Delia — Part Four
As a consequence of picking up the majority of Jill’s hours, I started spending a lot more time with Levi.
“So you’re feral?” He was sitting on the counter and counting change out of the tip jar and that actually came out of his mouth. “You know…like wild and alone in the woods.”
“I know what feral means” I said. “No, I’m not feral. I just live by myself. It’s not like I lived in the forest my whole life. I don’t think that counts.”
He hopped off the counter and stood across from me. He fixed his eyes on my shoes and I felt self consciousness manifest with a tingle in my toes, then move inch by inch up my body following his gaze. He got to my face, furrowed his brow and let out a little, “Hmmmph.” He then stared at my hair for a good ten seconds, which is pretty long in a situation like this, trust me. Slowly, he moved his hand away from his side where it had been resting and reached out to the side of my head, plucking a tiny blossom, blown out of the tree outside, from of my hair.
“It counts. Feral.” He said it with the blankest, deadest look on his face and I started laughing so hard that I snorted. I peeked through squinted eyes and caught a glimpse of Levi, smiling in his satisfied way, mouth closed, just the corners curled up, but quite pleased with himself.
That’s how things always happened with him. He had seemingly no boundaries at all. He would chip away, all day, taking the random engagements he could. Always patient. He’d have made a fantastic ice fisherman.
To pass the hours at work, we started making up games to play. My favorite was “Totalitarian Wedding.” There was only one rule. You had to marry the next person that came in the door — the government said so. Sometimes the person walked in and we’d glance at each other with a raised eyebrow, like “awwww yeahhhh…” Sometimes it would be a shiver or a look of terror. The key was, you had to really believe you were about to marry this person. It was an acting exercise as much as anything. Any interaction with that person then became colored by premarital jitters. Orders became crucial details of wedding planning. If they ordered cake, that was the living end. When the Ryan Gosling look alike walked in and Levi had to marry him, he turned beet red and could barely play along. I caught a slight stammer when he spoke to him. It was always way worse when you really liked the person. That’s how I found out Levi was gay, which was awesome, because his straight totalitarian weddings became way funnier that way.
On Sundays we closed at 7, and one Sunday after a week of “Totalitarian Wedding” we went to the movies after work, and that’s how we became “outside friends.”
I wasn’t used to having people over, obviously, but Levi was the kind of person that made themselves at home anywhere. There was not a chair, couch, or other flat surface that he didn’t perch upon at some point. The first time he walked in my house, he walked into the family room, gasped, then sank into the lounge chair. I started to talk to him and he held up his finger to quiet me for five minutes before he would open his eyes. My parents had been really into mid century modern furniture, and I guess because it was always what we had, it was about the last thing I was interested in. I always admired those houses with big fluffy couches to sink into and chandeliers that I saw on tv. Ours looked like it was right out of the 60’s. Of course, Levi loved it.
“Will you bring me tea and a cookie?” He lolled his head to the side to look at me.
“I might have cookies…” I paid so little attention to what was in the cupboards, there could have been cookies of undoubtedly questionable vintage. I walked into the kitchen, opened the cupboard, and stood waiting for the cookies to march out from behind the dry pasta and jars of spaghetti sauce. Let’s just say I had become a creature of very few, but tediously boring habits in recent years, best demonstrated by my eating habits.
After a minute or so, when the cookies hadn’t materialized, Levi appeared behind me.
“Well, let’s make cookies!” He was so excited about it.
“I’m not sure if I have the stuff.” I told him.
“Everyone has the stuff,” he said as he pushed me to the side. “Move.”
He started pulling things out of the cupboard and putting them on the counter. It was both unfamiliar to have someone else in my kitchen and incredibly great for someone else to be in charge in that room, so I could sit back and be taken care of in this one small way. He moved from the food cupboards to the mixing bowls and other accoutrement.
“What’s this?” He was pulling something from the back of one of the top shelves where the plates were stored. He turned toward me, holding out a small package. It was a wrapped in navy blue with an orange organza ribbon, my favorite colors.
“You put that there. Very funny.” I said.
“I didn’t.” He said as he placed it on the counter next to me and then looked at me. This was a new Levi look to me. Not a hint of the usual smartass, just full of concern and earnestness. I looked from his face back to the box on the counter and I felt my breath audibly hitch. It would have made perfect sense to hide a gift for me on a high kitchen shelf. At five foot two, I’d have never seen it, even if I had been even slightly interested in cooking or putting dishes away.
I ran my finger along the corner of it and over the loop of the bow. “I don’t know if I can open it.” I said.
“I get that,” he offered. “But someone went to a lot of trouble to hide it and keep you out of it. Doesn’t the devilish part of you want to rip it open and see what it is?”
