Authors: Robin Jones Gunn
“Jogging? You just stuffed yourself with pizza.”
“You’re right.” Brad stretched both arms over his head and said, “I’ll unload my car instead. I hate to take a shower unless I’m good and sweaty.”
“Believe me,” Lauren said, “you’re good and sweaty.”
Brad seemed to notice his odor for the first time. “Maybe you’re right. Which way to the shower?”
When Brad emerged twenty minutes later in clean shorts and T-shirt, looking and smelling much nicer, Lauren teased
him and said, “Oh, yes, I see the resemblance now. It was hard to be sure you were really my brother under all that dirt.”
“Did you send a message back to KC?” he asked, checking out the blank computer screen.
“No. I shut down the computer. Thought it wouldn’t hurt if I tried to save a little electricity.” Lauren was in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher.
“What? KC wasn’t interesting enough for you? You want me to find you another pen pal?”
“I don’t need any pen pals.”
Brad entered the kitchen and put his arm around his sister’s shoulders, pulling her close. “Yes, you do,” he said. “You need me. And you need to write me and talk to me and use me as your underpaid psychiatric advisor and parole officer.”
Lauren laughed. It felt good.
“And my first bit of free advice is this: You are alive. Your whole life is still before you. More terrible things will happen to you. Wonderful things will happen, too. Don’t run from life, Wren. Embrace it.”
She turned to Brad and wrapped her arms around him. “I love you.”
“You better,” he said, giving her a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead. “Now what do you say we go out for some ice cream?”
he weekend passed wonderfully warm and encouraging for Lauren as she let Brad cheer her up and entertain her. They went to church, jogged, and ate massive amounts of Chinese food. And because Brad had paid for the groceries, Lauren almost willingly watched three Star Trek videos with him as they sat surrounded by a boatload of junk food.
Monday after work Lauren returned to her apartment to pick up Brad. The two of them then met Mindy and her husband, Leon, at the park where Leon had already initiated a pickup game of basketball.
“I’m in,” Brad said, raising his arms to get the guys’ attention. Someone shot him the ball, and he was transformed into Captain Dribble.
“That’s your brother?” Mindy said from her solitary spot at the picnic table. “You didn’t tell me your brother was so cute.”
“No, but if you ask him, I’m sure he’ll tell you how cute he is.” Lauren sat down and dropped her bag of food on the table.
“I picked up some chicken and potato salad. What did you bring?”
“The whole refrigerator.” Mindy motioned to the big ice chest on the ground at the end of the picnic table. “I didn’t want to take the time to figure out what to bring so I scooped everything into there.” She perched herself on top of the picnic table, and facing Lauren, asked, “So, are you recovering?”
“I don’t know,” Lauren said with a sigh. “I’m fine now because Brad’s been working hard at keeping me happy. But I can’t help feeling as if I’ve made a horrible mistake. Maybe I should have gone to New York with Jeff. I haven’t been making good decisions lately. Ever since I decided to get my hair cut—”
“No,” Mindy jumped in, shaking her head. “Don’t you see? Cutting your hair was your way of symbolically breaking with the past. You felt trapped by Jeff, and you knew this would push him away.”
“I don’t think so, Min.”
“Sure. Didn’t you ever see that movie where the guy works at a bakery, and his arm is chopped off in one of the machines? And then—who is that actress with the long hair? Well, anyway, she tells him he felt like a caged animal because of his engagement so he cut off his arm on purpose to scare away the woman. The woman he’s engaged to, that is, not the woman he’s going to end up with. But he doesn’t know that yet.”
Lauren smiled. “I think I missed that one. If it didn’t have a Vulcan in it, we didn’t watch it this weekend.”
“Oh, it’s a great movie. Very romantic, with a happy ending. And your life will have a happy ending, too.”
“Do you have the gift of prophecy, and you never told me?” Lauren teased.
A saucy smile graced Mindy’s lips as she said, “There’s always that possibility.”
Six weeks later Mindy made another prediction about Lauren’s life. They were locking away their cash drawers in the vault at the end of a hot Friday afternoon in August. Mindy asked Lauren what her plans were for the weekend.
“I need to finish the book I’m reading for my class and write a paper. It’s due Monday.” Lauren had enrolled in summer school the week after Jeff left. She had checked out the local colleges and found that to earn her teaching credential all she needed was three more English literature courses and one unit of physical education. She had done her student teaching during her junior year of college when she had considered being a teacher. The experience at the public school had been grueling, and she had switched her major to English literature her senior year. Now, with the goal of teaching at a small-town school, Lauren felt motivated to finish what she needed and move on with her life. Going back to school also helped to fill the gap in her social life with studies and a Monday night class.
“Are you still reading that book about those two poets who fell in love through their letters?” Mindy asked.
“Yes, the Brownings.” Lauren followed Mindy to the desk of the operations manager, Marie, where they turned in their paper work for the day and were signed out. Marie had been in a good mood ever since her fortieth birthday a week ago, when she had become engaged. It had made for a lot of talk around the office.
“I can’t believe I balanced today,” Mindy said. “That twenty-seven cents was about to drive me to the loony bin.” She grabbed her purse, and Lauren picked up hers. After a round of “good nights,” Mindy suggested they take the elevator down to the lunch room to grab a cold soda before venturing out of the air-conditioned building and into the heat.
“Did I tell you,” Lauren said as the elevator door shut on
the two of them, “that she was thirty-nine when their romance began?”
