Strawberries

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.

Denise almost left home that sunny Saturday morning without any perfume on. On her way through the front door, she changed mind, deciding that it was a perfume kind of day. A few dabs behind the ears and on the neck, and she was off to shop. On her way to her favorite shopping destination, she hummed along to the song on the oldies station, “Strawberries Mean Love”, thinking, “Wouldn’t that be nice.”

At the mall, she hit three, then four stores, finding nothing in particular to satisfy her hunger for a bargain. She hated to go home empty-handed. One final store and she would give up her treasure hunt for the goodies that would make her day.

Then it came to her. Since she was out-and-about anyway, why not check out a men’s department? Her younger brother had a birthday coming up in a month. Maybe she would find a pair of engraved cuff links. Or, yes, some monogrammed handkerchiefs. She entered a Macy’s and strolled up one aisle and down another and toward the men’s wear, stopping here and there to size up a dress or feel the lingerie. While scanning several rings in the jewelry display, she fantasized about what-might-have-been-and-never-was. Several leisurely stops and she was on to the handkerchiefs.

A few aisles over, a familiar figure appeared like some ghost floating out of the fog of a daydream. “Phil, is that you?” she called over to the figure inspecting the ties, reassuring herself that the man was real and not a passing fancy.

Phil glanced up at the blonde with the close-cropped hair, approaching him. “Yes, it’s me,” he said and went back to the ties. “But I’d rather not think so,” he mumbled.

She was at his side, leaning up to kiss him. He kissed her. It was not a lover’s kiss, just a quick smooch between once-upon-a-time friends. Her perfume smelled like strawberries. He liked the taste of strawberries.

“It’s been two years,” she said.

“Longer.” His eyes rejected a tie that would go well with a dark blue suit and moved on to a light green one.

“I’ve missed you.”

He ran his hand over a black tie with small white dots. Black as their last night together and the snow pouring out of the sky hard and fast. His face did not show any sadness, only his eyes. She knew that face well enough to know how sad he must be feeling, and she was sad. The sadness only lasted a few seconds, then it passed and he was back to the ties.

“What you been up to?” she asked, her voice going soft.

“Buying a suit.” There was frustration in his voice. “First I have to find a tie. Then a suit to match.”

“Maybe I can help.”

He took another whiff of her perfume and said, “Maybe. I sure can’t seem to find anything and I’ve been at it for weeks now.” He always liked her perfume, her smell. It could bring out the warm and fuzzy in him, or drive him right up alongside the moon.

“Aren’t you doing things backwards?” She reached over and fingered the ties. “Don’t you choose the suit first? At least I think that’s how it’s done.”

“I like to know the way things are going to turn out. You know, at the end.” He tugged at a tie and pulled it off the rack. It was red. Strawberry red. He shook his head, trying to shake himself free of the strawberries.

“Won’t that destroy the suspense?” She took the tie and held it up against Phil’s chest. “Nah, that one’s too bright for you.”

He put the tie back with its neighbors.

Denise looked at the ties, then at Phil, then back at the ties. “What about something white?”

“Too obscure.” His eyes followed her eyes. Maybe she could find the right tie.

“What?” There was a small question mark on her face.

“It’s like Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Way too much mystery. I want people to know what I’m about. At least, a little anyway.”

“What’s life without a little mystery?” The question mark had grown larger. “Keep them guessing, I always say.”

“You say that, do you?” He smiled, remembering how she had once kept him guessing, his face becoming the man she had cared about back in her younger, sexy days.

“I do.” She smiled too. “What’s wrong with a bit of snow?”

“It’s not the bit of snow that bothers me. It’s when I find myself knee-deep in it, and I have to sludge myself through all that slush. I want things to be hard, but not that hard. I just don’t have the boots for it.”

“Why not give people a little challenge?”

“They might end up lost,” he said, “and they will not want to finish the book.”

“You mean that novel you’re writing? Whatever happened to that thing? It was all you used to talk about.”

“I need a suit first.” His eyes settled on a tie she was handling. Her hand looked like it had grown attached to it and couldn’t let loose.

“What’s a suit got to do with writing?” She lifted the thing off the rack and passed it to him.

“It’s what the muse seems to be demanding these days.” He studied the tie. A midnight blue with small red dots scatter shot across it. Strawberries. More strawberries. Damn those strawberries. He frowned and gave it back to Denise, wondering if that was the best she could do.

The tie went back on the hanger and she encouraged, “You don’t need a suit to write. You just write. You don’t need a special uniform. Just a bathrobe and a cup of coffee.”

“I’m telling the muse will not let me get on with that novel without a suit. No suit, no novel.” He was bound and determined to follow orders. Find the right tie, then the right suit, and wallah, a novel. But perhaps another Saturday, another store. In the meantime, he might just get some fresh strawberries at the farmer’s market. It was probably too late in the season. “Besides it’s a suit kind of novel.” Maybe he would write a novel about strawberries. Once he found that suit. And Denise had been no help at all.

