Blog: Point No Point

Pine Street Episode 30

Wind, soup, and lamps = the recipe for mid-life love?

“So how do people here deal with it? The wind, I mean,” Franny asked as she put her groceries away, leaving the bread out for slicing.

“It never really bothers me.” Leo sat on the love seat Franny had added to her motley collection of living room furniture. “So I don’t know. Does it bother you?”

The expression on Leo’s face struck Franny as comical – halfway between serious concern and disdain for a person so wimpy as to let a little thirty-mile-an-hour breeze bother them. Over the top he layered an eager gaze at the crock pot behind her.

A small but genuine laugh burst out of her. “What’s funny?” Leo asked.

“Oh, I don’t know. You. Life. Wind. Are you hungry? I’m famished.” She ladled two mugs full of soup and arranged bread slices on a plate. “Let’s eat and talk about something other than the weather.”

“Deal.” Leo broke a piece of bread and took a bite. After some thoughtful chewing he asked, “How are you liking this apartment? Is there anything that needs fixing?”

Again his expression made Franny laugh. “No. I mean, I love it. It’s great. Everything works fine.”

“How about lamps? Do you have enough mood lighting?”

It struck Franny as a bit absurd, but also sweet, a question that no one else would think to ask. “As a matter of fact, I kind of hate the overhead light fixtures. But lamps are awfully expensive.”

“I’ve got some. What do you like?” Leo’s eagerness touched her. Franny felt tears threaten to reveal themselves and she sniffed them back, grabbing a napkin.

“You okay?”

“Oh, sure. Just the hot soup causing my nose to run.” Franny hoped Leo hadn’t noticed she hadn’t actually sipped the soup yet, and to cover her little white lie, she lifted her mug and slurped. “I don’t want to put you out. I mean, I’m already using your table and camp chairs.”

“Hey, I’ve got table lamps I’m not using. It’d be great to see them here.”

“How about floor lamps? I don’t have a lot of tables yet.”

“That’s okay. I’ve got tables, too.”

Something else shone through Leo’s expression at that moment. A sort of light, or glow. In response to it, Franny felt a throb of longing. Since her divorce she couldn’t remember anyone being so interested in the minutiae of her living situation, so eager to offer her stuff. The attention was intoxicating.

Franny wondered if this is what falling in love in mid-life felt like, if it often happened over soup and through conversations about used lamps.

Pine Street Episode 29

Spring finds Franny – with lilac blossoms, sunshine, and of course, that diabolical wind.

Spring brought sunshine, lilac blossoms, and wind.

Franny had anticipated the cold of winter, the snow and slush. She’d grown up in a place that had those kinds of winters and she knew to buy waterproof boots, she knew the feeling of the fine hairs inside her nose freezing when she stepped outside.

She understood the glory of early spring, when afternoons warmed up slightly, the sky took on a Delft blue hue, and the newest leaves on the trees sprung in bright lime green.

But the wind was new, and for the first month or so of spring, it nearly defeated Franny. She’d wake up, see the blue sky, toss on a light jacket, and head out to walk to the grocery or just stroll the alleys smelling the lilacs. She’d return to her apartment twenty or thirty minutes later feeling battered, nose running, skin stinging.

Her parka, ski cap, and gloves kept her warm in the snow. It didn’t seem any clothing or gear in the world would shut out that wind.

One of those beautiful sunny and diabolically windy days, Franny made her way down Pine Street with an overstuffed bag of groceries, leaning into what locals called a breeze, pausing when she lucked into a sheltered spot to blow her nose. During one of those pauses, as she returned her handkerchief to her pocket, she heard her name.

“Franny! Hi!” Leo dashed across the street toward her, wearing a sweatshirt and baseball cap. “How are you? It’s been a while.”

“Fine, but this wind!”

“I know, isn’t it great? I love it!” he beamed. “It keeps the air so clean, and look.” He pointed toward the southeast. “It pushes all the clouds over that way, so we get to bask in the sun.”

Franny’s sniff seemed to remind Leo that not everyone enjoyed a brisk thirty-mile an hour wind as he did. “Oh. I know, it can be tough,” he said. “Where’s your hat?”

“I couldn’t keep one on my head in this wind. How do you do it?”

Leo laughed. “My pointed head, I guess. Can I help you home with those?” He took one bag of groceries from Franny. “Then maybe buy you some lunch? We could catch up.”

