“Friendship is precious, not only in the shade, but in the sunshine of life.”
LEON YDARA, 81, AMATEUR ASTRONOMER
Leon adjusts the 25mm Plossl eyepiece and swings his scope towards the heavens. It’s a clear night, perfect for stargazing, with a moon so bright it’s actually interfering with his night vision. He slips in the moon filter at 9mm and takes another look. Mare Crisium is simply beautiful.
Next he turns the scope towards the horizon, towards the crescent-shaped face of Venus. Then Mars in the southern sky. He can see the Cassini division between the rings of Saturn. Pleiades, the Orion Nebula. A satellite blinks across his field of view, typical at this time of year.
Leon stands back to change the eyepieces, taking his time to put everything back in its proper box. That’s the problem with beginning astronomers. They get so excited by what’s in the sky that they shove spare filters into their pockets, not wanting to lose a minute of time at the risk of missing something. But it can damage the lenses, and then what have you got?
There’s a chill in the air. He buttons up his coat slowly, his fingers stiff. Old age is hard on the joints. Standing over his homemade Dobsonian telescope makes his back hurt, so when Leon gets tired he simply sits down on the lawn chair and takes out his binoculars.
Most people don’t realize that you don’t need an expensive telescope to see the night sky. A lot of backyard astronomers rely on only two things: a dark night and their eyes. You don’t need much else to see the best show in the world.
It was Marta who first turned him on to stargazing. They were at a party, each with different dates, each bored out of their mind. He found her outside, down the lawn from the party, staring up in the sky. Her russet red hair tumbled down her back as she tipped back her head, her lips slightly parted as she breathed in the night air. Even in the waning night Leon could see her skin, clear and pale as moonlight.
“The Milky Way,” she said softly, pointing. He didn’t know her name, but looked up anyway. “Ursa Major—the Big Dipper. Ursa Minor—the Little Dipper.” Her finger trailed across the sky. “Orion’s Belt.” Three stars in a row.
It was winter 1962. Six months later they were married, her ring a constellation of three diamonds. Their only child, a girl they named Rosa, came one year later. She had her father’s dark hair and her mother’s fine features, their pride and joy.
Leon lifts the binoculars to his eyes. He should probably invest in a 10 x 50 pair, something with a broader angle of view and better optics, but he can’t let this pair go. Marta gave it to him for their first anniversary, and it means something to him to know that she held and looked through these very same lenses.
Over the years they’ve seen a lot. Planets, stars, comets, meteor shows, star clusters, galaxies, nebulae. The birth of their daughter, three miscarriages, four moves, numerous job promotions, the loss of both their parents.
His daughter Rosa and her husband, Jack, visit when they can. They live in Grand Rapids. Rosa will cook for days and then they’ll pack up the car with ice coolers and drive the five hours from Michigan to Illinois, arriving with enough food to feed Leon for a month. He tries to tell his daughter that he doesn’t need so much, but she doesn’t listen. Food has always been a comfort in their home, and it’s what Rosa does best. Just like her mother.
Rosa came for a visit last month. She and Jack are trying to have a baby, but can’t, and it makes Leon sad to see her sad. He tries to tell her that these things sometimes just happen, but he knows that’s a flimsy excuse. He’s an engineer by training, a scientist at the end of the day. He looks for the reason behind everything. When he and Marta were first together, she couldn’t believe that he didn’t believe in God.
“How can you not?” she’d asked, surprised.
Leon shrugged. “I just don’t.” The truth was, he didn’t really need God. He had all the answers he needed and didn’t think any more of it. Marta wasn’t religious, but she had a spiritual outlook on life that was contagious to anyone who came in contact with her. Even when she was sick, she held on to her beliefs. When Leon tried to contact every doctor, every specialist, anyone who could give her a different diagnosis, Marta had simply smiled, almost amused. She was too weak to argue with him, but her eyes were still bright and full of life.
In the end, she’d had enough of the doctors, enough of the hospitals, enough of the heavy medications that made her sick. She was okay with dying, even though Leon implored her to live.
“Oh, Leon,” she said. “I am just so tired. My body is tired. Can you let me go?” She placed her hand against his cheek while he cried.
So they stopped the chemo and moved her home so she could be in her own bed and see the stars. She slipped away two weeks later.
On her tombstone he wrote MARTA YDARA, BELOVED WIFE, 1935-1995. And beneath it, her favorite quote which he reads aloud every time he visits her grave.
THE TRUE HARVEST OF MY LIFE IS INTANGIBLE—A LITTLE STAR DUST CAUGHT,
A PORTION OF THE RAINBOW I HAVE CLUTCHED.
Henry David Thoreau
Leon lowers his binoculars. The lenses are fogging up. It happens. Some nights the equipment won’t work right, or the weather won’t cooperate. The night sky teaches you patience.
