him since his departure largely substantiated her mother's depiction of a ne'er-do-well schemer with an adolescent taste for good-time buddies and fiscal dissolution.
But in her newly invigorated skepticism, Verona wondered, If he was such a scoundrel, then why did she fall for him? Her mother's answer had been to deny ever loving him at all. What brought them together? Hormones, her mother had once told her, and on another occasion, the desire to escape the roiling animosities of her own parents' household. Anything, Verona mused, but the truth; and with the marriage falling on her own conception, her mother miraculously escaped unscathed.
Opening her spiral-bound notebook, Verona put her pen tentatively to her lips, and then wrote out the lines which had come to her.
Resting her head on her hand, she doodled a small Asian-girl face and a geometric hash of swirls and triangles beside two unfinished poems, "In the Kingdom of the Senses" and "For Fauna Near Extinction," and two short verses she'd written the day before:
Yes, it's a fantasy
These letters were once the present, Verona reflected; then they were lost, and now they're in my present. Mom had forgotten the letters existed, because if she'd stumbled across them before Clarissa, she would have burned them without hesitation. Lucky the house has always been a jumble, where the daring little India-print dress you loved at 17, your sixth grade class photo and love letters which blow through everything your Mom ever said about her marriage and you being born are still around, waiting to be re-discovered.
The rest of the letters were a collection of personal notes from her Mom's best friend Gloria, her Mom's closest sister Anne, and even one from her grandmother to her Mom, postmarked from California. There weren't many, and Verona's curiosity led her to glance at them all. Most were as she'd anticipated, distillations of a present lost to memory: of vacations and friends she didn't recall or had never heard of. But the first line of the letter from her aunt May to her mother, undated but postmarked almost two years after her own birth, caught her attention and held it hard, until Verona's heart began pounding.
"I read your letter and burned it, as you instructed," it began. The sympathy and the anguish were plainly stated in the first paragraph, but it was only halfway down the page that the cause of those emotions appeared: "new baby" and "divorce." The new baby was easy enough to parse out: her sister was born just two years after her. As for divorce, Verona supposed the marriage was already rocky, and her aunt's counsel was intended to encourage her Mom to stay the course.
But the second page was more than sisterly advice; her aunt wrote that she understood the reasons why her Mom had left her father, and her despair about the new baby and her marriage; but to have gone to Morse's—what did she expect would happen?
Morse was her stepfather, and with the shallow breath of physical shock Verona realized that her Mom had begun an affair with him long before her divorce ten years later. The rest of her aunt's letter left no other interpretation; her sister was Morse's child, not her father's.
The dissimilarities in their physiques and looks had always puzzled Verona, as had the great gulf between them in behavior, interests and character. Verona had little doubt that her brother Gabe was also Morse's child; that explained her stepfather's favoritism and the divide she'd always felt between herself and her siblings. I really am the Black Sheep, she thought as she re-read the letter; no wonder Mom never approved of me, and Morse treated me the way he did. No wonder Mom cut Dad off from us.
Her aunt had counseled keeping the paternity of the new baby a secret from everyone, including Morse; if her husband would take her back, May advised her Mom, stay and make the best of it. You could divorce, but if Morse can't marry you, what's the point?
Was Morse married back then? Verona had never heard of an early marriage, but that only meant another layer of facts had been kept safely hidden from her—and probably from her siblings. Had Clarissa read the letters? She didn't say so, and the alarming possibility arose that everyone knew the truth except her; Clarissa and Gabe knew their real father, and only Verona had been kept in the dark. No, she thought as she re-tied the ribbon around the letters; Clarissa would never have kept such a secret from me; she must not know the truth, either.
What had caused her Mom to flee her father's house back then? Verona's anger at her mother's self-serving lies dissolved in a sympathy Verona had never felt for her Mom, an awareness of an insecure, confused young woman of 21 with a baby to care for and something wrong enough at home to drive her into the arms of another lover, one she eventually married years later.
