Shady Grove Ch. 9
Gerald was punctual. At one minute before seven-thirty, he rounded the corner carrying a small but carefully arranged bouquet of flowers. Quinn barely uttered “Thank you” before her eyes were drawn to Abigail, scampering half-crouched between buildings. Gerald noticed too. Quinn shrugged, and said, “Shall we?”
As they crossed the courtyard, Quinn lowered her eyes, hoping Gerald wouldn’t notice that she was self-conscious after all about being seen with him. But by the time they passed through Buildings Seven and Eight, Quinn felt the coast was clear and began to relax. And then they walked headlong into Crystal.
The teenager was leaning against Building Seven, smoking a cigarette. Despite the ground releasing the day’s late summer heat, Crystal’s head was nestled within the hood of a sweatshirt. Quinn saw the girl’s eyes widen as they neared. “Crystal!” Quinn exclaimed, pretending she wasn’t concerned about being seen with Gerald. “Nice to see you. How have you been?”
“Yeah? That’s great. Crystal, this is—”
This was the first time Quinn saw Gerald not smiling. He wasn’t frowning, exactly, and didn’t seem shocked, but Quinn sensed tension. “Oh, you know each other?”
“Of course. Don’t we, Gerald?” Crystal squinted as she drew hard on her cigarette.
Quinn’s legs felt like they were filling with water as she turned to Gerald, who sighed, and said, “Crystal’s mother..”
“Is afraid of mice,” Crystal said through a cone of smoke, flicking her eyes rapidly between Quinn and Gerald. “Every time she thinks she hears them in the walls, she calls Gerald. We don’t have mice of course.”
A smile returned to Gerald’s face. “I don’t mind checking it out,” he said.
“Puts my mom’s mind to ease,” Crystal explained. Quinn didn’t know what to say, and stood idle, feeling stupid. Finally, Crystal flicked her cigarette, and said, “Enjoy your date.”
Quinn wanted to object and say that they weren’t on a date, but instead waved awkwardly and began walking toward the grove, with Gerald following behind.
Abigail knocked on Madeleine’s door, lightly at first but harder the second time. She counted to five and turned the knob. “Yoo-hoo?”
It felt so strange to be alone in Madeleine’s apartment that Abigail hesitated, thinking she was in the wrong place, but it didn’t take long for her familiarity with her friend’s belongings to set in. Abigail rushed to the bedroom, opening and closing dresser drawers, finding only summer clothes. It wasn’t until she was deep in Madeleine’s closet that Abigail found a plastic bin filled with wool hats, gloves, scarves and sweaters. Abigail had her mind so set on one of them—a tight-fitting, white cashmere top—that she hadn’t considered how long it might be before Madeleine would have reason to wear it. But there was no time for second-guessing.
Abigail stood, pawed at the twinge in her chest, and sat on the edge of Madeleine’s bed with her sewing supplies. She laid the scarlet “F” over the cashmere and methodically stitched around its edges, pausing only to cough once or twice. She worked fast and flawlessly, and as her needle approached the point at which she started, she muttered, “That Tom Cruise is a puss—…a real son-of-a-gun.” After she knotted the thread and snapped off the end with her teeth, she held up the sweater and admired her perfect stitching.
She stood with difficulty and returned to Madeleine’s closet, placed the folded sweater back in the bin, and almost reached the front door before curiosity got the better of her. Abigail returned to the bedroom and opened Madeleine’s nightstand drawer. “Well well well,” she said, coughing, “we meet at last, Big Red.”
“I can’t explain it,” Gerald said, as he and Quinn gazed at a peach tree growing beneath a hemlock, eating sushi with their fingers. “I worked here as a fruit picker when I was a boy, with my brothers.” Gerald said they were only paid twenty dollars per week, but were saddened when the family sold the orchard.
Quinn could listen to Gerald talk all night. Everything he did—water flower beds around the complex, stack chairs in the community room, and now, talk—seemed effortless. “How old are you, Gerald?”
“Forty. Well…” Gerald studied his wristwatch. “In one hour and twenty minutes, I’ll be forty.”
Quinn gazed at him in the most unbecoming way, with sushi in her half-open mouth. “It’s…your birthday?” For a moment, Quinn felt sad that Gerald, it seemed, had no one to celebrate his birthday with. But seeing the way his eyes sparkled as he nodded, she realized that he was happy spending it with her. That sparkle…she couldn’t look away from it, as if she were hypnotized.
Quinn felt dizzy, the way she felt after a couple glasses of champagne, as if she were a bubble in the glass, rising to the surface, again and again. She suddenly felt affectionate, and even though Gerald hadn’t said or done anything to suggest he felt the same way, she felt as if their lips were already connected, and it was only a matter of time before some invisible force made them so. Gerald finally looked away and up at the tree canopy, saying, “Getting dark. Would you like to get home?”
It was almost dark, and Quinn should be getting home, but said in a coquettish voice that she didn’t recognize as her own, “Eventually.”
When their lips met, despite the air being completely still, Quinn felt like Marilyn Monroe standing over a street grate. Everything fluttered inside and out, all at once. As Gerald kissed her, Quinn felt like they were equals; not like she had felt before, like she was giving to a charity. When Gerald’s hands finally found their way to her face and back, Quinn was barely able to draw a breath. The enchantment of the grove and the touch of an experienced man sent shivers through Quinn’s skin. And even though her voice in her head was loud, saying, What are you doing, Quinn? You’re making out with a gardener…a maintenance man…it quickly faded into silence.
Abigail tried to shake away the numbing sensation that crept like spiders into her hand, giggling as Madeleine’s dildo waggled along with it. “You’re not that big, Big Red,” she said to it, feeling light-headed. “If you were mine,” she mused, sitting on Madeleine’s bed because she needed to, “I’d just call you ‘Red.’”
Needing to rest and hoping that laying down would relieve the pressure in her chest, Abigail laid her head on Madeleine’s pillow, gripping the dildo in her left hand. Abigail’s stiff fingers on her other hand dug into her chest as if trying to remove a splinter lodged deep inside, as she drifted into a dream state:
She stood on a tennis court with an old, wooden tennis racket in her left hand, which she found odd, considering she was right-handed. Her doubles partner—from forty years ago—Max Silverman, was in front of her, wearing white from head to toe, facing their opponents, also dressed in white. Everyone was waiting for Abigail to serve. She held a tennis ball to the strings of her racket, both of which were bright red, tossed the ball and reached back with her racket…