Phase – Eric Smith

Funny how a full moon brought Simone to mind. Nights he impulsively called her only to discover, later, the full moon hanging like an ornament in the trees behind his house. Tim would stare at it until he was sure it moved then marvel at his friend’s mysterious tug. “Kindred spirits,” she told him, “you and I are kindred spirits, Timmy.” But after eight months in which three e-mails to Simone had gone unanswered, Tim wondered if it were still true.

What happened, Simone? Even kindred spirits have to keep in touch!

When he first left Eugene for Albuquerque, they stayed close. Neither of them liked to talk on the phone so they exchanged long e-mails full of observations on “life and life forms,” as Simone loved to say. In her last letter, she wrote movingly about an AIDS patient she was caring for at the hospice where she worked, and about the typically dreadful weather in the Willamette Valley in January. She had bought a new loom with the money she got from Ben’s life insurance policy, and said she was thinking about weaving full-time, selling her scarves, bags, and throw rugs at craft shows in the Northwest. For twenty-five years, I’ve taken care of other people, she wrote, I think I’ll take care of myself, now.

Part of the new focus on herself involved losing weight. Though she always complained about her boyfriend Tony and his insurmountable hang-up when it came to giving himself completely to any woman who wasn’t skinny and blond, Simone insisted she was not losing pounds for Tony’s sake.

I’m doing it for my health, to feel good. Soon I will move like a dancer.

Tim pictured Simone at her new loom, and thought of the many times he sat with her while she worked her old one. Something calming in the way she threw the shuttle back and forth, and shoved new patterns into place while they talked about everything.

“Where shall we start?” he’d say. “Personal? National? Universal?”

 “How ‘bout mystical?” She often replied.

Once, he told her about his relationship with his ailing father, all the sore and knotted history of it, conveying it in a way he’d never done before. Simone listened while she wove, stopping once in awhile to ask a question. Finally, Tim told her that despite his strong desire to connect with his father, he could never make the first step. Simone said nothing. Then, after fixing the shunt with a new color of yarn, she turned to him.

“Don’t wait, Tim,” she said, “talk to the man now. I’ve seen a lot of death-bed moments in my work, and what people say are often the first true things they’ve said to each other for years. Why? Why do they wait? Tell him you love him, Tim, and let him live with that knowledge for awhile instead just dying with it.”

Simone, my ally, confidante, counselor, friend. What happened?!

Tim moved to the kitchen window of the small adobe house in Albuquerque where he’d lived for two years. He looked out on the darkening street. An ice cream truck crawled by, “Three Blind Mice” playing endlessly on its primitive loudspeaker. Was Eugene really two years ago? Time and distance, the old corrosives. Maybe that was why Simone had not responded in eight months. No, he shook his head, it was too sudden. More like collapse than decay.

He wondered what the moon was on the night Simone tried to seduce him, crossing the street to throw herself at him, a neighbor she hardly knew. Though they had hit it off at a neighborhood party, laughing and talking about “life and life forms,” Tim was surprised a couple weeks later to see her at his door. A little drunk, she stood ready to abandon whatever remained between her and her husband Ben. When he let her in, she quickly kissed him. He backed off and said something about “starting as friends.” When she tried again, he actually pushed her away, at which point Simone left without a word.

A week later, when her embarrassment finally eased, Simone crossed the street again to stand at his door, this time to apologize. Strange to think that when he pulled his door back, he and Simone, at that very moment, began a friendship unlike any he’d ever had with a woman. A deep kinship. A conjugation of souls. Beings braided.

That winter they saw a lot of each other. Though Simone separated from Ben in February, she and Ben were still good friends and Ben showed up regularly at Simone’s house. Tim grew to like him. Ben seemed a big kid, one perfectly suited for his job as a third-grade teacher. He had taken up juggling that spring, and soon introduced his students to it. “Serious fun,” Ben called it.

Tim had an enduring image of Ben on the porch at Simone’s house waving a sparkler at dusk, a big smile on his face as he shot sparks into the fading light. Ben’s playful ways, however, came to a sudden end in June when he ran a red light and was rammed by a truck. He had massive head injuries and died quickly in the hospital. Simone held a memorial service at her house, packed with kids, their parents, and many friends. There was music and juggling and, in a fine finale, a raft of balloons sent to heaven. Tim arrived late to the house and stood in the crowded doorway where he could see Simone on the far side of the room sitting with Ben’s parents. Tim remembered how awkward he felt when Simone told a group of her oldest friends, most of whom Tim didn’t know, “that until I saw Timmy in the doorway, I wasn’t sure I was gonna make it through.”

Tim and Simone sat in the candle-lit living room after family and friends had gone, and the house was finally quiet. Simone told him how she had persuaded two doctors, friends of hers, to allow her to turn off Ben’s life support system.

“It was easy,” she said wiping her eyes, “I put a crystal in his hand, kissed his forehead, and shut off his drips and ventilator. In no time, beautiful Ben’s life was over. It was all so easy.”

“His life was over already, Simone,” he said taking her hand. But she didn’t seem to hear.

He stayed most of the night, returning to his house across the street just before dawn. Mounting the steps to his porch, something made him turn. A full moon was bowling down Simone’s roof line. Tim stood fixed until it moved and the last lights blinked out inside Simone’s house.

