Jane thinks back to a day eight years ago when she met Mrs. Helston's son.
(If you missed it read Chapter 1.)
(If you missed it read Chapter 1.)
The boy meets girl story that radically redirects the rest of my life begins in Manhattan, that American holy of holies, during my sophomore year of nursing school, on a day nearly as perfect as today, though on an island full of skyscrapers perfect days are difficult to enjoy. In New York I have no piano on which to play out the meditations of my thoughts. Instead I find myself gazing out at the bay from Battery Park. It’s a city park with as much cement as grass, something I’m still getting used to coming from a quieter portion of the country where buildings and trees grow to the same height and a park means greenery scattered with picnic shelters and the occasional bike path.
I buy popcorn from a vendor and feed the pigeons while tourists board the Staten Island Ferry. My roommates say there’s a turkey named Zelda who lives in this park. Maybe she’ll want popcorn as much as the pigeons.
The popcorn chucked with more vehemence than the pigeons prefer reminds me I’m emotional without thinking emotionally because there is nothing to think about. I have been accepted to a piano conservatory in Boston, and though my mother is supportive, my brother, Jason, is on his way to affect an intervention. Our three other siblings have no opinion in the matter. Since Dad passed on they follow their eldest. I have the impression this may have been the case even when Dad was alive but I was too young to remember. Knowing my brother is on his way makes any arguments I attempt with myself irrelevant. I make them only half-heartedly and save my true thoughts for projecting popcorn, aim for the tail feathers, aim for the head, fling a handful and watch them kill each other for it. I wonder if pigeons eat spiders and if anyone around happens to know. My next projection accidently hits a guy about my age as he unknowingly walks into my line of fire.
Daniel Helston is just another kid, a little less anonymous than the rest of us because of his famous older brother, but not the suave young movie star who will be vaulted from unknown talent into superstardom in seven or so months. Pre-famous Daniel turns heads for the wrong reasons wearing extra-long board shorts and a matching Billabong cap and T-shirt, not usual garb for Manhattan. Even tourists are less casual.
“Did you just throw something at me?”
“I can prove it.”
I thrust my chin out defiantly.
As quick as a cat, he’s down scooping popcorn off the cement. I let fly the remainder of my bag into his face.
“See, you just threw something at me.”
“That’s a cheap trick.”
“Serves you right.”
I laugh. It feels like the first time I’ve laughed in ages, maybe even the entire year. Serious medical students have no time for laughter and believe it when I say the past-life me version was as serious as we come.
It’s short lived laughter as he sits down beside me and I’m suddenly unnerved, trying to remember the last time I shared a bench with someone of the opposite sex.
“Why are you throwing popcorn instead of eating it?”
“The ocean didn’t want it so I’m feeding the birds. What’s your excuse?”
“Had some time to kill while the older bro was at work so I came to see what east coast waves looked like.”
“There aren’t any waves. There’s no beach.”
He shakes his head. “There are always waves. Somewhere out there they’re swallowing ships. The ocean is the last untamed frontier, you know. It’s the most powerful force on earth.”
Because I’d learned my lesson about the correct anchor for my life, I’m compelled to correct him, “God is the most powerful force on earth.”
“Unless he doesn’t live on earth,” he counters.
I’m ready to rise to the occasion of the argument until I see his eyes laughing at me, daring an escalation of our game. I need something else to throw at him. At this point I am most confident with violence. I’m the second youngest of five children, all boys except me. I know the importance of being able to aim and throw because after they close the distance, brothers’ physical strength and size cannot be stopped. At this point you’re doing the math: sophomore in college, no male experience, virgin, ugh. Yes on the virgin point and certainly not ashamed of it. But I did date a guy for three years. He just happened to be my brother’s best friend; I’ve known him since I was four.
Lacking further ammunition, I use my next best trick and bring the two-inch heel of my marginally old fashioned dress shoes down on the row of toes exposed beyond his sandal strap. I stand and grind and run without waiting to witness the result. For all the mortified girls reading right now, this is not mean-spirited, its survival 101 for only daughters.
Halfway to the war memorial he catches up with me, easily keeping pace, even jogging backwards and watching as my energy flags. “You’re from California, aren’t you?”
“Yah sure. Is it that obvious?”
