She began with the caravan from Alabama to Costa Rica, and her mother's hospitalization in Mexico. "My mother was gone from us for half a year," she said. "I was too little to understand. We needed to reach our new place before the rainy season. She made us go on without her." The land in Costa Rica was on a mountain, a cloudforest so high and so remote the men needed a month to build the road and winch the buses to their land. Her mother rejoined them, and was fine for years, but then began to suffer from hepatitis, which went undiagnosed for a decade.
She talked about riding horses, and milking cows, and wandering the forest with her brother, collecting bird feathers and eggs. "I dreamed about getting away, getting an education." She won a scholarship for birthright Quakers. Until it was time to go she rode her horse everywhere, saying goodbye to the places and people she had grown up with. She didn't know when she would return, and she wanted to remember. Now that she was leaving, as she had always aspired to, she understood how much she loved all these people, all these places, even all these plants and animals and houses and barns, loved them to the verge of pain, and could not comprehend how she had failed to notice the strength of that feeling. A few weeks before she left, her mother died from the hepatitis.
She began to fall asleep on the sofa just before dawn, talking about her journey to the United States: "The airplane surprised me. So functional. So modern to be inside a machine. To be carried in it, through the air. Wonderful. I didn't know how to fasten the strap around my waist, and the woman in the uniform had to show me. The window was like a porthole on a ship. The propellors spun, so slowly, then they blurred." She yawned. "It stopped at the end of the runway. The roaring got louder, and everything vibrated. To be contained inside this -- craft -- and passive. Nothing I could do. I started to panic, and then I looked at everyone around me, and they were reading magazines or staring out the window. They didn't seem to think it was anything unusual. Then we drifted forward, and the speed gathered me. It was thrilling. I thought it was too late and we would never fly, we would all die, but there was a thud and we went up, and tilted. Then I saw the trees lowering and the city below, and the plane went forward and up and finally levelled off. The land was under us, and the clouds whipped past like rapids. I was entering a greater scope. My new life.
"That night I stayed in a hotel, and I didn't know what room service was so I went hungry. I pressed the knob on the television, then I pulled out on it, and heard a popping noise, and saw a point of light that became a picture. It seemed like an alien artifact. Was that all? It didn't look like much.
"The next morning I got my last flight, then I got a bus into town. Then I took another bus to Lawrence. I was proud of myself. I didn't make any mistakes.
"But I forgot to tell you my favorite special thing. There was a huge tree behind the barn and my father needed wood, so he cut it down. But he left the stump tall. I was only five, and there weren't any children my age. He made it into a playhouse. He cut the top like a pencil point, and shingled it. He hollowed the inside into a little room. Then he made a table and chair from some of the wood and made a door, with a lock, and gave me the key on my sixth birthday. He wouldn't tell me what he was doing until he gave me the key, and that was the most wonderful moment of my life, until I won my scholarship. I always wore the key around my neck, even when I slept. We cut niches and shelves in the inside walls where I could put my books and things. And we cut holes for windows. When I wanted to be alone, or study, I'd go in and light the lantern and close the door and no one would bother me." She pressed a hand to her chest and yawned again. "Every year when the rainy season ended, I scrubbed the inside of my house with lye and took out the windows so it would be fresh. I've never seen light like that. It was -- diffuse -- it was mellow, and the shade changed all day. Then my friend Maria gave me some colored glass, and I used that. I arranged them so in the afternoon there were red, yellow and blue stripes on the floor. I called it the rainbow hour."
She rolled to her side, and within moments was asleep.
He had no desire to rest, only to think about her. He draped the blanket over her, and watched from his chair. She had looked at him with as little reservation as her speech showed. He had never imagined such guilelessness.
When she woke, she went to the window and opened the blind. "The snow is still there, lying on the branches," she exclaimed. She watched until he wondered whether she would speak again. "The fire hydrant has on a white cap, like in a children's story. Everything is so smooth, and all the lines from the trees, the shadows, they're crossing like a river delta." She looked for a moment, and said, "The shadows are blue. How odd." She stared for minutes, the light full on her face. Then she sat on the sofa. "Now it's your turn," she said.
"My life is ordinary, next to yours."
"Ordinary?" She laughed. "No. My life was ordinary. I've never been anywhere, never seen anything, never had any interesting experiences. I've read books and milked cows and ridden horses and watched birds and grown vegetables, and nothing else." She laughed again. "You think your life is ordinary? You have electricity and movies and central heating and indoor plumbing and you can get any book you want. You have a telephone if you want to call someone. Lawrence is full of people and interesting things to do. This is not ordinary, not at all."
"It is if you grew up with it."
