"I will remember that," Cara said. You have to go with someone to the Grand Canyon, she repeated silently now as she and her mom stood in the museum, black-and-white photographs around them. Cara and Mom had come for an exhibit of "Native People and the Grand Canyon." It was the summer of' 92, right before she returned to campus for her junior year. Broken limbs from Hurricane Andrew still littered the gardens of the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida.
Grand Canyon, the following year. Day one, Nicholson looked through his camera while Cara ran around part of the rim and then a mile down into the canyon along Bright Angel trail. She might have run farther, but she hadn't brought water. He was a runner, too, but here photography took precedence over running.
At first Mom hadn't liked Nicholson. He'd made little conversational effort when she visited Cara at college. He'd kept his sunglasses on.
"He has sensitive eyes because he's in the darkroom so much," Cara said. "He's introverted, but he does have good social skills."
"I don't see good social skills," Mom said.
"I wish you would like him."
"I'll like him."
That was Nicholson for you, not making a conversational effort, Nicholson who knew artists had to be tortured and introverted, who, when it was time to get going, jumped out of Cara's second-story dorm room window rather than take the stairs. He was the only person she knew to own a cat in college. A photography major, he worked all night on the line/plane/volume assignment or developing film. He wore round glasses and tucked his stringy, damaged hair behind his ears when he was thinking. He used bare-bones lamps both for photography and for decorating his room, his favorite style being the clamp light with the conical aluminum shade, one like a house painter might use. The wire of one of these lamps hung over a nail, so that it dangled over the couch, and he'd clipped another one to the corner of his headboard in the art student co-op house.
Day two, Grand Canyon, she had a headache from the altitude, so she kept him company. She pressed her thumb to her slightly protruding teeth, trying to push them in. Nicholson was so busy playing with his new camera that she felt as if she were at the Grand Canyon alone. He didn't have a fear of the rim, where gnarled trees bent in the wind, but with no railings around the canyon, she stayed a few feet back, holding on to a tree and leaning toward the great hole--so huge that it wasn't easy to gauge distances across or down to the green Colorado, so massive that she was inspired to yell out something religious or philosophical. He must have felt it, too, because he came over to her and they kissed, her hair blowing between their lips. This was the first place in her life she'd gotten to on her own. She and Nicholson had shared the expense, fifty/fifty.
Day three, again the click-click of Nicholson's shutter was the background music of the day. Once he was satisfied, they headed for the Hopi Reservation. A sandstorm blew up as they drove through the Painted Desert.
"I want pictures," he said, "but not enough to risk sand in my camera."
He steadied his lens against the car window while Cara went into a gas station for something for her headache. The sand bit her cheeks, the skirt she'd picked out especially for him whipped around her, and red and pink sand eddied into crescents inside the door of the convenience store at the edge of the Navajo Reservation.
The Hopi didn't allow photography, so that was a break. Still, by the end of the trip, he'd taken ten rolls of film, 360 pictures of the Grand Canyon.
"Let's not exchange anything for Christmas," Mom said on the phone not long before the start of winter break. "I already got you something," Cara said.
Nicholson had taken a picture of her running past a scrubby patch of trees near the rim, and she'd had it framed for Mom. It was all running shorts and shoes, Cara blurred beyond recognition in the black-and-white image.
When Cara complained about Nicholson's all-nighters, her suitemate Jennifer looked at her knowingly. "Are you sure there's no one else?" she asked.
Cara, Jennifer, and Nicholson ran cross-country together, where, ever since freshman year, Cara's eyes had been drawn to Nicholson's calf muscles and the synthetic shorts flapping his thighs. She could recognize his run from a distance. When Nicholson missed breakfast day one of exam week and came by to bum food off them, he said he'd been up all night working in the darkroom, and she believed him. He sat with Jennifer and Cara in the common area of in their suite flicking his big toe against his second toe, and this made the sound of the word "wasp."
