Smoke curled upward filling the foyer of the large Victorian house creating a thick cloud around the Nineteenth century chandelier. I had given up smoking years ago and the dense fog burned my eyes. On one side of the room two older ladies sat silently in chairs on either side of a long table. Glancing momentarily my way, the first looked somewhat masculine with short gray hair, jeans and she held her cigarette between her pointer finger and thumb like an old farmer. The other wore her hair in a short bob, obviously dyed black or possibly a wig. She held one of those old fashioned cigarette holders. Her eyes remained pointed at some high mark on the opposite wall and as I walked by the smell of bourbon hit me like a truck. I wondered if she hid a flask in her stockings. That seemed to fit her. I suddenly remembered hearing about a flamboyant aunt who filled small shiny bags with sand and gave them as gifts to her nieces telling them it was fairy dust. I’d always envied Leila for having an interesting aunt when all of mine were in comparison very boring church ladies.
The first time I saw Leila I decided she must be a dancer. She walked into my high school English class and I watched her long graceful neck and a face that came down from her eyes to a point similar to a heart. She looked around the room of students, fixing her eyes on nothing in particular and I could tell she was nervous. I’d seen her earlier in the day, walking from the office with what must have been her schedule and locker assignment.
I wasn’t an outgoing girl in high school but something urged me to meet her. The teacher introduced her as Leila Montgomery and seated her right behind me. That day we became friends.
I wasn’t the only one drawn to Leila. She was quiet at first, just having moved to the area and not knowing anyone. Once she warmed up though she started making friends with everyone. She was kind, funny and pretty and I felt like she was mine.
I had many best friends before but no one like Leila. Maybe it was because of the time in our lives. Those years when you don’t really know who you are and your feelings overwhelm the logical part of your self.
As I made my way past the smoking women I wondered what I was doing here. I hadn’t talked to Leila in years. Could we still even be considered friends?
I took in a breath of clean air as I stepped into the kitchen where more women were preparing food. Not silent but so quiet were their voices that I couldn’t make out a word. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable and wished my husband Max were here with me. He’d become my comfort over the years but he had stayed at home with the kids.
One of the women, wearing an apron, looked up and noticed me. She smiled and started toward me.
“Well, hi dear, you must be a friend of one of my granddaughters. I’m Carmen.” She took my hands and her smile warmed me.
“Yeah, I’m Jessamine, an old friend of Leila’s. I’m really sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you dear.” Suddenly her eyes narrowed. “Leila’s been staying out by herself on that back porch. I won’t allow smoking in the house you see and she seems to think that smoking is going to bring her mother back from heaven now.” I considered the women in the smoke filled room where I had come through, but guessed Leila lived with different rules than her eccentric aunt.
My eyes moved over to the window looking out to the porch she was talking about and I caught a glimpse of my old friend. She looked as if she was about to come in the house and I waited, nervous and unable to move from the spot where I was standing.
The screen door closed with a bang and in walked Leila. She turned her head but her eyes failed to connect with anyone in the room, although all of our eyes were on her.
Her face had aged in the years we’d stayed apart. Her look was tough like the years had not been sweet. Of course I hadn’t expected her to be any other way considering the occasion that brought me down here, but something in me suspected the hardened girl I saw before me had taken years of work.
Her pale blue eyes were lined with dark liner and she had gained a lot of weight which she held around her middle. Her blonde hair was cut into a low maintenance short style and tucked behind her ears where she kept an extra smoke.
On queue with my thoughts she took the cigarette and popped a lighter to light it. Her grandmother was quick to catch her. “Not in here, honey,” to which Leila quickly turned on her heel, marching out the door like a knowing child.
Instantly I felt awful. Awful for letting so many years go by without a word. I felt bad that she did not know my children and Max only knew her through old stories of my crazy high school years.
With guilt of my neglect festering I followed her out the door and found her alone, staring into the empty yard.
She saw me and I noticed the wells of tears in her eyes, out of which one betrayed her and fell onto her blotchy cheek.
“Hey, how are ya?” Leila said as she sniffled and made a partial attempt at composing herself. I went to her and she held her lit cigarette far off the balcony rail while we exchanged an awkward half hug.
“I’m good” I said as I backed away looking down at the worn and weathered floor boards.
She brought her arm in for a long drag while we both stood there uncomfortable and searching for words to say. I felt responsible.
“I’m sorry for not coming sooner,” I said.
“It’s alright. My mom had a lot of people helping out while she was sick.” Leila turned towards the house and stared through the window at her grandmother and the others. “Actually it has been kind of crazy,” she paused. “I sort of think my mom would have rather been left alone more so she could have had some peace.”
I noticed a hint of disdain in her voice and I wasn’t sure how to respond; how to connect so that she would understand me and I could be relieved from some of the guilt I was feeling.
“What I mean is that I’m sorry that I wasn’t here for you.”
