by Jon Kilner
Daria descended the stairs into the darkened living room. Leaving the light switch undisturbed, she crossed the room in silence, avoiding unseen furniture with practiced skill. Through the darkness, the picture window was shining with that gentle glow that somehow lights uncovered windows on even the darkest of nights. Daria walked into the scant light, feeling autumn's nip radiating from the glass as she stepped up to the window. Chilled, she pulled her robe more snugly around herself and turned her gaze outward.
Night had the world wrapped in slumber, its darkness softening the edges of the house across the street and muting the rumble of a distant passing train. It was so quiet. So peaceful that it seemed there could be nothing wrong with the world that couldn't be solved by a pillow and warm blankets. If only it could be so simple. But that just wasn't so.
Finding no comfort in the darkness, Daria turned away and started for the kitchen. Tea was what she needed. Yes. A cup of chamomile with honey to settle her nerves and calm her mind. Then she would be able to sleep.
As Daria padded silently through the darkness, the open door of the study caught her eye. She paused and half turned toward that inviting haven. Maybe that was what she needed. Maybe the old cure would bring silence to her mind.
No! It was too soon, dammit. It was all still too fresh. She needed time to sort her thoughts before crossing that threshold, needed time to put the events behind her. Writing about it now would only bring up feelings that were still too raw to manage, too painful to face directly. She wasn't ready for that.
Turning resolutely away, she walked into the kitchen and set about making the tea, seeking solace in the motions of that simple ritual. When it was ready, she sat down with the steaming cup and breathed in the rising scent. She closed her eyes and tried to blank her thoughts, to lose herself in the warm and the sweet. Oh, sleep, she thought. Where are you tonight? I need to forget, if only for a little while.
But though she could feel the wear from several hard days gone by, she knew that returning to bed would be futile. The sleep that was pressing down on her eyes was just a tease, a cruel phantom that only emphasized how far she remained from that restful haven. She opened her eyes and looked to the doorway and to the study beyond. Even as she sat alone in the darkness, she could feel the words calling to her with their promise to salve her aching soul. Maybe . . . maybe writing was the answer. Sleep certainly wasn't. But how could writing help her this time? It would only make things worse. Make the events all too real. Writing would put the truth in a tangible form that she wouldn't be able to escape. And she needed to escape.
I can't face this. It's just too much.
Daria set the cup down and lifted her hands to her face, feeling the wetness on her cheeks. Oh, God, she thought. Not now. I can't do this now. She scrubbed the tears away with a quick motion and drew a deep breath, willing herself not to cry. No tears. Not tonight.
Daria reached for the cup, then abruptly pushed it away. Dammit. She wasn't going to find any comfort in the tea or in her bed. The words were not going to be denied. They were going to keep her awake until she accepted them, no matter how much it was going to hurt her. Words were pushy and insistent and they always won in the end. It was inevitable. It was every writer's curse, the price extracted by the words for the eloquence they provided.
Daria stood up and walked out of the kitchen, leaving the steaming cup behind. You win, dammit, she thought. You always win.
The computer's screen lit the study as she seated herself at the desk and opened a new file. She centered at the top of the first page and stopped, her fingers poised over the keyboard. A title. My God, what could she call such a piece? What could possibly sum up what she was about to write? Daria paused, thinking. But already the words were beginning to logjam in her mind, aching to get out and onto the screen. So she left the title blank and spaced down a couple of lines. Then she set the logjam free.
I grew up alone. No, I wasn't an orphan, at least not in the physical sense. I had a mother and a father and starting at the age of two, I had a kid sister, Quinn. So physically, at least, I had a family. But even as a kid, I was too different from my parents to ever really bond with them. To me they seemed like actors, playing their way through life. They were always putting on a performance, Mom pretending to like her bosses and coworkers so she could climb the ladder of her law firm and Dad sucking up to his clients to get their business. Quinn learned their game at an early age. She quickly became an expert in how to get what she wanted from others by becoming whatever they expected her to be.
But that was something I could never do, so I grew up alone.
As you might expect, my 'attitude' didn't help me win friends as a child and things didn't improve much as I got older. In time, I came to the conclusion that I was truly alone in this life, that friends were something that other people had. It was a concept that I found disturbing at first, for it seemed a lonely fate. Eventually I settled into the state of affairs. I grew comfortable with it, contented. Naturally, that was when the world threw me a curve.
When I was sixteen, my family moved to a little suburban town called Lawndale and at first nothing changed. My new school was populated with the same clueless breeds as I had left behind in Highland. The teachers didn't understand me and the school psychologist even sentenced me to a class intended to boost my self-esteem. Little did I know that it was in that class that I would find my first true friend. Jane Lane, artist and connoisseur of sarcasm extraordinaire.
I was an outcast. She was an outcast. Naturally we came together. A shaky basis for friendship, you may say, and you would be right. But there was much more to it than that. From the beginning I sensed a kindred spirit in Jane, sort of a fellow lost soul, another person of depth set adrift in a shallow world. She had been a loner all her life and like me, she'd grown comfortable with that role. Taking on a friendship was not an easy task for either of us. After all, we'd both spent our lives building walls to protect us from the world.
Walls so strongly built and maintained don't fall easily . . .
"No. I think I'll pass."
"C'mon, Daria." Even over the phone, Jane's voice managed to carry with it a note of exasperation. "You've got to come. You said you would."
"I said I might come. I didn't say I would come. There's a difference."
"But you've never seen Mystic Spiral perform before." Jane's voice lowered to that conniving tone that she'd begun to experiment with lately, the one that said she was trying to steer Daria onto a collision course with her brother. "Trent is expecting to see you at the Zen. He'll be disappointed."
"No thanks. I . . . have some studying to do."