Cara told them about the leaf that had bounced alongside her during her morning run. In the state forest, live oaks had made a foggy, windy day dimmer. Her mom used to sing a song in a minor key--she'd made it up--It's mighty foggy, foggy, you might lose your doggy, doggy--and that refrain was stuck in Cara's head while she ran, scanning for snakes in the palmettos on either side of the path.
Soon a brown oak leaf with seeds on its underside flipped along beside her. "We ran a good ten strides before it landed in a leaf bed," she said. "It was like the leaf and I were in an I-Thou relationship." She'd had this insight because her philosophy seminar was reading Martin Buber.
Both Jennifer and Nicholson looked confused. They hadn't heard of Martin Buber.
"A person can have an I-Thou relationship with another person or with a tree or anything else in nature." She touched her fingertips together when she said, "I-Thou."
"I'm confused," Jennifer said.
"Objects can be Its, but so can people." She brought her fingers apart. "An object can be a Thou, too. Sort of like a soul mate."
"I love that!" Nicholson said finally--"Love it!"--and he was so excited that he stood up and began to pace.
"Cool," Jennifer said as she left for her first exam.
"Good luck!" they both wished her.
"My mom doesn't want to do presents this year," Cara said once Jennifer was gone.
"Is it money?" he asked.
"She's not rich." For several years now, her mom had kept the books at a small landscape architecture firm. Mom had been careful with the savings and life insurance left by Dad.
"That's not nurturing of her, though." Nicholson put his arms around Cara. He was physically affectionate, more of a hugger and a hand-holder than her family was. Sometimes she felt that was exactly what she needed, and other times she wanted to say Stop touching me.
"What do you want for Christmas?" he asked.
"I know--running shoes. The same as these, but new, so I can run in one pair and wear the other as street shoes."
He didn't answer. Bad idea.
"I know. A clicker so I can count times around the track."
He looked disappointed in her.
"Why is that a bad idea? What are you fishing for?"
"I don't even agree with counting times around the track. I say run and do something more interesting with your brain." He could be the judgmental artist. "Something more personal, romantic, artistic. Not something utilitarian."
"Surprise me, then." She zipped up her sweatshirt.
"I shouldn't have asked, should I?" he said. "Let's never be the people who tell each other what we want for Christmas."
"It's a deal, but I do need help with you. What do you want?"
He scratched his head.
"Joke!" she said, and his smile relaxed. She already had something for him: a photograph of men wearing top hats and leaning on bicycles after Jacksonville's Great Fire of 1901, the partial building facades tamped down from the sky like Greek or Roman ruins. Dad had called the fire a devastating opportunity, akin to a forest fire making way for new growth. Whole city blocks had burned, and the fire could be seen from as far away as Savannah. The first African-American hospital in the U.S. had opened that day. And then Klutho, a prairie-school architect, had come to town to rebuild.
The last night on campus before the break, Cara walked toward Nicholson's house. She felt good about her last exam. The long essay question had been on Sir Thomas Aquinas, and she'd spent the most time studying him since he'd been the first philosopher of the semester and therefore not fresh in her memory.
The full moon flung a wavering line on the campus pond, which had a fountain in the middle of it, ejaculating water in a plume. A live oak tree with Spanish moss like tinsel sheltered the white clapboard co-op. From a distance, she could make out a couple kissing beside the overgrown camellia bush, which bloomed red and profusely and which had grown to a height where it half-covered the window. Historically puke dried under that bush.
Now the couple came into focus as Nicholson and Jennifer. That made no sense. He had always made fun of Jennifer. And yet it was. He had tilted up his running cap so that it wouldn't get in the way of kissing, and Jennifer leaned on his chest as if in need of support. Cara's hands shook as she tried to match her breathing to her strides, closing in on them when Nicholson saw her, right as Jennifer licked his chin like a cat.
There was no way to run away from this. Nicholson took a baby step away from Jennifer just before Cara reached them, panting.
"You're going to kill me, aren't you?" he said.
"Don't say that. You sound like a child."
"You look pale." Nicholson hiccupped. "Methinks you need some meat."