“You look like you live on a beach. I’ve always wanted to see California. My aunt says it’s the best place on earth.”
“I’d agree with that. What about you? You don’t look like you’re from anywhere.”
He’s still playing but I suddenly turn somber, remembering how the small matter of birthplace has become potent with meaning over the last twenty-four hours.
Interventions are supposed to be for addicts and bad dating decisions. The New York natives I live with at school have interventions almost every week. Dawson’s Creek interventions, and chocolate interventions, and study interventions during finals. None of them live in a world in which their older brother flies half-way across the country to prevent them from changing schools.
“What’s your older brother like?” I ask. “Do you get along?”
Daniel’s laugh comes out like a cough that immediately makes me wish for a retraction. I’ve forgotten people out in the real world don’t ask complete strangers personal questions remotely relating to the area of their true feelings on A, B, or C. I’ve ruined our grand beginning. These first few minutes feel like a different world, one in which we make our own rules. My question has cracked a hole in the ready-made scenery just large enough for me to glimpse where I came from—the absolute reality of five minutes ago where I wait to face my brother and be talked out of the only thing I’ve ever wanted.
The panic is short-lived. Daniel is only thinking. Someone my age who takes time to think before he answers is a novelty. Somewhere in these silent moments while he thinks and looks out at the water, I fall in love with him. Don’t laugh. It happens just like that with a clean break between the before and after. It becomes the second absolute truth of my life after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you’re still laughing that’s okay. Reading it, I’d probably laugh, too, but silently because I scare people when I laugh.
If there is a way to reasonably explain such a thing and be believed, I don’t know it; a good reason to keep something a secret. It defies all my instilled ideals about finding a man who will make a good husband, a godly man who will treasure my purity. In the first ten seconds of my headlong plunge into love I see my mother shaking her head, telling me Daniel is too attractive, that he won’t know how to be content with me.
Still, the plunge continues, the attachment grows a yard per millisecond. Physical attraction, I now know, is not something to be discounted, but it is equally inexplicable. I’m not the only one. Millions of dollars have been spent by researchers trying to explain the phenomenon of attraction and concoct the perfect recipe of proportion, shape, and hormones. In this instance, I’ll venture a few thoughts for those of you movie fans wondering how I could not have been thunderstruck in love from ground zero. The first being, when movie stars are not being movie stars they look like all the rest of us. Pre-famous Daniel looks like a surfer from California, scruffy and slouching with that certain air people have about them when they are unemployed beach dudes and proud of their poverty. Every part of him oozes connection to salty grime. Maybe the sculpted Ken doll look he sports now is the real deal but for it to work he must have bought a complete personality change along with it. My two cents. Moving on.
“Yeah, we get along,” begins Daniel. “We surf together. He gives me advice. Lots of advice. Especially about girls. He thinks he’s the king of wooing women. He got married last year so now all he can do is give advice.” A sly grin slides around the side of his mouth.
I know something about older brothers who play kings.
“You’ve probably heard of him. Steve Helston, he’s an actor, likes to play superhero-type roles of course.”
“I don’t watch many movies.”
A thick ungroomed eyebrow arches in surprise full enough for him to turn and face me. The game has returned, a new challenge.
“He’s known for Poseidon.”
“The god of the ocean.”
“It’s a movie.”
“Haven’t seen in.”
“The Last Centurion.”
“Peace, Love and Understanding.”
I shake my head, grinning at his surprise. His eyes become slanted as though I must be lying just to be astonishing.
“Lord of the Rings.”
“People I know have read the books.”
“Your brother was in Star Wars?”
“He hasn’t been in the last three.”
“Oh. No, I haven’t seen Star Wars, the new ones or the originals.”
He leans forward, scratching the scruff on his chin. “I don’t understand. You look like a normal person. Do you just watch girl movies? What about Devil Wears Prada or You’ve Got Mail?”
“I saw Juno,” I offer. “The one about the teenager who gets pregnant. My whole youth group went to see it.”
“Church youth group?” he asks as the big picture becomes clear. I watch as he revises his initial impression of me to include this apparently innocuous but vitally influential detail. Even at this early stage in my real world experience I already know most people don’t bat an eye hearing I was in a church youth group until they learn we all went to a movie together. Hearing my church youth group consisted of fifty kids who doubled as my homeschooled classmates usually turns me into a specimen.
