PEOPLE CROSSING A STREET
by Jordan Sears
We had been dating for two years, and even if it wasn’t completely serious, we were completely involved. I followed Nora Vardon down to Sacramento where she continued her studies in botany, where even though it got cold, it still felt warm. I think she belonged in the heat of the day that I honestly wasn’t cut out for. And even when she told me about her brother George losing a grip on reality, she still gained a foothold for a career, while all I had was being legally able to drink, which was something she knew of my family and something that I stayed away from most of time. Not that I was scared that I would end up like my uncles who fed themselves from the wet dumpsters behind B-Grade Seattle restaurants, but my parents made our home like a box that I was never allowed to open, and even if we never could hold a conversation because of that, I still thank them for it.
My relationship with Nora consisted of searching for new places to sleep with her and talking about what I thought about, which always ended with us trying to find out where my life needed to go. And she would pronounce my name, Orlando, with a heavy, unintelligible Spanish accent, and each time she said it, her smile turned up like the curve of a cat’s back before the pounce, which I thought was, for a lack of a gentler word, sexy. And she continued pushing me to be something more, but not too much, because she knew that I would never get in her way. Her brother, George, had hit a permanent streak of involuntary insanities, and maybe Nora thought that she could be that way one day or maybe she wanted me to think that so that I wouldn’t get too close.
Her work kept her busy most of the time, when she came home from moving soil through a greenhouse, the shower was the first thing she talked to; I always pretended that she was telling the shower her secrets as she rubbed the dirt from between her fingers, letting it slip away and slide down the drain. When she was working, I thought about my lack of drive or motivation. I had taken up tennis, and while that was enough for me, I played only strangers who were either prep school boys whose fathers pushed them or people like me, who looked to make an impact in some way, but ended up on the tennis court instead. But even if tennis wasn’t the best option, I continued sweating and working part time jobs, not to appease Nora, but to show that even if I wasn’t completely useful, I wasn’t completely useless. Nora was what I had, her wavy brown hair that tucked behind her ears, her dark, but soft eyes that matched the ground she worked with, and the way her body curved and didn’t push in under her ribs. And I always told her she was a rose, but that was the only flower I knew by name.
Nora had never met my parents, but I thought since I had met hers within the past year, that it might be time to visit mine. They lived on the outskirts of Seattle, in a decent home that didn’t speak well or badly of them. My dad, followed the footsteps of his dad, and worked as a simple man’s jeweler—nothing fake, but nothing glittered with diamonds either. My mother stayed at home, and did the normal things that a woman does at home—clean and rearrange the china that she got from her mother; I never once ate on those plates, but I can still see the design of blue, almost ink-like flowers patterned along the edges of what seemed like ordinary white plates, but women will always take care of their work and hold onto what they have—at least in my life.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a Nora before.” My mother was always sweet, even as she set the table. “Sounds lovely.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Smith,” Nora replied. “But I’ve always been curious as to how you came up with the name Or-land-do. He said that your family has a German background.” Nora told me beforehand that she had to ask. She also told she was going to drag my name out when she asked.
My mom smiled as if we weren’t looking. “Well, you see, Nora. When Mr. Smith and I got married, we took our honeymoon in Orlando.” She smiled as if she were proud of her embarrassment, or mine, “It made sense to us. Plus, it sounds exciting with such a normal last name. But don’t tell anyone.” Nora promised, but I knew how long that would last amongst her friends.
“Mother.” My tone felt sharper than I intended, but I wanted her to stop.
“Oh Orlando, it’s harmless. You should be glad to have such an interesting name. Someday you’ll get noticed for it. Someday you’ll apply for a job, and your name will stick out. They’ll say, ‘Orlando Smith, who could this be?’ You never know.”
My dad always worked late, which is why we ate dinner when the east coast was heading to bed. He was never one for conversation because if we weren’t talking about all his family’s problems or any problems, we weren’t talking—so we never spoke much. I mean, he did his job as a father to teach me the basics, to challenge myself, to watch out for the things that would bring me down like alcohol, greed, and whatever other things had destroyed his brothers, but I only took a hold of what I could accomplish now, which was watching out for everything. And I could never grow a beard like his, which he kept all year round to warm his face from the constant cold and drizzle.
He did talk to Nora that night though, but he didn’t say much, merely asked what she studied and what she wanted to do.
When we went to bed that night, my parents put us in my old room with a mattress on the floor for me, but of course Nora and I fit into my old twin bed. She laughed at my blank white walls and collection of green toy soldiers next to my stuffed animals, which to be fair, was more of a zoo than a tea party in my mind. My parents had a guest room, but always left it open in case one of my uncles needed a warm bed. My mom rarely washed the sheets though because the smell of bourbon stained them throughout—made them something that I could taste.