What a mess, Verona reflected as she slid the packet of letters into the manila envelope; now it's my burden, as if I don't have enough of my own right now. The letters' revelations burned untidily within her, and seeking some distraction from the shock waves reverberating through her, Verona gazed out the window. Now I really need to talk to you, dear Tobias, she thought; why can't you come when I need you?
A movement in the young woman's window caught Verona's eye, and she saw that the young man and the girl had re-entered the partially-obscured frame. The girl had put back on her white blouse and black underwear; she sat the bed, her arms folded in defiance. The dispirited young man, modesty restored by his purple underwear, sat beside her. Taking up the opera glasses again, Verona watched the young woman turn her back resolutely to him.
Poor thing, Verona thought; it's not going well, is it? You should throw the rascal out, but you don't want to; we never do, do we?
Despite the girl's distemper, her posture remained somewhat ambivalent; as the girl listened to the young man's words, she folded her legs demurely beneath her and picked at a loose thread on her comforter.
He's got his work cut out for him, Verona mused; let's see if he can apologize as well as Tobias. That's one of his better traits; when he's wrong, he doesn't try to dodge, even when I'm furious.
As Verona watched, the young man began smoothing the girl's silky cascade of black hair. You're doing okay so far, Kiddo, Verona thought puckishly; but you better be saying the right things, too.
The girl sat sternly unmoved as the young man stroked her hair, and then abruptly turned to address him. Shaking his head in the slow adamance of the misunderstood, his blond Prince Valiant locks fell forward and he swept them aside with a gesture of frustration.
The girl, still oblivious to the snagged curtain, avoided his gaze. The young man resumed playing with her long locks; seeing that she did not resist, he gently eased her shoulders back so she rested against his chest.
Careful, Verona thought pensively, as he bent forward to kiss her neck; don't let him off the hook too easily. But when the girl raised her hand to touch his cheek, it struck Verona that perhaps the girl was getting exactly what she wanted; maybe it had all been a test of his intentions. After all, she mused knowingly, there's nothing sweeter than to kiss and make up after a good fight.
The young man eased the girl down onto the bed, and their limbs entwined. Perhaps they'd just been friends until now, Verona speculated; that would explain the girl's tentativeness. Maybe she's wondering if she really wanted this. Hopefully she's not thinking, I wish we were just friends again, Verona reflected; there were so many regrets locked up in that brief lament.
The pleasures of running into Tobias at the cafe on Saturdays had been simple; someone who brightened upon seeing you, a free-ranging conversation, and more than occasionally, a reason to laugh. The problem started with anticipating those meetings, Verona sighed inwardly; it was a small step from marking her calendar each time they'd met to inviting him over, and another small step from serving him a snack to entertaining him on the sofa.
The realization that perhaps Tobias had called while she was downstairs in the laundry room suddenly occurred to her, and Verona arose from the window and hurried to her phone. The message light was indeed blinking on her voicemail, and with a harsh critique of her own stupidity she pressed the "play" button.
It wasn't Tobias, but the message still held her attention. It was a man, American-born by his flat California accent, asking her in a deliberate but friendly voice if she'd be available for a job interview this week. He stated his name, Roland Yamaguchi, and phone number, and asked for a callback.
Retrieving the list of firms she'd contacted, she ran her finger quickly down the sheet to Roland Yamaguchi Photography. The letters she'd sent to photographers had been a lark, a low-risk throwaway job pitch amidst the dreary compendium of temp agencies and insurance firms. Her excitement growing, she thought, Funny how it's one of these out-of-the-blue guys who responds; will it be something I'm actually qualified to do?
In a daze of hope, Verona went to her closet and clicked through her hangers, pulling out a flouncy midnight-blue top and white shorts. Dropping the clothes on her overstuffed velvet chair, she opened her bedstand drawer and rifled through the dwindling stack of neatly folded panties. "I really need to do laundry," she murmured out loud, but her mind was too full of possibilities to register the admonishment. Tossing a fresh pair of panties onto the chair, she went to her dresser to gather a hat and her sunglasses.