With Daniel, I leave this last detail unspoken, feeling somehow he may already have guessed. If anything he’s deciding what to say next given the unexpected re-landscaping of our playing field. The good news is he doesn’t cut his losses and run.
“I think I’d like them if I knew where to start,” I venture.
“So what do you like already?”
“A perfect fifth,” I answer without thinking. By now I’m up floating around the clouds believing anything I say no matter how out of context will make sense to him. This is what doing drugs feels like. This is what being drunk feels like. This is….
“I don’t know what that is.”
Earth to Jane, please return to earth. “It’s a music interval. The patriotic interval. If your brother’s life had a theme it would involve perfect fifths because he’s the hero.”
“Are you a musician?”
“No, I’m a nursing student.”
“Actually I had hoped to move up to Boston next year. There’s a really good piano performance program that wants me.” I can’t help but put it that way to boast a little. No one but me knows how big of a deal the program is. My mother considers music a hobby, not a skill. The idea that a college could have a nationally-recognized music major probably never entered her mind on the phone when she all but shrugged off the decision to my brother.
“So you’re pretty good.”
“I am.” It’s not boasting. It’s fact. I was taught to tell the truth.
“I always thought piano would be fun.” He’s drifted back into thoughtful mode, studying me basking in the glow of his third revision of old-Jane. He likes what he sees and is trying to figure out how to keep this thing of ours going. “When you start watching movies you could choose them by composer. The Internet could probably even tell you who uses perfect fifths.”
“I never would have thought of that.”
“James Horner does a lot with water. If you have to go back to wherever it is you come from, you could take the ocean with you that way.”
I dig in my purse for something to write this down. No matter how significant I won’t remember. There are too many key terms and formulae and definitions running around in my brain to keep anything straight.
On the back of a library check-out slip Daniel begins to write. After James Horner he adds another name, and then another, until most of the slip is covered with his cramped manuscript scrawl. I still have it. The library book titles have faded almost to illegibility but the pen on the other side remains clear. If both of us lose our memories it will be the only proof we met.
“Now when you go to Boston you’ll have some new tunes for your new life.”
New life? I wonder. The ferry has returned and is disembarking bucket hats, walking shoes, and cameras with lenses the size of my arm. And those are just the white people, a minority in this load of mostly sleek Asians with their top of the line camera phones decorated on the backs with talismans hanging from the ends. Even the elderly are great dressers, smooth, understated. I don’t know much about clothes but I like the idea of dressing Asian.
“You mean Boston? I’m not going. It was just an idea.”
“Well anyway, if you get around to it I think you’ll like that music.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“I just know things.”
We watch the tourists. Whatever we say next will turn into an ending or take the risk into more personal territory. Tourists are a continual fascination. At the start and end of each semester I judge their behavior against my own and decide if I fit into this city that so many call home but so few come from. I wish I’m one of them.
I’m about to say something useless about New York being everyone’s dream of a home town when I think I see my little brother, Tommy, by the ice cream vendor in my peripheral vision. I’m always seeing my siblings in New York when I know they have no reason to be here.
A child carrying an inflated souvenir ball loses her grip while coming down the gangway and the ball falls into the water below. She is instantly inconsolable, stopping the line of passengers as she cries heaving wet sobs in an incomprehensible foreign language. Her thoroughly embarrassed parents cannot convince her to move.
“Five bucks says you can’t get that kid to stop crying.”
I’m already shaking my head. “Uh uh, I don’t do kids. You get her to stop crying and I’ll give you the five bucks or….”
“Or what?” He’s handing me his phone and wallet, taking off his shirt. I don’t have much experience with shirtless men. Needless to say, I don’t know how to act or where to look. An embarrassed heat creeps up my cheeks.
“Or you’ll have to buy me ice cream.”
Leaving me to sit beside his sandals, Daniel jogs barefoot across the cement onto the wharf like people do this every day. And then he’s gone, over the railing into the water. The simultaneous cries of surprise from the twenty-odd people trapped on the ferry is probably heard all the way to Wall Street.
I can’t see into the water. I try standing on the bench but the improvement isn’t enough. Good thinking of Daniel to saddle me with his belongings so I can’t go watch. I’m debating carrying them with me while at the same time remembering how my brothers’ shoes are really gross and I never go near them. Furthermore, these are not my brothers’ sandals. This fact has a potency that clogs in my throat with mysterious promise, a man’s sandals.
