the camera to snap her walking toward me across a soggy green field, slick silver lake fragments bouncing light in the background. I hadn't seen Melody in five years since she kissed me in the car - her I love you to a friend. I'd spent eight hours listening to her stories about infidelity without coming on to her, and without offering false words of empathy when she told me how she'd been raped by the man who later married her. When it came, it was my favorite kiss: surprising and passionate, the orange-candy flavor of her lips still with me the next morning when I woke alone. We'd just gotten our MFAs, and we moved away soon after - she south to Tampa, I north to Pittsburgh. When she found me at Bear Paw Lakes in Virginia, it surprised me like the kiss, and felt as wonderful. She spotted me behind a desk selling textbooks. We talked a while, but she split for a seminar on poetry - something which she said she taught more than wrote.
I rocked back and forth on a wooden swing out front, taking a smoke break and listening as Native-American Lit professor White Bird told folk stories to young writers when Melody returned. She was coming straight for me across damp grass that sort of glittered in the morning light, her long, straight red hair fluffing and bouncing in the breeze, her blue and white blouse billowing like a cloud above her jeans. I felt compelled to take a picture, to capture her approach so I'd always see her heading my way like a lover in a film, or a dark angel, alluring and ready for whatever.
I held the camera to my eye, trying to steady hands that skipped in the air like the heart in my chest. I hesitated, took a deep breath, and snapped the picture just as Julie, also heading my way, stepped into the frame. She couldn't have been ten feet from Melody, and I realized right off the kind of photo I'd taken by accident: these red-haired women, two of my closest friends, those I loved more than almost anyone - both coming toward me dressed in blue shirts and jeans as if the same girl split in half.
Julie, my best friend, was the only woman whose kiss meant more to me than Melody's, whose slender back I still imagined under fingertips while I slept alone most nights, whose stories moved me to more sadness as she shared them and later as I made sense of them in private. I met her in Pittsburgh, and we fell together walking along the bank of the Monongahela River, staring out at pink sunlight reflecting off the water. We were heading the same way, watching the river, both at peace inside despite the past. We went a thousand feet before she held out her hand and said, "Julie Messenger. Been a pleasure sharing space with you."
We hung out often after that - the thirty-year-old publisher's assistant and the twenty-three-year-old writing student together in bars, on campus, at the cinemas, and many times by the river. I never hit on her either, though the look in her eyes often begged for a line. I just listened while she talked about her ex-boyfriends who beat her up or cheated on her, her dad who thrashed her for too much sugar in the spaghetti sauce, which she said was a metaphor for her having been born a girl. Then, the day she kissed me, I nearly blew our friendship for sex. I burned inside like a man who swallows fire but can't figure out how to digest it.
Still, the kiss didn't catch me by surprise like Melody's. Julie built up to it all day while we sat on a tattered green sofa that smelled of her perfume. We watched a Ralph Fiennes movie on DVD, and whenever Ralph kissed a woman, she said, "I wish a man could kiss me like that," and "I'd kiss anybody right now." After all that, her kiss would've been anticlimactic except that it was her. I felt so close to her and yet detached, like we were brother and sister, like we shouldn't ever kiss. But I wanted it! Goddamn, I wanted it.
The two women reached me at the same time, neither knowing the other. I stood and hugged both, a bit weirded out by it as if I were in some strange ménage a trois, unsure what to do, who to kiss, where to put my hands so nobody felt slighted. Anxiously, I made the introductions, watching Julie's eyes light up with what could have been astonishment, jealousy, or more likely a sense of wonder. I'd told her all about Melody, often using Melody's stories as comparisons to help Julie understand hers. Melody was a myth to her, some ancient goddess she might not have believed was real and whom she certainly never expected to meet.
Melody hadn't heard of Julie. She assumed we were lovers. "My, you're a pretty one. Alan always had the best taste in women."
Julie smiled as if she'd been kissed.
I started to say, "We're not like that," but it felt too cold. "Julie's my dearest friend," I said, but as the words came out, I wondered if I'd offended Melody by trying to spare Julie.
Melody sized Julie up, trying to guess her hold on me. Seeing no evil in her, or just enough evil, she said, "Well, you're still pretty, and he still has the best taste in women."
