That New Year’s Eve, Else’s family — specifically, her younger brother Demetrius — put on New York’s broadcast and gathered ’round the big, flatscreen TV. Their father built a fire in the wood-burning stove to tend (and to forget to tend). Demetrius and their mother simply relaxed on the couch, for both had worked that day.
“Are you alright, honey?” asked her mother gently, leaning forward slightly from the couch to rub the middle of Else’s back. Else sat up pertly on the floor near Jenny (girlfriend to Demetrius), who sprawled over the carpet on her stomach, and, sharing the box of assorted implements between them, they together worked pages from a coloring book of art masterpieces whittled down to black outlines for laity to do up again at their discretion and leisure using Crayola. Else had been ill in bed over Christmas, and indeed still felt far from being well arriving earlier that evening by train, but knew she’d feel sicker yet if not seeing her family at all over the holidays, so she’d rested that whole morning and made the trip.
“Yes, Mom,” answered Else, smiling softly over her shoulder. “Thank you.” The maternal Tyroler beamed rapidly in reply. Else concentrated on her marker lines filling in the work she’d chosen: some romantic Grecian-looking girls peering over a balcony (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Coign of Vantage) and alternated pencil through the segments. It was cozy. Jenny, mixing crayon and marker and favoring bold, vivid hues, attacked a mute page of melty clocks — a Dali, probably Persistence of Memory.
Mrs. Tyroler sighed, scratched the head and swished the tresses of her daughter over the back of her young neck; Else continued to draw, treating one of her maidens with peach marker making her fair-haired to resemble herself and another dark-haired to evoke Jenny. An hour, then a second, passed happily in this way to the aroma of the richly-scented smoke emanating from the glowing, cracking oak behind the stove’s glass door, while they largely ignored the television in favor of trading stories and engaging one another in pleasant chatter, enjoying one another’s company. Else felt both filled with and aware of what she’d commonly known in childhood of calming time spent at artwork, while somewhere in herself, or perhaps by some interaction between herself and the wider world, a coldness and wetness, as if atmospheric, like a dewpoint, hemmed her moments of absorption in concurrent chill, of consciousness of the outsize reality despite the freedom washing her within the present’s limitations. Tucking her unfinished page inside the book and setting it alongside the couch, Else took up a crevasse beside her father and snuggled into his shoulder, resetting the blanket so as to be also under it. Jenny persevered in finishing her Dali, Else saw, sleepily looking on.
Cold frosty windows jarring with icy blasts that battered the house’s exterior nonetheless, New Year’s Eve passed warmly with cheer and familial conviviality in the stove-heated living room: they together hugged and kissed, touched champagne flutes at the ball’s loud drop in flurries of silver confetti and crowds’ screams on the television screen, and hoped an equally merry time to the elder brother and lady across the same suburb in girlfriend-parents’ home.
A day or two later, their passage blurred in her mind yet shaken by the week’s fevers, Else crossed filigreed and shadowed snowbanks so decorated by black and barren tree branches alongside the Burlington Northern (BNSF), she well-bundled and reading with headphones on inside its metal and red leather speeding capsule in her return to her apartment in Chicago. Now there, “home”, Else in bed and at her kitchen table and in the apartment’s corner sunroom, first notices the fine wintry light of January that streams in, cleansing white. She’s tenanted here nearly a year and a half, yet it’s this her second January that speaks to her through natural daylight. The one previous had captivated her by its night twinkling. Of the way streetlamps beyond and puce hazy sky pinned with few visible stars, light traffic hum of neighborhood speed and at thoroughfare removal, golden glows of nearby houses’ frontrooms and indigo and multicolored strands bedecking the windows of college student apartments, seemed to enter her own living room and there breathe with the soul of the city, half awake and half bedding down, and all just getting started on its dreams.
She writes, now — in the bright sun, on sheets of newsprint in a fresh, unused pad with the fine metal ballpoint pen her Texan aunt had recently sent her as an enclosure with a very cheerful letter — to recall her travels and love.
The pad Else had brought back with her from the New Year’s holidaying at her folks’ in the suburbs. There she’d come upon it in a cupboard while pursuing board games, which she ultimately unearthed in a trunk and which they collectively played until their bubbly buzzes wore off. Along with the newsprint she’d also found and nicked a like-branded one of sketch paper and the coloring book of abominations. She discovered these all together in the bookcases’ waist-high cabinetry, stowed among odd table linen and service which didn’t fit in the dining room buffet.