Rummaging through her jumble of possessions on the dresser, Verona thought, Imagine having money again, and maybe even interesting work; how I would love to say goodbye to the cold fish at the housing coalition.
Locating the sunglasses, she glanced once more across the street at the young woman's apartment window. The couple had left the bed, and the rumpled white bedspread seemed forlorn without them. No warm-breath whispers for them, Verona observed; too bad. Either he got all he'd come for, or she'd realized her mistake.
At that moment the young man emerged from the building's tiled entrance and walked across the pavement to his ancient vehicle. Verona caught a glimpse of the girl at the window; having pinned up her hair and changed into blue jeans, she looked studiously co-ed. Confounding Verona's expectations, her gaze was directed not at her love interest but on the sidewalk down the hill. Perhaps, Verona speculated, their parting had not been a happy one. Their good-byes, and what remained between them, were as ambiguous as their touching.
Following the girl's eyes, Verona saw a boy about eleven or twelve years of age plodding slowly up the steps. As she recalled seeing the boy and girl together, the cause of Blond Prince Valiant's hasty parting brought a grin of recognition to her lips. The boy was the girl's brother, and the girl had ended her amorous adventure before he returned from school. Curiously, Verona had never seen evidence of parents or even an older relative; the young siblings seemed to have the apartment to themselves.
Perhaps, Verona mused, their afternoon tryst had ended well after all; the last thing the girl would want is for her curious kid brother to come home just in time to catch her in bed with a frisky surfer.
The girl left the window and Verona turned her attention to the blond Prince. After reaching his old Volkswagen, he glanced up at her and smiled broadly.
Aware of her unbuttoned dress, Verona smiled back at him with a certain raffish pleasure, thinking, I wouldn't mind a romp with you myself. Unless, of course, you're just another cocky charmer; I already have one of those. Poor Colling.
"Did you get in trouble?" she called down to him.
The young man paused and then grinned sheepishly. "As a matter of fact, I did."
"Because you were late," she asked, "or because you were early?"
In a voice of innocence he replied, "I'm not sure. You can't be too early, can you?"
"We like you to be on time," she said with saucy earnestness. "Being early makes us nervous, but we don't like to be kept waiting."
Nodding with mock sagacity, he replied, "Thanks for the advice. Can you tell me what time is it now?"
Glancing at her bedside clock, she gazed down at him and replied, "Time to stay out of trouble."
He shook his head in mock disbelief and then gave her a subdued wave. Climbing into the driver's seat of the old orange Volkswagen, he started the engine and backed slowly out of the stall. As he coasted down Vallejo street in a squeal of brakes, Verona's disenchantment bloomed anew.
Never mind, she told herself; you're going out to celebrate your small victory. Nothing may come of it, but an interview is still a victory. And maybe not just an interview, she reminded herself, but one with possibilities.
Stripping off the sundress and her overheated silk underwear in the bathroom, Verona dampened a wash cloth and began toweling off the heat of the day. Better not let your hopes get too far up, she told herself; maybe it's a mistake. Or maybe he picked Verona Uyeki because it's a Japanese surname, and once he sees I'm gomoku gohan that'll be the end of it.
As Verona dried herself, the poetic possibilities of gomoku gohan turned playfully in her mind: mix five bloodlines, stir with a stick, jun ken po, take your pick. That's nonsense, she thought, but maybe something could be made of it. The sudden ring of her phone startled her, and she opened the bathroom door with a quickening heart.
Hastily wrapping the towel around her midriff, she grabbed the sundress and rushed into the living room. Her initial hope—that it was Tobias, announcing his impending arrival—faded as she glanced at the clock; by four, it was more likely to be Tobias apologizing that he'd be unable to come.
With a sudden loathing for her own passivity, Verona let her voicemail take the call. Even if I have been sitting here like a breathless little teenager, she thought disgustedly, I don't want him to know it.
