From Audrey: A Book of Love





              She came with a painted dragon and cinnamon hearts for Valentine's. Her name was Audrey and I am hard pressed to remember what anyone else brought to the party.

Thirty friends crowded the red wall-to-wall carpet of our one-bedroom apartment. The festive anticipation of starting a new decade, the 1980s, still hung in the air. Kay, my roommate, and I moved in artist circles, more to Kay's credit than mine, as I already showed early symptoms of being a recluse.

Despite the crush, even those of us who wore long skirts managed to maneuver without knocking over the candles that burned in cereal bowls on the floor. The magic of candle flames, long skirts, seven guitars complete with accomplished players, laughter, murmurs, and cheap wine, made even me give up a good portion of my customary February gloom.

            Several men courted me all at once. Even Toby, nobly invited after I had recently conceded him the glory of rejecting me, seemed confused. Was there something to me after all? He sat with me at length instead of treating me with his special brand of benevolent disdain. I recited a few poems, sang with the singers, and kept bringing my eyes back to Audrey's painting of a mystical green dragon.

            Did Audrey watch me stare at her dragon, which hung over a collection of rejection slips Kay and I used as world-defying wall decoration? I couldn't tell. But just in case, I did my best to look intrigued, intelligent.

A misty blue planet floated on a background of swirling black paint. From this planet the dragon burst forth into the universe, crossed the entire canvas, and tried to transcend the canvas's borders into our space. Its left paw, or claw, or whatever it is that dragons have, reached out in a tentative gestureógroping to fly out with those enormous wings, despite being mythical, despite being trapped there on canvas. Later Audrey told me the dragon's name: Serena.

Midnight came and Audrey began leaving. This took a long time. We lifted Serena from the wall. I touched the dragon's nose briefly when the painting stood upright against Kay's desk, ready to be shipped home again.

Where was home? And who was Audrey, come to stand behind me, telling me that I had lovely energy?

I never took compliments lightly. This was no exception. To hide both thrill and embarrassment, I launched into a long speech about the dragon, its gentle, timid, fawn-like nose, the forceful amber eyes, which, Audrey explained, were modeled on the eyes of a nun she once knew.

"I'm so glad you like Serena," she said. "Some people are afraid of her."

Afraid? I tested the feeling. No. I told Audrey the painting gave me a sense of woman spirit emerging.

Audrey smiled.

For the first time I looked deeply into her own fascinating eyes. They were the color of nothing definite, and had the depth of everything all at once, gray, blue, brown, green, blended with the spice of joy and sorrow, and just a hint of attractive danger. The candles, some of them flickering toward extinction, didn't do anything to help with definitions.

"Good thing I never killed a dragon," I said.

"You were tempted?" she asked.

"Well, sure. I used to have to play by myself, so I took turns being princess, prince and dragon. Mostly I ended up being the prince and waiting for the dragon. Good thing I couldn't be both at once because then, out of sheer ignorance, I might have actually slain the dragon. After all, that was the traditional thing to do."

            On her belt Audrey wore a dragon buckle. A blue porcelain dragon hung on a satin ribbon from her neck. Another dragon rode on a silver ring on her left hand.

I boldly asked if she would loan me the painting of Serena for a while. Regretfully she said that she had to varnish it in the next day or two, so the answer was no.

            The least I could do then was to carry Serena out to Audrey's green Volkswagen beetle. Sparks flew between us that could only be born at all by looking up and discussing the moon. Howling a little. Moaning the joy of something ineffable into the sky and into sleepless neighbors' ears.

            Audrey felt so safe to meóa woman. So I need not, could not, fall in love, since, after all, I was a woman, too. Also, she had to be at least ten years older than I was. Twenty-three years, in fact, as I learned later on. Most of all she felt safe because I recognized a familiar sadness filter through the joy gloss of her impossible eyes.

            I watched her drive off, took a deep breath, and returned to the tap dance of congenial indifference in the apartment. When Kay talked of Audrey at one point, I earmarked for future recall the mosaic pieces of a once-upon-a-time solitary writer working in a cottage and one day burning her whole manuscript with total satisfaction. An art teacher nowadays.

"By the way, I'm having dinner with Audrey next week," I bragged. My enthusiasm was undaunted by the less than reverent reception of this, to me, overwhelming news.