by Karina Cochran
Some names have been changed to protect identity
When I met Rhoda, every bell inside of me started ringing.
Some of those bells sounded like the siren on a fire truck, warning of potential danger. Some of those bells sounded like a gentle chime, inviting a sense of calm and beauty. But mostly, meeting Rhoda was an alarm, waking me up from a life I didn’t realize I had been sleeping through.
“Why do people run away from me?” she said, her sandy fingernails clutched the hem of her blue dress.
I quietly slipped away to the nearest bathroom, a wooden shower stand off the boardwalk, trying to breathe through the musty, baby-powder smell of the toilet. I pressed my forehead against the graffitied door.
The line of a song played in a passing car. “Love is a burning thing,” the song said. Love should burn like that, I thought, not like this.
Rhoda was waiting for me on the beach outside. It was the seventh day I had spent in her presence. One full week of my life.
I wish I could say that our connection was instantaneous, clear and perfect. One coin seeing its other side, like the moon and sun sharing the sky at the same time. Saying this would feel more real, and in some ways, more accurate. But unfortunately, it isn’t true. When I first met Rhoda, I hated her.
A body, deep in sleep, hates to wake. Even if it needs to. Even if waking up and walking around would be good for the body. The soul is the same way. It often most resists the very thing it needs most.
She was already drunk when she got to the sculpture. I vividly remember the moment I first laid eyes on her. Our mutual friend was throwing a party inside a large circular outdoor sculpture, and had lined the rim with candles and homemade muffins for ambiance. I was wearing a long dark dress that night, and had even attempted to put on make-up. I was hoping to hook up with a guy named Brendan, that I had had a fun summer fling with. Brendan was adorably sweet and lanky, bordering on gangly. I didn’t see why that fling couldn’t continue into the fall.
And then there was Rhoda. She peeked her messy blonde head over the top of the sculpture, and started cheering for no particular reason. It seemed obnoxious to me, but then everyone inside the sculpture started cheering too. They were happy to see her. They were ready to have fun.
But I was not cheering. I was scowling.
“Why was everyone so taken with her?” I thought, “She’s clearly a mess.”
Rhoda was holding a large mason jar containing some mysterious alcoholic beverage, and sat in the middle of the circle. She moved the pastries out of her way and began playing an out of tune ukulele, singing. Her voice was sharp and child-like, but she sang with joy. Brendan couldn’t stop looking at her. No one could. Not even me.
The candlelight bounced off her bright blue eyes, her golden hoop nose ring. A mysterious scar was visible on her right cheek. While singing, she leaned over and casually kissed the boy next to her. He seemed startled by this, but not upset.
At one point she loudly announced she had to pee, stepped maybe two feet outside of the circle, lifted her skirt, and squatted.
“Was Brendan seeing this?” I thought, in shock.
But at the exact moment that I was relishing in my superiority, my dress caught on fire. One of the candles had snagged it, and it erupted in flames. I quickly stomped it out, but I was embarrassed, afraid I looked ridiculous. But Rhoda wasn’t embarrassed at all. She was just laughing and singing and kissing people and lifting her pale butt up in the air to pee freely on the grass.
The next day, I went to see a play that was being put on at the college. They had undertaken the massive operation of performing the entire two-part series of Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels in America, ’ an epic tragedy focusing on religion, homosexulatiy, and the AIDs epidemic of the 1980s. It was powerful and well done.
There are a lot of reasons one might cry during this play. There is death, deception, disease. But, at one point in the show, I heard someone in the theater openly weeping. Not just sniffles, but a full-on ball. As I turned to see who it was, I noticed other heads were turned too. People were no longer looking at the stage. They were all staring at Rhoda, who could not seem to contain her emotions. Tears were running down her cheeks and into her hands. The fabric of her scratchy sweater was damp from crying.
“How can she feel all that?” I thought.
I was annoyed, but also strangely jealous. I wanted to cry with abandon. I wanted to laugh and kiss and sing. Seeing her open, unguarded river of emotion made me recognize how dammed up my own had become. I was numb, and she was alive, and it was unfair, because I wanted so badly to be alive.
