When I was in high school, I dreamed about getting away. Everybody did. You couldn’t grow up in Jewell Junction, Iowa, population 1200 and dropping, without thinking about it.
I got as far as Iowa City and half an engineering degree before my mom got sick. It was supposed to be a semester off while she was on chemo, but before I knew it I she’d died and I had the farm to manage. Frank came by a lot to help with that, and soon we were engaged and I just never quite made it back to Iowa City.
Instead I talked Frank into helping me open a little antique shop on Main Street while he managed the farm. I drove around on the weekends, hitting yard sales and estate auctions, collecting the leftover bits and pieces of other people’s lives. I cleaned them up and resold them to folks driving in from Des Moines or college kids from Ames.
A lot of them were a couple of generations removed from the farms, sometimes more if business had brought them to Iowa from one of the coasts. They took home spinning wheels or old tools, the grandparents they felt they’d never had, and some cute, gingham-checked sign from the gift shop next door, and pretended that was a real life.
I started to think that city life was something I’d been saved from somehow, by fate and by Frank. That lasted until Jude and her husband moved in.
They bought the old Mallory place. I heard they got it for a song from the bank, because it had been empty for almost five years and Tom Mallory’s widow hadn’t been able to do any upkeep for five years before that. There hadn’t been anyone to help around the house; their only son had run off to San Francisco years before and they never said his name.
It didn’t really matter what shape the house was in, though. I’d barely heard the gossip before my antique store was full of designers and architects out of Los Angeles, talking about how the house had good bones but needed a facelift and a tummy tuck and some Botox so she never showed her age. They installed giant, double-paned glass windows so you could see the whole first floor from the road, and remade the chicken coop into a writing office, and the barn into a guest house and workshop.
She told me this herself when she came into the store with two of the designers. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, with hips like the rolling hills outside and bright, bright eyes. Everything in the store fascinated her, and she announced every one of her finds as they worked on furnishing her little chicken coop-turned-office.
I wanted to say something clever or insightful about where these things had come from, but my tongue was swollen and my words were slow. She told me that she was an author. She told me she’d moved out here with her producer husband so they could both clear their heads outside of Los Angeles. She told me she was starting on her next big novel.
“Call me Jude,” she said as she handed me her credit card, but I took notice of her name. I recognized it, and I was sure I’d read something of hers before.
“Welcome to town, Jude. I’m Mary.”
“Nice to meet you. I can’t wait to get these home for my study.”
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll feel cooped up in there?” I asked as I packed up her shopping, and all three of them stared at me. I thought she’d never speak to me again, but Jude laughed before leading the designers out.
She came back not much later, waving around a magazine called Dwell and showing off the pictures of her house in there. It looked like nothing I’d ever seen. She asked me if I wanted to come over for coffee and a tour.
Jude’s house was amazing. From the road, it seemed kind of ridiculous, but the view from inside was beautiful. The décor wasn’t cluttered or fake like most pictures of the country style I’ve seen. One of the designers had picked up an antique drop spindle at my store, and she asked me if I knew how to use it.
“I haven’t done it in years,” I confessed. “Not since I stopped doing 4H in high school.”
“Can you teach me, though?”
“I can try.”
“Great. Come over on Saturday?”
It turned out I didn’t remember how to spin, exactly – the drop spindle earned its name that afternoon, hitting the floor repeatedly while I tried to make my fingers remember. Every time I failed, I looked at Jude and blushed.
We ended up laughing over tea anyway, and she told me about her Stitch and Bitch group back in LA.
“Do you think I could start one out here?”
“There might be something like that in Ames, or people who’d be interested. But I don’t think most of the women in town would approve of the word ‘bitch.’” We both laughed over that, but I felt like I needed to make it up to her somehow.
It wasn’t until later, on the drive home, that I realized I’d wanted her to think I had something to offer her.
I spent Sunday on the internet instead, and the next week I drove her the half hour down the 69 to Ames, where there was a place called Yarn Tree that had spinning classes. They weren’t cheap, and I took the money out of the store budget so Frank wouldn’t ask. It wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong, not exactly. Not in a way I could explain. I just wanted to keep Jude to myself.
