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Kent carries me up the walk to Melodie's house. Normally I don't like such assistance, even though the breeze at night can be treacherous, but for some reason it is not as disturbing to receive it from a student as it is from another faculty member. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that they _will_ respect me, by virtue of my being a professor, as opposed to my peers who may (in my sensitive mind anyway) see such an episode as a reason to take me down a step in their esteem. Well, whether I am right or not, being carried is disturbing.
I could cling to the sidewalk, counting on my claws and friction to keep me on course, but with the wind tonight-- just a breeze, really-- it would be tough going and I want to appear at my best for Melodie. I had no doubt that she would still be awake, late on a Friday, and sure enough the thin ivory curtains in the front windows have a wash of lamplight shining through them. I cannot risk flying outdoors at night; I might get whisked off and stuck somewhere, and never reach my destination. Of course, at this moment the idea of spending a night or two in an anonymous tree is very nearly comforting. I stick tight to Kent Dryer's arm and try not to think about it.
Instead, I think of her name, over and over, nerves and images upon nerves and images. Melodie. Damn, if I can pull this off... But what, truly, are the chances? I don't care how good a friend she is, my nose isn't as good as someone like Kent's. This woman may be humoring me. Well, this is as far as that goes, should it be true. No one, I hope, in this day and age, humors to _that_ extent.
Kent deposits me on the cement front-door step and flashes me one of those encouraging grins that inevitably fail to be encouraging... It's all well and good for him to be concerned for my welfare, but there is nothing he can do about it. Good luck. Right. This is not a game of chance-- at least I hope not. Good Lord, imagine tossing a coin to see whether she accepts. Nothing I have done up to this point would make any difference. On the other hand, that would absolve me of guilt, if not misery. At least I would know that nothing I have done could cause her to refuse.
I feel like I'm in a Shakespeare play. Let's hope it's a comedy. That way, by formulaic rules, everything must turn out sappy and joyous at the end. At any rate, I'm not going to go throw myself on a sword if this fails. Float away into a storm somewhere, maybe. Fall on a sword, no. It probably wouldn't even kill me. I'm too light.
_Yes_ the Shadow is a tad uptight tonight. Give him some time to collect his wits.
Kent smiles at me and leaves. Encouraging cohorts gone. Enter suitor, alone. The beige Pontiac pulls away and I can barely see a streak from a streetlamp tingeing one of Gabriel's horns before the body, then the taillights of the car disappear. Call them later, if I need a ride home, they said. They'll be up all night watching some marathon on TV. If I _do_ call them, it will be the first time I have spent an evening with Melodie and not had the lady herself drive me home. Normally, she drives me home from the Theatre Building every night. But I told her not to plan on it, this evening. And now here I am. She is not expecting me. But that is not what troubles me. Melodie is not easily fazed. I, on the other hand, am obviously not so calm, even in situations where I supposedly have the upper hand. I planned this, right? Sort of. Well, I _have_ planned her lines, what she's supposed to say. But what if she forgets?
By the time I have reached up with a foreleg and pressed the button for the doorbell, I have just about made up my mind to say hi, chat a bit and then go the heck home. She would understand, if I wanted to see her tonight, nothing special in mind... I carefully arrange the tiny white box so my writing pad hides it. Options open.
Except that the only option is to go through with this... Sometime. Not tonight. The determination fed into me by Gabe and Kent in the Black Box is swiftly fading. I touch the underside of the jewel box once more, certain it is secure, and wait the moment it takes for She of the Chestnut Hair to open the door.
I have been in this house many times, a few of them for Christmas parties before my SCABS, and have never been other than convinced that Melodie's hair is the single most attractive item therein. The furnishings are comfortable to see and to use, the light is warm pumpkin yellow except in the white kitchen, the stair runner is rich and attractive and the plants are impeccably cared for, but Melodie always draws my gaze away from all that. That includes gazing with compound eyes. Speaking of which, aside from her wavy, fire-chestnut hair, Melodie's light brown eyes are the next most attractive decoration in this dwelling. She tries to make her house inviting, but she doesn't have to try. My wings quiver as I think about the possibilities-- and what I do not want to go through with. Is not a nice, restful visit, ensured, better than rejection? Melodie's house is the last place I would want to try to bear being banned from. But she is also the only woman I would consider going through this kind of stress for.
