For several weeks things finally seemed to be settling into something resembling a routine. True to the lunatic nature of our relationship, we were starting to do all our conversing in Deshtiran, as Kiri continued to tutor me in her homemade "language." Oddly, I found it exceptionally easy to learn, and reasonably consistent (unlike English), and I sometimes found myself using words I didn't even remember learning, so that what could have been an irritating obsession instead wound up becoming yet another entertaining game. Once or twice I caught myself accidentally answering my phone at work in the strange tongue, to my considerable embarrassment. Although I had been in a few relationships previously, I knew by now that this one was very, very different.
Countless times I considered telling her how I felt, but somehow just couldn't get up the courage to do it. After so many years of self-sufficiency, it came as a bit of a shock for me to realize that I could no longer picture a life without her, and yet I had absolutely no idea what a declaration of love might do to our friendship. To my chagrin, I found myself feeling like a teenager trying to puzzle out his first crush, and as equally at a loss in which direction to jump.
Things abruptly took an awkward turn one evening as I prepared to take my leave after a particularly exhilarating bout of swordplay. Our goodnight kisses had been gradually progressing from that original peck on the cheek to something rather more tantalizing, and this night I threw caution to the winds and, putting my arms around her, gave her a full-fledged kiss directly on the mouth. For a few moments we were locked together, then she unexpectedly shook herself free and stared at me with those odd blue eyes, her face flushed.
"I'm sorry, Will," she said at last, as I wondered if I had overstepped some kind of bounds. "If we keep that up there's no way I'll stop, and I'm just not ready for this." Puzzled, I started to speak but she cut me off. "Look, don't misunderstand me, Will, it's not that I'm a believer in celibacy or anything, and I'm certainly no virgin. I just--" She reached for words for a moment. "I don't know if it's you I love or not. I don't want to do something that's going to hurt you." I was stunned. She looked pretty miserable herself.
"Kiri," I stammered in dismay. I had to stop to gather my courage and took a deep breath before I managed to blurt it all out. "I guess I should have said this a long time ago, but--I'm in love with you."
She started to say something, then slowly sat down. There was another long pause as I tried to put into words the dread I suddenly felt. "I didn't know there was someone else." I steeled myself for the disclosure I was sure was coming.
She just sat there and stared silently at the floor for a long time. When at last she raised her eyes to mine I could see she was on the verge of tears. "If there is," she said almost inaudibly, "he hasn't existed for a long time." I tried to make sense of it all, but nothing emerged from the sudden fog that my brain had become.
"I'm so sorry, Will," she burst out unexpectedly. "I know this doesn't make any sense to you, but please trust me. I just need some time to sort this out. I do--care for you very much," she added with uncharacteristic clumsiness. "Just bear with me for a little while. Okay?" I nodded glumly, still feeling that my world had been turned inside out. It was obvious that she was thoroughly upset as well. We bid each other goodnight, both of us uncomfortably formal, and I headed for home filled with a lover's unease.
The next day was torture. Twice I wound up hopelessly botching a stack of data input forms and having to redo them (inputting fifteen sheets before I realized that I was one record off from where I should have been the entire time), receiving in the process a severe lecture in "focusing" from a clearly annoyed Ms. D'Arcangelo. Then my PC crashed unexpectedly and I spent an hour trying to resolve the problem, only to finally discover that it resulted from a new network "enhancement" that proved to be incompatible with our terminal software. During it all I was trying to figure out what on earth Kiri had meant the night before. By the end of the day I was ready to crawl into the nearest file cabinet and curl up in a fetal position.
Finally, just as I was shutting down my printer and PC, the phone rang. It was Kiri. "We getting together tonight?" she wanted to know. "I think we need to talk."
Dinner that evening began on a predictably uncomfortable note. We were both obviously ill-at-ease, and I found myself staring at my plate, dreading the gut-wrenching discussion to come.
"I have to ask you something tonight, Will," she finally said. "And I want your absolutely honest answer. Agreed?"
I looked at her and nodded slowly. Here it comes, I thought, and braced myself.
"Will, what if I asked you to leave your job, your apartment, and your friends, and come with me to an unknown destination?"
It was the kind of off-the-wall course change that was completely in character for her, and of course it took me totally by surprise. "Are you serious?" I choked. She looked at me intently with those pale blue eyes and nodded slowly.
I silently digested the idea for a few minutes. "I guess it would depend on a couple of things," I said finally. "I'd have to be able to get work, of course. Other than that, as long as you were there, I think I'd go anywhere you wanted. There's really not a lot to keep me in Fontana, that's for sure."
"What about--last night?" she asked hesitantly.
I didn't have to ponder that much, because it was about all I had been thinking of for most of the day. "Your friendship is the most important thing in the world to me," I said. "If it were something more, that would be--well, great, but I can wait for you to work that out for yourself. And if I wait forever, then so be it."
To her credit, she took this rather overripe affirmation at face value. In fact, she got up from her chair and, putting her arms around me from behind, gave me a ferocious hug. "I can promise you that I'll always be there for you as a friend," she said earnestly into my ear. "And who knows what else the future might hold?"
"I won't live off you," I interjected, gently shaking her off, "and you know jobs aren't easy to get these days." She barked out an odd laugh. "Oh, I can guarantee that you'd have useful work to do."
The next evening Kiri brought up the subject again, and suggested that we start making the necessary arrangements. "You really mean it, don't you," I marveled; it was more of a statement than a question.
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" she shot back. I shook my head.