He turns to cast an eye over his neighborhood. At this hour families are tucking their children into bed, ready for the quiet relief that graciously accompanies a long day even though there will be dishes to wash, toys to pick up, lunches to be made. This is part of what keeps Leon here in Avalon, in this house. The house itself is much too big for an old man like himself, but he has secretly fallen in love with the people who surround him, their familiar faces, their history now a part of his own. They remember Marta, her laugh that put everyone at ease, made everyone smile. There are still so many wonderful Marta stories they share—every now and then he is reminded of a memory long forgotten—and it fills his heart with unexpected joy, like a child discovering a silver dollar beneath his pillow the morning after losing a tooth.
He imagines Marta watching over them, over the sadness that hangs over one house that used to be filled with laughter, and he wishes she could tell him how he can offer comfort, if such a thing were possible. There are so many unspeakable tragedies, things that are over in a moment but leave so much unhappiness in their wake, lives put on hold, families torn apart.
What do you think, Marta? What is there left to do?
He feels her warm breath on his neck, a tickle, a hint of a smile.
He feels her chiding him, or is it his own foolish mind beginning to fail? Leon is practical about this. He has seen death take the people he loves as it will one day take him. There is no use in arguing…or is there?
He reaches for his mug of hot water, picks at the crumbs of the cake he’s been making since Rosa’s last visit.
Now that he is in the dusk of his life, Leon has time to indulge in such thoughts. After everything that has happened, does he believe in God? That is the question, perhaps the only one that really matters. How can anyone be absolutely positive that God exists? Is there a God, yes or no?
He feels his head tip back and he is startled by a sudden realization. He wants to burst out in laughter.
The answer is there—in the stars, in the universe, in the galaxies.
You just need to look up.
I hope you enjoy it.
Julia Evarts looks up from the paper in her hand and studies the gallon-size Ziploc bag. Inside is a substance that reminds her of drywall compound, except it’s much pastier and filled with tiny air bubbles. It would have gone straight into the trash had Gracie not been standing beside her, eyes wide with curiosity.
“Mama, can I try one?” Gracie asks. She holds up a china plate decorated with pansies and roses. Several slices of what looks like banana bread are fanned out on the plate and covered with plastic wrap. Gracie was the first to spot it when they pulled up to the house—the plate, the Ziploc, and the accompanying instructions for “Amish Friendship Bread” sitting on their front porch. There was no card, only a yellow sticky note with the five words written in shaky cursive.
For a moment Julia was confused—had the weekly meals started up again? Not that she’d mind having a casserole to serve for dinner tonight, but this? This smelled suspiciously like a chain letter, with the added headache of having to bake something. Julia can’t remember the last time she’d baked something.
Gracie tears off the plastic wrap before Julia can stop her. “This looks good!”
Julia has to admit that it does look good. It’s coming up on 3:00 p.m., time for an afternoon snack anyway, and as usual she hasn’t thought this far ahead. She has no idea how other mothers do it, or how she managed to pull it off before.
“Gracie, hold on. Let’s get inside first.” Julia unlocks the front door and ushers her five-year-old daughter inside.
She puts their things on the kitchen island and then opens the fridge. It’s pretty bare because Julia has forgotten to go grocery shopping, and there’s no milk. She doesn’t want to have to go out again, so she pours Gracie a glass of water from the tap and heats up the remains of this morning’s coffee for herself.
“Now?” Gracie is practically bouncing in place.
They eat straight off the plate, using their fingers. It’s not banana bread or like anything Julia’s ever tasted before. It’s moist and sweet with a hint of cinnamon. It hits the spot, as unexpected kindness always does, and soon there is only one slice left.
“I bet Daddy would like it,” Gracie says. Her fingers have crumbs on them, and she licks each one.
Julia bets he would, too. Mark has a sweet tooth, even though he’s been on a bit of a health kick lately. She tucks a stray strand of Gracie’s mousy brown hair behind her ear, so different from Julia’s flyaway strawberry-blond curls. “We’ll put it aside for him,” Julia says, even though she was hoping to have the last piece for herself. She reaches for the used plastic wrap but Gracie gets to it first.
Julia watches as Gracie tries to extricate the wrap from itself. She waits for the tantrum, for the meltdown that sometimes happens at this time of day, but Gracie manages to pull the plastic wrap apart and lay it over the single slice of bread, carefully tucking it under the scalloped edges of the plate.
“I did it!” Gracie looks at her handiwork, proud. “So now what?”
Julia notices a blue streak of dried paint on the back of Gracie’s hand and gives it a rub. “What do you mean, now what?”
Gracie holds up the note and the instructions. “Is this a recipe? It looks like a recipe. Are we supposed to do something? I can mix. I’m great at mixing!” The sugar from the bread has clearly entered Gracie’s bloodstream.
