I crave the heavy earth and stiff air of this city. That’s why I stay here. I like the dusty museums of old houses, their bookcases the threshold of love and information. I make it to the Julianne’s Mom’s old mosquitoed house in the dead part of the night, half past midnight, crickets and neighbors’ televisions masking what could have been silence a hundred years earlier, back when there was no TV and the crickets stayed on the other side of downtown.
Julianne was a Georgia girl through and through, up and down. She was also an international traveler, a fire dancer, an easy walking Ivy League grad with painted toenails and a sparkly shudder when you touched her shoulder in a familiar way.
I could be familiar. We had experiences.
The ferns on her mother’s porch were always too dry. One August, it was too difficult to keep quiet about it. They needed water. Rain was scarce that summer. I pointed this out to Julianne. "Your Mom should water the ferns."
"The rain will come."
The next day, the rain came all over and through Atlanta, a biblical torrent that I still think of when I hear the first push of thunder from the north or from way up in the sky where some God bangs two sticks together and out go the lights of Buckhead.
But on that last dry day, I pulled a detaching fern leaf, a pretty one, more oval than normal, a chalky green that matched Julianne’s eyes as close an anything could. I held it to her ear. She retreated. "I don’t want that dirty thing in my ear."
"It’s nature. It’s the color of your eyes." I was a positive kid. We were seniors in high school.
She squinted suspiciously and then changed her mind, deciding to smile. "Well, keep it for yourself, to remind you of me when I’m up in Ithaca, going out bowling on Friday nights like those northerners do."
It’s surprising how well dead leaves keep when you store them in cellophane sleeves, the kind they make for baseball cards. There was the porch leaf. And the leaf from the maple tree in the parking lot of the Perimeter Mall the night we saw Dead Poets Society. And six leaves from when I took her camping on Stone Mountain. There were others. She thought it was funny, me and my nature keepsakes. She only knew of a few of them.
The night of the afternoon I gave her the fern leaf, Julianne and I stayed up late watching Cheers reruns and David Letterman. I kissed her a few seconds after I turned off the TV with the universal remote her Mom bought off QVC. The thing worked. The darkness was all I needed to make my move, my push, face to face.
A few minutes later, she asked me "Do you love me?"
All I knew from television and movies was to lie. "No" I said. She wrinkled her nose and laughed. Then she closed her eyes and held my hand. She was asleep in a minute. I was awake the whole night. I watched her. I sketched her. Her REM sleep was beautiful. She smiled in one of her dreams. She frowned in another. I put the fern leaf behind her ear for a few minutes while she still had the frown. I took a picture. I keep it in the trunk of my car.
Tonight, 15 years later, I’m still in town. Julianne, more Atlanta than a thousand streets and buildings named after politicians, is back in town for the first time in years, for her Mom’s funeral. She’s invited me over for tea and conversation. I chose to keep the leaves at home, in my ancient rented Midtown duplex, with its hazy yellow walls and damp attic where my cat Abernathy likes to chase the bats. I don’t go up there. They might not be bats. Damn, they could be anything.
Julianne’s Mom died in the house alone. Earlier today, I told Julianne over the phone that I could come over late, real late, after my shift ended at the blood lab. She was okay with it. "I’m not sleeping anyway."
I thought I would show her the picture of herself sleeping at 16 to trigger a reaction, an instinct, toward sleep. But then she’d know I took the picture and kept it and it’s scary to see an old picture of yourself sleeping with a frown and a dirty leaf behind your ear. It’s especially scary to see it three days after your mother dies.
The house still looks the same. Julianne looks like a 31-year old version of Julianne. I think I look the same but this what I hear as we sit on a love seat in her big old bedroom: "You’ve filled out Frank."
I nod. I know what she means. Metabolism changes and I still like the Chick-Fil-A. "Did you fly here from Maryland?"
"Yeah, I left out of BWI."
"I don’t like to fly."
"Well, I can’t think about what I like right now."