Before I fully process this idea, the runaway ball flies straight up into the air and lands on the wharf just past the gangway entrance. Screaming more unintelligible language, the child rushes forward to claim her ball while the waiting passengers cheer. A pair of bucket hatters are on hand to help Daniel up over the railing. Not that he needs it. Remember I said he’s like a cat, a wild African safari cat, a lean, mean, carnivorous machine. He makes quick work of receiving the broken-English thanks from the child and her parents.
“You have any idea how gross that water is?” I ask in order to hide my disquiet as he lopes back to our bench dripping and half naked.
He comes at me with his arms outstretched. “I feel like I should give you a hug.” He chases me around the bench, bouncing, laughing, so full of energy I imagine he could swim the length of the bay and not been fatigued.
We buy ice cream sandwiches and find an unoccupied square of lawn in the sunshine. He waits until I’m finished eating to vigorously shake the water from his hair into my face. I mash my creamy wrapper into his arm. He’s ready to get me back with his own but stops short. Instead he uses his thumb to rub water droplets from my cheek, my chin, my mouth. I stop breathing.
“Last year I had what I think is a perfect day. Family vacation in Hawaii, we surf together. But this day everyone slept in and I went out alone. The water looked like greasy sea glass, Caribbean green. There was a breeze just strong enough. It sort of like, lifted the waves up and held them for a few extra seconds before they peeled over into white water.
“I didn’t deserve them but they let me in. It wasn’t surfing. More like the ocean invited me to see a side of itself that is hidden. I no more rode those waves than they carried me through a tunnel to another place. I even feel ridiculous trying to describe it. You probably think I’m nuts. What’s funny is that I think today comes pretty close to that experience.”
His fingers have traced my entire face, lingering along my neck, one finger going up and down. The still small voice I am supposed to listen to keeps reminding me about the girls I knew in high school, the ones who ended up with broken hearts and in one case, a baby. Their mistakes began like this, allowing some boy who did not know what he was doing to fritter away the treasures reserved for her future husband in an ongoing experimentation with pleasure. What the still small voice doesn’t understand is how much I like it.
The passion of my previous dating experience is like water in a sieve compared with this gentle hand, coated in grimy salt water, and Daniel’s steady gaze, sensitive to every movement of my eyes, every facial twitch, the blades of grass I have been plucking, and how my hands are now still. He reads me the same way he reads a wave, in its ever-shifting power beneath his feet, as it rises around him, over his head. His hands sense the misty surf for any shift in direction, in texture. He maneuvers with confidence, dropping down the lip of the wave, as it crests, into the barrel, his entire body transforms into a single organ of control to glide through the wave.
“I need to leave soon,” I whisper.
He nods. An ending needs to be made. A triumphant finish would be a kiss.
It would have been my first. It would also have been my first broken vow to my father, to have my first kiss on my wedding day. Daniel sees some part of this conflict on my face. In that moment I wish he had read me a little less and just gone for it. I regret I didn’t know myself well enough to take the final step before we separated. After all, what is the merit of a vow to a dead father made when I was in junior high at a father-daughter purity conference? It didn’t allow for a future spontaneous attraction one spring day in Battery Park, and my sudden willingness to offer the act I had been taught to closely guard to a man who hadn’t even told me his name.
“After Steve gets done with his shoot tomorrow, we’re driving up to Montauk Beach to check out the waves. Why don’t you come with us?”
I make up an excuse too quickly, something about school and studying and promises to my roommates. The speed of my rejection banishes the magic from the fading afternoon. We have become what we should be, two almost-adults with lives entirely apart and with nothing in common. He’s slower to give up than I am, saying, “We’ll only be up there a few days. He’s going on location in London. I could meet you here, at this exact bench on Monday.
A tempting offer. But what would happen after? I wonder. We’re an ill-fated match. I imagine the arrival of that necessary moment when I admit I’m saving myself for marriage, that dating in my world is a chaste gauntlet of do’s and don’ts. They feel silly and insubstantial compared with the very solid presence of this man who comes from that other world called California, a place where people follow their feelings rather than some obscure set of rules.