The Starry Blueby Jane Liddle
“You’ve really seen Methuselah?” Em asked Ricky with disappointment and disbelief. They were in the bedroom. Em lit a candle and Ricky squeezed the flame out. Em lit the candle again. Ricky squeezed it out. This had been going on for a while.
“Yeah! Like five years ago. You remember my friend Paul? He dated a girl whose dad worked for the Forest Service there. It was a beautiful hiking day. The tree looked like it had partied with dinosaurs.”
“Methuselah is on my list.”
“List of what?”
“List of things to do or see before I die.”
“I have pictures.” Ricky went into an adjoining room and opened a salty wooden chest that looked like it was made for treasures and burial. Ricky had built it himself out of driftwood he gathered during the summer he spent driving around South America in a jeep documenting ex-patriot surfing communities. “I can’t believe you even know about Methuselah. I only first heard about it the morning we went on the hike,” he called over his shoulder as he rummaged through a lifetime of souvenirs of places he’d been and relationships he’d had.
“I like pines. Only good part about Christmas.” Em knew this wasn’t much of an explanation.
“If that’s the case, you’re gonna like the birthday present I’m planning for you.”
“Really? That’s sweet,” Em said with genuine surprise. “You can show me the pictures some other time. It’s no big deal.”
“No, they’re in here somewhere. Man, none of my travel photos are in order. What happened in here?”
Em had done her own rummaging in his trunk a month before when she stayed late one morning after he had left for work, looking for nothing in particular yet compelled to search his apartment for a hint of darkness. A drama, maybe. Or a wish she could fulfill. She hadn’t seen any Methuselah photos, not that she would have realized it if she had.
“Ricky, I don’t need to see the pictures now. Come back.”
“Found them. Oh, man, I haven’t looked at these in so long.”
Ricky snuggled up next to Em on the bed wearing an excited smile. He flipped through the photographs, slower than Em would have liked, exclaimed at how big his hair was, how much hair Paul had, Paul’s arm around an earthy beauty and Ricky with a dark-haired blue-eyed woman as tall as him. Marie. He left her, Em reminded herself anytime she stumbled across an image of her in a corner of the Internet. He left her. He chose me. It was a terrible burden. She lit a match but Ricky put it out before she could light the candle. She discarded the matchstick next to the others on the end table.
“Look at Paul’s eyes. He’s so stoned. And with his girlfriend’s dad right there too. They broke up pretty soon after that. She was really cool. Used to play guitar with Hank Williams’ granddaughter.”
In one photo they were all standing around Methuselah, looking rustic and beautiful and awed; it must have been taken during magic hour. Everyone really did have great hair. Methuselah looked tortured and dead, like a long-bearded wizard twisting in an evil wind, though two fresh cones miraculously hung off a branch, a sign of uncommon persistence. Methuselah, a Great Basin bristlecone pine, is believed to be the oldest known living non-clonal organism in the world, about 4900 years old, and survives in the harsh high altitudes of the eastern California White Mountains, off the normally traveled hiking trails. It’s unmarked, the exact location kept secret to protect it.
“Do you remember how to find it?”
“I could probably figure it out.”
“We should go some time. You can show me.”
“Nah. Already seen it. But what we should go see is the oldest pine they found in Sweden. I mean, it’s a clone, but still pretty impressive. Almost ten thousand years old.”
“That’s not the same. Plus, it’s a bit harder for me to get to. California is an easier trip to take.”
Ricky stared at the photo, now a bit more seriously than before. “It wasn’t that impressive. It was a lot smaller than I thought it would be.”
“The tougher the climate, the slower they grow,” Em said, nervously twirling a few strands of brown hair around her finger, which she had just cut into a short bob.
Em sat at her kitchen table, trying to find an unsecured wireless connection, then finally gave up and played chess against the computer for two hours, winning all but none. Her eyes burned. She considered going to the park to play a live human being but realized it was too late, plus she had to get ready to go to the party at Ricky’s ex-coworker’s new apartment. She poured herself a shot of tequila and squeezed some lime in it. There were two fingers left in the bottle. Em was looking forward to finishing it. She was starting to realize that alcohol made her sad, but then again she felt sad when she wasn’t drinking. So… She took down a framed picture of her and her friend Tabatha posing next to the Native American statue in front of Mulberry Street Cigar Company, serious looks on their faces and palms up. They were having one of those magical New York City nights where they hustled pool games and smoked weed in the park and saw a heavy psych band, then got a ride back to Brooklyn, each on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a couple of brothers they had just met, the Lower East Side and East River flying past them, holding on to then-dear life while wearing helmets too big for their heads, laughing and singing Joan Jett lyrics at each other.
