“Why is it always so goddamn hot when there’s a funeral?” Colleen asked irritably. She wasn’t really irritable, per sé, she was just… Colleen.
She was wearing a black pencil skirt with a silk white blouse open at the top, first button undone. A simple, silver chain necklace with pearl pendant hung from her neck with matching pearl earrings and a small pearl bracelet on her left wrist. Several silver rings surrounded a few long, musician’s fingers on both hands. Her two-inch, open-toe black heels with band around the ankle clicked hurriedly along the blacktop to the gravesite.
“You look fine,” John said. And she did. Colleen — half-Italian on her father’s side — had beautiful, light olive skin without a visible blemish, deep black hair and large brown eyes expertly framed by the nude-bronze on her eyelids. The heels, open neckline and pencil skirt made her look taller than the 5’ 5” she actually was and John thought she was gorgeous. Not that he should be thinking such things at a burial.
“I’m sweating like a pig,” Colleen protested, clacking away at the pavement. “As if that church weren’t hot enough…”
“It was a good service,” John said upbeatly. “The people there obviously adored your Great Aunt Jean”, who was on her mother’s side.
“Maybe, but I only met her once as a little girl.”
“It means something to your mom that you’re here,” John said, and that was the last he said about it.
Colleen didn’t respond, just clacked on unhappily until she reached the grass then thumped up to the burial site, heels sinking slightly into the soft ground. She took John’s arm and he thought there was more going on inside this woman than worrying about her appearance at a funeral.
They had been friends for several months and enjoyed each other’s company. He’d learned quickly that when this half-Italian woman wanted to be cross he should just let her be cross. It would fizzle out soon enough.
Funerals are what they are and this one was no different. At the graveside the priest said a few kind words about the woman he barely knew, close friends and family wiped away tears as they said goodbye to their Jeanie, as they liked to call her (she had hated it). Most of the others waited with their heads politely bowed until it was all over and a few actually thought about the illusive “meaning of life”. Colleen was somewhere in between the latter two.
Her aged Uncle Billy, also on her mother’s side, was standing under a close-by tree wearing his usual Homburg and black trench coat, smoking an unfiltered Camel. John thought ol’ Uncle Billy had put those deep questions to rest long ago with a simple “fuck it” and flick of his Bic. Colleen thought, “‘the hell does he stand this heat in that coat?!”
After a Psalm 23 and a few “amens”, the small crowd made their way back to their cars for the requisite Memorial Meal at Colleen’s Aunt Maria’s house (father’s side). The families were close. “I’ll bet the food is to die for,” John said earlier while driving Colleen to the church. “Whatever,” Colleen said somewhat rudely as she poked an earring through a hole in her ear. She usually ran a bit late. John had smiled to himself; he liked Colleen’s grit and rarely had to guess with her.
John peeled his shoe off the cemetery blacktop, closed the door and started the car. The air conditioning blasted and Colleen adjusted all the vents to point toward her. They drove through the grounds to the Reisterstown Road exit but her playlists were not blaring. The few times they’d driven together Colleen would have her favorite EDM playlist blaring. Sometimes she’d talk over it loudly and animatedly with her small, bare feet and large big toes on the dashboard and sometimes she’d sit quietly, hands on her lap, looking out the passenger side window. With her feet on the dash.
As they slowed at the exit John said, “Where to?” Colleen had already told him she wasn’t going to the Memorial Meal. “Home,” Colleen said sounding irritated, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She looked at him crossly, “Why? Where else would we go?”
They’d met in a ride-sharing carpool, hit it off talking about cooking — “I never use recipes, I just make it up each time,” she said, and John nodded knowingly, “me, too. It’s how I learned to cook” — and they’d texted and hung out several times after exchanging numbers, once at a dive-bar in Fells Point and another after running into each other at the Starbucks on Fort Avenue just outside Locust Point. They had also gone up I-83 in the evening a few times just to drive with the windows down, blare her EDM and be out of the City. Even so, John was a little puzzled why Colleen asked him to accompany her to a funeral of all places.
Colleen was in her late twenties and John was a little older — perhaps a little more — but this didn’t bother either of them. There was an obvious attraction but poor John had enough baggage to slow down a camel (the animal, not Uncle Billy’s cigarettes). Colleen knew all about it thanks to a few too many shots of Absolut Elyx on John’s part at the dive-bar in Fells.