Such well-designed and impeccably-manufactured specimen of artist’s supply tickle her especially here through their incongruity within her comparatively bohemian digs, their echo of affluence in her environment of unused pillowcases employed as laundry baskets and cooking pot doubling as mixing bowl. With great satisfaction in the sound created by her hand’s sweeping their subdued texture through her covering the faintly-stippled, tan page with the loops and crosses of her handwriting, Else expends the blue ink of the new pen, while light growing beyond dawn renders the room and her writing mood dazzling.
The August before last Else had flown out of Panama by way of Panama City, changing planes in Dallas and arriving in Portland, Oregon, to stay a week primarily alone recovering from overemployment she’d fled, though she spent an evening drinking with a former flame and another, her final night in Portland, with a friend she’d just made, with whom she attended a pirate party on the river. She spent one entire day walking Portland by herself and the following entirely in bed at her hostel ministering to her blisters. Her main haunts: the public library, Powell’s bookstore, and the large park lined with charming wooden benches framing her stretching onto its inviting sunwarmed grass, while her spruce-shaded shoulders felt air a tad too cool.
Else had, with Ned (her ex), visited Portland once previously, several years back — a jaunt from Eugene, where they had shared residence after “courting” some six months sneaking in and out of one another’s twin beds under parental noses until they could board their train to split-rent codependency. Though Else and Ned were Midwestern by way of their birth and upbringing and the origin of their romance, their tangles with each other, friends and family legends belonged to the Pacific Northwest, where they escaped, both together and separately, multiple times between returns to Illinois and Indiana and the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.
Else remembers the magical nightfall of Portland, fringed by evergreen-trimmed topography unlike the scenery of her prairie home of childhood. Resting in the famous bookstore during a day of walking, afternoon slipped away as she grew absorbed in a children’s book, which she bought and exited with to meet a dark-curled boy on the sidewalk. She crossed the giant bridge in golden, glaring sunset with her new friend, but all fogs after that point; of that evening, despite flame-wielding gymnasts and gypsy bands, a human ferris wheel and frightening homemade fireworks, accordions wafting on scents of popcorn and marijuana smoke and wavering in lurid torchlight, Else recollects only the luminous full moon rippling onto the black water, carved into gently-flexing diamonds by the barge’s wake. Her sweet, hesitant parting from the young man she’d just met remains not with her, and Else left Portland a few hours later under brilliant sunshine and to the morning smell of yeast rising through the town, as she caught yet another train.
Around that time, she ceased speaking on the phone with anyone except as an aberration or in response to one. Partly, this had to do with her cellphone, with trains, and with her concept of “home”. One allowed her some freedom, one partly enslaved her, and one eluded her. While sick in bed Christmas week, she’d indulged herself by composing scrapbooks, photographic composites and the like. Her bedroom became an odd, green-walled chamber of wonder through her continuous occupation of it and frequent fevers, endured in solitude. The windowpane and shadows assumed their own personalities while the candles she lit changed their dances as winter sun shifted outside past the blinds. Rather proud of the movies she’d assembled from her photos and footage, ironically in an action to save them she accidentally deleted them along with all her photo and video files.
On the heels of this experience, she learned about computer backup. Perhaps a providential or karmic recompense for her having impetuously, and melodramatically, flung the costume pearls Ned had given her into Lake Michigan and abandoned a chair and I-55 sign from their shared apartment to the elements in an uncovered corridor of her complex’s enclosed patio, the files’ loss she could not in conscience rue.
She called James. He picked up.
“Do you feel like arguing?” she asked. He coughed.
“Um, no, not really,” he said. “I just sent you that article because it seemed relevant, and weird.”
“Okay, some other time,” Else conceded.
“Why, do you feel like arguing?” James asked.
“Yes,” said Else.
They laughed over her action of computer amnesia and James cooed some sympathy to her for her ill days, wishing her a better night and that they’d see each other soon. (Such human generosity gave her the fortitude to resolve to get herself to the suburbs the following day, so as not to miss New Year’s Eve with her family).
James reminded Else to text Gene, their mutual friend, and she assured him that she would. Hanging up in the satisfaction of closure her flip-phone afforded her, Else, from the bed she’d been sweating into since the twenty-second, and the same collection of layered cardigans and shirts she’d been shucking and donning in all that time, looked up at a painting on her wall. It was the second one she’d ever bought. (The first, of a wildcat, she’d left in Oregon due to moving haste.) A young girl in jeans gazes down through the pink- and blue-dyed cloud of her garish hair at cellphone in her lap aboard the el. Else promised herself to promptly get rid of it.