"Help me," she pleaded. "Please. The only place I've been since I was old enough to remember was Monteverde, and San Jose two or three times. Everything I knew about the States I either overheard, or read, or listened to on short-wave radio. I don't understand politics. People don't dress plainly, like Quakers or Ticos. There aren't any horses, and the cars aren't all worn out, and the roads are paved. The trees drop their leaves all together! The days are getting short. To me, 'winter' means the rainy season, in July. I'd never seen ice cubes, or blue jays, or popcorn. I don't know how to get on escalators. So this is not ordinary. Not to me. You have to tell me everything. I need to know. I don't understand this place, or these people."
"I only wanted to hear about you. I'm not very good at this." He stopped. She said nothing; she was going to outwait him. "I have a brother," he began.
The snowplow went by about noon, as his voice was wearing out. She looked at the clock and said it was time to go. He loaned her a coat.
Outside the door of the building, she picked up a handful of snow, brought it to her mouth, and tasted it.
"I think your hand is going to get cold very fast," Wyatt said.
She dropped the snow. "I should have known it wouldn't have any taste. It's only water." With the back of a hand she brushed the flakes of snow from her lips.
He made a snowball and handed it to her. "Here."
"What is it?"
"A snowball. Throw it, it's fun."
She aimed at a tree, and her windup was awkward, with the shoulder movement of unathletic girls. She cried "Oh, no!" when the snowball shattered and left a lump on a car instead of the tree. She laughed when she saw that she'd done no harm.
Traffic was light. They walked in the street to avoid the deep snow. She wobbled on the icy patches, and he had to steady her several times. He tried to keep her elbow in his hand but she pulled it free.
At the door of her room she said, "Thank you. You've been very kind. I'm sorry to have put you to all that trouble."
"Trouble? No. That was the best conversation I've had since, I don't know. I've never... " He looked, but couldn't hold his eyes on hers, and averted his gaze. "There's time. You know. Thanksgiving break. No classes. We could get some lunch."
"I shouldn't." She took off his coat and handed it to him. She opened the door, which wasn't locked. "Goodbye," she said. "Thank you."
He saw her on campus early the next week, in the distance, but didn't manage to catch her before she vanished into Strong Hall. He waited two days, so her class schedule would be the same. He positioned himself at the door, and caught her arriving. She smiled, brilliantly. The sight of her went straight into him, and toppled an equilibrium he hadn't known he had. Someone was singing an aria. This girl was worth giving up everything for. What am I thinking? he wondered. I don't believe in this. It only happens in songs.
"Wyatt?" she asked. "Is something wrong?"
"You didn't answer. Didn't you recognize me?"
"Oh. Just thinking. How are you?"
She replied after a moment, as if considering what to say. "Fine. You probably saved me from getting ill. I didn't thank you properly. That was so very kind of you, to help me that way." She started to touch his arm, and stopped just short.
"I have your clothes," he said.
"I have yours."
They arranged a time to meet at the Union. It was a struggle not to look back at her as they parted.
She arrived before him. He saw her sitting outside the Union, on the low brick wall between the patio and the sidewalk. The crowd flowed past; unbelievably, no one seemed to notice her.
"I'm glad we chanced on each other again," she said. "I forgot your last name. I felt guilty about keeping your clothes." She laughed: three short notes, the second and third an interval of a perfect fifth above the first one. "My roommate thought I'd had a boy in the room. She said it was the last thing she expected."
He didn't have that problem: no roommate. And any roommate would have shrugged: for Wyatt, girls came, and girls went, one and then another, in a warm and careless procession.
They traded sacks and she said, "See my coat? It's heavy. I learned my lesson." She held up an arm and showed him. A navy blue wool coat; a pea coat. "It's used."
It was too big. He guessed that for her, saving money would be more important than clothing that fit. "Now you need a scarf and a pair of gloves and a hat," he said. "And winter shoes, so you don't slip when you walk."
"I have a lot to learn. One of the girls on my floor wouldn't believe I don't have any dresses until I showed her my closet. She said the police will arrest me because my clothes are a crime."
"Call me. I'll bail you out."
She laughed and thanked him.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" he asked.
"If it's not instant."
They walked toward the door. He heard a dull explosion and saw the glass of the door bow toward them and distort their reflections like a funhouse mirror. He stopped. No one else had paid attention; they were going about their business. He looked at Ada, who was staring at the glass. Then she looked at him. The wind lifted her hair momentarily and she patted it down.
"What was that?" she asked.
"A sonic boom."
"Oh, yes. I've read about those."
He held the door for her, feeling a doubleness, an unfamiliar dissociation. He watched himself walk to the counter, buy two cups of coffee, and join her at a table.
"You flew," he said, "to get here. You'd never done that?"
"No. It was so different. All my life I walked on the ground, and then I was in the air, and it was like seeing, like seeing from heaven. I looked out the window the entire way. My neck got sore from being turned one direction so long, even when we were in the clouds and I couldn't see through them. Clouds like a kingdom of dreams. But I like it better when you can see the land. All the rivers and the highways were tiny, and so were the cities at night in the dark with their lights on and the lights of the cars. It was magic. Everything opened up. It was the same feeling I get when I learn something."
