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Authors: Karis Walsh

Improvisation (3 page)

BOOK: Improvisation
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Jan didn’t want to let her thoughts go down that path again. She had lived the seduction in her imagination too many times. Two years ago, she had everything under control. She wanted to settle in Spokane, make it a permanent home after a childhood spent moving from one air force base to another. She had a job, and her newly retired military father seemed content to make the apartment they’d rented when he was stationed at Fairchild into his permanent home. Next on Jan’s list was a home of her own, and then she would start the search for a partner, someone to share her new life. But in the meantime, an out-of-town affair with Tina was too appealing to refuse. A little fun before Jan went back to building her life in Spokane. But Brooke’s decision to cancel the wedding had meant a change in plans for Jan, as well.

Ancient history. Jan turned her attention back to geometry and to the student sketches she had pinned on the wall. She pointed out flaws in the proportions of her body parts. Usually, she had to keep her vanity in check when some of the students’ drawings seemed to caricature her least-desirable features, but today it seemed as if the students had managed to capture the disjointed way she felt inside. Out of whack. In Tom’s drawing, her head was much too big for her body, and it felt the same in reality, so swollen with thoughts and worries she thought it might explode. And she was certain she’d be lurching through the rest of her day, as if walking on the imbalanced and uneven limbs her students had drawn.

She finally broke the class into small groups and set them to work measuring and averaging the ratios between hand and arm length, arm span and height. Breaking complex human beings into a series of numbers, while she returned to the uncomfortable issue of Tina’s visit. Would she be able to resist the temptation of a brief affair? A little fun in the midst of chaos? She had to. Having Tina flow in and out of her life had been an acceptable idea when Jan had been on track to accomplish her goals. But her plans were derailed, and now a fling would only be a reminder of the elusive stability she had to put off for an indefinite amount of time. Life on military bases had made it difficult to maintain friendships, and Brooke was one of the few constants in Jan’s life. She had been a best friend and confidante, always dependable and present even when they were in separate cities. Jan couldn’t be anything less for Brooke. Jan would play the polite host and show Tina her city, but she would do whatever it took to keep a safe distance between them.

“For tonight’s homework, I want you to measure as many people as you can and find the average ratios. Just be sure to ask for their permission before you start measuring body parts,” Jan said with a smile as she wrapped up the lesson just before the bell. She let the students’ laughter die down before continuing. “Use those numbers when you draw
another
picture of me by my desk, and tomorrow we’ll compare the two.”

The students filed out, their voices and laughter increasing in volume as soon as they were released from the confines of the classroom. Jan shut the door, blocking out the noise from the hallway. She paced behind her desk. She had been waiting for the chance to be alone, but now the room seemed too empty. Too quiet. As soon as the halls cleared, she went to the teachers’ break room and poured a cup of coffee. She picked one of the square tables, comforting with its right angles and even sides, and stared out the window while she stirred several packets of raw sugar into the strong coffee. The hawthorn trees were just starting to show rosy blooms. Spring. Just last week she had been thrilled by the millions of tiny signs of summer approaching. She had saved and planned and organized so the summer could be devoted to renovating and decorating her house. Now all she saw before her was a series of visits to the doctor, of tests and evaluations, of bad news.

“Are you okay?” Chloe Porter stood close to her chair. Jan hadn’t even heard her approach.

“I’m fine,” Jan said, not meaning it at all. She gestured at the seat across from her. “Join me?”

Chloe sat down and toyed with the string of her tea bag. “How’s your dad doing?”

“He’s fine,” Jan said, unable to stop before she repeated the vague and untrue adjective. Chloe had been friendly toward her since Jan had started teaching at Spokane Heights. She’d been slow to warm up to Chloe, reluctant to get too close, as she fought her ingrained tendency to see every relationship or home as transient. Maybe she had been right to keep their friendship superficial since she didn’t have any idea what changes the next year would bring.

“Good,” Chloe said, her voice neutral. She dunked her tea bag several times. “You know, if you ever need…If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“Thanks, but I’m…okay,” Jan said. She neatly folded the empty sugar packets and set them next to her coffee mug. Family problems were too personal to share. But
Tina
wasn’t a family problem. Asking for a favor to help get through the ordeal of meeting with her seemed acceptable. “Actually, I could use some help. A friend of a friend is coming to town, and I promised to take her out for drinks and show her around. I’d appreciate having some company so I don’t have to be alone with her.”