Franny felt warm for the first time since she’d ventured out into the windy day. “Sure. But I have some soup in the crock pot, and in that bag is some really good bread. Would you be okay with eating in?”

Leo’s answer was in his smile and as they walked the last few blocks to Franny’s apartment, it seemed the wind calmed down and the only thing left in the air was the intense perfume of lilacs.

The passion of compassion

In honor of spring holidays this week, or last, or next, or any time we celebrate compassion and love.

From the Dalai Lama:

“Scientists have concluded that basic human nature is compassionate. This is a sign of hope. If it was otherwise and it was human nature to be angry, things would be hopeless. What’s important is that while we’re alive we shouldn’t create trouble, but, recognising how other people are human like us, should cultivate concern for their well being. If we can do that there’ll be no basis for cheating, bullying or killing.”

Pine Street Episode 28

We learn about the history Marilyn & Douglas share, including love, lust, and art.

Douglas and Marilyn had been lovers long ago, when they were both newly-hired professors in the art department at the local university, Marilyn in painting and sculpture, Douglas in photography. Their love affair was brief, intense, and left behind a hardened foundation of friendship, annealed in the fires of lost passion.

Both had gone on to other relationships of various durations and types, but neither had ever married. Douglas had spent years abroad on various fellowships and exchange programs. His photographs of celebrities in England in the 1980’s brought a kind of fame and fortune, though he seemed none the worse for it. Marilyn’s large paintings kept her closer to home, although she also found time to travel, spending time in Washington DC, New York, and Brazil.

Marilyn and Douglas had crossed paths on their travels several times, but only once had they rekindled the flame, with comically disastrous results. They met completely by chance in Vienna. Both were there to catch connecting flights to somewhere else – Douglas back to London after time spent in Greece, and Marilyn on her way to Switzerland from New York. Separately, they had each fallen in love with Vienna and booked an extra day between flights there. Both loved to walk the open-air markets, and they ran into each other at a booth that served freshly-roasted nuts.

Whether it was the happenstance of the encounter, the brisk cold air of winter imbued with the aroma of roasting chestnuts, or the enchantment of a Viennese December, upon meeting one another both found themselves overwhelmed by lust. They greeted one another with a long hug that turned into a passionate kiss, and then by tacit agreement they sought to leave the market and go to one or the other’s hotel room.

Douglas’s hotel was the closest so they made their way through the falling snow to its front door, and then up the narrow stairs to his room, without saying much. Few more words were spoken as they stripped off their damp woolen clothing and fell into the big bed, crawled under the down duvet, and gave themselves over to the joy of reacquainting their hands and lips with one another’s bodies. Their lovemaking became an exquisite mix of familiarity and newness, of safety and thrill. It was so delightful they continued until both fell fast asleep, exhausted.

Of course the wake-up call that had been so meticulously scheduled to ensure Marilyn had plenty of time to get ready for her flight to Zurich occurred right on time. But it rang the phone in her empty room. When she finally woke in Douglas’s arms, tangled in Douglas’s sheets, her airplane was already taxiing for take-off. Her first instinct was to blame Douglas himself, but of course that would be ridiculous. Certainly she had enjoyed their passionate interlude as much as he did, so much she neglected to consider the morning-after consequences.

Douglas tried to reassure her – flights from Vienna to Zurich were commuter options these days, and there would be several more available over the afternoon and evening. If rescheduling were a matter of money – she was still an art professor, after all, and he had spent years making money – of course he would pay.

But for Marilyn, it wasn’t the money and it wasn’t even missing her long-anticipated appointment with the Swiss arts organization that had offered her a grant to paint her murals in high-profile places like the Zurich airport and the Hauptbahnhof, where millions would see them every year. Another flight would be inexpensive, although money was tight. Appointments could be rescheduled, although this one would not be available for at least another year.

Marilyn looked at Douglas, still naked, his handsome face holding an expression of such sheepish concern over the problems he’d caused her, and began to laugh. She laughed at the absurdity of her now fifty-something body being overcome with lust; she laughed at the complications a one-night stand could still cause; and she laughed at her own disappointment at potentially missing a chance at fame.

Marilyn laughed, and Douglas laughed too, and their friendship, sans any more attempts at physical passion, reasserted itself. They were forever grateful for both the pleasure of the one-night stand, and it’s jarring them back into knowing they were meant to be fast friends, forever and ever.

The following year Marilyn sent Douglas an email from Zurich: “Got it! Look for giant squids on the airport wall on your next trip!”