But it wasn't Tobias; it was Zack, calling to confirm their monthly lunch date for tomorrow. Frustrated that it wasn't Tobias, Verona was in no mood to listen to Zack. On the other hand, she wanted to share her good news with someone, and Zack was an entertaining substitute.
Wriggling into the sundress, she thought, what I really want is to tell somebody about the letters; but who? Mimi? She picked up the phone and said "Hi, sorry, I was just getting ready to go out."
"Meaning you're standing there half-naked trying to choose between two outfits?" he asked.
"Close," she replied, matching his jocular tone. "Three."
"I could help you pick," he said helpfully. "I'm especially good with panties."
"I'm sure you are," she demurred. "And yes, we're still on for lunch tomorrow."
"Fantastic," he enthused. "So what else is happening this week?"
Twisting a strand of hair around her index finger, Verona hesitated and then confided, "I have a job interview."
"Nice," Zack said noncommittally. "With who?"
"Some photographer," Verona replied. "Roland Yamaguchi."
"You're kidding," he exclaimed.
"Yeah, why?" she asked.
"Oh, Lordy-Lord," he sighed. "You don't know, do you? He's one of the top wilderness photographers in the world."
Verona hid her surprise behind a mock Southern accent, saying, "You know I'm just a little country girl from Hawai-yah."
"Haven't you seen his book on High Sierra lakes? This could be big."
"Thanks," she said dryly. "Now I'm even more nervous."
"Don't be," Zack assured her. "What's the job?"
"I don't even know," Verona confessed. "I just sent him a letter out of the blue, asking if he needed an assistant."
"Good work," he said encouragingly. "You've already impressed him with your initiative."
With an audible sigh she said, "He probably gets fifty letters a week begging him for a job. Too bad I don't know anything about photography. "
"Oh please," Zack replied. "Yes, let's get right to cutting yourself down before you even step in the door."
Snorting derisively, Verona said, "As if you wouldn't be nervous, too."
"Of course I would," he said, "but I'd also be reminding myself about what a great package he'd get if he hired me."
Recalling the class photo her Mom had sent, Verona said, "You remind me of a boy in my 6th grade class."
"Oh, great," Zack groaned. "Let me guess. The class genius?"
"No, a Portuguese kid who was always volunteering for everything. 'I can do that!' he'd shout, and everybody would snicker because he'd never done it before."
"My kind of guy," Zack replied.
"Zack, you're the laziest worker bee I've ever known," she said with gleeful exaggeration. "The worst backlog, the worst performance review, the messiest desk."
"Hey, that's just confidence that I can get somebody else to do the grunt work," he said defensively.
"Yeah, like me," she said, recalling their peculiar bet when they worked together.
The lobby door creaked open below and Verona wondered who was coming home. As the footsteps continued their ascent past the landing, Verona reckoned them too heavy for Vicki, but a good match for her haole boyfriend Carson.
As she began telling Zack about the unexpected re-emergence of her class photo, the click of her entry lock startled her. Realizing Tobias had evaded her surveillance, she quickly begged off from Zack—"Someone's knocking at my door," she'd stage-whispered—and arose in haste to ready her greeting.
Tobias opened the door and Verona's unsettled welcome froze into a brittle grin. His ashen smile looked as distressed as his tense posture, and the sheen of exertion on his face added to his air of fatigue.
"Sorry I'm late," he said.
Flustered by his unexpected arrival, she blurted, "I'd given up on you."
"Well, I finally made it," he said, and Verona's spirit sank. After waiting all this time, she thought sourly, I almost wish he'd hadn't come. Sensing the barriers between them—he had nothing to apologize for, and yet she couldn't suppress her annoyance—she wished she'd gone out as planned, and left the talk for a better day.
Closing the door behind him, he said, "The entry wasn't even locked."
"The landlady keeps promising to have it repaired," Verona replied with a nervous gesture. "Maybe after somebody's picked clean she'll finally fix it."