Shadow, Shadow, pull yourself together. She's here and she has a right to expect you to be polite. Now stand up straight! My admonitions to myself hearken back to childhood, I am so distraught. This is ridiculous. She opens the door.
Her eyes sparkle in the light of streetlamps, her hair is outlined by the backlighting of her own lamps. "Dom! Come in! Good Heavens, in this breeze you could off and disappear. I _hope_ you had a ride he--"
I nod. I step over the threshold and begin writing, while she closes the door after what seems to be an obligatory action on the part of any woman closing any door-- peering out to see whether any other waifs are parked on her doorstep. I show her my notepad as she rejoins me in the living room. "I was at the Improv group," I write. "Kent and Gabe dropped me here. I wanted to see you. Hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Of course not." Melodie is already floating off to the kitchen as she speaks, perpetual earth-tone slacks brushing lightly against her ankles as she walks. I hunch on the rug, shimmers of lamplight in each frame of my compound vision. The television is on, quietly, and a book lies open on the couch, next to a pillow with a slight depression in it. I crawl up to the cushion opposite the one with the pillow. Book? _Spirit Migration_, one of Melodie's favorites. More her style than mine. On the TV is a show she has obviously not been watching, a made-for-TV movie with dialogue incomprehensible at this volume. I don't understand how she can have all her media going at once, but it never seems to bother her.
The Lady comes back in with two glasses of orange juice and a sweet smile. "What made you decide to drop by? Did you sense I was feeling lonely?"
I twitch an antenna slowly and loosen my proboscis the slightest bit, by way of a smile. I wonder how long I can hold out before she notices my nervousness, and I have to go home so I won't say anything damaging. So far she seems to believe my innocence. I tilt my notebook so she can see it and write, "Lonely? With such stimulating viewing available on the set? Not to mention a book you have read fifteen times."
"What is it?"
"What?" I pen, quickly. Damn. Damn it _all_. Must've twitched the wings wrong without even realizing it. Of course she knows me, but she's on to me so _soon_. I wanted to relax and... Oh, who am I kidding. I was not going to relax tonight. Buy the ring and there's no return. Nerves, nerves, nerves. I am grateful for the nerves, because beyond that is the heavy dark, the open, empty dropping sensation. I really don't _know_ what she feels about me...
"You're here to say something. What is it? Good to see you, by the way. But I really don't think you've arrived on my doorstep in the middle of the night to say 'hello'."
"Oh?" I write, a little less cautious of my script. "And why not? Is there a law against it? I happen to enjoy your company, and you're always in on Fridays. What's so strange about the idea of stopping by to say Hi?"
"Hm." Melodie lowers herself onto a couch cushion, leaning into the impressioned pillow. She has a way of sounding skeptical while maintaining that ever sweet tone. The students love her. _I_ love her. She continues: "Nothing, I guess, taken out of context. But I know you, Dom, and tonight you are tired, and distracted, and within a minute of entering my home you started that agitated _shivering_ you only do when you're upset. Class has gone well for you lately. It has to be something else."
Speak on, finish it all. She may as well. I half expect her to find the ring, determine its price, and send me on my dejected way. I really should learn to fly more reliably outdoors. That way I could make dramatic exits in cases like this. I briefly consider flying up to the light fixture to collect my thoughts, but besides being patently immature, I just may burn myself. I stick my black claws a little further into the upholstery.
"We have all night to talk," Melodie says, gently. "Have some juice. Sorry I don't have any cranberry or cherry, but a certain Swallowtail drank it all last time he was here and I haven't been shopping since."
I _am_ hungry. I reach out carefully with one leg to the coffee table, making sure not to tip the glass towards me, and lower my unrolled proboscis in for a sip. I idly watch the television screen, as minuscule, fast-moving credits roll and a deep voice in the background announces what will be on next. No time to stop and enjoy, I think. I try to make each molecule of orange juice last as long as possible. I cannot avoid looking at Melodie, and anyway she is the most beautiful thing in the room, but I can pretend my mind is elsewhere. She will _make_ me do this. But I can at least do it right.
Or can I? What is _right_? When she gives an answer that I desire? This is all too complicated. They make it sound so _sweet_ in the diamond commercials. I know, that is what commercials are for. But am I the only one who has noticed that in eight out of ten movies that include a marriage proposal, the "hero" considers the possible consequences for all of ten minutes before blithely stating his desires and having the girl fall into his arms? And yes, over the past few weeks, during evenings at home, I have been counting.