He felt the excitement that had gripped him while listening to her at his apartment. He wanted only to keep her talking. "This place must seem strange to you."
"Yes. The campus feels like a town. It's very big, isn't it? And I'm used to looking at everyone and saying hello and stopping and talking, but there are so many people here, and I don't know them. At home I knew everyone by name, and their parents, and their children and husbands and wives. It's odd, being among strangers, in crowds all the time. I tried to nod to everyone the first day, but I had to stop. There were too many people, and they ignored me or acted surprised. Nobody nodded back. I'm learning not to look at them." She stared at her coffee.
He waited. "Difficult?" he prompted.
"Oh. It's so different. I'm not used to handling money. I never handled money until it was time to come here, and they explained, and made me practice. I'm glad they did. I didn't know what 'change' was... I miss the green. Everything was green at home. I used to go barefoot when it was dry. Sometimes I wore sandals. When it rained, I wore rubber boots. Now I wear these." She pointed to her sneakers. They were bright red Keds, the sort Wyatt had owned in grade school. Not even children had those now; he'd assumed they'd disappeared from the planet. "It's just as my teacher warned me. Everything is different. The roads are paved. People don't act the same. Some of the boys are so rough and loud they frighten me, and everyone is always in a hurry. Especially when they drive. There's so much traffic I'm afraid to cross the street."
The silence stretched too long for him; it seemed not to bother her. "Too many people?" he asked.
"Yes. More people in the cafeteria than my entire village."
"What do you miss?"
"My father and brother. And recognizing everyone. And the greenness and the plants. And the silence."
"Yes. It's very noisy here. Quakers like silence, I think. We sit silently at Meeting, you know."
"Yes, I read that somewhere." He sipped his coffee.
"It's so strange," she said. "How I feel. All I wanted was to get away, the place was so narrow. What kind of foolishness gives up comfort and opportunities that harm no one, in exchange for a life like... like the frontier? Like the nineteenth century? So much was missing. I couldn't understand why my parents would give up their place in a rich country to come to a poor country, why they had exchanged a broader life for a narrow, cramped one. They took it much too far. But now I'm here and I truly don't belong. The evening before classes started my roommate invited her friends from high school to our room. Every one of those girls was beautiful. They had perfect hair, and nice clothes, and they all knew what to do. The orientation didn't confuse them. I thought, even if I get the academic things and the bureaucratic things figured out, like getting a social security number, I'll never fit in. They asked me out for pizza, and one of them offered to let me drive her nice new car. I don't even know how to drive a car. Everyone knows how to drive a car, don't they? I'd never even used a phone, and the first time I needed to, my roommate had to show me how, and she looked so sorry for me... So when they invited me and I didn't know what pizza looked like I thought I might embarrass myself. I said no thank you, and after they left I went in the bathroom and cried. Then I wrote my father and asked to come home." When Wyatt didn't answer she said, "I shouldn't have told you this. You're such a good listener, I forgot myself and kept going."
"I don't know what to say."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have bothered you with this." She pulled on her coat, picked up her bag, and stood.
"No," he said. He grabbed for her and in reaching out snagged his sleeve on the corner of the table. Unaware for a moment of the impediment, he pulled harder, and the table skittered across the floor with a scraping sound, cups bouncing and coffee slopping. The image of himself in a silent movie flicked through his brain: an inept man battling some recalcitrant, inanimate object. He yanked. His arm rose, but only because the button from his shirt cuff had popped loose and flown away. It sailed in an arc, landed, and rolled on its edge across the floor.
Ada burst into laughter. "I've never seen anything like that." She stepped on the button, which had circled round, and picked it up and handed it to him.
"Thanks," he said. "Don't go. You haven't told me what your father wrote back."
She sat. "He said to stay. He said things would get better."
"I think your father is a wise man. It was hard for me, being halfway across the country. Being on my own. But I got used to it. After a while everything was okay. I was actually enjoying school. You'll see."
"It's true. I'm not making it up. Be patient."
"That's what my father always says. 'Be patient'."
"I just have one question."
"Have you had pizza yet?"
"Did you like it?"
"Oh, yes. Very much."
"Stay here. I'll be back."
He ran down the stairs and ordered a large supreme. They seemed to take longer than usual to make it. He watched the clock and hoped she was still there, and ran back up the stairs with the pie, two sodas balanced on top.
"Here you go." He set the sodas on the table and opened the box.
"Thank you. I forgot dinner." She reached for a slice, and stopped.
"I don't have any money. I can't pay my share."
He had to explain what he meant by "my treat", and then point out that there was too much for him, and it would go to waste if she didn't help.
