When you’re just past forty and ex-husband/childless, you take October seriously. It’s time to haul out the big socks, buy a few books and start planning the excuses to avoid Thanksgiving with the family. It’s time to shop – for dinner party wine and those old-fashioned Christmas cards because it’s fun to be the old-fashioned aunt. It’s time to go back to the park – crisp-cold and quiet. Walk home in the dark. And make all-day Sunday soup that simmers the entire apartment until the guests arrive. It’s time to hide the summer clothes and put a tea towel over the bathroom scales and think about yoga – in January. It’s time to devour pages of Nordic detectives, deep into the twilight of an early afternoon. It’s time to drink kick-off-your-heels tea and check what’s on TV. It’s time to take your lunch in a thermos and go for drinks after work and fend off well-meaning blind dates. It’s not that she didn’t like well-meaning blind dates; they were fun, too. But when one turns into two and two turns into more, it’s better to move on before normal turns into a nuisance. The truth was she had no intention of taking on the open-ended responsibility of making someone else happy, because she was already happy, perfectly content to be covered by her own life like a cozy knitted afghan thrown over her shoulders. Content to choose her own friends, never wash anybody else’s underwear or negotiate what to have for dinner – especially on the nights when it was going to be sweatpants and ice cream and Rosamund Pike. She was content to do what she wanted, when she wanted — without lame explanations or nagging regrets.
Of course, she did have some regrets. She’d gone to university like all the women in her family and had had high expectations. She thought it would be nice to live in a retro-poor apartment with too many stairs and a cat named Sniffles. Maybe have some adventures. Maybe be seduced by a poet who would leave her broken when he went back to his own bohemian tribe. Then collect all his verses and put them in a shoebox at the back of the closet for her children to find. But instead, she’d settled for four years in a dorm room — plastic and new — and sex with a waiter, a boyfriend and Rachel’s brother Danny (but she’d married him, so that didn’t count.) She did have a shoebox, though, but there were no secrets in it and no children to find it, so…. Sometimes, she thought she should regret the years of her marriage – but she never did. It had been serious and it had been fun, and she hadn’t overstayed her welcome, moving on before she’d completely lost herself in their married routines. Although she did wish she’d taken the bread maker – that would have been nice. But she was young then and unaware that, after some months alone, on a chilly kick-leaf October morning, she’d fall in love with her own future, and, like a fairytale princess, live happily ever after.
Somewhere in a slate grey morning, fog-deep in the quilts and pillows, they decided to be friends. It was in the middle of her Vonnegut years, (so there was that) but mostly it was a hedge against the growing November darkness. She secretly vowed to learn how to cook (but didn’t mean it) and he considered writing poetry (but didn’t do it.) Mostly, it was buttoned-up coats and kicking leaves, and once, they got lost in their own town when they went walking without watching. Sometimes, they dreamed of dusty old bookshops full of dusty old books with finger-worn pages and faded covers, and they wondered how romantic that would be. But she had a library card, and it was three stops on the bus, so they spent their Saturdays curled in the bedroom, reading books they didn’t have to search for. There was an old-fashioned restaurant, though, with bow-tied waiters and empty tables, that turned the lights on in the late afternoon. It was on the way home, so they would stop there and have hot soup or old world meat pies. Sometimes, they would bring their own candles and would order one dessert with two forks and drank wine — so they could explain things to each other. And that was romantic enough for them. Along the way, he taught her French (because that’s what he did) and she taught him numbers (because that’s what she loved.) After a while, they decided they liked walking in the rain and, forever after, looked forward to cloudy days. Once she went home for her brother’s wedding, and the sun shone large and cold every day, and he missed her and slept on her side of the bed. She brought him back a piece of the cake with a squashed red rose on it. She said she was sorry for squashing the rose, so he ate it to be polite. One Sunday, they decided to go to church (just in case) and one night, for no reason they could remember, they ended up listening to French jazz in a damp basement club. Occasionally, they would have other adventures as well, but they both knew they mostly preferred buttoned-up coats and walking in the rain – so that’s what they mostly did. Even after she got over Kurt Vonnegut and got a job teaching mathematics; even after they moved to a bigger apartment; even after they were married and had children and bought a car and had to cut the grass and had regular vacations; even after the years scattered behind them like autumn leaves in the November breeze. Even after all that, the thing they loved the most was buttoned-up coats and walking in the rain — because one slate grey morning, fog-deep in the quilts and pillows, they decided to be friends.
Yesterday, I felt the smell of autumn in the air — like an unexpected someone from the past with time on her hands and memories to tell. Because we remember autumn, she and I — fresh days and school books and sacred secrets so tender you could cut them with a glance. Long afternoons dark with broken hearts and lingering poetry no one will ever read. And she and autumn spoke as though the years were stored in cardboard boxes, dusty, glue-dried and sagging. Then, at the end, she said she’d missed me and kissed me on the cheek in the glove-cold street of the autumn afternoon, because …
Autumn is the long notes of the last jazz piano when the café is closed and only the serious remain, sitting like abandoned angels unable to fly. And there, somewhere in the final tales of lingering whiskey, they wonder if second-hand love could possibly redeem them.
Autumn is a park bench moist with morning, waiting like a reluctant traveller who’s been left behind. And there’s a puddle, quiet with reflection and a footprint and floating leaves leftover from the wind. And the worn letter plaque tells no one but the sky that Arthur Wilson liked to walk his dog.
Autumn is stone empty streets slanted with light from the windows of strangers. But you keep walking because you don’t know if they’re warm with conversations, or silent with despair.
Autumn is a movie, old and familiar, when the outside night is bony and brittle and full of the dark. So you pour the wine in the kitchen and break the chocolate onto a plate. And you cozy into your one-light twilight and wait for the melancholy.
And autumn is a black-and-white San Fran foggy night, heavy with crime. He’s turned his collar high so only his eyes can see her, standing in the silhouette shadows, sinister with deceit. And he knows (because he always knows) that she will walk away, and the sound of her footsteps will be his only souvenir.