“You lost your job?”
The way Billy spoke, I couldn’t figure out if he was concerned or apathetic. It was more of a statement than a question. We stood on the deck of his houseboat watching the sun set long over Lake Lovely. The windmills whirled in the distance. I wondered what music and words and meaning was being broadcast from the radio tower this evening. I watched the palm trees wave and dance in the light breeze. The water rippled, reflecting sky and sand and sun. All that was life and man made seemed to be moving about us, except for Billy. He stood perfectly still, wordless, reactionless, a mystery to me.
“Um… no…” I corrected him. “I was laid off. Romon seemed surprisingly chill about it so he didn’t fire me, but I don’t have work hours for now.”
Billy said nothing, checking his watch. He was wearing his painting clothes, a white tee shirt peppered with holes and white jeans covered in smudges of ink and dust and pencil shavings. I wondered what work he had completed today, if he was still working on the set of paintings commissioned by a woman in town or if he was still working on developing photographs for the town tourism board or if he was working on one of his side art projects. But I didn’t ask. Billy didn’t really talk about his work, and I never probed. I wondered, but I wondered alone in my head. He seemed private about his art at times, and other times, he couldn’t wait to show me something. I had learned to let him come to me on his own terms.
“Well, are you thirsty?” Billy asked, his voice surprising me and a little frog that had emerged from beneath the surface of the water.
“Sure,” I shrugged.
“I got some white grape nectar. You interested?” he offered casually.
I nodded again.
He returned with glasses of the cool liquid. We sipped in silence. I felt my mind racing like a puppy desperately trying to keep up with its owner, but not for conversation, but lack thereof. My brain couldn’t rest. I had a million things I wanted to say. I wanted to be comforted about my lack of a job, even though I knew it was my own fault. I wanted to vent about Audrey and our horrendous argument. I wanted to cry about how I hadn’t talked to my mother in almost four months. I wanted to laugh about the absurdity of my dad suddenly trying to be a concerned parent. I wanted to voice my concerns about the amount of time we spent together, but I didn’t want to upset him. I didn’t want to confuse him. I didn’t want to overwhelm him.
When everything was bathed in a rosy orange glow, I decided it was time to speak. I couldn’t wait any longer. My brain would burst like a water balloon filled too full.
“So we got invited to a party,” I spit out quickly.
“Oh?” he quirked a brow.
“Yeah, the kid I tutor is having a birthday party and he invited us,” I continued.
“That’s nice,” Billy said.
“What do you think?”
My brow furrowed. “About going.”
“Yeah if you want to go, go.”
“No, what do you think about us going… together… as a couple…” I frowned. How could he be missing the point?
“No, I don’t think so.”
He said it so finally, without any caveats or explanations, like he had already made his decision after thinking about it for days when I only just now invited him.
“It’s tomorrow. Do you have to work?” I probed.
“No,” he shook his head.
“Then what?” I huffed.
“I don’t want to go,” he replied.
“Why not?” my tone grew more agitated.
“Not a reason, Billy.”
“Well, it’s not really my thing.”
“Well, will you go for me? We don’t have to stay long… just make the rounds, say hi, wish Ethan happy birthday, and get some food…” I tried sweetly, but Billy was already shaking his head. “Seriously? You won’t go?”
“No,” he repeated.
I felt my smile freeze on my face. The tears I had been pushing back all day threatened to spill down my cheeks. I could feel the moisture forming in my eye corners. I bit my lip and swallowed hard, deciding to become angry instead.
“Why not? What’s wrong with you? I’m your girlfriend, or something like it, and you don’t want to go out with me?”
“Kass, nothing’s wrong with me,” Billy remarked. “I just don’t want to go to a party with you, but I won’t keep you from going.”
“Good,” I grunted. “Because you can’t. I wasn’t asking for your permission.”
“What’s with all the hostility, Red?” he asked.
A tear slipped down my cheek. “I hate it when you call me Red,” I said, through gritted teeth.
“Okay, then say so,” he sighed.
“I am saying so!” I cried out.
“Kass, what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? Oh my gawd! I can’t believe you’re asking me what’s wrong, Billy! I want to be happy and I want to go to this party with you and we never go out and we never go anywhere and I want more in our relationship. Don’t you think I deserve more from our relationship? All we ever do is make out and eat and make out and mess around some more and eat and holy llamas! We never leave this houseboat. What if we went out on the water tonight for something different? We could leave the dock and watch the stars from the middle of Lake Lovely. Or we could go to a restaurant. I don’t think we’ve ever gone out on a proper date before. Or we could go to this party tomorrow night for an hour. That’s all I’m asking for, please, Billy, please… I am tired and I’m upset and I practically lost my job and I’ve argued with everyone today…”
“That’s not my fault.”
“Gawd! How can you be so oblivious? So callous? So insensitive!?” I exclaimed.
His coldness seemed absurd to me. I wanted a hug, a kind word, a normal date, and he seemed content to stand here and let me rail.
“Billy… I feel like I don’t know you. I don’t really know you. We are so into each other’s faces that we don’t really know each other’s hearts,” I cried.
“Are you saying you want to break up?” he asked, still unmoved.
“Break up!??” I screeched, feeling my heart rate spike and I panicked. “How can we break up if we aren’t even really together? I mean, real boyfriend and girlfriend go out on dates, they see friends, and they do things other than make out all the time. I mean, real boyfriend and girlfriend call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, not Red or babe or girl or whatever insane nicknames you have for me.”
“Calm down, you’re so over-dramatic!”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, I do.”
“Why? Why? You are being such a jerk right now! Why?”
“I’m not the one flipping out.”
“Yeah, and I am having a total meltdown here and you don’t care.”
“Kass…” he started tersely, but I cut him off.
