So we went home and I brewed some hibiscus tea and we curled up on the futon in the lounge and smoked imported Javanese clove cigarettes and Meredith told me everything. About Tyler, about that disastrous night in the Colonial House, the first fit in Andalusia and their brief reunion in Berninski.
“Oh, Mer,” I said sympathetically when she finished, and gave her a hug.
“Yeah.” Meredith heaved a sigh. “And now you know everything.”
I gave her another hug and sat back, massaging my temples. The effects of the drop dead smoke had completely worn off now, leaving me with a mild headache.
“So how did you know?” Meredith asked. “That I’m a Wild One?”
I hesitated. “My sister told me.”
“Your sister? But she’s never even seen me. We’ve never even met. How does she know?”
“She … knows things,” I said grimly. “No point hiding anything from my sister.”
Meredith frowned. “Your sister … is she different?”
“She’s different, all right,” I sighed.
Meredith threw a glance around. “Is she home right now?”
“No, she’s away. Um, on business.”
“She’s always away,” Meredith observed tartly. “So how did she know?”
“She’s seen you around town once or twice. She knows you’re my friend.” I sipped my tea; it was stone cold. I put down the teacup. “But she won’t tell anyone, Mer, I swear. And neither would I. You can trust us.”
Meredith studied me for a long moment. I could see her wondering if she could trust us, wondering just what my sister was, wondering if I was going to return her faith in me by yielding up my own secrets.
I looked down at my teacup. The least I could do was repay her candour with my own. I opened my mouth.
No, I can’t. This story involves more than just me.
“Have another cigarette,” I said, and tossed her the pack.
Meredith caught it, and eased out a cigarette with her teeth. She continued to eye me curiously as she lit up, but she didn’t say a thing. I felt like shit now because Meredith, who could be annoyingly blunt without the help of drop dead smoke bombs, knew I was keeping something back and yet she wasn’t asking about it because she respected my privacy, my secrets, though I had all but trampled over hers tonight.
I shifted guiltily and tried to change the subject. “Does anyone else know you’re a Wild One?”
Meredith exhaled a cloud of sweet smoke. “I think Shawna does, or at least suspects something. Not much gets past Shawna. And, you know, she’s got that whole healer intuition thing going for her.”
“Yeah,” I agreed wholeheartedly.
“But I don’t think anyone else does. Jenna and Peter are too absorbed in themselves to notice anything around them. Nick’s too normal; he’d never think of something like that, you know?” Meredith paused. “Every now and then, I think Jean suspects something. I don’t know how to put it exactly. I’ve caught him looking at me once or twice in a certain way, and he’s more or less implied it too, in a couple of things he’s said to me.”
My heart skipped a beat. “Really?”
“Yeah. I find I’m always more careful around him than I am with other people.” Meredith frowned. “Just what do we know about Jean, anyway? Nick introduced him to us, what, a few months ago? How did Nick meet him in the first place anyway?”
“I think they met over some car thingy or other,” I said. “You know Nick and his drag racing.”
“Yeah. Well, anyway, Jean’s a very perceptive guy, I’d say. At any rate, he takes in a lot more than he lets on.”
“By the way,” I said slowly, “I, um, kind of got it on with Jean this weekend.”
Meredith looked at me with a certain horror and surprise that I could well have done without.
To her credit, however, she quickly hid her horror, and in proper girl-gossip fashion, demanded details. I told her everything, and she listened closely and didn’t make any too-horrible faces.
“Saints, if only I’d known!” she said. “I never would have guessed in a million years!”
“Me neither,” I agreed. “I mean, I never even saw him in that sort of way before Friday, you know? It must have been the alcohol loosening my inhibitions.”
“And your common sense,” Meredith agreed. At the look on my face, she added hastily, “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean that, I couldn’t resist saying that. Look, maybe this is a good thing.”
“You’re just saying that,” I said petulantly. “You don’t like Jean. You just admitted it yourself.”
“I never said I didn’t like Jean,” Meredith said. “I just said he’s one hell of a deep pond. And for all the little hints he’s dropped on me, he’s never been menacing or threatening, you know what I mean? I think it was just his way of letting me know that he knows, or at least suspects, something, and whatever it is he’s gleaned from me, I can count on him being cool with it. I suppose he thinks I’m some rouge demon or other. Anyway, I think he’s all right, Iris. But, you know, just be careful around him, okay?”