This could have been the end of our story. A girl I had mixed feelings about. Who annoyed me twice. But that night Brendan had a dinner party, and we were both invited.
I was convinced that this party would be the perfect time for me to reconnect with Brendan. Maybe we could sing some of the same old songs from the summer, I thought. Tell some of the same old jokes. No one in the world was a better snuggeler than Brendan. He had a way of contorting his entire boney body to completely envelope me. I fantasized that the party might end with a snuggle like this.
When I arrived at Brendan’s house there were maybe six other people rolling sushi. Flattening the rice on to the bamboo mats, carefully measuring out the ingredients.
“Have you met Rhoda?” Brendan asked.
She didn’t remember me from the night of the sculpture. She was either too drunk or too surrounded by admirers to notice me. As we said our introductions, I could feel the energy shift in the room. She looked at me with an intensity that forged through my body. It was as if she was not looking at the person in front of her, but my future, my past lives, and everything I could be.
What happened next? How did I go from jealousy to skepticism to friendship to worship? All in the course of a single night? Music and wine; I don’t remember how it happened. I felt like I was under a spell. Suddenly I was the one holding the mason jar with the mysterious alcoholic beverage. Suddenly I was the one laughing. Rhoda took my hand and I ran outside with her. Suddenly I was the one lifting my pale butt up in the air to pee freely on the grass.
“Doesn’t it feel better to pee outside?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure if I agreed or not, but I nodded enthusiastically nonetheless.
“If you’ve never menstruated into the Earth, you should try it,” she said. “It really connects you to nature.”
The person I was two hours ago would have rolled my eyes at this comment, but now I was reformed. In fact, I regretted that I was not on my period at that very moment, just so I could try to menstruate right into the Earth.
I was wooed. Smitten. Warmed by her light. As we ran back into the party, I had completely forgotten about Brendan. It appeared she had too.
“I know some partner yoga moves,” she said. Her eyelashes fluttered up at me.
“Will you be my partner?”
The night ticked on. We stretched together. We sang together. Brenden appeared confused as the two of us stole away to the nearest bathroom, holding hands and an oversized bottle of wine between us.
That night Rhoda told me she always thought she would die young. She had already been in a tragic car accident two years before I met her. A passenger in the front seat. Everyone in the car died, except for her.
“The doctors kept yelling at me to stop crying,” she said.
Her back was pressed against the bathroom door, dirty bare feet on the tile.
“That they couldn’t stitch up my face because my tears kept getting in the way. But I couldn’t stop. I was just crying and crying.”
The life-line on her palm was noticeably split. A reckless spirit trailed behind and around her at all times.
Meeting Rhoda marked the end of what I consider to be the first chapter of my life. I was 23. I was living alone in Boston. I was sleeping on an air mattress. I had dyed my hair black and no one was in love with me. I was looking for something, and it arrived in the form of Rhoda.
“Want to move to California with me?” she asked. “I’m going the week after Christmas.”
I was struck. In a trance. I had just met this person. I had never been to California before. “Yes,” I said. And I meant it.
I called in sick to work and spent the next few days gallivanting around town with Rhoda. We did a polar bear plunge in a local lake. It was a week before Thanksgiving and there was a light frost on the ground. I had never jumped into water that cold before, and was scared.
“We could get sick,” I said.
“Nonsense,” she said, “It’s good for the nervous system!”
We were an odd, but appropriate pair. She was fun and approachable, with her short stature and sun-bleached hair. My look was more dark, serious and demure. She tore off her paisley skirt, screamed, and jumped into the water. I bit my lower lip and followed, one slow foot at a time.
Afterwards, we soaked our legs in a hot bathtub to warm up. A boy named Max, who lived in her building, brought us dark stouts to drink. Max was unconventionally handsome, tall and lean, with a crooked nose and a wide smile. He talked about his father’s death the previous fall, and Rhoda showed us the scars from her car crash. I listened, feeling both grateful and strangely naive. I had never experienced such devastating loss. Rhoda leaned closer to Max in the bathtub, and he stretched his arm around her, visibly pleased. I was outside of her knowledge of grief. I was outside of her knowledge of joy.
