From Criss Cross, chapter 37: "On the Roof"
[N.B. Debbie is 14 years old; Rowanne, 17.]
"Do you think," said Debbie, "that if someone comes into your life for a really short time and then disappears forever, that it counts?"
"Counts?" echoed Rowanne. "As what? As a romance?"
"I think that's what I mean," said Debbie.
"How short?" asked Rowanne. "Five minutes? An hour? A day?"
"A few days," said Debbie. "Three and a half days, spread out over a week."
"You're not talking about one of those carnival guys, are you?" asked Rowanne.
"No," said Debbie.
"I think it can count," said Rowanne. "I think everything counts."
"Do you know Miss Spransy?" asked Debbie. "The piano teacher? Actually, she's Mrs. Szebo now."
"I've heard her name," said Rowanne, "but I don't know her."
"I used to take lessons from her," said Debbie. "She lived in a tiny little house up in Birdvale. When I was taking lessons from her, her mother lived there, too. It was her mother's house. Her mother was pretty old, and Miss Spransy was getting older too, I don't know how old. A little older than middle aged, I think, but she had never been married, or even left home, as far as I know. I used to wonder about it; she was pretty, I thought. And you could tell she had been even prettier when she was younger. She had nice eyes, really kind eyes, and she was sort of skinny and elegant, although she was starting to thicken up around the middle and get wrinkly. She had kind of a long nose. She always wore a dress and dress shoes, and she always wore as cardigan with a little chain holding the front together but a few inches apart. And she always had a folded Kleenex up her sleeve.
"I used to wonder if she had ever had a boyfriend. If she had gone out on dates when she was younger. I wondered if someone had broken her heart, and she could never love anyone again. Or maybe she had loved someone and he died.
"The piano was in their living room. The living room was tiny, and the piano was a baby grand. There was an organ in there, too. There were doilies and afghans everywhere. I think the two of them crocheted all the time.
"I remember seeing an article in the Sunday paper, about drawings and paintings made by people who were mentally ill. They showed pictures of four paintings that a mentally ill person had made, all of cats."
"I saw that," said Rowanne. "The first painting looked pretty normal; the cat looked like a cat. But as the person fell deeper in to mental illness-I think it was schizophrenia-there started to be jagged electric outlines around all of the shapes, and in each painting there were more and more of the jagged outlines in these wild, neon colors until the cat almost completely disappeared."
"Except for its eyes," said Debbie. "And its pointy ears."
"Right," said Rowanne. "They were bizarre. They were beautiful in way so that you almost thought, 'Oh, this person is mentally ill, but it's okay, because they can live in their own world and make these beautiful paintings,' but then there was also something scary about the paintings so you knew that it was a scary world, and that the person needed to be rescued."
"That's true," said Debbie. "But I guess I wasn't thinking about the scary part-I was just thinking about the bright colors right next to each other so they made your eyes vibrate, and how the patterns became so complicated that you had to look to find the cat.
"Because I saw the article, and couple of days later I went for my lesson, and when I walked in the door there were all the afghans everywhere, in fluorescent stripes and neon patterns, and with the white doilies on dark wood, and the patterns in the wallpaper and the rug and the upholstery fabric, Miss Spransy and her mother almost disappeared into the room. Until they moved. It reminded me of those paintings. It almost seemed like a form of camouflage."
Rowanne laughed. "Camouflage by afghan," she said.
"Something like that," said Debbie. "Anyway, I stopped taking piano lessons around then. I wasn't practicing, and it seemed silly to be paying for lessons. But a few months later old Mrs. Spransy died. And a few months after that, Miss Spransy got married. She got married to a truck driver she met at a bowling alley, maybe in her navy blue dress with tiny white polka dots and her folded Kleenex tucked up her sleeve. I couldn't imagine her picking up something heavy like a bowling ball, let alone throwing it. I couldn't imagine her striking up a conversation with some big bulky guy. Because he was a big bulky guy. He was a guy who said 'youse.'"
"Maybe someone introduced them," said Rowanne.
"Maybe," said Debbie. "But I remember thinking it just didn't sound right. It didn't sound like a good match. But I went there one day—I think it was a Saturday morning and I had walked up to the library, and something came over me and I just thought I would knock on the door and say 'hi.'
"They were frying doughnuts and they invited me in. The husband's name was Art Szebo, and he was very jolly and friendly. And Miss Spransy, or now she was Mrs. Szebo, I guess, was very jolly too. She seemed softer and rounder and bouncier. They were having the best time. I had fun too. We all sat there sifting cinnamon sugar onto doughnuts as they came out of the deep fryer, and eating them. We ate this amazing amount of doughnuts.
"The house seemed different than before. There seemed to be less afghans and doilies, and there were man things around. Like work boots by the door and a thermos on the counter and a big plaid jacket. Also it was morning, so there was sunlight pouring in. But there was also a kind of life that wasn't there before.
"They had only been married six months when Mr. Szebo had a heart attack and dropped dead. Right at the bowling alley. When I heard about it, I felt terrible. I thought her life now would be so lonely and heartbroken and cold.
"But I saw her again, and she still seemed happy. Still soft and rounded and relaxed like she had been in the kitchen on the day we made doughnuts. And I think it's because she had been loved. Even though it hadn't been for very long, maybe it was enough. Mr. Szebo hadn't left her or stopped loving her, there had been, like, a mechanical-technical failure. Something no one could help.
"This probably sounds stupid, I know I'm still young and there's a lot of time for things to happen, but sometimes I think there is something about me that's wrong, that I'm not the kind of person anyone can fall in love with, and that I'll just always be alone.
"But I think if I knew someone was going to fall in love with me when I'm fifty-three or something, I think I could wait. Maybe. If I knew it would at least happen."
Rowanne made a hmm sound in the back of her throat without opening her mouth.
"I think everyone feels that way sometimes," she said. "It's not stupid."
Lynn Rae Perkins (born 1956)