Julie laughed, easing the tension. "And you're the whole package he said you were."
"Oooh. What's the boy been feeding you?"
"He talks about you all the time."
Melody grinned, subtle and coy.
"Said you're wild and gorgeous, a bit over the top, overpowering."
"He said that?"
"Well, Lover," Melody said to Julie, "I think you and I are gonna get along great."
Julie pursed her lips, radiating smugness. "Sounds like a plan."
"Lover, that's a bona fide promise."
The rest of the day I split between two women while one went off to find poetry or the other went off to teach it. Melody and I caught up over lunch. She filled me in on the divorce and the new man in her life, who treated her well but still flashed that certain madness she liked in bed. "He's a nut job, that's for sure, but only when the lights are out. Never yells at me. Never hits me. Unless I want him to, if you get me." She seemed happier than I remembered her, and as free in her head as she'd always seemed to be with her body.
She bought me coffee and a pizza at this Italian restaurant near the Interstate, and we sat at a table smoking her Camels and dancing around the subject of Julie. "You get so close to women," she said at one point. "Maybe it's the way you listen. And you always ask questions about things folks just don't think to mention. Like the time I told you about Earl, and you asked me without any hint of judgment in your voice why I fucked around on him so much and if I really loved him. I knew I needed give you more than the usual shrug and lucky line that'd take us to bed. I had to tell you everything. It was uncontrollable. I must have given you the whole seedy story before you even interrupted, and then it was just to say 'I understand' and ask another question that cut me to the quick."
How was your relationship with your father? I remembered well. It was the night she kissed me. We sat shadowed in a bar, where she gave me her truth over seven and sevens for her, screwdrivers for me. When I asked about her dad, I knew what she'd say the same as I knew how Julie would respond to the same question a few years later. "He didn't touch me funny, if that's what you mean, or beat me with a shoe, but he said the meanest things. He locked me out when he caught me wearing lipstick, and he punched holes in my walls every time his eyes said he wanted to punch a hole through me." I told her there are patterns in relationships, told her women tend to pick the same types of men that end up doing the same things and treating them the same every time. I knew Earl thought he controlled her in the same way her father used to, and I knew she slept with lots of men as a way to retake control without Earl catching on.
It was just an instinct I had. I knew all that about Melody the same way I knew how to reach Julie in our first real conversation - the night I made her cry. It took fifteen minutes. We sat in a corner. She told me about the men she slept with and how she felt all this fear about being alone at night, how she worried about monsters under the bed and in the closet. I told her, "It's your mother hiding in the closet and your father lurking under the bed." She knew what I meant, and the tears poured off her like spilled wine. She said it was one of the saddest and happiest moments of her life, and she left the bar smiling.
Melody said, "You know what I always wondered? Why you never hit on me."
"You knew me well enough, knew I'd have said yes. All those nights we could've gone to your place and been the holy shit for each other. I worried you didn't find me attractive "
"That's not it, believe me."
". . .but I'm sure you did. Still kind of wonder if you're gay."
"Not too much," I told her.
She nodded, understanding. "Then what?"
I shrugged. "Don't have an answer. I just get these ideas about people and what they need from me.
I thought you needed a friend."
Melody offered a calm smile and said, "I'll accept that."
I grinned back at her.
"It's the same with your friend Julie, isn't it."
"My friend," I said. "My friend Julie."
That night at dinner I gave Julie all the attention she'd come to expect, asking her about her day and her poetry - she'd written about this old cabin no one stayed in with its shadowy rocking chair in the upstairs window that made her think of Psycho. Mostly though, she preferred to talk about Melody. "She's as gorgeous as you said. I thought you were making it up. She's hot like a flame-thrower, and deadly, too."
"Sure is," I said, nostalgia and affection in my voice.
"Yeah, deadly gorgeous, that's what it is. I wish I were sexy like that. Wish I could be sleek. She has that whole animal magnetism thing going. I bet she'd get any man she wanted."
"And you can't?"
"Come on. You're a lifetime supply of cupcakes and a bottle of chardonnay."
She smiled adorably.
We ate our cheeseburgers in silence for a while, the crowd of mostly older Virginia writers swirling around us with their school-cafeteria-like meals on trays and their expressions a mix of joy for the moment and disappointment at how much better some of the other writers were. It took me a few minutes to figure out what more to say. "You're like that when you want to be."
