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I’m out on the back deck, but feeling like I’m somewhere else. Snow comes to the Puget Sound only two or three times a year, and last night’s was exceptional, painting my evergreen view with a vanilla frost. I sit with my third coffee on a thick-timbered picnic table and imagine myself at a long-ago trip to Tahoe. I’m nestled into the corner of a deck overlooking the intermediate runs, sharing a sourdough bowl with a handsome, dark-eyed devil of a man.
The present calls to me in a jangle of metal, and I know what’s coming: a merry flight of chocolate fur and a resounding “Woof!” I can almost parse the letters: W-O-O-F.
Java bursts through the trellised archway and takes a mighty leap onto the deck. He is completely unprepared for the effects of snow on a hard surface. When his paws fail to make purchase, he performs a four-footed Astaire routine and collapses, legs flying out like the poles of a wrecked pup tent as he slides on his belly, drops off the end of the deck and lands with a whump! During the entire stunt, he wears an expression that is both puzzled and ridiculously calm – and that’s the part that sets me off. When Floy Craig pops her blonde curls around the trellis, she finds me nearly suffocating with laughter.
“What the hell was that?”
“Oh!” I squeak. “Hard to… Can’t…”
She wipes off the opposite bench, takes a seat and watches me with much amusement. Then she sees the long swipe leading to Java, who’s standing in the yard, shaking himself dry.
“Ah! I can picture it now. He’s got the same problem with the tiling in the kitchen. Does that cartoon thing where his feet are just swishing around like a propeller. If we could only get one of these on tape, we could make some serious money. Can you talk now?”
I’m not going to take the chance, so I shake my head.
“I was going to ask you what the hell you’re doing out here, but then I saw this view. Must remind you of Alaska.” She takes a panoramic scan, then turns back to me and rests her chin on her hand.
“Are you doing better, Channy? Because… you seem like you are.”
Floy’s caring expression succeeds in disabling my funny bone, but I swallow a couple of times before answering.
“Yes. Yes,” I say. “Things are better. There are some things I needed to get out of my system.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well you know you can talk to me whenever you want, right?”
“Yes, I know. But this one thing, I needed someone a little, I don’t know, farther away? It’s hard to explain.”
Floy looks the slightest bit hurt. People do love the role of therapist, I think. But I can see her flipping my answer over in her mind, and her features relax.
“No, I understand. The things people tell me at the hospital… Well there you are! Are you done with your extreme sports?”
Java has found a safe route to the deck and is nudging Floy’s hand with his snout, trying to jump-start a petting session. He barely gets a response before he’s off again, streaking through the arch at full bark.
“Oh!” I say. “That’s probably my friend. I’d better grab Java so she can get out of her car.”
“Can you hang on to him?” says Floy. I’ll fetch the leash so I can take him for a walk.”
I arrive at the driveway to find Java on his hind legs, front paws planted on the hood of Ruby’s Toyota. Ruby’s inside, laughing hysterically. She rolls down her window to greet me.
“He looks like this director I knew in New York. Very gay and very fierce.”
I grab Java by the collar and pull him down. “Java is on a comic roll this morning.”
Floy trots out the front door and hooks a leash to Java’s collar as I reel off the introductions.
“Floy, Ruby. Ruby, Floy. RubyJavaJavaRuby.”
Ruby gets out and waggles a hand over Java’s floopy head.
“That covers all the combinations. Nice to meet you, Floy.”
“I’ll take this monster far away,” she says, “so you two can have a nice quiet talk.”
“Thanks,” I say. Ruby and I watch as Java drags her around the bend.
“Well,” says Ruby. “Where shall we take our story-swap?”
I can’t stand it. She’s wearing this long, lovely scarlet coat, and she has all this color in her cheeks, and her eyes are so full of energy. I have so carefully tended this garden, only to give it away to a houseguest.
“Like to freeze on my deck?”
“Hmm,” she says, sucking on a fingertip (what’s that about?). “No offense to your Northwest sensibilities, but I’ve had enough snow to last a lifetime. All right if we walk somewhere? Keep the blood pumping?”