“No one else has gotta live your life,” Tabatha would say when Em would feel guilty about not going home for the holidays or not reporting an assault to the police or sleeping until noon. “You think anyone else is doing better? They’re not. And if they are, fuck ‘em. They don’t gotta live your life.” Tabatha died a few months shy of Em meeting Ricky, hit by a car in Glasgow. Em flew to Scotland to arrange the cremation and gather her things, transport the urn to Tabatha’s father back in New Jersey, who in ways of rapport and knowing, if not by biology, was also Em’s father, and in her grief and confusion, and in his misdirected and mistaken paternal warmth, they took comfort in each other sexually.
Just once. They weren’t in contact anymore. Em didn’t know what to make of it, didn’t know what to make of anything without Tabatha. For years an experience wasn’t complete until she had told Tabatha about it, a man not real until Tabatha was on the other end of the phone analyzing him, a feeling not true until Tabatha had felt it too. They were each other’s witness, and now there was no one there to testify. Life had become a broken circle. How Em wished she had a trunk full of Tabatha to thrust her hands into, memories up to her elbows, rifling for the photograph to prove that one time.
“How did you two meet?” Fifi asked, her dress cut into the deepest possible V while still qualifying as a dress, a long gold necklace bisecting her sparkling golden torso. Ricky stood with his arm around Em, oddly beaming, and Fifi’s smile was restless, anxious to gossip with her friends about Hot Cupid Ricky, the nickname they had affectionately given him due to his blond curly fro and overall appeal.
“I was in Union Square buying maple breakfast kielbasa at the farmer’s market, have you had that? It’s so good. I like to buy four pounds of it at a time and save it in my meat freezer.”
“You have a meat freezer?” Fifi asked Ricky, impressed by the extravagant resourcefulness.
“Yeah, totally. So on my way back to the subway, Emmie was sitting at her chessboard, looking cute in her red boots. I decided to play her in chess. She beat me in, what was it? Seven moves?”
“Seriously, you should see Em play chess. She’s a grand master.”
“And you play chess in the park? Is that what you do?” Fifi asked through her smile.
“No. I only played in the park a few times.”
“Why not more?”
“Because I’m a woman.”
“Well, seems like a great way to meet guys.” Fifi sipped her wine while keeping her unbelieving eyes on Em.
“Usually not the good kind,” Em said.
“Usually.” Fifi touched Em’s arm, warming up to Em’s inability to bullshit, catching a friendly moment. “I can’t believe I haven’t met you yet.”
Em smiled. She didn’t know what to make of that. “I’m going to get a glass of wine. Do you want anything?”
“No thanks,” Fifi and Ricky said in unison, then Ricky changed his mind. “Actually, I’ll have whatever you’re gonna have. Some rosé.”
“She’s adorable,” Em heard Fifi say as she walked away. Then, “So, Ricky, what have you been up to? Lynn’s going to be back in town next week, she’d love to see you.”
“Well, I just got done managing Antonia’s tour in Japan, and I don’t know what’s next. Probably work on an educational surfing expedition to Cuba. I haven’t seen Lynn in ages, how she doing?”
Em saw the table of cheese and went over to sample all of it. She reluctantly gazed at the artwork that hung above the table, silkscreen prints of old Playboy pin-ups repeated in a psychedelic way. She looked back at the cheese and noticed dirt underneath a couple of her fingernails. Oh this is terrible, she thought. She secretively dug it out with a fork tine, wiped the fork with her shirtsleeve, and went to pour the glasses of wine. “Where’s the corkscrew?” She asked a towering moose of a man standing next to her. He retrieved it from the kitchen counter. “Here you go.” After a struggle with the foil around the neck, she opened it with a satisfying pop.
“Here you go,” she said to Ricky, handing him his glass and settling into being by his side.
“Ricky is a great guy,” Fifi said as if making a matchmaker’s sales pitch. Fifi affectionately rubbed his shoulder, catching the corner of his chest every once in a while. “One of the best guys in the world. They don’t come better than Ricky.”
“Stop touching him.”
“Ha! Oh my god, you’re a riot.” She clinked Em’s glass, then raised hers. Fifi left her hand on Ricky’s shoulder.
The night kept going. After a couple more glasses of wine, Em was telling jokes in perfect foreign accents. “And the Indian said to the Scotsman, ‘Life…is not a fountain?’” What was left of the party laughed, looked at one another, looked at their shoes. It was time to leave. Em gave everyone a hug good-bye.
