I had a boyfriend the year after I graduated college, one whom my parents never knew about. Even during holidays, when I should have gone home to them, I stayed to be with him in the small mountain town that housed the university like a stranger. I worked in a restaurant, serving overpriced dinners to hikers and skiers who drove up from the city to experience the outdoors. His name was Collins and he spoke very loudly, as if he had no conscious understanding of others’ presence, as if he were standing in a forest alone, toppling trees that conceded to the solitary force of sound. When I was with him, I shrank, pushed back into myself by the mere volume of his words.
“Couldn’t you wait tables here in Charlotte?” my mother asked when I told her over the telephone that I wasn’t ready to return home. Like my father, places settled into me, not vice versa. She was sewing, the whir of the machine punctuating her words. I imagined the sliver of thread between my teeth, as I knew it was between hers before she guided it through the needle’s tiny eye. I had long been the only reason my parents stayed together. Four years after releasing me, if I wasn’t coming home, there was little pretending to be done.
“I just want to stay here for about for six months or so, until I can figure out what I want to do,” I said, holding my hand over the mouthpiece to block out Collins’ recitation of his latest poem.
“Six months?” my mother nearly shrieked. “Who knows what will have happened by then?”
“You’ll still be my parents,” I said. I glanced at Collins, who paused, rhymed “solace” with “purchase,” and performed the bow that indicated he wanted my full attention.
Collins was a poet. His kitchen drawers were filled with paper napkins, all of them removed from their packages and filled with words waiting to be delivered, heard, consumed; they were arranged into stanzas, some of them epics that would pause the world just as he saw it. Words floated in his kitchen the way aromas did in others, caught on the whimsy of air currents and sudden puffs of cold from the opening of the refrigerator door.
Collins had been in my Art History class. We became friends when he chased me across campus one day to return a pen he had borrowed. It, the pen that wrote upside down, was a childhood gift from my father, perhaps the first clue that soon a carnival would steal him every summer, when he would work as a barker, depending, as did Collins, on the right assortment of words. Despite his inclinations, Collins did not have a major himself. He had been taking college classes for five years, working as a roofer, writing poetry on napkins. He lived in an A-frame house that he had built himself, with three rooms and a woodstove that boiled a huge kettle of water in less than three minutes. On winter weekends, we slept on a pile of sleeping bags and blankets that he dragged out from the bedroom, clamped together in front of the wood stove with his dog Jeffers curled beside us. On scratchy wool that smelled like rain, Collins taught me how to decipher iambic pentameter and how to kiss in small, succinct fashion so that the bristles of his moustache, always in full force by the weekend, barely had time to tickle my nose. I kept my tiny apartment with its thrift store furniture, but I began to think of Collins’ house as home, with the curl of the woodstove smoke ascending and all those words frolicking inside.
I was in love with Collins. I could not share that truth with my parents, or at least I didn’t feel they would understand the pull of such emotion, the way my life fit into his as all those towns fit into the Blue Ridge Mountains. And I liked the way that my body fit with his, the efficiency of sex with him, physical proof that heat did rise; it rose to the height of those mountains.
One Saturday when I was suffering from the initial symptoms of a cold, Collins appeared at my apartment with an old towel wedged into the crook of his arm. He didn’t knock. Suddenly the door opened and there he was, looming above me as I lay on the couch, a box of Kleenex resting on my chest and my eyes closed, surrendering to the weight of the water in them.
“It wasn’t locked,” he said and placed the back of his hand on my forehead, scrunching his eyebrows together.
“I don’t want you to get sick,” I said when really I didn’t want him to see me in such a state of lethargy.
“I’ve brought you something.” He unwrapped the lump of towel and placed a tiny lizard on my chest next to the Kleenex. It froze, eyes popping, feet webbing, tail forming a lazy S. “You need something to love,” Collins said, beaming down at the portrait on the couch.
I sat up and the lizard tumbled to my stomach. I touched its tiny head and smiled. It thrust its tongue out, a crimson thread of color, with cosmic speed. I stared, not sure how to cuddle a lizard. “It’s cute,” I finally said.
“She’s cute,” Collins said, sitting down next to me.
“But I can’t have pets here. It’s in the lease.”
“No one will ever know, Fran. Lizards, I mean skinks—she’s a skink—are quiet and they practically take care of themselves.” He checked my forehead again. “All you need is a glass case for her.”
“Where did you get her?” I asked, holding her up closer to my chin and thinking of Layla, my cat who had died the year I went off to college.
“I found her in a parking lot in town,” he said, his eyes cast to one side.
“But I can’t have pets here,” I repeated.
“You should name her after a poet,” Collins said. He thought for a second while I touched a tentative fingertip to her head, which felt like cardboard. “Call her Sylvia.”