Douglas bought a ticket to Zurich just to see them.

Pine Street Episode 27

Franny continues her conversation with Marilyn & Douglas – talking politics with friends, proof positive Franny is not in her old life anymore.

“What do you think, Franny?” Douglas and Marilyn waited with eager expressions for Franny to answer, to share her impressions or beliefs about the current race for president. They’d been debating the rise of a demagogue, one they’d chosen to call “Voldemort” rather than give him the power of using his real name. Marilyn thought his rise was partly a result of the arrogance of educated liberals who made those who disagreed with them feel inferior. Douglas pinned part of the blame on the deep-seated Calvinism in the character of the country, with its association between blessedness and riches.

In her past life, Franny would have demurred. She would have fallen back on her usual statement, that she didn’t talk politics with friends, in order that they should remain friends. But Douglas had already said they would be friends no matter what her opinions, and Franny was firmly in her new life now. New town, new friends, hot tea, delicious scones, and Precious the dog snoozing comfortably nearby. Franny did not hesitate.

“I think it is the wrong question,” she said. Douglas and Marilyn waited for more. “I think the question of why this, Voldemort, is so popular despite his lies and hatred is the wrong one to ask. I think it is only our egos that want an answer to why this has happened, because we think if we know why, we can prevent it from happening again. But the real question is not why things are as they are, but what do we do in response?”

“You see!” Marilyn cried. “She is such an addition to our conversation, Douglas.”

Douglas leaned forward in his rocking chair. “Well, then, Franny. What do we do? It seems everything that the established politicians have tried has failed. Our Voldemort grows in both power and media coverage. Do we return to ignoring him? Do we attack him out and out? What do we do?”

Franny paused this time. “Well, I don’t think there is one right answer to that. I think the answer will be different for each person.”

“Spoken like a true agnostic.” Douglas smiled.

“I am curious, Franny,” Marilyn joined in. “Do you have a plan in mind for yourself? Can we help? I might be a political atheist, but I love a good fight. Intellectually, I mean, of course. And this seems to be the best one to present itself in a long, long time. If you have a plan, I’d love to know about it.”

“Me too,” said Douglas. “What are you going to do, Franny?”

A sudden shyness overtook Franny as she returned their eager gazes. Even Precious the dog had sat up to look at her, thumping her plumed tail with anticipation for Franny’s answer.

“Well,” Franny said. “I think I could manage another scone.”

Pine Street Episode 26

And now, the real Pine Street: Political atheist, agnostic, and questioner – under the cover of good tea and scones, Franny witnesses a great love in action.

Living in the big city, oddly enough, no one ever asked Franny directly about her political beliefs. Her closer friends there took it for granted that she agreed with them, and her acquaintances did not seem to care. It had been ages since Franny had been asked, directly, what she believed.

Yet her answer came forth without effort, and surprised even her. “I’ve never belonged to a party,” she began, sipping the good hot tea between statements. “But I vote in every election. I always vote for school levies and public safety levies, and I vote for candidates who I believe are telling the truth. That usually narrows the field enough for me.” She paused again. Douglas and Marilyn waited expectantly. There must be more to my politics than that, they seemed to be thinking, but no. It turned out there wasn’t. “That’s the extent of it, I’m afraid,” she said, and then to fill the awkward silence: “This is a fabulous scone, Douglas. Am I right in saying I taste some orange zest?”

They all chewed quietly for a while, savoring the orange zest in the scones. Then Marilyn said, “We shall call you a political agnostic, dear. It goes well with my atheism.” She smiled and turned to Douglas. “So, it is up to you. You were in the middle of an impassioned plea when Franny knocked. Please start over so she can hear it all. Perhaps you will convert us both.”

Douglas chuckled in a friendly way. “Perhaps. I do feel quite passionate about the current election. I believe in a way, our nation is at a crossroads. A crisis of conscience, if you will. And I hope with all my heart we choose the right direction.” He put his empty plate down, picked up his mug of tea, and settled into the wooden rocking chair. “I apologize in advance if anything I say offends you, Franny. I know Marilyn is beyond offense.” Franny murmured her consent around a mouthful of scone, and he went on.

“This is, in many ways, an amazing political year. We are ending eight years of reasonably good leadership, from a liberal point of view. Not as much accomplished as many of us would have wished, but a lot more than if we’d had someone else in the presidency. And, we have proof that having a president with dark skin and a funny last name did not bring about anything like an apocalypse. In fact, the country is far more prosperous and safe than it was eight years ago, by all rational measures.