Later that night Rhoda and I traded earrings, each of us wearing one of the others. Her silver moons and my turquoise stones. I wanted everyone to see that we were matched like twins. That I was her left ear and she was my right. That she had chosen me.
“This is only the beginning,” she said, and pulled my palms close to her face.
I could feel her soft breath on my hand. It was my third day in her presence. How could there have ever been a time without Rhoda? How could there ever be a time again?
“Promise me we’ll keep each other safe,” she said. “Yes,” I said. “I promise.”
That night we fell asleep holding hands.
When the time came for our California trip, I nearly bailed. I had exactly one thousand dollars and no job prospects. This was no time to launch myself across the country with a girl I barely knew. My memory of her stopped sounding like a gentle chime, and started sounding more like a fire engine. But the tickets had already been bought, and I couldn’t convince myself not to go.
There was a lot I probably should have been afraid of: the crime in the Oakland neighborhood where I was moving, how I would eat, where I would work, but I was most concerned about seeing Rhoda again. What would it be like with her?
I took a bus to Rhoda’s hometown. The plan was to spend a few days catching up, then we’d fly out to California together and start our new life. She met me at the bus station wearing pink lipstick and a noticeably sweet perfume.
“You’re here!” she said. “Oh, I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I expected Rhoda’s family to be a lot like her: old hippies, with dried herbs and mandolins hanging on the wall. But they were surprisingly conventional, Midwestern. It was like Rhoda had sprung up from the Earth itself. She could not be contained to one story, one bloodline.
I learned that Rhoda had been a cheerleader in Junior High. An image formed in my head of her waving pom-poms and chanting. Her father joked about how she used to beg them to buy her a Fendi brand purse. Rhoda showed a sliver of embarrassment at his mention of her former self. With her interest in natural healing and her devotion to all things counterculture, she looked so different from that person now. And yet, I could see it. That intensity that surrounded her must have been present at an early age. The very traits about her that pushed me away also pulled me in.
That night Rhoda and I slept in a room that used to belong to her younger brother. His room was filled with posters of hockey players and basketball teams. She brought out some homemade peppermint lotion and offered to give me a massage.
“Most people get a massage naked, if you want to,” she shrugged.
I shyly took off my clothes, and she noted the curve of my spine, my winged scapula. “You make scoliosis sexy,” she said, and I giggled, unsure of what to say.
It was getting late. We turned off the lights and she nuzzled close to me.
“I’m so cold,” she said. “Let’s cuddle.”
I could barely see in the dark but somehow our lips found each other. I had never been with a woman before, aside from a few drunken kisses that were meaningless. This was different. With men, the anatomy seemed straightforward, the desires clear. I felt lost with a woman. This lust was new and confusing, needing both more gentleness and more strength. I fumbled and grasped at her, ultimately letting her lead.
“I love you,” she said. “I really love you.”
The next day I met some of her local friends at a commune she used to live in. Her friends were all ages, all walks of life. The house smelled a mix of basil and body odor, smoke and essential oil. Rhoda hugged every person we met with enthusiasm, squeezing them hard and always holding them a little longer than I would ever consider hugging a person. All of the people in her life seemed unique and kind, but most importantly, they all loved Rhoda.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said to each one.
A middle-aged woman with short gray hair and a red linen dress told us about a girl she had met who affected her life substantially.
“The moment we touched, I knew something special had happened.” Rhoda looked at me, wide-eyed.
“That was the way I felt when I first met you,” she said.
“I know,” I whispered back, but I was surprised to hear this. Though I had clearly felt it too, her love for everyone around her seemed so extreme. It was hard to pick out which feelings were genuine, and which ones were just Rhoda. How could I be special, when she loved everyone so deeply?
I turned to the woman, “What did you do when this happened? Were you inseparable from then on?”
“No. Not at all,” she said. “I ran away. It was too much. I didn’t talk to her again for a year and a half.”