"Oh, for crying out loud," said Jane, her lower tone lost. "There's always studying to do, but Mystic Spiral is playing tonight. What say we pick you up in about fifteen minutes?"
"Ummmm." Say yes, Daria thought to herself. Just tell her you want to go. Oh, how the words longed to come out and how she wanted to release them. They stood poised on her tongue, eager to set her free, but years of experience held them back and buried them. "No," she said aloud, her face falling even as she spoke. "I'm going to stay home and study. Sorry."
"Well, okay then," came Jane's tentative reply. "If you're sure that's what you want."
"It is," said Daria quickly, before her throat had a chance to tighten around the words.
Jane's disappointment was clear in the flattened tone of her reply. "Then I guess we'll go without you."
Those words dug out a hollow space in Daria's stomach. How good it had felt only a moment ago when Jane had been prompting Daria to join them. Now that Jane had given up the argument, the feeling had turned to dust. "Okay, then," Daria said, barely forcing out the words.
"See you tomorrow," said Jane quietly.
Daria continued to hold the phone to her ear, listening as the line went dead at Jane's end. "Dammit," she said into the silence. Slowly she held out the phone and looked at it. "Why did I do that? What's wrong with me?" The phone didn't answer, except with the buzz of a disconnected line. Daria thumbed it off and set it aside.
She began her night alone in study, as if she could remove the sting of her excuse by turning it to truth. Daria opened her history book and set to reading, but in moments her thoughts were drifting off the page. In her mind's eye she could see Jane and Trent driving to the Zen, talking back and forth, enjoying each other's company. She could imagine them at the Zen, Trent behind his guitar and lost in his music. Jane standing by herself amid the crowd, listening with a smile on her face that she reserved for her brother alone. Both of them enjoying themselves, sharing an experience that Daria could have shared in if only she'd been able to say 'yes.'
Daria closed the book and lay back on her bed, throwing an arm across her eyes. Another night spent alone in her room. Damn.
Someone knocked on her bedroom door. "Go away," she said. "There is absolutely nobody present in this room."
The knob turned. "Hey, Daria."
Daria uncovered her eyes and sat up, surprised. Jane was standing behind the partially open door with just her head sticking in. "What are you doing here?" Daria said. "I thought you were on your way to the Zen."
Jane pushed the door open and leaned a shoulder against the doorway. "We still are. Trent's out in his car, waiting. We thought we'd stop by and give you another chance to join us."
"I told you, I'm studying."
Jane looked at the closed and discarded book, a smirk slanting her lips. "Yeah, I can see that. Do you always study with your eyes closed?"
"No, I um . . ." Daria picked up the book and opened it, hating her words even as she spoke them. "I was just resting for a moment. I really should get back to work."
Jane shook her head. "Why the excuses, Daria? Don't you want to come with us?"
"It's not that at all," Daria answered quickly. But wasn't that exactly it? She didn't want to go, didn't want to walk into such an unfamiliar situation with people she really hardly knew. But at the same time, she wanted to go. She wanted to get to know Jane and Trent better, to know them as friends and companions. Maybe, in time, even as confidants. But how likely was that, really? It had never happened before. Why would it happen now?
"It's not that I don't want to go," she continued. "It's just that . . . I . . . well, I just can't, that's all."
"Daria, what are you afraid of?"
Daria looked up. She met Jane's earnest gaze and quickly looked away. "Nothing. I'm not afraid. I'm just . . ."
"Yes, you are," Jane countered. "You're afraid to go out with us. Geez, Daria. How long has it been since you went out and had fun with someone?"
Daria smiled grimly and made a show of looking at her watch. "Hmmmm, let me see. What year is it?"
Jane crossed the room, her boots nearly silent on the carpet. Daria didn't look up until she felt Jane's hand light gently on her shoulder. Then she looked up, right into the last thing she ever expected to see; the understanding gaze of a friend. "I get it now," said Jane. "You're afraid to go out because you've never gone out before. Well, I know the cure for that."
Jane lifted the book from Daria's hands and set it on the bed. Then she reached down and took Daria's hands in her own, pulling her to her feet. "Let's go out," she said. "Right now. Right this minute."
Daria hesitated, pulling back just a bit. "I don't think . . ."
But Jane turned her toward the door and gave her a friendly shove. "No arguments allowed," Jane said, smiling. "No thinking and no turning back. We are going out right this minute and I don't want to hear any of your backtalk, young lady."
"All right, I'll go," said Daria, getting a step ahead to escape a second shove. Inexplicably, she could feel herself forming an unaccustomed smile. "I'll go, but this better be good."
"Good? Mystic Spiral? There's a concept." Jane caught up to Daria in the hallway and put her arm around Daria's shoulders. Daria shrank away. She couldn't help it and she kicked herself right away. She looked to Jane at once, inwardly wincing, certain that she'd given offense.
But Jane didn't look offended. She just turned her friendly gesture into a motion toward the door, at the same time offering up a smirky grin. "Let's blow this place," said Jane. "Alternative music awaits."
The awkward moment passed without comment as the two fledgling companions descended the stairs and left the house together.
I don't know how I'd have gotten through high school without Jane. She was my only true friend, the one person with whom I could share the joys and pain in my life. The only person who would trust me with her own joys and pain. For three years we supported one another through all that high school could throw our way and we survived. I never would have made it without her.
Then high school drew to its inevitable close. Graduation came and went and a summer of planning passed all too quickly. I felt uneasy all through that summer. At first, I thought it was a case of pre-university nerves, but that wasn't it. It wasn't until the summer evenings began to take on a chill that I learned what was wrong with me . . .