“And yet, this season has seen the emergence of a strong, even reactionary candidacy that defies all reason. The more this candidate – you know who I mean, I can’t bear to say his name – the more he lies and insults various groups, women, immigrants, blacks, everyone, the more his base of supporters grows. They grow in size and in their vehement support of his hateful ideas. Why? We who think of ourselves as more intelligent or educated have to ask this question.”

“Ah, that’s part of it!” Marilyn interrupted. “We condescend to call ourselves educated and intelligent, making others who disagree feel they are insulted or demeaned. He makes them feel smart and wiser than any education could bring.”

“True. Mea culpa. Liberals have failed to communicate anything other than arrogance for a long time. But still, we have to examine why a candidate who blatantly lies – and his followers admit this – remains revered. Liberal arrogance might be part of the answer. But so is the deep streak of Calvinism that is in our country’s DNA. Calvinism – which claims that the elite, the chosen by God, will be known by their possessions and worldly successes. So, those who have such success must be chosen. And, if we don’t have a lot – if we are poor or struggling, well, then we need someone to blame. It can’t be our own fault. It must be those other people – the immigrants who take our jobs, for example.”

“Well, how do we fight against that?” Marilyn asked. “It’s natural, it’s human nature, to blame others for our failings. We all do it. And all politicians exploit it. It’s only that this one, the one you won’t name – let us call him Voldemort! This one, Voldemort, he does it more blatantly than the others. But they all do it. At least the ones who rise to national power do it. They lean into the television cameras and they say, you and I, we know. It’s all those other people who are messing things up. Let’s join together and we can defeat them, and I will lead us into the promised land.”

“See? Atheism rears its ugly head!” Douglas chuckled again. “You cannot avoid using religious metaphors to describe the politics you do not like, Marilyn. But I agree with you. Most major politicians play on our tendency to blame others for our misfortunes. But most mainstream politicians have at least used an acceptable level of subtlety for this tactic. This one – our ‘Voldemort’ – is more blatant than any have been, at least in our modern age.” He stood. “I need more tea. Marilyn? Franny? May I bring you anything?”

Franny nodded. “Yes, please. Tea and, I’d love another scone if there are any.”

“Of course! Marilyn?”

“Oh no, I am quite content.” Marilyn began to rise from the couch. “I do need to visit the little girl’s room, though, during this break in the debate.”

Somehow, without missing a beat or making anything like a fuss, Douglas brought Franny more tea and scones, and helped Marilyn to the bathroom and back, and returned to his chair.

It was at that moment Franny realized there was a deep love between them, Marilyn and Douglas. It might have been romantic love at some point, she thought, but now it was deeper than that. As deep as love could get, where his service to her was nearly invisible, and her gratitude was the same, but just as huge.

Pine Avenue Episode XXVI

A talking dog and a secret message… time stops on Pine Avenue.

“I… well, I… um. I don’t usually talk about, you know, that kind of thing,” Franny stammered an answer to Douglas’s question about her political beliefs. Douglas and Marilyn nodded jerkily, like puppets.

And then Franny’s vision narrowed into a kind of tunnel. Dark around the edges, and in the too-bright center, Douglas and Marilyn seemed frozen in place. Franny experienced a kind of whistling in her ears. A crackle of electricity followed.

“That’s right, Franny.” The voice was squeaky and harsh, as if it hadn’t been used in a while. Franny looked around the room in a dizzy panic, trying to find its source. “I’m over here.”

“P…P…Precious?” Franny gaped at the dog.

“Who else?” Precious stood, wagged her plume of a tail, and strutted toward Franny. “Relax. If you think about it long enough, you’ll realize we dogs have been in charge of things for a very long time.”

“You have?” Franny could only ask ridiculous questions. “But… what about…”

Precious snapped the rest of the scone off Franny’s plate, chewing it as she sat and fixed her brown eyes disconcertingly on Franny. “I know what you’re thinking. What about the cats? We like to let it appear as though the cats control you humans. Your focus on their antics gives us great political cover.”

Franny thought this would be news to every cat she’d ever known. Precious went on.

“I’m going to give you a message, Franny, and in a moment you’ll forget all about this conversation you and I are having, but the message will remain in your unconscious mind. You’ve been chosen as a conduit for this critical information that will change human kind forever.”

