Karen

Jenny called me this afternoon all in a panic about the colour of napkins at the table; the blue will clash with the roses, she said, but the red looks like a cheap restaurant's, what was she to do? Go with the white I told her and hung up. When did she suddenly become so dependent on me? You would think that planning a wedding was something akin to a state dinner at 24 Sussex Dr. Who cares what colour the place settings are or who sits with who at what table?

I've spent this day packing and sorting through 33 years of living, in between answering phone calls from anxious family and friends. The wedding is just two weeks away don't you know! Two weeks seems like forever and frighteningly soon at the same time.

I love Jenny dearly, with her shy smile and that soft giggle she gives when she's embarrassed. The way she twirls her blonde hair around her index finger like a little girl when she's tired always sends a twinge to my heart.

I owe a lot to Jenny. She entered my life at a time so low I'd nearly given up on living entirely. Love was the last thing on my mind.

She was a friend of a friend and we met at a B.B. King concert five years ago. It was my twenty-eighth birthday and I only went because I was tired of staring at four walls and communing with insipid television programs.

All I knew then was that drinking beer with my friends and listening to them complain about their wives, endlessly reeling off baseball statistics left me wasted and empty. I needed someone just to hear what I had to say and maybe empathize with my plight, a tall order for anyone. I know I'd look for the nearest door if a woman ever did that to me. But not my Jenny. She listened. And when I was done she held my hand and squeezed it to show that she cared.

Once she cried. And I cried too. Then I told her I wanted to make love to her, and she gave me that also. What more can you say about a woman like that? Jenny lifted me up when I was mired in doubt and self-pity, and in her quiet manner she wove me into her life and her dreams and made us inseparable.

Before Jenny I was what every man is, looking for the perfect woman, the one who's part whore and part saint. I couldn't have imagined myself married although I liked the idea of the convenience of just reaching across the bed whenever I wanted some fun. It was just the other times that worried me, the chores and the lack of privacy especially.

That being the case I drifted in and out of relationships all through my late teens and early twenties. I put my needs and my wishes first above all else, and though I did become enamoured with several women during that time, at the first hint of commitment I was gone. The feeling of "us-ness" sent me into a panic; I'd look for any excuse to get out.

I'd tell them something like their schedules and mine just made it impossible and they'd say "It's me, isn't it? You don't like my hair/breasts/teeth/clothes" and of course I'd say no. But they didn't believe me. Had I been honest I'd have told them the truth, that I was not ready for commitment yet, that the very thought of it frightened me. It had nothing to do with them, they were all good people but I couldn't tell them the fault was mine. Who knows what they think of me now, if they think of me at all. It's a part of growing up I guess, the realization that what you do follows after you. Still, I can't say I'm sorry. There were good times too and that's what matters in the end, not how it ended but what the relationship itself contained.

So why do I feel so lost? I've spent the last five hours sorting through all of my belongings, and sadness has crept down on me like a pall. Tonight I need Jenny desperately, but of all people, she's not the one I want to see. The love in her eyes would only make me feel guilty. It's not that I'm going to leave her at the altar, Jenny will be my wife for as long as she'll have me. There is no question of that.

Packing was easy at first. It started with dishes, and glasses and forks. Then pans and putting aside canned goods for the food bank like Jenny asked. With a completely empty kitchen except for a chipped mug, cracked plate and stolen knife and fork laid aside for the next few days I felt I was making great progress.

The living room wasn't too hard either; my desk drawer had nothing but old cheque stubs and receipts, easily thrown out all. Then I put on some music from my past as I decided what records and tapes I really needed. There was Led Zepplin and Boston and Octavian of all things, and ELO and the Stones. Frank Zappa. The Bee Gees. Who could fault me for these? They made my packing fun. I kept them even though I'm sure they'll live in this box for the next ten years or more.