Trained in her Hawaii ways, Tobias slipped his shoes off and placed them on the low shelf beside her own footwear. "I thought I heard you talking to someone."
Wary of revealing too much about Zack, she said, "Oh, that," with a dismissive gesture toward the phone. "Just a guy I used to work with giving me a job lead."
"Anything interesting?" he asked conversationally.
"No," she said, hoping to impress him, "but I do have an interview this week with Roland Yamaguchi."
"No kidding." Tossing his suit coat on the sofa, he said, "He's very well regarded. Do you know him?"
"No. I just sent him a letter," Verona said.
He gave her an appraising look and said, "Must have been quite a letter."
Deflated by his lack of praise, she shrugged, and he reached up to stroke her cheek. "Is something wrong?"
With revelations and impossible deadlines roiling within her, Verona instinctively shook her head "no" and did what she had always done with unwanted feelings: pushed them behind the brick wall. She wasn't up to either ultimatums or revealing family secrets, and as a wave of despondency took her, she wondered if it was best to keep both locked inside her, safely away from Tobias.
"My sister sent me a packet of letters from my mother to my father, from before I was born," she explained coolly. "Of course I've been thinking about them."
In the pensive tone of someone expecting bad news, Tobias asked, "Any surprises?"
Verona again indicated no, and Tobias considered her closely. "I can tell something's disturbing you. Do you want me to go?"
Verona's expression darkened further, and she murmured, "No, not at all."
After a long quiet moment, his expression softened. "You look adorable."
"Really?" she said with a nervous laugh, for having stripped to change into the top and shorts, she'd pulled the sundress on so hastily she hadn't had time to button it. "I feel like a limp rag in this heat."
"It is hot in here," he remarked, gazing briefly out the casement windows. "Opening those didn't help?"
Still trying to assess his mood, she unbuttoned the collar of his pinstriped shirt and said, "No, it's the weather. There's not a breath of breeze, and you know how heat rises."
Pulling her close, he murmured, "I know," and pressed her with more firmness than was usual in a first kiss.
Verona noted this with some unease, and gently deflected his affections.
"You're so sly," she teased him. "Where's your car? I was watching for you all afternoon."
Tobias arched his eyebrows in mock intrigue. "I parked it down by Battery. I thought the walk up would do me good."
"Rough day, huh?" she said sympathetically, unknotting his tie.
"Uh-huh," he reported flatly.
"That bad?" she asked.
Shaking his head in hapless confirmation, he said, "Yeah. Last week they'd begged me to handle this new client. Well, the bet he'd insisted on yesterday blew up today, and he completely lost his marbles." With a dry humorless chuckle he added, "I was about one inch away from telling him to stuff it, and walking straight out the door."
Sapped by his work frustration and her long wait, Verona's natural empathy gave way and she replied, "Maybe you should have."
In a quiet voice he said, "You're right, I should have."
Gently undoing the first three buttons of his shirt, she asked, "What happened?"
"His puts blew up along with mine," he explained. "A major semiconductor supplier burned down in Taiwan, and the semi stocks shot up."
"No, I mean this afternoon," she corrected him.
Shaking his head, he issued a keening sigh and said, "Listening to this guy rant about how he'd trusted me and what a bigshot attorney he has tied me up for almost an hour."
Though she nodded empathetically, the frustration which had been eclipsed by her job interview excitement resurfaced and she thought, Even with the client to contend with, he could have called me at some point; and if he really didn't have a minute, at least he could apologize. It's always the same, and if I'm my usual passive marshmallow, then he'll assume I'm happy waiting around for him.
But, the tension wound within him was so obvious that a flickering apprehension ignited in her. On the other hand, she thought, maybe it's not worth pushing the point right now.
Brushing aside a wisp of hair which had escaped her bamboo pin, he said, "Oh, I have something for you."
Eyeing him with new curiosity—after all, he'd carried no package—Verona watched him go to the sofa and retrieve a small handful of half-wilted orange poppies and bright yellow marigolds from the pocket of his suit jacket.