“Alright, then you spend your evening alone and if you cared, if you really cared, you’d follow after me now when I leave in a huff.”
With that, I leaped over the side of the houseboat and into the water, swimming as fast as my arms and legs would take me. With every stroke, I let the tears fall, feeling more and more crushed by the weight of the water and the weight in my soul. Once I reached the shore, I didn’t stop moving. I couldn’t stop moving. To stop moving would be to accept what I didn’t want to – that I had royally screwed up. Rain began to fall in the twilight. Water continued to follow me. I didn’t mind. The water was the one thing that wasn’t judging me right now.
I kept running until I reached my sanctuary. I hadn’t been there in a long time. Billy had consumed my life and I no longer took my much-needed solitary walks. To think only a few weeks ago I was so lonely, and now I had driven everyone away because of my stupidity. I collapsed on the bank of sand. I could’ve gone to Haven, but that place was happy. My writing place. This place was… wistful… where I did my thinking, my observing, my deep ponderings.
The building looked much in the same, the stones still old and weathered, the trees with a little more color since autumn had fully arrived. I half-smiled. This was the one place that truly reminded me of fall in the entirety of Lucky Palms. This was the one place the desert didn’t look so barren. The beautiful clock tower spiny hands reading twenty-five past six pm. No one appeared to be around, so I did something I had never done before.
I walked down the hill.
The russet-colored gates croaked a cool welcome, and I hesitantly stepped forward beneath the aged stone. My sneakers squeaked on the faded yellow tiles with beautiful red patterns. I wasn’t sure what the shapes symbolized, but I thought they looked hopeful staring up at parishioners and visitors and soul-searchers alike. Pausing at the first stone column, I glanced about to make sure I was alone before continuing into the church.
There was something familiar about the weathered bricks and the wooden benches. I recalled attending mass with my Jacoban grandparents. I always admired architecture in churches, and recalled staring into the gorgeous stained glass windows and the artistry hanging on the walls while the priest read from the lectern. Once Nonna caught me spacing off, and I expected a lecture. Instead she leaned over and whispered, “If you can’t find the earthen and the Divine in art, then you simply aren’t looking hard enough. God gave you two eyes to use.”
I smiled wistfully. She was right. There were hints of the natural and the mystical in every worn artistry within these walls. This church was Angelican so honestly it could’ve been different from my memories, and yet there was some universal truth in the beauty and awe and mystery of churches, designed to draw one to the sacred and spiritual.
I lowered myself onto a bench and made a poor attempt at the sign of the cross. I could never remember if my right hand moved left or right first. I guess it didn’t really matter. God knew my heart. I was trying, and that should’ve counted for something, I hoped. I stared ahead at the altar, my eyes fixed on the flickering tall taper candles. There was no wind inside the church, not even a draft, which was nice since my body was cold, even if I had long since dried in the sticky Lucky Palms desert heat. I watched the flames flicker, amazed that fire moved. It seemed like such a simple thing, but the flame danced all around its tiny enclave despite the windless room. I watched the light dance, trying to remember words, any words, sacred words, something good to say to God out there somewhere. Maybe. If the God up there would hear me.
I knew people who believed in many gods. Personally, I liked the idea of just one. It made things less confusing. I only had to answer to one god in that case. I didn’t want to have to keep track of prayers and petitions to multiple gods. It was too hard. I did think there were multiple spirits and life energies out there, but one god seemed like enough. Even so, it wasn’t like I had serious conversations with the spirits or a god up there. I didn’t even go to mass or communion or confession or service of any kind. Did that make me a bad Jacoban or Peteran or Angelican or follower? Probably.
A tear slid down my cheek.
“God, are you mad at me too?”
I collapsed on the bench, letting the tears flow. I tried to ignore the pious saint of a man in the painting above me, his eyes swept down as if looking at my plight. I mean, I figured he was a saint. Why else would he be on the wall? Did Angelicans have saints? I couldn’t remember. I snapped my eyes away and looked at the floor since the red robed man weirded me out a little, but upon second look, he had a gentle face. A humble face. Like the humble souls the wishing well in town said. Humble souls. Humble Prayers. Things answered. I tried to recall the words, but instead I gave into heaving sobs.
Hours later, I sat up slowly like a woman who had slept for the first time in days. As I stretched my arms, I heard the clock in the tower ding six times. Five? But it was just five? I thought bewildered. I must have fallen asleep. I probably needed it, and the wooden bench was remarkably comfortable. I pulled out my phone and the digital clock read five-oh-five a.m.
Morning? I blinked rapidly. I slept all night here?
“Oh god!” I exclaimed, and then flushed, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks. “Uh… sorry… God… I… uh… I don’t know how these things work… sleeping in your house and all… uh…”
I wondered if God thought I was a bumbling idiot. I sighed and let my feet touch the floor, allowing that simple gesture to ground me. I wondered if I had wood impressions on my face. I guess it didn’t matter. No one saw me. No one except the man in the painting… and well… God. I sat still for a moment, listening to make certain I was still alone. The last thing I wanted was for some priest or shepherd to wander in and find me here, probably assuming I was a homeless person. I guess there were worse places someone could sleep.
As I stood to my feet, I felt my back crack and couldn’t help but let an “Ahhhhh” escape my lips. I actually felt relaxed and rested. I couldn’t remember the last time I slept nearly eleven hours. Someone my overnight in St. Astrid’s had given me peace of mind and heart and spirit.
“Thanks God,” I whispered, looking up at the sky.
I half-expected the Big Man to reply, but I didn’t hear anything except a bird or two chirping its morning song outside. Despite the early morning hour, I knew there was one thing I had to do. One thing I was feeling convicted to do, but not out of guilt like I would have yesterday. Out of desire for resolution.
I lifted my phone from my pocket and dialed.
“Hi Mamma, it’s Kass.”