A Celebrity Sprain
Incongruous: New Orleans jazz, swinging the doors off an English tea room.
Outrageous: A quintet of old, white guys belting it out, while rough-looking, Victorian-smocked waitresses hustle teapots in cozies, to and from tables.
"You are going to be back for the opera?" Penny asked, demanded and ordered, all in the same sentence.
I tried to reply, but was overruled by a raucous trombone glissando. When the musician's lung capacity finally gave out, I got in, "Yeah, sure thing... no problem," before a smattering of enthusiastic applause. Over the years we had known each other, I'd learned to tell Penny whatever she expected -- demanded -- to hear from me. It really wasn't about communication, but getting the answer right. In reality -- something she knew very little about, as far as my life was concerned -- I had, weeks before, cashed in gazillions of frequent flier points to get first-class to Kiev and back. The back part being open-ended, that is, and certainly not something I'd tell Penny.
Penny smiled at the trombonist, a psychiatrist by day, before turning back to me. "Tell me again, how long are you going for?"
Watching her wait for the correct answer, I swear, any organic matter, between her molars would have been compressed into diamond. Her jaw muscles rippled, pulsated, quivered -- like hackles rising. It never ceased to amaze me. "One month. I leave on the fifteenth, get to Kiev on the sixteenth, and fly back home on the fifteenth."
"Of March." I added, "This year. Two. Thousand. And. Six."
Penny considered this. "You are sure? You know, we have the Opera in the third week of March."
Of course, I knew. For a few years already we'd been attending the local opera company's performances. Teaching together, and then, a shared interest in music, formed the basis of what was once an incredibly good friendship. Good, that is, before it kind-of became a minefield of implied, or even unknown, expectations. Still, my obsession with Rockwellesque void-filling, and Penny's empty-nest and unrequited mothering instinct kept our affiliation dragging right along. It was simply easier to go along with it, than deal with the unimaginable fallout of standing up for myself and saying, "Enough!"
The band tore into another number. A sonic wall of anti-conversational jazz filled the joint. Alright! I finally had a chance to sit back and concentrate on the music. For a bunch of white guys with day jobs, they were damn good. The Sunday night ritual: jazz at the tearoom, was comfortable, an easy obligation to live up to. It kept Penny's insecurity about my wanderlust in check -- sort of, and it let me keep worlds from colliding. All Penny knew -- or would accept knowing -- was that I renovated houses to flip them, not love them. Taught for the money, not the camaraderie, and avoided danger whenever Penny decided something was dangerous. Danger, according to her, was pretty much anything or anyone she didn't like, or condone.
For instance, an expensive, reproduction, Arts-and-Crafts chandelier, for a paint-and-flip real estate deal, was totally unacceptable, when a five buck fixture met code and held resale. That I now had that aforementioned Arts-and-Crafts monstrosity dangling above my stairs; well, that was just another plus-factor for meeting at the tearoom. Keeping worlds apart, minimized the conflict. Of course, it was frustratingly time consuming, but any hint of me doing my own thing had Penny falling to pieces. By necessity, I only lived my life outside the hours she demanded my devotion. Come to think of it, there was pretty much nothing in my life, by then, that didn't offend Penny.
Ah, but Kiev was so close. I could literally shut my eyes and see the banners, hear the cheers, the protests, feel the joy, anger, thrill... danger. Blue and yellow; orange; Soviet red; white, blue and red; black and white: the colors of revolution. So close, not by miles, but by merely days.
"Again, how many days are you gone for?" Penny was practically yelling over the band.
I heard -- hard not to -- but ignored, craning my neck for a better line-of-sight to the trombonist. He loved the attention. It was the last jazz-night before Kiev, and those cats were totally cooking with gas.
"You can't leave it like this!" Bernadette stood amongst the general renovation mayhem, waving her hands to encompassing it all.
"No choice. No time!" I thrashed through a kitchen drawer. "Damn! Sure you don't have a set?"
"Only the ones I gave back to you." Bernadette was from a world that Penny vociferously disapproved of. A world I kept meticulously apart from hers, like matter and antimatter. At first, I didn't have to, but when Bernadette -- someone I'd known since university -- threatened to distract me... well, lets just say, it was prudent to keep Bernadette in the real world, and out of the world conjured up and maintained, just for Penny.
"Meg, give up! You'll find the keys before you go." Bernadette was painfully familiar with my pre-flight shenanigans. It's no secret, I tend to be a tad disorganized.
"Are you kidding me?! I go in a couple of days! If I haven't found them yet, it's a pretty fair bet, I never will."
Bernadette rolled her eyes. "Fine, you'll leave me your keys when I take you to the airport."
My bungalow was a certifiable disaster area. There should have been helicopters circling overhead. Full page ads by questionable charities. Terrorist organizations calling to claim responsibility. The entire first floor was unfinished. There were no interior stairs. The kitchen was only partially completed. Despite that, Bernadette was leaving her perfectly intact house -- a few doors up the street -- to move into my place.