Breaking into a grin, she said, "You stole those from the neighbor's flower box, didn't you?"
Handing her the childish bouquet, he replied, "For you, yes."
Affecting moral outrage, she said, "You should be punished to the full letter of the law."
"Will you visit me in jail?" he asked solicitously.
"Yes, but I'll make you wait," she said with a coquettish pout. "You've left me baking up here for hours."
Replying, "And I'd say you're perfectly done," he slipped one sleeve of the sundress off her shoulder and kissed the nape of her neck. Had her dress been buttoned up, this would have been all the collar allowed; but as it was, the other sleeve slipped down in sympathy.
Their mutual surprise at this exposure soon forked into widely disparate reactions: delight in him and embarrassment in her. With the slightest additional tug, Tobias eased the fabric over the last soft impediments to gravity, and the yellow dress fell to her waist. Acutely aware of the open window and her lack of underwear, Verona tried to pull her dress up but was confounded by the bouquet in her hands and the sundress sleeves; bunched at her elbows, they effectively bound her arms to her sides.
Pressing his advantage with boyish enthusiasm, Tobias lowered his attentions and took extravagant advantage of her bound state. "Someone might see us," she protested, squirming beneath his affection.
"If they are," he murmured, "I'm sure they're enjoying it."
With the scene she'd witnessed across the street disconcertingly fresh in her mind, she thought, It's my bachi again; this is what I get for my own spying.
Glancing out her unshaded living room window at the neighboring building, she complained, "If I want to put myself on display, I'd go down to Broadway and get paid for it."
"My, my," he said, chortling with mock concern, "What a proper little Catholic girl you are." Reaching over to the window, he pulled the curtains closed and said, "There."
The curtains were of the same sheer white fabric as those in her bedroom, and Verona could well imagine how much a neighbor might discern through the gauzy silk.
"Why don't we just sashay into the bedroom?" she suggested as seductively as she could manage.
Drawing a line from her throat to her navel, he lowered his touch; discovering her sans-panties state, he teased, "Is all your underwear dirty?"
"As a matter of fact, most of it is," she said, still trying to wriggle free. "I tried to do my laundry but my witch neighbor drove me away with her broomstick."
"Even those sweet Italian things are dirty?" he asked.
Sensing the fragility of his expansive mood, she said in mock reproach, "It's your fault; they made me too hot."
Extending his touch to her hips, he murmured, "I'm sorry—but then, maybe I'm not."
Drawing a new horizontal line just below the faint edge of her bikini top, he said appreciatively, "You sunbathing is paying off. "
"I'm glad you approve," she said puckishly. "But do you really want the teenager next door to see me, too?"
"He's probably dreamed of this moment as much as I have," he replied smoothly; and with his arms locked around her waist, Tobias proceeded to console himself with youthful abandon.
Stage-whispering, "It's one teenager watching another," Verona began inching slowly backwards toward the bedroom, pulling Tobias with her. At the entrance to the short hallway where the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom doors met, he paused his attentions to drop his trousers and playfully tug her sundress to her ankles. "We need to liberate you from this terrible imprisonment," he said with mock solicitousness.
As she yielded the bunched yellow cotton to his grasp, she said in her best bedroom-voice pout, "You could have at least called me."
"I couldn't help it, but I'll try to be nicer now," he replied softly. Their eyes met, and she saw both his repressed frustration and a reflection of her own fear.
As he embraced her, she let the crushed bouquet fall from her fingers and thought, Poor Tobias; he escapes his high-pressure job for a little fun with his mistress, and she has to make a point. What a spoiled brat I am.
Verona unbuttoned his shirt and tried to slow him with playful resistance; but her voyeur's warmth offered him a powerfully countervailing encouragement, and she was left to muse, what strange things come to mind through half-closed eyes.