Sometimes when you meet someone, you click like you’ve known them your whole life. Suddenly it doesn’t matter whether you’ve known them a week or a year because it all blurs together. She dragged me to Des Moines to see a travelling Broadway show. I dragged her out of bed at dawn on Saturday to get the best yard sale deals. And there were long afternoons in the store when she was “between inspiration” and we’d talk about just about everything.
“Tell me about Los Angeles.”
“I hate it,” she said frankly, and I tried not to be disappointed.
It must have showed on my face anyway, because she continued immediately. “It’s not the city, not really. I’ve just been in Hollywood too long, I think. I was starting to lose sight of the difference between the real city and the backlot. So when my husband suggested we get a place in the country where I could write, well, that sounded perfect.”
“It does sound pretty perfect on paper, doesn’t it?”
“I think it’s pretty perfect in person, too,” she said, her hand resting on my arm. She waited, looking at me. I looked away and waited for the coffee to get cold. When the door of the shop opened, I jumped up so fast that I upset the coffee cup. If Jude was disappointed, though, she didn’t let it show.
And if I heard the gossip going around about us, I didn’t admit it.
Jude had the ability to waltz seamlessly in and out of my life. I lost track of when she was in town and when she was back in LA, and when she didn’t come around on any given day I just figured she would show up the next. I waited and everyone else pretended they couldn’t tell I was waiting.
Most of it was just stage whispers around me in the grocery store or at church, but the worst was one afternoon when Frank was out on the porch with a buddy of his. I was about to take some lemonade out to them when I heard my name.
“I’m just saying, Frank. Everybody in town’s talking about it, but I figured someone should say it to your face.”
“Mary and I are fine. Thanks for looking me in the eye, though.” I heard the strain in Frank’s voice and almost turned around. Instead I pushed the door open as loudly as I could, smiling and handing out drinks and asking after his wife and their son.
As bumpy as everything else was getting, Jude was effortless.
Well, she was effortless when she was around, but time slips away from you, whether it’s good times or bad. All at once I realized that I’d seen the lights on in their house almost two weeks before, and hadn’t seen her in the store once since then. I mentioned it to Frank over dinner that night.
“I heard she and her hotshot husband were having some trouble,” Frank told me.
“Joe thought he saw a moving van over there last weekend, and Elaine up the hill said she saw on TV that they were getting a divorce.” He took another bite of chicken, as if this was the least interesting gossip he could remember.
My stomach sank and I dropped my fork. Frank looked at me.
“It’s probably for the best,” he said deliberately.
“What do you mean?”
He set his fork down and stood. “They’re saying her husband tried to sleep with Mrs. Meyers.”
“How awful!” I meant it, even if my heart fluttered a little more than I’d like to admit.
“And anyway, she’s not a good influence on you.”
I glared at him. “She’s a good friend.”
“I just think she’s promising you things she can’t deliver.” He carried his plate and glass into the kitchen. I thought that I should follow him, but for the longest time, my legs wouldn’t move. I heard him put them in the dishwasher, and then the creaking as he went upstairs.
When I did finally get up, I spent too long scrubbing the pots in the sink and loading the dishwasher. I don’t think those pots had been so clean since my mom got them as wedding presents.
Frank was asleep when I dragged myself up the stairs. It was the first time I’d ever gone to bed angry with him – but it was a relief, too, not having to finish the argument. All I had to do was put on sweat pants and a t-shirt and go to sleep.
In the dream, I was driving home late at night. I didn’t know where I’d been, but it was important that I get home right away. But as I turned the corner to pass the old Mallory place, I realized that Jude was standing outside waving. Then she turned and went in through the front door. Something was wrong, so I stopped the car. I went to find her, anxious. I realized the big house was on fire. The glass windows exploded and the heat was so intense I felt like I was being burned.
I panicked, thinking Jude was inside, but then I saw movement behind the house. I ran around the fire and saw her walking away. I yelled her name but she didn’t turn. I knew I needed to leave, but I couldn’t stop following her. She was only walking, and I should have caught her, but no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t.
I sat straight up in the darkness, gasping and clawing at the sheets.
“What the hell’s gotten into you?” Frank tried to gather me against him, probably thinking that would calm me down, but I felt like I couldn’t get any air in my lungs while he held me. “What was the nightmare?”
