“You and Wes,” she said, triumphant, “are just like this.”
She was holding a book, a paperback romance. The title, emblazoned in gold across the cover, was Forbidden, and the picture beneath it was of a man in a pirate outfit, eye patch and all, clutching a small, extremely busty woman to his chest. In the background, there was a deserted island surrounded by blue water.
“We’re pirates?” I said.
She tapped the book with one fingernail. “This story,” she said, “is all about two people who can’t be together because of other circumstances. But secretly, they pine and lust for each other constantly, the very fact that their love is forbidden fueling their shared passion.”
“Did you just make that up?”
“No,” she said, flipping the book over to read the back cover. “It’s right here! And it’s totally you and Wes. You can’t be together, which is exactly why you want to be. And why you can’t admit it to us, because that would make it less secret and thus less passionate.”
I rolled my eyes. Monica, across the room, said, “Hmmm,” as if all of this actually made sense.
Kristy put the book on the bed between us. “I have to admit,” she said wistfully, crossing her arms over her chest, “an unrequited love is so much better than a real one. I mean, it’s perfect.”
“Nothing’s perfect,” I said.
“Nothing real,” she replied. “But as long as something is never even started, you never have to worry about it ending. It has endless potential.” She sighed, the same way she’d sighed at seeing Wes running by without a shirt: with emphasis, and at length. “So romantic. No wonder you don’t want to go out with Sherman.”
I was distracted, thinking about what she’d said, until she got to this last part. “Sherman?” I said.
She nodded. “That’s John and Craig’s friend. He’s visiting from Shreveport.”
“Sherman from Shreveport?” I said. “This is the guy you’re determined I go out with?”
“You can’t judge a book by its cover!” she snapped. When I slid my eyes toward Forbidden, she grabbed it up, shoving it back under the bed. “You know what I mean. Sherman might be very nice.”
“I’m sure he is,” I said. “But I’m not interested.”
She just looked at me. “Of course not,” she said finally. “Why would you be, when you have your very own sexy, misunderstood pirate Silus Branchburg Turlock to pine for?”
“Oh, just forget it,” she said, getting up and stomping out of the room. A second later the bathroom door swung shut with a bang. I looked at Monica, who was staring out the window, her face impassive as always.
“Sherman.” Saying it aloud, it sounded even more ludicrous. “From Shreveport.”
“Donneven?” she said slowly, exhaling.
And so it was that at ten-fifteen, when John and Craig and Sherman from Shreveport pulled into the driveway, headlights flashing just once before going dark again, I crept outside, following Kristy down the stairs. Stella didn’t stir as Monica eased the door shut behind us, then started over to the car, the guy in the passenger seat climbing out to meet her. Kristy waved at the driver, who waved back, then turned to me. There was someone else in the backseat, but I couldn’t make out a face: just a form, leaning against the window.
“Last chance to change your mind,” she said to me, her voice low.
“Sorry,” I told her. “Maybe another time.”
She shook her head, clearly not buying this, then pushed her purse up her arm. “Your loss,” she said, but she squeezed my arm as she started over to the car. “Call me tomorrow.”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
As she got closer, the guy driving smiled at her, then opened the back door. “Watch out for Sherman,” he said as she started to get inside. “He started his night a few hours ago, and now he’s already out.”
“What?” Kristy said.
“Don’t worry,” the guy told her, getting back behind the wheel. “We think he puked up everything he had in him already. So you should be okay.”
Kristy looked at the slumped body beside her, then at me, and I raised my eyebrows. She shrugged before pulling the door shut and waving to me as the car slowly backed out of the driveway and up to the road, the engine chugging softly.
Which left me alone in the quiet of Stella’s garden. I was about to get into my car, then changed my mind, dropping my purse through my open window and instead starting down through the sunflowers and into the thick of the dark, fragrant foliage.
Everything in the garden felt so alive. From the bright white flowers that reached out like trailing fingers from dipping branches overhead all the way down to the short, squat berry bushes that lined the trail like stones, it was like you could feel everything growing, right before your eyes. I kept walking, taking in clumps of zinnias, petunias, a cluster of rosebushes, their bases flecked with white speckles of eggshells. I could see the roof of the doublewide over to my right, the road to my left, but the garden seemed thick enough to have pushed them back even farther on the periphery, as if once you entered it moved in to surround you, crowding up close to hold you there.
I could see something else up ahead, something metallic, catching the moonlight: there was a clearing around it, rimmed by bobbing rambler roses. Stepping through them, I found myself at the back of a sculpture. It was a woman; her arms were outstretched to the side, palms facing the sky, and lying across them were slim pieces of pipe, the ends curving downwards. I moved around it and stood in its shadow, looking up at the figure’s head, which was also covered in the thin, twisted pipes, and crowned with a garland made of the same. Of course this was one of Wes’s, that much was obvious. But there was something different, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, I realized that the sculpture’s hair and those bits of pipe it was holding all ended in a washer bisected by a tiny piece of metal: every one was a flower. Looking at it from the top, where the moonlight illuminated those curling pipes, to the bottom, where the sculpture’s feet met the ground, I finally got it that this was Stella, the entire figure showing the evolution of that thick, loamy dirt moving through her hands to emerge in bloom after bloom after bloom.
It was the gotcha of all gotchas. The gotcha of all time, even. Which somewhat justified the shriek that came out of my mouth, the way my heart leaped in my chest, and how these two events then repeated themselves when a flock of tiny sparrows, startled by my startling, burst forth from the sculpture’s base and flew in dizzy circles, rising over the rosebushes and disappearing into the dark.