I like the ones where the guy gets rejected and then has to spend the rest of the movie figuring out how to approach the woman of his dreams for a second, heart-wrenching time, to finally (maybe) end his suffering in the merest moment of screen romance. You see how this business has made a morbid art fan out of me. If she says yes, I dare say my tastes will change again.
If. Ha. We'll see if the National Guard could get me to open this box now.
"I think," says Melodie, startling me, "that too much store is set by 'strong' men these days."
I indicate with my antennae that I am alert and listening.
"All these movies with the husband rescuing his family from terrorists whose weapons shame an army's. Since when can a man protect a woman that way? I mean it. How many people _you_ know could survive five minutes of that stuff? It's a strange type to idealize, anymore."
I obligingly join in the conversation with trusty pen and paper. "And just what type would you idealize?"
"Mmm... The type who can protect his family _spiritually_. What if there were a tragedy? Could the survivors help each other? Once the guns were out of the picture, I mean."
I look at the TV again. The show running currently seems to feature a small, fluffy brown mongrel dog and a flock of children. Conversation topics out of the blue? No. Once again, Melodie is too smart for me. No wonder I'm crazy about her. This line of thinking, naturally, takes me back to whether I am _worthy_ of her. For one terrifying moment I forget what we are talking about, even forget when I am and where I am and know only that I am close to the woman who saved me, twice. Who is trying to, again. Question. She asked me a question. I reply.
"That would depend on the man. Wouldn't the ideal be a man who can survive the guns and comfort his family afterwards?"
"But that's what I mean. Outside of the movies, who _can_ survive? And look at all the broken marriages today. What if those people had been as practiced at communication as at gunfire and machismo? That's what I'm trying to say. Why don't we try to raise the man who makes surviving worth it? Or... Something less dramatic, but you know what I mean."
And without considering the repercussions, my hand writes-- I swear, all by itself-- "What would you say on the topic of marrying _me_?"
She thinks it is all in the conversation. Either that, or she's better at this than I am. The latter, of course. But let's pretend I _may_ be on top of things. Melodie says, "You? That's what I'm saying. No one would marry you for your ability to strap a gun to your back and evade terrorists. And I don't care _what_ people say, the nice, sweet, romantic, soulful man is still not as sought-after as he ought to be. Do you want to get married, Shadow?"
For one, she just turned things around on me. For two, she used my nickname. Which means something, but I am not sure what. I am speechless, written wordless, for moments on end as the orange juice in the bottoms of the glasses turns warm. Flickers of light from the TV, a glowing from the lamps and-- of course-- Her Self.
I think she calls me Shadow when she's trying to calm me. Yes, damn it, I _am_ shaking. Shivering like the edges of a leftover butterfly in an automobile grill somewhere. Morbid? Me? Why do you ask?
The book is still lying open on the couch between us. I flip it shut and politely slide it aside, so I can move closer without perching on it. Melodie looks at me, but only out of the corner of her eye; giggling children in the TV show seem to have half of her attention. However, when I move the slightest bit with the intention of feeling the box from Studio Jeweler's, she is facing me intently.
This time I do not freeze. Butterflies' little talons must have instincts all their own, never heard of in science, because I swear to you that my claws remove the box from its hiding place of their own volition. She sees it, and knows, but I cannot read her expression. You know it has to be a ring box, I think. You know this is not some other gift. It's the only thing it could be. Help me out here.
Nothing. Amazingly, my forelegs continue in their own private actions, as I watch helplessly. Finally I center in my mind on her face and ignore my own body, which happens to be lifting the weightless white lid and revealing the grey-velvet formal box inside.
I hand it over. She knows it would be awkward for me to try to remove the item, present it to her, run it onto her finger. At this point, however, Melodie waits. She stares at me for an instant, then at the box.
She hugs me. Carefully, and so the only fear I have is of what she may be feeling, of why she has not opened my offering nor asked why I offer it. Her hands are on the sides of my thorax and her cheek against the side of my face, so close the peach of her skin is blurred in my vision. Suddenly I _need_ to speak. But to push her away would be a travesty. I write by feel, knowing the sizes and shapes of the letters, and when she hears my pen stop Melodie lifts her head to see my words, which are, of course, "I love you."
"I love you, too, Dom. You _scare_ me I love you so much."
Melodie takes the box.
Her hands are shaking.