Solving for X
I have never been good at math, but am an ace at miscalculation.
Lightning illuminated the tops of the maples and mulberries along Park Street as I tried to figure out if I could make it home before the rain came pouring down. I collected my bike from the lawn where I’d dropped it. I was maybe nineteen and deep into a second bottle of Strawberry Hill, a variable I was too drunk to consider, and so I wobbled off the curb, steered between two parked cars, hit a bit of loose gravel from a driveway, and landed on the sidewalk banging up my knee and elbow. I tore a hole in my jeans and blood streamed down my forearm.
Several guys snickered from their perch on the ratty couch, but the hostess who barely knew me dashed across the street in the first flash of rain. I could hear the buzzing of the streetlamp above us. She helped me to my feet, walked my bike back to her house and leaned it gently against the yews. She shot the laughing guys a dirty look and pushed me toward the bathroom where she toweled me off, sat me on the edge of the bathtub, and took a closer look at my knee. Blood trickled down my shin and stained the hem of my sock.
She was in a sorority but already regretted joining. Her hair was flame red, and a light spray of freckles fell across the bridge of her nose. She grabbed some cotton swabs and peroxide out of the medicine cabinet and dabbed the gravel and dirt from the abrasion with a washcloth, apologizing when I hissed. As she put iodine and a butterfly bandage on my knee, she leaned in.
“Everybody does something embarrassing now and then,” she said.
Then she kissed me on the forehead and ear, and for the first time I understood that she, too, was more than a little drunk. The tips of her pockets stuck out from the bottom of her cutoffs. Her ankles were dotted with mosquito bites. She led me to the kitchen table where we ate strawberries, my leg propped up on a rickety ladder-back chair. After the rain let up, I walked my bike home through the back alleys, settled in next to the box fan and fought the bed spins and the mugginess that clung to that early August morning.
My small betrayal is that I’ve forgotten her name. That I let her fade into the peripheries and the dispersing crowds of the past. That bike I tried to ride that night was stolen off my front porch when I abandoned it there for a week or more. One day it just wasn’t there. I no longer have a taste for the sweet wines I once consumed in large quantities, three bottles for five bucks. There are times now in the fat part of my life when I sit out back on my patio and let the setting sun wash through a blood red Malbec. I bring my left knee up for a closer look, and sure enough, there’s a patchy white scar below the fine hair on my leg.
I think of her at odd times, like when I see a strand of white Christmas tree lights above a couch or chili peppers strung above a kitchen sink. I think about her small act of kindness and how I let it pass. How she wasn’t squeamish at the sight of blood, and how she didn’t join those who laughed at me. How she was so comfortable, unguarded, and charming. I missed it then—its importance.
It’s only now, two decades too late, that I go looking for ghosts. I have found the street and house where she lived then. A flyer for a missing pet is on the telephone pole. The low front porch is just as I remember, bland and beige, though the nubby couch is gone, replaced by two white wicker chairs and an ashtray bristling with stubbed out cigarettes. Right next door is a smallish church, plain, with clapboard siding half-rotten from the weather. Inside, the congregation sings a hymn I’ve never heard before. If you could reach out the bathroom window of the house, you could touch the church. There are marigolds in flowerpots, and empty Highlife bottles in the grass.
I wonder at the ways we sting and nettle, all the turns we take toward minor damage, how we allow a night to sour and some stray comment said in anger, a careless laugh or easy slight, to vex the people near us.
I hope she’s had a good and tender life. I’m sure she’s not the saint I form her into. Her gift to me was small, humane—another mark, pale and barely visible, I carry with me. She could have looked the other way. She could have joined the others laughing on the porch, could have gone inside and closed the door. Young and dumb, I missed it then, this small and graceful moment. But the way her lips brushed my ear with that kiss? That’s the ghost of iodine and strawberries; another variable of summer I have never quite been able to solve for.