"You think so?"
"Sure. I've seen you take men and squeeze until they break. You get what you want and send 'em on their way."
"That's a good thing?"
I shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter? Besides, now you're different. You've got a boyfriend."
"Fiancé," she countered.
"Exactly. You love him, and he loves you. You're good for each other. I picture you together for a long, long time."
"What if I don't want to be trapped like that?"
I shrugged again. "You do. But you worry about the monsters getting in your way."
She nodded, but didn't cry this time. She'd gotten past talking about monsters.
"There's an old saying that if you call your demons by their names, they can't hurt you. I think Melody's called those demons out enough times that she doesn't worry about 'em anymore, and I think you're on your way there, too."
The three of us sat on plastic chairs in the twilight air, listening to White Bird tell another story. He was a broad, surly man with a belly like tapioca and a gray-black beard, tightly-cropped, that masked him but didn't quite hide his kindly boyish face. When I first met him on this same trip last year, he wore a professor's tweed suit coat that made him ooze in the July heat. Today, he dressed in a tee shirt the color of orange juice, a pair of baggy blue shorts, and no shoes, revealing fat, pinkish feet. He smelled heavily of sweat and honey. Real name Davis Quarters, he preferred to go by his traditional name even though he was only half Cherokee on his mother's side. He said her family gave him that name as a boy because he rescued an albino pigeon that was mauled by a cat. He nursed it to health before releasing it, something his cousins said was one of the greatest and most spiritual acts a boy in their family had ever done.
I hid in White Bird's folk tales. They distracted me from tension between Melody and Julie that, real or imagined, was getting to me. I said, "White Bird, why don't you give these lovely ladies here a story, something to keep 'em happy?"
"Right now?" he said, grinning like a simple jack-o-lantern carved by a child. "Usually I wait until we're around the bonfire." He spoke with such slow, measured words. Hypnotic.
One of the poets waiting with us, a short older woman in a light blue jogging suit, said, "The Girl Scouts are having their sing-along. We won't get the fire until they leave."
Rawley Johns, the semi-famous Virginia poet with a coal miner's body and smug, friendly brown eyes, said, "I'll break out the mason jar. Give us one." He reached into his red Igloo cooler and pulled out a jar of the sweetest moonshine I ever tasted - like drinking cotton candy with a kick. He offered it to Melody first, guessing from one glance at her passionate smile and soul-searing eyes that she'd have no trouble getting the festivities going.
"Well, shoot fire on the Fourth of July," said White Bird. "What can it hurt?"
I smiled at Melody while she wiped her lips, then at Julie who took the mason jar and studied it like Nietzsche's abyss. "Go for it," I said, as if to Julie and White Bird at the same time. She gave in and took a double swig that didn't so much as make her cough.
White Bird closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was a different man. He spoke like a sage or a mystic, mesmerizing us like a drum beat that should've been playing in the distance. He said, "Coyote and Eagle met in a field shorn of wheat and corn. Both were hungry and tired, a little sad at the rut their lives were in, so much like Wind that never changes, drifts by without stopping to chat or learn or really see. Coyote told Eagle, 'I'm weary with crawling on my belly all the time, hiding from man and beast, scavenging whatever scraps Spirit leaves me. What I wouldn't give to be like you, Brother Eagle.' And Eagle sang to him, 'But Brother Coyote, being an eagle is a sad life, too. When you've seen the world though a bird's eye every day, it looks the same no matter where you fly. What I wouldn't give to be like you, Brother Coyote.'"
I watched my two friends as White Bird spoke - both enraptured by the story, the moonshine, the cool summer's-night air. I looked above me and saw a giant spider's web tied to the beams from a standing light. The spinner was an inch long with an hourglass shape and angular legs that could've belonged to a black widow were its shell not opaque as a pearl. When I glanced back at White Bird, I saw him staring at me and grinning while he spoke, as happy to see I was watching the spider as listening to his story.
He went on to tell a twenty-minute tale about how Eagle and Coyote traded places for a year, Coyote wearing an eagle's wings and soaring through the sky while Eagle took the trickster's lowly form and learned to hunt from the ground and pray to the beautiful moon he'd never noticed from high up. In the end, however, Coyote-turned-Eagle and Eagle-turned-Coyote grew tired once more and met on the same barren field to become themselves again. They realized they were the same, that they filled their role in nature, crawling or soaring, hunting from whatever angle.