I've left the bedroom for a few days from now so I decided to tackle the storage room. Down in the basement with one bare bulb and a flashlight to see what was is boxes I hadn't looked at for years I felt I was travelling back into time. My old hockey uniform, moth eaten and still smelly from my last game, consigned to the garbage. A pair of skates two sizes too small for Goodwill. Old clothes too. Six pairs of running shoes with holes, out. My high school yearbooks I kept. Moldy math books, out. Letters from my first girlfriend I kept for a laugh. Report cards too. And some toys that still worked. Who knows, we might have children some day.

And there in a box at the back at the top, I found a picture of Karen. The whole box was a history of Karen. I thought I'd thrown all of this out, but here it all is, laid out on my living room floor now, speaking of the unspeakable, of the dream I once had.

I shouldn't have opened this box. I should never have kept it at all. Karen is gone, consigned to my past and I hate like hell to awaken it for she was my best friend, my youth, my history and it scares me to think that I'll never hear her voice on the phone saying, "What's up buddy? Wanna paint the town red? What about purple then?"

But here I am at midnight in the middle of a near empty room, old ticket stubs and notes we passed to each other in school littering the floor, the scent of her still on a woolen scarf I never returned and for the life of me it feels like she's here beside me, laughing at the predicament I'm in.

She was a joker, Karen was. And a tomboy. She could throw a baseball like a boy but said the game was like chess and just as boring to watch yet she still knew which player played for what team. She lived in the apartment above me as we were growing up and at night she'd bang messages to me in Morse code; when the panes weren't frozen up she'd pass things through her window and lower then down in a basket to me, and I'd send things up to her.

Once when I was fourteen I told her someday we'd be married and she giggled, saying, "Can you see me all dolled up in a white dress? Gross!" And we both laughed at the image of that, but then she told me, "If I ever do lose my mind and get married I guess it would probably be to you." And I believed that for a long time, even though she didn't accept my fevered adolescent advances, but then, she wasn't much interested in boys at that time anyway.

It's wasn't until she was eighteen or nineteen that she discovered sex in the form of a guy named Eli and she fell for him hard. As first loves often go, theirs burnt brightly and went down in flames. I remember the night she came over, her eyes puffy red and swearing she would never, ever let anyone do that to her again. Two years went by before she went on another date and she never did let anyone get that close after Eli. Except for me, because I'd always been there.

Karen. There's one picture I have that is probably the reason I haven't thrown anything out. There she is, in the middle of winter, two thick turtlenecks and running shoes to ward off the cold, the same red woolen scarf she knit herself that I have in the box, her silly black mitts with the holes, she poised to throw a snowball at me, me with my arms across my face feigning terror at the imminent attack. We were twenty-two then. In the picture she has the broad smile that was the harbinger of her joyous laugh. When I think of her she's laughing. It was like music to me.

Karen, for all of her light hearted demeanor was really an artist at heart. Being down to earth made her a wonderful confidant; nothing you could say or do would shock her. I know. I tried. But she'd look at me with those moss green eyes and I swear to God she could see into my soul and I knew she knew I was lying. I'd never seen eyes like hers before and probably never will again. What can I say about this boyish girl with eyes as big as saucers and her shock of black hair cut short?

For all of her bravado, for all of her charm, inside was a beautiful woman who, if you ever got beyond the flashy exterior was enough to make a man never want to leave her. She was an original. And that was, perhaps, why people never stayed lovers or friends with her for very long; they didn't get past the colour to see the woman underneath. They couldn't keep up, and neither could I. So I watched breathlessly as she whirled through life, lighting here or there to absorb something; then off she'd go again.

There was a side to her that few ever saw. She had this sadness that would creep out in quiet moments, and while she would smile and tell jokes, I'd look in her eyes and see a softness in the corners and I knew she'd just as soon cry as laugh right then.

October 31st, six years ago, she felt that way. She showed up at my door dressed in black and, hiding behind the plant in the hallway, jumped up and screamed, "Charge!" when I answered, then tackled me to the floor. Scared the hell out of me. And when she saw my reaction, she laughed until she cried. Only when I'd collected myself and closed the door, she was still crying.