One of her philosophy classes had inspired her not to eat animals, and that had always threatened him. She was sick of his asking, "You don't mind?" before he ate meat. Insincerely. And then on the rare occasion she ate an animal, he gave her a hard time. Once in a blue moon, she craved fried chicken. She still ate fish.
"It's not what it seems." Jennifer giggled.
Cara did her best to pretend not to care. She had her pride, and it was futile to argue with the intoxicated. Methinks. She took off toward her dorm, and she ran fast because she was mad, her jeans blowing flat against her legs. She always had her top times when she was angry about something. She'd never been a crier, and she had a talent for keeping dry-eyed by focusing on something else. She breathed out for two beats--right, left--and then in--right, left--like she'd taught then-chubby Jennifer first week of freshman year, and no leaf bounced beside her now.
Back home for Christmas, she and Mom said hello with a loose hug, layers of air between them. Mom was busy, distracted. She had red spots all over her face where the dermatologist had frozen precancerous places. She'd gotten involved in multiple environmental causes, partly inspired by her bookkeeping job. Her landscape company had started promoting greener applications, competing with AllGreen's post-pesticide and fungicide application warning to keep off the grass. Kids and pets alike could gambol on the grass after Mom's company's application! It was nice to see her passionate about something, and yet she had trouble focusing on anything Cara was saying. There were some major non-sequiturs going on between them where they sat at the white Formica kitchen table with a burned spot from when someone forgot to use a hot pad.
"Why is it not in focus?" Mom said about the photo.
"Obviously because I'm running so fast," Cara said. "By the way, I wanted you to know: Nicholson and I broke up." She didn't tell the Jennifer part of the story.
Her mother looked sad for a second. Who knows what she was thinking? Maybe she didn't want to reveal that she was happy to hear this news. But she could have empathized. She could have said that breakups sucked. Though she and Dad had been together forever. Maybe she'd never been through a breakup.
"Pathogens from dog waste get into the soil and then the water supply, and then the aquifer." She was educating dog owners about scooping poop, which had caught on in New York City but not here.
After a follow-up question about pathogens that reminded Cara of a horror movie she'd seen at the Student Union, Cara recommended the movie, and not a minute later Mom asked, "Seen any movies lately?" As if she'd time traveled elsewhere while Cara was talking. Mom didn't have Alzheimer's or dementia--she was just not focused on Cara.
Look at me, Cara thought. Listen to me. See me.
Then Mom made a phone call. From what Cara could gather, in the morning Mom and others would be canvassing the neighborhood to distribute paper door hangers explaining the benefits of scooping.
And then Mom was talking about her skin. She had a basal cell skin cancer that would be cut out next week. This was common among Floridians. Skin cancer in Florida wasn't like other cancers. Melanoma was cause for alarm, but the other varieties were easily frozen or gouged out like mold from hard cheese. After a visit to the dermatologist, middle-aged and elderly women would arrive at social functions polka-dotted with tiny Band-Aids.
"The atmosphere's thinner," Mom said. "There's the hole in the ozone layer now. It's much worse in Australia."
She told a long story about how, despite having darker skin (meaning skin cancer could go undetected longer), she had the basal cell. They would cut it out, then bandage her up temporarily while they checked the edges under a microscope to make sure they got it all. This was called Mohs surgery. If the edges weren't clean, they'd remove the bandages and shave off more.
"Wait, are you going to have to get your skin cancer removed?" Cara asked.
Mom looked at her, beyond puzzled. Aliens.
"That's what it's like when you're somewhere else."
"Okay," she said. "I'll try to do better."
Day two of break, while Mom was distributing door hangers, Cara got her tattoo. She'd decided to get it at home so that she could heal up by the end of break. She knew her mother wouldn't be happy, but she was ready to take action. Make her own piece of art. Etch a bit of her father into her skin.
She hardly even knew where she'd gotten the idea. Maybe something about Nicholson had inspired her, him so artsy, edgy. Jumping out of windows. Expecting her to be the conventional one.