It didn't look like Jane's room anymore. Her ever-present pile of clothes had vanished from the open closet. The pile was in a cardboard box now, sealed under packing tape and aptly labeled in magic marker. Most of the paintings and sculptures had been crated up. The drafting table had been broken down and was awaiting its own boxing. Even her easel - her easel - had been packed away. No half-finished work lay on display, awaiting Jane's finishing touches. No, this was hardly Jane's room now. It was just an empty place waiting to happen.
"Hey, Daria," said Jane, her voice muffled. "Can you hand me those bags of paint?"
Daria looked around, seeing nothing of the sort. "Where are they?"
"Beside the bed. They're white plastic shopping bags."
Daria walked around the bed and indeed found two plastic bags. One was tipped halfway over, its cargo of paint tubes making an attempt at escape. Daria gathered the errant tubes and shoved them back into the bags. Then she tied the bags' handles shut to keep them there.
"Found them." Daria lifted the bags and carried them to where Jane was packing her stuff. Jane was herself half inside a container at the moment. She had a large packing box lying on its side and was down on her hands and knees, her front half in the box. "Here you go."
Jane's hand appeared from under the box flap, groping at the empty air. Daria leaned down and placed the handle of one bag in her hand. The hand grabbed hold and the bag vanished into the box. "Thanks," said Jane, her voice still muffled.
Daria shook her head as she handed Jane the second bag. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
"I'll need my oils, Daria."
"No. I mean, are you sure you want to pack your paints in with all that other stuff? What if they open up on the way?"
Jane backed out of the box and sat up on bent knees. Her hair was disheveled by her packing efforts and her face was dirty. It made the look in her eyes appear all the more devilish. "That would be interesting," she said. "What a painting it would make, with all the other things pressing their imprint onto the cardboard in a swirl of colours. I could just cut the box, lay it out flat and frame it."
"But what would you call it?"
Jane put a hand to her chin and mimed deep thought. "I'd call it . . . 'The Result of a Typical Move.'" Jane turned her gaze up to Daria, her eyes widening a touch. "Well, that's something I haven't seen for a while."
"A smile. You smiled at my joke."
Daria pursed her lips. "Hey, even I smile sometimes."
"Have you been keeping count?"
"I haven't had to," Jane replied. "There's been nothing to count. You've been down for weeks, Daria. I've been waiting for you to bring it up, but you haven't. So I'm going to come right out and ask. What's the matter?"
Daria turned away and developed a sudden interest in one of Jane's few remaining unpacked paintings. "Nothing. Nothing's the matter."
"Sure there isn't. C'mon, Daria. What is it? Are you nervous about Harvard?"
Daria turned and met Jane's gaze. "Not especially."
Jane smirked. "I know what it is. You don't want to go away and leave your family."
"You got it," said Daria, her voice dry. "On only your second guess."
"Very funny. Tell me, Daria. It'll be your last chance for a while to unload on me, you know. I leave for New York and art school tomorrow."
Daria turned quickly back to the painting. She wanted to make an answer to deflect Jane's attention, but nothing came to mind. The silence lingered as she reached out a finger and touched the heavy, swirled brush strokes that made up the painting's cloudy sky.
"That's it," Jane said quietly. "Isn't it? It's my leaving that has you so down."
"C'mon, Daria. I've seen this coming. We've been friends too long for me to miss it. You're afraid of being alone again."
Daria closed her eyes. Jane had come to know her well over the last three years. Better than anyone, really. But better than she knew herself? "Do you think so?"
"I'm sure of it," Jane replied. "Because I've been feeling the same way all summer."
Daria opened her eyes and turned. "Have you? You sure haven't looked it."
"I've been keeping busy. Too busy to let myself think." Jane brushed her dirty hands together and climbed to her feet. "But I've felt it. I was alone before you came to town, Daria. Alone in a desperate way. I don't know what I might have done if I hadn't found you."
"I didn't do that much. Just be your friend."
Jane crossed her arms and smiled. "Just be your friend, she says." Then her eyes turned serious. "That was everything, Daria. Everything. You took the time to see who I really was and you accepted me as I am."
Mischief came alight in Jane's eyes. "Admittedly, sometimes you made a pain in the ass of yourself . . ."
Daria gave up a half-smile. "Like with Tom?"
"Like with Tom," said Jane, her voice a gentle barb. Then she turned solemn again. "But when I needed you, you were always there. And I have to admit, I don't like the thought of you not being nearby."
"I know," Daria replied, her voice quiet. "And now that you've said it, I guess that is what's been bugging me."
"And why you've been keeping to yourself."
"Yes, you have. You have a funny way about you, Daria. Whenever you're faced with losing something, you always pull away. It's as if you try to deaden the pain by being the one to let go first. But you don't have to pull away from me. I'm not going to let go, no matter how far away I am." Jane smiled. "Unless you become a pain again."
Daria felt her own smile return. "Well then, I'll try not to be. But I'm not making any promises."
"I never expected you would." Jane pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the open box. "Now help me pack some more stuff into this future masterpiece. I want a good selection of shapes and sizes in case those paint tubes open."
Jane had it figured out before I did. She knew what was wrong with me when I didn't know myself. At one time, I never thought I could be so close to anyone as I've been to Jane. Then, after it happened, I couldn't imagine being without her.
We went our separate ways, of course, but we never lost touch. There was a time I thought we might finally do so. When Jane decided to take a year in Paris, I thought it was all over. I thought she'd immerse herself in her world of art and never come home. I'd just be a memory that she'd take out and dust once in a while. Indeed, our contact diminished during that year. Overseas phone calls are expensive, after all. But it didn't ever end. We were closer than that, as I should have realized all along. Jane certainly seemed to and was I grateful for that.
Especially on that day I called her with a problem I'd never had to deal with before . . .
" . . . and we've been going out for some time, but I'm not sure what it all means."