“Sure.” The logical route is the loop trail – the opposite direction from Floy and Java – no artful landmarks, but lots of fir and cedar to hold the snow. “Want me to fill a thermos with coffee?”
“No, that’s all right,” she says. “Let’s walk unfettered.” She smiles much too widely.
“Okey-doke. Walk this way.”
We take a right at the end of the driveway, follow Water Drive for a block, then duck into the forest at the trailhead, onto a wide path covered in woodsy mulch.
“Pastoral,” says Ruby.
“Yeah, it’s nice. I could swear someone’s been tending it. It seems too neat to be natural. So I never though to ask, but what brought you here, exactly? To the Northwest.”
“A geopsychologist would say it’s the logical fourth corner: Florida, LA, New York – Washington. However, as a wise woman once said, that would be too neat to be natural. In actuality, I have a brother out here. He’s been having some trouble, so I thought some sibling-time was in order. Hey Channy, do you mind that I’m going out with Harry?”
Damn! I hadn’t expected her to bring it up first.
“I’m okay,” I say, not terribly convincingly. “He’s sort of like a big brother, mostly. He’s very sweet. He’s been through a lot.”
“So he says.”
In a pathway conversation, you can measure awkward silences in feet. This one takes thirty.
“So what’s he… like?” I ask.
Ruby laughs. “Well, you know what he’s like.”
Yikes. “No, I’ve never slept with Harry.”
Ruby stops and looks at me. “Neither have I.”
Twenty feet. The pressure gets too much, and I have to laugh at my presumption.
“Oh shit! Should I just shut up now? I think I’ll just shut up now.”
“No,” she says. “I’ve had too many cautious fucking friendships in my life. You say whatever you feel like, Channy. And I promise you I won’t get upset.”
“So what did you guys do?”
“Went to a Shari’s in Tacoma. Had a two a.m. breakfast. Don’t you love those?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“I was pretty toasty.”
“Harry. Or maybe he just holds it well. He drove me home, gave me a courtly goodnight kiss, and then – get this: the next day, he tows my car home. Knocks on my door, hands me my car keys – which I didn’t even remember giving him. Is this guy for real?”
“Yes,” I say. “He is.”
“Well, that kind of freakishly anachronistic chivalry demanded a reward so, that night, I took him to this place in Seattle. The Kingfisher. All painted up inside like a Louisiana roadhouse. And there’s some kind of unwritten code that only thee most gorgeous black people work there – and eat there. It’s like a casting call for Ain’t Misbehavin’. Hamster would fit right in.
“After that, we went to this play about a gay man who falls in love with a shark at the aquarium. And when the gay man is kissing the man who plays the shark, I peek at Harry to check the squirm factor, and he’s just laughing his head off, like everyone else. And I’m thinking, Damn! Is this guy for real?”
“Yes,” I say. “He is.”
Ruby stops for a second, reading my repetition, then shakes it off.
“And again, a goodnight kiss. Well, a long one. Yesterday, he had to work. I’m meeting him tonight at karaoke. I think we’re both rather covetous of Channy’s Sanatorium for Wayward Singers, so we’re circling each other rather carefully. But… well, I don’t want to turn you into a double agent, Channy, but I’m feeling a little dizzy. Can you toss me a couple of clues?”
I yank a handful of needles from a Scotch fir and hold them to my nose.
“‘Bout a year ago, Harry had his heart drawn and quartered. I think he’s okay now. Just…”
I stop, because I don’t like the quaver that’s working into my voice. But Ruby doesn’t miss much.
“Let it fly, girlfriend.” She slaps me on the back, like I’m choking on something.
I stop walking, and place a hand on her fuzzy scarlet shoulder.
“Don’t go underestimating him just because he’s nice.”
She looks at me for a second, then turns to walk. As I pull alongside, I swear I can feel the sadness pouring off of her. It’s no wonder she’s an actress, I think. Her emotions turn on a toggle switch.
We enter a long, flat stretch of trail beneath a high tunnel of Douglas fir. Fifty feet. When she speaks, it’s barely audible.
“Don’t worry. That’s a lesson I’ve learned.”
Photo by MJV