Julia turns to look at the Ziploc bag slouching on the counter. She has figured out that it’s basically fermenting batter, but the mere thought of baking and what it entails exhausts her. “Yes, you are great at mixing, Gracie,” Julia concedes. “It’s just that . . . well, someone gave this to us to be nice. They don’t expect us to actually do it. I’m not sure I even have the ingredients.”
“We could buy them.”
Julia gives her daughter a small smile. “I don’t think so, Gracie girl.” Her voice is apologetic but firm. “Would you like to watch a little television while I get dinner ready?”
Gracie slides off the stool. “I think Clifford is on,” she tells Julia, then runs off.
The microwave dings. It’s a reminder ding, a clever feature the manufacturer came up with. Or maybe all microwaves have reminder dings now—Julia has no idea. Their previous microwave caught fire when she placed a box of dry macaroni and cheese inside and set the cook time for an hour. Black smoke billowed out and the fire alarm shrieked. Gracie was barely a month old. She was startled but didn’t cry, even when Julia broke down and Mark frantically ran about, fire extinguisher in hand as he tried to air out the house.
The microwave dings again. Julia opens the door and sees her cup of coffee. She takes a sip and finds that it’s lukewarm and stale. She puts it back in for another minute then stares at the last piece of bread, wondering if Mark will care if she eats it.
He probably won’t. He’s deferred to her for the past five years, too tired to argue, too tired to try. She can’t say she blames him. She doesn’t know what to do to make things better, either.
Her coffee is now hot and she pulls back the plastic wrap to finish off the last piece. The evidence is still between her fingers when Gracie walks in holding a piece of pink construction paper.
Her daughter looks shocked, as if Julia has just committed a cardinal sin. “Mama! That was for Daddy!”
Julia feels guilty, and then defensive, but it’s pointless either way. First, Gracie is five. She has the clear advantage in this situation, as Julia can’t bear to see her daughter distraught. Second, Gracie was born after everything happened. She doesn’t know a life other than the one she’s living now, where the worst thing that can happen is Julia eating the last piece of Amish Friendship Bread.
Julia tries for an apology. “I’m sorry, Gracie. I was just really hungry.”
“But I wanted Daddy to try it.” Gracie is near tears.
“Well, we could make him a smoothie or maybe some fruit salad . . .” She has none of these ingredients but offers it up anyway.
“No, I know he’d like this best. I even made a card for him.” Gracie holds up the paper in her hand. On it she’s laboriously copied the five words from the yellow sticky note.
I hope you enjoy it.
Julia feels a lump in her throat. Her daughter’s neat, careful handwriting looks like that of an eight-year-old. Julia knows this because that’s how long it took for Josh, a leftie, to master printing. His teacher had suspected developmental dyslexia, and Julia had to fight to keep him out of special ed, not wanting him to be labeled for life. In the end, she had been right. While Josh’s handwriting would never be called a thing of beauty—his letters were always sloped, almost kissing the line—he had ended up one of the brightest kids in his class.
As Julia gazes at Gracie’s tear-stained face, she knows there’s only one solution. She reaches for the instructions for Amish Friendship Bread and sticks it on the refrigerator with a magnet. She steps back, resigned, then puts the Ziploc bag safely to one side as she pulls her daughter into her arms for a tight hug.
“Hold on to your note, Gracie. We’ll be baking in ten days.”
Mark doesn’t want to go home.
That’s not entirely true, actually. He wants to go home, but he doesn’t want to get into another fight with Julia or hear about what an awful day she’s had. Sometimes she’ll just look at him in stony silence, indifferent to his questions, a wall.
But it’s the sighs that get to him the most. He’ll take silence over sighs any day. The sun can be shining, the house spic-and-span (seeing how he stays up late every night cleaning it), Gracie healthy and full of joy, and still it’s not enough.
He sits in his car in the parking lot, unsure of what to do. He doubts Julia has come up with a game plan for dinner. She’ll probably ask him to get some takeout or heat up leftovers while she goes into the bedroom for a rest.
A rest from what? Gracie’s in kindergarten at the Montessori school, gone for a seven-hour stretch of time. Julia doesn’t work anymore, doesn’t have to do anything. She picks up Gracie from school and that’s pretty much it. Mark does everything else, filling in the gaps wherever he can.
There’s a rap on his window and he jumps. The smiling face of Vivian McNeilly is looking at him. Vivian is an interior designer with Gunther & Evarts Architects, in charge of all their high-end commercial and residential projects. She motions for him to lower his window.
Mark presses the button but nothing happens. It takes him a second to realize that the engine’s not on. He fumbles for his keys and turns the ignition, feeling like an idiot when the window finally descends with a hum.