The trendoids would label her, something like an enabler. While I was off, gallivanting around in search of adventure and thrills, Bernadette was at home, keeping the roof from coming down. It had always been that way with Bernadette. She was -- and still is -- my truest and best friend, confidant, ground support... family. No wonder, Penny disapproved.
"I know! The keys have been sucked into a black hole. Probably the same one that devours socks in the dryer!" I declared, in a strong, confident voice, while launching a cushion from an Ikea sofa -- that looked an awful lot like William's Stickley piece. The cushion cartwheeled across the living room.
Bernadette intercepted it, inches and microseconds from a former fireplace, now a gaping hole into a shaft that once contained a chimney. "Stop it! You're gone for how long? It's not like you'll need your keys."
Huh? She had a point. "I suppose you're right."
Bernadette stopped on her way to the sofa, propped the cushion on the backs of her feet, keeping it off the dusty hardwood floor. "Where is that breeze coming from?" She asked, probing the space behind her with her free hand. "It's freezing."
"Cold front. Goddamned arctic outflow. Going way below the line tonight." Man, I hated outflows. Horrible, killing blasts of dry, clear, super chilled, Canadian air. Freezes everything in its path. A friendly reminder that even in fairy-land Victoria, you're still in the Great White North. And yeah, that is a clever reference to the SCTV sketch, lampooning Canada's low intelligence, low expectations, low class, and low temperatures.
"No! I mean here, in your living room." She peered up at the sky through the chimney shaft, then down at a pile of sooty bricks in the basement. "You have to do something about that, or I'm not staying here."
"Like what? I don't have time!
"I'll staple a tarp to the roof. Deal with it when I get back."
"You're gone how long, one, maybe two, months? Until you've gotten tired of living out of your suitcase, I suppose." Bernadette turned her back on the hole, gestured over her shoulder with a thumb. "Nope, now! Then you can go and be Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, 'til the cows come home."
"Lara Croft" I grabbed the cushion and tossed it back onto the sofa frame.
"What, I thought her name was Lenna, not Lara?"
Whumping the cushion down with my ass, I explained, "You said, 'Tomb Raider,' that is Lara Croft, not Indiana..."
"You are so weird." Bernadette cut me off. "Forget about it. What's Lara, or Lenna planning to do in Kiev?"
"It's Elena." I clarified: "El-ah-nah, or in Russian, Yeh-len-ah, or just Lenna, for short. I suppose she's going to play it by ear. We'll do some exploring, soaking up some culture, get into trouble."
"Right, trouble. You follow that camera of yours straight into trouble. Just for thrills, and then, wonder why the ceiling is coming down on your head. Don't forget, it's not your revolution over there. Maybe it's Elena's, I can't really imagine what she's doing in Kiev." Bernadette raised a thick black eyebrow, drilled into me with her startlingly blue eyes. "Really Meg, what's in it for her?"
Subconsciously, or maybe not, I struck The Thinker's pose, right there on the Ikea sofa. "You know, Bernie, I don't really know." I'd never put much thought into it. "But I have a strong feeling it's going to be an adventure. And you know, there's something there with Elena, something I absolutely can't put my finger on, can't begin to describe what it is, but I know, more than anything, that I desperately need to meet that girl."
Bernadette playfully slapped my thigh, stood and turned to face me. At barely five feet, the only time she had height advantage was when I was seated and she was not. "Then you had better do something about that hole, hadn't yeh?" A true Celt, what she lacked in stature, Bernadette more than made up for in sheer personality.
Straight up the former chimney's shaft. It seemed like a good idea, at first. Three or four bruising, sliver accumulating, freezing, tetanus chancing, death defying ascents -- and controlled descents -- of an absolutely vertical, extension ladder; all to slam in a sheet of wickedly sharp, aluminum flashing; frame it in place from the inside; and then, slather on copious gobs of calking. Mission accomplished! I was whistling Dixie, until my final descent of the wobbling, vertical ladder, festooned with every tool I could tie to my belt.
That's when it proved to be not such a good idea, after all. In a very ungraceful and expletive accented maneuver, I fell the last couple of meters into the brick pile. At first it didn't seem that bad. I was still alive. I was conscious, and I was no longer descending. The BFG (Big Framing Gun) I'd pretty much fallen on, hadn't fired a nail into my ass or anything else, and nothing seemed broken -- at first. And then, insidiously -- from a point of origin, somewhere in my right ankle -- pain began a relentless crescendo. "Shit, shit, shit. Not good."
Bernadette found me in the kitchen, flat on my back, the open cutlery drawer holding my ankle aloft. "What a mess! I rushed from work for this? I thought you were dead!"
"I'm afraid to look. This is bad, really, really bad." I'd crawled from the basement to the kitchen. On all fours, shaking, nauseous, and cold from shock, just to get to the phone, and she's pissed at me!?
"You managed to get all the way around the house, and up all those stairs, through the front door. It can't be that bad." Bernadette argued.
Turned out, it was bad: an absolute celebrity sprain. I ended up on crutches.