John turned toward her. “Some people like to go home, some like to get shit-faced at the nearest bar, some like to just drive.” He paused. “I was asking what you needed,” he said gently. Colleen seemed to soften a bit.
“Drive,” she said. “North or South?” “West,” she said, “I hate 95.” John pushed a button on his car stereo. “Directions to Los Angeles, California,” he intoned and Siri produced a map with a blue line going from the cemetery to Los Angeles.
As he nosed into the typically heavy Reisterstown traffic he asked, “Coffee?”
“No, I’m good.”
“What? You have a joint?!” she said incredulously, and inquisitively. John laughed. “No. I don’t have anything.”
“In 500 feet, veer right onto I-695 toward Towson,” Siri said.
“Well… I do. Home first, then West.” John made a gutsy and wholly illegal jump to the left lane for the I-695 exit toward I-95, toward Colleen's townhouse in Federal Hill, which relaxed her enough for her to take off her heels and put her feet on the dash (with a respectable mauve toe-nail polish to match her fingernails and lipstick, if you must know).
Once in Federal Hill John amazingly found a place to park on Hanover St. close to Colleen’s townhouse. He’d dropped her at her door first and by the time he’d parked, knocked and her door opened she’d lost the pearls and hose, unbuttoned another button on her silk blouse and was looking at him over the rim of the glass of red wine pressed to her lips.
“I thought you…,” John said.
“Then…” and he nodded toward the wine. She mocked a shocked look.
“This?” holding up her glass. “John, I’m Italian. We pour red wine instead of milk into our cereal,” and padded into the living room with her small feet and glass at her lips, leaving John on the steps holding the screen door.
John really liked Colleen. She was at once predictable and wholly unpredictable, in a predictable sort of way. She knew what she wanted yet didn’t. She was passionate yet subdued. His current role was being the “steady” and so far she liked him that way, as did he.
Her townhouse was much the same as most others in Federal Hill, or “Fed” as the kids called it. The outside was largely left alone to make the Historical Society happy and the inside was a mashup of the renovated and the not: new drywall running into exposed, crumbling brick walls; a beautiful fireplace that didn’t function and was drafty in the winter; narrow stairs and hallways with railings that wobbled when you breathed on them; faux-marble tile butted up against original but refinished wood floors that sloped dramatically to one side or the other; one tiny half-bath on the first floor that even a Smurf would have trouble shitting in and on the second floor one overly-large, full bath housing a free-standing, rusty, bear-claw tub flanked by white tiles with black, mouldy grout. And crown moulding, of course, to make it a “luxury” townhouse, upping the already high price she paid.
Colleen had only purchased the home six months ago and was still settling in. Contractor’s paint clung to the walls and lay dully on the windowsills. The furniture was sparse — a couch, a coffee table and a beat-up chair in the living room — but one step up into the kitchen and everything changed. The marble counters were loaded with blenders, mixers, a pasta maker, enough cutlery to give a serial killer a serious hard-on and an impossible number of steel pots and pans hanging from a rack on the ceiling. “It’s not Italian yet” — she meant the living room — “but it will be,” she said over her shoulder as she stepped up into the very Italian kitchen. John followed her.
“Would you like a drink?” she asked.
“Sure. Do you have bourbon?”
“John, I’m a single, Italian female on a budget,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I have red table wine,” then downed her glass as if to prove the point.
“Red table wine it is,” he said laughing to himself.
They sat at the island in the center of the kitchen where the floor sloped so heavily toward the backyard that the wine glasses were visibly listing. “Why would God let people die?” she managed between long moments of silence and swigs of wine. Her mother had converted from some form of Anglicanism to Catholicism when she married into her father’s family and ended up being more “Catholic” than they were. As a result, Colleen attended an all-girls Catholic school in the city at a price tag her mother sometimes (often) reminded her of and John figured she knew the answer to her question. Besides, sometimes people don’t want to be offered answers — especially when they already know, or think they already know, those answers — sometimes people just want to be heard. So John kept his mouth shut and nodded meaningfully when she spoke.
She asked more questions to no one with a slight slur, drank more wine and started to unwind. When it seemed she was going uncomfortably deep — the kind of deep one goes to not because they really want to but because there’s a depth to be gone to and, well, one has to go somewhere — John changed the subject to the equally listing empty wine bottles between them. Colleen seemed relieved to talk about something meaningless and unwound more.
“So are we going West or not?” he said, pouring the last of his glass into his mouth.
“No, I haven’t had my joint yet.”
“You really have weed? I thought you were a Catholic girl,” he teased.