“Um, okay.” As her heart rate slowed back down, Franny stifled the urge to giggle. Precious was still a scraggly beast of a little dog, and the serious look on her face struck Franny as comical. Still, probably best not to burst out laughing at a talking dog who appeared able to freeze other humans at a moment in time. “What’s the message?”

Precious wagged her plume of a tail, whispered in her squeaky harsh voice, and Franny smiled.

 

Pine Street Episode 25

Franny’s nightmare unsettles her; she contrives a reason to visit her friend Marilyn, meets a new man, eats scones, and settles in to talk politics.

Franny awoke the next morning with shreds of a nightmare still clinging to her mind. In the nightmare, she’d been visiting the house of a dear old friend, one she hadn’t seen in real life for too many months. The nightmare contrived a storm that required Franny to spend the night in her old friend’s house, so she stretched out on the couch in her friend’s dream basement. The friend disappeared, to be replaced by a series of strangers who claimed the same space offered to Franny. Although the strangers seemed harmless, they would not let Franny settle anywhere and rest – each place she tried, in an ever-expanding, ever-darkening nightmare basement, she would be usurped by a stranger with a prior claim. Panic clawed its way up Franny’s throat and finally shook her awake.

Franny turned on her bedside radio and propped herself up on her pillows, blinking to chase away the nightmare residue. The hour was still early, but Franny knew sleep had fled for good. Her thoughts drifted back to Marilyn, asleep on her couch, groceries neglected in the kitchen. She determined to work for an hour or two, and then call Marilyn.

When Marilyn’s phone rang unanswered, Franny grabbed a coat to protect her from the early spring wind and walked to Marilyn’s house.

Already, she mumbled to herself as she leaned into that cold wind, I’ve already lost my big-city indifference and I am checking up on friends, unannounced. Perhaps the panic of not being able to find a place to rest in her dream, or the worries about Marilyn’s state of health, or just a general sense of being unsettled drove her on and she prepared herself for the worst: Marilyn passed out, fallen and unable to rise, something broken, or Marilyn away and lost, the subject of a community-wide search.

But Franny’s knock was answered right away, and her worries proved to be as temporary as her nightmare. A tall man, with close-cropped gray hair, fashionable glasses, and a warm smile held the door open for Franny as Marilyn called from her living room.

“Franny! Come in! Meet my good friend Douglas. Please join us – although I warn you, we are talking politics, and we do not tolerate anyone demurring when we talk politics. We shall demand that you share your reasoned opinions and your unwarranted biases, just as we do!”

Douglas shook Franny’s hand as Precious danced at her feet. “Ah, you’re the new girl in town? Marilyn speaks very highly of you.”

“Oh. She does? Well.” Franny was flustered by such a welcome when she’d expected great tragedy or at least minor discomfort. Or was it being called “the new girl” at her age? “Um. I’m sorry to come by without warning, Marilyn – I called but got no answer, and I was out for a walk anyway, and…”

“Darling, if I’d left a friend in my condition yesterday, I’d contrive a reason to drop by the next day too. See, Douglas – this young woman is a delight.” Marilyn’s face was still a bit pale, and it looked as though she had not put on fresh clothes, but her high spirits warmed Franny’s heart. “Take off that coat, and sit down. Douglas, bring Franny a cup of tea and a scone. Douglas made the tea, and he does so remarkably well, but he also baked the scones, and they show his true talent.”

Douglas set a cup of steaming tea and a huge, golden scone on a china plate on the table next to the comfy chair Franny settled in. “I spent some time in England, and of all the things I learned, tea and scones have turned out to be the most useful,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He pulled up a wooden rocking chair to make their circle complete, as Precious settled herself nearby. “Now, Franny. Before you declare your own political heritage, first you must know that I am an unrepentant liberal, and Marilyn is a determined atheist.”

“Douglas!” Marilyn cried with a laugh. “I am not an atheist.”

“Politically, you are, of course. Don’t deny it. You don’t believe in anything political other than arguing, Marilyn. Franny, if you tell us you are a dyed-in-the-wool Republican we shall have no other choice than to prevent you leaving until we convert you. But we will love you anyway. Friendship always transcends religion and politics. So. Tell us where you stand.”

Pine Street Episode 24

After the cowboy festival, Marilyn comes home from the hospital. Franny continues to help by walking the dog, Precious, and they both smell something amiss.

“I know, a dog named Precious – it’s pretty silly, isn’t it, dear.” Marilyn had come home from the hospital the day after the cowboy festival, and called Franny to thank her for walking the old dog. Something in Marilyn’s voice on the phone made Franny offer to come over, and Marilyn’s quick acceptance of the offer to bring a few things from the grocery reinforced the impression of frailty.