“After that poet who killed herself?” I swung my feet to the floor and glared at him.
“Think of her poetry,” he said, “not the mishap of her life.”
“Why do you think I need something to love?”
“You need practice,” he said, resting his eyes on the lizard. He took a Kleenex from the box and held it out to me.
“I need practice loving?” I asked, now completely upright. I pulled my sweatshirt down from around my neck where it had accumulated into thick folds and handed the tiny creature back to him, picking it up gingerly by its stomach, which felt cold and slick. On the radio, one of Vivaldi’s violin concertos began. The lizard pointed its chin toward the speaker and listened.
“Not practice loving. Practice being loved. Or both. I think that they meet up halfway.”
“Can’t I get that practice with you?”
“Of course,” he said. He tried to whisper, but it came out a hoarse shout. “Of course you can.”
“Maybe I should be in the glass case,” I said. “Maybe I’m just an experiment.” The lizard crawled to the couch, closer to the speaker, and positioned itself against the arm. I stood up and began to walk to the bathroom, dropping a trail of soiled Kleenex behind me.
Collins bent to pick them up, a quarter falling from his shirt pocket, and then stopped. “Maybe I shouldn’t get near your germs.”
I pulled a pair of jeans from the laundry basket in the hallway and tugged them over my hips. I did several deep knee bends. Collins came to the end of the hallway and lowered the lizard to the carpet. It scurried down the hall, into the bedroom and under the bed Collins had built out of leftover wood from a construction project. The headboard had curlicue edges Collins carved by hand so that they would catch my dreams of him on the nights we spent apart.
“She likes it here,” he said. He plucked three pairs of balled socks from the laundry basket and tossed them at me. I caught each one and then let them drop to the floor, no noise, no volume.
“I just don’t quite know what to do with a lizard. With a skink. With Sylvia,” I said.
Collins stretched his arms into the air and hooked his hands on the doorframe. I looked at his muscular stomach, the elastic border of his long johns protruding over the top of his jeans.
“She’s a skink. She’ll figure you out.” He released his hands and walked back into the front room. I did several more deep knee bends and dug a decaying piece of notebook paper from the front pocket. The words were faded into smudges of black, but I recognized them. It was the grocery list from the week before, when Collins and I had decided to eat all organic vegetables and no processed food. We bought milk made from soy and whole-grain bread that I tried to re-create the following day, my hands submerged in dough the color of tree bark.
“How do you feel from all that healthy food?” I shouted into the front room.
“Healthy,” he said, without needing to shout.
“Me, too,” I murmured and blew my nose.
Collins left that afternoon with the old towel tossed over his shoulder while Sylvia embedded herself in the folds of the faded yellow curtains that the previous tenants had left behind. Outside I heard him talking to my neighbor in the other side of the duplex and then laughing. The lizard stuck out her tongue repeatedly until his voice faded and the engine of his old Toyota pickup truck puttered out of the driveway.
Two days later, I drove out to Collins’ A-frame in the Chevette that my father had finally bought for me my junior year, when he learned that I had been hitchhiking and sure that such abandon also meant that I was no longer a virgin. Collins didn’t have a phone, so I was used to just showing up and tapping lightly on the window pane of the front door. I had the lizard with me in a shoebox on the front seat. Sylvia, the gift skink who would teach me how to love or to be loved. I suddenly didn’t know the difference either.
I pulled off the main road onto the dirt one that led to the A-frame. Collins’ truck was gone. No smoke curled above the roof. The windsock that Collins had brought back from San Francisco when he claimed the peace movement judged Southerners did not flutter above the front door. Inside, the living room was empty. The stack of sleeping bags and blankets had been pushed to the corner behind the rocking chair that Collins sat in to roll the one cigarette a day he smoked. The room smelled like ashes, and I realized the woodstove was cold, as was the house and my hands, as scaly from the winter as Sylvia’s back. I opened the lid of the shoebox to peek inside at Sylvia. She was very still and her tongue nowhere to be seen. A solemn lizard, I thought, a contemplative one.
I walked through the living room to the bedroom, but Collins did not appear. His closet was practically empty. In the tiny kitchen on top of the half-sized refrigerator stood a photograph of the two of us, sitting on a rock on Grandfather Mountain. I was smiling.
I drove back to Charlotte with Sylvia. By that time, several weeks of ownership behind me, I had purchased a large, glass tank, greenery for her entertainment, and a book that told me skinks, lizards in general, are not people amphibians, although they are gentle and quiet.
Three blocks from my parents’ house, my house, I stopped at a drugstore and bought a gigantic purple bow wrapped in crinkly cellophane plastic and a card, a blank one with a photo of an alligator on the front. It was my father’s birthday and I was giving him Sylvia. He wanted novelty and he would get it. It might be enough to keep him away from the carnival, to keep him at home where he could look at the display of my mother, the frayed edges of their marriage.