She wanted something that laid claim to her father more than a photo, more than an architect he'd quoted or a secondhand story, which was all she had of his. Not a cross, heart, flower, or bird. She would show the world that he belonged to her, too. He'd kept her in the shade, walked her in the night. The tattoo would be close to her heart, proof that she was the lamp collector's daughter. She requested a classically-shaped side table lamp, and the tattoo artist drew it freehand after first pitching a magic genie lamp from his portfolio. He drew on her with a Sharpie while she told him that her father had held her and let her look down into lamps--not for too long!--her little eyes attracted to the light, her tiny hand cupping the edge of the shade. Though she grimaced while he worked, she felt an intimacy with the artist. The best part about a father tattoo was that she would never regret it, unlike an allusion to some boyfriend.
"Sorry," the artist said when he understood that she was in pain.
"Don't say 'sorry,'" she said. "I'm happy." She tried to think about something else, and she was mad at herself when she daydreamed about Nicholson's reaction to the tattoo, when she thought that this artful ink would give her more credibility with him.
Later that day, Cara's sister Lynnie was over for a visit, sitting in the kitchen with Mom, who didn't move from the table. Lynnie was thirteen years older than Cara, a grownup big sister she'd idealized--at once old--a married woman with a daughter in middle school--and young--more like a peer than a mother, someone whose closet she raided, whose haircuts she tried on herself. It had been confusing when Lynnie had gotten pregnant and married when Cara was eight, but still she'd been the major influence on Cara to make good decisions, to wait to lose her virginity. You'll always remember your first, she had said. Love yourself before you love someone else. They shared cassette tapes and later CDs. Lynnie, not Mom, had taken Cara shopping for all her clothes in middle and high school.
Careful not to let fabric graze the tender tattoo, Cara pulled her collar to one side to show them. The lamp had a round base and a stalk shaped like a bowling pin. The artist had succeeding in giving the shade perspective.
"Cover it up," Mom said. "I never want to see that thing again."
Cara stood up and walked around the table and hugged her from behind, holding her ear next to Mom's. Lynnie smiled at Cara encouragingly from across the table.
"It's just a tattoo," Cara said. It's nothing permanent formed in her brain next, but of course a tattoo was permanent. That was the whole idea. "It's not where people can see it. Only when I choose to show it to them." When Mom stiffened, Cara sat back down in one of the four coral plastic chairs, only four because she'd still been in a high chair when her father died. Her older brother lived in Chicago now and wasn't home for Christmas this year.
"I didn't see my kids with tattoos," Mom said. "When I held my babies, I didn't see permanent ink on them."
Lynnie came over close to Cara to look. Her hair was still damp, and she smelled like shampoo. "I like that it's black and white," she said.
"I know Dad wouldn't have liked it." Mom wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something bad, and Cara sank down in her chair at this.
Lynnie squeezed Cara's shoulder. "I like it," she said. "I'm a little jealous you're so brave. Let's see it again."
Cara showed it off again for Lynnie. The bulb peeked out from beneath the shade, and the artist had crosshatched the shadows in a way that made her think of a woodblock print.
"You'll be happy to know I bought some sunblock," Cara said.
"Tattoos can't be in the sun."
"Is it supposed to be red like that?" Lynnie pointed to the crosshatched area, now a darker red.
"Dr. Hoyal would not be happy," Mom said. He was their family dermatologist. "And that won't look good on wrinkly skin."
Cara made a face.
"I can't imagine a wedding dress that would hide it."
"No immediate plans for a wedding dress."
"Where'd you have it done?" Lynnie asked.
Cara had followed advice not to get inked on a tailgate, in the back of a van, in a kitchen or garage. Not at the Nirvana concert. She described the parlor in Five Points between the junk shop and the edgy clothing store that smelled like incense or pot.
Lynnie said she knew the place.
"It's not bad unless you're allergic to red," Cara said.
"Was it painful?" Lynnie asked.
Between a scrape and a sting, the artist had claimed it would be, and Cara had given him a hard time afterward. Though I should have warned you it would be worse on the thin skin of the chest.
