The cell phone rings. She holds it to her ear. She stares out the open door of the basement room. Just past the doorway is another sub-level space with a large exercise machine, some dumbbells of various weights and half a dozen storage bins stacked in the corner. She cannot see any of it from her spot on the bed.
Her eyes linger on the sheet rock just beyond the door frame. She listens
to the ringing,
A few windows at the very top of the ceiling reveal nothing but a few blades of grass along the cement walkways on each side of the house. The windows are a foot tall, a few feet wide. Just a little bit of light filters into the basement. It’s the cool pale light of fall. She feels a little cold in her flannel.
Wood paneling lines the walls, thin faux wood linoleum covers the basement floor. There are cracks and chips on the edges of the tiles close to the walls. A few mismatched blankets are crumpled on the bed, along with a few pillows ensconced in dingy white cases.
She was beyond excited as she was boarded the airplane just seven hours earlier. She stood about fifteen feet from the open gate waiting for her boarding group to be called.
She looked at an older woman close to her. She had a poof of white hair piled high on her head and was dressed elegantly in black dress and pearl earrings. She wondered if the old woman could sense the delight in her heart, the nervous sparkles in her eyes.
A few hours in, as the plane made its way into the night, a tickle of doubt began to emerge.
She brushed it off once, twice, tried to focus on her book. But then it settled in…
As the grim reality of her choice became clear, she felt uneasy. It was a plan like all her plans had been, no research, recon, or testing the waters. It was head first or nothing. She dove in with her eyes closed, grasping at the ribbons of her fantasy.
Her optimistic smile had faded by the time she stepped off the plane. She wondered if he would be there to pick her up. She hardly recognized him by baggage claim in a blue tie-dye shirt. He wore long shorts and flip flops. His hair was longer now, almost to his shoulders and very blond at the tips. Where it hung around his face, the ends were fanned out, like Farah Fawcett’s style in the 70s.
She picked up her bag and they descended to the parking garage on an escalator. He was one step below her. Without looking at her he said:
“This is crazy.”
She nodded quietly, smiling sheepishly.
She noticed there was an edge in his voice, perhaps regret.
It was past eleven when they pulled up to the house. He escorted her through the living room, through the kitchen and towards the stairs that led to the converted basement.
“My brother’s wife and kid are in Mexico right now.”
She nodded, silently carrying her bag.
There was a single light on in the kitchen, pale and flickering. A white Formica table was close to the stove. On it were a few forgotten coffee cups and a folded magazine. The house felt lonely.
They walked down the stairs into the bedroom. She thought they would kiss and have sex, he would take her in his arms and say how much he had missed her.
But they were strangers.
Now that she was in his house, in the real world as everyone liked to call it, it seemed strange that they had ever been more than strangers.
If he had leaned over and touched her face, she would have given herself willingly anyway.
But he didn’t, and that made it all the stranger to her.
They slept in the same bed that night. His alarm was set for five. He told her he would be back around 9am.
She greeted him warmly when he arrived. For a moment she imagined that he had brought her breakfast. But there was only one to-go cup of coffee in his hand. He held out the donut bag to her with reluctant politeness. She peered in and saw only one donut.
She shook her head sadly, saying:
“There’s just one.”
He said nothing.
Her surprise turned to anger, the anger folded and re-folded, an origami lotus revealing its petals of disillusionment.
They had had a brief sex-filled affair. Sex in beds, hammocks, on a balcony beneath the night stars. He looked after her a few days when she was sick with sun stroke, helped her arrange a bus ticket back to Guadalajara. They went out to eat a few times.
Besides a few sporadic phone calls throughout the summer, that was all they had. In one of their conversations he invited her to Chicago, where he was moving in with his brother. The invitation had not been for a visit, but rather a permanent living arrangement.
She had gone willingly into the fantasy, her parents and friends once again concerned about her reckless impulses.
A few hours before her flight to the Midwest, her mother said:
“You won’t be too proud to come back if it doesn’t end up working, will you?”
And now here she was, a house in the suburbs, the cool winds of fall a whisper at the back of her neck.
He invited her to sit outside with him. Fall leaves floated on the surface of the pool. They sat on the cold cement walkway surrounding the pool.
“Is something wrong? You look sad.” She said.
“It was a mistake asking you to come here. I’m sorry I did that. In August I got some news and I have been going to the doctor a lot. During the summer I was with a lot of women- after I was with you, I was with another woman. I think she gave me something. It’s not serious, there is treatment- but that is why I was not with you last night. It’s why I don’t think you should be here.”
She was quiet.
“It was a crazy idea.”
“Ok, well, I’m going to call and get a flight. Will you take me to the airport later?”
The telephone rings. She holds the cell phone to her ear. She stares out the open door of the basement room. She listens
to the ringing,
“Hey Jen, it’s me. I’ll be in San Francisco at 9 tonight. Can you me meet me there?”
“What?” She says through laughter.
It’s a familiar laugh, low, guttural and rolling.
“Yep.” A smile breaks across her face. “I’ll tell you about it tonight.”