I nodded slowly. “Yeah. Don’t worry, I will.”
“In any case,” Meredith squeezed my arm, “sounds like someone had a few good shags over the weekend, hasn’t she?”
I gasped, outraged, and reached for a cushion to smack her with as she sank back, laughing, on the futon.
“At least I’m not into kinky electric sex,” I shot back as I tossed more pillows at her.
Meredith squealed and laughed even harder, her arms raised to ward off the cushions. “You make it sound like the worst!” she howled. “I’m glad I told you all about this thing with Tyler. You’re totally putting it into perspective for me.”
I sank back on the futon beside her. “Oh, Mer,” I said. “I think I really like Jean.”
We stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows swirl in the light of the street lamp outside. The scent of clove cigarettes wafted about us like some friendly ghostly presence.
At last, Meredith said, “I’d better head home. It’s late. You may not hate me now, but you will tomorrow when you’re struggling to keep awake at work.”
“Stay here,” I yawned. “It’s almost dawn anyway. We’ll try and catch a few hours of sleep. You can borrow some of my clothes.”
I closed my eyes. The air was cool and sweet at this early hour, the window left open so the clove smoke could drift out and the scent of roses in the garden drift in.
“Yeah?” I mumbled without opening my eyes.
“Thanks for tonight. For listening to my story, and for – for accepting what I am. For being a good friend.”
“Don’t be silly, Mer.”
A few minutes later, I said, “Hey, Mer?”
“You do know your secret as a rouge Wild One is safe with me, right? No one will ever know, except my sister, and that’s because she knew it first anyway. But no one else – and I do mean no one, not even Jean, would ever know, not even in the wild off-chance that he turns out to be the one true love of my life and we end up getting married and having two point five kids, a house, and a dog.”
Meredith snorted at that last one, before falling silent. After a few minutes, she said quietly, “Thank you, Iris.”
I reached out and found Meredith’s hand. Her fingers closed around mine and we squeezed. We fell asleep like that, hand-in-hand, while above us, the shadows on the ceiling swirled round and round like Javanese shadow puppets caught in a dance.
Things settled into a routine. Meredith seemed her usual self again, running and partying endlessly. If there were things going on under the surface, she never let on.
I saw Jean nearly every day and spent almost every weekend at his place. He introduced me to Luc, his little brother, a sweet kid and every bit as smart as Jean had described. Sometimes, Luc (and perhaps a friend) would come over with beers and pizzas, and we’d all hang out and watch a movie.
The gang continued to meet on Friday nights, and sometimes Saturdays too. Jean and I were teased mercilessly about having fallen for each other. Jenna and Peter continued to entertain us with their ongoing fights. Once, she poured a pitcher of beer over his head. That had been hilarious, if not disappointing for the fact that the rest of us had to pitch in to get another jar because Jenna had stormed out of the bar and Peter had retired to the restroom, sopping wet and sticky.
One late fall day we had a picnic on the shore of Vivien’s Lake (named by a local councillor who had a love of all things Prince Arthur). Jenna and Peter had barbecued a batch of sausages and chicken wings on their apartment grill. I had made a chocolate layer cake and Jean had concocted a bowl of potato pasta salad. Shawna brought seafood paella, and Nick and Meredith brought chips and beer. We munched and drank our way through the afternoon while lying on thick flannel blankets, bundled up in jackets and scarves against the cold.
After we had eaten, Meredith, ever restless, suggested a game of Frisbee. Nick, Peter and Shawna were up for it. Jenna, Jean and I were too lazy and stuffed with food, and we opted out. The three of us lay back and watched them toss the bright green disc to one another. I snuggled against Jean, his arm around me.
“Hey,” Jenna said, “you’re off soon on your winter retreat, aren’t you, Iris?”
“Winter retreat?” Jean asked, turning his head to look at me.
“I keep forgetting we’ve only known you this year,” Jenna said. “Iris disappears on us every winter. She comes back with the birds in spring.”
