The seasons were changing. Illy noticed it first in the smell of the air, that hint of fall in the morning when the world still looked like summer would go on forever. But in a matter of weeks—days?—suddenly everything was different. The elm leaves were that perfect creamy gold colour that took Illy by surprise ever year, like she’d stepped into a magnificent King Midas legend. A gust of wind lifted the dry leaves from the sidewalk and she remembered imagining the trees were laying down their leaves as a royal carpet just for her. She repressed the urge to skip. Then changed her mind and did skip, just a little. These days she almost couldn’t bear the beauty she saw everywhere she looked. The leaves, of course, which were extravagant in their loveliness, but also the glow behind the blue of the sky, the elaborate design in the foam of her latte that morning at the neighbourhood coffee shop, the mischievous smile of the guy behind the counter with the stilted English and the thick moustache. She was starting to feel like the universe was throwing her a surprise party but couldn’t quite keep the secret.
It had only been a few weeks since her discouraged donut hole session with June, when Illy couldn’t find a shred of happiness or hope anywhere, but something had changed. She wondered if she should feel guilty about how happy she was feeling. It wasn’t like anything had changed for anyone else. Margaret was still trapped and undervalued. Dave was still unemployed. People everywhere were still lonely and depressed and suffering. She stopped and touched the bark of a tree planted by the sidewalk, felt its bark, thought about her father telling her to listen to trees. None of that terribleness made any sense, but somehow she was sure that trying to be gloomy about it wasn’t going to help. She pressed her fingers deep into the grooves of the bark, felt the roughness and the beauty, and gave herself permission to be happy for now. She thought maybe she was noticing the goodness on behalf of her friends who were having a hard time doing it themselves.
Illy nearly jogged the last few blocks back to her building. Now that she had a plan there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day for writing. Whenever she’d sit down at her computer—the typewriter just couldn’t keep up—she could barely stay focused on one idea and rather skipped from one piece to another, editing the various poems and stories she’d been working on, then suddenly starting a new document to jot down another idea.
A pile of boxes on the sidewalk by her building shattered her giddiness. Nancy was sitting on top of the boxes looking confused. Illy walked over and stroked her behind the ears. “Hey Nancy. Big changes these days, hey? Don’t worry, sweetie, it’s going to be okay.” Nancy closed her eyes as though basking in the reassurance of Illy’s voice.
“Hi Ilia. Sorry for the mess out here.” Dave stepped out of the building holding a coffee maker and a tangle of wire hangers. He had the same confused look as Nancy. Illy wished she knew how to reassure him. There were so many gaps in the set of useful responses bequeathed by society. What to say when somebody died was one. And comforting lost and lonely neighbours on their moving day was another.
“So today’s the day? Leaving the Harrison flock for brighter pastures?” Her attempt at humour sounded hollow, but Dave managed a small grin.
“Guess so. I hope the rest of you can cope without us.” His voice broke a little as he set the hangers on the ground beside the boxes.
Illy thought about how easy it would be to make a quick exit, but then remembered Margaret’s tears at the falafel shop and reached down to pick up Nancy instead. She was learning that sometimes the most caring thing was to just stay put, right in the middle of the discomfort. Nancy purred.
“Um, Dave? Do you have a number where I could reach you? I’m planning a little apartment event and would love for you to come, but I don’t have the details yet. Maybe I could call you?” She looked down at Nancy’s butterscotch fur while she talked, not sure if she was overstepping her bounds as a former neighbour.
“Sure. I don’t have a phone right now, but you could probably reach me at my brother’s number. Or at least he’ll know where to find me.” Dave opened up one of the boxes and scrounged around a while till he found a pen, then jotted down a number on the back of an old receipt. He passed Illy the paper, then reached for Nancy. “See you around, then. Good luck with your book.”
Illy wished she could stay and help somehow or at least tell Dave how sad she was that he was leaving, but she realized she’d been dismissed. “Yeah, see you later. Bye Nancy.” Illy paused, but Dave was bent over a box, trying to jam in the coffee pot with one hand while Nancy squirmed in the other. Illy turned to the door and reached in her pocket for her keys, wondering what she’d been so happy about just minutes earlier.
When she entered her apartment she saw that she had a voice message from her dad waiting on her phone, which she’d forgotten to bring with her on her walk. She played the message while untying her shoes. “Hey sweetie, give us a call when you get in. Mom got some news from the doctor today. Don’t want to worry you, but…well, just call when you get in.” Illy leaned against the door frame. Outside her window, leaves fell like snowflakes. They looked brown and brittle in the grey light. Illy closed her eyes and tried to breathe.
“Any sign of a promotion coming your way?” Illy’s mother was leaning back against the beige couch cushions with a slouchiness that was uncharacteristic of her. Illy thought she looked gentler without her usual angles.
“I hope not. The only position I could move up into is Simon’s and I’d way rather work for him than for myself. But can we please not talk about my lack of ambition right now? I’m here to talk about you. What exactly did the doctor say?” Illy glanced at her father who sitting on the edge of a wooden chair near the couch. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him sitting anywhere in the living room other than in his leather recliner. Her mother’s angularity seemed to be leaching into him. Neither of them spoke.
Illy tried again. “Is she sure it’s cancer? Could there have been some mistake? Can you get a second opinion?”
Illy’s mother closed her eyes and attempted a smile. “Oh Ilia. Please don’t worry about me. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Your Auntie Evelyn is researching all sorts of natural regimens that will probably make me healthier than ever.” She opened her eyes and looked at Illy. “Really, I’ll be fine. Try not to worry.”
Illy wondered at the irony of this perpetual worrier trying to convince her daughter not to worry. Worry was a family legacy. And now, for the first time that Illy could remember, there was something legitimate to worry about and her mother looked genuinely relaxed. Illy wasn’t sure how to feel. She looked to her father for guidance but he was watching his wife’s face, searching for direction of his own. She’d never imagined her father as someone who needed cues for his emotions.
“Okay. I’ll try. Glad you’re feeling okay.” Illy had been expecting a longer interrogation of her romantic life, or at least her plants’ wellbeing. She’d been at her parents’ for less than ten minutes, but already felt like her mother was ending the visit. She waited a few more seconds, giving her mother the chance to recall some quirky family anecdote or suggestion for Illy’s cleaning routine, but none came. Illy stood up and walked to the couch. She leaned down to kiss her mother on the forehead, exactly like her mother had done to her for a lifetime of goodnights. “I’ll be back Thursday, okay? Get some rest.” She turned to her father and almost kissed his head too, but felt like that might be condescending somehow, an admittance that he wasn’t doing well. “Bye Dad. Call me if you need me.” Her father didn’t move. Illy turned before the tears slipped down her cheeks, something shifting behind her ribs.
Continue Reading: Chapter Forty-One