“Try this one.” Denise held up another tie. She settled it against his chest. It was a dark green with broad white stripes. Her eyes twinkled when she liked a thing and her eyes were twinkling, looking at the tie and the shirt she laid it against. “Remember when we used to play Anais and Henry?”

Taking the tie, his hand weighed the heft of it. It felt solid and it didn’t have that silky touch to it like some. Good. He threw the thing around his neck, knotted it and drew it tight. Scrutinizing the tie in a mirror nearby, he saw a white sky. He saw green fields where strawberries might grow. “Yes, that’s about right,” he said to the reflection of a man who was ready for a novel. He did like the tie.

“What I remember is that I wanted to play D. H. Lawrence and Frieda,” he said. “But no, you kept insisting it had to be Henry and Anais. Personally I think you read way too much of her diaries. As I recall, that’s why we broke up. She brought out the worst in you. And I don’t mean that in a good way either.”

“It’s Anais and Henry, or did you forget? Oh, that’s right. You kept changing the names then too. That was why we broke up.”

He went to say something. However her smell of strawberries pulled him off that road. His face went gentle. He reached for her hand and squeezed it ever so lightly. Her hand was still as soft as he remembered it to be.

She hesitated, then relented her regret. It had been a long time. She squeezed back. Both had enjoyed their little disagreements. It made for some heavy duty making-up. But the time had come when there was less and less of that and more and more of the squabbling. Their relationship was just no fun anymore. Then they were over. Nada. No more. Who knew such little things like the order of names could cost them so much. They held hands before the ties for a moment, then they went back to their two separate worlds.

On their way to suits, they took a detour at the shirts. Denise picked one out which they both thought would go just right with the one good tie they found.

“Think I’ll look good in brown?” he double-checked to make sure they had made the right choice.

“You’d look good in anything.”

“You lie well.” He leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. She kissed him back and moved closer to him. His fingers ran over a dark suit coat. The material, wool felt good to his touch. He liked the natural feel of it. It gave him the feeling that there was a novel in him and he would complete it. And soon. All that needed doing was the writing, and that was no big deal. No big deal at all. He could type it up with one hand tied behind him in that suit staring back at him.

“Of course,” she said, her slender fingers joining his. “But you will look good in that suit. Good enough to make that novel shine.” Their hands waltzed over the lapel of the jacket. The coat slipped off the rack and he tried it on. After buttoning it up, she adjusted the tie. “Is this novel to be about us?” Her eyes sparkled with hope.

“Not sure. Maybe. Well, yes. It could be. I can see that now. After all, it is an adventure story. And we did have some adventures, Dennie. Back in the olden days.”

“There’s nothing to say that we can’t have some more.” Her fingers massaged his palm. “If you’re inclined?” She let go of his hand, reached over and pulled the suit pants off their hanger, then measured them against Phil.

Suddenly he felt the absence of her hand. “What are you trying to say?” She heard road block in his voice. “That I’ve had a bad case of writer’s blues without you?”

“All I am saying is that it looks like you’ve found yourself a suit.” Her voice was gentle with reassurance. “That is all I’m saying. It’s a good earthy brown too. The kind that will allow you to dig your heels into the language and write, don’t you think? Why don’t you try it on?”

The two headed over to the changing room.

“So how soon do you intend to finish this masterpiece now that you have the suit?”

“Soon as I can figure out how it will end, I’ll start it.” He took the pants from her. “I plan to write it backwards. Kind of like the Hebrew alphabet telling the story. I’m in no hurry. I could take a hundred years, and then some, to put the final touches on it.”

“You’re not going to do a James Joyce? You’re much too tall.”

“No, I know where the commas go. And the periods too.”

“What makes you think you have all the time in the world?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” he said and left her to wait for him to return from changing into the suit and the shirt and tie.

Her eyes twinkled when she saw the Phil come out of the changing room.

“When do you plan getting the ending together?” she asked as she helped him adjust into the suit, running her fingers over the jacket to make sure it fit just right, then she brushed the pants ever so slightly. “Soon I hope. I’d like to read it.” She stepped back to admire their work.

He looked at himself in the full-body mirror. They both liked what they saw.

“I think that it will end the way they all end.” He tugged a bit on the jacket, straightening it into a perfect fit. “’And they lived happily ever after.’”

“For a season anyway.”

“I can handle that.” He was pleased that he almost had his ending. And that she would be in it. The words for that ending were on the tips of his fingers. All he had to do was let them pour onto the page. “In fact, I can handle just about anything in this suit. Even that muse of mine.”

“Let’s get a cup of coffee to celebrate,” Denise offered, happy that the day had indeed turned into a perfume kind of day . “And then, well then we can get started on that novel. If you’re in a writing mood.”

“Think I’m in the mood for strawberries. Just as soon as I change.

“Better hurry then, before they go out of season.”

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