I squirmed uncomfortably. “That’s the time I see my mother. She starts nagging and ringing me incessantly if I don’t visit her.”
“A whole winter’s an awfully long time to spend with a nagging parent,” Jenna commented.
“I know. But it’s a long way home, and I might as well make the most of that horrendous airfare I’m forced to pay.”
“Is your office all right with you being gone for so long?” Jean asked.
“We usually arrange for a temp over Christmas. It’s not exactly rocket science, the stuff I do.”
“Are you going this year, then?”
I sighed. “I don’t really have much of a choice.”
“Christmas with the family,” Jenna said. “We’ll be visiting Peter’s mum this Christmas, and I’m telling you, she is such a witch.” She started on a familiar litany of complaints and I let her run on and on because it would take the conversation away from my upcoming winter trip. But inside I was hating Jenna violently – and rather unfairly – because she had brought up the subject, because she had reminded me of my trip and of the fact that while everything was perfect at the moment, it wasn’t going to last. And now I had to deal with Jean asking me about it, and it was something I had been trying not to think about until I had to, which was right now.
Sure enough, a few days later, while we were munching on Chinese take-out at his place, Jean asked, “Have you booked your ticket for home yet?”
I swallowed a mouthful of mushroom and glass noodles. “Not yet,” I answered.
He was quiet for a few minutes. At last, he said, “You know, my uncle called this weekend. He asked if I was still up on joining him at his dig in Iraq next summer.”
“Are you going?”
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to. And – I was going to ask if you would like to come.”
A shrimp slipped from the oily grip of my chopsticks back into the cardboard box.
“I’ll be there for at least a month. I don’t know if you could get enough time off work for that, but I was hoping you could make it for at least a couple of weeks.” He paused. “It’s still kind of early days, but I didn’t want to land you with too short a notice. And, you know, it’s Iraq. It’s not exactly an ideal holiday spot. Where my uncle’s dig is, it’s well away from the worst of what’s happened, and the area is fairly secure, but … I know it’s a lot to ask so I thought I’d give you some time to think about it.”
“I would love to come,” I said at once. “But …” I hesitated. “I don’t know. It would mean taking time off work, and it’s usually an unspoken agreement that I’m not going to take any more days off in the year so long as they get a temp in for me during winter.”
Jean paused. “Would it be so bad if you skipped the family visit this year?” he asked tentatively. “Or maybe cut it down a few weeks?”
“I can’t,” I said reluctantly. “Family obligations and all. It’s … oh, I don’t know how to put it. It’s difficult to explain. It’s … well … expected of me.”
He nodded. “It’s a family thing. I understand,” he said, and rubbed my back reassuringly. I loved him so much then, for understanding and for not pushing any further on the subject. But he was sole guardian of his little brother so maybe he understood all about family obligations. I put my carton down and wrapped my arms around him, leaning my head on his shoulder. “I’ll miss you, though,” he said. “I was kind of looking forward to spending Christmas with you. Luc too. He really likes you, you know.”
“I really like him too. He’s like the little brother I never had. But I’ll be back come spring. We’ll spend time together then.”
“Is your sister going too?” Jean asked. “Home for winter?”
“Um, yeah. I guess she is.”
“I haven’t met her yet. Will I get to meet her before you two leave?”
“Uh, I don’t know. I rarely see her myself, though we share the same house. We lead such different lives.”
“Is she a lot like you?”
“Hardly,” I said, smiling a little.
“Do you think she’d like me?”
I laughed. “Probably not at first. My sister’s a pretty tough nut to crack. She’d probably subject you to a really tough interrogation.”
“You’re scaring me now,” he said, smiling.
“She’s super tough, but really cool once you get to know her. And also kinda crazy. My whole family’s crazy, the entire lot of them. I’m the only normal one among them. And the funny thing is they think I’m the crazy one.”
“Now,” I said firmly, “enough talk about my family tonight.” I turned and lifted my face to his. He bent to meet my lips, and soon all thought or talk of family was forgotten in the heat of heady sweet kisses.
Go on to: Chapter Nineteen
Go back to: Chapter Seventeen
New to A Reason for Being? Start from: Chapter One.