I’m standing on Bay View Avenue in front of an antique, weather beaten house. It’s a warm day, and I’m tearing paper. Cities make me nervous, even pretty ones by the sea. I’m tearing up something I have written, but it’s not about this city, it’s about her, about a blue dream. I can’t count all the days I have been waiting to see her.
I don’t live here, she does, on the corner here, next to a movie theater, behind a bus stop, across the street from a Catholic school named Saint Pius. The school used to own the house she lives in, for the nuns. The house needs paint. Its drab clapboard was white and stolid once. Wind and water have battered and cracked the boards here and there. I could offer to stay and fix them.
It’s an old house. I don’t know how old. It has a friendly porch that wraps around the front to the side that abuts a movie theater. The movie theater is showing two films from the late 90s. One of them is a martial arts comedy, a new breed of cat then. The other is about aliens who assume the shapes of high school teachers. So what else is new? The titles, Rush Hour and The Faculty, twinkle on the marquee.
And I wait. I want to write something for her, Ann, an invitation. “Will you won’t you, won’t you join the dance?” Something to that effect. I look across the street to where I have parked my car and trailer with the skiff on it. When I look to the east, I can see to the harbor where sailboats drift by. Whole flotillas of small, single-sailed vessels, white and downy, scud along like clouds. I could promise her we would be like that.
A city bus pulls up to the corner. Buses are not discreet. As the people get out, the engine idles roughly, coughs. A gang of kids jumps off and heads towards the movie theater. They talk loudly and shove each other along the sidewalk.
Someone says, “I hope these movies don’t suck.”
Another one says, “Jackie Chan movies never suck, fool.”
The bus makes all kinds of racket as it pulls away, metal on metal rattling, the brakes letting out a whoosh of compressed air. What a monster. I barely hear the honking of a car horn over it. And there’s that thing about me. My ears pick up only what sounds loudest to them. It could be some kind of disability I have, something with a name and an expensive therapy plan. I could look into it, but there’s loud, insistent music coming out of Ann’s little red Hyundai. It’s an old soul tune, Otis Redding maybe, and it ends abruptly when the car stops. My heart sinks when I realize I have no writing to give her.
“Let’s get back in your car and drive around a bit. I want to hear the rest of that tune, it’s got me thinking,” I call as she rushes to me.
“You made it,” she says.
Then she turns from me to the small army of thirty-somethings piling out of the car. Honest to Christ, I never thought so many fully grown people could fit into a Hyundai.
“This is my old friend Martin, everybody, my pen pal.”
It’s true. That’s how we met, in junior high school when my English class volunteered to correspond with kids our age in Portland, Maine.
Tell them about it, I’m thinking. I want to hear you talk.
She introduces me to her friends, and we go around the porch to the back of the house. There we climb the stairs that lead to her apartment. We’re all carrying bags full of food. Ann calls them bundles and tells everybody to be careful with them. I’m embarrassed. I can hear myself laboring, huffing and puffing, while the rest of them, two guys and another gal, sprint to the top. They’re very friendly and healthy-looking. You wouldn’t catch any of them smoking cigars. I catch a whiff of patchouli. Once inside, someone lights a stick of incense. It might be sandalwood.
The room begins to smell warm, like a hot house, full of geraniums. I feel a bit woozy. Annie’s friend, the female sprinter, offers me a bowl of hickory smoked oat bran and soy milk. It’s all too much. I could pass out except Annie’s pulled up some windows on the harbor side. She says she loves the smell of salt air when she cooks.
The place fills with a hazy, orange light. You can taste the light almost. Sweet and flowery. Seagulls glide by the open windows, gaining elevation, and I think, maybe now I can relax. I notice the two guys have stretched out on couches. They are big and bearded, and they look like Cheech or Chong or Jerry Garcia in the 70’s, depending on your point of view. They offer me stout-smelling Merlot and we talk about vacation spots outside of Portland.
“Is that your boat and trailer parked there, across the street?” one of them asks.
He’s very observant, I think, and I begin to regard them both differently. I wonder if they are sizing me up in some way. Are they looking out for their roommate?
For some reason, I tell Ann, not either of them, a cockamamie story about my plan to take my boat up to Nova Scotia and sell it. She and I cruised the same little skiff down the Narrow River during the summer I fell in love with her.
“I need a bigger boat now,” I tell her. “What do you say? You want to come along? For old time’s sake.”
I think she laughs, but I’m not sure. Her eyes soften the way people’s do when they consider truly helpless things. In her eyes, I see myself going there again, the place I used to go so often that summer after we finished high school, when she came to Rhode Island to visit her cousin Margaret and meet me, her pen pal since seventh grade.
I don’t think either one of us was disappointed. But from the beginning, we registered each other differently. Annie wanted me, her “pal”, to show her around, and I wanted to pursue what I already discovered. The girl from Maine who wrote the sweet, funny and poetic letters was real and beautiful.
In her eyes now, I can see that Nova Scotia is not the place I’m going. The place I’m going has been the same every summer since I met her. She is the place. So I say what I always say, even though I know she knows it’s coming.
“Then of course,” I begin, “My little boat and I could always stay right here with you.”
She reaches roughly for the glass of wine one of the bearded men has poured for her. She takes a deep slug and looks away from me, toward the seagulls, gaining elevation.