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Barb’s punctuation marks, her quick breathing spots, are “anyhow,” “anyway,” “anywho.” She says her last boyfriend put her in jail (as if he actually caged her). He’s a singer in a band and after they broke up he didn’t want her at his gigs anymore. “I love dancing,” she says. “It makes me feel like I’m flying, anywho. . .”
Her hands move just as fast as her mouth, and she keeps touching my arm, and, now, my face. I turn away, look toward the slow-moving river, try to think of a polite way out.
“What’s wrong?” she says. “If you don’t want to be here—”
“No,” I say, shushing her (people at the other tables looking over). “It’s okay.”
She signals the waitress, orders another glass of white wine. I order another draft. I think about ordering food, but it seems too misleading now. We planned to meet for drinks—food would only lead her on. But the dinner crowd is now arriving and we are conspicuously out of place, taking up valuable real estate in the corner by the front window.
I ask Barb if she’s hungry.
“Not for food,” she grins.
I look at her thin, lined face, try not to grimace. Her picture on Match.com was extremely flattering, in soft light, maybe taken ten years ago (she claims she’s 49 but I wonder about that now). Her blonde hair, down to her shoulders, in the picture, is now cut short and dyed bright orange (like a male bird trying to attract a mate). I wonder if I could force myself to be attracted to her, in some hypothetical way: let’s say we’re the only two people left on the planet.
I signal the waitress over, order a bowl of oyster chowder.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything?” I ask Barb.
“I’ll have your crackers,” she says, then asks the waitress to bring extra.
“I better see how Margaret’s doing,” she says, opening her cell phone. Margaret is her daughter who’s going through a divorce. Barb’s been divorced three times, and I should’ve taken that as a warning sign, but I’m new at this dating game. She was more subdued on the phone; we exchanged commonalites: we both like the water, we both like birdwatching.
She’s telling her daughter that we’re having a wonderful time, and now she’s holding out her phone to take a picture of us. She leans in, kisses me on the lips and takes the shot, her thin lips warm, charged by endless chatter. I could get up and run, but it’s not in my nature. In high school I was the guy you could rely on to take you home. Barb walked here; she lives in a cabin only a few blocks away over the Chester River bridge, but it’s dark, now, and clearly she’s not right in the head. I’d never forgive myself if she got hit by a car or decided to jump.
Barb puts me on the phone with her four-year-old grand-daughter, Lily,who interrogates me in a soft, shy voice. “Do you like my grandmother?” “Are you a nice man?”
I answer both questions in the affirmative (What else can I say?), and then the phone is taken away from her. “Please take care of my mother,” Margaret says in a hushed, earnest voice, as if she were asking for a life-time commitment.
“I will,” I say, staring in the window at my reflection that seems to say: you’re fucked.
“My daughter worries about me,” Barb says, jiggling the key in the door. “She found this cabin for me, but I told her I’m on a 90-day plan. If I like it after that, then I’ll sign a lease.”
“You’re that concise?
“I’ve never been concise,” she says. “I’ve always just gone with the flow.”
I’ve never gone with the flow. I’m an actuary. I assess risks for an insurance company, and I’ve tried to live my life the same way. Every step I take carefully measured. I went to college, got a good job, live within my means in a small townhouse outside of Baltimore.
Barb is fluttering around the room, the wood floor littered with twigs and leaves, the shelves barren, no furniture, not even a chair—nothing suggesting any kind of permanence. There’s a small kitchen on the left, where she lights a small candle on the bare counter, and then opens a bottle of red wine from the cupboard.
I had planned on just driving her home, dropping her off, but Margaret’s anxious voice keeps playing in my head. If anything happens to Barb on my watch—
She pours two glasses, then makes a toast. “To life,” she says.
I clink her glass.
She brushes away some of the debris on the floor and we sit down beside each other, our backs against the wall. “You’re different,” she says. “You don’t wanna just jump my bones. The last guy I dated didn’t tell me he was married until after I slept with him.”
I don’t tell her that I’ve nearly been celibate for over five years. The only reason I agreed to go on this date was to get my sister out of my hair. She’s the one who put me on Match.com, suddenly deciding that it was her sisterly duty to find me a woman.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Barb asks.
“Sure,” I say, the night can’t get any stranger.
She puts a hand on my shoulder, leans in, kinda whispers. “I’m learning to fly.”
She’s looking at me for some kind of reaction. And even though I can tell she’s not, I pretend she’s talking about in a plane. “I used to hate it too—but my iPhone helps.”
“I was up for twenty minutes last night.”
I take a drink of wine. “The risk of crash is really very low.”
She leans in even closer, her dark eyes gleaming in the candlelight. “I’m almost ready to fly out the window.”
“My uncle used to fly in his dreams,” I say. “They say if you’re spiritually evolved—”
“You don’t believe me?”
I’ve read stories where women have wings. But I’m hesitant to tell her this.
“Watch,” she says.
She gets up, lifts her frail arms in a wide sweeping motion, jumping up and landing on her ass with a thud, her neon orange hair, a wig I discover now, falling off.
I help her up, her head, without the wig, in the shape of an egg. “You’d better not try that again,” I say. “You might break.”
She adjusts the wig back on her shaved head, like the black ladies at work with their wigs of many colors. “You’re like my daughter,” she says. “always worrying.”