They talked about cheesemaking while they ate. "You let it ferment," she said. "Curdle is a better word." She explained the process of separating the curds, squeezing out the water, adding the salt and starter. "You have to milk every day, or the cows' udders get full and they suffer. So you make cheese because milk spoils fast. Our cheese is -- savorier? If there's such a word. Much stronger than this. This is bland."
"It sounds like a lot of work."
"No. It's simply one of the things to be done each day."
"It must be a hard place to live."
"Yes. We left partly to get Henry away from the conscription. I'm glad I'm not a man. That choice is impossible, deciding whether to take up a weapon at command, or go to prison, or leave your own country."
"The monthly Meeting. They wanted to get away from the wars. So many wars, and our men, so many of them... They were worried about the boys... My parents didn't want Henry to have to face that. Prison was hard for my father. It's the only thing he won't talk about."
"He was a conscientious objector. It's the only thing he's bitter about, that he would be jailed for what he believed. Mother said that he spent a lot of the war in solitary confinement. He wouldn't do anything he thought would help war work. But he won't talk about it. He ignores my questions."
Wyatt was stunned that a man would give up all human speech and contact for his beliefs. Best change the subject. "What did you do for fun?"
"I watched birds and collected their eggs. Henry climbed the trees for me. I never took more than one egg from any kind of bird. I read. I read, every minute I could." She smiled. "There was a lot of work, sometimes we were very busy, but there wasn't much to do otherwise, nowhere to go... I had to keep myself entertained. I wrote in my journals."
"What kind of things?"
"My family, my chores, the books I was reading, but sometimes I wrote stories. I had an imaginary friend, a hero who rescued me when I got in trouble. He was a grandee of the kingdom of Penumbria. He had a white horse and a sword of Toledo steel. His name was Zodon De Castellon."
"Zodon." de Castel -- what?
"My best story was about a bee who fell in love with a boy."
"Yes. A honeybee. She used to land on his sleeve, and he would ignore her, or brush her off, but she loved him, so she taught herself to talk, and then they would have long conversations, with her sitting on his ear, and she was such a wonderful talker that he fell in love with her, too. She brought him honey from the hive, and he trusted her to fly into his mouth and put it on his tongue. She used to sleep in his hair, and he always had to wake her in the morning, so she wouldn't drown when he took his bath."
"What was her name?"
"Bettina. Bettina the bee. One day at school a girl flirted with the boy, and Bettina was in his hair. She was jealous, and she stung him. He told her to go away. He never wanted to see her again. She tried to apologize, but he chased her away with a flyswatter. Later he was sorry, and he looked for her everywhere, but none of the other bees had learned human language, so they couldn't understand him. She died of a broken heart, but he never found out. He thought she'd flown away and left him. It was very sad."
When the Union closed he walked her home in the great wind that howled over the top of Mount Oread in winter. Ada clutched her coat under her chin. Her face was red, and she shivered, but she said nothing.
"It helps to wear layers," he offered. "Buy a quilted shirt. Wear it between your regular shirt and your coat. It traps warm air. And a hat. A hat helps."
"Thank you. I'll do that."
But she hadn't done it after a week. He bought the shirt and a watch cap, and tried to give them to her, but she wouldn't accept them until he made himself such a pest that it was easier to take them than to put up with his nagging. After that she shivered less. He loved the way she looked with the black cap on her head, wisps of red hair sticking out in back and at her ears. He always wanted to tuck the strands in, but he couldn't bring himself to touch her. She was intimate only in speech. She seemed, there in her body, to exist in a space separate from his. To touch her would be to breach her.
For the next couple of months they met and walked to the library or the Union and talked and studied. Her questions were neverending. She wanted to know about his family, his childhood, his music; she wanted to know what high school had been like for him; she couldn't understand why so many of her classmates didn't take their studies more seriously, or see the opportunities they were wasting; she wanted to know what it felt like to drive a car; she didn't understand how people could laugh while they poured catsup over the heads of students trying to integrate a lunch counter. Most of her questions he couldn't answer, some because he didn't know the answers, others because he didn't know how to express them, and some because he thought it was better that she go on not understanding. He saw how little he understood of what he had always taken for granted, believing that he knew, but without ever having paid attention, not having asked why since he was a child, until her questions reminded him that he still didn't understand, he'd only forgotten to remain curious.
He never tired of hearing her voice, or seeing her face.
Often, he had to look away, so she wouldn't notice him staring,
and perhaps guess the strength of his feeling. He saw that she was very lonely:
her family was distant, her mother had died. She had acquaintances from her classes,
but her only friend was her roommate Jackie,
and Jackie was a counsellor as much as a friend.
There was no one for her to confide in, but it didn't matter.
She was not unfinished, she was simply unpolished.
But she was determined, she was patient, she would make her own luck.
What she sought would come to her.
He knew she would not fail.