“Of course I’ll go,” Chloe said with a smile. Jan felt a stab of guilt because she kept pushing Chloe’s friendship away, only letting her close now when she needed a favor. Jan had been focused on protecting herself. It hadn’t occurred to her that Chloe might be lonely, too. “So what’s wrong with her?”

“Nothing at all,” Jan said, surprised by her immediate and unequivocal response. She forced her voice to stay casual. “I’ve only seen her playing violin with her string quartet. We haven’t met, and I just thought I’d be more comfortable if we made it more of a group outing.”

“And not a date?” Chloe asked in a teasing tone. “You’re blushing, so I’m guessing she’s not bad looking.”

Jan laughed. Her mind was preoccupied with worry, but her body still managed to betray her awareness of Tina’s good looks. She moved in her chair as if squirming away from the imagined feel of Tina’s hands stroking her arms and brushing through her hair. “She’s gorgeous, but definitely a playgirl. My friend Brooke has made it her mission to set us up, but I’m not looking for a casual fling right now. To be perfectly honest, I could use a safety net to keep me from falling for her because the landing would be way too painful.”

“Ah, I see. The fair damsel wants someone to protect her from Don Juan. Say no more, I’ll be a strict chaperone. It’ll give me some good practice before this year’s prom. Although, if you really want someone to take her off your hands—so to speak—you might be better off asking Sasha.”

An image of Tina and the history teacher together flashed through Jan’s mind. They’d complement each other well. Tina had the sleek and fast look of an expensive sports car while Sasha had all the right curves. Both out for a good time, and both gay. Jan decided not to look too closely at her decision to stick with straight Chloe.

“The three of us will be fine. I just need you there as a buffer. I want to show her a little of the city, not get her laid,” Jan said, attributing her wistful-sounding voice to stress and not hormones. As long as Chloe never left them alone, she could get through a few hours with Tina and keep her virtue, and her sanity, intact.

Chapter Three
 

The rain on the windshield of Tina’s old Corolla turned to sleet once she was in the Cascades. Unseasonably heavy banks of snow lined I-90, but the pavement was bare and wet. Her hope that a freak spring snowstorm would close the pass melted away as she sped by Snoqualmie’s chalets and deserted ski lifts. Half an hour later, she flicked off her wipers as she came down from the summit and into a landscape strangely and subtly different from the one she had left so recently. Long-tailed magpies, harlequin versions of the crows she was used to seeing, scavenged along the highway. Pine trees predominated over the ubiquitous firs of the western half of Washington. And she knew she would have to drive for days before she came across another city the size of Seattle.

Tina pulled off the highway in Ellensburg. She had been driving only a little over two hours on her five-hour trip, so she didn’t have any way to justify a long lunch break, except by admitting that she was in no hurry to get to her destination. Reason enough to stop. She parked in the lot of a diner just off the freeway exit and climbed out of her car. The faded red roof and flaking brown paint were incongruous with the brightly painted banner proclaiming they had the best food in Ellensburg. Tina had her doubts, but she felt compelled to give the dive a shot at proving itself. A heavy wind caught her by surprise as she was rummaging through the trunk for her backpack, and she dug a rubber band out of her suitcase and tied her hair into a ponytail to keep it off her face.

She settled into a booth and scanned the menu. Typical truck-stop food, heavy and greasy. Yum. Just what she wanted. She ordered a cheeseburger and cherry malt before she brought out her sketch pad and colored pencils. The temperature outside was close to the fifty-five degrees she had left in Seattle, but the air felt drier. And the wind blowing through Snoqualmie Pass was crazy, even though she had been to Ellensburg enough times, either as a stopover on the way to the eastern side of the state or for the occasional music symposium at CWU, to be accustomed to it. She felt dusty and windblown after just the short trip from her car to the restaurant.