"Would you do it again?" Lynnie asked.
Dad's lamps aren't Dad," Mom said. "They were just lighting. He never got around to using or even repairing most of them." She took a box from the kitchen counter and held it out to Lynnie. "I found these. Dad's cameras. Would you like them?"
"That would mean a lot to me," Lynnie said as she opened the box and lifted out a Leica, its strap wound around it for storage.
"You say Dad's lamps aren't Dad, but you act like his cameras are," Cara said.
"Lynnie's not tattooing herself with cameras," Mom said.
"Imagine being me," Cara said. "One of the main things my father did with me was let me look down into lamps. One of the only things."
"All babies like to look at light," Mom said.
"I think the lamp image is powerful," Lynnie said. "Artistic, too."
Cara stuck out her tongue in a quick pant--thanks for supporting me, she was saying to Lynnie.
When a chunky Canon still had film in it, Lynnie said she hoped it was one of those times when she'd begged Dad to let her use his camera. Cara understood: Lynnie wanted there to be pictures of Dad. Maybe he'd be standing by the blooming camellia in December or the azaleas in spring, maybe he'd be leaning on a golf club, or pointing out the Prairie-style houses with their flat roofs, broad overhangs, and stained-glass windows with geometric patterns. Maybe he'd be visiting industrial curiosities like geodesic domes. Maybe he'd be holding Cara. In one picture, she had of him holding her, he looked natural with a baby, his oversized silver-rimmed glasses reflecting the sun.
Mom relayed what phase of life each camera was connected to as if the cameras were some timeline. He'd bought one of them before his first trip to Falling water. Cara had seen his pictures of the house cantilevered over the stream, Mom in the foreground with her belly hanging out over the path, pregnant with one of the older kids. When Cara thought of her first day at college, she was waiting with Mom in the line to meet the president, who was greeting the freshmen in the courtyard of the Spanish-influenced building topped with terra-cotta tiles, and as far as she could tell, she was the sole student there with no father.
The next camera had a worn teepee shape where his nose had pressed. "Would you like any of these?" Lynnie asked.
"I can visit them at your house." Cara pulled the rubber band from her wrist and scratched her hair into a ponytail. "I'm going running." The artist had said that if she covered the tattoo with ointment and plastic wrap, she could run, which was good because she didn't feel right if she didn't run.
"You go," Lynnie said. "We won't talk about anything while you're gone."
But Cara didn't believe that. Lynnie was already telling about her daughter Kaitlyn's first boyfriend, whom she'd met at Pizza Hut. They already had a song (their song) on the jukebox, and he had bought her table a pitcher of Diet Coke.
She changed her clothes, took two pain relief pills, and covered the tattoo, following the artist's instructions.
"I'll be gone by the time you get back," Lynnie said as Cara crossed through the kitchen on her way out the door. Lynnie was the tall sister, and hugging her goodbye was the same scale as hugging Nicholson.
Cara started out walking, as always, past the one contemporary house that everybody hated on the block. After her half-mile warm-up, she took off with more care than usual, matching her breath to every thwack of her foot. Running with the tattoo was like running with sunburn, when even an ancient cotton t-shirt didn't feel good against her skin, never mind a jog bra--but running was worth it.
According to family legend, her dad had pointed out Klutho buildings all the time, so she looked for their banded windows designed to let light in but to keep the room intimate, private. Most of the city had burned in the Great Fire, which started at a factory that made mattresses stuffed with Spanish moss. When sweat dripped into her eyes, she pulled up the neck of her shirt to wipe her forehead. She ran by a couple of her dad's architectural projects--mostly additions and renovations since they lived in an old neighborhood. He'd been known to take advantage of natural light and river breezes. Floridians often painted their windows shut, but he had installed screens to cut down on A/C. He'd been a fan of Modern Organic, copper ribs supporting many a porch, positioned to warm an unheated sunroom in winter.