“Did you ever meet your uncles?” Nora watched the shadow that the fan cast against the ceiling.
A few times, but my parents only let them stay when I was going to stay at a friend’s house.” I smiled. “So rarely at all.” She smiled back. “I remember their smell though. It was harsh, and smelled like the cough syrup that my mom would force down my throat every time I played too long in the rain.”
She rolled onto her side facing me and the window, and ran her fingers across my chest like people crossing a street. “Did they ever say anything to you?” She paused knowing that she needed to ask it in another way too. “You know, did they ever scare you?” Her fingers kept walking back and forth.
I took the silence in for a moment; I wasn’t thinking much because I already knew what I wanted to say, but it was one of those moments where you get to tell someone something that means more than what you usually have to say—something they want to hear. Something that makes you feel human in a world full of animals.
“I remember an uncle stumbling in one night right after dinner. Johnny, Uncle Johnny. I was only ten. I remember him towering over me while he mumbled at my parents. And for some reason, my parents left me alone with him in the kitchen for a few minutes. He just kept looking at me.”
“Well that’s a bit creepy.”
“Yeah, I know. But after a whole minute of him just looking at me, he just said something really strange to me. He said--” I paused as the heat, which my parents always kept on, creaked and died down. “He said, ‘Even though it makes your throat feel warm like a chimney after a fire, it only makes you realize how much the rest of you shivers.’”
“That’s a weird thing to say to a kid.”
I rolled my head over towards her. “It stuck with me.”
We spent the rest of the weekend visiting coffee shops, stores, and odd places where I half-expected to see Uncle Johnny hunkered down in a box telling me to make sure that I could always feel my fingertips. But he was never there, and Nora never looked down the alleyways.
During our last lunch in Seattle, my parents made small talk. They found a new used car for my dad. My mother considered buying new china to carry on in the family. But none of us seemed curious enough to find out if we had problems, but it’s probably because none of us did. And so Nora and I left. I drove her car back to Sacramento. She was asleep during most of the drive, her face pushed up against her forearm, but she was still pretty. The brights on her car kept me awake, and I thought about where we were going, and what my uncle had said. It had been a long time since I thought about what he said, and how even if he was drunk, and even if I wasn’t completely sure what he actually said, I knew it meant something.
She finished school, and I got better at tennis, and looked into pursuing something exciting like zoology, building cars or animation—all things that required more education than I had. But before I pursued any of those things, I lived my life with Nora as she talked about moving farther south to be able to get a job as a botanist. I pushed her to stay so we stayed, and she was a florist, and I was a sales associate at a local dealership. I knew that it would only be a matter of time before she would find a way south, and I would have to make a choice to stay or go; she always found a way to get done what she wanted to get done.
Eventually, she made her way to where it was warmer, and I stayed north of Sacramento, where sometimes it was warm, but it was mostly cold. I never saw her again after she left, and sure, it hurt at first, but I think she always knew that I would never become anything or anyone if she were around. So I started studying animals, and the way they behaved out in the wild—the way they adapted to blizzards and forest fires, and how this determined what species would pass away and which ones would survive. I took classes and read books, hoping to eventually become a researcher at a school nearby. And between tennis and living, I became confident in my knowledge on the subject. And I never touched alcohol, even on the nights when I thought about my uncle, and thought about Nora watching the streetlights outside my window interact with my ceiling. She was beautiful, but so was that moment, and it was something I was glad to have.
After two years of studying, I moved to the coast to look out for the falcons and other birds that lived along the cliffs. And it was a cold time of the year, and the wind was howling, and I could feel it pushing against my hat and into my ears. I had forgotten my thicker gloves, and my binoculars had nearly frozen to the thin pair I was wearing. After eight hours of watching birds, I took my gloves off and saw the red fading away as my pale blue hands shook like they were yelling at me. I knew then what it was like to be numb, and to lose control of my hands as my body adapted to try and warm my heart. And as the blood was rushing from my limbs, the unnecessary parts, I realized that maybe in order to truly understand what it felt like to be warm—we have to live in a moment where we are cold. And maybe my uncle wanted to tell me that, maybe he wanted to warn me that sometimes people try too hard and become frozen, and in his case, lost. But I knew that when I got back in my car, I would be warm again, and my fingertips would come back to life, and my life would go on—which it did. But sometimes, I crave the feeling of losing touch with my hands and my feet, and even though I never do—there will always be a longing to touch something and never feel it.