“You don’t have to be sorry,” she says, pouring us more wine. “You just need to believe.”
“It’s not really in my nature.”
“What kind of bird are you?”
“I don’t fly.”
“Let’s see you try.”
“No,” I say, not into making a fool of myself.
“In time,” she says. “Anywho, we can still have some fun.”
She unearths an old radio and finds a jazz station. “Come on,” she says. “Let’s dance.”
“I’m not much of a dancer,” I say. In fact, I never dance.
“Come on,” Barb says, beckoning to me, swaying with the music, her arms flying. I find myself strangely attracted to her, now, so vulnerable in her fall.
She flies over to me, holds out her hands. “Come on. Live a little.”
I take her hands, a bit off-balance as I get on my feet.
In the morning Barb makes sunflower seed pancakes. Turns out she’s a health nut. But she smokes and drinks too much. I don’t remember the last time I drank as much as I did last night. I know the risks of over-indulging: heart disease; liver disease; high blood pressure. . .
“I hope you don’t mind peanut butter on your pancakes,” she sings from the kitchen. I wince in the sharp light of the open windows. The river slapping against the embankment. “I wonder how many times this cabin has been flooded out,” I say.
“Do you worry about every little thing?” she asks.
“It’s my job,” I say. “I, mean, not to worry. But to assess the risk.”
“I never tried flying in front of anyone else—just Margaret.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“You made up for it,” she winks.
She’s wearing a short red feather robe, her legs thin and shapely. I have to admit, she did most of the work last night. But I’m somewhat of a changed man.
“Margaret and Lily are joining us for breakfast,” she says.
“Oh?” I say, looking frantically around for my clothes. I find them bunched at the bottom of the sleeping bags on the floor. My jeans, and my yellow and green striped tee-shirt that my sister insists makes me look too much like Charlie Brown. I’m not an unattractive man, just someone you don’t remember meeting five minutes later. I wonder now if Barb will remember me—if I’ll ever see her again. I can’t exactly see this thing working out, and, yet, strangely, as if under some kind of spell, I don’t want to leave.
Barb brings me a heavy green mug of coffee. “Don’t worry,” she says, kissing me on the lips. “Margaret will love you.”
Margaret brought bagels and lawn chairs and a fold-up card table. We’re all sitting around the table now like bridge players. Barb sitting beside me, Margaret and Lily across from us. Lily is on Margaret’s lap and she keeps staring at me with her big grey eyes, as if I were from another planet (and maybe I am). Margaret, who seems to be the antithesis of her mother (her long dark hair draped around her face, her eyes that soft blue grey), holds her daughter close to her as if Lily were a shield, protecting Margaret from the world. I felt an immediate attraction to Margaret, but I’m not sure if it’s real or if it’s my current hyped-up state of libido. At any rate, I feel like a bit of a shmuck.
I spread the cream cheese thick on my third blueberry bagel, ask Margaret what she does for a living, cringing at how paternal that sounds. She looks past me, towards the river, says she’s working at Super Fresh now, but is thinking about starting her own catering business, though she’s not sure she’s ready to make the jump.
She asks me what I do, and I tell her. I tell her that’s it all about the numbers, the percentages, that risks in life, really, can be reduced to simple math.
“I believe that,” she says. “But my mother wouldn’t agree.”
“You two are birds of the same feather,” Barb says. “Margaret swears she’ll never get married again.”
“Look at the high rate of divorce in this country,” I say.
“Love isn’t about statistics,” Barb says. She gets up and begins to clear the plates away. “Dan is into birdwatching.”
Margaret smiles softly at me.
Margaret and I take the lawn chairs down by the river, while Lily and Barb clean up in the kitchen. Barb insisted on it. “Miss. Lily and I have some catching up to do,” she said.
There’s an osprey nest on a man-made platform, just off to the left in a marshy area. We can hear the mother’s cheep cheep cry, as if she were unimpressed with her mate’s gifts, but he is nowhere around, and now we see that flying lessons are underway. The little birds lift off the nest, flapping wildy, trying to tread air, staying aloft for no more than a couple seconds. Margaret and I find ourselves laughing so hard that we’re in tears.
I can’t help but mention Barb’s flying attempt last night, which makes Margaret start to cry even more; at first I think she’s still crying from laughing, but these are real tears now.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, mortified. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“It’s okay,” she says, wiping her eyes. “It’s just that she thinks she actually can.”
“Well, maybe she can,” I say. “In her head. I mean, I don’t think she’s crazy.”
“She’s seeing a therapist,” Barb says, staring at the sluggish river. “But it hasn’t helped. She’s still in denial.”
“As long as she doesn’t hurt herself.”
“She’s dying,” Margaret says. “Lung cancer. She’s in remission now. But the doctors say three, maybe six months.”
I look down into the muddy river, wondering how I hadn’t known, everything up til last night so carefully weighed and measured. “I’m sorry,” I say. “She just seems so—vibrant.”
“She puts on a good show.”
One of the baby ospreys makes a valiant effort, lifting his little body to the sun. He’s up for what seems, probably to him, a life-time, before falling back down on the moss-coated nest, only to try again and again, and it is almost as if I can feel the leaving, the slow rotation of the planet, summer changing to fall, then winter into spring.