“Exactly,” she said standing up. She found a step-stool, climbed it and reached into the far corner of the top shelf of her cabinetry, swaying just a little. John hadn’t realized how short her pencil skirt was until she was up on her tippy toes reaching for the hash. He didn’t mind. “My mom looks through my cabinets when she visits,” she grunted. “Gotta hide it up where she won’t goooo…” She nearly fell descending the one step to the floor. “God… are you okay?” John laughed. “Shut up, John.”
Awkward banter surrounded the making of the joint — just one — like they were two budding pre-teens who were sneaking off to a private room where they could play doctor.
“That’s called a white boy,” John said, noting the cigarette wrapper she used to wrap the hash.
“How do you know that?”
“A stripper told me.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t want to know,” and stumbled towards the living room couch.
“No, wait… it’s not like that,” he said, trotting after her.
“I don’t want to know,” she said louder with a waive of her hand and plopped onto the couch.
“Sit, John.” She knew what she wanted and John sat, bemused.
Colleen instinctively tried to sit with her legs crossed but couldn’t because of the pencil skirt that John didn’t mind. She resorted to folding her feet under her, took a long drag of Ms. Mary and leaned back into the couch. By this point John had removed his subtly pinstriped, deep navy blue suit jacket as well as his tie. Given the wide spread of his shirt collar he’d used a Full Windsor knot which he tied and retied for what seemed like a half hour to get it right. Now, both hung causally on the beat-up chair in the corner like cabbies on a smoke break half-listening for the next dispatch.
John sat next to her, shoulder to shoulder, kicked off his shoes and took the toke when she handed it to him. A long plume of white smoke was passing through her lips and he saw her face soften. John took a drag. “This is quality pot,” he thought and tried to hold back a cough. Colleen, eyes closed, raised her hand for the white boy. John put it to her lips instead; she smiled, inhaled and dropped her hand to his knee.
Silence danced with the smoke swirling to the ceiling as John and Colleen sat comfortably snuggled together. Soon his arm was around her shoulder, she had leaned into him and her hand still lay on his leg. She liked his earthy, metallic smell. A tinge of sweat and sweet water was mixed in there somewhere, too. After a beat Colleen opened her eyes, took the joint from John and said, “open your mouth.”
“What?” “Your mouth. Open it,” Colleen said sitting up a little, and John obeyed. She took a long drag, leaned forward as if to kiss him and blew the smoke into his cautiously, barely open mouth. John inhaled and choked back another cough while she smiled seriously.
“Is this a tantric thing?” he asked, returning her smile, still choking back the cough. She leaned a little closer. “Does it matter?” John took the joint, inhaled deeply and held it. He leaned in, touched her upper lip with his and blew smoke into her mouth as she inhaled. Her eyes gleamed. This went on — one exhaling, the other inhaling, back and forth — until that poor, singular stick was used up. “I’m pretty sure this is a tantric thing,” he said hazily when it was out. “Shut up, John,” she said, and kissed him — as if it were the most obvious thing in the world — while her musician’s fingers drew small circles on the back of his neck. He pulled her close and kissed her back.
Some time later John’s eyes slid open for just a moment and he found himself reclining in the corner of the couch. He couldn’t see it then, but mauve lipstick clung to his mouth, his cheeks, his neck and across one eye like a battle scar. His shirt was off and Colleen was in a near fetal position asleep on his chest, her head on one side and a hand on the other. Her shirt was untucked and unbuttoned and her bra — a nude demi-bra with lace around the edges, "well-chosen," John thought — lay askew, pressed between them. She wouldn’t notice until later the subtle bite marks on her neck.
Colleen had a small mole just above the bra line on her left breast; her blouse had concealed it. John loved it. Her skirt was unzipped in the back but still on; his belt and pants were undone and his fly was unzipped, but his black modern-fit boxers stared up at him complacently. John’s free leg was wrapped around her thighs and what was left of Ms. Mary was smiling down from her lingering haze just below the ceiling. John had no idea how any of this occurred.
Somewhere in the back of his mind a John-like voice said, “now you'll need to get this wrinkled suit pressed.” “That’s what you have to say? Shut up,” he said to the John-like voice and drifted back to wherever it was he’d come from. Not from the West, that was certain. The West could wait.
Something had been simmering between John and Colleen for a while and now it was rising to a slow boil. Neither were using a recipe, which, to them, seemed the most obvious thing in the world.
Photo credit: Melania Xavier