"I thought maybe it was all a crazy dream when I woke up this morning," I said, "but I'm still game if you are. So, where are we going?"
"I want it to be a surprise," was the remarkable (if predictable) answer, and if it had come from anyone but her I probably would indeed have had second thoughts. After what I'd experienced during the past few months, though, it seemed as if pulling up stakes and heading off to parts unknown was now just another adventure. I guess that's what you call perspective...
And so it was that we ended up a few days later back at my apartment, loading up Kiri's diminutive SUV with what little stuff I wanted to keep (mostly videos, books, and clothes). She suggested that we simply leave the rest behind, rather than going through the hassle of a yard sale. "Besides," she said, "if you wind up getting cold feet before your lease expires at the end of the month, you can just move back in."
Similarly, I hadn't resigned from my job but had instead put in a request for six weeks' leave. I'm one of those people who keeps accumulating "use it or lose it" time anyway, though not out of any great love for my job. As far as they knew I'd be back in six weeks. "You can always write them later and let them know you're not returning," she explained. "Think of it as a safety net." It made sense to me; it would provide plenty of time for those second thoughts.
It had been with considerable satisfaction that I had quietly packed my personal belongings into my briefcase and locked my file cabinet for what I expected would be the last time, discreetly leaving the key on my desk under a stack of redundant memos from the university administration. (As it happened, I also inadvertently left half a dozen of my prized anime soundtrack CDs in the file cabinet, something I didn't discover until much later.)
At her own place she did pretty much the same, only packing things she really needed to keep. "I have a friend in town who will take care of selling the place later. This isn't the only house I own; in fact we'll be stopping at another one on the way out." I knew she was well provided with money, and hadn't ever really asked where it came from; I just assumed she was well off, though she never spoke of her family to me. Within a day we were packed up and ready to head out.
It was a typical Los Angeles Basin grey, overcast morning when we backed out of her driveway and headed north. I had left my own car in her driveway, with the understanding that we could make arrangements for it later. Before long we had pulled onto Interstate 15 and were aimed at the Mojave Desert, the soundtrack to Project A-ko pumping through the car speakers. I was desperately trying to impress myself with the gravity of what I was doing, leaving a steady job and familiar surroundings behind, but somehow every time I glanced at the intent figure sitting behind the wheel next to me the familiar lyrics just kept lifting me up in a way I hadn't ever experienced before.
"We'll stop first at my house in the mountains, so we can switch to a bigger vehicle," she said. "And then?" I asked. "And then," she said. I waited a while.
"Well?" I said finally. "Well, what?" she responded with a perfectly straight face, but I could see an ironic mirth lurking behind her usually expressionless blue eyes, as though she were enjoying some kind of private joke. I was beginning to realize that there was a much different and distinctly inscrutable woman beneath the fun-loving, outrageous girl that had dragged me from my inexorably decaying orbit.
Finally she relented somewhat. "I promise that this evening I'll fill you in on everything, and I mean everything. Deal?" (She proved to be as good as her word on that one, though as it happens not quite in the way she planned.)
I decided that was the best offer I'd get, and let the subject drop. Along the way we talked about anything and everything else. Soon we were passing the cement plants in Victorville, followed a half-hour later by the immense rail yards in Barstow. "We're making good time," she commented.
"We ought to be," I remarked sourly. "I don't think we've been down to the speed limit for at least the past hour."
She laughed. "This is pretty conservative driving for me. I don't want to risk getting another speeding ticket today, of all days." I wasn't quite sure I understood just how consistently exceeding the limit by twenty miles per hour was going to serve that end, but decided to let it stand, especially as we were still routinely being passed by everything from pickups to BMWs in their rush to discard cash in Las Vegas.
We had been on the road for several hours, driving further and further into the desert, when we pulled off the Interstate onto a paved side road and continued north for another forty-five minutes or so, finally turning again onto a nearly invisible dirt track towards some rugged rocky hills. The path led into a narrow canyon, winding and climbing gently and eventually opening onto a small flat clearing, perhaps an acre in size. At the far end, nestled against sheer rock cliffs, was a good-sized two-story house.
As we pulled up to the dwelling in the gathering dusk, Kiri pressed a button on the dashboard and a large garage door opened for us, revealing a conventional-looking motor home, which we pulled alongside. Neatly stenciled on its side was the word "Futaba."
"You're kidding," I observed skeptically, remembering all too vividly the streak of dirt we'd just finished bouncing over. "We're really going to leave here in that?"
"You have no idea," Kiri murmured, closing the door behind us and shutting off the engine. "Let's transfer our stuff and then get something to eat. Let me do the packing, okay?" We thus divided the labor, with me obediently lugging stuff from her vehicle and depositing it at the side door of the RV, while she moved it to somewhere in the back.
It took us only a few minutes, what with everything being already neatly boxed, and it was just growing dark outside as she slammed shut the vehicle's door and led me into the house. On the way I noticed something glinting on the concrete floor and stooped to pick it up. It was a tiny rounded gold object with a hole in the center. Absently stuffing it into a pocket of my jeans, I promptly forgot about it.
Kiri threw together some sandwiches as I wandered around, rather surprised at the lack of furnishings present. But there wasn't much time to wonder, as a cheery "Supper's ready!" sounded from the kitchen and we sat down anticipating a leisurely, if skimpy, meal.
And then the doorbell rang.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Project A-Ko quote ("When you start believing") from Dance Away: Words and music
by Joey Carbone and Richie Zito. © 1985 Sixty Ninth Street Music (BMI).