Sylvia had already grown two inches in length and the ridge on top of her head curved more elegantly, like the beginning of a mountain. I opened a piece of Tupperware, dropped a triangle of lettuce into the case, and drove home.
My father met me at the car. He always insisted upon carrying in my luggage, a tradition he upheld throughout my five years at college. Each trip home, he had emerged from the house, usually a cup of coffee in his hand. He’d set the mug on the metal railing of the porch, meet me on the sidewalk and give me a quick hug. Then he’d take my suitcase from my hand and call to my mother, “We have a visitor, Madeline.”
This time, he was sitting on the steps reading a paperback. It was cold. When he turned to shout something into the house, I could see his breath hang in the air, a thin canopy over the welcome mat. A box of Pop Tarts sat beside him; since settling into middle age, he had allowed himself “decorations,” his word for junk food that distinguished weekend mornings from the others. During the week, he would make the downtown trek to the bank where he had worked nearly my whole life.
“How’s my Frannie?” he asked, giving my shoulders the customary squeeze. I kissed him quickly on the cheek and answered, “Fine. I’m fine.” Behind the living room sheers, I saw my mother walk through the room and then lights appear on the front corner of the house. “Happy Birthday, Daddy,” I added.
“Yes, well, thank you. I suppose it’s a happy one.”
“I’ve got something for you,” I said, turning to open the passenger door of the car. I placed a hand on each end of Sylvia’s glass case and backed up slowly until I could stand. My father peered over the top of the car door.
“An aquarium?” he asked.
“Not quite,” I said. I lifted the case as best I could and tilted it back toward my body so that Sylvia’s face and head would be better visible.
“Do they change colors?”
“No, but she runs like bright colors in hot water and she’s very easy to keep.” He stared blankly at me. “I know how you like odd things. This one just doesn’t have the hair.”
He moved closer to the case and tapped the window a couple of times. Sylvia lifted her head and stood very still. “She’s quite regal,” my father said. “Does she have a name?”
“Sylvia,” he repeated, accentuating each syllable.
“We’d better get her inside. She’s not good in the cold.” I moved toward the sidewalk, the case pushed up against my body, but my father said, “Frannie.”
I turned around. Lights in the house across the street came on behind him, the front windows lit one by one with Mrs. Dickerson no doubt performing the nightly ritual. “Where’d you get Sylvia?”
“Oh,” he said. “I was hoping she had a more exotic story.” He wiggled the car door handle a few times to verify that it was locked and then followed me into the house, a hand under my elbow as I climbed the front steps with Sylvia’s case wedged into my arms.
My mother kissed my cheek as she met me at the door. She carried the aroma of wool and gardenias. “A lizard?” she shrieked when she saw Sylvia. “Is it real?”
“I wouldn’t have it in a glass case if it wasn’t real,” I said, struggling to lower the case to the table in the front hallway. The umbrella rack that stood beside it no longer held umbrellas and my father’s carved walking stick but dried flowers with round yellow centers. There was a new rug, a kilim with bright yellow and green diamonds, stretched down the narrow hallway.
“You’ve been shopping enough to know that things are always different when you get them home.” She shook her head from side to side and sighed. “Did you mean to get a lizard? Why you would choose a lizard out of all the glorious animals in this world is beyond me.”
“You’re giving it to him?”
“For his birthday. He likes reptiles.”
“Frannie,” she began, moving to stand directly in my path, “your father doesn’t need a lizard.”
“That either,” she said, nearly smiling to indicate that she was being difficult and knew it. She bent over to press her lips up to the glass. She kissed the case and said, “Welcome to the family, Sylvia.” On the glass remained a faint smearing of her pink frosted lipstick. Sylvia lifted her green head and waited. I wondered if my bedroom were the temporary gym my mother had made when I moved out or if my bed were intact again.
My father reappeared in the hallway. He carried a spatula like a scepter, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows. He seemed ominous and dark above the bright colors of the new rug. “Frannie, I’m making burgers for dinner.”
“On your birthday?” I asked, glancing toward my mother, who was tickling a finger against the part of the glass where Sylvia had decided to inspect. Sylvia stuck out her tongue in rapid succession and blinked her eyes.
“He wants to,” my mother said, not looking up from the cage.
“I’ll make a little one for Sylvia,” my father said.
“With lettuce,” I added. “Roughage and all that.”
After dinner, my father met me coming out of the office/guest room. A spot of ketchup decorated his shirt. “I think I’ll give Sylvia this room,” he said. “It’s the warmest in the house. Plus your mother wouldn’t sleep with her in the same room, do you think?”