"Is the funeral at the Edmonds place?" I knew. I’d seen the paper. I had a printed invitation.
"Yes," she says and I watch her close her eyes again. She takes my wrist like it’s a leash and there’s something at the other end itching to run away. "I don’t want this house. My Mama left me this house."
"Will you sell it?" I say as I think of asking her if she’d rent it out to a cash-poor blood lab boy like me.
"I can’t sell my Mama’s house, can I?"
"It’s yours now."
"I hated this house growing up. All I could do was sleep here. And I can’t do that anymore."
"You did like to sleep."
"I took my peace when I could get it."
I could say more but she’s still holding my wrist and I don’t want to talk about what had upset her childhood peace, for fear that she might let go. She closes her eyes again, but I know she’s awake the whole time I’m asleep, exhausted from work.
I wake when I hear a rustling noise. I think I feel her hand still holding mine but there’s nothing there. No, she’s in the closet. "Julianne?"
"Just looking for something."
"What are you looking for?"
"An old picture of us, camping."
I didn’t know such a picture existed and all I really know are pictures.
"That guy, that hippie guy with the redhead fro – remember when he wanted to take a picture of us?"
"And he asked for my address and you said ‘Don’t give it to him, he’s a redheaded hippie and all.’"
I remembered cautioning her against giving her home address to strangers but I don’t recall disparaging his persona or his hair.
"A few months later, I ran into him at a Braves game with my Mama. He looked exactly the same."
"She loved the Braves."
"She loved that Steve Avery. He was a cutie."
"Good pitcher too," I add, as if she doesn’t know.
"I remember her crying in 1991. When we lost to the Twins." She says this too matter-of-factly.
"So you saw the guy?" I had cried too in 1991.
"Yeah. He said ‘I still got your picture.’ So I said ‘send me that damn thing’ and two days later it arrived in that old broken mailbox on that awful dirty porch a couple of days before I left for Cornell and I put it in the closet here and now I can’t find it."
She looks in shoeboxes full of old developed photos from the nineties and eighties and way back to whenever her family first lived in the house. I think it’s been 50 years.
"It’s a loose photo, in a baggie."
"A baggie?" I thought I was the only one who wrapped old things in plastic.
"A baggie!" she shrieks as she holds up an old Ziploc bag with the photo.
I look at myself from 15 years ago. I look at Julianne in the picture. We weren’t smiling, just sort of grinning, but we were happy.
Today we’re sitting on the love seat again. The bed she can’t sleep in is right there. She watches me stare at the picture. "That was a few weeks after that other picture you took."
"Which other picture?" I ask, surprised, because, again, all I know are pictures.
"The one with the leaf."
"You know about that one?" I feel blood rushing. I don’t know where it’s going but I feel it rushing.
"Did you think I was sleeping?"
"I thought you were dreaming."
"No, I was pretending to dream. I was imagining that this house was a dinosaur, with big strong powerful loping legs. It was chasing me through the forest, the one there used to be before they put up all those hotels on Peachtree. I felt it when you put the leaf behind my ear."
"You didn’t stop me. You didn’t move."
"I thought it was cute, the leaf. The dinosaur house chased me ’round and ’round the forest that’s not there anymore."
"That’s why you were frowning."
"No I was pretending to be scared. I guess I frown when I’m trying to look scared." I’m not surprised that she remembers a facial expression, much less a dream, from so long ago.
"Did the dinosaur get you?"
"Frankie, it wasn’t a real dream. Just a story to occupy my mind while you were taking pictures."
"I only took one. In the story, did he get you?"
"It got me all right. Do you still have that picture?"
"Yes, just wait here." I let go of her hand and grab my keys. I put on my flip-flops. It’s cold outside for summer. I’ll be out here a while. I have to move the spare tire, the old suitcase, and the bag of mulch for my landlord. But it’s down there, wrapped in two baggies, in a manila envelope, waiting to be seen.