Season of Salt and Honey
• • • •
Aunty Connie’s cucumber sandwiches, stripped free of plastic wrap, are lined up on a rectangular plate on Mrs. Gardner’s table, pointed tips dried and turning stale, like rows of teeth. Four rows, the jaw of a great white shark. I stare at them too long and feel my father’s gaze turn towards me. I force myself to blink. He watches me from across that room filled with people wearing black and charcoal. It isn’t the weather for these colors; it’s unseasonably hot and the musty smell of clothes pulled from the backs of drawers mingles pungently with spring sweat.
I glance over at Mrs. Gardner by the door; take in the fine, smoke-gray cashmere sweater and the black pants with a neat line pressed down the center of each leg. She is speaking to a woman, the fingers of one hand placed lightly against her pearls, her expression as though she painted it on with her makeup: cordial, pleasant, cheeks and eyes and a little smile arranged in the correct way, showing perfectly tethered and restrained grief.
A group is in the yard dressed in long shorts fraying at the hems, their salt-cracked heels in rubber sandals, cigarettes between fingers. They’re huddled together, looking down at their
drinks, which are in red plastic cups because Mrs. Gardner can’t abide to see them drink out of cans. Among them, a young woman, her long hair under a hat, who glances at me, then away again, her eyes red from crying.
The air inside the room feels thick. I look back at the sandwiches that Zia Connie never makes for family, only for these kinds of events. For merigans, though she wouldn’t use that expression in this company. I imagine the cucumber slipping against my teeth, the thick butter coating the roof of my mouth, the cloying stick of bread in my throat. These are the same sandwiches Zia Connie served at Teresina’s husband’s funeral. The difference is, he was seventy-five. Alex is only thirty-one. Was thirty-one. Must remember to say “was.” Papa makes his way across the room to me; I see him out of the corner of my eye. My mouth begins to water in that way that lets you know vomit is about to follow.
I start to move. “Excuse me . . . sorry.”
My stomach lurches. I move faster. My feet take me to the door, high heels beating out a fast and desperate little rhythm down the front steps. Spring air, new-green and fresh, fills my lungs.
That’s Papa. I want to turn and step into his arms, but by now there will be people turning to watch, looking out the windows. Mrs. Fratelli, my boss at the council, my aunties, Alex’s work colleagues, guys he played hockey with and their wives. My cousins, Vinnie, Giulia, and Cristina—Cristina with the new baby on her hip. My uncles Mario and Roberto, both holding plates piled with food. Some of Mama’s family, distant relations whose names I can’t remember and whose eyes keep seeking me out. Gardners.
Caputos. More Caputos than Gardners, but watching all the same, plates full and faces solemn.
“That poor girl,” they’ll be saying. “First her mother, now this.” They will be shaking their heads, privately thanking God it isn’t their sister or daughter or niece. Thanking God it isn’t them.
I wobble too fast across the hot lawn as though I am drunk. Air tastes good out here, better than inside, so I gulp it down and keep walking. Escape.
“Frankie?” Papa again, by the door.
“I’m okay.” My voice is crooked. It’s clear to both of us that I am not okay.
I don’t turn to see his face because I know it will be pale and old. The way he looks when he disagrees with Uncle Mario, or that time when Cousin Vinnie broke his leg right in front of us—the bone sticking out through the skin. Or, worst of all, when Bella left.
I stride on as if I know where I’m going. Ignoring the pinch of the ridiculous black satin shoes with the peep toes and the papery swish of the black dress. I walk past a fence with white roses. I walk past a car with yellow peeling paint and a wobbling, faded blue plastic Mother Mary on the dash. The tall, dark-haired woman inside opening the door. Looking like she wants to call out to me. I keep walking, get into my car, and turn the engine over. The hair dryer heat of the air-conditioning blasts my face.
* * *
I drive quickly through the city, Sunday-sleepy and quiet, and into the suburbs. Minutes pass like seconds. Buildings clustered,
and then farther apart from one another. A woman stares from her kitchen window, squinting, pausing, gripping a handful of cutlery. A cat watches me from a porch as if I’m a mouse, its yellow eyes unblinking. A child on a swing, a mutinous stare. A dog follows for a way, wide grin, tongue hanging like a bookmark, as though he wants to go where I’m going. As though he knows where I’m going.
I don’t. Not exactly.
I turn off the air-conditioning and open the windows, feel the world bear in on me. My phone rings. I stare at it on the passenger seat; I can’t remember putting it there. It rings on and on, stops and then starts again. I imagine the questions at the other end: Where? Why? How long? And the pity: Oh, darling, cara mia, please don’t, I know. But no one knows. Only I know. He was mine. And now he is gone.
I pick up the phone when it rings a third time and drop it out the open window. I don’t hear it meet the road; it just vanishes, as if swallowed up by the earth, and then there is sweet quiet again. Just the sound of the motor, the air rushing past the windows, the wheels against the road.
Houses retreat like toy soldiers. Roads stretch out like long yawns. There is the whispering scent of the sea through the open windows. The earth cooling. Soon I will come to the forest.
The sun descends, inch by slow inch, settling into the clouds, to sleep. I drive slowly now, to find my way. Alex, blond, alive, and sure, is beside me, pointing out the way. Except that he’s not. You remember, Frankie. And it turns out that I do. A left turn, then another; follow the signs. Edison, WA. Keep going.
Trees looming. Welcoming and warning both. Then, finally, the road becomes a driveway, becomes loose and crunchy and slows me down even further. Tree branches form a cathedral above me, like interwoven fingers. Here’s the church and here’s the steeple, open the door . . .