She quickly drew a valley she had spotted while she drove. Red-brown basalt formations and a couple of horses grazing on the sparse grass. She wasn’t much of an artist without a computer program to help, and she decided her horses looked more like llamas than anything equine. Still, something about the color palette intrigued her, and she wanted to capture it on paper. Faded gold, dried sage, dirt brown. The colors of the dead of summer, even though it was spring. Everything was lush and green at home.

“What a pretty landscape,” the waitress remarked, interrupting Tina’s concentration. “If you want to keep working, I can set your food over here.”

“No, I’m finished,” Tina said as she moved her sketch pad to make room for her cheeseburger. The waitress set a metal cup with extra cherry malt next to the whipped-cream-covered fountain glass. Tina glanced at the waitress’s name tag. “If you have a break soon, Theresa, I’d be happy to draw your portrait.”

Theresa laughed. “Now you save that charm for someone closer to your own age, honey. Besides, after seeing how you drew those poor cows, I’m afraid to find out what you’d do to me.”

Tina had a novel with her, but it sat untouched by her plate as she slowly ate her lunch, too distracted to concentrate on the story. She alternated between flirting with Theresa every time she walked by and watching a red-winged blackbird perched on a branch outside her window, his red epaulets shining brightly in the sun. She finished all too soon and didn’t have any more reason to hang around. She took a last drink of her malt and wiped condensation from the metal cup off her hands before she gathered her art supplies. She left a generous tip on the table and battled the wind back to her car.

She watched the scenery with interest, at first. The designer in her loved the contrasts of lines and textures in the farmland bordering the highway. The young spring plants were too small for her to be able to tell what they were, but blue roadside signs identified fields green with potatoes, alfalfa, and wheat nestled between stretches of barren, sagebrush-dotted cow pastures. Low, curving hills were intersected by the straight lines created by humans—long irrigation pipes and perfectly spaced rows of crops. A group of white, angular windmills grew out of a hillside like a flower bed planted by huge aliens.

She exited at a rest stop to write down some of the ideas the scenery was inspiring, but all the picnic tables were protected by concrete windbreaks, and the stubby trees looked permanently windblown. She didn’t want to battle the elements again, so she sat in her car and wrote a detailed plan for a website inspired by the arc of irrigation pipes and the tapered blades of the windmills. She mentally ran through her client list, but none of them was a good match for her idea. The mock-up would look great in her portfolio, though, and the project would give her another way to fill her free time in Spokane.

Even after she finished her notes, she sat in her car and just let herself sit and breathe for a few minutes. From her parking place, she could see the highway, winding west toward Ellensburg and east to the Columbia River Gorge at Vantage and on to Spokane. A few cars and semis traveled on the road, and she could see a small roadside town consisting of a hotel, market, and gas station. Still, the sense of space pervaded in spite of the scattered marks of civilization. She hadn’t realized how compressed she had become until now, when she finally had room to take a deep breath. Her job as a freelance graphic designer made telecommuting fairly easy to manage, but she had still needed to take care of what felt like a million boring details to make this summer trip feasible. Add a busy season of work and wedding gigs and sleepless nights worried about revisiting her family, and she had been left with too little energy to do more than hang out in the comfort of Andy and Brooke’s married-couple routine. At least in Spokane, she didn’t expect to have trouble finding a stimulating nightlife, the universal antidote to small-town boredom.

Back on the road, and about an hour out of Ellensburg, the novelty of the landscape began to wear off. Tina plugged in her MP3 player and cranked up the radio’s volume, tapping the steering wheel restlessly as she drove across miles of nothing much. She might have a beat-up car, but she had the highest quality speakers money could buy. She was thankful she had brought her own music along because she was certain the local programming wouldn’t be her style.

For long stretches, the most interesting things to see were plastic bags and tumbleweeds caught on the barbed-wire fences lining the highway. A dilapidated house or broken-down tractor occasionally broke the monotony of her trip. How many manifestos were being penned behind those rusted front doors? The desire to be finished with the long drive warred with her reluctance to see her family again. Avoidance won a small battle, and she stopped for a latte and a chance to flirt with the barista at a Starbucks in the sadly misnamed town of Ritzville before she finally gave in and pushed over the speed limit for the last sixty miles to Spokane.

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