Rhoda and I flew to San Francisco the following morning at 6:00 AM. My trance continued. Hadn’t I promised to protect her? And wouldn’t her magic and love somehow protect me? There was so much that was unsaid. So many questions I didn’t have the words to ask. Was she my girlfriend now? Was this just a fling, like it had been with Brendan? Or had Rhoda evolved past all definitions of traditional relationships? An orb of love floating freely through the world?
She kissed me as the plane took off but I couldn’t tell what kind of a kiss it was: romantic, familial, or a desperate grasping for connection? The kiss didn’t seem to belong to me at all. It just hovered around in the stagnant air of the plane. Somehow our relationship had shifted with the time zones.
When we landed we took a shuttle to the apartment in Oakland. Lugging giant suitcases, the colorful box houses of San Francisco gradually faded as we rode the BART east.
Rhoda had no idea how to handle a city. She laughed openly at the homeless men talking to themselves, like a child who had never witnessed such behavior. She peed casually in random yards and stroked the long hair of a stranger’s beard on the trolley. Anxiety began to fill in my lungs, pulse in my bloodstream.
As I dragged her into the nearby grocery store to buy apartment essentials she stated that we really should be shopping at a local organic food co-op. I rationalized with her that we needed to save our money, and besides, we didn’t even know where one was yet. But Rhoda seemed unfazed. Her commitment to her cause went beyond convenience, economics, or even hunger. I admired her pluck even as it annoyed me. On our walk home she offered raw broccoli to a homeless woman, and seemed shocked, almost offended, when the woman turned her down.
Her whimsey, which was fun in the safety of her home, now felt careless. The reckless spirit within her was running wild, and I felt powerless against its force. I didn’t know how to take care of us. I didn’t know how to take care of myself.
That night we met up with Max, from the night of the polar bear dip, at a crowded bar. He was in San Francisco briefly to visit friends, but had managed to set aside some precious time to see us. He was grinning from ear to ear as he bought us both beers and sat in between us.
“I feel like a pimp out on the town with two lovely ladies,” he said.
I cringed and pulled away, but Rhoda laughed. I couldn’t tell if she was just enjoying the attention or was genuinely taken with him. I searched myself for any flicker of attraction I had towards Max, but I came up short. He was childishly sincere and oblivious in a way that repulsed me.
“Are we all going to sleep together tonight?” he joked.
The bar was covered in a thick dark wood. It looked like the inside of an old ship. I had always felt at home on a bar stool. The dim lights mixed with the faint ethanol smell were usually calming to me. This bar met all the typical criteria, but I felt far away. Was home my new apartment in Oakland? Was it by Rhoda’s side? Or was it somewhere I’d lost? Somewhere I had yet to find?
“Do you think Max loves me?” Rhoda asked, as he went to get us another drink. “I don’t know,” I said, and my words spit with venom.
“Why don’t you touch him and find out?”
It was late by the time we left the bar and the trains had stopped running. Max suggested we stay at his friends apartment nearby. Rhoda lingered next to him. I walked ahead. I wanted to be alone, but I was scared in the new city. A taxi back to Oakland was out of my budget. I felt tired in a way I had never felt before. My eyes were nearing a tunnel vision of sleepiness as we struggled to unlock the unfamiliar door to his friend’s apartment.
I slept on the couch, they slept on the floor. The cool San Francisco air drifted in through the windows. Distant blue lights and sirens. As I closed my eyes I could hear the sounds of Rhoda and Max kissing, their whispers to each other. I imagined her soft breath on his hands. I wasn’t invited to the floor, and I didn’t want to be. I didn’t feel betrayed or heartbroken at that moment. I just felt exhausted and very much alone. I was feeling, I thought, but this feeling wasn’t fun. It wasn’t cheering or singing or laughing. Instead, I felt more like my skirt was on fire, embarrassing and scary. My dreams that night were full of fear.
I didn’t see Rhoda again for several days. She was off with Max, turning her intense gaze towards him. I could feel the numbness returning to my body. Her declarations of love for everyone around her now felt insincere. My protective layer was unwilling to budge and I became stern and closed off, avoiding her calls, and filling my days with online job searching and hiding in my tiny Oakland bedroom. The way I defined love and the way Rhoda defined it appeared to be fundamentally different. For her, it was given freely, easily, passionately. For me, it had to be earned.