"What do you mean by 'what it means', Daria?" Jane's smile was all but audible over the phone. "It means that you like each other."
"Well, yeah," said Daria. "But where is it going? I mean, is it going anywhere? How can I know what's going to happen?"
"You're not supposed to," Jane laughed. "Just enjoy the ride. If it's going anywhere, you'll find out in time."
"I'm not so sure."
"Look, Daria. He likes you. And you like him, right?"
"Yeah, but . . ."
"But me no buts," Jane replied. "Those are the only important points to be made. You like each other. End of story. So have fun."
Jane's words had the distinct sound of a dismissal. Damn. Jane was always so busy over there that they never seemed to get a whole conversation in anymore. "There's got to be more to it than that," Daria said quickly. "What if . . ."
"Look, Daria. I've really got to get going here. I'm sorry to blow you off, but Philippe is probably at the studio by now and I can't keep him waiting. He's taking time away from his own work to help me out."
"But, I just . . ."
"I'm sorry, Daria. But I've got to go. Tell you what, I'll call you next . . ."
"He asked me to marry him."
Silence. It continued until Daria feared that she'd spoken too late. "Are you there?"
"Yeah," said Jane. "I'm still here. Look, I think we might have a bad connection. Could you repeat that last phrase again?"
"You mean, 'are you there?'"
"No, dammit. The one before that."
Daria smiled. "He asked me to marry him."
"Whoa. So I did hear it right. What did you tell him?"
"Oh, hey that doesn't matter," Daria said. "Look, you've got to go. I understand. Philippe is waiting and all . . ."
"Philippe can just keep on waiting," said Jane. "This is more important. Now are you going to tell me what your answer was or do I have to reach through the phone line and force it out of you?"
"Well, I didn't really give him an answer yet."
"You didn't? Geez, Daria. You just left the guy hanging?"
"I didn't know what to say," Daria replied. The words sounded weak even to her own ears. "I just wasn't sure."
"Bullshit, Daria." Jane sounded angry. "You're sure. You're positive, but you just don't want to admit it to yourself. You're in love and you don't want to chance messing it up by getting married or by refusing his offer and risking a breakup. You're comfortable and you don't want to lose that comfort."
"Maybe you're right."
"Maybe nothin' kid," said Jane in her 'Dolores in prison' persona. Then she turned serious. "I'm right and you know it. Now go and give that boy your answer. Oh, and one other thing."
"Don't have the wedding until after I get back."
We didn't. Jane was my maid of honor. But in the days before the wedding I could see that something was wrong with Jane. She just didn't seem her usual self. There was a cloud hanging over her and I had the strangest feeling that it was my wedding that was the cause. Still, she didn't let it get in the way and I'm ashamed to say that with the wedding preparations and all, I didn't have a chance to really sit down with her and discuss it.
Trent's band was well into their reception set when I found Jane sitting all alone in the corner of the banquet hall, nursing a glass of wine. I got myself a glass and after politely separating myself from a knot of well-wishers, I joined her . . .
"Hey there," said Daria, walking up to stand beside the seated Jane. "You're not dancing."
Jane was lounging, a difficult prospect on a metal banquet hall chair. She had one foot propped up on a second chair. Her right hand was hooked over the back of her own chair and her left was supporting a glass of wine where it rested on her leg. "No, I'm not," she said, looking up and painting on a smile. "But then, neither are you."
"I've fulfilled my obligation and no one is getting any more dances out of me today." Daria dragged a chair over and sat down facing Jane. "So, what's the matter?"
"What makes you think something's wrong?"
"Call it a hunch. You've been quiet for days and I think I'm the cause."
"No, it's not your fault."
Daria smiled. "Aha. Then there is something wrong."
Jane huffed out a breath and smiled. "Curse you, woman."
"Look," Daria began. "If you're afraid that my getting married will affect our friendship in any way . . ."
"No, I'm not afraid of that."
"Then what's the matter?"
Jane lifted her glass by the stem and gently swirled the wine like a connoisseur inspecting the colour. She stared into it, her eyes going distant. "Remember I told you about Marcel?"
"The student you were studying with in Paris?"
"That's him. God, he was beautiful."
Daria nodded and took a sip of wine. "I assume the two of you went out?"
Jane turned her eyes to Daria and she smiled that evil smile of hers. "Well, let's just say the two of us made good art together." Jane's gaze returned to her wine, her expression gone wistful. "At least we did for a while."
"He left you?"
Jane nodded. "A couple of weeks before I left Paris. I thought he was the one, Daria. I really did. I was actually starting to plan the damn wedding in my mind, if you can imagine." She gave her wine a final swirl, then tossed it back in one smooth motion. "Well, so much for that," she said, setting the empty glass on the floor.
"Yeah, me too." Jane looked around at the party going on outside her bubble of gloom. "I guess all this has really brought it home to me, you know? I'm sorry if I've messed up your wedding."
"Not at all."
Daria reached out and put her hand on Jane's shoulder. Jane laid her hand on Daria's and shook her head. "It's just that I wonder if I ever will find someone," she said. "I've always thought that I'd be alone all my life, but now I wonder. Is there someone out there for me, do you think?"
Three years later, Jane found her someone. Simon, a sculptor of marble. They met during a showing of his work in New York and to hear Jane tell it, they fell in love immediately. Knowing Jane, I'd say it was more likely they fell in lust first and love followed after, but I could be wrong. Anyway, within a year they were married and they moved into a big old farm house in upstate New York. It was the perfect home for two artists, where they could each work on their art and not bump into one another.
After that, Jane was as happy as I've ever known her to be. Even her paintings became brighter and more positive. Frankly, I was worried about her, but a visit or two assured me that her work was truly a reflection of her mood and not the result of a serious head injury. Jane was simply happy with married life.