“I’m fine.” She shrugged her shoulders. “You didn’t know she was sick, Jess.” She looked at me straight and I felt helpless from further explaining myself. So much so that the thought of getting out of there as quickly as possible rushed at me with overwhelming force.
“So what’s up these days? You live in the same place?” she asked.
“Well we’ve got four little ones now and yes we’re in the same house. We’ve actually done a lot of work to it over the years. I’ve built a big garden and Max has a huge shop where he works out of.”
“Four little ones…” She raised her eyebrows and crammed her cigarette into an overflowing ash tray. “Wow, you’ve really been popping out babies since I saw you last time, huh?”
That was the side of Leila that I’d loved so much as a sarcastic teenage girl myself but as I’d grown, married and matured there was nothing that irritated me more and I couldn’t help but feel defensive.
“You know, I’m pretty happy Leila. I’ve got a good husband who loves me and I like where I live and I love my kids.”
I watched her close off again at my self-protective response and half of me sunk back into the guilt. I silently vowed to be more sensitive. Her mother had just died I reminded myself. And anyway, with all the time that was bound to pass before our next encounter I decided I could endure her rude comments.
We stayed there in silence again while Leila lit another cigarette from a nearby pack that someone seemingly forgot.
“So, what are you up to these days?” I didn’t want to ask if she was still with her boyfriend Jeremy because so many years had passed. I remembered Leila being quite committed when she was involved with someone but honestly, looking and listening to Leila today made me doubt Jeremy could have stayed committed to her all this time.
“I live pretty close to here.” Now she seemed slow to speak but I welcomed the peace between us. “We rent a two story house, my boyfriend Dwayne and I. He plays the guitar and he’s actually made the downstairs into a pretty sweet studio. He’s in a band and they’re pretty good. They just released a CD and their songs are downloading like crazy off the internet.”
“What’s the name of his band?”
She kind of laughed. “Goodbye Rehab!”
“That’s it? That’s their name?”
She laughed again. “Yeah, that says a lot, huh?”
Now I was raising my eyebrows hoping she’d explain that a little further but not willing to ask.
“So, what are you doing?” I asked her.
“Well, I work at a clinic about a mile from here. Yeah, I hate it, but it’s a job right?”
Now I felt bad for getting so defensive about my wonderful life, after all I was probably living a fairy tale compared to her day to day mess, but then again it was her choice to live the way she’d been living all these years.
I remembered encouraging her on my wedding day to settle her self down. I assured her that she could be so much happier if she lived in the little farmhouse for rent down the road from the house Max and I were looking at to buy. We could have gardened together and gone for walks in the mornings. She could have met a sweet guy at our church and had her own kids.
“That’s good for you, but I’m just not ready for that, yet. Honestly I don’t know if I’ll ever be.” Her words from my wedding day still had me wondering and confused.
Leila put out her second cigarette and looked inside the house again. “Ya know? I’m gonna get out of here.”
“You’re leaving right now?”
“Hey, there’s nothing to stick around for and Dwayne’s got a show tonight.” She gave me a quick hug. “Thanks for coming down.”
“Sure, and I am really sorry about your mom. And Leila…”
“I’m sure she’s happier now, right? I guess I’ll see you at the next funeral.”
The words I was about to say disappeared in that instance and I was left with too many questions. Who was there for her right now? Who would listen and care about how she really felt about her mom’s death? Obviously I had wrongly assumed I could walk in and be that person. Why wasn’t Dwayne with her? That one hadn’t occurred to me until I stood there watching Leila hurry down the balcony steps and sneak around the side of the house to leave.
I stayed there for awhile reviewing in my mind what had just taken place. Suddenly I wanted nothing more than to get out of there too, away from that stuffy old house and back home to my husband and his sympathetic arms.
I opened the door and was immediately headed off by Carmen, Leila’s grandmother. “Where are you going dear?” Her sweet voice didn’t match her intimidating manners as she caught me, gripping onto my arm.
“I should get going. My kids are at home and I need to get back to them.” I felt desperate but she seemed to have her own mission.
“Where’s Leila, dear?”
“She said she needed to be somewhere too. Um, I think her boyfriend has a show or something.”
Carmen held my arm tighter, “Well, that good for nothing boyfriend of hers should have understood that she shouldn’t be going to rock shows. Not tonight. Not after just losing her own mother.” Carmen’s head was shaking. Then her fingers loosened as she came back to me and smiled. “Well, it was sweet of you to come here and pay your condolences. Leila’s lucky to have a friend like you.”
I smiled and nodded and when I felt I was free I hurried out the door, past the foyer, now overpowered with the smell of liquor and the two ladies still sitting in the smoky fog.
I hurried outside and unlocked my mini-van and scooted into the driver’s seat. I wanted to drive like a maniac home but all I could do was put my head on the steering wheel and take long deep breaths that kept my tears at bay.
After a minute I put my key in the ignition and started the car. Patting my cheeks with cold hands I felt relieved to have that over with so I could get back to my children, my husband and my life.