I shook my head no.
He thought for a second. “I’ve stopped doing things to try and make her love me, but I can’t see doing anything just to make her mad at me either,” he said. “Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so,” I said. I followed him into the kitchen where a familiar set of small ceramic plates was lined up, waiting to be filled with hamburger toppings, as if our small family of three needed an assembly line.
He pressed his mouth into a slight smile. “You always seem to know how to get what you want.”
Without meeting his gaze, I envisioned the scene in my apartment with Collins and Sylvia, Sylvia’s stumpy legs plodding out Collins’ message: You need to learn how to be loved. My father was wrong.
“I’ve never thought of myself that way,” I answered.
“Well, maybe you just don’t think of the right examples.” He opened and shut the refrigerator without even looking inside.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I waited for half a second and then took a deep breath, no projectile tongue escaping. “Is it all about trying to keep her, to try and keep Mama?” I asked. “I mean, when did love get to be just a chore?”
He looked stunned. The house seemed to recede into him and I realized that I knew very little about the past four plus years.
“Your mother and I love each other,” he answered matter-of-factly.“But it’s not some kind of frivolous pop song.”
What is? I thought.
“A commitment is work itself. You should know that.”
“I should,” I agreed.
That night I couldn’t sleep, thinking of Collins out in the world dispensing advice on love. The next day I drove back up to the mountains, making the usual three-hour trip in just over two and a half, despite a fresh snow that had fallen overnight, transforming the landscape into the work of a confectioner. I listened to the country stations that dotted North Carolina’s geography like trees and learned some of the choruses. I drove to Collins’ house, its A reaching toward the top of the pine tree that stood next to it, and walked in through the front door. It was unlocked as I knew it would be, nothing changed since my previous visit.
I crossed the living room with its pine floors and into the kitchen without stopping elsewhere and opened each drawer one by one, tugging hardest on the one next to the sink, which always stuck for no apparent reason. In the third drawer I found a napkin with scribbled words in tidy lines that wrapped around the front to the back, a casing of Collins’ precious words. Poetry. Lines that cited the wind and steeples and a woman’s face so perfect that geometry emulated it. Me? I thought, holding a palm to my skin, searching for my mother’s ridged cheeks that held color as easily as a child’s.
In the last drawer, the one where Collins had always kept the spatula, spoon, garlic press, can opener, and strainer that comprised his kitchen equipment, I found a single sheet of paper. My name was written in orange magic marker at the top. “Can’t do it” was written beneath it. “Can’t do it,” I mouthed. The possibilities were endless though the words hung from the roof of my mouth like lead. Collins had wanted to love me. I could feel that fact competing with the cold in the house, settling with the dust in the corners. Collins had offered his proclamation, and Sylvia, because he didn’t know how to love. Because words, just words, were so easy for him.
I put the other blank napkins and the paper back in their respective drawers and left. I stopped to write my initials in the ashes that had collected in front of the woodstove’s heavy iron door. I made the S serpentine and defiant. Glancing in the rearview mirror, heading down the long dirt driveway that could just as easily have been a settler’s trail across the Appalachians, I thought I saw a man sitting in the lowest limb of the pine tree. He was reaching for the peak of the ‘A’, perhaps thinking he could add to it, a ladder of letters that knew no boundaries. I blinked my eyes and it was just a limb that had fallen, caught on the one below.
Back in Charlotte, Sylvia had escaped from the aquarium and sequestered herself in my mother’s right bedroom slipper at the bottom of her closet, her head and upper body well hidden under a fluffy mop of pink fur. “Pink,” my mother said, “a reptile that likes pink.”
“The skink likes pink,” my father called from the hallway.
“Lizard,” I said under my breath, my own tongue conceding, something Sylvia’s might never do.
I had to pull her out by her tail as my mother looked on in horror. Once she was safe back in her case, I got the Scotch tape my mother kept in the far kitchen drawer and attached the napkin with Collins’ lines of poetry facing inward so that Sylvia might ponder the geometric precision of her face. I put the note with “Can’t do it” into the trash, opting not to take out the already too-full bag. That night my father, with his usual sense of duty, performed this chore, and the note fell to the kitchen floor as he was tying his final knot of plastic, every other night a ritual of circles and precision that recalled his days as a sailor. “Can’t do what?” I heard him say as I studied Sylvia behind her glass wall. I didn’t answer.
Collins came back to town a few months later, but I was long gone, back in Charlotte living with my parents until I could find a job in historic preservation. Charlotte’s investment was in the future, with suburbs and malls and banking centers made of glass and cement. Construction via destruction. Reinforced beauty. Splendor with square corners. I kept putting my forehead to the past, to roofs that pointed to the sky and front doors offering smudged windowpanes with dirt thick enough for writing.