by Philip Runia
The cheep-cheep of the bird outside is rapturous. Not quite a joyful song, but as if it were demanding or anticipating that something happen. Though I don’t have my glasses on, I can tell by the gray shade of the sky and the cool smell coming through the window that it rained last night. Spring has arrived, without the sunshine. With my turn to the other direction, the bird’s thrill disappears into the rhythmic ticking of the clock. It’s strange how one tick seems louder than the next, and then it cycles back. Like TICK, then tock. The tick seems to tock in my right ear, and the tock seems to tick in my left ear. That’s called stereo sound, I think. I’m in her living room on her futon. In approximately forty-five minutes she’ll wander out to squint through bleary eyes at me before smiling out an offer for coffee with whipped cream, just like clockwork.
I’m outside of her room this time. At university she has a twin bed; we’re practical cuddlers, Libra and Virgo. Back home, waking up in her room made one feel as though they’d fallen down Carroll’s rabbit hole — curious. Having forgotten where I was, I’d orient myself to decide I was still a part of this world. The door’s closed, but the sounds of her family rustling themselves awake pour through the roughhoused holes her brothers had made. Ladybugs dance and die on the windowsill in between refractions of light that pass through old glass bottles of Arnold Palmer. I allow my eyes a lazy snoop, knowing she won’t mind. There are posters of chic Vogue women, lilting their bodies to balance the negative space of her wall. A rack of clothes combining a colorful mixture of vintage, hand-me-down, and trend stands opposite of a dilapidated dresser. Atop the dresser, pink perfume bottles sit next to the bent spoon used to pry open the dresser drawers. A wooden head poses as a jewelry stand, holding numerous necklaces around its ears. Its hollowed eyes stare inquisitively back at me. He asks, “What are you looking for?”
Taped to the dresser mirror, there are photos of her brothers, of Elise, of me and of her. She keeps her memories here. We love photography, and our muse is beauty. A familiar bang on the door announces the beagle and blue-heeler mix’s arrival. Penny jumps on the bed, commanding us fully awake, ordering me out of my in-between. The nostalgia spurs a smile, and I know that the photos I took of her are hanging posted to the bulletin near where she sleeps now. My lens always catches her when she’s unaware. Like on the boat at Lake Okoboji where she sat in front of me in green, or at Bob’s in Arnold’s Park with ketchup and salt in between her fingers. Or like the one I took of her last year at the museum, after she touched that painting of the ghostly little girl and got yelled at by that old man. She’d lost herself in that moment. She was a painter and knew she shouldn’t have touched it, but was entranced by its magnificence. I was the same way with my camera. At one point the flash went off and the attendant looked at me as if it was the tenth time it had happened. Relax, I thought. I’m just appreciating beauty, is all.
The futon I’m lying on is quite ugly and uncomfortable. College housing is not the most conducive to nice furniture. She and I have to file through the door one by one to enter her apartment the first time I visited. The futon has more things poking me than cushioning me, so I have large pillows under my stomach to lift my hips off of the contraption, and lessen the pain. I put two blankets over my body to shield from the morning chill. The blankets are soft and warm, and when I move it’s like petting an animal. I rub my face on the fabric, back and forth, tactile with the textile. I used to not have the futon. Back home, her mother preferred me to sleep on the floor instead of in her bed, to keep up appearances and tradition. I honor our platonic love by sleeping in the living room, but refusing to arise until she emerges from her bedroom. Then we’ll begin our ritual, our art.
In my photos, she’s usually not looking at the camera, which I like. Or she’s looking toward it, but not into it. I always show her the picture afterward, and it makes me proud or happy or I don’t know to see her react to the photo. She smiles, is surprised at her beauty somehow, and then holds it for a lingering second before setting it down or handing it back to me. She never asks, but I always hand it back.