I first met her inside on a day when the rain outside made it all right to say just about anything. Sitting in the far corner of the cafe, she
looked olive and intense, teasing her way to my attention without changing her expression. I had been rushing around all day, and sank too easily into the chair next to hers. She
pushed her long scarf off the front of her sweater and
smiled. The table was piled with her belongings: a carpet bag large enough to make me uncomfortable wondering what was in
it, a stack of unopened paperbacks with impressive titles, a cold cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes that had been through a
“You look as if you’re camping out here,” I said, laughing. It
occurred to me that I would have been intimidated by her if I hadn’t been so tired.
“I am.” She tried to sound shy. “I don’t have any money
to put gas in my car, so I’m waiting to see if anyone I know will come in.” I thought she was hinting, but put it aside; she was charming.
“Are you at the university?”
“Yeah, English.” She waited to see my reaction.
“Me, too.” We exchanged a look that knew how many hours we spent
reading huge books and faking term papers for bad professors. Grinning, we relaxed into our chairs to acknowledge the pleasant turn in our conversation.
We talked for a long time about our classes, discovered mutual friends, the usual. She was graduating at the end of the term, and glowed verbally
about an out-of-town apartment she had found, these ten weeks ahead of time, with a bush that bloomed pink and orange roses. She had lost her contact lenses and never replaced
them, but she said she knew beautiful colors when she saw them. I lent her a dollar for gas, though I couldn’t afford it. Going home to get some work done, the name Sydney
balanced in my stomach.
I was too busy to see her for the next two days. I had started to write incessantly at a time when loneliness was buried in my skin; now I could not
seem to slow my momentum. My mother was a writer, so I had a built-in awe of the craft that made it difficult to like what I wrote. Maybe that was part of the thrill. But each
morning I had been writing relentlessly. At dusk, shadows spilling out of trees like dancers, I would begin to live my life just enough to have material to work with. Spending time
with Sydney during the afternoon had shifted my schedule. I was now writing in the evenings and that unsettled me. I had the same sense I get when exploring a pastry I’ve
never ordered before. For two days I tried to structure my confusion by writing about my acquaintance with Sydney until, feeling quite empty, on the third day I hurried to the cafe.
I watched her peering around, knowing she was looking for me. I came up behind her, but she had already spotted me, and pretended to be reading. I
let it pass, feeling delighted.
She was somehow tiny, which I loved. When she talked, I watched the way her wrists moved, directing a word or a cigarette. She arched her skinny
back when she sat, moved with her ass when she walked, laughed like a gypsy telling a dirty
joke. Her brown eyes told the story of aching, of reaching, of having touched too
many times. We spent the day together, playing at being nonchalant, courting one another desperately. Day after day after day. At the edge of spring, I moved into Sydney’s
cottage to live with her and a dark cat named Ennui.
Over the next two months, our friendship became an idiom that no one else could understand. We developed a vocabulary between us, its references so
obscure that sometimes we ourselves misunderstood it. But we thrived on the cryptic, even the element that was intrinsic to our relationship. If anyone suggested we were lovers,
Sydney would laugh, comfortable in knowing the truth. I could only bring myself to laugh half-heartedly.
We slept together with Ennui in an enormous bed, beneath layers and layers of quilts and surrounded by pillows. Maybe everything passed so slowly in
those days because the sensation of being in that bed was one that no alarm clock could touch. In the late afternoons we would finally poke our heads out, long enough for me to
gather beer from the kitchen and for her to put on an old Judy Garland album. Then back under the covers. We were so excited in the midst of our decadence that we barely noticed
our classes were going unheeded. Hers were of little importance since she would graduate no matter what, and I was so eased out of myself that I felt happy. It was important to her
that I give my critical opinion of the writing she was doing, and that was all that mattered. I myself wrote nothing.
Dinner was often strong coffee and bitter marmalade—as Mediterranean a meal as we could manage. We would laugh that all our friends were
“la crème de la crème,” though we no longer saw anyone. We had little money between us, and made a game of taxing our strains of dishonesty to see how much money we
could turn up from acquaintances and strangers alike. Although I was queasy about it at first, I became swept up in a kind of hysteria I imagine exists in a band of pickpockets. We
actually turned up tremendous sums, and spent it stupidly, joyously. Nights we spent with wine spilled into two warm glasses, reading good poetry aloud and feeling the air get
hotter and drier as it moved closer to summer. Our bodies close at dawn and oozing with sensuality, we would again climb into bed and move to either side of some imaginary line to
sleep long and badly.
As it came closer to the time when Sydney was to move out of town to the apartment, we began to creep through our days like frightened mice. We were
particularly gentle with one another, almost more so than we had been since the very beginning. She was nervous, and I devoted my time to helping her scheme to avoid paying old
debts, and to re-establish curdled friendships. The phone calls were innumerable.
“Hello, Anne, this is Sydney. Listen, I just wanted to tell you that
I’m leaving soon. Yeah, and as soon as I get re-settled with a job and everything, I’ll send you the money I owe you right away. Unh-hunh, it shouldn’t take too
long. But anyway, you should come and visit me there. Right behind the building is a rosebush that would be worth the trip to see. It has enormous pink and orange blossoms
that’ll knock you out. Yeah, my kitchen window looks out on it. I almost think seeing it up close would be too much to handle. So if you get the chance—okay, and
I’ll send you my address. Yup, take care.”
Then, with some kind of sorrow, Sydney left with her cat. Loneliness touched me again like a glass hand: smooth, hard, and transparent. Writing
being out of the question, and me with too much time to do nothing but listen to Judy Garland sing through all her layers of pain, within a very few days I was crying away an
expensive two-hour bus ride to see her.
Sydney came to the door wearing almost nothing, trying to make her sour mouth smile with an ease she didn’t feel. She nodded, took my hand and
led me to a kitchen dressed in dishes and dried flowers I had given her. She looked more sinister and lovely than I had ever known her to be. Her tiny hand pointed out the window.
“That’s it,” she whispered dangerously. “The bush.
Isn’t it beautiful? You can be the first one to pick them with me.”
The dirty picture window looked out on a large bush of pink camellias, the edge of each petal of every flower a desperate brownish orange color
where there was dying, making way for a new season. Feeling Sydney’s body next to mine, I closed my eyes and saw myself dashing across a void, wanting to fill it with myself.
I looked at her, stunned.
It was not important to tell her all that she had done. The bus was invisible all two hours. I viewed the cottage at midnight as if it were a