Back home, Mom was nowhere to be found. Cara took a cool shower, letting water dribble over the fresh ink. Of course she'd chosen a lamp. Her whole life she'd been constructing a dad-shaped pastiche that was part photograph and part details gleaned from others, a hazy mix of family stories and history and remembered dialogue overlaid with his antiques and his collections of junk. Through pictures, she knew his stance and the way he smiled for a photographer, which was the only smile she knew of his, his bottom lip partially covering his top teeth. There was the picture of him lying on the couch, her asleep on his chest. There was the lamp shot, light bathing their faces from the top of the shade. At the beach, he set up an aqua fringed umbrella for her so she wouldn't burn like the Coppertone baby had. With her one-sixteenth Seminole, Mom tanned, but Daddy and the kids did not. Cara had gathered these bits like some pathetic child's collection and alchemized them into a father.
In her room, she lay on her back, her top half undressed. It was good she hadn't gotten the tattoo at school. It was convenient to have privacy in her childhood room that Mom had helped her redecorate after Lynnie got married. Together they had chosen the wallpaper with bloated yellow flowers that Cara thought at the time were sea anemones.
The artist had said to watch for redness and pus, and now the word "infection" was swelling up in her consciousness. Although she'd been diligent about the ointment, green fluid seeped from the solid black base of the lamp. The artist had said if you have an issue, don't call your physician. Contact your artist first.
Then a knock.
"Just a minute." Cara put her shirt on. "Come in."
"Why would you get a tattoo of a lamp?" Mom stood between the door and the bed as if to block Cara from escaping. "He died when you were a baby. You don't even remember him."
"That's kind of cruel." Cara pulled the yellow bedspread up to her chest.
Mom walked over to the window and closed the curtains, as if the tattoo might embarrass her in front of the neighbors. "Let's see it again," she said.
Cara sat up and gathered her shirt toward her underarm. The green pus looked worse when she saw it from her mother's point of view. The tattoo's edges were hot and red, and a pink line streaked toward her underarm. She was worried but played it down for her mom.
"It looks infected," Mom said.
"Sometimes this happens. The artist warned me."
"I'll get some antibiotic."
"Antibiotic removes pigment, the artist said."
"That's ridiculous. I'm calling Dr. Hoyal." But instead of going for the phone, she sat on the edge of Cara's bed and then lay down. "I didn't envision my kids with tattoos."
Mom lay on her side, her hands flattened under her cheek, and her eyes dropped closed.
I didn't envision my kids with tattoos, Cara thought. I didn't envision Nicholson and Jennifer.
Mom startled and opened her eyes. "Was this Nicholson's idea? I had a dream it was." She propped herself up on the back pillow she insisted on calling a "husband."
"He doesn't know about it," Cara said.
"Because he feels the same way I do about tattoos?"
"Because we've broken up."
"Oh, honey. I'm sorry."
"You weren't listening again. I told you we broke up."
Cara didn't answer.
"Are you lonely?"
"You'll meet somebody else. I met Daddy when I was your age." She told Cara again how they'd decided to marry within months, how they knew. How he cut flowers from the yard. How he was the only man of their era to wash dishes and change diapers. He made the older kids stilts. He hula-hooped!
But there was no one as good as Daddy, and Cara was a little fish in her wallpaper, caught in the yellow flowers under the sea.
The next day, Mom convinced Dr. Hoyal's Arlington office to work Cara in after hours. Having been away at college, it was strange to be driven, and as they crossed the river, Mom pointed out the Gulf Life Tower, site of Dad's office. Cara knew that had been Dad's office. Mom had pointed out the skyscraper many times before, but Cara was happy to hear anything about him, even if she'd heard it before. When built, the Gulf Life Tower had been the tallest precast concrete building in the world. The Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute had voted it one of The Seven Precast Concrete Wonders of the World, along with the Transamerica Pyramid and Disney's Monorail. On their anniversary Mom and Dad used to go to the top of the Gulf Life for a flaming dessert called cherries jubilee.
The dermatologist had always fretted about sunburn, but it being December, Cara's skin wasn't peeling now. She didn't know why some things made Mom so mad and others didn't provoke a reaction. Sometimes Cara told her: even if you have no response, at least say, "Oh."