After only five years, it all came crashing down.
I was in London working on a deal to publish my books in the European market when it happened. Have you ever known that sick feeling you get when one of the most important people in your life desperately needs you and you're half a world away? I flew back on the Concorde, but even supersonic speeds seemed too slow. I usually sleep through my flights, but I was awake the whole trip this time. Wide awake and scared to death.
Night had fallen by the time I finally reached Jane's house. I remember thinking how quiet it seemed as I pulled up the driveway . . .
Daria drove slowly in the darkness, the driveway gravel crunching under her tires. The house was nearly dark. Only a single lighted window gave witness that anyone could be inside. It was the window of Jane's studio. Maybe she was painting.
Daria parked her car and walked up to the front door. The chime brought no answer. Neither did a solid knock. Daria glanced up at the lighted window, then over her shoulder at Jane's parked car. Two and two added up to Jane being home, but she wasn't answering. Maybe Trent had come by and picked her up. Well, there was one way to find out for certain. Daria fished out her keys and unlocked the front door. Jane had long ago given her a key for emergencies and this certainly qualified.
The house was silent and dark within. Daria turned on the living room light as she closed the door behind her, then turned and looked around. Oh, boy. This was not good. Jane had never been a neatness freak, but neither was she an outright slob. Articles of clothing lay draped over every piece of furniture. The coffee table was littered with half-eaten food. The floor was dotted with the overflow of both. A pillow and a pile of rumpled blankets dominated the sofa. It looked like Jane had moved into the living room, but she wasn't here now.
A footfall creaked the ceiling overhead and Daria looked up. More footfalls followed in rapid succession, the padding sound of bare feet up on the second floor. They stopped and silence returned, but there was no more doubt as to Jane's location. Daria turned away from the mess and started up the stairs.
The door to Jane's study was ajar, a stream of light flowing from it across the floor. Daria walked up and lifted a hand, pushing the door silently open. Jane was working with her back to the door, oblivious to the intrusion. Clad in a yellow smock and cutoff blue jeans, she was working hard on a canvass. More than hard, really. She was fairly attacking it with her brush, wounding the white surface with narrow slashes of red. And this was not her first work in that vein. The room was littered with bleeding canvasses, some done in flowing style and some akin to the work in progress, but all in shades of red. Jane had been busy.
Still oblivious to her audience of one, Jane continued her work. Her pace increased, the strokes shortening and becoming harder until she was stabbing at the canvass, the easel shaking under her frantic assault. A hard blow overbalanced the easel, but Jane didn't give it the chance to fall on its own. Instead she curled her hand around the brush and swung, putting the painting down for the count. Then she stood over it, panting. Her fist remained clenched and shaking at the ready, as if she was expecting the canvas to rise and challenge her.
Daria nearly jumped back as Jane spun to face her. Her old friend's face was fierce, her eyes burning with rage and her breath hissing through clenched teeth. For a second it appeared that Jane didn't recognize her and a tickle of fear ran through Daria. Then Jane's eyes slowly gained focus and her face relaxed, falling from its angry mask.
My God, thought Daria. Look at her. Freed from the support of her anger, Jane's face sagged into sheer exhaustion. Her eyes were so dark they appeared to be sunken into her skull. Her face was sickeningly pale and her lips hung expressionless. Red paint dotted her face and tangled hair. Her open smock carried more than its share of paint, as did the black t-shirt and cutoffs beneath. Her bare legs and feet were dotted as well. She looked like the only survivor of a Peckinpah shootout.
Recognition slowly brought Jane's eyes to life. She cocked her head and grew a half-hearted shadow of a smirk. "Hey, Daria," Jane mumbled. Her voice came out raw, as if she hadn't spoken for days. "You made it."
"Yes, I did," Daria offered. She glanced around at the works in red. "What are you doing?"
"Painting." Jane looked down at her fallen work, then at the brush still in her fist. She opened her fingers and watched the brush drop onto the painting. Then she turned her gaze back to Daria, wiping her hand absently on her smock. "I'm painting. That's what I do."
Daria looked into Jane's haunted eyes, seeking evidence of the friend she had known for so long. "How about a break?" she suggested. "Let's get a cup of coffee."
"No." Jane turned back to her work as if she found the very thought of resting painful. She reached down for the easel and set to putting it right. Her motions were jerky, almost manic in their intensity. The easel slipped from her hands and fell again to the floor. Jane stood upright and stared down at it, as if surprised by its betrayal.
Then she laughed, a quiet little chuckle. The sound sent a jolt through Daria. It brought with it unpleasant thoughts and Daria had to admit something very painful to herself, that she was in fear for her friend's very sanity.
The chuckle faded as Jane turned back to Daria. The mirth drained from Jane's face and the exhaustion returned. "I'm alone, Daria," she said. "Simon isn't here."
"I know," said Daria. She took a tentative step forward and extended her right hand. "I heard, Jane. That's why I came home. Remember, I called from London and told you I was coming."
Jane stared at Daria's extended hand, her body swaying slightly. "He's not coming back," she said. "He left me, Daria."
Oh God, Daria thought. Tread softly. She right on the edge. Aloud she said, "He didn't want to go, Jane. It wasn't his idea."
"What do you mean?" Jane replied.
"It was an accident," Daria said softly. "Simon didn't want to leave you. He was in his car and he had an accident."
Jane raised her eyes, unsteadily meeting Daria's gaze. "What? An accident? So you're saying that he's . . ." She licked her lips. "No. That's not right. That can't be right."
Jane turned back to the fallen easel and tried again to right it, swaying with the effort. Daria stepped up behind Jane and took her shoulders in her hands, trying to impart some of her strength through the touch. Some of the stability that Jane was lacking. "Come on, Jane," she said. "Let's sit down and talk a while."