I asked her if there was something wrong. She shook her head, sat down. I gave her a beer and turned on the stereo, letting the radio pick the music for me. She told me how her day was, and asked me how I'd been. Then we talked about mundane matters, sports and the news and our families. We ordered a pizza, double cheese and mushroom, her favorite, and for a while she seemed her usual self.

Then later, while we watched some crappy movie on t.v., she asked me how things were going with my girlfriend and I told her we'd broken up. She asked me why and I told her she just was too clingy and had no sense of humour. She seemed nice enough to me, she replied, and pretty too. How could you do that? And she cried.

Befuddled, I asked her, is anything wrong and she told me I'd think she was crazy and giggling, said, but then I already knew that. So there she was my Karen, laughing and crying at the same time. She's the only one I ever met who could do that.

She sighed and passed a hand through her hair, took a sip of her beer and sat back. "Do you want to know why I'm crying really, do you want that?" She said.

I told her I did and for a while she was quiet and then she asked, how can throw away affection so easily? Don't you know how hard it is to come by?

This certainly set me aback because Karen had always been quite popular. She was never part of a clique, she was always too much of an individual for that, yet everyone liked her and liked to be near her. So I told her that.

She dismissed it and reminded me that there's a big difference with being entertaining to people and being close. I had to agree. Then I told her some pap about how sometimes you know that something just doesn't fit. That's when she looked at me and stared straight into my heart.

"Alan," she said, "do you know what happened to me today? I was walking through the park and I saw a couple. She had long blonde hair and he was dark but it doesn't matter. What matters is I saw them holding hands. It looked so easy and so simple, this holding hands bit. I'd bet they didn't even think about it. But I did. What finger goes where? It was the mechanics of it that bothered me. So I followed them for a while. They were talking, hanging onto each other's words like he was delivering the sermon on the mount and she was one of the supplicants and then they stopped and she kissed him. I just stood there, a stupid spectator, like I'd never seen anyone kiss before. This time it wasn't the mechanics that got me, it was the passion. I thought, how can it be that you can make love to someone hardly know, and yet when you see two people who really love each other, it all looks so simple and natural and it isn't. Is it?"

I didn't know. "Well, it isn't. Falling in love isn't a formula, it isn't who would be perfect for you. It's just the opposite. There's no reason to it. It just happens. So I wondered what it is that causes that."

Why do you worry yourself about such things, I wondered. It confused me to be honest. She wasn't the romantic type. Was it that now, at 27 she'd discovered it? Who knows. She continued on:

"I was angry. I don't know why. Well, yes I do. But I'll get to that. Anyway, as I walked home, it just seemed that everybody was in on it. I saw men in suits with bouquets of flowers. I saw young girls in tight jeans with way too much makeup preening by. I saw mothers with babies in strollers, and husbands greeting wives as they got in the car after work, I saw all of it and I thought, this hurts. When I saw that couple kiss, it was like a blade going through my gut because I'd never know what it feels like to just be so wanted. The thing that capped it for me was this lady, she had a young baby, it wasn't old enough to walk yet; anyway, it was fussing and she was yelling at it saying, 'take your bottle Angela, just take it, please! Just have your bottle!' She was angry and I just looked at the ring on her finger and thought, God, after all she's been through to get a husband and have a baby all that that takes the way she's yelling you'd think it was nothing and for me…" her voice broke and she started to cry again, "for me, it's an impossibility."

I was surprized at that, didn't know if there was anything I could say or do to make her feel any better because to be truthful, I didn't quite understand what she meant. What's so hard to understand about holding a hand? What's so difficult to fathom of a tired mother snapping at a grumpy baby? Didn't her mother ever yell at her? Had no one ever held her hand? I knew it wasn't true.

"Karen," I told her, "I don't quite understand. Is it that you want to get married? Is that the problem?"