In December, he packed his car with all his belongings and drove to Albuquerque to start graduate school. In his first e-mail to Simone, he wrote about a woman in one of his classes who had seemingly taken a vow to ignore him. He confessed to how lonely he was, still not adjusted to his new life as a student or to the desert country with its queer cloudless skies, sparse vegetation, wide open spaces, cockroaches, and fighter jets. He had abandoned bread for tortillas, catsup for salsa, and wrote the best thing about Albuquerque is that New Mexico is fifteen minutes away.

In June, he jumped into his car and drove first to California to see his parents. It was a depressing visit, his dad was sicker than ever. Tim stayed only a few days before continuing north to Eugene where Simone immediately fired up the hot tub.

“We’re gonna soak out all the kinks of that long road trip, Timmy, plus all the stress of school and family. I want you to just re-laaaaax.”

She’d placed abalone shells holding white candles around the tub’s edge. With Tracy Chapman’s voice playing inside the house, Tim told Simone that he didn’t have the “Big Talk” with his dad, never had the time, too much going on, too uncomfortable.

“In other words,” he said, “I wimped out.”

Simone didn’t scold him. Instead she talked about a heartening phone call she got from Ben’s mother on the first anniversary of Ben’s death. On that day, Simone had planted an apple tree in her back yard and sprinkled a handful of Ben’s ashes around the base of the sapling. She said she planned to throw ashes around the tree every anniversary until the last handful of Ben’s remains were strewn.

“Or until I sell the house,” she laughed, “whichever comes first.” Then she cried.

“Simone,” Tim said reaching over, “it’s gonna take time.”

“I know, I know. The stages of grief—I know. God do I know. But what about the guilt, Tim? Where does that end?!”

“When that stage is done,” Tim said evenly.

“No, Tim, it will not end. And maybe it shouldn’t.”

“You’ll get through it, Simone. I know you will.”

“Timmy, I killed him.”

“Oh, come on, Simone,” Tim said quickly, thinking maybe Simone had forgotten that she told him about pulling the plug on Ben in the hospital. “He was injured beyond recovery, Simone, his life was over.”

“No, Timmy. I sent Ben out for something to eat.”

“What?”

“And if I hadn’t…”

“Wait a minute.”

“He would still be alive, teaching juggling to his third graders.”

“Simone.”

“Don’t try to tell me different, Tim, ‘cause it’s not complicated. No, it’s very simple. Cause and Effect—my appetite, his death.”

Tim said nothing while Simone wept. A breeze shook each flame in the circle of candles disrupting, for a moment, the boundaries of shadow and light. When Simone finally ceased her crying, she splashed her face with warm water and, without a word, climbed out and walked into the house.

In his e-mails, Tim tried to console her about Ben, help her with her guilt. But his arguments about the rigidity of fate and unstoppable clocks and unknowable consequences always sounded strained to him. Anyway, Simone, in her letters back to him, never mentioned the matter. It seemed the one thing they could not talk about.

Is that it, Simone? Do I know too much?

Tim heard the ice cream truck still winding slowly through the neighborhood, three blind mice still running after the farmer’s wife, still getting their tails cut off, over and over and over.

A friend recently told him: “Women are not as loyal as men. They’re just not. You know women, Tim, a different ‘best friend’ every week.” Tim didn’t believe it. He’d seen strong allegiances between women. Besides, this guy was often full of it, especially when it came to women.

No, he decided, I need to try harder.

Tim sat down at the kitchen table and pulled the phone in front of him. Why did I wait eight full moons to do this? I should have done it long ago.

Simone answered immediately.

“Timmy, how are you?”

“Fine. Getting used to things down here. Making my way in the desert.”

“Good, luv, I’m glad to hear it.”

“How ‘bout you, Simone? Everything OK?”

“Yes, Timmy. Terrific. So much has happened.”

“Yeah?”

“Can you believe it? I lost sixty pounds and dumped Tony.”

“Wow.”

“Then gained back seventy. But I feel wonderful. Wonderful. Quit my job, too.”

“My god, Simone.”

“Listen, Timmy, we need to talk.”

“Yeah, I feel it, too, Simone.”

“But I’ve got a friend from New York, here, so lemme call you back. O.K?”

“O.K.”

“We’ll talk in a few days. ‘Life and life forms,’ right?”

“Right.”

“Great to hear your voice, Timmy.”

“Yours, too, Simone.”

“Bye, luv.”

“Bye.”

Tim pushed the phone away. He rose and walked to the screen door that led out back to his small yard. Unsure about what just happened, Tim’s mind raced over the conversation, settling on the part about her friend from New York.

Maybe that’s it. I’m simply more lonely than you are, Simone. All your friends from everywhere. New York. Eugene. Berkeley. Seattle.

He stood a moment as a June Bug made wild assaults on his screen door.

But are they kindred spirits, Simone?

When the bug suddenly flared away into the warm night, Tim gave an empty laugh. Then stepped into his tiny yard to look for the moon.

***

Eric Smith has an MA in English Literature from the University of New Mexico. His travel articles have appeared in major metro newspapers, plus poems in a newspaper on the Oregon coast and a short story in Jonah Magazine. He’s lived on the high plains in New Mexico territory for thirty years.