I stop the car and step out, leaving my pumps on the passenger seat. The light is weak now. The cabin rests in front of me. It is old but sturdy, small and perfect. The thick logs cut and arranged just so, by men who wanted it to stand a long time; Alex, the fourth generation of sons to find spiders in its walls, to pick at the surrounding Douglas firs to watch their resin drip, to walk the long path to the sea and swim when the water wasn’t yet warm enough.
I walk around the back of the cabin, feeling pine needles pressing into the soles of my feet, the warm, damp perfume of the forest all around me. I run my fingers down the logs. The key drops on my foot, heavy and rusted.
I push it into the lock, then pause, leave the key as it is, and step back to sit in one of the two ancient Adirondack chairs out front. I wonder, for a moment, if it will break, as happened for Goldilocks, but the chair is made of stronger stuff than that. Instead it is my pretty, impractical black dress that snags on a piece of wood and tears a ragged hole.
Darkness eventually finds and cloaks me. The moon, through a break in the trees, is full-cream milk. Wind shimmies through leaves. Trees reach up to the stars, grabbing and waving. The stars peek, like diamonds, through their fingers. I am cold now and my skin brailles with goose bumps. I shiver.
Falling in love with Alex was easy.
I was a “late developer”; that’s how Aunty Connie liked to put it. Or, as Aunty Rosa used to say over her espresso with too many sugars, pretending I wasn’t there: “Porco Dio, when are the girl’s bosoms coming in?” Bella never had the same problem; her breasts appeared one summer break when she was almost fourteen, and when she went back to school the boys couldn’t keep their jaws off the floor. At the same age, I spent a lot of time in the library, hiding away from the mingling of boys with new, musky scents and girls with soft mounds of flesh rising from their T-shirts. The strange new laughter they made together, the pushing and pulling that went on—drawing each other in, pushing each other away, push, pull, push, pull—it made no sense to me.
But then it happened. Like a collision. Just at the moment my heart bloomed to the realization there were boys in the world to be loved; just as I noticed their voices had dropped and their chests had broadened and their eyes now darted sideways when I walked down the hallway; just at that moment, there was Alex.
When I think back, it was worse than a cliché. Worse than a cheesy movie. Me: putting books in my locker. Him: sidling up to the door. He was nervous. He glanced down at my chest and then further still, to his shoes, then back up again, took a quick breath and gave an awkward smile. I waited. Frozen and mute and hoping I wouldn’t have to say anything. He was wearing a T-shirt with a Seahawks logo on it.
“Hey. You’re Francesca, right?”
“Alex. Alex Gardner.”
I managed a smile, but didn’t say anything.
“You always have a lot of books.”
I shrugged and smiled again, felt my cheeks burning. “Yeah,” I said, throat thick.
“Yeah,” he said back, glancing around. “Hey, I was wondering if you’re doing anything this weekend?”
We started stumbling over each other’s sentences, as if they were feet and we were trying to dance.
“This . . .?”
“Like, Saturday night, or whatever.”
“Oh. Umm . . .”
“No biggie if you’re . . .”
“No, it’s okay, I . . .”
“Jason and me . . . Jason Shannon, you know him?”
I nodded. Jason was two years older than me, the biggest guy in school, a six-foot walking wall of brawn. Alex’s best friend.
“Cool. Well, we were thinking of going bowling or something. Or just hanging out. You know, taking it easy?”
His teeth were so white; I couldn’t stop staring at them. I nodded again, then realized I should say something.
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. I mean, I’m free. Saturday.” It felt as though my mouth was full of marbles.
Alex grinned. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
We met at the bowling alley because I didn’t want him to see our house. Not if he lived in one of those fancy places in Queen Anne like everyone said. I wore a tight white top because I’d read somewhere that white made your boobs look bigger, and I put on
eyeliner four times before getting it to look even on both sides. When I got there, Alex had a green ball and I had a lilac one. He touched my hand when I went to pick it up from the ball return. We drank Cokes and chewed on the ice. Angela O’Brien sat on Jason Shannon’s knee and they necked in front of everyone until Alex said, “Shit, guys, get a room.”
That day at the locker was the beginning of everything. We were high school sweethearts, just like everyone dreams about but no one actually has, because that kind of thing only happens in the movies. Or back in our parents’ time, when things were simpler or girls got pregnant and that was that. I didn’t get pregnant and I wasn’t in a movie; I was just lucky and I knew it. I knew right in my bones just how lucky I was. I knew everything was perfect, and did all the right things to keep it that way. Until now.
Until Alex called out from the bathroom in our apartment, “Hey, Frankie, think I’ll go out for a surf.”
And I said, “Okay.” And then, lifting my head from the pillow, “You going to be long?”
And he had come into the bedroom and put a kiss on my forehead, right where superstitious people, young wide-eyed girls, and old and wary women say your third eye is. Not that I believe in all that. And he said, “No, won’t be long. Back by lunch I’d say.”
The day was just like this one had been: the sun bleeding into the clouds, the light as sweet and yellow as pouring honey. A perfect spring afternoon.
When my phone rang, my hands were in the sink. I’d made
pitta ’mpigliata. I don’t know why; it wasn’t Christmas, Alex rarely ate anything sweet, and tomorrow we’d probably be going for brunch at our favorite café. The apartment—our little home with our little things: pictures in frames, books on shelves, lists on the fridge—had been all mine for the morning, so I’d baked and lost track of the day. The place smelled of figs, raisins, sweet wine, cooked dough, and honey.
When my phone rang, I thought it would be Alex. But it wasn’t.
“Hi, Mrs. Gardner . . . Barbara.”
Her voice was strange and wobbly, as if underwater. I couldn’t understand what she was saying.
“Are you looking for Alex?” I said. “He went for a surf this morning. He should be home soon.”
“Francesca . . .”
I don’t remember the next bit. I can never remember the next bit. I was light and free and floating for a moment and everything was fine. And then I was Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.