She'd never had a lover old enough to have gray hair at his temples, but Tobias was remarkably youthful for a man in his middle years. He kept his dark hair short, minimizing the encroaching gray, and his bicycle rides amidst the city's steep hills kept him fit in more ways than one.
Tiring of entertaining his hallway affections, she murmured in a purposefully plaintive tone, "Can't we just go to bed?"
"But you're so nice right here," he'd replied. Pushing Tobias away, she gave him a glance of sarcastic amusement. "I think you're riding too much these days," she said huskily. Tobias whispered, "Madam, your bed awaits," and his shame-faced grin reminded her of a teenager stealing mangoes off a neighbor's tree.
Taking her hand, he stepped out of his trousers, and in an automatic gesture of tidiness she bent down to retrieve them. In his haste to undress, he'd pulled his leather belt halfway out of the loops; impulsively slipping it loose of its remaining bonds, she let the belt trail from her free hand as he led her into the bedroom. Seeing the opportunity for a provocative little love lash, she playfully snapped the belt at his bare buttocks.
Out of inexperience or perhaps in ignorance of her own energy, she misjudged the force needed and the belt tip snaked out like a viper's tongue, catching Tobias' pale derriere at maximum acceleration. The nasty-sounding crack was quickly followed by a sharp exclamation, and he turned to glower at her in puzzled pain.
Lifting her hand to her lips in an instinctive gesture of horror, she was unable to suppress a nervous giggle, for Tobias's expression uncannily mirrored that of Winston Churchill in the famous portrait; taken seconds after the photographer had snatched the great man's cigar from his mouth, it had captured a risible anger frozen in mid-glare.
The big difference, Verona thought, still trying to stop giggling, was that Winston Churchill wasn't buck naked from the waist down; the tails of Tobias' unbuttoned pin-striped shirt protected little and hid even less.
Tobias rubbed his backside and hesitated for a long moment before darting to her closet. Stripping a narrow brown leather belt from her khaki trousers, he rushed her with comic aggressiveness. With a high-pitched laugh Verona scrambled onto her bed, seeking the safety of the other side. Tobias' first attempt at retribution cracked hollowly in midair, but his second caught her bare rump with a crisp snap, and Verona yelped in surprise as she tumbled off the bed. Positioning herself defensively against the wall, she said reproachfully, "That really hurt."
"I know," he replied, grinning. "From first-hand experience."
"But that was all your strength," she pouted, rubbing her backside tenderly.
Chastened, he said, "Sorry, I guess I did get a little carried away."
As she drew warily closer, each launched attacks at such close quarters that their belts slapped ineffectively against each other's backsides, creating more laughter than distress. Reckoning that the protection offered by clothing was better than none, Verona dashed to her closet. Unfortunately, the only easily accessible items hung on the door hook: her old house dress—too tight to squirm into quickly—and her nightgown from Tobias, a filmy affair of pink satin and lace. She'd just slipped it on when Tobias's belt licked her satin-clad backside with a sharp snap.
"That's no fair," she said as sternly as she could manage though her giggling. "You can hit harder than I can."
"But you have the longer belt," he pointed out, "and it's very effective. Look." He half-turned to exhibit the red patch on his skin, and she made a frisky effort to raise another mark on him.
"Hey," he protested with mock injustice. "That's no fair."
Recognizing that she was invulnerable with her back to the door, Tobias edged into the center of the room and turned round to invitingly wriggle his rear end in a parody of striptease artistry. Seizing the bait, Verona aimed several vigorous attempts at his offering, but Tobias kept advancing just out of reach until he ran out of territory by the window. Verona's perseverance was rewarded with a nicely laid-on wallop that set him wincing.
Verona glanced briefly out the window and wondered if the girl, or anyone else, had seen their belt play. That brief distraction allowed Tobias an opening, and his energetic belt struck her daintily clad derriere with a resounding crack. Rubbing the pink satin over her new wound, she lashed back in a strenuous counterattack.
Tobias escaped across the bed, and as she chased him a sudden inspiration caused her to grab a pillow. Holding it firmly over her backside, she met his reproachful gaze with serene confidence.
