“Bougainvillea Cottage” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite
Ian didn’t take me seriously until I tugged at my curls and a handful dropped from my head. That got his attention. I was glad he stopped talking then because his words had turned into golden syrup, arching past me. I watched the spirals drift into the trumpet vines surrounding Ian’s porch, where they hung and then drooled long honeyed strands to the earth below. I rubbed the back of my head where the throbbing was, wondering where Ian had learned to speak in syrup. Then something odd happened.
Ian lived on his porch through the summer; I knew that. He had a phobia about stinging insects, he said, and bumblebees nested inside the ragged old armchair he sat in. He had told me he wanted to learn how to live in their company, sharing the porch. Now I watched the bumblebees exit single file from a hole in the chair and form a circle in the air above us, extraordinary.
“Do you see that?” I asked, pointing.
Ian looked up and back to me. “Pilar, your hair is falling out.” He was making ordinary words again, syrup-free.
I pulled out another swatch and handed it to him. “I know. I had beautiful hair when I was younger, thick black curls. Now it’s dead, exhausted.”
“You have to say no. It’s killing you. You have to tell them both, you can’t do it anymore.”
It had taken me three months to come to Ian. My brother Nick and his wife Cheryl split up and talked to me every day, for hours, trashing each other. I loved them and their four children. I listened and listened and listened until my hair started falling out. I wanted my friend Ian to resolve it.
“I can’t say no to my brother. He’s my brother.”
“Have you ever said no to anyone in your life, Pilar? Ever?”
“Not really. It’s rude.”
“Better rude than dead. What does Raoul say about you making yourself sick listening to all that marital shit?”
I forgot I had told Ian about Raoul. “He’s gone months ago. With my money.”
Raoul was my gorgeous black lover. Was. He was 24, I was 51. I met him in my laundromat. I was wearing spandex. Raoul told me I looked like a lion-tamer and asked if I had a lion. We were lovers for three weeks before he was unjustly arrested and I gave him all my savings, three thousand dollars, for bail, and he disappeared. He made me feel young.
“Expensive,” he said. “Worth it?”
“Oh, yes.” I was having difficulty speaking. The summer air had become thick and chewable. I had to spit words into bubbles, unsure if they could be heard.
“So you are alone again.”
I don’t do well alone, Ian knows this. Alone alone alone alone. Abalone. I wanted him to do something. Had I spit this aloud?
“What do you want me to do, Pilar?”
“Talk sense to Nick and Cheryl. Get them to stop saying such awful things about each other. Get them back together.”
Ian scratched the top of his bald pate, which emitted a beam of light, like the shooting star of pain that streaked through my head just then.
“Close your eyes, please. Just relax,” Ian said softly, covering me with warm butter. “I want you to rest a moment, and tell me, what is it that you truly want for yourself right now?”
The question surprised me. My head was filled with worry over Nick and Cheryl and the kids, a wastebasket of broken glass edged with bloodstains, awful. Something fetal rose up in all that and turned into words. “I’m so tired,” I said. “I want to curl up and be taken care of completely. I just want to be fed, bathed, held like a baby and never have to do anything anymore.”
I began to weep, softly. I think it was the truth that did that.
Ian got up out of the armchair and kissed the top of my head, on one of the bare spots. “I’m going inside to make us tea,” he said. “Rest a moment and we’ll figure it out.”
I was left on the porch with the bumblebees. The pain in my head did a cartwheel and I inhaled and grabbed the arms of the chair. Everything slowed down and I had to wait in the silence until a voice inside said, “Unclench. Unclench the hands and tell him something’s wrong.” The hands paid no attention.
I could no longer tell where the edges of my body were. I blended into the chair, porch, trumpet vines. It was a glorious feeling, really, being everything around me as if I was the summer day itself, a humming peacefulness. The voice returned: “Call for help.”
Another voice, then. “Ridiculous! Your brother Nick needs you, how dare you make a fuss? You don’t deserve a meltdown, silly thing.”
The voice whispered “Okay, rest for just a couple of days and then phone your brother.” That seemed so reasonable I could only weep with gratitude. Ian came back out with two cups of tea.
“Raa raa raa raa raaaa,” he said, and I had to laugh.
I looked down at him from high up in the trumpet vines.
“I need help,” I said to him. But what came out was, “Raa raa raa raa raaa,” and that seemed too funny for words. I sounded like a lion on Prozac. Like a lion. Like.
Ian dropped the cups of tea but I couldn’t see what happened to them. Tiny dots of different colors moved in the air like fireflies.
Ian pushes my wheelchair to the table where someone named Cathy serves supper. Cathy bathes us and feeds us and Nick never calls. Ian says I’ve been here for a year. I am taken care of completely, he says, and when I ask him if he’d like to stay and eat with us, all that comes out is, “Raa raa raa raa raaa,” so he kisses me on the top of my curls where my hair has all grown back and leaves the group home with bumblebees trailing behind him.
Barry Friesen is a psychotherapist and former child protection lawyer. He used to write produced plays and non-fiction books in rainy Vancouver, but this winter writes short stories on the rooftop of his sister’s hotel in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. He has stories in New Plains Review, flashquake, The Toronto Quarterly, Every Day Fiction, “Loss,” an anthology at E Chapbook, Glass Eye Chandelier Anthology, audio stories, and a Kindle book, Recreational Suffering: …and how to choose a better hobby.
Good story, Barry. I loved the understatement of “Then something odd happened.”