Jane spun from her grip and turned, stepping backward over the canvass. There was fear in her eyes now. "What are you saying, Daria? Are you saying that Simon is . . . No. He can't be. He was my one. My only one. He just can't be . . ." Tears filled up the corners of Jane's eyes as she looked imploringly for an answer she could live with. "Tell me he isn't, Daria. Please tell me he isn't."
Daria met her gaze squarely, desperately wishing that she could tell Jane what she wanted to hear. But she couldn't. She blinked her eyes against her own tears and shook her head sadly. "I'm sorry, Jane. I'm so sorry."
The words cut whatever strings were still holding Jane up. She fell back onto the floor, ending up sitting like a child with her legs half curled in front of her. Her eyes stayed locked onto Daria's, her horror and despair reaching out for solace. Daria rushed forward. Crouching down, she took Jane up in her arms and hugged her hard. At first Jane just sat there, as if unable to understand. Then she threw her arms around Daria and squeezed hard, a drowning woman grasping for something to keep her afloat. Terrible sobs rose up from deep inside and shook her hard.
"He's dead," Jane forced out between the sobs. She buried her face in Daria's neck as if seeking to hide from the world and all its pains. "Oh God, Daria. My Simon is dead."
"Shhhh." Daria let her own tears flow unabated as she held the shuddering body of her friend. Jane's words quickly became lost in the bitter outpouring of grief too strong for language. Daria just held onto her, giving her the lifeline of which she was in such desperate need. A link to the world of the living. "It'll be okay," she whispered. "I'm here. I'm with you now and I won't let you go."
After that, Jane didn't paint for months and I think that worried me as much as anything. The words "Jane" and "art" are synonymous in my mind and when the former continued on without the latter, I wasn't sure what to make of it. But eventually she started up again. That began what critics called her 'blue period.' Jane's work lost all of its former lightness and entered a realm of dark abstraction. To read the reviews of the time, one would have thought that her career was coming to an end, but I knew better. Jane was merely healing herself in the best way she knew how.
In time her art recovered, but Jane never did completely. She never remarried. Oh, maybe she's had lovers, I don't know. I live in Boston and don't watch her every moment, but she's never had another love. I've asked her from time to time if she's seeing anyone and the answer is always no. That seems a lonely way to live, but years later Jane explained it to me as we spent an evening sipping red wine before her fireplace . . .
Daria raised her right hand, signaling to Jane that her glass was filled to her satisfaction. Jane ignored the motion, pouring until the red liquid reached nearly to the rim. Then she raised the bottle's neck, a mischievous grin lighting her eyes. "I knew you really wanted a full glass."
"And how did you know that?"
"By the way you held up your hand, telling me to stop."
"Interesting," said Daria. "Want to run that one by me again?"
Jane smiled as she filled her own glass. "You're a contrary, Daria. You always have been."
"This is deep. What's a contrary?"
"It's a person who walks away from what she wants," Jane replied, setting the bottle aside. Lifting her glass, she settled herself into her rocking chair, the twin of the one Daria was occupying, and looked into the fire. The firelight danced in her smiling eyes. "Remember when you tried to skip out on your first experience with Mystic Spiral? You wanted to go, but said you couldn't. Contrary. You've been doing that for as long as I've known you, denying yourself what it is you want most. Back then it was everything, but nowadays you've got it down to just little stuff."
"Like measures of wine, for instance."
"Exactly. But I know you too well to let you get away with such things. There will be no self-denial tolerated in Jane Lane's home." Jane turned to Daria and lifted her glass. "In this house, life is to be taken in big bites. Or big drinks, as the case may be."
Daria returned Jane's vinous salute and they sipped the wine together. "This is very good," Daria said. "More booty from your last trip across the pond?"
"And here I thought you went to Paris for artistic purposes."
Jane smiled. "Wine making is an art. Just ask any vintner."
A comfortable silence fell between them and for long moments the crackling of the fire was the only sound. Daria smiled. There weren't many people in the world with whom she could share such a companionable silence. Most folks needed to fill every moment with words, but the two of them had been sharing silent times since those evenings and weekends spent in Jane's room back in Lawndale. Daria had always considered it a measure of their friendship's depth. They were comfortable enough in each other's company to be silent together.
"So how is your better half doing?" asked Jane after a while. "How's he taking to retirement?"
"Not well," said Daria. "Sometimes he just doesn't seem to know what to do with himself. He might start doing some teaching again, just a few classes a week."
"Probably for the best," said Jane with a wink. "It'll get him out of your hair."
Daria chuckled. "And that wouldn't be a bad thing at all. If he comes knocking on my study door again while I'm writing, I may have to kill him."
"There's something to be said for living alone," said Jane, sharing in the quiet laughter.
The corner of Daria's mouth quirked at her friend's words. Her eyes moved to a small gargoyle clinging to the corner of the mantle, one of Simon's old works. She'd been hoping for a way to broach this subject, but was wary of it all the same. "So," she began innocently. "Seeing anyone these days?"
Jane turned, her sly expression making it clear that she knew what Daria was fishing for. "You mean seeing someone? No. You know that I don't, Daria."
"Yeah," said Daria, looking down. "I do."
"But you keep asking anyway."
Daria looked up and met Jane's gaze. "I just don't understand it, Jane. Why not? I mean, we're not young women anymore, but you're still young enough to . . . you know." Daria nodded toward the gargoyle. "Simon has been gone for so long."
"Simon isn't gone," said Jane. She lifted her free hand from the arm of the chair and patted her chest. "Not completely. He's still here. He always will be."
"But is that enough? You're alive, Jane. Simon's dead. Can a memory really be enough?"