But Mom, like the dermatologist, had always responded to sunburn: "It's not sexy. You look like a lobster."
Dr. Hoyal from Miami had olive skin and other than the tattoo artist was the only man Cara knew with an earring. A diamond earring. He had a lot of ideas as far as getting rid of pimples, none that worked. Now he washed his hands with antibacterial soap and felt the skin around her tattoo. She knew that the solid black parts of the lamp, like lines carved from a linocut, were hot to the touch. With a black Sharpie, he outlined the skin that was red.
"That area should shrink with antibiotic," he said. "Call the office if the redness spreads beyond that Sharpie."
"The tattoo artist said not to use antibiotic. It lifts off the pigment," he said.
"Oral antibiotic." Dr. Hoyal wrote out the prescription and passed it to Cara. Then he held Mom's hands in his and said, "It's always a pleasure."
"Thank you," Mom said.
They looked into each other's eyes.
"You've got to think of it as an open wound," he called after them as they walked into the dark.
Mom started the car.
"I think he wants to sleep with you," Cara said.
"No, he doesn't."
"Seems like it to me."
"We have a history," Mom said.
"Yes, we've gone to him forever--but you have a history with your dermatologist?"
"He knew Daddy, that's why."
They passed the Gator Bowl, which would soon be demolished. Jacksonville was abuzz with having been awarded an NFL team, the Jaguars, and renovation of the stadium would begin after the first of the year. The Maxwell House sign with its neon outlined cup dripped red teardrops of coffee into the dark.
"I had an appointment with him soon after we found the spot on Dad's lung. When Dr. Hoyal asked if my family history had changed, I burst into tears."
Cara reached over and patted her mother's shoulder, which shrank from Cara as if it didn't want to be touched, as if her pain were too private to share, even with her daughter. She didn't look at Cara.
"He was the random person I broke down with," she said.
Cara thought about Flatland, in which a female line looked different from its end because from that perspective, it looked like a point. She thought her dad would have liked to hear about Edwin Abbott's book, which had been assigned in a philosophy class. She was afraid her mom wouldn't be interested. Mom leaned toward the steering wheel with her chin elevated, as if finding her way by following a scent. The red drop made its way down toward the stadium again and then popped back up to the coffee cup.
Back at college in January, Cara avoided Nicholson and Jennifer as much as she could, considering the two women were suitemates. It made no sense to show them the tattoo. She was cold, formal, pretending nothing had happened. She tried not to wonder whether they'd done more than kiss, and she almost understood Mom's tactic of keeping away from the jugular. She might choose to be like that, too, even though she hated it. Winter on the phone with Mom always brought the safe topic of tonight's low, a possible freeze that threatened to kill the citrus. Cara found that type of topic less frustrating than she used to, and she empathized aloud when Mom complained she'd have to buy California oranges for her morning juice.
Whenever Nicholson and Jennifer asked her how she was doing--"You okay?" distended with concern--Cara lied that she was fine. She chose lying over confrontation. It would be easier on her not to know if they had feelings for one another.
Sometimes in quiet moments her mind went to Dr. Hoyal and her mother. Clearly her mother was in an I-Thou relationship with Dr. Hoyal, but had it grown into something deeper than holding out her arm to show him her rough spots, something more than his freezing pre-cancers with cold air sprayed from a can? Her mother trusted him to pare her bad bits of skin, but was it more than that? Had he given her a full-body exam? The air had been so charged that day before Dr. Hoyal had locked the office behind them.
Jennifer knocked on Cara's bedroom door. "Can I come in?"
"Sure," Cara said as if she could care less.
Jennifer, no longer chubby, sat on Cara's couch with her feet propped up on the trunk coffee table. Sometimes Jennifer waited without saying anything.
"Is this sit in Cara's room and try to make up?" Cara asked.
"It's try to make myself feel better. I'm feeling a disproportionate amount of guilt over this."
