(Second and final part, continued from first part)
The kitchen door swings open andHarvey strides in. “Janie, her name is Althea Hamilton and she says she had an appointment to see you about the room you advertised in the paper this week.”
Of course. I remember now. I give a little laugh and shrug. “Looks like my memory is faltering, Duane.” Looking up at Harvey, I ask: “But why was she wearing that crazy get up?”
Harvey pauses before he says, “What crazy get up, Janie?”
This is getting preposterous. “The veil, the long white dress, all that gauze.”
He pauses even longer than before gently replying. “She had a white scarf in her hair and a white print dress, but I didn’t notice anything unusual about her attire.”
I close my eyes and breathe deeply. “What did you tell her?”
“I made your apologies, told her something important had come up. She gave me her phone number.” He hesitates, then adds, “She seems quite nice, Janie.”
Time for retreat and cognition. “Will do. Thanks to both of you for humoring me.”
It is one week later. Althea and her piano have moved in with me. She has a room at the far end of the house, and although she offered to move her piano into her space, I urged her to keep it in the livingroom. I don’t go to concerts, but I treasure the sound of a piano at home.
When I had finally kept our appointment, Althea was wearing a mint green sun dress. She smiled and held out her hand, and taking it I looked at two of the clearest blue eyes I had eveer seen. She was in her late twenties and small-boned. Softly curling blonde hair framed her pixie face. Her smile shone like a light. Feeling foolish, I did what I could to expedite her moving in. So much for my intuitive flashes!
None of us is without our idiosyncrasies which we take for granted, but sometimes they catch us unaware. My children live in another state and I was widowed erly, so my idiosyncrasies have had time to flourish uninterrupted and uncriticized. For instance, I am allergic to cats, but sleep with Juno, my Siamese, and not infrequently punctuate the silence with sneezes. I run from and lie to telemarketers, and sleep not only with Juno but three or four books. While not sstingy, I refuse to buy a new mattress, although mine engages me in a mild form of torture all night. I avoid my voice mail messages , but make a bee-line each morning for my e-mail.
Althea, too, has quirks. She carries her one-place setting of her own which she uses at the table, washes them and retrieves them to her room after the meal. And then there’s her yoga, meditation and her brisk walk at daybreak. None of which probably means much to you, but is definitely outside of my own personal lifestyle. No one comes to visit her, and as far as I can tell she receives few or no phone calls. She leaves the house for several hours most days of the week, but when I hesitantly inquire, she mumbles something about volunteer work at the hospital. It is not apparently something she wants to share. She spends the rest of her time reading and possibly writing, although she does not leave her writing around and does not refer to it.
As summer turns into fall, I find myself drawn to Althea more as a friend than a boarder. I know nothing of her finances. She pays me regularly and does not work. She never gets mail at the house. I assume she prefers a post office box, although the subject as never come up. In fact, I know little of her background. I know that at one time she studied to be a concert pianist. I know also that she loves flowers, because she contributes a bouquet weekly for the livingroom. And she wears a light fragrance that reminds me of my grandmother.
Neither of us are regular churchgoers. When I asked, she smiled and quoted one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems to me, about keeping the sabbath staying home, with a Bobolink for a Chorister. Maybe she writes poetry. I smiled, “If we were Quaker the two of us would be a sufficient meeting for worship.”
Tonight we have been invited to dinner with Duane and Harvey. Our silence is companionable as we walk the short distance to their house. Althea is lovely, as usual, although I notice that her step seems uncertain on the gravel. Now I realize that she has not been taking her early morning walk the last several days.
Then we are at Duane and Harvey’s, and Harvey answers the door, his hands covered with flour. I raise my nose to sniff the delectable odors emanating from the kitchen, and both m nose and Harvey, see that the two hosts are in the throes of food preparation. Althea quietly deposits her own eating utensils on the table. Duane does a subtle double-take but says nothing.
I perch on a kitchen stool, staying out of their way, and watch. Althea glances around briefly and spots a chore that needs doing: cutting the salad fixings. She washes her hands and dives in.
Duane and Harvey chat happily about diet and nutrition. Suddenly Althea gives a little gasp and drops the paring knife, which clatters to the kitchen floor. Harvey stoops to retrieve it but Althea steps on the knife, saying, “It’s just a little nick–let me get it.”