When Franny came into Marilyn’s house, she put the bag of groceries on the kitchen counter. Marilyn did not get up from her cozy nest on the couch: propped on extravagant pillows, covered in two soft blankets, both in shades of blue, with Precious curled up on the cushion near Marilyn’s feet. Franny noticed the older woman’s skin tone was a dusty gray devoid of its usual rosiness, and her cropped white hair looked limp.

Marilyn’s house smelled of ginger tea, damp dog, and something else: illness, maybe, or pain.  Franny had asked if she should put the groceries away. The older woman had replied with a tsk and told Franny to come join them in the living room. Marilyn reached down to stroke Precious behind one ear, and the old dog squeezed her eyes shut in sheer bliss.

“I rescued her when she was about five years old, or so the vet told me,” Marilyn went on. “Dog years being what they are, I thought it would be too much to ask her to get used to a new name at that age. So we stuck with Precious. Now I’m besotted with the little beast, and she truly is precious to me. I can’t imagine life without her.” She made eye contact with Franny. “I wonder, would you mind taking her for a short walk again today? I’m not completely certain I’m up to it, and she is so much happier and sleeps much better when she’s had her exercise.”

“Of course, I’d love to. Did the doctor say what’s, you know…” Franny’s voice trailed off. She’d been about to say “what’s wrong with you,” but checked herself. Nothing had to be wrong, did it? Maybe Marilyn had only gotten overly tired, or her oil paints had gotten to her. Fainting spells happened.

“Oh, you know how they are. Just told me to rest for a while. Doctors rarely tell you anything useful, as they are, on the whole, the most cautious beings.” Marilyn smiled. It seemed the art professor would conspire with Franny to avoid the subject of a diagnosis of any kind.

Franny retrieved the leash from its usual hook, and Precious met her at the door, plumed tail wagging. “We’ll be back soon,” Franny called, and Marilyn waived them out. After forty-five minutes or so of Precious’s sniffing and snuffling, they returned to find Marilyn asleep. Precious returned to her spot at the woman’s feet on the couch, turning in circles to make a nest before flopping down to join her mistress in a nap.

The grocery bags were still full on the kitchen counter. Franny put the food away and let herself out, trying to shake the sense that fate had something very unpleasant in store.

Pine Street Episode 23

Alison seeks caffeine to help plod through her thesis. It turns out Franny isn’t the only one captivated by Leo’s singing. Or is it Leo himself?

Alison, Franny’s elfin neighbor, had also followed the sound of music outside, away from her muddled work on her master’s thesis. She’d lived in town long enough to know about the cowboy festival, and also to stay away from the larger venues like the furniture store. Alison had heard enough tragic cowboy songs to last a lifetime, but nonetheless she was grateful for a chance to escape her studies. The thesis itself she loved; the writing of pages and pages of summaries of other people’s research Alison found deeply tedious. When, she thought, do I become worthy of inflicting this suffering on other poor graduate students, who have to read my interminable thoughts on my topic? When do my own ideas about it become valid – how much to I have to endure to achieve that status?

Lost in the kind of self-pity familiar to every thesis writer at every university in the world, Alison trudged through the crowded sidewalks, avoiding eye contact. She planned to circle the downtown, end at the coffee shop so she could fuel up on a strong espresso, and use the caffeine-induced energy to return to her reading and writing. The whole excursion would only take about twenty minutes, not enough to create any guilt about the break.

A simple melody on an acoustic guitar somehow rose above the din, causing Alison to look up. She saw Leo perched on a stool in the café, strumming and smiling at the audience. On a whim, Alison went inside. I can get coffee here, too, she told herself, and maybe a treat. But she did not go to the busy counter to order. Instead, she took a seat near the front, where Leo focused his smile on her.

His singing voice, imperfect but strong and soulful, elated Alison. When he finished, another thirty minutes had passed, but no guilt crept up her spine. She watched as he seemed to head for her table, only to have a half-dozen people intercede themselves to talk to him, shake his hand, compliment his music.

She could not understand why this made her embarrassed enough to sneak out while Leo was engaged in conversation. Nor did she understand why she felt relieved to see Franny returning to their building a few steps ahead of herself, entering the next-door apartment and pulling the door closed behind her, alone.

Alison returned to her work, studiously avoiding any glances out the window in the direction of the café.