Jane rested her hand upon her chest and closed her eyes. Then she drew her arm in against her body and smiled, as if reliving an old moment. As if hugging an old love. "Yes," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. "It's enough. It's everything."
Jane opened her eyes and turn to face Daria, smiling. "I've had my one," she said. "Simon was my one and only. I knew that when I met him. There will never be another. There can't be. My heart is still full of Simon."
That's Jane. She's never been one to give her heart easily. But when she does, she gives it completely. In a way, I know the love Jane had for Simon because I've felt her love too. Jane is never a halfway friend. Either she gives you her all or you're beneath her notice. I count myself lucky to have had Jane as friend, to have been a part of her small and intimate circle. In high school, she saved me. In adulthood, she sustained me. And as the years passed and we each accumulated our share of wrinkles, I always knew that there was someone with whom I could share my triumphs and lament my sorrows. Someone who I could lean on and who I could support when she found hard times. Someone who would always find my voice welcome in her telephone and who's face would always be welcome at my door. For almost seventy years, Jane Lane has been my best of friends.
Three days ago, my best friend died.
I can't describe the feeling that gripped me when I got the call. 'Natural causes' they said. It sounds so innocuous, doesn't it? Like that somehow makes it all right. As if Jane's death was just part of the schedule for that day. 'Your best friend is gone forever, Ms. Morgendorffer. But that's okay. She died of natural causes.'
I once believed that with age you somehow became accustomed to death. How could you get old and not come to take it in stride? But you never do, especially when you lose someone that's close. My mother, my father, my Aunt Amy, Jodie Landon-Cooper a few years ago. All of them were hard. All of them took a piece of my soul and silenced it forever. My husband. That was the hardest, a pain that I still feel in my heart every day. I thought nothing could ever be so bad as that.
I was wrong.
Yesterday was Jane's 'public' funeral. God, what a nightmare. If Jane could have opened her eyes and seen it, she would have turned away . . .
Trent looked angry and Daria didn't blame him. Jane's funeral was being turned into a circus. The seats were filled with artists and others members of the artistic elite. Ostensibly they'd come to honor one of their contemporaries, but really they'd come to see and be seen. And some had come to speak. Or rather, they'd come to be heard.
"Jane Lane's work was all about feeling," said the man at the podium. He was the director of some New York gallery or another and had somehow come under the impression that he was one of Jane's closest friends, but Daria had never heard Jane once mention his name. She grimaced as the man continued. "She was a woman of deep feelings and she often shared those feelings with me," he said. "Jane expressed time and again the torment in her soul, the pain she felt for a world that was suffering. And she herself suffered, as most artists do, because she never felt at home in this world. These were the feelings that she confided in me."
"Not bloody likely," mumbled Trent with a frown. He shook his head, rustling his shoulder-length halo of silver hair.
Daria reached out and put a hand on Trent's shoulder. He glanced up, catching her gaze. Setting his lips on an ironic slant, he nodded toward the podium. "Janey didn't even like this guy."
Daria smiled in spite of herself. This all seemed so wrong. She had expected to be fighting tears all through this ceremony, but it just hadn't inspired her to sadness. Oh, it was sad all right, but in a completely different way.
At the podium, the speaker finished up and made to return to his seat. Trent followed the man's progress with his gaze, then turned back to Daria. "Let's get out of here, Daria," he said. "This is really beginning to piss me off."
"I'm with you, Trent."
They stood up together, nearly causing the next speaker to trip on his way to the podium. The man just stood there stupidly as they slowly walked up to the casket.
Daria turned her gaze toward an easel that had been set up beside the casket in accordance with Jane's wishes. On it sat one of her distorted self-portraits from high school, a charcoal rendering that she'd chosen just for this occasion. People had been chattering about it all day long and Daria had more than once overheard the word 'masterpiece.' But Daria knew the rending was no masterpiece. It was a masterstroke. A minor doodle put on display to set pretentious tongues to wagging. It was Jane's final joke played on an art world that took itself too seriously and as she expected, it had gone right over the heads of the artistic elite. By next week, somebody would probably be paying a million dollars for that doodle. Good one, Jane.
Daria turned away from the easel and looked down on the casket itself. It was closed, again in accordance with Jane's wishes. The thought of being put on display had always been abhorrent to Jane. Besides, she'd wanted to be remembered as she was in life, not as she was now.
Trent shook his head. "Sorry about all this, Janey," he said. "I shouldn't have allowed it to happen, but they made it all sound so noble. Like it was all going to be about you. I'm sorry."
Daria put her arm around his back, not being tall enough to reach his shoulders. She offered him what support she could as she looked down at the casket. But that's not her in there at all, she thought. It's just the shell she left behind. The best part of her is gone. This wasn't the place to say goodbye. It just wouldn't be right. Later. She'd say goodbye later.
And so I didn't say goodbye to my friend at her funeral. I just walked out of there at Trent's side. No one questioned our leaving, of course. To them we were just two old farts who probably just couldn't sit still any longer on those uncomfortable chairs. Besides, they had more important things to do, like schmoozing and networking. But even as I walked out of that three-ring nightmare, I knew when I wanted to say goodbye.
Jane's mortal remains were cremated that evening in response to her wishes. The next day, Trent and I took her ashes into one of upstate New York's state forests for the real funeral. Jane didn't want a permanent marker, you see. She didn't want to be interred in a place that would attract the lovers of her work in years to come, a place where they could point and say, "She is here." Jane wanted her legacy to be her work and nothing else. She wanted people to look at her paintings and her sculptures and say, "This is where she is. She can be found in her work." True to that wish, only Trent and I know where we took her ashes. No one else will ever know.
It was a perfect autumn day when we walked into those woods. One of those days when you can look up at leaves the color of flame set against the clearest of blue skies and wonder that you were born to see such a moment of beauty. We walked for over two hours in those woods while Trent sought out the perfect place. He found it just before noon . . .