“It was Jude-” I started, and I felt his arms stiffen around me.
“Jude’s a big girl. She can take care of herself.”
“But I don’t want her to.” I was surprised how angry the words sounded when I heard them come out of my mouth.
He tried again to calm me down, rubbing my back, but it didn’t help. “There’s nothing you can do, Mary. They’re already gone. She left you behind.”
“No!” We stared at each other, like neither of us believed I’d yelled. Before Frank could say anything else, I jumped up and ran down the stairs.
I had enough presence of mind to slip sneakers on as I ran outside, but not enough to grab a coat. I was starting the car by the time I saw the light come on in the bedroom, and Frank threw the window open as I pulled out of the driveway and onto the empty streets. I turned the radio on so I couldn’t hear him yell after me.
I drove as fast as my heart was beating, not worried about the speed limit or my seat belt.
The house was nothing but skin and bones when I got there. From the street I could see that the living room was empty, and I knew she had left without me. I spent the longest five minutes of my life in that driveway, listening to Patsy Cline on the radio and trying to work up the courage to go home.
Then I saw movement through those great glass windows. I squinted, struggling to focus. Was it just a reflection? Was my mind playing tricks on me? But I was sure I’d seen someone. I turned off the car and walked up to the front door. I’d done this a hundred times. I tried to pretend that it was an ordinary visit. That lasted long enough to ring the bell.
The silence stretched out and a chill worked its way through my t-shirt. I was ready to give up and go back to the car when the door opened.
Jude looked sick, but she waved for me to come in. “I’d offer you a seat, but…” she trailed off, gesturing at the empty room.
“Where have you been?”
“You’ve been sitting in this empty house all week?”
“He took most of the furniture and all the art,” she said, shaking her head. “He knew what it would do to me, the son of a bitch. I haven’t been able to write a word.”
The dining room was empty except for a cardboard box, and she was circling around it, shaking her head and muttering about what he’d taken. I looked around for something to sit on. Nothing in the house looked promising, but on the back porch I found the Eames chairs Jude and I had bought at an auction and never gotten around to restoring. I dragged two of them inside and put them on either side of the box.
I gently forced her to sit down and went back in the kitchen. The hand-crafted artisan kitchen table was gone, but he’d left the coffee pot, thank God, and the mugs. While that perked, I rounded up sugar and milk and used the cold-cuts in the fridge to make sandwiches. I brought the mugs and the plates in all at once, suddenly grateful for my first job in the diner.
She picked up the mug and held it in her hands, staring at the patterns the milk made. “He didn’t touch my studio or my books, but he took almost everything else. He said he was being generous, leaving me the house.”
“Well, that’s something.”
She nodded. “I would have killed him if he’d tried. I thought about it. Killing him, myself, his girlfriend back in the Valley.”
“Don’t say that, you don’t mean it. Don’t you still love him?”
“What is love? Where did it get me?” She was staring out the giant glass windows as she nibbled on the sandwich. The trees were bare, jagged black lines against the navy sky and the moonlight.
“It got you here, didn’t it? With a house, and you’ve got your job –”
“I only moved out here for him.” I was blinded by a vision of her packing up her car, leaving the already empty house, and driving out of my life forever. I stood alone in my little store with my little husband and my little life. “It got a book I still have to finish even though we’ve spent the advance. It got me to Iowa.”
She said it with a sad little laugh and I frowned. I knew my hometown was the punchline. “No, sweetie, whoever thought of love is no friend of mine.”
“Oh, Jude, no…”
She shook her head. “You should go home.”
I half-smiled. “Frank and I had a fight earlier. I don’t really want to go home.”
“Don’t let me ruin you too, Mary.”
“You couldn’t if you tried.”
I kissed her then, in front of the glass and the trees and my own guilt and all the busybodies I imagined were watching. She stared at me for a long time, and I waited, knowing I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Mary, I- I’m not-”
“Neither am I,” I told her. “But I love you. You’re the one I want in my life more than anything. Please don’t leave me here.”
She laughed a little, and it was less brittle around the edges. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
“I never have,” I confessed. “So let’s go.”
Written for Ekaterinn, inspired by Dar Williams’ ‘Iowa’ for Yuletide 2010.