"Are you sure it's disproportionate?" Cara asked.
At cross-country practice Nicholson kept taking his spot next to her during warmups. She bored her eyes into Coach and blocked out Nicholson. One day as she stretched her hamstrings, bending back her toes with her fingers, her shirt gaped open, and "What's that?" he asked.
"What's it look like?"
As much as she'd wanted to show off the tattoo, now she felt exposed, and she wasn't in love with him. Still, she opened the neck of her shirt and wanted him to admire it.
"A lamp, huh?" He air-traced its dark outline and then moved his finger in a quick feathering motion as if to echo the crosshatching on the shade and base.
"Damn," he said again with a shake of his head.
She felt sick being so filled up with his approval and patted her shirt back into place.
"Cook for you tonight?" he asked.
Her internal response to that was a neon sign that had red drops looking more like blood than coffee: warning, danger, danger. She saw his electric skillet shiny with oil, and she saw yellow nights at his apartment, meat frying and something microwavable and vegetarian for her like macaroni and cheese. She recalled hardwood floors dusty under her bare feet. His hands had smelled like fixer.
"I'm not sure that's the best idea," she said.
Who with any self-respect would get back together with a boyfriend like that? She would never feel the same way about him again.
The weekend before final exams, the sun was on her back as she ran, and as soon as she reversed direction, it dipped behind a thick patch of pines. I-Thou. On her mind was the padded envelope held stiff with two sheets of cardboard that she'd retrieved from the post office earlier that day. Lynnie had developed the film from Dad's camera and found two pictures of him and Cara. In one of them he was pushing her in a chrome baby carriage with a fringe on top. In another he was holding her, her tiny arm flung out of a blanket. His hands as big as her body. Don't I look good with a baby, his expression said. She passed several blue jays that had fallen out of their nests. Exam week was the season when so many of the babies fell out. She didn't think anything could be done for them. Dying baby birds was just nature, the food chain, the circle of life. Some cat would be nourished.
Her breathing picked up when she heard someone running behind her. Running alone had attracted a number of creeps over the years, and Jennifer had nearly been mugged near the 7-Eleven. Cara ran faster with the unknown, uneasy as the footfalls drew closer. Maybe she needed a running partner. Problem was, she preferred the solitude. She kept her focus straight ahead and acted unfazed by the person coming up behind her, whom she could tell was a male. Then she heard a voice:
"What does this make you think of?"
Nicholson. He sidled up and then slowed down to match her stride. Just Nicholson.
"Not a thing," she said as she tried to slow down her breathing to match her steps again.
What it made her think of was running together like they used to, how he could be chattier since his legs were longer while she had to exert to keep up. It made her think of running shoes replaced every five hundred miles and how well you could get to know a person in five-mile increments. It made her think of the runner's high, a shiver they would tell each other about when it happened, never faking it. She knew her face was bright red, and her breath was still faster than her footsteps from fear.
"Martin Buber," he said.
He wasn't red or even sweaty, that jerk.
"I'm your leaf."
And she accidentally liked him again. He was the only person she'd ever known to say goodbye and then not exit through a door. She liked how he changed topics with no transition, his obsession with the personality of his cat (debating which of her characteristics would save her in the wild, and which ones would get her killed), and his art and photography books well ordered on milk crate shelves. His lighting.
Exam week, Jennifer was being so hard on herself that Cara ended up trying to make her feel better. The poor girl was going to confession, and she wasn't even Catholic. "Jennifer, all we've got is this day forward," Cara urged, even though she didn't think that completely true since the past affected this day. Her dad affected this day, and she didn't know him except through pictures. "Every great philosopher made mistakes," she told Jennifer. She'd thought of that and was convinced it had to be true, even if her professors had never lectured on it, even if now, centuries later, no one knew what their mistakes had been.
In lieu of exams, the Photography majors had senior shows. Nicholson's was the Grand Canyon--no people, just the sky and the serrated, striated earth. In his artist's statement, he dedicated his show to her, his leaf. She and Jennifer went around and looked at all the photographs.