"There," said Trent, shifting the urn to his left hand so he could point with his right. "That's the place."
Daria followed his gesture with her eyes. The forest floor sloped down just beyond, lowering itself into the stream that they'd been following. Beyond the stream, the ground rose again into a steadily climbing hillside covered in ferns. Just where the ferns surrendered their dominance to the grasses, a small hillock rose above the surrounding ground like an island stranded on dry land. The hillock was blanketed in a thick carpet of tall grasses above which rose a single young sugar maple. It was no more than fifteen feet high, but full in branch and leaf. The leaves had exploded into full autumn bloom, their colour burning in the midday sun as if the tree had been set afire. Dots of flame decorated the grasses below where the first leaves had broken free and floated down to earth.
"It's perfect," said Daria.
Trent picked a path across the stream, stepping from one dry rock to the next. He was no longer a young man, but he moved with sure and able steps. Daria followed him across and together they climbed up to the hillock. Then they stood together in silence, their clothing painted in shades of red by the sunlight through the leaves. Trent stood with his face to the breeze, his eyes closed and the urn held in both hands.
After a few moments, he opened his eyes and looked at Daria. "Are you ready?"
Daria nodded. "I'm ready."
Trent shifted his grip on the urn and carefully removed the lid. Moving slowly, he turned to the tree and poured the ashes out onto the ground. Daria watched the ash slide from the metal urn and filter down through the grasses, leaving a white residue on the long and narrow leaves. The first good rain would wash them clean and carry the ashes into the soil, where they would return to the cycle from which they had come before they had come together in Jane. In time, the tree and grasses would absorb the ashes into their bodies and the elements of Jane would live again. In the spring the maple would drop its seeds, which would be eaten by squirrels and Jane would be a squirrel. Deer would come and eat the grass and Jane would be a deer. And so it would go, around and around forever.
Finished now, Trent capped the emptied urn and closed his eyes. He drew a long breath and stood as if listening, but Daria knew that he was only hearing his own words. Trent was saying his goodbyes. And she should do the same.
Daria closed her eyes and turned her thoughts to her best of friends . . .
I said a lot of things in those few moments of silent conversation. I thanked Jane for her years of friendship, for the quiet times we'd had together and the not so quiet times. I told her how much I appreciated the days she treated me well when I did not deserve it. I expressed to her my admiration for her artistic talent and the courageous way she presented it to the world, never apologizing and never backing down. I thanked her for the support she'd given me at times when I'd all but given up on myself. I said so many things that I cannot remember them all.
But I never said goodbye.
I tried, but the word just wouldn't come. Not even in my thoughts. At one time in my life I had lived in a world without Jane and I was miserable. Now that time has come again and I don't know if I can handle it. Where is my confidant now? If I pick up the phone and dial her number, how can she fail to answer?
They say that with time comes acceptance and maybe it's true. Perhaps the day will come when I will accept the paradigm of a world without Jane. But as I look out of my study window and see the horizon brightening with the coming dawn, but I cannot imagine that the sun will rise. How can the sun rise without Jane in the world?
Daria lifted her fingers from the keyboard. Finished. She returned to the top of the first page and read the article through. When she finished, she nodded and returned again to the top. Now it only needed a title, but again her imagination failed her. What could she call such a piece? What title could possibly sum up the feelings that she'd shared in its lines?
A shaft of light poked through the window, stabbing at the wall behind her. Daria raised her eyes. Dawn had come. The sun had arrived to set a new day in motion. Daria rose from behind her desk and walked over to the window. Tightening her robe against the morning chill, she watched the sun in silence.
Funny how the sun, which seems so immobile in the midday sky, moves so quickly out from behind the horizon. It's as if she cannot wait for the day to begin and so throws all physical laws to chaos in her haste to gain the sky. Only when she has been freed from all obstruction does she regain her composure and slow to a more sedate and stately pace, as if embarrassed by the very haste that had driven her before.
So the sun did rise after all. Daria's tears returned as she watched. This time she didn't wipe them away. Let them flow. There was no cause for shame. Let them fall. A new day had come and her friend wasn't in it.
"Goodbye, Jane." The words came aloud and unbidden, as if springing from a hidden place inside her. "You were my friend and you took me as your friend. Thank you for that. I'll miss you. I miss you already. I can't imagine a day going by that I won't think of you. Goodbye Jane, my friend."
And then, the words having at last been spoken, Daria's tears came in earnest. She stood upright facing the dawn as she cried, her arms wrapped around her middle as if offering herself the comfort of a hug. In time the sobs faded and the tears slowed and stopped. And in that moment of emptiness, the title came to Daria.
She turned back to her keyboard and typed it in, the only title capable of summing up all that she had written. Slowly and deliberately, Daria typed the single word.
** Special thanks go out to Diane Long for her input and encouragement on what turned out to be a very difficult story to write. Thanks Diane. For a while there, I thought this was going to be the one that got away. And thanks to the many folks that have sent their feedback on my previous stories.
** I welcome all feedback, comments and constructive criticism. You can reach me at Sehala@Aol.Com.
(Disclaimer: Daria and her cartoon cohorts were created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis and are trademarks of MTV Networks, Inc., a division of Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved by trademark holders under U.S. National and International Law and Convention.)
("Jane" is a work produced purely for fun, not for profit. The author will be quite vexed if it is distributed in any way that creates a profit for anyone. This story is copyright © 1999 by Jon Kilner. It may be distributed freely to Daria fans everywhere, provided that it is distributed in unaltered form and the author's name and e-mail address remain intact.)
(This is a work of fiction. All characters, settings and situations are fictitious. Hence the name 'fiction.')
(Whew. That should about cover it.)