I glanced up at him out of the corner of my eye. He was trying to sound like a smartass, but he still had the same look on his face. I knew he understood what this was. I pulled one end of the ribbon in my fingers and the bow unfurled and then flattened on the counter. Picking up the box, I carefully unwrapped the paper. For as long as I could remember, my mom had loved to leave me secret notes wherever she could. In every book she ever gave me, there was a message in the first few pages marking the occasion or just her affection.
“For my chickle-pickle-dee with chicken-picken pox.”
Every day in elementary school, I got a note in my lunchbox. When I was too cool for lunchboxes, she found somewhere on my brown paper sack to place a hidden “I love you” under a fold of paper or in a crease. I pretended that it was silly, but I looked hard enough for it every day, that it was obviously something I wanted to find, and at many times needed to find, as I navigated the schoolyard girl drama growing up.
I unfolded the paper carefully and looked, but there was nothing. It had been a long while since I’d gotten a note like that and things had been hard between us, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if she hadn’t left one. There had been a lot of tension in our house. I was about to graduate from high school and turn 18. Both of those things had me wanting to push all the boundaries and buttons I could find. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to college. Actually, that was a lie. I knew I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to travel. Everywhere. Other kids were busy doing college visits and filling out applications and I was researching farm stays around the world. Of course, my parents thought I was filling out applications too, and when they found out I wasn’t, that was kind of a huge problem. I had great grades. I just had zero interest in more school, or being around more kids. I couldn’t relate at all to my classmates that were so excited to live in dorms and roll into classes with hangovers.
I’ve never seen my parents so livid as when I told them that I hadn’t applied anywhere. They didn’t see the value at all in what I wanted to do. There was a lot of talk about how I was going to waste the opportunities I had and that I was going to end up at some dead end, full of regret. I think the word loser came up a time or two. I tried to argue my case, but they didn’t want to hear it at all. After a couple weeks, vacillating between angry discussions and full on yelling at me, making proclamations about what I was going to do, which was vastly different from what I wanted to do, we settled into a mutually agreeable silence. I don’t know if they had fully given up or were trying a new tactic they read about while googling how to deal with your fuck-up teenager. My guess was that it was probably the latter.
There was no period of time at all in my entire life, even five minutes, that the expectation that I was to go to college was not clear. Anyway, given that we were deep in the silent treatment when they left, it wasn’t that surprising that the usual pleasantries around gift giving were done away with. Maybe she had no intention of giving me the gift at all, though that seemed unlike her. It was probably a charm bracelet with ivy league crests all over it. That seemed more like her.
I carefully opened the box and then peeled back the tissue inside. It was a necklace, a delicate silver chain attached to two ends of an infinity symbol. Huh. It was sort of an ironic gift to receive from someone after they’ve died, and nothing that I had ever expressed any interest in. I mean, I’d gone through a weird period as a sophomore when I was watching a lot of vampire movies and I had asked for an Onk, but I’d never mentioned something like this. I held it up and looked at it dangling from my fingers.
Levi was watching. “You want help putting it on?” he asked.
“It’s not really my thi..” Before I could finish he cut me off.
“What’s the lid say?” He was picking the box lid up off the counter to read and I grabbed it out of his hand.
“Your bravery is infinite.” It was her handwriting.
I read it over and over again. It said the same thing every time I did. Those weeks that I had thought they were scheming, plotting, and so angry with me, maybe what they were really doing was finding a way to be okay with their daughter doing something different than what their expectations would have dictated. Maybe they really had started to believe that instead of screwing up my choices for what I could do and be, I was figuring it out the only way I knew how. And maybe they really did think I was brave.
“Can you help me put it on?” I turned to Levi, holding up the necklace and he came over to take it, then stood behind me and latched it around my neck. Afterwards, he spun me around and pressed his thumb into it, like he was finishing a masterpiece.
“Looks good on you. Now, back to cookies”
Different people turn out to be different kinds of friends. I’d had friends in the past that wanted to be so close that I almost felt their friendship was a form of possession, like they wanted to crawl into my skin and inhabit my body. Those never lasted very long with me, and when they ended, they were worse than a romantic breakup. Others were superficial. I felt like my existence was like a throwaway accessory tossed on by a stylist to make someone’s eyes pop. Those, ironically, lasted the longest because they required very little of me, except showing up once in a while. Still, none lasted too long. I always return to my default state of watcher. I’m the audience, not one of the actors, and I’m mostly okay with that.
Levi was different. He struck a balance of coexistence, where he pushed just enough to get me out of my broken habits, but laid off enough to give me the space I needed to recharge. Either he was like that with everyone, or we just meshed well as friends. I wasn’t complaining either way, because quietly, without me noticing, he had become my first real friend in a long time.