That night Ricky undressed Em quickly and they engaged in their foreplay, which involved a lot of tickling and laughing, Ricky easily overpowering her when she tried to fight back too earnestly or climb on top of him. At some point in the wrestling, a pillow was over Em’s face and she considered not alerting Ricky that she couldn’t breathe, which would have the two-fold advantage of her dying and him committing a murder, a sorrow he’d have to carry with him for the rest of his life. But he lifted the pillow without any prompting and Em inhaled involuntarily, like a person swallowing water while drowning, and Ricky reached back and went after the soles of her feet with his fingertips, narrowly ducking a reflexive kick to his face.
Later, Ricky’s snoring woke up Em. She got up to look at the Methuselah pictures, which were still on the trunk in the other room. She sat and looked at them, quickly flipping through the ones that included Ricky’s ex, and lingered over the ones where Methuselah was alone, looking like it had just survived a trauma. Maybe it had. Tabatha, Tabatha, Em wanted to ask, what do you do with a man who’s already lived all your dreams?
“Why don’t you play in tournaments anymore?” Ricky asked on a drizzly Sunday afternoon.
Em was a chess prodigy when she was young. Every December Em would spend her winter break with an aunt up in Maine. Aunt Berry. She was a chess player, too, and she would play Em every day after Em helped with the customers on the tree farm. At night Aunt Berry would cook some venison stew or mussels and afterward they’d have tea and jam and chess, and the air was pine-scented, like they were living in a potpourri bag.
“Move slow,” Aunt Berry would say. “Don’t bring the queen out too fast.
“Control the center.”
Em was on Ricky’s bed flipping through an R. Crumb book of drawings, the exaggerated breasts and thighs of the distorted and hysterical women. An entire book of them. “Too much pressure. Too much work,” Em responded. “I felt like I was missing out on connecting to people in a humane way. Everything came down to, I don’t know, hoarding your pieces and keeping score.” Also she started losing. But she couldn’t admit that to Ricky. He’d just tell her to try again.
“You ever travel some place interesting for a tournament?” Ricky was doing pirouettes as he talked, then switched kicks.
“Mostly just Eastern Europe. But I never did any sightseeing. I always felt sick before tournaments. You’re actually making me feel a little dizzy right now.”
“You should have done some pirouettes before tournaments, would have helped clear your mind.”
“Well, I didn’t. I felt pretty intimidated.” Chess attracts a certain kind of person, one who sees patterns everywhere, who can harness their paranoia into a narrow focus. Each move by the opponent had to be considered deliberate even when the method wasn’t obvious. Then, as the opponents got older and more sophisticated, they would play psychological games apart from the chess board, like cracking their knuckles continuously or looking down Em’s shirt.
“I went to Czechoslovakia once. Women aren’t bad looking there when they’re in their teens and twenties. At least not back then. I was with Paul, actually, and his cousin Zach. You remember Zach, he stayed here when he was doing sound for Andrew’s band. Zach was a fucking nut, still is I guess.” Ricky stopped kicking and started a series of demi-pliés. Em felt somewhat embarrassed. She noticed the book of matches but there were none left.
“He was girl crazy, like how a young girl can be for boy bands. I’m surprised he didn’t walk around screaming his head off. Anyway he had names of escort services and prostitutes for wherever he was at. Tonya was my first and only hooker. Of course I thought I was in love with her by the time it was over. I was so naïve.”
Em felt her stomach get carried away by a gust. Some things she never thought she’d have to deal with, wanted to never deal with. One of those things was being in love with someone who’d treated a woman like commerce, actually paid for actual sex, seemingly unapologetically. Em tried to stop her brain from rushing off in directions toward doom and hopelessness. Ricky did a split.
“Are you good friends with Zach?” she asked tentatively, trying to get a better feeling of how deep the well of disappointment would be without asking directly.
“Not really. He’s Paul’s cousin, so I end up hanging with him sometimes. Fun. Totally a sweet dude, even though he’s pretty hyper.”
“I feel sick.”
“Oh. It was over a decade ago. It’s not like I’d go to a hooker now.” Ricky stood back up, reached his hands to the ceiling and closed his eyes, balancing on his toes, a final stretch.
“No! Jesus, what kind of person do you think I am?”
Em wondered. “I don’t know. I’ve never met a person like you.”
“And what kind of person am I?”
“Positive. Fearless. Your baseline happiness disposition is high. Also, prostitute-going.”
“My baseline happiness disposition is high? Is that a diagnosis, doctor?” Ricky clasped his left peck, faking worry at hearing this news.