“Am I interrupting anything?” Vivian is all smiles. She has a lilting voice, something Mark has always noticed and appreciated for its ability to charm a client. “You look like you’re deep in thought.”
“What? No. I’m just debating whether or not to go to the gym.” What a dumb thing to say, especially since he already worked out before going to the office this morning. Mark wishes he could take it back.
But Vivian nods solemnly as if this is the most intriguing thing she’s heard all day. She’s worked for them for a year and he’s never felt uncomfortable around her, but suddenly he’s picking up a vibe he hasn’t felt in months.
“Where do you work out? I ask because I usually run through Avalon Park after work, but I was thinking about picking up a gym membership somewhere.” She leans forward, just a bit, and he catches a whiff of perfume.
Mark knows where this is going and that he should just nip it in the bud, but he finds himself contemplating Vivian instead. She makes it look effortless—the wavy auburn locks that fall just past her shoulders, her fitted suit and heels, the way she leans comfortably against the door of his car. She can’t be a day over thirty but she holds herself like a woman who’s seen the world. She’s bright and single, much too young to be living in a small town like Avalon. Before he can stop himself, Mark says, “I go to a gym in Freeport. Fitness Lifestyles. It’s a really great facility—they’ve got an indoor pool and everything.”
Why is he telling her this?
“That sounds great,” Vivian says. She is beaming and Mark’s not sure what just happened. “So I’ll follow you there? I have my running gear with me. Maybe we could grab a quick workout after I sign up?”
He’s in dangerous waters. Sink or swim.
“Maybe some other time,” he says, and offers a conciliatory smile. His palms are sweating as he grips the steering wheel. “See you tomorrow.” He manages a wave before putting the car into drive and gunning it out of the parking lot.
Julia stands over the kitchen sink, her hands soapy as she washes each dish and puts it onto the wooden rack to dry. Mark is getting Gracie ready for bed.
This time, the evening time, is the only time Julia feels sane. Safe. She can finally breathe, can finally let herself exhale without fear that the ax is going to fall and destroy what’s left of her life. Whatever has happened during the day is over, gone and done with. Her husband is here, her daughter is here. They are all in the same house, under the same roof. Even if they pass each other silently in the hallway, at least they are together.
All that’s left to do is finish washing the dishes, then she’ll wipe down the table, shower, and crawl into bed. She won’t bother with a book or television, as Mark likes to do, but fall straight into a dreamless sleep, her mind and heart finally at rest.
Julia reaches for the next dish. The unfamiliar weight in her hand makes her look down and she sees that it’s the scalloped plate that was left on their porch, a few crumbs still on it. She takes a moment to admire the red roses, the pale blue and violet pansies dotting the dish. When she and Mark had married, they were poor and young. It seemed like a waste to register for china, an extravagance. Plus, they had joked, the children would probably break it. They rolled their eyes, imagining the messes to be made by their future progeny. Already Mark and Julia were making plans for these children, letting their decisions revolve around these little beings that had yet to be conceived.
“Can we register for Tupperware?” Mark had asked, and Julia had only giggled.
Julia runs a soapy hand over the smooth plate, wistful and sad for what could have been. When she turns the plate over in her hand, she sees a printed stamp on the back side.
Fine Bone China Shelley England
But that’s not what makes her suck in her breath, almost drop the plate into the water. There’s a pattern number, and then the name of the pattern right above it.
Rose . . . Pansy . . .
And then the last one, on a line of its own.
“Heads, it’s a girl. Tails, it’s a boy.” A shiny quarter sails through the sky and Livvy catches it with a laugh. She gives her coworker a nudge. “Come on. Guess!”
Edie takes a bite of her sandwich. “While I appreciate your highly scientific method for determining the sex of my unborn child, I think I’ll pass. Besides, I don’t know for sure that I’m even pregnant. I’m just late.”
“Edie, come on! I don’t know what you’re waiting for.”
Edie’s blue eyes sparkle behind a pair of rectangular glasses. “My period, maybe?”
Livvy slaps the quarter onto the table. “Heads. You’re having a girl.” She reaches for her own lunch, a cold pasta salad tossed in a low-fat Italian dressing. She can’t understand Edie’s nonchalance about this. If Livvy were late, she’d be in the drugstore buying every pregnancy kit available to man. Or, in this case, woman.
She hasn’t told anyone that she and Tom have started trying, just in case it doesn’t happen. Livvy’s thirty-seven, not exactly over the hill, but Tom is convinced that the longer they wait, the greater the chance that something could go wrong. He knows two people who know other people who have children with Down syndrome. Livvy feels her indignation rise. You can’t really control these things, and even though she’s not a religious person she believes all things happen for a reason. Even the unthinkable, which she’s witnessed firsthand. She just nods her head when Tom suggests forgoing birth control to “see what happens.”
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