"No," she sniffled, "it isn't and I don't think I could ever be married. What I have a problem with is that the more I thought about it, the more I realized I don't even know how to hold hands anymore it's been so long. People like you take that forgranted It's so easy for you, you change girlfriends with the seasons or sooner even, I'm sure it's all automatic. I'm one of the untouchables, the kind of woman a man thinks has somebody so he doesn't bother. I'm wondering what is the matter with me. Maybe I'm coming down with a cold or something."

So here was Karen, the girl I'd grown up thinking I was going to marry until I realized she would never have the likes of me, crying and yearning for someone to love. I was part of the family to her, as familiar as a piece of furniture and just as exciting. How could she ever find me interesting? She couldn't, because she knew me, more than anyone I guess, I didn't hold that touch of danger and intrigue I was sure that she dreamed of.

I took her hand in mine and said, "Karen, this is what it feels like to hold a hand." And then I kissed her.

In the morning she got up before I did, and was dressed when she woke me up. "Alan," she said, "forgive me. Are you still my friend? I don't know what happened to me yesterday. I really lost my head."

I told her of course I did and to give me a call, then she left. I lay in bed for a while savoring the memory, knowing this would never happen again. I just hoped what we did didn't change what we had as friends.

It did. I didn't see her for weeks after that; she was always busy when I called. She swore she had too much to do; she'd tell me she'd call but she didn't.

The last time I saw her she looked pale and even thinner that she usually was. She said she'd been having bad headaches lately, the tension getting to her, she had to slow down. Would I meet her for dinner on Friday? I would.

On Thursday, just before dawn, the phone ran. It was Karen's mother, she was sobbing, saying something awful had happened, it doesn't look good. Did I know about how Karen felt about organ transplants? Could I come to the hospital? And then she hung up. She forgot to tell me what hospital to go to.

My mind raced as I lay in bed, unbelieving and stunned by the conversation. The sun came up and ruled blood red across my floor through venetian blinds and just when I'd come to believe the phone call was a nightmare that never really happened, the phone rang again. This time it was her brother, saying, I'm so sorry Alan, she's gone. All I could say was, donate her eyes, please, let someone else see through her eyes. And then I cried.

Like any family who has such a tragedy happen there were wakes and visitations at the funeral home and obituaries in the paper requesting donations for the Cancer Society and in all of that I only ever spoke to her family on the phone, learning the details and making a lame excuse about having to go out of town. She'd had a brain tumor that had been diagnosed after she was found in a coma on the floor of her apartment by her brother. She'd never woken up.

And I, in my guilt and my panic sent her a rose with a note pleading that they put it in the coffin so she'd have a piece of me with her. They did.

Thereafter life moved on in a slow motion mockery for always I wondered what Karen would have thought about this or said about that, the whole while I couldn't image the world going on without her.

When the first snowfall came I remembered how much she loved winter and its bitter wind singing through frosted bare branches on trees, she saw it as a time of rejuvenation and getting to the truth underneath. All I could think of was her cold alone beneath frozen earth. I wished I could give her warmth in her place and tried to think that it was only her body, her shell that box contained and I yearned for her touch once again.

So much time gone. She will always be 27 to me, even when I in my dotage think of the young man that I was. And now on the eve of my life as a husband and father perhaps, I am thanking Karen for being who she was so briefly. I will never meet another Karen again. All the doctors in the world can tell me that these things happen with no bias; it's not genetic, they just happen.

For me though, I believe Karen was like meteor whose brilliant flash illuminates the earth, inspires awe in all who see it, unreachable, and in a second, is gone.

It doesn't matter whether I keep this box or not. All that was is inside me. So for now I will pack away these things, and put them with the rest of my boyish dreams, to rest in a far corner of a basement somewhere so I can visit once in a while when the mood hits.

Jenny'll understand. I'm sure she will.

--30-

ęC.M. Harris (Davies)

To Russell Irvine, 1936-1986, who will always be our friend.