"No fair," he complained, in proper schoolyard outrage.
"You can try to get your own," she said, smiling wickedly.
"I think I will," he replied, and made an urgent bid for the bed. Her belt found him halfway to his goal, and with a yelp he suddenly turned and grabbed her protective pillow from her grasp. Struggling to recover it, she bumped into him and they both tumbled onto the bed. Their giggles and gasps somehow ended with Tobias corkscrewed on her back, pinning her to the gold comforter. Untwisting his awkward position, he found Verona's rump invitingly at hand; sliding her nightgown up, he gave her rounded flesh a slap.
"Ouch," she cried, but the sincerity of her pain was greatly in doubt, for the sound far exceeded the actual damage.
"Now I finally have you where I want you," he murmured theatrically. Chuckling with faux-sinister glee, he'd proceeded to give her a series of frisky open-palmed blows.
Her half-hearted struggle did little but add zest; when she stopped wriggling, an odd sensation came over her and a warm flush rose to her face. With wordless relief, Verona felt the full restoration of their harmony; she wanted him again, as much as she'd ever wanted him, and with that recognition she let go of all she'd held within her.
Sensing the change, Tobias stopped and asked, "Are you alright?"
She murmured assent, and as their high-spirited contest had left her short of breath, she shifted under him to breathe easier.
As an unintended result, his forearm pinned a loose lock of her hair and she winced, saying, "Ouch, my hair." Tobias moved the offending limb, and she sat up to free her coiled black tresses from the bamboo clip. Her hair cascaded down to her midriff, and with an admiring grin he toyed with the shiny lengths. Positioning herself astride him, she smiled primly and announced, "And now I finally have you where I want you."
"Uh-oh," he said, still playing with her hair.
Leaning down, she murmured, "Yes, you're in for it now, Mister."
Some time later, as her bodysong melted into gratitude, the scent of the pine incense emerged in her awareness. As the rhythm of his breath subsided, images of rippling crimson waves filled her mind and she mused contentedly, my companions in wholeness.
Tobias was sweet, but not too sweet, and with her pleasantly punished flesh still glowing, she thought, I could make a habit of this: double happiness.
Rising first, Tobias went to the bathroom and returned with a warm wash cloth for her. As he retrieved a dry towel from her linen closet, she wiped her neck and face and then set the cloth on her bedstand. Spotting his belt amidst the rumpled sheets, she snatched it up and with a suppressed grin concealed it behind her.
When Tobias entered with the towel, she unleashed the belt at him in a playful riposte to their earlier game. But the belt snaked around the intended target- and struck home over his tenderest parts. Wincing, he covered himself as Verona dropped the belt in dismay and leaped solicitously to his side.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
Breaking into a worried grin, he said, "Yeah, but that was close."
Laying the towel on the bed, he suddenly grabbed the other belt from the hardwood floor and with a broad grin he flicked the belt in her direction. With a tittering laugh that mixed relief with indignation, she turned evasively and covered her backside. His aim was little better than hers, however, for the tip of his wild fling missed her derriere and struck her right breast below the nipple.
Her merry squeal turned to a moan, and Tobias rushed to her, apologizing profusely; lowering the strap of her nightgown, they found an angry red welt beneath the pink satin.
"That really hurt," she complained.
"I am so sorry," he repeated, but his expression of regret suddenly broke into a repentant grin. She struggled to maintain her frown but it too dissolved into a half-smile. "I wish I'd hit you here," she said, rubbing herself tenderly.
"Don't blame me," he replied. "If you hadn't turned—"
She struck him playfully on the chest with her fist and pouted, "There. Now we're equal."
He laughed, and despite the sharp pain, Verona wished the moment would never end, even as she knew it had already ended.
Copyright 2008 Charles Hugh Smith all rights reserved in all media. No reproduction in any media in any format (text, audio, video/film, web) without written permission of the author.
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