"Coyote knew he was always Eagle, and Eagle knew he was always Coyote," said White Bird. "They merely saw the world from different points of view."
When the story ended, all of us sat around White Bird, telling him how marvelous it was and how much we enjoyed it. He smiled and laughed and prayed to the moon like Coyote, his spirits soaring high into the air like Eagle.
A few minutes later, White Bird and the others went to "kill the Girl Scouts and take their damned cookies," as Rawley put it, though we knew the girls had already finished up and left.
Not following, I stood there, unsure of what I should say to Melody and Julie. The three of us were drunk on sugary moonshine, but it wasn't enough to calm me while caught between these two. I said, "Let's skip the bonfire. I brought a fifth of vodka. Let's go back to the cabin and get mad-drunk like scared virgins on their wedding night."
I couldn't sleep. In my head, I'd developed the photograph - its image haunting my thoughts like a pop song's refrain. It wasn't the two women that sang from the glossy, but the one. One woman. The same magnificent redhead in blue clothes walking toward me, starry-eyed, happy to see me and reach into my chest for a while. The two merged into a lover, a goddess, a figure in a snow globe more glittery and alive than the shaken snow.
I rolled over on my side to stare at Julie. Eyes long attuned to night, I saw her shadowy figure lying atop the covers on the other twin bed. She looked like a serpent - coiled in an S, sleek but vulnerable, and also content. Somewhere in the night in one of the other cabins, I pictured Melody in that pose, though naked - how she said she always slept. And just like in the photo, both women were one: a composite sketch, but not quite clones.
Ah, two women. One woman. Two. Tortured souls with two hard lives behind them. And here - in a place of festivals, band camps, gatherings - they slept as peacefully as if safe at home, each feeling a father's love she never knew. I understood that, too, each had a boyfriend waiting in another city, a first relationship neither woman wanted to destroy.
Earlier - moonshine, vodka and emotions igniting bodies like adrenaline and hot coals - they danced around the room, acting out scenes from their past, and from mine. They were talking about me, about how they never worried about anything when I was around. They talked to each other about me how parents talk about their kids: as if not even there. "I bet he doesn't remember this," Melody said, "but I kissed him once. I had to know what it was like."
"Same with me," Julie told her.
"You kissed him?"
"Of course I remember. My two favorites. I compare every kiss to those." They ignored me.
"What was it like for you?" Melody asked.
"Why d'you think that is?"
"Because I wanted it so much," I said.
" it had to be. If not, it would've ruined everything."
"I guess you're right. When you've only got one thing, it needs perfection."
As I listened to the innuendo in their words and tone, I understood there was something else at work here, some romance I didn't expect. But not with me or even that part of me these two women shared. I was a bridge connecting them, a way they could find each other.
"I kissed him in the car," said Melody.
"Show me," said Julie. Across from me on the other bed, they kissed as if in love.
"Wow," I said.
Julie cooed, "Worth it, wasn't it?"
"Mmmm. Okay, your turn."
They kept this one going for a good fifteen minutes - hands exploring thighs, shoulders, pits of backs. Melody purred like a Persian cat, then growled more like a lion before Julie pulled away and sighed, "Then he told me no."
"Is he nuts? No, wait. He's like that, isn't he?"
They never kissed again. Night grew into night's night, and dialogue fell away. Melody said goodbye and left without seduction or more shared lips for either of us.
Later, trying to sleep but not really trying, I saw the photograph with its one perfect woman walking toward me. They were two, I knew, both as different in approach and attitude as the moon and sun. Yet they were the same at some basic level. Coyote and Eagle, I thought. They traded their lives for a time, only to learn how their lives were one life, more like two separate forest fires than patches of fire and ice. They were two, and they were one. Troubled and sleeping trouble-free. Confused and resolute in their understandings.
And what was I in the context of these two women? A photographer aiming the camera, adjusting focus and F stop, snapping the shutter. I was a photojournalist, and they were news: two stories seeming as one to a man who somehow read them both together.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Ace Boggess. All rights reserved.