When I did see Rhoda again, she was noticeably upset. Max, too, had abruptly run from her side. As we walked along the busy boardwalk of Ocean Beach, she agonized over every decision she had made in regards to Max. Every sentence, gesture, or choice could have been a grave error in her calculations. We held our shoes in our hands and let the cold sand of the beach squish between our toes.
“Why do people run away from me?” she said. “I feel like a conquest. A trophy.”
I thought of how I first craved an association with her through our matching earrings. I looked, and she was still wearing hers, turquoise and silver, but I had taken mine out long ago.
It seemed that every person we passed looked at Rhoda. They couldn’t help it. They were drawn to her, even if they didn’t know why. Her dress was navy blue. Her blonde hair was pulled back loosely with bobby pins.
I felt small next to her magnetism, but I also just felt small in general. Her light had once warmed me, but now, through no real fault of her own, I felt the chill of her shadow.
As we made our way to the sidewalk, an elderly woman approached us, holding a large porcelain angel the size of a bread box.
“Take this!” she yelled. “You can have it!” We shook our heads and backed away, “no.”
“That’s alright,” she said. “I only offered it to you because I can tell you are sisters. Sisters of the universe. You two should never be apart.”
I bought a train-ticket home the next day, leaving without telling a soul. I left a note and a check for the next month’s rent tacked to a cork-board in the kitchen. I couldn’t bear to face Rhoda. I couldn’t put words to my own failings. Anxiety was housed inside me now, clinging to my bones.
My breaths were short and shallow, my heart beat constant and fast. I thought going to California would help me learn to feel alive, but birth and growth are never without pain. We all have our own methods for coping with this: hiding from love, or drowning in it, spreading it far too thickly or far too thin. I didn’t see Rhoda again for a year-and-a-half.
I was standing when I got the voicemail.
“It’s Rhoda,” her voice played in my ear. “I’ve been in another car accident. Again as a passenger.”
It haunted me how factually she spoke about her own body. She had broken her sternum, three ribs, and several of her vertebrae, but she was alive. Alive and wanting to see me.
It was all written out on white paper: the skeletal sketch of circled bones. But imagining the slamming, the screech of the wheels, the calamity, shattered glass, the fear she must have experienced lying on her back in the gravel, staring at treetops while floating in and out of consciousness. The long drive through the mountains to the hospital. I audibly gasped alone, to myself, in the kitchen, and listened to the voicemail a second and third time.
Three days later I drove to her hometown, where she was staying to heal. It was the same house I had visited years ago, before we flew to California. And there she was, lying in her brother’s bedroom, the basketball and hockey posters still hanging on the wall. Her blonde hair was stuck to the pillowcase, a neck brace choking down her smile. She was unable to give her classic long hugs, but when she saw me her face brightened, and her eyebrows raised.
“My lady,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
And in a way, I couldn’t either. I thought of her broken life-line, her premonition that she would die young, and I realized I had been preparing myself for this phone call since that night she first wooed me at Brendan’s house. But the call came, and here she was, still breathing, still smiling, still laughing and loving too hard.
I spent two days with her there, helping her in and out of bed, holding her arm as we walked around town (her first trip out since the accident). We saw some of the same old friends from my first visit. We stayed up late into the night, drinking wine and talking and laughing. We fell asleep next to each other, but we did not hold hands. There was no promise of safety. No thought of anything other than the now.
Rhoda’s life would continue to be a restless adventure. Full of joy and heartbreak. People running towards. People running away.
As I drove out of town, I felt an ease in my breath. Rhoda would be alright, she would heal, she would live. But would I? Maybe I’d never be alive in the same way that Rhoda was. Maybe I’d never be that brave. Maybe I didn’t want to be.
There are so many stories about the pain of living in the shadows, but what of the pain of the sun? To be too beautiful to touch? Too beautiful to look at directly? To be so full of life, and yet always alone?
“Live,” I thought, as I clung to the steering wheel. “Live.”
Karina Cochran is a tall drink of water from the Midwest. She is a playwright and essayist who also studies traditions. You can find her research at www.alonglasting.com.