Em smiled in spite of herself. Then scowled, put on a new face. “Ves. Vour happiness is high, it eez very dangerous.” Ricky laughed. It seemed this argument would go the way of others, of Em putting off her insecure despair for when she was alone, and instead basking in the glow of Ricky’s adoring attention, letting it warm her like a cat in a stripe of sun.
“Wanna order some food?” Ricky asked.
“Sure. I’m in the mood for some lo mein.”
Ricky went into the kitchen to get the menus, then called out to her, “Actually I can make us some sandwiches. I have leftover meatballs and sauce.”
“Okay.” Em’s smile faded when she remembered. “Do you regret it?” She called to him.
“Participating in the exploitation of women.” He didn’t respond. “Getting the hooker.”
Ricky walked back, leaned on the door frame. “Why would I regret it? It happened years ago and nothing came of it. Honestly, I never think about it.” And he returned to the kitchen, punctuating his point. Em breathed hard in frustration. She wanted so bad to hash it out, to try and wrap her brain around it, to lower his baseline, for just a night. But that wouldn’t be productive, or reasonable. Tabatha, Tabatha, is this normal? Why is the struggle constant? She threw the Crumb book against the closet door where it made an unsatisfying floppy sound.
“What was that?” Ricky yelled.
Em’s birthday was a week later. She didn’t feel much like getting older. She went through the usual routine, cereal, shower, shaving her legs, plucking her eyebrows and chin and pubic hairs. It was raining outside, threatening to take down the newly colored leaves. Em futilely straightened her hair. She got a birthday card from her aunt Berry, in what must have been a rare moment of lucidity. “I looked at where you were on the map today, and kissed the starry blue, and unless it gets tangled in the stars, it should be reaching you.” Em picked up her cell phone and pretended to dial Tabatha’s number, listened for a few moments as if there were ringing on the other end of the line. “Hey, Tabatha. Yeah, it’s my birthday. It’s stupid. I feel kind of blue about it, then guilty for feeling low about something I have that you don’t. What’s that? Ricky’s good. He’s taking me out to dinner tonight, the Striped Dog. He knows the chef, of course. He knows everybody. But yeah, it’s going well. He seems to really like me, kind of tells people I’m a chess player like I solved starvation in Africa or something. All proud. It’s sweet. Everything is sweet...I kind of hate him…I’m kidding.” Em sighed, felt her eyes get wet, closed them. “I’m sorry I fucked your dad. It’s like, I can’t get enough love or something. I’ll accept it under the stupidest conditions. Maybe you’d find it funny, I don’t know. Anyway, I’m really sorry. But.” Em tilted her head, pretended to listen hard. Nothing came, no breakthroughs, clarifying advice, or a flash of direction. “I gotta go. Gotta meet up with my perfect boyfriend, who you’d probably really like.” She examined her nails. “I love you.” And she quickly put the phone down.
“That dinner was amazing,” Em said as she nuzzled Ricky’s shoulder. She had had a couple of glasses of wine.
“Yeah, the British can knock out a mean meal when they put their minds to it. Too bad they rarely do.”
“Right, right, cheerio then, gotta cook up the bangahs and mash.
Ricky tickled Em’s side and she squealed. “Time for your present. I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.” He handed her a paper shopping bag that seemed to clank with a child’s wooden blocks. She pulled out a carved piece of wood, what looked like a pawn. She looked in the bag and saw that it was full of chess pieces. “I carved these for you.”
“You did?” She took out each piece, rotated it in her hand. The knight was crude and simple, the bishop looked like he was wearing a bib. The queen had an exaggerated hour-glass shape with a line down the middle of the top half, hinting at cleavage. “I used wood from a cedar in Turkey. It had fallen after an earthquake. I sawed it up and brought it back home with me. Do you like it?”
“Isn’t that illegal?”
Ricky shrugged. Kissed her cheek.
“I love it,” she said.
Ricky kissed her again, aggressively this time, running his hand up her leg, then lifting her up and taking her to the bedroom. He took his time, then fell asleep, snoring loudly.
Em slipped to the other room and looked into her bag of chess pieces. She didn’t want them, this beautiful reminder of his bottomless life and love and of her sad meaningless failures. She dumped the chess pieces into Ricky’s trunk of memories and souvenirs, over the pictures of Paul and Marie and, hopefully, Zach, and pocketed a single picture of Methuselah standing in the glow of solitude and contorted from surviving. She went to the bathroom and took the matches that were always placed on the shelf above the toilet and, while returning to her chess pieces, struck a match and dropped the lit stick into the trunk, then again twice more, each match extinguishing on the way down.