It is the first time I’ve seen Althea flustered. She has come prepared; apparently she carries band aids with her, and quickly wraps one around her finger. She is shaking as she retrieves the knife and and tosses some of the salad she had been preparing into the trash. Am I the only one who sees her slip the knife into her pocket? My dear new friend is full of many surprises. I lean back and cross my arms. It will be interested to see how my old friends take to her
The kitchen is large and cheery, the food delectable and filling. Harvey and Duane regale us with stories from the library and university. I am deeply relaxed and enjoying myself immensely. Harvey and Duane have been together for eight years, and are possibly the most amicable couple I know. I glance over at Althea, who appears quite taken with their jocular affability.
Turning to Harvey, Althea asks, “Do you recommend books to your patrons? I always thought that would be fun,grandly spreading enlightenment to everyone.”
Harvey grins. “I recommend books only to a chosen few. Most of the patrons would be quite disappointed if they discovered my plebian tastes.”
Duane snorted as he butters another roll. I know what’s coming, since I know Harvey. “Yeah, if plebian is a nice word for dingbat.” The men exchange a look of warm mutual tolerance.
“Oh?” It’s obvious to me that Althea is enjoying my friends as much as I. “Just what are your plebian tastes?”
Impetuously, Harvey beckons Althea away from her dinner and into the livingroom, where a small library is crammed into the corner. “You see….” Harvey points to his favorite dog-eared books. There is Consilience along side of The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind; The Band Played On next to The Denial of Death, which was next to a James North Patterson thriller. The User Illusion and Waking Dreams leaned against the I Ching.
Althea shakes her head. “These aren’t dingbat books. Where do you keep those?”
Harvey shrugs and there is a twinkle in his eye as he replies, “Oh, I keep my UFO books in the bedroom.”
A peal of laughter escapes from Althea. t is the first time I have heard her laugh. It is full-throated and musical. I love it. I love her.
After a wicked dessert we all embrace at the door. Althea has rinsed her place setting and tucked it into her bag. As we re-trace our steps home, I am filled with gratefulness for such friends. I say, “Harvey has shared most of his books with me.”
Althea nods absently. “They are good books. Have you read The Band Played On?”
“Yes, and The User Illusion.
As we enter the house I turn towards my room but stop when I see her scooting onto the piano bench. With a sigh of contentment I seat myself in the rocker and close my eyes as the lilting melody of Mozart fills the room. “Beautiful,” I say as the final notes echo. She smiles.
“Althea, I’m so glad you moved in.” She smiles again and we retire.
Once in my bed I toss and turn even more than usual, fretting over the mystery that is Althea. It is late when I finally fall asleep after vowing to learn more, and find myself with a wispy Althea in the fog, on a boat dock. Althea emerges from the mist and then is engulfed by it again. The rough lapping of water against the dock presages a storm. A foghorn wails, sounding lonely in the night. I grasp the mooring rope of a boat with my left hand while I search for Althea with my right. Making contact, I grab hold of a fistful of her white gauzy gown, which evaporates. “Althea!”
She looks fearfully at me over her shoulder and throws a metallic object far away into the water. It lands so far away the splash is inaudible. Then the thunder begins to roll and I awaken with a pounding heart. I recount my dream to Althea the next morning as we sip our coffee out on the deck in the clear September sunshine. I have not been looking at her as I retell it, to spare her the embarrassment of my knowing about the knife. Now she quickly finishes her coffee and stands abruptly. “I’ve got to think about this,” she says, and withdraws to her room.
Her room is at the far end of the house. No sounds reach me. She could be crying or packing or even throweing things. Or praying. I close my own eyes and see her once again waiting on my front stoop that day in June. I recall her separate utensils, her response to cutting herself, and asking if I’d read And the Band Played On. The puzzle pieces slowly settle into place. Then I know. My vision wasn’t about my own death!
Althea responds to my tap on her door. She has been crying. I open my arms. “Althea. Why didn’t you tell me you had HIV?” She blindly seeks out the edge of the bed behind her and sinks onto it. She takes a deep breath.
“I didn’t want to experience another rejection. I’m sorry I didn’t trust you.”
Now it’s my turn to draw a deep breath. I realize she was right not to trust me, not back in June.