“Yes, I remember because she was six years older than Robert, and she had tuberculosis.”
Mindy stopped in her tracks and placed her hands on her hips. “Get outta’ town. I never heard that.”
Lauren nodded. “The doctors all thought she was going to die. After a year and a half of writing to each other every day, they eloped, left England, settled in Italy, and at forty-three years old, she had a baby.”
“Who are you talking about?” Mindy stood blocking the elevator door with both hands on her hips.
“Elizabeth and Robert.”
“Robert and Elizabeth Browning. You know, the poets from the book I’m reading for class. ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways …’ ”
The elevator door opened, and they stepped into the vacant lunch room. “He wrote that? I thought that was Shakespeare.”
“No, she wrote it. She didn’t show it to Robert for several years. Then one morning in Italy, after breakfast, he was looking out the window, and she came up behind him and stuck a packet of papers into his coat pocket. She told him to read them and tear them up if he didn’t like them. Can you imagine? Then she left him to read the sonnet alone. She was quite shy. It’s a beautiful sonnet. So romantic.”
“You’re the one who’s so romantic,” Mindy said, fishing for change for the Coke machine. “I thought you were talking about Marie.”
“Marie?” Lauren questioned.
“You know, Marie, our supervisor,” Mindy said. “I thought
you were talking about real people.”
“I am talking about real people,” Lauren protested.
“I mean people who live in this time zone. Not somebody buried a hundred years ago in England. Do you have an extra quarter?”
“Italy,” Lauren said, handing Mindy a quarter. “Elizabeth is buried in Florence. Robert is buried in England. At Westminster Abbey, to be exact. But he always said his heart was buried in Florence. He outlived her by twenty-eight years and carried her little gold ring on his watch chain.” Lauren let out a contented sigh.
Mindy’s can rumbled from the belly of the Coke machine, and she stepped aside to let Lauren drop in her quarters. Lauren was staring at the ceiling.
“Hello?” Mindy said, waving her hand in front of Lauren’s starry eyes. “You’re starting to spook me. Would you mind staying in the here and now, at least as long as you’re around me? I mean, I don’t mind you telling me about your class and your papers, but when you start talking about these dead people as if they’re your friends, well …”
Lauren let her quarters slip into the machine and pressed her fingertips on the selection button. “That’s what’s so amazing. They do seem real to me. Their personalities and their passions. Why aren’t people like that today? Do you know what I mean? Whatever happened to nobility and honor and cherishing another person’s feelings? Did I tell you she gave him a lock of her hair and wrote a poem about it being the last strand her dead mother kissed?”
Mindy looked at her with raised eyebrows. “And your point is …”
“Oh, never mind.” Lauren headed for the elevator.
“No, no, go on. I didn’t mean to shut you down,” Mindy said.
Lauren gathered her thoughts as they waited for the door to open. “I guess I’m discovering that I’m very much a romantic at heart. It didn’t come out much with Jeff. He was so straight and practical all the time.”
“I happen to remember something about flowers Jeff brought you all the time. Flowers are not exactly straight and practical.”
“Jeff only brought them because I hinted how much I liked flowers. It wasn’t his idea. Don’t you see? He brought me flowers as a response to my idea. It wasn’t something he did out of a symbolic passion.” They entered the elevator, and Lauren pressed the cold soda can against her cheek. In a low voice she said, “What I want is not an obligatory bouquet, but one red rose on my pillowcase. Or a gardenia tied in a pink ribbon on my doorstep with a note that says, ‘You are the fragrance in my day.’ ”
Mindy burst out laughing. “Dream on, girlfriend! And while you’re there, dream a good one for me.” The door opened, and they exited the building into the humid heat of the summer night. “A happily ever after, that’s what you want.”
Lauren smiled. “It could happen.”
“I know it could,” Mindy agreed as they waved good-bye over the tops of the cars. “And it will for you; you just wait and see. If anybody deserves for it to happen to her, it’s you, Miss Romance!”
Lauren slid into the car and cranked on the air conditioning. The CD automatically started up a mellow jazz number, and she drove to her quiet apartment with a smile still on her face, congratulating herself on how far she had come since her breakup with Jeff nearly two months ago. She had cried only that one time in the apartment with Brad. Jeff had been pushed far from her thoughts. She was ready to move on.
hat evening Lauren finished reading her book and started on her paper. Five pages into the project, her computer’s cursor froze. She tried and tried to get it to move. Nothing worked. Lauren grabbed the phone and called Brad in California. All she got was his voice mail.
Slipping down on her hands and knees, Lauren crawled under the desk and checked all the electrical cords Brad had connected. When she unplugged one of the cords and then stuck it back in the socket, her computer sounded a tone, indicating it had started back up.
“Good,” she said, crawling out from under the desk. “Who needs a brainy brother?” After one look at the screen, she took back her words. Her paper was gone. Lauren started to open files, clicking on anything that would respond. It was hopeless. Her five pages had vanished.
“Thanks a lot, you hunk of junk!” she shouted at the unyielding screen. Lauren tried again to call Brad and left a
more desperate message on his voice mail, pleading for him to phone her immediately. She decided to send him an e-mail. They had been writing to each other about twice a week ever since Brad had brought her the computer. He was right about it being a good idea. She hadn’t corresponded anymore with KC, although the thought had intrigued her many times. There didn’t seem to be anything to say.